Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Napoleonic POW ship models for sale

Friday, May 17th, 2013

One of my favorite posts last year was about a model of a guillotine made out of animals bones by a Napoleonic prisoner of war in England. Britain had a surfeit of prisoners from France and other countries who fought on Napoleon’s side during the late 18th, early 19th century. An estimated 100,000 Napoleonic prisoners were in British hands between 1793 and 1815 because of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic policies against the ransom or exchange of prisoners. Prison hulks had nothing like that capacity, so a number of prisoner of war camps were built in England, the first permanent POW camps of their kind.

These camps weren’t the extreme hellholes that prison hulks were, but they were still overcrowded, wet and subject to epidemics like Typhus. British authorities allowed the prisoners to make crafts and sell them to supplement their miserable existence. Since many of the prisoners were conscripts rather than professional soldiers, they had work skills from their civilian lives and were able to create rather exceptional pieces. The working model of a guillotine carved from discarded bones is one of them. Beautifully appointed model ships were also popular.

Two of those ships are coming up for sale at Bonham’s Fine Maritime Paintings and Decorative Arts auction on June 5th in New York. One is a model of a 76-gun French ship-of-the-line made out of bone. The other is a boxwood model of a British 76-gun ship-of-the-line. Both were carved around 1800 and are amazingly elaborate. The boxwood model is valued at least $2,000 higher than the bone one because of how crazy fancy it is:

in a diorama format with the hull built up from the waterline, a painted green bottom, the topsides painted in alternating bands of black, pink and white, and black topsides fitted with a figure head of a Roman warrior, at the stern the quarter galleries and transom are modeled with windows, cut and pierced and decorated with a geometric pattern. The decks are of veneer with the planking lines drawn in and detailed with: anchor, cannons on carriages, pin and fife rails, capstan, railings, ladders, belfry, hatches, deck eyes. At anchor, one anchor rode is run out into the sea as if the ship were anchored. Rigged with three masts, bowsprit, standing and running rigging, turning blocks, cross spars, tops and trees, and dead-eyes and other rigging details. Displayed on a carved and painted sea, framed by an ornately decorated and drawn acanthus base, within a mahogany and glass case with carved front columns and a foliate frieze over the top.

The bone ship is slightly less fancy, but no less amazing:

possibly Le Maroc [name on transom barely legible], the hull built up from the solid and planked in bone, between the gun decks are raised bone strakes which were painted black, brass guns fitted to the topsides and decks, chain plates and dead-eyes, polychromed figurehead of a warrior, carved and pierced stern and quarter galleries with verdigris copper details, head rails, pin and fife rails, scored planking for the decks, open well deck, guns on carriages, taff rail, and other details. Rigged with masts, yards, standing and running rigging, spars, stun’sail booms, and other details [rigging in need of attention]. Set into a bone and wood base with a painted sea [distressed] giving the impression of a waterline model.

I’m partial to the bone one both because I’m just a fan of bone art in general and because you can really see that it was made out of bits of carved bone. On the other hand, it does not have a Roman legionary figurehead so the boxwood model clearly wins on that score.

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A metal bird Sam Spade would kill for

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Forget the Maltese Falcon, it’s this Japanese hawk that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s coming up for auction at Bonham’s on May 16th and it could be yours for an estimated £120,000 ($185,628). This masterpiece of wrought iron craftsmanship made in the late 19th century probably by artist and metalworker Itao Shinjiro, is fully articulated. Its limbs and claws move; the head turns 180 degrees; the beak opens and closes; the neck, tail and wing feathers can be stretched out or shortened to mimic the animal at rest or in flight.

There are only two other comparable hawks known to exist, one in the Tokyo National Museum and the other in a French private collection. This one is larger and more elaborate than the one in Tokyo. It’s being sold by the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, a small private museum with an exceptional collection of high quality pieces of lacquerware, cloisonné and metal work from the late Edo and Meiji periods. The Kyoto museum loaned their gorgeous hawk to the Tokyo National Museum for a 2008 exhibition on jizai okimono (jizai = articulated, okimono = ornamental figures), realistic, articulated animal figures made of various metals.

It’s an art form that’s as mysterious as it is beautiful. There is little evidence in the historical record regarding their origins and development. Although they began to be made in the Edo period, we only know this from the dating of extant pieces. There are no documents or contemporary sources describing the early days of the art. The earliest pieces date to the first quarter of the 18th century and were made by the Myochin family, illustrious metalworkers who started out as armorers to the samurai during the civil wars of the 16th century.

After Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and consolidated his power as de facto ruler of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, a long period of peace followed. Later known as the Edo period, it lasted 250 years. For the first century of peace business proceeded apace. Nobody knew how long the peace would last so warriors still commissioned plenty of armor even if it was only used for ceremonial purposes. Eventually, though, without constant war-making the market for armorers’ wares dried up and competition for the business that remained was fierce.

Compelled to look for new revenue streams, the Myochin studio and others turned to art. Decorative metal work was a natural evolution for experts with their very specific set of skills. Craftsmen adept at the forging and hammering of metal began making everyday consumer goods like tea kettles and boxes.

This kind of work was pedestrian, however, and not a proper showcase for their skills. Probably inspired by Chinese pieces, the armorers moved from quotidian items to the creation of complex, elaborate jizai okimono. It makes sense. A larger piece composed of a myriad small scales that can move in a naturalistic fashion could describe armor just as much as it describes this hawk or the amazing articulated dragon in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

According to a description of the hawk in an 1894 issue of The Magazine of Japanese Art published after the piece took second place at the 1894 Spring Exhibition of the Japan Art Association, the concept of articulated metal animals originated in China, but it was Japanese craftsmanship that caught the imagination of the West at the end of the 19th century when the opening of Japanese markets (by force, of course) made Orientalism a major trend.

“We have certainly succeeded in making a nobler and more practical use of it than the Chinese ever seem to have thought of. Mr. Itawo [sic], our artist, is … a metalworker of no common ability, having a particular aptitude for the kind above mentioned in wrought or hammered iron … The beautiful execution and tone of color given to the material, alone, not to say anything about the ingenious arrangement, would entitle it to be classed among works of high art….

Their rise of popularity in the West was in step with the decline of interest in the Japanese market. The unique beauty of the jizai okimono was underappreciated in the wider population until a metalwork exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in October of 1983 brought them back into the limelight. Now they are highly sought after pieces, with the work of Itao Shinjiro being particularly prized because very few of his figures have survived.

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Rare gold find in 4,400-year-old Beaker burial

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Archaeological from Wessex Archaeology excavating a gravel quarry in Berkshire discovered a rare 4,400-year-old Beaker burial 18 months ago. The news was kept under embargo until Friday to give the team time to analyze the bones and grave goods, both of which make the grave even more rare: beads made of folded sheet gold and the likelihood that the person buried was female.

Beaker burials — Copper Age graves from around 2,500 B.C. characterized by the ritual inclusion of a fine pottery drinking vessel known as a beaker — are extremely rare in south-east England. Gold has only been found in a small fraction of the already small number of Beaker burials, and those graves held male skeletons. Only the most important people in Beaker society were buried with gold and they were not surprisingly male.

Although researchers were not able to confirm this with complete certainty due to damage to the bone caused by the acidic soil which makes radiocarbon dating and DNA testing impossible, osteological examination indicates the skeleton is that of a woman who was at least 35 years of age when she died. The gold from Beaker burials is some of the earliest gold ornamentation discovered in England, and this is the earliest known woman in England to have been found buried with gold.

She was buried in high style. Five tubular (80s flashback!) beads made from folded pieces of sheet gold were found, once part of a necklace. Black disc beads of a jet-like material called lignite were also part of the necklace. Archaeologists found thirty lignite beads and 29 fragments of amber beads, so this was an elaborate necklace indeed. Lignite beads were also discovered near her hand, perhaps from a matching bracelet.

Larger perforated amber rounds were found in a row down her body. They were probably extremely fancy, extremely expensive buttons going down the front a Copper Age version of a cardigan.

Lastly, a large pottery beaker with nicely even stripes probably applied using a comb-like stamp was placed on her hip, an unusual position for the beaker in the Beaker burials. They are usually found by the feet or shoulders.

All of this elegance and quality strongly suggests the woman was someone of impeccably high status.

Archaeologist Gareth Chaffey of Wessex Archaeology, who is directing the ongoing excavation, said that the woman unearthed at the site “was probably an important person in her society, perhaps holding some standing which gave her access to prestigious, rare and exotic items. She could have been a leader, a person with power and authority, or possibly part of an elite family – perhaps a princess or queen.”

Lead isotope analysis performed on the gold found that it was mined in south-east Ireland and southern Britain. The lignite beads are from Eastern England and the amber buttons probably from the Baltic, although it may have been local amber found on beaches. Scientists hope that further analysis will answer some questions about how the gold was procured and traded along existing trade routes.

This find is not the only significant discovery achaeologists have made since they began excavating Kingsmead Quarry in 2003. During the Copper Age and for thousands of years after that, the quarry was in a floodplain on the shore of the Thames. Its convenient access to water ensure it was inhabited by many subsequent generations. The excavations have found evidence of human occupation steadily from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages.

The quarry is owned by the CEMEX building materials company. They have funded the ongoing excavation to the tune of £4 million ($6,000,000), and it certainly had paid off in terms discoveries. More than 28 hectares of the quarry have been excavated now. There are ancient artifacts, Neolithic houses, entire landscapes that have been exposed to expert eye. The plan is to continue digging for another two years.

Wessex Archaeology and CEMEX will be displaying some of the discoveries, including the gold beads, at an event at Wraysbury Village Hall, Berkshire, on Saturday April 27th between 10.30 AM and 3.30 PM. Admission is free. Visitors not only get to see the artifacts in person, but they also get to meet the archaeologists working on the project and examine a skeleton.

They hope to have the Beaker artifacts on display in a museum by the end of the year.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art buys Le Brun Polyxena

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the 1647 painting by Charles Le Brun that was discovered in the Coco Chanel Suite in Paris’ Ritz Hotel during renovations last year, was bought at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1,885,194, three times the high estimate. It’s new world record for a Le Brun painting. There are very few museums that have the kind of acquisition budget that will keep them in the bidding when prices get to this level, so it’s extremely fortunate for the public that the Met was in it to win it.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena by Charles Le Brun is without doubt one of the most important paintings by the artist to appear on the art market in recent years. It is a major work by an artist who is not well represented overseas, and I am not surprised that it has been acquired by such a prestigious institution as The Metropolitan Museum of Art whose collection of French 17th century paintings will be greatly enhanced,” said Olivier Lefeuvre, Senior Specialist of Christie’s Old Master Paintings department.

The collection really will be great enhanced. Before Monday’s auction, the Met didn’t own a single painting by Charles Le Brun, which amazes me because I would have thought they’d have at least one of every named master by now. There are several pen and ink and chalk drawings by Le Brun in the Met collection, but none of them are on display. They have six by Nicolas Poussin , First Painter to King Louis XIII, including a spectacular The Abduction of the Sabine Women which is one of two paintings on the subject done by the master. (The other one is in The Louvre.)

Now they’ve filled that major lacuna with a very important early work by Le Brun fresh off his four-year trip to Rome with Poussin, the museum plans to waste no time putting the painting on display. The 17th century French paintings gallery is currently closed for construction, but the Le Brun will be hanging proudly next the Poussins when it reopens at the end of May.

The Ritz’s owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, will donate the proceeds from the sale to the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation, the charity he established in memory of his son who was killed in the car accident that also claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. The foundation is dedicated to supporting children with potentially fatal illnesses and those who live in extreme poverty.

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King Khufu’s port, papyri found on Red Sea

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

The remains of a large commercial harbour complex dating back to the Fourth Dynasty 4,500 years ago have been discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a town on the Red Sea shore 110 miles south of Suez city, Egypt. Inscriptions and radiocarbon dating of pottery date the site to the reign of the pharaoh Khufu (aka Cheops). The port was one of a network on both sides of the Gulf of Suez used to transport limestone blocks from the quarries and copper and turquoise from the mines in south Sinai back to the Nile Valley. It’s the earliest found to date, the oldest commercial port found in Egypt and according to Sorbonne Egyptologist and excavation director Pierre Tallet, the oldest commercial port ever found anywhere, predating any others by 1,000 years.


Archaeologists from the French Institute for Archaeological Studies (IFAO) found a long L-shaped quay that starts on the beach and runs east under water for 525 feet before turning southeast for 394 feet. It appears to have been a breakwater structure that protected moored ships from the strong winds and powerful north-south currents of the Red Sea coast. Inside the protected area researchers found 24 pharaonic anchors. Made out of limestone, the anchors are carved into triangular, rectangular and cylindrical shapes with a hole in the upper section. Many of them were found in pairs which suggests deliberate placement rather than haphazardly discarded ship accessories. That’s why researchers believe they were stationed permanently in the water so that ships in transit could be moored to them.

This is an exciting find because although Egyptian anchors have been discovered before, most of them date to the Middle Kingdom and had been put to new uses. These are the first ancient anchors found in situ where they did their original anchor duty. It’s the oldest and largest collection of early Bronze Age anchors ever discovered.

The harbour complex continues inland. Even more anchors (99 of them, to be specific) were found in the remains of a light camp installation about 650 feet from the shore. There were hieroglyphic inscriptions on some of the anchors which Tallet believes were the name of the boat to which they once belonged. There’s a mound of limestone blocks nearby which was probably used as a visual landmark.

A mile and a quarter inland from the mound are the remains of an isolated rectangular building about 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The building is divided into 13 elongated cell-like rooms. Its function is unknown but we do know it’s the largest pharaonic building found on the Red Sea coast.

Just over two and a half miles from the shore at the at the foot of the mountains are groups of camps and what may be defensive surveillance installations. The largest of them has a complex of rectangular structures with cell-like rooms that were probably living spaces for the workers.

Three miles from the shore, just south of the camps is a system of 25 to 30 galleries carved into the bedrock. The galleries are not a new find; they were first discovered in 1823 by British Egyptologists Sir John Garner Wilkinson and James Burton who thought they were catacombs. There was no follow-up until 1954 when French researchers François Bissey and René Chabot-Morisseau began to explore the area only to be stopped before they really got going by the Suez crisis. Tallet’s team used Bissey and Chabot-Morisseau’s notes and Google Earth satellite images to find the site when their project began in 2008.

Excavations began in 2011 on four of the galleries. The team found that the galleries were not catacombs; they were storage facilities used to keep dismantled boats safe from the elements. Pieces of ropes, textiles, large pieces of wood, fragments of cedar beams, a piece of boat timber nine feet wide, the end of an oar were discovered in the galleries. The galleries range in length from 52 feet to 112 feet and are an average of 10 feet wide and seven feet high. They were not carved haphazardly at different times, but according to a pre-planned layout. Access to the galleries was protected by causeways of monumental stone blocks. The entrances were closed and opened by an elaborate portcullis system of large limestone blocks similar to the ones used during Fourth Dynasty funerary structures. The blocks were inscribed with the Khufu’s name written in red ink.

Inside the storage galleries archaeologists made another major find: hundreds of papyrus fragments, 10 of them in very good condition. These are the oldest papyri ever found. They’re a social history bonanza, describing the administration of the harbour complex during the 27th year of Khufu’s reign. There are monthly reports on the number of harbour workers, on how they were supplied with bread and beer. Perhaps most riveting of all the papyri is a diary that describes the work of gathering limestone for the construction of the Great Pyramid. From the Discovery News slideshow of the finds:

[I]t’s the diary of Merrer, an Old Kingdom official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

From four different sheets and many fragments, the researchers were able to follow his daily activity for more that three months.

“He mainly reported about his many trips to the Turah limestone quarry to fetch block for the building of the pyramid,” Tallet said.

“Although we will not learn anything new about the construction of Cheops monument, this diary provides for the first time an insight on this matter,” Tallet said.

I love how it’s a fully graphed out table, a spreadsheet in hieroglyphics. The papyri are now in the Suez museum where they will be conserved, catalogued and studied.

The harbour complex was definitely Khufu’s baby, used during his reign and for a few decades later. Pottery evidence indicates that the installations were occupied primarily during the first half of the Fourth Dynasty. There are some traces that parts of the complex were still in use in the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty, 72 years after Khufu’s death, but after that it was abandoned.

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First book printed in US could make $30 million

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British North America 136 years before it became the United States, is one of the rarest books in the world. There are only 11 copies known to have survived, and they are all held in libraries: the John Carter Brown Library, the Yale University Library, the Bodleian Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Henry E. Huntington Library, Harvard University Library, the American Antiquarian Society, the Rosenbach Library & Museum and two copies in the Boston Public Library which belong to Boston’s Old South Church. One of those copies, known as the Beta Copy because it’s slightly less pristine compared to the Alpha Copy, will be going on the auction block at Sotheby’s in November.

It’s been two generations since the last time one of these psalters was offered for sale. In January of 1947 it sold at auction for what was then a record $151,000 to rare book dealer Dr. Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach. Rosenbach had set the previous record for a book in the English language sold at public auction when he bought a First Folio of Shakespeare for $72,000 in 1933. He also held record for the most expensive book period bought at a public sale, a Gutenberg Bible he had purchased in 1926 for $106,000. This little six-by-five-inch hymnal of psalms blew them all away. Rosenbach turned out to be acting as an agent for a group of Yale alumni who in September of that year donated the Bay Psalm Book to the university library.

Old South Church has decided to part with one of their copies because it might make as much as $30 million, a princely sum that will allow it to remain solvent while fulfilling its Vision for the 21st Century (pdf), a mission statement that covers everything from building renovations to art programs to support for the poor. The church will still retain ownership of the Alpha Copy and that one is governed by a number of restrictions on sale so it’s not going anywhere.

In 1640, 20 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the good folk of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided the books of Psalms they had brought with them from England just wouldn’t do anymore. They thought the translations were too distant from the original Hebrew, and since the colony now had a printing press imported from London and operated by an indenture locksmith named Stephen Daye, they set about making their own psalter. A group of 30 “pious and learned” ministers, all literate in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, each translated a section of the Book of Psalms into English verse. John Eliot, Thomas Weld and Richard Mather (grandfather of the Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials fame) edited the volume.

The psalms were meant to be sung during services as hymns, but the quality of poetry was clearly not the ministers’ priority. Look, if you dare, at the broken and battered corpse of the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
Want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of the tender-grasse,
Doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
He doth in paths of righteousness:
For his names sake leade mee.
Yea though in the valley of deaths shade
I walk, none ill I’le feare:
Because thou are with mee, thy rod,
And staffe my comfort are.
For mee a table thou hast spread,
In preference of my foes:
Thou dost annoynt my head with oyle.
My cup it over-flowes.
Goodness & mercy surely shall
All my dayes follow mee:
And in the Lords house I shall dwell
So long as dayes shall bee.

Yeah. I feel bad for any deity who had to listen to that for hours on end, week after week, while presiding over those interminable Puritan meetings.

After the ministers were done butchering the classics, 1700 copies of the book were published, enough so every family in the colony could have one. It was the third work published by the Stephen Daye press, but the first book. (The first piece printed was a broadside of the Oath of a Freeman, now lost, and the second an almanac in pamphlet form.) Despite its atrocious turns of phrase, the Bay Psalm Book remained popular for decades after that first print run, with multiple revised editions published during the 17th century.

In 1703, bibliophile and historian Reverend Thomas Prince, who was then still at Harvard University, began to build a “New England library,” a collection of every written work, manuscript or printed, pamphlet, paper or book, ever made in New England. Fifteen years later the good reverend was appointed pastor of the Old South Church and remained such until his death in 1758. During his five decades plus of collecting, Prince purchased no fewer than five copies of the Bay Psalm Book, a remarkably prescient choice considering that the books were still fairly widespread at that time.

In his will he bequeathed the entirety of his library to the Old South Church, stipulating that it remain together in perpetuity. That didn’t happen. For 46 years, half of his books were kept at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The collection was reunited at the Boston Public Library in 1866. Or rather, most of his collection was reunited, because somewhere in the penumbra of those decades, three of the five copies of the psalm book had mysteriously moved on.

By the mid-19th century, the Bay Psalm Book was exceptionally rare and certain collectors lusted after it with an unscrupulousness that would have made King David blush. Three private collectors — Edward A. Crowninshield, George Livermore and Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, 20th mayor of Boston — all educated men of wealth and position, had wheedled copies out of Old South Church deacons by offering deceptively dismal trades or simply by flattery. Shurtleff scored the best of the five: Richard Mather’s own personal copy bearing his autograph. Crowninshield secured the copy that would be auctioned in 1947.

Old South Church authorities didn’t cotton on to these shenanigans until 1875. They sued Shurtleff’s estate to get the Mather copy back, but it was too late. The statute of limitations had run out. That copy is now in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Had the deacons not been such saps, Old South Church would be rolling in $30 million books.

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Vast site preserves 400 years of Roman London

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

A six-month excavation by Museum of London Archaeology at the construction site of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters in the center of London has revealed layer upon beautifully-preserved layer of Roman habitation from the earliest days in 40 A.D. to the collapse of Roman rule in the 5th century. Just a few yards from the Thames and waterlogged by the Walbrook River, one of London’s famous “lost rivers” that disappeared under the city when they were diverted into culverts to make way for development, the three acre site is replete with organic remains in incredible condition. Entire streets have survived, as have the remains of shoulder-high wooden walls, extensive wood foundations, complex waste drainage systems, a deep wooden well and a wooden door that is the second Roman wood door ever discovered in London. The extent of preservation has inspired archaeologists to dub this find “the Pompeii of the North.”

In addition to the structural remains, the site has proven a motherlode for artifacts as well. A team of 60 archaeologists has excavated about 3,500 tons of soil (that’s 21,000 wheelbarrows full) by hand to find more than 10,000 objects, the largest group of small finds ever recovered in a single excavation in London. The collection includes hundreds of leather shoes, a straw basket, more than 100 fragments of writing tablets, textiles, an amber amulet shaped like a gladiator helmet, a mysterious leather piece richly decorated with a scene of a gladiator battling mythical creatures, a cavalry harness with clappers that jingle when a horse moves, a group of high-quality pewter vessels that were thrown down a well probably for ritual purposes, and the greatest number of fist and phallus good luck charms ever found at one site.

Archaeologists were able to dig far deeper than usual due to the scale of the planned construction. The Bloomberg Place development at Great Queen Street will be a major high-rise that requires attendant deep foundations. Thus experts had the rare opportunity to dig 40 feet below street level to the first Roman settlement layer. The location is also of huge significance. This neighborhood was the bed of the Walbrook, the very center of Roman Londinium where, on the east bank of the tributary, the Romans built a port, the governor’s palace and a temple of Mithras. The Mithraeum was unearthed in 1954 by Welsh archaeologist William Francis Grimes, director of the Museum of London, after Victorian buildings damaged by bombs in World War II were demolished for the construction of an office building.

The discovery of the Mithraeum was the most important discovery of 20th century London. Crowds flocked to see the ruins and a public campaign to save them from threatened destruction led to their being relocated down the road to Temple Court where they still stand today. Researchers therefore had high expectations that the Bloomberg Place dig would result in archaeological finds of great significance. Obviously these were more than met. They even found a new section of the Temple of Mithras.

The artifacts are being cleaned and conserved at the Museum of London. The organic elements will be freeze-dried to preserve them. It’s not clear to me how the extensive city layers will be handled, but the construction project has all along planned to return the Mithraeum to its original site and integrate it into a public display. Now they just have a lot more to display than they planned.

The London Museum of Archaeology was kind enough to allow me access to their Dropbox account so of course I took everything and ran. Enjoy the media dump of awesomeness.

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Yorkshire Viking hoard has unique pommel, necklace

Thursday, March 28th, 2013


Experts have declared that a hoard of gold and silver treasure from the Viking era discovered by two metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, last May is a “significant and nationally important discovery.” Stuart Campbell and Steve Caswell found a part of the hoard, but instead of digging up the rest on the spot, they reported it to the finds liaison officer at the Yorkshire Museum in York. The museum sent two archaeologists to the a pasture (the exact location of the find is being kept secret to deter looters) so the treasure could be professionally excavated.

Once the whole thing was unearthed, the hoard was found to comprise 29 silver ingots, four silver collars, one of which is a large piece made of four plaited silver ropes joined at each end (in the middle of the picture), silver neck rings, half a silver penannular broach, a silver arm ring, an iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques (the big clumpy looking thing in the bottom right of the picture), four gold hoops from the sword hilt, six gold rivets probably from the same sword.

Andrew Morrison, head curator at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “The artefacts uncovered are typical of a Viking hoard, with the majority of it being silver ingots which were used for currency.

“However the gold sword pommel and a unique silver neck ring are incredibly beautiful and rare finds. We now hope to be able to raise the funds needed to keep them in Yorkshire.”

The pommel style and decoration dates the hoard to 850 – 950 A.D. Its triangular shape with a convex base is a late 9th century form of Viking sword. The plaques of gold foil are decoration with incised animal shapes characteristic of the late Anglo-Saxon Trewhiddle Style, also dating to the late 9th century although it continued to be used in the north of England into the 10th century. Two features mark the pommel as an exceptional piece: its size and its gold decoration. The pommel is 3.3 inches wide, 2 inches high, .5 inches thick; the guard is 3.8 inches long. The total weight of the piece is 10.7 ounces.

There is only one other pommel of comparable size, the Abingdon Sword now in the Ashmolean Museum, which is decorated in the same style but all in silver. The gold on the Bedale pommel makes it unique.

The hoard may have been raiding spoils or it could have been legitimately traded goods buried for later retrieval. The Vikings had a particular fascination with finely crafted metal work (see the National Museum of Scotland exhibit for more on that), more so than the general Saxon population, and although the hoard may have been pillaged, it’s more likely that it was buried by someone who was staying in the area. Many Vikings weren’t coming to Yorkshire just to raid and leave, but rather settled down and became farmers.

Right now the treasure is in the British Museum being cleaned and conserved. The next step is the standard treasure inquest which will certainly result in the coroner declaring the hoard treasure. Anything older than 300 years old or composed of precious metals qualifies as treasure, and the hoard hits the bullseye on both scores. It will then be evaluated for market value and the local museum will have the chance to pay the amount of the valuation to the finders. The York Museum Trust is already preparing to raise the necessary funds to keep the Bedale Viking Hoard in Yorkshire.

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Violin played as Titanic sank found in attic

Sunday, March 17th, 2013


The violin played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley as Titanic sank the night of April 14th, 1912, has incredibly survived and was discovered in a North Yorkshire attic in 2006. Auction house Henry Aldridge & Son announced Friday that after years of careful research and scientific analysis, they can confirm that the violin exists and is the real deal.

The owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, found the violin in a leather luggage case monogrammed “W. H. H.” when he was rummaging through his mother’s belongings. She was an amateur musician and a letter was found inside the case written by her former teacher, a local musician and violin instructor, who gave her this inestimable treasure. Also found inside the valise were Hartley’s silver cigarette case and a signet ring.

After making this crazy find, the owner contacted Henry Aldridge & Son who specialize in Titanic memorabilia. The monogrammed case, jewelry, letter and an engraved silver plate attached to the violin’s tail piece all suggested either authenticity or an impressively elaborate hoax, but as excited as they were by the prospect of having found the most important Titanic artifact to survive the sinking, involved in one of its most iconic moments — the band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while the ship went down — auction house experts realized it would take a great deal of work to authentic this miraculous survival.

They first brought it to the UK’s Forensic Science Service, a government office which provided forensic analysis to British police and other authorities before it was closed last year due to budget cuts. The service tested the corrosion and water stains on the violin, using other artifacts that survived the wreck for comparison, and found the corrosion deposits were “compatible with immersion in sea water.” Two long cracks on the violin’s body were determined to have been caused by moisture damage.

Next a jewelry expert took it in hand to examine the silver plate. The plate is inscribed “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.” Wallace Hartley’s fiancé was named Maria Robinson; she gave him a violin when they got engaged in 1910. The expert confirmed that the plate was original to the violin, engraved contemporaneously with the 1910 hallmarks on the panel.

While the physical evidence was being put to rigorous analysis, Henry Aldridge researchers and Hartley’s biographer Christian Tennyson-Ekeburg examined to the documentary record to try to trace its path from the deck of the sinking ship to the North Yorkshire attic. According to a news account, Hartley’s body was found 10 days after the disaster by a ship called the Mackay Bennett. He was fully dressed and the instrument was strapped to his body. However, the Mackay Bennett records have an inventory of the items found on the body and the violin is not listed.

Historians have assumed that either the news account was exaggerated/fictional or that the violin was stolen by someone after the body was found, but Maria Robinson’s diary proves that the violin was recovered and officials returned it to her. Researchers found a transcript of a telegram dated July 19, 1912, in her diary. Sent to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia, the telegram read: “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance’s violin.”

It seems that the news story got close to the truth. His violin wasn’t strapped to his body directly, but rather Hartley put his violin in his valise (which was too small for the bow to fit) and then strapped the bag around him right before the sinking. The bag and violin may have helped keep his body floating, and since he was on his back and they were on top of his life jacket on his chest, the violin and bag were for the most part not immersed in the water. A letter from his mother found in Hartley’s breast pocket survived with almost no water damage.

Hartley’s cigarette case and signet ring were returned to his father. He gave them to Maria and she kept them together with the valise and violin as a sort of shrine to her lost beloved. She never married and died of stomach cancer at her home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, in 1939 when she was just 59. Maria’s sister Margaret gave the valise and contents to the Bridlington Salvation Army, telling its leader Major Renwick about the incredible journey the violin had taken. Major Renwick gave it to a Salvation Army member who was a violin teacher, again passing on the Titanic story. The teacher gave it to his student, the current owner’s mother, along with a letter relaying what Major Renwick had told him.

In the early 1940s, the current owner’s mother was a member of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force stationed at Bridlington. She met the music teacher who later dispatched the valise and violin to her.

A covering letter that has been found states: “Major Renwick thought I would be best placed to make use of the violin but I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life.”

The owner plans to eventually sell this marvel, but first he wants it to be seen by as many people as possible. It will go on display at Belfast City Hall, just a mile away from where Titanic was built, at the end of the month. They’re working on putting together an international tour after that.

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Cirencester Roman cockerel cleans up real purty

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

The enamelled bronze figurine of a cockerel unearthed in a child’s grave during a 2011 excavation of a Roman-era cemetery in Cirencester has been cleaned and conserved. Even caked with dirt you could see that it was a beautiful piece, inlaid with blue and light green enamel diamonds on a proudly puffed chest. Now that it has been liberated from its loamy cage, the decorative detail and quality of construction mark it as one of the finest pieces of its kind ever discovered.

Dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D., the figurine is five inches tall with the stretched neck and open beak of a cockerel mid-crow. It has enamel inlay on the breast, wings, comb, tail and forming each wide eye. The enamel inlay is shaped to match the part, so while enamel on the chest is diamond-shaped, around the edges of sides it is elongated and curved like long feathers. The enamel in the comb is three mounds following the bronze shape, and on the back/wing they’re closely set crescents in columns. The tail has a swirly openwork decoration with matching enamel accents. The enamel is shades of blue, green and yellow, but may have had a brighter palette including red when new.

The construction is ingenious. Much like Gaul, it is divided into three parts. The main body is hollow, with the back/wing plate and the tail created separately and then soldered to the body. This saved metal and made it easier to craft and to decorate. Each part could be enameled individually and then put together.

There are only eight Roman cockerels of this kind known to have survived. Four were discovered in Britain and are similar in construction and enamel styles. They may have been a examples of a trend in figurines, or they have been created by the same artist or workshop. The Cirencester figurine is the only one of the cockerels found in Britain to have been excavated from a grave and the only one whose tail has survived.

The other cockerels were found in Germany and the Netherlands, but may have also originated from Britain which was a center of fine enamelwork. One particular workshop in Castleford, West Yorkshire, northern England, was renown for its high quality enamel and may well have produced the Cirencester piece. Cirencester is in the south, so if cockerel was from Castleford, it would have been an expensive import on top of the expense of production.

Archaeologist Neil Holbrook, from Cotswold Archaeology, said the work had “exceeded expectations”, particularly for highlighting its fine enamel detail.

“It reinforces what a fantastic article this is and how highly prized and expensive it must have been,” he said. “This must have cost, in current money, thousands of pounds to buy and countless hours to make, and so to actually put this into the grave of a two or three-year-old child is not something that you would do lightly.

“It really shows that this was a very wealthy, important family, and signifies the love that the parents had for the dead child.”

The cockerel was one of the attributes of the god Mercury, the messenger of the gods who guided the souls of the death to Hades. The parents of the child probably included the expensive and beautiful cockerel figurine as a tribute to the god to secure a safe trip to the afterlife for their beloved child.

The Corinium Museum in Cirencester is hoping to secure the cockerel for permanent display. While talks continue, the figurine will be on public view for the first time on March 27th in Bingham Hall on King Street, Cirencester. The cockerel will be exhibited during the Cotswold Archaeology Annual Lecture which this year is about childhood in ancient Rome. Professor Ray Laurence of Kent University will be the lecturer. Admission is free.

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