Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Elite Viking jewelry found on modest Denmark farm

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

An extensive archaeological survey of a farmstead on the Danish island of Zealand slated for residential development uncovered traces of a Late Iron Age/Viking Age settlement and several pieces of important metal jewelry from that era. Between April and December of 2007, experts from Roskilde Museum excavated a total of approximately 27,000 square meters (290,000 square feet) on the 15 hectare Vestervang farm. They found the remains of 18 longhouses and 21 pit houses of modest size — none were more than 65 feet long — which weren’t all constructed at the same time. This wasn’t a town but rather a single farm built up over time in six phases between the late seventh century and the early 11th.

The jewelry unearthed on the site of this farm is far more luxurious than you might expect to find at a modest farm size. There are gilded pieces, intricately carved pendants and brooches, probably imports like a trefoil brooch from 850-950 A.D. designed in a Carolingian style and a pre-Viking brooch with a gold accents in a waffle texture and Christian cross motif in red glass that reminds me of some of the Staffordshire Hoard pieces.

The star of the show is a copper alloy piece 2.9 inches in diameter with a central animal figure wearing a beaded chain around its neck. Three masked figures with moustaches are placed around the object, one on either side of the main character, one across from it. Four holes between the masked men suggest there was additional decoration, perhaps two more animal figures like the central one. Experts believe it may have been part of a necklace.

According to the archaeologist Ole Thirup Kastholm, author of a paper on the excavation published in the latest issue of the Danish Journal of Archaeology, this is a rare piece and would have been extremely high-end in Viking times.

He said that the animal image itself seems to be anthropomorphic, something not unusual in Viking age art. “Some of these anthropomorphic pictures, though, might be seen as representations of ‘shamanic’ actions, i.e. as mediators between the ‘real’ world and the ‘other’ world,” Kastholm wrote in an email to LiveScience. He can’t say for sure who would have worn it, but it “certainly (was) a person with connections to the elite milieu of the Viking age.”

The Christian cross also must have adorned a person of rank. Made between 500 and 750 A.D., it’s not the product of local artisans. It was in all likelihood manufactured in continental Europe and decades or centuries later made its way to Southern Scandinavia, either through trade networks or perhaps carried by a Christian visitor.

What would make this tidy but seemingly unremarkable farm a magnet for such expensive, rare jewelry? Kastholm thinks the key is the farm’s proximity to Lejre, a site just six miles away which according to Beowulf and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki was the royal seat of the legendary first ruling Danish dynasty the Skjöldung or Scylding clan.

In the 1960s, there was vast residential development in the area of Vestervang, but maps that predate the development show two villages near the site with “Karleby” in their name, something that may signify that the area was given to retainers of Lejre’s ruler.

“The old Scandinavian term karl, corresponding with the old English ceorl, refers to a member of the king’s professional warrior escort, the hirð,” Kastholm writes in the journal article.

Together, the rich jewelry finds at Vestervang, the site’s proximity to Lejre and the presence of two nearby villages with the names “Karleby” reveal what life may have been like at Vestervang.

It “seems probable that the settlement of Vestervang was a farm controlled by a Lejre superior and given to generations of retainers, i.e. to a karl of the hirð,” Kastholm writes. “This would explain the extraordinary character of the stray finds contrasting with the somewhat ordinary traces of settlement.”


New Snake queen stele fills blanks in Maya history

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Excavations under the main temple of the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Guatemala have uncovered a stela that adds a new chapter to our knowledge of Maya history. The engraved hieroglyphic text tells the story of two 6th century kings of the Wak or Centipede dynasty — King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin (meaning “He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle”) and his father King Chak Took Ich’aak (meaning “Red Spark Claw”) — and Lady Ikoom, a queen of the powerful Snake dynasty of Calakmul, none of whom were previously known to historians.

The stela, officially dubbed El Perú Stela 44, was commissioned by King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin around 564 A.D. in honor of his father who had died eight years earlier. For the first hundred years of its existence, the stela stood out of doors, exposed to the elements. Its hieroglyphics are worn from a century of erosion. Around 700 A.D., the stela was moved inside the main temple by order of King K’inich Bahlam II, probably as an offering for the funeral rites of his wife, the one, the only Lady K’abel, daughter of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great of the Calakmul Snake dynasty, Supreme Warrior of the Wak kingdom and Lady Snake Lord.

It’s likely that the king particularly prized the stela because as a scion of the Snake dynasty Lady Ikoom would have had a familial connection both to him and to his wife. Fragments of another stela, Stela 43, found in the walls of the temple last year also mention Lady Ikoom.

There is a gap in the region’s hieroglyphic record for more than a hundred years starting in the early 6th century at Calakmul and extending through 692 A.D. at Tikal. In Waka’, the gap starts in 554 A.D. and ends in 657. The stela is thus a unique source of information about the history of this “dark period,” shortening “The Hiatus” by a decade. It tells a riveting story of war and political intrigue.

The front of the stela … features a king standing face forward cradling a sacred bundle in his arms. There are two other stelae at the site with this pose, Stela 23 dated to 524 and Stela 22 dated to 554, and they were probably raised by King Chak Took Ich’aak. The name Chak Took Ich’aak is that of two powerful kings of Tikal and it is likely that this king of Waka’ was named after them and that his dynasty was a Tikal vassal at the time he came to the throne, the research team suggests.

The text describes the accession of the son of Chak Took Ich’aak, Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin, in A.D. 556 as witnessed by a royal woman Lady Ikoom, who was probably his mother. She carries the titles Sak Wayis, White Spirit, and K’uhul Chatan Winik, Holy Chatan Person. These titles are strongly associated with the powerful Snake or Kan kings who commanded territories to the north of El Perú-Waka’, which makes it very likely that Lady Ikoom was a Snake princess, Guenter argues.

“We infer that sometime in the course of his reign King Chak Took Ich’aak changed sides and became a Snake dynasty vassal,” [research director David] Freidel said. “But then, when he died and his son and heir came to power, he did so under the auspices of a foreign king, which [epigrapher Stanley] Guenter argues from details is the reigning king of Tikal. So Tikal had reasserted command of Waka’ and somehow Queen Ikoom survived this imposition.

“Then in a dramatic shift in the tides of war that same Tikal King, Wak Chan K’awiil, was defeated and sacrificed by the Snake king in A.D. 562. Finally, two years after that major reversal, the new king and his mother raised Stela 44, giving the whole story as outlined above.”


Medieval leather horse harness found in Cork castle

Friday, July 12th, 2013

In October of 2011, an archaeological survey of a site slated for future road construction near Doneraile, County Cork, Ireland, uncovered the foundations of Caherduggan Castle and its moat. This was a medieval stone castle built by Anglo-Normans next to an early medieval ringfort occupied between 400 and 1169 A.D. by local chieftains of the Duggan family (hence Caherduggan which means “the fort of the Duggans”). The castle was built in tower house style, a stone tower on 40 x 80-foot base with walls more than six feet thick. It was demolished somewhere around the middle of the 19th century and much of the stone was taken away to be reused in new construction leaving behind only the foundations.

The defensive moat around it was deep and had been filled with soil, discarded pottery and animal bones by the 17th century, but the archaeological team from Rubicon Heritage Services were delighted to find that the lower levels were waterlogged, creating an anaerobic environment ideal for the preservation of organic materials like wood and leather. Indeed, within a week the moat turned up its first leather artifact: a 600-year-old woman’s shoe.

Behind the moat they found another blessedly waterlogged area. Archaeologists found it was a deep well, dug down below the water table. The lower levels were still extremely wet and the team immediately encountered large numbers of wood fragments and some fragments of leather preserved by the low oxygen environment.

Then they hit paydirt. On November 30th, 2011, archaeologists discovered a leather belt complete with buckles on both ends and covered with metal studs. Such an elaborate leather piece is a very rare survival. In short order the belt was followed by a pair of leather shoes for indoor use and a bone gaming die in pristine condition. Unlike modern dice, the numbers on the faces (represented by concentric circles) are sequential, one and two are on opposite sides, then three and four, then five and six. The die, shoes and belt all date to approximately the same era, the 13th or 14th century.

After months of conservation, the leather studded belt revealed itself to be something even more precious than anyone realized. Almost three feet long, the belt was not for human waists but for horse chests. It’s a peytrel, also known as a breast-collar, the part of a harness that connects the saddle to the breast plate. The studs aren’t studs, they’re a group of 36 gilt copper-alloy heraldic shields decorated with lions counter-rampant (meaning they face to the viewer’s right). Each pendant is connected by a hinge to a fixed mount that also bears the counter-rampant lions. The hinges ensured the pendants would move prettily when the horse was in motion.

At each end of the strap are gilt copper-alloy buckles. They were recycled, cut off another piece and attached to the ends of the peytrel so that it could be attached to harness fittings on the saddle and breast plate. They were too valuable to discard once whatever they were previously attached to wore out, and the peytrel with all its pendants was of course even more valuable. However it ended up down that well, it’s unlikely to have been deliberately thrown away.

The counter-rampant lions may help answer some questions. It’s an extremely rare design. The Office of the Chief Herald in Ireland is looking into possible associations, but they may have simply been a decorative choice rather than a nobleman’s arms.

Even if it turns out to be impossible to establish the owner or affirmatively connect the piece to a specific noble house, it is still an exceptional discovery. Archaeologist Damian Shields:

“Post-excavation analysis has revealed it is the only intact example ever found in Britain or Ireland and it may have belonged to a medieval knight or one of his retainers or retinue. It was certainly belong to [sic] someone important in the medieval period. This is a hugely significant find in Ireland.”

Not just in Ireland. Thousands of medieval heraldic pendants from harnesses have been found in Britain in Ireland, but they were the only part to survive. This is the only peytrel we know of that has survived with every part, including the leather, intact. That makes this a discovery of international significance, a museum quality piece that is one of the greatest secular medieval leather objects ever discovered in Ireland.


Mazarin’s lost golden chest was being used as a bar

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

In the first decades of the 17th century, Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate encouraged foreign trade. The shogun had the monopoly on trade with non-Japanese, and made giant gobs of money from it between 1603 and 1635. In 1635, the shogunate changed gears completely, introducing Seclusion laws that prohibited foreigners from entering Japan and Japanese from leaving. The only foreign ships allowed in Japanese territory under these new laws were Chinese, Korean, and Dutch, and their movements were highly restricted.

Around 1640, chief of the mission of the Dutch East India Company François Caron commissioned a group of gold lacquer boxes from the Kaomi Nagashige of Kyoto, a master craftsman who was the official lacquer-maker to the Tokugawa rulers. In 1639 he had created an exceptional bridal trousseau of 75 boxes for two-year-old Princess Chiyohime on the occasion of her engagement. The lacquer decoration featured scenes from The Tale of Genji, a romance written in the early 11th century by noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu which is often described as the first novel (you can download the whole book for free here). The baby princess’ trousseau is a Japanese national treasure today, part of the permanent collection of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya.

Caron’s commission was smaller in number — a dozen boxes, ten small, one larger but still petite box and one extra-large chest — but also featured scenes from The Tale of Genji. Because he was in Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu’s good graces, Caron was able to secure the finest quality of lacquer, the kind of thing that would normally be seen in the palaces of the Shogun. The chests were decorated with gold, silver and copper foil, sheets and powder and mother of pearl. The painstaking process of creating these marvels took at least two years.

In 1641, the Shogunate instituted another law, this one prohibiting the exportation of “art objects, including objects of lacquer, screens and other decorated with motifs of city, castle, human figures and above all, armed men.” The punishment for violators was beheading. The law was promulgated on August 14, 1641 and remained in force until 1864.

Caron was grandfathered in, however, and in 1643, the lacquer boxes left Japan for the Netherlands. The high cost of the boxes and instability from the Thirty Years’ War make them a hard sell. In 1658, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, reputedly the richest man in Europe, stepped into the breach. The French ambassador to the Netherlands’ main mission wasn’t diplomacy but rather to acquire Japanese lacquer for Mazarin’s collection. Mazarin bought the two larger chests in Amsterdam and transported them to France on a warship.

After Mazarin’s death in 1661, the chests passed by descent through the family until they were purchased in a French Revolutionary fire sale by a haberdasher who sold them to the wealthy British writer and art collector William Beckford. He willed the lacquer masterpieces to his daughter Euphemia, wife of the Duke of Hamilton. The chests remained at Hamilton Palace until they were sold in 1882 to raise funds to repair the palace. The smaller of the two chests was bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum. The larger one was bought by President of the Royal Horticultural Society and collector Sir Trevor Lawrence (history loop: his maternal grandfather was a haberdasher). He died in 1913 and when his estate was liquidated in 1916, the chest was bought by Welsh coal baron Sir Clifford Cory.

Sir Clifford died in 1941, and that’s where the trail ended. In the middle of the Battle of Britain, the estate was sold at auction with the lacquer trunk described solely as “a large Chinese chest.” the Mazarin link was forgotten as was its real country of origin. From that point on, the largest of Mazarin’s golden chests was considered lost. The V&A looked far and wide for it, anxious to bring the two rare beauties together again.

As freak occurrence would have it, the chest was actually a three minute walk from the museum in the home of a Polish doctor named Zaniewski. He bought it from the Cory auction for a pittance. In 1970, Dr. Zaniewski sold the chest for £100 to a tenant of his, a French engineer who worked for Shell Petroleum. The engineer used it as a TV stand in his South Kensington apartment for 16 years, then brought it with him when he retired to the Loire Valley in 1986. There he used it as a bar.

I guess he wasn’t a big reader of Country Life in 1980s or of the V&A website in the 2000s, because the museum used both outlets to get out the word about the missing masterpiece. The museum asked:

“How can a chest of such supreme quality and exceptional size have disappeared like this? Did it suffer at the hands of enemy action during World War II, or is it gathering dust somewhere in a proverbial attic, unrecognized for what it is by its current owner? The V&A is very keen to locate the Lawrence Chest or identify who bought it from the 1941 sale, as this would be of enormous benefit to our research on the Mazarin Chest.”

Oblivious to all this, in 2013 the engineer’s family called in the auction specialists of Rouillac to appraise and sell his estate. Philippe Rouillac found Mazarin’s lost golden chest in a house in Touraine propping up spirituous beverages.

At the June 9th auction held at the Château de Cheverny in the Loire Valley, the Mazarin Chest sold for 7.3 million euros ($9,544,000) including buyer’s premium. Two dedicated bidders drove the price up from the opening 200,000 euros, and for once, neither of them were anonymous private collectors. One was an American museum (I’m guessing the Getty, because it has the gigantic acquisition budget you’d need for this kind of caper and because in 2009 they had a whole exhibition dedicated to Japanese lacquer which starred the V&A Mazarin Chest); the other was the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum, fortified with funds from the Jaffé-Pierson Foundation, the BankGiro Lottery and the Rembrandt Association, won.

They are superstoked about it. No Dutch museum has a piece of Asian furniture art of this quality, and since it was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company and spent the first 18 years of its life in Amsterdam, the Mazarin Chest, the largest known lacquer artifact in the world, is coming home, as far as the Rijksmuseum is concerned.


Panel leaves Antiques Roadshow estimate in its dust

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

A Tuscan landscape panel made out of cut inlaid stone in the pietre dure (meaning “hard stone”) technique sold at Bonhams’ Fine European Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art auction in London for £157,250 ($234,302) including buyer’s premium, five times the pre-sale estimate and more than 10 times the Antiques Roadshow estimate. Granted, its appearance on the original British Antiques Roadshow was several years ago and it seems the expert didn’t recognize how early a piece it is and the important artist who is thought to have created it.

Bonhams’ appraisers got a look at it when the seller brought it to a public valuation event at the Saffron Walden Golf Club in East Anglia. They recognized its excellent quality and likely Florentine origin. Further research by the auction house’s European Furniture specialists found the panel was probably made in the late 17th century or very early 18th century by Baccio Cappelli, one of the greatest lapidaries at the Galleria de’ Lavori in Pietre Dure, the Grand Ducal hardstone workshop in Florence which still exists today as the state-funded Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The Galleria de’ Lavori was founded by Grand Duke Ferdinando I in 1588 to train local carvers to restore the many ancient stone objects the Medici dug up or bought and to create new hardstone works. The Galleria craftsmen pioneered the pietre dure technique. It started with a drawing from which paper cut-outs were traced. Various marbles and hardstones of different colors and textures were selected for each jigsaw-like piece. The cut-outs were then glued to stones so its outlines could be cut into the stone with a bow saw. Once every piece was cut, they were glued to a single piece of slate so the entire work could be turned over. The face was then polished to gleaming with abrasives.

In the 17th century, the Galleria craftsmen focused on decorating the San Lorenzo Medici Chapel, but within a hundred years the art form had become widely popular, with elaborate pieces commissioned by the aristocracy and nobility of Europe to adorn furniture like tabletops and cabinet facades. The wealthy would collect the panels, often purchasing them on the Grand Tour of Europe, and then have a custom piece of furniture made to display the stonework. Baccio Cappelli was the superstar of the fashion for pietre dure. His precision cuts, careful selection of stones and enchanting subjects put his panels in the great palaces of the continent and Britain.

This particular panel is not signed, but it is very similar in key details to signed Cappelli panels like the ones in the Kimbolton Cabinet, now in the Victoria & Albert museum. The overall compositions — a seaside landscape with little houses in the distance and people in the foreground — are the same. The clouds are made out of a similar translucent amber, the sea out of a similar olive drab stone, the clothes out of similar pieces of pink, blue and white marble, the tree trunks from similar black marble.

The Kimbolton panels are dated 1709. Bonhams’ experts believe the panel that just sold is older. Since the pietre dure artisans reused styles and designs, this panel may be a precursor to the ones on the cabinet.


Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

Friday, July 5th, 2013

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.


1,800-year-old stone head found in ancient dump

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

Durham University archaeologists excavating an ancient garbage dump on the site of a Roman bathhouse outside Binchester Roman Fort near the town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, northeast England, have discovered a carved stone head dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Extremely lucky 19-year-old archaeology student Alex Kirton found the small sandstone sculpture — it’s about eight inches high and four inches wide — in a layer of stone rubble.

The bathhouse had fallen out of use by the 4th century and the locals used its rooms as dumpsters. These rooms are filled with trash six feet deep, mostly in alternating layers of stone materials and butchery discards. Two years ago a small Roman altar was found nearby along with a partial inscription that appears to commemorate a shrine dedicated by the commander of the fort cavalry. Archaeologists believe the head and altar were part of this modest shrine built inside the bathhouse.

It’s not possible at this juncture to identify precisely who the head is meant to represent. The going hypothesis is that he was a local Romano-British deity. Binchester was a fort on the northern frontier and there were a number of gods unique to the area. One likely candidate is the god Antenociticus because the sandstone head shares some features in common with a confirmed head of Antenociticus discovered in 1862 in the Roman settlement outside Benwell, another northern border fort near Newcastle upon Tyne. The Benwell head was found in its original context, a temple dedicated to Antenociticus built around 180 A.D. Inscriptions indicate the temple was built by a Roman cavalry prefect to give thanks for a promotion, so Antenociticus appears to have had some kind of military purview.

There are marked differences between the two heads, though. The Binchester head has a flat base; it’s likely that the head was the entirety of the sculpture. Neck fragments from the Benwell Antenociticus indicate it was part of a larger, life-sized sculpture. Pieces of a forearm and leg were also found at the site. The Benwell head is also more delicately carved, as you might expect from an artifact decorating a full-on temple rather than a small household shrine.

The Binchester head also has facial features — mainly the modeling of the nose and lips — that may suggest an African influence.

The Binchester head is African in appearance, but Dr Petts, who is also Associate Director of Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, said experts were unsure whether these features were deliberate or coincidental.

He explained: “This is something we need to consider deeply. If it is an image of an African, it could be extremely important, although this identification is not certain.”

Dr Mason added: “The African style comparison may be misleading as the form is typical of that produced by local craftsmen in the frontier region.”

The features are also damaged and archaeologists can’t be certain exactly how they looked when new.

Binchester Roman Fort, called Vinovia by the Romans, was the largest fort in the county, housing a garrison of one thousand men, most if not all of them cavalry. It guarded the crossing point of the River Wear, a strategically important location about 60 miles north of the legion’s headquarters at York and about 30 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall. If you have the opportunity, head on up there the weekend of July 13th and 14th to see an exhibit of the newly discovered head as well as other artifacts discovered on site. There will be tours led by Dr. David Mason, Principal Archaeologist with the Durham County Council, and reenactments by Roma Antiqua and Legio IX including a working full-size model of a ballista, the torsion-powered catapult Romans used to fire artillery bolts at the enemy.


Sutton Hoo exhibit on Google Cultural Institute

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Expanding its online databases of cultural treasures, Google has added online museum archive exhibits to a portfolio that already includes the hugely successful Google Art Project and Google Street View’s tours of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Archive Exhibitions are designed by museum curators and experts who collect images and video from their institutions’ archives, caption them and create an online display.

British Museum curators have put together a beautiful tour of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo. It’s structured as a timeline, starting with the discovery in 1939. There are period pictures of the ship as it was revealed, digital reconstructions of the artifacts, maps, black and white video of the excavation and video of the artifacts today. The British Museum website has an excellent set of pictures of the Sutton Hoo treasures, but the Google Cultural Institute exhibit lays out the history of the dig and the artifacts in a crisp, easy-to-follow structure that includes multimedia elements and, best of all, highly zoomable images.



Once you’ve enjoyed your journey through the funerary riches of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, check out the rest of the museum collections. This one from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum features photographs of Holocaust victims found in the property sorting area after liberation. They give a deeply moving glimpse into the family life of Polish Jews before the war. The Imperial War Museums has two World War II exhibits, one telling the stories of the Kindertransport, the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories, and the other about D-Day.

On a more lighthearted topic, the Instituto Luce Cinecitta’ has a wonderful collection of photographs of Italy in the heady Dolce Vita days of 1954-1965. It’s not just about Fellini and the dawn of the paparazzi; it’s also about the booming post-war economy and Italy’s dive into consumerism, Fiat 500s. There’s a great period newsreel of the first supermarket opened in the Roman suburb of EUR (where I grew up!).

Also not to be missed are the exhibitions from the Museo Galileo in Florence. One focuses on the Medici collections of scientific instruments. As always with the Medici, the objects are as beautiful and luxurious as they are important in the history of science. The other covers the Lorraine collection which was built on the Medici core after the House of Lorraine inherited the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1737. The Museo Galileo is a garden of earthly delight for combo science and history nerds. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to explore its collections in this kind of detail. Also, I want Grand Duke Peter Leopold’s chemistry cabinet. Badly.

New museums and exhibits are added all the time, so be sure to keep an eye on the Google Cultural Institute.


Update: three treasures go home

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

I have happy endings to report for two stories: the Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads and the William the Conqueror silver penny have all returned to their homes.

The Chinese bronzes had the most eventful journey there and back again. They were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

The rat and the rabbit wound up in the insanely cluttered home of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time companion Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at a Christie’s auction in 2009 but controversy ensued and he wound up having to keep them. Somewhere between then and April of this year, François-Henri Pinault, billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns many luxury brands including Christie’s, bought the rat and rabbit. During a diplomatic visit to China attended by captains of French industry, Pinault announced that he would to return the bronze sculptures to China as a gesture of respect and friendship. He took pains to emphasize that this was a private gift from his family, not a repatriation from Christie’s, and said the official transfer would occur in the second half of this year.

He didn’t waste any time. Less than two weeks after the half-year mark, on Friday, June 28th, 2013, François-Henri Pinault and his father François returned the statues to China in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and François Pinault lifted red velvet covers from the bronzes with a flourish and both sides exchanged flattery. Francois-Henri Pinault said:

“This act represents the affection and respect of the Pinault family for the people of China. For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage. We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain. By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation. They now return to their old home, Beijing.”

Chinese Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said: “This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people.” He thanked the Pinault family for this “act of respect for and protection of China’s cultural heritage” and expressed hope that it would encourage other wealthy businessmen desperate to curry favor with the Chinese government so as to get greater access to the country’s immense buying power to donate other objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Okay, that phrasing is mine rather than his, but there’s no question of what dog the Pinault family has in this rat and rabbit hunt. They sell luxury Western brands and the return of China’s dispersed patrimony is a point of pride for the nation and its rapidly embiggening moneyed class. The PR they’ve received for this gesture is of immense value in dollars and cents as well as in reputation.

(Not everyone is impressed, mind you. This article from People’s Daily quotes several people who dismiss the bronzes as relatively low-value targets. The National Museum of China deputy curator Chen Lyusheng describes them as “water faucets made by foreigners” which while dismissive is pretty much accurate since they were fountain water spouts and they were made by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, aka Lang Shining.)

The bronze rat and rabbit will be on permanent display at the National Museum.

The City Museum and Art Gallery of Gloucester, England, will have a local treasure of its own on permanent display starting July 11th. The city council has purchased the William I silver penny discovered in November of 2011 by metal detector hobbyist Maureen Jones in a field just north of Gloucester. They paid a very reasonable £2,000 ($3,040) for a coin that is one of a kind and a testament to the importance of Gloucester in the Middle Ages.

The silver penny was minted by William the Conqueror’s moneyer Silacwine of Gloucester between 1077 and 1080. It’s the only coin ever discovered that was minted in Gloucester between those dates. The discovery fills in a blank in Gloucester history and underscores the importance of the city in William the Conqueror’s day.

Council leader Paul James said: “We are a city with 2,000 years of history. This is a significant find of major historical importance and plugs an historical gap in local knowledge.

“It proves that coins were being minted locally throughout the reign of William something that we haven’t been able to do until now.”


Police recover huge trove of looted Etruscan artifacts

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) revealed on Thursday that they have recovered a massive trove of looted Etruscan artifacts. The stand-out pieces are 23 travertine funerary urns from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., identified from their inscriptions as having all been stolen from a single Etruscan tomb in Perugia, in the central Italian region of Umbria, belonging to the patrician Cacni family. Most of the urns are decorated in high relief with battle scenes, tauromachia (bullfighting), friezes and representations of the myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that his fleet could sail for Troy.

An astonishing 3,000 more artifacts were recovered in this sting, dubbed Operation Iphigenia. Other Etruscan pieces from the Cacni tomb include a sarcophagus lid from the 4th century B.C., a bronze helmet, greave, shield, strigil and an extremely rare bronze kottabos, a Greek drinking vessel used to play a game popular at feasts and symposia involving the throwing of the wine lees at a target. Not all the artifacts are Etruscan; police also recovered thousands of other antiquities and ceramic fragments from the Middle Ages.

Officials call it without exaggeration the greatest Etruscan find since the last hypogeum — the Cai-Cutu tomb also in Perugia — was discovered in 1982, and it came very close to disappearing forever into the black market before anyone knew the artifacts existed. In fact, seven of the 23 urns were already in private hands when the police tracked them down, sold by the looters through middlemen to collectors practiced in the asking of no questions.

Operation Iphigenia started two years ago in Rome with the confiscation of a small travertine head and a picture. A person known by the police to traffic in black market antiquities was attempting to sell an Etruscan urn. He was shopping around a picture of the urn and the little head, removed from the urn in a creepy kidnapper way to prove to potential buyers that he was in possession of the artifact. The head was examined by an expert at the University of Rome Tor Vergata who identified its likely origin as an Etruscan tomb in the Perugia area.

Perugia was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and is rich in funerary remains, most famously the Palazzone necropolis, a vast network of subterranean tombs dating from the 6th-5th century B.C. onwards. The Hypogeum of the Volumnis is an elaborate family tomb containing a number of cinerary urns similar in style to the one in the photograph. With the collaboration of the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Umbria, police focused their efforts on finding the source of the pictured urn in Perugia.

Investigations kicked into high gear last February when Perugian court prosecutor Paolo Abbritti coordinated increased surveillance of several people in the construction industry thought to be connected to the traffic in antiquities. The construction guys turned out to be more than just involved in the sales; they made the initial finds during work on a villa 10 years ago.

Instead of reporting the discovery to the authorities so the site could be properly excavated and the artifacts claimed by the Perugia archaeological museum, at least one crew member and the boss conspired to keep the pieces for sale on the black market. (It’s a little looter karma that it took them 10 years to sell just seven of the 23 urns and got caught in the attempt to sell the eighth. Yet again, thieves find it’s a lot harder to make a killing from the illegal sale of antiquities than they imagined when they first looked at an ancient artifact and saw dollar signs.)

The 16 urns not in private hands and the other Etruscan artifacts were found by authorities still hidden in the tomb. The find site is now in the process of being excavated by archaeologists from the Superintendence of Perugia. They expect to find more subterranean tombs connected to the Cacni chamber so this one discovery, already so hugely significant, is likely to lead to even more.

Five men have been arrested and charged for the looting and trafficking. One is the construction firm owner, another a construction worker and three middlemen who arranged the sales. It sure would be nice if those seven jerks who bought the urns felt the sharp kiss of the legal lash, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda right now.





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