Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

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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Police find Oakland Museum Gold Rush box!

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

The beautiful and historic Gold Rush-era jewelry box stolen from the Oakland Museum of California in January has been recovered and appears to be undamaged. At a news conference on Tuesday, police announced that the suspect in the thefts, Andre Taray Franklin, a career criminal with 10 previous felony convictions including three for burglary and petty theft, was arrested and booked into Santa Rita Jail Sunday.

Based on security footage taken during the burglaries, the police had been looking for him in connection with both thefts at the museum. When they arrested him, police found pictures of the box and of a mid-20th century pistol on his cell phone. They were able to trace the jewelry box from that picture, locating it at a business they declined to name. The six-barrel pistol in the picture is one of the objects stolen from the museum in November. It has not been recovered as of yet, nor have the stolen gold nuggets.

Police Chief Howard Jordan and Lt. Oliver Cunningham praised Sgt. Mike Igualdo for his dedication in pinpointing the suspect and finding the box.

Police Officer Michael Igualdo, the lead investigator, said officers were ecstatic to find the gold box, although he wouldn’t say where it had turned up. “We thought we were in the movie ‘National Treasure,’ ” Igualdo said.

“What clicked in me was the history of California, the Gold Rush era, our American history, our heritage,” Igualdo said.

The Alameda County district attorney’s office charged Franklin with violating parole on a previous conviction for possessing stolen property and receiving stolen goods valued at more than $200,000 — the box (valued at $805,000) and the pistol. More charges, namely multiple counts of burglary, are likely to follow. In the meantime he is being held without bail.

Museum officials are thrilled to have the jewelry box back, of course. At the press conference, Director Lori Fogarty thanked the Oakland Police Department “for their expert assistance with recovering OMCA’s historic jewelry box” and said they plan to have to the box back on view as soon as possible. They need to examine it carefully to tend to any conservation needs, but as soon as any condition issues are resolved, the jewelry box will be the star of the Gallery of California History again. There is no question of the box being secured out of public view, despite its unfortunate history of theft. Fogarty again: “It is our mission and our responsibility to share California’s history with the public. If we were just a treasure trove, a mausoleum for objects, we wouldn’t be serving our mission.”

Instead of hiding their light under a bushel, the museum has significantly beefed up its security protocols. They’ve added security guards, additional cameras, alarm systems and lighting. Museum officials are confident that the 1.8 million-object collection will be safe.

I’m just glad it’s still whole instead of having been melted down. I hope Franklin tells authorities where all the other artifacts he stole ended up, although odds are they’re several steps removed from the first pawn shop or fence he sold them to.

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Unique silver 3D valkyrie found in Denmark

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Morten Skovsby had found a few coins, tools and a cannon ball in his backyard with his new metal detector when he decided to go further afield. On December 28th, 2012, Skovsby, Michael Nielsen, Jan Hein and Jacob Sietam, all members of a local metal detector group, explored a field in Hårby, central Denmark. Morton got a strong signal so he loosened a clump of frozen soil only to find a little silver face looking back at him. He scooped up the whole clod of earth, brought it home and put it on the radiator to thaw. Once unfrozen and cleaned of soil, the face turned out to belong a small female figurine just 3.5 centimeters (1.38 inches) tall.

Morten emailed the curator at Odense City Museums, Mogens Bo Henriksen who replied that it was a very interesting discovery. Further investigation by museum experts confirmed that early assessment and then some. It’s a standing figure of a Viking shield maiden broken at the abdomen. She wears a long textured gown and her long hair is in a pony tail tied in a knot at the back of her head. An eyelet behind her neck indicates the figurine was worn on a cord, perhaps as a pendant. She carries a double-sided Viking sword in her right hand, arm bent at the elbow, and holds a round shield in front of her body on her left arm.

She is made of solid silver and weighs 9.2 grams (.32 oz). The silver is gilded and the pattern details in the gown and shield are filled in with a black enamel-like material called niello. She dates to the Viking age, around 800 A.D., and the design details identify her as not just any shield maiden, but as a valkyrie, emissaries of Odin who choose who dies in battle and escort their souls to Valhalla. Other valkyrie figures from the early Viking era have been discovered in Denmark, but they are flat two-dimensional pieces (mostly brooches). The Hårby figurine is the first three-dimensional valkyrie figurine ever discovered. The fact that her back and sides are carved reveal heretofore unknown details about Viking hairstyle and dress from the period.

Odense City Museums did a small follow-up excavation at the discovery site. They found evidence of multiple pit houses, huts used as workshops for various crafts. Layers of burnt debris and fragments of scrap metal testify to the pit houses’ use as silversmiths. Perhaps the valkyrie lost her legs in the process of being chopped up and melted, her silver to be reused in new jewelry, only somehow the process was interrupted and she wound up in the trash instead.

The figurine has been declared treasure trove and the finder will receive a reward, although Morten doesn’t care about that. He’s just excited to have found such a special historical artifact. As of March 1st, she is on display at the National Museum’s yearly exhibition on treasure trove finds. After that she will be included in the National Museum’s upcoming exhibition on the Vikings which will travel to the British Museum in 2014.

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Lead shot that missed Tsar Nicholas II for sale

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

St. Petersburg, Epiphany Day, January 6th (January 19th on the Gregorian calendar), 1905: Tsar Nicholas II, members of the royal family and diplomatic corps attend the ceremonial blessing of the waters of the Neva River in front of the Winter Palace. This is a longstanding tradition celebrating the baptism of Christ in River Jordan transposed to a frigid Russian winter setting. A hole called the Jordan is cut in the ice of the river and the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg immerses his cross in it, blessing and purifying the water. People flock to collect the holy water which is believed to have protective and curative powers.

The Tsar and some of the dignitaries observe the blessing from an elegant pavilion built overlooking the river, while the Tsarina, Grand Duchesses and members of the diplomatic corps watch from the windows of the Winter Palace. The blessing is marked with a military gun salute.

This year, however, the ceremonial gun salute has an unexpected bite. The 17th Battery of the First Horse Artillery of the Guard, one of the most aristocratic of corps in the Russian army, firing from Vasilyevsky Island in response to shots from the Peter and Paul Fortress, has among all the blank saluting cartridges at least one weapon loaded with live ammunition. That gun happens to be aimed right at the Imperial pavilion. A charge of grapeshot peppers the Jordan, injuring one police officer and snapping the flagpole of the Marine standard. The shot also breaks four windows in the Window Palace, where the Tsarina and company stand. Nobody is harmed, but the Tsar’s mother is sprinkled in broken glass.

The official story is that this was negligence, an accident caused when the artillery was not properly cleaned after target practice two days earlier. It’s not a satisfying explanation. The guns can only take a single charge at a time, so how come nobody noticed there was already something in there when they attempted to charge the saluting cartridges on the day of the ceremony? Also, ceremonial salutes aren’t generally aimed right at the Emperor.

On the other hand, any artillery expert would know that grapeshot is not an effective tool of assassination when it has to cross a river to reach its intended target. If one of the soldiers of the battery had been attempting the life of the Tsar, surely he would have loaded the gun with something that had a chance of working. One the lead pellets lands not three feet away from the Tsar, but it’s unlikely it would have harmed him beyond a contusion had it made contact.

Nicholas seems sanguine about the event in his diary, but an investigation is launched into the disturbing event. Several officers are court martialed two months later and convicted of negligence, but no evidence of conspiracy or intent to harm is presented at trial.

Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievitch, grandson of Nicholas I and first cousin once removed to Nicholas II, is standing next to the Tsar when the shot reaches the pavilion. He picks up one of the lead pellets and gives it to Carl Fabergé, the imperial family’s favorite goldsmith, to have a memento made of the near miss. Fabergé mounts the lead shot, a pristine lead ball 1.5 inches in diameter, on a gold seal 2.5 inches high. In the base he sets a white chalcedony sealing stone engraved with the personal crest of the Tsar. The Grand Duke gives it to Nicholas as a present.

When revolution breaks out, a courtier takes the seal with him as he flees the country. It remains privately held for close to a century. Now, for the first time, the shot that missed the Tsar is being offered for sale by jewelers and Fabergé specialists Wartski of London. The suggested retail price is £500,000 ($760,000). It will go on display at the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht from March 15th to 24th.

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