Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

ID bracelet of World War I officer returned to son

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

The silver ID bracelet of World War I Lieutenant Oscar L. Erickson was returned to his son Don almost a hundred years after it was lost on the Western Front. The bracelet, inscribed “Lt. O. L. Erickson, C of E, 78th Batt. Canadians,” was discovered by military historian Peter Czink who found it in a box of junk silver slated to be melted down. Czink put the bracelet aside and a few months later decided to research the bracelet’s owner. He discovered that Oscar Erickson was the father of famous Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson.

Arthur Erickson had died in 2009, but with such a prominent figure in the family, Czink realized that finding surviving relatives would be a relatively simple matter. Indeed, Arthur’s younger brother Don is still alive. He’s 85 years old now and was genuinely moved to have this precious memento of his father.

After the Battle of the Somme (July 1st – November 18th, 1916) claimed more than 24,000 Canadian casualties, Canada ramped up its recruiting program. It wasn’t terribly effective. The Military Service Act was passed at the end of August, 1917, to allow conscription. Oscar Erickson didn’t wait to be drafted. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 8th, 1917, when he was two months shy of his 27th birthday.

Erickson was sent to the Western Front as a Lieutenant in the 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion (also known as the Winnipeg Grenadiers). As part of the 4th Canadian Division, the 78th Battalion fought in a crucial turning point of the war: the Battle of Amiens. Launched on August 8th, 1918, the offensive would finally see Allied forces actually advancing into enemy territory and end the stalemate of trench warfare. The CEF had a great first day of the battle, claiming 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), more than 5,000 prisoners of war and all but destroying two German divisions.

The next day, August 9th, the Germans reinforced their position with eight divisions. The CEF still advanced another five kilometers, but Lieutenant Oscar Erickson would pay a heavy price. He was wounded in both legs so severely that they had to be amputated. His actions on that day earned him the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry.

I doubt that was much consolation to him. He wrote to his fiancée Myrtle Chatterson that they could no longer get married upon his return. Don Erickson tells the story:

“He said, ‘We are engaged to be married but it’s impossible for us to go through with this, I’m only half a man’,” said Erickson.

“She wrote back and said, ‘You promised me you would marry me and you’re going to live up to it.’”

And he did. If he hadn’t, Don and his brother Arthur would never have been born. Oscar wore prosthetic metal legs the rest of his life. He remained involved in veterans’ affairs, writing a monograph in 1944 that doubtless drew from his own war experience: Rehabilitation of the Personnel of Canada’s Fighting Forces. I think he may have been awarded an OBE, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal, for his efforts in World War II, but I couldn’t confirm this is the same Oscar L. Erickson.

The sweet moment Czink gave the bracelet to Don is captured in this news story:

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Early medieval gold coin hoard found in Netherlands

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

47 gold solidi unearthed in Drenthe province, the NetherlandsTwo metal detector enthusiasts searching in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province have discovered 47 gold coins from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The treasure consists of gold solidi minted in Constantinople, Rome, Ravenna and Laon, in northern France. Most of the coins, 38 of them, are Byzantine and depict the emperor Justinian. The most recent coin dates to 541 A.D. It’s rare to find loose gold coins from this period in the northern Netherlands; a coin hoard is unique. The last time gold treasure was unearthed in Drenthe was 1955.

The gold solidi each weigh more than four grams for a total of more than 200 grams, making the find the greatest amount of 6th century currency by weight ever found in the Netherlands. One coin is the only example of its kind discovered on Dutch soil. It’s a Frankish coin minted by the Merovingian King Theudebert (534-548), the first king to issue characteristic Merovingian coinage bearing his own image rather than the Byzantine emperor’s.

To prevent treasure hunters flocking to the site, no information is being divulged about the exact find area. We thus don’t know much about the context, but whoever buried the coins is likely to have been a high ranking personage in the local ruling elite.

That there was such a huge amount of money in circulation, according to an archaeologist involved means that Drenthe was an important political factor. [...]

The money may have been a diplomatic payment, probably a pay-off to keep the Drenthe people away from the boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom. That kingdom then was from the South of France to the major rivers in the [central] Netherlands.

Gold coin of King Theudebert I from Drenthe hoardVery little is known about the Netherlands of the 6th century and few archaeological remains from the period have been unearthed, so this find would be nationally significant even if it weren’t a flashy stash of gold solidi.

The discovery was made this spring, and the finders reported it promptly to the province’s government archaeologists. The find was announced to the public on Friday. The treasure was acquired by the Drenthe Museum which put the coins on public display starting Saturday. The hoard now takes its place as one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. Museum director Annabelle Birnie, as quoted in the Drenthe province’s press release:

“We are very pleased with our newest addition. It’s a great addition, and of great importance to our archaeological collection. In addition to the gold treasure of Tomahawk from the 5th century and the coin treasure Nietap from the 7th century, we now have a masterpiece in the 6th century, a period about which relatively little is known. This acquisition, combined with further research can give us new insights into this period of the Early Middle Ages.”

 

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Volunteer finds first gold coin at Vindolanda

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, is a huge motherlode of archaeological discoveries, with its nine rebuilds, related civilian communities and near continuous use from 85 A.D. until the 9th century. Most famously, the anoxic waterlogged ground has preserved an unprecedented collection of correspondence written in ink on thin postcard-sized pieces of wood in a cursive Latin. More than 700 have been recovered and transcribed (see the full collection including high resolution pictures on the Vindolanda Tablets Online database). The Vindolanda tablets are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and a remarkable primary source of information about life at the northern border Roman Britain before and after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

The site has been excavated regularly since 1970. The first tablets were found in 1973 and every year new discoveries are made. The Vindolanda fort has produced the greatest collection of Roman footwear anywhere in the Roman Empire, delicate textiles, altars, brooches, rings, gaming pieces, extensive structures including two bathhouses, one before Hadrian, one after, temples, a granary, officer’s houses and soldier barracks. Thousands of coins have been unearthed by professional archaeologists and by the more than 6,400 volunteers who have dug alongside them since 1970. None of them, however, have been gold.

Until now. On June 3rd, 2014, the first gold coin at Vindolanda was found by a French volunteer.

Volunteer Marcel Albert, from Nantes, France, who has been taking part at the Vindolanda dig since 2008, described his discovery simply as “magnifique,” and with the knowledge that although 1000’s of coins had already been discovered at Vindolanda but none of them were gold he said “I thought it can’t be true, it was just sitting there as I scrapped back the soil, shining, as if someone had just dropped it.”

The well worn coin was soon confirmed by the archaeologists as an aureus (gold coin) which although found in the late 4th century level at Vindolanda bears the image of the Emperor Nero which dates the coin to AD 64-65. This precious currency, equating to over half a years’ salary for a serving soldier, had been in circulation for more than 300 years before being lost on this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.

The coin features the laureate head of Nero in right profile with the inscription “NERO CAESAR” on the obverse. On the reverse is an image of Nero standing radiate, holding a branch and a globe on which stands a small figure of Victory. It bears the legend “AVGVSTVS GERMANICVS.” Nero had these aurei issued in the wake of his monetary reform of 64 A.D. To make a dollar out of fifteen cents, Nero reduced the weight of the gold in the coins so he could mint more with less. Silver coins fared worse, being not just shortweighted but also less pure. Bronze, copper and brass coins he cranked out in vast quantities. Nero was the first emperor to debase the coinage, but he wouldn’t be the last.

You can tell from its condition that the aureus went through a great many hands in its long life as legal tender. It was unearthed at the fort itself, not in the village that grew next to it. Gold coins are very rare in Roman military sites. They were just far beyond the level of currency exchanged in military outposts. Chances are, this is the only aureus that will ever be found at Vindolanda.

The coin will be studied in greater detail, along with the panoply of other artifacts discovered during this season’s dig (April 7th – September 19th). Once it has been researched and documented, the aureus will likely go on display at the site’s Roman Army Museum.

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Gilded female figurine illuminates Viking garb

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Revninge Woman figurine, ca. 800 A.D.A metal detectorist scanning a field near Revninge in eastern Denmark discovered a rare gilded figurine of a woman. Experts from the Østfyns Museums confirmed that the figurine is of Viking manufacture and dates to around 800 A.D. She is a petite 4.6 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and made of solid silver under a top layer of gold. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun around a three-dimensional head. The body, on the other hand, is two dimensional. This is a very rare combination, as most figures from this period are flattened 2D in their entirety.

It’s the clothing and jewelry on the body that is of particular interest to archaeologists. She wears an ankle-length gown with long sleeves and elaborate decoration. Each part of the dress has a different pattern illustrating different textile-making approaches: nesting V-shapes at the neck, radiating lines or furrows on the torso, horizontal cuts on the sleeves, lines of raised squares on the left and right of the skirt, stamped circles in between them. Around her neck hangs a necklace made out of circles that could represent pearls or a gold chain. Two long strands that may be pearl ribbons fall down the skirt from a three-lobed jewel in the center of the waist.

Trefoil brooch carved with geometric shapes, late 8th/early 9th century A.D.Trefoil shaped brooches have been found before in Viking burials and settlements (see this example from a slightly later period unearthed in Zealand), but they’re usually placed on the chest. The figurine testifies to the fact that these artifacts were worn at the waist during life, or at least worn there on occasion. She holds her hands on her abdomen, thumbs out on either side of the trefoil.

Revninge Woman, side viewSilver valkyrie found in central Denmark in 2013There’s a hole between the ear and the bun which indicates the figurine was worn as a pendant. Her facial features and the piercing underneath her bun are strongly reminiscent of the gilded silver 3D valkyrie found in central Denmark last year. Both figurines date to the same period and feature prominent women, but unlike the valkyrie, Revninge Woman is not carrying any weapons or a shield. It’s possible she’s a representation of Freya, the fertility goddess. The position of her hands at her abdomen and the lobed brooch/buckle may be references to pregnancy or fertility.

Revninge Woman went on display at the Viking Museum of Ladby on May 28th. She will remain on display at least through the end of the summer.

 

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Half of Saddle Ridge Hoard coins sold in 72 hours

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Saddle Ridge Hoard coins for saleThe first round of coins from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, the 1,427 gold coins discovered in Northern California in February of 2013 by a couple walking their dog, has gone up for sale and is being snapped up by collectors. Since sales began on Tuesday, more than half of the coins have sold.

The festivities began at 7:30 PM on Tuesday at the Old Mint in San Francisco, the very same building where many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins were first struck. Sixty of them were put on display, including the most important and valuable single coin in the collection: an 1866 $20 Double Eagle that is missing the motto “In God We Trust” on the back. 1886 coin from Saddle Ridge HoardIt’s an extremely rare piece, as Congress had passed a law in March of 1865 authorizing the placement of the motto on all gold coins that “shall admit the inscription thereon.” The San Francisco mint apparently lacked the proper equipment to include the motto at that time. That little oversight makes the coin valued at $1.2 million.

An hour after the exhibition, one coin went up for auction at the Old Mint: an 1874 $20 Double Eagle. It sold for $15,000, with all the proceeds going to restore the National Historic Landmark and converting it into the San Francisco Museum at the Mint. The buyer was Ray Lent with Placer Partners, which is heavily involved in the cause. The mint museum will be the first museum dedicated to the history of the city, believe it or not. You’d think a place like San Francisco would be lousy with them. Here’s a video of the culmination of the auction and an interview with Ray Lent explaining why they secured the coin for the museum. There are some great shots of the space and the exhibition.

With the non-profit part done, commerce began. Coin dealer Kagin’s Inc. put up hundreds of coins for sale Tuesday night. By midnight, 225 coins offered for sale on the website were bought for a total of $2.4 million. Even more coins were listed on Amazon Tuesday night. Within an hour, 346 of them had sold for more than $1 million. At this rate, the initial estimate of the hoard’s value at $10 million will be surpassed by at least a million.

Two of the 14 finest offered for sale in one lot on AmazonOriginal can, part of the 14-coin lotThe 14 finest coins are being sold in a single lot along with the original can that was their home for near a century and a half. They’re available on Amazon for a cool $2,750,000 and yes, you can buy them with 1-Click. As of this writing, 572 coins from the hoard are for sale individually on Amazon, priced between $2,975 and $17,500. Kagin’s has 55 coins for sale on its website and numbers are diminishing rapidly.

Saddle Ridge Hoard coins, cans and lidsIt’s the condition of the coins and their Robert Louis Stevenson-like story that underpins their commercial success. The gold coins are nearly all in mint condition, with coins struck between 1847 and 1894 and barely circulated. They were buried in eight metal cans in the Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada mountain until their rediscovery by the property owners last year.

Eventually almost all of the coins will be sold. The owners, known only as John and Mary, will keep a few coins for sentimental reasons.

 

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Continental Currency coin sold for $1,410,000

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

When it was minted in 1776, the Continental Currency coin didn’t have a denomination. There were silver, brass and pewter versions and numismatists still aren’t sure how they were used because there is no value notation on the coins themselves and no historical records authorizing the coins have survived. There are about 60 of these coins extant, most of them pewter. Only four of the silver Continental Currency coins are known and one of them has just sold at auction for $1,410,000. An impressive result for a coin whose original value is unknown.

On February 10th, 1776, the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the first national currency, paper notes in denominations from 1/6th of a dollar to 80 dollars. The name came from the Spanish dollars, whose reliable silver weight and purity had made them a global currency since they were first minted in 1497, used to back the notes. The design of the Continentals, as the notes became known, was the work of Benjamin Franklin, a long-time advocate for paper money who as early as 1736 had printed paper currency for New Jersey. The obverse of the Continental fractional dollars has the Latin “FUGIO” (I fly) written over a sundial and the charmingly Old Richard-esque legend “MIND YOUR BUSINESS” written underneath it. (It’s not really sure what he meant by that legend, but it probably wasn’t “mind your own business” in the way we think of it today. It’s more likely to have been a literal meaning of business as in see to your money-making. It could have been a rebus with the sundial and FUGIO legend, meaning something like time flies so take care of your business.) The reverse has 13 linked rings, each labeled with the name of one of the colonies, surrounding a sun containing the legends “AMERICAN CONGRESS” and “WE ARE ONE.”

The borders and devices for the Continentals were the work of engraver and artist Elisha Gallaudet who had engraved New York State notes in 1771 and New York City notes, the first currency issued by an American city, in 1774. Elisha Gallaudet also engraved the dies of the Continental Currency coin that just sold. He left his mark — EG FECIT (EG made it) — on the silver coin making it one of very few coins from the colonial period to bear its maker’s signature. Experts believe that the Continental Congress intended the coins to replace the one dollar paper note.

The four resolutions from May 10, 1775 to May 9, 1776 provided for the issue of paper money in various denominations, including the one dollar bill. The six resolutions of July 22, 1776 through September 26, 1778 omitted the one dollar denomination. Thus, it is logical to conclude the pewter pieces were intended as a substitute for the paper dollars in those issues. The coins had minimal intrinsic value, and like the paper bills they replaced, were valued according to the public’s confidence in Congress, who guaranteed their value at one dollar each.

The mintage figures are unknown, but the pewter coins appear with enough frequency to suggest they were produced in substantial numbers. Many of the coins were undoubtedly melted during this period, because Benjamin Franklin observed that pewter was sorely needed for the canteens used by soldiers in the Continental Army. The most reasonable explanation for the brass examples is that they represent dies trials. The silver coins are of full weight and value, suggesting that a precious-metal coinage was contemplated, but the Continental Congress was chronically short of funds and had no reliable supply of silver, so this idea must have been abandoned quickly.

Instead they stuck with the paper notes which were cheap to produce but depreciated at an alarming rate. There were too many of them in circulation, and the British took advantage of their weakness to distribute huge amounts of counterfeit notes, devaluing them even further. Within three years of the first issue Continentals had dropped to 1/5th of their face value. A year later they had plummeted to 1/40th of their face value. A year after that they were no longer being used as currency at all. It wasn’t until the Constitution was ratified that Continentals finally scraped up a little bit of worth: 1% of face value to be exchanged for treasury bonds.

Franklin’s fabulous design got another bite at the currency apple in 1787 when it graced the first official penny of the United States of America, today known as the Fugio Cent after the Latin “I fly” legend.

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Artifacts found under London Bridge rail station

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

As part of an extensive redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the city’s oldest rail station (opened in 1836), archaeologists have had the unique opportunity to excavate underneath the station and its viaduct. The station has a vast footprint and since it was constructed long before archaeological surveys were invented, this is the first chance archaeologists have had to explore the site. Other excavations in the London Bridge area have revealed a great deal about the growth and development of the city from the Roman era on, but the station site was thought to have been either very marshy or fully underwater for much of its history that archaeologists weren’t sure what they’d find.

They found that although the area was certainly marshy and waterlogged it may have been, but it was still extensively developed. Excavations have gone as deep as 20 feet below street level in the massive arches of the station foundations. The earliest finds were traces of the Roman military occupation followed by evidence of the Boudican rebellion and the Roman civilian settlement. The remains of three previously unknown Roman structures were found: a bathhouse, a large waterfront building and what may have been a boat landing platform. Thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged ground along the Thames, rare organic elements have survived, like 17 timbers piles from trees felled between 59 and 83 A.D. which were part of the foundations of the large waterfront building. The landing platform consists of a timber baulk packed with rocks and wood.

Later discoveries include the remains of Saxon defenses and the floors and walls of large townhouses on Tooley Street which the historical record identifies as the abodes of important medieval clerics like the Prior of Lewes. (The remains of other such homes owned by non-London religious orders can be found today at Winchester and Lambeth Palace.) From the late Middle Ages on, the marshy land was extensively reclaimed for industrial and residential purposes. The remains of floors, walls and cellars testify to dense, closely-built buildings packed along a network of small streets.

Hundreds of artifacts were also found mirroring the changing phases of the London Bridge station area. A Penn Tile, made in Penn, Buckinghamshire, between 1330 and 1390, was used as flooring in an expensive building. These glazed patterned tiles became popular in London after the Black Death obliterated local tile producers. Also from the 14th century is a rare white clay flagon, probably made in Cheam, that archaeologists believe was used to serve ale in the townhouse of the Abbot of Waverley. Now it’s on display at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Stoney Street.

Starting in the 16th century in the wake of the introduction of tobacco from the New World there was a bustling business of clay pipe manufacturers in the neighborhood. These were mainly small backyard workshops. Archaeologists found the remains of a pope kiln that had been demolished centuries ago which proved fortuitous from an archaeological perspective because it allowed the excavators to find pieces of the superstructure. They also found many pipes, some whole, some discarded and broken after a failed firing. One pipe is marked with wording that identifies its maker. “JOINER STREET” is written on one side of the stem and “TOOLEY STREET BORO” on the other, indicating it was made by James Minto between 1809 and 1811. That means the clay pipe industry was still producing a couple of decades before the construction of the station.

In the fun category, archaeologists found a rare cribbage board made out of animal bone in the 17th or 18th century. The game was invented in the 17th century, so this piece could be a very early example. I love those concentric circles down the middle. They look just like the marks on much earlier dice, like this one from 13th or 14th century Ireland.

My favorite find is a set of three pewter tankards from the 18th century. They were discovered in a cess pit, possibly because the bends and twists around the lip made them hard to drink from, but they still look great. Two of them are inscribed with the names of the hostelries where they were once used to quaff lukewarm brews. One says “Mary Jackson, Kings head, Tooley Strt,” the other “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”. The best part: the The Old Kings Head is still open for business today, not on Tooley Street but very close by on Borough High Street.

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Unique early 5th c. hoard found in Limburg

Monday, May 5th, 2014

A unique hoard buried in the early 5th century in a field in modern-day Echt, in the Netherlands’ southern Limburg province, has been excavated by archaeologists from VU University Amsterdam. The first glimmers of it appeared in 1990, when a farmer working his field found two gold coins. He inadvertently dropped one of them and although he searched frantically, he couldn’t find it again. Twenty-four years later in early 2014, the farmer and his nephew returned to the find site armed with a metal detector. They discovered five more gold coins and alerted the authorities.

University archaeologists excavated the rest of the hoard, getting a rare opportunity to examine the full archaeological context of a late Roman gold treasure. In fact, this is the first hoard from this period of Netherlands history to be thoroughly documented by archaeologists. The hoard is composed of one gold ring, one silver ingot, nine fragments cut from at least three large silverware plates and 12 gold coins, the most recent of which date to the reign of Emperor Constantine III (407-411 A.D.). They are in mint condition, which suggests the hoard was buried soon after 411 since the coins never had the time to get worn by circulation.

The pieces of silver tableware are what is known as hacksilver, artifacts made of precious metals that were cut up to be used as currency. One edge fragment testifies to what high level tableware it came from. It has a beaded rim and is engraved with a gilded horse and rider. The rider holds aloft a spear and the horse appears to be rearing over a lion, so archaeologists believe it was part of a larger hunting scene. Extrapolating from the curve of the outer edge of the fragment, the dish it came from would have been around 28 inches in diameter and weighed nearly five pounds. This kind of tableware was often used as diplomatic gifts to client chieftains or local dignitaries with whom Rome wished to curry favor, see the Traprain Law Hoard from East Lothian, Scotland for a famous example.

This is the first treasure found in the Netherlands to have both gold coins and hacksilver. The latter testifies to the political and economic upheaval of the time when the hoard was buried. The reason Rome was sending out elaborately decorated, expensive tableware to the far reaches of the empire was to buy protection of the borders. A Germanic war leader would get paid in a gilded silver plate more than two feet wide, then he would cut it up for its silver value and either keep it or distribute among his soldiers just like they would any other currency.

The date of this hoard was a particularly dangerous time in the area. Many historians point to the year 406, the year of the Battle of Mainz, as the final nail in the coffin of Roman control of the Rhineland. Germanic tribes, among them the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, defeated the Franks and crossed the border of the Rhine into Gaul. Constantine III may not have been able to keep the migrating tribes out of Roman territory, but he did make some effort. Historian at the time record him distributing gold to Germanic chieftains so they would defend the Rhine border in absence of army regulars. A study of gold finds in the Netherlands support the contention, as there is a remarkable concentration of gold from the reign of Constantine III.

The owner of the Echt hoard may have been the recipient of one of these pay-offs. Constatine III was defeated in battle and executed by his successor, Constantius, in 411. In the subsequent crisis, the hoard owner may have felt the need to bury the shiny new coins and hacked up fancy silverware the former emperor had given him. He seems to have unloaded it on the gods instead.
 
Thanks to the in-context excavation, we know that the shallow pit in which the treasure was buried is the only place in the area where late Roman artifacts have been found. Other archaeological material has been found in neighboring fields, but not Roman pieces from the early 5th century. This indicates there was no settlement or human habitation of the area during that period. Instead, it seems the treasure was deliberately buried in this out-of-the way spot, a marshy, uninhabited lowland perfectly suited for a ritual burial. Had the hoard been buried with the intent of retrieval, it would have been found near a settlement some place where it could rediscovered with relative ease.

The hoard is now on display in the From Neanderthal to City Dwellers gallery of the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.

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Anglo-Saxon ring engraved with Christian and pagan symbols

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014


The Saffron Walden Museum in Essex has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon gold ring engraved with a combination of Christian and pagan symbols. The ring was discovered in 2011 by metal detectorist Tony Carter in Uttlesford, Essex, and was declared treasure. In order to buy the ring and four other gold and silver artifacts discovered in the area, the museum had to raised £60,000 and £7,500 in donations. Since the grants were matching funds, the donations were necessary for the whole plan to come together. The campaign was successful and now all five pieces are going on display in a new showcase starting April 5th.

The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.

On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.

The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.

Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.

They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.

The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.

All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.

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What is this hinged imperial white jade piece?

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.

The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.

The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.

Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.

That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.

The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.

The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.

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