Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Scythian gold vessels found with opium, cannabis residue

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Gold vessels found in a Scythian burial mound in the Caucasus Mountains near Strovopol, southwestern Russia, have traces of cannabis and opium inside them. The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2013 when kurgan Sengileevskoe-2 was being excavated in advance of power-line construction. Archaeologist Andrei Belinski didn’t expect to find anything of note — the kurgan had already been looted — but after a few weeks of digging, the team encountered a thick layer of clay. Underneath the clay was a rectangular chamber lined with flat stones that held a treasure trove of 2,400-year-old solid gold artifacts.

The trove consists of two gold bucket-shaped vessels turned upside down on top of three gold cups with holes in their bases, a heavy gold ring, two neck rings and a bracelet. Their total weight is 3.2 kilos (seven pounds). Seeing a black residue at the bottom of the vessels, Belinksi had forensic criminologists in Strovopol analyze the substance. It tested positive for opium and cannabis, providing archaeological evidence for a practice mentioned by ancient Greek historian of dubious accuracy Herodotus.

Herodotus gives an account in Book IV of his History of Scythians using hemp in a purification ritual after the funeral of a king.

After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. [...]

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

The elaborate decoration on one of the upside down gold vessels may also tie into one of Herodotus’ anecdotes. At the beginning of Book IV, he describes the Schythian warriors returning home after 28 years of war in Persia to find that their wives gave up on them years ago and had children with their slaves instead. The sons, knowing they would not be accepted by the cuckolded husbands, attempted to block their return. They were successful at first, winning battle after battle, but soon they were overcome by the mere symbols of their slave heritage.

“What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice — lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”

The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.

This conflict became known as the Bastard Wars. One of the vessels has a scene of an older bearded man slaying a young warrior, a possible reference to the Bastard Wars. Andrei Belinski thinks the imagery isn’t referring to a specific battle, but is more likely to be a metaphoric representation of chaos in the wake of a king’s death, an appropriate subject for royal grave goods. It would be more in keeping with the decoration of another vessel: a mythological scene of griffons tearing apart a horse and stag in what may be the Scythian underworld.

The high quality of the decoration on the solid gold pieces suggests they were made for royalty. The designs are exquisitely detailed.

To archaeologists, the information contained in the images on the gold is exciting. From the warriors’ shoes to their haircuts, the depictions are amazingly lifelike. “I’ve never seen such a detailed representation of the clothing and weaponry of the Scythians,” says Belinski. “It’s so detailed you can see how the clothing was sewn.”

The excavation of the kurgan was completed last fall, but archaeologists are hoping to return to excavate the network of trenches and earthen rings circling the mound which may indicate a ceremonial complex built around the central mound.


Staffordshire Hoard helmet band, pommel pieced together

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Anyone who has ever done a large jigsaw puzzle knows how essential it is to put like with like. When your puzzle is 4,000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and gem-festooned objects, sorting out which are part of the same artifact is essential. Thus one of the most important and complicated labours in the first phase of conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard was the grouping together of fragments according to their physical and stylistic characteristics. From the grouping exercise, researchers identified more than 1,500 fragments of silver gilt foil they believe were part of an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon helmet.

Only four other examples of Anglo-Saxon helmets have been found, including one unearthed in the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, so it’s imperative that the puzzle be pieced together. It’s a painstaking job, figuring out how 1,500 sheets and strips of foil, many of them no larger than 10mm (.4 inches) across, fit together. So far they’ve been able to piece together a zoomorphic frieze and many of the fragments making up the helmet band that runs around the circumference of the object. The helmet band designs are die-stamped warriors armed and kneeling.

Here’s a glimpse of the tiny pieces of a zoomorphic frieze from the helmet conservators are negotiating:

The Sutton Hoo helmet is silver. The Staffordshire Hoard is gilded. That suggests that whoever donned this elaborate and expensive helmet was of extremely high status, perhaps a king or prince.

Another object conservators have pieced back together from fragments is a pommel. There are more than 70 pommels in the Staffordshire Hoard, but this one is unique. Reassembled from 26 fragments, the gold, gold filigree, garnet, niello and inlaid glass pommel has a rounded piece on the shoulder called a “sword-ring.” Although only one of the pommel’s sword-rings has been found in the hoard, the construction indicates there were two originally, one on each side. This is the first pommel ever discovered to have two sword-rings, making it an entirely new type. It is also lavishly decorated in a combination of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish motifs. It may even have a combination of early Christian and traditional polytheistic decorative themes — the garnet and glass inlaid disk could be a stylized Christiana cross, while three serpents on the back of the pommel are pagan.

Chris Fern, project archaeologist, said “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

“The newly recognised pommel is truly exciting. It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest 7th century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”

The second stage of conservation and research has been funded to the tune of £400,000 by Historic England, but they need to raise another £120,000 to complete the project. This phase will entail the conservation and physical joining of the fragments that have been matched to each other, a comprehensive study of the exquisite cloisonné cellwork seen on so many pieces from the hoard (see the gold and garnet Bible bindings in the video below for an example), a microscopic analysis of materials that are as of yet unidentified, contextual research of the practice of hoarding and the creation of an online database of the complete hoard by 2017.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can make an online payment here. You can also download this donation form (pdf) to contribute by check.

If you’re in the Birmingham area today, hustle on over to the museum to meet the Staffordshire Hoard conservation team. You’ll get to ask them questions and you’ll even have the chance to clean a piece of the hoard and examine it under a microscope. The event is free and open between 11:00AM – 1:00PM and 2:00 – 4:00PM.


Huge silver ingot found on alleged Captain Kidd shipwreck

Friday, May 8th, 2015

A massive silver ingot weighing 110 pounds has been found in the Indian Ocean waters near the island Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar. It was discovered by explorer Barry Clifford on a shipwreck that he alleges is what’s left of Captain Kidd’s vessel the Adventure Galley. The silver bar is believed to be the largest ever found on a shipwreck.

The ingot has extensive markings on both sides which Clifford’s team thinks point to its originating in 17th century Bolivia. The History channel (they dropped “channel” from the official name but I just can’t bring myself to call it HISTORY the way they do), which has been filming Clifford’s exploration of the wreck for an upcoming multi-part series, has an image of the underside of the ingot with the marks labelled but not explained. I guess they’re saving the full explanation for the show. The ingot was recovered from the wreck and handed over to Madagascar’s President Hery Rajaonarimampianina in a public ceremony.

Clifford found this wreck 15 years ago and has been returning to it regularly ever since. The problem is there is no concrete evidence that it’s the Adventure Galley. They found an oarlock that’s the proper size for a galley like the Adventure and copious fragments of Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain that stylistically dates to the late 17th century and that’s it. They had hoped to find personal belongings sailors might have left behind that would help identify the wreck, but that came to nought.

Île Sainte-Marie became known as the Island of the Pirates because a number of pirates used it as a base due to its convenient location next to the lucrative shipping lanes of the East India trade, its many protected bays and inlets and its rich endowment of fruit. Captain Kidd is known to have harbored there in the Spring and Summer of 1698, but the ship could have belonged to any of the many pirates and privateers who hung out on Sainte-Marie around that time.

That hasn’t stopped Clifford from making claims that are, to put it generously, hyperbolic.

“Captain’s Kidd’s treasure is the stuff of legends. People have been looking for it for 300 years. To literally have it hit me on the head – I thought what the heck just happened to me. I really didn’t expect this,” Mr Clifford said.

“There’s more down there. I know the whole bottom of the cavity where I found the silver bar is filled with metal. It’s too murky down there to see what metal, but my metal detector tells me there is metal on all sides.”

This has generated many a breathless “Captain Kidd treasure found!” headlines, but it’s really a shameless equivocation because even if Clifford truly did find the remains of the Adventure Galley — an if even bigger than a 150-pound silver bar — the legendary treasure of Captain Kidd was not on it. The £100,000 treasure he claimed in his famous last letter to have hidden was in a secret location in the Caribbean, and indeed, what kind of pirate would leave any part of his vast treasure on a derelict vessel while he took his best ship across the world to the Caribbean Sea?

According to Kidd’s testimony at his trial and a statement from pirate Theophilus Turner, the Adventure Galley, which by then was taking on so much water as to render it barely seaworthy, was burned to the waterline and then sunk. Before it was destroyed, Kidd had anything of value, from the cannon to the very hinges, loaded onto the Quedagh Merchant, a 400-ton merchant vessel he had captured in January of 1698 and renamed the Adventure Prize. Kidd testified that the Adventure Prize was loaded with 10 tons of scrap iron and 14 or 15 spare anchors before leaving Madagascar for the Caribbean. A giant silver ingot is not likely to have been overlooked.

The archaeological record supports his testimony, as the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, discovered in 2007 in the Caribbean Sea near Catalina Island off the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, was found with 26 cannons, most of them stacked in the hold muzzle to cascabel as cargo rather than armed on deck. Three large anchor crowns were found underneath one of the cannon piles and there were magnetic anomalies detected underneath the anchors that are consistent with the tons of scrap iron Kidd mentioned.

Even Clifford himself noted in 2000 when he first found the wreck that the Adventure Galley was stripped to the bone before it was destroyed and that therefore he did not expect to find any treasure. Now that a magnificent ingot has “literally” hit him on head (in actual fact he literally picked it up from the seabed, as is clear from a screencap of the History channel footage), instead of concluding from this that the wreck is likely not the Adventure Galley, Clifford has chosen to embrace it as Kidd’s legendary treasure no matter how groundless a claim it is. The ingot is so awesome on its own it really doesn’t need this kind of sensationlism tarnishing its cool.


13th c. rune stick found in Odense dig

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

From the dig that brought you the barrels full of 14th century human excreta in the city center of Odense, Denmark, the latest find is a small wooden stick inscribed with runes in the early 13th century. Excavations were already complete (the last day was August 29th, 2014) when archaeologists picked out three small pieces of wood while processing the large number of finds. The three fragments fit together to form a stick 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long, 1.2 cm (.47 inches) wide and a few millimeters thick. Archaeologists saw there were lines on the front and back and recognized them as runes.

Lisbeth Imer, a rune expert from The National Museum of Denmark was called in to examine the stick. Preserved for 800 years in the anoxic, water-logged environment, the wood was soft with the texture of cold butter. After conservation — a long soak in water-soluble wax — the wood will firm up, but it might also obscure key details of the runes making them harder to interpret accurately. Imer therefore had to work with the soft piece as it was. There’s also a divot missing in the middle and at some point in its long life the stick was gouged by a root growing against the back.

She was nonetheless able to extract key words. The runes are in Latin (the runic alphabet can be used to write in any language, just like the alphabet I’m using right now). There’s the word salu, which can mean “good health” and the back is inscribed t = umi or t = ume famulum suum which together can be read as “Tomme his servant,” Tomme being the stick’s owner and the “his” referring to God. It seems, therefore, that this rune stick was an amulet meant to keep its bearer healthy. A broken hole at one end suggests it may have been worn on a string.

It’s the first runic inscription on a wooden stick found in Denmark in 50 years, but we know these sorts of objects were widespread in medieval Scandinavia despite their relatively poor survival rate because a stash of 670 rune sticks were discovered during excavations at the Bryggen commercial buildings in Bergen, Norway, after a 1955 fire. This rune stick was also found in a commercial milieu. It was unearthed in a layer containing the remains of trade stalls from the 1200s when the area is known to have had a fish market before it was moved just north to a site still known today as Fisketorvet or Fish Square.

The rune stick was displayed to the public on April 25th at Møntergården, Odense’s cultural history museum, as part of Research Day, but it won’t be exhibited again until conservation is completed.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Runes shmunes. What about the poop?! I’m delighted to report there is an update on the barrels of 700-year-old poop excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Square in 2013, and it may be the greatest update of all time.

First about the barrels themselves: dendrochronological analysis found that the trees used to make the barrels came from Kolobrzeg, Poland, and were felled from 1348 to 1352 and 1346 to 1358. They were used to transport salt from Poland to Denmark and once the contents were removed, the barrels were repurposed. The poop dates to the 1360s, so the turn-over was quite quick. The staves of used barrels loosen up leaving gaps between them, a bug if you’re trying to carry salt, but a feature if you’re using them as latrines. The loose staves allowed liquid to slowly seep out into the ground leaving the solid waste to compact in the barrel. Studies have shown that with proper seepage, a single barrel can remain usable for one person for 20 years.

The compacted poop was removed from the two barrels and is being kept in plastic bags in refrigerators at the Odense City Museums. Researchers take out a teaspoon at a time, run it through a sieve and look at the particulate matter under the microscope. Grains and seeds can be identified by their cellular structure to give us a comprehensive picture of people’s diets in medieval Odense. So far they have found the remains of a variety of lovely fruits — apples, figs, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries — and mustard seed which would have been used as a flavoring spice. They also found miller’s bran and corn cockle seeds from a weed that grows alongside edible grains. The seeds are actually poisonous, but because they are difficult to separate from the grain during harvest and processing, a few seeds make their way up the food chain and down the poop chute. Corn cockles are most commonly found in rye fields, so it was likely rye bread or porridge.

Regarding the moss discovered in the barrels, moss has been found in medieval latrines in England as well. Several species of moss make excellent toilet paper, it seems, and sphagnum moss, aka peat moss, not only provides a comfy wipe, but it has additional hygienic properties as well. There are two kinds of cells in the leaves. The larger of the two can hold water much like a sponge, so it acts as a wet wipe, washing the business area instead of just drying it. In the Middle Ages it was also believed to have antiseptic properties. Interestingly, peat moss is a common additive to modern composting toilets because it encourages the absorption of liquid, encourages aerobic action and helps block odor.

Speaking of odor, Odense City Museums invited Kouki Fujioka from Tokyo’s Jikei University to take a whiff of their medieval poop. He is a scent expert, you see, and has developed a system to detect, isolate and categorize scents. He took odor samples from the barrel excrement and will measure the proportions of acids and alcohols in them which will indicate the level of spoilage. He will also work to replicate the various hearty aromas of 700-year-old human excrement which may sound less than enjoyable, but the museum is excited about the possibilities of recreating the smells of the past. Imagine a museum exhibition in Smell-O-Vision. What an intensely immersive connection to history.

Human excrement isn’t the only scatological gold unearthed at this site. Archaeologists also found a perfectly formed dog crap from the 12th century, a very rare survival, which they are analyzing for pollen and seeds to discover what dogs ate in medieval Denmark.

Oh and they found some gold gold too — a 14th century cross pendant and a delicate 13th century ring with a cabochon garnet — if you’re the kind of weirdo who’s into that sort of thing.


Roman owl fibula found on Danish island

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Last summer, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark, unearthed a rare enameled brooch in the shape of an owl. The excavation of the Lavegaard settlement on the outskirts of the town of Nexø was carried out in advance of construction of a daycare center. The archaeological team from Bornholms Museum has found large quantities of pottery, the remains of workshop ovens, hearths, clay and daub construction, traces of iron smelting and ceramics firing and more than 1,300 postholes. The owl pin was found by metal detectorists working with the archaeologists a few meters from an ancient home in the Roman Iron Age layer. Its design and composition date it to the middle of the 1st century through the end of the 3rd century A.D.

The owl’s most prominent features are its huge round eyes with bright orange irises around a black pupil. Its body has a wing decoration filled with green enamel inset with five circles, each containing concentric rings of red, yellow and black. The bird’s tail feathers are marked with semi-circular indentations and its neck is encircled by a rope design. All the colors are made of enamel.

The artifact is a plate or disk fibula, a pin used to fasten garments made from a flat disk that could be shaped into a variety of designs, including zoomorphic ones. It was made of bronze and decorated with multi-colored enamel accents. The enamel in the piece was created by applying various colors of powdered glass onto the glass rods you see in millefiori designs (that’s how those concentric circles in the eyes and on the body were made) and then firing the brooch until the powder fused into enamel. The technique used to make the owl so colorful is known as pit enamel because the surface of the enamel becomes uneven upon subsequent firings done to harden the enamel.

Roman enamel came in a variety of colors — orange, red, azure, dark blue, green, yellow, white, black — but it rarely survives in brilliant condition. Many enameled fibulae found today have seen their colors fade or change into a yellowish brown. The owl’s colors are still diverse and bright because it was preserved by archaeological layers topped by a thick clay sealing layer. Also, the area was not ploughed anytime in the recent past which saved the little owl from being churned up and potentially damaged by heavy equipment.

While enameled fibulae do not appear to have been very popular north of the Germanic border — Scandinavia had excellent artisans of its own, particularly metalworkers, and the fashion was to leave metal jewelry as is rather than putting lots of color on it — more of them have been found on the island of Bornholm than anywhere else in Scandinavia, about a dozen of them so far. This is the only owl fibula known to have been found in Scandinavia. They’re rare anyway, and the few that have been found were unearthed in German frontier forts or closer to the heart of the empire in what are today Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.

Somebody must have loved this colorful owl, perhaps appreciating its rare design or symbolic significance, enough to take it home. Archaeologists believe it was likely to have been brought to Bornholm by a mercenary returning from a stint in the Roman army rather than openly traded.

Owls have a keen sense of night vision, enabling these highly skilled silent hunters to catch their prey unawares. This notion of owls as intelligent and wise animals is one that has endured throughout the ages as famous companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and later to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war.

In fact, Minerva was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier.

We do not know if the Germanic perception of the owl was the same as the Romans, but many of them would have been mercenaries in the Roman territories and developed a deep insight into the Roman mentality and culture. It is likely that they also adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery.

The brooch must have been something quite special at the time, both because of its unusual shape and bright colours. It must have given the wearer a great level of prestige.

In Danish the word for owl fibula is uglefiblen which is, I think we can all agree, extremely adorable. The uglefiblen is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark along with other treasures discovered in 2014.


Objects from royal yacht shipwreck back in Hawaii

Friday, April 10th, 2015

After years of conservation to preserve organic remains, artifacts from the wreck of the 19th century Hawaiian royal yacht the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i have returned to Hawaii. They will become part of the permanent collection of the Kaua’i Museum where they will go on display close to where they spent almost two centuries under the turquoise ocean.

The yacht started out its life in far less congenial waters. Captain George Crowninshield, scion of the prominent Boston Brahmin seafaring family, commissioned Salem’s greatest shipwright Retire Becket to build him the first ocean-going pleasure yacht in the country. Crowninshield was involved in every aspect of construction and he spared no expense. The ship cost $50,000 to build, plus another $50,000 was spent on the furniture and finishes like flamed mahogany and birds-eye maple paneling, custom furniture by Boston’s premier cabinetmaker Thomas Seymour, silk velvet upholstery with gold lace trim, ormulu chandeliers, bespoke sets of silver, porcelain, glass and linens. It even had indoor plumbing. Cleopatra’s Barge, an 83-foot brigantine, was launched on October 21st, 1816. Inclement winter prevented her from sailing right away and the vessel was instantly famous so when the ship was frozen at the dock after a short trial run in December, it was opened up to visitors. Thousands came to see it.

When the ice thawed in late March of 1817, George took Cleopatra’s Barge on a long, leisurely Mediterranean cruise. Everywhere he stopped, Crowninshield was greeted by thousands of admirers wanting to get a glimpse of his luxurious ship. One day in Barcelona the yacht had 8,000 visitors. He was also watched by less friendly people: the British and French navies, who put men-of-war on his tail because they had heard the widespread rumor that Captain George was secretly planning on rescuing Napoleon from St. Helena and bringing the ex-emperor home with him to America. Whether this was truly his cockamamie scheme or not, his actions could certainly be seen in a suspicious light. He got 300 letters of introduction to important people on the continent, stopped at Elba where he met Napoleon’s aides who gave him more letters of introduction to the Bonaparte family, visited with the family in Rome — Napoleon’s sister Paulina Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, gave Crowninshield a snuff-box, her sister Princess Murat, Queen of Naples, gave him a ring, Napoleon’s mother gave him a Sevres chocolate mug and her son’s boots — but ultimately went home without an exiled former emperor on board.

Crowninshield and Cleopatra’s Barge returned to Salem on October 3rd, 1817. George stayed on board making an extremely fancy houseboat out of his yacht. He got less than two months’ use of it, sadly, as he died of a heart attack on board on November 26th, 1817. He was 51 years old. His family stripped the elegant furnishings and used it as a trade vessel for a few years before selling it to another mercantile concern. In November of 1820, Cleopatra’s Barge was sold again, this time to King Kamehameha II (aka “Liholiho”) of Hawaii. The King paid 8,000 piculs (1,064,000 pounds) of sandalwood, an estimated value of $80,000, for the ship and thus Cleopatra’s Barge became the first and only royal yacht in any part of what would become the United States.

Kamehameha II loved his new toy. He outfitted it in additional finery and cannon for ceremonial shots and traveled the islands with it. The honeymoon period was short-lived, however, as by April 1822 it became clear that so much of the wood was rotting the ship would have to be dry-docked and extensively repaired. Fresh lumber had to be secured from the Pacific Northwest so it was more than a year before the yacht was seaworthy again. The king renamed her Ha’aheo o Hawai’i (Pride of Hawaii) and the rebuilt ship was relaunched on May 10th, 1823.

Again his enjoyment of the yacht would be short-lived. King Kamehameha II decided to go to London to meet King George IV. Instead of taking the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i, however, he was persuaded to book passage on the whaler L’Aigle because its crew, led by one Captain Valentine Starbuck (no word on his relation to the Battlestar Galactica pilot), was familiar with the route. The king, his wife Queen Kamāmalu and other Hawaiian notables, left for England in November of 1823. After a stop in Brazil, they arrived in Portsmouth on May 17th, 1824, and then hung around for a few weeks waiting for King George to fix a date for the audience. They were finally scheduled to meet on June 21st, but they had to postpone it when the Hawaiian royals were struck with measles. On July 8th, 1824, Queen Kamāmalu died. King Kamehameha II died six days later. Their bodies returned to Hawaii almost a year later, on May 6th, 1825.

His beloved royal yacht would precede King Kamehameha II to the grave. It ran aground on a reef in Hanalei Bay on the north coast of the island of Kauai. It’s unclear what the ship was doing in such a remote location. The Christian missionaries the king had often given rides to on his ship said it was persistent drunkenness of the crew that led to the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i‘s wreck. An attempt was made to rescue the vessel which was still above the waterline, but it failed, snapping the main mast, and when the news reached the islands that the king was dying, whatever parts of it could be salvaged were and then the ship was abandoned to the surf.

The surf did its job well and the wreck of the opulent royal yacht remained unexplored for more than 170 years. In 1994, Paul Forsythe Johnston, Curator of Maritime History at the Smithsonian Institutions’ National Museum of American History and formerly the curator of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem which has a long history with the yacht from her Cleopatra’s Barge days, applied for and was granted Hawaii’s first underwater archaeological permit to search for the Ha’aheo o Hawai’i. The next year, diver, historian and shipwreck hunter Richard Rogers volunteered his own vessel to help in the search. This video follows the team in the first few weeks of the search:

Hanalei Bay Shipwreck from John Yasunaga on Vimeo.

For four weeks each year between 1995 and 2001, the search party looked for the wreck. At first they only found debris, but a couple of seasons in they finally discovered the wreck under 10 feet of water and 10 feet of sand, documented it thoroughly and recovered some of its artifacts.

All told, more than 1,000 artifacts were retrieved.

“We found gold, silver, Hawaiian poi pounders, gemstones, a boat whistle, knives, forks, mica, things from all over the world, high- and low-end European stuff. Every bit of it is royal treasure,” Rogers said. [...] His favorite discovery was a trumpet shell.

“I found it under a bunch of sand and carried it onto the deck. This was in 1999. I blew it and it made the most beautiful sound going out over Hanalei Bay,” Rogers recalled. “I thought about how it hadn’t been blown in over 170 years.”

The principal value of the artifacts is historical, said Paul F. Johnston, Ph.D., Curator of Maritime History at the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution. They represent the only known objects from the short but intense reign of Kamehameha II, the man who abolished the Hawaiian kapu (taboo) socio-cultural system and allowed Christian missionaries into the kingdom.

“He only reigned from 1819 -1824, but Old Hawaii changed forever and irrevocably from the changes he put into place during that short period. He was an important member of our nation’s only authentic royalty,” Johnston said.

The Smithsonian has held the artifacts since their discovery for conservation and study, but they belong to the state of Hawaii. The museum has received four crates of objects recovered from the wreck and is expecting another two. Once everything is in place, curators will open the boxes and start unpacking their royal treasure for display.


Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a rare 14th century devotional panel dedicated to the death of rebel-turned-martyr Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The team was excavating the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge in advance of construction in 2000 when they found the rare piece in a medieval land reclamation dump. The waterlogged soil of the Thames riverbank is an outstanding preserver of artifacts, and this lead alloy panel with its delicate openwork has survived in excellent condition along with organic artifacts like timber revetments from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the remains of plants used for cloth dyeing and a medieval leather knife sheath.

The panel was originally a mass-produced object sold at a pilgrimage site dedicated to the earl. People bought them as devotional objects, often for use in small home shrines. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, would not at first glance seem to be the ideal subject for religious reverence. A holy man he was not. What he was was a powerful baron, the holder of no fewer than five major earldoms (Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester, Derby) that made him the second wealthiest man in England after the king, the paternal grandson King Henry III of England and a thorn in the side of the unpopular King Edward II, his cousin.

At first Thomas supported Edward, but the bloom was soon off the rose, in large part thanks to Edward’s lavishing of titles, monies and power on his low-born favorite Piers Gaveston. By 1311, three years after he’d carried Curtana, the sword of St. Edward the Confessor, at his cousin’s coronation, Thomas was the leader of the Ordainers, a group of barons, earls and bishops demanding, among other things, that Gaveston be exiled. When Gaveston returned less than two months after this his third exile and Edward gave him all his lands and titles back, the Ordainers went to war. He was captured, tried and beheaded. Lancaster was one of the judges and Gaveston was executed on his property.

From then on it was one fight after the other between the royal cousins. For a while Lancaster had the upper hand in a big way, becoming the de facto king after Edward’s army was defeated by the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but in 1318 he was ousted and the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, took over as power behind the throne and Edward’s favorite. Lancaster marshalled his private army, struck up a deal with Robert the Bruce and rebelled against the crown.

On March 16th, 1322, Lancaster and the King’s allies went head to head at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster lost. He was taken prisoner and tried for treason in a sham court (the judges included both Despensers and the King) in his own castle at Pontefract where he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was convicted, of course, and on March 23rd, he was executed by beheading (Edward had commuted the traditional sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering on account of Lancaster’s royal blood).

Within weeks after Lancaster’s execution, shrines dedicated to him began to crop up, at the site of his execution at Pontefract Castle, his tomb in Pontefract Priory and at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Rumors of miracles at the priory tomb and execution site abounded and soon Thomas was venerated as a popular saint. He was so popular Edward II put an armed guard around the priory to keep the crowds away. In response money was raised from all over England to build a chantry chapel on the site of his execution.

His saintliness rested not in his personal piety or holy behavior (there certainly wasn’t much of the latter), but in his rebellion against a despised king. This was a thing in Medieval England: make saints out of fallen political/military heroes. Simon de Montfort received similar devotions after his death in 1265. What better way for Edward III to distance himself from his father after Edward II’s murder than to side with the cult of St. Thomas of Lancaster? In 1327 petitioned Pope John XXII that Thomas be canonized as an official saint of the Church, but it never happened.

Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.
Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.
Response: Who never held the poor worthless.
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

For people who could not afford to have French illuminators make them their own personal prayer books, devotional panels provided a less expensive entre into the private veneration of St. Thomas. Although they were very popular in the 14th century, few of these panels have survived. The British Museum has two examples, one smaller and one larger, neither of them are in great condition. The figures on the smaller piece are crudely designed and while the larger panel has an elaborate Gothic cathedral-like structure and more people in it than the MOLA panel, they aren’t as finely crafted and the piece is fragmented. You can see in the picture that it’s being held together with wires.

The MOLA piece is five inches high and 3.5 inches wide and divided into four scenes that are to be read clockwise from the top left. In scene one, Thomas is captured. The caption in French reads “Here I am taken prisoner.” In scene two he is put on trial. The caption reads “I am judged.” In scene three he is convicted and conveyed by horse (the quality, or lack thereof, of this horse was a big issue in some of the chronicles) to the site of execution. The caption: “I am under threat.” In the last scene Thomas is beheaded by sword. The caption states simply: “la mort” (death). These shenanigans are presided over by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, perched atop the sun and moon, waiting to welcome Lancaster’s saintly soul to heaven.

This is the only Lancaster devotional panel known to have French labels explaining each scene. It’s also the only one known with surviving gilding which highlights the sun and moon.

Up until now the panel has only been known by Museum of London experts, but the riverbank excavation, including detailed information about the panel, has just been published (Roman and Medieval Revetments on the Thames Waterfront) so the museum is putting the panel on display for the first time. The exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Galleries will run from March 28th to September 28th of this year.


Celtic 3rd c. BC bronze anklet found in Poland

Friday, March 20th, 2015

On February 28th of this year, Peter Kotowicz, an archaeologist with the Historical Museum of Sanok, received a phone call from a history-loving friend named Tomasz Podolak who told him he had found something interesting, possibly treasure, in the village of Pakoszówka near Sanok in southeastern Poland. Podolak has discovered ancient bronze artifacts before that are now in the museum — he received an award by the Minister of Culture last year for the finds and his reporting of the objects while they were still in situ — so as soon as Kotowicz hung up he got in his car and started driving.

When he arrived at the find site, he saw several shallow wells in the earth, each containing some bronze fragments. One of them held a larger piece with only the tip showing above the soil. At first glance, Kotowicz was unable to identify the objects although he suspected they might be of Celtic origin. When he excavated the initial finds and an area of approximately 20 feet around them, he realized the fragments were all pieces of a single item of a jewelry: a bronze anklet in a characteristic Celtic design from the 3rd century B.C.

The largest piece formed about half the ring. The traces of two hinges are visible on the end pieces. The edges of the fragments suggest the jewel broke apart in antiquity rather than as a result of modern activity. As one piece was found more than 50 feet away from the central cluster, it’s possible the anklet had been deliberately destroyed and its fragments strewn about, perhaps for ritual purposes.

Known by German term hohlbuckelringe, meaning hollow bulge ring, these ornaments are among the most distinctive Celtic designs. You can follow the trail of Celtic expansion into eastern Europe in the 3rd century B.C. by following the hohlbuckelringe like breadcrumbs. They first appear in southern German and the territories of the Boii tribe in what is today Bohemia, Czech Republic, in the early 3rd century. As the Celtic tribes moved east, so did the hohlbuckelringe. Examples have been unearthed in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and southeast from there into Asia Minor.

While Celts were known to have settled in the Sanok area during the La Tène period (450 B.C. – 1 B.C.), very little of their material culture has been recovered from this part of Poland. Almost nothing was known of the Celtic presence in the San river valley until excavations in the 1990s found evidence of settlement like pottery sherds, fragments of a glass bracelet, a hearth, an iron sword and, the most prized Celtic artifact in the Historical Museum of Sanok, a gold coin discovered by happenstance in the village of Trepcza.

So while this newly discovered anklet is in pieces, incomplete and plain in decoration (more elaborate versions were made from precious metals and added swirls and bumps to the bulges), it’s a significant and unique find. No other examples of this archtypical form of Celtic female adornment have been unearthed in the region. Kotowicz believes that after the gold coin and the iron sword in the Regional Museum in Rzeszów, this ankle ring is the most exceptional Celtic artifact south of the Carpathians.

The location where the hohlbuckelringe was discovered has not previously been considered of archaeological import. Archaeologists plan to thoroughly scan the area with metal detectors. They’re also hoping to secure funding for more in depth research and additional excavations, but that will depend on the assessment of the regional conservation office.

The ankle ring is now being conserved at the museum in Sanok. It will go on display later this year in one of the underground exhibition halls of Sanok castle.


Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

A finger ring discovered in a grave in the Viking trading center of Birka on Björkö Island, Sweden, in the 19th century is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site. It was unearthed by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe during his two-decade-long (1872–1895) excavation of the Birka burial grounds in the grave of a woman dating to around 850 A.D. Although the skeleton was completely decomposed, the grave goods — two oval brooches, one with a needle case hanging in a chain, one with a pair of scissors underneath that were probably attached with a string, an equal-armed brooch, a row of glass, rock crystal and carnelian beads — and remains of clothing — a flax undergarment and a blue wool garment — identify the deceased as female.

The ring was found inside the wooden coffin where her chest would have been, next to the scissors under the right oval brooch. Either it too was connected to the brooch with a now-decayed string, or the woman’s hands may have been placed on her chest when she was placed in the coffin. It is made of silver and set with a translucent purple cabochon stone engraved with Arabic Kufic script. Rings of similar design have been found in Viking graves before, including three in graves at Birka, and in Eastern European graves of the period, but none of them have inscriptions.

The ring is part of the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm now, but it has never been scientifically analyzed. To answer some questions about its material and construction, the ring was recently subjected to non-invasive examination while a replica took its place on display. Researchers studied the ring under a standard optical stereomicroscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped for elemental analysis which would allow them to determine the metal content and identify the stone without having to take any destructive samples.

They found that the museum’s interpretation of the ring was wrong on several counts. The museum’s inventory catalogue describes its as a gilded silver signet ring set with an engraved violet amethyst. It’s not gilded silver. It is a high-grade silver alloy consisting of 94.5% silver and 5.5% copper. The stone is not an amethyst. It is not even a stone. It’s colored soda-lime glass, which isn’t to say it was cheap or a fake because glass was a prized luxury import in Viking Scandinavia. The inscription, engraved in an angular form of Arabic Kufic script that was in use from the 7th century through the 12th, reads, researchers believe, “il-la-lah”, or “For/to Allah.” Interpretation is challenging due to the stylized script, so it could be saying something else, but Allah is definitely a part of it, which means that it’s not a signet ring.

The ring shank was at some point in its history broken in three places and then glued back together. This couldn’t have been done before the burial because the glue is a polymer rather than an animal glue and the latter wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the ring together anyway. It’s more likely that it was either found broken or damaged in the excavation and then glued back together. There is no documentation of any such action being taken.

Researchers also found that the metal surface of the ring bears parallel striations that are likely file marks left by the original maker when he filed the ring to remove flash and mold lines left by the casting process. There are file marks on the prongs as well, which means the filing was done before the glass was added. These marks would normally be eroded away by usage. The fact that they’re still everywhere on the ring body indicates the ring was barely used before being buried. That suggests it didn’t gradually wend its way to Sweden trade by trade, but rather got from the maker to the deceased with no or very few other owners in between.

The glass, on the other hand, has the scratches and dents of moderate use. It may have been recycled from an older piece, or it may just be the victim of how far it juts out from the ring and of glass’ inherent softness compared to the silver of the ring body.

Nobody’s disappointed that the ring isn’t gilded and the stone isn’t a gemstone. The value of this ring is not in its materials, but in the historical significance of the inscription which connects it to the Islamic world. In fact, gilding would have obscured the file marks and those marks are key archaeological evidence of direct or at least very close interaction between Viking Scandinavia and the Caliphate. There are historical records documenting direct contact (The 13th Warrior, man! Just because it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.) and archaeological evidence of direct contact in Spain and Eastern Europe, but not in Scandinavia itself. That’s what makes this ring so important.


University at Buffalo rediscovers ancient coins after 80 years

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

The State University of New York at Buffalo has rediscovered a priceless collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins that spent 80 years unpublished and unrecognized in the library’s archive. The 55 coins were donated to the UB Libraries Special Collections by Buffalo lawyer and rare book collector Thomas B. Lockwood. Lockwood had donated the money to build the university library, now named the Lockwood Memorial Library in his honor, and donated his vast collection of rare books in 1935. The coins, acquired by Lockwood at the auction of a Danish collector’s estate in 1925, were included in the Lockwood’s collection of more than 3,000 rare books, medallions and more recent coins from America and England.

Even though they didn’t get any scholarly or curatorial attention, the coins were vaguely known to exist. In 2010, University at Buffalo assistant professor of classics Philip Kiernan heard a rumor from a UB alumnus that there was a collection of rare ancient coins in the library somewhere. In 2013, Kiernan, who studies ancient currency and whose previous job was at a German coin museum, hit the archives to look for the rumored numismatic treasures.

He found three wood-frame glass casings, one containing 12 gold Roman coins labeled the Aureii of the Twelve Caesars, an appropriately literary grouping for a collector of rare books with its reference to Suetonius, and two containing 40 silver Greek coins from as early as the 5th century B.C. In a small pouch he found another three ancient Greek gold coins.

“I saw these trays and thought, oh this is some kind of reproductive set from the early 20th century, some kind of copies,” Kiernan said Wednesday, displaying the find for reporters. “However, when we opened up the trays and pulled out the coins – nope, they’re perfectly good ancient coins.” [...]

“I was flabbergasted,” Kiernan said. “I couldn’t believe that an institution like UB had a collection of this quality in its special collections, as of yet unstudied, unpublished … coins that were issued by the most powerful and most important city-states of the Classical and Hellenistic worlds.”

He brought in numismatists to examine the coin collection and they confirmed its authenticity. The aureii, one each from the rule of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, were extremely valuable in antiquity, worth so much that they were barely circulated but instead were treated more like portable savings accounts so they experience far less wear and tear than smaller denominations. The silver coins circulated more widely throughout the Mediterranean world, but the ones in the Lockwood collection are almost all in excellent condition. Only a few of the silver coins will require conservation. The 80-plus-year-old casings need some sprucing up as well.

The Otho aureus is the most rare. Otho only ruled for three months, January to April, in 69 A.D., the infamously awful Year of the Four Emperors. His aureii are therefore particularly hard to find, and this example appears to have a mistake in its engraving: the goddess Securitas on the reverse holds a wreath and a cornucopia. On the usual version of this coin she holds a wreath and scepter.

UB Libraries will make the collection available for study to students and members of the community. UB graduate students will benefit in a big way because Kiernan is developing a graduate course that will study and research each coin’s history. The seminar’s findings will be the first scholarly literature published about this group of rare coins.





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