Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Celtic brooch found among Viking artifacts in storage

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Barry Ager, curator of the British Museum’s Early Medieval Scandinavian and continental Europe collection, has discovered a Celtic brooch dating from the 8th-9th century hidden among Viking burial artifacts found in the late 19th century and kept in the museum’s stores. The objects were excavated in Lilleberge, Norway, in 1886 by British archaeologist Alfred Heneage Cocks. The 9th-10th century burial was a long barrow 128 feet in length containing a 30 foot boat, grave goods and the skeletal remains of a high status woman. The artifacts included beaded necklaces, two oval brooches, a whalebone plaque decorated with horse heads that may have been a food serving tray, an iron grid, possibly used as a pot stand or as a boat fitting, a pottery spindle-whorl, plus iron rivets, nails and wood fragments from the boat.

Five years after the excavation, Cocks sold his collection of Lilleberge artifacts to the British Museum. Some of the objects were indeterminate, still encased in blocks of soil and organic matter from the excavation. They were kept in storage for more than a century and only recently been subject to further research. Their uncleaned condition has proven to be an archaeological boon since small organic fragments survived in the dirt and the kind of things that people paid no attention to back then are extremely valuable to researchers today.

Barry Ager was looking over the collection in anticipation of a visiting Norwegian expert researching the Lilleberge find when he noticed a piece of metal sticking out of a lump of organic material. He had the lump X-rayed to see what it might contain.

“It turned out, quite remarkably, to be this Celtic disc… It’s extremely exciting… It’s a very rare example of its sort within the collection… shows contact between the British Isles and Norway in the Viking period … objects seized as loot in this country and taken back.”

He believes that it was originally made in Ireland or Scotland, that it came from a shrine or a reliquary, and that the Vikings converted it into a brooch by attaching rivet holes and a pin.

The brooch couldn’t just be pulled out of the block because there are significant organic survivals — wood fragments, possibly from a box that held the brooch, and very rare Viking textiles from which three different patterns, including a herringbone, have already been identified — that needed to be preserved. Conservators painstakingly removed the brooch using scalpels to separate it from its context without damaging the fragile organics.

Once it was removed and cleaned, the brooch was found to be elaborately decorated and in excellent condition with its original gilded surface still shining. It’s six centimeters (2.3 inches) in diameter and engraved with a central roundel with three stylized dolphin-like heads looping around it.

“The …patterns, the quatrefoil of the central roundel and the form of the ‘dolphins’ heads have clear parallels in Celtic metalwork and manuscripts of the 8th to early 9th centuries, such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Mac Regol,” Ager said.

He described the craftsmanship as “very fine” and said that the Vikings valued “eye-catching” objects: “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye.”

The brooch will go on public display for the first time starting March 27th. It will join the exquisite beauties of Sutton Hoo in Room 41 of the British Museum when the gallery re-opens after refurbishment.


Large gold fibula and pendants found in Denmark

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Metal detectorist Morten Kris Nielsen was exploring a farmer’s field near Spentrup on the Danish peninsula of Jutland when he found a gold fibula, a brooch used to fasten a cloak. Without even cleaning it, Nielsen brought it directly to archaeologist Benita Clemmensen at the Museum of Jutland. He was sure there was more where that came from, so that same day he returned to the find site and unearthed a second piece of the fibula and two crescent-shaped gold pendants with stylized birds’ heads at each end of the crescents. Museum archaeologists then excavated the spot and found another eight gold pendants, four of them in bird patterns, and a gold ring.

The archaeologists found that this small but extremely rare and valuable hoard was deposited in a bog, probably as a religious sacrifice, in the early 6th century A.D. Because Nielsen was so conscientious in reporting his finds without so much as rinsing them off, museum experts were able to find traces of dissolved glass in some of the many intricate channels of the fibula. There are surviving red semi-precious stones thought to be garnets on the piece, and the remains of a yellowish-green mass which may be glass.

The total gold weight of the hoard is 35 grams which is relatively modest, but the quality of the pieces is thoroughly immodest. The fibula is eight centimeters (just over three inches) long and is made out of a gold sheet wrapped around a clay core. The surface is festooned in tiny gold circles. Even tinier beads of gold like strands of pearls follow the edge of every section of the piece. In the second fragment of the fibula — a circle with stones or glass between spokes — there’s a gold waffle pattern underneath the stone settings that is reminiscent of some of the garnet pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard (see this hilt fitting, for instance).

On the bottom section of the buckle is a bird, outlined in gold with the tail, head, body and beak formed by inset red stones. The eye of the bird is cut into the middle of the head’s stone. Archaeologists think the fibula’s bird and the bird heads on six of the pendants probably represent ravens, important figures in Norse mythology (Odin had a pair named Huginn and Muninn who brought him news of the world every day) that are common motifs on jewelry from this period and later.

According to National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen, only a few large gold fibulae of this type have been found in Denmark. They were made locally out of Roman gold with semi-precious stones imported from Scandinavia and Central Europe. This was high craftsmanship. The woman whose cloak this held together had to have been immensely wealthy and important, and the fact that she was able to sacrifice such riches suggests that she was wealthy beyond the mean of the Spentrup area which has never seen a treasure find like this before.

As for why she might have felt compelled to sacrifice such valuable pieces, it’s because the Norse gods preferred gold, not surprisingly, and when circumstances were grim, that was the kind of sacrifice you’d make. This period, the early sixth century, in the middle of the turbulent Migration Period, saw a great many gold votive deposits. On top of the political upheaval and mass movement of populations, the first half of the sixth century saw a climactic disruption that is recorded by historians from the Byzantine Empire to China to the Middle East to Europe. Probably as the result of a volcanic eruption, in 535-6 there was no summer and the sun’s rays were wan like during an eclipse. Famine, crop failure, freezing rivers followed, an unending winter that was a sure sign to the Norse that Ragnarok, the apocalyptic Twilight of the Gods, was nigh.

The Mosegård Church Hoard, as the gold has been dubbed because of its find site near the church, is on display at the Museum of East Jutland in Randers until December 19th, 2013, after which it will move to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen where it will be part of its Treasure Trove exhibition opening in January.


Swedish woman finds 2,000-year-old gold ring

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Camilla Lundin was walking through a field in the village of Gudhem in southern Sweden when she came across a pretty gold ring. It loops around itself once, so when she first found it she thought it was a spiral leg band for a chicken. Her husband didn’t think much of it either. It was her brother who identified it as an ancient artifact after she sent him a photograph of the ring.

“When he told me it was an ancient gold ring, it felt like a gift from the underworld,” Lundin told The Local. “It was my magnificent ring. I didn’t want to give it up.”

Because Swedish law requires that any potential archaeological artifact made out of gold, silver, or bronze must be reported to the state, Lundin reported the find to the Swedish National Heritage Board. The finder can keep anything more than a 100 years old, but the state gets first dibs on objects made out of precious metals. If the Board determines that it’s of sufficient historical significance to be of interest to them, the state pays the finder fair market value and keeps the artifact. Lundin didn’t want the money, though. She wanted to keep the ring.

The Board found the object was a 2,000-year-old gold ring from the Roman Iron Age. They wanted to explore the discovery site to see if there were any other pieces from the period in the field.

Lundin discovered the trinket in June 2011, but due to planting seasons the Board was unable to investigate the field until autumn. The research and paperwork took more than two years, but for Lundin it all paid off. After searching the farm for similar artefacts on two separate occasions, the state offered Lundin 11,000 kronor ($1,672) for the ring.

“I guess I knew right away it was special, but I had no idea just how valuable it was,” said Lundin, who confessed she still felt slightly disappointed to lose the ring. “I haven’t decided what to do with the money yet, but it will definitely be something special. Maybe I’ll travel somewhere.”

I love how she grudgingly took the money for it because the state compelled the sale but the treasure was worth so much more to her than its monetary value. In her place, I’d feel exactly the same way.


16th c. coins fall out of jug found on Lindisfarne

Friday, November 29th, 2013

In June of 2003, builder Richard Mason was renovating a home on Lindisfarne, the tidal island also known as the Holy Island because of the 7th century monastery founded by Saint Aidan that brought Christianity to the north of England, when he found a funny old jug while hand digging under a drain pipe. He looked inside, didn’t see anything and tossed it in the back of his van. He stored the jug in his father’s basement and thought nothing of it until Christmas of 2011 when he decided to clean all the mud and muck off of it and give it another look. During the cleaning process, Mason tipped the jar upside down and a little shower of gold and silver coins fell out.

When the holidays were over, Richard brought the jug and its contents to a local historian in his hometown of Rothbury, Northumberland, who referred the find as potential treasure to experts at the British Museum. They determined that the vessel is a Frechen stoneware Bartmann jug from the Rhineland area. It has a brown glaze characteristic of Frechen vessels and its design is of type fabricated between 1551 and 1700. Its contents were deemed treasure trove at a recent coroner’s inquest in Northumberland.

The jug holds 10 gold and seven silver coins ranging in date from the 1430s to the 1560s. They were minted in England, France, Italy, Saxony and the Burgundian Netherlands (Belgium today). Most of the coins are English, four of them from the time of the Great Debasement (1542–1551), when Henry VIII and Edward VI replaced a portion of the precious metals in minted coins with base metals like copper. Even so, the three debased gold coins are still more than 80% fine metal, which is an excellent figure for debased coinage. The rest of the silver and gold coins are over 90% fine.

One the coins stands out as a particular rarity. It’s a scudo from the central Italian city of Ancona and it’s so rare that the Italian coin experts Mason sought out only know of one other similar but not identical example. It bears the Medici crest and the name of Pope Clement VII, aka Giulio de’ Medici. Ancona was an oligarchic republic until 1532 when it became part of the Papal States and Clement died in 1534, so the coin must have been minted inside that two-year window.

The scudo is the most valuable coin in the group and because of its rarity, the most difficult to assess. A silver thaler minted in Annaberg, Saxony, in 1548, is another unusual find in England. The total value of the 17 coins in the 16th century would have been around £6, just over half the yearly pay of the average worker at the time (£10) and just under a seventh of what a gentleman would need to live on (£40).

The Treasure Valuation Committee is currently studying the coins to assess their fair market value. Once they’ve made their determination (the announcement is planned for December 5th), the Great North Museum at Hancock in Newcastle hopes to raise the money and acquire the hoard for permanent display. The finder and the landowner will split the proceeds and the finder will receive something even more precious albeit intangible: the hoard will be named after his family.

When it goes on show, The British Museum will refer to the collection as “The Mason Hoard”. “It’s something to tell the grandbairns about,” said Mr Mason.

“I’m honoured to have the family name attributed to such a find. My dad is in his 70s and he still works with me on the building sites six days a week.

“He volunteers with the local history society and having his name in The British Museum will mean a lot.

The house the Masons were renovating when Richard found the hoard was built in 1962, but underneath it lie the remains of a building from the 14th century. Based on the date of the more recent coin and their overall condition, experts believe the hoard was probably buried around 1562. In a freakish coincidence, another coin hoard from around the same time was buried in the exact same spot. It was 50 silver coins, the latest from 1562, found in a Bartmann jug, no less. It was unearthed by builder Alan Short in 1962 when they installed the drainpipe that Richard Mason dug under to find this hoard. The Great North Museum has the hoard Short found as well.

Not freakish enough a coincidence for you? Here’s another:

Although it was an exciting discovery at the time, it was even more interesting when Mr Mason found himself in the company of Mr Short by sheer coincidence 40 years later.

“We were both working on the same building job,” he said. “We were both sat eating our sandwiches, when we started to talk about the sorts of things we’d found while working on jobs.

“I said I’d dug up a pot filled with coins on a site at Holy Island that was now in a museum and he said he’d dug up a similar pot in almost the same place 40 years earlier. It’s unbelieveable how small a world it is.”


600 ancient seals found at cult temple of Jupiter

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Archaeologists from the University of Münster excavating the ancient sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus near the town of Dülük in southern Turkey have unearthed more than 600 stamp and cylinder seals dating from between the 7th and the 4th centuries B.C. Seals were used as votive offerings to the gods and as such have been found at many ancient sanctuaries, but the sheer numbers found here make the discovery unique.

“The amazingly large number proves how important seals and amulets were for the worshipping of the god to whom they were consecrated as votive offerings”, according to Classical scholar [and excavation leader Dr. Engelbert] Winter. Many pieces show scenes of adoration. “Thus, they provide a surprisingly vivid and detailed insight into the faith of the time.” The stamp seals and cylinder seals as well as scarabs, made of glass, stone and quartz ceramics, were mostly crafted in a high-quality manner.

The seals are carved with a wide variety of images. They range from simple geometric shapes to scenes of heroes battling animals or mythological creatures. One seal depicts men worshiping star-like symbols of divinity.

“Even those images that do not depict a deity express strong personal piety: with their seals, people consecrated an object to their god which was closely associated with their own identity”, said [Dr. Michael] Blömer. People wore the amulets found with the seals in everyday life. “Strung on chains, they were supposed to fend off bad luck”, explained the archaeologist.

The Roman name for Dülük was Doliche, hence the name “Dolichenus” for the Jupiter whose cult was centered around the temple on the hill known today as Dülük-Baba Tepesi. The cult of Jupiter Dolichenus was a mystery religion that was popular all over the Roman empire from the early second century A.D. until its precipitous fall in the mid-third century. Shrines to Jupiter Dolichenus, who is always depicted holding a thunderbolt in one hand and a double-headed axe in the other while riding a sacred bull, have been found in Rome, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Austria and even in the remote British fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Like Mithraism, another bull-centered Eastern mystery religion, the worship of Jupiter Dolichenus was popular in the Roman army, but it wasn’t restricted to military. Judging from handy lists of adherents that have been found inscribed in some of the 17 known temples, more than 60% of the devotees were civilians.

Interest in the religion waned rapidly with the end of the Severan dynasty. Emperors like Caracalla and Septimius Severus had supported the religion, so when the last Severan, Alexander Severus, was assassinated in 235 A.D., his successor Maximus Thrax did not look favorably upon it or its adherents. The temple at Doliche was destroyed twenty years later by Sassanid emperor Shapur I. Since the cult was strongly identified with the deity’s original temple, Jupiter’s failure to save his own home from destruction made him look impotent and lost him whatever adherents he had left.

The seals that have been found long predate the Roman era of Jupiter Dolichenus, however. Like all the Eastern religions that carved a niche out for themselves in Rome, this Jupiter was a syncretized version of a much older deity. He started off as the Hittite sky and storm god Tesub-Hadad and was only blended with the Greco-Roman sky and storm god after the Romans conquered the area in 64 B.C. Most of what we know of this cult is post-Roman, so such a large number of seals from when he was Tesub-Hadad rather than Jupiter are invaluable sources for researchers. So far, archaeologists have identified seals from the Neo-Babylonian, local Syrian, Levantine and Achaemenid periods.

“The large find provides new impetus for research to answer unsolved questions of cult practices, cult continuity and cult extension – above all, these are important for the understanding of the early history of the sanctuary in the 1st millennium B.C., which had been unknown until recently”, according to Prof. Winter.


Prince Henry’s hawking vervel found in Norfolk

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

A small silver ring and shield that once identified a bird of prey used for hunting by Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King James I, was discovered by metal detectorists Jason Jackson and Alan Daynes in the east Norfolk town of Cley-next-the-Sea last year. While historic hawking vervels, as these rings are called, are not uncommon in the area — the Castle Museum in Norwich has more vervels in its permanent collection than the British Museum — royal ones are rare. One belonging to King Henry VIII’s brother-in-law and standard bearer Charles Brandon, first duke of Suffolk, was found in December of last year but he was known to have hunted in the area many times. There are no records at all indicating Henry Frederick ever went to Norfolk at all so that makes this find even more exciting.

The vervel was declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest last year, after which experts at the BM assessed its market value at £6,000. Thanks to a £2,400 grant from the Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund and a £2,000 grant from the Art Fund, the Castle Museum was able to acquire the rare piece. It will go on display along with the other vervels in the museum’s collection next year (May 24th through September 14th) in The Wonder of Birds, an exhibition exploring avian topics like the birth of ornithology, birds in art, birds as symbols of status, birds in their natural environment and much more.

It’s a wee piece, with the ring just 10.5 millimeters in diameter and the shield 10 x 8 millimeters in size. It weighs 1.37 grams. Much like avian leg bands today, vervels had to be small and light so as not to be a burden on the creature in flight. They were attached to the jesses, thin leather straps tied to the bird’s legs as tethers to make the birds easier to handle on the arm, and again like modern avian leg bands, served to identify the bird should it be lost during the hunt or in training.

That’s how we know the ring belonged to one of Henry’s hawking birds: the prince’s name and symbol are on it. The outside of the band is engraved “Henrye Prince” and the shield is engraved with the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales: three ostrich plumes encircled by a coronet on top of a ribbon bearing the phrase “ICH DIEN,” a contraction of “I serve” in German. Henry was only Prince of Wales for two years, so we know the vervel was made between 1610 and 1612.

How it wound up where it was found is not so clear. Cley-next-the-Sea is a sleepy seaside village of 376 souls today, but in Henry’s day it was one of England’s busiest port cities thanks its location on the wide and deep estuary of the tidal River Glaven *. (Later in the 17th century, the estuary gradually began to silt over when local landowners attempted to reclaim marshy land by building embankments along the river. By the end of the next century, the River Glaven was no longer tidal and there was no more port.) Henry could have been in the area personally — just because no record of the Prince of Wales ever visiting Norfolk has survived doesn’t mean it didn’t happen — or one of his birds may have been there without him, either because it flew away never to return (entire breeding populations have been founded by escaped falconer’s birds) or because it was being trained for him by someone local.

Henry was an accomplished hawker and sportsman in general, despite his young age. His athleticism was one of his most praised features, along with his intelligence, reserve, judicious involvement in politics and public works and his moral rectitude (he made people who cussed in his presence put money in an alms box dedicated to the purpose, a 17th century swear jar). Falconry, the Sport of Kings as it’s still known today even though no kings do it anymore, was seen as a particularly proper pursuit for the heir to the throne as it was thought to teach leadership in battle.

Henry never got to put those leadership skills to the test on the throne. He died of typhoid fever in 1612 when he was just 18 years old. The country went into deep mourning for the prince. His father was unpopular and it was Henry who was seen as the unifying figure who could truly bring Scotland and England together. So many people wanted to pay their respects that Henry’s body lay in state for four weeks and his funeral procession was a mile long. After his death, his younger brother Charles, then 12 years old, became heir. He was not so roundly beloved. That would matter a great deal since he became King Charles I whose power struggles with Parliament became Civil War and whose head became separated from his neck on January 30th, 1649.



Broighter Gold returns to Limavady for brief visit

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

A hoard of Iron Age gold discovered in 1896 by farmers plowing a field in Broighter, near Limavady, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, is coming home for a quick 11-day visit. The famed gold pieces, minus what is arguably the most famous piece of them all, will be on display at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre from November 12th through 23rd. This is the first homecoming for the artifacts which were sold away almost as quickly as they were found.

The Broighter Hoard dates to the 1st century B.C. and consists of a miniature boat made out of sheet gold, a sheet gold bowl, two torcs made of twisted gold bars, two loop-in-loop gold chains with terminal boxes of sheet gold, and a large hollow torc made of hammered sheet gold highly decorated with incised and high relief swirls and arcs. The boat is obsessively detailed, complete with oars, benches, a rudder, yardarm and various tools. It’s 7.25 inches long and three inches wide and extremely delicate. Its fragile condition is what prevented it from traveling to Limavady.

The workmanship suggests different places of origin for the pieces — southern England for the bar torcs, Roman Europe for the chains, Irish remodeling of a possibly English or German design for the tubular torc — but analysis of the metal content revealed traces of platinum characteristic of all Irish gold from the La Tène culture (a late Iron Age culture widespread in Europe north, east and west of the Alps). No native British or Irish gold has those traces of platinum; the raw material and/or artifacts made their way to Ireland via trade routes, possibly originating from the Rhine or perhaps from Lydia, today western Turkey.

The boat and the tubular torc are the stars of the set, with the former having appeared on the Irish Millennium Pound minted in 2000 and both of them having appeared on their own stamps. These iconic emblems of Eire almost wound up in the British Museum. It took a lot of controversy and a court case to get them back on Irish soil, and even then they stayed down south in Dublin.

The saga begins in February of 1896 when two plowmen, Thomas Nicholl and James Morrow, working a double-plow arrangement where both men plow, one following the other to deepen the furrow which is relatively shallow on the first pass, turned up a muddy metal dish. Next to it in furrowed soil they found more metal pieces nested inside each other. They took the finds to the landowner, farmer Joseph L. Gibson, who had his maid wash them in the sink. She said in a later statement that “it is quite possible that some small objects may have been washed down the open drain, for it was not then known the finds were gold and no great care was taken in their cleaning.” :facepalm:

They didn’t look like much — the boat in particular had been damaged by the plow — but Gibson brought the hoard to a jeweler in Derry to see if they might be worth anything. The jeweler paid him £2 and then turned around sold them, doubtless for much more, to Cork antiquarian Robert Day. Robert Day had a Dublin goldsmith repair the pieces thus revealing the twisted lump to be a one of a kind boat model and sold the whole hoard to the British Museum for £600. These transactions were exposed to the public scrutiny in 1897 when British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, famous for his discovery of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, wrote a paper about the artifacts.

The Royal Irish Academy (RIA) responded with fury, insisting that these artifacts, bound by the ancient laws of treasure trove, belonged to the Crown, not to the British Museum and should be in Ireland. Treasure trove distinguishes between objects buried with the intent of later recovery and objects lost or discarded. It’s treasure and Crown property if whoever buried it meant to get it back; it’s not treasure and finders keepers if it was discarded. The British Museum claimed the hoard was deposited in Lough Foyle as a votive offering to the sea god Manannán Mac Lir and thus their purchase was legitimate.

The case went to court where it dragged on for years until in 1903 it reached the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Experts on both sides testified to whether the Broighter field was underwater when the hoard was deposited there. Thomas Nicholl hauled his cookies all the way to London to testify to his discovery of the objects. The judge couldn’t understand a word of his thick Derry accent, so they brought in an Oxford professor to translate for him. The fact they were found close together, some nested inside each other, was highly significant to the judge because it seemed impossible to him that someone could cast objects into the water and they could remain huddled together. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone that they might have been wrapped up together in a bag or a box which had decayed into nothingness over the millennia.

Finally Justice Farwell ruled, a little peevishly, truth be told, in favor of the Crown/Royal Irish Academy. He didn’t buy the votive story at all. From his ruling:

“The court has been occupied for some considerable time in listening to fanciful suggestions more suited to the poem of a Celtic bard tan to the prose of a legal reporter. The defense has asked the court to infer the existence of an anthropomorphic deity; the existence of an unknown sea; and the existence of mythical Irish chiefs or kings who would be likely to make a surmised votive offering to this mythical Irish Neptune.”

I doubt the court was being asked to infer the existence of Manannán Mac Lir; just the belief in his existence leading to votives of precious objects. Still, the Judge was clearly over it and the British Museum was forced to turn over the Broighter Gold to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin where it has remained ever since. Ironically, it is labeled now as a likely votive offering to the sea god. It seems that the RIA experts were wrong, and that the field actually was if not underwater at all times, a very soggy flood-prone marsh, in the first century B.C.

Anyway, after all this water under the bridge (so to speak) and all the drama of thrones and dominions, it’s nice to see the hoard get to visit home for a bit. It’s a pity it couldn’t have happened earlier. Thomas Nicholl died in 1964 at the age of 91 never having had the chance to see the treasure he co-discovered cleaned, restored and on display. His granddaughter Maureen says “it was one of Tom Nicholl’s great regrets in life that he never saw the Broighter Hoard displayed in the National Museum. Right up to his death in 1964 he was still keen to talk about that evening in February 1896, when he unearthed Ireland’s greatest collection of gold ornaments.”


Crosby Garret Helmet returns to Cumbria

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

The exceptional bronze cavalry helmet and face mask discovered by a metal detectorist in the Cumbrian hamlet of Crosby Garrett is finally on display at its home museum, the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, Cumbria.

You may recall the tragic tale of how a priceless, unique, internationally important ancient Roman helmet fell through a gaping loophole in the UK’s Treasure Act to be sold to an anonymous private collector. A summary for those of you who missed the story the first time around: the helmet was found in 67 pieces in May of 2010. The Treasure Act of 1996 requires finders of historical artifacts to report the discovery so that a coroner’s inquest can establish if the object is legally treasure. Treasure is defined here as all coins in a hoard that are 300 years old or older, two or more prehistoric objects made out of base metal, any non-coin object that is at least 300 years old and composed of at least 10% gold or silver, and gold and silver artifacts less than 300 years old with no known owners or heirs of owners. If the object qualifies as treasure, the finder must sell it to a local museum for fair market value as determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee, usually experts at the British Museum, and split the proceeds with the landowner. If not, it can be sold to whomever.

So, two silver coins from 1700 are treasure, even though there may be thousands of them in private and public hands, but a bronze Roman cavalry helmet, even though it’s one of a kind, painfully beautiful and invaluable to historians and archaeologists, is not. The Crosby Garret Helmet was declared non-treasure, and therefore the finder and landowner could do whatever they wanted. They wanted to make as much money as humanly possible, so the helmet went to Christie’s where its experts put the pieces back together, a highly controversial “restoration” since no archaeologists were allowed to examine the helmet in its original context and condition and the aim was to make it look great for sales purposes, not to conserve it according to rigorous archaeological standards. Very 18th century.

Christie’s set expectations low with its frankly absurd pre-sale estimate of £200,000 – £300,000 ($318,400 – $477,600). Everyone knew it was going to sell for far more than that. The Tullie House Museum raised an incredible £1.7 million from big ticket donors and thousands of Cumbrians anxious to keep this artifact where it was found, but after just four minutes of intense bidding, the helmet sold to an unknown party for £2,281,250 ($3,629,469). Despite multiple attempts to contact the helmet’s owner to arrange a private sale or even just a chance to take detailed measurements so a replica could be made for display, the Tullie House Museum had to take solace in the support of other museums which loaned them beautiful consolation prizes for the opening of the new Roman gallery in 2011.

The helmet’s still-anonymous owner seems to have loosened up since then. In fall of 2012, the Crosby Garret Roman Helmet went on public display for the first, and until now only, time at the Royal Academy of Art’s Bronze exhibition where it stood proudly amidst some of the greatest bronze pieces ever made, like the Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo. Now it’s finally Tullie House’s turn. It went on display yesterday, November 1st, and will remain at Tullie House until January 26th, 2014. After that, it moves to the British Museum where it will go on display starting February 3rd, 2014.

It will be in good company there. Only three cavalry helmets with face masks have been found in the UK: the Crosby Garret, the Newstead Helmet, found in Newstead, Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1905, and the Ribchester Helmet. The Ribchester Helmet was discovered in 1796 by the son of clogmaker Joseph Walton in Ribchester, Lancashire, along with a hoard of cavalry fittings and is now in the permanent collection of the British Museum. Also at the British Museum is the second century bronze cavalry parade mask of a woman’s face, perhaps representing an Amazon, found in tomb at Nola, near Naples. Her ring eyes are very reminiscent of Crosby Garret’s.

These unsettlingly beautiful visages were not deployed on the battlefield nor do they appear to have been military issue. They were owned by individual soldiers for use in cavalry sports events. The Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia wrote about the hippika gymnasia in chapter 34 of Ars Tactica, a report on military tactics he prepared for his friend and emperor Hadrian. I wasn’t able to find a translation of the original Greek online, but this book quotes the relevant passage:

The horsemen enter [the exercise ground] fully armed, and those of high rank or superior in horsemanship wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze to draw the attention of the spectators. Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the head and cheeks only but are made to fit all round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes … From the helmets hang yellow plumes, a matter of decor as much as of utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes. They carry oblong shields of a lighter type than those used in action, since both agility and smart turnout are the objects of the exercise and they improve the appearance of their shields by embellishment. Instead of breastplates the horsemen wear tight leather jerkins embroidered with scarlet, red or blue and other colours. On their legs they wear tight trousers, not loosely fitting like those of the Parthians and Armenians. The horses have frontlets carefully made to measure and have also side armour.

Someone needs to reenact a cavalry battle between masked Amazons and Phrygians because it sounds like an amazing spectacle.


San Gennaro treasure shown outside Naples for the first time

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Reliquary bust of San Gennaro commissioned by King Charles II of Anjou, 1304-5San Gennaro, the bishop of Naples who was martyred by Diocletian in 305 A.D. and is now the city’s most beloved patron saint, is richer than the Queen of England. People have been showering him with gifts since the 14th century, and thanks to the unstinting efforts of seven centuries of deeply devout custodians, his treasure remains intact despite Naples’ long, tortured history of foreign conquest and natural disasters. Now its 21,000 objects from gem-festooned necklaces to gold ostensories (containers that hold the consecrated Host) to silver and gold statues of exquisite artistry form a collection so valuable that it eclipses even the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.

The Necklace of San Gennaro, 1679-1879It all started, as so many things do, with an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It was 472 A.D. and the volcano that had destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum 400 years earlier had Naples in its sights this time. Thousands of terrified Neapolitans sought shelter in the catacombs under the hill of Capodimonte. These catacombs had held the remains of Saint Agrippinus, sixth bishop of Naples and its first patron saint, since his death at the end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th century and had become the locus of veneration for his cult. Some time between 413 and 431, Bishop John I moved the bodily remains of San Gennaro, aka Saint Januarius, into the Capodimonte catacombs, making it the center for the cult of that saint too. When Vesuvius struck in 472, the refugees huddled in the catacombs directed their desperate pleas for intercession to the more recently popular saint. The eruption stopped. From then on San Gennaro was the A#1 King of the Hill patron saint of Naples. (There are 52 in total, including good ol’ Agrippinus who is still on the books).

Ostensory of gilded silver and precious stones, 1808In the 9th century, Naples was besieged by Sico I, the Lombard ruler of the principality of Benevento. He failed to take the city, but he was able to make off with most of the relics of San Gennaro which he installed in the cathedral in the city of Benevento about 35 miles northeast of Naples. By the 11th century, the principality had been chipped away by Norman and northern Lombard invaders, ultimately leaving the city in the hands of the Papacy. With Benevento no longer safe, Norman King William I of Sicily had San Gennaro’s remains moved to the Abbey of Montevergine.

The Archangel Michele made out of silver, bronze, gilded bronze, and gilded brass by Gian Domenico Vinaccia, 1691There they were pretty much forgotten. The Abbey was already well established as a pilgrimage site because it owned the relics of Saint William of Vercelli; San Gennaro couldn’t compete. He was still huge in Naples, though. His head and two ampoules of his blood had managed to stay in Naples when Sico took everything else, and it was those ampoules of blood that would launch the saint into the stratosphere. King Charles II of Anjou, son of the first Charles who conquered Naples in 1266 establishing a line of Angevin rulers that would last almost 200 years, commissioned three French goldsmiths to make a bust/reliquary of San Gennaro that would hold his head and blood. It was completed in 1305, and for the first time San Gennaro’s relics were put on display for public veneration. Charles’ son Robert the Wise had a silver container made specifically to hold the blood ampoules.

San Gennaro blood miracleIt was that blood that would come to define the saint’s cult. August 17th, 1389 is the first recorded instance of that desiccated 1,000-year-old blood miraculously liquefying when it was held aloft during a procession asking the saint to help end a famine that was devastating the city. The Miracle of San Gennaro, as the liquefaction became known, became a regular ritual. To this day, three times a year the archbishop of Naples celebrates a mass during which the ampoules are displayed with their dried, powdery contents and then displayed again once the contents have turned to liquid. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes even days for the liquefaction to occur, but as far as I know, it has always happened, even, much to the city’s dismay, under the short-lived French Revolutionary republic of 1799, although that time the French commander had to threaten to kill the archbishop of Naples before the blood would turn.

Episcopal cross, 1878Charles II of Anjou’s gift of a sumptuous reliquary for San Gennaro’s relics started the trend. Popes, emperors, kings, aristocrats and common people all gave votive offerings to the saint. Offerings from emperors and popes are rarely modest, and San Gennaro started collecting an extraordinary amount of wealth. When the rest of his remains were rediscovered in the Abbey of Montevergine in the 15th century, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa and his brother Alessandro, archbishop of Naples, scions of one of Naples’ most powerful and oldest noble families, secured them for the city. The disparate body parts of San Gennaro were reunited in Naples in 1497. Cardinal Carafa had a crypt, the Cappella del Succorpo, built under the major altar of the Duomo of Naples to house the relics.

Saint Mary of Egypt, silver, gilded brass, 1699Disaster struck again in 1526, this time in the form of plague. Again San Gennaro’s relics were held aloft in a procession to beseech his intercession. The Neopolitans vowed to build the saint a new chapel for his relics and burgeoning hoard in gratitude for his help. Gennaro indicated his approval by liquefying his blood. It would take more than a century for Naples to make good on its promise. Construction on the Chapel of the Royal Treasure of San Gennaro began in 1608 and ended in 1646. The finished chapel was dedicated to the saint with a Latin inscription that says it all about the city’s relationship with its patron: “Divo Ianuario e fame bello peste ac Vesaevi igne miri ope sanguinis erepta Neapolis civi patr. vindici” or “To Saint (it’s actually “god” but usage goes with a slightly less pagan translation) Gennaro, to the citizen savior of the country, Naples saved from hunger, war, plague and the fires of Vesuvius, by virtue of his miraculous blood, consecrated.”

Necklace of gold, silver, pearls and gemstones, 1706In 1601, an organization was founded to conserve and protect the relics and treasure of San Gennaro. The Deputation of the Royal Chapel of the Treasure dedicated itself not just to maintaining the votive gifts received, but also to use the steady stream of donations to commission specific pieces in keeping with the religious significance of the collection. This is how the treasure developed into a collection to rival those of the crowned heads of Europe, because a select group of representatives from the five noble divisions and one commoner division of the city have been nurturing it non-stop for more than 400 years.

Mitre in gilded silver, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, garnets by Matteo Treglia, 1713Unlike the Crown Jewels, however, San Gennaro’s hoard is barely known outside of Naples. It was kept in locked safes in the chapel (some pieces are now kept in bank vaults), and only rarely were individual objects taken out for ceremonial use. The only time the treasure budged was during World War II, when, after the Duomo was hit by Allied bombs in 1943, the precious artifacts were sent to the Vatican for safekeeping. In the chaotic post-war years, the streets weren’t safe and the police were too short on men to arrange for the safe return of San Gennaro’s treasure.

Pyx with cross, gold, rubies, saphires, emeralds, diamonds, 1831Enter a classic Neopolitan character: diver, hustler and self-styled “King of Poggioreale” (after the neighborhood he lived in) Giuseppe Navarra. In 1947 Navarra, who was the proud owner of the first license to carry firearms issued in Naples after the Liberation, volunteered to go to Rome and bring the treasure back. Accompanied only by Prince Stefano Colonna di Paliano, vice president of the Deputation, and holding a permission slip signed by Cardinal Alessio Ascalesi, archbishop of Naples, Navarra picked up the saint’s valuables, packed them in his car and drove down to Naples. As with any epic flight of treasure, the voyage did not go smoothly. They were blocked by a sudden flooding of the Garigliano river and two thieves stopped them at the city gates. Navarra and Prince Stefano somehow managed to get past the swollen river and the thieves, finally delivering the treasure to Cardinal Ascalesi on January 26th, 1947.

Tobias and the Angel, silver, brass, gilded bronze, 1797So the treasure of San Gennaro was safe at home, hidden away as usual, which is where it remained for 56 years. After much debate on whether the treasure should be kept in seclusion because of its devotional nature, in 2003 the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro opened adjacent to the Duomo. The saint’s jewels could now be seen by the public, as long as the public was in Naples.

Ostensory, gilded silver and gems, by Gaspare De Angelis, 1837Now for the first time a selection of the San Gennaro beauties has gone on display in Rome. The Mostra San Gennaro showcases two of the greatest begemmed pieces: the Necklace of San Gennaro, a necklace first created by Michele Dato in 1679 to adorn the bust of San Gennaro and added to over the years with donations of jewelry from the likes of Charles II of Bourbon, Maria Amalia of Saxony, Maria Carolina of Austria, Victor Emmanuel II and Queen Marie Josè; and the Mitre, made by Matteo Treglia in 1714 out of gilded silver and festooned with 3326 diamonds, 164 rubies, 198 emeralds and 2 garnets. Some of those emeralds are Colombian, making San Gennaro’s mitre one of the greatest collections of ancient Latin American gemstones in the world.

Pyx, gold, coral, malachite by Giovanni Ascione, 1831Then there are the chalices, ostensories, crosses and silver and gold saints of jaw-dropping artistry. There’s a pyx made out of gold, red coral and malachite that was made in 1831, but the colors are so startlingly contemporary it could easily pass for a modern piece, or at least something from the Miami school of Art Deco.

The Treasure of San Gennaro will be on display at the Palazzo Sciarra in Rome until February 16th, 2014.

Saint Irene, silver, gilded brass, by Carlo Schisano, 1733 Second version of the mitre with ribbons by Matteo Treglia, 1713


US returns silver griffin rhyton to Iran

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:

It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.

The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.

This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.

“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.

He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.

Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.

The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.

Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.

Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.

We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.

In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.

The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.

Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.