Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Emeralds from fabled Spanish wreck for sale

Friday, March 17th, 2017

In the wee hours of September 6th, 1622, the convoy of 28 ships in the Spanish Tierra Firme flota met the business end of a hurricane in the Florida straits. When the skies cleared and dawn broke, eight of the treasure ships were lost, smashed on the seabed, their glittering cargos strewn over 50 miles from the Marquesas Keys to what is now Dry Tortugas National Park.

Cannon from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. Photo by Paul Hermans.The Tierra Firme fleet, so named because it departed from the southern Spanish Main, or Tierra Firme province, on the Gulf of Mexico, was absolutely heaving with treasure that year. Hundreds of tons of gold, silver, copper, indigo, tobacco, emeralds, and pearls from Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela were transported to the coastal port cities of the Tierra Firme on mule trains. There was so much loot that inventorying it and loading it onto the ships delayed the expedition by six weeks, pushing the voyage into the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. It took two months to load the Nuestra Señora de Atocha alone, and it was more heavily armed than the other ships of the fleet because it was the rear guard of the convoy–so it could “only” carry 40 tons of gold and silver and 70 pounds of emeralds from the Muzo mines of Colombia.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was one of the eight ships that went down in the hurricane. It was torn apart on a reef, its hull breached and keel broken in two. It sank in minutes after that, taking almost the entire crew with it. Only five men survived, three sailors and two slaves, because they had the presence of mind to tie themselves to the mizzenmast.

The Spanish tried to salvage what they could from the lost treasure galleons. One of the ships, the Santa Margarita, ran aground near where the Atocha sank. Using bronze diving bells and slaves to man them — many of whom died performing this incredibly dangerous job, as we know from the insurance claims filed so the owners could be reimbursed for the sale value of their human chattel — crews were able to recover about half of the Santa Margarita’s cargo. They knew the wreck of the Atocha was in the area somewhere, but the Spanish were never able to find it.

Gold bar recovered from the Atocha, sold at auction in 2015. Photo courtesy Guernsey's.Almost four centuries would pass before someone did. Treasure hunter Mel Fisher searched for 16 years for the wreck and finally hit paydirt in July of 1985. Fisher and his team recovered vast quantities of coins, silver and gold ingots and emeralds, even though the bulk of the gold and emeralds are believed to have been stored in the ship’s sterncastle which has never been found. After a decade of legal skirmishes with the State of Florida, the courts awarded Fisher full rights to all of the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

Some of its riches are now on display in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Key West. A selection of its most exceptional emeralds will be going up for auction on April 25th at Guernsey’s auction house in New York City. The gemstones belong to Manuel Marcial de Gomar, who started out working in the Chivor emerald mines of Colombia in 1955 when he was 19, opened the first emerald specialty store in 1964 and became one of the world’s leading emerald specialists.

La Gloria, rough emerald from the Muzo mines of Colombia recovered from the wreck of Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Photo courtesy Guernseys.Fisher hired him to appraise all the emeralds from the Atocha, about seven pounds of them, recovered over the course of more than two decades. Appropriately, Marcial’s consulting fee was paid in emeralds. Emeralds from the Muzo mines are considered the best in the world for the richness of their blue-green color. Add the Atocha history and these stones become even more than the sum of their beautiful parts. Marcial selected some of the stones to be cut and set in jewelry of his design. Some he kept in their rough state.

It’s one of the rough emeralds from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha which is the star player in the upcoming Marcial de Gomar Collection auction. La Gloria is an 887 carat rough emerald, bigger than the one in the Smithsonian (857 carats) and the one in New York’s Museum of Natural History (632 carats). The pre-sale estimate is $3,000,000-$5,000,000.

The Nine Pillars of the Andes. Photo courtesy Guernsey's.Coming in close at its heels is a group of loose emeralds romantically dubbed the Nine Pillars of the Andes (pre-sale estimate $3,000,000-$4,000,000). From largest to smallest they weigh 26.72 carats, 15.54 carats, 11.65 carats, 9.82 carats, 7.77 carats, 6.68 carats, 6.45 carats, 4.56 carats, and 2.50 carats for a total of 91.69 carats.

Not to say there aren’t any bargains. For a mere $100,000-$125,000, you can score the Andina del Mar, a 2.51-carat round cut emerald Marcial cut from a 5.35 carat rough emerald. It’s the second largest known round faceted emerald recovered from the ocean. Or how about its pear shaped sister, the Lagrima de Atocha, a 1.61 carat emerald cut from a 4.41 carat rough gemstone, which is also estimated to sell for $100,000-$125,000.

Spanish eight escudo coin recovered from the Atocha. Photo courtesy Guernsey's.In addition to the emeralds, some coins recovered from the famous shipwreck are also part of the sale, like this Spanish eight escudo coin made of 22-karat gold. It’s a comparative bargain with a pre-sale estimate of $15,000-$20,000. This coin comes from the personal collection of Mel Fisher, as do several other gold coins going under the hammer at this auction, including a group recovered from the wreck of the 1715 Treasure Fleet.

 

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Viking woman buried in Denmark was Norwegian

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

9th century Scottish or Irish buckle found in 10th century Jutland grave, Photo by Ernst Stidsing.Last year, the grave of a wealthy 10th century woman was discovered in Enghøj on the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Archaeologists from the Museum East Jutland were excited to find a gilt bronze buckle of Irish or Scottish manufacture in the grave. The woman wore it to pin the ends of her petticoat together, but it wasn’t originally a brooch. Made in the 9th century, the 2.4-inch disk once adorned a Christian reliquary or other container of sacred objects before it was pillaged by Viking raiders. Less than a hundred years later, it was the highly prized treasure of a rich Norsewoman, so highly prized that it was buried with her.

This was an unexpected and significant discovery, because while precious objects from the British Isles have been found before in Viking graves, they are very rare and all but unheard of in Denmark. None of the experts who examined the buckle knew of anything like it in the Danish archaeological record. The Irish/Scottish origin and style of ornamentation make it a unique find in Denmark. The artifacts most comparable to the Enghøj buckle were found in Norway, like this Celtic brooch unearthed from a 9th-10th century barrow in Lilleberge, or this crozier fragment found in Romsdal. Swedish Vikings tended to go east for their raids, while the Norwegians roamed the North Atlantic islands, Scotland, Ireland and northern England, so it makes sense that the few surviving Celtic artifacts pillaged in those areas are concentrated in Norway.

Other similar disks made in the British Isles found in Norway. Photo by Ernst Stidsing.Museum East Jutland archaeologist Ernst Stidsing, who led the excavation at the site, hypothesized that the woman in the Enghøj burial might have some kind of link to Norway. Strontium isotope analysis on her teeth could pinpoint where she was born and spent her childhood.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen of the Museum Southeast Denmark was also intrigued by the prospect of the lady’s possible Norwegian origin.

“It’ll be exciting if we find some indication that she was raised, married, and settled over greater distances. We know that Danish kings married Slavic princesses from 900 AD,” he says.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that there was an exchange, but it’s worth gold to have it confirmed. And you might see some dynastic connections across the Nordic region,” says Ulriksen.

Well, the strontium isotope analysis results are in and the woman buried in Enghøj was indeed born and raised in Norway, southern Norway, to be precise.

She probably wasn’t a princess, but she was buried with expensive grave goods beyond the Celtic brooch. There were several bronze buckles, silver jewelry and a strand of glass and metal beads. She would certainly have been one of the richest people in town, perhaps the wife of a local chief or regional leader. As with the Slavic princesses mentioned by Ulriksen, marriage could well have been the reason for the woman’s move to Denmark. Her pillaged petticoat pin heirloom indicates she came from a wealthy family, the kind of family that might arrange a marriage with a distant Danish potentate.

 

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Medieval silver coin hoard found in Cheshire

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Beeston Medieval coin hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Liverpool.A medieval coin hoard was discovered January 28th, 2016, by metal detectorist Malcolm Shepherd in a field in the Beeston parish of Cheshire. He reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Finds Liaison Officer Carl Savage examined the find and estimated based on the dates and types of coins that the hoard was deposited around 1498-1504.

The hoard is composed of a select group of 26 coins: 9 silver groats of Edward IV, 14 silver groats of Henry VII, one Henry VII groat, 1495-98. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.Edward IV penny, one Edward II farthing and one double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Silver groats were made of .925 fine silver, meaning they had a silver content of 92.5%, the sterling standard. This was a comparatively large denomination at the time of deposition. The owner deliberately picked silver-rich groats for hoarding, eschewing the smaller denominations that were in wide circulation.

Edward IV groat, pierced from reverse to obverse to the right of the crown, 1480-83. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.One of the Edward IV groats, minted in 1480-83, held additional meaning to someone beyond its value as currency. It is perforated to the right of the crown at 2 o’clock on the coin face. That indicates the coin was worn as a pendant, as jewelry or maybe a good luck charm.

Farthing of Edward II (clipped), 1310-14, London mint. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.One penny and one farthing snuck in past the 24 higher denomination coins, and the Edward II farthing was worth collecting anyway because it was at least 190 years old when the hoard was buried. Those farthings turn up in hoards deposited as late as the early 1500s and are known to have remained in use in England until 1544 when all the silver coinage was taken out of circulation as part of King Henry VIII’s Great Debasement of the currency. Henry’s new debased coins were only 25% silver, meager indeed compared to the old groats.

Double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, 1468-74. Minted in the Burgundian Netherlands. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.One side-effect of the Great Debasement was that British coins were no longer accepted as currency in other countries because their precious metal content was so low. This had once been established policy, as evidenced by the double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the hoard. Edward IV and Charles the Bold signed a monetary alliance in 1469 which allowed English groats to circulate in the Burgundian Netherlands and Burgundian double patards (.878 silver content) to circulate in England. Double patards crop up fairly often in late Medieval English hoards, and three individual ones found in Cheshire are recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. They disappear from the English archaeological record after the 1530s, victims of the Great Debasement.

Beeston Hoard detail. Photo courtesy National Museums Liverpool.Last month, a coroner’s inquest determined that the Beeston Hoard qualified as treasure. Coins more than 300 years old with more than 10% precious metal content are classed as treasure, so assistant coroner Dr. Janet Napier’s decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. As usual, per the terms of the Treasure Act, the next step is to assess the value of the coins which will be a kind of finder’s fee split between the finder and the landowner, to be raised by whichever institution wishes to acquire the hoard.

 

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Blenheim Palace flowerpot is a Roman sarcophagus

Friday, March 10th, 2017

A 1,700-year-old Roman sarcophagus has been discovered on the grounds of Blenheim Palace where it was being used as a flowerpot. An antiques expert who was visiting the estate on other business spotted the beautifully carved bas-relief on a planter filled with soil and tulips and bolted to a lead cistern. He recognized the carving as a Dionysian scene likely of ancient Roman origin and remembered a previous sale of a garden planter that turned out to be a Roman sarcophagus, because it seems estate appraisers in England glean sarcophagi in the hedgerows

He brought it to the attention of palace staff who determined it was the front of a white marble sarcophagus carved around 300 A.D. The quality of the carving is extremely high. An inebriated Dionysus is supported by a satyr and surrounded by his drunken followers, including the demigod Hercules and Ariadne, who saved Theseus from the Labyrinth and Minotaur only to be abandoned by him after a night of revelry with Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Close to the edges of the scene are two large lion heads facing outward.

While there are no records in the Blenheim archives to pinpoint when the artifact entered the palace collection, experts believe it was acquired in the 19th century by George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough and great-great grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill. The duke was an avid collector of art and antiquities, much of which would eventually be sold to pay off his many, many creditors. Installed as a basin to collect water from a natural spring near the estate’s Great Lake, the sarcophagus managed to survive the great sell-off. In the early 20th century it was moved to a rock garden. That’s where it stayed for a century until its recent rescue from tulipmania.

It’s the Grand Tour that started all this in the 18th century. When the sons of wealthy families returned from their post-university voyages through France, Italy and the other history-rich countries of continental Europe, they were laden with art and antiquities they’d collected along the way. Sarcophagi were a popular choice, the larger and more elaborately carved the better. Their shapes made them convenient receptacles and using an ancient sarcophagus as a garden planter became fashionable in upper class households. By the second half of the 19th century, replicas of classical-style urns and sarcophagi were found in gardens all over Britain. To this day antique forms remain popular planters.

The Blenheim Palace planter is 6’6″ long, but the front panel with the relief is the only part remaining of the original Roman sarcophagus. The base, sides and back are missing, replaced with stone stand-ins that allowed the carved fragment to be seen in a facsimile of its original context. Just by itself, the fragment is six feet long, 2.5 feet high, six inches thick and weighs 550 pounds.

The palace called Nicholas Banfield of Cliveden Conservation to remove the ancient piece and transport it to their lab for cleaning and conservation. They cut the bolts connecting the planter to the cistern, liberating it from its prison. The marble surface was cleaned with nothing but water and soft wooden picks to chip away at the calcified crust left by more than a century of use as a water feature. The restoration took six months and now the sarcophagus fragment has gone on display inside the palace.

“We are delighted to have it back and the restoration work undertaken by Nicholas is very impressive. Now it is in a consistent indoor climate away from the natural elements we are hoping it will remain in good condition and survive for many more centuries to come,” said Kate Ballenger, House Manager at Blenheim Palace.

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47 ingots alleged to be fabled metal found on shipwreck

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

In 2014, an ancient Greek shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Gela, Sicily. The ship dates to the 6th century B.C. and was transporting cargo from Greece or Asia Minor to Gela when it sank, probably in storm, just 1,000 feet from the coast. Divers recovered 39 ingots of a brass-like alloy from the wreck unlike any other metal discovered on ancient shipwrecks.

Archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa, head of Sicily’s Superintendency of the Sea, suspected the ingots might be the mysterious ancient metal orichalcum, a material about which much has been said and almost nothing known. In the dialogue Critias, the 4th century B.C. philosopher Plato describes orichalcum as a material already legendary in his time. The metal features prominently in his description of the fabled wealth of the lost island of Atlantis.

For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold.

And because Atlantis had something of a Vegas thing going on, they didn’t refrain from showing off their riches.

The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.

In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.

Each of the ten kings in his own division and in his own city had the absolute control of the citizens, and, in most cases,
of the laws, punishing and slaying whomsoever he would. Now the order of precedence among them and their mutual relations were regulated by the commands of Poseidon which the law had handed down. These were inscribed by the first kings on a pillar of orichalcum, which was situated in the middle of the island, at the temple of Poseidon….

The composition of this metal has been subject to much debate. Most scholars lean towards it being a brass-like alloy of zinc and copper that the ancients created by mixing zinc ore, copper and charcoal in a crucible. That could create a metal that “flashed with red light.” There is no consensus on this, however, and other theories abound. The Gela ingots were subjected to X-ray fluorescence analysis and were found to be made of an alloy of 75-80% copper, 15-20% zinc and trace amounts of nickel, lead and iron. This fits neatly with the zinc-copper alloy theory of orichalcum.

It makes sense that a valuable cargo like this would be headed to Gela. Founded around 688 B.C. by Greek colonists, Gela (then known as Ghelas) became an important Greek colony almost immediately. Only a century later, around the time when the ship sank, Gela was the most important city in Sicily. It even had its own offshoot colony, Agrigento, home of the Temple of Concord and that awesome story about the archbishop, the prostitute conspiracy and the trial with the shocking twist ending. Its government and residents had access to the best artisans and could afford the most prized materials.

The shipwreck is still being excavated. Earlier this month, divers discovered 47 more ingots of the alleged orichalcum, bring the total haul to a mind-boggling 86. They also recovered an amphora, a bottle from Massalia (modern-day Marseille), the first Greek colony in what is today France, and a pair of Corinthian helmets in outstanding condition. It’s not clear whether all of these artifacts were cargo on the same ship — there are two other known archaic shipwrecks in the area — but they were found in close proximity in a topographically homogeneous area, so Tusa believes they were indeed shipmates.

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Torc hoard is earliest Iron Age gold found in Britain

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

It’s the first gold hoard of the year! We’ve had Bronze Age weapons and Roman copper vessels packed with plants. Now we have a group of four ancient gold torcs discovered by metal detectorists in a cow pasture in Leekfrith on the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The torcs were found last December by Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania. Hambleton had scanned the field some two decades ago without success. They were about to give up when Joe Kania’s machine signalled the presence of metal. All they’d found up to that point was trash and a 19th century coin or two, so Hambleton had already packed up his metal detector when Kania pulled a gold torc out of the ground. Then another. And another. And another. Three of them are necklaces, one a bracelet. Three are complete and intact, the fourth broken, likely by agricultural interference. The torcs were about six inches beneath the surface about a meter (three feet) apart from each other.

Hambleton spent a fitful night failing to sleep with the hoard by his side. The next morning, the finders alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme to their discovery. Stoke-On-Trent City Council dispatched archaeologists to the field but they found no evidence of further treasure. Hambleton and Kania defied the odds again, though, returning to the spot last Sunday where they discovered the second half of the broken torc.

The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs were examined by Dr. Julia Farley, the British Museum’s Curator of British & European Iron Age Collections. She determined they were not of British origin, but likely from what is today Germany or France. Analysis of the gold content found that it was no less than 80% in every torc, making them more than 18 carat gold which is 75% pure. The torcs weigh between 31 grams for the smallest piece, the incomplete bracelet, and 230 grams for the largest. The one bracelet stirred particular excitement because it is decorated, etched with lines inside loops. This is some of the earliest Celtic art ever discovered in Britain. All of the workmanship on the torcs is extremely high quality. One of them even has an incredibly rare maker’s mark.

Dr. Farley:

“This unique find is of international importance. It dates to around 400–250 BC, and is probably the earliest Iron Age gold work ever discovered in Britain.

“The torcs were probably worn by wealthy and powerful women, perhaps people from the continent who had married into the local community. Piecing together how these objects came to be carefully buried in a Staffordshire field will give us an invaluable insight into life in Iron Age Britain.”

A coroner’s inquest was held in North Staffordshire on Tuesday. Coroner Ian Smith asked questions of experts about the hoard, its continental origin and how they pieces may have made their way to Leekfrith. After hearing testimony about the torcs’ age and precious metal content, the coroner ruled that the pieces are treasure trove. The next step is for the independent experts of the Treasure Valuation Committee to determine fair value of the torcs. Local museums will then be offered the first opportunity to raise the amount of the valuation. That money will be divided between the finders and the landowner.

Stoke-on-Trent, which is bidding to be a 2021 UK City of Culture, is mighty keen to secure the torc hoard. Another little hoard you might have heard of, the Staffordshire Hoard, spends half its time in Stoke and it has brought millions of tourists and their cash to the region. The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs will be on display in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent, one of two local museums that share custody of the exceptional Staffordshire Hoard, for three weeks before they go back to the British Museum for valuation.

See Joe Kania and Mark Hambleton tell the story of the discovery (notice the awesome traditional dry stone walls behind them as they goof around for the camera in beginning; I love a quality dry stone wall) and Staffordshire officials glow with happiness over their shiny new babies in this video:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/87o-w0xCj7s&w=430]

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Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign launched

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

A new campaign has been launched to keep the Galloway Viking Hoard for exhibition in the county where it was found. Buried in the 10th century, the hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in September of 2014. Archaeologists excavated the hoard and found more than 100 silver and gold pieces, from ingots to jewelry to fragments of Byzantine silk to an extremely rare Carolingian pot stuffed with more treasure. The Galloway Viking Hoard is the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891.

Since then, the Carolingian pot CT has been scanned and painstakingly excavated in the laboratory and the other objects cleaned and stabilized, but there’s still much more to be learned from this unique assemblage of artifacts. Bordered by the Cumbria, with its high Norse population, to the south, and the Viking-dominated Irish Sea to the west, Galloway had a strong Viking presence from the 9th until the 11th century. The person who buried the hoard was almost certain Norse, burying his or her most precious valuables, many of them heirlooms, handed down spoils from long-ago raids on Anglo-Saxon, Irish French and/or German communities. No other Viking hoard has been found with such a wide variety of objects — gold, silver, glass, enamel, textiles — from such a wide geographic area. The rare survival of textiles, the precision wrapping of each object and careful burial in order of priority makes this hoard a particularly rich source of information about Viking Galloway beyond just the value and significance of the precious objects.

The news of the hoard made headlines all over the world and electrified its home county of Dumfries and Galloway. A pre-existing plan to convert the Kirkcudbright Town Hall into a major art gallery gained whole new steam with the prospect of the Galloway Viking Hoard as the centerpiece of the collection. The budget for the conversion was cranked way up and hefty contributions secured from the Heritage Lottery fund, the Kirkcudbright Common Good Fund and the council itself. The new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery would be a secure, state-of-the-art setting for the display of the hoard near where it was discovered.

But the course of true hoard love never did run smooth, and some David-and-Goliath museum drama has churned in the background of this campaign. The Kirkcudbright Art Gallery doesn’t actually exist yet, while National Museums Scotland (NMS) sure does. NMS wants the Galloway Hoard. The Dumfries and Galloway Council released a statement last month expressing their support for a joint bid with NMS that would give the county and the national museum joint custody of the hoard.

In order to find a way forward, our Council has conducted a detailed options appraisal. This appraisal highlighted 3 main options that our Council could take. We could apply for sole ownership of the Hoard, we could enter into a joint agreement with NMS, or we could withdraw our interest in homing the Hoard. This appraisal provided many positive and negative reasons why each option should be explored, but mainly highlighted that the Hoard needs to have some connection with Kirkcudbright and the region, and that applying for sole ownership would bring serious financial pressures with it. It was therefore decided by Members at the meeting on 24 January to pursue a joint agreement with NMS, but for adjustments to be made to the current proposal, to give Kirkcudbright Gallery and Dumfries and Galloway as a whole, a more flexible position in terms of a joint ownership of the Galloway Viking Hoard.

NMS totally ghosted them. Requests from the council that National Museums Scotland spell out the details of the partnership and clarify how much time the hoard would spend in Kirkcudbright went unanswered. With deadlines on the horizon and the ominous prospect of a deep-pocketed national museum bidding against the scrappy county underdog, the Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign has taken matters in hand.

[Campaign chair Cathy Agnew] said: “This is a time for Scotland to take the lead. The Galloway Viking Hoard is quite extraordinary and should have pride of place in a specially created exhibition space in the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery. Remarkable finds have so often been whisked away from the communities where they were discovered only to become a small feature in a large national museum. This is a very old-fashioned approach and in 2017 we should be making sure that regions fully benefit from their cultural riches.

“Having a collection of this kind in Dumfries and Galloway would act as a powerful magnet to bring in visitors from all over the country and overseas, benefiting the local economy by encouraging them to spend time here visiting historic sites.”

The Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP), the body of the Treasure Trove Unit tasked with advising the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer which museum a treasure should be allocated to and how much the ex gratia payment to the finder and landowner should be, is scheduled to meet on March 23rd to determine their recommendation for the Galloway Viking Hoard. The campaign is hoping to make some substantial noise before that meeting in the hopes of boosting Dumfries and Galloway’s bid. The website is still a work a progress — there isn’t even a donation button yet — but for now the campaign is asking for people to send letters to the Dumfries and Galloway Council and SAFAP. They also have an email sign-up if you’d like to receive updates on the campaign.

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The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra online

Sunday, February 12th, 2017


Palmyra, the crossroads of civilizations, prosperous center of trade between the Silk Road and Europe from the 3rd century B.C. under the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom through the 3rd century A.D. under the Roman Empire, is no stranger to wartime destruction. Emperor Aurelian razed the city in 273 when it rebelled against his rule. He pillaged its temples and used their treasures to decorate his temple to the sun god Sol in Rome. Enough survived to make Palmyra’s monumental ruins some of the most extensive and dramatic in the Greco-Roman world, and when European visitors started writing about the spectacular remains starting in 1696 with Abednego Seller’s The Antiquities of Palmyra, Palmyrene structures like the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the tower tombs and the Great Colonnade became icons of classical architecture and inspired Western artists, poets and architects.

One of those artists was Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827) who made highly detailed drawings of the ruins of Palmyra in 1785. Cassas spent a month in Palmyra, recording all of the ancient ruins he saw. As an architect, Cassas had a keen eye for sculptural features which gave his renderings a precision matched by none of his predecessors in the voyage pittoresque tradition of illustrated travel accounts. His drawings of Palmyra, detailed views of ornamental features, architectural elevations and reconstructions illustrated his own travel account, Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phenicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte, published beginning in 1799.

Following in Cassas footprints but using a new medium was Louis Vignes (1831-1896), a French career naval officer and a photographer. In 1863, Vignes was assigned to accompany Honoré Théodore d’Albert, duc de Luynes, on a scientific expedition to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Luynes was an avid amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, an expert in Damascus steel and a patron of the arts with a particular taste for commissioning works in the classical style. The year before the expedition, the duke had donated his vast collection of antiquities — coins, Greek vases, medallions, intaglio gemstones — to France’s Cabinet des Médailles, and as an immensely wealthy aristocrat with a passel of big titles, when Luynes demanded that the French government provide him with a naval officer for his voyage, he got what he wanted.

Vignes was a particularly good choice for a mission that would encounter numerous archaeological remains, because he had been trained by pioneering photographer Charles Nègre and could be of as much help to the duke on dry land as he was on the seas. Luynes’ primary objective was to do one of the first scientific explorations of the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea, the expedition traveled the Jordan River Valley, the mountains of Moab and the full length of the Wadi Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Over the 10 months of the expedition, they also visited Palmyra and Beirut where Vignes took pictures of the ancient ruins.

The scientific report of the expedition, Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain, wasn’t published until 1875, eight years after Luynes’ death. Vignes photos of the Dead Sea were included in the publication, but by then Vignes had long since cut to the chase. He hooked up with his old mentor Charles Nègre to develop and print the negatives Vignes had taken in Beirut and Palmyra. The albumen prints were given to the duc de Luynes before his death in 1867. The Vignes photographs are the earliest known pictures of the Greco-Roman remains in Palmyra.

They have taken on even more significance in the light of recent events. Palmyra’s ruins have been devastated in the Syrian Civil War, bombed and shelled by everyone, deliberately destroyed by IS ostensibly out of iconoclastic fervor, although their real motivation, I think, is to taunt the world into multiple impotent rage strokes; cultural heritage destruction as a brutal mass troll. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin were blown up, as were three of the best preserved tower tombs, the Arch of Triumph on the east end of the Great Colonnade and, if recent reports bear out, the tetrapylon and part of the Roman theater.

In 2015, with the monstrous savaging of Palmyra’s ancient monuments well underway, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of 47 of Vignes’ original photos taken in Palmyra and Beirut. That album was digitized — the pictures can be browsed here — as were 58 additional Vignes prints from the duc de Luynes’ personal collection.

Now the Getty Research Institute has enlisted its Vignes photographs, Cassas drawings and other important sources in an online exhibition dedicated to history of Palmyra.

The online exhibition draws heavily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections as well as art in museum and library collections all over the world. The exhibition explores the site’s early history, the far-reaching influence of Palmyra in Western art and culture, and the loss, now tremendous and irrevocable, of the ruins that for centuries stood as a monument to a great city and her people.

“The devastation unleashed in Syria today forces a renewed interpretation of the early prints and photographs of this extraordinary world heritage site.” said Getty Research Institute curator Frances Terpak. “They gain more significance as examples of cultural documents that
can encourage a deeper appreciation of humanity’s past achievements. Understanding Palmyra through these invaluable accounts preserves its memory and connects us with its grandeur and enduring legacy.”

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is the Getty Research Institute’s first online exhibition and it’s beautifully curated. I hope it’s the first of many to come.

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Ashmolean secures Alfred the Great hoard

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

The Ashmolean Museum has raised the £1.35 million ($1.7 million) needed to acquire the Watlington Hoard. Discovered on October 7th, 2015, by retired advertising executive and metal detector hobbyist James Mather in Watlington, Oxfordshire, the mixed hoard of Saxon coins and Viking jewelry and ingots is modest in size but grand in historical significance.

James Mather’s cautious, archaeology-focused approach to metal detecting played a large part in preserving the hoard’s integrity. He first found an oval silver bar that he recognized as a Viking ingot similar to ones he’d seen in museums. Digging a few inches under the surface he found a small group of silver pennies. He realized he had a hoard on his hands, but instead of digging it all up, he reburied what he’d already exposed and alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme. PAS archaeologist David Williams raised the hoard in a soil block so it could be excavated in laboratory conditions.

First the block was X-rayed to provide a roadmap of the artifacts within and where they were located in the thick clay soil. Conservator Pippa Pearce painstakingly excavated the contents of the hoard. The final count was almost 200 coins, some of them fragments, seven pieces of jewelry — three silver bangles, probably arm rings, and four broken silver — and 15 silver ingots. A tiny scrap of twisted gold is the first gold ever discovered in a Viking hoard in Britain.

But the wee bit of gold is overshadowed by the significance of the coins. The hoard contains 13 examples of an extremely rare coin type known as the ‘Two Emperors’ penny which show King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871–899) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874–ca.879) enthroned next to each other under a winged Victory or an angel. Only two examples of these pennies were known before the discovery of the hoard, and both of those were struck in the same year. The coins in the Watlington Hoard were struck in different mints over several years. This is huge news because it proves that Alfred and Ceolwulf II were allies who worked closely together, at least on issuing currency, for years.

It’s a revelation compared to the very little information that has come down to us about Ceolwulf. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history commissioned by Alfred the Great, dismisses the King of Mercia as “an unwise king’s thane,” who was placed on the throne of Mercia by the Vikings as a puppet. The evidence of the coins suggests Alfred erased their alliance from the history books.

In February of 2016, the Oxfordshire coroner declared the hoard Treasure after which the Treasure Valuation Committee assessed its value a £1.35 million. Since local museums are given first crack at purchasing archaeological treasures found in the area, the Ashmolean began a campaign to raise the money before the January 31st deadline. They went a long way towards achieving their goal last October when the received a grant of £1.05 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The Art Fund contributed another £150,000 and more than 700 private individuals contributed the rest. The museum reached its £1.35 million target just days before the deadline.

The Watlington Hoard will now go on display in the Ashmolean’s England Gallery along with another Alfred the Great treasure, the Alfred Jewel, a teardrop-shaped piece of rock crystal (likely recycled Roman jewelry) encasing an allegorical or saintly figure in multi-colored cloisonné enamel. On the side of the gold filigree frame is inscribed “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN,” meaning “Alfred ordered me to be made.” It’s one of the most popular, if not the most popular, exhibits in the museum, and it’s one of the only surviving objects directly associated with King Alfred. It will make an ideal companion for the hoard which has rewritten the history of Alfred’s reign.


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Last coins excavated from huge Jersey Celtic hoard

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Excavation of the enormous hoard of Celtic coins discovered by metal detectorists on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is finally complete. Comprised of almost 70,000 coins, multiple gold torcs, glass beads and organic materials including plant fibers, a leather bag and a bag woven with silver and gold thread, the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered, six times larger than the runner-up.

When Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard after 30 years of searching the same field because of a story they’d heard from the previous landowners daughter, they only dug down to the surface of the mass of coins before alerting Jersey Heritage so the professionals could take over the excavation. With such a great quantity of coins corroded together, archaeologists dug the entire hoard out of the ground in a single soil block measuring 4.5 x 2.6 feet and weighing three quarters of a ton.

The block was transported to the Jersey Museum where it was painstakingly excavated in the glass-walled laboratory in full public view. The museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer worked with a team of experts and volunteers to document, recover, identify and clean every single speck of archaeological material. For the first two years, they focused on removing and cleaning 2,000 loose coins on the surface of the block. In 2014 excavation of the coin mass began. The overwhelming majority of the coins were found to date to 30-50 B.C. and were made by the Coriosolite tribe of what is now Brittany.

Here’s a timelapse video showing the recovery of objects from the block during just one week, November 21-27, 2015.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/Iut2sebk4-k&w=430]

Before a coin was removed from the block it was laser scanned so its exact position was recorded, and then once it was removed it was laser scanned on its own. One small subblock of coins was not excavated. Instead, it was snugly plastic wrapped and removed whole so that future conservators armed with new technologies have a clean, original section to study.

The scanning and removal of all the rest of the hoard took a lot of time. Four years after the find and almost three years after the excavation of the soil block began, Neil Mahrer scanned and removed the last ten coins of 70,000. Because the Jersey Museum team is composed of wise and provident people with a care for our nerdly needs, they had it filmed.

Neil Mahrer, who has led the conservation project from the beginning, said: “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way.

“There is still plenty to do and I am sure the hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”

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