Archive for the ‘Treasures’ Category

Roman owl fibula found on Danish island

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Objects from royal yacht shipwreck back in Hawaii

Friday, April 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanalei Bay Shipwreck from John Yasunaga on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celtic 3rd c. BC bronze anklet found in Poland

Friday, March 20th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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University at Buffalo rediscovers ancient coins after 80 years

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Princely tomb from 5th c. B.C. found in France

Friday, March 6th, 2015

Not content with digging up mass graves under Paris supermarkets, France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) announced Wednesday that archaeologists have unearthed a large princely tomb from the early 5th century B.C. in the Champagne region town of Lavau. Excavations on the site began in October 2014 in advance of construction of a new commercial center. The team found a tumulus 40 meters (130 feet) in diameter that had been used as a funerary complex for more than a thousand years. The earliest tombs are cremation burials and small mounds encircled by moats that date to the end of the Bronze Age (1,300-800 B.C.). Next are early Iron Age inhumations of an adult male warrior buried with an iron sword and an adult woman buried with solid bronze bracelets.

At the center of the tumulus archaeologists found a burial chamber 14 square meters in area containing adult human remains, a chariot and extremely wealthy grave goods. At an angle from the skeletal remains are a group of vessels, a bronze bucket, fine ceramic decorated with a fluted pattern and a knife still in its sheath. At the bottom of the chamber is a bronze cauldron one meter (three feet) in diameter. This is a metallurgic and artistic masterpiece, each of four circular door knocker-like handles decorated with the bearded, behorned, bull-eared and moustachioed visage of the Greek river-god Achelous. Eight lion heads adorn the rim of the cauldron.

Inside the cauldron are more treasures: a perforated silver spoon, likely used to strain wine into drinking cups, smaller bronze vessels, and most signficantly, an Attic black-figure oinochoe (wine jug) depicting the wine god Dionysus sitting beneath a vine across from a comely lass. It would be precious just as the rare Greek vase it is, but someone went above and beyond with this example, gilding the lip and foot of the jug and adding a gold filigree border in a kind of squiggle Meander design. The vase is of either Greek or Etruscan manufacture and its the northernmost discovered to date.

The Champagne-Ardenne region in northeastern France on the border with Belgium marked the westernmost reach of the Hallstatt culture, the Late Bronze Age, Early Iron Age predecessor of the La Tène culture. The presence of Greek artifacts in the wealthiest burials in Hallstat-period Gaul are evidence of a vigorous trade in luxury goods between Greece and its colonies and pre-Roman France. The end of the 6th century and beginning of the 5th saw the city-states of Attic Greece, Etruria and the Greek colonies develop new economic ties to western Europe. Greek traders sought slaves, metals, gemstones, amber and other valuables from the Celts whose elites then acquired artifacts of exceptional quality from Greece.

The city of Massalia, today’s Marseille, was founded as a Greek colony in 600 B.C. and became an important center for luxury imports from Greece like Attic black-figure pottery and massive bronze cauldrons. So valued were these objects that they were buried in monumental tumuli with their owners. The Vix krater is probably the most prominent Greek bronze object found in a Celtic grave from the late Hallstatt, early La Tène period. This massive volute krater is 5’4″ tall and weighs 450 pounds (see the picture to get a sense of its immense scale). It is the largest metal vessel known to survive from antiquity. The krater was discovered in the grave of a woman in Vix, northern Burgundy, about 40 miles south of Lavau, who was buried around 500 B.C.

Just like we have no idea who the Lady of Vix was, we are unlikely to ever put a name to the resident of the princely tumulus. He was a person of august rank and great fortune, that much is made undeniable by the rich contents of his grave and the fact that he was buried in the center of an already sacred funerary complex. His burial and the ones that predate him were only united into one monument in around 500 B.C. when ditches were dug deep around the perimeter to create a single large enclosure. The complex was still in use during the Gallo-Roman era when people were buried in the tumulus’ moat.


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Bronze Age hair ring, ingots found in Anglesey

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Four Bronze Age artifacts discovered in Wales by a metal detectorist were declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest on Wednesday. A gold and silver ring and three fragments of copper ingots were found on farmland in Cwm Cadnant, on the North Wales island of Anglesey, by Philip Cooper in May and June of 2013. Although archaeologists believe the artifacts were buried together as a single hoard, over the centuries they’d been scattered by movements of the earth and farming activities so Cooper found them several meters apart.

The find was reported to Ian Jones, curatorial officer at the Oriel Ynys Môn, an art and history museum in Anglesey, and Roland Flook, curatorial archaeologist at the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. The artifacts were then examined by archaeologists at the National Museum of Wales who determined that the ring is a piece of Bronze Age jewelry known as a hair ring and that the ingots were a shape know as cake form used as raw material in the making of tools and weapons, typically found buried in Late Bronze Age hoards. That puts the date of the hoard at 1000-800 B.C.

The hair ring is made of a bar of gold that was curved and then had silver strip wrapped around the surface horizontally to give it a handsome two-tone striped look. It’s a pennanular design — an incomplete ring — and the terminals are flat. One side of it is heavily worn from repeated use before it was buried. They are commonly found in England, Ireland and Wales, including Anglesey.

A more simple piece made of sheet gold rather than bar and without the silver stripes was discovered at Trearddur during an excavation in advance of construction conducted by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust in October of 2007. Although these adornments are thought to have been worn in the hair, they could also have been worn as earrings with the curved gold bar being inserted into a pierced lobe. The image to the right is the Trearddur hair ring at twice life size, so you can see how it could fit in an ear although it would certainly require a largish hole.

Adam Gwilt, principal curator for prehistory at National Museum Wales, said: “This gold hair-ring is finely made and was once worn by a man or woman of some standing within their community.

“It could have been made of gold from Wales or Ireland. The copper ingot fragments are an important association with the ring.

“It would be interesting to know whether they were transported and exchanged over a long distance by sea, or perhaps smelted from local ores mined at Parys Mountain or The Great Orme.”

They may be able to determine the ingots’ geological origin through isotope analysis and by comparing the concentration of trace elements to known sources of Bronze Age copper ore.

Now that they have officially been declared treasure, the artifacts will be assessed for market by experts and local museums given the chance to acquire them by paying the finder and landowner a finder’s fee in the amount assessed.

Thanks to a £349,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Museum Wales in conjunction with the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru) and The Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales (The FED) has established the Saving Treasures, Telling Stories program which will fund the acquisition of artifacts by museums in Wales. The program just began in January of this year and will run through December of 2019.

Oriel Ynys Môn will draw on this fund to secure the hair ring and ingots for its collection where they will join the hair ring found at Trearddur in 2007 that was donated to the museum by the landowner.

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3,500-year-old Bronze Age hoard found in Poland

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

A 3,500-year-old Bronze Age hoard containing the head of an ice axe, fragments of a spiral necklace and a bracelet with tapered ends, all made of bronze, was found last month in the village of Rzepedź in Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland. The hoard was discovered by Łukasz Solon from the nearby town of Sanok who was visiting the old wooden church of St. Nicholas with his girlfriend. They were walking towards the north side of the village when Łukasz noticed a metal object sticking out of the ground. Its green patina contrasted against the brown grass reminded him of artifacts he had seen in the Historical Museum of Sanok, so instead of indulging a perfectly natural curiosity and digging it up, Łukasz left the object alone and alerted the museum experts when he got home.

Archaeologist Peter Kotowicz from the Historical Museum of Sanok and Marcin Glinianowicz from the Carpathian Archaeology department of Sanok’s Folk Architecture Museum went to the site the next day and recovered the exposed object. They recognized it as an ancient bronze ice axe and immediately applied for an emergency permit to conduct an archaeological survey of the spot. The day after that, permit in hand, they excavated the find site.

First they explored the area with a metal detector and found fragments of bronze spirals and a strong signal indicating that there was more to found deeper underground. They dug a small trench about two feet square and carefully raked into the soil, recovering multiple pieces of bronze spirals until, about a foot under the surface, they encountered potsherds that were the edges of a clay vessel about 10 inches in diameter. Much larger sections of bronze spirals lay within the vessel’s perimeter. Underneath those archaeologists found another 15 bronze spiral fragments and a bracelet with tapered end broken in two pieces. When they got to the bottom they discovered the earthenware vessel had been deliberately placed upside-down on a circular sandstone plate.

According to Kotowicz, the discovered objects were probably made south of the Carpathians. “The treasure is probably related to the communication route, which ran from the nearby Łupków Pass through the Osława and San valleys” – noted the archaeologist.

Bronze monuments from Rzepedź have been preliminarily dated to approx. 1500 years before Christ. “We do not yet know who and why had hidden the treasure so carefully. Axe and jewellery are most likely related to the Piliny culture, then existing south of the Carpathians” – noted Kotowicz.

The Piliny culture is one of the Urnfield cultures, named after their practice of cremating their dead, placing the remains in urns that would then be buried in cemeteries that in some cases have been found to contain thousands of urn burials. Archaeologists have found pottery vessels of different shapes and sizes, bronze pins, bracelets, rings, weapons and more in those Piliny cemeteries and in settlements and hoards. The bronze work is particularly exceptional, the product of a well-developed metallurgic trade courtesy of the Carpathian mountains’ plentiful supply of ore. The area was an important center of metallurgy from the Early Bronze Age on, introducing innovations in the making of alloys and other metallurgic techniques.

The bronze spiral fragments in the Rzepedź hoard are typical of jewelry that has been found at Piliny sites. They used that spiral configuration in all kinds of designs: arm rings, leg rings, wrist guards, finger rings, pendants.

In order to ascertain whether the hoard was a one-off buried in a remote location far from the madding crowd or part of a larger settlement, the find site will have to be more extensively explored. A survey or the wider area has already begun, a first step to a broader program of research under the aegis of the regional conservation office.

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Restored Berthouville Treasure at the Getty

Monday, February 9th, 2015


For the first time since it was discovered in 1830, the entire Berthouville Treasure, a group of exceptional Roman silver objects, has left France and is on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibits the complete 93-piece treasure — which includes a statue of Mercury, elaborately decorated silver pitchers and cups, a repoussé silver jug, plain silver beakers, a spoon collection and a number broken handles, rims and fittings — along with a selection of luxurious jewels, like the eight gold, emerald, pearl and amethyst necklaces of the Treasure of Naix, all on loan from the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (the department of coins, medals and antiques) of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

On March 21st, 1830, farmer Prosper Taurin was working his field in Berthouville, near Bernay, Normandy, when his plowshare jammed against an ancient Roman tile. Once dislodged, the tile was found to be protecting a trove of 95 or so Roman silver and gold objects buried only eight inches beneath the soil. Weighing a total of 55 pounds, the stand-out pieces were two statuettes of the god Mercury and about 60 vessels.

Several of the vessels were incscribed with votive dedications to Mercury, including a group of nine ultra deluxe gilded silver vessels — a pair of wine pitchers with scenes from the Trojan War, a pair of drinking cups decorated with scenes of centaurs, a pair of drinking cups with masks, a silver and gold beaker with scenes from the story of Corinth and Isthmia, a large bowl with a central medallion of Omphale and Eros laying on Hercules’ Nemean lion skin and a ladle decorated with Mercury, a goat and a tree — made in the 1st century. These nine pieces all bear the inscription “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO,” or “To August Mercury from Quintus Domitius Tutus as vowed,” and are superlatively high quality silver and gold work from 1st century Italy.

Subsequent archaeological excavations of the site in 1861 and 1896 found two temples, a theater and hypocaust-heated rooms: a Gallo-Roman sanctuary built in at least two stages. One of the temples was dedicated to the important Romanized Gallic deity Mercury Canetonensis, the same god name-checked in the vessels’ votive inscriptions. The other was dedicated either to his mother Maia or his wife Rosmerta. The hoard was buried under the brick paving in the gallery of the sanctuary.

Archaeologists did not encounter evidence of a town or cemetery in the vicinity of the sanctuary, so it seems likely to have been a pilgrimage site. The objects date from the 1st to the late 2nd centuries A.D. and are therefore thought to have been buried in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. They could have been buried for their own preservation during turbulent times, but given the context they may have been cached for ritual purposes rather than under extremis.

Taurin put the treasure in the hands of a local nobleman who prevented archaeologists from examining it. An expert from the Louvre and one from the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Royale, today the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, were allowed access to the group to arrange a sale. The Cabinet acquired the treasure for 15,000 francs, a modest sum even then. At the library in Paris the objects were cleaned and the fragments that could be puzzled back together were. There the Berthouville Treasure remained (with some individual pieces taking occasional short trips elsewhere in France) for 180 years.

In December of 2010, the whole treasure was shipped to the Getty Villa for an extensive program of documentation, analysis, research, cleaning and conservation. Each of the 93 objects (plus four unrelated platters from late antiquity in the Cabinet collection) were photographed and X-rayed to assess their condition and for evidence of how they were manufactured. After a metallurgic study, conservators began to clean the surface of the vessels with simple damp cotton swabs. The grime and dust removal promptly revealed gilding and inscription details that had long been obscured. Further progress was made with mild cleansers and solvents like acetone and ethanol which were able to remove the thick tarnish layers, accretions and corrosion that the 19th century conservation had been unable to budge.

The restoration project took four years to complete and the beautiful results are now on display in California. The exhibition runs at the Getty Villa through August 17th, 2015, after which it returns to Paris whose citoyens will get a chance to see the treasure clean and shiny for the first time.

Here’s a nifty video from the Getty conservation team on how Roman silversmiths would have made the Cup of the Centaurs.

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