Archive for February, 2010

Colchester circus campaign hits £200,000 target

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The official announcement is set for tomorrow, but it seems the campaign to raise money to buy the Victorian garden site on top of the only Roman circus in the UK has been successful. They had to raise £200,000 by the end of February in order to buy the property from developers, and as challenging a goal as it was in these tight times, they pulled it off.

Most of the money came in small donations from local people. They organised events including a chariot and two horses hurtling around the car park before Colchester United’s match against Oldham on February 20.

So creative. Good for them for rallying the local population to stand behind their unique heritage.

Now comes another major hurdle: raising £550,000 to purchase the Victorian barracks adjacent to the garden so they can build a visitor’s center next to the circus gates.

The campaigners are hoping some local organizations will step into the breach and scrape up this large sum, since the small donations are most likely tapped out.

GA Museum publishes all medieval Italian art in North America

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The SouthThe Georgia Museum of Art has published the first part of a massive compendium of all the Italian paintings made between 1250 and 1500 on canvas and wood found in North American collections.

Part one is titled Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The South. Author Perri Lee Williams of Miami University covers 400 paintings from public collections in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Puerto Rico. It’s a whopping 801 pages long and divided into 3 volumes.

From the press release (pdf file):

The “Corpus” compiles paintings by such illustrious artists as Giovanni Bellini, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna and Giotto as well as works by lesser-known names. Up-to-date scholarship, including provenance, iconography and bibliography, appears opposite each illustration in an easily accessible format. This resource is particularly valuable to scholars, educators and curators of early Italian art who are unable to travel between institutions.

Professor Bruce Cole of Indiana University and the late Professor Andrew Ladis of the University of Georgia initiated this project in 1993. At that time, only two publications might have rivaled a project as ambitious as this new fully illustrated “Corpus”: Richard Offner’s multi-volume “A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting” (College of Fine Arts, New York University, 1930) and Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri’s single-volume “Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Collections” (Harvard University Press, 1972). However, both of these publications are now out of date and limited in scope. The new publication covers works by artists from all regions in Italy and is likely to become a seminal compendium of early Italian art.

It costs $200 which sounds like a lot, I know, but if I had it to spend I totally would because this is an enormous, even unprecedented, work of scholarship and worth every penny. Museums and libraries are eligible for a discount, so if you represent such an institution call (706) 542-0450.

Ancient marble head found hidden in storage

Friday, February 26th, 2010

 Bust of Jupiter, 2nd century A.D.An 1,800-year-old marble bust of Jupiter was found in English Heritage’s main northern archaeological storage unit in Helmsley, North Yorkshire.

Conservators examined it and quickly realized it wasn’t a reproduction, but rather a genuine 2nd c. Roman sculpture that had been given to the Earl of Arundel, one of the first dedicated collectors of antiquities, by Dudley Carter in the early 17th century.

It was first documented in 1616, but the collection itself became dispersed later in the 17th Century.

However, about 100 years later, the bust fell into the hands of John Aislabie, an MP and wealthy owner of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, near Ripon.

It is believed it may then have taken pride of place in the Temple of Jupiter on the Studley Royal estate, adding a touch of authenticity to the 18th Century folly.

The Studley Royal neo-classical folly is actually called the Temple of Piety and was dedicated to Hercules, but it became known as the Temple of Jupiter because of the bust.

Aislabie found the bust in the cellar, where it had been relegated after the Earl of Arundel’s collection was broken up later in the 17th century. A lot of the Earl’s pieces were discarded rather unkindly, so it may have been at this point that the bust was damaged as we see it today.

The Temple of Piety at Studley RoyalAislabie loved it anyway, so he moved the sculpture to Studley Royal and built the temple with Jupiter as its centerpiece. Aislabie’s son remodeled the temple and removed the sculpture, eventually putting it in storage.

Nobody’s quite sure how it got from Studley Royal to the English Heritage storeroom, but Professor Michael Vickers of Oxford’s Ashmolean confirmed that it was indeed the Jupiter bust from Arundel’s collection. Experts have looked for it in collections before but obviously never found it.

The bust is in fairly good condition despite its missing half. It needs cleaning and further research to try to pin down its movements over the centuries. Conservators will analyze the marble to determine exactly which part of the Roman world it may have come from originally.

Other than that, it’s good to go. In fact it will become the centerpiece of a series of free tours of the Helmsley facility which is normally closed to the public. It looks really cool in there. Huge floor to ceiling racks of dusty marbles just waiting to be explored.

Home of last tyrant king of Rome found

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Tarquin palace excavated in GabiiArchaeologists excavating in the site of ancient Gabii south of Rome have uncovered the beginnings of lavish palace which probably belonged to the family of Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh and last Etruscan king of Rome.

So far just three rooms have been found, but they’ve already found terracotta roof tiles decorated with a minotaur, the emblem of the Tarquins, so they’re hoping they’ll find a lot more intact spaces as well as remains of the caved in parts.

“It’s an extraordinary find,” Rome Archaeological Superintendent Angelo Bottini said at the site….

Archaeologists work on palace walls“The way the site was demolished by furious locals in ancient times and later escaped local urban sprawl has allowed the palace to come to us virtually intact”. […]

Aside from its historical value, the site is of “exceptional” archeological importance because similar buildings in Rome and other large cities were demolished to make way for later ones, Bottini observed. The 6th-century BC ruins, brought to light between September and December, in fact contain the highest intact walls of such a date ever found in Italy, at about two metres.

Under the well-preserved floor, archaeologists found 8 cells containing human remains, including 5 still-born infants. They weren’t human sacrifices, but rather buried during propitiatory rites before the building was built.

Tarquinius Superbus was considered a great tyrant by the Romans, who had become accustomed to being treated with respect according to pre-established social contracts by previous kings. The Tarquins were even related to the top families in Rome, including the Junii.

The Death of Lucretia by Sandro BotticelliIt was Lucius Junius Brutus who killed Tarquin after Tarquin’s son raped Lucretia, daughter of the prefect of Rome who was known for her virtue and who committed suicide after the rape by stabbing herself in the heart in front of her father.

He became the first co-consul of the Roman Republic. It was his descendant Marcus Junius Brutus who many centuries later on a certain Ides of March would plunge a dagger into another tyrant type fellow, one Gaius Julius Caesar.

US to return smuggled Egyptian sarcophagus

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Elaborately painted wooden sarcophagus, Egypt, 21st DynastyThe United States is returning a beautifully painted 21st Dynasty wooden sarcophagus to Egypt. Customs officials confiscated the coffin from a Spanish national at Miami International Airport in 2008 when they found it had no documentation of ownership.

They contacted the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities in October 2008 to let them know that they had the piece in custody. Since it had been shipped from Spain with the likely intent of selling it in the US without documentation, they figured (correctly) that it had been smuggled out of Egypt illegally at some point.

Egypt immediately provided documentation of their ownership of the coffin, but the Spanish dealer shamelessly refused to relinquish it until Zahi Hawass filed a suit against him in a US court.

The coffin of Imesy, a beautifully ornate piece with colorful religious scenes painted on it, had been a piece the council had been demanding be returned.

Zahi Hawass, the SCA Secretary-General said last year that the coffin likely belongs to pharaoh Ames from the 21st Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 1070-945 BC.

Long view of Imesy sarcophagusA US investigation found that it was likely smuggled out of Egypt after 1970 (the dividing line established by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property), kept underground for a few decades, only to surface in an exhibit in Madrid in 2007. The dealer who shipped it to Miami apparently has family ties with the owner of the Egyptian museum in Barcelona.

According to Hawass’ statement, the sarcophagus was first smuggled out of Egypt in 1884. It’s always challenging to pinpoint the movement of looted artifacts. That’s one of the many reasons looting sucks. David Gill at Looting Matters looks at the smuggling trajectory of the coffin, especially the Spanish connection.

The sarcophagus is scheduled to be returned officially in a gala ceremony on March 10th in Washington, D.C. Zahi Hawass, of course, will be there with bells on.

Human seafaring 100,000 years earlier than thought

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

A dramatic find of stone tools dating to at least 130,000 years ago on the island of Crete has revolutionized assumptions about how long humans have been navigating the seas.

Crete has been surrounded by sea for five million years or so, and no human species evolved independently on the island, so the tools found there have to have been wielded by people who got there by crossing the water.

Many researchers have hypothesized that the early humans of this time period were not capable of devising boats or navigating across open water. But the new discoveries hint that these human ancestors were capable of much more sophisticated behavior than their relatively simple stone tools would suggest.

“I was flabbergasted,” said Boston University archaeologist and stone-tool expert Curtis Runnels. “The idea of finding tools from this very early time period on Crete was about as believable as finding an iPod in King Tut’s tomb.”

Archaeologists went to Crete expecting to find stone tools from 11,000 years or so ago, but instead found stone axes hewn from local quartz that looked much like tools carved by our ancestors — possibly Homo heidelbergensis — in Africa and Europe 175,000 years ago.

They combed the island and found over 30 more of the hand axes, plus some other stone tools from the same time frame at 9 different locations on the coast. As time had moved what were once beaches up from the shore into what are now terraces, the tools moved with them.

Geologists date the earliest of these hand axe-having terraces to 130,000 years ago. The youngest is at least 45,000 years old.

The number, ages and locations of the tools suggest that these weren’t the remnants of the occasional lost-at-sea-clinging-to-a-log castaway. For people to get to Crete repeatedly over a hundred thousand years or so, they had to make a point of it.

Maps of the coastal shelves suggest that even when the Mediterranean reached its lowest known point, plummeting some 440 feet (144 meters) below current sea level, people leaving from Turkey or Greece would have had to make three separate water crossings ranging from 12 to 24 miles (19 to 39 kilometers) each to reach Crete. If, on the other hand, the seafarers departed from Africa, they would have voyaged over 125 miles (200 kilometers) of open water.

“The fact that we have several hundred stone tools in nine different locations suggests that a large enough number of people came in order to sustain the populations and leave a visible archaeological trace,” Runnels said. “That means they didn’t just raft over once.”

This assumes the artifacts are in fact hand axes and that they have been dated correctly, of course. Other archaeologists urge caution in accepting the new data until we have some confirmation, like for instance a Cretan site where the axes might have been produced and duplicated radiocarbon dating results.

Ancient stone tools found on Crete

Superman sells for record-breaking $1,000,000

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Million-dollar Action Comics #1, graded 8.0Last year an Action Comics #1, the first Superman comic, published June 1938, sold at an online auction for a cool $317,200. That was the most expensive copy ever sold up until that point.

Today another sale of Action Comics #1 has blown away all previous records not just for Superman, but for any comic ever sold. A private collector who wishes to remain anonymous bought it from another anonymous private collector for one million dollars.

The reason it went for so much is that it’s in Very Fine condition, an 8.0 on a ten point scale. The Action Comics #1 that sold last year was graded a 6.0. Out of the hundred #1s known, there are only 2 graded 8.0 and this is one of them, so it’s the rarest of the rare.

He said that the seller was a “well-known individual” in New York with a pedigree collection, and that the buyer was a known customer who had previously bought an Action Comics No 1.

“The opportunity to buy an un-restored, high-grade Action One comes along once every two decades. It’s certainly a milestone,” said [comic expert and inventor of the grading scale] Mr [Stephen] Fishler.

He added: “It is still a little stunning to see a comic book and $1m in the same sentence.”

So the buyer has at least a million and a half bucks in 2 editions of a single comic book. The mind boggles.

Mr. Fishler had actually sold this same copy to the current seller 15 years ago for $150,000. The astonishing appreciation is due to the sheer rarity of the issue, its condition and how infrequently the piece comes on the market.

As co-owner and COO, Vincent Zurzolo points out, “High-grade copies are rarely, rarely offered for sale. When they do come on the market, you can expect to see a big leap in value.”

Medieval abbot lived it up in a bachelor pad

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

While monks were living in monastic poverty in the deeply in debt Cistercian monastery of Duiske Abbey, their abbots lived the high life in a sweet little town house in 20 miles away in Kilkenny.

An Archaeological dig on the grounds of Rothe House, an early 17th c. merchant’s home, has turned up evidence of an earlier home inhabited by a succession of Duiske Abbey abbots. It was an elegant abode for the era, complete with a garderobe, a 14th c. toilet.

A garderobe was a small room built on to the outside wall of the upper floor of a medieval house. The toilet mechanism consisted of a hole in the ground surrounded by a wooden seat. Waste travelled down through a chute into a stone-built cess-pit in the garden.

Kitchen waste would also have been disposed of via the chute.

Among the finds made by the team were bones from swans and various choice cuts of beef; fragments of pottery wine jugs imported from Bordeaux; and “an intact stool” in which a fruit stone – possibly apricot – is embedded.

Abbot's belt buckle found in garderobeThey also found a belt buckle in amidst the rarified flesh and foul. Perhaps it fell in hole while the abbot was at trying to pass that apricot pit.

While the abbot enjoyed the best the time had to offer, the monastery spent the centuries since its founding in 1204 scrounging for cash. Already by the end of the 13th c. speculation on the wool crop had left the monastery’s affairs deeply in debt to the Riccardi bankers of Lucca, money lenders to Edward I, aka the Longshanks of Braveheart fame. Lucky for the monastery, then, that the French crown confiscated the Riccardi bank’s assets when Edward went to war against France right at that time.

The days of swans and Bordeaux came to abrupt end when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and distributed their property to his supporters. Duiske Abbey was suppressed in 1536 and last abbot, Charles O’Cavanagh, was forced to resign. After that the monastery passed to the Earl of Ormond and the abbey church became the local parish church, which is remains to this day although most of the medieval structure is long gone.

Bosworth site, spot where Richard died confirmed

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

View of Battle of Bosworth field with treeline where Richard III was killed Archaeologists confirmed yesterday that they have not only found the place where the forces of Lancaster and York made their last stand at the Battle of Bosworth, but also the exact spot where Richard III lost his horse and was killed thus becoming the last English monarch to die in battle.

Battlefields Trust archaeologist Glenn Foard first announced the find last October, but to keep the site safe from looters he refrained from identifying the precise location. Yesterday Foard and the Leicestershire County Council announced that the Battle of Bosworth took place on what is today farmer Alf Oliver’s winter wheat field on both sides of Fen Lane, the old Roman road that linked the towns of Leicester and Atherstone.

One of the crucial finds, the largest of the cannonballs nicknamed “the holy grapefruit” by the archaeologists, was found just behind one of Oliver’s barns. Another key discovery was a silver boar no bigger than a thumbnail, battered but still snarling in rage after 500 years. It was found on the edge of a field still called Fen Hole, which in medieval times was a marsh that played a crucial role in the battle, protecting the flank of Henry Tudor’s much smaller army. The marsh was drained centuries ago, but Oliver said it still gets boggy in very wet summers.

Gilt boar badgeAfter a charge in which Richard came within almost a sword’s reach of Henry, he lost his horse in the marsh, a moment immortalised in the despairing cry Shakespeare bestowed upon him: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

“The fact that this little boar is Richard’s personal emblem, and made in silver gilt, means that it can only have been given to one of the closest members of his retinue. The man who wore this would have fought and died at Richard’s side,” Foard said.

Richard had other boars made for his supporters, but they were made from base metals like lead. There is only other such silver boar known, and it’s in the British Museum.

The tiny 1.5-inch boar was found by Carl Dawson, a retired university lecturer and one of the many volunteers who have helped scan hundreds of miles in the area with metal detectors. Other finds made on the site include piles of cannonballs and musketballs, a ring of twisted gold and a fragment of gilded sword hilt.

Albion Hill and the real Bosworth siteAnd what of the visitor’s center the Leicestershire County Council built almost 2 miles away on Albion Hill complete with giant stone monument marking the putative spot of Richard’s death? The Albion Hill was in all likelihood still part of Bosworth history, probably as Richard’s camp on the eve of battle and as a thruway for his fleeing troops after the battle was lost.

Here’s a BBC video of the snow-covered battlefield site and the silver boar, and a nifty article focusing on farmer Alf Oliver’s perspective.

Ancient Rome & America

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Eagle head, symbol of the Roman legionThat’s the title of an exhibit opening today at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Created in partnership with Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage & Activities and Contemporanea Progetti of Florence, this exhibit traces the connections between the myths, ideals, culture, government, military of the nascent US republic and the Roman Republic.

US eagle from cupola of Lynn AcademyThree hundred Ancient Roman and post-Revolutionary artifacts illustrate how much the founding of America owes to Rome, culturally and politically. There are items in the exhibit that I’ve never seen — like a bronze eagle from a standard of the Roman legions — and I grew up in Rome.

The new republic (from res publica, literally “public thing” or “public affair”) was a dangerous undertaking, Winterer says, and all parties knew it. “They examined Rome and its history as if it were a cadaver at an autopsy,” she says. “And they examined it closely. They asked: ‘What worked? What should we do? What mistakes should we avoid?’ ”

Grey says that “the founders deliberately appropriated images, themes and language from Rome to build up their self-image.” People had their portraits painted in Roman dress. They aspired to the dignity and grandeur of the world’s most famous republic.

This is why you find so many delicious anachronisms in D.C. like a statue of George Washington half nekkid in a toga.

That cultural bond with ancient Rome continued for the first century of the United States’ life. Roman style informed US architecture, school curriculums, statuary, even the government itself with its elected representatives and a strong but revolving executive.

These links to Rome are so ubiquitous they’ve almost become white noise. The aim of this exhibit is to renew consciousness of the Roman roots of our Republic.

The exhibit is divided into three parts (like all of Gaul!). The first section is “Building a Republic” and looks at the beginnings of both the Roman and the American republics. Roman artifacts are displayed along with early (and even some contemporary) US artifacts, like Roman gladiator helmet juxtoposed with a helmet worn by Philadelphia Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael.

Gladiator helmet Harold Charmichael, receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

The second section, “A Classical Revival,” presents Roman arts and culture through Pompeiian artifacts and how they influenced American arts and culture. The third section is called “Expansion and Empire” and displays artifacts from the post-Republican empire that Rome became, comparing its growth to that of the United States from the original 13 colonies to the Manifest Destiny expansion across the continent.

The Constitution Center’s website has a nice overview of the exhibit. They call it a walkthrough but it’s not as comprehensive as the name suggests. Still, it gives a tantalizing glimpse into the artifacts on display.

Here’s a quick YouTube about the 18th and 19th century American affinity for ancient Rome by Stanford associate professor of history Caroline Winterer who helped craft the exhibit.





February 2010


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