Local museums score Roman coin hoard, gold torcs

Two major ancient treasure troves discovered by metal detector enthusiasts, one in Stirling, Scotland, the other in Somerset, England, have been acquired by local museums thanks to grants from the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The Stirling hoard is a group of four gold torcs found by metal detectorist David Booth in 2009. Booth received £462,000 ($740,000) for the find after a ruling by the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel determined where the treasure should go and how much of a reward that institution should pay the finder. In October 2010 the panel decided the torcs would go to the National Museum of Scotland, but as per standard practice, the museum had to raise the reward funds. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish in these meager economic times. The funds, museum and government all had to pitch in. The National Heritage Memorial Fund gave £154,000, the Art Fund £100,000, the National Museum of Scotland £123,000 and the Scottish government £85,000.

The second discovery is the Frome Hoard, a huge pot packed full of 52,500 3rd century Roman coins found by a metal detectorist in a Somerset field last summer. The pot and contents weigh 160 kg (350 lbs). It was the largest number of coins ever found in a single pot and the second largest hoard of Roman coins ever found in the UK. It’s headed to the Museum of Somerset, where it will become a centerpiece of its permanent collection. The hoard was valued at £320,250. The museum was able to purchase it thanks to a £294,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, plus £40,250 and another £10,000 in matching funds from the Art Fund. They also got tens of thousands more pounds from public donations. The extra money allows the museum to allocate £100,000 to conservation of the treasure.

The Frome hoard has been in the British Museum since its discovery, so Somerset is bursting with local pride that they get to keep a find of such national importance in the area where it was found. That was by no means a foregone conclusion, and in England, unlike in Scotland, if the museum had been unable to raise the reward money the coins could have been sold to the highest bidder. The coins will go on display this summer after the museum’s renovations are complete.

Colosseum won’t be prostituted after all. Much.

I mentioned in passing last fall that the Italian Culture Ministry was soliciting €25 million (about $35 million) from private donors for a much-needed multi-year restoration of the Colosseum. I noted then that I was too distressed at the nightmarish prospect of advertising spooge being slathered all over the original and greatest of all sports arenas to write a full entry about it. There’s some good news on that score now, so it’s time to share.

First a little background. The Colosseum is in horrible condition. It’s blackened by pollution, weakened by millennia of earthquakes and marble thefts, constantly shaken by the subway that runs right next to it. Last May, chunks of ancient plaster fell from the roof of one of the entrances, crashing through the (obviously misnamed) safety netting to the ground. Thankfully it happened at dawn, because if it had been during visiting hours people could have been severely harmed, even killed.

The Culture Ministry announced in July that they would be accepting bids from private sponsors between August 4th and September 15th. Meanwhile, they weren’t saying much about what private funding would mean in terms of advertising and promotional concessions granted to the donors. Culture Minister Sandro Bondi said at the July announcement that the donors would be allowed to “promote their image,” but that any ads would have to be compatible with the decorum of the building.

That wasn’t exactly reassuring, and when by the fall they hadn’t received a single sponsorship offer, I feared the worst. Money talks and the situation was desperate enough that even if the city or state had wanted to keep things circumspect in theory, it seemed likely to me that they would cave like 2000-year-old plaster chunks if the donation hinged on some dystopic hell of Blade Runner-esque billboarding. They had allowed horrendously huge ads to cover the facades of major buildings in Venice, after all, so there was a precedent.

Finally this January shoe mogul Diego Della Valle of Tod’s stepped up (yuk yuk) and offered to fund the $35 million restoration for the honor of the Made in Italy brand. He was hoping to inspire more of his fellow plutocrats to pitch in on this project and others too. At the announcement of the Tod’s funding offer being accepted, Italian Culture Minister Sandro Bondi said there wouldn’t be shoe commercials on the monument itself, but there were no details beyond that.

I don’t know if it was the protests ignited by the crimes against art, history, architecture and beauty in Venice or what, but it seems the Colosseum has dodged the bullet. For now.

In exchange for its sponsorship, Tod’s will be allowed to publicise the restoration nationally and internationally, to use the phrase “Sole sponsor of the conservation of the Colosseum” together with its brand names, and to publish the conservation process on its website. The project involves not only the consolidation of the AD72-80 amphitheatre’s stonework, but new lighting, a security system, and the development of visitor services.

So Tod’s will get to pimp the restoration in its promotional materials, but the Colosseum itself will not be hitting the ho stroll. Now let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the work gets done on time and on budget (yes, I laughed typing that) because the road to hell is paved with cost overruns.

Roman altars first evidence of Mithraism in Scotland

The two Roman altar stones found last year under a cricket pavilion in Musselburgh, Scotland were so brittle that archaeologists were only able to turn them over this month. When they did so, they found that they were dedicated to Mithras, the bull-slaying deity of the eponymous mystery religion, and to Sol, the sun god of the late empire who features prominently in Mithraic iconography. These are the first Mithraic artifacts ever found in Scotland, and the farthest north.

Dedication to Mithras (altar stone lying on its backThe first stone has side panels depicting a lyre – a stringed musical instrument – and a griffon, a mythical beast which had a lion’s body and an eagle’s head and wings, along with pictures of a jug and bowl, objects which would have been used for pouring offerings on the altar.

The front face bears a carved inscription dedicating the altar to the god Mithras.

The four seasons on Sol altar stoneThe front face of the second stone shows female heads which represent the four seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter. All are wearing headdresses – spring flowers, summer foliage, autumn grapes and a shawl for winter.

Sol with crown of raysThe centre of the stone contains a carving of the face of a god, probably Sol, wearing a solar crown. The eyes, mouth and solar rays are all pierced and the hollowed rear shaft would probably have held a lantern or candle letting the light shine through.

An inscription on a panel beneath the four seasons is currently partially obscured but likely bears the name of the dedicator who is believed to be a Roman centurion, and the god to whom the altar is dedicated. Traces of red and white paint are still visible beneath the inscription panel suggesting that it was originally brightly painted at least in part.

The altars were toppled in antiquity and were thus found face down with several large cracks and breaks in the stone. AOC Archaeology Group, the team contracted to survey the site for archaeological remains before construction, boxed them up to keep them from breaking into pieces and put them in storage. Archaeologists could therefore only examine the back and sides of the altar stones. At that time they mistakenly thought one of them was dedicated to Jupiter. When they finally turned them over, the archaeologists were overjoyed to find the far more rare and archaeologically significant Mithraic iconography.

Fresco of Mithras slaying the bull, 2nd c. AD, Marino, ItalyMithraism had a large following among the Roman legions between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Reliefs and grottos dedicated to his worship (Mithraeums) followed the path of the army, from Italy to the Danube to Germany to Palestine to England to North Africa. Five Mithraeums have been found in Britain, three of them along Hadrian’s wall. By the reign of Aurelian (270 – 275 AD), Sol Invictus had become a major figure in the Roman pantheon, and he and Mithras would be theologically merged together, along with the Greek sun god Helios.

These altars date to the late 2nd century, well into the Roman occupation of Scotland which began in 80 AD. Since, as a mystery religion, Mithraism didn’t leave behind piles of scriptures and letters and parables written and shared by its adherents, the bulk of what we know about it comes from carved stone like these altars. This discovery is of major importance, therefore, to our understanding of Roman military culture in Scotland as well as to our understanding of Mithraism as a whole.

Stolen skull of 14th century German pirate recovered

Hamburg Museum director Lisa Kosok with the alleged skull of pirate Klaus StoertebekerOn January 9th, 2010, thieves stole the alleged skull of medieval pirate Klaus Störtebeker from a display cabinet in the Hamburg Museum. The skull, still sporting the spike it was impaled on as a deterrent to any other would-be pirates, was one of the museum’s prized possessions. They offered a reward for information leading to its recovery and the Hamburg police investigated the theft for a year without success, reportedly following up on 67 leads.

Finally they hit the jackpot with the 68th. A middleman who is not a focus of the investigation handed over the skull-n-spike to the police earlier this week. The details are being kept nebulous intentionally because the investigation is still ongoing. On Thursday the police delivered it to delighted museum officials.

Next weekend, March 26-27, the museum will celebrate his return with a party. Admission will be free and Störtebeker experts will be available for guided tours. After the party the skull will be moved back to its original location now protected with a new alarm system and security guards. The cultural ministry gave the museum an additional €100,000 (about $140,000) to beef up their security measures, which were sorely needed since the display case that held the skull when it was stolen was protected only by a simple lock.

Although museum director Lisa Kosok considers the skull “Hamburg’s Mona Lisa,” it actually has never been fully authenticated as the skull of Klaus Störtebeker. It was found in 1878 on an island in the Elbe River during construction, the same island where Störtebeker and 30 of his crew were beheaded in 1400. The skull has been radiocarbon dated to the late 14th, early 15th century, so it certainly could be his.

Störtebeker (not his real name; it’s a nom de guerre meaning “empty the mug with one gulp,” apparently a reference to his legendary hollow-legged ability to swallow a four-liter pitcher of beer in one gulp) was a privateer initially hired to fight Danish ships and run supplies to Sweden. He and his comrades were known as the Victual Brothers. After the war, they decided to stay in business, only for themselves this time. Finally the Hanseatic League struck back, sending a fleet to capture Störtebeker and his cronies.

Centuries later he would be seen as something of a popular Robin Hood-like hero figure for his fight against the big-money Hanseatic League.

Happy 150th birthday, Italy!

March 17th is not just an important day for the Irish, you know. Today marks the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. On March 17, 1861, the first Italian Parliament proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II, King of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia, the King of the unified state of Italy.

The Risorgimento (resurgence), the movement towards a unified Italy, was a long, messy process that began politically in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna where Italy was carved up by the European powers. This disregard for self-determination only encouraged the growing nationalist sentiment, and revolutionary societies like the Carbonari and La Giovine Italia (the Young Italy) spread like wildfire all over the peninsula. The revolutionary fervor of 1848 which saw dramatic governmental upheavals in almost every country in Europe resulted in constitutional monarchies in many Italian states and even in a brief shining resurrection of the Roman Republic under national heroes Giuseppe Garibaldi (soldier) and Giuseppe Mazzini (politician).

They were all short-lived, just like the rest of the 1848 revolutions, but they left a taste for freedom and unification in people’s mouths, and the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, most particularly its endlessly-scheming prime minister Count Camillo of Cavour, was keen to kick the Austrians out of northern Italy, kick the Bourbons out of southern Italy, claim the central states from various tin horn dukes and make themselves a brand new country.

Thanks to the political machinations of Cavour, Garibaldi’s outstanding military ability and his famous army of red-shirted volunteers, ten years later Victor Emmanuel II found himself King of Italy.

(Fun fact about Victor Emmanuel II: he was a Knight of the Garter, an English order of chivalry dedicated to England’s patron saint, St. George of dragon-slaying fame. The Duchess of Sutherland said about Victor Emmanuel II that he was the only Knight of the Garter she had ever seen who “looked as if he would have had the best of it with the dragon.”)

The new Italian Parliament declared Rome the capital, as per its ancient privilege, but they had to do it from Turin because Rome was actually still part of the Papal States (reduced to the region of Lazio) at that point, and the Pope had no intention of coughing up even this sad remnant of his temporal power as long as French troops were there to protect him.

It wasn’t until August of 1870, a month after the start of the Franco-Prussian War, that Emperor Napoleon III withdrew his final garrison from Rome, leaving the Papal States virtually undefended. Victor Emmanuel didn’t want to storm in, though. He wanted to negotiate a nice, orderly, respectful hand-over. Pope Pius IX, who had been beloved for his liberal reformist ways when first elected to the throne of Peter in the heady revolutionary days of 1846, bitterly refused and instead insisted that he and his wee cadre of papal troops would never let Italian soldiers set foot in the Eternal City.

Bummed but resigned, the King sent his crack Piedmontese Bersaglieri troops (known for their excellent marksmanship and awesome hats) to claim Rome. They took their time, taking 11 days to go from the border of Lazio to the ancient Aurelian wall that still protected Rome. On September 20th, 1870, they halfheartedly fired cannon at the Porta Pia for three hours then breached the gate and took Rome. The Pope locked himself in the Vatican, refusing to accept the Italian offer to grant him sovereignty over Vatican City on the grounds that any such treaty would be acknowledging the Italian state. There he remained, isolated and bitter, until his death in 1878 while all around him a new country was happening.

Anyway, Italy is celebrating its anniversary in grand style today, with tri-color flags and parades and parties, despite the tense, fractious political environment in the country at the moment. President Obama made a lovely statement, as did Democratic Congressional Leader Nancy Pelosi.