Triptych stolen in Italy in 1971 found in Kentucky

Virgin Mary triptych attributed to Jacopo del Casentino, 14th c.A 14th century triptych depicting the Virgin Mary that was stolen from a private home in Goito, Italy (southwest of Verona) during a burglary in 1971 has been found at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The Speed purchased it unwittingly from Newhouse Galleries, an Upper East Side New York art gallery, in 1973 for $38,000 and have agreed to return it to Italy.

Since then, it has gone on display at the museum off and on, most recently off. It hadn’t been exhibited in at least a decade when Homeland Security agents were alerted to its location by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Rome a few months ago. The feds aren’t saying how exactly the painting was traced to the museum or how it got from Goito to New York in the first place, but once the authorities contacted the Speed they immediately cooperated with the investigation and helped confirm that their triptych was in fact the one stolen in 1971. Specialists compared the work to pictures of it in the Goito home and identified it based on unique markings.

The small (1.6 feet by 1.9 feet) tempera-on-wood altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary with Christ child in the center panel, Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria on the left panel, and the crucifixion of Christ and the annunciation on the right panel. It has been attributed to Florentine artist Jacopo del Casentino (b. 1297?, d. 1358), but there is still debate among art experts. Some people think it’s a 19th century work made in the style of a 14th century piece. Speed director Charles Venable isn’t convinced it’s Casentino’s, but the Italian authorities and the U.S. Attorney appear to be.

Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Saints, Jacopo del Casentino, ca. 1330If it is Casentino’s work that’s a very big deal because right now the only other work known to exist by that artist is in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. It’s another triptych of the Virgin Mary, in fact, called Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Saints.

The triptych was stolen from Lidia Bianchi Perdomini’s felicitously named home Villa La Giraffa (yes, that does mean Giraffe Villa) on October 2, 1971. Burglars cut through metal bars and a glass window, absconding with the triptych, paintings from the Venetian school and oils by realist painters Giovanni Fattori and Silvestro Lega, among others. The collective value of the stolen pieces was assessed at $33 million, and that was 40 years ago.

When the Speed bought it the piece was attributed to an unknown 14th century artist and given the small original sale price, the museum never bothered to insure the piece, not even for the $38,000 they spent on it, never mind for the millions it would be worth as a confirmed Casentino. They’re taking the hit, such that it is, with good cheer, though. Before they return the piece they will put it on display one more time in an exhibition called The Case of the Italian Altarpiece. The exhibit focuses on putting the painting in the context of the international art trade and will provide visitors with details on how the piece was researched and the history of ownership determined. It’s a neat idea that more museums who get busted with loot should emulate. The exhibit will be open from June 9th to sometime this summer (probably early July).

The Speed is a member of the Blue Star Museums program, a program that allows active duty military personnel and their immediate family members free admission to more than 1,300 participating museums in all 50 states between Memorial Day through Labor Day. If you’re a military family and in the area, take advantage of the opportunity. You can find other Blue Star Museums near you here.

After the final exhibit, as per the settlement drawn up between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Speed, the triptych will be returned to the Cultural Heritage Office of Mantova, Italy. Since the original owner is deceased, the Italian authorities will determine what happens next, if it will be returned to any of Perdomini’s heirs or put on public display.

US Archaeologist finds 17 pyramids via satellite

University of Alabama at Birmingham Egyptologist Sarah Parcak, Ph.D has discovered 17 still-buried pyramids using infra-red satellite imagery. Funded by a BBC grant, Parcak’s team spent over a year capturing images of Egyptian sites from both NASA and commercial satellites. The images revealed more than 1,000 tombs and 3,100 ancient settlements as well as the undiscovered pyramids. French archaeologists on the ground were then able to confirm two of the pyramids in Saqqara, the burial ground for the ancient capital of Memphis and the site where the oldest pyramids (from 2,600 B.C.) were found, and a home in Tanis which exactly matched the structures revealed by the satellite imagery.

Considering that there are only 140 confirmed pyramids in Egypt, finding 17 more is of major significance, and this is only the first pass covering areas that are just under the surface. Parcak and Zahi Hawass have plans to collaborate to train young Egyptians to capture images of ancient sites using satellite technology creating a whole new field of Egyptological study and revealing new sites that have been well buried by millennia of Nile silt deposits and shifting sands.

The infra-red imaging technology is so accurate it can capture objects less than 40 inches in diameter from satellites 430 miles (700 km) above the earth. It identifies differences in density, thus distinguishing dense mud brick walls, for instance, and the soil around them. That’s how the imagery can reveal not just large structures but also the road map of entire cities. Having such a map will be of immense help to archaeologists in planning where to excavate, and the satellites will train an unblinking eye on sites that are particularly vulnerable to looting because they are famous and/or because they are unexcavated and unguarded.

Aerial view of modern San El Hagar Infra-red aerial view of ancient Tanis

The Egyptian authorities plan to use the technology to help – among other things – protect the country’s antiquities in the future.

During the recent revolution, looters accessed some well-known archaeological sites.

“We can tell from the imagery a tomb was looted from a particular period of time and we can alert Interpol to watch out for antiquities from that time that may be offered for sale.”

Parcak’s work will be covered in detail in the BBC documentary Egypt’s Lost Cities airing Monday, May 30th. This show won’t air in the US, but the Discovery Channel is putting together a documentary of its own on Parcak’s findings which is tentatively planned to air some time this summer.

To tide you over until then, find out more about Tanis in a Secrets of the Dead episode on PBS called “The Silver Pharaoh.” I just saw it last week. It describes the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes I in Tanis by French archaeologist Pierre Montet. This was in 1939 so the spectacular find, including the only silver sarcophagus ever found in Egypt, got very little attention on account of the Nazis (I hate those guys).

Speaking of which, given the Tanis location and the French archaeologist, I couldn’t help but wonder if George Lucas might have been inspired by Montet’s discoveries. The documentary even gives a shout out to the Ark of the Covenant with a Biblical reference that could be interpreted as an Intermediate Period pharaoh sacking the Temple of Solomon and taking the Ark back to Egypt (at the 7:17 point in the video).

Creepy Creeping Baby Doll

Creeping Baby Doll, 1871 patent modelI was reading this article and watching the associated video about the robots in the National Museum of American History which is an interesting look into the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of mechanisms, from a 16th century spring-wound automaton of a monk to C3PO to cutting edge miniaturized robots. It includes a picture of a crawling children’s doll patented in 1871. It’s strikingly scary looking but the story provides no information beyond the bare bones caption (“Model for a creep baby doll, which was patented in 1871”), and it’s not even in the video, so of course I had to search high and low to find out more about this AI Chucky.

First of all, creeping is what they called crawling back then, and as recently as the early 19th century the question of whether babies should be allowed to crawl was still hotly debated. Crawling was what crazy people and animals did and as such was morally suspect, even “unnatural” for a sane human. By the mid-1800s, however, crawling was seen as a natural stage of childhood and the popularity of devices such as the standing stool began to wane.

Meanwhile, as industrial mass production took over from individual toy makers and technology itself became a source of convenience and fascination, dolls with clockwork elements became increasingly popular toys. Instead of the rag doll with a change of clothes, wood, ceramic, and metal automata put on a show of blinking eyes, moving limbs and mouths, or two faces that would turn with a flip of a switch. Dollmaking was becoming the province of inventors and machinists, not just designers. After the Civil War, American dollmakers tried to get a piece of the action by upping the mechanization ante. The baby doll with a wax head and a crawling motion powered by an internal clockwork mechanism was an attempt to tap into this trend.

Now a correction: although it’s certainly a creep, it’s actually called a “Creeping Baby Doll” and was first patented by Robert J. Clay on March 14, 1871. In the application, he describes his creepy baby as “a very amusing toy…produced at small cost.”

The prototype in the Smithsonian, however, is a slightly later iteration. Clay’s patent was number 112,550. The creep baby on display at the National Museum of American History is the patent model for patent number 118,435, submitted by George P. Clarke and accepted on August 29, 1871. Clay was Clarke’s boss and the later patent was an improvement on Clay’s original model.

Despite Clay’s belief that his toy would be very amusing, it had limited appeal for its target audience of little girls. It looks scary, weighs a lot and isn’t particularly interactive. It’s more of an exhibition piece than a cuddly toy, and once the mechanism broke (which happened often with the earlier models), its heaviness and hardness made it a dead weight rather than a doll that could be integrated into regular play.

Edison Phonograph Doll, internal phonograph mechanism shown rightEven Thomas Alva Edison’s foray into mechanized dollmaking was a playtime failure, although interesting as a display piece. He invented the first talking doll in 1877 (sold to the public starting in 1890). It was a tall, 22″ doll with a metal body and a bisque head with a wee phonograph inside that was operated by a key in the back. When the key was turned, the phonograph would play a wax cylinder. This was the first phonograph sold for home use, so it’s an important stepping stone in the history of entertainment technology. The only problem was the child had to turn the key steadily at the proper speed the whole time to hear the doll speak, and since you couldn’t switch out the cylinder, once the needle wore it down, that was the end of Chatty Cathy. Oh, also, Edison himself described the sound produced in less than flattering terms. He said “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear” and he wasn’t lying, let me tell you.

Click, if you dare, on play to hear the Little Jack Horner cylinder:

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”RUN, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE”]

The first Bronze Age battlefield found?

Skull found at Tollense River site with fatal blunt force traumaArchaeologists excavating on land and divers exploring the riverbed of the River Tollense valley of north-east Germany have uncovered what may be the remains of the earliest Bronze Age battlefield ever found. Evidence of human-on-human violence has been discovered as far back as the early Stone Age, but nothing indicating a large-scale battle between opposing factions. The finds on the River Tollense site include the remains of 100 bodies, most of them apparently young men, plus wooden bludgeoning weapons, an arrowhead embedded deep into an upper arm, and horse bones.

Some of the human skeletal remains show evidence of face-to-face combat — large unhealed holes in their head, for instance, that could have been inflicted by weapons like the two wooden clubs that were found in pieces on the site. One was a bat made of ash wood; the other looks similar to a croquet mallet and was made of sloe wood.

Bronze Age mallet weapon found by divers in the riverbed

There is no evidence of formal burial, no pottery used as grave goods or paved stones used to build burial cysts, so archaeologists think the remains might have been washed downriver from the location of the primary battle.

The researchers suggest the bodies may have been dumped in the river before being washed away and deposited on a sandbar. Alternatively, the dead could have been killed on the spot in “the swampy valley environment”, the paper concludes.

[Dr Harald Lubke of the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Germany] believes the real conflict may have been fought out further up the river, and that the bodies so far found represent just a fraction of the carnage wrought by the battle.

“This is only a sample, what we have found up until now – the modern river bed only cuts across part of the river bed of that time. There are likely to be many more remains.

“It’s absolutely necessary to find the place where the bodies came into the water and that will explain if it really was a battle or something else, such as an offering, but we believe that a fight is the best explanation at the moment.”

The Tollense River valley at the time was the conjunction of several streams of the main tributary. It was settled, fertile, and an appealing territory for a foreign tribe to covet. The remains of a non-local millet diet found at the site could indicate the presence of an invading force.

The team’s findings thus far have been published in the journal Antiquity (pdf, subscription only), but the research is ongoing.

English source: William Wallace wanted to be king

William Wallace statue in AberdeenResearcher Dr. John Reuben Davies of Glasgow University has found a previously unnoticed reference in the pipe roll, a financial record of King Edward I’s exchequer, for fiscal year 1304-1305 that gives an account of William Wallace’s crimes, death and the disposition of his body parts. Discovered in the National Archives at Kew, the document describes Wallace as “a robber, a public traitor, an outlaw, an enemy and rebel against the king, who in contempt of the king had, throughout Scotland, falsely sought to call himself king of Scotland ….”

This is the first explicit reference found to Wallace seeking the kingly crown. The Scottish sources take pains to emphasize that Wallace never declared himself king or even aspired to the crown. The extant documents we have that were signed by Wallace himself all specify that he takes action in his role as Guardian of Scotland on behalf of imprisoned King John Balliol. Until now, the English sources didn’t say otherwise. This record being an internal financial document not intended for public viewing makes it more likely to be an honest view of the English powers instead of a propaganda exaggeration used to justify the brutal execution of a Scottish hero.

Dr. Davies thinks it may have been the result of a misunderstanding. Wallace was declared Guardian of Scotland by nobles including Robert Bruce after his victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. At first he shared the role with Andrew de Moray, but de Moray died just two months later from wounds incurred at Stirling, leaving Wallace as sole Guardian until shortly after his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk a year later. As Guardian, he issued edicts, commanded the army, and had the right to bear the Scottish National Standard and appoint bishops. The Guardian is basically the acting king, and when the king he acts for is a) imprisoned and b) widely considered a spineless shill (Balliol’s nickname meant “empty shirt”), you can see how the English, unfamiliar with the constitutional role, might have seen Wallace as a pretender for the Scottish crown.

The quartering of Thomas Armstrong in 1683 for treasonThe pipe roll’s entry on Wallace is also the earliest description of his execution. Pipe rolls were accounts drawn up by the office of the exchequer which tracked the moneys sheriffs were tasked to pay to the king each year. The sum would be reduced based on expenditures undertaken by the sheriffs on behalf of the crown, like tax deductions, basically. In this case, the accounts deduct the sums the sheriff spent moving William Wallace’s quartered body parts to Scotland to put on display as a gruesome warning against rebellion. Wallace was executed in London on August 23, 1305. The pipe roll covers the accounting period of Michaelmas (the feast of St. Michael, celebrated on September 29th) 1304 to Michaelmas 1305, so it was drawn up within months of Wallace’s death, maybe even a single month after, depending on how promptly they started working on their accounts after the close of the fiscal year.

The entry describes Wallace as “by sentence of the king’s court at Westminster drawn, hanged, beheaded, his entrails burned, and his body quartered, whose four parts were dispatched to the four principal towns of Scotland. This year, 61 shillings 10 pence.” This level of detail is unique in a dry financial accounting ledger like a pipe roll. Other executions are recorded in earlier rolls, but it’s basic names and dates stuff, not the gory details of the accusations and executions. It underscores that even to accounting clerks William Wallace’s crime and punishment stood out as worth noting, enough so to include a narrative of them in what would otherwise have been the medieval equivalent of a payroll spreadsheet.