Vintage car spring or Bronze Age gold torc?

Ronnie Johnston found something with his metal detector in a bog in Corrard, County Fermanagh in December of 2009. He thought the twisted metal rope was a suspension spring for a vintage car. He took it home, rinsed it off, put it in a drawer and thought nothing more of it for the next two years. Then, in May of 2011, he saw a picture of a torc in a treasure hunting magazine and realized that his nifty spring might be something altogether more important.

By Irish law, anyone who discovers something he has reasonable grounds to believe is treasure must report it to the coroner within two weeks. Obviously Mr. Johnston missed the boat a little on compliance with the Coroners Act of 1959, but as soon as he realized his car spring might be a gold torc, he called an expert from the Armagh County Museum to examine it. Dr. Greer Ramsey suggested it be reported to the authorities as a potential treasure find and so it was.

On Friday, March 30th, the Coroner’s Court in Belfast held a treasure trove inquest. Experts testified that it is indeed an ancient torc made of 87% gold and 11% silver. The style, a four-flanged design that is twisted into a spiral, is characteristic of the Middle Bronze Age, probably the Penard Period of metalworking, ca. 1300-1150 B.C. To make this style torc, the smith took a cast bar of gold then cut four lengthwise wedges into the bar creating a cross-shaped cross-section. Once the flanges were carved, the torc was twisted by turning the ends of the bar. Then the smith forged trumpet terminals out of each end of the bar.

Corrard torc found in Fermanagh bog, ca. 1300-1100 B.C.

It’s 37 inches long, so was probably worn around the waist rather than around the arm or neck as we tend to think of torcs. It was coiled before burial, perhaps to make it easier to bury in a smaller space, or perhaps to make it hard for someone else to uncoil it and wear it.

The coroner declared the torc treasure, the first official treasure that has been found in Northern Ireland in the last three years. Next up comes the valuation. The torc will be sent to the Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum in London. Experts will assess a fair market price for the piece. Since Johnston owns the field where he found the torc, any museum that purchases the artifact will pay him the valuation price.

The coroner, John Leckey, described the Corrard torc as an extremely beautiful object and stressed the importance of reporting such finds to the authorities.

“I would regard it as an outcry if the object didn’t end up in Northern Ireland on display in a museum. This is part of the culture of Ireland,” he said.

He added how Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin should be alerted to the immense significance of the find, describing it as “an important day for Northern Ireland”.

Hoard of 293 Celtic coins found in Switzerland

Füllinsdorf Celtic coin hoardA hoard of almost 300 silver Celtic coins has been unearthed in the village of Füllinsdorf, near Basel in northwest Switzerland. They were found by a private individual who was working as a scout for the canton archaeological department. He recovered a number of coins that were just barely buried in a few centimeters of soil, and then he alerted the official archaeologist. They found the 293 silver coins spread over an area of about 538 square feet, all of them just under the surface. It’s by far the largest number of Celtic coins ever found in Switzerland.

Celtic style helmeted Victory, obverseThe coins are of a type known as a quinarius, a small silver piece worth half of a denarius. When Rome first issued the denomination in 211 B.C., it was called a quinarius because it was worth five asses (the equivalent of 5 pounds in brass coin). When they were reissued in 101 B.C., they were still worth half a denarius, but monetary reform made the denarius worth 16 asses so the quinarii were now worth eight.

Horse and Kaletedou inscription, reverseThe Celts used Roman coinage as a model, but they modified the particulars. Their coins are smaller, just a centimeter in diameter and two grams in weight. Roman quinarii had a helmeted figure of Pallas, later Victory, on the obverse, and the Dioscuri (divine twins Castor and Pollux) on horseback on the reverse. Later model Kaletedou quinarius, Victory on the obverseThe Celtic version also has a helmeted victory on the obverse, but done in Celtic style and a single Celtic horse on the reverse. They also had a name on the reverse written in Greek: KAΛETEΔOY, or Kaletedou in the Latin alphabet. There are two different types of quinarii in the hoard, one earlier, one later, and both of them bear Kaletedou’s name. Later model Kaletedou quinarius, horse on the reverseWe don’t know who or what it represents, but archaeologists believe it’s a personal name, probably belonging to a Gallic chieftain.

Canton archaeologists believe the coins were buried around 80-70 B.C. Although they were found scattered, they were probably initially buried together by someone looking to hide them in a secure location. There is no archaeological evidence of a settlement or structure anywhere near the find site. Celts did habitually bury treasure for safekeeping, sometimes near a sanctuary so a deity would be standing guard.

We don’t know what the purchasing power of bronze, silver and gold coins in the area was at that time, but evidence suggests that the money economy was more the province of urban centers than of the farming villages and semi-urban settlements that most of the local Celtic tribes (in the Füllinsdorf area that would have been the Rauraci, a client tribe of the Helvetii) lived in. Intra-regional and international trade with the Mediterranean peoples was well-established in the area by the first century B.C.

After 80 B.C., trade declined, disrupted by local wars between tribal leaders, pressure from Germanic peoples and by the encroaching forces of Rome. The population began to leave sparsely settled areas for the safety of fortified towns. Under increasing strain, in 61 B.C. the Helvetii, in collaboration with other Celtic tribes in what is now Switzerland, planned a mass migration to the Atlantic coast of France. Julius Caesar stopped them. They were his first victory in the Gallic Wars.

The Celtic treasure of Füllinsdorf is on display at the canton museum from March 31 to September 23.

Doctor finds British Civil War treasure in back yard

Dr. Owen Johnson was looking at a hole dug by builders in his back yard in the town of High Ackworth, near Pontefract, West Yorkshire, last summer when he saw the rim of a ceramic pot sticking out of the dirt. He tried to dig it out, but it split in two and a torrent of gold and silver coins spilled out “like a slot machine,” as the good doctor put it. The final tally was almost 600 gold and silver coins dating to the 1640s and a gold ring inscribed, “When this you see, remember me.”

The coins were buried near what look like the remains of an old post, so Dr. Johnson believes the treasure might have been buried by a worried Royalist hiding his worldly goods from marauding Parliamentarians during the Civil War. The coins have a total face value of £85 ($135), the equivalent today of about £7,000 ($11,000). (The UK National Archives website has an awesome historical currency and buying power converter.) Those coins would have bought far more during the mid-17th century than $11,000 could buy you today. Of course their historical value is much higher, and probably the plain precious metal weight is too.

As expected, the coins and ring have been declared official treasure, at the coroner’s inquest at Wakefield Coroner’s Court on Tuesday. Since they are precious metals older than 300 years, according to the 1996 Treasure Act the artifacts are now property of the Crown. The next step is to assess their market value. Museums will then be given first bite at the apple, but they have to raise the money to secure the treasure. The money is usually split between the finder and the property owner, who in this case are the same person.

Local government officials are hoping the coins and ring will stay in the area, perhaps on display at the Pontefract Museum.

Dr Johnson said: “Pontefract Museum is very interesting but it could do with some highlights and this would definitely be a highlight, which would be good because Pontefract’s history is sometimes undervalued.”

Lisa Dodd, Wakefield Council’s service director for sport and culture, added: “We believe these items have been in our district since the 1600s, making them a real part of this district’s rich history. It would be a great shame to not do all we can to try and keep the treasure in its rightful home for future generations to enjoy.

“The Wakefield district has a superb, nationally renowned heritage and Pontefract Museum would be a fitting home for the treasure.”

Pontefract Castle in the 17th centuryPontefract played an important role during the Civil War. Pontefract Castle, a powerful ducal stronghold since the Norman invasion and the place where King Richard II was imprisoned and died after his forced abdication, was besieged by Parliamentarian forces no fewer than three times between 1644 and 1649. Cromwell described it thus after the second siege:

[Pontefract Castle] is very well-known as one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom; well-watered; situated on rock in every part of it; and therefore difficult to mine. The walls are very thick and high, with strong towers; and if battered, very difficult of access, by reason of the depth and steepness of the graft.

He knew whereof he spoke. Pontefract Castle would prove to be literally the last Royalist line of defense. Pontefract was still fighting for the Royalist cause for months after the war ended everywhere else. The third siege began in August of 1648. It was still going strong on January 30th, 1649, when King Charles I was beheaded. The Rump Parliament that had executed the king for treason declared the monarchy abolished on February 7th.

1648 Pontefract shilling struck in Charles II's name with Latin mottoThe Royalist garrison at Pontefract Castle simply proclaimed the regicided king’s son King Charles II and fought on in his name for almost two months. They even minted coins in the name of King Charles II, inscribed with the motto “Post mortem patris pro filio” meaning “After the death of the father, support the son.” The castle finally fell on March 24th, 1649, and was demolished by Parliament that summer. Only ruins remain now.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Pontefract made “Post mortem patris pro filio” its official motto which it remains to this day.

Ancient Greek kore statue found in looter’s goat pen

Kore found in a goat pen outside Athens, ca. 520 B.C.Greek police raided a home on the hills outside of Athens and discovered a nearly intact ancient marble kore hidden in the goat pen. The 40-year-old goat herder and a 56-year-old man thought to be his accomplice were arrested. The two were trying to sell the statue to a private buyer for €500,000 ($667,000), a large sum for them, but a small fraction of the maiden’s market value. Experts estimate she’d make something more along the lines of $12 million if she were sold in the open market.

The back of the goat pen koreThe kore (Greek for “maiden”; the male equivalent is “kouros”) is just under four feet tall (1.2 meters) and dates to the Late Archaic period of Greek sculpture, around 520 B.C. She’s missing her left forearm and the plinth under her feet, but otherwise she is complete. Her curled hair frames the serene countenance known as an archaic smile, and her clothes, a modest combination of chiton and peplos, are still caked with the dirt of her recent illegal excavation. Her missing forearm probably held an offering like a pomegranate.

Goat pen kore, full frontalKorai were votive or memorial statues found at religious and funerary sites. Although they have been found all over Greece, it’s very rare that an intact one is discovered at this late date, and since this kore dates to a transitional period wherein the formalism of the Archaic gave way to the stunning realism of Classical Greek art, she holds an important place in art history.

Peplos Kore, ca. 530 B.C.In fact, she looks very much like the Peplos Kore, a marble statue from ca. 530 B.C. that was discovered on the Acropolis in 1884 and is now in the Archaic Gallery of the new Acropolis Museum. The Peplos Kore has traces of her original paint visible. It was the discovery in the 1880s of the Peplos Kore and other sculptures discarded during renovations to the Acropolis complex after the Persians sacked Athens in 480 B.C. that first made people realize that the stark whiteness of neo-classicism was a-historical, that in truth the ancient Greeks painted their statues in a wide array of incredibly garish (to our eyes) colors. The Peplos Kore has been an invaluable source of information about Greek sculpture painting.

Archaeologists hope the looters will reveal where they dug up this kore. There could be an undiscovered sanctuary or temple on the site, or at least some identifiable remnants of archaeological context for the looted statue.

18th c. Dutch telescopes made out of cow bones

Telescope carved from cow bone, plus lens, 18th centuryA recent study published in the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries reports that five small telescopes have been discovered in Amsterdam, all of them dating to the 18th century and all of them made from bovine metatarsals, the long cylindrical bones above a cow’s hoof.

Although the Dutch Office for Monuments & Archaeology records over 2000 historical artifacts excavated over the past 35 years that were made out of hard animal tissue like bone, antler, ivory and tortoise shell, they’re all things like combs and buttons. Other telescopes from the 18th century have been discovered, but they’re made out of wood and metal. These five are the only bone telescopes known in Dutch archaeology.

Details of the findings hadn’t been published until now, and, in the case of two of them, were unidentified until several years ago when Rijkelijkhuizen, then a master’s degree student, started work on her thesis. She was looking at organic artifacts found in Amsterdam when she came across bone artifacts that would later turn out to be telescopes.

“At first I didn’t recognize them either,” Rijkelijkhuizen said. Her analysis of the five telescopes is now published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries.

Two-part telescope, plus lens and aperture, 18th centuryTwo of the five telescopes were discovered in cesspits, one of them dating between 1725 and 1775, the other between 1725 and 1750. We don’t have the archaeological context for the three remaining telescopes, but their style identifies them as also dating to the 18th century. Four of the five are no more than 3.5 inches long and an inch in diameter. The longest one was made in two parts that were fitted together with screw threads. The total length when both parts are attached is 5.5 inches, and the diameter at the thickest point is just a hair over an inch.

Detail of marrow cavity at telescope's endThese are notably tiny dimensions for a telescope. They were bounded by the raw materials. Cow metatarsals provided an ideal round shape, thick compact bone tissue and a marrow cavity to look through, but the usable part doesn’t get much longer than 3.5 inches. The marrow cavity gets oval in shape towards the ends of the bone, so those parts had to be removed. Once they had a round bone with its round cavity lathed into shape, the craftsmen carved out a platform on each end for lenses to rest on. They then made screw threads on the outside of the ends so that lens caps could be fitted over them with metal rings.

Both lenses are extant from the two-piece telescope and one of the lenses from the smaller telescopes also survived. We know therefore that these were refracting telescopes which would have had a very low magnification rate of about three. The craftsmanship required to make them — both the bone carving and the lens grinding — suggests that these were luxury items. They wouldn’t have been strong enough to be turned towards the heavens, so probably the telescopes were used as opera glasses or to watch the seas during a ship voyage.