Anglo-Saxon woman found buried with cow

Anglo-Saxon lady and her cow, late 5th centuryAn Anglo-Saxon woman was found buried with a cow in a late 5th century cemetery in Oakington, outside of Cambridge. Anglo-Saxon warriors have been known to be buried with their horses, but this is the first time a woman has been found buried with a domestic animal. In fact, when the animal bones were first excavated, archaeologists assumed it was a horse because they’d already unearthed two other graves in the cemetery of men buried with their horses. They were excited to find a horse buried with a woman because all 31 of the horse burials discovered in Britain are of men. When they realized the animal bones belonged to a cow, their excitement hit the roof. It’s the first cow burial ever found in Europe.

Cows were of enormous value to a community. They were a precious source of meat and dairy which cost a great deal to feed and keep healthy. One cow could make the difference between a community surviving or dying of starvation. Burying the cow would have been an enormous loss for the community to suffer. The woman buried with the cow, therefore, must have been an extremely important person to warrant such a valuable gravemate, especially this early in Anglo-Saxon society.

Copper broaches, beads found buried with high-status woman (and cow)Her high status is confirmed by the rich adornments found on her body. Grave goods include copper alloy brooches, three necklaces and hundreds of amber and glass beads.

“She also had a complete chatelaine [keychain] set, which is an iron girdle and a symbol of her high status,” [University of Central Lancashire’s Dr. Duncan] Sayer said.

“It indicates she had access to the community’s wealth.

“She is almost certainly a regional elite – a matriarchal figure buried with the objects that describe her identity to the people who attended her funeral.”

A team of archaeologists from Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, Oxford Archaeology East and some undergraduate history students from MMU are excavating the Oakington site. It was one of the MMU students — Kate Smith, 19 — who first discovered the woman’s grave. The team has thus far discovered 100 graves, and they estimate there are another 50-60 graves in the cemetery. The dig will continue for another three weeks, but even if they stopped today it would still be one of the most important Anglo-Saxon sites in the country.

For more about the excavation and to keep abreast of anything else they discover, see the Oakington dig Facebook page or follow them on Twitter @oakingtondig.

A tale of Etruscan loot from Italy to Ohio and back

Dionysus kalpis, attributed to the Micali Painter, 510-500 B.C.The Toledo Museum of Art has owned the Etruscan black-figure kalpis, a large ceramic vase used for holding water, for 30 years, the last 11 of them while under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division (HSI) and the Italian government. Despite evidence that the kalpis had been looted, smuggled and sold to the museum with (poorly) forged documentation, the Toledo institution fought the law, holding out longer than wealthier and more prestigious museums like the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Now the law has finally won, and still kicking and screaming, the Toledo Museum of Art has grumpily agreed to return the vase to Italy.

This sordid tale of beauty, greed, lust, deception, fraud and willful blindness begins at the end of the 6th century B.C., around 510-500 B.C., in the Etruscan city-state of Vulci. Vulci was an important political and artistic center 50 miles northwest of Rome, famous as the birthplace of the legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius (reigned 578-535 B.C.), and as the likely location for the workshop of an artist known to us today solely as the Micali Painter.

The Micali Painter made black-figure pottery, a style imported from Greece in the 7th century B.C. Figures are painted with a clay slip on fresh clay vessels. When fired, the painted areas turn black and contrast with the native red of the clay. Micali was the most prolific Etruscan artist of the genre, and he made the style his own rather than just copying Greek artists. His work is in the world’s top museums.

Vulci was defeated by Roman consul Tiberius Coruncanius in 280 B.C. Rome cut off Vulci’s access to the sea and, cut off from the maritime trade that had sustained it, the city declined and died. No new town was built over it. All that is left of Vulci today are some ruins and a massive underground necropolis with tens of thousands of tombs; many of them remain unrecorded and unexplored.

Etruscan Tomb of the Inscriptions, VulciThat makes Vulci prime territory for the depredations of the tombaroli, tomb robbers who stick spikes in the ground searching for undocumented tombs. When they find one, they strip it of everything they find, from vases to jewels to the frescoes on the wall and mosaics on the floor. Often they destroy the tomb itself on the way out to cover up their tracks. They then sell the treasures they’ve ripped from the ground to middlemen and “art dealers” like the infamous Giacomo Medici for ridiculously small sums. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the tombarolo who in the mid-1970s looted the Asteas krater, a large red-figure vase used for mixing water and wine painted with the Rape of Europa in the 4th century B.C. by Greek master Asteas, sold it for $1,533 and a suckling pig. True story. The dealers who bought it from him sold it to the Getty in 1981 for $275,000. The Getty was forced to return the krater to Italy in 2005.

Sometime before 1981, tombaroli found a black-figure Etruscan kalpis by the Micali Painter depicting a scene from the life of Dionysus wherein the god of wine and drama punishes the pirates who try to kidnap him for ransom or to sell him into slavery by turning them into dolphins as they dive into the sea to flee his wrath, a story immortalized in a Homeric hymn. It’s a unique and beautiful piece. It’s more than 20 inches in height and has three handles. The pirates are captured mid-transformation, with the legs of men but the heads and fins of dolphins and with the tails and fins of dolphins but the heads of men. The tombaroli sold the water jug to Giacomo Medici, who in turn sold it to dealers Gianfranco and Ursula Becchina.

In 1982, the Becchinas sold it to the Toledo Museum of Art for a modest price of $90,000. The only documentation they provided the museum of the kalpis’ collection history prior to their purchase of it was a photocopy of a declaration signed by deceased Swiss collector Karl Haug claiming decades of ownership. The Becchinas said they purchased the vessel from Haug’s son who provided them with the document ostensibly written by his father.

In two paragraphs typed in German on the stationery of the Haug-owned Hotel Helvetia in Basel, Switzerland, Haug stated to whom it may concern that he had owned the vessel since 1935, conveniently preceding the passage of the 1939 Italian law declaring all antiquities property of the Italian state unless the possessor can prove ownership prior to 1902. Still, even that made-up date was well after a 1909 law that required all antiquities to be declared to customs for proper licensing and taxation. Haug made no such declaration, so even if it were true that he had bought it in 1935, it still would have been illegally smuggled out of the country.

Whatever rudimentary due diligence Toledo did to confirm that the photocopy of the typewritten “Swiss collector” claim wasn’t a blatant and obvious fraud, it didn’t extend to checking with the Italian authorities for evidence of legal export. You’d think that would be step one, unless, of course, looking the other way was standard operating practice for museums at this time. (Spoiler: it was.) Besides, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also wanted the vase, and Toledo wanted badly to beat them to the punch.

Asteas krater, stolen and sold for $1500 and a suckling pigOf course Haug’s story wasn’t true at all. It wasn’t even written by Haug. The facade began to crack in 1995 when a warehouse in Freeport, Switzerland owned by Giacomo Medici was raided by the Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a.k.a., the Art Police), as well as Swiss and British police forces. They found thousands of artifacts, some of them still encrusted with dirt from their recent excavation, plus files and Polaroids documenting past sales. One of the Polaroids was of an Etruscan three-handled black-figure kalpis depicting Dionysus turning the Tyrrhenian pirates into dolphins. The kalpis in the picture was muddy, as was the picture itself. Now, I don’t know exactly what model of Polaroid took that picture, but it was certainly produced long after 1935.

Medici was formally arrested in 1997 and the slow wheels of Italian justice began to grind their way towards a trial. Meanwhile, in 2000 the Toledo Museum of Art, still fearing no legal repercussions, sent the kalpis to Venice so it could be a part of the seminal exhibit of Etruscan artifacts at the Palazzo Grassi. “Gli Etruschi” ran from November 2000 to July 2001 and was a smash hit, exhibiting an unprecedented vast collection of Etruscan objects loaned from museums all over Italy and the world. The vase was still on display in Venice when the Museum received a subpoena in 2001 from the assistant U.S. Attorney in Toledo asking for its documentation of the kalpis.

Doubtless fearing that Italy, which had initiated the U.S. Attorney’s investigation, might confiscate the kalpis while it was still on Italian soil, the museum sent a registrar to Venice to bring it back pronto. Thus began the decade-long battle.

More evidence of the looting, smuggling and fraud was discovered when the contents of the Becchinas’ warehouses in Basel were seized by the Swiss police on February 23, 2002. Again they found thousands of artifacts, photographs and documents exposing decades of theft barely covered up by half-assed forgeries like the Haug document. In the Becchina archives was yet another Polaroid of the kalpis, caked in mud from its recent excavation. There were also stacks of blank documents on Hotel Helvetia letterhead, rubber-stamped and ready to be filled in with whatever “Swiss private collection” fantasy the Becchinas wished to concoct.

In 2004 Giacomo Medici was convicted on multiple counts of receiving stolen archaeological artifacts illegally removed from Italy. One of those archaeological artifacts he was convicted of fencing was the Dionysus kalpis. Confronted with a legal decision from an Italian court that the vase had been looted and smuggled out of Italy at most a few years before the museum’s purchase of it, the Toledo museum director said that if the object had been stolen they’d return it. They just wanted a little more proof, is all.

The Polaroids, the paper trail in the Becchina archives, even Ursula’s confession to how they routinely forged Haug collection histories using rubber-stamped blanks were not apparently sufficient. A single flimsy photocopy of Haug’s so-called statement was more than sufficient proof of legitimacy for them to buy the piece, but piles of evidence accumulated over years of painstaking investigation and even a conviction in a court of law weren’t enough to convince them their precious was ill-gotten gain. They would keep dancing this “more evidence” dance for another seven years.

In April 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent an agent to the museum to yet again discuss the return of the kalpis. Between November 2010 and January of 2012, ICE three times warned the museum that if they wouldn’t hand over the vase, agents would have to confiscate it. Museum director Brian Kennedy told the Toledo Blade these were “threats” and that it felt like the museum was the victim of a “drug bust.” They kept holding out for more proof, for more time to establish a cultural exchange with Italy (meaning they wanted Italy to give them something else on long-term loan to fill the hole in their collection the kalpis would leave).

Finally in March of this year, the Toledo Museum of Art was satisfied that they had been provided sufficient evidence of what everyone has known for a decade. They agreed to return the kalpis. On June 7, United States Homeland Security Investigations “constructively seized” the vase (you can read their case filed in district court here), allowing it to stay on the museum premises for security reasons until a formal return ceremony later in the year. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE released statements applauding “the integrity of the Toledo Museum of Art for their willingness to ensure that this piece is repatriated to its home country” and claiming this long, strange ride as “an example of our office, ICE HSI and the Toledo Museum of Art working collaboratively to return this artifact to its rightful place,” statements which look a little silly given the museum’s sour grapes in the Toledo Blade article from four days ago, but oh well. At least the kalpis is finally on the way home.

Roman jewelry found in ancient Japanese tomb

Two glass beads that bear the characteristics of Roman craftsmanship have been found in a 5th century tomb in Nagaoka, near Kyoto in southern Japan.

Roman glass jewel found in 5th century tomb in Nagaoka, Japan Roman glass jewel found in 5th century tomb in Nagaoka, Japan

The tiny five-millimeter (0.2 inch) beads date to between the 1st and the 4th century A.D. and were made with natron, a naturally occurring chemical that was widely used in ancient Egypt for everything from brushing teeth to mummification. The Romans added it to sand and lime to make ceramics and glass. The process fell out of use in the 7th century A.D.

The beads, which have a hole through the middle, were made with a multilayering technique — a relatively sophisticated method in which craftsmen piled up layers of glass, often sandwiching gold leaf in between.

“They are one of the oldest multilayered glass products found in Japan, and very rare accessories that were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan,” said Tomomi Tamura, a researcher at the [Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties].

The “sent to Japan” part is questionable (a translation issue, perhaps?). There was no direct trade between Rome and Japan. As early as the 1st century A.D., the complex of trading networks on sea and land that are known today as the Silk Road ran from Europe through Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, China, and Korea to Japan and back again. Traders did local legs of the massive voyage, stopping at market cities to sell their goods which would then be traded again a little further away and so on, until silk from China wound up adorning Roman emperors and Roman gold-flecked glassware jewels ended up the prized possession of a 5th century Japanese nobleman.

We don’t know when the beads got to Japan. They could have been recent purchases, or heirlooms handed down from parent to child for centuries before their burial, or they could have come to Japan along with the many Chinese and Korean immigrants who became naturalized Japanese and held important positions at the Yamato court during the Kofun period (250-538 A.D.). (Kofun, incidentally, is the word for the burial mounds of royalty and aristocracy that characterize the period, like the one in which the Roman jewels were found.)

It’s also eminently possible that they made it to 5th century Nagaoka via standard trade routes between China, Korea and Japan. It was an established stop, thanks to its convenient proximity to navigable rivers. In fact, two centuries later the ancient city of Nagaoka-kyō, part of the modern city of Nagaoka, would be made the capital of Japan (from 784 to 794) because Emperor Kammu thought the new location would make trade to and from the capital easier. That theoretical advantage turned out to be a major disadvantage in practice. Constant flooding of those rivers drove the Emperor to move the capital again, to Kyoto this time.

Mammoth field found in Serbian coal mine

Archaeologists excavate Drmno coal mine pitWorkers digging at the Drmno coal strip mine in Kostolac, eastern Serbia on Monday, June 11th encountered the remains of a large woolly mammoth about 20 yards underground. They stopped work — the digging machines had already damaged the remains — and contacted archaeologists at the nearby Roman site of Viminacium asking them to come take over. A torrential downpour Monday afternoon delayed the archaeologists’ visit, but when they arrived on Tuesday morning, they found that the rain had revealed the remains of four other mammoths.

It’s the first discovery of its kind in Serbia. Individual mammoths have been found before, including one in 2009 at the same site. That one was a southern mammoth, a much older furless relative of the woollies. The southern mammoth, a female that researchers named Vika, is up to a million years old and is thought to have drowned on the banks of the Pannonian Sea, a shallow sea that dried up in the Pleistocene about 600,000-200,000 years ago.

Mammoth bones discovered at DrmnoBy the time the woolly mammoths roamed the area (they died out around 10,000 years ago), it was the delta of the prehistoric Great Morava River. The five mammoths discovered this month were located more than 30 feet above Vika’s find spot. They may have all died at once in the same place, killed by a natural catastrophe like a flash flood, they may have died at different times in the same place, or they may have been carried to the spot by torrential waters.

It will be at least six months before all the bones are excavated, and archaeologists believe there may be more to be discovered. Once they’re out of the ground, it will be many years before all the research is published that will tell us exactly how old they are and how they died. There was some excited speculation when the find was first announced that this might be the first mammoth graveyard ever discovered, a place to which mammoths traveled long distances just to die there as modern elephants do, but at this point there is no evidence whatsoever for this idea.

It’s an important and rare find even without the mammoth graveyard glamour. Studying the remains of the mammoths and the field could provide new information about the flora and fauna of the Balkan ice age. The owners of the strip mine, Serbia’s national power company EPS, have stopped all operations at the Drmno mine to allow archaeologists to work unimpeded.

Mammoth bones in the Drmno coal strip mine

Polish Museum of America gets stolen artifacts back

Thaddeus Kosciuszko letterThe FBI announced Wednesday that they have returned more than 120 important historical artifacts and documents that were stolen decades ago from the Polish Museum of America (PMA). The artifacts, including letters going as far back as 1646, correspondence to and from Polish kings, documents with massive royal seals still attached, letters written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, rare artworks, Polish military medals and Nazi World War II propaganda, have an estimated market value of $5 million. Their value to the museum and to the historical record is of course incalculable.

Stolen medals returned to PMAThe Chicago museum, one of the oldest ethnic museums in the country, has an extensive permanent collection of artifacts relating to Polish history and the history of Poles in the United States. At some point during the 1970s or 1980s, important objects began to disappear. It was done sneakily enough and the collection is large enough that nobody even guessed they were gone until years later. None of the museum employees who worked in there in the 80s are still there, so there was nothing definite to go on, just a lot of rumors and speculation.

Harlan Berk with FBI agent Michael KosanovichThe case busted wide open thanks to a Chicago coin and antiquities dealer named Harlan Berk. In late summer of 2011, unnamed youths came to his store bearing documents filled with Polish names and the signatures of Founding Fathers. They claimed they had found the items in the basement of the house they were renting and that they had many more items to sell. Berk purchased the letters and the sellers came back several times with more impressive artifacts.

Polish Museum president Maria CieslaIn a break from the see-no-evil way so many antiquities dealers operate, Berk did his own research to figure out what these documents were and where they came from. When he discovered that at some point they had been in the PMA collection, he called museum president Maria Ciesla and told her he had something of theirs.

Ciesla was ecstatic.

“I couldn’t catch my breath because this was a phone call we had dreamed about getting,” Ciesla said. “This was the first tangible proof that this was not a rumor, that these were out there, that these documents and artifacts were out there.”

“This is something that we had dreamed and hoped for for so many years,” Ciesla said. “It is so important for us to have this safely back not only for the rich Polish history but also for the wonderful American history. It is so important to the world stage.”

Polish royal sealsShe called the FBI Art Crime Team and they opened an investigation. She also arranged with Berk that he would continue buying anything the sellers brought in to the store, and then he’d turn them over to the museum which would reimburse him the purchase cost. In October of 2011, the sellers got greedy. The papers with the royal seals looked so fancy that they thought they could make a killing selling them at auction rather than just settling for Berk’s price. Fearing that the objects might get dispersed, the FBI stepped in.

The sellers promptly agreed to hand over everything they had left. The FBI discovered that the house they were renting was owned by the mother of a former curator at the PMA. The identities of the curator and his or her mother have not been released. It would certainly explain how so many precious artifacts could just walk away without anyone realizing it if the museum curator was the thief. It reminds me of the exploits of presidential inauguration expert, liar and thief Barry Landau, who used his exalted reputation as a cover for years of stealing.

No criminal charges will be filed. Museum officials can’t say for sure when the objects were stolen, but it was certainly more than five years ago which means the statute of limitations on the original theft has expired. The renters who stumbled on this treasure in the basement won’t be charged with transportation, sale or possession of stolen goods, probably because they’re just young and stupid rather than malicious.

Ciesla says the next step is to fully catalogue the returned artifacts. When that’s done, they will all go on exhibit together, probably within the next two years. Meanwhile the museum is asking that everyone keep their eyes open for any other Polish-intensive artifacts. There’s no telling what other gems might have been sold before the leftovers were stashed in the basement.