Modern soldier finds remains of ancient one

Rifleman Rowan Kendrick with Anglo-Saxon warriorRifleman Rowan Kendrick of the 5th Battalion, The Rifles (a British Army infantry regiment) has unearthed the remains of an Anglo-Saxon warrior buried about 1500 years ago on Salisbury Plain. Kendrick is a volunteer with Operation Nightingale, a project that places injured veterans on archaeological sites as a form of physical and social therapy and to help them develop new occupational skills. He and a team of more than 100 Riflemen injured in Afghanistan have been excavating the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Barrow Clump under the direction of Ministry of Defence archaeologist Richard Osgood, supervised by professional archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and together with students from the University of Leicester.

The Barrow Clump site is one of approximately 20 barrows in an earthwork near Stonehenge that was in use from the Neolithic period until the Norman invasion. The Anglo-Saxons made a cemetery of a Bronze Age burial ground on the spot. Multiple graves have been discovered since the first ones were unearthed in the late 19th century by archaeologist and former Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army William Hawley (who would go on to make major discoveries at Stonehenge after it was gifted to the state in 1919).

Barrow Clump badger damage, 2003The barrows are under attack. From badgers. They dig extensive tunnel systems, plowing through Anglo-Saxon graves, jumbling the archaeological layers and destroying bones and artifacts. In 2003, English Heritage did a survey and excavation of the site to assess the badger damage and find ways to prevent it going forward. By 2011, broken pieces of pottery and human remains appearing on the surface made it clear that those preventative measures were not working. English Heritage added the barrow to its Heritage at Risk list and advised that the Anglo-Saxon cemetery should be fully excavated, the cemetery’s perimeters determined, and its artifacts and human remains removed since they can no longer be preserved in situ. No badgers will be harmed in the making of this history.

This summer Wessex Archaeology, funded by the British military, began a three-year project to excavate Barrow Clump. It’s a pilot for future Operation Nightingale endeavors and so far it’s going swimmingly. The first digging season the team has focused on excavating later Anglo-Saxon burials. Rifleman Kendrick’s discovery of an early Anglo-Saxon burial was an unexpected delight. Also unexpected was the remarkably well-preserved wood tankard bound with bronze strips. The wood is still intact. A spear head was found above the tankard marking the deceased as a warrior. Unfortunately, he’s missing his right forearm. Judging from the large burrow opening where his arm once was, it was a victim of badgerial interference.

Detail of tankard and spear headAll told, the Operation Nightingale team has discovered 27 Anglo-Saxon burials this season, from warriors to women to children, complete with varied grave goods like jewelry, a shield boss and that bronze-bound wooden tankard. They expected to find around 15 graves since the burial ground is fairly small, so from an archaeological standpoint the project has been a raging success.

The project’s rehabilitative goals have also been achieved with gusto. The riflemen have learned to parlay some of their military skills (surveying, mapping, examining ground features for anomalies that could be IEDs or Anglo-Saxon graves, hard manual labor, living in tents in crappy weather) into a highly rewarding civilian pursuit. Eight of the soldiers are now studying archaeology at the University of Leicester. For now only the five regular battalions of the Rifles, Britain’s largest infantry regiment, have participated in Operation Nightingale. The hope is that the program will eventually expand to cover the entire Army.

Once conserved and cleaned, the artifacts will go on display at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum. For more about the discoveries at Barrow Clump and Operation Nightingale, follow the blog on the Wessex Archaeology website.

Rijksmuseum acquires spectacular screaming baby

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has received a most wonderful gift from an anonymous donor: the spectacularly expressive head of a screaming baby carved in wood by Dutch Renaissance sculptor and architect Hendrick de Keyser in around 1615. De Keyser was known for his realism — even including less than flattering aspects like a client’s wrinkles on his sculptures — and for his intense, dynamic expressions.

Although you may think he sat behind you once in an airplane, this screaming baby is actually a god. Click on the embedded picture to see it in high resolution. There’s a large bee on the left temple.

It’s a representation of Idyll XIX – The Honey Thief, a classical Greek poem attributed to 3rd century B.C. bucolic poet Theocritus but probably not actually written by him. Naughty Cupid tries to steal some honey from a hive only to get stung by one of its denizens. Wailing and crying and stamping his little feet, he runs to his mother Venus to complain about the agony inflicted upon him by such a small creature. Venus points out that he’s just like the bee: he’s little but can inflict immense pain with his love arrows.

'Cupid the honey thief' by Albrecht Dürer, 1514The story of Cupid and the bee became a popular theme in Renaissance Northern Europe. Albrecht Dürer was the first to tackle the subject with Cupid the Honey Thief, painted in 1514 as part of a series of watercolors on classical mythology. 'Cupid Complaining to Venus' by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525Hot on his heels was Lucas Cranach the Elder who in 1525 painted Cupid Complaining to Venus, now in London’s National Gallery. He and his workshop would produce close to 30 paintings on this same theme.

'Venus with Cupid the Honey Thief' by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530I particularly like a version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venus with Cupid the Honey Thief (1530), because of Venus’ excellent hat and the hilariously transparent “modesty” veil she coyly drapes over her crotch. The Met’s Cranach also has a Latin inscription on the upper left which explains the crux of the theme’s appeal to dour northern cultures: “As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive / A bee stung the thief on the finger / And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures / That are mixed with sadness and bring us pain.”

Hendrick de Keyser’s sculpture stands out from the work of his earlier colleagues for its committed expressiveness and realism. Neither Dürer’s nor Cranach’s Cupids look anything like so perturbed. That wide open screaming mouth with just one little tooth makes Cupid into a literal mid-tantrum baby, rather than a cranky deity in child form. Compare it to de Keyser’s very similar bronze Bust of a Crying Child also made around 1615 which is now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (although sadly not on display). The expressions are nearly identical, but the bronze bust has no bee and thus no Cupid allusion.

The Rijksmuseum is currently undergoing extensive renovations. When it reopens in 2013, Screaming Child will be put on display along with their handful of other exceptional Hendrick de Keyser sculptures.

Volcano caused mass deaths in 13th c. London

Skeleton of 11-year-old with congenital syphilisBetween 1991 and 2007, Museum of London Archaeology unearthed 5,387 medieval skeletons on the grounds of what was once an Augustinian priory and hospital of St. Mary Spital in East London. Ranging in date from the 12th century to the early 16th, the bones have been a rich source of information about the lives and deaths of medieval Londoners. Twenty-five of the skeletons were ultimately found to have bone lesions characteristic of the Treponema pallidum bacterium, the spirochete whose subspecies cause pinta, yaws, endemic syphilis and venereal syphilis. This made the news a couple of years ago since seven of the skeletons dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, and one of them belonged to an 11-year-old boy with skull lesions so advanced he must have contracted the disease in utero. Out of all the diseases caused by Treponema pallidum, only venereal syphilis is transmitted from mother to unborn child, which means it was present in England long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Now another major discovery has been announced: a mass burial contains 4,000 13th century victims of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that took place the century before thousands of miles away. At first the mass grave was assumed to be a 14th century plague pit from when the Black Death decimated London or from the Great Famine earlier that century. Combining stratigraphic (layer analysis) and radiocarbon dating, Museum of London archaeologists were able to establish that in fact the pit was filled with thousands of dead in the 13th century.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth’s surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death. […]

Surprisingly, perhaps, the volcano’s exact location has yet to be established. Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are the most likely areas, according to vulcanologists, who found evidence in ice cores from the northern hemisphere and Antarctic and within a thick layer of ash from Lake Malawi sediments. The ice core sulphate concentration shows that it was up to eight times higher than Indonesia’s Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the most catastrophic in history.

Contemporary chroniclers support the evidence of the ice cores and the massive mid-13th century mortality. The 14th century chronicler Henry Knighton, an Augustinian cleric whose record of the Black Death in England is a valuable first person source for historians, recycled the work of earlier chroniclers like Matthew Paris in his record of the 13th century. In 1258, he wrote, massive harvest failure, famine and pestilence struck, hitting the city of London particularly hard.

The north wind prevailed for several months, and when April, May, and great part of June were over, scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, when the hope of harvest was uncertain. Moreover, food failing, (the harvest of the previous year had failed,) innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want, and livid, five or six together, in the pig-sties, in muddy streets, and on dunghills. Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection.

About the Festival of Trinity [, seven weeks after Easter Sunday,] the pestilence was immense — insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished.

Excavating the Spitalfields charnel houseLondon had an estimated population of 50,000 in 1258, so even if the numbers are exaggerated (which they probably are), we’re still talking about massive mortality, and not broad-based mortality, but the kind that strikes primarily the poor who can’t afford imported food. The rich buy it straight off the ships; the middle class sell everything they own to buy food and wind up homeless but alive. The poor wind up in charity hospital mass graves.

A monograph on the skeletons, part one of a four part series on nearly two decades of Spitalfields archaeology, will be made available by the Museum of London for a fee on Monday.

Stolen “Sarcophagus of the Quadrigas” returns after 21 years

An exquisite yellow marble sarcophagus carved in high relief with quadrigae (four-horse chariots) racing at the Circus Maximus has been returned to its hometown of Aquino, about 60 miles south of Rome, 21 years after it was stolen from the Church of Santa Maria della Libera. The sarcophagus, a masterpiece of Roman funerary art from the late second to third century A.D., had been used as the church’s central altar since 1948 where it remained without incident until 1991.

Thieves, taking advantage of renovations on site, first stole it in August of 1991, but it was immediately found and brought back to the church. That turned out not to be the wisest of choices. During the night of September 2-3, 1991, thieves stole the sarcophagus again and this time it disappeared into the dark channels of the antiquities trade.

Sarcophagus altar at Santa Maria della Libera before its theftAuthorities searched high and low for the piece, publishing pictures of it on international lists of stolen works, but some of the details were wrong (the material was listed as alabaster instead of marble and the dimensions were inaccurate). Still, it’s not like there are dozens of sarcophagi just like this one floating around. It’s entirely one of a kind. Yet, for 20 years it was nowhere to be found.

Last summer, the state prosecutor’s office was contacted by the executor of the estate of a recently deceased collector/antiquities trafficker who had apparently purchased the sarcophagus in 1991 for around one million dollars. The piece was the star of this unnamed person’s London collection, a collection that was in danger of being split up between two more unnamed collectors, one Russian and one American. The executor wanted to see the sarcophagus returned to Italy before the collection was broken up, so he reached out to state prosecutor Maurizio Fiorilli who has been at the forefront of Italy’s legal campaign against looting and the dealers and curators who finance it.

Fiorilli alerted the Archaeological Patrimony squad of the Guardia di Finanza (an Italian law enforcement agency that focuses on financial crimes), and Operation Juvenal, named after the late 1st/early 2nd century Roman satirical poet who was born in Aquino, was launched. The Guardia di Finanza secured a warrant to seize the artifact in London. There was a condition, though. The executor of the estate would voluntarily return the sarcophagus to the Italian embassy in London only if its deceased owner could remain anonymous. The police and prosecutor agreed, and on April 16th, 2012, a large box containing the sarcophagus was delivered to the embassy. There was no return address or name of sender on the box.

We don’t know who this collector was. The cops aren’t talking as investigations are ongoing. Rumor has it the culprit was high society antiquities dealer/thief/fence Robert Hecht, who was on trial in Italy for antiquities trafficking from 2005 until the statute of limitations ran out in January of 2012, but it doesn’t seem to me that the particulars fit. He died in February, just a month after his case was dropped, so it would be odd for the executor of his estate to be contacting the authorities last summer, especially since he was still on trial then. Wouldn’t any haggling have been up to his criminal attorneys? Also, he died in Paris, not London. Also, he had quality contacts among the looters and middlemen of Italy. I doubt he would have paid a million dollars in the first place, and certainly not unless he had a museum curator with five million dollars burning a hole in his or her pocket.

Sarcophagus at press conference in RomeTwo months after its arrival at the Italian embassy in London, the sarcophagus was sent to Rome on a cargo flight, escorted by Guardia di Finanza commander Massimo Rossi and his gendarmes. It arrived the evening of Wednesday, July 18th. The next day it was revealed in all its glory at a press conference in Rome, and then trucked to Aquino where it was greeted with tears of joy by the locals who had given up hope that they’d ever see it again.

Sarcophagus arrives in AquinoFor security reasons, the sarcophagus is being kept in the city museum rather than in the church. The mayor of Aquino, Antonino Grincia, says they hope to be able to return the sarcophagus to the church, “its natural home,” when conditions permit. One hopes that means some sort of anti-theft system is in place, but there are no specifics at the moment.

Santa Maria della LiberaYou might wonder how a sarcophagus depicting a not even remotely Christian chariot race is naturally at home in a church, and as its central altar, no less. The answer is this church is a beautiful example of austere Romanesque architecture, built in the 11th century over the ruins of the Temple of Hercules Liberator (hence Santa Maria della Libera) from marble scavenged off of the many ancient structures in town, including the temple itself. The walls are packed with decorative marble bits and bobs, epigraphs, cornices, funerary reliefs, and metopes (the flat rectangles between decorated pieces of a frieze). I’ve seen a lot of churches made out of a lot of recycled Roman marble, but this collage style is really something special. You can observe the beautifully severe jumble of antiquity and Middle Ages in this YouTube video.

The sarcophagus was actually discovered on the church site during a 19th century excavation. After its initial discovery, the sarcophagus was moved to the nearby palace of the seminary where it was put on display in the atrium. The palace was damaged by Allied bombing in 1944, so after the war the sarcophagus was moved to the church which had survived the war just like it had survived the previous thousand years. Towards the beginning of those thousand years, incidentally, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Doctor Angelicus, author of the Summa Theologica, was baptized in that very church. Aquinas is a Latin demonym meaning “from Aquino.”

Ned Kelly’s remains to go to family, not developers

Excavation of mass grave at Pentridge Prison siteThe skeletal remains of 19th century Australian folk hero outlaw Ned Kelly were discovered in a mass grave on the site of the former Pentridge Prison in 2008. Unlike many of the more than 30 executed criminals buried in that grave, Kelly’s bones — minus the skull which is still missing — were in a box of their own, so experts from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine were able to examine them without having to sort out which bones amidst the jumble of bones belonged together. They were able to confirm that the skeleton bore the marks of wounds Ned Kelly had incurred on that fateful day in 1880 at the Glenrowan Inn when police finally caught him after a shootout; namely, partially healed gunshots in his toe, left elbow, and wrist and the shot to the shin that took him down.

Ned Kelly's confirmed bonesIt wasn’t until last year, however, that a mitochondrial DNA match with a great-grandnephew of Kelly’s established beyond question that the skeleton was all that remained of Ned Kelly. Once the determination was conclusively made, the government of the state of Victoria said it would return the skeleton to Kelly’s descendants for burial as they saw fit. There was some discussion of a public memorial service, some queasy back-and-forth with police representatives who were appalled at the idea of celebrating the life of a cop-killer, and debate over the potential tourist revenue vs. the distaste of Ned Kelly fans making a shrine out of his new grave.

Ned Kelly, taken the day before his execution on November 11, 1880Then it all came to a screeching halt when real estate developer Leigh Chiavaroli, owner of Pentridge Village, the company that owns the area of Pentridge Prison where the mass grave was discovered, laid claim to the remains. They were found on his property, was his argument; therefore they were his, and he wanted to keep them to put them on public display in a museum on the site. He also wanted three million Australian dollars in compensation for the building delays caused by the excavation of the mass grave.

The prospect of their ancestor’s bones being made a public spectacle appalled Ned Kelly’s relations. As it is, his body had not been treated with anything like decency, from the moment of his death onward. On November 10th, 1880, the day before his hanging, Ned Kelly dictated a letter to the colonial Governor of Victoria, George Phipps, 2nd Marquess of Normanby, that closed with his last wishes. He couldn’t write the letter himself because of the gunshot wound to his wrist, so William Buck, warder at Melbourne Gaol where Kelly was imprisoned, hanged and initially buried, wrote it for him. Ned signed it with his mark, a large X over his name. You can see a photocopy of the complete letter here, and, courtesy of the Public Records of Victoria website, you can download a huge image of the entire Kelly capital case file here. The letter in question is about halfway down. His final requests are just above the signatures in that letter:

Ned Kellys final wishesI have been found guilty and condemned to death on a charge of all men in the world I should be the last one to be guilty of. There is one wish in conclusion I would wish you to grant me, that is the release of my Mother before my execution as detaining her in prison could not make any difference to the forementioned. For the day will come when all men will be judged by their mercy and deeds and also if you would grant permission for my friends to have my body that they might bury it in Consecrated ground.

Ellen Kelly (third from the left, seated) at the family homestead after her release from prison in 1881His mother Ellen Kelly was also imprisoned in Melbourne Gaol at that time, condemned to three years hard labour for her supposed role (the charges were widely seen as trumped up in retaliation against her son) in the attempted murder of a police constable. Neither of his final wishes was granted. His mother served her full term, 1878-1881, and Ned’s body was not buried in consecrated ground. It wasn’t even just peaceably buried.

A young and snazzy Ellen Kelly in costumeVictorian Institute of Forensic Medicine experts found the marks of a cutting saw on some of the bones, proving that despite all their vehement public denials, the authorities at Melbourne Gaol had allowed his corpse to be dissected. By law, dissection was only allowed in case of a coroner’s inquest when it was necessary to determine cause of death. It was a big scandal at the time that Ned Kelly’s mortal remains had been so violated against custom and law.

His skull had been given to phrenologists to make an in-depth “scientific” study of and then returned to the police, who used it as a paperweight. When the contents of the Melbourne Gaol graves were moved to Pentridge Prison in 1929, workers took a skull they thought was Ned Kelly’s and kept it for decades. The police kept theirs for decades too, but by the time both skulls wound up in the hands of experts at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in the 1970s, experts found that neither skull was Ned’s. Ned Kelly’s skull remains on the lam.

On Wednesday, August 1st, the Victoria State Government stopped the rollercoaster Ned Kelly’s bones have been riding. They issued a new exhumation license for his remains, a legal maneuver that ensures the Kelly descendants will receive his remains.

They will bury what’s left of Ned in consecrated ground, as he asked, probably in Greta Cemetery where Ned’s mother Ellen is buried. The descendants have to make the decision as a group so there’s some discussion to be done before the details are pinned down, but it seems likely that they’ll opt for a private burial ceremony.