Men seek cat, find catacomb

Mirko Curti and Raimondo Turnu in front of the newly exposed side of the caveOn the night of Tuesday, October 16th, 25-year-old bartender Mirko Curti left his apartment building at 196 Via di Pietralata in the Tiburtina neighborhood of Rome with his friend Raimondo Turnu in search of a missing cat. They heard meowing and followed the sound to an aperture that, due to heavy rains, had recently appeared in a low volcanic tufa cliff nearby. It was the entrance to a cave. Inside they found a number of human bones and a wall of niches called a columbarium which once held the ashes of Roman dead. “It was impressive,” said Curti. “I felt like an explorer. You go behind your house and you end up feeling like Indiana Jones.”

You might think this sort of thing happens all the time in a city as ancient and layered as Rome, but it really doesn’t, hence their elation. Tiburtina is within the current boundaries of the city, not in the historic center. It’s a relatively modern residential neighborhood, outside of the pomerium, the ancient sacred boundary that marked what was Rome and what was just land Rome owned. It was prime real estate for burials, though, since by law people could not be buried inside the pomerium. Plenty of archaeological finds have been made in the area (especially along the ancient Roman road), but you wouldn’t expect to stumble on one while looking for your cat behind your building.

Opening in the wall they slipped throughDespite their excitement at having stumbled onto an Indy moment of their own, the young men did the proper thing and left, calling the police to alert them to the find. (Sadly, there’s no word on whether they found the cat too.) The next day, the police called in various authorities, including municipal agents and firefighters, but first on the scene were archaeologists from the city Superintendence of Cultural Goods. Their preliminary findings indicate that the columbarium is of early Imperial date and was violated long ago. The human bones appear to have come from a higher level burial. They probably collapsed to their current location as a result of an earthquake or a landslide.

The area is susceptible to that kind of thing because tufa is very soft rock, which makes it easy to dig for necropolis purposes and makes it vulnerable to the elements. The ancients carved many caves into the Tiburtina cliffs, and recent rains caused stones and earth obscuring the large entrance of the cave to collapse. The city Superintendence has fenced off the cave entrance and closed off the small opening for now out of concern for public safety given the precariousness of the walls and roof of the structure.

Colombario of Pomponio Hylas on the Appia AnticaWith the premises secured, now the state archaeologists are examining the contents. According to their assessment, the columbarium dates from the 1st century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., an era when this style of burial was very popular among Romans of modest means. They would make monthly payments to a collegium, a burial society, which would then foot the bill for cremation, an urn and a dignified burial with all the proper rites in a communal columbarium for members and their families. More prosperous families would sometimes team up to share a columbarium, or one family would purchase one for themselves and sell any leftover spots to individuals.

Because of the landslides, the recently discovered columbarium has a mound of earth obscuring most of the niches. When the cave is stabilized (which may be a while because Rome is expecting heavy rains in the upcoming days and weeks), archaeologists will excavate to reveal the full wall as well as recover the scattered bones. The finders estimate that there were at least 100 loose bones. Archaeologists expect that they will be of later date, although there could be overlap on the more recent end of the estimate. Inhumation was becoming increasingly fashionable by the second half of the 2nd century A.D. It would make cremation virtually obsolete by the fourth.

Kelly Clarkson buys Jane Austen ring; export blocked

Jane Austen turquoise and gold ring in its original boxAt the Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale in London this July, a turquoise and gold ring which had once belonged to Jane Austen was purchased for £152,450 ($244,000). As is their wont, Sotheby’s did not release the name of the buyer, but now the buyer has revealed herself. In an interview with British tabloid the Daily Star, singer and first American Idol Kelly Clarkson identified herself as the bidder who won Jane Austen’s ring.

The ring has a flawless provenance. When Jane died in 1817, she left all her possessions to her sister and best friend Cassandra. Three years later, Cassandra gave the ring to Eleanor Jackson, soon to be her sister-in-law as the second wife of her brother Rev. Henry Thomas Austen, the brother Jane was closest to. Eleanor Austen passed it to her niece Caroline, who had known Jane briefly when she was a little girl. It has been kept in the family this entire time, only becoming public knowledge now because of the sale. This ring is the first piece of Jane’s jewelry to come up for auction in a generation. Note from Eleanor Austen, wife of Rev. Henry Austen, Jane's brother, to her niece Caroline bequeathing her the ringIncluded in the lot is a hand-written note Eleanor wrote to Caroline shortly before her death in 1869:

“My dear Caroline. The enclosed Ring once belonged to your Aunt Jane. It was given to me by your Aunt Cassandra as soon as she knew that I was engaged to your Uncle. I bequeath it to you. God bless you!”

Unfortunately for Ms. Clarkson, she won’t be wearing Jane’s ring back home. She applied for an export license as required by law, but the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest advised the Secretary of State not to grant it on the grounds that the object is of national importance. With the export ban in place, the item cannot leave British soil. Kelly is going to have to cross an ocean to visit her ring.

The Reviewing Committee assesses each object according to three criteria established by a 1950 export policy committee chaired by Viscount Waverley. There are three Waverley criteria against which an export item is to be judged:

1. History — Is the object so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
2. Aesthetics — Is the object of outstanding aesthetic importance?
3. Scholarship — Is the object of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Jane Austen's ringAlthough Jane Austen’s ring is a lovely cabochon natural turquoise, it’s too simple a design, I suspect, to qualify as a national treasure under Waverley two. There is little of scholarship value in the ring. Jane was known to have simple tastes in jewelry, something reflected in her characters and in at least one letter to her sister Cassandra from May 24th, 1813:

“I have bought your Locket, but was obliged to give 18s* for it-which must be rather more than you intended; it is neat & plain, set in gold.”

It’s a limited area of study, however, and there’s nothing in the correspondence or in the literature about this particular ring. Keeping the ring in country isn’t likely to add anything of major import to Jane Austen scholarship.

Jewelry on display at the Jane Austen's House Museum; topaz cross on the right is Jane's, Cassandra's is on the leftThat leaves Waverley one, which assesses an object’s significance as an individual artifact or in the context of local history or of a collection, or in its association with important events, people or places. It’s that personal association with one of England’s greatest authors which I suspect underpinned the Reviewing Committee’s decision to recommend an export ban. The ring is also quite rare, as Jane Austen lived a modest life and wasn’t dripping jewelry to begin with. Even less of it is known to have survived. The most famous piece is a topaz cross, now on a necklace with a cross of Cassandra’s, both of them gifts from their seafaring brother Charles who purchased them in 1801 with prize money he received for the capture of a French ship during the Napoleonic Wars. The crosses are on display along with some of Jane’s and Cassandra’s other jewels at the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.

First edition of "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion," printed 1818Kelly Clarkson won’t leave England entirely empty-handed. At the same auction, she also purchased a first edition Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously in 1818, for £4,000 ($6,200).

In the article, Clarkson also cops with pride to being one of our brethren of history nerds by way of explaining all the nerdy things she does whenever she’s in the UK. This time she forwent her usual tour bus in favor of a car and driver that would allow Kelly and her sister to see the sights wherever they wished. They apparently had a Jane Austen theme going on, since one of the stops was to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire where the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet was filmed.

Possible Richard III grave to remain open

King Richard III, painter unknown, ca. 1590-1610The original plan for the Leicester parking lot dig that was so astonishingly successful was to excavate two trenches over the course of two weeks which would be filled in and reverted to a parking lot at the end. That was based on everyone’s modest expectations of what they might find. Then the deities of archaeological good fortune laid giant sloppy kisses all over them so they were able to locate the Greyfriars church and abbey and, most importantly, human remains of a male with scoliosis, sharp force trauma to the skull and an arrowhead embedded in his back.

At the press conference where the discovery of the potential Richard III skeleton was announced, speakers noted that the plans for the dig site had obviously changed somewhat. Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester, noted that the Leicester Council members were going to have to make do without their parking lots a while longer, as examination of the trenches would continue for the foreseeable future. At the same time, they made clear that the parking lot would return as soon as the archaeologists were through. When a reporter asked if there was any chance of the site remaining open for visitors, he was told that the archaeological site is not really “display quality” because there’s little to see other than the trenches themselves.

Grey Friars site mapNow it seems they’ve devised a compromise plan. Two of the three trenches will be entirely refilled and paved for parking lot purposes; however, the section of the trench where the skeleton was found will not be filled. (On the site map, it’s the bit that juts out from the Walking Place marked with a line. The dot at one end of the line is where the head was found.) It’s been covered by a protective tent to keep it safe from the elements. This is a temporary solution until they make a final decision on how best to preserve the grave site for future display, but it’s certain that the grave itself will be kept open.

As for the rest of the dig, the fragile parts of the trenches were first lined with a geotextile membrane (synthetic polymer sheets that are used in construction to separate substrate layers and keep them from intermixing but still allowing water to drain through normally), then backfilled with the same material that was removed during the initial excavation. This will preserve some of the more delicate church and abbey remains like the exposed mortar bedding from the tiled cloister floor even as it allows most of the dig site to be resurfaced and returned to parking lot duty.

Diggers removing the tarmac from the parking lot for the first trench - University of LeicesterAfter six enormously successful open days over the second half of September when vistors flocked in thousands to see what is very likely to be the grave of the last king of England to die in battle, clearly the Leicester City Council realizes it would be madness to bury the goose that lays the golden eggs. If I had my druthers they’d kiss their parking lots goodbye and dig up the entire Greyfriars site, but that was never going to happen. They’d have to knock down buildings to expose all of the church and abbey, and they probably wouldn’t find anything underneath those buildings anyway because whatever ruins were there were probably destroyed during the later construction.

In fact, the skeleton itself came precipitously close to being irretrievably damaged by a Victorian building. Nineteenth century foundations begin less than a foot above where the skull of the probable king was found. Site director Mathew Morris said: “It was incredibly lucky. If the Victorians had dug down 30cm more they would have built on top of the remains and destroyed them.”

The DNA analysis is still ongoing. Results are expected before the end of the year. If DNA does confirm, the question of where the remains should be reinterred will explode. The Richard III Foundation has already started an online petition asking that Richard’s remains be buried in York Minster instead of the place where he was betrayed and defeated, corpse paraded naked through the streets and then unceremoniously buried as a usurper. The Leicester press has dismissed this effort because the organization is based in Virginia. Philippa Langley, secretary of the Scottish Branch of the Richard III Society, spent years working to make this dig happen and she is firmly on Leicester’s side, both for historical and practical reasons.

York Minster stained glass Richard III window“When I started the process everybody said the remains should stay in Leicester. There’s a huge case for that because he’s been here for the past 527 years and it’s the Leicester authority which has paid for the dig and provided assistance from the start.”

She said York Minster waited 15 years before agreeing to house a stained-glass window dedicated to Richard. “It worries me to think the same will happen with the remains,” she said. “The problem is that York Minster is full and there might not be anywhere for him. I don’t want the body sitting around for more than decade [sic] before they decide where they’re going to put him.”

Ultimately the decision is going to rest with the Royal Household, and so far all signs suggest they’ll leave it in Leicester’s hands.

Long Live the King! by Emma Vieceli, Kate Brown, Paul DuffieldOn a lighter note, Emma Vieceli, the artist who along with Kate Brown and Paul Duffield created the five manga panels inspired by stained glass depicting Richard’s death, burial and excavation that were used as graphic backdrops during the press conference (you can see all five of them at the bottom of this entry), is working with her collaborators on a series of graphic novels about Richard III. They won’t be about the dig, just about the history of the king from his youth in Middleham to his death at Bosworth Field. She’s in talks with publishers now.

159 pristine Roman gold coins found near St. Albans

A 34-year-old car salesman who had just decided to try his hand at treasure hunting went into this store in Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and purchased a $150 entry-level metal detector advertised as ideal for children and beginners. A few weeks later, he came back to the store with 55 Roman gold coins he had found on private land north of St. Albans and asked the staff what he should do with them. Store owner David Sewell, who has spent years metal detecting (and his best score was a rare medieval silver penny), told the lucky bastard to contact the local Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer.

In early October, local officials, the finder and the guys from the store, armed with more powerful metal detectors, joined up for a second, more extensive investigation of the field. In the 15 yards of woodland they explored, they unearthed another 104 gold coins, bringing the total up to 159.

All of them are 22-carat gold solidus coins struck in Milan (capital of the Western Empire from 286 A.D. to 402 A.D) and Ravenna (capital of the Western Empire from 402 A.D. until the collapse in 476 A.D.) in the late 4th century. The solidi bear the names and faces of the five different emperors who issued them: Gratian, Valentinian, Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius, the last Roman emperor to rule Britain. They are in incredible condition. When I first saw a thumbnail of the find, I thought they were double eagles or some other relatively recent gold minting. The high resolution picture confirms that they look as fresh as the day they were struck. Be sure to click on the picture to see them in all their impeccable glory.

Their condition is particularly impressive considering that they’ve almost certainly encountered the business end of farming equipment. The woodland where the coins were discovered has been quarried and farmed over the past two centuries, which is probably why the coins were found scattered over the area instead of together in a container. Given how immensely valuable solidi were, particularly in the waning days of Roman Britain when very little new currency was sent up north from Italy, they must have been buried in a container rather than just wrapped in an organic textile. No remains of a vessel were found.

Solidi were not circulation coins. Here’s David Thorold, Prehistory to Medieval Curator at Verulamium Museum, on the subject:

“Gold solidi were extremely valuable coins and were not traded or exchanged on a regular basis. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land or goods by the shipload.

“The gold coins in the economy guaranteed the value of all the silver and especially the bronze coins in circulation. If you saved enough bronze, you could exchange it for a silver coin. If you saved enough silver, you could exchange it for a gold coin. However, most people would not have had regular access to them. Typically, the wealthy Roman elite, merchants or soldiers receiving bulk pay were the recipients.”

End of Roman rule in Britain 383-410Hoards were buried either as a sacrifice to the gods or to keep valuables safe during dangerous times. I’m guessing the latter is the case here, since they were buried at a time when Roman troops were withdrawing from Britain and Saxon raiders were making mincemeat of southeastern England.

What is now St. Albans was known in Roman times as Verulamium. It was granted the rights of a Roman city in 50 A.D., extremely early in the history of Roman Britain, and became a large, prosperous market city on a major Roman road. At its height, it was the third largest town after Londinium (London) and Corinium (Cirencester). The city was already in decline by the second half of the 4th century, its once-beautiful theater, one of the few in Britain, used as a Remains of the Roman theater of Verulamiumgarbage dump. After Honorius withdrew the last Roman garrisons in 410 A.D., the city of Verulamium was abandoned. Its remains were used as a quarry in the Middle Ages by the nearby town of St. Albans which eventually expanded to include the area of the old Roman city.

This is one of the largest collections of solidi ever found. (The largest was the Hoxne Hoard, which included 569 solidus coins among many other treasures.) It’s certainly a discovery of national significance, and the local museum, the Verulamium Museum, is very keen to acquire them for display. Before that can happen, the coins have to be assessed by experts at the British Museum and then declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The local museum will then be given the opportunity to purchase the treasure at the assessed value, with all proceeds split between the finder and the landowner.

Touch Tours of ancient Egypt for the blind

Penn Museum Lower Egyptian galleryPenn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, is offering a pilot program that gives the blind and vision-impaired the opportunity to explore ancient Egyptian artifacts with their hands. The new Touch Tours kick off this fall with Insights into Ancient Egypt, a docent-led exploration of six carefully chosen artifacts in the museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery. Every Monday from October 1st through December 10th, pre-booked guests remove all rings and bracelets and degrease their hands with sanitizing wipes, then are invited to touch the artifacts in slow detail, something that is prohibited under normal circumstances in this museum as in all the others. Guide dogs are also allowed into the exhibit.

Sponsored by the BNY Mellon Mid-Atlantic Charitable Trusts and the Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, the Touch Tours are a new approach to education and community outreach for the non-sighted community. It’s not the first time Penn Museum has created a space where the blind could experience artifacts through touch. The Nevil Gallery for the Blind and Sighted allowed a variety of objects, including many in contemporary art exhibits by blind artists, to be touched by visitors. It was highly popular during its years of operation (from 1971 until 1988), but it was closed after the theft of a Sri Lankan mask on display.

This time the tours are not open to the general public. All groups must book in advance and the museum is otherwise closed on Mondays, so there will be no opportunity for people of ill intent to mingle and disguise themselves among legitimate visitors. Also, the six artifacts chosen for the pilot program are not so vulnerable to theft as they are all large, heavy pieces: Stela of Qa'a, ca. 3000-2800 B.C.the Stela of King Qa’a (ca. 2800 B.C.), a relief from the temple wall from Bubastis (picture here), the head of Tuthmosis III, the column of Ramesses II from the Harsaphes Temple at Heracleopolis, a window from the Palace of Merneptah (picture here), and the Sphinx of Ramesses II from the temple of Ptah at Memphis, which at 12 tons is the third largest sphinx in the world.

Each artifact was selected by museum staff working with conservationists, Egyptologists and blind focus groups over the past year. Museum Coordinator for Special Tours Trish Maunder has a daughter who is blind, giving her particular insight into what sort of object would be ideal for the Touch Tour. It’s not just artifacts that have elaborate carvings to trace, but also things that have interesting, diverse textures, that have a good backstory and lend themselves to rich descriptions, that have diverse temperatures (granite is colder than limestone, for example), and that are on enough of a human scale that you can get a sense of their entirety by touching them.

The massive sphinx would appear not to qualify on that last score, but since it’s the centerpiece of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian collection they didn’t want to leave it out. Besides, the statue was found buried in the sand with only the head exposed, so the hieroglyphic inscriptions around the base and shoulders are well-preserved while the face and beard are deeply worn. Visitors therefore have more to “see” by touching the areas they can reach. The museum made an accurate scale replica to give people the chance to feel the face and the top of the head.

There are other small replicas on display, as well as tactile diagrams that elucidate some of the details, like individual hieroglyphs. For visually impaired visitors, flashlights are shone on certain areas of the artifacts to illuminate elements that would otherwise be impossible for them to see in the generally dim lighting of the space.

Musician Blessing Offor, blind from birth, touches sphinx during September 24th special sessionThe volunteer docents also play a key role in making the artifacts “visible” to the blind and vision-impaired. They were given several weeks of training by specialists to learn how to describe for the blind. They had to learn to pack their descriptions with verbal cues of color, shape and size to focus on the details of the artifacts in a way they’ve never had to do with sighted visitors. The weeks of training culminated in a special hands-on experience day on September 24th where seven blind and visually impaired visitors, three of them with guide dogs, gave the docents constant feedback to help improve their descriptive skills and communication.

The docents have found that the enrichment of the experience goes both ways. Docents who have been giving tours in the museum for years have had to learn a new language of descriptive detail, getting to know the artifacts in a whole new depth, such as textural changes in areas where conservators have filled in eroded gaps. Sighted visitors usually view an artifact for a few minutes then quickly move on. The visually impaired spend an average of one hour exploring six objects. The blind have alerted them to details they never noticed before, for instance how the sphinx’s paws have lines indicating the claws and how the sides have perceptible ribs.

The program is a huge success already and most of the tours are booked solid. You can try to sign up for a Touch Tour by calling Penn Museum’s Community Engagement Department at (215) 746-6774 or by emailing If you’re not able to secure a spot in this round of tours, you can register for future ones. There are no dates for future Touch Tours established yet — the museum needs to raise more money to fund them — but the hope is that the program will continue and expand to the rest of the Egyptian gallery, as well as to the Greek and Roman galleries.

This excellent article covers a recent tour group from the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia touring the gallery. It gave the students a hands-on appreciation for history in a way they can’t get from sitting in class. Here’s video of the students exploring the Egyptian gallery: