Archive for March, 2013

1700-year-old wool tunic found in melting glacier

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Archaeologists working on Norway’s Lendbreen glacier have found an intact woolen tunic dating to 300 A.D. The tunic is a greenish-brown now — it has darkened over the centuries — with a diamond pattern and it got a lot of use before it was discarded and swallowed up by glacial ice; there are several repaired patches. The garment was used as outerwear by a man about 5’9″ tall who for some mysterious reason took it off right next to a glacier 6,560 feet above sea level. One theory is that suffered from hypothermia which can make victims feel hot even in the middle of a freezing blizzard. Victims of hypothermia have been known to take off their clothes under the delusion that they’re hot.

The age of the tunic was confirmed by radiocarbon dating and archaeologists believe it was left along a Roman-era trade route which stopped being used in the 4th century when the area iced over. Warming global temperatures are melting the glacier at an alarming rate, thus exposing ancient artifacts that have been trapped in ice for centuries. And so environmental disaster yet again proves itself to be a boon for archaeology, but the window for recovery of organic artifacts is very short. As soon as they are exposed to air they begin to decay, and since they’re being exposed by runoff, they go from the preserving embrace of ice to the rotting chokehold of water. Wood can take a few years to rot, but ancient textiles can be destroyed by insects and bacteria in a matter of weeks.

The tunic was found in 2011, but archaeologists have been exploring the glacier since 2006. They have discovered more than 1,600 ancient artifacts exposed by melting ice since then, including wooden weapons, tools and textiles. They range from a 3,000-year-old leather shoe to the remains of a 1000-year-old base camp thought to have been used by reindeer hunters. The hunters set up tents on the top edge of the glacier and used the snowdrifts to trap the animals which would then be dispatched. The meat was probably processed on site and transported back to populated areas.

A remarkable collection of objects testify to this operation: a wooden tent peg, textiles, spear tips, arrows with ingenious split designs or tipped with embedded shell to harden and sharpen the point, a horse shoe, even a complete set of scare sticks, wooden planks tied together to make a lot of noise when shaken. The reindeer would be chased into the snowdrift traps by the sound of the scare sticks. There are artifacts that are unknown to us today whose use is a mystery.

There’s an excellent photo gallery of the more recent Lendbreen finds here and one of some of the older discoveries here.

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Amateur at public dig finds rare hedgehog-like fossil

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

July 4th, 2009, was one of six digs a year the Hessian State Museum holds on Saturdays with members of the local amateur paleontology organization at the Messel Pit, the former shale quarry 22 miles southeast of Frankfurt that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional deposits of early mammal fossils from the Eocene Age (57 million – 36 million years ago). One of the volunteers digging through layers of brittle oil shale was Klaus-Dieter Weiss, chairman of the organization who has been an avid fossil enthusiasts ever since someone gave him a petrified fish 40 years ago when he was 15. Weiss pushed a shale plate aside and saw a scaly tail.

It belonged to a virtually complete and beautifully preserved Pholidocercus hassiacus, a small insectivorous mammal related to modern hedgehogs that lived 47 million years ago. It had spiny fur like a hedgehog, and a long, thick rat-like tail covered in scales. The top of his head was also scaled, giving him a sort of helmet. This is only the seventh Pholidocercus ever discovered, and it’s one of the most complete.

Dr Norbert Micklich, from the Hessien State Museum in Darmstadt which has a huge collection of fossils from the Messel Pit, told The Local the find was extraordinary.

“You can see the shapes of the animal’s hairs – by the fossilised bacteria left there,” he said. “If we can take samples from what looks like the remains of the gut and get them under an electron microscope, we could even be able to work out what it had been eating.”

This high level of preservation is due to the unique environment of the Messel Pit. It was a lake bed during the Eocene, part of a series of lakes in the middle of sub-tropical forests. The bottom of the lake was relatively undisturbed by currents, and as layers of mud and vegetation sank, they created a highly anoxic environment uncongenial to aquatic animal life. With little movement, little oxygen and a slow rate of deposition, animals and plants that died in the upper layers of the lake were preserved in amazingly pristine layers. That’s how you get details like the shape of hairs and the stomach contents of an animal’s whose last meal took place 47 million years ago.

Another Pholidocercus hassiacus found in the Messel Pit and now in the Hessian State Museum is the holotype of the species, the specimen used to determine the scientific classification of the animal, but it’s missing half of its tail. This one’s tail is perfect. There is a piece missing from its spine, however, and according to the museum’s press release, that missing piece caused something of a paleontological drama.

The excavators didn’t notice a missing part; they thought the fossil was complete when they packed it up and sent it to the museum. When researchers unpacked it they got a nasty surprise. What caused the flaw in the center spine? Was it damaged in packing or in transit? Was it deliberate sabotage? The pictures taken in situ weren’t helpful. They were either lost, unusable or the key area was obscured by shadows.

Finally modern image processing technology revealed that in fact the damage had been done before the fossil was discovered. The plate was inadvertently split when the layers above it were being broken up, but the crack was hidden from sight by fine shale gravel. In the excitement of discovery, nobody noticed the flaw. The missing part has now been reconstructed.

The discovery was just announced at the end of February. The intervening three years have been dedicated to fully excavating the fossil from the shale, preserving it in plastic and repairing the spine. It was time well spent. Look at this beauty:

I can’t get over the scales on the tail. It’s like Japanese armour.

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Bodies in Norwich well buried in Jewish cemetery

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

The remains of 17 bodies, 11 children and six adults, dating to the 12th-13th century found at the bottom of a well in 2004 were given a Jewish burial in Norwich’s Earlham Cemetery on Tuesday. The bones were picked up by a hearse from the Norwich Castle Museum where they’ve been in storage. They were placed in five coffins covered with tallits (Jewish prayer shawls), driven past the Norwich Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and to the Jewish Cemetery within the larger cemetery where local Rabbi Alex Bennet conducted a traditional Jewish burial service.

Bishop David Gillet, interfaith adviser to the Diocese of Norwich, eulogized the deceased and took the opportunity to express repentance for the ugly history of Christian antisemitic persecution, pledging to “live and work in our generation for supportive and respectful relationships between our two communities.” There’s film of the service in this ITV story.

It took a lot of work to get to this place. The biggest issue was whether the remains could be positively identified as Jewish. Although DNA testing performed by Dr. Ian Barnes on the BBC show History Cold Case indicated that five of the 17 people were members of the same family with origins in South-East Europe to Central Asia rather than Western Europe, that’s not conclusive proof of Jewishness. It’s certainly evidence, especially in the relatively ethnically homogeneous society of medieval Norwich, but there are other possibilities. They could have been the descendants of Roman soldiers or even the result of intermarriages between Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and Middle Eastern locals.

The circumstantial evidence supports the Jewish theory. The well in which they were found was adjacent to the Jewish neighborhood and why would 17 Christians, 11 of them children, be dumped down a dry well rather than buried in consecrated ground? Even plague victims were laid out in pits and they were infectious. Their sad fate smacks of the deliberate disrespect of a mob, and many Jews faced the business end of mobs between the Norman conquest and Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

At any rate, the evidence was sufficiently convincing for Clive Roffe, Norwich representative on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to campaign for the bones’ proper burial. Starting in 2011 after the BBC program aired, Roffe together with Bishop David Gillet and other members of the Jewish community and Christian clergy petitioned for the bones to be released from the Norwich Castle Museum “for decent and appropriate burial.”

Museum authorities were initially reluctant. They wanted the bones to be available for further study and Alan West, curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, didn’t think there was any evidence suggesting they were Jewish. After more than two years of lobbying, the Board of Deputies persuaded the museum that no matter what their ethnicity, the bones should be respectfully buried and if the Jewish community was willing to accept them as their own based even on the mere chance that they were the remains of murdered Jews, then they should be allowed to take them in hand.

The board intends to erect a monument on the grave site indicating that the buried are thought to have been victims of a pogrom like the one in 1190 which took place in Norwich on the heels of an anti-Jewish massacre in York. The bodies will also be commemorated on a plaque in St. Stephen’s church which will quote the Hebrew scriptures.

Meanwhile the attempt to narrow down who these 17 people were continues. Dr. Joachim Burger of Mainz University in Germany, a top expert in the field, is in the process of analyzing the DNA. He won’t have any results to share for at least another month or two.

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FBI says they know who Gardner Museum thieves are

Monday, March 18th, 2013

But they aren’t telling. On Monday, March 18th, 23 years to the day after two men disguised as cops “arrested” the security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and helped themselves to three Rembrandts including his own known seascape, a landscape by Rembrandt’s student Govaert Flinck, a Vermeer, a Manet, five Degas drawings, a bronze Napoleonic eagle finial and an ancient Chinese bronze beaker, the FBI announced that they think they know the identity of the culprits.

“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft.” [Special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office Richard] DesLauriers added, “With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.”

Given the focus on New England crime families, this may be related to the FBI’s attempt to get senior citizen mobster and alleged prescription pill dealer Robert Gentile to cough up information they believed he had regarding “stolen property out of the District of Massachusetts” last year. After decades of dead ends and little activity, the investigation picked up real steam again in 2010 when new evidence was discovered pointing to the identity of the thieves and the path the art took after the theft.

Knowing whodunit doesn’t tell us where the art works, valued at $500 million but priceless in art historical terms, are today, however. The last known stop was the attempted sale in Philadelphia ten years ago. That’s part of the reason the FBI has chosen not to divulge the name of the thieves. The statute of limitations has long since run out on the original theft and agents believe the paintings have changed hands several times since then. The announcement is meant to engender wider coverage of the story, to remind people there’s a $5 million reward on the line for anyone who can provide information leading to the recovery of the works in good condition, not to initiate a manhunt but rather an arthunt.

Anthony Amore, the Gardner’s chief of security:

“You don’t have to hand us the paintings to be eligible for the reward. We hope that through this media campaign, people will see how earnest we are in our attempts to pay this reward and make our institution whole. We simply want to recover our paintings and move forward. Today marks 23 years since the robbery. It’s time for these paintings to come home.”

In fact, the FBI, the museum and the U.S. Attorney’s office all emphasized in the announcement that their interest is in getting the paintings back. Not even the law is interested in securing convictions for the greatest art heist of all time. As far as they’re concerned, once the paintings are back home in the Gardner, the case is closed.

Richard DesLauriers:

“The recovery of the paintings will mark the close of a 23-year FBI investigation. The successful return of the paintings to the Gardner Museum would be the final chapter in one of the most significant art theft cases in the FBI’s history. And it is a result we would all welcome — seeing these paintings returned to their rightful home.”

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz:

“As we have said in the past, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will consider the possibility of immunity from criminal prosecution for information that leads to the return of the paintings based on the set of facts and circumstances brought to our attention. Our primary goal is, and always has been, to have the paintings returned.”

Special Agent Geoff Kelly, heads of the FBI’s Gardner theft investigation:

“It’s likely over time someone has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed above a mantel, or stored in an attic. We want that person to call the FBI.”

I suppose there are some grounds for optimism that the paintings are still together and just stashed somewhere. They were kept for 13 years before the attempted Philly sale, so what’s another ten? If you’re in New England and have any kind of connection to current or former mob types, start looking closely at what’s hanging on their walls.

The FBI has set up a dedicated website on the Gardner Museum theft. In addition to information about the theft, there are podcasts and videos discussing the investigation and a gallery of high resolution images of all the stolen pieces. The Gardner also has an excellent web page on the theft with detailed information and good pictures of the stolen works (delete the size parameters in the url to see them in high res).

You can submit a tip to the FBI website, call the FBI’s hotline at 1-800-CALL-FBI, or contact museum security director Anthony Amore at (617) 278-5114 or via email at theft@gardnermuseum.org.

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Violin played as Titanic sank found in attic

Sunday, March 17th, 2013


The violin played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley as Titanic sank the night of April 14th, 1912, has incredibly survived and was discovered in a North Yorkshire attic in 2006. Auction house Henry Aldridge & Son announced Friday that after years of careful research and scientific analysis, they can confirm that the violin exists and is the real deal.

The owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, found the violin in a leather luggage case monogrammed “W. H. H.” when he was rummaging through his mother’s belongings. She was an amateur musician and a letter was found inside the case written by her former teacher, a local musician and violin instructor, who gave her this inestimable treasure. Also found inside the valise were Hartley’s silver cigarette case and a signet ring.

After making this crazy find, the owner contacted Henry Aldridge & Son who specialize in Titanic memorabilia. The monogrammed case, jewelry, letter and an engraved silver plate attached to the violin’s tail piece all suggested either authenticity or an impressively elaborate hoax, but as excited as they were by the prospect of having found the most important Titanic artifact to survive the sinking, involved in one of its most iconic moments — the band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while the ship went down — auction house experts realized it would take a great deal of work to authentic this miraculous survival.

They first brought it to the UK’s Forensic Science Service, a government office which provided forensic analysis to British police and other authorities before it was closed last year due to budget cuts. The service tested the corrosion and water stains on the violin, using other artifacts that survived the wreck for comparison, and found the corrosion deposits were “compatible with immersion in sea water.” Two long cracks on the violin’s body were determined to have been caused by moisture damage.

Next a jewelry expert took it in hand to examine the silver plate. The plate is inscribed “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.” Wallace Hartley’s fiancé was named Maria Robinson; she gave him a violin when they got engaged in 1910. The expert confirmed that the plate was original to the violin, engraved contemporaneously with the 1910 hallmarks on the panel.

While the physical evidence was being put to rigorous analysis, Henry Aldridge researchers and Hartley’s biographer Christian Tennyson-Ekeburg examined to the documentary record to try to trace its path from the deck of the sinking ship to the North Yorkshire attic. According to a news account, Hartley’s body was found 10 days after the disaster by a ship called the Mackay Bennett. He was fully dressed and the instrument was strapped to his body. However, the Mackay Bennett records have an inventory of the items found on the body and the violin is not listed.

Historians have assumed that either the news account was exaggerated/fictional or that the violin was stolen by someone after the body was found, but Maria Robinson’s diary proves that the violin was recovered and officials returned it to her. Researchers found a transcript of a telegram dated July 19, 1912, in her diary. Sent to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia, the telegram read: “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance’s violin.”

It seems that the news story got close to the truth. His violin wasn’t strapped to his body directly, but rather Hartley put his violin in his valise (which was too small for the bow to fit) and then strapped the bag around him right before the sinking. The bag and violin may have helped keep his body floating, and since he was on his back and they were on top of his life jacket on his chest, the violin and bag were for the most part not immersed in the water. A letter from his mother found in Hartley’s breast pocket survived with almost no water damage.

Hartley’s cigarette case and signet ring were returned to his father. He gave them to Maria and she kept them together with the valise and violin as a sort of shrine to her lost beloved. She never married and died of stomach cancer at her home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, in 1939 when she was just 59. Maria’s sister Margaret gave the valise and contents to the Bridlington Salvation Army, telling its leader Major Renwick about the incredible journey the violin had taken. Major Renwick gave it to a Salvation Army member who was a violin teacher, again passing on the Titanic story. The teacher gave it to his student, the current owner’s mother, along with a letter relaying what Major Renwick had told him.

In the early 1940s, the current owner’s mother was a member of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force stationed at Bridlington. She met the music teacher who later dispatched the valise and violin to her.

A covering letter that has been found states: “Major Renwick thought I would be best placed to make use of the violin but I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life.”

The owner plans to eventually sell this marvel, but first he wants it to be seen by as many people as possible. It will go on display at Belfast City Hall, just a mile away from where Titanic was built, at the end of the month. They’re working on putting together an international tour after that.

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Cirencester Roman cockerel cleans up real purty

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

The enamelled bronze figurine of a cockerel unearthed in a child’s grave during a 2011 excavation of a Roman-era cemetery in Cirencester has been cleaned and conserved. Even caked with dirt you could see that it was a beautiful piece, inlaid with blue and light green enamel diamonds on a proudly puffed chest. Now that it has been liberated from its loamy cage, the decorative detail and quality of construction mark it as one of the finest pieces of its kind ever discovered.

Dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D., the figurine is five inches tall with the stretched neck and open beak of a cockerel mid-crow. It has enamel inlay on the breast, wings, comb, tail and forming each wide eye. The enamel inlay is shaped to match the part, so while enamel on the chest is diamond-shaped, around the edges of sides it is elongated and curved like long feathers. The enamel in the comb is three mounds following the bronze shape, and on the back/wing they’re closely set crescents in columns. The tail has a swirly openwork decoration with matching enamel accents. The enamel is shades of blue, green and yellow, but may have had a brighter palette including red when new.

The construction is ingenious. Much like Gaul, it is divided into three parts. The main body is hollow, with the back/wing plate and the tail created separately and then soldered to the body. This saved metal and made it easier to craft and to decorate. Each part could be enameled individually and then put together.

There are only eight Roman cockerels of this kind known to have survived. Four were discovered in Britain and are similar in construction and enamel styles. They may have been a examples of a trend in figurines, or they have been created by the same artist or workshop. The Cirencester figurine is the only one of the cockerels found in Britain to have been excavated from a grave and the only one whose tail has survived.

The other cockerels were found in Germany and the Netherlands, but may have also originated from Britain which was a center of fine enamelwork. One particular workshop in Castleford, West Yorkshire, northern England, was renown for its high quality enamel and may well have produced the Cirencester piece. Cirencester is in the south, so if cockerel was from Castleford, it would have been an expensive import on top of the expense of production.

Archaeologist Neil Holbrook, from Cotswold Archaeology, said the work had “exceeded expectations”, particularly for highlighting its fine enamel detail.

“It reinforces what a fantastic article this is and how highly prized and expensive it must have been,” he said. “This must have cost, in current money, thousands of pounds to buy and countless hours to make, and so to actually put this into the grave of a two or three-year-old child is not something that you would do lightly.

“It really shows that this was a very wealthy, important family, and signifies the love that the parents had for the dead child.”

The cockerel was one of the attributes of the god Mercury, the messenger of the gods who guided the souls of the death to Hades. The parents of the child probably included the expensive and beautiful cockerel figurine as a tribute to the god to secure a safe trip to the afterlife for their beloved child.

The Corinium Museum in Cirencester is hoping to secure the cockerel for permanent display. While talks continue, the figurine will be on public view for the first time on March 27th in Bingham Hall on King Street, Cirencester. The cockerel will be exhibited during the Cotswold Archaeology Annual Lecture which this year is about childhood in ancient Rome. Professor Ray Laurence of Kent University will be the lecturer. Admission is free.

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One of the oldest sundials found in Valley of Kings

Friday, March 15th, 2013

A University of Basel archaeological team has discovered one of Egypt’s (and thus the world’s) oldest sundials in the Valley of the Kings. Excavators found the flat limestone piece when clearing the entrance to a tomb near a group of stone huts where workers building the tombs lived during construction. The huts date to the 13th century B.C., and researchers believe the sundial dates to the same period. It may even have been used by the workers to determine how much toiling they had left to do for the day.

It doesn’t look very fancy. The flat surface of the limestone is marked with a black semicircle divided into 12 segments marking what we call for the sake of convenience “hours” even though they didn’t have the fixed length that our hours have. Each section is approximately 15 degrees wide but they’re fairly roughly drawn. There’s a hole where the lines meet in the middle of the baseline which is where a tool — a wooden or metal rod — would be inserted to cast the time-keeping shadow over the limestone. Small dots have been added at the top middle of each segment to mark the half hour.

The 12 sections divide the daylight between sunrise and sunset. Obviously that period is shorter in the winter, so winter hours were shorter than summer hours. Until more precise clocks became widespread in the Renaissance, variable hours continued to be used in Europe.
As much as it looks like something intended more for the proletariat than the aristocracy, it’s entirely possible that the sundial could have come from the wall of a royal tomb.

The division of the sun path into hours also played a crucial role in the so-called netherworld guides that were drawn onto the walls of the royal tombs. These guides are illustrated texts that chronologically describe the nightly progression of the sun-god through the underworld. Thus, the sun dial could also have served to further visualize this phenomenon.

The oldest Egyptian shadow clocks date to around 1500 B.C. The earliest surviving sundial dates to the reign of Thutmosis III (1479 – 1425 B.C.) and is in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. It’s an L-shaped stone engraved with the pharaoh’s name. On the short of the side of the L is a hole where a plumb bob would hang to do the shadowing while the long side is marked with five circles to tell the time. As far as we know, this is the oldest portable timepiece.

Turn of the century Egyptologists thought that Egyptian obelisks were used to tell time from the length and angle of their shadows, but recent scholarship disputes that theory. There is nothing in the copious engravings on their sides that has anything to do with time marking. The idea that they were massive timepieces is probably a result of their being used as sundials centuries later when they were looted and taken to Europe by the Romans and Napoleon’s troops.

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Van Dyck painting found thanks to online database

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

A painting by Flemish Baroque master Anthony Van Dyck has been discovered in storage at the The Bowes Museum by an expert who came across it on the BBC’s Your Paintings website. Art historian and dealer Dr. Bendor Grosvenor was perusing the Public Catalogue Foundation’s massive database of all 210,000 publicly owned paintings in the UK (online at the Your Paintings site) to research an upcoming exhibition when he spotted the Portrait of Olive Boteler Porter.

The portrait had been in the collection since the museum opened in the market town of Barnard Castle in north east England in 1892. It was purchased in Paris by the museum’s founder John Bowes in 1866. When he bought it both the sitter and artist were unidentified. The museum later determined the subject was Olive Boteler Porter, wife of Endymion Porter, a good friend of Van Dyck’s, and lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, but the painting was still listed as “a copy after Sir Anthony Van Dyck.”

Years of caked dirt and yellowed varnish had kept the portrait off the gallery floor and in storage. When Grosvenor raised the prospect that it could be a work by the master himself, the Bowes enlisted him and his colleagues at Philip Mould & Company who have conserved more than 20 Van Dyck’s to clean the painting. Taking a minimalist approach — removing all but the oldest layer of varnish and doing some minor retouching in areas where the paint was removed by prior cleanings, most notably in the left eye — conservators were able to reveal the glowing delicacy of the skin tones, fabric and draping.

Philip Mould now officially confirmed that Grosvenor’s eye was unfailing, that the painting was a genuine Van Dyck. Other Van Dyck experts, including Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes, co-author of Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, were brought in to assess the cleaned portrait and they all agreed that it was the real thing. When Ms. Porter returned to the Bowes, she was given pride of place on the gallery wall. No more storage for her.

The wheel has come full circle for Olive Boteler Porter, who followed her husband out of the country in 1646 when all field resistance stopped in the Civil War and Parliament was in control of the country. Olive had taunted Parliament repeatedly. She had adopted the queen’s Catholicism in 1637 and was a most vigorous adherent of her new faith, converting several noblewomen and absconding with her dying father, brother of the Duke of Buckingham, in an attempt to save his immortal soul before it was too late. She and Queen Henrietta openly defied Parliament, flaunting their successful conversions in a parade at Christmas. The Puritan-dominated Parliament was not amused. They saw Olive as a fifth columnist, maybe even a spy for Spain, and that suspicion spilled over onto her husband even though he never converted.

The painting was probably done around the time of her conversion. Van Dyck painted several portraits of her, alone and with her husband. Endymion Porter also bears the distinction of being the only person Van Dyck ever painted standing next to him in a double portrait now in the Prado Museum.

When the Porters fled England, they probably took the painting with them, which is how it ended up in France, and under great financial duress, sold it. There’s a wax collector’s seal on the back that marks it as property of either Henri, 2nd Duc de Montbazon (d.1654) or his son Louis (d.1667). Two hundred years later, John Bowes bought the painting from his favorite Paris Dealer along with another painting attributed to Van Dyck said to be of Henrietta Maria. That was the one from the school of Van Dyck, while the lady-in-waiting is the real deal.

When I blogged about the Public Catalogue Foundation’s project and the Your Paintings database in December 2011, they had just reached the halfway mark with 104,000 paintings uploaded. Less than a year later, all 210,000 public paintings in the UK were photographed and uploaded to the BBC website. Out of the 210,000 works by 45,000 artists, 30,000 of them are unattributed. It’s tremendously exciting that the online database is directly responsible for matching one of those orphans with its artistic father.

The saga of the newly discovered Van Dyck was the subject of a recent episode of The Culture Show (not available outside the UK), a BBC program hosted by Bendor Grosvenor. You can also read a fascinating account of the characteristics that mark the portrait as Van Dyck’s work and the research into its provenance on Grosvenor’s website.

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Amarna skeletons show hard living in the new capital

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Pharaoh Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti, father of Tutankhamun, upended Egyptian society when he repudiated the traditional gods and established the monotheistic cult of the sun god Aten. In the fifth year of his 17-year reign (1349–1332 B.C.), Akhenaten began construction on a new city on the east bank of the Nile 200 miles south of Cairo and 250 miles north of Luxor, dedicated to the worship of Aten. The pharaoh wanted to start afresh, build a new capital untainted by any memory of previous rulers and religion. Two years into construction Amarna was officially declared the capital and two years after that, construction was finished. In the space of these few years, Amarna would become a city with a population of 20,000-30,000, mostly officials, soldiers, laborers, servants who followed Akhenaten and the court.

It was abandoned a few years after Akhenaten’s death until it was resettled in the Roman era. A thousand years without human habitation converts into archaeological gold, and because Amarna was built so quickly according to a plan by resident laborers during a time of social upheaval, it provides a unique window into life under Akhenaten. The cemeteries are particularly interesting because there’s no doubt about when and where the deceased lived, an advantage not often encountered in Egypt since cemeteries were usually separate from the towns of the living.

Since 2005, the Amarna Project team has been exploring the South Tombs Cemetery where the 90% of the population that was not wealthy was buried. Archaeologists found evidence that the standard of living for the vast majority of people in Amarna was not only far from the idyll depicted on tomb walls, but also below the basic threshold you’d expect to find in the capital of a wealthy empire.

The graves are simple, oblong pits marked by limestone boulder cairns with the occasional memorial stela or miniature limestone pyramid on top. Grave goods are similarly sparse. There’s a smattering of pottery, amulets, jewelry, cosmetics containers, but most of the graves include only human remains and the burial container. Out of the 200 graves excavated so far, only 20 wooden coffins have been discovered. Everyone else was wrapped in a textile and rolled in mats made of rigid plant material. Even the coffins are downmarket. Most of them are plain undecorated boxes. Some are human shaped and decorated with funerary scenes. One of those is painted with hieroglyphics that don’t mean anything; they’re gibberish, probably copied by an illiterate artist for an illiterate customer.

The bones themselves tell the most articulate story.

Researchers examining skeletons in the commoners’ cemetery in Amarna have discovered that many of the city’s children were malnourished and stunted. Adults show signs of backbreaking work, including high levels of injuries associated with accidents.

“We have evidence of the most stressed and disease-ridden of the ancient skeletons of Egypt that have been reported to date,” said University of Arkansas bioarchaeologist Jerome Rose (a National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration grantee), one of the team of experts examining the dead. “Amarna is the capital city of the Egyptian empire. There should be plenty of food . . . Something seems to be amiss.”

Analysis of the 159 individuals with at least 50% of the skeleton remaining revealed exceptionally high rates of nutritional deficiencies and workplace injuries. Cribra orbitalia (cranial lesions caused by malnutrition that appear in the upper orbits of the eyes) appear in 42.7% of the skeletons, porotic hyperostosis (lesions in the cranial vaults) in 2.9%, scurvy in 5.2%. Adults are shorter than ones from comparable sites. Child skeletons show significantly delayed growth starting from the age of just 7.5 months. The worst example showed a delay of two years, poor kid.

They may have been small and poorly fed, but they were worked like the mule. The 95 adult skeletons in the sample are riddled with degenerative joint disease (DJD), musculo-skeletal stress markers (MSM) and healed bone fractures. From the study:

A total of 71 adults (77.2 per cent) exhibited some evidence of DJD in at least one joint. The joints considered include the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, ankle and all three regions of the spine. More than half of the individuals exhibiting DJD had severe manifestation (42/71; 59.2 per cent) in at least one joint. At the population level, a lower frequency of individuals exhibited DJD of the lower limb (47.7 per cent), but in contrast to the upper limb, the DJD of the lower limb was more often severe (21.6 per cent). Upper limb DJD was nearly ubiquitous among the South Tombs Cemetery population (65.9 per cent), but it was less often severe (13.7 per cent). The spine also exhibited high frequencies of DJD development (56.7 per cent presence; 35.6 per cent severe), with the most common severe manifestation being observed in the lumbar region

All that hurried construction work required to build Amarna from the desert up in four years is the probable cause. The standard-size limestone block measured 20 inches by 10 inches and weighed 154 pounds. These could be carried by one person, unlike the larger blocks of earlier periods, but not without major damage to the bones and joints, especially of the lower body.

If there’s any consolation it’s that the small children were not subjected to this kind of work. Their malnourished little bodies showed no signs of DJD, MSM or trauma. They didn’t escape it for long, though. Two teenagers have injuries, one spondololysis (when the arch or back of the vertebra separates from the main body) and the other a fractured foot bone, which are likely to have been work-related.

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Stolen 14th c. crucifix panel painting back in Venice

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

After more than six decades on the lam, a 14th century crucifix panel painting attributed to Paolo Veneziano returned home on Monday, March 11th. Painted between 1335 and 1345 in the Gothic style made famous by Florentine masters Giotto and Cimabue, the crucifix is more than nine feet high and eight feet wide. The crucified Christ is the central figure, with the Virgin Mary looking sorrowfully at her son from the right of the crossbar and Saint John from the left. An angel painted above the cross looks straight out at the viewer.

It was removed from the Church of San Pantaleone Martyr in Venice at the end of World War II. Although most of the articles vaguely allude to Germans stealing it on their way out of occupied Italy, it seems they weren’t marauders so much as receivers of stolen goods. According to Edward B. Garrison’s 1959 book Italian Romanesque Panel Painting, it was the parish priest himself who illegally sold the masterpiece to German troops to raise desperately needed money for his war-ravaged community.

Consider its massive size, it’s quite remarkable that the painting remained intact during its smuggling travels. It touched down in Rome and France before winding up in a private collection in Germany. Last year, the collector consigned the crucifix to the Lempertz auction house in Cologne. When Lempertz experts investigated the ownership history of the piece, they realized it was never legitimately sold.

With the crucifix’s presence in the market the result of theft and considering its unique cultural importance, Lempertz did something I have never seen an auction house do: they bought it from the seller at cost and donated it to the Church of San Pantaleone. That is some gift. Medieval painted crucifixes are rarer than hen’s teeth on the market, and one of such massive size and quality is practically unheard of. The auctioneers were of course fully aware of what they were losing, but they made a conscious decision to make the ethical choice rather than ride willful blindness all the way to the bank like so many auction houses before them have done.

“It’s a work that has no equal in the market,” says the Lempertz specialist in Old Master Paintings Mariana M. de Hanstein. “If it didn’t have the history it has, the pre-sale estimate would probably be around 700,000 euros. But this is a work that cannot be sold. It is a moral issue. It does not belong to the market, but to a large international museum.”

The managing partner of Lempertz Henrik Hanstein said: “In the beginning we were excited about the delivery of a work of Venetian painting from the fourteenth century of such quality. But then it became immediately clear to us: this work does not belong in an auction but to its original home, the church that Venetians with their wonderful dialect called San Pantaleon. We are happy to be able to return so significant a work to the city of Venice, to which we are grateful for so much extraordinary art.”

Note to self: when you hit the lottery, go buy all your stuff at Lempertz.

On November 17th, a ceremony was held in Cologne officially returning the painting to Venice. Before the Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Italian consul Eugenio Sgrò, Italian ambassador Elio Menzione, the crucifix was formally handed over to Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, Patriarch of Venice. Before settling down permanently in Venice’s ever-loving arms, however, the masterpiece made one more stop. From February 15th until the end of the month, it stood in the place of the papal throne in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. On February 28th, it witnessed Pope Benedict XVI’s final address to the College of Cardinals before his formal abdication and departure to Castel Gandolfo.

Now that the crucifix is in Venice, it is being examined by conservators. Once it gets a clean bill of health, the painting will be moved back to the Church of San Pantaleone Martyr.

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