Stolen £1.2m Stradivarius violin found after 3 years

A Stradivarius violin stolen from South Korean violinist Min-Jin Kym on November 29th, 2010, when she was having a gnosh with her cellist boyfriend at a Pret a Manger in London’s Euston station has been recovered by the British Transport Police (BTP). The violin, crafted by the great Cremona master Antonio Stradivari in 1698, is worth an estimated £1.2 million ($1.82 million). It was in a black carrying case that also held two valuable bows, a Peccatte bow worth £62,000 ($94,000) and a bow from the Bazin school worth more than £5,000 ($7,600). Ms. Kym placed the case on the floor for a few minutes while she ate and the next thing she knew, it was gone.

She immediately called the police to report the theft. The British Transport Police looked at CCTV footage of the station and identified the thief as an adult man who sat next to Kym while she ate her £2.95 ($4.50) sandwich and made a phone call. Two teenagers distracted the staff so the thief could take the case without being noticed, and then the three of them quickly left the Pret a Manger.

Min-Jin Kym (34) bought the violin in 2000 for £750,000 ($1.14 million), her life savings. She had been playing the Stradivarius since it was first loaned to her when she was a teenager (her international debut was with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra when she was just 13 years old). She had the instrument insured by Lloyd’s Canopius Group for the amount she paid for it, but over the decade it had increased in market value, and most importantly, it was priceless to the artist, part of her identity as a musician and a precious treasure to the musical world that she felt herself a custodian of more than just an owner. The insurance company offered a £15,000 ($22,000) reward for the instrument’s return and the authorities made a public appeal for information. The CCTV images were released to the BBC program Crimewatch.

Four weeks after the episode aired, the police had the three culprits in custody: Dublin-born Irish traveller John Maughan (40 years old when captured), a career criminal with 65 convictions on his record, most of them for the theft, who has used more than 40 aliases with 26 different birthdays, and two youths aged 14 and 16 who cannot be named because they’re not adults. None of them had any idea what a rare artifact they had so larcenously acquired.

The day after the theft, Maughan and his accomplices went to an internet café in Tottenham Court Road where they Googled “Stradivarius” and “1698,” the year of the violin’s manufacture. Somebody sitting next to them noticed their search terms and they engaged him in conversation. Proving yet again how many thieves are complete idiots, they tried to sell the violin to this random guy in an internet café for £100 ($151). He refused, and he actually told them this, because his daughter already has a musical instrument: a recorder.

In March of 2011, Maughan was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. His accomplices were remanded to juvenile detention. All three were said to be cooperating with police in the recovery of the violin, but to no avail. The violin, bows and case were still missing. In February of this year a purported Stradivarius violin turned up in a sting in Bulgaria. The BTP investigated if it might be Min-Jin Kym’s, but it turned out to be a fake, made no more than 100 years ago.

The BTP never thought the violin had left the county, so they kept working their leads UK-side. Last week, the real thing was found in a property in the Midlands. Police aren’t providing any details about how this came about other than to say it was the result of a line of enquiry they’d been pursuing for some time. The violin appears to be in good condition, with only minor damage visible. It is being kept at an undisclosed London location where experts are assessing its needs.

Since the insurance company paid out after the theft, it is now the technical owner of the violin. They don’t want to be mean about it, though, and will be working on a deal so that Min-Jin Kym can buy her precious back.

Here’s Kym talking about the crushing guilt she felt at having lost her Stadivarius and her reaction to the great news:

Inca child sacrifices were drunk, high before death

An international team of researchers studying the three Inca mummies discovered in 1999 in an ice pit atop Llullaillaco volcano in the Argentinian Andes has found that the children drank alcohol and chewed coca leaves regularly for up to a year before they were sacrificed. The children died approximately 500 years ago in a sacrificial harvest ritual called capacocha. They walked to Cuzco, the seat of the emperor, and back again to participate in ceremonies and then were taken to the top of the volcano where they were given a maize beer called chicha until they passed out. Once they were unconscious, the priests carefully placed them in underground niches. There they froze to death.

The cold, arid, thin air of the high Andes (the summit where the children were found is 6,739 meters, more than 22,000 feet, high, the highest elevation where Inca sacrificial victims have ever been discovered) created natural mummies so well preserved that they still look like sleeping children. Many of their internal organs are intact; there is brain matter in the skull, blood in the heart and lungs, skin and hair in place.

Subsequent DNA analysis found that none of the three were related to each other. They were also in good physical condition before their death — well-fed, no injuries, no signs of violent death, although the boy was bound around the time of his death and blood on his clothing may indicate he suffocated from a pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal side-effect of altitude sickness. The eldest girl, dubbed “La Doncella” meaning “The Maiden,” had sinusitis a lung infection when she died. The younger girl was struck by lightning some time after her death, hence her nickname “La Niña del Rayo” (the lightning girl).

Flecks of coca leaf were found around the Maiden’s lips, so archaeologists have known for years that she was chewing on it right before she died. Given their long journey high up the volcano, coca leaf would have been a helpful, even necessary tool to combat altitude sickness. It was also a ritual substance used reverently for ceremonial purposes. The chicha had a ceremonial and practical role as well: it was symbolic, a product of the harvest being celebrated and it put the children to sleep to enable their death from exposure.

By studying the hair of the mummies — the long braids of the Maiden and the shorter cropped tresses of the younger children — researchers were able to put together a timeline of coca and alcohol consumption. Since the Maiden had much longer hair than the little kids, her timeline spans the last 21 months of her life. Only the last nine months of the two younger mummies’ lives could be plotted. The team discovered that the two young ones drank alcohol and chewed coca at a steady pace over their last nine months. The Maiden ingested far greater amounts of coca in the last year of her life than in the nine months before that and large amounts of alcohol in her final weeks.

At about six months before death, there was a ceremony that involved ritual hair cutting — some clippings were found with the mummies — and that coincides with a peak in coca consumption.

The coca consumption and alcohol use then begin to rise sharply again in the weeks before death, probably as the Ice Maiden and two younger children were marched from Cusco to the volcano, stopping along the way for ceremonies that likely involved large amounts of coca and chicha. […]

These festivals en route to the mountain, [Tulane University anthropologist John] Verano noted, could explain why the Ice Maiden was drinking so much corn beer along with elevated coca chewing in her final weeks.

It’s also possible, he added, that “she had a drinking problem. Maybe she started drinking beer the last year of her life and just found it to be pleasant or particularly soothing.”

She also would have realized what was coming more fully than the little ones, so maybe she had more of a reason to drink heavily.

A hair study in 2007 found that the three children ate better in their final year than they had early in life. They subsisted mainly on potatoes when they were very young, but their diets late in life consisted of llama meat and maize, elite foods in Incan society. This strongly suggests all three children were peasants who were chosen, thanks to their physical “perfection,” for ritual sacrifice. Once they were in the hands of the priests, they were fattened up and plied with alcohol and coca to prepare them for their ceremonial roles. Being chosen to die was considered a great honor and according to Incan beliefs, the sacrificed did not die but become angels guarding over their people from the mountain heights.

That the children were intoxicated just for the final ceremony isn’t the only received wisdom the new study has upended. The Maiden was previously thought to be 15 years old at the time of her death, Lightning Girl six and the boy seven. CT scans from this project found that they are all two years younger than their estimates. The Maiden was 13, the girl four and the boy five. Archaeologists also thought that the two young children may have come from nobility because their heads show sign of deliberate malformation, but if that were the case, they would not have lived on potatoes for the first years of their lives.

Grey Friars stone coffin opened to reveal lead coffin

On Tuesday, July 23rd, the University of Leicester team excavating the Grey Friars site set about taking the lid off the medieval stone coffin discovered last September during the Richard III dig in what was once the choir of the church. Made out of carved limestone, it’s the first intact medieval stone coffin ever discovered during an archaeological dig in Leicester. The box is 2.12 meters long (seven feet), .6 meters (two feet) wide at the wide end were the head would be placed, .3 meters (one foot) wide at the narrow feet end and .3 meters deep. The heavy stone lid does not match the coffin and the mortar is damaged in some areas, suggesting it may have been added after the original internment, then removed or at least tampered with.

After a night of rain, the entire site was pockmarked with puddles, but the team had thoughtfully put a tent over the stone coffin so they wouldn’t have to wade hip-deep into mud to examine it. The team cut the mortar seal all the way around and placed straps under the lid. Eight people were enlisted to hold on to the straps and lift the solid stone lid up and to the side where it was set down carefully on the ground. Inside was another coffin, this one a lead wrapper 5 millimeters-thick embracing the body. We know there’s a body inside because the bottom of the lead coffin was damaged leaving the feet exposed. This is further evidence that the coffin was exhumed, opened and re-buried.

No identifying marks have been spotted on either of the coffins, which is a shame because a nice handy label is the only way to know for sure who was buried in them. There was a rough cross soldered into the lead, which could suggest it contained someone or something (a relic, for example) of religious significance. Then again, anybody Christian buried in two expensive coffins in a prime position under a church choir is just as likely to have a little cross iconography in the mix somewhere.

It was certainly someone of great consequence. Likely candidates include Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272), William of Nottingham (d. 1330), both leaders of the English Grey Friars order, and a man described in the documentary record as “a knight called Mutton, sometime mayor of Leicester,” who researchers believe was Sir William de Moton of Peckleton (d. between 1356 and 1362). A large limestone coffin would have been difficult and expensive to make. Sufficient lead to make a wrap-around coffin was also extremely expensive.

The lead coffin reminds me of the late Roman “burrito” sarcophagus found in a necropolis at the Etruscan site of Gabii in 2009. At a half a ton in lead, it was considerably bulkier than the Leicester coffin, but they are both major signifiers of wealth. Lead coffins tend to preserve remains relatively well, as long as they’re not damaged (like the Grey Friars one) or filled with earth (like the Gabii one). They certainly pose a great challenge to conservators because you can’t just open them and see what’s in there. Lead is highly malleable and easy to damage. Any rough handling would harm the artifact (hence the dangling feet situation) and therefore the human remains within.

The lead coffin was lifted out of the stone coffin and sent to the University of Leicester lab for analysis where researchers will try to figure out a way to examine the contents without damaging the artifact or the remains.

The second dig at Grey Friars is now officially over. The decapitated monks were not found, nor were they able to find the remains of the nave. It seems a large portion of the church was completely destroyed by later construction, no foundations left or anything, which makes the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton even more insanely improbable.

More panels of large Greek mosaic found in Calabria

Last year, on the last day of the 25th consecutive year of excavations, large panels depicting a 20-by-13-foot dragon, a sea serpent, a large rosette and multiple panels of floral designs from a large Hellenistic mosaic were uncovered in the ancient Greek colony of Kaulon or Kaulonia, today the city of Monasterace Marina outside of Reggio Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot. Archaeologists and students from Italy and Argentina were digging on the site of a monumental bath from the 4th century B.C. when they unearthed a long pool. At the end of the pool, they found a floor covered with a vast maritime-themed mosaic that covered an area of 25 square meters (260 square feet) and they had only uncovered two-thirds of it.

Now archaeologists have found more panels of the same mosaic adding another five square meters (54 square feet) to the total and making this the largest Hellenistic mosaic ever discovered in Magna Graecia (Greater Greece, ie, Greece’s colonies in southern Italy). The new panels feature another dragon, a small dolphin and a larger dolphin facing off against the dragon. The space has thus been dubbed “the room of dragons and dolphins.” Its Hellenistic style dates the mosaic to between 323 and 146 B.C., a period when the city was on the come up after some rough treatment with the tyrants of Syracuse.

Legend has it that the city of Kaulon was founded by Caulon, the son of Clete, an Amazon warrior who was Queen Penthesilea’s nurse and one of the twelve women who followed her to Troy. After Penthesilea was killed by Achilles, Clete left Troy to return home but a storm drove her ship off-course. She landed in Calabria and founded the city of Clete (Cleto). Her son Caulon struck out on his own, taking after Mom and naming a new town after himself. He and his mother are both said to have died fighting to defend their cities from the city of Croton.

Whatever the kernel of truth there may or may not be in the foundational mythology, the city of Kaulon was prosperous and independent for centuries after its founding in the 8th century B.C. It had a large port and supplied timber to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. It also traded in stone, salt, gold, lead, ceramics and metal objects. With all this trade income coming in, the city minted its own coins.

In 389 B.C., Kaulon was conquered by Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse, who had in fact conquered Croton 10 years before and would hold it for another two years after the fall of Kaulon. He destroyed the city and deported all its residents to Syracuse. Kaulon was rebuilt by the tyrant’s son Dionysius II. He was visiting it in 357 B.C. when his uncle Dion, a philosopher student of Plato’s who, having failed to convert his dissipated and cruel nephew to enlightened despotism, overthrew him instead and established a quasi-democracy/senatorial republic/slightly less abusive tyranny in Syracuse. Dion was assassinated by his soldiers in 354 B.C. and Dionysius II stepped back into the breach in the chaos that followed.

(Dionysius II is also the star of the story of Damocles’ sword. Damocles was a courtier who flattered the king, exclaiming upon what a fortunate man he was to wield so much power and wealth. Dionysius had him sit on his throne so he could experience the good fortune of kingship himself, then hung a large pointy sword above his head hanging from a thread the thickness of a single horse hair. Damocles thus realized that all the trappings of wealth of power come at a huge price: constant fear.)

Kaulon took up with Hannibal during the Second Punic War and was destroyed for good by the Romans around 200 B.C. When people rebuilt, they moved inland creating the ancestor of the town of Monasterace, leaving the Greek city in ruin.

Cheapside Hoard watch looks like the Enterprise

In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition of the Cheapside Hoard at the Museum of London, Birmingham City University researchers are examining select pieces from the hoard with the latest technology to investigate how they were made. Using laser scanning technology, artCAD (artistic Computer-Aided Design) and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software, experts have collected as much data as they can about the construction of the jewelry and then recreated them digitally.

“Our forensic analysis has revealed the amazing technologies which craftsman of this period were using – and we fear some of these 400-year-old processes may now be lost to us,” said Dr Carey.

“It is has been a fascinating investigation. We think of our own time as one of impressive technological advances but we must look at the Elizabethan and Jacobean age as being just as advanced in some ways.”

Just what those technologies were has not been specified.

Some of the pieces were so damaged researchers have to restore them digitally before they could study their craftsmanship. The Ferlite watch, for instance, a gilded brass verge watch signed by G. Ferlite, is severely damaged in a number of areas and corrosion has eaten away at the pendant, case and dials. It was Laser scanned but the results were disappointing because highly reflective surfaces like glass and polished gold can’t be scanned easily. The scans had to be enhanced and interpreted through CAD in order for a full picture to emerge.

This kind of highly technical approach went outside the usual curatorial purview, so experts from other university departments were enlisted. Keith Adcock, Senior CAD CAM Technologist at the University of Birmingham’s Jewellery Industry Innovation Centre (JIIC) and Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), worked on the watch in CAD/CAM.

Keith imported a photograph of the watch face and using ArtCAM’s “Relief from Image” tool created a model surface. This removed the need to trace around every part of the imported image to create the vector artwork. Keith comments, “ArtCAM is absolutely fabulous for interpreting photographs and creating textures.”

However, due to the effects of the corrosion on areas such as the day-dial on the right hand side of the watch face, Keith needed to alter some of the automatically generated reliefs. Fading out the photo, Keith used ArtCAM’s advanced vector drawing tools to quickly trace around the parts he wanted. He then remodelled areas using ArtCAM’s “Shape Editor” and combined these with the reliefs generated from the scan data. Smoothing tools were then used to soften the surface finish before ArtCAM rendered the piece as it would have looked prior to receiving its enamel finish.

Once the digital model was complete, it was rendered in 3D and printed out of resin on a 3D printer. With the specialized supports created in CAD and printed in 3D, the watch resin model looks like the Enterprise with a custom clockface body kit.

Another piece of the Cheapside Hoard, an elaborate cage pendant (possibly worn as a headpiece) festooned with pearls, was recreated in bronze instead of printed in resin. Stripped of its pearl adornments, the intricate egg-shaped cage structure of the object is exposed.

I actually like it better without the pearls carbuncling things up.

Until we get details about the construction methods used to create these jewels, my favorite part about this research is that the 3D models and recreations will take part in the Museum of London’s Cheapside Hoard exhibition to show visitors how the pieces were made and, best of all, so that the vision impaired can touch, palpate and explore them at will. I think that’s a genius idea, one that I hope to see in implemented widely in the future.