Fragment of flag from Battle of Bosworth sold

A fragment of cloth from a flag the flew over the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, sold to an anonymous private collector for £3,800 ($6,150) at auction last Saturday. The 6.5-inch by 5.5-inch piece of gold and red fabric is a remnant of the standard of Henry Tudor, who after his victory over King Richard III at Bosworth would become King Henry VII. From the auction house press release:

The fragment had been passed around over the years as an amusing after-dinner thought,” [auctioneer Charles Hanson] said.

“Our vendors are obviously aware of its social value today since the imagination of what happened at the Battle of Bosworth will keep historians debating for years to come. I am just delighted such a fundamental accessory to that 1485 battle has been unearthed only months after finding King Richard III in a Leicester car park. As an auctioneer, I thrive on the social relevance such bygone artefacts had on society. If only this fragment could talk I am sure it could tell us so much.”

The flag fragment is mounted in a frame along with a description of its history dated November 13, 1847. It’s been in the same family ever since then. Doubtless the result of 400 years of oral transmission, aka a very long game of telephone, the description gets some key facts wrong. It claims the piece is:

A relic of the Standard taken from Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field, August 22, 1485. The enclosed relic was taken from Standard in Stanton Harcourt Church deposited by the tomb of one of the Harcourts, who was the Standard bearer to Richard III.

The glaring inaccuracy in this account is whose standard the fragment came from since we know it to be Henry Tudor’s rather than his royal opponent’s. The piece was taken from the Bosworth flag hung over the tomb of Henry’s standard bearer, Sir Robert Harcourt, Knight of The Bath. Sir Robert died five years after the battle, around 1490, and was buried in the Harcourt Chapel in St Michael’s Church, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire. The tattered remains of the standard he bore were hung above his effigy.

Across from his tomb is that of his grandfather, also named Sir Robert Harcourt, and his wife Margaret Byron. The elder Sir Robert was initially a Lancastrian with a front row seat to the inception of the War of the Roses. He escorted Margaret of Anjou from France to England in 1445 to marry King Henry VI. Things began to go south in 1448 when he killed fellow Lancastrian Richard Stafford at Coventry. He was pardoned for killing Stafford by the king in 1450, but the murder launched a feud between the families that would last for 38 years, long outliving Robert.

As a result of the feud, Harcourt’s Lancastrian loyalties were sorely tested. He was already suspected of having Yorkist sympathies in 1459 and by 1463 he was a confirmed Yorkist. King Edward IV made him a Knight of the Garter that year and he fought for Edward in the siege of Alnwick Castle. For his great services in the capture of Alnwick, Robert was granted £300 a year for life. He died on November 14th, 1470, at the hands of a bastard son of William Stafford of Grafton and 150 Stafford retainers.

By 1485, the Harcourts were Lancastrian again, now fighting on Henry Tudor’s side. The Staffords took the other side and fought for Richard at Bosworth. The next year, Sir Humphrey Stafford of Grafton and his brother Thomas co-led the first uprising against King Henry VII after Bosworth, conspiring with Francis Lovell, 1st Viscount Lovell. The Stafford and Lovell Rebellion was quickly suppressed. The Staffords picked a fight in Worcester which was a stronghold of support for Henry, while Lovell thought better of putting his neck on the line and fled to Burgundy. The Staffords took cover in a monastery from which Henry removed them by force, engendering a big brouhaha about the right of sanctuary that resulted in a Papal Bull that excluded sanctuary entirely in cases of treason. Thomas Stafford was pardoned. Humphrey Stafford was executed at Tyburn. The feud between the Harcourts and the Staffords died with him.

In an unrelated but nonetheless satisfying coincidence, the Harcourt family, Norman French descendants of the Viking yarl Bernard the Dane, fought with William the Conqueror and settled in England after the Battle of Hastings. William granted them estates in Leicestershire and they made their family seat in, you guessed it, Bosworth. The family seat only moved to Oxforshire in 1191 when yet another Robert de Harcourt inherited the Stanton manor from his wife Isabel de Camville’s father. The town of Stanton was then renamed to Stanton Harcourt and the Harcourts have been there ever since. They still own the manor house although it hasn’t been the family seat since the 19th century.

See La Sagrada Família finished in 90 seconds

The church of the Sagrada Família, final masterpiece of architect Antoni Gaudí and an icon of Barcelona, was begun in 131 years ago and is still unfinished. When the cornerstone was laid on March 19th, 1882, the church was to be built according to a neo-Gothic design by the diocesan architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, but he resigned in 1883 over conflicts with consulting architect Joan Martorell and architect Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of the Association of the Devouts of Saint Joseph created to promote the construction of a church dedicated to the Holy Family. Martorell was offered the job of head architect but he declined and suggested his protégé Gaudí.

Gaudí was just 31 years old when he headed the call to build the new church. It would become his life’s work and he committed to it almost exclusively from 1915 until he was hit by the number 30 tram in 1926 and died at the age of 73. He was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Família. The church was between 15 and 25 percent complete at the time of his death. Construction continued under Domènec Sugrañes i Gras who had worked for Gaudí for 20 years. It was Sugrañes who finished the façade of the Nativity over the next 10 years.

Then the Spanish Civil War ignited and work on the church stopped in 1936. Catalan anarchists set fire to the church crypt, to the school Gaudí had built on the site for the children of the workers, and most damaging of all for the fate of the building, to Gaudí’s workshop which contained all his plans, drawings, notes and models. He didn’t use blue prints, preferring to make 3D models and make changes organically as he went along. Those models were essential, therefore, to the execution of the church Gaudí had envisioned.

In 1939, architect and Gaudí collaborator Francesc de Paula Quintana i Vidal picked up the pieces, restoring the crypt and painstakingly reconstructing the models that had been damaged during the war. Using the rebuilt models as guide’s to Gaudí’s vision, construction resumed on the ravaged church. Since then, a number of architects have taken up the mantle, adapting the design as they deemed necessary, something Gaudí himself did all the time, but since nobody but Gaudí is Gaudí, any and all changes have caused controversy.

Still, construction continues inexorably, sometimes more vigorously than others depending on how well fundraising is going. The church is entirely privately funded and over the years financial bottlenecks have occasionally slowed traffic to a crawl. A major milestone was passed in 2010 when the roof over the main nave was completed and an organ installed. This meant the church could finally be used for services. It was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI on November 7th, 2010, at a mass attended by 6,500 indoors and 50,000 outside.

In 2011, the construction committee announced a completion date of 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. Sort of. If not 2026, then surely by 2028. Maybe. Let’s face it, they still don’t know. It’s such a complex project and there are so many variables that the only way we’ll know for sure the Sagrada Família is finished is when it’s actually finished.

Since that is indubitably a long way off, here’s a wonderful digital rendering of the remaining construction and the final triumph to tide you over.


US returns silver griffin rhyton to Iran

The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:

It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.

The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.

This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.

“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.

He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.

Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.

The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.

Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.

Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.

We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.

In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.

The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.

Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.

Attic mummy is plastic with real human skull

The mummy discovered by ten-year-old Alexander Kettler in his grandmother’s attic in Diepholz, northern Germany, in August is neither a mummy nor an ingeniously disguised crime victim. Forensic examination has determined that most of it is a plastic skeleton, possibly a medical school model, of recent manufacture topped with a genuine human skull.

The discovery process led scientists on a merry chase. First, Alexander’s father Lutz Wolfgang Kettler hefted the sarcophagus and other boxes into his Mercedes station wagon and drove the lot to the Archaeological Institute Berlin. The “artifacts” that were found along with the mummy case (an earthenware death mask and a canopic jar) were quickly dismissed as fakes, mainly because they look like they were made by 8th graders out of papier-mâché. Next the experts examined the bandages in which the mummy was wrapped and found they’re machine-made linen or cotton of 20th century manufacture. They did not unwrap the mummy on the off-chance that it might be genuine.

Lutz Kettler wanted to know more, so he took the mummy back home to Diepholz and booked a radiology appointment at a local hospital to see what was inside the wrapping without running the risk of damaging any human remains. CT scans and X-rays found what appeared to be a human skeleton of indeterminate gender inside the linens. The skull had a large arrowhead embedded in the eye socket and was wrapped with a metal “diadem” that looks more like a doubled up version of Björn Borg’s headband or those weird things scrunchy things people put on bald babies’ heads. The rest of the petite 4’10” skeleton seemed to be wrapped in some kind of metal foil which made detailed X-ray analysis impossible. One neck vertebra was missing.

Even though they were unable to confirm whether the skeleton was genuine, the experts who examined it speculated that it might be a composite of several bodies. All they knew for sure after the radiography was that the skull was human. That’s where the authorities stepped in. With a confirmed human skull wrapped in 20th century bandages, police wanted the remains thoroughly examined by forensic experts. After all, wanting to cover up a crime could be a motivation for wrapping the bones in metal foil to keep prying X-rays away from an uncomfortable truth. The authorities confiscated the mummy from Kettler’s garage and brought it to Hamburg so forensic pathologists could determine just when and how this little fellow died.

The pathologists took the plunge and unwrapped the figure. They found it was not a real mummy, nor even a real skeleton. There was no metal foil, but rather a plastic skeleton sprayed with a metallic chemical that blocked X-rays from revealing the plastic within. The skull was real, but the dramatic arrowhead in its eyeball was a child’s plastic toy. The human skull and fake skeleton were packed in kitchen towels used as wadding. The skull shows signs of being a medical school preparation. A circular cut around the skull indicates it was sectioned and opened and then put back together with metallic tape, not baby head scrunchies.

With the forensic examination finding no body and a head that was probably from a med school cadaver, the police determined that there was no crime to investigate further. The Kettlers are still waiting to hear the results of some of the tests done on the skull to determine its age and origin, and Lutz Kettler is still keen to ascertain how this crazy amalgam wound up in his parents’ attic for decades.

Brazil emperor’s toothbrush found in Rio subway dig

Archaeologists excavating the site of a future subway extension in Rio de Janeiro have unearthed more than 200,000 artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries. Many of them are in pristine condition, even fragile pieces like glass bottles and ceramic containers, and they have an illustrious provenance. There was a slaughterhouse on the site between 1853 and 1881, but before that archaeologists believe it was a garbage dump for the nearby imperial palace.

Garbage is often a rich source of archaeological treasure, and this landfill is an outstanding example of that having preserved decades, even centuries of material history of the imperial family and other area residents. It’s a massive combined record of the mundane and rarefied, mundane because they are consumer products like toothbrushes and water bottles, rarefied because what would be an everyday drug store purchase for us peasants was a bespoke, finely crafted and doubtless very expensive import for the emperors of Brazil.

The ivory toothbrush thought to have belonged to Dom Pedro II, who ruled over Brazil from 1831-1889, has turned brown with age. Its boar bristles are long gone, but the inscription remains legible: “His Majesty the Emperor of Brazil.” A round white porcelain pot emblazoned with “to the Queen of Portugal Maria of Saboia” is thought to have contained mint-flavored tooth paste made specially for the queen by a chemist with offices in London and Paris.

The site has also yielded dozens of intact glass and ceramic bottles thought to have once contained water imported from Europe for the imperial family. Six sealed bottles still contain unidentified liquids that the team plans to send to a laboratory for analysis. Dozens of coins and pipes were also found, along with a golden ring and a tie tack.

Archaeologists believe the artifacts survived in such exceptional condition because the area was swampy and waterlogged. The wet conditions provided cushioning and protection for breakable objects like bottles and jars, keeping many of them intact without even a crack.

Excavations have been suspended for the time being for the construction of the new subway tunnels which are part of the city’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics. All the dig trenches have been covered with multiple layers to protect them from damage during construction and to clearly mark the sites. When the tunnels and stations are complete at the end of 2015, excavations will resume. Lead archaeologist Claudio Prado de Mello believes they’ve only scratched the surface, that there may be as many as 800,000 artifacts on this site.

The team of more than 30 archaeologists and historians will spend the next three years working on the vast store of artifacts they’ve unearthed. The finds will be cleaned and catalogued, the broken pieces and fragments will be collected and puzzled together. All the laboratory work is being underwritten by the company that won the subway building contract.