Archive for December, 2013

Riace Bronzes back on display after four years

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

The Riace Bronzes, the pristine pair of 5th century B.C. Greek bronze warriors discovered off the coast of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, in 1972, have gone back on public display after an involuntary hiatus of four years. At 4:30 PM Italian time, Culture Minister Massimo Bray officially opened the doors of the Palazzo Piacentini, home of the National Museum of Reggio Calabria, allowing the invited guests to view the splendid Bronzes, vertical again for the first time since 2009. The doors will open to the general public tomorrow.

The museum building was designed in the late 1930s by Fascist favorite architect Marcello Piacentini and was in fairly good condition but needed extensive renovations to expand and modernize the space and update the facilities and technology. The Bronzes are world-class artifacts, unique and famous all over the globe. A lot of work was necessary to make the Palazzo Piacentini suitable for the crowds of people who would visit the statues if they could. It was also in desperate need of anti-seismic retrofits to ensure the safety of its precious contents in a city that has been virtually leveled by earthquakes at least a half-dozen times since antiquity.

To make way for the refurbishment, in 2009 the Riace Bronzes were removed from their bases and gingerly transported to the nearby Palazzo Campanella (see the video in this entry for footage of the painstaking transportation process), seat of the Regional Council of Calabria, where they were placed on their backs in a climate-controlled glassed-in space. There experts were able to take advantage of the opportunity to study, test and conserve the statues. That opportunity was only supposed to be two years long, but budgetary problems and a million other delays got in the way of the museum’s renovation. While Palazzo Piacentini continued to be indisposed, the Bronzes, Reggio Calabria’s greatest tourist draw, were indisposed along with it.

In their newly renovated hall, the statues now stand on new anti-seismic pedestals which anchor the statues to the floor even as they allow them to move by balancing the floor the Bronzes stand on over four spheres of marble. A system of counterweights ensures the statues will be able to remain standing on their pedestals should an earthquake strike. A handsome Carrara marble casing surrounds the pedestal.

Their idealized musculature is set off to its best advantage by a new lighting system and the reopening of windows that had been bricked up years ago. A state-of-the-art climate control and air filtration system ensures that the many artifacts from Magna Graecia (Greater Greece, the collective term for Greece’s southern Italian colonies) on display in the museum and in particular the Riace Bronzes are kept free of contaminants and in proper climactic conditions.

Other changes to the museum building include the addition of a roof restaurant with a beautiful view of the Straits of Messina, a new great hall for temporary exhibitions, a conference hall, a library and an underground level for storage of artifacts. The internal courtyard just beyond the entrance doors has been topped with a glass roof over an airy steel structure (it’s the first tensegrity roof in Italy) to create a new lobby from which visitors can see the Bronzes in their dedicated hall in the distance. They’ll get to see them up close in all their glory at the end of the route through the museum.

The renovation isn’t quite finished yet. Work on the roof, the conference hall and some of the other new spaces continues. The complete museum is expected to be open for business in April of next year, but considering that this was all supposed to be finished in 2011 in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the unification of Italy, I’d take that date with a grain of salt. At least the Riace Bronzes and many of the other ancient treasures of the museum are back in public view where they belong. As recently as last month the talk was they wouldn’t be back until the new year at the earliest.

It’s all the more important that these masterpieces of Early Classical Greek art have a permanent, stable home because the odds of them traveling again are basically nil. They are so delicate, especially in the solder joints, that any movement at all is a major risk to their integrity. Both warriors have braces on their left arms, the ones bent at the elbow that probably once held spears, to relieve the stress on the joints. When the Bronzes were moved from the Palazzo Campanella two weeks ago, it took one hour to transport them less than a half a mile. Extrapolate that speed, and they would have to leave now to make it to Milan by 2015.

Not that Reggio would let them go even if they could. The region has hard a time of it lately, between the economy and the struggle against the pervasive ‘Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate (last fall the entire Reggio city council was dismissed for suspicion of ‘Ndrangheta infiltration), and the return of the Riace Bronzes is seen as a rebirth of Reggio and of Calabria as a whole, a fresh start with a focus on the regions rich cultural patrimony bringing in much-needed tourist revenue.

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Stone armor pit at Terracotta Army tomb excavated

Friday, December 20th, 2013

The mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (reigned 247 B.C. – 220 B.C.) is famous for the vast Terracotta Army interred with him to protect him in the afterlife. Only a fraction of the warrior pits have been excavated. There are an estimated 8,000 warriors and horses in the three main pits. Two thousand have been unearthed, and just over half of them are in good enough condition to be on display. The Terracotta Warriors aren’t even in the main tomb. They’re a garrison just under a mile (1.5 kilometers) east of the emperor’s tomb, which is a mound 250 feet high.

The emperor’s tomb is at the center of the underground palace necropolis. While the imperial burial itself remains largely unexcavated, archaeologists have dug around it and found chariots, horses, terracotta court officials, terracotta acrobats, musicians, strongmen, bronze birds, the remains of real sacrificed horses served by terracotta grooms, mass graves of some of the estimated 700,000 workmen who labored 38 years in the construction of the necropolis complex.

In 1998, Chinese archaeologists unearthed a burial chamber to the southeast of the tomb mound. There they excavated more than 80 sets of ceremonial armor made out of limestone plates, forty helmets and horse armor. The armor was made out of limestone plates, more than 600 individual plates per set, which were connected by bronze wires that gave the plate enough flexibility to allow theoretical movement. This was not actual usable armor, however. They’re stone copies of the two kinds of armor that were used: the leather armor with rectangular plates of the common soldier and the iron fish-scale armor of the generals.

The artisans who created the stone armor painstakingly created each individual plate by hand, using sandstone to grind them to a consistent thickness of .3 centimeters. They perforated the plates repeatedly so that the bronze wires could be threaded through. This was a significant technical challenge, because the thin limestone plates are easily cracked. Archaeologists believe the stone was kept constantly wet while craftsmen drilled the holes with an iron spiral hand drill. There are six to 14 holes on each plate. When they experimented with replica materials, archaeologists found it took about three minutes to drill one hole. That means in drilling time alone, the plates for a single set of armor would have taken 350 work hours to complete.

The armor in the pit is in multiple layers, some containing relatively complete sets still connected, some with a jumble of strewn plates, some in good condition, some burned, possibly by the dastardly Xiang Yu. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove the armor plates that were still connected with the bronze wire, so, tragically, they cut the wires, pulled them out and then recovered the individual plates. Obviously this was very far from ideal, what with the destruction of priceless historical material, so researchers went back to the drawing board to figure out some way to remove the armor while still intact.

Experiments with cyclododecane (CDD), a consolidant compound that is liquid at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees C) and forms a wax-like coating when it solidifies. At ambient temperatures, it steadily sublimes until it’s gone. After years of trials, in 2004, CDD-impregnated cotton gauze was applied to a section of armor. It worked like a charm, essentially gluing the armor together. The section was encased in cardboard frame reinforced with wood. The frame was filled with polyurethane foam and straps were embedded in it. Once the poly foam had fully hardened, archaeologists pulled on the straps and the whole thing came out cleanly. No pieces were lost or damaged. The bottom of the plates and wires were cleaned, then the poly and CDD removed and the top cleaned.

The test was so successful that in 2005 a complete set of armor was removed from the pit. It was restored and put on display in the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum at the mausoleum site and on the road.

Meanwhile, back at the pit, an estimated 6,000 more sets of armor slumbered in their thick layers. Now excavations have begun again and there is fantastic footage of the crazy puzzle of armor in the pit. I can’t embed it, but you can see the excavation in this CNTV video.

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Nobody bought the Tiffany Bat Lamp

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Granted, it was prohibitively expensive for most of the world with a pre-sale estimate of $550,000 – 750,000, but it’s so rare and so wonderful that I expected Tiffany Studios’ Bat Table Lamp to be snapped up right quick by one the many deep-pocketed buyers that frequent Sotheby’s auctions. They were certainly on hand, since someone shelled out $1,565,000 for the iconic Wisteria Table Lamp which was estimated to sell in the same range ($600,000 — 800,000) as the Bat.

No disrespect to the Wisteria, but nobody puts the Bat Table Lamp in a corner. Behold its genius:

The Bat lamp, like its cousin the Dragonfly Table Lamp, was a departure from the floral patterns that had dominated the glassworks since its inception in 1893. Louis Comfort Tiffany was inspired to start the Queens factory after being “overwhelmed” by Emile Gallé’s pioneering Art Nouveau glass at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Gallé, who would make several wonderful bat-themed pieces including a lamp that pre-dates Tiffany’s, focused on natural motifs with an emphasis on flowerforms and so did Louis’ new glass company.

It was the influence of Japanese and Chinese art that brought the bat into the picture. Instead of being symbols of death and night, the Bram Stoker bat, if you will, in Asian art bats represent long life and good fortune. Japonisme, as the trend was called in France, inspired Art Nouveau designers from architecture to jewelry to wallpaper, and bats started to crop up more and more the last decade of the 19th and first decade of the 20th century.

Tiffany Studios’ introduction of a “Bat” lamp after 1902 is timely within this historical context. Although still unusual, the bat motif had gained prominence and was stylish. Moreover, its use on lamps was particularly appropriate since, after all, lamps are used at night, the temporal realm of bats. The decoration expresses the object’s function, but in a poetic and charming way.

Tiffany first explored the bat in a vase that he exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Like he would later with the Bat Table Lamp, he set the flying mammals against a starry night sky. When he took the theme to leaded glass, the background became darker, a rich midnight sky with blue and yellow stars against which the contrasting oranges and browns of the articulated bats glow.

Created around 1905, on the Tiffany Studios 1906 Price List the Bat lamp was priced at $125. In a time when the average wage was 22 cents an hour, this was a high luxury item. The glass mosaic inlay you can see above the bats on the base was particularly costly and time-consuming to produce. Just to give you some comparisons, the Wisteria lamp, made out of 2,000 pieces of individually cut glass, was listed on the 1906 Price List at $400. The Cobweb Table Lamp was even more expensive, listed in 1906 for $500. One example sold at auction last year for $3,250,000. They were all three popular in their day — Wisteria most of all — but today there are only seven known Cobwebs extant and five Bats.

The Bat Table Lamp was discontinued in 1910 when Tiffany Studios stopped producing mosaic inlay models because of how expensive and labor-intensive they were to make.

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Holocaust Museum digitizes Rosenberg Diary

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

The diary of Nazi Party leader, racist philosopher and close Hitler confidant Alfred Rosenberg was officially handed over to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Tuesday. Museum staff must have had access to the diary before then, because the entire 400 pages plus of loose-leaf paper have been digitized and uploaded to the web. Each page is scanned in readably high resolution and accompanied by a transcript.

“The Museum encourages people to think about why the Holocaust happened and how it was possible in such an advanced society,” said United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “The Rosenberg diary will add to our understanding of the ideas that animated the extremist ideology of Nazism. We are grateful to our partners at ICE who helped us secure this important piece of history, a significant addition in our urgent efforts to rescue the evidence of the Holocaust.”

Alfred Rosenberg played a key role in the development of Nazi anti-semitic policy, both philosophically and practically. In 1930, he wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century, an impenetrable tome nobody read about the noble Aryan struggle against the insidious Jew, liberal and Bolshevik. He was instrumental in promoting the theory of Lebensraum and as Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories organized the deportations of Eastern European Jews to concentration camps. As head of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce), he was also directly responsible for the orgy of looting of art and antiquities from occupied territories.

He was captured by Allied forces in May of 1945. His papers, including the diary, were confiscated in August and used as evidence against him at the Nuremburg Trials. He was tried for conspiracy to commit aggressive warfare, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity and convicted on all counts. Alfred Rosenberg was hanged on October 16th, 1946.

After that, the diary and many other papers disappeared, probably taken by Dr. Robert Kempner, a German-Jewish lawyer who had fled Germany in 1939 and returned after the war to serve as deputy chief counsel at the Nuremberg Trials. When he went back home to the United States after the trials, he brought a great number of unclassified documents with him, including apparently the Rosenberg diary. Kempner practiced law, focusing mainly on Nazi restitution cases, and published his own personal research, including several papers that quoted parts of the Rosenberg diary nobody else had ever seen.

After Kempner’s 1993 death, his heirs decide to donate many of the documents. A 1997 inventory of the Kempner papers did not find the diary. The museum continued to search for it for years, until in November of 2012 they discovered the information that would break the case. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found the long-lost diary in April of this year at the home of an individual in home in Lewiston, north of Buffalo, New York. Authorities have still not announced who that individual was, but one possibility is Robert Kempner’s former secretary.

Because of their checkered trajectory, the Rosenberg diary pages have been separated. The ones at the Holocaust Museum are the bulk of the diary, covering years 1936 through 1944. Earlier entries from 1934 to 1935 are part of the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Medieval mummies protected by wall inscriptions in Sudan

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

The archaeological site of Old Dongola in what is today Sudan has a rich history. Originally built as a fortress in the fifth century, Dongola grew into a prosperous town thanks to its Nile-side location and, after its conversion to Christianity by the end of the sixth century, became the capital of the Coptic Christian kingdom of Makuria. In the seventh century, Makuria was able to defeat the forces of the Rashidun Caliphate after its successful invasion of Egypt. The ensuing peace treaty established trade relationships between Muslim Egypt and Christian Nubia that lasted for 600 years, a long period of stability that allowed the Kingdom of Makuria to flourish. The kingdom’s power began to wane in the 12th century and it was finally defeated by the Sultan of Egypt in the 14th century.

In 1993, the Polish Archaeological Mission (PAM) discovered three burial crypts in the northwest annex of a monastery in Old Dongola. Archaeologists believe they were part of a commemorative complex built either at the direction of or for the burial of Archbishop Georgios, Dongola’s primary cleric who was appointed directly by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria rather than via a national church hierarchy. According to a funerary stele found in the annex near the crypts, the archbishop died in 1113 A.D. when he was 82 years old.

Inside each chamber were several natural mummies, some wrapped in textiles, and the walls of the southernmost crypt were covered with inscriptions written in Greek and Sahidic Coptic. The crypts were photographed and then resealed to preserve the contents until a more thorough excavation could be done. That finally happened in 2009.

They found that the southern crypt (crypt 1) held seven mummies, one of which is thought to be the body of Archbishop Georgios. Archaeologists were not able to single out which of the bodies, if any, was the Archbishop’s. They are all adult males older than 40 and, judging from the extensive evidence of chronic and degenerative illnesses, probably older than that at the time of death. The bodies were dressed fairly modestly, mainly in linen garments, wrapped in shrouds and then interred in the crypt over a course of years. Four pectoral crosses were found in the crypt as well, two of them wood, one of them stone, one of them glass.

The inscriptions on the walls of crypt 1 provide a particularly fascinating glimpse into Makuria’s unique religious culture. Painted in black ink over a thin layer of whitewash, they cover the four walls of the barrel chamber almost entirely. They are in very good condition, except for areas where the walls themselves were damaged. The writing was all done by the same person, one Ioannes, who did us the favor of signing his name at the end of the inscriptions on the north, east and south walls. He probably signed the west wall too, but it was lost due to damage.

Ioannes was better at Coptic than he was at Greek. There are copious errors in the Greek, some of which he covered with whitewash and redid, like Medieval white-out, which suggests he may have been trying to copy a text, which suggests he had access to a library, either in the monastery or perhaps the private library of the archbishop. It’s a reversal of what you might expect, since Greek was still going great guns in the Eastern Church while Sahidic Coptic was already a dying language by the end of the 11th century.

The inscriptions begin on the west wall with an invocation of the Holy Trinity. Underneath that the writings are defined as a phylakterion malakias, a phylactery or amulet against weakness. A series of magical symbols in a frame follow, and beneath them are two lists, one of numerical cryptograms representing the names of god and angels, the other of magical divine names. Quotations from the gospels and prayers in Greek are next. One of the prayers, said to by the Virgin Mary, is well-known in a languages from Coptic to Arabic, but this is the first time it’s ever been found in Greek. Since Greek was probably its original language, it’s a highly significant find. The prayer ends abruptly with the invocation of a magical ritual meant to chase evil spirits from the tomb.

The inscription on the east wall quotes from the Gospel of Luke in Greek then moves on to a Coptic piece on the death of the Virgin Mary. It includes the prayer she spoke before she died and describes her final scene. This is an excerpt from a popular fourth century Coptic work by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, but unlike every other extant version of the text known, the crypt inscription has a curious line: after Mary finishes praying, death appears to her “in the form of a rooster.”

From the paper on the inscriptions in the journal Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean by University of Warsaw professor Adam Łajtar:

The decoration of the burial vault may therefore be properly described as a silent ritual, intended to safeguard not only the tomb, but primarily those who were buried inside of it during the dangerous liminal period between the moment of dying and their appearance before the throne of God. The entire ensemble of texts and architecture must be considered a unique and important witness to the funerary beliefs and practices of Christian northeastern Africa in medieval times.

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1850s prison memoir of African-American man found

Monday, December 16th, 2013

A manuscript at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has been authenticated as the prison memoir of 19th century African-American inmate Austin Reed. Finding a previously-unknown Black writer from the before the Civil War is extremely rare, and this work stands out as the earliest prison memoir ever written by an African-American (that we know of). A rare book dealer purchased the notebook and two sewn folios at an estate sale Rochester, western New York state, some years ago. The family selling it had no information about it other than it had been in their family for as long as anyone could remember. The Beinecke bought it from the dealer in 2009 and set about researching the 304-page memoir and its author.

The unpublished book is entitled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison by Rob Reed and it’s an autobiography of Reed’s experiences in the criminal justice system from the 1830s to the 1850s. Most of that time he served for theft at Auburn Prison, the second state prison in New York and the oldest prison in the country still in use today. The traditional horizontal black and white striped prison uniform was invented at Auburn, and the first electric chair execution took place there in 1890.

Built in 1816, Auburn Prison was relatively new when Reed was a guest. Its approach was novel because the focus was on rehabilitation, but the Auburn System, as it became known, was hardly touchy-feely. The aim was instill dedication to work and responsibility by breaking down prisoners’ sense of self and community with other inmates. Prisoners had to work for at least 10 hours a day, to live in solitary confinement when not working, to march in lockstep exactly one arm’s width from each other while looking at the side and never looking at the guards or other inmates, and to observe complete silence at all times.

Punishments for violations of the rules including floggings with whips and cat-o-nine-tails, the “shower bath,” an elaborate form of waterboarding, and the “yoke,” a 40-pound bar of iron attached to the back of the prisoner’s neck and both hands.

Reed’s memoir was intended to introduce a curious public to life in the new institution – the solitary cells, the dining hall and the hospital, the work to be done in the various workshops, and regulations for inmate conduct. Reed’s account also aimed to expose the unusual and brutal punishments inflicted on dissenters, and he made a pointed comparison between New York prisons and the slaveholding South.

“The Reed prison narrative manuscript is a revelation. Nothing quite like it exists,” says Blight. “Reed is a crafty and manipulative storyteller, and perhaps above all he left an insider’s look at the American world of crime, prisons, and the brutal state of race relations in the middle of the 19th century.”

Yale English professor Caleb Smith worked with Beinecke archivists and Christine McKay, a genealogical researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to research Austin Reed and authenticate the manuscript. Using newspaper articles, court records and prison files, they were able to identify “Rob Reed” as Austin Reed, a free Black man born near Rochester. He was in trouble with the law from an early age and spent time in the House of Refuge in Manhattan, a reformatory school where he learned to read and write. It was a letter Reed wrote to the warden of the House of Refuge that linked Austin Reed to his nom de plume. In it, he gives some of his background and asks whether the House has kept any of his juvenile records. He was researching his youth, apparently, to include in the memoir.

“The Reed manuscript is an astonishing discovery and a unique resource documenting the lives of African-American prisoners in antebellum America,” says Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature. “Handwritten manuscripts of novels and memoirs by 19th-century African Americans remain extraordinarily rare. The Reed manuscript significantly enriches the canon of 19th-century African-American Literature and deepens our understanding of all 19th-century America.”

The memoir never made it into print, despite Reed’s clear intention that it be published, but that will soon change. Caleb Smith is preparing an annotated version of the manuscript for print. Meanwhile, the Beinecke Library has scanned and uploaded every page of the notebook and folios. You can view them here. The handwriting is impressively legible. There are grammatical and spelling errors, but nothing that makes it hard to read.

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Sotheby’s to return looted statue to Cambodia

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a statue looted from the same temple that has been blocked from sale for two years. It’s been a long, arduous process of diplomacy, negotiation and legal wrangling, none of it pretty and some of it impressively nasty, even for a cultural property dispute.

Our story begins more than a 1,000 years ago when King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker, a remote site 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap and the previous capital of Angkor. It was 928 A.D. and up until this point, Khmer sculptural art was characterized by static figures, most of them carved bas reliefs of Hindu deities and mythology. Jayavarman IV commissioned a whole new style of carving for his new capital. In Koh Ker, statues of gods and warriors were made to be freestanding, their poses dynamic captures of figures in movement. One group in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen Temple featured 9 statues depicting the final battle between Duryodhana and his nemesis Bhima from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Massive 500-pound sandstone statues of the two enemies were posed facing each mid-fight, surrounded by their supporters.

Koh Ker only remained capital until 944, after which it decayed into ruin while the jungle reclaimed its former dominance. The site’s remoteness was both a blessing and a curse, contributing to its decay and keeping it safe from the kind of predation Angkor was victim to. It wasn’t until the 1950s that French archaeologists recognized Koh Ker’s historical significance and paid regular attention to it. In 1965, the site was explored and documented by Madeleine Giteau, curator of the National Museum, who found it exceptionally well-preserved with the statues and structures virtually untouched. When a French archaeologist returned two years later, he found looting had already begun, thanks in large part to the construction of a new road which made the removal of artifacts to Thailand for sale more practical. Political upheaval and spillover from the Vietnam War put a lot of local armed insurgent groups and foreign fighters in the area and made looting antiquities to sell for hard cash a particularly attractive prospect.

According to an amended complaint from the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the statue of Duryodhana was cut off its base in around 1972 by an organized network of looters and sold to a dealer in Bangkok. There it was purchased by Douglas Latchford, the same collector of Khmer art who donated the bodies of both Kneeling Attendants and one of their heads to the Met, who arranged for the illegal export of the statue to the London auction house of Spink & Son, the same auction house from which he either bought the Kneeling Attendants directly or acted as a front for the Met to buy them from, depending on whose story you believe. Spink & Son sold Duryodhana to a Belgian collector in 1975. The widow of said collector, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, consigned the statue to Sotheby’s for sale in 2010.

Duryodhana became the centerpiece of Sotheby’s Asian sale in March of 2011. He was on the cover of the catalog and was extolled as a unique and exceptional example of Khmer artistry. Just hours before it was to go on the block, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An sent a letter to the auction house officially requesting the return of the statue as an artifact illegally exported from Cambodia. Sotheby’s withdrew its flagship artifact, estimated to sell for $3 million – $4 million, from the sale. For a year after the first blocked sale attempt, Sotheby’s negotiated with the government of Cambodia to arrange a private sale. Hungarian art collector Istvan Zelnik volunteered to buy the statue for $1 million and donate it to Cambodia.

The talks fell through — Sotheby’s claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security’s fault because they pressured the Cambodian government not to agree to the sale so they could get all the kudos for a diplomatic arrangement; the US Attorney said it was Sotheby’s fault because they turned down the million dollar offer — and in April of 2012, the U.S. Attorney filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf. Sotheby’s denied strenuously that there was sufficient evidence to prove the statue was looted (even though its matching feet are still in place in Koh Ker), denied knowing all along that it was stolen (even though there’s a long email discussion between the auction house and an expert they contracted to write up the statue before sale in which the expert underscores that it was recently removed from the temple but ultimately suggests they go ahead with the sale because her Cambodian sources say they have no interest in contesting it) and denied that there’s even an applicable law in Cambodian that makes the export of 1,000-year-old Khmer statues illegal.

On Thursday, December 12th, truce was called. Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the federal government have come to an agreement and I’d say it’s a big win for Cambodia, although as so often happens everyone still gets to deny having willfully trafficked in stolen antiquities.

The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.

At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.

The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.

Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

:lol: Oh yes, ever so properly. At all times. And ever so voluntary too. It just took them two years and a federal court case to volunteer.

Now we’ll see if the last domino falls: the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena which owns Duryodhana’s counterpart, Bhima.

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The Dying Gaul in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

One of the most famous masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture, The Dying Gaul, has taken its first trip abroad since 1816 when it returned to Rome from 20 years’ exile in Paris, a sentence suffered by so much of Italy’s historical patrimony at Napoleon’s grasping hand. It is on view through March 16th, 2014, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., star of its own exhibition, The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome. The sculpture has been beautifully situated in a rotunda modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, underneath a banner with a detail of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ancient Rome, a capriccio, aka a fantasy scene in which all of ancient Rome’s greatest art and architecture is on display in a single gallery with The Dying Gaul in the left foreground.

This exhibition is the only time the masterpiece has ever been to the United States and it won’t be traveling to any other museums. If you want to see this incredible portrait of mortally wounded strength and nobility, you have three months to get to D.C.

The Dying Gaul is a 1st or 2nd century A.D. marble copy of what was probably a Hellenistic bronze original made between 230 B.C. and 220 B.C. to celebrate the victory of King Attalus I of Pergamon over the Celtic tribes of Galatia, an area of central Anatolia, now in Turkey. Gauls had immigrated there from Thrace after their invasion of the Balkans in 279 B.C. They had a reputation as fierce warriors and often sold their soldiering services to the squabbling factions of Asia Minor. Attalus’ defeat of them was considered a great victory because of their reputed strength in battle and the theme of defeated Gauls, stoic and powerful to the end, became a popular motif in Hellenistic art for several decades.

Pliny mentions in his Natural History that Epigonus, court sculptor to the Attalid kings of Pergamon, created a group of bronze sculptures of dying Gauls to decorate the terrace of the Temple of Athena Nikephoros in honor of Attalus’ victory. The original Dying Gaul is thought to have been one of them, as is the original of Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife. The Roman copies of both of those pieces were documented for the first time on the November 2nd, 1623, inventory of the Ludovisi collection. The estate of the powerful papal Ludovisi family corresponded with the famed Gardens of Sallust, a property outside of Rome that had once belonged to Julius Caesar and was later purchased by the Roman historian Sallust who made it into a lush garden so beautiful it was confiscated by Roman emperors and maintained for centuries as a public garden.

When the Ludovisi family began building their complex on the grounds in the early 17th century, they dug up Roman sculptures in impressive quantities and even more impressive quality. (See this entry for more about the Ludovisi collection and its painful dispersion in the 19th century.) The Dying Gaul, then thought to be a dying gladiator, was recognized as a masterpiece right away. Artist Ippolito Buzzi restored it with a comparatively light hand, more modest and respectful of the original than many of the other 17th and 18th century restorations. On March 29th, 1737, Pope Clement XII bought The Dying Gaul for 6,000 scudi, a huge amount at the time, and installed it in the Capitoline Museums.

There it remained for 60 years until Napoleon stepped into the picture. By the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino, the 1797 peace treaty between Directory France and the Papal States, all the art French troops had looted became official French property. the treaty also gave French officials the untrammeled right to literally walk into any building in the territory and pick whatever they wanted to send back to France. Napoleon had experts on the scene to ensure Italy’s greatest treasures would become France’s for the duration of his rule. After Napoleon’s final defeat, the Tolentino plunder was returned to Italy.

The timing was perfect for The Dying Gaul to seduce the flocks of Romantic artists and Grand Tourists. Lord Byron wrote about him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto IV, Stanza CXL) just two years after the statue’s return to the Capitoline Museum.

I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand — his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his droop’d head sinks gradually low —
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him — he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.

Many literary luminaries followed in his wake. Mark Twain gave The Dying Gaul a rare unsarcastic positive review in Innocents Abroad. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun opens on the sculpture. Henry James called it the “lion of the collection” in The Portrait of a Lady. The Gaul even gets a passing reference in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (bottom of the page here).

Because one of the greatest works of ancient art surviving doesn’t budge unless compelled by terms of sale or at bayonet-point, copies of The Dying Gaul are in museums, institutions of higher learning and private collections all over the world. Smugglerius is my personal favorite. Until his debut at the NGA last Thursday, that was as close as anybody outside of Italy was going to get to seeing him.

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Ancient pig-shaped baby bottle found in Puglia

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Seventeen hundred years or so before the Majapahit Empire made the first piggy banks, the Messapii people in the heel of Italy were making baby bottles shaped like pigs. An excavation this May in Manduria, a town about 20 miles east of Taranto in the region of Puglia, unearthed a cut rock tomb painted with ocher, red and blue bands dating to around 4th century B.C. Inside the eight by four-foot tomb were the remains of two adults and approximately 30 funerary artifacts including an iron knife blade, pottery plates, vases, statuettes and three gutti, vessels with narrow necks and small openings from which liquids could be poured slowly, even in drops.

Gutti were used for pouring libations in sacrifices, to oil up bodies before scraping with a strigil and as baby bottles. Two of them were fairly plain, as is customary with gutti, but the third was shaped like an adorable piggy. Discovered completely intact, the piggy guttus has pointy ears and painted on human-like eyes with long, sweet eyelashes outlined in white. The elongated, slender snout is pierced at the end. That’s what the baby nursed from. It served another function too. Inside the pig’s body are small pieces of terracotta that made the pig a rattle once all the milk was finished. Feed the baby, then rattle him to sleep. It’s a clever combination and an extremely rare one.

Despite the presence of two baby bottles, one baby bottle/rattle and two female figurines characteristic of burials of young girls in Messapii graves, no infant remains were found. It’s possible that one of the adults was pregnant when she died and was poignantly buried with the artifacts she’d accumulated in expectation. It’s also possible that an infant was buried there but her delicate bones have disintegrated over time. The tomb is almost certainly familial, in keeping with Messapian custom.

Objects such as a black painted basin and an iron blade of a knife suggest a male burial, while a strong clue for a female burial came from a special Messapian pottery vase called trozzella. Featuring four little wheels at the tops of its handle, versions of the vase are often found in the graves of Messapian women.

“Analysis of the funerary objects and their context suggest that the two burials followed one another in the Hellenistic period, between the end of the fourth and the third-second centuries B.C.,” Alessio said.

This is the second largest Messapian tomb found in Manduria, which is notable because the town was an important city in the Messapii dodecapolis, a confederation of 12 cities which, while ruled by their own individual kings, came together for self-defense or in case of other need. The need arose pretty frequently, thanks to their frequent battles with, among others, the Greek colonists of Tarentum (now Taranto), although they had cordial trading relationships with other cities of Magna Grecia. Messapian fighters were renown for their cavalry and archery. Archidamus III, King of Sparta from 360 B.C. to 338 B.C., felt Messapian strength most keenly when he died at the walls of Manduria while aiding Tarentum in its war against several local Italic tribes.

The Messapii were conquered by Rome in 280 B.C. Their Indo-European language died out and was replaced by Latin and Greek. Inscriptions have survived but the language is still not fully translated.

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Large gold fibula and pendants found in Denmark

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Metal detectorist Morten Kris Nielsen was exploring a farmer’s field near Spentrup on the Danish peninsula of Jutland when he found a gold fibula, a brooch used to fasten a cloak. Without even cleaning it, Nielsen brought it directly to archaeologist Benita Clemmensen at the Museum of Jutland. He was sure there was more where that came from, so that same day he returned to the find site and unearthed a second piece of the fibula and two crescent-shaped gold pendants with stylized birds’ heads at each end of the crescents. Museum archaeologists then excavated the spot and found another eight gold pendants, four of them in bird patterns, and a gold ring.

The archaeologists found that this small but extremely rare and valuable hoard was deposited in a bog, probably as a religious sacrifice, in the early 6th century A.D. Because Nielsen was so conscientious in reporting his finds without so much as rinsing them off, museum experts were able to find traces of dissolved glass in some of the many intricate channels of the fibula. There are surviving red semi-precious stones thought to be garnets on the piece, and the remains of a yellowish-green mass which may be glass.

The total gold weight of the hoard is 35 grams which is relatively modest, but the quality of the pieces is thoroughly immodest. The fibula is eight centimeters (just over three inches) long and is made out of a gold sheet wrapped around a clay core. The surface is festooned in tiny gold circles. Even tinier beads of gold like strands of pearls follow the edge of every section of the piece. In the second fragment of the fibula — a circle with stones or glass between spokes — there’s a gold waffle pattern underneath the stone settings that is reminiscent of some of the garnet pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard (see this hilt fitting, for instance).

On the bottom section of the buckle is a bird, outlined in gold with the tail, head, body and beak formed by inset red stones. The eye of the bird is cut into the middle of the head’s stone. Archaeologists think the fibula’s bird and the bird heads on six of the pendants probably represent ravens, important figures in Norse mythology (Odin had a pair named Huginn and Muninn who brought him news of the world every day) that are common motifs on jewelry from this period and later.

According to National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen, only a few large gold fibulae of this type have been found in Denmark. They were made locally out of Roman gold with semi-precious stones imported from Scandinavia and Central Europe. This was high craftsmanship. The woman whose cloak this held together had to have been immensely wealthy and important, and the fact that she was able to sacrifice such riches suggests that she was wealthy beyond the mean of the Spentrup area which has never seen a treasure find like this before.

As for why she might have felt compelled to sacrifice such valuable pieces, it’s because the Norse gods preferred gold, not surprisingly, and when circumstances were grim, that was the kind of sacrifice you’d make. This period, the early sixth century, in the middle of the turbulent Migration Period, saw a great many gold votive deposits. On top of the political upheaval and mass movement of populations, the first half of the sixth century saw a climactic disruption that is recorded by historians from the Byzantine Empire to China to the Middle East to Europe. Probably as the result of a volcanic eruption, in 535-6 there was no summer and the sun’s rays were wan like during an eclipse. Famine, crop failure, freezing rivers followed, an unending winter that was a sure sign to the Norse that Ragnarok, the apocalyptic Twilight of the Gods, was nigh.

The Mosegård Church Hoard, as the gold has been dubbed because of its find site near the church, is on display at the Museum of East Jutland in Randers until December 19th, 2013, after which it will move to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen where it will be part of its Treasure Trove exhibition opening in January.

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