Archive for May, 2014

Lewes skeleton dates to Norman Conquest

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Skeletal remains previously thought to date to the 13th century have been re-examined and found to date to the time of the Norman Conquest. The radiocarbon dating results and the evidence of his violent death makes this skeleton the only one ever documented that could have been killed in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

Skeleton 180 was unearthed in 1994 at the site of the cemetery of the medieval hospital of St. Nicholas. It was one of 103 skeletons excavated at the site, only a few which showed signs of a violent death. Those were of particular interest to archaeologists because the hospital was adjacent to the field where the Battle of Lewes was fought on May 14th, 1264. The Battle of Lewes saw the defeat of King Henry III by the baronial faction led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Henry was forced to cede his power to a council led by Montfort, making Montfort de facto king of England for a year (he would be killed in battle with Prince Edward, the future King Edward I, in August 1265), a momentous year for parliamentary democracy since Monfort called the first parliament with elected representatives.

Last year, with the 750th anniversary of the battle coming, the Sussex Archaeological Society commissioned University of York battlefield expert Tim Sutherland and osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst to take a fresh look at the most notable of the St. Nicholas skeletons: skeleton 180. There have been significant advances in battlefield and forensic archaeology since 1994. The society’s hope was that new analysis would determine whether 180’s wounds were received in battle rather than as a result of, say, violent crime or a personal dispute.

As part of the re-examination, the University of Edinburgh radiocarbon dated the skeleton and found to everyone’s surprise that it dated to 1063 with a 28-year margin of error. If skeleton 180 did die in battle, therefore, it wasn’t the Battle of Lewes. The fatal blows are on the back of his skull, six sword injuries inflicted from behind.

Osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst from the University of York, who was commissioned by Sussex Archaeological Society to examine the skeleton, said: “The first injury was probably a cut to the right side of the ear and upper jaw. This was then followed by a series of sword cuts, all delivered from the left hand side behind the victim, in a downward and horizontal motion.”

However she has discovered much more which helps build up a picture of the individual. Malin said: “He ate a diet particularly rich in marine fish, and was at least 45 years old but may have been older. He had some spinal abnormalities and suffered from chronic infection of the sinuses. He showed age-related wear and tear of the joints of his spine, shoulders and left wrist, which might have been uncomfortable. He had lost a few teeth during life, possibly as a result of receding gums. He had two small tumours on his skull.”

His final injury wasn’t the first time he sustained a dangerous head wound. A wound to his left temple incurred up to two years before his death caused a blot clot. It was thoroughly healed by the time he died, however.

There’s still no confirmation that skeleton 180 was killed in battle. He could have been attacked by brigands who slashed at his head until he fell. Further research is necessary and it may not ever be possible to determine whether he was a victim of civilian violence or a battlefield fatality. At the very least it’s a window into the violent period the followed the Norman Conquest.

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First Wolverine artwork sells for $657,250

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

The original artwork of Wolverine’s first appearance in comics sold at auction Friday for a record $657,250. It ties the record for the most expensive comic book art in general — Todd McFarlane’s original 1990 cover art for The Amazing Spider-Man #328 sold in 2012 for $657,250 — and sets a new record for original artwork from the interior of a comic, beating out an iconic image of Batman and Robin drawn by Frank Miller for 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns which sold in 2011 for $448,125.

“We knew when this artwork surfaced that is was, without doubt, one of the most significant pieces of original comic art ever drawn,” said Todd Hignite, Vice President of Heritage Auctions. “It has now brought a final price realized commensurate with that status.”

Penciled by Herb Trimpe and inked by Jack Abel, the drawing introduced the mutant Wolverine in the last panel of the last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 in October of 1974, making this year the 40th anniversary of Wolverine’s first appearance. The story written by Len Wein puts Hulk in the wilds of Canada where he hopes to enjoy a little r&r, only to find himself tangling with the Wendigo. The Canadian government, concerned about the very large green man with anger management issues, sends in a secret weapon to handle him: Weapon X, aka, Wolverine. “If you really want to tangle with someone,” the mutant helpfully suggests, “why not try your luck against – the WOLVERINE!”

Wolverine shared his first cover with Hulk on the next issue (#181) and the two continued their minuet with the Wendigo through issue #182. Wolverine then moved on to the company that would make him famous, appearing in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in May of 1975. He didn’t get his first solo title until 1982.

A year later, Trimpe gave the artwork from that last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 to a young fan who quietly kept it all these years. He wasn’t involved in the collector community, so nobody knew that the work had survived until a few months ago when Heritage Auctions announced that it not only existed, but was going up for auction. The seller, who has chosen to remain anonymous, planned to give the bulk of the after-tax profits to charity, including the Hero Initiative which raises funds to support comic book artists and writers in need.

The buyer is collector and sports card dealer Thomas Fish. According to Heritage Auctions’ website, he’s been amenable to purchase offers on freshly acquired works in the past, so it’s likely an investment piece intended for resale.

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Roman marching camp found in Thuringia

Monday, May 19th, 2014

A Roman marching camp from the 1st to 3rd century A.D. has been discovered near the town of Hachelbich in Thuringia. It’s the first Roman military camp found in the eastern German province and the first camp that is more than a day’s travel from the eastern border of the empire on the Rhine. In fact, it’s closer to the Elbe River than it is to the Rhine (the Elbe is about 150 miles east of the site, the Rhine 220 west), a strong indication that the Roman military did not completely withdraw to the Rhine even after three legions led by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D.

The discovery of a large third century battlefield on Harzhorn hill in Lower Saxony in 2008 confirmed that there was a significant Roman military presence east of the Teutoburg Forest more than 200 years after Varus’ humiliating defeat. Archaeologists estimate about 1,000 Roman soldiers fought (and won) at Harzhorn. The Hachelbich marching camp is about 60 miles southeast of Harzhorn. It covers 18 hectares and was large enough to accommodate an entire legion of around 5,000 soldiers. As a marching camp, it wasn’t a permanent fortress, but rather a protective enclosure built by the legionaries in one evening so they could camp down in a defended position. They wouldn’t have spent more than a few days there while on their way elsewhere, in this case probably east towards the Elbe.

The site was found in 2010 during road work, but it was kept quiet while archaeologists explored the area. They excavated more than two hectares and covered another 10 hectares with magnetometers and aerial surveys. Now that the site has been identified as a military camp, the Thuringian State Office for Heritage and Archaeology has announced the find. They’re keeping the exact location a secret, however, to keep looters from ravaging the place on the hunt for portable Roman artifacts.

A rough rectangle with round corners, the camp is standard Roman military issue. No matter where they were, legions on the move set up a minifortress in the wilderness at the end of each day’s march. At Hachelbich, the meter-deep trenches dug around the camp were the easiest feature to spot in the soil. Two perimeter trenches have been found, each more than 400 meters long.

On the camp’s northern edge, the soldiers built a gate protected by another trench that projected out past the perimeter. “It’s typically Roman—no Germans did that sort of thing,” Kuessner says. The trenches were part of a simple, but effective makeshift perimeter defense: A low wall of dirt was thrown up behind the trench, then topped with tall stakes, to create a defensive barrier almost 3 meters wide and 3 meters high. Erosion wiped away the wall long ago, but it left discolorations in the soil where the trench was dug.

Archaeologists also unearthed the remains of eight bread ovens close to the camp perimeter, which shows an impressive commitment to quality food considering the legionaries weren’t going to be there for long. Some artifacts confirming the military nature of the camp were found: four hobnails from the soles of Roman caligae, fittings from a sword scabbard and horse tackle.

The style of the artifacts places the camp in the first two centuries of the first millennium and radiocarbon dating supports the range, but archaeologists haven’t found anything to narrow it down any further or link to the camp to the reign of a certain emperor. Excavations will continue this year and the next at least. After the crops in the valley are harvested this fall, archaeologists will be able to excavate the farmland. They hope to find coins that will provide a precise date, or an artifact with the legion number on it that would write a new chapter in Roman military history.

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Mummified fetus found in Egyptian sarcophagus

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

CT scans have revealed that a small cartonnage sarcophagus in the Wellcome collection at Swansea University’s Egypt Centre contains the mummified remains of a three to four-month-old fetus.

The sarcophagus is just over 20 inches long and painted in the style of the 26th Dynasty (ca. 600 B.C.), with a yellow and blue wig, wide collar, and brick red face. The body features crossing diagonal lines that form diamond shapes with a cream vertical band from collar to feet and two horizontal bands intersecting it. On the bands are painted hieroglyphics that don’t make any sense. Because of this, there have been some questions its authenticity but it’s not unheard of for genuine sarcophagus from this period to have gibberish hieroglyphics. Pioneering Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie posited that the painters of mock hieroglyphics may have been illiterate and included the nonsense words because the presence of hieroglyphics was important for the voyage to the afterlife. The provenance of the piece can’t help because all we know about it is that it entered the collection in 1971.

In 1998, Singleton Hospital X-rayed the sarcophagus and found traces of what could be a small skull, but nothing conclusive. On April 28th of this year, Swansea Univerity’s Clinical Imaging College of Medicine CT scanned the sarcophagus which revealed far more details about what’s inside. The bulk of the space is filled with folded textile, likely linen bandages.

Within those folded strips of material, the CT scan showed a darker area about 3 inches long which researchers identified as a fetus in fetal position and with a placental sac. What could be the fetus’s femur was also identified.

“The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12 to 16-week-old fetus,” Graves-Brown said.

“Another dark patch suggests the presence of an amulet and there are several areas with dark circles resembling strings of beads or tassels,” she added.

Strings of beads are fairly common in mummy wrappings from the 26th Dynasty.

The CT scan could not determine the gender of the fetus. The iconography of the sarcophagus suggests he was a boy. The striped wig was typically used on the sarcophaguses of men (although women were known to sport them as well) and the russet face paint is characteristic of male burials.

Fetus coffins are rare but not unheard of. There were two fetuses found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and a whole section of the Eastern cemetery in Deir el-Medina was dedicated to the burial of children, fetuses and placentas. Egyptians believed the placenta was a twin of the self, so when a fetus or stillbirth was buried, the placenta was buried too.

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Met releases 400,000 high res images

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

It seems the Met is feeling generous these days, not just in enhancing its collection but also in sharing it. As part of its new Open Access for Scholarly Content program, the museum is releasing 400,000 high resolution images that can be downloaded directly from its website and used for scholarly purposes without asking for permission or paying a fee.

In making the announcement, [Thomas Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art] said: “Through this new, open-access policy, we join a growing number of museums that provide free access to images of art in the public domain. I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection.”

OASC was developed as a resource for students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work. Prior to the establishment of OASC, the Metropolitan Museum provided images upon request, for a fee, and authorization was subject to terms and conditions.

To access the images, click on the collection database and either search by keyword, browse the featured artists/topics or browse by material, geographic location, era or departments. For getting lost in beautiful things, I’m partial to browsing by era and culture. Look for the OASC in a little box underneath the picture the left of the My Met link. To download the image, click on the down arrow to the right and save the image to your hard drive in the usual way. They also seem to allow hotlinking but that’s rude and unreliable in the long term so I wouldn’t do that.

Apparently some images that are still under copyright or whose status is unclear are not yet available for free use, but I haven’t encountered any in my browsing thus far. If the photograph is not free for use, it will not have the OASC icon underneath them
The museum will be increasing the number of available photographs as copyrights expire and new digital files are uploaded.

On a tangentially related (at best) note, while enjoying a random browse today I came across this arresting bronze of Roman emperor Trebonianus Gallus (reigned 251–253 A.D.). Almost the entire statue is original, a very rare survival of a complete third century freestanding bronze. Is that tiny head on that large body not the weirdest thing? And that’s an idealized portrayal, or at least the body is. He’s posed like a famous statue of Alexander the Great carved by Lysippos that inspired many a fine figure for centuries. The face, on the other hand, appears to be realistic which makes for an eye-catchingly disproportionate combination. Still, there’s no question the head and body are of a piece. The museum X-rayed the statue and found the head is original to that body.

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Met acquires monumental Le Brun portrait

Friday, May 16th, 2014

A year ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art only had a few drawings by French baroque master Charles Le Brun, a major hole in their collection since Le Brun was First Painter of King Louis XIV (the king said Le Brun was “the greatest French painter of all time”) and enormously influential for centuries after his death. The gap was filled in April 2013 when the Met purchased The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the 1647 painting by Charles Le Brun that was discovered in the Coco Chanel Suite of the Paris Ritz during renovations in 2012, for $1,885,194. That price set a new world record for a work by Le Brun.

It’s not a record anymore. The Met just broke its own record and broke it hard, acquiring the monumental portrait Everhard Jabach and His Family for an unprecedented $12.3 million. The reason the price is so high this time is that while Polyxena is an early work of a historical theme, Jabach is a group portrait painted around 1660 at the peak of Le Brun’s powers and popularity. It’s a massive work — 7.6 feet by 10.6 feet — of massive artistic and historical significance.

Jabach was one of the great personalities of his age. He was portrayed twice by Van Dyck (1636, private collection;1641, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), by Peter Lely and possibly Sébastien Bourdon (both ca. 1650, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), and by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1688, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne). Le Brun was one of the sitter’s favorite artists and the two were united—in the words of Claude Nivelon, Le Brun’s earliest biographer—by “friendship and shared interests” (‘il était uni d’amitié et d’inclination’). The family group was one of the few pictures Jabach did not sell to the King of France, and therefore one of the few that did not enter the collection of the Louvre.

The picture is at once a portrait of family relations and of a painter’s relationship to a key patron. The assemblage of objects lying on the floor at the feet of Jabach symbolizes his cultural interests: a Bible, an open copy of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise, a compass (architecture and geometry), a porte crayon and drawn sheet (drawing), an ancient marble head (sculpture), a book (literature and poetry), and a celestial globe (astronomy). Most prominent among these objects is a bust of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts. She is identified by her distinctive helmet and the Medusa on her chest. Behind Jabach is the mirror in which we see Le Brun at work.

Le Brun made two copies of the portrait. This one is the first. The second was acquired by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now the Bode Museum) in Berlin in 1836 but was destroyed in May of 1945 when the Friedrichshain flak tower, where it had ironically been sent for safekeeping along with more than 400 of the museum’s most prized paintings, caught fire at least twice. This was after of Berlin had fallen, by the way, not the result of shelling or bombing. All we have left of it today is an old black and white photograph.

The primary copy was thought lost, but it turns out to have been part of the furniture of the stately home of Olantigh Towers in Kent for almost two centuries. It was brought to the UK by Henry Hope, a wealthy Boston-born, Rotterdam-based Scot who purchased the painting in 1792 from Johann Matthias von Bors, a descendant of Jabach’s. Hope installed it in his Harley Street home after fleeing the continent and the chaos of the French Revolution in 1794. It moved to Olantigh Towers in 1832 when it was bought by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax.

In 1913, Olantigh Towers was sold to one J. H. Loudon who then sold to his son, F. W. H. Loudon in 1935. The painting was just sold along with the house. No particular mention was made of it. It was rediscovered last year when experts from Christie’s were called in to assess the contents of the home. Christie’s contacted the Metropolitan Museum and negotiated the sale.

Because of the complex composition representing prominent subjects and their relationship to the artist, this portrait has been called “a French Las Meninas,” after the iconic masterpiece painted by Diego Velázquez in 1656. It’s no wonder, then, that the UK didn’t want to let it go. It’s the only Le Brun portrait in the country and in February the government’s Export Reviewing Committee placed a temporary three-month export ban on the painting, giving British museums the chance to raise the $12.3 million necessary to keep it in the country. The ban expired on May 6th with no institutions stepping up to the plate or even raising enough money to make it remotely plausible that they might be able to acquire it should the ban be extended.

And so the Met gets its prize Le Brun, doubling the number of paintings by the artist in the museum, and more than doubling the importance of their 17th century French collection. The portrait will be conserved and framed, a process that will take the rest of this year at least. It will go on display in the Met’s European Paintings Galleries in 2015. They already have the portrait’s entry uploaded to the museum website, however, and it has lots of details about the imagery and significance of the piece.

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Early 17th c. telescope found in Delft

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

The oldest telescope in the Netherlands was discovered during digging for a new subway tunnel in Delft. Just four inches long and heavily corroded, the device was first thought to be an old shell casing, but the city archaeologist saw what looked like glass pieces at both ends and forwarded it to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden for their experts to examine.

Conservators cleaned the instrument and found under all the layers of corrosion that it was made of tin, the metal used in the earliest telescopes. Its original cap was still attached. Both lenses were removed and cleaned. They’re 12 millimeters in diameter with an irregular shard-shaped perimeter. The eyepiece is flat on one side and concave on the other. while the lens is flat on one side and convex on the other, construction typical of the first generations of telescopes. The quality of the glass is abysmal, full of bubbles with uneven grinding. Only the middle five millimeters of the lenses are ground well enough to function.

Despite their inherent limitations, once cleaned the lenses actually worked. Conservators put the telescope back together and were able to see through it at five times magnification. That would not have been sufficient for military use or for astronomy (in any case it took Galileo for the first looking glasses to be pointed up to the sky). It was a wealthy person’s plaything, basically, used to get a better view at public gatherings, perhaps, or to get a better view of the stage at the theater.

The shapes of the lenses, the bubbles in the glass, the uneven grinding and the use of tin strongly suggest it was manufactured before 1650. After that, tin was replaced by brass and other more durable metals and the quality of glass and grinding were vastly improved. The general appearance of the telescope is also in keeping with prints from the first half of the 17th century. Neither is it likely that the telescope was made later but on the cheap. There are remnants of gilding on the tin, which means when first produced, this piece was an expensive luxury item. Nobody would spend money on a gilded telescope but use primitive lenses in it unless those were the only kinds of lenses available.

The telescope was invented in Middelburg in 1608, but until this find, the oldest one in the Netherlands dates to 1669 (it’s at the Boerhaave Museum along with the next oldest from 1683). Because tin corrodes so easily, none of the earlier ones were known to have survived. This one was found in an old canal where the low oxygen environment kept it from rusting into nothingness. There’s even a very slim chance that it’s the oldest telescope in the world, but it’s highly unlikely. There’s only a tiny window of possibility since Galileo started making his in 1609, the year after the first patents applications were filed in the Netherlands and the Museo Galileo in Florence has two of his from 1609-1610.

The telescope is going on display at the newly renovated De Prinsenhof Museum in Delft for it’s grand reopening on May 23rd.

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Bones of man killed on the wheel found in Germany

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Last October, archaeologists surveying the site of planned road work on federal highway 189 in Groß Pankow, Brandenburg, Germany, unearthed human remains. They had already found some Bronze Age materials on the site — fragments of pottery, a stone axe — from the 1st millennium B.C., but nothing of great note. The rounded grave pit at first glance looked much like the pits from the Bronze Age settlement, but the skeletal remains, on the other hand, were immediately arresting. The bones were oddly positioned, the arms angled sideways up to the neck, the thigh bones turned backwards. They were also brutally broken, all the long bones shattered with many pieces missing.

It was clear the person had died far more recently than 1,000 B.C. An iron belt buckle found in the grave provided a general date of between the 15th and 17th centuries. Further examination revealed the deceased was a man in his mid to late 30s who had been executed on the wheel. His bones are in more than a thousand pieces. This is the first time a skeleton of someone broken on the wheel has been found in Germany, even though judicial execution by wheel was employed in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

This is not a coincidence. The whole point of the wheel was to display the broken bodies until they rotted away entirely, leaving the bones for carrion birds to enjoy. The punishment was reserved for the worst criminals — serial killers, murderers who killed someone during the commission of another crime, killers of kin — and the destruction of the body in a slow, public fashion did double-duty as the most gruesome retribution and as a stern warning to the public.

Death by wheel was usually a two-stage process. First a large spoked wagon wheel would be slammed onto the large bones of the arms and legs, breaking them in two places each. Then the wheel would strike the spine, breaking it. With the body’s skeletal structure in pieces, the condemned was then tied to the wheel, his limbs woven in and out of the spokes. Finally the wheel was raised on a pike and planted into the ground. If the man wasn’t dead yet, and he usually wasn’t unless he was fortunate enough to have been deliberately struck with fatal blows to the chest and abdomen as an act of mercy, he would die in slow unspeakable agony over the course of hours, often days.

In the dead of Groß Pankow for the first time the torture could be accurately documented: A big blow for example, had torn away half his face, as can be seen on the damaged skull.

This could mean that the offender previously received the fatal coup de grace by the executioner. However, this happened rarely. More often the delinquent – before he was dead – fell off the wheel. This was then as God’s judgment, the delinquent was then free.

Obviously that’s not what happened here. He died in a horrific fashion. Why this wheeled man had his bones collected and respectfully buried, we do not know. The place where he was found was an old military road. It could have been a place used for a mobile execution rather than a permanent gallows or regular killing zone. With no police presence, a family member of the deceased or just someone with an ounce of compassion could have removed the broken body and buried it.

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Artifacts found under London Bridge rail station

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

As part of an extensive redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the city’s oldest rail station (opened in 1836), archaeologists have had the unique opportunity to excavate underneath the station and its viaduct. The station has a vast footprint and since it was constructed long before archaeological surveys were invented, this is the first chance archaeologists have had to explore the site. Other excavations in the London Bridge area have revealed a great deal about the growth and development of the city from the Roman era on, but the station site was thought to have been either very marshy or fully underwater for much of its history that archaeologists weren’t sure what they’d find.

They found that although the area was certainly marshy and waterlogged it may have been, but it was still extensively developed. Excavations have gone as deep as 20 feet below street level in the massive arches of the station foundations. The earliest finds were traces of the Roman military occupation followed by evidence of the Boudican rebellion and the Roman civilian settlement. The remains of three previously unknown Roman structures were found: a bathhouse, a large waterfront building and what may have been a boat landing platform. Thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged ground along the Thames, rare organic elements have survived, like 17 timbers piles from trees felled between 59 and 83 A.D. which were part of the foundations of the large waterfront building. The landing platform consists of a timber baulk packed with rocks and wood.

Later discoveries include the remains of Saxon defenses and the floors and walls of large townhouses on Tooley Street which the historical record identifies as the abodes of important medieval clerics like the Prior of Lewes. (The remains of other such homes owned by non-London religious orders can be found today at Winchester and Lambeth Palace.) From the late Middle Ages on, the marshy land was extensively reclaimed for industrial and residential purposes. The remains of floors, walls and cellars testify to dense, closely-built buildings packed along a network of small streets.

Hundreds of artifacts were also found mirroring the changing phases of the London Bridge station area. A Penn Tile, made in Penn, Buckinghamshire, between 1330 and 1390, was used as flooring in an expensive building. These glazed patterned tiles became popular in London after the Black Death obliterated local tile producers. Also from the 14th century is a rare white clay flagon, probably made in Cheam, that archaeologists believe was used to serve ale in the townhouse of the Abbot of Waverley. Now it’s on display at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Stoney Street.

Starting in the 16th century in the wake of the introduction of tobacco from the New World there was a bustling business of clay pipe manufacturers in the neighborhood. These were mainly small backyard workshops. Archaeologists found the remains of a pope kiln that had been demolished centuries ago which proved fortuitous from an archaeological perspective because it allowed the excavators to find pieces of the superstructure. They also found many pipes, some whole, some discarded and broken after a failed firing. One pipe is marked with wording that identifies its maker. “JOINER STREET” is written on one side of the stem and “TOOLEY STREET BORO” on the other, indicating it was made by James Minto between 1809 and 1811. That means the clay pipe industry was still producing a couple of decades before the construction of the station.

In the fun category, archaeologists found a rare cribbage board made out of animal bone in the 17th or 18th century. The game was invented in the 17th century, so this piece could be a very early example. I love those concentric circles down the middle. They look just like the marks on much earlier dice, like this one from 13th or 14th century Ireland.

My favorite find is a set of three pewter tankards from the 18th century. They were discovered in a cess pit, possibly because the bends and twists around the lip made them hard to drink from, but they still look great. Two of them are inscribed with the names of the hostelries where they were once used to quaff lukewarm brews. One says “Mary Jackson, Kings head, Tooley Strt,” the other “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”. The best part: the The Old Kings Head is still open for business today, not on Tooley Street but very close by on Borough High Street.

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Who was Parmigianino’s Turkish Slave?

Monday, May 12th, 2014

The only thing we know for sure is that this iconic beauty was neither Turkish nor a slave. La Schiava Turca was a misnomer applied in the 18th century by a cataloger who interpreted the lady’s headdress as a turban and the gold chain in the slashes of her right sleeve as a symbol of bondage. In fact, her headpiece is a balzo, a wire net covered in fabric and gold thread that was fashionable among Northern Italian noblewomen in the 16th century thanks to trendsetter Isabella d’Este (see her 1534-6 portrait by Titian, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Portrait of a Lady (1520-25) by Bernardino Luini, now in the National Gallery of Art). The chain is expensive gold jewelry and her indigo satin dress, gossamer silk chemise and ostrich plume fan confirm that the sitter was a woman of wealth and position.

She was painted by Francesco Girolamo Mazzola, aka Parmigianino, around 1532 or 1533 when he was in Parma working on two altarpieces for the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata. Its whereabouts for the next century and a half are unknown. It appears again in a 1675 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Leopold de’ Medici in Florence. In the 18th century Parmigianino’s lady was ceded to the Uffizi Gallery along with the rest of the Medici art holdings. In 1928 the Uffizi traded it to the National Gallery of Parma and the portrait went home for good.

Since then, it has rarely left the museum and it has never crossed the Atlantic to delight American audiences. Now for the first time La Schiava Turca is traveling to the US. It is the star of The Poetry of Parmigianino’s “Schiava Turca” which runs at The Frick Collection from May 13th to July 20th and at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum from July 26th through October 5th. There are no portraits by Parmigianino in any public collection in the US and there are two in this show (the other is Portrait of a Man), so this is a unique opportunity.

Art historians have proposed a variety of identifications of the not-actually-a Turkish Slave. Candidates include Giulia Gonzaga around the time of her marriage to Vespasiano Colonna in 1526 when she was 14 years old, a member of the Cavalli family, a member of the Baiardo family whose scion Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo was a personal friend and big supporter of the artist, even bailing him out when he was arrested for breach of contract when he didn’t finish the Santa Maria della Steccata commission.

Another possibility is that she’s not a specific person but a depiction of an ideal figure, perhaps an allegory of love or poetry. The medallion in the center of her balzo could be a poetry reference. It’s an image of Pegasus, the winged mythological horse who created the Hippocrene spring, source of poetic inspiration. The connection between poetry and Pegasus was well-established in 16th century Italy. The prominent poet Pietro Bembo, a contemporary of Parmigianino’s, used Pegasus as his personal symbol.

She’s not the usual Renaissance allegory or muse of poetry, however. From the exhibition press release (pdf):

Her active pose — with her face turned toward the left and her body to the right — is common in depictions of men of the time, but not women. Also, her direct gaze and lively expression stand out when compared to the reserved, aloof expressions often seen in Renaissance portraits of women, in which it was considered appropriate to retain a dignified modesty. Finally, the Pegasus ornament on her headdress is an accessory borrowed from men’s fashion: it is likely a hat badge, an adornment worn almost exclusively by Renaissance men that bears a personal, usually humanist, emblem. With her frank expression, typically “masculine” pose, and an accessory appropriated from male fashion, it seems reasonable to believe that the Schiava Turca was intended to be seen not so much as the passive recipient of male poetic dedication, but to be regarded as a poet herself. After all, she wears on her head — the source of intellect and creativity — an emblem of Pegasus, the symbol of poetic inspiration.

Exhibition guest curator and Columbia University Art History lecturer Aimee Ng discovered another clue while researching the portrait. Parmigianino was known to make many preparatory drawings and studies for his paintings. There are two red chalk head drawings in Paris that art historians believe were studies for the Schiava Turca. Ng’s research found a third drawing in the Duke of Devonshire’s collection at Chatsworth, previously unconnected to any specific painting, that shares significant commonalities with La Schiava Turca and makes the poet image even more explicit.

The pen-and-ink drawing, which had not previously been linked to any specific project, shares the bust-length format of the Schiava Turca (although the woman in the drawing poses with her head facing in the same direction as her body). In the drawing, the woman wears a balzo-like headdress decorated with a wreath of laurel leaves. In the classical tradition, laurel leaves are used to crown accomplished poets. As it shows the artist experimenting with the standard iconography of poetry, the drawing may record an early idea for the Schiava Turca. In the end, Parmigianino’s use of an ornamental badge of Pegasus to mark the Schiava Turca as a poet is a more subtle (indeed, more poetic) solution.

So if she’s a poet rather than an allegory of poetry, which poet is she? Ng proposes one possible candidate: Veronica Gambara, a poet whose works while unpublished were widely circulated in manuscript form by 1530. She was also the ruler of the city of Correggio from the death of her husband in 1518 until her death in 1550, and her good friend Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio because that’s where he was born, was Parmigianino’s former teacher. She traveled to Parma and lived in Bologna when Parmigianino lived there after the Sack of Rome. Pietro Bembo of Pegasus fame was Gambara’s mentor; they had corresponded since she was a teenager.

If it is Gambara, it’s still a highly idealized portrayal. She was born in 1485, so she would have been in her late 40s when Parmigianino painted the portrait. Rolling back the years, or even decades, was a common practice for portraits of nobility (the Titian portrait of Isabella d’Este was painted when she was over 60), so her age doesn’t exclude her.

Aimee Ng will be giving a lecture at The Frick about the Schiava Turca on Wednesday, May 14th, at 6:00 PM. If you can’t make it to New York on time, you can attend virtually here.

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