Archive for December, 2015

Alfred the Great-era hoard found in Oxfordshire

Friday, December 11th, 2015

A mixed hoard of Viking jewelry and Anglo-Saxon coins has been unearthed in a farmer’s field near Watlington, Oxfordshire. It was discovered in October by metal detectorist and retired advertising executive James Mather. He was about to close up shop for the day when he found a cigar-shaped object that looked a lot like the Viking silver ingots he remembered seeing at the British Museum. He dug nine inches down and saw a group of coins. Instead of continuing to root around, he wisely called the local finds officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) who told him to rebury the objects until they could be formally excavated.

An anxious weekend passed with Mather repeatedly returning to the field to make sure nobody was messing with the treasure. When PAS archaeologists arrived Tuesday, they excavated the find with Mather’s help. It was his 60th birthday. (I pity his loved ones because it’s going to be virtually impossible to top that gift for the rest of his life.) The archaeologists removed the hoard in a block of thick clay soil so it could be fully excavated in laboratory conditions. They had the landowner get high quality plastic wrap to encase the block and placed it on a baking sheet also borrowed from the farmer.

Finds officer David Williams brought the wrapped hoard to London in a suitcase, causing some consternation at the British Museum where suitcases aren’t welcomed to roll down the halls, hoard or no hoard. Safe in the museum lab, the treasures were cautiously excavated from the clay by conservator Pippa Pearce. Her work quickly confirmed the wisdom of the excavation method because some of the coins were so thin they couldn’t even be held by the edges lest they warp.

The finally tally of the hoard was 186 coins, some of them fragments, three silver bangles, probably arm rings, four pieces of broken jewelry and 15 silver ingots. The coins are all Anglo-Saxon; the silver and jewelry Viking. There is also a little twisted off scrap of gold which is the first found in a Viking hoard in Britain. The coins were issued by King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-99) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874-79). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried in the late 870s, around the time of Alfred’s final defeat of the Viking Great Heathen Army in the Battle of Edington in 878.

The coins may rewrite the history of the collaboration between Wessex and Mercia during this time. Ceolwulf II was the last independent king of Mercia. Very little is known about him. He is included in the Worcester regnal list of Mercian kings which puts his rule at a mere five years, from 874 to 879. The Vikings had conquered eastern Mercia by that point, leaving Ceolwulf control of western Mercia which consisted mainly of the Diocese of Worcester (today’s Worcestershire minus its northwestern tip). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned by Alfred the Great, is disdainful of Ceolwulf, accusing him of being a Viking lickspittle.

And the same year [874 A.D.] they [the Great Heathen Army] gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king’s thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.

This is likely revisionism courtesy of Alfred’s desire to expunge his connection to Ceolwulf from the historical record. There are surviving charters and land grants witnessed by Mercian nobles and clerics which refer to Ceolwulf as “Rex Merciorum.” This suggests he had some measure of genuine control over his territories and was accepted as king. The Mercian ruling class, ecclesiastical and lay, recognized Ceolwulf II as the legitimate king of Mercia, not an “unwise king’s thane” borrowing the land until such time as his Viking masters decided they wanted it.

The fact that he issued coinage also indicates he held real power, especially since two of the three types of surviving penny were co-issued by Alfred. There are examples of both of those types — the Two Emperors and the Cross and Lozenge — in the Watlington Hoard. These are very rare coins, and the examples in the hoard are of particular historic significance because they were struck in different mints over several years. Previously extant Two Emperors and Cross and Lozenge coins were issued the same year. The newly discovered coins are proof that Alfred and Ceolwulf were allies and worked closely together at least in the arena of currency reform for more than one year.

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum said: “This is not just another big shiny hoard.” He said it was evidence about a poorly understood time in the development of England. Even the scrap of gold, chopped up to use as currency by weight, shows the emergence of a gold standard.

The coins, he said, offered insight into a coalition that broke up acrimoniously after a few years, leading to one partner disappearing without trace. “They give a more complex political picture of a period which has been deliberately misrepresented by the victor.” He added, diplomatically, that the relationship of Stalin and Trotsky came to mind.

There is no more information about Ceolwulf II in the historical record after 879 A.D. and certainly by 883 he was no longer in power. His successor was Æthelred, no longer a king but a lord ruling Mercia as a vassal of King Alfred.

This defining period in English history is the subject of a popular BBC series called The Last Kingdom. It’s on BBC Two in the UK and BBC America in the US. I’ve seen the first season and it is outstanding. It’s based on Bernard Cornwell’s series of historical novels The Saxon Stories and while he was not involved in the creation of the series, he’s an avid watcher and has nothing but good things to say about it. As do I. Character development that makes sense. Battle scenes where you can actually see things happening clearly without giving up a sense of dynamic movement. Brilliant cast. Historically accurate sets. It’s as good as it gets, imo, when it comes to televised historical fiction.


120-year-old astronomy photo plates found in Niels Bohr Institute basement

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

An emeritus astronomer at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute has discovered a collection of photographic plates capturing astronomical images from 120 years ago in the basement. Holger Pedersen is retired now, but he was employed at the Niels Bohr Institute for many years and still visits regularly to work on personal projects. He was in the basement getting a cup of tea when he noticed some boxes marked Østervold Observatory, a Copenhagen observatory that was in use from 1861 through the 1950s. The boxes had been moved to the NBI after its closure.

Pedersen looked inside and found they contained a stacks of smaller rectangular and square containers. Curious, he took them upstairs to explore the contents. When he saw there were more than 150 carefully labeled photographic plates from as early as 1895 in the cartons, he realized he’d stumbled on an archive of, as he calls it, “astronomy archaeology.”

One box contains plates from 1895 to 1897. They are untouched and have lain there untouched ever since they were put in the box. Here is Jupiter from 1896. “It’s really the disk of Jupiter, exclaims Holger Pedersen – “how beautiful”. There are also quite a few photographs of binary stars. From the records he can see that they were taken by Carl Burrau, who worked at the Østervold Observatory. He had a doctorate in experiments with astronomical measuring instruments for photographic plates and both Holger Pedersen and several other astronomers who are following along are amazed at how good the 120-year-old photographs are. […]

Some of the photographs are from the very first years, including a lunar eclipse from 28 February 1896. A collection from glass plates from 1909-1922 show the Moon in various phases. […]

There is also a plate from 1912 that shows the massive star Arcturus in the constellation Boötes and an image shows the Orion Nebula in the constellation Orion. Some plates from 1921 show the massive star Deneb, which is a bright star in the constellation Cygnus. An image from 26 April 1957 shows the comet Arend-Roland, where you can see its antitail. An article in Nature from 1957 by Fred Whipple describes the comet’s antitail.

One of the boxes from 1941 was too heavy to hold glass plates. It turned out to contain the brass template that held the glass plates in place on front of the lens of the telescope. The telescope in question was installed in the Østervold Observatory in 1895. It was a 300 mm double reflector with a focal depth of 4.9 m and a 200 mm photographic lens with a focal depth of 4.8 m. This was cutting edge technology at the time that allowed astronomers to photograph their observations while actually observing rather than having to stop what they were doing to get the shot.

It also produced a more accurate capture, an important advancement for astronomical photography. Just a decade earlier it was still common for observatories to hire artists to create detailed images of observed phenomena because their drawings and color chromolithographs were far more detailed and sharp than photographs. The telescope is still in the dome of the decomissioned observatory today.

One of the more important plates in the collection from a history of science perspective was not actually captured at the observatory. It’s not even the original plate, in fact, but a copy of a solar eclipse captured by English astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington on May 29th, 1919. Eddington’s observation of that eclipse is one of the most significant physics experiments of the 20th century because it tested Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, then just 4 years old.

Eddington was one of the first astronomers in England to understand and embrace Einstein’s theory. It helped that as a Quaker and conscientious objector he wasn’t saddled with the anti-German fervor so widespread in World War I England. He and Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Dyson arranged in 1917 for two expeditions, one to Sorbal, Brazil, and one to Principe, off the west coast of Africa, to observe the 1919 solar eclipse and record whether light was bent by the gravity of the sun. Eddington’s team took pictures of the stars around the sun when the moon moved in front of it and blocked its light. The eclipse images were then compared with earlier non-eclipse views of the same stars. Eddington and Dyson found that the gravity of the sun did indeed bend the light from nearby stars, just as General Relativity predicted.

The press release from the Niels Bohr Institute says Eddington recorded the image in its collection on his trip to Sorbal, but Eddington went to Principe, not Brazil. If this is a Sorbal photo, then one of Eddington’s colleagues — Charles Davidson or Andrew Crommelin, both assistant astronomers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory — took it, not Eddington. It’s a signficant distinction because the Sorbal observations were considered to be evidence against General Relativity because they fell more in line with the Newtonian model. Eddington and Dyson discounted them because of a serious astigmatism in the telescope lens and heat of the sun on the mirror having caused severely blurred images.

The unreliability of the Sorbal setup was accepted by the astronomical community at the time, but for years afterwards Eddington’s dismissal of the Sorbal data was seen by some as a result of his bias in favor of General Relativity. The idea that Eddington fudged data to get the results he wanted still gets bruited about today even though 1979 re-analysis of the Sorbal observations confirmed that Eddington had been correct.

For more about the 1919 Eclipse Expedition, its momentous discovery and the ensuing controversy, read this genuinely fascinating paper (pdf) by Daniel Kennefick presented in the proceedings of the 7th Conference on the History of General Relativity. Dyson, Eddington and Davidson’s original 1920 paper can be read here (pdf). I highly recommend it. The language is eminently readable right at the cusp of the era when theoretical physics became all but impenetrable for a lay audience.

Eddington and Dyson’s observations of the solar eclipse of 1919 made Einstein the household name he is today. Before 1919, Einstein’s name had never appeared in the New York Times. After 1919, Einstein was a regular in the NYT and other major papers and his name became a synonym for genius.

Holger Pedersen has catalogued the collection of plates. He is hoping to secure funding that would allow him to digitize all the images for the Natural History Museum of Denmark.


Update on Vasari’s Last Supper

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

The Last Supper, a monumental wood panel painting by 16th century artist and pioneer art historian Giorgio Vasari, spent more than 12 hours under water during the flood that submerged Florence on November 4th, 1966. On display at the Museo dell’ Opera in the lower levels of the basilica of Santa Croce, the 21-by-8-feet Renaissance masterpiece was too huge to move and because the church and monastery are in the natural basin at a lower elevation of much of the rest of the city, the water rushed in just after daybreak before anyone realized Florence was in the grips of a cataclysm.

By the next morning, the waters had receded but what was left behind was even worse: a thick, sticky sludge of mud, diesel oil, gasoline, sewage and naphtha released from underground home fuel tanks. Naphtha is highly flammable with a low flash point — people feared with good reason that the already-devastated city would go up in flames to boot — and it’s an industrial solvent. Florence’s inestimable cultural patrimony was first struck by a gritty mixture of water, sewage and naphtha going 40 miles an hour at peak intensity and then soaked in that mixture for at least a day.

Volunteers, first from Florence and environs, then from the rest of Italy, then from elsewhere in Europe and the world, dug through the knee-deep muck to recover artworks and books, sifting through it to collect tiny fragments of paint stripped from some of the greatest works of Western art. They were dubbed Angels of the Mud and without their efforts, Florence would have lost many more than the 14,000 works of art and literature that were destroyed in the flood.

The Last Supper was hard hit by the water and mire. The poplar wood panels were the texture of a wet sponge. The layer of gesso on top of the wood and underneath the paint was so sodden it began to sag off the panels taking the paint with it. Its rescuers realized they had to keep as much of the paint adhered to the surface as they could while drying the piece slowly enough to minimize cracking and warping, but quickly enough to keep the wood intact. They covered the entire surface with rice paper squares to stop the paint from falling off and separated the five panels for faster and more thorough drying.

Their quick action saved the painting from destruction, but restoration was out of the question. The damage was too extensive to be repaired with the techniques of 1966. So the Last Supper was put in climate-controlled storage until such time as humanity was sufficiently advanced to revive it. That time came 44 years later, when, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Getty Foundation, Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure began restoring the monumental work. It was a wheel-has-come-full-circle moment because the Opificio, founded in 1588 by Ferdinando I de’ Medici to produce intricate inlaid stone mosaics, changed its focus to art restoration in the wake of the 1966 flood. Now it is one of the top restoration institutes in the world.

In 2013, The Last Supper was put back together again for the first time in 47 years. Restorers also removed the rice paper and cleaned the flood filth still imbued in the paint and gesso. Since then, I’ve looked for updates regularly, anxious for the final before-and-after reveal. It’s not here yet. The Opificio has been very reticent to put an end date on the project because it’s so complicated they don’t want their PR to write checks their begloved hands can’t cash. They’re hoping it can be complete by November of 2016, in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood.

Last year fashion house Prada donated an undisclosed amount of money to help with the final phase of restoration. That made the news, but it didn’t quench my thirst for the after pictures. An update from a few weeks ago, however, provides a tantalizing glimpse into the restoration process. PBS NewsHour covered the story as part of its Culture at Risk series and it’s awesome.


The paint is looking damn good. Now I’m even more anxious for the final before-and-after. :boogie:


Stolen Dutch Golden Age paintings in the hands of Ukrainian nationalist militia

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

On the night of January 10th, 2005, four burglars broke into the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, on the night the museum celebrated its 125th anniversary, and stole 24 paintings and drawings and 70 silver objects from the museum’s collection. The market value of the stolen pieces was estimated at 10 million euros at the time, but believe it or not, the paintings weren’t insured. The museum had an excellent security system which did not appear to be damaged, but the alarm never went off and the burglary was only discovered by employees the next morning who arrived to find the place in a shambles with display cases shattered and paintings cut out of the frames. The damage to the museum facilities was in the millions of euros.

The stolen paintings date to the 17th and 18th centuries and include portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, allegories and maritime scenes, by well-known Dutch Golden Age artists like Jan van Goyen, Jacob Waben and Matthias Withoos. The burglars had suspiciously fine taste, selecting the most important paintings in the collection which suggests careful premeditation. This is usually where the eternal chimera of the museum heist gets bruited about, ie, that the theft was commissioned by an underworld collector or dealer with a specific looting list, a perpetually popular theory that never seems to pan out in real life. Art thieves do the research and pick the most valuable stuff because they think they can sell it for the best price. That doesn’t mean they have a shadowy villain in a volcano lair directing their movements, or even a sure buyer lined up. More often than not they wind up sitting on the unmovable works for years because nobody wants to touch pieces that are so obviously hot.

That appears to have been the pattern in the Westfries Museum heist too. For years museum and city officials sought the paintings to no avail. Last year they finally got their first big break in the case: a picture of one of the stolen paintings was found on a Ukrainian website. In July of this year, two people representing the ultra-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia informed Dutch embassy officials in Kiev that their battalion had all 24 of the stolen paintings. They offered proof in the form of a classic from the kidnapper’s handbook: a picture of one of the paintings next to a current Ukrainian newspaper. They also claimed to have the stolen silverware, but they made no offer proof.

The militia men said the paintings were discovered in a villa that once belonged to cronies of the former Ukrainian president. Brand finds this backstory just a tad too convenient to be believable since it relies on the militia just happening to find a treasure trove of art stolen a decade ago in the home of its political enemies. Boris Goemenjoek, deputy commander of the volunteer OUN battalion, offered the art. He was acting under orders from the Oleg Tjagnibok, leader of the far right nationalist political party Svoboda. Brand believes Valentin Nalivaitsjenko, former head of the Ukrainian secret service is also involved.

The militia was willing to arrange a return of the paintings on condition that the Ukrainian police not be involved (page two of the kidnapper’s handbook). The embassy told the Dutch police and the municipal authorities of Hoorn were given the chance to negotiate directly with the militia. Aware that dealing with armed criminal organizations was a tad beyond their purview, the city officials enlisted the aid of a professional art investigator Arthur Brand.

Brand noticed during the initial interactions that the present owners had a completely unrealistic idea of the value of the stolen paintings. They estimated the value at 50 million euros. Brand presented a research report to his Ukrainian contacts that showed that, based on recent auction proceeds of comparable works of the same painters, the entire collection should be estimated at a minimum of 250,000 euros and a maximum of 1.3 million euros, if in good condition. Because the latter did not appear to be the case, he estimated the current market value at no more than 500,000 euros.

On behalf of the municipality of Hoorn, Brand offered the militia a compensation, but received no response to the offer. The other party contended that a 5 million euro finder’s fee was in order and would not settle for less whereupon the municipality urged the ministry of Foreign Affairs to attempt to expedite the case along diplomatic channels. Talks on the highest political levels were held but to no avail. At present, there are serious indications that the current owners of the stolen art are attempting to sell it to others. Further research by Brand shows that other highly placed individuals are operating behind the scenes of the volunteer battalion. The stolen art is used as a pawn in a non-transparent Ukrainian political arena riddled with internal power struggles, favouritism and corruption.

With the art in danger of being sold out from under them, the Hoorn municipality and Westfries Museum have decided to drop the proverbial dime on these thieves. They’ve gone to the press and are making as big a stink as possible to stymie the OUM’s attempts at arranging a quick sale.

According to the museum director Ad Geerdink: “We have done everything we can and have reached a dead end. Now that it seems that the art works are disappearing again, we want to sound the alarm to let potential buyers know that they are dealing with stolen art, to give a correct representation of the actual value of the art works, but also to send a signal that these art works only belong in Hoorn. They are invaluable to the story we are telling about the extremely riveting period of the Golden Age in West Friesland.”

The Dutch Foreign Ministry has brought up the issue with Ukrainian politicians “at the highest level” and all this publicity might just light enough of a fire under them to burn through the power struggles, favoritism and corruption. The Ukrainian ambassador to The Netherlands contacted museum officials yesterday to tell them he would work to recover the works.


Cake baked for Empress Sisi 118 years ago on display

Monday, December 7th, 2015

Leaving the 1924 Vanderbilt wedding cake in its dust, a cake baked for 118 years ago for Austria’s Empress Elisabeth, aka Sisi, has gone on display in an Italian castle in Merano, Italy. She wasn’t staying at the castle in September of 1897 when the cake was made. The hardened brown mass that today looks more like the carbonized loafs of bread found at Herculaneum than a cake or tart as we know them was served to Sisi at an inn in the South Tyrolean town of Nals, 10 miles south of the resort town of Merano, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This was her fourth visit to Merano. She spent the last decades of her life hopping from health spa to resort town to health spa ostensibly incognito, but of course everyone knew who she was. The Empress was well known as one of Europe’s greatest beauties. When she arrived at the Sonnenwirt inn in Nals, the innkeeper was starstruck. She served her what must have been her prized cake. The Empress, who was famously obsessed with preserving her slim figure, took only the thinnest slice. The innkeeper preserved the rest of the cake in a glass container and it was passed down through the generations.

Fanz Mair, the son of the original innkeeper moved just a mile from Merano to the town of Lagundo where he ran and still runs the Kappelgutt guest house. The cake went with him. Franz and Walburga Mair recently decided to donate their family heirloom to the Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano which is home to the Touriseum, a wonderfully meta museum dedicated to the history of tourism. They wanted the cake to have a more secure home and experts tending to its preservation. They also wanted it to be on public view in a context connected to Empress Sisi’s visits to Merano.

The Empress stayed at the Trauttmansdorff Castle during two of her four visits to the resort town, the first time in 1870-1, the second in 1889. These weren’t quick stopovers. In 1870, Sisi and her entourage took up multiple rooms on the second floor of the castle for eight months. She was ensconced in the west wings rooms with the greatest views of the bucolic Adige Valley. Her bedroom was the oldest room in the castle with ornamental wooden ceilings and frescoes dating to 1564. Meanwhile, her sickly two-year-old daughter Marie Valerie stayed with her nanny in three rooms in the southeast wing.

Sisi’s second stay at the castle was, she would later write, an attempt to recapture the happier days of the first visit. She was in mourning from the death of her son Rudolf in the scandalous murder-suicide at Mayerling just six months before. She occupied the same rooms on the second floor, although this time around the 16th century frescoed room was her dressing room instead of her bedroom. Her intent was stay for months, enjoying the hiking trails and salutary Tyrolean air, but her trip was cut short after six weeks by a terrible storm.

It was the Empress’ first visit which really put Merano on the map as a health resort for the rich and titled. Little Marie Valerie recovered quickly from her illness and the word quickly spread about the salutary benefits of a visit to the South Tyrol town. Trauttmansdorff Castle became a magnet for high society and was booked solid for decades. There wouldn’t even be a Touriseum in the castle if it weren’t for Sisi because she’s the one who first made Merano a locus of tourism in the late 19th century, establishing its healthful reputation, appealing to the fashionable crowd and to the multitudes who just wanted to follow in the footsteps of such a huge celebrity.

Since 2008, the castle has hosted a permanent exhibition dedicated to Sisi in the rooms she once occupied. There are sculptures of her in the beautiful formal gardens she enjoyed during her visits and marked hiking trails for the Empress Sisi fans who still want to walk in her footsteps. Some of her personal belongings — a fan, a parasol, a robe — are on display in the castle. The cake now joins them, a blackened flatbread on a cake stand in a glass display case.


Met acquires Crown of the Andes

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

The Crown of the Andes, a rare surviving example of 17th and 18th century colonial Spanish gold work, the oldest and largest collection of emeralds in the world and the oldest surviving emerald and gold crown or tiara, has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Famous and coveted for at least three centuries, the crown has been in private hands since 1936. It has gone on display at special events like the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1937, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the 1957 American Gem Society convention in Philadelphia and most recently, at the
Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Sacred Spain exhibition in late 2009, early 2010. Now that it’s part of the Met’s collection, it is on permanent display for the first time in its life.

The crown was never worn by a temporal ruler. This crown was made for a more saintly head: that of the statue of Our Lady of the Assumption in Popayan, Colombia. Popayan is a city high up in the Andres, 5,700 feet above sea level, founded in 1537 by Sebastian de Belalcazar during his search for the mythical city of Eldorado. The was no city of gold to be found, but tons of gold moved through Popayan to Cartagena and thence to Spain, and gold and gems were extensively mined in the area.

In the late 1580s and 1590s, a smallpox epidemic cut a deadly swath through Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. An estimated two million South American Indians died in this outbreak and subsequent ones through 1610. Entire cultures were annihilated and cities depopulated, including some towns neighboring Popayan. The town itself was spared, a miracle attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. The Bishop of Popayan rallied the populace to donate gold and gemstones to create a crown of heavenly beauty worthy to adorn the head of the statue.

The people donated pounds of gold which was melted into a block and the frame of the crown carved out of it. They also donated rough emeralds which were table-cut in a simple rectangular shape or pear cut. The total weight of the crown today is 5.3 pounds. The Met puts the number of emeralds at 443 with an estimated total weight of 846.15 carats. The largest emerald in the crown is a 24-carat stone known as the Atahualpa Emerald. According to lore, it was one of many emeralds taken from the Inca emperor Atahualpa when he was captured by Francisco Pizarro in 1532.

Legend has it 24 goldsmiths using Indian and Spanish techniques created the crown in six years, that is was finished by 1599, but the Met’s research indicates the crown was made in two sections. The diadem was made around 1660, the arches on top a century later. Lore also has it that the crown was stolen twice, once by British pirates in 1650 and once by revolutionary Simon Bolivar in 1812. The locals got the crown back from the pirates after three days of fighting in the streets. Bolivar returned it himself. To keep the crown safe from further incursions, the leading citizens of Popayan formed the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. The crown was divided into six parts and stashed with members of the Confraternity only to be reunited once a year for religious ceremonies.

Whatever the kernels of truth in this story, the Crown of the Andes managed to survive while most other colonial gold objects were melted down and the gems recut in keeping with changing fashions. It would probably still be on the Marian statue’s head had the church not decided to sell the crown to fund a hospital, an orphanage and a home for the elderly. Pope Pius X granted the parish permission to sell the crown in 1914. Tsar Nicholas II reportedly showed some interest in acquiring it, but war, revolution and firing squad got in the way.

Other attempts to arrange the sell fell through for 20 years until Chicago wholesale jeweller and diamond exporter Warren J. Piper put together a syndicate of jeweler investors to acquire the crown from the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in 1936. He is thought to have paid around $125,000. Piper’s initial plan was to break apart the crown and sell the individual emeralds. Instead the crown went on tour and became a popular attraction. While spending most of its time in bank vaults, the Crown of the Andes spent the next 27 years doing the occasional personal appearance

It was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1963 for £55,000 (about $154,000, then; adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars that converts to just shy of $1.6 million).


The winning bid was made by the Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam. They were acting for someone else, however: jeweler Oscar Heyman whose company was actually the seller. According to a later federal investigation into the crown’s history engendered by a contested title and blackmail case, Piper failed to make his contracted payments on the crown and went into default in 1938. The Met’s provenance information confirms that in 1938 the crown changed hands to Oscar Heyman & Brothers, but most news articles say members of the syndicate owned it until the 1963 sale. Piper never said who all was a part of the syndicate. It’s possible Heyman was an investor and his company took over the payments after Piper’s default.

Anyway, Heyman bought the Crown of the Andes from himself and kept it in bank vaults only releasing it for occasional exhibitions. Oscar died in 1970 and his daughter Alice was the next owner. With all the hype and history behind the crown, when the crown next went up for auction at Christie’s in 1995, expectations were high. It seemed to have sold to a Latin American collector for $2.2 million, but apparently there was a reserve of $3 million on the piece, so it didn’t move after all. It took another 20 years, and God knows how much money ’cause the Met ain’t saying, for the Crown of the Andes to find a new forever home.


Farmer stumbles on intact Etruscan tomb

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

On October 25th, a farmer plowing his field near Città della Pieve, a small town 30 miles southwest of Perugia in central Italy’s Umbria region, opened a hole in the earth. When he peered inside, he saw the carved head of a man with his arm extended holding a plate. The farmer had stumbled on an Etruscan tomb form the late 4th century B.C. and the man with the outstretched arm was the lid of a funerary urn.

The hole was covered and the Superintendency for the Cultural Goods of Umbria alerted to the find. The city cops and Carabinieri (the police branch of the military) secured the site, setting a guard there overnight to keep people of greedy intent away from the tomb until the Superintendency was able to dispatch an archaeological team. Regional archaeologist Clarita Natalini lowered herself into the hole Mission Impossible-style and found she was in a small space about 16 by 16 feet containing at least two cinerary urns and two sarcophaguses.

The tomb was full of soil and debris from ancient collapses. Archaeologists started excavating from the entrance point into the tomb rather than starting from the cluttered burial chamber. They removed the dirt from the dromos, a long corridor leading into the tomb, and found heavy stone double doors guarding the room. The doors were carefully removed for study and to give the team a large enough opening to get the rest of the contents of the tomb out the way they came in more than 2,000 years ago.

One of the two sarcophaguses has a long inscription in Etruscan on the side with the word “Laris” identifiable in the carving. “Laris” or “Lars” was the name of an aristocratic Etruscan family that boasted a king among its famous ancestors. The name on the inscription has now been adopted as the name of the tomb since it likely refers to the person laid to rest inside of the coffin. At the foot of the sarcophagus was a statue head broken at the bottom of the neck. It depicts an adult male, bald, and still retains traces of the original polychrome paint. The pupils have been filled in.

The second sarcophagus also had an inscription, but it was damaged during one of the collapses. Archaeologists have collected the fragments, but there are thousands of them, so it will be difficult puzzling this jigsaw back together.

Apart from grave goods, which include pottery, miniature votive vases and two intact ceramic jars, likely used to store food for the afterlife, the archaeologists found four urns with cremains.

Made from fine grained alabaster marble, three of them are finely sculpted. The lid portrays the half naked deceased with a flower necklace reclining on two cushions as if at a banquet. He bears a patera, a shallow ritual offering dish, in the right hand.

The use of alabaster marble, the style of the burial and clues from the inscriptions suggest the burial belongs to an aristocratic family from the nearby Etruscan stronghold of Chiusi, Natalini said.

The last artifact to be removed was a large sarcophagus recovered on Saturday, November 28th. Unopened with the lid still sealed, the sarcophagus weighs more than three tons. Removing it from the small space while ensuring its safety was a challenge that required special expertise and equipment. Perugia fire fighters were deployed to lift the sarcophagus using air-filled pontoons that stretch from just a few centimeters thick to eight inches after inflation. The heavy piece was lifted onto a wooden sled on the floor and was then pulled out through the dromos which is just 35 inches wide.

All of the contents of the tomb have been moved to the Civic Museum of Santa Maria dei Servi for conservation.


Viking skeleton, wood coffin on display in York

Friday, December 4th, 2015

York was occupied by Vikings from 866 A.D. until the Anglo-Saxon King Eadred defeated Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking ruler of York, in 954 A.D. and united England into a single kingdom. When the Vikings arrived, the Anglo-Saxon port city of Eoforwic was in decay. They renamed it Jorvik and developed it into a thriving center of trade with Viking Scandinavia and Dublin, the Byzantine Empire and the merchant networks of the Silk Road. Despite this rich history, what little evidence of Viking material culture surfaced in York was discovered by accident. The first professional excavation by the newly founded York Archaeological Trust only took place in 1972, and that was just a few small trenches dug under Lloyds Bank on Pavement. The trenches were unexpectedly productive, revealing up to 30 feet of archaeological layers and proving that the waterlogged, peaty soil of York was an excellent preserver of organic remains like timber, textiles, leather, seeds, plants, pollen, human parasite eggs and insects, an invaluable source of information about people’s daily lives in Jorvik.

The York Archaeological Trust (YAT) performed the first planned excavation in 1976 in Coppergate, the city’s ancient center, which was slated to be redeveloped into an open-air shopping center. From 1976 through 1981, the Trust excavated more than 1,000 square metres and 2,000 years of history. The remains of an entire street of Viking York survived thanks to the magic of peat: timber buildings, woven wattle used to make walls and pathways, fences, animal pens, shop fronts, artisan workshops, cesspits and wells. More than 40,000 objects were unearthed in the Coppergate excavation and more than 500,000 people visited the site during the dig.

The excavation was incorporated into the new development. It became part of the Jorvik Viking Centre, visible through the transparent floors of the museum which recreated the Viking city with period-accurate structures, manikins with faces recreated from 9th and 10th century skulls, and my favorite part, the pungent smells of Viking York which came highly recommended by SourceRunner and Duncan Armitage in this comment thread.

The York Archaeological Trust had another archaeological coup between October 1989 and July 1990 when it excavated graveyard of the lost church of Saint Benet in the Swinegate area of York. The church had stood on the site from the 8th century through the 14th, and archaeologists discovered more than 100 burials from the churchyard. A number of burials dated from Viking era — late 9th to the early 11th century — and included the exceptionally preserved remains of wooden coffins and lids.

One of these Viking-era burials from the Swinegate excavation has now gone on display in its wooden coffin at the Jorvik Viking Centre. This is the first time any of the Swinegate skeletons or coffins has gone on public display.

The condition of the wood gives this coffin national significance, as so few similar examples exist – particularly as this coffin would have been fairly fragile when first constructed, which tells archaeologists that it would have only been transported a short distance for burial. The coffin was made for a young woman, estimated at being aged between 26 and 35. Recent analysis of the bones reveals some of her life story– including that she had inadequate nutrition or disease as a child and degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips – but there is no indication of the cause of her death.

Over the last few weeks YAT’s conservation team have undertaken a thorough examination of the coffin to determine its structure and reveal how it was constructed. “The coffin is made from oak with pegged fastenings, and you can see that during construction, the piece of timber used for the lid of the coffin split and was repaired using a baton fastened inside, with the pegs cut flush on the outer surface to make the repair less obvious,” adds Sarah.

You can read the full reports of the 2015 reinvestigation of the skeletal remains and wood coffins on the York Archaeological Trust website. I particularly enjoyed the Woodworking Technology Report (pdf) and the Osteological Analysis (pdf).

The skeleton and coffin display is the vanguard of the Jorvik Viking Centre’s commemoration of the thousand year anniversary of King Canute’s accession to the throne of England in 1016. The Canute Millennial celebrations will kick off during next year’s 32nd annual Jorvik Viking Festival in February. If you’re in York for the festivities, there will be a lecture event at the Jorvik Viking Center on February 17th, 2016, at 7:00 PM about the skeleton and her coffin. York Archaeological Trust conservator Steve Allen will discuss the coffin, while osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst will talk about the skeleton.


Embalmed hearts of French nobility analyzed

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Last year, archaeologists discovered the exceptionally well-preserved remains of a 17th century French noblewoman in the Convent of the Jacobins site in Rennes, northwest France. The body of Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac (died 1656), was one of five bodies found buried in lead coffins. Interred with the five were five lead heart-shaped containers, each holding a human heart. The practice of removing hearts after death and burying them in vessels in the coffins of deceased loved ones was common among the societal elite of Middle Ages, Renaissance and early modern France. Louise de Quengo was buried with the heart of her husband, identified from the engraving on the heart-shaped box: “This is the heart of Toussaint de Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, whose body lies at the Savior near Carhay in the convent of the Discalced Carmelites that he founded and died at Rennes the 30th of August, 1649.”

The Knight of Brefeillac’s heart and the four other hearts excavated by archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) at the site of the 14th century convent have been examined by a team of researchers including radiologists, forensic physicians, physicists and pathologists. They scanned the hearts with MRI and CT technology. The images looked good, but they weren’t usable for diagnostic purposes because the materials used to embalm the hearts got in the way.

“We tried to see if we could get health information from the hearts in their embalmed state, but the embalming material made it difficult,” said study author Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, M.D., radiologist at Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse in France. “We needed to take necessary precautions to conduct the research carefully in order to get all possible information.”

Those necessary precautions included cleaning the hearts very carefully, removing the embalming materials, and then redoing the MRI and CT scans. This time the CT scans clearly showed the structures of the heart — chambers, valves, coronary arteries. The hearts were rehydrated which made it possible for researchers to identify myocardial muscles on the MRI images. The team also employed dissection, visual examination and study of the tissues with a microscope to find out as much as possible about the health of the hearts.

One heart appeared healthy and showed no signs of disease. Three of the hearts did show signs of disease, as plaque was found on the coronary arteries. The fifth heart had been poorly preserved and, therefore, could not be studied.

“Since four of the five hearts were very well preserved, we were able to see signs of present-day heart conditions, such as plaque and atherosclerosis,” Dr. Mokrane said.

It’s interesting that heart disease was so prevalent among the wealthy aristocrats. I imagine it’s a diet issue. Wide access to fatty meats made the upper classes more susceptible to heart conditions than the poor who subsisted on less rich and artery-clogging diets.

As for Louise de Quengo, her remains were reinterred in September. Numerous descendants were consulted as to the disposition of her body. There was a divide whether to bury her in Rennes where she slumbered for 358 years or in Tonquédec in the Côtes-d’Armor department of Brittany where several of her descendants live today. Patrick de Quengo de Tonquédec, father of actor Guillaume de Tonquédec whom you might have seen as Serge in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece Three Colors: Blue, and his brother General Pierre de Quengo de Tonquédec advocated for her reburial in town cemetery in the shadow of the Château de Tonquédec, a castle which in the 17th century belonged to the lady’s brother. A majority of descendants agreed and Louise de Quengo was reinterred in Tonquédec on Wednesday, September 23rd.


Sealed chambers found under Templo Mayor

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

The search for the tombs of Aztec emperors inches closer to a possible conclusion with the discovery of two sealed chambers under the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan in downtown Mexico City. Archaeologists have discovered a narrow tunnel that leads into the center of a large circular ceremonial platform at the foot of the Great Temple. At the end of the tunnel are two doors sealed with masonry that archaeologists hope may hold the cremated remains of 15th century Aztec rulers.

Elaborate Maya royal burials have been discovered in Mexico, for instance Pakal II’s massive sarcophagus in Palenque, but archaeologists have yet to find any tombs of Aztec rulers. The only historical sources to mention royal Aztec burials extant are accounts written by Spanish chroniclers like Bernardino de Sahagún and Diego Durán after the conquest that record that the remains of Aztec emperor Axayacatl (grandson of Moctezuma I), and his brothers and successors to the throne Tizoc and Ahuitzotl were each cremated on a great circular platform in the Templo Mayor complex called the Cuauhxicalco.

The Cuauhxicalco in question was unearthed in 2011. While at least five are recorded as having existed in the temple complex, this was the only one discovered in the ritually significant area at the foot of the temple. The platform is studded with 14 carved snake heads and is more than 50 feet in diameter. It was built in the 15th century on the south side of the temple which was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and patron god of Tenochtitlan.

In 2013, archaeologists excavating the north side of the Cuauhxicalco found a large slab of volcanic andesite embedded in the floor. After lifting the 3-ton slab, they found a hollow space underneath it filled with offerings. Inside an offering box were the stones of a dismantled wall. At the bottom of the offering box were a pair of skulls of young children between five and seven years old at time of death, the first three cervical vertebrae and the skeletal remains of one hand and two feet. This is the first find of child sacrifices with complete skulls including the mandibles and the bones of the neck included. Lead archaeologist Leonardo Lopez Lujan believes the remains of the children were interred right after death, which is why the vertebrae were there and why the feet and hand bones were articulated. The offering box also held gold objects, stone knives used in human sacrifices, the bones of eagles and one spectacular as yet unidentified artifact made of gilded obsidian. Underneath the box was another offering box containing the skull of an adult woman.

The team was just about the rebury the offering boxes when one of the researchers, archaeologist Tomas Cruz, realized the south wall of the hollow space was hiding a narrow corridor just 18 inches wide and five feet high. They dug out the debris filling the hallway and found it led 27 feet to the center of the Cuauhxicalco, culminating in the two entrances, one facing east, one west, that had been walled off by the Aztecs.

But Lopez Lujan is being cautious, saying the presence of graves at the end of the newly found passageway is simply a theory that could be wrong. The blocked-up entrances will be excavated starting in 2016.

“What we are speculating is that behind these sealed-up entrances there could be two small chambers with the incinerated remains of some rulers of Tenochtitlan, like Moctezuma I and his successors, Axayacatl and Tízoc, given the relative dating of the surrounding constructions,” Lopez Lujan said. […]

Dr. Michael E. Smith, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University who was not involved in the dig, said “Leonardo knows the archaeology and ethno-history better than anybody, and he is not one to grandstand or make fantastic claims to garner publicity. Thus I would think his prediction is reasonable.”

They weren’t able to excavate of the chambers right away because construction of a new entrance hall to the Templo Mayor made the space inaccessible for two years. That’s almost complete now, so archaeologists will be able to pick up where they left off in January or February of next year. They expect to find two small rooms, no grand vaulted spaces like those created by the Maya.

In seven years of excavation, Lopez Lujan’s team has found 39 offerings containing more than 50,000 objects. Nine offerings were found before this excavation project began in 2007, for a total of 48. It’s the largest concentration of sacrificial deposits found in the temple complex, and they were found at the foot of the double staircase on the south side, not inside the pyramid, nor on any of the other sides. The concentration suggests this spot has greater ritual significance than the rest of the site, which, combined with the massive Cuauhxicalco, gives archaeologists reason to believe that any royal remains that may have been entombed in the temple were entombed in that location.





December 2015


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