12th c. “archaeological ruin” icon restored

The 12th century Bogolyubskaya Icon of Theotokos (Greek for the Mother of God), once deemed an unfixable “archaeological ruin,” has been restored not quite to its original splendor but to its original colors. This is a great achievement for a revered artwork that is one of only about 30 icons from the 12th century that still survive. An exhibition at the Grabar Art Conservation Centre in Moscow tells the tale of its checkered life, from miraculous conception to this latest restoration.

The story begins in 1155 with Grand Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (“Andrew the God-Loving”). He was traveling to the city of Vladimir, the new capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality which arose from the demise of the Kievan Rus, a demise Andrei vigorously and successfully fought to accelerate. With him he carried a precious icon now known as the Miracle-Working Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The icon was Byzantine, made in Constantinople in 1131, but was believed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. It was also believed to have miraculous powers of protection, particularly in battle, which is why Andrei carried it with him.

Seven miles outside of the city near the banks of the Klyazma River, Andrei’s horses suddenly refused to take another step. The prince prayed before the icon the whole night and received a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a scroll in her right hand. She commanded him to take the icon to Vladimir and build a church and cloister on the place where she had appeared to him. Andrei did what she told him to and more besides, commissioning a new icon commemorating his holy vision.

The icon depicted Mary holding a scroll in her right hand, just as Andrei has seen, her left hand raised in prayer to Jesus shown as an adult in the upper right hand corner. As promised, Prince Andrei built his own palace and a church, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, on the site of his vision. The icon was installed in the Convent of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (later known as the Bogolyubsky Convent). When another church in Vladimir, the Dormition or Holy Assumption Cathedral, was completed, the icon was translated to it.

Under Andrey Bogolyubsky, Vladimir grew into the dominant cultural, economic and political center of the region and remained so until 1237 when it was besieged by the Mongol Golden Horde commanded by its founder Batu Khan. It fell on February 8th, 1238, and never again regained the prosperity and power it had once enjoyed. Dozens of Vladimir’s characteristic white limestone churches and public buildings were burned, but the icon survived the Mongol onslaught.

It nonetheless suffered many slings and arrows over the centuries. In 1722 the church building collapsed and the Bogolyubskaya Icon was trapped under the rubble for days. In 1771, Vladimir was struck by plague. The icon was paraded through the city and the epidemic miraculously ended. Every year after that the icon was brought to the city from May 21st until July 16th during which the miraculous procession was repeated in towns and villages all over the region.

The annual parades almost destroyed the icon. Exposed to the elements, the centuries-old paint weakened and the wood panel deteriorated. After the revolution church art was nationalized by the Bolshevik government. A restoration commission headed by artist, art historian and founder of the conservation center that bears his name, Igor Grabar examined the icon. When they removed the metal casing, they were horrified to find the icon blackened, the paint crumbling, the gesso rotting, the panel bored with holes from wood worm and the surface crawling with live larvae. Dismayed restorer Alexander Anisimov called it an “archaeological ruin.” Thanks to Grabar’s judicious reluctance to interfere with what was left of the icon, a prescient approach that was not common then, the team documented it photographically, killed the pests and strengthened the board as best they could.

Later restorers were not so circumspect. In a 1946 attempt to restore the icon, or at least prevent further deterioration, Vladimir museum restorer and artist F.A. Modorov came up with the idea of covering the surface with hot paraffin wax. He thought this would strengthen and protect the flaking paint layer. Who could have predicted that pouring hot wax on a delicate, wood worm-tunneled, flaking, 700-year-old painting would be hugely destructive? (Anyone. Anyone could have predicted that.) Subsequent attempts at restoration were able to better reveal Mary’s face and some of her clothes. They could not repair the decay of the gesso layer and the paint, but the icon was stable and under the constant supervision of conservators.

With the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral of the Holy Assumption Convent in Vladimir claimed the icon. It was transferred to the convent in 1993 where it was put on display in a climate-controlled, hermetically sealed encasement made by the same outfit that made Lenin’s glass coffin. Lenin still looks great, but his encasement is constantly monitored and repaired. The icon received no such attention. Of the four batteries that powered the microclimate, only two of them worked and one of them had been sold by the nuns to raise money for the church, so really it was just a clear box with a lock. Meanwhile pilgrims left fresh flowers in vases of water at the feet of the icon, releasing humidity right into the box. On top of that, the original white limestone floor was replaced when a sponsor offered to install a new granite floor. Enter groundwater penetration, drainage problems, and perpetual damp. When one of the tiles was lifted later, mushrooms were growing underneath it.

This disaster was discovered in 2009 when nuns reported there was some sort of fungus growing on the surface of the icon. The failure to properly care for one of the first icons ever painted in Russia and one of very few religious artifacts to survive the Mongol invasion caused a scandal. The Bogolyubskaya Icon was moved to the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum in Vladimir and a new program of restoration under Aleksandr Gormatyuk of the Grabar Art Conservation Centre began. Aided by the latest restoration technology — 3D scanning, CT scanning, scanning electron microscope examination, X-rays — Gormatyuk assessed the condition of the piece and traced the history writ on its paint. He identified no fewer than 20 interventions on the piece in its 858 years. The average for icons is 3 to 4 interventions.

For six years Gormatyuk and his team worked to remove wax and resin layers and overpainting to reveal the original 12th century paint which by some miracle still survived. The Bogolyubskaya Icon now lives in a specially equipped restoration room with FUNCTIONING climate control systems. Only 12 people are allowed inside the room to eliminate human emissions and effluvia from the conservation equation as much as possible. The icon will be kept in the room and monitored for two more years at least.

Since the icon is still far too fragile to travel, the Moscow exhibition uses life-sized photographs, orginal documents, weapons from the 12th century, white stone carvings from Vladimir to give visitors an understanding of the history of the Bogolyubskaya icon and its restoration. Friday, February 26th, is the last day of the exhibition, so if you’re in Moscow there is no time to waste.

Earliest complete Bronze Age wheel found at Must Farm

The Must Farm excavation has unearthed yet another unprecedented archaeological treasure: a Bronze Age wooden wheel so complete even a stump of its axle survives. It dates to about 1,100-800 B.C. and is the earliest complete Bronze Age wheel found in Britain. A wheel from around 1,300 B.C. discovered at the Flag Fen site two miles away in the 1990s is the oldest in Britain and Copper Age wheels from around 2,500 B.C. have been found in continental Europe. The Must Farm wheel is one meter (3.3 feet) in diameter and about 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) thick which makes it the largest discovered in Britain. The Flag Fen wheel is incomplete — it’s a crescent with the center missing — and .8 meters in diameter.

The wheel was made of three wooden boards held together by two horizontal bracers that are secured with dovetail joints. The radial structure of the hub identifies it as oak and those half-moon dugouts on either side of it were probably decorative elements that also had the practical side effect of decreasing the weight of the wheel which would be especially important in a watery environment. The less weight on the wheel the less likelihood of sinking incidents. There’s charring on the surface of the wheel, but it’s radiant charring which means it wasn’t actually on fire but rather near it.

It’s very similar in design to the Flag Fen wheel, so there’s no question that it’s a wheel, not a shield or tray or any other round, flattish wooden object. The Flag Fen wheel is also tripartite and also held together by horizontal bracers. It was made of three different kinds of wood: alder for the outer rim, oak for the axle and braces and ash for the dowels. We already know the Must Farm axle was also oak. Further analysis of the wheel will determine whether it too was made of more than one kind of wood.

Mark Knight site director of the excavation, said the discovery of the wheel helped create a much more detailed picture of the way those families lived in 1100-800 BC.

“This was a settlement built on a river that exploited dry land,” he said.

“The wheel is perfect, beautifully made in panels and stitched together. It was probably part of a chariot or a cart and, alongside the other discoveries, illustrates that this was a complex community that exchanged goods, created wealth and was thriving.”

The wheel was found nestled in sediments a few yards from the largest round house. The spine of what is believed to be a horse was found in January in the same area. He may have pulled the chariot or cart this wheel was once attached to. It’s too early to say for sure what its use was. While it’s in unprecedented shape for its age, the wheel is in delicate condition. The area where it was found is not as well preserved as the rest of the site and the wood is beginning to flake. It will be removed in its entirety and conserved in laboratory conditions.

Archaeologists found other wooden artifacts in the same spot: a wooden platter, a wooden box, small bowls with food remains still inside (nettle stew again, Mom?), tools and textiles.

4,300-year-old Chinese cockroach prints found on Japanese pottery

The exterior surface of pottery can be a surprisingly rich source of information about ancient flora and fauna. Dents and holes that were once assumed to be insignificant have in the last 25 years been discovered to be impressions left by seeds, nuts or insects. In ancient Japan, for instance, sometimes soybeans and adzuki beans were used in the production of pottery. By examining the cavities they left behind, archaeologists were able to narrow down when cultivation of these staples began in the area.

Using X-ray and CT imaging and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), the team of Professor Hiroki Obata at Kumamoto University examined potsherds discovered in the Odake shell mound in Toyama Prefecture which dates to the early Jomon Period of Japan (5,300 – 3,500 B.C.). They found more than 500 Egoma seed cavities on the surface. The team then examined potsherds from the Motonobaru archeological site which dates to the late Jomon Period (2,500 – 1,300 B.C.). They made a silicon replica of the surface which they scanned with a scanning electron microscope. This “impression replica” system allows researchers to examine the original surface in greater detail.

This time they found the imprints of cockroach egg cases. The cases were 11 mm long and were characteristic of the smokybrown cockroach (Periplaneta fuliginosa) which is from southern China. Historical sources — literary references and artistic depictions — record the presence of the smokybrown cockroach in Japan during the 18th century, but earlier references were thought to be domestic roaches. Since the pottery fragments are 4,000 and 4,300 years old, they indicate smokybrown cockroaches reaches Japan at least 3,700 years before they appear in the historical record.

Pottery fragments from Motonobaru analyzed last year found 173 impressions of the maize weevil. That’s half the total number of ancient maize weevils ever found in Japan.

“The maize weevil is a type of harmful insect that eats stored starch food materials such as acorns or chestnuts, which are known to be typical stored food for that period in Japan. The existence of many maize weevils and cockroaches shows that these ancient humans lived settled lifestyles,” said Professor Obata. “With this latest research, we have revealed that there were cockroaches in human living areas from a period older than was previously believed. More and more information about ancient human life is being found from potsherds. Soft and small items have some difficulty remaining in the soil for a significant amount of time, but they can be kept safe within these pottery fragments. Like little time capsules, potsherds are packed full of treasures which help to reveal the story about the living conditions of ancient humans.”

Hoards of Cheshire go on display in Liverpool

Two hoards of Iron Age and Roman coins and jewelry discovered in 2012 and 2014 have gone on display for the first time at the Museum of Liverpool. The Museum of Liverpool and the Congleton Museum secured a £65,400 ($93,400) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to acquire both hoards and create an exhibition that can tour the area. That exhibition is now up and running and will be shared between the institutions. It moves to the Congleton Museum in July.

The Malpas Hoard was discovered at a metal detecting rally on January 9th, 2014, near Malpas, Cheshire. It’s a group of 35 coins, seven Iron Age British gold coins and 28 early Roman coins. The British coins are gold staters struck between 20 and 50 A.D., three of them of the western regional series inscribed “EISV” and four of the northeastern series inscribed “VEP CORF.” This is remarkable because western coins circulated in Gloucestershire and surrounding counties where the Dobunni tribe lived, significantly to the south of Malpas, while northeastern coins circulated in Corieltavi territory of Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, significantly to the east of Malpas. Individual coins in the series have been found in the northwest, but this is the first hoard. It’s also very unusual to find a split of regions in a single hoard.

The Roman coins are silver denarii, most of them from the Republican period. The earliest was struck in 134 B.C. by the moneyer Augurinus in Rome. The most recent were struck in the reign of Tiberius Caesar (14-37 A.D.). This group is typical of the kind of money introduced to Britain from the time of the Roman conquest in 43 A.D. Experts believe the hoard was buried shortly thereafter, in the 40s or 50s A.D., because the Tiberius coins are in very good condition and show few signs of wear so they can’t have been in circulation long.

The Knutsford Hoard was first discovered by a metal detectorist Alan Bates in May of 2012. He and archaeologists from the National Museums Liverpool and Cheshire Archaeological Advisory Service returned to the find site in June and removed a soil block containing many more coins for excavation in the lab. The final tally is 101 silver denarii, two sestertii, three gilded silver trumpet brooches and two silver finger rings. There was also a group of pottery fragments, including 21 from an orange-ware vessel. The earliest coin is a denarius issued by Mark Antony around 32-31 B.C.; the latest a denarius from the reign of Commodus dating to 190-191 A.D. That suggest the hoard was buried in the late second century.

Trumpet brooches, so named because their open ends and tubes look like trumpets, were a popular style in the 2nd century and appear to be associated with the Roman army. These are heavy, expensive examples, made in a mould and decorated with British-style scrolls and curvilinear designs. They are parcel-gilt: the background of the scrollwork is gilded while the scrolls themselves are left in silver.

The finger rings are silver with intaglio carnelian stones. One of the carnelians has been engraved with a winged figure, possibly Mercury or Victory, facing left with one arm raised. The carving on the other stone is no longer visible. It appears to have been file away. They’re very small, just 25 and 26 millimeters wife, so they may have been women’s jewelry. On the other hand, intaglio rings were often used to stamp wax seals which was more of a man’s game at the time, so it’s possibly they might have been intended for a man to wear on his pinky.

Liz Stewart, curator of Archaeology and the Historic Environment at the Museum of Liverpool said: “These two hoards provide fascinating evidence about the wealth, trade, lifestyles and identities of people in the North West in the early Roman period.

“It’s very special to be able to acquire and display these items for the region and to explore the long history of the area with our visitors.”

To celebrate the new exhibition, the Museum of Liverpool will host a conference on February 27th from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM that will be open to the public and free of charge. Experts from all over the country will discuss the hoards, their historical context and what they can tell us about life in first and second century northwest England.

Martha Brown, the real Tess of the D’Urbevilles

Saturday, August 9th, 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown was hanged in front of Dorchester Gaol. A month earlier she had killed her husband John with multiple hatchet blows to the head. The marriage, needless to say, had not been a happy one. She was a housekeeper, he a servant at Blackmanston Farm. She was said to be a handsome woman with a beautiful head of thick, curly hair, but she was 20 years older than her husband and it was generally thought that he married her for money. Her £50 savings allowed the couple to move to Birdsmoorgate in the Marshwood Vale and open a shop. Soon she suspected him of having an affair with a younger woman, Mary Davis, who ran a shop near theirs, and according to Martha, he became verbally and physically abusive towards her. One night he got home in the wee hours and by morning he was dead.

At first she denied having murdered him. She claimed he’d been kicked in the head by a horse 200 yards away from the house and somehow made his way home where he expired. A doctor found that there was no way he could have walked home with the injuries he’d suffered. Martha stuck to her story but the jury at the Dorchester Crown Court were not persuaded and she was condemned to hang. It was widely believed that her insistence on sticking to her patently false cover story sealed her doom, that if she had confessed and repented, her life would have been spared. On top of the horse kick lie, her calm demeanor at the trial was interpreted as callousness.

Just before she was executed, Martha Brown signed a full confession.

“My husband, John Anthony Brown, deceased, came home on Sunday morning, the 6th of July, at two o’clock, in liquour, and was sick. He had no hat on. I asked him what he had done with his hat. He abused me, and said, ‘What is it to you, d–n you.’ He then asked for some cold tea. I said that I had none, but would make some warm. He replied, ‘Drink that yourself, and be d—d.’ I then said, ‘What makes you so cross? Have you been at Mary Davis’s?’ He then kicked out the bottom of the chair upon which I had been sitting.

We continued quarrelling until about three o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of my head, which confused me so much that I was obliged to sit down. Supper was on the table, and he said, ‘Eat it yourself, and be d—d.’ At the same time he reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy horse-whip, with a plain end, and struck me across the shoulders with it three times. Each time I screamed out.

I said, ‘If you strike me again I will cry, Murder.’ He retorted, ‘If you do, I will kick your brains out through the window.’ He also added, ‘I hope I shall find you dead in the morning.’ He then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain, and he immediately stooped down to untie his boots.

I was much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion, on being so abused and struck, I directly seized a hatchet which was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been using to break coal with to keep up the fire and keep his summer warm, and with it (the hatchet) I struck him several violent blows on the head. I could not say how many.

He fell at the first blow on his head, with his face towards the fireplace. He never spoke or moved afterwards. As soon as I had done it, I wished I had not, and would have given the world not to have done it. I had never struck him before, after all his ill treatment, but, when he hit me so hard at this time, I was almost out of my senses and hardly knew what I was doing.

By all accounts, Martha was composed and calm as she climbed the scaffold. Her attendants and the chaplain were more upset than she. The hangman tied a rope around her dress at the ankles to prevent her gown from flying up and exposing her during the drop. A white hood was placed over her head. The Reading Mercury of August 16th, 1856, reported that “the wretched woman fell with great force, and after a few struggles ceased to exist.”

Martha Brown was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset. Dorchester, which had a centuries-long history of exceptionally brutal public executions, hadn’t had a hanging in 26 years and people flocked to see this woman breathe her last. Close to 4,000 people filled North Square for the revival of what had once been called “hang fairs.” One of the spectators was a 16-year-old apprentice architect named Thomas Hardy. The hanging of Martha Brown made an indelible impression on the young man, so much so that 35 years later he would write a novel about a tragic heroine who staves in the head of the abuser who ruined her life and is hanged for it.

Writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles couldn’t exorcise the memory of Martha Brown. Seventy years later in 1925 Thomas Hardy found himself in Martha’s old stomping grounds when he visited the estate of Racedown in the Marshwood Vale where Wordsworth and Coleridge had once stayed. He asked Racedown’s owner, Lady Hester Pinney, to find out more about Martha Brown. In correspondence with Lady Hester he explained his personal connection to the case.

“I am ashamed to say I saw her hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons… I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.

The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but look at the figure… turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw they had put a cloth over the face how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree. It was curious the two dropping together.”

Hardy’s second wife Florence also wrote to Lady Pinney: “Of course the account TH gives of the hanging is vivid and terrible. What a pity that a boy of sixteen should have been permitted to see such a sight. It may have given a tinge of bitterness and gloom to his life’s work.”

A little more than a tinge, I’d say. The next year Lady Pinney visited Hardy and they talked about Tess and Martha “whose stories have much in common, just as if they were in the next room. His sympathy for these unhappy women was wonderful.”

The Dorchester prison was closed in 2013 and developers plan to build homes on the site. An archaeological survey found human remains, not in the prison burial ground but outside consecrated ground. This was not unexpected. The dead of Dorchester Gaol were buried in a cemetery on the grounds and outside of it. The remains were left in situ and any that will be disturbed by future construction will be removed and reburied.

The thing is, one of those buried individuals may be Martha Brown, and there are a lot of Thomas Hardy fans who want this possibility explored.

Nick Gilbey, a Dorset-based film-maker and Hardy fan, said: “I don’t think it would be too difficult to establish if any of the remains are those of a woman. If they are, they are almost certain to be the remains of Martha.”

He said a full examination of the prison site should take place. “I think more work needs to be done, and we need to make sure that whatever remains are found there are given a proper, decent burial. Martha is an important historical figure because of the Hardy connection.”