Archive for August, 2016

Million-year-old mammoth tusks found in Austria

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

A team of paleontologists from Vienna’s Natural History Museum (NHM) has unearthed two large tusks and some vertebrae from a rare mammoth at a site 30 miles north of Vienna in the Weinviertel region of Lower Austria. The fossils were first discovered in mid-August by geologists surveying the site of a highway construction. They were studying the sediment layers when one of the geologists spotted an anomaly that turned out to be the tip of a tusk. The next day, experts from the NHM’s Geology and Palaeontology Department were called in to excavate the find and quickly unearthed a whole tusk and several vertebrae.

They knew there was more to be found, but rain interfered with further exploration for a few days. The delay made researchers antsy since this is a construction site and they didn’t have much time to salvage whatever was there. As soon as the rain let up, they went back to digging and unearthed a second tusk. The tusks are about 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) long now and were probably three meters (9.8 feet) long when they were still attached to their owner.

NHM paleontologists believe the tusks and vertebrae came from a single animal who died in the proto-Zaya river. The shape of the tusks and the sediment layer in which they were found suggest a preliminary date of around one million years ago. The fact that there was a river in which a mammoth’s remains could become embedded in the mud indicates it lived during an interglacial period, of which there were many during the 2.5 million years of the Pleistocene.

The museum’s press release doesn’t name the possible species, referring to it solely as Ur-mammoth, meaning original or primitive mammoth. Maybe the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) which ranged over Eurasia during the Pleistocene? Its ancestor the southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) died out 1.5 million years ago, so if the provisional dating estimate proves accurate, the steppe mammoth seems the most likely candidate. The descendents of a Siberian population of steppe mammoths evolved into the woolly mammoth about 400,000 years ago, so that might earn it the ur. Also the curved tusks seems most similar to those of Mammuthus trogontherii, to my entirely inexpert eyes.

After they were fully excavated, the tusks were stabilized for transport with the application of a thin coat of plaster bandages and wrapped with damp newspaper. They were then brought to the Natural History Museum in Vienna where they will be conserved and prepared for further study. Researchers are excited to find out all they can, not just about the animal but its environment. Very few remains this old have been discovered in Austria, so there is much to be learned from them and the discovery context.

The museum will keep the remains, but tt’s not known at this juncture whether the tusks and vertebrae will be integrated into the museum’s permanent exhibition. They will be very briefly shown at the a “Behind the Scenes” event at 11:00 AM on November 6th.

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Rarely seen liturgical textiles on display in Vienna

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

The Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna is home to an extraordinary collection of treasures accumulated by the House of Habsburg over hundreds of years. Jewels, vessels made of gold, silver and gemstones, furniture, paintings, the imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and opulent vestments are on display in the Secular Treasury, including one of my favorite historic textiles of all time, the Mantle of Roger II, made in 1133-4 for the Norman king of Sicily. The crimson samite mantle was embroidered in gold by Arabic craftsmen in Palermo who created a breathtaking split scene of lions attacking dromedaries on both sides of a stylized date palm. It made its way to the Holy Roman Empire through marriage by the early 13th century and to Vienna in 1801.

The Ecclesiastical Treasury features chalices, relics, monstrances, tabernacles and liturgical vestments. Its collection of 18th century religious textiles, most of which were donated to the Church by Emperor Charles VI, his wife Elisabeth Christine and their Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette of France. The vestments were made of the most expensive French and Italian silks and satins that were then lavishly embroidered.

The extensive holdings of the Ecclesiastical Treasury in Vienna are largely unknown to the general public; they comprise mainly vestments and liturgical textiles that were used to celebrate Mass or during religious festivities. Totalling around 1,700 artefacts, the collection includes both sets of vestments and individual textiles. Many of these precious garments were donated by members of the House of Habsburg who for centuries ruled the Holy Roman Empire. The pomp and circumstance associated with this high office is reflected in the costliness of these sumptuous textiles, the finest of which date from the Baroque, the apogee of Habsburg piety. Unlike mediaeval ecclesiastical textiles, baroque vestments generally feature not figurative but purely ornamental decorations. Precious secular silks adorned with a variety of designs frequently function as the base material, which is then elaborately embellished with appliqués, lace or gold-, silver- and silk embroidery to produce opulent textile works of art.

The leading benefactress in the 18th century was Maria Theresia (1717-1780). She donated precious textiles for use in the imperial palace chapel and the chapels of the different imperial summer residences at Schönbrunn, Laxenburg and Hetzendorf, as well as in St. Augustine’s church in Vienna. The latter evolved into a major stage for Habsburg piety. Here newly-appointed bishops were invested. All these places were lavishly appointed with sumptuous ecclesiastical textiles.

These textiles are so fragile they are kept in conservation cabinets and cannot be on permanent display. Select pieces can be seen now in the special exhibition Praise of God, and the embroidery alone is mind-blowing.


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Export of Queen Victoria’s coronet barred for now

Monday, August 29th, 2016

You might think a sapphire and diamond coronet designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria the year they were married would never be in danger of being exported out of the UK, but it is. The Culture Ministry has placed a temporary export ban on Queen Victoria’s coronet in the hopes that a buyer in the UK, ideally an institution, can raise the £5 million ($6,554,000) plus £1 million ($1,310,725) VAT to match the purchase price.

In the happy days before her widowhood, Victoria loved brightly colored gems, and Albert designed the coronet to match a sapphire and diamond brooch he had given to Victoria as a wedding present. Victoria was delighted with these gifts, writing in her journal “My dear Albert has such good taste and arranges everything for me about my jewellery.” In the case of the coronet, Albert arranged for Joseph Kitching, Goldsmith & Jeweller To His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, to make it using gemstones that Victoria had gotten as gifts from her uncle King William IV and his wife Queen Adelaide. The small crown — just 4.5 inches wide — has 11 kite- and cushion-cut sapphires mounted in gold surrounded by diamonds mounted in silver. It cost £415.

Victoria wore the coronet two years later in 1842 when she sat for one of the most famous portraits of the young queen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The fashionable artist’s first portrait of Queen Victoria captured her in white silk satin and lace gown reminiscent of her groundbreaking wedding dress which would launch the white wedding trend. The sapphire and diamond brooch Albert had given her the day before their wedding is pinned to her bosom, just as it was on her wedding dress. The coronet encircles the tidy bun on the back of her head. The painting became an iconic representation of Queen Victoria all over the world.

Prince Albert’s death in 1861 sent Victoria into a period of inconsolable mourning that lasted for years. She wore black and made no public appearances, executing the duties of the monarch in seclusion at her favorite royal residences, avoiding Buckingham Palace and London as much as possible. Breaking two centuries of uninterrupted tradition, she refused to attend the State Opening of Parliament for five years, finally returning to the duty in 1866 under duress. The new Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pressured the queen to attend the ceremony to quell politicians’ and the public’s increasing discontent with her withdrawal from public life. She did it with great reluctance, grumbling that it would be a terrible “shock to her nerves.” Instead of wearing the coronation crown, whose weight had caused her some pain during her coronation, she wore the little coronet, a reminder of her beloved husband.

Neither Queen Alexandra nor Queen Mary wore the sapphire coronet. In 1922 King George V and Queen Mary gifted it to Princess Mary, their only daughter, as a wedding present when she married Viscount Lascelles, the future 6th Earl of Harewood, in 1922. Mary, Princess Royal after 1932 and Countess of Harewood after 1929, wore the coronet often on public occasions. After her death in 1965, the coronet fell out of view. It emerged in 1997 for an exhibition at the renown Wartski jewelers in London, on loan from the Countess of Harewood. In 2002 it was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Tiaras exhibition.

At some point after that it was sold to a dealer in London. The overseas owner requesting the export license bought it from that dealer. Whenever an export license is requested, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) studies the piece and determines whether its historical and cultural value is too significant to let it leave the country without a fight.

RCEWA member Philippa Glanville said:

“Key to the self-image of the young Victoria, this exquisite coronet was designed by her husband Prince Albert. Worn in her popular state portrait by Winterhalter of 1842, the year it was made, its combination of personal meaning and formality explains why she chose to wear it in 1866, emerging from mourning for the State Opening of Parliament. It evokes vividly the shared romantic taste of the time, and its form has become familiar through many reproductions. Its departure would be a great loss, given its beauty, its associations and its history.”

Individuals and institutions have until December 27th, 2016, to raise the money or at least raise enough money to indicate they have a chance of matching the price if given a little more time. In that case, the temporary ban may be extended to June 27th, 2017.

If I were Queen Elizabeth II, I would be whipping out my checkbook right now. Which raises the question: are the Queen’s checkbooks plain or the kind with designs? I’m thinking horses in a field or Corgis at frolic.

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Confederate spy Belle Boyd’s flag up for auction

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

Belle Boyd was still a teenager when her career as a spy for the Confederate States of America began. Born in Martinsburg, Virginia (today West Virginia), she was 17 when war broke out in 1861. Her family, while not rich, was of old Virginia stock and she received a decent secondary education before making her debut in Washington, D.C. The whirlwind of balls and box socials was interrupted by Fort Sumter and she left D.C. to return home. Her father volunteered for the Confederate Army.

Within months Martinsburg was occupied by Federal troops. According to her autobiography, Belle Boyd saw to it that the town was occupied by one fewer Union soldier on July 4th, 1861. A group of soldiers had busted into their house, hearing that there might be Confederate flags within. When they went to raise the Union flag over the house, Belle’s mother protested and a solider retorted “in language as offensive as is possible to conceive.” Enraged, Belle whipped out the pistol she had concealed on her person and mortally wounded the Yankee soldier. The commander of the Union garrison in town investigated the shooting and declared it justified. He assigned sentries to guard the house and its residents from further interference.

And that’s how Belle Boyd got to know a passel of Union officers, charming information out of them with her wit, boldness and flirtatiousness. Mind you, there are no reports of any such shooting taking place in the official Union Army records. The account could be Belle Boyd’s fictionalized version of events invented or exaggerated for a stronger lead-up to her later spying activities which do appear on the record.

The exploit that would make her famous took place in May, 1862, just after her 18th birthday. Either by pressing her ear to a knothole in the floor or a knothole in the wardrobe (accounts differ), she eavesdropped on Union General James Shield’s conversation with his staff at a hotel in Front Royal, Virginia. She found out that Shield’s troops were leaving, that Union numbers would be significantly reduced. Riding a horse through Union lines with fraudulent passes, Belle reached General Stonewall Jackson’s army and relayed a message to him via an officer: “The Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.” On May 23rd, 1862, Jackson charged right down and defeated Colonel John R. Kenly at the Battle of Front Royal in a rout.

News of Belle Boyd’s daring late-night run spread quickly. There were stories in southern and northern newspapers about it. She was described in the northern press as the “Siren of the Shenandoah” and “Cleopatra of the Secession.” Stonewall Jackson sent her a lovely personal thank you note and awarded her the Southern Cross of Honor. She also received an honorary commission as a Captain in Jackson’s army and an honorary appointment as his aide-de-camp.

Belle revelled in the attention. She made no attempt to hide her actions, instead telling the story, often with embellishments including a claim that carrying a Confederate flag, she had led Jackson’s men onto the battlefield. She repeated that claim to one Frederic Sears Grand d’ Hauteville, a Union captain on the staff of General Nathaniel Banks, when she met him at Front Royal on June 10th and gave him the flag she said she had been waving when she “led the attack” on Union troops.

Another officer serving under General Nathaniel Banks wrote about Belle and the flag in a letter home on July 28th, 1862. That officer was Robert Gould Shaw, famously played by Matthew Broderick in the Oscar-winning movie Glory.

“Perhaps you have seen some accounts of a young lady at Front Royal, named Belle Boyd. There was quite a long and ridiculous letter about her copied into the ‘Evening Post’ the other day. I have seen her several times, but never had any conversation with her. Other men who have talked with her, tell me that she never asked for any information about our army, or gave them the slightest reason to suppose her a spy; and they were probably as capable of judging as the correspondent who wrote about her. She gave Fred. d’ Hauteville a very pretty Secession flag, which she said she carried when she went out to meet Jackson’s troops coming into Front Royal.”

After seeing significant action, Frederic d’ Hauteville resigned his commission in 1863 and married socialite and scion of two great New York dynasties, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish. She died just 10 months later and d’ Hauteville withdrew to his family chateau on Lake Geneva. The flag traveled to Switzerland with him and remained in the house until it was sold for the first time in 2015. Yes, you read that right. A genuine historical artifact was found in a real life private Swiss collection under entirely legitimate circumstances.

Now it is going up for auction again, for the first time in the United States.

Eleven star flags of this pattern are generally dated in the brief timespan from July 1861, when Tennessee and North Carolina joined the Confederacy, until November 28, 1861, when two additional stars were added to the flag to mark the establishment of Confederate governments in Missouri and Kentucky. Made sometime in that timespan, perhaps even by Boyd herself, this flag was packed away and preserved before it was even a year old. The flag exhibits an unusual canton configuration. While one side features the eleven stars in a circle, typical of First National flags, the other side has but a single star in the center of the canton. [...]

Its condition has remained immaculate, retaining the short ribbons along its hoist and showing no tears, holes, fraying, loss, or staining. A small handwritten note has been loosely stitched to the flag, testifying to its provenance. The note reads: “Confederate flag. Taken by F.S.G d’H. and given by him to E.S.F. in 1862 (?). To be given to Freddie d’ Hauteville when he is fifteen.” The handwriting is that of Frederic d’ Hauteville, who has spelled out his name in initials. E.S.F. represents the initials of his late wife, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish. Freddy, his son by his second wife, was born in 1873, thus dating this note some years before his 15th birthday in 1888.

The auction will take place on September 17th, 2016, but the lot is already open for online bidding. The opening bid is $50,000. Heritage Auctions expects it to sell for much more than that, and given its impeccable provenance and exquisite condition, it may even break the record for a flag of the First National pattern. The record for Confederate flag sold at auction is the battle flag of J.E.B. Stuart which sold for $956,000 in 2006.

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National Trust acquires iconic Jacobean miniature

Saturday, August 27th, 2016


The National Trust has acquired a very fine early 17th century miniature by Isaac Oliver for £2.1 million ($2,760,000), a new record for a British miniature. The miniature is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest British examples of the art form. It has been on display at the Powis Castle in Powys, Wales, which was bequeathed to the National Trust by 4th earl of Powis in 1952. The anonymous seller, believed to be in the family of the Earls of Powis, sold the miniature at a discount — it was valued at £5.2 million ($6,830,000) — in exchange for tax concessions. Even so, the National Trust had to raise funds to buy the piece and save it for the nation before it went up for public sale. The Art Fund contributed £300,000 ($394,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund £1.5 million ($1,970,000) and the National Trust pulled together the rest from various sources.

The subject of the miniature is Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), a soldier, diplomat, statesman, poet, playwright and philosopher. His first cousin was Sir William Herbert, 1st Lord Powis. Scholars believe the miniature has been in the Powis family almost since it was first painted.

The cabinet miniature measures nine by seven inches and presents him as a chivalric hero of medieval romance, reclining in a verdant glade by a babbling brook. Lying recumbent with his head propped up on one hand, Herbert strikes the pose of the melancholic, symbolic of deep thought and contemplation. This isn’t just the image of a philosophically minded young man, however. Herbert is the Melancholy Knight here, shown in repose after dueling in a joust. His shield, decorated with a winged heart rising from the flames and the inscription “Magia Sympathiae,” (“sympathetic magic,” an element in Herbert’s metaphysical treatise De Veritate on the pursuit of truth) covers his arm, while in the background his elegant suit of armour is perched between two trees and his page holds a helmet so extravagantly beplumed that the red feathers obscure the page’s face entirely. To the right of the page, Herbert’s armoured white destrier paws the ground spiritedly. In the far distance, painted in blue, is a city on a river.

Edward Herbert was a dashing figure of the era, famed for his bravery, intellect and success with the ladies. The miniature was painted around 1610-1614, a time when Herbert had distinguished himself in highly chivalric fashion while volunteering under Philip William, Prince of Orange, in the Low Countries. From 1609 through 1614, the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of the Jülich Succession over who would control the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II claimed the duchy, as did Wolfgang William, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and the Prince of Orange representing the interests of the Dutch Republic.

In 1610, the emperor’s troops occupied the fortified citadel of Jülich and the armies of the Republic, Palatinate-Newburg and Brandenburg came together to besiege it. Herbert stepped forward to propose a classic solution to the conflict: he offered to fight the Holy Roman Emperor’s chosen champion in single combat. The victorious champion would win the duchy for his lord. Rudolph II declined. The siege lasted 35 days before the Imperial troops surrendered and withdrew and Rudolph renounced his claim to the duchy.

Born in France the son of a Huguenot goldsmith named Pierre Olivier who anglicized his last name when he fled persecution in Rouen and moved to England, Isaac Oliver was 27 and already an experienced painter when he became a pupil in the workshop of painter Nicholas Hilliard who was a popular miniature portraitist of the Tudor court.

Hilliard was limited in his skills, however, sticking largely to relatively flat head-and-shoulders portraits. When Oliver began painting miniatures under Hilliard in 1587 he was quickly recognized as a great talent and an innovator of the genre, which was less than 70 years old at that time. His portraits covered more of the body, used more and brighter colors, added chiaroscuro shadow elements that gave the features more depth and dimension. Oliver introduced the naturalism of Renaissance Italian and Flemish painters to British miniatures, and his works were widely collected by the young and fashionable.

There is an extremely juicy backstory to the miniature, one that appropriately enough for Herbert involves a married woman, a pissed off husband, attempted murder and attempted duels. The tale is recounted by Edward Herbert himself in his scandalous autobiography which was only published a century after his death by Horace Walpole, publisher, author and son of the first prime minister of Britain Robert Walpole, who had borrowed it from the then-Earl of Powis. Walpole called it “the most curious and entertaining book in the world,” and with good reason.

According to Herbert, the miniature was commissioned not by the Herberts but by the wife of one Sir John Ayres. She had purloined a copy of the original painting, now lost, and had Oliver make a version in miniature to wear “about her neck, so low that she hid it under her breasts,” a placement that Herbert acknowledges gave Sir John reasonable cause for suspicion. Then this happened:

Coming one day into her chamber, I saw her through the curtains lying upon her bed with a wax candle in one hand, and the picture I formerly mentioned in the other. I coming thereupon somewhat boldly to her, she blew out the candle, and hid the picture from me; myself thereupon being curious to know what that was she held in her hand, got the candle to be lighted again, by means whereof I found it was my picture she looked upon with more earnestness and passion than I could have easily believed, especially since myself was not engaged in any affection towards her.

Why, who could think there was illicit affection between them, just because he found himself in her rooms with the lights out while she fondled a miniature of him she kept in her cleavage? Sir John, apparently, because word got out that he planned to kill Herbert in his bed. When several titled personages alerted Edward Herbert to the contract out on his head, he enlisted his cousin Sir William Herbert to ask Sir John Ayres to refrain from murdering him in his sickbed until they could meet in an honorable duel once Edward was recovered from a fever.

The appeal fell on deaf ears, but their communication led Sir John to change his plans from murder in bed to murder on the streets. He and four men-at-arms attacked Herbert, recently recovered from his illness and on his way to Whitehall. A fierce battle ensued in which Herbert fended off five men, broke his sword, took a dagger blow from ribs to hip and still managed to pin Sir John down and whup him like he owed him money with the busted remnant of his sword. Ayres’ men dragged his body to safety.

Herbert recovered from his knife wound and wrote to Ayres again suggesting an honorable duel between them. Ayres replied that Herbert “had whored his wife, and that he would kill [him] with a musket out of a window.” The Privy Council got involved, adjudicating the dispute between them. Lady Ayres wrote a letter denying her husband’s allegations and the lords oohed and aahed over Herbert’s brave Dumas-like derring-do. Ayres did not try to kill him again.

What’s missing in this self-servingly dashing narrative is an explanation of how the portrait wound up with the Powis Herberts. Perhaps Lady Ayres handed it over. Perhaps this whole story is, let’s just say, richly embellished.

The miniature will now spend several months getting treatment from conservators. Once it is in tip-top shape, it may be loaned to other museums — the piece has been loaned to institutions like the Victoria & Albert in the past — before returning the Powis Castle for permanent display.

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4,200 yr-old rattle found in Turkey

Friday, August 26th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Acemhöyük excavation site in central Turkey have unearthed a clay rattle that dates to the early Bronze Age. It has not been radiocarbon dated yet, but the layer in which it was found dates to around 2200 B.C. which makes the toy one of the oldest rattles ever found. Made out of terracotta, the rattle is shaped like an oval coin purse. It probably had a handle originally but that has been lost. The top has a few perforations to allow sound to escape. It is intact and still sealed with small objects inside, probably pebbles, which make the rattling noise. Had any part of it broken or chipped over the past 4,000 years, the contents would have fallen out and it would no longer rattle. Happenstance has preserved it so that we can still hear what the Bronze Age baby and parents who once shook it can hear.

You can see and hear the rattle rattled in this Turkish language news story on the find.

That’s Dr. Aliye Öztan in the video, leader of the excavations at Acemhöyük since 1989. Acemhöyük is a large oval mound 44 hectares in area that is one of the largest Bronze Age sites in Anatolia. The tumulus was erected around 3000 B.C. There are a total of 12 habitation layers, the oldest dating to the Late Copper Age. The rattle was found in layer seven. The settlement was continually inhabited from the Early Bronze Age through the Roman era, reaching peak prosperity in the second millennium B.C. when it was an important center of trade during the Assyrian Trade Colonies Period (1950-1750 B.C.) when the Assyrians established karums, or merchant colonies, in multiple cities in Anatolia.

Excavations at the site began in 1962 and have continued ever since. While earlier excavations have focused on the prosperous Assyrian Trade Colonies Period, the aims of the current dig is to excavate the bottom layer of the mound and the Early Bronze Age ones. The city walls were built in the Early Bronze Age, so this period is key to understanding the community’s growth and development. Other artifacts found this season include a fragment of a necklace made of bones, metal needles and cups.

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Etruscan stele names goddess Uni

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

The inscribed Etruscan stele discovered in the ancient settlement of Poggio Colla earlier this year has yielded an exciting name: Uni, a fertility/mother goddess who was the Etruscan equivalent of the Greco-Roman goddesses Hera and Juno. She may have been the goddess worshipped at the temple. Other finds made at Poggio Colla, most famously a ceramic fragment with the earliest birth scene in European art, support the contention that the town was the center of fertility cult.

The massive slab was found in the foundation of a 2,500-year-old stone temple, but it was recycled for that purpose. Archaeologists believe the stele was an important part of a sacred display in the first wood temple. It is ponderously sized at 500 pounds, four feet high and two feet wide, and is inscribed with letters and punctuation around the edges of the front face and sides. With the stone partially cleaned the number of characters found was 75. Now they’re up to 120 and still counting, putting it in the running for the longest Etruscan inscriptions on stone. It is certainly one of the three longest sacred (non-funerary) Etruscan texts yet discovered.

When the discovery of the stele was first announced, archaeologists expressed hope that they might discover from the inscription which deity the temple was dedicated to because it’s extremely rare for Etruscan sanctuaries to be so identified. The discovery of the name of the goddess Uni is therefore a wish come true. In addition to the name of the goddess Uni, researchers found the word “tinaś,” which they believe is a permutation of Tina or Tinia, the god of the sky and the top of the divine hierarchy in the Etruscan pantheon. Tina was the Etruscan equivalent of Zeus or Jupiter.

Etruscan epigrapher Adriano Maggiani and comparative linguist and University of Massachusetts Amherst classics professor Rex Wallace are studying the inscription and working to translate the text. They’ve found that the text was carved with great care, perhaps by a professional, highly skilled stone carver commissioned to carve words written by a scribe or temple official.

“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which made the discovery. [...]

“It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space,” said Warden[.]

This is just the early stage of the translation, hence the carefully qualified statements. Mugello Valley Archaeological Project researchers will present the discovery of the goddess Uni in the inscription at an exhibit in Florence on August 27th. The talk will include a hologram of the stele since the stone itself is still in the process of conservation at the Archaeological Superintendency in Florence. Their findings will also be published in the upcoming November issue of the journal Etruscan Studies.

“We can at this point affirm that this discovery is one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades,” Warden said. “It’s a discovery that will provide not only valuable information about the nature of sacred practices at Poggio Colla, but also fundamental data for understanding the concepts and rituals of the Etruscans, as well as their writing and perhaps their language.”

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Six Neolithic flint axes reunited in Denmark

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

It was the recent discovery of the sixth axe that set the wheels in motion for its reunion with its five brethren, but the story begins in 1930 when a farmer discovered a Neolithic flint axe in a field near Snostrup on the Roskilde Fjord in southwestern Denmark. The axe was 27 centimeters (10.6 inches) long and roughly hewn. Over time the farmer found another four axes with the same coarse finish. In 1975, National Museum of Denmark curator CL Vedbæk visited the farmer and documented the axes. Treasure trove laws were different then; after the artifacts were recorded, they stayed with the finder.

Forty-one years later, an archaeological excavation in the same field unearthed another rough axe. Museum Group ROMU archaeologist Jens Winther Johannsen was part of the excavation team. He remembered there were other Neolithic axes found in the field and decided to seek out the family. He asked around and was able to locate one of the farmer’s sons. As luck would have it, the family had kept the axes together and in good condition and the son wanted to hand them in to the National Museum. The National Museum judged them to be treasure trove. The state gets to keep the axes and the farmer’s family will get a finder’s fee.

The five previously excavated axes were transferred to the Museum Group ROMU, thus reuniting them with the sixth one unearthed this year. Examination of the group found that all of the axes are so roughly worked they are classified as intermediate goods, begun, but not completed. They would have had to be reworked, sharpened and polished on a grinding wheel before they could be used. National Museum curator Peter Vang Petersen and Jens Winther Johannsen think that the six axes were deposited together and then spread all over the field by subsequent cultivation. The whitish color of the axes indicates they spent many centuries in the same place where the soil conditions affected their color. They are made out of the same type of flint, and stylistically they all date to the mid-Neolithic, about 2,800-2,600 B.C.

The field where they were discovered was a marsh during the Neolithic. The area wasn’t drained and developed for agriculture until the 19th century. As a general interpretative rule, archaeologists believe deposits in wetlands were religious offerings, sacrifices, ritual “killings” of powerful objects, while objects buried in dry soil were stored for later retrieval. The six axes, therefore, are thought to have been ritually sacrificed to the gods by deposition in the marsh.

As for why unfinished flint axes might have been considered desirable sacrifices, archaeologists have found both finished and intermediate flint objects deposited in wetlands. Petersen hypothesizes that the form may not have been the important factor, rather the material used. The sacrifice of flint objects may have been a kind of tax or toll due to the gods for all the flint removed from the earth. Neolithic Danes were well aware of the value and importance of flint. Eastern Denmark was the center of flint production in northern Europe. From there, they were exported east to the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea and north to Sweden and Norway where there is no natural source of flint.

There are no current plans to display all six of the flint axes. The five that were found by the farmer will probably be part of the National Museum’s exhibition of select artifacts that were declared treasure trove the year before. That won’t happen until 2017.

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Crusader-era grenade in group of artifacts turned in to authorities

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

A group of artifacts recently turned in to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) include a striking embossed hand grenade from the Crusader era. The objects were collected by the late Marcel Mazliah who worked at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera on the northwest Mediterranean coast of Israel since it was built in 1973. Over the years, he found a broad assortment of archaeological treasures in the sea, probably lost in shipwrecks or simply overboard.

The Mazliah family contacted the IAA after Marcel died and they inherited his less-than-legal collection. An expert went to their home to examine the artifacts and was surprised to find such significant pieces.

According to Mrs. Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The finds include a toggle pin and the head of a knife from the Middle Bronze Age (from more than 3,500 years ago). The other items, among them, two mortars and two pestles, fragments of candlesticks, etc. date to the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE). The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel. The finds are evidence of the metal trade that was conducted during this period”.

The hand grenade is a handsome example of a weapon in common use by Islamic forces during the Crusader (1099-1187), Ayyubid (1187-1250) and Mamluk (1260-1516) periods. It is made of unglazed ceramic and embossed with grooves and tear drop-shaped designs. It has a domed top over a spherical body that tapers to a point. They were filled with incendiary material – petroleum, naphtha, Greek fire — and thrown or catapulted into the enemy camp where they exploded fire that water could not put out on their targets. There’s a small hole in the top into which flammable liquid could be poured and a wick added once the grenade was loaded.

Some scholars believe these vessels were not weapons, but rather perfume bottles. They’re certainly pretty enough for it and it seems counterintuitive that someone would bother to decorate an explosive projectile whose sole function is to destroy itself and take people down with it. On the other hand, their shape makes them markedly unsuited for placement on a dresser, requiring a rack or holder to keep them vertical, and the decorations also have the practical function of making the devices easier to grip in the hand or set snugly in the sling of a catapult. A smooth clay grenade would be dangerously easy to drop.

There is historical and archaeological evidence of this type of vessel being used in war. For one thing, clusters of them have been found in fortresses, castles and moats. The 12th century historian Mardi ibn Ali al-Tarsusi mentioned in the military manual he wrote for Saladin in 1187 that terracotta vessels with incendiary contents were launched from catapults or thrown from ramparts. Other sources from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries describe the clay gourds in more detail, explaining how they were used in battle and the various launching methods. Chemical analysis of residue inside several similar pieces discovered traces of rock salt, pine resin and other flammable materials. One gourd on display in the National Museum of Damascus has an inscription that leaves no question as to its bellicose purpose: “This kind of projectile is useful for targeting the enemy.”

The IAA is grateful that the family has voluntarily come forward and handed the artifacts over to the state. Officials plan to give the Mazliah family with a certificate of appreciation and, which is way cooler, have invited the family to visit the IAA laboratories where the artifacts will be studied and conserved.

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Tiny publisher to publish Voynich Manuscript facsimile

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

The Voynich Manuscript, a folio of mysterious illustrations and hand-written texts written in an unknown language or code, has been bedevilling linguists and cryptographers for almost 600 years. Radiocarbon dating of the book’s vellum leaves found it was produced between 1404 and 1438, and even though the ink cannot be dated at present, researchers believe the manuscript was written relatively close to the parchment’s age. There’s a documented history of alchemists, scholars, occultists, even one emperor (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II) succumbing to its fascination since the 1600s. It fell off the radar in the late 17th century only to be rediscovered in 1912 inside a trunk at the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome by Polish antiquarian and book dealer Wilfrid Voynich.

Voynich was obsessed with attempting to decipher the manuscript, dedicating the last 18 years of his life to the pursuit. Since then, everyone from professional codebreakers from both World Wars to amateur puzzlers have tried to crack the code. It has become the a cryptological Holy Grail, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which was owned the volume since 1969, gets thousands of emails a month from people claiming to have cracked the code. Fully 90% of traffic to the library’s website goes to the digitized images of the manuscript.

The Beinecke Library gets constant requests to loan the codex out to museums, institutions and researchers — it is the second most requested book after the Gutenberg Bible — but they mainly keep it locked up in a vault for its own protection. If everyone who wanted to turn its pages did so, its condition would quickly deteriorate. In 2005, a small Spanish publishing company called Siloé which specializes in printing precise facsimiles of historic manuscripts learned of the Voynich Manuscript and campaigned with the Beinecke to be allowed to make a specialized reproduction of it. Ten years later, the deal was done and the obscure publishers in the historic center of Burgos in northern Spain were granted the right to make the first ever copy of the Voynich Manuscript.

Siloe … has bought the rights to make 898 exact replicas of the Voynich — so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced.

The company always publishes 898 replicas of each work it clones — a number which is a palindrome, or a figure that reads the same backwards or forwards — after the success of their first facsimile that they made 696 copies of… another palindrome.

The publishing house plans to sell the facsimiles for 7,000 to 8,000 euros ($7,800 to $8,900) apiece once completed — and close to 300 people have already put in pre-orders.

The first high resolution photographs of the 252 pages of the manuscript were taken earlier this year and Siloé experts are now working on mock-ups. It’s no easy task reproducing a codex that has lived a rich and varied life over 600 years. Each folio is bound by hand and the delicate vellum has been exposed to diverse, sometimes damaging, climactic conditions. Some pages are dehydrated. Others are almost burnt from exposure to heat and light. Then there are the complexities inherent in this particular codex which has leaves that unfold into triples and quadruple pages.

Once the images are sorted out, the book will be printed on special paper developed by the company. Made from a thick paste, the paper will be treated so that the final product has the stiff feel of the Voynich vellum. The printed pages will then be then bound and aged to match the original.

It’ll be about 18 months before the first facsimiles go to print. The 300 copies that have already been sold in advance were all purchased by individuals — institutions have to wait to buy things when they actually exist — but one of the main reasons the Beinecke agreed to the copy was so facsimiles to go to museums and schools for scholars to peruse without fear of damaging the original. There must be some sort of reservation option with such a limited run already being more than a third claimed. I could find no means to preorder on the publisher’s website. Perhaps there will be more information available on the site once we get closer to publication.

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