Archive for January, 2017

Is this 1,000-year-old tomb a famous Viking chief’s?

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

Danish archaeologist Bjarne Henning Nielsen, curator at the Vesthimmerlands Museum in North Jutland, has an entirely speculative but rather nifty idea that a tomb he has been exploring since 2009 may have belonged to the Viking chief Ulv Galiciefarer. A Danish jarl (earl) of high rank with close connections to the royal family, Ulv earned his moniker with a successful series of raids on Galicia, Spain, in the first half of the 11th century. His exploits are recounted in the Knytlinga Saga, an Icelandic saga of the kings of Denmark written around 1250, and his issue would rule Denmark. His granddaughter Boedil was queen consort to King Eric I of Denmark (r. 1095–1103). Their son and heir Canute Lavard was murdered by his cousin in a classic Game of Thrones intrigue. Only days after the assassination, Canute’s son Valdemar was born. He would go on to rule Denmark as Valdemar the Great (r. 1157-1182).

The tomb was discovered near Naesby in Jutland in 1951 during highway construction. An excavation unearthed a broken sword engraved on the blade near the handle. The inscription is worn and hard to read, but may have been INNOMED, meaning “In the name of” or “In His name”. The grave also contained equestrian fittings and a beautiful, rare pair of silver-plated stirrups made in Central Europe. The excavation of the tomb, dubbed the rider’s grave due to the horse-related artifacts, was a rushed affair. The grave was reburied and neglected until the Vesthimmerlands Museum began to re-excavate the site in 2009.

Excavating the grave and the wider site, the museum’s archaeological team discovered a 10 cm fragment of the broken sword found in 1951, plus 24 more graves from the Viking era. The rider’s grave was just the most opulent and prominent of the compound. A small semicircle of stones, the remains of a larger Viking-era rock formation, still marked what had once been a grave mound. The stone circle area is surrounded by dark lines in the soil, traces of long-decayed wood that once bounded the grave. At first Nielsen thought these lines were what was left of a palisade or paddock, like the 10th century death house built over the grave of a Danish noble couple. A survey of the lines revealed that the structure over the rider’s grave would have been more than 100 square meters (1076 square feet). That’s way, way bigger than your usual death house.

Nielsen remembered seeing a similar structure years earlier when he was working on a the grave of a Viking noblewoman outside the city of Randers in eastern Jutland. South of that site, in Horning, another noblewoman’s grave had been found in the early 1960s which had first been a traditional burial mound, only for the mound to be demolished at a later date a wooden church built over the grave. Long after her death and burial, somebody wanted a more elaborate memorial to the deceased constructed on the site.

It suddenly occurred to Bjarne Henning Nielsen like the proverbial eureka in the bathtub that the rider’s grave could have received the same treatment. The mound is gone, only the stone semicircle testifying to its existence. Nielsen thinks the mound was deliberately demolished to make way for a chapel. Death houses were reserved for nobles of very high rank, but architecturally speaking they were fairly rudimentary. A full chapel would indicate an extremely important personage was buried on the spot.

The reason Ulv Galiciefarer popped into Nielsen’s head as a candidate is that the Naesby area is believed to have been part Valdemar the Great’s ancestral heritage, ie, his personal freehold, not Crown property. Contemporary sources note Valdemar donated a large parcel of land in his freehold less than a mile from Naesby to Cistercian monks. He could certainly have ordered the construction of a chapel over the tomb of his famous great-great-grandfather. It would be a display of piety as well as a way to underscore a nationally important figure in his lineage.

“It is private property he inherited from his father’s side, and Galiciefarer is part of the lineage,” said Nielsen.

“There is of course not a note in the grave saying ‘Here lies Ulv’, but the time and place fit and the burial is consistent with that of someone the king would want to honour.”

Nielsen conceded that his theory may be nothing more than a hopeful guess.

“All we can do today is speculate, but someone wanted to honour the great hero who lies there, whose name we unfortunately may never know,” he said.

There’s very little to go on here. The Galiciefarer hypothesis If the grave was the final resting place of a jarl, Ulv or anyone else, it would be the first jarl’s tomb known. Archaeologists haven’t had a template of a jarl’s tomb to use for identification, so the possibility, however remote, that this grave could have been Ulv Galiciefarer’s dangles the tempting prospect of figuring out yarl-specific funerary traditions that could then illuminate future excavations.

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Update on the Celtic Princess of the Danube

Friday, January 20th, 2017

In late 2010, archaeologists excavating a Celtic cemetery near the Iron Age settlement of Heuneburg unearthed an intact grave. The rest of the cemetery had been extensively looted, so when the team found a gold brooch inside a wooden burial chamber, they realized they had a very special find on their hand. The timbers were preserved in soil waterlogged by a small river that flowed nearby, which may also be the reason the grave was never pillaged. Its water-filled interior and boggy soil made it difficult for would-be thieves to access and loot. With a cemetery full of graves on drier land, looters picked the path of least resistance.

On December 28, 2010, the whole grave, encased in a 25-by-20 foot soil block weighing 80 tons, was raised and transported to the laboratory of the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Stuttgart. Archaeologists could now excavate the burial chamber in protected conditions, preserving the prehistoric timbers and any other organic remains, no matter how minute, and take all the time they needed for a thorough excavation. They discovered the contents of the tomb were extremely rich: more than 40 pieces of gold jewelry, more than 100 pieces of amber, plus jet, bronze and boar tusk jewelry and accessories, and an ornamental piece of armour for the head of a horse. This kind of armor was not produced in the Heuneburg area at this time. Part of it is consistent with work produced in northern Italy; some elements appear to be of southern Italian origin. It’s a testament to the variety and extent of the interregional trade in luxury goods during the Early Iron Age.

Most of the jewelry was adorned the skeletal remains of an adult woman. Her immense wealth and the wooden burial chamber, the only one of its kind every found, point to her being in the top echelon of Heuneburg society. The Celtic Princess of the Danube, as the press dubbed her, was between 30 and 40 years old when she died. The trunk of her skeleton was articulated and in place, while the skull was 10 feet away and the mandible in a corner of the chamber. Also in the grave were the remains of young girl around two or three years old. She too wore jewelry and because it is very similar to that found on the adult woman, so similar it was probably created by the same goldsmith, archaeologists believe they were related, likely mother and daughter. According to Dirk Krausse of the State Office for Cultural Heritage, Baden-Wuerttemberg, the matching jewels are “very special. We have no parallels to compare from the other graves. They’re only known up to now from these two graves.”

The style of the jewelry suggested a 7th century B.C. date for the grave. The preserved wooden timbers gave a more precise date: they were cut from a fir tree in 583 B.C. This was a prosperous time at Heuneburg. The Heuneburg hill fort dates to the Hallstatt period or Early Iron Age. The remains of wood and earthwork defensive fortifications from around 700 B.C. have been found, as have houses, burial mounds and expensive imported artifacts. A mud brick citadel wall on a massive limestone foundation 20 feet high was built around 600 B.C., a unique feature for Celtic settlements of this period. From 620 to 470 B.C., an estimated 10,000 people lived in Heuneburg which makes it by far the largest known prehistoric settlement north of the Alps as well as one of the oldest. More recent excavations at the foot of the hill have discovered a secondary housing site with homes grouped in walled compounds, an Iron Age suburban gated community, if you will. This is evidence in favor of classifying Heuneburg as not just a settlement, but an urban center. If so, it would make the hill fort the oldest urban site north of the Alps.

The remains of one other adult woman were found in the burial chamber. She had no jewelry, so researchers suspect she was a servant. At the moment it is not possible to determine whether and how the three individuals in the grave were related to each other.

Biological remains have been retrieved from the woman’s skeleton, but there are not enough remains from the child to do a DNA test, Krausse said. Only the enamel from the child’s teeth now remains.

At the moment, DNA sequencing technology is not advanced enough to work on the fragments of biological remains from the child’s grave. “But in 10 years, 20 years, maybe we will have the technology,” Krausse said.

The research into the Heuneburg grave and its contents is slated to continue until 2018. The latest findings will be published in the journal Antiquity.

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Oetzi’s last meal was mountain goat Speck

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Oetzi the Iceman was discovered protruding from the ice of a glacier in the Oetzal Alps of the South Tyrol by hikers on September 19th, 1991, and in the years since has become the most studied mummy in the world. Kept in a climate controlled chamber with a viewing window for visitors at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, Oetzi is under constant monitoring by researchers who use the latest and greatest technology to discover new information about his life and death with as little interference with the remains and artifacts as possible.

The question of what he ate in the day or days before someone shot an arrow in his back severing his subclavian artery — he bled to death within minutes — was previously addressed by analysis of the fecal material found in his bowels. They contained the remains of red deer meat and some kind of cereal eaten at least four hours before his murder. In 2011, microbiologists at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano reexamined CT scans from 2005 and discovered something previous researchers had missed: Oetzi’s stomach. It had shifted north, which is why it was missed the first time, and it appeared to be full.

A sample of the stomach contents contained animal fibers which DNA analysis identified as Alpine ibex meat. This was his last meal, ingested 30 to 120 minutes before he died. The meat of the Alpine ibex was traditionally believed to have medicinal properties, and since Oetzi suffered from chronic joint pain, Lyme disease, periodontal disease, ulcers and a panoply of non-fatal wounds including knife cuts and blunt force trauma to his teeth received in the days and hours before his death, he had more than enough reasons to seek out healing foods.

New research has been able to narrow down how the Ibex meat was prepared.

Mummy specialist Albert Zink from the European Academy of Bolzano said he was able to analyse the nanostructure of meat fibres from a mountain goat found in Ötzi’s stomach – indicating that the meat was raw and had been dry-cured, and not cooked or grilled, which would have weakened the fibres.

He added that Ötzi did not have a proper hunting bow with him, and probably carried the dried meat with him from his home, as raw meat would have quickly gone bad.

Further analysis of his stomach contents showed that he had not eaten cheese or dairy products, just meat. “It seems probable that his last meal was very fatty, dried meat – perhaps a type of Stone Age Speck or bacon,” Zink said. As Ötzi had hiked down from the South Tyrolean side of the Alps, it’s likely his provisions came from there.

Speck is a famous local delicacy in the Tyrol. Cured with salt and spices and cold-smoked, Tyrolean Speck goes back to the 13th century. Little did we know that it was being made from wild mountain goats in the area 4,000 years before it was made from the hind legs of pigs. I’m not sure how fatty ibex meat can possibly be, though. These animals are accustomed to scrambling up and down the Alps, after all, not chilling in a wallow.

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Medieval horse skull found at Colosseum

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

The Colosseum is in the middle of an extensive 25-million-euro restoration project financed by Tod’s shoe and bag empire. The first phase of the restoration, a thorough cleaning of the exterior, took three years and was completed last summer. The next phases will focus on shoring up the underground vaults, passages and drainage system and constructing a new visitor’s center.

But you don’t have to be in the Colosseum proper to stumble on centuries-old remains. While cleaning the area around the steps around the amphitheater’s foundation, workers with the Archeology Superintendency discovered the skull of a horse buried just a few centimeters under the surface. An archaeozoologist dated the skull to the 12th or 13th century.

In the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was something of a mixed-used development. Until around 1180, the ground level vaults underneath the seating tiers were rented out as apartments and workshops by the church of Santa Maria Nova in the Roman Forum. But by then the state of constant warfare between the Roman nobility had made the Colosseum a strategic prize. Whoever controlled the Colosseum controlled the west and north access to the Pope’s residence in the Lateran Palace. The Frangipani family took over everything but ground floor interior, fortifying the structure by 1130.

This was a direct threat to the papacy, which had very recent reason to be concerned. In 1119, Cencio Frangipani broke into the Lateran Palace, seized the newly elected pope Gelasius II, beat him and threw him in prison. The rioni of Rome revolted, and Frangipani was forced to free the venerable old pontiff. He forgave Cencio, but his successor Pope Callistus II did not. He had the Frangipani castle destroyed in 1121, thus making the Colosseum even more strategically important for them.

Other Roman families were keen to get a piece of that action. In 1216, the Annibaldi family tried to build a tower near the Colosseum but the Frangipani blocked it. The Annibaldi changed course and took it the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The Frangipani were partisans of the Pope, so Frederick, who would be excommunicated no less than four times during his reign, was more than glad to fight the papacy by proxy through the petty conflicts of Roman nobles. In 1230, he compelled the Frangipani to give half the amphitheater, the half closest to the Lateran Palace, no less, to the Annibaldi. The pope at the time, Gregory IX, who would go on to call Frederick the Antichrist, was still smarting from the very sound spanking the Emperor’s forces had given to the army he sent to invade Frederick’s Sicilian kingdom in 1229 (while Frederick was on Crusade, no less). The enemies were temporarily at truce, so Gregory was in no position to fight battles over the Colosseum.

The skull will be subjected to additional testing, and the excavations around the foundation will continue. I’m secretly hoping they can identify it as a noble steed that may have figured in the endless intramural skirmishes of medieval Rome. Rome Archeology Superintendent Francesco Prosperetti said of the horse skull that it is “evidence, as if it were needed, that the square of the Colosseum is a place waiting to be investigated from an archaeological point of view, and that it holds surprises at every level.”

Here’s a look at phase one of the restoration with some great shots of the painstaking cleaning process and of the newly brightened façade:

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From the annals of there’s no accounting for taste

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, reopened in September of 2015 after a five-year renovation that fixed structural issues, redesigned all the galleries and storage facilities, updated the climate control systems and technology. The refurbished museum was a huge hit with critics and visitors alike, but people who visited before last October of who stuck to the exhibition galleries have missed a long-lost gem: a 3rd century mosaic floor from Antioch in the Loctite Lobby of the Aetna Theater that was hidden for decades under atrocious convention hall carpeting.

The 13-by-10 foot mosaic is composed of limestone and multicolored glass tiles. A white border with small black stepped diamonds surrounds panels of theatrical masks, male and female, comic and tragic, young and old. Deep cuboids in perspective outline the mask panels. What was once the central panel is now almost entirely gone. Only the bottom left corner depicting a pair of sandaled feet on a footstool survives.

It was discovered in Room 2 of a private dwelling known as the House of the Mysteries of Isis because two of the mosaics in the house show scenes from Isian ritual. It was excavated in the 1930s by an archaeological team led by Princeton University which excavated ancient Antioch (modern-day Antakya, Turkey) from 1932 through 1939. As per the partage system which was customary at the time, the spoils of archaeological digs were divided among interested parties — involved institutions, financial supporters, local government. More than 300 mosaics and untold numbers of artifacts were unearthed during the seven years of Antioch excavations. Princeton’s share is now in the University Art Museum.

The Wadsworth was not one of the interested parties. The mosaic was purchased for $300 in 1940 by Atheneum director Chick Austin and was installed in the theater lobby. It had been raised in two sections back in the 1930s. When they were embedded in the terrazzo floor, the sections were put back together in a configuration that minimized gaps but paid no heed to the original logic and composition of the piece. Then, for reasons unknown and unfathomable today, the whole floor was covered in hideous wall-to-wall carpeting in the 1960s or 70s. Granted, those were dark days for interior decorating, but this seems extreme even for the era of avocado appliances.

“People knew it was there, but as the years went by it was less on everybody’s radar,” conservator Alan Kosanovich said.

Last October, the carpeting was pulled up “to give the lobby a fresher look,” he said. The mosaic and the terrazzo floor surrounding it were revealed. After Kosanovich cleaned and toned the piece, a railing was installed around it. Now, Atheneum visitors can see it, but not walk on it. [...]

The mosaic can be seen by all museum visitors, although those not going to a film screening or a live performance might not think to go to the basement theater to see it. It’s worth a trek down the stairs, to see an intriguing piece of ancient history, which sat ignored for decades under a common carpet.

Getting covered by hideous 1970s motel carpet isn’t the worst treatment received by an Antioch mosaic. In 1951 Princeton installed a small rectangular mosaic, once the border of a larger piece, raised during the university’s Antioch excavations in the vestibule of the Architecture Laboratory. Out in the open where an endless parade of students and faculty tramped on it daily and it was at the mercy of the vagaries of New Jersey weather for decades. You’d think an ancient mosaic literally at the threshold of an architecture lab would be handled with some basic level of competence, but you would be wrong. Every time some of the tesserae got loose, they just slapped a layer of cement on top.

Sixty years after it was installed, the mosaic finally got some attention. Conservators removed it in July 2011 and transported it to the Art Conservation Group’s Brooklyn studio for cleaning, consolidation and restoration. It was reinstalled, indoors this time, at the School of Architecture on March 19th, 2013. The removal and reinstallation was filmed, and it’s an interesting look not just as modern conservation methods, but also at how these mosaics were raised in the first place.

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Centuries-old Buddha ermerges from reservoir

Monday, January 16th, 2017

The head of a monumental Buddha statue has emerged from a reservoir in eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. When a hydropower gate renovation project dropped the water levels in Hongmen Reservoir 10 meters (33 feet) last month, local villages spotted the head in an alcove carved into the cliff face. A team of underwater archaeologists were dispatched by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Jiangxi Provincial Research Institute of Archaeology to examine the carving.

The initial investigation, concluded on January 15th, found the statue depicts the Gautama Buddha sitting on a lotus flower. It is 3.8 meters (12.5 feet) high and the style of carving, particularly the head shape, suggests it was made in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), although it may edge over into the earlier Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Over the Buddha’s alcove two wide chevrons resembling the peaked roofs of temples were carved. A path, an inscription with 30 characters, and chisel marks were found to the north and south of the statue, respectively. There are also rectangular holes carved into the stone, the remnants of architectural features. Under the water in front the clifface with the statue divers found stonework from the foundations of hall a massive 165 square meters (1776 square feet) in area.

Local records indicate the reservoir was built on the site of the ancient town of Xiaoshi. The underwater archaeology team came across its remains in the lake. In its heyday it was a thriving center of commerce, a hub for water transportation between Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, felicitously located at the intersection of two rivers. According to local lore, the Buddha was carved at that intersection to protect boats from the strong cross-currents.

It was submerged in 1958 when the reservoir was built. With no cultural patrimony protections in place to block the project and no practical way to recover or shield the temple, it was simply written off. That turned out to be a good thing, because benign neglect under a man-made lake sure beats the Cultural Revolution and the mass destruction of historic and religious heritage it spawned. The waters preserved the Buddha carving in very good condition, protecting it from weathering and pollution as well as human malice.

Many local residents were forced to move to make way for the new reservoir. Some have now come back to witness the reemergence of the Buddha.

Blacksmith Huang Keping, 82, used to live near the site.

“I went to the temple in 1952 and saw the Buddha statue for the first time. I remember the statue was gilded at that time,” said Huang.

He recalled that there was a small temple at the foot of the Buddha statue and many of the villagers held Buddhist beliefs.

The water levels will rise again in March with the annual spring flood. Everything now exposed will be submerged again. The archaeological team is working on a plan to protect the carving, temple and township remains. They also plan to expand their research into the area surrounding the lake temple.

This video has underwater footage of the Buddha statue. Visibility is poor and it’s hard to make out what you’re seeing other than stone parts.

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Pendant of teen girl possibly linked to Anne Frank found at Sobibor

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare and poignant pendant that belonged to a teen girl with a possible connection to Anne Frank in an excavation of the site of the Sobibor death camp. The camp, which was razed to the ground by the Nazis after a daring uprising in October 1943 which saw half the prisoners escape, has been excavated since 2007. Past digs have unearthed the foundations of the gas chambers, the train station platform and a myriad small artifacts, the treasured belongings of Sobibor’s victims.

This year the brief was to excavate the site of where female prisoners were made to strip naked and had their heads shaved before being forced down the “Road to Heaven,” ie, the path to the gas chambers 40 meters (130 feet) south of the undressing and shaving hut. Close to what had once been the entrance of the building, the team discovered some small personal items that probably fell through the floorboards onto the foundations. They include a lady’s watch, a stone pendant, a Star of David necklace and a metal locket covered with glass and painted with a depiction of Moses holding the Ten Commandments on the front the Jewish prayer “Shema” on the back.

One of those artifacts is a little triangular pendant. On one side is engraved the phrase “Mazel Tov” in Hebrew, the city “Frankfurt am Main” in German and the date July 3, 1929. The other side has the Hebrew letter “ה” (“He”), used to symbolize the name of God (“He” stands for “Hashem”, which means “The Name,” so it’s a way of referring to God without using His name), and three Stars of David. It’s very difficult to connect an artifact with one individual of hundreds of thousands of camp victims, the date and city gave researchers a rare opportunity. Yad Vashem researchers were able to pinpoint exactly one person who fit the parameters of the pendant: Karoline Cohn, born in Frankfurt on July 3, 1929, and deported to the Minsk ghetto in November of 1941.

Buoyed by their early military successes in Soviet territories, in October of 1941 the Nazi command began a program of deportations, removing Jews from the Third Reich (Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia) to freshly conquered cities in Eastern Europe. The deportations continued through 1945, targeting big cities which had the largest concentrations of Jews. Frankfurt had the highest percentage of Jews in pre-war Germany (4.7% of the population in 1933, as opposed to Berlin’s 3.8%), so it was a priority. In the less than four years between 1941 and 1945, 10,600 Frankfurt Jews were sent east to concentration camps in 25 deportations. Fewer than 600 Jews from Frankfurt survived the Holocaust, and only nine of the Jews deported from Frankfurt to Minsk lived to see the end of the war.

Karoline Cohn was not one of them. When the Minsk ghetto was liquidated in September of 1943, the 2,000 Jews still living were shipped to almost certain death in Sobibor. Either she or someone else carried her pendant to the camp where it fell through the floorboards of the shaving hut only to be found 70 years later.

In a historical fluke of almost unbelievable proportions, Anne Frank had a pendant exactly like it. The only difference is the dates on the front of the pendants. Anne’s was June 12th, 1929. No other such medallions have been found — before the Sobibor discovery, Anne’s was the only one of its kind known, saved by her cousin Buddy Elias — so they weren’t something produced en masse and widely distributed. Anne was also born in Frankfurt just three weeks before Karoline.

Yad Vashem is reaching out to any surviving family members of the Cohns and Franks in the hope they might be able to establish a clear connection, familial or otherwise. Researchers ask that relatives or members of the public who know anything at all about Karoline or about Sophie Kollmann, who in April 1978 wrote Pages of Testimony about Richard Else Cohn and Karoline Cohn, to contact Yoram Haimi at yoramhi@israntique.org.il.

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Roman chariot model reveals trick of the racing trade

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

A study of a bronze model of a Roman racing chariot dating to the 1st-2nd c. A.D. has revealed new information on how the vehicles were built. The model, recovered from the Tiber in the 1890s, is now in the collection of the British Museum. It is a biga, a two-horse chariot, although one of the original horse figures is missing, as is the charioteer. The piece is a petite 10 inches long and eight inches high, but its significance is as oversized as the model is small.

While the remains of close to 300 ancient Etruscan and Italian war and ceremonial chariots have been discovered in funerary contexts, no racing chariots from Republican or Imperial Rome have ever been found. Written descriptions and visual representations are all we have to go on to understand how they were constructed. Most of the chariots depicted in monumental art are triumphal chariots which were used in solemn processionals and bore only a superficial resemblance (ie, number of wheels, long axle) to the racing chariot. Racing chariots are depicted in carved reliefs, frescoes and mosaics of circus race scenes.

The little Tiber model, with its precision details and proportions, is the greatest source of information we have about the Roman racing chariot. It was a luxury item, the kind of toy chariot that only the very wealthy could afford. (Nero was fond of toy chariots, according to Suetonius, although his were ivory.) The wheels, now fixed, turned on the axle so it could be vigorously vroom-vroomed by its owner. Its creator certainly knew a great deal about chariot construction.

It has a long, straight axle, small wheels to help keep the base stable around tight corners, a small body, low to the ground, just big enough to fit one man snugly. The yoke pole has a decorative ram’s head at the end of it. The front of the car wasn’t the solid, highly decorated panel reaching Charlton Heston’s armpits seen in big screen versions of Roman chariot races. The car was basically a frame, bent pieces of wood lashed together. The front had a piece of leather or fabric tied to the frame, while the floor was woven straps which provided a little much-needed springiness for the charioteer.

Close examination of the model in the new study found that the right wheel, and only the right wheel, had a thin iron rim surrounding the wood.

“The basic wheels were always of wood, animal hide glue, and rawhide strips (at critical joints) that tighten upon drying, like clamps,” explained author Bela Sandor, professor emeritus of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Any iron tire for racing would be a very thin strip of iron on the outside of the wooden rim, best when heat-shrunk on the wood, to consolidate the whole wheel.

Adding the strip of iron to the right wheel improved a charioteer’s chances of winning a race to roughly 80 percent, according to a study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. [...]

Since it was easier to guide the horses into left-turning bends, most races ran anti-clockwise. “Indeed, the right side tire works best in oval-shaped arenas if the turning is always leftward,” Sandor said.

Sandor explained that some of the Romans strengthened the right wheels only because all chariots leaned to the right and overloaded just the right wheels during the left turns. “This makes total sense to everybody who understands the dynamics of a turning vehicle. It’s a common sensation to people riding in a fast-turning vehicle; standing and lurching sideways in a turning bus is a good example,” Sandor said.

The right-side iron tire didn’t necessarily make the chariot move faster. Its job was reinforcement, to keep the wheel under highest pressure from collapse and thus prevent disaster on the track. The right wheel failed far more than the left so it needed the metallic boost. The left wheel didn’t need the added support and the additional weight of a second iron rim would have slowed down chariot enough to make a victory in the circus all but impossible.

“A racing chariot with an iron tire on the right wheel only was the best compromise in terms of safety, durability and winning probability,” Sandor said. “As the finest available representation of a Roman racing chariot, the Tiber model gives us a glimpse into the Romans’ probabilistic thinking for winning races and bets.”

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A Dutch girl at breakfast joins Vermeer’s Milkmaid

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) was a Swiss-French artist of Huguenot extraction who is best known today for his very fine pastels. Trained as a miniaturist in Geneva and portrait painter in Paris, Liotard preferred medium was pastel on paper. They make up the overwhelming majority of his surviving work, 540 individual pieces, as opposed to only 30 oil-on-canvas paintings. In his time, Liotard was very much in demand as a portraitist and miniaturist. He travelled extensively through Europe, staying in Paris, Naples, Florence and Rome before going to Constantinople in 1738 where he lived for four years.

He returned from Constantinople with a great big bushy beard, a taste for Turkish dress and the crowned heads of Europe lining up for his services. He lived in Vienna from 1743 to 1745 where he made several portraits of the Empress Maria Theresa and her family. In 1748 he was in Paris painting King Louis XV and his family. In 1755 it was London and the Prince of Wales’ turn. His portraits were notoriously expensive, driving the bitter rival artist Andrea Soldi to grumble that the English measured “the value of his works by the length of his beard.”

After his London sojourn, Liotard went to Holland. He stayed for a year, studying the masters of the Dutch Golden Age and building a collection of more than 60 paintings from the period. He also found himself a wife: Marie Fargue, a Dutch Huguenot who posed in Turkish dress for one of his loveliest pastel portraits, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Liotard was strongly influenced by the Dutch artists of the 17th century. Even before his sojourn in Holland, his portraits were unusually restrained and naturalistic at a time when the fashion was for very stylized portraits with contrived poses, symbolic gestures and accoutrements conveying the wealth, power, profession and/or abilities of the subject. The intimate spaces, plain painted walls, varied textures and scenes from daily life captured in the works of Jan van Huysum, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and Johannes Vermeer inspired Liotard.

With one small oil-on-canvas painting, A Dutch girl at breakfast, Liotard became one of the first non-Dutch 18th century artists to create an explicit homage to the Golden Age masters. The painting depicts a modestly attired young woman seated a tripod table pouring a beverage (both coffee and chocolate have been proposed) into a cup. She sits in a classically Dutch interior. There’s a simple wood armoire against the wall, a foot-warmer on the floor beside her chair and, just in case the reference wasn’t clear enough, there’s a 17th-century Dutch painting of a church on the wall.

One of less than three dozen Liotard oil paintings and one of the only genre paintings he did (he was well-known for genre treatments in pastel, but not in oil), A Dutch girl at breakfast is rare and of great art historical significance as an example of the spreading influence of Dutch Golden Age painters. Liotard kept the painting for close to 20 years. He finally sold it in 1774 at a Christie’s auction. The buyer was Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, an old friend and patron of Liotard who had traveled with him in 1738 and would go on to become his biggest supporter, buying more than 70 of his works over the decades.

A Dutch girl at breakfast stayed in the Ponsonby family for 242 years until it was sold at Sotheby’s in July 2016 for $5,695,000. The buyer was revealed last month as the Rijksmuseum which has now installed Liotard’s Dutch girl next to Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the Gallery of Honour. Inspiration and inspired will only briefly be side by side. By the end of the month, the painting will be installed in its permanent location, the 18th century arts gallery. There it will be reunited with a host of brothers and sisters, the museum’s extensive collection of Liotard pastels that were donated by descendants of his and Marie Fargue’s eldest son.

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Rialto Bridge fully restored after 425 years

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

The Rialto is by far the oldest and most famous of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal of Venice. Until the 19th century, it was the only bridge across the canal. The first iteration was built out of wood in 1255. The two sides of the bridge inclined upwards towards a central platform that could be removed to allow for the passage of taller ships. It was called the Bridge of Coin then, because of the toll for pedestrian passage. In 1458 shops were added to the sides and it was renamed the Rialto Bridge. With the popular Rialto market on the eastern bank and the bridge being the only non-nautical means to cross to Grand Canal, it had to withstand an enormous amount of traffic. It collapsed twice from the weight of crowds and had to be rebuilt. Another time the crowds viewing the passage of the spectacular 1,500-people-strong cortège of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1468 put so much pressure on the iron railings that they collapsed, dozens of spectators fell into the canal and died.

In the 16th century, Venetian authorities began to explore the possibility of replacing the wooden bridge with a stone bridge. It took almost the whole century to go from concept to execution. In 1551, top architects were invited to submit stone bridge ideas, but none of the submissions were deemed acceptable because they employed multiple Roman-style arches which would be a problem for boat traffic. The great Venetian architect Andrea Palladio envisioned a three-arch bridge topped with a monumental temple-like structure that would have dwarfed the mighty Mississip’. Finally architect and engineer Antonio da Ponte designed a single-span stone bridge very similar in shape, elevation and structure to the wooden bridge. Construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591.

Legend has it that Antonio da Ponte paid dearly for having created an icon of La Serenissima. When the bridge was almost done, the Devil himself approached the architect and demanded an offering of the first soul to cross the bridge. If da Ponte refused, Satan would forever prevent the completion of the Rialto Bridge. Unable to refuse, he tried to outsmart the Devil, arranging for a rooster to be the first living being to cross the bridge. The Devil was furious. He promised to punish the architect dearly, and so he did. In disguise, he went to da Ponte’s house and told his pregnant wife that her husband was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge. She ran across and unwittingly doomed the life she was carrying. The baby was stillborn. For years the baby’s spirit was said to haunt the Rialto until a kindly gondolier finally helped him rest in peace.

The bridge’s design caused some consternation at the time. Without arches, the full weight of the structure was shouldered entirely by the two pylons and foundations and each end. There were grave doubts among some architects, most notably Vincenzo Scamozzi, that the heavy stone bridge could stand without additional supports. And yet, it stood. Over the centuries it was repeatedly altered and repaired. The first major restoration was in 1740, but it stipulated that the arch itself could not be touched. The repairs focused on the stairs, balustrade, colonnade and paving tiles. Later restorations took a similar tack, fixing the peripherals — steps, drainage issues, shops.

More than 400 years would pass before the Rialto Bridge got a thorough top-to-bottom restoration. That’s a good thing from a historical preservation perspective, because it leaves conservators with a great deal of original material and limits the damage inflicted by well-intentioned but overly invasive interventions.

The restoration project started in 2011 with an extensive nine-phase preliminary investigation of the bridge: 1) a historical survey analyzing all the different phases of construction and repair over the centuries, 2) a photogrammetric and laser scanning survey of the bridge surface to gather precise measurements, 3) geotechnical drilling into the soil of the bridge foundations, 4) underwater inspection of the foundations, 5) archaeological analysis of the foundation coring samples, 6) monitoring a year’s worth of geological stresses and shifts, 7) a structural survey of the bridge, 8) research and analysis of the bridge’s petrographic materials and state of conservation or decay, and 9) identification of underground utilities.

Armed with reams of hard data, conservators began the hands-on part in May of 2015.

The restoration has systemically treated all of the bridge’s structural elements for the first time in more than 400 years. A team of 25 conservators dismantled the sandstone paving on the central steps and the two exterior ramps for cleaning, while workers relaid the telephone, gas and electric cables powering the bridge’s 24 shops. They strengthened the walls of the arcades and added a further layer of waterproof insulation, as well as new internal sheets to the 700 sq. m of lead sheets covering the roofs.

To protect the northern and southern balustrades from the lagoon’s brackish waters, as well as the thousands of tourists who walk across it each year, the banisters were reinforced using carbon-fibre bandages and duplex stainless steel brackets that resist corrosion. The 364 columns, which presented fractures on their capitals and bases, were also reset in molten lead and some of the cornerstones were completely replaced.

This was all done piecemeal so the bridge was never closed to visitors. Unsightly scaffolding was the worst of it. Shocking everyone who has ever had needed any construction done in Italy, the restoration finished on time (but not on budget, of course) and reusing 99% of the bridge’s materials. The remaining 1% requiring replacement was mostly paving.

The scaffolding is down now, but the official opening will take place in May at the Venice Biennale.

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