Archive for February, 2017

Who’s a good Rembrandt? You are! Yes you are!

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

A drawing of a dog in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Germany, has been identified as the work of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn. The chalk sketch of a little terrier, believed to have been drawn around 1637, has been in the museum’s collection since the 1770s, but was mistakenly attributed to German animal painter Johann Melchior Roos. His father, landscape painter and portraitist Johann Heinrich Roos, his brother Philipp Peter Roos, two other brothers and a sister were all known for their drawings of animals. Philipp Peter even kept a mini-zoo at his villa in Tivoli just to have live models for his drawings. The Roos were so strongly associated with animal studies that for centuries if a Dutch/German Baroque animal drawing turned up without a clear attribution, it would by default be categorized as a piece by Roos. The Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in particular has a large collection of Johann Melchior Roos drawings because he spent the last years of his life in Braunschweig.

The dog study was noticed two years ago by the museum’s head of drawings, Dr. Thomas Döring, when he was going through their collection of 10,000 drawings for the Virtual Kupferstichkabinett, a major digitization initiative virtually reuniting the collections of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel which began life as the private art and book collection of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. The ducal collections were gradually split up between the two institutions between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The Virtual Kupferstichkabinett brings them back together online.

While cataloging the drawings, Döring saw the terrier and suspected there was a more illustrious hand behind the dynamic canine that previously realized.

“It’s been on display for decades under the name of Johann Melchior Roos,” he told CNN, “so the idea that this could be a Rembrandt was never considered before. But the boldness of the strokes, the variations in the shading from very gentle to quite violent and the expressive gaze [of the dog] — these are very typical idiosyncrasies of Rembrandt’s work.”

Doring said his experience cataloging drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils during an earlier project was key to the discovery.

“I was used to looking out for the differences between Rembrandt’s work and drawings by other artists,” he explained.

Two years of research ensued, including microscopic examinations of the drawing and extensive studies of comparable Rembrandts in museums and collections in Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. Döring then consulted international authorities on Rembrandt for their opinions. Dr. Holm Bevers, Chief Curator for Dutch and Flemish Prints and Drawings at the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in Berlin was the first to officially attribute the drawing the Rembrandt. Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum, was the second. An Old Master specialist at the British Museum was the third. Dr. Döring published the drawing as an original Rembrandt in the quarterly journal Master Drawings and so far has received unanimously positive responses.

Dogs appear as secondary figures in many of Rembrandt’s paintings, see the little fellow excitedly play-bowing on the bottom right of The Night Watch, and several of his sketches of people have a dog in the scene as well. Other animals he drew — lions, pigs, elephants, camels, cats, horses — as studies for larger Biblical, historical, pastoral and mythological paintings. Not many of his drawing of animals survive. Rembrandt is believed to have collected most of them in a single volume he called “Animals, from life” (“Beesten nae’t leven”) which was listed in a 1656 inventory of his belongings but is now lost.

Rembrandt’s doggie will go on display at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum starting April 6th in the Dürer, Cézanne, and Me: How Masters Draw exhibition. It runs through July 7th, 2017.

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Guercino found! Round up the usual suspects.

Friday, February 17th, 2017

They already been rounded up, truth be told, but when a stolen 17th century masterpiece is found in Casablanca, the headline pretty much writes itself. The masterpiece in question is Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus, an oil on canvas painted made in 1639 by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, aka Guercino. For the next 375 years, the painting remained safe in the Church of San Vincenzo in Modena. Even a direct hit on the church by an Allied bomb in 1944 left the Guercino unmolested while the presbytery and the frescoed choir were reduced to rubble.

The lucky streak broke in August of 2014 when the painting was stolen from the church, probably the night of August 10th. The theft wasn’t noticed until the morning of the 14th when the priest saw the front door was unlocked. The church is only open on Sunday for mass and the doors are kept locked at all other times. There was no sign of forced entry on the door, so the thieves must have gotten in when the doors were open and hid in the church until the coast was clear. Then they somehow made off with a painting nine and a half feet high and six feet wide still in its huge wooden frame.

Police investigated thoroughly, going full CSI on the church looking for any microscopic speck of evidence that might help track the painting and its kidnappers. They also collected hours of security camera footage from the streets around the church in the hope of finding a van or truck large enough to transport so large and unwieldy an artwork. The investigation enlisted the aid of Interpol and local authorities in countries around the world, but came up empty. There was no trace of the Guercino.

There was the usual speculation by police and in the press you see every time something huge and famous and therefore virtually impossible to resell is stolen that the theft was commissioned by a villainous private collector. And again as it so often seems to be the case, the real explanation is that art thieves are, as a group, terrible at everything but the stealing (and sometimes at the stealing too).

Last week, like a bolt from the blue, Interpol got a call from the Moroccan police alerting them to a large canvas discovered during an investigation, a canvas they believed to be the stolen Madonna with the Saints. A man claiming to be an art dealer had offered the painting for 10 milioni dirham (about $1 million) to a wealthy Moroccan businessman and art collector. He recognized it as a Guercino right away, and since he wasn’t off planet in August 2014, he knew it had to be the painting stolen from Modena. He reported the encounter to the cops. The judicial police of Casablanca’s Hay Hassani prefecture arrested three people, all Moroccan nationals, the ringleader a longtime resident in Italy, for the theft.

Interpol alerted the Italian authorities on the evening of Wednesday, February 15th. On Thursday, February 16th, Lucia Musti, chief prosecutor of Modena, confirmed “with the greatest satisfaction” that the painting recovered in Morocco was indeed Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus by Guercino, stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo between the 10th and 13th of August, 2014.

The Italian and Moroccan authorities are working out the details of the repatriation of the painting now. There are no reports yet as to its condition.

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Roman vessel hoard packed with plants found

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Metal detectorists discovered eight Roman copper-alloy vessels — an iron-rimmed cauldron, a deep bowl, a shallow bowl, a high-sided pot and four small scale pans — in Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey in October, 2014. They dug them out of the ground, unfortunately, but they did have the forethought not to clean them, a decision that ensured the survival of the pots’ incredibly rare contents. What looked like dirt and weeds was in fact ancient plant material packed in the vessel hoard when it was buried.

A hoard of eight Roman pots is already a great rarity. Fewer than 30 copper alloy vessel hoards have been found from late antiquity in Britain. As small as this number is, it’s still more than have been found anywhere else in the Roman world. That the organic remains the vessels contained didn’t decay into dust makes it a unique find. The plants were preserved by the creation of an air-tight pocket inside the carefully nested pots. It was probably a fluke, a result of the way the vessels were stacked and positioned inside each other.

Inside the cauldron, the biggest piece, was placed the shallow bowl (Vessel A). The high-sided pot (Vessel B) with the four little scale pans inside was placed in the shallow bowl, its rounded feet raising it from direct contact with the bottom of the bowl. The deep bowl (Vessel C), of a type known as an Irchester bowl, was flipped upside-down to cover vessel B entirely and cover the rim of Vessel A. The organic remains were almost entirely contained in Vessel B. As the metal corroded over the years, the copper salts were absorbed by plant material, also helping to preserve it. The plants have a powdery consistency now because of the copper salts, but they’re microscopically identical to when they were fresh.

Finds Liaison Officer Richard Henry has led the exciting quest to discover more about the find. He brought in a team to excavate the site of the discovery, led by David Roberts of Historic England and with the Assistant County Archaeologist, members of the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group and the finders. Richard then brought in more experts, including Dr Ruth Pelling of Historic England and Dr Michael Grant who identified the plant remains and pollen. Peter Marshall, also of Historic England, coordinated the radiocarbon dating of the flowers and undertook analysis of the results. [...]

Richard Henry said “Such discoveries should be left in situ to allow full archaeological study of the find and its context. The finders did not clean or disturb the vessels which has allowed us to undertake detailed further research. If the vessels had been cleaned none of this research would have been possible”

Ruth Pelling commented that “It has been an absolute pleasure to examine this unique assemblage. By combining the plant macro and pollen evidence we have been able to identify the time of year the vessels were buried, the packing material used, the nature of the surrounding vegetation and the likely date of burial.”

Radiocarbon dating of the plants by Historic England found they were buried between 380 and 550 A.D., a turbulent time when the Romans were in retreat or just plain gone (Emperor Honorius pulled the last legions from Britain in 410 A.D.) and the Anglo-Saxons began spreading through England from their strongholds in the south and east.

Hoards from this period are generally thought to have been buried to keep them safe from Saxon raids. Roman copper vessels were relatively common household goods during more prosperous times, but at the remote ends of empire after the collapse of Roman rule they would certainly have been hoardworthy. The plant material packed inside the vessels consists mainly of knapweed flowers (23 knapweed flowers, to be specific, two of them black knapweed) and pinnules and stem fragments of bracken. There are also cowslip, buttercup and sedge seeds. The seeds indicate the hoard was packed and buried in the mid to late summer out of doors in a location with both pasture and farmland.

Why the plant material was included is more mysterious. They could have been simple packing material. There was hay in the mix, too, so the plants may have been the far less annoying 5th century equivalent of styrofoam peanuts. They may also have been a votive offering. It’s notable that the hoard was buried on the boundary between Roman and Angle territory, a dangerous frontier at that time and a hotspot of upheaval during the transition from Roman rule, the kind of place where you would have good reason to appeal to higher powers for protection.

The plants and seeds were donated to the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes where they have been and will continue to be studied and analyzed. Some of the flowers are now on display at the museum. Experts were able to study the vessels, but the metal detectorists have chosen to keep them instead of donating them along with the plant materials. They can make that choice because the 1996 Treasure Act doesn’t define ancient artifacts made of base metals as treasure.

This is the same loophole that allowed the sale of the exceptional Crosby Garrett Helmet to an anonymous private collector. If there are two or more prehistoric artifacts, they count as treasure even if made of base metal. If an artifact is between prehistoric and 300 years old, it has to be composed of at least 10% gold or silver to qualify as treasure. It’s a nonsensical standard, particularly for archaeology where a literal bag of feces can be of inestimable value. Also, the finders can’t possibly be qualified to conserve very delicate ancient metalwork. The cauldron, for instance, is fragmentary, with the base, the little that remains of the body and the rim all in separate pieces.

The plants and bronze vessels have been together for 1500+ years. As a group, they are a great archaeological treasure. I hope the finders have a change of heart and reunite these longtime companions.

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Bronze Age weapons hoard found in Scotland

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a hoard of Bronze Age weapons of international significance in Carnoustie, Angus, eastern Scotland. The property at Newton Farm was bought by the Angus Council last year with the stipulation that it be dedicated to community use. Because an earlier dig in the area in 2004 had found evidence of extensive prehistoric and medieval remains, the council also had to ensure the site was excavated to recover any archaeological remains before construction. GUARD Archaeology were contracted to excavate the site.

In a shallow pit, the team unearthed a bronze spearhead next to a bronze sword, a pin and scabbard fittings. Decorated with gold ornamentation, the bronze spearhead is an incredibly rare object. Only a handful of Bronze Age spears of this type have been found in Britain and Ireland. One of them was discovered in a weapons hoard in 1963 at a farm just miles away from Carnoustie, so that means that out of the few gold-decorated bronze spearheads known, two of them were found in Angus. This suggests the area had a significant a wealthy warrior class around 1000 B.C.

Since the bronze weapons are around 3,000 years old, the metalwork is very fragile. To ensure these delicate artifacts could be excavated with all necessary caution in a protected environment, the soil surrounding the pit was cut out and the entire 175-pound block was removed to the GUARD Archaeology Finds Lab. There conservators analyzed the block to develop an excavation plan that would safely preserve the finds.

These few seconds of video convey how painstaking the process of excavation was:

The en bloc excavation proved even wiser when organic remains were found in the hoard. The leather and wood scabbard, while broken into several fragments, is the best preserved Bronze Age scabbard ever discovered in Britain. Textile fragments were found around the pin and scabbard; fur around the spearhead. These kinds of materials almost never survive outside of waterlogged or arid environments.

Another great archaeological boon to this hoard is that it was unearthed within the confines of a Late Bronze Age settlement. It’s not isolated on the edge of a ploughed field where all we can find about the hoard’s history is in the hoard itself. It’s part of a much wider context. The team unearthed the remains of around 12 roundhouses, probably from the Bronze Age, and other large pits holding what appears to be refuse (broken pottery, lithics). About 650 artifacts were discovered from the Bronze Age settlement. Most of the finds give a date range of between 2200 and 800 B.C. for the Bronze Age occupation of the site.

There were people living there long before the Bronze Age, though. Archaeologists found the remains of two rectilinear structures dating to the Neolithic. The oldest dates to around 4000 B.C., and it too is a testament to the area’s prehistoric prominence. It’s the largest Neolithic hall ever found in Scotland. There is no clear evidence of continuous occupation, so the site could have been inhabited from the Stone Age through the Late Bronze Age, or successive settlements could have been built on the site with gaps of centuries between them.

The site is slated to be converted into two grass soccer fields, as per the community use requirement, and construction will begin at the end of the month. The excavation of the larger site will continue.

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Neolithic “enigma” out of storage and on display

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, has taken one of their most curious artifacts out of storage and put it on display. It’s a Neolithic statuette carved out of granite about 7,000 years ago. It is 36 centimeters (14 inches) high and has a pointed, beak-like nose, a rounded torso with a prominent belly and thick, irregularly cylindrical legs. There are no arms, no genitalia or breasts to indicate sex, no facial features other than the pointy nose. I think he looks like the secret illegitimate love child of Sam the Eagle and the Shmoo.

Its design, material, great age and unknown origin make it an intriguing archaeological mystery. Museum curators call the figurine a 7,000-year-old enigma.

“It could depict a human-like figure with a bird-like face, or a bird-like entity which has nothing to do with man but with the ideology and symbolism of the Neolithic society,” Katya Manteli, an archaeologist with the museum, told Reuters.

Experts also cannot be sure of its provenance, as it belongs to a personal collection. They assume only that it is from the northern Greek regions of Thessaly or Macedonia.

Unlike most Neolithic figurines made of soft stone, it is carved out of hard rock even though metal tools were not available at the time.

And while it is too short for a life-size depiction of the human figure, it is bigger than most Neolithic statues, which are rarely found over 35 cm tall.

“Regarding technique and size, it is among the rare and unique works of the Neolithic period in Greece,” Manteli said.

It’s possible that the lack of sex characteristics and detailed features are a practical limitation of having to carve hard granite with stone tools. It could also be incomplete, although the high gloss polish indicates this is a finished piece.

There are more than 200,000 objects kept in permanent storage at the National Archaeological Museum. This charming Neolithic fellow is one of the treasures pulled from the storeroom for The Unseen Museum, an exhibition that gives the bench players a chance to start the game for once. It runs through March 26th of this year.

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Odd animal burials found under Shrewsbury church

Monday, February 13th, 2017

An excavation around a medieval church in Sutton Farm, Shrewsbury, has unearthed the remains of a previous Anglo-Saxon church and a series of unusual animal burials that may be pre-Christian. The Church of the Holy Fathers, as it is now known, was bought from the Church of England by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1994. Built in the late 12th, early 13th century, the church had been abandoned in the late 19th century and was being used as a storage shed. The Greek Orthodox Church restored the nearly derelict Grade II-listed building and a congregation has worshipped there ever since.

The field on the west side of the church is slated for development — it will be a parking lot for a 300-home estate — and a team from Baskerville Archaeological Services was contracted to excavate the site before construction began. By the terms of the planning contract, developers Taylor Wimpey funded an archaeological survey of the parking lot site from late summer until November. The Greek Orthodox Church stepped in to fund an extension of the excavation and developers gave the archaeologists more time to explore the site.

They were able to unearth foundations of the current medieval church extending 20 feet from the modern-day walls, indicating that this small church was once much larger. Next to the medieval foundations and between 15 and 18 inches deeper under the soil, archaeologists found the stone foundations of an earlier building which they believe to be an Anglo-Saxon church. Several artifacts were discovered in a rubble pile: three garnet pins, a carved stone of indeterminate age and two coins, one of them a Charles I half farthing minted between 1624 and 1635.

The very last day of the dig on the west side, the team unearthed a 15-section of a wooden post, likely a door post, in the layer believed to be Anglo-Saxon. This was a key discovery, because wood can be radiocarbon dated to confirm or deny whether the earlier structure does date to the Anglo-Saxon period.

On the south side of the church, archaeologists found more foundations of the medieval church. These indicate the church had a transept, the arms on either side of the nave that form the traditional cross shape. They also discovered the medieval graveyard. The remains of three people were unearthed, including an intact skeleton of a woman buried in shroud, but that’s to be expected in a churchyard. Less expected were the elaborate animal burials: the skeletons of a calf and a pig carefully posed together with yin-yang symmetry, a Stone Age flint found between the ribs of the calf, the skeletal remains of a pig laid to rest in a leather-covered wood coffin, the bones of a large female dog that died during whelping found next to the bones of six chickens, a pregnant goat and what appear to be the bones of one more dog and a large bird. Those last two have yet to be fully excavated.

“It was a huge surprise to find these burials in a church graveyard. To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no no,” [Janey Green, from Baskerville Archaeological Services,] said. “The bones don’t show any signs of butchery and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground.”

“The site is a few hundred metres from known prehistoric human burial mounds so they may be connected. Initially I thought I may have come across a whimsical Victorian burial of a beloved pet. But the Victorians usually left objects in the graves such as a collar, a letter or a posie of flowers and we haven’t found a shred of evidence of anything like that here. Neither is there evidence that the animals were fallen farm stock that were disposed of in modern times.”

Green thinks these are likely pre-Christian burials. The bones will have to be carbon dated before we can know, and it doesn’t look like they have the budget for it at this point. They’re working on it.

The parking lot is still going forward. Taylor Wimpey have agreed to seal the medieval foundations under a geotextile membrane before pouring the asphalt. This will protect them from damage and make them more easily accessible should someone in the future pick the archaeological remains over the parking lot. Meanwhile, the excavations on the south side of the church will continue. The remains, both human and animal, will be reburied at the church in a special funerary service.

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The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra online

Sunday, February 12th, 2017


Palmyra, the crossroads of civilizations, prosperous center of trade between the Silk Road and Europe from the 3rd century B.C. under the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom through the 3rd century A.D. under the Roman Empire, is no stranger to wartime destruction. Emperor Aurelian razed the city in 273 when it rebelled against his rule. He pillaged its temples and used their treasures to decorate his temple to the sun god Sol in Rome. Enough survived to make Palmyra’s monumental ruins some of the most extensive and dramatic in the Greco-Roman world, and when European visitors started writing about the spectacular remains starting in 1696 with Abednego Seller’s The Antiquities of Palmyra, Palmyrene structures like the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the tower tombs and the Great Colonnade became icons of classical architecture and inspired Western artists, poets and architects.

One of those artists was Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827) who made highly detailed drawings of the ruins of Palmyra in 1785. Cassas spent a month in Palmyra, recording all of the ancient ruins he saw. As an architect, Cassas had a keen eye for sculptural features which gave his renderings a precision matched by none of his predecessors in the voyage pittoresque tradition of illustrated travel accounts. His drawings of Palmyra, detailed views of ornamental features, architectural elevations and reconstructions illustrated his own travel account, Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phenicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte, published beginning in 1799.

Following in Cassas footprints but using a new medium was Louis Vignes (1831-1896), a French career naval officer and a photographer. In 1863, Vignes was assigned to accompany Honoré Théodore d’Albert, duc de Luynes, on a scientific expedition to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Luynes was an avid amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, an expert in Damascus steel and a patron of the arts with a particular taste for commissioning works in the classical style. The year before the expedition, the duke had donated his vast collection of antiquities — coins, Greek vases, medallions, intaglio gemstones — to France’s Cabinet des Médailles, and as an immensely wealthy aristocrat with a passel of big titles, when Luynes demanded that the French government provide him with a naval officer for his voyage, he got what he wanted.

Vignes was a particularly good choice for a mission that would encounter numerous archaeological remains, because he had been trained by pioneering photographer Charles Nègre and could be of as much help to the duke on dry land as he was on the seas. Luynes’ primary objective was to do one of the first scientific explorations of the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea, the expedition traveled the Jordan River Valley, the mountains of Moab and the full length of the Wadi Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Over the 10 months of the expedition, they also visited Palmyra and Beirut where Vignes took pictures of the ancient ruins.

The scientific report of the expedition, Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain, wasn’t published until 1875, eight years after Luynes’ death. Vignes photos of the Dead Sea were included in the publication, but by then Vignes had long since cut to the chase. He hooked up with his old mentor Charles Nègre to develop and print the negatives Vignes had taken in Beirut and Palmyra. The albumen prints were given to the duc de Luynes before his death in 1867. The Vignes photographs are the earliest known pictures of the Greco-Roman remains in Palmyra.

They have taken on even more significance in the light of recent events. Palmyra’s ruins have been devastated in the Syrian Civil War, bombed and shelled by everyone, deliberately destroyed by IS ostensibly out of iconoclastic fervor, although their real motivation, I think, is to taunt the world into multiple impotent rage strokes; cultural heritage destruction as a brutal mass troll. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin were blown up, as were three of the best preserved tower tombs, the Arch of Triumph on the east end of the Great Colonnade and, if recent reports bear out, the tetrapylon and part of the Roman theater.

In 2015, with the monstrous savaging of Palmyra’s ancient monuments well underway, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of 47 of Vignes’ original photos taken in Palmyra and Beirut. That album was digitized — the pictures can be browsed here — as were 58 additional Vignes prints from the duc de Luynes’ personal collection.

Now the Getty Research Institute has enlisted its Vignes photographs, Cassas drawings and other important sources in an online exhibition dedicated to history of Palmyra.

The online exhibition draws heavily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections as well as art in museum and library collections all over the world. The exhibition explores the site’s early history, the far-reaching influence of Palmyra in Western art and culture, and the loss, now tremendous and irrevocable, of the ruins that for centuries stood as a monument to a great city and her people.

“The devastation unleashed in Syria today forces a renewed interpretation of the early prints and photographs of this extraordinary world heritage site.” said Getty Research Institute curator Frances Terpak. “They gain more significance as examples of cultural documents that
can encourage a deeper appreciation of humanity’s past achievements. Understanding Palmyra through these invaluable accounts preserves its memory and connects us with its grandeur and enduring legacy.”

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is the Getty Research Institute’s first online exhibition and it’s beautifully curated. I hope it’s the first of many to come.

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Viking boat burial found on British mainland

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

Mainly found in Scandinavia, Viking boat burials are as rare as they are fascinating. The ones that have been archaeologically excavated in the UK were unearthed on the isles, like Orkney, Shetland and Man. The only boat burials found on mainland Britain were discovered in the 19th century and were excavated, if you can call it that, outside of archaeological protocols. Few artifacts from them have survived and it’s difficult to confirm that they were in fact boat burials. The discovery of an intact Viking boat burial in Swordle Bay on western Scotland’s Ardnamurchan peninsula in 2011, therefore, was a momentous one. The Norse were known to have been in the area when they were still raiding and exploring the British Isles in the 9th and 10th centuries, before they founded any settlements, but this is the first archaeological evidence of their presence.

The grave was first identified in 2006 as part of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project‘s survey of potential archaeological sites in the area dating from the Neolithic through the 19th century. The ATP team dug a test trench across the low turf-covered mound and found stones collected and placed by human hands, as well as a rove, a metal plate or grommet that rivets pass through in boat construction. The dating of the mound wasn’t clear. Possibilities included Bronze Age or medieval origin.

Full excavation of the mound would have to wait until 2011. Just under the topsoil, archaeologists found a spread of stones. Some of them were undisturbed, still placed where human hands had laid them centuries earlier. Others were scattered around the main stone pile and bore plough marks suggesting they’d been dislodged during later agricultural activity.

Once the soil and fill were removed, the stone feature was revealed to be an oval outlined by kerb stones embedded in a cut. A spear head and a shield boss were found on a cairn stone underneath the silt layer that overlays them. That suggests they were deposited around the same time as the stones, like at the time of burial, but that can’t be confirmed because the cairn has shifted significantly over time. Under the stones were layers of decayed organic material and a wealth of artifacts, among them a large iron pan with a handle three feet long, a ladle, the copper-alloy top of a drinking horn, more than 200 rivets and roves, a sword decorated with silver and copper wire with textile fragments wound around the blade, a broad-bladed axe, a copper alloy ring pin likely of Irish origin, a Norwegian schist whetstone, and an iron sickle.

The rivets and roves, the sword style, the whetstone, the pointed oval boat cut and the organic decay likely from wood confirmed this was a rare Viking boat burial, the only one on the British mainland excavated to modern archaeological standards. The boat was about 5.1 meters (17 feet) long, a small rowboat, not a seafaring vessel. It was placed in the boat-shaped cut, the body of the deceased placed in the boat and then surrounded with grave goods. Rocks were piled atop the body, creating a burial mound. Preliminary analysis of the finds dated the burial to the late 9th, early 10th century. The weaponry suggests the deceased was male, but the pan and ladle are more typical of female burials. A small fragment of bone and two teeth are the only human remains discovered in the grave, neither of them sufficient to conclusively gender the burial.

The latest report on the findings has now been published in the journal Antiquity. Strontium, lead and oxygen isotope analysis was done on the teeth to determine the deceased’s diet between the ages of two and 15 and thus a possible national origin.

Results showed that the person ate a land-based diet until he or she was 15, with a boost in seafood consumption when the individual was between three and five years old. Marine proteins were rarely consumed in Britain during the first millennium A.D., even for people who lived on the coast. In Norway, on the other hand, people ate plenty of seafood, although children less than adults. The fact that this person ate so much fish during that brief period as a small child suggests there may have been a food shortage that pushed the locals towards additional marine sources of nourishment. The stable isotope results exclude the deceased coming from the west coast of Britain, from western Britain in general, western Ireland or the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland. Other parts of Ireland are still possible candidates, but the likeliest is Scandinavia.

The authors of the study conclude from the evidence of the boat burial that the individual was someone of high rank and status:

When we consider this burial, what can we say about identity? At least three terms could potentially be used to describe the deceased: ‘Norse’, ‘warrior’ and ‘high status’. Evidence for the first of these comes from the boat and related connotations of travel and voyaging; from the material culture from Scandinavia and Ireland; and from the surviving teeth. Even though a definitive place of origin cannot be proven from the isotope evidence alone, when combined with the material from the grave itself a Scandinavian homeland is suggested; Ireland cannot, however, be ruled out. The evidence for a warrior identity lies, of course, in the weapons, although this imposes a traditional assumption that grave goods belong to the deceased and directly disclose their identity. Finally, the whole assemblage–the artefacts and their elaborate interment–suggests a notion of high status.

The fact that a person of such high status deserving of a boat burial with rich grave goods was interred on the peninsula may be a significant marker of the transition between the Vikings as raiders of Britain and the Vikings as settlers.

The warrior’s final resting place could indicate the first settlement of the area by the Vikings–indicated by Swordle Bay originating as a Norse name meaning ‘grassy valley’.

“I don’t think they are just sailing up and down the coast, someone has died, and they have just rowed into the nearest harbour and buried someone there,” Harris said. “There is a kind of connection to this landscape that is more substantial than that.

“It is perfectly possible [the burial] is linked with the process of settling in this bay.”

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Well that was horrific

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

You may have noticed your trusty blog about history has not been so trusty the past couple of days. A server update is apparently the culprit. The site went down Thursday afternoon and we’ve been struggling ever since to get it back. Finally the planets aligned and we are back. Buggy and error-riddled, but I’ll take it for now while we iron out the kinks.

The trauma of the last few days has only underscored how desperately important it is that I upgrade the software of this site. It’s ancient and all kinds of features are broken because of it. Perpetually perched on the razor’s edge of functionality, it can fail at the least provocation. That means we’re going to have to say goodbye to my old-fashioned theme and the blog will look completely different. As history nerds tend to like old-fashioned things, I’ve dragged my feet to avoid having to make so big a change. Time to face facts.

I’m so sorry for the outage. Real post coming up.

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New Harriet Tubman photo found in 1860s album

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

A previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman has been found in a carte-de-visite album compiled in the 1860s. She is seated, immaculately clad in a gingham skirt and dark shirt with gathered sleeves. It was taken shortly after the Civil War, between 1865 and 1868, and captures a younger, less care-worn Harriet than she is usually pictured.

[Historian and Tubman biographer Dr. Kate Clifford] Larson said that in her 20 years of researching Tubman, she’s been sent dozens of photos of black women by people claiming to have discovered a new image of the soon-to-be face of the $20 bill. But not one has actually depicted Tubman, Larson said.

On the other hand, she continued, she knew it was Tubman in Swann Galleries’ photo as soon as she saw it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind about the provenance of the photo and that it is Tubman,” she said. “I had never run across it.”

The album belonged to Emily Howland, an abolitionist and educator from a prominent Quaker family in Sherwood, New York, whose childhood home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. She taught at schools for free blacks in the late 1850s, and during the Civil War taught freed slaves and the children of slaves to read and write in the contraband camps of Union-occupied Virginia. After the war she donated land and founded dozens of freedmen’s schools in multiple states.

Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 when she was in her 20s and spent the next two decades dedicated to the abolitionist cause in the most dangerous, hands-on way. She personally risked her life returning to Maryland no fewer than 13 times to free 70 of her families members and other slaves, guiding them up north over the Underground Railroad to safety, which after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the north almost as terrifying a place for escaped slaves as the south, often meant Ontario. Abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses” because she led her people out of slavery. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was a Union Army scout, spy and guide of the successful Union raid on Combahee Ferry, South Carolina, which liberated 750 slaves. After the war, she worked several jobs to support her family, gave extensively to charity though she had very little, and was a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage.

Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, in 1859 where she bought land from Senator William Henry Seward, future Secretary of State under Lincoln and engineer of the Alaska purchase under Johnson. The Sewards were part of a tightly knit network of abolitionists in Cayuga County, Emily Howland among them, and Harriet and Emily soon met. They became life-long friends, and worked together in the suffragist movement. Harriet Tubman died in 1913 at around 90 years of age. Emily Howland lived to cast her first vote in the 1920 election at the age of 92 after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She lived almost another decade after that, passing away in 1929 at the age of 102.

The album has 44 pictures of prominent figures, including two of Tubman (the other is a very well-known full-length portrait of Harriet standing with her hands on a roll-back chair taken by Harvey B. Lindsley in the early to mid-1870s) and one of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress in 1868. He would have represented Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district had he ever been seated, but his opponent, Caleb Hunt, lodged a challenge contesting Menard’s right to be seated which was ultimately decided by the full House of Representatives in neither’s favor. The black man was too black and the other guy didn’t even bother to show up, so they voted both of them down and left the seat vacant.

The new photograph goes under the hammer at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City on March 30th. The carte-de-visite album will be sold in its entirety, including the pictures of Tubman and John Willis Menard. The pre-sale estimate is $20,000 to $30,000.

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