Archive for March, 2017

Barberini tapestries return 16 years after fire almost destroyed them

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Seven of the tapestries hanging in the Baroque chapel of St. John the Divine. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times.The Life of Christ tapestries have made their triumphant return to public view for the first time since a 2001 fire almost reduced these precious 17th century masterpieces to cinders. As of March 21st, they are hanging in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. It has taken a decade and a half of painstaking labor from conservators for this day to arrive.

The Annunciation, tapestry in the Life of Christ cycle, 1643-1656. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.The story begins with a pope who had a great love of luxury textiles and an even greater love of nepotism. Maffeo Barberini was elected to the Throne of St. Peter as Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and wasted no time in spreading the ecclesiastical wealth around to his family members. He made his brother Antonio a cardinal. He made his brother Carlo’s sons Francesco and Antonio cardinals too. Other family members got grand titles (Duke, Prince), extensive properties in the Papal States, cushy sinecures and military commands requiring little in the way of actual soldiering.

Feed My Sheep, tapestry in the Life of Christ cycle, 1643-1656. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.Rome was not known for its tapestry industry — France and Flanders dominated tapestry production in Europe — but for a brief window in the 17th century, it came to prominence thanks entirely to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Urban’s nephew. He founded a private tapestry workshop in 1627, hand-picked its staff and oversaw the production of six multi-tapestry series depicting the early history of Christianity and the Church.

His papal uncle shared Francesco’s love for tapestries, the more silk, gold and silver thread the better. He already had a large collection before he was elected pope. After the dramatic improvement in family status, Francesco’s workshop gave the Barberini the opportunity to create personalized tapestries by the greatest artists in the richest materials, the kind of access only royalty (and in Italy, the Medici family of Florence) had.

Adoration of the Shepherds, tapestry in the Life of Christ cycle, 1643-1656. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.The Life of Christ cycle, designed by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and woven by Gaspare Rocci, Caterina della Riviera and Maria Maddalena della Riviera, monopolized the workshop from 1643 to 1656. There were some gaps in there due to unforseen obstacles. Urban VIII died in 1644, severely hampering the production schedule. The new pope was no Barberini fan, and Francesco was soon tied up with investigations of his alleged misappropriation of funds. Production cranked back into gear in 1647, but it still took another nine years to complete the series.

Crucifixion, tapestry in the Life of Christ cycle, 1643-1656. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.The workshop died with Francesco, its driving impetus, in 1679, and that was the end of Rome’s brief moment of relevance in the history of Baroque tapestry. The Life of Christ cycle hung on the walls of the Barberini family palaces until it was purchased along with the rest of the Barberini tapestry collection (135 in total) by wool manufacturer and tapestry expert Charles Mather Ffoulke in 1889. He moved them to the States where he resold the Life of Christ tapestries to Mrs. Elizabeth U. Coles. A devout congregant, Coles donated the complete series to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 1891, before the church was built.

Map of the Holy Land, tapestry in the Life of Christ cycle, 1643-1656. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.The Barberini tapestries were added to by other donors, until by the mid-20th century, Saint John the Divine found itself the proud owner of Flemish tapestries depicting the Acts of the Apostles made from Raphael cartoons and nine Mortlake tapestries. With such an important and unique collection, the Cathedral opened an in-house Textile Conservation Laboratory in 1981.

fragment of the Last Supper tapestry salvaged from the 2001 fire. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times.That expertise proved invaluable when tragedy struck in December 2001. A five-alarm fire broke out in the sanctuary, and the six Barberini tapestries hanging on the other side of the wall in the nave (the other six were already in the conservation lab when the fire started, thankfully) took heavy smoke and fire damage. Two of them, The Last Supper and The Resurrection, were so damaged that 30 to 40% of them were destroyed.

Textile conservator Ligia Fernandez uses a low-powered vacuum and a screen to clean an embroidery. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times.The conservation lab has been working on the delicate tapestries ever since. It’s a time-consuming, incredibly detailed job to clean and repair tapestries 16 feet tall and 12-19 feet wide one inch at a time. It has taken 16 years, but now 10 of the 12 tapestries of Life of the Christ have returned to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The two heavily damaged ones have been stabilized, but are in no condition to be hung.

Jamie Casbon, assistant textile conservator, left, and Dana Goodin, textile conservation assistant, installing The Transfiguration. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times.Instead of being installed way up high above the transepts as they were before the fire, they are now hanging in three chapels at eye level.

The Rev. Canon Patrick Malloy, the priest who oversees arts-related projects at the cathedral, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, said the idea was to recreate a Baroque chapel and show the tapestries differently from when they hung over the transepts. But he said the exhibition was more than just that.

Giving the keys to Peter, detail with St. Peter's in the background. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.“They’re hanging in a liturgical space,” Dr. Malloy said, “so they’re not just works of art but devotional objects. It wouldn’t be the same if they were in the Met. I go to the Cloisters from time to time. It’s wonderful, but it’s not the same as if it were a monastery.”

Barberini bees in the top left corner of The Annunciation. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.The new installation will give visitors the chance to examine the tapestries in much more detail. Tangential to the religious theme of the tapestries but very much central to the monarchical power they were meant to telegraph, the three bees on the Barberini family coat of arms are plastered in the four corners of each tapestry.

The Barberini bees are a common sight in Rome. After the elevation of Urban VIII to the papacy, he slapped those bees on everything from Barberini properties, to the bronze baldachin in St. Peter’s made of ancient Roman beams stolen from the Pantheon and melted down, to frescoes in the Vatican made a dozen years before Maffeo was even ordained a priest.

Urban VIII added Barberini bees to frescoes in the Vatican Gallery of Maps made before he was even a priest. Photo courtesy PushStartPlay.Of course they were woven into the tapestries, just as the kings of France wove their fleurs-de-lis on the tapestries they commissioned. The ones in the corners are the traditional three bees, two on top, one on the bottom, encircled by a laurel wreath in place of the shield, but the bees also appear on the tapestries in a rather bizarre tableau that I’ve never seen before, notwithstanding the Barberini penchant for scattering their pollinators far and wide in the city of Rome. There are three bees, yes, but two of them are pulling a plough while one rides above them holding a whip. This curious arrangement is apparently a very, very arcane reference to Virgil’s Georgics, and symbolizes the powerful combination of “highest rule, sown fields of cultivated land, production of honey.” It may be a nod to Urban’s three nephews — Francesco, Antonio and Taddeo — who held the three highest offices (not counting the pope, of course) of the Roman Church and whose combined labors were meant to ensure the continued wealth and victory of the Church.

I don’t know if any of that makes much sense, but I’m kind of crazy about the image of the Barberini bees pushing that plough with their tiny bee hands while their brother/overseer cracks the whip.

Barberini bees ploughing in the borders of Agony in the Garden. Collection of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo by John Bigelow Taylor.

 

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Treasure of Ming Dynasty uprising leader found

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Excavation of shipwreck in Sichuan riverbed. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.Archaeologists have discovered a massive treasure from a 17th century shipwreck in Meishan City in the Sichuan Province of southwest China. The ship sank where the Jinjiang River branches off from the Minjiang River in 1646, and with it plunged more than 10,000 gold, silver and bronze coins, ingots, jewels, gold artifacts, and weapons, including iron swords, spears and knives. They are in pristine condition, with engraved inscriptions on the ingots still clearly legible, inscriptions that name one of the self-styled titles of Zhang Xianzhong, a famed rebel against the Ming Dynasty.

Gold tiger seal, 1643. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.It all started with a looter. He, like everyone else in the region, knew the legend of the great treasure of Zhang Xianzhong which had sunk with all his ships in the river. With the Minjiang less than 10 feet deep, the looter, who happened to be an experienced diver, decided to have a look around in the dark of night to see if he might get his hands on a little illegally obtained cultural heritage. He found a gold tiger first, then an inscribed square piece, also gold, with four little divots that the tiger’s feet fit into perfectly. The inscription confirmed it was a gold seal (the tiger was its handle) made in lunar November, 1643, and bearing the title “Grand Marshal of Yongchang,” one of Zhang’s honorifics. He also found incredibly rare gold and silver books, ingots, coins and several other treasures, all of which he sold to an unscrupulous collector for 13,600,000 yuan (ca. $2,000,000).

Silver book. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.More precious objects from this period began to appear on the black market. Police investigated and last fall were able to bust 10 artifact looting gangs and 70 traffickers and recover hundreds of artifacts of significant historical import. It was the largest looting case ever cracked in China. So, with the scofflaws apprehended and their contraband found, cultural heritage authorities turned their collective unblinking eye to the find site of some of the most important objects. Time for the professionals to get a turn.

Member of excavation team holds gold artifact recovered from site. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.The ambitious excavation project began in January with the arrival of the dry season. Water was pumped out of the river, leaving a passable but very mucky riverbed. The archaeological team then had to dig down five meters (16’5″) beneath the surface of the riverbed before they literally struck gold. In the two months since excavations began, the team has unearthed more than 10,000 objects. The inscriptions on several of them point to their having been either produced under the aegis of Zhang Xianzhong or stolen by him during his long commitment to raiding the valuables of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) palaces. They even found an item that matched a description in the Qing Dynasty records as having been used by Zhang: a tree trunk split lengthwise, hollowed out, filled with silver ingots and then clamped back together with iron or copper shanks.

Split log filled with ingots and braced back together. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.Zhang Xianzhong, known as Yellow Tiger after his complexion and his strong “tiger jaw,” was born in poverty in Shaanxi Province in 1606. He joined the army of the Ming Dynasty, but he wasn’t great at following orders and soon found himself with a death sentence hanging over his head for breaking military rules. He was spared by a superior officer who was swayed by his height and strength, but by 1630 Zhang was officially over it and went AWOL.

Tiger seal in two pieces showing the stamp on the bottom of the plate. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.He joined a peasant revolt that was then spreading all over the country, spurred by the Ming administration’s oppressive taxation during a time of famine and drought. He carved out a space for himself as leader of a group of rebels in his home province of Shaanxi. Seven years later, he had an army of 300,000 at his command. While suffering occasional defeats, one a very big one, at the hands of Ming Dynasty armies, he and his forces won more than they lost, and they collected great gobs of loot along the way.

In 1644, the year of the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Zhang went for the big score. He and 100,000 of his men conquered Sichuan. All of it. In September of that year, Zhang’s forces took Chengdu. He crowned himself the first king of the Daxi Dynasty and made Chengdu his capital. The good times didn’t last long. In the spring of 1645, pro-Ming troops retook Chongqing and in a classic piece of projection, Zhang started seeing conspiracy and rebellion everywhere. He decided to fight the seditious elements in his “kingdom” with a campaign of terror. Piles of body parts, flaying and killing became the order of the day.

It’s difficult to know precisely how many people he killed, but according to Jesuit priests who had worked for him in the beginning when it seemed like he would be a benevolent ruler, only a handful of people made it out of Sichuan alive. The only hard figures we have come from census records. The 1578 Ming census, the last we have for Sichuan before Zhang, recorded a population of 3,102,073. In 1661, there were a grand total of 16,096 men registered in Sichuan. The province was depopulated on a massive scale, that much is certain, and the blood of many was on Zhang’s hands, but there was a lot of conflict in the region before and after Zhang’s very brief rule, and widespread famine also must have taken a great toll on the populace.

Gold ingot. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.In October of 1646, with a new and vigorous enemy, the army of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, coming for him, Zhang decided to leave Sichuan with a quickness and head back home. He loaded 1,000 boats with all the cash and treasures he’d accumulated over years of raids and conquest and sent them south to Shaanxi. The recently unearthed ship only made it about 50 miles from Chengdu before sinking. In July 1647, Zhang’s army and allies clashed with Manchu forces. He either died in this battle, or he fled with his troops on his treasure-laden ships which then sank either because they were set on fire by the enemy or because in the chaos of retreat, the vessels crashed into each other and went down.

“The objects have helped identify the area where the battle was fought and are direct evidence of this historical event,” said Wang Wei, a Chinese archaeologist. […]

“The items are extremely valuable to science, history and art. They are of great significance for research into the political,economic, [sic] military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty,” said Li Boqian,an [sic] archaeologist from Peking University.

Gold coin. Photo by Chen Xie, Xinhua News Agency.The excavation will continue through April and archaeologists fully expect to find more of Zhang’s not-quite-legendary-after-all lost treasure.

This news story has the best views of the excavation and a small fraction of the artifacts recovered I could find:

[youtube=https://youtu.be/OldLfbNG8qg&w=430]

 

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Colossal statue not Ramesses II

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Incarnation of Bastet accepts supplication in front of the recovered statue pieces. Photo by Nariman El-Mofty/AP.The colossal statue discovered in the Matariya neighborhood of Cairo on March 7th is not of Pharaoh Ramesses II, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced at a press conference Thursday. When the head and bust of the statue were unearthed, the massive scale and style suggested it might be a depiction of Ramesses the Great, who was fond of having giant sculptures of himself made. He built extensively in the sacred city of Heliopolis whose remains underly Matariya.

Torso raised with straps and crane. Photo by Amr Nabil/AP.After causing much controversy by removing the massive head of the statue from the muddy pit using a bulldozer, archaeologists took a kinder, gentler approach with the torso. It was strapped to a crane and slowly lifted out of the waterlogged trench on March 13th. The torso alone weighs three tons, the head 1.5 tons. The weight of the complete statue could have been as much as 50 tons; the estimated height is nine meters (30 feet).

Inscription containing unique title of Pharaoh Psamtek I. Photo by Nariman El-Mofty/AP.When the head was moved, archaeologists noticed some stylistic features characteristic of later periods. Then, on the back pillar of the statue they found an inscription with key evidence for a very different and much later identification: Pharaoh Psamtek I.

Mr el-Anani, speaking at the famed Egyptian museum in the heart of Cairo, said they were lucky to spot an inscription of one of Psamtek’s five names on the statue.

Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany stands beside the colossus explaining new evidence pointing to it depicting Psamtek I in Cairo. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters.“It’s a part of the royal protocol, each pharaoh had five titles followed by five names,” he said.

“We were lucky to find the second title — the Nepti title — drawn with a vulture and a cobra, followed by the name Neb Aa.

“Neb Aa means the possessor of the arm, which means the mighty.”

The only pharaoh who was referred to as Neb Aa was the Pharaoh Psamtek I from the 26th Dynasty who ruled Egypt for 54 years.

Torso of colossal statue. Photo by Nariman El-Mofty/AP.Ramesses reigned from 1279–1213 B.C., more than 600 years before Psamtek I (664–610 B.C.) ascended the throne. Psamtek would have good reason to want to be associated with one of Egypt’s most successful and best remembered pharaohs. He too was a highly effective ruler, both military and political. Founder of the 26th Dynasty, Psamtek I kicked out the Assyrians after 17 years of occupation and reunified Egypt. His reign, almost as long as Ramesses’, was something of a renaissance for Egypt, a revival of its ancient glories, albeit in much diminished form. Psamtek and his successors deliberately sought to emulate the iconography of Old Kingdom Egypt.

Head of colossal statue. Photo by Nariman El-Mofty/AP.Despite the strong evidence of the unique title in the inscription, Enany won’t categorically state that the statue depicts Psamtek I at this juncture, a wise choice in the wake of the overly enthusiastic Ramesses claims. First the excavation team must finish their exploration of the site. There may be more fragments still to be found there. A close study of the inscription and pieces will hopefully answer some of the questions about its age and identity. For instance, what if it’s both Ramesses and Psamtek? There’s an outside chance the latter recycled a statue of his great predecessor, altering it to make it resemble him more and adding the inscription.

If the identification and dating is confirmed, the colossus will be far and away the best surviving example of an Old Kingdom throwback from Psamtek’s reign. More than that, it will be the largest statue from the Late Period (664-332 B.C.) ever found.

The most urgent issue is the stabilization of the statue fragments. The sudden change in environment from the mud and wet below the water table to the desert heat of the surface can damage the quartzite stone. Cairo Museum conservators will spend at least three months helping the statue adjust to its new circumstances.

 

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Gilded horse bridle fittings found in Viking grave

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Site cleared in preliminary excavation, 2012. Photo courtesy the Museum of Skanderborg.Archaeologists have discovered the grave of a Viking man containing gilded bronze and silver-plated mounts from a horse bridle in the town of Hørning near Skanderborg in Jutland, Denmark. The large grave complex consisting of multiple contiguous chambers was discovered in 2012, but only a very small section of it has been excavated. After the site was cleared, a small test pit dug in one of the chambers revealed the bridle fittings. The bridle area was raised in a soil block and excavated in the laboratory. Archaeologists have dubbed the grave’s occupant the Fregerslev Viking, the name of the spot where the burial was found.

Two cross-shaped fittings and a rectangular buckle. Photo courtesy the Museum of Skanderborg.“The artefacts that we’ve already found are exquisite gilded fittings from a horse bridle. This type of bridle would only be available to the most powerful of people in the Viking Age, and we believe it might have been a gift of alliance from the king,” said Merethe Schifter Bagge, a project manager and archaeologist at the Museum of Skanderborg [sic]

“The fittings date to circa 950 AD, which means that the Fregerslev Viking could have been the confidant of the king, Gorm the Old – or alternatively a rival.”

Gilded bridle fitting. Photo courtesy the Museum of Skanderborg.The bridle artifacts are such a rare find and indicate such high status that the find is being compared to two of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Danish history, the impossibly life-like bog body Tollund Man and the fantastically stylish immigrant teenager Egtved Girl.

The discovery has been announced now, more than four years after it was made, because the team led by Museum of Skanderborg archaeologists has finally secured funding for a full excavation of Soil block raised, 2012. Photo courtesy the Museum of Skanderborg.the site. The grave complex is unusually large for the period, so there may be as many as three chambers. Archaeologists hope the excavation will reveal more about the Fregerslev Viking, perhaps additional grave goods, maybe even a horse sacrifice. There’s also the chance there are other people buried in the complex, possibly family members or servants. The wider goal of the project is to gain new insight into the power elite, trade and commerce of 10th century Viking society.

Cross-shaped bridle fitting. Photo courtesy the Museum of Skanderborg.The excavation begins on April 18th, and best of all, the site is open to the public. There will be daily tours guided by a team member so visitors can get the full picture of the site while they watch the archaeologists at work. Meanwhile, the fittings that have already been excavated will be on display at the Museum of Skanderborg.

Reconstruction of the bridle showing placement of the fittings. Image courtesy the Museum of Skanderborg.The museum has created a website dedicated to the Fregerslev Viking excavation. (It’s in Danish only, so you may have to deploy an online translator.) Follow it to keep updated on new developments.

This very brief teaser video from the museum shows aerial shots of the find spot and X-rays of the fittings in the soil block.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/em4vP2EAkF8&w=430]

 

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Emeralds from fabled Spanish wreck for sale

Friday, March 17th, 2017

In the wee hours of September 6th, 1622, the convoy of 28 ships in the Spanish Tierra Firme flota met the business end of a hurricane in the Florida straits. When the skies cleared and dawn broke, eight of the treasure ships were lost, smashed on the seabed, their glittering cargos strewn over 50 miles from the Marquesas Keys to what is now Dry Tortugas National Park.

Cannon from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. Photo by Paul Hermans.The Tierra Firme fleet, so named because it departed from the southern Spanish Main, or Tierra Firme province, on the Gulf of Mexico, was absolutely heaving with treasure that year. Hundreds of tons of gold, silver, copper, indigo, tobacco, emeralds, and pearls from Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela were transported to the coastal port cities of the Tierra Firme on mule trains. There was so much loot that inventorying it and loading it onto the ships delayed the expedition by six weeks, pushing the voyage into the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. It took two months to load the Nuestra Señora de Atocha alone, and it was more heavily armed than the other ships of the fleet because it was the rear guard of the convoy–so it could “only” carry 40 tons of gold and silver and 70 pounds of emeralds from the Muzo mines of Colombia.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was one of the eight ships that went down in the hurricane. It was torn apart on a reef, its hull breached and keel broken in two. It sank in minutes after that, taking almost the entire crew with it. Only five men survived, three sailors and two slaves, because they had the presence of mind to tie themselves to the mizzenmast.

The Spanish tried to salvage what they could from the lost treasure galleons. One of the ships, the Santa Margarita, ran aground near where the Atocha sank. Using bronze diving bells and slaves to man them — many of whom died performing this incredibly dangerous job, as we know from the insurance claims filed so the owners could be reimbursed for the sale value of their human chattel — crews were able to recover about half of the Santa Margarita’s cargo. They knew the wreck of the Atocha was in the area somewhere, but the Spanish were never able to find it.

Gold bar recovered from the Atocha, sold at auction in 2015. Photo courtesy Guernsey's.Almost four centuries would pass before someone did. Treasure hunter Mel Fisher searched for 16 years for the wreck and finally hit paydirt in July of 1985. Fisher and his team recovered vast quantities of coins, silver and gold ingots and emeralds, even though the bulk of the gold and emeralds are believed to have been stored in the ship’s sterncastle which has never been found. After a decade of legal skirmishes with the State of Florida, the courts awarded Fisher full rights to all of the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

Some of its riches are now on display in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Key West. A selection of its most exceptional emeralds will be going up for auction on April 25th at Guernsey’s auction house in New York City. The gemstones belong to Manuel Marcial de Gomar, who started out working in the Chivor emerald mines of Colombia in 1955 when he was 19, opened the first emerald specialty store in 1964 and became one of the world’s leading emerald specialists.

La Gloria, rough emerald from the Muzo mines of Colombia recovered from the wreck of Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Photo courtesy Guernseys.Fisher hired him to appraise all the emeralds from the Atocha, about seven pounds of them, recovered over the course of more than two decades. Appropriately, Marcial’s consulting fee was paid in emeralds. Emeralds from the Muzo mines are considered the best in the world for the richness of their blue-green color. Add the Atocha history and these stones become even more than the sum of their beautiful parts. Marcial selected some of the stones to be cut and set in jewelry of his design. Some he kept in their rough state.

It’s one of the rough emeralds from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha which is the star player in the upcoming Marcial de Gomar Collection auction. La Gloria is an 887 carat rough emerald, bigger than the one in the Smithsonian (857 carats) and the one in New York’s Museum of Natural History (632 carats). The pre-sale estimate is $3,000,000-$5,000,000.

The Nine Pillars of the Andes. Photo courtesy Guernsey's.Coming in close at its heels is a group of loose emeralds romantically dubbed the Nine Pillars of the Andes (pre-sale estimate $3,000,000-$4,000,000). From largest to smallest they weigh 26.72 carats, 15.54 carats, 11.65 carats, 9.82 carats, 7.77 carats, 6.68 carats, 6.45 carats, 4.56 carats, and 2.50 carats for a total of 91.69 carats.

Not to say there aren’t any bargains. For a mere $100,000-$125,000, you can score the Andina del Mar, a 2.51-carat round cut emerald Marcial cut from a 5.35 carat rough emerald. It’s the second largest known round faceted emerald recovered from the ocean. Or how about its pear shaped sister, the Lagrima de Atocha, a 1.61 carat emerald cut from a 4.41 carat rough gemstone, which is also estimated to sell for $100,000-$125,000.

Spanish eight escudo coin recovered from the Atocha. Photo courtesy Guernsey's.In addition to the emeralds, some coins recovered from the famous shipwreck are also part of the sale, like this Spanish eight escudo coin made of 22-karat gold. It’s a comparative bargain with a pre-sale estimate of $15,000-$20,000. This coin comes from the personal collection of Mel Fisher, as do several other gold coins going under the hammer at this auction, including a group recovered from the wreck of the 1715 Treasure Fleet.

 

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Algiers subway dig reveals 2000 years of history

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Public building, ca. 5th century A.D., unearthed in Algiers. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.Construction of a new subway line and station in Algiers has revealed archaeological remains dating from Roman times through the French colonial period. Remains were first discovered in 2009 during archaeological surveys along the proposed subway line. The full excavation began in 2013, recovering archaeological materials going back to the 1st century B.C.

The site is in the historic Casbah area of Algiers which was founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Punic Phoenicians as a small trading post. It became a Roman colony in 146 B.C. after the fall of Carthage, and its name was Latinized from Yksm (“Island of the Seagulls”) to Icosium. Icosium became part of the Roman client state of Mauretania in the late 1st century B.C., which became a Roman province under Caligula in 40 A.D. Mauretania was divided into two provinces, Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis, the latter of which included Icosium.

Remains unearthed in Algiers subway excavation. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.During the chaotic decades of imperial musical chairs, barbarian invasions, epidemics and economic woes that became known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Berber tribes made incursions into what is now Algeria, contracting the areas of Roman control. A fortified city on the sea, Icosium held out a long time, but was sacked in 371 A.D. by the Berber Prince Firmus during his revolt against Romanus, the military commander of Rome’s Africa Province. Icosium never recovered and disappeared from the historical record in the 5th century.

The city of Algiers was founded by Berbers in the mid-10th century. The Casbah, a fortified citadel common in North African cities, was built over what had once been Icosium on the cliffs overlooking the sea. In the late 15th century Algiers was conquered by Spain, but their occupation would not last. The Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa tossed the Spanish out permanently in 1525 and established Algiers as the capital of an Ottoman regency which would become the empire’s primary base in the region. The Ottoman Regency of Algiers lasted until the French took the city in 1830.

Roman architectural remains unearthed in Algiers subway excavation. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.The French pillaged Algiers, destroying religious sites like the Es Sayida mosque in the Casbah. Between the French and the long line of conquerors that preceded them, it didn’t seem likely that there would be much of Algiers’ history left to find below the surface. Nobody imagined they’d unearth such a wealth of archaeological materials, even from the long gap between the fall of Icosium and the rise of Berber Algiers.

Finds over the 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet) of the excavation site include a public building with mosaic flooring dating to the 5th century, a 7th century Byzantine necropolis with dozens of graves, large numbers of Roman-era architectural elements — columns, capitals, pediments — ancient catapult balls and 385 coins. The excavation even found parts of the Es Sayida mosque, a thoroughly unexpected survival given that the French colonial government built a square over the levelled mosque and named it King’s Square, renamed Martyrs Square after Algeria won its independence in 1962.

Mosaic floor detail. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.Algeria has some of the most significant Roman architecture still standing in the world, but none of it is in Algiers. That makes the metro ruins exceptionally important, so much so that the city completely changed its plans for the line and station. The Martyrs Square subway station, originally planned to be 8,000 square meters in area, will now take up only 3,250 square meters and will have a museum built into it. The train line is going way underground, as much as 115 feet deep, to avoid interfering with the ancient remains.

The Martyrs Square station is set to open in November, part of an extension to the main metro line inaugurated in October 2011.

The museum will open shortly afterwards, covering 1,200 square metres and organised chronologically.

Some of the remains will be exposed to a depth of over seven metres.

“In Rome or Athens, museums present particular periods, whereas here the visitor can embrace the whole history of Algiers over 2,000 years,” [archaeologist and excavation co-director Kamel] Stiti said.

 

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Unusual pyramid-shaped tomb found in China

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Pyramid tomb discovered in Zhengzhou, China. Photo by Li Sixin, ImagineChina.

Ancient tombs discovered at construction site in Zhengzhou. Photo by Li Sixin, ImagineChina.Archaeologists have discovered an unusual pyramid-shaped tomb on the south bank of the Yellow River in Zhengzhou, central China. A small village once occupied the property, but it was displaced to make way for a new residential development to be constructed in its place. Before the new apartment complex goes up, a team from the Zhengzhou Museum of Cultural Relics and Archaeology is excavating the site.

On the north side of the construction site near a busy road, the team unearthed a burial chamber containing Pyramid and half cylinder tombs. Photo by Li Sixin, ImagineChina.two brick tombs, the first built in a pyramid shape, the second as an elongated dome like a cylinder cut in half lengthwise. The chamber is almost 100 feet long and 26 feet wide and is laid out along an east-west orientation. The entrance faces east and has a narrow ramp leading down to the tombs.

The elongated dome tomb is about 13 feet long, significantly larger than the pyramid, and was the primary tomb which likely held the remains of the most important personage. There’s a hole in the vaulted roof Hole in the roof of the elongated dome left by looters. Photo by Li Sixin, ImagineChina.about two and a half feet in diameter left by tomb robbers at some point in its long history. The archaeological team has not yet opened the tombs, so we don’t know what, if anything, remains inside either of the structures.

The pyramid tomb was not interfered with and appears to be intact, probably because the looters didn’t realize it was there. While the pyramid shape is unusual for brick tombs, rounded tombs with pointed tops have been found before, and the pyramid’s bowed walls suggest a connection to the more traditional form. The burial chamber has not been officially dated yet, but brick tombs are characteristic of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), and there are several Han-era sites in the area, including metallurgic workshops just a mile away.

Excavation of ancient burial chamber. Photo by Li Sixin, Imagine China.

 

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Viking woman buried in Denmark was Norwegian

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

9th century Scottish or Irish buckle found in 10th century Jutland grave, Photo by Ernst Stidsing.Last year, the grave of a wealthy 10th century woman was discovered in Enghøj on the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Archaeologists from the Museum East Jutland were excited to find a gilt bronze buckle of Irish or Scottish manufacture in the grave. The woman wore it to pin the ends of her petticoat together, but it wasn’t originally a brooch. Made in the 9th century, the 2.4-inch disk once adorned a Christian reliquary or other container of sacred objects before it was pillaged by Viking raiders. Less than a hundred years later, it was the highly prized treasure of a rich Norsewoman, so highly prized that it was buried with her.

This was an unexpected and significant discovery, because while precious objects from the British Isles have been found before in Viking graves, they are very rare and all but unheard of in Denmark. None of the experts who examined the buckle knew of anything like it in the Danish archaeological record. The Irish/Scottish origin and style of ornamentation make it a unique find in Denmark. The artifacts most comparable to the Enghøj buckle were found in Norway, like this Celtic brooch unearthed from a 9th-10th century barrow in Lilleberge, or this crozier fragment found in Romsdal. Swedish Vikings tended to go east for their raids, while the Norwegians roamed the North Atlantic islands, Scotland, Ireland and northern England, so it makes sense that the few surviving Celtic artifacts pillaged in those areas are concentrated in Norway.

Other similar disks made in the British Isles found in Norway. Photo by Ernst Stidsing.Museum East Jutland archaeologist Ernst Stidsing, who led the excavation at the site, hypothesized that the woman in the Enghøj burial might have some kind of link to Norway. Strontium isotope analysis on her teeth could pinpoint where she was born and spent her childhood.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen of the Museum Southeast Denmark was also intrigued by the prospect of the lady’s possible Norwegian origin.

“It’ll be exciting if we find some indication that she was raised, married, and settled over greater distances. We know that Danish kings married Slavic princesses from 900 AD,” he says.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that there was an exchange, but it’s worth gold to have it confirmed. And you might see some dynastic connections across the Nordic region,” says Ulriksen.

Well, the strontium isotope analysis results are in and the woman buried in Enghøj was indeed born and raised in Norway, southern Norway, to be precise.

She probably wasn’t a princess, but she was buried with expensive grave goods beyond the Celtic brooch. There were several bronze buckles, silver jewelry and a strand of glass and metal beads. She would certainly have been one of the richest people in town, perhaps the wife of a local chief or regional leader. As with the Slavic princesses mentioned by Ulriksen, marriage could well have been the reason for the woman’s move to Denmark. Her pillaged petticoat pin heirloom indicates she came from a wealthy family, the kind of family that might arrange a marriage with a distant Danish potentate.

 

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Medieval silver coin hoard found in Cheshire

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Beeston Medieval coin hoard. Photo courtesy National Museums Liverpool.A medieval coin hoard was discovered January 28th, 2016, by metal detectorist Malcolm Shepherd in a field in the Beeston parish of Cheshire. He reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Finds Liaison Officer Carl Savage examined the find and estimated based on the dates and types of coins that the hoard was deposited around 1498-1504.

The hoard is composed of a select group of 26 coins: 9 silver groats of Edward IV, 14 silver groats of Henry VII, one Henry VII groat, 1495-98. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.Edward IV penny, one Edward II farthing and one double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Silver groats were made of .925 fine silver, meaning they had a silver content of 92.5%, the sterling standard. This was a comparatively large denomination at the time of deposition. The owner deliberately picked silver-rich groats for hoarding, eschewing the smaller denominations that were in wide circulation.

Edward IV groat, pierced from reverse to obverse to the right of the crown, 1480-83. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.One of the Edward IV groats, minted in 1480-83, held additional meaning to someone beyond its value as currency. It is perforated to the right of the crown at 2 o’clock on the coin face. That indicates the coin was worn as a pendant, as jewelry or maybe a good luck charm.

Farthing of Edward II (clipped), 1310-14, London mint. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.One penny and one farthing snuck in past the 24 higher denomination coins, and the Edward II farthing was worth collecting anyway because it was at least 190 years old when the hoard was buried. Those farthings turn up in hoards deposited as late as the early 1500s and are known to have remained in use in England until 1544 when all the silver coinage was taken out of circulation as part of King Henry VIII’s Great Debasement of the currency. Henry’s new debased coins were only 25% silver, meager indeed compared to the old groats.

Double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, 1468-74. Minted in the Burgundian Netherlands. Photo courtesy the Portable Antiquities Scheme.One side-effect of the Great Debasement was that British coins were no longer accepted as currency in other countries because their precious metal content was so low. This had once been established policy, as evidenced by the double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the hoard. Edward IV and Charles the Bold signed a monetary alliance in 1469 which allowed English groats to circulate in the Burgundian Netherlands and Burgundian double patards (.878 silver content) to circulate in England. Double patards crop up fairly often in late Medieval English hoards, and three individual ones found in Cheshire are recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. They disappear from the English archaeological record after the 1530s, victims of the Great Debasement.

Beeston Hoard detail. Photo courtesy National Museums Liverpool.Last month, a coroner’s inquest determined that the Beeston Hoard qualified as treasure. Coins more than 300 years old with more than 10% precious metal content are classed as treasure, so assistant coroner Dr. Janet Napier’s decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. As usual, per the terms of the Treasure Act, the next step is to assess the value of the coins which will be a kind of finder’s fee split between the finder and the landowner, to be raised by whichever institution wishes to acquire the hoard.

 

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Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Dr. Irving Finkel examines Atra-Hasis Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renowned cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

The Atra-Hasis Ark Tablet, ca. 1750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet and his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

Royal Game of Ur, ca. 2600 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon, which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Front of tablet with diagram showing how to use the central squares of the Royal Game of Ur to tell fortunes, 177-176 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old, and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

Back of tablet describes rules for playing the Royal Game of Ur, 177-176 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

I CAN’T BE ANY MORE EXCITED THAN THIS ALREADY, GETTY PEOPLE!

Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like the superstars you are. (Get pictures!)

 

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