Archive for March, 2018

17th c. wall paintings found at Lindisfarne Castle

Sunday, March 25th, 2018

Conservators working on a £3 million restoration of Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland have peeled back layers of later paint to find 17th century decorative painting in a floral motif. They were found in the kitchen and east bedroom, and while they are not well preserved (understandable given the building’s checkered past), curators believe they were originally part of a larger decorative motif spread throughout various parts of the building.

Nick Lewis, the house steward of Lindisfarne Castle, said: “If you imagine a wallpaper in anyone’s house today, they often have flowers on the wall. Well, this is what this is, it’s decorative and was intended to make them feel happier and at home.

“They used charcoal to draw it, very simple carbon, and there are areas of red pigment so they might have been painted and coloured. We know it was done professionally, so you didn’t just sit and do it yourself, and in those days there was a guild of wall painters who they would have used.

“It’s really amazing that we found it in a military building, and in a building up here, as a lot of the cultural influences that came across the Channel would soak into the south-east but take decades to get up here.”

Lindisfarne Castle was built on a crag, the highest point of Northumberland’s Holy Island, in 1550 as a military fort. Stones from the Lindisfarne Priory, which had been suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539-40 and the ruins converted into naval stores, were used to build the defensive installation. It was rudimentary at best, not more much than a stone platform on an earthenwark bulkwark armed with a few cannon until the reign of Elizabeth I. She ordered that a proper masonry fort be constructed and armed in 1565.

It continued to be garrisoned even when its strategic importance faded after the unification of the Scottish and England thrones under the James I, and it saw the only action of its long life when it was taken over by Scottish insurrectionists for a few days during the Jacobite Uprising of 1715. The crown withdrew the last of its soldiers and arms in 1893, and in the beginning of the 20th century it was reduced to an occasional coast guard lookout and a tourist attraction of mild interest.

In 1901, it was acquired by publisher Edward Hudson who hired architect Edwin Lutyens to renovate it in the Arts and Crafts style, incongruous as that may seen for a stone fort atop a Northumbrian crag. Lutyens made major changes to the structure, rebuilding some of the oldest parts of the castle with new architectural elements — massive lintels, arches, brick floors, fireplaces — and erecting a tower where none had been before. The castle as it stands today is largely an Edwardian country home of distinctive originality, although many of the Tudor and Victorian features remain, integrated into a new unique whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1944, Lindisfarne Castle was placed in the care of the National Trust. It was opened to visitors in the late 1960s has become a popular destination, averaging about 90,000 visitors a year. Maintenance on a multi-layered building overlooking the cold waters of the Northumberland coast is a challenge, however, and in late 2016, the National Trust undertook a major conservation project to fight back against the constant invasion of moisture that has caused significant damage to the stonework, mortar and windows.

All of the interior work is now complete and the finishing touches on the exterior will be completed by May. The site reopens to the public of April 1st (not a joke), but the collection won’t be reinstalled until five weeks later. The first exhibition, Empty Spaces, will take the opportunity to showcase the story of the conservation project itself, as well as emphasizing the bones the castle’s architecture before they’re upstaged by furnishings, accessories and more than 1,000 other historical items in the collection.

The newly-discovered wall paintings are also being stabilized and conserved so they can take their rightful place in the endlessly surprising and varied texture of Lindisfarne Castle history. The ones in the kitchen will be on display to the public when the castle reopens on April 1st.

John Wynn-Griffiths, a conservator for the National Trust, said: “This is such an exciting and rare find. We are always extremely careful when peeling back layers of history but we did not expect to find these paintings at all.

“The existence of interior decoration prior to Lutyens’ renovation of the castle adds a new dimension to its historic function. Based on our knowledge of the physical history of Lindisfarne Castle, it suggests that there might have been more to life at the castle than just a military base.


Bones of sacrificed Chimú children found in Peru

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating in the Huanchaco district of Trujillo, northwestern Peru, have discovered 77 tombs of the Chimú civilisation containing the remains of 47 individuals, including 12 children and one neonate believed to have been ritually sacrificed. Fractures in the ribs and cutting marks on the thorax of the children suggest attempts were made to cut their hearts out, likely as a sacrificial offering. One of the children was wrapped in a cloth and buried with 39 spondylus shells, warm-water molluscs that the Chimú are believed to have associated with the arrival of the rains. Bringing precipitation to the north coast may have been part of the religious purpose of the sacrifice. Also found in the burial ground were the remains of 40 camelids, 115 Chimú pottery vessels, metal artifacts and fishing tools.

The graves date to around 1,200 to 1,400 A.D., the later centuries of the Chimú culture which ruled the northern coastal area of Peru from around 850 A.D. until they were conquered by the Inca in 1470, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish. It was heavily influenced by its direct predecessor, the Moche culture whose decline overlapped with the rise of the Chimú, and some of its crafts (textiles in particular) suggest the influence of the even more ancient Wari culture.

Their greatest urban center was Chan Chan, 2.5 miles northwest of Trujillo, the capital of the Chimú empire of Chimor and the largest city in pre-Columbian South America. Its estimated population at its peak was 40,000-60,000 people. Today it is an archaeological site approximately eight square miles in area with more adobe buildings than any other city in the Americas. It is the second largest grouping of adobe structures in the world.

Huanchaco, about 2.5 miles from Chan Chan, was its main port, as it was for the Moche before them, the Inca after them and for Spanish Trujillo after them. It’s also the place where ceviche was invented and long may it be blessed for having gifted this delicacy to the world. Pottery fragments and fishing weights, hooks and needles from earlier cultures — the Salinar (400-200 B.C.), Virú (150 B.C.-500 A.D.), Moche (600-700 A.D.) — were found at the burial site as were the remains of ancient structures, evidence that the neighborhood was an inhabited urban area for a thousand years before being abandoned. The Chimú residents of Chan Chan later converted it to use as a location for burials and associated rituals.

The excavation is an archaeological rescue project to salvage historically significant material in advance of an expansion of potable water and sewage works. So far the dig has uncovered an area of 3,200 square meters (.8 of acre) over eights city streets. By the time the excavation ends in June, that figure is expected to double. Once whatever can be recovered is recovered, the city will request a Certificate of No Archaeological Remains (CIRA) and the water and sewage works will go forward as planned.

For now the archaeological material is being stored in a rented house in Las Lomas, the neighborhood where the excavation is taking place. Some of it will be transported to the National University of Trujillo (UNT) for conservation and further study. The city hopes to raise funds to build a museum close to the find site where the discoveries can be exhibited and secured in proper conservation conditions.


2,200-year-old liquor found in Chinese tomb

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

A bronze vessel unearthed from a Qin dynasty tomb still contains a hefty amount of liquor, archaeologists have discovered. The tomb was discovered in a cemetery of commoners’ graves in Yan village, located in China’s Shaanxi province near Xianyang, the ancient capital of the Qin Dynasty. The burials date from the late Warring States period (5th century-221 B.C.) through the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), and although they have been extensively looted over the centuries, numerous artifacts were found interred in the graves. The bronze kettle was one of several highly significant objects among them.

It is a sacrificial vessel, buried for ritual reasons. Interring wine as a sacrificial offering for the dead was a common practice at the time. The jug’s mouth was sealed tight with a coarse hessian fabric, made of jute or sisal fibers, and tied with plant material. It was so effective at blocking air from entering the vessel that even after more than two thousands years, the liquid inside was still fluid when archaeologists removed the stopper. About 300 ml (10 fl oz) of liquid remained. When researchers extracted it, they found it was a cream-colored milky fluid that had undergone a fermentation process in antiquity.

According to Zhang Yanglizheng, an assistant researcher at SPIA, the 300ml of milky-white liquid possess alcoholic substances such hydroxyproline and glutamate. This would suggest that it possesses similar qualities and features to modern-day fermented wine.

The discovery not only reflects the level of wine making in Qin’s capital Xianyang, a prefecture in modern-day Shaanxi Province, at the time, but also shows that the Qin people inherited certain rites and ceremonies from the Western Zhou (1046–771 BCE) period, Zhang explained.

Glutamate and hydroxyproline are non-proteinogenic amino acids. Testing also found small amounts of proteins and fatty acids in the liquor which indicate this ancient tipple was similar to today’s yellow rice wine.

Another important piece unearthed in the excavation of the cemetery was a bronze sword. Just shy of two feet long (60 cm), the weapon has octahedron-shaped divots in the middle, which were meant to make the weapon easier to wield and thereby increase its effectiveness in battle. Dents and dings along the edge of the sword indicate that it did indeed see use on the battlefield, and a lot of it at that.

Also found in one of the tombs was a turtle shell, specifically the plastron or bottom half of the shell that covers the animal’s abdomen. It is 14 cm (5.5 inches) long and has a dozen squares punched out of the shell. There are burn marks along the edge. These features are characteristic symbols used by fortune-tellers to divine the future.

The research team is hoping these artifacts and the hundreds of others discovered in the burial ground will shed new light on the social history of people living under the Qin dynasty. Most artifacts of significance that have been recovered from the tombs of the elite. Discovering them in commoners’ graves gives archaeologists a whole new opportunity to examine the daily life of non-nobles in China’s first empire.


1000 years of St. Albans Abbey’s history revealed

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Our friends at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) aren’t just busy inventorying their recovered artifacts. They’ve got excavations to do and archaeological treasures to unearth. One of their recent projects is a dig at the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans which just came to a close last month. The excavation began in August 2017 in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Center for the church and focused on a burial ground known as Monks’ Cemetery which was in use from the 18th through the mid-19th century. They recovered 120 inhumed bodies from that cemetery, out of the more the 170 recorded burials before the cemetery’s closure in 1852.

But that’s far from all they unearthed. Not surprisingly, the burial ground lived several previous lives. Under the more recent graves, the archaeological team discovered the remains of a rectangular 15th century building. Two stories high, the building was an addition to the cathedral and is believed to have contained the treasury, sacristy, vestry and two chapels, all accessible from the main building’s transept and presbytery. It was likely razed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

It’s possible, albeit not confirmed, that the abbot’s quarters were also in the 15th century structure. It is confirmed that one abbot in particular was buried under the larger of the two chapels. The excavation unearthed a brick-lined grave containing the body of an adult man. Interred with him with three Papal bullae, lead seals that were attached to official papal decrees known as bulls. While only the obverse of the seals is even partially legible, experts were able to make out the name “Martinus,” which dates the bullae to the papacy of Martin V who occupied the Throne of Peter from 1417 to 1431.

It’s extremely rare to find a grave that contains more than one of these seals. According to Professor Martin Biddle who is working with the CAT team, the discovery of three is in fact “a unique discovery in archaeology.” This strongly indicates the deceased was someone of great importance in the Church. The dates and further archival research point to this having been John of Wheathampstead. John was the Abbot of St. Albans from 1420-1440, and again from 1451 until his death in 1465. He personally undertook the arduous journey to Rome in 1423 and was granted an audience with Pope Martin V. The abbot asked the pontiff for three privileges and Martin granted all three of them. The deal was sealed with, well, seals, two of them dated November 19th, 1423, and the third November 24th, 1423. Abbot John returned with them to the St. Albans where he was celebrated for his successful mission.

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said, “It is a wonderful thing to have found the grave and relics of John of Wheathampstead, one of the most interesting and successful of the Abbots of St Albans. The papal seals that were found in his grave are a reminder of some of the privileges that he won for his monastery, and of his own national and international influence on the Church at a time when (not unlike today) it was faced with threats of division and decline”.

He continued, “Abbot John added a great deal to the renown and the beauty of the Abbey, and attracted many new pilgrims from Britain and overseas. He also defended the Abbey from destruction during the Wars of the Roses and was proud to say that he had preserved its treasures for future generations. It seems appropriate that he should appear just as we are trying to do the same through the ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint‘ project, which aims to make the Abbey much better known, and to provide better resources to welcome and inform new visitors. As John would certainly wish, in due course his body will be laid to rest again, with proper prayer and ceremony. We trust he prays for us, as we do for him.”

But it’s not abbots all the way down. Beneath the foundations of the 15th century building the CAT team found the foundations of Norman chapels that were in the apse of the original St. Albans Cathedral built just over a decade after the Norman conquest of England. Paul of Caen, a very well-connected Benedictine monk, became abbot in 1077 and immediately initiated an ambitious building project, replacing the 8th century Anglo-Saxon church with a new one in Norman style. He used materials pilfered by previous abbots from the ruins of the Roman town of Verulamium, just across the river Ver from the abbey, to create a large cruciform structure that was at that time the largest abbey in England. Some of his arches still stand in the nave, as does the tower built at the intersection of the four arms of the crucifix shape (known as a crossing tower). It is the only 11th century crossing tower still extant in England.

Paul of Caen’s particular attention to building massive foundations is a large part of the reason the tower and arches are still standing to this day, so it’s fitting that even though later construction tore up the walls of the Norman apsidal chapels, the foundations were down there just waiting for archaeologists to find them.

St Albans Abbey has been confirmed as one of England’s early Norman cathedrals after experts uncovered foundations of the early church. […]

The abbey is known as the oldest place of continuous Christian worship in the country and this find pre-dates that.

The site director said: “We knew it was probably there but this confirms it.” […]

“[Our find shows] that it was and is an important site of premier status,” site director Ross Lane said.

“One of our major aims was to confirm its presence and confirm the abbey was one of the early Norman cathedrals.”


7-year-old girl finds 65-million-year-old fossil

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Seven-year-old Naomi Vaughan was poking around the sagebrush next to the soccer fields on 15th Street in Bend, Oregon, when she came across a shining rock with a spiral formation. She dubbed it her Moana rock, because of its striking resemblance to the Heart of Te Fiti, a mystical greenstone that is the reason Moana undertakes her epic hero’s journey in the animated Disney movie. As appropriate as Naomi’s nomenclature is, in fact the “rock” is an ammonite fossil, but like the Heart of Te Fiti, it too is mysteriously far from home.

When she showed it to her mother, Melissa Vaughan recognized from its shape and pearlescence that it was likely a fossil. Paleontologists confirmed that it is indeed an ammonite and is at least 65 million years old, possibly as much 100 million years old. What it was doing next to a Bend soccer field is not so easy to determine.

Paleontologists say ammonites are not naturally found in Bend, but are common to the east near Mitchell, more than 80 miles away. How this ammonite wound up in Bend is a mystery.

Greg Retallack, director of paleontological collections at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, believes the fossil originated from the Bernard Formation of Bernard Ranch near the abandoned Eastern Oregon town of Suplee — about 112 miles east of Bend.

“Presumably there was some family connection between the ranches and Bend, or it was part of a school fossil collection,” Retallack said.

Or it came from somewhere else entirely. Its dark hue, pearlescent shine and excellent state of preservation are not typical of ammonites native to the state of Oregon. It could easily have been transported into the state by a collector and been mislaid. There’s no way of knowing as it was not recovered in a proper scientific excavation, and even if it had been, the find site might not be probative if it was simply a lost treasure dropped in the sagebrush in recent history.

On the other hand, it’s still possible that it’s some kind of Oregonian fluke, an exceptional specimen that was fortunate enough to be preserved in a particularly nurturing environment and then made its way to the soccer field by natural means rather than having been transported into Oregon from foreign parts.

Because of all these unanswerable hypotheticals, the fossil is worth very little from a paleontological perspective, and even less on the market. Twenty bucks at most, experts think, even though it is such a handsome example. Ammonites in excellent condition like this one, more often found in Canada than the US, can run in the thousands of dollars. That suits Naomi just fine ’cause she ain’t selling her Moana rock.

Naomi’s father, Darin Vaughan, said his daughter plans to keep the ammonite, which has become a cherished possession.

Vaughan, a pediatrician with Mosaic Medical, said he is used to his children collecting rocks and other things they find. He even remembers being drawn to colorful rocks as a child.

But this time it’s much different. His entire family, and the local paleontology community, are impressed with Naomi’s find.

“She was delighted to find something so beautiful and to discover it’s so old,” Vaughan said. “She is still really excited.”

Now she’ll always have a memento of the precise moment that set her on the path towards becoming a brilliant paleontologist.


Arrest made in Canterbury break-in!

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

The good news keeps coming regarding the break-in at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. Kent police have made an arrest and recovered more of the missing loot. On Monday, March 19th, the police received a report of a man “acting suspiciously” in front of a building on Sturry Road.

Officers attended and located a 36-year-old man of no fixed address who was arrested on suspicion of burglary.

A number of historical artefacts were recovered by attending officers, which are believed to been reported stolen in January from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust in Kingsmead Road.

So that confirms the ignorant clown theory. I seriously doubt this one drifter was able to cut through the walls of the Kingsmead stores and make off with thousands of artifacts on his own, however. That strikes me as a little above the acting-suspiciously-on-the-street pay grade. I’m thinking patsy.

The suspect is being held in custody as the investigation continues.


Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan: a Qing materpiece rediscovered

Monday, March 19th, 2018

A masterpiece of Qing dynasty painting and poetry has been rediscovered after having spent decades in the penumbra of the antiquities market. It is a handscroll called the Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan painted by Qian Weicheng (1720-1772), a most favored official, poet and court painter of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795).

The scroll is 15 feet wide and 13 inches high and is divided into ten sections, each depicting a different landscape of Mount Tiantai (also known as Tiantai Shan). Each scene is drawn from a distance, which gave Qian Weicheng the opportunity to depict the great diversity of of the mountain views — highest peaks, lowest ravines, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, trees, caverns — and of the religious and historic sites that inhabit the ecosystem. Famed for his great talents as a writer and an artist, Qian Weicheng made use of both of gifts in this handscroll making it one of his greatest masterpieces crafted at the height of his career as court painter.

The Qianlong Emperor was the longest the longest lived emperor with the longest reign in Chinese history. He was a dedicated lover of the arts, particularly painting and calligraphy, and a collector of such fervor that he amassed more artworks than any emperor before him. His court officials, all highly literate in the first place to have passed the civil examinations that were a requirement to be recruited for imperial service, were most favored if they had artistic and literary gifts. An explosion of creative arts ensued, and the Qing court is widely considered a Golden Age for Chinese art and literature.

Qian Weicheng was a golden boy of this golden age. The scion of a prominent literary family, he was writing poetry by the time he was a young child and received his first public accolades for a poem published when he was 17. He placed first in his exams in 1745 and was brought into imperial service, climbing the ladder quickly due to his meticulous attention to duty in every position from Vice Minister of Works to Vice Minister of Justice to Education Minister of Zhejiang, to the presiding judge over an extremely complex embezzling trial. His deliberate, logical, impartial approach emphasizing adherence to clear moral standards impressed the Emperor. His ability to paint and write poetry brought him even more imperial favor, and the Qianlong Emperor often chose Quian to accompany him on official tours of the empire.

Afflicted with diabetes which made him frail and skeletal, Quian died when he was just 52 years old after a long and strenuous trip home after the death of his father. The Emperor felt the loss of his favorite ministerial and artistic luminary keenly, and granted him the posthumous name of Wenmin (literal meaning “cultivated”), a prestigious title reserved for officials of great note. Two years later, the Qianlong Emperor was still mourning Qian Weicheng, a fact attested to by the Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan.

Each of the ten landscapes is accompanied by a description of the site written by Qian Weicheng. He describes the view, pointing out the natural marvels as well as the legends and history associated with each location. In the tenth section, his description, which like the other nine manages to be geographically and topographically accurate and intensely poetic at the same time, concludes with his signature.

Wannian Temple and Blissful Water. Built during the Taihe reign of the Tang dynasty, the Wannian Temple is located in Mount Bafeng to the northwest of the county. Ten li-miles to its southeast is the Luohan Peak overlooking the Tiechuan Lake, or literally “lake of the iron boat”, after the legend of a luohan passing through here in an iron boat. Off the front gate of the temple is a confluence of two streams meandering westwards. The streams are lined with gigantic cedars that provide shade even in high summer. On the side is a small hill called Liao, with its valley strewn with grotesque rocks resembling dangling gibbons, stretching birds or any imaginable shapes. This indisputably blissful land is where the Jin monk Tanyou rested to take in the view. Painted and inscribed by your humble servant Qian Weicheng.

Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan has another remarkable feature: each of the ten sections includes a poem written by the Qianlong Emperor himself in his own hand. He played off Qian Weicheng’s descriptions as both a tribute to the many beauties of Mount Tiantai and to his favorite artist. This is the poem he wrote for the 10th landscape, an adroit and touching parallel to Qian Weicheng’s final note and signature.

Blessed with verdure and blissful with water,
Wannian is for cultivation and purification.
Like the rocky lake that never runs dry
To keep alive the iron boat story,
The painter and inscriber of this all
Will be remembered till eternity.
Inscribed by the Emperor late in the third lunar month of the jiawu year.

Jiawu year corresponds to 1774, two years after Qian Weicheng’s death. The painting is not dated, but researchers found a mournful annotation from the Emperor in the imperial archives that was not written on the scroll that states: “Qian Weicheng visited Mount Tiantai when he was
inspecting education in Zhejiang and painted this for presentation. Now that he has been gone for two years, all that is left is this scroll.” That suggests the painting was was done between 1763 and 1765 during or just after Qian’s term as Education Commissioner of Zhejiang.

The date is likely correct, but the Emperor was mistaken. Qian never actually did get around to visiting Mount Tiantai in person. We know from his own poems that he had scheduled a visit in 1762, but that was cancelled due to torrential rains. Another poem refers to a planned visit in 1764 that was also thwarted by weather. So instead he painted the Ten Landscapes based on distant views of Mount Tiantai glimpsed during his two visits to neighboring Mount Yandang and from his own imagination. His deep knowledge of the history and legends of the sites combined with his literary ability and his skill as a painter to capture the essence of the landscapes so effectively that even the Emperor, who had toured the area an unprecedented six times, never realized it wasn’t painted from life.

Qian Weicheng’s early death did have one positive side-effect. It ensured that his most of works were not scattered and remained in the imperial collection. There are 243 of his paintings and calligraphies in the Palace Museum today, and only 43 (mostly paintings) found in other collections in China. Very few pieces have turned up on the art market in auctions, and the ones that were, were smuggled out of the imperial collection by the last emperor Pu Yi.

In 1923, Pu Yi and his brother Pu Jie brought to fruition a conspiracy they had been hatching for several years. Between May and September, Pu Jie, who lived outside the Forbidden City, secretly removed the most prized books from the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, and the most important paintings and calligraphies from
the Tang (618–907), Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing (1636–1912) dynasties. They temporarily stashed the purloined cultural patrimony of imperial China in Pu Yi’s father house Beijing, then packed it all up in 80 crates, scored a pass exempting the boxes from being tolled or examined and transported them to the Tianjin British Concession where Pu Yi had an estate.

On November 5th, 1924, warlord Feng Yuxiang expelled Pu Yi from the Forbidden Palace. He fled to Tianjin, although not to his property in the British quarter, but rather to the Japanese Concession. A few months later, the Qing Dynasty Aftermath Committee discovered a list of all the books and artworks Pu Yi had “gifted” to Pu Jie, the Ten Landscapes among them. It’s not clear if some of the works were reclaimed by the warlords that ruled Beijing for the next few years, or by the Kuomintang when they defeated the warlords in 1928, or not at all. We just know that numerous pieces on the list were, at some point, sold.

After the Communist Party’s victory in the Civil War in 1949, the scroll was reclaimed by the government office that preceded the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, one of thousands of paintings and other objets d’art confiscated from dealers and people deemed enemies of the state like Jin Bosheng (who had been an official in the Japanese puppet regime of Wang Jingwei during World War II) and Yang Pu-Jie (a onetime favorite of Mao’s who had joined the Nationalists in the 1930s). Experts were enlisted to authenticate the large trove of artworks, and while some important pieces by Qian Weicheng were authenticated and squirreled away in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, for some unknown reason Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan was not. It disappeared into the private market and was apparently sold repeatedly.

Now it has reemerged into the light of a Sotheby’s auction with an eye-watering but entirely reasonable pre-sale estimate of $6,400,000-8,960,000. The auction will be held on April 3, 2018, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong office. Here’s hoping it doesn’t disappear into another private collection not to be seen again for another 100 years.


Antioch mosaics rediscovered at Florida museum

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

The Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Florida, has rediscovered two ancient mosaics from Antioch that for reasons unknown were buried under the east lawn behind the sculpture garden. On March 7th, they were excavated and, along with three other Antioch mosaics in the museum’s collection, will be conserved in full view of the public in an outdoor conservation laboratory on the east lawn.

The ancient city Antioch, modern-day Antakya, Turkey, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria as one of the great metropolises of the Roman Empire. Part of the Syria province, one of the richest of the Eastern Roman Empire, it was founded in the 4th century B.C. by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator. It became the capital of the Seleucid Empire and continued to be a center of Hellenistic culture long after the collapse of the Seleucid dynasty in the 1st century B.C.

Its mosaics are outstanding examples of Hellenistic art. At a time when the fashion in the Western Roman Empire was for black and white mosaics, the trend in Antioch was for a pictorial, colorful style with narrative depictions of scenes from mythology, prismatic rainbow effects and complex trompe l’oeil 3D patterns that mimicked naturalistic Greek paintings of the time, very few of which have survived. Even as traditional Greco-Roman polytheism was replaced by Christianity, brilliant color, pattern and naturalistic figures (animals and florals replacing scenes from Classical mythology) still flourished in the city. Roman Antioch produced exceptionally high quality mosaics from the beginning of the second century A.D. until the destruction of the city in a series of earthquakes between 526 and 528 A.D.

Between 1932 and 1939, Princeton University archaeologist George W. Elderkin, directed yearly excavations at Antioch and its environs during which hundreds of mosaics were unearthed. As was typical at the time, the right of excavation granted by the Syrian Antiquities Service also stipulated to a partage (meaning division or sharing in French) system as regards any recovered artifacts. The sponsors, in this case Princeton University, the Worcester Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Musées Nationaux de France (ie, the Louvre), would be entitled to a portion of the finds, including the mosaics.

The excavations ended in late 1939, before the contract was up, due to the outbreak of World War II and the secession of Hatay province from Syria. It was annexed by Turkey, which had far stricter laws regarding the export of antiquities and obviously was not bound by the terms of the Syrian excavation concession. After a tense negotiation with the new bosses, the partage system remained in place, only the government of Turkey got what would have been Syria’s share. Many of the raised mosaics from the Princeton Antioch excavations of the 1930s are now in the Hatay Archaeology Museum in Antakya.

Their share of the artifacts were divvied up among the sponsors. Princeton University got a large number of the finds, not just mosaics, but also sculpture fragments, terracotta figurines, lamps, glass and pottery vessels, jewelry, bronze, bone, ivory and iron tools and decorative elements and some 40,000 coins. Some of the mosaics were installed in various university buildings and the Princeton University Art Museum. The library got the massive coin collection. Much of the rest, 300 boxes and trays worth, was placed in storage.

Over the years, Princeton sold some of the Antioch pavements to other institutions. The Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg bought its five from Princeton in 1964, one of the first acquisitions of the museum before it was even open. (It would open to the public in the Spring of 1965.) Two wound up on display, one in the Membership Garden, one embedded in a fountain in the Sculpture Garden. One was placed in storage under the stage of the Marly Room. The remaining two were buried under the east lawn in 1989. While this choice was documented at the time, there are no references to the reasoning behind it, and people just sort of forgot about the two priceless Antioch mosaics under the lawn.

That changed with the appointment of Kristen Shepherd as executive director of the museum in January 2017. She had studied in the Membership Garden when she was a high school student and had fond recollections of the mosaic installed there. When she took up her new job, she researched the mosaic and was delighted to find there were another four from the Antioch excavations in the museum. She quickly found the one in storage and the one in the basin of the fountain and the records of the burial of the two remaining mosaics. The records were sparse, however, and didn’t include the precise locations.

Shepherd sought out former directors and museum staff to see if they had a better idea of where the mosaics had been buried and last year a test pit was dug which revealed the corner of one of the two. She also started fundraising, creating the Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA project to conserve the mosaics and reinstall them in a manner befitting their archaeological and artistic significance. The March 7th excavation, which required heavy equipment to lift the mosaics on their reinforced concrete beds, also discovered an additional fragment from the fountain mosaic that had not been recorded.

Of the two buried mosaics and the largest of the five came from Room 4 of the House of the Drinking Contest, named after the spectacular mosaic pavement of Room 1, now in the Princeton University Art Museum, whose central panel depicts Herakles and Dionysus knocking back the gifts of the vine. It comprises most of a rectangular floor decorated with a geometric pattern of four-pointed stars. The second is a rectangular panel raised from the East Portico of the House of the Evil Eye. It is a geometric piece as well, featuring diamond shapes over a grid pattern.

Of the three remaining fragments, two are also geometric and one has a figure and an inscription in Greek. The figural piece was raised from Room 20 of the House of the Menander. From Room 1 of the House of Ge and the Seasons comes a fragment with an elaborate combination of guilloche and meander patterns that was part of the border of a pavement mosaic. The last of the five came from Room 5 of the House of Iphigenia and is also geometric border, this one depicting cubes in one-point perspective. All five of the mosaics are generally dated between around 100-300 A.D. and are made of limestone and marble tesserae.

The Antioch Reclaimed project will proceed in three phases. The first is the excavation of the mosaics from the garden, the raising of the one embedded in the fountain and the cleaning and conservation of all five mosaics in the outdoor laboratory. Once the mosaics are looking their best and have been stabilized, in phase two they will go on display in a temporary exhibition that explores their history as part of the Hellenist tradition of mosaic art. That’s scheduled for the Fall of 2020. Phase three is their permanent installation. The site hasn’t been determined yet, but the Membership Garden is due for a renovation and they could well end up there, although I hope in a more protected and conservation-appropriate environment than the old setup.

The museum doesn’t all have the funds needed to complete all three phases yet, but they do have a $50,000 matching challenge on the table right now, so now’s a good time to donate, if you’d like to support the project. To donate any amount, click here. If you donate $50 or more, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of the mosaic under conservation led by Michael Bennett, senior curator of early Western art. The tours are being offered on March 23nd and 24th at 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30, so if you want in on this, you don’t have a lot of time.

If you think embedding a mosaic in a fountain or burying a couple in the garden is a less than optimal way of treating an ancient artifact, then consider the example of Princeton itself which took an even more opprobrious approach to one of the Antioch fragments it did not sell off. It was installed on the exterior threshold of the entrance to the Architecture Laboratory in 1951 where it was pummeled by the New Jersey elements and the tromping of thousands of feet for six decades. When, as was inevitable, the tesserae were dislodged or loosened, layers of cement were slapped on top. It continued to be brutalized in this manner until finally in 2011 it was raised and conserved. Significant portions of it were lost beyond repair. This video shows the whole process — the raising, conservation and its final installation on an indoor wall in the School of Architecture.


Objects stolen from Canterbury Archaeological Trust recovered

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Great news to report on this day of lucky shamrocks: most of the estimated 2,000 artifacts stolen during a destructive break-in at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust’s Kingsmead stores have been recovered. Kent Police received a tip that the loot had been dumped in a derelict house on Military Road. Officers from the Canterbury Community Policing Team and Canterbury Archaeological Trust staff went to the property and discovered boxes full of the stolen artifacts, including coins, axes, coins, metalwork, jewelry, carved bone artifacts and the full complement of more than 850 Anglo-Saxon glass beads.

Almost all of the archaeological material stolen in the raid is now back where it belongs. In other good news, because like so many thieves who steal cultural heritage these guys were a bunch of ignorant clowns who had no idea what to do with the material once it was in their grimy clutches, they didn’t even remove the objects from their labelled bags. That will make it a comparatively easy task for the museum staff to inventory and re-archive them.

Not found in the stash were the stolen educational materials, replica Bronze Axe axe-heads, replica Beaker pots and coins, that are actually expensive to produce although not worth much in terms of market value. See above re ignorant clowns.

Trust director Paul Bennett said: “We are hugely relieved to have got back such vital material which is of huge importance to the history of the city.

“We were overwhelmed by the support we got from around the world after we were raided. To get back such a significant proportion is fantastic and we would like to thank the police for their quick response.”

The raid on the store left property scattered about and a huge job for staff and volunteers to catalogue what was missing.

“The thieves probably didn’t know what to do with it because many of the items don’t have great monetary value. Some of the missing items may probably end up being sold at fairs.

“But we still hold out hope of getting some more of it back.”

The police investigation continues in the hope of recovering all of the stolen objects and, of course, the culprits. They have yet to be identified and the authorities are keeping mum on whether they have any leads to specific individuals.

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust is moving from Kingsmead, now afflicted with exposed asbestos and stripped copper wires thanks to the savage break-in, to a new facility in Wincheap later this year. The trust hopes to create a resource center there that will make their collection both more secure and more widely available to researchers and the public.


Remains of huge Iron Age feast found in Scotland

Friday, March 16th, 2018

An archaeological excavation on a cliff overlooking Windwick Bay in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, has discovered the remains of an Iron Age feast of gut-busting dimensions and the party favors were top-notch. The site, known as The Cairns, contains the remains of an Iron Age broch, a circular multi-story tower with thick stone walls forming a massive defensive structure. The dig is an ongoing project of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute which has been exploring different aspects of the broch complex every field season since 2006.

Found in North Scotland, both mainland and island, brochs were in use from around 600 B.C. through the 2nd century A.D. Radiocarbon analysis dates the demise of The Cairns broch to the mid-2nd century. Settlements often sprang up around a broch, and The Cairns is no exception. The remains of several buildings have been found right up against the defensive walls, and the close integration of village and tower suggest that the settlement was planned from the time the broch was constructed rather than a later ad hoc development.

Even after the broch fell into disuse and then ruin, the site’s structures were either demolished and new ones built over them, or repurposed in whole or in part. The entrance chamber to the broch, for example, became part of a souterrain. One of the broch village buildings, Structure K, was derelict and had no roof when it was used for the production of metal jewelry on a large scale during a single event.

Dig director Martin Carruthers:

The remains of this episode include furnaces, bronze waste; bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze objects. Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches.

The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community. Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, as well as their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition.

Radiocarbon dating found that this event took place between the mid-3rd and mid-4th century A.D., after the demise of the broch. Adjacent to and overlapping the metalworking area in Structure K, the team unearthed a midden replete with animal bones. The remains of more than 10,000 animals, domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs as well as red deer, otters and horses, were discarded on this spot. Extensive evidence of cooking — carbonized soil, ash, fire-cracked cobbles used to heat up water in pots — was also found in the midden, as were some crucibles and metalworking moulds that connect the metalworking event and this gargantuan party.

Martin Carruthers explains the significance and potential meaning of this connection:

The close stratigraphic association between the fine metalworking and the feasting raises the question of what exactly was going on here. One possibility that I like very much is that the feasting could be the spectacular social event at which the products of the jewellery-making were handed out, or gifted, to their intended recipients by those who had sponsored the metalworking in the first place. We may therefore be peering into the social circumstances of the jewellery-making and the distribution of its products amongst the community at The Cairns. If this is so, then it is a fascinating insight into the moment at which objects like the pins, brooches and rings started off on their biographies, their journey through people’s lives.

This is a very rare opportunity to see more clearly the initial nature of the social and political significance of these objects from their start-point. It would mean that the sharing or gifting of the jewellery was surrounded in the circumstances of a big social occasion, a massive party, if you like. We are seeing their birth and the important role they played in the power-play and social strategies of Iron Age groups and individuals. With the circumstances of the jewellery-making we are able, for once, to investigate the intended status and significance of these items within the context of their birth, rather than depending on the information we usually get, which is based on the discovery of these objects much later in their lives, in fact at the end of their lives, when they went in the ground, perhaps many decades, or more, after they were originally made and worn. Most theories about the brooches and pins and their role in society have been based on what we glean from them in this end-state, but the assemblage of metalworking evidence from The Cairns; the moulds, crucibles, and other items, together with the massive remains of the feasting allows us to grasp what was going on at the point in time when these jewellery items were instigated. […]

At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period. If so, the excavations are really coming up trumps in terms of allowing us to peer into the social circumstances of Iron Age communities.





March 2018
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