Archive for March, 2018

Vindolanda’s wood (toilet seat included!) goes on display

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

On March 30th, a new gallery dedicated solely to wooden artifacts unearthed from the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland opened at the site’s museum. Vindolanda’s oxygen-free soil is an exceptional preserver of organic materials, most famously the wood tablets recording the letters of soldiers, officers and civilians, but also leather objects (so many shoes), assorted textiles and plants.

Exactly 1,463 wooden artifacts have been unearthed at Vindolanda, some of them unique in the world. My personal favorite is the toilet seat, the only ancient Roman wooden toilet seat known to have survived, but there are plenty more treasures among the haul, including the only known surviving wooden potter’s wheel, a wagon wheel, bath clogs and the remains of doors with numerals carved into them.

There are an array of combs, boxes, tools, furniture and water pipes which are also very rare survivals. Most of the Roman pipes archaeologists find still intact are lead or tile. The smooth barrel stave from Spain engraved with the maker’s name discovered in 2016 is in the new gallery too, as is a toy sword.

Just 10 months after the initial ground work started on site the ‘Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld’ project is now complete and opens to the public on 30th March 2018. The new gallery has special display cases which not only allow temperature and humidity to be kept at safe levels but are also large enough to accommodate some of the current and future giant wooden objects.

Visitors can also hear the incredible survival story of the collection – from the science behind how they lasted two millennia to their conservation and the research that is uncovering their origins. […]

In addition to the gallery a new activity centre has also been created which allows more people to engage with the collection through a range of activities for all ages. Easter weekend starts the activity programme with a closer look at Roman cooking and Roman food specialist John Crouch will be demonstrating how wood was used in the Roman kitchen.

As more wooden objects are unearthed, more will be added to the gallery.

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University of Aberdeen painting is by Canaletto

Friday, March 30th, 2018

A painting donated to the University of Aberdeen 153 years ago has been authenticated as a work by the Venetian master Canaletto. It was long believed to have been the work of his studio or school, but university art history professor John Gash and leading Canaletto expert Charles Beddington are convinced it was painted by the hand of Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697–1768) himself.

Canaletto is famed for his views of Venice, but this work is more unusual in his oeuvre. It’s a capriccio, a fantasy composite of ancient ruins that don’t exist in real life, in this case a temple on which a modern cottage has been built. Peasant women hang out the wash they’ve done in the two fountains at the base and side of the ancient temple. On the left is a pyramid highly reminiscent of Rome’s Pyramid of Cestius, the only pyramid in Italy, which makes an appearance in several of Canaletto’s works.

There are three other capricci by Canaletto that share some features with the Aberdeen painting, and a collection of etchings by the artist also includes architectural and figural elements in common with this work. While it is not signed, many of Canaletto’s paintings were left unsigned by the artist. This one has a telltale mark of the artist, however: in the center of the ruined temple is a large circle which bears the coat of arms of his family.

It was bequeathed to the university by physician Alexander Henderson who died on his estate Caskieben in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, in 1863. Henderson, an Aberdeenshire native who had attended Marischal College (which in 1860 merged with King’d College to become the University of Aberdeen) as a teenager, later went to medical school in Edinburgh where he had a successful practice. He was best known for having exposed Ann Moore, the fasting woman of Tutbury, as a fraud who had been eating just fine under the very noses of previous examining physicians. After moving to London, his medical career fell by the wayside, superseeded by his interests in art, literature and fine wines, on which he became a published expert. He traveled the continent collecting art and antiquities, amassing a notable collection of ancient Greek pottery mainly acquired from the freshly excavated ruins of Herculaneum.

In his 1857 will, he left his alma mater Marischal College his entire collection which he described in far too modest terms:

“To the Museum of the said College, my pictures, drawings, marbles, Vases, bronzes, and medals which, though not of high value, may assist in forming and diffusing among my fellow townsmen a taste for the fine arts, and may lead to farther [sic.] bequests of a similar kind.”

Two years after his death, the Aberdeen Journal printed an article listing the donated works and noting they were on display in a hall of Marischal College. The Ruins of a Temple was attributed to “B. Canaletti” which is not an accurate name. The author might have meant Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew, student and collaborator who was known to have used his patron’s nickname, but no art historians today think there’s even a slim chance of Bellotto having painted the capriccio.

“It was often thought to be from the Canaletto school – that is, by one of Canaletto’s pupils or someone imitating his style,” explains Mr Gash. “However I and others have long suspected it was a real Canaletto and now we have been able to confirm this.

“It is clear from the technique and the style, as in the language of forms and composition, that this is a Canaletto and is in fact an autograph work of the highest quality.”

The painting had previously decorated the University’s Principal’s house but has now been revealed as one of the University’s treasures.

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These. Are. Looters!

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

Greek police have seized an ancient sculpture still in caked in the soil from which it was recently looted and arrested the looters. On March 23rd, officers from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Antiquities of the Attica Security Directorate arrested three individuals (aged 44, 48 and 57) in Sparta for illicit traffic in archaeological material. Inside a van owned by the 57-year-old police found a Hellenistic-era marble statue stuffed into a duffel bag. The figure is missing her head and one arm, but is believed to be a representation of the goddess Hygieia. It is 55cm (22 inches) high including the plinth.

According to the assessment of state archaeologists from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Lakonia, the statue is of significant value in terms of archaeological importance and unquestionably qualifies for protection of the statute establishing standards for the protection of Greek antiquities and cultural heritage. It is also of significant market value, and there is evidence the traffickers were already arranging its sale with an unnamed foreign buyer.

According to Greek law “all antiquities on land and sea are the property of the State, which has the right to investigate and preserve them”.

There are stringent fines and other punishments for people who intentionally or otherwise keep, sell or remove artifacts without telling the authorities.

Other objects were seized in the investigation at the homes of the suspects. Three of them were artifacts: an ancient loom weight, black-glazed grip from a Hellenistic vessel and a knob from a Roman-era lid, all of some archaeological value. The rest were tools of the trade — two metal detectors, two dowsing rods, two flare guns, eight mobile phones, pepper spray — and cash in the amount of 800 euros.

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Buy your own hoard of (shady) nickels

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

If you’ve dreamed of uncovering an untouched coin hoard but never found anything more than a few tin buttons no matter how many fields you’ve scanned, now you can make your dreams come true, as long as they involve paying for it. A full hoard good to go complete with the canvas bag it was stored in is coming up for sale next month at Heritage Auctions all in a single lot.

As individual pieces, the 1883 No CENTS Liberty nickels in this hoard aren’t all that rare or expensive. You can get one for a few bucks, and even uncirculated condition versions can be had for a few hundred. It’s the juicy, dirty history behind that lends them a rakish charm while at the same time keeping their value low.

Designed by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, who also designed the very similar Liberty Head half-dollar, the 1883 Liberty Head nickel had one feature that made it problematic: the only reference to its denomination was the Roman numeral V inside a laurel wreath on the reverse. But labeling a coin’s value as “five” isn’t exactly specific, especially when there are gold half eagles in circulation with busts of Lady Liberty on the obverse and laurel wreaths on the reverse worth five dollars.

Because of this wee oversight, people of less than honest intention immediately began to collect the nickels as an investment in the counterfeiting possibilities. A little gold-plating, a minor modification to the edges of the nickel so it more closely matched the fiver, a distracted retailer and next thing you know, you walk away from a nickel transaction with $4.95 in change jangling in your pocket. One Josh Tatum was reputed to have been adept at passing off gold-plated nickels as five dollar pieces. His system was foolproof: as a deaf-mute, he would simply present the coin, say nothing, take his change and get out of Dodge. Arrested and tried for fraud, because he never claimed to have paid using a five dollar coin, Tatum was never convicted. Or so the legend goes, anyway. The legend also says the expression “you are joshing me” (meaning “you’re kidding me”) springs from these events, but the idiom predates the 1883 coin by at least decades, so many grains of salt are in order here.

The Mint saw the error of its ways and within months issued an updated coin 1883 Liberty Head nickel with the word “CENTS” on the reverse, leaving a lot of speculators with collections of No CENTS nickels. That’s why they’re not worth all that much on the market today, because they were so widely hoarded by people hoping to get in the passing of fraudulent currency game. The versions with “FIVE CENTS” on the reverse are far rarer and more expensive today because nobody bothered to collect them.

Still, a group of 297 1883 No CENTS Liberty nickels stored in a single bag is not something you see every day. The bag is awesome in and of itself, printed in black text on the front: “New York / Lead Company’s / HIGHLY FINISHED / DROP SHOT / Tower & Office / 63 Centre St / New York / 3”. An attached period label even notes the exact date the coins were stashed in the bag — October 2, 1889 — so more than five years after the issue. They apparently stayed in the bag, untouched, unknown and unpublished, for more than a century until they were acquired by numismatist, US coin expert and rare coin dealer Jeff Garrett in 2009.

The nickels will be sold at the U.S. Coins Auction to be held April 25-30 during the Central States Numismatic Society annual convention. Bidding opens online on April 6th.

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Synchrotron reads erased Galen

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Our ultrabright friend, the synchrotron X-ray, continues to pierce the veil of history. This time it has turned its unblinking eye on the Syriac Galen Palimpsest, a manuscript known to contain the traces of a 6th century translation of a work by the physician Galen, father of pharmacology, that was erased and overwritten with psalms in the 11th century.

Other imaging techniques had revealed the presence of ancient text under the medieval, but it was so faint and hard to read that the concerted efforts of multiple institutions and experts over the course of a decade have not been successful in making out much of it. The later writers had used ink very similar to the original to write over the parchment once they’d erased the 6th text with calcium, and researchers feared there might not be enough trace iron left for even the synchroton to pick up clear wording.

A study at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is scanning a section of the Syriac Palimpsest using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) which takes a more nuanced approached to trace elements.

With the XRF technique, the synchrotron X-rays knock out electrons close to the nuclei of metal atoms, and these holes are filled with outer electrons resulting in characteristic X-ray fluorescence that can be picked up by a sensitive detector.

These fluorescent X-rays can penetrate through layers of text and calcium, and the hidden Galen text and the newer religious text fluoresce in slightly different ways because their inks contain different combinations of metals such as iron, zinc, mercury and copper.

“We’re also interested in the background composition of the parchment and the calcium that covers the original text” says Nicholas Edwards, a research associate at SSRL. “That additional information may allow us to distinguish between the layers of the text.”

For the Galen document, a scan takes about 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. The experiment has collected vast amounts of nuanced data from the X-ray scans, and the researchers are now applying data processing tools, including machine learning, to pull out the information they seek.

“Hidden in all this data, there’s information trying to get out,” says William Sellers, an expert in data processing and the director of the University of Manchester’s zoology department. “And there’s just too much data for humans alone to sift through.”

The early imaging results are very encouraging, with Galen’s original text clearly visible in green behind the medieval text.

Once the scans are complete, they will be added to an online collection of high-resolution photographs of the Syriac Galen Palimpsest as it has been scanned with different imaging techniques over almost a decade of wide-ranging studies. Many earlier files have already been added to the online collection of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and are available to the scholarly community and world at large. It’s a fascinating record of both an ancient document and modern advances in technology.

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Hatshepsut relief identified at Swansea University

Monday, March 26th, 2018

An unusual limestone relief in the stores Swansea University’s Egypt Centre has been identified as a depiction of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Egyptologist Dr. Ken Griffin was going through photographs of artifacts in the stores for a handling session with second year students when he came across a black and white picture of a relief that caught his eye. He selected it for the session. When it examining it with the students he recognized the iconography as very similar to that used in depictions of the fifth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1478-1458 B.C.) and one of only five women known to have held that exalted position in all of Egyptian history.

The relief is in two pieces, offset from each other, irregularly shaped and incomplete. The pieces have been glued together at a join point that makes sense in the frontal view, but which leaves the top piece with this oddly orphaned back view depicting the profile of a bearded man from the nose down. The back bottom piece is rough, bearing the tell-tale marks of having been chiseled off its original location, so any finish at all on the top back

The front side depicts the head of a figure whose face is unfortunately missing, with the remains of a fan directly behind. Traces of hieroglyphs are also present above the head. The iconography of the piece indicates that it represents a ruler of Egypt, particularly with the presence of the uraeus (cobra) on the forehead of the figure.[…]

Having visited Egypt on over fifty occasions, Dr Griffin quickly recognised the iconography as being similar to reliefs within the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri (Luxor), which was constructed during the height of the New Kingdom. In particular, the treatment of the hair, the fillet headband with twisted uraeus, and the decoration of the fan are all well-known at Deir el-Bahri. Most importantly, the hieroglyphs above the head—part of a formulaic text attested elsewhere at the temple—use a feminine pronoun, a clear indication that the figure is female. […]

Yet the mystery of the precious find doesn’t end there. On the rear of the upper fragment, the head of a man with a short beard is depicted. Initially there was no explanation for this, but it is now clear that the upper fragment had been removed and recarved in more recent times in order to complete the face of the lower fragment. The replacement of the fragment below the figure would also explain the unusual cut of the upper fragment. This was probably done by an antiques dealer, auctioneer, or even the previous owner of the piece in order to increase its value and attractiveness. It was eventually decided at an unknown date to glue the fragments together in the original layout, which is how they now appear.

Research into the archives has so far not been able to explain how and when this important piece got the Frankenstein treatment. The fog of time and the lack of rigorousness in private collecting makes it unlikely that we’ll ever know the full story.

The Egypt Centre has housed the university’s small collection of Egyptian artifacts since 1998. It is both a museum open to the public and an important learning resource of Swansea’s Department of Classics and Ancient History. The artifacts were originally amassed by pharmacist Sir Henry Wellcome, whose ability to hoard antiquities and collectibles was on a par with the most profligate and indiscriminate William Randolph Hearst. After his death, the objects were managed by a trust who distributed to various museums and institutions. A few things remains, stored in the Petrie Museum, until 1971 when 92 crates of Egyptiana were delivered to what was then called the University College Swansea.

A few stand-out pieces were displayed, first in the Chemistry Department, then in the Classics Department, and the small collection grew, enhanced by donations from individuals and other museums. In the mid-1990s, Sybil Crouch, manager of the Taliesin Arts Centre, proposed that a dedicated museum space be created to house the collection properly and after much work and fund-raising, the Egypt Centre was born as a wing of the Taliesin Arts Centre.

The Hatshepsut relief was part of that original 1971 shipment from the Wellcome Collection, but there is so documentation regarding where it came from or when or from whom Henry Wellcome acquired it. The marks on the back of the uncarved bottom piece and the thinness of the limestone (it’s less than two inches thick) point to it having been removed from a temple or tomb wall. It’s very likely to have been part of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri, and it may be possible to find the spot from whence it was removed, with a little bit of luck and help from the Polish Archaeological Mission to Egypt which has been documenting, excavating and conserving the temple since 1961.

Meanwhile, the relief is now on permanent display at the Egypt Centre.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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