Hawaiian carved god donated to museum

A carved wooden ki’i (a temple image figure) depicting the god Ku has been donated to Honolulu’s Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and is now home after at least 80 years of exile. Its past is obscure. The known ownership history starts in the 1940s when it was bought by Pierre Vérité who passed it down to his son, Paris art dealer Claude Vérité.

The Vérité collection was auctioned at Christie’s Paris in November 2017 with the ki’i as the signature piece gracing the cover of the catalogue. It was purchased at the auction by Marc Benioff, the Chairman and CEO of Salesforce, and his wife Lynne for $7.5 million. They donated it to the Bishop Museum “for the education and benefit of [Hawaii’s] people.”

Hawaii has a profound spiritual and historical connection to this figure and its brethren. The ki’i is 20 inches tall and depicted in warrior pose — knees bent, calves flexed, hands clenched at the back of the thighs. The mouth is open in a grimace shaped like a figure eight, teeth bared and jaw jutting forward. He wears a head crest hanging down at the sides towards his shoulders. These are the classic elements characteristic the Kona style of carving, created by artists in the Kona area of the Big Island during the reign of King Kamehameha I (1782-1819).

The first king of Hawaii as we know it today, Kamehameha unified the islands, previously ruled by different chiefs constantly at war with each other. Before he became king, he served at the royal court of the island of Hawaii under his uncle and then his cousin, under whom he was appointed guardian of Ku, (Ku-ka’ili-moku in Hawaiian, meaning “the god Ku, the island snatcher”) the Hawaiian god of war.

He would maintain a strong identification with this deity as he conquered the fractious islands and fought his way to the throne. Once he was king, Ku temple figures exploded in popularity. These were sacred effigies, representing both the deity and the king, and the carvers were themselves considered to be performing a religious role rather than a purely artistic one.

Christie’s experts were amazed by the quality of the piece. It is the kind of thing found only in museums nowadays, so they were thrilled to discover one in a private collection. According to the auction house’s Head of African and Oceanic Art Susan Kloman, it is comparable in craftsmanship and cultural significance to this exceptional ki’i of Ku in the British Museum, except the one in the BM is five times taller (105 inches in height) and is missing his hands. On, and we know how it got there. Missionaries brought it back from their voyage to Kona in 1822.

The auction house took a minute sample from the statue to radiocarbon date it and to find out which wood it is made of. It’s wood from the genus Metrosideros, or ohi’a wood, a tree found in the mountains of Hawaii and Oceania. The dating results weren’t very precise as they are “wiggles” in the conversion tables from this period, but the two most likely ranges are 1798-1891 and 1717-1780. The stylistic evidence makes the early part of the 1798 range most likely. The Bishop will continue to study the piece and run additional tests in the hopes of discovery a more accurate date.

The image will be a centerpiece in a new exhibition at Bishop Museum opening in February 2019, following the close of the Hawaiian season of peace known as Makahiki. Museum researchers will continue to study the carving while planning for the exhibition, which will explore the multiplicity of stories surrounding the ki’i. In addition, the Museum plans to hold a carving workshop and symposium prior to the exhibition, during which contemporary artists, scholars and the community will engage with the ki’I and other images in the Museum’s collections to increase awareness, scholarship and understanding of Native Hawaiian history, culture and practices.

Rare Roman sarcophagus goes on display

The Roman sarcophagus unearthed last year at Harper Road in Southwark, central London, has gone on display at the Museum of London Docklands. It is part of a new exhibition dedicated to how Romans in ancient Londinium dealt with their dead. The sarcophagus will keep company with the remains, inhumed and cremated, of 28 Roman-era Londoners discovered in ancient cemeteries and more than 200 grave goods.

Only two other Roman sarcophagi have been found in situ in London, so this discovery gave researchers a rare opportunity to study a high end Roman burial in its context. The lid was pushed off to the side and the sarcophagus was filled with soil. Archaeologists believe it was looted in the 17th century, likely after it was discovered accidentally during construction work. The bones were crudely pushed over to one side of the coffin and one of her arms was thrown out of the coffin, perhaps to strip it of jewelry.

Filled with heavy clay, the sarcophagus weighed a ton and a half. It was carefully raised and moved to the Museum of London to be excavated in laboratory conditions. Archaeologists knew its valuables had been removed by the tomb robbers, but metal detectors did register the presence of something metallic. That proved to be a single flake of gold, thought to be part of an earring, and a jasper cameo that the robbers had missed.

Some spectacular funerary artifacts will be showcased in the exhibition, including a Roman face pot used as a cinerary urn, a jet pendant carved with the face of Medusa and a gold ring with an engraved gemstone depicting two mice eating together, likely the country mouse and city mouse from Horace’s Satires. The most valuable in monetary terms may be a millefiori glass dish that was found with cremated remains in Roman London’s eastern cemetery in 2009. The remains had been interred in a wooden container with the dish. It’s in exceptional condition and a very rare object in Roman London or the western Empire as a whole. It would have cost many times a soldier’s yearly salary when it was new.

There are a number of events scheduled in connection with the exhibition. This weekend a workshop will be held exploring the historical context of the Southwark sarcophagus and giving guests the opportunity to make their own mini sarcophagus. It won’t be carved out of stone, though, so harumph.

The Close to the Bone workshop held this June, on the hand, sets my nerdy little heart to pounding.

Immerse yourself in this hands-on workshop where you will learn different ways and techniques of identifying biological profiles of individual skeletons, as well as exploring unique details inside the Roman Dead exhibition with our exhibition trail. Explore 2D and 3D facial reconstruction techniques with the guidance and knowledge of professionals from Sherlock Bone.

You’ll also learn all about the work, processes and ethics behind the Museum of London’s Centre of Human Bioarchaeology, which was established in 2003 to curate and research the human remains excavated in the City and the Greater London area. With over 20,000 pieces of human remains in the museum’s collection, our Curator of Human Osteology, Dr. Rebecca Redfern, will share studies and insights resulting from this unique and captivating collection with you.

The Roman Dead exhibition runs from May 25th through October 28th. There is a minimum age — visitors must be at least eight years old — and admission is free.

Large Greco-Roman building found north of Cairo

A large building from the Greco-Roman era has been unearthed at an ancient site near the village of Sa El Hagar about 75 miles north of Cairo. The red brick structure may have been part of a bath complex. Other artifacts recovered by the mission include a number of pottery vessels, terracotta figurines, a statue of a ram, bronze tools and a fragment of a hieroglyphic relief.

Some coins were also unearthed, one of them of particular note. It’s a gold coin in excellent condition depicting the crowned profile of King Ptolemy III on the obverse and the Land of Prosperity on the reverse. It was minted during the reign of his son Ptolemy IV (244 – 204 B.C.) as a memorial to his predecessor. It weighs 28 grams (one whole ounce) and is just over an inch in diameter.

Known as Sais by the ancient Greek, the city has a fascinating history. It is thought to have been a cult center for the worship of the war goddess Neith as early as the 1st Dynasty (ca. 3100 B.C.), but almost all of the early dynastic remains were destroyed by farmers who used the ancient mud bricks to make fertilizer. Archaeological evidence from its heyday as the capital of the 24th and 26th Dynasties has survived. One inscription documents the presence of a medical school for women at Sais’ Temple of Neith. The pharaohs ruled from the royal palace at Sais until the Persian invasion in the 6th century.

Greek chroniclers and philosophers put Sais at the nexus of their own and Egyptian mythologies. They identified Neith with their warrior goddess Athena. Herodotus claimed that Osiris died there. Diodorus Siculus said the city was built by Athenians in the mists of time before the great deluge sent by Zeus to punish people for their constant wars. Plato wrote that the Athenian statesman Solon was told the story of Atlantis by an Egyptian priest in Sais.

Jean-François Champollion visited Sais in September of 1828 on his second expedition to Egypt, the first since his groundbreaking 1822 translation of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. He wrote in a letter that, funds permitting, he planned to come back to Sais to excavate it, but those plans did not come to fruition. He died unexpectedly in 1832 at the age of 41 and never did return to Egypt. Some Egyptologists believe that the Rosetta Stone was originally part of the great temple at Sais which was destroyed in the 14th century. Parts of its inner chamber were moved to Rosetta and Cairo, so it’s possible albeit unprovable.

Bog find sheds light on war practices of Germanic tribes

When last we dropped in on the excavation at the Alken Enge bog in East Jutland, Denmark, archaeologists had found the remains of an estimated 200 men killed around 1 A.D. and thrown into a part of Lake Mosso which has now receded leaving the peat bog. The discovery of arranged bones, notably four pelvises on a stick, was evidence that the remains were deliberate sacrifices, not discards after battlefield cleanup. A newly published report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences updates and expands on the discoveries and their larger significance.

All together, 2,095 bones and bone fragments from 82 people were unearthed. Extrapolating from that figure based on the distribution of the remains increases the earlier estimate of people buried in the bog to 380, almost all adult men. The preponderance of unhealed sharp-force trauma indicates they died in battle, and the lack of previously healed wounds of this type means they were not seasoned fighters. Weapons found in the excavation — spearheads, an axe, fragments of swords, shields, iron knives — confirm the military nature of the clash. Metallurgic analysis found that the weapons were manufactured from local Jutish raw materials.

Gnaw marks on the bones indicate the bodies were exposed for six months to a year after death before the skeletal remains were deposited in the lake. There were also cut and scrape marks on the bones, evidence that the remains were treated before they were carefully arranged and deposited. This systematic and stylized approach to a clearing of the battlefield likely had a ritual purpose.

There are only a handful of other battlefields from the the turn of the millennium known, all in Germany and none of them with significant human remains. They are also thought to be the result of clashes between Germanic tribes and Roman forces pressing northwards. The Alken Enge excavation is the sole known example we have of large-scale human remains and from an intra-German battle.

Alken Enge provides unequivocal evidence that the people in Northern Germania had systematic and deliberate ways of clearing battlefields. Practices of corporeal dismemberment, modification, and bone assemblage composition suggest a ritual dimension in the treatment of the human corporeal remains. Taphonomic studies indicate a postmortem exposure interval before a deposition in the lake of 0.5–1 y, which is unprecedented in relation to the known burials and bog bodies.

The estimated MNI in Alken Enge significantly exceeds the scale of any known Iron Age village community and presupposes that the fighting groups of men were recruited from a large area beyond its immediate hinterland.

The preponderance of young adult males suggests that a selected group ended up in the wetland area. High incidences of perimortem trauma show that the conflicts were extremely destructive in character, with consequently comprehensive slaughter.

Overall, the Alken Enge find is exceptional of the period, but it anticipates the comprehensive postbattle weapon depositions from the second to fifth centuries AD in Northern Germania. In this way, Alken Enge provides a new, yet older, testament to the history of the militarization of the Northern Germanic societies and stresses the formative significance of the expansion phase of the Roman Empire at the turn of the era.

Baby’s hand mummified by copper coin

A study of the partially mummified remains of an infant found in southern Hungary has identified it as the first reported instance of mummification entirely by copper. The remains were unearthed during excavations that took place between 1982 and 1992 in a Late Medieval churchyard in the village of Nyárlőrinc. Almost all of the 541 graves excavated at the site dated between the 12th and 16th century, but a few solitary burials took place through the 19th century when the cemetery was no longer in official use but remnants of the church walls were still standing.

The infant’s remains were found in a ceramic pot buried at the edge of the cemetery. In its mummified hand was a copper coin minted between 1858 and 1862, which narrows down the burial date to sometime inside that four year range, 150 years after the cemetery fell into disuse. After their excavation, the remains were put in a box separate from the pot and coin and were forgotten about until 2005 when János Balázs and Zoltán Bölkei of the University of Szeged rediscovered them and noted the unusual mummified right hand and section of dorsal skin.

The bones are tiny — the baby was no more than 11 to 13 inches long and weighed one or two pounds — which made it a pre-term infant gestated no more than seven lunar months. The baby was born premature and was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. The hand is one of the smallest and youngest mummified human remains ever discovered. Because the little body was placed in a clay pot and buried in the abandoned cemetery in the second half of the 19th century, researchers hypothesize that the baby was not baptized and had to be interred in secret.

Mummified human remains are rare in Hungary and most of them are intentional rather than spontaneous (the Vác mummies being the most salient exception). Of the few spontaneous mummified remains found in Hungary, this is the only known example of a neonate/perinate.

The bones Dr. Balázs found were so small they could have been confused with a rat’s. Several, including some vertebrae, a hip bone and the leg bones were stained green. Both forearms were green as well, but the right one was still covered in desiccated flesh. The skin near the back was also mummified and embedded with five vertebrae pieces. Most of the ribs, a shoulder bone and two humerus bones were not discolored. […]

Archaeologically speaking, green bones are not uncommon at grave sites. Bronze or copper jewelry can often discolor skeletons as they degrade, and Dr. Balázs thought the child’s body came in contact with some sort of metal. But how did that mystery metal object end up near its tiny hands?

That mystery was solved when the team discovered that the nearby Móra Ferenc Museum also had boxes in storage from the Nyárlőrinc dig. Inside those boxes the researchers found the ceramic pot and the corroded copper coin. Records indicated this was the pot the perinate had been buried in and that the coin had been found right next to it.

Testing of the remains and comparisons with the remains of two other infants found in the graveyard revealed exceptionally high copper levels that could not be justified by contact with the soil or the ceramic pot. Concentrations of copper in the bones of the mummified perinate were 497 times higher than the concentrations in other mummified remains recorded in the published literature.

The team concluded that before the child was placed in the pot and buried, someone put the copper coin into its hand. Many cultures in antiquity have buried their dead with coins as a way to pay a mythical ferryman to take their souls into the afterlife.

In this case, the copper’s antimicrobial properties protected the child’s hand from decay. Along with the conditions inside the vessel, it helped mummify the baby’s grasp.