Archive for August, 2018

How to make an equestrian bronze monument

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

If you’ve ever wondered how giant bronze statues could be cast in one piece, the Getty Research Institute is here to cool your fevered brow. It has created a great video explaining all the steps in the casting and installation of Edme Bouchardon’s equestrian statue of King Louis XV that stood in the Place Louis XV, today known as the Place de la Concorde.

The video was created for the exhibition Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment to illustrate the complex process of casting a massive bronze equestrian statue. Because of the hardships inherent in the project and his own meticulous standards, Bouchardon didn’t live to see the end of that process. He died in July of 1762. The 17-foot high (39 feet including the pedestal) depiction of the king garbed like a Roman general, laurel wreath on his head and baton of command in his raised right hand, was erected in 1763.

After all that trouble, Bouchardon’s masterpiece only outlived its maker by three decades. The anti-monarchical iconoclasm of the French Revolution which decimated so much of France’s cultural patrimony struck the bronze in the wake of the overthrow of the monarchy in the Insurrection of August 10, 1792. Bouchardon’s rigorousness almost defeated them, however, as they found it almost impossible to destroy the statue. They thought they could just loop some ropes over it and pull it down, but it was connected to the pedestal with long iron tenons from its casting and the 30 tons of bronze could not be budged. In the end, they had to get a metal saw and cut through the left feet in order to break the monument at its weakest points.

The bulk of the statue was melted down. The right hand which had held the baton of command survived, first on the ground of the newly renamed Place de la Révolution, a mute but powerful witness to the death of the ancien regime. It was still there seven months later when Louis XV’s grandson was guillotined in front of the pedestal that had once supported the symbol of royal power. Later the hand was gifted to Jean Henri Latude, a rather fabulous scammer who had spent decades in the Bastille by order of Louis XV and had escaped by fashioning a ladder out of scraps of his clothing and parts of a chair. The Council of the Municipality of Paris thought it fitting that he should receive the hand that had once signed the order sending him to the Bastille. That hand is now in the Louvre and was loaned to the Getty for the Boucheron exhibition.

The video explains how the casting was done and the massive statue installed by animating contemporary engravings of the casting process printed in Description des travaux qui ont précédé, accompagné et suivi la fonte en bronze d’un seul jet de la statue équestre de Louis XV, le Bien-Aimé, (Description of the works that preceded, accompanied and followed the bronze casting of the equestrian statue of Louis XV, the Beloved) by Jean Pierre Mariette, published in 1768 when Louis XV was still alive (hence le Bien-Aimé). The Getty Research Institute has also digitized the volume. You can read it or, if you can’t read French, just leaf through the killer architectural drawings here.

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Glossiest Neolithic axe found in Orkney

Friday, August 10th, 2018

An excavation the Ness of Brodgar, a Neolithic archaeological site on the Orkney island of Mainland, has unearthed the glossiest stone axe I’ve ever seen, and prehistoric axes are one of my obsessions so I’ve seen quite a few. Even the professional archaeologists from the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) who have been excavating the site for years and have seen far more Neolithic axes than I were struck by the sheer beauty of this piece.

The axe was found by Australian UHI archaeology student Therese McCormick on August 3rd. She was on a bit of a slog, digging through the dense, complex layers of floors in Structure Ten which is the largest Neolithic building in the north of Britain. It was built around 2900 B.C. and used until the abandonment of the Ness of Brodgar site around 2,400–2,200 B.C. Structure Ten was deliberately demolished after a rager of a ceremony that featured the ritual slaughter of hundreds of cows and deposition of their bones. This appears to have been the Ness of Brodgar’s Neolithic last hurrah, the site’s closing ceremony.

The stratigraphy of Structure Ten is therefore as important as it is challenging. Therese was working on the west end of the 82 x 66-foot structure in a test pit exposing the stratigraphy of floor depositions and leveling events when on her last day of excavation she discovered the stone axe. Made of banded gneiss with a distinctive orange band that curves at the wide end in parallel to the curvature of the cutting edge, the axe’s beauty was noticeable even when it was still covered in soil. When it was cleaned and dampened with water, the color and texture stood out even more, set off by its high-gloss polish.

The axe shows signs of extensive use. One side of it has been re-sharpened. The other was not and and is heavily worn. The sharp edge and wear pattern indicate its primary function was an axe blade, but tell-tale divots on both sides of it indicate it was also used as a sort of mini anvil. Strikes against it left small, rough dents in the surface of the stone.

Site director Nick Card said: “It is nice to find pristine examples of stone axes, but the damage on this one tells us a little bit more about the history of this particular axe.

“The fact that the cutting edge had been heavily damaged suggests that it was a working tool rather than a ceremonial object.

“We know that the buildings in the complex were roofed by stone slabs so this axe was perhaps used to cut and fashion the timber joists that held up the heavy roof.”

This is the second stone axe found in the same area of Structure Ten. One was unearthed in 2012 just above the find site of the current discovery. It too was uncommonly handsome, a shiny black granite not usually used to make axes, and had been used and reused. It had broken at one point and the cutting edge recreated on the smaller tool.

The Ness of Brodgar excavation is in dire need of funding. If you’d like to support the archaeological exploration of one of the most important Neolithic sites in Britain, you can donate online here.

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Archaic remains, artifacts found at Apollo temple site

Thursday, August 9th, 2018

The uninhabited Cycladean islet of Despotiko is tiny in dimension but immense in archaeological importance thanks to the sanctuary of Apollo built there in the 6th century B.C. during the Greek Archaic period. The sanctuary was heavily damaged in the 5th century by Athens in retaliation for Paros’ support of Xerxes during the second Persian invasion of Greece, but excavations have found archaeological evidence of extended rebuilding through the late Hellenistic period (2nd century B.C.).

Located almost exactly at the center of the Cyclades, Despotiko has sightline views of eight of the islands and was connected to Antiparos and Koimitiri by an isthmus when the temple was built. The thorough excavation of Despotiko began in 1997 and has continued ever since, systematically bringing to light a temple complex much larger, longer-lived and more significant than archaeologists had realized.

This season’s excavation has unearthed the remains of three more structures raises the tally of buildings in the complex to 22. Archaeologists now believe that the Despotiko temple may have been the largest in the Cyclades, eclipsing in size the much more famous Sanctuary of Apollo on the island of Delos, mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.

The dig explored areas surrounding the archaic sanctuary, focusing on a site just south of the main temple and two buildings labelled Z and P. One of the three structures discovered is a rectangular two-story building 26 x 10.5 feet found underneath the westernmost rooms of the temple complex. It was built in the 6th century B.C. and intriguingly still contained a grid and cooking pot in their original location. Archaeologists also found original floors and sealed off entrances.

Another structure, dubbed Building T, is just barely a rectangle at 25.6 feet x 24.4 feet. There are two rooms, each with their own entry and their own front yards. (Is it weird that my first thought was “nice setup for an Airbnb”?) The last of the newly-unearthed structures, Building Y, is 25 x 20 feet. Its design is reminiscent of a church nave with an entrance on the south side and walls three feet thick.

In addition to the architectural remains, the dig also discovered a wealth of artifacts, almost all of which are estimated to date to the 6th century B.C.

Like every year, this year’s findings were rich. More than 15 lamps and 15 fragments of vases with engraved inscriptions (APL, APOL) were found, fragments of amphorae and red-colored craters, everyday vases such as basins, bowls, pans, bottles, and many metallic objects (a bronze lance, nails, russets, hooks, etc.).

From this year’s discoveries what stood out were the fragment of the head of an archaic kouros, a fragment from the ankle of a kouros and scraps of two piths with embossed decoration, one depicting a warrior and the other a dance show.

While the excavation shed new light on the early history of the Despotiko sanctuary, restorers set to shoring up the masonry of two previously unearthed buildings and on raising a part of the main temple of Apollo up from the ground. After four weeks of work, columns, lintels and walls are vertical, recreating some small portion of the sanctuary’s height and making it once again visible from Antiparos.

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Complete set of hipposandals found at Vindolanda

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

A set of four iron hipposandals has been unearthed in the archaeological motherlode that is Vindolanda, the Roman fort and settlement just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. The set was discovered by a volunteer in a system of ditches adjacent to a late Antonine stone wall (180-200 A.D.). There were three main phases of construction in the Antonine era with new ditches dug for each which narrows down the date of the hipposandals to between 140 and 180 A.D.

These iron hoof coverings were used to protect the feet of military and pack animals, horses, perhaps even oxen. They were clunky and would have hindered movement, but they would have helped the animals keep their footing in mucky, wet, slick and snowy conditions. It’s possible the hindrance of movement was a feature rather than a bug; an animal at pasture wearing these clodhoppers would be effectively hobbled and incapable of wandering off. They also served as a barrier against injuries accidental and deliberate, as from caltrops.

Hipposandals have been found before, particularly on battlefields where they were shed by cavalry mounts, but a complete matched set of four is an extremely rare discovery. The hoof protectors are in excellent condition, showing so little wear and tear that the treads on the underside are still clearly visible.

More than 7,000 volunteers have played an essential role in the excavation of Vindolanda since the program began in 1970. Volunteers have helped unearth everything from the thousands of leather shoes and writing tablets the site is best known for, to the bronze hand from the shrine of Jupiter found a few months ago.

Because the Romans were in Britain for between 400 and 500 years, Ms Birley said, teams could dig at the site for the next 150 years and still unearth Roman treasures.

“Basically, over the years, nine forts have been built on this site – every time new Roman arrivals came, they covered over the remains from the last fort with clay and turf to make solid foundations for their fort,” Ms Birley explained.

“This means things were well preserved. One of the hipposandals has a hairline fracture so the set may have been thrown in the ditch because one was damaged.”

The hoofwear has been conserved and will go on display at the Roman Army Museum in February of next year.

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Bronze Age citadel dwarfing Troy unearthed in Romania

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a massive Bronze Age citadel in the town of Sântana, Arad county, north-western Romania. An international team of German and Romanian archaeologists has been excavating the site, first explored in 2009, for two years and only a small fraction of it has been exposed. More than half of the site has been measured and mapped extensively via magnetic survey, however. Out of 90 hectares, 55 have been documented magnetometrically, allowing the team to map the fortress from outer defenses to the citadel’s main structures.

The fortress was enclosed by a moat more than 13 feet deep outside of an earth rampart an estimated 70 feet high. These intimidatingly looming ramparts protected a palace in the interior. This massive structure was about 330 feet long and 130 feet wide. The palace and other structures inside the citadel were made of mud/clay and wood.

Rüdiger Krause, professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and Romanian professor Florin Gogâltan, from the Institute of Archeology and History of Art of the Romanian Academy in Cluj-Napoca, came to the conclusion that the “Old Citadel” in Sântana was built in the 14th century BC, about 3,400 years ago.

“The citadel in Sântana is one of the largest fortifications built during the mentioned period. Our purpose is to find out why this fortification was made, why this construction was needed,” the German professor said, according to Aradon.ro.

The discoveries also made the archeologists believe that the “Old Citadel” in Romania is much bigger than the ancient city of Troy.

“Troy had an area of 29 hectares, the Citadel in Sântana covers 89 hectares. The buildings of Troy were made of stone. At Sântana, the buildings were made of clay and wood, a sign that civilization was more developed and adapted to the building materials it had,” Florin Gogâltan explained. “We are facing one of the biggest and impressive fortresses in Europe.”

And they want to give it its due. The director of the Arad Museum is advocating the construction of a new museum in Sântana on the site itself. The entirety of the site is not likely to be fully excavated — the current German-Romanian project is slated to last one more year only — but what has been revealed is in excellent condition. Local government officials are very much into the idea of creating a tourist attraction that would bring an infusion of cash to the area as well as international recognition of this unique and highly significant archaeological treasure.

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Programming Note

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Our server will be getting a MySQL and PHP upgrade this evening between 9:00PM and 3:00AM Mountain Standard Time. There could be some down time. If all goes well it’ll be no more than 15 minutes, so start burning them offerings to the faceless numen that regulate the dark forces of server upgrades.

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Third Lod mosaic found during construction of Lod mosaic museum

Monday, August 6th, 2018

The construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center, a permanent home for one the largest and most intact (not to mention one of the most beautiful) Roman mosaic floors ever discovered, has resulted in the discovery of yet another exceptional mosaic floor. Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists unearthed the colorful depiction of fish, birds and plants in just one month of work.

This is the third one found at the site where the first mosaic floor was found in 1996. The second was discovered in late 2014. This embarrassment of archaeological and artistic riches was once part of a large luxury home dating to the early 4th century A.D. in the ancient city of Lydda which under the Roman Empire was a district capital and important center of trade. The first and largest mosaic covered the floor of the main reception room/triclinium. The second adorned an internal courtyard. The newly-discovered mosaic covered the floor of another smaller reception room/triclinium next to the one where the largest and first mosaic was found.

“The archaeological excavation that we carried out this month was relatively small, but contributed significantly to our understanding of the villa building,” said [excavation director Dr. Amir] Gorzalczany. “Thankfully, the main central panel of the mosaic was preserved. The figures, many similar to the figures in the earlier mosaics, comprise fish and winged creatures. A fairly similar mosaic was found in the past in Jerusalem, on the Mount Zion slopes. The Lod mosaics, however, do not depict any human figures that are present in the Mount Zion mosaic. It is quite probable that the same artist produced both mosaics, or that two artists worked from a similar design.”

“This type of mosaic is better known in the Western part of the Roman Empire,” Gorzalczany explained. “Also noteworthy are the rectangular marks that may denote the placing of the couches on which the participants of the banquet or feast reclined. These marks are common in similar villas and are an indication of the use of the space in the reception halls.”

One corner of the mosaic was first spotted by archaeologists in 2014 at the time the second mosaic was discovered. Except for that one corner, the rest of the space was underneath a neighborhood parking lot and as the residents were none too keen to lose their handy spots, it took years of discussions before the mosaic could be excavated. Once the team was given the go-ahead, they had a brief window to excavate and salvage whatever they found before the property was returned to the residents.

When the new Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center opens, the first two mosaics will be displayed in situ exactly where they were found. This third one will also be on display, but not in its original location.

In this video you can see experts from the IAA salvage the mosaic, rolling it up like a carpet.

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Gold trove found in ancient tomb in Kazakhstan

Sunday, August 5th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered more than 3,000 gold ornaments in an ancient burial ground in Kazakhstan. The objects were found in a tumulus in the Eleke Sazy plateau of the Tarbagatai Mountains in eastern Kazakhstan, a site known for its 200 burial mounds of the Saka culture dating to the 8th-7th centuries B.C.

The Saka culture, a nomadic people who inhabited the Eurasian Steppe, areas of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. The Saki were not purely nomadic. Some subgroups founded permanent settlements with large burial grounds, planted crops and mined metals. Their processing of those metals was highly sophisticated, allowing them to produce meticulously constructed jewelry and other artifacts which they traded to neighboring populations on the steppes. They also buried large quantities of them with their leaders.

The artifacts unearthed in the grave are exceptional examples of Saka goldsmithing.

Among the finds are earrings in the shape of bells, gold plates with rivets, plaques, chains, and a necklace with precious stones.

Gold beads decorating clothes were made with the use of sophisticated micro-soldering techniques, indicating an exceptional level of development jewellery-making skills for the period.

There were also gold horse fittings, spearheads and chains. Archaeologists believe the combination of jewelry and weaponry indicates the occupants of the tomb were a husband and wife couple, either rulers or at least high-ranking elite of Saka society. They can’t be sure because they haven’t even gotten to the graves yet. This immense amount of treasure was found in the excavation of the burial mound. There is likely more to be found when they reach the actual interrals.

Such a rich find made after two years of excavations at the site extends hope that there are other graves of similar importance still be unearthed among the 200 known. It’s likely that the burials were plundered on a wide scale in antiquity, however, so discovering another haul of this magnitude is far from a sure thing.

The treasures from the burial mound will be cleaned and conserved before going on display in September during the annual international archaeological conference Altai, the Golden Cradle of the Turkic World.

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UK bars export of Dickens’ study table

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

MP Michael Ellis, the UK’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, has temporarily barred the export of an antique table not so much because of its intrinsic value, but because it was a long-time beloved companion of Charles Dickens. The piece is a gem in its own right, mind you. It’s a handsome William IV mahogany round table three and a half feet in diameter on a solid central pedestal with an acanthus collar at the base and paw feet. It was either made or sold by one M. Wilson whose name is impressed in one of the drawers.

Estimated to have been made in around 1835, the round table has a revolving drum top above eight drawers and is covered in green leather. It was used by Dickens during most of his career – first in his London home at Devonshire Terrace; then his offices on Wellington Street where he published Household Words and All the Year Round; and finally in his library at Gad’s Hill Place in Higham, Kent where he died in 1870.

It is also known to have contained the keys to his wine cellar, and appears to be one of the very first objects to have been formally labelled with Dickens’ name; one drawer contains an oval silver plaque stating that the table stood in his library.

The full inscription on the silver plaque reads: “‘Charles Dickens’ Library Table / which stood in / his Library at Gad’s Hill.” It was made by Robert Hennell and his cypher dates it to 1873, just three years after Dickens’ death. While the movements of the table cannot been documented with mathematical precision, experts believe it remained at Gad’s Hill Place. Charles Dickens’ first son Charles Dickens Jr. bought Gad’s Hill at auction in 1870 after his father’s death. Financial troubles compelled him to sell the estate in 1878. His younger brother Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, a successful barrister, acquired Gad’s Hill Place and thus the table, keeping it in the family.

The table remained in the family by descent until it was put up for auction in December of 2017. It sold at Christie’s London for £67,600 ($88,000), apparently to a foreign buyer who applied for an export license. The independent advisory committee that reviews export requests and recommends whether the Ministry should allow or bar them determined Dickens’ table was of national importance.

Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest member Christopher Rowell said:

“On one occasion, when he was abroad, Dickens precisely described this table and its position in his Library so that a friend could locate a set of keys in one of its drawers. His art criticism as well as his descriptive writing reveal his aesthetic sensibility and this elegant, if workmanlike, leather-covered mahogany library table was clearly valued by him. Its associations are of considerable interest to lovers of Dickens’ novels and writings.”

The status of the table will be in limbo until October 26th, 2018. If a party shows serious intent and ability to raise the necessary funds to reimburse the purchase price, that deadline could be extended to January 26th, 2019.

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Rare dog sarcophagus rescued from museum pound

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens has pulled a once-beloved dog from storage and put it on display for the first time since it was discovered 81 years ago. The small sarcophagus adorned with a sculpture of a pet dog dates to the mid-3rd century A.D., the Roman period. It was unearthed in 1937 on the north side of the National Garden in downtown Athens. The ancient Greek road from Athens to Mesogeia, the interior region of the Attic peninsula, ran along what is now Vasilissis Sophias Ave, the north border of the National Garden. As we know, Romans often used the road out of town was for burials, and while no other wee dog sarcophgi have been found in this area, excavations done during construction of the subway station at Syntagma Square just a couple of blocks away did reveal other Roman-era animal graves.

The dog sits on the lid of the sarcophagus, his front legs crossed in a dignified posture, comfortably ensconced on his plush striped bed. His collar is studded with gemstones — circles, squares and diamond-shaped — and a bell hangs from a loop in the front. The collar, bedding and bell unmistakably identify the dog as somebody’s cherished pet rather than a symbolic representation of a deity or a funerary sacrifice.

Funerary monuments to dearly departed dogs are unusual but not unheard of in the Roman archaeological record. Most of them are stele engraved with just an inscription and sometimes a low relief of the animal and an inscription clearly identifying them as grave markers for the pet. The British Museum has a wonderfully expressive example of a marble epitaph plaque inscribed with a poem written from the perspective of the dog who was buried under it.

Gaul gave me my birth and the pearl-oyster from the seas full of treasure my name, an honour fitting to my beauty.
I was trained to run boldly through strange forests
and to hunt out furry wild beasts in the hills
never accustomed to be held by heavy chains
nor endure cruel beatings on my snow-white body.
I used to lie on the soft lap of my master and mistress
and knew to go to bed when tired on my spread mattress
and I did not speak more than allowed as a dog, given a silent mouth
No-one was scared by my barking
but now I have been overcome by death from an ill-fated birth
and earth has covered me beneath this small piece of marble.
Margarita [“Pearl”]

Animal figures have also been found on the funerary reliefs of children, see for example this sweet memorial to “To Helena, foster daughter, the incomparable and worthy soul,” at the Getty.

Complete three-dimensional sculptures of dogs on sarcophagi are a horse of a different color. They are so rare that only one other example has been found on the Attic peninsula. It too is in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum, but it’s still in storage.

The marble pooch was rescued from the pound on Monday and will be on display through October 21st only.

A selection of artifacts from the museums store rooms have been placed on display for the Unseen Museum exhibition, each for a period of two months. The particular artifact complements the temporary exhibition “Hadrian and Athens: Conversing with an Ideal World” that opened on November 27 and will run for a year.

In August and until October, museum archaeologists will conduct tours for visitors that focus on the habits of ancient Athenians, including their strong ties to pet animals. These will be held on three Sundays (August 19, September 16 and October 21) and two Fridays (September 14 and October 19), starting at 13:00. To attend the presentations, visitors must first obtain a ticket on arrival.

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