Remains of third horse found at Pompeii villa

The skeleton of a horse who died wearing an elaborate harness and saddle have been unearthed at an elite villa on the outskirts of Pompeii. This is the third set of horse remains discovered at the estate north of the city walls, the first of which was the first confirmed horse ever found at Pompeii.

Excavations began last March as an emergency response to looting activity. Tunnels dug underneath the villa by thieves were endangering the archaeological material. The dig brought to light a series of service areas of the grand suburban villa with artifacts preserved in exceptional condition. Amphorae, cooking utensils, even parts of a wooden bed were recovered, and a plaster cast was made of the entire bed.

One of the service areas that could be identified is the stable. Archaeologists unearthed the first horse lying on its side and were able to make a plaster cast from the cavity the horse’s body had left in the hardened volcanic rock. They then unearthed the legs of a second horse. This year the team excavated the rest of the stable, revealing the rest of the remains of the second horse and the skeleton of a third complete with its harness.

The former was found lying on its right side, skull on top of the left front leg. It was next to charred wood pieces from a manger (also cast in plaster). The position suggests that the poor horse was tied to it and could not get away when Vesuvius’ pyroclastic fury hit the stable. The third horse was found on its left side, an iron bit clenched between its teeth. The looting tunnels exposed the cavity and cementified it made it impossible to make a plaster cast of it.

The excavation of the third horse revealed five bronze objects: four wood pieces of half-moon shape coated in bronze found on the ribs, one bronze piece made of three hooks riveted to a ring connected to a disc. It was found under the belly near the front legs. The shapes and design of these parts suggest they were part of a saddle that is described in ancient sources. It was a wooden structure with four horns, two in the front, two in the rear, covered with bronze plates. This firm saddle gave the rider stability in an era before stirrups.

Saddles of this kind were used from the early imperial era particularly by members of the military. The ring junction, four for each harness, were used to connect leather straps to the saddle horns. This was rich, expensive tack that would have belonged to someone of very high rank. The artifacts found strongly indicate that this horse belonged to a Roman military officer and had been saddled likely in the hope of escaping the eruption. Vesuvius got to human and equines before they had a chance.

William III’s holly trees, planted in 1702, still live

Okay so technically they’re clones, but they were grown from cuttings instead of cooked up in a lab, so that totally counts. The hollies look glorious now thanks to the love and attention of Historic Royal Palaces gardeners. They were in tragic condition when they were first rediscovered in the Privy Garden of Hampton Court Palace in 1995. There were three holly trees found to be originals from the reign of William III and the centuries had taken a hard toll. They had to be chopped down, alas. Before they were felled, cuttings were taken so that William’s hollies might live on.

The Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace is one of the most accurate period reconstructions of a garden out there, thanks to the very detailed records that have survived describing the garden of 1702. The reason we know so much about the construction of William’s baroque garden is that the king died in March of 1702 before the garden was completed, so the landscapers and workmen tasked with building it included unusually specific descriptions of what they had done in their invoices to ensure they would be paid.

Because of this entirely understandable paranoia, Historic Royal Palaces landscapers were able to restore the Privy Garden of 1702 using the exact plant varieties, long and handsome hornbeam bower, wrought iron screens and statues as designed and commissioned by William III.

Behold the handsome William III hollies installed in Hampton Court Palace’s Fountain Court this year:

Happy holidays, y’all!

Oldest Aramaic incantation explains how to capture “devourer”

An Aramaic inscription discovered at the ancient site of Sam’al, modern-day Zincirli in southern Turkey, describes how to capture the evil “devourer” to liberate a victim from its “fire.” The inscription was made on a cosmetics pot that predates it and was reused for the purpose. It was inscribed on the vessel between 850 and 800 B.C., making it the oldest Aramaic incantation ever found.

The incantation was written by a magician named as Rahim son of Shadadan. It tells how the blood of the devourer could be used to treat people suffering from the devourer’s fire. The directions do not make it clear whether the blood would be used to make a potion to be drunk by the afflicted or if it should be smeared onto their body.

“Accompanying the text are illustrations of various creatures, including what appears to be a centipede, a scorpion and a fish,” wrote [Madadh] Richey and [Dennis]Pardee, who is the Henry Crown professor of Hebrew studies at the University of Chicago, in the abstract. The illustrations are found on both sides of the cosmetic container. […]

The illustrations suggest that the “devourer” may actually be a scorpion or centipede; as such, the “fire” may refer to the pain of the creatures’ sting, Richey told Live Science.

University of Chicago archaeologists, who have excavated the site for the past four years, discovered the artifact in August 2017 in a small structure that may have been a shrine or had some religious function. The incantation had to have been of some importance because the structure is more than a century younger than the inscription, dating to the late 8th or 7th century B.C., which means it was deemed significant enough to be kept for generations after it was engraved.

In addition to the incantation, another piece more ancient than the building was find inside of it, a black stone crouching lion with red stone inlaid eyes. It dates to the 10th or 9th century B.C. when it was used as the base for a metal figurine of a striding individual, perhaps a deity.

Sam’al has been occupied going back at least to the Bronze Age. During the time when Rahim was engraving his how-to guide, it was the capital of an Aramaean Neo-Hittite kingdom that began as a city state around 900 B.C. and expanded to encompass a few neighboring territories. It had massive outer defensive walls, a monumental palace and city gates with elaborate stone reliefs. With the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Sam’al was conquered around 720 B.C. and became first a vassal state, then a province.

Watching Brutus (and other things) in person

Here’s where I admit that yesterday’s post was a stealth preview of coming attractions, for today I went to the Clark and saw Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death in person. It’s in a small room just off the 18th/early 19th century French art gallery with the preparatory drawing and engraving that were part of the same auction lot with the painting itself. The oil painting of Brutus is hanging on the back wall, the focal point when you walk in or walk by the gallery. Against the left wall is the preparatory drawing; against the right wall is the engraving.

Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death by Guillaume Guillon Lethière, 1788, Clark Art Institute.

Meanwhile, in the main room of the French gallery, last year’s handsome young fella, Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, has been moved slightly a couple of spots away from its previous location. I approve heartily as it is now possible to take a picture head-on without the glare from the lighting. Last year awkward angles were required.

Last but certainly not least, I learned a new word today courtesy of the outstanding exhibition Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape. As the name indicates, the show focuses on landscapes which both men painted with distinctive mastery. Unlike many other landscape artists, however, when JMW Turner and John Constable included people in their landscapes they did so with very deliberate meaning instead of as mere indicators of the scale and perspective. Using people in landscapes to indicate scale is called staffage, pronounced in French like stahf-AHJH. I did not know that. Be warned, I intend to put it to use in numerous tortured metaphors going forward.

Here’s an example from Constable. It’s called Ploughing Scene in Suffolk (1824-1825) and even though the human figures are small in the broad vista of farmland, they are absolutely pivotal to the theme. The position of one of them in the dead center of the painting underscores his importance, as does the care Constable took in depicting the plough in precise detail. Ergo, farmers ploughing are not staffage.

Watching Brutus watch his sons executed

After seven months of conservation and more than two centuries of private ownership, Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death by Guillaume Guillon Lethière has gone on public display at the Clark Art Institute. The neoclassical painting depicts Lucius Junius Brutus, leader of the revolt against Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, and founder of the Roman Republic, stoically watching the execution of his sons for conspiring with the Tarquins to restore the monarchy. One son has already been decapitated and the executioner is holding the severed head aloft before the crowds.

Lethière was born in 1760 in the French colony of Guadeloupe, the illegitimate son of government functionary Pierre Guillon and Marie-Françoise Pepayë, a mulatto former slave. His last name is actually a reference to his birth order. He was his father’s third illegitimate child. While Guillon would not officially recognize his son until 1799, he was very much involved in his life. The young Guillaume moved to France with his father when he was 14 and enrolled in the Academy of Rouen, a tuition-free art school founded by Jean-Baptiste Descamps. His talents were quickly recognized and in 1777 he enrolled at the Académie Royale in Paris in the studio of Gabriel François Doyen. He competed for the Prix de Rome twice and lost, but made such a strong impression with the wealthy, noble and connected Comte de Montmorin that the count secured him the pension and stay at the French Academy in Rome that the prize would have given him.

It was in Rome, fittingly enough, that Lethière created Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death. He was a fervent neoclassicist by then, having eschewed Doyen’s Baroque style in favor of Jacques-Louis David’s integration of Enlightenment political principles in scenes from classical antiquity. Painted in 1788, Lethière’s vision of the Brutus story pre-dated David’s famed The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons by a year, and what a year was there, my friends. In 1789, the Bastille fell, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed and feudalism was abolished. Even so, David’s far less gory version of the execution of the Brutus sons caused consternation among the authorities. They thought its vision of Republican honor against tyranny even at enormous personal cost might incite anti-monarchical passions. And there are no decapitated heads held proudly aloft in that one.

David had already begun working on his masterpiece (it was 14 feet wide and took two years to complete) when Lethière finished his at the French Academy in Rome. The director of the Academy praised its emotional expressiveness in a letter, but if it was exhibited in public when it arrived in Paris that fall or thereabouts there is no record of it. It was definitely seen because German critic G.A. von Halem visited David’s studio during a trip to Paris in 1790 and compared the two works: “Lethière … showed the bloody head of one son. But one flees before blood and one suffers the double fear that the blood of the second son will be shed…. David has made the best choice. He has opted for the moment which follows the execution, and yet he has spared us the horrible sight of the place of execution.”

That horrible sight would become a common one when the Reign of Terror started in 1793. When it ended with Robespierre’s execution a year or so later, 17,000 people had been executed. That’s a lot of heads held proudly aloft. The year after that, Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1795. It was shown again in the Paris Salon of 1801. It elicited negative reviews both times; the explicit violence made people uncomfortable.

The painting would not be seen in public again for almost two hundred years until it was loaned for an exhibition dedicated to Guillaume Guillon Lethière in Point-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1991. After that it made two appearances at the Musée de la Révolution Française, one in 1992, one in 1996, and that’s it. In the 230 years since its creation, it has been exhibited for a grand total of six months. Now it is finally on display for good.