Archive for May, 2019

First Iron Age bark shield found in England

Friday, May 24th, 2019

University of Leicester archaeologists have discovered an Iron Age bark shield, the first of its kind ever found in Europe. It was made sometime between 395 and 255 B.C., the Middle Iron Age.

The shield was found in 2015 during an archaeological survey at the site of the Everards Meadows development in the Soar Valley south of Leicester. It was buried face down in a deep waterlogged pit, which is why the barks and wood it was made out of survived the centuries. The pit was probably a watering hole for livestock before the shield was deposited; the excavation discovered a trackway, ditches and land boundaries indicating the site was likely used in stock rearing by the small farmsteads in the community.

The shield, which measured 670 x 370mm [26.3 x 14.6 inches] in the ground, is unique, the only bark shield every found in Europe. It was carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a beautiful woven boss to protect the handle. The outside of the shield was painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration.

Detailed analysis shows that the bark was from either alder, willow, poplar, hazel or spindle tree with the outer layer of bark forming the inside of the shield. The stiffening laths were made of apple, pear, quince or hawthorn whilst the rim was a half-split hazel rod. Analysis to date suggests that the boss was formed from a willow core stitched together with a flat fibre of grass, rush or bast fibre, and the handle was of willow roundwood, flattened at the end and notched, and fixed to the bark with twisted ties. The outer surface of the shield was scored with lines forming a chequerboard pattern, with parts painted with red hematite-based paint.

The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in the watering hole.  Analysis by Dr Rachel Crellin (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) suggests at least one irregular elliptical hole was likely to have been damage caused by the pointed tip of an iron spear, whilst other groups of parallel incisions may show where edged blades have hit and rebounded. Further research is planned to help understand if this occurred in battle or as an act of ritual destruction.

The discovery of this shield rewrites the history of weaponry in Iron Age Britain. Before now, bark shields had only been found in the southern hemisphere and historians believed they were simply not used in the northern hemisphere. The damage to the Enderby Shield indicates that they were indeed made as weapons of war, and experimental recreations have confirmed that evenly though it was only a tenth of an inch thick and incredibly lightweight, the reinforced bark shield was strong enough to withstand projectile impact.

The recreation of willow and alder bark shields also found that they could be manufactured quickly and easily using materials from a local woodland and a few simple tools. The finished shields varied in shape because of the wood elements shrank and curved as they dried. Built as rectangles, once they were dry they had hourglass shape, a design seen in some metal shields from the period.

It’s not clear why the shield was in the bottom of the watering hole – perhaps it was thrown away because it was broken, or perhaps it was deliberately placed there as a ritual act. Radiocarbon dates for the shield and for other material in the watering hole suggest that more than a decade had passed between the shield’s manufacture and its disposal. The damage to the shield may well hold the answer to this question. 

 

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Sword from 17th c. Dutch shipwreck found in stone

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

A treasure hunter has discovered the remnants of a sword from a 335-year-old Dutch shipwreck off the coast of Cornwall. Robert Felce found the remains of the sword encased in thick concretion on the beach at Dollar Cove in Gunwalloe. Gunwalloe got its name from local legends of a Portuguese treasure ship sinking there in 1526 and a ship full of silver dollars sinking there 250 years later, but the rumored abundance of coin has never been found, nor has any other trace of the two fabled vessels.

Felce has found shipwreck artifacts at Dollar Cove before: three 17th century hand grenades. No treasure in the monetary sense of the word, but interesting from an archaeological perspective. Like the grenades, his latest find also looked like a rock from the outside, the result of centuries of built-up sand, stone, shell and assorted marine debris hardening around the object. He found it in a gulley at low tide. It was broken in three pieces and looked very little like anybody’s idea of a sword.

Robert Felce:

“Because the shape of the concretion was rounded it looks like it has rolled into the site and then broken up on the protruding bedrock with the action of the waves. This may have been a relatively short time before being luckily spotted in a sandy gulley.

“As you would expect with such an item, likely to be from the Schiedam shipwreck in 1684, age and the action of the sea has taken its toll. Most of the blade is either corroded or missing.

“However there is enough of the original iron blade to indicate the shape of the blade in cross sectional profile near to the hilt. The width of the blade is approximately five centimetres, or two inches.

“The whole length of the blade could have been perhaps more than 60 centimetres or two feet long and would probably have been kept in good condition by its original owner who could have been either a sailor, a soldier or even a North African pirate.

“Looking at the void in the concretion and remaining ferrous corrosion, it looks indeed like the profile and length of a piece of forged blade, likely a sword or sabre as opposed to a knife, dagger or bayonet-type blade.

Originally a Dutch merchant vessel, the Schiedam became the rope in a maritime tug of war. First it was captured by Barbary pirates off the coast of Gibraltar in August of 1683. Then the Royal Navy captured it from the pirates and repurposed it as a transport vessel for the English colony at Tangiers. It was a bad time to get assigned to British Tangiers. Moroccan forces had been assaulting the city non-stop for three years and the cost of constantly having to send reinforcements and rebuild or strengthen defenses was increasingly prohibitive to the strapped King Charles II.

In 1683, Charles gave up on the colony. He gave secret orders to evacuate the city and destroy it on the way out the gate. Tangier’s civilian population was only 700 people; the garrison had almost 3,000 men. From October 1683 until February 1684, Admiral Lord Dartmouth (assisted by administrator and famed diarist Samuel Pepys) systematically razed the city, its defenses, ports and harbor wall. The last of the English forces evacuated on February 5th, 1684. Moroccan forces took control of the demolished city on February 7th.

The Schiedam, loaded with heavy armaments, civilians and soldiers, was part of the Tangiers evacuation fleet. It was caught in a gale off the coast of Cornwall in April of 1684 and sank. Some of its larger armaments were salvaged at the time.  It was soon forgotten — an armed transport ship doesn’t make for good gossip like a treasure ship does — until shifting sands briefly exposed the wreck on the seabed. The sands quickly covered it back up.

The brief exposure, documented by diver Anthony Randall, was enough to get it designated a protected wreck after the passage of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. As such, it cannot be interfered with. Artifacts do wash up on the beach from time to time, which is where Robert Felce finds them. The sword has been registered, as required by law, with the Receiver of Wrecks (which is as excellent a title as it is a job).

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Stolen Alexander Hamilton letter found 80 years later

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

A letter by Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de LaFayette that was stolen eight decades ago has been found. It was stolen from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Archives by clerk Harold E. Perry between 1937 and 1945. After he was caught, he claimed to have stolen the documents as a “collector,” but he just so happened to have made quite a career from trafficking in looted history. He also stole original papers of George Washington’s, Benjamin Franklin’s, Paul Revere’s and, fittingly, Benedict Arnold’s. The thefts weren’t found out for years.

The Archive was left with documentary evidence that it had once owned the letter — a notation on a 19th century index list and on a name and subject index — and a photostat copy done in the 1920s. (Actually, they only had a photostat of the 19th century index list, because the traitor had stolen the index too while he was looting the archive.)

Perry was arrested in 1950, but by then he’d sold documents to dealers all over the country. He removed Archive reference numbers to obscure their origins. The Massachusetts Attorney General sent letters to all the major dealers alerting them to thefts and seeking the return of any stolen materials. Some of them were recovered. The Hamilton letter was not.

It was rediscovered when the document was consigned for sale to an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia by a South Carolina family in November 2018. The letter was valued at $25,000-35,000, but it never went under the hammer because a researcher at the auction house discovered the letter was missing from the Massachusetts Archives. They alerted the MA which provided documentation of the theft and then the auction house called the FBI.

The would-be consigners had no idea they had attempted to fence stolen goods. They inherited it from a relative who collected documents. From what they know, he bought it in the 1940s from a rare book dealer in Syracuse, New York, named Elmer Heise.

The FBI in Boston is currently in possession of the letter. US Attorney Andrew Lelling has filed a civil forfeiture complaint, a legally necessary step in the process of returning the letter to the Archives. Once that goes through the court, the Hamilton letter will be back at the Massachusetts Archives.

Dated July 21, 1780, the letter was written at George Washington’s Preakness Valley Headquarters in New Jersey. Its recipient was in Danbury, Connecticut at the time.

My Dear Marquis
We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army. Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.

The General is absent and may not return before evening. Though this may be only a demonstration yet as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the Generals return.

We have different accounts from New York of an action in the West Indies in which the English lost several ships. I am inclined to credit them.

I am My Dear Marquis with the truest affection

Yr. Most Obedt

A Hamilton  Aide De Camp

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19th c. barracks unearthed in Ottawa

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

An excavation of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in advance of redevelopment has unearthed the remains of military barracks predating the founding of city. What would become Ottawa was known as Bytown then, named after Lieutenant Colonel John By, a British military engineer charged with building the Rideau Canal to link Montreal via the Ottawa River to the Saint Lawrence at Kingston, Ontario.

The mission had a military purpose. In the wake of the War of 1812, Canada feared the United States would persist in its attempts at invasion. Having a secure supply route connecting Montreal to the British naval base in Kingston instead of having to rely on the Saint Lawrence, with its treacherous rapids and section bordering New York, would provide an important tactical advantage.

Work began in 1826. It was not an easy job. The canal had to be dug out of the earth over a distance of 202 kilometers (125.5 miles). Much of the heavy work was done by contractors who employed Irish and French-Canadian labourers, but the Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment were deployed to work on the canal under By’s command. Those 150 soldiers and their wives and children had to be quartered in Bytown.

On the north side of the future Parliament Hill, three barracks, a guardhouse, stables and kitchens were built, as was Ottawa’s first jailhouse (a very petite one with just three cells). Also latrines, which of course make archaeologists rub their dirty hands together with glee.

The items uncovered so far include a range of military items: chin straps, tags, gorgets  — which officers often wore to hold their neckties in place — and other domestic items, like coins. […]

But there might be more left to uncover, in a somewhat unusual spot: the privies.

“It’s an excellent place to dispose of things,” said [excavation project manager Stephen] Jarrett. […]

With no modern-day plumbing, it doesn’t take much to imagine the odour.

“You need to keep the smell down from the human waste, and so you put fill layers on top in order to keep the smell down,” Jarrett said.

“So that comes with all the broken dishes and anything else that can help keep that smell down.”

The canal was completed in 1832. It was a remarkable feat of engineering but it never was used for military purposes. By the time it was done, the prospect of a US invasion was no longer a concern. The barracks remained on the hill for another 25 years. Ottawa was founded in 1855. In 1858 it was declared the capital of the newly-established United Province of Canada. The old Bytown barracks were demolished to make way for the parliament buildings of the new capital.

The excavation will continue until the fall. All recovered artifacts will be cleaned and conserved by Public Services and Procurement Canada experts. Once they are stabilized, the objects will be placed on public display

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Jadeite tool found at Maya salt works

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed a jadeite tool with a rosewood handle at a Maya salt works site in Belize. This is the first time the wooden handle of one of these tools has been found intact, preserved by the waterlogged mangrove peat at the Ek Way Nal site in southern Belize. It dates to the Maya Classic Period (300–900 A.D.) when the Paynes Creek Salt Works, a network of 110 ancient salt works operated in a mere three square mile area.

The jadeite of the gouger and the wood of the handle are very high-quality materials. The stone is translucent green, the most prized color of jadeite which ranges from translucent to opaque. The jadeite’s translucency is caused by the tight microstructure of its grains, which makes it much harder and more durable than the opaque versions of the stone. Its beauty and the high degree of difficulty in working it made translucent jadeite the preferred greenstone of Maya royalty. It is usually found in the tombs of the highest rank, like King Pacal’s tomb at Palenque, and at ceremonial sites where it was used in religious rituals and as diplomatic gifts. Grave goods of jewelry, carved plaques and statuary were important indicators of elite status.

The hardness of the translucent jadeite that made it so desirable for royal adornment also made it desirable as a tool. The handle is Honduras rosewood, a dense, finely grained wood that even today is considered difficult to carve, so it too was a strong, sturdy material ideal for a tool.

An analysis of the stone found that it is 98% jadeite by volume and that its quality and translucent blue-green shade approaches gem grade. That such expensive materials were used to make a utilitarian object like a gouger attests to the importance of salt in the Classic Maya economy, and the deep pockets of the salt workers themselves. They weren’t “working in the salt mines” in the modern sense of the idiom.

“The salt workers were successful entrepreneurs who were able to obtain high-quality tools for their craft through the production and distribution of a basic biological necessity: salt. Salt was in demand for the Maya diet. We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat,” said lead researcher and anthropologist Heather McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology.

The tool would not have been used to gouge hard materials like stone or wood. It was found in a salt kitchen, so researchers believe it was probably used in jobs like scraping salt, gutting calabash gourds, or cleaning fish or meat before salting.

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French & Indian War battle drawing found inside wall of 17th c. home

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Restorers have discovered a battle scene believed to be from the French and Indian War drawn on the wall of a 17th-century home in East Hartford, Connecticut. A crew from the Glastonbury Restoration Company, a firm that specializes in restoring historic structures, was removing old plaster to reach the original wooden frame of the house when he uncovered a much older plaster wall covered with a mural five feet wide drawn in primitive style.

It’s a rudimentary drawing that is nonetheless incredibly active and detailed. In different colors of charcoal and chalk, it depicts a complex battle scene with soldiers in different colored uniforms, complete with winter coats and hats, cannon being moved on carts, Native Americans wielding bows and arrows and dead bodies with arrows protruding from them. There’s even a mysterious red tree-like creature in the middle of the scene who appears to have some human facial features and is waving his thick branchy “hair” in the wind. Where was the Whomping Willow in the 1700s? (I demand a cut of any prequel JK Rowling writes based on this idea.)

Glastonbury Restoration Company owner Steve Bielitz has found plenty of graffiti in the many houses he’s worked on over the years, but nothing even remotely like this. He showed the work to art experts in Connecticut and other states, among them University of Delaware architectural historian Michael Emmons Jr. who described it as an extremely rare 18th century “architectural sketch”

Emmons said he has documented thousands of graffiti and wall markings across the country. He said a vast majority were created by young males — ages 10 to 30 — but mostly by teenagers. He said although the drawing looks like it may have been created by a child, that’s not the case.

“Rudimentary drawings and less literate writings often reveal younger people’s handiwork, but admittedly, these things can also be misinterpreted because it “looks” like it’s done by a young person, when in reality it was done by someone who just couldn’t write or draw well,” he said.

Emmons said he believes the drawing could have been made by a family member after being told the story of the battle. […]

“My gut sense here is that these images were created by a younger person, rather than even a young soldier who has fought in a war. This does not preclude the possibility of these images being drawn by someone who actually participated in a war, which is definitely possible, but my instinct is that this is a younger person drawing a scene they’ve read about or heard about, or maybe even recreating an event that a family member experienced,” he said.

There certainly would have been a myriad opportunities for that kind of transmission. The home is the oldest surviving house in East Hartford, dating to the Colonial era around 1693. Its first owner was Jonathan Hills, the youngest son of William Hills who was one of the founders of Hartford. William Hills had emigrated to what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632, and moved to Hartford four years later. He accrued significant property in a very short time, including more than 500 acres in land in an area of Hartford called Hockanum on the east bank of the Connecticut River. Hockanum would become East Hartford in 1783.

William Hills was a captain in the Hartford militia. His son William, Jr., died in King Philip’s war in 1675, shot by an Indian arrow. The family’s military tradition continued for generations. Jonathan was a lieutenant in the colonial regiments, as was his son David Ensign Hills and his son David. The latter is known to have to fought in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).

The artwork was made on the wall in situ, perhaps by a family member to entertain and educate the children. We know a renovation after 1850 covered the wall with another plaster wall because some of the figures in the mural were found behind a stud. The date hasn’t been able to be narrowed down any further than that yet. The drawing will be studied further by Michael Emmons at the University of Delaware. It will be analyzed with infrared photography and reflectance transformation imaging which may reveal details invisible the naked eye.

As for its final disposition, that is up in the air at the moment. The house is still owned by descendants of the Hills family. They have are having it dismantled piece by piece and moved to South Carolina. They own the mural, of course, as it is literally a piece of their house. They might put it back on the wall where it was discovered.

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Incredibly rare Roman coin found during highway works

Saturday, May 18th, 2019

A Roman coin that is only the second example ever discovered in England has been found during construction work on the A14 highway in Cambridgeshire. The bronze coin features the radiate bust of the usurper emperor Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus on the obverse and winged Victory holding a wreath and palm branch on the reverse. It has been hard worn and the edges are scalloped so it’s difficult to read the inscription, but Laelianus only made two versions of this coin so we know it was minted at Mainz, his imperial seat.

Very little is known about Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus. The Ulpii were an important Spanish family — Trajan was an Ulpius — but there’s no evidence he was related to them. The aureus coin he issued had a depiction of a personified Spain on the reverse, which may have meant to suggest a connection to the famous Ulpii. As a usurper who claimed the imperial throne after rebelling against another usurper (his commanding officer Postumus), he would have a good reason to promote himself as related to the legitimate emperor who expanded the Roman empire to its greatest size, even if said connection was entirely fictional.

Laelianus’ “reign,” and I use the term loosely, lasted for two months in the spring of 269 A.D. and covered a snipped of Gaul and Germania. He commanded two legions and successfully repulsed a Germanic assault with them. In the wake of his victory, he declared himself emperor in Mainz. A couple of months later, his capital was besieged by his former commanding officer and he was killed, either by his own men or by Postumus’.

Because he was such a flash in the pan, his coins are extremely rare and very much sought after by collectors. Only one aureus and two bronze antoniniani are known. This bronze antoninianus was found in a ditch of a Roman farmstead excavated in the A14 expansion project.

Julian Bowsher, numismatist at MOLA Headland Infrastructure, added: “Roman emperors were very keen to mint coins. Laelianus reigned for just two months, which is barely enough time to do so. However, coins were struck in Mainz, Germania.

“The fact that one of these coins ever reached the shores of Britain demonstrates remarkable efficiency, and there’s every chance that Laelianus had been killed by the time this coin arrived in Cambridgeshire.”

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Conserved Bacton Altar Cloth goes on display

Friday, May 17th, 2019

Bacton Altar Cloth, 16th century silk and embroidery textile believed to have been part of a gown worn by Queen Elizabeth I. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

After three years of study and conservation, the Bacton Altar Cloth is going on display at Hampton Court Palace. None of Elizabeth I’s clothing has survived, although a number of accessories have, so this cross-shaped piece is uniquely rare.

The embroidered silk textile was donated to  St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, by Blanche Parry who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and dedicated ladies. She served the future queen starting during the reign of Henry VIII when Princess Elizabeth was a young girl and continued uninterrupted for 57 years, reached the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The queen is known to have given Blanche clothes she longer wanted.

While there is no specific record of this particular textile being a royal hand-me-down, its materials and manufacture are so exquisite that it would have been literally illegal for a non-royal to wear such a garment. A monarchical provenance would also explain why Blanche considered the piece important enough to donate to her hometown church where her heart is also buried.

The altar cloth’s connection to Elizabeth I has been rumored for centuries. Recognizing its importance, in 1909, the church took it off the altar and placed it in a glass display case. In 2016, St. Faith’s asked Historic Royal Palaces to study the altar cloth.

On examining the textile, [Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri] Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt.

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen. Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

The embroidery is truly spectacular, a profusion of flora (columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe) and fauna (peacocks, other birds, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, dogs, dear, squirrels, a crocodile, a bear). There are also small wooden boats being rowed by tiny embroidered people.

Detail of the embroidery of the Bacton Altar Cloth from the back: the bear. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

The exhibition will delve further into the use of these motifs in the Tudor era. One of the most important works on display, and one of the most significant pieces of circumstantial evidence for the altar cloth having been part of one of Elizabeth’s gowns, is the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600 – 02), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It depicts Elizabeth in an embroidered silk gown with very similar imagery. It is being loaned from Hatfield House for the exhibition and this is the first time it will be on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from October 12, 2019, until February 23, 2020.

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Giorgione masterpiece loaned to Wadsworth

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

An extremely rare masterpiece by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione has gone on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, from May 15 to August 4, 2019. La Vecchia (The Old Lady), is an unusual portrait of an elderly woman who stares open-mouthed at the viewer, reminding them that they too, if they’re lucky enough to live, will share her fate. It is being loaned to the Wadsworth by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

La Vecchia is Giorgione’s poetic response to the natural phenomenon of aging,” says Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art of the Wadsworth. “It is a milestone in European portraiture in which Giorgione shows old age with implacable explicitness. It prompts us to confront our own mortality and the inevitable truth of growing old.”

The hyperrealistic portrayal of a haggard woman looking directly at us both attracts and repels at the same time. With her lips open as if about to speak, she gestures to herself. In her hand is a slip of paper inscribed with the words col tempo, “with time.” Painted more than 500 years ago, the unsparing naturalism and representation of the effects of aging
are unexpected, a striking departure from the more familiar, idealized portraits of the time. A recent conservation treatment, funded by [the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture], has removed discoloration and breathed new life into La Vecchia.

What little biographical information we have about Giorgione comes primarily from Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari first introduces him in his chapter on Sebastiano del Piombo who began as a student of Giovanni Bellini but switched to Giorgione because the latter had “brought into Venice the newer manner, with its superior harmony and increased vividness of colouring.” Giorgione, who had himself had studied under Bellini, had such a profound influence on del Piombo’s style, Vasari states, that Sebastiano’s works were sometimes mistakenly believed to have been painted by Giorgione.

According to Vasari, Giorgione was born in 1477 (the date may or not be accurate) in Castelfranco Veneto, a small medieval town about 25 miles from Venice. Though of humble origins, Giorgione had fine manners, a love of literature and music (he was an excellent lute player) and was so dedicated to capturing nature that he always painted from life. He was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s keen grasp of anatomical realism coupled with the softness of color and shadows of his sfumato. Vasari compares Giorgione’s grasp of proportion, design and naturalism to Leonardo’s, saying his works “approached very closely to the excellence of his model.” His portraits were so life-like, Vasari says, that “the face appears to be real rather than painted.”

Giorgione’s talent was widely recognized in Renaissance Venice. He received multiple commissions for portraits, altarpieces and frescoes from the wealthiest and most important families. Sadly, his brilliant career was cut short. He was in his 30s when he died of plague in 1510. He died of plague, which Vasari says he caught from his inamorata.

Today only six paintings are indisputably attributed to him. Several of the ones Vasari mentioned are now known to have been painted by contemporaries like Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. The only one in the United States, the Adoration of the Shepherds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is of disputed authorship. The competing view is that it is an early work of Titian’s, and it’s a much more formal, less naturalistic scene than the portrait of La Vecchia. That’s why the Wadsworth exhibition is such a unique opportunity for people Stateside to view Giorgione’s work.

After experiencing Giorgione’ La Vecchia visitors will be invited to view the Wadsworth’s collection of Italian works of art including important Venetian Renaissance paintings by artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano. A group of deluxe books designed for and published by the famed Aldus Manutius—Venice’s leading purveyor of ancient and modern texts, known for their elegant design—are on view adjacent the Giorgione, as is the museum’s Andrea Previtali, Madonna and Child with a Donor in a landscape (c. 1504–05).

“Rarely do we have such a prime opportunity to reconnect with our shared humanity and with the Renaissance,” says Thomas J. Loughman, Director and CEO of the Wadsworth. “La Vecchia is without parallel in America as a major allegorical portrait by Giorgione, and this recent conservation provides the perfect occasion to learn and appreciate the
ideas behind the painting afresh.”

Giorgione (c. 1477/78–c. 1510), La Vecchia, 1502–08. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (68 x 59 cm), Gallerie dell’Accademia, cat. 272, © G.A. VE Photo Archive, Courtesy of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities—Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

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Farmer discovers Sarmatian warrior tomb

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

A farmer stumbled on a rare Sarmatian burial while working his land near the village of Nikolskoye in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia this winter. Rustam Mudayev was digging a pit when his bulldozer made an unusual sound. It was the sound of a mechanical digger meeting an ancient bronze pot. He took the vessel to the Astrakhan Museum-Reserve for examination and it was identified as Iron Age artifact.

When the snow melted, a team of archaeologists surveyed the find site. The discovered that the bronze pot had emerged from an ancient burial mound. The mound is noted on topographic maps, labeled “Praying Sands,” but had not been archaeologically excavated before.  Digging into the mound the team discovered the remains of an adult male buried with weapons, rich adornments and the head of his horse. 

He was tall, just under six feet, and elderly.  He had been buried in a closed coffin, his horse’s head in a silver and bronze harness placed on top of it. Inside the coffin archaeologists found a group of gold plaques that are believed to have decorated a pillow on which his head was resting. They also found knives with gold and turquoise decoration, a gold and turquoise belt buckle, a mirror and several pots. A tiny but exquisite gold and turquoise horse head figurine was found between his legs. The objects date to around the 2nd century A.D.

This was an elaborate burial for a nomadic people, an indication of the high status this individual held in his community. The weapons and the horse burial would have been reserved for a warrior and the wealth of the grave goods suggest he was a leader, a chieftain or nobleman.

Initially the mound was dated to the Iron Age (4th century B.C. – 4th century A.D.) based on the artifacts, but additional discoveries point to the mound having been used repeatedly starting in the Bronze Age. The team has been digging for less than two weeks and they’ve found two more burials — a woman buried with a bronze mirror and a whole sacrificed lamb and the skeletal remains of a young man with an egg-shaped skull. Deliberate cranial deformation was a common practice in the region at the time (actually in pretty much every inhabited region on the globe at various times). 

The mound has been looted in the past, but thankfully the looters did a shoddy job of it, only digging up the top Iron Age layer and not even clearing everything out. Archaeologists found small pieces of gold fittings or plaques left behind by the tomb raiders. They haven’t gotten to the central burial yet and excavations will continue for another week in the hopes they will reach the original Bronze Age burial that could date back to the third millennium B.C. Once the project is complete, the artifacts will be recovered, conserved and exhibited at the museum.

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