Archive for June, 2019

Water burial jewelry links Iron Age Finland to European exchange network

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Analysis of metal artifacts found at the Iron Age water burial site in Levänluhta, western Finland, has revealed links to an extensive exchange network stretching across Europe. This is the first-ever lead isotope analysis of copper artifacts found in Finland, and it sheds new light on the movement of materials through Europe in the Iron Age.

With at least 98 individual burials (a DNA study published earlier this month found they were closely related to the current Sámi people, the first physical evidence of Sámi settlement in southern Finland), Levänluhta is the largest water cemetery in Finland. It’s also unusual in that most of the people buried there (there are animal bones among the assemblage as well) were women and children, and they were buried whole instead of being cremated which was the common burial practice in Finland at the time. There’s no evidence of human sacrifice on the remains, no sharp or blunt trauma, nor is there evidence on the bones that they died from illness or famine. The water cemetery was in use from 300-800 A.D. when it was a small pond; today it’s a wetland.

No pottery was found, but there were 22 metal objects buried with the remains. Most of them were jewelry — finger rings, arm rings, neck rings, brooches, a chain — plus a bronze cauldron and some metal rods of undetermined nature. They date to the Merovingian period (ca. 550–800 A.D.) and the design and decoration styles indicate they were created in local workshops in Finland, but Finland didn’t have native sources of copper during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and no evidence of metal workshops or even settlements has been found near the Levänluhta site. Until recently scholars believed the ore itself was imported from southern Sweden. However, studies in the past few years have found that the metal in Iron Age artifacts discovered in Sweden were also imported from elsewhere.

All 22 metal artifacts were recently analyzed using portable energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF) analysis, a non-invasive technology that determines metal composition. They were found to be copper or copper alloys (bronze and brass).

Eight of the pieces recovered from Levänluhta were analyzed using multi collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (MC-ICP-MS) to determine their lead isotope content. By comparing the lead isotope ratios in the artifacts to those found in domestic, Swedish and other European copper ores, scientists hoped to discover the origin of the raw material and trace their provenance.

Based on typology, the oldest piece of the eight was a small arm-ring with a flattened end (ca. 100 A.D), followed by the Westland-type cauldron (300-575 A.D.) and the piece of chain (ca. 400 A.D.). The other five objects analyzed were arm rings and neck rings dating to the same late Iron Age (550-800 A.D.).

MC-ICP-MS requires samples of the metal to work, so it is invasive, but researchers were able to make it minimally so drawing samples of just 7-10 mg. Because the samples were microdrilled from the artifacts, surface issues — wear, patina, corrosion — did not affect the results like they do pXRF analysis. The lead isotope and trace evidence found that the source of the copper ore was neither Finland, nor Sweden nor anywhere else in Scandinavia.

Based on the lead isotope ratios, the copper in the objects has its origins in the copper ores found in Greece and Bulgaria. These regions produced a large quantity of copper in the Bronze and Iron Age, which spread around Europe as various object forms, distributed as presents, loot and merchandise.  Metals were also recycled by melting old objects into raw material for new casts. It may be possible that metals that ended up in Finland during the Bronze Age were recycled in the Levänluhta region.

The findings of this project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, demonstrate that products of the copper exchange network of continental Europe also reached Finland across the Baltic Sea, thus making it possible to link the region with the extensive copper exchange system known to have extended throughout Europe. The results also illustrate the temporally and technologically multi-layered nature of prehistoric metal artefacts: raw materials found their way here through a number of hands, most likely over a long period of time and across very great distances. In domestic artisan workshops, these metals of international origin were manufactured into pieces of jewellery in domestic Iron Age fashion, perhaps embodying the local identity and place of residence of the bearer.

The lead isotope study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read in its entirety online.


Triceratops found at Denver retirement home

Monday, June 24th, 2019

Dinosaur bones believed to be from one the coolest of all dinosaurs, Triceratops, were discovered by workers at a construction site in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, in May. Crews had been digging at that site near a retirement community for five years and never found a thing. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of May one of the workers reported to the project director that they’d uncovered what he thought were dinosaur bones.  The director and crew all had a look, debating whether they might be petrified wood rather than bones. Ultimately they decided to contact experts at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to find out for sure.

When paleontologists examined the discovery, they recognized the unearthed limb bone and ribs as having belonged to a horned dinosaur, but further investigation was necessary to determine which type. There were several species of horned and armored herbivores. In order to pin down the type, paleontologists needed to find at least one of the three bones that made up the heavy shield on the back on the head.

The museum team excavated the find site and unearthed more bones, including ones from the arm and shoulder, parts of the skull, shin bones and pieces of pelvis. About 30% of the animal has been recovered, enough to determine that the bones are between 66 and 68 million years old and probably belonged to a Triceratops, and a big one at that.

“The truth is: we’re not 100% sure it’s a Triceratops at this point. So there’s a chance we could find out it’s something completely different, which I think is cool,” Bastien said. “We can’t rule out the possibility it’s a completely different species no one’s ever seen before.”

At this point, however, the museum is calling it a ‘Triceratops.’

Volunteers in the fossil preparation lab (within the museum) have already started working on clearing off parts of the dinosaur’s face.

“[We have] a good portion of the skull, which is really important in telling us how the animal lived,” Bastien said. “We were all surprised to see how massive, how beautiful those bones are”.

The excavation was so productive that the planned two weeks of digging extended well into a second month. Because there is no federal law regarding the preservation and excavation of paleontological or archaeological remains on private land, the construction crew had no legal obligation even to report the find, and certainly not to delay their work to allow excavation. Thankfully they were civic-minded enough to let the museum’s team do their thing and recover all the bones they could.

The fossils that have been recovered will now be fully excavated from the bedrock (they were raised en bloc, encased in plaster for their safety) and cleaned at the museum. The process is expected to take at least a year.


Unique Roman gold coin found in Lower Saxony

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

A Roman gold coin that is unique in the archaeological record has been discovered by a metal detectorist in the Stade district of Lower Saxony, Germany. Matthias Glüsing was scanning a field near Fredenbeck in December of 2017 when he found the coin. The field is known for its prehistoric burial mounds, but it was significantly northeast of the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The coin was a most unexpected find.

It is a Multiplum of the Emperor Constans, youngest son of Constantine I, and was minted in 342/343 at Siscia in the Roman province of Pannonia Savia. The mint at Siscia, modern-day Sisak, Croatia, was opened by Gallienus in 262 A.D. and remained in use as imperial mint until the end of Gratian’s rule in 383 A.D. The coins struck there during the 4th century bear the mintmark SIS or SISC.

While their obverse and reverse images and inscriptions were derived from high-value circulation coins, multipla were not meant to spend. They were special issues created to commemorate the ascension of a new emperor, a great victory and jubilee years that would be given to a very select group of the emperor’s most loyal supporters in a special ceremony. Holes found in some of the survivors indicate they were worn as pendants by their honored recipients. Very few were made; even fewer survive. None of this type have been found before.

This one was modeled after a gold solidus Constans struck celebrating his victory over the Franks in 342. At nine grams, the Multiplum is twice the weight of the solidus. Its discovery so far north in such good condition may be an indication that it was gifted to a Saxon war leader who gave crucial aid to the Roman emperor.  If so, it would be the earliest archaeological evidence of a Saxon military elite in what is now Lower Saxony. While there are references to a tribe north of the Elbe that can be interpreted as “Saxones” in Claudius Ptolemy’s 2nd century Geographia, the earliest undisputed account naming the Saxons comes from a speech delivered by future emperor Julian in 356 A.D. He names them as military allies of the Gallic usurper Magnentius who was acclaimed the new emperor by his troops after they killed Constans. The Multiplum predates that speech (and that alliance).

In recent months, the sensational discovery was intensively researched: At the site an excavation was carried out and searched with metal detectors. In addition, the archaeologists have evaluated historical maps and aerial photographs. “So far, there is good evidence to suggest that the gold coin was sacrificed in a special location characterized by a small moorland, a distinctive burial mound group, an ancient path and an impressive hill,” says [Stade district archaeologist Daniel] Nösler.

Lower Saxony requires that any metal detectorists who wish to search for archaeological materials or who search sites where archaeological materials are likely to be found apply for a permit. All would-be metal detectorists must take a free course to qualify for a permit, and they must contact the archaeologist overseeing the area they plan to explore ahead of time. This system ensures metal detector hobbyists have a proper grounding in how to approach archaeological finds and builds collaborative relationships between the amateurs and the professionals. Indeed, the finder participated in the follow-up archaeological excavation, scanning the wider site for potential areas of interest while archaeologists excavated the find site. Also, he is wearing an excellent t-shirt and I want it.

Presenting the coin (from right): Daniel Nösler (district archaeologist), Matthias Glüsing (metal detectorist and finder of the coin), district administrator Michael Roesberg and Hans-Eckard Dannenberg (Stade History Club). Photo by Christian Schmidt courtesy the Landkreis Stade.

The coin has been acquired by the government and will go on display at the Stade Schwedenspeicher Museum. The museum has recently opened a new permanent exhibition on the pre-history of the Elbe-Weser-Triangle, and they are going to have to rewrite some of their information in the light of this discovery.


Nazi eagle from shipwreck must be sold

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

A court in Montevideo, Uruguay, has ruled that a Nazi eagle salvaged from a German warship in 2006 must be sold within 90 days after more than a decade in storage.

The German battleship Admiral Graf Spee came off the line in 1936, an example of the Nazi government’s rearmament program thumbing its nose at the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. It was a hair shy of 10,000 tons in weight, the limit allowed per the terms of the post-World War I peace treasty, but it displaced over 16,000 tons making it well in excess of the limits. It saw limited action in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1938. In 1939 it was sent to the South Atlantic two weeks before the official outbreak of hostilities to target Allied merchant shipping as soon as the war started.

The Admiral Graf Spee was fast, maneuverable and heavily armed.  A combination that ensured that any French or British cruiser fast enough to give chase would be dangerously outgunned. In less than three months between September and December 1939, the battleship sank nine Anglo-French ships. It was engaged by the Royal Navy in the Battle of the River Plate off the coast of Uruguay on December 13th. This was the first naval battle of World War II and both sides took damage, the British more so than the German. Nonetheless, the Admiral Graf Spee had to limp into the neutral port of Montevideo with damage to the fuel system. Its captain Hans Langsdorff, deceived by British misinformation about phantom superior forces and concerned the ship’s cutting-edge technology would fall into Allied hands, scuttled the ship in the estuary of the River Plate.

The scuttled ship was not fully submerged in the shallow waters of the estuary. Whole gun turrets were visible for years before the ship sank into the silt leaving only the tip of the mast above the water line. In 2004, a salvage operation was funded by the government of Uruguay and private investors to raise as much of the wreck as possible to clear the shipping lane.

On February 10th, 2006, the eagle crest that once adorned the stern of the ship was recovered. The massive bronze bird, 6’7″ high weighing 800lb and with a nine foot wingspan, held a wreath encircling a swastika in its talons. This was a common feature on German battleships made before the war, but most of them were removed as clunky and impractical. The Graf Spree was already away on its mission when the war broke out, so it still had its giant eagle crest when it went down.

The salvage operation had already generated controversy over the disruption of a grave site and the fate of the recovered ship parts. The raising of the eagle with its Nazi symbolism writ large, was so hot a potato that the salvage team covered the swastika with a yellow tarp as it was craned out of the water. It was barged back to port — where tourists from a cruise ship got to take a bunch of pictures of it — and briefly displayed. The syndicate doing the salvage was keen to make a return on their investment; there was talk of the eagle and other recovered ship parts being sold to private collectors in the US and Europe willing to spend huge sums ($15 million was bandied about in 2006). Much controversy ensued, and the eagle was quickly stashed in a naval warehouse inside a sealed crate.

It has been locked in that crate ever since while thorny legal issues wended their way through the Uruguayan court system. Germany claimed ownership and protested any attempts to profit from its display or sale. It was amenable to arrangements for its exhibition in carefully curated museum context, but not sold to highest bidders with very questionable motives.

The Uruguay court ruled the eagle that has been stored in a wooden box in a naval warehouse must be auctioned off within 90-days and the proceeds divided among the investors of the project who recovered the relic from the bottom of the River Plate.

Uruguay’s El Pais newspaper reported that in the past there had been offers of between $8 million to $52 million (€9 million to €59 million) for the object.


Unique Roman “licking dog” to be sold

Friday, June 21st, 2019

The glaring loophole in the 1996 Treasure Act strikes again, this time the victim is the unique Roman bronze statue of a dog with his tongue out discovered by metal detectorists in Gloucestershire in August 2017.

The dog is 5 ¼ inches high and 8 ½ inches long and is posed with his head looking upwards, his mouth open and his tongue poking out. Both the front shoulders are engraved with a stylized leaf or feather motif. Fur details are engraved on his jowls, paws, genitals and hind haunches as well. Holes found under his paws and a square hole in its belly indicate he was mounted to a base originally. It dates to the 4th century A.D.

The licking dog is believed to represent healing as the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, had a canine companion. Dogs were believed to be able to heal injuries with their lick. An Iron Age temple to the local Celtic healing god Nodens, who was also a hunting deity and was associated with dogs in that capacity as well, was discovered at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, not far from where the hoard was found. Seven votive dogs have been unearthed at Lydney and at some at Llys Awel in Wales as well, but none of them are comparable in size, quality of material, construction and decoration to this one. It is unique in the British archaeological record.

The rest of the hoard consists of a group of fragments, one bearing a partial inscription, furniture fittings, vessel handles, wires, mounts and fragments of what was once a figurine of a man wearing an intricately draped garment. There is one coin in the hoard, a follis of Crispus, the son of Constantine the Great, with globe-on-altar reverse. This type of coin was minted at Trier between 321-324 A.D., which means the earliest date the hoard could have been buried was 321. Archaeologists think the large number of scraps in the hoard indicate it was buried by a metalworker who intended to melt them down and never got the chance.

When the discovery was announced in September 2017, the hoard was at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery where experts were studying it. After that, it was slated to go the British Museum for assessment by the Valuation Committee. Since then, I can find no reports of a coroner’s inquest to determine its treasure status, and the record in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database obviously needs updating because the hoard is categorized as “Undergoing further examination at a museum.”

As there is only one coin in the group and everything from furniture fittings to plaque fragments to the dog statue is made of a bronze (so not a precious metal), this unique object of British cultural heritage does not qualify as treasure under the Act. The proposed revision of the act would classify any Roman artifact of any estimated value no matter what its composition as treasure. In fact, the coin alone would qualify the hoard as treasure under the revisions, as single coins between 43 A.D. and 1344 satisfy the criteria.

The entire hoard is going under the hammer at Christie’s Antiquities sale on July 3rd. It is being offered as a single lot with a pre-sale estimate of $37,620-62,700. I can but hope that the price doesn’t skyrocket like it did with the Allectus aureus and that a local museum wins the bidding.


What the Celts drank

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

A vast quantity of vessels used for feasting, many of them imports, have been unearthed from Celtic settlements and graves. The large numbers, origins and distribution of the feasting vessels have primarily been interpreted as evidence that the Celtic elite was imitating the Mediterranean practice of wine banquets, mimicking the lifestyle of southern elites north of the Alps. To determine what the Celts were actually consuming in those fine imported vessels, a research team led by scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich and the University of Tübingen embarked on a large-scale examination of organic residues inside the feasting vessels.

The team focused on artifacts found at one the most significant Early Iron Age sites in Western Central Europe: Vix-Mont Lassois in Burgundy, France. The site is best known for the intact princely grave unearthed in 1953 that contained the Vix Krater, an imported Greek bronze volute krater of such gargantuan proportions that at 5’4″ high, 450 lbs in weight and with a capacity of 1,100 liters, it is the largest surviving metal vessel from antiquity. Excavations have recovered hundreds of fragments of Mediterranean pottery, mainly Attic black- and red-figure, amphorae from the Greek colony of Marseille and a broad variety of other imported Mediterranean vessels.

Organ residue analysis was performed on 99 vessels, 16 imported and 83 locally made. Of the local production, 68 are fine ware, high quality vessels on a par with the imports, and 15 are coarse ware. The vessels include both low forms — drinking cups, bowls and beakers — and high forms — amphorae and kraters used for transporting or mixing large quantities.

 The finds included pottery and bronze vessels that had been imported from Greece around 500 BCE. “This was a period of rapid change, during which vessels made in Greece and Italy reached the region north of the Alps in large numbers for the first time. It has generally been assumed that this indicates that the Celts began to imitate the Mediterranean lifestyle, and that only the elite were in a position to drink Mediterranean wine during their banquets,” says LMU archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, who led the project. “Our analyses confirm that they indeed consumed imported wines, but they also drank local beer from the Greek drinking bowls. In other words, the Celts did not simply adopt foreign traditions in their original form. Instead, they used the imported vessels and products in their own ways and for their own purposes. Moreover, the consumption of imported wine was apparently not confined to the upper echelons of society. Craftsmen too had access to wine, and the evidence suggests that they possibly used it for cooking, while the elites quaffed it in the course of their drinking parties. The study shows that intercultural contact is a dynamic process and demonstrates how easy it is for unfamiliar vessels to serve new functions and acquire new meanings.”

Chemical analysis of the food residues absorbed into the ancient pots now makes it possible to determine what people ate and drank thousands of years ago. The group of authors based at the University of Tübingen analyzed these chemical fingerprints in the material from Mont Lassois. “We identified characteristic components of olive oil and milk, imported wine and local alcoholic beverages, as well as traces of millet and beeswax,” says Maxime Rageot, who performed the chemical analyses in Tübingen. “These findings show that – in addition to wine – beers brewed from millet and barley were consumed on festive or ritual occasions.” His colleague Cynthianne Spiteri adds: “We are delighted to have definitively solved the old problem of whether or not the early Celts north of the Alps adopted Mediterranean drinking customs. – They did indeed, but they did so in a creative fashion!”

That is more than borne out by the combination of and customization of the vessels found in elite graves, most recently the princely tomb unearthed in Lauvau, Champagne, in 2015. Among the exceptional grave goods were a wine feasting service that included an Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe. The oinochoe was made in Greece, rimmed with gold decorated in Etruscan motifs and silver elements with Celtic designs. The bronze cauldron found in the Prince of Lavau’s grave is of Etruscan manufacture and is the second largest known surviving metal vessel from antiquity.

The study has been published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.


Unexpected Roman lead sarcophagus found in Granada

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating a historic site in downtown Granada unexpectedly discovered a lead sarcophagus from the Roman era. They were excavating under the Villamena building, a modern structure next to Granada Cathedral that was built after a 14th century building on the site was demolished in 1938. Under the Nasrid dynasty (1228-1492) Emirate of Granada, it was the Alhóndiga de los Genoveses, a warehouse used by Genoese merchants to store trade goods like silk and sugar. After the Reconquista, their Catholic Majesties turned the building into a prison. It would remain one for four centuries until all the inmates were moved to the new, much larger provincial prison in 1930. Dilapidated and on the verge of collapse, the Alhóndiga was demolished in the last year of the Second Spanish Republic. Only the front gate was left standing. It still stands today, integrated into the modern structure which houses a bank.

When excavations began, therefore, archaeologists expected to find remains from the Middle Ages, at most. They were doing an archaeological survey as required by law before underground construction work. They did find a few minor remains from the Emirate and Christian eras, nothing of particular significance, and decided before the excavation ended to go down a little deeper. Eight feet below the surface under a slab of muddy sandstone, they unearthed a grave. That wasn’t necessarily exceptional in and of itself, but when the slab was removed, head archaeologist Ángel Rodríguez was stupified to see a lead sarcophagus

Rodríguez believes the sarcophagus dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, a time when lead sarcophagi were not at all common. In Andalusia, they were expensive as well as difficult to obtain, because the industry only existed in Córdoba, over 200 kilometers away. “Córdoba is the only place where they made lead sarcophagi,” Rodríguez explains. […]

The lead sarcophagus … weighs between 300 and 350 kilograms, and has the same dimensions of a classic coffin: 1.97 meters long and 40 centimeters high. It is slightly wider at the head (56 centimeters) than at the foot (36 centimeters). On first inspection, Rodríguez says there is no sign of an inscription, but adds that “it still has a lot of clay and sand,” and “we’ll see when we clean it.” The outside of the sarcophagus has already given researchers many insights, and the inside is expected to give many more when it is opened in a few weeks.

It had to have belonged to a wealthy person as lead sarcophagi were extremely expensive even in places where they were made locally. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, what is now downtown Granada was the countryside outside of the Roman town. The Albaicín district, where the Alhambra is located, was the center of a modest Roman settlement. While it was out of town, there was no cemetery on the site either. The lost river Darro ran through it. Another lead sarcophagus was reportedly found by workers at the site in 1902, but it was looted to nothingness before archaeologists could get there. It’s possible the riverside held some funerary significance for the residents of the Roman settlement and its Iberian founders.

The sarcophagus is now being cleaned and conserved at the Archaeological Museum of Granada. Researchers are deciding how best to approach opening the coffin with the least amount of damage. A team of anthropologists, restorers and archaeologists will attend the opening to document its contents.

Because lead preserves its contents very well, it’s possible the sarcophagus still holds human remains, grave goods, perhaps even textiles which will shed new light on funerary practices of Roman Granada. Any human remains found at the opening will be transferred to the forensic anthropology laboratory at Granada University. The sarcophagus itself and contents will remain in the museum for further study.


Chippendale tables, mirrors accepted in lieu

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

A set of matching pier tables and mirrors by Thomas Chippendale have been acquired for the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. The pair of marquetry inlay tables and Neoclassical looking glasses were given to government by the Trustees of the 7th Earl of Harewood’s Will Trust in lieu of inheritance tax. They have been allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but will not budge from their current location, the Music Room at Harewood House, Yorkshire.

Chippendale was commissioned by Edwin Lascelles, 1st Baron Harewood, to furnish and decorate his newly-built estate. Harewood House was constructed from 1759 to 1771, and the nouveau baron spared no expense on his new seat. Lascelles hired Thomas Chippendale, recognized as the greatest furniture-maker in England, in 1767, before the mansion was even complete. Chippendale visited Harewood that summer and began making preparatory designs.

Chippendale’s Harewood House commission was the most extensive in range of objects, quality of materials and decoration of his career. It was also the most expensive. The surviving records are spotty, but estimates place the value of the contract to more than £10,000 (about $2 million in today’s money).

The first furnishings arrived from Chippendale’s London workshop in April of 1769 and kept coming, literally by the ton (the transportation bills have survived), on a regular basis for years. We know from Chippendale’s records that his team fully furnished three major rooms on the principal floor (the State Bedchamber, State Dressing Room, the Yellow Damask Sitting Room ) and the main staircase area. Harewood’s Day Work Book, kept by steward Samuel Popelwell, record the Chippendale workmen installing furniture in the Dining Room, Library and Music Room. A 1795 inventory records Chippendale pieces in the entrance hall, back stairs and passages, the superior rooms in the basement (Billiards Room, Coffee Room, Stewards Room) and top floor apartments for family and guests.

He didn’t just make the furniture. Chippendale was also tasked with creating window cornices, borders and finishes on the wall coverings, paper and damask (which his workmen hung in all the main rooms), and chimney pieces. While the elaborate plaster moldings in the Music Room were designed by Robert Adam, Chippendale collaborated with Adam and carved the gilded reliefs of the tables and frames of the mirrors to match the ones in the room.

The table tops are rosewood with satin-wood, tulip-wood and other veneers inlaid in patterns of acanthus and anthemion leaf spirals. Marquetry inlay in floral patterns became fashionable in the mid-1750s in France, but it didn’t cross over to England until the dawn of Neoclassicism a decade later. Thomas Chippendale was one of the pioneers of the technique in England. The legs and frames are gilded in a two-tone style, gold and silver, that was popular in French furniture of the time. The mirrors frames also match the plasterwork motifs with carved anthemion and scrolling acanthus leaves on the apron and cresting.

The views of ancient ruins reflected in the mirrors are by Neoclassical painter Antonio Zucchi who collaborated with Robert Adam on the decoration of several stately homes. They can be seen in Adam’s original plan for the room. The mirrors are in the plan too, with only small differences from the final pieces.

Over the centuries pieces of Harewood House’s Chippendale furniture have been sold, chipping away (no pun intended) at the greatest single collection of his works in their original context. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme allows the Trust a financial benefit without losing the pieces Thomas Chippendale made specifically for the space. The V&A has formalized the arrangement with a long-term loan that will keep the Music Room almost exactly as Robert Adams designed it.

The tables and glasses will undergo a programme of conservation by the V&A’s conservators to restore the surface finish closer to Chippendale’s original intention.

Tristram Hunt, Director, V&A said: “It is exceptionally rare to find Thomas Chippendale furniture as well documented as that at Harewood House – the most lavish commission Chippendale ever received. Of superlative quality, the tables and glasses are welcome additions to the V&A’s world-class collection of English furniture. We are delighted that they can remain in their original location to be seen and appreciated by visitors to Harewood House for years to come.”


17th c. Samson restored to strength

Monday, June 17th, 2019

A 17th century wood statue of Samson, last judge of the Israelites, single-handed slayer of the entire Philistine army armed only with the jawbone of an ass, has been restored to its former strength. It wasn’t a stealth haircut from a temptress that enfeebled him this time, but years of exposure to the less-than-dulcet elements in Norwich covered up with thick layers of paint.

The statue of Samson and a matching figure of Hercules were commissioned in 1657 by Christopher Jay, the mayor of Norwich, as atlantids (carved columns) to flank the entrance of his new home facing Norwich Cathedral in the city’s historic center of Tombland. (Jay had the house built in 1656 incorporating a 15th century home on the site that had belonged to Sir John Fastolf, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff.) So iconic did the two statues become that despite the mansion’s many illustrious owners over the years, it became known as the Samson and Hercules House.

Christopher Jay enjoyed his fine guardsmen for twenty years. After his death in 1677, the house lived many lives. It was used as a private home, a surgery, a wool-combing concern, among other functions. In the 20th century, it was a YWCA for a spate before turning into a dance hall in the 1930s, which is what it would remain in various iterations of the concept until 2003. Today it is a Mexican restaurant franchise.

After Samson’s right arm, the one holding the jawbone of the ass, fell off 1992, residents rallied to the heroes’ defense and in 1993 Samson and Hercules were replaced with fiberglass replicas and the originals removed to the care of Norfolk Museums. That’s when researchers discovered that while the old Hercules was also a replica — a late 19th century replacement for the decayed original — Samson was the original 17th century piece. X-rays showed that under the thick layers of white lead paint were intricately carved details long obscured.

He was in such fragile condition — dismembered arm, literally rotten at the core — that it was not possible to put him on display, so Samson would remain in storage for another 20 years. After much negotiation and back-and-forth, Norfolk Museum Services officially acquired the statues in the late 1990s, but the ambitious project of restoring Samson to his 17th century glory would have longer to wait. The lead paint made him heavy  and as long as he was coated in it, assessing the true extent of the rot would be difficult. You can’t just strip off lead paint, however, as it is a hazardous material, and the need to preserve any original features and traces of original color required extreme caution.

In 2014, the Norfolk Museums Service finally got the funding for essential conservation of the Samson statue. It engaged restorers Plowden & Smith to take on the dangerous and daunting task of removing the gross, bulbous cocoon of lead paint and enamel that had made the Biblical hero look like an amorphously lumpy Michelin Man. He was moved to Plowden & Smith’s conservation studio in London and experts embarked on the difficult job.

Conservators discovered a sizeable gap between the outer core and the inner, which they presumed had been caused by the figure drying out over time indoors. There was now a gap wide enough to fit a pencil into at some points, making it possible to remove much of the paint in fairly large pieces without using toxic and messy paint strippers. This was done rather like removing a plaster cast from a broken leg, by cutting carefully in the right places, in this instance with a hammer and a sharp chisel rather than an electric saw. Latterly, a scalpel was used for the finer work.

After four years of painstaking efforts by decorative arts and wood conservators, Samson’s features, carved from a single piece of oak, were seen once more: the long curls spilling down his back, his ripped, veiny forearms, the fine hairs of his moustache and beard, the bushy-tailed fox carried in his left arm, a grotesque-like head serving as the clasp on his robe, even traces of early gilding and colored paint. The crumbling, spongey areas of the wood were injected with a liquid consolidant and areas of loss filled with cellulose fiber to make him structurally sound again.

In February of 2018, the museum launched a crowdfunding campaign with a target of £15,000 for a new custom-built, environmentally controlled display case that would allow Samson to stand guard again, secure and stable inside the museum’s first gallery. The humidity and light controls of the new case would allow curators to keep the wood from expanding and contracting and highlight his fine features for visitors. A rod inserted through the core of his body would make it possible for him to stand, even though his feet have rotted away. The target was achieved before the deadline.

The restored Samson was officially unveiled to the public in his new display case at the Bridewell Alley Museum of Norwich on April 3rd of this year.


New timeline for Must Farm settlement

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

Must Farm quarry in the Cambridgeshire fens near Whittlesey, southeast England, is the site of a Late Bronze Age pile-dwelling settlement so well-preserved that it the press gleefully dubbed it the Pompeii of the Fens. Like all of the myriad “Pompeii of the X” out monickers out there, it’s an entirely inaccurate comparison, but the site is unprecedented on its own terms. The excavation of the 3,000-year-old settlement unearthed the largest group of Bronze Age artifacts ever found in Britain, and that was just the beginning. Beyond the thousands of objects — textiles, beads of amber, jet and glass, fineware and coarseware pottery, spear points, a bronze sickle or bill hook, swords, tools, weirs, eel traps, a wooden bowl with the remains of nettle stew, eight intact log boats, an absolutely incredible intact wooden wheel, and much more — the structure of the settlement itself was revealed in the remains of collapsed roundhouses built on stilts, complete with wattle walls, a large wooden platform and a wooden palisade.

Organic materials were exquisitely preserved in the waterlogged river-silt of what is now the Flag Fen Basin, making the Must Farm settlement the site of the most completely preserved prehistoric domestic structures in Britain. Only the Neolithic lake-dwellings of the Circum-Alpine can compare with Must Farms’ diversity of artifacts, surviving architecture and clear definition of how the settlement was organized.

When excavations ended in 2016, archaeologists had a rough idea of the settlement’s timeline based on their field work. The first stages of construction took place around 1300 B.C. in the channel of the ancient Nene River. This was not a settlement, but a causeway used to cross the channel and for fishing. As groundwater levels rose, the causeway was flooded and in around 1000 B.C. new piles were sunk and the palisade added to help keep water out. Then, between 920 and 800 B.C., the settlement was struck by a catastrophic fire which put an end to human habitation of the site.

In the first publication since the end of excavations, archaeologists from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit present a new, much shorter window of time in which Must Farm was occupied before its destruction by fire.

The oak piles discovered in a 2006 archaeological survey of the site pre-date the pile-dwelling settlement. They were the supports for a causeway across the southeastern end of the Flag Fen Basin. By the time the settlement was built, all that would have been visible of the causeway were the rotted tops of the oak piles showing above the water.

The pile-dwellings were constructed during a period when the river, still active, was shallow and wide from silt build-up. The settlement consisted of at least five buildings on stilts, four circular, one trapezoidal, a palisade and a raised walkway. They were built over deep-set concentric rings of piles strong enough to support heavy roof timbers. The floors were relatively lightweight, built using slim poles and hurdle panels. Pathways of mortis-jointed timbers connected the structures and lined the inside of the palisade.

The thin stratigraphy, architectural clarity and highly structured artefactual and biological assemblages all suggest a brief occupation. The settlement’s limited life span is most vividly expressed by the close stratigraphic relationship between the woodchips from construction and the collapsed, charred structural remains of its demise, with the latter resting more or less directly on top of the former.

The emerging evidence suggests that one year is a reasonable estimate for the length of settlement occupation. Ongoing dendrochronological analysis of the structural timbers reveals that the settlement was built in a single construction phase, using wood of a similar felling year. The same analysis also shows differential sapwood shrinkage on areas of individual oaks protected from, and exposed to, the fire, which suggests that the timbers were still green, or unseasoned, when the settlement was destroyed by fire. Oak timber is broadly accepted to require one to two years to season under natural conditions in Britain. This would provide a terminus ante quem for the duration of occupation, if confirmed by experimental charring of green oak. During excavation, it also became clear that wood-boring insect damage was nearly absent on the structural timbers, despite the retention of sapwood and bark on many elements, including the hurdle gangway. Insects are known to colonise timber structures rapidly; this includes synanthropes, which are also absent in the Must Farm assemblage.

So instead of decades of occupation, it seems the settlement was active for less than a year when disaster struck. The density of artifacts, some of which could not have been locally sourced and must have come from impressively extended trade networks, in dwellings that were only occupied for a matter of months attest to the remarkable richness of daily life in an entirely routine Bronze Age fenland settlement.

The study is fascinating and exceptionally readable and has been published in open access form so everyone can enjoy its contents free of charge. I highly recommend it.





June 2019
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