Iron Age gold snake-tipped collar found in Estonia

A metal detector hobbyist has discovered a rare 1,700-year-old gold collar in Estonia.  On September 8th, Jegor Klimov was exploring a field at the ancient sacrificial site of Saaremaa as part of a search team led by archaeologist Marika Mägi when his metal detector alerted. The team had already decided to pack up and leave, but Klimov started to dig and revealed a tell-tale yellow glint. Archaeologists joined in and excavated a coiled up ring of gold with a serpent head on one end.

The collar dates to the Roman Iron Age, around the 3rd century A.D. Neck rings from this period were marks of high rank in Scandinavia, the more complex the design and construction, the more elite the wearer. Almost all the ones that have been discovered were found in bogs; none of them were found in graves. A few more simple arm rings and neck rings have been found in cremation burials. Studies of artifacts have found that objects buried in bogs were not, as a rule, the same as those buried in graves. Votive deposits were more precious, the best possible objects dedicated as sacrifices at sacred sites. Of the 60 or so extant gold neck rings from the Scandinavian Iron Age, almost all of them have been found in Sweden and Denmark. A handful have been found in Finland; one in Poland. This is the first of its kind found anywhere else in the Baltic states.

Very few artifacts from this period have been discovered in Estonia and gold objects from any period are extremely rare in the Estonian archaeological record. They can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. At 175 grams in weight, this piece is the heaviest, most valuable gold archaeological artifact ever found in Estonia and must have belonged to someone of the highest rank among the Nordic elite. Its discovery supports the hypothesis that what is now western and northwestern Estonia had meaningful cultural contact with the peoples around the Baltic Sea and in Scandinavia as well as with the tribes in the modern-day Baltic states and Russia.

The Saaremaa piece may have been a bracelet, spiral collar or necklace. It’s difficult to say because, as is common with sacrificed objects, it was deliberately deformed, but its heavy weight and length suggests it was probably a neck ring.

“One can say that this is likely the most valuable single find,in the material sense, to be unearthed in Estonia,” Mägi explained to ETV news broadcast “Aktuaalne kaamera.” “It is believed that whoever wore these, they were a symbol of belonging to the highest echelons of society. So these are not regular bracelets. How this particular bracelet ended up in Saaremaa is an exciting question in its own right, and one we’ll likely never get a real answer for. This is a type of jewelry which throughout Scandinavia is considered one of the most significant items of the Roman Iron Age, and it is associated with royal power and royal families.”

Cimabue masterpiece found in French kitchen

A painting that for years hung over a hotplate in a Compiegne kitchen has been identified as a 13th century tempera-on-panel by Cimabue. Its owner, a woman in her 90s, knew nothing about it. She thought it was a Russian religious icon and had no recollection of how or when she’d gotten it. Even though it had been perched over the hotplate for years, it was in good condition. When the elderly lady decided to move out and sell her 1960s home and its contents, she contacted a local auctioneer to see if there was anything worse selling. The appraiser had a week to go through the house before the owner sent everything to the dump.

She noticed the painting over the hotplate right away and thought it might be something special, an Italian primitive piece worth several hundred thousand euros, at least. She suggested they get expert from Paris to assess it. Old Masters specialists from the Turquin gallery in Paris examined the painting in detail, including under infrared light, and determined that it is was painted by Cimabue.

“It’s a major discovery for the history of art,” Pinta said of the newly discovered work measuring about 10 inches by 8 inches (24 centimeters by 20 centimeters). Other experts agreed.

The Florentine painter Cenni di Pepo (c. 1240 – c. 1302), nicknamed Cimabue, was a pioneering artists of the late medieval period who introduced naturalistic emotion and perspective into the two-dimensional, heavily symbolic Byzantine painting style. In so doing, he and contemporaries like his student Giotto were key to the transition of the static, stylized painting of Middle Ages into the Italian Renaissance. There are only 11 known panel paintings by Cimabue and none of them are signed.

The newly discovered panel, Christ Mocked, depicts Jesus surrounded by a jeering mob after his trial before the Sanhedrin, an event described in all three Synoptic Gospels. It was originally part of a larger piece, perhaps an altarpiece diptych, that depicted several small scenes from Christ’s Passion and death. It was dismembered and sold off in individual lots, a sadly common fate for rare early panel paintings during the frenzied souvenir collecting of the Grand Tour era. Scholars believe that two other panels from the piece are now in the Frick Collection in New York and National Gallery, London.

The Frick acquired its panel, The Flagellation of Christ, in 1950, but at the time it was loosely attributed only to the Tuscan school. It wasn’t confirmed as the work of the innovative medieval master until 2000 when the companion piece now in the National Gallery, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, was rediscovered in the ancestral home of a Suffolk aristocrat and was accepted by the government in lieu of Inheritance Tax. The wood — type, carpentry and condition, down to the wormholes — and paint — material and style — comparison marked the two panels as having been painted at the same time by Cimabue.

After examining the French kitchen find, Turquin gallery specialists concluded with “certitude” it bore hallmarks of Cimabue’s work, Pinta said.

They noted clear similarities with the two panels of Cimabue’s diptych, one displayed at the Frick Collection in New York and the other at the National Gallery in London.

Likenesses in the facial expressions and buildings the artist painted and the techniques used to convey light and distance specifically pointed to the small piece having been created by Cimabue’s hand.

The work will go under the hammer at the Acteon auction house in Senlis, north of Paris, on October 27. It is estimated to sell between four and six million euros ($4.3 million – $6.6 million), but the sky is the limit really. This is the first time a Cimabue has ever come up for auction and museums and collectors with the deepest pockets imaginable are going to be gunning for it.

Assyrian reliefs (and beards) at the Getty

The British Museum has the largest collection of Assyrian reliefs in the world, with 240 panels on display and another 80 in storage. Only lack of space and funds keeps those 80 out of public view, not any inferiority of quality. Indeed, one of them, the Banquet Scene from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, is regarded by many as the finest Assyrian single panel relief in the world. They used to be on display in a basement gallery but it was closed in 2006 and these priceless treasures have only rarely been exhibited at the BM or loaned to other institutions in 13 years.

Now 14 of them, including the Banquet Scene, the Royal Lion Hunt and the Attack on an Enemy Town, will re-emerge from the penumbra into the bright sunshine of Malibu where they will go display at the Getty Villa for three years. The Banquet Scene is one of the 12 gypsum bas-relief panels that form the core of the Getty’s new show Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq starting on October 2nd and running for three years.

The Banquet Scene and several other of the British Museum’s relief panels were discovered in the 1850s by Hormuzd Rassam in what was then Ottoman territory. Rassam’s team excavated the ancient Assyrian site of Nineveh near what is now Mosul, Iraq, for the British discovering the North Palace of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 B.C.). The walls had been adorned with elaborate bas-reliefs of the king in action — hunting, fighting — and at leisure, although even his famed banquet scene directly references his deadly power as a king and warrior by including the decapitated head of the vanquished King Teumman of Elam hanging from a tree behind the queen.

Other reliefs in the exhibition were discovered in the palaces of  Kings Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.), Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745–727 B.C.) and Sargon II (r. 722–705 B.C.) in the mid-19th century. All of the Assyrian royal palace reliefs were originally painted in vivid polychrome that would have emphasized the fine details, but even with the paint long faded, the exceptional quality of the designs still shines. The pattern of the king’s clothes, the ringlets in the hair, the muscles and bones of the animals, are carved with painstaking artistry. These were not just wall decorations, after all; they played a key role in conveying the all-encompassing power  of the king (in battle, at the hunt, in religious significance) in the most important public rooms and in his private rooms.

“The British Museum possesses the largest and most important collection of Assyrian reliefs in the world. The fourteen panels on view at the Getty Villa create a compelling overview of the subjects, styles, and artistic achievements of Assyria’s sculptors, including outstanding masterpieces such as the ‘Banquet Scene’ of the last great king of Assyria, Ashurbanipal, reviled as ‘Sardanapalus’ in the Old Testament,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “At the time of their discovery, taste in Britain—and Europe generally—hewed strongly to classical models, by which standard some saw these Assyrian monuments as unrefined; but this attitude soon subsided, and they are now universally appreciated as artistic achievements of great visual and emotional power. In our own day the historical and cultural importance of these sculptures has increased with the tragic destruction by ISIS of many of the reliefs that remained in Iraq.  We hope therefore that this display will raise awareness of the need to protect major heritage sites that remain at peril around the world.”

While the panels are on loan, the British Museum is working on creating a new space to display all of their Assyrian reliefs. That’s a very long-term project, however, and given the huge sums involved and all the red tape that has yet to be cut through in approving the project, it could be a decade or more in the future. In the short-term, the museum is building a state-of-the-art archaeological storage facility in Reading which is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

To complement the Assyrian exhibition, the Getty will be offering a free talk on one of the most striking iconographic elements of the reliefs: beards. Ancient facial hair expert (yes it is a thing and yes it is awesome) Christopher Oldstone-Moore will give a talk entitled The Meaning of Beards from Antiquity to Today on October 26th at 3PM. You must book tickets in advance but they are free. Even cooler, though, right before the lecture the Getty will be offering a drop-in program during which a stylist will recreate ancient beard looks from Assyria, Greece and Rome. Attendees will also be able to get their hands dirty — fragrantly perfumed and moisturized, actually — making their own beard or body oil using ancient scents. What better way to usher in No-Shave November than to get spruced up Ashurbanipal style.

Phallic stone found at Bronze Age site in Sweden

An impressively endowed stone in the shape of a penis has been unearthed at a Bronze Age site in Rollsbo near Gothenburg in western Sweden. Archaeologists were excavating the site in advance of planned industrial development in the area when they came across the stone. It is 20 inches high and while they are reluctant to call it a phallus at this early stage in the archaeological investigation, the penile anatomy is rendered in such unmistakable detail that whoever erected it had to have done so with symbolic purpose.

When archaeologists began excavating the rock pile known as Ytterby 98, they thought it was a burial cairn not unlike the one in Gylland where the Roman bronze cauldron was recently unearthed. As they peeled back the layers, chains of placed stones appeared that are indeed similar to cairns, but one stone placed in the center did not fit the usual pattern. At first the team thought it was a paving stone. Additional excavation revealed the penis shape which is unique in this context.

The monument dates to the Late Bronze Age (1100-500 B.C.) and was built up between two rocky outcroppings. On the south side the paving leads to a lower level basin also filled with stone that appears to have served as a formal entrance to the monument. To the north of the monument are moss fields. Facing the moss field near the phallic stone are two boulders that are part of the circular edge chain. Between them lies a small circular red stone. Because it is completely unlike all the other stones on the site, archaeologists believe it was deliberately placed there and held some special significance.

Around the penis-shaped stone archaeologists unearthed five clearly defined layers of soot and carbonaceous materials mixed with stone. Two charred bones were found in one of the layers. These have yet to be analyzed, but are believed to be animal bones. Archaeologists hope that analysis of soil from the carbonaceous layer will find charred organic remains like seeds or plants that will be evidence of on-site burned offerings.

The stone was probably already reminscient of a penis naturally. Weathering and erosion had formed it into a recognizably phallic shape and then that shape was reinforced by carving. (The veins have to have been carved, right? I mean, damn.) Phallus form stones have been found before in prehistoric Sweden, particularly along important communication and trade routes, but this is the only one ever found at a likely sacrificial site. Given the context, archaeologists hypothesize that this site may have been associated with a fertility cult.

Rich Archaic graves found in looted necropolis

The ancient necropolis in Ahlanda, near Florina in the Greek region of West Macedonia has yielded more than 200 graves in just three months of excavations, several of them complete with important grave goods. The cemetery was used for centuries starting in the Late Bronze Age. The highest concentration of burials date to between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C., but it was still very much active during the Byzantine years. The remains of two Roman farming operations have been discovered in the southern part of the site. Of the 209 burials discovered this summer, 131 date to the Byzantine era and 75 of them are from the Archaic period.

The cemetery was looted in antiquity and indeed, six of the graves unearthed this season had been relieved of their treasures by tomb raiders. They were stone-lined pits averaging 11 by 13 feet with inner masonry walls and cobblestone flooring. Even though their grave goods were long gone, the dimensions and construction of the tombs attest to the wealth and rank of the individuals interred in them.

The site has been excavated every summer for six years, but this is the first year in which bronze helmets have been discovered. Four helmets of the Greco-Illyrian type, open-face helmets that covered the head and neck, used in Greece from around 700 B.C. until the early 5th century B.C., were unearthed in four different graves. One of them was a stand-out because it was richly attired with weapons and armaments. In addition to the helmet, the warrior grave contained two fragmented iron swords, two iron spearheads, bronze greaves a wide-mouth bronze vessel with decorative handles in the form of human hands. Cinerary remains inside the vessel indicate it was a secondary burial, one of five secondary burials, all of them cremations, found in the necropolis.

Another first for this season’s dig was the discovery of the Archaic pottery figurine of a woman and the remains of a pottery Sphinx. Two Archaic vases were unearthed, decorated with a woman and a male bust with an animal head on top of the human head, likely a representation of Herakles.

There was also one gold artifact that by some miracle eluded grave robbers: a funerary mask. It was found in a grave topped with a slate cover. The grave had been disturbed, but the thieves neglected to abscond with the mask, a gold ring, a silver double fork, iron swords and spearheads, amber beads and a bronze pot.

The excavation of the Achlada cemetery is ongoing, part of a salvage archaeology project to rescue whatever may be found as the ancient site is located on private property belonging to a lignite mining operation.