Archive for November, 2019

The pristine view inside Frederick III’s tomb

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

In the Apostles’ Choir of the great Gothic cathedral of St. Stephen’s in Vienna lies the monumental tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1452-1493), the first emperor of many to follow from the House of Habsburg and the last HRE be crowned by the Pope (Nicholas V) in Rome. Made from the prized red marble peppered with fossil inclusions from the Adnet quarry near Salzburg, the massive sarcophagus and platform were carved by Dutch sculptor Nikolaus Gerhaert van Leyden. Gerhaert carved all of the coat of arms of the emperor’s dominions around the side of the sarcophagus and peopled it with an incredible proliferation of some 240 figures climbing the edges, peering out from underneath it, and standing in classical dignity on the arches of the platform. It took Gerhaert, his workshop and his successors 50 years to complete the tomb. Frederick’s son Maximilian I had his body moved with much pomp and circumstance from the ducal crypt to the completed tomb in 1513, 20 years after his death.

The tomb is justifiably considered a masterpiece of late medieval sculpture, and also bore the distinction of being the only one of 14 tombs of kings and Holy Roman Emperors not to have been looted, damaged, altered or its contents moved. That changed in 1969, when a rumor spread that the tomb had in fact been empty all this time. A peephole was drilled into the side of the tomb and officials used lamps and mirrors to confirm that funerary goods and the imperial remains were indeed present.

In 2013, the 500th anniversary of Frederick III’s burial in the tomb, researchers embarked on a thorough study of the tomb aided by modern technology. The little hole was put to use again, this time to thread through endoscopes that lit the dark space and took photographs with a wifi-enabled camera and cellphone. They also took samples, fragments of the coffin and one tiny piece of a textile inside the sarcophagus.

The results of this study six years in the making are being revealed now and they document the most elaborate internment of a medieval European ruler ever found. The photographs capture a sumptuous interior indicating that Maximilian spared no expense on his father’s final resting place. The emperor’s remains were placed a coffin made of glazed ceramic tiles, draped in richly patterned textiles, his head resting on a pillow. Lining both sides of the sarcophagus are gilded tablets with inscriptions praising Frederick’s many accomplishments and Maximilian’s filial devotion in laying his father to rest “in hoc precioso monomento” (“in this precious monument”).

The unexpectedly elaborate imperial crown is made of gilded silver decorated with floral flourishes and vividly colored enamel inlays. It is the oldest surviving example of the mitre-crown that would become standard equipage for the Habsburg emperors when in 1602 Emperor Rudolf II commissioned the imperial crown that would grace all the heads of Holy Roman Emperors and Austrian Emperors until 1918. Its mitred dome and frontal cross were inspired by Papal regalia, symbolizing the emperor’s divine right to his throne and his anointment by the Pope. The crown was placed on Frederick’s skull which had been carefully wrapped in linen and covered with a piece of red fabric.

Along with the crown, Frederick was buried with an imperial orb and scepter placed a pillow to the right of his body. These were custom-made for his tomb. They were not the regalia of office. A sword was by his left side, as was a wooden arm that had fallen off a crucifix placed on his chest. The detail of the enamel and metalwork indicates they were produced by Italian artisans.

The textiles overall are in remarkable condition. From the photographs and samples, researchers were able to identify three different textiles. The body is shrouded in one (probably linen), and then covered with two large silk velvet panels with silver gilt threads. They too are of Italian manufacture and date to shortly after the Emperor’s death in 1493.

The full findings of the project, In hoc precioso monomento. The Burial of Emperor Frederick III, edited by Franz Kirchweger, will be published by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in December.


Babylonian stew

Monday, November 18th, 2019

An international team of food scientists, culinary historians and cuneiform experts have recreated the four oldest known recipes found on cuneiform tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection. The three oldest tablets date to the Old Babylonian period, around 1730 B.C., the fourth to the Neo-Babylonian period about a thousand years later.

There are multiple recipes on each tablet. One of the oldest three lists a collection of 25 stews, mostly ingredients with brief instructions for preparing the food. The other two have more detailed recipes, but the quantities are rarely noted. Each of the tablets has suffered damage over the millennia, making it even harder to figure out to cook authentic ancient Babylonian dishes.

The tablets have been on display for years but the old translations of the cuneiform were in need of reinterpretation to make them work in a kitchen. The culinary experts and cuneiform scholars collaborated to identify some of the herbs and other ingredients in the recipes, and then through a process of trial and error, they were recreated this spring in preparation for a tasting symposium hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.

The Yale-Harvard team wanted to keep as closely as possible to the original dishes, an ambitious goal considering how sparse some of the surviving instructions are and damage to the tablets themselves. The availability of ingredients was also a challenge.

The Yale-Harvard team prepared three recipes which were all from one tablet: two lamb stews — one with beets and one with milk and cakes of grain — and a vegetarian recipe enriched with beer bread.

The variety of ingredients, complex preparation, and cooking staff required to create these meals suggest that they were intended for the royal palace or temple — the haute cuisine of Mesopotamia, says Lassen. Few cooks were able to read cuneiform script, she adds, hence the recipes were most likely recorded to document the current practices of culinary art.

“This event gave us the opportunity to really connect with the people from that time,” says Graham. “By experiencing some of the processes that they would have used to cook these recipes and to taste the flavors that were prominent and popular then, you feel closer to the culture and the people, and I think that helps us to tell their story. It is interesting to think of all the tools we are aided by now and how cooking these recipes is so much easier for us than it was for them.” […]

While some of the Babylonian recipes were attempted prior to the event, one was new to the team and was prepared for the first time at the event. Called the “unwinding,” it is a vegetarian stew made with leek and onion. Lassen says that there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this name, but that one hypothesis suggests it has to do with one of the stew’s ingredients, dried lumps of crushed grains that were “almost like hard cakes that you add to the stew and then it melts into the stew,” says Lassen. “That could be ‘unwinding.’ It could also simply be a more literal word for a comfort food.”

“Making a stew is a very basic human thing and I think that is one of the reasons that we really went into this project,” says Lassen. “There is something really human about eating and food and tasting things, and that’s what we wanted to explore by recreating these recipes. Maybe not entirely as they as they would have prepared it — maybe our ingredients taste a little bit different — but still approximating something that nobody has tasted for almost 4,000 years.”

If you’d like to try your hand at Babylonian cuisine, here are the four recipes translated from the cuneiform. 


Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. (You add) kurrat, cilantro, salt as desired, leek, garlic. You pound up dried sourdough, you sift (it) and you scatter (it) over the pot before removing it.

Stew of lamb

Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. [You crush] (and add) leek and garlic.

Elamite Broth

Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. Dill, kurrat, cilantro, leek, and garlic bound with blood, a corresponding amount of sour milk, and (more) garlic. The (original) name (of this dish) is Zukanda.


Leg meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You sear. You fold in salt, beer, onion, arugula, cilantro, Persian shallot, cumin and red beet, and [you crush] leek and garlic. You sprinkle coriander on top. [You add] kurrat and fresh cilantro.


Rare Bronze Age sword found in Bohemia

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

A Bronze Age sword in excellent condition has been discovered near Rychnov in northeastern Bohemia. While its handle is long gone, the blade is intact with its hilt and the decorative fine line engraved along its edge is clearly visible to the naked eye. Its cutting edge is still sharp.

It is one of only five prehistoric swords found in the Czech Republic in recent decades. A Bronze Age sickle hoard was unearthed by Very Good Boy Monty and his owner just last year in the Rychnov area, but it’s been 130 years since a prehistoric sword was found around there and that was an iron antenna sword from the Early Iron Age.

The sword dates to around 1200 B.C. and was produced by the Lusatian culture, a Late Bronze Age agrarian society that ranged over what is now Poland, eastern Germany and the western Czech Republic. Lusatian artifacts are rich on the ground in eastern Bohemia, often found in hoards like Monty’s. The sword find is unusual not only because so few of them have ever been discovered, but also because it was made at a location where no known Lusatian settlement or archaeological material has been recovered before.

It was found by a private individual who reported it to the Rychnov Museum on Saturday, November 2nd, and handed it in the next morning. He had no idea of its age or historic significance until a friend told him to alert the museum. Archaeologists searched the find site and discovered rivets used to attach the sword’s handle. (The handle was made of organic material that has long since decomposed.) They also found a bronze spear head from the same period.

Rychnov Museum archaeologist Martina Beková believes the sword was a ritual deposit, likely buried on its own as a votive offering to a deity. The spear head is from around the same period, but it does not appear to have been buried together with the sword.

The exact find site is being kept secret to prevent looters from disturbing it before archaeologists are able to explore it thoroughly. The artifacts will be conserved and stabilized for future display at the Rychnov Museum. Since the only other prehistoric sword discovered in the area is now in the National Museum in Prague, this will be a centerpiece of the museum’s collection.


Ring gifted by Oscar Wilde found 20 years after theft

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

An 18-carat-gold inscribed gold ring that was a gift from Oscar Wilde to a friend during his undergraduate days at Magdalen College in Oxford will be returning to its alma mater 17 years after it was stolen.

The inside is engraved “O.F.O.F.W.W & R.R.H. to W.W.W., 1876,” the initials of gifters and receiver: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, Reginald Richard Harding and William Welsford Ward, respectively. The three were close friends as undergraduates in Magdalen’s classics program. Ward was a year ahead of Wilde and he sort of took him under his wing, introducing him to his friends, to Freemasonry, going on rides through the woods where they argued about philosophy so vigorously that Wilde often fell off his horse. It was Ward, known as “Bouncer,” who introduced him to Harding, aka “Kitten.” Wilde’s nickname in this crew was “Hosky.”

Ward took his final exams in November 1876 and while he did well, he did not receive the First he expected. Instead of returning to Oxford as a fellow, Bouncer decided to go walkabout and travel to Italy. Hosky and Kitten had the friendship ring made as a memento of their happy trio. The inscription on the outside read in Greek: “Gift of love, to one who wishes love.”

The ring was part of the extensive collection of Oscar Wilde memorabilia held by his alma mater, Oxford University’s Magdalen College. It was stolen in the wee hours of Thursday, May 2nd, 2002, by one Eamonn Andrews aka Anderson, a former Magdalen cleaner and handyman who, fortified with copious quantities of whisky downed at the college bar, broke into the Old Library through a skylight on a drunken mission to find evidence his estranged wife, the head gardener at Magdalen, had had an affair with another man.

At some point he broke in, this harebrained half-scheme got even more stupid and morphed into the incredibly random theft of two rowing medals — the 1910 Henley Royal Regatta Grand Challenge Cup medal and a 1932 silver and a bronze medal. The alarm sounded but while the college porter was investigating, Andrews stole the gold ring from a display cabinet in another part of the college.

DNA analysis of blood traces found at the scene of the crime led to the arrest and incarceration of Andrews. He admitted his culpability and described the theft as an impulse, not premeditated or even a tiny bit thought through. He claimed he had no idea of the objects’ value and had sold them to a London scrap dealer for £150. He was sentenced two years in prison for the theft, to be served concurrently with the six years he had begun to serve for an earlier robbery.

Magdalen kept the news of the theft quiet in the beginning, hoping police would be able get the artifacts back. A week later, they announced the loss of the ring and offered a £3,500 reward, the equivalent of a tenth of its insured value, for any information leading to the its return. None was ever forthcoming.

More than a dozen years passed, and the ring was feared melted down. In 2015, Dutch art investigator par excellence Arthur Brand heard some scuttlebutt on the mean streets that a gold buckle-shaped Victorian ring with a “Russian” inscription had surfaced in the black market. Brand recalled the theft of the unusual Wilde ring and wondering if that “Russian” writing might actually be Greek.

The Dutchman then started to put out feelers.

Together with a London-based antiques dealer named William Veres, their enquiries eventually led them to George Crump, a man whom Brand described as a “decent man with knowledge of the London criminal underworld because of his late uncle, a well-known casino owner.”

Through Crump, Brand and Veres finally managed to track down and negotiate the safe return of the stolen ring.

It’s possible the ring only surfaced because it was stolen AGAIN, this time in the Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary, at an estimated  £200 million in jewelry stolen the largest burglary in English history. That burglary, perpetrated by a gang of septuagenarians, took place in April 2015 and after that gossip was rife in the demimonde that a bunch of previously stolen goods had been found in the vault.

The ring is now in a secure location in England. It will be officially returned to Magdalen College in a ceremony at Oxford on December 4th.


18th c. brass writing kit found at New York fort site

Friday, November 15th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered an 18th century field writing kit at the site of a British fort on Rogers Island, in northeastern New York. The writing kit is made of brass and consists of an ink pot and long quill holder. The word “Barker” is etched on the base of the writing implement, the mark of a German company that manufactured writing tools for centuries.

Rogers Island, located at a strategically significant bend of the Hudson River that was  the portage site between the Hudson River and Lake Champlain, was part of the Fort Edward complex built by the British in the 1750s during the French and Indian War. It was a staging area for incursions into New France and from 1756 to 1759, was used by Major Robert Rogers has the base camp for a company of irregular troops. His 28 “Rules of Ranging” combined guerrilla and traditional warfare with Rogers’ own unique concepts to create a rugged, versatile fighting force adapted to the terrain. Rogers’ Rangers are considered the ancestors of today’s United States Army Rangers.

Fort Edward was evacuated in 1766 and the structures abandoned. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the fort was a dilapidated ruin, but the barracks that were still standing were used by Continental soldiers until General Burgoyne took the fort on his way to ultimate defeat in Saratoga. Some homes were built on the island in the 19th century and it saw its last use in the training of troops during the Civil War.

It was during Rogers’ time that barracks, a blockhouse, Ranger huts, a smallpox hospital and the officers house were built.

“We have never found a beautiful brass writing implement in any of our excavations,” [lead archaeologist David] Starbuck said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That, to me, says literate people were inside that building.” The items are more evidence to tell the story of the French and Indian War site that once housed British officers. Starbuck said he is still unsure if the house held one high-ranking officer or several.

The writing kit isn’t the only unique find this year. The team also unearthed a lead ingot, likely destined to be melted down for musket balls, and a metal fireplace spit. Some of the other items found on Rogers Island include the head of a broad axe, and cuff links. Butchered animal bones were also found in the officers house.

The animal bones and spit indicate the officers (or officer) ate fresh meat, unlike common soldiers, who would have eaten dried beef or pork, “which would have tasted awful,” Starbuck said.

Based on where things were found, Starbuck believes the hut originally had a dirt floor. He said “lots of things were walked on and pressed into the floor. Later they built a wood floor, which is now totally gone.”


Spyros’ skyphos returned to Greece

Thursday, November 14th, 2019

An ancient drinking cup given to the first marathon winner in Olympic history has been returned to Greece from the University of Münster in Germany. The 6th century B.C. black-figure skyphos depicting two and two Hellanodikai (judges at the ancient Olympic games) was given to Spyridon “Spyros” Louis after he won the 25-mile race from Marathon to Athens at the 1896 Olympic Games.

Greek officials announced that the skyphos would be given a place of honour in the Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games (formerly the Archaeological Museum) in Olympia. “Its future place of honour is where the skyphos was naturally meant to be. I am very happy that the University of Münster could help make this possible,” underlined Münster University’s Rector Prof. Johannes Wessels.

The vessel was part of the Peek Antiquities Collection acquired by the university in 1986. The collection of 70 ancient Greek ceramic vessels was assembled by German epigraphist Werner Peek who lived in Athens from 1930 to 1937. How Peek came across Spyros Louis’ skyphos is unknown.

Born to a poor family in the village of Marousi outside of Athens, Spyros Louis was a 23-year- old water carrier when he qualified as a runner in the marathon. This was a new event, never held in the ancient games but conceived to connect the modern games to the traditions of antiquity by making a foot race out of the story of the messenger Pheidippides who heroically ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the Athenian victory against the Persians and dropped dead upon arrival. There was an enormous amount of excitement over the marathon, and when a Greek peasant defeated some of the world’s best trained runners in so storied a race, Spyros Louis became a national hero.

Spyros died in 1940.  The official prizes he had received for winning the first marathon — including the silver medal (until 1904, first place winners received silver medals and second place bronze) and the silver Bréal Cup — passed to his children. His grandson sold the Bréal Cup at auction in 2012 where it set a new record for Olympic memorabilia.

He received a plethora of other gifts and prizes from ecstatic fans in the wake of his win, everything from gold watches to two coffees a day at a local bar and free haircuts for life. The skyphos was a gift from numismatist Ioannis Lambros who had a private collection of artifacts. He was so inspired by the very idea of the marathon that before the games he wrote to Crown Prince Constantine:

“Your Royal Highness, The distinction, which the Marathon Race is called upon to give to the Olympic Games, joined to the ancient reminiscences, which this difficult race is sure to awake, have suggested to me the idea of offering as a most appropriate prize to the winner, who will be worthy of so much glory, an ancient vase, which I have in my collection; on it are represented a dolichodrome under the guidance of Hellanodices. May I hope that Your Royal Highness will allow me to add this prize to the Silver Cup, which Professor Bréal has donated. Antiquity seems in this way to contribute to celebrate the victory of the winner of the Marathon Race.”

Articles about the vessel in the press at the time described it as having been found in a grave in Thebes believed to have belonged to a victorious runner in one of the ancient games. An 1896 issue of Scribers Magazine claimed Spyros had given the skyphos to the National Archeological Museum, but there were no records of such a donation or even a loan, and the vessel was very famous, even appearing on a Greek stamp celebrating the Pre-Olympic Games in 1967.

It was rediscovered in 2014 by Dr. Georgos Kavvadias of the Greek National Museum who recognized it from a picture in a University of Münster monograph. He worked with the university’s researchers to confirm its identity and, once confirmed, to facilitate its repatriation.

“The skyphos has a highly symbolic significance for Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games. We naturally wanted to give it back,” explained the director of the Archaeological Museum of the University of Münster, Prof. Dr Achim Lichtenberger, who also participated in the ceremony. “Morally speaking and with respect to sports history, this piece belongs in Greece,” added museum curator Dr Helge Nieswandt.


An auction you can sink your gold and hippo ivory teeth into

Wednesday, November 13th, 2019

A set of early 19th century dentures made of gold and hippo ivory that was discovered by a metal detector hobbyist is going up for auction this month. The dentures were unearthed by bricklayer Peter Cross, an avid metal detectorist for the past 40 years, in Waterstock, Oxfordshire. 

The ingenious false teeth were carved by hand from a single piece of ivory, the natural curvature of the tusk used to match the curvature of the jaw. Once carved, the ivory tooth arch was mounted to a gold base plate with pins. While parts of the gold plate have bent away from the ivory over the years, it would originally have been formed by hand on a swage block to fit a plaster model of the wearer’s jaw.

The front six teeth are carved in naturalistic shape and size and the original enamel has been preserved keeping them white in color. The enamel was carved away from the “gum” area exposing an inner layer that is a brownish shade resembling real gums. The teeth in the back are more crudely carved as they didn’t have to put on so much of a show. Still, the craftsman bothered to incise lines to suggest individual teeth and cross-hatching on top of the teeth creating a textured surface.

On the side is a surviving spring connected to a rivet. This is how the top and bottom parts of the dentures were connected to each other. Only the upper section has been found. Cross returned to the field several times in the hope of discovering the bottom half of the set, to no avail.

Mr Cross, who made the find in March this year, said: “I know this sounds crazy but when I first pulled them up out of the ground, I thought they were sheep’s teeth. When I began to clean off the mud and clay, I could see there was a gold plate – and that they were human false teeth.

“They would have belonged to a very wealthy person. They date back to between 1800 and 1850 and would have cost a fortune at the time. A dentist friend said the owner would have paid between £200 to £300 in the 1800s and that would have bought half the houses in Brill back then – a very affluent village.

“I’ve shown the teeth to many people and consulted the British Dental Association and the British Museum. Everyone’s amazed – and everyone wants to take a photo of them. They’re unique.

“I’m only aware of one other slightly similar set of false teeth and they belonged to American president George Washington and date back to the late 1700s. They’re on display in the States.”

There are quite a few gold and silver plates from historic dentures in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, but only two of them still have teeth attached, and only a single tooth apiece. In both of those examples the teeth are porcelain. The Wellcome Collection has all kinds of historic dentures in its vaults and on display, including several carved entirely out of hippo ivory, plate and teeth together, and this striking example of an ivory upper with human front teeth.

George Washington’s surviving set of false teeth is much more elaborate than the recently-discovered set. We know from his diaries and correspondence that despite his overall excellent health and attention to dental hygiene, Washington’s teeth and gums were a mess from when he was a young man. By the time he was inaugurated the first President of the United States in 1789, he only had one of his original teeth left. He had many dentures over the years, none of them with the wood teeth of lore; some were carved out of animal ivory or actual animal teeth (horses, cows, donkeys), some used human teeth extracted Fantine-style from poor or enslaved people who were paid per tooth. The sole complete set of Washington’s dentures extant today is on display at Mount Vernon.

The antique chompers will go under the hammer at Hansons on November 25th. The presale estimate is £3,000 – £5,000 ($3,900 – $6,400). The sale price will be divided 50/25/25 between landowner, Mr. Cross and Diana Wild, his metal detecting buddy on the day of the find.


Let the meming commence

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

The Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has acquired two self-portraits by French painter and Very Big Deal on the Internet, Joseph Ducreux. If you don’t know his name, you know his face and forefinger, internationally famous stars of the archaic rap meme.

Already established as a portraitist to the Parisian bourgeoisie, Ducreux got his big break in 1769 when he was commissioned to make a miniature of 13-year-old Maria Antonia, Archduchess of Austria so her prospective husband, the Dauphin of France, could see what she looked like before they met in person. The future Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were pleased with the result and Ducreux was made a baron and appointed First Painter to the Queen.

It was in the 1780s that Ducreux began to experiment with a new, highly expressive style of self-portraiture. He used his face and body to explore how character and personality can be depicted through exaggerated postures and facial expressions, even costumes on occasion. By the end of the decade, his mischievous self-portraits were well-known as among the best exponents of physiognomy.

Despite his popularity among the aristocracy of France and deep connections to the royal family in the waning days of the Ancien Regime, he managed to turn Revolutionary enough to survive unscathed. After spending some time in London in 1791, he returned to Paris and, helped by his good friend and foremost painter of the Revolution Jacques-Louis David, he painted and drew portraits of moderate leaders like Mirabeau, Antoine Barnave and Pierre Manuel. In 1793 he sketched the last portrait of the deposed King Louis days before his execution and upon his return to Paris, from not-so-moderate leaders including the Jacobin triumvirate of Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and Georges Couthon.

There are few facts about Ducreux’s activities during this brief period [in London in 1791], but we know that he exhibited portraits and self-portraits at the Royal Academy of Arts, including two that were called Surprise mixte [sic] with Terror and Surprise, respectively. Most likely, one of the portraits that Nationalmuseum has now acquired was a later version of the first of the two aforementioned works that had been exhibited in London. The facial expression of the artist is permeated with exaggerated surprise mixed with terror, as shown in his large eyes, gaping mouth and dramatically extended right hand. There is no doubt that these works are self-portraits, but their titles, which describe emotions, such as surprise, show that they were also intended to focus on physiognomy as a phenomenon, in itself. […]

By August 1791, he once again exhibited his work in the Salon in Paris. One example is a work that the catalogue calls Silence, which is currently in the collection of the Spencer Museum of Art in Kansas. Ducreux’s expressive oil portraits, however, were met with both praise and scorn, but regardless garnered a great deal of notoriety, which, in turn, increased the demand for additional works of this sort. Nationalmuseum’s Silence is probably a later version by Ducreux of the work exhibited at the Salon. The artist is portrayed with a powdered wig, a top hat and a brown coat. As often was the case, some of the powder is seen on the artist’s shoulders and coat collar. The portrait depicts his upper body in profile, but the head is turned to the viewer. His right index finger is lifted to his mouth to clearly communicate the need to keep silent.

Ducreux’s interest in physiognomy reflects his time and can more generally be indicative of the favourite scientific theme of the Enlightenment. By combining an expressly physiognomic perspective with a self-portrait, this work may well be viewed as having laid the foundation for new directions in portraiture. This is in no way any kind of caricature, but neither does it any longer have anything of the formal and serious nature of traditional portraiture. Ducreux has attempted to capture in himself, facial expressions that we can see every day, on people, in general. It is perhaps not at all surprising that one of Ducreux’s self-portraits of this type has now become a popular on-line meme, which, in itself, shows this artist’s timeless playfulness and desire to experiment.

Self-portrait Le Silence by Joseph Ducreux, ca. 1790. Photo courtesy the Nationalmuseum. Self-portrait Le Surprise by Joseph Ducreux, ca. 1790. Photo courtesy the Nationalmuseum.

Joseph Ducreux died in 1802 of a suspected stroke. He was 67 years old. His fame faded after his death, until the mystical forces of Internet macros brought him to a prominence he could never have imagined achieving in life.


Confirmed: Dingwall stone is Pictish cross slab

Monday, November 11th, 2019

The Pictish symbol stone reused as a headstone in the 18th century that was discovered at an early Christian site near Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands has been confirmed to be an extremely rare cross slab. Found during a North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) survey of a cemetery now on private land, the stone was embedded in the topsoil and partially covered by vegetation. NOSAS member Anne MacInnes spotted a foot carved on the surface and her fellow members confirmed it was a Pictish symbol stone. They reported it to the Highland Council archaeologist and the slab was excavated and safely removed.

When the stone was first found, it was reverse side up, the name and date of the deceased inscribed on the upper left corner. There was no cross on the exposed side, and because the back was coated with soil, when the slab was lifted archaeologists couldn’t see whether there was a cross carved on the other side either. Until they cleaned it, they wouldn’t know if it was one 350 or so extant symbol stones or in the much more elite club of 50 Pictish cross slabs.

Now that it has been cleaned and dried, the cross on the obverse is clear, but that’s not the only notable feature. The intricate cross is flanked on both sides by toothy beasts who, with massive canines and lolling tongues, face each other over the top of the cross. The fanged serpent-like creatures are unique in the iconography of Pictish carving. The imagery on the reverse of the stone — oxen, an animal-headed armed warrior, a double disc, a z rod symbol — are traditional Pictish symbols seen on other cross slabs.

It is believed to have been carved around 1,200 years ago, during the period when the Picts were becoming Christianised. […] This find has been described as being ‘of national importance’ by experts, as it is one of only 50 complete or near-complete Pictish cross-slabs known, and one of the first to be found on the Scottish mainland for many years. It is also the first object of this type found in this location and therefore suggests that the site dates back much further than was previously thought.

The cross slab needs further conservation and repair before it can be put on display at Dingwall Museum in Easter Ross. Most of the work will be funded by grants, but the NoSAS and The Pictish Arts Society have started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the remaining £20,000. With £12,208 raised from 106 supporters, the campaign is at 61% of the target.


Alan woman buried with Roman jewels found

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

A grave containing the remains of an Alan woman lavishly adorned with Roman jewelry has been unearthed in the Zayukovo-2 burial ground in Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia’s North Caucasus region. She was found in a group grave, probably a family tomb, along with three other men. Artifacts found inside the graves date it to the 1st century or early 2nd.

“She had two rings on her fingers manufactured with the use of quite a complex technology,” said archaeologist Anna Kadieva, head of an expedition at Zayukovo-2 burial site.

Ms Kadieva said the fact the jewelry was Roman-made is “beyond any doubt.”

She added: “It is quite expensive for the time, and priceless for the barbarian world because there was no glass production in the North Caucasus back then.”

The beads on her shoes were made of glass but also contained an orange-colored mineral called carnelian that is part of the Quartz family.

She also wore two rings on her fingers manufactured with the use of quite a complex technology. Each of them was cast from transparent white glass with golden fibers from the same material, with a dark glass installation in the middle[…]

The woman was also discovered wearing a bright violet amethyst medallion as seen in this picture. The team say this would have been ‘priceless’ for the region as they had no glass blowing technology at the time

Archaeologists think she was the wife or close family member of an important warrior or chieftain. The sheer density of expensive imported jewelry is evidence of significant wealth, and may represent a trend among the elite Alan warrior class of gifting Roman jewelry to their nearest and dearest. Or maybe she was just lucky.

One of the men in the grave with her was buried with accessories indicating he was a warrior. A fibula of the Aucissa type, a hinged brooch with a high semi-circular arched bow that attached to a foot. The type is named after the word “AVCISSA” inscribed over the hinge of most of these fibulae. It is the maker’s mark of a workshop that mass-produced them starting in the 1st century A.D.; Aucissa fibulae have been found most often in the graves of Roman soldiers.

The deceased was also buried wearing two Roman buckles in silver and bronze, one on each shoe. A horse bridle with cheek pieces attached to the ends of the bit found in the grave was also of Roman manufacture. It’s possible these were spoils of battle, but archaeologists believe it’s more likely this was a local warrior who fought for Rome.

In the 1st century, the Alani migrated westward to the Pontic steppe and settled north of the Caucasus. Incursions south into Sarmatian territory in the foothills of the Caucasus resulted in cultural interchange seen in the funerary practices. Some of the Alan burials in  Zayukovo-2 have Sarmatian features as well as their own culturally distinctive ones.





November 2019


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