Archive for December, 2019

Monkeys in Bronze Age Greece fresco identified as Indus Valley species

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Monkeys depicted in a wall painting from the Late Cycladic I period (17th century B.C.) in Akotiri on the Greek island of Thera have been identified as grey langurs, a species native to southern Asia thousands of miles from Minoan Thera.

The fresco decorates the north and west walls in a room of a building dubbed Beta 6. The monkeys climb and frolic above undulating bands of blue that likely represent water, using the rocks that emerge from the waves as jumping off points for their simian games. Its composition, dynamism and bold lines convey a natural setting with an almost abstract restraint. It is known as the Blue Monkey fresco — the color of the monkeys match the waters beneath them — but they’re definitely a slate blue in the greyish family.

Marie Nicole Pareja at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia teamed up with primatologists to re-examine the mystery monkey paintings. One stood out. “When they looked at this wall painting, they all straight away unambiguously said ‘that’s a langur’,” says Pareja.

The team has identified the monkey as a grey langur (Semnopithecus). As well as its distinctive fur, the monkey was depicted holding its tail in a characteristic S shape.

Grey langurs live in southern Asia in what is now Nepal, Bhutan and India – and particularly in the Indus Valley. During the Bronze Age, the region was home to the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the most important societies of that time. Although it was past its peak, the Indus Valley Civilisation was still advanced for its time, with large cities and elaborate water supply systems.

As there were no native species of monkey in Bronze Age Greece, it was always known that these lively fellows were exotic imports. However, most artwork from the period that features monkeys involve species native to Egypt, which was far closer to home and had an established trade network with ancient Greece.

Did Minoan Greeks visit the Indus? “I wouldn’t be surprised if someday in the future we found evidence for that kind of direct contact,” says Pareja, but right now there is none. It is also possible the visit was the other way round, but again there is no evidence.

Instead, it may be that Greece and Indus were connected via Mesopotamia, another Bronze Age civilisation centred on what is now Iraq. Langurs may have been imported to Mesopotamia for menageries, where visiting Greeks saw them.

“It’s evidence of this far-reaching trade, these relationships with these far-flung areas,” says Pareja. Even in the Bronze Age, it seems there was a lot of exchange between seemingly separate civilisations.

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Ka statue of Ramesses II found under home

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

A unique statue of Ramesses II adorned with the “ka” sign has been discovered. The ka was the life-force of an individual, the key spirit of a person that continued the live after physical death. It was the ka, entombed with the body it once inhabited, which ate the food offerings and dwelled in the ka statue to keep itself (and therefore the deceased) eternally alive. The only other ka statue of a pharaoh that has been found is the life-sized wooden statue of the 13th Dynasty pharaoh Hor (ca. 1750 B.C.), discovered in the pharaoh’s tomb in 1894 and considered an artistic masterpiece of the period.

The statue was found on private property in the town of ​​Mit Rahina near the temple of the god Ptah in ancient Memphis. A 62-year-old man excavated under his house and came across large blocks of stone immersed in the ground water. Unauthorized excavation is illegal in Egypt due to the potential for damage to archaeological material and the risk of artifact trafficking. Police busted him earlier this month and Ministry of Antiquities archaeologists began a salvage excavation.

The team unearthed the top half of a rose granite statue of 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.). The statue is 1’10” wide and just shy of 3’5″ high and depicts the pharaoh wearing a tripartite hair wig with the symbol for “ka” (two upraised arms connected in the middle forming a u-shape) over his head. On the back pillar is the hieroglyphic inscription “Ka Nakht Mari Maat,” literally “The Powerful Loved Bull Maat”.  Ramesses’ regnal name was Usermaatre Setepenre, meaning “The Maat of Ra is powerful, Chosen of Ra.” (The Greek name for Ramesses, Ozymandias, of Shelley look-on-my-works-ye-mighty-and-despair fame, is derivation of Usermaatre.)

The blocks of stone were the remains of a temple to Ptah, patron deity of the ancient capital of Memphis. In addition to the statue, 19 blocks of rose granite and limestone engraved with dedications to Ptah, cartouches of Ramesses II and depictions of the pharaoh engaged in the Heb Sed ceremony, a ritual celebrated when a king had ruled for 30 years (and every three to four years after that, which would turn out to be a lot because his reign lasted 66 years). It’s likely the ka statue was connected to the Heb Sed celebration of Ramesses the Great’s long and successful reign.

The remains found so far have been recovered and transferred to the Mit Rahina open air museum. There they will be conserved and stabilized while excavations continue.

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Stolen Klimt found in garden wall of gallery it was stolen from

Friday, December 13th, 2019

A uniquely important painting by Gustav Klimt that was stolen in 1997 from the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in Piacenza has been found in the garden wall of said gallery. On Tuesday, December 10th, maintenance workers discovered a metal door while cleaning ivy off the wall. Behind the door was a niche filled with rocks and metal scraps. Resting on the debris was a black plastic garbage bag. Inside the trash bag was Portrait of a Lady, painted by Gustav Klimt in 1917 and estimated to be worth $66 million.

Jonathan Papamerenghi, a member of the Piacenza council with responsibility for culture, did not exclude the possibility that the painting had been left in the wall by thieves who wanted to return it.

“It is very strange, because, immediately after the theft, every single inch of the gallery and garden was checked with a fine-tooth comb,” he told La Repubblica. “The strangest thing is that the painting is in excellent condition. It does not seem like it has been locked under a trapdoor for 22 years.”

It can’t have been. At least not unless the thieves rebagged it, because the company that made the garbage bag only came into existence a decade after the theft.

Portrait of a Lady was a focal point of the Ricci Oddi Gallery before there even was a gallery. Collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi donated his prized collection of artworks to the city in 1924 and construction began on the gallery. Between then and its inauguration in 1931, Oddi continued to buy art, purposely seeking out pieces that would fill blanks in his collection and enhance the artistic value of the new gallery. Klimt’s painting was one of those key purchases.

Authorities don’t know exactly when the painting was stolen. The theft was discovered the morning of Saturday, February 22nd, but the police think the theft took place three days earlier. How an art gallery could be unaware their greatest masterpiece was missing is a weird, complicated tale that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel.

It begins a year earlier in 1996 when 18-year-old art student, Claudia Maga, noticed that Portrait of a Lady bore distinct similarities to another work by Klimt, Portrait of a Young Lady, missing since 1912. The pose, proportions and even the beauty mark on the cheek were identical. She contacted the gallery’s director and they had the painting X-rayed at the local hospital. It confirmed the accuracy of Maga’s keen eye: the lost portrait was underneath. Apparently Klimt had painted over it out of grief when the model, his lover and muse, died suddenly.

This discovery made the Ricci Oddi Gallery the proud owner of the only known double portrait by Gustav Klimt. They immediately planned a dedicated exhibition at another location in the center of the city while the gallery building itself was undergoing renovations. Paintings were boxed up and put in storage. Doors were unlocked, the security system turned off and a stream of workers went about their business.

On February 22nd, gallery staff realized the Lady was gone, not boxed up, not stored, not moved to a temporary location, but stolen. The only clue was the paintings heavy gilded frame left behind by the thief. It was found on the roof next to a skylight with an opening around the perimeter. Police hypothesized that the frame had been hooked by a fishing line and the painting reeled up and out through the skylight, an outlandishly improbable scenario that proved impossible when the heavy frame was found to be too large to fit through the skylight’s opening.

The investigation took several turns after that A fingerprint was found on the frame. A forgery turned up on April Fool’s Day 1997. Years later an art thief claimed the stolen painting had in fact been stolen months earlier and replaced by a copy and the copy was then stolen to cover up the fact that it was a copy. The stolen original had been sold for bundles of cash and kilos of cocaine. The stolen copy would be returned on the anniversary of the theft. DNA was found on the frame in 2016. All leads fizzled out.

Given the copy of a copy story and the oddness of the garden wall find site, confirming the authenticity of the portrait is of the utmost priority. All indicators are positive however: the wax stamp, gallery stamp and the period labels on the back of the canvas appear to be original.

The Ricci Oddi has been inundated with requests for more information since the news broke. They haven’t been able to disclose much of anything while the painting is still being officially authenticated and the police investigation is ongoing. To quench the public thirst, they have set up a page on their website that they will update with news as it becomes available.

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Rijksmuseum lives its gold cup dream

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

One of the Rijksmuseum’s most cherished dreams has come true with the long-term loan of a solid gold cup by the Netherlands’ most famous goldsmith Paul van Vianen.

Paul van Vianen was the most important scion of a famous family of silversmiths from Utrecht, and he enjoyed star status in his lifetime. Subsequent generations of silversmiths looked to him as their primary source of inspiration, and artists collected his original works or copies of them. Rembrandt was among the artists who owned plaster casts of objects made by him. Van Vianen ventured out into the great wide world at the age of 16, and he worked at several famous Central European courts before ultimately joining the Prague Royal Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, which he continued to serve until his death in May 1613.

The lid features the gods enacting a proverb from Terence’s comedy Eunuchus that “without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes.” The metonym signifying that love needs food and wine to live was a popular motif in Northern Mannerist art of the second half of the 16th and first half of the 17th century. It appeared in paintings, engravings and as prints in emblem books. Rubens was fond of the motif and painted several version of a chilly Venus needing to be warmed with the fruits of Ceres and Bacchus.

The body of the cup depicts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, described by Ovid in Book III of his Metamorphoses. Actaeon comes across the Huntress bathing with her nymphs and an enraged Diana transforms him into a stag. He flees and is devoured by his own hounds. Another work of Vianen’s on the same theme, a large silver basin made in 1613, was acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1947. It shares design and composition elements with the cup, most notably the central figure of Actaeon beginning to sprout antlers.

The cup was created in Prague in 1610 for Heinrich Julius, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Heinrich Julius spent years at the court of Rudolph II, enlisting the emperor’s aid in his struggle against the proudly independent burghers of Brunswick who were not even remotely interested in relinquishing 200 years of autonomy and bending the knee to their ostensible prince. There’s a portrait of the prince in full armour on the inside of the cup.

After Heinrich Julius’s death in 1613, the cup passed to his daughter Sophia Hedwig, wife of Count Ernest Casimir I of Nassau-Dietz. It spent the next two centuries as the greatest masterpiece in the collection of the Dutch royal family. In 1881 it was sold to a German collector, much to the Rijksmuseum’s dismay. The museum mourned its loss by crafting a gilt copper replica, a wan simulacrum of the original. Last year the gold cup was offered to the Rijksmuseum. The Wessels family bought it for them, so while the cup is still privately owned, it will be on public display at the Rijksmuseum in perpetuo.

Gilt copper replica (left) and original gold cup (right). Photo courtesy the Rijksmuseum.

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Mystery underground basilica reopens in Rome

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

The earliest known religious basilica was a secret when it was first built in the 1st century A.D. It was ingenious constructed entirely underground by digging out the forms of the walls and pillars from the soft volcanic tufa, pouring concrete into them and then cutting away the tufa. They poured arches for the barrel vaulted and dome ceilings over the pillars and then cut out all the tufa left in the interior to create a basilica just like the ones used as public buildings above ground.

The public ones were used to do business, commercial, legal and governmental. It wasn’t until Constantine that the basilica design was used for the first churches in the 4th century. The one exception is this remarkable structure just outside the ancient walls of Rome at the Porta Maggiore. To this day we don’t know what exactly the space was used for. The mythology-heavy stucco reliefs and architectural proportions (all measurements relate to the number three) indicate it may have been a cult site for a Neopythagorean mystery religion. The dating of the mosaic floor indicate it two construction periods, one under Augustus, the second under Claudius.

When I first wrote about the magical mystery wonderland that is the Basilica Sotteranea at the Porta Maggiore in Rome, it had just opened to the public after 12 years of restoration. Visitors were allowed for the first time in decades to descend 30 feet under the Via Praenestina into the dromos, the long entrance gallery, and the atrium. They could gaze in away at the soaring walls decorated with delicate stucco figures and scenes from mythology and the barrel and dome vaults topping them.

Because of the complex environmental needs of the space — its structure and ornamentation is highly susceptible to heat, moisture and microorganism growth — only guided tours were allowed on the second and fourth Sundays of the month, reservations required. Alas, when I visited Rome two years later, the Basilica Sotterranea was no longer open. Now I know why: it was busily engaged in the next stages of conservation. Funded by the Swiss historic preservation non-profit Fondation Evergète, the vaults and apses have received much-needed attention. The entire north wall from floor to ceiling of the left nave has been restored to its stunning pristine whiteness.

Restoration is ongoing and the basilica is still an active worksite. Visitors are welcomed in the new “didactic room” in the atrium, where augmented reality visors will give people the opportunity to see the stucco reliefs and frescoes up close. On the agenda for 2020 is the full conservation of the south wall of the left nave and the installation of a new lighting system to illuminate the wall decorations.

This exceptional space has a lot in common with the Domus Aurea — dark, soaring underground spaces, fragile decorations, mythology, mosaics, endemic danger from water and invasive organisms — and that tour was such an awesome experience I did it two years in a row. Guided tours of the Basilica Sotterranea di Porta Maggiore run at 11AM on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Sunday of the month and are available in Italian only. Tickets can be purchased online here.

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Neolithic Shmoos found on Orkney

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019

Nine carved Neolithic figures strongly reminiscent of the Shmoo of have been unearthed in Orkney. They were discovered in an archaeological exploration at the site of an electrical substation in Finstown. Underneath two feet of midden deposits, the remains of a structure containing the figures were found.

Individual examples of these types of carved stones have been found before, usually churned up by ploughs during agricultural work, but this is the first time nine of them have been unearthed in one place. They are also unusually three-dimensional. Most of the known examples are flat with the sides chipped creating the outline of a tiny head or knob over a wider, longer body. These are rounded and carved all around the “neck.”

The archaeologists working on site uncovered the carved stones scattered around a hearth within the remains of an enigmatic structure that contained three cists, two hearths and a partial ring of holes packed with broken off upstanding stones. Three of the roughly carved figures were also important enough to the people who used the building to be incorporated within the structure of one of the hearths and in the foundations of one of the standing stones. The purpose of the building and how it was used by the inhabitants of this site four thousand years ago is still an enigma.

Dating the necked stones firmly will require further work, since they have also been found on Iron Age sites in Orkney. On initial evidence, the ones from Finstown possibly date to around the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, roughly 2000BC. Identifying the purpose of these stones, and if they are figurines, will also require further work, with a close study for abrasion, wear and any other marks on these anthropomorphic objects.

The archaeologists also discovered evidence of prehistoric farming at the site: clay subsoil marked with gouges left by ards, stone ploughshares shaped into a point. The lines intersect and hashtag each other, evidence of how intensively Neolithic farmers ploughed up the ground.

The trenches have been covered over and all the Shmoos removed and cleaned. They will be conserved and studied while the development plans for the site move forward.

Carved stone recovered before cleaning. Photo courtesy ORCA Archaeology. Carved stone after cleaning. hoto courtesy ORCA Archaeology.

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Eye of Horus found in Oman grave

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating an archaeological site in the Oman province of Dibba Al-Baya on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula have unearthed an Iron Age tomb containing an Egyptian Eye of Horus amulet, the first ever discovered in Oman. The grave dates to between 100 B.C., the Late Iron Age, and 300 A.D., the Pre-Islamic Period.

The Dibba archaeological site was discovered by accident in 2012. After initial surveys by local archaeologists, the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture invited an Italian archaeological mission to excavate it beginning in April 2013. The team has unearthed a funerary complex consisting of two large collective tombs (LCG1 and LCG2), a Parthian grave and a number of ritual pits filled with artifacts including gold jewelry, decorated inlaid shell medallions, bronze, soapstone and ceramic vessels, daggers, arrowheads, all of high quality and in generally excellent condition.  Chamber graves constructed out of stones, the collective tombs were in use from the Late Bronze Age (1600-1350 B.C.) through the Pre-Islamic Period.

From 2013 through 2018, archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of at least 188 people, more than 3,500 artifacts and 5,000 beads from LCG1 alone. LCG2, which was discovered during the second season of excavations in 2014, has been equally rich in remains and artifacts with more than 3,000 objects of high value unearthed thus far. Archaeologists have also found restored, expanded and reorganized structures indicating that LCG2 was repeatedly altered over the centuries of use.

The newly-discovered grave was unearthed in LCG2. It was oval in shape and contains the skeletal remains of 12 individuals. Buried with them was a large complement of grave goods: glazed and unglazed pottery, bronze pots, iron heads, imported silver and gold jewelry. The Eye of Horus amulet, a symbol representing projection and good health, was also imported.

Sultan bin Saif Al Bakri, Director General of Antiquities, said, “this necklace is the second to be found at this site, where we had previously found an amulet of the civilisations that originated in Iraq in the form of a stone inscribed with the cuneiform name [Gula], the deity of healing in the Mesopotamian civilisation. This was also used for protection and from for the deceased.

Jolla is said to be the greatest physician and healer of diseases in the Babylonian civilisation dating back to the second half of the second millennium BC. Many discoveries from the site have since found their way to the National Museum of Oman.

Dr. Francesco Genchi, the head of the Italian delegation from the University of Rome emphasized that the findings are indicative of the historic role Dibba played – located on the eastern coast of the Oman Peninsula, where it was linked to ancient global and regional trade routes.

He added that the archaeological evidence found so far indicates that Dibba was considered a sacred area of major importance in the understanding of Iron Age tribal societies across the Arabian Peninsula – and that this site in particular was of great importance for funerary rites.

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Last one in the pit is a rotten (Roman) egg!

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a perfectly intact Roman-era chicken egg in a pit at Berryfields in Buckinghamshire. As a matter of fact, archaeologists retrieved four whole eggs from that pit, but three of them were so fragile they broke on contact and graced the company with the unmistakable aroma of 2,000-year-old rotten egg. That makes the one survivor the only complete Roman egg known in Britain, and only the second one ever found anywhere. (The other was discovered in a child’s grave in Rome, clutched in the child’s skeletonized hand.)

Originally used to malt grain for brewing beer, the ancient pit was and still is waterlogged which has allowed for the preservation of organic remains. When its use for malting came to an end in the late 3rd century, people began to use it as a sort of impromptu wishing well, throwing a variety of objects into it for good luck. In addition to the eggs, the team discovered an extremely rare basket made of woven oak bands and willow rods, leather shoes and wooden tools.

Archaeologist Edward Biddulph said the extent and range of discoveries “was more than could be foreseen”. […]

Eggs were associated with fertility, rebirth and the Roman gods Mithras and Mercury.

Eggshell fragments have been found before, usually in Roman graves, but this is the “only complete Roman egg known in Britain” and “a genuinely unique discovery”, Mr Biddulph said.

He believes the eggs and bread basket could have been food offerings cast into the pit as part of a religious ceremony during a funeral procession.

Berryfields is in the area of the medieval town of Fleet Marston. Previous archaeological finds like dense pottery remains and hundreds of coins indicate there was a Romano-British settlement preceding Fleet Marston. A major Roman road linking  Verulamium (modern-day St Albans) and Corinium Dobunnorum (modern-day Cirencester) traversed the site, intersecting with several smaller roads. That prime crossroads location suggests the Roman settlement may have been a market town and/or government administrative center.

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Gold stater tossed in Salvation Army kettle

Saturday, December 7th, 2019

An anonymous donor dropped an ancient gold coin into a Salvation Army bucket in Florida on Friday morning. The gold stater from the 1st century B.C. was wrapped in one-dollar bill and dropped in the ubiquitous red kettle in front of a Publix grocery store in Tampa. A coin dealer estimated its market value at around $2,000.

The obverse of the coin depicts three togate men, a Roman consul flanked by two fasces-bearing lictors. They are walking facing left. The word “ΚΟΣΩΝ” inscribed under them. The reverse has the image of an eagle standing on a scepter clutching a wreath in one claw.

The Independent Coin Graders label says it’s a “Greek Thracian Kings” coin dating to 44-42 B.C. but that’s a disputed identification. The coin was not minted in Greece. This type of stater has only been found in Transylvania, often in large hoards. Koson is believed to be name of the Dacian king who minted the coin, but his name and reign are otherwise unrecorded. Some scholars think he might be the same person as a king Cotiso or Cotison mentioned by historians Appian and Suetonius as having rejected Octavian’s offer of a marriage alliance and sided with Antony in the civil war and by the poet Horace as having been defeated in battle by Octavian.

Those events took place at 35 B.C., however, and the design of the coin suggests a connection to the previous generation of Roman civil warriors. The consul flanked by lictors is very similar to the reverse of a coin minted by Marcus Junius Brutus in his role as moneyer a decade before he assassinated his way into history. It depicts his ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, revered for having overthrown the last Tarquin king of Rome and considered the founder of the Roman Republic, as the first ever consul of Rome in 509 B.C. It’s possible Koson modeled his stater after the 54 B.C. Brutus denarius as a tribute because he was a supporter of the latest Brutus to claim the status of liberator and tyrannicide. The 44-42 B.C. date would put it right in the middle of the wars after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

The Dacian kingdom had fallen apart in 44 B.C. and the territory was splintered into numerous conflicting tribal factions. If there was a Thracian king involved, he must have minted these coins specifically to pay Dacian tribesmen, perhaps for raids across the Danube.

The coin has been graded (MS-63), meaning it’s in mint, uncirculated condition with only minor deficiencies in the strike, not due to wear and tear. In this example you can see the obverse image is off-center, enough so that the beaded border is missing from the left side, as is the K in Koson. The Salvation Army is working with a dealer to arrange for the conversion of this coin into spendable cash for its charitable endeavors.

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Paleolithic Venus found in Amiens

Friday, December 6th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed an exceptional “Venus” figurine from the early Upper Paleolithic at the prehistoric site of Renancourt in Amiens, northern France.

Sculpted in chalk and 4 centimeters tall, this “Venus” is steatopygic: the volume of the rear, thighs and breasts is hypertrophied. The arms are barely present, and the face is represented without lines. This sculpture adheres perfectly to the aesthetic canon of the Gravettian stylistic tradition, which includes the Venuses of Lespugue (Haute-Garonne) and Willendorf (Austria), as well the bas-relief Venus of Laussel (Dordogne). This “Venus” of Renancourt also has a surprising “hairdo” represented by a grid pattern of thin incisions similar to those of the Venus of Willendorf and, especially, of the Venus of Brassempouy (Landes), also known as the “Lady with a Hood.”

She was found in a layer with organic remains that have been radiocarbon dated to 23,000 years ago, a period when the Gravettian hunter-gatherer culture thrived over a large portion of Europe. Gravettians produced large numbers of Venus figurines and 100 or so made of clay, ivory or stone have been discovered at Gravettian hunting camps from Portugal to Siberia. About 15 of them have been found in France, mostly in southwest, the most recent of them in 1959. Now the Renancourt site has single-handedly doubled those stats as archaeologists have found another 15 of the fertility deities in a mere five years of excavations.

This proliferation of figurines is accompanied by thousands of fragments of chalk that could be waste chips. Archaeologists think the site may have been used by the Gravettians as a figurine manufacturing workshop.

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