Archive for March, 2020

This 12th c. Norwegian church tapestry is unique

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

On topic news is a little thin at the moment, so I shall fill the lull with the Høylandet tapestry, a Norwegian embroidered church tapestry from the late 1100s that is the only known surviving tapestry of its kind.

We know from contemporary sources that medieval churches in Norway were draped with textiles and tapestries. This was not only a decorative and devotional statement; swathing the interior of a church in textiles helped insulate the frigid building in the long winters. The church tapestries were made of wool and plant and mineral dyes were susceptible to damage, fading and decay. Even though they were extremely popular in the Middle Ages, the ones that did manage to survive the elements were systematically destroyed and recycled after the Reformation. Other than the Høylandet tapestry, only small fragments of embroidery have been found in archaeological explorations of medieval churches.

It was stitched by a group of women in the village of Høylandet in central Norway’s Trøndelag County for their parish church. This was an agricultural area, and embroidery was a high-status activity performed by women who could afford to spend untold hours putting decorative stitching on cloth instead of working with their families to bring in a harvest. First they wove a red background, then sketched Biblical scenes on it. Finally they embroidered fully realized characters onto the textile. They used yarns in a variety of bright colors — blue, green, ochre, yellow, red — to stitch the Biblical scenes. White linen thread was used for the outlines. Today the vivid colors have faded to brown shades, and coupled with the white outline, it almost has a black-figure pottery vibe.

The tapestry is no longer complete. It is 44 cm (17.3 inches) high, but however long it was originally, only 210 cm (6’11”) of that length is extant. What does remain is embroidered with three scenes: Mary sitting on a throne as Queen of Heaven with the Christ child; the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh; the kings being warned in a dream not to return to Herod and report on the birth of Jesus.

It’s unknown how the tapestry made it through the Reformation. At some point it was stashed in the loft of the Høylandet Church where it was rediscovered in the 1800s. By happy accident, the church attic proved to be a fine conservation climate, keeping the large section of tapestry in excellent condition.

It is now under the care of experts at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum. The iconography and technique of the tapestry lends unique insight to the iconography and craft of sacred art in medieval Norway, which is why art history PhD candidate Ingrid Lunnan Nødseth is writing her dissertation on the tapestry.

“In the Høylandet tapestry we find great pattern and technique variations. For example, the horse is filled with nine different embroidery patterns. It’s embroidered with a so-called fill stitch, a technique only found in Scandinavia. It’s a sign that the work belongs to a Nordic context,” says Nødseth.

The Wise Men are also depicted differently on this tapestry than we typically see the Wise Men depicted in Western art.

In the Middle Ages, the men were portrayed as three holy kings. In the Høylandet tapestry, they are wearing short pants and robes draped over their shoulders; two of them have small crowns and one has a Phrygian hat. Their clothing shows that they have come from the East.

The textures and patterns embroidered on their clothing (and the horse’s skin!) are spectacular. 


Iron Age bucket part of record year for PAS

Friday, March 20th, 2020

The remains of an Iron Age bucket discovered in Lenham, Kent, are a highlight of a record-setting 1,311 treasure finds (pdf) logged by the UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in 2019. Discovered by metal detectorist Rick Jones, the elaborate copper-alloy bucket fittings dates to around 50 B.C.; the bucket is part of a hoard with a copper alloy bowl and a clay pot, likely a grave assemblage for a high-status cremation burial.

The bucket was made of wood which has rotted away, leaving the fittings behind. They are unusually decorated. The remains of the copper bands feature pairs of hippocampi (mythical creatures with the forelimbs and heads of horses and fish tails) facing each other. Between them is a four-legged animal on its back. Damage to the body and head make it difficult to identify the animal, but archaeologists think it may be a horse or a deer. Behind the left-facing hippocamp is a bird-like creature with a long hooked beak and sharp curved talons.

The bucket handles are even more ornate. The two fittings feature humanoid heads with large, wide-set eyes, eyebrow ridges that come together and go south to form the bridge of a nose, a wide mouth and combed back hair. Under the chin of one is a straight rectangle, a sort of elongated neck, with a rivet in the middle connecting it to the copper mount. Under the chin of the other is a pyramid of three balls.

The two faces are slightly different: one has dotted decoration along the mouth, brows, hairline and around the back of the neck, whilst the other is plainer with a slimmer jawline.

Close examination of the fittings helps us to understand how the bucket would have been used. The plainer mount appears more worn, and the attachment mechanism has also been repaired, with new holes pierced for reattachment. This was clearly a cherished and much-used object. Buckets like this are usually found in high-status cremation graves, several of which are known in Kent and on the near continent. They probably formed part of a drinking set, used for serving mead, wine or beer at feasts. Perhaps the people buried with these objects hosted such feasts in life, or maybe this was a way for the living to share the funeral feast with them.


Conserving the Wolsey Closet ceiling at Hampton Court Palace

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

Hampton Court was built by Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, the immensely wealthy and influential statesman who served as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. He spent hundreds of thousands of crowns and ten years building a lavish palace worthy to host visiting royalty domestic and foreign. Henry stayed in the state rooms in 1525 and was favorably impressed, so much so that Wolsey gave him the palace in 1528 in the attempt to stave off his fall from grace.

It didn’t work. In 1529, Wolsey’s failure to secure an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon saw him stripped of his offices and properties. He would have probably lost his head too, but he died on his way to London to answer to treason charges in 1530.

Henry promptly set to work expanding the palace. The famous kitchens, the Great Hall with its amazing hammer-beam roof, the gatehouse, its astronomical clock, and enough rooms to accommodate a court of one thousand date to Henry’s reign. Subsequent monarchs, most notably William and Mary with their two Baroque wings, made major additions and alterations to the palace.

Most of the original spaces from Cardinal Wolsey’s time are gone. The Wolsey Closet, today part of the 18th century Georgian Rooms, is now the only surviving room from what were once the cardinal’s personal apartments. It too has gone through changes. The linenfold oak panelling is Tudor but not original to the room. The panel paintings on the walls — scenes from the Passion of the Christ — were commissioned by Henry VIII but also later installations in the room. The frieze at the top of the walls repeats Wolsey’s motto taken from Psalm 117 “Dominus michi adjutor” (The Lord is my help) and surely dates to his time, but it isn’t original to the room either. It was in a larger space, trimmed and reset in the Closet as it is today.

The Tudor roses and Prince of Wales feathers on the elaborate ceiling were long believed to be made of leather maché in the Tudor era, but when Historic Royal Palaces conservators began to study the ceiling to learn how best to repair it, they discovered how much they still have to learn about the complicated history of this room. This video gives an all-too-brief summary of what they’ve found so far.


New info revealed about Dublin’s first Viking settlement

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

An excavation in advance of construction behind Dublin Castle has revealed new information about the 9th century Viking settlement of Dublin. The remains of a ditch, palisade and embankment from the first Viking settlement in the city have been unearthed. These would have overlooked the harbour where the Vikings moored their ships.

Vikings had been raiding Gaelic settlements on the coast of Ireland since 795, but they didn’t build a permanent home base there for another 50 years. Around 841, the Viking warlord Turgesius conquered the pre-existing Gaelic ecclesiastical settlement and established a longfort on the edge of a tidal pool known as the dubh linn, an easily defendable natural harbour whence ships could be quickly deployed to Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea. In early Classical Irish, dubh means black or dark and linn means pool, and the pool at the confluence of the River Liffey and one of its tributaries, the River Poddle was tidal, hence the darkness.

The city is named after the pool, now long-since dried.  The site of the former dubh linn has been pinpointed as a garden behind Dublin Castle today, but the excavation has discovered that when the Vikings settled it, the pool extended much further than originally believed. It was almost 400 meters (a quarter mile) wider, reaching the site of St Michael le Pol church, aka St Michael of the Pool, originally founded in the 6th century and one of Ireland’s oldest churches.

[University College Dublin archaeologist Alan] Hayden says this solves two questions that has puzzled historians – why St Michael’s Church referred to ‘le pole’ or the pool and how reports that the Vikings had up to 200 ships on the Dubh Linn.

The team also unearthed layers of later archaeological remains, including a 12th century quarry which supplied the stone used to build Dublin Castle, walls and agricultural furrows from a medieval farm, and prison cells from the police station built there in 1830.


New mammoth bone circle found in Russia

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

A mammoth bone circle recently unearthed at the Kostenki 11 site in Russia has been identified as one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is a concentric ring of mammoth bones laid in a continuous circle 41 feet in diameter. A preliminary inventory of the bones has counted 51 mandibles and 64 crania of mammoth and a smattering of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf and fox bones. Radiocarbon analysis of samples from across the site date it to 25,063-24,490 years before the present, making it the oldest mammoth bone circle ever discovered on the Russian Plain.

Kostenki 11 has two other mammoth bone structures, the first discovered in the earliest excavations of the site in the 1960s, the second in 1970. A 2014 archaeological survey unearthed a new mammoth bone circle, and the next three seasonal excavations revealed another circle, this one exceptionally large and well-preserved. The surface of the circle was interfered with by burrowing animals and the roots of shrubs, birch, pear and cherry trees, but the bones managed to survive the centuries mostly intact and in their original positions. Starting in the 2015 season, the excavation team took a comprehensive approach to the interior and exterior of the circle to recover plant/organic remains, evidence of fuel usage and any evidence that might help identify human usage of the site.

Combustion deposits consisting of layers of burned sediment, bone and charcoal were found in one quadrant of the circle. The high proportion of carbonized bones, small size of the fragments and low number of wood charcoal suggests a deliberate choice to burn mostly bone at the site, either for fuel or to dispose of waste, as well as wood. Plant remains are evidence that the residents also foraged plants from the area, using them for food, medicine, string and fabric.

Three pits were found on the southeast perimeter of the circle, each containing large mammoth bones, lithic debris, bone debris and charcoal, the same materials found in the circle. They were therefore either deliberately filled during the site’s occupation, or infilled after its abandonment.

The dense lithic debris in the pits and circle allowed archaeologists to map knapping activity for the first time at mammoth circle site. More than 300 flint chips left behind when the inhabitants knapped stone into sharp tools is actually a small number compared to other Ice Age sites. It indicates the site was not a long-term dwelling.

Upper Paleolithic circular mammoth bone structures surrounded by pits have been found throughout eastern Europe, around 70 of them in Ukraine and the Russian Plain. and up until now have been consistently interpreted as dwellings offering shelter during the long, cold ice age winters, with the smaller pits used to store supplies. The third Kostenki 11 circle suggests instead that it was occupied only briefly rather than used for months as a base camp.

Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: “Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter – rare in this period of extreme cold.

“These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water.”

The study of the mammoth circle has been published in the journal Antiquity.


“Squatting mantis man” petroglyph found in Iran

Monday, March 16th, 2020

An unusual praying mantis petroglyph has been found at the Teymareh rock art site in central Iran. The carved image 5.5 inches long and 4.3 inches wide was discovered during a 2017-2018 survey by archaeologists. Its precise age is unknown because radiocarbon dating cannot be performed in Iran due to international sanctions, but the rock art at the site ranges in age from 40,000 to 4,000 years old.

Rock art imagery can be challenging to decipher, a process the team charmingly describes as “similar to a game of Pictionary, albeit without the artist on hand to say whose guess is correct.” Invertebrates are rarely depicted in petroglyphs, so the archaeologists collaborated with entomologists to identify the creature from its morphological features. Its six legs, large triangular head with extended vertex, curved hind legs and bent forelimbs marked it as a mantid. Iran’s Empusa genus, which inhabits hot, dry environments like the Teymareh Region, have the expanded vertex seen in the petroglyph.

There are two elements that suggest this may not be just a mantis, however. The middle pair of legs have circles at the ends.

The closest parallel to this in archaeology is the ‘Squatter Man,’ a petroglyph figure found around the world depicting a person flanked by circles. While they could represent a person holding circular objects, an alternative hypothesis is that the circles represent auroras caused by atmospheric plasma discharges.

Squatter or Squatting Man figures have been found all over the world, including Arizona, Spain, Italy, Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates. The team believes the Iranian petroglyph is a combination of a praying mantis and a Squatting Man figure, thus they have dubbed him “squatting mantis man.” Sounds like a superhero from Mystery Men.

The study has been published in the Journal of Orthoptera Research. It’s an interesting and entertaining light read. Two enthusiastic forelimbs up.



Sunday, March 15th, 2020

More than once over the past few weeks I have thought about the Decameron, the early Italian-language masterpiece written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-14th century as the Black Death ravaged Tuscany, the peninsula, the continent. In it, 10 youths, seven women and three men, flee plague-ridden Florence and hole up in a villa in the countryside for two weeks. To alleviate the boredom of their self-quarantine, they tell each other stories for 10 nights of the 14 (with exceptions for the two Sundays, and one day per week dedicated to chores which is rather impressive roommating considering the circumstances, actually). By the end of their stay, they’ve told 100 stories.

With all of Italy on lockdown, museums and heritage sites closed, people stuck in their abodes for days at a time, the Uffizi Gallery has launched a digital Decameron to entertain and console the shut-in with photographs, videos and stories shared on all its social media platforms — Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram — under #UffiziDecameron.

The Uffizi picks from the immense wealth of artworks in its Gallery of Statues and Paintings, in the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, posts a photo or clip, and their social media curators explain the background and meaning of each piece. The first video posted was a wordless tour of the Boboli gardens with aerial and terrestrial footage that is just breathtakingly beautiful. The second is a tour by museum assistant Cristina De Caro of the Uffizi’s Contini Bonacossi collection, something I knew not a single thing about before today.

The portrait by Bronzino of Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de Medici, wearing an exquisitely brocaded gown, her arm draped around the shoulders of their son and heir, is world-famous. Less well-known is the ring Cosimo gave her for their wedding: a Roman intaglio stone with matrimonial motifs (cornucopias, intertwined hands) he had set by Florentine goldsmiths. It is one of very few surviving examples of secular gold work from the early Medici dukes in Florence today because the family treasure was so widely dispersed. The reason it’s in the Uffizi today is that Eleonora was buried with it. It was found when the remains of the 50 Medici family members buried in tombs in the walls of San Lorenzo were moved to the crypt under the church in 1857.

Over on Instagram the quarantine festivities kicked off with a 19th century painting by Vincenzo Cabianca of a scene from the Decameron. More recently they posted a riveting explanation of the complex imagery in a section of the Siena Duomo’s unbelievable inlaid marble mosaic floor designed by Pinturicchio in 1504. 

As a companion to the Uffizi Decameron initiative, the museum will also publish images, video and content dedicated to Raphael. It’s the 500th anniversary of his death this year, and the Scuderie del Quirinale museum in Rome was hosting an unprecedented exhibition dedicated to the Renaissance master. My plans to write about the show were derailed by horror, so it warms the cockles of my broken heart that the Uffizi, which loaned 50 of its works out of the 200 or so on display, will be sharing online what cannot be shared in person right now.

“Even if museums have had to close their doors, art doesn’t stop,” explained Uffizi director Eike Schmidt. “This is why from now on we will address our public also through Facebook. The treasures of the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitta and the Boboli Gardens will keep you company in these weeks of the common commitment against the spread of the virus. Today we begin Uffizi Decameron: as in the masterpiece by Boccaccio, every day we will tell stories, the works, the personages of our most beautiful museums, uniting us in the name of culture, of art, and — why not — of amusement. The Uffizi will be with you, in your homes, to overcome all together the current moment of difficulty. We avoid all contagion, except that of beauty.”

So much lump in throat right now. Hai tutto il mio amore, Italia.


Fossilized skin of extinct penguin found

Saturday, March 14th, 2020

Argentine paleontologists have discovered the fossilized skin of Palaeeudyptes gunnari, a 43-million-year-old extinct large penguin. The whole wing was found during a 2014 excavation in the middle Eocene sediment layer on Seymour Island, Antarctica, the same place where the only known articulated skeleton of a Palaeeudyptes gunnari was unearthed in 2008.

The entire wing was found and so much of it had been mineralized that researchers were able to study connective tissues, the feather follicles and a pattern left by the feathers on the skin. This is the only articulated wing of Palaeeudyptes gunnari ever found, the first skin from an extinct penguin ever found and the earliest example of mineralized skin from a neornithine bird (the more advanced avian species that survived the Cretaceous mass extinction event to become modern birds) whose skin was preserved.

“The skin has been preserved as a fossil on both surfaces of the wing, packing the bones that have been articulated in their original position, including the elements that ossify from the tendons,” said paleontologist Acosta Hospitaleche.

She added: “This has given us the opportunity to analyze the connective tissue of the wing, and the morphology and density of the skin follicles where the feathers are inserted.”

This unique opportunity allowed researchers to establish that compared to the larger penguin species alive today like the emperor penguin, Palaeeudyptes gunnari had less dense plumage, an adaptation that would have helped insulate against the cold. Antarctica was not covered in ice in the Eocene (56 – 34 million years ago); it was a woodland environment rich with fauna. The adaptability of their plumage to extreme cold likely played a role in their success as a species during the Eocene and in the success of their descendants in the cold seas of the southern hemisphere.


V&A acquires rare Medieval cluster brooch

Friday, March 13th, 2020

The Victoria & Albert Museum has acquired a medieval brooch that is the only one of its kind ever discovered in the UK. Only seven of them are known to exist in the world. It was discovered by metal detectorist Justin Owens at a 2017 rally on a farm that was once a royal hunting grounds near Brigstock, Northamptonshire. It was only four inches under the surface and so caked with mud that Owens at first thought it was a bottle cap or some other piece of trash. Cleaning revealed it was an extremely rare late medieval brooch of gold and jewels.

The front face of the brooch is a triangular setting outlined by three gold bars with a central rectangular gemstone, almost certainly a spinel, in a four-prong mount. Around the stone are alternating flower and bow shapes with twisted gold wires filling gaps. At the three corners of the triangle are are box bezels topped with a pointed gemstone giving them a pyramidical shape. One of the three is missing its gem point. The surviving two are diamonds. White enamel balls accent the piece and there would originally have been pearls, now lost.

The front face is mounted to a roughly circular gold back plate divided into six pie slices. At the center of the outer edge of each wedge is a rivet keeping the setting elements in place, mounted to the back plate. There’s another rivet in the middle where the six divides meet. It holds the central gem in place. The pin is intact, hinged to the back plate. The style of design dates it to between 1420 and 1600.

James Robinson, Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass at the V&A, said: “This intriguing and exquisite late medieval cluster brooch is a rare survivor with a tantalising story to tell.

“It’s sculptural design, exceptionally fine gold and enamel work, stunning diamonds, central cabochon spinel and pearls (now lost), all express burgeoning opulence and extreme wealth.

“It would have been made for someone from the highest echelons of society. The loss of some diamonds and the brooch’s severely bent pin belie the visible trauma it would have suffered when it was likely ripped off its wearer during the thrill of a hunt.

“It makes a truly captivating and unique addition to our world-class jewellery collection, which traces the story of jewellery in Europe from ancient times to the present day.”

After a painstaking conservation using the most delicate of tools including pheasant and ostrich feathers, the brooch will go on display in the V&A’s Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery alongside the silver, sapphire and diamond coronet Prince Albert had made as wedding gift for Queen Victoria.


Victory model acquired by designer’s descendant

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

A cross-section model of HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s valiant flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, has been acquired by a descendant of the man who originally designed the warship. Sir Benjamin Slade, 7th Baronet, bought the model at auction on January 8th for £450 (plus buyers premium) and took it home to Maunsel House, the family estate in Bridgwater, Somerset, where it joins two other models of Victory on display there.

Thomas Slade, Surveyor of the Navy, designed HMS Victory in 1759. The hull was completed in 1760 but the ship wasn’t launched until 1765, giving the wood of its hull years to season when usually ships only got a few months. That may have played a role in its longevity. Victory is the most successful first-rate ship of the line ever built. Slade died in 1771, decades before the ship he’d designed would rise to international fame at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Victory was an inauspicious name, to put it mildly. The previous HMS Victory sank in a storm off the Channel Islands in 1744, only seven years after its launch. All 1,150 crewmen were lost. The Victory before that one had burned down in an accidental fire in 1721. Still, for whatever reason, likely because it was the only proposed name not in use, the 104-gun first-rate ship of the line was dubbed Victory and in the course of a most illustrious naval career redeemed the name for all time.

The Napoleonic Wars also advanced the fortunes of the Slade family. The 1st Baronet, Sir John “Black Jack” Slade, was given the title in 1831 in honor of his military accomplishments primarily during the Peninsular War, although he was held in active contempt by the Duke of Wellington and many of his subordinates.

The current Baronet is pretty much the Platonic form of that most deferential of euphemisms, the “eccentric millionaire.” Earlier this year the 73-year-old went on a matchmaking reality TV series to find a wife who “must be able to breed two sons” in exchange for him “showering [her] in jewels” and giving her £50,000 a month “pocket money.” Absolutely no Scorpios allowed. The year before that he featured on another reality show when bailiffs showed up at his door demanding payment on an unpaid £4,700 bill owed to, ironically, a wedding planner. Also he owns a peacock that attacked a Lexus because, Slade thinks, the peacock is gay and was attracted to the blue of the vehicle, thus forcing Slade to ban peacock blue Lexuses from Maunsel House and inspiring the truly great headline: Baronet Claims Peacock Sexually Attacked Car.

On the plus side, last year he offered to donate 50 old growth oak trees from his estate for the reconstruction of Notre Dame after the devastating fire of April 2019, a gesture that he hoped would make ammends for all the generations of Slades who went at the French with such deadly gusto.

Apparently he didn’t realize he was buying a cross-section model of HMS Victory and thought it was a full version to scale like the one five feet long that was gifted to his family by the Royal Navy in the 19th century. The dimensions are clearly stated on the catalogue page and it’s not like you can’t tell it’s a section from the picture. You literally see through it. That’s a large part of its charm, in fact, that you can see all the wee cannons and barrels and ballast and whatnot.

“It is a bit like ordering a birthday cake online and then only getting a slice. To think that I was worried that it would not fit in my car. Well, the joke is on me, that’s for sure.

“To be honest I was prepared to pay a lot more – I got a bit of a bargain in the end. It was much smaller than I thought it would be. It’s pretty tiny. Online it looked bigger.

“It one of those small models which lets you actually see a cross section and everything that went on inside the ship. I might put it on my bar.”

As long as he keeps the peacock away from it.






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