Archive for March, 2020

Tiny new bird dinosaur found in amber

Wednesday, March 11th, 2020

A new avian dinosaur has been identified from its tiny skull preserved in amber from Myanmar. The 99-million-year-old amber was discovered in 2016 and the long-beaked, big-eyed, toothy skull encased within has gotten a new name: Oculudentavis khaungraae. It is one of the smallest dinosaurs ever found the second most ancient bird after Archaeopteryx.

The entire skull is just 1.5cm (.6 inches) long. Extrapolating from that, Oculudentavis was no more than 1.6 inches long from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail, comparable in size to the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird alive today. In order to study the fossil in detail without damaging the amber, the research team used high-resolution X-ray images to create a 3D model. This creature was bird-like but not a bird, a dinosaur but not like any other known.

First of all, the skull seems to be built for strength. The bones show an unusual pattern of fusion and the skull lacks an antorbital fenestra, a small hole often found in front of the eye.

The eyes of Oculudentavis also surprised us. The shape of the bones found within the eye, the scleral ossicles, suggests that it probably had conical eyes with small pupils. This type of eye structure is especially well adapted for moving around in bright light. While daytime activity might be expected for an ancient bird from the age of dinosaurs, the shape of the ossicles is entirely distinct from any other dinosaur and resembles those of modern-day lizards.

Adding to the list of unexpected features, the upper jaw carries at least 23 small teeth. These teeth extend all the way back beneath the eye and are not set in deep pockets, an unusual arrangement for most ancient birds. The large number of teeth and their sharp cutting edges suggest that Oculudentavis was a predator that may have fed on small bugs.

The sum of these traits – a strong skull, good eyesight and a hunter’s set of teeth – suggests to us that Oculudentavis led a life previously unknown among ancient birds: it was a hummingbird-sized daytime predator.

If the research team is correct about Oculudentavis‘ age and position on the evolutionary timeline, it rewrites what we know about how and when the large reptiles transitioned into the birds that are their living descendants today. Oculudentavis predates the appearance of nectar-feeding hummingbirds by 70 million years, which means the tiny dinosaurs and the massive ones lived together at the same time.

The study has been published in the journal Nature.


Roman iron smelting plant found in Belgium

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Roman-era iron smelting operation in Ninove, East Flanders, Belgium. These are the first traces of Roman iron production ever found in the region.

The Doorn Nord site is being archaeologically surveyed in advance of construction of a business park. Since the investigation began 18 months ago, the team has unearthed two funerary monuments from the late Neolithic (2500-2000 B.C.) and a smattering of Bronze Age (2000-1000 B.C.) remains, but the densest concentration of ancient material dates to the late 1st and 2nd century A.D. when a Roman settlement grew at the intersection of two roads.

The settlement contains houses, streets and graves and appears to have specialized in metal craft, specifically the smelting of iron ore into iron. Archaeologists are hoping to discover how much ore was produced and what it was used to make.

The greatest number of remains are of more recent extraction: military encampments from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries. Flanders was a hot potato that changed hands repeatedly (between France and Spain, mainly) during the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession. The camp features small shelters cut into the clay of the ground itself. They had staircases, benches, hearths and fireplaces and could keep six men seated and warm around a fire. No roofs have been found yet and it’s not clear how the smoke was channeled out of the small space.

In June of last year, the city recreated the 17th century encampment so people could hear what it was like to live there from a “soldier’s wife” while sitting in the reconstructed bunkers. More than 4,000 visitors enjoyed the recreations, period crafts, combat demonstrations and archaeology workshops.


Pyramid of Djoser reopens

Monday, March 9th, 2020

Egypt’s oldest pyramid, indeed, the first monumental cut stone structure ever built, has reopened to the public after years of disaster (natural and man-made) and restoration. The step pyramid of Djoser, tomb of the first pharaoh of the Old Kingdom, was built around 2,680 B.C. in Saqqara, the ancient capital of Memphis. High priest of Ra and the pharaoh’s vizier Imhotep is believed to have engineered this marvel by building a large square mastaba and then pile five more on top of it in descending size.

Underneath the pyramid is a network of tunnels, shafts and passages that create a palace for the king to enjoy in the afterlife. The burial chamber contains a massive pink granite sarcophagus. No human remains have been found in the chamber as the pyramid was hard to miss and tomb raiders pillaged it thoroughly.

In 1992, the pyramid was badly damaged in an earthquake. It was so unstable that basic steps like building scaffolding ran the risk of causing even more damage to the interior. Restoration began in 2006, and in 2011, a creative approach using large airbags to prop up the precarious ceilings and walls looked to be very promising. Then came the overthrow of Mubarak and restorations were stopped for two years.

When they picked back up in 2015, there were rumblings that some poor choices were being made and that the façade of the pyramid had been changed from its original. UNESCO experts advised restorers on how to restore the World Heritage site without making alterations that changed its iconic exterior.

The restoration is now complete. The outside of the pyramid, its internal corridors, the burial chamber, the south and east entrances are now safe for visitors. There is new lighting in the tunnels and the stunning limestone floors, walls decorated with faience and carved reliefs can be seen and photographed.


Easter Island moai damaged by truck

Sunday, March 8th, 2020

One of Easter Island’s iconic monoliths was severely damaged when a pick-up truck crashed into it. The ahu (the platform the moai stood on) and the moai overlooking the Pu A Pau Bay were damaged by a truck belonging to a Chilean resident on the island. The ahu is broken up into pieces and the head, which like many of the moai was already toppled, was fractured. The driver was arrested and charged with damaging a national monument. He was released pending investigation, but is banned from getting anywhere near the archaeological and sacred areas of the island.

When the disaster first occurred last Sunday, the suspicion was that this was a deliberate act of vandalism. The driver claimed in his defense that it was an accident and the more recent reports state that he wasn’t driving the truck at all, let alone aiming to destroy the ahu. A relative of the driver says he had parked on top of the hill to go fishing, braking it by wedging rocks under the tires because its emergency brake was broken. When he returned, he removed the rocks and the truck slid down the wet hill, crashing into the monument. He alerted the park rangers to the crash and was given a breathalyzer test which found he had not been drinking. The possible penalties for this crime include a fine of approximately $3,000-$12,000, plus unspecified other consequences depending on what the 90-day investigation reveals.

The moai and ahu are not adjacent to the roads, so that truck must have hurtled downhill quite a ways to reach the statue. The ugly image of the sacred cultural patrimony of Rapa Nui crushed under the rimless tires of a busted Chevy might finally spur the authorities to regulate the movement of vehicles in sacred spaces.

The island’s mayor, Pedro Pablo Petero Edmunds Paoa, is calling for stricter regulations that will prohibit vehicles from driving near the 1,000-odd moai on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island.

Edmunds Paoa tried to pass an anti-driving measure eight years ago, he told Chilean newspaper El Mercurio de Valparaíso, with no effect. He believes that this week’s accident could be the motivating factor to consider re-introducing the proposal.

“The Moai are sacred structures of religious value for the Rapa Nui people,” Rapu said. “Furthermore, [the damage of the moai] is an offense to a culture that has lived many years struggling to recover its heritage and archaeology.”

The moai are already under grave threat from erosion, organic growth, livestock grazing and overtourism. The island’s population has increased by 50% (from 8,000 to 12,000) since 2012 and as travel to the island has gotten easier and less expensive, more than 10,000 tourists visit each month. It is clearly time to revisit the traffic management of the heritage sites.


Relics of St. Eanswythe confirmed

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

Bones found in a lead reliquary in a church in Folkestone, Kent, have been identified as almost certainly belonging to 7th century Anglo-Saxon princess Saint Eanswythe. The surviving remains, about half of a skeleton, were studied by a team of scientists for five days. A temporary laboratory was set up in the church which was closed to the public for the duration.

The study found that the bones all belonged to one individual, probably a woman, between 17 and 20 years old at the time of her death. The bones were healthy, showing no signs of childhood malnutrition. Radiocarbon analysis of a tooth and foot bone found the person had likely died in the middle of the 7th century.

The reliquary was rediscovered in June 1885 in the north wall of the high chancel during a renovation. Masons were removing the plaster cladding on the wall in order to install new alabaster panels when they discovered a large arched opening with a stone slab four feet long and two feet wide at the base of the arch.

Underneath the slab, workers found a cavity containing a lead coffer about 14 inches long, nine inches wide and eight inches high. The coffer was decorated with dots arranged in lozenge patterns, a motif also seen in the lead cists of Norman nobleman William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, and his wife Gundred who died in 1088 and 1085 respectively and were buried at Lewes Priory, the Cluniac monastery they had founded.

Inside the leaden coffer were skeletal remains. The location where they were laid to rest would have been the spot of highest honor in the church, the kind of place reserved for the church’s founder or its greatest patron. The chancel walls date to the 12th or 13th century. When it was first constructed, this arched space was open to the chancel. At some point it was filled with stone and walled up.

Eanswythe was born around 630, daughter of King Eadbald of Kent and his Frankish wife Emma or Ymme. They were both Christian — Eadbald was a fresh convert when they married — and their daughter was said to have founded the first women’s monastery in England, the Benedictine Folkestone Priory. Refusing offers of marriage, she lived in the community until her premature death around 650.

The Folkstone Priory was abandoned in the 10th century when the cliff upon which it was perched became so eroded by the sea that the building fell to ruin. After the Norman Conquest, a new priory was built further inland in 1137 along with the church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe. The remains of one of its namesakes were translated to the new church on Saint Eanswythe’s day, September 12, 1138. That’s when the lead coffer was decorated with the lozenge pattern used on the de Warenne cists 40 years earlier.

The priory was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The church survived as the Folkestone Parish Church. It’s possible the chancel arch was filled with rubble at this time and the reliquary deliberately obscured for its own protection. After the rediscovery of the reliquary, Rev. M. Woodward, Vicar of Folkestone, returned it to the niche in the wall, only now it was lined with alabaster and covered with a brass grill. The grill was then covered with a door which when open would allow people to look through the grill at the lead coffer.

[Andrew Richardson, of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust] said the result of the analysis was of national significance. “It now looks probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal family, and one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints.

“There is more work to be done to realise the full potential of this discovery. But certainly the project represents a wonderful conjunction not only of archaeology and history, but also of a continuous living faith tradition at Folkestone from the mid-seventh century to the present day.”

Lesley Hardy, the director of the Finding Eanswythe Project at Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “Folkestone is an extremely ancient place but much of its heritage has been erased through development in the 19th and 20th centuries. Eanswythe was at the centre of the community – people would have seen her as a local hero. To bring her back into the light is something quite special.”

The bones have been returned to their niche yet again, but funds will be raised for additional scientific analyses, including DNA testing.


British Museum acquires Bronze Age gold bulla

Friday, March 6th, 2020

The British Museum has acquired the spectacular Bronze Age gold bulla discovered two years ago in Shropshire. The crescent-shaped pendant, intricately incised with geometric patterns, was found to meet the criteria of the 1996 Treasure Act at an inquest held by the Coroner for Shropshire John Ellery on January 31st, 2019. Once declared Treasure, the object was assessed by the Treasure Valuation Committee which determined its fair market value to be £250,000. With the support of the Art Fund and the American Friends of the British Museum, the museum was able to raise the money to buy what is believed to be one of the most significant Bronze Age metalwork artifacts ever found in the British Isles.

One side shows a stylized sun – a rare and hugely significant addition to the art and iconography of Bronze Age Britain. Solar symbolism is a key element of Bronze Age cosmology and mythology across Europe, but before the discovery of this pendant was very rarely seen on objects found in Britain. […]

The pendant is one of a small number of contemporary, precious objects made to celebrate the religious and life-giving power of the sun during the Bronze Age. They have been found across Europe, including the famous Trundholm Sun Chariot from Denmark and the ‘sun discs’ of North-West Europe.

It was discovered by a metal detectorist, but both the finder’s identity and that of the landowner are being kept secret, as is the location of the find site, in order to keep the excessively curious off the scent. Archaeologists from the British Museum in collaboration with Trent & Peak Archaeology and University College Cork have investigated the Shropshire site and discovered that the field was a boggy wetland during the Bronze Age. The bulla was likely intentionally thrown into the bog as a votive deposit.

Is it 3,000 years old and one of only two Bronze Age bullae ever found in England. The other was discovered near Manchester in 1722 during the dredging of the Irwell ship canal and antiquarians thought the striking geometric decoration was of such high quality it could only be Roman. The Manchester bulla was sold privately in 1806 and hasn’t been seen nor heard from since. Six other broadly parallel bullae have been discovered in northern Ireland. They all range in date between 1000 and 750 B.C., the late Bronze Age.

Pendants of this type are called bullae after the Latin for “bubbles” because they are crafted from sheet gold and are hollow inside. The Shropshire bulla has been X-rayed and CT-scanned to determine what’s inside the tube collar along the top of the pendant. It looks like clay or compacted soil, but it’s still unclear whether it was a deliberate fill or the unintended result of centuries spent underground. Metal analysis has shown the sheet to be approximately 80% gold and 20% silver and copper, an alloy consistent with other late Bronze Age metalwork.

The first public showing of the bulla will take place this November at the Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery in Shropshire, near the find site. Additional artifacts recovered during the recent excavation will be displayed alongside the pendant. When it returns to the British Museum, the bulla will go on permanent display near the Mold Gold Cape, an absolute masterpiece of Bronze Age metalwork found in a grave in North Wales in 1833.


Metal detectorist find rare Roman horse brooch

Thursday, March 5th, 2020

Jason Price was scanning a field near Leasingham during a Detecting for Veterans event when he discovered a rare, even unique, horse brooch from the late Roman era.

He said: “It was the last field of the weekend and it was heavily ploughed – so I didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything. You can imagine my surprise when my detector started buzzing.

“About eight inches down I found something caked in mud. At first I thought it was a piece of litter, but as I cleaned it off, my jaw dropped open. There it was – a horse brooch. I was shaking. I’ve found things like coins before, but never anything like this. Absolutely amazing!”

Dating to 200-410 A.D., copper-alloy bow brooch is intact, complete with its hinged pin. The horse’s head is lowered at the end of an arched neck, a realistic posture but with a stylized, elongated muzzle. His eyes and nostrils are circular grooves. His ears are gently rounded in profile with central recesses. The back of the arched neck is crossed with 14 grooves representing the mane. There is no bridle or reins, but a saddle or saddle blanket is outlined on the back. Circles at each corner of the blanket may be decorative pompons.

Horses were popular motifs on Roman brooches, but the ones that have been found in Britain before now are plate brooches: two-dimensional depictions of a horse or horse and rider in profile. Most of the horse and rider plate brooches have been found at temple sites, suggesting a religious significance, perhaps even a Romano-Celtic riding deity.

Three-dimensional zoomorphic brooches have been found in Continental Europe but are much more rare in Britain. They are also of significantly later date — 3rd-4th century versus late 1st, early 2nd century for the Continental examples. This is the first known horse brooch in the round ever discovered in Britain.

The nearest parallel is a brooch of unknown provenance now in the British Museum. It’s a plate brooch, albeit more rounded than they usually are, and as with other zoomorphic brooches (this cockerel, for example) from Roman Britain, the British Museum’s horse brooch is dotted with colored enamel. It is known as an Atelier A type, defined as an animal placed on a bar as if they were walking on the ground and characterized by circular enamel decoration.

The Leasingham horse has no enamel circles, nor are there tell-tale recesses from lost enamel. It’s possible there was some of it in the grooves, but even if there was, this horse pin still wouldn’t match any of the known zoomorphic brooch classifications. That makes it entirely unique, a new type find.

The brooch will go on display later this year at the Collection Museum in Lincoln.


USS Monitor’s Dahlgren guns get custom boring

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020

It has taken 158 years but it is now possible to stare down the freshly-cleaned barrel of one the Dahlgren guns from the USS Monitor. The ironclad Monitor engaged the Confederate ironclad Virginia, formerly  the USS Merrimack, on March 9th, 1862. It went down in history as the first battle in history between ironclad battleships. Less than a year later, the Monitor sank in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The wreck was discovered in 1973 and over the decades a few individual pieces were retrieved — the signal lantern, the anchor, personal effects — but in 2002, the Monitor‘s 120-ton gun turret was raised from the wreck site. It contained two XI-inch Dahlgren guns and their carriages.

The Dahlgren guns are 11 feet long and weigh almost eight tons. They were cast at the West Point foundry in 1859 and were originally on another warship before being transferred to the Monitor. A hundred and forty years at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean had caked it inside and outside with concretion, a rock-hard combination of corrosion materials, sediment and sea life.

Dahlgren guns in upside-down turret inside the coffer dam when they were raised in 2002. Photo courtesy the Mariners' Museum.A century and a half in salt water damaged the metal in other ways as well, making the metal brittle. To gradually desalinate them, protecting them from the flash oxidation that would rust them out if they were dried out and ensuring their long-term preservation, the guns were immersed in 4,300-gallon tanks of water and sodium hydroxide at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Full desalination was elusive, however, because the full depth of the bore was still lined with concretion inches thick.

Concretions are usually removed from the surface of artifacts with power tools or dry ice blasting, but it’s not possible to reach all the way into the bore of a massive cannon. Drilling equipment would be necessary, but without knowing the precise length of the bore, the drill would either not be able to clean the full interior or it would go too far and cut a groove into the back of the bore.

Conservators studied patent drawings and ordnance records to determine the bore’s length, but there were discrepancies in the measurements for the XI-Inch Dahlgren. In order to ascertain whether the Monitor‘s guns matched the dimensions from the ordnance drawings or the patent drawings, researchers used a simple hardware store laser tape measure and a digital level to take top-to-bottom measurements of the bore of another XI-Inch Dahlgren made at the West Point foundry in 1861. The data gathered was not perfectly precise, but it was good enough to identify the test gun as matching the 1851 Board of Ordnance drawing with a bore length of 131.2″.

On Tuesday, February 25th, conservators deployed a bespoke drill and bit designed to remove the concretion from the bore of the gun.

After some measurements, adjustments and leveling by the conservation staff, Farrell guided the drill forward on its track, inching it into the gun’s barrel. The drill produced a deluge of black water and some large chunks of marine concretions, giving material culture specialist Hannah Fleming plenty to hammer through — literally. She took a hammer and chisel to some chunks more than a foot long, looking for anything that wasn’t rock.

After about three hours of drilling and chiseling, she hadn’t found anything of note, but one small item caught some of the museum staff’s eye.

…Two decades after the ironclad sank, former crew member Francis Butts wrote that as the Monitor was going down, he stuffed his coat and boots into one of the guns and a black cat into the other. There is no other evidence to support that account, and the museum has not found any signs of a coat or boots, let alone a cat.

When Fleming found something that was hard and not rock, there was a fleeting thought that it may be a remnant of cat. It ended up being a piece of crab.

Here’s Butts’ account which, to quote Bart Simpson’s review of the Krusty autobiography, strikes me as self-serving with many glaring omissions.

I occupied the turret all alone, and passed buckets from the lower hatchway to the man on top of the turret. I took off my coat—one that I had received from home only a few days previous, (I could not feel that our noble little ship was yet lost,) —and rolling it up with my boots, drew the tompion from one of the guns, placed them inside and returned the tompion. We had a black cat on board, which then sat on the breech of one of the guns, howling one of those hoarse and solemn tunes which no one can appreciate, unless filled with the superstitions which I had been taught by the sailors who were afraid to kill a cat. I would almost as soon have touched a ghost, but I caught her and placing her in another gun, replaced the wad and tompion, but could still hear that distressing yeowl. As I raised my last bucket to the upper hatchway no one was there to take it. I scrambled up the ladder and found that we below had been deserted. I shouted to those on the berth deck to “Come up—the officers have left the ship and a boat is alongside.”

The skeletal remains of two sailors were discovered in the gun turret when it was raised in 2002, so Mr. Butts’ last man standing claim has been tragically and conclusively disproved. The two sailors were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013.

The second Dahlgren gun is being bored this week. Here’s hoping there’s no feline in that one either.


Leopard sarcophagus virtually restored

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

The intense stare of a leopard painted on a fragmented wood sarcophagus lid has been virtually restored. The remains of the sarcophagus lid were discovered in a 7th century B.C. tomb by the Egyptian-Italian Mission at West Aswan in January of 2019.

The leopard was a symbol of strength and determination in ancient Egypt. When the sarcophagus was intact, the face of the large cat painted on the acacia lid corresponded with the head of the deceased. The effigy of the powerful animal would have helped the individual on his journey to the afterlife.

With so few fragments in fragile condition, the image on the lid of the sarcophagus was reconstructed virtually before it was physically reconstruction. It is cleaned and pieced together, but its brilliant colors are true to life and have not been digitally enhanced.

The necropolis on the west bank of the Nile is comprised of about 300 tombs, some dug into the hill, some underground, that were in use from the 7th century B.C. through the 3rd century A.D. Last year, the team unearthed a two-chamber tomb with 35 mummies, including some of small children, numerous funerary objects, mummification supplies (jars of bitumen, white cartonnage blanks ready to be painted and an intact palm wood stretcher with linen strips that was used to transport the mummies into the chamber.

In the chamber next to the leopard sarcophagus, archaeologists discovered a small vessel containing organic vegetal remains. Analysis has identified those remains as pine nuts, an extremely rare find in Egyptian archaeology. The seeds of the Mediterranean umbrella pine are not native to Egypt and must have been imported.

“We like to imagine – comments [professor of Egyptology of the State University of Milan Patrizia] Piacentini – that the people buried in the tomb of Aswan loved this rare seed, so much so that their relatives placed a bowl next to the deceased that contained them so that they could feed on them for eternity.”


New chapter in the story of the Immortal Piano

Monday, March 2nd, 2020

A new chapter will soon be written in the story of a unique piano with a rich history and even richer legend. This piano has gone by many names — the Piano of Siena, the Harp of David Piano, the King’s Piano — and has been played by some of the greatest pianists in history. The ornately carved wood case is adorned with reliefs of fruits, garlands, urns, birds, cherubs playing instruments standing on the backs of griffins, cherubs in a festive dance, lions, David’s harp, the two tablets of the Ten Commandments and the portraits of illustrious composers Handel, Mozart, Gluck, Luigi Cherubini and the inventor of modern musical notation Guido Aretino.

Its visual beauties only added to it celebrity, however. The piano was first created by Turin harpsichord maker Sebastiano Marchisio at the end of the 18th century. His ambition was to create an instrument with the hammered power of the pianoforte, but its harsher sound replaced by the gentle, delicate strains of the harpsichord. A piano that combined these features, Marchisio believed, would do proper justice to the great repertoire of harpsichord music that was increasingly being played on piano alone as the new keyboard instrument eclipsed its ancestor.

He was only able to complete the resonance box and a full design for the piano before his death. Part of the legend of this instrument is that Sebastiano built the resonance box out of Lebanese cedarwood from two pillars salvaged out of a Sienese church that had been destroyed in an earthquake. The pillars were said to be of the most august lineage: part of the Temple of Solomon that was destroyed by Titus in 70 A.D. He brought the pillars back to Rome as part of his plunder and they were used to construct a pagan shrine. Centuries later, the shrine was destroyed by Christians and a church built in its place reusing Solomon’s pillars. And thus the musical spirit of Solomon’s father, King David, was imbued into the mystical harp-like sound of the piano.

His sons Giacomo and Enrico continued to work on the piano, but they didn’t live to see it completed either. Enrico’s sons Luciano and Rafaello finally finished it as a wedding gift for their sister Rebecca in around 1825. They made changes to Sebastiano’s original design, adding more keys, hammers and strings which, linked to their grandfather’s original soundboard —  only 1/5 of an inch thick with four ribs — created a new and distinct sound unlike any other.

Rebecca married Antonio Ferri of Siena and moved there with the piano. The piano’s musical virtues made it a local celebrity and it was often played in concerts and at the city cathedral. For such a fine instrument to have such a plain case seemed incongruous to its fans and in the 1850s, Sebastiano’s great-grandson, Rebecca and Antonio’s son, wood-carver Nicodemo Ferri and his cousin Carlo Bartalozzi set about creating a new glamorous exterior better suited to its sublime sound.

The newly fancified Piano of Siena made its international debut at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 where it was displayed in the Italian pavilion winning several awards. Camille Saint-Saëns, whose fame as a composer and pianist was on the ascendant, played it to great acclaim.

The next year, the city of Siena persuaded Nicodemo Ferri to give the piano to then-Crown Prince Umberto of Savoy as a present for his wedding to his first cousin Princess Margherita of Savoy. And so the piano returned again to Turin, much fancier than when it left, to ascend its own throne. At the presentation of the royal wedding gifts, Franz Liszt himself played La Campanella “until the chandeliers trembled.”

After the last step in the Unification of Italy was achieved when Rome was wrested out of the white-knuckled grasp of the Pope in 1870, the piano was moved to the Quirinal Palace where it remained for 70 years. Maybe. At some point during World War II, it disappeared. Exactly what happened to it is up for debate, but according to its most avid fan, biographer/hagiographer and piano tuner Avner Carmi, it was looted by the Nazis, covered in plaster and buried in the sands of Al Alamein, Egypt.

That’s where it was discovered by British mine sweepers as they swept the site for German bombs planted by Rommel’s retreating troops. They dug up the piano. Nobody thought much of it. It was caked in sand and the plaster coating, which obscured all of the reliefs, prevented it from working. It wound up in the British Salvage Depot in Palestine.

In 1943 it was acquired by a Tel Aviv junk shop dealer, who sold it for a pittance to Avner Carmi’s family. He spent three years and 24 gallons of acetone removing the plaster to reveal the carvings, recognizing it as a fabled piano his grandfather, a famous pianist at the end of the 19th century, had told him about. During the restoration, Carmi made two significant changes: he cut off the front outer arms of the griffins believing their raised position to be uncomfortably close to the Nazi salute, and he removed the wood pull handles on the sides.

The newly-restored Siena Piano was played in concerts in Israel and then in 1953 went on tour in the United States. Virtuosos like Arthur Rubinstein and Charles Rosen played the piano and several albums were recorded. Carmi wrote The Immortal Piano, a combination autobiography and piano biography, during his American sojourn. That’s where most of the fanciful stories, like the Solomon pillars in the the earthquake church, come from. He returned to Israel with the piano in 1970.

Anver Carmi died in 1980 leaving the piano to his wife Hannah who refused all offers to buy it. His daughter Smira sold it to a private collector in 1996. It was not seen in public after that, until December 1919 when it appeared, believe it or not, on eBay with a Buy It Now price of $2 million.

Nobody PayPalled anybody two million dollars, I guess, because now it is being offered at auction on Tuesday at Winner’s auction house in Jerusalem. The pre-sale estimate is $1,500,000 – $2,000,000.






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