Archive for September, 2020

Anglo-Saxon cemetery with sand-silhouette skeletons found

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery from as early as the 6th century at Oulton, near Lowestoft on the English North Sea coast of East Suffolk. The remains of 208 individuals were unearthed at the site of a future housing development. The rare phenomenon of  sand silhouettes — dark impressions of skeletons left in the soil — was found in the inhumation graves.

Andrew Peachey of Archaeological Solutions Ltd, who carried out the excavations, said:

“Our archaeologists painstakingly excavated the delicate remains of 17 cremations and 191 inhumation burials. Due to the highly acidic soil the skeletons had mostly vanished and were luckily preserved as fragile shapes and shadows in the sand. These shadows also revealed traces of the wooden coffins that some of the individuals were buried in.

“Unusually, many graves also included fragments of pottery and in some cases complete decorated pots. Weapons were rare, with a sword in one grave, iron spear heads in three others, and at least one shield – the metal fittings of the shield remained in place around the silhouette of the dissolved wooden boards. Many of the artefacts were so fragile they had to be block lifted for micro-excavation in the labs at Norfolk Museum Service for analysis and conservation – they were even able to recover pieces of textiles and leather.”

The cemetery appears to have been used by a local farming community. The graves include adult male and female, child and infant burials from several generations. Evidence of the transition from paganism to Christianity is seen in the grave goods. For example pottery is found in several of the older pre-Christian graves, while a later cruciform brooch was unearthed in the grave of an adult woman.

The archaeological materials and remains have been recovered and the site fully documented. Construction will go forward as planned. The finds will be studied further in laboratory conditions.

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First Shakespeare play to reach Spain found

Saturday, September 19th, 2020

A researcher has discovered the first Shakespeare play to reach Spain in the library of the Royal Scots College of Salamanca. Universitat de Barcelona Philology and Communication professor John Stone was researching 18th century philosophy at the  Royal Scots College of Salamanca when he came across a previously unknown volume of 11 English plays printed in the 1630s. It is untitled and has no markings on the cover or endpages that might identify its owner or publisher. The first play in the book is a 1634 edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a tragicomedy that is believed to be William Shakespeare’s final play, written in collaboration with King’s Men playwright John Fletcher.

All of the plays are London editions published between 1630 and 1635. Stone believes the volume belonged to a student at the Royal Scots College, or was perhaps brought to the college at the request of its rector Hugh Semple who owned numerous published plays in his library.

Collections of English books in Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries were rare, and English plays were exceptional. In fact, the Spanish union catalogue of pre-1900 imprints (Catálogo colectivo del patrimonio bibliográfico español) does not list any copy of an English play printed before 1720. The only volume that could compete with Stone’s finding as the first work by Shakespeare in Spain is a volume first found in the Royal English College of Saint Alban in Valladolid, which is now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. However, several scholars date the arrival of this copy in Valladolid, Spain, between 1641 and 1651. Therefore, if the work found by Stone arrived in Spain before 1640, it would clearly be the first Shakespearean work to have circulated in this country.

Apart from the volume containing The Two Noble Kinsmen, Stone found in Salamanca another volume of English plays from the same period. If we put these volumes together, there is a total of nineteen plays that would have reached the first historical premises of the Royal Scots College, in Madrid, before 1654. “By the 1630s English plays were increasingly associated with elite culture, and Rector Semple, due to his political ambitions, wanted to stay in touch with the cultural life of London”, notes Stone to provide the finding with some context.

The two volumes of English plays first arrived in Spain in Madrid, not Salamanca. In 1767, they moved to the Irish College in Alcalá de Henares, and in 1770 moved again to the Royal Scots College in Valladolid. In 1985, they moved to the Salamanca library where they were placed in the philosophy section. That’s where Jones found them entirely by accident while he was looking for Spanish reviews of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

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Perfectly preserved cave bear found in Siberia

Friday, September 18th, 2020

The body of an Ice Age cave bear has been discovered in exceptional condition on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island in Siberia. It was discovered by reindeer herders in the melting permafrost. They were just in time, because the exposed carcass would have decomposed rapidly after losing its frozen home. Instead, it is impeccably preserved, complete with all of its internal organs, soft tissues, fur, gums, teeth, even its nose. A frozen cub has been found before, and skeletal remains of adults, but this is the first intact adult cave bear ever discovered.

The remains have been recovered and will be studied by by scientists at the North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, which is home to the Mammoth Museum Laboratory, the world’s premier institution dedicated to the study of mammoth and other Ice Age fauna.

The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) is a prehistoric species or subspecies that lived in Eurasia in the Middle and Late Pleistocene period and became extinct about 15,000 years ago.

Preliminary analysis suggests the bear to be between 22,000 and 39,500 years old.

“It is necessary to carry out radiocarbon analysis to determine the precise age of the bear,” said senior researcher Maxim Cheprasov from the Mammoth Museum laboratory in Yakutsk. The finder transferred the right to research to the scientists of NEFU, he said. […]

A scientific programme for its comprehensive study will be prepared. We will have to study the carcass of a bear using all modern scientific research methods – molecular genetic, cellular, microbiological and others.

Researchers from around the globe will be invited to participate in the study of this unique survivor from the Ice Age.

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Hyper-resolution Night Watch

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

Last year, the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, the Rijksmuseum launched a major project to conserve The Night Watch, crafting a state-of-the-art analysis and treatment program to learn everything possible about Rembrandt’s largest and most famous masterpiece — how it was made, with what materials, how best to repair and maintain it going forward. They built a custom glass enclosure so visitors could see the museum’s most famous masterpiece during the operation.

Operation Night Watch was still in the study phase when the museum was closed in March. Analysis resumed on May 13th with new safety protocols for the team working in the glass enclosure. The restoration process, initially scheduled to begin in the fall of 2020, has been pushed back to early next year.

Meanwhile, the Rijksmuseum has posted regular updates on the study since it began last summer. There are fascinating articles on the discoveries thus far, including the pigments Rembrandt used and the chemical composition of the painting mapped using Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy. (Spoilers: Rembrandt painted over feathers that used to be on the helmets of the watchmen in the background and he used arsenic in the gold embroidery of Willem van Ruytenburch’s yellow doublet. Other Dutch artists used arsenic in still lives. He was the first to introduce it to portraiture.) 

There are also some nifty videos. Here’s a timelapse of how they moved the colossal work to its temporary location:

This is a timelapse of the construction of the glass enclosure:

Most recently, the team created the most detailed photograph of The Night Watch ever taken. They have digitized it so everyone in the world can examine Rembrandt’s brushstrokes down to the tiniest crack.

The Rijksmuseum’s imaging team made this photograph of The Night Watch from a total of 528 exposures. The 24 rows of 22 pictures were stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks. The final image is made up of 44.8 gigapixels (44,804,687,500 pixels), and the distance between each pixel is 20 micrometres (0.02 mm). This enables the scientists to study the painting in detail remotely. The image will also be used to accurately track any future ageing processes taking place in the painting.

Dive as deep you like into The Night Watch here

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Conservators discover Michelangelo’s tool marks on Pietà

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

Conservation of the Bandini Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s last sculptures and one of his most striking (in more ways than one), has revealed previously unknown details from its violent creation. Under centuries of grime, restorers found everything from the artist’s original chisel marks to colors left behind in past work on the white marble.

The Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the organization which manages the works in the collection of the Duomo Museum, began a comprehensive cleaning and conservation program last November. This is the first true restoration of the sculptural group in its nearly 500-year history. Work, rudely interrupted by you-know-what, has resumed. The thorough cleaning of the surface has been completed on the back of the sculpture and is in its initial phases on the front.

Ongoing diagnostic surveys have provided information considered to be fundamental for the knowledge of the work and its restoration: there is no historic patina with the exception of traces found at the base of the sculpture, something that is still being investigated. The presence of elevated quantities of chalk from the cast executed in the 1800s has instead been confirmed. These results have led to cleaning operations first and then to start the intervention at the back. The waxes present on the surface, including those from candles that were used on the main altar of Florence’s cathedral where the sculpture was kept for over 220 years, were removed with a scalpel.

According to his Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo began the sculpture on his own with no commission. It was 1547. He was in his early 70s and painting frescoes had become too strenuous for him. Chiseling four figures out of a hunk of Carrara marble eight feet high, on the other hand, was just a good way to pass the time and stay fit. Unlike his first and most famous Pietà now in St. Peter’s Basilica which features a youthful Virgin Mary with the body of Christ draped across her ample lap, the dominant figure is that of Nicodemus who stands behind the limp, twisted body of Jesus, helping Mary the Mother (right) and Mary Magdalene (left) support the dead Christ. Michelangelo intended it for his own tomb, and purportedly the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait.

Papal and Medici projects for churches, palaces and bridges constantly interrupted his work on the sculpture and the piece itself became an exercise in frustration as he encountered constant flaws in the hard marble that made it impossible to complete as he’d envisioned. Vasari said it was so “full of emery” that the chisel set off sparks. He also said that Michelangelo had by this point in his life become such a terminal perfectionist that he never completed any sculpture to his satisfaction, that all his finished works were done in his youth, and even then if it had been up to him he never would have turned them over to his patrons.

Finally one evening in 1555, Michelangelo’s frustration boiled over. One of the Madonna’s elbows had broken when he was working on it. Michelangelo then deliberately broke of other body parts from the statue. His servant Antonio stopped him from completely smashing it to pieces and asked the master to give it to him as is. Antonio sold all the pieces of the broken group to the Florentine banker Francesco Bandini who enlisted Tiberio Calcagni, a sculptor and a collaborator of Michelangelo’s, to put the Pietà back together again as much as possible and fill in any blanks he could.

Calcagni’s work from around 1565 was the last clearly identifiable intervention on sculpture until the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore’s project. The conservation was performed in public view at the museum before the pandemic shut them down. Starting September 21st, guided tours of no more than five visitors will be allowed to view the work in progress.

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First Phoenician wine press found in Lebanon

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

University of Tübingen archaeologists have discovered the first Phoenician wine press at Tell el-Burak in Lebanon. In the first millennium B.C., Phoenician trade was instrumental in the spread of wine around the Mediterranean, but the archaeological evidence from this period has come almost entirely from the consumption side — amphorae used to transport it to buyers, drinking sets, how different vessels were adapted for mixing, sharing and imbibing. Archaeological remains of wine production in Phoenicia itself, however, has never been discovered before.

The settlement of Tell el-Burak is six miles south of Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. It was founded by Sidon in the last quarter of the 8th century B.C. and was occupied until the middle of the 4th. Recent excavations discovered the remains of four houses dating to the Iron Age. Inside one of them was a courtyard with a plastered basin beneath the floor. This is the treading basin of the wine press. Archaebotanical remains indicate the settlement was agriculturally active, and most of the, 41.7%, consist of grape vine seeds.

The winemaking installation was constructed during the late 8th century B.C. and was in use into the 6th century B.C. Two other plastered structures in the Iron Age home may also have been connected to the wine production, but archaeologists are uncertain what function they performed.  A large number of transport amphorae found in earlier excavations add to the evidence that this was an extensive wine production facility active for centuries.

The discovery also lends new insight into Phoenician construction methods and materials.

Analyses carried out at the Tübingen CCA-BW within the framework of the ResourceCultures collaborative research center (1070) have now provided new data on the composition and technology of the Iron Age plaster of which the wine press was made. “A good-quality lime plaster could be difficult to produce,” say the authors, “The Phoenicians refined the process by using recycled ceramic shards. This made it possible to build better and at the same time more stable buildings.” A local and innovative tradition of lime plaster had developed in southern Phoenicia, they add, “The finished plaster was water-resistant and hardwearing. The Romans adopted this technique for making their buildings.” An ongoing organic residue analysis at the University of Tübingen may determine whether all three plastered structures at Tell el-Burak were connected to wine production.

The study has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here.

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Rails from 1906 trolley dug up in Walla Walla

Monday, September 14th, 2020

About 450 feet of 114-year-old trolley tracks were removed last week from downtown Walla Walla, Washington. They were pulled to make way for new utility work.

Significant stretches of the tracks remained embedded in the city’s roads. They were left undisturbed until 2011 when city water main improvement projects that would necessitate the removal of sections of track spurred an archaeological survey of the site. Using metal detectors, magnetometers and good old-fashioned shoe leather, archaeologists traced the trolley rails and recorded where they were visible and where they might be present under smooth asphalt.

Walla Walla’s first street car system began in 1889 and was horse-drawn. The cars ran on a standard gauge track with most of the rails installed in a cement base eight inches thick. It lasted a decade before plans to upgrade to an electrified system fell through and the horse-drawn street cars ceased operations in 1899.

Come the opening of the Walla Walla River hydroelectric plant in 1905, electrical power became more easily available in the city, in 1906, the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company built the first electric trolley system. At first it was just one line between the railway depot to the city park. By 1918, there were an estimated 14 miles of trolley tracks in the city, plus dozens more in extensions to the suburbs, neighboring cities ( Milton and Freewater, 14 miles away across the state line into Oregon) and spur lines to national train lines and shipping on the Columbia River.

The urban trolley system was a major economic boon to workers and to businesses, providing inexpensive, quick and reliable transportation to people and freight. It was a short-lived boon. The advent of the car killed the trolleys but good and Walla Walla’s city trolley system was shut down for good on December 31st, 1926. The service to Oregon, ceased in 1931.

In 1926, the city determined that only the tracks on brick or unpaved areas needed to be removed. The ones on paved streets would simply be abandoned. As roads were asphalted, the rails would be covered up with nobody the wiser. The sections of track visible today were exposed by erosion of the asphalt layer which, as it happens, does not bond well to iron rails.

The 2011 survey concluded that much of the  Walla Walla Valley Railway Company’s rails were still in place under the surface and exposed in discreet areas. Intersections and areas with recent infrastructure work did have the old tracks removed. The section beneath Whitman Street had 4000 feet of railway. Archaeologists determined that this section was not contiguous and having been buried for decades, they were unlikely to shed new light on the history of public transportation in Walla Walla. They recommended the utility work continue and that the rails be fully documented upon removal. Archaeologists kept only one section of the rail which was stamped with a date and manufacturer name. It is now at the Fort Walla Walla Museum.

The same principal was applied a week ago, when workers pulled 450 feet of the rails under Whitman to proceed with plans to repair and replace water, sewer and road infrastructure.

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The Blue Boy is back and bluer than ever

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

After three years of restoration (plus a little pandemic thrown in there) Thomas Gainsborough’s most iconic masterpiece, The Blue Boy, has been reinstalled in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, and he is looking bluer than ever.

A Portrait of a Young Gentleman was first removed from public view in August 2017 for a thorough technical analysis and conservation program to treat long-standing structural problems, discolored varnishes, bad overpaint and flaking. A full year of that painstaking work, from September 2018 through September 2019, was undertaken in public so visitors to The Huntington could see The Blue Boy unframed as conservators cured what ailed him.

I swear the above phrasing was not intentional, but I’m keeping it in because one of the cool discoveries made during the analysis of the lining was that the adhesive Gainsborough used was a paste made of rye flour and ale. The conservation team brought in a food historian to recreate the historic recipe using modern ingredients so they could utilize it in a mock-up and study the interaction between adhesive and lining.

Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator and leader of the project, removed several uneven layers of dirt and discolored varnish with small cotton swabs to reveal Gainsborough’s original brilliant blues and other pigments. Then, with tiny brushes, she reconnected the artist’s brushstrokes across the voids of past damage as part of the inpainting process. As O’Connell worked on the painting, she became intimately aware of Gainsborough’s every brushstroke. “It’s been an incredibly deep professional experience,” she said. “Conservation work is very much a process of discovery. I’ve not only had a view of the painting at the microscopic level, but I was also able to observe each stroke as the true colors of Gainsborough’s palette were revealed from underneath many layers of dirt and discolored varnish.”

During the process, O’Connell discovered that although Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy on a recycled canvas (as revealed in earlier X-rays), he made considerable use of a complex network of paint layers and pigments to create a painting that truly showed off his skills.

Gainsborough did not paint The Blue Boy on commission. He created it for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770 to showcase his abilities in Van Dyck-style portraiture, hence the 17th century style of the boy’s striking clothing. Gainsborough’s aim was to take on the sine qua non of court portrait painters and to beat the revered Van Dyck at his own game. He succeeded. The Blue Boy was an immediate hit at the exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, son of working class parents, vaulted up the social ranks from making portraits of merchants to painting nobles and aristocrats.

The Blue Boy was supposed to be reinstalled in March, but then the thing that happened happened, so his return was pushed back. Phased reopening has begun. For now, only the botanical gardens are open to visitors, but when the galleries reopen, he will be waiting for them with a whole new glow.

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Silver seal of medieval woman found

Saturday, September 12th, 2020

The seal matrix of a woman from an important medieval family discovered in the village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, has been declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. That was the expected verdict as it fits the criteria of the Treasure Act of 1996 on two grounds — it is made exclusively of precious metal (silver) and is more than 300 years old — but as a historical artifact, it is a treasure beyond price.

Discovered by a metal detectorist in April 2019 on the grounds of the Henley Business School, the seal matrix dates to the late 13th or early 14th century but is in pristine condition. It is a pointed oval shape 1.3 inches long with a loop on the back. Around the edge of the front of the matrix is an inscription that reads “SIGILLUM.MAR.GERIE.PEVREL” meaning the “Seal of Margerie Pevrel.” In the center is the Peverel (variously spelled Pevrel, Peverell, Peveril) family crest of three garbs (a bundle of grain bound around the stalks) embedded in an urn with scrolls and florals on the sides and top.

Seal matrixes are not uncommon finds, but ones inscribed with specific names on them are more rare. Ones that name a woman are vanishingly rare. Ones found in a context directly connected to the woman who owned them can be counted on the finger of one finger. What is today the Henley Business School was the estate of Yewden Manor in the 14th century. The Peverel family owned Yewden Manor from 1248 until the mid-14th century.

There are two likeliest candidates for the Margerie Peverel who owned this seal. One is Margaret of Cornwall, wife of James Peverel and mother of Sir Hugh Peverel IV. She died in 1349. The other is Hugh IV’s daughter Margaret who was born in 1321. Both lived at Yewden Manor and one of them lost her seal while out and about on her estate.

Now that it has been declared treasure, it will be assessed for fair market value and offered to a local museum in exchange for a fee in that amount offered to the finder. The River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames is hoping to add it to its collection.

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Massive lion sculpture found in Cambodia

Friday, September 11th, 2020

Workers digging at the site of a new water pumping station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, have discovered a massive stone lion. A crew from the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) was digging near the Wat Phnom temple when they came across the ancient statue lying on its back 13 feet below street level. It measures more than eight feet in height and was found broken in two parts.

The lion appears similar in design to the massive statues that guard the main pagoda and main stupa of the Wat Phnom temple. The temple lions are not as massive as this one, however. Hab Touch, director-general for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, speculates that the newly discovered lion was part of a different structure at the site, something large like a bridge. It could also have originated elsewhere and been moved to the location later.

National Museum director Chhay Visoth told The Post that he cannot make any assumptions about which era the stone lion was made in because experts needed time to check the composition of the ancient stone.

“We cannot make assumptions of the lion that we found during mine clearance for the reservoir plan because we don’t have any connections regarding this statue.

“Normally, we can know the date of an artefact by identifying other things around it,” he said.

Viosth said it’s suspected that the lion was created at the same time as Wat Phnom or sometime after Cambodia was a French protectorate.

That’s a rather elastic range. Wat Phnom was built in 1372. Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. The sculpture is now being studied by experts at the Ministry of Culture. They might be able to determine its possible age with a tad more precision, but with no contextual clues from an archaeological excavation, it will be difficult to confirm.

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