EID MAR aureus assassinates world record

Surprising absolutely no sentient being whatsoever, the previously unknown EID MAR aureus that went up for auction October 29th stabbed its pre-sale estimate of £500,000 ($644,150) to a bloody death, selling for £3.24 million ($4.2 million), including buyer’s premium. The hammer price was £2.7 million ($3.5 million).

It has set a new world record as the most expensive ancient coin ever sold at auction. The previous record-holder was a Greek gold stater of Pantikapaion struck between 350 and 300 B.C. that sold in 2012 for $3.25 million. It is famous for the portrait of a satyr on the obverse whose fine detail and expressiveness rank it as one of the greatest masterpieces of die engraving.

The previous record for a Roman coin sold auction was set in 2008 by a sestertius of Hadrian which sold in Geneva for 2 million Swiss Francs ($2.18 million). You wouldn’t think a brass alloy sestertius of any emperor would even be in the same stratosphere as a gold EID MAR, but this is no run-of-the-mill sestertius. Dubbed the “Medallic” Sestertius, it was struck in Rome in 135 A.D. and was the work of die engraver the Alphaeus Master who crafted an exceptional high-relief portrait of Hadrian for the obverse. The reverse depicts the goddess Pax.

Auctioneers Roma Numismatics Limited have not announced the identity of the buyer of the EID MAR. It sure would be nice if it didn’t disappear into an unpublished private collection again.

Historic medieval book returns to Ireland

One of Ireland’s greatest medieval manuscripts has returned to County Cork, Ireland, the land of its birth, after a century spent at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. The Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement have donated the 15th century Book of Lismore to University College Cork (UCC) where it will go on display in a planned Treasures Gallery in the university’s Boole Library.

Today the book contains 198 large vellum folios (42 have gone missing over the centuries). It starts with the lives of Irish saints and other religious texts from Europe, and then moves on to Irish translations of Paul the Deacon’s 8th century History of the Lombards and The Conquests of Charlemagne, a 12th century forgery purported to have been written in the 8th century by Archbishop Turpin of Reims. It also includes the only known Irish translation of The Travels of Marco Polo. The translated texts make up about half of the book. The rest contains native Irish texts, including tales of Irish kings and heroes and a topographical text describing of the lands of Fermoy, County Cork.

The Book was written around 1480 for the 10th Prince of Carbery, Fínghin Mac Carthaigh Riabhaigh of Kilbrittain Castle in County Cork. It was kept there until the 1640s when the castle was besieged. Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, took the book to his seat of Lismore Castle. Lismore Castle came into the Cavendish family by marriage in the 18th century and became the Irish seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. During renovations in 1814, the manuscript was discovered in a walled-up doorway along with the Lismore Crozier, an early medieval bishop’s staff now in the National Museum of Ireland.

The Dukes of Devonshire have lent the manuscript to scholars since its discovery, but it never went on public view until 2011 when they lent it to UCC for an exhibition.

The Duke of Devonshire stated “Ever since the Book of Lismore was loaned to University College Cork for an exhibition in 2011, we have been considering ways for it to return there permanently. My family and I are delighted this has been possible, and hope that it will benefit many generations of students, scholars and visitors to the university.” […]

With over 200 Gaelic manuscripts in its collection, UCC is Ireland’s leading centre for the study of the materiality of the literary artefacts of Gaelic Ireland. The Book will now be the centerpiece of this large collection at UCC’s Library, and the donation of the manuscript to UCC marks a further stage in the commitment of the Cavendish Family to the scholarship of The Book of Lismore.

These Gaelic manuscripts already form the basis for extensive teaching and research, and The Book of Lismore, written on vellum and being at least 150 years older than any other manuscript volume in the collection, offers a rare field of study.

Studying the mysteries of Aztec colors

A brilliantly illustrated pre-Columbian divinatory manuscript at Bologna University Library is being analyzed with the latest imaging techniques to learn more about the composition and use of its paints, still brightly colored today.

“We will employ fluorescence and hyperspectral imaging techniques to map the distribution of compositional material (both organic and inorganic) on every page of the manuscript”, says Davide Domenici, Professor at the University of Bologna and head of the project. “The level of detail these techniques are able to provide is unprecedented and will shed new light on the pictorial and technological practices developed by pre-Columbian artists”. […]

The research team will employ a macro-XRF scanner. This tool uses X-rays to examine the elemental composition of the object under investigation. Once the distribution of chemical elements is known, it will be possible to identify the pigments composing those elements. In this way, researchers will be able to retrieve the distribution of orpiment (a deep-yellow mineral pigment) by looking for arsenic which is the element composing this pigment.

The Codex Cospi will also get through hyperspectral imaging in the visible range. This method allows to study how visible light is absorbed, reflected, and emitted. Some chemical compounds may present peculiar light absorption, reflection, emission, and hyperspectral imaging that can map their distribution. In particular, through hyperspectral imaging researchers can map the use of organic dyes such as indigo, which was used together with specific clays in the production of the famous Maya Blue.

One of only a dozen pre-Columbian texts to survive the veritable orgy of destruction inflicted on indigenous literature by the Spanish conquerors and their missionary zealots, the Codex Cospi is believed to have been illuminated at the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16th century. It has been in Bologna since the 1530s, brought there by Domingo de Betanzos, a Dominican missionary who administered a large territory in what is today Mexico for the Spanish crown. The former hermit went to Mexico in 1526 where he founded the Dominican Order in New Spain and carved out an independent province under the complete control of the order. He dispatched a few evangelizing missions, but he spent most of time on temporal matters and fighting with other clerical potentates over who controlled what. He never dealt directly with the indigenous people he wanted to forcibly convert, but took time from his busy schedule to insist that they could never be priests because they were less than rational humans. He wasn’t even sure they could be baptized, which would seem to be a rather glaring contradiction but there you have it.

The Nahuas’ alleged irrational animal natures didn’t prevent them from making a pretty enough book that Betanzos deemed it worthy to curry favor with Pope Clement VII when he met him in Bologna in 1533 to get more favorable terms for the Dominican province of Santiago de Mexico. The Pope was there to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had sacked Rome and imprisoned Clement five years earlier. Betanzos came bearing splendid gifts:  mantles with multi-colored parrot feathers so artfully woven into the cotton that it had the texture of velvet, turquoise mosaic ceremonial masks, a turquoise-handled knife, stone knives with edges sharp as razors and first and foremost, the Codex Cospi which Bolognese chronicler Leandro Alberti, described in 1548 as a book painted with figures “that looked like hieroglyphs by which they understand each other as we do by letters.”

The turquoise masks and knives are today part of the collection of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome. The Codex stayed put in Bologna. Its ownership history is hard to trace, but the likeliest trajectory is that the Pope didn’t take it to Rome with him and it ended up in the hands of Betanzos’ fellow Dominican Leandro Alberti. A handwritten inscription on the parchment cover of the manuscript records it having been gifted to Marchese Ferdinando Cospi in 1665. (They removed the original jaguar skin cover to replace it with the parchment at this time.) Cospi donated his vast cabinet of curiosities, codex included, to the city of Bologna in 1657. The manuscript was first held at the Academy of Science before ultimately it entered the collection of the Bologna University Library.

Europe’s “oldest known battle” may have been massacre instead

I’m glad I put a question mark on my first post about this story in 2011, because the Bronze Age mass-death site in Tollense, northeastern Germany, may not have been Europe’s oldest known battle after all.

First a recap. Archaeologists have excavated more than 12,000 human bones in the Tollense River Valley since a humerus bone with a flint arrowhead viciously embedded it was discovered in 1996.  The arrowhead dated the fatal event to around 1250 B.C., a date confirmed by radiocarbon analysis of later finds. Initial studies of the skeletal remains of 145 individuals that could be pieced together identified numerous wounds inflicted by long-range weapons (arrows, lances), blunt weapons (wooden clubs) and short-range melee weapons (swords, daggers). The bones also predominantly belonged to young males, some with healed wounds suggesting they had fought before and lived to do it again. Stable isotope analysis and DNA revealed that they were not all local. Artifacts found at the site confirmed an armed clash had taken place. Dozens of weapons were found — more than 50 bronze arrowheads, swords, clubs, an axe. The skeletal remains of several horses were also unearthed from the riverbed.

Then in 2016, divers recovered a cache of scrap metal and tools in the Tollense riverbed. Tightly packed together were fragments of bronze sheets and ingots, a chisel, sickle knife, a bronze awl, brooches, a bronze spiral and a star-ornamented belt box. These was deemed to be the toolkit of one of the combatants, the first personal belongings found on a battlefield. There was no evidence of who they belonged to; the warrior hypothesis was based on the understanding of the battle context.

The discovery of this cache and other tools, plus pewter rings (portable sources of the tin necessary to make bronze), gold spiral rings and smaller bronze spirals believed to have been trimmings on clothes, made archaeologists suspicious that there were civilians in the mix, not just warriors. Recent studies of the bones found the remains of women and even children as well as the men. There were individuals whose legs showed signs of heavy labour but whose upper bodies showed no equivalent stresses. This is evidence that they walked a great deal bearing heavy burdens. Had they been warriors, the bones of the upper body would bear evidence of more developed musculature and repetitive stress.

Isotope and DNA analysis of the remains of 12 men and two women revealed they came from different parts of northern and central Europe. There was no genetic homogeneity in the group so they were not related. This was therefore not a battle between locals and foreigners or an army invading from the south.

Detlef Jantzen, chief archaeologists for the State Office for Education, Science and Culture of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, now believes the encounter in Tollense may not have been a battle, but a massacre. The victims were part of a trade caravan who were ambushed at the bridge crossing over the river. Caravans had armed security which put up a fight, but they were overwhelmed and slaughter ensued.

Jantzen also sees the number of participants in the conflict less today than it was years ago, when it was assumed that thousands of warriors collided. “I’m not repeating the number,” he said. More than 12,000 human bones were recovered and about 140 individuals examined by anthropologists. Most of them died of stab wounds and cuts, and some arrowheads were still stuck in the bones.

Jantzen assumes that the majority of those found were among the defeated. The victors would probably have taken their dead and buried them. However, no Bronze Age graves were found on the surrounding areas. The victims were looted and left lying. Another indication that it was not a cavalry battle is the texture of the horse bones. The investigations would have shown that the horses were actually not old enough to ride. They could have been carried as a trade item.

“The interpretation of the incident in the Tollensetal has not yet been completed,” said Jantzen. “We will continue to investigate.”

Using Ox intestine to conserve a fish skin bag

A new exhibition dedicated to the culture of Arctic peoples opened at the British Museum last week. Ancient artifacts are on display next to modern adaptations, emphasizing how inventively indigenous communities around the Arctic interacted with their harsh environments. Objects in the exhibition include an paper-thin translucent parka made from seal guts, a harpoon with an animal bladder float and an incredible bag made out of duck feet.

Also on display are a variety of pieces made from fish skin: mittens, shoes, a sewing kit. It is obviously a very hardy material for cold, watery climes, and is so flexible it can be utilized in many ways. Two fish skin bags made by the Yup’ik of southwestern Alaska in the 19th century drew the attention of British Museum conservators, both because of the complexity of materials and construction and because they needed treatment.

On both bags, the scaly sides of the skins are mostly facing outwards. However, where there are bleached (white) or dyed skins (red), the skins are turned inwards so that the scales are on the inside of the bag and the softer smoother skin underneath is exposed. What is great is that it is still possible to see the form of the fish, as there are areas where the fin has been removed and the resulting small hole delicately stitched closed. Most of the seam stitching on the bags is done with sinew – a strong fibre made from tendons or ligaments, possibly of beluga whale or caribou (reindeer) – but you can also see white decorative stitching on both bags, which is believed to be caribou throat hair.

On the smaller bag, there are also small strips of white decoration. This is likely to be bleached seal throat, or oesophagus, often used to decorate objects. In wintertime, the oesophagi of seals would be cut from the stomach, inflated and left to freeze-dry outside in the cold, which would turn them very white. These freeze-dried oesophagi are called nerutet in Yup’ik.

In order to repair tears and weak spots, Organics Conservator Sophie Louise Rowe went to Sweden to learn more about how fish skin leather is made. Armed with expert knowledge on the material, she was able to repair multiple tears in the larger of the two bags, bring back its original suppleness in a humid chamber and stitching together the tears with tiny tabs of Japanese tissue.

The smaller of the bags was in better condition with fewer and smaller tears and creases. It posed another challenge, however, because curators wanted to light it from within for the exhibition to highlight the amazing translucency of the fish skin. The Japanese tissue used in the repair was opaque when backlit, which ruined the effect. Enter the ox intestine.

In the end, a repair was carried out using a material called ’Goldbeaters skin’, which is actually processed intestine, traditionally from an Ox. This might sound like an odd choice, but Goldbeaters skin is often used to repair parchment, so is a tried and tested method. The real benefit is that the material is transparent and very thin, so light passes through it well and repairs appear almost invisible.

Smaller fish skin bag with Japanese tissue repairs circled at the top during lighting test. Photo courtesy British Museum. The same bag lit after the goldbeaters repair. Photo courtesy British Museum.

The British Museum conservators give much credit to the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center’s YouTube Channel which is dedicated to sharing traditional crafts and languages. It has a fantastic 10-video series on the different ways to sew salmon skin.