Medieval coin hoard, “princess” ring found in Poland

A large pot filled with 6,500 coins from the early 12th century has been discovered in a corn field in Słuszków, west-central Poland. Most of the coins identified so far are silver cross denarii. They were placed in linen sacks and hidden in a large earthenware vessel. Buried with the coins were fragments of lead and four gold rings — two granulated bands with polished cabochon stones and two wedding bands. One of the rings is a wedding ring engraved with a Cyrillic inscription reading “Lord, help your servant Maria.”

The village of Słuszków is famous as the find site of Poland’s largest medieval coin hoard, discovered in 1935. That hoard of 12,500 silver cross pennies — the largest deposit of cross denarii ever discovered — and another 500 assorted silver coins and scraps was also buried in the early 12th century. The find was poorly documented at the time, and researchers went to the site in November 2020 to take some pictures and talk to the residents about the famous discovery.

The find spot was not where the official story said it was in the northern part of town at the boundary of three properties. Dr. Adam Kędzierski of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences spoke to a local priest who told him that he had heard back in the 1980s from the treasure hunters who discovered the first hoard that the find site was the field near the road. The team scanned the field with a metal detector and two days later, a small exploratory trench revealed the pot crammed with coins.

Because of the high value of the hoard, the geographical proximity to even greater hoard and the rings, archaeologists suspect there may be an aristocratic connection. One possible candidate for the identity of Maria is the wife of Silesian prince Piotr Włostowic. Little is known about her beyond her name and that she was a daughter of Sviatopolk II, Grand Prince of Kiev and ruler of the Kievan Rus from 1093 to 1113. Maria’s older half-sister Zbyslava was married to Duke Bolesław III of Poland, and Piotr was Bolesław’s voivode, the country’s most powerful administrator and military leader.

The professor who translated the inscription has posited a unified theory of Słuszków hoards almost as entertaining as it is speculative, hypothesizing that the hoards were Maria’s dowry, cached in 1146 when Piotr Włostowic found himself the target of one of the factions fighting over the succession after Bolesław’s death. Piotr was tortured, blinded and exiled, but far from cowed. He fled to the Kievan Rus and persuaded them to change allegiance to the faction that had not mutilated him. Next thing you know, Włostowic was back in Poland and voivode again until his death in 1153.

Late Roman milestones found in Brescia

Column milestone found on Via Milano in Brescia. Photo courtesy Soprintendenza Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Bergamo e Brescia.An archaeological exploration of the Via Milano in Brescia before sewer works has discovered three ancient milestones from the late Roman period. Two of them take the standard form of the Roman milestone — cylindrical pillars– one 5’3″ and one 5’11”. The third is a column more than eight feet tall. All three of them are engraved with long inscriptions including imperial titles that are typical of milestones from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The milestones were found seven feet under the surface. A fourth artifact — an intact altar with a dedicatory inscription — was discovered with them. Why they were all grouped together in one trench is unclear. It’s possible that’s simply where they fell in antiquity, but unlikely. This could have been a temporary cache intended to be used in construction only to be forgotten. In the Middle Ages and early Modern period, ancient marbles were commonly ground up to make lime or otherwise recycled in construction. Archaeologists hope to expand the excavation area and answer the question of when they were placed there and why.

Similar milestones have been found in neighboring areas before, but these are the first ones discovered in the city of Brescia. Their epigraphy alone would make them particularly significant because it’s been years since any Roman inscriptions have emerged in Brescia, so finding four in one place, each of them monumental, was like hitting the archaeological lottery.

Funerary inscriptions found during previous roadworks led archaeologists to hypothesize that the modern-day Via Milano was built over an important Roman road leading in and out of ancient Brixia. (Roman cities typically used the roads out of town as necropoli because burial was forbidden within the walls.) One of the stones is engraved with the Roman numeral II, marking the spot two Roman miles (1.8 modern miles) from the city center. The discovery confirms the hypothesis that this was a major artery in line with the decumanus maximus, the main road leading to the very heart of the city, the forum.

The objects have been removed and will now be cleaned and conserved. They will then go on display, either in Brescia’s Santa Giulia archaeological center, or, if adequate space, security and visibility can be arranged, on the Via Milano where they were found.

Rare miniature portrait of Henry III identified

A miniature portrait has been identified as a rare surviving image of King Henry III of France. Just over two inches tall, the portrait was billed as an image of Sir Walter Raleigh when it was sold sight unseen in the English countryside during lockdown last year. Conservators at Philip Mould & Co, a London art gallery that specializes in historical portraiture, identified the subject as Henry III.

When the frame was removed, experts found another notable name on the back of the portrait: Jean Decourt, in a contemporary annotation, perhaps an autograph by the artist himself, that reads “Faict par decourt 1578.” Decourt was a master miniaturist and in-house painter for Charles de Bourbon, Prince de la Roche-sur-Yon, in 1553 before going on to become court painter to Mary Queen of Scotts, widow of King Francis II of France, in 1562. He was in England in 1565-6 where he painted Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was appointed Peintre du Roi by King Charles IX of France after the death of François Clouet in 1572.

When Charles IX died of tuberculosis in 1574, he was succeeded by his 22-year-old brother Henry. As the fourth son of King Henry II, young Henry never expected to inherit the French throne. He had been deemed an excellent candidate for the throne of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, however, bringing French military and financial support to the table. Polish nobles elected him to the throne in 1573. He was crowned on February 21, 1574. His brother died without legitimate male issue in June. Not even six months after taking the throne, Henry ditched Poland and hightailed it back to France to claim the big prize.

He reigned for 25 years, impressive longevity in the turmoil and back-biting of the Wars of Religion. In the end, he had too many enemies to die in his sleep. He was the first King of France to be assassinated, stabbed to death in 1589 by a Catholic League partisan.

The life – and in particular, the sexuality – of Henri III has long been discussed and debated by historians. 16th century writers often referenced his fondness for wearing women’s clothing at court entertainments and for his male companions, dubbed at the time ‘mignons’, who slavishly copied the king’s dress. Indeed, the contemporary diarist, Pierre de L’Estoile’s (1546-1611) description of the mignons – who wore “their hair long, curled and recurled by artifice, with little bonnets of velvet on top of it like whores in the brothels, and the ruffles on their linen shirts [ruffs] are of starched finery and one-half foot long, so their heads look like St John’s on a platter” – could equally be applied to the fashions worn by Henri in this miniature.

It was also L’Estoile who commented on the king’s own fondness for cross-dressing: “The king made jousts, tournaments, ballets, and a great many masquerades, where he was found ordinarily dressed as a woman, working his doublet and exposing his throat, there wearing a collar of pearls and three collars of linen, two ruffled and one turned upside down, in the same way as was then worn by the ladies of the court.”

This delicate, sensitive and incredibly realistic likeness of Henri III contains all the hallmarks of Decourt’s style, in the extraordinary meticulousness of the details, the particular attention paid to the clothing, the jewels treated in volume with their cast shadows, the incredibly lifelike, modelling of the face (which is slightly pale) and in the artist’s habit of placing the reflection of light in the pupil of the eye, rather than the iris as Clouet did.

Researchers are following the trail of this extraordinary piece, trying to trace how a previously unknown royal portrait miniature wound up in England. One likely hypothesis is that it was spirited out of France during the Revolution, Pimpernel-style. Henry III wasn’t all that popular with royalists; he certainly wasn’t with revolutionaries, and very few of his portraits survived the anti-monarchical iconoclasm of the period.

Philip Mould is giving the Louvre first crack at buying the portrait which was likely painted in the Louvre itself when it was a royal palace.

Golden eagle relief found in Templo Mayor

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a bas relief of a golden eagle in the Templo Mayor under the streets of Mexico City. It is finely carved into the red tezontle (a porous volcanic stone commonly used for construction in Mexico) floor. At 3.5 feet long by 2.3 feet wide, this is the largest bas relief of the 67 found thus far at the Templo Mayor.

The relief was carved along the central axis of the chapel dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, Mexica god of war, in use during the reign of Moctezuma I (1440-1469). It’s large size and prime location on the west plaza of the Sacred Precinct underscore its significance to the Mexica. It is close to the Cuauhxicalco, a circular building whose name means “place of the eagle’s cup” which according to 16th century Spanish chroniclers is where the rulers of Tenochitlan were cremated.

“This floor is unique among the whole Templo Mayor complex, as it contains bas-reliefs that symbolize the site’s dual nature. On the south side, where we are currently exploring, elements such as this raptor are linked with Huitzilopochtli’s mythical life cycle. In contrast, the bas-reliefs located at the northern section —the former ones uncovered in 1900 by Leopoldo Batres, and the latter ones by the PTM and Mexico City’s Urban Archaeology Programme (PAU)— depict representations associated with Tlaloc, the water cycle, and regeneration of maize.”

Aguilar Tapia said that thanks to the work made by archaeologists Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Leonardo López Luján, the project has a definite stratigraphic correlation. This sequence allows researchers to know the constructive layer where the findings belong, thus identifying the time they were made. […]

The plaza’s floor was covered since the Pre-Columbian era during Templo Mayor’s expansions. “That is why is it so well preserved,” Aguilar Tapia said. “It is an element that was never seen by the Spaniards.”

The relief was unearthed in early 2020, and during the pandemic-enforced pause in fieldwork, researchers studied representations of the golden eagle in other media, for example the 16th century Codex Borgia.

According to Aguilar Tapia, one of these representations is found in Codex Borgia’s page 50, where a golden eagle stands on a mesquite —a tree that was believed to grow from a flayed skin deity. “What interests us is that in terms of iconography, this image is very similar to the bas-relief found on fieldwork. Both representations have knifelike feathers that emulate the ones used on ritual sacrifices. This reminds us of the Nahua name of the raptor: Obsidian Eagle.”

For the Aztecs, the bird of prey had a close relationship with war and sacrifice. It was also considered as the Sun’s nahual or shapeshifting spirit, and therefore as Huitzilopochtli’s tutelary deity.

When fieldwork resumes, the excavation of the eagle floor will be completed. Archaeologists hope to find other bas reliefs. Once the floor is fully excavated, the team will carefully raise the stones so they can explore the older layers underneath them for earlier architectural features of the temple. The floor will then be returned to its original location, stone by stone.

Rare Armada maps saved for the nation

Ten hand-drawn maps that are the only surviving contemporary drawings of the defeat of the Spanish Armada have been saved from export into an unknown private collection and will be acquired by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). The ink and watercolor drawing were sold to a private collector last July for £600,000. The foreign buyer applied for an export license and the Culture Minister placed a temporary bar on export to give a UK institution time to raise the purchase price and keep these irreplaceable pieces in the country. The NMRN’s campaign achieved the goal in just eight weeks, thanks to grants from the Royal Navy (£100,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£212,800) and the Art Fund (£200,000), and donations from the public.

The maps were drawn by an unknown artist probably from the Netherlands as there is a Flemish language annotation in the margin of one drawing and evidence of removed inscriptions on some of the other maps. They are cognates of now-lost engravings made in 1590 by Augustine Ryther. They are not copies of those engravings, although it’s also possible they were copies of Ryther’s source: drawings by Robert Adams, the military engineer who was Surveyor of the Queen’s Works and whose abilities as a draughtsman and cartographer placed him in the ranks of the great miniaturists of the Elizabethan court. Whoever drew these maps stopped midway through the job. Researchers believe these drawings may have been intended for unauthorized publication in the Netherlands and were abandoned when the official Ryther engravings were published.

The drawings are sequential depictions of the clash progression of the engagements that resulted in the surprise victory of the heavily outnumbered English fleet over what had been Europe’s greatest naval power. On July 22nd, 1588, an invasion fleet of 138 ships was dispatched by King Philip II to conquer Britain, depose its Protestant Queen and end the harassment of its New World treasure ships by British privateers. They were sighted off the coast of Cornwall on July 29th and first engaged two days later near Plymouth by British ships commanded by Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham, and Vice Admiral Francis Drake.

The first three maps depict the sighting, first engagement and its aftermath. The fourth depicts Drake’s capture of Nuestra Senora del Rosario and Howard’s pursuit of the Armada. Map five features the capture of the San Salvador and the battle off Portland Bill. The sixth continues the Portland Bill engagement, the seventh the subsequent battle off the Isle of Wight. The English pursuit of the Spanish to Calais is on map eight. The ninth map depicts the high drama of the fireship attack against the Spanish ships anchored at Calais. The final map covers the Battle of Gravelines on August 8th, the last engagement before the Spanish fleet was blown off-course to the North Sea where it met destruction at nature’s hand rather than Elizabeth’s.

The maps are incredibly detailed artistic renderings of ships’ movements over the nine days from first sighting to final clash. (See this page on the NMRN website for a thorough explanation of the drawings.) Despite their international significance, the earliest date on the record today of somebody owning the ten drawings is 1828 when they were in the collection of bibliophile antiquarian MP Roger Wilbraham. They remained in the family for seventy years before being sold at auction to London booksellers J. Pearson and Co. William Waldorf Astor bought them from J. Pearson. It was the Astor descendants who sold them last year.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy is still taking donations for the Astor Armada Drawings, now to ensure their conservation and display both in Portsmouth and on a national tour when COVID permits.