Archive for January, 2021

Rarely-seen Dante illustrations digitized

Monday, January 11th, 2021

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, diplomat, poet and author of the seminal Divine Comedy. In honor of the occasion, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has digitized a rare set of illustrations of the Divine Comedy in high definition and made them available online for the first time. The 88 drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy were created by Mannerist painter Federico Zuccari in the late 16th century and few of them have ever been exhibited, and even then only twice, once in 1865 and once in 1993. Very little known but beloved by Dante scholars, the Zuccari drawings are widely considered the most important illustrations of Dante’s masterpiece until Gustave Doré’s burst on the scene in 1861.

Zuccari (also spelled Zuccaro) is best known today for having completed the frescoes inside the dome of Florence’s cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (Vasari started them), but he was famous in his time and very much in demand by the crowned heads of Europe. His patrons included several popes, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Philip II of Spain. He was working King Philip, designing frescoes for the El Escorial palace north of Madrid, when he embarked on his illustrations of the Divine Comedy in 1586. It took him two years to complete all 88 drawings.

They entered the collection of the Uffizi in 1738, donated by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, Electress Palatine, less than a year after she saved the Medici’s art collection for Florence in perpetuity. Today the pages are extremely fragile. They are kept in a dark, temperature and moisture-controlled environment and can only be exposed every five years. That makes them all but inaccessible to scholars as well as to the public, which is why the Uffizi has chosen to digitize them in their entirety so the works can be studied without putting them at risk.

The museum has compiled the digitized Zuccardi illustrations into a journey mirroring their original context in a bound volume. Zuccardi’s illustrations are on the right page; on the left are the verses from the Divine Comedy being illustrated, plus short synopses written by Zuccardi himself. The Zuccardi exhibition is currently only available in Italian, but an English version is imminent. Meanwhile, you can peruse the illustrations in each of three cantos —Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Already available in English is an exhibition exploring Dante’s connection to the visual arts and how the poet and his masterpiece were represented.

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Victorian bathhouse found under car park

Sunday, January 10th, 2021

Tiled pools from a Victorian-era bathhouse have been discovered under a parking lot in downtown Manchester, northern England. The excavation has revealed the first and second class bathing pools with their handsome white and blue tiles.

The site adjacent to Picadilly Railway Station, Manchester’s main railway station originally constructed in 1842, was home to the Mayfield Public Baths built in 1857 by the Manchester & Salford Baths & Wash-Houses Company. The Mayfield neighborhood was known as Cottonopolis for its central role in Manchester’s textile industry. The baths provided entertainment, exercise and invaluable public hygiene facilities to employees of the print and dye factories, their families and neighbors, many of whom lived in grimy, overcrowded dwellings lacking in amenities.

They flocked to the grand Italianate building to swim and play in its large pools — the first class men’s pool was 62 feet long — and to clean both themselves and their laundry. The wash house, just as an aside, looked like the engine room of an ocean liner or something. Victorian laundromats were not here to play. In 1878, the city of Manchester acquired the Mayfield Baths and they remained integral to the live of Mancunian workers until they building was flattened in a bombing during the Blitz in 1940.

After the war, a parking lot was built on top of the bombed out baths. Nobody thought there was much of anything left under the rubble, so archaeologists excavating the site for the Mayfield Regeneration Project, the conversion of the area behind Piccadilly Station into Manchester’s first new urban park in a hundred years, were surprised when they found the bathing facilities in such good condition.

Through machine excavation and meticulous hand digging, the team has uncovered the remains of two large tiled pools as well as parts of boilers, flues and pumps which were used to heat and circulate water around the pools and laundry rooms.

The archaeologists are using 3D laser scanning and low level drone photography to produce an  accurate, detailed record of the findings which will later be combined with historical documents and CAD software to produce digital drawings, in a process known as ‘preservation by record’.

“The Mayfield bathhouse is a fascinating example of the social and public health advancements that came about during the industrial revolution,” said Graham Mottershead, project manager at Salford Archaeology.

“As the city’s population boomed with factory workers, crowded and substandard living conditions gave rise to the spread of cholera and typhoid. For those living and working around Mayfield the Mayfield Baths would have been a vital source of cleanliness and hygiene.

“The sheer pace of change and innovation during the industrial revolution means many advancements were not recorded. Excavations like this help us to learn a great deal about what is arguably the most important period of human history and, in the case of Mayfield, a location that is so very relevant to the heritage of the people of Manchester”.

The new Mayfield Park project will revitalize 6.5 acres of industrial blight into a sustainable mix-used green space with homes, retail, leisure facilities, renovated historical structures and even a reborn river, the River Medlock, which was buried by development in the 19th century and has been hidden underground ever since. Artifacts recovered during excavations will go on display in the new park.

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Pre-Hispanic statue of elite woman found in citrus grove

Saturday, January 9th, 2021

On New Year’s Day, 2021, a farmer in the village of Hidalgo Amajac, in southeastern Mexico’s Veracruz region, unearthed a six-foot statue of a female figure in a citrus grove. On Monday, January 4th, archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) identified it as a pre-Hispanic statue of an elite woman, the first of its kind ever discovered in the area.

The limestone statue depicts young woman, elegantly garbed in a long-sleeved shirt and ankle-length skirt and adorned with an elaborate headdress rising high on both sides of her head. Her small face has hollow eyes that would originally have contained stone inlays. She wears a wide necklace with an engraved donut-shaped pendant known as an oyohualli, a fertility symbol.

It is two feet wide at its widest point and about 10 inches thick. It has survived the centuries in good condition, its features still sharp and complete with its spike, a long tapered structural element extending out from under the feet of the figure that was used to keep the statue upright. Most of the female Huastec sculptures have been interpreted representations of the earth and fertility goddess Tlazoltéotl, but INAH archaeologist María Eugenia Maldonado Vite this figure’s posture and attire suggests that she may have been a ruler rather than a deity.

The location of the statue in the Tuxpan River valley and its general stylistic features indicate it was made by the Huasteca culture, indigenous to the Veracruz region, but there are some elements typical of Central Mexican Nahua sculptural tradition, namely the inlaid eye sockets and the knots and ribbons in the woman’s gown. Huasteca sculptures of female deities have smooth gowns. Given this combination of elements, INAH archaeologists’ date the statue to the Late Postclassic period (1450-1521 A.D.) when the Mexica Triple Alliance (aka the Aztec Empire) governed the Valley of Mexico and had cultural and commercial exchanges with the Huasteca peoples to the southeast.

The sculpture’s find site has not been excavated yet, but inspection revealed that it was inside an extensive archaeological site. There do not appear to be any monumental structures. The buildings are low and were probably residential in nature. The statue was found upside down, so archaeologists believed it was quarried from its original site in pre-Hispanic times and recycled as construction material.

The discovery sheds new light on the sculptural traditions of the region, how they were influenced by the Mexica and representations of women in Late Postclassic Huasteca art. The statue has some attributes seen in the Huasteca goddess figures — the headdress, the meeting hands, the oyohualli — but is missing other important ones — nose rings, spindles with cotton tassels, the chewing of chapopote (bitumen). In the wake of this find, reexamination of other Huasteca female figures assumed to be deities may be reinterpreted as women of status in the community’s political structure.

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Iconic Alexander Mosaic to be restored

Friday, January 8th, 2021

The iconic mosaic of Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian forces of Darius III at the Battle of Issus will be restored in public view at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN). The project begins at the end of the month and will continue until July. A mutlidisciplinary team of experts will use the latest technology to study, clean and conserve the massive masterpiece.

The Alexander Mosaic is believed to be a copy of a Greek painting by Philoxenus of Eretria from the Hellenistic era (late 4th, early 3rd century B.C.). Pliny praised the work in his Natural History: “Philoxenus of Eretria, who painted for King Cassander a picture representing one of the battles between Alexander and Darius, a work which may bear comparison with any.” (Cassander was king of Macedon from 317 to 297 B.C., which narrows down the date of the painting.)

The mosaic was discovered in the floor of the exedra (an open-air sitting area) in the House of the Faun in Pompeii in 1832. It was made around 120-100 B.C. and is of unparalleled quality and size, a testament to the great wealth of the owners of the House of the Faun which is the largest and most elaborately decorated villa in the city. The villa occupied an entire insula (city block) and covered a whopping 32,000 square feet on two floors. The Alexander mosaic was a focal point of a dramatic visual axis down the length of the house, from the HAVE (“welcome”) mosaic on the threshold, through the 52-foot length of the atrium, the triclinium (dining room) and a small peristyle to the exedra that opened to the villa’s grand peristyle.

An estimated 1.5 million tesserae in four colors (white, yellow, red, blue/black) were arranged in fine opus vermiculatum style (meaning wormlike, for its tiny segments arranged in undulating asymmetrical lines) that used color gradations to create an incredibly detailed, smooth, realistic Detail of Alexander. Photo courtesy Museo Archeological Nazionale, Napoli.effect. It measures almost 9-by-17 feet and is 215 square feet in area. There are more than 50 people in the melee, with Alexander and Darius facing off above their armies. Alexander is astride his steed Bucephalus, leading the Macedonian cavalry; Darius stands in his chariot, his horses dynamically facing the viewer as they turn around in retreat.

In 1844, the whole mosaic was raised from the floor and transported by oxcart to what was then Naples’ Royal Bourbon Museum. They installed it in the floor where people, you know, walked on it, so in 1916 it was reinstalled on the wall where it has been on display ever since. It is a world-famous symbol of the museum, of Pompeii and one of the most-recognized images of Alexander the Great.

The Battle of Issus weighs seven tons and known issues include detaching tiles, damaged tiles, vertical and horizontal microfractures, and shifts in the underlay. Previous investigations have found that much of the deterioration in the mosaic may be due to the oxidation of the iron reinforcements and degradation of the mortar used to affix the tesserae to the background. It’s heavy weight and vertical placement put it in a constant battle with gravity as well.

The first step in the conservation process will to consolidate loose layers or mortar and tiles, doing a light cleaning of the surface and bandaging all the surface. The mosaic will then be removed with a mechanical lifting system custom-designed for this job. The entire mosaic will then be examined and analyzed to confirm the next actions to take. Between April and July, the support will be stabilized while the face of the mosaic, protected by planking, will be projected  onto a wall so conservators can see which area of the mosaic they are treating and the public can see them at work. The last step will be the removal of the bandages and planking, cleaning, any final consolidations and a new protective treatment.

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Netherlands’ Roman limes seeks UNESCO status

Thursday, January 7th, 2021

The Germanic Limes, the northern frontier line of the Roman Empire from the late 1st century to the second half of the third, ran from the North Sea to the Danube. The section in what is now the Netherlands followed the line of the Lower Rhine from the Oude Rijn estuary on the North Sea to the town of Bad Breisig in modern-day Germany. The Lower Germanic Limes ended there and the Upper Germanic picked up on the other side of the Rhine.

The Netherlands limes run from Nijmegen, the second oldest city in the Netherlands founded as a Roman military camp in the 1st century B.C., to Katwijk, founded by the Emperor Claudius in the 1st century A.D. as Lugdunum Batavorum. Between them are a wealth of Roman remains, both outdoors and underground, and museums, like the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen, owner of the exceptional Nijmegen cavalry helmet, and its associated archaeological park site of a Roman military camp.

The Lower Germanic Limes was not a fortified structure-based border like Hadrian’s Wall. There were forts alone the line, but they dotted the natural boundary of the Lower Rhine. The remains of the forts and military camps along the limes in the Netherlands today form the largest archaeological monument in the country. Netherlands heritage organizations have nominated the Roman Limes as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The results of the campaign will be announced in 2021.

Whether it achieves World Heritage status or not, the limes are an absolute dream trip for the history nerd/hiking aficionado. Flat terrain, a myriad fascinating, little-photographed sites along the way, no crowds, uninterrupted stretches of ground and river for walking, biking and kayaking. I came across a video today promoting the Netherlands Limes for the UNESCO list, and I am now officially obsessed with walking this line.

That giant mask you see in the video is a monumental replica of the Nijmegen helmet by artist Andreas Hetfeld that was installed overlooking the city’s Waal river in April of last year. There’s a staircase inside it so you can climb up and look out of its eyeholes to see a panorama of the city. How cool is that? Even cooler, they had to transport it to its current location by barge. Check out this badassness:

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Journey to The Met Cloisters

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s second location, The Met Cloisters, is one of my favorite museums. Dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages, the museum was completed in 1938 using both modern materials and architectural salvage from European castles, churches and monasteries. It has distinct spaces evoking those structures, nesting the artworks in the collection in a familiar context — the unicorn tapestries in a castle-like room, for example. Even the outdoors is a medieval wonderland, with its cloister garden of carefully curated plants that gives the museum its name.

Take a quick flythrough to see you for yourself:

This fall, the gardens were the subject of a fascinating webinar with The Cloisters’ horticulturalists. It gives you a glimpse behind the scenes of the work at the end of the growing season and how they curate the landscape using medieval sources. 

The museum has a ton of other virtual content. There’s an overview of the building and its content here. The audio tours are comprehensive and worth listening to even when you’re not fortunate enough to be present in person. I also love the blog about the history of The Cloisters’ Library and Archives and its dedicated librarians. 

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Horse mounting block is 2nd c. Roman carving

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

A slab of marble used for a decade as a horse mounting block in a stable in Wiltshire, England, has been identified as a 2nd century A.D. dedication from somewhere in the Roman Empire’s territories in Greece or Asia Minor. How it got there is a mystery.

Carved and inscribed slab from 2nd century A.D. used as horse mounting block. Photo courtesy Woolley and Wallis.The slab was first discovered two decades ago in the garden of a bungalow in Whiteparish, but at the time the owner didn’t realize it was anything but a usefully heavy hunk of stone among many in the rockery. She eventually moved it to her stables and used it as a booster step. It wasn’t until recently that she noticed there was a laurel wreath carved into the slab. An archaeologist then examined it, rediscovering its ancient inscription.

There are two wreaths, respectively encircling the words “people” and “young men” written in Greek. Beneath the laurels the inscription reads “Demetrios (son) of Metrodoros (the son) of Leukios.” It’s a dedication from the people and young men of wherever this came from to the honor of Demetrios. The language and style of writing date it to one of imperial Rome’s Greek-speaking provinces.

Tracing its origins and movements will be a challenge. The owner has put the slab up for auction at Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury which has launched an appeal to the public for any information about its past.

“Artefacts of this type often came into England as the result of Grand Tours in the late 18th and 19th century, when wealthy aristocrats would tour Europe learning about Classical art and culture,” explained Antiquities specialist Will Hobbs at Woolley and Wallis. “We assume that is how it entered the UK, but what is a complete mystery is how it ended up in a domestic garden, and that’s where we’d like the public’s help.”

The bungalow on Common Road in Whiteparish was one of several built in the mid 1960s and the auctioneers are hoping that someone who perhaps lived in the area at the time, or who worked on the construction, might recall the origins of some of the rubble used.

“There are several possibilities of where the stone might have originated,” continued Hobbs. “Both Cowesfield House and Broxmore House were very close to Whiteparish and were demolished in 1949 after having been requisitioned by the army during the war. But we also know that the house at what is now Paulton’s Park was destroyed by fire in 1963 and so possibly rubble from there was reused at building sites in the area shortly afterwards.”

The slab was originally scheduled to go under the hammer at a February 16th antiquities sale, but the all auctions for January and February have been postponed for the time being. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-15,000 ($13,600-20,400).

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Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany

Monday, January 4th, 2021

A preventative archaeology excavation in Plougonvelin, a city on the westernmost tip of Brittany, has unearthed an important necropolis from the early Bronze Age. More than 50 burials have been discovered so far, ranging in date from 2000 to 1600 B.C. This is the first Bronze Age funerary complex of this magnitude ever found in Brittany, a region famed for its Bronze Age tumuli.

The presence of prehistoric graves in Plougonvelin has been known since the 1950s, enough that archaeologists suspected there might be a necropolis. A team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) began excavating the site of a planned real estate development in October 2020. In two months, INRAP excavated a half-acre of ground, unearthing 55 burials of notable architectural variety. There are cist tombs, wood caskets, cist tombs containing wood caskets, cairns, ones with its stone slab cover still in place, and at least one jar burial, likely of an infant.

The graves are arranged and organized in a deliberate manner. Sets of tombs alternate with empty spaces suggesting the deceased were grouped in a meaningful way. The groupings do not appear to have been chronological. Archaeologists believe the concentrations of burials reflect family or community ties.

The tombs are in good condition, and analysis of the rocks used to create them has found that the stone was locally sourced. The contents are a little worse for wear. Even the most carefully positioned stones and slabs allowed water and silt to penetrate over the millennia. Between infiltration of sediment and the highly acidic soil, the skeletal remains were dissolved.

Only one of the stone tombs retained enough structural integrity to preserve the skeleton of the deceased. The bones belonged to an adult woman positioned on her right side in fetal position. Her body had been placed in an organic coffin — perhaps a basket-like material — before burial in the stone tomb. The organic container has decomposed, but its ghost remains in the imprint of her body left in a layer of hardened sand.

That bottom sand layer is found in most of the cists. It was an intentional deposition, not infiltration of the elements. The Bronze Age Bretons lined the tombs with sea sand. The consistency of the feature suggests a symbolic or ritual reference to the sea which is just a few blocks away.

No surviving grave goods have been found, and in their absence establishing a chronology of the burial ground will be challenging. Researchers will study the arrangement and typology of the burials and compare them to other Bronze Age necropoli. The skeletal remains of the woman will also be studied with DNA and stable isotope analysis.

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Late Roman cisterns found in Metropolis

Sunday, January 3rd, 2021

Four Roman-era cisterns have been unearthed at the ancient Ionian city of Metropolis (no really) 25 miles southeast of Izmir in western Turkey. They date to the late Roman, early Byzantine period around 1,500 years ago and had an estimated combined water capacity of 600 tons. The cisterns were found preserved in excellent condition under more than 20 feet of fill.

The cisterns were built adjacent to each other in the acropolis, the highest part of the terraced hilltop city, for use as reservoirs in case a siege cut off access to the lower city’s water supply. The cisterns had thick fortified walls to protect the precious resource and would have supplied drinking water to residents, irrigation to fields and water to the public baths.

Professor Serdar Aybek from Manisa Celal Bayar University’s Archeology Department touched upon the importance of the new findings.

“We are excited to open a new door to the daily lives of ancient people that lived in the region 1,500 years ago. The new discovery of four cisterns in the acropolis prove the skills of the ancient masters of Metropolis in the field of water engineering,” he told Demirören News Agency (DHA). […]

“(We) estimate that the cisterns supplied water to the entire settlement on the lower slopes of the acropolis, and particularly to the upper bathhouse structure. The cisterns, which are approximately three floors tall, are also of great importance in terms of being the best-preserved monuments in Metropolis,” Aybek said.

The excavation of the cistern area has revealed large quantities of animal bones and pottery fragments. They are likely medieval and indicate the cisterns were used as giant dumpsters in the 12th and 13th centuries, which at least partially explains how these structures were so buried deeply.

The earliest evidence of human occupation at Metropolis dates to the Neolithic era. In the Bronze Age it was part of the kingdom of Arzawa that became a Hittite vassal state in the 14th century B.C., albeit a restless one. It joined forces with Mycenaean Greece against the Hittites several times, and Mycenaean cultural influence is evident in the remains of pottery discovered at the site. In the Hellenistic era it was part of the kingdom of Pergamum which was bequeathed by its last king Attalus III to the Roman Republic in 133 B.C. Under Rome, Metropolis expanded Most of the earliest surviving structures of the city date to the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

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Birdwatcher spies Britain’s largest Celtic gold coin hoard

Saturday, January 2nd, 2021

A birdwatcher in eastern England has discovered the largest hoard of Celtic gold coins ever found in Britain. The birder has been observing a glorious instance of aerial combat between a large brown buzzard and two magpies through his binoculars. When they moved out view, he glanced down and saw something in the groove of recently-ploughed soil. He picked up the circular piece, figuring it was an old metal washer, but when he wiped off the mud, he saw the glint of gold. What glittered in this case was in fact gold, a Celtic full stater from the middle of the 1st century.

After he spotted a second one a couple of feet away, the birdwatcher switched to another of his avid hobbies, running home to fetch his metal detector. He scanned the area where he had found the two coins and quickly found another two gold coins. Then he got a particularly a strong signal and began to dig down. Just 18 inches under the surface, he unearthed another circular object. It looked like a copper bracelet, but when he pulled it up a shower of gold fell on him like he was Danae. The circle was actually the rim of Roman vase or jug that had been filled with coins and buried.

Alas, the finder did not stop what he was doing to alert archaeologists. He filled two large shopping bags with what are estimated to be around 1,300 gold coins and walked home with them. He then called in the find to the coroner’s office. The coins are now being assessed before the inquest that will declare them treasure under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act. As far as monetary value goes, each coin could be worth up to $880 dollars, depending on condition.

This is a new record for a Celtic gold coin hoard. The previous record-holder was a hoard of 850 coins discovered at Wickham Market, Suffolk, in 2008.

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