The Getty’s stunning Aeneas intaglio

The motif of Aeneas fleeing Troy was popular in Greek decorative arts, adorning vases as early as the 6th century B.C., and it took on added significance in Italy because legend had it that Aeneas settled in Latium, married a nice Latin girl and became the forefather of the dynasty culminating in Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. The scene from Book II of the Aeneid (and from a much earlier Greek account of the sack of Troy now lost) was frequently depicted on Roman gemstones and coins. The Getty Museum acquired one of those intaglio stones in 2019 and it is without question the most detailed, most finely rendered, most three-dimensional example known.

Made from an oval cornelian less than an inch long, the depth of field carved out of this small piece of hard stone with tiny cutting wheels, sharp tools and abrasives is extraordinary. It was made in Italy, possibly Rome itself, around 20 B.C. during the reign of Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar whose family traced their unbroken ancestral line directly back to Aeneas and therefore his mom Venus. Virgil dedicated The Aeneid to Augustus and makes explicit reference to the ancestral connection linking him to the Trojan hero.

[Brief explanatory digression: according to Getty curator of antiquities Kenneth Lapatin, the stone is cornelian, not carnelian which is the standard term. Apparently “carnelian” is a medieval misinterpretation of the etymology of the name. Medieval scholars believed the name of the stone was derived from the Latin “carne” (flesh) when it actually was named after the Cornus mas, aka the Cornelian cherry, which produces a deep red fruit similar to the color of the stone.]

In the foreground is Aeneas wearing a cuirass as his sole armor and pteruges, the skirt of leather strips worn by Greek and Roman soldiers. He carries his artfully draped and bemantled father Anchises on his left shoulder. Anchises carries a cylindrical contained with an X-shaped moulding, the reliquary containing the household gods and sacred objects Aeneas told him to schlep because the hero had the blood of battle of his hands. Aeneas holds the hand of his little son Ascanius/Iulus, leading him through the gates of Troy. The boy is elaborately garbed in chiton, a cloak and a Phrygian cap with a pedum (a curved stick used as a throwing weapon by hunters) over his left shoulder. The walls of the city, ashlar blocks in clear relief, still stand, but the Greek soldier in a crested helmet holding a torch on the battlements portends Troy’s destruction by fire. Aeneas climbs the ladder to the ship that will take them to safety. It is manned by three men in Phrygian caps, one at the rudder, one sounding a trumpet, one unfurling the sail. Above them all is a single star, the “sacred star” or comet sent by Jupiter as a sign to Anchises that he should flee with his son instead of sticking it out as Troy burns down around him.

Like many intaglio gems, this was likely mounted into a signet ring and impressed into wax as an identifier. As much of a masterpiece as the stone is on its own, the impression of it conveys its extraordinary craftsmanship even more clearly. I mean look at this:

It’s nuts that that kind of granular detail is even possible on a stone 7/8 × 11/16 × 1/4 inches in dimension.

The Aeneas intaglio is now on display at the Getty Villa in the Roman Treasury room.

Cinerary remains of Bronze Age woman, twins found in urn

A new study of the cinerary remains found in an urn in the Middle Bronze Age cemetery at Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy in central Hungary has revealed details about the life of an elite woman buried with her twin fetuses.

The cemetery, just south of modern-day Budapest, was in active use between ca. 2150 and 1500 B.C., the same time span in which the Vatya culture rose and collapsed, and is therefore an important source of archaeological information on Vatya society. The practice of urn cremation was formalized during this period and urnfields with hundreds of burials, almost all of cinerary remains, have been found in the Carpathian Basin. With 525 known burials, Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy is one of the largest Bronze Age burial grounds in Hungary.

As it is much more difficult to get osteological information from cremated fragments than it is from inhumations, studies of these cemeteries have tended to focus on grave goods and the urns rather than the people buried there. Researchers have now applied strontium isotope analysis, which can determine an individual’s place of origin and movements from the isotope ratios in teeth and bones, to dental remains and the petrous part of temporal bone fragments found in the Szigetszentmiklós-Ürgehegy cremation burials.

The study used strontium isotope analysis 41 tissue samples from 29 individuals, 26 of them cremated, three inhumed, to examine how mobility and funerary practices differed between people of different social status, sex and age. Grave 241 was of particular note because it contained the remains of three individuals: a woman between 25 and 35 years of age and two fetuses who were at seven or eight months of gestation when they died. This was the only burial in the study to include more than one individual.

Her grave goods were also notable. She was buried with a gold hair ring, a bronze neck ring with hammered ends and two carved bone pins or needles. They were mixed with the cinerary remains, suggesting they were part of her dress when she was cremated. The hair ring and neck ring are unique among the Szigetszentmiklós burials, and extremely rare in Vatya cemeteries. These were luxurious objects indicating her high societal status.

The results of the strontium analysis of her dental and skeletal samples were able to map out the woman’s life from infancy to her last days thanks to the stages of development of bones and teeth.

Strontium isotope analysis of her bone/tooth tissues shows that she might have moved from outside the area to Szigetszentmiklós when she was between 8 and 13 years of age, in the period of the menarche, and therefore at the beginning of the potentially fertile stage of her life. The geographic distribution of the objects which were part of her mortuary parure, and the Ösenring [the bronze neck ring] in particular, may indicate that she had origins in Southern Moravia, Lower Austria or in the upper Danube valley, for example in the Pre-Alpine Bavarian lowlands. All these areas show 87Sr/86Sr baseline which are consistent with the values obtained on her petrous bone. Although archaeological and biogeochemical data converge rather significantly, we must remark that other areas of provenance could not be excluded.

Despite its distribution in more western regions, the gold hair-ring (Noppenring) is quite common in the Carpathian Basin. It is not improbable that the neck-ring and pins/needles were meant to symbolise a link with her native land, whereas the gold hair-ring (a wedding gift?), embodied the new local identity she acquired by joining the Szigetszentmiklós community at the highest rank. However, during adulthood, her life took a tragic turn, when she died (or was killed) whilst pregnant with (or giving birth to) twins.

[T]he ‘life history’ of 241a highlight the social and political role of Bronze Age women as agents of cultural hybridisation and change. Considering the increasing body of evidence about female mobility in this period, we may also argue that the integration into the kinship group of high-ranking women from outside, as a result of marriage exchanges or even rapture, might have been crucial for the emerging elite of the II millennium BC, in order to institute or reinforce political powers and military alliances, but also to secure routes, economic partnerships and, consequently, for exercising the ‘redistributive power’ towards the rest of the population.

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

Virtual Mesopotamian civilization

The Getty Villa Museum is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Mesopotamian history from the dawn of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent around 3200 B.C. to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. An array of rare artifacts — sculptures, cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, jewelry, paintings, bricks, decorative friezes — of exceptional quality, almost all of them on loan from the Louvre, are on display at the museum in Malibu through August 16th. It was scheduled to open on March 18th, 2020, but was preempted by you-know-what. The Louvre was kind enough to extend the loan for more than a year and the exhibition finally opened on April 21st.

The Getty has put together a fun and informative series of workshops and lectures to accompany the exhibition. Circumstances forced them online, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy events virtually that we would not have been able to attend in person. Want an excuse to make a ton of cookies while learning how to write cuneiform? Now you’ve got one.

For an overview of Mesopotamian history as represented by the artifacts in the exhibition, watch this lecture by Dr. Ariane Thomas, director of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre. I particularly love that the inscriptions on the objects are fully translated on the presentation slides, which is essential given the central role of cuneiform to Mesopotamian civilizations. Also 22 minutes in is an excerpt from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out loud. This is the first time I’ve heard Babylonian spoken.

Delve deeper into cuneiform tablets in this presentation by historian Dr. Amanda Podany who examines the religious, political, legal and economic significance of writing in Mesopotamia and examines the lives of three ancient Mesopotamians as revealed in cuneiform inscriptions: Enheduanna (24th century B.C.), daughter of King Sargon, high priestess of the moon god Nanna, the world’s first known poet, the 18th century B.C. scribe Pagirum and Hammurabi, king and lawgiver.

Next archaeologist Tate Paulette, expert on ancient spirituous beverages, explores Mesopotamia’s rich beer culture as documented in written, artistic and archaeological records. The lecture covers the history of beer in Mesopotamia, how it was brewed and drunk, and modern attempts to recreate it.

Last but certainly not least is my favorite internationally-renown cuneiform expert, Dr. Irving Finkel of the British Museum, whose last visit to the Getty featured him taking on all comers at the Royal Game of Ur. Being a more innocent pre-pandemic era, that event was not filmed, much to my disappointment, but this time his discussion of the origins of writing is open to all of us from the comfort of our own homes via Zoom. From Laundry Lists to Liturgies: The Origins of Writing in Ancient Mesopotamia kicks off on August 11th at 11:00 AM Pacific Time. Registration is required and free. Presumably the recording will be made available on YouTube like its predecessors. See you there!

Roman canal, road emerge as Limes gets UNESCO World Heritage status

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has awarded World Heritage status to the Lower Germanic Limes, the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, in the Netherlands and Germany. The frontier line is composed of 102 archaeological sites — military and civilian settlements, towers, roads, harbours, an acqueduct, cemeteries, an amphitheater, etc. — from the Rhenish Massif in Germany to the North Sea coast in the Netherlands. Many of them are underground, but the whole boundary line is dotted with archaeological parks and museums and in the collective, the newly-minted World Heritage site is the largest archaeological monument in the country.

The Limes is celebrating its new status by revealing more of its early Roman history. Archaeologists have discovered a 2,000-year-old Roman road and a canal in the town of Oosterhout, near Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.  Located on the banks of the Rhine, Nijmegen was founded as a Roman military fort on the Lower Germanic Limes in the 1st century B.C. It is the second oldest city in the Netherlands, and was an important strategic position for the Roman Army.

The road was wide with drainage ditches on each side; it was paved with packed gravel. Local roads were small, unpaved and perpetually muddy dirt trails, so Roman soldiers built and maintained wide paved roads for the rapid movement of troops and supplies throughout what is now the Netherlands. The original gravel layer is still in situ.

The Roman highway, with its original gravel pavement preserved, provides new insight into the road network of around 2,000 years ago, Eric Noord, who is leading the project, told AFP.

The canal was also a product of Roman military engineering. More than 30 feet wide and deep enough to allow passage of Roman transport ships. Its start and end points have not been determined yet, but archaeologists believe it likely connected the camp at Nijmegen to the Rhine and was used to move heavy baggage — food supplies, building materials, artillery — and troops.

Stained glass Nathan witnessed Becket’s murder

A new study has discovered that some of the stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral predates the 1170 murder of Thomas Becket by as much as four decades, which would make them among the oldest known stained glass windows in England and the world.

While there are fragments of painted window glass going back to late antiquity, the large figurative windows made by joining pieces of colored glass with soldered lead cames that we think of by “stained glass” took off with the development of Gothic architecture that allowed the installation of great windows. Very few examples predate the late 12th century.

Before this recent study, the oldest stained glass windows in the cathedral were believed to have been made after the fire that devastated the building in 1174. A series depicting the ancestors of Christ were installed in the clerestory windows of the choir between 1175 and 1220 during the post-conflagration rebuilding program (with a couple of decades of delays thrown in there when arguments between the archbishop and monks of Canterbury put a hold on glazing). They were reconfigured and moved to the Great South Window in the 1790.

In 1987, art historian Madeline Caviness proposed that four of the figures in the Ancestor Series were not Gothic but rather Romanesque in style, that they may have been older works adapted and reused in the late 12th, early 13th century. At the time, it was not possible to confirm or deny this hypothesis via scientific analysis of the elements in the glass because samples would have had to be taken, and of course one is not allowed to chip off chunks of Canterbury Cathedral’s 800-year-old (at least) windows.

University of College London (UCL) researchers were recently able to test Caviness’ hypothesis using a non-invasive technology modified specifically for use on stained glass windows still in their original architectural context. They customized a portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometer with an ingenious attachment dubbed the WindoLyzer that counters interference from the lead cames that bind the glass pieces. The attachment was modeled with software and 3D printed, so it can be replicated at will at little expense for easy and cheap in situ element analysis.

Researchers looked at three figures that were part of Ancestors of Christ series: Methuselah, Ezekias and Nathan. Nathan is one of the figures Caviness pointed to as being Romanesque. The pXRF shines an x-ray beam on the glass. The glass radiates and the spectrometer can detect the chemical element composition of the glass from that radiation.

The condition of the surface of the cathedral glass, already prone to deterioration from its relatively unstable composition and then exposed for centuries to nefarious environmental elements, made it challenging to characterize all of the elements in glass. Five of them are fully quantifiable by pXRF — Copper (Cu), Zinc (Zn), Rubidium (Rb), Strontium (Sr) and Zirconium (Zr) — and together they are sufficient to date and identify glass recipes by region, sometimes even by workshop.

Methuselah and Ezekias were made of similar glass and installed in the arched clerestory windows during the reconstruction, ca. 1178-9 for Methuselah, ca. 1213-1220 for Ezekias. Nathan was installed in the clerestory around the same time as Ezekias, but the type of glass marks it as a much earlier production, made between 1130 and 1160.

Now that Nathan has been confirmed to predate the fire by decades, researchers think the windows that managed to survive the conflagration were dismantled, stored and then reinstalled as part of the Ancestor Series.

Prof Caviness said she was “delighted” to hear that her assessment had been confirmed by Dr [Laura] Ware Adlington.

“The scientific findings, the observations and the chronology of the cathedral itself all fit together very nicely now,” she told BBC News. Prof Caviness, who is now 83, told me that the finding had jolted her out of a “Covid numbness” that she had been feeling.

“I wish I was younger and could throw myself more into helping Laura with her future work. But I’ve certainly got a few more projects to feed her.”

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