Archive for July, 2021

The Getty’s stunning Aeneas intaglio

Saturday, July 31st, 2021

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

Friday, July 30th, 2021

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

Thursday, July 29th, 2021

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

Wednesday, July 28th, 2021

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

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

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.

Monumental platform found in Selinunte

Monday, July 26th, 2021

A team of archaeologists and student volunteers from  New York University (NYU) and the University of Milan (UniMi) have discovered the remains of a monumental two-storey platform believed to have been part of the altar of the oldest Greek temple in Selinunte, western Sicily.

The mission led by professors Clemente Marconi, Rosalia Pumo and Andrew Ward brought the discovery of part of a monumental platform on two levels that was likely used to house the main altar of Temple R, the oldest in the city, dated archaeologically to 570 BC.

This is the same area where, in 2010, researchers with the NYU-UniMi mission found abundant remains of animal sacrifice.

Among the finds were also two spearheads that were found burnt and crossed. “A truly exceptional case in the Greek world to find them like this,” said professor Marconi.

“It was typical of female cults to have dedications of weapons, and the finding in front of Temple R, dedicated to a goddess, is certainly not accidental,” he said.

It is a historical testimony of two different phases of the city: the lower platform dates to the years of construction of Temple R; while the higher platform, more monumental, dates to the 5th century.

During the excavation, a large goat’s horn was also unearthed, evidence of a prestigious sacrifice to the divinity.

A fourth artefact found was a fragment of a life-sized statue made of Parian marble. It is an additional piece of the arm of a kouros, a male statue with a votive function, of which a fragment of the forearm was found four years ago during the NYU-UniMi campaign.

“This is the first time that a statue of this type in marble and life-size has been discovered in Selinunte,” said Clemente Marconi.

“It was most likely dedicated in the sixth century and then dismembered in the fourth century and the fragments partly used as lime, with others used for Hellenistic fill”.

Founded as a Greek colony in the second half of the 7th century B.C., ancient Selinus flourished thanks to its rich farmland and the city thanked its gods for its prosperity by building monumental Doric temples. The most important sanctuaries were built on the city’s Acropolis, and today extensive remains survive of three 6th century temples, Temple C, dedicated to Apollo, and Temple D, dedicated to Athena, and Temple R.

After a period of neglect and decline after being conquered by Carthage in 409 B.C., Selinunte rebounded with new building programs including Temple B, built around 300 B.C. Fifty years later, the city was destroyed and its population forcibly deported to Lilybaeum by the Carthaginian during the First Punic War.

NYU archaeologists have been investigation the Acropolis of Selinunte since 2006. In 2019, they discovered the first evidence of a bull sacrifice at Selinunte: a votive deposit of two bull horns in a 7th century cult building on the east side of Temple R. This season’s excavation focused on the area in front of Temple R. This space has never been excavated, not even in antiquity, leaving behind unusually pristine archaeological layers which has given the team the ability to date the finds and reconstruct the different phases of construction and use of Temple R.

11-inch phallus, oldest pistachio found in Yorkshire

Saturday, July 24th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed an imposingly large and detailed phallus carving in Catterick, North Yorkshire. Carved out of local red sandstone, the 11-inch phallus is artfully modelled in high relief. The shaft features an unusual herringbone pattern and a line of erupting ejaculate. It is one of more than 62,000 archaeological objects and remains discovered over more than three years of excavations in advance of improvements to the A1 highway.

The modern A1 in North Yorkshire follows the route of the ancient Roman Dere Street, the main road from York to the Antonine Wall at the Firth of Forth. The road was well-traveled and dotted with Roman settlements, including the town of Cataractonium, aka Catterick. Investigations took place between 2013 and 2017 and revealed a great deal about Cataractonium’s history that was previously unknown. The deep archaeological layers contained clearly stratified evidence of the settlement’s history going back to its earliest days.

Archaeologists discovered that Cataractonium was entirely of Roman origin with no previous British occupation. It was founded in the 70s A.D. as a civilian vicus attached to a Roman military fort. It expanded rapidly and by the early 2nd century was a large, flourishing town supplied with granaries, stock paddocks and a deep well. A pistachio nut perfectly preserved in the well’s waterlogged environment dates to the Trajanic period (late 1st, early 2nd century A.D.) and is the oldest pistachio ever discovered in Britain.

Timber structures predominated in Cataractonium, but in the early 3rd century old wood structures were replaced by masonry in what archaeologists believe was planned urban development program. The carved phallus was involved in that process not once but twice.

When it was found by archaeologists, it was being used as a floor paver in a building at Agricola Bridge. It was originally a bridge abutment stone, however, its prodigious apotropaic load deployed to protect travelers crossing the Swale river. This was not unusual in Roman bridge architecture (or any other architecture, for that matter). There’s one still in situ on an abutment of the Chesters Bridge over the River North Tyne at Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The structure of the bridge is no longer extant, but large blocks of stone identified as bridge stones were found on the slope of the riverbank.

All of the finds discovered during the A1 excavations, from pistachio nuts to phallus, carnelian intaglio of Hercules killing the Nemean lion to three tons of animal bone, 2.5 tons of pottery and several more tons of stonework, are now at the Yorkshire Museum in York. They will be studied further, conserved and stored. A few select pieces will eventually go on display.

Longest cuneiform inscription in Saudi Arabia discovered

Friday, July 23rd, 2021

A 6th century cuneiform inscription dedicated by King of Babylon Nabonidus has been discovered in northern Saudi Arabia. At 26 lines long, it is the longest cuneiform inscription ever found in the country.

The inscription was carved on a basalt rock face in Al Hait, the ancient city of Fadak, in the Hail region. A large petroglyph of the  king holding a staff is on the right side of the stone. Above him to the left are four religious symbols: a serpent, the sun, a rosette and the crescent moon. They represent deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon — the star of Ishtar, the winged disc of the sun god Shamash, the crescent of the moon god Sin –that the king is praying to with his raised hand. The crescent is nearest to him and is the largest, illustrating the importance of the moon god Sin to Nabonidus who sought to elevate Sin over Babylon’s traditional patron deity Marduk.

His devotion to Sin may explain, at least in part, in his presence on a rock face in Saudi Arabia. Four years after he ascended to the throne of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, perhaps the result of a coup as his inscriptions explicitly deny any royal heritage, Nabonidus went into exile in Tayma, about 160 miles north of Al Hait. The reason for his self-imposed removal from the center of political and religious power is unknown, but it’s likely clashes with the clergy and elite over his attempts to transform the hierarchy of Babylon’s gods and make the moon supreme over all the others played a pivotal role.

He still ruled the empire from a distance — his son Belshazzar acted as his representative on the ground in Babylon — and he would return a decade later undeterred in his zeal for religious reform. He built a temple to Sin in Harran (modern-day Turkey) and a stela discovered there in the 1950s bears almost identical iconography to the Al Hait petroglyphs, albeit with far more refined carving.

The long cuneiform inscription underneath the symbols has not been fully deciphered yet. Archaeologists hope the inscription may shed new light on Nabonidus’s time in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Details of the discovery will be released after specialists have more time to analyze. It will be linked to previous results that have been documented in the northwest of the Kingdom.

This archaeological finding will accompany previous discoveries of stone inscriptions and obelisks in a number of sites between Tayma and Hail that mention King Nabonidus, who ruled from 556 to 539 B.C. The finding proves the expansion of cultural and commercial contact between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mesopotamian civilizations.

Man pleads guilty to 1971 theft of Revolutionary War flintlock rifle

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

The man responsible for the theft of a rare Revolutionary War flintlock rifle from the visitor center of the Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania in 1971 has pleaded guilty to the crime. Seventy-eight-year-old Thomas Gavin turns out to have been a sort of Pennsylvania Lupin who cut an impressive swath through museum weapons collections in the 1960s and 70s.

John Christian Oerter was the premier gun maker in Christian’s Spring, a Moravian settlement near what is now Nazareth, Pennsylvania, that was the main production center of flintlock long rifles during the Revolutionary War. His firearms feature distinctive silver and brass wire inlays and high quality wood carving that make them some of the most important pieces from the period. Very few of his works survive, and the stolen 1775 long rifle is one of only two signed and dated guns by the master riflemaker known to exist. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. The other is in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, presented to the future King George IV by Colonel George Hanger, a British cavalry officer who had served in the Revolutionary War.

Gavin crowbarred the precious rifle out of a display case in broad daylight. The theft was only notice a few hours later when an eagle-eyed Boy Scout spotted the empty case. It then disappeared for 47 years until it was sold to antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle along with a trunk full of more than 20 antique pistols and a Native American silver concho belt for $27,150. Thomas Gavin was the seller.

Kinzle said in 2019 that he had bought the rifle the year before at a barn sale in Berks County, that he initially thought it was a reproduction, that when he realized it might be a genuine Oerter he called his lawyer and arranged its surrender to the FBI. At the time Kinzle would not say who had sold it to him due to the ongoing investigation, but he believed him to be an indiscriminate hoarder who had no idea of the importance and value of the object when he sold it.

Well, he got the hoarder part right anyway, but Gavin definitely knew it was the genuine article because he had stolen the Oerter from the museum with his own hands. And that was just the tip of the iceberg with this guy.

In February 2020, FBI agents and detectives from the Upper Merion Township Police Department questioned Gavin, who admitted that he stole the Oerter rifle as well as antique guns from other museums across Pennsylvania, according to a plea agreement.

Gavin said he stole revolvers and pistols from several institutions, including the American Swedish Historical Museum, the Valley Forge Historical Society and the Pennsylvania Farm Museum, the plea agreement said. The weapons, one of which had a bayonet, were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, the document said.

He also confessed to stealing the silver belt and several firearms made in the 1850s from the Hershey Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, according to court documents.

The plea bargain does not reflect the pathological extent of Gavin’s collection-by-theft. He pled guilty to only one count of disposing of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The maximum penalty for that one count is 10 years in prison and prosecutors have asked the court to assess fines of no more than $20,200 in restitution. Given that the Oerter alone is conservatively valued at $175,000, that’s pretty modest as restitution goes. He is being held on $100,000 bail and will be sentenced November 15th.

Unique Roman sarcophagus with interior reliefs conserved

Wednesday, July 21st, 2021

A unique Roman-era sarcophagus decorated on the inside is undergoing restoration in public view (pandemic permitting) at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden.

The sarcophagus was discovered in pieces during construction of a home in the Limburger village of Simpelveld in 1930. A hole on one of the short sides of the rectangle attests to it having been looted of valuables, probably during the turbulent Migration Period, but it still contained a few treasures: glass and ceramic vessels, a gold pin, a bead necklace, a stilus (conveying the deceased’s literacy), a silver mirror, a knife, a pair of scissors and three finger rings. The most elaborate is a gold dodecagonal ring inscribed IVNONI MEAE (“To my Juno”). Juno was the goddess of marriage, so it’s possible this was a wedding ring or gift from the deceased’s husband. Amazingly, cinerary remains were found undisturbed as well.

Carved out of a single massive block of local Nivelsteiner sandstone, the sarcophagus is 2.4 meters (7’10”) long, 1.05 meters (3’5″) wide and 76 cm (2’6″) high and weighs 800 kilos (1764 lbs). Carved out of one massive block, the sarcophagus was originally topped by two sandstone slabs fastened to the chest with metal clamps. The lid was found broken into four pieces. Just one of the smaller pieces weighs 282 kilos (622 lbs).

It’s the interior relief that makes it one of a kind. The sarcophagus is carved to look like a room in a luxurious Roman home absolutely crammed with furniture. On one of the long sides an elegant lady wearing a long-sleeves tunic and draped mantle reclines on a lectus. Her hair is dressed in the style of Faustina, wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which suggests a date of between 160 and 180 A.D. To her right on one of the short ends is a wicker chair of a type known as a cathedra chair, common in the Germanic provinces. A large chest on a pedestal is next. This was the arca, the home’s safe, basically, which contained the family’s documents and cash.

Across from the lady is side table on which three glass bottles have been placed. Another table is next to it, this one a small round one with three legs named a mensa Delphica after the tripod stool the Pythian priestess sat on to pronounce the oracles of Apollo at Delphi. Its legs are decorated with lion heads. Another table, a sideboard this time, is next, followed by two shelves holding bronze vessels, and then two tankards on the ground. Then comes a cabinet with two doors and small niches of varied size. Last but certainly not least is a grand house and a smaller associated building. The house and annex are not believed to represent a specific dwelling, but the furnishings are all highly realistic depiction of Roman artifacts that have been found in the Netherlands.

A 2016 study of the cinerary remains (replete with almost 400 bone fragments) was able to confirm that the individual in the sarcophagus was a woman between 35 and 49 years old when she died. There were no lesions or evidence of osteoarthritic changes to the bones, which suggests she lived a life of leisure, and her loved ones didn’t let a little thing like death change her lifestyle. The ashes of this fine lady were laid to rest in the most refined, opulent home a Romanized resident of Germania Inferior could get in the 2nd century.

The sarcophagus was acquired by the RMO from the finder immediately after it was unearthed. Museum experts pieced the large fragments together and mounted it on a wooden frame the support its weight and make it easier to move. Three months after its discovery, the Simpleveld sarcophagus was on permanent display. Today it is one of the main attractions of the museum’s permanent The Netherlands in Roman Times exhibition, but after almost a century of use and multiple relocations, the mount has become unstable and the sarcophagus has suffered damage to the old restoration points.

Conservation began in September with a comprehensive assessment of the current condition of the sarcophagus, research into past restorations and X-rays to map the fractures and any metal pins that may have been used to knit the pieces together. Mortar, cement and other additions from past restoration attempts were removed and after much research into the archives, press articles and scholarly publications, the conservation team embarked cautiously on dismantling the sarcophagus into its component fragments.

The live restoration is scheduled to continue at least through the end of August. The sarcophagus is being reassembled and mounted on a new state-of-the-art custom chassis that will support the sarcophagus’ weight and allow it to be moved without percussive shocks or vibrations. You can follow the progress of the restoration on the conservators’ log here. This is a neat time-lapse video of the dismantling process:




July 2021


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