Update: stolen antique firearms returned to museums

Decades after museum aficionado and brazen thief Thomas Gavin cut a swath through the museums of Pennsylvania, helping himself to 18th and 19th century firearms a silver Navajo concho belt, 15 items have been officially repatriated to the targeted museums (or their institutional descendants). Law enforcement officials returned the objects to the American Swedish Historical Museum, Valley Forge Historical Society, Hershey Story Museum, Landis Valley Museum, Mercer Museum and York County History Center in a ceremony at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

It was one particularly rare object — a Revolutionary War flintlock rifle signed and dated by gunmaker John Christian Oerter —  that blew the case wide open when it was sold to antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle in 2018. He first assumed it was a copy, but when he recognized that it was a genuine Oerter rifle, he and his lawyer reported it to the FBI’s Art Crime squad. Thomas Gavin was the seller.

The FBI’s investigation uncovered that Gavin was not just a dupe unwittingly reselling stolen goods. He had burglarized numerous museums in the Philadelphia area in the 1960s and 1970s, stealing revolvers, pistols and rifles as well as the one anomalous silver belt. He kept them for five decades before deciding to sell a chest of ill-gotten goods to Kinzle for $27,150.

Earlier this year, Gavin agreed to a plea bargain, and boy did he get a sweet deal. The 78-year-old pleaded guilty to one measly count of disposing of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The maximum penalty for that count is 10 years in prison. Last month, he was sentenced to a grand total of one day in prison. The judge was apparently swayed by the thief’s age and declining health to not even bother slapping him on the wrist for decades spent looting museum collections. We don’t even know exactly how many things he stole. Some of the museum’s don’t exist anymore and there’s no surviving documentation of the thefts.

Bronze vessel from Beijing’s origins found in tomb

Archaeologists have unearthed a bronze lidded vessel in a tomb from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1,046 – 771 B.C.) on the outskirts of Beijing that is believed to be the pair of one found at the site in the 1970s.

The bronze vessel is of the gui type, a wide-mouthed food container with a ringed base. inscriptions on the pot match ones found on a bronze vessel unearthed from a tomb at Liulihe site in 1974, except they’re flipped. The inscription in the lid of the newly-discovered pot is the same as the inscription on the bottom of the pot found in the 1970s. Archaeologists believe they were a matched set made by a single artisan who then mistakenly put the wrong lids on the vessels.

The character “yong,” which refers to the establishment of a city, was found within the inscription, explained Sun Qingwei, a professor at Peking University, direct evidence that one of the ranking officials of the king of the Western Zhou Dynasty had established a city in what is now Liulihe town more than 3,000 years ago.

Bronze vessels served an important ritual purpose for funerary offerings of food and drink and as household goods for the deceased in the afterlife, but in the Western Zhou the practice took on an added significance as status symbols. Only the elite were allowed to own bronzes. Later chroniclers record that the number of bronze “ding” (footed food cauldrons) allowed in graves was strictly apportioned according to noble rank in the Western Zhou, the emperor could have nine, lords could have seven, ministers five, etc.

Excavations at the site in the 1970s were disturbed by high ground water levels. New technology has developed since then to gradually drain and excavate archaeological remains in a way that preserves even delicate organic materials. The team excavated the tombs from outside of the burial chamber inwards. By working this way, they discovered overlapping layers of lacquerware and textiles. Archaeologists also discovered the first wooden arrow shafts from the Western Zhou Dynasty ever found in Beijing, and in another first for Beijing, were able to successfully recover silk patterned fabric from the early Western Zhou Dynasty.

Tomb M1902 was absolutely packed with precious offerings: copper lifting beams, bronze statues, bronze tripods, bronze swords, pottery, lacquerware, silks. Both the coffin and its occupants’ bones are preserved in good condition. On top of the coffin is the skeleton of a dog and a copper bell. It is complete and has never been looted or reused, which is extremely rare.

Tomb M1901 has not been fully excavated yet while the site is gradually drained, but archaeologists can see it was a very rich burial as well, containing a complete set of cart and horses.

The Liulihe residential district in southwestern Beijing contains the earliest remains of the urban settlement that would become Beijing. The tombs rich with artifacts found in Liulihe excavations over the past 50 years have shown that Bronze Age Beijing was the capital of the Yan vassal state of the Western Zhou Dynasty.

“The ongoing excavation will offer much crucial information on studies of the ritual and feudal systems of the Western Zhou period,” Chen Mingjie, director of the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Administration, said. “It is also a key to see how early-stage cities were planned in China.”

Four rammed earth architectural foundations and seven large water wells have also been excavated in Liulihe this year, indicating that full use of ground water was considered by the city’s planners.

“The new findings in Liulihe will further portray a panorama of the Yan vassal state, which was a historical foundation of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development today,” Shan Jixiang, head of the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics, said. “It will also demonstrate how diverse cultures mixed with each other and formed a united Chinese civilization.”

Emperor Wen of Han’s tomb found in Xian

A large tomb in the suburbs of Xian City, northwest China, has been identified as the mausoleum of Emperor Wen of the Western Han Dynasty (r.180 – 157 B.C.).

Local legend has it that a mountain known as Phoenix’s Mouth outside Xian City was the emperor’s tomb. The belief has been pervasive for a thousand years, as attested by 10 stone tablets on the mountain inscribed with honors to the emperor and a monument to mark his final resting place that was installed on Phoenix’s Mouth during the Qing Dynasty. However, numerous archaeological surveys have unearthed no evidence of ancient construction. The Phoenix’s Mouth is simply a natural hill, not an imperial burial mound.

What would prove to be Emperor Wen’s actual tomb was discovered a mile or so away from the mountain in 2017 during an emergency excavation to counter looting activity. It may have originally been a pyramid as was typical of imperial tombs of the era, but if so, the mound was flattened over the millennia. It’s also possible the Emperor ordered a less prominent tomb, as he was famed and respected for his frugal approach to leadership. It wasn’t recognized as an imperial tomb until excavations revealed its shape and monumental size (230 feet long, 100 feet wide).

The great central tomb, which has not yet been excavated, is surrounded by more than 110 offering pits and tombs. Only eight of them have been excavated so far, and in them archaeologists have discovered massive quantities of artifacts from the Western Han Dynasty, including more than 1,000 painted ceramic figurines, guardians of the imperial tombs, iron swords, copper gears from chariots, seals of government officials, gold ornaments, animal burials, bronze rings and coins. The pottery guardians and attendants, the chariot parts, the weapons and the seals highlight how the mausoleum complex was furnished to create a sort of shadow government for the emperor in the afterlife.

The wealth of offerings are associated with one of the major satellite tombs of the mausoleum. It belonged to Emperor Wen’s mother, Empress Dowager Bo, who died in 155 B.C., living long enough to see her grandson ascend the throne and making her the first grand empress dowager in Chinese history.

Ma [Yongying, a researcher with the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology,] said that the discovery of the graves of Liu Heng’s empress and his mother further indicated that the grand tomb in the center should be the emperor’s long resting place.

“It is the earliest Western Han royal graveyard in which the emperor’s tomb was put in the center and was surrounded by burial pits,” he said.

The discovery of Baling also means that the whereabouts of all 11 Western Han emperors’ mausoleums in or near Xi’an, then the national capital known as Chang’an, have been confirmed, Ma said.

The grand tomb was a milestone in the evolution of Chinese royal mausoleums, said Liu Qingzhu, an archaeology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The emphasis of previous rulers’ mausoleums was more on connections within their own families. For example, royal couples were often buried together.

“But Liu Heng’s tomb reflected that the country, represented by the emperor’s power, was the priority,” he said, adding that studies of the tomb also are a key to understanding the forming of China’s national identity.

Viking brooches go on display at Manx Museum

Two Viking-era oval brooches that have shed new light on the Viking settlement of the Isle of Man have gone on display for the first time.

The brooches were discovered in December of 2018 by metal detectorists John Crowe and Craig Evans, along with bronze fittings from a belt and a decorated glass bead. The brooches were full of soil when first unearthed. Specialist conservators at the York Archaeological Trust x-rayed, cleaned and waxed them to reveal their intricately interwoven designs in bronze with silver wire decoration. They date to around 900 A.D.

Large, highly-ornamented domed oval brooches like these were worn in pairs by Viking women to fasten the long back straps of their dresses to the two short front straps. The pins were fastened in the front at the shoulders and were sometimes connected with decorated strands of beads. Most of the ones that have been found (primarily in a funerary context) are made of bronze, although a handful of ones made of silver and gold have been found in extremely rich graves.

They were created using a technique derived from late Roman chip-carving in which the complex design was carved into a master model in a soft material — wax, lead, wood — and then cast in bronze. The technique was first used for Roman military belt buckles. It was picked up in the border regions to make fibulae which evolved into the large fastener brooches sported by Viking women.

While men also used brooches to fasten their garments, usually cloaks, the ones found in men’s graves are stylistically very different from the women’s and are individual pieces, not pairs. Pairs of oval concave brooches were exclusively the province of Viking women and have been found in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) as well as further afield in Britain, Ireland, Russia and Iceland. This is the first pair found on the Isle of Man.

Allison Fox, Curator for Archaeology at MNH said:

“The Isle of Man has a rich Viking heritage and the Manx National Collections reflect this.  This type of brooch, worn by Scandinavian women in the Viking Age and usually found in graves, has been missing so far.  In addition to the brooches, there was also one decorated glass bead made in Ireland and a belt with bronze fittings, most likely made in the Irish Sea area. Although proud of her Scandinavian roots, this particular pagan lady also wore local fashions”.

Because the brooches have so often been discovered in graves, archaeologists did a follow-up targeted excavation of the find site, hoping to find evidence of this fashionable pagan lady’s burial. They came up empty-handed, alas, and no grave was found where the pair of brooches were found.

The brooches, belt fittings and bead are now on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas.

Galloway Hoard rock crystal and gold jar bears bishop’s name

An extraordinary carved rock crystal jar from the Galloway Hoard has been cleaned and conserved by experts at the National Museums Scotland (NMS), revealing it to be a Roman crystal jar wrapped in elaborate layers of gold thread from the late 8th or early 9th century. The base is inscribed with the name of an Anglo-Saxon bishop, strong evidence that some of the treasures in the hoard were taken from a church in the early medieval Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.

The richest Viking assemblage of high-status objects ever found in Britain or Ireland, the Galloway Hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in a field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland in September 2014. After a major fundraising campaign, National Museums Scotland was able to acquire the hoard for an ex gratia payment of £1.98 million ($2,550,000) in 2017. Years of complex examination, conservation and cleaning ensued, revealing an astonishing wealth of rare objects including a silver pectoral cross with niello enamel decoration that is unique on the archaeological record, a gold bird-shaped pin, also unique, and a silver-gilt pot of a type known to have been produced in the Carolingian Empire which is one of only three known from Britain and the only one of them found complete with its original lid.

The pot was wrapped in woven textiles. To preserve them and excavate the interior as cautiously as possible, conservators had the pot CT scanned, revealing the treasures packed inside, including a 9th century Anglo-Saxon brooch, an Irish penannular brooch, a gold reliquary pendant and a hinged silver strap. Each object was wrapped in a precious textile like silk samite or fine leather.

While much of the Galloway Hoard outside of the pot has toured Scotland and is currently on display at  Kirkcudbright Galleries in the hoard’s home region of  Dumfries and Galloway, the vessel and its contents are undergoing a three-year project of meticulous conservation and research.

The project has already born extraordinary results. A 3D model created from X-ray imaging that captured the surface of the pot obscured beneath the fabric wrapping revealed it is not of Carolingian origin at all. The iconography of leopards, tigers and Zoroastrian symbols is typical of Sasanian Empire (224-651 A.D.) art, which means this vessel came from Persia, not continental Europe. Radiocarbon dating of textile samples from the three layers wrapped around the vessel found it was produced between 680 and 780 A.D., so it was 100-200 years old by the time the hoard was buried.

One of the objects inside the vessel was the rock crystal jar. When it was first removed, it was bundled in a textile wrapping that proved to be a silk-lined leather pouch. 3D X-ray imagining saw through the wrapping to the object within and revealed the Latin inscription on the base which read: “Bishop Hyguald had me made.”

Conservators painstakingly removed the pouch and cleaned the rock crystal. They found from the surface of the jar that it started out as the capital of Corinthian column made of rock crystal in the late Roman Empire. At some point over the next 500 years, the capital of the crystal column was converted into a jar and wrapped in gold thread.

There is the possibility that this jar still bears trace elements of the potion it once held and that its precise chemicals can be revealed.

[Dr. Martin Goldberg, NMS’s principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections] said: “The type of liquid that we would expect would be something very exotic, perhaps a perfume from the Orient, something’s that’s travelled in the same way that the silk has. There were certain types of exotic oil that were used in anointing kings and ecclesiastical ceremonies.”

Below are the 3D models of the rock crystal jar before and after conservation.