Archive for February, 2022

Unique gold brooch prayer amulet found

Friday, February 18th, 2022

A Medieval gold annular brooch with prayerful inscriptions has been discovered the parish of Manningford in Wiltshire. It dates to between 1150 and 1350 A.D. and is inscribed with a Latin prayer and initials of a Hebrew phrase believed to have amuletic properties. While this type and age of inscribed brooch has been found before, this one is unique on the archaeological record because the inscription is complete, has no errors (common in an age when artisans were not literate), is engraved on four sides and includes both the prayer and the amuletic initials.

The brooch is composed of a circular frame with a pin attached by a loop. The front and back of the frame is bevelled, giving the ring four surfaces, all of which are inscribed in Lombardic style letters. The inscription on three of the surfaces is the Hail Mary which all together read: + AVE. MARIA. GRACIA. PLENA: DOMINVS: + T: ECVM: BENEDICTATV: INMULIERIBV ET: BENEDI(CT)VS: FRVCTVS: VENTRIS: TVI. AMEN. (Meaning “HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE THE LORD/ IS WITH THEE/ BLESSED ART THOU AMONGST WOMEN/ AND BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF THY WOMB. AMEN.”) The S at the end of “MULIERIBV” is missing, not an error, but a deliberate choice because the pin attachment was in the way.

The fourth surface, the reverse inner angle, reads: + A + G + L + A +, the initials of the Hebrew phrase “Atha Gebir Leilam Adonai. (Meaning “Thou art mighty forever, O Lord.”) The AGLA initials were used in the Middle Ages as words of power to protect against illness, particularly fever, and nefarious supernatural forces.

The brooch was discovered by metal detectorist William Nordhoff in March of last year in a freshly plowed field in Pewsey Vale. At first he thought the circular object, dullened by encrusted soil, was a base metal piece, but when he picked it up, he saw that it was gold and that it was covered with writing. He reported the brooch to the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison.

It was declared treasure last month at a coroner’s inquest (a foregone conclusion given that it’s more than 300 years old and made of more than 10% precious metal). The next step is valuation, after which a local museum, in this case likely the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, will have the opportunity to acquire the brooch for the assessed market value.

Asbjørn’s rune marker found in Oslo

Thursday, February 17th, 2022

The Medieval Park excavation in the historic center of Oslo has unearthed another runic inscription. This is the third rune find in Oslo in a month and a half, the second on wood. (The other was inscribed on a cow or horse bone). Rune finds in Oslo are usually very rare, so this is a relative bonanza. It was found in the same archaeological layer as the falconry figurine which dates it to the 13th century.

The piece of wood is 11.4 cm (4.5 inches) long and wide on the ends with a notch cut in the middle. One the flat side are eight runes, carved in the surface to follow the shape of the stick which means they wood was carved first and the runes added to it.

The runes were translated by Kristel Zilmer, professor of runology at the University of Oslo, who identified it as an owner’s inscription.

“The name is spelled as asbin , and it probably stands for Ásbjǫrn , Asbjørn. The rest of the text in Norse is á mik which means ‘owns me’.” […]

“Owner inscriptions are a common type of medieval inscription,” Zilmer further explains. The texts contain personal names, alone or together with the verb “owner”. Sometimes it is also mentioned what the person owns.

“The label from Oslo uses the expression ‘owns me’. This is a well-known expression in the rune material – the object itself takes the floor. Some other inscriptions that contain the pronoun ‘me’ are master formulas that tell who made the object,” says the professor.

The irregular shape of the wood suggests it was cut to a specific shape for use as a label. The shape might represent something about the owner, a stylized branding device. It would have been mounted to something in order to mark that something as Asbjørn’s property. There are no remains in the excavation layer that might attest to what materials the marker was labelling, but archaeologists believe they may have been trade goods.

Common goods that were traded in medieval Oslo were imported grain, honey and other foods, salt, beer and wine, staples of metal, ceramics and glass, clay pots, baking slabs, millstones and whetstones, imported textiles, etc.

Finds of such markers can help illuminate the city’s trading activity. Maybe the stick was thrown when Asbjørn no longer owned the item? In that case, it is hardly thrown far from where the goods were stored or sold. […]

The town’s artisans had their stalls along the streets and sold products such as shoes and boots, chambers, iron tools, weapons, fine forging products, turned and made vessels, as well as foods such as bread, meat products and fish.

Larger lots of goods were sold directly from the apartment buildings or from the boathouses.

Forensic anthropological analysis done on Bernini marble skull

Wednesday, February 16th, 2022

A marble skull by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Dresden State Art Collections has been subjected to forensic anthropological analysis, an approach made possible by Bernini’s meticulous attention to lifelike anatomical detail in notable contrast to the stylized depictions of skulls and skeletons commonly found in Renaissance and Baroque art. This is the first forensic anthropological examination of a sculpted art work.

Commissioned by Fabio Chigi three days after his election to the papacy as Alexander VII in 1655, the skull was small in dimension but immensely important to Bernini’s career as it marked his return to papal patronage after a long career eclipse in the 1640s when he fell out of favor with Pope Innocent X over family politics and accusations that Bernini had botched construction of the bell towers of Saint Peter’s Basilica. By the end of 1655, Bernini returned to Saint Peter’s in triumph, engaged by Alexander VII to design the square in front of the basilica and the massive colonnade representing the embracing arms of Mother Church.

Bernini’s Death’s Head is a masterpiece of realistic hard stone carving. The life-sized skull was carved in the round from a single piece of white Carrara marble, with the mandible and cranium connected at the temporomandibular joints. It is so anatomically correct that researchers were able to study the carving to determine sex, age, pathology and ethnic origin of the subject just as if it were a real human skull.

“It appears that Bernini used a real biological skull as a model, as he captured details that depicted an adult male of European ancestry,” says corresponding author James T. Pokines, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology.

Pokines used standard forensic anthropological techniques as would be done with a biological skull. These include scoring morphological traits for sex and ancestry and performing standard cranial measurements with calipers.

They found the skull is so detailed that it includes many precise anatomical features that could be examined in the same manner as a real skull. Bernini even depicted irregularities common to real skulls such as left/right asymmetry, common variations such as in the shape of a suture and tooth loss both before and after death.

That’s only scratching the surface of how much detail Bernini put into this skull. He carved, drilled and polished the stone to include foramina (hole through which nerves and blood vessels pass through bone) and the gaps between the upper and lower jaws. All of this was likely done without his usual preparatory sketches and wax models, simply because there was no point in creating artificial models when he had an actual human skull to use.

There have been repairs over the years. Bernini’s original high-finesse joined mandible had to be reattached at some point with a cement and two iron rods. This “restoration” damaged the skull, drilling into both sides of the mandible causing fractures and marble loss from teeth to cheekbones to nose to eyes.

Bernini’s marble skull isn’t a perfect replica. The foramen magnum in particular stands out because it is significantly larger than it usually is in a human skull. This was a necessary artistic decision rather than an error. The enlarged foramen was an access point through which Bernini was able to hollow out the inside of the skull. He sacrificed the precise accuracy of the dimensions of the foramen, which after all would never be visible when the skull was on display, to achieve greater realism by hollowing out the interior of the skull.

The study has been published in the journal The Seventeenth Century and can be read in its entirety here.

Medieval gold rush tools found in Slovakia

Tuesday, February 15th, 2022

Iron tools used to mine gold in the Middle Ages have been discovered in the Malá Magura hills outside the village of Tužina in western Slovakia. This is the first direct archaeological evidence that gold mining took place in Tužina.

Gold was known to have been mined in other villages in the Upper Nitra area. The discovery of gold in the Malá Magura foothills in the 14th century sparked a gold rush. People moved to the area, staked land claims, panned the river, scoured the surface for gold veins and then tunneled down to pursue them. It ultimately proved a shallow find.

The gold rush occurred in the region because nobody knew how much gold there actually was, Hornonitrianske Museum expert Ján Vingárik told TASR.

“There was enough of it, given the findings of golden grains in streams flowing from the hills,” he argued. Germans settled in the area and expected a huge boom to continue for years to come but they were wrong, he added.

“It later turned out the available gold reserves were not as extensive as in volcanic areas.”

Archaeologists believed that Tužina was part of the Upper Nitra gold rush, but it was only recently verified, first by anomalies characteristic of underground mining identified on a digital relief model of the terrain. When the anomalies were inspected, archaeologists found two large mining areas near the source of a stream at the end of a valley. The first area features two tunnels dug one above the other on a slope. At the top of the slope is a ping field where dozens of exploratory pits of different size were dug to seek out veins. The second area is smaller with a single tunnel and only one ping.

Mining irons were discovered in both areas; mining wedges and the remains of an iron lamp were discovered at the second mining area. The finders were operating in the penumbra, using metal detectors without authorization which is a heritage crime in Slovakia. They reported their finds, thankfully.

It is difficult to accurately date the tools and they were pretty much uniform in design and materials for hundreds of years. The lamp is the only tool with a plausible end date: the metal ones stopped being used in the middle of the 16th century, replaced by clay lamps.

“The lamp is a rarity because it shows that miners entered the underground area in Tužiná,” archaeologist Dominika Andreánska from the museum told the TASR newswire, “It complements the overall picture of gold mining in Upper Nitra.”

Late Roman cemetery found outside Mantua

Monday, February 14th, 2022

Irrigation works in the town of San Martino dall’Argine outside of Mantua have revealed the presence of a small Late Roman cemetery dating to the early 6th century. Excavations along the canal route have unearthed eleven tombs five feet under the surface. They are contained in a small area along a stretch less than a quarter mile long of the Ca de Marcotti street, but archaeologists believe there may be other tombs on the site.

The graves are arranged in four distinct groupings separated by a hundred feet or so between them. Three of the 11 tombs are in the “capuccina” style, a burial form that was popular in the Late Roman Imperial era for members of the lower classes. They were made by arranging bricks or tegulae (terracotta roof tiles) to line a grave and then tilting larger ones against each other to form a pitched roof structure. The skeletal remains found inside the graves are mostly adults but there were also some children buried there.

As is common in capuccina graves, no grave goods were buried with the dead. Radiocarbon dating of the bones will narrow down when the deceased were buried. Right now, the ca. 500 A.D. dating is an estimate based on the reused brick materials and the construction techniques in the more structured tombs. Borrowed architectural elements may have come from a nearby Roman settlement — the Roman village of Bedriacum was discovered five miles away in 1836 — and may have taken place later than the 6th century as Roman building materials were actively recycled in the early Middle Ages as well.

The tombs have now been removed and transported to a secure location for study and conservation. There’s already talk about creating a museum or archaeological park dedicated to the San Martino ancient cemetery. Excavations will continue in the hope of discovering more of the cemetery and perhaps the settlement that may have been the source of the tile used to craft the tombs.

Dutch state acquires Rembrandt’s The Standard Bearer

Sunday, February 13th, 2022

The Netherlands has acquired Rembrandt’s The Standard Bearer for the national collection, spending more money than the Louvre could dream of raising to buy it from the French branch of the Rothschild family.

Rembrandt painted The Standard Bearer in 1636 when he was 30 years old. It’s a self-portrait in three-quarters length, depicting the artist in the shimmering outfit of a standard-bearer in the Eighty Years’ War. His hand on his hip, Rembrandt stares jauntily out at the viewer while the standard drapes behind him and over his left hand. This is one of the first paintings Rembrandt made after opening his studio in Amsterdam, and his choice to style himself as a militia man in all his finery was a deliberate choice to promote his services for the most valued commission of the era: a group portrait of city militia. Six years later, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq commissioned Rembrandt to create a portrait of his company of Amsterdam civic militia and the Night Watch was born.

According to the Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits, The Standard Bearer “is a unique work that belongs to the top 10 of [Rembrandt’s] oeuvre. The self-portrait is, in fact, his artistic breakthrough in the run-up to The Night Watch. It is deeply rooted in Dutch culture and history and symbolizes the rebelliousness of the painter and his country.”

It has always been in private collections, King George IV’s among them. The French branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty has owned it since 1844. In 2018, the Rothschilds approached the French government and the Rijksmuseum offering the painting to both. Three years earlier the Rothschilds had successfully sold the only full-length portraits Rembrandt ever painted to France and the Netherlands, and they were hoping to pull a similar rabbit out of the hat with The Standard Bearer which costs more individually than the pair of portraits did together.

This time France put a temporary export block on the painting to give the Louvre 30 months to raise the purchase price of 165 million euros. The Louvre was unable to put together the necessary sum within the 30-month window, so in December 2021 the race to the sale was back on. The Rijksmuseum wasted no time. Director Taco Dibbits declared the museum willing to “go to extremes” to secure the portrait and he was not kidding.

It was so expensive it literally required an act of congress (okay technically parliament) to buy. The Dutch House of Representatives had to approve an amendment to the budget of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to allocate €150 million for the purchase, that’s €131 million on top of the €19 million from the Museum Purchase Fund budget. The Rembrandt Association will pitch in another €15 million and the Rijksmuseum Fund €10 million.

Once the sale is concluded, The Standard Bearer will tour the Netherlands, going on display in every province of the country. It will then find its permanent home in the  Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour.

Roman mosaic found under street in Hvar

Saturday, February 12th, 2022

A Roman mosaic has been revealed under a narrow street in the Old Town of the Adriatic island of Hvar, Croatia. The elaborate geometric mosaic floor dates to the 2nd century A.D. and was part of a luxurious Roman villa urbana.

The street is being excavated prior to water and sewage work, but this is the second bite at the apple. In 1923, the site was opened to build a canal for rainwater drainage and the remains of the villa were discovered two feet below street level. The finds were eventually covered with slabs and reburied to protect them from water penetration.

The installation of the water drainage system was not completed after the 1923 excavation and increasing problems with penetration from ambient moisture and rising sea levels threaten the survival of the ancient remains of Roman Pharia in Hvar’s historic Old Town. Residents would like to see the mosaic remain in situ, covered with plexiglass so it can be protected and enjoyed at the same time, but the sea has risen by a foot and a half since the mosaic was created and the street is no longer dry land. The new water pipe installation is still happening too, and they will be just a few inches above the mosaic.

Archaeologists are currently excavating 14 other spots next to the mosaic site, looking for other remains from the villa urbana, other mosaics and any archaeological evidence that might identify the structure, or at least define it as a public or private building. When excavations are complete, officials will have a better idea of what steps to take next.

Right now the plan proposed by the archaeologists of the Museum of the Old Town is to raise the mosaic and transport it to the museum for long-term conservation and eventual display. They’ll replace it with a replica that can be walked on without damage. That proposed solution has to be approved by conservators and heritage officials from Split.

Neolithic chalk drum hailed as most important prehistoric art found in 100 years

Friday, February 11th, 2022

The British Museum’s new The World of Stonehenge exhibition will feature a new find of national importance: a cylindrical carved chalk sculpture discovered in a Neolithic children’s grave near the Yorkshire village of Burton Agnes. One of only four known examples, the sensational find was made in 2015, but was not announced until now. The curator of the landmark Stonehenge exhibition is describing the object as the “the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years.”

The drum-shaped cylinder of solid chalk decorated with elaborate geometric designs was discovered during an excavation at a site slated for development of a renewable energy plant. A geophysical survey revealed two barrows, one circular, one square. When the circular barrow was fully excavated, archaeologists found an intact central burial containing the skeletal remains of three children. The two smallest children were holding each other while the eldest’s arm was around the little ones. The chalk drum was placed against the head of the eldest of the three.

Radiocarbon dating of the human remains established that the children died between 3005-2890 B.C. This was the same time Stonehenge was being built. Also found in the grave was a polished bone pin and a chalk ball, artifacts that have been found in excavations of Stonehenge as well.

It is very similar in design to three chalk drums unearthed just 15 miles from Burton Agnes in Folkton in 1889. They too were discovered next to the remains of a child. At the time they were found, the drums could not be absolutely dated, but given the new discovery, the estimated age of the Folkton Drums is now 500 years older than previously thought. The Burton Agnes Drum and the Folkton Drums will be displayed together in the new exhibition.

Neil Wilkin, curator of The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum, said the discovery was “truly remarkable”.

“The Folkton drums have long remained a mystery to experts for well over a century, but this new example finally begins to give us some answers. To my mind, the Burton Agnes drum is even more intricately carved and reflects connections between communities in Yorkshire, Stonehenge, Orkney and Ireland,” he said.

“The discovery of the Burton Agnes grave is highly moving. The emotions the new drum expresses are powerful and timeless, they transcend the time of Stonehenge and reflect a moment of tragedy and despair that remains undimmed after 5,000 years,” he added.

Believe it or not, The World of Stonehenge is the UK’s first major exhibition dedicated to the history and wider context of the great stone circle. More than two thirds of the objects going on display are loans from 35 different institutions in the UK and Europe. They include the world-famous Nebra Sky Disc, reputedly the oldest known map of the stars in the world, one of Scotland’s mysterious carved stone balls, the astonishing Bronze Age gold sun pendant found in Shropshire, and an actual full-on henge. The 4,000-year-old Bronze Age timber circle known as Seahenge, a circle of 54 oak posts surrounding an overturned tree stump preserved for millennia in the sands of a Norfolk beach, is on loan for the first time from the Norfolk Museums Service. A small part of it has been on display at the Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn, but the British Museum exhibition will include many elements that have never been shown to the public before. The exhibition runs from February 17th through July 17th of this year.

15 Revolutionary War cannons recovered from Savannah River

Thursday, February 10th, 2022

In a complex salvage operation, archaeologists have recovered 15 rare Revolutionary War-era cannon from the Savannah River in Savannah, Georgia.

The first cannon were discovered by the US Army Corps of Engineers in February 2021 during dredging operations at a spot near the former Fort Jackson known as Five Fathom Hole for its unusual depth. The area had already been dredged several times in the past, so the discovery of three iron cannons, an anchor and large fragments of ship timbers came as a surprise.

Pieces of the Confederate warship CSS Georgia  had been found before in the Savannah River, but these cannons were five feet long, which indicated a far earlier date in the mid-1700s. While it’s possible the George had repurposed cannon made a century before the Civil War, archaeologists and naval historians believed they likely came from a Revolutionary War vessel.

At the time of the initial finds, there was speculation they could have come from the HMS Rose, a Royal Navy warship that was deliberately scuttled on the sandbar at the mouth of the Savannah River in September of 1779 to close off access to the French fleet. Savannah had been captured by the British in 1778, and between September and October of 1779, combined French and American forces besieged the city in an attempt to wrest it from British hands. However, additional research into the HMS Rose found records that it was sunk further upriver and that its 20 cannon were recovered from the ship before it was scuttled.

Dredging operations were halted after the first finds were made to give archaeologists the opportunity to scan the area with sonar. The sonar surveys revealed another dozen cannon on the riverbed at Five Fathom Hole. The thick mud of the bed made recovery challenging, but a team of divers painstaking strapped slings underneath one cannon at a time and then used inflatable lift bags to pull the heavy iron cannon out of the muck. They were moved to shallower, most stable bed area and finally hoisted out by crane.

The cannon were then transported to a conservation laboratory where they were measured, cleaned and documented before being submerged in conservation tanks. Even though the cannons were thickly coated with concretions, it was clearly from the initial examination that they were all different types. The anchor fragments recovered from the site are also diverse. This suggests the objects came from several ships, not just one. British archives indicate some of the cannon may have came from two or more commercial ships engaged by the British as troop transports and then hastily sunk as blockships when a large French fleet suddenly materialized off Tybee Island.

Study and conservation of the cannon is predicted to take years, but the ultimate goal is to select the best representatives to go on permanent display in a local museum to illuminate Savannah’s pivotal role in the Revolutionary War.

Largest ever cachette of embalming materials found in Egypt

Wednesday, February 9th, 2022

A team of Egyptologists from Charles University in Prague excavating the ancient necropolis at Abusir, 15 miles south of Cairo, have discovered the largest cachette of ancient Egyptian embalming materials ever found. The cachette is intact and undisturbed and contains more than 370 ceramic vessels carefully placed 14 layers deep, and includes some smaller funerary vessels and other materials used in mummification rituals. It dates to the 6th century B.C.

Formal burial of mummification materials was a popular practice in the Late Period. It was something a throwback, a revival of a ritual originally seen in the Old Kingdom. None of the Old or New Kingdom finds, including the cachette found in the intact tomb of Tutankhamun, are anything like this large in scale.

The discovery was made during routine excavations that have been ongoing for three decades on the western edge of the necropolis near Old Kingdom pyramids. Shaft tombs of important officials — military commanders, priests, courtiers — of the 26th and 27th Dynasties were found here previously. These tombs were only in operation for about 50 years between the two dynasties.

The recently-discovered 6th century B.C. shaft tombs are smaller than their more ancient inspirations. The cachette was found inside a shaft 45 feet deep and 16 x 16 feet square. The large amphorae were laid in spiral pattern, winding around the walls in layers varying from seven to 52 deposited vessels.

“The 2021 season was part of a long-term project aiming at excavating and interpreting monuments dating to a period when ancient Egyptian society was looking for new means to maintain its unique identity, then challenged by Greek, Persian and Nubian armies,” said director of the mission Miroslav Bárta.

“The shaft tombs of Abusir, built in a similar fashion to the famous burial of the Pharaoh Djoser, the founder of the Old Kingdom, played a major role in the unique way of cultural expression used by the Egyptian elites of the period,” he added.

Four limestone canopic jars were found in the top layer of amphorae. They are empty, but the hieroglyphic inscriptions identify the jars as belonging to one Wahibre-Mery-Neith, son of the Lady Irturu.

“Although a number of dignitaries of this name [Wahibre-Mery-Neith] are known from this period, none of them can be identified as the owner of the canopic jars, as different mothers are attested for all of them. Judging from the size of the embalming deposit and from the dimensions and arrangement of the nearby tomb, the owner of the tomb and of the deposit must have belonged to the highest dignitaries of his time, together with his closest neighbours in the cemetery — the admiral Udjahorresnet and general Menekhibnekau,” said Ladislav Bareš, a leading expert on the period.

There is a larger shaft next to the mummification materials shaft that the team believes may be the tomb of the Wahibre-Mery-Neith mentioned on the canopic jars. It will be excavated later this year. The cachette is so extensive that the process of removing and analyzing the contents of the cachette is expected to take years.

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