Dutch state acquires Rembrandt’s The Standard Bearer

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

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

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

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

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.