1,400-year-old iron folding chair found in Bavaria

An extremely rare iron folding chair dating to around 600 A.D. has been discovered in the Bavarian region of Middle Franconia. It is only the second folding chair from the early Middle Ages ever found in Germany, and one of fewer than 30 found anywhere in Europe. It is one of only six made of iron.

Archaeologists unearthed the chair during the course of construction of a business park. It was discovered six and a half feet below the surface in the grave of an adult woman. The chair is 28 by 18 inches in its folded position and was deposited at her feet. The bone of an animal (probably the rib of a cow) was next to it. This was likely a meat offering. Remnants of paneling suggest she was laid to rest in a covered wooden chamber with a west-east orientation.

Initial osteological examination indicates she was around 40-50 years old at time of death. She wore a necklace of glass beads and chatelaine on her belt with two bow brooches, a disc brooch, a spindle whorl and a large millefiori glass bead.

Folding chairs included as grave goods have been interpreted as special indicators not just of social status or wealth, but of political office. The X-shaped chair, the sella curulis, was a potent symbol of rulership and magistracy in ancient Rome, and its association with aristocracy goes back even further to Pharaonic Egypt. Intriguingly, almost all of the 29 early medieval folding chairs found in Europe were discovered in women’s graves.

A second grave was discovered next to hers in a parallel orientation. This one belonged to an adult male who was buried with a rich array of grave goods as well, including a full set of weapons (lance, shield, spatha sword), a bone comb and a belt with a pouch and a bronze buckle.

The chair was removed from the grave in a soil block so that it can be excavated in the restoration workshops of the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments near Bamberg. It will be X-rayed to give archaeologists an excavation roadmap and to reveal the chair’s condition before it is fully exposed to the air.

Large bronze beast found at Sanxingdui

Archaeologists excavating sacrificial pit No. 8 at the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site in Guanghan City, southwest China, have unearthed the largest bronze beast yet, and the only one of its kind.

The beast has a wide open mouth, tall, upright ears, a rounded body on short legs and a thick tail curling up and out from a high rump. On his broad chest is engraved a sacred tree of life, bronze versions of which have also been found inside the pits.

“The tree is engraved directly on it and can be seen as Sanxingdui people’s worship of the sacred tree, or has taken the sacred tree as a kind of divine presence,” said [team archaeologist Zhao Hao].

It also has unique feature never found before on a bronze mythological animal in the pit: a horn on its head with the figure of a man standing on it. He wears a long robe and has a clenched right fist. Archaeologists believe he may have been the beast’s driver or leader.

More than three feet long and three feet high at its highest point, it is unique among the bronze mythological creatures found in the sacrificial pits for its size. Before this discovery, the largest of the bronze beasts was just 11 inches long.

Not only is it the largest zoomorphic bronze unearthed at Sanxingdui, it is also the most complete. Only one of the figure’s arms and one of the creature’s ears are broken. The six pits at Sanxingdui were filled to the brim with thousands of objects made of bronze, gold, jade and ivory that were ritually broken and burned before burial by the Shu people around 3100 years ago. Of the approximately 13,000  objects recovered from the pits since excavations began in 2020, less than 2,500 of them were found intact.

Excavation of pit 8 is ongoing but is expected to be completed in little over a month.

Getty returns unique Greek terracotta sculptural group

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is returning one of its greatest treasures to Italy: a group of life-sized terracotta statues of a seated poet with two sirens from the 4th century B.C. The sculptural group was bought by J. Paul Getty himself and has been on display continuously since 1976. An unrelated investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit following the loot-strewn trail of antiquities trafficker Gianfranco Becchina uncovered evidence that the sculptures had been illegally excavated and exported shortly before they were fenced to the Getty.

The sculptures were crafted around 350-300 B.C. in the Greek colony of Tarentum in the heel of Italy’s boot, today the region of Puglia. The sirens have the heads and torsos of women with the legs and talons of birds gripping rocky perches. They wear short, wind-swept chitons strapped over the breasts. The poet is seated and holding a plektron (a lyre pick) in his right hand. The lyre that was once in the crook of his left arm is lost. They are virtually complete, and even some of the hair curls broken off the head of one of the sirens are still with the group, so vanishingly rare a circumstance that it alone should have telegraphed that the group was dug up intact and smuggled out of the country. It was originally painted in vivid colors, and there are rare surviving traces of that original polychromy still visible on the terracotta surface.

“It is a very important work. I’d even say one of the most important in the [Getty Museum’s] collection,” Getty Museum director Timothy Potts said in an interview. “So it will be a loss as to what we can represent about the art of the ancient classical world, in this case southern Italy in the late fourth century B.C.”

Potts said the work is especially unique because of its scale, quality and subject matter — it suggests the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts, which would make the sculpture’s seated man, who plays a harp-like instrument, Orpheus.

“It’s just extremely rare and there’s nothing similar in our collection, or closely similar in any collection,” Potts said. “It does leave a hole in our gallery but with this evidence that came forth, there was no question that it needed to be sent back to Italy.”

The group was one of the last archaeological treasures acquired by J. Paul Getty before his death in June of 1976. He wrote in his diary entry from March 6th, 1976:

Bought the following objects: [long list of antiquities, their cost and who he bought them from.] A group of 3 Greek statues made in Tarentum at the end of the 4th c. B.C. They represent a singer Orpheus seated and 2 standing sirens, $550,000 from Bank Leu. All these naturally were on Frel’s recommendation.

Bank Leu was a bank in Zurich, a classic middleman for the traffic in looted antiquities. Frel was Jiří Frel, the Getty Museum’s antiquities curator at the time. The 550K Getty paid for the terracotta group is the equivalent of about  $3 million today, but its current market value was assessed by the Trafficking Unit as $8 million.

The group has been removed from display and Getty experts are now figuring out how to ship the fragile objects to Italy without damaging them. Custom equipment will be involved. The sculptures will be repatriated to Italy next month. After a short stint on display at Rome’s new Museum of Rescued Art, the group will go on permanent display in their hometown of Taranto.

Unique 1910 synagogue mural restored

After 112 years, 36 of them spent enclosed behind a false wall, a unique mural that once decorated the Chai Adam synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, has been rescued, restored and put on display.

The Chai Adam congregation commissioned Lithuanian immigrant sign-painter Ben Zion Black to create the mural in 1910. Black was paid $200 (the equivalent of $5,314 today) and completed the large-scale triptych on the apse of the synagogue plus other ceiling paintings in just six months. He brought the Jewish Lithuanian artistic tradition he learned in the Old Country to Vermont, a style that initially caused consternation among the congregants who took issue with the bright colors and some of the imagery (musical instruments, angels).

Painted with oils on plaster in a boldly outlined style, the mural features a faux theatrical proscenium with a Decalogue supported by lions rampant center stage. The Ten Commandments are crowned and beribboned and Hebrew words on the ribbon read Keter Torah (Crown of the Torah), a phrase from the Talmud. The panel is topped by a sun with wide rays reaching the edges and floor. Dramatic layers of theatrical curtains drape over four columns and frame the central composition. Between the columns a forested landscape fades into the distance. Puffy clouds in a blue sky float over the  proscenium arch.

Synagogue murals were a popular tradition in Eastern Europe between the early 18th century and World War I, but they never took root in the United States. As far as anyone knows, the mural in the Chai Adam Synagogue is the only example in the US. The murals in European synagogues were destroyed by arson in the Holocaust, and there are only a handful of examples of the art form left anywhere in the world. The Burlington piece is the only surviving Eastern European-style synagogue mural in the US, and the only known survivor of Jewish Lithuanian remaining in the world. It’s also the largest surviving example of Lithuanian Folk Art in the world. (The Nazis didn’t like folk art even when it wasn’t Jewish, so they destroyed it at every opportunity.)

In this case, neglect appears to have been the key to its survival. Chai Adam merged with the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in 1939 and the original building with mural still in place was put to several different uses (carpet store, warehouse). When the building was sold in 1986 to developers who converted it into apartments, the new owners agreed to wall up the art instead of demolishing it. It saw the light again in 2012, when Burlington’s Jewish community removed the wall to assess the condition of the painting. The mural had suffered.

The plaster was in poor condition and paint was flaking off in many sections. The plaster was stabilized and a conservator worked to reattach the paint. Then a temporary structure was built so that the building’s roof could be removed, the mural’s lathes reinforced, and the artwork could be encased in a metal frame for the move in 2015 by crane and then truck to the current Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.

In its new home, conservators restored damaged sections of paint and cleaned the entire mural, revealing its original vibrant color and detail. Paint was also matched and added where it had fallen off. That work took place this and last year, during the coronavirus pandemic, when the building was largely unused.

The conservation was completed earlier this year and the restored mural was unveiled in all its vibrant glory at a ceremony on June 28th. Public tours are scheduled to begin this October. Private tours can be booked online now.

Tiny votive pot found at Troy

Archaeologists have discovered a tiny votive vessel in the ancient city of Troy that dates to the Hellenistic era. Just three centimeters (1.2 inches) high, it is the smallest container ever unearthed at Troy. It dates to the Hellenistic era, around 2,300 years ago.

The ancient city of Troy had already entered literary immortality centuries before this wee pot was made. The Illiad was written down around the 8th century B.C., but it was transmitting a far older oral tradition. The conflict that formed the kernel of truth inside the epic poem would have taken place in the 12th century B.C. during the Late Bronze Age collapse that felled civilizations all over the Mediterranean and Near East.

The earliest archaeological layers of Troy go back to 3500 B.C. when it was a small hilltop settlement. It evolved into a heavily fortified citadel that was regularly destroyed and regularly rebuilt and expanded, creating a stratigraphic crepe cake. Troy VIIa, destroyed in battle around 1180 B.C., is believed to be the Homeric Troy.

After yet another rebuild/destruction cycle, Troy was rebuilt by Greek immigrants around 700 B.C., reusing earlier walls. This iteration of the city, labelled Troy VIII,  lasted until 85 B.C., throughout the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods. By the Classical period (5th and 4th centuries B.C.), Troy had become a popular destination for tourism and pilgrimage, and by the 3rd century B.C., the city was largely transformed into a sacred site. Visitors would leave votive offerings to Troy’s mythic heroes and deities at the city’s temples. The tiny pot was one of them.