“Replica” sword is authentic Bronze Age artifact

A sword in Chicago’s Field Museum long believed to be a replica has been identified as an authentic Bronze Age sword dating to between 1080 and 900 B.C. The sword was retrieved from the Danube in Budapest in the 1930s. When it was acquired by the Field Museum shortly after its discovery, the sword was part of a large consignment of artifacts that were a mixture of authentic archaeological objects and replicas. This one was misidentified when it arrived and it stayed that way for almost a hundred years.

Its true identity was rediscovered when curators were preparing for the upcoming exhibition, First Kings of Europe. This exhibition explores how communities on the Balkan Peninsula transformed from small agrarian villages to enormously wealthy kingdoms between the Neolithic and Iron Age periods (6,000-500 B.C.) and brings together more than 200 artifacts from 11 countries, many of them never seen before in the United States. Hungarian archaeologists working with Fields Museum curators on First Kings of Europe asked to see that “replica” from Hungary and recognized it immediately as the genuine article.

The group of Field Museum scientists, including a chemist, and archeologists used an X-ray fluorescence detector, an instrument that looks like a ray gun. When they compared the sword’s chemical makeup to other known Bronze Age swords in Europe, their content of bronze, copper, and tin were nearly identical.

Bill Parkinson, a curator of anthropology at the Field who helped create the upcoming First Kings of Europe exhibition, says he was surprised by the results. “Usually this story goes the other way round,” he says– “What we think is an original turns out to be a fake.”

The sword was confirmed authentic too late to be included in with the other Bronze Age objects in the exhibition, but it will be installed in the main hall of the Field Museum instead to usher visitors in to the exhibition. The First Kings of Europe opens on March 31, 2023.


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Closer to Johannes Vermeer

The Rijksmuseum has put together an unprecedented exhibition of works by Johannes Vermeer that will open next month. Only 37 works firmly attributed to Vermeer are known to exist, and 23 of them will be on display in this exhibition. Many of them are on loan from museums around the globe, including The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and Woman Holding a Balance (The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.).

To accompany the exhibition the Rijksmuseum has crafted an exceptional virtual exploration of all of Vermeer’s paintings. It truly is an exploration, a guided tour of Vermeer’s oeuvre that takes the fullest possible advantage of digital technology to give viewers an in-depth view of each of his 37 known paintings. The English language narration is by Stephen Fry who, as seen in his TV documentary series, is an outstanding tour guide.

The intro opens with a tiled screen of thumbnails of every painting by Vermeer. Each thumbnail is clickable if you’d like to peruse specific works, but I highly recommend the tour because it does a masterful job of putting the paintings in the context of Vermeer’s life and evolution as an artist.

The exhibition divides Vermeer’s work into 13 chapters with unifying motifs. The tour begins with “Into the City,” exploring the View of Delft and The Little Street and placing Vermeer’s artistry in the context of the city where he was born, lived and worked. I really enjoyed this section because it’s a walk-through of the 17th century city as seen through Vermeer’s landscapes. Fry identifies some of the buildings as we go along and then segues neatly into The Little Street through the cloudy sky they have in common.

Girl with the Pearl Earring is in Section 8, The Look of Seduction, which groups her with three other Vermeer beauties with soft eyes and glistening lips. They are all “tronie” portraits, a type of study painting with fantasy elements of lighting, expression and clothing that painters created as workshop exercises. There was no actual sitter. All four of Vermeer’s tronies are wearing pearl earrings and unusual headgear.

You can jump around through the chapters by hovering over the right side of the screen and navigating the menu or you can just let it ride and go in order. Either way, it’s easy to pick up where you left off, and you might very well have to do because there is so much to see for an artist with such a small total output.

This is one of the best virtual exhibitions I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of them. It is written in a personable, light-hearted style that still manages to be incredibly information-rich. The way they zoom into the detail of the paintings to illustrate the commentary is flawlessly paced and takes full advantage of the ultra-high resolution photographs. Fry explains changes Vermeer made based on the most recent imaging and research into his process. There are also annotated areas of each painting which you can click on for a shot of additional information. The notes open in windows that have click-through images, so every note is really multiple notes. Then when you’re done exploring the nooks and crannies, you click back to the main tour and the narration picks up where you left off. Whoever designed this is a content management genius, seriously.

“Irish giant” finally removed from display

Eleven Christmases ago, the British Medical Journal published an article appealing for the burial at sea of the remains of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” whose skeleton has been on public display at the Hunterian Museum in London for two centuries, very, VERY much against his expressed will. The Hunterian declined, claiming that the scientific value of Charles Byrne’s bones “outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

They still think that. Charles Byrne will not be buried at sea or anywhere else, for that matter. But they have, in what strikes me as a somewhat grudging, defensive statement, agreed that he will no longer be on public display. The museum has been closed for redevelopment so visitors haven’t been able to gawk at Byrne for the past five years. When it reopens in March, Byrne’s skeleton, formerly the flagship of the museum’s anatomical specimens collection, won’t be there. From the statement:

John Hunter (1728-1793) and other anatomists and surgeons of the 18th and 19th centuries acquired many specimens in ways we would not consider ethical today and which are rightly subject to review and discussion.

These are weasel words to employ in this situation because stealing dead bodies was considered unethical back then too. Worse than that, it was considered illegal. Worse than THAT, it was considered a monstrous blasphemy because it impeded resurrection of the dead at the Last Judgment. This is in no way a case of modern sensibilities being forced onto the past. Grave-robbing was reviled far more then than it is now.

The skeleton will be retained as it is an integral part of the Hunterian Collection and will be available for bona fide research into the conditions of acromegaly and gigantism.

They have his DNA, extracted from a molar and used to map a genetic cluster of gigantism in Ireland, and that is available to researchers. They could easily 3D scan his body and make that data available to researchers all over the world in an instant. His bones are simply not necessary for any scientific research at this point, and given the cruel treatment he received at the hand of the museum’s founder, both in life and in death, I think he’s more than earned the eternal rest he wanted so badly.

Skeleton of Charles Byrne on display. Born in the village of Littlebridge, Northern Ireland, in 1761, his extraordinary stature became apparent in early childhood. He drew crowds locally when he was still in school, and as a teenager was engaged by a promoter to tour Ireland. He moved to London around 1780 and was initially a huge success. He was presented at court; he starred in a play. When the novelty wore off and he could no longer book big events, he just stayed in his room and advertised himself in newspapers, charging half a crown admission per person to see the “Irish Giant,” billed as the tallest man in the world. (His height was reported at the time to be 8’4″, but his skeleton is 7’7″ so he was probably more like 7’10” in life.)

Human oddities were prized by anatomists, and giants were particularly rare. The vultures were already circling while Byrne was still alive. In addition to his increasingly poor health caused by his condition, he was also an alcoholic with tuberculosis, so his days were numbered and everyone knew it. Scottish surgeon John Hunter sent a man named Howison to Byrne’s room at Spring Gardens, London. After paying his half-crown, Howison relayed an offer from John Hunter to buy his body after he died, cash in advance, of course. Byrne was horrified and refused. Hunter dispatched Howison to return every single day so he could let him know the second Byrne died giving Hunter the chance to get the jump on the other ghouls vying for the poor man’s body.

The thought that the anatomists would get to him and dissect his body plagued Byrne. He knew he wouldn’t live long and he made arrangements to prevent him suffering this fate. He had a lead coffin built and arranged for his Irish friends to guard it and his body until it could be transported down the Thames to the Downs and sunk in the English Channel.

This information was not kept under wraps. Newspaper articles were written about the planned burial and how the resurrectionists were trying to foil Byrne’s measures. According to one London paper, “the body-snatchers, however, are determined to pursue their valuable prey even in the profoundest depth of the aquatic regions; and have therefore provided a pair of diving bells, with which they flatter themselves they shall be able to weigh hulk gigantic from its watery grave.” Another magazine noted that he’d requested burial at sea “in order that his bones might be removed far out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity, in consequence of which the body was put on board a vessel, conveyed to the Downs and sunk in twenty fathoms of water.” If only that had been true.

What happened next is unclear. Hunter bribed either the undertaker or Byrne’s Irish bodyguards to remove him from the lead coffin, putting stones in his place. The coffin then continued on with the original plan. The body was carted away in John Hunter’s carriage.

He never even dissected him. That very night, Hunter boiled the flesh off of Byrne’s bones so he could reassemble the body for mounting in his anatomical specimen collection. It was on the wall in his private study when Hunter commissioned artist Joshua Reynolds to paint his portrait in 1786. You can see Byrne’s feet and long shin bones in the back right. The boiled bones of Charles Byrne went on public display in 1799, six years after Hunter’s death.

John Hunter is buried in Westminster Abbey where his tombstone describes him as “The Founder of Scientific Surgery.” Charles Byrne is in a box in museum storage. The Joshua Reynolds portrait of John Hunter will be displayed in the spot where Charles Byrne’s body was formerly exhibited.

World’s oldest runestone found in Norway

The oldest dated runestone in the world has been discovered in Ringerike, Norway. Museum of Cultural History archaeologists discovered the stone in the autumn of 2021 during excavation of an ancient burial ground near the lake Tyrifjorden, 25 miles northwest of Oslo. A sandstone slab carved with runes was found in a grave that also contained charred human bones. The bones were radiocarbon dated to between 1 and 250 A.D. This is the very dawn of runic script.

A spearhead from Toten, a district in Innlandet county in the eastern part of Norway, has until now been assumed to be the oldest Norwegian runic inscription. These runes spell out the word raunijaR – challenger – and the spearhead is from around the year 200.

Some of the earliest runic inscriptions we know are from Denmark. One of them is written on a comb and could be from the year 160.

The Kylver stone, which was found on the Swedish island Gotland, is from around 400. This is considered the oldest example of an inscription which includes the entire older runic alphabet.

Dubbed the Svingerud Stone after its find site, the newly-unearthed stone is inscribed with a profusion of runes, atypical rune-like designs (for example a B with two extra loops so it looks like two stacked B runes connected together) grid lines, zigzags and other shapes. They are not all clear words and it’s possible the carver was learning how to write runes on the stone.

Eight runes on the front of the slab are the most clear of the inscriptions. Translated they read “idiberug.” Museum experts believe it may reference the name of a person, inscribed as a dedication meaning “for Idibera.” It could also be the rendering of a family name. If it is a name, the runestone could be a funerary marker identifying the deceased.

Runic scripts vary a great deal and interpretation can be tricky. Runologists have been working to decipher this inscription for more than a year.

We know a lot about the Viking Age in Norway, thanks to many written sources. We also know a lot about the Norse language from this time.

Less is known if we go back to the Roman Age. Experts have little knowledge about the Proto-Germanic language that people in Norway and Scandinavia would have used.

The runic language has also changed a lot from the time when these very first runes were carved and to the time when newer runes were used during the Viking Age, almost a thousand years later.

The stone will continue to be studied, but for a brief window of time it will go on public display at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. The exhibition runs from January 21st through February 26th.