Siena Cathedral’s spectacular baptismal font restored

The baptismal font in the Siena Cathedral, crafted by the most important sculptors of the Renaissance, including Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Lorenzo Ghiberti, is back in public view after three years of in-depth diagnostic investigations and innovative conservation. The complex work was carried out by specialists from the Opera and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the conservation workshop of the cathedral which has been maintaining and restoring elements of the cathedral complex since the 12th century.

The font is made of white marble, gilded bronze and enamelled copper and was created between 1417 and 1431. It has a hexagonal basin with six gilded bronze reliefs depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist on each of the sides, with gilded bronze statues of the virtues between them. Two of them, Faith and Hope, were made by Donatello. He also created one of the reliefs, The Banquet of Herod. Lorenzo Ghiberti, creator of the breathtaking bronze reliefs in the door of the Baptistery of Florence, made the The Baptism of Jesus panel, and the dynamic Arrest of John the Baptist.

The bronzes were gilded with an amalgam of gold and mercury, a process known as fire gilding. It is highly susceptible to tarnishing and abrasion. The OPD conservation team removed the bronze panels and sculptures from the basin to restore them in the laboratory. The marble elements were restored in situ and a new support structure for the stone elements was designed to give access to the back of the bronzes in the future without having to dismantle them.

Out of the white marble basin rises a monumental tabernacle, also made of white marble, crowned by a slender lantern topped with a sculpture of John the Baptist. It was designed in the style of a classical temple with a segmented dome. It is adorned with marble sculptures of five Prophets in niches, one of them by Jacopo della Quercia. The sixth side features a gilded bronze door depicting the Madonna and Child by Giovanni di Turino. Above them were six bronze Spirits. Only four survive today, two by Donatello, two by Giovanni di Turino. The marbles were originally decorated with polychrome blue and gold painted details, much of which has eroded. What is left was revived by the restoration.

Because by its nature the font exposes these priceless artworks to constant moisture that is the opposite of ideal conservation conditions, the OPD will be keeping a close eye on the font, with constant environmental monitoring, a new humidity control system and a thorough inspections every six months. That will allow conservators to detect any signs of deterioration immediately and take countermeasures before damage sets in.

Circular stone formations with children’s cremated remains found in Norway

An ancient burial ground consisting of 41 circular stone formations with cremated bone remains in the center has been unearthed near Fredrikstad in southeastern Norway. The overwhelming majority of the graves, more than 30, contained the burned bones of infants and children between the ages of three and six. The child graves date to between 800 and 400 B.C., the Early Nordic Bronze Age and the Pre-Roman Iron Age.

The graves were discovered last year by accident. Archaeologists were investigating the area because it was a near a known Stone Age settlement. The stone markers were not visible on the landscape, obscured beneath a thin 2-4-inch layer of peat, so archaeologists had no idea they were there until they began clearing the site. The round or oval formations are between three and six feet in diameter. They are composed of smaller stones placed in a single layer in a wheel or spiral pattern with a large stone or slab in the middle.

Cremation on a pyre was the predominant funerary practice in the Early Nordic Bronze Age and pre-Roman Iron Age. The burned bones would then be buried in a hole or spread on the ground and covered with a flat paving stone. The circle of smaller stones was then arranged around it. The excavation found burned bones, pottery fragments and what may be a buckle. The pottery fragments were not solely from cinerary urns, as they were also found between the graves, so the pottery had other purposes as well.

While many burial sites have been found, there was something particularly intriguing about this one.

“There was something special about the whole site. The graves are very close together. They must have been in an open landscape, with thoroughfares nearby, so everyone would have known about them. Cooking pits and fireplaces around the site suggest that gatherings and ceremonies were held in connection with burials. Additionally, all the graves were so nice and meticulously crafted. Each stone was sourced from a different location and placed precisely in the formation. We wondered who put in so much effort,” [excavation leader Guro Fossum] says.

“When the analysis results came in, it made sense: They were small children’s graves. This was done with so much care,” says Fossum.“It seems that the social structure was more egalitarian, as there wasn’t much difference between the graves. The same type of graves, grave goods, and burial method were used. This suggests a society where community was important,” she says.

Because the burial ground was in use for centuries — the last grave dates to the first years of the 1st century A.D. — the deaths cannot have been caused by a single event like a catastrophe, war or infectious illness. The graves are largely the same, no matter the age and gender of the deceased, with the egalitarian treatment of all the dead continuing consistently for 800 years. The stone circles are the same; the grave goods are the same; the burial method is the same. This likely reflects a less hierarchical society than the one that followed which introduced large burial mounds for high-status individuals that would dominate the landscape.

33 Greco-Roman family tombs found in Aswan

Archaeologists with the Egyptian-Italian Mission At West Aswan (EIMAWA) have discovered 33 Greco-Roman family tombs on the side of a rocky hill in western Aswan near the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan. The burials date to between 6th century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. and contain mummified remains that promise to shed new light on the death and disease in Aswan’s middle class from the period.

The tombs were built on more than 10 layers of terraces. No other tomb has ever been discovered in Egypt with that kind of terracing. It had been looted in antiquity, but some of the rock-cut chambers contain surviving funerary objects, including stone and wooden sarcophagi, offering tables, painted statuettes, figurines, terracotta lamps and large remnants of vividly painted cartonnage. The presence of the lamps suggests the tombs may have been visited by survivors for mourning and ritual purposes; the flickering lights would have been visible through the openings on the hill and must have had a striking effect for viewers on the ground.

The bodies found include an adult (believed to be a woman) with a child who was around one or two when they died. They were leaning on each other in the stone sarcophagus. Archaeologists suspect they were related, probably parent and child. DNA analysis will attempt to establish what their familial relationship was.

X-rays and anthropological study of the human remains have created a valuable compendium of information on life, illness and death in Greco-Roman Egypt. For example, between 30 and 40% of the deceased were young, ranging from neonates to adolescents. Evidence of infectious disease was found in many of the mummies and of some metabolic disorders. Several adult women had survived limb amputations. Nutritional deficiencies and anemia were common. Evidence of tuberculosis and osteoarthritis was found in some of the bodies.

The tombs themselves vary in architectural style, with some featuring vaulted entrances and open courtyards, while others are carved directly into the rock. Dr. Ayman Ashmawy, Head of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector, noted that the location of the tombs within the necropolis, combined with the presence of certain artefacts, suggests that the middle class of Aswan Island residents were buried in this area. […]

Abdel Moneim Saeed, General Supervisor of Antiquities in Aswan and Nubia, expressed optimism that further excavations at the site will yield even more valuable information about this historically significant region. The mission will continue its work, using the latest technology to analyse the mummies and artefacts, in an effort to paint a more complete picture of life and death in ancient Aswan.

 1,500-year-old ivory pyx found in Austria

An excavation of a settlement from Late Antiquity in Irschen, southern Austria, has uncovered a rare carved ivory pyx (a small round container used to carry Communion wafers or holy relics) from the 6th century. There are only 40 examples of this type of pyx known to survive in the world, and this the first found in its original archaeological context in Austria.

In the Roman Empire, this area was part of the province of Noricum, but with the decline of the Western Empire, constant raids from barbarian tribes drove people out of the urbanized centers to seek safety in more remote, defensible positions. What is now Irschen was founded as a small settlement on the top of the Burgbichl hill in the 5th century. The summit can only be accessed from the north side as all the other sides are too steep to climb, which provided a natural defense against raids. The accessible north side was protected by a massive wall 4.6 feet wide. The settlement was abandoned around 610 A.D. after the nearby Battle of Aguntum in which Slavic forces clash against the local Germain Baiuvarii peoples. The Slavs won and the region was closed off from its Roman-era contact with the Mediterranean and Christianity as the new settlers had their own gods and would not be converted for centuries.

The memory of the settlement was lost, but there were topographical features that suggested the presence of a settlement on the summit. Archaeologists from the University of Innsbruck began excavating the hilltop in 2016 and soon found confirmation that it was indeed the site of a settlement from Late Antiquity. In the 2022 dig season, the team discovered a marble box measuring about 8 by 12 inches with a lid covering the top opening. It was unearthed under the altar in the side chapel of one of the two early Christian churches discovered on the hilltop. Inside the box were the fragmented remains of an ivory pyx intricately carved with Biblical figures.

The scenes include the hand of god delivering the laws to Moses on Mount Sinai and a man on a biga (a two-horsed chariot) being pulled up to heaven by a hand that emerges from the clouds. Archaeologists believe this is a depiction of the ascension of Christ. If so, this is the first known depiction of Christ ascending on a biga.

Since its discovery, the 1,500-year-old, very fragile ivory reliquary has been conserved at the University of Innsbruck. “Ivory, especially ivory stored on the ground like in the marble shrine, absorbs moisture from its surroundings and is very soft and easily damaged in this state. In addition, uncontrolled drying out can lead to shrinkage and cracks and thus to damage that can no longer be repaired,” says Ulrike Töchterle, head of the restoration workshop in Innsbruck. Over the past two years, she has now conserved the individual pieces of the ivory pyx to such an extent that they can be scientifically analysed. “Due to the very high humidity of 90 per cent in the marble shrine immediately after salvage, the risk of condensation and mould formation was very high, and the contents could not be allowed to dry out too quickly. This meant we had to ensure a very careful and prolonged drying process.” The larger parts are deformed, which is why the pyx can no longer be restored to its original state – however, the researchers are working on a 3D reconstruction.

While the archaeologists initially assumed that the remains of a saint – i.e. a relic in the classic sense of the word – were also found in the marble box, the layering of the fragments found in the shrine indicates that the ivory pyx was already broken in late antiquity and was buried in the altar. “The pyx was presumably also seen as sacred and was treated as such because it was in contact with a relic. The archaeological and art-historical significance of the pyx cannot be denied,” emphasises Gerald Grabherr.

Researchers are investigating the origin of the marble and of the ivory. Using stable isotope analysis, they should be able to discover where the elephant whose tusks were used came from. The metal hinges of the pyx and the adhesives used are also undergoing compositional analysis. Small fragments of wood inside the box are being examined to determine whether it was part of the pyx — a clasp, for example — of perhaps the holy relic it contained. 

This documentary video (in German with English captions) is a detailed overview of the historical context of the settlement and its excavation, including the discovery of conservation of the pyx.

Smithsonian acquires, digitizes largest collection of Charleston Slave Badges

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has acquired 146 rare Charleston Slave Badges, the largest and most complete set known. It contains one badge for every year between 1800 and 1865, and the only two badges known that were stamped with the name of the enslaved person.

Almost half of all the enslaved Africans shippped to North America landed in South Carolina ports, many of them destined to backbreaking labor on the lowcountry rice plantations. Charleston became one of the richest countries in the world by raking in immense profits from the trade in and use of slave labor.

Some Charleston enslavers looked to amplify their profits by leasing out their enslaved skilled tradesmen. Porters, carpenters, mechanics, fruiters, blacksmiths, masons and more were contracted to work for private individuals and in infrastructure projects for the city with all profits of course going to the enslavers. Established in 1783 to distinguish enslaved people from free Black people, the city instituted a badge system. The leased slaves wore badges stamped with the badge number, the city, “Charleston,” the laborer’s professional and the year. Free Blacks had to register their status and wear badges as well. All badges had to be sewn into their clothing, then renewed yearly by the city clerk.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the collection in 2022 from Harry S. Hutchins, Jr., who had spent 30 years amassing these rare objects into a uniquely tangible testament to the skills of enslaved people who literally built Charleston. To share the history of these individuals with the world, the museum has digitized the badges and created a Searchable Museum with high-definition photographs of the badges and explanations of their contexts and historical significance.

“We are honored to share the story of enslaved African Americans who contributed to building the nation,” said Mary Elliott, NMAAHC museum curator. “It is a story that involves the juxtaposition of profit and power versus the human cost. The story sheds light on human suffering and the power of the human spirit of skilled craftspeople who held onto their humanity and survived the system of slavery, leaving their mark on the landscape in more ways than one.”

Through this digital offering, visitors can engage with the objects and learn about the legislated system of leased enslaved labor in Charleston, South Carolina, those who profited from the system and how enslaved African Americans navigated the landscape of slavery using their abilities, skills and intellect. In addition to providing the history of Charleston Slave badges, the new Searchable Museum feature will provide insight into collecting, archaeology, the role of vocational training and the meaning of freedom.