Roman cemetery found under Leicester car park

May 6th, 2013

At this point, Leicester should probably just become a pedestrian-only city and tear up every patch of tarmac they have. The archaeological unit of the University of Leicester has made another unusual find under a city parking lot: a Roman-era cemetery that includes both pagan and Christian burials. Surveying the small site at the corner of Oxford Street and Newarke Street slated for future development, archaeologists unearthed 13 sets of human remains of mixed age and sex. Some of them were buried east to west in a supine position, a traditional Christian style of burial, whole others were buried north to south on their sides with grave goods in the pre-Christian tradition. The burials date to around 300 A.D.

The area, now in the historic center of Leicester, was in Roman times 142 yards outside the south gate of the city walls. By Roman custom, all burials took place outside the perimeter to ensure the dead would not pollute the living. Cemeteries would grow outside the city, usually near major roads to ensure easy access for the families to return to the graves regularly for ritual libations and commemorative feasts.

Indeed, the cemetery extends considerably past this one parking lot. Land on Newarke Street to the east and north of the lot has been excavated before and Roman burials were discovered, so archaeologists were not surprised to find more bodies under the asphalt, but the previously uncovered burials east and north of this one were all Christian. This is the first mixed section found.

Two burials are especially strong examples of their diverse religions.

“One in particular appears to have been buried in a Christian tradition, facing east and wearing a polished jet finger ring on their left hand which has a possible early Christian Iota-Chi monogram etched onto it, taking the initial letters from the Greek for Jesus Christ. If so this would represent rare evidence for a personal statement of belief from this period.

“In contrast a nearby and probably near contemporary grave appeared to indicate very different beliefs. This grave had a north-south orientation, with the body laid on its side in a semi-foetal position, with the head removed and placed near the feet alongside two complete pottery jars that would have held offerings for the journey to the afterlife. This would seem to be a very pagan burial, so it is possible from the variety of burials found that the cemetery catered for a range of beliefs that would have been important to people living in Leicester at this time.”

The digging is done, but the learning has just begun as the artifacts and bones are now beginning the process of cleaning and analysis. Once the finds have been cleaned and stabilized, archaeologists and other scientists will run a variety tests to determine the age and sex of the remains and any possible cause of death writ in the bones. Isotope analysis on the teeth will give us information on how they lived — their diet, where they came from — and osteological examination will tell us what kind of work stress their bodies were under, how well-nourished they were, how healthy. The team also took soil samples from the abdominal areas of the skeletons just in case some ancient digestive tract parasites could be gleaned from them.

The Roman burials were the most exciting find, but they weren’t the only ones. Remains of a medieval suburb were unearthed, including a 12th-13th century quarry, cesspits and garbage dumps that were once dug in people’s backyards. Those pits, as unglamorous as they may be, are replete with archaeological gems in the form of pottery fragment, bone, poop and all kinds of discarded day-to-day objects that can tell us a great deal about the daily life of medieval Leicester. Archaeologists also found a 17th century ditch that was part of the city’s defensive fortifications during the English Civil War.

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Met to return looted Khmer statues to Cambodia

May 5th, 2013

Khmer Kneeling Attendant from Koh Ker, 10th c. (head acquired 1987)The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two 10th-century Khmer statues looted from Cambodia during the chaos of the early 1970s. The matching sandstone statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, were donated to the museum in four pieces during the 80s and 90s. According to a statement released by the Met, museum officials were recently presented with new research proving that these statues were looted from the Koh Ker archaeological site 80 miles northeast of Angkor Wat some time after 1970.

Khmer Kneeling Attendant from Koh Ker, 10th c. (head acquired 1989)The Met has refused to specify what this new evidence is, but the bases of the statues with the feet still on them that looters left behind were discovered in 2007 and witness statements from surrounding villagers establish that the statues were virtually untouched as recently as 1970. As usual, both Cambodia and the Met are going through the motions of pretending the museum did nothing wrong when they accepted these artifacts without an ownership history even though anybody can tell just from the pictures that the statues were crowbarred or chiseled off their pedestals. The knees bear clear marks of their brutal removal.

The acquisition itself was in theory a donation. According to the Met’s website, the head of this figure was donated in 1987 and the body in 1992, both by collector Douglas Latchford. The head of the second figure was donated by Raymond G. and Milla Louise Handley in 1989, the body by Douglas Latchford in the same 1992 gift. Conservators reattached the heads to the bodies and in 1994 put the Attendants on either side of the doorway to the museum’s South and Southeast Asian Art gallery.

Martin Lerner, the Met’s Southeast Asian Art curator from 1972 to 2004 and the person in whose honor Latchford donated the pieces, noted in the 1994 recent acquisitions issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin:

“The most significant gift to the South and Southeast Asia collections in 1992 was undoubtedly a rare pair of large Cambodian kneeling male figures dating to the first half of the tenth century … It is particularly gratifying that the monumental bodies join up with heads already in the collection.”

Pedestal of Kneeling Attendant still in Koh KerMy, what a gratifying coincidence. It’s almost as if somebody deliberately broke the statues to sell them piecemeal so they could be put back together a few years later while still granting the buyers plausible deniability. Spoiler: somebody deliberately broke the statues to sell them piecemeal so they could be put back together a few years later while still granting the buyers plausible deniability. This is a common practice in the penumbra where the antiquities underworld and reputable intstitutions/collectors meet. It could have been the looters who crowbarred the statues off their bases at the Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, or it could have been the middlemen who sold all four of the pieces to Spink & Son, London dealers who specialize in Asian art.

Mr. Latchford has a different story about how these statues made their way to the Met. According to this New York Times article, he never actually owned the statues; he was just a conduit for the Met’s wishes.

“Spinks had had the pieces for some time,” Mr. Latchford said, “and they had not sold, so in honor of the curator, who was Martin Lerner, they requested that I would provide financial aid to donate them, and that’s what I did and why they are in my name.”

Mr. Latchford said that he did not know where Spink had gotten the items, that he never took possession of them, and that he does not have any documents from the transaction. He recalled spending about £10,000. A spokesman for Spink said it no longer has any of the paperwork from that era.

So if he bought all three of them at the same time at the museum’s request, then the Met’s acquisition information is false. The article also placed the Handley donation in 1987, while the Met says it was in 1989, two years after the first Latchford donation. Meanwhile, Spink is selling heads alone over the course of years even though it has the bodies in stock. I’m calling it right now: shady. Shady Sadie serving lady.

The Met is wise to unload their questionably-acquired pieces now before the law gets involved. I can’t help but wonder if that consideration underpins the decision even more than this mysterious “new research.” Sotheby’s is in the cross-hairs of the US Attorney right now over a statue looted from the same temple in Koh Ker.

Statue of Bhima at the Norton Simon MuseumKoh Ker was briefly the capital of the Khmer empire (928–944 AD) and the explosion of building in the city produced a wealth of exceptional carving, including the two Kneeling Attendants, Duryodhana, a 500-pound sandstone sculpture of a warrior that once stood in front of the western pavilion of Prasat Chen, and a matching statue of his arch-enemy Bhima, who stood across from him posed in perpetual conflict. These four were part of a group of 12 statues that have all been looted from the temple since the late 60s/early 70s. Bhima is now in the permanent collection of the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena (listen to the child’s audio tour on the website to hear some serious irony), although perhaps not for long since the Cambodian government has asked the US to help them recover Bihma, just as they have asked the US to help them recover Duryodhana from Sotheby’s.

Statue of Duryodhana in Sotheby's catalogSotheby’s has been trying to sell Duryodhana, which appropriately means “difficult to fight with,” for its Belgian owner since 2011, but two auction attempts have been blocked. The first was in March 2011 when Cambodia sent a letter claiming the statue had been illegally removed and requesting it be withdrawn from sale. The second was in April 2012 when U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara filed a civil suit in federal court seeking forfeiture of the statue on Cambodia’s behalf on the grounds that it was looted and exported in contravention of cultural patrimony laws from 1953 and that Sotheby’s knew all along it was stolen.

Bihma digitally superimposed over feet remaining in situSotheby’s denies everything, of course. They say they have no evidence the statue was stolen and that anyway the 1953 French colonial laws are ambiguous, and there’s no clearly stated cultural patrimony law that gives the current nation of Cambodia “ownership of everything a long-defunct regime made and then abandoned 50 generations ago.” So apparently anyone can just walk in and out of Cambodia with armfuls of Khmer artifacts because they were “abandoned.” Another shamelessly disingenuous argument Sotheby’s had made in retort is that they “have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last 1,000 years,” like the world has been swimming in 500-pound Cambodian statues since the turn of the first millennium but for some inexplicable reason this one just hasn’t appeared anywhere on the market, in museums or in collections until 975 years later. Absurd and offensive, not to mention that it contradicts their ludicrous abandonment argument since if they were looted and shipped out of country up to a thousand years ago, obviously they were not abandoned for 50 generations.

The government has archaeological research pointing to the statue’s being in country until the early 1970s, and even juicier, they have an email trail showing Sotheby’s conspiring to obscure the truth of its provenance. In emails between Emma C. Bunker, a scholar of Khmer art hired by the auction house to write the catalog entry, and a Sotheby’s official, Bunker straight up tells them it was stolen.

Feet of Bhima and Duryodhana in situ at Koh KerThe complaint [starting on page 11] quoted a e-mail from the scholar warning an unnamed Sotheby’s official about attempting to sell the statue at auction: “The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ.”

Ms. Bunker said in an interview that she had urged Sotheby’s not to sell the statue at public auction but rather privately, to attract less attention. But, she said, she did so only after Sotheby’s officials assured her they had clear provenance on the statue. “They swore — swore — to me they had proper information,” she said. “They didn’t have the all-clear.”

They did have a sworn statement submitted to United States Customs and Border Protection by the owner stating that “to the best of my knowledge” the statue “is not cultural property documented as appertaining to the inventory of a museum or religious or secular monument or similar institution in Cambodia,” but given that Bunker told Sotheby’s exactly where it came from, that “to the best of my knowledge” is just a pathetic cover to keep the owner out of legal trouble.

A recent ruling allowed the auction house to keep the statue while the case is winding its way through the system, but all attempts to dismiss the lawsuit have thus far failed. Sotheby’s says the Met’s decision to return their looted Koh Ker statues has no bearing on their case, and maybe it doesn’t from a legal standpoint. It may be an indicator of the way the wind is blowing, though.

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Mary Rose jets turned off for the first time in 30 years

May 4th, 2013

The high-pressure jets that sprayed the Mary Rose with fresh water and polyethylene glycol (PEG) for close to 30 years have been turned off. This is an important milestone in the decades-long preservation of the Tudor flagship which sank before Henry VIII’s horrified eyes off the coast of Plymouth on July 19th, 1545. The fine silt of the seabed kept the hull of the ship, the remains of its crew and 19,000 artifacts in eerily good condition until the whole thing was raised in 1982. The Mary Rose was kept in a cold room at 95% humidity and sprayed by jets of chilled filtered, recycled water for 10 years to flush out the corrosive salts, keep the wood cold, prevent it from drying out and from being assaulted by microbes. If it had not been kept constantly wet, the timbers could have shrunk by as much as 50% as water evaporated, leaving a withered, brittle, warped husk behind. Next the ship was sprayed with PEG for 19 years to replace the water in the wood’s cells with a waxy substance that does not evaporate even when dry.

Visitors to the Mary Rose Ship Hall in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard have been able to view the ship for most of this time. In 2009, the hall was closed to make way for the construction of a new museum large enough to display the ship and most of its artifacts together in one place. The Mary Rose was moved to a nearby dry dock and placed inside an air-tight lucite container known as the hotbox. The new museum building was constructed around it.

Now the drying phase of the project begins, just in time for the opening of the new museum on May 31st. The hull of the Mary Rose, still inside the hotbox, is in the center of the new building with galleries running down its length on either side at the same levels as the decks of the ship. As many as 70% of the 19,000 artifacts will be on display in these galleries in the areas in which they were found. Only 5% could be displayed in the previous facility. Artifacts range from everyday use objects like wooden bowls and tankards to fine pewter and silver officers’ ware to cannons to nearly 500 shoes. The skeleton of the ship’s dog, a little terrier conservators have named Hatch because he was found trapped in the door of the carpenter’s cabin when the Mary Rose sank, will also be on view. The idea is to convey the feeling of actually being on board, of seeing what the sailors saw on the decks of the ship just before she went down.

The drying process is expected to take four of five years. Conditioned air will slowly remove the estimated 100 tons of water remaining in the hull. The hotbox is inside a casing so it’s not fully open to public view, but there are windows for visitors to peer through and see the ship as it dries. Once the wood is completely dry, hopefully in 2017, the casing will be removed and the Mary Rose will be visible in all her glory down the middle of the museum.

The Mary Rose is a unique time capsule of Tudor life (quick, somebody call it the Tudor Pompeii of the ocean!). It was Henry’s favorite ship, named after his favorite sister Mary and the Tudor emblem of the rose. It was the first ship to fire a broadside. It’s the only 16th century warship on display in the world and the vast collection of artifacts that have survived and been conserved provide us with a one-of-a-kind glimpse into the daily life of board a ship of that era and of Tudor society in general.

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A metal bird Sam Spade would kill for

May 3rd, 2013

Forget the Maltese Falcon, it’s this Japanese hawk that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s coming up for auction at Bonham’s on May 16th and it could be yours for an estimated £120,000 ($185,628). This masterpiece of wrought iron craftsmanship made in the late 19th century probably by artist and metalworker Itao Shinjiro, is fully articulated. Its limbs and claws move; the head turns 180 degrees; the beak opens and closes; the neck, tail and wing feathers can be stretched out or shortened to mimic the animal at rest or in flight.

There are only two other comparable hawks known to exist, one in the Tokyo National Museum and the other in a French private collection. This one is larger and more elaborate than the one in Tokyo. It’s being sold by the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, a small private museum with an exceptional collection of high quality pieces of lacquerware, cloisonné and metal work from the late Edo and Meiji periods. The Kyoto museum loaned their gorgeous hawk to the Tokyo National Museum for a 2008 exhibition on jizai okimono (jizai = articulated, okimono = ornamental figures), realistic, articulated animal figures made of various metals.

It’s an art form that’s as mysterious as it is beautiful. There is little evidence in the historical record regarding their origins and development. Although they began to be made in the Edo period, we only know this from the dating of extant pieces. There are no documents or contemporary sources describing the early days of the art. The earliest pieces date to the first quarter of the 18th century and were made by the Myochin family, illustrious metalworkers who started out as armorers to the samurai during the civil wars of the 16th century.

After Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and consolidated his power as de facto ruler of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, a long period of peace followed. Later known as the Edo period, it lasted 250 years. For the first century of peace business proceeded apace. Nobody knew how long the peace would last so warriors still commissioned plenty of armor even if it was only used for ceremonial purposes. Eventually, though, without constant war-making the market for armorers’ wares dried up and competition for the business that remained was fierce.

Compelled to look for new revenue streams, the Myochin studio and others turned to art. Decorative metal work was a natural evolution for experts with their very specific set of skills. Craftsmen adept at the forging and hammering of metal began making everyday consumer goods like tea kettles and boxes.

This kind of work was pedestrian, however, and not a proper showcase for their skills. Probably inspired by Chinese pieces, the armorers moved from quotidian items to the creation of complex, elaborate jizai okimono. It makes sense. A larger piece composed of a myriad small scales that can move in a naturalistic fashion could describe armor just as much as it describes this hawk or the amazing articulated dragon in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

According to a description of the hawk in an 1894 issue of The Magazine of Japanese Art published after the piece took second place at the 1894 Spring Exhibition of the Japan Art Association, the concept of articulated metal animals originated in China, but it was Japanese craftsmanship that caught the imagination of the West at the end of the 19th century when the opening of Japanese markets (by force, of course) made Orientalism a major trend.

“We have certainly succeeded in making a nobler and more practical use of it than the Chinese ever seem to have thought of. Mr. Itawo [sic], our artist, is … a metalworker of no common ability, having a particular aptitude for the kind above mentioned in wrought or hammered iron … The beautiful execution and tone of color given to the material, alone, not to say anything about the ingenious arrangement, would entitle it to be classed among works of high art….

Their rise of popularity in the West was in step with the decline of interest in the Japanese market. The unique beauty of the jizai okimono was underappreciated in the wider population until a metalwork exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in October of 1983 brought them back into the limelight. Now they are highly sought after pieces, with the work of Itao Shinjiro being particularly prized because very few of his figures have survived.

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Evidence of survival cannibalism found at Jamestown

May 2nd, 2013

Skull found in kitchen cellar put back togetherA team of archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project have unearthed hard evidence that the colonists ate their own dead during the deadly winter of 1609-1610 known as the Starving Time. On July 27th, 2012, an excavation of a kitchen cellar in one of the oldest buildings in James Fort uncovered what appeared to be human teeth. That wasn’t an immediate smoking gun. A great many artifacts and remains both human and animal have been discovered jumbled together in cellars from the general cleanup ordered by the new governor in the summer of 1610.

Remains found in James Fort kitchen cellar show signs of cannibalismFurther excavation revealed half a skull, skull fragments and a piece of the right tibia in a layer of butchered horse and dog bones dating to the Starving Time. There were signs of violence — the skull was cut open — but determining the nature and source of the violence would require laboratory analysis. The human remains were dug out of the cellar in a solid block of earth and taken to the lab to be minutely excavated in a controlled environment where even the smallest fragments would not be lost or damaged.

Sharp cuts and puncture to the bottom of the mandibleOnce the bones were cleaned and stable, chief archaeologist William Kelso called in a frequent collaborator, Dr. Douglas Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, to analyze them. They found unerupted third molars with incomplete roots and a growth plate at the knee that was in the early stages of fusion. Both of these suggest the bones belonged to someone who was 14 years old at time of death. The shape of the cranium indicates she was female. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis identified her background: she was English, raised on a wheat-based diet of some quality, so either she was a daughter or sister of a well-off colonist, or a servant who ate well in her masters’ kitchen.

The cause of death could not be determined, but the treatment the body received after death was writ on the bones.

Four shallow chops and cleaving of skullOwsley and his research team identified a number of features on the skull and tibia that indicated the individual was cannibalized. Four shallow chops to the forehead represent a failed first attempt to open the skull. The back of the head was then struck by a series of deep, forceful chops from a small hatchet or cleaver. The final blow split the cranium open. Sharp cuts and punctures mark the sides and bottom of the mandible, reflecting efforts to remove tissue from the face and throat using a knife.

“The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609–1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl’s body,” said Owsley. “The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains. Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption.”

The tibia also appears to have been used for nourishment. It was chopped below the knee. The blow broke the bone and exposed the marrow. Fine cuts at the top of the bone are testament to the sharp knife that was used to dismember the leg.

Facial reconstruction of JaneThe Jamestown Rediscovery team named her Jane to underscore that she was not just an artifact or research topic, but a person who lived and died way too young in horrible circumstances. A facial reconstruction created from a CT scan and a virtual model that filled in the missing parts of the skull further personalized her. The reconstruction, the skeletal remains and artifacts from the Starving Time are now on display in the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne on Jamestown Island.

Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in North America. The Virginia Company got a charter to settle land on Chesapeake Bay from King James I in 1606. In 1607, the first settlers under Captain John Smith reached Jamestown Island. There were immediate supply problems exacerbated by conflict with the local Algonquian tribes. There were more second and third sons of nobility than are strictly useful when subsistence farming is needed, and Smith, the first president of the settlement, tried to encourage more hands-on labor by instituting no-work-no-food policies. Smith also struck deals with the Powhatan Indians to secure food supplies in the winter.

Statue of Captain John Smith at JamestownIn the winter of 1609, however, Captain Smith was back in England. He had been injured in a mysterious explosion, and political in-fighting with colony leaders resulted in his being replaced as president by George Percy, the youngest son of Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland. Percy was chronically ill (epilepsy and asthma), not a keen politician or diplomat. When a new supply fleet arrived from England in the summer of 1609, the supplies had been lost at sea and the 300 new settlers — Jane among them — ate the town’s seven acres of maize in three days. The Powhatans, themselves suffering from the same long drought crippling Jamestown farming, were in no mood to prop up the English again. They were more in the mood to fight them, in fact.

Constantly in danger of being picked off should they leave the safety of the town, the settlers stayed cooped up inside the palisades for months. That’s never good news for an already weak and salty water supply. The setting was ripe for famine.

Thirteen years after his return to England in 1612, Percy would try to defend his administration, such as it was, in a letter to his nephew Algernon Lord Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland (pdf). It’s all about deflecting blame, starting with an elencation of all the other American colonies that wound up eating shoe leather and each other.

The Spanyards plantacyon in the River of Plate and the streightes of Magelane Suffered also in so mutche thatt haveinge eaten upp all their horses to susteine themselves w[i]thal, Mutenies did aryse and growe amongste them, for the w[hi]ch the generall Diego Mendosa cawsed some of them to be executed, Extremety of hunger inforceinge others secrettly in the night to Cutt downe Their deade fellowes from of the gallowes and to bury them in their hungry Bowelles.

Gross but deft turn of phrase, I’ll give him that.

The Diego Mendoza he’s talking about was the brother of Don Pedro de Mendoza, founder of Buenos Aires. In 1534, Don Pedro was given a grant by King Charles V to colonize/conquer a wide swath of South America from the panhandle of Brazil to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. He lost most of his ships in a storm on the way over, and once he got there, he and his men were entirely dependent on the indigenous Querandíes people for food, and it’s not like they were rolling in it. When the tribes got sick of supporting the Spaniards, they began to starve. Sound familiar? Don Pedro sent his brother with 300 infantry and 30 cavalry to get what they wanted by force, but the Querandíes beat them soundly with bolas, throwing weapons consisting of round weights connected by cords. Diego Mendoza died in the battle.

George Percy, 19th c. copy of earlier portraitNot having learned any of the more obvious lessons from the events in his list (like, oh, say, get your own damn supplies and stop trying to screw them out of the locals; they will get sick of you and if you go after them, they just might kill you), Percy saw the disaster as everyone else’s fault. Captain Smith lavished precious food stores on sailors whose large numbers could sway the political balance of the colony and potentially overturn his rule. Captain Martin refused to steal a six-month store of maize from the local Indians because he didn’t want to put his men into harm’s way. He never even wanted to be president of the settlement anyway. The role was thrust upon him after the vainglorious and power-hungry Smith was deposed by Captains Ratcliffe, Archer and Martin.

The letter describes the famine in stark terms.

Now all of us att James Towne beginneinge to feele the sharpe pricke of hunger w[hi]ch noe man trewly descrybe butt he w[hi]ch hathe Tasted the bitternesse thereof. A worlde of miseries ensewed as the Sequell will expresse unto yow, in so mutche thatt some to satisfye their hunger have Robbed the store for the w[hi]ch I Caused them to be executed. Then haveinge fedd upoun horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte w[i]th vermin as doggs Catts Ratts and myce all was fishe thatt Came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger, as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather some Colde come by and those beinge Spente and devoured some weare inforced to searche the woodes and to feede upon Serpentts and snakes and to digge the earthe for wylde and unknowne Rootes, where many of our men weare Cutt of and slayne by the Salvages. And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things w[hi]ch seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode w[hi]ch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes. And amongste the reste this was moste lamentable. Thatt one of our Colline murdered his wyfe Ripped the Childe outt of her woambe and threwe itt into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode, The same not beinge discovered before he had eaten p[ar]te thereof. For the w[hi]ch Crewell and unhumane factt I adjudged him to be executed the acknowledgm[en]t of the dede beinge inforced from him by torture haveinge hunge by the Thumbes w[i]th weightes att his feete a quarter of an howere before he wolde Confesse the same.

Captain Smith also told the story of Collin killing his pregnant wife and eating her. Stories of cannibalism even by contemporary witnesses aren’t completely reliable, however, because raconteur hyperbole and distance between events and retelling can transmute truth to fiction. The evidence found on Jane’s bones is the first archaeological support for the primary sources’ claims that Jamestown settlers were in such dire straits they were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Here’s a quick overview of the discovery with footage of the excavation site and detailed views of the evidence of butchering on the remains:

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Robot finds 3 rooms under Feathered Serpent temple

May 1st, 2013

A robot named Tláloc II-TC, equipped with an infrared camera and laser scanner, has discovered three new chambers underneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent pyramid in the Mesoamerican metropolis of Teotihuacan. He was sent down a tunnel 390 feet long that was discovered 50 feet below the surface of the temple in 2003. The tunnel had been filled with debris by the ancient Teotihuacans to block access, an effective technique since despite centuries of looting and archaeological excavations nobody had managed to breach it. It’s been a decade since the subterranean conduit was discovered and five years since excavations began, and archaeologists have only able to get a glimpse of what’s on the other side in the past few months.

They first discovered two side rooms dubbed the North Chamber and the South Chamber 236 and 242 feet respectively from the entrance. The human archaeologists couldn’t get any further than that, so they deployed Tláloc II-TC to travel another 65 feet. The terrain was uncongenial, to say the least, with the floor in some parts of the tunnel caked in sludge a foot deep. Tláloc is neither light as a feather nor stiff as a board. He weighs 77 pounds and his articulated tank-track feet kept getting stuck in the thick mud. Archaeologists believe the Teotihuacans intentionally dug down to the water table in order to build a space that recreated the conditions of the underworld.

Despite the navigation difficulties, Tláloc’s sensors never failed. They revealed that the tunnel has a semicircular vault and is a constant size and shape until it reaches the entryways of three previously unknown chambers. The rooms are blocked by a wall or large stone so Tláloc wasn’t able to go inside, but his scanner detected spaces that are deeper than 16 feet. The scanner can only record a maximum of five meters (approximately 16 feet) in depth. It can detect that there’s more than that to be found only it can’t find out exactly how much until it’s inside the chambers.

They’ll need to clean out the tunnel to make it accessible to puny humans before they can reach the chambers Tláloc has found. The team hopes these rooms, hidden deep underground and deliberately made so unreachable not even highly motivated thieves and archaeologists were able to explore them for almost 2000 years after they were closed, might contain something of inestimable significance to Teotihuacan society, perhaps even the graves of the city’s founders.

Meanwhile, archaeologists exploring North Chamber and South Chamber have discovered some unusual artifacts. They look like yellowish clay lumps ranging in diameter from 1.5 to five inches, but they’re man-made with a core of clay covered in iron pyrite. When new, they would have been spherical and the pyrite exterior, which has oxidized into duller jarosite, would have been shiny gold. The adobe walls of the chambers were also enhanced for shininess. They were coated with a powder compound of magnetite, pyrite and hematite which would have made this dark underground space gleam.

The lumps/spheres must have been left in the space before the tunnel was closed 1800 years ago. What function they may have played is unknown at this juncture, but the prevailing hypothesis is that they were special ritual offerings of some kind. No other such artifacts have been discovered before, but many other offerings — pottery, wooden masks inlaid with rock crystal and jade — were also found in the chambers so it seems likely the balls had the same job. The pottery and masks have been dated to around 100 A.D.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, also known as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl after the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs who moved in to the city in the 14th century A.D. long after the original Teotihuacans had mysteriously abandoned it in the 8th century, is the third largest of Teotihuacan’s temples. The largest is the Pyramid of the Sun under which a similar tunnel was discovered in the 1970s. That excavation was less than scientifically rigorous, however, and much of the precious context information was lost. The clean, deliberate nature of this multi-season exploration, on the other hand, will ensure all of the data that can be retrieved will be retrieved. This will hopefully reveal important new information about the religious life of Teotihuacan.

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Seoul’s 14th c. South Gate restored after 2008 arson

April 30th, 2013

The Namdaemun, or Great South Gate, a wooden pagoda-style gate built in 1398 to serve as the main southern entrance to the walled city of Seoul, will officially reopen on Saturday, May 4th, after five years of painstaking restoration following a devastating fire.

On 8:40 PM on Sunday, February 10th, 2008, a man climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate, poured paint thinner on the floor and set it on fire with a disposable lighter. He quickly climbed back down and fled, leaving behind unused bottles of paint thinner, a backpack, disposable lighters and the ladder. Firefighters were on the scene promptly, but there was some confusion about whether the fire was still burning and the Cultural Heritage Administration had warned the crews to proceed with caution so as not to damage the ancient structure. When the conflagration blew up again, it was too large to put out immediately. By the end of the five hour battle to put out the blaze, the gate had collapsed and was a smoldering pile of wreckage.

A suspect was apprehended the next day. A search of his home found a can of paint thinner and leather gloves used in the arson and he confessed immediately, pleading the public’s forgiveness. Apparently he destroyed this ancient and beautiful monument because he was mad at the government for ignoring a petition he filed complaining that property developers had not paid him proper compensation for land that had been expropriated to build an apartment complex. A four page screed on the topic was also found at his home by police.

He was 69 when he committed this crime, hardly an impetuous youth, and it wasn’t the first he set fire to a historical monument. He was convicted in April of 2006 for setting a fire that burned down part of UNESCO World Heritage site Changgyeong Palace in Seoul. In an example of justice gone very wrong indeed, he was given a suspended 18-month jail sentence and a fine of a few thousand dollars. He was convicted of the arson of Namdaemun in October of 2008. The law learned too late from its mistake, but at least this time he got 10 years in jail, none of them suspended. Let’s hope he’s too old to climb ladders when he gets out.

The destruction of the Namdaemun, officially named Sungnyemun, or The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, was a devastating blow to the country. Seoul has lost a great many of its historic monuments to modernization, occupation and war. This ancient gate, one of four built along the walls protecting Seoul just six years after the city became the capital of the then-new Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910), was the oldest wooden structure in the city. It was given the formal designation of National Treasure Number One in 1962 during a previous restoration to repair damage from the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945). It was only opened to the public for the first time since the occupation in 2006.

As horrific as the devastation was, there was still a fair amount of recoverable material from the site, enough to support a restoration. Authorities thankfully had made detailed architectural plans 182 pages long of the gate before opening it to the public in 2006, so restorers had accurate measurements and construction details to go on. However, given the opportunity to start from scratch, the government decided to restore the gate to its original form, rebuilding walls destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation and using only traditional construction methods. Instead of the modern paint and tiles employed during the restoration of the 1960s, this restoration would use only hand-made roof tiles fired in traditional kilns and natural paints, which had to be imported from Japan because there are no traditional paint manufacturers left in Korea, for the dancheong, the gloriously colorful decorative painting. Carpenters and stonemasons would use no power tools. It was hammers and chisels all the way.

Before the first hammer could strike, historians spent two years researching how the gate had looked originally. Surviving workers from the 1961 restoration were consulted for their memories of what had been changed. Craftsmen worked painstakingly to salvage every last part of the burned structure. Bent nails were heated and straightened one at a time at a rate of 50 to 70 a day. One team identified and tagged each piece of burned wood using radio frequency identification to find whatever could be reused and to collect more information about how they had once been put together. They recovered an incredible total of more than 60,000 original wooden pieces to reuse during the restoration. The 68 stone animals on the roof were pieced back together from fragments.

What could not be reused was recreated using materials as close to the original as possible. Pine wood from old growth trees, very rare in Korea today, was located so there would be time to fell the trees and cure them properly before using them. People flocked to donate pines from their property, so many that experts had their pick of the most noble pines left in the country. They ultimately chose 167 trees from 12 locations, including 20 trees from the Jungyeong Tomb in the city of Samcheok, the source of the pines used by the royal family during the Joseon Period. The total weight tally for the project was 26 tons of pinewood.

The roof tiles were almost obliterated by the fire, but 95% of them were factory-made versions installed during the 1961 restoration. All 23,369 of the new clay roof tiles were produced using traditional methods which result in a lighter weight, unique tile. This was no mean feat. According to traditional tile maker Han Hyung-joon of Jaewajang, who bears the outstanding title of Intangible Cultural Asset No. 91, there are only three kilns left in South Korea that produce traditional tiles. Making thousands and then shipping them to Seoul was tricky because the tiles can easily be cracked by temperature changes and damaged during transportation.

Master carpenter Shin Eung-soo (71) led the project, overseeing a team of 1,000 top woodworkers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and other craftsmen who had to work as their ancestors had. Even the tools themselves required research to find.

Lee Eui-sang, a 72-year-old mason who participated in the project, said the government’s plan to restore Sungnyemun in a traditional way perplexed him at first.

“I didn’t know what to do because all the tools used by the nation’s traditional masons disappeared in the middle of 1970s,” he said. So, he had to travel around the country in search of old tools.

“The past three years that I participated in the Sungnyemun restoration project were the most unforgettable experiences in my 55 years as a mason,” he said.

The project was initially estimated to take three years to complete at a cost of $21 million. It took five years and $24.4 million, which really is impressively close to the estimate considering the kind of detailed handcrafting that went into recreating the gate in all its glory.

On Saturday the gate will be reopened with a traditional cheondo ceremony to eliminate all bad luck and with a performance of traditional folk Korean folk song Arirang. The signboard on the front of the gate, repaired from surviving pieces of the old tablet with some new patching and now covered by a tarp, will be unveiled. Given the revival of traditional customs that this restoration has engendered, it’s eminently fitting that the reopening should feature the same ceremonies traditionally used to inaugurate new homes.

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Slice of ancient Thessaloniki to remain in situ

April 29th, 2013

A section of ancient Thessaloniki discovered during subway construction in 2006 and threatened with removal to accommodate the state company in charge of building the rail will remain in place where it was found. This is a big turn-around from four months ago when the ancient remains were slated to be moved far out of the way to make station construction easier.

In January, the Central Archaeological Council acceded to demands from the Attiko Metro company and decreed that the antiquities unearthed at the site of the future Venizelos subway station would be removed in their entirety to the Pavlos Melas camp in western Thessaloniki. Attiko Metro said it was not technically feasible to conserve the remains properly and build the station around them, and the General Director of Public Works supported them, as did the Deputy Minister of Education, Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports. The subway line is already four years behind schedule thanks to the excavation and the implosion of Greece’s finances; the government feared further delays might endanger the entire project.

Archaeological organizations responded to the ministerial decree with swift and public outrage. Polyxeni Veleni, the Director of the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, described it poetically: “It is our Parthenon. Would you like to see Parthenon on Mount Taygetus?” (That’s a mountain on the south Peloponnese between Sparta and Kalamata, about 100 miles southwest of Athens.) The municipal leaders of Thessaloniki agreed. The city already lost much of its ancient history to hasty development after World War II, and thus the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople has little of its illustrious past to show for it.

This discovery is a window into that history, and it’s not the kind of find that can be dug up and shipped to a museum. It’s like a core sample of the city, a large section that preserves 83 yards of the 3rd century A.D. Roman marble-paved main street built over the Greek one from 300 B.C. that passed through the center of the city, the remains of buildings, columns, foundations from the 6th through the 9th centuries A.D., a monumental Roman-era gate and pieces of large public buildings from the 7th century that are rare finds anywhere in the Byzantine world.

This was the heart of the city, the crossroads that the main public buildings, smaller retail structures and the public market clustered around for centuries. The daily life of Thessalonians is literally inscribed into the stone. The marble slabs of the road are marked by wheel ruts from years of cart travel and some of them have children’s board games etched into the surface, a kind of permanent hopscotch pitch.

The headlines are calling it Thessaloniki’s Pompeii because apparently any extensive ruin of an ancient city is a Pompeii now, but what’s great about this discovery is not that it’s frozen in time, but rather an illustration of many phases the city went through from ancient Greece, to Roman rule to Byzantine and up to the present considering that the modern Egnatia street up top follows the path of the Roman decumanus below. Then there are the artifacts:

Working ahead of the rail construction drills, archaeologists have recovered over 100,000 objects in the area, including over 50,000 coins.

Vessels, lamps, vials and jewels of various types have also been found — in keeping with the area’s trading character — in addition to 2,500 graves of Hellenistic and Roman times.

Removing 2,500 graves and monument chunks of road, gate and building foundations seems a lot less technically feasible to me than leaving them where they are. The municipal council and the local university submitted alternate plans that would keep 84% of the discoveries (all of the big stuff, basically) in place and ultimately Attiko Metro acquiesced to the new plan. The rail station will be built around the chunk of ancient Thessaloniki giving tourists a fascinating and conveniently located new attraction.

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First images of Native Americans in Vatican fresco?

April 28th, 2013

A new restoration of Resurrection, a fresco by Renaissance master Pinturicchio in the Vatican’s Borgia Apartment, has revealed what may the first images of Native Americans in European art. After cleaning the fresco, art restorer Maria Pustka found that some previously indistinct, distant figures in the middle of the composition beneath the risen Christ and a Roman soldier looking up in awe are nude males wearing feather headdresses whose postures suggest they are dancing. Since Pinturicchio painted Pope Alexander VI’s suite of rooms between 1492 and 1494, these could well be the artist’s vision of the friendly naked natives bedecked in parrots that Columbus described upon his return from the first voyage.

Vatican Museums Director Antonio Paolucci posits in an article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that perhaps the Borgia Pope got his hands on a copy of the diary Columbus kept on his first voyage. According to Paolucci, Columbus gave this journal to their Most Catholic Majesties King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who tried to keep it quiet for political reasons but since the pope was Spanish, he probably heard about it anyway.

I think he’s confusing Columbus’ journal, later edited by Bartolomé de las Casas but not published until 1825, with a letter Columbus wrote about the new islands in Southeast Asia he thought he’d discovered. It wasn’t a secret, though. It was an international sensation.

While still on board the Niña as it approached the Iberian peninsula in mid-February, Columbus wrote the letter to Ferdinand and Isabella reporting his findings. Either when he landed in Lisbon on March 4th or the harbour of Palos on March 15, 1493, Columbus sent the letter to the king and queen and a copy to Luis de Santangel, Ferdinand II’s finance minister who had raised all the money for the voyage and convinced their majesties to approve of Columbus’ plan. He may also have sent a third to Gabriel Sanchez, Treasurer of Aragon; there’s a fair amount of confusion about the recipients and the sources of the copies.

Although there is some evidence that the King and Queen weren’t keen to have the letter get out — no copies of their majesties’ letter were ever published — by early April, a printed copy the Santangel letter was published in Spain. In May, a Latin translation was circulating in Rome, and the Latin version spread to cities all over Europe within weeks. It had already been set to Italian verse by June, 1493. You can read an English translation here.

Pope Alexander VI certainly saw the Latin version of the letter in Rome, and in any case by then he was fully versed in the discovery because he had to arbitrate between Portugal and Spain on the question of who got to claim the New World. Portugal asserted that the new territories belonged to the Portuguese crown, despite the fact that Spanish ships had made the discovery, because previous papal bulls had granted Portugal extremely broad rights to any dominions populated by non-Christians. Romanus Pontifex, for example, issued in 1455 by Pope Nicholas V, stipulated that the King Alfonso and his heirs had exclusive dominion over all lands and seas “though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion” and that no other power, ecclesiastical or temporal, may interfere with this great Christianizing conquest in any way.

Ferdinand and Isabella accepted the previous bulls, but asked Pope Alexander VI to review the question. The pope was Valencian now, so they figured, correctly as it happened, that they might just pull a rabbit out of a hat, or rather a rich new colony out of a mitre. Diplomatic negotiations between Portugal and Spain began in April. Meanwhile, the Pope got to work busily on crafting a new bull. Inter Caetera was issued on May 4, 1493, superseding three edicts issued that same day and the day before. Dudum Siquidem, which resolved some of the issues Inter Caetera had left open, was issued September 26th, 1493.

All of this was going down while Pinturicchio and his assistants lavishly frescoed the Pope’s apartment. Resurrection was painted on the wall of the Hall of Mysteries, one of three rooms in the apartment that were Alexander VI’s personal living space. The pope himself is portrayed prominently in the painting, on his knees, hands joined in prayer, before Christ’s resurrected golden glory. Considering how the Pope spent a great deal of 1493 dealing with the ramifications of Columbus’ discovery, and how all these political issues were framed in terms of who should get to convert the newly-found pagans to Christianity, it makes sense that they would make a cameo in this fresco.

After Alexander VI’s death in 1503, the apartment was closed by his successor Pope Pius III. Neither he nor anyone else for a few centuries wanted to be associated with the scandalous Borgia papacy, so the rooms with their gorgeous frescoes were sealed off for almost 400 years. Pope Leo XII finally opened them in 1889. Their years of disuse had kept the rooms in good condition and kept subsequent popes with bad taste from messing with the frescoes. The rooms are now part of the Vatican Library. Since 1973, they’ve housed the Vatican Collection of Modern Religious Art, a collection of more than 600 donated works by the likes of Chagall, Kandinsky and Gaugin.

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Pinault to return bronze rat, rabbit heads to China

April 27th, 2013

Summer Palace bronze ratThe vicissitudes of the bronze rat and rabbit heads looted from the Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops in 1860 and offered for sale at the epic Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction in February 2009 will come to an unexpected end later this year with their repatriation to China. François-Henri Pinault, husband of Salma Hayek and billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns such luxury brands as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris and, not coincidentally, Christie’s, agreed to return the bronze sculptures during a diplomatic visit to China where he was one of a phalanx of businessmen accompanying French President François Hollande.

Summer Palace bronze rabbitThere’s no precise date for the handover, but Pinault said it would be done in the second half of the year. The rat and rabbit will be given as a gift to China from the Pinault family, he took pains to stress, so as to avoid any appearance that this was an official decision by Christie’s corporate overlords.

The 2009 auction of the heads was highly controversial. The rat and rabbit were once part of a clepsydra (a water clock) in the garden of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. Heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac mounted on human bodies served as water spouts, each head spouting water for a designated two-hour period. Designed by an Italian Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione, who took the name Lang Shining Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress by Giuseppe Castiglione, 1736and became an important painter and artist at the court of Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), this section of the palace and gardens blended Western and Chinese styles. The fountain clock adorned the entrance to the Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang) palace, built in 1759, which was a masonry palace inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

By the time of Qianlong Emperor’s death, the European art and architecture trend in China was passé. In 1795, the pipeworks were melted down so it no longer functioned as clock or fountain, but the external design was untouched; the heads and every other visible part of it remained in place. That would end in 1860 courtesy of the Second Opium War.

Print of Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang) palace with water clock in frontOn September 29, 1860, two envoys from the French and British expeditionary forces and their escort, who were in the town of Tung-Chow outside Beijing to negotiate a truce, were imprisoned and tortured. Apparently there had been some sort of scuffle between a French officer and some Chinese soldiers, and General Sang-ko-lin-sin ordered the whole Anglo-French party arrested. Although the two envoys and 14 of their escort survived, 20 died in a most brutal fashion.

The British and French were furious. The envoys had been under a flag of truce, so arresting and savaging them was a violation of custom and law. They saw it as a form of extortion, an attempt by the Chinese to strengthen their negotiating position by kidnapping. If it was, it backfired dramatically.

In retaliation, and to deter any future notions of kidnap and torture as negotiating tools, the British High Commissioner to China, also eighth Lord Elgin and the son of the despoiler of the Parthenon marbles, ordered that the Summer Palace be destroyed. The complex was by then populated only by a handful of eunuchs and servants and although there were Imperial troops in the environs, they weren’t about to rush in to protect the old pile. Foreign troops had already begun to loot it before the envoys were released; Elgin took it to a whole new level, saying, “What remains of the Palace, which appears to be the place at which several of the British captives were subjected to the grossest indignities, will be immediately levelled to the ground.”

Charles George Gordon, who would later become a famous martyr of British imperialism after his beheading in the Siege of Khartoum, was there as a 27-year-old volunteer with the Royal Engineers. He had just arrived in China in September and was among the troops dispatched by Elgin to do the deed. In a letter home, he described the destruction of the palace:

“We accordingly went out, and after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying, in a vandal-like manner, most valuable property, which could not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You would scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these palaces were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burned, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army. Everybody was wild for plunder.”

Ruins of the Hall of Calm Seas and the fountain todayThe grandees definitely hated them, and the people weren’t exactly fans either. They still harbor massive resentment over these events, and the destruction of the Summer Palace has become a symbol of how European powers despoiled and humiliated China. Today what’s left of the palace is a heritage park, and Chinese buyers public and private have spent tens of millions of dollars at auctions attempting to reclaim the bronze zodiac heads and the national pride they represent. The state-owned Poly Group purchased the ox (Christie’s, 2000, $78.98 million), tiger (Sotheby’s, 2000, $35.98 million) and monkey (Christie’s, 2000, $1.03 million) and put them on display in the Poly Art Museum. Macau and Hong Kong casino billionaire Stanley Ho bought the boar (Sotheby’s, 1987, $770,000) and donated it to the Poly Art Museum. In 2007, he bought the horse for $8.9 million from a Taiwanese collector who had bought it from Sotheby’s London in 1989 for $400,000. He donated that one to the Capital Museum in Beijing.

There are only two other heads known to have survived: the rat and rabbit. The remaining five — dragon, dog, snake, sheep and rooster — have never surfaced on the market or been published or publicly acknowledged in any way. That’s not to say they aren’t out there somewhere, but if they did make it, they’re deep undercover.

This is why when the last two bronze heads were put up for auction, there was an immediate hue and cry. The Chinese government lodged a protest. A group of Chinese lawyers attempted to halt the sale but had no legal grounds since the pieces have been circulating on the market since they were pillaged. Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime companion and owner of the incredible collection that ultimately sold for almost half a billion dollars, offered to give them to China free of charge if China agreed to “give in return human rights, the liberation of Tibet, and a welcome for the Dalai Lama.” China, needless to say, was not amused and chose to decline the offer.

The auction went ahead and the rat and rabbit ostensibly sold for $20 million apiece to a phone buyer. That buyer soon revealed himself to be Cai Mingchao, a Chinese collector and auctioneer who had no intention of paying for the pieces. It was a protest purchase and he insisted the bronzes should be given to China on moral principle.

I thought at the time that Christie’s would contact the runner-up and sell it for the next highest bid, but apparently Bergé just decided to keep them. At some point between the auction’s end and today, Pinault apparently bought the rat and rabbit heads. There are no specifics on when he purchased them or how this was transacted.

We do know that China immediately hit Christie’s with sanctions, drowning them in complex paperwork requirements that in addition to choking sales also made it clear to Chinese buyers that the government was not pleased with Christie’s, so it would probably be best to avoid them if you wanted to stay in its good graces.

Today, however, relations are much thawed. Downright toasty, in fact, seeing as Christie’s was granted a license earlier this month allowing it to operate independently on the Chinese mainland, the first international auction house so honored. Pinault himself is also deeply involved in doing business in China, which is flush with new money and a taste for the luxury and retail brands Kering owns. I wonder if he called up Bergé a month ago and threw him a few tens of millions of dollars to secure the sweetest of hostess gifts in time for his trip to China.

And thus a hope expressed by Victor Hugo in November of 1861 (pdf) has come to pass.

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. [...] All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.[...]

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. [...]

The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-à-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.

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