Leonardo’s only triple cannon found in Croatia?

June 10th, 2011

In 1968, a group of schoolchildren exploring the fortress of Klicevica in what is now Croatia stumbled on a bronze triple barrel cannon. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995), the cannon was donated to Croatia’s Benkovac Heritage Museum. It’s a rarity as very few triple barrel cannons have ever been found (here’s an early 18th century example), but the full history of the piece is unknown.

Exploded underside of the cannonIt was definitely used at least once since the underside was blown off in a botched firing. A large number of bullets and artillery from the 15th and 16th centuries have been found in and around Klicevica Fortess. The fortress was one of a series built to defend the border of what was then Dalmatia after the king of Naples sold the territory to the Republic of Venice in 1409. It was heavily armed and fortified to repel the invading Ottoman Turks who finally conquered the area in 1527.

Curators at the Benkovac Heritage Museum have been researching the triple barrel cannon assiduously. They excavated the discovery point in an attempt to confirm its age and were able to date it to the late 15th century. Because the fortress was under Venetian control at that time, the museum consulted with armaments experts in Italy to see if they could narrow down its designer. They found that the triple barrel almost exactly matches a sketch made by Leonardo da Vinci that is currently in the Codex Atlanticus in Milan.

“We think it was either made in Venice and brought here, or it may have been made locally,” said Marin Curkovic, the director of a museum in the nearby town of Benkovac, where the cannon went on display this week as the centre-piece of a new exhibition.

“We cannot say with 100 per cent certainty that it was built to Leonardo da Vinci’s designs but the resemblance to his sketches is remarkable. We think there is a very high probability that it was manufactured to his designs.”

Triple barrel cannon replica in MilanThere’s a replica made from the drawing in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology in Milan, but other than that, there is no other version anywhere in the world, certainly no original ones dating to the 15th century. There isn’t even any documentary evidence that any of the many war machines Leonardo invented were ever fabricated. This could be the only one.

Front view of 15th century Klicevica Fortress triple barrel cannonThe standard cannon of the period was hard to move and slow to load. Because of this, they were used mainly in stationary positions, like on castle ramparts, rather than on the battlefield. The triple barrel cannon was Leonardo’s solution to these problems. According to the sketch, the triple barrel cannon would have been mounted on a wooden carriage with large wheels so it could easily be moved. The barrels were smaller and lighter weight and could be loaded and fired more rapidly. There was also an elevation adjusting mechanism that used a peg blocking system for the barrels to be aimed with greater accuracy.

Although this particular design is not available online, you can leaf through some of his other inventions on the pages of the Codex Atlanticus scanned by the Ambrosiana Library in Milan.

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8th century psalter found in Irish bog goes on display

June 9th, 2011

Faddan More Psalter as found in the bogIn 2006, Eddie Fogarty was going about his business on a backhoe collecting peat moss from a bog in Faddan More, a townland in northern Tipperary, when he noticed what looked like an open book in the bucket of his digger. He alerted the bog’s owners, Kevin and Patrick Leonard, and together they collected all the fragments they could find. The owners had previous experience discovering archaeological remains in the bog, so they knew that to keep the book from quickly degrading once exposed to oxygen and sunlight they had to cover all the fragments with wet peat. They did so and contacted the National Museum of Ireland to come and get it. If the Leonards hadn’t been so on the ball, the book would have disintegrated within hours.

Latin script visible in the psalter as first discoveredMuseum conservators arrived the next morning. The book was open to Psalm 83 (that’s actually Psalm 84 in the English numbering system), and the style of Latin lettering dated the work to the 8th century. This was the first Irish manuscript book to be discovered in over 200 years and the first ever found waterlogged in a bog. It was in poor condition, however, with the vellum clumped together and rolled up at the edges. Its rarity posed a conservation challenge too, because nobody had any experience of how to keep waterlogged inked vellum in a leather cover from degrading.

Faddan More Psalter, lettering detailThe National Museum staff called on vellum experts from the conservation department of the Trinity College Library in Dublin, where seven of the ten Irish books written before 1000 A.D. that still remain in Ireland are kept, to help them devise a short and long-term conservation plan. For the book’s immediate needs, they ended up using a technique successful in the conservation of bog bodies. They kept the book on a bed of wet peat from the discovery site, then topped it in a layer of silicon mylar with a molded resin cover. The whole bundle was then stored in a refrigerator at just above freezing (4 degrees Celsius or 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit). This method enlists the naturally occurring biocides in the bog water to keep the organic material in the book from growing mold or falling apart.

Restored and dried pageFor the next five years, conservators worked to record the contents of the book as much as possible even as they tried to stabilize and restore it. They used photography, High Definition film, drawings, even MRI and multi-spectral imaging to try to document the pages as found. They took samples of 18th century parchment and waterlogged them to experiment with drying techniques like freeze drying and vacuum packing. They also tested various solvents like acetone and ethanol in conjunction with drying techniques to see which combinations would be the most effective at drying the vellum without dissolving the ink, shrinking the pages or ruining their texture.

Folio 28v 31r before and after dryingIn the end they went with a combination of vacuum drying and ethanol. Always mindful of the need to both record and preserve, they would carefully select substantial pieces as suggested by the position and structure of the book itself, then record them and remove them using hand tools, some of them designed and custom-built specifically for the task at hand. They then separated out the fragments and cleaned them using deionised water and ethanol, recorded them again, and dried them using the vacuum drying-ethanol combo.

Faddan More Psalter's leather cover on displayTowards the end of this incredibly painstaking process, conservators found tiny fragments of Egyptian papyrus in the lining of the manuscript’s leather binding. Even though the manuscript is thought to have been penned first and later placed in the Egyptian leather cover, this could be the first concrete evidence of a connection between early Irish Christianity and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

On Tuesday, June 7th, the Faddan More Psalter went on public display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin for the first time. Visitors will be able to view the dried and stabilized pages, the leather cover, and a replica that recreates what the psalter looked like when it was new.

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Ancient skeleton found in Dr. Jenner’s garden

June 8th, 2011

Skeleton discovered in Dr. Jenner's gardenA team of archaeologists from the University of Bristol has uncovered a skeleton buried in the garden of The Chantry, the Berkeley, Gloucestershire home of Dr. Edward Jenner, vaccination pioneer and father of immunology.

The skeleton hasn’t been carbon dated yet, but it was found underneath an 8th century Anglo-Saxon monastery, so archaeologists estimate that it dates to the Roman or sub-Roman (meaning the centuries after the end of the Roman occupation in 410 A.D.) eras. Since material remains from the chaotic period of the decline of Roman Britain and the rise of Anglo-Saxon Britain are not often found, this discovery is a rare one.

Excavation leader Professor Mark Horton said it was “a completely unexpected but really important discovery”.

He added: “It fills in the history between the Roman villa that we believe is on the site and the Anglo-Saxon monastery discovered during earlier digs.”

At this point what we can tell is that the skeleton belonged to an adult but we can’t tell the sex yet. It was cut in half by a ditch dug after the original burial. Roman material was found in this ditch, which could have been left there either by Romans or by later residents after looting Roman buildings nearby.

This burial suggests that Berkeley may have been a religious site of note before the Anglo-Saxon mynster was built there in the 8th century. That monastery was sizeable — as large as the one in Gloucester that would later become Gloucester Cathedral — and the discovery of a body buried on that spot indicates there may have been an ongoing religious tradition associated with the location.

Professor Horton notes: “It just goes to show that you never quite know what lies under your feet. It is unlikely that Dr. Jenner was aware of these unexpected neighbours lurking at the bottom of his garden.”

The Temple of VacciniaUnaware of the thousand years beneath his feet, Jenner made history in his garden all on his own. He developed the smallpox vaccine from the blisters of cowpox-struck milkmaids in The Chantry, and in 1796 he inoculated the first patient, a son of his gardener named James Phipps, in a rustic summerhouse he built in the backyard. For years he used that hut to administer vaccinations to the area poor, free of charge. The Temple of Vaccinia, as the hut became known, still stands as a testament to Jenner’s discovery.

Dr. Jenner’s house is a museum now. Visitors to The Chantry will be allowed to view the excavation and even speak to the archaeologists through Thursday.

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AR finds $500,000 Rockwell painting in Eugene

June 7th, 2011

Appraiser Nan Chisholm evaluates Norman Rockwell's 'The Little Model' at Eugene, Oregon Antiques RoadshowAntiques Roadshow was in Eugene, Oregon this weekend, where experts appraised an original oil painting by Normal Rockwell at half a million dollars, an estimate that ties for the second highest appraisal in the US Roadshow’s 15 year history.

(The top estimate in AR history was $1,000,000 for a group of 18th century Qianlong carved jade and celadon pieces brought to Raleigh, North Carolina in 2009. They ended up selling at auction for under $500,000. The tie for second went to a 1937 Clyfford Still oil painting brought to the Roadshow in Palm Springs, California in 2008.)

John Jordan, the show’s publicist, said he could not reveal the identity of the painting’s owner but confirmed the person lives in the Springfield area.

The artwork is a 1919 original oil-on-canvas painting by Rockwell titled “The Little Model” that was used on a cover of Collier’s magazine. The painting depicts a girl with a dog, posing in front of a fashion poster. The owner told appraiser Nan Chisholm, of Nan Chisholm Fine Art in New York City, that the painting had been in the family for at least 90 years after Rockwell gave it to his great-grandmother.

The three Eugene episodes, including the one starring the Rockwell piece, won’t air until next year. PBS will announce the schedule this September.

Rockwell’s career as a commercial artist was still young in 1919. His first painting to grace the cover of a magazine was “Scout at Ship’s Wheel,” published in the Boy Scouts of America magazine Boys’ Life in September of 1913 when Rockwell was just 19 years old. He was the art editor for Boys’ Life at the time and made several more covers for the publication during his three-year tenure in the position.

When he was 21, his roommate, cartoonist Clyde Forsythe, introduced him to The Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer. Lorimer liked what he saw and immediately purchased two of Rockwell’s cover paintings and commissioned three more. His first cover illustration for the Post, “Mother’s Day Off,” was published in May of 1916. Seven more cover paintings followed in quick succession within the next 12 months. Rival publications quickly lined up to score a Rockwell cover of their own, including Collier’s Weekly which had less than half the Post‘s readership.

Norman Rockwell's first Collier's cover, 'War Hero Job Hunting'Rockwell published four covers for Collier’s in 1919. The first was “War Hero Job Hunting,” published on the March 1, 1919 issue. Despite his popularity, Rockwell had a difficult time getting this piece published and only turned to Collier’s once the larger circulation magazines had turned it down. Lorimer’s Post was a conservative magazine, whereas Collier’s Weekly had made a name for itself in the early 1900s for publishing muckracking series by Upton Sinclair on the Chicago meatpacking industry and by Samuel Hopkins Adams on patent medicines, among other topics. The Collier’s stories caused a furor and were instrumental in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Norman Rockwell’s first Collier’s cover illustration depicts a uniformed World War I veteran being welcomed home by his father and little brother. I’m not sure why it was controversial enough to get rejected by the bigger magazines. The war wasn’t officially over yet — the Versailles Treaty would officially end the war on June 28, 1919 — but armistice had been declared on November 11, 1918, so troops were already coming home and looking for civilian work. Maybe they thought the title implied something malicious, like the war hero is a slacker, or that it described a social problem of veteran unemployment?

'The Little Model' on the cover of Collier's Weekly“The Little Model” was his second Collier’s cover, published on March 29, 1919. Again, I don’t know why the Post didn’t want that one. Maybe because the young girl with her shredded wrap, torn seams and holes in her stocking holding a broom suggests a harsh reality of child labor/poverty that contrasts with the elegant Erté-style model she’s imitating? That’s more of a Collier’s topic, certainly, but it’s such a sanitized, innocuous depiction I can’t quite grasp why even Lorimer would object to it.

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New campaign launched to save Australia’s rock art

June 6th, 2011

X-ray style art on Injalak Hill, Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal ReserveArchaeologists from three universities, Queensland’s Griffith University, the Australian National University and the University of Western Australia, have launched a new initiative called Protect Australia’s Spirit to help preserve Australia’s rich tradition of rock art. Australia has the most rock art of any country in the world, at least 100,000 sites dating as far back as 15,000 years, but it is under increasing threat from vandalism, industrial and urban development and climate change. Professor Paul Taçon of Griffith University, Australia’s first Chair in Rock Art Research at Griffith University, warns that unless concrete and immediate action is taken to monitor these sites, fully half of them could be gone in 50 years.

Australian rock art has a remarkable range of media, from paintings to engravings to stencils to figures made of beeswax found on boulders, caves, and cliff-faces. Some of that art is extremely vulnerable to the elements even under the best of circumstances, and the best of circumstances are rare. Areas like western Australia’s Pilbara region have seen entire sites destroyed or carved out and removed in favor of the expanding mining industry.

The first step of the campaign is to raise $6 million Australian (US$7.8 million) to create a single national register of all the rock art in Australia. Right now, there is no master list. There are all kinds of fragmented archives kept by regional and national government, plus museums, universities, national parks, individual researchers and each Aboriginal language group. That means that conservation, when done at all, is not centralized and often mired in jurisdictional and cultural conflicts.

The proposed archive would work with local Aboriginal communities who have to approve the public listing and protection of sites. This can lead to conflict as Aboriginal Affairs Victoria found in 2008, when it tried to restore some of the Mudgegonga rock art near Myrtleford without involving local Dhudhuroa people. Dhudhuroa spokesman Gary Murray said at the time it was ”akin to having a precious Picasso restored by trainees when Picasso is sitting next to you.”

They’re hoping to raise the money quickly courtesy of a wealthy philanthropist or two. After they have enough funds to get started, they’ll start by identifying the 100 most important rock art sites in the country and using laser scanning technology to create 3D digital replicas. That way if anything should happen to the sites, there will be a detailed record of what’s been lost.

Here’s an online form if you’d like to donate to the cause.

Rock art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park

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200,000 medieval coins unearthed in east China

June 5th, 2011

Tons of Song Dynasty coinsIn news that makes all the hoards found in England look like tiny nuggets of buried poop, construction workers in Suzhou, a city in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, stumbled on an immense hoard of coins from the late Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) on Wednesday. The number of coins found is a staggering 200,000. That’s four tons of coins. :eek:

The crew was digging 13-15 feet (4-5 meters) below ground level on the Gan Jiang Road when they found an ancient well that had been backfilled. They realized that it was an unusual find right away because the well wasn’t circular but rather octagonal in design. The walls of the well were made with pottery tiles and paved with brick, a traditional construction style of the south.

Workers excavating the well, brick paving visible around the edgesWhen they dug a little further into the well, they found a bag of ancient coins. That’s when they called the Suzhou Institute of Archaeology which promptly sent eight staff members to excavate and protect the site. They worked non-stop for 24 hours, clearing the well of bag after bag of coins. The final tally was 80 bags, each weighing more than 50 kilos (110 pounds). Engravings on the coins marked them as dating to the late Northern Song Dynasty. Archaeologists are still going through the coins, of course, but they’ve already found several rare silver coins among the more common copper ones.

Archaeologists think that such a huge mass of coins probably belonged to a business rather than a family. The Song Dynasty had one of the most advanced economies in the medieval world. They had joint-stock companies, merchants who traded internationally and nationally, and the first government-issued paper currency in history. In 1085, the Song government is estimated to have minted approximately six billion copper coins.

Families would have kept their wealth in gold and silver, not so much in minted currency, so in all likelihood this well served as an impromptu safe deposit box where businessmen hid the cash register before they went into hiding during a war. The Song Dynasty saw a great deal of war during the 11th century, both with neighboring peoples and between rival members of the court.

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Auschwitz sign repaired but staying indoors

June 4th, 2011

The infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that arched over the main entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp has been repaired. It was stolen in December of 2009 and cut into three pieces by Polish thieves hired by Swedish former neo-Nazi Anders Högström. The sign was recovered less than 72 hours after the theft and conservators at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum immediately began the careful work of piecing it back together.

A replica was put in place over the entrance while they restored the original. The sign wasn’t just cleanly cut into three pieces. The thieves tore it from its place, bending, crushing and twisting the wrought iron tubes in the process. There were scratches and dents all over the surface. The “i” in “Frei” actually remained attached to the arch because the thieves weren’t able to wrench it off with the rest of the sign. Restorers therefore had to spend a great deal of time documenting and analyzing the components to fix the damage and determine how best to move forward. They hired a master blacksmith to do the final step of welding the pieces back together. On Wednesday, May 18, officials announced that the sign was intact once more.

They have decided not to return it to its original location, however. Once the sign was fully restored, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the museum, proposed to the International Auschwitz Council that the sign be kept indoors in an environment ideal for its conservation: namely, controlled humidity and a constant temperature between 17 and 19 degrees Celsius. If it were out in the open again, it would quickly degrade so that in a few years it would need to be removed for intensive conservation.

The International Auschwitz Council is a 25-member body composed of Holocaust survivors, historians, religious leaders, human rights workers and others that oversees the historical site. On Thursday they officially confirmed that the sign would be placed in a new exhibition hall inside the museum. The new space is still under development; it will be several years before it’s ready for visitors. The replica will remain outside in the original location.

Restorers unveiled repaired "Arebit Macht Frei" sign in the museum laboratory

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Roman ship may have carried large live fish tank

June 3rd, 2011

Hull of the Grado shipwreck in situA 2000-year-old Roman shipwreck discovered off the coast of Grado, Italy in 1986 has an interesting feature: a 51-inch-long lead pipe that fits into a hole 2.7 inches in diameter drilled into the hull near the keel. Since shipwrights are not usually in the habit of poking holes into the bottom of what should be a watertight vessel, researchers at the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Grado (where the wreck has been studied since it was recovered in 1999) have been investigating the possible uses of the hole and pipe. Last month they published a theoretical reconstruction in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology suggesting the hole and pipe were part of a hydraulic system that would have kept oxygenated water pumping through a large aquarium, allowing the small trading vessel to carry an impressively large load of live fish.

The lead pipe recovered from shipwreck 2.7-inch hole near the keel

The ship is only 55 feet long and 19 feet wide, and 600 amphorae were found on board filled with preserved fish and fish products like the ubiquitous garum, an umami-rich fish sauce that the Romans used in pretty much every dish imaginable, including desserts. Since they had no means to refrigerate fresh fish for long haul transportation, historians have thought that people ate fish within easy reach of where they were caught. Ancient sources, however, do claim that live fish were transported over long distances. Pliny, for example, in Book 9 of his Natural History describes the Emperor Claudius’s fleet commander collecting live parrotfish (scarus in Latin, a great delicacy considered superior to other fish because it supposedly ruminated on grasses instead of eating other fish) from the Black Sea and bringing them back to the Mediterranean to release them into the wild and create a local population. Pliny says it worked, too.

3D model of the ship with the theoretical fish tankCarlo Beltrame, a marine archaeologist at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy, and his colleagues believe the lead pipe was connected to a hand-operated piston pump that, through a series of one-way valves, pulled water from the ocean into a live fish tank. The research team calculated that the pump could have supported a flow of 66 gallons (252 liters) of water per minute. There was space behind that ship’s mast and sufficient structural capability to support an aquarium measuring 11.4 feet by 6.5 feet by 3.3 feet holding 140 cubic feet of water. A tank that size would need to have its water refreshed every half hour to ensure the survival of the fish. The piston pump would have been able to completely replace the water every 16 minutes, so the pumpers would have plenty of time to spare. A tank that size could have comfortably carried 440 pounds of live fish.

A diagram of the pump mechanismNo pump mechanism was found on the wreck, however, and the pipe was discovered nestled in a sort of small bilge-well. Why not assume the pipe would have been part of a bilge pump rather than the far more elaborate tank theory? The researchers think it’s unlikely that a ship of this size would have a complex mechanism like a bilge pump just to discharge water. Roman ships had simple bucket chain pump systems that were able to dump water out of the side of the ship easily and safely. If they were going to use a bilge pump system, they’d have to have a damn good reason: i.e., profit.

Even if we accept for the sake of argument that there was a piston pump on board, how do we know it was there to feed a live fish tank? Such pumps have been used even up until the 19th century to clean decks and extinguish fires as well. The research team doesn’t think that’s a likely use in this case simply because the ship was too small and innocuous to require so elaborate a system for cleaning or in case of fire. That’s more the kind of thing you’d find on a warship.

According to Rita Auriemma, a marine archaeologist at the University of Salento, it is plausible that the hydraulic system in Grado ship served for live fish trade.

“The context in which the ship operated makes this the most logical explanation,” Auriemma told Discovery News.

“The near Istria coast was known for numerous vivaria, large enclosures to breed fish. It is possible that the Grado ship transported live fish from these vivaria to large markets in the high Adriatic,” Auriemma said.

Indeed, it would have taken about 10 hours to cross the nearly 30 miles of sea that divided the Istria vivaria to the river port of Aquileia, one of the richest Roman towns during the imperial period.

“Such a trip could have been sustained by the live fish only through an apparatus of continuous water exchange similar to that of the Grado ship,” Beltrame said.

Still, there isn’t a great deal of hard archaeological evidence supporting this theory. The research team’s next step is to attempt to recreate the pump and tank system to see if it would have worked in practice. If it turns out to be true that a small workhorse like the Grado ship routinely carried live fish, this will revolutionize historians’ understanding of Roman trade.

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Capitoline Venus on loan for first time ever

June 2nd, 2011

The Capitoline VenusThe Capitoline Venus, a larger than life-sized Roman nude of a Venere Pudica, or modest Venus after her pose that graciously covers her lady bits, will go on display at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art starting this coming Saturday through early September.

Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to see the piece in the United States. It will have a prime spot as a museum centerpiece for the busy summer months.

“The ‘Venus’ will feel right at home in our West Building Rotunda, which was designed by John Russell Pope and was based on the Pantheon in Rome,” Powell said in a written statement. [...]

The exhibit is part of an effort by Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno to display masterpieces in the United States between 2011 and 2013. It also marks the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification as a single state.

This is the first time the Venus has ever been loaned since it was discovered under the gardens of the Stazi family estate on the Viminal Hill in the 1670s. In 1752 Pope Benedict XIV bought it from the Stazi and donated it to Rome’s Capitoline Museum. Forty-five years later, Napoleon invaded Italy. Under the terms of 1797′s Treaty of Tolentino, French officials were allowed to confiscate any work of art they wanted no matter who owned it. All they had to do was walk in and claim it. The Capitoline Venus was one of the confiscated works. The Venus went to the Louvre, leaving Rome for the first time against her will.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Treaty of Vienna guaranteed the return of confiscated Italian and German art so the Venus made her way back to Rome in 1816. Since then, it has remained safely ensconced in its own niche in the Palazzo Nuovo on the Capitoline hill.

The Capitoline Venus is one of the best preserved statues from antiquity ever discovered. She was found almost entirely intact, missing only her nose, a few fingers and a hand that was later reattached. She’s a Roman copy of a 3rd or 2nd century statue, now lost, that was itself a derivative of Praxiteles’ revolutionary Aphrodite of Cnidus, the first life-sized female nude.

The Cnidian Aphrodite had only one hand obscuring her mons and it’s casually posed as if captured mid-gesture. The Capitoline Venus affects that pose but then also drapes her other arm over her breasts. It does quite a poor job of obscuring them, of course, but it’s a more protective overall posture. The Cnidus Aphrodite is more comfortable with her nudity. Although Praxiteles’ original is lost, the Colonna Venus, now in the Vatican Museums, is widely considered the most accurate extant copy. Here she is, for comparison’s sake:

The Colonna Venus, front The Colonna Venus, back

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Marlborough mound is prehistoric barrow

June 1st, 2011

Marlborough MoundThe 62-feet-high mound on the grounds of Marlborough College has been used as a motte for a Norman castle, the foundation of a royal hunting lodge and an early Romantic 18th century garden for the Seymour family. Legend has it that Merlin was buried under that mound, that the name Marlborough itself was a corruption of “Merlin’s barrow” (it’s listed in the Domesday book as “Merleberge”).The Victorians were so enamored of the idea that they adopted it as the Latin motto of the city: “Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini?” meaning “where now are the bones of Merlin the wise?”

The Marlborough Mound Trust, an organization founded by a Marlborough College alumnus in 2000 dedicated to the preservation of the mound, recently sponsored an excavation to investigate whether tree roots are damaging the mound structure. The research returned four coring samples of charcoal which, since charcoal can be radiocarbon dated, have for the first time provided an absolute date of 2400 B.C for the mound. That’s the same approximate date of its “big sister,” Silbury Hill, a 120-foot-high Neolithic chalk mound just five miles away and Europe’s largest manmade prehistoric hill.

The samples prove it was built at a time when British tribes were combining labour on ritual monuments in the chalk downlands of Wiltshire, including Stonehenge and the huge ditches and stone circle of Avebury.

History students at the college will now have the chance to study an extraordinary example just a stone’s throw from their classroom windows. Malborough’s Master Nicholas Sampson said: “We are thrilled at this discovery, which confirms the long and dramatic history of this beautiful site and offers opportunity for tremendous educational enrichment.” [...]

Jim Leary, the English Heritage archeologist who led a recent excavation of Silbury, said: “This is an astonishing discovery. The Marlborough mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape. For centuries, people have wondered whether it is Silbury’s little sister, and now we have an answer. This is a very exciting time for British prehistory.”

This means that the Norman castle motte wasn’t built fresh by the Norman invaders, but rather was a reuse of a prehistoric structure. As far as we know it’s the only Norman motte to have recycled a pre-existing artificial mound. The castle and thus the mound would thereafter play an important historical role for the Plantagenet kings. In 1209 King John called a great assembly of all Englishmen, from baron to peasant, to Marlborough Castle where they were made to swear fealty and to do homage to John and his son Henry, then but two years old. John had been excommunicated by Pope Innocent III that year, and England was under the interdict. The Oath of Marlborough was meant to secure his and his heir’s position, and is notable for the vastness of its reach. John’s paranoia didn’t stop at his barons.

Engraving of Marlborough Mound from 'The Ancient History of Wiltshire', 1812-1821Henry would grow up to become King Henry III, and he too would make history at Marlborough Mound by calling Parliament to the castle and passing the Statutes of Marlborough in 1267, four chapters of which are still valid law. Since the Magna Carta was repealed and only reissued in 1297, that makes the Statutes of Marlborough the oldest piece of extant law in the United Kingdom.

After that, the castle declined in importance, becoming a hunting lodge and then being allowed to decay, but the mound and the estate remained property of the crown until Henry VIII gave it to his third wife Jane Seymour’s brother Edward, 1st Duke of Somerset. It remained in the Seymour family for generations. The 6th Duke demolished the old Seymour house next to the mound and built a new one in 1711. His son Algernon and his wife lived there. They’re the ones who created the early Romantic garden complete with grotto.

In 1750 the Seymours leased the house as a coaching inn which was a fashionable retreat for the rich and powerful until the 19th century when trains would make coaching obsolete. In 1843 the house and the mound were purchased by Marlborough College.

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