St. Francis manuscripts leave Italy for the first time

November 15th, 2014

Nineteen medieval artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi that have never left Italy since their creation 700 years ago are heading to New York. There are no known extant documents written in Saint Francis’ own hand (historians think he dictated rather than writing himself). These 13th and 14th century manuscripts are the earliest surviving documents about Francis’ and the mendicant order he founded. The exhibition, Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images, will be on display at the UN Headquarters from November 17th through the 29th but it’s not open to the public. They will be on public display when they move to the Brooklyn Borough Hall from December 2nd to January 14, 2015.

It’s divided into three sections. The first section, Traces, focuses on documents that are closely connected to Francis’ lifetime. The centerpiece is Codex 338, a collection of the oldest existing copies of Saint Francis’ writings, including the 12 chapters of the Rule of the Friors Minor and the Canticle of the Creatures or Canticle of the Sun, one of Francis’ most celebrated poems. The Canticle of Creatures is the first surviving works written in a dialect (Umbrian) recognizably resembling modern Italian. It is considered the oldest poem in Italian literature. There are also several Papal Bulls issued in the 1220s by popes Honorius III and Gregory IX regarding the regulation of the new order and, after Francis’s canonization in 1228 just two years after his death, ordering the construction of a new church to house his earthly remains.

The second section, Words, deals with hagiographies of Francis written after his death. The oldest is a fragmentary parchment of Vita Beati Francisci (The Life of Blessed Francis) by Father Tommaso da Celano commissioned by Pope Gregory IX around the time of Francis’ canonization. There’s also a very rare manuscript of Celano’s second biography, Memoriale Desiderio Animae de Gestis et Verbis Sanctissimi Patris Nostri Francisci (Memorial of the Desire of a Soul Concerning the Deeds and Words of Our Most Holy Father Francis), aka Seconda Vita (Second Life), which was commissioned in the mid-1240s by Crescentius of Jessi, Minister General of the Franciscan Order. A later work from the end of the 14th century, Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), is an idealized portrayal that would become the most popular hagiography of the saint and the basis for many future works of literature and art about Francis.

The last section, Images, features depictions of Saint Francis in miniature from illuminated manuscripts. There’s Francis at the foot of the crucified Christ in Ubertino da Casale’s Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu, Francis in a little box amidst floral borders in the Breviarium Fratrum Minorum illuminated by painter Sano di Pietro for the convent of Saint Claire in Siena, and Francis ranking with Adam and Christ on the first page of Genesis in a Bible.

Before these precious and fragile documents could travel, they were subject to months of careful conservation.

Over the past five months, Father Massetti, two other monks and three young restoration experts have cleaned all the manuscripts with a soft paint brush, page by page.

In some, the medieval ink had perforated the page; in others it had faded. Some were missing entire figures or miniatures, others the binding cover.

The restoration experts have repaired the fissures of the parchment with Japanese vegetable fiber or a bovine membrane. They have consolidated the ink and the colorful paintings through a starch gel.

Five of the manuscripts, ranging from the size of a choral book to the pocket format, were unbound, parchment by parchment, and were finally reassembled and stitched back together with a linen thread.

So not only is it the first (and probably only) chance people in the US will have the chance to see these rare artifacts, they will be in the greatest condition they’ve been in for centuries. The exhibition was on display at the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of parliament, in the Montecitorio Palace earlier this year, and although many countries have asked to host it, only New York has received the honor. It’s a fitting choice, seeing as 40% of the six million visitors to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi hail from the United States.

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Hospital scan reveals contents of Carolingian pot

November 14th, 2014

The Carolingian pot that was part of a Viking hoard discovered by metal detectorist Derek McLennan in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, last September has been CT scanned in a hospital. The silver alloy vessel is covered in verdigris (the green powdery substance produced from the corrosion of copper) and experts were concerned that it was too fragile to just take off the lid and dig out its contents blind. Richard Welander, Historic Scotland’s head of collections, contacted Dr. John Reid, a radiographer at Borders General Hospital and avid amateur archaeologist who had previously collaborated with Historic Scotland to scan the remains of a Roman soldier’s head discovered at the Trimontium fort in Newstead.

Dr. Reid secured permission from hospital chief Calum Campbell for the £485,000 CT scanner to be used on the pot. So as not to interfere with the machine’s normal operations on actual human beings, the vessel was brought in the evening and was scanned. Derek McLennan and Richard Welander were present to witness the pot’s innards scanned in 120 visual slices accurate to within a half a millimeter.

At first glance, one view revealed the presence of an Anglo-Saxon openwork brooch, a 9th century style seen in several pieces from the Pentney Hoard, now in the British Museum. Further examination of the CT scan results identified four other silver brooches, some gold ingots and ivory beads coated in gold. The contents are all wrapped in an organic material of some kind, possibly leather.

Now that they know the layout of the contents, conservators will be able to remove the contents in a controlled way.

Richard Welander, head of collections with Historic Scotland, said: “When I saw the results I was reminded of the words of Sir Howard Carter when Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922 – “I see wonderful things”.

“We are all so grateful to the Borders General Hospital for allowing us to forensically examine one of the key objects of the hoard.

“As with human patients, we need to investigate in a non-invasive way before moving onto delicate surgery.

“In this case, that will be the careful removal of the contents and the all-important conservation of these items.”

The wrapping is going to make it a particularly challenging mission since it could easily fall apart the minute it’s exposed to air or interfered with in any way. I hope they film the surgery like they did the CT scan (see video below) because it’s sure to be fascinating.

The scan also revealed more detail of the decoration on the exterior of the pot which is partially obscured by mud and a textile of some kind (no word yet on what that is). It’s that decoration that identifies the pot as Carolingian in origin, created between 780 and 900 A.D. It is a very rare discovery in Britain — only three, including this one, have ever been found — and this one is complete with its original lid still attached.

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Unique remains of Ice Age infants found in Alaska

November 13th, 2014

The skeletons of two Ice Age infants discovered at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in central Alaska are the earliest human remains ever found in northern North America. The presence of grave goods is also unprecedented for an infant burial of this era. The remains date to about 11,500 years ago. By analyzing tooth eruption sequences (the stages of the teeth growing out of the jaw), archaeologists were able to determine that one of them is a very young infant, between six and 12 weeks old, while the other was a neonate above 30 gestational weeks, so it was either stillborn or born too premature to live.

These are the youngest individuals from the late Pleistocene to receive a formal burial found anywhere in North America. The only discovery that comes close is the child buried at the Late Clovis Anzick site in Montana around 13,000 years ago, and he was two years old at time of death. It’s rare to find burials of very young infants from highly mobile foraging societies because they didn’t stay in one place for long so there’s no central location like a cemetery and the odds are slim of encountering individual burials even of larger humans. The Upper Sun River site was a residential campsite, not a dedicated burial ground, and yet, three individuals were found buried there within the same feature: the two inhumed infants with grave goods, and a cremated three-year-old with no grave goods. That’s another thing that is unique about this discovery.

Archaeologists found evidence of six different occupations of the site separated by hundreds or thousands of years. All but one of them were short-term camps occupied for no more than a few days while people hunted small game (squirrels, hares, ptarmigan) and fished the plentiful summer salmon in the nearby Tanana River. They’d take their harvest back to the base camp and cook it on hearths. The third occupation is the only one that had a longer-term presence. In addition to 10 cooking hearths, the third occupation features the remains of a dwelling and the burials.

Because of the undisturbed faunal and lithic material excavated from the context of the burials, it seems the two infants were buried at the same time. The cremated remains were buried later (they were found first, in 2010; the infant remains were found last year about 16 inches beneath the cremation) but all three were either buried during the same summer or in subsequent summers. Radiocarbon dating confirms that the lower and upper finds are contemporaneous. Given the consistency of the faunal remains in the ground fill and in the hearth that tops the burial pit, the third occupation base camp was populated by the same people. They could have been the one band or maybe even one family. Archaeologists are optimistic that they’ll be able to retrieve testable samples of nuclear, mitochrondrial and Y-chromosome DNA from the remains which should tell us whether they had a familial relationship.

Since the double infant burial and the toddler cremation were done by the same people around the same time, there is no obvious reason for the differential treatment of the burials. It wasn’t a seasonal accommodation — frozen ground in the winter forcing cremations — because all three burials happened in the summer. There may have been a situational distinction — who was present for the burials, say — or perhaps a religious or cultural one.

The grave goods and funerary customs in the double infant burial are extensive. Archaeologists unearthed four antler rods, foreshafts to which projectile points would have been hafted, decorated along the whole length with geometric abstract incisions. This too is unprecedented. There are some scratchings or possible ownership marks on other paleo-Indian foreshafts, but these are the first ones found with the whole length decorated. Two stone projectiles, dart or spear points, were found placed at the end of two of the rods, exactly where they would have been attached with animal sinew that has now deteriorated. That makes these the earliest hafted shafts discovered in North America, and the first concrete evidence that the foreshafts were topped with stone points.

The entire pit and its contents were covered with ochre, a common element in pre-historic burials most likely due to the association of red with blood and therefore life. The bottom of the pit was lined with ochre, all of the grave goods were coated in it and all of the bones. The articulation of the infant skeletons — knees drawn to the chest, arms folded — suggest they were wrapped in that position before burial. Over time the wrappings disintegrated and the ochre in the pit then covered the bones.

[University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Ben] Potter and his colleagues note that the human remains and associated burial offerings, as well as inferences about the time of year the children died and were buried, could lead to new thinking about how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced as they tried to survive, how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.

“Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Potter said.

Here is some b-roll of the excavation with great close-ups of the ochre-coated antler rods and a projectile point in situ:

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Human remains found in Amphipolis tomb

November 12th, 2014

Excavation of the third chamber of the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis has revealed a limestone cyst grave containing human remains 1.6 meters (5’2″) beneath the surviving floor stones. The grave is 3.23 meters (10’7″) long, 1.56 meters (5’1″) wide and one meter (3’3″) high, but uprights discovered when the cyst was excavated indicate the walls were original at least 1.8 meters (5’10″) high. Two of the limestone slabs that once covered the grave are missing, and bones were found both inside and outside the grave, evidence the tomb was interfered with by looters in antiquity.

When the soil filling the grave was removed, archaeologists found a little ledge going around the bottom inside perimeter. A wooden coffin was originally placed on that ledge. It has long since rotted away, but iron and copper nails from the coffin were found scattered, as were ivory and glass decorations that once adorned it.

The bones have been removed and will be studied in the lab. The hope is that they will be able to tell us something about the identity of the tomb’s owner. It’s going to be a tall order. Even determining sex from disarticulated bone pieces is a challenge that could well be insurmountable.

The always excellent Dorothy King of PhDiva posits that if the remains prove to be male, a likely candidate for the occupant of this tomb is Hephaestion, Alexander’s the Great’s closest friend from childhood who was worshipped as a divine hero after his premature death from a fever in 324 B.C. Alexander was devastated by the loss of Hephaestion, likening their relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclos of Trojan War fame and explicitly modeling his mourning after Achilles’.

Plutarch describes Alexander’s reaction to Hephaestion’s death in Parallel Lives:

Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him. Moreover, making war a solace for his grief, he went forth to hunt and track down men, as it were, and overwhelmed the nation of the Cossaeans, slaughtering them all from the youth upwards. This was called an offering to the shade of Hephaestion. Upon a tomb and obsequies for his friend, and upon their embellishments, he purposed to spend ten thousand talents, and wished that the ingenuity and novelty of the construction should surpass the expense. He therefore longed for Stasicratesa above all other artists, because in his innovations there was always promise of great magnificence, boldness, and ostentation. This man, indeed, had said to him at a former interview that of all mountains the Thracian Athos could most readily be given the form and shape of a man; if, therefore, Alexander should so order, he would make out of Mount Athos a most enduring and most conspicuous statue of the king, which in its left hand should hold a city of ten thousand inhabitants, and with its right should pour forth a river running with generous current into the sea. This project, it is true, Alexander had declined; but now he was busy devising and contriving with his artists projects far more strange and expensive than this.

So according to Plutarch Alexander had decided against turning all of Mount Athos into a sort of pre-dynamite one-man Mount Rushmore monument to himself, but he planned to make an even more elaborate tomb for his beloved companion, one worthy of a divine hero. Perhaps Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. kept the crazier of the grandiose plans from taking hold or perhaps the ancient sources were exaggerating, as they so often did, but it’s in keeping with Hephaestion’s importance to Alexander and the posthumous honors he received that the largest tomb ever found in Greece would have been built for him.

According to the Greek Culture Ministry, the Kasta Tumulus has to have a public religious purpose like the tomb of a divine hero. The tomb used the greatest amount of marble ever assembled in Macedonia, and the variety and precision of decorative and architectural techniques — the sphinxes, painted architraves, pebble mosaics in the entryway, the Persephone tile mosaic, the caryatids, the lion that was once on top of the tomb — make it a uniquely complex project. Its size and scope was so massive no individual could have mustered the resources to construct it. The archaeological team plans to examine the 430 or so marble elements from the tomb that the Romans stripped from the tomb in the 2nd century A.D. and used to shore up the banks of the river Strymon. Perhaps pieces from inside the tomb, fragments of the grave, for example, might be recovered that will lend additional insight.

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Vivid murals found in 1000-year-old Chinese tomb

November 11th, 2014


In 2011, archaeologists from the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology discovered a mural tomb near the railway station in Datong City, northern Shanxi province, China. The tomb dates to the Liao Dynasty, an empire that ruled over Mongolia, parts of what is today Russia, northern Korea and northern China from 907 to 1125 A.D., and although no human remains were discovered inside, the high quality and subject matter of the painting indicates the tomb owner was a wealthy man of Han Chinese ethnicity. The paintings are in excellent condition with only some losses from damage to the structure, and they present a vivid picture of daily life for the elite of the period.

The murals begin at the entry to the tomb. The perimeter of the arched doorway and wall is painted in a thick stripe of red that doesn’t appear to have faded at all. Against a white background, two human figures are painted on either side of the entryway. The left guardian is a man wearing a black hat holding a staff. The right guardian is a woman holding aloft a feathered fan. Between them centered above the arch is the supernatural bird being Garuda, hovering amongst the clouds, watching over the entryway.

Inside the tomb, the largest mural is on the north wall. It’s a domestic scene depicting the tomb owner’s household. In the background are floor-to-ceiling windows with some excellent roll-up shades, a valance on top and curtains pulled back on the sides. There’s an empty bed in the center, flanked by attendants carrying different vessels and accessories. The stars of the show, however, are a black and white cat in front of the attendants on the left and a black and white dog in front of the attendants on the right. They both have ribbons tied around their necks and the cat is playing with a ball on the end of strip of silk.

On the west wall is a dense, dynamic scene of travel through the countryside. An elaborate carriage on the top right of the wall is pulled by Bactrian camel. In the foreground a saddled horse trots, led by a groom. On the top left farmers carry water, plough and hoe their crops. A small figure of horse and rider in the bottom left looks to be transporting goods in packed saddlebags.

The east wall is a riot of food, drink and animals. Attendants on the left carry trays of food and beverages while on the ground in front of them are pitchers and bamboo steamers doubtless groaning with more of the same. On the top right is a saddle hanging on a rack with a lotus flower fountain to its left. A dear sits in front of the saddle. Other animals in the tableau are a crane, a turtle, and a snake crawling behind an axe on a platform. Between the deer and the crane are bamboo plants. A poem written on a banner to the right of the saddle ties the scene together: “Time tells that bamboo can endure cold weather. Live as long as the spirits of the crane and turtle.”

The ceiling of the tomb is the most damaged — more than half of painting is lost — but vermilion stars connected with lines into constellations are still clearly visible on what remains of it.

The tomb was looted at some point in the last 1,000 years, but there was one artifact still present: a statue three feet high of a man sitting cross-legged wearing a black robe. Archaeologists believe it’s a representation of the tomb’s occupant. It may even have been a symbolic substitute for his body, a common practice for Buddhist burials at that time.


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Relief of unknown god found in Turkey

November 10th, 2014

University of Münster archaeologists excavating the ruins of a medieval monastery near the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep have discovered a basalt stele carved with a figure of a previously unknown deity. The monastery of Mar Solomon (Saint Solomon) was built in the early Middle Ages over the remains of the Roman-era temple to Jupiter Dolichenus, a deity who was a syncretized combination of the Greco-Roman thunderer, king of the Olympian gods, and the Hittite sky and storm god Tesub-Hadad. Before the Roman temple there was a sanctuary to Tesub-Hadad on the hill known today as Dülük-Baba Tepesi. The stele was recycled for use as building material in the wall of the monastery.

Archaeologist Blömer described the depiction: “The basalt stele shows a deity growing from a chalice of leaves. Its long stem rises from a cone that is ornamented with astral symbols. From the sides of the cone grow a long horn and a tree, which the deity clasps with his right hand. The pictorial elements suggest that a fertility god is depicted.” There are striking iconographic details such as the composition of the beard or the posture of the arms, which point to Iron Age depictions from the early 1st millennium B.C.

Hundreds of seals from the pre-Roman sanctuary have been found on the site, many of them carved with religious imagery and symbolism that are giving archaeologists new insight into worship practices at the sanctuary in the 1st millennium B.C. The discovery of the fertility god relief is an exciting addition to the archaeological record, and particularly relevant to the team’s investigation of how local cults survived over the millennia and in some cases expanded from their native contexts to widespread religions with adherents all over the Roman empire. Since ancient written sources — usually Roman elites — are unreliable documentation of Near Asian religions, archaeological sources are invaluable.

Excavation director Prof. Dr. Engelbert Winter:

“The image is remarkably well preserved. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs of the Romans and into the continued existence of ancient Near Eastern traditions. However, extensive research is necessary before we will be able to accurately identify the deity.”

Although Doliche was a small town, the empire-spanning prominence of the sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus transitioned into the Christian era. It was an episcopal see at least as early as the 4th century, and remains a titular see of the Roman Catholic Church to this day even though there’s nothing there but a glorious wealth of archaeological remains. The monastery of Mar Solomon was in use through the era of the crusades, but it was only known to archaeologists through written sources until the remains were first discovered in 2010.

Now the entire site is being transformed into an archaeological park even as excavations continue. The ruins are being carefully preserved and a trail was put in last year so visitors can view the Jupiter Dolichenus sanctuary and the remains of the monastery.

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Howard Carter the artist

November 9th, 2014

Before Howard Carter became the world-famous archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, he was an artist. In fact, it was pretty much all he knew how to do. Howard, the youngest of 11 children of Samuel and Martha Carter, was sick a lot in his youth. The many and varied miasmas of London were considered injurious to his health, so he was sent to live with his aunts in Swaffham, Norfolk, where his father and grandfather had been gamekeepers on the Hamond family estate.

Because of his sickliness he was never enrolled in school. His father, an artist who carved out a successful niche for himself painting portraits of the gentry and their pets, tutored Howard on regular trips to Swaffham, teaching him how to draw and paint. One of Samuel Carter’s patrons was William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall, an estate eight miles from Swaffham. As a boy, Howard visited Didlington Hall when his father painted Lord Amherst’s portrait, and this is where he first became exposed to Egyptology.

Amherst was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. He, his wife Margaret Mitford (whose father had a passion for all things Egyptian as well) and their seven daughters traveled frequently to Egypt, constantly acquiring new artifacts. A whole wing of Didlington Hall was dedicated to housing his vast collection. Seven statues of the lion-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet guarded the door of the museum, one for each of the Amherst daughters. Those statues are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Amherst family didn’t just give Howard Carter the chance to explore Egyptian art through their extensive collection. It was their recommendation and contacts that secured him his first job in Egypt. He was just 17 years old when he was hired as a tracer — someone who copies inscriptions and art work found in excavations onto paper for later study — for the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1891. This was an essential job in the age before color photography. Watercolors were the only accurate recreations of tomb decorations available.

Carter’s first assignment was the Beni Hasan excavation where the princes of Middle Egypt were buried. He immediately distinguished himself with his artistic ability and dedication, often working all day and then spending the night in the tomb. Carter began to learn archaeology on his next assignment at El-Amarna under pioneering Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1892. He was still an artist, recording artifacts as they were discovered, but Petrie allowed him to dig too, and Carter made some signficant finds.

In 1894, Carter was appointed Principle Artist of the EEF’s excavation of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. For five years Carter made drawings and watercolors of the wall reliefs in the temple. One of his watercolors from this period, The Temple of Hatshepsut (1899), is going up for auction at Bonhams’ Travel, Exploration and Natural History Sale in London on December 3rd.

Carter also joined in the excavation of the temple and learned restoration techniques as well. He did such a fine job that in 1899 the Egyptian Antiquities Service offered him the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. He was 25 years old, had no formal education, and was now the supervisor of all archaeological excavations in the Upper Nile Valley. Carter did great work, installing the first electric lights in six Valley of the Kings tombs and at the temples in Abu Simbel.

His extraordinary run of success came to a halt in 1905 when a group of drunk and belligerent French tourists became violent towards the Egyptian guards at Saqqara. Carter told the guards they could defend themselves. The tourists complained to people in high places and the diplomatic hotshots insisted Carter apologize. He refused. In retaliation, Carter was shipped off to an obscure site with not much in the way of archaeology. Rather than twiddle his thumbs in exile, Carter resigned.

For the next two years, Howard Carter had something of a hard scrabble existence. He sold his watercolors or guided tours to make a living. Then he hit the jackpot. French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service who had given Carter the Chief Inspector General job, introduced him to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon had deep pockets and was keen to fund archaeological excavations. He got the necessary licenses and made Carter the Supervisor of Excavations in Thebes.

During this time, Carter painted Under the Protection of the Gods (1908), a composite fantasy that depicts a vulture — representing the goddess Nekhebet, protector of Upper Egypt — above a solar disc wrapped in a cobra — representing the goddess Wadjet, protector of Lower Egypt. It’s likely that the iconography of the watercolor was inspired by some of Carter’s finds in Thebes, including the 18th Dynasty Tomb of Tetaki and a 15th Dynasty tomb with nine coffins.

The Carter-Carnarvon partnership was very successful. By the time World War I began in 1914, Carnarvon had amassed a hugely important collection of Egyptian antiquities. That same year he secured a 15-year license to excavate the Valley of the Kings and Carter got to work. He painted The Valley of the Kings (1914) the first year of excavations. Excavations were disrupted by war, but Carter still managed to dig in 1915 and 1917.

In 1918 excavations restarted in earnest. For the next four years, Carter scoured the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh whose name he had discovered. It became something of an obsession with him, but in 1922 when the tomb continued to be elusive, Carnarvon got sick of funding what seemed like a fool’s errand and told Carter that he had one digging season left. Three days after the last excavation began in November of 1922, Carter’s diggers found the top of a staircase. Three weeks later, Carter peered in through a small hole in the doorway and saw the “wonderful things,” that would take the world by storm and make him immortal.

Carter never forgot the people who helped him overcome his humble beginnings. His connection with the Amherst family continued throughout his life. William and Margaret Amherst’s eldest daughter Mary, known as May, wife of Lord William Cecil, took her family’s fascination with Egypt to even greater heights. Between 1901 and 1904, she personally funded and ran excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan. Howard Carter was Chief Inspector for Antiquities then, and he helped advise her.

In 1906, the family was left financially devastated when their solicitor and land agent, Charles Cheston, was found to have embezzled hundreds of thousand of pounds to support his gambling habit. Cheston committed suicide. Lord Amherst was forced to sell the collections he had spent decades building into some of the greatest private holdings in the country. His library went first, auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1908 and 1909. William Amherst died two months before the second sale.

May, heir to her father’s estate and title, had no choice but to continue the sell-off. In 1910, the estate itself, home and park, was sold to Colonel Herbert Francis Smith. May refused to sell her father’s Egyptian collection, however. She held on to that resolutely for a decade until her death from breast cancer in 1919. Only after May was gone was the legendary Amherst collection of Egyptian papyri, statues and other artifacts put up for sale at Sotheby’s in 1921. It was Howard Carter who catalogued the collection that had first inspired his great vocation. At the time of the sale, even though some individual objects had been sold piecemeal before then, the Amherst Egyptian collection was the third largest private collection in England.

In 1950, Didlington Hall, broken and neglected after requisition during World War II, was stripped of its last valuables when the interior fittings were sold at auction. The house was demolished and thus what had once been one of Norfolk’s greatest treasures was lost forever.


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Recreating Tullio Lombardo’s Adam after the fall

November 8th, 2014

On the evening of Sunday, October 6th, 2002, the medium density plywood pedestal supporting the 15th century marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo in the Velez Blanco Patio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art buckled. All 770 pounds, six feet three inches of Adam fell, hitting the ground hard and breaking into 28 large pieces and hundreds of small fragments. The head came off at the neck, the torso skidded across the floor, the right leg broke into six pieces, the left arm into seven. Nobody even heard the crash.

The catastrophe was discovered at 9:00 PM by a security guard doing his routine rounds. The emergency call went out to curators and conservators and the patio was cordoned off to allow for a forensic crime scene-level recovery of every little chip. The museum opened as usual on Monday, but nobody was allowed to photograph the disaster. The Met didn’t want the horror of the scene to be the image of the statue in people’s heads even after it was put back together. It took two days for the precise mapping of each fragment to be completed and all the pieces carefully bagged and tagged.

Extensive damage to a sculpture is any museum’s worst nightmare — stone is much harder to repair than canvas — and this case was a particularly spine-chilling one because of Adam‘s singular importance. Commissioned for the tomb of the Doge Andrea Vendramin (d. 1478) in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Venice, Adam was the first monumental nude carved in the classical style since antiquity. The tomb, inspired by ancient triumphal arches, was recognized for the exceptional quality of its statuary before it was even completed. Venetian historian Marino Sanuto the Younger wrote in his diary in 1493 that the Vendramin funerary monument “will surely be the most beautiful in the world because of the excellent statues which are there.” Lombardo’s Adam was placed in a niche next to the sarcophagus of the Doge in the center of the monument. A matching statue of Eve (once attributed to Lombardo but now thought to have been the work of Francesco Segala) was on the other side.

The monastery and church of the Servi were demolished in 1812 in keeping with Napoleon’s edicts ordering the suppression of religious orders. The Vendramin tomb was rescued and installed in the choir of the church of Saints Giovanni e Paolo, but Adam and Eve never made it to the new location. Times had changed, and the classical nudes were now deemed to be not in keeping with the seriousness of the Christian religion. They were replaced by two warrior figures.

The first man and woman were moved to the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi where they both remained until 1865 (Eve is still there today). That year the palace’s owner, Marie-Caroline de Bourbon-Sicile, Duchesse de Berry, daughter of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and daughter-in-law of King Charles X of France, sold much of the contents of the palace at auction in Paris. Adam was acquired by collector Henry Pereire. After his death in 1932, it passed through the hands of a couple of dealers before being bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1936.

The Met was thrilled to have it. Art historian Preston Remington, who was curator of the Met’s Renaissance Art department at that time, described Adam as “the most distinguished of Tullio’s sculptures” whose “importance to the collection of renaissance sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum is paramount.” Besides, he noted, “aside from its archaeological interest, the Adam is a work of great beauty and lasting charm.”

Key to that great beauty and lasting charm was the unblemished smoothness of the carving, perhaps Adam‘s most famous feature. If he couldn’t be put back together with that flawless surface, it would be an incalculable loss. Monumental Renaissance statuary doesn’t come up for sale very often, or ever, really; finding something of equivalent historical significance would be all but impossible.

Initial prognostications were fairly optimistic: the damage was bad, but there were enough large pieces that conservators thought it could be fixed and returned to display in two years or so. That estimate was left in the dust. They decided to take a far more meticulous approach, studying every aspect of the reconstruction in detail before drilling holes in it and piecing it together with adhesives and pins. They stress tested the reversible organic adhesives to see if they could handle such a large statue. They discovered that fiberglass pins were better than metal ones because when they do break, they don’t take chunks of the marble with them. They used new laser imaging technology to create a 3D model so they could puzzle it out virtually before putting the physical pieces together. They even got a crappy copy of Michelangelo’s David and deliberately broke it in the same places Adam for testing purposes.

Instead of two years it took 12, but they were 12 years well spent. After all the work, all the research, was done behind closed doors, a secrecy that caused some comment as a new decade dawned with no publically visible progress, on November 11th, Adam is going back on display at the Met.

The story of the restoration is part of the exhibition. The statue, originally intended for a niche and therefore less worked in the back than in the front, will now be viewed in the round so people can see it the same way the conservators did. The Met has made some videos explaining the epic 12-year conservation project, and there will be an article about the process in the next volume of the Metropolitan Museum Journal (bookmark this page and check back for volume 49).

3D animation illustrating the order of assembly:

Time-lapse of the reconstruction:

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Yorkshire Hoards on Google Art Project

November 7th, 2014

The Google Cultural Institute and the York Museums Trust have joined forces to create an exhibition of hoards discovered in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Hoards exhibition gives audiences the chance to view buried treasure from the Bronze Age (1000 B.C.) to the Civil War (1650 A.D.). The entries are arranged in chronological order so you can take a virtual trip through Yorkshire history, and descriptions are accompanied by high resolution photographs and video.

Hoards were buried for different reasons in different periods. Bronze Age axe hoards, for example, were buried near bodies of water which suggests there was a ritual purpose behind it. Iron Age and Roman coin hoards are often indicators of unrest, earthly goods buried to keep them safe from danger until the owner could return. Some of them were clearly savings, however, the ancient version of stuffing it in your mattress. Valuables were added to over time, in those cases, instead of being buried in one fell swoop.

Hoards are a great way to explore a region’s history, therefore, because they’re concrete evidence of how people dealt with external threats, their religious practices, the geographic range of their connections, what kind of containers they used, etc. It’s also just cool to be able to zoom in on a great many beautiful artifacts and coins that haven’t previously been photographed in high resolution.

The York Museums Trust is also collaborating with Google to present an online highlight reel of one of their museum’s exhibitions: 1914: When the World Changed Forever, a World War I display currently enjoying great success at the York Castle Museum. Objects include a horse’s gas mask, weapons and an ingenious Zeppalarm device that connected to a home’s gas line and lit a light bulb and sounded an alarm when the gas company turned down the supply to dim the lights and warn of an impending dirigible raid.

The Google exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. The York Museum Trust has embraced digitization on a grand scale, placing 160,000 objects in its collections, thousands of which are not on public display, in a freely accessible online database. More than 50,000 of the entries include high resolution images of the objects, all of which are in the public domain so you can download them and use them as you wish. More photographs will be uploaded as they are taken.

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HMS Erebus ship’s bell recovered

November 6th, 2014

After the wreck of explorer Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, was found in September, Parks Canada researchers had only two days to explore the site before temperatures plunged below zero making diving impossible. The team made seven dives during those two days, filming, photographing and measuring the wreck as extensively as possible, but they didn’t want to disturb the interior so they only sent cameras inside and did not recover artifacts.

They were holding out on us, though, because one object was removed from the sea floor: the ship’s bronze bell.

The bell was found on the deck adjacent to the ship’s displaced windlass (a form of anchor winch), above which it was originally mounted. Since then, the bell has been undergoing conservation stabilization and additional research.

The bell is intact and generally in very good condition. Two embossed markings – introduced when the bronze bell was first cast – are evident on the artifact: a Royal Navy “broad arrow” indicating property of the British Government, as well as the date “1845.”

Ship’s bells hold a great deal of meaning. In addition to their practical purpose — they struck the half-hour day and night, and signalled the change of the watch — bells are symbolic incarnations of the ship. There’s a tradition in the Royal Navy that upside down bells are used as baptismal founts for sailors’ babies. The names of the baptized children are then engraved under the bell’s lip.

Given its symbolic and archaeological value, Parks Canada decided it would be more prudent to recover the bell instead of subjecting it to another long, frigid winter in the Queen Maud Gulf. It could conceivably be damaged by ice scraping the seabed, although it has survived 168 winters thus far without serious damage. Besides, a ship’s bell can provide essential confirmation of the wreck’s identity, and on a PR note, is an iconic symbol that makes a far more immediate rallying point than sonar scans.

As the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, puts it:

“The bell of HMS Erebus provides a tangible and compelling connection to the Franklin ships and is an important part of naval and Canadian history. The recovery of this important artifact is the crowning achievement for an incredibly successful 2014 search campaign that has captivated Canadians and the entire world.”

Still, the marketing coup had to wait. Parks Canada archaeologists wanted to examine the bell without public scrutiny and begin the process of stabilizing the find before making the announcement, which is why we’re only hearing about it six weeks after the bell was recovered. At first, the bell had to remain damp to keep it from corroding when exposed to the air. It was wrapped in bubble-wrap and kept humid during transportation to Ottawa.

The bell is now sealed in a tank of distilled water in an environmetally-controlled secure location at the Parks Canada conservation laboratory. The water is being tested daily to detect any changes in the artifact. Over the course of months, perhaps as many as 18 or more, the bell will transition from fresh water baths to chemical baths that will leach all the salt from its surface and protect it from corrosion.

One the bell is cleaned and stabilized, it may reveal additional clues that are currently not visible. It will eventually go on public display at a location yet to be determined.


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