Rare Roman sarcophagus found in London

July 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare Roman stone sarcophagus at an excavation on Swan Street and Harper Road in Southwark, central London. The coffin dates to the 4th century and was buried inside a mausoleum along the Roman road just outside ancient Londinium. It is filled with soil so archaeologists were not able to determine its contents at a glance, but because the bones of a baby from the same period were found buried next to the sarcophagus, it’s possible it contains the skeletal remains of a mother. There is no evidence at this point of any connection between the infant and the coffin burial.

Contractors Pre-Construct Archaeology were engaged to excavate the property where a court annex and sorting office once stood and on which the charitable organization Trinity House plans to build a new housing complex. Excavations began in January and were almost completed when the sarcophagus was discovered last month. Under the former court annex building, the team discovered a long trench that had been dug by looters hundreds of years ago around the perimeter of the sarcophagus. The lid had been slid open and there’s a large crack in it, likely the calling cards of the same looters who dug the trench.

The grave robbers found the sarcophagus in the post-Medieval period. They broke into it and helped themselves to grave goods. Archaeologists hope the looters limited themselves to stealing the more showily valuable objects — precious metals, fine pottery, jewelry — and left behind things they didn’t care about but archaeologists do. If they didn’t interfere with the human remains, that would be a great archaeological boon. The sarcophagus has been scanned with a metal detector which signalled the presence of metal inside the earth-packed coffin, so there’s almost certainly something in there.

The deceased must have been a very wealthy, high-status individual to receive such an expensive burial. The sarcophagus itself is extremely rare. Only two late Roman sarcophaguses have been found in their original burial context in London in recent memory. Then there’s the location on the main Roman road leading in and out of the city. This was a prestigious spot that would have been reserved for someone of great importance.

Recent archaeological research has shown that this area of Roman Southwark is the focus of ritual activity. We now know that this area forms a complex ritual landscape containing various religious and funerary monuments and a vast dispersed Roman cemetery (sites such as Dickens Square, Lant Street and Trinity Street) incorporating a range of burial practices, often with exotic grave goods sourced from across the Roman Empire. […]

Gillian King, Senior Planner: Archaeology, at Southwark Council, said: “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now!

“It really is a very special discovery. Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period, so completely different.”

The sarcophagus and lid were raised on Tuesday and transported to the Hackney archive of the Museum of London where it will be painstakingly excavated in laboratory conditions. Any bones or artifacts found within will be analyzed and tested to confirm the date of the burial.

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1759 British cannonball, still live, found in Quebec City

July 17th, 2017

Last Friday, July 7th, a construction crew working on a building site at the corner of Hamel and Couillard streets in Old Quebec, the historic center of Quebec City, Canada, unearthed a large cannonball from the French and Indian War. The crew took pictures of themselves with the 200-pound projectile as if it were a movie star. They moved it around, struck poses and generally had a blast with their discovery.

They didn’t realize at the time that the blast they were having could well have been literal. It was archaeologist Serge Rouleau, called in by municipal authorities to examine the find, who saw that the ball still held a charge. His examination determined that the cannonball was of British manufacture and was fired at the old city in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, or in the siege preceding it. Rouleau had taken the ball home with it to study — an odd step to take when dealing with explosive devices of any age — so when he realized his bouncing baby bomb still has what it takes to blow him up and burn his house down around the splattered specks of tissue that were once his body, he called in the experts.

A team of army munitions technicians was dispatched from CFB Valcartier to collect the ball and neutralize it.

“With time, humidity got into its interior and reduced its potential for exploding, but there’s still a danger,” said Master Warrant Officer Sylvain Trudel, a senior munitions technician.

Trudel said such balls were meant to set fire to the buildings they penetrated.

“The ball would break and the powder would ignite, setting fire to the building.”

This was a brutal weapon in the mid-18th century, and Quebec City was deluged with them during the Seven Years’ War when Britain fought and shot its way to taking control of much of French North America. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the culmination of three months of intensive bombings by British troops besieging the city of Quebec. From the their position at Lévis, just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec, the British launched a near-constant barrage of deadly artillery fire starting on July 12th, 1759. Over the next three months, they would set the city alight with 40,000 solid iron cannonballs and 8,000 incendiary bombs. On September 13th, the British and French engaged in an infantry battle on a plateau outside the city knows as the plans of Abraham. It lasted less than hour. The British were victorious, chasing the French out of the city and ending the siege. The siege and battle took a massive toll on Quebec and its environs. The city and surrounding countryside were in smoldering ruins when the smoke from the plains of Abraham cleared.

On a global scale, the battle permanently altered Canadian geopolitics, setting the stage for the British conquest of Canada and the French withdrawal. France’s forces in Canada were weakened by the loss and came under increasing pressure from British troops on the continent. It would take another five years for the conflict to come to its final conclusion in the Treaty of Paris (1764), but when the quill pens were finally put to parchment, France had ceded almost all of its American territories, including Canada, to Britain.

Musn't touch the live ammo. Photo courtesy Lafontaine Inc.The 258-year-old live cannonball has now been moved out of the archaeologist’s house to a safe place where the munitions disposal experts will determine if it can be safely neutralized. If not, it will be detonated and destroyed.

“Old munitions like this are hard to predict,” Trudel said. “You never know to what point the chemicals inside have degraded.”

If it is salvageable, the cannonball will find a loving forever home at a local museum.

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Roman domus with mosaic floors found in Auch, France

July 16th, 2017

When a landowner digging a foundation for a new home on his property in Auch, southwestern France, discovered ancient architectural remains less than two feet under the surface earlier this year, he reported the find to the authorities. In April, archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) were dispatched to excavate the structure. They unearthed a layer cake of Auch’s rich history, with a luxurious Roman imperial-era domus as the topper.

The property is just a few hundred feet from the forum of the ancient city of Elimberris, a town founded by the Ausci, an Aquitanian tribe, before the arrival of the Romans. After the conquest of Gaul, the city’s name was Latinized to Augusta Auscorum and became one of the 12 main cities of the province that would become Gascony. It prospered in the late imperial era and the wealthy built increasingly expensive villas or expanded and upgraded existing ones. The latter is what happened to the newly discovered domus.

Even when things got scary as imperial support all but disappeared in the early 5th century, Auch still seemed to be doing okay. It was made the capital after the Gascon city of Eauze was razed by the Vandals, in 409 A.D., but these were the twilight days of the Roman Empire and being the regional capital of a place where the elite had already beaten a hasty retreated and abandoned their fancy villas years, perhaps decades, earlier, was a dubious distinction. The fancy villas were stripped for building supplies and otherwise forgotten.

Very little of ancient Auch has been excavated. Most of the archaeological material we have from Gallo-Roman Auch comes from a single major excavation years ago and scattered finds here and there. This discovery has been an exceptional boon to archaeologists because on this one 800 square meter site, they found evidence of the earliest settlements dating to the second half of the 1st century B.C. through the Late Empire.

Its first iteration was comparatively modest. It was private home with earthen walls. In the 1st century A.D., the site shows signs of an acceleration of urbanization under Rome’s influence. The city grew on an organized grid system orientated by the cardinal points of the map. The forum was built in this period, as were a number of top quality private dwellings. The villa was built in the 3rd century and was significantly expanded and altered twice after that.

In was in the early 4th century A.D. that the domus got its greatest refurbishment. Some time around 330 A.D., baths were added to the home. A home bath complex was the mark of high luxury. The baths in this villa were in their own building about 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. There were at least three rooms heated by underfloor hypocausts and the floors were decorated with brightly colored mosaics in a variety of patterns including geometrics (octagons and squares, waves), florals (ivy, laurel and acanthus leaves), tridents, braids and more. While none are extant in their original form, mosaics also decorated the walls. Archaeologists found black, green and red glass tile fragments amidst the floor rubble; that’s all that’s left of the colorful wall mosaics.

Detail of wave pattern. Photo © Jean-Louis Bellurget, Inrap.The mosaics are designed in a style characteristic of the area in the late Empire. The Aquitanian style is well known in ancient country villas from this era, but this domus stands out because it was a city home, not a rural estate. Aquitanian style mosaics are far rarer in urban centers, although they have been found before in Bordeaux and Eauze.

It seems the domus endured the same fate as other elite homes did in this region. It was left to its own devices at the end of the 4th century or beginning of the 5th century, and locals salvaged whatever materials from it they could use. The walls were demolished and their stone taken, the marble floors pulled up, even the stacks of tiles used to raise the subfloor for the hypocaust heating system were taken. The mosaics that weren’t destroyed by the process were damaged. The ruins were quickly forgotten and covered with earth, albeit a remarkable thin layer considering it took more than 1600 years for anybody to find what was left of the domus.

Ivy leaf motif in mosaic. Photo © Jean-Louis Bellurget, Inrap.INRAP is working at lightning speed to excavate and recover as much of the site as they can. They plan to lift the whole mosaic floors. What will happen to the rest of the remains is unclear. The property owner wants them out by September so he can go back to building his thing, invaluable archaeological treasure be damned. Anything left behind could well be destroyed.

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Michelangelo river god model restored

July 15th, 2017

A rare and fragile model of a river god made by Michelangelo Buonarotti in around 1525 has been restored to its original condition and placed on public view after years in storage. Made out of wood, clay, sand, wool and oakum fibers on an iron wire framework, the model was an ephemeral work. These were not built to last; models were use objects meant to be discarded after the permanent marble sculptures were finished. In this case, Michelangelo never did get around to making the sculpture, so the model is all we have to show for it. It is one of very few life-sized models ever created by Michelangelo.

The statue in question was a river god or river allegory that was to recline on the right side at the foot of the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lord of Florence, Duke of Urbino and the father of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France. Michelangelo’s client, Pope Clement VII, insisted that he create life-sized models for the tomb sculptures in the (vain) hope that it would speed up production by allowing the master to delegate some of the execution to secondary artists without loss of quality. Another three river gods were planned for the base of the tomb, but Michelangelo only completed this model and the one for its twin on the left side. None of the finished sculptures of the river gods were ever made.

After he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the two models stayed in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo basilica, the grand chapel designed and sculpted by Michelangelo to house the palatial new Medici dynasty tombs, along with all the completed statuary. They were still there two decades later, but by the end of the 16th century, the right model was in the private collection of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The left model was lost. The only known version of it extant today is Michelangelo’s very rough work sketch in the British Museum.

In 1583, the surviving model was donated to the Academy of Art and Design which is today the oldest fine arts academy in the world, founded by Cosimo I in 1563. At the time of the donation, less than 60 years after it was made, the model had condition problems. The first recorded restoration of the work took place in 1590.

Over the centuries, the river god fell down an art historical memory hole until it was rediscovered in 1906 by German sculptor and long-time resident of Florence Adolf von Hildebrand and German art historian Adolf Gottschewski. The new attention the model received spurred the Academy to move it to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it was displayed near the David and other sculptures Michelangelo carved in marble.

The model was on display there until 1965 when it was moved to the Casa Buonarroti museum for its own preservation and to add to the museum’s collection of Michelangelo models. The Academy still owns the piece, however, and three years ago they engaged the services of Florence’s top restoration masters at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to stabilize the deteriorating model.They mended areas of the surface that had come apart and strengthened the structure to prepare it for future transport and exhibition. They also analyzed the dark paint that gave the work a bronzed effect and discovered it was a later alteration. Michelangelo’s original choice was the paint the model in lead white to make it look like the marble the finished product would be made out of and so that it would match the completed sculptures in the New Sacristy. Opificio conservators painstakingly removed the dark paint, revealing and restoring Michelangelo’s original white lead layer.

The restored model made its official debut at the Refectory of the Basilica of Santa Croce on July 11th. In September it will go on display at a major exhibition on the art of 16th century Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. After that, it will be on permanent view at the Academy of Art and Design.

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Rare trade silver found in Michigan colonial fort

July 14th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a small but exceedingly rare artifact during this season’s excavation of the 18th century fur trading settlement and colonial fort of Michilimackinac in Michigan’s lower peninsula. It’s a simple silver triangle pierced at the top with a tiny hoop, likely worn as a pendant or earring. It dates to around 1765 and was unearthed in the remains of a fur trader’s house. These modest pieces were trade silver, used as currency in the trading outposts of the colonies.

Trade silver is an excellent marker for the British era of the fur trade. The piece would have likely been used to trade for furs and pelts, Evans said.

She and her team found a smaller piece of trade silver several years ago, but it’s a pretty rare find

“We don’t find a lot of it at Fort Michilimackinac,” she said. “We were really excited.

They don’t find a lot of complete artifacts of any kind at Fort Michilimackinac. Active every summer since 1959, the excavation of Michilimackinac is the longest ongoing archaeological dig in the United States. Over the decades, archaeologists have recovered more than one million archaeological materials, but because the soldiers and traders left Fort Michilimackinac for Mackinac Island gradually over the course of two years, they had plenty of time to ensure nothing useful, valuable and intact was left behind. The vast majority of the items unearthed at the fort are refuse like broken glass, animal bones or lost or discarded items of little to no value like beads and buttons. That’s why it was major headline news when the 2015 dig recovered an intact ivory rosary from the home of a mid-18th century French fur trader.

This season has been even more of a banner year, with two intact artifacts discovered: the trade silver pendant and last month, a brass lock that once sealed a small chest or box. Unearthed in the root cellar of the same fur trader’s home where the trade silver was found, the lock is 2.75″ long and 2.25″ wide at the widest part of its belly. It dates to between 1760 and 1770 and is an unusually decorative, fancy little fixture.

The house itself is older than both objects, having been built around 1730. Rubble on the site indicates the house was demolished in 1781 when the garrison and the traders completed their move to the island. During the 50 years it was standing, it was a bustling part of the trader community. Other items found in the interior of the house underscore that it once belonged to fur traders, something the team knew from the beginning of the dig but was confirmed by the discoveries. Archaeologists unearthed more than a dozen gunflints, four musket balls of trade gun caliber, fishhooks, Jesuit ring fragments and a variety of glass trade beads in a selection of colors and sizes.

The site will continue to be excavated until the season ends in August. Until then, visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac, the open-air museum on the site of the site of the 18th century fort and trading village that is now part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks system, can view the archaeologists in the trenches, ask them about their work, see finds as they come out of the ground.

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Pietà by pioneer Netherlandish painter loaned to Rijskmuseum

July 13th, 2017

Johan Maelwael, also known by the French version of his name Jean Malouel, was born in Nijmegen in around 1365. Nijmegen was part of the Duchy of Guelders then (now the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands) and had just joined the Hanseatic League in 1364. The prosperity that came with the increase in trade and commerce engendered a flourishing of the arts. Johan came from an artistic family — his father and uncle were successful artists — and he trained in his father Willem’s workshop from an early age.

He started his professional career as a painter of heraldic imagery at the court of the Dukes of Guelders in his hometown of Nijmegen. That experience proved desirable and portable, and in 1396 he moved to Paris where he specialized in painting heraldic and armorial images for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Isabeau was a great patron of the arts who during this period had built something of a shadow court thanks to her husband’s increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness. (Whenever the King succumbed to one of his spells, which lasted months at a time, he did not recognize Isabeau and demanded that strange woman be removed from his presence.)

Maelwael’s work for the Queen lasted no more than a year, and by the summer of 1397 Maelwael was in Dijon, capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, where he was appointed court painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The appointment came with the rank of valet de chambre and a hefty salary. Maelwael would keep the job even after Philip’s death in 1404, remaining court painter to his son and successor John the Fearless.

At the Burgundy court, Maelwael again painted heraldic images on banners, pennants, flags and armour, but he also went further afield. Among other works, the dukes commissioned large-scale murals, devotional panel paintings, elaborate altarpieces for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol where Philip’s tomb was located, and the painting and gilding of sculptures. He experimented with new approaches and pioneered what would become known as the International Gothic style.

The greatest surviving example of this is a tondo known as La Grande Pietà, a tempera on wood panel painting that many art historians consider to be the first proper tondo of the Renaissance. The iconography is not typical of later Renaissance pietas because in addition to the dead Christ held by his disconsolate mother Mary, God the Father is also in the picture, holding up the body of his sacrificed Son. Two angels help hold up the body, and a four more balance out the composition on the left side, adding splashes of color and a variety of anguished facial expressions. On the far right is a facepalming St. John.

On the back of the round is an example of the specialty that launched Maelwael’s illustrious career: the coat of arms of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. This suggests the painting was commissioned by Philip before his death, and the unusual combination of a pieta and the Holy Trinity suggests it may have been intended for the Burgundy tombs at Champmol since the monastery was dedicated to the Trinity and the ducal family also evinced a particular devotion to the Trinity.

Besides the imagery, Maelwael also included unusual features in the technical aspects of the painting. The frame of the tondo was carved out of the wood panel, something I don’t recall seeing in any other example of the form. His use of transparent glazes over the tempera was also ground-breaking. Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, who a decade after Maelwael’s death followed in his footsteps as painter to the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Bold, in his time), would take those transparent glazes and run with them.

One of the reasons the tondo is so special is that it is one of very few extant works that can be conclusively attributed to Johan Maelwael. Acquired by the Louvre in 1864, La Grande Pietà is one of the treasures of the museum’s early Flemish collection. It hasn’t left Paris since 1962, but come this fall, the greatest surviving masterpiece of the first painter of the Northern Renaissance will be heading to the Netherlands for the first time in its existence when it goes on display at the Rijksmuseum.

At the Burgundian court, Maelwael painted flags, banners and armour; he designed patterns for fabrics; he executed large religious paintings; he created refined miniatures in illuminated manuscripts; he decorated sculptures with gold-leaf and color and he painted small devotional pieces and portraits. Around 1400 Maelwael introduced his three talented nephews as miniature painters in France: the legendary Limbourg brothers Herman, Johan and Paul.

For the first time, Maelwael’s paintings will be exhibited alongside medieval art treasures, manuscripts, precious metalwork and sculpture – from among others, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Maelwael’s paintings will be juxtaposed not only with the sculpture of his contemporaries Claus Sluter and Claes van Werve, but also with the richly decorated illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers.

The Johan Maelwael exhibition will run at the Rijksmuseum from October 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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Greek theaters had moveable stages on wheels

July 12th, 2017

A paper about a new survey of the 4th century B.C. theater in Messene, Greece, reports that three lines carved in stone next to the stage were track lines used to wheel massive wooden set pieces into place. Researchers from Japan’s Kumamoto University studied the Greek Classical period theater’s stone lines and compared them to similar ones found in theaters built around the same time in the nearby city states of Sparta and Megalopolis. The lines at Messene are 9 to 12 cm (3.5 to 4.7 inches) wide and 3.8 to 5.4 cm (1.5 to 2.1 inches) deep and are almost perfectly level. The grooves are two meters (6.5 feet) apart.

A few years ago, there wasn’t much of a theater left to survey. After six centuries of continuous use, the theater was abandoned in the early 4th century A.D., its marble and stone pilfered for use in local construction. In the early 1990s, excavations began at the site. At first it didn’t look like there was anything left of the theater after so many years of neglect and architectural recycling. There were a few barrier walls visible above ground, but that’s it. Olive groves surrounded the site and thick deposits of earth covered what had once been the orchestra (the circular or horseshoe-shaped space between the audience and the stage where the chorus performed) and the koilon (the bleachers where the audience sat). Archaeologists laboured for more than two decades to excavate every last piece of the theater they could find and restore as much of it as possible. In August of 2013, the theater reopened for the first time in 1,700 years with 2,000 seats, all of them jigsawed together from the scattered ruins.

A large storage room and the three stone lines weren’t discovered until 2007 during a field study by archaeologists from Kumamoto University. They’ve been studying the finds ever since, comparing them with the theaters in Sparta and Megalopolis and attempting to determine what role these structures played in ancient theatrical productions. The Kumamoto University researchers have now published the result of their investigation in Archäologischen Anzeigers, the journal of the German Archaeological Institute.

What was the purpose of these stone rows? In the Hellenistic theater, a one-story building called the “proskenion” was placed on the stage. The Proskenion was used as a stage background and it is thought that actors were also able to speak from its balconies. Behind that was a two story “skene” that was used as both a dressing room and another stage background. In the past, it was thought that the proskenion and the skene were either stone-built and fixed or wooden and wheeled. If they were wheeled, they would have moved as one massive construction along three stone rows. As a result of their investigation, however, the Kumamoto University researcher proposed that the proskenion and skene were separate constructs, each with their own set of wheels, and that there is high possibility that each proskenion and skene was pulled in and out of the storage room on two stone rows respectively.

Proskenion and skene with wooden wheels. Image courtesy Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake.“A large force would have been required to move stage equipment as large as the proskenion and skene,” said Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake who led the research project. “In previous studies, there was a theory that the proskenion and skene were simultaneously moved along just three stone rows, but I think it is more logical that the proskenion and skene each had their own set of two stone rows to move along. I came to this conclusion due to the positions of three stone rows and the fact that it would have been quite difficult to move the heavy proskenion and skene together using a single axle with three wooden wheels.”

Ancient literature makes it clear that that there were rotating stage devices in both Greek and Roman theaters. The newly discovered stone rows and storage rooms at the Messene Theater are important remains that show the likelihood is extremely high that mobile wooden stages existed in the theaters of the Hellenistic period. Future research is expected to clarify the appearance of a wheeled wooden stage like that in Messene and the influence it had on later stage building.

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Oldest madeira collection found in New Jersey museum

July 11th, 2017

Workers renovating Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, discovered a rare collection of Madeira wines, some dating back to Colonial times. Museum staff knew the Kean family had wine storage shelves in the cellar, but they were obscured by a plaster and plywood wall built during Prohibition. When workers broke through the wall and the locked wooden cage behind it, they found a collection of 18th and 19th century wines far larger than they realized. There are three cases containing more than 50 bottles of Madeira, the oldest of which date to 1796. The attic held an unexpected wine cache as well, not in bottles but in 42 demijohns dating to the 1820s. It’s the oldest and largest known collection of Madeira in the United States.

The museum staffers cataloged the cases and jugs of Madeira as they were discovered. While some of the stock needed to be researched online, most of the wine was still labeled with handwritten tags, or could be looked up in the thousands of Liberty Hall documents dating more than 200 years.

“We have the receipts from the liquor store, or the liquor distributor in New York, in Elizabeth or wherever,” [Liberty Hall director of operations Bill] Schroh said. “We can also trace the purchaser, when it was purchased and who it was purchased from.”

Part of the research showed some of the Madeira was imported by Robert Lenox, a millionaire merchant from New York who owned land in the heart of Harlem, which is where the borough’s main avenue gets its name.

Liberty Hall was the country home of William Livingston, scion of a prominent New York family and a successful lawyer. When he bought the land in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey, he planned to retire to the estate. He was intimately involved in the design of the 14-room Georgian home and of the landscaping and orchards on the 120-acre property. He and his wife settled in to their happy retirement home in 1773, but Livingston’s retirement wouldn’t even last a full year. Revolution pulled him back into political and military action. He was a delegate to both Continental Congresses, was a general in the New Jersey militia and was New Jersey’s first elected governor in 1776.

Livingston was only able to return to Liberty Hall in 1783 and the estate had been rudely treated by the British who trashed the place on the regular searching for him when he was a wanted man. American soldiers also looted the home. Livingston lovingly repaired the home and gardens, even as he continued to serve as governor until his death in 1790.

The hall was purchased by Peter Kean, the son of Livingston’s niece Susan, in 1811. Peter and his mother maintained the estate for the next 22 years. In 1833, Susan’s grandson Colonel John Kean inherited it and over the course of six decades, transformed the Georgian home into a 50-room Victorian mansion. It has remained in the Kean family who have worked to preserve it and open it to the public as a museum displaying original artifacts from the Livingston and Kean families in rooms dedicated to different time periods.

It seems the wines were collected by both the Livingstons and the Keans.

Some of the original Madeira stock was shipped to the second generation who lived at Liberty Hall, in anticipation of John Adams’ presidency. Although Liberty Hall President John Kean was well aware of the wine collection, he couldn’t have imagined its historical significance.

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” said Kean, first cousin to New Jersey’s former governor. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira was a popular tipple for the early American upper crust, because unlike most wines at that time, it can take a lot of jostling of the kind sure to be experienced on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage. The fortified dessert wine also lasts far longer than other wines without spoiling or turning to vinegar. In the 18th century, the 13 colonies bought 95% of the Madeira produced on the Portuguese archipelago and gentlemen of wealth and good taste would have a selection of Madeiras in their cellars (or attics). The Liberty Hall collection has six different kinds of Madeira.

The newly liberated cellar space with its original wooden shelves, now restored and structurally reinforced, is open to the public, along with some of the bottles and demijohns. John Kean had the opportunity to taste a sample from one of the Madeiras and he said it tasted fine, like a sweet sherry. The bottles from 1796 have not been sampled. They might be whipped out for an appropriate special occasion in the future: a visit from the President of Portugal.

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New cache of Roman writing tablets found at Vindolanda

July 10th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the Roman fort of Vindolanda have discovered a new cache of 25 Roman writing tablets. The wood tablets were unearthed in a sodden trench (it’s been raining a lot up there) on June 22nd in a small section less than 10 feet long. These invaluable records of daily life in a Roman fort on the far northern border of the empire date to the end of the 1st century A.D., which means they were written no later than 15 years after the first version of the fort was built.

Many of them less than two millimetres thick, simple slivers of birch rather than the notebook-like rectangles you might think of when you see the word “tablet,” this incredibly rare group of letters, lists, official and private correspondence were likely part of an archive that was lost or unceremoniously discarded, albeit in a weird way. The tablets weren’t grouped together as they would be if they’d be enclosed in a bag or dumped in one spot. They were found spaced out along the trench at regular intervals. The archaeological team speculates that they may have fallen out of a bag with a hole in the corner, or else someone took the time to remove individual tablets and toss them into the rubble of a foundation layer every other step.

Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort and associated vicus (an independent civilian settlement) in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Multiple iterations of the fort were built starting with simple wood and turf structures in the late 1st century through to the stone forts of the late 2nd and early 3rd century. That last stone fort was repaired and occupied in fits and starts until the end of the 4th century in the twilight years of Roman Britain.

That long, varied record of occupation was preserved for nigh on 2,000 years by the site’s anaerobic soil. Organic materials that would normally decay survived in the waterlogged mud of Vindolanda in exceptional condition, among them wood plumbing pipes, an inscribed barrel stave, the only known Roman wooden toilet seat, leather shoes by the thousands and of course, the artifacts voted the UK’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators, more than 1,700 fragmentary and complete wooden writing tablets.

Ever since the first writing tablets were discovered at Vindolanda in 1973, individual tablets have been found during the ongoing excavations. One small but important fragment with four lines of ink writing clearly visible to the naked eye (many tablets have no visible ink remaining and can only be deciphered using infrared photography) was just unearthed on June 15th. It dates to between 92 and 105 A.D. Not exactly a writing tablet because there is no ink or lettering on the surface, but just five days later archaeologists found a wooden stylus tablet that once held a wax layer on which letters would be written.

A cache of writing tablets is a much different and rarer animal, however, even in the miraculously soggy soil of Vindolanda. The last time a tablet hoard was found was in 1992 and it was massive, containing hundreds of writing tablets. This batch is far more modest in size, but it has some singularly important features.

As the archaeological team, carefully and painstakingly extracted the delicate pieces of wood from the earth they were delighted to see some of the letters were complete and others had partial or whole confronting pages. The confronting tablets, where the pages are protected by the back of the adjoining pages, are the most exceptional discoveries as they provide the greatest chance of the ink writing being preserved.

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations spoke about the day the tablets were recovered “What an incredible day, truly exceptional. You can never take these things for granted as the anaerobic conditions needed for their survival are very precise.

Complete confronting oak writing tablets. Photo courtesy The Vindolanda Trust.I was fortunate enough to be involved when my father, Dr Robin Birley, excavated a bonfire site of Vindolanda tablets in 1992 and I had hoped, but never truly expected, that the day might come when we would find another hoard of such well preserved documents again during a day on our excavations.

I am sure that the archaeological staff, students and volunteers who took part on this excavation will always remember the incredible excitement as the first document was recognised in the trench and carefully lifted out. It was half a confronting tablet, two pages stuck together with the tell-tale tie holes and V notches at the top of the pages. The crowd of visitors who gathered at the edge of the excavation fences were also fascinated to see tablet after tablet being liberated from a deep trench several metres down”.

Like the fragment discovered the week before the cache, several of the writing tablets in the group have readable ink. This is immensely exciting to archaeologists because they don’t have to wait for the painstaking process of conservation followed by infrared photography before they can even attempt to decipher the spikey Latin cursive. The oak confronting tablet is not legible at the moment because oak darkens over time much more than birch, but the team is optimistic there may be sufficient ink on the surface to be detected by infrared imaging.

Some of the names in the letters have been deciphered already because they’re known from previously deciphered tablets. One character named Masclus makes a second appearance after a very memorable first one. In the first letter from Masclus discovered at Vindolanda, he asked his commanding officer to send more beer to his outpost on Hadrian’s Wall. In the tablet discovered last month, Masclus is asking to be granted leave (commeatus), possibly due to a crippling hangover.

Cleaning and conservation of the tablets has already begun — you can’t waste any time when keeping organic archaeological materials from decay once they’ve been exposed to the air — and once they’re clean and stable, the writing tablets will be analysed using infrared photography so the ones with faded ink can be read and translated.

For more about the endlessly fascinating (and endlessly wet) work of the Vindolanda archaeological team, follow Digging Vindolanda, a blog of the seasonal digs by one of the volunteer excavators.

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US returns looted royal seals to Korea

July 9th, 2017

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned two looted royal seals from the Joseon Dynasty to the Republic of Korea at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on June 30th. The repatriation ceremony was planned to coincide with South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s visit to Washington so that Thomas D. Homan, acting director of ICE, could formally hand the seals over to the President who then carried them back to South Korea personally.

The two royal seals are the same size — four inches square — and both have handles shaped like turtles, but they were made a century apart from different materials. The oldest of them is the royal seal Queen Munjeong (1501-1565) which was made in 1547 out of gilt bronze. Technically 1547 was the second year of her son’s reign, but King Myeongjong was just 12 years old when he ascended the throne after his half-brother’s death under suspicious circumstances, so Queen Munjeong acted as regent. The seal uses a title given to Munjeong during her early regency.

(It was widely believed that Myeongjong’s half-brother King Injong, who reigned for only one year after his father’s death and was 30 years old when he died, was poisoned to death. Queen Munjeong was the prime suspect for the ringleader of the conspiracy to remove the young, reform-minded, active king and replace him with his kid brother whom she could easily manipulate. She stayed on as regent long past her son’s majority, remaining queen until her death 20 years later. Myeongjong was 32 years old when he finally became king in more than name.)

The second royal seal was made for the future King Hyeonjong (r. 1659-1674) to commemorate his becoming the crown prince in 1651. It’s carved out of highly prized white jade and is taller and more massive than the Queen’s seal.

Both of these are of a type of royal seal known as an “eobo,” used for ceremonial purposes rather than for official government documents which were the province of the “guksae” or the great seal. Because they were the official stamp of royal authority, the production, deployment and retirement of royal seals were stringently regulated by the Jongmyo, the Confucian shrine dedicated to the preserving the memory and rituals of the Joseon royals. The Joseon Dynasty is one of the longest ruling dynasties in the history of the world (1392 to 1897), so you might be forgiven for thinking they were lousy with royal seals after all that time, but because of that strict oversight, during the 500+ years of the Joseon Kingdom and Korean Empire only 37 guksae and 375 eobo were made.

They were all present and accounted for until the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). The seals were hot items for looters and pillagers, and continued to be actively stolen during the Korean War (1950-53). The two returned seals are microcosms of the larger syndrome. Queen Munjeong’s seal is believed to have been stolen during the Korean War, King Hyeonjong’s during the Japanese occupation. The Korean government has vigorously pursued all leads to track down their precious cultural heritage since the 1950s. Four of the great seals have been recovered and seven of the royal seals. There are still 29 great state seals and 46 royal ones unaccounted for as of today.

The seals are a microcosm of Korea’s assiduous attempts to reclaim their lost treasures too. There are US State Department records going back to the mid-1950s that document requests from the Korean ambassador to locate the stolen seals of Queen Munjeong and King Hyeonjong. There is no evidence of any investigation taking place at that time. That would have to wait until 2013 when ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division opened an investigation into Queen Munjeong’s royal seal at the request of South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) who had found out the seal at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and had been for 13 years. The Korean Broadcasting Service did a little digging and identified the private collector who sold the Queen’s seal to LACMA in 2000. They found the King’s seal at his house.

The seals will be conserved and stored at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. They won’t go on display right away. The CHA is currently planned a special exhibit in August that will put the royal seals on public view.

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