Tiny hands in ancient rock art aren’t human

March 5th, 2016

The 8,000-year-old rock art painted on a walls of the Wadi Sūra II in the Sahara Desert is replete with handprints. It’s a common theme in ancient rock art. Artists used their hands as stencils and painted or blew pigment around them leaving a negative handprint. The cave was discovered in 2002 about six miles from the famous Cave of Swimmers which featured prominently in that endless bore of a movie, The English Patient. It’s 66 feet long and 26 feet deep and there are about 900 stencil paintings on the wall. In addition to the hands, artists used arms, feet, circular objects and sticks as stencils and red, yellow, orange and brown pigments. There are also drawings of headless people and a variety of wildlife which inspired the nickname Cave of the Beasts.

Among the hundreds of adult human handprints are 13 tiny hands. While children’s handprints have been found in ancient rock art from Argentina to Australia, they’ve never been found before in the Sahara. When anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research first saw the small handprints in Wadi Sura II in 2006, she was shocked. They looked too tiny to be the hands of babies even a very small baby wouldn’t have the long, thin fingers of the prints on the cave wall.

Honoré took precise measurements of the handprints and set out to compare them to the hands of newborns and, because the prints are so small, to premature babies as well. Since she couldn’t very well just march into a maternity ward and demand to measure the hands of premies and full-term neonates, Honoré teamed up with doctors from the perinatal department of the Lille University School of Medicine, the largest medical school in France. They collected hand measurements from infants of 37 to 41 weeks gestational age and premature babies from 26 to 36 weeks gestational age. The parents of the babies, incidentally, were excited that their newborns would start off life contributing to a scientific study.

Just as Honoré suspected, the proportions were way off. She considered whether the stencils might have been wooden or clay molds, but the finger and hand positions were too irregular for that. Honoré then looked to other animals. Monkeys seemed likely candidates, but again the proportions didn’t work.

While doing research at a crocodile farm in Zambia, it occurred to Honoré that a reptile hand was a possibility. Reptiles like young crocodiles and desert monitor lizards leave handprints that at first glance look surprisingly like baby human hands. Crocodiles didn’t live there 8,000 years ago and would have had to have been transported to the Wadi Sura II area, or at least the feet would have. The desert monitor lizard, on the other hand, was native to the region, and its forefeet are tiny with long fingers, just like the stencils. Even today the desert monitor lizard lives in the area and is considered a protective force to the nomadic tribes who share their ecosystem.

Other prehistoric cultures used animals as stencils for their rock art. For example, the Aboriginal people used emu foot stencils in the Carnarvon Gorge and Tent Shelter in Australia, and choike/nandu (birds in the genus Rhea) stencils are in the rock art at La Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, the researchers wrote in the study.

It’s unclear why the ancient people at Wadi Sūra II used reptile hands as stencils, but Honoré said she’s working on a new study that analyzes possible reasons.

“I think we have to remain a bit prudent,” she said. “We have to explore all of the hypotheses without taking anything for granted.”

She’s also prudently avoiding speculation on whether the animal’s foot was severed before it was used as an artist’s stencil or whether the artists actually pressed the wee foot of a living lizard up to the wall.

This is the first time non-human five-fingered hand stencils have been discovered in rock art anywhere in the world. The study has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

14 men convicted in massive museum theft ring

March 4th, 2016

Remember the bumbling idiots who stole two Chinese Qing Dynasty artifacts worth $3 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum in April of 2012? It turns out they were just the stupid tip of a large and dangerous organized crime iceberg. Fourteen of them have been found guilty of stealing and plotting to steal Chinese antiquities and rhino horns from multiple museums and auction houses. Four masterminds were convicted on Monday, which allowed the Durham police to release the news about the full scope the plot and the connection between all these cases.

This is the culmination of a four-year investigation named Operation Griffin that began with the April 2012 thefts at Durham University, but the Oriental Museum was first targeted in January of that year. An Irishman tried to use decorators’ tools to steal a Ming Dynasty ceramic sculpture from a cabinet. The glass broke and the would-be thief was caught in the attempt to flee. In February four men tried to steal a rhino head from the Norwich Castle Museum. The head was so heavy they dropped it and ran. These four were later arrested and convicted. In March another bunch of crappy criminals tried to steal a rhino libation cup from Gorringes auction house in Lewes. They got confused and took a much cheaper bamboo bowl instead and were overpowered and arrested outside the building.

This pathetic litany of failure seemed to come to an end with the April 5th theft of the two Chinese jade pieces from the Durham Oriental Museum. At least they managed to cut a hole in the wall, take the objects they meant to take and get out before the police arrived. The dumbassness kicked in when they hid the loot on wasteland next to Harle Street on the outskirts of Durham. They neglected to note the exact spot and when the team of people dispatched to retrieve the artifacts arrived 16 hours later, they were unable to find them.

We owe this marvelous failure to a local resident who, after trimming his Leylandii hedge, threw the branches over his fence, unwittingly covering up a few million dollars worth of jade. Many frantic phone calls between the thieves and their bosses ensued. The police dubbed this “Panic Day” and it was key to their understanding that these thefts were part of a major criminal conspiracy.

The two dimwits were caught by the police so the gang wrote the loot off and quickly planned to replace the stolen goods with new stolen goods. On Friday the 13th of April, four thieves broke into the Fitzwilliam Museum and stole 18 very valuable pieces of Chinese jade. After so many failures, this was the motherlode. The thefts from Durham and Cambridge combined were worth about £17 million ($24,197,000) on the legal market, but on the Far East black market they were worth far more. Police estimate they could have gone for as much as £57 million ($81,131,000). Deep-pocketed Chinese collectors have been spending millions for heritage pieces at auctions and from dealers. Many have no particular concern about how the objects were acquired and are willing to pay whatever price no questions asked.

Another succesful raid took place a year later on April 17th, 2013, when three men broke in the National Museum of Ireland Archives and stole four 100-year-old rhino heads to sell their horns on the Chinese market. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and with so few rhinos left in the wild, the price of their horns is astronomical. Those eight horns on the rhino heads in the museum’s storage facility were worth an estimated £428,000 ($610,000).

Six of the men convicted for this conspiracy are connected by family or business to a community of Irish Travellers in Rathkeale, County Limerick. That’s why the gang is known as the Rathkeale Rovers. The four convicted Monday — Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr. and Michael Hegarty — are all family or friends. They didn’t sully their hands doing any of the burglaries. They just coordinated things from the safety of the Traveller camps. Instead, petty criminals were hired to do their dirty work, which is why so many of these thefts ended in ridiculousness, and why a slow 15-year-old boy who had never been to secondary school was arrested for the Fitzwilliam thefts, convicted and ultimately sentenced to four months.

Police believe at least one of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwillian was deliberately chosen as a replacement for the jade bowl lost in Durham, which means this may well have been a commissioned theft, something often bandied about after important art and artifacts are stolen, but almost never really happens. One of the 14 convicted in the plot is Chi Chong Donald Wong, an antique-watch dealer and property owner in London and Hong Kong who acted as fence and middle-man between the Rathkeale leaders and buyers in Hong Kong. Police busted him twice with plastic bags stuffed full of thousands of pounds in cash.

The police investigation found that the conspiracy reaches far beyond the borders of the UK. The gang has been stealing and smuggling rhino horn all over the world for years.

The robberies in Britain were part of a much wider picture of criminality across Europe. A year before Supt Green’s team started work, the European policing agency Europol released details of its own assessment of an organised crime group stealing rhino horn across Europe.

Europol charted dozens of robberies of rhino horn and had identified an organised crime group Irish Travellers – dubbed by the media as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo gang – as being behind them. A single rhino horn – valued for its (ineffective) medicinal qualities in China and the Far East – could reach €200,000 (£156,000), it said. The group was active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.

For years, the gang had been targeting museums, but because there were only a few raids in each country, nobody had joined up the dots. The criminals reinvested the proceeds in property and luxury cars – much of it back in Rathkeale in Co Limerick – while continuing to live in their caravans. All of the key players were still in circulation.

The British team fed their information about telephone numbers, suspects, car number plates into the intelligence pool gathered by Europol. “It lit up their database like a Christmas tree,” a police source told The Independent.

Since the arrests, there have been no new thefts of Chinese artifacts or rhino horns in the UK. Unfortunately none of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwilliam have been found. Police think they were quickly shifted overseas for sale to Chinese buyers and are likely gone forever.

Anglo-Saxon island settlement found

March 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield have found an Anglo-Saxon island settlement in Little Carlton, Lincolnshire, that they believe to be one of the most important discoveries in decades. It was metal detectorist Graham Vickers who made the first find: a solid silver stylus. He reported it to Lincolnshire Finds Liaison Officer Dr. Adam Daubney who identified it as a writing implement from the 8th century. It was used to inscribe words on wax tablets; the flat end (which is now bent, probably from an encounter with farming equipment) is an eraser. Pull it through the wax and it resets the field.

A decorated solid silver stylus was a very high status object in the Middle Saxon period. Inspired by his find, Mr. Vickers returned to the plough field and kept detecting, noting the GPS coordinates of every find so the archaeologists who followed him could map out the site. He wound up unearthing hundreds more artifacts: 20 styli, 300 dress pins, more than 100 coins and a very rare lead tablet inscribed with the female Anglo-Saxon name “Cudberg.” Vickers found more than 77 pounds of lead on the site, all relatively common finds. The fact that there’s a name inscribed on this tablet is unusual anyway, and a woman’s name makes it unique.

The coins are all sceats, a type minted in England, and in parts of modern-day Denmark and the Netherlands. Sceats are often found at important trading sites and since they were widely used in northern Europe and have been found in France as well, they were apparently a widely accepted international currency. Most sceats have no inscriptions to record where they were minted and there’s a bewildering variety of iconography. The pictured coin, for example, may not represent any actual king. It seems the minters roughly imitated Roman, Celtic and Germanic coin types because they were their idea of how coins should look.

Another intriguing find is a glass domed bead made from recycled Roman glass. The core is made of re-melted and reshaped Roman glass. The swirly bars of colored glass on top are very refined and could have only have been made by an expert glass maker. The surface shows signs of abrasion, which could have been done to shape it or mount it. Archaeologists think it’s a gaming counter, but if so it’s a very fancy one and it could be a decorative embellishment from a larger piece like jewelry or a bowl.

The University of Sheffield realized from the quality, number and nature of the finds that Mr. Vickers had stumbled on something remarkable so Dr. Hugh Willmott and graduate student Pete Townend from the Department of Archaeology did geophysical and magnetometry surveys of the site. The data was then 3D modelled so they could better understand how the lay of the land and how it was used in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The imagery showed that the island they had discovered was much more obvious than the land today, rising out of its lower surroundings. To complete the picture the researchers raised the water level digitally to bring it back up to its early medieval height based on the topography and geophysical survey. [...]

Students from the University have subsequently opened nine evaluation trenches at the site which revealed a wealth of information about what life would have been like at the settlement.

They found a number of intriguing items including an area which seems to have been an area of industrial working, as well as very significant quantities of Middle Saxon pottery and butchered animal bone.

Archaeologists believe this wasn’t your average Middle Saxon settlement. So many writing implements, jewels and coins indicate this was a monastery or a center of trade and finance, perhaps part of an international trading network. There are very few surviving documents from this period in Lincolnshire. Reading the artifacts and context of this site will contribute significantly to historical understanding of the area in 8th century.

Western Han tomb is Marquis of Haihun’s

March 2nd, 2016

The immensely rich and well-preserved main tomb in the Western Han Dynasty cemetery near Nanchang, China, has been confirmed as that of Liu He, emperor for less than a month (from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C.) and finally Marquis of Haihun. As they had hoped, archaeologists found a white jade seal at the waist of the human remains in the interior coffin of the tomb. The base of the seal is inscribed “Liu He.” As if that weren’t explicit enough, another jade seal was found in the tomb inscribed “Seal of Master Liu” and several of the gold coins and bamboo slips also bear his name.

The tomb is the largest and best preserved Western Han tomb ever discovered. It is packed to gills with archaeological treasure, and I don’t just mean the gold although there’s a crapload of that too. A total of 285 gold coins, in fact, each weighing about 250 grams, have been found packed in lacquer boxes. Archaeologists believe they were gifts from the emperor to Liu He. There’s also a stack of 20 gold plates, each 23 centimeters (nine inches) long, 10 centimeters (four inches) wide and 0.3 centimeters (.12 inches) thick. It’s far and away the most gold ever found in a Han Dynasty tomb.

In total more than 20,000 objects have been excavated from the tomb since digging began in 2011. If archaeologists had begun a day later, the tomb would have been emptied out by looters, its priceless archaeological information destroyed. Excavation began as an emergency response to a report that the tomb was being raided. In the process of stealing the saleable stuff — gold coins, bronze bells, bronze lamps, two million bronze coins, jade — the earliest known portrait of Confucius, 3,000 wooden tablets and bamboo slips would almost certainly have been damaged or destroyed. The tablets that have been examined so far are copies of reports the Marquis submitted to the Dowager Empress Shangguan and the Emperor Xuan. The bamboo slips haven’t been read yet, but if they’re like other examples found in Western Han tombs, they are likely medical and agricultural books.

The discovery of the tomb and its contents may well redeem Liu He for the history books. Before now, all the information on the record about him was written by the people who overthrew him 27 days after he took the throne. According to the victors, Liu He, grandson of Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.), and successor to his uncle, Emperor Zhao, was a spendthrift, depraved, disrespectful horndog who had all the sex, food and hunting he could during his four weeks as emperor when he supposed to be in mourning for his grandfather. When he was deposed, he was charged with 1127 counts of misconduct.

His tomb, however, shows no sign of this purported unprincipled profligacy. There is no decoration or content of any kind referring to his brief stint as emperor. As a marquis, he was allowed a grave mound no longer than 13 meters, but his was significantly shorter than that. The sheer amount of reading material in the tomb indicate that he was a man of learning. Archaeologists speculate that instead of being a drunken, gluttonous party animal, Liu He may have been a bookworm which didn’t suit the political machinations of the imperial courtiers. On the other hand, he may have just grown up a lot in the 15 years between his deposition and death.

More than 400 artifacts from the tomb have gone on display at Beijing’s Capital Museum. The show runs for just three months until June 2nd, and the museum is expecting big crowds. It’s only the second time any objects from Liu He’s tomb have been exhibited, and the first time outside of Jiangxi. When the Jiangxi Provincial Museum put 120 pieces on display last year, more than 180,000 people came to see them. The Beijing Capital Museum has crowd control plans in place. They will allow 1,000 individual visitors a day in the first week, with groups being given priority. After that, the limit will be raised to 5,000 people a day.

Matthias Buchinger: no hands, no legs, great artist

March 1st, 2016

The art of micrography, drawings composed of lines of text so miniscule they are all but unreadable to the naked eye, is a traditional Jewish artform developed in the 9th century. One of its greatest masters did it without hands.

Matthias Buchinger was born on June 3rd, 1674, in a town near Nuremberg. He had no arms below the elbows and no legs below his upper thighs. According to an 1833 article in The Dublin Penny Journal that cites the nephew of a friend of Buchinger’s, his parents were “distressed at his unnatural form” and “concealed him as much as possible.” Other than that there’s a record of an unnamed individual matching his description at a fair sideshow in Leipzig in 1694. His first concrete entrance in the historical record comes in the first decade of the 18th century with his earliest surviving artworks.

By then he was in his 30s and was 29 inches tall. He was also a polymath genius, accomplished not just in calligraphy and drawing, but in playing multiple musical instruments, sleight-of-hand (minus hands), creating miniatures in bottles, carving wood, threading a needle, shooting and bowling, all accomplished by the dextrous use of small fin-like appendages at the ends of his arm stumps. Buchinger traveled all over Europe, from Augsburg to Amsterdam to Paris to Copenhagen to London to Belfast, displaying his many talents and tricks to amazed crowds and crowned heads alike. Poetry was written about “the Little Man of Nuremberg.”

Nobody could do him as much justice as he did himself. Here’s how he described himself in a 1724 engraving publicizing his performances.

“This is the effigies of Mr. Matthew Buchinger, being drawn and written by himself he is the wonderful little man of but 29.inches high, born without hands, feet, of thighs, June the 2. 1674. in Germany, in the Marquisate of Brandeburgh, near to Nurenburgh. He being the last of nine children, by one father and mother, viz. eight sons, and one daughter. The same little man has been married four times, and has had issue eleven children, viz. one by his first wife, three by the second, six by his third, and one by his present wife. This little man performs such wonders as have never been done by any; but himself. He plays on various sorts of music to admiration, as the hautboy, strange flute in consort with the bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet; and designs to make machines to play on almost all sorts of music. He is no less eminent for writing, drawing of coats of arms, and pictures to the life, with a pen. He also plays at cards and dice, performs tricks with cups and balls, corn and live birds; and plays at skittles or nine-pins to a great nicety, with several other performances, to the great satisfaction of all spectators.”

Notice that his self portrait in that engraving is a micrograph. The curls of his peruke contain the complete 27th, 121st, 128th, 130th, 140th, 149th, and 150th Psalms, plus the Lord’s Prayer.

Buchinger wasn’t just tooting his own horn to draw an audience, either. Eyewitness reports matched his account. Here’s a review from James Paris, who saw him in London on March 10th, 1731:

“He did with his stumps what many could not do with their hands and feet so well as he in playing at cards, dice, ninepins, shuffel-board and roily-poly. He did cutt paper in several curious shapes, forms and figures. He writ, cast accounts, and designed very prettily; comb’d, oyl’d and powdered his perruque very well; load and discharge a pistol and did never fail of hitting the mark. He darted a sword at a mark exactly at a great distance and performed a great many other strange things.”

Said spectators included three successive German emperors and one king of Britain. He moved to England from Hanover in 1717, three years after the Elector of Hanover became King George I. Hoping to secure a lucrative appointment from the new king, he presented him with an instrument of his own invention. King George gave him a nice prize of 20 guineas, but no job, so he kept moving. He traveled through England, Scotland and Ireland, finally settling in County Cork. By the time of his death in County Cork in 1739, Buchinger was a wealthy man. He left behind a widow and at least 14 legitimate children. He was reputed to have had 70 mistresses and dozens of illegitimate children.

Sixteen of his drawings are now on display in Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Magnifying glasses are available so visitors can attempt to read the miniscule calligraphy. Even magnified it’s still almost impossible to read. How he managed to write such tiny letters without the aid of a magnifying device of his own (and we know he didn’t use them because he drew so many pieces in front of an audience) is still a mystery today.

As a renown master of sleight-of-hand and collector of historical marvels, Ricky Jay has been fascinated by Buchinger’s talent and bravado for three decades. Most of the Buchinger drawings in the exhibition are on loan from Jay’s collection. Buchinger’s work is joined by his other masters of micrography, including a portrait of Martin Luther by Johann Michael Püchler, who worked in Nuremberg when Buchinger was young and who may have taught him but certainly inspired him. The exhibition brings the art of lettering into the modern era with pieces by Jasper Johns and other contemporary artists. It runs through April 11th, 2016.

Colon cancer gene found in Hungarian mummy

February 29th, 2016

Mutations of the Adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene associated with the developement of colorectal tumors are common in the modern population, but because lifestyle and environmental factors like obesity, physical inactivity and chemical exposure prevalent today contribute to cancer rates, human remains from earlier times in history provide a unique insight into the evolution of disease. With soft tissue diseases like colorectal cancer, it’s difficult to find evidence in remains most of which are skeletal.

Mummies can bridge the gap, especially natural mummies with surviving tissue that was not embalmed. The mummies of more than 265 people buried in the crypt of the Church of the Whites in Vác, Hungary, between 1731 and 1838 have already proven a boon to medical research. The crypt was bricked in decades ago and forgotten until it was rediscovered by construction workers in 1994. The steady, cool temperature, continual low-level ventilation and the anti-microbial and moisture-absorbing properties of the pine shavings in the coffins created a perfect storm of preservation. There’s also extensive surviving archival information about the people buried in the crypt, which gives researchers valuable information about familial relations, professions, age, dates, etc.

Last year a study found 12 different strains of tuberculosis in DNA extracted from the Vác mummies. Now a new study has found a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer in one of the mummies.

The researchers used genetic sequencing to identify mutations in APC genes that were isolated from the mummies. “Mummified soft tissue opens up a new area of investigation,” Prof. Hershkovitz says. “Very few diseases attack the skeleton, but soft tissue carries evidence of disease. It presents an ideal opportunity to carry out a detailed genetic analysis and test for a wide variety of pathogens.”

“Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation. This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era,” Dr. Sklan says. “But we’ve found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions.”

The discovery of the gene doesn’t mean the individual ever had colon cancer, of course. While very well preserved, the sample was still desiccated and, well, mummified, so researchers weren’t able to distinguish tumors from normal colon tissue.

This is an important breakthrough in the analysis of ancient DNA and the study of the evolution of disease. Until now, ancient DNA studies have primarily focused on extracting the DNA of pathogens. This is the first published study to report the presence of cancer or mutations association with cancer in the DNA. Research on ancient cancer has had to make do with bone lesions and microscopic evidence.

The study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE and can be read free of charge here.

Denver Art Museum returns Koh Ker statue

February 28th, 2016

The Denver Art Museum has returned a statue looted from the archaeological site of Koh Ker to Cambodia. The Torso of Rama was one of many sculptures from the Prasat Chen temple looted by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war in the early 1970s and sold through unscrupulous dealers to major museums and private collections in the US. The Denver Art Museum acquired it in 1986 from the Doris Weiner Gallery in New York and had it on display until last December.

A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed on Friday, 26 February, that the work had arrived in Cambodia. “As part of our own collections research, the Denver Art Museum contacted our museum colleagues in Cambodia to gather more facts on the Torso of Rama piece in the museum’s collection,” the museum’s director, Christoph Heinrich, said in a statement. “We were recently provided with verifiable evidence that was not available to us at the time of acquisition, and immediately began taking all appropriate steps to deaccession the object and prepare it for its return home. In addition to our return of this piece, during this process we have crafted a collaborative relationship with our Cambodian colleagues, and are looking forward to developing cooperative projects and programs that will benefit museum goers and collections in Denver and Phnom Penh.”

I apologize for the tiny pictures (you know this hurts me more than it hurts you), but this repatriation is such momentous news I couldn’t not post about it. The Torso of Rama was the last Prasat Chen statue in a US museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned the Kneeling Attendants in May of 2013. Sotheby’s returned the statue of warrior Duryodhana in December 2013. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena returned Duryodhana’s enemy Bhima in 2014. At the same time, Christie’s bought back a statue of Balarama it had sold twice, once in 2,000, once in 2009, specifically to return it to Cambodia. Last year the Cleveland Museum returned a statue of the monkey god Hanuman. Now the Denver Art Museum, the last public holdout, has finally caved. American museums are officially no longer in the business of taking advantage of the Khmer Rouge’s brutalizing of the 10th century capital of the Khmer Empire.

That leaves only three or four statues missing from Koh Ker (exact numbers are hard to pin down). We don’t know where they are because they are almost certainly in private collections. Unfortunately that means they can remain hidden indefinitely as long as sales are arranged privately rather than through auctions or in some other manner that attracts publicity. Given what two major international auction houses and four US museums just went through, I doubt the holders of these stolen artifacts will do anything that draws attention to their loot.

Anne Lemaistre, Unesco representative to Cambodia, reached out to those shadowy figures in the wake of Denver’s return of Rama.

“To have all of the statues returned to Cambodia is something Unesco has been working hard to achieve, and we appeal to anyone who may currently have one of the remaining statues in their private collection to follow the nice gesture of the Denver museum and return it,” she said.

The return of Rama will give Cambodia the opportunity to reconstruct the figure grouping at the eastern gate of Prasat Chen. Rama and Hanuman are believed to have stood there, along with two other monkey deities locked in battle that are now in the National Museum of Cambodia. This New York Times graphic from 2013 explains where scholars believe the looted statues were originally located in the temple complex. All of the statues in that graphic are home now. :boogie:

Ring ostensibly owned by Joan of Arc sells for $333,000

February 27th, 2016

A ring that was ostensibly owned by Saint Joan of Arc sold on Friday at Timeline Auctions for £240,000 ($333,000), blowing through the presale estimate of £10,000-14,000 ($13,990-19,590). Including buyer’s premium the final cost was £297,600 ($412,845). According to Timeline spokesperson, “The ring is returning to France.” Some news reports assume the French government is the buyer, but the auction house was vague on the particulars so it could just as well be a private collector.

The ring is silver-gilt inscribed with the letters “I” and “M” on the shoulders and “IHS” and “MAR” on the face. Those are abbreviations for Jesus and Mary. Along the shank are lozenges with very worn florals inside. It was made around 1400 and has an illustrious ownership history that can in theory be traced all the way back to the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431.

After Joan’s arrest, her ring was taken by Bishop Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, chaplain to the Duke of Burgundy and ally of the English, who presided over her trial for heresy. According to the ownership history established by researchers in the 20th century, Cauchon gave the ring to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial. It remained in his family, the Cavendish-Bentinck family (Dukes of Portland), for 500 years until the early 20th century when Lady Ottoline Morrell gave it to artist Augustus John a few years before 1914. It was through John that it first entered the auction market in 1914. The ring passed through several hands before physician James Hasson acquired it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1947 for the grand sum of £175. The current seller was Dr. Hasson’s son Robert Hasson.

Joan’s rings came up several times at her trial, as documented in the extant transcript (English translation here). The prosecution kept trying to make something of them, asking leading questions insinuating that her rings were seen as objects of devotion and power like the rings of kings, popes and saints. From the transcript:

Asked if she herself did not have some rings, she replied to us, bishop: “You have one of mine; give it back to me.” She said the Burgundians have another ring; and she asked us, if we had her ring, to show it to her.

Asked who gave her the ring which the Burgundians had, she answered her father or her mother; and she thought the names Jhesus Maria were written thereon; she did not know who had them written; she did not think there was any stone in it; and she was given the ring at Domrémy. She said that her brother gave her the other ring which we had and she charged us to give it to the Church. She said she never cured any one with any of her rings. [...]

Asked whether the good wives of the town did not touch her ring with their own, she answered that “many women touched my hands and my rings; but I do not know with what thought or intention.” [...]

Asked of what substance one of her rings was, on which the words Jhesus Maria were written, she answered that she did not properly know; and if it was of gold, it was not of fine gold; and she did not know whether it was of gold or brass; she thought there were three crosses, and to her knowledge no other signs save the words Jhesus Maria.

Asked why she gladly looked at this ring when she was going to battle, she answered that it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and mother; and having her ring in her hand and on her finger she touched St. Catherine who appeared before her.

According to the auction house and the documentation (all of which dates to the 20th century), the ring matches this description, but I think it’s a pretty huge fudge to say the ring has three crosses on it like Joan said it did. There are no crosses engraved on the ring. The lot description describes: “incised niello-filled florid lozenges and triangles, the design giving the appearance of three crosses.” I don’t really see Joan of Arc being so subtle as to describe crosses formed by negative space instead of just the plain fact of the lozenge decoration.

The wear, ring style and engraving are consistent with a 15th century date, so whoever dropped more than a quarter of a million dollars on the piece has a nifty medieval devotional ring to show for it, plus the Cavendish-Bentinck family lore, a hundred years of speculation and several museum exhibitions in France and England connecting it to Joan of Arc.

11,000-year-old engraved pendant found in Britain

February 26th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Early Mesolithic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire have unearthed a shale pendant with engraved lines. This is the first pendant with an engraved design from this period found in Britain and it’s the only engraved pendant made of shale ever discovered in Europe. It was found in a sediment layer that was once shallow water about 30 feet from the shore of the paleo-Lake Flixton. The organic material in the sediment is still being dated, but preliminary estimates date the sediment deposit to around 11,000 years ago.

When it was first discovered it just looked like a piece of stone. The hole that marks it as a pendant was clogged with sediment and the very faint engravings weren’t visible. It was only when it was lifted out of the ground that the sediment fell out of the perforation and the engravings were spotted.

Just one side of the shale is engraved with very small lines at angles from each other of a kind defined by the first excavator of Star Carr and expert in Early Mesolithic art Grahame Clark as the barbed lines type C. They were incised on the stone. Incision was the most common method of Early Mesolithic engraving (as opposed to boring and drilling) and geometric designs engraved on portable objects were typical of the period in northern Europe.

A perforated, engraved shale pendant is unique; the usual materials were amber, antler and bone. Grahame Clark’s Star Carr excavations in the 1950s and the current excavation, which began in 2013, recovered a number of unengraved shale beads, distinct from the pendant because the perforation is in the center rather than the top. The hole in the top suggests the object was suspended from a necklace.

The team studied the engravings with integrated light microscopy, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). SEM and RTI proved particularly effective at identifying the order of engraving and showing the impressive precision with which these angled lines, some of which are teeny tiny, were inscribed. They found that the central groove was done before the lines parallel to it, then the tiny right angle lines, then the grooves perpendicular to the central one, the tiny lines connected to them and then the rest of the lines in the field. The groups of lines were engraved in at least two, possibly more, phases.

The order of engraving is significant because it may be an important clue to the purpose of the lines.

Evidence from surviving traditional shamanic societies in northern Asia and elsewhere – where similar markings (often on wooden ceremonial batons) are still used – suggest that the lines on the recently discovered Mesolithic Yorkshire pendant probably represent the number of large animals (perhaps, in this case, red deer) killed on hunting expeditions. However, some of the lines could also represent the number of ritual songs and dances performed by the group when it returned with the dead deer to their camp. [...]

Modern ethnographic parallels suggest that the proper recording of kills and associated rituals would have been seen as essential to guaranteeing future hunting success.

The deliberate faintness of the engravings may have been in order to ensure that the information on the pendant remained, in effect, a secret record of kills and related rituals that was accessible only to particular individuals or groups.

Evidence of ritual activity at the site abounds. The most recent excavation has unearthed six ritual headdresses made from the skulls and antlers of red deer, and earlier excavations turned up 21 more of them. Given the rarity of the pendant and the great effort made to engrave it, it’s a strong possibility that it is related to the rituals practiced in prehistoric Star Carr.

The pendant was 3D scanned so it could be virtually examined from all sides. You can explore it yourself with this 3D scan viewer. A most wonderful paper full of details about the find can be read in its entirety here.

Medieval painting saved by Reformation recycling

February 25th, 2016

The English Reformation of the 16th century saw the widespread destruction of religious art associated with the Catholic Church. What the zealots of the Reformation missed the zealots of the English Civil War destroyed. An estimated 97% of the UK’s religious art was destroyed during the Reformation and Civil War. The few pre-Reformation church paintings that managed to survive are usually defaced or damaged. Conservators at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute have discovered that a rare 15th century panel painting managed to survive the artmageddon in excellent condition because it was recycled during the Reformation.

The Kiss of Judas is an oil on panel work painted in bright colors with silver and gold leaf details in around 1460. It captures Judas in the act of betrayal as Roman soldiers crowd the background and Peter draws his sword. Underneath is an inscription painted in gold letters: “Jhesu mercy and eue[r] mercy Ffor in thy mercy fully trust.” The subject matter makes its survival even more remarkable since images of Judas were often gouged or scratched by faithful Catholics as well.

The painting was acquired by the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. The seller was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Unable to afford to keep the delicate panel painting in proper conservation conditions, the church sold it, after getting permission from a special Faculty of the Diocese of Peterborough, to the museum. The proceeds of the sale were used to repair to the roof and other features of the 13th century Norman church.

When the painting arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, it was in bad condition. It was covered in dirt, darkened varnish and bat guano, so much so that the image was hard to discern. Conservators used X-ray imaging and examined it with infra-red and UV light to identify obscured details, the original pigments and which areas needed the most urgent attention. They cleaned the dirt and bat feces, removed the darkened varnish, treated the wood to keep insects from doing any more damage and applied a layer of protective varnish restoring the original vibrance of the paint and precious metals.

It was the back of the painting that provided the clue to its history. It was covered with a plywood backing board that was removed for conservation. When examining the back of the boards that make up the panel, conservators found traces of what looked like lettering. Infra-red photography revealed that it was indeed lettering and from the 16th century. It seems the excessively Catholic painting was just turned around and the back used as a board for writing. The lettering isn’t legible, but experts think it may have been the Ten Commandments because they were commonly hung on the walls of Protestant churches.

It could have just been a parsimonious choice, a practical way to reuse a painting that was no longer acceptable to the mores of the time. On the other hand, someone may have done this on purpose to keep the painting from almost certain destruction. We’ll never know. The history of The Kiss of Judas is vague. It wasn’t originally painted for St. Mary’s — it was first documented there in the early 1900s — and it may have been part of a larger piece like a rood screen. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood found that it came from a tree in the eastern Baltic that was cut down after 1423. It was painted in Britain between 1437 and 1469. One hint of its origins was a coat of arms discovered by infra-red photography hidden under the paint. The closest match to the coat of arms was traced to a branch of the Belgrave family in Leicestershire.

The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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