After many arduous labors, Hercules back in Turkey

September 24th, 2017

A Roman-era marble sarcophagus decorated with a bas relief of the Twelve Labors of Hercules on its sides has returned to Turkey after a long sojourn in the at haven of looted antiquities smuggling that is the Geneva Free Port. The saga begins on December 3rd, 2010, when the 2nd century A.D. sarcophagus was discovered in one of the Free Port warehouses by customs officials during an inventory check. Measuring 7.7 x 3.7 feet and weighing three tons, the sarcophagus is actually on the smaller side for its type, but it’s still hard to miss as a suspect antiquity, even hidden under piles of blankets and boxes.

This type of sarcophagus was a popular consumer good, produced on a large scale in workshops in Dokimenion (modern-day Iscehisar, western Turkey) from locally quarried marble in the second half of the second century. They weren’t all cookie-cutter pieces, however. Some are distinctly better than others, commissioned by people who could afford the highest reliefs, the most prized marble and the greatest sculptors. This sarcophagus is the best of all the surviving examples, with top-notch carving depth and anatomical detail. A very wealthy person must have commissioned it.

After years of being used as a pivot for the illicit trade in antiquities thanks to its no questions asked approached and tax-free Geneva warehouse complex, Switzerland was now taking a different approach. In 2003, it finally ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 2005 it passed a law requiring that all objects of cultural patrimony had to have verified ownership records. In 2009, a new law forced international traders in cultural goods to file complete and accurate inventories. This law had teeth too, with funding for a customs notification system and thorough inspection of the goods stashed in Free Port warehouses.

So when the sarcophagus’ so-called owner, Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealership co-owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam who have been involved in many, many highly questionable transactions of looted artifacts, was unable to provide proper documentation in compliance with Switzerland’s more stringent regulation, the object was sequestered. Ali protested vociferously. He insisted it had belonged, like all of his loot, to his father who had bought it legally in the 1990s. He fought all attempts at restitution, and the case dragged through the courts for six years.

A joint investigation by Swiss and Turkish authorities found that the sarcophagus had likely been looted from the ancient site of Perge in Antalya during an illegal excavation in the 1970s. This was confirmed by soil and marble analyses. How it wound its way from Turkey to Switzerland remains unclear and the Aboutaam’s father Sleiman died in 1998 so he can’t answer any questions. He also can’t be prosecuted. On September 21st, 2015, a Swiss prosecutor issued an order that the sarcophagus be restituted to Turkey. The Aboutaam’s appealed twice before withdrawing the last appeal in March 2016. That left the restitution order as the final legal say in the matter, and all that was left was for the slow grind of the legal grist mill to finish its work before the piece was returned. Culture and Tourism Ministry officials in Geneva received the sarcophagus on September 13th. It was in Turkey on September 14th.

After almost seven years of legal wrangling, detective work and waiting, the Hercules sarcophagus was welcomed to its new home, the Antalya Museum, on Sunday in an unveiling ceremony presided over by Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş. It is now on display next to the Weary Herakles, a Roman copy in marble of a 4th century B.C. original bronze by the Greek sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon, which was also looted from Perge and whose torso was pried out of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after a lengthy battle so it could be reunited with the legs already on display the museum.

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Unusual Bronze Age hoard found in Cumbria

September 23rd, 2017

Metal detectorists in Cumbria have discovered a small Bronze Age hoard that is the first of its kind found in the county. The hoard was cached in a hole in the bedrock covered by stones. The group, small in size but large in historical significance, consists of one gold bracelet, three gold penannular lock-rings and one copper alloy cauldron fragment, all dating to the late Bronze Age. Three of the four jewelry pieces (the bracelet and two lock rings) have stains that may be corrosion or the residue of an organic material buried with them. The stains could also have been caused by something in the soil itself at the time of deposition, although if that were the case it seems like the other objects would have the same kind of staining.

The lock rings are made from sheets of gold curved into circular shapes. They are bound to an outer circle with gold wire and have been delicately incised with concentric rings vaguely reminiscent of the tracks on old wax or vinyl records. Two of the lock rings are almost identical in size — only 1 cm difference in width and .1 gram in weight — and while the third is smaller than the other two, the craftsmanship is so similar experts believe they were created if not by the same hand, then by the same workshop.

The lock rings, meanwhile, are very similar to an example from Portfield Camp, near Whalley, Lancashire.

The purpose of this latter kind of artefact is much debated, through – as they are normally found in pairs, it has been suggested that they may have been a form of high-status personal ornament peculiar to the late Bronze Age (c.1000-800 BC), possibly earrings or some kind of hair decoration.

These newly discovered examples, decorated with concentric rings and bound with gold wire, are unusual for being a group of three.

The gold penannular bracelet, with its undecorated design, flat, circular terminals and uneven curvature has features in common with an example now in the British Museum which was unearthed at Beachy Head, East Sussex, in the 19th century and is now in the British Museum. The bracelet and three lock rings are all a strong yellow color, an indication that the gold has copper added to the alloy.

The find spot — isolated, out-of-reach, high places located near notable features like hillforts and stone circles — is very much in keeping with past Bronze Age lock ring finds. The cauldron fragment is unusual for a lock ring cache. It may have been a previous deposition, but experts don’t think so because it was so found so close to the other pieces that it seems they were all buried together.

The findspot lies in an isolated high place on a prominent ridge that seems to have been an area visited throughout later prehistory. It is situated just below a possible Iron Age hillfort and close to a number of other prehistoric settlement sites, as well as a concentric stone circle. The presence of roughed-out stone axes found nearby hints at the site lying on one of the major transmission routes south for the Langdale axe factories during the Neolithic period, while socketed bronze axes that were also found nearby, probably from a smith’s hoard, point to the area’s importance during the Bronze Age.

‘The enclosed platform, sometimes described as a hillfort, has no evidence of buildings or habitation,’ said Stuart [Noon, Finds Liaison Officer for Lancashire and Cumbria]. ‘It appears that the site may have been of ritual importance, a place where offerings could be placed or buried in the ground or even inserted into the limestone outcrops, and which, it could be speculated, may have hosted gatherings and celebrations.’

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Golden altar of Sahl Church removed for study

September 22nd, 2017

Sahl Church in the Northwest Jutland village of Sahl near Struer is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Built around 1150 out of granite ashlars, it has several notable features: a rune stone built into the chapel’s west wall, 16th century frescos, a burgundy silk velvet chasuble embroidered with silver thread made from the wedding dress of Queen Anna Sophia that is still used today on special occasions. Its most spectacular feature is the Golden Altar, a gilded copper altarpiece made by a Danish master artisan from Ribe in around 1200. Embedded with crystals around the borders, the reliefs on the altarpiece panels depict figures and scenes from the Bible, particularly the childhood and suffering of Jesus, and Christian symbolism.

Popular devotional objects in the Middle Ages, only seven golden altars remain today in Denmark and only two of them in their original locations. (The rest are kept at the National Museum.) The bursts of iconoclastic zeal and the preference for plain church decor of the Reformation took a heavy toll on these objects. Many of them were destroyed and the ones that remain are not in the best of the condition. The altarpiece of Sahl Church is by far the best preserved of the seven, largely intact with no major missing parts. Most of the crystals were lost by the 1930s, but they were restored by National Museum experts in 1935.

In 1850, Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, an archaeologist who was Denmark’s Inspector for the Conservation of Antiquarian Monument, surveyed the church as part of an inspection tour of the area. He warned in a letter that Sahl’s vicar was “adamant that the strange old altarpiece was to be removed” and when he wasn’t able to get rid of the priceless medieval gold and crystal altarpiece, he hired a local artist to paint over the wings. They weren’t original to the piece, thankfully, and they’re gone now but it lends some insight into why there are so few of these inestimable treasures left. Changes in fashion and taste can wreak havoc on historic artifacts, even ones whose value in sheer materials is blatantly obvious. This same vicar, by the way, also had the church’s medieval wooden coffer axed to pieces FOR FIREWOOD. Yet another page in the endless People Are Terrible ledger.

The altar has not been absolutely dated. What we know of their ages has been deduced from analysis of the design style and craftsmanship. When it was last restored more than 80 years ago, it was only spruced up. A new study of the Sahl Golden Altar by conservators at the National Museum of Denmark will give experts the opportunity to use modern methods of analysis to test the wood itself. Dendrochronology, if successful, can provide very precise dates. It will also be X-rayed and the gilding analyzed. They hope the study will reveal more information about the altar’s construction and materials.

While the altar is at the museum, visitors to Sahl Church will see a large-scale photograph of it draped over its usual location.

Within the last few years, the National Museum has conducted further studies on several of the golden altars. The results from this will be gathered in a publication about the unique cultural heritage of golden altars from the Middle Ages, which exists in Denmark.

It is the Carlsberg Foundation, which has granted the money for analyzes of the alhl from Sahl, and the experts hope that the results will be available at the end of the year.

In addition to a new study of the altar, the church itself will also be thoroughly reviewed. This appears in a publication published in the beginning of 2018, where the churches in Estvad, Rønbjerg and Vinderup will also be described.

The publication of the four Western Jutland churches is published as a volume in the National Museum’s great work of Danish Churches, which aims to publish descriptions of all the churches of the country. The project started in 1933, and today about two thirds of the Danish churches are described.

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Another brief interlude

September 21st, 2017

I am internetless again, but again it should be a brief lapse. I’ll be up and running with a fresh story tomorrow, Liver of Piacenza willing.

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Rare Rockwell painting owned by Debbie Reynolds for sale

September 20th, 2017

A rare painting of Benjamin Franklin striking a saucy pose as he signs the Declaration of Independence will be sold to the highest bidder at The Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds Personal Property Auction to be held in Los Angeles on October 7th-9th. For the past seven years until Ms. Reynold’s recent death, the painting was on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts which must be disconsolate by the loss of so important and unique a piece.

The painting is accomplished in oil on 37 x 28 in. canvas, capturing a full-length portrait of Benjamin Franklin with a quill pen in hand, prepared to sign The Declaration of Independence and leaning on a Federal-style desk with the Seal of the United States behind him. The platform base reads, “Sesqui * Centennial * Celebration * of * the * Signing * of * the Declaration * of * Independence”. This incredibly historic Rockwell work has been exhibited in twelve museums around the United States since 1972 and has been published in several books.

Rockwell painted the work for the cover of the May 29, 1926, edition of the Saturday Evening Post commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Post commissioned the subject and chose Benjamin Franklin for a specific reason: Franklin was the publisher of the influential Pennsylvania Gazette, the Philadelphia newspaper that the Saturday Evening Post claims as its historical ancestor, even though the Post didn’t exist until 1821 and the Gazette ceased publication in 1800.

The Post‘s reverence for Franklin continued to be expressed in its covers for decades. Between 1943 and 1961, every January the cover would feature a portrait of Benjamin Franklin (usually rather dry ones with a sadly unsaucy stone bust in the foreground) and a quote from his writings. Even today the revived magazine runs a “find Benjamin Franklin’s key” contest, named after his famed kite experiment first published anonymously in the Pennsylvania Gazette of October 19, 1752.

The pre-sale estimate for the oil-on-canvas original capturing the history of one of the United States’ most brilliant innovators, statesmen and printers and a magazine whose slice of Americana covers by Norman Rockwell have become iconic is $2,000,000 – $3,000,000. This is the first time the painting has been gone up for public auction, so the sky is probably the limit, pricewise.

Some of the proceeds from the auction will go to Debbie Reynolds’s most beloved charity The Thalians and The Jed Foundation, an anti-suicide organization chosen by Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd.

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Peruvian child mummy X-rayed in Texas hospital

September 19th, 2017

An ancient Peruvian mummy that has been part of the collection of the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science for 60 years received its first X-ray yesterday at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Very little is known about the mummy which was removed from Peru by unknown (illegal?) means at an unknown time. It has been at the museum since it opened in 1957, a gift from New York’s American Museum of Natural History via its former employee and the Corpus Christi Museum’s first director, Aalbert Heine. The mummy was one of many ancient artifacts and remains Heine brought to the new museum, accession number 137 in a collection that now counts in the millions.

There are no records extant of the mummy at the Museum of Natural History. The Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science’s tag labels it the mummy of an Inca child approximately 2,000 years old. As the Inca Empire is nowhere near that old (the civilization’s origin story places its founding in the 13th century), the label is drastically off-base. It is wrapped in a coiled rope that looks like a basket but isn’t. The only other potential source of information about the mummy are a few textile fragments that have somehow managed to remain on her body, but they have yielded no more answers so far.

Attitudes towards the display of human remains have changed over the years as the anthropological approach shifted from treating people like curios to respect for the dead (and living, for that matter) within their cultural context. The mummy was removed from display in the 1980s and has been kept in storage ever since. Last year, collections manager Jillian Becquet and assistant curator of education Madeleine Fontenot began to investigate the history of the mummy with the aim of repatriating it to its homeland. After extensive research in the museum archives, newspaper records and scrapbooks, the two had little new information to show for it.

Enter the Driscoll Children’s Hospital. An X-ray might reveal important information that would confirm its Peruvian provenance, an essential step in the repatriation process.

“She was not my average patient!” said Suzi Beckwith, Diagnostic X-ray Coordinator at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. […]

“Because of the size of the mummy, I thought it was a baby,” Beckwith said. “But looking at the X-rays, you see her legs are actually tucked in. So she’s not a baby. She’s a little girl.

X-rays can confirm gender, age, and even cause of death.

“We’re looking for things that can help us give information to anthropologists in Peru, and then hopefully confirm cultural group that she belongs to, said Jillian Becquet, Collections Manager at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

The burial position confirmed by the X-rays could be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Different cultural groups buried their dead in different positions, so experts could determine her origins from that alone. Examination of her bones could pinpoint injuries, healed, peri-mortem or post-mortem.

The museum is working with Peruvian Embassy officials to identify the mummy and arrange for her return. Fontenot and Becquet hope Peruvian experts can learn more about her by studying the rope that binds her and the fragments of cloth. They’re not at that stage yet, however. Before they decide whether to invest in that kind of research, Peruvian officials will study the X-rays and documentation to see if the mummy is a likely candidate for repatriation to Peru. The more data they have, the more securely they will be able to claim her as their own.

“Whatever group was around her chose to do this very caring thing, to wrap her purposefully and bury her,” Becquet said. “Somebody along the way disrespected that, and so we want that to be restored.”

When this little mummy is returned to the land of her ancestors, the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science will have no people left languishing in its storage cabinets. She is the last one.

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Indian manuscript with zero symbol far older than realized

September 18th, 2017

Researchers have discovered that an ancient Indian manuscript is far older than previously realized and therefore contains the earliest known example of the symbol for zero as it is used today. The Bakhshali manuscript, written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, was discovered buried in a field near Peshawar in 1881. Indologist AFR Hoernle bought it from the farmer who found it and in 1902 gifted it to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford where it is kept in the rare books collection.

Replete with Sanskrit numerals, including many instances of the small dot that is the ancestor of our zero, the manuscript is believed to have been written by Silk Road merchants practicing math rather than being a philosophical or scholarly work. Its age has long been subject to debate among scholars and the best guesses, based on factors like writing style and the mathematical concepts it convers, put it between the 8th and 12th century.

University researchers hoped radiocarbon testing would provide an absolute date and answer some of these long-standing questions. They were astounded when several of the pages turned out to date between 200 and 400 A.D. Before now, the zero dot on the wall of the Ganesh temple at the 9th century Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh, India, was believed to be the oldest visual representation of the ancestor of the modern zero numeral. Researchers expected the Bakshali manuscript to date to around the same time as the depiction in the temple.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

In this close-up image of folio 16v, you can see the use of a dot as a placeholder in the bottom line. This dot evolved into the use of zero as a number in its own right. Photo courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

The reason for the confusion about its date is that the birch pages date to three different periods, hence the range of styles and arithmetic.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said:

‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

The Bodleian will loan one folio from the Bakhshali manuscript to the Science Museum in London for its upcoming Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition. This is the first time any part of the manuscript has been loaned to another institution and a unique opportunity to see a seminal piece of mathematical history alongside other important of India’s contributions to the history of math, science and technology. It runs from October 4th, 2017, through March 31st, 2018.

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Oldest royal tomb of Centipede dynasty found in Guatemala

September 17th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ have discovered the oldest known royal tomb of the Wak or Centipede dynasty. The international team from the El Perú-Waka’ Archaeological Project (PAW) found the tomb excavating tunnels under the Palace Acropolis. Analysis of the ceramic grave goods date the tomb to 300-350 A.D. Going from the date alone, the deceased could be King Te’ Chan Ahk who ruled in the early 4th century.

The skeletal remains of an adult male were found inside the tomb, but there were no inscriptions that would conclusively prove his identity. One artifact did make it clear that this was a royal tomb: a jade funerary mask. The portrait mask, painted a bright red with cinnabar, has a tell-tale hair tab on the forehead characteristic of the Maize God. There’s a symbol on the tab reminscent of a Greek Cross which is a combination of the glyphs for “Yellow” and “Precious,” another reference to the corn deity.

[Guatemalan archaeologists Griselda Pérez Robles and Damaris Menéndez] discovered the mask under the head of the ruler, and it may have been made to cover the face rather than as a chest pectoral. Archaeologists at Tikal in the 1960s discovered a similar greenstone mask in the earliest Maya royal tomb, dating to the first century A.D.

Additional offerings in Burial 80 included 22 ceramic vessels, Spondylus shells, jade ornaments and a shell pendant carved as a crocodile. The remains of the ruler and some ornaments like the portrait mask were painted bright red. Burial 80 was reverentially reentered after 600 A.D. at least once, and it is possible that the bones were painted during this reentry.

El Perú-Waka’ was an important city-state that controlled major north-south and east-west trade routes during the Mayan classical period. It produced a wide range of goods for trade — maize avocados, latex, jade — and its support was hungrily sought after by the greatest rivals of the time: Tikal and Calakmul. The north-south trade route linked the great Classical period Mayan power center of Calakmul in modern-day Campeche, Mexico, with its allies to the south in what is today Guatemala. The rulers of Calakmul, the mighty Snake dynasty, cemented their relationships with the rulers of conquered, vassal and allied cities in strategically significant areas by marriage. Lady K’abel, aka Lady Snake Lord, daughter of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great of Calakmul, married King K’inich Bahlam II of the Centipede dynasty in the 7th century.

The Wak dynasty long predates the rise of Calakmul and its military and political machinations, however. Drawing from later inscriptions found at El Perú-Waka’, historians believe the dynasty was founded in the 2nd century A.D. making it one of the earliest Mayan ruling families. By the early 5th century A.D., the city’s population numbered in the tens of thousands and the city had dozens of public buildings, squares, religious centers and more. That was the heyday of the city’s prosperity, even though its alliance with Calakmul and the benefits it incurred from the relationship were still hundreds of years away.

“The Classic Maya revered their divine rulers and treated them as living souls after death,” said research co-director David Freidel, professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“This king’s tomb helped to make the royal palace acropolis holy ground, a place of majesty, early in the history of the Wak — centipede — dynasty. It’s like the ancient Saxon kings England buried in Old Minister, the original church underneath Winchester Cathedral.”

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Irma exposes dugout canoe, history buff saves it

September 16th, 2017

A dugout canoe driven from its watery home on the bottom of the Indian River just north of Cocoa in Brevard County, Florida, by Hurricane Irma has been saved thanks to the quick thinking and responsible actions of a local history buff. Freelance photographer and history enthusiast Randy “Shots” Lathrop spotted a cypress log on the banks of the Indian River on Monday, September 11st. A less keen eye would have dismissed it as just another piece of arboreal debris littering the shores of the river thanks to Irma’s destructive power, but Lathrop noticed its carved interior and prow and recognized it as a dugout canoe.

He took a picture and sent it to an archaeologist friend who confirmed that it appeared to be a canoe. Lathrop immediately reported the find to the Florida Division of Historical Resources, as required by law, but with all the havoc wreaked by the hurricane the FDHR, the state archaeologist wasn’t going to be able to inspect the canoe right away. Meanwhile, county workers were clearing the area of debris. Lathrop was concerned that they would mistake it for a log, toss it in the truck and put in a landfill before the archaeologist had a chance to see it. He secured permission from the FDHR to move it to safety.

That was easier said than done, however. The canoe weighs close to 700 pounds, and is saturated with water from having been at the bottom of a river for years or even centuries. He enlisted the aid of a friend with a truck and the two of them managed with difficulty to heft the artifact onto the bed. They transported it to a nearby freshwater pond and submerged it to keep the wood from drying out and to keep hurricane debris collectors from disposing of it.

Three days later, the FDHR dispatched a regional archaeologist from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to examine the canoe. He wasn’t comfortable identifying its makers or date based solely on the preliminary investigation, but the possibilities are intriguing. This is an unusual piece.

The 15-foot-long canoe could be anywhere from several decades to several hundred years old, according to Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman with the department. Carbon dating will help to narrow down the boat’s age. […]

Dugout canoe compartment. Photo courtesy Randy "Shots" LathropThe canoe has a squared off form, which Revell said is commonly seen in the historic period (from 1513 to about 50 years ago in Florida), but there are several uncommon features on it too: compartments, square nails and what appears to be a seat.

“The compartments are a bit out of the ordinary,” she said. “The square nails are cut nails. Cut nails were first in production in the early 19th century so that helps to indicate it is a historic canoe.”

Lathrop noted that there are visible remains of red and white paint, colors traditionally used by the Seminole people to paint canoes (among other things).

The canoe is now being conserved in a water bath. There are no specific plans for its ultimate disposition at this juncture, but the buzz is it will stay in Brevard County where it will go on public display once it has been stabilized.

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Reindeer hunters find Viking sword in Norway

September 15th, 2017

Einar Ambakk weilds the Viking sword he just found. Photo by Einar Ambakk.A group of reindeer hunters discovered a Viking sword last month while stalking the mountains of Lesja in Oppland, south central Norway. Einar Ambakk found the three-foot-long sword nestled between rocks on August 23rd at more than a mile in altitude. The sword was embedded hilt-down in the gaps between stones. Half of the blade jutted up above the rocks. Einar saw it first and, not even recognizing that it was a sword, placed both his hands on each side of it and lifted it up. Only when he’d pulled it all the way out did he realize he, like a young and confused Once and Future King, had just drawn a sword from the stone.

The hunters reported their discovery to the municipality. Experts examined the weapon and determined it dates to the Viking era, around 850-950 A.D., and is exceptionally well-preserved. The sword’s fine condition and high-altitude location 1,640 meters above sea level generated much excitement. Two glacier archaeologists from Secrets of the Ice, a metal detectorist and a local archaeologist went to the find spot with the reindeer hunters to explore it further.

They were fortunate to be able to find the precise place. The hunters didn’t record the GPS coordinates, but the pictures Einar Ambakk took of the sword had geolocation data enabled, so the team was able to use that information to identify the exact find spot even in the stark mountainous terrain which doesn’t have much in the way of landmarks to help guide them. Even if there had been some peculiar rock formation or other fortuitously identifiable feature, it could only have provided a general search area. The sword selfies made a full and accurate archaeological investigation of the specific site possible, something that was not an option, for example, when a hiker discovered an earlier Viking sword 300 miles southwest of Lesja in 2015.

They found no other artifacts with a 20 meter area of the find. This is significant because if the sword had been schlepped up the mountain by someone who met their end leaving the sword as mute witness to his final days, the team would probably have discovered the remains of other equipment even though the organic materials (including the body and clothing) had rotted away. There is no evidence of ritual weapon sacrifice, a nearby burial, or anything else that might explain the sword’s location.

Nor is there evidence on the sword and in the context of the find to indicate the sword was hidden below the surface and only recently shifted into view due to the movement of the stones in the permafrost. No scratches, no dents, no dings, no bending, at least one of which you’d expect to find had the sword recently been put through a stone wringer. Archaeologists think Einar Ambakk found it pretty much in its original position, perhaps a little lower from sliding down into the crack between the stones.

It may seem strange for the sword to have survived on the surface for more than one thousand years. However, to all appearances this is what happened here. Isolated finds of well-preserved iron arrowheads are also known from the high mountains, and some of these artefacts are even older than the sword. The preservation is probably due to a combination of the quality of the iron, the high altitude and the mostly cold conditions. For most of the year, the find spot would have been frozen over and covered in snow.

The sword would most likely have had bone, wood or leather covering the grip, but the organic parts are no longer preserved.

Because a Viking’s sword was likely his most prized possession, it wouldn’t have just been abandoned or forgotten during a mountain-top jaunt. Not that the find site is ideally suited as a walking trail. The rocky terrain would have been treacherous and there was a well-established path nearby without any such obstacles. It’s possible the owner of the sword got lost in the white-out of a blizzard and died, but, as the glacier archaeologists point out, if that were the case, then where is the rest of his gear? You don’t climb a mile up a mountain carrying only a sword.

The sword is now at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo where it will be studied further and conserved.

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