Gold coin hoard found in piano declared treasure

April 21st, 2017

1906 Broadwood & Sons upright piano donated to The Community College of Bishops Castle. Photo by Peter Reavill.Last November, piano tuner Martin Backhouse was having a hard time with some sticky keys on a 1906 Broadwood & Sons upright piano he was overhauling for The Community College of Bishops Castle. Martin found the problem when he removed the keys: eight parcels full of gold coins.

The school alerted the Finds Liaison Officer for the region, Peter Reavill, and he and his colleagues at the Portable Antiquities Scheme examined and catalogued the hoard. Inside seven cloth-wrapped parcels and one suede drawstring pouch, they counted 913 gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns ranging in date from 1847 to 1915, issued in the reigns of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V. The weight of the coins totals more than 6 kilos (13+ pounds) of gold bullion.

Gold sovereign from the reign of Queen Victoria (1898 – Jubilee Bust of Victoria), from the hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo by Peter Reavill.One of the pouches was packed with cardboard that provided an important clue to when the hoard was hidden. It was an ad for Shredded Wheat created after 1926 and likely before 1946. Attempts to trace the ownership history of the piano to determine who might have stashed the coins inside it went nowhere. After its manufacture by Broadwood & Sons of London, it was sold to music teachers Messrs. Beavan & Mothersole of Saffron Walden, Essex. There is no trace of its movements for almost 80 years. The trail picks up again in 1983 when it was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Hemming, also of Saffron Walden, for the children to learn on. It remained with the Hemmings until last year when they donated it to the Bishops Castle Community College.

On April 20th, John Ellery, senior coroner for Shropshire, held an inquest in Shrewsbury and declared the gold coins treasure according to the 1996 Treasure Act, which means they now officially belong to the Crown. The British Museum will convene a Treasure Valuation Committee to assess the market value of the coins. Local museums will be given the chance to acquire the hoard for the assessed sum, which will then be split between finder Martin Backhouse and the piano’s owners, the Bishops Castle Community College.

Suede drawstring pouch and coins from the hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Peter Reavill.Coins made of precious metals that are more than 300 years old qualify as treasure, but these coins are comparatively recent. The determination that they are treasure is based on three criteria: 1) they are made of gold, 2) they were deliberately hidden with the ultimate aim of recovering them at a later date, 3) the owner and/or heirs are unknown. This was the standard applied to the Hackney Double Eagle hoard discovered in a London backyard in 2010, whose coins are also gold and have almost the exact same date range (1854-1913). The publicity from that case resulted in the identification of the legitimate owner, the son of the original owner who had died in 1981.

That has not happened in this case, despite the coroner adjourning the inquest twice to give any potential claimants the chance to come forward. Surprising absolutely nobody, many claimants came forward, almost 50 of them, hoping to get their hands on some of that sweet, sweet gold sovereignage, but no evidence was found to substantiate any of the claims, hence the treasure verdict.

This video from the British Museum’s YouTube channel tells the story of the Piano Hoard.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/I2dY_wgVK0I&w=430]

 

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Watch NOVA’s Holocaust Escape Tunnel

April 20th, 2017

Ponar Pit 6. Photo by Ezra Wolfinger, WGBH.When researchers discovered an escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners in the forest of Ponar outside Vilnius, Lithuania, last year, their investigation was filmed by PBS for a future episode of its consistently excellent NOVA series. The NOVA episode premiered on PBS Tuesday, 73 years almost to the day after the escape on Passover night, April 14th, 1944, and it did not disappoint.

It opens with an overview of the history of the Jewish community of what was then known as Vilna. This was one of the largest, richest and most culturally important Jewish communities in Europe, even earning the moniker of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” not a title that was cast about carelessly. Part of the program is dedicated to the archaeological excavation of the site of the Great Synagogue Complex, obliterated by the Nazis and finished off by the Soviets after the war. The team is hoping to unearth the architectural remains of the mikvah, the ritual bath, but has very little time so it’s quite suspenseful.

Jews taken to execution pit guarded by Lithuanian militia. Yad Vashem Photo Archives FO475.In parallel with the city excavation, the team in the forest seeks evidence of unknown mass graves and to find the escape tunnel in Pit 6 used by the 11 survivors of the Ponar Burning Brigade, a group of 80 Jewish prisoners forced by the SS to dig up tens of thousands of bodies of their loved ones (murdered by Nazis and Lithuanian militia between 1941 and 1944), stack them in alternating layers with logs, pour gasoline on them and burn them to cinders. There are some wrenching photos of these monstrous structures, and NOVA does a compelling job of explaining the sheer scale of this sickening project.

It also illustrates the technology used to find the tunnel very well. They focus on the non-invasive exploration of the site by electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), a technology used by geologists, oil and gas prospectors, but still very new to archaeology. The experts explain how the technology works in the context of this particular site, identifying distinct areas that stand out from the sand all around them. You can’t help but share their excitement as they identify first the exit point of the tunnel, then other points along the expected route of the tunnel which decisively confirm the find.

But the greatest triumph of this program, in my opinion, is the involvement throughout of the children of the escapees. They’re the ones who explain the Burning Brigade’s function, the horror their fathers experienced, how it haunted them for the rest of their lives. This is more than an effective framing device. The whole point of the Burning Brigade was to obliterate all the evidence of Nazi mass-murder, culminating in one last mass-murder of the Burning Brigade members themselves. Once they were dead, there would be nobody left to remember the Nazi atrocities in the Ponar forest. They escaped not just to save their lives, but so that someone would be alive to tell the tale.

The children of the survivors telling the stories they’d heard from their fathers and then being presented with all the evidence discovered by the archaeologists and researchers confirming those stories is not only deeply moving, but a final defeat of the Nazi attempt to cover up their crimes.

In conclusion, watch this show.

 

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Model looms found in ancient tomb in China

April 19th, 2017

Rendering of tomb showing the five chambers. Drawing by Yingchong Xia.An archaeological survey of a subway construction site in Chengdu, Sichuan province, southwestern China, unearthed a tomb containing four model looms. It dates to the reigns of the Han Dynasty Emperors Jingdi (157 to 141 B.C.) and Wudi (141 to 88 B.C.). The tomb is 24 feet long, 16 feet wide and 9 feet high and made of painted wood. It is divided into five chambers, a full-length burial chamber above, four small chambers underneath. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a woman about 50 years of age. While the jade seal on her coffin was broken, likely by tomb robbers not long after the burial, her name can still be read on it: Wan Dinu.

Loom models and figurines found in the second lower chamber. Photo by Tao Xie.It was in one of the four rooms under the burial chamber that the model looms were found. Made of wood and bamboo, the model looms have preserved cinnabar-dyed red silk threads and brown silk threads on the beams. Each of the models is to scale, about 1/6th the size of their full-size cousins, and come with an array of accessories and operators which are also about 1/6th life-sized. There are tools for warping, rewinding and weft winding and 15 carved figurines including weavers (four men) and their assistants (nine women). The weavers are about 10 inches high and are depicted in action poses, warping, rewinding and weft winding, just as their real-life counterparts would do using the tools also included in the loom tableau. The figurines all have individual names written on the breast, which means they were probably representations of actual weavers and their assistants.

The largest of the four looms is 33 inches long, 10 inches wide and 20 inches high, about the size of a toy piano, but its historical significance is oversized.

Reconstruction of the largest of the loom models. Drawing by Bo Long and Yingchong Xia.“We are very sure that the loom models from Chengdu are the earliest pattern looms around the world,” said the study’s lead researcher, Feng Zhao, the director of the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China, and a professor at Donghua University in Shanghai.

It’s thought that the earliest looms date to China’s Neolithic age, including looms found in China’s eastern Zhejiang province: an approximately 8,000-year-old loom from the Kuahuqiao site; and a roughly 7,000-year-old loom found at the Hemudu site, Zhao said. Other looms include pieces of Egyptian creations from about 4,000 and 3,400 years ago, respectively, and Greek looms illustrated on vases dating to about 2,400 years ago, the researchers said.

However, unlike their predecessors, pattern looms are used to weave a “complex kind of textile,” Zhao told Live Science in an email. Weavers used this type of loom to create patterns by stringing up the weft (the crosswise yarn on the loom) and weaving the warp (the longitudinal yarn that is passed over and under the weft) through it, he said.

Labelled schematic showing the design and components of largest model loom. Drawing by Bo Long.These model looms are replicas in miniature of a technology that revolutionized silk manufacture in the 3rd century, making possible the creation of the famed Han Dynasty Shu jin silks, textiles that were traded across Europe, Asia and the Levant via the Silk Road.

The fascinating paper on the discovery, the reconstruction of the looms, how they were operated and their historical meaning has been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.

 

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10 coffins, 8 mummies, 1,000 ushabtis found in Luxor tomb

April 18th, 2017

Mummies in coffins found in Userhat's tomb, ca. 3500 years old. Photo by Ahmed Taranh.Archaeologists have discovered a tomb containing 10 coffins, eight mummies and more than 1,000 funerary statues in the Draa Abul Nagaa necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. The team had to work hard to get to this point, removing more than 450 cubic meters of debris before reaching the door to the entrance of the tomb.

More than 1000 ushabtis were found in the tomb. Photo by AFP.The tomb is T-shaped with an open courtyard leading to a rectangular hall which is connected to a second chamber by a corridor. The longitudinal chamber held four painted wood coffins, the inner chamber six. In a shaft nine meters (30 feet) long, archaeologists found more Ushabti figurines, plus wooden masks and the handle from a sarcophagus lid.

Skulls found in tomb of Userhat. Photo by Reuters.While the human remains are in varying states of decay — from intact linen-wrapped mummies to disarticulated skeletonized body parts — the coffins are largely in good condition. Some are broken, but the rich polychrome paint in combinations of yellow, red, blue, green and black is still vibrant.

Wooden coffins and death masks. Photo by AFP.First built to house the mortal remains of an 18th Dynasty city judge named Userhat who lived around 3,500 years ago, the tomb was converted into a duplex in the 21st Dynasty. That means the artifacts and human remains do not all belong to Userhat or members of his family/retinue. The mummies and wooden sarcophagi found in the second chamber were placed there at that time. The inner chamber also held more ushabti funerary figurines made of faience, terra cotta and wood and a group of clay pots painted in patterns of orange and green.

Painted clay pots and mask found in tomb. Photo by AFP.The tomb was opened to add more mummies during the 21st Dynasty, about 3,000 years ago, to protect them during a period when tomb-robbing was common, [head of the archeological mission Mostafa] Waziri said at the site.

“It was a surprise how much was being displayed inside” the tomb, Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany told reporters outside the tomb.

View of painted coffin interior. Photo by Reuters.Ushabti figurines represented the servants and workers who would follow the deceased into the afterlife and serve him there as they had served him in this world. The discovery of so many of them at one time is of great historical significance. And there could well be more to come. The whole tomb has not been fully excavated yet. There is at least one more room which archaeologists are working on now.

Nevine el-Aref, the spokeswoman for the antiquities ministry, said: “there is evidence and traces that new mummies could be discovered in the future.”

 

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Napoleon’s first love captured in a ring

April 17th, 2017

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1792, Lieutenant-Colonel of the 1st battalion of Corsican National Guards, by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, 1835.Before he was General Bonaparte, before he was First Consul, before he was Emperor of the French, even before the French Revolution that made it possible for a Corsican nobody to reach such dizzying heights of power, Napoleon Bonaparte was a wet-behind-the-ears graduate from the École Militaire in Paris. The first Corsican to graduate from the institution, Napoleon completed the program in one year instead of two (forced by a precipitous decline in his finances after the death of his father), so he was just 18 years old when he received his first commission as second lieutenant in the La Fère regiment in October 1785.

He was stationed in a garrison in Valence, southeastern France, where he was introduced to one Madame Grégoire du Colombier, a cultured, charming woman who saw promise in the young lieutenant and took him under her wing. From the memoirs of Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases, who accompanied Napoleon to exile on Saint Helena and assiduously documented everything he said:

Madame du Colombier often foretold that [Napoleon] would be a distinguished man. The death of this lady happened about the time of the breaking out of the Revolution: it was an event in which she took great interest, and in her last moments was heard to say that if no misfortune befell young Napoleon, he would infallibly play a distinguished part in the events of the time. The Emperor never spoke of Madame du Colombier but with expressions of the tenderest gratitude; and he did not hesitate to acknowledge, that the valuable introductions and superior rank in society which she procured for him had great influence over his destiny.

Napoleon and Caroline eating cherries, lithograph by Ferdinand Wachsmuth (1802-1869)She could have had a more personal connection to the future emperor. In early 1786, she invited him to stay at her estate at Basseaux, outside Valence, where he met her daughter Charlotte Pierrette Anne, known as Caroline. Napoleon courted Caroline du Colombier that summer and there were intimations that he might even propose. That didn’t happen, but Napoleon remembered their sweet young love until the end of his life. The Comte de Las Cases again:

Napoleon conceived an attachment for Mademoiselle du Colombier, who, on her part, was not insensible to his merits. It was the first love of both; and it was that kind of love which might be expected to arise at their age and with their education. “We were the most innocent creatures imaginable,” the Emperor used to say; “we contrived little meetings together; I well remember one which took place on a midsummer morning, just as daylight began to dawn, it will scarcely be believed that all our happiness consisted in eating cherries together.”

Napoleon moved on from Valence, following his career star. Caroline married Monsieur Gamparet de Bressieux, a much older former army captain, in 1792 when General Bonaparte was on his Egyptian campaign. They stayed in touch, corresponding occasionally over the years. In 1804, now Emperor Napoleon I replied warmly to a letter from Caroline de Bressieux, offering to help her brother and herself. Shortly thereafter he appointed her lady in waiting to Madame Mère, his mother Letizia Bonaparte.

Madame Junot, the Duchesse D’Abrantès, described Madame de Bressieux at court after her appointment as Letizia’s lady in waiting.

She was both witty and good and her manners were at once gentle and agreeable. I can very well understand the Emperor going to gather cherries with her at six o’clock in the morning merely to talk to her and with no less worthy motive. A thing that struck me the first time I saw her was the interest she seemed to take in the Emperor’s most trifling acts. She kept her eyes fixed upon him with an attention that could only come from the heart.

And that was a decade after their youthful romance had passed and they had married other people. One day, when Napoleon, his mother and Caroline were all together, he asked her who owned the Basseaux estate where they had spent their summer of love together. Caroline replied that her sister and brother-in-law lived there now. The Emperor expressed a desire to grant them any wish, in honor of his fond memories of the estate. Caroline declined in their name, assuring him that those happy memories were gift enough.

Ring with cherry-picking scene given by the young Napoleon Bonaparte to his first love Caroline du Colombier. Photo courtesy OsenatHe said no more about it, but a few weeks later he presented Caroline with a token of his appreciation for all Basseaux had meant to him. It was a ring, a seemingly modest one, made of gilded bronze with a central bezel containing a miniature carved country scene under a glass cover. It was the carving, made of marine ivory, that made this ring a masterpiece. In exquisite detail, the scene depicted a group of country folk collecting fruit from trees under the shadow of an ancient temple. The fruits were, of course, cherries.

Side view of ring. Photo courtesy OsenatThe ring stayed in Caroline’s family, a treasured heirloom, for more than 200 years. On Sunday, March 26th, the heirs sold this beautiful symbol of Napoleon before he was THE Napoleon at auction in Paris. The pre-sale estimate was 15,000-20,000 € ($16,000-21,000). It sold for 36,250 € ($38,580), a tribute to its artistry, yes, but more so the poignant sweetness of its history.

 

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5 Archbishops of Canterbury found under a church floor

April 16th, 2017

The mortal remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury have been discovered in a hidden chamber underneath the floor of the deconsecrated church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in London. The surprise find was made last year during renovations to the building, now the home of the Museum of Garden History, but was kept quiet to protect the crypt until it was stabilized.

Contractors discovered the secret entrance to the crypt when removing some York stone pavers to even out the treacherous floor and make the altar area wheelchair accessible. Lifting the flagstones, contractors found the entrance to a passageway with a staircase going down into the darkness. They attached a cellphone to a long stick and filmed the brick-lined vault. They were shocked to discover it was crammed from floor to ceiling with lead coffins, 30 of them. One of the coffins, they noted, had a red and gold pointed hat perched upon it, the mitre of an Archbishop.

Two of the coffins had nameplates – one for Richard Bancroft (in office from 1604 to 1610) and one for John Moore (1783 to 1805) whose wife, Catherine Moore, also had a coffin plate.

Bancroft was the chief overseer of the publication of a new English translation of the Bible – the King James Bible – which began in 1604 and was published in 1611.

According to Mr Mount, St Mary-at-Lambeth’s records have since revealed that a further three archbishops were probably buried in the vault: Frederick Cornwallis (in office 1768 to 1783), Matthew Hutton (1757 to 1758) and Thomas Tenison (1695 to 1715). […]

Also identified from coffin plates was the Dean of Arches John Bettesworth (who lived from 1677 to 1751) – the judge who sits at the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Because the church had been extensively rebuilt in the Victorian era, nobody thought there was still a crypt underneath it. The church is so close to the Thames that any underground space would have been dangerously flood-prone, and it was believed that any vaults under the church were cleared out by the Victorians and filled with soil. That was almost true. Most of the vaults were cleared of their coffins and filled in, but one of them, the crypt underneath the altar, the holiest location in the church and thus the burial place for multiple Archbishops of Canterbury, was left alone.

The church of St Mary-at-Lambeth has a very long and storied connection to the Archbishops of Canterbury. Edward the Confessor commissioned the construction of the first Westminster Abbey in 1042. The Romanesque church was still being built when Edward’s sister Goda had a more modest wooden church built across the river on her manor of Lambeth. St Mary’s was rebuilt in stone a few decades later. By the end of the 12th century the manor of Lambeth belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which elevated its profile considerably. The Archbishop’s residence, Lambeth Palace, was built next door in 1197, and St. Mary’s graduated from the parish church of a small manor to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace church.

Almost entirely rebuilt in 1851, St Mary-at-Lambeth was used for burials until 1854. An estimated 26,000 burials took place there, nearly 16,000 of them in just two decades (1790-1810). Prominent residents were buried at St Mary’s. There are three Grade II listed graves in the churchyard, those of Captain Bligh of The Mutiny on the Bounty fame, pioneering plant collector and royal gardener John Tradescant and artificial stone manufacturer John Sealy.

Fallen into disrepair, its parishioners depleted by neighborhood blight, St Mary-at-Lambeth was deconsecrated in 1972 and was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. It was saved from that dire fate by one Rosemary Nicholson, a gardening history buff who had sought out the dilapidated church to visit the overgrown and neglected tomb of John Tradescant. She appealed directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury and with her husband John founded the Tradescant Trust to rescue the church and burial ground. They were extraordinarily successful, raising money for much-needed repairs and securing a 99-year lease on the church and property from the Diocese of Southwark. The Trust gave St Mary-at-Lambeth new life as the Museum of Garden History, the first of its kind in the world.

The Garden Museum closed in October 2015 for a major £7.5 million ($9,400,000) refurbishment. It will reopen on May 22nd with a new glass panel in the floor that will allow visitors to view the staircase into the crypt. The coffins, which have been left untouched in the chamber, will not be accessible.

 

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You have 3 days to see Liverpool’s glorious Minton tile floor

April 15th, 2017

St George's Hall in Liverpool. Photo by Carole RaddatoSt George’s Hall in downtown Liverpool is a grand Neoclassical building constructed between 1841 and 1854. Located across the street from the Lime Street railway station, St George’s Hall was designed first and foremost to host Liverpool’s triennial music festivals, plus concerts, dances and other cultural activities. The Liverpool Corporation raised funds for the new building by selling subscriptions, and in 1839 held a design contest to choose an architect for the hall.

The winner was Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, a 25-year-old architecture prodigy who also happened to win another contest held at the same time to design a new building for the Civil and Crown Courts. He suggested both projects be combined, and thus St George’s Hall became the only combined concert venue, ballroom and courthouse in the country, possibly the world.

Great Hall with Willis Organ in the distance, liver bird and city corporation motto "Deus nobis haec otia fecit" (God has given us these days of leisure) on the Minton tile floor.The Great Hall, a vast space 169 feet by 77 feet with 82-foot ceilings, was lavishly decorated with monumental red granite columns, statues and tunnel vaulting. But its greatest glory is the floor, a riot of color composed of more than 30,000 tiles depicting Liverpool-related motifs including the liver bird, the symbol of the city, and maritime imagery like Neptune, tridents, dolphins and sea nymphs. The floor was installed in 1854, the jewel in the crown of St George’s Hall. It is today the largest, most intricate example of a Minton tile floor.

Minton floor of St George's Hall detail. Photo courtesy Liverpool City Council.Founded in 1845, Minton, Hollins & Company specialized in decorative tiles for the floors and walls of churches, public buildings and private homes. Minton’s encaustic tiles — ceramic tile with multiple colors created by different colors of clay rather than different glazes — were all the rage in the Victorian era. They were considered the epitome of beauty and durability and won gold medal upon gold medal at trade shows across the globe. There are Minton encaustic tile floors in the Palace of Westminster, the Victoria & Albert Museum, prestigious hotels, elegant mansions and even in the United States Capitol.

Restoration of one of the great circles of the Minton tile floor in 2015.St George’s Hall only enjoyed the full glory of its Minton tile floor for a decade. A wooden covering was added in the 1860s to make it more comfortable for dances and other events. This reduced the wear and tear from thousands of foxtrotting feet over the decades, but it also left the tile unmaintained, not to mention hidden away. The building was all but abandoned in the 1980s when the courts moved to a new building. With no money for ongoing maintenance, the great neoclassical building, widely considered one of the most spectacular examples of the period in the world, rapidly deteriorated.

Minton Floor partially uncovered for cleaning in 2012. Photo by Colin Lane.In the 1990s funds were raised to repair parts the building, and in the early 2000s a major refurbishment project saved St George’s Hall. In 2007, the Grade I listed building opened to the public once again, restored to its former splendor. The Minton floor, however, was deemed too fragile to expose to all those feet again. It was covered with protective wooden panels which are very rarely removed. Sections of the floor received the first thorough restoration only in 2015.

Visitors view the Minton Tile floor in St George's Hall, Liverpool. Photo by Peter Byrne.If you’d like to see the greatest extant Victorian encaustic tile floor, you have a brief window to do so. The floor will be uncovered and open to visitors only until Wednesday, April 18th. The entrance fee is £2.50 to view the floor from a viewing platform. There are also Walk the Floor tours (£10) and a Night on the Tiles option (£12, including a flute of prosecco).

Ann Lawton, a cleaner at Liverpool's St George's Hall, cleans the Minton Tiled Floor now on display. Photo by Peter Byrne.

 

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“The Two Maidens” of Pompeii are men

April 14th, 2017

Cast of the misnamed "The Two Maidens" from House of the Cryptoporticus. Rapiti All Morte exhibition, 2015.An ongoing project to CT scan the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. has revealed that the cast of two embracing figures known as The Two Maidens are in fact men. The skeletal remains of the couple and the cavity in the volcanic rock left by the decay of their soft tissues were discovered in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus in a 1914 excavation overseen by Pompeii’s director of works Vittorio Spinazzola. The remains of eight people were found in that little peristyle garden, two of them in 1913, the rest between July 2nd and 21st of 1914.

Casts and skeletons in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1914, Vol XI, p.261.All eight were found in the fine ash layer that followed the pumice fall, encased by the pyroclastic flow that covered the town. Plaster casts were made of three of the eight (the right conditions for creating the casts are rare; out of more than 1,100 human remains found at Pompeii, casts have been made of only 86 of them), with particular attention paid to the more complex problem of the couple. The Two Maidens were erroneously assumed to be women because of their posture and the shapeliness of their legs. Here is how Spinazzola described the find in the yearly report on the excavation (translation mine):

Cast of "Two Maidens" in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1914, Vol XI, p.261.One of the fallen lies on the left side, the head pointing to the east and the legs, a bit contracted, to the west. The left hand is folded near the head, in the ashes, and the right is under the chin as if to push away something obstructing the mouth and preventing breathing. The other person is bent on the right side with his head on the breast of the first. And this pose against the abdomen of the first fallen, the right arm buried in the ashes, the left gently bent under the breasts, the legs with full and tender female contours, one more, one less contracted, as of someone sweetly reclining to sleep an eternal sleep in a protective womb.

Apparently seeking comfort in the face of apocalyptic death was deemed to be a feminine impulse rather than a human one. The supposed “female contours” of the legs and later descriptions of “little rings” found on the fingers were extensions of that assumption.

Detail of cast of couple from House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Rapiti All Morte exhibition, 2015.Examination of osteological and morphological features on the CAT scan indicates that both individuals are male and that the individual with his head against the chest of the other was a young man about 18 years old at the time of death. The other person is believed to be an adult male who was at least 20 years old when Vesuvius claimed his life. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from one tooth and bone fragments established conclusively that the younger of the two was male. DNA analysis confirmed that the two were neither brothers nor father and son. Some news stories have leapt to the conclusion that they were therefore lovers, which is not remotely supportable by the evidence and seems to me just another iteration of the same prejudices that caused the original Two Maidens error.

Conservators work on "Two Maidens." Photo courtesy the Archeological Site of Pompeii.The scans are part of the Great Pompeii Project, an extensive program of architectural restoration and stabilization of the most endangered features of the ancient city. The 86 human casts, the oldest of which date to the 1860s when pioneering archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first filled a cavity with plaster to capture the final death throes of one of Vesuvius’ victims, are in need of restoration as much as the buildings are, and they pose a thorny challenge since they contain human remains. In order to get a clear idea of what’s inside the plaster shell — bones, metal supports, more plaster in varying states of decay — conservators borrowed a state-of-the-art 16-layer CT scanner that was able to penetrate the dense materials.

With the scans as guides, the team was able to extract mitochondrial DNA (which survives far better than nuclear DNA in archaeological contexts) from the skeletal remains with pinpoint precision and minimal damage. This opens up a whole new arena of information about the people of Pompeii.

 

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Jorvik Viking Centre reopens 16 months after flood

April 13th, 2017

HRH Prince Charles with archaeologists Peter Addyman and Richard Hall at the Coppergate dig in 1976. Photo courtesy York Archaeological Trust.On December 27, 2015, the Jorvik Viking Centre was flooded by the heavy rains that submerged downtown York. One of York’s most popular attractions, the Jorvik Centre is a recreation of the streets of Viking York whose foundations were discovered on and around Coppergate Street during an excavation by the York Archaeological Trust from 1976 to 1981. The excavations unearthed artifacts like a silk cap, coins, amber and cowrie shells that proved 10th century Viking York had extensive trade links stretching as far as the Byzantine Empire and beyond.

(The Lloyds Bank Coprolite. Photo courtesy the York Archaeological Trust.Coppergate is also the find spot for a record-breaking archaeological treasure: the Lloyds Bank Coprolite, discovered in 1972 at the construction site of the bank branch. It is the largest known human coprolite, a majestic turd eight inches long by two inches wide, that was mineralized and thus preserved in exceptional condition. The crap provided a rich glimpse into the life of a 10th century York Viking. He or she subsisted mainly on bread and meat, which explains the sheer size of that beast, and was riddled with parasites and parasite eggs.

This video featuring York Archaeological Trust paleoscatologist Dr. Andrew Jones talking about the coprolite beats raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens by a mile on my personal favorite things scale.

(Pardon the digression. You know I can never resist archaeological poop.)

Foundations of Coppergate's Viking streets under the museum floor. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.Curators were able to rescue the large collection of artifacts unearthed in Coppergate from the floodwaters, but the mannikins of Vikings going about their daily lives and their recreated homes and businesses could not be moved. They stewed in the murky water that filled the first floor of the museum until it receded. The damage to the exhibits and the facilities was extensive.

New recreation of Viking latrine being flushed. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.Insurance payments and copious fundraising allowed the Jorvik Centre to rebuild and expand, improving some of the tableaux, adding new stinks to the beloved smell-o-vision feature of the recreations, and creating a new gallery that will allow the museum to securely host important loans from other institutions. After 16 months and £4.3 million ($5,380,000), the newly renovated Jorvik Viking Centre reopened to the public on April 8th.

York Helmet. Photo courtesy the York Archaeological Trust.One of the centerpieces of the grand reopening is the Coppergate or York Helmet, an 8th century Anglo-Saxon helmet that was found in a wood-lined well during construction of a shopping center in 1982. The pit was near the site where the remains of Viking York were discovered that is now the Jorvik Viking Centre. Even though the helmet was damaged by the mechanical digger that found it, conservators at the British Museum were able to reconstruct it to its original condition. It is one of only three intact Anglian helmets ever discovered in Britain.

The York Helmet’s permanent home is the Yorkshire Museum. It will be on display at the Jorvik Centre for four weeks in honor of the reopening.

“Although itself not strictly Viking, it is likely that it was appropriated and used by one of the Viking settlers into the late ninth century. It is a prestigious piece of armour, so it could have been buried in its wood-lined pit by the new owner to hide it, but for some reason, was never reclaimed, and remained underground until the very last excavations of the Coppergate dig in 1982,” comments director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, Sarah Maltby. “We are looking forward to bringing the helmet back in Coppergate — it is a real treat for those visiting during our first month of re-opening that they will see it in almost exactly the same spot as it was unearthed.”

Bedale Hoard after conservation. Photo courtesy the Yorkshire Museum.After this brief visit to its old stomping grounds, the helmet will return to the Yorkshire Museum for a new exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend. A collaboration with the British Museum, the exhibition will bring together for the first time some of the greatest Viking and Anglo-Saxon archaeological treasures ever discovered, including the Bedale Hoard, the Vale of York Hoard, the Gilling Sword and the Lewis Chessmen. It opens at the Yorkshire Museum on May 19th and runs through November 5th before touring the country, stopping at the University of Nottingham, The Atkinson, Southport, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Norwich Castle Museum.

Jorvik Viking Centre's new boat recreation. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre. Blacksmith recreation at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.

 

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Roman settlement in north England may rewrite history

April 12th, 2017

Archaeologists excavate a section of the Roman road. Photo © Dr Jonathan Shipley.The expansion of the A1, Britain’s longest road, has unearthed a major Roman settlement at Scotch Corner in North Yorkshire. Some of the artifacts are of exceptional quality, so much so that archaeologists are having to revise their understanding of the Roman conquest of northern England. There had to have been very wealthy Romano-Britons further north and earlier than previously realized, and a Roman administrative center to boot.

Archaeologists excavating Roman revetments, built to protect the river shore from erosion. Photo © Dr Jonathan Shipley.The settlement, about 40 miles north of York, was a small town by the standards of the mainland, but it was big for northern England. The site extended just under a mile from north to south and contained a mixture of Roman and native buildings. About 40 Roman buildings — rectangular and likely a combination of private homes and businesses — abutted the Roman road from London to Brigantia, the territory of the Brigantes tribe in northern England. Only 12 of them have been excavated so far. Back from the road archaeologists discovered Iron Age British roundhouses, probably the same number as the Roman structures; 14 of them have been excavated.

Archaeologists believe the Roman buildings were built in the 50s A.D., which means the road they face was already built or at least in the process of being built at that time. Before this discovery, historians believed it was constructed in the early 70s A.D., almost 20 years later.

Amber carving with drawing of complete figure. Photo © Northern Archaeological Associates.Amidst the structures and buried in votive pits, archaeologists found expensive imported artifacts including a high relief glass bowl, glazed Roman tableware, a copper mirror and drinking vessels. One of the standout pieces is an exceptionally rare fragment of a carved amber figurine. The torso of a man wearing a toga, believed to represent an actor, was likely made in Italy in the 1st century A.D., and while a similar piece has been found at Pompeii, this is the first one of its kind ever discovered in the UK. For the Scotch Corner settlement to have had artifacts like this, they had to have a line on the highest quality export goods Rome had to offer.

Coin moulds. Photo © Northern Archaeological Associates.The strongest evidence that Scotch Corner was a major administrative center is the large number of pellet moulds used to create gold, silver and copper coins. Fragments of dozens of ceramic mould trays were unearthed in the area where the British roundhouses have been found. Two distinct types of trays were discovered, one for making 100 smaller pellets, another for making 50 larger ones. The pellets were the first step in coin production. The balls would then be struck with hammer and die to create coins. This is the northernmost archaeological evidence of coin production discovered in Europe.

The moulds and alloys are characteristic of native British coin manufacture, but no Brigantian coins have ever been discovered and the scale of production indicated by the sheer number of moulds suggests the involvement of Roman administration or a massive increase in need for coinage stimulated by the Roman arrival.

Roman leather shoe found in Catterick. Photo © Northern Archaeological Associates.The Scotch Corner settlement predates the Roman settlements in York and Carlisle by a decade, which means the Romans established themselves in the north 10 years earlier than historians thought. It didn’t last long, however, no more than two or three decades. It was eclipsed as a population and administrative center by the neighboring settlement of Catterick (Cataractonium).

A silver ring shaped like a snake found in Catterick. Photo © Northern Archaeological AssociatesThe A1 excavation has unearthed a wealth of valuable artifacts from Cataractonium as well, among them a gorgeous ring shaped like a snake; many leather shoes in excellent condition; uncut sheets of leather indicating a large-scale manufacture of shoes and clothes, possibly for the Roman army; iron keys large and small; a pewter inkpot; and a number of styli, attesting to a high level of literacy in the population.

Neil Redfern, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England said: “The sheer amount of exceptional objects found on this road scheme has been extraordinary. Through them we are learning more and more about life here in the Roman period. This project has given us a unique opportunity to understand how the Romans conducted their military expansion into Northern England and how civil life changed under their control.”

 

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