Happy New Year’s Eve!

December 31st, 2017

May Janus make his two (or four) faces to shine down upon your endeavours. May Bacchus’ leopard-drawn chariot safely convey you in whatever condition you happen to find yourself to and from your destinations. May you ring in the New Year with people you love, or at least people you don’t actively hate, and when the clock strikes midnight, raise a glass to we many, we happy many history nerds. Long may we drone on about our favorite subjects to our friends and family until they beg us to shut up for just one second or stuff their ears with dinner table napkins. Hey, it’s a gift.

We’ll meet back here tomorrow for a new post, the yearly retrospective that has become such a firmly established tradition for me now that it wouldn’t feel like the year has turned without it. Have a wonderful night!

P.S. – Aw, I can’t leave you with nothing at all to while away the time between breakfast and party. Janus, donchaknow. One looks back even as one looks forward.

This is a nifty 3D digitial reconstruction of St. Salvator’s Quad and Chapel at the University of St Andrews. The great spire of St. Salvator’s is original to the 15th century structure, but the rest of the quad today bears little resemblance to what it looked like when it opened in 1450. It was altered irrevocably starting with the great upheavals of the Reformation in Scotland, and indeed, a pivotal event in that history took place in the quad: the burning at the state of Patrick Hamilton, a 24-year-old scholar and advocate of the ideas of Martin Luther. He who was the first person condemned to die and executed for espousing Protestantism in Scotland. That was 1528.

With the 500the anniversary of the Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg castle, University of St Andrews researchers collaborated with Smart History to set the scene virtually so we could get an idea of what St. Salvator’s looked like in its medieval heyday.

St Salvators – St Andrews 1559 from Smart History on Vimeo.

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Who wants to live forever? The First Emperor of China, that’s who

December 30th, 2017

Many kings have a thing about immortality, usually with good reason because ruling was a high-risk job. The living incarnations of the gods, Egypt’s pharaohs were mummified to extend their physical bodies into the immortal realm. Alexander the Great was said to have sought out a yogi in India so he could discover the secret to eternal life (which he would turn out to need far sooner than he realized). Mithridates of Pontus was reputed to have ingested tiny amounts of every poison known to make himself unkillable (iocane powder was not reportedly among them) after his father was assassinated by poison, and Roman emperors deified their (less reviled) predecessors and were deified themselves posthumously as a matter of rote.

Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of a united China (reined 220–210 B.C.) and founder of the Qin dynasty which barely survived him by three years, had much in common with his fellow monarchs. He’d fought bloody wars his whole life, taking the throne of the Qin kingdom when he was 13 years old and fighting his way to becoming the ultimate victor of China’s Warring States Period 25 years later. Previous dynasts used the word for “king.” Qin Shi Huang literally coined the word for “emperor” which has been used by Chinese monarchs ever since.

As unrelenting as he was in battle he was equally driven to find the secret of eternal life. He covered several bases there, creating the wonder-of-the-world greatness of the Terracotta Army for his huge mausoleum complete with rivers of mercury (believe to be a boon to preservation of tissues). That was the failsafe, as it happens. Plan A was not to die at all, and just like his counterparts out west, he had good reason for his pathological fear of the reaper. He survived at least three foiled assassination attempts and several coups during his lifetime. In a twist that would make an ancient Greek tragedian weep tears of bitter jealousy and regret, the First Emperor died in a palace in the far east of his realm where he had gone to score an elixir of life from some Taoist wizards who said they knew of one hidden on a remote island under the watchful eye of a guardian sea monster. He never did make it to the sea monster. Something else killed him first: the mercury-filled “medicinal” poison pills given him by his physicians to give him eternal life. It was 210 B.C. and he was 49 years old.

If it has a whiff of the goat song, no-escaping-destiny about it as a conclusion to the story, it’s all the more goaty now that archaeologists have confirmed that Qin Shi Huang was all over the elixir of life from the minute his ample rump hit the throne. As soon as he claimed the title, the Emperor issued an order to all regional authorities that they seek out the secret to immortality and relay it to him. The poor local guys did the best they could and the Qin Emperor got numerous replies written on wooden slips, thousands of which were discovered at the bottom of a well in Hunan province in 2002.

Archaeologists have been studying the slips since then and the Qin tombs found at the site ever since and have collected remarkable evidence of how wide-ranging the search was, a personally committed and involved the emperor was in search for the elixir.

Zhang Chunlong, a researcher at the provincial institute of archaeology, said the emperor’s decree reached frontier regions and remote villages.

According to the calligraphic script on the narrow wooden slips, a village called “Duxiang” reported that no miraculous potion had been found yet and implied that the search would continue. Another place, “Langya,” in today’s eastern Shandong Province near the sea, presented a herb collected from an auspicious local mountain.

The discovery demonstrated the emperor’s centralization of authority.

“It required a highly efficient administration and strong executive force to pass down a government decree in ancient times when transportation and communication facilities were undeveloped,” Zhang said.

Archaeologists examine Quin wood slips. Photo courtesy Xinhua.It has taken a long time to examine the collection and pull them by topic. There are over 36,000 slips written using 200,000 ancient Chinese characters from 222-208 B.C covering subjects from politics to military plans to legal provisions and more. Archaeologists found 48 slips that directly reference medical questions, mostly the elixir but not solely. These document treatments that were popular then and are still part of traditional Chinese medicine today. They also revealed what a thoroughly well-developed health services system the Qin Dynasty had put together in such a short time. It was highly regulated. Doctors could only take patients under their care when told to do so by the government and all treatments had to be assiduously recorded for inspection. The patients were overwhelmingly wealthy members of the elite who could afford all theis doctorin’.

This is a remarkable collection of official archival records from a very short-lived (nyuk) dynasty that has other left very few written records behind. The slips aren’t just a fascinating combination of nostra, legends and alchemy from the period; they are also a thick slice of government administration preserved for more than 2,000 years, which is the kind of immortality I can 100% get behind. For many archaeologists and historians, this assemblage is as important as the terracotta warriors and mausoleum because every word lends new insight into how the First Emperor went about the business of governing his newly unified domain.

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Bronze Age toys found in Siberia

December 29th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age burial ground of Itkol II in the Republic of Khakassia, southern Siberia, have unearthed two children’s toys from the Okunev culture. They’re the heads of figurines. One is a soapstone cylindrical piece about two inches long with finely carved facial features. The striking eyes and long eyelashes or brows may suggest a female face. The other is the head of an animal of undetermined type (horse? dragon? dog? seahorse?) carved out of horn or antler. No remains of the figurines’ bodies, likely made from an organic material or materials, have survived.

Each were discovered in a child’s grave. The burial itself was a simple commoner’s grave, so these were not elite grave goods. (The elite were buried in large, well-appointed tumuli, a distinctly fancier setting than these inhumations.) The lack of symbols, carvings or any other indications of a ritual or religious significance suggests the carvings weren’t talismans or charms to accompany the dead, but the beloved toys of an all too brief childhood.

The Okunev culture is seen as having links to Native Americans – and this is not the first time their toys have been found.

Indeed, the latest finds add to an intriguing collection. A figurine of a pagan god pulled out of a Siberian river by an angler was likely a child’s toy or rattle to ward off evil spirits. It has almond-shaped eyes, a large mouth with full lips, and a ferocious facial expression. On the back is ‘plaited hair with wave like lines. Below the plait there are lines looking like fish scales.’

Fisherman Nikolay Tarasov made ‘the catch of a lifetime’, said museum staff.

At the time of its discovery archaeologists were less definitive about which culture may have created the rattle or idol. The Okunev weren’t the only people in the area about 4,000 years ago. It also wasn’t certain that it actually was a toy, even though the press ran with the idea that it was a child’s rattle made to look fearsome. Many “oldest toy in the world looks like scary old fishgod!1” headlines ensued. At least these two pieces were found in undisturbed children’s graves in an extensively explored Okunev burial ground used by people of various social levels for centuries, so the speculation is a tad more grounded in archaeological context.

Soapstone dolly, ca. 4,500 years old. Photo courtesy the Institute of the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IIMK RAS).

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Even more bullae found in Doliche

December 28th, 2017

The ancient site of Doliche near modern-day Dülük in southern Turkey has done it again. An international team of archaeologists led by Dr. Engelbert Winter of the University of Münster has unearthed more than 1,000 bullae or clay seal impressions from Doliche’s municipal archive.

Doliche was renown throughout the Greek and Roman world for its shrine to Jupiter. Jupiter Dolichenus was a syncretic iteration, a composite of the original Hittite sky/storm god Tesub-Hadad with the Greco-Roman god of lightning Zeus/Jupiter, but the mystery religion spread widely after the Romans conquered the city in 64 B.C. and had adherents all over the empire, including the most desirable adherents a sanctuary might want, i.e., emperors.

Dr. Winter and his team discovered evidence found more than 600 seals in the excavation of 2013. They were votive offerings made to the temple long before the Roman conquest — between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.) which gave historians a rare chance to study the religious culture and imagery of the ancient city before the deity was absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheon. The cache discovered this season is later in date (2nd-3rd centuries A.D.) and many pieces of it appear to be official administrative seals from the city archives. Their large size, their discovery in the city rather than the temple precinct and some inscriptions attest to their origin.

Engelbert Winter on the significance of this major distinction:

“The fact that administrative authorities sealed hundreds of documents with the images of gods shows how strongly religious beliefs shaped everyday life.”

“The cult of Jupiter Dolichenus did not only take place in the nearby central temple, but also left its mark on urban life,” he said.

“It also becomes apparent how strongly Jupiter Dolichenus, originally worshipped at this location, was connected with the entire Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE: many of the images show the god shaking hands with various Roman emperors.”

The gods depicted on the seals are also rife with political and civic meaning.

“In addition to the images of the ‘city goddess’ Tyche, the depictions of Augustus and Dea Roma deserve special attention, since they point to the important role of the Roman emperor and the personified goddess of the Roman state for the town of Doliche, which lies on the eastern border of the Roman Empire,” Professor Winter said.

“However, the central motif is the most important god of the city, Jupiter Dolichenus. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, his cult spread into large parts of the Mediterranean world, extending as far as Britain.”

“Therefore, it is not surprising that hundreds of documents were sealed with images showing a handshake between this deity and an emperor. It was a sign of the god’s affinity to the Roman state.”

Doliche’s deep bench produced other exceptional finds this year. Archaeologists discovered a brilliantly colored ancient mosaic floor underneath a later ancient floor in a three-aisled building complex. The mosaic is believed to around 400 A.D., and Winter thinks it is from a Christian church built there in late antiquity. Winter’s team has been excavating the church since 2015 and 150 square meters (1615 square feet) of the nave have been revealed this year.

But wait, there’s more!

The researchers also found the public center of the town of Doliche, which they had initially located by geophysical prospecting in the east of the city. “This assumption has been confirmed,” said the excavation leader. “We were able to expose parts of a very large building: it is a well-preserved mosaic baths of the Roman Empire. As there are hardly any Roman thermal springs in the region, this discovery is of great scientific importance. “The research team from Münster also brought new insights into the extent of the city area and the chronology of the city: A year on the settlement hill of the ancient city, The Keber Tepe, carried out intensive survey led to quite surprising results: “A variety of Stone Age finds indicate that Keber Tepe was evidently a very significant place from a very early age. Doliche then reached its greatest extent in the Roman and early Byzantine period.”

These kind of fantastically layered, information-rich finds are why Winter, his co-workers and sponsors have been going back to the site every year since 2001.

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Visitor identifies plant decorating medieval chest

December 27th, 2017


The Billingford Hutch, a large and sturdily-built oak chest with heavy iron bands, hasps and locks, was used as a strongbox in the late Middle Ages. It’s named after Richard de Billingford, who was the 5th Master of Corpus Christi College (founded in 1352), mastering it for an impressively long stint from 1398 until 1432. In 1420, he started the college’s loan program, donating what was then the princely sum of £20 as seed money to loan to scholars chronically low on cash. They could withdraw funds up to 40 shillings (ca. £2) using their valuables (manuscripts, mainly) as collateral. The £20 was kept in a locked chest under the vigilant eye of three custodians until a withdrawal was made. The books or other valuables the debtor was using as collateral were then placed in the chest until the establish repayment deadline. If the debtor did not manage to pay back the loan on time, his stuff was sold immediately and the sum owed returned to the chest. If the items sold for more the amount owed, that went into the chest too. The debtor got none of it.

The university loan chest system was widely practiced in institutes of higher learning at that time. Billingford didn’t invent it; he was the first to implement it at Corpus Christi is all. Other colleges at Cambridge had chests of their own, but most of the chest themselves are long lost. Corpus Christi still has their iron and oak ACME safe, and even more rarely, it has retained the registers that recorded the cash and collateral flow for more than three centuries. It’s because of those registers that we know how frequently the loan chest was used and by whom. Every fellow and master at the college is listed as having borrowed from it, and while as you might expect manuscripts do dominate, what with them being academics and all, they also used precious religious objects, silver spoons and salt cellars.

The chest itself likely predates 1420, but we don’t know its exact age. Nobody knew why the locks were decorated with images of an undetermined leaf either. That changed in September of this year when the chest was moved to Parker Library and fell under the unblinking Sauron-like eye of one particular visitor. Check out this wonderfully nerdy chain of events:

Jeremy Purseglove, environmentalist and Cambridge resident, visited the Library during Open Cambridge in September 2017. “It was a wonderful chance to get a glimpse of some of the Library’s medieval manuscripts,” he said. “We were given a fascinating talk by Alexander Devine, one of the librarians. He showed us a massive chest that had recently been moved to the Library from elsewhere in the College. My eye was drawn to the leaf shapes in the metal work.”

The chest is made from oak planks and measures approximately 1.8m x 0.5m x 0.4m. It is reinforced by numerous iron bands and five iron hasps, secured in three locks, all operated by different keys. Each of the lock plates (the metal plates containing the locks, hasps and keyholes) is decorated with the outline of a plant punched into the metal.

No-one knew the significance of this decorative detail. Purseglove, who is passionate about plants, suspected the distinctive shape was likely to be that of moonwort, a fern much mentioned by 16th-century herbalists. He said: “I rushed home and looked it up. I found that it had been associated with the opening of locks and guarding of silver.”

It was such a strong association that herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote about it in his seminal 1653 volume The Complete Herbal. His description of the plant is as artfully rendered as the motif on the chest’s iron fittings:

It rises up usually with but one dark green, thick and flat leaf, standing upon a short foot-stalk not above two fingers breadth; but when it flowers it may be said to bear a small slender stalk about four or five inches high, having but one leaf in the middle thereof, which is much divided on both sides into sometimes five or seven parts on a side, sometimes more; each of which parts is small like the middle rib, but broad forwards, pointed and round, resembling therein a half-moon, from whence it took the name; the uppermost parts or divisions being bigger than the lowest. The stalks rise above this leaf two or three inches, bearing many branches of small long tongues, every one like the spiky head of the adder’s tongue, of a brownish colour, (which, whether I shall call them flowers, or the seed, I well know not) which, after they have continued awhile, resolve into a mealy dust.

Governed by the celestial power of our satellite, moonwort leaves were reputedly an excellent tonic against menstrual irregularities, vaginal discharge (if you’ve ever read old medical books, and I have, you’ll know that how to combat the scourge of “the whites” was a huge subject of discussion for centuries), and another other unwanted emission of body fluid. Culpepper thought it was most effective in combination with other herbs to help heal wounds. He concludes his description with a reference to its vaunted lock-picking powers:

Moonwort is an herb which (they say) will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. This some laugh to scorn, and those no small fools neither; but country people, that I know, call it Unshoe the Horse. Besides I have heard commanders say, that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex’s horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being but newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration: the herb described usually grows upon heaths.

Hmmm…Seems like it would be the opposite of something you’d want guarding the locks on your cash and saleable goods. Oh well, can’t argue with results, I suppose. The Billingford Hutch kept its secrets close for 500 years, first money and valuables, then information.

[Librarian Alexander] Devine said: “The Billingford Hutch is probably the best surviving example of its kind in Europe. To have a possible answer to the puzzle of its decorative motif is fantastic. We’re immensely grateful to Jeremy for enriching our understanding of its history. His wonderful discovery is further proof that sharing your collections with the public is the key to unlocking their secrets.”

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Cremains of Roman soldiers found in cooking pots

December 26th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed remains of stone structures, Roman engineering and the cremains of several deceased legionaries in cooking pots at a Roman military camp just over half a mile south of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. The monumental base (it was around 330 yards by 550 in area) is the only permanent, full-scale legionary camp discovered in the eastern Roman Empire. There are several in mainland Europe and we know there were major bases elsewhere in the Levant and east — Jerusalem, or rather, Aelia Capitolina, built on the ruins of Jerusalem after Titus’ razing of it in 70 A.D., had a large base — but they have yet to be found.

The site is known as Legio (later Arabicized to Lajjun) after the camp built in the first half of the 2nd century A.D. and for more than a century was home to the formidable Legio VI Ferrata, meaning the Sixth Ironclad Legion. In the wake of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 A.D.), the emperor Hadrian kept them in the Legio camp to guard the strategically important supply, transport and communication lines between the coast and Jezreel Valley.

Legio VI had a proud history of fighting under some of Rome’s greatest generals. They were with Julius Caesar when he spanked Vercingetorix in Gaul, then with Marc Anthony and after his defeat in the Battle of Actium, they served under Octavian. The Ironclads were transferred from Syria to Judea just before the Bar Kochba Revolt and would remain there through most of the 3rd century. They were sent to the eastern frontier and Legio was dismantled by command of Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century.

The site has been excavated regularly for years. In 2013 and 2015, archaeologists unearthed numerous ceramic tiles stamped with the mark of the Legio VI Ferrata, and even stamped with the imprints of the hobnails from their caligae, the legionary’s sandal that earned Caligula his nickname because he charmed the legions fighting under his father Germanicus when he wore a miniature pair as a little boy. They also found individual hobnails from those sandals, scales from Roman armour and the remains of infrastructure like clay pipes, sewer channels and buildings.

This season’s excavation was even more dramatic: they discovered the remains of a monumental gate that led to the base’s the principia, the religious and military headquarters.

The principia was the heart of the Roman military base, a huge complex some 100 meters by 100 meters. Grand in size and in design, it had a huge colonnaded façade as well as a grand colonnade inside.

“The principia was not just the legionary commander’s headquarters; it was also the legion’s shrine. It included an open courtyard that housed a sanctuary for the legion’s standards, the revered symbol of the unit,” Strauss told Haaretz. […]

The principia was also the site of the treasury, the armory, and was where the scribes worked.

As is so often the case, the latrines yielded treasures of great importance. The excavation unearthed hundreds Roman coins, glass, pottery, animal bones and assorted other detritus that had been cast down with the excrement to the delight of archaeologists 1,900 years later.

They also found a hand-dug cave inside the camp that held a cooking pot filled with the ashes of a fallen and cremated comrade. It wasn’t even the only one.

“Cremation burials in cooking pots were a common practice among Roman soldiers at that time. We found this kind of burial all around the site,” Tepper told Haaretz.

Finding one’s final resting place in a cooking pot was not atypical of Roman burial practices at other Roman military sites, in Israel and around the Mediterranean, Tepper added.

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A little gift

December 25th, 2017

I hope you’ve all had a grand, warm, lucrative, family-and-friends filled Christmas Day. As it has been a tad busy, I’m going to keep it short with a little gift post in the form of pretty pictures. You might recall my recent article about The Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817). As I was in the neighborhood visiting family, I popped into the Clark Art Institute to enjoy its exceptional collection of Winslow Homers, George Inneses, Renoirs, Monets, Sisleys, Alma-Tademas, Sargents, Renaissance Old Masters and about a thousand other art historical gems.

I also made a special pilgrimage to the 18th century French portraiture room to see the youth in a replica of his father’s Napoleonic uniform. He is just as sweet and soft-eyed as he looked in the official release pictures.


In that same gallery is a painting by Louis-Léopold Boiully, a portraitist and genre artist who was highly celebrated in his time and managed to thrive from the ancien regime all the way through to the July Monarchy, although he did have a little less than pleasant moment with the Committee of Public Safety over the erotic undertone of his paintings which would have cost him his life had it not been for the discovery of a properly propagandistic Le triomphe de Marat (1794) in his studio. The genre paintings capture scenes of French society, street life and current events. Most of his portraits were of middle class people and celebrities, including Robespierre.

The painting in the Clark, however, is not a portrait, even though it’s in the portrait gallery. It is a trompe l’oeil from 1785 called, appropriately, Various Objects. It depicts what looks like a pinboard with letters, a nosegay of pansies, a black and white drawing, a glass bottle hanging from a string, a leather pouch, scissors, a switchblade and a drawing compass. I think it’s pretty great, and appreciate it all the more because it was Boiully who coined the phrase “trompe l’oeil.”

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Roman coin hoard, lead coffin found by veteran’s group

December 24th, 2017

A group of military veteran metal detectorists have discovered a hoard of 250 Roman coins and a Roman lead coffin in Ilminster, Somerset, England. Detecting for Veterans assembled in an Ilminster field (the exact location is not being disclosed for its protection) this year for its annual Christmas charity dig in aid of The Veterans Charity and Talking2Minds. Member Kevin Minto made the first modest finds — a button, a fragment of lead — and then hit the jackpot when he found a Roman coin.

Being a responsible and conscientious metal detecting enthusiast, the group founder, former 1st Battalion Light Infantry Veteran, Jason Massey immediately called the county Finds Liaison Officer to determine how to proceed without harming the archaeological context. He was told an archaeological team would be on the way, but to continue to detect and dig, but to be cautious and document everything he found.

Over the next four days, Detecting for Veterans worked the field assiduously, ultimately unearthing 260 Roman coins ranging in date from 270-305 A.D., and one ring and two brooches. They were then joined by the Somerset County archaeologist Bob Croft and discovered the Roman grave site. The lead coffin dates to around 400 A.D. and archaeologists believe it a young woman’s coffin. This is an extremely rare find; just six lead-lined Roman coffins have been discovered in Somerset. Only 200 have been found in the entire country.

Laura Burnett, the Somerset finds liaison officer, said lead was a “fancy and expensive” way of being buried in Roman times.

“They’re probably using locally produced lead from the Mendips – so it might have been a bit cheaper here than in other parts of the county – but it’s an expensive thing to be buried in.” […]

There are about 200 similar lead coffins finds in the country but only six have been previously been discovered in Somerset.

“This is a very special site, a rare discovery of lead coffins,” Mr Croft said.

“Lead ones that we know go from Shepton Mallet to Wiveliscombe, and this central part of Somerset – so this one is an unusual one.

If the hoard is declared treasure trove (and it will be), local museums will be given the opportunity acquire it for the amount of its official valuation which will be divided between the finder and the landowner. That would make a great gift for the charities supported by Detecting for Veterans.

Archaeologists are still exploring the site and plan to continue into 2018.

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Queen’s gold and worker’s footprint to shine in Penn Museum’s new Mespotamian galleries

December 23rd, 2017

On November 1st, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology began its first major renovation since it was founded in 1887. The building, a grand historical treasure in its own right, is in dire need of upgrades, especially systems. Most urgent is the air conditioning system which doesn’t need upgrading because it doesn’t actually exist. The museum gets hot in the summer and the body heat and moisture from visitors exacerbates the problem, putting the delicate objects on display at risk.

The three-phase renovation will create a new exhibition space with state-of-the art climate control technology and 6,000 square feet in which to showcase the Penn Museum’s stellar Near East collection. A pioneer in the field of Middle Eastern archaeology, the Penn Museum was the first in the country to send a team to explore Mesopotamian sites in 1887. They’ve been back hundreds of times since and collected more than 100,000 objects, making the Penn Museum’s Near East collection one of the greatest in the world.

More than 1,200 of those objects will go on display in the new suits of three galleries — Towards Cities, Ur: The Great City, The World of Cities — dedicated to Mesopotamian history, giving visitors a panorama of the evolution and development of culture and urban life in the cradle of civilization through objects of enormous rarity and significance.

The artifacts getting an abode worthy of them include the splendid headdress of Sumerian Queen Puabi, made from 24 feet of gold ribbon, 20 gold rings and long strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads. It was found by Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in 1928. Other Royal Cemetery stand-out pieces will go back on display in the new galleries, among them the bull head fragment from an ancient lyre made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and shell, the Ram in a Thicket statuette.

It’s not all glittering gold masterpieces of luxury materials. The breadth of the collection allows the Penn Museum to tell the story of how Mesopotamia moved from villages to large cities with massive populations and an unparalleled collection of wealth. Front and center in the new Middle East Galleries will be one of the museum’s most unusual Sumerian objects: a footprint left in a piece of wet mud brick in Ur 4,000 years ago. One of the world’s oldest wine vessels will be on display (a Neolithic pot discovered at Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran, that dates to around 5400 B.C.), a baby rattle, a writing primer for children and many more objects that will give visitors a view into daily life from writing and record-keeping to agriculture, labour, meal preparation and burial practices over 10,000 years of Mesopotamian history.

The Middle East Galleries will take pride of place in the renovated museum, right next to the entrance hall. It officially opens to the public on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

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Turkey busts massive artifact smuggling ring

December 22nd, 2017

Istanbul police have recovered 26,456 ancient artifacts and arrested 19 people in the biggest anti-smuggling operation in Turkish history.

Among the items recovered were a golden queen’s crown with an inscription of the Hellenistic god, Helios, a bust dedicated to Alexander the Great’s conquest of India and a statue of a goddess dating back to the Hittite era 3,000 years ago.

The 26,456 objects recovered also included Egyptian-origin statues and Phoenician-type teardrop vials.

“The retrieved artefacts are… more valuable than the artefacts in the inventory of an average size museum,” Istanbul police said in a statement.

One of the seized artifacts is a rare bird: a 3,000-year-old Mycenaean sword ostensibly owned by the hero Achilles himself. It’s not rare that some random object would be attributed to a hero of Troy — that kind of faux relic was venerated in temples for hundreds of years — but very few of them have survived in any recognizable form.

This archaeological bonanza was the hard-won result of three months of painstaking investigative work and surveillance of key suspects. Operation Zeus switched from tracking mode to busting on December 12th when six men in northwestern Turkey’s Duzce province were arrested in the course of attempting to sell some of the trafficked artifacts. They were interrogated and named names leading to more arrests in four other provinces.

Police haven’t been to determine how such a vast number of high quality artifacts were acquired or where they came from, but we know they were intended to be sold on the black market through art dealers and shady outfits in multiple countries. Investigations are ongoing. The objects will be given to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology for further study and conservation.

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