Louvre crowdfunds to buy gorgeous Teschen Table

October 10th, 2014

It’s a cultural institution throwing a bake sale to secure a national treasure again, this time the Louvre museum in Paris which needs the funding power of the crowd to purchase the Teschen Table, a masterpiece of 18th century goldsmithing, mineralogy and furniture-making that has an illustrious political history to boot. The table is priced at 12.5 million Euros, most of which the Louvre has already raised. The last remaining million ($1.67 million) they hope to raise in donations by January 31st, 2015.

The table was made in 1779 by Johann-Christian Neuber, a goldsmith, jeweler and lapidary at the Dresden court of Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony. Neuber became known for his gold snuff boxes inlaid with hardstones and gemstones. He called them Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox) because they were like miniature cabinets of curiosities. Neuber would number every stone and include a booklet with the numbered list identifying each mineral and where it was mined. His work combined the high craftsmanship of the goldsmith with the scientific approach of the geologist, and it was highly sought after by scholars and collectors alike. They weren’t easy to get as Neuber’s pieces weren’t for retail; they were usually given as gifts by the Elector of Saxony.

In 1778, Frederick Augustus became embroiled in the War of the Bavarian Succession. Maximilian III Joseph, Prince-Elector of Bavaria, died childless of smallpox in 1777. A number of high-powered candidates vied to claim his title, among them Charles Theodore of Sulzbach, Prince-Elector and Count Palatine, who was the direct heir, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, her son and co-ruler Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, King Frederick II of Prussia and the Elector of Saxony. Negotiations between interested parties proposed various partitions, but nobody could agree on how to slice the Bavarian cake and in July of 1778, Austria and Prussia went to war.

The conflict almost immediately settled into a stalemate. Maria Theresa, who was intimately familiar with how messy wars of succession could be, got Frederick of Prussia and her reluctant son to engage in peace talks brokered by Russia and France. France sent its Ambassador to Vienna, the Baron de Breteuil, to the Austrian Silesian town of Teschen, strategically located between Austria and Prussia, to negotiate a treaty in March of 1779. On May 13th, 1779, the belligerent parties signed the Treaty of Teschen. Charles Theodore would inherit Bavaria, but it and the Palatinate would combine to give him just the one vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he would have to cede some territory to Austria. Austria had to recognize Prussia’s claim to the margraviates of Ansbach and Bayreuth. The Elector of Saxony got a sweet payoff of six million guilders.

With six million extra guilders jingling in his pocket, Frederick Augustus was in a generous mood after Teschen. He gave the Russian representative, Prince Nikolai Wasilyevich Repnin, a Meissen porcelain service composed of hundreds of pieces and a large allegorical centerpiece (now lost) with bases made by Neuber. The Baron de Breteuil got Neuber’s masterpiece: a table made in the style of his snuffboxes only far grander, with miles of gilded bronze, stone insets 10 times larger than on the boxes and far more of them. On the tabletop there are 128 stones — including agate, amethyst, onyx, opal, topaz, sardonyx, jasper, petrified wood — all from Saxony. Five Meissen porcelain medallions bearing allegories of peace and art painted in grisaille by Johann Eleazar Zeissig (also known as Schenau), are placed in the center and cardinal points.

As he did with his snuffboxes, Neuber numbered each stone and created a booklet identifying the type and find site of every number. The numbering begins in the center of the table with the small round gemstones then continues clockwise in concentric circles. You can hover over the tabletop insets on this page to see what kind of stones they are and where they came from.

The hovertext can’t possibly do the booklet justice, however. For this very special assignment, Neuber commissioned Dresden artist and engraver Carl Gottfried Nestler to write every entry in the booklet in a hand so beautiful, so clean, so regular that if you didn’t know it was handwritten you wouldn’t believe it. Someone needs to make a Nestler font because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.

The table became famous in its own time. Historians wrote about it as early as 1782, and it even made a cameo in volume one of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past as a prized piece belonging to the Princesse d’Iéna. In the Swann In Love section, the terribly fashionable Princesse de Laumes laments that her husband wants her to visit the Princesse d’Iéna whom she does not know. She and General de Froberville have this exchange:

“But I must tell you what he’s told me about their house; it’s quite enough. Can you imagine it, all their furniture is ‘Empire’!”
“But, my dear Princess, that’s only natural; it belonged to their grandparents.”
“I don’t quite say it didn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less ugly. I quite understand that people can’t always have nice things, but at least they needn’t have things that are merely grotesque. What do you say? I can think of nothing more devastating, more utterly smug than that hideous style—cabinets covered all over with swans’ heads, like bath-taps!”
“But I believe, all the same, that they’ve got some lovely things; why, they must have that famous mosaic table on which the Treaty of…”
“Oh, I don’t deny, they may have things that are interesting enough from the historic point of view. But things like that can’t, ever, be beautiful … because they’re simply horrible! I’ve got things like that myself, that came to Basin from the Montesquious. Only, they’re up in the attics at Guermantes, where nobody ever sees them.

The Breteuil family did not hide it in the attic. It’s been at the Château de Breteuil about 25 miles southwest of Paris since 1821, leaving only on rare occasions on loan to museums for special exhibitions. In 2010, the family decided to sell the table to raise money to maintain the château and deal with some inheritance issues. They had a foreign buyer lined up and applied to the government for an export license. To block its export, the Teschen Table was declared National Treasure, but the block would expire in 30 months (March 31st, 2013) if the state did not acquire the piece.

In July of last year, the Teschen Table was declared “a work of major patrimonial interest” which granted it another reprieve while funds were raised. The Louvre managed to scrape almost the entire value from its acquisition budget and corporate donors, but needs the aid of the public to reach the final goal. You can donate online here.

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Bronze Age palace, burials unearthed in Spain

October 9th, 2014

A team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) excavating the Bronze Age archaeological site on the La Almoloya plateau in the southeastern Spanish municipality of Pliego have unearthed residential and government buildings and 50 tombs. The plateau’s steep slopes made it a highly defensible location that was occupied from 2,200 B.C. to 1,550 B.C. by the El Argar culture. The extensive construction and dense population point to La Almoloya having been an important political center 70 miles northeast of the Argaric capital of El Argar (modern-day Antas, Almeria).

Artifacts found inside the buildings were in excellent condition. Metals, ceramics, stone and bone survived alongside exceptionally rare textiles. The structures and their contents paint a picture of a rich urban environment that is unique in Bronze Age continental Europe.

The excavations indicate that the La Almoloya plateau, of 3,800 metres square, was densely populated and included several residential complexes of some 300 square metres, with eight to twelve rooms in each residence. The buildings’ walls were constructed with stones and argamasa [a kind of lime mortar], and covered with layers of mortar. Some parts contain stucco decorated with geometric and naturalistic motifs, a novelty which represents the discovery of an Argaric artistic style.

Among the discoveries made is a wide hall with high ceilings measuring some 70 square metres, with capacity for 64 people seated on the benches lining the walls. The hall includes a ceremonial fireplace and a podium of symbolic character. This unique building was used for political purposes and archaeologists consider that it must have been used to celebrate hearings or government meetings.

Archaeologists affirm that this is the first time a building specifically dedicated to governing purposes has been discovered in Western Europe, and believe that decisions were taken here which affected many of the region’s other communities.

The ceremonial hall is flanked by adjoining rooms. Because of its political significance and large size, archaeologists categorize this structure as a palace, and a highly advanced one at that, comparable only to near Eastern buildings from this era.

Another reason to deem the building a royal palace is a tomb that was found adjacent to the main wall of the government hall. It holds the skeletal remains of an adult man and woman who were buried with 30 artifacts made of precious metals and gemstones. The woman wore a silver diadem around her head, one of only five Agaric diadems ever discovered and none of the other four remain in Spain. They were found at the El Argar type site by Belgian mine engineers Henri and Louis Siret in the 1880s and are now in the permanent collection of the Royal Museums of Art and History’s Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels.

The royal couple were also buried with four ear dilators, two of gold, two of silver, plus silver rings, earrings and bracelets. A bronze dagger had silver nails in the handle. These are rare and important examples of the advanced metallurgy of the El Argar culture. Two other pieces are uniquely significant on that score: a ceramic vessel with bands of finely layered silver and a punch with a bronze tip and a silver handle. Both of them are one of a kind objects that demonstrate the high level of Argaric silver craftsmanship.

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Head of goddess found at Arbeia Roman fort

October 8th, 2014

A volunteer with WallQuest, a community archaeology project excavating Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields at the easternmost end of Hadrian’s Wall has discovered a carved stone head of a goddess. The small figure is just over three inches high and is finely carved. She wears a mural crown — a crown in the shape of battlements — that identifies her as a protective goddess. Archaeologists believe she is a representation of Brigantia, the goddess of the northern British tribe of the Brigantes. Indeed, an altar inscribed “Deae Brigantiae sacrum Congenncus (V[otum] S[olvit] L[ibens] M[erito]” (To the sacred goddess Brigantia Congenncus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow) was unearthed 100 yards from the head in 1895, and at least one other statue of Brigantia wearing a mural crown has been found.

The find is a small, finely carved female head which is believed to date back to the second century AD and stands at 8cm high. Every part is delicately carved including eyes, nose, mouth and hairstyle with traces of pink paint on the statues face as well as a bit of red on her lips.

The head dates to the 2nd century A.D., early in the life of the fort which was first built overlooking the River Tyne around 160 A.D. and enlarged in 208 A.D. to serve as a maritime supply base the soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall. We know the stone goddess predates that expansion because it was found in an aqueduct channel that was filled so new construction could be done on top of it. The statue of the goddess wouldn’t have been freestanding on its own; given the discovery of her head and the altar found in the 19th century, it’s likely that there was a shrine to Brigantia in Arbeia that was demolished to make room for the enlargement of the fort.

Troop divisions at Arbeia that have been identified thus far include boatmen from the Tigris River in what was then Persia, now Iraq, Gaulish infantry, Spanish cavalry (First Asturian) and Syrian archers. Although locals probably enlisted later on, when the statue was standing, it was these units from all over the empire who were likely responsible for creating the shrine to the local goddess.

Nick Hodgson, WallQuest Project Manager, said:

“The head is a truly wonderful find. Northern Britain was a dangerous place for the Roman army in the second century AD; if the goddess is Brigantia it shows how keen the Romans were to placate the spirits of the region.”

It must have worked, because Arbeia and the civilian settlement that grew in its shadow remained in active use for decades after most of the other fort settlements on Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned or greatly contracted. There was new construction in the Arbeia settlement in the late 3rd century or early 4th. This is attributable to its commercial importance as a maritime fort and market center. The only permanent masonry granaries ever found in Britain were built in Arbeia. The fort and settlement were in use through the end of the Roman occupation in the 5th century.

The head of Brigantia will be conserved over the next few months. In Spring of 2015, it will go on display at the Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum. At the same time the community excavation project at Arbeia will begin again, and volunteers will have the opportunity to look for the rest of the statue.

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Franklin expedition shipreck is HMS Erebus

October 7th, 2014

The shipwreck found last month near King William Island in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf has been identified as Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus. Captained by explorer Sir John Franklin on the hunt for the legendary Northwest Passage, Erebus and its companion ship HMS Terror got stuck in the ice in September of 1846. Nearly 130 souls were lost and as were the ships. People have been searching for the Franklin ships ever since.

When a coalition of private and public organizations led by Parks Canada discovered the ship on September 7th, they weren’t certain which of the two Franklin vessels it was. Storms kept researchers from exploring the wreck for three days, leaving only a brief two-day window before the temperatures dropped below zero and put an end to the summer campaign. They made those two days count, sending four two-man teams on seven dives lasting a cumulative 12 hours. The divers took high resolution photographs, high-definition video and measurements of the wreck

It was the measurements taken during the dives that allowed the research team to identify it as HMS Erebus. The ship is such a good state of preservation that it was possible to compare the measurements to the plans of the ship at the UK National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Erebus is longer and wider than Terror and the measurements and sonar data found that length and breadth aligned with the Erebus plans. The position of certain deck structures also matched Erebus, not Terror.

No artifacts have been recovered as the divers did not go inside themselves. With the limited time they had, researchers would not have been able to explore the interior with the kind of diligence required for a maritime archaeological exploration. The team will be returning next summer (and who knows how many summers after that), so these two days were more gainfully employed surveying the structure and layout of the site. Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris:

“As an archaeological and underwater site, it’s complex and novel, in that it’s a significant three-dimensional structure that we’re going to have to figure out to work inside the interior spaces,” he said.

They did send a camera through an opening in the deck to get a glimpse of the interior of the ship. They were able to view the ship’s galley and the crew’s sleeping quarters. They also saw a mechanism that was part of the custom alterations done to the ship especially for the expedition: a lift that pulled the propeller out of the water up a bronze track to save it from being damaged in thick ice.

Exploring the interior of the stern is a high priority. That’s where Franklin’s cabin and log room were. It’s possible that there could be surviving documents, believe it or not, because the logs were written on rag paper that is very durable and because the cold and darkness of the Arctic water is an excellent preservative. Even if the ink has washed off, imaging technology could detect what was written on any surviving pages.

On a tangentially related note, the discovery has brought to the fore a macabre but awesome story involving a cursed painting that freaked out students taking their exams. In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer exhibited a painting he’d done inspired by the lost Franklin expedition. It’s entitled Man Proposes, God Disposes and features two ravenous polar bears tearing into the wreck of a ship and the skeletal remains of one of its crew members.

It made a strong impression on critics who described it using words like “tragic grandeur” and “living fire of imagination” and was by far the most popular piece at the Royal Academy that year. Lady Franklin and the Admiralty were less enthused. At best the scene was a horrific depiction of Franklin’s fate. At worst those bears were allegorical references to reports that the crew had succumbed to cannibalism which had been very much in the news since Captain John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company had returned from a rescue expedition in 1854 with Inuit testimony of mutilated bodies and bones in kettles. You can read both sides of the cannibalism question debated in Charles Dickens’s literary journal, Household Worlds. Dickens believed Franklin and the fine men of the British navy would never stoop to such behavior. He made his moral argument in two parts, then printed Rae’s response also in two parts.

In his response, Rae specifically rebutted the contention that those gnawed bones could have been the work of polar bears.

Had there been no bears thereabouts to mutilate those bodies — no wolves, no foxes? is asked; but it is a well-known fact that, from instinct, neither bears, wolves, nor foxes, nor that more ravenous of all, the glutton or wolverine, unless on the verge of starvation, will touch a dead human body ; and the carnivorous quadrupeds near the Arctic sea are seldom driven to that extremity.

Franklin’s crew certainly were driven to that extremity, however, and the Inuit who told Rae about it also found Franklin’s telescope which is in the painting.

Victorian patent medicine mogul Thomas Holloway bought the painting at auction in 1881. Holloway died in 1883; in 1886, Man Proposes, God Disposes moved to Royal Holloway College, the all women’s college he had founded in 1879. It now hangs in the school’s Picture Gallery at eye level to students trying to take their exams.

“Originally, it was bad luck if you sat next to it. We really do not know where the rumour started. It must be the subject matter – the biggest failure that Victorian Britain tackled up to that point,” said Royal Holloway curator Dr. Laura MacCulloch.

“When you look at this picture, it’s so miserable and so bleak.”

Yet for one student in the 1970s, the thought of sitting next to a depiction of such failure while writing exams invoked a strong protest.

“The poor registrar had to find something to cover it and the only thing that was big enough was a Union Jack,,” said Dr MacCulloch.

To this day, the painting is covered by the Union flag while students sit exams but Dr MacCulloch denied a story that the painting’s curse was so strong that a student who sat by it committed suicide, leaving a diary entry saying ‘the polar bears made me do it’.

“There is no evidence of that ever happening,” she clarified.

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Cirencester cockerel goes on display

October 6th, 2014

The enamelled bronze cockerel found in a child’s grave in the western cemetery of Roman Cirencester in 2011 has gone on display at the Corinium Museum along with other artifacts excavated during that dig. The site was known to have had a Roman cemetery since the 1960s when it was surveyed before the construction of Bridges Garage, but the auto body shop had dug deep to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks, so archaeologists thought whatever was left of the cemetery was probably destroyed.

When the Bridges Garage property was slated for redevelopment in 2011, the archaeologists who returned to survey the site had modest expectations. Much to their surprise, they found 71 inhumations and three cremations, a surprisingly high number of the former (the 60s excavation had found 46 cremations and eight inhumations). The cemetery spanned almost the entire period of Roman Britain, from the late 1st century through the fourth. Archaeologists were able to identify 30 females and 21 males from the inhumations (the sex of the remaining 20 could not be determined). There was significantly more bone wear in the shoulders of the male, probably an indication of repetitive motion strain from skilled crafts like stone-working rather than agricultural work.

The grave in which the cockerel was found is one of the earlier ones, dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D. The child was about two or three years old and must have come from a wealthy family because she or he was buried in a wooden coffin with the bronze cockerel placed near his head and a pottery feeding cup with a drinking spout known as a tettine. The cockerel was a very expensive piece, the product of high quality workmanship made in northern Britain and exported all over the empire.

Only eight of these objects survive, four in Britain, four in Germany and the Low Countries. This is the only one of the British cockerels to have been found in a grave, and the only one of all of them that still has its tail. That’s significant not just because it’s a fabulous openwork enameled rooster tail, but because before it was found, archaeologists speculated that these figurines might have had a practical use, like as lamps, due to their hollow bodies. The tail was soldered in place, however, making the hollow body inaccessible and usage as a lamp impossible. It was likely included in the grave as a symbol of the god Mercury who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

In the same display case with the cockerel are a selection of jewels also found in the grave of a child. Jet beads found around the neck were once part of a necklace. Jet bracelets and bangles were found at the wrists, while two bronze bracelets were buried under the child’s feet. This was a later burial than the cockerel child’s, dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century. Other jewels on display were found in the grave of a late Roman woman. Near her wrist archaeologists found bone bracelets with metal clasps, a sheet metal bracelet with abstract designs and a bracelet of glass and bone beads strung on a copper-alloy wire chain.

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Spain’s earliest image of Jesus found on glass plate

October 5th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Cástulo in south central Spain have found a glass liturgical vessel from the 4th century that is the earliest known representation of Christ ever discovered in Spain. It’s a paten, a shallow bowl or dish used to hold the consecrated host during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Although it was found in fragments, they’re in excellent condition with only very few details of the decoration eroded, a survival all the more remarkable when you consider that the high quality blown glass is just two millimeters thick. The pieces were painstakingly puzzled together with Paraloid, a thermoplastic resin used as a glass and ceramic adhesive by conservators, to form 81% of the complete dish. In total 175 grams of glass were recovered.

The paten is 22 centimeters (8.7 inches) in diameter and is scratch-engraved with a depiction of Christ in Majesty. He stands in the center of the dish, holding a bejewled cross, symbol of resurrection, in his right hand and the gospels in his left. Above him to the right is the Chi Rho symbol between the alpha and omega. Two men, apostles, likely Peter and Paul, flank Christ, each holding a scroll. The figures are bracketed by date palm trees, symbols of immortality in paleochristian iconography.

Archaeologists were able to date the paten to the 4th century thanks to ceramic pieces and coins found in the room, one of which was minted under Emperor Constantius II (337-361 A.D.). That places the vessel in the early decades of Christianity as a legal religion that could be practiced in public. The Edict of Milan, which granted religious liberty to Christians, was promulgated by Emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313 A.D. Before then depictions of Christ were hidden in private homes and catacombs while in public Christians used cryptic symbols like the ichthys (Jesus fish).

The depiction of Christ as a beardless youth with short curly hair in the Alexandrian style wearing a philosopher’s toga is typical of this transitional period of Christianity. The scene itself, a version of the Traditio legis (“transmission of the law”) in which Christ stands or sits enthroned giving scrolls to Peter and Paul on either side of him, is a paleochristian motif drawn from depictions of the Roman emperor. The standing Christ is earlier than the enthroned version which became popular in the second half of the 4th century, as in the central relief panel of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, made in 359 A.D.

Both apostles carry the rotulus legis (scroll of the law) and they’re both wearing togas. They have short but full hair and are cleanly shaven, another mark of how early this image is since once the iconography became standardized Peter and Paul would be depicted with balding heads and beards.

The fact that the paten is made of glass is another indication of its age. According to the Liber Pontificalis, a compendium of papal biographies, Pope Zepherinus (199-217 A.D.) “made a regulation for the church, that there should be vessels of glass before the priests in the church and servitors to hold them while the bishop was celebrating mass and priests standing about him. Thus mass should be celebrated and the clergy should assist in all the ceremony, except in that which belongs only to the bishop; from the consecration of the bishop’s hand the priest should receive the consecrated wafer to distribute to the people.”

One pope later, Urban I (222-230 A.D.) “had all sacred vessels made of silver, and he gave as an offering 25 patens of silver [one for each titular church].” The source for Urban’s order replacing all glass liturgical vessels with ones made of precious metals is thought to be a 6th century hagiography of St. Cecilia, which is shaky, to say the least, so it’s likely the shift from glass to silver is of later date.

The discovery of the glass paten in the context makes it even more important. Before its discovery, some archaeologists had posited that the 4th century building in which it was found was a very early Christian religious structure, midway between the catacombs and clandestine churches in private homes and the first official Christian architecture of the Roman empire. However there was no direct evidence of that — no frescoes or crosses or any other overtly Christian decoration. The paten supplies that evidence that the building was used for Christian services.

Inhabited since the Neolithic, Cástulo was important center of trade in the Roman world. It had been an ally of Rome since the city betrayed the Carthaginian army in the second century B.C., and its location on the Guadalquivir River connected it directly to Córdoba, capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior Baetica. Just a few meters away from the structure where the paten was found is a building from the first century A.D. dedicated to the cult of Emperor Domitian. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor there that is nothing short of spectacular. Because Domitian was assassinated in 96 A.D. and the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae erasing his name from all public documents, art and architecture, the building was never completed. The walls were demolished, covering the mosaic with rubble and preserving it in unbelievable condition for archaeologists to find. It’s made from 750,000 tiles in 24 brilliant colors imported from all over the empire. Do yourself a favor and explore the entire mosaic in high resolution here. Its quality is a testament to the wealth and importance of the ancient city.

Once Christianity came into the picture, Cástulo became an episcopal see. We know there was a bishop there at least as early as 305 A.D. because records of the ecclesiastical Synod of Elvira (305-6 A.D.) list one of the bishops present as “Secundinus episcopus Castulonensis,” or Secundinus Bishop of Castulo. It remained an episcopal see under Visigothic rule until the second half of the 7th century. Cástulo became overshadowed by its castle-defended neighbor of Linares after the Muslim conquest and was ultimately abandoned in the 13th century.

The paten is now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Linares.

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Met saves Treasure of Harageh from auction sale

October 4th, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has stepped in to save an ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts from dispersal into the auction void. The Treasure of Harageh, a group of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and travertine vessels excavated in 1913-14 from Tomb 124 at Harageh near the city of Faiyum in Middle Egypt, was supposed to go under the hammer at the Bonhams Antiquities sale on October 2nd. At the last minute, the lot was withdrawn and Bonhams announced it had negotiated a private sale for an undisclosed amount to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This was a happy result for a controversial sale. The controversy wasn’t the usual kind. There was no trumped up “Swiss private collection” provenance; the ownership history was clear and unblemished, the publication record extensive. It was the seller raising eyebrows: the American Institute for Archaeology’s St. Louis Society. The AIA is opposed on principle to the sale of antiquities, believing they belong in the care of experts who will conserve them and make them available to the public for educational purposes. The St. Louis Society is an independent non-profit, however, and its charter with the AIA only explicitly prohibits the sale or purchase of undocumented artifacts, so no matter how horrified the national organization was, it could not prevent the sale.

The artifacts have belonged to the St. Louis Society since they were first excavated by a British School of Archaeology team led by Reginald Engelbach under the direction of pioneering archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. The Society helped fund the excavation. In return, they received this exceptional group of artifacts. There are five travertine objects, four of them vessels, one of them a cosmetic spoon with a handle in the shape of an ankh. The jewelry group is seven cowrie shell-shaped pendants made of silver, a rare material worth more than gold in the Middle Kingdom, 14 real sea shell pendants mounted in silver and 11 silver pieces inlaid with various hardstones that probably were part of a pectoral plaque.

It’s the 11 pectoral pieces that date the artifacts. Individual pieces are designed as hieroglyphs that spell the name of Pharoah Senusret II, the fourth pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty who ruled from 1897-1878 B.C. One of the 11 is also the standout piece of the collection. It’s a unique jewel in the shape of a bee. What makes it unique is that it’s three-dimensional, with inlays on both sides and even visible from the top. There is no other 3D jewel known from the Middle Kingdom. The bee, the real shell pendants (the first known instance of actual shells being used in Egyptian jewelry) and the ankh spoon are all unique and of major historical significance.

For many years the collection was kept at the St. Louis Art Museum. In 2011 it was moved to Washington University in St. Louis and two years ago it wound up in private storage at a cost of $2,000 a year. It was that storage fee and the conservation challenge that drove the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure of Harageh. Howard Wimmer, secretary of the St. Louis Society, said: “If there had been any way that we could have reasonably kept these items in St. Louis, we never would have pursued this course. One way or the other, we had to find a new home.”

It’s that one way they chose that was the sticking point. The AIA might not have had grounds to block the sale, but it wasn’t the only interested party.

Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, said a sale to a private buyer would have violated an agreement between the museum’s namesake explorer and the St. Louis group that the antiquities be distributed to public museums, accessible to both researchers and the public.

“Museums and archaeologists are stewards of the past,” she said. “They should not sell archaeological items in their collections for profit.”.

Thanks to the Met, which is glad to join this treasure to other Harageh artifacts in its permanent collection, the sale of these antiquities won’t see them dispersed contextless into private collections out of the reach of the public and scholars. Unfortunately, there was one lot from the St. Louis Society’s Harageh artifacts, a Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest (2150-1990 B.C.) that did not get an eleventh hour reprieve. It sold to an unknown buyer for £27,500 ($44,182). I wonder if the Petrie Museum is aware of this sale. It seems like they might have legal grounds to void it.

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L’Aquila earthquake reveals mummified fetus

October 3rd, 2014

The earthquake that struck the central Italian city of L’Aquila on April 6th, 2009, also devastated the small town of Casentino 10 miles to the southeast. The church of St. John the Evangelist, a masonry structure largely built in the 18th century, was heavily damaged. The apse, the vault over the altar, collapsed, reducing the floor to rubble and exposing a long corridor leading to an underground room. When the firefighters arrived to clear the rubble, they found the remains of 150 people, about 30 of them naturally mummified and about 10 of those exceptionally well-preserved.

The find came as little surprise to the residents of Casentino, since the little village didn’t even have a dedicated cemetery until the 20th century; before then people were regularly buried in the ossuary under the church. Over the years the bone pile grew enough to be visible through a lancet window on the back of the church. They didn’t know there were natural mummies in excellent condition, however.

Since the needs of earthquake cleanup and repair took priority, the remains were moved to a protected area of the church for later retrieval. It was two years before experts from the cultural patrimony ministry and archaeological superintendence were able to remove the 10 or so mummified remains in the best condition to the superintendence’s headquarters in Chieti. There they could be preserved in ideal climactic conditions and studied by the anthropology department of the University of Chieti. The rest of the remains were reinterred in the church.

This Italian language news story has some good views of the damaged church and some of the mummies:

Archaeologists studied the clothing and human remains in the hope of learning more about how people lived and died in this small countryside hamlet. Their clothes were in the French style of the Napoleonic era, but upon closer examination the deceased were found to date to different periods over a 200 year range, at least some of the victims of a documented plague in the 1800s. Textiles, shoes, corsets, skirts, shirts, shrouds, rings and rosary beads can be dated by their materials and styles to the 19th century or earlier. People of all sexes and ages are represented: women, men, children, the elderly and even one fetus.

Anthropological examination found an unusually high number of bodies bore evidence of having been autopsied. Dissected skulls (craniotomy) and ribs (costotomy) were particularly common. This wouldn’t be so incongruous in, say, a university city, but in a little country village it’s practically unheard of. There must have been a very curious physician practicing in the area.

It’s the fetal mummy that proved the most startling. Researchers were able to radiocarbon date the shroud wrapping the tiny mummy and found that it was buried around 1840. The fetus died around 29 weeks of pregnancy, so small that sex determination from the bones was not possible. An X-ray of the mummy bundle found the skeleton was not articulated. The skull was dissected in several places and separated from the neck. The arm bones were removed from the skeleton and dislocated at various joints.

This disarticulation is different from the autopsies found in the other mummies from the site. It appears to have been done in utero, not outside of the mother’s body.

All of these characteristics “strongly suggest a case of embryotomy,” which was a procedure that occurred before removing the fetus from the womb, study author Ruggero D’Anastasio of University Museum at University of Chieti, Italy, told Live Science.

This likely case of embryotomy “is the only anthropological proof of this surgical practice up to now in this geographical region,” he added.

Embryotomy was a common practice in ancient times, D’Anastasio said. The procedure was practiced in Alexandria and then in Rome during the first and second centuries, the researchers wrote in the study. Physicians typically performed it when a mother’s life was threatened due to delivery complications or when the fetus was already thought to be dead in the womb.

The little fellow was buried with the utmost care, all the body parts placed back together in the proper anatomical placement and then clothed. The skull fragment was placed on top of the mummy’s head and covered with a little cap.

The concluding paragraph of the study report in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology:

In summary, our report provides evidence for what is likely the best example of embryotomy in the archaeological record of Italy. It also demonstrates that the praxis specialised in gynecology was surprisingly diffused into a very little and peripheral village in Central Italy, where evidently physicians with high degree of professionalism worked. By contrast, the recomposition of the cut-up body and its perfect dressing indicate high sense of pity for the death and for children never born.

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Wedgwood Collection saved!

October 2nd, 2014

I am delighted to report that the Wedgwood Collection has been saved and in record time. The Art Fund’s public campaign to keep this irreplaceable archive that combines 8,000 ceramics with more than 80,000 documents recording 250 years of the political, social, industrial, artistic, technological history of Britain began on September 1st. Their goal was to raise £2.74 million by November 30th. Added to the £13.1 million they had already raised with contributions from the Heritage Lottery fund and private organizations, the total £15.75 million ($25,617,000) was the price to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection.

Within two weeks we had raised £700,000, contributed by 4,000 members of the public. A few days later, the campaign reached £1m from the public and £1m from major donors and grant-making foundations, propelling the total to £2m.

In the last week the match fund was extended and public donations continued to flood in. The appeal surged towards its final target thanks to donations from two regional sources: £250,000 from the Bet365 Foundation, led by Denise Coates CBE, and £100,000 from Staffordshire County Council.

Nearly 7,500 people donated sums as small as £10 and as large as six-figure checks. The most popular amount was £25. Donors chipped in from all over the world, but fully one fifth of the public donations came from the Midlands, the home region of the Wedgwood Collection. Every donation from individual tenners to large pledges like £100,000 from Staffordshire construction equipment manufacturer JCB was matched by a private foundation, a generous gift that was originally only going to last the first few weeks of the challenge but was then extended through the entire campaign.

The massive groundswell of support to save the Wedgwood Collection was unprecedented in the 111-year history of the Art Fund. This was its fastest fundraising campaign ever.

Now the Art Fund has to acquire the collection as per their agreement with all parties. They will then donate it to the Victoria & Albert Museum who will be the archive’s legal owner in perpetuity. The V&A will set up a long-term loan of the archive to the Wedgewood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. At no point will the collection physically move. It’s in the Wedgwood Museum now and there it will remain while money changes hands and legalities are sorted out.

The post-bankruptcy merged company Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD) is in the middle of an extensive £34 million redevelopment of the Wedgwood factory site which will include a new visitor center at the museum. The new World of Wedgwood is slated for completion next spring. (No, I don’t know why they had £34 million to spend on the center but had to get charity to spend less than half that amount securing the actual collection that is the major part of what visitors go to see. It’s probably some hideous legal Gordian Knot involving the bankruptcy and the pension fund liability.)

Now is the time on The History Blog when we dance, Wedgwood style.

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Viking blacksmith’s grave found in Norway garden

October 1st, 2014

Leif Arne Nordheim, long annoyed by a group of flagstones that poked up above ground level impeding the path of his lawnmower, borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove them. At first the job was uneventful, but when he was finishing up with the last of the slabs, he unearthed what looked like a large pair of pliers or tongs. They looked like they might be a couple of hundred of years old but he didn’t think much of it until he came across a bent sword next. That’s when he realized they might be archaeological artifacts rather than old tools and called in the experts.

Archaeologists from the county Cultural Department and Bergen University came to excavate the site. They found an axe and several other pieces of metalwork that stylistically date to the 8th or 9th century A.D. State Conservationist Eva Moberg noted that this is an extremely rare find. The last time similar artifacts were unearthed was in 1913 at the grave of Viking blacksmith. Although no human remains were discovered in Mr. Nordheim’s back yard, it’s possible that this too was a deposit of grave goods for the person who used those tongs in life.

The excavation is continuing at county expense. The artifacts will be conserved and ultimately put on public display at the University Museum of Bergen. There’s excellent video of the yard and excavation in this news story which is almost entirely in Norwegian except for one archaeologist’s comments that are in English.

This is not the first time notable archaeological objects have been discovered in the area. In 1917, a farmer turned up the Eggja stone while plowing a field just a kilometer from the Nordheim homestead. The stone, found face-down over the grave of an adult male, is inscribed with about 200 runes of Elder Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet. It dates to 650-700 A.D. and is the longest surviving inscription of Elder Futhark. There are multiple possible interpretations of the runes on the Eggja stone, see the Rune Project database for possible translations of section 1, 2 and 3).

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