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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600-year-old canoe section found in New Zealand

September 30th, 2014


In 2012, Auckland University archaeologists recovered the remains of a canoe from a sand dune near the Anaweka estuary on South Island, New Zealand, after it had been exposed by a storm. It’s a 20-foot-long section of the hull carved from a single timber of New Zealand matai wood which was preserved by the waterlogged, low-oxygen environment. The top side is straight, the other curves up to a point. The point is the end of the canoe hull while the other end is a flat butt joint where a second section of hull was once connected. Adze marks are visible inside the hull section. The outside has been smoothly finished so the vessel can cut through the water with minimum drag.

Four transverse ribs are carved into the inside of the hull at regular intervals and a horizontal girder intersects the ribs down the length of the piece. Because the ribs are heavier on the side with the curved end, that was probably the lower side of the canoe. This is the first time these kinds of ribs have been documented in New Zealand, although they were reported in the Southern Cook Islands just a hundred years ago.

The edges are perforated with lashing holes chiseled through the wood. Four of them are still packed with caulking made from pounded wads of bark (probably from the totara tree). Radiocarbon dating performed on three wood samples from different areas of the hull and four caulking samples taken from three of the lashings returned a result of around 1400 A.D. for the last time the canoe was caulked.

That’s enormously significant as Wairau Bar, a settlement on the northeastern coast of South Island that is the earliest known colonization, dated to the early 1300s. The Anaweka canoe, therefore, was in use within a century of colonization. There is only one other surviving canoe from early colonization found more than 30 years ago in the Society Islands 2,500 miles away from South Island. Archaeologists have had little to go on to reconstruct the ocean-going canoes Polynesians used for maritime migration and long-distance travel between islands after colonization. The main sources have been observations by European explorers centuries later and analysis of canoe-related vocabulary in Austronesian languages. This new find lends rare insight into the maritime technology that drove the East Polynesian settlement of New Zealand.

When intact, the canoe was probably at least 46 feet long. Archaeologists believe it was a double canoe, although it could also have been a single with an outrigger. It was a large, complex composite of planked and dugout canoe, an adaptation of East Polynesian maritime technology developed in the wake of the colonization of New Zealand. The form required very large trees to produce, trees that would only have been available to the Polynesians after settlement in New Zealand.

A raised relief of a sea turtle is carved into the outer hull at the curved end. A carved ridge runs behind the turtle to the very edge of the hull. Archaeologists believe the ridge may depict the wake of the turtle as it swims, which may be a clue to which way the canoe moved through the water (matching the direction of the turtle, that is). This is a spectacular feature, not just because it’s adorable but because it’s a clear representation of Polynesian culture. The Maori rarely used turtles as decorative motifs before the arrival of Europeans, but turtles are all over Polynesian art. Sea turtles are known to make very long ocean voyages, so they were more than appropriate spirit animals for the people who colonized the Pacific, and they make fine figureheads for the ocean-going canoes that made colonization possible.

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Adoration of the Magi cleaning reveals new details

September 29th, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi has been in the hands of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure conservation institute in Florence since November of 2011 after Uffizi Gallery curators determined that the painting’s progressive darkening was becoming an increasingly urgent problem. After a year of preparatory work deploying a wide array of diagnostic technologies — Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence, Infrared reflectography, X-Ray imaging, 3D relief for the measurement of micro deformation, Optical Coherence Tomography, chemical analysis, spectrophotometry — to analyze the paint and wood panel, conservators began cleaning the surface a year ago.

The oil on panel painting was commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinian monks of the monastery of San Donato in Scopeto, but Leonardo, who was then a youth of 29 just starting his career, sought greener pastures with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and the next year moved to Milan leaving the Adoration of the Magi incomplete.

The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres (8.2 by 8.2 feet) depicts the three wise men who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies.

Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.

“This is perhaps the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art,” said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery next year.

“Leonardo never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like,” she said, standing in front of the piece.

The monks eventually turned to Filippino Lippi who completed his Adoration of the Magi in 1496, and Leonardo’s piece wound up in the collection of the de Medici family 100 years later. The Medici restorers filled in paint and added layers of clear and brown varnish to give it a more finished, monochromatic look.

In addition to the accumulation of dirt, smoke and pollutants, the Opificio curators had to deal with all those past restorations. The paint and varnishes have changed over the centuries, oxidizing, discoloring, sometimes separating, sometimes adhering to the original surface and blending into it, so conservators had to be very selective in deciding what to remove. The bottom layer of varnish, for example, could be kept as a fixative and a patina, so there was no danger of damaging the original paint. Their goal was not to return the painting to original condition which simply cannot be done, but to restore its readability and brightness in a way that respects the passage of time while ensuring the most authentic and stable possible result.

The cleaning phase is almost done now (about three quarters of the painting has been cleaned) and it has brought to light much of the expressiveness of Leonardo’s faces, color details like the blue of the sky, design elements like the volume of the clothing and figures previously invisible to the naked eye. You can now see builders working on the ancient temple in the left background, and even subtle sketched details. One of the horses on the right has several heads in different positions, while other horses have an extra leg, evidence that Leonardo wasn’t working from a perforated cartoon outline, but rather drawing freehand as he painted.

The cleaning is expected to be finished in 2015, after which the team will turn their attentions to the wood panels. There are four major vertical cracks that need to be fixed to restore structural integrity to the fragile work. The total cost of the four-year process is expected to be €170,000 ($218,000), which will funded by the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Once restoration is complete (hopefully by the end of 2015), the Adoration of the Magi will return to the Uffizi Gallery where it will be on display in a special room along with two other works by Leonardo.

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Cartier brooch in $60 box of costume jewelry sells for $17,550

September 28th, 2014

A “Tutti Frutti” Art Deco Cartier brooch found in a £38 ($60) box of costume jewelry sold at auction on Friday for £10,800 ($17,550). The anonymous seller bought the box at a tabletop sale in Staffordshire, not realizing that there was a tiny treasure inside.

The brooch has a central ruby engraved with a stylized flower growing from two leaves. On either side of the ruby are three alternating cabochon emeralds and sapphires. Underneath the ruby are four pavé diamonds in a platinum geometric Tetris-like setting. A slender gold pin connects the ruby top to a base of six pavé diamonds flanked by two cabochon sapphires. The piece is signed “Cartier, London.”

Cartier’s “Tutti Frutti” line has become one of its most famous styles. It debuted in the 1920s, a dramatic break from the severe geometries and monochromatic emphasis of Art Deco. Officially named “pierres de couleur” (colored stones), the style was inspired by traditional Indian jewels and the same floral patterns of the Moghul emperors that inspired those gorgeous chintz textiles I wrote about recently. Cartier had done business in Indian since Pierre Cartier was commissioned by Queen Alexandra to make an Indian-style necklace from several pieces in her collection. Cartier London thus became the center of work in Indian gemstones and design.

Jacques Cartier, head of the London office, traveled to India in 1911 and was so struck by what he saw there that he soon integrated Indian style and gemstones into the company’s jewels. Agents in India bought gemstones, among them vintage stones carved with the leaf, flower and berry shapes characteristic of the Moghul period. Cartier’s designers in Paris, New York and London took the Indian stones and mixed them with the white diamond severity of Art Deco to create uniquely colorful patterns that injected naturalism and color into Art Deco shapes.

Society fashion plate and Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes had a famous example custom made by Cartier in 1936. It was called the Collier Hindou and she bought it as a consolation prize for herself after the hardships of the Depression forced her to sell her yacht. (I guess that’s the insanely rich version of a breadline.) The necklace became known as the Tutti Frutti, but according to Cartier, the style itself wasn’t given the name until 1970. According to British Museum curator and Cartier expert Judy Rudoe, the “pierres de couleur” style became known as “Tutti Frutti” colloquially in the 1940s, probably inspired by bakelite fruit jewelry popularized by Carmen Miranda and her Tutti Frutti hat.

Tutti Frutti pieces go for millions of dollars today. They are highly sought after by jewelry collectors so much so that even tiny little brooches in Derbyshire auctions draw bidders from all over the world and exceed their pre-sale estimates by more than £2,000.

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Charles Calvert signet ring maybe found in Maryland

September 27th, 2014

A brass signet ring bearing the initials “CC” has been unearthed at the Zekiah Fort archaeological site in Waldorf, Maryland. Students from St. Mary’s College of Maryland led by anthropology professor Julia King discovered the 17th century ring on June 13th during a six week excavation that has turned up, among other artifacts, glass trade beads, lead shot, gunflints, arrowheads and pipes. The ring is highly distinctive, and King believes it either belonged to Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore, Governor and Proprietor of Maryland, or it was a diplomatic gift in his name.

Since the discovery, King and her colleagues and students have been studying historical records to determine its origins and have been unable to tie it to anyone besides Calvert. She believes that the ring was used as a diplomatic gift by a representative of Calvert’s to the Indians, as a gesture of good will. The archaeologists hope to do more work at the site and learn more about the history of the ring though records and studying the remains of other structures and artifacts.

“We don’t think that Charles Calvert went up there,” King said. “He’s sending his counselors, diplomats, his rangers, carrying this ring as a gift.”

So far all the research into the historical record has returned no other likely candidate for the CC initials, and given his direct involvement in the settlement of Zekiah Fort, the context strongly suggests this ring was his, if not a personal accessory then one created as a token for his representatives to use a gift.

Zekiah Fort was a settled by the Piscataway Indians in 1680 when they were forced to leave their ancestral lands north of the Potomac River. The English colonists had been significantly encroaching on their territory for more than 20 years, and conflicts with the neighboring Susquehannock and Seneca drove the Piscataway into Charles County in southern Maryland. Baltimore had the fort built ostensibly as a refuge for about 320 Piscataway, but it’s no coincidence that English settlers, not rival Native Americans, promptly moved onto the lands of the displaced.

The location of the fort was lost until 2011 when researchers from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the College of Southern Maryland poring through historical documents identified the spot as a field that was a fortuitous island surrounded by development. The 100-acre site — complete with woods and historic trails as well as the fort site — was bought by Charles County in 2012. Grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Charles County Board of Commissioners funded this summer’s archaeological excavation.

All the artifacts will be sent to state experts for conservation. If the ring can be confirmed to have belonged to Charles Calvert or to have been a diplomatic gift from him, it will be one of very few personalized Calvert artifacts found in Maryland. Although Charles’ grandfather George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, did all the work to secure the charter to the land north of the Potomac River on either side of the Chesapeake Bay, he died a few weeks before it was issued. His son Cecilius or Cecil received the proprietorship in his stead but he ruled from across the Atlantic, never stepping foot in Maryland. Cecil made his 24-year-old son Charles his deputy governor and after his father death in 1675, Charles became the governor and proprietor. He was the first Calvert to take possession of Maryland in person. (Leonard Calvert, Cecil’s brother acted as deputy on site as well, but he was never a Proprietor.)

This is why Calvert family artifacts are hen’s teeth rare, and why the ring could be of immense historical significance.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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Do you recall the 1954 London Mithraeum dig?

September 25th, 2014

It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.

For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.

Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.

For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.

The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.

The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.

The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”

In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.

They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.

If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at oralhistory@mola.org.uk or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.

Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?

A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:

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Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna restored

September 24th, 2014

The restored Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna, RomeThe Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna reopened to the public Monday after a 10-month restoration. The restoration cost 209,960 euro ($268,000) and was funded entirely by the sale of advertising space on site during eight months of the work. According to Paola Conti, technical director of Technicon, the firm contracted to restore the fountain, the most time-consuming aspect was removing the calcification that in just 15 years since the last restoration had grown up to a centimeter thick. They also had to remove biological organisms that thrive in the wet, light-filled environment. Old plaster from past repairs was replaced and finally the entire structure painted with a protective coating.

The fountain was built between 1627 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose architecture and sculpture would come to define Baroque Rome, in the shape of the low flat-bottomed river boats used to carry cargo across the Tiber in the 17th century. This was a very unusual approach in Mannerist Rome, more sculptural than architectural, a naturalistic, deceptively simple design that symbolized the fruitfulness and plenty of a boat low in the water, laden with bounty. Legend has it that during the devastating flood of Christmas 1598, the high waters, which reached a top mark of 20 meters above sea level, carried a boat all the way to the Piazza di Spagna. When the waters receded, the boat was stranded in the exact spot of the fountain. Ostensibly that’s why Bernini built the fountain in the shape of a boat 30 years later.

Barcaccia before restorationPope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini to build the fountain as part of a program envisioned by earlier popes that would place fountains in every major piazza in Rome. Urban also wanted to celebrate his restoration of the great Acqua Vergine aqueduct, originally built in 19 B.C. by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law and right hand man. The pope had appointed the elder Bernini architect of the aqueduct in 1623, so having him build a new fountain to take advantage of the refreshed water source was a fitting bookend.

The Acqua Vergine is unique among Rome’s aqueducts in that it was the only one that continued to work even in the devastated Medieval city through the Renaissance revival of public works. In the 14th century, when almost the entire city population was clustered on the malarial and flood-prone banks of the Tiber because they were bound by the range of the professional water carriers, only rione Trevi, the district at the foot of the Quirinal hill blessed with a fountain fed by the Acqua Vergine, had a significant population relatively distant from the Tiber. That Trevi fountain was not the one you see today with the giant statue of Oceanus guarding ever so many tourist coins. The current fountain was built in 1762. The Medieval one was a modest affair, a rectangle with three basins, enlarged in the 15th century to a wide trough fed by three spouts.

The old Trevi Fountain in "Descrittione di Roma antica e moderna" by Federico Franzini, 1643The aqueduct was regularly maintained and repaired during the heyday of the Western Empire, but even after the Goths sacked the city in 537 A.D., specifically targeting the aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine kept trucking. This is mainly attributable to its nearby source and the predominance of underground tunnels. The water starts as rainfall in the Alban Hills, then filters through volcanic tuff before springing up in a town about eight miles east of Rome called Salone. The aqueduct starts at Salone, so it doesn’t have far to go to get to Rome, and since it was intended to water the lower-lying areas of the city, the pathways stay down low too. It was restored once in the 8th century by Pope Hadrian I and that seems to have kept it going until the 15th century when Pope Nicholas V commissioned a restoration project.

There were always issues, mind you. It needed repair and cleaning on the regular to keep the water flowing, and the city magistrates passed all kinds of laws to keep people from tainting it by bathing their livestock and doing their laundry in the Trevi basin. Then there were all the individuals illegally tapping into the conduit to water their personal homes and gardens. A pope was one of the greatest offenders on that score: Pope Julius III, who swallowed up so much Acqua Vergine for his new home, the Villa Julia (built in 1553) and its elaborate grounds and entrance fountain, that by 1559 the Trevi fountain ran dry. To address the choked supply, in 1570 Pope Pius V had the Acqua Vergine restored all the way back to Salone. Urban VIII’s intervention in 1623 extended the path of the aqueduct to supply the growing city. It was this restoration that brought the water to the location of the current Fountain of Trevi.

Piazza di Spagna; the Keats-Shelley Memorial where Keats died is the buff-colored palazzo to the right of the Spanish StepsThe Barcaccia played a more poignant historical role 200 years later. The poet John Keats lived the last few months of his life in a house on the Spanish Steps. So devastated by tuberculosis that he often cried upon waking to find himself still alive, Keats took comfort from the soothing sound of the Barcaccia’s flowing water. It made him think of a line from the Jacobean play Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.” Inspired by that line, Keats asked that his tombstone be inscribed solely “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” no name, no date. When the tuberculosis finally claimed his life on February 23rd, 1821, his friend and carer Joseph Severn couldn’t quite bring himself to comply with Keats’ final wish. Instead, he took the opportunity to castigate the critics who had never appreciated Keats’ genius in life.

“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

Although the fountain was inaccessible to visitors during the restoration, it and the conservators were visible thanks to an innovative plexiglass enclosure. Seeing is nice, but the Barcaccia is an interactive experience. It was specifically designed for people to drink from. The pure and delicious Acqua Vergine springs from jets at the bow and stern. Travertine platforms at each end of the boat give you a place to stand, albeit a rather damp place, so you can stretch out and quaff mightily from the water’s spouts. At Monday’s inauguration of the pristine fountain, the mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, culture councillor Giovanna Marinelli and the Capitoline Superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce were the first to drink from the newly reactivated water. They used a plastic cup, though, which is just wrong, in my opinion. They should have stretched out like the rest of us, sashes and suits be damned. Virgin Water in a plastic cup? I mean really.

You can see the fountain cleaned and the waters turned back on in this Italian news story about Monday’s inauguration:

 

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