Watch London burn again live!

September 4th, 2016

A wonderful wood frame recreation of the London skyline at the time of the Great Fire built on a platform on the Thames is about to be set on fire. Watch now!

Metal parts found in wood from Khufu solar boat

September 3rd, 2016

In 1954, Egyptologist Kamal el-Mallakh discovered a pit carved into the bedrock at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Underneath a row of 40 massive limestone blocks covering the pit was a full-sized wooden ship, disassembled into 1224 pieces and untouched since the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 B.C.) in the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It is commonly known today as a solar boat, a ritual ship to transport the pharaoh in his incarnation as the sun god Ra on his daily voyage across the sky, but it’s possible it was used as a funerary barge to carry Khufu’s body on the Nile to Giza. Mallakh spent 20 months painstakingly excavating the ship parts. Then Egyptian Department of Antiquities conservator Ahmed Youssef Moustafa spent another 13 years reconstructing it. At 143 feet long and 20 feet wide and 4500 years old, Khufu’s ship is the oldest and largest intact ship in the world.

Mallakh found a second pit next to the first one and was convinced there was a second boat, but it was left unexplored until 1987 when a team of archaeologists fielded by the National Geographic Society ran a camera under the limestone cover stones and confirmed Mallakh was right. Without the budget to safely excavate the extremely fragile second boat, its disassembled parts remained undisturbed until 2011 when a team of Japanese and Egyptian researchers, funded by a $10 million grant from Waseda University, raised the slabs covering the second pit. It took another two years before they were ready to recover more than 700 pieces of Lebanese cedar and Egyptian acacia wood.

The original estimate was that excavating and reconstructing the ship would take four or five years, but archaeologists have had to employ great caution going through the 13 layers of wood beams and the recovery is still ongoing today. Last week, the team raised a beam from the eighth layer that is eight meters (26 feet) long, 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) wide and four centimeters (1.6 inches) thick. It was taken to the laboratory built on the Giza Plateau for the Khufu Second Boat Project for it to be dried and stabilized.

Upon closer examination, the beam was found to have unique features: a number of U and L-shaped metal hooks embedded in the surface of the wood. There are no such metal elements in any of the beams from Khufu’s first solar boat. Archaeologists believe the metal parts may have been the ancient version of oar locks.

From the boats found across Egypt, “we have not found the use of metals in their frames like in this boat”, Mohamed Mostafa Abdel-Megeed, an antiquities ministry official and expert in boat-making in ancient Egypt, told AFP on the sidelines of a Cairo press conference.

The U-shaped hooks were used “to place the paddles to prevent friction of wood against wood”, said Sakuji Yoshimura, an Egyptologist from Japan.

Zapotec crocodile stone found in Oaxaca

September 2nd, 2016

The Zapotec site of Lambityeco, just west of Tlacolula in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley, reached its apogee in the Late Classic and Early Postclassical period (500–850 A.D.). It was a major center of trade and was the dominant producer of salt in the Oaxaca Valley. Around the same time, the city-state of Monte Albán 100 miles south of Lambityeco came to the fore as the capital of the Zapotec nation. It was much larger than Lambityeco, with a peak population of some 25,000 people.

When Lambityeco was first excavated in the 1960s, archaeologists discovered art and architectural elements that appeared to be strongly influenced by Monte Albán. Other artifacts indicated marked differences between the two cities, marked enough that archaeologists believed that Lambityeco dated to a later time period than Monte Albán. The archaeological record has been reinterpreted in recent years. Now researchers believe the two cities were indeed contemporaneous.

Archaeologists from Chicago’s Field Museum have been excavating Lambityeco for the past four years, expanding the area of the city that has been explored archaeologically and revealing more about the city’s relationship with Monte Albán. They found that the public buildings in Lambityeco’s civic center were initially laid out in much the same manner as Monte Albán’s public buildings. At some point, however, Lambityeco restructured its center, remodeling buildings and moving bits of them around so that its similarity with Monte Albán was erased. This is likely the result of a political shift in the two cities from alliance to opposition.

This season, the Field Museum team unearthed another artifact that contributes to our understanding of the ancient dynamic between the Zapotec urban centers. It’s a stone carved into the image of a crocodile on three sides. It’s the largest carved stone yet discovered at Lambityeco, and the first crocodile stone. Crocodile stones have been found at other Zapotec sites in the Oaxaca Valley, but most of them have been moved around over the centuries and are long divorced from their pre-Hispanic context. This one was moved, yes, but it was moved in Lambityeco’s heyday.

“We believe that this crocodile stone was originally a part of a stairway leading up to a temple at the heart of the civic-ceremonial center of Lambityeco,” said Linda Nicholas, archaeologist at The Field Museum. “However, when the people reconstructed the core area of the site, the entrance to the temple was blocked and the stairway was dismantled.”

The stone was moved so that it leaned against the new façade of the building, where it continued to serve ritual significance, as evidenced by remains of charcoal and ceramics used to hold incense that were deposited right in front of the stone. The stone, when found in this location, was upside down with one of its carved sides completely hidden from view. These observations further indicate that the stone had been repositioned from its original location.

Couple find Bronze Age sword in Danish field

September 1st, 2016

Ernst Christiansen and Lise Therkelsen were enjoying a leisurely evening constitutional in a field in Forsinge, western Zealand, when their metal detector signalled the presence of something underground. They dug less than a foot underground and found the tip of what looked a lot like a sword. As experienced and responsible metal detectorists, they recognized the object could be archaeologically significant, so they reburied it and the next morning alerted the Museum Vestsjælland (Museum of West Zealand) to the find.

Curator of the museum’s archaeology department Arne Hedegaard Andersen, with the aid of the finders, excavated the artifact. It’s a sword 82 centimeters (2’8″) long; the blade alone is 67 centimeters (26 inches) long. The sword is astonishingly well preserved: intact from tip to hilt (although the grip, which was likely made of an organic material like wood or horn, is gone) with fine decorations still visible. The edge is even still sharp. Museum experts date it to Phase IV of the Nordic Bronze Age, between 1100 and 900 B.C., so it has kept a keen edge for 3,000 years.

The sword is of a type known in Danish as a hornknapsværd, which translated to a horn button sword. (I wasn’t able to find any English scholarship on the sword type using that translation, so either it has another name in English or it’s enough of a niche area not to have much of a web presence. If anyone knows of an English name for this type sword, please let me know in the comments.) The blade is long and narrow with slightly sloping shoulders leading into the hilt. The grip has a short pair of arms and ends with a long narrow tip. Including that tip, the grip is 10 cm (4 inches) long. The arms are around nine cm wide. The grip is decorated with recessed lines and arches.

The sword will be on public display very briefly on September 7th from 1:00-4:00 PM at the Kalundborg Museum. Finders Ernst Christiansen and Lise Therkildsen and curator/excavator Arne Hedegaard Andersen will be at the special presentation to talk about the sword and answer questions from the visitors. After that quick viewing, the artifact will be processed and catalogued.

Million-year-old mammoth tusks found in Austria

August 31st, 2016

A team of paleontologists from Vienna’s Natural History Museum (NHM) has unearthed two large tusks and some vertebrae from a rare mammoth at a site 30 miles north of Vienna in the Weinviertel region of Lower Austria. The fossils were first discovered in mid-August by geologists surveying the site of a highway construction. They were studying the sediment layers when one of the geologists spotted an anomaly that turned out to be the tip of a tusk. The next day, experts from the NHM’s Geology and Palaeontology Department were called in to excavate the find and quickly unearthed a whole tusk and several vertebrae.

They knew there was more to be found, but rain interfered with further exploration for a few days. The delay made researchers antsy since this is a construction site and they didn’t have much time to salvage whatever was there. As soon as the rain let up, they went back to digging and unearthed a second tusk. The tusks are about 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) long now and were probably three meters (9.8 feet) long when they were still attached to their owner.

NHM paleontologists believe the tusks and vertebrae came from a single animal who died in the proto-Zaya river. The shape of the tusks and the sediment layer in which they were found suggest a preliminary date of around one million years ago. The fact that there was a river in which a mammoth’s remains could become embedded in the mud indicates it lived during an interglacial period, of which there were many during the 2.5 million years of the Pleistocene.

The museum’s press release doesn’t name the possible species, referring to it solely as Ur-mammoth, meaning original or primitive mammoth. Maybe the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) which ranged over Eurasia during the Pleistocene? Its ancestor the southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) died out 1.5 million years ago, so if the provisional dating estimate proves accurate, the steppe mammoth seems the most likely candidate. The descendents of a Siberian population of steppe mammoths evolved into the woolly mammoth about 400,000 years ago, so that might earn it the ur. Also the curved tusks seems most similar to those of Mammuthus trogontherii, to my entirely inexpert eyes.

After they were fully excavated, the tusks were stabilized for transport with the application of a thin coat of plaster bandages and wrapped with damp newspaper. They were then brought to the Natural History Museum in Vienna where they will be conserved and prepared for further study. Researchers are excited to find out all they can, not just about the animal but its environment. Very few remains this old have been discovered in Austria, so there is much to be learned from them and the discovery context.

The museum will keep the remains, but tt’s not known at this juncture whether the tusks and vertebrae will be integrated into the museum’s permanent exhibition. They will be very briefly shown at the a “Behind the Scenes” event at 11:00 AM on November 6th.

Rarely seen liturgical textiles on display in Vienna

August 30th, 2016

The Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna is home to an extraordinary collection of treasures accumulated by the House of Habsburg over hundreds of years. Jewels, vessels made of gold, silver and gemstones, furniture, paintings, the imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and opulent vestments are on display in the Secular Treasury, including one of my favorite historic textiles of all time, the Mantle of Roger II, made in 1133-4 for the Norman king of Sicily. The crimson samite mantle was embroidered in gold by Arabic craftsmen in Palermo who created a breathtaking split scene of lions attacking dromedaries on both sides of a stylized date palm. It made its way to the Holy Roman Empire through marriage by the early 13th century and to Vienna in 1801.

The Ecclesiastical Treasury features chalices, relics, monstrances, tabernacles and liturgical vestments. Its collection of 18th century religious textiles, most of which were donated to the Church by Emperor Charles VI, his wife Elisabeth Christine and their Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette of France. The vestments were made of the most expensive French and Italian silks and satins that were then lavishly embroidered.

The extensive holdings of the Ecclesiastical Treasury in Vienna are largely unknown to the general public; they comprise mainly vestments and liturgical textiles that were used to celebrate Mass or during religious festivities. Totalling around 1,700 artefacts, the collection includes both sets of vestments and individual textiles. Many of these precious garments were donated by members of the House of Habsburg who for centuries ruled the Holy Roman Empire. The pomp and circumstance associated with this high office is reflected in the costliness of these sumptuous textiles, the finest of which date from the Baroque, the apogee of Habsburg piety. Unlike mediaeval ecclesiastical textiles, baroque vestments generally feature not figurative but purely ornamental decorations. Precious secular silks adorned with a variety of designs frequently function as the base material, which is then elaborately embellished with appliqués, lace or gold-, silver- and silk embroidery to produce opulent textile works of art.

The leading benefactress in the 18th century was Maria Theresia (1717-1780). She donated precious textiles for use in the imperial palace chapel and the chapels of the different imperial summer residences at Schönbrunn, Laxenburg and Hetzendorf, as well as in St. Augustine’s church in Vienna. The latter evolved into a major stage for Habsburg piety. Here newly-appointed bishops were invested. All these places were lavishly appointed with sumptuous ecclesiastical textiles.

These textiles are so fragile they are kept in conservation cabinets and cannot be on permanent display. Select pieces can be seen now in the special exhibition Praise of God, and the embroidery alone is mind-blowing.


Export of Queen Victoria’s coronet barred for now

August 29th, 2016

You might think a sapphire and diamond coronet designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria the year they were married would never be in danger of being exported out of the UK, but it is. The Culture Ministry has placed a temporary export ban on Queen Victoria’s coronet in the hopes that a buyer in the UK, ideally an institution, can raise the £5 million ($6,554,000) plus £1 million ($1,310,725) VAT to match the purchase price.

In the happy days before her widowhood, Victoria loved brightly colored gems, and Albert designed the coronet to match a sapphire and diamond brooch he had given to Victoria as a wedding present. Victoria was delighted with these gifts, writing in her journal “My dear Albert has such good taste and arranges everything for me about my jewellery.” In the case of the coronet, Albert arranged for Joseph Kitching, Goldsmith & Jeweller To His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, to make it using gemstones that Victoria had gotten as gifts from her uncle King William IV and his wife Queen Adelaide. The small crown — just 4.5 inches wide — has 11 kite- and cushion-cut sapphires mounted in gold surrounded by diamonds mounted in silver. It cost £415.

Victoria wore the coronet two years later in 1842 when she sat for one of the most famous portraits of the young queen by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The fashionable artist’s first portrait of Queen Victoria captured her in white silk satin and lace gown reminiscent of her groundbreaking wedding dress which would launch the white wedding trend. The sapphire and diamond brooch Albert had given her the day before their wedding is pinned to her bosom, just as it was on her wedding dress. The coronet encircles the tidy bun on the back of her head. The painting became an iconic representation of Queen Victoria all over the world.

Prince Albert’s death in 1861 sent Victoria into a period of inconsolable mourning that lasted for years. She wore black and made no public appearances, executing the duties of the monarch in seclusion at her favorite royal residences, avoiding Buckingham Palace and London as much as possible. Breaking two centuries of uninterrupted tradition, she refused to attend the State Opening of Parliament for five years, finally returning to the duty in 1866 under duress. The new Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli pressured the queen to attend the ceremony to quell politicians’ and the public’s increasing discontent with her withdrawal from public life. She did it with great reluctance, grumbling that it would be a terrible “shock to her nerves.” Instead of wearing the coronation crown, whose weight had caused her some pain during her coronation, she wore the little coronet, a reminder of her beloved husband.

Neither Queen Alexandra nor Queen Mary wore the sapphire coronet. In 1922 King George V and Queen Mary gifted it to Princess Mary, their only daughter, as a wedding present when she married Viscount Lascelles, the future 6th Earl of Harewood, in 1922. Mary, Princess Royal after 1932 and Countess of Harewood after 1929, wore the coronet often on public occasions. After her death in 1965, the coronet fell out of view. It emerged in 1997 for an exhibition at the renown Wartski jewelers in London, on loan from the Countess of Harewood. In 2002 it was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Tiaras exhibition.

At some point after that it was sold to a dealer in London. The overseas owner requesting the export license bought it from that dealer. Whenever an export license is requested, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) studies the piece and determines whether its historical and cultural value is too significant to let it leave the country without a fight.

RCEWA member Philippa Glanville said:

“Key to the self-image of the young Victoria, this exquisite coronet was designed by her husband Prince Albert. Worn in her popular state portrait by Winterhalter of 1842, the year it was made, its combination of personal meaning and formality explains why she chose to wear it in 1866, emerging from mourning for the State Opening of Parliament. It evokes vividly the shared romantic taste of the time, and its form has become familiar through many reproductions. Its departure would be a great loss, given its beauty, its associations and its history.”

Individuals and institutions have until December 27th, 2016, to raise the money or at least raise enough money to indicate they have a chance of matching the price if given a little more time. In that case, the temporary ban may be extended to June 27th, 2017.

If I were Queen Elizabeth II, I would be whipping out my checkbook right now. Which raises the question: are the Queen’s checkbooks plain or the kind with designs? I’m thinking horses in a field or Corgis at frolic.

Confederate spy Belle Boyd’s flag up for auction

August 28th, 2016

Belle Boyd was still a teenager when her career as a spy for the Confederate States of America began. Born in Martinsburg, Virginia (today West Virginia), she was 17 when war broke out in 1861. Her family, while not rich, was of old Virginia stock and she received a decent secondary education before making her debut in Washington, D.C. The whirlwind of balls and box socials was interrupted by Fort Sumter and she left D.C. to return home. Her father volunteered for the Confederate Army.

Within months Martinsburg was occupied by Federal troops. According to her autobiography, Belle Boyd saw to it that the town was occupied by one fewer Union soldier on July 4th, 1861. A group of soldiers had busted into their house, hearing that there might be Confederate flags within. When they went to raise the Union flag over the house, Belle’s mother protested and a solider retorted “in language as offensive as is possible to conceive.” Enraged, Belle whipped out the pistol she had concealed on her person and mortally wounded the Yankee soldier. The commander of the Union garrison in town investigated the shooting and declared it justified. He assigned sentries to guard the house and its residents from further interference.

And that’s how Belle Boyd got to know a passel of Union officers, charming information out of them with her wit, boldness and flirtatiousness. Mind you, there are no reports of any such shooting taking place in the official Union Army records. The account could be Belle Boyd’s fictionalized version of events invented or exaggerated for a stronger lead-up to her later spying activities which do appear on the record.

The exploit that would make her famous took place in May, 1862, just after her 18th birthday. Either by pressing her ear to a knothole in the floor or a knothole in the wardrobe (accounts differ), she eavesdropped on Union General James Shield’s conversation with his staff at a hotel in Front Royal, Virginia. She found out that Shield’s troops were leaving, that Union numbers would be significantly reduced. Riding a horse through Union lines with fraudulent passes, Belle reached General Stonewall Jackson’s army and relayed a message to him via an officer: “The Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.” On May 23rd, 1862, Jackson charged right down and defeated Colonel John R. Kenly at the Battle of Front Royal in a rout.

News of Belle Boyd’s daring late-night run spread quickly. There were stories in southern and northern newspapers about it. She was described in the northern press as the “Siren of the Shenandoah” and “Cleopatra of the Secession.” Stonewall Jackson sent her a lovely personal thank you note and awarded her the Southern Cross of Honor. She also received an honorary commission as a Captain in Jackson’s army and an honorary appointment as his aide-de-camp.

Belle revelled in the attention. She made no attempt to hide her actions, instead telling the story, often with embellishments including a claim that carrying a Confederate flag, she had led Jackson’s men onto the battlefield. She repeated that claim to one Frederic Sears Grand d’ Hauteville, a Union captain on the staff of General Nathaniel Banks, when she met him at Front Royal on June 10th and gave him the flag she said she had been waving when she “led the attack” on Union troops.

Another officer serving under General Nathaniel Banks wrote about Belle and the flag in a letter home on July 28th, 1862. That officer was Robert Gould Shaw, famously played by Matthew Broderick in the Oscar-winning movie Glory.

“Perhaps you have seen some accounts of a young lady at Front Royal, named Belle Boyd. There was quite a long and ridiculous letter about her copied into the ‘Evening Post’ the other day. I have seen her several times, but never had any conversation with her. Other men who have talked with her, tell me that she never asked for any information about our army, or gave them the slightest reason to suppose her a spy; and they were probably as capable of judging as the correspondent who wrote about her. She gave Fred. d’ Hauteville a very pretty Secession flag, which she said she carried when she went out to meet Jackson’s troops coming into Front Royal.”

After seeing significant action, Frederic d’ Hauteville resigned his commission in 1863 and married socialite and scion of two great New York dynasties, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish. She died just 10 months later and d’ Hauteville withdrew to his family chateau on Lake Geneva. The flag traveled to Switzerland with him and remained in the house until it was sold for the first time in 2015. Yes, you read that right. A genuine historical artifact was found in a real life private Swiss collection under entirely legitimate circumstances.

Now it is going up for auction again, for the first time in the United States.

Eleven star flags of this pattern are generally dated in the brief timespan from July 1861, when Tennessee and North Carolina joined the Confederacy, until November 28, 1861, when two additional stars were added to the flag to mark the establishment of Confederate governments in Missouri and Kentucky. Made sometime in that timespan, perhaps even by Boyd herself, this flag was packed away and preserved before it was even a year old. The flag exhibits an unusual canton configuration. While one side features the eleven stars in a circle, typical of First National flags, the other side has but a single star in the center of the canton. [...]

Its condition has remained immaculate, retaining the short ribbons along its hoist and showing no tears, holes, fraying, loss, or staining. A small handwritten note has been loosely stitched to the flag, testifying to its provenance. The note reads: “Confederate flag. Taken by F.S.G d’H. and given by him to E.S.F. in 1862 (?). To be given to Freddie d’ Hauteville when he is fifteen.” The handwriting is that of Frederic d’ Hauteville, who has spelled out his name in initials. E.S.F. represents the initials of his late wife, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish. Freddy, his son by his second wife, was born in 1873, thus dating this note some years before his 15th birthday in 1888.

The auction will take place on September 17th, 2016, but the lot is already open for online bidding. The opening bid is $50,000. Heritage Auctions expects it to sell for much more than that, and given its impeccable provenance and exquisite condition, it may even break the record for a flag of the First National pattern. The record for Confederate flag sold at auction is the battle flag of J.E.B. Stuart which sold for $956,000 in 2006.

National Trust acquires iconic Jacobean miniature

August 27th, 2016


The National Trust has acquired a very fine early 17th century miniature by Isaac Oliver for £2.1 million ($2,760,000), a new record for a British miniature. The miniature is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest British examples of the art form. It has been on display at the Powis Castle in Powys, Wales, which was bequeathed to the National Trust by 4th earl of Powis in 1952. The anonymous seller, believed to be in the family of the Earls of Powis, sold the miniature at a discount — it was valued at £5.2 million ($6,830,000) — in exchange for tax concessions. Even so, the National Trust had to raise funds to buy the piece and save it for the nation before it went up for public sale. The Art Fund contributed £300,000 ($394,000), the National Heritage Memorial Fund £1.5 million ($1,970,000) and the National Trust pulled together the rest from various sources.

The subject of the miniature is Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), a soldier, diplomat, statesman, poet, playwright and philosopher. His first cousin was Sir William Herbert, 1st Lord Powis. Scholars believe the miniature has been in the Powis family almost since it was first painted.

The cabinet miniature measures nine by seven inches and presents him as a chivalric hero of medieval romance, reclining in a verdant glade by a babbling brook. Lying recumbent with his head propped up on one hand, Herbert strikes the pose of the melancholic, symbolic of deep thought and contemplation. This isn’t just the image of a philosophically minded young man, however. Herbert is the Melancholy Knight here, shown in repose after dueling in a joust. His shield, decorated with a winged heart rising from the flames and the inscription “Magia Sympathiae,” (“sympathetic magic,” an element in Herbert’s metaphysical treatise De Veritate on the pursuit of truth) covers his arm, while in the background his elegant suit of armour is perched between two trees and his page holds a helmet so extravagantly beplumed that the red feathers obscure the page’s face entirely. To the right of the page, Herbert’s armoured white destrier paws the ground spiritedly. In the far distance, painted in blue, is a city on a river.

Edward Herbert was a dashing figure of the era, famed for his bravery, intellect and success with the ladies. The miniature was painted around 1610-1614, a time when Herbert had distinguished himself in highly chivalric fashion while volunteering under Philip William, Prince of Orange, in the Low Countries. From 1609 through 1614, the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of the Jülich Succession over who would control the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II claimed the duchy, as did Wolfgang William, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg, John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and the Prince of Orange representing the interests of the Dutch Republic.

In 1610, the emperor’s troops occupied the fortified citadel of Jülich and the armies of the Republic, Palatinate-Newburg and Brandenburg came together to besiege it. Herbert stepped forward to propose a classic solution to the conflict: he offered to fight the Holy Roman Emperor’s chosen champion in single combat. The victorious champion would win the duchy for his lord. Rudolph II declined. The siege lasted 35 days before the Imperial troops surrendered and withdrew and Rudolph renounced his claim to the duchy.

Born in France the son of a Huguenot goldsmith named Pierre Olivier who anglicized his last name when he fled persecution in Rouen and moved to England, Isaac Oliver was 27 and already an experienced painter when he became a pupil in the workshop of painter Nicholas Hilliard who was a popular miniature portraitist of the Tudor court.

Hilliard was limited in his skills, however, sticking largely to relatively flat head-and-shoulders portraits. When Oliver began painting miniatures under Hilliard in 1587 he was quickly recognized as a great talent and an innovator of the genre, which was less than 70 years old at that time. His portraits covered more of the body, used more and brighter colors, added chiaroscuro shadow elements that gave the features more depth and dimension. Oliver introduced the naturalism of Renaissance Italian and Flemish painters to British miniatures, and his works were widely collected by the young and fashionable.

There is an extremely juicy backstory to the miniature, one that appropriately enough for Herbert involves a married woman, a pissed off husband, attempted murder and attempted duels. The tale is recounted by Edward Herbert himself in his scandalous autobiography which was only published a century after his death by Horace Walpole, publisher, author and son of the first prime minister of Britain Robert Walpole, who had borrowed it from the then-Earl of Powis. Walpole called it “the most curious and entertaining book in the world,” and with good reason.

According to Herbert, the miniature was commissioned not by the Herberts but by the wife of one Sir John Ayres. She had purloined a copy of the original painting, now lost, and had Oliver make a version in miniature to wear “about her neck, so low that she hid it under her breasts,” a placement that Herbert acknowledges gave Sir John reasonable cause for suspicion. Then this happened:

Coming one day into her chamber, I saw her through the curtains lying upon her bed with a wax candle in one hand, and the picture I formerly mentioned in the other. I coming thereupon somewhat boldly to her, she blew out the candle, and hid the picture from me; myself thereupon being curious to know what that was she held in her hand, got the candle to be lighted again, by means whereof I found it was my picture she looked upon with more earnestness and passion than I could have easily believed, especially since myself was not engaged in any affection towards her.

Why, who could think there was illicit affection between them, just because he found himself in her rooms with the lights out while she fondled a miniature of him she kept in her cleavage? Sir John, apparently, because word got out that he planned to kill Herbert in his bed. When several titled personages alerted Edward Herbert to the contract out on his head, he enlisted his cousin Sir William Herbert to ask Sir John Ayres to refrain from murdering him in his sickbed until they could meet in an honorable duel once Edward was recovered from a fever.

The appeal fell on deaf ears, but their communication led Sir John to change his plans from murder in bed to murder on the streets. He and four men-at-arms attacked Herbert, recently recovered from his illness and on his way to Whitehall. A fierce battle ensued in which Herbert fended off five men, broke his sword, took a dagger blow from ribs to hip and still managed to pin Sir John down and whup him like he owed him money with the busted remnant of his sword. Ayres’ men dragged his body to safety.

Herbert recovered from his knife wound and wrote to Ayres again suggesting an honorable duel between them. Ayres replied that Herbert “had whored his wife, and that he would kill [him] with a musket out of a window.” The Privy Council got involved, adjudicating the dispute between them. Lady Ayres wrote a letter denying her husband’s allegations and the lords oohed and aahed over Herbert’s brave Dumas-like derring-do. Ayres did not try to kill him again.

What’s missing in this self-servingly dashing narrative is an explanation of how the portrait wound up with the Powis Herberts. Perhaps Lady Ayres handed it over. Perhaps this whole story is, let’s just say, richly embellished.

The miniature will now spend several months getting treatment from conservators. Once it is in tip-top shape, it may be loaned to other museums — the piece has been loaned to institutions like the Victoria & Albert in the past — before returning the Powis Castle for permanent display.

4,200 yr-old rattle found in Turkey

August 26th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Acemhöyük excavation site in central Turkey have unearthed a clay rattle that dates to the early Bronze Age. It has not been radiocarbon dated yet, but the layer in which it was found dates to around 2200 B.C. which makes the toy one of the oldest rattles ever found. Made out of terracotta, the rattle is shaped like an oval coin purse. It probably had a handle originally but that has been lost. The top has a few perforations to allow sound to escape. It is intact and still sealed with small objects inside, probably pebbles, which make the rattling noise. Had any part of it broken or chipped over the past 4,000 years, the contents would have fallen out and it would no longer rattle. Happenstance has preserved it so that we can still hear what the Bronze Age baby and parents who once shook it can hear.

You can see and hear the rattle rattled in this Turkish language news story on the find.

That’s Dr. Aliye Öztan in the video, leader of the excavations at Acemhöyük since 1989. Acemhöyük is a large oval mound 44 hectares in area that is one of the largest Bronze Age sites in Anatolia. The tumulus was erected around 3000 B.C. There are a total of 12 habitation layers, the oldest dating to the Late Copper Age. The rattle was found in layer seven. The settlement was continually inhabited from the Early Bronze Age through the Roman era, reaching peak prosperity in the second millennium B.C. when it was an important center of trade during the Assyrian Trade Colonies Period (1950-1750 B.C.) when the Assyrians established karums, or merchant colonies, in multiple cities in Anatolia.

Excavations at the site began in 1962 and have continued ever since. While earlier excavations have focused on the prosperous Assyrian Trade Colonies Period, the aims of the current dig is to excavate the bottom layer of the mound and the Early Bronze Age ones. The city walls were built in the Early Bronze Age, so this period is key to understanding the community’s growth and development. Other artifacts found this season include a fragment of a necklace made of bones, metal needles and cups.

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