Export bar for 14th c. ivory casket with Grail, wild men

December 3rd, 2022

An exceedingly rare French Gothic ivory casket carved with low relief scenes of Arthurian romance is at risk of leaving the UK if a museum or gallery cannot be found to acquire it for the assessed price of £1,506,000. The UK’s Arts Minister has placed a temporary export bar on the object to give local institutions the opportunity to raise the sum by March 1, 2023.

The casket sold at Edinburgh’s Lyon & Turnbull auction house in May 2021 for £1,455,000, a world record for a medieval ivory casket and the highest price any single object has ever sold for at an auction in Scotland. It is one of only nine of secular Gothic ivory coffrets known to survive, and almost all of them are in museums like the Louvre and the Metropolitan.

[Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] member Stuart Lochhead said:

This French 14th-century carved ivory casket is adorned with scenes of chivalry and romance including depictions of wild men – ranging from the rescue of a lady from one such assailant to a procession of knights and ladies who lead the captured wild men in chains. Similar iconography exists on some of the other nine known mediaeval caskets of this type, but it is the present one that illustrates some of the earliest and rarest type of images.

No disrespect to the honorable members of the RCEWA, but while they’re right about the wild men being particularly awesome on this example, I’m not sure that the scene on the top of the casket depicts the wild men attacking the Castle of Love. The usual iconography of the Castle of Love, a chivalric metaphor for seduction, is women arrayed along the crenellations while fully human knights launch catapults full of roses and scale the walls to breach the ladies’ “defenses.” The wild men on this coffer are both fighting knights defending the castle and kidnapping women (rather gently, really, almost like they’re saving them from the knights). Two lions guard two gates at the bottom of the castle. This strongly suggests it’s the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the home of the Holy Grail according to the 13th century French prose romance L’Estoire del Saint Graal, so this is likely the culmination of Galahad’s Grail quest only with a bunch of wild men in the melee.

The Grail makes a starring appearance on the right side panel. A kneeling angel holds it aloft before the arrayed Arthurian knights. Galahad, holding the magical sword he pulled from the stone, is in the center. Scenes from another Arthurian romance, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, on the left side panel and on the left two sections of the back panel.

Elephant ivory imported from Africa and Asia had been prized since antiquity for its lustrous, flesh-like glow and carvable surface. In medieval northern Europe, it was a luxury material reserved largely for religious objects (book covers, statuettes, reliquaries, croziers). Ivory supplies plummeted in the 12th century, only picking back up in the mid-13th century when Mediterranean merchants established a new water-going route through Gibraltar direct to the English Channel for the textile dye and ivory trade.

By the turn of the 14th century, the higher availability of ivory had lowered the price enough that a material once exclusive to liturgical use was now available for personal objects like mirrors, combs, cosmetics vessels and coffers. Instead of religious subjects, these objects were carved with secular motifs popular among the aristocratic buyers of such high-end toiletry items — courtly love, Arthurian romance, falconry, capturing a unicorn. The caskets are believed to have been romantic gifts used to store love tokens, letters, jewels, etc. We know in one specific case, that of Clemence of Hungary, Queen of France for less than a year between 1315 and 1316, that her carved ivory box contained a comb and mirror set and a chess set.

Gothic ivory carving reached its apex between 1230 and 1380 and Paris was the center of production with other capitals following the fashions and trends established there. The style of carving and manufacture indicates the Edinburgh coffret was made in a workshop in Paris around 1330. By the end of the 14th century, plague, war and economic upheaval had throttled the ivory supply and carved objects became more scarce again.

One of the other rare features of this casket is its long ownership history. It can be traced directly to the early 17th century. A genealogy of the Baird family of Auchmeddan Castle in Aberdeen records the chest in the possession of Thomas Baird, Fransciscan friar of a monastery in Besançon, France, some time after 1609. It remained in the Baird family, passing to descendants by marriage. One of those descendants was the seller who put it up for auction last year, so the casket has been in Scotland for 400 years. That was one of the factors in the Committee’s decision to recommend the export ban.

First mummy portraits in 112 years found at Fayoum

December 2nd, 2022

The Egyptian archaeological mission has unearthed a monumental funerary building and mummy portraits from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods at the Garza archaeological site in Fayoum, about 37 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. These are the first mummy portraits found in an archaeological excavation at Fayoum since Flinders Petrie found 146 of them in a Roman-era necropolis in 1910-11.

The village of Garza was founded as Philadelphia under the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC). Excavations have been ongoing since 2016, and have unearthed numerous artifacts dating from its founding to Roman rule in the 3rd century A.D.

The building is in the style of a funerary home. It was built of stone blocks with chamber tombs built into or cut out of the walls. The floor was paved with lime slabs and painted in alternating colors like a checkerboard. On the southern side is a colonnaded hall in which the remains of four columns were discovered. A small, narrow street leads to the building.

Inside the funerary building, the mission team uncovered a number of coffins in both Egyptian humaniform style and in Greek style with a gabled roof. One of the humaniform coffins is covered with a rare example of a cartonnage mask with wig in the ancient Egyptian style that dates to the 1st century B.C. The mummy portraits include a beautiful panel painting of a young woman with elaborately braided and bejeweled hair wearing earrings, two necklaces, rings, bracelets. She holds a rose garland in one hand and a small vessel in the other. The vessel type is of a type that was produced in ancient Garza.

What was discovered at the site illustrates the diversity and difference in the accuracy and quality of the embalming process during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, which indicates the economic stature of the deceased, starting from high-quality embalming to simple burials.

A rare terracotta statue of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite was also found in one of the burials inside a wooden coffin.

Also discovered was a set of records made of papyrus with inscriptions in the Demotic and Greek scripts indicating the social, economic and religious conditions of the inhabitants of the region during that period.

14th c. cog shipwrecks found in Sweden

December 1st, 2022

The wrecks of two cogs dating to the middle of the 14th century have been discovered in Varberg, Sweden. The cogs were discovered this spring during an archaeological investigation in advance of a railway tunnel construction. The wooden remains were unearthed from what in the Middle Ages was the shoreline of the town of Getakärr (which charmingly means goat marsh), Varberg’s medieval predecessor. Cogs are rare finds and finding two of them 30 feet apart is unique.

The first Varberg cog is the largest and the best preserved. In fact, it is the best preserved cog ever discovered in Sweden. It consists of almost the entire port side of the ship, about 67 feet long and 16 feet wide, its ballast still in place. The second cog consists of the remains of a hull about 26 feet long and 15 feet wide. Examination of the vessels found that they were built with carvel planking (planks laid side to side creating a smooth surface) on the bottom and clinker built (overlapping planks) on the sides. The planks were sealed with moss and reinforced with crossbeams going all the way through to the exterior of the hull.

Dendrochronological analysis of the first timber samples from both ships has now been completed. The tree-ring analysis found that the wood from Varberg Cog 1 was felled in 1346 somewhere around the Netherlands, Belgium or northeastern France. The wood used to build Varberg Cog 2 was felled between 1355 and 1357 in northern Poland. This suggests they were not local ships, but had come from some distance. It is not yet clear what caused them to sink.

A number of daily use objects left by the crew were found in the excavation, preserved in the waterlogged soil of the shore. Archaeologists unearthed leather shoes, wooden utensils (spoons, bowls), barrel parts, and in Varberg Cog 1, they also found a significant amount of rigging, spare parts and other elements of the ships’ equipment. 

The wrecks have been laser scanned and 3D models created of them. Study of the ships is ongoing and will continue through 2023.

Varberg Cog 1 with ballast:

Varberg Cog 1 with ballast removed:

Varberg Cog 2:

Peru mural that evaded looters’ clutches rediscovered

November 30th, 2022

Archaeologists have rediscovered a unique pre-Hispanic mural in Lambayeque, Peru, that was believed to have been destroyed by looters more than a century ago.

The mural was painted on the wall of a temple by the Lambayeque culture (900-1350 A.D.) a thousand or so years ago. A temple was known to exist at the site, but it was covered with dense foliage and had not been explored. At Easter in 1916, it was targeted by huaqueros, looters who dig up temples in Peru looking for saleable artifacts. At that time there was a “tradition” among huaqueros to celebrate Holy Week by sacking the temples of the “gentiles.” They didn’t come across any of the gold and silver artifacts they were hoping for in their looting tunnel, so they decided to just demolish a wall with a vividly colored mural they had exposed with their digging instead. They were stopped in the nick of time by authorities.

Ethnographer Heinrich Brüning, who took thousands of photos of Peruvian antiquities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lived in Lambayeque. When he heard of the new discovery, he photographed the mural and the temple, now dubbed Huaca Pintada after the mural. The thwarted looters decided to take their revenge and destroy the mural anyway. As far as anyone knew, the huaqueros had succeeded in their despicable aims and the only evidence of the mural remaining were Brüning’s pictures and field notebooks.

For a hundred years, those photos were all scholars had when studying the unique iconography of the Huaca Pintada mural. The temple is on private property and the owners did not allow excavations. The family had lived next to the huaca since the 19th century and considered it their duty to care for it. After the disaster with the looters, they were not keen to expose the ancient site any further. In 2018, Swiss archaeologist Sam Ghavami and his Peruvian colleague Christian Cancho managed to persuade the owner to allow them to perform the first archaeological excavation of Huaca Pintada. On October 11th of this year, the third season of digs, the team hit paydirt: a 100-foot wall painted in brilliant red, yellow, white, lucuma (an orangey yellow named after a Peruvian fruit), black, brown and blue.

It turns out the looters had only found a few panels of a far larger mural. It depicts a procession of warriors marching towards a deity with birdlike features. Above the procession is a river carrying fish to the valley. The style of the painting combines elements of the Lambayeque culture and its Moche (100-850 A.D.) ancestors, marking an important transitional phase in northern Peruvian art.

“It’s an exceptional discovery, first of all, because it is rare to unearth wall paintings of such quality in pre-Colombian archeology,” said Sam Ghavami, the Swiss archeologist who led excavations that uncovered the mural in October. […]

The painted images “appear to be inspired by the idea of a sacred hierarchy built around a cult of ancestors and their intimate links with the forces of nature,” said Ghavami.

Barn converted to baths found at Rutland Roman villa

November 29th, 2022

The excavation of the Roman villa in Rutland, East Midlands, where the spectacular (and spectacularly bloody) Trojan War mosaic was discovered in 2020, has unearthed a new surprise: a large barn that was converted into residential quarters complete with a three-room bath facility.

The Trojan War mosaic is one of the most important mosaic finds ever made in England and the site was immediately granted protected status. The mosaic itself has been reburied for its protection, but University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) in partnership with Historic England returned to the site this year to expand the excavation and learn more about the villa that houses such a unique example of ancient art from the waning days of Roman rule in England. The information and artifacts gathered will be essential to understanding the full context of the mosaic and ensuring its long-term preservation.

This year the ULAS team used data from a geophysical survey to plan an excavation strategy that would reveal different sections of the villa. They dug a series of trenches down the length of the site, unearthing a huge aisled building approximately 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. Originally a timber barn, the building was rebuilt in stone in the 3rd or 4th century and terraced into the hillside, protecting it from the elements. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of agricultural and industrial production on the eastern end of the building. The western end was a residential space. It was converted to this purpose at some point in its history, the open barn partitioned to create multiple rooms on multiple floors.

On the southern side of the building is a remarkable bath complex with caldarium (steam room), tepidarium (warm room) and frigidarium (cold pool). The tile stacks of the hypocaust underfloor heating are still present, and are also in situ at the base of the walls, meaning that this complex didn’t just have heated floor and pools, but heated walls too. There’s even the base of a water tank attached to the exterior walls, likely a rainwater catchment system collected from the roof of the building.

This year’s excavation also returned to the triclinium, the dining room where the Trojan War mosaic was found in the main building of the villa. The team was able to discover the cause of a slump of the floor on the long side of the room: an old boundary ditch. The villa was built over it and subsidence of the soil caused the floor to sink. Pottery found inside the ditch dates it to the 2nd century, an indication of the age of the site. The excavation revealed that the main building was also a conversion. It too began as an aisled building that was later added to in stages. The triclinium was one of those additions.

The dining room had been built as an extension to the main villa, suggesting that the owners wanted a special area for feasting as they gazed over the Iliad mosaic.

The new excavations also revealed additional mosaics in the corridors leading to the dining room, including one with a kaleidoscopic geometric design.

John Thomas, the deputy director of the University of Leicester archaeological service, said: “It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this Roman villa complex to our understanding of life in late Roman Britain. While previous excavations of individual buildings, or smaller-scale villas, have given us a snapshot, this discovery in Rutland is much more complete and provides a clearer picture of the whole complex.

Original polychrome paint found on Duomo sculptures

November 28th, 2022

Restoration of the marble reliefs on the north façade of the Duomo of Florence has revealed original polychrome paint on an exterior sculpture of Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels. The sculptures date to 1359-1360 and are mounted in an arched niche above the Porta dei Cornacchini, the door in the north wall of the cathedral. While the marble in the background is colorful — the Duomo is famous for the white, pink and green marble cladding that gives the cathedral its distinctive look — the sculptures themselves were previously believed to have been left the natural white of the marble.

The marbles of the north façade were in dire need of conservation, having suffered extensive erosion from rainwater runoff, deposits of surface dirt, black sulfurous encrustations and bird poop galore. Since restoration work began in September 2021, experts from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore have cleaned more than 10,000 square feet of marble. The process revealed extensive traces of the paint, including the brown iris of Mary’s left eye, the blue-green color inside her mantle, red on the outside of her mantle and a rich damask pattern on the garment worn by the Christ Child. This is the first time such large sections of polychrome paint have been found on an exterior sculpture of the Duomo. Previous finds were just tiny glimpses — a few dabs of gilding and light blue on other sculptures.

Earlier attempts at restoration did more harm than good to the original colors. A coating of brown oxalate applied directly to the surface of the marble in the 1950s has darkened over the decades, obscuring the traces surviving paint. Conservators removed the layer of fluorosilicate over the oxalate, but decided to keep the oxalate in place because it protects the surface of the marble even as it darkens it.

The museum has said that this sculpture group was most likely not the only one on the Duomo in polychrome, though now they appear to be marble white.

The find has led to the image of the Duomo as one in color, with white, green, and pink on the exteriors and red and gold mosaics on the facade.

“The exciting find of multiple colors of the figures on Porta dei Cornacchini of the Florence cathedral,” said Duomo museum director Timothy Verdon. “It reminds us that Florence at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th was a very colourful city. The cathedral also had painted statues with gilding on the wings of angels and on clothing – thus, a celebration. A celebration that we forgot and are beginning to rediscover.”

See the conservators at work cleaning decades of filth off the sculpture in this video:


Gold disc brooch found in 7th c. Basel grave

November 27th, 2022

An excavation of the Kleinbasel neighborhood of Basel, Switzerland, has brought to light 15 graves, some of them richly furnished, from an early medieval burial ground. The presence of a burial ground from this period had been known since the 19th century, so a rescue archaeology excavation was undertaken in the area before installation of new utility pipes. Earlier this year the excavation unearthed the 6th century grave of a young girl buried with a dazzling array of about 380 beads. The recent discoveries prove that the cemetery was more densely populated than archaeologists realized.

One of the highlights of the newly-discovered graves is that of an elite young woman who was about 20 years old when she died in the 7th century. The grave was damaged during construction in the early 20th century. The skull is lost, as is the body below the knees, but the riches she was buried with remain. The grave contained a rare gold disc brooch made of a base plate made of a non-ferrous metal that was then topped with gold. The disc was then adorned with gold wire filigree and inlayed with green garnet gemstones and blue glass. The brooch likely held together a cloak, now gone, at her neck. She was also wearing a necklace made of 160 glass, amethyst and amber beads (or had them sewn onto the collar or bodice of her garment). There was also a leather strap decorated with metal crosses that terminates in a large amber pendant. Around her waist was a belt with an iron buckle and a silver tongue. Hanging from the belt was a chatelaine with pierced Roman coins, metal artifacts and a bone comb.

Other notable graves found in the current excavation include a child’s grave containing a large silver inlay belt buckle, metal belt fittings, scissors and a comb, and a stone cist grave containing the skeleton of an adult man. The man’s face bears the unmistakable evidence of violent blow from a sword. Amazingly, the man survived the disfiguring injury as he died after it was fully healed.

Basel was founded as a Celtic oppidium, or fortified settlement, in the 1st century B.C. The Romans built a military camp on the site of the settlement and by the end of the 1st century A.D., it was absorbed into the Roman province of Germania Superior. Roman control weakened in the 3rd century, but the troops along the Rhine managed to repel invasions from the Germanic Alemanni confederation several times in the 4th century. The Alemanni finally won around 406 A.D., settling throughout the Swiss Plateau. They and the Franks after them occupied the old Roman castle and the town’s fortunes were revived. It was minting its own coins in the 7th century and was made a bishopric in the 8th. The Roman castle was converted into Basel’s first cathedral. What is today the Kleinbasel area was the castle/cathedral hill, the nucleus of the early medieval settlement.

Healthy snacks, grilled meats at Colosseum tailgates

November 26th, 2022

An excavation of the Colosseum’s sewer systems has revealed the ancient Roman versions of Cracker Jacks and ballpark franks and it’s melon and mutton. The study aims to learn more about how the ancient sewer and hydraulic systems operated under the Flavian Amphitheater with a particular focus on solving the mystery of how the underground was flooded during water spectacles. In January 2021, wire-guided robots were sent to video record and laser scan the drains and sewers under the arena. A year later, a stratigraphic excavation of the south collector of the sewer network began, clearing 230 feet of muck that contained archaeological treasure in the form of ancient garbage.

Sewers are often constipated with archaeological material from the very bowels of daily life in the ancient city, and the sewers under the Colosseum contain a unique variety of organic remains left by both the spectacles and the spectators. The excavation of the south collector brought in a rich harvest: the discarded remains of chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, figs, peach pits, plum pits, cherry pits, olive pits, blackberries, elderberries, melon seeds and grape seeds, evidence of the snacks consumed by the audience in the bleachers during the games. They didn’t just have snacks in the stands. It seems spectators rigged up braziers so they could grill up some meat, mostly pork and mutton, as they watched people and animals being butchered for sport.

Remains of animals who starred in the games were found as well. There were bones of bears of different sizes, possibly used in acrobatic displays, lions, leopards, ostriches and deer, likely used in the venationes (staged animal hunts). There were also dogs of different sizes. The smallest was less than a foot in height, but stocky and strong, a predecessor of the dachshund. Remains of plants that grew in the Colosseum showed a wide degree of biodiversity, ranging from blackberries to boxwoods and laurels. Some of the plants were spontaneous growth (the international animal and human feces spread led to hundreds if not thousands of different non-native plants taking root in the Colosseum); the evergreens were probably deliberately planted for landscaping.

The excavation also recovered artifacts. As you would find under the sewer grates of the sports arena today, there’s a lot of spare change down there. Archaeologists unearthed 53 bronze coins from the Late Imperial era, and a rare orichalcum sestertius struck in 170-171 A.D. to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the ascension of Marcus Aurelius to the imperial throne. Personal objects found include bone game dice, a bone pin and clothing elements (shoe nails, leather, studs).

I can’t embed this video from the Facebook page of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, but do yourself a favor and follow the link because it shows urban spelunkers from the organization Roma Sotterranea (Underground Rome) exploring the sewer, squeezing through uncomfortably tight, mucky spaces and pointing out the brick stamps inscribed with the names of the makers which identify the period when that stretch of construction or repairs was done.

Celtic gold hoard coin stolen in museum heist

November 25th, 2022

A hoard of Celtic gold coins from the 1st century B.C. was stolen in a daring smash-and-grab burglary from the Celtic and Roman Museum in Manching, southern Germany. Thieves made away with 483 coins in the early hours of Tuesday, November 22, and Bavaria’s State Criminal Police Office have launched an international investigation to find the perpetrators and the treasure they stole.

At 1:17 AM, several fiber optic lines were cut at a telecom hub a kilometer away from the museum, severing internet and telephone service to 13,000 homes and businesses in Manching, including at the Celtic and Roman Museum. This also cut off the alarm linking the museum’s security system to the police. Exactly nine minutes later at 1:26 AM, an emergency exit at the museum was pried open and two display cases made of bulletproof safety glass were broken into. At 1:33 AM, the thieves disappeared into the night with the entire hoard of gold coins. Nobody noticed the loss until the museum staff arrived for the work day. Police were alerted and arrived around 9:45 AM.

The largest Celtic gold find to appear in the 20th century, the hoard was discovered in 1999 years ago at the site of an ancient Celtic settlement in Manching. Found in a sack buried under the foundations of a building, the bowl-shaped coins were struck from Bohemian river gold, evidence of how Iron Age Manching was connected to trade networks in central Europe.

It has been on display at the museum since 2006 and is its flagship attraction. The authorities fear that in its original form, the coin hoard will be impossible for the thieves to sell, and that even though their historical value tops 1.6 million euros, the coins will be melted down to sell for their mere gold value. Each coins weighs 7.3 grams for a total hoard weight of about four kilos, which at current prices would be worth about 250,000 euros.

Because of the delay in discovery of the theft, police missed crucial hours of investigations. There are now dozens of investigators working on the case.

Broken safety glass of the display cabinets where the treasure was held. Photo courtesy Frank Maechler/dpa.[Guido Limmer, the deputy head of Bavaria’s State Criminal Police Office] said there were “parallels” between the heist in Manching and the theft of priceless jewels in Dresden and a large gold coin in Berlin in recent years. Both have been blamed on a Berlin-based crime family.

“Whether there’s a link we can’t say,” he added. “Only this much: we are in touch with colleagues to investigate all possible angles.”

Bavaria’s minister of science and arts, Markus Blume, said evidence pointed to the work of professionals.

“It’s clear that you don’t simply march into a museum and take this treasure with you,” he told public broadcaster BR. “It’s highly secured and as such there’s a suspicion that we’re rather dealing with a case of organized crime.” […]

Limmer, the deputy police chief, said Interpol and Europol have already been alerted to the coins’ theft and a 20-strong special investigations unit, codenamed ‘Oppidum’ after the Latin term for a Celtic settlement, has been established to track down the culprits.

Many happy turkey returns!

November 24th, 2022

I am taking the day off for feasting purposes. May you derive as much enjoyment as I from being elbow-deep in the cavity of a large bird. Happy Thanksgiving!




December 2022


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