35 18th c. glass bottles unearthed at Mount Vernon

The excavation of the cellar of George Washington’s Virginia mansion Mount Vernon has uncovered 35 glass bottles from the 18th century stored in five different pits. An astonishing 29 of them are still intact and, like the two bottles found earlier this year, they contain preserved fruit. There are cherries and some smaller berries, likely gooseberries or currants.

It was already a significant find when two intact, sealed glass bottles of European manufacture were found in the cellar in April. The contents turned out to be cherries, stems and pits included, preserved in a liquid. They were so well-sealed that the cherries were still fragrant.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine this spectacular archaeological discovery,” said Mount Vernon President & CEO Doug Bradburn. “We were ecstatic last month to uncover two fully intact 18th-century bottles containing biological matter. Now we know those bottles were just the beginning of this blockbuster discovery. To our knowlege, this is an unprecedented find and nothing of this scale and significance has ever been excavated in North America. We now possess a bounty of artifacts and matter to analyze that may provide a powerful glimpse into the origins of our nation, and we are crossing our fingers that the cherry pits discovered will be viable for future germination. It’s so appropriate that these bottles have been unearthed shortly before the 250th anniversary of the United States,” Bradburn said.

The bottles have been underground since before the American Revolution. They were left behind when George Washington left his estate in a rush in May 1775 after the first of the American Revolutionary War were fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Wearing his military uniform, he joined the Second Continental Congress which just over a month later created the Continental Army and appointed Washington as its “General and Commander in chief.” Obviously the pickled and preserved fruits in his cellars were not foremost on his mind, nor, oddly enough given the deprivations of war, on the minds of the family he left behind and the phalanx of enslaved people who grew, harvested, cooked, preserved and managed the estate’s food.

Mount Vernon Principal Archaeologist Jason Boroughs said, “These extraordinary discoveries continue to astonish us. These perfectly preserved fruits picked and prepared more than 250 years ago provide an incredibly rare opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of the 18th-century environment, plantation foodways, and the origins of American cuisine. The bottles and contents are a testament to the knowledge and skill of the enslaved people who managed the food preparations from tree to table, including Doll, the cook brought to Mount Vernon by Martha Washington in 1759 and charged with oversight of the estate’s kitchen.”

Examination under a microscope has already revealed interesting details, like that the cherries were harvested by being cut off the branches with shears and the stems left attached for bottling. Analysis has found that these were tart cherries; the higher acid contents likely aided in their preservation. Researchers believe they are good candidates for DNA retrieval, and hope to compare them against a database of known heirloom varieties to identify their species. They’re also looking at the pits to see if any of them might actually be capable of germinating. I wonder if George Washington’s resurrected cherries would sell out as quickly as his resurrected whiskey did.

Those are just preliminary results. The contents of the bottles will be analyzed thoroughly by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Here is a cool timelapse of the excavation of one of the groups of bottles. 

Mantua Ducal Palace brings 1528 Gonzaga tapestry home

A large “espalier” (horizontal) tapestry commissioned by a Gonzaga cardinal in 1528 has been acquired by the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Manufactured in Mantua by a Flemish master, the tapestry was offered at auction at Roseberys in London, and the Ducal Palace made the winning bid to bring the work home again. The final price including buyers premium was £15,744 ($20,000), a bargain considering the historical and artistic significance of the tapestry to Mantua.

An espalier tapestry is much wider than it is high. This one is almost 20 feet wide and 5’9″ high. It was created by Flemish emigré weaver Nicolas Karcher who moved to Mantua around the time this tapestry was made and took many commissions from the ruling Gonzaga family. It is one of the oldest examples of tapestries of Italian design made in Italy.

Art historians have found that it was sold in 1879 by an unknown Mantuan. It left Italy in 1969 and moved to the Isle of Jersey. It hasn’t been back to its homeland since, not even as a loan, which is particularly notable because the tapestry is an important piece and has been published both as part of a compendium of Gonzaga art in 1985 and as the subject of an in-depth study in 2010.

The tapestry is centered around the allegory of Justice. She stands in the middle of the wide field, holding the fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolized magistral power in ancient Rome. On the left side, Saint Peter stands between the kneeling pope and Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. His identity is signaled by the Gonzaga coat of arms hanging on a tree. The pope is probably Clement VII as he had made Ercole Gonzaga a cardinal the year before the tapestry was woven. On the right side is Moses with horns (a depiction common the Renaissance based on a mistranslation of “rays” as “horns” in Exodus 34) presenting the tablets of the Ten Commandments to two figures, thought to be the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, kneeling at his side. The figures are set against a lush country landscape of hills, lakes and trees.

The newly-acquired tapestry will be going on display at the Castle of San Giorgio.

Rare lead doll found by mudlark

A rare intact lead doll from the 16th or 17th century has been discovered by a mudlarking metal detectorist in Long Whatton, in Leicestershire. Sarah Brackstone found the small piece in a brook near her home this February. She reported her discovery to finds liaison officer for Leicestershire and Rutland where the modest little toy caused something of a sensation because it is the only complete 16th century doll to be recorded in the database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

 

It is a lead sheet alloy child’s toy two inches long in the shape of a woman wearing a gown with a triangular narrow bodice and a full skirt. A semi-circular headdress or hairstyle outlines her round face. The moulded features — circular eyes, triangular nose, mouth upturned — are raised from the flat surface of the face. The back of the head is decorated with raised pellets and the initials “T T” which experts believe may be a makers mark. Two circular loops project out from the shoulders; in the center of both is a flattened loop. Experts think the loops may indicate the doll was used as a puppet on strings to entertain children.

The gown is intricately decorated front and back. In the front, the bodice has transverse lines that look like lacing. The skirt has a central triangular panel made of moulded lines. On either side of the triangle panel are three pairs of raised round pellets of different sizes. Two rectangular panels with intersecting lines that create six triangular sections go from the lower part of the triangle panel to the edge of the skirt. The hem is decorated with a zig-zag pattern. The back of the dress has two swagged rows of pellets on the shoulders and moulded lines forming a downward-pointing triangle to the waist. The gown has a curved row of pellets over a rectangle with vertical lines. The bottom features a zig-zag pattern with a pellet in each triangle.

Figures like these are rare because lead is so malleable that it is easy to manipulate and reshape. That also makes it easy to break. The shape of the doll, a slender waist and an even more slender neck, makes it susceptible to breakage. There are several disembodied torsos in the PAS database, and one example that is in three pieces — broken at neck and waist — and missing an arm. It is also heavily corroded, unlike Ms. Brackstone’s find.

Because the doll is made out of a base metal and does not qualify as official treasure, it has been returned to the finder. Apparently she has been fielding offers from collectors in the US, but for now at least, Sarah Brackstone plans to loan her little lead treasure to the British Museum.

Labyrinthine structure found on hilltop in Crete

Construction of a new airport on Crete has uncovered a monumental circular structure from the Minoan era that is unique on the archaeological record. Earth movers exposed the structure when clearing the top of Papoura Hill northwest of the town of Kastelli where the new international airport’s radar system is supposed to be installed. The discovery of an unprecedented circular monument from the Bronze Age occupying basically the entire summit might put a wrench in the radar works.

The structure consists of eight superimposed stone rings at different levels. The surviving rings average 4.6 feet thick with surviving heights of up to 5.6 feet, and the outer ring is more than 157 feet in diameter. The rings have a central circular building, likely a truncated cone or vault, with a diameter of 50 feet. The interior of the structure is divided into four quadrants. This central building, Zone A, is surrounded by another circle, Zone B, that features radial walls that intersect the rings of the lower levels creating smaller enclosures. The spaces access each other through narrow openings. There are two main entrances to the central zones from the outer ring on the southwest and northwest sides.

If this sounds like a lot like a labyrinth, that’s because it could very well be one. Labyrinths loom very large in Minoan culture. The archaeological material found at the site is concentrated in the two central zones and consists mostly of pottery fragments and large quantities of animal bones. This suggests that the feature was used periodically, perhaps for rituals, rather than inhabited.

Based on dating of pottery fragments found at the site, the main period of use was around 2000-1700 B.C. It was probably founded a little earlier — ca. 2100 B.C. in the Prepalatial period.

The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Culture are going back to the drawing board on the question of the radar installation. The construction of the airport will continue, but they’re looking for a new location for the radar. Meanwhile, the excavation of the Minoan structure is ongoing.

Viking silver ingot on Isle of Man declared treasure

A Viking-era silver ingot discovered by a metal detectorist on the Isle of Man has been declared treasure and is now on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas.

Detectorist John Smart came across the cigarillo-shaped bar of metal in the southern part of the island. The exact find location is being kept under wraps to prevent interest from ill-intentioned people, but the area has not had a great deal of Viking material found there, so the ingot is unusually located, even though square mile per square mile, more Viking silver has been found on the Isle of Man than in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Vikings arrived on the Isle of Man in the late 8th century as traders. Its location in the Irish Set at the midpoint between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, made the island an attractive base for the seafaring Vikings. They took the Island in 877 and were entirely in control by 900 A.D. Viking burials have been found on the island, and the influence of Viking culture on Manx culture is still seen throughout the island, even unto its parliament, the Tynwald, whose name derives for the Old Norse word for the meeting place of the assembly.

The newly-discovered ingot weighs 10.53 grams and is intact. The bars were used as currency like coins, the silver cut off by weight for payment, so they are often found in fragmented condition. There is no datable context, but the general range for Viking silver ingots on the Isle of Man is 900-1040 A.D.

Allison Fox, Manx National Heritage Curator for Archaeology said:

“Ingots like this were used in the Viking world for trade. The ingots were weighed and tested to make sure of their silver content and they were used in part or in whole to buy whatever a Viking needed. It was a cross-border currency. During the later Viking Age, ingots were used alongside coinage. This ingot may only be a small artefact, but put into context, it helps illustrate how the Isle of Man was a part of the international Viking trade network 1000 years ago including how the Viking economy operated and where on the island trade was taking place.”

The requirements of the Isle of Man’s Treasure Act 2017 categorizes any artifact as treasure if it is 1) deeply connected with Manx history, 2) of outstanding significance to the study of Manx art or history, 3) that there be no traceable owner, and 4) that it is composed of at least 10% precious metal. University of Liverpool researchers tested the ingot with x-ray fluorescence and a scanning electron microscope. They found its silver content was more than 88%, so it fits all elements of the legal definition. The Coroner of Inquests declared the ingot treasure on May 28th, and it went on display at the museum two days later.