After 10 years, the Fenland bog oak table

September 25th, 2022

Way back in the mists of 2012, farmers discovered a massive trunk of prehistoric oak preserved for 5,000 years in a Cambridgeshire peat bog. The trunk was 44 feet long and weighed five tons and it was only a section from the middle of the original oak, one of many Ent-like giants that ruled the Fenland Basin before rising levels turned the ancient high forest into a bog.

Bog oak is England’s only native black timber, prized for its rich color and thick stripe grain. Usually the finds are much more modest, however, and bog oak is used for inlays or smaller cabinetry. This giant was so huge and in such spectacular condition — no disease or parasites in life, almost no decomposition after death — that bog oak specialists decided the only way to do justice to its majesty was to saw it into planks the length of the entire trunk and create a massive table out of them that would go on public view.

Thus the Fenland Black Oak Project was born. Dubbed the Jubilee Oak because it was discovered in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the oak was raised and quarter sawn into full-length planks. The planks were then dried in custom-built kilns 50 feet long. It took nine months to extract the water from the wood. A total of 1795 liters (474 gallons) of water was extracted; the planks lost half their thickness, a quarter of their width and 1.8 tons of weight.

Designers then came up with an almost sculptural concept to show off this beautiful wood: a drop-leaf table mounted on a bronze understructure and four pilons for legs. The two outer planks are hinged to the bronze so they can be folded down. It’s even on wheels so this gigantic table can be moved easily by just two people. Craftspeople had to invent new techniques to manage planks of this size, including a whole new join known as the River Joint for its meandering shape.

The estimated time of completion was 2013. They turned out to be off by nine years. The table was completed in 2022, just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s II Platinum Jubilee. Inscriptions were added to opposite ends of the table marking its discovery in the Diamond Jubilee year and completion in the Platinum Jubilee year.

The finished work found a suitably majestic setting for its enormousness in Ely Cathedral which was built on drained Fens, the same environment that saved the oak for so long, and is also the third longest medieval cathedral in England, so a perfect context for a 44-foot-long bog oak table. It has been placed on the stone floor under the Octagon Tower, a unique 14th century structure considered to be one of the masterpieces of medieval English architecture.

The table was installed at Ely in May and will remain there for visitors to enjoy until March 2023.

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Secrets of Vermeer’s Milkmaid revealed

September 24th, 2022

A new study of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece The Milkmaid has revealed painted-over details of his original composition that shed new light on his artistic process.

Next year, the Rijksmuseum is bringing together 27 of the 35 known paintings by Vermeer in a landmark exhibition dedicated to the 17th century Delft master. There will be works on loan from the Frick Collection in New York, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

In the run-up to the new exhibition that opens in February of 2023, the Rijksmuseum has been working with the Mauritshuis and the University of Antwerp to study all of the works by Vermeer that are currently in the Netherlands using state-of-the-art analytical technology. The four Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection — The Milkmaid, The Little Street, The Love Letter and Woman Reading a Letter — have been photographed in ultra-high resolution, scanned with Optical Coherence Tomography, Macro-XRF and Short Wavelength Infrared Reflectance (SWIR), an imaging technology used for industrial inspections and military applications.

It was the SWIR imaging that brought to light two objects Vermeer had painted over before completing them on The Milkmaid: a jug holder with jugs hanging from the handles behind the milkmaid’s head, and a fire basket at her feet. The presence of something in those areas had been noted in previous X-rays, but the older technology could not make out what they were. Experts thought it might be a fireplace behind her hand. The detail is so much greater that conservators were able to identify the jug holder and the fire basket from the incomplete underpainting. Vermeer’s estate inventory records that he had a jug holder in his pantry and a fire basket (used to hold glowing coals to warm a baby’s bedding, clothing and the baby itself).

This discovery sheds entirely new light on Vermeer’s methods. The general assumption was that the artist produced his small oeuvre very slowly, and always worked with extreme precision. This view is now being revised. A hastily applied thick line of black paint can be seen beneath the milkmaid’s left arm. This sketch shows clearly that Vermeer first quickly painted the scene in light and dark tones before developing the detail.

A similar preliminary sketch in black paint can be seen on the wall behind the young woman’s head. By comparing the results produced using the latest research techniques, it has now become clear that Vermeer used black paint to sketch a jug holder and several jugs, but didn’t develop them any further. The jug holder, a plank of wood with nobs attached, was used in 17th-century kitchens for hanging up multiple ceramic jugs by the handle. A pantry in Vermeer’s own home contained a similar item, and a miniature version of just such a jug holder can be found elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum, in Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house (c. 1690).

The new discoveries are explained with great visuals in this video which is the third in a series the Rijksmuseum has produced about its research into Vermeer’s masterworks. See the second video in the series, which follows conservators as they image the four works in the museum’s permanent collection, here. The first video in the series focuses on The Milkmaid and The Little Street.

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3,000-year-old canoe recovered from Wisconsin lake

September 23rd, 2022

3,000-year-old dugout canoe on the bed of Lake Mendota. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.Less than a year after a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was recovered from Lake Mendota in Wisconsin, a second even more ancient canoe has been found. Radiocarbon analysis dates it to 1000 B.C., making it the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region by 1,000 years and the earliest direct archaeological evidence of the use of water transportation in the region. Archaeologists were so surprised by the results that they had the wood sample re-tested three times.

The 14.5-foot canoe was first spotted in May by Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen. It was discovered not even 100 yards from the one discovered in 2021 at the bottom of a drop-off in the lakebed. Their proximity may be more than coincidence. Archaeologists are now researching the ancient shoreline and water levels to investigate whether the canoes were kept near ancient villages that were ultimately submerged and lost.

The Wisconsin Historical Society worked with partners from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe to recover it from the lakebed. Archaeologists excavated it from the lakebed by hand and raised to the surface using flotation bags. It was then transported to the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison where the canoe recovered last year is currently undergoing conservation.

“The recovery of this canoe built by our ancestors gives further physical proof that Native people have occupied Teejop (Four Lakes) for millennia, that our ancestral lands are here and we had a developed society of transportation, trade and commerce,” said Ho-Chunk President Marlon WhiteEagle. “Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it. By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us. We appreciate our partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, working together to preserve part of not only our ancestors’ history but our state’s history.”

Archaeologists and Tribal members will clean and conserve the canoe together. Once cleaned, the canoe will be submerged in the same preservation tank where the younger Mendota canoe is being bathed in bio-deterrant (to prevent the growth of organisms at the canoe’s expense) and PEG (to replace the water molecules in the wood’s cells and prevent shrinking when the wood dries). They will soak in the vat for two to three years before being freeze-dried. One frozen, the wood of the canoes will be stable even when exposed to the air, so they can be displayed.

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Unique Neolithic mass grave found in Slovakia

September 22nd, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a unique Neolithic mass grave of headless bodies in Vráble, western Slovakia. The skeletons were found inside a defensive ditch of one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Central Europe.

The Neolithic settlement dates to between 5250 and 4950 B.C. and contains three settlement areas covering more than 120 acres. Excavations and geophyisical surveys over the past seven years have revealed more than 300 long houses in the settlement, albeit built in different phases of occupation. Archaeologists believe about 50-70 houses would have been in use at any given time.

In the last phase of occupation, one of the three settlement areas was fortified with at least one defensive ditch and a palisade. There were six entrances through the defensive perimeters into the settlement. Previous excavations have found individual graves in and around the ditch. This year, archaeologists found a long trench near one of the entrances to the settlement containing the skeletal remains of at least 35 people. The bodies appear to have been tossed in willy-nilly. They were found on their backs, on their stomachs, on their sides and arms and legs outstretched. The remains of men, women and children were buried in the grave, a disproportionate number of them were adolescents and young people when they died. There are some peri-mortem fractures. The skull of a one child and one mandible were the only bones from heads found in the grave.

Further tests are to be carried out to establish whether they were individuals who died separately, victims of an epidemic, or killed as part of cult ceremonies. They will also look for any genetic links between them, and whether the heads were forcibly removed or separation occurred only after decomposition of the body.

“Only then will we be able to answer several questions about the social categorisation of the [site’s] inhabitants, probably also about the emerging social inequality in the conditions of early agricultural societies, and perhaps even reconstruct the functioning or the causes of the demise of this vast settlement,” the director of the archaeological institute Matej Ruttkay said.

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Roman cornu mouthpiece found at Vindolanda

September 21st, 2022

An extremely rare mouthpiece from a Roman cornu — a long, curled horn — has been discovered beneath the remains of the ancient officer’s club at the Vindolanda Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Made of copper alloy, the mouthpiece was found over a Hadrianic-era (117-138 A.D.) workshop floor. The stratigraphy dates it to 120-128 A.D.

The cornu (Latin “horn”, both musical and animal) was an instrument around 3m long, curled into a letter ‘G’ shape and was commonly supported by a wooden pole, allowing for some of the weight to be held on the shoulder. Cornua are depicted in many Roman settings on imagery with military, ceremonial and entertainment use.

Vindolanda is famed for the thousands of fragile organic artifacts recovered intact from its anaerobic water-logged soil, most famously almost 800 wooden letter tablets recording the daily lives of Vindolanda’s military and civilian residents. More than 7,000 leather objects and 1,500 wooden ones have been found in excavations at the site, including thousands of leather shoes, the only surviving Roman wooden toilet seat and the only surviving pair of Roman leather boxing gloves. Even in the midst all this archaeological pulchritude, the cornu mouthpiece stand out as the only one of its kind discovered at Vindolanda.

A cornu was a G-shaped brass instrument without holes or valves. It was played by controlling air flow, similar to a French horn. Its design was of Etruscan origin, but the Romans made it their own a military signalling device. Cornicenes played loud notes to convey orders to the army on the march and in battle. Several large examples were found in Pompeii and exact replicas have been used to reproduce the sound of Roman armies at war.

(Side note, found while investigating the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s replica of the Pompeii horn: an 1888 Duke cigarette company trade card with a bijou version of a cornu encircling the soft shoulder of a pinup girl.)

One of the replica Pompeiian cornua will celebrate the discovery of the mouthpiece with a live performance at Vindolanda this Sunday by musician Letty Scott. The mouthpiece has undergone conservation and will soon go on display at the Roman Army Museum of Vindolanda.

Here is a great video of musician Abraham Cupeiro putting one of the Pompeiian replicas through its paces.

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Statue of young Hercules unearthed in Philippi

September 20th, 2022

A larger-than-life statue of young Hercules has been found in the Greek city of Philippi. It dates to the 2nd century A.D. and is in unusually good condition despite suffering some damage. The club and the right arm are fragmented, and the right leg below the thigh is missing, but the head is intact, as are the torso and the tell-tale skin of the Nemean Lion. On top of his abundant mane of curls is a wreath of vine leaves tied around his head by a band that dangles down his neck and shoulders.

Originally founded as Crenides by colonists from the island of Thassos in 360 B.C., the town was conquered by Philip II, King of Macedon, and refounded in 356 BC as Philippi. It leapt into prominence thanks to its neighboring gold mines and important position on the royal route crossing Macedonia.  Little remains of the Greek city today. It is famed as the site of the final battle between the armies of Caesar’s partisans Octavian and Mark Antony and those of his assassins Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus in 42 B.C. Philippi prospered under the Roman Empire, continuing through the fall of the Western Empire and, centuries later, the fall of Byzantine Empire. It was abandoned only after the Ottoman conquest of the 14th century.

The team of students and archaeologists from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discovered the statue on the eastern side of one of the ancient city’s main thoroughfares at the point where it intersected with another major axis stretching north. Where the two streets met they widened into a square. There was a large structure on the square, likely a fountain, which survives only in fragments. The Hercules statue was the piece de resistance of this central structure.

The fountain/building is much younger than the statue that adorned it. It is Byzantine, dating to the 8th or 9th century A.D. They simply reused a piece of local statuary that was still in good shape to decorate the square.

We know from the sources as well as from the archaeological data that in Constantinople statues from the classical and Roman period adorned buildings and public spaces until the late Byzantine period.

This find demonstrates the way public spaces were decorated in the important cities of the Byzantine Empire, including Philippi.

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Roman sundial found in ancient Aizanoi

September 19th, 2022

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman-era marble sundial at the ancient site of Aizanoi in modern-day Çavdarhisar, eastern Turkey. It is the first sundial ever found in Aizanoi and dates to the early imperial period, around 2,000 years ago. Made of white marble, the sundial is almost intact with only a few missing fragments. It is 18 inches high and 17 inches wide and beautifully preserved with all its original lines and inscriptions. The dial curves over an acanthus leaf base on top of a pedestal in the shape of animal paw.

The sundial emerged in an excavation of the Roman bridges and bank walls on the river (the Penkalas in antiquity; today known as the Kocaçay) which ran through the middle of the ancient city of
Aizanoi. The project’s ultimate aim is to raise the water level of the river enough to run boats between the two bridges. Since 2019, archaeologists have been removing stones, sculptures and other architectural features that over the centuries had accumulated on the riverbed and bank. More than a thousand shaped and carved stones — headless statues, bodiless heads (none of them matching), blocks from the balustrades and parapets of the bridges — have been recovered so far.

In antiquity, sundials were installed in public spaces like the city agora or temple precinct so people could tell time, serving as town timekeepers.

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Gold mask found in Shang Dynasty tomb

September 18th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a gold mask more than 3,000 years old at Zhengzhou Shang City archaeological site in Zhengzhou, Henan province, central China. Older than the gold mask found in the Sanxingdui Bronze Age sacrificial pit last year, this is the first gold mask dating to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.) ever discovered.

The mask was found in a tomb in the mid-Shang Dynasty cemetery in the southeast section of the archaeological site. It was one of more than 200 funerary objects in a large tomb belonging to a Shang Dynasty noble. At 10,000 square meters, the tomb was about the size of a New York City block and the artifacts it contained are the highest in quality and variety of all of the tombs excavated in the cemetery. They include 20 bronzes, 11 jade objects, five gold artifacts, 50 arrowheads, more than 120 shell coins and plaques of gold foil inlaid with turquoise.

The mask is 7.2 inches long, 5.7 inches wide and weighs 40 grams (1.4 ounces). It would have covered the entire face of an adult, unlike the Sanxingdui gold mask which has large areas of negative space. Archaeologists believe that the full coverage mask was an expression of the Chinese religious concept that gold granted total protection to the body, ensuring the energy of the spirit could not be scattered.

The discovery suggests the belief in the “invincible golden body” goes back at least to the Shang Dynasty, even though very few gold objects have been found at Shang sites. The only other gold find of note at Zhengzhou outside of the newly-discovered tomb was a thin piece of gold foil unearthed from a pit containing the remains of sacrificed dogs at the eastern end of the north city wall. A dragon pattern on the surface is all that remains of an inlaid decoration.

Archaeologists are now investigating whether the gold culture of the early Shang Dynasty spread from the Central Plains southwest to the Sanxingdui site, evolving there into the enormous quantities of heavy, large, artfully-worked bronze and gold artifacts recovered from the sacrificial pits.

Chen Lüsheng, a renowned museologist and researcher at the National Museum of China, told the Global Times that the tomb is a significant find for research into the burial rituals and systems of the Shang Dynasty, and because it dates back to a very early period during the dynasty, it can provide new insight into the origins of Chinese civilization.

“Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger amount of archeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang city ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” Chen said.

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Now that’s a rack of ribs

September 17th, 2022

In a scene reminiscent of the opening credits of the Flintstones, a gigantic rack of ribs from a Late Jurassic sauropod has been unearthed at Monte Agudo in the Pombal region of Portugal. If preliminary calculations prove accurate, this could be the largest dinosaur specimen ever found in Europe.

Fragments that turned out to be from dinosaur bones were first encountered by the owner when he was doing some home renovations in March of 2017. He reported the find to scientists at the University of Lisbon who did a few initial surveys at that time. A joint team of Portuguese and Spanish paleontologists returned last month to fully excavate the Monte Agudo site and hit paydirt: large sections of the axial skeleton of a likely brachiosaurid sauropod, including vertebrae and all of the ribs, the largest of which are ten feet long. They date to the Late Jurassic era, around 145 million years ago

It is extremely rare for Brachiosauridae fossils to be found in such good condition and still in their original anatomical locations instead of scattered. The skeleton’s comparative completeness allowed researchers to extrapolate the animal’s size from the bones that have survived. It was approximately 39 feet tall and 82 feet long.

The preservation characteristics of the fossils and their disposition indicate the possible presence of other parts of the skeleton of this individual, a hypothesis that will be tested in future excavation campaigns in the deposit.

“The research in the Monte Agudo paleontological locality confirms that the region of Pombal has an important fossil record of Late Jurassic vertebrates, which in the last decades has provided the discovery of abundant materials very significant for the knowledge of the continental faunas that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula at about 145 million years ago,” adds Elisabete Malafaia.

The mineralized bones were removed to a laboratory for meticulous removal of stone and sediments. Once fully liberated from their context, the bones will be studied further and eventually put on display in a museum.

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1,600-year-old writing set found in Istanbul

September 16th, 2022

A Late Roman writing set has been discovered in Istanbul. Complete with a bone dip pen, a small shallow dish and a miniature amphora inkwell, this is the first intact ancient writing set ever found.

The set was unearthed in an excavation of the Bathonea Archaeological Site in the Küçükçekmece suburb of Istanbul. It is about 1,600 years old and analysis of the bone pen found traces of red and black ink. Red ink was exclusively the preserve of state officials in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Bathonea was an ancient Greek harbor town founded in the 2nd century B.C. on the shores of the sea of Marmara. Today the archaeological site touches the waters of Lake Küçükçekmece and there are more remains inside its waters, including a Roman-era lighthouse. Previously excavated in the 1930s but misidentified as another city, the ruins of Bathonea were rediscovered in 2007 when a drought lowered the level of the lake. Since excavations resumed in 2009, archaeologists have discovered two harbors, canals built out of large stone blocks, wide paved streets on a planned grid pattern, a Greek temple, a Byzantine church, an early Christian cemetery, an open cistern and a multi-building complex that was a grand villa or palace.

A large number of artifacts recovered there date to the 4th-6th centuries A.D. when Constantinople, less than 15 miles away, was founded and rose to dominance as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It’s not clear how Bathonea related to Constantinople. It could have been a simple satellite port handling some of the massive maritime traffic traveling to and from the capital, or perhaps a protected harbor for the imperial fleet since the lake is deep enough for large ships.

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