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Wood lion head recovered from Finnish shipwreck

Thursday, September 16th, 2021

A carved wooden lion head has been recovered from an 18th century shipwreck 200 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Finland. This is a rare occasion as shipwrecks in Finland are protected and left as they are on the seabed; only pictures are taken, typically, not artifacts.

The shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Kirkkonummi in southern Finland decades ago, but has barely been explored. When it was photographed by volunteer divers from Badewanne, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting shipwrecks in the Gulf of Finland, in 2005, the carved head was in place at the end of a long beam on the side of the bow. The beam was part of the mechanism that operated the ship’s anchors, and the ends of them were so frequently carved into feline faces that the beam was dubbed the cathead.

When divers photographed it again this season, they found the cat head carving had fallen off the cathead and was face-down on the seabed. They found that one of the two iron bolts in the cat’s mouth that mounted it to the beam was missing and the other was heavily corroded.

To preserve the carving from being abraded to nothingness by the rough stony bottom, the Finnish Heritage Agency decided to raise it. The team used 3D photogrammetry to measure the carving precisely in order to customize the lifting case for a perfect fit so the head could be raised to the surface without damaging it. The operation was a complete success and the lion head has been transported to the National Museum Conservation Centre lab for study and conservation.

The ship’s identity and country of origin is currently unknown. All we really know is its age and that it was a three-masted sailing vessels 100 feet long. Archaeologists hope examination of the carving will shed some light on the wreck’s history. Once the wood has been stabilized, the head will go on display at the Maritime Museum of Finland in Kotka.

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Renaissance shield looted by Nazis returned to Czech Republic

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to return a 16th century shield that was looted by Nazis during World War II to the Czech Republic. The pageant shield, elaborately decorated with a scene of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus capturing what is now Cartagena in southern Spain during the Second Punic War, was created by  Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso around 1535 out of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment. It was part of the collection of Konopiště Castle in Benešov, about 25 miles southeast of Prague, that was stripped bare during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It will now go back on display in the castle 80 years after it was stolen.

The complex battle scene of the Roman army assaulting the rounded crenelated towers of the city was based on a tapestry from a series depicting scenes from the life of Scipio designed by Giulio Romano for King Francis I of France. Romano drew the cartoons for the tapestries in 1531-1533. The tapestries were then woven in Brussels and sent to the king in 1535. They fell victim to the French Revolution’s orgy of anti-monarchical iconoclasm in 1797, destroyed to harvest the gold and silver threads used in the weaving. Copies of the Scipio tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV in 1688 survived the Revolution and are now in the Louvre.

(Wee digression: Cartagena was founded by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, in 228 B.C. at the site of an earlier Iberian settlement. The Punic name for Carthage was Qart Hadasht, meaning New City, because it was founded by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (the old city). Hasdrubal named his foothold in Spain Qart Hadasht too. It was Scipio Africanus who renamed it Carthago Nova after his conquest of it in 209 B.C. to differentiate it from the original, so he basically copyedited Hasdrubal, correcting New City into the more precise New New City.)

Twenty-four inches in diameter, the round shield was made for ceremonial purposes, and the subject matter may have been chosen in homage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who in 1535 captured Tunis, née Carthage, from the Ottoman Empire. Charles V’s victory over the Ottoman corsairs was analogized to Scipio’s defeat of Carthage, and upon his return, the Emperor was feted all over Italy.

The shield was not presented to Charles V. It stayed in Italy for more than three centuries. In the 1700s it was in the Castello del Catajo outside Padua, part of the vast collection of arms and armature amassed by the marquess Tommaso degli Obizzi. He was the last to hold the title, and he left his all of his family’s wealth and possessions to the House of Este. Those lands, estates and collections were absorbed into the Ducal House of Austria-Este, the fruit of a marriage between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrice Este, last surviving heir of the Este family.

That wealth paid for Konopiště Castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, the castle was refashioned into a Baroque palace in the 1730s and 40s, but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in 1914 would set alight the powder keg that exploded into World War I, bought the castle in 1887 with money he inherited after the death of the last scion of the Austria-Este ducal house. That inheritance included the Obizzi-Este collection of arms and armature, the third largest collection of armory and medieval weapons in Europe.

The collection, including the da Treviso shield, was installed in Konopiště Castle in 1896 where it remained even after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire birthed Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War.

In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army (Wehrmacht) confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield.

Thirty years later, the pageant shield was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by avid collector of medieval arms Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch. Its ownership history was threadbare and previous attempts to determine whether it was indeed the looted Konopiště Castle shield were inconclusive.

Since 2016, the museum has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never restituted. Based on these revelations, the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unanimously concluded that rightful title in the work belonged to the Czech Republic and approved the return of the armor at its meeting of June 17, 2021.

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Southern Tomb in Djoser funerary complex opened

Tuesday, September 14th, 2021

A monumental tomb across from the Step Pyramid of Djoser has reopened to visitors after 15 years of renovations. The Southern Tomb is part of the expansive mortuary complex built by Djoser’s royal architect Imhotep in Saqqara, a necropolis just outside the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. Built between 2667 and 2648 B.C., the Southern Tomb is a mastaba, a rectangular tomb with a flat roof (the step pyramid was made by stacking six mastabas on top of each other).

The limestone building you see on the surface is the figurative tip of the iceberg. Underneath the visible tomb is a labyrinthine warren of passages cut down into the living rock 100 feet below the surface. The long corridors are punctuated by false doors engraved with the hieroglyphics and inlaid with tiles of blue faience. At the base of the central funeral shaft is a massive pink granite sarcophagus, a smaller version of the one inside the burial room of the step pyramid.

It’s not certain what the purpose of the tomb was. Djoser’s body was buried in his glorious pyramid. It may have had an unknown symbolic purpose.  Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, hypothesizes that it was the most glamorous and expensive canopic jar ever, a great monument built to contain his internal organs.

Restoration of the Southern Tomb began in 2006, part of the same comprehensive research and restoration of the necropolis that also shored up the dangerously precarious Step Pyramid, which reopened to visitors last year. The corridors, walls and ceilings under the mastaba were stabilized and new flooring and lighting installed. The granite sarcophagus was also recomposed.

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Byzantine-era axe, machete found in ancient city

Monday, September 13th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed an iron axe and machete dating to the Byzantine era in the ancient city of Assos in northwestern Turkey. The team found the tools while excavating the remains of dwellings which contained numerous daily use items like pottery and a small iron grill.

Excavation leader Professor Nurettin Arslan:

“One of the iron objects we found this year is a large iron knife, which we believe is a machete. It was found in Byzantine structures that we call the gymnasium (the training ground for athletes). The second one is an ax-type material that assumingly was used specifically for shaping and chopping wood. Both tools are quite important in terms of preserving their form well despite the long years that they have spent underground. They constitute an important example for the materials used in production in Assos.”

The axe and machete are largely intact, missing only organic parts like the handles. They stand out from the other objects recovered from the Byzantine layers as they are mostly pottery and found in fragments that the archaeologists have to piece together. The pots were used for cooking food — boiling grains and legumes, for example — as well as for serving it and storing it.

Founded on a hill overlooking the Aegean by colonists from the island of Lesbos around 1000 B.C., Assos had the only good natural harbour in 50 miles, so it was crucial to trade in the southern Biga Peninsula for thousands of years. It has been continuously populated since its founding. The name of the modern village is Behramkale, but Assos is still referred to by its ancient name in common parlance, and is a popular seaside resort town thanks to its picturesque Aegean location and extensive surviving ancient remains, which include a spectacular 6th century B.C. Doric temple of Athena on the crag overlooking the sea, the Hellenistic-era (6th-4th century B.C.) defensive walls and the dock which is still in use today.

Its most famous resident was Aristotle who founded his first school of philosophy there in 348 B.C. after departing Athens and the Academy in the wake of Plato’s death. He lived there three years, a valued advisor of King Hermias and soon his son-in-law when he married the king’s daughter Pythias.

A quick word about Hermias who was a remarkable individual. He first appears on the historical record as a slave to a banker named Eubulus who became ruler of Assos and Atarneus when the Persian aristocrat who owned them used them as collateral for a loan and then defaulted. Hermias was a valued member of the household and as a youth was educated at Plato’s Academy which is where he first met and become fast friends with Aristotle. Eubulus died shortly after Hermias’ return to Atarneus, leaving Hermias as his successor.

Philip II of Macedon saw an opportunity in the new despot of Assos and Atarneus. He wanted an alliance with Hermias to get access to that invaluable port for a future invasion of Asia Minor and Persia, so he dispatched Aristotle to grease the skids with Hermias. It worked. Hermias and Philip formed a diplomatic and military alliance.

The alliance did not work to Hermias’ advantage in the end. Indeed, it led directly to his agonizing death. When Artaxerxes III of Persia began eyeing an invasion of Asia Minor to reclaim lost territories, the Greeks got nervous. Athens told Philip that if he even looked at Asia Minor funny, they’d join the Persians against him. Philip decided discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew his military support, abandoning Hermias to his fate.

Artaxerxes hired the Greek mercenary general Mentor to capture Hermias. Aristotle, horrified that Philip had abandoned his friend, frantically wrote to Mentor hoping to get him to switch sides. His arguments fell on deaf ears. Hermias was imprisoned and sent to Susa where he was tortured to extract information about Philip’s invasion plans. Hermias, who definitely had the goods on Philip, refused to talk. He was loyal to the end, even to the disloyal Philip, and died in 341 B.C. His last words were “tell my friends that I have done nothing shameful or unworthy of philosophy.”

Aristotle felt the loss keenly. He dedicated a memorial monument at Delphi to Hermias and wrote a hymn honoring his steadfastness in the face of betrayal.

And now for you Atarneus’ pride,
Trusting in others’ faith, has nobly died;
But yet his name
Shall never die, the Muses’ holy train
Shall bear him to the skies with deathless fame,
Honouring Zeus, the hospitable god,
And honest hearts, proved friendship’s blest abode.

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Maya rulers installed in Met’s Great Hall

Sunday, September 12th, 2021

Two 8th century Maya stele have been installed in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of New York. On loan from the Republic of Guatemala, the relief carvings of two Maya rulers, one male, one female, replace statues of the 12th-dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat II and the goddess Athena that have been in Great Hall for years.

Stela 5 from Piedras Negras, a Classic Maya urban center on the border with what is now Chiapas, Mexico, that was modest in population but so rich in engravings documenting the chronology and accomplishments of its rulers that it played a key role in the deciphering of Maya script in the late 1950s. The stela is a life-sized representation of King K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II (ca. 664-729 A.D.) who is seated on a throne while receiving a nobleman. The throne is lined with a jaguar skin, its head staring unseeing at the viewer. Above the king is an anthropomorphic mountain with an open jaw from which deities emerge. Its glyphs include a date: November 2nd, 716.

The other stela in the Great Hall is number 24 from the El Naranjo site in Petén. It depicts queen regent Ix Wak Jalam Chan (ca. 670s-741 A.D.), who like another great Maya queen, Lady Snake Lord, held her own power rather than acting as mere queen consort.

One of the most powerful women known by name from the ancient Americas, Ix Wak Jalam Chan (Lady Six Sky) arrived in the city of Sa’aal, now near the border between Belize and Guatemala, in 682. The daughter of a powerful ruler in a centuries-old dynasty, she married into the local ruling family, securing a critical political alliance. Ruling as regent in place of her infant son, the queen led military campaigns to conquer neighboring cities in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. This monument records her triumph: she appears with a captive underfoot and a bowl of ritual implements in her arms.

The hieroglyphic caption also indicates that she is impersonating a goddess. The artists portrays Lady Six Sky with spiritually charged regalia, including a woven skirt with jade beads, an elaborate belt assemblage featuring a supernatural watery being and Spondylus shell, and a feathered headdress, emphasizing the fluidity of identity between human leaders and gods. With this portrait, she underscored both her strategic prowess in warfare and her divine right to rule.

The government of Guatemala sharing two other important pieces from Piedras Negras with the Met, but not for display. As part of the loan agreement, the Met’s conservators will turn their keen eyes on one of Piedras Negras’ exceptional relief panels and a Throne 1, an elaborately carved stone throne that is widely considered a masterpiece of Maya sculpture. The spectacular throne was commissioned by the last king of Piedras Negras around 800 A.D. and it is covered with inscriptions detailing the dynastic succession of the previous kings of Piedras Negras.

The stele will be standing watch in Great Hall until August 2024, representing the art of the ancient Americas while The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, the Met’s gallery dedicated to African Art, Ancient American art and Oceanic art, is closed for an expansive redesign and reconceptualization.

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Bronze Age log coffin found in golf course water trap

Saturday, September 11th, 2021

A 4,000-year-old Bronze Age wood coffin has been discovered in a golf course pond in Yorkshire. It contains human remains and an axe with a stone head and complete wooden handle in a condition so impeccable it could easily be confused for a tool of modern manufacture.

Workers were digging up a pond at Tetney Golf Club in July of 2018 with a mechanical excavator when they hit against the prehistoric coffin. They stopped what they were doing and called in an archaeologists from the University of Sheffield who arrived the next day to behold a muddy pit 12 feet deep with a wood coffin broken into several large pieces on the bottom. The wood, preserved for thousands of years in the waterlogged soil, was in immediate danger of drying out and falling apart from exposure to the air and the oppressive heat of the summer.

The rescue archaeology operation revealed that the wood pieces were part of a log coffin, the carved trunk of a fast-growing oak tree. It was made with the “split timber” technique, in which the trunk is cut vertically into two halves, or two near-halves, with one side larger than the other. The larger half would then be hollowed out. The smaller half could be made into a lid. Only a part of the lid of this coffin has survived.

Plants were used to cushion the body, then a gravel mound was raised over the grave; practices that were only afforded to people with a high status within Bronze Age society.

So far, yew or juniper leaves have been found within the coffin and further work is planned to discover more about how plants were used in this burial practice, and the time of year the burial took place.

Bronze Age log coffins are extremely rare; about 65 of them have been discovered in Britain. It was a brief-lived funerary practice that fell out of favor almost as quickly as it appeared about 4,000 years ago, and even if it had been more common, the decomposition of organic remains would destroy most of them.

Osteological analysis of the human remains found that he was  a tall man for his time, about 5’9″, and died in his late 30s or early 40s. Osteoarthritis in his bones indicates he did heavy work. He was a man of importance in his community. Carving out a person-sized log was time-consuming and resource-intensive; only the elite could afford so lavish a burial. The axe buried with him is also evidence he was a person of social rank. It is not a practical tool, but rather a ceremonial object, likely a symbol of authority. It is even more rare than the coffin. Only 12 from this period have been found in Britain.

The pieces of the coffin and the axe were transported to cold storage at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth to arrest the decay and give researchers the opportunity to study them before the drying and stabilization process caused any changes. They were in cold storage for a year before being moved to the York Archaeological Trust for preservation.

The largest piece is from one end of the coffin. It is almost eight feet long and weighs half a ton. The entire coffin is estimated to have been just under 10 feet long and just over three feet wide. Preserving the large, heavy coffin wood is going to take at least two years. The axe is expected to take about a year to preserve. When they are fully conserved, the coffin and axe will go on display at The Collection Museum in Lincoln near where they were discovered.

See conservator Ian Panter working on the coffin and axe in this video:

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Possible human sacrifice found in Silla palace foundations

Friday, September 10th, 2021

The skeletal remains of a woman have been found under the west walls of the Wolseong Palace site in Gyeongju, South Korea, not 20 inches away from where the bones of a man and woman were discovered in 2017. The young woman’s burial dates to the 4th century and she may have been interred there as part of a foundation sacrifice.

When the remains of the two bodies were discovered, some raised the possibility that their deaths could have been accidental. But, the Cultural Heritage Administration concluded that the evidence — the remains showing no signs of struggle and the discoveries of animal bones and objects used for ancestral rites in the same area — clearly points that the pair died as part of a sacrificial ceremony.

“Now with the additional discovery, there’s no denying Silla’s practice of human sacrifice,” said Choi Byung-heon, professor emeritus of archaeology at Soongsil University, adding that the specific location of where the remains were discovered is also important.

According to Choi, the remains of three Silla people were laid on top of the bottommost layer of the fortress’s west wall, right in front of where the west gate would have been located.

“After finishing off the foundation and moving onto the next step of building the fortress, I guess it was necessary to really harden the ground for the fortress to stand strong. In that process, I think the Silla people held sacrificial rites, giving not only animals but also humans as sacrifices,” said Choi.

When the skeleton was found in April of this year, archaeologists first thought it was a child due its diminutive stature (135 cm, or 4’5″). Upon further examination, she was confirmed to be a young adult around 20 years old when she died. Isotope analysis of her teeth found she had suffered from chronic malnutrition which likely stunted her growth. The couple unearthed in 2017 were older in age but younger in date — around 50 years old when they died in the 5th century. They were also small in stature and had suffered extended nutritional deficiencies. This suggests all three of the deceased buried under the west wall were of low social rank.

An intact  pot was found near her head. It was X-rayed and found to contain a second vessel, a small bowl, inside the neck. Archaeologists believe the larger pot contained a liquid, perhaps alcohol. Similar pots were found at the feet of the couple. These are not the typical grave goods found in Silla burials from this period, which underscores that these were not typical burials.

Wolseong was the primary residence of Silla kings in Gyeongju, the kingdom’s capital city, until the fall of the Silla Dynasty in 935. According to a 12th century Korean history, Wolseong was built as a royal fortress by King Pasa in 101 A.D., but no archaeological evidence has been found to confirm so early an origin. Indeed, Accelerator Mass Spectrometer data narrowed down initial construction to the early 4th century and continuing for about 50 years.

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Bronze sacred tree found in Sanxingdui sacrificial pit

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

The excavation of one of the six newly-discovered sacrificial pits at the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site in southwest China’s Sichuan Province has unearthed a bronze sacred tree from the Shu culture, ca. 12th/11th century B.C. It was found in parts in Pit 3, and is so complex that its surviving branches, flowers, some of the trunk and solar wheel ornament took four months to fully excavate because they were buried under heavy layers of ivory and other artifacts. 

Sacred trees have been found before at the site. The 1986 excavation of Pit 2 unearthed hundreds of pieces from six to eight bronze trees, most of them modest in size. Only three of them could be pieced back together from their component parts. One of them, a colossal example that took conservators a decade to reassemble, is now on display as the centerpiece of the Sanxingdui Museum‘s exceptional collection of artifacts from the ancient site.

The massive restored tree consists of a three-legged base with a trunk growing out of it. The trunk is divided into three levels with three branches curling downward in each level. Flowers bloom on the high points of all nine of the branches and birds alight on the flowers. Each branch in turn branches off into three fruit-bearing branchlets, for a total of 27 fruits on the tree. A slim dragon with a horned head undulates down the lower segment of the trunk, his foot planted in the base.

There is very little concrete information about the Shu people and state as no written records have survived. The archaeological record and later chroniclers indicate the Shu religion was centered on sun worship, and the bronze trees may have been part of it. The Shu Legend of the Ten Suns held that birds carried nine suns on their backs, flying in the morning from a sacred tree in the East, and landing at night in a sacred tree in the West. Humans, according to the legend, only the saw the birds, not the suns they carried, so they lived their lives blithely unaware there were any other suns besides the one we know.

According to Xu [Feihong, excavation leader], the new one is similar to the No. 2 bronze tree which took archaeologists over a decade to restore. Yet, it’s still not complete with several parts missing.

“It cannot be ruled out that these two might belong to the same tree. If the two sacred trees in pits No. 2 and No. 3 are put together, they can explain a lot of academic issues,” said Xu.

There are no plans as of yet to embark on the reassembly and restoration of the Pit 3 tree, not until all six of the new sacrificial pits have been fully excavated. Armed with all the information and contents of the pits, archaeologists will then piece together this tree too, and it will go on display next to its brother from Pit 2.

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Tiles with Roman imperial mark found at Carlisle

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

Tiles stamped with the imperial mark have been discovered at the Roman bathhouse on the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club in Stanwix, a suburb of Carlisle. Roman tile manufacturers put their brand on their products as a matter of course, and many surviving tiles bear their makers’ marks, but the IMP stamp is extremely rare. An usually large number of them — about a dozen — have been unearthed at this site.  The high concentration of IMP tiles suggest they were being manufactured there.

Lead archaeologist Frank Giecco:

“This is the imperial court stamping the tile. There have been a handful found in Carlisle at random places. We have probably got a dozen now from this site and it looks like this is where they are coming from.

It’s not a legion or anyone else – this is the signature of the Emperor. It’s been built by the imperial machine and it’s a connection.

The remains of the bathhouse were first discovered in 2017 during an archaeological survey at the proposed site of the club’s new pavilion. The expectation was they’d find a few scattered objects among the fill, but instead archaeologists landed upon entire rooms from a bathhouse complete with walls, painted plasterwork, intact floors, tile stacks for the hypocaust system, lengths of terracotta water pipes and a varied assortment of small artifacts like hair pins, coins and arrowheads.

It was a deluxe facility in the hinterlands of the northern border, and not meant for private citizens to take their ease, but rather to serve the men of the Ala Petriana, an elite cavalry regiment famed for its valor on the field that was stationed at Uxelodunum, the largest fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Uxelodunum is modern Stanwix, today absorbed into the town of Carlisle which at that time was the Romano-British town of Luguvalio. The Romans had built a fort in the town earlier (ca. 72-3 A.D.) and when Emperor Hadrian ordered construction of the wall that would bear his name, the old Luguvalio fort was integrated into it, linking the town to the shiny new fort with all the amenities at Uxelodunum.

A carved sandstone slab inscribed with a tribute to Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla. Both emperors personally led military campaigns in Britain, and Septimius actually died in York, 40 miles south of Carlisle, in 211. Between the inscription and the IMP tiles, it seems Uxelodunum had a direct link to the ruling family.

Giecco again:

“I can’t say that Septimus Severus ever set foot in Carlisle. Who knows.

“All we can say is that we have got a huge monumental building that has been built in Carlisle. The Emperor was in Britain at that time, we’ve got an inscription from his wife in the building and we have got his personal workshop-stamped tiles coming from the building.

“The evidence is building up that there is something really special going on here.”

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Ears on skull are more skull, not ears

Tuesday, September 7th, 2021

The 14th century Church of Santa Luciella ai Librai in Naples’ ancient historic center is one of the architectural and artistic gem boxes of the city. Beneath the majolica tile floor, through the sacristy and down a staircase is a hypogeum containing dozens of skulls arranged along shelves high on the walls. One of them has ears.

The small church was founded around 1327 by Bartholemew of Capua, legal and political adviser to Charles II of Anjou, then king of Naples. By 1629 it was dedicated to the guild of millers, but shortly thereafter it switched to the pipernieri, the sculptors who carved piperno marble and other hard stones. They dedicated the church to  Saint Lucy, protector of eyesight, to keep their eyes safe from the sharp fragments that flew everywhere when they chiseled stone.

For centuries the eared skull in the basement was venerated, a unique example of Naples’ cult of souls of in Purgatory. People would sort of adopt the disarticulated skull of an unknown and pray for its abandoned soul. That soul, once lifted out of Purgatory into Paradise, would then return the favor by extending grace to the person who had helped them get there. The skull with ears held special attraction because its auricular appendages, believed to be ear cartilage that was naturally mummified, could “hear” the prayers and petitions for grace.

Santa Luciella was taken over by another confraternity in 1748 which extensively refurbished it. The current configuration of the church largely dates to this period. It was still in use until the end of the 20th century. The earthquake that devastated Naples in 1980 heavily damaged the church and it was closed for safety reasons. The church was abandoned and the skull with ears became relegated to the ranks of legend.

It re-emerged as fact when a local organization restored the church and reopened it in 2019. They found the fabled eared skull in the hypogeum, unmoved and undamaged by the earthquake. Researchers have embarked on a new multidisciplinary study of the unique piece. Analysis found that the skull consists of the braincase and nasal bones. It belonged to an adult male who suffered from Porotic hyperostosis, a condition that causes spongy or porous tissue on the cranium, likely the result of chronic malnutrition. He is also missing a sagittal suture. Radiocarbon testing dates the remains to between 1631 and 1668. Naples was struck by a terrible outbreak of plague in 1656, so it’s possible our eared friend was one its many thousands of victims.

The ears held the real surprises. They were not the product of ossified or mummified ear cartilage. Instead they were formed by the squamous portion of the temporal bone at the side of the head were rotated so the curved edges pointed outwards. This gave the skull ear-like protuberances reminiscent of the famous memento mori mosaic from Pompeii that is now in Naples’ National Archaeological Museum.

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