Thor’s hammer amulet found in Sweden

Archaeologists have discovered a lead Thor’s hammer amulet dating to the late 10th century in Ysby in southwestern Sweden’s Halland province. The hammer was unearthed at the site of future housing construction. Previous investigations at the site revealed archaeological remains from the Neolithic and Iron Age, but this is the first artifact from the Viking era discovered there. It’s also the first Thor’s hammer amulet found in Halland.

The amulet is 3 centimeters (1.18 inches) long and cast in lead in the stylized shape that represents Thor’s dwarf-crafted hammer Mjölnir. It has a hole in the shaft where a string or a tie of some sort was threaded through so it could be worn as a pendant. One side of the hammer’s head is engraved with an interlacing pattern.

These were popular accessories in the Viking era, worn as apotropaic amulets, calling on the protective power of Thor to ward off evil. About a thousand of them have been found in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries. When this one was being worn, the Halland area was beginning to convert to Christianity. A pendant like this had religious significance beyond its purported warding powers, because it was unmistakable symbol of adherence to Form Sidr (meaning “the old way” ie, the traditional Nordic gods) as opposed to the new way of Christianity.

Here is a 3D model of the hammer before cleaning and conservation. A more detailed one will be made after the conservation is complete.

Pre-Hispanic iconography found in colonial church murals

Murals with pre-Hispanic iconography have been discovered on the walls of three chapels in a colonial-era convent in Tepoztlán, about 40 miles south of Mexico City. The murals date to the mid-16th century and contain emblems of Tepoztlán’s traditional religion: a feather headdress, an axe, a Chimalli (feathered shield) and a flowering branch. The iconography is closely linked to Tepoztécatl, the patron deity and mythical ruler of Tepoztlán.

Archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered the wall paintings during restoration of the posa temples — small, open-air chapels used to lure in converts whose traditional religious ceremonies were held out of doors — in the atrium of the Convent of the Nativity. Red painted circles are visible on the three chapel walls, but they had nothing inside. Another such circle on the another wall of the convent contains Marian symbols, so restorers removed layers of lime covering up the interiors of the circles thinking they’d find Marian or Christian attributes underneath. Instead, they found attributes of Tepoztecatl.

The pre-Hispanic village was burned to the ground by Hernán Cortés in 1521 on the pretext that its leaders had refused to meet with him. His feelings can’t have been too hurt by the rejection as he would soon claim the entire region (and large swaths of central and central Mexico) as his personal holding. Cortés’s giant entailed estate, the Marquesado del Valle de Oaxaca, was set up in 1535, passed on to his son after his death in 1547 and stayed in the hands of the Cortés descendants until the end of the colonial period, but as early as 1522 he was already handing out land grants to his soldiers under the table. The encomienda grants authorized the recipients to extort tribute and forced labor from the indigenous people on the land.

In 1550, Spanish authorities herded the peasants they were actively exploiting and evangelizing into a new settlement at Tepoztlán. The Church and Convent of the Nativity were built at that time, and just as they opened up the church to provide a sort of hybrid sacred space that the Tepoztláns would be more comfortable with than the standard Catholic church, they also deployed the imagery of the area’s local god-man. Even the legend itself was shape-shifted into a hagiography. Tepoztecatl was rewritten as the first convert to Christianity in the region and as the son of the Virgin of the Nativity, a job I was pretty sure was already taken by, you know, Jesus. Tepoztecatl’s big miracle story was that he traveled to Mexico City after his conversion and saw workers struggling to raise the bell into the tower of the cathedral. He called in a favor from his friend the wind god who raised a great whirlwind that swooped the bell through the air into the belltower. So the traditional hero and demi-god who defeated all enemies in the protection of Tepoztlán was mutilated into an example of submission to the Spanish conquerers and the Catholic Church.

The chapel murals are literal illustrations of the syncretism described in the post-conquest accounts of the Tepoztecatl myth.

The team narrates that “as we worked, we discovered a well-preserved red circle. Then we saw some triangles, we thought they corresponded to the crown or splendor of the Virgin Mary, but the feathers of a plume appeared. In the center we saw a well-defined red fret within a circle, a wand with flowers, and a tepoztli (axe), similar to the one in the Tepoztlán glyph. It was not a Christian representation, but a chimalli (pre-Hispanic shield)”.

The ancient emblem discovered in Chapel 4 was painted freehand in a diluted red, filled with glazes, and then outlined in the same color. The circle, 11 centimeters thick and just over a meter in diameter, encloses these pre-Hispanic symbols, equal in size to the Marian shield that was also painted in the 16th century in the Posa chapels.

The image, which is repeated, less clearly, in chapels 2 and 3, has generated questions about the reason for the presence of this emblem in such an important place and, even, next to the anagram of the Virgin Mary, and about the relationship between pre-Hispanic culture and Christian worship, a few years after the Spanish invasion.

Secrets of Vermeer’s Milkmaid revealed

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.

Cremation grave found under uniquely robust burial mound

Polish archaeologists have discovered the remains of an ancient cremation grave under a uniquely-constructed burial mound in the Sarbia forest area of northwest Poland.

The mound is the easternmost in a line of kurgans that are part of a necropolis of the Iron Age Wielbark culture (1st-5th century A.D.) near the village of Mirosław. The excavation revealed the mound was built over an interior stone pavement encircled by two trenches and a ring of wooden posts reinforced with clay walls.

Underneath the pavers is a levelling layer with an impressive range like a stone shim, starting on the east side with a height of six inches and ending on the west side at almost 20 inches high. This strong structure ensured that the tons of stone piled on it to build the kurgan mound would not collapse.  Archaeologists believe there were additional elements — wood or clay structures — reinforcing the mound from the other side.

The cremation burial was found inside the leveling layer. It was dug into the center of the square pavement and contains only human remains and one iron spur. Wielbark burials, cremation and inhumation, do not contain weapons or armor. Spurs are the only attributes of warrior burials ever found in Wielbark graves, and even they are rare.

The remains of a person buried here are currently the subject of anthropological research conducted by prof. M. Krenz-Niedbała at the Faculty of Biology, AMU. The temperature of the cremation stack must have been unusually high. This is evidenced by the state of burning human bones, but also small teardrops of metal from grave gifts. The only object that has been preserved in its entirety is a bronze spur, so we can assume that again in the area of ​​the examined cemetery we are dealing with a rider’s grave (or maybe, as was the case in the 2020 season – amazons). Among the damaged pieces of equipment, a fragment of the clasp bow and perhaps a fragment of a S-shaped clasp have survived. After the conservation of the monuments, we will certainly learn more about their function — adds [Andrzej Michałowski, Dean of the Faculty].

Near the grave, from the east, as was the case under the embankment of the 7th burial mound examined in 2016, a trace of the bottom of the iron firing furnace was recorded. Nearby, during the works carried out in the area of ​​the embankment, there were iron slags, probably coming from the basin that had been dismantled before the construction of the burial mound.

1.8 million-year-old human tooth found in Georgia

Archaeologists have discovered a 1.8 million-year-old tooth from an early species of human near the village of Orozmani, in Georgia. It is the fourth premolar of the mandible of what appears to be an adult most likely of the Homo erectus species.

The find site, about 60 miles southwest of Tbilisi, is only 12 miles south of Dmanisi where a series of 1.8 million-year-old hominin skulls were discovered in excavations between 1991 and 2005. The tooth now joins the Dmanisi skulls as the oldest hominin remains found outside Africa.

Excavations at Orozmani last year found bones of extinct animals, stone tools and lithic flakes dating to between 1.77 and 1.84 million years ago, but the tooth is the first human remains discovered at the site. The discovery confirms that this area of the South Caucasus was widely settled by Homo erectus groups as they migrated out of Africa to the Eurasia.

The latest discovery at a site about 12 miles away provides yet more evidence that the mountainous south Caucasus area was probably one of the first places early humans settled after migrating out of Africa, experts said.

“Orozmani, together with Dmanisi, represents the centre of the oldest distribution of old humans – or early Homo – in the world outside Africa,” the National Research Centre of Archaeology and Prehistory of Georgia said.

Giorgi Bidzinashvili, the scientific leader of the dig team, said he thought the tooth belonged to a “cousin” of Zezva and Mzia, the names given to the people whose near-complete 1.8m-year-old fossilised skulls were found at Dmanisi.

The family tree of the Dmanisi fossils is still subject of active debate. Originally believed to be a separate Homo species, they have now been classified as Homo erectus, but there are enough distinctions between them that paleontologists think they were part of an evolving lineage of the species.