Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Confirmed: Cerne Abbas Giant is medieval

Thursday, May 13th, 2021

The evidence of the microscopic snail shells has been confirmed: the Cerne Abbas Giant dates to the Middle Ages. National Trust researchers used Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) to analyze soil samples taken from the deepest sediment layer of the chalk. OSL can determine when minerals were last exposed to sunlight, and the soil in the earliest archaeological layer of the Cerne Abbas Giant last saw the sun between 700 and 1100 A.D.

National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said: “The archaeology on the hillside was surprisingly deep – people have been re-chalking the giant over a long period of time. The deepest sample from his elbows and feet tells us he could not have been made before 700AD, ruling out theories that he is of prehistoric or Roman origin.

“This probable Saxon date places him in a dramatic part of Cerne history. Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in 987AD and some sources think the abbey was set up to convert the locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as ‘Heil’ or ‘Helith’. The early part of our date range does invite the question, was the giant originally a depiction of that god?”

 

There are still knotty problems that need unraveling. Some of the soil samples returned dates up to 1560, but the earliest surviving written account documenting its existence is from 1694, and it defies comprehension that the carving of a naked man 180 feet tall with a 30-foot erection into the side of a hill would go unremarked. For that matter, wouldn’t Cerne Abbe have had a bone (lol) to pick with the choice of subject matter?

Martin’s working theory is that the giant may have been a medieval creation but then – for reasons we may never know – was neglected for several hundred years, before being rediscovered.

“I wonder whether he was created very early on, perhaps in the late Saxon period, but then became grassed over and was forgotten. But at some stage, in low sunlight, people saw that figure on the hill and decided to re-cut him again. That would explain why he doesn’t appear in the abbey records or in Tudor surveys.”

This is consistent with Mike Allen’s research, which found that microscopic snails in the sediment samples included species that were introduced into Britain in the medieval period. The archaeological fieldwork and scientific study, however, found no archaeological evidence that the giant was deliberately covered over.

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121-year-old chocolate bar found in helmet case

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

A 121-year-old chocolate bar still in its original wrapper and tin has been discovered in a helmet case in the attic of Oxburgh Hall, family seat of the Bedingfield baronets. The chocolate and helmet belonged to Sir Henry Edward Paston-Bedingfield, 8th Baronet, who  was a major in the King’s Liverpool Regiment and fought in the Second Boer War. He was still in South Africa in 1902 when his father died. He returned to Oxburgh to claim his ancestral home and title. The chocolate went with him.

These chocolate bars were a New Year’s present from Queen Victoria to British troops in South Africa ringing in the turn of the century. More than 100,000 half-pound tins of chocolate bearing her embossed profile and New Year’s wishes in her own handwriting were produced by Britain’s top three chocolate companies, Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree. It was an awkward commission because all three companies were founded and run by devout Quakers who specifically sought out an “innocent trade” that would allow them to make a good living without having to compromise their pacifist principles. Victoria wouldn’t let them decline to profit from selling chocolates for troops fighting in an active war zone, so all three companies were strong-armed into it.

They managed to keep their brands off the tin, but even on that matter the Queen was less than flexible, insisting their names be somewhere on the chocolate or wrappers so the troops would know she was sending them the best British chocolate. The bars/wrappers weren’t all marked, however, and the Oxburgh bar has no surviving brand.

The gesture was popular, and soldiers kept the tins as keepsakes. They do crop up for sale every once in a while, empty tins, mostly, although the chocolate does survive rarely. (Not in any kind of condition to even contemplate ingesting it, of course.) Henry’s bar is an especially rare survival because it is directly connected to the person who received in South Africa in 1900.

The chocolate was discovered when staff and the family of Sir Henry’s daughter, Frances Greathead, began cataloguing items following her death in 2020 at the age of 100. Frances, along with her mother Sybil and cousin Violet, were instrumental in saving Oxburgh Hall from being sold at auction in 1951. After selling their houses to raise the necessary funds, all three women moved back to live at Oxburgh before donating it to the National Trust. Frances moved to South Africa in 1956, but still returned to her apartment at Oxburgh every summer.

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Catherine de’ Medici returns to Strawberry Hill House

Saturday, May 8th, 2021

A portrait of Catherine de’ Medici with four of her children has returned to Strawberry Hill House 279 after Horace Walpole first bought it and 179 years after it was sold away with the rest of his vast collection. It is the only surviving contemporary portrait of Catherine de’ Medici, one of the most powerful queens in French history. It was acquired from its private owners as part of the Acceptance in Lieu scheme that allows donation of important items of cultural patrimony to pay off a tax bill. In this case the portrait has been accepted in lieu of of £1 million in taxes.

It was painted in 1561 by the workshop of Francois Clouet and depicts Catherine with her arm around her eldest surviving son 10-year-old Charles, who was then technically King Charles IX although Catherine ruled as his regent. His younger brother Henry, then Duke of Angoulême and Duke of Orléans, who would succeed Charles as monarch of France in 1574, stands to his right. Between them is their sister, Margaret, the future queen consort of Navarre who would become queen of France when her husband Henry III of Navarre became Henry IV of France. She was eight years old when this portrait was painted. In the bottom left is six-year-old Francis, Francis, Duke of Alençon and Anjou.

Dr Silvia Davoli, the curator at Strawberry Hill House, said Catherine’s gestures are highly symbolic, as she simultaneously presents the young monarch and protectively keeps him close to her, reflecting the substantial influence she held over the political life of France and the control and guidance she exercised over her son’s rule. It also shows the bond between members of the family – they are close and look alike.

It’s not known how such an important royal portrait found its way to England. Walpole, who was a huge Medici fanboy and once considered writing a history of the family, bought it for £25 from Hertfordshire county MP Thomas Plumer Byde. The Byde family had connections to the French monarchy that could be a possible explanation for how the portrait crossed the Channel. Thomas’ grandfather was paid 300 guineas by Louis XIV to oppose a separate peace between England and the Dutch republic that would end the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). Maybe the Bourbon Louis threw in a portrait of the last Valois kings and their mum to sweeten the pot.

We don’t know exactly when Walpole first installed the painting in his Gothic Revival mansion in Twickenham, London, but it appears in the 1774 inventory of the Strawberry Hill collection. At that time it was hanging in the west end of the first floor Gallery, the same room where the Giambologna ostrich strutted its stuff. The portrait suffered the same fate as the ostrich: it was sold by Horace Walpole’s wastrel great-nephew in his everything-must-go firesale of the contents of Strawberry Hill, art collection to doorknobs, in April 1842.

The monumental portrait has only been seen in public three times in the past 126 years, most recently at a Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A in 2010. It will now be on permanent public display in the Gallery at Strawberry Hill House which reopens to visitors on May 17th. Dr. Davoli again:

“The acquisition of this unique portrait of Catherine de’ Medici with her Children is important not just for its great intrinsic value and meaning, but also because it gives us, at Strawberry Hill House, the possibility to reconstruct one of the many historical narratives that were at the basis of Walpole’s collecting strategies. This portrait speaks to us of Walpole’s interest in the Italian and French Renaissance, its protagonists and great art.”

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Civil War mourning ring found on Isle of Man

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

A 350-year-old ring discovered on the Isle of Man may be a mourning ring dedicated to James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby and Lord of Man. The ring is gold with cut crystal stone on top. Embedded in the center underneath the stone are the initials “JD” spelled out in gold thread. Its style marks it as a Stuart-era mourning ring and it dates to the mid-1600s.

Allison Fox, Curator for Archaeology at Manx National Heritage said:

“The ring is small and quite delicate in form, but of a high quality and intact. The quality suggests that it was made for, or on behalf of, an individual of high status. It is unlikely that we will be able to establish for certain who owned the ring or whom it commemorated, but there is a possibility that it may have been associated with the Stanley family, previously Lords of Man.

The initials JD may refer to James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby and Lord of Man, a supporter of the Royalist cause in the Civil War. Letters and documents from the time show that he signed his named as J Derby, so the initials JD would be appropriate for him.”

James Stanley wasn’t very involved in the political conflicts between Parliamentarians and Royalists, but when war broke out in 1642, he dedicated himself to the Royalist cause, commanding troops in many battles, most of which he lost. He was with Charles Stuart, son of the decapitated king, in September 1651 at the Battle of Worcester, the final battle of the English Civil War. He was captured as he made his way north after the defeat at Worcester and a month later was tried for treason on the grounds that he had corresponded Charles Stuart, an act that had just been classified as treason in legislation passed a month earlier. He was easily convicted and executed.

Charlotte de La Trémoille was a formidable Royalist in her own right. She held Lathom House, the last Royalist castle still standing in Lancashire, when it was besieged by Parliamentary troops in 1644. On the grounds that it would dishonor her husband, she refused the order to surrender. Instead she fortified the castle to withstand repeated bombardments and placed sharpshooters in strategic locations to pick off enemy soldiers. Lady Derby kept the wolves at bay for more than three months until Royalist forces arrived and broke the siege of Lathom House.

Charlotte was evacuated to Isle of Man for her own safety. She lived there, occasionally joined by Stanley when he wasn’t fighting in England, for the next seven years. After James Stanley’s capture in 1651, he wrote in a letter to his wife that the king was dead, the cause lost and might as well barter the Isle of Man to the Parliamentarians in return for the best possible outcome for him and his family, hopefully including his freedom. She tried but it didn’t work. The Parliamentarians negotiated with Manx rebels instead and Stanley was beheaded. The mourning ring, if it is Derby-related, would have been made at this time and given to a loved one of the deceased to remember him by.

Lady Derby was forced to surrender her two castles on the island to the rebels and was imprisoned. Her heavy losses and her and her husband’s efforts in the Royalist cause did not win her much gratitude from Charles II even after the restoration. She retired to Knowsley Hall, seat of the Earls of Derby, and died in 1668.

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Climber drills bolts into ancient petroglyphs

Monday, April 19th, 2021

A climber installed three bolted routes into the ancient petroglyphs on the rock face of Sunshine Wall Slabs northwest of Arches National Park in Utah laboring under the ignorant misapprehension that the thousand-year-old Fremont culture rock art was modern graffiti. The Sunshine Slabs are well-known to climbers and there are already bolt routes installed that are responsibly placed not to endanger the petrogylphs. It is against the law to climb or near rock art or any other protected archaeological sites.

The bolts were discovered a week ago by Wyoming climbing guide Darrin Reay and reported on Facebook. The culprit was quickly discovered on the Mountain Project, a crowd-sourced database of climbing routes and online community. Richard Gilbert, a climber from Colorado Springs, Colorado, had posted about drilling bolts into the rock face in late March to create easy climbing routes for beginners and disabled climbers.

When the story broke wide, Gilbert claimed that he thought it was graffiti because one of the glyphs resembles the letter H which “did not exist in Native American languages.” Alas, he had no idea what he was talking about as it is not an H and even if it were, nobody knows anything about the language/s of the people who inhabited the area a thousand years ago.

Gilbert’s story unfolded largely through conversations on Mountain Project’s forums, where he says he first realized his error. “On Sunday night, I saw a post on my route [at Sunshine Slabs] and it said, ‘Hey, this is not graffiti, these are petroglyphs.’ I was like, Oh my gosh, I completely messed this up, I’m going to fix it right now,” he said. He changed the route descriptions on Mountain Project to steer climbers away from the area, drove back to the wall to fill in the bolt holes, and left a sign to draw attention to the petroglyphs.

“It’s wrong. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s just poor education on my part, and I do take full responsibility,” Gilbert says.

He returned to the area on Monday, April 12, and met with authorities from the Moab Bureau of Land Management to report the incident in person. “I told him this was my mistake, and asked what do I have to do to make sure other people aren’t paying for my mistake,” he said. The BLM office opened an investigation after the meeting and previous calls to report the incident, Gilbert said. (The BLM office did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.) According to the National Park Service, rock art like this is federally protected, and damaging acts can lead to felony and/or misdemeanor charges, with penalties that can include up to a ten-year prison sentence and $100,000 in fines.

It’s highly unlikely that he’ll suffer any such penalties as he has been forthcoming and is cooperating with authorities. The debacle has had the positive effect of launching a wider conversation about educating climbers to be conscious of cultural resources. Led by the Access Fund, a group of organizations dedicated to the responsible preservation of climbing areas have released a statement on the defacement of the Sunshine Slabs.

We unequivocally condemn the recent actions at Sunshine Wall, near Moab, Utah that compromised the integrity of petroglyphs, sacred Indigenous cultural artifacts.

It is essential that climbers understand the significance of petroglyphs, not only as a window into the past but as an ongoing and vital part of Indigenous culture and identity to this day, and are committed to protecting these sacred sites. The cultural and spiritual value of these places cannot be measured, and we firmly support efforts to protect them. We are currently reaching out to our friends and partners in the local and national tribal, climbing, and land management communities to discuss how to best proceed with the current situation and prevent such instances from occurring again.

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Michelangelo’s David is largest 3D print in the world

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

As one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Michelangelo’s David has been copied many, many times. Carved out of a massive single block of Carrara marble, Michelangelo’s David is 17 feet high and weighs 12,800 pounds, so every full-size copy was hard-won. When the original statue was taken out of the elements in the Piazza della Signoria to the protected confines of the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873, a marble replica, also carved from a single massive block of white Carrara, was erected in its former location. The only other full-scale marble replica, made by  Sollazzini and Sons Studio of Florence for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, is now in the gardens of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

Casts were easier to accomplish and a lot more common. In 1873, that same year the original David moved indoors, a bronze cast of the sculpture was installed in the newly-completed Piazzale Michelangelo. Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, had a life-sized plaster cast made as a gift for Queen Victoria in 1857. That copy is now on display in the V & A’s Cast Courts. A fiberglass replica was created in 2010 and installed on a buttress of the Duomo of Florence, David’s original intended location that never happened because it was so supremely impractical.

A new replica has now been created using 3D printing technology, creating an acrylic resin version of the original that is a precise twin. It began in December when the statue of David in the Galleria was laser-scanned and photographed in highest resolution. The digital details were then transmuted through the alchemy of the 3D printer into 14 pieces making up David’s whole. The pieces were assembled by restorers at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

It was then moved to Nicolas Salvioli’s laboratory where restorers spent two months coating the resin statue with an inch-thick layer of Carrara marble dust mixed with glue. The team used this mixture to reproduce the bulging veins, the original finishes, smooth and rough areas, even chisel blows and flaws in the marble. The final product is the most minutely precise replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece ever made, only far lighter at only 882 pounds.

The 3D printed David has been transported to Dubai where it will be the star of the Italian pavilion of the Dubai Expo held from October 1st, 2021, and March 2022.

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A new model of Roman saddle construction

Saturday, April 17th, 2021

There are no Roman cavalry saddles surviving intact today. Depictions of them can be found on statues and monuments — grand reliefs like that cavalry battle on the Mausoleum of the Julii in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (the two in southern France where Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night during his stay in the local asylum) as well as modest gravestones like that of Lucius Romanus, a Roman cavalryman of Illyrian origin who died while serving in what is now Cologne — so we know what they looked like.

The iconography shows that Roman saddles consisted of a padded seat with four horns, two in front projecting to the sides over the rider’s thighs, and two straight ones behind the rider supporting the buttocks. The horns served to distribute the weight of the rider away from the horse’s spine to its flanks in an era before stirrups. Because archaeological remains of saddles have so far been limited to metal horn plates and fragments of leather from the cover, the construction framework of the Roman cavalry saddle is still up for debate.

Roman military historian Peter Connolly pioneered research into the construction of the saddle, publishing  papers on the subject in the 1980s and 90s and creating dozens of experimental models. Based on contemporary depictions and his analysis of stress patterns from extant leather saddle covers, Connolly argued for a rigid wood frame topped by metal horn stiffeners and a leather casing. The problem with the solid wood frame solution is that it is heavy and there are stability issues.

A new study proposes a stuffed and padded structure rather than one of wood. The author first gathered information from 40 reenactors who ride on saddles that use the Connolly design. They confirmed, as Connolly had found, that the saddle works well for experienced riders at a walk, trot, canter and gallop (less so for inexperienced riders at a trot), but if you have to lean out of the saddle to use a weapon, stability plummets and constrains the range of motion.

Following up on these results, the author’s dissertation compared modern saddles of varying flap design (the part against which the rider’s thigh rests) and the flapless Roman saddle which utilises horns in front of and behind the rider on each corner of the saddle seat instead of stirrups. The fifteen participants in this follow-up project rode in four different saddle designs in walk, trot and canter, the Connolly saddle being one of these. […]

The Roman saddle compared favourably with the three modern saddles, but comments given by the participants of the saddle study referred more to the rigidity of the Connolly design rather than their ability to ride the horse. The main comment made was that the wooden side boards of the Connolly reconstruction prevented the riders from wrapping their leg around the horse and thereby influencing their stability.

Armed with this feedback, the study author made a saddle relying on flexible stuffing and padding for structure instead of wood. Inspired by 19th century California Vaquero saddles, the reconstructed Roman saddle was built with thatching straw stuffed into linen. The panels of the seat were made with pig skin; the horns with goat skin. The unwashed, lanolin-rich waterproof fleece of the Cotswold Lion, a sheep breed introduced to Britain by the Romans, was stuffed into the panels and horns.

The completed reconstruction saddle was inspected by a British Master Saddler and passed fit for form and function. This means that the saddle conformed to the principles of saddle design for the requirements of correct fit for the comfort of the horse. The saddle was then tested for rider comfort and utility on the mechanical horse in a comparison test with the Connolly saddle. A volunteer male rider of approximately 6ft in height, to satisfy Vegetius’ description of a cavalryman in Part 1 of his De re militari, rode in walk, trot and canter in each saddle.

It was noted that the contours of the new reconstruction’s panels were better at moulding themselves to the horse and there was no “bridging” of the panels, a feature to be avoided in modern saddle fitting. This bridging effect is where the panels do not conform to the horse’s back causing discomfort and riding problems. This bridging was present in the Connolly saddle and could only be rectified by adding a saddle pad with shims to level the saddle on the horse’s back. The rider also commented that the Connolly saddle held him in place like a cradle whereas the straw/fleece reconstruction did not fix him in place. The wooden horns of the Connolly saddle – which are known to break – were also uncomfortable after a period of cantering.

During the riding trials it was found that the new reconstruction’s horns were too flexible and highlighted the case for “stiffeners”, the bronze saddle horn covers found in the archaeological record. This was also noted when the rider adopted a light or half seat, that is rising out of the saddle from the strength of the thighs only as if making a sword or spear thrust. The requirement of bronze “stiffeners” to reinforce the wooden construction produced by Connolly has been questioned but it is clear from this reconstruction without wood that they would be necessary for the stability of the rider.

The new saddle construction weighs less than the Connolly saddle yet retains rigidity which is seen as a positive for the horse since it must also carry an armoured and armed rider. There is a need for further research to optimise the new reconstruction for girth placement and “stiffeners” before field trials can be conducted with live horses. A saddle cover has not yet been made to complete the reconstruction as the author is sourcing a blacksmith to manufacture “stiffeners” so that further experiments can be conducted.

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Wax bust of Flora definitely not by Leonardo

Thursday, April 15th, 2021

A wax bust whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci once caused art historians to threaten violence has been conclusively shown to be a modern work from the 18th century at the earliest.

The bust of Flora, goddess of flowers and springtime, now in the National Museums in Berlin was spotted by general director of the Royal Museum of Berlin Wilhelm von Bode in an antique store in London in 1907. Her downcast eyes, half-smile and finely-modeled features impressed Bode as a work by Leonardo da Vinci. German art historian Max Friedländer, assistant director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum under Bode, was convinced by its high quality and wear patterns that it was a Renaissance work. Bode bought it for a princely sum (185,000 Goldmark) in 1909 and announced with much fanfare that it was a work by no less a Renaissance luminary than Leonardo da Vinci, the only known wax sculpture surviving from the period.

Bode was held in high regard in Germany. He had been involved in the creation of a national collection for the royal museums since he was hired as assistant curator of sculpture in 1872 and his career would span the entire five decades of the second German Empire from Unification to Republic. Driven to make Berlin a capital of the arts on the same level with Paris, Vienna, London, St. Petersburg and Rome, he had often been in competition against his counterparts in developing the great public collections of Europe, including a long-standing bitter dispute with Giovanni Morelli, an eminent Italian scholar, parliamentarian and strong advocate against the sale of Italy’s cultural patrimony to deep-pocketed foreign museums, on attribution methodology.

The acquisition of Flora was seen as a huge coup for Germany’s cultural institutions. The bust had been snatched out from under Britain’s nose and now Germany had a unique work of the world’s most famous and least prolific Old Master. The braggadocio was immediately met with pushback. Within months, the Times published a story contesting the attribution and alleging Flora was in fact it was created by 19th century British sculptor and photographer Richard Cockle Lucas who had copied it in 1860 from a painting of Flora in the Hermitage once attributed to Leonardo but later determined to be the work of his student and right-hand-man Francesco Melzi. Lucas’ son Albert Dürer Lucas, then 80 years old, swore that his father had made it and that Albert had helped stuff old newspapers and wood chips into the hollow of the bust.

Even though newspapers and wood chips were indeed found inside, including an article from 1840, Bode dismissed out of hand the possibility that Lucas was the sculptor. Lucas, Bode contended, was simply not good enough to model so superlative a piece. Unlike Flora, Lucas’ known wax pieces were greyish in color, lacked any polychromy and still smelled of wax. Bode was sure that at most, Lucas had been employed to fill its empty core to reinforce the structure and had fashioned some arms to match.

In the next two years, more than 730 heated articles were written debating the attribution. There were debates on the floor of the Prussian parliament. Two scholars challenged each other to a duel. Bode died in 1929, still convinced that his attribution to Leonardo was correct. The debate got less aggressive over the decades, but never died down. Even modern technology hasn’t been able to settle the issue conclusively, because wax, as it happens, is a complicated medium to date.

Albert Dürer Lucas said his father made the bust by melting down a bunch of burned candle ends. Analysis of wax samples found it is composed almost entirely of spermaceti, a waxy substance produced in the head cavity of the sperm whale commonly used in 19th century candles, and a small amount of beeswax. The decay of C14 occurs in the atmosphere in a calculable way, but under water the C14 is absorbed much more slowly and is much older than the carbon absorbed on land. The Marine Reservoir Effect makes radiocarbon dating results difficult to calibrate because you would need to know that specific whale’s full biography — track it movements from equator to ice shelves — to produce any semblance of accurate results.

An attempt to radiocarbon date Flora in the 1980s was able to exclude the Renaissance period, but the results were not reliable as the marine calibration issue remained thorny. The new study utilized two calibration curves, marine and terrestrial, and applied them to samples of the wax from Flora as well as to another work by Lucas, an 1850 relief of Leda and the Swan. The result was a date range of between 1704 and 1950, admittedly wide, but it conclusively precludes that the bust was made by Leonardo or anyone else in the Renaissance.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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Fetus in bishop’s coffin was his grandson

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

Peder Winstrup (1605–1679), Bishop of Lund, was buried in the family crypt in Lund Cathedral in January 1680. The theologian and Lutheran bishop son of a theologian and Lutheran bishop, Winstrup had been ennobled by King Charles X Gustav in 1658 and was entombed with a wealth of fine accoutrements from clothing — a velvet cape, leather gloves — to bedding. The inner coffin was padded with herbaceous plants covered by a silk lining. His head rested on two pillows. When the coffin was opened in the 19th century, Winstrup’s body was found to have been naturally mummified and the other organic materials were also in an excellent state of preservation.

His coffin was removed in 2012 for reburial in a cemetery, but because his remains were known to be unusually well-preserved, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from Lund University and the Lund University Historical Museum was authorized to study Winstrup’s body and the contents of his coffin. A CT scan revealed surprising information: a bundle below the bishop’s right tibia contained the remains of 5-6-month-old fetus.

At the time of the discovery, researchers speculated that the fetus could have been hidden in the coffin by a family member, a member of his staff or by the embalmers. There was a practice in 17th century Scandinavia of bribing cemetery employees to bury babies who had died before baptism to give them the chance to be interred in consecrated ground. The stealth burial of an unrelated fetus in the bishop’s coffin could have been accomplished as it was accessible in the family crypt, and the position of the little one’s body — squeezed under the silk lining disturbing the plants and the bishop’s legs — suggests it was hastily stashed, not reverently laid to rest. The disarray of the bedding and bishop’s lower legs in that area indicates the fetus was added to the coffin after the funeral and deposition in the vault.

In order to determine whether the fetus was in any way related to the bishop, researchers at Stockholm University analyzed samples of DNA from the bishop’s right femur and the fetus’ left femur. They were found to share 25% of their genes, a second-degree kinship. Mitochondrial DNA analysis found no commonalities, but there was a match on the Y-chromosome, so they were closely related through the male line.

Genealogical research through the paternal family was able to exclude several possibilities. Peder’s only brother died at age 25 unmarried and childless, so that eliminated uncles and nephews. Of Peder’s own surviving children (two daughters and a son), one daughter died before marriage and the other, Anna Maria, died while pregnant with twins. Enter the bishop’s son, Peder Pedersen Winstrup. He did not follow in the family business, but rather studied mathematics and military fortification. He married in 1679 and inherited the estates of both his father and his father-in-law.

The gravy train came to an abrupt end. Shortly after his father’s burial, Peder Pedersen was immiserated in the Great Reduction of 1680 when Swedish King Charles XI reclaimed lands formerly granted to the nobility. By 1700, Peder and his wife were reduced to living on charity from her brother. He died without issue, the last male in the Winstrup line.

With the results from the aDNA analysis at hand and the genealogy, the only person able to provide a second-degree relative to Peder Winstrup through paternal lineage was his son, Peder. The foetus of a boy placed in the coffin could thus be the grandson of the bishop. It seems probable that the relatives would have had access to the crypt where the coffins of the Winstrup’s were stored and, thus, a possibility to deposit the foetus in one of the coffins, in this case that of Peder Winstrup.

The study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read in its entirety here.

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Poussin looted by Nazis returned to heirs

Friday, April 2nd, 2021

A large-scale painting by Nicolas Poussin that was looted by the Nazis during World War II has been returned to its legal owners. Lot with His Two Daughters Serving Him a Drink was found in Padua, northeastern Italy, by the Carabinieri Art Squad.

Before the war, the 4×5-foot painting belonged to Strasbourg industrialist René Bloch, scion of an old Alsatian Jewish family who had lived for five generations in Alsace when it was part of France. The remained loyal to France even when Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and by 1938 René feared that Germany’s ambitions, which had already swallowed Austria in March, would turn to Alsace. He asked a cousin in Poitiers to take in his large collection of decorative arts, including all his furniture. He fled to Brittany in 1939 and made it alive to the United States, only to pass away in 1942.

In late January, 1944, the Nazi occupiers swept through Poitiers, arresting and deporting 481 Jews to the death camps. René Bloch’s cousin was among them. Nazi troops then looted the properties of the deported Jews. The Poussin disappeared between February and August.

As soon as the war was over, René Bloch’s heirs began searching for the objects stolen from their house, but to no avail. It was put on France’s list of Nazi-looted artworks (published in numerous volumes and supplements between 1947 and 1949). A photograph of Lot with His Two Daughters appeared in Volume 2 of the publication. Neither hide nor hair of it was seen in public for 80 years.

It emerged again in 2017 when it was bought from France by an Italian antiques dealer. It was exhibited in Belgium at that time, and then again in 2019 at TEFAF Maastricht, the most important art and antiques fair in the world. It was there that a Dutch art historian, now resident in Italy, recognized it from the old photograph as the Poussin looted from Poitiers in 1944. The legal heirs of the painting, Block’s 98-year-old daughter who lives in Switzerland and a 65-year-old American man, filed a complaint in Italy last year, triggering a Carabinieri investigation into the ownership history of the painting. They searched the home of another Italian antiques dealer and confiscated the painting as stolen goods.

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