Colosseum underground opens to the public

For the first time in the Colosseum’s long history, the subterranean levels will be fully open to the public. The hypogea, the backstage (understage?) area where gladiators and beasts awaited deployment via ingenious raising mechanisms that thrust them up through trapdoors onto the arena, have never before been open in their entirety to visitors.

When the Flavian Amphitheatre was inaugurated in 80 A.D., the underground structures were wood. Ancient sources including Martial, who was an eye-witness to the inaugural games and recorded the events in his Epigrams, Suetonius and Cassius Dio refer to the arena having been flooded to stage naval battles and other water spectacles, but this could not have been the large-scale warship clashes that were held at the permanent lake created by Augustus for the purpose. If it was floodable, it was likely more like a channel system or simply a shallow basin under the stage.

Whatever the nature of the water shows at the Colosseum, in 85 A.D. Domitian had the original underground replaced with the complex vaulted tunnels and shafts of brick and stone structures we see now, so there arena could no longer be floodable. A large central passage divides 14 corridors, seven on each side. At the ends of the corridors are rooms which held large freight elevators that raised fighters, prisoners, props and animals up to the arena floor with complex wood and rope pulley systems.

This is the final phase of a decade-long restoration funded by Tod’s shoe mogul Diego Della Valle who donated €25 million to keep the world wonder from literally falling to pieces and taking untold numbers of tourists with it. After directed restoration work, a small section of the hypogeum was opened to the public in 2016 but the underground was closed off again when the comprehensive restoration of the entire space began in December 2018.

Starting June 26th, visitors who purchase the “Full Experience” ticket can safely explore the 15 corridors trod by gladiator and wild beast over 160 meters of accessible passageways that have been mounted throughout the labyrinthine environment. Audio/video and human guides will explain how the hypogeum was used over the centuries between the Colosseum’s 100 days of inaugural games and celebration of the last games held there, an animal hunt in honor of the consulship of Anicius Maximus in 523.

See The Night Watch uncropped after 300 years

For the first time in more than three centuries, you can see The Night Watch complete as it was when Rembrandt painted it. Even though it was already hailed as a masterpiece upon its completion in 1642, the monumental oil on canvas work was callously trimmed to fit a smaller wall when it was moved in 1715. The Rijksmuseum’s Operation Night Watch team has recreated the lost sections and mounted them with the original so visitors can enjoy the full expanse of Rembrandt’s vision.

When commissioned by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and the Amsterdam civic militia he led, the Night Watch was installed in the Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen, the newly-built headquarters of the militia. It was moved to City Hall in 1715 and to squeeze it between two columns, it was cropped on all four sides. The right side suffered the least, losing only 7 cm (2.75″). The left side took the brunt of the cropping; the strip removed was 64.4 cm (23″) wide. The top lost 23.3 cm (9″) and bottom strip 11.3 cm (4.4″). This was a common practice at the time even for much smaller paintings. Nobody protested and as far as we know, none of the trimmings have survived although even chopped up Rembrandts were selling for big money by then and one of the strips had two figures on it that would have been saleable.

Thankfully, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq had the wherewithal to commission a small-scale (less than 1/5th the size) copy of the painting between 1642 and 1655. It is attributed to Gerrit Lundens who was known for his copies of old masters. It is now part of the collection of the National Gallery. Using the Lundens copy as a guide and using artificial intelligence programmed with high-resolution scan data of Rembrandt’s technique and color use in the painting, the Operation Night Watch team was able to reconstruct the missing sections of the painting at the scale of the original in Rembrandt’s style. The recreated sections were then printed on canvas, varnished and mounted on metal plates for structural support.

You can zoom in on some of the notable details here, and this video gives a great overview of the reconstruction.

Roman seal ring with Achilles killing Penthesilea found in Pyrenees

A Roman seal ring with a gemstone carved with a dynamic image of Achilles supporting Amazon queen Penthesilea after he killed her has been discovered at the archaeological site of Tossal de Baltarga in the Catalan Pyrenees. The ring is made of a single wide hoop of iron with the oval intaglio gemstone set in a beveled border. From comparison to similar types found at other sites, the ring dates to around 100-50 B.C.

Achilles, in full armor wielding sword and shield, is depicted supporting a dying Penthesilea, his helmet crest waving as he turns. He has fatally wounded her. The Amazon queen is on her knees with her head bowed, leaning on her labrys. Achilles attempts to hold her up below her left arm. Their clothing is finely detailed, his double-row pteruges (the skirt of leather or stiffened linen flaps worn under Roman and Greek cuirasses) and shoulder strips are individually outlined. Penthesilea’s chiton is meticulously rendered with pointed tails on the short skirt and diagonal folds wrapping her thighs leaving her legs free. You can even see the lines of her sandals on her right foot. Her hair is in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. All of this carved into a stone just 17 x 15.5 mm (.7 x .6 inches).

The motif of Achilles supporting the woman he has slain as she draws her last breaths is frequently seen in Greco-Roman decorative arts, drawn from the Homeric tradition that that Achilles dealt the mortal blow, removed her helmet and then fell instantly in love with her. The 2nd century geographer Pausanias notes in his Description of Greece that the throne of the monumental sculpture of Zeus in his temple at Olympia had a relief of “Penthesileia giving up the ghost and Achilles supporting her.” A marble relief of the same scene from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite Aphrodisias survives.

The quality of the intaglio is so high it cannot have been made by local Iberian craftsman. It was so high, in fact, that such a ring is unlikely to have been worn by an Iberian, not even a member of the local elite. This was a luxury import of a type not found in Iberia before the Roman occupation, and there is no evidence of trade or economic activity at the site that would explain its presence there; a Roman must have brought it to Tossal de Baltarga, likely a Roman officer.

Iron seal rings have been found before at Late Republican army and battle sites in Iberia. They were expensive items, but made out of durable iron rather than more ornamental precious metals, and they served practical uses as well. They were used to sign documents, both personal and official, which links the rings to the administration of governmental and military functions, and they were also a kind of dog tag, a means of identifying a Roman officer fallen in battle.

Three iron seal rings have been found in the Republican Roman layers of Tossal de Baltarga, which was occupied in three phases from the Bronze Age until its abandonment in the 1st century B.C. The iron ring with Achilles and Penthesilea intaglio was unearthed in 2017 in Building F which was built in the middle of the 2nd century B.C. and abandoned between 50 and 30 B.C. The rings, the concentration of coinage and hobnails from caligae found at the site indicate it housed a small military garrison centered around a watchtower that would have been of strategic significance to control the nearby Pyrenean pass during the wars of the declining days of the Republic, including Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (58-50 B.C.) and the rebellion of Quintus Sertorius (80–72 B.C.).

We [the researchers] therefore suggest that the loss of the seal-rings is linked to the abandonment of Tossal de Baltarga, caused by the military campaigns in the territory of the Cerretanii during the mid- or later first century B.C. Although no evidence of violent destruction at the settlement has been encountered so far, its key role as a major outpost in the area could suggest that the garrison was rapidly withdrawn. In this scenario, the seal-rings could have been lost or left behind, and the settlement abandoned as part of a major reconfiguration of the territory after the suppression of the last uprising of the Cerretanii in 39 B.C.

The study has been published in the European Journal of Archeology but is alas paywalled.

Hero conservator busts huge loot collector

The Italian Carabinieri Art Squad in collaboration with European authorities has confiscated almost 800 ancient southern Italian artifacts from the home of an unnamed wealthy collector in a town near Antwerp. The 782 archaeological objects were all illegally excavated from the region of Puglia. They date to between the 6th century B.C. and the 3rd century B.C. and are worth an estimated $13 million, if their immense archaeological value could ever be assessed in market terms.

This bust was the result of three years of investigation, and it all started thanks to an eagle-eyed conservator. In 2017, a conservator at the restoration laboratory for the Archaeological Superintendency of the Foggia area spotted a stele of the Daunian civilization published in the catalogue of a 1993 exhibition of ancient Italic art at the Rath Museum in Geneva. The stele was missing a central area. The incised design at the margins of the gap completed the design of a mounted warrior on a fragment of a stele in the Archaeological Museum of Trinitapoli.

The Daunian people inhabited the north of Apulia in the 1st millennium B.C., one of three tribes that grew from the union of Illyrian and Mycenean Greek settlers in the region. The Daunians assimilated less with the indigenous Italic peoples than the other two tribes and developed characteristic monuments and pottery unique to them. Of particular note are their funerary steles, made between the late 8th century B.C. and the 6th century B.C. and incised with elaborate decorations representing the deceased. No two are alike and they are very much peculiar to the Foggia-Barletta area that was the epicenter of Daunian culture.

So when the stele in the catalogue picture seemed to be an exact fit for a fragment in the museum, Italian authorities reached out to INTERPOL to find out who this Belgian owner was. His identity determined, the next step was securing a warrant to search his property and recover any other funerary artifacts looted from Apulian tombs.

The stele was found in his possession and it matched the fragment exactly, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Police confiscated an unprecedented quality of Apulian objects: red-figure, black-figure pottery and geometric pottery both Attic and local, Daunian steles, Greek terracotta figurines, clay heads, winged statuettes. Apulian works with anything like a legal ownership record are vanishingly rare and even the few in major institutions around the world can only be traced to the 1990s, so a full museum secreted in one guy’s house in Antwerp can only have been secured through years of dedicated traffic in looted archaeological objects. He didn’t just amass this number of high-quality Apulian artifacts in excellent condition by browsing flea markets and antique shops.

He, of course, contested the seizure of his looted antiquities, but all of his appeals have failed and the collection has now been transferred to Italy where archaeologists will study and document it thoroughly.

Gold disc, symbol of Cusco, returned to Peru

Echenique Disc repatriated to Peru. Photo courtesy the National Museum of the American IndianThe Smithsonian has agreed to repatriate a pre-Inca gold disc to Peru 119 years after its aquistion. The National Museum of the American Indian signed a memorandum of understanding with the Peruvian government for the return of the Echenique Disc, a gold disc whose design is the official symbol and shield of the city of Cusco. It was officially transferred to the Peruvian ambassador to the United States at his residence in Washington, D.C., on June 15th.

The object is a thin sheet of hammered gold about five inches in diameter. The alloy is relatively pure, composed of 90% gold, 5% silver and 5% copper, so just shy of 22 karats in modern classification. In the center is a fanged feline face with large rounded eyes and a snout-like nose, a design seen frequently in ancient Peruvian ornaments and pottery. It had a supernatural connotation — perhaps representing a deity — and indicated the high status of its owner. There are holes and slits cut into the sheet and it is believed to have been worn as a pectoral ornament.

The outer border is divided evenly into 20 sections that contain a variety of imagery including anthropomorphic figures, geometric shapes, crescent moons and other symbols. Their meaning has not been deciphered but may indicate the disc was a solar or lunar calendar. It is more than 2,000 years old, the most recent scholarship placing it between 800 B.C. and 1 A.D., and is a masterful example of ancient Andean goldsmithing.

As with so many cultural heritage artifacts that wound up far from their origins, the disc’s history is mysterious. It first emerged on the record in 1853 when it was given as a ceremonial gift along with several other ancient objects to then-Peruvian president José Rufino Echenique during an official visit to Cusco. Where it came from, who gave it to him, anything at all about its past before that point is unknown.

Things get murky again after that as the disc and other objects gifted to Echenique just sort of disappeared for a while. Julio Tello Rojas, father of Peruvian archaeology, tried to track them down in the 1920s and failed. He believed they had been sent to Chile and were destroyed in a fire in Santiago. He was wrong, at least in part, because in 1912 it was sold privately by Dr. Edward Gaffron, a German doctor who lived in Peru for decades and built an enormous collection of ancient Peruvian artifacts, to collector George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York which was later incorporated into the Smithsonian as the National Museum of the American Indian.

Gold ornamental plume or pin, ca. 200 B.C.–A.D. 400.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.The Smithsonian’s provenance for the disc records that in fact it was inherited by one of Echenique’s daughters who then sold it to Gaffron, and there are at least two other artifacts in museums that are believed to have been part of the Echenique group. One is a gold ornamental plume or pin incised on both sides with a similar supernatural feline figure, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They don’t know its provenance either. Big blank before 1850 and between then and its acquisition from a German private collection in 1942. Interesting German connection there; maybe Dr. Gaffron got his hands on more of the Echenique treasure than the one disc we know about.

The choice of the disc as the official shield of Cusco was a pointed one. In 1986, the city council passed a law prohibiting the use of any post-Conquest Spanish colonialist imagery in Cusco’s coat of arms. Today replicas of it adorns the streets, fountains and buildings of Cusco’s historic center. The original is expected to be returned to Cusco for permanent display, and Cusco’s mayor Victor Boluarte is hoping to coordinate with Peru’s Culture Ministry for its return by June 24th, the day of the Inti Raymi celebration, the Festival of the Sun, an ancient Inca ritual which is the culmination of the Jubilee month celebrating the heritage of the imperial city.