Archive for August, 2021

Rijksmuseum reunites portrait glasses of famed author duo

Saturday, August 21st, 2021

The Rijksmuseum has acquired an 18th century glass goblet engraved with the portrait of one of the Netherlands most important writers, Betje Wolff. It is a matched set with a goblet bearing the portrait of Aagje Denken, her partner in writing and in life, which has been in the collection of the Rijksmuseum since 1951. Its pair was acquired from a private collection in Germany and now the two have been reunited on display.

Elisabeth Wolff-Bekker (1738–1804) and Agatha Deken (1741–1804) co-wrote The History of Miss Sara Burgerhart, the first novel written in the Dutch language. The two, already published authors, first met on October 13th, 1776, and moved in together in 1777 after the death of Betje Wolff’s husband Adriaan. They wrote together collaboratively and in 1782 published Sara Burgerhart which was an instant success. It was written in the epistolary style (as letters from the characters to each other), a genre that had vaulted to prominence a few decades earlier with the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The style lends itself to realism and Wolff and Deken embraced the approach, drawing heavily on their own childhood experiences.

Politically active in the Patriot movement challenging the rule of William V of Orange as stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, the pair were were forced to flee The Hague in 1788 in the wake of the Prussian invasion of Holland to suppress the Patriot cause and restore the power of Orange. Wolff and Deken settled in Trévoux, Burgundy, and lived there for 10 years. They returned in 1797 in much reduced circumstances. The would live together in The Hague until the end of their days. Betje Wolff died on November 5th, 1804. Aagje Deken died nine days later on November 14th.

Their portrait glasses were the work of David Wolff (no relation to Betje), a glass engraver who specialized in portraits on glasses. He was the premier engraver of the 18th century Netherlands, taking the old technique of diamond-point engraving to new heights. He used the stippling engraving technique which tapped the diamond point into the glass making a dot rather than the scratching technique used to cut images and letters in traditional diamond engraving. The result is a pointillistic rendering of light and shadow via different densities of dots.

Interestingly given this history, David Wolff’s stipple-engraved subjects were usually men. The only other woman known to have received his treatment was Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, wife of Prince William V of Orange and sister of King Frederick William II of Prussia who invaded the Netherlands in response to Patriot slights against his sister. A double portrait of them attributed to David Wolff is in the Rijksmuseum, and he also made individual portraits of the Prince and Princess on wineglasses, see these in the Corning Museum of Glass, for example.

The stipple engraving is closely linked to the political struggle between patriots and Orangists at the end of the 18th century. Both sides used glasses with dotted portraits of their male heroes to toast. Dotted formal portraits of women are rare, with the exception of Wilhelmina van Prussia (1751-1820), the wife of stadtholder Willem V. Several glasses are known of the princess, only one of the burgher women Wolff and Deken. The Rijksmuseum is currently investigating whether other glass-dotted women’s portraits have also been preserved or described. It is possible that Wolff and Deken’s political convictions and their affiliation with the patriots were the reason for having these glasses made.

The glasses have now gone on display alongside the print model for the portraits. It was made by printmaker Antoine Alexandre Joseph Cardon after an original drawing by W. Neering for the frontispiece of a 1784 book of Wolff and Deken stories.

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17th c. embroideries back on display after 10-year restoration

Friday, August 20th, 2021

After 10 years of restoration, a set of 350-year-old embroidered bed hangings have returned to the bedroom in a Birmingham mansion where King Charles I slept in 1642. The conservation team included both professional conservators and volunteers who worked together at Birmingham Museums to clean and stabilize the rapidly decaying linen, repair holes and fix loose threads to new linen support fabric by stitching over them (couching).

The embroidered linens are in the collection of Aston Hall, a Jacobean mansion built by Sir Thomas Holte, 1st Baronet of Aston, between 1618 and 1635. King Charles honored the great house with his presence in October 1642, mere months after armed hostility with Parliamentarian had broken out. The king stopped at Aston Hall after levying troops at his temporary base in Shrewsbury, and on October 23rd, only days after the king left the comforts of Holte’s hospitality, he and the Royalist army faced the Parliamentarian army at the Battle of Edgehill, the first pitched battle of the First English Civil War.

Aston Hall was targeted directly by Parliamentarian forces in December 1643. It was subjected to cannon fire for three days before the defenders surrendered. There is still a cannonball hole in the wooden staircase.

The hangings weren’t on the bed when Charles drew Aston Hall into these momentous events. They date to the same period and hang on a bed that also dates to the same period.

Designed using a type of embroidery called crewel work, which was a particular favourite style of the Jacobean period, the embroidered bed hangings comprise two curtains, pelmets and a bed covering. They feature an exquisite Tree of Life pattern, flowers, birds, deer and a Chinese-style pavilion. The wool threads are coloured with natural dyes in shades of blue, green, yellow, orange, red and pink. Embroidered bed coverings were the preserve of only the wealthiest families in the 17th century and such sets of hangings around a bed, gave warmth and privacy.

Jane Thompson-Webb, Conservation Team Leader at Birmingham Museums said:

“It’s a major achievement welcoming these embroideries back on display at Aston Hall. Before the start of the restoration project, they were very dirty, the colours were dull, and it was obvious that the embroideries were in a fragile state and at risk of being lost forever.

“They’ve been superbly restored thanks to our dedicated team of volunteers – with their hard-work these historic embroideries and their fabulous colours, intricate scenes and delicate details have been preserved for many more years to come.”

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Colonial Williamsburg acquires rare Paul Revere tankard

Thursday, August 19th, 2021

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has acquired a rare silver tankard made by Paul Revere, colonial America’s premier silversmith and the Revolution’s premier midnight righter. There are only about three dozen known Revere tankards. The tapering sides, midband, domed line and pinecone finial dates this one to around 1795, but researchers are still looking through Revere’s many extant record books to trace it directly back to its origins.

The silver tankard was sold at auction in May of this year for $112,500, including buyer’s premium. The Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections Fund provided the wherewithal to add this exceptional piece, one of the largest forms produced by Revere’s silver shop, to the Colonial Williamsburg museum holdings.

Colonial Williamsburg’s Revere tankard stands nearly 10 inches tall and holds 48 ounces of liquid (usually wine, ale or cider), making it weighty to lift when full. Its apparent size is enhanced by a stepped domed lid and an elongated finial. The tankard has a lighter appearance thanks to its scrolled openwork thumbpiece. It lacks engraving, which leaves the identity of the original owner a mystery. Details such as the decorative features and the substantial weight (nearly 34 troy ounces) may one day provide ownership clues through careful study of Revere’s shop records.

“Paul Revere is the best-known and most celebrated American silversmith,” said Janine E. Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of metals. “A large, eye-catching object such as this tankard is a great way to connect with the public and draw both children and adults into the story of this amazing material and its role in our early history.”

The tankard will now join the other recently-acquired example of Revere silver — a small porriger made around 1765 — in the new exhibition of Colonial Williamsburg’s permanent silver collection at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

“Colonial Williamsburg has long sought a significant example of Revere’s work,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources. “With its impressive size, fine detail, and excellent condition, this tankard fills a significant void in our American silver holdings.”

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House of the Muses to open to the public

Wednesday, August 18th, 2021

The House of the Muses, a Roman imperial-era domus decorated with elaborate mosaics and wall paintings, in the ancient city of Zeugma in southeastern Turkey’s Gaziantep province, will open to the public for the first time since it was discovered in 2007.

Built in the late 1st century, the villa was expanded and redecorated in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. It was destroyed by the invading Sassanids who sacked the city in 252/3 A.D., but its spectacular mosaic floors from the villa’s later period survived in excellent condition under the rubble fill. The house is named for perhaps the most specular of the mosaics: circular portraits of the Nine Museums bordered with geometric spirals and waves. Calliope, muse of epic poetry, is in the center circle.

Another floor mosaic found in 2014 depicts the Titan Oceanus, the divine personification of the world-encircling river, and his sister/wife Tethys, mother of all the river gods. They both have wings sprouting from their foreheads, traditional attributes of the sibling spouses, and she bears a ketos, a dragon-headed snake, on her shoulder. Relatively rare in Greek iconography, the couple became a popular motif in the eastern Greek provinces of the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 4th centuries. In Zeugma, they appear in mosaics of luxury homes as symbols of marriage. The muses were also associated with marriage, as according to mythology they descended from Olympus to dance and sing at marriages of divinities/heroes like Cadmus and Harmonia and Peleus and Thetis.

Earlier this year archaeologists revealed they’d found two symmetrical rock-cut chambers under 16 meters (52 feet) of fill. Flanking the east and west sides of the central courtyard, the chambers are hypothesized to have been dining rooms used to create an indoor-outdoor space for guests during all seasons.

Stating that the ancient city of Zeugma was one of the most important cities in Anatolia, especially on the Eastern Roman border, [excavation leader Professor Kutalmış] Görkay said that the excavations in the House of Muses, which have been ongoing since 2007, provided important information about the private lives, personal preferences and identities of the inhabitants of Zeugma.

“When we look at the places and the general structure of the house, we think that Zeugma belonged to a family having better than the middle-class economy. These houses may have one or two courtyards. Courtyards are areas where air and water enter, where rainwater is collected and used as water collection basins. In these wet areas, we see more water-related scenes. The courtyards of these houses were also used for dinner parties. The courtyards were filled with water, helping the house to stay cool during hot weather. The two rock chambers found here may also have been used as dining rooms. We are currently working on reinforcement. We aim to open them to visitors as soon as possible,” he said.

Much of the ancient town was flooded when the Birecik Dam was built over the Euphrates in 2000. Out of the estimated 2,000-3,000 ancient houses in Zeugma, 25 are fully submerged now, and archaeological excavations have barely scratched the surface of what remains. The House of the Museums will be an important addition to Zeugma’s heritage attractions which feature the largest mosaic museum in the world with more than 18,000 square feet of mosaics salvaged from the city.

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Freedman’s tomb with mummified remains found in Pompeii

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

The unique tomb of a freedman whose remains are partially mummified has been unearthed in the Porta Sarno necropolis just outside the east gate of Pompeii’s city walls. Laid to rest in the decades preceding the eruption of Vesuvius, the body is one of the best preserved ever found in Pompeii.

The tomb is a masonry walled enclosure with a triangular pediment. Traces of polychrome paint survive on the exterior. It is faded, but seems to have been a garden scene. The deceased was inhumed in a small cell behind the main façade that was so effectively sealed that organic remains were preserved, including part of one ear, his hair and numerous textile fragments.

An inscription on a marble slab embedded in the pediment identifies the deceased as Marcus Venerius Secundio, a former public slave employed as the custodian of the Temple of Venus and as an attendant of the Augustali, the order of priests dedicated to the cult of the Divine Augustus and the Julii. After he was manumitted, he came to hold prominent religious and political positions in Pompeii. He became an Augustale, joining the priesthood he had once served, and he “gave Greek and Latin ludi the lasted for four days.” There are inscriptions in Greek and of course the Roman elite spoke it, but this inscription is the first direct evidence of a spectacle in Pompeii having been staged in the Greek language.

Inhumation was a rare funerary practice for Roman adults in the 1st century. Marcus Venerius was more than 60 years old when he died. He shared the tomb with two other individuals, only they were cremated as per standard operating procedure. Two cinerary urns were found in the wider enclosure, not in his cell. One of them, a beautiful blue-green glass vessel, is identified by a columella (a stone funerary marker used in the Sarno Valley) with the name Novia Amabilis. Archaeologists believe she may have been Marcus’ wife.

The human and organic remains have been removed to Pompeii’s laboratory where they will be analyzed and conserved. Researchers hope to discover if this was deliberate mummification or a natural side-effect of the tomb’s hermetic seal.

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Two more frozen cave lion cubs found in Siberia

Monday, August 16th, 2021

The number of cave lion cubs preserved in the permafrost of Yakutia, eastern Siberia, has doubled with the discovery of two more. One of them, a little female named Sparta, was so effectively mummified her whiskers, teeth, skin, fur and internal organs are still intact. She is the best-preserved Ice Age animal ever discovered.

The cave lion (P. spelaea) was widely spread throughout eastern Siberia in the Late Pleistocene period, especially during the Karginian interstadial (termochron). It seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that all four mummies of the cave lion cubs found to this day are from the Karginian interstadial and were found in a quite confined area in the river basin in the midstream of the Indigirka River (lower reaches of Uyandina River and Semyuelyakh–Tirekhtyakh River, located only c. 60 km from each other). The large number of cubs found suggests that this area during the Karginian interstadial (when the climate was becoming relatively warm and tree vegetation was spreading) was a favourable breeding site for cave lions. It also seems probable that this site, during this time period, had some characteristics that made it more likely to rapidly freeze and preserve animals. The site was attractive to cave lions for making dens, but it was probably also susceptible to them collapsing.

The two Panthera spelaea cubs were found by mammoth tusk hunter Boris Berezhnev. He came across a male cave lion cub  first on the Semyuelyakh River in 2017. He named it Boris after himself, one supposes. The next year he returned to the site and found Sparta 50 feet away from where he had found Boris.

Sparta was between one and two months old when she died 28,000 years ago. Boris, who is less well-preserved, was around the same age as Sparta when he died, but they were not littermates. Radiocarbon dating found he lived long before her, around 43,500 years ago.

Boris and Sparta were transported to Yakutsk for examination. After microbiological tests found the frozen cubs carried no infectious diseases, they were CT scanned, radiocarbon dated and DNA was extracted. The cubs’ bodies were twisted on their axes and deformed under tens of thousands of years of permafrost pressure, but researchers were able to document the skeletal structure and organs from the tomographic images. Sparta was found to have a uterus-like organ, and Boris testicle-like organs. Researchers were confident enough from what they saw on the scans to conclude Sparta was female and Boris male. DNA analysis then confirmed the sexing.

The preliminary examination of the cubs’ mummies shows that the colour of the hair coat was changing from the juvenile yellowish-brown shade to a more ‘adult’ one, light grey to brown, at some point between 1–2 weeks and 1–2 months. Adult lions probably had light grey hair, well adapted to the Siberian Arctic, which is snow covered for two-thirds of the year.

It is known that cave lions had thick long fur undercoats consisting of strombuliform aeriferous hair. It covers the bodies of mummified lion cubs evenly and most likely helped them adapt to the cold climate.

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

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Two medieval jewelry hoards found in Russia

Sunday, August 15th, 2021

Two unique medieval hoards have been discovered in Russia this summer: a set of Volga-Finnish jewelry from the 6th century and a group jewelry and a bowl from the late 11th century or first half of the 12th. The former is the first hoard of Volga-Finnish women’s jewelry from the Migration Period ever discovered in the Suzdal district of western Russia. The latter is a hoard of 32 silver jewels including neck torques, bracelets and rings that predates the known settlements in the area.

The Suzdal hoard was unearthed on the right bank of the Nerl-Klyazminskaya river. It is a set of jewelry from a traditional Volga Finn woman’s costume. The non-ferrous metal objects include fragments of a headdress, three bracelets, an open-work brooch, more than 300 beads and a remarkable group of six hollow duck-shaped pendants that were once threaded on a leather cord decorated with metal beads. Waterfowl had religious significance to the Volga Finns and other Finno-Ugric cultures, as they were associated with their creation myths. There was also a metal bowl with a looping handle that is an extremely rare import from the Middle East and is older than the jewelry. It may have had ritual use.

According to manager Nikolai Makarov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, “These are not just collected items: they are elements of a woman’s costume. The find lifts the veil over the ‘Finnish prehistory’ of the Suzdal Opolye, which is known today to historians and archaeologists mainly as one of the centers of ancient Russian culture. Further research of the objects of the treasure and the settlement will make it possible to understand how Opolye was developed in the period preceding the Slavic colonization.”

Archaeologists believe the ornaments were hidden in a box made of birch bark near the settlement’s center, but the motive for hiding the treasure remains unknown.

The silver hoard was found on a forested slope near the village of Isady is northwestern Russia. The area has produced many a hoard — at least 17 documented ones — cached in the 13th century when the town of Ryazan became the first Russian city besieged by the Golden Horde forces of Batu Khan, Genghis’ grandson, in 1237. This one is earlier, however, and contains jewelry that is simpler in design and manufacture than the Ryazan treasures.

It is not a single set like the Suzdal jewelry, but rather wealth accumulated over time and buried, likely for safety. The jewels had been buried in a small container, now decayed. They include eight torques, 14 bracelets, 5 seven-rayed rings and several grivnas of the Novgorod type (triangular silver ingots). There are a variety of torque types, including twisted and braided ones, ones with hollow terminals and ones decorated with wolf’s tooth patterns. The bracelets are also varied in type (braided, knotted, smooth, rhomic ) and ornamented with varied motifs (crosses, palmettes).

The hoard has been dated by style, with comparable jewelry being widely found in hoards from the 11th and early 12th centuries. That not only predates the Ryazan siege and all its associated buried treasure, but also many of the settlements in the Staraya Ryazan area which date to the late 12th century.

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2,000-year-old bouquets found in Teotihuacan

Saturday, August 14th, 2021

Four intact bouquets of flowers have been discovered in a tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico. They were found in excellent condition, preserved with the cotton ropes still tied around the stems. They have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but the timeline of the tunnel’s use and other objects found near the flowers indicate they were deposited in the 1st or 2nd century A.D.

This the first time botanical materials have been found in such an exceptional state of preservation. In addition to the flowers, archaeologists also found maize seeds, beans, chilies, pumpkin seeds and prickly pear seeds. A leaf has been carefully recovered from one of the bouquets and will be studied to identify the plants used.

The ancient tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was first discovered in 2003 when torrential rains opened a sinkhole in front of the temple. The hole led to an underground passage 338 feet long opening into three chambers that had been deliberately filled with soil and rocks and sealed 1,700-1,800 years ago. Archaeologists believe the tunnel symbolized the underworld and the discovery that the ceiling was impregnated with pyrite (to represent the sun/stars) and the ground was covered in large quantities of mercury to simulate water confirmed the cosmological interpretation of the space.

In 2009, a ground penetrating radar survey mapped out of the length of the tunnel and its attached chambers. Archaeological excavations followed beginning in 2010. An astonishing array of more than 120,000 artifacts and organic remains have been discovered in the tunnel in the 12 years since the Tlalocan Project began. These offerings were immensely valuable, including imports like jade, amber, rubber, cacao beans, the skins and bones of animals not native to the area like wolves and pumas which came from as far away as Guatemala. The flowers are the climactic final discovery marking the end of the project’s exploration stage.

They were discovered past what was previously believed to be the end of the tunnel. When the team reached the edge, they found that it continued for another 16 feet down a steep descent. In the same area, archaeologists also found pounds of charcoal and charred seeds and fruits from a burnt offering ritual, and a sculpture with unusual characteristics that may been an incense burner.

The flowers are being cleaned and conserved inside the tunnel to keep them in the humid, cool environment that has preserved them so well for 2,000 years. This is solution is both budget and conservation friendly, as it does not require the creation of a highly controlled environment in a laboratory to prevent rapid deterioration of the organic materials. This is acutely necessary right now as Mexico has had to temporarily close archaeological zones and rebury excavated sites due to lack of resources in the wake of the pandemic.

Now that the excavation phase of the tunnel is over, the project’s focus will shift to studying and cataloguing the masses of objects and remains found there.

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Iron Age wooden idol found in Irish bog

Friday, August 13th, 2021

A rare carved wooden idol made more than 1600 years ago was discovered in a bog in Gortnacrannagh,  Co Roscommon, western Ireland. The artifact was made from a split oak trunk and carved into a vaguely anthropomorphic shape, with a small round head at the top, small shoulders and a long body carved with deep horizontal notches. It is one of only twelve Iron Age idols of its kind found in Ireland, and is the largest of them at more than eight feet long.

Wooden idols are known from bogs across northern Europe where waterlogged conditions allow for the preservation of ancient wood.

“The lower ends of several figures were also worked to a point suggesting that they may once have stood upright,” said wood specialist, Cathy Moore.

“Their meaning is open to interpretation, but they may have marked special places in the landscape, have represented particular individuals or deities or perhaps have functioned as wooden bog bodies, sacrificed in lieu of humans.”

Archaeologists believe this idol too was likely originally planted in the ground where it was the center point of some ceremony or ritual. It was found face-down and broken in two parts, so they don’t believe it fell where it stood, but rather was decommissioned, taken down and laid to rest. It may even have become an object of sacrifice itself. Along with the idol, the team also found Iron Age ploughs, daggers, spears, Bronze Age gold pins and large quantities of animal bones and even some human bones. All of these are evidence that the Iron Age residents of the area used the bog for votive deposits and for animal sacrifice.

Radiocarbon analysis dates the idol to between 200 and 400 A.D., which is actually on the later side for this type of artifact. The outside date is only a century before St. Patrick evangelized Ireland, so it’s an important survival of pre-Christian religious practices on the island.

It takes on added significance because it was excavated by professional archaeologists in its original context. The other 11 idols were found by accident, often by peat cutters, so only the orphaned objects themselves survive. This one was surrounded by artifacts and remains attesting to the religious ceremonies associated with the idol.

The idol is now undergoing conservation at University College Dublin. It is in a bath of polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces the water in wood ensuring it doesn’t warp or shrink when it dries. The idol will have to remain in this bath for three years before the wood is stable enough to be exposed to air. When it’s ready, it will go on display at the National Museum of Ireland. Meanwhile, a replica is being made of oak posts for display in the Rathcroghan Centre in Tulsk, Co Roscommon, near when the artifact was found.

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Roman Republic coins found in wall

Thursday, August 12th, 2021

Excavations in Murviel-lès-Montpellier in the Occitanie region of southern France have unearthed the remains of a large building with a pot of Roman Republic coins secreted in one of its walls.

Initially founded in the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. by the Samnagenses, a Gallic people mentioned in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the oppidum of Altimurium was a fortified settlement was built on a hill that would later become known as Castellas. At its height, the town covered almost 30 hectares encircled by a monumental wall. It was divided into an upper town on the flat summit and several terraces below, and the lower town on the gentle slope at the bottom of the hill. Where the upper and lower town met was a large forum with two porticos and colonnaded public buildings.

The ancient town was absorbed into the territory of its much larger neighbor, the Roman colony of Nemausus, modern-day Nîmes, in the 2nd century, and thereafter suffered a rapid decline. The oppidum was abandoned by the middle of the 3rd century and was never rebuilt. The current town of Murviel-lès-Montpellier was founded in the 11th century on a hill to the south of Castellas.

This season’s excavations focused on the lower town enclosure dating to around 100 B.C. in advance of planned home construction in the area. They found the first defensive ditch ever discovered at the site and the only evidence of a road in the lower town. They also found a medieval burial ground, but most notably a building of yet undetermined function built in the 1st century B.C.

The remains consist of a large threshold stone and carefully constructed walls with some traces of surviving plaster. A bench was built into the wall adjacent to the threshold. A second room featured a concrete floor. This structure was extensively redeveloped in the early 1st century A.D., creating a large building with three wings built around a central courtyard. A dolium, a large storage amphora, was found embedded in a basin in a room that had been used one time (and only one time) as a forge. A room in the south wing was employed as a forge, not just once but consistently. Two hearths and large quantities of associated detritus were found. The design of the building and the evidence of different types of work having taken place within its walls indicate this was not a dwelling. A large open space in front of it suggests the building may have been open to the public.

A small pottery vessel containing 20 silver denarii of the Roman Republic was unearthed in the demolition layers of this building. Archaeologists believe it may have been hidden in the earthen walls of the room that were destroyed during the reconstruction. The coin hoard survived by a fluke.

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