Copper Age amber burial found in Karelia

Archaeologists have discovered a unique Copper Age burial containing 140 pieces of amber jewelry on the shores of Lake Onega in the Republic of Karelia, northwestern Russia. The grave dates to around 3400 B.C., and no other burials from this period have been found in Karelia or its neighboring regions in northwestern Russia containing anything close to this much amber.

A team from Petrozavodsk State University (PetrSU) made the find while surveying sites of prehistoric settlements on the western shore of the lake. The grave is a narrow oval pit that was covered in red ochre paint for ritual reasons. Inside the grave an assortment of pendants, buttons and discs made of Baltic amber were unearthed. Some of these types are so rare they were only known from single discoveries in the Eastern Baltic before now, and those were found in ancient settlements, not in a funerary context.

Along the edges of the burial pit, amber ornaments were deposited thickly in two tiers. In the center, they were face down in rows. They had originally been stitched to a leather cape draped over the body. When the leather rotted away, the amber pieces remained in place.

Small flint chips flaked off in the production of tools were placed on the body. Archaeologists believe the lithic deposits were meant to symbolize weapons like arrowheads and knives. There is no local source of flint in Karelia and the amber was also non-local, coming from the Eastern Baltic region, so these materials in the grave can only have been acquired through trade networks.

No other graves have been found at the site, which is another way in which this burial is unique.

Since the Mesolithic era, in the forest belt of Europe, ancient people buried the dead in ancestral cemeteries. The burial with rich grave goods found in the vicinity of Petrozavodsk is a single one. In addition, some of the discovered amber jewelry found in the grave had not been found in Eastern Europe before. It is possible that a trader from the Eastern Baltic States was buried in the grave, who arrived on the western shore of Lake Onega to acquire (in exchange for amber) slate chopping tools. Workshops for the production of slate axes and adzes are currently being investigated by the university expedition just next to the burial site.

The burial discovered by the PetrSU expedition testifies to the formation of the so-called “prestigious” primitive economy among primitive people living in Northern Europe, in which jewelry and especially valuable tools were made to maintain the high social status of their owners. Various jewelry and other prestigious items accumulated by some noble hunters are currently found by archaeologists usually in burials.

The “amber” burial discovered by the expedition of Petrozavodsk University testifies to the strong ties of the ancient population of Karelia with the tribes that lived on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.

Iron Age warrior wearing spurs found in Sweden

The grave of an Iron Age warrior buried with his sword by his side on spurs on his heels has been unearthed in Buttle on the Swedish island of Gotland. Preliminary osteological analysis indicates the deceased was male, and stratigraphy suggests he lived between the 4th and 6th century. Warrior graves with weapons from this period are very rare finds in Sweden.

Excavations at the site began in 2019 but the first season turned up little of note. Last year’s excavations were suspended. This dig season saw the return of archaeologists and students from Uppsala University’s Gotland campus and they were welcomed back by the rare discovery of the warrior burial.

The bones were found during excavation of a stone circle of limestone blocks. As the soil was carefully removed from the skeleton in situ, spurs emerged at his feet. When the team removed the soil from his midsection, they found a sword. The team wrapped the soil block around the sword in plaster to remove it without risk of damage to the fragile organic elements and oxidizing metal.

The sword is 80 cm (31.5 inches) long and is bronze with bronze fittings. Parts of the sheath have also survived, namely wood framing at the top and bottom of the blade. An acorn-shaped bronze finial was found on the tip. It is similar in style to ones made on the continent at that time and Germanic fighters, including ones from Scandinavia, are known to have served in the Roman army. It is possible, therefore, that this warrior may have fought for Rome himself or had sufficient dealings with the Empire to acquire the weapon.

Vermeer’s Cupid returns

A painting of Cupid hidden behind a layer of grey has reemerged on the wall behind The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer. After more than three centuries of grey overpaint and four years of meticulous restoration, the Girl, now backed up by Cupid, will be the centerpiece of a new exhibition dedicated to Vermeer at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.

Painted ca. 1659, it was bought by Augustus III of Poland, Elector of Saxony, from the prized art collection of Victor Amadeus I of Savoy, 3rd Prince of Carignano, in Paris in 1742. It became part of what is now the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. It was misattributed to Rembrandt at the time, a recognition of its quality even as the master who produced it was largely forgotten outside of the Netherlands. It wasn’t correctly attributed to Vermeer until 1859.

We know from correspondence about the purchase that the wall was already Cupidless when the painting arrived in Dresden. X-rays revealed the presence of the Cupid in 1979, but researchers at the time believed the figure had been overpainted by Vermeer himself. When a new comprehensive restoration began in 2017, conservators removing the old yellowed varnish layer discovered that the paint in the central part of the wall had markedly different solubility properties than the rest of the paint. This spurred further investigation of the paint layers which revealed that the presence of a dirt layer and binding agent between Vermeer’s original paint and the overpaint that covered the Cupid. Several decades passed between the completion of the work and the overpainting. That means it was not Vermeer’s choice to eliminate the Cupid painting towering behind the young woman as she reads her (love?) letter.

In the light of the discovery that the overpaint was not done by Vermeer, a commission of experts decided to remove the overpaint in early 2018. The ultrathin layer of paint had to be removed under magnification using a small scalpel. No other method would preserve the last varnish layer applied by Vermeer’s hand. This painstaking scalpel technique was slow going, but as of earlier this year, Cupid is back.

The composition is notably different. The Cupid painting is large, covering most of the empty space on the grey wall and providing a new dark background for the young lady’s golden hair. Cupid himself is about half the height of the girl. He holds his bow on his left side and arrows aloft in his right hand. Two masks are on the ground at his feet. They represent true love’s disdain of falsehood in favor of truth and loyalty.

Vermeer used the trope of the Cupid painting-within-a-painting four times that we know of, including in Lady Standing at a Virginal , which has been loaned to Dresden by London’s National Gallery for the new exhibition.

Along with nine other paintings by Vermeer, including the “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) and the “Lady Standing at a Virginal” (London, National Gallery), which are closely related to the painting, some 50 works of Dutch genre painting from the second half of the 17th century will be on display. Paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, Emanuel de Witte and Jan Steen will show the artistic environment in which Vermeer worked and with which he was in close contact. Selected examples from other artistic genres, such as drawings and prints, sculptures and historical furniture will further enrich the exhibition. A segment of the exhibition will be specifically devoted to Vermeer’s painting technique and the restoration of the “Girl Reading a Letter” in order to illustrate the complex, experimental process used in creating the painting.

Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection opens September 10, 2021, and runs through January 2, 2022.

It’s a Bronze Age hoard bonanza!

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s pair of hoards comes news that four Late Bronze Age metal hoards have been unearthed near Gannat in central France. There are hundreds of bronze artifacts in these hoards, so many that the site contains by far the largest grouping of Bronze Age metal objects ever discovered in France. In fact, it is one of the richest Bronze Age metal deposit sites ever discovered in Europe.

The first known hoard at the site was plundered in 2017 by looters so unfortunately the precise location of the find is unknown and cannot be archaeologically investigated. It is now in the collection of the Anne de Beaujeu Museum in Moulins. To prevent the site’s utter despoliation by treasure hunters, an official archaeological excavation began in 2019 and has been ongoing since then.

The team discovered the remains of an unusually large fortified settlement dating to around 800 B.C., the end of the Bronze Age. The 30-hectare settlement was defended by a double row of ramparts, probably a wooden palisade with earthenware ditch, and dry stone walls estimated to have been 20 feet high.

Archaeologists found the first legally excavated hoards in 2020. The two large metal deposits were perfectly intact, which is extremely rare with hoards from this time period. They were still contained inside decorated pottery vessels. To preserve the contents and pots, the hoards were removed en bloc, CT scanned and then excavated in laboratory conditions.

Each vessel held dozens of bronze pieces, almost all of them whole and unbroken. There are weapons — axes, knives, daggers, spear tips — jewelry — bracelets, pendants, belt buckles — and fittings from chariots and horse harnesses. The objects were carefully arranged in the same way in both hoards. The jewelry was together at the bottom of the vase. A layer of sharp objects (sickles and gouges in one, swords/knives/spears in the other) was placed on top of the jewelry. The axe blades were placed above them head down. One intriguing element has never been found before in a Bronze Age hoard context: river pebbles, specifically chosen for their color. One of the hoards contained white pebbles, the other red.

Just this month, the team unearthed two more intact metal hoards. One was inside a ceramic pot topped with a plate. The other has no container. It is a deposit of ax blades in a pit, but they are placed in the exact same way as the axes were in the 2020 finds, head down, tail up.

Although fragile after 2,800 years, the bronze objects are in an exceptional state of preservation. “The axes, in particular, were little or not used,” underlines Pierre-Yves Milcent, which illustrates the paleomonetary role which they played, since, as in the Gallic time, elaborate systems of exchange of values ​​already existed in the Bronze Age. Ax blades were used as units of exchange. This point clearly illustrates that the intention of those who buried these precious objects was to sacrifice value to gods, in order to obtain their help during personal or collective crises, but also during social rites. For example inaugurating a building, a site, etc., adds Pierre-Yves Milcent, who remarks: “Sacrificing values ​​in the earth is a European habit, which continued during the Iron Age – the Gallic period – but which has in fact existed since the Campaniforme at least.”

The discovery of such a rich vein of Bronze Age metal deposits still in situ and intact gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study Bronze Age Europe’s practice of voluntary, organized burial of metal valuables in places where there are neither graves nor temples to explain the offerings.

Two Bronze Age hoards found by accident in western Poland

Two Bronze Age hoards have been discovered in western Poland in the past six months. The first was discovered on January 12th by a man and his son taking a walk in their hometown of Bogdaniec. They spotted a bronze bracelet poking out of the soil on a slope and notified regional authorities. The subsequent archaeological inspection of the site revealed a rich deposit of bronze objects from the Lusatian culture (1300 – 400 B.C.).

Found inside a broken vessel, the hoard consists of 220 bronze artifacts, among them six bracelets, five necklaces, round plates, a myriad rings and assorted mounts that are believed to have been part of a horse harness. The variety and quantity of the objects makes this a find of great archaeological significance.

The second hoard was found 30 miles to the south of Bogdaniec by a farmer clearing rocks from his field in Sulęcin County on July 27th. He encountered the grouping of bronze objects just below the agricultural layer so they had never been exposed or damaged in previous field work. He wisely left the objects alone, secured the find site and informed the county conservation services the next day.

Archaeologists recovered three scepters, three bronze dagger points, a chisel, a hatchet and smaller associated metal objects from the Únětice culture which flourished in what are now Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany and Poland between 2300 and 1800 B.C. Úněticean hoards, often found in funerary contexts, are characterized by metal objects, including axes, ingots, daggers, bracelets and spirals. Very rarely do Únětice hoards contain more than one dagger and one scepter, so this find is unique.