French manor reno coins sell for $1.2 million

The stash of 17th century gold coins found during the renovation of a mansion in Plozévet, Brittany, has sold at auction for a collective €1 million ($1.2 million), far exceeding the pre-sale estimate of  €250,000-300,000 ($296,000-$355,000).

The coins were discovered by stonemasons in 2019. They were in two separate stashes, one set in a metal box in one wall, the other in a bag in another wall. The grand total was 239 coins, all gold, 23 of them minted under Louis XIII, 216 during the reign of Louis XIV. Property owners Véronique and François Mion kept four as souvenirs and put the rest up for auction. There were so many interested buyers at the September 23rd auction and bidding was so intense that it took five hours to get through all the coins.

Bidding opened at 8,000 euros for a very rare double Louis d’Or [with a long lock] , depicting Louis XIV and dating back to 1646. It went for 46,000 euros, the same price as a Louis d’Or from Paris dated 1640 and stamped with the Templar’s Cross.

“Bids were flying from everywhere – in the room, on internet and on the telephone,” said auctioneer Florian D’Oysonville.

France passed a treasure law in 2016 that claims all archaeological materials found as property of the state, but it was not retroactive. Because the owners bought the property in 2012, they were able to sell the coins at auction and split the proceeds of the sale 50/50 with the stonemasons who actually found the treasure.

Museums do get one other bite at the apple, however. French institutions have the right of preemption, meaning they can claim any lot offered at auction for the final price after the hammer falls. The Monnaie de Paris, France’s national mint which has been in continuous operation since 864 A.D., made liberal use of their statutory rights in the sale of the Plozevet Treasure. They preempted 19 of the 235 coins sold. I’d bet a Louis d’Or that the long lock and templar coins were among them. (Spoiler: I do not have a Louis d’Or.)

Byzantine warrior had his broken jaw wired

The jaw of a 14th century Byzantine warrior was wired back together after a severe break, and it worked. His jaw healed. Unfortunately his healed mandible together with the rest of his head was later cut off by Ottoman invaders.

The warrior’s skull was discovered in a 1991 excavation at the medieval fort of Polystylon on the shores of the Aegean in western Thrace, Greece. He had been decapitated, likely by the Ottoman forces that took the city in the early or mid-1380s. The exact date of the city’s fall is not known, but it was one of the last holdouts in the area, resisting the Ottoman conquest for at least 20 years as other urban centers in the region were conquered.

Archaeologists believe he was beheaded after the Ottomans finally managed to take Polystylon. A horrific perimortem injury on his frontal bone, a compressed and shattered fracture inflicted by a puncturing weapon indicates he was at the very least thoroughly disabled before his head was severed. He may have already been dead, as post-mortem violence to bodies was common in the wake of conquest.

The skull was intact with mandible and the upper three cervical vertebrae in place, so the head must have still had soft tissues binding it together before it was buried. It’s likely it was recovered by a sympathizer for secret burial without the knowledge of the decapitating authorities. The head was then buried in a pre-existing grave in the fort’s Late Byzantine cemetery. It was placed at the head of the coffin of the original occupant, a five-year-old child. There is no evidence of any familial connection between the warrior and the child. A broken pot found on top of the child’s chest is believed to have been used as a digging tool by the burier.

The warrior’s jaw suffered almost as harsh a treatment as his forehead and neck. His mandible was in two pieces. The cause of the fracture could not be conclusively determined from the injury, but it had to have been a forceful encounter like a fall from a horse, a blow from a sharp weapon at close range or from a projectile propelled by ignited black powder.

His highly adept physician realigned the two parts of his jaw into their original position and securing them in place by threading a metal wire in and out at the base of the teeth from the left and right molars immediately adjacent to the fracture to the third molars. The wire left bands on the molars and their tartar. The teeth could not be tested to confirm what type of metal was used, but process of elimination points to gold. There is no grey discoloration like you’d see from silver, no green from copper or bronze.

“It must have been some kind of gold thread, a gold wire or something like that, as is recommended in the Hippocratic corpus that was compiled in the fifth century B.C.,” Agelarakis said. Gold is soft and pliable but strong and nontoxic, he added, making it a good choice for this type of medical treatment.

“In one of the dentitions, I saw that the tooth was filed a little bit so that the knot that was tied in the wire would not scratch the cheek,” [Adelphi University anthropology professor Anagnostis] Agelarakis said. “It’s very sophisticated — it’s flabbergasting.”

If the warrior was still on active duty, it must have been difficult for him to lay low and drink liquid foods while his bandaged jaw healed, Agelarakis noted. It’s unclear if the warrior’s tongue was also wounded in the incident, and whether his speech or pronunciation were affected following treatment, he added.

This is the only mandibular fracture ever discovered in Polystylon, and the treatment would have been very expensive because it required a highly skilled physician and precious metal. It indicates the warrior was not a simple soldier manning the fort, but someone of great importance, perhaps even the military leader of the city. That would also explain why someone put themselves in danger to bury at least one part of the man in consecrated ground. It would also explain why the Ottoman’s decapitated him.

Restoration of Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà complete

The restoration of Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has been completed, revealing the original marble and answering questions that have long been asked about this iconic masterpiece. The restoration began November 23, 2019, and was supposed to be completed by summer of 2020, but a certain virus had other ideas. Conservators were able to get back to work in September of last year, and now the rejuvenated Pietà is back.

Michelangelo sculpted three pietàs over his lifetime. The first, now in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, features a preternaturally young Mary seated with Jesus’ body draped across her lap. The second, the Rondanini Pietà now at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, features a more mature Mary standing up, holding the body of her son. Only the Bandini Pietà has figures other than Mary and Christ, and indeed, the dominant figure in the composition is Nicodemus who looms large behind Mary the Mother, Mary Magdalene and the limp, twisted form of Jesus.

This was Michelangelo’s most audacious sculpture. He was inspired by the Laocoon Group, a large sculpture depicting the death of the Trojan priest and his sons that had been praised by Pliny in antiquity. The Laocoon was rediscovered in 1506 under a vineyard next to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Michelangelo, dispatched by Pope Julius II, was present to witness its excavation and its exceptional artistry had a strong influence on him. He too wanted to create a group of figures out of a single massive block of marble, only his masterpiece would beat the Laocoon in size and number of figures. It was meant to adorn a chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome where Michelangelo planned to be buried. That the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo was a sculptural representation of his devotion to Christ.

He worked on this group for almost a decade, starting in 1547 when he was in his mid-70s and concluding in 1555. The story told by Michelangelo’s friends and fellow artists Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi was that Michelangelo, enraged by the intractable flaws he kept encountering throughout the three-ton block of marble, took a hammer to the work until his servant Antonio da Casteldurante begged him to stop. Michelangelo agreed to let Antonio keep the sculpture and its broken pieces and to let Florentine sculptor Tiberio Calcagni, a friend and collaborator of his, repair it. Calcagni bought it from Casteldurante on behalf of banker Francesco Bandini.

Bandini kept it the garden of his villa in Rome and it remained in the family after his death. It passed through a couple of hands before being sold to Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1671. It took three years for him to figure out how to transport the huge piece to Florence. The Pietà has been in Florence ever since in several different locations.

Aside from occasional cleanings, no restoration work has been recorded after Calcagni reattached body parts and controversially altered Mary Magdalene’s face. There is one documented intervention. In 1882, a plaster cast was made of the sculpture. The residue from the plaster left the marble surface dry with large areas of bright white marring the surface. Restorers tried to fix that by applying layers of wax on top of the residue, and over time the wax darkened and mixed with dust to change the surface colors to a deep, uneven amber.

To address these issues in the least invasive manner possible, a multi-disciplinary team of conservators studied and documented the condition of the Pietà. They then cleaned and restored it in a custom-built “open laboratory” so visitors could see them at work behind a plexiglass wall. In the process, the team discovered that much of the origin story relayed for 500 years is likely apocryphal.

Diagnostic inspection led to the discovery that the marble came from quarries in Seravezza, in the province of Lucca, rather than from Carrara as had been believed. This discovery is significant because the quarries in Seravezza were owned by the Medici, and Giovanni de’ Medici, soon to be Pope Leo X, had enjoined Michelangelo to use marble from the quarry for the façade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. How this huge block of marble got to Rome where Michelangelo carved this Pietà from it between 1547 and 1555 is still a mystery.

Michelangelo was unhappy with the quality of the marble from these quarries because it revealed sudden veining and minute cracks difficult to detect from the surface. Thanks to the restoration, it has proven possible to confirm that the block used for the Pietà was indeed flawed, as Vasari tells us.  In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari describes it as hard and full of impurities and that sparks flew from it with every blow of the chisel. Numerous small inclusions of pyrite were discovered, and they most certainly would have caused sparks when hit with a chisel. More importantly, the presence of numerous minute cracks, particularly on the back and front of the base, suggests that Michelangelo may well have encountered them when carving Christ and the Virgin’s left arms and was forced to stop working on it. This is a more likely hypothesis than that of a now ageing Michelangelo, unhappy with the result, trying to destroy the sculpture in a moment of distress and frustration by taking a hammer to it, because the restorers found no sign of any hammer blows, unless, of course, they were erased later by someone else.

Based on these discoveries, it was decided to proceed by first conducting cleaning trials in order to identify the most suitable methodology. Once established, the restoration process proper began where the deposits were thickest, using a non-invasive, gradual, and controlled method of cotton pads soaked in deionised and lightly heated water. For the wax build-up applied to the group’s surface, small, closely spaced splashes and drippings caused by candles on Florence Cathedral’s high altar, behind which the group had stood for 220 years, cleaning with water was supplemented with the use of a scalpel in the toughest areas.

The open laboratory will remain in place for six months so that visitors to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, accompanied by guides, can see the Pietà up close. The tours of the laboratory run through March 30th, 2022.

3,500-year-old stone mosaic floor found in Turkey

A mosaic composed of natural stones has been unearthed at the ancient Bronze Age Hittite site of Usakli Hoyuk near Yozgat in central Turkey. It was first discovered in 2018 in the remains of temple to Teshub, the Hittite god of thunder and storms. The temple dates to around 1500 B.C., which makes this mosaic the oldest patterned mosaic known.

The site has been known since the early 20th century, but it was first officially explored by archaeologists in 2008. The geophysical survey indicated the presence of a large building of Hittite origin. Excavations between 2013 and 2015 revealed a monumental temple with walls of roughly-hewn megalithic stone blocks built without mortar. Small but complete pieces of pottery — an unguent vase, a conical cup –typical of ones found at Late Bronze Age Hittite temples identified its purpose.

The mosaic pavement was located in a courtyard of the temple. It is ten feet wide and 23 feet long and today consists of 3,147 stones in shades of white, red and black. They are irregular in size were laid flat onto a beaten earth floor. The stones were placed in contrasting color arrangements creating geometric patterns.

Other Hittite-era paved floors and courtyards have been found at sites in Anatolia, but they were paved with flagstones or compacted pebbles, not deliberately arranged to form geometric designs of different colors. The Usakli Hoyuk floor is unique both in the size of the medium size of the stones (neither large flagstone nor small pebble) and in their careful selection and installation based on shape and color.

Before this discovery, the oldest mosaic floor was considered to be a Mycenean-era pavement in the palace of Tiryns in Greece, also from the mid-2nd millennium B.C., but its pebbles are not multi-colored and there are no unmistakable patterns. It’s in the Iron Age that pebbles of different colors, the forerunners of tesserae, were used to create geometric and abstract designs. The pavement in the temple at Usakli Hoyuk is something of a missing link between the flagstones and the colorful pebbles.

The eagle’s head made of Lincoln’s hair

In the collection of a small historical society in Syracuse, New York, is a unique and seldom-seen object: an 1864 eagle on a globe made entirely of hair contributed by leading politicians and their wives, most notably President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

It was created for the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, an exposition to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency supporting the sick and wounded soldiers of the United States Army. Local women’s charitable groups affiliated with the USSC had successfully thrown fairs before in Chicago and Boston, and the Beneficent Ladies of New York followed suit in April of 1864. (These unapproved initiatives caused some consternation among the all-male Commissioners at USSC headquarters in Washington, but they could not deny the hundreds of thousands of dollars the fairs brought in.)

When the Metropolitan Fair was still early in the planning stages — the venue hadn’t even been determined yet — the committee appealed to individuals and businesses in New York and around the world for contributions of money and exhibits to entice visitors and raise funds for the cause. The expositions had pavilions showcasing all kinds of militaria, memorabilia, crafts and curiosities with heavy emphasis on Union patriotism linking the dramatis personae of the Civil War (Grant’s sword) and Revolutionary War heroes (Washington’s camp chest).

According to press accounts of the Fair, Mrs. Caroline Wright, wife of the former Governor of Indiana and Senator Joseph A. Wright, commissioned Brooklyn jewelers Spies & Champney to create a national symbol out of the hair of nationally-important politicians. The letter Spies & Champney sent to President Lincoln in January 1864 soliciting “as large a lock as you can well spare” is in the Library of Congress.

It’s pretty remarkable that from January they were able to receive locks of hair from dozens of top politicians and their wives in time to weave such a large, intricate, detailed design which was completed and framed in time for exhibition at the Fair on April 4th. It hung on one of the piers of the Temple of Flora, the pavilion showcasing dramatic floral arrangements.

“The Hairy Eagle” was singled out for praise in the New York Herald‘s account of the fair printed on opening day, April 4th, 1864, issue.

The curiosities in the Fair may be numbered by the thousand; but of all the strange and curious things, the hairy eagle is, without doubt, entitled to take the highest flight. It has winged its way from Indiana, having been donated to the Fair by Mrs. Governor Wright, of that State. It measures about twelve inches in length, and the head, eyes and back bone of this curious bird are formed of hair from the head of President Lincoln. The bill is formed of Secretary Chase’s hair, being symbolical of greenbacks and other bills. The wing feathers are made of hair from the heads of thirty-four prominent Senators, arranged in the order of their age. The tail and parts of the body are also of hair. Crowning this airy nothing is a wreath formed of the hair of the wives of representative men. It will be hung at the front of the pillar on the right of the Floral Temple, and underneath will be a small book, in which all admirers of President Lincoln will be allowed to enter their names on paying one dollar for the privilege of doing so. The money will go for the benefit of the Fair. The eagle, together with the book of autographs, will ultimately be presented to President Lincoln.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper edition of April 23, 1864, sang the fair’s praises on the front page, and in a humorous take on the exhibits and visitors, recounted that the book had nothing like a thousand signatures yet. It also threw in a couple of burns on Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the only cabinet member not to contribute hair as he “had none to spare,” and Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania who was “innocent of a single hair, and has sported a wig for the last 20 years.”

Whether the goal of $1000 and 1000 signatures was met is unknown, but the report of the fair compiled three years later noted that the book was so popular 400 signatures and $400 were collected within the first three days of the Fair. We do know the Hairy Eagle was never presented to Mrs. Lincoln or the President. Instead, it hung in the window of the Champney & Smitten shop in Brooklyn for many years. It moved upstate in the 19teens with Francis Champney’s wife Ida. After his death, she moved to Syracuse to live with their daughter Mrs. Sarah Wanamaker. The family donated the Hairy Eagle to the Onondaga Historical Association some time before 1917. With the weaving she donated a key that maps and lists all the different hair contributors.

No OHA records of the acquisition survive, but one undated newspaper clipping in the OHA archives calls Ida’s gift “both historic and extremely artistic,” adding, “There is no better specimen of patience and wonderful intricate weaving.”

According to OHA curator Thomas H. Hunter, the wreath has never been loaned out to another organization. A man alleging to own an article of Lincoln’s bloodstained clothing once requested to remove some of the president’s hair from the sculpture for a DNA test, but as Hunter recalls with a droll smile, “I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.'”

Encased in a wood frame covered with convex glass, the Hairy Eagle’s reverse is covered with plaster of Paris. “Basically, it’s hermetically sealed; there’s never been any examination of [the wreath],” Hunter says. “If it were opened now, the deterioration process would be exponentially accelerated. … I would never want to chance that.”

The OHA only displays the Hairy Eagle only on rare special occasions to keep it out of the light as much as possible. The last time it was exhibited was February 2019 to celebrate the 210th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.