Unique Achilles mosaic found in Rutland

An exceptional mosaic depicting scenes from the clash between Achilles and Hector at the end of the Trojan War has been unearthed at Rutland in the East Midlands. It is one of only a handful of mosaics with this motif known to survive and the rest are on continental Europe. This is the first mosaic depicting Achilles and Hector ever discovered in the UK.

The presence of the mosaic was first discovered last year by Jim Irvine on a family walk on his father’s land. He saw some Roman pottery fragments in a wheat field. When he examined satellite imagery of the spot, he saw a cropmark delineating a building beneath the surface. A little digging revealed a small section of a mosaic. Irvine notified Leicestershire County Council and county archaeologists followed up, excavating a small trench to get a better idea of the mosaic beneath the surface. They were able to determine that the mosaic was in good condition and was figural with people, horses and chariots.

That type of complex figural imagery is rare in Britain, and experts from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services were enlisted to document the mosaic exposed in the trench in August 2020. The trench was then expanded, revealing additional figures that identified the mosaic as containing scenes from the Trojan War. After a year of lockdown and fieldwork backlog, archaeologists and students from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History returned to the site this September to excavate the full mosaic floor.

It is enormous, 36 feet by 23 feet, and was likely a grand dining room. Within a guilloche pattern border are three comic-book style panels showing the clash between Greek hero Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy. The top panels depicts the chariot battle between Achilles and Hector. The middle panel shows Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot while Hector’s father, King Priam, begs Achilles to return the body for proper burial. The third panel features the exchange of Hector’s body for its weight in gold. A Trojan servant balances a huge scale on his shoulders with Hector’s corpse on one side and a bowl of gold on the other. Priam adds more gold vessels to meet the ransom requirement.

This last panel proves that the source was not actually The Iliad, because Homer’s account of the death of Hector has Priam ransoming the body with a cart full of rich gifts after he begs Achilles to think of his own father and have mercy. Before that plea softened his heart, Achilles had said he would never give the body back not even for its weight in gold. The story of the scale with Hector’s body on one side and a pile of gold on the other comes from a lost play by Aeschylus (Phrygians, or the Ransom of Hector) now known only from marginalia and fragments.

The room was part of a large villa in use between the 3rd and 4th century. While only the mosaic room and another building next to it have been excavated so far, geophysical surveys have found numerous outbuildings — barns, a circular structure, a possible bath house. It was probably the villa of a wealthy, classically educated individual. Fire damage and later burials indicate the villa was reused after it was abandoned.

The mosaic is highly detailed, and specific features show that it is the work of highly skilled mosaicists.  The range of colours used, the attention to fine detail and the way that some figures transgress the guilloche boundaries suggest that this presumably high status floor may have been sourced from an illuminated manuscript that was in the possession of the villa owner. It also raises the possibility that this person had an understanding of the classics and wanted to share that knowledge with their friends and guests.

Leicestershire Fieldworkers will be hosting a zoom webinar on the mosaic by one of the excavations’ lead archaeologists, Jennifer Browning, on Thursday, December 2nd, at 7.30PM GMT (2:30PM EST). Register here.

17th c. celestial globe restored

A rare 17th century celestial globe in the collection of the Museo Galileo in Florence has been restored to its former glory after six months of study, cleaning and repair. The conservation restored the full legibility of the globe, bringing back the vivid colors and details of the imagery and text.

The Globe Celeste was begun by Joost de Hondt, aka Hondius, in 1611. Hondt was one of the three preeminent cartographers in Amsterdam at a time when the constant flow of new geographic information made the creation of updated maps and globes a highly profitable business. When he died in 1612, his son Jodocus Hondius the Younger completed the globe with Adriaen Veen. Dedicated to the “lords of the United Provinces of Belgium,” the celestial globe depicts the constellations and stars, using the ancient observations of Claudius Ptolemy as the base, but with major updates from astronomers and explorers of the Age of Discovery, including the stars north of the Tropic of Capricorn observed by Tycho Brahe, whose portrait is on the globe, and the new southern hemisphere constellations first documented by Pietre Diercksz Keyser and Frederick de Houtman.

The globe is made of 12 strips of paper 5.5 inches wide at their widest points. Each strip is divided into two parts and topped with circular caps on the ends. They were printed with meticulously detailed copper plate engravings and then colored in with pigments and dyes after assembly over a spherical shell with a single axis supporting it in the interior. It was then coated in protective lacquer of shellac or another natural resin to allow the globe to be handled without damaging the surface.

The restoration has revealed new information about the structure of the globe. It was built up from a tiny nucleus just a few millimeters in diameter. Nineteen layers later, they had a globe 21 inches in diameter. Once it was dry, a small opening was made and the material inside crushed and removed. An oak plank was then inserted through the ends and fixed with brass pins to keep the sphere’s axis stable.

Researchers found no documentation of past restorations, so they deployed non-invasive techniques like ultraviolet fluorescence, false color infrared and X-rays to identify materials used in the original and in past interventions.

The surface of the globe had at least two depressions potentially caused by accidental falls, as well as areas where rubbing and scratches were evident, making the images and constellations difficult to decipher. Delicate cleaning enabled the recovery of the original shades of the constellations painted in yellow, red, green, blue, and brown, restoring the beauty of the images.

In order to reposition the paper cover more accurately, it was decided to completely remove the strip of paper and lift the cap to see inside the globe, where new observations were made on the nature and thickness of the layers, as well as the surprise discovery of a twig of willow wood with two tied paper parcels that were most likely inserted to improve a depression in the paper during a restoration of which there had previously been no record. It was decided to remove the twig, given it no longer served a use and was not part of the original structure, and the paper parcels revealed a folded piece of newspaper dated December 24, 1942, indicating that it was restored in those years.

3,000-year-old drain pipe found in China

The remains of a 3,000-year-old earthenware drainage pipe have been unearthed in Xi’an City, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. The drainage pipe was made of four cylindrical pipes 10 inches in diameter linked together to form a section 10 feet long. It was discovered in an excavation of the ancient site of Haojing which dates to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045 B.C. – 771 B.C.).

Haojing was one of the twin capitals of the Western Zhou Dynasty. It was located on the east bank of the Feng River; the other capital, Fenghao, was on the west bank. Haojing was founded by King Wu of Zhou (r. 1046-1043 B.C.) and contained the royal palace the administrative center of government. Fenghao contained the Zhou Dynasty ancestral shine and formal gardens.

The archaeological site of Haojing today covers 3.5 square miles. The foundations of a dozen Western Zhou rammed earth buildings have been excavated since the 1980s. Since the spring of 2019, archaeologists have focused their attentions on the foundation of Building No. 14, one of the larger rammed earth building bases at the site. So far they have unearthed 13,000 square feet of rammed earth remains, including rammed earth foundations and walls up to five feet thick. The 10-foot pipe was found in the foundation.

The rammed earth foundation of Haojing No. 14 building is generally slightly rectangular in the north-south direction, with a length of about 53 meters and a width of about 34 meters, with a total area of ​​more than 1,800 square meters. It is a large, high-level building. The southern and central western parts of the building site are relatively well preserved. On top of the rammed earth platform, there are 8 rammed earth wall foundations arranged in an east-west direction. There are 8 houses in total, of which 2 are larger in the middle, with the main room (hall), and 3 on both sides. The house is narrow and is a wing room, which is the same width as the wing room of the Hogyeong West Friday Palace, which was excavated in the mid-1980s. It’s roughly the same.

A three-meter-long pottery drainage pipe was found on the south-central edge of the building site. It is made up of four circular pottery pipes, one large at one end and one small at the other end. The pottery water pipe is decorated with rope pattern on the outside, the inside is plain, the diameter is about 25 cm, and the length varies. It is the best-preserved drainage pipe found at the site.

Millefleurs of chivalry back on display

After four years of conservation and cleaning, including by specialists in Belgium, the earliest tapestry in the care of the National Trust has gone back on display at Montacute House in Somerset.

Knight with the Arms of Jean de Daillon depicts a knight in shining gold-trimmed armor on his prancing steed. He carries a standard with a red wolf or tiger on a red and white striped pole. The horse is draped with a red and gold brocade caparison. The dark blue background is covered with tiny flowers — poppies, daffodils, honeysuckle, thistles and many more — in the millefleurs style. In the upper left corner is the coat of arms of Jean de Daillon that is the source of the tapestry’s modern appellation.

Born into a family of petty nobility, Jean de Daillon was a childhood friend of the future King Louis XI of France, and while he temporarily turned against his old pal to get in the good graces of King Charles VII, they would eventually reconcile after Louis became king and Daillon rose enormously in rank, power and wealth. He was governor of multiple provinces and held important offices, the most pivotal of which was chamberlain to Louis XI.

His seat was the Château du Lude, a castle he acquired in 1457 and spent years renovating into an elegant palace worthy of entertaining royalty in comfort and style. Daillon commissioned a set of millefleurs tapestries from master weaver Guillaume Desremaulx of Tournai between 1477 and 1479 to adorn the walls of a room in the castle. The knight was the first of the series and the only one known to survive today. It was completed by 1480 when the town of Tournai paid for the tapestry as a gift to Daillon “in remuneration for numerous favours and friendly gestures that he has made to this city.”

The surviving records of the commission make the tapestry unique. It is the only 15th century tapestry that can be confirmed to have been made in Tournai, and one of only a few tapestries whose maker and commissioner can be definitively identified. It also the only surviving Netherlandish tapestry from the 15th century to feature a single knight on horseback. The rare documentation also illuminates how much was lost, because we know how much wall space the set was commissioned to cover and roughly how much the one surviving tapestry covers (it has been trimmed over the centuries, so its precise original measurements are unknown). The set was approximately 20 times as large as the Knight tapestry.

Jean de Daillon died in 1481. His widow contacted a dealer to sell the tapestries in 1482 and they were delivered to her brother to effectuate the sale in April 1483. That is the last time they appear on the historical record until it emerged in 1916 when it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by philanthropist and collector Sir Edward Speyer. In 1935, it was acquired by Sir Malcolm Stewart who bequeathed it to the National Trust along with five other tapestries for Montacute House. It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers identified the coat of arms as Jean de Daillon’s.

The tapestry has been away from Montacute House for four years, travelling to Belgium for a specialist wet clean to remove centuries of dirt and it also spent a considerable amount of time at the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk. Skilled conservators hand sewed in individual repairs, replaced missing threads and strengthened damaged areas. It took nearly 1,300 hours of work to conserve.

The process has brought out previously hard to see details and the subject of the tapestry is much clearer than before.

“Now that the knight is clean we can clearly see his features, which are quite thin and fine, and he has long flaxen coloured hair showing below his helmet – something you couldn’t see very well before. We think the knight probably shows Jean de Daillon himself,” [says Sonja Rogers, National Trust house and collections manager for Montacute House.]

Four settlement period graves found in Iceland

Four graves dating to the settlement period (late 9th, early 10th century) have been discovered in Seyðisfjörður, eastern Iceland. The burials were richly furnished with grave goods indicating the deceased were of high social status.

Excavations this summer and fall unexpectedly revealed that the site, believed to contain nothing earlier than 18th century remains, in fact had archaeological materials dating to the early days of the Viking settlement of Iceland, hidden and preserved by a landslide that blanketed the area in 1150.

The first of the tombs found is a boat burial, the first boat grave found in the East Fjords and one of only 12 boat graves ever found in Iceland. Grave goods include a spear, a silver brooch, a silver ring, beads, a hnefatafl  game piece and a Borre-style belt buckle.

Two of the four graves contained the remains of horses buried with the human, and one of the two held the skeletal remains of a dog too. The practice of burying someone with their horse was much more widespread in Iceland than in Norway. The fourth grave belonged to a woman. She was buried with a pair of oval buckles and a necklace of 11 glass beads. Also found in her grave was a leather purse containing a Norwegian whetstone and flint.

The graves were found 110 yards or so from the Fjörður farm mound. According to the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) saga, the chronicle of the Norse settlement of Iceland written in the 12th century, the first settler in Seyðisfjörður was one Bjólfur from Voss in Norway who established the Fjörður farm. While the Landnámabók was written three centuries after the events it describes, it also documents accurate and detailed historical data, including the names and descriptions of more than 3,000 people and 1,400 settlements. It is possible that the individuals buried in the four graves are listed in the Book of Settlements. They may even be related to Bjólfur. One of them could even conceivably be Bjólfur himself.

The silver brooch has been sent to the National Museum of Iceland for further analysis. The skeletal remains, human and animal, will also be studied in laboratory conditions. The graves and some of their contents have been scanned and 3D models created. 

Here’s one of the burials with horse as well as human remains:

Here’s the one with both a horse and a dog:

This is one of the beads found in the woman’s tomb: