Archive for December, 2021

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 31st, 2021

Here’s to a 2022 replete with long-delayed archaeological digs, museum exhibitions attended by record-breaking crowds and lots of history nerd-themed travel. And if circumstances continue to make such resolutions too hard to keep, then we’ll just have keep the nerdfires burning virtually right here. 😎


Decapitated horse found in Merovingian grave

Thursday, December 30th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed a Merovingian-era cemetery in Knittlingen, southwestern Germany, that includes a beheaded horse laid to rest alongside his warrior rider. The excavation revealed more than 110 graves containing the remains of the local elite.

Today’s Knittlingen was founded in the Merovingian period (the first written record of it is Carolingian, dating to 843), but there is archaeological evidence of settlement going back to the Neolithic era. Graves from the Merovingian burial ground were first discovered in 1920 during construction of a narrow-gauge railway that was never completed. When real estate development was planned at the site in the 1980s, an archaeological survey encountered a few more graves, but the development did not move forward and the site was not thoroughly excavated until this summer.

The  Baden-Württemberg State Office for Monument Preservation (LAD) employed contractors ArchaeoBW to explore the area. As expected, the team encountered prehistoric findings, post holes, pits and trenches from Neolithic structures and fragments of ceramics dating to around 5000 B.C.

The main focus of the excavation, however, was the Merovingian cemetery. The goal was to uncover all of the inhumation burials at the site, and even though excavations will continue through the spring of 2022, archaeologists believe the cemetery has been fully revealed.

The graves were laid out in regular rows in largely chronological order, but the graves of some of the more notable members of the societal elite were out of sequence, buried within a circular ditch. Some of the graves were simple cut holes, but some individuals were buried in wooden coffins, and there were also more elaborate wooden chambers built to contain the remains of people of highest status.

While the cemetery was extensively looted in the Middle Ages, archaeologists were able to recover a wide range of funerary artifacts, including pearl necklaces, fibulae, earrings, arm rings, disc brooches, belt fittings and utilitarian objects like knives and combs. Weapons — swords, spears, shields, arrowheads — were found in male burials. Pottery containing the remnants of food were interred as funerary offerings.

“Despite their fragmentation due to the ancient robbery, the finds give indications of the social status of the dead,” said [LAD officer Dr. Folke] Damminger. The comparatively rich burials from the second half of the sixth century are remarkable in Knittlingen. One woman was buried with almost complete fibula outfits typical of the time. A gold disc brooch worn individually from a somewhat younger grave, on the other hand, heralds the fashion of the seventh century. Some of the men’s graves identified the deceased as cavalrymen. A decapitated horse was buried in the vicinity of one of these burials. Bronze bowls testify to table manners based on the courtly model.

The accessory ensembles of the late seventh century, on the other hand, looked somewhat more modest. It is not known whether this is due to a decline in prosperity or to a change in the staging of the funerals of the local elites.


Mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I digitally unwrapped

Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

The mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I is a unique survivor of the destructive fashion for unwrapping mummies in the late 19th and early 20th century. It has managed to survive the 140 years since its discovery untampered with, thanks largely to the pristine beauty of its wrapping, complete with floral garlands and lifelike wood and cartonnage face mask. It is still pristine, but now thanks to CT scanning, the mummy of Amenhotep I has been unwrapped virtually.

Amenhotep I was the second pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who ruled Egypt for two decades, from ca. 1524 to 1504 B.C. His original tomb has never been found, but his mummy was discovered in 1881 at the Deir el-Bahari Royal Cache in Luxor, hidden by priests of the 21st Dynasty to protect royal mummies from being damaged or destroyed by tomb raiders. The mummy was found in a wood coffin inscribed with the pharaoh’s name and recording that Amenhotep I had been rewrapped twice by 21st Dynasty priests of Amun. The pristine wrapping, therefore, was not original to his burial, but a later restoration dating to his reburial in the Royal Cache.

(Three thousand years later, Gaston Maspero, noted French Egyptologist and director-general of the antiquities of Egypt from 1881 until 1914, took over where the priests of Amun had left off. In his dogged pursuit of antiquities traffickers, he arrested the men who had secretly found the Deir el-Bahari cache of royal mummies and they confessed to their find under torture. Maspero quickly had the mummies moved to Cairo to protect them from tomb raiders. He was also responsible for the decision to keep Amenhotep I’s exceptional wrapping intact.)

The mummy was X-rayed in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, but the technology wasn’t refined enough to provide much in the way of information about the pharaoh’s body. CT scans allowed the creation of a 3D model that can be visualized in its different compositional layers.

“This fact that Amenhotep I’s mummy had never been unwrapped in modern times gave us a unique opportunity: not just to study how he had originally been mummified and buried, but also how he had been treated and reburied twice, centuries after his death, by High Priests of Amun,” said Dr. Sahar Saleem, professor of radiology at the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University and the radiologist of the Egyptian Mummy Project, the study’s first author. […]

We show that Amenhotep I was approximately 35 years old when he died. He was approximately 169cm tall, circumcized, and had good teeth. Within his wrappings, he wore 30 amulets and a unique golden girdle with gold beads.”

“Amenhotep I seems to have physically resembled his father: he had a narrow chin, a small narrow nose, curly hair, and mildly protruding upper teeth.”

Saleem continued: “We couldn’t find any wounds or disfigurement due to disease to justify the cause of death, except numerous mutiliations post mortem, presumably by grave robbers after his first burial. His entrails had been removed by the first mummifiers, but not his brain or heart.”

The scans also revealed that contrary to previous scholarship (including Saleem’s), the 21st Dynasty priests had carefully repaired mummies damaged by looters at the end of the 20th Dynasty, not used them as mines of prestige funerary materials. All of Amenhotep’s jewelry and amulets were preserved in the linen wrapping.

The research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Medicine and can be read in its entirety here.


Jersey acquires world’s largest Iron Age hoard

Tuesday, December 28th, 2021

The world’s largest Iron Age coin hoard, discovered on Jersey nine years ago, has been acquired by the Government of Jersey for £4.25 million ($5.7 million). The Council of Ministers dipped into the civil asset recovery fund (moneys confiscated from criminal activities) to pay Her Majesty’s Receiver General, administrator of the Crown estate in Jersey, for the right to keep their own patrimony.

The Le Catillon II hoard was discovered by a pair of metal detectorists in February 2012. They had been searching that field for 30 years, looking for a coin treasure based on a tale they’d heard from the previous landowner’s daughter that she and her father had found coins in a jar buried in the field when she was a little girl. After three decades of fruitless searching, Reg Mead and Richard Miles found 60 coins of the Coriosolite tribe in what is now Brittany in one location. They dug down and encountered the top of what would prove to be a massive group of Celtic coins.

The find site was then thoroughly excavated by archaeologists who wrapped the mass of coins, hardened by corrosion into a half-ton block, and raised it in one giant chunk for excavation at the Jersey Museum in view of the public. Initial estimates of how many coins were crammed in there ranged from 30,000 to 50,000.  As excavation continued, the estimate increased to 70,000; this turned out to be the accurate figure. Conservators then encountered a surprise: a section about the size of a shoebox containing six gold torcs. They also found other pieces of jewelry, glass beads, a leather purse and a woven bag containing silver and gold jewelry. It took five years to fully excavate the block. The last coin was removed in 2017.

Treasure finds on Jersey are legally complicated because of its status as a self-governing Crown Dependency. The finders wanted the Le Catillon II hoard declared treasure under the UK’s legislation or, if the French law was applied, that it belonged to the finders and landowner. They tried to make a case of it, to loosen up the Crown Dependency chains a little bit, but nothing came of it, and a decade later it came down to a buyout. The hoard’s value was initially estimated at £10 million, so at least they got charged the friends price.

The historic collection of coins will now remain in Jersey Heritage’s care.

Part of the financial settlement included a £250,000 payment to Jersey Heritage for their work towards dismantling the coins, and an additional £250,000 which will be used to establish a trust. […]

The Crown will now undertake the work to establish an independent trust to promote scientific and educational research into the historic discovery.

Chief Minister John Le Fondre said the purchase was made “in the interest of the island”.

He said: “This is an outcome which will ensure that this unique part of Jersey’s history remains in the island for this and future generations.”


Riches, horses found in graves of “amber elites”

Monday, December 27th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed richly furnished graves in a 3rd-7th century A.D. burial ground on the Sambian peninsula in Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast. They belonged to the elite of the late Roman, Migration Period and early Middle Ages, many of whom prospered thanks to the enduring trade in Baltic amber as well as other prized commodities like fur, homey and wax. The graves prove that a distinctive elite arose in the area in the 3rd century, two centuries earlier than previously believed.

A team from the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences began excavating the Putilovo-2 cemetery site three miles from the shores of the Baltic in 2015 for the first time in 150 years. In four years of exploration, they have revealed a two-acre burial ground. Excavations expanded this year in anticipation of new highway construction in the area.

Most of them are cremation burials with cinerary remains interred in urns. They range from simple vessels buried in a small pit to large, elaborate urns buried in wooden boxes with extensive grave goods. The urns and coffins were covered with large slabs and then topped with stones. While the burials were extensively looted in the Middle Ages, both for their metal contents and for the slab stone reused by the Teutonic knights in castle construction. Ironically, slabs that collapsed into the graves ended up protecting the contents from looters as the broken slabs were no longer usable and thieves assumed there was nothing left under the busted roof.

Grave goods that have been discovered thus far include pottery, jewelry of bronze, silver and gold, fibulae in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, torques, bangles, belt buckles, amber beads, weapons and tools. Roman silver and brass coins minted in the 1st and 2nd centuries were found in large numbers in the 4th-5th century graves. By this time they weren’t simple currency so much as objects of great symbolic value. Archaeologists believe they may have been deemed to have currency value in the afterlife, which is why they were found in the graves of people of all ages and classes.

Four of the graves were marked as members of the local elite by their contents. One features a large urn buried with a jar, a spearhead, a bronze dagger, a fibula, scissors, a gold ring, an iron shield boss and a unique large set of glass game pieces for the board game Ludus latrunculorum. The game was popular throughout the Roman Empire and environs including modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. This set is extraordinary because there are almost 100 pieces that were preserved in a pouch. Nothing like it has been found in the Kaliningrad region for 170 years, and never before in the Sambian peninsula.

This man in this grave was so important that he was buried with not one, not two, but three horses. One of them still had its bronze bridle on its mandible and another was buried with his grooming kit bag. There were other horse burials in the cemetery, but this is the only triple header.

The excavation is scheduled to continue for another six months. The artifacts will be cleaned and conserved for eventual display in area museums.


Swedish National Museum acquired gold box with portrait of Gustavus III

Sunday, December 26th, 2021

The National Museum has acquired a unique jeweled gold box with an enamel miniature of King Gustavus III of Sweden. The portrait was made by court enameller Johan Georg Henrichsen and is one of very few surviving jeweled presentation portrait boxes from the Swedish monarch.

Jewel-encrusted portraits of the monarch were the most prestigious token of appreciation. The tradition developed at the French court in the 17th century and soon became a model for other European royal houses of the time. These portraits might take the form of a pendant or be mounted in a jewelled setting on the lid of a gold box. Queen Kristina was the first Swedish monarch to adopt this French fashion, which then flourished in the 18th century. Gustav III frequently handed out gold boxes as a sign of royal favour. Contemporary historical sources show that the king took a great personal interest in the design and gave detailed instructions. Sometimes the decoration consisted of his monogram in diamonds, and in other cases his portrait was framed with jewels.

Various specialist craftsmen collaborated to create the boxes. A silversmith would first produce the basic gold box, which would then be decorated by an engraver and adorned with gemstones by a jeweller. A miniaturist then added the portrait, while the case was produced by another specialist, often a bookbinder.

The gold box itself was an import. It was made in Hanau, Germany, by a master silversmith. It is oval and decorated on all sides by engine-turned guilloché waves and circles. The smith used two different colors of gold to give the patterns contrast and added a chased acanthus border to the edges. The edges were also chased with four cartouches of urns below scrolls.

Once the box arrived in Stockholm, Henrichsen added the king’s portrait in enamel based on a portrait by Lorens Pasch the Younger. A court jeweler added an oval border of diamonds around the portrait and a floral vine of diamonds to the base of the lid underneath the portrait.

Gustavus III presented it to John Mackenzie, 4th Lord MacLeod, upon his retirement from the Swedish Army in 1778. Mackenzie and his father had been avid supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite rising of 1745. He was captured after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and charged with high treason. After two years, he agreed to give up all properties and rights to his ancestral Earldom in exchange for a pardon. He left Scotland and in 1750 took a commission in Swedish Pomerania as a mercenary. He served the Swedish crown with distinction for 27 years, ending his career as a lieutenant general and receiving the chivalric Order of the Sword of Sweden.

In 1778 he received a full amnesty and his properties were restored to him. He retired from service in Sweden to return to Britain, and the king gave him the precious gold box as a token of thanks.

It remained in the family for almost 200 years. The Mackenzie heirs sold it in 1969 and it passed through various hands before selling at auction at Sotheby’s London earlier this year for $220,000. The museum was able to buy it thanks to a  donation from the Anna and Hjalmar Wicander Foundation. It will go on display in the National Museum’s Treasury alongside a miniature portrait of Mackenzie.


I hope your day was merry and bright

Saturday, December 25th, 2021

I could do without the white, though, truth be told. I shall return to my regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.  🙂


Roman building with boar prints found in Corsica

Friday, December 24th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of two buildings dating to between the 1st and 5th centuries in Penta-Di-Casinca, Corsica. The first is a masonry building with a circular structure connecting to a brick corridor. The floor of the passage is lined with terracotta tiles that bear the unmistakable evidence of a previous visitor: the hoof print of a pig or small wild boar stamped onto the tile when it was still wet. This is believed to have been a heating structure. Only the foundations of the second building have been unearthed. They are made of blocks of large, rounded river stones known as galets roulés.

The site is just over a mile from the sea shore, a half mile from the Fium’Alto river and six miles from the Roman city of Mariana, founded in 100 B.C. by general and seven-times-consul Gaius Marius as a colony for the veterans of his legions. The discovery of notable buildings at Penta-Di-Cascina suggest there may have been a second urban agglomeration close to Mariana.

The complex is distinguished by the quality of its structures. In particular, archaeologists have discovered several pipes for collecting and treating wastewater. In the center of the right-of-way, three gutters have been brought to light. Two, built in bricks and tiles, seem to work with the first building while a third gutter running through the entire excavation right-of-way intersects them. It is distinguished by the construction materials used: its walls are made of bricks and it is covered with massive shale slabs. These structures bear witness to the attention paid to water by the occupants and their standard of living.

Penta-Di-Casinca and its region have great archaeological potential. In the past, several occupations were identified and in 1972, a survey carried out near the excavation right-of-way revealed the remains of a building and a network of gutters and lead pipes which are part of the continuity of the discoveries that have just been made by Inrap. More recently, surveys carried out on the same locality have made it possible to estimate an area of ​​ancient habitat extending over more than three hectares. Building materials as well as a large quantity of ancient ceramics have been observed there.


Unfinished Roman-era statue found in Greece

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

A rare unfinished statue from the Roman Imperial era has been unearthed in Veria in Central Macedonia, Greece. It was discovered last Friday in a rescue excavation of one of very few sites in this ancient city that has not been built on before.

The ancient city of Veria was an important political and military center under the Macedonian kings of the Argead Dynasty, most famously Alexander the Great and his father Philip II. It was second only to the Argead capital of Pella in importance, and after the death of Alexander’s son put an end to the Argead rule, Veria became the seat of the Macedonian Koinon (commonwealth). After the Roman conquest, the koinon was reshaped into a civic institution with a focus on the imperial cult run by local elites. Veria flourished under Rome, eclipsing Pella to become the main regional center. When Diocletian restructured the administration of the empire in 293 A.D., Veria became one of two capitals of the new Roman province of Macedonia. (The other was Thessaloniki.)

The statue’s style suggests it was carved when the city was prospering in the late 2nd or early 3rd century A.D. Just over three feet tall, the statue is missing its head and is still encased in some of the marble block from which it was carved. The nude youth wears a chlamys (cloak) draped around his left shoulder. As it is unfinished and headless, narrowing down the subject is impossible, but Statues of naked men were either athletes or gods in the Greek sculptural tradition, but the subject is unknown here due to its unfinished, headless condition. Hermes, one of the Dioscuri (the twins Castor and Pollux) and Apollo are all possibilities, as is Alexander the Great.

It is the work of a very skilled craftsman who, for whatever reason, never finished the piece. The sculptor, although he had advanced far in the creation of his sculpture, had reached a point almost at the final stage when he apparently decided to abandon the effort, unfinished.

This fact makes the discovery of the statue even more significant, however, since it gives art historians an opportunity to study not only the style, but the production techniques of these types of artworks.

The statue may have been meant as an exact copy or a freer recreation of a famous original; either way, it can help researchers understand the Veroia school of sculpture from a completely different point of view.


Savonarola returns to his priory cell

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021

Terracotta bust of Girolamo Savonarola, late 15th/early16th c., by Fra' Mattia della Robbia. Photo courtesy Ministero della Cultura Direzione regionale musei della Toscana.A previously unpublished bust of Renaissance firebrand friar Girolamo Savonarola has gone on public display for the first time at the convent of San Marco where Savonarola was once prior. It dates to the late 15th or early 16th century and is also the only surviving in-the-round sculpture of Savonarola known to have been made in the Renaissance.

The polychrome terracotta bust is a departure from the classic representation of Savonarola in profile, black hood pulled low on his forehead, originally created by Dominican painter Fra Bartolomeo. The frontal portrait bust captures the severe expression and hooked nose seen in the Bartolomeo painting, but with piercing light blue eyes.

What’s more, it was made by someone who knew him personally. The sculptor was Marco della Robbia, aka Fra Mattia, son of Andrea della Robbia and fervent follower of Girolamo Savonarola. Mattia was one of the friars who took up arms to fight the authorities when they arrested Savonarola at San Marco on April 8th, 1498.

The bust is on long-term loan to the Museum of San Marco from lawyer and collector Alessandro Kiniger. It has been installed in the room where, according to tradition, Savonarola lived when he was prior. It is on display alongside the famous profile portrait by Fra Bartolomeo, another work by Bartolomeo depicting St. Peter with the face of Savonarola, and autograph manuscripts of sermons written and delivered by Savonarola.





December 2021


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