Archive for December, 2021

Update: stolen antique firearms returned to museums

Tuesday, December 21st, 2021

Decades after museum aficionado and brazen thief Thomas Gavin cut a swath through the museums of Pennsylvania, helping himself to 18th and 19th century firearms a silver Navajo concho belt, 15 items have been officially repatriated to the targeted museums (or their institutional descendants). Law enforcement officials returned the objects to the American Swedish Historical Museum, Valley Forge Historical Society, Hershey Story Museum, Landis Valley Museum, Mercer Museum and York County History Center in a ceremony at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

It was one particularly rare object — a Revolutionary War flintlock rifle signed and dated by gunmaker John Christian Oerter —  that blew the case wide open when it was sold to antiques dealer Kelly Kinzle in 2018. He first assumed it was a copy, but when he recognized that it was a genuine Oerter rifle, he and his lawyer reported it to the FBI’s Art Crime squad. Thomas Gavin was the seller.

The FBI’s investigation uncovered that Gavin was not just a dupe unwittingly reselling stolen goods. He had burglarized numerous museums in the Philadelphia area in the 1960s and 1970s, stealing revolvers, pistols and rifles as well as the one anomalous silver belt. He kept them for five decades before deciding to sell a chest of ill-gotten goods to Kinzle for $27,150.

Earlier this year, Gavin agreed to a plea bargain, and boy did he get a sweet deal. The 78-year-old pleaded guilty to one measly count of disposing of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The maximum penalty for that count is 10 years in prison. Last month, he was sentenced to a grand total of one day in prison. The judge was apparently swayed by the thief’s age and declining health to not even bother slapping him on the wrist for decades spent looting museum collections. We don’t even know exactly how many things he stole. Some of the museum’s don’t exist anymore and there’s no surviving documentation of the thefts.

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Bronze vessel from Beijing’s origins found in tomb

Monday, December 20th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed a bronze lidded vessel in a tomb from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1,046 – 771 B.C.) on the outskirts of Beijing that is believed to be the pair of one found at the site in the 1970s.

The bronze vessel is of the gui type, a wide-mouthed food container with a ringed base. inscriptions on the pot match ones found on a bronze vessel unearthed from a tomb at Liulihe site in 1974, except they’re flipped. The inscription in the lid of the newly-discovered pot is the same as the inscription on the bottom of the pot found in the 1970s. Archaeologists believe they were a matched set made by a single artisan who then mistakenly put the wrong lids on the vessels.

The character “yong,” which refers to the establishment of a city, was found within the inscription, explained Sun Qingwei, a professor at Peking University, direct evidence that one of the ranking officials of the king of the Western Zhou Dynasty had established a city in what is now Liulihe town more than 3,000 years ago.

Bronze vessels served an important ritual purpose for funerary offerings of food and drink and as household goods for the deceased in the afterlife, but in the Western Zhou the practice took on an added significance as status symbols. Only the elite were allowed to own bronzes. Later chroniclers record that the number of bronze “ding” (footed food cauldrons) allowed in graves was strictly apportioned according to noble rank in the Western Zhou, the emperor could have nine, lords could have seven, ministers five, etc.

Excavations at the site in the 1970s were disturbed by high ground water levels. New technology has developed since then to gradually drain and excavate archaeological remains in a way that preserves even delicate organic materials. The team excavated the tombs from outside of the burial chamber inwards. By working this way, they discovered overlapping layers of lacquerware and textiles. Archaeologists also discovered the first wooden arrow shafts from the Western Zhou Dynasty ever found in Beijing, and in another first for Beijing, were able to successfully recover silk patterned fabric from the early Western Zhou Dynasty.

Tomb M1902 was absolutely packed with precious offerings: copper lifting beams, bronze statues, bronze tripods, bronze swords, pottery, lacquerware, silks. Both the coffin and its occupants’ bones are preserved in good condition. On top of the coffin is the skeleton of a dog and a copper bell. It is complete and has never been looted or reused, which is extremely rare.

Tomb M1901 has not been fully excavated yet while the site is gradually drained, but archaeologists can see it was a very rich burial as well, containing a complete set of cart and horses.

The Liulihe residential district in southwestern Beijing contains the earliest remains of the urban settlement that would become Beijing. The tombs rich with artifacts found in Liulihe excavations over the past 50 years have shown that Bronze Age Beijing was the capital of the Yan vassal state of the Western Zhou Dynasty.

“The ongoing excavation will offer much crucial information on studies of the ritual and feudal systems of the Western Zhou period,” Chen Mingjie, director of the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Administration, said. “It is also a key to see how early-stage cities were planned in China.”

Four rammed earth architectural foundations and seven large water wells have also been excavated in Liulihe this year, indicating that full use of ground water was considered by the city’s planners.

“The new findings in Liulihe will further portray a panorama of the Yan vassal state, which was a historical foundation of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development today,” Shan Jixiang, head of the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics, said. “It will also demonstrate how diverse cultures mixed with each other and formed a united Chinese civilization.”

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Emperor Wen of Han’s tomb found in Xian

Sunday, December 19th, 2021

A large tomb in the suburbs of Xian City, northwest China, has been identified as the mausoleum of Emperor Wen of the Western Han Dynasty (r.180 – 157 B.C.).

Local legend has it that a mountain known as Phoenix’s Mouth outside Xian City was the emperor’s tomb. The belief has been pervasive for a thousand years, as attested by 10 stone tablets on the mountain inscribed with honors to the emperor and a monument to mark his final resting place that was installed on Phoenix’s Mouth during the Qing Dynasty. However, numerous archaeological surveys have unearthed no evidence of ancient construction. The Phoenix’s Mouth is simply a natural hill, not an imperial burial mound.

What would prove to be Emperor’s Wen’s actual tomb was discovered a mile or so away from the mountain in 2017 during an emergency excavation to counter looting activity. It may have originally been a pyramid as was typical of imperial tombs of the era, but if so, the mound was flattened over the millennia. It’s also possible the Emperor ordered a less prominent tomb, as he was famed and respected for his frugal approach to leadership. It wasn’t recognized as an imperial tomb until excavations revealed its shape and monumental size (230 feet long, 100 feet wide).

The great central tomb, which has not yet been excavated, is surrounded by more than 110 offering pits and tombs. Only eight of them have been excavated so far, and in them archaeologists have discovered massive quantities of artifacts from the Western Han Dynasty, including more than 1,000 painted ceramic figurines, guardians of the imperial tombs, iron swords, copper gears from chariots, seals of government officials, gold ornaments, animal burials, bronze rings and coins. The pottery guardians and attendants, the chariot parts, the weapons and the seals highlight how the mausoleum complex was furnished to create a sort of shadow government for the emperor in the afterlife.

The wealth of offerings are associated with one of the major satellite tombs of the mausoleum. It belonged to Emperor Wen’s mother, Empress Dowager Bo, who died in 155 B.C., living long enough to see her grandson ascend the throne and making her the first grand empress dowager in Chinese history.

Ma [Yongying, a researcher with the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology,] said that the discovery of the graves of Liu Heng’s empress and his mother further indicated that the grand tomb in the center should be the emperor’s long resting place.

“It is the earliest Western Han royal graveyard in which the emperor’s tomb was put in the center and was surrounded by burial pits,” he said.

The discovery of Baling also means that the whereabouts of all 11 Western Han emperors’ mausoleums in or near Xi’an, then the national capital known as Chang’an, have been confirmed, Ma said.

The grand tomb was a milestone in the evolution of Chinese royal mausoleums, said Liu Qingzhu, an archaeology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The emphasis of previous rulers’ mausoleums was more on connections within their own families. For example, royal couples were often buried together.

“But Liu Heng’s tomb reflected that the country, represented by the emperor’s power, was the priority,” he said, adding that studies of the tomb also are a key to understanding the forming of China’s national identity.

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Viking brooches go on display at Manx Museum

Saturday, December 18th, 2021

Two Viking-era oval brooches that have shed new light on the Viking settlement of the Isle of Man have gone on display for the first time.

The brooches were discovered in December of 2018 by metal detectorists John Crowe and Craig Evans, along with bronze fittings from a belt and a decorated glass bead. The brooches were full of soil when first unearthed. Specialist conservators at the York Archaeological Trust x-rayed, cleaned and waxed them to reveal their intricately interwoven designs in bronze with silver wire decoration. They date to around 900 A.D.

Large, highly-ornamented domed oval brooches like these were worn in pairs by Viking women to fasten the long back straps of their dresses to the two short front straps. The pins were fastened in the front at the shoulders and were sometimes connected with decorated strands of beads. Most of the ones that have been found (primarily in a funerary context) are made of bronze, although a handful of ones made of silver and gold have been found in extremely rich graves.

They were created using a technique derived from late Roman chip-carving in which the complex design was carved into a master model in a soft material — wax, lead, wood — and then cast in bronze. The technique was first used for Roman military belt buckles. It was picked up in the border regions to make fibulae which evolved into the large fastener brooches sported by Viking women.

While men also used brooches to fasten their garments, usually cloaks, the ones found in men’s graves are stylistically very different from the women’s and are individual pieces, not pairs. Pairs of oval concave brooches were exclusively the province of Viking women and have been found in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) as well as further afield in Britain, Ireland, Russia and Iceland. This is the first pair found on the Isle of Man.

Allison Fox, Curator for Archaeology at MNH said:

“The Isle of Man has a rich Viking heritage and the Manx National Collections reflect this.  This type of brooch, worn by Scandinavian women in the Viking Age and usually found in graves, has been missing so far.  In addition to the brooches, there was also one decorated glass bead made in Ireland and a belt with bronze fittings, most likely made in the Irish Sea area. Although proud of her Scandinavian roots, this particular pagan lady also wore local fashions”.

Because the brooches have so often been discovered in graves, archaeologists did a follow-up targeted excavation of the find site, hoping to find evidence of this fashionable pagan lady’s burial. They came up empty-handed, alas, and no grave was found where the pair of brooches were found.

The brooches, belt fittings and bead are now on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas.

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Galloway Hoard rock crystal and gold jar bears bishop’s name

Friday, December 17th, 2021

An extraordinary carved rock crystal jar from the Galloway Hoard has been cleaned and conserved by experts at the National Museums Scotland (NMS), revealing it to be a Roman crystal jar wrapped in elaborate layers of gold thread from the late 8th or early 9th century. The base is inscribed with the name of an Anglo-Saxon bishop, strong evidence that some of the treasures in the hoard were taken from a church in the early medieval Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.

The richest Viking assemblage of high-status objects ever found in Britain or Ireland, the Galloway Hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in a field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland in September 2014. After a major fundraising campaign, National Museums Scotland was able to acquire the hoard for an ex gratia payment of £1.98 million ($2,550,000) in 2017. Years of complex examination, conservation and cleaning ensued, revealing an astonishing wealth of rare objects including a silver pectoral cross with niello enamel decoration that is unique on the archaeological record, a gold bird-shaped pin, also unique, and a silver-gilt pot of a type known to have been produced in the Carolingian Empire which is one of only three known from Britain and the only one of them found complete with its original lid.

The pot was wrapped in woven textiles. To preserve them and excavate the interior as cautiously as possible, conservators had the pot CT scanned, revealing the treasures packed inside, including a 9th century Anglo-Saxon brooch, an Irish penannular brooch, a gold reliquary pendant and a hinged silver strap. Each object was wrapped in a precious textile like silk samite or fine leather.

While much of the Galloway Hoard outside of the pot has toured Scotland and is currently on display at  Kirkcudbright Galleries in the hoard’s home region of  Dumfries and Galloway, the vessel and its contents are undergoing a three-year project of meticulous conservation and research.

The project has already born extraordinary results. A 3D model created from X-ray imaging that captured the surface of the pot obscured beneath the fabric wrapping revealed it is not of Carolingian origin at all. The iconography of leopards, tigers and Zoroastrian symbols is typical of Sasanian Empire (224-651 A.D.) art, which means this vessel came from Persia, not continental Europe. Radiocarbon dating of textile samples from the three layers wrapped around the vessel found it was produced between 680 and 780 A.D., so it was 100-200 years old by the time the hoard was buried.

One of the objects inside the vessel was the rock crystal jar. When it was first removed, it was bundled in a textile wrapping that proved to be a silk-lined leather pouch. 3D X-ray imagining saw through the wrapping to the object within and revealed the Latin inscription on the base which read: “Bishop Hyguald had me made.”

Conservators painstakingly removed the pouch and cleaned the rock crystal. They found from the surface of the jar that it started out as the capital of Corinthian column made of rock crystal in the late Roman Empire. At some point over the next 500 years, the capital of the crystal column was converted into a jar and wrapped in gold thread.

There is the possibility that this jar still bears trace elements of the potion it once held and that its precise chemicals can be revealed.

[Dr. Martin Goldberg, NMS’s principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections] said: “The type of liquid that we would expect would be something very exotic, perhaps a perfume from the Orient, something’s that’s travelled in the same way that the silk has. There were certain types of exotic oil that were used in anointing kings and ecclesiastical ceremonies.”

Below are the 3D models of the rock crystal jar before and after conservation.

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Neolithic children’s graves found in burial mound Denmark

Thursday, December 16th, 2021

An excavation at a gravel pit at Hedehusene, Denmark, has unearthed the remains of four children buried in a single grave from the Neolithic era, and of single child in a Bronze Age grave. The Neolithic burial dates to around 2000 B.C., the Bronze Age, to between 1700 and 1000 B.C.

The two graves were found in a burial mound. That the mound still contained skeletons in good condition is rare enough, but children’s bones are delicate and prehistoric child graves are vanishingly rare finds in Denmark. It isn’t until the late Middle Ages that children’s tombs become more common on the archaeological record.

The children in the Neolithic grave were young, three of them just three or four years old at time of death. The fourth was a little older. The only grave good found buried with them is a small flint dagger. The child in the individual grave was buried with a bronze bracelet.

“Right now it seems like it’s a graveyard dedicated to children. It is interesting in itself with a burial site with so far a time span between the individual graves. It seems as if one has known that it was a children’s graveyard. It’s a mystery why only children are buried here. However, we can not deny that adults have also been here. For example, we have found a bronze blade at the top of the burial mound, and it is not a typical grave gift for children.”

Katrine Ipsen Kjær explains that it is a known phenomenon that burial mounds were reused in the Stone Age and Bronze Age. When you had a deceased person again, you opened in to the burial mound, pushed the old bones aside and laid the body in to the other deceased.

The bones have been removed for further study. They will be radiocarbon dated to narrow down the date of the burial. If DNA can be extracted, researchers may be able to determine if there were any familial relationships between the deceased. It may also provide information about illnesses they may have suffered.

“Did you bury the four children from the mass grave within a short period of time or over a long period of time? A very short period could indicate a contagious disease,” says [archaeologist] Katrine Ipsen Kjær and concludes:

“It is rare that such old bones contain DNA. But we very much hope that the old bones can give us some answers, because we are dead curious.”

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Earliest freestanding Buddha statues found in China

Wednesday, December 15th, 2021

Two statues that are the earliest known freestanding Buddha statues ever found in China have been discovered in an 2nd century tomb in the Chengren Village neighborhood of Xianyang City. Before this find, archaeologists believed that Buddhist statues appeared in China in the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-439 A.D.).

A team from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology made the finds in May during an excavation of a family cemetery from the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.). There were six tombs in the ground. The two bronze Buddha statues were unearthed in the northwest corner of tomb M3015.

One statue is a Buddha standing on a lotus flower. It is 10.5 cm (4.1 inches) high and 4.7 cm (1.85 inches) wide at the base. Gautama Buddha is depicted with his hair in a small, flat bun on top of his head and wearing a robe draped from the left shoulder to the right. His left arm is bent at the elbow, hand holding the corner of the cassock. His right hand is raised, but damaged.

The second statue is a depiction of the Five Tathāgatas, five Buddhas embodying different aspects of the enlightenment principle. It is 15.8 cm (6.2 inches) high and 6.4 cm (2.5 inches) wide. The Buddhas are seated on lotuses and also wear robes and hair buns.

The buns, faces and clothing of both works are typical of statues made in Gandhara (today part of Pakistan and Afghanistan), but technical analysis of the copper alloy used in their manufacture revealed that they were locally produced. That means that Buddhist art and iconography, transmitted from India over the Silk Road, were already well-established in China by the 2nd century.

Tradition has it that Buddhism was introduced to China in the reign of Emperor Ming of Eastern Han (r. 57-75 A.D.). Buddhist imagery appeared on objects in southwest and southeast China at this time, but only as decorative motifs on objects and buildings.

“The owner of the graveyard was possibly a county official or landlord, who had certain family influence and economic might,” [Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology researcher] Li said.

“The findings of the Buddha statues are of great significance to the study of the introduction of Buddhist culture to China and its localization in the country,” Li added.

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Runes on cross reveal unknown Anglo-Saxon name

Tuesday, December 14th, 2021

A gold cross pendant discovered near Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, England, is inscribed with the previously unknown Anglo-Saxon name “Eadruf.” The solid gold cross is of a simple Latin form with the longest arm at the top. It is an inch long and .6 inches wide on the crossbar. Runes were incised down the length of the arm to just past crossbar. The foot of the cross and the horizontal arms are inscribed with equal-armed crosses. It is perforated at the apex and the crude hole filed to smooth some of its rough edges, but this was done after the runes were carved, likely after its original top-mounted loop was lost so it was modified to be suspended from a hole instead. It dates to between 700 and 900 A.D.

The pendant was found last year by a metal detectorist on the banks of the River Tweed. There are very few comparable examples. Most early Anglo-Saxon crosses are equal armed, and none have been found before with runic inscriptions.

When the finder reported it the Portable Antiquities Scheme, they consulted several specialists were enlisted to examine the cross and translate the inscription.

From the report by Professor John Hines of Cardiff University:

It seems likely from the width and shape of the cuts that the three incised crosses at the ‘head’ end of the shaft and in either arm were cut at the same time as the runes. Six runes can be identified, reading left to right from the ‘foot’ of the shaft, with the first two drilled through by the wide perforation. […]

Artefacts such as this are quite often inscribed with the personal name of a person with whom the object had been associated (usually to be assumed as the possessor, if nothing else is indicated). Old English personal names beginning Ead- (‘happiness’, ‘fortune’) are common, but the only two known with a second element beginning r- are Eadred and Eadric. No personal-name element ruf can be identified in any Germanic language, and Eadruf would therefore be a hitherto unknown and etymologically mysterious name.

The findspot is also mysterious, in that there are no archaeological remains of an early medieval settlement in the area. At the time the pendant was made, the Tweedmouth area was part of a group of holdings belonging to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, but while there are records indicating a church or abbey may have been in the vicinity, there is zero archaeological evidence of any structure from the early Middle Ages. Artifacts have been thin on the ground too. Other than this cross, the only other object from Anglo-Saxon period found here is a late 10th century copper-alloy strap fitting.

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Ireland’s oldest ink pen found in medieval fort

Monday, December 13th, 2021

The oldest ink pen ever found in Ireland has been discovered at Caherconnell Cashel, a medieval drystone ring fort in in the Burren, County Clare. The shaft of the dip pen is made from hollow bird bone, the nib from bronze. It dates to the 11th century, a time when literacy was rare and even among the literate elite feather quills were the more common implement.

Bigger than most stone ringforts, Caherconnell was in continuous use from when it was built in the late 10th century until the beginning of the 17th, and excavations have recovered thousands of objects and remains. That it was built for a high-status family, local rulers, certainly, perhaps even royal, is attested to by the density, quality and diversity of the artifacts unearthed there. Among the 1800+ objects unearthed at the site are fragments from musical instruments, game pieces, coins and items of personal adornment like bone combs, bronze dress pins and amber beads. The large amount of land mammal, bird and fish bones, grains, marine shells and nut shells confirm that the residents of Caherconnell had a plentiful and varied diet.

The pen was found last year in the 11th century occupation phase of the ringfort. The layer also contained other high-status artifacts, including a decorated gold strip. Because ink dip pens are unheard of from this time in Ireland and pens in general were far more the province of the clergy than the laity, elite though they may have been, archaeologists needed to test the object’s function.

Those reasons urged caution and lead to the creation of a replica implement to test whether it functioned as a pen. Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions manufactured the replica, a replica that testing confirmed does work perfectly as a dip pen. So, it seems that this does indeed represent the earliest known ink pen in Ireland.

Feather quills were the more common writing implement at the time, but a pen like the one from Caherconnell would have been ideally suited to fine work – maybe even the drawing of fine lines, as suggested by expert calligrapher and historian Tim O’Neill: “A metal pen from such an early date is still hard to credit! But the fact that it functions with ink is there to see. It would have worked well for ruling straight lines to form, for instance, a frame for a page.”

While Church scribes copied and created all manner of ecclesiastical texts, it seems likely that a secular scribe might have used a pen like this to record family lineages and/or trade exchanges.

There is evidence of international trade (foreign coins, imported objects) at the fort, and given the huge quantities of animal bones and waste from metalworking and textile production, Caherconnell’s owners had plenty of things to keep track of and inventory.

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13th c. falconry figurine found in Oslo

Sunday, December 12th, 2021

A small statuette of a crowned figure with a peregrine falcon has been found in an excavation of the historic downtown of Oslo. The design of the hair and clothing dates the figurine to the 13th century, which makes it one of the earliest representations of falconry in Scandinavia, and one of only a handful of falconry-related art from the period found in all of Northern Europe.

Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have been surveying the Middelalderparken (Medieval Park) site in Oslo’s Old Town since August, unearthing remains of the city’s medieval streets, buildings and infrastructure. Their heroic efforts continued into the Norwegian winter,

The figure is 7.5 cm (3″) high and made of either bone or antler. It is a long, flattish oval carved on both sides. The figure has a peaceful smile and neck-length hair. Its not clear if the individual is male or female, as the braided hair and long robe could have been worn by either a king or a queen. The crown is short and crenellated with holes in the center of the high sections.

The falcon is perched on the monarch’s right arm which is protected by a hawking glove. The bird’s feathers are carved in a grid pattern. Both human and bird have drilled holes for eyes. There is also a hole through the bottom of the figure, indicating that it may have been the haft of a knife.

It was discovered in a waste layer a stone’s throw from the Kongsgården, the royal estate in Oslo, which in the mid-13th century was expanded into a fortified castle by Haakon IV Haakonsson (r.  1217-1263). Haakon IV was literate and cultured. He consolidated the power of the Norwegian monarchy after years of civil wars and sought to pattern Norway’s court along European lines. Literate and well-educated from a young age, he commissioned the first Norse translations of the chansons de geste. His royal estates were modeled after the monumental palaces of Europe and his foreign policy was focused on building friendly trade relations with the rulers of neighboring countries in northern Europe, Haneatic towns and the Mediterranean.

As part of alliance building, he gifted falcons far beyond the European continent. Alliances were entered into and maintained through marriages and gifts. The most precious gift a Norwegian king could give was a falcon.

Since falconry was a common royal and noble practice throughout the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain that the figure portrays King Håkon. However, dating and context indicates that it is a strong possibility.

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