Archive for April, 2022

13th c. Hanseatic ship found in Tallinn

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

A 13th century merchant trading vessel of the Hanseatic League has been unearthed during construction work in downtown Tallinn, Estonia. Found under a highway, the vessel is a cog, the workhorse of the Hanseatic League’s shipping networks across the North and Baltic seas. Dendrochronological analysis dates to the wreck to 1298.

The cog was the primary ship used by Hanseatic merchants. The single-masted vessel had a flat bottom and no keel so it could move through shallow waters and was easily maneuvered by a small crew, even when laden with up to 90 tons of cargo. They could be built quickly at low expense and could even be armed for defense when pressed.

They ranged in size from 15 to 25 meters (50-82 feet) long, so at 79 feet long and 30 feet wide, the Taillinn cog is at the very top of the range. It was a clinker-built boat — made of overlapping oak planks sealed with animal hair and tar.

The area where the ship was found was underwater for centuries. When it sank near the mouth of the Härjapea River (a waterway that no longer exists today) 800 years ago, the spot was under seven feet of water, and the ship was quickly covered by the shifting sand ridges. The site was still submersed in the 18th century.

The waterlogged environments preserved the organic materials. The ship is in excellent condition with oak boards intact up to 10 feet from the bottom. Archaeologists have also recovered wool used for packing cargo, tools and leather shoes. In preservation it is comparable to the Bremen Cog, found during dredging operations in Bremen, Germany, in 1962 and now on permanent display at the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven. The Taillinn cog is larger and 82 years older than the Bremen Cog.

The ship will have to be be removed from the find site so that construction can continue. Unfortunately it is too big to be removed in one piece. It will be taken out in sections, conserved and reconstructed either at the maritime museum in Taillinn or the wreck preservation area in Tallinn Bay

Iron Age sandal found in melting ice patch

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

Archaeologists have recovered an Iron Age leather sandal in the melting ice on the mountains of Oppland, Norway. The shoe was discovered by a mountain guide who reported it to the Secrets of the Ice team in September 2019. They followed his GPS coordinates to the find site on the Horse Ice Patch and recovered the shoe along with a textile fragment, leaf fodder, arrow shafts and horse dung. The artifacts revealed the site to have been an ancient mountain pass. Stone cairns indicated the presence of route through the mountains in the area, but its exact location was only identified by the objects revealed by the 2019 melt.

The finds were transferred to the University of Oslo Museum of Cultural History for study and conservation. The shoe was cleaned and reshaped into its original shoe configuration before being freeze-dried for long-term preservation. It dates to between 200 and 500 A.D., and is a shoe of the carabatina type, made of a single ovoid piece of leather laced together through loops over the bridge of the foot. This is not exactly glacier-appropriate footwear.

Would there always have been snow here? Most likely, [glacial archaeologist Espen ] Finstad says. The amounts would have varied, but summer or winter, this was no place for flimsy shoes.

“I do a lot of hiking in the mountains, and you know, I find myself thinking, why would you wear that shoe up here… it’s just very, open. Full of patterns and holes. But it was there. We found it on the ice”, says Finstad. […]

“It looks almost like a sandal. It’s pretty astonishing, we’re up here at almost 2000 metres, and we find a shoe with fashion elements, similar to those found on the continent at the time,” Finstad says. […]

“It’s easy to joke about a roman tourist who didn’t quite understand much about the country he was visiting”, Finstad says.

“But in any case, I believe the people who walked these routes most likely knew what they were doing. They would have worn something inside this shoe that made it work. Perhaps scraps of fabric or animal skin”.

Further investigation of the Horse Ice Patch found three routes, one heading east to the summer farms and two west to the coast. Archaeological materials found at the pass suggest it was in use from the third through the 10th century. A concentration of horse dung dating to 567-979 points to the pass having seen the most active use during the Viking period.

The Duke of Urbino’s magical studiolo

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Inside the 15th century Ducal Palace of Urbino is a small room so spectacular that it’s hard to believe your own eyes. It is the studiolo, the tiny private study of Federico III da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 until his death in 1482. He was an exceptionally cultured and literate man, and the palace he had built reflected his interests. His library was the second largest collection of books in Italy after the Vatican’s, and he opened it to all citizens of Urbino making it the first public library in Italy. The walls of the palace are adorned with painting by Old Masters like Raphael, Titian, Piero della Francesco and della Robbia ceramics. The doors of the throne room depicting Apollo and Athena were designed by none other than Sandro Botticelli.

Like the Botticelli doors, the duke’s studiolo is a masterpiece of a non-painterly medium: marquetry inlay, aka intarsia. Small but beautifully-appointed studies were popular in the palaces of Renaissance aristocrats. They were tiny oases of seclusion where the owners could enjoy private reflection. Federico da Montefeltro’s studiolo was in the heart of the Ducal Palace of Urbino, between rooms he used to receive and for public functions and the palace’s chapel. He used it for private contemplation, mostly, and only his most illustrious guests were invited to cross its threshold.

Now visitors to the Ducal Palace can enter this inner sanctum to be as astonished as his exalted guests must have been. The room is square with a decorative pilaster against one wall that creates two niches on either side of it. Its extreme tininess is masterfully disguised by wood inlay walls in linear perspective attributed to the workshop of brothers Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano. The marquetry technique employed here is so vertiginously precise as to create a fully immersive illusion of depth, landscape and architecture on the flat walls of the tiny room. The pilaster, for example, is framed with fluted “columns” bracketing a basket of fruit and a squirrel in the foreground. Behind them a patio reaches back to an arched portico that opens to a hilly landscape. Beneath this scene are fretwork cabinet “doors,” one of them left open.

The lower register of the intarsia walls features fretwork panels underneath trompe l’oeil benches, some of which have lifted seats. Above the “seats” is a slim middle register consisting of small rectangular panels on which are represented ducal emblems. The top register is composed of rectangular “cabinets” divided by “columns.” Inside the cabinets are books, candles scientific instruments and musical instruments representing the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) of the seven liberal arts. Between the cabinets are inlay figures representing the three Theological Virtues (Faith,  Hope and Charity/Love) and Federico himself with this distinctive notched nose.

(Small digression over the nose. Federico was wounded in a tournament in 1451. The injury took his right eye and damaged the bridge of his nose, severely limiting his field of vision and seemingly at one blow losing him his job as condottiero (military leader for pay) for the Sforza family of Milan. Federico ordered a surgeon to remove the damaged bridge of his nose and the eyelid of his lost eye. It was a drastic approach, but an effective one, restoring his field of vision sufficiently to get him back in the saddle, so to speak, leading men on the battlefield.)

The left niche has a closet in which the Duke’s armature, symbol of his exceptional skill at arms that earned him the reputation as one of the most successful condottieri in Renaissance Italy, is hanging at rest. This speaks to the purpose of the room. In his studiolo, he could set aside the active life for a brief time and embrace the contemplative life. Indeed, the portrait of him in the top register depicts him draped in Classical robes and holding a lance with the tip pointed downwards. The condettiere lays down his weapons here and becomes the humanist thinker.

If Urbino is a bit of reach, you can see the very similar marquetry studiolo from Federico da Montefeltro’s palace in Gubbio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The entire room was sold by the Lancellotti family in 1937 to art and antiquities dealer Adolph Loewi. He sold it to the Met in 1939. 

This video tour of the studio is too brief for my taste, but it does convey the wonder of the space and the auto-translate CC isn’t half bad.

Hellenistic cremation burial found in Istanbul train station

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

Archaeologists have unearthed a 3rd century B.C. cremation burial in an excavation at Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa Train Station. The brick tomb was found to contain cinerary remains and charred grave goods.

According to the preliminary analysis, the body was cremated inside the tomb, but the skeleton and other remains survived the blaze and have now been unearthed, [Rahmi Asal, director of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum] explained.

He said a terracotta goblet and a perfume bottle, both of them with visible marks of fire damage, were found with the skeletal remains.

“I have never seen this type of a cremation tomb from the Hellenistic period … Perhaps this will give us many more valuable insights,” he added.

The area around the historic train station has been excavated since 2018. Now a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, the site was part of the ancient Greek city of Chalcedon which was founded by colonists from Megara in the 7th century B.C., predating the founding of Byzantium by almost two decades. Its fortunes were entwined with Byzantium’s for centuries, but after Constantinople became the new capital of the Roman Empire, Chalcedon was eclipsed. The Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire that followed it both used Chalcedon as a quarry for their building programs.

The four years of digs have revealed archaeological layers from the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman, Hellenistic and Classical eras, including  more than 2,000 coins, a Roman defensive wall, a Middle Byzantine ceramic brick kiln and the only functioning Byzantine-era fountain in Istanbul. The cremation burial is only the second find from the city’s Hellenistic period. The other was a podium made of rectangular stone blocks clamped together with iron clasps found under the railway platforms.

1896 glider restored for new exhibition

Saturday, April 16th, 2022

A rare 19th century glider has been restored and will go on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The glider was made in 1896 by German aviator Otto Lilienthal, the first man to successfully make consistent, repeated, thoroughly documented and witnessed flights. He was dubbed “The Flying Man” and 1891, the year when his flights began, is considered the dawn of human heavier-than-air flight.

He literally wrote the book on wing aerodynamics, observing the flight of birds for translation to flying machines. One of his glider models, the Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat (“Normal soaring apparatus” would make a pretty great band name), was the first aircraft in series production. His manufacturing company, Maschinenfabrik Otto Lilienthal, was the first airplane production company in the world.

Unfortunately Otto Lilienthal would pay for his pioneering vision with his life, dying on August 9th, 1896, when his glider stalled and he plunged 50 feet to the ground. He broke his neck in the fall and died in the hospital the next day. His last words were “Sacrifices must be made.”

There were 10 documented Lilienthal Normalsegelapparat examples sold between 1893 and 1896. The only American buyer was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst bought his glider in late April 1896. Lilienthal’s daring flights had generated a great deal of public interest and Hearst staged flight tests for public spectacle and to increase the circulation of the New York Journal. The dream lasted a few days only. On May 3rd, the glider, piloted by Frank Ver Beck, an illustrator known for his comedic drawings of animals, crashed. Ver Beck was unharmed, but the glider sustained some broken ribs on the right wing.

The Hearst glider was put in mothballs until it was acquired by John Brisben Walker, editor of Cosmopolitan. He displayed it once in 1905 at the debut event of the Aero Club of America before donating it to the Smithsonian in 1906. Restoration of the fragile winged machine began in November 2019 and it took experts 18 months to restore it not to its pristine condition, but to the broken-rib condition it was in right after the crash.

According to Smithsonian records, an employee rebuilt the Lilienthal glider in 1919. But for this conservation treatment, curators determined that the horizontal stabilizer had been lost after the crash, and its 1919 copy was inaccurate and incorrectly positioned. The original vertical fin was too damaged to be reattached, so it was preserved and placed in storage.

But the broken ribs from the crash, which are part of the glider’s history and identity, says [chief conservator Malcolm] Collum, were preserved. “As a rare and special artifact, we consider events like that part of its operational history,” he says. “Just like a fighter plane that comes back… and has combat damage like bullet holes…we consider that to be sacred.” During previous restoration efforts, Collum says, “a lot of historical manufacturing details were just skimmed over.”

Smithsonian conservators worked with colleagues at the Otto Lilienthal Museum and the Deutsches Museum in Germany searching for details in the historical record. “What really differentiates this project from previous restoration work: Every time it was restored in the past, they were using … the wrong information, and not studying the artifact itself,” Collum says. “In this process, we’ve actually done the technical analysis, done the archival research, and collaborated with colleagues in Germany to bring out as many original historical details as possible.”

In some places where the wood needed support, they used glue to reinforce it. They did make a discovery. They had not realized the glider had an impact bar, so they added one after finding the original mounting hardware. And they added a new plain-weave cotton fabric, as the original was long gone. And the tail, which had been poorly fabricated in a 1967 restoration, was replaced with historically accurate components made with bamboo and willow.

The Smithsonian’s restored Lilienthal glider will go on display in Early Flight, an exhibition exploring the first decade of the airplane era, which opens this fall.

Mosaic from Theodoric’s palace found in Verona

Friday, April 15th, 2022

A section of mosaic flooring from the 5th century palace of Ostrogoth king Theodoric has been discovered in Verona. The mosaic was found during installation of new gas pipes in the Montorio hamlet less than four miles from Verona’s historic town center.

Remains of an enormous country villa more than five acres in surface area have been turning up in Montorio since the 19th century. While there is no direct evidence that it was one Theodoric’s many palaces, the sheer size and scale strongly suggests it was a royal estate. If it wasn’t Theodoric’s palace, it must have belonged to someone of enormous wealth who was very close to him.

Theodoric was not technically a Roman emperor. He was three different varieties of king, though, starting in 475 A.D. as King of the Ostrogoths, then adding King of Italy in 493 and of the Visigoths in 511. By the time of his death in 526, Theodoric reigned over most of what had been the Western Roman Empire. He spent his childhood as a noble hostage at the imperial court in Constantinople and was educated there in the Eastern Roman tradition.

As ruler of a territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Danube, Theodoric embraced the ancient imperial trappings. He donned the purple, accepted the regalia of the Western Empire from Eastern Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus and allowed all Roman citizens in the kingdom to be governed by Roman judicial law. He instituted a vast program of reconstruction of Roman cities and infrastructure, restoring ancient aqueducts, baths, churches, the Aurelian walls of Rome and the defensive walls of a myriad other cities in Italy. He threw in a few new palaces for himself while he was at it, most famously in his capital of Ravenna, but also in other northern Italian cities like Verona.

The mosaic will remain in situ. It will be cleaned and documented in detail before being reburied. Some local residents have proposed covering it with plexiglass so the mosaic can still be seen, something that has been done already in Verona’s historic center, but this mosaic is in a terribly awkward position, trapped under networks of old pipes surrounded by homes, so it’s not a good candidate for display, unfortunately.

Earliest Maya calendar fragment found in Guatemala

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest confirmed example of Maya calendar notation on two fragments of plaster at the Maya site of San Bartolo, Guatemala. The paint-on-lime-plaster fragments feature a dot and a horizontal line over the head of a deer. This is “7 deer,” one of the days of the Maya calendar. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found next to the plaster returned a date range of 300-200 B.C.

“The Maya had a solar calendar, like us, but they also had a ritual one,” says Hurst. “We also have one, as Easter is part of that sequence of rituals throughout the year,” she adds. It was associated with a creation myth and also to mark the celebrations that accompanied the Haab, the 360-day calendar. The remaining five days, although they were counted, were disastrous and people avoided leaving their homes. Surrounding both was the Calendar Round, which completed its cycle every 52 years. The complex way that the Maya had to organize time was completed with the Long Count, a vigesimal system (base 20) of counting the days linearly. It is with the latter that it has been possible to find equivalencies between the Maya calendar and the Gregorian calendar.

San Bartolo made global news in 2001 when archaeologists discovered vividly painted murals from the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C. to 200 A.D.) in its central stepped pyramid, dubbed Las Pinturas after the colorful wall paintings. Ceramic artifacts dated them to around 100 B.C., the penultimate of seven construction phases of the pyramid. The calendar hieroglyphics date to the third phase.

Previous discoveries of hieroglyphic inscriptions at San Bartolo proved that writing systems had developed in the Central Maya Lowlands area far earlier than previously realized. The earliest examples of Maya hieroglyphic writing, found in Oaxaca, Mexico, date to around 400 B.C. The earliest examples in San Bartolo date to around 300 B.C., a significant movement in a short time considering San Bartolo is more than 500 miles southeast of Oaxaca.

During the third phase of construction, the central pyramid was smaller. When it was expanded, walls had to be knocked down. Archaeologists discovered more than 7,000 pieces of plaster, remnants of the destroyed walls. They were disposed of carefully, not simply thrown away as construction debris. The former walls were deliberately deposited inside the newly-enlarged chamber, a sort of symbolic burial of the sacred imagery and text.

The study of the find has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

Rare coin hoard from Constantine’s reign found in Switzerland

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

A hoard of more than 1,000 coins from the second quarter of the 4th century has been unearthed in Bubendorf, north central Switzerland. The hoard was discovered by volunteer archaeological scout Daniel Lüdin in a forested area near Wildenstein Castle. When his metal detector signaled a strong alert, Lüdin dug down a little and found a few Roman coins and some potsherds, not enough to explain the strength of the signal. He dug down a little more and hit the jackpot. Literally: a broken pot filled with coins.

He filled in the hole and notified canton heritage officials at Archeologie Baselland who promptly dispatched a team to the find site. They removed the pot in a soil block so that all of the coins, pot fragments and any invisible archaeological treasures like traces of organic remains could be excavated in laboratory conditions. The block removal also allowed researchers to CT scan the soil block to map out the contents. A black space seen in the CT scans between two layers of coins turned out to be a simple piece of leather.

The total coin count after the hoard was fully excavated is 1290 coins, all copper coins, so it was basically a change jar. It adds up, though, and the total value of 1290 coppers was the equivalent of a gold solidus, or about two months’ salary for a soldier in the legions. All of the coins were minted during the reign of Constantine (306-337 A.D.). The most recent among them date to 332-335 A.D.

What makes the hoard so unusual is that it was buried during a time of political and economic stability. Coin hoards from the 4th century were typically buried during periods of unrest, but Constantine’s reign was not among them. Hoards from this period are vanishingly rare throughout the Empire. It seems likely that this one was buried for other reasons. One possibility is a religious offering as the find site was on the border between three known Roman estates, so it could have been a boundary line sacrifice.

Here is 3D model of the hoard after the external soil was cleaned but before the contents were excavated in the laboratory.

Han Dynasty “thick burials” unearthed

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

Archaeologists have unearthed two early Western Han tombs containing more than 140 funerary objects at the  Dongzha New Village site in Yancheng, eastern China. The wooden chamber tombs are filled with water and soil, preserving organic materials like wood and plant fibers. The rich furnishings include bronze ware, lacquer ware, pottery, painted wood figurines and more than 100 weapons.

The tombs were discovered last week, and only one of the two, M84, has been fully excavated thus far. It is a rectangular cut pit containing a central wooden coffin and two wooden caskets, one on the side, one at the foot of the burial coffin. The coffin was covered with rectangular wooden boards. The three compartments are packed tightly with bronze mirrors, pottery coins, glazed ceramics, pottery tripods, cups, plates, spoons and other utensils. One of the coins, a Yingyuan, is the first example found in Yancheng.

The other tomb, M82, is larger and has only been partially excavated. It too is a rectangular pit with a wooden burial chamber containing a wooden coffin, a side chamber and a foot chamber. The excavation of the small side and foot chambers revealed complete wooden crossbows, bows, arrows, painted wooden figurines, lacquer boxes, lacquer cups, game boards, pottery, pottery coins and plant seeds.

Both of the owners of these tombs must have been wealthy, high-status individuals to afford such rich burials. A jade bi (a disc with a hole in the middle that had religious significance often found buried in the graves of the elite) discovered in M82 confirms he was someone of high social rank.

Yancheng was settled in 119 B.C. in the Western Han Dynasty as a center for the harvest of sea salt in the rivers and wetlands around the city. Salt was a lucrative business and the city prospered. Han noble families displayed their wealth in “thick burials,” meaning tombs crammed to the gills with valuables and practical items for the deceased to enjoy and use in the afterlife just as he had when he was alive. The custom made Han tombs very attractive to looters, and so many of them were emptied out centuries ago that the discovery of even one  still-thick burial is rare. Finding two is a huge archaeological boon to our understanding of Han funerary practices.

Still no takers for the Villa Aurora

Monday, April 11th, 2022

Villa Aurora, the 16th century mansion in one of Rome’s most expensive neighborhoods that boasts Caravaggio’s only known ceiling painting has failed to sell at auction for the second time.

The villa was listed for €471 million when it was first put up for auction in January, an astronomical sum based on the valuation of art experts. The Caravaggio alone could easily run a hundred million plus even if it weren’t attached to a whole villa, so the exorbitant price tag didn’t seem incongruous. There were no takers, however, not even lowball opening bids. Total radio silence.

A second auction was scheduled for Thursday, April 7th, and this time the price would drop 20% to €377 million. Even at a discount, the Villa Aurora failed to attract a single bid, so the quarrelling heirs of the late Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi are going to have to take it to the auction mattresses again on June 30th when the villa will be offered at auction for another 20% drop in price to €301 million. If there are STILL no takers at that point, the widow Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and the prince’s three sons from a previous marriage will have to agree to ANOTHER price drop.

The problem is that the American-born princess does not want to sell. Prince Nicolò’s will granted her lifetime rights to live on the property as long as she wanted to, and should she choose not to, Villa Aurora was to be sold and the proceeds divided between his wife and sons. The Boncompagni Ludovisi sons contested the will, disputing her lifetime right of occupancy, and a court decision forced the sale.

So the four parties who are responsible for negotiating a new price if June’s auction fails to attract bidders are not exactly on the same page here. Should they be unable to come up with a lower figure for the fourth bite at the apple, the judge will step in and decide the price.

According to Beniamino Milioto, the princess’s lawyer, interested parties will have to put down a 10% deposit to qualify to bid, plus proof of enough assets to close the sale and complete a restoration plan said to cost at least €10m.

Milioto said that while there had been multiple informal expressions of interest, including from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, nobody had completed the process of qualifying to bid for either round.

The villa and its property are under the protection of Italy’s ministry of culture, meaning that when a qualifying bid is filed, the Italian state will have a chance to match the price and turn the villa into a cultural site. A petition calling for this to happen has attracted more than 35,000 signatures, a level that requires the cash-strapped Italian government to consider the acquisition. But there is no indication a state purchase is in the works.

Whoever acquires the 40-room villa will become owner of a vast collection of art that goes beyond Caravaggio’s 2.75-metre fresco of the gods Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Its gardens include a sculpture by Michelangelo, and in the villa are other ceilings featuring frescoes by the baroque master Guercino and a spiral staircase created by the 16th- and 17th-century architect Carlo Maderno, best known for designing the facade of St Peter’s Basilica.

The villa also includes a telescope given to the Ludovisi family by Galileo and a door that was once part of an ancient Venetian warship.

BRB. Off to buy a Powerball ticket.

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