14th c. Hanseatic ship found in Tallinn

A 14th 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 1360.

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 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

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

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

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

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.