Archive for May, 2022

Hieroglyphics on Maya vessel deciphered

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

Archaeologists have translated the hieroglyphic on a Maya vessel unearthed last fall in Yucatán, southeastern Mexico, and identified the name Cholom, a nobleman of the ancient city-state of Oxkintok.

The ceramic bowl was discovered near the town of Maxcanú in October 2021 during salvage excavations along the route of the controversial Maya Train. It was in its original archaeological context inside a pre-Hispanic dwelling, and a plate was found next to it. They date to the Late Classic period (600-800 A.D.).

The 11 glyphs engraved on a band around the top of the bowl translate to: “The lord says, on its surface it has been carved, in its bowl or pot, in its cup, for atole, for Cholom, the sajal.” Atole is a traditional hot beverage made from corn hominy flour blended with water, sugar, cinammon and vanilla.

A sajal was a spokesperson/scribe for the ajaw (the king or ruler). They were not members of the royal family, but they were part of the high elite, educated to write and read the Maya hieroglyphics system, and to relay the orders and proclamations of the ajaw. A similar vessel was found in the same section of the train project whose surviving inscription points to it having been made for a sajal, but that was the only identifiable glyph on the vessel. There was no surviving name connecting title to an individual.

The name Cholom breaks down into “chol” (Mayan for “to unleash”) and “om” (person who unleashes). The glyph for Cholom has been documented on another ceramic piece from the Maya city of Oxkintok. On that vessel he is described as uylul, meaning “hearer.” Oxkintok was a regionally important city, inhabited from the Late Preclassic through the Late Postclassic periods (ca. 600 B.C. – 1500 A.D.) It is less than five miles from Maxcanú where the bowl and plate were discovered.

Archaeologists do not yet know if the earthenware bowl and plate were purely utilitarian or had ritual uses. Analysis of any trace material or residues might answer some of those questions. They are both Chocholá style ceramics, a type found in northern and western Yucatán characterized by bas-relief hieroglyphic dedications including the name of the owner and purpose of the object.

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46 eagles in vivid color revealed on temple ceiling

Saturday, May 14th, 2022

Restoration work at the Esna Temple on the west bank of the Nile 35 miles south of Luxor has revealed painted inscriptions and images in vivid original color. The walls, ceilings and columns were caked in a thick coating of sand dust, grime, salt efflorescence and bird and bat guano and remains accumulated over the centuries, obscuring the inscriptions to the point where they were all but invisible to the naked eye.

Of particular note are the paintings on the middle ceiling above the entrance hall. More than 45 feet high, the ceiling is painted with 46 eagles in two rows. Twenty-four of them have eagle heads, representing the goddess Nekhbet and Upper Egypt. Twenty-two have cobra heads, representing Wajit, goddess of Lower Egypt. The temple inscriptions were documented and photographed by French Egyptologist Serge Soniron between 1963 and 1975, but the ceiling with the 46 eagles was never recorded or published.

Another find of great note was a simple Greek graffito drawn in red ink. It was found in the western wall frieze in the temple axis and was completely covered in layers of black soot. The inscription records the day and month, Epiphi 5, which would have corresponded to late June or early July during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) Archaeologists believe this is the date when construction of the Esna Temple was completed.

Built primarily in the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, the temple was dedicated to the ram-headed god Khnum, god of the Nile and creation and one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon. It was already famed in its own time for full-coverage hieroglyphic inscriptions, including the last known one ever recorded, commissioned by Roman Emperor Decius in 250 A.D.

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Museum acquires unique Leasingham Horse Brooch

Friday, May 13th, 2022

The Leasingham Horse Brooch, a Roman-era copper alloy brooch in the shape of a three-dimensional horse that is unique on the archaeological record, has been acquired by the Collection Museum in Lincoln.

The brooch was discovered by metal detectorist Jason Price in a field near Leasingham in the summer of 2019. It is complete with the original hinged pin, which is in and of itself very rare. The long, stylized head of the horse is lowered at the end of an arched neck engraved with 14 grooves representing a neatly arranged mane. A saddle or saddle blanket is on the horse’s back. Carved and modelled in the round in a 3D design that has no known cognates. The closest comparable object is a brooch in the British Museum which is a slightly rounded plate brooch mounted on a bar, so really very different in concept and execution.

Because it is not made of precious metal, this unique 2,000-year-old artifact would not be declared Treasure and the finder got to be the keeper. Thankfully, Price arranged for the Leasingham Horse Brooch to go on loan at the Collection Museum and now that’s where it will stay permanently, thanks to the Friends of Lincoln Museums and Art Gallery who donated the necessary funds to acquire the horse from Price.

Dawn Heywood, Senior Collections Development Officer at the museum, said: “The brooch is an incredibly rare find in Britain, and the first three-dimensional horse brooch to be recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds database.

“This style of horse brooch is now identified as the ‘Leasingham type’, so we are privileged to have had the opportunity to acquire the first of its kind for the museum collection”.

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Stolen Nostradamus manuscript returns to Rome

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

An extremely rare 500-year-old manuscript of the prophecies of Nostradamus stolen from a library in Rome more than 15 years ago has been found in Germany. It was officially returned to the library on Wednesday, May 4th.

The work, written in Latin, is entitled Profetie di Michele Nostradamo and contains the French physician’s collection of 942 quatrains ostensibly predicting future world events, many of them borrowed from ancient sources, the Bible and known history. The first printed edition was published in 1555. This manuscript dates to the same time.

The manuscript was rediscovered last year when it came up for auction in Pforzheim, Baden-Württemberg, with a starting price set at €12,000  ($12,630). The seller was an unnamed art dealer. Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad spotted the manuscript in the auction catalogue in April 2021, days before it was scheduled to go under the hammer. One of the pages published in the catalogue bore the clearly visible stamp “Biblioteca SS. Blasi Cairoli del Urbe” dated 1991. Italian prosecutors reached out to German authorities to report the suspected theft and the lot was withdrawn from the auction. The Stuttgart police confiscated the manuscript and stored it until the repatriation process was complete.

It is not known when exactly the volume disappeared from the library of the Barnabiti Center for Historical Studies, but its absence was first noticed in 2007. Italian and German police investigated the manuscript’s movements after it was stolen. It seems from Rome it made its way to Paris where it was sold at a book flea market. It then emerged in Karlsruhe before reaching Pforzheim and the auction house. The investigation is ongoing and the seller has not yet been charged with anything.

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82 British skeletons found in Dutch mass grave

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

The remains of dozens of young men found in mass graves at the site of a defunct medieval castle moat in Vianen, central Netherlands, have been identified as British soldiers from the late 18th century.

The graves were discovered in November 2020 during drainage work to separate rainwater from sewage in the historic center of Vianen. To extend the city’s canal, municipal authorities chose the site of the former Batestein Castle (built in 1370 and abandoned after a fire in 1696) which had once had a moat on the south side of the grounds. Bones were found during the moat dig. At first it was just a few bones from one or two skeletons at most, but as they dug, they just kept finding more. Two weeks after the excavation began, the team had unearthed the skeletal remains of 44 individuals. By the end of January, the tally had risen to 81. In total, 82 skeletons were found in three mass grave pits.

Some of the bodies had been stacked, and the presence of hand-forged nails suggested a few had been interred in coffins, perhaps shared coffins. Preliminary osteological examination found the remains belonged to young males in their teens and early 20s. There were some indications of sharp-force trauma on two skeletons, suggesting the young men may have fallen in battle.

To date the remains, identify any additional traces of violence and their possible national origin, the bones were recovered and transferred to specialized laboratories in the UK. Forensic anthropologists discovered that the sharp-force trauma was not from a violent battle, but rather from a bone saw, likely deployed during an autopsy. What was endemic among the skeletons was not evidence of violence, but evidence of one or more infections, including meningitis, pneumonia, sinus infections and a non-specific whole-body inflammation. The bones also showed consistent signs of poverty in childhood marked by malnutrition and hard labor.

Radiocarbon dating found the bodies were buried later than initially hypothesized, the late 18th century rather than the 15th or 16th. Archival research confirmed that a field hospital was set up in the ruins of Batestein Castle during the First Coalition War (1792-1797) when European forces (allied English, Dutch, Spanish, Austrian and Prussian troops) fought against the army of Revolutionary France.

Samples were taken from six of the skeletons and isotope analysis of their bones concluded that one came from southern England, possibly Cornwall, another from southern Cornwall and a third from an urban English environment. Two more may have been from the Netherlands but of possible English descent while the other was from Germany.

The men would have been treated at a field hospital at Batestein Castle in Vianen. As it was a mass grave and they all died under the same circumstances, a sample of six was sufficient, archaeologist Hans Veenstra told the BBC. […]

From late 1794-95, British soldiers were treated a short distance from the mass grave, and the researchers believe that the poor and cramped conditions of army life led to reduced resistance to bacterial infection.

The average age of the adult victims was about 26 although some of those who died were just teenagers. Around 60% showed traces of one or more infections which all had one cause – pneumococcal bacteria.

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Iron Age farmers were buried in high style

Tuesday, May 10th, 2022

The necropolis of a modest Iron Age agricultural settlement excavated in Blainville-sur-Orne, Normandy, northwestern France, has proved unexpectedly rich in grave goods. In use for three centuries (540-250 B.C.), the necropolis consists of 121 inhumation graves, six cremation graves and two funerary enclosures with human remains inside and around them. The inhumed individuals were for the most part buried in coffins or formwork built in a pit and were buried with copious metal jewelry.

An area of more than seven acres was excavated in advance of development, revealing traces of human occupation (lithic remains from stone tool processing) at the site going back to the Paleolithic. The first burials date to the Early Bronze Age, but it was in the Iron Age that a large necropolis grew on the left bank of the Orne, one of the largest ever found on the Caen plain. At the edges of the necropolis, the excavation unearthed an agricultural building from the 6th century B.C. and a Bronze Age network of roads that was significantly expanded in the 5th century B.C.

Agricultural use of the site increased later in the Iron Age, so by the 3rd century B.C., the site was extensively enclosed and dotted with storage pits for a large harvest. Analysis of the plant remains in the storage pits identified barley, millet, wheat, emmer, peas and beans. Animal remains of cattle, goats, pigs and sheep found in enclosure ditches attest to a variety of livestock in the settlement. They were not the only sources of food. Shells from 33 species of marine invertebrates — mussels, cockles, oysters — point to the settlers having relied on shellfish as dietary staples.

Last but not least, the dig revealed evidence of metallurgical activity both targeted to the settlement’s agricultural purposes (production and maintenance of tools like ploughshares) and artisanal purposes (production of jewelry). One enclosure ditch was found to contain an extremely rare cache of 29 ingots of silver, gold and copper alloy dating to the 50-30 B.C. These were likely not intended for goldsmithing, but rather as a form of currency.

The majority of grave goods recovered from the necropolis are also metal. Of the 167 objects unearthed, 101 are copper alloy jewelry. One individual was buried wearing a neck torc and ankle bracelets, all copper alloy. Ankle bangles were definitely in fashion in this community, as other skeletons were found wearing even thicker and more decorated examples. One individual had an ankle bracelet made of lignite.

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Tiny Bible found in Leeds Central Library

Monday, May 9th, 2022

Librarians at the Leeds Central Library took advantage of the lockdowns to thoroughly survey and catalogue the rare book and special collections. In the process, they documented more than 3,000 items that had fallen through the cracks, including a Bible so small that you need a magnifying glass to read it.

The tiny tome is just 1.9 by 1.3 inches in dimension but contains the entire Old and New Testaments printed on 876 pages of India paper. It was printed in 1911 as a replica of the 1539 Great Bible, a choice so ironic it had to have been intentional, because the Great Bible was printed in 1539 by order of Thomas Cromwell who issued an directive that all churches place a copy of “the largest volume in English” in an accessible location so that all parishioners could read it at will. The Bibles would be chained to the lecterns and pulpits to keep them secure, earning the Great Bible the nickname “Chained Bible.”

When the tiny copy was printed, it was billed as the smallest Bible in the world, which it probably was not, but it was certainly in the running. (My great-grandmother gave me a tiny Bible about this size when I was a child, and it only contained the New Testament and Psalms.)

[Rhian Isaac, special collections senior librarian at Leeds City Library,] said its origins are a mystery as it only resurfaced when the library decided to do a comprehensive survey during lockdown closures.

Asked where it came from, she said: “We don’t know. It’s a bit of a mystery, really. A lot of items in our collection were either bought over time or they might have been donated.

Another notable new find in the collection is a fake: Oliver Twiss, a shameless knock-off of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist. It was one of many novels plagiarized from Dickens published by future Penny Dreadful press magnate Edward Lloyd who claimed he was just giving people on a budget the chance to enjoy a popular book since Dickens’ publishers refused to offer any low-cost options. He certainly leaned into the “misunderstanding,” though, claiming his versions were written/edited by one ‘Bos,’ itself a rip-off of Dickens’ pen name, Boz. Other titles by “Bos” Lloyd published with intent to deceive were Martin Guzzlewit, The Penny Pickwick and Nickelas Nickelbery.

Dickens was enraged by Lloyd’s theft and his publishers sued on the grounds that The Penny Pickwick was a “fraudulent imitation” of The Pickwick Papers, its cheap covers meant to deceive the unwary into buying the fake thinking it was the real thing. The judge ruled that no reasonable person could confuse so crappy a counterfeit for the real thing, and the publishers made no copyright argument to protect the integrity of the book’s content, so the floodgates opened and everyone and their mother started cranking out fake Dickens stories. The characters were rough cognates with variant names and coarser behaviors tailored to appeal to the perceived tastes of the penny buyer, and the would-be Dickenses took all kinds of liberties with the stories. Oliver Twiss, for example, is punished at the workhouse for fighting off bullies, not for asking for more delicious gruel, and he ends up earning a degree at Oxford.

Rhian Isaac encourages everyone to come and see these curious volumes in person. They’ll even supply the magnifying glass.

She added: “We ask people to get in touch and we can bring them out for people to see.

“You don’t have to be an academic or an researcher. If you’re just interested, we can get them out for you and you can come and read them in our beautiful grade II-listed building, which is a wonderful place to come and do some studying.

“We would rather these books were used and read. That’s what they were made for and that’s what we encourage people to come in and do, instead of locking them away.”

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Two more Nuragic giants found in Sardinia

Sunday, May 8th, 2022

A new excavation of a prehistoric necropolis of Mont’e Prama in Cabras, western central Sardinia, has unearthed the fragmented remains of two giant statues from the Iron Age Nuragic culture. Two large torsos, a head and other fragments recovered indicate the statues were of a form known as Cavalupo-type boxers, characterized by their nude torsos, short skirts and the curved shield they hold over their heads or in front of their bodies.

The necropolis was first discovered by accident in 1974 when farmers stumbled on ancient tombs and a funerary road. The tombs date to between 950 B.C. and 730 B.C. when the Nuragic civilization, named for the “nuraghe,” stone towers of indeterminate purpose they erected all over the island, was the dominant culture on Sardinia. Subsequent excavations at Mont’e Prama discovered thousands of fragments of monumental sculptures that were reassembled as much as possible to reconstruct 28 statues representing different types of fighters — 16 boxers, five archers and five warriors. They are now on display at the Giovanni Marongiu Civic Museum in Cabras.

The statues were not originally placed in the necropolis. They were brought there from somewhere else and deliberately broken. The limestone to make them was quarried not far from Cabras, but the original locations where the finished statues were erected are unknown, as is their purpose and the reason for their destruction. It’s not even clear when they were broken, whether it was the result of an internal struggle between Nuragic communities or by invaders like the Phoenicians of Tharros in the late 7th century B.C. or the Carthaginians in the second half of the 4th century B.C.

After the earlier excavations in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a lull of 30 years before archaeologists returned in 2014. Over the next two years, thousands of fragments of more sculptures were found and two boxers were recomposed from them. Archaeologists are back again now, and this time they’re taking a multi-disciplinary approach, working with anthropologists, restorers and architects to gather as much information from the context as possible and to recover the fragmentary sculptures with a conservatorial perspective.

“While the small and medium-sized fragments are found daily, documented in situ lying on the ground and then recovered,” said the Superintendent, Monica Stochino. “The two large and heavy blocks of the torsos will need time to be freed from the sediment that envelopes them and so we can prepare what we need for their safe. “The discovery,” adds the Superintendent, “rewards the constancy and validity of the archaeological method of progressive exploration through preliminary probing and systematic investigation phases, measured and carried out in the ways and times allowed by the availability of resources and the parallel elaboration of excavation projects, restoration and exhibition of the finds and enhancement of the site.”

The current excavation will continue throughout the spring, and the Superintendency has already secured funding to the tune of 600,000 euros for the next excavation. They’ll be pouring four times that amount into an even more daunting project: the restoration of sculptures found in fragments during the 2014-2016 dig. The museum will be expanded and updated to accommodate the influx of Nuragic giants.

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Tour Persian Persepolis

Saturday, May 7th, 2022

The Getty has added new virtual experiences to dovetail with and enhance its new exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World which opened at the Getty Villa Museum last month and runs through August 8th.

The exhibition looks at the relationship between Classical Greece and Rome and the Persian Empire over three dynasties (Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian) and 1,100 years (550 B.C. – 650 A.D.). The cultural links between the three ancient powers were strong notwithstanding their often bellicose political relations.

“The military rivalry between the ancient Persian empires that controlled much of the modern Middle East, and the Greeks and Romans of the eastern Mediterranean, determined the geopolitical map of Eurasia from Britain in the west to the border of India in the east for over a thousand years. In the early 5th century BC, against all odds, the Greeks repulsed a series of Achaemenid invasions that would have changed the cultural trajectory of Europe. Two and a half centuries later, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the East brought down the Achaemenids but also inspired an epochal cross-fertilization of the two cultures and traditions. The rise of the Romans as the major Mediterranean power from the 2nd century BC made a clash of titans inevitable. More than once the destinies of Europe and the Middle East hung on the outcome of mighty battles between the Roman emperors and the Parthian and Sasanian kings. Yet throughout all these violent vicissitudes, an active exchange of goods, languages, ideas, faiths, and artistic visions, reflecting a strong mutual respect, flourished in both directions. We see this most vividly in the imperial imagery celebrating their kings and rulers that was propagated by both the Persians and their Greek and Roman adversaries. As we ponder the most significant turning points in Eurasian history, there was perhaps no more momentous encounter than that between Persia and the Classical World,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“The many spectacular objects on view are extraordinary expressions of Persian political and cultural identity, many of them among the most famous masterpieces of Persian art. I hope this exhibition will convey how fruitful the intermingling of very different artistic and other cultural traditions was for both cultures, as can still be seen in aspects of our visual arts today.”

The exceptional collection of artifacts on display include architectural reliefs, intaglio gemstones, cuneiform seals, jewelry, precious serving dishes and royal sculpture on loan from institutions all over the Unites States, Europe and the Middle East. Many of the artifacts are on display in the US for the first time.

The objects in the exhibition are enhanced and contextualized by a cutting-edge immersive film offered to visitors at the Getty Villa. The movie takes viewers on a tour through the royal palace complex in the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis in its heyday before Alexander the Great burned it to the ground in the 330 B.C. It uses the same technology used in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian to give a 360-degree HD viewing experience for people lucky enough to see the exhibition in person.

For people without easy access to Malibu, the museum has created Persepolis Reimagined, an online interactive digital tour of Persepolis so we can virtually fly into the capital, through the bulls guarding the Gate of All Nations, into the Apadana (audience hall), through the Palace of Xerxes, the Southeastern Palace, the Royal Treasury and the Hall of 100 Columns. At each stage there are clickable interactive elements that go into further detail about the features and in some cases, what remains of those features today. It is easy to navigate, beautifully modeled and strikes a good balance between richness of content and digestibility.

Potts adds: “I am especially pleased that visitors to the exhibition will also be able to explore some of the highlights of ancient Iranian art and architecture through digital technologies. Two innovative digital experiences—one an immersive on-site experience at the Villa; the other accessible online—will allow visitors to walk in the steps of a Persian dignitary through a digital reconstruction of the spectacular Achaemenid palace of Persepolis. These new tools, in partnership with the latest scholarship, can provide dynamic, interactive engagement with distant places and cultures, and we hope to expand their use in the future.”

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Michelangelo’s first sculptures restored

Friday, May 6th, 2022

Michelangelo’s first two sculptures, marble reliefs the  Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs carved when he was a teenager, have been restored and are on display at the Casa Buonarotti museum in Florence.

Michelangelo was just 15 years old when he moved to Florence in 1490 and joined the informal art academy sponsored by Lorenzo de’ Medici in his sculpture garden at Piazza San Marco in Florence. For two years, Michelangelo lived in the Medici Palace and studied in Lorenzo’s garden of antiquities under the guidance of Bertoldo di Giovanni, the sculptor and portrait medallist who was curator of Lorenzo’s antiquities and instructor of the young talents who studied there.

Michelangelo’s first sculpture (1490-1491) was the Madonna of the Steps, a low relief homage to Donatello’s relievo stiacciato (smashed relief) technique. The Madonna sits on a square stone block, the Christ child on her lap, his back to the viewer. On the left is the flight of stairs that gives the piece its name. At the top of the stairs a pair of putti wrestle while a third one looks away, leaning pensively over the bannister.

His second sculpture (1491-1492) was another relief, this one a dynamic, intricate, deeply-cut mythological scene of a battle between men and centaurs. Michelangelo took inspiration from Bertoldo’s largest bronze, a relief of a complex battle scene inspired by an ancient Roman sarcophagus that Lorenzo had commissioned a decade earlier.

Michelangelo kept both reliefs for his entire life. He considered the Battle of the Centaurs one of his greatest works, evidence that he should have stuck to sculpture from the beginning instead of getting sidetracked by annoying distractions like, oh, say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After his death in 1564, the Madonna was sold to Cosimo I de’ Medici by Michelangelo’s nephew and heir (under some duress). Grand Duke Cosimo II returned it to the Buonarroti family in 1616. The Battle of the Centaurs has been in the Buonarroti family for five unbroken centuries. Both reliefs are part of the permanent collection of the Buonarroti House.

In 2020, the museum embarked on a new conservation project for the two works. Non-invasive imaging techniques were used to assess condition and plan the subsequent interventions.

Battle of the Centaurs after restoration. Photo by Antonio Quattrone. Battle of the Centaurs before restoration. Photo by Antonio Quattrone. After twenty-five and thirty years respectively after the restorations carried out on the works, the new cleaning intervention was functional to remove the subtle stratifications of atmospheric deposits of a coherent and incoherent nature that opacified and chromatically altered the reliefs. In fact, the color of the marble, changed due to the alteration and penetration of the materials used during the nineteenth-century calculations (waxes, oils, soaps) and of the restoration materials (waxes and solvents such as the slightly amber-colored turpentine used in the case of the Battle of the Centaurs for example) has reached a balance which, after the current cleaning operation, allows the high relief to be read in its technical sculptural data in a clear and harmonious way.

The cleaning to which the works were subjected gave such results as to make the pre-existing setting no longer suitable for their best enhancement, which saw the reliefs on a light background that mortified the color and the modeling of the two marbles. In the new layout, anthracite-colored painted metal structures have been designed that make the two reliefs stand out. The story of both works is entrusted to a short, very comprehensive text on the history of collecting and art, written in anthracite-colored characters on a light gray background in both Italian and English. Furthermore, the new LED lighting allows the sculptures to be read in every detail.

Michelangelo’s two earliest masterpieces are now the in the refurbished Room of Marbles of the Casa Buonarroti.

Video of the Madonna of the Steps undergoing conservation:

Video of the Battle of the Centaurs undergoing conservation:

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