Archive for May, 2022

Como Treasure: 1,000 gold coins in a cooking pot

Saturday, May 21st, 2022

The hoard of gold coins from the last days of the Western Roman Empire that was discovered under an old theater in Como in 2018 has proven even more exceptional than it seemed at first glance. And that’s saying a lot, because from the lidded soapstone pot to the tidy stacks of mint-condition 5th century gold coins inside of it, this find was immediately recognized as one of unprecedented historical significance. 

When the news of the spectacular find was announced in September of 2018, archaeologists had recovered the vessel and begun the process of excavating it in laboratory conditions. They had removed 27 coins from the reigns of the Emperors Honorius (r. 384–423), Valentinian III (r. 425-455), Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) and his short-lived co-emperor Libius Severus (r. 461-465) and estimated there were about 300 in the whole hoard. They had come across one gold ingot and two objects of undetermined identity and expected to find more in the densely packed amphora.

Well, the painstaking process of removing one coin at a time from its tight, tidy stacks is now complete, and the final tally of gold coins is 1,000. Exactly 1,000. Someone had to have counted this out for professional purposes, like an accountant, government administrator or imperial goldsmith. The vast majority of the coins — 639 of them — were struck by mint in Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) which was then the capital of the Western Empire. They were minted between 395 and 472 A.D. and bear representations of eight emperors and four empresses. The fall of the Western Roman Empire is traditionally dated to the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 A.D., and 744 of the coins were minted after 455, so literally the last two decades of the empire.

In addition to the coins, the treasure contains the raw materials for and products of the highest quality goldsmith work. There are three large gold rings, believed to be men’s rings, one octagonal, one set with a huge cabochon garnet of superb quality, and one with an unusually intricate combination of basket weave and filigree techniques. There also are three earrings (one pair and an unfinished singleton). The production side of the business is attested to by an ingot, a gold bar, and thin gold threads. The ingot is alloyed with silver to make it more durable for jewelry and it has been cut and broken from bits of being used to make precious objects.

All told, there are 11 pounds of gold in this hoard, an almost inconceivable amount of portable wealth at a time when the imperial economic systems were moribund. The amphora it was crammed into, on the other hand, was a modest object of everyday use. It’s a jug not dissimilar to a beer stein that was locally produced of green soapstone. It has char marks indicating it was used in cooking. Pliny referred to cooking vessels being made of soapstone in the Como area (Natural History, XXXVIL 44), and they are still manufactured there today.

This video shows the jug and goldsmith materials, including a fantastic close-up of the garnet.

This video focuses on the jug, but around the 3:40 mark you can see the coins being removed one at a time with tweezers during the conservation process.

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Mary, Queen of Scots’ silver casket of doom

Friday, May 20th, 2022

A luxurious silver casket believed to have contained the scandalous letters from Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Earl of Bothwell that were the pretext for her forced abdication and long imprisonment has been acquired by National Museums Scotland. £1.8 million

The casket was made in Paris between 1493 and 1510, which makes it an extremely rare survival of luxury Renaissance French silversmithing, much of which was melted down in the late 17th century by Louis XIV to fund his endless wars. There are no other French silver caskets of this type and quality known to survive. This one just happened to have left the country a century earlier, and its association with Mary, Queen of Scots is likely a large part of the reason it was preserved so well for so long.

As the experts on Antiques Roadshow always tell people to do, a note kept with the casket explains its connection to Mary. Written in the early 1700s, the note states that the casket was owned by Mary, Marchioness of Douglas, who sold it to Anne, Duchess of Hamilton. Mary told Anne that it once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Eight letters purportedly written by Mary, Queen of Scots, were the crux of the case made for her deposition by the Earl of Moray and other Confederate Lords. The letters, they claimed, proved she had had an illicit affair with the Earl of Bothwell and had conspired with him to kill the Queen’s husband Lord Darnley. The letters proved no such thing and there’s a strong chance they were forgeries anyway, but the pretext worked. Mary was forced to abdicate and fled to England seeking the protection of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Instead, Elizabeth ordered an investigation into whether Mary had indeed murdered Darnley and although the inquiry was inconclusive, Mary was held captive in a sequence of castles for 19 years until 1586 when she was tried and executed for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth.

The letters and casket went to a round-robin of Scottish lords after that. Moray, regent of Scotland after Mary’s convenient removal, had the letters for a while, then James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. Mary’s son, the future James VI, is believed to have destroyed the original letters in 1584. Only a few copies exist today.

The casket was acquired by Mary Gordon, second wife to the 1st Marquis of Douglas, in the 1630s. Whether it is the actual casket that contained the letters used against Mary is unknown, but it such a high-end piece it is entirely plausible that it belonged to her at some point.

This ornate object was made by an extremely skilled goldsmith. We can tell that the goldsmith was in Paris from two maker’s marks stamped into its external underside panel. They have a crowned fleur-de-lis identifying the casket as Parisian, which sits above two symbols for the specific goldsmith, a fire steel or strike-a-light with a small Greek-type cross beneath it. After 1506, the French king Louis XII ordered the Parisian goldsmiths to start using a new type of mark, which means the casket must have been made by this time.

The decoration on the lid is known as ‘strapwork’, with alternating wide bands of three-dimensional scrolling leaves and flowers, and narrower, flat bands of flowerlets. The decoration of the sides is very different, with pinpricked flowers, birds, a rabbit, and a running stag and dog. This work may have been done later, and further scientific work will attempt to see if it replaced a previous design.

On one side is an engraving of the arms of the Dukes of Hamilton, with their distinctive symbol of the birlinn, or galley, in the second and third quarters. Three cinquefoils appear in the first and fourth quarters. When magnified, you can see that these arms have replaced something that has been erased. According to the provenance note, these were the arms of the Marquis of Douglas, and before that, of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The casket is now on display in the National Museums Scotland’s Hawthornden Court. In August it will be moved to its permanent location in the Kingdom of the Scots gallery where other artifacts and documents connected with Mary are displayed.

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Indigenous graves found on Taiwan campus

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

Construction of new facilities at National Ilan University in Yilan County, Taiwan, has unearthed skeletal remains and grave goods from three 17th century burials. Artifacts include fish-shaped metal braids known as golden carps, gilded glass beads, copper bells, and copper bangles. The bones are very poorly preserved, but the artifacts identify the individuals as members of the Kavalan culture, an indigenous people of Taiwan.

The Kavalan first appear on the historical record in 1632 after an encounter with Spanish sailors blown off course in a typhoon. The Dutch East India Company made additional contact in 1650 and later the Spanish attempted to establish a colony there, but the Kavalan remained resistant to external influence and assimilation, retaining their unique cultural traditions and their ancestral territory until the 19th century. After at least one failed attempt, the Han Chinese managed to settle the area in 1796 and began to displace the Kavalan.

The Qing dynasty forwent the settlement part and skipped straight to invasion in the 1870s. After the Kavalan and their allies the Sakizaya people were defeated in battle in 1878, the Qing retaliated against their uprising by decimating both populations. They were so dispersed and reduced in numbers that the Kavalan even lost their own tribal identification until a campaign of rectification restored their status as a Taiwan indigenous group in 2002. Today there are an estimated 1,500 members of the Kavalan tribe.

The graves were found on May 10th after a preliminary exploration of an area on campus where an addition to the College of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science was being built. Once they were confirmed to be archaeological remains, construction was suspended to make way for an archaeological excavation through September.

The find is likely connected to the “Old Baili Village” (Bai Li Jiu She), an as-yet-undiscovered Kavalan settlement that has been mentioned in written and oral sources, [the university’s statement] said.

It is not the first time that objects of archeological value were found on the university’s campus, [the university] said.

A trove of artifacts linked to the Shihsanhang settlement was discovered when ground was broken for the school in 1926, while seven skeletons, three fish-shaped metal knots and other trinkets were separately unearthed by construction workers in 2000 and 2006, [the university] said.

The site is uniquely rich in Kavalan archaeology and the only university campus in Taiwan to be listed as an archaeological site. National Ilan University plans to build a museum to collect, conserve and display the archaeological finds to bring attention to the history of the Kavalan people at the site.

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Gummi bears turn 100 years old

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

Confectioner Hans Riegel founded Haribo (combining the first letters of his name and hometown of Bonn) in 1920. The first production plant was a copper kettle in his kitchen and his first employee was his wife Gertrud. He’d make hard candies and she’d deliver them on her bicycle. In 1922, Riegel invented a new confection: the Tanzbären, or Dancing Bear. It was a soft fruit-flavored candy shaped like a bear sitting on its hind legs, inspired by the sad performing bears that were so popular at the time.

At 1.5 inches tall, the original gummi bears were bigger than the familiar form they take today, and they were tougher to the bite because they were made of gum arabic instead of gelatine. While jelly-style candies — gumdrops, Turkish delight — had been around a long time, Riegel’s innovation produced a chewier, firmer texture and the playful animal shapes appealed to kids raised on teddy bears which had exploded onto the global scene as the toy to have in 1903 after Teddy Roosevelt refused to kill a bear in an unsporting matter and a toymaker made a velvet plushie bear in his honor. The German toy company Steiff started making teddy bears at the same time, independently of the US trend, and they were instantly popular. When the little bears came out in candy form for just 1 Pfennig apiece, they were instantly popular too.

They soon outgrew their kitchen and moved operations to a production factory. The original Tanzbären shape was retired in the 1930s in favor of the Teddy-Bären which were smaller and cuter. Naturally they sold like crazy and by the beginning of World War II, Riegel had gone from selling tall bears in market kiosks to running a confectionary factory with more than 400 employees cranking out ten tons of candy each day.

The company managed to hang on by the skin of its teeth through the war years, but just barely. Hans died in 1945 at the young age of 52 and Hans’ sons had fought for Germany and been taken prisoner by the Allied forces. Gertrud ran the skeleton operation until her sons returned in 1946 to pick up where they left off. By 1950, there were 1,000 employees. Hans Jr. was the one who came up with the “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo!” slogan, still very much in use in commercials today.

Hans Jr. and his brother Paul kept tweaking the product, continuing over the decades to introduce ever smaller and cuter bears. They were squishier too, their appealing softness a lure for unsuspecting children. The Goldbären gummi bear as it lives and breathes today was first sold in 1975.

Haribo is celebrating the centenary with a bunch of limited edition flavors (meh) and party hat-shaped gummies (double meh). I think they need to bring back the legacy recipe, al dente gum arabic and all. Team Tanzbären!

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Young Knight shines again in complex landscape

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

Young Knight in a Landscape (c. 1505) by Vittore Carpaccio is one of the most iconic masterpieces of the many masterpieces of Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. A comprehensive new study and restoration program undertaken in public view in 2020 and through March of 2021 has removed yellowed varnish and muddied overpainting to reveal the original rich colors of this uniquely complex symbolic landscape. The painting is now part of a special exhibition dedicated to the work, its imagery and the restoration itself.

The large-scale painting depicts a young man in plate armour drawing or sheathing his sword. His red hose show under the armor strapped to his right leg. He stands on a path bordered by a variety of plants. A snow-white ermine is in the glad on the left. Behind him the walls of a city extend to the vanishing point, overlooking a body of water. Animals — rabbits, deer, dogs, a veritable conference of the birds — abound on land, sea and sky.

In the left middle ground immediately behind the knight, a second one emerges from a dilapidated fortress. Mounted on a dun steed, he complements the central subject with his yellow and black checkered livery that matches the standing knight’s shoes, barely visible shadows underneath his chain mail. The mounted knight is armed with pieces the standing knight doesn’t have — a pike, a helmet with visor — and a peacock is perched on his helmet.

The work contains a wide range of symbolic elements, each of which has significance and meaning: the fauna, flora, landscape, figures, all transmit an interconnected message. Each detail is located in a strategic position within the composition in order to create a narrative associated with the virtues and deeds attributed to the figure and in order to exalt his memory. Like the lance that the mounted knight holds and points towards a falcon (symbol of vision, strategy, knowledge and victory) perched on a branch at the upper right corner. In turn, this imaginary line connects with the dog that accompanies the knight and is a symbol of fidelity and sacrifice. Other “lines” radiating from the falcon link the principal figure with different details among the many to be found in this work. The result is an invisible network of lines that connects all these elements to the principal figure, forming a grid in which he appears to be trapped and thus involved in this tension.

The figure of the young knight is made up of two opposing halves: the upper half – clad in Italianate armour with simple rivets and motifs of feathers or scales on the arm guards and gorget – is shown as resigned and melancholy while the lower half, with floral motifs decorating the different parts of the German-style armour, is shown as decided and arrogant. The knight’s sword divides these two parts of the figure, a duality that is repeated throughout the painting and which refers to the opposition of good and evil, victory and defeat, the heavenly and the earthly realms.

Some scholars believe it to be a portrait of a real person rather than a pure allegory. If it is a true portrait, it would be the oldest full-length portrait known. One possible candidate proposed by the museum is Venetian naval captain Marco Gabriel, who fought Ottoman forces in the siege of Modone (a strategically important port in the Peloponnese) in 1500. He was captured and executed when the Ottomans took the city.

This hypothesis explains the presence of the walled city in the painting, which is possibly an idealised version of the fortress, as well as the destroyed building on the left of the composition from which a rider emerges; a young knight mounted on a dark charger (symbol of inner wisdom and death), accompanied by his faithful dog in an allegorical image of the knight’s soul embarking on its path towards rebirth. According to this theory, this journey is also symbolised in the trees on the other side of the scene: a leafy oak in the background, its autumnal version in the middle ground and a cut-down tree next to the principal figure from which new shoots are growing and which has a cartouche with the name of the artist and the painting’s date.

This cartouche was rediscovered underneath old overpaints during cleaning in 1958, as was the one with the inscription “Mal mori quam foedari” (Rather dead than dishonoured), rediscovered next to the ermine. 

The motto next to the stoat in his winter white fur suggests the knight may have been a member of the chivalric Order of the Ermine, an honor conferred by the Dukes (and Duchess Anne) of Brittany who had stylized black-tipped ermine tails in their coat of arms. 

The museum has created an excellent video about the restoration and technical study of the painting. Visitors to the museum will be able to enjoy that video next to the portrait in the new exhibition, but the rest of us will have to make do with YouTube and the museum’s magnificent gigapixel image of Young Knight in a Landscape which puts you eye-to-beady-eye with the ermine.

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Arrow with pristine fletching found in Norway glacier

Monday, May 16th, 2022

The volunteers and archaeologists of Norway’s Glacier Archaeology Program have discovered a 1,700-year-old arrow that is so well-preserved that not only are the steering feathers still attached to the back, they aren’t even ruffled. The find site was an ice patch in the Jotunheimen Mountains where a Viking-era arrow was first spotted in 2007. When it was finally recovered in 2013, it was the only object found at the site.

In 2019 the patch was struck by a rapid melt and a second arrow emerged. This one was about 1,500 years old and in even better condition than the Viking arrow. The sinew wrapped around the base of the shaft to the arrowhead was still tightly in place, as were remnants of the fletching. Archaeological fieldwork at the site ultimately recovered another five arrows, including one made in the Stone Age ca. 4,000 years ago.

Of the arrows found in the 2019 season, one was still frozen to the ground and had to be melted free with careful application of lukewarm water. Even frozen in place, the arrow’s exceptional state of preservation was immediately evident.

“It is probably the best preserved arrow we have found so far,” said [Innlandet County archaeologist Lars] Pilø…. For instance, the sinew, wrapped around the front end of the arrow shaft to reduce the risk of fracture on impact, is still “wrapped tightly” and in place, he said. The remains of the thread and tar used to craft the arrow are also present.

“No wood species determination has been made, but the shafts of this type tend to be made in pine,” Pilø added. “Hopefully, it will be possible to find out which birds the feathers come from, what animal the sinew came from, etc.”

Because the arrow is so uniquely intact, the team has decided not to radiocarbon date it as they would have to sacrifice part of the arrow to take a sample. The style is well-known from Scandinavian bog offerings and graves, so the date range can be comfortably narrowed down to between 300 and 600 A.D.

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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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