1,300-year-old shipwreck found in France

Archaeologists have discovered the wreck of a ship that navigated the Garonne river in southwestern France in the 7th-8th century. The wooden ship was unearthed buried under the bed of the Estey de Lugan, a silted-over stream outside the city of Bordeaux. The thick, water-logged clay has preserved the organic materials of the ship, including some rope fittings, for 1,300 years. There is almost no surviving written history chronicling navigation methods from the period, so the survival of this shipwreck is a unique testimonial to naval design in early medieval France.

The wreck is about 40 feet long, out of an estimated original length of about 50 feet when it was intact. The keel and dimensions indicate it was a cargo ship capable of both river and coastal navigation. It has a flat floor that would have allowed it to carry bulk goods. Both oak and softwood were used to construct it.

INRAP archaeologists will first document the ship in meticulous detail with photogrammetry, a 3D virtual model numbering and recording every individual piece of wood. The planks will be dismantled and numbered so that they can be reconstructed once stabilized and conserved.

The removal of the wreck will give archaeologists the unprecedented opportunity to study how it was constructed and how it navigated the waterways. The team will also be able to study the waterways themselves. The ship was found in a relatively remote area, a stream that was already non-navigable when it was documented in the 18th century. That a cargo vessel would take to a small stream off the Garonne attests to how these marshy areas near major waterways were used by trade vessels.

Bronze Age hits keep coming at Sanxingdui

The spectacular hits just keep coming in the excavation of sacrificial pits 7 and 8 at the Sanxingdui Bronze Age archaeological site in Guanghan City, Sichuan Province, southwest China. At least 10 of the artifacts unearthed are one-of-a-kind. Highlights among the most recent finds include a bronze altar, a box containing a large piece of jade and a sculpture five feet high that is the first artifact of its kind ever discovered at the site.

Nearly 13,000 objects made of bronze, gold, jade and ivory have been found thus far since excavation of the six sacrificial pits began in 2020. The vast majority of the artifacts were deliberately broken and bear marks from having been struck and burned before burial. Only 2,400 artifacts of the 13,000 were discovered intact. The archaeological team plans to make copies of the objects and experiment with different destruction and burning approaches to see how the ancient Shu people of the Yangtze River civilization decommissioned the Sanxingdui artifacts for sacrifice 3,100 years ago.

Speaking of which, four of the sacrificial pits (3,4, 7 and 8) have now been conclusively dated to the late Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). Carbon-14 analysis of 200 samples taken from the pits returned a tight date range for the burial ages of between 1,131 B.C. and 1,012 B.C. Pits 5 and 6 are older, but still late in the Shang Dynasty. The excavation of pit No. 7 is almost complete. The excavation of pit 8 is about halfway done. The most recent finds come from these two pits.

The exquisitely-crafted bronze altar was unearthed this weekend from Pit No. 8. It is approximately three feet high and consists of a platform base with openwork decoration with a top section decorated with bronze mythical creatures in a sacrificial scene. The two pieces were found separately. The upper part was recovered on Saturday, June 11th, and the base emerged the next day.

The bronze five-foot bronze sculpture was also found in Pit No. 8. It was cast in three parts that were then welded together. The central section features an anthropomorphic head with bulging eyes and tusks on a snake body. (Human-headed snake figures are characteristic of the Shu culture.) The figure is positioned head-down, his raised hands holding the lower section: an urn-shaped wine vessel (lei) on a square base. The uppermost section is a zun, a trumpet-shaped drinking vessel, painted vermillion. The complex iconography attests to a mythological world dense with characters and imagery.

Another unique object was discovered in pit No. 7: a bronze box with tortoise shell-shaped lattice lids hinged together on one side that encased a large piece of green jade. The box has handles in the shape of dragon heads and two or three bronze streamers that look like realistic ties. Microtrace analysis revealed that the box was originally wrapped in silk.

Most of the objects recovered from pit No. 7 are smaller pieces, but no less artfully crafted. One piece found in the northeast corner of the pit this March was a paper-thin folded sheet of bronze. Literally paper-thin; the same thickness as a sheet of A4 paper. Ancient bronze craftsmen in China often cast objects by creating two opposing clay moulds and then pouring the bronze into the gap between them, which is why most of the Sanxingdui bronzes were very thick. The folded bronze paper cannot have been produced using this technology. Archaeologists will have to do a metallurgic analysis of it (and other fragments of thin bronze found in pit 7) to determine how it was made. Right now the preliminary speculation is that it was forged.

Sichuan has begun construction of a new museum in  Guanghan City to house, secure and study these remarkable archaeological materials. It is being built right next to the sacrificial pits and the current museum which is no longer adequate to house the massive collection of objects. The new museum will cover 55,000 square meters, five times the size of the current museum, making it the largest single museum building in southwestern China. It is expected to be completed in October 2023.

Frog mass grave found at Iron Age site

Archaeologists have unearthed more than 8,000 frog and toad bones buried in a ditch at an Iron Age site near Cambridge, UK. They were found in a trench 45 feet long adjacent to the remains of a roundhouse in the Iron Age settlement at Bar Hill. Frog bones have been found before at archaeological sites in England, but they are individual examples, a single frog bone here and there. A mass burial is unprecedented.

The frog grave was found about three feet under the surface. It was not a trash heap; only a smattering of household waste, mainly pottery sherds, was found in the ditch. The bones are mostly common frog and common toad bones, species that are widely distributed throughout the country. Mass burials of animal bones found at prehistoric sites are usually the result of ceremonial feasting, but an insatiable predilection for cuisses de grenouille is unlikely to be the case here.

The archaeologists say that, while there is evidence of amphibian consumption in Britain dating to the stone age, these bones have no cuts or burn marks. If the frogs had been boiled, however, this may not have left traces.

Evidence of charred grain found near the site suggests that its inhabitants were processing crops that would attract pests such as beetles and aphids, which frogs are known to eat. So perhaps the frogs were drawn to the area by the promise of food, the archaeologists suggest.

Other potential explanations include “a prehistoric frog tragedy”. The archaeologists say that frogs are known to move in large numbers in spring in search of breeding waters and these could have fallen into the ditch and become trapped.

According to one hypothesis, the unusual death toll might also have been caused by winter hardship. While hibernating frogs sometimes hide in the mud, extreme cold can kill them and perhaps they fell victim to a particularly severe winter.

The roundhouse was in use in the Late Iron Age (from 400 B.C. – 43 A.D.), but it is not clear when the frogs were buried within that range. It could have been an accumulation over an extended period of time.

Wreck of 17th c. royal warship found off Norfolk

Danckerts, Johan, c.1615-1687; The Wreck of the 'Gloucester' off Yarmouth, 6 May 1682. Photo courtesy  National Maritime Museum.The wreck of the warship HMS Gloucester which sank in 1682 carrying the future James II of England and James VII of Scotland, has been discovered off the coast of Norfolk. James survived. The 50-gun frigate and 200 souls on board did not.

The younger brother of King Charles II, James, Duke of York, was heir to the throne as Charles had no legitimate issue. James had converted to Catholicism in the late 1660s, however, and the news broke in 1673 when James refused to disavow Catholic doctrine and resigned as Lord High Admiral. With tensions over ostensible Catholic treason plots rising and parliament on the verge of passing a bill to exclude James from the succession, Charles dispatched his brother to temporary exile in Scotland in 1679.

In 1682, Charles, who had suffered a stroke and was feeling his mortality, asked James to meet with him in London. The meeting went well and Charles gave James permission to pick up his pregnant wife in Edinburgh and move in with him in the Palace of Whitehall. The HMS Gloucester departed Portsmouth for Edinburgh with the Duke of York and a passel of high-ranking noblemen on board.

HMS Gloucester ran aground on a sandbar off  Great Yarmouth in the early morning of May 6th. The weather was blustery and the sandbars in the area are constantly shifting making them hard to avoid, especially for a ship going at a brisk six knots. Pushed by a strong easterly wind, Gloucester was driven into the sand until the rudder snapped and the ship split down the keel. Less than an hour after hitting the sandbank, the ship was fully submerged. A few hours later, the majority of the 330 crew and passengers were dead.

James made it out unscathed, but not before playing a pivotal role in the delays that cost at least 200 people their lives. There was a flotilla accompanying the Gloucester — five other frigates and four royal yachts — and while the seas were choppy, a rapid rescue operation would still have been possible. James did not want to abandon ship at first, preferring to wait in the hope that it could be salvaged, and protocol required that royalty had to be evacuated before everyone else. He only left the Gloucester when it was minutes away from sinking under the waves. Even then he privileged the rescue of the strongbox containing his memoirs, putting it on a boat deliberately not filled to capacity to minimize the risk of it capsizing.

The exact location of the wreck was never documented, and 325 years would pass before its remains were spotted by divers Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and their friend James Little.

The Barnwell brothers are Norfolk-based printers, licensed divers and Honorary Fellows in the School of History at UEA. Lincoln said he was partly inspired to search for the wreck after watching the lifting of the Mary Rose on television as a child.

“It was our fourth dive season looking for Gloucester,” he said. “We were starting to believe that we were not going to find her, we’d dived so much and just found sand. On my descent to the seabed the first thing I spotted were large cannon laying on white sand, it was awe- inspiring and really beautiful.

“It instantly felt like a privilege to be there, it was so exciting. We were the only people in the world at that moment in time who knew where the wreck lay. That was special and I’ll never forget it. Our next job was to identify the site as the Gloucester.”

Another five years would pass before they were able to confirm the wreck’s identity when they recovered the ship’s bell. The find has been kept under wraps all this time because it is in International waters and maritime archaeologists wanted to be able to explore the wreck without drawing the attention of looters.

Artefacts rescued and conserved include clothes and shoes, navigational and other professional naval equipment, personal possessions, and many wine bottles.

One of the wine bottles bears a glass seal with iconography that connects it to a passenger onboard, Colonel George Legge, Master of Ordnance and Groom of the Bedchamber to the Duke of York.

Legge was the son of Elizabeth Washington, and the Washington crest on the wine bottle, with its distinctive ‘stars and stripes’, links it and the ship to the most famous member of the family, George Washington, the first US President. The design is found on the Purple Heart, a US decoration awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving with the military.

Some of the wine bottles were recovered intact and still sealed with wine inside. Researchers will attempt to extract and analyze their contents while the investigation of the Gloucester’s archaeological remains and historical records continues.

Brazenly looted Maya frieze restored

A monumental stucco frieze looted from the Late Classic Maya site of Los Placeres in the jungles of Campeche is the final stage of a four-year restoration that aims to return it to the condition it was in before it was plundered.

Made between 450 and 600 A.D., the frieze features a central mask representing a youthful ruler guarded on each side by two deified elderly men, likely representing ancestors, extending to the ruler power and virility. It was vividly painted and much of the polychrome paint remained when it was looted in 1968.

The removal of the Placeres Frieze was one of the most brazen looting and trafficking operations of all time, if not the most. It all started with an art dealer in New York City. A former US Air Force pilot during World War II, the dealer heard about the façade hidden in the jungle and organized a team to loot it. His man on the ground was Lee Moore, an orchid collector who had traveled extensively through Central America pursuing his obsession.

But smuggling a stucco frieze more than 27 feet long and eight feet high that has been attached to a temple for 1500 years is far more complex than smuggling a rare plant. You can’t just hike through the jungle with it in your backpack. For this job, the looters had to clear a stretch of jungle and create an airstrip out of it to even make it possible to transport the massive frieze out of the country.

A looting crew was deployed to the Placeres archaeological site, then completely overtaken by jungle growth. They cleared the façade of plant matter, coated it in Mowilith, a polymer plaster, to keep the surface from disintegrating, then sawed it off the temple with wood saws. We know all of this because the entire operation was photographed in detail. That’s right. They meticulously documented their illegal destruction and theft of an ancient archaeological site.

The looters cut the frieze into 48 pieces and loaded onto a plane bound for Miami. Its eventual destination was New York City where it would be offered for sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was then preparing a major exhibition of pre-Hispanic art. The price tag was $400,000.

The Met wanted to sleep on the idea for a while, so the façade was stored in the basement until the end of 1968 when one of the museum’s curators rejected the offer in horror at the Elgin-like brutality of the frieze’s theft. He contacted the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico and together they planned a sting to catch the dealer. In a direct confrontation, the directors of both museums demanded the frieze be returned to Mexico. The trafficker still tried to get out of it and here too the brazenness is just off the charts. He actually dared to ask they at least pay him $80,000 to reimburse him for the expenses he incurred building an airfield, brutalizing an ancient monument and illegally removing it from the country. They laughed in his face, of course, and finally he gave up. The frieze was returned to Mexico. Neither the dealer, the orchid collector nor any of the demolition crew were ever punished.

The frieze has been in the National Museum of Anthropology ever since. In 2018, conservators embarked on a comprehensive restoration of the frieze with the goal of returning it to the weathered but still richly colored condition it was in before it was outraged. Over the years it has developed an overall reddish tone and salts have accumulated marring the surface. Experts identified the pigments in the polychrome paint: iron oxides for the reds, carbon black for the pupils, white lime for other details. This information helped conservators target the unwanted elements for removal without damaging the original pigment.

The next phase of restoration aimed to stabilize the frieze which was still mounted to the metal framework that was crafted to support it when it was repatriated in 1969.

“Based on three-dimensional and volumetric calculations, we welded a new structure that supports each fragment with at least four supports”, so that the two tons that the relief weighs rest on a stable frame.

One advantage of the new structure is its mobile character, which will facilitate the maintenance of the piece and will promote the temporary rearrangement of the whole for museum installations.

Already stable, the piece underwent comprehensive cleaning, which required two years of work, between 2020 and 2021, to fully remove the polymer using products created at the CNCPC. 

The conservation is being done in full public view in the museum’s Mayan Room. It is expected to be complete by December,