Way back in the mists of 2012, farmers discovered a massive trunk of prehistoric oak preserved for 5,000 years in a Cambridgeshire peat bog. The trunk was 44 feet long and weighed five tons and it was only a section from the middle of the original oak, one of many Ent-like giants that ruled the Fenland Basin before rising levels turned the ancient high forest into a bog.
Bog oak is England’s only native black timber, prized for its rich color and thick stripe grain. Usually the finds are much more modest, however, and bog oak is used for inlays or smaller cabinetry. This giant was so huge and in such spectacular condition — no disease or parasites in life, almost no decomposition after death — that bog oak specialists decided the only way to do justice to its majesty was to saw it into planks the length of the entire trunk and create a massive table out of them that would go on public view.
Thus the Fenland Black Oak Project was born. Dubbed the Jubilee Oak because it was discovered in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the oak was raised and quarter sawn into full-length planks. The planks were then dried in custom-built kilns 50 feet long. It took nine months to extract the water from the wood. A total of 1795 liters (474 gallons) of water was extracted; the planks lost half their thickness, a quarter of their width and 1.8 tons of weight.
Designers then came up with an almost sculptural concept to show off this beautiful wood: a drop-leaf table mounted on a bronze understructure and four pilons for legs. The two outer planks are hinged to the bronze so they can be folded down. It’s even on wheels so this gigantic table can be moved easily by just two people. Craftspeople had to invent new techniques to manage planks of this size, including a whole new join known as the River Joint for its meandering shape.
The estimated time of completion was 2013. They turned out to be off by nine years. The table was completed in 2022, just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s II Platinum Jubilee. Inscriptions were added to opposite ends of the table marking its discovery in the Diamond Jubilee year and completion in the Platinum Jubilee year.
The finished work found a suitably majestic setting for its enormousness in Ely Cathedral which was built on drained Fens, the same environment that saved the oak for so long, and is also the third longest medieval cathedral in England, so a perfect context for a 44-foot-long bog oak table. It has been placed on the stone floor under the Octagon Tower, a unique 14th century structure considered to be one of the masterpieces of medieval English architecture.
The table was installed at Ely in May and will remain there for visitors to enjoy until March 2023.
Next year, the Rijksmuseum is bringing together 27 of the 35 known paintings by Vermeer in a landmark exhibition dedicated to the 17th century Delft master. There will be works on loan from the Frick Collection in New York, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
In the run-up to the new exhibition that opens in February of 2023, the Rijksmuseum has been working with the Mauritshuis and the University of Antwerp to study all of the works by Vermeer that are currently in the Netherlands using state-of-the-art analytical technology. The four Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection — The Milkmaid, The Little Street, The Love Letter and Woman Reading a Letter — have been photographed in ultra-high resolution, scanned with Optical Coherence Tomography, Macro-XRF and Short Wavelength Infrared Reflectance (SWIR), an imaging technology used for industrial inspections and military applications.
It was the SWIR imaging that brought to light two objects Vermeer had painted over before completing them on The Milkmaid: a jug holder with jugs hanging from the handles behind the milkmaid’s head, and a fire basket at her feet. The presence of something in those areas had been noted in previous X-rays, but the older technology could not make out what they were. Experts thought it might be a fireplace behind her hand. The detail is so much greater that conservators were able to identify the jug holder and the fire basket from the incomplete underpainting. Vermeer’s estate inventory records that he had a jug holder in his pantry and a fire basket (used to hold glowing coals to warm a baby’s bedding, clothing and the baby itself).
This discovery sheds entirely new light on Vermeer’s methods. The general assumption was that the artist produced his small oeuvre very slowly, and always worked with extreme precision. This view is now being revised. A hastily applied thick line of black paint can be seen beneath the milkmaid’s left arm. This sketch shows clearly that Vermeer first quickly painted the scene in light and dark tones before developing the detail.
A similar preliminary sketch in black paint can be seen on the wall behind the young woman’s head. By comparing the results produced using the latest research techniques, it has now become clear that Vermeer used black paint to sketch a jug holder and several jugs, but didn’t develop them any further. The jug holder, a plank of wood with nobs attached, was used in 17th-century kitchens for hanging up multiple ceramic jugs by the handle. A pantry in Vermeer’s own home contained a similar item, and a miniature version of just such a jug holder can be found elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum, in Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house (c. 1690).
The new discoveries are explained with great visuals in this video which is the third in a series the Rijksmuseum has produced about its research into Vermeer’s masterworks. See the second video in the series, which follows conservators as they image the four works in the museum’s permanent collection, here. The first video in the series focuses on The Milkmaid and The Little Street.
Less than a year after a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was recovered from Lake Mendota in Wisconsin, a second even more ancient canoe has been found. Radiocarbon analysis dates it to 1000 B.C., making it the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region by 1,000 years and the earliest direct archaeological evidence of the use of water transportation in the region. Archaeologists were so surprised by the results that they had the wood sample re-tested three times.
The 14.5-foot canoe was first spotted in May by Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen. It was discovered not even 100 yards from the one discovered in 2021 at the bottom of a drop-off in the lakebed. Their proximity may be more than coincidence. Archaeologists are now researching the ancient shoreline and water levels to investigate whether the canoes were kept near ancient villages that were ultimately submerged and lost.
The Wisconsin Historical Society worked with partners from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe to recover it from the lakebed. Archaeologists excavated it from the lakebed by hand and raised to the surface using flotation bags. It was then transported to the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison where the canoe recovered last year is currently undergoing conservation.
“The recovery of this canoe built by our ancestors gives further physical proof that Native people have occupied Teejop (Four Lakes) for millennia, that our ancestral lands are here and we had a developed society of transportation, trade and commerce,” said Ho-Chunk President Marlon WhiteEagle. “Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it. By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us. We appreciate our partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, working together to preserve part of not only our ancestors’ history but our state’s history.”
Archaeologists and Tribal members will clean and conserve the canoe together. Once cleaned, the canoe will be submerged in the same preservation tank where the younger Mendota canoe is being bathed in bio-deterrant (to prevent the growth of organisms at the canoe’s expense) and PEG (to replace the water molecules in the wood’s cells and prevent shrinking when the wood dries). They will soak in the vat for two to three years before being freeze-dried. One frozen, the wood of the canoes will be stable even when exposed to the air, so they can be displayed.
Archaeologists have discovered a unique Neolithic mass grave of headless bodies in Vráble, western Slovakia. The skeletons were found inside a defensive ditch of one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Central Europe.
The Neolithic settlement dates to between 5250 and 4950 B.C. and contains three settlement areas covering more than 120 acres. Excavations and geophyisical surveys over the past seven years have revealed more than 300 long houses in the settlement, albeit built in different phases of occupation. Archaeologists believe about 50-70 houses would have been in use at any given time.
In the last phase of occupation, one of the three settlement areas was fortified with at least one defensive ditch and a palisade. There were six entrances through the defensive perimeters into the settlement. Previous excavations have found individual graves in and around the ditch. This year, archaeologists found a long trench near one of the entrances to the settlement containing the skeletal remains of at least 35 people. The bodies appear to have been tossed in willy-nilly. They were found on their backs, on their stomachs, on their sides and arms and legs outstretched. The remains of men, women and children were buried in the grave, a disproportionate number of them were adolescents and young people when they died. There are some peri-mortem fractures. The skull of a one child and one mandible were the only bones from heads found in the grave.
Further tests are to be carried out to establish whether they were individuals who died separately, victims of an epidemic, or killed as part of cult ceremonies. They will also look for any genetic links between them, and whether the heads were forcibly removed or separation occurred only after decomposition of the body.
“Only then will we be able to answer several questions about the social categorisation of the [site’s] inhabitants, probably also about the emerging social inequality in the conditions of early agricultural societies, and perhaps even reconstruct the functioning or the causes of the demise of this vast settlement,” the director of the archaeological institute Matej Ruttkay said.
An extremely rare mouthpiece from a Roman cornu — a long, curled horn — has been discovered beneath the remains of the ancient officer’s club at the Vindolanda Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Made of copper alloy, the mouthpiece was found over a Hadrianic-era (117-138 A.D.) workshop floor. The stratigraphy dates it to 120-128 A.D.
The cornu (Latin “horn”, both musical and animal) was an instrument around 3m long, curled into a letter ‘G’ shape and was commonly supported by a wooden pole, allowing for some of the weight to be held on the shoulder. Cornua are depicted in many Roman settings on imagery with military, ceremonial and entertainment use.
Vindolanda is famed for the thousands of fragile organic artifacts recovered intact from its anaerobic water-logged soil, most famously almost 800 wooden letter tablets recording the daily lives of Vindolanda’s military and civilian residents. More than 7,000 leather objects and 1,500 wooden ones have been found in excavations at the site, including thousands of leather shoes, the only surviving Roman wooden toilet seat and the only surviving pair of Roman leather boxing gloves. Even in the midst all this archaeological pulchritude, the cornu mouthpiece stand out as the only one of its kind discovered at Vindolanda.
A cornu was a G-shaped brass instrument without holes or valves. It was played by controlling air flow, similar to a French horn. Its design was of Etruscan origin, but the Romans made it their own a military signalling device. Cornicenes played loud notes to convey orders to the army on the march and in battle. Several large examples were found in Pompeii and exact replicas have been used to reproduce the sound of Roman armies at war.
One of the replica Pompeiian cornua will celebrate the discovery of the mouthpiece with a live performance at Vindolanda this Sunday by musician Letty Scott. The mouthpiece has undergone conservation and will soon go on display at the Roman Army Museum of Vindolanda.
Here is a great video of musician Abraham Cupeiro putting one of the Pompeiian replicas through its paces.