Private Garden of the Camelias opens to public for the 1st time

A secret garden within the grand park of Florence’s Boboli Gardens has opened to the public for the first time since it was created in the middle of the 17th century. The Garden of the Camelias was reserved for the personal use of the Medici grand ducal family, so even though it was built under the towering ramparts and walls that separate the Palazzo Pitti courtyard from the park, it was designed to keep it safe from prying eyes.

Built in the mid-17th century for Mattias de’ Medici, third son of Grand Duke Cosimo II and governor of Siena, the garden was directly connected to Mattias’ apartments in Palazzo Pitti. He had it filled with exotic plants, rare citrus fruits and water features. An artificial arched cave near the entrance blocked the view into the secret garden. Rumor has it he enjoyed cavorting with his lovers there, hence the deliberate effort to keep the section closest to his apartments out of view.

In 1688, Mattias’ grand-nephew Ferdinand, Grand Prince of Tuscany, restructured the garden to celebrate his wedding to Violante of Bavaria. The grottos, frescoes, pathways and overall look of the garden today springs from Ferdinand’s redesign. The fine collection of camelias that give it its name was added in the 19th century.

Over the centuries, the garden fell into disrepair. Drainage issues caused major structural damage, to the point where it subject to landslides and walls were falling apart. It was so dangerous opening it to the public was out of the question. In 2021, the funding was secured to embark on a complex restoration of the architecture, structure, frescoed surfaces, sculptures, water features and landscaping.

The first section goes from the entry into a stone walk-through grotto built with stones of various sizes meant to simulate a natural cave. This section is in direct contact with the public Boboli Gardens. The second section is the private garden on the other side of the grotto. A path bordered by flowers, shrubs and planters full of flowers leads into the Lorraine Grotto, frescoed in 1819 and centered around a statue of Hygieia. The water features have now been enhanced with new lighting to illuminate the frescoed vault.

The garden is small and delicate, so visitors will only be allowed 15 people at a time and only with guided tours.

This playlist of short video clips gives a lovely walkthrough of springtime in the Garden of the Camelias.

Roman gilded fragment baffles experts

A small late Roman (ca. 350-450 A.D.) fragment of gilded silver with stamped decoration has experts stymied. The chip-carved style with rows of geometric shapes stamped or punched on the surface suggests it dates to the late Roman period, but there are no direct parallels on the archaeological record and nobody can figure out what kind of object it originally adorned.

The fragment was discovered last year by a metal detectorist in Norfolk. It is one inch long and half an inch wide and weighs a grand total of two grams. It is flat and a rough rectangle with one broken edge; the rest are cut. The gilding covers all the decorated part of the fragment; a strip along the bottom is ungilded.

There are three rows of decorative shapes parallel to the long edge of the fragment: punched triangles with pointed bases, four-sided pyramids alternating with pointed oval stamps above and below, another row of punched triangles with apexes pointed down alternating with apexes pointing up.

There are a few examples of similar shapes and designs found in hoards of late Antiquity, including a silver-gilt scabbard mount in the Hoxne hoard, but they are not the same and are much more finely executed. The stamping on the fragment is uneven in spacing; the lines are uneven, sometimes curved, too.

The cut edges indicate that the fragment was cut off of its original mount, whatever that may have been, for use as hack-silver. The date indicates this may have been late Roman hack-silver rather than the products of much later Viking raids. Hack-silver was used during the waning days of Roman occupation as payments to soldiers, but it is usually found in a hoard context today. It’s rare to find a single deracinated element like this.

Dr Helen Geake, Norfolk’s county finds liaison officer, said: “The most basic question of all is, ‘what was this?’ … it’s a bit frustrating.” […]

Dr Geake said: “It is at the high end of silver-smithing in the Roman world and part of the sort of thing that would have been produced and used across the whole of Roman Empire, from Egypt to Hadrian’s Wall, from Morocco to Hungary.

“But what is it? If we can’t find a parallel already in a collection, we can’t say what it was or what it was part of.” […]

“I hope someone gets in touch with the answer,” Dr Geake added.

The last time she appealed for help with a mysterious object she was contacted on Twitter by someone who had the solution.

2,000-year-old bamboo slips reveal ancient government in Yunnan

Thousands of bamboo slips (rectangles tied together to form books) discovered at the Hebosuo archaeological site in southwestern China’s Yunnan province will help shed new light on the government of the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 25 A.D.) in Yunnan.

More than 10,000 bamboo slips have been unearthed at the Hebosuo site since excavations began in 2021. Of those, about 2,000 date to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 220 A.D.), 1,300 with written characters, 837 with seal impressions. Bamboo slips found in Western Han tombs are often literature and books about medicine and agriculture, but in this find the preponderance of the writing is administrative.

Of particular note are the seal impressions because there are official seals from 20 of the 24 counties under the rule of the ancient Dian kingdom, a non-Han culture of agriculture-based settlements and exceptionally sophisticated metal workers centered in modern-day Yunnan. The kingdom was annexed by Emperor Wu of Han in 109 B.C.

Some of the slips record the names of 12 counties, such as “Dian Chi county” and “Jian Ling county,” which once belonged to the Yizhou Prefecture, an ancient region that was founded by ­Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty after being defeated and started incorporation of the Dian Kingdom, a regime founded by an ancient ethnic group that lived along what is now the southwest frontier of Yunnan Province.

Other characters such as “county magistrate,” and “Dian Cheng” (prime minister of Dian management) were also discovered on the slips, Tao Zhongjun, a Chinese historian, told the Global Times on Tuesday, noting that such information shows a “well designed” social administrative system was used to govern the southwest border area.

Titles such as “Dian Cheng” reveal special political roles were set up by the Han government in the southwest area, said Jiang Zhilong, lead archaeologist on the Hebosuo project.

“Such discoveries are evidence that shows China was a unified country made up of multi-ethnic cultures,” Jiang noted.

Record-breaking EID MAR aureus looted from Greece, now repatriated

The EID MAR aureus that set a new world record when it was sold at auction for $4.2 million in October 2020 has been confiscated and repatriated to Greece whence it was looted. The owner of Roma Numismatics, the London-based auction house that sold the aureus, has been arrested and charged with grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, conspiracy and scheme to defraud.

The coin caused a sensation when its sale was announced, because it is one of only three known examples in gold of the coin struck by Marcus Junius Brutus celebrating the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March. (There are 85 or so examples of the EID MAR silver denarius, so still rare and highly coveted in numismatic circles.) This aureus had never been published before and is by far the most pristine of the three, in near mint condition.

According to Richard Beale, owner and managing director of Roma Numismatics, the aureus’ provenance was as impeccable as its condition. It had an ownership history going back centuries. Sure, its documented history began with a private Swiss collection, but not the laughably fake kind. This was the renowned collection amassed by Baron Dominique de Chambrier in the 1700s.

The only problem was that it was all a lie, the “documented history” forged by Beale and coin expert Italo Vecchi who found the aureus and secured it for Roma Numismatics. They had tried to sell it before at the 2015 New York International Numismatics Convention, but at that time all they had in terms of ownership history was the laughably fake kind. Potential buyers heard the classic cover-up phrase that it was from “an old Swiss collection” and ran the other way. So Beale and Vecchi ginned up a glamorous and unimpeachable provenance. Coupled with an authentication certification by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, the EID MAR aureus was now on its way to breaking the world record as the most expensive ancient coin ever sold at auction.

The house of cards started to collapse in 2022 when Beale attempted to sell five coins that were known to have been looted from Gaza. That drew suspicion on his whole operation, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) began to investigate the sale of the EID MAR aureus in collaboration with several foreign law enforcement agencies. They found that Beale had paid for the falsified ownership history. One informant said he’d been offered $107,000 by Beale to sign the fake documents but he refused.

The EID MAR was seized in February from an undisclosed location. On Tuesday, March 21st, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office officially repatriated the aureus and another 28 looted antiquities in a ceremony at the Greek Consulate in New York City attended by Greece’s Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni. The oldest of the objects is a Late Neolithic (5000-3500 B.C.) family group of carvings looted from the island of Euboea and trafficked through Switzerland into the private collection of Leon Levy and Shelby White.  Details of where the coin and other artifacts were looted from have not been released, just that the pieces were the products of illegal excavations in Macedonia, Epirus, Central Greece, the Cyclades and Crete.

I love this statement made at the ceremony by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and the founder and director of the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

New York Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos, referring to the daily efforts he and his colleagues make to combat the illegal trafficking of cultural goods, noted characteristically: “The Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni has placed two outstanding members on our team, Mrs. Papageorgiou and Vlachogiannis. We all work together, long hours, through the night, and on weekends as a family, like a good Greek family, and we are passionate about discussing what the next goal will be because we all share the same vision. To return the cultural heritage to where it was born and belongs. While archaeologists and other scientists study these ancient artifacts and wonder how they were found, this particular group will work together, as one man, for the next goal.

Bogdanos’ father Konstantine was a Greek immigrant who owned and operated a Greek restaurant in lower Manhattan and it was very much a family business. Matthew and his siblings all waited tables there, so he knows whereof he speaks. Among his many accomplishments, Bogdanos has a master’s degree in Classical Studies as well as a law degree, which is why he is so uniquely suited to head the Antiquities Trafficking Unit. He advocated for its creation for four years, finally achieving that goal in 2010 when Cyrus Vance Jr. became District Attorney.

Medieval chess set DNA tested

The Sandomierz chessmen, a chess set from the 12th or 13th century discovered at Sandomierz Castle in southeastern Poland, were made from the bones of horses, cows and deer, DNA analysis has revealed. They were originally believed to have been carved from deer antlers, or the bones of an exotic large animal like an elephant.

University of Warsaw researchers were able to drill small samples from the underside of the pieces and extract an almost complete mitochondrial genome identifying the more elaborately decorated side of the set as having been made from horse bone while its opponents were made from cow bones. One pawn (believed to have been carved later than the others) was made from the bone of a red deer.

The chessmen were discovered in 1962 during archaeological excavations of what had been the heart of the medieval city. Only about 50 medieval chess pieces have been found in Poland, but most of them were individual finds. The Sandomierz chessmen, on the other hand, compose a practically complete matched set with only three missing pieces.

The pieces were carved by hand, ground down and polished to a gloss. It’s possible one side was originally dyed or painted another color, but all traces of that are gone so today they’re both just plain bone-colored. Some of them were created in twos, connected by a base that was then cut apart to separate the individual pieces. Carved in the abstract style typical of medieval Islamic chess sets in keeping with the religious prohibition against realistic depiction of human figures, they were embellished with incised parallel lines and dot-and-circle markings carved using a compass.

The Gothic-style Sandomierz Castle was built by King Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. All that remains of that castle today are some of the foundations of the tower. (The rest was blown up in the 17th century by Swedish troops during the Deluge.) It was preceded by an earlier stronghold dating to the 10th century. In the 12th century, the castle was the seat of Henry I of Sandomierz, Piast dynasty prince and son of Boleslaus III, ruler of Poland. Henry led the Polish troops in the Second Crusade (1147) and returned again to the Holy Land in the 1150s.

At the time of the find, archaeologists believe that Henry may have brought the chessmen back from his travels in the Middle East, but the DNA evidence that they were carved from the bones of native European animals opens other possibilities, even as it cannot conclusively determine where they were manufactured. For example, they could have been brought to the city by Dominican friars from Italy — the find site was next to the Dominican church of St. Joseph’s, founded in 1226 — or via the trade routes connecting Kiev to Western Europe. They could even be locally produced. The incised lines and compass decorations have been found on other early Polish antler and bone products.