Massive tapestries hung again after 22-year restoration

The National Trust’s longest-running textile conservation project — the cleaning and repair of 13 of Britain’s oldest and largest tapestry series — has come to an end more than 22 years after it began. The Gideon Tapestry set covers 230 feet, the full length of the long wall of the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and each tapestry took thousands of hours of stitching and two years to clean and stabilize. They are now hanging again, reunited for the first time in more than two decades.

The tapestries depict scenes from the story of Gideon, one of the Judges from the eponymous book in the Old Testament. Called by God to deliver Israel from the Midianites, Gideon led an elite army of 300 of the best Israelite warriors against them and won. He was offered a crown but declined the kingship, declaring that only God could rule the people of Israel.

The Gideon Tapestries were woven in 1578 for Sir Christopher Hatton whose coat of arms and initials were woven into the original tapestry. They were made at Oudenaarde in Belgium by an unknown weaver whose mark was a six-pointed star. The entire workshop would have been involved in the production of monumental pieces like this. Apprentices would work on the background while master weavers stitched the difficult details like faces. The design was inspired by the 13 Gideon tapestries bought by Cosimo I de’ Medici in Brussels in 1561. Today only three of the Medici series survive, and two of them match two of the Hardwick tapestries.

After Sir Christopher’s death, it was bought by the formidable Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, known as Bess of Hardwick, in 1592 for what was then the huge sum of £326. She had patches woven of her own coat of arms and stitched them over his. The tapestry was the backdrop to dozens of portraits hung over it on the gallery’s long wall for centuries.

Hundreds of years of exposure to the sunlight, soot and dust were not kind to the tapestries. In 2001, the National Trust took on the many challenges of a full conservation of these massive tapestries. Even simply taking them down from the wall required tower scaffolding, never mind cleaning and repairing them. The largest of the tapestries, number 11 in the series, required a trolley, a level wooden track and rolling it vertically with turn handles. The Gideon Tapestry project is the largest textile conservation project in the National Trust’s history.

The lower and top borders of the tapestries were unstitched to make the mainfield easier to transport, and the hessian lining removed revealing the brilliant original color of the tapestry on the underside. The rolled tapestries were transported National Trust’s in-house Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk for initial documentation and preparation before being sent to a specialist facility in Belgium for wet cleaning. Upon their returns, textile conservators in Norfolk repairs holes, restitched the borders and Bess of Hardwick’s coat of arms patches.

The tapestries were individually rehung in Hardwick Hall after conservation was complete at each stage of the process. The thirteenth tapestry has just been rehung, bringing the whole gang back together again.
The portraits will eventually return as well, but for the next two years the Gideon Tapestry series is being hung on its own so visitors can see it in all its massive glory.

Huge baths found in Roman house in Spain

Archaeologists excavating the House of the Amphitheater in Mérida, western Spain, have unearthed a bathing facility that is far larger than the usual baths found in Roman private residences.

Mérida was founded by Augustus in 25 B.C. as Emerita Augusta, a colony for veterans of two of his legions. It was the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and prospered as the end-point of the Silver Way, the Roman road linking the capital to the gold and silver mines outside Asturica Augusta (modern-day Astorga) 300 miles to the north. There are more preserved monumental Roman public buildings than in any other city in Spain. Built between 15 and 8 B.C., the Roman Theatre of Mérida and the Amphitheater of Mérida formed an entertainment complex offering theatrical performances and gladiatorial combat.

The House of the Amphitheater is a suburban domus built adjacent to the amphitheater outside the original defensive walls of the city. It is structured as a typical Roman urban domus with a central trapezoidal courtyard surrounded by a portico. It is the largest Roman home in Merida, but the recently-unearthed baths are huge in comparison to the house’s size.

Inside the bathing area, [lead archaeologist Ana Maria] Bejarano said her team found “perfectly preserved” individual bathing facilities. The area featured ample wall and floor decorations, including marble plaques, moldings, paintings and various underground structures associated with the baths, all of which were in outstanding condition.

In most instances, a pool will be found adjacent to a Roman bath site. So far, however, none has been found in the House of the Amphitheater (although the archaeologists plan to keep looking). […]

The installment of such an extensive Roman bath facility suggests huge social gatherings may have been hosted by the homeowner, possibly in connection with the gladiatorial games going on close by.

The excavation of the House of the Amphitheater is part of a series of collaborative projects with several research institutions and universities to explore Mérida’s imposing Roman structures, including the theater. The goal of the team working on the domus is to expand the excavated spaces and establish more of the house’s chronology.

Roman glass recovered from shipwreck

A team of French and Italian underwater archaeologists have recovered a selection of glassware and raw glass blocks from a Roman shipwreck between the Italian island of Capraia and the French island of Corsica. It is only the second wreck found with a cargo that is predominantly glass, both worked pieces and the raw blocks in various sizes and colors ready to blow into commercial tableware. There are thousands of glass pieces and tons of raw blocks on the sea floor from this one ship. The contents of the wreck suggest it took to the sea for the last time in the late 1st century or early 2nd century A.D.

The wreck was found 350 meters (1150 feet) deep in 2012. The location was initially deemed to be in French territorial waters, and the underwater archaeology department of France’s Culture Ministry performed some initial surveys of the site in 2013 and 2015. Diplomatic negotiations on where to draw the border flipped the find site into Italian territorial waters in 2016, and the two countries decided to work on a joint study of the wreck. The first campaign of the joint mission took place the first week of this month.

The French Culture Ministry contributed its research vessel, the Alfred Merlin, and its two remote operated vehicles to explore the wreck. One of the ROVs, dubbed Arthur, is a new prototype with more functions than a Swiss Army knife. It can operate at depths of up to 2500 meters, shoot high-definition video, blow and vacuum sediment and grab objects to bring them to the surface with its delicate claw system.

Arthur has recovered an assortment of different glass pieces including bottles, plates, cups, bowls, a small unguentarium (cosmetic vessel) and several raw blocks. In addition to the glassware, two large bronze basins and a few amphorae were brought to the surface.

At the moment the wreck is dated between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd century AD but an in-depth study of the materials will be able to provide further details on the chronology of the shipwreck and more information on the route traveled by the ship on its last journey. At an initial analysis of the load, given the type of visible amphorae (“carrot” amphorae, oriental amphorae including probable Beirut-type amphorae and some Gauloise 4 amphorae) and the quantity of glass vessels and blocks of raw glass, the archaeologists believe that the ship must have come from a port in the Middle East, perhaps from Lebanon or Syria, and that it was headed for the French Provençal coast.

The amphora shown in the photos is a carrot amphora, named for its distinctive shape. They were produced in Beirut in the late 1st century and first half of the second century A.D. and were used to transport local dates for export to Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Balkans and even further afield to Britain.

The recovered objects will all be transported to the laboratory of the National Superintendence in Taranto where they will be subjected to various scientific analyses and conserved for future display.

This video shows the ROV doing its thing, recording fantastic high-def video of the site, vacuuming sediment and recovering fragile artifacts from the sea floor with its remarkably gentle but effective gripper claws.

Hoard of 4,868 16th c. coins found in Romania

A group of metal detectorists scanning a forest near Neuorid, western Romania, have discovered a massive hoard of early 16th century coins buried in a ceramic vessel. Raul Vlad Suta was wielding the detector that first signalled the presence of the treasure. He dug into the topsoil and found a small silver coin, followed by another two. The rest of the group pitched in and after unearthing a few more coins at a shallow depth, they encountered the mouth of the vessel. They dug around it until it could be removed.

Romanian law requires metal detectorists to inform local municipal authorities or a museum of any find within 72 hours. The group handed the hoard over to the office of the mayor of Neuorid, and then worked with the city council to remove and identify the coins.

They counted approximately 4,868 coins (some have become stuck to each other by corrosion materials, making them difficult to count) of the Hungarian dinar type struck during the reign of Vladislaus II, King of Bohemia (1471-1516), Hungary and Croatia (1490-1516). There are also three large silver thalers, each weighing 30 grams, and four coins of medium diameter that have not yet been identified. In total, the pot and coins weigh 4.5 kilos (10 lbs). The coins alone weigh about three kilos (6.6 lbs).

The hoard is property of the state according to Romanian treasure laws and is destined for a museum, but the metal detectorists who found it are entitled to a reward amounting to 30%-45% of the market value of the hoard as determined by an official valuation.

Suspects in Celtic gold heist arrested; melted gold lumps found

Four suspects in the shocking theft of a Celtic gold coin hoard from the Celtic-Roman Museum in Manching, Bavaria, have been arrested. The bad news is one of the suspects was carrying 18 gold lumps in a plastic bag at the time of his arrest. Micro-X-ray fluorescence analysis of the composition of the nuggets found they match that of the Celtic coins. Each lump amounts to four of the coins. So yes, these rats stole a historically priceless hoard of 483 Celtic coins from 100 B.C. and melted at least 70 of them down. There is no good news, but some small consolation can be found in authorities’ hope that most of the coins are still out there, hidden by the thieves to minimize chance of arousing suspicion while the heat was still on the investigation.

The estimated market value of the coins if they had been sold commercially was approximately $1.8 million. The gold value alone of the 3.7 kilos (8 lbs) of coins at the time of the heist was around $278,000. Both figures pale in comparison to the archaeological significance of the hoard, of course. Discovered in 1999 at the site of a Celtic settlement in what is now Manching, the hoard had been buried in a sack under the foundations of an ancient building. Analysis of the coins found the source of the metal was not local; it was Bohemian river gold. The hoard was the largest find of Celtic gold in the 20th century. It went on display at the museum in 2006 and was its signature attraction.

The theft was meticulously planned and executed in just nine minutes from break-in to getaway. At 1:17 AM on November 22, 2022, fiber optic lines were cut at the telecom hub nearest the museum, knocking out internet and phone service to the museum (and 13,000 other customers). With the museum’s security system disabled, thieves broke in through an emergency exit at 1:26 AM, busted the bulletproof safety glass encasing the hoard and were out the door with the loot at 1:33 AM.

Investigators from the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office (BLKA) searched the area around the museum thoroughly, recovering two crowbars, a pair of pruning shears, a wire cutter and a radio antenna. DNA traces on the tools of the crime connected the theft to eight similar ones in Germany and Austria. Months of dogged pursuit traced the suspects to northern Germany and the Ingolstadt public prosecutor’s office issued arrest warrants for them. Searches of 28 apartments, businesses, garden plots, a boathouse and vehicles found a panoply of burglary equipment.

One of the members of the gang is a telecommunications engineer, hence the fiber optic angle. The other three are an accountant, a shop manager and a demolition firm employee. Evidence ties the four suspects to 11 other thefts targeting supermarkets, a casino, gas stations and an ATM, but this was the first to target cultural heritage. Looks like they developed a taste for it, because investigators found that vehicles rented by the suspects this year had stopped near museums in Frankfurt, Idar-Oberstein, Trier and Pforzheim.

The suspects have not given over any information since their arrest. Authorities are searching for any surviving coins in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where three of the four were arrested. The search will target other areas that have come up in this extensive investigation as well.