Swedish National Museum acquires iconic portrait of Count Fersen

The National Museum of Sweden has acquired an iconic portrait miniature of the 28-year-old Count Hans Axel von Fersen (1755–1810), Swedish diplomat and lover of Queen Marie-Antoinette of France. Long held by descendants of the Fersen family, it went under the hammer in June and sold for 8,376 EUR ($9,112), three times its pre-sale estimate. As with the gold box with a portrait of King Gustavus III, the museum was able to acquire the miniature thanks to a donation from the Anna and Hjalmar Wicander Foundation.

The portrait is a bust from the left with Fersen’s face turned towards the viewer. He wears a grey coat with a striped red waistcoat peeking out of the lapels. It is a gouache watercolor painted on ivory and mounted in a brass frame. Mounted in its frame, it is a rectangle two inches long and 1.7 inches wide.

Unknown British artist, Portrait of Axel von Fersen, 1778. Photo courtesy Stockholms Auktionsverk. Back of the portrait with erroneous attribution. Photo courtesy Stockholms Auktionsverk.

The painter in unknown. A handwritten note on the back attributes the portrait to Peter Adolf Hall, a Swedish-French miniaturist who painted several members of the royal families of France, both before and after the Revolution. The National Museum, however, notes that it was painted in London, not Paris, when Fersen was in England in the summer of 1778. The distinctive combination of lines and pointillistic shading in brown shades is characteristic of English portraiture of the period, not French. There are very few portraits of Swedes done in England by English artists in the second half of the 18th century, and none where the sitter is so famous.

Why did the young Fersen commission this portrait of himself during his time in London? Did it have something to do with his intended marriage to Catharina, the daughter of Henrik Leijel (Henry Lyell), a wealthy Swedish-British merchant? Nothing came of this prospective marriage of convenience. Instead, Fersen returned to Paris and embarked on a military career. Two years later, he travelled to North America as aide-de-camp to the head of the French expeditionary force, General Count de Rochambeau. Fersen’s knowledge of English proved very useful in this role, since General George Washington did not speak French. For three years, Fersen acted as interpreter between the allies in their war against the British colonial power. […]

Magnus Olausson, emeritus director of collections at Nationalmuseum, said:

“The portrait of the young Axel von Fersen represents a rare interlude in 18th-century Swedish-British relations. As far as we know, few Swedes were immortalised by British artists in those days.

This iconic portrait of Fersen is an unusually fine work by an unknown British miniaturist, in a style somewhat reminiscent of stipple engraving, which was the great innovation of the time.”

Archaic artifacts found at Helike temple site

Rare artifacts from Greece’s Archaic Period have been discovered at the ancient sanctuary of Poseidon in Eliki, southern Greece.

Eliki, also known as Helike, was founded in the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean period (1600-1100 B.C.). According to legend, it was founded by Ion, the founder of the Ionian tribe of Greece, who named it after his wife. The city’s patron deity was Poseidon Helikonios, god of the ocean and of earthquakes, and a famous sanctuary to the god drew worshippers throughout the Archaic (750-479 B.C.) and Classical (479-323 B.C.) periods.

Helike was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 373 B.C. The city was submerged and its ruins remained visible under the waters of the Corinthian Gulf for centuries. It was a popular tourist destination for Roman travelers who toured its streets and statuaries from boats sailing above the submarine city. Ancient writers including Eratosthenes, Aelian, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Diodoros of Sicily and Pausanias visited the ruins and wrote accounts of Helike’s tragic fate. The submerged ruins were visible in the area until the 9th or 10th century. They were eventually buried under layers of river sediment.

The Poseidon sanctuary complex was the center of the ancient city. An arched temple that dates to 710-700 B.C. has been unearthed in recent excavations, as has an altar made of rough-hewn bricks that dates to the 760-750 B.C. This season’s excavation focused on the area north of the arched temple, exploring the remains of two more buildings and uncovering evidence of religious activities going back to the 9th century B.C.

One of the newly-unearthed buildings is an apsed temple that dates to the 8th century B.C. It is oriented north-south, unlike the apsed temple from the end of the 8th century that is oriented east-west. The other building is a temple-shaped structure dating to the 7th or 6th century B.C. Archaeologists found the stone foundation of the temple and four-sided bases believed to have belonged to the temple’s central colonnade. The floor is made of rammed earth.

A large amount of pottery and other objects from the Archaic era (8th and 9th centuries B.C.) were found there, left as votive offerings to Poseidon. Recovered artifacts include a clay female figurine, clay chariot wheels, the bronze figure of an animal archaeologists think may be a dog but looks like a horse to me (Poseidon was worshipped in horse form too, which was the whole reason the Trojan Horse ruse worked), the bronze head of a snake, bronze buckles and pins and a gold bead from a necklace that is a very rare find.

Copper and clay figurines, which served as offerings to the god, are thought to confirm that this was the famous site of worship of Helikonian Poseidon, but also suggest that a second deity was also worshiped at the same sanctuary.

This second deity is expected to be identified after further study of the new finds.

3rd c. B.C. gold coins found at Carthage sacrifice site

A group of five rare gold coins from the 3rd century B.C. have been discovered during excavation at the Tophet cemetery and temple in the suburbs of Carthage in Tunisia. Archaeologists from the National Institute of Heritage in Tunisia also unearthed stone funerary markers and urns containing the remains of infants and animals, some combined in the same vessel.

The gold coins are just under an inch in diameter and bear the image of the goddess Tanit, the Punic mother goddess who, along with her consort Baal Hammon, were the chief deities of Carthage. The gold Tanit coins are rare on the archaeological record and were uncommon even in the 3rd century B.C. They were likely left at the tophet as offerings to the two deities by wealthy worshipers.

The urns are also votive offerings. The Tophet of Carthage, first explored by archaeologists in 1921, contains an astonishing 20,000 urns buried between 400 B.C. and 200 B.C. containing the cremated remains of animals (mainly lambs) and human children — fetuses, premature stillbirths, neonates, toddlers and a few up to four years old. Sometimes the remains of human infants were buried with the remains of lambs (and very occasionally other animals, like cows, pigs and birds). The soil of the tophet is thick with olive wood charcoal believed to be the remnants of sacrificial pyres.

Scholars have long debated whether this enormous quantity of cinerary remains of infants was evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice or if was a necropolis dedicated to the burial of babies. There are no written Carthaginian sources to explain the burials, but Greek and Roman sources do claim that the practice of child sacrifice existed in Carthage. Greco-Roman sources are not considered reliable because they were at war with Carthage for so long and could have been spreading false information for propaganda purposes. Inscriptions on stone markers are ambiguous, but do seem to imply that the lambs were “substitutes,” ie, what people who were able to would offer to the gods in place of their own children. Recent archaeological explorations have concluded that the remains in the urns were indeed sacrifices, be they lamb or human child.

Although once contested, experts have found “‘overwhelming’ evidence that … Carthaginian parents ritually sacrificed young children as an offering to the gods,” Oxford University said in a 2014 news release.

“Perhaps it was out of profound religious piety, or a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child,” Josephine Quinn, the co-author of a study on the topic, told Oxford University.

“We have to remember the high level of mortality among children — it would have been sensible for parents not to get too attached to a child that might well not make its first birthday,” Quinn said. “We should not imagine that ancient people thought like us and were horrified by the same things.”

Two new fragments of Roman calendar found in Ostia

Two new fragments of the Fasti Ostienses, an ancient Roman marble calendar recording imperial news, magistrates and events, have emerged in an excavation at Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s principal seaport. They record details from the reign of the emperor Hadrian.

The fasti originated in Republican Rome as a yearly calendars of days when religious requirements allowed or forbade the conducting of civil, legal and political business. The names of the annual consuls were listed on the fasti, which is how years became known by the names of the consuls rather than by a numerical date. These calendars were large marble bulletin boards, basically, mounted in public with carved and painted inscriptions.

The Fasti Ostienses were maintained by the priests of the Temple of Vulcan who kept a running tally for hundreds of years. The earliest fragment chronicles the years 49 to 44 B.C.; the last one covers events from 175 A.D. It lists the consuls of Rome, Ostia’s most important local magistrates, events involving the emperor, deaths of important people, the dedication of new temples and the appointment of new priests of Vulcan.

The recording of fasti fell out of favor during the Severan dynasty (193-235 A.D.), and Ostia itself declined as the port silted over in the 3rd century. Barbarian invasions in the 5th century led to the abandonment of the city and over time its structures were used as sources of building material. The great marble calendar was broken up and used for scrap too.

The newly-recovered fragments were discovered in the Forum of Porta Marina, an area of the city where other fragments of the Fasti Ostienses were unearthed in the excavations of 1940-1 and 1969-72. The Forum site consists of a large rectangular building with porticos on three sides and an apsidal hall on the fourth that was paved in opus sectile (colorful marble inlay). The Fasti were carved on the curved surfaces of columns in this building.

One of the two newly recovered fragments, which experts say matches perfectly with another previously found at the site, dates to AD128, during the reign of Hadrian. The inscription refers to events that took place that year, including 10 January, when Hadrian received the title pater patriae, or father of his country, and his wife, Sabina, that of Augusta. According to the inscription, Hadrian celebrated the occasion by offering a congiar dedit, or donation of money, to the people.

Another date, 11 April of the same year, refers to Hadrian’s trip to Africa before he returned to Rome between July and August. Before a subsequent trip to Athens, he consecrated (the inscription reads “consecravit”) a building in Rome that experts believe could be either the Pantheon or the Temple of Venus and Roma, possibly on 11 August. This would have marked his 11th anniversary as emperor.

Gothic cemetery found in Poland nature preserve

A Gothic cemetery has been unearthed in the Wda Landscape Park in northern Poland. Fifty cremation burials have been excavated so far, and they’ve barely scratched the surface of this large cemetery believed to occupy about a hectare. Grave goods of pottery, brooches, amber beads, glass beads, and everyday utilitarian objects like spindle whorls and a bone comb have been found in two types of burials: pit graves and urn burials. They date to the 4th century A.D.

While no architectural remains have been found, the park was home to an Iron Age settlement of a Wielbark-adjacent Gothic culture. They had access to local metals and the metallurgical know-how to make use of them. They extracted metals from glacial erratics (boulders deposited by flowing glaciers during the Ice Age), a highly specialized skill that required locating, preparing, crushing and roasting large stones in specialized furnaces. Several rounds of cooking were necessary before the ore could be separated from the stone sediment. Interestingly, while they buried many metal objects in their graves, they did not bury any weapons.

Archaeologist Olaf Popkiewicz made the first discovery while walking on the banks of the Wda River. He spotted silver artifacts and called in a team to excavate the find site. They unearthed a set of two silver necklaces, two silver fibulae and pieces of a silver bead necklace, all in outstanding condition. The high quality of the silver and the style of the fibulae are characteristic of the Chernyakhov culture, a Gothic people who migrated from Pomerania to the Black Sea, settling in what is now Ukraine. The fibulae date to the 5th century A.D. The necklaces were also imported. They were made in Scandinavia in the 4th century A.D. The group of silver objects therefore include pieces that range from Scandinavia in the north to the Black Sea in the southeast.

The condition of the open necropolis is rapidly deteriorating. Archaeologists will continue to excavate the site to salvage any remains and artifacts they can.