Exceptional female statue found in Tusculum

Archaeologists from the Spanish School of History and Archaeology of Rome (EEHAR) have unearthed an exceptional marble statue of a female figure at the ancient city of Tusculum 15 miles outside Rome. The statue is life-sized, and is missing its head and some of its arms, but the flawless white Parian marble and the quality of the carving are extraordinary.

The missing parts makes it difficult to identify, but the upper body is draped in a fawn skin, an attribute of followers of Dionysus. This depiction is typically dated to between the mid-1st century B.C. and the mid-1st century A.D. The statue was carved in the round and fine details of the draping, the wet fabric of the chiton clinging to her skin, the workmanship of the fawn skin are superior, comparable to some of the greatest works of antiquity like the Aphrodite Areia found in Epidaurus and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Tusculum was an ancient Latin city in the Alban Hills. Its legendary history attributes its founding to mythological Greek heroes (Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe) or their descendants (Latinus Silvius, the fourth great-grandson of Aeneas), but the earliest archaeological evidence suggests it had an established population by the 8th or 7th century B.C. The monumental city walls date to the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the same period when Tusculum allied itself with Rome against its neighboring Latin tribes.

That alliance was cemented in 381 B.C. when Tusculum became the first municipium cum suffragio, a self-governing city whose citizens had the right to vote and hold public office in Rome. This category was reserved for cities whose populations at every social stratum (not just the governing elites), had demonstrated a strong desire to integrate with the Roman Republic.

In the late Republic, Tusculum became a fashionable location for country villas. The most prominent and wealthy families in Rome built large homes there to flee the heat of the Eternal City in the summer. The remains of than 130 luxury villas and country estates have been documented even though most of the town has not been excavated. They came to dominate Tusculum so thoroughly that the city itself dimmed in importance and became little more than an adjunct to the summer homes of the wealthy. Cicero had a villa there, as did generations of Cato the Elder’s family and the imperial Flavii family.

The statue dates to the period of Tusculum’s heyday as an enclave of Rome’s elite. It was unearthed in the last excavation campaign (October 2022-July 2023) in an area near the forum where a monumental baths complex was built in the Hadrianic period (117-138 A.D.). It was found face-down on a thin layer of painted stucco that originally adorned the walls of the thermal baths.

It was exhibited in public for the first time on Friday at the Aldobrandini Scuderie in Frascati. The exhibition ends Saturday, but it will undergo conservation in public view at the museum.

Oldest baskets in Europe found in Spanish cave

Elaborately woven baskets that look like they could have been made yesterday but were actually made 9,500 years ago have been discovered in a cave in southern Spain. These are the oldest surviving baskets in Europe. (The earliest basket known to survive was found in a Dead Sea cave and is about 10,500 years old.) Discovered in the same cave is the earliest dated sandal ever found in Europe.

The baskets were found in the Cueva de los Murciélagos (Cave of the Bats) which is 195 feet deep. Its depth makes it extremely arid, and with humidity levels at almost zero, organic artifacts survive in exceptional condition. They were made by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers out of grasses, still used by local craftsmen today to make baskets, shoes and hats. The Mesolithic basket-makers employed closed twining, a weave with no space between the weft elements that creates a tight, high-quality basket. They also made geometric patterns using dyed fibers.

The baskets were left as grave goods. When the cave was first discovered by galena (lead ore) miners in the 19th century, they found dozens of bodies, partially mummified in the arid environment, interred with the baskets, stone tools and boar’s teeth. Unfortunately the finds were not treated with respect back then. The miners used the mummified remains and some of the woven items to fuel their boilers. Later excavations unearthed additional mummified bodies buried alongside baskets, sandals and tools.

A recent study analyzed 76 of the artifacts recovered from the Cave of the Bats that are now in the collection of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Madrid. Researchers found that 65 of the objects were made with fibers of the flat-leaved esparto grass. Radiocarbon dating divided the artifacts into two distinct periods: the Mesolithic (7950-7360 B.C.) and the Neolithic (4370-3740 B.C.).

After the Mesolithic phase, the cave was unused for 2,000 years. Then Early Neolithic farmers picked up where the hunter-gatherers had left off, weaving esparto grass with more sophisticated and diverse techniques to make a wide variety of objects, including cords, baskets, sandals, mats and bags. Wear analysis of a wooden mallet found in the cave indicates it was used to crush esparato grass which would have made it softer and more flexible and therefore more comfortable for use in things like the soles of sandals, for example.

Some of the sandals show evidence of wear while others were in pristine, unused condition. Archaeologists believe some of the deceased were buried with the sandals they had used in life, while others had shoes made specifically for burial.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read here.

Carver of runes on Jelling Stone identified

Researchers at the National Museum of Denmark have identified the carver of the runes on the iconic Jelling Stone. His name was Ravnunge-Tue and his boss was Queen Thyra of Jelling (d. 958 A.D.), wife of King of Denmark Gorm the Old (d. 958-9) and mother of Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark and Norway (ca. 911 – 985 A.D.).

The large Jelling Stone has been dubbed Denmark’s birth/baptismal certificate because the runic inscription uses the name “Denmark” (“Danmǫrk” in Old Norse) and refers to its conversion to Chritianity. Harald Bluetooth had it carved as a memorial monument for his parents, but added his own credits at the end, describing himself as “that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

The smaller of the Jelling stones is the earlier of the two. It was erected by Gorm the Old as a memorial to Thyra whom he lovingly describes as “Denmark’s adornment.”

3D scans of runestones enable researchers to gain a close-up view of traces of the carving process. This means they can tell the carving technique of the different rune stones apart. Every experienced stonemason holds his chisel at a certain angle and strikes the hammer with a specific force: this is visible in the angle of the traces of the carving and the distance between them. The motor function developed in such work is individual.

The carving technique on the large Jelling Stone matches that of the runes on the Læborg Stone found in a field near Læborg Church 20 miles southwest of Jelling. The author helpfully signed the inscription on the Læborg Stone. It reads: “Ravnunge-Tue carved these runes in memory of Thyra, his queen.” He also gave himself and his two collaborators credit on the Bække 1 runestone found a mile from Bække Church. That inscription reads: “Ravnunge-Tue and Fundin and Gnyple, these three made Thyra’s mound.”

In total, seven of the runestones in Jutland were 3D scanned for this project: the two Jelling stones, the two Bække stones, the Læborg stone, the Home stone and the Randbøl stone. The runes on the smaller Jelling Stone were too worn for the signature chiseling techniques to be detectable. It’s possible Ravnunge-Tue carved that one too.

This identification answers a long-standing question about whether the Queen Thyra mentioned on the Jelling Stones was the same person as the Thyra mentioned on the Læborg Stone. The fact that Thyra and Gorm’s rune carver made the runes on the large Jelling Stone as well as the Læborg runes strongly suggests this was the same queen, not two people who happened to share a popular name. That means Queen Thyra was on at least four rune stones, more runic mentions than anyone else in Viking era Denmark, twice the number of mentions her husband and son got.

“This means that Queen Thyra was far more important than we previously assumed. She probably came from a nobler, older family than Gorm the Old, whom we usually refer to as the first King of Denmark. This is extremely interesting when it comes to understanding the power structure and the genesis of Denmark as a nation,” says [Denmark National Museum runologist] Lisbeth Imer.

All four rune stones that mention Thyra are located in Southern Jutland, implying that her power was based in this area, while Gorm the Old may have come from elsewhere.

Lost Artemisia Gentileschi painting rediscovered at Hampton Court Palace

A painting of Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi has been rediscovered in an attic at Hampton Court Palace after centuries of neglect and misattribution. The oil on canvas work dates to around 1638 or 1639 when Artemisia was living in London and working with her father Orazio at the court of King Charles I. The monarch and his consort were avid supporters of Baroque trailblazer Artemisia Gentileschi’s work. There were seven of her paintings in the collection of Charles I, almost all of them lost in the turmoil of civil war, regicide and Protectorate. Before this rediscovery of Susanna, the only Artemisia Gentileschi still known to be in the Royal Collection was Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (‘La Pittura’), an iconic work that is considered one of her greatest masterpieces.

Susanna and the Elders was commissioned by Charles’ wife Queen Henrietta Maria when she redecorated her apartments in preparation for the imminent arrival of a new baby. A 1639 inventory records that the painting occupied a primo spot above the fireplace in the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber, a small, private receiving room in Henrietta Maria’s apartments at Whitehall Palace.

The painting was returned to Charles II shortly after the Restoration in 1660 and is thought to have hung above a fireplace at Somerset House, home to queens and consorts including Catherine of Braganza and Queen Anne. In the 18th century, as Artemisia’s reputation waned, the painting appears to have lost its attribution. It was moved to Kensington Palace, where it is depicted in a watercolour of the Queen’s Bedchamber in 1819 leaning against a wall, suggesting it was considered the work of a minor or unkown artist and not worthy of hanging. It was later transferred to Hampton Court Palace, where at some point it lost its frame, and in 1862 it was described as ‘in a bad state’ and sent for restoration, at which point additional layers of varnish and overpaint were likely applied.

Royal Collection Trust curators rediscovered it as part of a research project tracing the paintings that were sold off after the beheading of Charles I. It was darkened from a thick layer of discolored varnish and had been heavily overpainted, but it matched the description of Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi’s recorded in the inventories of Charles I. Conservators found the mark “CR” (“Carolus Rex) on the back of the canvas, confirming that it was part of the collection of Charles I.

Since its rediscovery, the painting has undergone significant treatment by Royal Collection Trust conservators. Work included the painstaking removal of centuries of surface dirt, discoloured varnish and non-original paint layers to reveal the original composition; removing canvas strips that were added to enlarge the painting sometime after its creation; relining the canvas; retouching old damages; and commissioning a new frame.

Analysis of the painting during conservation has confirmed the reattribution and given an insight into Artemisia’s working practices. She is thought to have travelled with a stock of tracings or drawings that she used to create new compositions, and conservators found that at least four parts of the painting were also used in previous works, including the Elders’ heads and Susanna’s face. Artemisia must have considered this Susanna particularly accomplished, as she reused elements of the figure in at least three versions of her later painting Bathsheba. X-radiography (used to analyse aspects of a work not visible to the naked eye) and infrared reflectography (used to make underdrawing visible) have also revealed changes that Artemisia made to the composition, uncovering a large fountain that she subsequently painted out with trees.

The restored Susanna and the Elders has gone on display in the Queen’s Drawing Room at Windsor Castle next to Orazio Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Artemisia’s allegorical self-portrait and other works from the Stuart collection.

Tomb of Northern Zhou Dynasty’s founder discovered

Archaeologists have unearthed the tomb of Yuwen Jue, Emperor Xiaomin of Northern Zhou, founder of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 A.D.) in Xianyang, northwest China. This is only the second tomb of a Northern Zhou emperor to be excavated.

The tomb was found in Hongdu Plain area of Xianyang City, a site where several tombs of elites from the Northern (439-581 A.D.), Sui, and Tang (581-907 A.D.) dynasties have been unearthed. The tomb of Yuwen Jian, Yuwen Jue’s younger brother and the eighth son of Yuwen Tai, Emperor Wen of Western Wei, was found a half-mile to the east. The only other Northern Zhou imperial tomb excavated, the tomb of another of Xiaomin’s younger brothers, Yuwen Yong, Emperor Wu, is five miles to the east.

The tomb was originally enclosed by a rectangle of ditches 482 feet long and 344 feet wide. The emperor’s tomb is a single-chamber earthen cave tomb with four patios in the north-central position of the rectangle bounded by the ditches. The floor of the tomb is 30 feet from the surface, which makes it medium-sized for tombs from the Northern Zhou era.

The tomb was pillaged in antiquity and its contents disturbed, but the thieves left plenty behind. The team unearthed 146 artifacts, most of them in the southeast section of the tomb and most of them terracotta figures of people (warriors, mounted cavalry, women), animals and legendary creatures. On the east side of the entrance, archaeologists found the stone inscribed with the emperor’s epitaph, the characters painted red with cinnabar. It translates to “Renshen in October of the second year of the tomb of Gongyu Wenjue, Duke of Lueyang, Zhou Dynasty.”

He held the title of Duke at the time of his death in 557 A.D., even though he was the ruler of the new dynasty he had just founded months earlier. It was his brother Emperor Wu who declared him emperor posthumously after his own ascension to the throne in 572 A.D.

According to archaeologists, the archaeological discovery of the tomb of Yuwen Jue in Northern Zhou is of great significance. First of all, the discovery can further clarify that the tombs of the Northern Zhou emperors have the same ground structure as the high-level tombs of the Northern Zhou. Secondly, Yuwen Jue was buried as the “Duke of Lueyang”, providing physical evidence for the political struggle during the founding period of the Northern Zhou Dynasty and supplementing the historical materials of the Northern Dynasty. Finally, the determination of the location of the Jingling Tomb provides important indication information for the distribution of the remaining three imperial tombs in the Northern Zhou Dynasty.