The Stone of Destiny was a doorstep

The Stone of Destiny, the oblong block red sandstone used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs until it was snatched by King Edward I in 1296 and used in the coronation of English and British monarchs thereafter, started out as a step or threshold. A recent analysis of the 335-pound stone found the wear pattern on top of the stone was likely caused by many a foot treading upon it rather than by many royal butts perched upon or over it.

The first historical record of the Stone of Destiny being used for a coronation is Alexander III’s in 1249. It was reportedly covered in gold silk cloth, so its heavily worn surface was obscured from view. When Edward Longshanks pillaged it, he had it built in to his throne at Westminster, so again the stepped-upon surface was not visible. It was officially returned to Scotland in 1996 and displayed in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle with other Scottish regalia.

It left Scotland again last year for a very brief stint back inside Edward’s throne for the coronation of Charles III. Before its departure, researchers examined the stone in detail using digital technology to scan the surface, revealing the wear pattern of steps that can’t be seen at a glance. This indicates it had a long history of non-coronation use, perhaps as the step to a monumental structure like an early church or maybe even a Roman building.

Dr Nicki Scott, Senior Cultural Significance Advisor at HES, said: “While we know some inauguration rituals did involve the individual being inaugurated to step onto the stone, such as at Dunadd Hillfort, the level of wear on the Stone of Destiny doesn’t support such use.

“Even several hundred years of such a ritual wouldn’t create the level of wear we see. It’s more likely that the stone had earlier served as a step, although we don’t know the context for this.”

Professor Dauvit Broun, Chair of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, who contributed to the new interpretation at Perth Museum, said: “The evidence is quite compelling. It means that, at some point, the Stone was repurposed as an inaugural throne.

Unfortunately there are no surviving origin stories with a plausible kernel of truth that could help explain the scientific findings. The legends about the Stone of Destiny all claim exotic provenance and quasi-miraculous journeys from distant lands. One of the myths about the stone is that it was “Jacob’s pillow,” the stone Jacob laid his head on when he dreamt about the ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:10-18). Another says that it was transported to Tara in Ireland by the daughter of a pharaoh and then brought to Scone by Kenneth MacAlpin, the legendary founder of Scotland.

After the coronation of Charles III, the stone returned not to Edinburgh, but to its ancient homeland in Perth for the first time in 700 years. It is now the centerpiece of the new Perth Museum.

Casa Buonarroti digitizes Michelangelo’s drawings

The Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence has embarked on a new project to digitize figure studies, architectural designs and handwritten notes by Michelangelo and make the ultra-high resolution images available on their website. The goal is to upload the most significant drawings in the Casa Buonarroti’s collection to create an online catalogue of Michelangelo’s greatest works on paper, and now first 20 pages have now been uploaded.

The 20 pages include some recto and verso (front and back) sheets, denoted on the thumbnail with two arrows in the upper right corner. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Michelangelo’s art and life, seeing, for example, an iconic image like the dynamic male nude preparatory study for his Battle of Cascina fresco on one side of the page and his literal shopping list on the other. Or anatomical studies for one of his Pietà sculptures backed by anatomical studies for figures in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

The digitization of these materials gives artists, scholars and anyone else with even a passing interest access to works that are too fragile to be widely handled. The paper has to be protected from exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels, so the sheets are kept in carefully controlled environments. The pages were conserved before digitization, removing the artifacts of previous interventions and revealing some drawings that were obscured by flawed restoration attempts. Each sheet is also extensively annotated with background information, transcripts of texts and historic and artistic commentary.

Here’s one passage from a Madonna and Child study illustrating how content-rich the curator’s comments are:

The observation of the drawing allows one to follow the entire compositional process. First of all, Michelangelo sketched out both protagonists in black chalk, with a highly spontaneous handling: the fast, parallel hatching is combined with a soft, loose outline, drawn with a tormented manner. Initially, the face of the Madonna appears faintly sketched to the left, intent on looking down, in profile, at the Child in her arms, to be modified and rotated up three-quarters to the right, while gazing into the distance with an absorbed expression. Perhaps lost in the premonition of future pains, the Virgin’s head is executed on a smaller dimensional scale than the rest of the imposing body and with much more finished results, thanks to a soft chiaroscuro obtained with a broad-tipped black chalk, which lends the face a veil of shaded melancholy. This initial phase of compositional analysis was followed by the pictorial deepening of part of the figure of the Infant Jesus, perfectly executed even in the colouring, thanks to the overlapping of multiple techniques, all typical of Michelangelo’s heritage. The artist outlined the profile, already characterised by numerous pentimenti, with a red chalk, which he used together with a very shaded black chalk also to model the body with its rosy complexion, and interpreted the precious chiaroscuro effects with highlights of white lead, applied with chalk for the parts in light, and retouches of brown ink wash, applied with a very fine-tipped brush, for the areas of greater darkness. At this point, Michelangelo had to abandon work on the sheet, leaving the drawing with a distinct difference in finish, intentional and related to his graphic interests.

Boston museum returns Egyptian child sarcophagus to Sweden

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has returned an ancient Egyptian clay child sarcophagus to Uppsala University’s Museum Gustavianum more than 50 years after it was stolen under mysterious circumstances.

Made of alluvial clay, the sarcophagus dates to the 19th Dynasty (1295–1186 B.C.). It is 43 inches high and vividly painted. The child is depicted wearing a headdress of blue and yellow stripes tied with a headband of white, blue and red lotuses. Lotus petals cover the collar on his chest. The head and chest are on a cut-out section that can be removed to access the interior. Beneath the collar are more lotus flowers, wadjet eyes and the goddess Nut with outstretched wings flanked by Anubis seated jackals. The bottom part of the sarcophagus is covered with hieroglyphs identifying the deceased as a boy named Pa-nefer-neb.

The MFA Boston acquired it in 1985, and the ownership record seemed to be thorough and above-board, even at a time when museum’s paid zero attention to that sort of thing. It was sold by one Olaf Liden claiming to be an agent of Swedish artist Eric Ståhl (1918–1999). A letter ostensibly written by Ståhl described how he had personally discovered the sarcophagus in Amada, Egypt, in 1937, and the Egyptian government had later gifted it to him for his aid in the archaeological rescue operations before construction of the Aswan Dam. The coffin’s authenticity was attested to in writing by Swedish experts.

It was the MFA itself that realized this story was complete fiction, that Ståhl was never involved in any archaeological excavations in Egypt, that the letter and authentication documents were forged and the sarcophagus had been purloined from the Swedish museum, smuggled to Boston and fraudulently sold. The trigger was the 2008 publication of previously unseen photographs from the archive of the Petrie Museum. The sarcophagus was in one of the pictures: a shot of a 1920 archaeological excavation in Gurob, Egypt, by the British School of Archaeology under the direction of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie. A note with the photograph stated the coffin had been given to Uppsala University in 1922 as part of the partage system that was common at the time. All institutions involved in digs got a cut of the artifacts, basically, in exchange for their funding and fieldwork.

MFA curators initiated an investigation and contacted the Gustavianum to let them know about the discrepancy. Provenance researchers from both museums cooperated and shared information during the process. They found that the sarcophagus went missing from the museum’s stores in 1970 or earlier. It was not deaccessioned or traded. Both parties came to the same conclusion: the coffin had been taken from the Gustavianum illegally and should be returned.

“It is very gratifying that this return has now come to pass. The child’s sarcophagus is an important item in our collections and it means a lot to the museum and the University that it has now been returned to us. The sarcophagus is an excellent complement to our Egyptian collections and will now be available for research,” says Mikael Ahlund, Museum Director of Gustavianum, or Uppsala University Museum. “But the sarcophagus needs some work and it will be some time before it can be shown to the public in Gustavianum,” he adds.

You can see the petite coffin being unpacked upon its return to Sweden in this video. 

“Excalibur” identified as 10th c. Islamic sword

A sword discovered in Valencia in 1994 has been identified as an early Islamic era weapon dating to the 10th century. It is the first sword from the Islamic period to be found in Valencia.

Founded by Roman consul Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus in 138 B.C. as a veterans colony, Valencia was conquered by invading Muslim forces in 714 A.D. The Islamic city, known as Balansiya in Arabic, prospered and by the 10th century was a regional hub of trade. The Moorish taifa kingdom of Valencia, established in 1010, was frequently troubled with dynastic conflict, assassination and for one brief stretch at the end of the 11th century, conquest by the Castilian knight and Spanish national hero El Cid.

The iron sword was found in Valencia’s old town north of the ancient Roman Forum in a house from the Islamic era. It had been stuck in the ground inside a grave and was discovered in an upright position, giving rise to its nickname “Excalibur.” It is 46 cm (18 inches) long with a blade that curves slightly towards the tip. The hilt is decorated with bronze plates and has small notches for ease of handling. There is no hand guard, however, which suggests it may have been a cavalry weapon from the caliphal era. The curved blade is more typical of Visigothic swords. These mixed characteristics are the reason why it has taken so long to determine its maker and period. It was the sediment sample recovered from the find site that finally allowed researchers to date it to the 10th century.

The sword, which has been restored, has been dated within the framework of the archeology scholarship organized annually by the Valencia City Council. In the 2023-2024 edition, the scholarship has been dedicated entirely to the analysis of metallic objects. The fact that the beneficiary of this scholarship is an archaeologist specialized in metals has favored the exact dating of the sword.

The Councilor for Cultural Action, Heritage and Cultural Resources, José Luis Moreno, has assured that “thanks to the archeology grant organized by the Valencia City Council, the archaeologist José Miguel Osuna is carrying out a detailed analysis study of metal objects ranging from the Roman era to the late medieval period and where a new and exceptional discovery has come to light, which we have called the Excalibur of Roc Chabàs due to its similarity to the legendary sword of King Arthur.” According to the councilor, “this sword has a unique design that gives it great archaeological and heritage value, so we have a new treasure in this Islamic Excalibur and a historical legacy of ancient Balansiya.”

17th c. coin hoard found in farmhouse kitchen reno

Robert and Betty Fooks were already living a history nerd’s dream when they bought a 17th century Dorset farmhouse fixer upper in 2019. That escalated into full-on history nerd fantasyland when Robert took a pickaxe to the floor of their kitchen and discovered 1,029 gold and silver coins from the English Civil War (1642-1644).

South Poorton Farm in a small West Dorset hamlet was 400 years old when the Fooks’ bought it and in need of extensive renovation. They decided to remove the modern concrete floor to create more head space and ultimately dug down through almost two feet, passing through old flagstones and bare earth. Robert was putting in some sweat equity one October evening, digging up a bare earth area with his pickaxe when he encountered a glazed pottery bowl full of coins. The bowl was smashed, either by the pickaxe or earlier, but the coins were unscathed.

The discovery was reported to the local Finds Liaison Officer and the hoard was transferred to the British Museum for cleaning, documentation and valuation. The hoard contains gold coins, silver half crowns, shillings and sixpences of James I and Charles I, and silver shillings and sixpences of Elizabeth I, Phillip and Mary. They were deposited in a single event between 1642 and 1644, the early years of the First English Civil War.

Dorset, its arsenals and its ports were taken by Parliament when war broke out in August 1642, but Royalist troops regained a lot of that ground in 1643. Parliament still controlled the ports. While no major battles took place in the county, there was plenty of troop movement on both sides, lots of requisitioning of supplies, sieges, clashes, towns getting burned, just general wartorn misery all around. The kind of turbulence that leads people to put their life savings in a pot and bury it under the floor.

The hoard is older than 300 years, contains precious metal and is a grouping of multiple coins, it fits the definition of official Treasure. Typically this type of find would end up property of the Crown and a local museum would be given the opportunity to acquire it for the price of the assessed valuation. No museum must have wanted it or been able to raise the cash, because the hoard was returned to the finders and the couple put the hoard up for auction at Duke’s Auctioneers in Dorchester. The total pre-sale estimate for was £35,000. The auction took place on April 23rd, and all together, the coins sold for £60,740. A 1636 Charles I Gold Unite Crown was the biggest seller going for £5,000. A 1627 Charles I Gold Unite took second place with £3,800. The oldest coins, a lot of three Philip and Mary silver shillings from around 1554-1558, sold for £240.