Smiley found painted on 3,700-year-old pitcher

July 22nd, 2017

A team of Turkish and Italian archaeologists have discovered what may be the first known smiley face in the ancient city of Karkemish in Turkey’s southeastern province of Gaziantep near the border with Syria. The terminally cheery curved line topped by two dots was painted on the side of pitcher around 3,700 years ago.

“The smiling face is undoubtedly there (there are no other traces of painting on the flask) and has no parallels in ancient ceramic art of the area,” [excavation leader Dr. Nicolo Marchetti of Bologna University] said. […]

The unusual pitcher in question was originally off-white in colour and features a short thin neck, wide body and small handle. Found in a burial chamber, it was used for a sweet sherbet-like drink, and dates back to 1,700 BC.

Archaeologists only realised the smile was there when the pot was taken to a lab for restoration work, Turkish news agency Anadolou reported.

Occupied from the 6th millennium B.C. until it was abandoned in the late Middle Ages, the remains of Karkemish were first discovered and excavated in the late 19th century. Some illustrious figures — T.E. Lawrence, Leonard Woolley, Gertrude Bell — participated in later digs before and after World I. Even with this long history of archaeological exploration, the site still had much to reveal. The joint Turkey and Italian team has been excavating Karkemish every year since 2011. The smiley pitcher was found this season, which began on May 2nd, and it was not the only important discovery.

The team also unearthed 250 bullae, clay tokens impressed with seals that would be attached to legal and commercial documents as proof identity and authenticity. The seals were found in the late Bronze Age layer and date to the Hittite Empire in the 13th century B.C. when Karkemish was the seat of the Hittite viceroy who controlled the entire region. Among the 250 bullae are the seals of some of the highest ranking individuals in the Hittite administration of the city, most notably that of Taya or Tahe, prince and “charioteer of the goddess Kubaba.” Researchers are excited by the great number of bullae recovered because they hope the seals will reveal new information about the people, trade and administrative systems of Karkemish during its most prosperous period.

Another exceptional find made in the same area of the city is a large basalt relief of two rampant griffons. It was carved at the end of the 10th century B.C. during the reign of the Neo-Hittite king Katuwa who was better known for his construction and sculptural endeavors than his prowess on the battlefield. The griffon relief is believed to be one of a pair with a relief of a winged bull discovered during last year’s excavation. Archaeologists found significant architectural remains as well, including the remains of a massive fortress and a grain silo, both dating to the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, around 1100 B.C.

Seven season of digs will soon come to a culmination when the site is opened to the public for the first time next year. Karkemish is in a militarily sensitive area and access has long been restricted. The Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism announced earlier this month that on May 12th, 2018, the site will open its doors as the Karkemish Ancient City Archaeological Park. The smiley jug will go on display at the nearby Gaziantep Museum of Archaeology.

There is a whole new sense of urgency and meaning behind the excavations and the upcoming archaeological park. On the Syrian side of the border, the civil war has taken an unbearably onerous toll on its rich ancient history. While some of the most precious and beautiful archaeological remains in the world have been brutalized by ISIS and other belligerents in this quagmire from hell, excavation and conservation of ancient material culture has continued undeterred just over the border in Turkey.

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Britain’s first Roman fleet diploma goes on display

July 21st, 2017

The first complete Roman fleet diploma ever found in Britain has gone on display at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology. The inscribed copper alloy plaques record the rights granted an honorably discharged sailor after many years of loyal service. The recipient of the fleet diploma, one Tigernos, is Britain’s first named sailor.

Roman Military Diplomas were the physical proof of rights granted to non-citizen soldiers to mark their honourable discharge on retirement after 26 years of service. This diploma was issued by the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-191) to Tigernos, a native of Lanchester, Co. Durham, in around AD 150. The diploma granted him and his descendants Roman citizenship and the legal right of marriage. To earn the diploma he had served in the Classis Germanica -the Roman fleet in Germany, most likely for 26 years, before being honourably discharged on his retirement.

It was discovered in February of last year by metal detectorist Mark Houston near Longovicium, the Roman fort in Lanchester, County Durham. Houston found the plates about eight inches below the surface in a spot where his detector had signalled loud and clear. He saw the tell-tale green of copper and cleaned around it, revealing a small stack of copper plates. He had no idea what it was at first, or even that it was ancient. He thought it might be the remains of a motorcycle battery or some other old piece of machinery.

So Houston dug them up, took them home and cleaned them. It was only when he put them on the window sill where the sunlight streamed over them that he saw there were letters engraved on the copper sheets. He took a closer look through a magnifying glass and realized it was Latin. Understanding that what he thought were old motorcycle parts could be ancient artifacts, Mark Houston contacted the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and reported his discovery. PAS experts and Dr. Roger Tomlin from Oxford University have been studying and conserving it ever since.

The thin sheets of copper alloy were originally two rectangular plates stitched together by metal wires threaded through holes in the plates. Over time, the two rectangles corroded and broke into eight fragments, so some areas of the inscription are damaged, missing or illegible. Researchers are still working out as much of the inscription as they can, but what they’ve already been about to transcribe and translate paints a detailed picture, listing names of military cohorts, commanders, governors and consuls as well as the recipient and his father.

The Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, son of the deified Hadrianus, grandson of the deified Trajanus conqueror of Parthia, great-grandson of the deified Nerva, pontifex maximus, in his 13th year of tribunician power [150 A.D.], twice acclaimed Imperator, four times consul, father of his country, has granted to the cavalrymen and infantrymen of the Germany Army Dutiful and Loyal (PF) who have served in the 4 alae and 14 cohorts which are called Noricorum, Sulpicia CR, Africorum Veterana, I Thracum, I Flavia Hispanorum, I Latobicorum et Varcianorum, I Pannoniorum et Dalmatarum, II Civium Romanorum (CR), I Raetorum, VI Brittonum PF, II Asturum PF, I Classica PF, III and VI Breucorum, I Lucensium PF, II Varcianorum, VI Raetorum, IV Thracum, and are in Lower Germany under Salvius Iulianus, who have served 25 years, likewise soldiers of the Fleet 26 years, and have been honourably discharged, whose names are written below, Roman citizenship to those who do not have it, and the right of legal marriage with the wives they had when citizenship was given to them, or with those they later marry, but only one each.

The 13th day before the Kalends of December [November 19] in the consulship of Gaius Curtius Justus and Gaius Julius Julianus.

To Velvotigernus son of Magiotigernus, a Briton, ex-private soldier of the German Fleet Dutiful and Loyal which Marcus Ulpius Ulpianus commands.

I love the “only one wife each” stipulation.

There are only 800 Roman fleet diplomas known to exist, and most of them are incomplete because the children of the recipient would break off pieces to use as proof of their citizenship. Because this is the only complete example found in Britain, it is of enormous archaeological and historical import. Even so, the plates fell through a loophole in the UK’s Treasure Act: the only complete Roman fleet diploma ever discovered in Britain is not made of precious metal, therefore it’s not official treasure and the finder can dispose of it as he wishes. This is the same loophole that allowed the spectacular Crosby-Garret helmet to be sold to the highest bidder at auction instead of in a museum. Thankfully in this case the finder agreed to sell the diploma plates to the Museum of Archaeology at Durham University and split the proceeds with the landowner.

As of July 20th, Velvotigernus’ fleet diploma is on permanent display the museum’s Palace Green Library.

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9-year-old boy trips over Stegomastodon tusk

July 20th, 2017

Nine-year-old Jude Sparks was hiking with his family in the desert of Las Cruces, New Mexico, last November testing walkie-talkies with his younger brothers when he tripped on something and fell. He thought it looked like petrified wood at first, but its shape seemed more animal than plant. Could it be that classic of desert art, the cow skull? That’s what his little brother Hunter thought. Jude’s parents thought it looked more elephant-like. They looked it up when they got home and none of the elephant skulls they found online matched the object Jude had stumbled on, so they emailed a photo of the find to Peter Houde, professor of biology at New Mexico State University (NMSU), in the hope he might be able to identify it.

Houde recognized it at a glance as the fossilized skull of a Stegomastodon, a large elephantine animal that roamed North America in the Pliocene era about five million to 28,000 years before the present. This particular specimen is approximately 1.2 million years old, and even though it’s from one of the more common species of extinct elephants that inhabited the area, as far as Houde knows it’s only the second complete Stegomastodon skull discovered in New Mexico.

Jude had tripped over one of its tusks and faceplanted in front of the lower mandible. He could see the second tusk a little ways away. It was an incredibly fortuitous stumble, because the fossil had only recently been exposed by heavy rains. Had it been exposed to the elements any longer, it would have crumbled to dust. Houde saw to it that the exposed fossils parts — the jaw and both tusks — were removed to NMSU’s Vertebrate Museum for their protection. After securing the permission of the landowner (the exact location of the find is being kept under wraps at his request) and the hardening chemicals necessary to preserve the fossil in situ, Peter Houde and a team of professors and students excavated the rest of the skull this May. The Sparks family was given the opportunity to join in the excavation, which is going to be hard to top as family excursions go.

Houde applauded the Sparks family’s decision to do the right thing in contacting him about their find. He encourages others who might come across fossils to reach out to an expert rather than try to dig it up on their own.

Peter Houde excavates Stegomastodon trunk. Photo by Peter Houde.“As you can imagine, when people find out about these things, they might be tempted to go out there and see what they might find themselves and tear up the land or they might hurt themselves,” Houde said. “To be quite honest, all these fossils from this area are radioactive and especially for children, not something you would want in your home.”

Houde estimates the jaw weighs about 120 pounds and the entire skull as little as a ton. And while the skull may appear to be strong, it is quite delicate.

“The upper part of the skull is deceiving. It’s mostly hollow and the surface of the skull is eggshell thin,” Houde said. “You can imagine an extremely large skull would be very heavy for the animal if it didn’t have air inside it to lighten it up just like our own sinuses. That makes the thing extremely fragile and the only thing holding it together is the sediment surrounding it.

“In fact when the sediments are removed from the sides of them, they start to fall apart immediately and literally fall into tiny, tiny bits. It has to be done carefully by somebody who knows how to go about doing it. It is a very deliberate process that takes a little bit of time.”

The team spent a week excavating the skull, brushing it with the hardening chemicals to make it possible to remove it without damaging the delicate fossil. Once it was fully exposed, the skull was coated with a layer of plaster and reinforced with wood braces for support. It was raised by a tractor onto a flatbed truck and transported to New Mexico State University.

In the NMSU laboratory the skull will be studied, analyzed and reconstructed. The process is a painstaking one and it will likely take years before the complete skull is pieced back together and stabilized so it can be put on public display.

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Mummy in Buddha statue goes to court

July 19th, 2017

Two years ago, a 1,000-year-old statue of the Buddha made headlines when a striking CT scan exposed the mummified monk within. The statue was scanned at a hospital in Amsterdam when it was in the country to take part in the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands. The exhibition proffered the Buddha statue as an example of the extreme practice of self-mummification, in which Buddhist monks spent years starving and poisoning themselves before having themselves walled into a constricted space to die. If three years later their bodies were found mummified, they were considered to have attained the rank of Buddha and their remains were venerated.

According to the information on the exhibition’s website and labels, the monk sealed in the statue was believed to be Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, aka Zen Buddhism, who died around 1100 A.D. There was no evidence offered in support of this surprisingly specific identification, nor were there any details about who owned the statue. The press materials alluded to this being the first time the statue was allowed to leave China and that it was the only Chinese Buddhist mummy made available for scientific study in the West.

Well, that may all be a big bunch of lies, or at least misinformation of the “Swiss private collection” variety to act as a smokescreen for some very shady dealings in stolen cultural heritage. A lawsuit currently in the Dutch courts presents an entirely different ownership history and identification of the statue and mummy. The plaintiff is the tea-farming mountain village of Yangchun in southeastern Chinese province of Fujian which claims the statue was stolen from a temple there in 1995. The defendant is a Dutch collector, who bought the statue and the human remains it contains in Hong Kong in 1996.

In March of 2015, one of the villagers saw a photograph of the statue on display at the Mummy World exhibition at Budapest’s Natural History Museum. He immediately recognized it as the Zhanggong Patriarch, a statue containing a mummified monk that he and his fellow villagers have venerated for centuries.

The lawyers will argue that according to Dutch law “a person is not allowed to have a known body in their possession,” Holthuis said.

“We also have enough evidence to prove that the statue is indeed the one that was stolen from the temple,” he added.

“The fact that it was sold a few months after it was stolen, that it contains certain texts referring to the name ‘Zhanggong’ and that its dating more or less corresponds to the period that the monk was alive,” were some of the arguments which will be presented, he said.

There are some pictures of it in the temple in 1989, and the village still has the clothes and crown the statue was wearing before the thieves stripped it. The picture alone isn’t as dispositive as you might think because of those clothes and crown. They obscure some of the identifying detail of the statue which has been displayed without its traditional accessories in the mummies exhibitions.

According to centuries of village tradition, the statue contains the remains of a monk named Zhang who moved to the village with his mother when he was a boy during the Song dynasty (960–1279). He went from cowherd to Buddhist monk to a gilded mummy worshipped by generations of residents. (There is no suggestion of self-mummification. He was mummified after his death as an indication of the great esteem in which he was held, an account that is consistent with the discovery that his organs had been removed and replaced with paper fill.) The villagers prayed to him at all major festivals and seasonal events. Each year the statue was transported through the village stopping at every house, and the monk’s birthday was celebrated every year with a grand festival. The village’s ancestral records seemingly confirm the oral history; they document the presence of the Patriarch as early as the Song Dynasty.

Villagers in Yangchun, China, pray in front of gray replica of the stolen statue. Photo by Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times.The theft of the Zhanggong Patriarch was devastating to the villagers. Some of the older residents had risked their lives to protect him from the iconoclastic marauders of the Cultural Revolution. The statue was kept constantly on the move for its safety, hidden in pits and people’s homes, sometimes moved twice in a night. They put a replica in his place, a rather rough grey version of the elegant gilded original, and the villagers still pray to it.

There’s one big problem. Nobody knows where the statue is right now. Apparently the collector, Dutch architect Oscar van Overeem, traded it with somebody in 2015 and he’s not saying who. The timing of this swap is curious, especially in the light of van Overeem’s strenuous denial that his mummy was the Zhanggong Patriarch. He insisted that he had easily disproven the village’s claim to the Chinese representative who contacted him to negotiate repatriation, but worked out a deal anyway to donate the statue to an unnamed Buddhist temple near Yangchun. He had struck this bargain, he said in May of 2015, “because he believed it deserved to return to its homeland ‘to be incorporated in truly Buddhist surroundings’ and worshiped ‘by those who love and appreciate him.'”

So in May of 2015, the collector believed that the mummy deserved to be home among those who love and pray to him, but I guess that belief wasn’t all that strongly held because the statue and mummy are not in any Buddhist temple near Yangchun. It’s nowhere to be found. Whoever the third party is has little incentive to come forward, so even if the village wins in court — which would be a landmark decision for Chinese cultural patrimony repatriation because it would be the first time a heritage object is returned due to the courts rather than through diplomatic channels — it could still be left bereft of its beloved Zhanggong Patriarch.

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Rare Roman sarcophagus found in London

July 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare Roman stone sarcophagus at an excavation on Swan Street and Harper Road in Southwark, central London. The coffin dates to the 4th century and was buried inside a mausoleum along the Roman road just outside ancient Londinium. It is filled with soil so archaeologists were not able to determine its contents at a glance, but because the bones of a baby from the same period were found buried next to the sarcophagus, it’s possible it contains the skeletal remains of a mother. There is no evidence at this point of any connection between the infant and the coffin burial.

Contractors Pre-Construct Archaeology were engaged to excavate the property where a court annex and sorting office once stood and on which the charitable organization Trinity House plans to build a new housing complex. Excavations began in January and were almost completed when the sarcophagus was discovered last month. Under the former court annex building, the team discovered a long trench that had been dug by looters hundreds of years ago around the perimeter of the sarcophagus. The lid had been slid open and there’s a large crack in it, likely the calling cards of the same looters who dug the trench.

The grave robbers found the sarcophagus in the post-Medieval period. They broke into it and helped themselves to grave goods. Archaeologists hope the looters limited themselves to stealing the more showily valuable objects — precious metals, fine pottery, jewelry — and left behind things they didn’t care about but archaeologists do. If they didn’t interfere with the human remains, that would be a great archaeological boon. The sarcophagus has been scanned with a metal detector which signalled the presence of metal inside the earth-packed coffin, so there’s almost certainly something in there.

The deceased must have been a very wealthy, high-status individual to receive such an expensive burial. The sarcophagus itself is extremely rare. Only two late Roman sarcophaguses have been found in their original burial context in London in recent memory. Then there’s the location on the main Roman road leading in and out of the city. This was a prestigious spot that would have been reserved for someone of great importance.

Recent archaeological research has shown that this area of Roman Southwark is the focus of ritual activity. We now know that this area forms a complex ritual landscape containing various religious and funerary monuments and a vast dispersed Roman cemetery (sites such as Dickens Square, Lant Street and Trinity Street) incorporating a range of burial practices, often with exotic grave goods sourced from across the Roman Empire. […]

Gillian King, Senior Planner: Archaeology, at Southwark Council, said: “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now!

“It really is a very special discovery. Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period, so completely different.”

The sarcophagus and lid were raised on Tuesday and transported to the Hackney archive of the Museum of London where it will be painstakingly excavated in laboratory conditions. Any bones or artifacts found within will be analyzed and tested to confirm the date of the burial.

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1759 British cannonball, still live, found in Quebec City

July 17th, 2017

Last Friday, July 7th, a construction crew working on a building site at the corner of Hamel and Couillard streets in Old Quebec, the historic center of Quebec City, Canada, unearthed a large cannonball from the French and Indian War. The crew took pictures of themselves with the 200-pound projectile as if it were a movie star. They moved it around, struck poses and generally had a blast with their discovery.

They didn’t realize at the time that the blast they were having could well have been literal. It was archaeologist Serge Rouleau, called in by municipal authorities to examine the find, who saw that the ball still held a charge. His examination determined that the cannonball was of British manufacture and was fired at the old city in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, or in the siege preceding it. Rouleau had taken the ball home with it to study — an odd step to take when dealing with explosive devices of any age — so when he realized his bouncing baby bomb still has what it takes to blow him up and burn his house down around the splattered specks of tissue that were once his body, he called in the experts.

A team of army munitions technicians was dispatched from CFB Valcartier to collect the ball and neutralize it.

“With time, humidity got into its interior and reduced its potential for exploding, but there’s still a danger,” said Master Warrant Officer Sylvain Trudel, a senior munitions technician.

Trudel said such balls were meant to set fire to the buildings they penetrated.

“The ball would break and the powder would ignite, setting fire to the building.”

This was a brutal weapon in the mid-18th century, and Quebec City was deluged with them during the Seven Years’ War when Britain fought and shot its way to taking control of much of French North America. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the culmination of three months of intensive bombings by British troops besieging the city of Quebec. From the their position at Lévis, just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec, the British launched a near-constant barrage of deadly artillery fire starting on July 12th, 1759. Over the next three months, they would set the city alight with 40,000 solid iron cannonballs and 8,000 incendiary bombs. On September 13th, the British and French engaged in an infantry battle on a plateau outside the city knows as the plans of Abraham. It lasted less than hour. The British were victorious, chasing the French out of the city and ending the siege. The siege and battle took a massive toll on Quebec and its environs. The city and surrounding countryside were in smoldering ruins when the smoke from the plains of Abraham cleared.

On a global scale, the battle permanently altered Canadian geopolitics, setting the stage for the British conquest of Canada and the French withdrawal. France’s forces in Canada were weakened by the loss and came under increasing pressure from British troops on the continent. It would take another five years for the conflict to come to its final conclusion in the Treaty of Paris (1764), but when the quill pens were finally put to parchment, France had ceded almost all of its American territories, including Canada, to Britain.

Musn't touch the live ammo. Photo courtesy Lafontaine Inc.The 258-year-old live cannonball has now been moved out of the archaeologist’s house to a safe place where the munitions disposal experts will determine if it can be safely neutralized. If not, it will be detonated and destroyed.

“Old munitions like this are hard to predict,” Trudel said. “You never know to what point the chemicals inside have degraded.”

If it is salvageable, the cannonball will find a loving forever home at a local museum.

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Roman domus with mosaic floors found in Auch, France

July 16th, 2017

When a landowner digging a foundation for a new home on his property in Auch, southwestern France, discovered ancient architectural remains less than two feet under the surface earlier this year, he reported the find to the authorities. In April, archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) were dispatched to excavate the structure. They unearthed a layer cake of Auch’s rich history, with a luxurious Roman imperial-era domus as the topper.

The property is just a few hundred feet from the forum of the ancient city of Elimberris, a town founded by the Ausci, an Aquitanian tribe, before the arrival of the Romans. After the conquest of Gaul, the city’s name was Latinized to Augusta Auscorum and became one of the 12 main cities of the province that would become Gascony. It prospered in the late imperial era and the wealthy built increasingly expensive villas or expanded and upgraded existing ones. The latter is what happened to the newly discovered domus.

Even when things got scary as imperial support all but disappeared in the early 5th century, Auch still seemed to be doing okay. It was made the capital after the Gascon city of Eauze was razed by the Vandals, in 409 A.D., but these were the twilight days of the Roman Empire and being the regional capital of a place where the elite had already beaten a hasty retreated and abandoned their fancy villas years, perhaps decades, earlier, was a dubious distinction. The fancy villas were stripped for building supplies and otherwise forgotten.

Very little of ancient Auch has been excavated. Most of the archaeological material we have from Gallo-Roman Auch comes from a single major excavation years ago and scattered finds here and there. This discovery has been an exceptional boon to archaeologists because on this one 800 square meter site, they found evidence of the earliest settlements dating to the second half of the 1st century B.C. through the Late Empire.

Its first iteration was comparatively modest. It was private home with earthen walls. In the 1st century A.D., the site shows signs of an acceleration of urbanization under Rome’s influence. The city grew on an organized grid system orientated by the cardinal points of the map. The forum was built in this period, as were a number of top quality private dwellings. The villa was built in the 3rd century and was significantly expanded and altered twice after that.

In was in the early 4th century A.D. that the domus got its greatest refurbishment. Some time around 330 A.D., baths were added to the home. A home bath complex was the mark of high luxury. The baths in this villa were in their own building about 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. There were at least three rooms heated by underfloor hypocausts and the floors were decorated with brightly colored mosaics in a variety of patterns including geometrics (octagons and squares, waves), florals (ivy, laurel and acanthus leaves), tridents, braids and more. While none are extant in their original form, mosaics also decorated the walls. Archaeologists found black, green and red glass tile fragments amidst the floor rubble; that’s all that’s left of the colorful wall mosaics.

Detail of wave pattern. Photo © Jean-Louis Bellurget, Inrap.The mosaics are designed in a style characteristic of the area in the late Empire. The Aquitanian style is well known in ancient country villas from this era, but this domus stands out because it was a city home, not a rural estate. Aquitanian style mosaics are far rarer in urban centers, although they have been found before in Bordeaux and Eauze.

It seems the domus endured the same fate as other elite homes did in this region. It was left to its own devices at the end of the 4th century or beginning of the 5th century, and locals salvaged whatever materials from it they could use. The walls were demolished and their stone taken, the marble floors pulled up, even the stacks of tiles used to raise the subfloor for the hypocaust heating system were taken. The mosaics that weren’t destroyed by the process were damaged. The ruins were quickly forgotten and covered with earth, albeit a remarkable thin layer considering it took more than 1600 years for anybody to find what was left of the domus.

Ivy leaf motif in mosaic. Photo © Jean-Louis Bellurget, Inrap.INRAP is working at lightning speed to excavate and recover as much of the site as they can. They plan to lift the whole mosaic floors. What will happen to the rest of the remains is unclear. The property owner wants them out by September so he can go back to building his thing, invaluable archaeological treasure be damned. Anything left behind could well be destroyed.

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Michelangelo river god model restored

July 15th, 2017

A rare and fragile model of a river god made by Michelangelo Buonarotti in around 1525 has been restored to its original condition and placed on public view after years in storage. Made out of wood, clay, sand, wool and oakum fibers on an iron wire framework, the model was an ephemeral work. These were not built to last; models were use objects meant to be discarded after the permanent marble sculptures were finished. In this case, Michelangelo never did get around to making the sculpture, so the model is all we have to show for it. It is one of very few life-sized models ever created by Michelangelo.

The statue in question was a river god or river allegory that was to recline on the right side at the foot of the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lord of Florence, Duke of Urbino and the father of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France. Michelangelo’s client, Pope Clement VII, insisted that he create life-sized models for the tomb sculptures in the (vain) hope that it would speed up production by allowing the master to delegate some of the execution to secondary artists without loss of quality. Another three river gods were planned for the base of the tomb, but Michelangelo only completed this model and the one for its twin on the left side. None of the finished sculptures of the river gods were ever made.

After he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the two models stayed in the New Sacristy of the San Lorenzo basilica, the grand chapel designed and sculpted by Michelangelo to house the palatial new Medici dynasty tombs, along with all the completed statuary. They were still there two decades later, but by the end of the 16th century, the right model was in the private collection of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The left model was lost. The only known version of it extant today is Michelangelo’s very rough work sketch in the British Museum.

In 1583, the surviving model was donated to the Academy of Art and Design which is today the oldest fine arts academy in the world, founded by Cosimo I in 1563. At the time of the donation, less than 60 years after it was made, the model had condition problems. The first recorded restoration of the work took place in 1590.

Over the centuries, the river god fell down an art historical memory hole until it was rediscovered in 1906 by German sculptor and long-time resident of Florence Adolf von Hildebrand and German art historian Adolf Gottschewski. The new attention the model received spurred the Academy to move it to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it was displayed near the David and other sculptures Michelangelo carved in marble.

The model was on display there until 1965 when it was moved to the Casa Buonarroti museum for its own preservation and to add to the museum’s collection of Michelangelo models. The Academy still owns the piece, however, and three years ago they engaged the services of Florence’s top restoration masters at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to stabilize the deteriorating model.They mended areas of the surface that had come apart and strengthened the structure to prepare it for future transport and exhibition. They also analyzed the dark paint that gave the work a bronzed effect and discovered it was a later alteration. Michelangelo’s original choice was the paint the model in lead white to make it look like the marble the finished product would be made out of and so that it would match the completed sculptures in the New Sacristy. Opificio conservators painstakingly removed the dark paint, revealing and restoring Michelangelo’s original white lead layer.

The restored model made its official debut at the Refectory of the Basilica of Santa Croce on July 11th. In September it will go on display at a major exhibition on the art of 16th century Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. After that, it will be on permanent view at the Academy of Art and Design.

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Rare trade silver found in Michigan colonial fort

July 14th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a small but exceedingly rare artifact during this season’s excavation of the 18th century fur trading settlement and colonial fort of Michilimackinac in Michigan’s lower peninsula. It’s a simple silver triangle pierced at the top with a tiny hoop, likely worn as a pendant or earring. It dates to around 1765 and was unearthed in the remains of a fur trader’s house. These modest pieces were trade silver, used as currency in the trading outposts of the colonies.

Trade silver is an excellent marker for the British era of the fur trade. The piece would have likely been used to trade for furs and pelts, Evans said.

She and her team found a smaller piece of trade silver several years ago, but it’s a pretty rare find

“We don’t find a lot of it at Fort Michilimackinac,” she said. “We were really excited.

They don’t find a lot of complete artifacts of any kind at Fort Michilimackinac. Active every summer since 1959, the excavation of Michilimackinac is the longest ongoing archaeological dig in the United States. Over the decades, archaeologists have recovered more than one million archaeological materials, but because the soldiers and traders left Fort Michilimackinac for Mackinac Island gradually over the course of two years, they had plenty of time to ensure nothing useful, valuable and intact was left behind. The vast majority of the items unearthed at the fort are refuse like broken glass, animal bones or lost or discarded items of little to no value like beads and buttons. That’s why it was major headline news when the 2015 dig recovered an intact ivory rosary from the home of a mid-18th century French fur trader.

This season has been even more of a banner year, with two intact artifacts discovered: the trade silver pendant and last month, a brass lock that once sealed a small chest or box. Unearthed in the root cellar of the same fur trader’s home where the trade silver was found, the lock is 2.75″ long and 2.25″ wide at the widest part of its belly. It dates to between 1760 and 1770 and is an unusually decorative, fancy little fixture.

The house itself is older than both objects, having been built around 1730. Rubble on the site indicates the house was demolished in 1781 when the garrison and the traders completed their move to the island. During the 50 years it was standing, it was a bustling part of the trader community. Other items found in the interior of the house underscore that it once belonged to fur traders, something the team knew from the beginning of the dig but was confirmed by the discoveries. Archaeologists unearthed more than a dozen gunflints, four musket balls of trade gun caliber, fishhooks, Jesuit ring fragments and a variety of glass trade beads in a selection of colors and sizes.

The site will continue to be excavated until the season ends in August. Until then, visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac, the open-air museum on the site of the site of the 18th century fort and trading village that is now part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks system, can view the archaeologists in the trenches, ask them about their work, see finds as they come out of the ground.

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Pietà by pioneer Netherlandish painter loaned to Rijskmuseum

July 13th, 2017

Johan Maelwael, also known by the French version of his name Jean Malouel, was born in Nijmegen in around 1365. Nijmegen was part of the Duchy of Guelders then (now the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands) and had just joined the Hanseatic League in 1364. The prosperity that came with the increase in trade and commerce engendered a flourishing of the arts. Johan came from an artistic family — his father and uncle were successful artists — and he trained in his father Willem’s workshop from an early age.

He started his professional career as a painter of heraldic imagery at the court of the Dukes of Guelders in his hometown of Nijmegen. That experience proved desirable and portable, and in 1396 he moved to Paris where he specialized in painting heraldic and armorial images for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Isabeau was a great patron of the arts who during this period had built something of a shadow court thanks to her husband’s increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness. (Whenever the King succumbed to one of his spells, which lasted months at a time, he did not recognize Isabeau and demanded that strange woman be removed from his presence.)

Maelwael’s work for the Queen lasted no more than a year, and by the summer of 1397 Maelwael was in Dijon, capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, where he was appointed court painter to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The appointment came with the rank of valet de chambre and a hefty salary. Maelwael would keep the job even after Philip’s death in 1404, remaining court painter to his son and successor John the Fearless.

At the Burgundy court, Maelwael again painted heraldic images on banners, pennants, flags and armour, but he also went further afield. Among other works, the dukes commissioned large-scale murals, devotional panel paintings, elaborate altarpieces for the Carthusian monastery of Champmol where Philip’s tomb was located, and the painting and gilding of sculptures. He experimented with new approaches and pioneered what would become known as the International Gothic style.

The greatest surviving example of this is a tondo known as La Grande Pietà, a tempera on wood panel painting that many art historians consider to be the first proper tondo of the Renaissance. The iconography is not typical of later Renaissance pietas because in addition to the dead Christ held by his disconsolate mother Mary, God the Father is also in the picture, holding up the body of his sacrificed Son. Two angels help hold up the body, and a four more balance out the composition on the left side, adding splashes of color and a variety of anguished facial expressions. On the far right is a facepalming St. John.

On the back of the round is an example of the specialty that launched Maelwael’s illustrious career: the coat of arms of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. This suggests the painting was commissioned by Philip before his death, and the unusual combination of a pieta and the Holy Trinity suggests it may have been intended for the Burgundy tombs at Champmol since the monastery was dedicated to the Trinity and the ducal family also evinced a particular devotion to the Trinity.

Besides the imagery, Maelwael also included unusual features in the technical aspects of the painting. The frame of the tondo was carved out of the wood panel, something I don’t recall seeing in any other example of the form. His use of transparent glazes over the tempera was also ground-breaking. Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, who a decade after Maelwael’s death followed in his footsteps as painter to the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Bold, in his time), would take those transparent glazes and run with them.

One of the reasons the tondo is so special is that it is one of very few extant works that can be conclusively attributed to Johan Maelwael. Acquired by the Louvre in 1864, La Grande Pietà is one of the treasures of the museum’s early Flemish collection. It hasn’t left Paris since 1962, but come this fall, the greatest surviving masterpiece of the first painter of the Northern Renaissance will be heading to the Netherlands for the first time in its existence when it goes on display at the Rijksmuseum.

At the Burgundian court, Maelwael painted flags, banners and armour; he designed patterns for fabrics; he executed large religious paintings; he created refined miniatures in illuminated manuscripts; he decorated sculptures with gold-leaf and color and he painted small devotional pieces and portraits. Around 1400 Maelwael introduced his three talented nephews as miniature painters in France: the legendary Limbourg brothers Herman, Johan and Paul.

For the first time, Maelwael’s paintings will be exhibited alongside medieval art treasures, manuscripts, precious metalwork and sculpture – from among others, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Maelwael’s paintings will be juxtaposed not only with the sculpture of his contemporaries Claus Sluter and Claes van Werve, but also with the richly decorated illuminated manuscripts of the Limbourg brothers.

The Johan Maelwael exhibition will run at the Rijksmuseum from October 6th, 2017, through January 7th, 2018.

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