Ethiopia’s oldest wall paintings to be conserved

May 2nd, 2016

The church of Yemrehanna Kristos in northern Ethiopia was commissioned by and named after a priest-king of the Zagwe dynasty who ruled from about 1087 to 1127. The church was built in the early 12th century in the late Azumite style inside a cave facing northeast on the side of Mount Abuna Yosef in the Lasta Mountains, the church is as beautifully situated as it is remote. The town of Lalibela, later capital of the Zagwe kings of Ethiopia and famous for its rock-hewn churches, is just 12 miles away, but until 15 years ago, Yemrehanna Kristos took a day’s hard ride on a mule to reach. Recently a dirt road was built from Lalibela making the church accessible to 4WD vehicles. Even with a proper Jeep it still takes an hour and a half to get there.

Yemrehanna Kristos was a major site of pilgrimage, especially for people on the verge of death. Inside the cave behind the church are the bones of an estimated 10,000 people who journeyed from everywhere around Ethiopia and as far as Egypt and Syria to die at the holy site. Monks and priests live in the cave, some in a second building beyond the church, others sleeping on woven cots in the open cave.

The building itself is one of the best-preserved late Axumite churches in the country. The walls are made of timber beams alternating with white plastered stone which give them a striped look. The windows are covered with intricately carved wooden lattices. The design of the church’s interior is a simple central nave with an aisle on each side, divided by masonry pillars and arches. Every piece of wood on the inside of the church is painted. The ceilings are decorated with polychrome painted geometric designs. Scenes from the Bible are painted on the walls.

These murals are the oldest surviving wall paintings in Ethiopia, but they weren’t even published internationally until 2001 because between the layers of dirt on the surface and the darkness of the interior of the cave, they’re hard to see.

The figurative images are mainly New Testament scenes, many of which are now barely legible because of an accumulation of dirt. They include a depiction of the arrival in Egypt of the Holy Family, who are welcomed by an angel. Mary rides a donkey, with Joseph walking behind, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders. The wooden ceiling is decorated with 17 painted medallions of animal motifs: wild beasts, birds, an elephant, a winged creature, a scorpion and a dragon. Other wall paintings have geometric designs.

The murals and church are in dire need of the tender attentions of conservators. Earthquake tremors have weakened the structure, putting cracks in the walls and damaging the priceless decoration. Previous inexpert and undocumented attempts at restoration have coated the murals with a layer of varnish, now darkened, and a rough cleaning attempt left brush marks on the surface.

Last fall, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to fund an 18 month-long structural analysis of the church, interior and exterior. Laser scanning and motion monitors will hopefully pinpoint the source of the movement in the building and identify areas of top concern. The WMF will work with the Ethiopian Heritage Fund (EHF) on the project.

The initial investigation will include in-situ microscopy, along with ultra-violet and infra-red examinations. Paint samples will be tested, partly to determine the original pigments and media used and to identify added materials. There will be small-scale cleaning trials, to test which materials should be used. Monitoring sensors will be installed to record temperature and humidity changes. A separate team from the University of Cape Town will undertake a laser scan survey to create a three-dimensional data model of the church and cave, to map structural movement.

Once they have the data, they will conserve the paintings for the first time under contemporary professional conditions. If all goes well, conservation will begin by October of this year and continue through early next year. The objectives will be to stop the paint from flaking and to clean the murals thoroughly.

Vatican’s Gallery of Maps restored

May 1st, 2016

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums contains the largest cycle of cartographic paintings ever created. The gallery on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard connects the Sistine Chapel to the Tower of the Winds and is 120 meters (394 feet) long, longer than a football field and 20 feet wide. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling soars three storeys above the floor. The walls are covered practically floor to ceiling with frescoed maps of all the regions of Italy.

The Gallery of the Maps was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII so that he could travel the length of Italy without having to leave the apostolic palace. Dominican friar, mathematician and cartographer Ignazio Danti was placed in charge of the project. (Danti was also on the committee that reformed the Julian calendar, correcting its ancient miscalculations by cutting out 11 days so October 4th, 1582, was followed by October 15th, 1582, after which the new Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope, kept up with astronomical time.) During the course of 18 months from 1580 to 1581, Danti and his team — Flemish artists Matthjis and Paul Bril and Italian Mannerists Gerolamo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia, Giovanni Antonio Vanosino da Varese and Ignazio’s brother Antonio Danti — painted 40 large-scale map frescoes of every region in Italy (plus Avignon, on account of it was owned by Popes for four centuries from the Babylonian Captivity until the French Revolution).

The maps are extraordinarily detailed and accurate renderings of Italy in the late 16th century. Following Danti’s meticulous cartographic cartoons, the painters stuck to what they knew was there. If there was something they weren’t sure about, they left it out. While they included traditional decorative figures like putti, sea monsters and Neptune and conflated historical elements like Roman ships with contemporary ones, the maps themselves. The topographical precision and perspective are extraordinary, lending these maps an almost 3D-like realism. Valleys, hills, lakes, even individual streets are all recognizable. Moving from southern Italy to the north, the east side of the room was painted with maps of regions that face the Adriatic Sea and the Alps; the west side featured regions facing the Tyrrhenian. Danti said that walking this corridor was like walking up Italy on the spine of the Apennines.

Every regional map is accompanied by a smaller view of its most populous city. Where you exit the gallery today are maps of Italy’s four major ports — Genoa, Venice, Ancona and Civitavecchia — and two views of the entire peninsula — ancient Italy and new Italy. At today’s entrance are maps of the minor islands and two momentous battles that were still fresh news when they were painted: the Ottoman siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, both won by the Holy League.

The ceiling vaults are painted with the patron saints of the various regions (Saint Ambrose for Milan, Saint Mark for Venice) and with important/miraculous scenes from Italian history (Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hannibal and his elephants, the baptism of Constantine, Pope Leo I persuading Attila the Hun to withdraw from Italy, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa meeting with Pope Alexander III, etc.) each covering the space above the maps of the locations where the events took place.

The next Pope to put his hands on the maps was not so keen on accuracy. Pope Urban VIII ordered a “restoration” in 1630 that just painted over details that had gotten blurred over the 50 years since their creation. A fresco depicting the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria was painted over just because it was so high up on the wall it was inconvenient to repair. Born Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban also had his family’s symbol, the bee, added to the maps wherever possible, if not advisable. (It was Urban VIII who stripped the bronze off the roof of the Pantheon to make cannon and Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, giving rise to the satiric pasquinade “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini,” meaning “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”)

Six million people a year walk down this hall, bringing dirt, moisture and the vibrations from hundreds of millions of footballs with them that caused the plaster to lift from the walls and covered the brilliance of the original paint under layers of dust. Between that and the unfortunate past restorations, the frescoes were in dire need of attention. In 2011, the Vatican reached out to the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the Vatican Museums’ cultural patrimony, for help in funding a new restoration of the paintings that would rescue the plaster from impending doom and return works to their former splendour.

The restoration was sponsored by the California chapter of the Patrons. Half of the $2.4 million budget was donated by one Patron; the rest was raised through a map adoption program, with each Patron adopting an individual map and funding its restoration at either the $35,000 or $70,000 level. Because the maps are so extensive and so detailed, some patrons had the unique opportunity to adopt a map that with a connection to their family histories, for example the Castignano family adopted the map of Sicily because it included the hometown of their immigrant forebears, a tiny hamlet that barely registers on other atlases, while the Stanislawskis adopted the map of Umbria because of a family history of devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.

Art restorer Francesco Prantera and his team of experts began work in September of 2012. They anchored the plaster to the wall with an organic glue, and then set to treating the frescoes. They divided each map into 64 sections, the same sections the original artists used to paint them in the 16th century. Each of the sections was covered with special tissue-thin paper to absorb the old yellowed glue from a 19th century restoration. When the paper was peeled off, the newly vibrant color was protected with an adhesive made from a Japanese red algae called funori. Because the product is so expensive (one gram will run you 100 euros), the diagnostic laboratory of the Vatican Museums made their own extract directly from the imported seaweed. The restoration team then cautiously filled in areas of paint loss, reproducing the original materials used by the artists. The stucco was made from an ancient Roman recipe. The paints were all natural and free of chemicals.

The restoration took just under four years, double what it took Danti’s team to paint the Gallery of Maps in the first place. It has been open to the public this whole time. On Saturday, April 23rd, the Patrons were given a private showing of the restored Gallery.

There are some good views of the Hall and details of the restoration in progress in this Italian language video. The narration mainly gives a quick rundown of the history you’ve just read so I won’t repeat it, but you’ll find my translation of the interesting comments from Maria Ludmilla Pustka, head restorer of the paintings and wood artifacts of the Vatican Museums, below.

Maria Ludmilla Pustka: “The restoration of a work of art can be more complex than the original execution, and the great team we put together to make this restoration happen quickly had to use a very interesting, modern methodology that approaches a biorestoration. Thus nature itself has provided us with the proper materials for a better conservation.”

Narrator: “The restoration, which focused on the precarious condition of the plaster layer and the look of the painted surfaces, has also brought to light surprising discoveries.”

Pustka: “Every map has its own secret. Among the secrets, one new discovery was a coin of Urban VIII that was found inside a stucco relief, attesting to its date of manufacture. We also found a number of signatures from the original artists and past restorers.”

Amphorae with 1,300 lbs of Roman coins found in Spain

April 30th, 2016

On Wednesday, April 27th, workers digging a trench in Olivar del Zaudín Park in Tomares, a suburb of Seville, Spain, discovered a cache of clay jars nestled three feet under the surface. They alerted the Civil Guard who found there were 19 Roman-era amphorae crammed full of bronze coins from the late 3rd and early 4th century A.D. The number of coins has yet to be determined, but the total weight of them is a staggering 600 kilos (1,300 pounds).

The amphorae and coins were transported to the Archaeological Museum of Seville where conservators have begun to clean, stabilize, identify and count them. Museum director Ana Navarro is not yet able to estimate the total number of coins in the collection. There are tens of thousands of them, that much is clear from the weight. Initial examination has found the coins were minted during the reigns of the emperors Maximian (r. 286-305) and Constantine (r. 306-337) and appear to be in brilliant uncirculated condition, with no signs of wear whatsoever. They are made of bronze but some of them show signs of having been silvered, ie, coated with a thin layer of silver totalling maybe four or five percent of the coin weight.

The amphorae are special too. Out of the 19 amphorae, nine of them were perfectly intact with their coins untouched inside. The other ten were damaged by the excavator at the time of discovery (a cloud with a silver lining because it gives archaeologists the opportunity to see how the coins were packed in the vessels). They are not of the kind used to transport the wine, fermented fish intestine sauce and grains that Romans were so fond of. They’re smaller than standard merchant amphorae and may have been designed specifically to carry cash. The amphorae were placed vertically in packed earth up to their shoulders and then covered by bricks and pieces of broken ceramic. It’s not clear if they were deliberately hidden underground due to social unrest, violence or danger, or if this was a deposit space inside a fort or military structure of some kind.

The find is unique in Spain and likely the rest of the Roman world. Navarro and her team contacted researchers in Britain, France and Italy and they all agreed that they have never seen so large and homogeneous an accumulation of coins from the late Roman empire. Because of their homogeneity, tight date range and amphorae, the coins were not a private treasure. Navarro speculates that they could have been pay for the army or civil servants, or perhaps destined for the imperial tax coffers. Less than a tenth of the coins have been examined at this point, so it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

The region in which they where they were found was a powerful economic center in the Roman Spain province. The ancient city of Italica, founded in 206 B.C. by Publius Cornelius Scipio, future victor over Hannibal in the Second Punic War, is just next door. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian were born there. It’s a good thing the coins weren’t kept in the big city, however, as after its decline the nearby city of Seville, Hispalis in Roman times, used Italica as a quarry. As late as the 18th century Seville was still feasting on the bones of its ancient neighbor. Seville demolished the walls of Italica’s amphitheater in 1740 and used the stone to build a dam and demolished the old Republican city in 1796 to build a road with its stone. It wasn’t protected until 1810 under Napoleon.

The Olivar del Zaudín Park’s land was two farmsteads in the Middle Ages, nothing worth messing with when there was a far more obvious ancient target drawing focus. They were eventually combined and made into an olive orchard. Olive trees still dot the landscape today. Just a few miles west of Seville, the 45-hectare site has never been developed and, thanks to its extensive flora and natural lagoon system with four lakes, is an ecological preserve for a plethora of nesting and migratory birds, insects, butterflies, reptiles, fish and amphibians.

The same fortunate happenstance that over the millennia preserved the site for nature also preserved 19 amphorae of coins. The crew was working on a canal project as part of a regeneration plan to restore the lagoons, sustain the olive trees and eventually build a bird observatory, work which has now been suspended as a consequence of the momentous find. An emergency excavation will take place before work resumes.

Drain digger finds Denmark’s largest Neolithic flint axe

April 29th, 2016

Tage Pinnerup was digging a new drain on his old friend Henrik Hansen’s property near the village of Kobberup on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula when he saw something sticking up out of the ground. It was a long, smooth almost rectangular piece of flint 50.5 centimeters (20 inches) long. Pinnerup had found a prehistoric axe before, so he recognized it as such, but because of how exceptionally large and finely worked it was, he figured it had to date to the Iron Age. A few days later he and Henrik Hansen found another one, this one 35 centimeters (14 inches) long.

They alerted the authorities to a potential treasure find, and Viborg Museum experts determined that they were not Iron Age, but rather Neolithic flint axes dating to 3800-3500 B.C. Back then the find site was a marshy area next to Tastum Lake, long since drained and converted into arable land. Because they were found in a bog, are a matched pair and so carefully worked, the axes weren’t likely to have been misplaced. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately deposited in the bog as ritual offerings. The 50.5 cm axe is the largest Neolithic flint axe ever discovered in Denmark.

“It’s fascinating that they could master the flint and produce such a perfect axe,” said Mikkel Kieldsen, an archaeologist and curator at Viborg Museum. “A lot of effort has been put into the axes, so the sacrifice must have really meant something.”

Flint is a challenging material to work. Like glass, it breaks easily and requires very careful handling. Judging from modern experiments replicating prehistoric flint tools, Kieldsen estimates it would have taken the craftsmen who produced these axes hundreds of hours to achieve so polished a result. Compare the slender length and cricket bat-like smoothness to this axe from around the same time as the Tastum axes, or these, which are about a thousand years younger and bear the characteristic divots and sheers of knapped flint.

That long, slender polish suggests these were not practical tools. The flint axe was an essential tool to Neolithic farmers who used it to clear wooded land for agriculture. It had to be sturdy, thick through the middle and razor sharp at the end to do the job properly. A narrow, long, thin axe would likely crack at the first blow. It’s connection to the still-new trend of agriculture made the axe a powerful cultural symbol and well as a highly prized piece of property, which is why they have been found in the passage graves and dolmens which were built in grand style at the same time the Tastum axes were made.

Archaeologists excavated the site further to see if their were any other artifacts to be found and came up empty. The axes are treasure trove and will be sent to the National Museum of Denmark for assessment next month. Before that happens, they will be on display at the Viborg Museum for the next three weeks.

Ancient skeleton mosaic found in Turkey

April 28th, 2016

Turkish archaeologists have discovered an ancient mosaic in the remains of a house from the 3rd century that features a skeleton enjoying a large loaf of bread and pitcher of wine. It was found in 2012 in Turkey’s southernmost state, Hatay Province, in the provincial capital of Antakya, (Antioch in antiquity) during construction of a cable car system.

It is believed to have been the emblema, the elaborate centerpiece of a mosaic floor, in the triclinium (dining room) of an elegant villa. There are three scenes inside a rectangle with a woven guilloche border. On one end is missing a large section but the head and arms of a servant carrying a flame are visible. This represents the heating of the bath. The middle scene is almost intact and depicts two men moving towards a sundial on a column. The leader is a young man who was of some rank in the household, the son of the owner, perhaps, while the his manservant or butler follows. The sundial is set to between 9:00 and 10:00 PM and the text refers to him being late for dinner. The last panel has the recumbent skeleton, holding a drinking cup in one hand, his other arm thrown casually over his head, two loaves of bread and a wine amphora by his side. The motto “Be cheerful and live your life” is written on both sides of his head.

(Writer İlber Ortaylı disputes the eat, drink and be merry interpretation. He reads it as “You get the pleasure of the food you eat hastily with death” and thinks the structure was not a private home of a wealthy person, but a sort of soup kitchen trying to hustle people out the door as quickly as possible.)

There’s some confusion over the date of the mosaic. The first article about the find that I read said it was from the 3rd century, which means A.D., but later stories by the same press outlet date it to the 3rd century B.C. That in turn has been picked up by the international press. Greek was spoken and written by the elites in both periods, so the words are of no particular help.

This one says “Hatay is known for its Roman-era mosaics dating back to the second and third centuries BCE,” but those are not Roman dates. Antioch was founded by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator in 300 B.C. and was ruled by Seleucid monarchs until 64 B.C. when it was absorbed into the Roman Syrian province as a free city.

It doesn’t seem likely to me that this mosaic was created in the early years of the Seleucid monarchy. I think this is a Roman-era mosaic, because of its glass tesserae, the theme, look and quality of the piece. Indeed, Demet Kara, the Hatay Archaeology Museum archaeologist who provides the date in all the articles, compares the Antioch mosaic to other skeleton mosaics in Italy and those are unquestionably Roman.

While the theme of a skeleton or skull representing the inevitability of death was Hellenistic, the Romans developed it further in their art. They were fond of a skeleton partying with them in the dining room. There are several extant drinking, eating and reclining mosaics from the 1st century found at Pompeii and in Rome. The glorious Boscoreale treasure, a silver dining set buried before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., has two silver cups embossed with the skeletons of philosophers and engraved with Epicurean sayings like “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.” The cups, like the skeleton mosaics, were meant to remind diners of the fleeting nature of life and the importance of enjoying the moment, a relevant message for a room dedicated to the gustatory pleasures.

A large number of mosaics of exceptional quality have been found in Antakya because Antioch was an important city for centuries. In the Early Roman period, it was the third largest city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. The homes of wealthy and influential people were decorated at great expense with the best floor art money could buy. Antioch had its own mosaic schools and workshops that were internationally renown. Roman Antioch was replete with top notch mosaics.

Hatay’s mayor, Lütfi Savaş, has visions of tourism plums dancing in his head. Just this February he helped launch the Mosaic Road Project to promote four cities in the province that are rich in Greek and Roman-era mosaics — Hatay, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Şanlıurfa — as desirable tourist destinations. The plan is to build an archaeological park in Hatay, scheduled for completion in 2017, and to house the mosaics in a dedicated museum. Ortaylı thinks the skeleton mosaic should remain in situ and a new museum built on the site similar to Israel’s plan for the Lod mosaic.

More about WWI graffiti in Naours caves

April 27th, 2016

In July of 2014, archaeologists investigating the man-made caves tunneled into the limestone plateau under Naours, in Picardy, northern France, discovered thousands of graffiti left by soldiers during World War I. The original brief of the exploration was to date the caves more accurately and identify the periods they were in use. Those questions were answered. The epicenter of the network was Roman quarries with tunnels dug starting in the 10th century radiating out from it. Over time, the network of caves covered more than 2,000 meters (1.24 miles), large enough to shelter people and livestock during times of strife, most notably the 16th century Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century. Local families claimed chambers as their own, engraving their names on the walls.

The entrance to the tunnels was blocked by a cave-in in the early 19th century and the underground city was largely forgotten until December 15th, 1887, when Abbot Ernest Danicourt rediscovered it. He spent years clearing the tunnels to make them accessible and created displays of artifacts he had found there to attract tourism to the area. Abbot Danicourt’s efforts were not vain, and by the early 20th century, the Naours Caves were an internationally known tourist attraction.

When they were reopened in the 1930s, guides claimed the caves had been used by Allied forces in World War I as a military hospital. That story was apocryphal. Other tunnel networks in the region were used as hospitals and living quarters for the troops, but not Naours. And yet, World War I troops certainly left their marks on the walls and then some. The discovery was so momentous that Gilles Prilaux, an archaeologist with the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), shifted the focus of his investigations away from the more remote past of the caves to the Great War graffiti.

Two years later, we now know the final tally: there are more than 2,800 individual soldiers’ names. Most of them are accompanied by the person’s nationality and military unit and the date. The troops came from France, Britain, America, Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia. About half of the names belong to Australian soldiers. They were written on the wall with lead pencils which has stood the test of time; most of the graffiti are as dark and legible as they day they were made.

Students from the local college led by an INRAP archaeologists have worked assiduously to document the graffiti and find out all they can about the men who left their names on the wall. They were able to compile biographies of dozens of the soldiers, several of them very well known.

One of the men identified proved to be a rich source of information. “A. Allsop” wrote the date, January 2nd, 1917, and his hometown of Mosman, a Sydney suburb, on one of the most crowded walls. He was William Joseph Allan Allsop, an Australian clerk who kept detailed diaries of his daily life during World War I. Allsop’s diaries are now in the State Library of New South Wales and have been digitized. When the team looked up the diary entry for January 2nd, they found this:

In the afternoon a party of 10 of us went for a trip to the famous caves near Naours where the refugees used to hide in time of invasion. These caves contain about 300 rooms – one cave being ½ mile long. A whole division of troops with horses, artillery and all transport could be put into these caves. The names of John Norton & Eva Pannett are to be seen autographed on the stone erected just inside the entrance.

While we tend to think of World War I soldiers as constantly mired in waterlogged trenches or active slaughter, according to Prilaux in fact most soldiers spent about 20% of their time on the front lines. The other 80% was spent training, getting some R&R or enjoying the local attractions/distractions. A trip to the caves of Naours like the one Allan Allsop and nine of his comrades took the day after New Year’s would have been encouraged by the military command to keep troops’ minds off the war.

The day before Allsop and his pals visited the caves, Lieutenant Leslie Russel Blake left his name, unit and the date on the wall. Blake had made a name for himself as a cartographer, geologist and Antarctic explorer in the years before the war. He mapped Macquarie Island from 1911 to 1913 as part of Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to map a large unexplored section of the Antarctic coastline. Blake enlisted in 1915, was quickly promoted and arrived on the Western Front in March of 1916 as a second lieutenant. He was awarded the Military Cross for using his mapping skills under heavy fire to survey the Allied front line during the Battle of the Somme. His accuracy and bravery saved many lives.

He almost made it out of the war alive, but on October 2nd, 1918, Blake was hit by a shell in Hargicourt. The blow took his left leg and killed his horse out from under him. He was treated at a field hospital, his leg amputated above the knee, but it could not save his life. The shell had fractured his skull and peppered his face and body with grievous wounds. He died on October 3rd at 6:10 AM and was buried in the New British Cemetery at Tincourt.

The stories behind the graffiti discovered by the students will be shared with their counterparts at an Australian college in the hopes that descendants and relatives of the men who took a break from mud, blood and horror to visit the caves of Naours might be located.

Viking longship sets sail for North America

April 26th, 2016

The Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair, named after the first King of Norway), an ocean-worthy Viking longship, set sail early this morning from Norway on a daring voyage that will retrace the steps of great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson, the first European to cross the Atlantic and set foot on the American continent.

Sponsored by Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase, construction on the vessel began in 2010 in Haugesund, Norway. It isn’t an exact replica of an extant Viking ship. While replicas of excavated ships have been made, they don’t work very well on the ocean because the originals were burial ships. They could be rowed, but they weren’t meant for the ocean voyages that took the Vikings across half the world. So instead of relying exclusively on archaeological remains, the builders of the Draken Harald Hårfagre combined traditional Norwegian boatbuilding knowledge, a living craft with deep roots going back to the Viking era, with archaeology — the 9th century Gokstad ship was one particular inspiration — and descriptions in the Norse sagas. It is an open clinker-built ship with an oak hull, Douglas fir mast, hemp rigging and a silk sail. At 115 feet long, 27 feet wide with 50 oars and a 3,200-square-foot sail, the Draken Harald Hårfagre is largest Viking ship built in modern times.

The aim from the beginning has been to create an operating Viking ship. That means roughing it in a serious way. There’s no under deck where the crew can rest and take shelter from the elements, just a large tent where 16 people at a time sleep in four hours shifts. The only space underneath the deck is a shallow space just large enough to carry ballast and food. The food is cooked is an open air kitchen on the deck, the ancestor of the galley discovered on the 15th century Dutch cog that was raised earlier this year.

The ship was completed in 2012. The first sea trials were held in the fjords of Norway and after some adjustments were made, it set sail on its maiden overseas voyage in July of 2014 to Wallasey, in Merseyside, northwest England, which has a strong Viking history. The mast broke and the crew had to replace it in Wallasey, but they made it work. After three weeks of repairs, the ship sailed back to Norway via the Isle of Man, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland without a hitch.

All of this was essential practice for the big show: the transatlantic voyage to North America. On April 23rd, the epic voyage was inaugurated with a Dragon’s Head Ceremony in which the dragon head so associated with Viking ships was mounted for the first time.

The dragon’s head is traditionally not mounted until departure for longer journeys and its purpose is to protect the ship and the crew from sea monsters, bad weather, evil creatures and unforeseen raids. The ships mythological head is uncovered in the ceremony, and the great adventure of sailing the historical route from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the USA will be wished fair winds and following seas.

The ceremony was streamed live on YouTube to the delight of history nerds everywhere.

The America Expedition is mind-bogglingly ambitious. Captain Björn Ahlander and a crew of 32 damn hardy men and women selected from 4,000 applicants have embarked on a voyage of 6,000 miles that will taken them to Iceland, Greenland, through the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, then to Quebec City, Toronto and into the US via the Great Lakes. The first US port of call will be Fairport, Ohio, and then on to Tall Ship festivals in Bay City, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. Then it will head back east again through the Great Lakes, the canals of New York State to the Hudson River. Yes, a Viking longship will be going through canal locks. The sail is coming down for that part, obviously. After a stop in New York City in September, the Draken Harald Hårfagre will winter at the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

You can follow the voyage in real time on the expedition’s website and get updates from its Facebook page. If you’re interested in the construction and operation of the ship, check out its fascinating YouTube channel.

Sicily goes to London

April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

Amulet invoking elves and the Trinity found in Denmark

April 24th, 2016

An archaeological excavation in advance of drainage work in Svendborg, a city on the island of Funen in southeastern Denmark, unearthed a medieval amulet invoking both elves and the Triune God of Christianity. It didn’t look like much at first, a small square piece of metal just two centimeters (.8 inches) long and wide, but that’s because it was folded down the short side five times. Once unfolded, it was 13 centimeters (just over five inches) long.

It was discovered on the Møllergade, one of two main roads encircling Svendborg’s old town. Previous excavations of the Møllergade have unearthed layers going back as far as 1150, but the amulet likely dates to the mid-13th century when the road was expanded northward as the city grew. While amulets of this kind have been found elsewhere in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, this is the first one found in Svendborg.

Metallurgic analysis found that the amulet had a high silver content. The piece of metal was painstakingly unfolded, without damaging the surface, and National Museum of Denmark curator Lisbeth Imer, an expert in inscriptions, examined the interior surface of the amulet under a microscope. She found five lines written in lower case Latin characters by someone with a sure hand and an eye for minute detail. The letters are between two and four millimeters high and are interspersed with crosses for added amulet value.

The translated inscription reads:

I charge you Gordan, Gordin and Ingordan, elf men and elf wives and all demons by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and by all of God’s saints, that you do not harm God’s handmaiden Margareta either the eyes or limbs. Amen. You are great in eternity, Lord.

Gordan, Gordin and Ingordan feature on many wood and metal amulets found in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their significance has long been debated by historians, but several medieval manuscripts refer to them as folkloric figures. The Codex Upsaliensis, written in the first quarter of the 14th century, includes the phrase “I invoke you, elves, Gordin and Ingordin.” Carmina Burana, the manuscript of 254 poems and songs of traditional itinerant performers written in 1230, 24 of which would famously be put to music by Carl Orff in 1936, has a song in which Gordan, Ingordin and Ingordan appear as the villains. It’s the 54th piece, known as CB54, and it reads like a warding spell. I’m posting the whole thing because, simply stated, it’s awesome.

Every kind of demon being –
Come hobbling, come squabbling,
Sightless or unseeing —
Mark well my words, my invocation,
My command, my incantation.

Creatures of all phantom company
Who populate the principality
Of that vile dragon creeping
With venom seeping –
Whose high and mighty fundament
Sweeps full one third the stars’ extent –
Gordan, Ingordin and Ingordan:
By the Seal of Solomon,
Magi the Pharaohs call upon,
I now exorcise you
And substantialize you:
By sages three: Caspar,
Melchior and Balthazar:
By David’s playing
For the allaying
Of Saul’s dismaying
And your gainsaying.

I adjure you
And conjure you
By the mandate of the Lord:
Be unkind not,
Hurt mankind not,
Manifest misericord:
Show but once your faces
And retract your traces
With forsaken races
To hell’s hiding places.

I adjure
I conjure
By that awesome
By that fearsome
That gruesome Judgement Day,
When unending punishment
And horror and dismay
And unbounded banishment
Shall drive demonkind
Into damnation
But shrive humankind
Unto salvation.

By that same unnamed, unsaid,
That unutterably dread
Tetragrammaton of God:
Fall to fear and trembling
As to disassembling
I now exorcise
Spectres: demons: ghosts: hobgoblins:
Satyrs: sirens: hamadryads
Nightmares: incubi and
Shades of the departed –
Flee to ruination,
Chaos and damnation,
Lest your foul conflation
Rend Christ’s congregation.

From all our enemies, good Lord, deliver us.

It’s a great example of how Christianity interpreted traditional folk beliefs and ancient religions as a direct threat to the souls and unity of its believers. I imagine Archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento spoke an incantation like this when he cast out the two demons/previous deities from the temple before he converted it into a church, only that was in the late 6th, early 7th century when the corpse of Greco-Roman polytheism was still fresh. Denmark only converted to Christianity in the 10th century, however, so while satyrs, sirens and hamadryads may have been thin on the ground so far up north, elves and trolls were very much in the picture when this song was sung and written down.

Amulets provide fascinating glimpses into the long transition. The practice of invoking elves, demons and other assorted types from folklore like giants and trolls dates back to the Iron Age and is consistent even as the dominant religions change. In runic amulets from the Viking era, these creatures appeared next to the gods Thor and Odin. The wearer asked the gods for protection from disease or misfortune as incarnated by the characters from folklore. Once Christianity was established, the old gods were replaced with the new one and His scriptural support staff, but the structure of the invocation remained the same: a prayer asking a deity to prevent evil from befalling a person by calling out the scoundrel types who would do them harm. If said evil has a name, it can be contained and dispelled. Exorcising by substantializing, as CB54 puts it.

Svendborg was growing rapidly in the 13th century, and large-scale Christian structures were constructed in the burgeoning market town. The Church of Our Lady was built then, as was the Franciscan monastery. The Church of St. Nicholas, originally built of stone in the mid-12th century, was expanded and reconstructed in brick in the 1200s. Institutional growth can’t necessarily speak to the experience of the individual, however. The amulet bridges that gap.

The Svendborg amulet gives a rare insight into how ordinary citizens used Christianity in their daily lives. Long has it been known that the clergy forces were strong in contemporary Svendborg, and now there is also evidence that the faith among ordinary people was strong, says [Svendborg Museum archaeologist] Allan Dørup Knudsen:

“Our knowledge of the townspeople and their daily life in the Middle Ages is unfortunately very limited, but through this amulet we get very close to Margareta and can feel her suffering and prayers for a good and disease free life.”

The amulet has also conferred on Margareta a very cool kind of immortality: she is now the oldest known female resident of Svendborg.

4,500-year-old burial found in Peru fishing town

April 23rd, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,500-year-old burial at the archaeological site of Aspero, an ancient preceramic fishing town in northern Peru. Analysis of the bones revealed that the deceased was a woman about 40 to 50 years of age at the time of death. The burial was found in the Huaca of the Idols, one of two monumental platform mounds (earthwork terraced pyramids shored up with quarried stone walls and river rock fill which ranged in size from modest to huge) in the town. Her crouched body was wrapped in three layers, the inner two of cotton, the outer of reeds which was fastened closed with rope. Buried with her was a pottery vessel containing the remains of vegetables and seeds, a bead necklace, a Spondylus pendant and four tupus, bone brooches carved in the shapes of birds and monkeys.

The wrapping of the body, the location of the burial and grave goods indicate the woman was a high rank personage of the Caral civilization, the oldest civilization in the Americas which dominated a network of settlements in the coastal area of north-central Peru from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. First explored in 1905, Aspero was one of the first Caral sites identified by archaeologists before it was recognized as a civilization. Thorough, extensive archaeological documentation of the sites only began in the 1990s under the leadership of Dr. Ruth Shady (no relation to Slim) who named the civilization after the inland town of Caral which is believed to have been the biggest city and the oldest urban center in the Americas.

Dr. Shady and her team discovered the remains of the woman in Aspero. The combination of coastal and inland animals represented in the tupus is evidence of the close economic and cultural connection between the fishing-rich sites along the coast and the agricultural interior. Other than edible plants, the inland Caral towns appear to have focused on growing cotton which the coastal sites needed for their fishing nets. There’s also some evidence of maize being grown as a grain staple, but it seems fish was the primary source of food for coastal and interior towns.

With the archaeological study of these sites still being in its adolescence if not infancy, the discovery of the burial of a high status woman will provide new insight into Caral society.

Shady noted the importance of this discovery to further understand the dynamics of the oldest social organization in the Americas. [...]

“This find shows evidence of gender equality, that is, both women and men were able to play leading roles and attain high social status more than 1,000 years ago,” Shady underlined.

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