An international team of researchers has discovered an intact shipwreck from the late 15th, early 16th century in the Baltic Sea. Nursed in the cold bosom of the Baltic, the ship is in exceptional condition and has a solid claim to being the best preserved Early Modern Period shipwreck to be discovered in our times.
The shipwreck was first spotted as a blip on a side-scan sonar in 2009 during a survey the Swedish Maritime Administration. The anomaly on the seafloor was noted as a likely shipwreck which is not surprising as the cold Baltic is full of them; it wasn’t pursued further at the time. Earlier this year that blip took more concrete form when a robotic camera dispatched by commercial seabed surveying firm MMT to investigate a potential undersea route for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline captured video of a wooden ship.
In March, MMT experts, post-graduate students and maritime archaeologists from the University of Southampton, from the Maritime Archaeology Research Institute of Södertörn University, and students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm working on Artificial Intelligence applications to improving robotics functions in dark, cold underwater conditions came together to explore the shipwreck. Using the state-of-the-art ROV Surveyor Interceptor, the team illuminated the wreck and took thousands of high-resolution photographs. Those were then stitched together with photogrammetric technology to create an extremely accurate, detailed composite of the ship from every possible angle.
From their examination of the wreck, archaeologists believe it dates to the Renaissance, making it earlier than the Henry VIII’s ill-fated flagship the Mary Rose (1545) or the Swedish warship Mars (1564). Even in the cold, woodworm-less waters of the Baltic, a ship of this age is an extremely rare discovery. The later ships were larger, stronger and there were a lot more of them getting into trouble during the Northern Seven Year’s Wars (1563-1570). It has the great archaeological advantage of not having blown up like the Mars did, or having been severely damaged in any other way.
Her hull structure is preserved from the keel to the top deck with all of her masts and some elements of the standing rigging still in place, including the bowsprit and a rudimentary decorated transom stern and other elements of the ship rarely ever seen such as the wooden capstan in place and bilge pump. Still on the main deck, an incredible and rare find, the ship’s tender boat, used to ferry crew to and from the ship and leaning against the main mast. A testament of the tension on human relationships of the time are the swivel guns, which are still in place on the gun deck.
The design of the ship is very similar to depictions of the Danish warship Gribshunden which went down off the coast of Ronneby, Sweden, in 1495. It burned down, however, so there are very scant extant remains. The name of the newly-discovered ship has not been found yet. The team has dubbed it Okänt Skepp, meaning “unknown ship.”
The team plans to return to the shit to explore it further and retrieve one of the wooden planks for dating. Dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) can date wood with extraordinary precision, so if all goes well, a single timber could tell us the date of the wood within a year of its tree having been felled. That would
Here is footage of the shipwreck being scanned by the ROV, followed by a 360 video of the photogrammetry model. In conclusion, this ship is awesome.
Intact Renaissance Shipwreck in the Baltic - YouTube
A monumental oil on canvas painting in dire need of conservation will get the help it needs thanks to a $176,800 grant from the Getty Foundation. Emperor Justinian, made in 1886 by Orientalist French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and now in the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, will be restored as part of the Getty’s Conserving Canvas initiative, which provides funds and expertise in the latest conservation methods that will be taught to the trainees in the program.
For centuries, it was common practice to protect canvas paintings by backing or lining them with another canvas to create a moisture barrier and provide greater structural integrity, but a shift toward minimal intervention has produced a knowledge gap among today’s museum conservators in how to treat lined paintings.
Conserving Canvas aims to ensure that conservators remain fully prepared to care for these important works of art through a combination of training activities and information dissemination. […]
The John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory at The Ringling will partner with Artcare Conservation to carry out the conservation treatment of “Emperor Justinian” in its Miami studio. International collaboration involves four postgraduate mid-career painting conservators from the United States, Canada and Colombia who have been invited to participate as trainees in various stages of the structural treatment. Two junior painting conservators at The Ringling will also take part as trainees.
Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was a Parisian painter who, influenced by a voyage to Spain and Morocco in 1872, became enamored with Orientalist style and subjects. He was known for large-scale pieces, murals in particular after 1880, and Emperor Justinian is one of his larger works at 13.3 x 22 feet. You can see the influence of Moroccan design in the tile and fabrics. The rich golds and red, characteristic elements of his palette, still manage to shine even after years of neglect and damage.
The work has only been owned by two people. Dry goods magnate and avid art collector Godfrey Mannheimer bought it from the artist in 1887. He donated it the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1890 and for a time at the turn of the century is was prominently displayed there, but in 1928 the museum returned it to the donor’s family, namely Mamie Manheimer (Godfrey’s daughter) and her husband Dr. Leonard Dessar. John Ringling bought the monumental canvas from them in 1928.
Son a German immigrant harness maker, John Ringling was born in Iowa to a large family of modest means in 1866. He was 18 when he teamed up with four of his brothers and an established showman to form The Yankee Robinson and Ringling Bros. Double Show. Less than five years later in 1888, the Ringling Brothers had their own show. They were innovators — the circus first to travel the country by train — and when they bought Barnum & Bailey in 1907, they became the biggest show in the country.
In 1905, John married Mable Burton. His investments in railroad, oil, real estate (at one point he owned 25% of the Sarasota area) and entertainment made him very wealthy, and he and Mable spent lavishly on travel, art and property. John and Mable built a splendid collection, acquiring top quality art works, furnishings and decorative objects on every trip to Europe. They filled Ca’ d’Zan, the sumptuous Venetian Gothic style palace they had built in Sarasota in 1926, with their acquisitions, and the massive 36,000-square-foot mansion gave their collection plenty of room to grow in its 56 rooms.
Mable died in June of 1929 aged just 54 from diabetes and complications from Addison’s disease. John was devastated by the loss of his beloved wife, and his misfortunes would spill over into his finances later that year. The Wall Street Crash hit his investments very hard. Still, he set in motion the vision he and Mable had always had to use their collection as the core of an art museum “to promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.” In October of 1931, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened its doors.
John died in 1936. In his will he bequeathed his entire estate, museum and collection included, to the people of Florida. The state didn’t take on the job of administering the museum with enthusiasm in the first decade. It was only open off-and-on and not maintained properly. In 1946, the first Arthur “Chick” Austin, Jr., an expert in Baroque art, was hired as its first director. From then on, the Ringling Museum of Art developed into one of country’s finest.
In 1980 it was declared the official State Art Museum of Florida. Twenty years later, the State gave Florida State University governance of the museum. Today the museum complex (which includes the Circus Museum, the Historic Asolo Theater, the Ringling Art Library and the John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory), is one of the largest university art complexes in the country.
Emperor Justinian has spent most of its decades in lovely Sarasota rolled up in storage. The paint has flaked very badly and there are a number of holes in the canvas. The flaking on the left side of the work is so severe, protective facings have been applied to the surface to keep any more paint from falling off. The conservation team will first stabilize the paint and reduce the significant distortion in the canvas. Discolored varnish will be removed and areas of paint loss will be judicious filled in. New lining fabric will be affixed to the back of the original canvas to give it structural support.
When conservation is completed, the painting will be given pride of place in one of The Ringling’s largest galleries. I’m eager to see how they frame it. I love a huge frame and a piece that size can take a lot frame.
(Sorry about that shamelessly not-quite-alliterative tile. It was so close, though.)
The excavation of the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs from Trajan’s Forum to Nerva’s Forum in the heart of Imperial Rome, has turned up a large white marble torso. It is almost five feet high, even missing its head and lower body, and depicts a male figure wearing a draped garment. Unlike the marble head that was unearthed on the same dig at the end of May, this piece was not recycled into a medieval wall, nor are the two statue parts related to each other in any way.
This one was found among rubble in an area that had been abandoned after a collapse during a period of demolitions that took place in the area in the 9th century. Previous excavations in 1998 and 2000 Archaeologists believe that the torso is from one of 60-70 statues of Dacian warriors that decorated Trajan’s Forum when it was built in the early 2nd century A.D.
Trajan’s Forum was the last, largest and most grandiose of the five imperial forums (Caesar 46 B.C., Augustus 2 B.C., of the Peace 75 A.D., Nerva (97 A.D.). There’s evidence that the plan for the new forum was actually conceived in the last years of the reign of Domitian (r. 81-97 A.D.), but if so, he only made a start at the job. The slopes of the Quirinal Hill had to be leveled to carve out the 4.2 hectares of space the Forum of Trajan would occupy. Its primary practical function was likely the administration of justice whose complexity had far outgrown its earlier spaces in the Caesar’s and Augustus’ fora. It was also a glorious reflection of Trajan’s victories against the Dacians (101-102 A.D., 105-106 A.D.). Trajan’s booty from the defeat of the Dacians funded the construction of the forum. It was completed in 112 A.D.
In the location where the Forum of Augustus and the Forum of Trajan was a courtyard with a columned portico on three sides richly decorated with colored marbles (the columns were veined green marble, the pavement slabs alternating green and pinkish-red). Above the columns was an architrave decorated with a bas relief of griffons and topped with gilded bronze inscription celebrating the construction of the forum by Trajan with the proceeds of the Dacian wars. The statues of the Dacian warriors adorned this portico.
The existence of a grand space connecting the old forum of Augustus with the shiny new forum Trajan built was only discovered during excavations in 1998-2000. Those excavations also unearthed pieces of statues very similar to the recently-unearthed one. They are now on display in the Market of Trajan – Museum of the Imperial Forums. The latest find will be conserved and studied and then will join its compatriots on display in the museum.
In tangentially related news, for the first time since I can remember, the forums are now open to visitors. Instead of having to stand at modern street level looking down over balconies, you can now go down the ever-gated stairs and walk four of the five Imperial Forums, plus the Republican-era Roman Forum. The new Forum Pass allows visitors to walk a three-mile route over footbridges. The single ticket costs 16 euros, purchased online or at the ticket office at the base of Trajan’s Column. From there you walk through Trajan’s Forum and then, through a series of medieval cellars that are all that remain of the buildings in the Alessandrino neighborhood that was destroyed in the 1930s of the Via dei Fori Imperiali above, you cross the street to the Forum of Caesar. From Caesar’s Forum you walk to the Forum of Nerva, then to the Curia and into the Roman Forum and the Palatine.
It’s an awesome walk, and for the longest time people weren’t allowed down to the ground levels of any of the fora. The loophole I found last year was a nighttime sounds and lights shows walking the same route. It was really fantastic, but it was, well, nighttime, so you’re experiencing less the pure archaeological site than the rare views of silhouetted ruins against the night sky and projected images that convey how the buildings looked in their heyday.
The Charles Dickens Museum has acquired a long-lost miniature of the author as a young man 175 years after it was last seen in public. The museum launched an appeal last November to raise £180,000 to secure the portrait for its collection at 48 Doughty Street, the historic home in which Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
The miniature first re-emerged in 2017 part of a box of assorted odds-and-ends including an old recorder, a brass dish and a metal lobster that was being sold at auction in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The buyer bought the box for £27. The portrait was covered in yellow mold that obscured its details, but after some Googling its new owner thought it might be a depiction of Dickens. In 2018, the buyer sent the portrait to the Philip Mould & Co Gallery in London where it was conserved and studied. Free of its bilious crust, the portrait was identified as the portrait whose whereabouts have been unknown for more than 170 years.
It was painted in late 1843 by Margaret Gillies, one of the foremost miniaturists of her time and a particular favorite among literary luminaries. Dickens sat for it six times during the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol. He was 31 years old. Gillies exhibited it at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1844, and that year a black-and-white print of it was used as the frontispiece of A New Spirit of the Age, a collection of essays about great Victorian writers, Dickens first among them.
That poor quality rendition of the portrait would become the sole extant version. Gillies wrote in 1886 that she had “lost sight of the portrait itself” and nobody else knew where it was either. Philip Mould’s researchers think it made its way to South Africa in the 1860s with one of the sons of George Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes. Gillies’ daughter was married to another of Lewes’ sons and the families were close.
It will go on display starting October 24th and is expected to be a regular feature of the museum’s holiday celebrations. The watercolor is fragile so it won’t be on display all the time to ensure the long-term preservation of its paint.
In a new addition to the annals of random people finding ancient artifacts, a sea kayaker has discovered pieces of Roman glass, pottery and tile off the coast of Ramsgate, Kent. The kayaker was in shallow water at low tide and with the clear day, he was able to just reach in and pick up the objects including a beautiful cobalt blue glass vase that looks like it could have been made yesterday, large pieces of high-end Samian ware pottery and a roof tile with a human fingerprint smudged on the surface.
Mark Dunkley, a marine listing adviser with Historic England, said it was the sort of find which just did not happen in the UK. “It is the rarity of the material and the quality of the material that is really significant. In my experience this stuff just does not exist in an underwater context anywhere around Britain. It is a really significant find.”
The style of the artifacts dates them to the end of the first or beginning of the second century, a period when this area had two important Roman forts guarding the Wantsum Channel, a strait used by the Romans as a major trade route linking the English Channel and the Thames estuary.
While it’s possible these objects could have washed to shore from an ancient shipwreck, it’s just as possible that they were discarded or buried along the shoreline but what was dry land then has now eroded into the coastline. Archaeologists from Historic England planned to explore the find site on Wednesday but the tides made it impossible. The revised plan is to investigate the location in August when the tides are more quiescent.
Precious artifacts and bones dating to the Bronze Age have been discovered in the Baradla dripstone cave in northeast Hungary. A team of archaeologists from Eötvös Loránd University has been excavating the cave for four years. Lajos Sándor, a metal detector hobbyist working with the team, was scanning part of the excavation path, an area he’d scanned many times before, when he unexpectedly got a strong signal from behind the rocks. The archaeologists excavated the spot with their special wooden tools and unearthed bronze artifacts, ceramics, human and animal bones from two periods: the Bükk culture from ca. 5000 B.C., and the Bronze Age Kyjatice culture from ca. 1200 B.C.
The Bükk culture artifacts are pottery fragments with ornate geometric decorations. They abstract patterns and yellow, red, white and black paint distinguish them from the kind of ceramics made by more local peoples. The Bükk were great travelers who came to the northeastern hills from the Hungarian Great Plains, bringing their crafts and well-developed agricultural knowledge.
From the latter period is a distinctive grouping is of 59 decorated bronze pieces, most of the disc-shaped, some sparrow-tail shaped. They were found in a hollow near an underground stream covered with a stack of rocks. The way they were piled suggests they may have been mounted on a garment that was folded up and covered with the rock stack. If it existed, the garment has rotted to nothingness over the millennia; not even small traces of it were found.
The animal bones were found heaped up in piles indicating ritual feasting and/or sacrifices took place in the Baradla cave. The human remains are thought to date to the Neolithic era.
These all point to the Baradla cave having been a sacred place thousands of years ago. [Lead archaeologist Dr. Gábor] Szabó said:
“These days, the cave walls are covered in black soot, but back then they were glowing white, it had to be a beautiful space. Even today, smelling the air of the Baradla cave, you feel that it is a mystical place. It is an astounding interior.”
Szabó thinks that similarly to Stonehenge, the Baradla cave must have been an ancient holy place where communities arrived even from far-away lands to witness the rituals performed there.
“This place could have functioned as a destination for pilgrimages. Sacrifices were made, sacred places were established, there were initiation rituals – the quality ceramics, the piles of animal bones, remains of food materials serve as proof for that.”
The find is all the more remarkable because the cave has been picked over by looters since the 1700s and has been studied and excavated by researchers for 150 years. Today Hungary’s most famous stalactite cave, thousands of tourists tramp through it every day. The treasure was secured by the cave’s mineral output, covered by 8-12 inches of limestone, and by its conversion into a tourist site as the thick limestone was paved with a layer of concrete. The two combined to keep the treasure out of view of looters for centuries.
Animal and human bones will be subjected to isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating. The cave’s constant temperature of 53.6ºF is cool enough for good preservation of bone, so there’s a chance researchers might be able to extract viable DNA as well. The bronze and pottery artifacts will be taken to the Hungarian National Museum for conservation and eventual display.
This season’s archaeological excavation will continue through August and the team will return for the last dig next year. After that, the cave will be developed into a treatment center for people with respiratory conditions. It’s not clear to me how this asthma cave scheme will be pulled off, as the cool temperatures and 100% humidity make it unlivable for people today just as it was for people 7,000 years ago, but that’s the plan.
Archaeologists excavating Břeclav Castle in Moravia, Czech Republic, have discovered a section of timber and clay wall from the original castle built in the 11th century by Břetislav, Duke of Bohemia. Preliminary dating results have found the wall dates to 1041, a period when Břetislav expanded his territory with incursions into Moravia and built a network of defensive forts. Břeclav, located on the Thaya River a stone’s throw from the borders of modern-day Austria and Slovakia, was a strategically significant spot for a castle.
Archaeologist Miroslav Dejmal of the Archaia Brno organization, who is conducting the research emphasized the importance of the find, saying that walls dating back to the 11th century are extremely rare.
“What you see here are the remnants of a wall made of clay and wood. These are the foundations, because the upper part was obviously destroyed by a fire, as you can see from this soft charcoal.”
The original wall, which was hidden for centuries under a thick layer of clay, is estimated to have been around 8 metres high and parts of it are now being analysed. Preliminary results suggest that the wall is nearly a thousand years old and dates back to the first mention of the town in written records.
The town began as the castle. Duke Břetislav built the castle for defense of the border and as an administrative center for the region. In the 13th century the castle was acquired by Queen Constance of Hungary who added an imposing stone tower. During the Hussite Wars that followed the first Defenestration of Prague, the protestant Hussite forces were garrisoned in the castle from 1426 until the conclusion of hostilities in 1433. The market town of Břeclav, which had grown under the shadow of the castle, was destroyed during the wars of the 15th century. The townspeople fled to the castle for safety and lived to rebuild the town even closer to the castle that had saved them.
In the first half of the 16th century, Břeclav Castle was bought by the House of Žerotín. They rebuilt the castle in Renaissance style to function as a manor house but they had barely a century to enjoy it before it was confiscated by the crown after the Žerotíns were involved in an uprising. The next owner was the House of Liechtenstein who bought it in 1638. Between the wars with the Ottoman Empire and Thirty Years’ War, the Liechtensteins never really lived in the castle. Finally in the early 19th century they decided to put their own stamp on it and rebuilt the castle in the style of a romantic faux ruin.
The castle is now being rebuilt yet again. This new construction aims to return it to the Renaissance style of the Žerotín days. The discovery of the medieval wall won’t change the reconstruction plans, but it will delay them as authorities decide how best to preserve (and take advantage of) the find.
The spokesman for Břeclav City Hall, Jiří Holobrádek, says the find has generated great interest among the locals, but it is early days yet to say how and in what way the remnants of this medieval wall will be preserved.
“It is too soon to say how we will proceed. Much depends on the outcome of the expert analysis that has only just started and we will obviously heed the advice of historians and archaeologists. However, given the importance of the discovery, it would be good to find a way to present it to the public.”
It’s going to be a tricky thing. Removing it presents major preservation challenges as the wood once exposed begins to decay. Keep it in situ will require careful planning to prevent it from being damaged by construction right above it. The archaeological team is scanning the wall and will create a 3D model of it. That will help determine how best to proceed.
The Getty Villa in Malibu, built to house oil billionaire J. Paul Getty’s extensive collection of antiquities, is a replica of the Villa dei Papyri, a huge, ultra-luxurious home discovered in Herculaneum in the 18th century. The collection has only grown in size and quality since the Getty Villa was completed in 1974, and the museum has hosted a myriad world-class exhibitions of artifacts on loan from all over the world. Only an exhibition dedicated to the model for the Getty Villa was lacking, and there has never been an exhibition dedicated solely to the Villa dei Papyri exhibition anywhere.
It is more than appropriate, therefore, that the first one of its kind would debut at the Getty Villa. Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri runs through October 28th and features a breathtakingly beautiful assemblage of statuary in bronze and marble, frescoes, engravings and artifacts from the villa or associated with its study.
The Villa dei Papyri was discovered by well-diggers quite by accident in 1750. It was excavated by Karl Jakob Weber, a Swiss military engineer who was charged by Charles III of Naples with the first organized excavations of Pompeii and Stabiae as well as Herculaneum. In keeping with his education a an architect and engineer, Weber took a systematic approach to excavation, as opposed to previous diggers who were there to score treasure and gave not a single rat’s ass about the archaeological contexts in which the artifacts they plundered had been found. They used tunnels to break through walls and floors, cleaned out whatever they could and bored into the next space. Weber also had to use tunnels as the ancient city was buried under 100 feet of volcanic ash turned to solid rock and there was a modern city on top of it, but he was cautious and deliberate about it, following the architectural layout of the spaces to minimize damage and maximize understanding of the full scope of the massive villa.
He was also an excellent artist, as luck would have it, and Weber’s drawings of the finds were included in the multi-volume folio of illustrations, Le Antichità di Ercolano, which was a huge hit in mid-18th century Europe and directly influenced the revival of Greco-Roman motifs in the decorative arts.
Weber’s floor plan of the Villa dei Papyri, its accuracy confirmed by more recent excavations even as they expanded into previously undiscovered areas, published in Le Antichità was used by architectural firm Langdon and Wilson to create the Getty Villa in Malibu. The unknown details and additional spaces for the museum were based on fully excavated Roman structures from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.
“The Villa dei Papiri is one of the most luxurious private residences of the ancient classical world ever discovered and one which had an important role in the early history of archeology. Especially important are its unique collection of ancient bronze statuary and antiquity’s only surviving library of papyrus scrolls, which provide an unprecedented insight into the philosophical interests of its aristocratic Roman occupant – none other than the father-in-law of Julius Caesar,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Among the most impressive of these finds is a rare bronze sculpture of a drunken satyr, which, as part of a collaborative conservation project with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN), is undergoing analysis and conservation treatment in our conservation studios before going on display in the exhibition.”
Potts adds, “For several decades, we have worked closely with Italian colleagues and institutions in conserving, protecting, researching and celebrating Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage. We are delighted now to be collaborating with MANN, the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano (PA-Erco), and the Biblioteca Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele” di Napoli (BNN) in organizing this exhibition. We have had several successful collaborative conservation projects with MANN over the past few years including, most recently, their monumental funerary vessel (krater) from Altamura in 2018, and three of their splendid bronzes: the Ephebe (Youth) in 2009, the Apollo Saettante in 2011, and the over-life-size sculpture of Tiberius in 2013.”
This video provides a fascinating glimpse into the conservation of the Drunken Satyr. At the end you see a view of the underside which was torn apart by the volcanic impact. It’s amazing how well the bronze survived when you see how Vesuvius battered it.
A medieval fresco has been rediscovered behind a wall in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis in Rome. It is an excellent state of preservation, the colors of its original polychrome paint still vividly saturated. The fresco dates to the mid-12th century and depicts two holy figures believed to be Saint Alexis and Christ the Pilgrim in the top section and an angel in front of a be-columned structure on the bottom. It is three feet wide and 13 feet high. There may be more of it, possibly a section at large as the one visible now, hidden by the wall.
The fresco was found by art historian Claudia Viggiani who spent years hunting it down. Her quest began when she found a 1965 letter from an official of Rome’s public works to the Lazio monuments superintendency mentioning a fresco “in excellent condition” had been found during consolidation work on a bell tower. The letter did not note the name of the church. Viggiani doggedly pursued the case until she located the church on the Aventine and the fresco in the interspace behind a small door.
Restorer Susanna Sarmati has been working to stabilize the fresco since its discovery.
Dating back to the mid-12th century, the painting has a polychrome frame that restorer Sarmati said was of “exceptional sophistication” and that it is difficult to “find ones that are so complete”. She pointed at the original brushstrokes on the wall, which can still be distinguished. Though other medieval frescoes exist in Rome, “their state of conservation despite restoration, is mediocre. This one, however,” she said, “which was never touched is almost perfect.”
In the medieval church, the fresco was prominently located on the counter-facade. Its significance lived on even as the church was extensively rebuilt: it was walled in, but not destroyed or painted over. It’s likely that the part of the fresco with the saint’s face remained visible through a crack on the nave.
A researcher at the University of Basel has identified the oldest Christian document from Roman Egypt in the papyrus collection of the University of Basel. Accounts of Christian life from this early period are sparse and tend to lean towards extreme situations like ascetics renouncing the wiles of society or bursts of persecution. This letter paints a far more quotidian picture of a Christian family living in the small urbs along the Nile in the desert of central Egypt, and it turns out they lived a lot like their non-Christian neighbors did.
The papyrus P.Bas. 2.43 has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over 100 years. It is a letter from a man named Arrianus to his brother Paulus. The document stands out from the mass of preserved letters of Greco-Roman Egypt by its concluding greeting formula: After reporting on day-to-day family matters and asking for the best fish sauce as a souvenir, the letter writer uses the last line to express his wish that his brother will prosper “in the Lord.” The author uses the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase “I pray that you fare well ‘in the Lord’.”
“The use of this abbreviation – known as a nomen sacrum in this context – leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” says Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.” The name of the brother is also revealing, Huebner goes on to explain: “Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time and we may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD.”
Huebner has narrowed down the letter’s date to around 230 A.D., making it 40-50 years older than the previous earliest-known Christian letter, and traced its origin to Theadelphia in the Faiyum area of Egypt. It was part of the Heroninus archive, a collection of more than 1,000 papyri from the 3rd century pertaining to the administration of an agricultural estate in the area. The largest single papyrus archive from Roman times, it was split up and sold in the early 20th century and is now scattered through several institutions.
Here is the translation of the full letter:
“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus. I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.
[Since] Menibios was going to you, I thought it necessary to salute you as well as our lord father. Now, I remind you about the gymnasiarchy1, so that we are not troubled here. For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council. Find thus an opportunity that you buy the two [–] arouras2.
But send me the fish liver sauce3 too, whichever you think is good. Our lady mother is well and salutes you as well as your wives and sweetest children and our brothers and all our people. Salute our brothers [-]genes and Xydes. All our people salute you.
I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”
1 A gymnasiarch was the supervisor overseeing the gymnasium, a position of great significance particularly in the training of athletes for prestigious competitions, and developing into a wider role in municipal affairs of the metropolis of Roman Egypt. Prominent individuals vied to serve a term of one year or more during which they would have to give freely of their time and money. It was like the urban praetor role in Rome; the more sumptuous their contributions, the greater the title and the greater the honor. If a gymnasiarch died before the term was up, his son would take over and serve it out. A court case (its records survive in papyrus fragments) in 155-6 A.D. attests to the importance of the office, how it conferred life-long, inheritable status, and how people could buy their place in the gymnasiarch rota from the heirs of a deceased one.
That was in the halcyon days of the Antonine dynasty, however. Things took a sharp 180 come the economic and military doldrums of the late Severan emperors. At the beginning of the 3rd century, trade slowed and money was so tight even among the city’s elite that people qualified for the role started working assiduously to avoid it. When he couldn’t dodge the expensive bullet, the new gymnasiarch served only one year and the expenses were shared by other incumbents to the office.
Against that backdrop of economic uncertainty and looming Crisis of the Third Century, I’m wondering if Arrianus is tossing his brother a bit of a hot potato when he tells him that side of the family can’t deal with this gymnasiarchy situation at the mo. They seem to have been a locally notable family, incidentally, with two important offices (gymnasiarchy and city council) ongoing concurrently.
2 An aroura was a measure of arable land equal to a square of 100 Egyptian cubits.
3 I think this is the first time I’ve written about a letter in which somebody actually asks for garum to be sent! So many shipwrecks and residue-tested amphorae later, we get a glimpse of the demand behind the inexhaustible supply of brine-fermented mashed fish guts in the Roman world.
Huebner has published the letter in a monograph, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, now available for pre-order from Cambridge University Press.