A 3,000-year-old boundary stone from Babylonia was returned to Iraq in an official ceremony on Tuesday after seven years of investigation and legal wrangling. It’s not clear when the object was stolen — experts believe it was looted during the chaos of the Iraq War around 15 years ago. It surfaced in 2012 when the importer attempted to smuggle the piece into Britain with fake paperwork. The stone arrived at Heathrow airport in May 2012. The customs declaration claimed it was a carved stone made in Turkey worth $330. When a UK Border Force officer opened the box, he recognized the stone was no Turkish fake and that the claimed origin in the declaration had to be fraudulent.
Experts at the British Museum quickly identified it from the copious cuneiform inscriptions as a 12th century B.C. kudurru, a ceremonial boundary stone recording a land grant from the king. There are only 200 known surviving examples of kudurrus, and this one is a stand-out. It describes a gift of land from Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar I to one of his subjects in recognition of his distinguished service. The inscription indicates the stone came from Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city in what is now southern Iraq that was restored and expanded by Babylonian monarchs. Nippur suffered extensive looting in 2003 which is when experts believe the kudurru was stolen.
One side of the stone is covered in images depicting the gods Enlil and Marduk. The other side is inscribed with cuneiform text. In addition to recording the land grant, the text describes an enormously significant period of Babylonian history. It tells of how at the end of the preceding dynasty, Elamite forces had invaded the kingdom, looted the temples and carried away the statue of the god Marduk leaving Babylon bereft not just of the visual representation of the god, but of the protection of the god himself.
Enlil, father of the gods, created Nebuchadnezzar to avenge the outrage done to the Babylonians. The great king invaded Elam, defeated its army and reclaimed the statue of Marduk. He returned it to the temple and all was right with the world again.
“It is such an important moment in Babylonian history. Forever after the Babylonians told stories about this great, brave king who brought Marduk back, and in response they created the Babylonian epic of creation, which tells about how Marduk was appointed to defeat the forces of chaos and to put order into the universe. So, every spring at the new year festival they recite this epic of creation.”
[British Museum curator Jonathan] Taylor said the object also carried “terrible curses” for anyone trying to claim the land or damage the tablet.
“The gift is designed to last forever and there are a list of curses or protective formulas so if anyone should dispute that the gift was made or if they try and hide it, bury it in the dirt, try to destroy it with fire, smash it or get somebody who does not know any better to do it on their behalf, then the gods will curse them in a variety of really horrible ways. So, it is to protect forever this gift in recognition of this act of bravery,” said Taylor.
Today in every-history-nerd’s-childhood-fantasy-come-true news, a rare 14th century gold coin was found in the secret compartment of a modest George II-style modern bureau. Amy Clapp inherited a bureau from her great cousin last Christmas. She doesn’t remember ever having met him and she certainly knew nothing about his furnishings. It’s a 20th century piece, solidly made, attractive but nothing of great value. It has two wide drawers and two half-width ones in the front, and a bunch of small ones when the desk is open. She looked through all the drawers and cubbies before calling Hansons Auctioneers to have it appraised for sale.
Furniture expert Edward Rycroft examined the piece to assess its value. He estimated it was worth about £80 ($106). Then he looked a little deeper and found three secret drawers. One of them held secret treasure.
He said: “I know bureaus like this often have tiny, secret drawers – sometimes called coin drawers – so I always check them just in case.But in 10 years of valuing furniture I have never found anything in them – until now.”
Much to his amazement, he discovered a 22ct gold coin hidden in a secret drawer. It turned out to be rare, more than 650 years old and highly valuable.
The Raymond IV Prince of Orange Franc A Pied coin dates back to 1365. Its guide price is £1,200-£1,800 but the experts at Hansons think it could sell for as much as £3,000. According to their coin valuer Don Collins, it’s very unusual. In more than half a century of coin valuing he has never seen one exactly like it.
Amy Clapp was thrilled by the unexpected windfall as her family has been through some hard times lately. Her daughter has a genetic condition, Bardet-Biedl syndrome, which has severely affected her sight. Mrs. Clapp works for the charitable organization Bardet-Biedl Syndrome UK and plans to donate some of the proceeds to the charity. Here’s hoping it sells way above estimate when it goes up for auction next month.
The bureau goes under the hammer tomorrow. I’d buy it in a heartbeat for twice the price. God I love secret compartments.
This video shows where the secret drawer was found in the desk.
Did I run to my modern Georgian repro secretary with a similar drawer layout as soon as I saw this video to pull the drawers all the way out in breathless hope of revealing a hidden compartment? Yes. Yes I did. Was there one? No. No there was not. Someday…
The copper alloy disc discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Oman in 2014 has been independently verified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s earliest known marine astrolabe. The disc was found in the debris field of the Esmeralda, one of the ships in the fleet Vasco da Gama took on his second voyage to India that sank in 1503. It had a hole in the middle and two raised decorations (a Portuguese royal coat of arms and the esfera armilar, King Manuel I’s personal emblem), but no unambiguous evidence of its function could be seen with the naked eye. In 2016, laser scans by Professor Mark Williams at WMG, University of Warwick, found lines etched along the edge of the upper right quadrant exactly five degrees apart, markers used by sailors to calculate their latitude. Those findings have now been confirmed by the Guinness Book researchers.
The exact date of the astrolabe’s manufacture could not be determined, but it had to have been made after 1495 when Manuel became King of Portugal and before 1502 when the ship departed Lisbon. Before this discovery, the oldest known astrolabe was found on a Portuguese shipwreck that sank off the coast of Namibia in 1533. The Esmeralda‘s bell dating to 1498 has also been confirmed as the oldest known ship’s bell, beating the previous record-holder the venerable Mary Rose, the Tudor flagship that sank in the Solent in 1545.
Oceanographer David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries who led the diving team that discovered the wreck, University of Warwick researchers Mark Williams and Jason Warnett have published their findings on the astrolabe in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. It’s a great paper for layperson and scholar alike. It lays out the archaeological record of marine astrolabes, how rare they are overall and how almost none of them were excavated archaeologically which makes determining their provenance and background extremely challenging. Only ten were known in 1957 when the first astrolabe register was created by David Waters, curator of navigation and astronomy at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. As of publication, there are 105 astrolabes and four alidades (sights used on astrolabes) on the current list, which you can see a cool (but alas too small) picture of on page two of the paper. The Sodré astrolabe (named after Vicente Sodré who commanded the Esmeralda) is number 108.
It also explains the whole story of how and why the Sodré brothers and their ships wound up in pieces off the coast of an Oman island and covers the excavation in which more than 2,800 objects were recovered, an incredible wealth of archaeological material that lends invaluable insight into Portuguese navigation in the Age of Discovery.
The paper goes into the astrolabe’s discovery and the results of years of study, but it also explains its significance in the larger context of the invention and earliest use of astrolabes.
What can be made of the observation that the Sodré astrolabe was only marked at 5-degree intervals and not with the 1-degree gradations seen in all other mariner’s astrolabes? Is it possible that at the time it was created the Portuguese, or at least the maker of this particular specimen, had not refined or standardized the design of their instruments to allow measuring altitude to the precision of 1-degree? Cline (1990: 130) claims that prior to the development of the heavy, open-wheel types, the early navigators were unable to take measurements within four to five degrees even on a ship that was not rolling. This might explain the absence of individual degree marks in the Sodré astrolabe if 5-degree divisions were deemed to be adequate by the navigators, presuming they could always estimate the position of the alidade between scale marks. Considering the general corroded state of the undecorated side and perimeter of the Sodré astrolabe, it is equally possible, however, that the individual gradations have been eroded away and that the faint traces of the 5-degree gradations were preserved because of their position further from the perimeter or possibly because the maker had scored them to a greater depth. […]
The astrolabe is unique in the archaeological record in a number of ways. It is the only known solid disc (type 0) mariner’s astrolabe with a verifiable provenance and age. This suggests it might be a transitional instrument in the development of mariner’s astrolabes.[…]
The Sodré astrolabe is also unique in that, of the 104-known instruments, it is the sole specimen decorated with a national symbol: the royal coat of arms of Portugal. Together with Manuel’s esfera armilar, these decorations dominate one side of the Sodré astrolabe. Their conspicuous placement, in relief, ensures that they stand out and would appear to mark the astrolabe as an object of the state. This is significant in light of Manuel’s use of royal symbolism to project his power at the precise time Portuguese ships were discovering new lands and his country was on the cusp of building the world’s first global empire.
Seriously, this is a page-turner, one of the most interesting, content-rich and comprehensible research papers I’ve read in a long time.
A new study has revealed that the practice of burying butter in bogs goes back even further in Irish history than we knew.
Previous analyses found that bog butters are made from animal fat, but because being buried in peat for a few thousand years can have mineralizing effects on organic matter. Some early studies concluded that it was adipocere, ie, tissue fat converted into a waxy substance in anaerobic condition, because the saturated fats in its chemical composition more closely matches those in adipocere (see this massive 77-lb stick). than in butter fat. Both theories got support in 2004 when a stable carbon isotope analysis of nine bog butters proved that six of them were the product of ruminant dairy and three from tallow, the carcass fat of ruminants.
The 2004 study looked at Scottish bog butter. The most recent study had a wider sample pool — 32 butters, and they are all Irish. The researchers also radiocarbon dated all of them to see if similar processes produced Irish and Scottish bog butters and if they could spot any trends over time. Of the 32 samples, the chemical composition of 26 of them identified them as ruminant dairy fat and another three were found to be likely from a dairy source. The remaining three samples could not be precisely classified.
The radiocarbon dating results had a nice surprise. A sample of bog butter from Knockdrin was found to date from between 1745 and 1635 B.C.
“We have known for a long time that bog butter was some sort of animal fat. However, compound-specific stable isotope analysis of the fatty acids in the degraded bog butters is the only way to identify the true origins of the fat – whether it was a milk fat like butter, or a carcass fat like tallow or lard.” said Professor Richard Evershed from the University of Bristol.
“Combining this analysis with radiocarbon dating, we obtain unparalleled insight into an extremely long-lived activity,” said UCD’s Dr Smyth.
“Together with two recently dated samples, this study brings to five the number of Bronze Age bog butters recorded from Ireland. Their date is extremely significant and pushes back known depositional activity by as much as 1500 years.”
Dr Smyth added: “Clearly, it is unlikely there was a single reason for the deposition of bog butter over four millennia. In certain periods they may have been votive deposits, while at other points in time it may have been more about storage and even protection of valuable resources.”
Professor Evershed notes that: “The widespread occurrence of these enigmatic butter deposits fits with our increasing knowledge of the central importance of dairying in prehistoric northern Europe.”
England and France may have had one or two little issues with each other in the Middle Ages, but all is forgiven now and 800 medieval illuminated manuscripts have been digitized and made available to the public on the websites of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The BL and BnF have the largest collections of medieval illuminated manuscripts in the world. To make some of these masterpieces accessible to the general public, both libraries worked together with funding from the Polonsky Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on preserving and sharing cultural heritage primarily through the digitizing of important collections.
The carefully curated collection features works created in Medieval England and France between 700 and 1200 A.D.
The manuscripts have been selected for their historical significance in terms of relations between France and England during the Middle Ages. They are also of unique artistic, historical or literary interest. Produced between the eighth and the end of the twelfth century, they cover a wide range of subjects, illustrating intellectual production during the early middle ages and the Roman period. Among these manuscripts are a few precious, sumptuously illuminated examples such as the Benedictional of Winchester around the year 1000, the Bible de Chartres around 1140 or the Great Canterbury Anglo-Catalan Psalter produced circa 1200.
With this corpus being of undisputable scientific interest, the programme is also characterised by several manuscript recovery operations: digitisation, online dissemination, restoration, scientific description and even mediation.
The BnF portal provides access to all 800 manuscripts. They are grouped according to themes, authors, places and centuries for ease of navigation and can be searched in English, French and Italian. The technical tools are downright nifty. Manuscripts can be viewed side-by-side for comparison. They can be annotated online and the annotations downloaded as json files for sharing. Manuscript pages can be downloaded as individual images or the entire manuscript can be download as a PDF.
The BL portal presents a selection of manuscripts. Articles on subjects like medieval legal, medical and musical writing place the works in their historical context and significance. There are also pieces on the wider background of illumination, book-making, science and learning in the Middle Ages. A few of the manuscripts in the collection have been highlighted here, and boy are they showstoppers — lavish illustrations, intricately carved ivory and precious metal covers, hymnals, psalters and a phenomenal bestiary.
A huge panorama of London as it was at the end of the Napoleonic wars has gone on display at the Museum of London. The watercolour over pencil work was painted by Pierre Prévost in 1815. As huge as this panorama is, it is just a fraction of what it was meant to be. It’s a preparatory study for a panorama more than 100 feet wide. Prévost successfully completed the behemoth, the epitome of his work as a panoramist, but it is now lost.
Panoramas were all the rage starting in the late 18th century. The term was coined by artist Robert Barker in 1787 when he had the idea to create a 360° view of a city in detailed perspective. Viewers would stand in the center of a custom-built rotunda and immerse themselves in the vista of a distant city. Barker built his first rotunda and panorama in 1793 and by 1800 they had taken off like wildfire.
Prévost was one of the premiere artists of the form. His first panorama, View of Paris from the Tuileries, was created in 1799. Many others followed, including views of Amsterdam, Athens and Jerusalem. He went to London to make a panorama of the city in 1802 (also lost), during the brief break in the Napoleonic wars after the Piece of Amiens, and then returned after Waterloo in 1815 to create the view from Westminster Abbey of which this prep is all that remains.
Painted from the bell tower of St Margaret’s church, right next to Westminster Abbey, the view encompasses the Abbey, its graveyard, the Middlesex Guildhall (then only 10 years old), the medieval Houses of Parliament which would be destroyed in a catastrophic fire in 1834, St. James’ Park, the Palace of Whitehall’s Banqueting House, the future Trafalgar Square and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Prévost captures not just London’s architecture, but its lifeblood as well. There are street scenes of people going about their business — carts carrying goods, shops, a factory — and views of the bustling shipping trade on the Thames.
The finished panorama was exhibited in a rotunda in Paris. That the preparatory drawing has survived is remarkable. Highly finished, detailed, scale sketches were necessary to create so enormous a finished painting, but only one other is known from the many panoramas in Prévost’s oeuvre, a view of Constantinople now in the Louvre.
It was recently rediscovered at sold at auction at Sotheby’s on July 4th, 2018, for 250,000 ($330,000). The Museum of London was able to acquire it with the support of the Art Fund, the Aldama Foundation and several private donors. Since then it has been conserved by museum experts and is on display for the first time as of today.
The photograph cannot do this work justice because it’s so much wider than it is high, but thankfully the Museum of London has create a neat video that scrolls over the panorama with key sites labelled.
An intricately carved Neolithic stone ball discovered in the Ochil Hills near Sherriffmuir in Perthshire, central Scotland, will stay in its native soil after a fundraising campaign secured it for the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. The 4,000-year-old stone was declared Treasure Trove according to Scottish law and allocated to the Perth Museum, but because budget cuts have slashed its acquisitions budget, the museum had to raise money to secure it. The Perthshire Society of Natural Science opened an online crowd-funding campaign and was able to raise £1625 well before the March 26th deadline. A grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions chipped in matching funds.
Stone balls carved in the Late Stone Age (around 3200 – 2500 BC) are a big thing in Scotland. Out of about 530 that have been found in Northern Europe, 520 of them were found in Scotland. More than a third of them are in the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. That the Sheriffmuir Ball will remain local is all the more significant because it is one of fewer than 50 of the known Neolithic balls to have decorative carving and it’s a particularly elaborate one. It’s also one of the most southernly balls ever found in Scotland.
Since the first one was discovered 150 years ago, archaeologists have debated what the purpose of the balls might have been. None of them have been found in or near burial, so they were not used as funerary offerings or grave goods. They could have been weapons, tools or status symbols, or perhaps a combination of any of those.
They are roughly the same size and while remaining circular in dimensions, they have been carved to have lobes or knobs. The ones that are decorated have spirals and curved carved into the surface. The Sheriffmuir Ball has a grid pattern on one lobe, five parallel lines on another and an off-center circle on a third.
You can explore it in the 3D model created by National Museums Scotland:
A bronze eagle that spent 90 years exposed to the harshest of elements on a column like an aquiline Simeon Stylites has been found to be a masterpiece from Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912). The 340-pound bronze of an eagle taking flight (or landing) was donated to Boston College in 1954 by Gus Anderson, a gardener who had inherited it from the estate of collectors Larz and Isabel Weld Anderson (no relation) after the latter’s death in 1948. The Andersons had acquired it in Japan during their 1897 honeymoon. They installed it in the Japanese garden of their palatial estate, Weld, in Brookline, Massachusetts, where it remains for five decades. When it moved to Boston College it was again placed outdoors, this time perched atop a 34-foot column in front of Gasson Hall. It was also gilded for some ungodly reason, possibly because the eagle is the mascot of the college’s sports teams and their colors are maroon and gold.
In 1993, a workmen making repairs to Gasson Hall saw from their high viewpoint that the eagle had taken a beating by the severe New England weather. It was removed from the column and disassembled into five component parts. Each of them was used to make a plaster cast from which a replica of the eagle was created. The replica was then put on top of the column and the original boxed up, each part in its own box, and stored in the studio where the casts had been made.
It was broken down and unappreciated for a couple of decades until an artist who had traced its history alerted the college that they actually had something special there.
The university called in the local firm Rika Smith McNally & Associates to conserve the work.
A Meiji attribution was confirmed by an analysis by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The high lead content corresponded with karakane alloys used by Meiji artists to achieve a hallmark fluidity in wavy parallel lines, which are “incredible” around the beak and eyes, says Rika Smith McNally.
“When we got to the pupil, we knew we were dealing with a Japanese Meiji work because the eyeball was made using the shakudo technique,” in which a raised black copper pupil is attached to the centre of a gold-leafed eye, she adds. “It gives a very animated appearance to the eye.”
The eagle, put back together and restored to its original glory, has gone on display at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art in Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America, an exhibition centered around the eagle, its importance as a motif in Japanese art and the fashion for Japanese art in among the wealthy bluebloods of late 19th century Boston. The exhibition runs through June 2nd of this year.
“The McMullen Museum is pleased to celebrate the painstaking restoration and research that recently revealed the artistic significance of a virtually lost monumental bronze masterpiece from Japan’s Meiji period,” said McMullen Museum Director and Professor of Art History Nancy Netzer. “The exhibition and accompanying scholarly volume contextualize the history of Boston College’s eagle sculpture and the argument for its probable attribution to the circle of master artist Suzuki Chōkichi (1848–1919) with an array of magnificent loans, many of which have never been displayed publicly in New England.”
This video recounting the bird’s journey from ruination to renewal has some breathtaking views of the details of the sculpture. I got a lump in my throat when the conservators removed ever so gently cotton swabbed away that hideous gilding.
Turkish police have seized a leather manuscript believed to have been looted from Syria in an anti-smuggling operation in Kırşehir, central Turkey. Two individuals identified only as Erkan Ş. and Kısmet G. were stopped by the Kırşehir Police Department Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime and Anti-Narcotics Department while driving on the Ankara-Kayseri highway. Stashed on the side of the seat wrapped in a blanket was the 12-page volume. The suspects were arrested and charged with antiquities trafficking.
According to suspects’ testimonies to the police, they bought the manuscript in the southeastern Mardin province and were planning to sell it in Istanbul for a large sum of money.
The manuscript was stolen from a museum in Syria during the conflict and was brought to Mardin illegally, the suspects said in their testimonies.
That’s all the information reported so far, which is barely any information at all. It’s only post-worthy because of the illuminations.
The manuscript is 16 pages long and is written in Hebrew in gold ink. The cover has metallic accents: four birds, one in each corner, on circular perches and a Star of David with a red stone in the center hexagon in the middle of the page. Most of the sheets are illuminated with an intriguing variety of images, including a dragon or griffin, two cows looking at each other challengingly, a hamsa hand, a menorah, a Star of David, an owl with a skull on its belly and a man in draped robes.
\begin shamelessly speculative romp
I find the iconography fascinating. The owl with a skull on its belly and the man in draped robes are particularly intriguing. The owl is listed among the abomination birds in Leviticus and in medieval Christendom it was often used to symbolize Jews as creatures of darkness because of their rejection of Christ. As for the man, the prohibition against graven images put a damper on figural depictions in Jewish art, but it didn’t prevent it entirely. There are frescoes, mosaics and manuscripts with images of Biblical figures, even ones from pagan mythology employed as metaphors. He could be a representation of a prophet or anybody else, for that matter. He does bear a resemblance to other rough drawn images of Jesus, however.
If it is meant to be Christ, he and the skull-bellied owl share the volume with unambiguous symbols of Judaism, the Star of David and the menorah, and the hamsa hand, a symbol very common in albeit not exclusive to Judaism. Not that I’m any kind of expert, or even a well-informed amateur, but I wonder if this be an artifact from one of the Jewish Christian communities that are known to have been in Syria in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, like the Ebionites or Nazarenes.
\end shamelessly speculative romp
The manuscript has been transferred to the Kırşehir Museum Directorate which will study it and determine its origins. Here’s hoping the findings are released.
A silver gilt cup found in the wreck of 17th century merchant ship in the Wadden Sea near the island of Texel, northern Holland, has been restored and put on display at the Kaap Skil Museum on Texel.
It was one of more than a thousand objects recovered from the wreck site in 2014 after shifting sediment exposed them to the elements. Centuries under layers of silt and sand in the cold waters of the Wadden Sea had preserved organic materials in astounding condition. High-end textiles were found in beautiful condition, including silk stockings, a red velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread, and a silk gown so exquisite that one professor described it as “the Night Watch of the costume world.”
Known as the boxwood wreck, after its cargo of boxwood timbers, or Texel wreck, it was carrying artifacts of such exceptional quality that there was immediate speculation that it might have been transporting members of aristocracy, perhaps even royalty, or at least their stuff. A leather book cover stamped in gold with the coat of arms of King Charles I suggested a Stuart connection and in the initial excitement of the find, the silk gown was identified as having belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria. That hypothesis was disproved when researchers discovered the dress was made in Northwestern Europe, not England.
The most recent findings of the ongoing study into the wreck, announced at the Rijksmuseum last Thursday when the show cup was unveiled, point to the ship having been a Dutch trade vessel traveling from the Levant and Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar. Its cargo attests to its voyages — boxwood trunks, French and Italian pottery, caftans from the Ottoman Empire, a Persian rug,
The silver gilt cup was also made in continental Europe, likely southern Germany. The cities of Nuremberg and Augsburg were known for their silversmiths who produced show cups like this. Unfortunately the seal that would precisely pinpoint the shop where it was made is missing, but the style of the cup dates it to the late 16th century, so at least 50 years before the ship’s last voyage, estimated to have taken place about 1650.
When it was recovered from the water, the metal cup was in worse shape than the fine silk stockings. It was broken into three pieces and and severely dented, coated in heavy black corrosion. Most of the dents were repairable, thankfully, and the thick crust of corrosion was removed. Restorers worked on it for four years to reveal the intricate details of its decoration. It chased and molded with floral motifs, vases and masks. Standing on the lid is a figurine of Mars. He would have originally held a shield, now lost.
The sometime showpiece is now a showpiece once again, on display from March 9th to September 9th at the museum’s exhibition of select objects from the boxwood wreck. The 450-page report on the wreck, Wereldvondsten uit een Hollands schip (World finds from a Dutch ship, according to the always questionable Google Translate) is available for sale at the museum. I couldn’t find it online, much to my disappointment, because I would nerd out all over that.