Update: Recent archaeology and antiquities related news

Below please find a selection of news items from the past few weeks dealing with archaeological discoveries and research, antiquities and ancient art that we felt to be of special interest. All links will open in a new tab or window. Enjoy –

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collage art, Christof Maupin art, amphora

Articles of interest from our sister blog

As many of our regular readers know, I started a “sister blog” a few months ago, dealing with my exploration of the intersection of art from the past and art from the present, and specifically how this impacts my own work as an artist. As so much of my work is impacted by art from the distant past, I thought it worth sharing some of my posts from the other blog site. Comments welcome:

Some Thoughts on the Persistence of Classical Imagery

https://pastpresentartsandcrafts.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/some-thoughts-on-the-persistence-of-classical-imagery/

A few thoughts on the art of printmaking, views of antiquity and modern prints

https://pastpresentartsandcrafts.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/a-few-thoughts-on-the-art-of-printmaking-views-of-antiquity-and-modern-prints/

The art of enameling, ancient and modern

https://pastpresentartsandcrafts.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/the-art-of-enameling-ancient-and-modern/

A case study in reinterpreting an old technique: English slip decorated earthenwares and modern counterparts (including my own)

https://pastpresentartsandcrafts.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/a-case-study-in-reinterpreting-an-old-technique-english-slip-decorated-earthenwares-and-modern-counterparts-including-my-own/

Broken Things

https://pastpresentartsandcrafts.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/broken-things/

 

Images from “Illumination” exhibit on ancient oil lamps at UNC Wilmington

I attended a lovely reception last night (April 20) at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Randall Library for the opening of “Illumination,” a one month show focusing on research conducted by UNCW Art History students, under the guidance of Professor Nick Hudson, on a group of 100 ancient oil lamps and pottery vessels from the Levant. The lamps and vessels were a gift I arranged for one of my long term clients to make, and I worked closely with Prof. Hudson on completing this gift. The show continues through May 30 and is well worth a visit if you are in Wilmington. Here are a few images.

A recommended video channel on early technologies and cultures

It’s been some time since Clio Ancient Art offered any antiquities from the Neolithic but the “Stone Age,” as well as the related subject areas of early technologies and experimental archaeology, are certainly of great interest to many of our followers. That’s why I’m recommending a video channel on YouTube called “Beyond2000BC.” The series is presented by Will Lord, who runs a commercial operation putting on workshops on everything from flint knapping to bronze casting and Medieval archery. There are other comparable channels by survival experts, etc. but I particularly like Will Lord’s sense of craftsmanship and appreciation for the process of making.

The “Beyond2000BC” channel currently hosts something over 60 videos. Here is a direct link to one of these, a recent video about a bronze casting workshop and the ancient and medieval objects the participants were trying to replicate Opens in a new tab or window):

https://youtu.be/sZd9bJevicg

and here is a link to the channel’s home page. Enjoy the videos.

https://www.youtube.com/user/Beyond2000bc/feed

Roman Glass, Korea, Roman Asian Trade, Roman artifacts, ancient glass

Distant Connections: Contact and Object Exchange Between Mediterranean and Far East Asian Civilizations in the First Few Centuries CE

Two news items appeared in the popular press during the second half of September, 2016 that addressed recent discoveries of possible East Asian migrants in a Roman period cemetery in London and Late Roman coins found in excavations of a Medieval castle on the Japanese island of Okinawa. While some aspects of the initial excavation reporting was misinterpreted in the popular press, these discoveries do fit into a larger pattern of exchange between the Mediterranean world and the Far East, including not only China but also Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In this brief article, I’d like to examine some of the inaccuracies in the recent news reporting and explore the implications of this surprisingly widespread pattern of exchange spanning distances of as much as 6,000 miles.

News outlets ran stories beginning on September 23 that attempted to summarize the results of a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, in which the authors had raised the possibility, based on a small sample of Roman period skeletons excavated in London (Roman Londinium), that a couple of the bodies might have had a far eastern origin. Unfortunately, popular reporting of scientific papers, and especially the often sensationalist headlines that result, tends to be misleading. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove promptly wrote an article for Forbes magazine in which she pointed out the limitations of the initial study and the ways in which the results had been misinterpreted. In her view, put simply, while contact between ancient China and the Mediterranean world certainly did occur, in the form of trade and even diplomatic missions, and that with further study it was quite possible that human remains from the Mediterranean might be found in east Asia and visa-versa, the rush to assume that limited evidence might suggest a Chinese origin for two skeletons in a small sample from Roman London was premature.

A few days later, a flurry of news stories appeared covering the finding of a small number of Roman bronze coins of the Constantinian Dynasty during excavations at the medieval Katsuren Castle on the Island of Okinawa. Initial reports in the Japan Times online and other news outlets showed images of a 17th Century Ottoman coin also found at the site, with a caption indicating it was Roman (see image below). The Japan Times corrected this error the next day with an updated photo and caption. But the initial error underscores the need for popular news outlets reporting on archaeological or other science stories to fully understand their material before publication, something that rarely occurs.

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One of several 4th Century Roman bronze coins recovered in excavations on Okinawa. Photo Uruma City Board of Education, Okinawa Prefecture

The find on Okinawa is puzzling, given the difference in age between the coins themselves and the period in which the Castle was flourishing, a span of nearly a thousand years. A few possibilities present themselves: That the Castle has a much earlier origin than previously supposed and the coins have somehow been moved by burrowing animals out of their original context in earlier layers, to be found in the Medieval layers being excavated now. That the coins had been kept in the castle for centuries as exotic curiosities. That the coins had slowly traveled eastward over a period of centuries (less likely). That the coins had been part of the cargo of a ship wrecked on the Island’s coast and found by locals centuries later during a low tide or after a storm dislodged them from the buried wreckage. Perhaps future seasons of excavation at the Castle site will offer clues.

While the Okinawa find is unusual in that the Roman coins are so much earlier than the strata in which they were found, artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean world, from the later Hellenistic Period on through the Roman and Byzantine, are surprisingly common finds in east Asian contexts. The Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China were not unknown to the later Hellenistic kingdoms or the Roman Empire. One literary source illustrates this in detail, while still leaving tantalizing questions. This is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a trade and maritime navigation manual probably written in the mid-1st Century AD by an unknown author, and surviving as a 10th Century Byzantine copy. The Erythraean Sea encompassed, to the ancient Greek speaking world, what we now know as the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The work is so detailed that the trade routes and ports mentioned must have already been well known and frequently visited by the time the manuscript was written. It includes clear references to the Himyarite and Sabaean Kingdoms in southern Arabia, the ports of Bharuch in Northwest India and Kochi in Southwest India, and after rounding the tip of India, other ports that may be associated with the Ganges River Delta and beyond in what is now Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma). These most distant locales are more difficult to pinpoint on a modern map due to their ancient place names being so obscure.

Of course, sea routes were not the only method of contact between these widely separated cultures. The famed Silk Route, which was actually a network of many routes through Central Asia, connected the Roman Empire with the Chinese Han Empire (205 BC – 220 AD). The vast Roman output of gold coinage through Indian intermediaries for Chinese silks and Indian and Southeast Asian spices is proof of the frequency and volume of this two way trade. Many hoards of Roman gold coins have been found in southern India. But perhaps the most spectacular evidence of the reciprocal nature of trade along this land route is the Begram Treasure from Afghanistan, found in a Kushan royal storehouse at the Begram site. Begram had been the capital of one of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms. By the time the treasures found in this warehouse were deposited, the site had become capital of the Kushan Empire. Found there were classical bronzes and Romano-Egyptian painted glass vessels, probably made in Alexandria in the first decades after Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, alongside Han Chinese lacquer boxes and ivory carvings from India.

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Enamel painted glass tumbler, made in Roman Egypt in the 1st Century AD, part of the Begram Treasure found in Afghanistan. Photo: National Museum of Afghanistan

Finds of Roman antiquities still much farther east are surprisingly common. Han Dynasty Chinese tombs have turned up many examples of Roman gold, silver, bronze and glass artifacts. A particularly striking example, pictured below, is a large 2nd or early 3rd Century Roman gilt silver plate featuring a central image of Dionysus and his associated animal, a panther. This example was found by chance during construction work in Gansu Province, China.

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Roman silver gilt Dionysiac plate, 2nd – early 3rd Century AD, found in Gansu Province, China.

The diffusion of blown and cast glass across what is now southern Russia and Northern China , which was highly valued by the semi-nomadic cultures of the Central Asian steppe and by far eastern cultures that had not yet adopted glass blowing,  helps explain the presence of Roman glass vessels in the Silla Dynasty royal tombs of Korea. Excavated in the early 1970s, Silla royal tomb number 98 held the remains of King Nae-Mool and his Queen. The Silla Kingdom was focused on the Southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula yet the tomb goods originated in the Roman and Sassanian Empires and parts of Central Asia. Among these was a glass ewer and several glass cups, all of typically Late Roman type. Their rarity and value to the Silla royalty may be judged by the fact that the damaged handle on the ewer, pictured below, had been repaired using gold wire. This finding was not unique. Several other examples of Roman and Sassanian glass, including an early Roman Millefiori glass cup now in the National Museum of Korea, have been found in Gyeongju tombs.

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Late Roman glass ewer, Circa 4th Century AD, found in a Silla Dynasty  royal tomb in Korea.

This article began with a report on Roman coins found on Okinawa and we end it with impressive finds of Roman period glass in Japan. Having spanned the entire Asian Continent with a breadcrumb trail of Roman and related antiquities, the journey ends facing the Pacific Ocean. In 2012, researchers excavating a 5th Century tomb near Kyoto found three Roman glass beads among the burial accessories. Chemical analysis confirmed their origin as Roman, with traces of natron in their makeup. More spectacularly, in November, 2014, Japanese archaeologists announced the recover of two ancient glass vessels, essentially intact, from a high status 5th Century tomb in Nara Prefecture. Chemical and stylistic analysis made clear that the elegant blue glass dish was from the Roman Empire, while the painted glass bowl originated in the Sassanian Empire, Rome’s great rival. Unlike the puzzling coin find on Okinawa, these objects seem to have been interred with their owner’s remains within decades of their manufacture. At the time, Japanese glass making technology was limited to small, opaque, bean shaped glass beads, so large colored and clear glass vessels of this type would have been highly prized, just as they were in China and Korea.

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Roman glass dish found in a 5th Century royal tomb in Nara Prefecture, Japan. Photo: Tokyo National Museum.

 

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Sassanian (Persian) Empire, painted glass bowl, 5th Century. Found in the same tomb as the Roman glass dish above. Photo: Tokyo National Museum.

No doubt, rapid improvement in bioarchaeological techniques will soon permit the identification of human remains in seemingly unlikely places, such as the possible Asian remains in Roman London. Combined with continuing finds of material culture such as those listed here, it may be possible in the future to dispel the old notions of a lack of mobility and communications in the ancient world.

Apart from the news stories mentioned here, which are easily found via web search, here are links to Kristine Killgrove’s thoughtful, cautionary article in Forbeshttp://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/09/23/chinese-skeletons-in-roman-britain-not-so-fast/#1c9329b9ef9b

And to the Roman glass vessels in the National Museum of Korea – https://www.museum.go.kr/site/eng/relic/search/view?relicId=4452

 

Bizarre antiquities-related political feud erupts on Cyprus

Recent news reports out of the City of Paphos, Cyprus describe a clash between the Mayor of Paphos on the one hand and the Cyprus  antiquities department and its local Museum in Paphos on the other, with official pronouncements, competing press conferences and plenty of mudslinging. The Mayor indirectly accuses staff at the Museum and organized crime (directly) of being involved in trafficking antiquities and the Museum of not completing a long term project to catalog and digitize their collection of some 20,000 0bjects. In a surprising twist, the Museum staff and antiquities department head have denied there is any illicit trade in antiquities in the area, despite police evidence to the contrary. Something is fishy on the coast of Cyprus.

This row is in many respects a manifestation of long term problems in antiquities-rich nations involving how to store, record and care for countless archaeological and casual finds. Many Mediterranean nations have found themselves increasingly pressed to adequately store and preserve the wealth of archaeological materials excavated or accidentally unearthed in their territories. The situation has been described as “a crisis in curation” and  a problem that “continues to be widespread and serious.” At the same time, local governments are eager to benefit financially from tourist revenue generated through the display of antiquities in Museums or in situ. An excellent paper on this issue is: Kersel, Morag M. “Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?”  Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 3.1 (2015): 42-54.

Here are two articles on this ongoing clash, one from The Committee for Cultural Policy website: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/cyprus-mayor-accuses-museum-staff-of-stealing-antiquities/

The other from the “incyprus” news site: http://in-cyprus.com/fedonos-organised-crime-behind-antiquities-looting/

All links open in a new tab or window.

Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Programme Completed

A new post on the Staffordshire Hoard website has announced completion of the cleaning and conservation project. With many tiny fragments emerging from the soil during this process, the total number of pieces is now about 4,000. Several pieces have been reconstructed from these fragments, with surprising results. The research phase is continuing and a catalog, research reports and much more will be available online in 2018. The Hoard website already has an excellent photo gallery of some of the key objects. Read the latest here (opens in a new tab or window). – http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/news/staffordshire-hoard-conservation-programme-completed

Roman Chariot Race Mosaic Found on Cyprus

Roman chariot race mosaic revealed in Cyprus, best collection of pics and a video from the “incyprus” news site (opens in a new tab or page) – http://in-cyprus.com/unique-akaki-ancient-mosaic-revealed-pictures

Antiquities News Update

There have been several exciting antiquities related developments in the news over the past month, particularly in the field of Roman archaeology. Here is a roundup of some we found especially interesting (links open in a new tab or window). –

* A great short video on one artifact from The British Museum’s multicultural Sicily exhibition – https://youtu.be/rLhfKLGEY2U

* Rare discovery of Late Roman official buried in Leicester –
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160707101031.html

* Roman Ceramic Factory Found in Israel – http://www.livescience.com/55523-roman-pottery-shop-israel-photos.html

* Bronze figure of Roman goddess unearthed at Arbeia
in South Shields – http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/bronze-figure-roman-goddess-unearthed-11673851

* August Blog update on excavations at Vindolanda Roman Fort – http://www.vindolanda.com/_blog/excavation

This Week’s Featured Object: A Framed Coptic Egyptian Textile 5th – 7th Century AD

CA-12-228

This large and impressive textile, our Object of the Week, is a fragment from a Coptic Egyptian garment and features complex geometric and foliate designs. Thanks to exceptionally dry conditions, many types of artifacts made from perishable materials that would not survive elsewhere are common finds on Egyptian archaeological sites. Between the late 18th and early 20th Century great numbers of ancient Egyptian textile fragments from all periods were retrieved by local Egyptian treasure hunters and artifacts dealers for sale to foreign visitors, by foreigners conducting their own ad-hoc “excavations” and by archaeologists, often excavating using methods that would by today’s standards be considered little more than treasure hunting.

While textiles of all types, from the most humble garments to the most elaborate, and from every period of Egypt’s long history have been preserved in the dry environment, Coptic textiles are a class unto themselves. In common parlance, use of the term “Coptic” here refers both to the time period from which these textiles date – corresponding to the roughly 300 year period of Byzantine rule in Egypt – and the Christian culture that created them, as the Coptic Church, still very much alive today in Egypt, gives its name to both the ancient and modern Coptic culture. This uniquely Coptic textile style continued on in Egypt long after the Islamic conquest of the 7th Century AD.

Many Coptic textile fragments, and in some cases entire garments, have since found their way into museum collections. This has somewhat reduced the number of high quality examples available on the legitimate art market. But many fine examples can be acquired from the major London and New York auction houses and reputable antiquities dealers in Europe and the North America.

This example is tapestry woven in black (now appearing purple) with red details on a cream ground, with two parallel strips of mostly foliate and geometric patterning, including remains of a few figural elements contained in lozenges. The fragment has been professionally mounted on a linen backing and very neatly framed and is suitable for hanging. It was acquired on the Swedish art market in December, 2009 and was formerly in a late 19th – early 20th Century Cairo collection. It dates from the 5th to 7th Century AD, and has the following dimensions: 27.9 x 17.8 cm (11 x 7 in.); 17 x 13.5 inches with the frame   For related examples, see the Rietz Collection of Coptic textiles in the California Academy of Sciences, online catalog numbers CAS 0389-2421 and CAS 0389-2416.

CA-12-228 - Copy

For those interested in acquiring this object, you may do so on our Etsy site here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/262372123/framed-coptic-egyptian-textile-fragment

Or our eBay store here – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Framed-Coptic-Egyptian-Textile-Fragment-5th-7th-Century-AD-/131828190208?hash=item1eb1928c00:g:jSEAAOSwnDZT83cC

There are excellent print and online resources for the student or collector of ancient Coptic textiles.  The Coptic Tapestry Albums & The Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet  by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, is a very accessible, lavishly color illustrated guide to the collection amassed by the controversial French psuedo-archaeologist Albert Gayet in the late 19th Century. It describes Coptic textile production techniques as well as offering insight into how collections of these objects were built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Online, in addition to the Rietz Collection mentioned above, we recommend the Indiana University Museum’s small but excellent online collections – http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/coptic/cophome.html.