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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Ancient Roman Silver Treasure Revealed

Accidentally discovered by a French farmer plowing his field near the village of Berthouville in rural Normandy in 1830, the spectacular hoard of gilt-silver statuettes and vessels known as the Berthouville Treasure was an ancient offering to the Gallo-Roman god Mercury. Following four years of meticulous conservation and research in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Antiquities Conservation Department, the exhibition Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, on view at the Getty Villa November 19, 2014, to August 17, 2015, will present this unique collection of ancient silver in its full splendor and offer new insights about ancient art, technology, religion, and cultural interaction. The opulent cache – in the collection of the Cabinet des médailles (now the Department of Coins, Medals and Antiques) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France – is displayed in its entirety for the first time outside of Paris, together with precious gems, jewelry, and other Roman luxury objects from the Cabinet’s royal collections.

“Since 2010, this magnificent collection of silver objects has been undergoing extensive conservation and study at the Getty Villa, providing us a unique opportunity to examine the production of Roman luxury materials and seeing what this has to teach us about the art, culture and religion of Roman Gaul,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

While the treasure – consisting of about 90 silver objects weighing more than 50 pounds – was first discovered in 1830, it was not until 1861 and again in 1896 that the site was extensively surveyed and excavated, uncovering the foundations of a Gallo-Roman fanum, a square colonnaded precinct with two temples. One was dedicated to Mercury Canetonensis (of Canetonum), while the other was devoted to his mother Maia or his consort Rosmerta. A theater-shaped gathering space was also found nearby. The site survey did not reveal any evidence of an ancient settlement or cemetery in the immediate area, so it’s possible that Mercury’s sanctuary at Berthouville was a place of pilgrimage, perhaps visited during annual festivals.

The Roman god Mercury, after restoration.

The most impressive objects in the Berthouville Treasure bear Latin inscriptions stating that they were dedicated to Mercury by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. Several of the vessels, profusely ornamented in high relief and then gilded, are recognized today as among the finest ancient Roman silver to survive. The elaborately decorated imagery of Tutus’s offerings, except for one ladle that was manufactured specifically for Mercury, feature Bacchic motifs and mythological scenes that are more appropriate to luxurious dining than religious observance. These items were probably presented to Mercury at Berthouville after initial use as private display silver. Subtle differences in their dedicatory inscriptions may indicate that they were given to the god over the course of a few years, again suggesting that it was perhaps offered during annual festivals.

Pair of cups with centaurs, after restoration.

Soon after its discovery, the treasure was acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris where it was cleaned and the disassociated parts of several vessels were reassembled. Since the treasure had been buried over centuries, many of the objects were heavily encrusted and the ancient solder that had held together their components often became separated. The nineteenth-century restoration included the removal of some of the tarnish, accretions, and harder encrustations, and left some deep scratches. Some of the corrosion was so tenacious that it had to be left in place, and a number of objects were restored with materials that were commonplace in the day, including solder, pine resin, and beeswax.

Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins.

In December 2010 the entire treasure, as well as four unrelated late antique silver platters or missoria from the Cabinet’s collection, arrived at the Getty Villa for a comprehensive conservation treatment. The four-year project focused not only on restoring the works but on historical research, careful study, and meticulous cleaning. This treatment has revealed much of the original gilding, additional inscriptions, and valuable evidence for ancient production techniques as well as nineteenth-century methods of restoration.

The four missoria, on view in the final section of the exhibition, were luxury objects in Late Antiquity. They were primarily intended to display the wealth, status, and cultural aspirations of their owners. The two largest platters are the famed “Shield of Scipio” (found in the Rhone near Avignon in 1636) and “Shield of Hannibal” (found in the Alps in 1714). The shape, scale, and imagery of these two platters led early scholars to erroneously identify them as votive shields of historical generals – the Roman Scipio Africanus and his rival, the Carthaginian Hannibal.

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Ancient Arabian treasure trove unearthed in Germany

From The National.

Archaeologists in northern Germany have unearthed a treasure of Arabian silver dirhams dating back to the first half of the seventh century in a spectacular find that proves brisk trade between the Middle East and northern Europe already existed more than 1,200 years ago.

Some of the silver dirhams found by archaeologists in Germany bear the King of Persia’s portrait (Stefan Sauer/EPA)

A total of 82 coins were found in a field near the town of Anklam, a few kilometres from the Baltic Sea coast, in excavations completed on September 2. They come from regions that are now Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and northern Africa. The oldest coins, about an inch in diameter, were minted around 610 AD and bear the portrait of Khosrau II, the 22nd Sassanid King of Persia who ruled from 590 to 628 AD.

Other coins in the trove were minted around 820 AD and have inscriptions in Arabic. “They are little works of art with delicately engraved writing on them,” Fred Ruchhöft, an archaeologist and historian at the nearby University of Greifswald who has analysed the find, said in an interview. “It’s good silver. It just needs a clean and then it’s like new.”

Archaeologists using metal detectors discovered the coins together with a silver bracelet and three small bars of silver scattered over an area 20 by 30 metres while examining the site of a former Slavic settlement from around 800 AD. They believe the treasure had been buried underground in a ceramic pot by a wealthy trader or craftsman. They also found remnants of the pot.

Centuries of ploughing had disturbed the soil, broken the pot and scattered the treasure through the earth.

“Viking raids there were common at the time, which may be one reason why the treasure was hidden,” Mr Ruchhöft said. “It may be that the owner was killed before he could retrieve it.”

This part of north-eastern Germany near the border with Poland has suffered from depopulation and economic decline in recent decades, but it was a boom region in the early Middle Ages because of its proximity to a 6,000km trading route.

The route led across the Caspian Sea, up the Volga, north-west across Russia towards what is now St Petersburg, and along the Baltic coast towards Scandinavia and northern Germany.

The traders were Slavs, Vikings and Arabs, and the goods were mainly transported by river and sea. Viking longboats could navigate both seas and rivers because they had a shallow draught which allowed them to sail in waters just one metre deep.

“Fur, amber and slaves from here were traded for pearls, rock crystals and silver from the Orient,” Mr Ruchhöft said. The dirhams were not legal tender in Europe but their intrinsic silver value made them a common means of exchange. That explains why most of the coins from the Anklam find had been cut in half or into quarters. Only seven dirhams were found intact.

“The find shows how global trade was already going on 1,200 years ago,” Mr Ruchhöft said. “It’s unclear if deals took place face to face with Arab merchants. There is no concrete indication that traders travelled the entire length of the route.

The trade is more likely to have taken place in stages at market towns along the way.”

The silver bracelet found at Anklam was made in the Volga river region of Russia, which supports the theory of interim trading stations because it suggests that a trade took place at some point along the Volga.

Michael Schirren, of the regional department of archaeology, said: “Coin finds from this era are extremely rare and this one is really significant because of the volume.”
Arab coins have been found as far north as Sweden and as far west as the British Isles.

The coins, bracelet and silver bars together weigh some 200 grams and were worth four oxen, or one horse plus one ox plus one young slave, Mr Ruchhöft said. “One dirham was worth around 75 daily rations of wheat or one pearl.”

From The National.

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