Ancient Artifacts

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Society’s traditions come and go, oftentimes for the better as our understanding of the world evolves, but I find it sad that one tradition in particular has faded away: that of the Grand Tour. While today we associate the idea of the Grand Tour with the late 19th century, in reality the custom began as early as the 17th century, rooted in the idea of religious pilgrim to Rome. In fact, it was during this time that travel began to be seen not just as a means to end, but as a worthwhile process in and of itself, as something done for pleasure, enrichment and intellectual curiosity.

At the same time, everything about travel was expensive and inconvenient. The process was lengthy and costly and one had to have not only the means to pay for the venture and accommodations, but also the ability to be gone for an extended period of time. Thus, as is so often the case when something is difficult and expensive, it will often gain cachet with the upper classes as a visible means of displaying wealth and privilege, and travel was no different as the Grand Tour experience flourished among the aristocracy of England and northern Europe.

While the Grand Tour was a very individualized experience, throughout the 18th century a generally accepted route was formalized, with English travelers crossing the English Channel from Dover, traveling to Paris, then to Switzerland, over the Alps into northern Italy, and then journeying south through Turin and Florence, tacking back and forth as much as possible to visit places like Bologna or Venice, before arriving in Rome. Some tourists would venture as far south as Naples and Pompeii, or as travel later improved, visitors sometimes went to Sicily or made tentative explorations around the Mediterranean, but usually from Rome or Naples, they turned north again, bearing west for the return trip across the Alps in order to visit the Germanic part of Europe: Vienna, Berlin, Munich – before looping back through Holland and crossing the Channel home.

The idea was that this experience would polish the skills a young man (later young women took the Grand Tour as well and the opportunity expanded beyond the aristocracy as rail travel presented a more affordable option) would need as an aristocrat and as one who would likely serve in some official capacity. Many traveled in the company of a tutor as well as entered into lessons along the way, with the expectation that they would return home with courtly manners, strong language skills, and an increased appreciation of world affairs, the history of western civilization, and cultural awareness.

Of course, as has ever been the case, tourists beget tourism, and travelers returned home with all manner of souvenirs: scale models of buildings, paintings and sculptures, ancient artifacts, trinkets decorated with European landscapes, objects designed to keep memories of their trip alive. A collection of such objects is being offered for sale at Skinner Auctions. Nearly 100 lots of terrific artifacts of dozens of Grand Tour trips including column models, paperweights, miniature landscapes, micromosaic scenes, and much more will be starting a new journey this weekend as they cross the auction block, so be sure to “take a tour” of the sale!

The origins of the word “tumbaga” are obscure and complex, but the general consensus seems to indicate the word is a Malay word that means “copper, brass.” This is a little misleading, because tumbaga is actually a mixture of copper and gold. (Cesium is the only other “colored” metallic element – all other metallic elements are achromatic, greys and whites.) Today, the word is typically used to describe materials from pre-Columbian Central and South America.

Tumbaga is harder than copper, and like gold, it can be manipulated in a variety of methods – cast, hammered, engraved, etc. The mixture of the alloy varies, with some as high as 97% gold while others are as much as 97% copper. Some samples have traces of up to 18% of silver, other metals or impurities. It is believed that tumbaga objects were finished with a method of “depletion gilding,” likely being burned to oxidize the copper present on the surface and then treated with an acid wash to remove the oxidation, leaving a shiny surface that appeared to be pure gold.

A tumbaga double spiral ornament for ceremonial use, from Tairona; circa A.D. 1000 to 1500.

A tumbaga ornament from the Tairona culture. (p4A item # D9925866)

In fact, some scholars have speculated that the use of tumbaga led to the legendary accounts of the South American cities of gold carried back to Europe by early explorers in the region, while others believe that tumbaga may have been orichalcum, the metal referred to in a number of ancient texts, including those with accounts of the fabled lost city of Atlantis.

Sadly, the depletion gilding process typically creates microscopic pitting on the surface of tumbaga objects, contributed to their eventual deterioration, as this pitting leaves the surface vulnerable to further oxidation. A terrific discovery was made in 1992 when a shipwreck was discovered in the Bahamas. Tumbaga objects plundered by the Spanish were typically melted down for transport, and then the tumbaga bars themselves were melted and separated back into their basic elements (gold, copper and silver) when they reach Europe. As a result, the 200 bars of tumbaga recovered from the shipwreck are believed to be the only bars in existence.

An Egyptian cartonnage mummy mask, Ptolemaic Period, circa 4th to 2nd century B.C., decorated with polychrome over gessoCartonnage is the term for layers of fibers, most often linen and papyrus, mixed with a plaster that could be shaped or molded while wet, almost like a papier-mache process that uses whole sections of fibers rather than the pulped or shredded paper used with papier-mache. In ancient Egypt, this technique was used in the funerary process to create masks, paneled sections or even complete cases to cover the body, which would have been mummified and wrapped before this application. After the plaster surface dried and hardened, it offered artists a smooth, fresh surface for their delicate painted decorations.

A cartonnage mummy mask from the Ptolemaic Period. (p4A item # A076668)

Since cartonnage was often produced with large sections of papyrus, it has become an important source of early Egyptian documents; recycled documents were often put to use, and modern experts frequently separate some of the layers in order to study the writings, finding everything from government documents to literary fragments. This is, of course, a controversial issue, as the separation inevitably destroys the original cartonnage object or fragment.


An Egyptian cartonnage fragment, Ptolemaic period, 304 to 30 B.C., painted with the outstretched wings of the goddess Nut.A cartonnage fragment depicting the Goddess Nut, from the Ptolemaic Period. (p4A item # A054540)

A miniature slate birdstone. Well banded with a low slung head and no evidence of drilling. Ohio.   There are unsung heroes among us, people who devote their lives to collecting, cataloguing and organizing categories of things that most of us aren’t even aware exist.  Earl Townsend, Jr., who died in 2007, was such a man.  He spent much of his life compiling one of the finest collections in the United States of prehistoric stone relics of American Indians, including, at one time, more than 600 birdstones.

Townsend’s collection, which sold in December of 2011, was filled with these enigmatic objects.  Birdstones, like the one pictured above, are so called because they are all similar in their form, which resembles a bird.  Birdstones pop up occasionally, very occasionally, in the South, even less frequently west of the Mississippi, and the vast majority of them are found in the Ohio Valley and around the Great Lakes.  Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and New York have produced most of them.  Any stone could be used, but they are predominantly made from a banded slate.  The real mystery is their purpose and archaeologists have proposed a wide variety of theories from vague ceremonial usages to a function as a spear or atlatl weight to gender-related headdresses.  They clearly involved a great deal of work and effort and were a challenge to fashion, and as if this alone were not evidence of their value to the prehistoric societies in which they were made, they are/were often found in graves and burial mounds.  We may never have an answer to their larger purpose, but collections like this lay incredible foundations for the development of future work and theories.  Scholars of the future stand on the shoulders of people like Earl Townsend, Jr.

An Egyptian mummified bird, circa 1500 B.C., wrapped in layers of linen.214 years ago this summer during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Capt. Pierre-Francois Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone, sparking more than two centuries of fascination with the art and artifacts of ancient Egypt.  The style of Egypt appeared in several stylistic revival periods, with some objects incorporating overt design elements, like this clock garniture set with sphinxes and obelisks, while pieces like this daybed rely on more subtle Egyptian-influenced lines.

But the fascination didn’t stop with replicas, and artifacts continued to flow out of Egypt, largely unchecked through the early twentieth century.  While there are plenty of other antiquities in the database, it’s clear that you could easily reassemble a tomb with the material you’ll find.  We have everything from a sarcophagus to canopic jars (the jars used to hold the internal organs of the mummified) to painted cartonnage remnants (read about cartonnage in our reference note here) to the treasures that one might have chosen to be buried with.  You’ll find pottery ring seals, bronze figures, and, my personal favorite, a mummified bird (pictured above), complete with x-ray images to verify its authenticity!Sadly, because of the large number of fakes (and, perhaps, illegally obtained objects), provenance is key with these items.  When it comes to selling Egyptian artifacts at auction, the ones that do best are most often those from dealers with strong, knowledgeable reputations and with long histories of ownership to verify their origins, so beware of objects with little more than a “good word” and a letter of authenticity from an unrelated third party!