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Excavators in Mes Aynak

A rescue operation is underway to save as much as possible from ancient Buddhist monasteries in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, before the mountains become an open-cast mine and the site is destroyed. In what is now the world’s largest archaeological dig, around 1,000 workers are trying to excavate artefacts from the country’s second most important Buddhist site (along with Hadda), after Bamiyan.

The site, a former training camp of Osama bin Laden, has been leased to a Chinese mining company for copper production. Only what can be excavated and removed to safety will be saved.

Despite the impending archaeological loss, Mes Aynak has received scant attention internationally. Moreover, Afghanistan’s heritage has suffered much in recent years from civil war, looting and the vandalism of the Taliban.

Mes Aynak (Little Copper Well) lies 25 miles south-east of Kabul, in a barren region. The Buddhist monasteries date from the third to the seventh centuries, and are located near the remains of ancient copper mines. It is unclear whether the monastery was originally established to serve the miners or if the monks set up there to work the mines themselves.


Martin Bailey
Art Newspaper


The remains of what was once a house in the ‘School of Gladiators. Associated Press

The scandal over conditions at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii has yet to die down since a structure known as the “School of the Gladiators” collapsed there in early November. At least three other major collapses occurred in the past two months. Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano has called the situation a “national disgrace”; opposition parliamentarians continue to press for Culture Minister Sandro Bondi’s resignation; and in mid-December, prosecutors announced that they were investigating nine people, including Pompeii’s former superintendent, to see whether they should be charged with criminal neglect…

Recent events have thus revived a long-running national debate over why Italy cannot take better care of its rich cultural heritage. Many commentators have stressed funding shortages, noting that governments of both the right and the left have cut culture spending over the past decade. Italy’s leading financial newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, has even suggested that Pompeii turn to corporate sponsors like Ferrari and Coca-Cola, which might pay for the chance to associate their brands with the ruins they help preserve. Later this month, the Italian government is expected to approve tens of millions of euros in emergency funds to address the Pompeii crisis.


Francis X. Rocca
Wall Street Journal

Sambor Preh Kok, in Cambodia: a Khmer masterpiece of fired-brick architecture

Here’s another list of important cultural heritage sites to worry about: 20 “on the verge” of experiencing irreversible, irreparable loss and destruction, according to the Global Heritage Fund.

Like UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund, GHF aims to shine a light on endangered sites; the main difference from them, as far as I can tell, is that GHF focuses exclusively on the developing world and it adds an economic argument for preservation.

For more and a list of the 20 sites:

Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

Statue found at the site

It looks as if time has run out in the decade-long fight to save the ancient Roman spa town of Allianoi in Turkey from being submerged under 12 to 15 metres of water. Reports have emerged that state workers have filled the second-century AD site with sand in preparation for the release of water from the newly constructed Yortanli dam despite court injunctions halting plans to flood the region.

According to Ahmet Yaras, an archaeologist who led the excavation at Allianoi and a prominent figure in the struggle to preserve the site, workers employed by the State Waterworks Directory (DSI) have removed “the plastic cover placed on the Roman baths to protect the structure against damage from the elements” and have filled the ruins with sand. This move has drawn ire from cultural heritage organisations such as Europa Nostra, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) and the European Association of Archaeologists which have vigorously campaigned for Allianoi’s preservation. Europa Nostra’s executive president Denis de Kergorlay has appealed to the Turkish prime minister “to find an alternative solution to save Allianoi and to stop the current destruction of the site”.


Emily Sharpe
The Art Newspaper

Its footpaths are “tortuous”, the roof likely to “channel wind and rain” and its myriad columns – meant to evoke a forest – are incongruous with the vast landscape surrounding it.

So says the government’s design ­watchdog over plans for a controversial £20m visitor centre at Stonehenge, the megalithic jewel in England’s cultural crown. CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has criticised the design of the proposed centre, claiming the futuristic building by Denton Corker Marshall does little to enhance the 5,000-year-old standing stones which attract more than 800,000 visitors each year.

Its concerns are the latest chapter in the long saga surrounding the English Heritage-backed project, and follow a ­government decision two years ago to scrap on cost grounds a highly ambitious £65m scheme to build a tunnel to reroute traffic to protect the World Heritage site.


Caroline Davies

Archaic Gallery in the new museum (Photo: Nikos Daniilidis)

For advocates of the repatriation of marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century and long housed at the British Museum in London, the new Acropolis Museum is proof — at last — that Greece has a safe place to display the hotly contested artworks.

For Athenians who live and work near the Acropolis, the looming modern structure at the southeastern base of the hill is a mixed blessing. The $200-million, 226,000-square-foot museum has transformed the area of Makrygianni, boosting property values while dwarfing other buildings in the neighborhood.

Dimitrios Pandermalis, a classical archaeologist who presided over the building’s construction and is now president of the museum, is acutely aware of all this. But for him, the gleaming edifice is a dream come true or at least partly so.


Suzanne Muchnic
Los Angeles Times

The Euphronios vase, once the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum’s ancient-vase collection, at the Villa Giulia in Rome. (Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times)

Italy’s biggest prize in the war against looting antiquities went on view recently at the Villa Giulia in Rome.

Italians didn’t seem to care much.

The prize is the notorious, magnificent sixth-century B.C. red-figure krater by the Greek artist Euphronios, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art lately returned: the “hot pot,” as Thomas Hoving, the former Met director who bought it in 1972, mischievously took to calling it. A show of recovered spoils at the Quirinale in Rome last year became the pot’s homecoming party, after which it was rushed, like a freshly anointed Miss Italy, off to an exhibition in Mantua, appropriately enough about beauty.

Now it’s ensconced at the villa, its new permanent home, in a bulky glass case with odd little Christmas lights. Maybe overexposure explains why this didn’t strike Italians as particularly big news. The media mostly gave the event a pass. The gallery was empty the other afternoon.

A new book may help revive interest. “The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece,” just published by William Morrow, makes a first-class page turner out of the stolen krater’s travels from ancient Greece to Etruscan Italy to New York and then back here — and of the travails of another work also by the sublime Euphronios, a kylix, or chalice, which was looted from the same spot here in Cerveteri, a town northwest of Rome.


Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages at the Met includes this Crucifixion by Opicinus de Canistris from the mid-1300s (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City)

When you think of medieval art, drawing may not spring instantly to mind.

Medieval ivories and enamels? Definitely. Medieval sculpture, metalwork and stained glass? Sure.

Of course medieval artists — many of whom were anonymous monks working as scribes in scriptoria — drew. All those manuscript illuminations had to start somewhere. But did they actually make drawings that survived and were cherished as drawings, or that filled practical needs that only drawing can?

To most of us, European drawing before the Renaissance and its emphasis on individual genius and the artist’s hand is a dark, uncharted void. Which may explain why “Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art feels so startlingly full of light. You may even find yourself rubbing your eyes and blinking.

The 50 little-seen works on view span nearly five centuries and reveal medieval drawing to be vital, evolving, remarkably diverse and essential to the medium’s Renaissance blossoming. The medieval period is often compared with its successor and found lacking. And the superficial clumsiness in some of these works may initially ratchet up your awe for the Renaissance and for the radical changes wrought by its embrace of antiquity and its obsession with the human body and linear perspective.

But with a little time at this show the gap starts to shrink. The skills of medieval artists dovetailed with their otherworldly goals: the bodies that interested them most were heavenly. But, as this exhibition demonstrates, realism was not beyond their reach.

The material on hand ranges from accidental drawings — that is, unfinished illuminations that inspired a new emphasis on line — to exquisite efforts like a breathtaking ink rendering of a facade of Strasbourg Cathedral from around 1260. Many of them crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time to be here. Adding to their freshness, almost all come from university or monastic libraries rather than museums.

Organized by Melanie Holcomb, an associate curator, and Elizabeth Williams, a research assistant, both in the Met’s department of medieval art, the show comes with an excellent catalog that brings together a pithy introductory essay by Ms. Holcomb and lengthy entries by Ms. Williams and a dozen other curators and scholars. That number alone suggests both the broad scope of the works on view and the rarity of the occasion.

In the first gallery an assortment of illuminated manuscripts — psalters, gospels, epistles and a Bible or two — trace the liberation of drawing from its subservient role in richly colored illuminated texts. Hand-drawn line gradually assumes a life of its own, uncoiling from elaborate initials, existing on equal terms with color and abandoning carefully framed settings to exploit white parchment pages and the physical facts of the book as object.

In an 11th-century French codex, the Maccabees pursue their retreating foe across the gutter of a two-page spread as over adjacent hills. Shields are painted orange and green; chain mail is indicated with tiny circles in ink on wash; otherwise line dominates, especially satisfying in its account of the lunging horses and contrasting body language of victors and vanquished.

Occasionally lines do all the work, as in a sinuous ink image from the late ninth century of St. Paul lecturing an agitated crowd of Jews and gentiles, rendered by a Swiss monk with a special talent for depicting hair. (Tonsures never looked so good, and Paul’s beard ends in curling droplets of ink.) The image is part of a copy of the Pauline Epistles lent by the Monastery of St. Gall, having been made on the premises.


Roberta Smith
New York Times

The fresco panel, which was the subject of an international search by INTERPOL, was located by the Art Loss Register of New York.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) today seized a Pompeii wall panel fresco from a Manhattan auction house that was reported stolen in Italy 12 years ago.

The fresco panel, which was the subject of an international search by INTERPOL, was located by the Art Loss Register of New York and brought to the attention of ICE and Italian Authorities. Italian authorities provided ICE agents via the ICE attaché in Rome with information and documents identifying the fresco panel as stolen and part of the cultural property of Italy.

The panel, rectangular with a white background depicting a female minister, white wash on plaster with a modern wooden frame, was previously located at the excavation office in Pompeii and was reported stolen with five other fresco panels on June 26, 1997.

The investigation revealed that, between 1903 and 1904, the Italian government authorized a farmer, Giuseppe De Martino, to restore his farmhouse, which was located on an archeological site in Boscoreale, province of Naples. During the restoration, six important frescos, originating from Pompeii were found.

On July 12, 1957, the Government of Italy purchased the frescos. On June 26, 1997, after the completion of work to the excavation site, the Italian government observed that the six frescos were missing and subsequently reported the theft.

The Carabinieri cultural patrimony unit previously recovered the other five of the six frescos.

“We are pleased to assist in the recovery of this fresco panel. It completes the collection of the six panels reported stolen from the Italian government close to 12 years ago.” said Peter J. Smith, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New York. “ICE applauds the ALR for coming forward with information on the whereabouts of this precious cultural artifact, which will soon be returned to the Italian government.

Art Daily


A 35,000-year-old ivory carving of a woman found in a German cave was unveiled yesterday by archeologists who believe it is the oldest known sculpture of the human form.

The carving found in six fragments in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave depicts a woman with a swollen belly, wide-set thighs, and large, protruding breasts.

“It’s very sexually charged,” said University of Tuebingen archeologist Nicholas Conard, whose team discovered the figure in September.

Carbon dating suggests it was carved at least 35,000 years ago, according to the researchers’ findings, being published today in the scientific journal Nature.

“It’s the oldest known piece of figurative sculpture in the world,” said Jill Cook, a curator of Paleolithic and Mesolithic material at the British Museum in London.

Stones in Israel and Africa almost twice as old are believed to have been collected by ancient humans because they resembled people but were not carved independently.

The Hohle Fels cave discovery suggests the humans, who are believed to have come to Europe around 40,000 years ago, had the intelligence to create symbols and think abstractly in a way that matches the modern human, Conard said.

“It’s 100 percent sure, by the time we get to 40,000 years ago in Swabia, we’re dealing with people like you and me,” Conard told The Associated Press.

Patrick McGroarty
Boston Globe