Arts and Sciences

Vast archive of pre-war European Jewish life digitized

History Blog - Wed, 2014-08-27 23:29

Photographer Roman Vishniac’s vast archive documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and after World War II is being digitized and made available to the public. The joint project of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has already scanned almost 9,000 negatives that have never been seen or published before. More negatives continue to be added all the time. Ultimately 40,000 items — photographic prints, contact sheets, films, letters, interviews, recordings — will be scanned and uploaded to the dedicated website: vishniac.icp.org.

The goal of the project, in addition to making this precious record widely available to all who wish to study it, is to crowdsource as much information as they can about the photographs.

ICP and the Museum invite scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines, families across generations, and members of the public to explore the archive, contribute their research and family stories, and help identify the people and places depicted in the images. The diverse perspectives brought together by this unique effort, and by the work of a dedicated group of internationally recognized scholars, have already yielded exciting discoveries.

“We believe this initiative represents a new model for digital archives, and we are excited to bring this collection to an even-wider audience,” said Mark Lubell, ICP’s executive director. “Our shared goal is to make the images available for further identification and research, deepening our knowledge of Vishniac’s work and the people and places he recorded in his images.”

Born near Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1897, Roman Vishniac received his first camera as a gift on his seventh birthday. Even as he studied biology and zoology in college, he continued to explore photography and was an accomplished amateur photographer by the time he left Russia in 1920. He and his new wife joined his émigré family in Weimar Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, Roman took copious pictures documenting the street life of the city, particularly his own neighborhood populated primarily by Russian Jews. He experimented with framing and composition, and even built his own darkroom in his apartment.

In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jews are increasingly marginalized. Vishniac kept taking pictures, documenting the increasing dominance of anti-Semitic laws and attitudes in Berlin. He soon traveled further afield. From 1935 to 1938, the Paris headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned him to photograph rural Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. They aimed to publicize the images in the United States to raise awareness of the deep need in these impoverished communities.

In 1938 and 1939, the AJDC sent Vishniac to Poland and the Netherlands to photograph Jewish refugees expelled from Germany. From the Netherlands he traveled to France, working as a freelance photographer. In 1940, he gave all his negatives to a friend in Paris, asking him to take them to the United States. That was very well timed since shortly thereafter he was arrested and interned in Camp du Ruchard in Clichy for three months. He got out and managed to leave France for Lisbon where he reunites with his wife and children and together they flee to New York.

His pre-war negatives had finally reached him in 1942 and prints of some of them had already been displayed in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews. The vast majority of them, however, remained unprinted negatives, and Vishniac never labeled them or annotated them in any way. That’s why it’s so important that those negatives are now published online. There are still people alive who may be able to recognize the people and places in the pictures but the clock is ticking. Others may recognize something they’ve seen in family photographs even if they weren’t born when Vishniac took the pictures.

You can search the collection by keyword, date, location, etc., or you can browse through all 8999 scanned negatives. Register here to help with the labeling.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Camp Security saved, excavations begin

History Blog - Tue, 2014-08-26 23:59

The only Revolutionary War POW camp to survive in undeveloped condition has been saved for posterity thanks to donations from the public. When I first wrote about Camp Security last April, the 47-acre plot in Springettsbury Township, Pennsylvania, between the city of York and the Susquehanna River, was in danger of being sold. More than half a million dollars of a bridge loan secured by non-profit The Conservation Fund for its purchase was still outstanding, and if the money couldn’t be raised by August, the Fund might have to sell the land or face disastrous budgetary consequences.

They must have gotten an extension on that bridge loan, because at the end of the July they were still $250,000 short and there was no news I could find in August, but come December, the Springettsbury Township announced that the full sum had been raised and that The Conservation Fund had transferred the deed to the property to the township. Thanks to more than a decade of hard work from the township, The Conservation Fund, York County, the York County Heritage Trust, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Friends of Camp Security, plus donations from people all over the country, the field now belongs to the township in perpetuity.

It joins an adjacent 115-acre parcel and a small park that already belong to the township to form a large public open space. Hunting and digging are prohibited, but people can walk it or picnic on it or throw frisbees to their hearts’ content. The overall plans for the property include environmental preservation, historic preservation and archaeological exploration.

On Monday, the excavation of the Camp Security site began. There was limited survey on a small section of the site in 1979 that returned thousands of Revolutionary War artifacts — that’s how it was identified as the location of Camp Security — but this is the first time archaeologists and volunteers will really get to explore the site. More than 75 people have volunteered to help. They will work four-hour shifts over 25 days in the field.

Since the site has been plowed by a farmer, volunteers will first scan the surface for artifacts. Next the team will dig about 100 holes looking for evidence of the two camps built on the site. Camp Security was the POW camp — sharpened picket fence, wooden stockade and fieldstone cabins — built by prisoners when they arrived in August of 1781. Outside the picket fence was Camp Indulgence, unenclosed fieldstone huts built to house the wives and children who followed their husbands.

Most of this first group of prisoners had been captured after the surrender of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. They were used to living in America, despite have experienced considerable hardships during nearly four years of imprisonment, and at Camp Security they were given many freedoms. They could work — gets jobs or run their own cottage industries — travel freely within 10 miles of the camp, and even live with their families at Camp Indulgence. It was the newer prisoners, particularly those captured after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown in October of 1781, who were confined to Camp Security and closely guarded. Once the archaeological team identifies the location of one of the camps, they can figure out where the other one is.

For more about the history of Camp Security, check out local historian June Lloyd’s fantastic York Blog.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Two Mayan cities found in Yucatan jungle

History Blog - Mon, 2014-08-25 23:20

Archaeologists have discovered two lost Mayan cities in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve on the southeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The cities have been named Tamchén and Lagunita. Initial exploration indicates both cities were at their peak in the Late and Terminal Classic period (600-1000 AD), the early part of which saw the apogee of the dominant regional power: the kingdom of Calakmul, ruled by the mighty Snake dynasty.

Led by Ivan Sprajc of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, for the past two months the expedition has been macheteing its way through the eastern part of the state of Campeche, a vast area that is thought to be rich in Mayan archaeology but has barely been explored because of how inaccessible it is. This team has the advantage of aerial photography and a geodesist as well as local guides.

Lagunita was actually found once before, by American Mayanist, epigrapher and explorer Eric von Euw in 1970. He drew sketches of a several monuments, most strikingly a façade depicting the open maw of a zoomorphic monster. He never published his drawings nor noted the location of the find, but his sketches are kept in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Maya scholar Karl Herbert Mayer made them available to Sprajc.

It was that dramatic façade that identified the site as Euw’s Lagunita. Its open mouth represents the entrance to the underworld and the creature represents a Maya fertility deity. Other structures were found: a Maya ball game court, a pyramid 65 feet high, massive palaces arranged around four plazas, three altars, 10 trails connecting the buildings and altars, and 10 stelae. There are inscriptions on the altars and stelae, and a key section of stela two has already been translated by Octavio Esparza Olguin, an epigrapher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. For our convenience, it’s a precise date — November 29th, 711 A.D. — and a signature of the “lord of 4 k’atuns” (a k’atun is a 20-year calendar cycle). Olguin notes:

“To judge by both architectural volumes and monuments with inscriptions, Lagunita must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactún, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear.” The importance of Lagunita is further attested by the great density of residential mounds, terraces, albarradas (low dry walls) and other settlement remains in the surrounding area.

The second site, Tamchén, has much in common with its neighbor four miles to the southeast. It too has large buildings arranged around plazas, a pyramid temple, a courtyard with three temples on each side, altars and stelae. It’s significantly older, however, dating to the Late Preclassic (300 B.C. – 250 A.D.). It also has another unusual feature: more than 30 chultuns, underground wells built to collect rainwater. Chultuns are common in Maya cities, but the number at Tamchén is far greater than have been discovered anywhere else, and they are remarkably deep as well, some approaching 45 feet in depth. We can’t know if this proliferation of chultuns is unique to Tamchén or if other Maya cities in the region have similar structures until the area is more fully explored.

There are many intriguing aspects to these cities that may open a new window into Maya history.

The zoomorphic façade at Lagunita does not come as a surprise, considering that Becán, the largest site in the Río Bec zone, is only 15 km away. What has not been expected, however, is the presence of so many pyramid temples and monuments with inscriptions, which are rare in the Río Bec región. Both Tamchén and Lagunita appear to have been largely abandoned around A.D. 1000, sharing the fate of other lowland Maya polities, but a few stelae were modified some time after they had been originally erected, and Postclassic offerings were found at others. These facts obviously reflect continuities and ruptures in cultural traditions, but their significance for understanding political geography and history of the region is yet to be explained.

Particularly interesting are various elements that have not been known elsewhere in the Maya area. Two altars of Lagunita have a curious nail-head shape. The third one is rectangular and has a series of Ajaw glyphs on its sides, with coefficients evidently referring to successive k’atun (20-year period) endings; such records are common in codices, but not on stone monuments. Whereas hieroglyphic texts normally appear in an even number of columns, the inscription on Stela 2 of Lagunita has three, and the Long Count date is incomplete.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Action Comics #1 shatters record at auction

History Blog - Sun, 2014-08-24 23:22

A copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman which revolutionized the industry, in almost perfect condition has sold on eBay for $3,207,852, shattering the previous record price of $2.16 million set in 2011 by Nicholas Cage’s famously purloined copy. It is the first comic to pass the three million dollar mark. The buyers are Metropolis/ComicConnect, renown vintage comic dealers who in fact sold the Cage copy. It is not known if they were acquiring it for a private collector or for themselves.

Given a Certified Guaranty Company universal grade of 9.0 with White Pages, this copy is considered the finest Action Comics #1 ever graded. The previous record-holder was a 9.0 as well, but this one is a stronger 9, with glossy front and back covers, more brilliant colors and those perfect white pages. There is no yellowing whatsoever. It looks like it came fresh off the presses, with only two spine stress marks testifying to its ever having been opened at all. Only one other copy of this comic was graded Perfect White Pages, and that one had a mere 2.5 CGC grade.

Its condition is so astonishing that the first dealer who got his hands on it thought it might be a later reissue he didn’t know about. He had never seen a copy that was so flat with such white pages. The reason it was in such impeccable condition was that the while the first owner bought it for 10 cents from the newsstand in 1938 like 200,000 other people did, unlike most everyone else he lived at fairly high altitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and when he finished reading it, he put the comic in a cedar chest where it remained virtually untouched for four decades. The cool, dark, dry environment of the cedar chest froze time for this comic.

In the late 70s, comics and collectibles dealer Joe Mannarino got a phone call from the son of the original owner. He had seen an ad Mannarino put in a local paper offering to buy vintage comics and wanted to sell the stack of comics in his father’s hope chest. There were about 35 comics in the collection, an eclectic mish-mash that included most notably Action Comics #1, Action Comics #2 and Planet Comics #2. Mannarino bought the books for several thousand dollars.

He decided to store his pristine new Action Comics #1 exactly as it had been stored all these decades: in a cedar-lined chest. A few years later he sold it to another dealer who kept its existence secret for 30 years until this year when he decided to sell it to Darren Adams of Pristine Comics. It’s Adams who sold it on eBay on Sunday, with 1% of the proceeds going to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in honor of Reeve’s iconic Superman.

You can see how incredible the copy looks in this video that leafs through every page.

You can also virtually leaf through every perfect white page yourself on the CGC website. The photographs of the covers and pages aren’t as high resolution as I would like them to be for optimal reading, but it’s still legible and conveys clearly what a special copy of Action Comics #1 this is. Don’t miss the first appearance of Zatara, Master Magician, and his fabulous arch-enemy The Tigress. I love how everyone sports such varied and stylish headgear.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Impressionism’s exact date and time of birth

History Blog - Sat, 2014-08-23 23:34

Impressionism was born on November 13th, 1872, at 7:35 AM. That’s the result of calculations done by Texas State University astrophysicist Donald Olson on the work by Claude Monet that gave the movement its name. Monet called the painting, the harbour of Le Havre as seen through his hotel window, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) because it captured a fleeting moment and thus couldn’t really be called a view. He came up with the title a year and a half after he painted the scene when it went on public display April 15th, 1874, at the first exhibition of works that would within days become known as Impressionist at the Paris studio of the photographer Nadar. It had to have a title for the exhibition catalogue.

Thirty artists, among them Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Sisley and Boudin, put their work on display at Nadar’s studio. All of them had been soundly and repeatedly rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts who insisted on traditional realism with invisible brushstrokes and muted colors for their prestigious Salon de Paris art shows. By order of Napoleon III (who was bowing to public clamor, not indulging a personal preference), they had gotten a chance to show their works in the Salon des Refusés, the Salon of the Refused, in 1863, but even though the Refusés saw far more traffic than the jury-selected works in the Salon de Paris, future petitions requesting new Refusés shows were, well, refused.

Finally the denied artists founded an anonymous collective and arranged for an independent show. They rented Nadar’s old studio (he had just moved to new digs) on the first floor (European first floor, that is, the storey above the ground floor shops) of a building at 35 Boulevard des Capucines and put 163 of their works on display two weeks before that year’s Salon de Paris opened.

Ten days later, on April 25th, 1874, the exhibition was reviewed by artist, playwright, journalist and critic Louis Leroy in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari. Entitled Exhibition of the Impressionists, the review used Monet’s term for his landscape of Le Havre to deride the weirdly blurry, poorly drawn, sloppy “palette-scrapings … on a dirty canvas” that so obnoxiously rejected the traditional forms of the great masters.

Leroy’s use of Monet’s term stuck, and the movement became known as Impressionism. As for the canvas that launched the label, Impression, soleil levant was purchased in May of 1874 by collector Ernest Hoschedés. He sold it four years later to Dr. George Bellio for a quarter of what he had paid. Bellio left it his daughter Victorine. On September 1st, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, Victorine transferred the work to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, which at that time had no Impressionist paintings in its collection, due to “risk of war.” Within days it was evacuated to the Château de Chambord along with the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and other masterpieces from the Louvre.

In May of 1940, with German forces advancing inexorably into France, Victorine donated the painting to the museum. Impression, soleil levant remained in hiding in Chambord for the duration of the war. For nearly two decades after the donation, the painting appeared in the museum’s inventories as Impression, soleil couchant (Impression, Sunset) and even though Monet had dated it 72 next to his signature, not much was known about him that year and there was dispute about whether he was actually in Le Havre in 1873.

The museum, now the Musée Marmottan Monet, to celebrate its 80th anniversary and the 140th anniversary of the seminal exhibition of the painting that named one of art’s most influential and revolutionary movements, enlisted the aid of Donald Olson to answer some of the questions about Monet’s piece.

He has pinpointed a particular third-floor bedroom with a balcony in the Hotel d’Amirauté au Havre, at 45 Grand Quai. Monet would have looked across the outer harbour, facing towards the Quai Courbe, to the southeast.

[...] Olson demonstrates that because of the sun’s position towards the east it must have been rising. He also calculated that the sun rises in the position shown in the Monet painting twice each year, in mid-November and late-January. The sun is depicted two to three degrees above the horizon, which corresponds to 20 to 30 minutes after sunrise.

Olson then looked at the level of the sea, since large ships can only pass in or out of the outer harbour for three to four hours at high tide. Taking the sun’s position, plus the high tide, this narrowed down the possibilities to 19 dates in 1872-73.

The next stage of the puzzle was to examine weather reports—to exclude days when cloud would have obscured the sun and to include only days when there was fog. This further winnowed the dates to six: 21 and 22 January 1872, 13 and 15 November 1872 and 25 and 26 January 1873.

Olson then focussed on the plumes of smoke on the left side of the painting, which rise into the sky towards the right. Meteorological reports suggest that this wind direction would have occurred on only two of the six dates, on 13 November 1872 and 25 January 1873.

The final factor is the research of Géraldine Lefebre, a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux in Le Havre. She is convinced that the year “72″ inscribed by Monet on the painting is correct, since what we know of Monet’s movements makes it very unlikely he was there the following January. This means that Impression, Soleil Levant depicts the view in La Havre on 13 November 1872, at 7.35am.

Impression, soleil levant will be the centerpiece of an exhibit that runs from September 18th, 2014, to January 18th, 2015. It will join another 24 works by Monet, including a night view of the harbour of Le Havre painted from the same hotel room, plus works by Delacroix, Turner, Renoir and Pissarro, among others, loaned from top museums and private collections around the world.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gift from Charles Darwin found in Danish museum

History Blog - Fri, 2014-08-22 23:31

The University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum has found a unique treasure in its stores: 55 barnacle specimens personally assembled and labeled by Charles Darwin. It all began, as so few things do but many should, with a 160-million-year-old Diplodocus skeleton.

Misty is the skeleton of a Diplodocus longus discovered by the teenage sons of German paleontologist Raimond Albersdörfer during a 2009 excavation in Dana Quarry near the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. The young men wanted the chance to find something, so to keep them out of his hair their father shooed them away from his excavation site to go dig in an area where he thought they might unearth an innocuous fragment or two. By the end of the day they had unearthed a bone so big the two of them couldn’t carry it. Dad shifted his attention to his sons’ find and excavated almost the entire 56-foot-long skeleton of the dinosaur.

Because it was found on private land, there were no legal barriers to the fossil’s export and sale. After the bones were conserved in the US, they were sent to the Netherlands for assembly and then to London for auction. One of only six nearly intact Diplodocus fossils known, Misty was acquired on November 27th, 2013 for $651,100. Two weeks later, the anonymous buyer revealed itself to be the Natural History Museum of Denmark which was able to afford the pricey giant thanks to a donation from the Obel Family Foundation.

To properly welcome Misty, the museum planned its largest exhibition ever around her. The Precious (or The Cherished, should your Danish tend less towards the Tolkien) would showcase the museum’s most precious (hence the name) objects alongside their most recent acquisition, items that have been in storage for years unavailable to the public, the best of the best specimens from the fields of zoology, geology, botany, and paleontology: a Dodo skull, a stuffed Great Auk, a collection of snails assembled by Hans Christian Andersen during his travels in Denmark, a meteorite that fell in 1749. The focus of the exhibition is the full context of the objects, their natural and human history, how they came into existence coupled with how they came to the museum.

Exhibition Manager Hanne Strager was tasked with going through the museum’s collection of 14 million objects to select pieces for display. Strager is an evolutionary biologist and the author of By Confessing a Murder: Darwin and the Idea that Changed the World, a book on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution and discoveries in the field since then. The title refers to a letter Darwin wrote to botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844 in which he wryly declared, “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”

As an accomplished Darwin scholar, Strager knew that Darwin had had a professional relationship with zoologist Japetus Steenstrup, the former director of the then Royal Natural History Museum (precursor to the modern-day Natural History Museum’s Zoological Museum), and that Steenstrup had loaned Darwin some specimens during the decade of intensive research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin wanted to compare species from different locations, to examine the differences and commonalities of related species. He had met Johan Georg Forchhammer, Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Copenhagen, in Birmingham, and he offered to send Darwin some barnacle fossils from the Copenhagen Geological Museum. He also connected Darwin to his friend Japetus Steenstrup, Professor of Zoology at the University of Copenhagen, who had his own collection of barnacles.

Steenstrup contributed some barnacle fossils from his collection to a parcel Forchhammer sent Darwin in November of 1849. When Darwin received them two months later — he had been so worried about his delayed barnacles that he put an ad in the paper offering a reward for their return — he wrote Steenstrup an abjectly delighted thank you note on January 25, 1850:

Dear Sir

I am quite delighted in at last being able to tell you that your Box with the fossil cirripedes has arrived quite safely this morning.— It is a great load off my mind.— Not one specimen is injured, except, perhaps, some of the valves of your Anat(?) cretæ.— It is a noble collection, & I feel most grateful to you for having entrusted them to me.— I have now a great many collections in this house, so that I have good means of comparison.— Most of your species, as far as a hasty first glance tells, are different from the British. Your P. medius. is the same as P. sulcatus of Sowerby; & instead of being a Pollicipes, it is a Scalpellum, though these genera differ much too little.— The P. elegans I have (unnamed) from our Chalk.— I will do my best in comparing all the specimens which I have now together; but I am not hopeful of producing good results: I much dislike giving specific names to each separate valve, & thereby almost certainly making three or four nominal species for each true species.—

I am extremely pleased to see the Alepas. The cause of the great delay was in Prof. Forchhammer having sent the box within another to a dealer in minerals, who uncourteously did not take the trouble to inform me. Please to tell Prof. Forchammer that owing to his note I have got the Box, & pray give him, & accept yourself my most cordial thanks.— I will take great care of your specimens.— I hope now that this Box has arrived safely, that you will add to your already great kindness, & send me the northern species alluded to in your former letter.—

I will hereafter write again to you.—

Pray believe me | my dear Sir | Yours most gratefully | C. Darwin

(NB: The Darwin Correspondence Project website, a massive database that seeks to digitize all letters written by and to Charles Darwin, is down as of right now, which is why I linked to cached versions of the letters in this entry. I hope it will be up and running again soon because it’s awesome.

EDIT: And it’s back! I’ve replaced the cached links with live ones. Do yourself a favor and have a browse around the site now. It lends such rich insight into Darwin and his work. They’ve done a great public service by making his correspondence available at the click of a mouse.)

It was Steenstrup’s barnacle fossils, which Darwin had returned as promised, that Hanne Strager was hoping to find for the exhibition. The barnacle study was an important part of Darwin’s research, so if they could be found they would have a great story to tell. Strager was reading through Steenstrup’s papers in the museum archives looking for clues that might identify the specific fossils Darwin examined when she found something even better: an 1854 letter from Darwin in which he mentioned a list of 77 species of barnacles he had sent to Steenstrup as a thank you gift for his help.

The list itself was not in the letter. More searching through Steenstrup’s papers ensued and lo and behold, the list was found. It was hard to read, however, and took some time to decipher. Once that was done, Strager had to dig through storage looking for the 77 specimens. They weren’t kept together because in 1854 there was no reason for it. On the Origin of Species was five years away. The barnacles were seen as specimens like any other, not the curated collection of a great pioneering scientist. They were spread throughout the museum collection according to their species.

Strager finally located 55 of Darwin’s barnacles. Most of the missing 22 are samples from a single genus. They were probably loaned to another institution or scientist who was researching that specific genus at some point over the past 160 years and never returned. Somebody somewhere may have 22 barnacle specimens collected by Charles Darwin and have no idea of their illustrious history.

Not that anyone’s complaining. The collection of 55 specimens, with original labels and an inventory list in Darwin’s hand, is an exceptional find. The museum believes it’s the most significant Darwin collection outside of London’s Natural History Museum.

“To be able to display a gift from one of the world’s greatest scientists is unique for a museum,” Stager said.

“Here we have a personal connection to the man responsible for what is probably biology’s greatest ever scientific breakthrough: the Theory of Evolution.”

Darwin’s barnacles will go on display with Misty and many other treasures starting October 1st.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Victorian railway flying arches saved and reinstalled

History Blog - Thu, 2014-08-21 23:55


The Chorley Flying Arches are 16 flying buttress arches built in 1841 on the Bolton & Preston railway (opened in 1843) a mile and a half northwest of Chorley Station in Lancashire. These rare architectural features were used to brace the high retaining walls on either side of the cut. Scottish civil engineer Alexander James Adie, Resident Engineer of the Bolton & Preston Railway, feared the heavy clay soil behind the walls would eventually collapse them inwards onto the track, so he built masonry arches connecting to the walls at the 11-foot mark (the arches rise to 15 feet at the center point). Like their namesakes on Gothic churches, the flying arches strengthened walls under pressure without adding bulk. They were slender and elegant, the thickness of a single stone less than a foot wide across the center.

The Chorley arches were the first of their kind and today they’re one of only two examples remaining in England. The others were lost to modernization, and these could have succumbed to a similar fate had English Heritage and Network Rail not come together to save them. In 2008, the Chorley track was in dire need of stabilization as drainage problems had forced trains that can run 145 miles per hour to slow way down to a maximum speed of 20 mph. To properly install new drains, the arches had to be taken down. Steel arches were wedged between the walls first, then the Victorian masonry arches were removed intact and taken to a secure storage site.

The original plan was to reinstall them within three years, but in 2009 a new project to electrify the line was announced. Electric trains require overhead wires to power them, and 173-year-old masonry arches were bound to get in the way. Engineers came up with a solution, however, that preserved the original structures while bringing them in compliance with modern safety and operation standards. Each arch was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt atop a custom steel brace. This ensures they won’t be shedding masonry onto the trains below. The steel brace will also accommodate the overhead electrical lines.

Earlier this week, the Chorley Flying Arches returned home after seven years in storage. They were placed in a slightly higher position to make room for the electrification equipment, and now their role is entirely aesthetic. The steel brace underneath them will do the work of stopping the retaining wall from falling in on commuters.

Here’s a riveting time-lapse video of the 2008 removal of the arches. An equally cool video of the reinstallation is not yet available, but Northern Rail is into that sort of thing, so keep an eye on their YouTube channel.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wealth of pottery found in Corinth tomb

History Blog - Wed, 2014-08-20 23:52

An ancient tomb in Corinth has been found with an impressive collection of pottery. The tomb dates to between 800 and 760 B.C., very early in the city’s history. There’s evidence of settlement in Corinth as early as 6,500 B.C., but there appears to have been a significant loss of population from 2,500 B.C. until the Dorians settled there in 900 B.C. When the tomb was built, Corinth was ruled by a king from a Dorian kinship clan called the Bacchiadae. They began to build Corinth from a sparsely populated backwater into an influential center of trade, a process that continued after the kings were overthrown in 747 B.C. and replaced with a ruling council of aristocrats (still from the Bacchiad clan) who elected a new king yearly. By 730, Corinth would have several colonies and a population of 5,000.

The person buried in the tomb was certainly someone of note. A large limestone sarcophagus 5.8 feet long, 2.8 feet wide and 2.1 feet high was found inside the burial pit. Only a few fragments of bone remained inside, so we don’t know any physical details about the deceased. He or she was buried with several handsome pottery vessels around the sarcophagus, and another 13 were found almost intact inside a niche covered by a limestone slab.

The vessels were decorated with a variety of designs, including wavy, zigzagging lines and meandering patterns that look like a maze. This style of pottery was popular at the time, and archaeologists often refer to this as Greece’s “Geometric” period.

It’s the pottery style that dates the tomb. The geometric designs — zigzags, crosses, concentric circles around the neck, shoulders and body, crosshatched rectangles that look like block letters I doodled in my notebooks in junior high but aren’t letters, dots — decorate vessels of all shapes and sizes. This is the pottery that spread far and wide around the Mediterranean in the decades after the tomb was built when Corinth grew into a capital of trade as its position near the Isthmus of Corinth connecting the Peloponnese to mainland Greece made it a window to western colonies like Corfu and Syracuse.

We’re very fortunate any of the fragile treasures in this tomb survived at all.

Several centuries later, in Roman times, the tomb would almost be destroyed after a wall was built beside it. When archaeologists excavated that wall, they found a limestone column that may have originally served as a grave marker for the tomb.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First Black Death mass grave found in Spain

History Blog - Tue, 2014-08-19 23:37

A mass grave of victims of the Black Death, the pandemic that killed half the population of Europe when it struck in the mid-14th century, has been discovered under the sacristy of the Basilica of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs in Barcelona. Even though the plague hit the Mediterranean countries the hardest, this is the first Black Death mass grave ever found in Spain. The fact that it was found in a church may suggest an explanation: in Spain the dead were buried in pre-existing churches and cemeteries, unlike in England and France where they often broke new ground for plague burials.

The church of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs is in the historic center of Barcelona, within the walls of the ancient city of Barcino, founded as a castrum (a Roman army camp) in 15 B.C. during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. In 2011, the Institute of Culture of Barcelona and the Basilica signed an agreement to excavate the church as part of a city-wide plan to rediscover the remains of Roman Barcelona.

Excavation of the sacristy began in 2012. Archaeologists found a section of a baptismal font from the Visigothic era, the remains of two Roman walls following the ancient city grid, and the 14th century mass grave with the skeletal remains of men, women and children. At first count, there appeared to be 104 people buried in the pit, but upon further investigation the body count increased to around 120. The current Gothic church was built between 1342 and 1574. They got to the sacristy area in the mid-15th century and construction impinged on the mass grave. Most of the bodies were removed at that time and the remainder were hemmed in by the Gothic walls. Calculating from the density of the remains and the size of the original grave (13 feet long, 11 and a half feet wide, five feet deep), archaeologists believe 400 plague victims were buried in the space.

They were identified as plague victims almost immediately. The demographic variety, well-preserved bones with no signs of fatal injuries and the fact that they were all buried around the same time strongly suggested they were felled by a widespread contagion. Despite the pressures of the epidemic, they were buried with respect. The bodies were laid out face up with their arms by their sides or crossed. They were placed close together, but arranged carefully rather than dumped in haste or crammed in head-to-foot to maximize space.

The corpses were unclothed, and wrapped only in linen shrouds, lined up in rows, 11 bodies deep, and were then covered with quicklime dissolved in water to attempt to stop the disease spreading and mask the smell of the rotting bodies.

Laboratory analysis confirmed the contextual indications.

DNA tests on the teeth of several of those buried in the mass grave carried out by the University of Tübingen show the presence of Yersinia pestis, a bacterium associated with rats and other rodents that was transmitted by the parasites they carried, particularly fleas, which injected it into humans when they bit them.

The bodies are being kept at the church while research is ongoing. They will be reburied in the church when the study is complete.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman coin found in Sandby fort posthole

History Blog - Mon, 2014-08-18 23:40

Archaeologists have found a Roman gold coin in a posthole from one of the homes in Sandby ringfort. The coin is a solidus from the reign of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in a design struck towards the latter part of his rule, 440-455 A.D. This is a find of great importance for Sandby, because it’s evidence that might help explain what happened there.

Sandby is a ringfort on Öland, an island off the southeastern coast of Sweden, that was built and destroyed during the turbulent Scandinavian Migration Period (400 – 550 A.D.). It was first discovered in 2010 when two looting pits appeared, alerting archaeologists to the pressing need to survey the area before depredations ruined the context. Come summer, the spot was surveyed with metal detectors and four caches of glass millefiori beads, small silver bells meant to be worn as part of a necklace of a bracelet, finger rings, gilt bronze and silver buckles of very high quality were found. Other artifacts were found scattered around the site.

The next year excavations began. They revealed that an event of deathly violence had struck the fort in the 5th century. Its defensive high walls were overrun, the homes inside destroyed, its inhabitants killed and left to rot where they fell. Five bodies were found inside just one dwelling, all of them bearing marks of sharp force trauma. Only 2% of the site has been excavated, and the remains of about 10 people have already been found. So the residents were killed, their homes, warehouses and barns levelled, but the authors of this destruction left the expensive jewelry and gold behind. A raid for lucre wouldn’t have overlooked shallowly buried hoards and wouldn’t have killed everyone before they could reveal their hiding places.

Leaving the bodies in the open to decay was a deliberate choice, perhaps a warning to others, and it was an effective one since nobody occupied the fort again. That’s what makes this find so exceptional: a moment of destruction has been frozen in time for archaeologists to study like forensic units study a crime scene.

The solidus may be a key witness. About 360 solidi have been found on Öland, but they were stumbled upon, mainly during the plowing of fields, not excavated. This is the first solidus to have been unearthed in its original archaeological context: one of the homes where human remains were discovered. These coins were used by the Roman Empire to pay its mercenaries. One of the theories about what happened at Sandby is that it was home to returning soldiers rather than farmers grouped together for self-defense like the other ringforts on the island. Seen as a threat by their neighbors, they were raided, killed and left as a cautionary tale to any other mercenaries who might consider banding together and using their military skills to interfere with the pre-existing communities.

Another theory is that it was the violent resolution of a feud.

“We think it may have been the reason for the massacre at the Sandby Borg fort. And this is the only coin that wasn’t taken,” [lead archaeologist Helena Victor] explained.

“We found it on the edge of a posthole in the house. So maybe the robbers came to take the treasure there, and maybe they ripped the bag and one coin fell down into the posthole in the floor, and there it remained.” [...]

“I think that the money was a good excuse to end a feud. So there was probably a feud, this was a very strong statement, not just a normal robbery- an excruciatingly evil statement to kill these people and just leave them,” Victor explained.

“It was truly shameful. So to make a real statement you forbid them to burn the bodies. There are still memories 1,500 years later of these events, it’s a dangerous place. Parents tell their children that they can’t play there because it’s a dangerous place. They don’t remember the history but they remember it’s dangerous.”

It looks to me like the coin was pierced which suggests that it was worn as jewelry at some point. Instead of being in bag, it could have been on a string around someone’s neck and fell into the posthole when it was unceremoniously separated from that neck by force.

After conservation and further study, the coin will go on display in the Glimpses from Sandby borg exhibition at the Kalmar County Museum in southeast Sweden. The mini-exhibition opened last month after visitors clamored for news about the fort and its treasures. Mostly the exhibition uses images and text to tell the story, presenting some of the theories about the fate of Sandby, but there are a few artifacts on display — 30 glass beads, an iron spearhead almost two feet long. The coin will be joining them this fall.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Skeletons found in ancient Gallic grain silo

History Blog - Sun, 2014-08-17 23:12

The skeletal remains of eight people have been unearthed in an ancient grain silo in Marsal, a town in the northeastern French region of Lorraine. The skeletons date to around 500 B.C. and were unceremoniously tossed into the silo so archaeologists found the bodies stacked on top of each other in random positions. Two of them were of children.

The discovery is unusual, the first of its kind in Lorraine, and may be connected with Marsal’s history as a major center for the production of salt. From the 7th to the 1st century B.C., there were extensive salt works in the area processing water from the salt springs of the upper valley of the Seille river. So far archaeologists have unearthed more than six miles of salt production complexes and at least a dozen individual workshops.

This was production on an industrial scale. Workshops created clay grids on which little coarse ceramic molds not unlike Dixie cups in shape and size would be placed. The cups were filled with high salinity brine and wood-fueled fires lit underneath the grid. The water would boil away leaving only crystalized salt in the vessels. The molds were then broken apart, leaving a cone of salt of a conveniently standard size and a pile of broken clay. Excavations in the Marsal area have discovered trash piles of the clay discards from this process up to 40 feet high.

Salt’s value as a seasoning agent, and most importantly, as one of the only consistent, reliable and portable means of food preservation, made it so valuable it could be used as currency. The cones of salt left after the vessels were broken away could be traded for goods and services, just like money. That’s why their being regular in size and weight was so significant a production element, akin to the precious metal content of a coin.

Most relevantly to the skeletons in the silo, archaeologists have found an Iron Age necropolis used by the salt workers in the community, so dumping the bodies of these poor wretches in the silo was a deliberate choice. The grave goods in the necropolis burials include a range of objects of diverse value, the highest of which are expensive imports underscoring just how active and far-ranging the commercial activity of the site was, and that there was a distinctly hierarchical society in place there.

The remains found in the grain silo are all in good condition thanks to the watery and salty soil. Archaeologists hope testing can determine if these people worked in the salt workshops, if they were raised in the area, if they were related to each other, what they ate, what may have claimed their lives. Lead archaeologist Lawrence Olivier, who has been excavating Marsal and environs for a decade, believes they must have been people of low status, possibly slaves, perhaps victims of a massacre or an epidemic.

France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) has a comprehensive and fascinating website dedicated to Gallic salt production. If you don’t read French, browse it using an online translator because it’s downright illuminating. Here’s the section on the Bronze and Iron Age production that covers the period of the skeletons. Check the dropdowns for tons more information and pictures.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Guercino masterpiece stolen from Modena church

History Blog - Sat, 2014-08-16 23:26

A 17th century Baroque masterpiece by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known by his nickname Guercino, has been stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo in the historic center of Modena. The painting, Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus, was painted by the master in 1639 and has been in the church ever since. An allied bomb struck San Vincenzo on May 13th, 1944, destroying the presbytery and the choir and its late 17th century frescoes, but the Guercino survived. Let’s hope it can survive human greed.

The painting was not insured because “church cannot afford to insure every painting in its possession,” as San Vincenzo’s priest Father Gianni Gherardi put it, and as callous as that sounds, the truth is that practically every church in Italy is stuffed to the gills with masterpieces. It would be prohibitively expensive, even if private insurers could be secured, to cover everything. The alarm system installed with funding from the Modena Savings Bank Foundation a decade or so ago was turned off because “it was too expensive to keep up,” which I presume refers to the monthly bill.

San Vincenzo is not a parish church so it doesn’t stay open all week. The doors are opened every Sunday for mass and locked after the service is over. The thieves made their way inside, stole the painting and got out without leaving a trace. There is no sign of forced entry on the church door. The priest only realized something was wrong because the door was open.

Police believe at least three men were involved in the theft because the piece is so big and heavy, especially still inside the frame, that it one or two people wouldn’t be able to move it. They probably got in during mass on Sunday, August 10th, and hid until they could do their dirty deed under cover of night. They must have had transportation, most likely a van.

Not that insurance would be much consolation. The painting is invaluable and irreplaceable. It could be worth something like $8 million if we hypothetically considered a market value and if it were actually salable, but of course it’s not. It’s hugely famous and at nine and a half feet high and six feet wide, it’s impossibly conspicuous. Authorities are concerned that the thieves might cut it up into individual figures in the attempt to sell it, but they went through a lot of trouble to keep it whole. That’s why the current preferred theory is that it was a theft commissioned by a Bond-villainesque collector. That’s the go-to preferred theory, but time and time again we’ve seen thieves steal something first and only think of disposal once the object is burning a hole in their pockets. Then they bumble around for years trying to unload their ill-gotten gain in the most ridiculous ways, often to undercover cops.

The Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) are in charge of the investigation. They’re looking through phone records and security camera footage from along the street. There are no cameras pointed at the church, but a van large enough to contain the painting should have been captured by other cameras.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Update: 200-year-old seltzer bottle contains alcohol

History Blog - Fri, 2014-08-15 23:02

The 200-year-old salt-glazed stoneware bottle recovered from a shipwreck at the bottom of Gdańsk Bay off the coast of Poland does not contain its original prized mineral water from the internationally known springs of Selters, Germany. Or at least, that’s not all it contains. Testing at the J.S. Hamilton laboratory in Gdynia has found the contents are 14% alcohol distillate. The remaining 86% could still be the original seltzer water since its chemical composition is consistent with Selters mineral water.

It’s not certain what variety of distilled spirits is inside the bottle.

[A]ccording to the laboratory staff, the alcohol may be a kind of genever gin (jenever) – traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium. “Did someone really pour this drink into a soda bottle, or are we dealing with a different beverage? Experts will try to determine this in another series of analyses, which will be completed in early September” – said [National Maritime Museum archaeologist Tomasz] Bednarz.

Chemical analysis suggests the alcohol is still potable in the sense that it won’t kill you, but it might make you wish you were dead.

The archaeologist added that according to laboratory workers, the alcohol in the bottle is suitable for drinking. “This means, it would not cause poisoning. Apparently, however, it does not smell particularly good” – he explained.

There’s a little more information about the bottle as well.

Bednarz explained that according to the latest findings, stoneware bottle recovered from the Gulf of Gdańsk was made in Ransbach, approx. 40 km from Selters springs. “The manufacturer was determined by reading the print under the main emblem +Selters HN+: letter R and the number 25, denoting the number of the manufacturer.

I looked for but couldn’t find any kind of master list of the manufacter names and their corresponding numbers. There were dozens of small producers in all the towns around Selters, so we know the town thanks to the R mark but not the shop.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mummification in Egypt began 1,500 years earlier

History Blog - Thu, 2014-08-14 23:59

Archaeologists have long believed that artificial mummification in Egypt began during the Old Kingdom, around 2,500 B.C. Mummies have been found from the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods (ca. 4500 – 3100 B.C.), but they were thought to have been naturally mummified in the arid heat of the desert. Evidence for the use of embalming agents was found on one examples from the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2,200 B.C.), only becoming frequent in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2,000-1,600 BC).

Now the results of an 11-year study are upending the conventional wisdom with chemical analysis of preservative resins found in prehistoric funerary wrappings. Researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford have identified complex embalming agents in linen fragments from some of the earliest tombs in Egypt found in the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda in Upper Egypt.

Egyptologist Dr. Jana Jones of Sydney’s Macquarie University started the ball rolling in 2002 when she examined 51 wrapping samples excavated from Badari and Mostagedda in the 1930s and preserved in the collection of the Bolton Museum. Viewing them under a microscope revealed the presence of “toffee-like” substance likely to be resin. Researchers from Oxford University radiocarbon dated the samples to confirm they were indeed prehistoric as the archaeological evidence had indicated.

The resinous substances had to be confirmed chemically, however, because the microscopic analysis couldn’t conclusively identify them. That’s where University of York archaeological chemist Dr. Stephen Buckley came in.

Corresponding author on the article, Dr Buckley, used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.

Dr Buckley, who designed the experimental research and conducted the chemical analyses, said: “The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period.”

Dr Buckley added: “Having previously led research on embalming agents employed in mummification during Egypt’s Pharaonic period it was notable that the relative abundances of the constituents are typical of those used in mummification throughout much of ancient Egypt’s 3000 year Pharaonic history. Moreover, these resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later.”

This revolutionary discovery underscores the importance of historic specimen collections in museums. They may seem like dust-magnet clutter, but as technology advances they can be an invaluable resource. First the cholera genome was mapped from 19th century specimens in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, now the history of Egyptian mummification has been rolled back 1,500 years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Official War Dept. art from Western Front digitized

History Blog - Wed, 2014-08-13 23:09

When the United States joined World War I, the War Department commissioned eight accomplished artists to go to France with the American Expeditionary Forces and sketch what they saw. Illustrators William James Aylward, Walter Jack Duncan, Harvey Thomas Dunn, George Matthews Harding, Wallace Morgan, Harry Everett Townsend, architect and etcher J. André Smith, and illustrator and muralist Ernest Clifford Peixotto were given the rank of captain in tn the Army Corps of Engineers and sent to the Western Front in 1918.

This was the first time the US put official artists in the field and the AEF artists had a specifically documentary brief. Their job was to make a visual record of the people and activities on the front lines.

Throughout 1918, prior to the war’s end in November, the artists produced some 700 works, ranging from charcoal sketches to completed ink or watercolor compositions. Bart Hacker, a curator at the National Museum of American History, says the artists depicted four types of scenes: soldier life (washing up, meal time); combat, aftermaths of war (destroyed churches, devastated fields); and technology. In one image, wounded men carry the fallen through trenches and barbed wire. In another, soldiers on horseback travel through a destroyed French village. Notably, Hacker says, the artists did not depict dead bodies.

That isn’t entirely true. They did not depict Allied dead, perhaps, but there are German dead. No blood or gore, however, not even in the field hospital scenes or in combat actions. So their work was meant to document the front, yes, but not the horrors of war in an explicit or even impressionistic way. These images were going to be shown to the public, after all, and bodies torn apart by artillery don’t really sell a war or reassure worried loved ones.

When the artists completed their sketches and watercolors, the pieces were sent to the War Department in Washington, D.C. where some of them were exhibited immediately. Works deemed to be incomplete were kept for the artists to finish upon their return. In January of 1920, the collection was given to the Smithsonian for exhibition. The drawings were put in storage in 1929 and have only been exhibited a handful of times since then.

This year’s centenary of the start of World War I has brought new attention to these works. The American History Museum has digitized the Smithsonian’s collection (there are a few pieces in other museums) and made them available for browsing in high resolution on its website. They may go on public display once again in 1917, the centennial of America’s entry into the war.

While I’m on the subject of the Smithsonian and digitization, the institution has just launched a massive transcription project asking volunteers to sift through millions of images of documents, artifacts and natural history specimens in its collection and transcribe them to make these invaluable resources searchable. Beta testers took days to convert handwritten notes and archives into searchable text that would have taken Smithsonian employees months to complete.

All you have to do is register here, then activate your account by clicking the link in an email they send you and setting your password. Once you’re logged in, go to the Transcription Center and pick your project. Quite a few of the first round of projects are complete but you should look through them anyway because you can enjoy the transcripts which can be browsed page by page or downloaded in their entirety. You can transcribe pages that haven’t been done yet or you can review transcriptions that others have done.

A few open projects on my short list:

Archives Center – NMAH, Charles Francis Hall on his 1860 journey to the north, exploring western Greenland.
National Anthropological Archives – Horatio Hale’s notes on the vocabulary of more than a dozen West and Central African languages spoke by slaves in Rio de Janeiro and on their facial scarification.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries – Mary Smith’s Commonplace Book Concerning Science and Mathematics manuscript about science, math, medicine, religion, etc. written around 1769-1780.

Bookmark the site and check back regularly for new projects.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Entrance to “extremely important” Amphipolis tomb found

History Blog - Tue, 2014-08-12 23:53

Excitement is mounting in Greece over the excavation of a vast tomb atop Kasta hill in the ancient Central Macedonian city of Amphipolis. The Kasta Tumulus was first excavated in 2012, revealing a circular tomb almost 10 feet high (eroded from an estimated original height of 80 feet), 525 feet in diameter and 1,640 feet in circumference, making it significantly larger than the Great Tumulus at Vergina (43 feet high, 360 feet in diameter) that houses the tombs of Philip II of Macedon and other members of the royal family. In fact, it’s the largest tomb ever discovered in Greece.

Almost as soon as digging began, speculation exploded in the media about who might be buried in such a monumental tomb. Could it be Roxana of Bactria, last wife of Alexander the Great, and their son Alexander IV Aegus? According to historian Diodorus Siculus (The Library of History, Book 19, Chapter 52 and 105), they were imprisoned and killed in Amphipolis by Cassander, distant relative of Alexander the Great and Regent of Macedon, in around 310 B.C. Siculus says Cassander had his minion kill them and conceal the bodies. The largest tumulus in Greece doesn’t seem like an ideal spot to conceal anything. Outside of the fever dreams of the press, therefore, there is zero historical evidence that mother and son were interred in Amphipolis and zero archaeological evidence attesting to who was interred in the tumulus.

With Greece’s economy in deep recession, there was no budget to continue excavations or even to secure the site, now exposed to the world in injudiciously excessive terms as a tomb of great historical interest. Archaeologists found Philip II buried in a 24-pound gold casket. Even the most distant possibility that someone in the Macedon royal family or adjacent thereto could be buried in the Kasta Tumulus would surely prove an irresistible lure to looters.

Somehow the money was scraped up to continue excavations and by Spring of 2013, much of the perimeter of the tomb had been unearthed. The foundation of the perimeter wall was built of large limestone blocks clad in marble from the island of Thasos, the same kind of marble used to make a sculpture known as the Lion of Amphipolis. The lion and blocks of marble were found in the Strymon river in the early 1910s. Greek soldiers dragged the blocks out of the river and used some of them to build a base for the lion a few kilometers away from the Kasta Tumulus. The loose blocks and columns that weren’t used in the reconstruction are still there, grouped together next to the lion monument.

Many of the marble pieces from the tomb were missing, so Michaelis Lefantzis, the archaeological team’s architect, went looking among the lion’s marbles for blocks that may have come from the tomb. He found that 400 blocks from around the lion and 30 from the base were the same in shape, size and elaboration as the ones in the wall encircling the tumulus. It seems the Romans stripped them in the 2nd century A.D. and used them to stabilize the banks of the river. Archaeologists believe the lion was once perched on the top of the tomb before it was tossed in the Strymon.

The discovery underscored what an impressive monumental structure the tumulus was in antiquity. Now archaeologists are on the verge of getting inside and maybe discovering who was so important as to garner such a fancy final resting place.

So far, workers have unveiled a flight of 13 steps that lead to a broad path, flanked by masonry walls, which end in a built-up arch covering two headless, wingless sphinxes — mythical creatures that blend human, bird and lion characteristics.

Archaeologists believe the entrance will be unearthed by the end of the month. They haven’t found any evidence of tomb raider activity, no tunneling, no break-ins, so they expect to find an intact tomb. Anticipation is so high the Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, visited the site Tuesday, calling the tumulus “clearly extremely important.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient instrument found in 7th c. Kazakhstan burial

History Blog - Mon, 2014-08-11 23:22

Archaeologists have found an artifact they believe to be an ancient musical instrument in the burial of a Turkic warrior in the region of East Kazakhstan. The burial in the Altai mountains was found intact, with the remains of an adult male in his 40s at the time of death and those of a horse buried next to him. The grave goods identify the deceased as a warrior of some status, and their design allowed archaeologists to provisionally date the burial to the 7th century.

The scientists found weapons belonging to this epoch next to the warrior: a helmet, a quiver, an arrow, a sword, sabers, as well as a horse with a golden harness and a bridle. The most important discovery of the excavation was a musical instrument, similar to (Kazakh) kobyz….

The kobyz is an ancient Kazakh instrument that has two strings made of horsehair. It was believed to be a sacred instruments that could drive away evil spirits. It was often used by spiritual medics and shamans.

There has been a dedicated effort by the Kazakh government and institutions of higher learning to expand historical and archaeological explorations of the nation’s past. The Altai mountains have been the site some of the most important archaeological finds relating to the nomadic peoples who inhabited the region from the 1st millennium B.C. on.

This most recent find was made as part of a Turkic Academy project investigating the statehood system of Western Turkic Khaganate, a state ruled by a Khagan (or Khan) of the Ashina clan after the founder’s kingdom, the Göktürk Khaganate, was split into east and west by his sons in the early 7th century. At its peak, the Khaganate’s sphere of influence stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east, from modern-day Kazakhstan all the way to the other side of Russia. Its founder, Bumin Khagan, was crowned in the Altai mountains, so this was an important center of power.

The Khaganate united a great many nomadic tribes under one (or after the splintering, two) rulers. In the second half of the 7th century, the ten tribes of the Western Turkic Khaganate began to fight amongst themselves which left the state vulnerable to Chinese invasion. In 659 A.D., it was absorbed into Tang Dynasty China. They didn’t get to keep it for long. The tribes revolted and in 682 A.D., the Second Turkic Khaganate was established. It was the first Central Asian state that used Old Turkic as its official language, as evidenced by its appearance on stele known as the Orkhon inscriptions that tell the history of the Khaganate and its liberation from Chinese rule.

The remains of the Altai warrior will be removed for further investigation by the Turkic Academy. The bones will be directly dated and the surviving organic elements like the wooden musical instrument conserved and studied.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

18th c. sculpture of Jesus has human teeth

History Blog - Sun, 2014-08-10 23:58

Restorers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) working on a polychrome statue of the Christ of Patience have found eight human teeth in the figure’s mouth. These types of statues often have teeth, but they’re carved out of wood or bone either as a plate or as individual teeth. This is the first time actual human teeth have been found.

The ends of the teeth can be seen through the open mouth of the statue (they’re rather impressively white and even, too), but it wasn’t until restorers X-rayed the head to determine its conservation needs that they saw that they were full adult teeth complete with roots. According to Fanny Unikel, head restorer of INAH’s Restoration Workshop of Polychrome Sculpture of the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museology (ENCRyM), the teeth were probably donations made by devout parishioners, a practice seen frequently with far less painful materials like hair for wigs or clothing. Had they been saintly relics, they would have been displayed on their own and highlighted for people to revere.

The dental implant Christ is one of a group of 17th and 18th century statues of the saints belonging to the church of San Bartolo Cuautlalpan, a farming community in the central Mexico municipality of Zumpango. They have major condition problems — missing parts, termite and rodent damage, multiple layers of overpainting obscuring the original paint, bad previous repair attempts, thick coatings of hardened eggs and baby oil used by the parishioners to polish the statues — and have undergone an extensive program of restoration this year.

Saint Bartholomew, Saint Joachim, Saint Anne and Our Lady of Sorrows were all in significantly worse condition than the Christ of Patience. He may be drenched in blood and have bone-deep gouges in the flesh of his cheek and knee, but over the centuries he was always covered in clothing and only taken out for the Holy Week procession. The other statues have carved clothes and appear on saint days and other religious events; some spent time in a warehouse where they were at the mercy of vermin and less than ideal climactic conditions. Our Lady of Sorrows has a very rare mechanical element — her hands could be raised to her face as if she were crying — that hasn’t worked in years. In order to examine her insides with the aim of repairing the mechanism, restorers had to give her a CT scan because X-rays couldn’t see through the layer of lead paint, one of eight layers of overpainting just on this one statue.

Compared to his mother’s travails, Jesus has had it relatively easy. After examining the statue closely and X-raying to determine any internal damage, restorers found his structure is sound. The statue was cleaned and some areas of paint loss on the torso, sandal, legs and soles of the feet were filled in using a technique called rigatino which lays stripes of several hues in short brush strokes that from a distance blend in with the original painting but that do not attempt to disguise the fact that restoration was done. The platform on which Christ of Patience sits had been overpainted in a tragic beige. Restorers were able to remove it and reveal the reds and greens of the original polychrome.

There are some lovely gruesome views of the statue in this Spanish-language video featuring restorer Fanny Unikel talking about the teeth, the statue’s excellent condition and restoration.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

World’s oldest eel dies at 155 in Swedish well

History Blog - Sat, 2014-08-09 23:35

Sweden is in mourning today over the death of the world’s oldest eel. Åle the eel was around 155 years old when he left a country bereft, a prodigious age for the European eel Anguilla anguilla which in the wild typically lives around seven years in fresh water before returning to the ocean to spawn and die. They can be very long-lived, though. The oldest recorded wild eel was 85 years old.

Åle was put in the well in the fishing village of Brantevik on the southeastern tip of Sweden by eight-year-old Samuel Nilsson in 1859. This was a common practice in a time when running water was rare (Stockholm only got public water mains in the 1850s; it took more than a century after that for waterworks to be installed in smaller towns) and a good eel could keep the home’s water supply free of bugs, worms, eggs, algae and any other number of critters. European eels will even eat carrion, so they’re extremely helpful additions to a well.

This particular eel has been a star for close to a hundred years, garnering articles in the paper, TV news stories and documentaries, even making an appearance in the Swedish Tom Sawyer, Bombi Bitt and I written by Fritiof Nilsson Piraten in 1932. Thomas Kjellman, current owner of the cottage, remembers Åle from when he was a boy. His family bought the house in 1962 with the understanding that the eel came with the property.

Last Tuesday, Kjellman lifted the lid off the well to show his famous eel to guests when he discovered Åle was no more. He had fallen apart, in fact, which must have put a bit of a damper on the annual crayfish party. They had to drain the well in order to recover the delicate remains which are being kept in the freezer until eel expert Dr. Håkan Wickström comes to pick them up. He will then take them to a laboratory in Stockholm for a necropsy.

Although the body is in pieces, the entire spine is intact and the family is hoping to send along the head as well. Rings in the otolith, or ear stone, of the eel would reveal its exact age.

The Kjellman family will have to take solace in the fact that they have a backup superannuated eel. Their other well eel, currently unnamed, is only about 110 years old.

You can catch a glimpse of Åle in his rather depressing well home/dungeon at 2:39 in the following video. You can see him in all his big-eyed glory (reportedly a result of a century spent in near constant darkness) when they bring him up into the light starting at 4:00.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

History Blog - Fri, 2014-08-08 23:25

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

To follow the news from the Cetamura del Chianti well excavation, keep an eye on their Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History