Arts and Sciences

Bones of 18th c. Italian missionary found in Tokyo

History Blog - Sun, 2016-07-10 20:58

The skeleton of 18th century Italian missionary Giovanni Battista Sidotti has been identified in Tokyo. The remains were unearthed in July 2014 during construction of a new upscale condominium development on the site of a long-demolished prison for Christians. Two other skeletons were also discovered near the first. Earthenware fragments and other artifacts found in the layer date it to the early 18th century.

Researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science pieced together the bone fragments and successfully extracted DNA from a tooth. Analysis revealed that the person was more than 170 centimeters tall, significantly taller than the 156 cm average height for a Japanese man at that time. DNA was found to match the genetic characteristics of modern Italians. Sidotti was reported to be 175-178 cm tall and he was one of only two Italians held in the prison. The other, Giuseppe Chiara, was a much older man, 84 years old at time of death, and his remains were cremated.

Spanish Jesuit and future saint Francis Xavier brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. He, Father Cosme de Torrès, Brother João Fernandes, a Japanese convert named Anjiro and two other Japanese men landed on the southern island of Kyushu and began to preach, which, since only one of the priests had managed to learn a bare smattering of Japanese, mainly consisted of reading from a version of the Catholic catechism Anjiro had translated into Japanese.

The first Christian, called Kirishitan in Japanese, converts were Anjiro’s friends and family. Christianity spread quickly and by 1560, there were 6,000 converts on Kyushu. In 1563 the first daimyo, Omura Sumitada, converted, and in less than a decade had forced everyone in his domain, 35,000 people, to convert as well. Converting daimyos proved essential to the Jesuit mission, because in one fell swoop entire populations would be made to convert by their lord. The daimyos benefited from the Jesuit’s military support, receiving essential materials like saltpeter (used to make gunpowder), weapons and aid in constructing fortifications. Mass baptisms increased the number of Kirishitan exponentially so that there were approximately 130,000 converts within 30 years of Francis Xavier’s arrival. By the early 17th century, there were 250,000 of them.

One of the reasons the new religion made such effective headway is that Xavier used the term “Dainichi,” the Japanese name of the celestial Buddha Vairocana, for God. Shingon Buddhist monks thus welcomed the Jesuits as a fellow Buddhists and in 1551 daimyo Ouchi Yoshitaka gave the missionaries an old Buddhist temple in Yamaguchi describing them as “monks who have come from the western region [meaning India, which was seen as the ultimate in exotic distant lands] to spread the law of Buddha.” Xavier ultimately realized this wasn’t according to Hoyle Christianity, so he stopped using Dainichi and switched to Deusu, a Japonified version of the Latin Deus.

That entre’ via Buddhist terminology and close relationship to warring daimyos would come back to bite Catholic missionaries hard when Japan was unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. To hobble the power of the local daimyo, he banished all Christian missionaries from Kyushu in 1587. He still wanted to trade with Portugal and Spain, however, so he didn’t get hardcore about quashing the Kirishitan for another decade even as the Jesuits repeatedly considered an armed campaign against him. That all changed on February 5th, 1597, when he ordered 26 Christians — six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and 17 Japanese laymen converts — crucified in Nagasaki to discourage conversions.

His successor Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu wanted to maintain friendly relations with Spain and Portugal for trade purposes, but he was convinced that Christianity was inimical to Japanese culture and society and even as he attempted to negotiate trade agreements, asked European powers to take back their missionaries and their religion. Things took an uglier turn after three successive financial scandals involving Christians broke out at court in 1612-3. The central figure in one of the scandals, a former actor named Okubo Nagayasu was rumored to be Christian although there’s no direct evidence of it. He was dead when his financial misdeeds came to light, and in the wake of the scandal, he was accused of having plotted with missionaries to bring a foreign army to protect Kirishitan against the Shogun.

That was the last straw. On Valentine’s Day, 1614, Ieyasu expelled all Catholic missionaries from Japan, closed all the churches and prohibited the practice of Christianity. From the 1614 edict:

The Kirishitan band have come to Japan, not only sending their merchant vessels to exchange commodities, but also longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land. This is the germ of great disaster, and must be crushed.”

Subsequent Tokugawa rulers enforced the edict with an iron fist, persecuting the Kirishitan, even commoners, who before then had been largely ignored, in order to exterminate the faith from Japanese soil. In every household Christians were identified, forced into apostasy and monitored afterwards to ensure they weren’t secretly following their religion. There were mass executions in which dozens of Christians who refused to renounce their beliefs were burned, crucified or otherwise dispatched publicly.

The fight against Christianity played a significant role in the policy of Sakoku, the national isolation policy that kept foreigners out and Japanese in, enacted in pieces from 1633 through 1639 and continuing for more than two centuries until Commodore Matthew Perry ended it with the business end of his gunboat diplomacy in the mid-19th century. The Shimabara Rebellion, a revolt of mostly Catholic peasants, in 1637-8, ramped up anti-Kirishitan regulations, banning the religion on pain of death.

Propaganda followed, starting with Kirishitan Monogatari (“Tales of the Christians”), a book by an anonymous author published in 1638 which detailed the many crimes and obscenities of missionaries and Christians. It inspired several other books representing Christians as grotesque caricatures. Nambanji Kohai Ki (“Grandeur and Decadence of the Church of the Southern Barbarians”) was published around 1695, 13 years before Giovanni Battista Sidotti made his suicidal attempt to sneak into Japan.

Sidotti, a Sicilian priest, had heard of the martyrdoms in Japan and was keen to brave the risk of death in God’s name. He sought and was granted permission to go to Japan from Pope Clement XI and made his way there from Manila, landing on the island of Yakushima in fall of 1708. His cunning plan was to disguise himself as a samurai, complete with topknot and kimono, just a set of fake buckteeth and glasses away from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was quickly spotted by a farmer who denounced him to the authorities.

He was arrested and the next year sent to the Kirishitan Yashiki (“Mansion of the Christians”), a former school in Edo which had been converted into a prison for suspected crypto-Christians and missionaries in 1646. There Japanese Kirishitan were routinely tortured into renouncing their religion. Sidotti received much gentler treatment. He was interrogated by Arai Hakuseki, a renown Confucian scholar and adviser to the Shogun Tokugawa Ienobu and his successor Tokugawa Ietsugu.

Hakuseki came to respect Sidotti’s intellect and extensive knowledge of the world. He also believed him when Sidotti assured him that missionaries were not the advance brigade of a Western invasion. Hakuseki recommended to the Shogun that Sidotti be deported, a shocking departure from the usual death penalty, or failing that, imprisoned. Sidotti was kept in Kirishitan Yashiki under go-nin fuchi house arrest, a status with plenty of food, a comfortable room and two attendants, former Christians Chosuke and Haru, seeing to his needs. It was only when he tried to reconvert them that he was sent to the dungeon where he died of unknown causes in 1714.

Later historical accounts record that he was buried with care, and the discovery of his bones confirms their accuracy.

“His body was laid flat in a casket, a luxurious one as far as I can tell by the brackets,” said Akio Tanigawa, professor of archaeology at Tokyo’s Waseda University and lead researcher on the remains, referring to coffin pieces discovered with the bones.

“People did not bury human bodies like this,” Tanigawa stressed, suggesting Sidotti was likely given a burial “in the Christian way.”

The other two bodies buried near him, one of which was interred in the more typical Edo fashion sitting up in a small tub, may be his attendants Chosuke and Haru.

Hakuseki published his conversations with Sidotti in the first volume of a three-volume book called Seiyo Kibun. The other volumes covered the five continents and an analysis of Christianity. Sidotti’s information also featured in Hakuseki’s five-volume geography Sairan Igen. These books were influential in loosening up the attitude of the shogunate to European intellectual pursuits. For the first time in a century, Western books about science and astronomy were translated into Japanese. Religion was still right out, of course, but gradually attitudes softened there too, and the torture and interrogation of Christians was abolished in 1792. The Kirishitan Yashiki, already damaged by a fire in 1725, was demolished shortly thereafter.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lady Jane Franklin’s Egyptian mummy mask

History Blog - Sat, 2016-07-09 21:32

A wood mask that once adorned the head of a mummy from the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1295 B.C.) sold at auction on Thursday for £116,500 ($151,291). A beautifully carved visage with full lips and a small, straight nose features big eyes with stone whites and obsidian pupils. The eyebrows used to be inlaid as well, but the stone is gone leaving only the recess in the wood. Under the chin is a small groove where a false beard was once attached. There are traces of the bitumen used to glue the piece in place still left. The inlay and fine details indicate this was an expensive piece used for a person of high status in New Kingdom society.

In addition to being a beautiful and rare artifact, the mask has another claim to fame: it was first acquired in Egypt by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of that Sir John Franklin who died with all of his crew on a doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The discovery of one of his ships, the HMS Erebus, has been the subject of many an entry on this blog.

Jane Franklin had even more of a traveling jones as her husband, and she voyaged without the support of a navy often in extremely challenging conditions. She was born Jane Griffin in 1791 to family of means. Her father was a wealthy silk weaver of Huguenot extraction. Her mother, also of Huguenot descent, died when Jane was three years old. Jane was educated at a boarding school for elegant young ladies, but it was insufficiently challenging for a girl of her wits and energy. From the age of 17, she fleshed out her education with extensive travel on the continent, accompanied and supported by her family. She did all the stops of the Grand Tour and more, spending years on the road in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Denmark.

Finding a husband does not appear to have been as high on the priority list for Jane as was customary for women of her class in 19th century England. She had a couple of romances, one with medical student Adolphe Butini, another with Dr. Peter Mark Roget of thesaurus fame, but neither got past the chaste yearning stage and both men married other women. Jane was just shy of 37 years old when she married John Franklin, a remarkably advanced age for a woman’s first marriage in 1828. She was his second wife — his first, poet Eleanor Anne Porden who was a good friend of Jane’s, had died in 1825 — and her new marital status changed her peripatetic ways not a bit. The tone was set when they were still engaged and she caught up with in St. Petersburg to travel around Russia together.

After he got a new assignment captaining the HMS Rainbow in the Mediterranean in 1830, Jane took the opportunity to travel widely whenever he was busy, which was often as the area was mired in tension courtesy of the Greek War of Independence. She went to Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, traveling independently and often going off the beaten track. In Egypt she sailed from Cairo up the Nile to the Second Cataract, even engaging in a slightly naughty (for the time) flirtation with a Prussian minister on board.

Franklin was called back to London in 1834 while Jane was still traveling in Greece. She kept doing her thing for another year, eventually meeting back up with her husband and joining him in the long voyage down under when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1836. Once there, she dedicated her endless energy to founding a museum, a scientific society, acquiring land for a botanical garden, working for prison reform and of course, travel. She was the first European woman to climb Mount Wellington. She took the arduous overland route to Macquarie Harbour along Tasmania’s untamed west coast and traveled from Melbourne to Sydney, likely the first woman to do so.

It wasn’t all voyaging good times. Jane took a liking to an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna and adopted her, ie, just took her from her still-living parents who had already had one child stolen by British authorities to blackmail them into resettlement against their will. That daughter was dumped in an orphanage and died. Now their second daughter became Jane Franklin’s black doll. Mathinna was dressed up pretty, went on carriage rides next to Eleanor, John Franklin’s daughter from his first marriage, and was educated by her governess. When John Franklin’s term as lieutenant-governor ended in 1843, the Franklins returned to London leaving Mathinna behind in the same orphanage where her sister had died. Jerked around for her whole life and left unable to fit in anywhere, Mathinna would die at age 17, apparently from drowning in a puddle while drunk.

The Franklins just went about their business, oblivious to the fate of the little girl they had displaced so callously. Driven in significant part by Jane’s efforts, Sir John Franklin got the chance he had long yearned for to return to the Arctic. This would be his fourth and final expedition. He and a crew of 108 men took HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to Canada in 1845. Arctic Canada would be their graves.

When her husband failed to return in 1847 as planned, Lady Franklin marshalled her considerable resources of finance and dedication to his rescue. In 1848 she offered rewards of $10,000 and $15,000 to anyone who should attempt to bring succor to the missing expedition. In April of 1849, she wrote a letter to the President of the United States, noting that the ships had been provisioned with enough supplies for three years and with four years nearly gone, any survivors would be in extreme need. She hoped to persuade the US to send out rescue ships as the Russian Empire was planning and the British Admiralty had already done.

When other missions failed to find traces of the Franklin expedition, Jane outfitted her own. In the 1850s she poured money into five different search missions. Even though by then there was no chance of anyone having survived, in 1854 she redoubled her efforts after Captain John Rae, first sent by the Admiralty and then by the Hudson Bay Company on a rescue mission, returned with artifacts from the Franklin expedition and Inuit testimony of survival cannabilism among the crew. Disgusted and horrified by Rae’s news, she rejected it vehemently as the gossip of savages and became even more motivated to find what was left of the ships and their logs. She was sure they would prove conclusively that her husband, officers and crew had behaved with nothing but the most British of honor to the last.

Her last attempt to directly fund a search team was the steam yacht Fox captained by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1857. Ice blocked his path for two years, but finally in 1859 he encountered Inuits who told him of the ships crushed by ice off King William Island and of its crew who subsequently died of starvation. When McClintock reached King William Island, he bought several Franklin expedition artifacts from the Inuit. McClintock’s second-in-command, William Hobson, found an Admiralty form in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island which had a note scrawled in the margin revealing that Franklin had died on June 11th, 1847. These were the only official records of the expedition ever found.

Lady Franklin and Captain McClintock were awarded the 1860 patron’s medal from the Royal Geographical Society. She was the first woman to receive the award, and for many decades the only one. It was exceptionally fitting since the missions she had funded ended up discovering and mapping more of the Canadian Arctic than any explorer ever had, including her husband.

Jane Franklin would outlive Sir John by 30 years, and never stopped traveling the world. She dined with Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, hiked in Yosemite, had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome, stipulating ahead of time that she would not be kneeling, climbed Mount Olympus, became friends with Queen Emma of Hawaii, went on her first trip to India when she was 74 years old and traveled the subcontinent for three years.

When she died in 1875 at the age of 84, six Arctic explorers were her pallbearers.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Late Roman bronze belt set found in Leicester

History Blog - Fri, 2016-07-08 02:08

A team from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) excavating an ancient cemetery in Leicester have unearthed an elaborate bronze belt set typically worn by military commanders or government officials in Late Roman Britain. The cemetery on Western Road was just outside the old Roman city walls near the Fosse Way, an important Roman road which connected the military camps at Isca (Exeter) and Lindum (Lincoln). Archaeologists unearthed 83 skeletons, one of which, in grave 23, was found with the bronze buckle set next to his right hip. It dates to the second half of the 4th century or the early 5th century.

The set is composed of three parts: a belt plate, a buckle and the end of a strap. The belt plate is made from a thin sheet of bronze decorated in the chip-carved style, meaning parts of the sheet were carved away leaving behind an interlocking spiral design. The buckle is decorated with dolphin heads. The strap end has a crouching dog on both sides of the tapered end. The buckle sits in the middle of the plate which would have been riveted to a wide leather belt. The strap that threads through the buckle had bronze cap. The metal parts are all that have survived of the belt, and that’s remarkable enough as it is, because the belt plate is so thin, it could easily have corroded into nothingness.

Other examples of this type of buckle have been found in Late Roman cemeteries in London, Winchester, Dorchester on Thames in Britain, as well as in Oudenburg, Belgium, but they are rare. Pictorial evidence indicates these belts were worn by the elites to convey their power and authority.

This elite fellow’s grave was not built to convey power and authority. It was simply cut into mudstone on the bank of the River Soar and held the remains of an adult man between 36 and 45 years of age at the time of his death. Osteological evidence indicates he was sick as a child, surviving bouts of illness to reach adulthood in comparatively good health. As an adult, he fractured his left forearm in a type of injury known as a “parry fracture” because it is usually incurred by raising an arm to parry a blow. The fracture healed on its own, but his wrist suffered permanent damage from it. He suffered from muscle damage in his upper right arm and shoulder. This could have been caused by exertion either in manual labor or in athletic pursuits like lifting and throwing. They are also commonly seen in professional fighters like gladiators and soldiers.

The belt buckle set and other artifacts discovered at the Western Road excavation will be on display for one day only this Sunday, July 10th, at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester from 11:00AM through 4:00 PM. It’s a free event in conjunction with the upcoming Festival of Archaeology. Archaeologists from the dig will be present to talk to visitors about their work and the finds, including the belt buckle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Volunteer at crowdfunded Lindisfarne dig finds Anglo-Saxon name stone

History Blog - Thu, 2016-07-07 03:55

The monastery of Lindisfarne, famous for the beautiful illuminated gospel made around 700 AD that bears its name and as the landing place of the first Viking raiders in 793, was founded in 7th century by Irish missionary Saint Aidan. King Oswald of Northumbria had been raised and educated at the monastery on the island of Iona, so when he was crowned in 634, he invited Iona to send one of its monks to convert the people of Northumbria. Aidan chose Lindisfarne as the location for a monastery that would become the uncontested epicenter of Christianity in Northumbria for the next 30 years and whose influence would spread throughout northern England.

The Vikings, first from Norway and then Denmark, attacked and plundered Lindisfarne repeatedly in the century after the first lucrative foray. Finally in 875 with the collapse of the kingdom of Northumbria under the pressure of a Danish invasion, the monastic community of Lindisfarne picked up stakes and ran. A second monastery was built on Lindisfarne more than 200 years later by the Normans. It stood until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

Despite its outsized importance to the history of Christianity, the precise location of the first monastery was lost. In 1999-2000, there were a few small-scale archaeological surveys in advance of construction on the island, but nothing concrete was discovered. In 2012, University of Durham archaeologist Dr. David Petts carried out a geophysical survey of Lindisfarne funded by National Geographic. The survey discovered several areas of interest with remains that could be related to the first priory.

Funding for a follow-up excavation was not forthcoming, so this year Petts partnered with archaeological crowdsourcing concern DigVentures to raise the money for an archaeological dig on Lindisfarne, the first to specifically target the Anglo-Saxon priory. The project raised £25,000 in less than a week, plus much-needed manpower from donors who were keen to help excavate the site. Excavations began in June.

The team found several artifacts that indicated they were on the right track. There was a fragment of a sculpture carved with lines and crosses. A fragment of a bone comb was the first datable artifact. It’s an Ashby Type 8b comb, which dates it to between 900 and 1000 A.D. Another datable find was even closer to the target period: a sceat, an Anglo-Saxon silver coin with an animal on one side and the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria (r. 737-758) on the other.

Then they unearthed a small semi-circular carved sandstone fragment. This is a very rare piece, an Anglo-Saxon grave marker dating to the period just after the founding of the first Lindisfarne monastery. This type of stone is known as a name stone because, well, there are names carved on them, and this one is no exception.

Gravemarkers, or ‘namestones’ are probably one of the most diagnostically Anglo-Saxon artefacts it’s possible to find, but they’re incredibly rare. Although a handful of squareheaded namestones have been found, only 13 of these roundheaded ones have previously been found, and they all date to the mid-7th to 8th century AD. placing it firmly in the period of Lindisfarne’s first monastery.

Experts are still deciphering the text, but it’s clear that the name of the person commemorated on the stone ended with the letters ‘frith’, which is a common element of Anglo-Saxon names. Also visible are sun motif, and an indent where a metal boss or jewel may have been placed.

One of the most significant figures in Lindisfarne history had a name ending in “frith.” Eadfrith was Bishop of Lindisfarne at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century. According to a 10th century annotation in the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, it was Eadfrith who wrote and illuminated the work. Eadfrith was buried on Lindisfarne, but his remains were exhumed, along with those of St. Cuthbert, when the monks fled the invading Danes. After more than a century of peregrinations, Eadfrith and Cuthbert’s bones found a permanent home at Durham Cathedral.

The team also found fragments of bone near the marker, so it’s possible the spot was a graveyard. The excavation is over for this year, but the finds were so promising, the team hopes to return next year. They plan to crowdfund again. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the wonderful excavation diary on the DigVentures website.

Here’s a 3D model of the name stone:

Here’s a texturized version of the model that enhances the engraving on the surface :

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Four 17th c. tapestries repatriated to Sweden

History Blog - Wed, 2016-07-06 02:15

The National Museum of Sweden, has acquired four tapestries that graced an elegant home in late 17th century Stockholm but have been out of the country for more than a century. A large bequest from Gunnar and Ulla Trygg gave the museum, which has no acquisitions budget, the rare opportunity to bring these wall hangings home. They are in exceptional condition.

The tapestries were made in the early 1690s. They were commissioned by Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger to adorn the Stockholm home of Swedish statesman Carl Piper, a commoner whose abilities earned him advancement and a noble title at the court of King Charles XI. In 1690, he married Christina Törne, the daughter of a rich merchant who also happened to be Piper’s stepbrother. His father-in-law/stepbrother gifted the couple a handsome property in Stockholm’s old town. Tessin, then the premier architect in the country who could count the king and queen among his clientele, was given the task of refurbishing the old house.

Later known as the Grotesques de Berain, the tapestries were mistakenly thought to be the design of Jean Bérain the Elder, a Dutch artist in Paris known for his arabesques and grotesques who was a good friend of Nicodemus Tessin’s, but extensive surviving correspondence between Tessin and Daniel Cronström, the Swedish envoy to Paris, proves that the artist was in fact someone else. Cronström’s was Tessin’s go-to guy in France, a close friend who could negotiate directly with the purveyors of the most fashionable goods and services in Paris. The real designer for the Piper tapestry series was Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, a Flemish painter who worked for both of the great tapestry workshops in France: Gobelins and Beauvais. He specialized in floral still-lives and was in demand both for his tapestry cartoons and for decorative painting. He worked under Charles Le Brun, then director of the Gobelins factory, on the fresco decorations for royal residence the Château de Marly and under Jean Bérain at the Dauphin’s residence the Château de Meudon.

Tessin commissioned two suites of tapestries from Beauvais: one with a “port de mer” (harbour scenes) theme, the other “grotesques,” meaning a style drawn from the frescoes of ancient Rome which were usually discovered in underground cave-like spaces or “grotte,” in Italian. Curling foliage elements embrace mythological figures (Bacchus, Pan), animals (elephants, peacocks) and heroic figures against the background of Classical architectural elements. Beauvais’ grotesque motif was hugely popular from the time of its launch in 1688 for another 40 years. Carl Piper’s set did not have his coat of arms or monogram in the border because Tessin was in a hurry and the customization would take too much time to complete. Cronström had the idea of making matching chairs with Piper’s monogram. It is a lot easier and faster to weave a monogram onto an upholstered chair than a big ol’ wall hanging. Some of those chairs have survived. Here’s one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The tapestries were installed in the Piper palace in early 1696. After that, it’s not clear what happened to them. Carl Piper was taken prisoner in 1709 after the Battle of Poltava in the Great Northern War. He was largely blamed for Sweden’s terrible defeat, accused of having taken bribes from England to sway King Charles XI to the calamitous invasion of Russia which had concluded in such ignominy. Piper and his wife (who did indeed get a lovely pair of diamond earrings as a “gift” from the Duke of Marlborough) were disgraced. Carl died in captivity in Russia in 1716. His formidable wife, who had wielded great power when her husband was an important royal minister, went on to become a real estate mogul, industrialist and philanthropist of immense success.

At some point before 1909, the tapestries left Sweden, probably in the late 19th century. In 1909 they were sold to Louise Mackay, an American collector, who bequeathed them to her son Clarence. After his death in 1938, they were sold at Christie’s in New York and the grotesque tapestry suite was split up. Two other tapestries from the series are now in museums in England and Spain.

The National Museum is proud to have repatriated four of the tapestries from the grotesque suite. Their exquisite condition and brilliant color would make them a catch for any museum (compare them to the matching armchair to see how pristine they are), but they’re even more significant thanks to that surviving correspondence between Tessin and Cronström. The letters make these suites of tapestries the best-documented personal orders for French tapestries from the 17th century. They’re also the first documented order of tapestries with matching chair upholstery.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Inscribed wood barrel stave found at Vindolanda

History Blog - Tue, 2016-07-05 01:13

The Vindolanda site in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall is best known for the more than 700 wooden writing tablets preserved for millennia in the waterlogged soil, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organic archaeological remains. Vindolanda has the largest collection of Roman leather in the world. Everything from thousands of leather shoes of all sizes so perfectly preserved the museum display case looks like a shoe store, to purses and buckets have been unearthed there, as well as fragile textiles like a child’s sock.

Then there’s the wood. In 2014, archaeologists found a wooden toilet seat, the first of its kind ever discovered. Now the anaerobic soil has produced another handsome wood everyday treasure: an engraved barrel stave. The stave dates to around 90 A.D. and is in exceptional condition, smooth as slate with a maker’s brand and numerals still pristine on the surface. The brand is incomplete with the visible part reading “ALBIN.NORB.” We don’t know what was in it, but the numeral indicates there were 1,200 of them in the barrel.

The wood is pine and archaeologists believe the barrel was imported from Spain.

[Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations for the Trust] went on to say “the barrel stave has been one of the highlights of the season so far and we hope over the coming weeks we will know more about ALBIN – NORB as images of the stave have been sent to specialists in both Spain and here in the UK for further interpretation. However, we can guess that ALBIN could mean ALBINVS, the name of the manufacturer of the barrel, and NORB is the place of origin”.

Albinus is a cognomen, a family name, and so is Norbanus. They wouldn’t go together as the name of one person, which is why the NORB is likelier as a place designation, ie, Albinus from Norba. Cities were often named after the families names of important men. Norba Caesarina (modern-day Cáceres in southwestern Spain), for example, was named after its founder Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, proconsul of Spain from 36 to 34 B.C., and his boss Octavian who was going by Gaius Julius Caesar, courtesy of his posthumous adoption by his assassinated great-uncle, at the time.

The barrel stave is one of 1,463 wooden artifacts that have been unearthed at Vindolanda over the decades. It’s the largest and most varied collection of ancient wooden objects in Britain, but it’s been locked away in storage for years for conservation purposes. The Heritage Lottery Fund has just approved a £1.3 million ($1.7 million) grant that will fund the display of this exceptional collection for the first time.

Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will see the creation of a new gallery dedicated solely to the display of the wooden objects found at the fort and settlement site. The gallery will have custom display cases with climate control features that will allow the wood to be on public view without compromising the temperature and humidity levels necessary to preserve the wood.

The barrel stave may be among the artifacts on display in the dedicated wood gallery. The toilet seat definitely will be, along with a wagon wheel, a potters’ wheel head, a bread shovel, axles and large wooden water pipes made out of alder logs bored down the length of them. The new gallery is scheduled to open in 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods

History Blog - Mon, 2016-07-04 03:41

In 1746, Peter Collinson, wealthy merchant, philanthropist, botanist and Fellow of the Royal Society of London, gave Benjamin Franklin one of those newfangled Leyden jars that were all the rage. Well, technically he gave it to the Library Company of Philadelphia, but that was founded by Franklin and Collinson was a long-time friend and supporter of Franklin’s endeavors, so it was understood that Franklin was going to be using the new toy which could capture “electrical fire”. Thomas Penn, son of colony founder William Penn and inheritor of his title Proprietor of the Colony of Pennsylvania, chipped in all the rest of the equipment necessary to start investigating electrical phenomena, a pursuit engrossing many gentlemen of scientific disposition in the Old World at that time. The Library Company’s electrical setup formed the first scientific research laboratory in America.

Benjamin Franklin was hooked. Alongside Ebenezer Kinnersley, Thomas Hopkinson, and Philip Syng, Franklin studied and experimented with electricity for the next three years. From 1747 through 1750, he shared his findings in a series of letters to Collinson. In these letters Franklin detailed his experiments and described for the first time principles of electricity that are commonly held today. For example, he recognized that friction did not create electricity so much as collect it from materials like metal and water to which it was attracted; he coined the terms positive and negative/plus and minus to describe electrical charge (as opposed to the prevailing thought that they were two different kinds of electricity, “vitreous” named after the glass that accumulated electrical charge when rubbed with silk, and “resinous,” like amber rubbed with fur); he first used the terms “charging” and “discharging” for the operations of a Leyden jar; he coined the term “battery” for a group of connected jars that could store more charge than an individual jar, like a battery of cannon concentrated shot on the battlefield.

Franklin also determined through experimentation that a sharp point is far more effective at drawing electricity than a blunt end. When he put a “long slender sharp bodkin” close to an electrically charged shot, it drew the charge from a foot away, while a “blunt body” had to be no more than an inch away and unlike the sharp point, it generated a spark. Extrapolating from his small-scale experiments, he proposed that a long, sharp rod properly grounded could save structures from the destruction of lightning.

I say, if these things are so, may not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships &c. from the stroke of lightning, by directing us to fix on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting, and from the foot of those rods a wire down the outside of the building into the ground, or down round one of the shrouds of a ship, and down her side till it reaches the water? Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief?

For his idea of a lightning rod to work, first Franklin had to confirm that “clouds that contain lightning are electrified,” still an open question at the time. He suggested an experiment.

On the top of some high tower or steeple, place a kind of sentry-box, big enough to contain a man and an electrical stand. From the middle of the stand, let an iron rod rise and pass bending out of the door, and then upright 20 or 30 feet, pointed very sharp at the end. If the electrical stand be kept clean and dry, a man standing on it when such clouds are passing low, might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to him from a cloud.

While Franklin did his experiments in Philadelphia, other people were doing similar work across the Atlantic. Collinson circulated the letters among the Royal Society fellows, including William Watson who at the same time as Franklin had independently determined that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were a surplus and deficiency, as he called it, of charge. In 1751, Collinson published the letters and other papers Franklin had sent him in a book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America.

Franklin’s writings were accepted but with subdued enthusiasm at first in Britain. In France, on the other hand, people were excited and inspired to try his experiments. Famed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, received a copy of the book from Collinson and asked his frequent collaborator botanist Thomas-François Dalibard to translate it into French. Dalibard got so into it he enlisted the aid of a certain Delor who had the necessary equipment to replicate Franklin’s experiments. They worked so well that Buffon, Dalibard and Delor performed them before Louis XV and a delighted court where (forgive me) sparks flew.

Their success drove them to try the experiment that Franklin had described but not done yet: the sentry-box lightning rod experiment. They wisely forewent perching a man next to an iron rod in a box on top of a tower roof, modifying it into a test with distinctly less killing potential. A 13-meter (43-foot) iron rod insulated by silk ropes and wine bottles was inserted into a wooden table under a little roofed structure (the sentry-box). When a thunderstorm passed over, the iron rod drew sparks.

Franklin didn’t hear about Dalibard’s experiment for a while. Meanwhile, he’d come up with a new idea to test the charge of storm clouds without the complications of the sentry-box. On June 15th, 1752, Benjamin Franklin and his son William flew a silk and cedar kite with a sharp wire at the top. Twine coming down from the kite had a silk ribbon tied to it and a key tried to the ribbon. This experiment has gone down in legend with an image of Benajamin Franklin running in the rain as lightning strikes the key, but in fact it was essential the silk ribbon stay dry so it could insulate the key from the ground and ensure the electric current accumulated in the key. Franklin was indoors while the kite was getting wet. If he hadn’t been, he never would have seen the sparks fly off the key.

When the news of Dalibard’s success reached him, Franklin installed an insulated iron rod on the roof of his home. Within a few months grounding conductors were installed in the Academy of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). In 1753, Franklin published instructions on how to protect homes from lightning strikes using iron rods in Poor Richard’s Almanack (page 72 of this pdf). Some people were apprehensive about it, railing at early adopters for attempting to defy God’s will and attracting deadly lightning, but over time lightning rods became commonplace and Franklin refined and modified his design to improve them.

The invention of lightning rods saved not only property but lives. Before them, the only method considered valid against thunderstorms was in hindsight insanely counterproductive: vigorous ringing of church bells in the belief that sound could break up storm clouds. That put the poor bell ringers of the world up church steeples, the highest structures around, yanking on soaked ropes connected to large metal bells precisely when lightning was most likely to strike. The practice continued for decades after Franklin’s experiments proved there was a simple architectural solution that did not put lives in danger. A study by Johann Fischer published in Munich in 1784 found that in the 33 years between 1750 and 1783, bell towers were struck by lightning 386 times killing 103 bell ringers.

During the Revolutionary period, the embrace of Franklin’s design for the lightning rod was a political statement of allegiance to New World ideas. In Britain the blunt-ended lightning rod was popular. Rejecting them in favor of Franklin’s sharp points was a philosophical choice. In 1788, the Maryland State House in Annapolis had a 28-foot lightning rod installed on its new dome according to Franklin’s specifications. It is still there, making its inventor proud. On Friday it was put through its paces and even after 208 years it handled the strike like a boss.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Danish police to study 10th c. arson at Borgring

History Blog - Sun, 2016-07-03 02:32

Archaeologists excavating the 10th century Viking Borgring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014, are calling the cops to help solve a 1,000-year-old mystery. The fortress was first identified with drone footage, laser scanning and a geomagnetic survey. Test pits were then dug at key positions which confirmed that this was Trelleborg-type fortress, one of a series of defensive ring forts built around 980 A.D. by King of Norway and Denmark Harald Bluetooth.

One of the original test pits was dug where the north gate would have been. Archaeologists found large oak timbers, evidence of the massive gates typical of Trelleborg forts, that were charred from fire. Funds for a full excavation of the site were secured last year. Excavations began in earnest this year. Thus far the team has unearthed more evidence of fire at the east gate. The outer posts of the gate are charred through, and posts from inside the gate bear marks of burning.

The working theory right now is that the fort was attacked by Danish noblemen before it was completed during an uprising against Harald Bluetooth’s rule. Harald’s son Sweyn Forkbeard rebelled against his father in the mid-980s. According to Saxo Grammaticus, chronicler and author of the Gesta Danorum, Sweyn’s forces defeated Harald and forced him to flee to Jomsborg where he died of his wounds.

Archaeologists also found that the fort was not complete, that construction appeared to have ended halfway through. That suggests it was the last fort Harald built, that it was started at the end of his reign, became a target of rebel forces and was left unfinished after his defeat and death.

In the hopes of getting more information about the fire, archaeologists have reached out to police fire safety investigators. They want forensic arson specialists to study the burned areas of the structure.

“Hopefully, they can say more about how the fire was started. We generally have good experience of cooperation with the police. For instance, we have previously used their sniffing dogs to dig out bones from the earth,” Sanne Jakobsen, communications manager at Southeast Museum Denmark told Danish Radio.

The team will also do dendrochronological analysis of the timbers to narrow down the date of the fort. Excavations will continue for three months every summer through 2018, after which the plan is to close up archaeological shop and let the field return to nature. The clock is ticking, therefore. If you have a chance to see the site in the next couple of years, take it. Visitors can download an app to learn more about the other Trelleborg forts, Borgring and the archaeological finds made at the site.

Here’s a video of the site which is open to the public right now. There are mounds and trenches from the active excavation at the east gate.

You can keep up with the excavation on the Vikingeborgen Borgring Facebook page.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Gold coins found on Teutoburg Forest battle site

History Blog - Sat, 2016-07-02 10:04

At the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D., three legions, six cohorts of auxiliary troops and three squadrons of cavalry led by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen led Arminius. Arminius was the son of Cherusci king who had been sent to Rome as a hostage when he was a child. There he received a military education and achieved the rank of Equites. He was deployed to Germania as Varus’ advisor where he secretly united tribes that had been at each other’s throats for years. While feeding Varus misinformation, Arminius used his knowledge of Roman military tactics to manipulate commander and legions into a disastrously indefensible position inside the forest. By the end of the battle, 15,000 to 20,000 Roman troops were dead. Varus and several of his officers committed suicide. Only about 1,000 men survived.

The defeat was so decisive it had long-term consequences to Rome’s plans for Germania. Roman legions would fight German tribes east of the Rhine, even east of the Teutoburg Forest again, but Rome never gained the permanent foothold in Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe it had in Gaul or Britain.

The precise location of the battlefield was lost for thousands of years until the late 1980s when a metal detectorist found coins from the reign of Augustus and lead sling-bullets at Kalkriese Hill in Osnabrück county, Lower Saxony. Starting in 1989, the site was formally excavated and archaeologists unearthed human and animal bones, and Roman military artifacts like fragments of hobnailed sandals, spearheads, iron keys and one officer’s ceremonial face mask. They also found earthworks defenses 15 miles wide and evidence that the Romans had attempted to breach them but failed, just as Cassius Dio had described (Roman History, Book 56, Chapter 18).

A museum and archaeological park were built at Kalkriese Hill in the early 2000, with the 20 hectares of the site open to the public as excavations continue. During this season’s excavation, a team from the Kalkriese Museum and Park and Osnabrück University found six gold coins, Augustan aurei, on June 9th. The next day they found three more. In the past 25 years, excavations at the site have unearthed two gold coins and 800 silver and bronze ones, so finding eight within a few meters of each other on two consecutive days is a great rarity.

Minted in Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons) from 2 B.C. until 4 A.D., the aurei are of the Gaius-Lucius type, coins dedicated to Augustus’ grandsons. On the reverse the young Caesars are depicted wearing togas, one hand on a shield with a spear behind it. A simplum and lituus, emblems of priestly rank, hover between them. The inscription reads AVGVSTI F COS DESIG PRINC IVVENT (“sons of Augustus, consuls-designate and leaders of the youth”). The obverse is a profile head of Augustus wearing a laurel wreath inscribed CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE (“Caesar Augustus, son of the deified [Julius Caesar], Father of the Nation”).

The sons of Augustus’ daughter Julia and Marcus Agrippa, Gaius and Lucius were adopted by their grandfather in 17 B.C. when Gaius was three and Lucius was an infant. He made them his heirs and turbocharged them into political careers when they were still teenagers. Augustus’ hopes were dashed when Lucius died of a sudden illness in 2 A.D. and Gaius died two years later after being wounded in battle. Tacitus suggests their stepmother Livia may have had a hand in their deaths in order to elevate her own son Tiberius to the imperial throne.

After Gaius’ death in 4 A.D., the coins were no longer produced. The eight coins found on the battle site are well-preserved, but they show signs of having been in circulation, particularly in the wear around the edges. Aurei were very valuable, used mainly for large purchases and ceremonial gifts. Standard legionary pay under Augustus was 300 bronze asses a month, the equivalent of about 19 denarii. An aureus was worth 25 denarii. Legionaries didn’t usually get their full pay while they were in the field because carrying around increasing hundreds of bronze coins for years quickly goes from bulky to impossible. It was saved for when the campaign was over or sent to their families.

Only an officer was likely to have the wherewithal to have a bunch of aurei on his person. Since these coins were found so close together and relatively near the surface, archaeologists believe they may have been in a bag of cash an officer was carrying during the battle. It was dropped in the conflict or perhaps hidden before a flight attempt and the bag decayed, leaving only its shiny contents to be discovered 2,000 years later.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Escape tunnel found at Lithuanian massacre site

History Blog - Fri, 2016-07-01 09:48

Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, and environs were occupied by the Soviets in 1939 and 1940. The USSR and Germany were allies at the time, and Soviet troops occupied areas of Eastern Europe in concert with Germany’s invasion of Poland. In 1940, the Soviet army began to dig pits for oil storage tanks in the Ponar forest, today known as Paneriai, outside Vilnius to supply a planned airfield. The oil storage project was still in progress in 1941 when Hitler violated the Nonagression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army retreated from Vilnius and the Nazis took over.

Being as practical as they were murderous, the Nazis thought of another use for the big pits: as execution chambers for tens of thousands of Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma and political prisoners. Between July of 1941 and August of 1944, approximately 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews, were forced by SS Einsatzkommando 9 and Lithuanian collaborators to walk down a steep ramp into the pits in the forest. The soldiers standing at the rim of the pit then mowed down everyone inside of them. The victims were buried in the forest.

As the Red Army advanced in 1943 and it became clear Germany would not be able to hold occupied territories in Eastern Europe for long, the Gestapo ordered that all evidence of genocidal mass-murders be destroyed, in keeping with the Aktion 1005 directive. To accomplish this gruesome goal in Ponar, 80 prisoners from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp were assembled into a “Burning Brigade,” as it became known, and tasked with digging up all the mass graves, cutting wood, piling the corpses onto pyres made from the logs they’d cut, dousing them in gasoline and burning them to ash.

Guarded by 30 Lithuanian militia and German soldiers and 50 SS men, one guard for each prisoner, the members of the Burning Brigade had to work for three months with their legs shackled together. At night they slept in an execution pit where they knew full well they themselves would be shot to death after their work was done. Eleven of the prisoners had been shot and killed already because of illness of for no particular reason other than sadism or to instill even more terror in the survivors.

Some of the prisoners decided to make an attempt to get out of this hell alive. The lead organizer of the escape attempt was Isaac Dogim, a Jewish man who had recognized his own wife amongst the decaying corpses from a medallion he had given her as a wedding present. His wife, three sisters and three nieces were in the pile of bodies he was forced to burn. With the help of prisoner Yudi Farber, who had been a civil engineer before the war, they dug a tunnel out of the pit with spoons and their own hands as their only tools. Shackled, guarded and using spoons for shovels, the prisoners managed to dig a tunnel 35 meters (115 feet) long over the course of three months.

They decided to make a break for it on Passover night, April 14th, 1944. They cut their shackles off with a file and crawled through the tunnel. Forty prisoners made it out of the tunnel, but the guards heard footsteps on branches and began to shoot. Fifteen prisoners made it to the forest. Only 11 eventually reached resistance forces in the Rudniki forest and survived the war. Five days after the escape, the 29 prisoners left at Ponar were shot.

After the war, the Soviets used the Ponar massacre as propaganda, claiming only Soviet prisoners were killed there and denying the overwhelming numbers of Jews and Poles murdered. The survivors of the escape and their descendants kept the real story alive, but the precise location of the tunnel was lost.

Excavating the site in an attempt to rediscover the tunnel was not possible because it might disturb remains of people murdered by the Nazis, but several attempts were made to locate it with non-invasive means. In 2004, a Lithuanian archaeologist found the entrance to a tunnel inside Pit 6. This year, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius enlisted a team of researchers from Lithuania, Israel, the United States and Canada to map and explore the tunnel itself without excavation.

Led by Richard Freund, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Hartford, and Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the team of historians, archaeologists and geophysicists used ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), a technology which detects different elements underground from their different levels of electrical resistivity, to scan the entrance to the tunnel. ERT is commonly used by the oil and gas industry as a prospecting device, and by scientists to investigate the water table, fault lines, landslides and more. It can also pinpoint buried archaeological features because their electrical resistivity is different from that of the soil in which they’re buried. On June 8th, the team successfully mapped the entire length of the tunnel and found its exit.

The discovery of the tunnel has been filmed for PBS’ always-excellent NOVA series. The episode will cover the history of the Jews in Vilnius, a city with such a rich Jewish culture it was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the slaughter of 95% of the city’s Jewish population in World War II, and modern archaeological investigations including that of the Ponar tunnel and the excavation of the The Great Synagogue of Vilna. The program is scheduled to air in 2017.

The research team plans to return to the pit. Working with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and the Tolerance Center of Lithuania, the team will open the tunnel to public view as part of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the massacres in Vilnius.

UPDATE: Here is a video of Holocaust survivor Mordechai Zeidel telling the story of the liquidation of the Vilnus (Vilna, then) ghetto, his forced labour in the Burning Brigade and his escape through the tunnel. He was one of the 11 to survive and reach a Jewish partisan group with whom he participated in the liberation of Vilnius. It is subtitled in English.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Altenberg Abbey treasures reunited after 200 years

History Blog - Thu, 2016-06-30 02:12


More than two centuries after they were scattered, a medieval altarpiece, reliquaries and art works from the Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg in central Germany have been reunited at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. Heaven on Display. The Altenberg Altar and Its Imagery brings together 37 precious devotional objects from the late 13th and early 14th centuries that have been in separate collections since Napoleon was cutting a swath through Europe.

The star of the show is the Early Gothic Altenberg Altar, a folding high altar retable with a shrine cabinet, a polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child in the middle niche and painted panels on each side. The wings, some of the earliest surviving examples of German panel painting, are part the Städel’s permanent collection, but the rest is on loan. Other objects include reliquaries the once were kept in the shrine cabinet of the altarpiece, goldsmithery, 13th century altar crosses, figural glass paintings from an early 14th century window and two embroidered linen altar cloths made around 1330.

The altar cloths are large, elaborately decorated pieces that were placed on the altar in front of the retable. No other altar cloths from the Early Gothic period in Germany have survived.

Sometime before 1192, Emperor Barbarossa granted the convent the status of imperial immediacy, which put it under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, exempting it from vassalage to the local lords, essentially a guarantee of independence. The daughters of area nobles joined the convent and endowments from their families over time transformed a small, obscure abbey into one of wealth and power.

One of those daughters was Gertrude, the child of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, who died a few months before Gertrude was born. After her beloved husband’s death, Elizabeth dedicated her life to asceticism and charitable works, so much so that she gave up basically everything in the world that she loved, including her children. Little Gertrude was two years old when she was sent to live with the canoness of Aldenberg. She took the veil and became cannoness herself when she was just 21. Her rule lasted until her death 49 years later.

Elizabeth was already dead by the time her daughter dedicated her own life to piety and mortification of the flesh, felled by a fever when she was 24 years old. Only five years later she was canonized. Gertrude collected relics of the mother she had only had childhood memories of, if any, for the abbey. The works on display are examples of Gertrude’s devotion to her literally sainted mother. There’s a tapestry from 1270 woven with scenes from the life of Elizabeth and Louis IV which may have been hung behind the altar on important occasions before the altarpiece was built, an arm reliquary shaped like an arm and containing an arm, Elizabeth’s silver jug and a ring that once belonged to Louis.

The convent managed to retain its imperial status through the Reformation, the decline of imperial power and rise of the princes after the Thirty Years’ War. It came to an end with the Final Recess of 1803 when Napoleon compensated German princes who had lost lands west of the Rhine to France with ecclesiastical territories. Altenberg, monastery, church and extensive agricultural and forested lands, became the personal property of the Princes of Solms-Braunfels who had long coveted it. They turned the convent into a summer residence and distributed its works of art and devotional objects throughout their castles. The altar went to Braunfels Castle, the arm reliquary of St. Elisabeth to the chapel of Sayn Palace.

From there they made their way into museums and collections around the world. The Städel Museum in got the wings of the altar in 1925. Other collections including those of the city of Frankfurt, Munich’s Bayerische Nationalmuseum, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City all have bits and pieces of Altenberg. It’s an impressive feat reuniting so many elements of the medieval convent to put the objects in some semblance of their original context.

The exhibition is on right now and runs through September 25th, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Viking power couple buried in death house

History Blog - Wed, 2016-06-29 01:30

In 2012, highway construction in Hårup, southwest Denmark, unearthed an unusual grave. It’s a Viking tomb of a type known as a death house, a palisade structure similar to the simple roofed post-in-ground structures that would evolve into stave churches. This is the first death house found in Denmark. It measures four by thirteen meters (about 13 x 43 feet) and has one large room with two graves, and an addition that was built later to house one more grave. The death house dates to around 950 A.D.

Acidic soil has left no detectable human remains, but archaeologists were able to determine the gender of the people buried in the death house from their grave goods. In the main room are a man and woman, the former identified by a large battle axe that was called the Dane Axe in the 10th century. Its imposing size made it an intimidating and highly destructive weapon when wielded by an able fighter. Its weight and size made it a useful tool break apart enemy shields along their seams. In the 10th century, this would have been extremely expensive, an elite weapon for nobility or the obscenely wealthy.

The second person in the main chamber was buried in a wooden wagon typical of burials of noble women. Buried with her were two keys, one larger one symbolic of her status as the lady of a great household. The second key fits a square box that was found by her feet. Fine accessories buried with her include gold and silver ribbon and fur. The person buried in the addition is also an adult male. He too was buried with an axe in his grave, only his was smaller.

The special markings of the grave indicate that the pair must have had a high social status.

“It could be the gentlemen and the lady of the local area and maybe their successor. They’ve at least been honoured in a special way, so they must have been important,” says [excavation leader Kirsten Nelleman] Nielsen.

And it is not just the tomb that is special.

“It’s very special that the man and woman’s graves are marked by the same tomb or palisade. It’s unusual that we’re able to establish that the man and woman were equals with such certainty,” says Nielsen. [...]

[A]rchaeologist Henriette Lyngstrøm from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark,… has seen examples of shared graves before, but the way that the men and women are laid in this grave does indeed indicate a powerful couple, she says.

Nielsen thinks the design inspiration for the death house may have been foreign. The remains of a clay vessel found in the woman’s grave is of a type produced in the Baltic, and she also had two silver coins from what is now Afghanistan. The couple either acquired goods from traders who ranged far and wide or were perhaps well-travelled themselves. If the death house was inspired by a similar structure from elsewhere, that might explain why not other such tombs have been found in Denmark.

Lyngstrøm believes there are more death houses in Denmark; they haven’t been found yet. Nobody was really looking for them. Perhaps this first discovery of its kind will stimulate archaeologists to make associations they haven’t previously made when excavating at tomb. For example a necropolis in Hornbæk, a coastal resort town in northeast Denmark, has the remains of structures at the entrances that may have been death houses, or at least a version of them.

The Silkeborg Museum is hosting an exhibition running through October 23rd that presents an overview of the discoveries made during the highway construction project. It includes the reconstruction of the woman’s grave, the grave goods and some of the other finds from the Stone Age to the 19th century.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster for sale

History Blog - Tue, 2016-06-28 11:06

Before it was an inescapable meme of infinite variety plastered on every crappy consumer product ever cranked out by Chinese industry, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan graced a British Ministry of Information poster printed, but never used, in the early days of World War II. It was one of three poster designs in plain text bearing the crown of King George VI printed in August of 1939 to shore up the morale of the country through the confusion and fear that were sure to follow should war break out.

The other two posters — “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory,” and “Freedom Is in Peril Defend It with All Your Might” — were quickly distributed after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. “Keep Calm,” which was intended for use in the worst case scenario of a German invasion and since that never happened, those posters were never posted. They were widely distributed as part of the preparations for war, but most of the print run of 2.5 million posters was pulped when paper shortages struck.

Never seen by the public, the poster was unknown until 2000 when one Stuart Manley, co-owner of Barter Books, a beautiful bookstore in a restored Victorian train station in Alnwick, Northumberland, found one folded in the bottom of a box of old books he’d bought at an auction. His wife Mary thought it was awesome, because it is, so she had it framed and hung it on the wall near the cash register.

Customers went gaga for it, so the Manleys made copies of the poster to sell. Soon the original was outside the shop, drawing crowds and advertising the copies for sale. When it hit the internet, the slogan spread worldwide and in short order became the meme template we know today.

For more than a decade, the Manleys’ poster was one of only two known. Then in 2012, Moragh Turnbull brought a cache of 15 of them to the Antiques Roadshow at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh. Her father William worked for the Royal Observer Corps in Edinburgh during the war and had kept many papers, including the “Keep Calm” posters that were distributed but never actually posted. The AR appraiser valued her posters at £1000.

Now, four years later, the original poster that launched a thousand dish towels will be available for purchase at the Manning Fine Art stand at the Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia in London, open now through July 3rd. According to The Guardian price tag is £21,250, but the headline says it’s up for auction so that may be the reserve set or maybe even a pre-sale estimate.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Teapot is Smithsonian’s millionth digitized object

History Blog - Mon, 2016-06-27 00:05

A teapot made by 19th century silversmith Peter Bentzon is the one millionth object digitized by the Smithsonian’s Mass Digitization Program. There are 154 million objects in the many collections of the Smithsonian Institute, so just 153 million more to go.

Peter Bentzon was born on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies around 1783. The child of a free mulatto woman and a white father, he was what the Danish categorized as a “mustice” or “mustee.” His family was comparatively well-off; it is believed his father was Norwegian lawyer Jacob Bentzon who was a royal judge advocate on St Thomas for several years. Peter was sent to school in Philadelphia when he was eight years old, and was apprenticed to a Philadelphia silversmith in 1799 when he was 16. His completed his apprenticeship in 1806 and moved to Christiansted, St Croix, where he started his own silversmithing business.

The British occupied the island from 1807 to 1816 which was advantageous for Bentzon because the British didn’t have the strict laws the Danish had controlling the movements, professions and political rights of the free coloured population of its colonies. Denmark reclaimed St Croix in 1816 and Bentzon made arrangements to move his family and business back to Philly. He lived and worked there until 1829, after which he returned to St. Croix for another 20 years. He relocated to Philadelphia again in 1848. His name is on the 1850 Census. After that, he disappears from the historical record. Wherever he was living, he regularly traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and St Croix.

Bentzon was the only free silversmith of African descent in slavery-era America whose work can be identified from his hallmarks, P. BENTZON and PB. There were at least four other black silversmiths in Philadelphia during his time. Henry Bray and Anthony Sowerwalt are listed as silversmiths and “persons of color” in the 1813 and 1818 Philadelphia directories. Joseph Head and John Frances, a runaway slave, were also working as silversmiths. None of the four produced work under their own hallmark, however, so it’s impossible to link any surviving silver to them.

Very few of Bentzon’s pieces are known to have survived, fewer than three dozen, most of them teaspoons. That makes his work rarer than that of famed fellow silversmiths like Paul Revere and Thomas Fletcher. The Smithsonian’s teapot is the only one confirmed to have been made in Bentzon’s Philadelphia shop.

The silver teapot is an oval vase-shape on a pedestal foot. The scroll handle is made of wood topped with a leaf design. The cover has an acorn finial. It is stamped twice on the bottom with Bentzon’s mark and is inscribed “Rebecca Dawson” on the base. Bentzon rented his workshop from a Robert Dawson, so perhaps Rebecca was a relative of his landlord. The monogram “MC” on the side is a later addition.

It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which isn’t an actual museum yet. There had been efforts to create a national museum displaying art and artifacts from African-American history since 1915, but with little funding and no Congressional support, proposals went nowhere. A state initiative was more successful. The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, received a federal charter from Congress in 1981 and opened in 1988 with no public funding. Its focus was more narrow than that envisioned for the national museum, however, with its main exhibition dedicated to the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and others featuring the city of Wilberforce’s history an important stop on the Underground Railroad and the founding of historically black college Wilberforce University, the first college in the United States that was owned and run by African Americans.

The Smithsonian’s collection of African-Americana didn’t see much light until dedicated exhibitions in the National Museum of American History in the 1980s. For a long time the Board of the Smithsonian itself questioned whether the collection could sustain a stand-alone African-American history museum, and it wasn’t until December of 2003 that all the pieces came together with the passage of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act establishing the new museum within the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. It took another three years for the site, part of the Washington Monument grounds, to be selected. Settling on a design for the building took even more time. Finally, ground was broken on February 22nd, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian took the innovative step of creating a virtual museum when the physical museum was still years away from construction. It created a website for the NMAAHC with select objects from the collection and online exhibitions. The first exhibition in the three dimensional world took place in New York in 2005. In 2012 the NMAAHC partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to put on an exhibition about slavery at Monticello held at the National Museum of American History.

By 2015, the museum’s collection had grown to more than 33,000 objects including Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Selmer trumpet, 39 extremely rare Harriet Tubman artifacts donated in 2012 by collector Charles L. Blockson, Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket, a 1922 Pullman railroad car from Chattanooga, Tennessee, used to carry Black passengers under Jim Crow segregation and a guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary which was is big the museum had to be build around it.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will opens its doors in the new building on September 24th, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Another Samnite tomb, skeletons, gold coins found in Pompeii

History Blog - Sun, 2016-06-26 01:41

Last year, the international and interdisciplinary archaeological team from the Jean Bérard Center of Naples excavating the Porta Ercolano are outside Pompeii’s northwest gate made headlines when they discovered a rare intact 4th century B.C. Samnite tomb. Now the same team has found another Samnite tomb from the same period, plus the skeletal remains of four people fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius and a few of the treasures they carried with them.

As is traditional with Roman cities, areas outside the walls were used for tombs and for artisanal workshop, in this case primarily pottery shops, because they’d make a lot of noise, produce smoke, noxious odors, etc. that would be a nuisance in the densely populated city center. In fact, the team has been excavating this area for five years to study the pottery production facilities and the role of crafts in the Pompeiian economy. They didn’t really think they’d find anything new in this particular spot because it had already been excavated in the 19th century by the great Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s groundbreaking director of works who devised the plaster cast system to capture the last moments of Vesuvius’ victims.

Soon after the dig season began on May 16th, the team was delighted to find, in keeping with their mission, the remains of two shops. One had a vertical pit with a staircase built into the side, a unique design never found before in Pompeii. Archaeologists believe it may have been a furnace used to manufacture bronze objects. The second workshop, closer to the city gate, has a circular well dug into the soil that may have been used to extract construction materials. Archaeologists aren’t certain of its purpose. It was accessible by a spiral staircase carved into the terrain. Research will continue over the next month and other shops nearby will be excavated.

The remains of Vesuvius’ victims were found in the back room of one of the shops. The four appear to be young people, one of them a teenage girl, who made it outside the city gate but must have been compelled to stop and seek shelter, probably in the futile attempt to dodge the pyroclastic flow ringing the death knell for the city. The remains were jumbled up against the wall, the result of looters known as fossores who tunneled through the ash to scavenge any valuables people had taken with them when they tried to outrun the volcano. The exact date of this incursion is hard to establish; sometime between the eruption of 79 A.D. and the official excavations of the 19th century.

The fossores didn’t get everything, though. Three gold coins and a gold foil pendant in the shape of a flower were found amidst the bones. The coins are aurei of the emperor Vespasian dating to 74, 77/78 A.D. There were also some undamaged ceramics: a bowl, three small pitchers, two lids of cooking vessels charred from their quotidian use, not the eruption, and an elegant white urceus, a tall, slender, one-handled vessel used to contain garum, the fermented salted, sun-cured fish intestine sauce that Romans used on everything.

Dating to the 4th century B.C., the Samnite tomb is lined with limestone slabs and contains the remains of an adult male with grave goods quite different from those found in the tomb of a woman last year. There are six vases — among them an oinochoe, a lekythos, a kylix, a skyphos and a globular aryballos with a flat bottom — all black painted without any decoration painted over it, unlike last year’s tomb. The tomb is not fully excavated yet, but archaeologists are on the look-out for remains of a belt buckle and/or weapons that have been found before in the graves of Samnite men.

From the late 5th century, early 4th century B.C., a period of great transition when the Samnite peoples, originally located in the Apennines, spread into the territories of other Italic tribes and Greek colonies finally reaching the Mediterranean. Before the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was less than a third of a mile from the coast, so the Samnite presence there is an important benchmark of the last stages of its expansion. Very little archaeological material has been found from this period, so all discoveries take on even greater significance.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

12th c. fortified town found under Illinois cornfield

History Blog - Sat, 2016-06-25 03:48

Under a cornfield in Cass County, Illinois, near where the Sangamon River flows into the Illinois, are the remains of a bustling Native American town that thrived from the 12th century through the 15th. The town had a central plaza, surrounded by three platform mounds, houses and defensive walls 10 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long in each direction. Known as the Lawrenz Gun Club Site after a shooting club built on one of the mounds in the mid-20th century, the site has been studied by archaeologists and students from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) every summer for six years.

It was the remains of the mounds that first indicated a community of the Mississippian culture had once inhabited the site, but the town ranges far beyond that, covering over 26 acres. IUPUI’s archaeology field school used remote sensing technology to establish the perimeter of the site and, since they can’t dig up the whole cornfield, to identify areas likely to contain artifacts. This excavation season alone they’ve unearthed 97 bags of archaeological material including projectile points, pottery of many different kinds from cookware to storage vessels to dishes, stone tools, plant and animal remains. Only once in the six years have they encountered a human burial. Officials were notified in compliance with federal law, the grave was reburied and the remains left undisturbed.

“The last couple of years, we have focused inside the city’s walls. This year, we are looking at earlier structures, built before the walls were put up,”” [graduate student John] Flood said. “We are looking at an early house, about 5-by-5 meters in size, and how the city started to develop, trying to understand how the very early Mississippian community arranged their structures.”

For Flood, the most fascinating part of the multi-year investigation has been the huge, elaborate defensive walls built to protect the city.
“You have several portions of walls that were constructed at different points in time. Bastions and archers’ towers, you see a change in shape as they go from more circular to more rectangular in design. It shows they are really taking their time and thinking about their defensive fortifications,” Flood said. “We see that throughout all sorts of archaeology all over the world. Usually about the time you see agriculture, things like corn or maize, all of a sudden when you have food in one location, you find you have a need to protect that food.”

“You also need to make your presence known,” Flood said. “If you’re coming down the river and see a big, fortified city with 10-foot walls and archers’ towers, that’s a big mark of presence. It says ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay.’”

Based on the artifacts unearthed so far as, the walls and the dwellings, researchers estimate that the village had a population of 400 to 600 people from around 1100 through 1450 A.D., making it probably the largest village in the area. The inhabitants grew crops, primarily maize, and also foraged wild resources from their environment, including seeds, grasses, nuts and marshelder, a ragweed relation with edible seeds that was cultivated by the earlier Kansas City Hopewell culture of Kansas and Missouri before maize displaced it. The surrounding area also provided abundant hunting and fishing. The IUPUI team has found a great many bones of fish, waterfowl and land mammals.

A large community with impressive fortifications in a fertile location with plentiful plant and animal resources, the village likely traded with the great city of Cahokia, now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, to the north. Like Cahokia and other known Mississippian communities, the Lawrenz Site met an abrupt end in the mid-15th century. Archaeologists believe a combination of the Little Ice Age and severe drought may have brought on repeated crop failures which drove the population to abandon their settlements and seek greener pastures. With no food left to protect, fortifications that once defended the stores become prison walls enclosing only the prospect of mass starvation.

This season’s excavation will conclude at the end of the month. The 97 bags of artifacts and remains will be sorted, cleaned and analyzed in laboratory conditions back the university in Indianapolis. Every fragment is of interest as a potential source of information about the daily lives of the inhabitants of the prehistoric town.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Exhibition marks 350th anniversary of Great Fire of London

History Blog - Fri, 2016-06-24 01:51

The Great Fire of London broke out in the wee hours of September 2nd, 1666, and raged for three days, leveling the old city within the Roman walls, a quarter of London, and destroying more than 13,000 homes, St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and London Bridge. The Museum of London will mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration with a new exhibition, Fire! Fire!, which will showcase life in the city before the fire, the events of the fire itself and how London recovered.

The museum will display period art and artifacts in its collection that illustrate the devastating fury of the fire. Some, like burned and melted pottery fragments from a shop on Pudding Lane near where the fire first sparked, have been on display before. Others have never been seen in public before, for example a ceramic roof tile melted and bent in half by temperatures of at least 1500 Celsius and a singled floor tile, burned iron padlocks and keys found at Monument House on Botolph Lane, one street down from Pudding Lane. Another piece on display for the first time is an unfinished needlework panel believed to have been saved from a house in Cheapside during the fire.

There are also two letters written by eye witnesses, one from James Hicks, a post office employee whose office burned down just after 1:00 AM on September 3rd. He fled with his family taking as many letters as he could with them. His letter informed postmasters of the destruction. The other letter was from Robert Flatman to his brother Thomas who worked in the city as a barrister but was out of town for the Great Fire. In the letter of September 9th, 1666, Robert told his brother that he had saved his books from his chamber in one of the Temples (professional associations where barristers kept their offices and lodgings).

In 1666, much of the City of London was little changed from the Middle Ages, a warren of cobblestone alleys tightly packed with crowded timber tenement buildings whose upper storeys jutted over the street to maximize precious square footage. By the mid-17th century the overhanging jetties projected so far over the alleyways that they kissed the jetties from buildings across the street, which made fire very easy to spread and practically impossible to stop. When the fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, it quickly jumped from building to building and soon formed an implacable wall of flame too hot for people to even attempt to counter. Perhaps controlled demolition of structures forming a firebreak perimeter could have contained it, but Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth didn’t order those until the fire had burned all night and day.

What little firefighting equipment existed was small-scale and ineffective: tall ladders, leather buckets of water and squirt guns that look like large syringes could douse a building fire when deployed quickly, but once fire spread these tools couldn’t keep up. Long firehooks were used to pull down buildings, and when the buildings were too high for that, controlled demolition by gunpowder might do the trick. Once the fire was raging, it was too hot and fast for these methods to work. Once the Thames waterfront was on fire, the city’s supply of water was cut off.

Early fire engines carried barrels of water to a fire and pumped it out, but they delivered a comparatively meager stream of water, and that’s assuming they could even make it down the winding alleys of the City of London. Some were on sleds, other on wheels. The Museum of London has a very rare surviving 17th century fire engine which it acquired in 1928. It has been on display, but since all that remains in the central barrel and pump, it just looks like a wooden keg with an iron tap sticking out the top.

For the new exhibition, the museum employed Croford Coachbuilders in Kent to reconstruct the vehicle that carried the barrel and pump. They used traditional methods, tools and material to recreate the carriage. With no plans to go by, the coachbuilders used a 19th century photograph located by museum curators of the engine from when it was still complete with undercarriage, tow bar and pumping arms. Curators also found a print showing the fire engine, designed by John Keeling in London around 1678, in action, which helped the craftsmen replicate the original.

This video documents the construction process. It’s a fascinating summary which I wish were longer. My favorite part is when they take the completed wheel made of three different kinds of woods — elm for the hub, oak for the spokes, ash for the felloes (the part that goes around the spokes) — and fit the iron rim onto it. The rim has to be slightly smaller than the wheel to keep it all together, so they heat that bad boy up so it expands, slap it on the wheel, then quickly dump cold water on it to keep the hot iron from burning the wood and to force the iron to contract around the wheel. It’s smoke-filled awesomeness.

Fire! Fire! opens on July 23rd, 2016, and runs through April 17th, 2017.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Long head of Silla woman reconstructed from skull fragments

History Blog - Thu, 2016-06-23 09:21

In late 2013, archaeologists excavating in advance of a driveway construction project near Gyeongju, a town in southeastern Korea that was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, unearthed human skeletal remains. Found in a mokgwakmyo, a traditional wooden coffin, in a marshy area, the skeleton was complete and relatively well-preserved, albeit fragmented in places. Grave goods, including pottery and a wooden comb, were found inside the coffin that identify it as a Silla-era burial.

The Silla Kingdom started as a small city-state in 57 B.C. and ruled an increasingly large part of the Korean Peninsula until 935 A.D. Its thousand-year duration is one of the longest in the historical record, and two of its ruling dynasties — the Parks and the Kims — transcended the kingdom to become the most common family names in Korea today.

Despite the Silla Kingdom’s long life and enormous influence on the history and modern culture of Korea, researchers have had few opportunities to study Silla bones at all, and never with multiple analytical technologies. Intact human remains from the Silla period are rare because Korea’s acidic soil and the cycles of hot/wet, cold/dry weather accelerate the decomposition of soft tissue and bone alike. A 4th-6th century grave discovered in 2009 contained unprecedented complete sets of human and horse armor, for example, but not a single human remain. The wooden coffin survived, as did a box with assorted grave goods. The bones had disintegrated. The discovery of a complete skeleton in 2013 gave scientists the chance to carry out anthropological analysis, extract mitochondrial DNA, run stable isotope tests and craniofacial analyses that led to a full facial reconstruction.

The person deceased was a woman between 35 and 39 years of age at time of death. The length of the femur indicated she was around 155 cm (five feet) tall. The mitrochondrial DNA results placed her haplogroup F1b1a, a haplogroup typical of East Asia but not the dominant group in living Koreans today. Stable isotope analysis found that her diet consisted mainly of foods in the C3 category (wheat, rice and potatoes) and was likely vegetarian.

Her skull was found broken in dozens of pieces. In order to help determine her gender and to create a facial reconstruction, archaeologists cleaned the fragments and dried them. Each piece was scanned and imported into 3D modelling software to figure out how the pieces fit together. Once the model was complete, the team then puzzled together the actual skull from the fragments.

Her skull was unusually long and narrow. This kind of head shape often seen in cases of intentional cranial deformation. It appears to be natural in her case. Intentionally deformed crania are flatter in the front and the bones of the side grow to compensate from the pressure of the deforming agent (usually a piece wood or tight bindings applied to infants when their skulls are still soft).

In the craniometric analysis, the major cranial indices were compared with the corresponding data derived from the subjects of modern Korean adults. The results showed that the skull has longer, narrower and lower cranium with a narrower facial bone and orbits than those from the modern Korean adults groups. The nasal aperture demonstrated an average width in the nasal index. In terms of appearance, it was assumed that the individual had horizontally long & vertically short head with inclined forehead from lateral view and narrower face from frontal view.

This dolichocephalic or long-headedness trait is rare in the population of Korea today. Koreans are more often brachycephalic, defined as the width of their skull being at least 80% of the length.

Here is the complete craniofacial reconstruction:

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

La Belle restoration complete

History Blog - Wed, 2016-06-22 08:06

After 17 years, restoration of the hull of La Belle, one of four ships that carried French explorer René-Robert de La Salle and 300 would-be colonists on his mission to the Gulf of Mexico, is finally complete.

La Belle was a 54-foot frigate that could navigate open ocean but was had a shallow enough draft that it could hand coastal and river waters as well, an essential design for this trip since La Salle’s aim was to found a colony in the Mississippi River Delta. Their poor maps of the Gulf sent the explorers way off course. When his main storeship, L’Aimable, ran aground, La Salle was compelled to transfer as much of her contents as he could salvage to La Belle, so when a storm claimed her too off the coast in Matagorda Bay, 400 miles west of the Mississippi Delta, in 1686, she sank with a disproportionately huge complement of artifacts and supplies.

That gave the Texas Historical Commission archaeologists who discovered the wreck in 1995 a lot of work to do. They built a double-walled cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out the water and from September of 1996 to April of 1997, excavated the surviving bottom third of the ship’s oak hull. By the end of the excavation they had recovered nearly 1.6 million objects — barrels of gunpowder, weaponry, personal items, cookware, crates full of trade geegaws (brass rings, pins, hundreds of thousands of glass beads).

The hull was sent to Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program where the timbers were soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol (PEG) solution, a petroleum-based polymer that replaces the water in wood to keep it from warping, cracking or shrinking when it dries, for 10 years. When the high price of oil made the use of PEG prohibitively expensive, conservators put the timbers in the largest archaeological freeze-dryer in the world. After four years in the freezer, in the summer of 2014 La Belle‘s timbers were transported to the o the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. There they were reassembled in a side gallery where the process could be viewed by the public.

In May of 2015, reassembling of the timbers was complete and the entire hull was moved to the main gallery of the museum, its final resting place after 20 years of upheaval. While the hull timbers were back together again, the restoration wasn’t finished yet. The were gaps that needed to be closed and additional surviving sections of the hull added to the structure. While conservators were working on that, the main gallery was refurbished around the ship’s hull to create the permanent exhibition that would fully showcase La Belle and its many artifacts.

The restoration is now complete and the ship positioned at a 21-degree angle, just as it was on the sea floor when archaeologists excavated it. The temporary exhibition La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, is ongoing now. The permanent exhibition is scheduled to open in November, after which some of the artifacts from the wreck will become part of a traveling exhibition that will visit several locations in the United States and France, which is still the legal owner of La Belle and everything on it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

UK bars export of lavish Florentine inlaid table top

History Blog - Tue, 2016-06-21 03:58

The UK Culture Ministry has put a temporary export bar on an Italian inlaid pietre dure table top that sold for £3,509,000 ($5,323,855), more than five times its high estimate, at a Sotheby’s auction last December. Made in the Grand Ducal workshops in Florence between 1600 and 1620, the table top is a glorious technicolor extravaganza of marble and semi-precious stone including agate, quartz, chalcedony, jasper and imported Persian lapis lazuli of the highest quality.

The four corners of the table are inlaid with coats of arms of the Grimani family, one of Venice’s most wealthy and powerful noble families. Family crests are rare motifs in the hard stone tables made by the Grand Ducal workshops, and this table is unique in having four of them. The abstract decoration around the crests is also unique. Other armorial table tops were commissioned by the Medici family as gifts for allies and dignitaries, and almost everything produced in the workshops was done at the behest of the Medici family. It is possible that the Grimanis arranged a private commission. There are no extant records to confirm either way.

The family certainly had enough pull to access the Grand Ducal workshops. Founded by spice and textile merchant Antonio Grimani (1434-1523), the family’s fabulous wealth catapulted them to the top of Venetian society. Antonio was the first Doge, elected in 1521 and serving until his death. There would be another two Doges in the family — Marino Grimani (1532-1605) and Pietro Grimani (1677-1752) — and a great many other big shots in the Church, business and politics.

The table top’s decoration telegraphs the prominence of the family in multiple fields. Each of the four crests is topped with a different symbol. The red domed hat (bottom right corner in the picture) is the Corno Ducale, the traditional headpiece of the Doge. The crossed keys of St. Peter (bottom left) represent the family’s support of the papacy and the many papal offices they held in reward for that support. The lion holding a book (top left) is the symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist, Venice’s patron saint, is a nod to two cardinals in the family who held the prestigious position of Cardinal Priest of San Marco. The double cross (top right) refers to the Grimaldi holders of the coveted and highly lucrative position of Cardinal Patriarch of Aquileia.

The Grimanis were not shy about parading their wealth. They amassed major collections of antiquities and art and packed them into two great palaces, the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa and the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca on the Grand Canal. Both palaces employed some of the greatest architects of their time, including Sansovino and Palladio. Family members and the palaces were painted by the likes of Tintoretto and Canaletto. The pietre dure table top had to be grand to decorate these homes.

The fortunes of the Grimani family began to decline in the late 18th century courtesy of the Napoleonic invasions. The family started selling off their collections piecemeal in 1806. They sold off the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca to their new Austrian overlords in around 1816-1818 and the Austrians converted it into a post office. The table top was in the Palazzo Grimani Santa Maria Formosa until 1829 when it was acquired by Henry Greville, 3rd Earl of Warwick (1779-1853) through British Consul William Taylor Money (1765-1834) who acted as Lord Warwick’s agent in the purchase of the table top and a marble floor for the earl to install in the renovated Great Hall of Warwick Castle.

Interestingly, the Grimani’s refused to sell the entire table. The insisted on keeping the legs and base of the table which they then topped with a fake apparently to save face. Lord Warwick had a new base made and by 1847 the table was on display in the Gilt Drawing Room. Another pietre dure table top Warwick bought from the Grimani’s was displayed in the State Bedroom. The second table top was made in Rome and doesn’t have anything like the same visual impact or historic iconography, but it’s still an exceptional example of the art form.

Both table tops were sold at the Sotheby’s auction. The Roman piece sold for £1,625,000 ($2,465,450), more than three times its high estimate. The UK is not blocking export of that one, but there’s no reason to assume the buyer applied for an export license in the first place. British institutions have until September to raise the purchase price plus VAT of the Florentine table to keep it in country.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History