Arts and Sciences
A 90-year-old piece of cake from the wedding of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt to John Francis Amherst Cecil on April 29, 1924, has been rediscovered and donated to the Biltmore House collection. The small sliver of fruitcake, that most enduring of cake varietals, was found by Frederick Cochran when he was going through a trunk he inherited from his aunt Bonnie Revis, formerly a cook at Biltmore House. It was in a tiny beige box stamped “Biltmore House” on the lid.
Cochran looked inside and saw what he thought was a piece of cheese (fruitcake looks cheesy after a century, it seems). He called Biltmore House and reported his find. Biltmore Museum Services collections manager Laura Overbey went to Cochran’s home to examine the artifact and bring it back to the great estate in Asheville, North Carolina. She recognized the box from the two distinctive monograms on either side of the “Biltmore House” on the lid as those of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John F. A. Cecil, which marked the box and its contents as originating at their huge society wedding.
Back at Biltmore, one of Overbey’s coworkers happened to be talking about “how a friend had found a piece of Grover Cleveland’s wedding cake” — and she realized what she likely had in the pretty little box. Even more coincidental, as she walked into the office of her director, Ellen Rickman, to tell her the news, she heard an oral history to which Rickman was listening, about Cornelia’s nuptials.
“Right as I was coming in the door, this gentleman (on the recording) is saying he remembers getting a small box of fruitcake for the wedding,” Overbey said. Thus it was that an interview done in 1989 helped a collections manager in 2014 to identify a piece of cake from 1924.
In the interview, an elderly Paul Towe, whose father worked at Biltmore in the 1920s and ’30s, recalled attending Cornelia’s wedding as a small boy. His sister, Sarah, was a flower girl, and he remembered that “everybody got a little white box with their name on it with a piece of fruitcake.”
That would explain why Bonnie Revis had a sliver of the cake, because it was widely distributed to all the staff and attendants, and she was cook from 1924 to 1935 (coincidentally almost exactly the duration of the Vanderbilt-Cecil marriage). Cornelia’s late father George Vanderbilt (grandson of railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) and her mother Edith Stuyvesant Dresser were deeply involved in the Asheville community and employed hundreds of people at the estate. When Cornelia, only child of George and Edith, married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, third son of Lord Cecil and the Baroness Amherst of Hackney, direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, the entire town assembled outside All Souls’ Church to watch the couple and 1,000 guests arrive and depart.
Many workers at the Biltmore Estate were guests or actually part of the wedding. When the newlyweds left the church arm in arm after the ceremony, they and the wedding party walked through an arch of crossed flowering branches held by 44 children of Biltmore Estate staff. The youngest, Polly Ann Flower, greeted them at the end of the arch wearing a little white Cupid outfit.
There are no records surviving of what kind of wedding cake was served, but fruitcake was traditionally the groom’s cake, so it’s like this sliver was carved off John Cecil’s cake rather than whatever massive confection served as the primary wedding cake. It was made by Rauscher’s, identified by a stamp inside the bottom of the box, a bakery in Washington, D.C. George and Edith had a home on K Street in D.C., and Cornelia was staying there when she met Cecil. He was ten years older than her and an accomplished diplomat. When they met in 1923, he was the first secretary at the British Embassy and part of a group of highly eligible men known in D.C. society as the “British Bachelors.” Cornelia and John hit it off right away, announcing their engagement just a few months after they met.
John Cecil resigned his position before the wedding, choosing instead to focus on the management of the Biltmore Estate. It became his life-long vocation. He continued to live at and manage Biltmore until his death in 1954, twenty years after his divorce from Cornelia. She, on the other hand, got married to an English banker in 1949 and moved to England where she spent the rest of her life. John and Cornelia’s sons took over management of the estate after John’s death, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil running Biltmore Farms (the successful dairy farm branch), his younger brother William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil taking on the Biltmore Estate, including the house and vinyards he planted. Their children manage the estate today.
Researchers have discovered a unique Christian tattoo on the inner thigh of a mummy unearthed in a cemetery along the banks of the Nile in Sudan nine years ago. The woman, who was 5’2″ tall and between 20 and 35 years old at the time of her death, was wrapped in a linen and wool shroud and buried around 700 A.D. The arid heat of the desert naturally mummified her, preserving some soft tissues like skin and internal organs. The skin of her inner thigh is so well preserved that the ink is still visible to the naked eye, but it’s quite faint. It wasn’t until last year when the mummy was given a CT scan at a London hospital and photographed with infra-red reflectography that British Museum archaeologists were able to identify the tattoo as a monogram of the letters Μιχαήλ, meaning Michael.
This is an exceptionally rare find. It’s the first tattoo of any kind found from this period in the Nile Valley. Michael was the patron saint of Christian medieval Sudan, so his name is invoked frequently in inscriptions. The monogram, which stacks the letters of Michael’s name so it looks almost like an upside angel, has been found engraved on stele and in graffiti on churches from that time, but this is the first tattoo of the symbol ever discovered.
The purpose of the tattoo is, of course, unknown, since the only person who could tell us has been dead for 1,300 years. I imagine it had much the same purpose as religious iconography has in tattoos today: expressing reverence, faith, or asking for the intercession of the saint. It could also have been a protective invocation, in the same way that words from the Christian gospels were used to ward off evil in the 12th century Makurian crypt found at the archaeological site of Old Dongola, Sudan.
I wasn’t able to found out where precisely she was discovered — the Nile runs through all of modern Sudan and there are many archaeological sites along its banks — but my best guess is that it was one of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project excavations which focused on several medieval Christian cemeteries threatened by the construction of a dam at the Fourth Cataract (the most impassable of the Nile’s rapids). The opening scene in the Telegraph’s video looks like the Fourth Cataract where the rapids have carved out several small islands, some of which have Christian cemeteries. If that is the location, it’s south of Old Dongola, but still in the Kingdom of Makuria.
It is not clear who did the tattoo in ancient Sudan, and whether it was visible to other natives.
High up on her inner thigh, it may or may not have been out of view. And for all its scientific expertise, the British Museum admits to being unclear as to what exactly was the fashionable length of skirt worn by an ordinary Nile dwelling female in AD 700.
I don’t see her inner thigh tattoo being designed for public display. It seems like a deliberately private location no matter how short skirts may have been in Sudan 1,300 years ago. It’s going to be on public display now, though. This mummy is the youngest of eight from various periods in the Nile Valley that will be features in the British Museum’s Ancient Lives: New Discoveries. The show runs from May 22nd through November 30th and will use interactive technology to tell the stories of these eight people’s lives and deaths.
Researchers from Swansea University in Wales and the KU Leuven University in Belgium have identified a carving of Roman emperor Claudius as a pharaoh participating in an ancient ritual for the fertility god Min on the western wall of the temple of Shanhur about 12 miles north of Luxor. The temple dates to the Roman era. It was first built as a temple to Isis under Augustus but the carvings on the western and eastern exterior walls, 36 on each, were all done during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.).
The carvings were first exposed during an archaeological excavation in 2000-2001. Before that they had been covered by a mound of soil that obscured and protected the exterior temple walls, leaving the carvings in excellent condition. In the decade or so since they lost the protection of the mound, the carvings, made on lower grade limestone that is highly susceptible to erosion, have unfortunately been weathered so they’re much harder to make out now. The Swansea-KU Leuven team began recording and translating the exterior wall carvings in 2010.
It’s scene 123 on the western wall that is the stand-out piece, both in terms of preservation and historical significance. It depicts Claudius doing the ritual of the raising of the pole for Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and power. This ritual is ancient, going back 4,300 years to the Old Kingdom, which we know from the 32 extant scenes of the pole-raising that have been found. What makes this one so special is not just the involvement of Clau-Clau-Claudius (if you haven’t seen I, Claudius, please do so immediately; there will be a test), but the fact that the inscriptions include a precise date when this particular ritual took place. It’s the only one of the 32 that does.
The scene shows Claudius garbed in pharaonic regalia. He wears a complex crown known as the “Roaring One” made out of three rushes embellished by sun discs and solarized falcons. The rushes are flanked by ostrich feathers and perched on ram horns. He carries two ceremonial staffs in his left hand and a scepter in his right. The accompanying inscription identifies him and dates the ritual:
King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Tiberios Klaudios
Min stands across from Claudius, facing him. He holds a flail and wears a double feather crown with sun disc. As is customary for this fertility god, he also sports a magnificent erection. Behind him is his cult chapel and between him and Claudius eight men enact the ritual by climbing four poles propped against a central a pole topped by a crescent moon.
The inscriptions and iconography suggest that by performing this ritual, Claudius assumes the formidable characteristics of Min:
[Words spoken by Min (or Min-Ra)… Lord of?] Coptos, Lord of Panopolis (Akhmim), who is on top of his stairway,
He’s not roaring with rage at Claudius, though, thanks to the pole-raising. By executing the ritual, Claudius keeps the cult of Min alive and asserts his power over “the (southern) foreign lands” which, according to the inscription, Min gives to him.
The inclusion of a date indicates that this ritual event actually happened, although Claudius himself was not present in person. He never went to Egypt. A priest probably acted as his proxy, something that was common even in the pharaonic era since the king couldn’t possibly be present for every ritual.
There’s another Claudius-Min ritual carved in the exterior eastern wall. In this one Claudius makes an offering of lettuce to Min and Horus the Child. The lettuce symbolizes Egypt’s crops which will be made abundant thanks to Min and his prodigious endowment.
[Take for] you the lettuce (|n) in order to unite it with your body (or phallus) and lettuce in order to make procreative [your] phallus
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A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1″ which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.
The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.
The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.
There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.
It’s unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film “Conflict.”
The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board’s business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.
The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France and the last ruler of an independent Brittany. Over the course of the year there will be a number of cultural events dedicated to the memory of this erudite and strong-willed duchess who fought her entire life for Breton independence with her body as the final battlefield.
That’s not entirely metaphoric either. Anne was her father Duke Francis II of Brittany’s only surviving heir. He tried desperately to marry her to someone anti-French to ensure the duchy would not end up annexed by France, but after he lost the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488, he was forced to agree to a peace treaty that required the French king’s approval of Anne’s marriage. Francis died a month later, making Anne Duchess of Brittany at 11 years old.
Now obviously she had advisors — her father’s will left guardianship of her to John of Rieux, Marshal of Brittany, historian and diplomat Philippe, Count of Commines, and Anne’s governess Madame Laval — but even at so young an age she took the reins of power firmly in her own hands. When Anne of Beaujeau, regent for her brother King Charles VIII of France, took advantage of the child duchess’ perceived weakness and attacked Brittany, Anne reacted decisively. She appointed her most trusted councilors to government positions, convened the States General of Brittany, pawned her own jewelry to raise much-needed funds for the depleted treasury, minted viable coinage out of silver-tipped leather and called on the King of England, Henry VII, to help her fend off the French.
The English turned out to be slow in sending help, but Austria and Spain sent troops to her aid. Meanwhile, the question of who she would marry became ever more pressing. Like her father, Anne cared first and foremost about which suitor could guarantee Breton independence. She did have her limits, though, and refused to marry Alain I, Lord of Albret, who had fought for Francis II against the French, because she considered him a scary brute (which by all accounts he was). Albret went into a rage at her refusal and sent troops to claim her by force. Anne, still a pre-teen at this point, met Albret’s forces head-on, mounting a horse and leading her archers against them.
That wouldn’t be the last time she took to the saddle to confront a bully. When she decided to accept the suit of Maximilian I of Austria, future Holy Roman Emperor, the man her father had wanted her to marry who she considered to be the strongest ally against France, Albret occupied Nantes and handed the castle over to the French. She and a small cadre of loyal barons (John of Rieux and Phillipe de Commines had sided with Albret because they believed he was the only hope for an independent Brittany) and some Spanish and German mercenaries rode up to the walls of Nantes and demanded they allow her entry as their sovereign. After two weeks of negotiations went nowhere, Anne’s party left only to be followed by Rieux and his soldiers. She started him down too, turning around to face him and excoriate him for his disloyalty. Her bravery was so admired that Rieux let her go.
The marriage to Maximilian did not solve her problems. France considered it a violation of the treaty since it was done without the approval of the king. Charles VIII besieged the city of Rennes and took it. Austria was of no help because Maximilian was busy fighting in Hungary. With France occupying four of Brittany’s main cities, Brittany’s nobles divided into two factions and money tight, Anne agreed to marry Charles. Since her marriage to Maximilian had been done by proxy (Maximilian sent an envoy to act in his lieu and they did this weird ceremonial thing where he put one bare knee on the bed to symbolize a consummation that never actually happened), it was easily annulled.
Marriage to Anne was the means by which Charles planned to finally take Brittany for France, if not in his lifetime then shortly thereafter. He put a clause in the marriage contract ensuring that whichever spouse outlived the other would rule Brittany. Just to cover all his bases, another clause stipulated that if he pre-deceased Anne, she would marry the next king of France, thereby giving France a second bite at the Brittany apple.
Married at 14, Anne would bear Charles seven children, none of whom survived, before he himself died when she was 21. As per the contract, she was to marry his heir, Louis XII, but he was already married. She told him she’d go through with it if he managed to get his marriage annulled within a year, then returned to Brittany and set about the business of ruling, something Charles had not allowed her to do when they were married. Much to Anne’s chagrin, Louis XII was able to get that annulment from Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia) in exchange for some French estates for his son Cesare. Thus the Dowager Queen of France became Queen of France for a second time, the only woman ever to bear that distinction.
Anne of Brittany’s courts were centers of learning and art. She sponsored poets and scholars who introduced Renaissance humanism to France. She commissioned the first Renaissance style sculpture in France: the exceptionally beautiful tomb of her father, Francis II, and mother, Margaret of Foix, now in the Nantes Cathedral. The four cardinal virtues grace each corner of the tomb and the figure of Prudence bears Anne’s face. Four books of hours commissioned by her have survived, all of them masterpieces of illumination done after print was already established in France. You can leaf through the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website, and it’s worth it for the incredibly accurate illuminations of 337 different plants in the page borders alone.
Anne died desperately young of kidney stones just a few weeks short of her 37th birthday. She had at least seven more children with Louis, although only four survived their births and only two of them, daughters Claude and Renée, survived their mother. To her last breath she struggled against the seismic forces driving Brittany into French hands. With none of their male children surviving, Louis had betrothed Claude, Anne’s eldest daughter and heir, to his cousin and the heir to the French throne Francis of Angoulême. Anne knew that Claude’s inheritance and marriage would sound the death knell of Breton independence, so she left the duchy to her younger daughter Renée in her will, but Louis just ignored it.
A few months after Anne’s death, Claude and Francis married and a few months after that Louis died. Francis I was crowned on what would have been Anne’s 38th birthday. He made his and Claude’s son heir to the Duchy of Brittany and from then on, it was a province of France.
After her death, Anne was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis, as was traditional for French sovereigns, but she left instructions in her will that her heart be removed and sent to Brittany. A beautiful gold reliquary was made to hold her heart, inscribed in old French with the following dedication: “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.” It was first placed in her father’s tomb as she had willed and later moved to Saint Pierre Cathedral in Nantes.
The reliquary had a close brush with oblivion during the Revolution as part of the orgy of anti-monarchical destruction. In 1792 Anne’s heart was thrown away like so much trash and the reliquary ordered to be melted down. Thankfully it never happened. The artifact was kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale until in 1819 it was returned to Nantes. Its permanent home has been the Dobrée Museum since the late 19th century.
Now the reliquary is ushering in Anne of Brittany season with an exhibition at the Royal Château of Blois where she died. The exhibition brings together the reliquary with contemporary descriptions and illuminations of her hugely elaborate 40-day funeral.
Archaeologists broke a 1,500-year-old protection streak when they discovered an intact shaft tomb guarded by a shaman figurine in Villa de Alvarez in the western Mexican state of Colima. Although the shaman, characterized by his long face and holding a handled weapon of some kind that may have been an axe, couldn’t keep the archaeologists out, he did an exceptional job protecting whoever was buried there from being desecrated by looters. Intact shaft tombs are rarely found because the grave goods they contain are highly sought-after artifacts.
The shaft tomb was found during an archaeological exploration of 10 hectares of land which has unearthed multiple cist burials containing human and canine remains that date to late in the Comala phase of development, 400-600 A.D. Near the cists, archaeologist Marco Zavaleta found three flat stones that were lifted to reveal the vertical well that is the entrance to the shaft tomb. The tunnel is almost five feet deep and leads to a tomb lined with a solid layer of tepetate, a kind of volcanic rock. It’s the rock that dates the burial to earlier in Comala period, between 0 and 500 A.D.
Inside the tomb archaeologists found six ceramic pots of varying sizes and shapes and one gourd which were interred as offerings to the gods. The pots will be analyzed for any organic residue or remains, like food or seeds. Standing proudly upright in front of the tomb was the star of the group: a 19-inch shaman figurine. His elongated head is suggestive of intentional cranial deformation, a practice that has been confirmed in skeletal remains from this period. Archaeologist Marco Zavaleta believes the shaman was ritually “killed” by being deliberately broken before placement in the tomb. That’s why his weapon is incomplete and why his headdress is missing standard elements like a horn.
Whoever he was protecting must have been part of the city’s elite. Only the wealthy at the top of the social ladder had the power and money to commission these kinds of elaborate funerary structures, and they had the wherewithal to get people (and animals) to accompany them on their voyage to the afterlife. The skeletal remains of one or two adults were found on either side of the tomb vault, which is about six and a half feet in diameter. They’ve been disturbed, indicating that they were removed from their previous location to make room for another burial. The main burial was found in a lower level of the excavation and is an adult male lying on his back.
Outside the tomb the partial remains of dogs and children were found, and one infant appears to have been thrown down the well. Animal teeth found scattered inside the tomb may have been part of a necklace the infant was wearing when sacrificed.
“An important piece of information in this particular case is the immense presence of children. They were all placed around the tomb. There are practically no adult individuals. We would have to analyse the relationship between the children, the shaman and the dogs, who are protecting and preparing (for burial) but why were these children placed here?” [archaeologist Rosa Maria Flores] said.
The number of children buried in the tomb was not clear, archaeologists said.
The discovery of the intact tomb has provided University of Colima computer students and teachers with the opportunity to survey the site and create a 3D virtual model of it. Using a computer, a game controller and specialized software that converts video images into photogrammetric data, the team has been able to create a virtual copy of the well, vaulted tomb and artifacts.
This will be the first intact shaft tomb to have a virtual model, an invaluable educational resource that will allow people to follow the progress of the excavation and examine the tomb structure and distribution of archaeological finds. You can see a preview of the virtual tomb towards the end of this short Spanish-language video on the tomb discovery:
Rembrandt has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen old master, with 337 works of his listed on the Art Loss Register‘s database of stolen or lost art. One of those works, L’enfant à la Bulle de Savon (Child with a Soap Bubble), has been recovered after 15 years.
The painting was stolen from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Draguignan, a town about 50 miles from Nice in France’s southeastern Provence region, on Bastille Day (July 14th) of 1999. Burglars broke in through the municipal library adjoining the museum while a military parade of tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled by. The alarm went off, but by the time the police arrived, the thieves and Child with a Soap Bubble were gone.
The date of the theft is almost poetic when you consider that the museum’s extensive collection of art and antiquities was seeded primarily by confiscations from aristocrats during the French Revolution. It’s a small town, but in 1790 Draguignan was made the prefecture (administrative capital) of the department of Var, so many of the goodies confiscated in the area were collected there, ultimately giving the modest town a very impressive museum. The Rembrandt painting was confiscated in 1794 from the Château de Valbelle, a medieval castle near the town of Tourves (40 miles west of Draguignan) that was used by the Revolutionary government as a hospital in 1792 and was sacked for its treasures a year later leaving it in ruins today.
After nearly 15 years with no leads, the Central Office for the Fight against Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC) in conjunction with the Nice police found the painting and made two arrests in just one day. On Monday, March 17th, they received a tip that a shady deal was scheduled to go down in a hotel the next day. On Tuesday, March 18th, they arrested two men, one in a building (presumably the hotel), the other in a car. One of them had the painting in his possession.
The men are 46 and 53 years old. One was formerly an insurance salesman and both of them were already known to the authorities as petty criminals. They have both reportedly confessed to their roles in the crime and have been charged with concealing a theft and conspiracy.
They weren’t charged with the theft itself, however. In a shocking turn of events, the actual thief has now stepped forward. Perhaps fearing that he was about to be snitched upon, the man turned himself into the police Wednesday on the advice of his attorney.
“He wants to draw a line under the matter. He is ready to take responsibility for his actions,” said his lawyer Franck Dupouy. “He now has a settled family life, he has children and a job, and therefore wishes to conclude this matter.”
The man kept the painting at his home up until 15 days ago, Dupouy said, and had “wrapped it with great care”.
His client “never earned a single centime” from the sale of the painting. “He was cheated,” he said, without explaining further.
Cheated by Fric and Frac there 15 days ago? Because they didn’t earn a single centime either since they were busted trying to make the sale. Anyway, whatever he’s babbling about, he did take reasonable good care of the painting. The museum’s current curator Jeanine Bussièresa and her predecessor Régis Fabre who was curator at the time of the theft examined the painting to confirm it was the one stolen and they found it in good condition. It’s missing its frame, but other than that, it hasn’t suffered from spending a decade and a half wrapped up in this guy’s house.
The museum is delighted to have one of its most important paintings back, although there are questions about its attribution to Rembrandt. Since the painting’s disappearance in 1999, new technologies have developed to authenticate works. Now that he’s home safe and sound, Child with a Soap Bubble will be analyzed for conservation and to determine whether it was painted by the Dutch master himself or one of his students.
An altar frontal that was hand embroidered by 133 soldiers as they recovered from their injuries during World War I will be going back on display at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for the first time in 70 years. Commonwealth soldiers from the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa convalescing at hospitals all over Britain contributed to the altarpiece, embroidering sections of five panels which were then stitched together by experts at the Royal School of Needlework. The final product is almost 10 feet wide and features intricate floral patterns alternating with two palm branches, signifying martyrdom’s spiritual victory over the flesh. The central panel is the chalice of the Eucharist, representing Christ’s suffering for the forgiveness of sin, above a floral field.
The altar cloth was organized by the Royal School of Needlework as a form of occupational therapy for recovering soldiers. Occupational therapy, the idea that working could be physically and psychologically beneficial for trauma patients, began during World War I as treatment for shellshocked and injured soldiers. Patients learned arts and crafts like basket weaving and painting and, if they were physically able, heavier skills like woodwork and welding. For war casualties, “lap crafts,” work that could be done while seated, were particularly useful, and embroidery, cross-stitching and other needlework were lap crafts coupled the convenience of a lap craft with the development of fine motor skills and coordination invaluable to men with limb injuries and the painful ticks and tremors of shell shock. Sewing was both physical therapy and a welcome distraction from their suffering. It didn’t require the use of heavy machinery or tools, nor even a workbench. Men could stitch while sitting comfortably in bed.
Needlework also had the marked advantage of a wide pool of potential teachers, thanks to the army of women on the homefront who volunteered for the Red Cross or local organizations like the Khaki Club in Bradford which deployed embroidery master Louisa Pesel to help a group of soldiers recovering at the Abram Peel Hospital in Leeds to cross-stitch an altar frontal of their own for use at the hospital chapel.
The final stage of stitching together the panels of St. Paul’s altar cloth was completed after the war ended. The finished product was then presented to St. Paul’s Cathedral where for decades it graced the front of the cathedral’s high altar. It was removed for its own safety after St. Paul’s was hit by German bombs during the Blitz. One bomb dropped in October of 1940 was a direct hit, obliterating the altar. You can see the aftermath of another bombing in 1941 in this silent footage from British Pathé.
When the war was over and the high altar rebuilt, its dimensions were different so the World War I frontal no longer fit. It was kept in a chest for more than 70 years until the cathedral decided to fish it out and conserve it for display on the centenary of the beginning of World War I. The frontal is now being restored by the cathedral’s borderers (embroiders). When the repair work is done, the textile will be used for the first time since World War II at a special service on August 3rd, 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the day Germany declared war on France and began an invasion through neutral Belgium triggering Britain’s entry in the war. After that, it will be go on display in a dedicated space in the cathedral for four years until the centenary of armistice.
To pay tribute to the 133 soldiers who contributed to the altar frontal, St. Paul’s officials would like relatives of the men to contact them. They’re hoping photographs, letters, mementos, family stories can be included in the display to give visitors a more personal understanding of the soldiers’ lives. Researchers have compiled a complete list of their names, ranks, regiments and the hospitals they were staying at when they worked on the frontal. Here is the complete list in an Excel spreadsheet. If you have relatives who fought for Britain in World War I and were hospitalized there, do check the list. If you see a name you recognize, contact the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So maybe the $7 flea market Renoir didn’t turn out to be the Antiques Roadshow-style fairy tale it seemed to be at first blush, but that story pales in comparison to the tale of an anonymous scrap metal dealer from an undisclosed Midwestern state who bought a gold egg clock at a flea market antiques stall for $14,000 and found out it was one of the eight lost Imperial Eggs made for the Tsar of All the Russias by jeweler Carl Fabergé.
From 1885 to 1917, Fabergé made at least 50 Imperial Eggs for the Romanov emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II. Alexander started the tradition when he gave his beloved wife Empress Maria Feodorovna the Hen Egg for Easter in 1885. As a girl at the court of Denmark, Maria (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark) had been enchanted by an 18th century ivory egg owned by her aunt Princess Vilhelmine Marie of Denmark. Still in the Royal Danish Collection today, the egg screwed open to reveal a half yolk with a gold chicken inside, a diamond and gold crown inside the chicken and a diamond ring inside the crown. It’s not known whether Alexander III got the idea from that piece or if Fabergé did, but correspondence has survived indicating the Tsar was very much involved in the design of the first Imperial Egg. The Empress was thrilled by the charming white enameled egg that opened to reveal a whole gold yolk, a surprise gold chicken inside of the yolk, and a tiny replica of the Russian imperial crown inside of the chicken. Inside the crown hung a wee ruby pendant which could be attached to a gold chain and worn.
It was such a success that the gifting of an elaborate Fabergé Easter egg became an imperial tradition and its maker earned the title of official jewelry Supplier to the Imperial Court. They were recognized in their time as fabled wonders. Other aristocrats, wealthy industrialists and bankers commissioned eggs of their own from the jeweler, but the ones Fabergé made for the Tsars, uniquely intricate masterpieces crafted from the most precious materials, have become iconic symbols of the lavish Romanov court in the last years before its brutal demise.
After the 1917 October Revolution, the Romanov palaces were ransacked. Some of the Imperial Eggs were lost during the looting, but most of them were inventoried, crated and stashed in the Kremlin Armory in Moscow. Lenin considered the Romanov treasures Russia’s cultural patrimony and ordered their preservation. Stalin, on the other hand, had no such scruples. He saw them as sources of hard currency, pure and simple, and between 1930 and 1933 14 Imperial eggs were sold in the West by Stalin’s commissars. He couldn’t sell all of them, though, because the Kremlin Armory curators risked their lives to hide the most important pieces.
Only one egg made it out of Russia still in Romanov hands. The Order of St. George Egg, which was made in 1916 as a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his mother the Dowager Empress, was saved because she had moved to Kiev in 1916 as the situation at court grew more precarious. After her son’s abdication in March of 1917, she moved to Crimea where she managed to remain unmolested even as her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were shot to death. She refused to believe they were dead and she refused to leave Russia. Finally in 1919 her sister, Dowager Queen Alexandra of Britain, persuaded her to leave. King George V, who deeply regretted his decision not to rescue his cousin Nicky and his family in light of their horrible fate, sent the Iron Duke-class warship HMS Marlborough to pick her up at Yalta, and Maria fled carrying the egg and other treasures with her.
Out of the 50 eggs, 42 were known to have survived in private collections and museums around the world. Eight were lost, and four of those were known only from their descriptions because there were no extant pictures. There has been some confusion in the scholarly community over the missing eggs, particularly when they were made and what they looked like. For many years experts thought the Blue Serpent Clock Egg, currently owned by Prince Albert II of Monaco, filled the 1887 spot on the timeline, but in fact it was made in 1885 and it’s one of those picture-less eggs, the Third Egg, that was gifted to Maria Feodorovna in 1887.
The Third Egg was photographed at the 1902 exhibition of Tsarina Alexandra’s and Dowager Empress Maria’s Fabergé treasures at the Von Dervis mansion in St. Petersburg, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it was identified in the Imperial Egg display vitrine thanks to the discovery of a more recent picture from 1964. It turns out that sometime after it was inventoried by Soviet curators in 1922, the Third Egg traveled west. In March of 1964 it was lot 259 in a Parke Bernet auction in New York, but it was not identified as an Imperial Egg. It wasn’t even identified as a Fabergé. From the catalog:
Gold Watch in Egg-Form Case on Wrought Three-Tone Gold Stand, Set with Jewels
Fourteen-karat gold watch in reeded egg-shaped case with seventy-five point old-mine diamond clasp by Vacheron & Constantin; on eighteen-karat three-tone gold stand exquisitely wrought with an annulus, bordered with wave scrollings and pairs of corbel-like legs ciselé with a capping of roses, pendants of tiny leaves depending to animalistic feet with ring stretcher; the annulus bears three medallions of cabochon sapphires surmounted by tiny bowknotted ribbons set with minute diamonds, which support very finely ciselé three-tone gold swags of roses and leaves which continue downward and over the pairs of legs. Height 3 1/4 inches.
The disinherited Imperial Egg was purchased at that auction by a Southern lady for $2450. After her death in the early 2000s, her estate was sold and the egg, still unrecognized, made its way to a midwestern antiques stall where it was spotted by a scrap metal dealer. He planned to quickly resell it to be melted down for its gold value, but all of the prospective buyers who tested it thought he had overpaid. Blessedly stubborn, he refused to sell it at a loss and so for years he just kept the egg at home.
In 2012, he Googled “egg” and the only name he could find on the piece “Vacheron Constantin,” the makers of the lady’s watch that was the surprise inside. The results pointed him to a fateful article in the Telegraph that had been written in 2011 when the auction photograph of the Third Egg was discovered. “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” was the incredibly fortuitous headline, and the scrap metal fellow kind of thought his answer to the question might be yes.
He contacted the expert cited in the article, Kieran McCarthy of London jewelers and Fabergé specialists Wartski, and the rest is history that reads like a fairy tale.
Mr McCarthy said: “He saw the article and recognised his egg in the picture. He flew straight over to London – the first time he had ever been to Europe – and came to see us. He hadn’t slept for days.
Mr McCarthy flew to the US to verify the discovery.
“It was a very modest home in the Mid West, next to a highway and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There was the egg, next to some cupcakes on the kitchen counter.
“I examined it and said, ‘You have an Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg.’ And he practically fainted. He literally fell to the floor in astonishment.” The dealer etched Mr McCarthy’s name and the date into the wooden bar stool on which Mr McCarthy sat to examine the egg, marking the day that his life changed forever.
Wartski immediately arranged a private sale of the egg for an undisclosed sum that is certainly in the tens of millions. Russian oligarch Victor Vekselberg spent $100 million buying nine Imperial eggs from the estate of Malcolm Forbes in 2004, and in 2007 a non-Imperial egg sold at auction for $18.5 million. There are scratches on the surface of the egg from where would-be buyers sampled the material to test its gold content, but they didn’t decrease its market value. They might have even increased it, since they’re a record of this stranger-than-fiction backstory.
The scrap metal dealer, petrified that people will find out he hit the decorative arts Powerball, has limited himself to purchasing a new car and a new house just down the road from his old house. The new owner has allowed Wartski to exhibit the Third Egg at their Mayfair store from April 14th to 17th, 112 years after it was last seen in public under its true identity.
They had to pay through the nose with money they don’t actually have in hand quite yet, but the non-profit Arc of Appalachia, in collaboration with four other heritage and environmental organizations and donors like you and me, was able to purchase 193 acres of the Stark farm at auction on Tuesday, saving the ancient Hopewell earthworks known as the Junction Group. It’s an amazing result, especially when you consider that they only found out about the sale two weeks ago and the fundraising began eight days ago. They had to go up against some monied interests as well, housing developers who could have seriously damaged if not obliterated this sacred Native American ceremonial site.
Arc of Appalachia was ambitiously hoping to buy the entire 335-acre farm even though the earthworks just take up about 25 acres of one 89-acre plot because they wanted to combine protected cultural heritage with a nature preserve. The farm was divided into six lots. Besides the earthworks field, the coalition was able to acquire two forested tracks and a river corridor 1.2 miles long. These additional lots were key to preserving the full archaeological context of the site and to protect the delicate ecosystem of the woods and along the environmentally significant Paint Creek. The only lot they did not acquire was a large farm field of more than 170 acres. That was their lowest priority parcel and it sold to Dave Williams, a farmer who has worked for the Stark family for 22 years.
Williams was bummed that most of the land went to the conservancy groups. “I’m in it for one reason, they’re in it for another. Sad part is, when they buy property, there’s no more revenue from it, tax from it, that’s the downfall.” I wouldn’t call it a downfall since land isn’t wasted just because it’s not being used to produce cash crops. Even if you do think of its value solely in monetary terms, this is far from the end of the land’s ability to generate revenue for the state and local business alike. The opposite is true, in fact. The ultimate aim here, let’s recall, is to turn over the site to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and the national parks are a huge source of money from fees and the many associated expenditures park visitors (hotels, restaurants, souvenirs) make. I doubt farm taxes even come close to park revenues.
With real estate developers gunning for their piece of the pie, Arc of Appalachia wound up spending more than a million dollars to save this precious historical and environmental resource, $650,000 for the 90-acre earthworks lot alone.
Here’s some number crunching for you. We bought 102 acres of forest, the earthworks, and a total of 192 acres of land for a total of roughly $1.1 million. Our average per/acre cost was $5751.
As you can see, we raised roughly $375,000 through the generosity of over 900 donors, funds which we will use to leverage a Clean Ohio grant to pay the remaining balance of acquisition funds needed. If you pledged your support or would like to contribute, please send your donation now.
Obviously they’re very confident that the grant will be forthcoming or else they wouldn’t have gone so high, but the figures look very daunting to me so there’s still plenty of room for donations. Now that the land is secured, you can contribute to the kitty without fear that it will be for naught. Click the donate button on this page to make good on your pledge or to help keep Arc of Appalachia in the optimism to which it has become accustomed. If you’d like to mail in your pledged amount (or more), please send it to Arc of Appalachia, 7660 Cave Road, Bainbridge, OH 45612.
A series of nine watercolors by Joseph Mallord William Turner in the Tate Gallery, long thought to be studies for two oil paintings called The Burning of the Houses of Parliament or The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, in fact depict a later fire at an entirely different landmark: the Tower of London. The original identification was made in 1909 by art historian and Turner biographer A.J. Finberg who helped catalogue some of the massive Turner Bequest. Not all experts were persuaded that Finberg’s identification was correct, but there didn’t seem to be a viable alternative hypothesis so the Parliament title stood.
The fire at the old Houses of Parliament took place on October 16th, 1834. Fire broke out just before 7:00 PM and quickly devoured the Houses of Lords, Commons and all the adjacent buildings. Tens of thousands assembled to watch the flames and Turner was among them with his sketchbook. Later that year or early in 1835, he completed two different versions of the subject based off the quick sketches he drew from the south bank of the Thames. Those oil paintings are now in the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The watercolors are painted in broad, nearly abstract strokes of color making the shape of the buildings hard to distinguish. It was Matthew Imms, Tuner Curator at the Tate working on a new comprehensive catalog of the Bequest, who researched new possible candidates for the conflagration. His starting point was the dating. That abstract style is indicative of Turner’s later work, so Imms dug through periodicals of the late 1830s and Turner’s papers looking for any other major city fire the artist may have witnessed. That’s when he came across prints and descriptions of the Tower of London fire of 1841 and found architectural features that matched certain elements of the watercolors.
“The building that burned was called The Grand Storehouse, in the late 17th-century English Baroque style—red brick with stone dressings—and it held the historic armoury collections of cannons, and all the guns and rifles and so on that had been used in previous campaigns. Whether there was anything flammable among those, I’m not sure,” Imms says, “but they kept tents in the roof, so that would be good kindling.”
“The cupola and long, tall windows of the ill-fated building are the dominant architectural details in the watercolours, but more familiar buildings also stand out. There’s a classical pediment in one of the watercolours, with what seems to be the White Tower in the background,” he says. “It’s one of the ones that people thought was Westminster Abbey, but the turrets are too small and far apart, so we think it’s the White Tower.”
Although no direct references to witnessing the fire have yet been found in his papers, there is correspondence that proves he asked for permission to visit the grounds right after the fire. On November 3rd, 1841, just four days after the fire broke out the night of October 30th, Turner received a letter from the Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo and commandant of the Tower, refusing him access. Nobody was to be admitted unless they had legitimate business there.
Some of the series of nine watercolors will go on display at the Tate starting on September 10th. They will be part of The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, a show dedicated to Turner’s glowing later works. They will be redated based on the new research. No word yet on whether they’ll be renamed.
An anonymous donor has given the Auschwitz Museum five stamps used to tattoo prisoners at the death camp. Each metal block is embedded with a group of small, sharp needles arranged in the shape of a number, in this case one zero, two threes and two that could be either sixes or nines depending on which end is up. Only one other Nazi tattooing tool is known to exist — it’s in the Military Medical Museum in Saint Petersburg — which makes these grim survivals as rare as they are compelling.
“It is one of the most important findings of the recent years. We couldn’t believe that original tools for tattooing prisoners could be discovered after such a long time,” emphasised Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz Museum. “Even a tattooed number is rare to be seen now as the last prisoners pass away. Those stamps will greatly enrich the new main exhibition that is currently being prepared,” he added.
To preserve the anonymity of the donor, the museum has released limited information about the artifacts. All they’re saying right now is that the stamps were found on or near one of the evacuation routes the Nazis used to move prisoners west when the Soviets were baring down on them from the east in January of 1945. About 56,000 prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz in columns through Upper and Lower Silesia. Most met up with trains and were transported the rest of the way. The routes covered an area 30 to 35 miles north and south of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and one march was 155 miles long; a lot of ground in which to find five small metal plates.
Tattooing of prisoners began at Auschwitz in 1941 with Soviet prisoners of war. Serial numbers were first patches sewn into uniforms or attached with badges or armbands, but as more prisoners arrived and more of them died, clothing-based identification was found wanting. If their uniforms were tattered or lost, then their serial numbers were gone too. Prisoners also sometimes traded their worn clothes for pieces in better condition that had belonged to deceased inmates. Tattoos were durable and could not be exchanged.
The first tattoos were applied using a metal stamp with interchangeable numbered plates. The needled stamps were punched against the prisoner’s skin and then ink rubbed into the wound. The early Soviet prisoners were tattooed on the chest. Later the location of the tattoo moved to the left upper forearm, first the outside and then the inside. The metal plate stamps were eventually replaced with fixed needles on a wooden shaft that were dipped in ink and then pushed into the skin.
The tattoo was applied to prisoners at registration when they were assigned their serial numbers. In spring of 1942, Auschwitz authorities expanded the pool of tattooed prisoners from Soviets to other prisoners (Jews, Roma, reeducation candidates, political prisoners), retroactively tattooing people who were already registered. Eventually everyone who survived the initial sorting process was tattooed. People who were sent directly to the gas chambers were not.
Although other camps appear to have used serial number tattoos at times, Auschwitz was the only camp to have systematically tattooed its prisoners. The recently unveiled stamps, therefore, are of great significance to the history of Auschwitz. Up until now, the museum has only had a replica of the Military Medical Museum’s tattooing device on display. The plates will be kept in the museum’s archives while the main exhibition area is revamped, after which they will go on display in the redesigned space.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the son of stonemason and nephew of an engineer, first trained under that uncle as an architect maintaining the intricate waterworks of his native Venice. Even though he only ever got one job as an architect in his all too short life, he never lost the passion for buildings. It was as an artist that he made his name. He learned etching in Rome and combined his artistic talent with his favorite subject matter to create views of the city that became popular among Grand Tourists. Piranesi’s etchings of ancient Roman architecture were not only captured with the meticulous understanding of the builder, but were drawn with such powerful chiaroscuro dynamism that Goethe, for one, who first came to know the city through Piranesi’s books, was actually disappointed when he saw the real thing.
Piranesi didn’t limit himself to depictions of Rome and its ruins for the pilgrims and tourists. In 1745, he began work on an entirely new vision, combining his artistic style and understanding of ancient monumental construction to create a unique group of etchings called Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The imaginary part is that they bear no relation to any actual prisons of the era which were mostly cramped dungeon cells in the towers and palaces of the Church and aristocracy. Piranesi’s invented prisons were cavernous labyrinths peppered with intimidatingly suggestive mechanisms where human figures are barely present and dwarfed by their surroundings.
The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750. It was a collection of 14 untitled etchings drawn in a rough sketch-like style. You can see all 14 of the original Carceri in order here. Ten years later, he would return to his imaginary prisons and do a major revamp of the etchings. He added two new ones and fleshed out the others with even more complex architectural features, increased contrasts of shadow and light, arches, staircases and vaults that lead nowhere.
The prison etchings were part of an artistic tradition called the capriccio, a fantasy aggregation of structures and art works that doesn’t exist in real life. These sorts of imaginary viewpoints were popular with tourists because they compressed the “must see” ruins and artworks into one painting. What Piranesi did with the form, however, was entirely new. The prisons were expressions of visions in his mind, not of tourist bullet points. They wouldn’t be purchased as pre-photography postcards, but the prisons’ tenebrous atmosphere and emotional impact were highly influential for the Romantics of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The irrational elements like infinitely regressing passageways would later inspire the Surrealists and if Escher’s Relativity doesn’t owe Piranesi a huge debt, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.
In 2010, the Sale del Convitto in Venice held an exhibition Le Arti di Piranesi: architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer (The Arts of Piranesi: architect, engraver, antiquarian, vedutista, designer) to coincide with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The Carceri etchings played a central part in the show, and graphic artist Gregoire Dupond of Factum Arte brought them to virtual life with an absolutely riveting animation. He took the 16 prints of the second edition and transformed them into a three-dimensional space so viewers can travel deep into Piranesi’s imagination.
It’s 12 minutes long and it’s nothing short of riveting.
The Junction Group earthworks complex in Chillicothe, Ohio, is one of very few remaining ancient Native American ceremonial sites that hasn’t been sliced and diced by roads or train tracks or development. Situated on the south edge of the city at the confluence of the Paint Creek and its tributary North Fork Paint Creek, the earthworks take up about 25 acres of a 90-acre plot that is going up for auction on Tuesday, March 18th. The field belongs to the Stark family who have farmed it for generations but are now reluctantly selling the entire farm, including the earthworks.
The land has road frontage and is close to city water and sewer lines, which makes it a very attractive parcel for a housing development. There’s already a subdivision kitty corner with the property. Any such construction would destroy the foundations of the earthworks of the Hopewell Culture which we know are still there just underneath the surface. The Junction Group was built 1800-2000 years ago as nine earthworks enclosures: four circular mounds, three crescents, one large square and a quatrefoil. The latter is the only known example of that shape ever discovered in Ohio.
To keep this irreplaceable historical treasure from falling into uncaring hands, the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, the Arc of Appalachia and other non-profit organizations are working together to raise $500,000 to buy not just the earthworks parcel but the entire farm which is being sold in six lots. If they are successful in acquiring the land, the long-term plan is to turn it over to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park which is just six miles northwest of the Junction Group. The national park already administers five Hopewell sites in the Paint Creek Valley, and although the process of transferring a sixth site to national park stewardship requires legislative action that can take years, the Arc of Appalachia has already begun the process for another Hopewell earthwork and are confident they can pull it off in the end. They have the full support of the park service in their endeavours.
The Hopewell culture, also known as the Hopewell tradition because it describes a range of different tribes who developed an extensive trade network along the rivers of the northeast and midwest, flourished from around 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. They were the inheritors of the Adena culture who inhabited the same area in the Scioto River Valley in the first millennium B.C. There are two dozen Hopewell ceremonial sites in Ross County alone, most of them consisting of at least one burial mound and several earthwork structures. There is little evidence of settlement on these sites; their purpose appears to have been almost entirely religious.
The Junction Group was first named and documented by Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis in their seminal 1848 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. It was the first major work on the archaeology of ancient mounds in the United States and the first publication of the Smithsonian Institution. When Squier and Davis recorded the Junction Group in 1845, the largest mound was seven feet high and some earthenwork walls were at least three feet high with deep ditches on either side.
Since then, farming has worn down the mounds and earthworks so they are no longer visible to the naked eye. It was a magnetic imaging survey in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the complex are still crystal clear under the plough line. The survey also was the first to recognize that what Squier and Davis thought was a smaller square was actually the unique quatrefoil.
If you’d like to donate to save this irreplaceable resource, you can make a pledge on the Arc of Appalachia website here or pledge or donate on the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy page here. Pledges are very important to this project because the organizations are applying for grants that will match pledged funds and for loans that will be easier to secure with proof of financial backing.
Please spread the word! There are only a few days to go before the auction. So many of these mounds and earthworks are gone forever in Ohio. Let’s stop the Junction Group from succumbing to this tragic fate.
Archaeologists in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have unearthed a lacquer coffin from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 A.D.), snatching it out from under the nose of looters. The looters were caught digging a tunnel 10 meters (33 feet) long towards the tomb entrance, which is how archaeologists knew where to dig.
Tombs of aristocrats from the Northern Wei Dynasty have been found before in the Xilin Gol Grassland, a prairie region in Inner Mongolia that has been home to nomadic tribes since the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty in the 16th century B.C. Most recently, two tombs have been unearthed in the past two years in locations adjacent to the one that was just discovered. The potential for treasure in these tombs has attracted thieves who are so bold they often act as parasites on official archaeological projects, digging the same site at night that the professionals are excavating during the day. It’s a lucky break that they were caught in this instance before they destroyed the archaeological context in their search for salable goods.
On March 7th, the large black-lacquered pinewood coffin was removed from the tomb along with archaeological context material like soil and wood and brought to a laboratory at the Xilin Gol League Museum in Xilin Hot, Inner Mongolia. The next day, the coffin was gingerly opened to reveal the mortal remains of an aristocratic woman in excellent condition. She was wrapped in a silk shroud and wearing fur boots. Her thick black hair was adorned with a metal headband. She was buried with goods including a bow, a dagger and various pottery vessels.
Archaeologists have not found any indication of the identity of the deceased, but they hope that analysis will reveal much about her life and death. Samples of her hair will be tested for information about her diet, age and health. The well-preserved contents of the coffin and tomb will hopefully provide experts with new insight into the funerary customs of ancient Xianbei nomadic tribes who inhabited the area. There were many tribes under the Xianbei umbrella. Researchers hope to narrow down which clan the aristocratic woman belonged to.
One of the Tuoba tribe, Tuoba Liwei, was posthumously considered the first emperor of the Northern Wei Dynasty. Although China was briefly unified under the Northern Wei in 439 A.D., when the dynasty came to power it employed customs and practices that were foreign to the ethnic Chinese majority, like requiring would-be empresses not to be of high birth, but to be able to forge gold statues during a ceremony, and forcing the mothers of crown princes to commit suicide and instead giving princes’ wet nurses dowager empress status. As the dynasty expanded and fused with neighboring ethnic groups, these distinct practices fell out of favor.
The only known surviving example of the first banknote issued in Australia will be going up for auction this month. The ten shilling note is conservatively estimated to sell for 250,000 Australian dollars ($225,000) and could well go for much higher considering its rarity and its excellent condition. It was found in a private collection in Scotland in 2005 and then acquired privately by another collector who is now selling it auction.
Issued by the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac Banking Corporation after merging with the Commercial Bank of Australia Limited in 1982), this banknote is number 55 of one hundred ten shilling notes issued on the bank’s first day of business, April 8th, 1817. The bank was more than seven years in the making at that point. Lieutenant-Colonel Lachlan Macquarie had arrived in New South Wales at the end of 1809 to establish a functional government and economy in a colony in chaos. The New South Wales Corps, a local regiment that was supposed to maintain order was so corrupt it was known as the Rum Corps for its illegal control of the rum trade.
With the monetary system a jumble of ad hoc local currency, unreliable promissory notes and barter goods, Macquarie sought to stabilize the economy with standardized currency. He asked for permission from London authorities to establish a bank in the colony, but his request was rejected. In 1812, he took £10,000 in Spanish dollars Britain sent him and cleverly stretched them into Australia’s first official local currency by punching holes in them and creating the famous holey dollars (the donut-like outside of the coins) and the dumps (the center plugs).
The holey dollars were in circulation from 1813 until 1822 and although they helped increase the amount of hard currency in the colony and prevent all the coin from leaving on trade ships, they were insufficient to alleviate New South Wales’ monetary woes and the unreliable promissory notes, barter and use of foreign currency continued. With London still dragging its feet, in 1816 Macquarie took matters into his own hands and forged ahead with a plan to found a colony bank. Capital was raised from 39 investors and 49 regulations adopted at a General Meeting of subscribers in February of 1817.
One of the regulations required that banknotes be issued in denominations of two shillings & sixpence, five shillings, 10 shillings, one pound and five pounds. To make the plates that would stamp these banknotes, the bank directors appointed Samuel Clayton, an Irish artist and silversmith who had been transported to New South Wales for forgery in 1816. (He wasn’t the only financial criminal to get a job producing money for the colony. William Henshall, who punched the dumps out of the holey dollars and overstamped both with their new values and mottos, had been transported for counterfeiting.)
Since there was no banknote paper in New South Wales until 1820, to make the banknotes harder to forge Clayton inscribed legends on the back of the note with a unique letterpress. Number 55 is inscribed: “When we cease to render strict and impartial Justice in the Administration of the Affairs of the Bank, as it regards the Public on the one hand, and the Proprietors on the other, be our Names and Characters branded with perpetual Infamy.”
The governor signed the charter for the new bank on March 22nd, 1817, and, after a branch location was leased from Mrs. Mary Reibey, a successful businesswoman who herself had been transported to New South Wales for horse stealing in 1790 when she was just 13 years old, the Bank of New South Wales opened its doors at 10:00 AM, April 8th. The bank was a huge success, setting the colony off on a sturdy financial footing for the first time. Macquarie considered it the signature achievement of his governorship, later describing the founding of the bank as “the saving of the colony from ruin.”
Unlike the bank, the delicate paper notes did not stand the test of time. Even the holey dollars are hard to come by these days with only 300 known to survive, and banknotes are obviously much harder used in circulation. How number 55 made it to Scotland is unknown, but it may have been brought there by Macquarie himself or at least one of his staff. He was Scottish and returned home after he resigned as governor of New South Wales in 1821.
During construction of a basketball court on the campus of the West Technological University (UTP) in Maxcanú, in the Mexican state of Yucatan, workers discovered that the Maya had beat them to it by two thousand years. It was 2012 and the university had selected a grassy, flat area at the bottom of a hill to build a new basketball court. Almost as soon as work began, earthmovers encountered an unmovable object. Not being an irresistible force, the machines stopped while the people investigated. They found the obstacle was a pink stone wall that looked old so they called in the experts.
Archaeologists from the state branch of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) examined the find and confirmed it was indeed old. INAH archaeologist Eunice Uc told university president Rossana Alpizar Rodríguez: “The Maya are way ahead of you. You can’t build your basketball court because a pre-Hispanic one already exists here: it’s a Ball Game court.” Further excavations revealed two parallel rectangular structures made from the pink stone. They’re oriented north-south and are fairly narrow at, 19 meters (62 feet) long and seven meters (23 feet) wide. Between them is a flat field .
The structures are made out of stones carved in the Puuc style, veneer stones, sometimes highly decorated, over a concrete core. The interior sides that face each other start from a plaster layer over which the wall is built first in three steps and then with a slope leading up to a flat floor. The exteriors have vertical walls. The field was covered with a four-inch thick layer of stucco. The perimeter of the court is demarcated by a boundary of coarse stones of regular size (up to 60 centimeters or about 24 inches wide). About 15 meters (50 feet) south from the court, nearer the base of the hill, is a circular altar. The style of architecture identifies the court as having been built in the Early Classic period, 250 B.C. to 600 A.D.
The location at the foot of the hill was a deliberate choice. The soil there is a rich red earth called Kankab, deposited as runoff from mountain streams. It’s highly fertile and was prize land for Maya farmers. Some researchers believe the Ball Game was associated with agriculture and fertility rituals, hence the placement. A cave at the top of the hill represented the birthplace of the gods and the Ball Game linked the deities on the mountain to the agricultural land during ceremonies.
One of the activities during the Ball Games is narrated in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala: “It says that the mythical twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque faced, in ball player’s getup, the lords of the underworld who are finally defeated, thus conquering death and giving way to life; this myth continues with the resurrection of the twins father who transforms into the corn god; this suggests there is a huge link between this deity and the ritual game that took place in these sacred spaces.”
More than 26 Mayan ball game courts have been discovered in Yucatan, but this is the first one found in Maxcanú, a town about 40 miles south of the state capital of Mérida. The university is thrilled with the discovery, even though it crushed their hoop dreams. In exchange for a few games, students will get to work on conservation issues and on a archaeological tourism plan that will bring new visitors to Maxcanú. The site is still being excavated and conserved by INAH in conjunction with school.
The finder reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme liaison and the subsequent coroner’s inquest declare it official treasure trove. Since then, the bracelet has been at the British Museum where experts were studying it and assessing its market value so a local museum, in this case the Dock Museum in Furness, could acquire it. The price was modest compared to some of the major treasure finds — just £1,800 ($3,000) — but small local museums don’t have acquisition budgets so they had to raise the funds.
Thanks to a donation from the Furness Maritime Trust, the Dock Museum is now the proud owner of this beautiful and rare piece of jewelry. It will go on display on March 14th in the museum’s new archaeology gallery. There will be associated workshops at the end of the month that schools have been invited to, and on Saturday, April 12th, a free Roman-themed family fun day.
It’s only fair that such a handsome piece of jewelry would inspire all kinds of new exhibitions and events at the museum. I think the striking spiral wire design with filigree terminals is reminiscent of a torc while the intaglio is a Greco-Roman classic. That’s not to say this was a hybrid of British and Roman workmanship. The thick spiral-twisted wire band with elaborate terminals and an engraved gemstone set in hinged bezel center is a design that has been found far, far away from Britannia. A similar silver hinged bracelet was found in Slovenia. Gold examples have been found in Syria and Egypt. This was an import, and an expensive one at that.
From the curator’s report for the treasure inquest:
The distorted elliptical hoop comprises a fine and evenly-twisted, tightly-spiralled tube made from circular-sectioned silver wire. Quite heavy wear is visible on both sides of the hoop. What appears to be the central core, around which the wire was spiralled, is visible under magnification in those places where distortion has slightly ‘opened’ the twisted strands, but its composition is uncertain. Each terminal is enclosed in a tubular collar which is decorated with an applied central meander filigree wire flanked by a double-ring edge-moulding. [...]
The large circular bezel, a hollow box construction of silver sheet, has a plain back and sides. Its ornate upper face comprises an outer basal zone of herringbone pattern, formed from three concentric circles of twisted wire, and a central raised open dome with ribbed side and stepped, apparently rubbed-over, setting. The oval gem, seemingly of translucent orange-red colour, has dropped out of position to the base of the box-setting, presumably as a result of the deterioration and loss of an original organic packing. Engraved into its lightly convex surface is the image of a seated Jupiter, with wreath and full-length drapery, holding a sceptre in his left hand. In his extended right hand he holds a patera above a stylised flaming altar.
Whoever owned this bracelet had to be very wealthy. Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae speculates that it belonged to a wealthy Furness woman, native rather than Roman, who could afford the best and wanted to show it off.
The British Library has acquired an exquisite illuminated manuscript of Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist (Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ), a mystery play written by Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé (d. 1440) some time before 1414 that was enormously popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. It tells a highly fictionalized story of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. as Jesus’ revenge for his crucifixion. It is 14,972 verses long and was performed over the course of four days in elaborate productions that included special effects like flying angels and a leprous Vespasian miraculously healed on stage.
Only two copies of the play are known to have survived and this one is the only complete one. The other copy, now in the Municipal Library of Arras, is 1020 verses shorter, an abridged version that took only three days to stage. The Arras copy is also illustrated with pen and ink drawings, while the British Library’s edition is illustrated with 20 miniatures painted in rich color and vibrant detail by Flanders master Loyse Liédet.
Commissioned by Philip the Good (1396-1467), Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, Artois and Franche-Comté, around 1465, the book is thought to be a record of an actual performance of the Mystère de la Vengeance that was staged in Abbeville in 1483. Abbeville had recently become part of Philip the Good’s territory and it’s very likely that he was in the audience. Wanting a top quality copy of the play, the duke commissioned Liédet to do the art and scribe Yvonnet le Jeune to write out the text in beautiful calligraphy (get a load of the A in Amen). Liédet’s illuminations are thought to be accurate depictions of the play as performed, an important document of medieval theatrical productions from the 15th century.
Thanks to the ducal library’s extensive record-keeping, we know exactly who was paid how much for which work and how much the materials cost (see this excellent British Library blog entry for details). The total expenditure was an exorbitant 51 pounds and 19 shillings. For comparison, a panel triptych of the Last Supper commissioned in 1464 cost £33 6s. 8d. and Philip’s Master of the Cannon made six pounds a year. This was a luxury edition and then some.
After the death of Philip the Good, it remained in the Burgundian ducal collection until the 17th century when it was acquired by the Marquis de La Vieuville. In the 18th century it was split into two volumes and rebound, but despite the alteration the condition was and is pristine. The book made its way to England in the late 18th century, becoming part of the collection of John Ker, Duke of Roxburghe, whose library was considered the greatest of his age. In the famous 1812 sale of the Roxburghe estate, it was third most expensive lot, purchased by William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), the sixth Duke of Devonshire.
It remained in the library at Chatsworth, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, for two hundred years. On December 5th, 2012, the Mystère de la Vengeance was put up for auction at Sotheby’s, but the high bid of £3.9 million just failed to meet the reserve of £4 million ($6,442,400) so it didn’t sell.
Thankfully, they decided not to sell it at auction again. Instead it was acquired by the government under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. When the market value of the object surpasses the amount of the tax, the owner is paid the difference which is what happened here. The British Library raised the undisclosed amount with grants and donations.
Both volumes of the play have already been digitized and uploaded to the British Library’s outstanding digital manuscripts site: volume one, volume two. To leaf through the book, click on the bindings image and arrow through. It’s very much worth it to zoom in on the illuminations. They are gorgeous and in a very unique style.
An 18th century book of musical scores with a dashingly Hornblower-like history has been identified as an extremely rare, probably unique, survival of early Chinese music. The book has been in St John’s College library at Cambridge University for 210 years. It was known to be there, but none of the resident scholars knew much about it beyond it being an “odd little book.” A colleague suggested visiting Chinese scholar Dr. Jian Yiang check out the slender volume and he immediately recognized it as a rare collection of musical scores written in Gongche notation. When he consulted with other experts, they confirmed that they had never seen this particular title before which means it may well be one of a kind.
The book itself is entitled Xian Di Pipa Pu, which means the musical score for Chinese flute and “pipa” (a Chinese lute). It contains a condensed introduction to three instruments – “Xiao” (a type of recorder), “Di” (Chinese flute) and “Sanxian” (the three-stringed Chinese lute). This is followed by 13 pieces of music in the traditional Gongche notation.
It is particularly valuable because attempts to understand China’s musical heritage have been thwarted by a lack of reliable historical documents. Zhiwu Wu, Professor of Chinese Music at Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou, who has analysed Yang’s find, said: “The discovery of this rare volume of pre-modern Chinese musical notation might contribute a great deal to current research and performance of Chinese traditional music and some of the pieces included might be the earliest and only source available.”
Xian Di Pipa Pu came very close to destruction before scholars got the chance to learn from it. The book was acquired by the Reverend James Inman, mathematician, astronomer and an alumnus of St John’s College, Cambridge, when he was in Whampoa in Canton (today Guangzhou), China, in December of 1803. The next month he was on his way back to England, sailing on the East India ship Warley, a 1,475-ton merchant ship that was part of the British China Fleet.
The East Indiamen, as these ships were known, were large and heavy and could carry up to 36 guns so they were strong enough to fend off privateers and from a distance could be confused for small ships of the line, but they were not military vessels. The fleet that set sail with Inman in January of 1804 carried passengers and an immensely valuable cargo: tea, silk and porcelain that today would be worth more than a billion dollars. They had no military escort, just a single East India Company brig, however, and the convey was a highly desirable target. With the uneasy peace between France and Britain about to be broken in May of 1803, Napoleon had dispatched a squadron of warships under the command of Contre-Admiral Charles-Alexandre Durand Linois to India with the explicit purpose of interrupting the East India trade, a load-bearing wall of the British economy. Intercepting so rich a fleet would be a major coup.
Linois’ spies had reported to him when the British China Fleet sailed and his ships had been patrolling the area for a month looking for it. On February 14th, 1804, the French and British came face to face in front of the island of Pulo Aura near the Straits of Malacca off the Malaysian coast. Because Linois had heard from his spies that the fleet would have military escorts (false information that may have been deliberately planted by the British), he was cautious and did not attack right away.
Commodore Nathaniel Dance, commander of the British fleet, decided not to flee but to attempt to stare Linois down. On February 15th, Dance order the brig Ganges and the four biggest East Indiamen to line up in battle formation and fly the blue ensigns of the Royal Navy. He was hoping to trick Linois into thinking the large merchant vessels were small warships, armed to the teeth and more than capable of defending the smaller merchant vessels against Linois’ one ship of the line and three frigates.
The ruse worked. Linois held back, unwilling to engage in battle until he was sure of what he was dealing with. Dance used the delay to return the fleet to sailing formation and make for the straits, but Linois’ warships were faster and began to nip at the heels of the slower, smaller merchant ships. Dance again made a daring choice, bringing the five lead ships about to face the French. Linois finally attacked, firing on the lead ship the Royal George. The other four, including the Warley, returned fire. In the confusion of the encounter, one of the other British ships crashed into the Warley leaving the two ships’ riggings entangled.
After an exchange of fire lasting less than an hour, Linois turned the French squadron around and fled. Dance, who obviously suffered no deficit of commitment, actually chased the French for two hours to make sure they didn’t turn around and attack them again. Then he reassembled the convoy that had gotten a little stretched thin and together they made their way to safety in the Straits of Malacca. They stayed anchored there for a couple of weeks until Royal Navy ships of the line arrived to escort them the rest of the way home.
Inman, acquitted himself admirably in this skirmish, commanding a team of Indian Lascar seamen armed with pikes. Once he was safe and sound in England, he returned to St John’s where in 1805 he got his MA and became a fellow of the College. The “odd little book” that with its owner had survived an encounter with the business end of French ships of the line and getting tangled in the rigging of a friendly ship, was donated to the College along with the rest of Inman’s collection of Chinese books.