Arts and Sciences

14th c. birch bark letter found in Moscow

History Blog - Mon, 2015-11-09 23:56

Russian archaeologists have unearthed a letter written on birch bark in Moscow’s historic Zaryadye district close to Red Square. The archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences found the letter 13 feet below street level in a layer with more than 100 small and large artifacts dating to the 14th century.

The first birch bark letters were discovered in 1951 in Novgorod, preserved in its heavy, waterlogged clay soil. Letters were scratched on the inner, trunk-facing side of the birch bark sheet using a stylus made of iron, bone or bronze. The letters were dated with a combination of stratigraphy (dating of the layers in which they were found), dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and palaeography (handwriting analysis) and linguistic analysis (examining the features of the text). They range in date from the 11th through the 15th century.

The vast majority are letters from private individuals detailing the minutiae of their lives. Some are petitions of peasants to their lords. Some are debt lists, but since they open with the imperative “Take” it’s probable that they too were letters, probably of instruction on collecting the enumerated debt. One very special group of birch bark letters appear to be lessons and doodles. There are 17 drawings and notes by a young boy named Onfim. He lived in the 13th century and was around six or seven when he drew scenes of men on horseback, knights in battle, even himself as a fantastical beast next to alphabet and writing exercises. It’s a remarkable testament to a how highly literate this society was at all economic strata.

Since that first discovery in 1951, more than 1000 birch bark letters have been found, almost all of them in Novgorod. The second greatest number, 45, were found in Staraya Russa, a town 60 miles south of Novgorod. Only nine other cities can claim birch bark letter discoveries. None were found in Moscow until 1988. It took 20 years before a second and third were unearthed at the foot of the Kremlin. None of those three quite followed the Novgorod standard. Moscow 1, as the 1988 find was dubbed, was a draft or copy of a property deed or claim. Moscow 2 had a small inscription that was hard to make out. Moscow 3 was a very long inventory of property of a Muscovite prince and it was written in ink, not scratched with a stylus. (Only two of the thousand plus Novgorod letters were written in ink.)

That makes Moscow 4, the newly discovered piece, the first true Novgorod style birch bark letter found in the city. Like the overwhelming majority of the Novgorod ones, this is a private letter. The strip of bark has the smooth surface and carefully cut edges indicating it was specifically prepared for use as stationary. Each letter is printed very clearly and distinctly along the length of the fibers, as they are in Novgorod. The other Moscow letters were written against the grain.

The letter is a sad one. Addressed simply to “Sir,” it tells of the writer’s misfortunes while traveling to Kostroma, a city 217 miles to the northeast that was part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The writer was detained along with a certain Yuri and his mother by someone “who had the right to do so.” This person, likely an official of some kind, took 13 bel (a relatively small denomination of currency in medieval Russia) from them and then another three. Finally the author had to pay 20 and a half bel more to buy their freedom. The total of 36.5 bel was a signficant amount of money back then. Since it appears the captor had legal rights, this may have been the repayment of a debt with extra tacked on for interest.

Every Novgorod birch bark letter find is exciting, but the rarity of a Moscow find and the precise printing of this letter make it of particular interest to archaeologists. It will be conserved to ensure its long-term survival and studied further at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Most of the birch bark letters have been uploaded to an online database. The website is down right now but it was working earlier. From what I could gather when it was up, it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not quite a complete record. Still, you can photographs of each letters in high resolution, plus transcriptions and translations.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Earliest church in the tropics unearthed in Cape Verde

History Blog - Sun, 2015-11-08 23:32

A team of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge has unearthed the remains of the first known Christian church in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição was built around 1470, shortly after the Portuguese discovered the island, out of wood. What the team has found are the remains of an expansion of the church from 1500 with masonry walls and an interior decorated with vibrant colored tile imported from Lisbon.

Documentary evidence pointed to the location of the first church, so in 2007 the team dug test pits and found foundations and a significant burial ground. With the support of the mayor and the Cape Verde government, archaeologists were able to return this season and fully excavate the site.

“We’ve managed to recover the entire footprint-plan of the church, including its vestry, side-chapel and porch, and it now presents a really striking monument,” said Christopher Evans, Director of the CAU.

“Evidently constructed around 1500, the most complicated portion is the east-end’s chancel where the main altar stood, and which has seen much rebuilding due to seasonal flash-flood damage. Though the chancel’s sequence proved complicated to disentangle, under it all we exposed a gothic-style chapel,” he said.

“This had been built as a free-standing structure prior to the church itself and is now the earliest known building on the islands — the whole exercise has been a tremendous success.”

The Cape Verde archipelago was discovered in 1456 by Alvise Cadamosto, an Italian explorer hired by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal to explore the west coast of Africa. The islands were uninhabited. There weren’t any mammals at all, in fact, or trees. They were, however, conveniently located in the Atlantic 350 miles off the coast of Africa, which would soon make the archipelago an important platform for the transatlantic slave trade. In 1462 the Portuguese founded the first permanent European settlement in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The island and its capital, the city of Ribeira Grande (modern-day Cidade Velha), flourished from the trade in human flesh both economically and culturally, becoming the second richest city in the Portuguese empire and developing through the mixing of European and African cultures into the first Creole society.

The city declined rapidly in the 18th century after it was sacked by the French pirate Jacques Cassard in 1712. He gutted Cape Verde so thoroughly that, according to his memoirs, he had too much loot to fit on his eight ships and had to leave some of it behind for fear his fleet would sink from the weight. Ribeira Grande never recovered from the Cassard blow. When the slave trade was outlawed in the 19th century, the economic engine of the city died. Necessary maintenance was abandoned and the hill wash carried down into the city by seasonal floods was left to accumulate. The capital was moved to the town of Praia and Ribeira Grande became a sleepy village.

Nossa Senhora da Conceição followed this pattern, falling into disuse around 1790. The archaeological remains from its heyday, however, give us a unique glimpse into the early history of the island. The discovery of the tombstones of dignitaries like mid-16th century town treasurer and slave trader Fernão Fiel de Lugo confirm the existence of people who while known were enveloped in an aura of legend. An estimated 1,000 people were buried under the floor of the church before 1525, an incredible density of information about the dawn of the first Creole society.

Preliminary analysis of samples shows that about half the bodies are African, with the rest from various parts of Europe. An excavation is being planned to collect data for isotope analysis of more bodies to learn more about the country’s founding population and its early slave history.

“From historical texts we have learned about the development of a ‘Creole’ society at an early date with land inherited by people of mixed race who could also hold official positions. The human remains give us the opportunity to test this representation of the first people in Cabo Verde,” said Evans.

Watch this video for an overview of the history of the city and for great footage of the excavation of the church.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Burial vaults found under Washington Square Park

History Blog - Sat, 2015-11-07 23:32

Workers installing a new water main on Washington Square Park East last Tuesday discovered a burial vault probably dating to the early 19th century. Work stopped and Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants were called in to examine the vault at the intersection of Washington Square Park East and Washington Square Park North and carefully excavate the surroundings. They immediately discovered a second vault parallel to the first.

Cameras dropped into the vaults found the chambers are about the same size — 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 to 27 feet long — with fieldstone walls and barrel-vaulted brick ceilings. The interiors are whitewashed and have a wooden door at one end. The first vault has jumbled skeletal remains of maybe 10 individuals. The second holds about 20 intact wooden coffins.

Numerous coffins, perhaps two dozen, covered the floor of the vault. Some were in disarray but others looked to be in a fine state of preservation. Smaller coffins attested poignantly to the burial of children, when it was not uncommon for families to suffer the loss of their youngest members.

More helpful to historians than anything, perhaps, many of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped ornamental identification plates that will — once they are decipherable — help [Alyssa Loorya, President and Principal Investigator of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants,] and others put names to the skeletons; and with the names, context; and with context, new stories of old New York.

With space at such a premium, Manhattan is replete with built-over burials. In fact, the what is now Washington Square Park was first acquired by the city specifically for use as a graveyard. It was farmland in the late 18th century, outside the confines of the city. In April of 1797, the New York City Council bought 90 lots, the eastern two thirds of the future park, for use as a potter’s field, a public burial ground for the indigent. Its brief was expanded every time New York was hit with a yellow fever epidemic (there were four major outbreaks during the lifetime of the cemetery). Victims’ bodies were buried in the potter’s field outside of the city for sanitation purposes. Historians estimate that more than 20,000 people were buried there between 1797 and the cemetery’s closure in 1826.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that human remains have been found before during work at the park, starting in 1890 when the foundations were dug for the Washington Square Arch. Architect Stanford White stopped work to document the bones, gravestones, pieces of coffins and one relatively intact coffin. Since then individual graves had cropped up on occasion when the city had cause to dig in the Washington Square Park area, but when in 1965 Con Edison workers broke through an intact burial vault at the northeast corner of the park (the same location where the vaults were found last week), nobody had seen anything like it. The remains of three partially burned coffins and 25 individuals were found in that vault.

There is cartographic evidence from the early 19th century that a large plot extending across the northeast corner of the park from Washington Square Park East to Washington Square Park North and several adjoining blocks belonged to the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Pearl Street Church and Cedar Street Church, both Presbyterian, are each known to have had small cemeteries carved out of the larger lot. The Cedar Street Church cemetery was the larger of the two. It is now the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church which has kept excellent records going back to 1808, so it may be possible to identify one of the names on the coffins, should they have been part of the Cedar Street congregation.

All construction work at the site has been halted. By city policy, all burials must be left in place and intact. The water main project is now being redesigned around the vaults.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Synchrotron X-ray imaging virtually opens mystery box

History Blog - Fri, 2015-11-06 23:54

A badly corroded box found in a 17th century tomb has been virtually opened by powerful synchrotron X-ray imagining and its contents revealed in exceptional high resolution. The box and its contents are not so portentous, archaeologically speaking, but the phenomenal quality of the imaging opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

The metal box was found in one of more than 1,500 tombs unearthed under the old Saint-Laurent church which is now the Grenoble Archaeological Museum. The site has been in use since the 4th century when it was a cemetery outside the ancient city. Starting with a cruciform church in the 6th century, buildings were constructed on top of the remains of earlier buildings in four known stages. The current Saint-Laurent building is a 12th century Romanesque church that was deconsecrated in 1986 and converted into the museum.

The crypt from the 6th century church was discovered in the basement of the Romanesque church in 1803 and subsequent excavations peeled back layers to reveal burials from the 4th through the 18th century. This one church and its environs encompass a complete history of Christian burials over an astonishing 16 centuries. Modern archaeologists have been exploring the burials for the past 20 years, taking the unique opportunity to study the evolution of Christian funerary traditions spanning 1600 years.

More than 2,000 artifacts have been discovered in the tombs, many of which are on display in the museum which beautifully weaves the open excavated crypts into exhibition space. The box was found buried next to a body in a group of 195 graves from the 17th centuries. It’s a tiny piece — just 4 centimeters (an inch and a half) in diameter — and is so fragile conservators decided to restore it only to the point of stopping the oxidation process that was eating away its metal. Because corrosion had worn a hole in the lid, they could see that there were three round coin-like objects inside, but couldn’t make out any further details.

The museum reached out to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) team to scan the box using synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography.

This technique, which can be likened to a highly powerful medical scanner, is capable of producing high resolution 3D images of the inside of a sample in a non-destructive manner. “It was only supposed to be a small feasibility study to produce an image for an exhibition. However, the results were so astounding that it turned into a full scale research project”, says Paul Tafforeau who carried out the experiments and produced the 3D images of the box.

The scanner found that the “coins” inside were actually clay religious medals. There were also two pearls inside the box. The medallions were stuck together and in bad condition, but the synchrotron X-ray was able to virtually separate them and make a 3D virtual model so crisp and detailed it has to be seen to be believed. Behold:

The imaging is far better than anything we can see with our puny human eyeballs so markedly inferior to those of any cephalopod. We now know that there are two identical medals sandwiching a different one between them. The middle medal, which has the most surviving detail, depicts Christ on the cross with two figures — probably Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary — standing on either side. The other side of the medal shows Christ wearing the crown of thorns, rising from the tomb with one leg out of the coffin and holding the standard of the Resurrection and Victory.

The other two medals were both more damaged, but fortunately in different places so it was possible to use the image of one medal to fill in the blanks on the other. One side shows the baptism of Christ and bears an inscription from John 1:14 VERBUM CARO, FACTUM EST (“And the word was made flesh”). The other side is a Nativity scene, with the Magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus on Mary’s lap. The inscription is a verse recited during the Stations of the Cross: ADORAMUS TE, CHRISTE ET BENEDICIMUS TIBI (“We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee”).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“World’s greatest cat painting” sells for $826,000

History Blog - Thu, 2015-11-05 23:29

Images of cats have gone viral long before the Internet, or even the computer, was a thing. A 19th century painting of cats that drew crowds and critical accolades in the analog era sold at Sotheby’s Tuesday for $826,000, almost three times the high pre-sale estimate.

My Wife’s Lovers is a monumental 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting weighing 227 pounds, so heavy Sotheby’s had to construct a special wall to display it during the preview period. It was painted by Austrian artist Carl Kahler who specialized in horse racing scenes and had never painted a cat before he went to San Francisco in 1891. There he met Kate Birdsall Johnson, a wealthy philanthropist, art collector and animal lover who had begun buying fancy Angora cats during her travels in Europe in the 1880s and never stopped.

Mrs. Johnson invited Carl to Buena Vista, the Johnsons’ country estate near Sonoma and home of the oldest winery in California, still in operation today. (It wasn’t actually a working concern in the decade plus the Johnsons lived there as they had no interest in wine production, but as aficionados of art and architecture, they did ensure the preservation of the original press house and winery so the estate could return to its proverbial roots after World War II.) There she commissioned him to make a portrait of 42 of her cats and Kahler got to work. He spent close to two years sketching individual cats in their many and varied postures.

Lore has it that the painting was given its exquisite moniker by Kate’s husband Robert, but that can’t be true because he died in March of 1889 in Paris after a sudden illness struck him while he was traveling abroad. I imagine the name was Mrs. Johnson’s idea, a tribute to her beloved husband, doubtless inspired by something he had often said about her feline companions. It reads to me like an old inside joke between a long and happily married couple.

The painting was finished by the spring of 1893. Justifiably proud of her cat colony captured in all their dynamism and character by Kahler’s brush, Mrs. Johnson loaned My Wife’s Lovers for exhibition in the California Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It went on display in the Women’s Department (yeah, I know) and was a smash hit with the crowds. From the Final Report of the California World’s Fair Commission

The pictures on the walls were numerous, and embraced novel and meritorious works of art. Probably the one that attracted the most attention was a large canvas painted by C. Kahler, and owned by the late Mrs. Kate E. Johnson of San Francisco, the title being “My Wife’s Lovers.” It contained figures of forty-two large Angora cats, being only a fraction of the total number in possession of the owner, and represented these household pets in every conceivable attitude of playfulness.

Kate Birdsall Johnson only had a few months to enjoy her pets’ fame as live art models. She died on December 3rd, 1893, of pneumonia. Sotheby’s lot information says she left $500,000 in her will for the care in perpetuity of her cats, but that’s not correct. Her will was published in the paper when it was filed for probate a week after her death, and there is no half million dollar bequest.

~ Tangent time! ~

Kate Johnson’s will opens with a sweet nod to her father-in-law:

Thanking God for his undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts, I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul.

George C. Johnson’s soul may well have needed those prayers, primarily because of the way he made the fortune that Kate so graciously and devoutly bequeathed. A Norwegian immigrant, he first came to northern California in 1850 as captain of a ship carrying US Army food stores into the epicenter of the California Gold Rush of 1849. He sailed up the Sacramento River to its tributary the Feather River and stopped in Nicolaus, California, where he settled in waiting for further orders. Two years later, the army sent Major Richard Livingston Ogden, quartermaster of the Department of the Pacific, to track Johnson down. He found the ship permanently moored, draped with awnings, and Captain Johnson on deck swinging in a hammock while his wife rocked in a rocking chair.

Ogden inspected the cargo, consisting mainly of barrels of salt pork, and found it no longer suitable for army consumption, or human consumption, really. So naturally he ordered it sold at auction where it was bought for a dollar a barrel. By George C. Johnson. Johnson rinsed the rust and stink off the pork, repackaged it and sold it in Marysville, a Gold Rush boom town, for $16 a barrel. He used the profits to invest in a San Francisco hardware business which was hugely successful, soon becoming the largest hardware company on the Pacific Northwest coast. By the end of the decade he was consul for Norway and Sweden and acting-consul for Denmark to the Port of San Francisco.

George died in 1872, leaving his estate of an estimated $3 million to his only son Robert.

~ End Tangent ~

By the time it got to Kate, the estate was worth around $2 million, much of it in property. She willed that a third of it be donated to the Roman Catholic Church for the purpose of building a free hospital for “all sick women and children of the poor, without regard to religion, nationality or color.” Mary’s Help Hospital took years to get off the ground, then more years to get back on its feet after the 1906 earthquake, but eventually Kate’s legacy was honored and the hospital still exists today as Seton Medical Center.

There is no reference to Kate Johnson’s cats in her will. Apparently at the time cats had no legal designation — livestock qualified as personal property, but not pet cats — and therefore could not be explicitly provided for in her final will and testament. There is, however, a significant bequest of $20,000 to Helen Shellard “a maiden schoolteacher,” as the San Francisco Call describes her. Later articles note that Miss Shellard, a distant relative of Kate’s, had agreed while Kate was still alive to care for her cats after her death. Kate Johnson put the $20,000 bequest in her will specifically so Helen could afford to take on her many cats. Twenty thousand dollars in 1893 money is worth about $525,000 today, but that’s not where Sotheby’s got their spurious figure. They got it from an inaccurate 1949 article in the Shamokin News-Dispatch which also went wildly overboard with the total cat numbers. The papers at the time of her death claimed she had 200 cats; by 1949 that figure had grown to 350.

Mrs. Johnson didn’t have hundreds of them, though, not even close. On February 1st, 1894, when Helen was finally able to sort out the technicalities and rescue the by-then neglected cats from Buena Vista, there were 32 of them. Given that, I strongly suspect the 42 cats in Kahler’s painting were the full complement of Kate’s cats in 1893. Mind you, 32 was more than enough for Miss Shellard’s modest Telegraph Hill home to accommodate. She had to evict two tenants, screen in a porch and some of the yard to make room for the Johnson cats.

As for the painting, it led an exciting life after Mrs. Johnson left this one. It was purchased at her estate sale in 1894 by Ernest Haquette, a French-born art dealer who hung the painting in his Palace of Art gallery and cafe’, an innovative combination which made it a hot spot for the city’s social and business elite to enjoy elegant meals and cocktails for lunch and hugely expensive art any time. It was the best museum in the city before the de Young or SFMoMA were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

In 1906, the Palace of Art burned to the ground in the raging inferno that leveled whatever parts of the city were still standing after the earthquake. My Wife’s Lovers was hanging in the gallery at the time, but it somehow survived the conflagration. It was acquired by another gallery owner and passed through several hands over the decades. In the 1940s it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Julian Art Galleries who put it on tour culminating in a cat show at Madison Square Garden. Again Mrs. Johnson’s cats were a smash hit and more than 9,000 prints of the painting were sold spurring Cat Magazine to dub it “the world’s greatest painting of cats.”

The anonymous California buyer who just spent $826,000 to buy it was directly inspired by its past popularity: “I purchased My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler based on my mother’s fond memories of the image. I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at 91. Its California history made it all the better.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film found in BFI archive

History Blog - Wed, 2015-11-04 23:39

Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.

The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.

In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.

Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.

Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.

In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.

Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:

Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo reopens in Florence

History Blog - Tue, 2015-11-03 23:22

After more than 20 years of planning and execution and 45 million euros spent, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) in Florence reopened to the public on Thursday. More than 750 artworks — paintings, textiles, architectural models, sculptures — are on display in a completely redesigned space that finally allows the museum to exhibit monumental pieces from the exterior and interior of the Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museum of the Works now houses the largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the world, statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and precious metals by such towering figures as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

More than 200 of these works have never before been on public display before because exhibition space was so limited. The acquisition in 1998 of the Theater of the Intrepids, an 18th century playhouse built on the site of Renaissance artists’ workshops that had once belonged to the Opera, allowed the museum to more than double its space. Because the theater had long since been gutted and was being used as a parking lot, there was nothing of historical or architectural interest to preserve. This allowed the architects to restructure the old museum and the theater, fusing them together into a single logical space. There are now more than 6,000 square meters (64,600 square feet) of room for the masterpieces from the history of the construction of this great church to spread out and breathe in 25 rooms over three floors. To accommodate monumental pieces that were made to be viewed from afar, several large halls were created ranging in size from sixty to a hundred feet long with ceilings twenty to fifty feet high.

The flexibility afforded by the theater large, empty theater building solved the museum’s thorniest problem: how to properly exhibit the elements of the Duomo’s original facade designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th, early 14th century. Arnolfo’s facade was incomplete at the time of his death (sometime between 1302 and 1310), covering only the bottom third of the church. Standing next to the multicolored marble facades of the Baptistery and Campanile, its whiteness where finished and roughness where unfinished were much criticized. Over the years various contests were launched to find a solution but they came to naught. Finally in 1587, the Medici Grand Duke ordered the court architect to demolish the facade and replace it with a brick veneer painted in Mannerist style. In 1688 that was repainted with fake columns and architectural details on the occasion of the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. That paint job was faded to all but nothingness by the mid-19th century. The white, green and red marble facade we know today is shockingly recent, designed by Emilio de Fabris to coordinate with the other striped structures in the complex and constructed between 1876 and 1886.

The Opera managed to keep most of the facade, despite the inexplicable lack of care taken to preserve the works during demolition, in its store rooms. It also kept in its archives the only surviving drawing of Arnolfo’s original facade: a 17th century copy of a sketch drawn by Bernardino Poccetti in 1587 just before demolition. When the Museo dell’Opera opened in 1891, the monumental figures from the facade couldn’t possibly fit. The best it could do was exhibit a little wooden maquette of the facade while more than 100 original pieces — 40 statues, 60+ architectural features — stagnated in storage.

The lofty spaces of the theater gave the museum the opportunity to do something extremely cool about the facade: reconstruct the whole damn thing indoors. Using the Poccetti sketch as a guide, architects recreated the 14th century facade along one wall of the 1,500-square-foot great hall. The sculptures and reliefs were positioned in their original locations, with a few select pieces of particular importance being brought down to the museum floor so visitors can actually see them while plaster copies were put in their original places.

Across from the reconstructed Arnolfo facade is another monumental installation: the Baptistery facade. The famous Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief that once graced the east wall of the Baptistery, the north door, an earlier work by Ghiberti made to match the first doors by Andrea Pisano, and said Pisano doors, all extensively restored, are installed in the facade, topped by the monumental sculptures that topped them in the 16th century. (Copies of the doors now take the brunt of the weather and pollution in the Baptistery itself.)

Other rooms are dedicated to important works and history, like Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1455), Michelangelo’s unfinished and all the more beautiful for it Bandini Pietà (ca. 1547–1553), and the two intricately carved choir lofts that once stood above the doors of the sacristies inside the Duomo, one by Luca della Robbia (completed in 1438), the other by Donatello (completed in 1439). These masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture were removed by order of groomzilla Grand Duke Ferdinand because he considered them too passe’ for his fashionable wedding. He replaced them with massive Baroque choir lofts.

The great dome of the cathedral designed and built by architect, artist, goldsmith and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi also get its own hall. It houses original wooden models of the cupola and lantern and, incredibly, some of the pulleys and gear Brunelleschi devised to get construction materials 170 feet off the ground. I haven’t been able to determine if the 9-foot scale model of the dome discovered under the floor of the theater during construction in 2012 has been integrated into the museum as was discussed at the time.

(Speaking of Brunelleschi’s dome, you have to watch this documentary about its construction. Master masons from the United States go to Florence and join in a project to build a scale model of the dome to see if they can figure out how he did it. It is absolutely riveting viewing. It’s fascinating to see Brunelleschi’s genius brought to life by masters who clearly feel the noble history of their craft with every brick they lay.)

Basically, this is a whole new museum. If you’ve been to the Museo dell’Opera before, you have all the reason you need to get back there stat because its previous incarnation bears no resemblance to its current splendor.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Royal Collection restorers find hidden pooper

History Blog - Mon, 2015-11-02 11:45

A painting in the Royal Collection has been hiding a man captured in the moment of answering a call of nature for more than a hundred years. A Village Fair with a Church Behind by 17th century Dutch painter Isack van Ostade is a vibrant, bustling scene of peasants exploring market wares in a fictional village under the shadow of an unrealistically large church. Restorers were cleaning the oil-on-canvas work in preparation for an upcoming exhibition when they found that a shrub in the bottom right corner was a relatively recent overpainting. When they removed the bush, they found a man popping a proverbial squat, trousers down, head bent in concentration.

Here is the painting before cleaning:

Here it is after cleaning:

The canvas entered the Royal Collection in 1810 when it was acquired by the future King George IV, then the Prince of Wales. It hung in Carlton House, the Prince’s London home. Exhibition curator and surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures Desmond Shawe-Taylor notes that the notoriously dissipated “George IV loved that kind of thing … Being a man of the world, [he didn't] mind a few rude jokes.” His successors were not quite so enamored of toilet humor. Restorers believe the rustic pooping fellow was probably painted over the last time the canvas was restored in 1903, after it was moved to the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The modification took place two years into the reign of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, who was himself was no stranger to bawdiness. Dubbed Edward the Caresser by Henry James, he was a regular at a number of exclusive Parisian brothels, particularly Le Chabanais where he kept his custom-made sex chair. He wouldn’t have had any direct involvement in the pooper cover-up. It was likely a curatorial decision to bring the painting in line with the proprieties of a time when the mere discussion of a much-needed women’s public lavoratory took five years because council members couldn’t even talk about bodily functions without terminal monocle popping. Displaying a painting of a man dropping a deuce next to a church, no less, would have been cause for great consternation. Another ribald Dutch painting bought by George IV, A Village Revel by Jan Steen (1673), was altered around the same time when a man’s naked buttocks on the tavern sign were covered with a bull’s head.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor again:

“Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature’, the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style’; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly.”

The painter of A Village Fair with a Church Behind, Isack van Ostade, was born in Haarlem in 1621. He was trained by his older brother Adriaen who had a strong influence on his early works. Once he struck out on his own in 1642, Isack shifted his focus from the rustic interiors that characterized his brother’s work to peasant genre works set in a detailed but fictional landscape. He specialized in winter scenes and crowded exteriors, like the series of paintings he did of people milling about outside roadside inns. His signature touch in these busy scenes full of people and animals was a white horse, unmissably luminescent in the center left of A Village Fair with a Church Behind. Isack died at the tragically young age of 28. His short life was a prolific one; he completed about 400 paintings in the decade he had.

The painting is one of 27 Dutch 17th and 18th century works from the Royal Collection that will be on display in Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, an exhibition exploring the quotidian captured in rich detail by artists like Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer. The exhibition runs from November 13th, 2015, to February 14th, 2016, in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bejeweled, gilded silver Tiffany bike on display

History Blog - Sun, 2015-11-01 23:45

The summer the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened a new wing dedicated to business and innovation. One section of it, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, explores how certain consumer goods — clocks, ready-to-wear clothes, refrigerators — both drove and embodied social change in the US. Bicycles, for instance, gave women a whole new independence of movement and helped support the Victorian dress reform movement which sought to liberate women from the restrictive fashions of the day and advocated less binding, less bulky, more practical garments for use in sports and activities like swimming or bicycling.

One of the pieces on display is a sparkling example of the roles innovation and fashion played in the bicycling craze of the late 19th century. It’s a Ladies Columbia Bicycle made in 1896 by the Pope Manufacturing Company at its Hartford, Connecticut, factory, then the largest bicycle factory in the world. It was a safety bicycle, so-called because unlike its predecessor the penny-farthing, it put pedals close to the ground for easier balance and stopping and had a chain-drive that allowed for much smaller wheels. By 1896 those wheels were inflatable pneumatic tires which gave a much smoother, faster ride than the boneshaker of yore with its hard rubber tires.

What makes this particular Ladies Columbia Bicycle stand out among the 60 bicycles in the Smithsonian collection is what happened to it after it came off the line at the Hartford factory: it was decorated with silver, gold, diamonds and emeralds by Tiffany & Co. Introduced in late 1895 for the Christmas shopping season, the Pope Manufacturing Company’s glamorous Tiffany Bicycle was more of a marketing tool than a big seller, and no wonder since it cost a prohibitive $500 before customization. In its newspaper ads to Tiffany Bike was used as a lure to induce potential buyers to visit the company’s local branch where a wide array of affordable models were available for purchase.

The Tiffany Bicycle in the Smithsonian belonged to Mary Noble Wiley of Montgomery, Alabama, wife of Spanish-American War veteran and United States Representative from the state of Alabama Ariosto Appling Wiley. The nickel-plated steel frame was decorated by Tiffany with floral and filigree designs in sterling silver covered with a thin layer of gold. The handlebars have ivory grips with silver bands and gold embossed designs. The lamp is sterling silver with a rock crystal lens. The wheel rims are made of bird’s eye maple. To keep Mrs. Wiley’s skirts from getting caught in the chain and wheel spokes, twine was tautly threaded over them. Mrs. Wiley’s initials — MNW — were monogrammed onto the front tube in gold and studded with 12 small diamonds and eight small emeralds.

Unfortunately we know very little about its creation and acquisition. Mary, known as Wiley gave it to her son Noble Wiley in 1915 to keep for his then-infant daughter Hulit to enjoy when she was old enough. Noble packed it away in a special bicycle trunk where it remained for 15 years until he had cause to unpack it and recall how awesome it was. He wrote a letter to Tiffany & Co in New York City asking for more information about it. That letter has survived, but alas any response he may have received has not. In 1950 he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.

It was selected for display in the Object Project and earlier this year conservator Diana Galante cleaned and restored it to make it ready for its closeup. She found that years of polishing had eroded some of the gilding, exposing the silver beneath to tarnish. The original rubber tires, whose sulfurous fumes played a part in the tarnishing process, were cracked and misshapen, a decay that is all but unavoidable in the life cycle of century-old natural rubber.

After an initial cleaning to remove grime and old wax, the bicycle’s tarnish problem needed to be addressed. Galante used gentle abrasives to remove the corrosion returning the silver to its original shine. She coated the gilded areas were resin to keep them from tarnishing while on display. Visitors can see it now on display at the National Museum of American History in a custom enclosed display case (which will also help prevent tarnish while keeping this literal jewel of a bike safe), suspended in a mount specially designed to keep the rubber wheels from having to bear the weight of the bike.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New named pipe found at Jamestown

History Blog - Sat, 2015-10-31 22:54

Archaeologists at Historic Jamestown have discovered the tenth Virginia-made pipe with a name inscribed on the stem. It’s the first new named pipe found at the site since 2009, and in contrast to most of the earlier discoveries, the name is complete: William Faldo.

The stockholders of the Virginia Company were expecting to make a quick profit from their investment in the Jamestown settlement, but the struggling colonists could barely keep themselves alive, never mind send back the riches in minerals and trade goods the company had envisioned. They weren’t even self-sufficient, having clashed with the Powhatan tribes weeks after their arrival and being saddled with a surfeit of soft-handed gentlemen rather than farmers and laborers who could have been of practical use.

In January of 1608, eight months after the founding of Jamestown, the Virginia Company sent a supply mission that was woefully short of necessary provisions but long on new colonists. At least this time there were more laborers and tradesmen than gentlemen on board. Pipemaker Robert Cotton was one of them.

Tobacco was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century but it was Sir Walter Raleigh who popularized it in England after Ralph Lane, first governor of Virginia, gave him a long-stemmed pipe and Virginia tobacco in 1586. By the time John Rolfe, future husband of Pocahontas, planted Virginia’s first commercial tobacco crop in Jamestown in 1612, smoking was widespread in England. Rolfe’s first crop was sold in London in 1614. Five years later, Jamestown was exporting 10 tons of tobacco to England a year. By 1639 it was 750 tons.

When Robert Cotton first arrived at Jamestown, there was no tobacco cash crop. His brief was to seek out new sources of clay and pipe production methods that would give the Virginia Company consumer goods they could actually make some money selling in England. The London pipemaking industry was supplied exclusively by Dorset white clay. If Virginia clay could supply a colonial pipemaking enterprise, the Virginia Company could break the Dorset monopoly.

While there are no surviving documents mentioning Robert Cotton other than the passenger list of the First Supply mission, archaeological evidence of his work has survived. Since 2006, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,550 fragments of pipes made by Robert Cotton. They were found in a well, probably discards that failed during the manufacturing process. Cotton combined the tulip-shaped bowl of Virginia Indian pipes with English technology and decorative elements to create a unique design not found in any other early Virginia colonies. The Virginia clay wasn’t the pristine white of Dorset’s or fired at the same high heat, but Cotton’s handmade work (he did not use molds to make these pipes) was appealing and saleable.

Many were stamped with a diamond shape maker’s mark and fleurs-de-lis. A few of them were inscribed with the names of influential people stamped into the clay with printer’s type. Nine pipes were found with names or enough of a name to be identifiable, all of them officials of the Virginia Company or high-powered courtiers: Sir Charles Howard, lord high admiral of the English Navy, famed explorer and smoking trend-setter Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, Virginia Company official and patron of Shakespeare whose name appears on two pipes, Lord De La Warr, owner of a huge quantity of Virginia Company stock and first resident governor of Virginia, Captain Samuel Argall, ship’s captain and lieutenant governor of Virginia, Captain Francis Nelson, ship’s captain of the Second Supply mission, Sir Walter Cope, antiquarian and Virginia Company official, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, Virginia Company investor and King James’ secretary of state.

It’s unlikely these luminaries commissioned a Virginia pipe. Archaeologists believe the name stamping was a marketing device, a gift for investors to assuage their concerns attending Jamestown’s financial prospects. William Faldo, however, was not so illustrious a personage. He may have gotten his own named pipe because he was friends with the maker. His pipe was also found in a different location, a cellar rather than a well.

Faldo was a Swiss German member of the Society of Mines Royal who persuaded the Virginia Company that he could find silver mines in the colony. He arrived along with a group of German and Polish craftsmen in October of 1608 and quickly set out to find the mines. He was believed to have found a silver mine upstream of the falls of the James River, but before thoroughly exploring it he went back to England to secure an exclusive contract to work the mine. He returned with Governor De La Warr in 1610 after the Starving Time had driven the few survivors to abandon the Jamestown fort. De La Warr was very keen on securing that silver, so he ordered the settlers to stay put and rebuild Jamestown. The silver was never found and Faldo was killed by Appomattox Indians that same year.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The King Is Dead at Versailles

History Blog - Fri, 2015-10-30 22:07

The long, drawn-out, painful death of King Louis XIV of France was thoroughly documented and published in the memoirs of some of the men who witnessed it. It was so slow that the king himself took the opportunity to plan it out thoroughly, concerned about the state of his soul and the future of his realm which he had so materially damaged with endless warfare and extravagant spending. After he finally breathed his last, the elaborate funerary traditions of the monarchy kicked in, and the political ramifications of the succession — Louis outlived his legitimate sons and grandsons leaving his five-year-old great-grandson Louis, Duke of Anjou, as heir to the throne — had to be addressed. The death of any king was of great national and international import; the death of the Sun King more so that most.

The health of Louis XIV had been in decline for the last year of his life. Rumors abounded in the hothouse environment of the royal court at Versailles that his legs were dangerously swollen. In London wagers were laid on how long he would live. Head physician Guy-Crescent Fagon, who despite having basically bled to death Louis’ beloved grandson, granddaughter-in-law and great-grandson when they were struck with measles still held the full confidence of the king and his secret wife Madame de Maintenon, insisted there was nothing seriously wrong with Louis. The king’s head surgeon was not so complacent, but his appeals to Fagon and Mme de Maintenon went unheeded.

On August 11th, 1715, Louis felt a sudden intense pain in his left leg. Fagon chalked it up to sciatica and prescribed a purgative, but when the pain increased to the point where he couldn’t even walk the short distance to Mme de Maintenon’s chambers, Fagon was finally persuaded to call in consulting physicians. Mareschal was able to assuage the king’s pain by rubbing the leg with hot cloths, but the relief was temporary. The physicians arrived from Paris on August 14th. They felt the king’s pulse and after much discussion prescribed asses’ milk which they then unprescribed because in the hours they spent yammering the king’s pain had abated.

Mareschal continued to massage the leg because it was the only thing that made him feel better even if just for an hour, and on August 17th he saw that a red spot on the leg had developed into a sore. The surgeon now realized the king had gangrene, that only amputation could save his life. Fagon kept his head firmly embedded in the sand. More doctors’ consultations, more asses’ milk, a bath in spiced Burgundy wine and other useless treatments ensued until the leg’s blackened and swollen condition made it impossible for Fagon to deny that this was a surgeon’s issue and Mareschal took the lead.

He had a team of consulting surgeons brought in on August 25th. They took one look at the leg and knew it was just a matter of time. It was too late to amputate. Louis himself realized that he wasn’t bouncing back from this one. He asked Mareschal how long he had left to live and the surgeon told him he had maybe two days. The king began to put his affairs in order. He received the last rites from the Cardinal of Rohan, had the entire court pass before his bed to give their last farewells and brought the young dauphin in to give him the benefit of his final counsel. Reportedly Louis XIV told the soon-to-be Louis XV that he had loved war too much, that it was the ruination of the people, that he should not imitate his taste for expensive construction, that he should spend money alleviating the suffering of his people instead.

The Sun King died on September 1st, 1715, having reigned 72 years (54 if you subtract the regency) of his 77 years of life.

The next day his body was autopsied, a long-standing custom for members of the royal family. L’Ouverture (the opening), as the procedure was called, was performed on the state dining table before an array of courtiers and doctors. Mareschal did the honors. From the autopsy report:

The exterior of the left side was found gangrenous from the extremity of the foot to the top of the head; the skin peeling every where, but less on the right than on the left; the body extremely distended and bloated; the bowels much altered with inflammation, especially those on the left side; the large intestines extraordinarily dilated. The kidneys were fairly normal and natural; but in the left one was found a small stone similar to those the King had several times passed without pain while in health. The liver, spleen and stomach were in a normal condition, both externally and internally. The lungs, as well as the chest, normal; the heart in very good condition, of ordinary size; the terminals of the great vessels ossified. All the muscles of the throat gangrenous. On opening the head, the dura mater was found adherent to the cranium, and the pia mater marked with black areas along the falx; the brain sound, in natural condition, outside and within. The interior of the left thigh, where the King’s disease began was completely gangrenous in every part; all the blood in all the vessels totally disorganized, and very scanty in amount.

The opening concluded, Mareschal embalmed the body. As per a tradition begun with the death of Capetian monarch Philip the Fair in 1314, Louis’ body was divided in three parts, like ancient France had been under Caesar. His viscera were removed and placed in one reliquary, his heart in another and his body in a double coffin of lead and oak. The coffin was displayed for a week in Versailles’ Mercury Room. It left Versailles for Paris the evening of September 8th, arriving at Saint-Denis at dawn the next morning. The coffin was placed in the Bourbon tomb. The entrails were entombed at Notre-Dame. The heart went to the Church of the Jesuits.

The royal tombs and reliquaries of France were desecrated and destroyed during the French Revolution. Louis XIV’s heart was sold to an artist to use in the production of prized glaze called “mummie” made by macerating an embalmed human heart in alcohol and herbs. The artist, Saint-Martin, kept a chunk of the heart and returned it to the state after the restoration of the monarchy.

In honor of the 300th anniversary of Louis XIV’s death, the Palace of Versailles is putting on an exhibition dedicated to his final days, autopsy, funeral and the continuing significance of the ritual in the context of Revolution and Restoration. The King is Dead is the first exhibition dedicated to the monarch’s death.

The exhibition will bring together works of art and historical documents of major importance from the largest French and foreign collections, including ceremonial portraits, funeral statues and effigies, gravestones, the manuscript for the account of the autopsy of the king, coins from the Saint-Denis Treasury, gold medals, emblems and ornaments, and furniture of funeral liturgy. Some of the pieces on display have never been exhibited in public.

Exhibiting these masterpieces has required grand scenography effects. Scenographer Pier Luigi Pizzi was asked by Béatrix Saule, the exhibition’s Head Curator, to design the layout for this great Baroque show. Across the nine sections, visitors will discover a veritable funeral opera conducted by the artist.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Don’t panic! It’s just The War of the Worlds.

History Blog - Thu, 2015-10-29 22:41

Seventy-seven years ago, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast a radio play of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic The War of the Worlds. The next day was Halloween and the newspapers dutifully scaremongered, splashing sensationalized headlines on their front pages about the mass hysteria the radio program had provoked in the listening audience. There were reports of suicides, people being hospitalized for shock, heart attacks and thousands of terrified callers clogging the radio station’s phone lines. Almost all of those reports have proven unfounded, although it is true that more people than usual called the station, some complaining about the show being too scary, others complimenting the show for being so scary, still others wanting to know how they could help the victims of Martian violence.

One of the frightened listeners sued CBS for “nervous shock”, but the suit was dismissed. One man wrote to CBS claiming he had spent $3.25 of his savings for a bus ticket to flee the Martians and only heard it was play 60 miles later. He was saving up to buy a new pair of shoes, so he asked CBS to send him a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9-B. Welles sent him his new shoes, against the advice of CBS’ lawyer.

Orson Welles had already had success on radio in 1937 as the voice of The Shadow and on the stage with his innovative Mercury Theater company when CBS offered him a one-hour anthology series debuting in July 1938. This was prestige listening, adaptations of the great works of literature written and performed by a professional troupe of the New York theater. The introduction emphasized this pedigree, noting it was radio’s “first presentation of a complete theatrical producing company.” Welles and his Mercury Theater cast and crew put on the works of William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), among many others.

It is true that Welles deliberately set out to give his version of The War of the Worlds a realistic news story staging complete with expert commentary, witness interviews and fake reports from military honchos. It wasn’t a hoax, though; just a way of giving the show a fresh, dynamic immediacy and give the audience a nice little scare for Halloween. Still, CBS was concerned that people might confuse it with real news, so they made sure there were disclaimers not just before the opening of the program, but also at the 40 and 55 minute marks.

The show opened with what sounded like standard radio programming — a weather report followed by an orchestra playing music in a hotel ballroom — that was suddenly interrupted by a special new bulletin reporting explosions of hydrogen gas on Mars. Then it was back to the sleepy dance music, then another special bulletin, then back to the orchestra, then another break away to an astronomer describing what he saw on Mars. The tension grew from there as reports got more and more dramatic and the regular programming of music kept getting cut off after a few bars.

The other Mercury Theater broadcasts were more traditional radio plays. Welles’ twist for The War of the Worlds was to use radio conventions to convey the confusion and terror of the original story. He had the cast listen to WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s real-time description of the Hindenburg disaster, still famous today for its “Oh the humanity!” anguish, to get that genuine feeling of a newsman’s increasing horror as tragedy unfolds before him. Cast member Frank Readick played that role to perfection.

The Halloween headlines condemned Orson Welles as a hoaxster and instigator of widespread panic. It was enough to scare CBS into calling a hasty press conference at which Welles expressed his deep regret, insisting he had no idea anybody would take it seriously.

He may or may not have been genuinely contrite (his expression around the 5:35 mark reminds me of Puss in Boots’ big-eyed hat-in-hand look from Shrek), but the story vaulted him to national fame, secured a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and another two years of the radio show. It’s also the reason RKO Studios gave Orson Welles an unprecedented two-movie contract granting him complete artistic control of his pictures. Without The War of the Worlds, there would have been no Citizen Kane.

The broadcast still holds up, even though reporters don’t talk like that anymore. The sound effects — especially the panicked crowd noises — are great and the adaptation remains one of exceptional dexterity and verve. Listen for yourself and see what you think. Would have spent all your shoe money on a ticket out of town if you had heard this 77 years ago?

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

1000-year-old silver hoard found on Danish island

History Blog - Wed, 2015-10-28 22:16

Robert Hemming Poulsen lays fiber-optic cable for a living. For fun, he takes his metal detector with him on assignments and explores new places in his downtime. Last month Poulsen was installing a fiber-optic network on the Danish island of Omø when he struck up conversation with farmer Hans Peder Tofte. Tofte told him that as a boy he had found a silver ring on his property. Intrigued, Robert took his metal detector to the field and discovered several silver fragments and silver coins.

An experienced and responsible amateur, Poulsen stopped the search and alerted the Zealand Museum to his finds. With funding from the Danish Agency for Culture, the museum arranged for a more thorough exploration of the field. Last weekend museum experts joined Robert Poulsen and three of his experienced metal detecting friends to search the site. They discovered more than 550 silver fragments, silver coins, cuttings from silver coins and silver jewelry from the 10th century. This was an all-silver hoard.

All of the artifacts were unearthed in an area about 100 feet in diameter suggesting they were originally buried in a single hoard. The field has been ploughed for hundreds of years, however, so if there was a container, it has long since been destroyed and/or rotted away. The team dug beneath the ploughed soil just in case, but all they found was clean sand. There are no indications of an individual house or settlement in the area. It appears that the treasure was simply buried in a field.

While most of the hoard is composed of fragments of hacksilver as small as .1 grams, including tiny cuttings of Arabic coins called dirham clips, it has a number of rare and important pieces. There are multiple coins from the reign of Harald Bluetooth. Minted between 975 and 980 A.D, the Harald Bluetooth cross-coins are considered the first Danish coins. They are so thin that the design on one side shows through on the other, and the silver content and weight are so low that metal detectors can’t detect them. Any find of Bluetooth coins, therefore, is always archaeologically significant.

Besides the Arabic and Danish coins, the hoard also contains silver coins from England, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Some coins have yet to be identified. Three unidentified coins were found in an unusual configuration: one coin folded over the other two. Similar pieces have been found before in England, but they’re from later in the Middle Ages and the they have one complete coin folded over a half coin thereby created a one-and-a-half denomination. All three of Omø coins in this configuration are complete.

The jewelry is all in pieces. Among the fragments of bracelets, rings and pendants are two objects of particular interest: a cross and pendant that are decorated in the same style as an important hoard of jewelry discovered on the German Baltic Sea island of Hiddensee in 1873. The Hiddensee treasure dates to the 10th century and is believed to have belonged to the family of Harald Bluetooth himself. The difference is the Hiddensee jewelry is all made of gold, while the pieces found on Omø are silver. That makes them unique. No other silver Hiddensee-type jewelry has been found before.

By Danish law, historical finds are treasure trove and property of the state. The Zealand Museum will thoroughly document and photograph every piece before sending them to the National Museum for valuation by experts. Finder Robert Poulsen will receive a reward based on the value of the hoard. The Zealand Museum hopes they will then get the hoard back for exhibition, but that depends on whether the National Museum deems its security measures sufficient to protect the find.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bronze Age tomb groaning with riches found in Greece

History Blog - Tue, 2015-10-27 22:58

Archaeologists digging near the ancient city of Pylos in the Peloponnese region of southwestern Greece have unearthed a richly laden tomb dating to around 1,500 B.C. Led by University of Cincinnati archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the international team was excavating a previously unexplored field next to the Palace of Nestor. They chose to dig in a place where three stones were visible on the ground, thinking they were the remains of a Bronze Age house. They soon realized those stones were the top of a shaft tomb. After two weeks of digging, archaeologists hit gold, figuratively, that is. Literally they hit bronze, but that was just the beginning.

Inside a shaft tomb about five feet deep, four feet wide and eight feet long was the skeleton of an adult male and an eye-popping collection of grave goods. To the left of his chest was a sword three feet long with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold. Underneath the sword was a dagger with a gold hilt in the same embroidery-like technique found on the long sword. To his right were jewels, among them a hoard of more than 1,000 beads of carnelian, amethyst, gold, agate, jasper and gold, most of them drilled through so they could be strung together. Small fragments of a cross-woven textile suggests some of the beads decorated a burial shroud. Near the beads were four solid gold rings, the most that have ever been discovered in a single burial in Greece, plus six silver cups and an assortment of bronze vessels, some with gold or silver trim.

On his chest were two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim. By his neck was a unique gold necklace 30-inches long with a box weave chain and finials in a sacral ivy pattern. At his legs and feet were more bronze weapons, including a sword and spearhead, and thin bronze strips likely to be the remains of a suit of armor on top of his body. (Many of the grave goods were placed on top of his coffin when he was buried. When the wood of the coffin decayed, those goods settled on and around the warrior.

Other assorted finds include: a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, more than 50 seal stones intricately carved with Minoan designs of deities, lions, bulls and bull dancers vaulting over the animal’s horns, carved ivory pieces including a griffon and a lion attacking a griffon and six ivory combs.

Before this find, graves this rich were only found in the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the great military centers of early Greece after which the period (1600 – 1100 B.C.) of its dominance is named. Pylos was thought to be a bit of a backwater compared to the grand city of 30,000, but the ultra-rich graves of Mycenae were multiple burials. The discovery of the wealthiest single burial in ever found in Greece in Pylos means historians may have to revise their understanding of the town’s ancient importance.

Another archaeological boon from this discovery is that we know all the grave goods belong to this one man. The multiple burials made it difficult for archaeologists to identify which artifacts belonged to which person. One hypothesis was that the grave goods could be divided by gender — men get the weapons, women get the combs and beads — but this discovery shows that a gender division doesn’t work because the man was buried with every kind of artifact under the sun.

There was no name or identifying information in the grave, but the burial is older than the palace of Nestor which was destroyed in 1,180 B.C., so these are not the remains of a Homeric hero.

Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king — or even a trader or a raider — who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.

Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”

The team found the tomb in May, but the discovery was kept under wraps until Monday when the Greek Culture Ministry announced it to the world as “the most important prehistoric funerary monument to have come to light on mainland Greece in the last 65 years”

The more than 1,400 artifacts recovered from the grave are now at the Archaeological Museum of Chora where they will be conserved and analyzed. Because so many of the pieces seem to have originated in Minoan Crete, archaeologists are hoping the study of the grave goods will give them a new understanding of the trade networks connecting ancient Crete and Mycenaean Greece.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Totem pole looted by John Barrymore returns home

History Blog - Mon, 2015-10-26 22:29

In 1931, star of stage and screen John Barrymore sailed to Alaska aboard his new 120-foot yacht the Infanta. His purpose was to hunt Kodiak bear, but he took a different kind of trophy when he visited the village of Tuxecan on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska: a totem pole 25 feet high. Barrymore had the pole sawn down leaving just a stump behind, then had it sawn into three sections to make it easier to carry on the deck of his yacht. Once home, the actor installed the totem pole on the grounds of his Beverly Hills estate, Bella Vista.

Tuxecan had been abandoned 30 years earlier when a clan leader convinced the Tlingit tribe members who lived there to move south to the town of Klawock where there was a new school and the state’s first cannery. They left behind a forest of totem poles which the villagers occasionally returned to tend to, but over time began to tip over and decay, a process that the Tlingit held to be part of the natural lifecycle of kooteeyaa (totem poles).

Tlingit totem poles were carved from single trunks of Western red cedar and raised outside people’s homes. The animals from a clan’s crest were carved on the poles, but each one had a different combination of figures and a different meaning. They celebrated family history, could commemorate a person or event or broadcast a wrong done to the pole’s owner. Some were funerary monuments that included the ashes of the dead in bentwood boxes placed in niches in the back the pole. While the were not objects of religious veneration per se, they were and are held to be sacred.

The higher the pole, the more prestigious it was. The highest poles in Tuxecan reached 30 feet or so, which means the 25-footer Barrymore stole was a very important piece in its day. Its importance has only increased with the passage of time and the loss of almost all of the more than 100 totem poles that once graced Tuxecan. Only two other original totem poles survived, moved to Klawock along with the tribe at the turn of the last century.

The totem pole makes an ominous appearance in Gene Fowler’s biography of John Barrymore, Good Night, Sweet Prince. Barrymore was warned that removing the totem pole would bring him back luck, and Barrymore, who had an interest in diverse religious traditions, was somewhat concerned that the tribal gods “might take a notion into their whimsical noggins to wreak vengeance on the thief.” If they did, they used his preexisting alcohol addiction to get to him. John Barrymore died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1942.

The Barrymore estate was sold after his death, and the pole was bought by collector Ralph Altman. Altman sold it in the 1950s to actor, art historian and dedicated collector Vincent Price who had it installed next to his patio in his quarter-acre backyard in Benedict Canyon. Price loved it dearly, including photos of it in his books and showing it off to Edward R. Murrow in a 1958 episode of Person to Person. He described it in his memoirs as “sculptural and dignified and beautiful” with “its lovely warm browns and reds still glowing on the three great figures which compose its height. At the bottom a great bear-like creature, paws pleading; and on his head, a pale lean man who holds before him a gigantic fish which reaches from his shoulders to his toes; and on his head, hawk-nosed and savage, crouches a great bird, his tail behind him abristle with red feathers made of shingling.”

Price donated the totem pole to the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1981. The museum didn’t have space to exhibit the entire pole, so the top third was on display in the museum’s Kinau Courtyard while the rest was kept in climate-controlled storage. The top third joined its two brothers in storage 12 years ago when it was taken down during a renovation.

Meanwhile, University of Alaska Anchorage anthropology professor and Tlingit expert Steve Langdon stumbled on the totem pole in the 1990s while researching the Tlingit villages of Prince of Wales Island in a Ketchikan museum. He was looking through some old photographs when he came across a snapshot of Vincent Price standing in front of the totem pole. The cactuses indicated that this picture had not been taken in Alaska. Langdon consulted with Jonathan Rowan, a carver and cultural educator from Klawock, who helped him identify the pole in photographs of Tuxecan from the late 19th century.

Langdon, with the blessing of Tlingit leaders, visited the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2013 with his evidence in tow. Museum director Stephan Jost recognized that Langdon had the goods. A formal investigation by the museum determined that the totem pole was indeed an object of cultural patrimony and the official repatriation process began in January of this year. On Thursday, October 22nd, the kooteeyaa was formally returned to Tlingit tribal members including Jonathan Rowan and his daughter Eva in a ceremony at the Honolulu museum. This week it sails for Alaska.

Once home, the totem pole will be studied by Rowan and other experts in an attempt to identify which clan it originally belonged to and whether it was a mortuary monument. Altman told Price that it was, that the yacht crew members who cut it down “threw Mom and Dad in the creek” before sawing it in three. It will be difficult to determine whether it was a funerary piece because at some point during its California sojourn the back was back dug out to insert a pair of metal stabilizing rods and Barrymore had converted it into a fountain. Correcting Price’s understanding of the animals and identifying the crest is less daunting. Rowan believes from the photographs that the “bear-like creature” at the bottom may be a wolf, the “gigantic fish” is almost certainly a killer whale and the bird up top is an eagle.

If you’d like to learn more about the totem pole saga, Steve Langdon’s lecture at the University of Alaska Anchorage last year is on YouTube in two parts.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Raiders of Alaric’s lost tomb

History Blog - Sun, 2015-10-25 22:47

Anybody who thought that appeal of the witch trial was a waste of state resources better get their Valium dispensers locked and loaded. At a press conference on Wednesday, October 21st, a committee of politicians and scientists announced they’ll be searching for the legendary treasure-filled tomb of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, under a river flowing through Cosenza, a city in the region of Calabria near the toe of Italy’s boot.

“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt,” said Francesco Sisci, the project coordinator.

“You have a legend of long-lost treasure, even the Nazis – Heinrich Himmler came here in 1937 to try to find the hoard for Hitler. He stayed in a Swabian castle. This is the stuff of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg.

“If there really is 25 tons of gold, it would be worth around one billion euros at today’s prices,” he said.

When the project coordinator invokes Indiana Jones, you know it’s legit. This scheme is the brain child of a committee formed last year by the municipality of Cosenza to develop new cultural and touristic events around the legend of Alaric. The tomb doesn’t actually have to be found, therefore, in order for the search to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting Consenza’s greatest claim to fame. Which is a good thing, because the odds of finding said tomb are so miniscule they make the Richard III parking lot excavation look like a sure shot.

Alaric, once a leader of a band of Gothic foederati (irregular troops who fought with the Roman army) under Emperor Theodosius I, has gone down in history as the first invader to sack Rome in 800 years, since the Gaul Brennus 387 B.C. Rome wasn’t actually the capital anymore when Alaric took it in 410 A.D., however. It hadn’t been since 286 when Diocletian made Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) the capital of the Western Empire.

Alaric besieged Mediolanum during his first invasion of Italy in 401, spurring the young and feckless Western Roman emperor Honorius to move the capital to Ravenna in 402 because it was surrounded by marshes, well-fortified and had direct access to the Adriatic, ideal should a hasty escape become necessary. His personal safety was his only interest. The new capital was horribly situated to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. It was only through the efforts of Flavius Stilicho, Honorius’ top general and former regent during the emperor’s minority, that Alaric’s army was kept at bay on multiple occasions from 401 until 408 when Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed, ostensibly for conspiring to overthrow him.

In the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric besieged Rome three times, but he wasn’t just in it for the pillage and loot. He wanted the emperor to appoint him commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army and grant him huge tracts of land in Pannonia. Putting pressure on Rome, which while no longer the capital was still seat of the Senate and the symbolic center of the empire, was a means to those ends. The first siege after Stilicho’s death in late 408, ended with a massive payoff. According to Zosimus’ New History, the Senate gave Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 3,000 fleeces dyed scarlet in exchange for him lifting the siege.

One year later Alaric’s forces besieged Rome again after the failure of negotiations with Honorius. This time only the proclamation of a new emperor would do to get Alaric to lift the siege, and so Priscus Attalus was installed as puppet. While Attalus and Alaric had some military successes in Italy, enough to scare Honorius into preparing a flight to Constantinople, they soon hit the wall and Alaric dumped his puppet less than a year after installing him. He tried negotiating with Honorius again, but gave up for good after a sneak attack from Honorius’ Goth ally Sarus when Alaric was waiting to meet the emperor at the appointed time.

On August 24th, 410 A.D., the Visigoths reached the Salarian Gate of Rome. This time there was no siege. Alaric’s army spent three days sacking Rome, but it was quite respectful, as sacks go. They didn’t set it on fire — only a few public buildings were burned down for strategic reasons — and they spared the churches of Saint Peter and Paul. They didn’t indiscriminately kill people either, although they enslaved thousands.

Laden with the treasures of 800 years of Roman history, the Visigoths turned south where Alaric hoped to cross over into Sicily and from there to Africa, the granary of the empire. His fleet destroyed by storms, he never did make it to Sicily. A few months after the sack, Alaric suddenly became ill and died in Consentia. Jordanes describes the aftermath in his 6th century history of the Gothic people Getica:

His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Consentia — for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city — they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers.

So. That is what the Cosenza search is up against: a tomb rumored to have been dug underneath a river in a location known only to slaves killed before they could share that knowledge. Past attempts to find the fabled treasure have all involved digging along the riverbank, a blind, clumsy approach that this new effort will eschew in favor of the latest technology.

By matching contemporary accounts by Roman historians with the local geography, the researchers have found five places where they think the treasure may lie. They include a 1.5 mile stretch of river that runs through Cosenza but also caves near the nearby village of Mendicino. [...]

The latest technology will be used to search for rectangle-shaped “anomalies” underground in the hunt for the fabled tomb of Alaric, said Amerigo Giuseppe Rota, the geologist leading the project.

“We think Alaric was buried at least five to six metres underground. But in the last 1,500 years the river bed has risen by about 1.5 metres, so his tomb could be up to eight metres below ground now,” he said.

Sure, why not? It could be. It could also not exist at all. The whole diverted river story could be a legend written 140 years after the events it purports to describe. The idea that there are 25 tons of gold under the Busento River is fanciful at best. The Visigoths would not have buried all of their Roman loot with Alaric. Even if the sources are correct that he was buried with his horse and treasure according to pagan custom (Alaric was an Arian Christian, but he held to some of his people’s traditional religious practices as well), they would have been grave goods, not tons and tons of gold.

Anyway the caper isn’t expected to cost much. The early geophysical surveys were funded by private donors and while there’s talk of the government in Rome chipping in, public funding isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Carlo Crivelli: the best Renaissance painter you’ve never heard of

History Blog - Sat, 2015-10-24 22:16

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has opened the first monographic exhibition in the United States of the works of Carlo Crivelli, a Venetian artist of the 15th century whose genius has been unjustly neglected, overshadowed by his more famous (and more Florentine) contemporaries.

Born in Venice to a family of painters in around 1430-35, Carlo Crivelli’s first appears in the historical record in 1457, and he was already an independent master by then and therefore at least 25 years old. The record in question documents the scandal that drove Carlo out of Venice. On March 7th, 1457, the prosecutor asked the Council of Forty, the Republic of Venice’s version of the Supreme Court, to pass sentence on Carlo Crivelli for adultery. Apparently he was having an affair with Tarsia, wife of a sailor named Francesco Cortese. He had spirited her away from Francesco’s brother’s house and for months had “carnal knowledge of her in contempt of God and holy matrimony.” Carlo was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 200 lire. That was actually a relatively light sentence for the time.

After he served his time, Carlo went to Padua where he worked in Francesco Squarcione’s studio. Squarcione was the first artist to market himself as a teacher of the new Renaissance style, imparting lessons in linear perspective and assiduously collecting antiquities to give his students classical models to copy. Andrea Mantegna had apprenticed under Squarcione in the 1440s, and the master’s obsession with Roman antiquity was thoroughly inculcated into the pupil. Mantegna and Crivelli share an intense attention to architectural detail, the use of forced perspective and a bold, black outline that gives forms a chiseled sharpness. Crivelli may even have studied under Mantegna briefly.

Crivelli spent a few years in Dalmatia with Giorgio Schiavone, aka Juraj Ćulinović, who he likely met in Padua through Squarcione. By 1468, he was in Le Marche, a region of central Italy on the Adriatic coast, where he would remain until his death in around 1494. Most of his surviving works and all of the ones he explicitly dated were painted during his years in Le Marche. He received prestigious commissions for religious works, primarily altarpieces, the largest and most elaborate of which were the monumental high altarpieces for the cathedrals of Ascoli Piceno and Camerino. The pieces on display at the Gardner were on the main not composed as individual works but rather as sections of altarpieces that at some point were sawn apart and sold separately to collections and museums in Europe and the United States. Isabella Stewart Gardner brought the first Crivelli painting to the United States when she bought Saint George Slaying the Dragon in 1897.

At a time when leading painters in Florence were espousing naturalism, Crivelli embraced the elongated figures, rich colors and ornate gold backgrounds of the International Gothic style of the century before his. To that he added a detailed realism, painstakingly rendering every textile, brick and hair to a degree unmatched by any one of his Italian peers. To create the illusion of depth, dimension and texture, he took trompe l’oeil to new heights by creating gemstones, the ornamental features of armor, brocades and silks, even tears, in gesso, and then covering them with paint and gold leaf. He added more decorative details to gilded areas with a punch or stylus, given them palpable texture. He combined still life with the garlands of ancient sarcophaguses and created a swag of ripe, luscious, oversized fruits or placed individual pieces — his signature cucumber crops up practically everywhere — in panel after panel. It’s like the Byzantine icon and Northern European realism and Italian Renaissance illusionism had a beautiful baby.

While he was highly esteemed during his lifetime — he was knighted for his artistic contributions — Carlo Crivelli was forgotten all too soon. Florence-centric Vasari didn’t include him in his seminal biography of the artists and he was consistently overlooked until the 19th century when the Pre-Raphaelites rediscovered him. Revival or no, mainstream critics still pooh-poohed Crivelli as a throwback of sorts, too enamoured of the old-fashioned medieval style to be worth emulating. This is from an 1863 article about the “London Art Scene” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

Its manner is severe, hard, quaint, and even fantastic. It is remarkable for elaboration of detail. And as a further characteristic of the school, or rather of the individual master, should be observed the introduction of gold not only in the background, but extending even to the gilding of the dress and the illumination of the hair. Making allowance for the period when painted, this is truly a glorious work ; but to revive this obsolete style, as attempted in Germany and England, except, perhaps, for strict architectural decoration, were certainly a monstrous mistake, of which we imagine our artists are by this time thoroughly convinced.

Even today when such judgments on ideal artistic progression are as passé as the above author held Crivelli’s work to be, he still flies under the radar, which is why it has taken until now for a US museum to dedicate a whole show just to him. Loans from major museums in Europe and the United States have allowed the Gardner to bring together 23 of his paintings and the only drawing known to have survived. Four of the six panels from the Porto San Giorgio altarpiece, one of which is the Gardner’s Saint George, have been reunited in the show.

Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice runs through January 26th, 2016. To find out more about the artist, you must visit the Gardner’s excellent website dedicated to the exhibition and Crivelli’s work. There is video and audio about the conservation of Saint George, a slider showing those bold, black lines in the underdrawing, a digital reassembling of the altarpiece of Porto San Giorgio, detailed views of those amazing 3D textures he achieved with gesso and much more.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hiker finds 1,200-year-old Viking sword

History Blog - Fri, 2015-10-23 22:04

A hiker in Norway has discovered a 1,200-year-old Viking sword in such good condition that with a vigorous oiling, a little time on a whetstone and a new grip it could still be used today. Gøran Olsen was hiking an ancient trail in Haukeli, south central Norway, when he sat down to take a break and caught a glimpse of the sword under a pile of rocks. The single-edged blade is 77 centimeters (30 inches) long and made of wrought iron. It is of a type that was common around 750-800 A.D.

The trail where the sword was found crossed a mountain plateau between western and eastern Norway. Most of the year the pass is covered in snow and ice, and the climate during summer months when the snows have melted allowing the trail to be easily hiked is low in humidity. This combination helped maintain the condition of the sword, leaving it a bit rusty and dulled, but otherwise remarkably well-preserved.

“The sword was found in very good condition. It is very special to get into a sword that is merely lacking its grip,” said Hordaland County, Norway, archeologist Jostein Aksdal. “When the snow has gone in spring, we will check the place where the sword was found. If we find several objects, or a tomb, perhaps we can find the story behind the sword. This was a common sword in western Norway, but it was a costly weapon, and the owner must have used it to show power.”

Finding an associated gravesite would be a very lucky break, but odds are long. Other artifacts have been found along the trail before. It’s possible that the sword may have been inadvertently lost by a traveler or someone who was caught in bad weather and died of frostbite. There could easily be no grave to be found.

The blade has been sent to the University Museum of Bergen, Norway, for conservation and eventual display.

“We are really happy that this person found the sword and gave it to us,” said County Conservator Per Morten Ekerhovd. “It will shed light on our early history. It’s a very (important) example of the Viking age.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Photo of iceberg that may have sunk the Titanic for sale

History Blog - Thu, 2015-10-22 22:42

A photograph of an iceberg that may be the one that sank the Titanic is going up for auction on Saturday, October 24th. The picture was taken the morning of April 15th, 1912, by M. Linoenewald, Chief Steward of the German liner Prinz Adalbert a few miles south of where the Titanic had gone down taking 1,517 souls with her just hours earlier. The news of the disaster hadn’t reached the liner yet, but the Chief Steward noticed red paint on the iceberg and took the photo out of interest.

You can’t see the paint in the picture. It is described in a brief statement signed by the Chief Steward and three other crewmen:

“On the day after the sinking of the Titanic, the steamer Prinz Adalbert passes the iceberg shown in this photograph. The Titanic disaster was not yet known by us. On one side red paint was plainly visible, which has the appearance of having been made by the scraping of a vessel on the iceberg. SS Prinz Adalbert Hamburg America Line”.

This isn’t the only picture of an iceberg suspect taken in the aftermath of the Titanic‘s demise. Captain William De Carteret of the Minia captured another possible candidate while searching for bodies. The Minia was a cable ship owned by Western Union which normally laid submarine cable for telegraph and was the second of four ships chartered by White Star as recovery vessels after the disaster. It reached the North Atlantic wreck site on April 26th, four days after the first recovery ship, the Mackay-Bennett, and searched through May 3rd.

Captain De Carteret took the photograph of the iceberg with a red gash along the base. According to him and the ship’s logs, that was the only iceberg encountered near the site of the collision. The Reverend Henry Ward Cunningham, on the other hand, told the press he had seen two icebergs and that the officers told him they’d seen more in the distance. The Minia searched a wide area, however, so the Captain likely snapped a photograph of the only iceberg he’d seen that was where the ship actually went down rather than the many miles over which the bodies floated, drawn towards the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

The crew of the Minia recovered 17 bodies from the wreck site, among them Charles Melville Hays, President of the Grand Trunk Railway, but most of the deceased had no identification. The bodies were found miles apart, the last two recovered 45 miles away from each other. All were wearing life belts and according to the ship’s doctor, only one of them had water in the lungs indicating drowning. Fourteen died from exposure, two apparently from trauma during the wreck. The bodies of two unidentified firemen were buried at sea in a solemn ceremony. The other 15 were brought to Halifax.

The photograph taken by the Chief Steward of the Prinz Adalbert doesn’t match the survivors’ description of the iceberg as well as De Carteret’s does, but the descriptions are vague and contradictory. It’s of historical significance either way because it was taken so soon after the disaster and because it played a role in the legal fallout. Hamburg American Lines officials gave the photograph to the company lawyer, Charles Burlingham, partner at Burlingham, Montgomery & Beecher, when they heard that the firm was representing the White Star Line. Burlingham, Montgomery & Beecher represented White Star at the US Senate hearing and in the many lawsuits brought by survivors in America.

They did their job well since a 1914 US Supreme Court decision, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, determined that the US Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 applied to the British company and that therefore their total liability was the value of whatever remained of the ship and its cargo, ie, 14 lifeboats valued at $4,520, plus $93,252 in ticket sales and freight charges. Because of the monster shitstorm of bad publicity, White Star ended up settling with the many, many US claimants — survivors suing for loss of property and trauma; family members for the loss of their loved ones — for a grand total of $664,000.

Burlingham, Montgomery & Beecher kept the iceberg picture on the boardroom wall for almost 90 years, from 1913 until the firm went out of business in 2002. The four remaining lawyers who were partners of the firm when it closed are the joint owners of the photograph offering it for sale. It is estimated to sell for £10,000 to £15,000 ($15,000 – $23,000).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Repair of King Tutankhamun’s beard begins

History Blog - Wed, 2015-10-21 22:22

The restoration of the golden funerary mask of King Tutankhamun has begun after last year’s botched attempted to reattach the false beard left it with a thick, ugly layer of visible epoxy glue and scratches on the gold. The mask was removed from public view on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum two weeks ago and moved to a laboratory. A team of German and Egyptian conservators led by Christian Eckmann examined it thoroughly, using a microscope to assess its condition and figuring out how best to approach the removal of the epoxy without damaging the gold.

“We have some uncertainties now, we don’t know how deep the glue went inside the beard, and so we don’t know how long it will take to remove the beard,” [Christian Eckmann] said on the sidelines of a news conference with the antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, and Tarek Tawfik, director-general of the still-under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids.

“We try to make all the work by mechanical means … we use wooden sticks which work quite well at the moment, then there is another strategy we could implement, slightly warming up the glue,” he said. “It’s unfortunately epoxy resin which is not soluble.”

The process of removing the beard by scraping away the glue with wooden sticks could take at least a month. Once the thick glue layer has been removed, the team will study how to reattach the beard. The beard has a pin that fits into a slot on the chin, but it’s been loose since Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. A 1941 restoration added a thin layer of adhesive to keep the beard stable. In the seven decades since then, the adhesive weakened, which is likely why the beard fell off when it was jostled last year during routine work on the display’s lighting. A joint scientific committee will decide the best method of reattachment.

There are two components to the restoration project: the detachment/reattachment of the beard, and a comprehensive study of the materials and techniques used to manufacture the mask. While the gold mask of Tutankhamun has been one of the most photographed artifacts in the world since its discovery, it has never been thoroughly documented and studied with modern scientific methods. Having to repair this reprehensible conservation disaster does therefore have something of a silver lining.

The funding for the restoration comes from the German Foreign Ministry which is donating 50,000 euros ($57,000) as part of its Cultural Preservation Program.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History