Arts and Sciences

Fun with World War I digitization

History Blog - Sat, 2018-01-27 22:40

Quick summary of the day: digitization was a blast and the exhibition of World War I propaganda posters at the Bruce Museum was a gem.

The first thing we did was register with the immensely courteous, enthusiastic and efficient digitization crew from the Connecticut State Library. We sat for a few minutes waiting for a specialist to become available, enjoying a variety of quality cookies and coffee. The wait was minimal. I don’t think I got 3 sips down before our digitization pro was ready for us.

A veteran himself, he was very interested in the medals from France and the Red Cross that the formidable ladies had been awarded in 1919. He asked my relative everything she knew about them and she filled in all the information she could while we looked up the online census data for details like date of birth and death. He was particularly fascinated with the certificate that accompanied one of the awarded medals. It was in Cyrillic letters, but a variant, not the standard ones you see today.

The certificate was cracked and torn and in very delicate condition, taped to white poster paper in a most precarious way. Project manager Christine Pittsley came over and was so intrigued by the certificate that she took a photo and uploaded it to Instagram in the hope of enlisting the power of the web to identify and translate the wording.

Hmmm…a mystery at the @brucemuseum Serbian Red Cross? What does this certificate say? And what did Mademoiselle Alix Causse do to be awarded these medals? #ww1 #wwi #worldwar1 #redcross #serbian #medals #serbia

A post shared by Remembering World War One (@ctinww1) on Jan 27, 2018 at 12:10pm PST

No answers so far on what the certificate is saying. We were able to identify the medal and language as Serbian — talk about being in the thick of things — but it would be so great to know the reason for the medal. We know she and her sister volunteered for the Red Cross and worked building orphanages during the war. They were also in France at some point.

The certificate and all of the medals were scanned in a high-resolution tiff scanner and professionally photographed with one of those cool blazing lights-black umbrellas setups. The staff were so conscientious and careful with these treasures, making sure there would be no harm done in the process of documenting World War I family memories.

I asked the person at the registration desk how the day had gone and she said there was a great turnout, with people coming in a brisk pace as soon as the event began at noon. We were at the museum checking out the exhibitions until it closed at 5:00, and the staff were still packing up even though the scanning period ended at 4:00. It was a real joy to see people so dedicated to preserving memorabilia and memories and residents so enthusiastic about keeping their family histories alive.

Coming up tomorrow, the Bruce Museum’s small but impeccable World War I poster collection.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

83-ton Ramses II collossus moved to new home

History Blog - Fri, 2018-01-26 23:25

An 83-ton colossus of Pharaoh Ramses II wended its way at a snail’s pace from a Cairo storage facility to the atrium of the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. Moving the 3,200-year-old statue 1,200 feet from the warehouse to the shiny new museum was a logistical challenge because of its massive weight and its towering 30 feet of height. The solid granite monument required the construction of a custom rig to make the move possible while minimizing risk of damage. It was locked into a metal cage on two trailer beds and then slowly, slowly driven to its final destination accompanied by a phalanx of army engineers and contractors. The total cost for the move was an estimated $770,000.

When it arrived, the statue was welcomed by a cheering crowds, government officials, press, assorted dignitaries and a military mounted escort and marching band. This video captures the sloooow movement of the great pharaoh’s colossus and its arrival at the new museum where he is welcomed by the military band. Our old friend Zahi Hawass is there too, declaring the transfer of the colossus “the most important cultural event in the world.”

After his ouster as Antiquities Minister in the wake of the toppling of the Mubarak regime, Hawass had to lie low for a while (well, as low as he can) and had no involvement in any of Egypt’s many archaeological projects and missions that he once ruled with the kind of unquestioned control that Ramses II himself would recognize. Now he’s back in the game, charged with a high-profile Antiquities Ministry mission to look for the tomb of an 18th Dynasty pharaoh known as Ay who was King Tutankhamun’s successor.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is still under construction. The scheduled completion date is 2020, and Ramses II’s red granite colossus will be one of 100,000 Egyptian artifacts that will be on display in the 650,000-square-foot building in the shadow of the pyramids of Giza.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

World War I Digitization Day + posters

History Blog - Thu, 2018-01-25 23:30

Saturday, January 27th, is World War I Digitization Day in Greenwich, Connecticut. An initiative of the Connecticut State Library, the Digitization Days program gives state residents the opportunity to memorialize people who played a role in the War to End All Wars by digitizing their images, documents, letters and medals and sharing the stories handed down from generation to generation over the course of the last 100 years. Local museums have been opening their doors to the public so that they can contribute their objects and lore to build a digital archive of World War I.

The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, is hosting a Digitization Day event from 12:00-4:00 PM this Saturday in conjunction with its newly opened exhibition Patriotic Persuasion: American Posters of the First World War. Visitors are welcome to bring their photos, papers and keepsakes from WWI to the museum where they will meet with a digitization specialist who will gather all information known about the loved one connected to the objects and scan up to five items on the spot. No need to fear that your family treasures will disappear down the rabbit hole or be out of your hands for months. Everything is done using portable equipment in front of your very eyes. Once the scanning is done, you get your stuff back and a link to where the scans have been uploaded online. All of the digitized material will be added to the Connecticut State Library’s digital collection where it is freely available to the public.

Everyone who comes to the museum with materials to digitize will be given free admission (tickets usually cost $10), so once you’ve chipped in your family history to the wider story of the state and country’s participation in the Great War, you can enjoy a gratis view of the Bruce Museum’s collection of World War I propaganda posters donated to the museum by Beverly and John W. Watling III in 2008.

The United States’ involvement in World War I lasted only 20 months, from April 1917 to November 1918, but the nation’s military and propaganda strategies were of enormous consequence. In the era of radio and film’s infancy, posters were an essential medium; there were more than 20 million posters printed from about 2,500 designs.

Many of the posters on display in Patriotic Persuasion were originally collected by Mr. Watling’s stepfather, Charles B. Warren, Jr., and his brother, Wetmore Warren, in Washington, D.C., where their father, Charles B. Warren, served on the staff of the Judge Advocate General during the war.

The variety of approaches that government agencies used to encourage widespread participation in the war effort was impressive, from the allure of artist Howard Chandler Christy’s young woman who, in a 1917 poster, seductively proclaimed, “I Want You for the Navy,” to the inquisitional tone of a war loan poster of the next year: “Are you 100% American? Prove it! Buy U.S. Government Bonds.”

Other posters combine image and text in ingenious, surprising, and sometimes disturbing combinations. In one of the iconic wartime posters from 1918, artist Joseph Pennell powerfully imagined a partially destroyed Statute of Liberty and New York City aflame in the background, with the plea, “That Liberty Shall Not Perish from the Earth / Buy Liberty Bonds / Fourth Liberty Loan.”

“This show represents a hallmark of the Bruce — to develop creative ways to showcase our collection in meaningful exhibitions that link artistic works with human history on a global and local scale,” says Kirsten Reinhardt, museum registrar. “These posters were displayed all over the country, including in Greenwich, and the power of their message remains strong today.”

I will be traveling to the Digitization Days event with a relative who has an extraordinary group of medals and medallions, including several that were given to women who were recognized for their bravery and humanitarian contributions when the war was its most bloody. I am honored to see the objects and the stories behind them become part of the archive and hope we can learn more about them than the very little we know now. The medals are somewhat obscure and one of the diplomas that came with them has survived. After all these years blogging about digitization projects and crowdsourced data and archive collections, finally I get to see it happen live, and to help a family member find out all she can about these fascinating pieces to boot.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mystery lady, not Fraser chief, buried in clan’s tomb

History Blog - Wed, 2018-01-24 23:49

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, was the last man to be beheaded in Britain. Fraser, Chief of Clan Fraser, was known as a wily wheeler-dealer, hence his nickname “The Old Fox.” He tried to play both sides throughout the conflicts of the 18th century and while he was nominally on the Jacobite side during the 1745 uprising, he told the English he wasn’t just to keep his options open (i.e., cover his ass in case it all went to hell in a handbasket, as it did). His clan was on the front lines at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th, 1746, bearing the brunt of the Hanoverian assault. Lord Lovat himself was not among them. He was 80 years old, morbidly obese and afflicted with, among other ailments, gout and arthritis, so he wasn’t exactly fighting fit, but he was also playing the odds. He told the English that his son Simon had fought with the Jacobites against his wishes.

He was still trying to hide behind that dodge after the Battle of Culloden ended in disaster for the pro-Stuart Highlanders. It didn’t work then either. The Old Fox was captured a few months later and taken to the Tower of London. In March of 1747, he was put on trial for treason. The outcome was unsurprising: he was convicted and sentenced to decapitation. On April 9th, 1747, he was led to the gallows, laughed when he saw nine people killed when one of the wooden bleachers collapsed, quoted Horace’s Odes and took leave of his head.

The story takes a bit of a turn after that. Although the chief had asked that his body be returned to his family cemetery and the authorities had agreed, they thought better of it after the beheading. Figuring his remains and tomb would become a focal point for Jacobite Scots to plot rebellion, they buried the body of Simon Fraser under the Tower chapel floor. There was a gap, though, a full nine days between his execution and his burial to allow for viewing of the body. According to Clan Fraser lore, his body was purloined during those nine days and smuggled back to Scotland where it was secretly buried at Wardlaw Mausoleum, the Fraser family cemetery in Kirkhill, near Inverness.

The contradictory stories came to the forefront again in the 19th century when the coffins under the Tower chapel were disinterred and one of them had Lord Lovat’s name on it. More recently, however, there was a stirring on the other side of the Force when a headless body was discovered in an expensive double lead casket at the cemetery. Could the tales be true? Were these The Old Fox’s remains, snatched out from under England’s very nose?

Science’s representative in this matter was forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black who was engaged to study the remains thoroughly, from osteological analysis to DNA testing, to answer conclusively whether this headless body was THE headless body of the 11th Lord Lovat. The answer is no. The remains are of a young woman in her late 20s or early 30s at the time of her death.

Professor Black, Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, said: “We can say with absolute certainty that these are not the remains of The Old Fox.

“The remains were in poor condition, very wet, in common with remains that have been a long time in a wooden or lead coffin, so in line with what we expected.

“The area of the body most indicative of whether remains are male or female is the shape of the pelvis, and two areas of the pelvis in particular. In both areas, these remains are very feminine. There is no way that these were the remains of an 80-year-old six-foot man who suffered from gout and arthritis.

“We estimate these are the remains of a young woman, probably aged 25–35. We understand that there are some possibilities that she might be a member of the Fraser family, and further DNA testing is being carried out.” […]

Professor Black added: “We simply don’t know what happened to the head, but it may be that it has been taken as a trophy many years ago. The DNA testing should confirm whether the remains are those of a member of the Fraser family, in which case the casket may well have simply been put to use. But if the remains are not a member of the family, then we are faced with more of a poser as to how she came to be buried in the casket.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Vesuvius’ lesser known victims in 3D

History Blog - Tue, 2018-01-23 23:55

Vesuvius took thousands of lives when it erupted on August 24th, 79 A.D., burying entire cities in layers of pumice, ash and mud. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most famous of its victims, thanks to the extraordinary state of preservation in which they were found and the profound emotional impact of the plaster casts made from body cavities developed in the 19th century by pioneer archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli. Now the smaller, lesser known site of Oplontis is getting some high-tech attention.

Oplontis isn’t a city. It’s a multi-use villa complex composed of Villa A, a large luxury estate believed to have belonged to Poppaea, Nero’s second wife, and Oplontis B, an industrial structure that housed an active wine import-export concern. Villa A was, thankfully, not inhabited at the time of the eruption. The wine business, on the other hand, was hopping. Archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 50 people from a single room of Oplontis B. Thus far, they are the only human remains found at the site.

The Faces of Oplontis research project has taken a new approach to some of the unanalyzed skeletons from Oplontis B. Starting last summer, a team of archaeologists finished excavating the skeletons in Room 10 that hadn’t been fully unearthed yet and examined the remains in situ using photogrammetry (a technology that deploys high resolution photography to calculate measurements and proportions). Complete skulls were 3D scanned. All of the remains were osteologically analyzed and will be subject to mitochondrial DNA testing, stable isotope, trace element, parasitological and pathogen DNA analysis. The comprehensive study will shed light on working class Romans, their diets, health, geographical origins and, one hopes, cause of death.

Photogrammetry was also used before the excavation to record Room 10, making it a possible to create 3D model that shows were the people died (all the skeletons except for two which have been cast and moved to the front are still in their original locations at the time of death). The model gives researchers the ability to navigate the site without disturbing the remains, figuring out the stratigraphic data, which ones of them died first, by what means and how their bodies may have shifted. It’s of particular importance in Oplontis because it’s not clear what kind of volcanic fallout the site experience. Pompeii got the pumice rain. Herculaneum got the superheated mud. What took out Oplontis, which is very close to Pompeii, remains in question. The new research may help answer this once and for all.

Faces of Oplontis has created a dedicated website and have made their 3D models available to the Internet-going public. They are annotated to highlight and explain the main points of interest. I recommend clicking on the notes, especially for the skulls, because they contain a lot of information we civilians would not recognize from just looking.

Here is Room 10, the skeletons in situ before excavation:

Oplontis B Room 10
by FacesofOplontis
on Sketchfab

Skull 2, an adult male of middle age (with an very cool unfused metopic suture):

Oplontis B – Skull 2
by FacesofOplontis
on Sketchfab

Skull M, a young woman (25-30 years old) whose unborn baby was also a victim of Vulcan’s ire:

Oplontis B – Skull M
by FacesofOplontis
on Sketchfab

Check out the rest on the Faces of Oplontis Sketchfab channel and give them a follow to see more as the study progresses.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lifting and conserving a Roman mosaic floor

History Blog - Mon, 2018-01-22 22:34

Last winter, University of Leicester archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor from the Roman era that is one of the largest found in Leicester in three decades. In the winter of 2016/2017, a site the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way was slated for development, so the ULAS team was engaged by to survey it before construction of new apartment blocks began to perform any necessary salvage of archaeological remains. When they found the remains of a Roman house with a big fragment of a late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. mosaic surviving, they realized they’d have to remove it to save it.

This was not a simple proposition. At two by three meters (6.6 x 9.8 feet) in size, it is impressively large even though it’s just a fragment of the original floor which would have been three times larger and covered the entire square room. The tesserae are small cubes of stone and brick arranged in a square of grey tiles surrounded by border of red. With the central square are red accents, among them a floral motif, leaves and a Swastika meander border.

It’s handsome, but it’s not a glamorous floor like one of Leicester’s best known Roman remains, the Blackfriars Mosaic which is one the largest and most elaborate mosaic floors ever discovered in Britain. This is the type of floor most houses in Leicester would have during the Roman era.

Because it wasn’t the highest quality mosaic like you’d find in the villas of the very wealthy elite, the tesserae were fragile and after 1,500 years or so underground, the mortar that adhered them to the floor and each other was long gone. This made the job of lifting the mosaic a difficult one for the ULAS archaeologists. Archaeological conservator Theo Sturge, who was part of the team who lifted the Blackfriars Mosaic in the 1970s, contributed his extensive expertise to the challenging logistics of lifting a large, barely held-together mosaic in snowy, rainy, cold winter weather.

Thousands of tesserae had to be lifted in such a way to ensure none of them would be displaced and the pattern disrupted. To make this happen, especially in the atrocious weather conditions, ULAS had to glue Hessian fabric to the surface of the mosaic. Whatever remained of the mortar grout between the tesserae and the mortar base onto which the tiles had been set were cut away and thin boards placed underneath sections of the mosaic. The boards were then lifted and the mosaic was moved, section by section, to Theo Sturges’ laboratory for conservation.

[ULAS Project Officer] Mathew Morris added: “The finished mosaic looks fantastic, Theo has done an amazing job putting it back together. In some ways it’s quite unusual to go to this level of effort and cost to conserve a mosaic of this quality, but actually because of its poorer quality you can see the craftsmanship behind it. You can see the direction the Roman workers were laying the stones in, you can see at one point one of the lines started to bend off and so they’ve had to turn one line into three to create a straight edge again. It’s these little human touches and errors that you can see in it that are important because they give you those glimpses into how it was made, who made it and their attitude to work, that gives you that real insight into the people of Roman Leicester.”

Its conservation complete, the mosaic is back in Leicester where it will go on display at a future date and location yet to be determined. In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition, ULAS has just released a very cool video describing the lifting and conservation of the mosaic.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

120 Days of Sodom declared national treasure

History Blog - Sun, 2018-01-21 23:42

The original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom has been declared national treasure by the French government. You might recall that over two years ago I wrote about how the thin (5 inches), very long (39 feet) parchment scroll on which the Marquis de Sade wrote what he considered his masterpiece was going up for auction. The circumstances were shady, to put it mildly. Quick summary: the scroll had been stolen in the early 1980s from the legitimate owner, Natalie de Noailles, daughter of a viscount and descendant of de Sade’s on her mother’s side and was sold in Switzerland (surprising no one) to an erotica collector. Noailles sued in French court, won, and the judgment was simply ignored by the Swiss collector.

After his death, his heirs sold the parchment with the blessing of a ridiculous and offensive Swiss federal court judgment contradicting the French one. In 2014, the manuscript was sold to avid collector Gérard Lhéritier, founder of Aristophil which turned out to be not so much as a company as a Ponzi scheme that used the collection of important manuscripts and autographs to defraud people of their money. When Lhéritier and his operators were arrested in March of 2015, the collection was confiscated. Now there would be a new court ruling, and this one wasn’t so easy to ignore. The entire collection of hundreds of thousands of historic manuscripts was to be sold at auction with the profits split among creditors.

With Lhéritier vociferously claiming his innocence, the slow wheels of French justice kept on a’grindin’. In October 2016, a court appointed the auction house Aguttes to sell off the collection. In November 2017, the auction house Drouet announced it would hold the first of more than 300 auctions over six years so the market wouldn’t be flooded with important manuscripts and prices driven down.

Meanwhile, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which before the sale to Lhéritier had negotiated a complicated deal to acquire the manuscript on terms the sellers, the Noailles family and the French legal system could live with only to have it fall through at the last minute, was working another angle. If they could get the scroll declared national treasure, then its sale would be impeded.

It took a long time, but France has indeed classified the de Sade manuscript as a trésor national. That means its export is barred and thus it cannot be sold internationally. The government will have 30 months to make a purchase offer of a sum equivalent to the “international market value” which is certainly many millions of euros. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France raised five million to buy the scroll in the deal that fell through and that was years ago.

The scroll is undeniable an icon of French literature and a microcosm of political and moral controversies of the ancien regime, French Revolution and early Napoleonic era. The Marquis de Sade wrote it from scraps of parchment attached together to form a long, skinny scroll that looks more than a little toilet papery (very thematically appropriate considering the subjects he explores in the tome) while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. He didn’t quite make it to liberation on July 14th, 1789. Ten days before it was stormed, he was transferred from his rather nicely appointed prison cell to the Charenton insane asylum without warning or opportunity to collect his stuff in punishment for riling up the Revolutionary mob milling around outside by hollering “They’re killing prisoners in here!”

A few days later, the tightly rolled scrolled was discovered in the crack of a wall in de Sade’s prison cell. The finder brought it home before eventually selling it and thus the long, strange journey of The 120 Days of Sodom got longer and stranger. So it survived the Bastille, it survived the sudden removal of its author, it got out of Dodge City before high noon and passed through multiple hands in three countries. It even found the time to get published in between all that, in two different editions, no less. Not bad for a janky roll of parchment scraps covered in spidery handwriting.

Now the question is, can a French institution actually afford this object? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode in the saga of The 120 Days of Sodom.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dried flower from Lincoln’s bier found in historical society attic

History Blog - Sat, 2018-01-20 23:02

A single delicate dried flower that lay on Abraham Lincoln’s bier has been discovered in the archives of a local historical society in Lockport, Illinois. Sandy Vasko, Director of the Will County Historical Museum & Research Center, discovered the single white rose last month while looking through some boxes stored in the attic. Beautifully preserved in a modest display case with a glass lid, the rose was identified by a handwritten label on the back as having performed the solemn duty of adorning the slain president’s coffin when it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., on April 20th, 1865. According to the label note, the rose was given to Lincoln’s good friend General Isham Haynie of Illinois who in turn gifted it Mrs. James G. Elwood of Joliet. James Elwood, was the mayor of Joliet and a Civil War veteran. Boxes of his belongings were donated to the Will County Historical Society decades ago. The rose and its all-important label was in one of them.

There are very few extant pictures of the multiple funerals and public viewings of the coffin that were held along the long, slow, sad journey of Lincoln’s body from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. This was deliberate. Secretary of Edwin Stanton, devastated by President Lincoln’s assassination was adamantly opposed to any hint of commercializing the horrific event. Grieving widow Mary Todd Lincoln agreed with him, and he ordered General Townsend, who was delegated to accompany the cortege, to prohibit all photographs. When he failed to do so in New York, Stanton was enraged and had every plate confiscated and destroyed.

There is no picture of the Rotunda that shows the bier covered with flowers, only contemporary written sources describing the flowers, among them white roses. The flowers themselves are extremely rare. As far as we know, the only other ones are in the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in D.C., and it’s not clear whether they came from the funeral in the East Room of the White House, the one in the Rotunda, or from when he lay in state the next day. This find is historically significant because it’s such a rare survival, because of its involvement in an iconic tragedy in American history, and because it’s in Illinois, President Lincoln’s home state.

There is also no picture currently available of the rose itself. As you know, I am usually adamant about only writing stories if there are high resolution pictures available of the find. I have made rare exceptions, however, and this is most certainly worthy of one because the reason for there is no photo of the flower available is something I support unreservedly.

When I emailed the Will County Historical Society asking whether a photograph was available, I received a most gracious reply from Sandy Vasko explaining why they would not be releasing a photograph at this time nor do they plan to in the near future. The Will County Historical Society, like so many other small county and town historical organizations and museums, operates on a shoestring budget. They are staffed entirely by dedicated volunteers, including the director herself. The discovery of this one precious bloom might as well be King Tut’s treasure for the Society. It’s a unique opportunity for them to raise the funds they need to keep the lights on (and maybe even more importantly in the Illinois winter, the heat on) and invest in historic preservation projects that are pivotal to the county.

I am a great supporter of local historical societies, who almost always rely on volunteers and meager donations to preserve an area’s social history, genealogies, endangered structures and who are actively engaged in researching local matters that don’t get a great deal of attention from the outside. This is desperately needed work that keeps history alive.

In aid of these noble goals, on 4:00 PM February 17th, the flower will make its public debut at a special preview event that will include a buffet dinner, a silent auction and a speaker who will deliver a Lincoln-related talk. Tickets are $50 apiece and seating is limited to just 50 people, so if you are anywhere near there and want to see a single white rosebud that once rested inches away from the body of Abraham Lincoln, fill in this registration form (pdf) and mail it in with a quickness. People are already snapping them up even when they have to fly in from half the country away to attend. If you can’t attend, you can use the form to donate.

Sandy Vasko was kind enough to allow me to interview her about the find and the upcoming event. At the time when the James Elwood boxes were donated, the early 1970s, the Society was moving into a new (old, actually, but undergoing renovation) building. The 13 boxes of the Elwood collection were stashed in the building, nine in closets, four in the attic, and remained there for decades before Vasko started going through them this year.

On the bottom of the last box in the attic, she discovered the display case with the single white rose. When she read the label, she couldn’t even believe her eyes. She put it aside, walked outdoors in the 15 degree temperature to clear her head. When she returned and reread the label, it said the same thing she’d read before.

“For a museum director to find this kind of incredible artifact, it is so lucky,” Vasko said. “When I was touching it and handling it, it was like electricity. It was just so amazing.”

The flower is being kept under lock and key for its protection until the sneak preview next month. After that, it will return to the safe until it is displayed again in June. A Chicago artist’s drawing of the rose will be a give-away to one lucky attendee at the event. The museum staff is working on several ideas for postcards or saleable souvenirs that feature the rose drawing coupled with highlights from the label.

Speaking of which, it is one fantastic label, the kind of thing appraisers and historians always tell people to write on their heirlooms so future generations don’t wind up tossing random dried roses they know nothing about in the trash instead of preserving them like the sacred mementos they are. Vasko generously shared a photograph of the back of the box and its exemplary label with me. We can’t see the Lincoln rose yet, but we can see the only reason we know what it is.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Trouvelot’s astronomical drawings to go on display

History Blog - Fri, 2018-01-19 19:42

When last we saw Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the gifted astronomical observer, artist and accidental destroyer of worlds via his injudicious introduction of the gypsy moth to the US, the 15 impeccably detailed astronomy drawings he chose for publication in 1881 using the new color printing technology of chromolithography had just been digitized by the New York Public Library. Now one of the rare surviving complete sets of Trouvelot chromolithographs is going on public display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The exhibition, Radiant Beauty: E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings, opens April 28th of this year and runs through July 30th in The Huntington Library’s West Hall.

The set of 15 chromolithographs was the crowning achievement of Trouvelot’s career, said curator Krystle Satrum, assistant curator of the Jay T. Last Collection at The Huntington. “He was both an extraordinarily talented artist and a scientist, producing more than 7,000 astronomical illustrations and some 50 scientific articles during his working life.”

In vivid color and meticulous detail, the works depict a range of astronomical phenomena. “The high quality of both the artwork and the scientific observation demonstrates his uncanny capacity to combine art and science in such a way as to make substantial contributions to both fields,” Satrum said.

The pas-de-deux between art and science is still producing magic today. Images from high-powered telescope cameras, satellites and probes that have so mesmerized the public since the Hubble first started working right don’t look anything like the swirling marvels of color when they are transmitted. They’re black and white, infrared, ultra-violet, etc., thick with data but not so much visual impact for our limited optic range. It’s the artists who translate that data into something approximating what we’d see if we could.

Trouvelot was a master of converting telescopic information into beautifully colored artworks long before the Hubble was a twinkle in NASA’s eye. The chromolithographs wound up being a bit of a last hurrah for the field. By the turn of the century, drawings were rapidly being superseded by photographs as cameras became more powerful and precise. Of the estimated 300 luxury portfolios published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1882, only a few still survive intact today. Most of them were bought by institutions and observatories as references for their astronomers, but once photography starting edging out the old school artistic rendering, the Trouvelot chromolithographs were sold off or thrown away.

The Huntington’s set was acquired by physicist and Silicon Valley co-founder Jay T. Last as part of his extensive collection of graphic arts, particularly lithographs, from the 19th and early 20th century. He donated more than 200,000 printed works from more than 500 companies, high-end astronomical chromolithograph sets to orange crate labels to the museum. Highlights from the Jay T. Last of Graphic Arts and Social History can be browsed on The Huntington’s website.

Speaking of online collections of historic lithographs, the NYPL didn’t have high resolution versions of Trouvelot’s drawings in the online gallery when it debuted, much to my chagrin, but they are available now for download in tiff format. Click “All download options” and select “High Res tiff” from the list to get them. They’re not as gloriously huge as The Huntington Library’s images which they so kindly allowed me to use in this here post. They are in great condition, however, and I got a kick out of comparing the two sets.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Two Brothers are in fact brothers

History Blog - Thu, 2018-01-18 23:50

Groundbreaking analysis of ancient DNA has answered a century-old question: are a pair of Egyptian mummies from the 12th Dynasty dubbed the Two Brothers actually brothers? One hundred and eleven years after their discovery, we now know the answer is yes. They are half-brothers, same mother, different fathers. This overturns the results from the original 1908 study that indicated no familial relationship between the two men.

The mummies of Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh were discovered by renown archaeologist Flinders Petrie in a stone-cut tomb near the village of Deir Rifeh in 1907. Their exquisitely painted coffins were placed next to each other and inscriptions on their sarcophagi identified them as brothers, sons of a local governor (an unnamed “hatia-prince”) and a woman (or women) named Khnum-aa. The richness of the funerary furnishings in the tomb confirmed their high status as the sons of an elite functionary. The style of the tomb dated it to around 1,800 B.C.

Flinders Petrie wrote to the Manchester Museum that his team had discovered a small 12th Dynasty tomb in Rifeh packed tightly with two polychrome painted sarcophagi complete with mummies, two funerary boats with servant figurines, a painted chest with a full set of four canopic jars, five statuettes placed in the coffins and two pottery vessels. All the human remains were intact and the craftsmanship of the artifacts of the highest quality. Petrie, keen to ensure the core funerary group would stay together, offered it to the museum for a £500 contribution to his next excavation. The Museum Committee accepted with alacrity and raised £570 19s in a few weeks thanks to the donations of boosters. The extra £70 19s went to the writing and production of a The Tomb of Two Brothers, a publication about the museum’s research into the find.

This pamphlet makes fascinating reading, touching on the transition from archaeology as an amateur treasure hunt to archaeology as a science, the complicity of antiquities collectors in systemic looting of tombs, and how the sausage of the examination of the remains was made in the Edwardian era. Hint: it ain’t pretty. Cringeworthy in an age when mummies are never unwrapped precisely because of the damage described in the publication: soft tissues disappearing into clouds of dust and moisture causing long-preserved flesh to rapidly decay.

It’s of particular interest in the light of the recent DNA analysis that upends the conclusion drawn from the initial study. The introduction opens with a broadside to those who would castigate archaeologists as desecrators of the dead, pointing the finger back at accusers who “would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand” and who “will handle without a qualm the amulets that were found actually inside a body.” This hypocrisy, the authors note, has real consequences on the treatment of human remains because it creates a market for looters to tear apart dead bodies for saleable trinkets.

They go on to explain why the examination of dead bodies is important.

Archaeology has been raised to the rank of a science within one generation: before that it was merely the pastime of the dilettante and the amateur who amused himself by adding beautiful specimens to his collection of ancient art. Then came the period of the enthusiast in languages, to whom inscriptions the joy of life. And now there has arisen a new school to whom archaeology is a science, a science which embraces the whole field of human activity. Archaeology, in other words, is the history of the human race. It is a science which contains within itself all other sciences. The new sciences of psychology and comparative religion owe their being to archaeology, and history itself is merely archaeology in a narrow form.

Four sciences are listed as examples of disciplines that rely on information derived from material culture of the past: psychology, comparative religion, ethnology and comparative anatomy.

Archaeology can assist these four great sciences only by opening and examining graves and their contents. It is only by a knowledge of the objects placed with the dead, and by the methods of burial, that we the ideas of early races as to a future life; by studying these graves in chronological order we trace the growth of ideas and the evolution of religion and of the philosophy of life. By an examination of the bodies, the knowledge of the ethnologist and the anatomist is immensely increased.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the fervent belief that their morphological analyses form the scientific backbone of numerous academic disciplines vs. the DNA testing that proved the inaccuracy of said analyses. One of the sciences listed, ethnology, which at the time was emphatically focused on the putative anatomical differences between races and genders of humans, appears to have been the grounding for the erroneous conclusion.

Led by Dr. Margaret Murray, archaeological pioneer and the UK’s first woman Egyptologist, the Manchester Museum team examined the mummified remains in 1908. The team’s anatomist, Dr. John Cameron, compared their skulls and declare the differences between them “so pronounced that it is almost impossible to convince oneself that they belong to the same race, far less to the same family.” He thought the older brother, Nakht-ankh, might be a woman because the evidence of muscular attachment was so faint. When the pelvis established he was male despite the “female character” of the skull, Cameron looked for another explanation:

The question of the skeleton being that of a eunuch next suggested itself; but unfortunately, the state of preservation of the external genitals (see page 44) does not permit one to make a definitive pronouncement on this question. If this could have been proved definitely then we should have been provided with a distinctly rare opportunity of comparing the skeletons of two brothers, one of whom was virile, and the other a eunuch.

(Page 44 is where an extensive discussion of the man’s mummified penis and missing scrotum begins. There was no evidence of the scrotum having been surgically removed, btw.)

The virile brother has sub-Saharan African ancestry, Cameron concludes, but not exclusively. He was biracial, according to the skull feature studies prevalent at the time. Between that and the eunuch thing, the anatomist cannot accept that they are brothers, but he does explore later on the chapter the possibility that they could be half-brothers with the same mother. Their mother is titled Nebt Per, (“Lady of a House”) in the inscription, which means she had inherited an estate. A moneyed, propertied woman could easily have had children from two different husbands during a lifetime. Alternatively, one or both of them may have been adopted.

Either way, they were still brothers, as the contemporary inscription emphasized, and the exquisitely painted sarcophagi became the museum’s most famous icons. They have been on display almost continuously since 1908 and have been known as the Two Brothers just as long, blood relations or no. There have been multiple attempts to extract a viable DNA sample to determine the brothers’ brotherness but all of the results were inconclusive. The technology has improved greatly in recent years, however, so in 2015 scientists tried again.

[T]he DNA was extracted from the teeth and, following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers.

Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester who conducted the DNA sequencing, said: “It was a long and exhausting journey to the results but we are finally here. I am very grateful we were able to add a small but very important piece to the big history puzzle and I am sure the brothers would be very proud of us. These moments are what make us believe in ancient DNA.”

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

The new study is available online free of charge so you can read the original publication and the latest one for a one-shot comparative history of science. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. who in turn was paraphrasing Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, the arc of the scientific method is long, but it bends towards accuracy.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

5.6 metric ton coin hoard found in China

History Blog - Wed, 2018-01-17 22:40

On October 13th, 2017, a massive cache of an estimated 300,000 copper coins for a total weight of 5.6 metric tons were discovered during construction work on the foundations of an old house in Chalian Village, near Jingdezhen in East China’s Jiangxi province. They are wén coins from the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Archaeologists from the Ceramics Archaeology Institute excavated the site starting October 22nd.

The property is 100 square meters in area and is surrounded by village houses. After the coins were discovered, word of the find spread like wildfire. There was intense interest from the locals who wanted to dig up some buried treasure even though experts noted the coppers have little monetary value. Their worth is not in conversion to modern currency via black market sales, but rather in their historical significance.

It is known that the coins date from the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279). The dynasty relocated its capital to Lin’an (Hangzhou today) after the city of Kaifeng was lost to the Jurchen Jin in 1127. Lin’an is near where the coins were found. The problem is that there is no local source of copper, which quickly led what was then the Southern Song dynasty to produce lower quality coins than those issued by the Northern Song dynasty. This also led to the emergence of paper money as copper cash coins became scarce. Iron coins were issued, but due to corrosion and manufacturing problems were never popular. Some numismatists have referred to this as the Qian Huang or “currency famine” for the Southern Song dynasty.

The southern government cut military wages in half by 1161 due to a shortage of wen coins. In 1170 Huizi paper money became a permanent fixture since it was mandated half of all taxes be paid with this form of currency. This resulted in increased demand for the notes as well as for the increasingly scarce bronze coinage. Inflation eventually led to the use of small coin tallies called Qian Pai.

Nonetheless, as soon as the government archaeologists left, villagers returned to the site with their digging implements to help themselves to any loot they might have missed. Individuals who did manage to remove coins from the site before and after the official excavation were persuaded to hand them over after being told that they were breaking cultural heritage laws by keeping the objects.

Local folklore has it that the coin hoard was the treasure of a landlord who buried it under the foundations of his home 1,000 years ago. There is no evidence of this being true. Of the three filled cellars unearthed during the excavation, two were filled with coins and one with assorted debris. The fill in the third cellar included some dateable materials placing it in the Yuan Dynasty period. The story of the landlord puts him in the Ming Dynasty. Besides, it’s highly unlikely that a landlord, tradesman or any one individual would have had access to such a huge cash reserve, and even if they did, they would have converted it into more easily portable silver or gold bullion. According to Fuliang County Museum Director Feng Ruqin, the coins were probably stashed by a private organization or a bank.

The excavation is over now and all three cellars have been backfilled for their protection. Conservators and researchers now have to commence the daunting task of cleaning, derusting, classifying weighing, cataloging and studying 5.6 metric tons of coins. The process is expected to take at least two or three years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Runes call a comb a comb

History Blog - Tue, 2018-01-16 23:14

Archaeologists excavating the ancient market square in the city of Ribe in southwest Jutland, Denmark, have unearthed a comb from around 800 A.D. that is inscribed with the word “comb” written in runes. They also discovered a second runic inscription on a plaque of bone or antler that has yet to be deciphered.

This is a sensational find, especially for Denmark. Runic inscriptions of any date are rare in Denmark; runes dating to the 9th century are exceptionally rare in Scandinavia period. Almost all of the runes from that period are carved on runestones, not inscribed on combs or bone plates. (Interestingly enough, the oldest Germanic language discovery ever made in central Germany were 3rd century runes also inscribed on a comb.)

So few runes have been found in Denmark that the discovery of two runic inscriptions from around 800 A.D. doubles the number of rune-engraved artifacts found in Ribe. The oldest extant town in Denmark, Ribe was already bustling in 793 A.D. when Viking raiders pillaged the monastery of Lindisfarne launching the Viking Era. Archaeologists have found evidence, however, of peaceful trade between the Norse of Norway and Denmark in Ribe. During an earlier dig season at the Ribe marketplace, antlers from Norwegian reindeer were found. They date to 725 A.D., which means the Norse were already taking on significant sea voyages and engaging in lucrative transactions with their neighbors long before the accepted date of the Viking Era.

Given its history as a market city big enough to attract business from elsewhere in northern Europe, the comparative lack of runes on the archaeological record is puzzling. The runic alphabet was undergoing a seachange when Norsemen were trading reindeer antlers in Ribe, with the more complex Elder Futhark giving way to the newly succinct 16-letter Younger Futhark. The transition took place gradually over the 7th and 8th centuries, but by the early 9th, largely coinciding with the arrival of the Viking Era, the Younger had decisively overthrown the Elder. Researchers have been hoping to find more runes from this pivotal transition phase to shed new light on the transition to Younger Futhark and the role the towns played in the shift.

Archaeologists were especially interested to find out whether the script on the comb and plate were the new alphabet, which came into use at the beginning of the Viking Age.

Previously, the Vikings used a more complicated alphabet known as the 24 character futhark—itself a combination of the first six letters of the alphabet.

“It was built up so each rune had its own name and indicated the sound. But as the language developed, the names and sounds changed too, and in the end it was too difficult to remember the sound value of each rune and there was too much uncertainty in the message being conveyed,” says rune expert Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark.

“At some point they decided not to use the old system anymore,” says Imer, who was invited to Ribe to study the two new discoveries and decipher whether it was the old or new alphabet.

Imer found that both inscriptions were written in Younger Futhark, just the linguistic jackpot they were hoping for. The word “comb” in inscribed on both sides of the comb, although they are different parts of speech. The verb “to comb” is on one side, the noun “comb” on the other. The handwriting suggests the inscriptions may have been carved by two different people.

The runes on the bone plate are fragmentary — both ends are missing — and the piece was damaged by fire at some point making it even more difficult to read. It is clear that the text was engraved by one person, someone with a fine hand who could pull a proper line. He did not use the markers which denote the beginning and end of a word, so while the inscription is in theory decipherable, it’s difficult and experts haven’t cracked it quite yet.

Here’s Imer giving it a go in this video:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Flooded cellar in France may be medieval mikveh

History Blog - Mon, 2018-01-15 21:22

Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, an ancient city in southeastern France that boasts a splendid 12th century Romanesque church, medieval town walls and gates and a cobblestoned downtown of considerable charm, can also lay claim to unique vestiges of a small Jewish community that abided there for three centuries or so before the saw the anti-Semitic writing on the all and got out while the going was good.

There was a small but consistent population of Jews in the city from the 12th century well into the 15th. They were ghettoized into a handful of streets on and around the Rue Juiverie, the street that is still named after them centuries after their departure. As was the custom with these segregated neighborhoods, the residents had a curfew and were locked in at night. Still, bounded on one side by the town market and on the other by bishop’s palace, the Jewish quarter was in the very heart of the city and the 70 or so families who lived there made good.

We know there was a synagogue in the neighborhood because a 15th century Holy Ark was found in one of the buildings, known as Tower House, in the early 18th century. Dated 1445, the stone archway with wooden doors was where the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were kept. It is a unique survival, the only one of its kind in France and is now on display in the local archaeological museum.

To the marked advantage of the Jewish community, the town wasn’t part of France in the Middle Ages. It was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, so yes,while they were locked in at night and subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices, at least they didn’t have to deal with repeated expulsions, confiscations and a wide variety of oppressive measures ordered by French kings like Philip II, who was just 17 years old when he kicked out the Jews and stole their stuff in 1182, and Louis IX who set copies of the Talmud on fire by the thousands, made usury illegal and forced Jews charged with the newly criminal offense to pay huge sums in support of the Crusades and turned the Inquisition up to 11. They even managed to dodge the mass expulsion edict of 1394 when all the Jews in France were forced to leave the country by order of King Charles VI.

Provence was absorbed into France in 1481. Initially it seemed like Jews in the province, which had deeply rooted Jewish communities going back to the 1st century A.D., might be okay. Their privileges were confirmed in 1482. But de jure and de facto are two very different things, and in 1484 waves of anti-Semitic violence broke out regularly. Provencal Jews, recognizing the stench of pogrom approaching, starting packing up and leaving, and the Jews of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux were no exception. Archival records note there were just three Jewish families left in town by 1486, and that’s the last mention of any Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Jews on the historical record.

In the 1990s, the city government began to buy properties in the old Jewish quarter with an eye to restoring it and creating a suitable environment to return the Holy Ark to its original context in the Tower House. Archaeologists have been studying the neighborhood since 2014 and have discovered remains going back to Gallo-Roman times. The most recent work has unearthed a flooded cellar that archaeologists believe was a mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath. The city called in experts from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) to explore this intriguing find.

This small (7 by 4 meters), vaulted and partially buried construction contains a groundwater emergence point. The bath would have consisted of a shallow pool. The construction forms and techniques could correspond to the configurations of Medieval mikvaots.

The building has since been modified several times. The cellar was used to store bottles, for example (the archaeologists collected more than 600 of them), and anomalies suggest a later, more complex, modification. A diverticulum and the existence of a walled, partially masked, opening suggest architectural alterations that were masked by later transformations. They could be the remains of spaces associated with the mikveh and necessary for its functioning (dressing room, stairway access, etc…).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wicked copper-headed barbed arrow found in melting ice

History Blog - Sun, 2018-01-14 23:30

A wicked looking copper arrowhead still masterfully attached to a barbed antler shaft discovered in a melting patch of ice in Yukon, Canada’s northwestern most province, in 2016 has been found to be almost 1,000 years old making it one of the earliest copper artifacts ever found in the Territory.

The credit for this discovery goes to a herd of caribou, because even though the arrowhead was found by an archaeologist, he wasn’t at the site to excavate or search for ancient artifacts. Archeologist Greg Hare was flying over the area in a helicopter accompanied by a film crew that was shooting a documentary. He was pointing out some of the sites where he and his colleagues have discovered First Nations hunting weapons when they saw the caribou. The documentarians wanted to get a clean shot of the majestic ruminants so Hare’s helicopter landed to allow the filmmakers in the second copter to get a clean shot.

The rocky hillside where they landed was topped with a rapidly vanishing layer of half-melted ice and under normal circumstances they would never have stopped there given the precariousness of the melting ice on the surface. While they were waiting, the team spotted a barb sticking out of a barely-there thin layer of ice. They pulled it out gingerly and found a copper blade attached to the barb.

“This is one of the oldest copper elements that we ever found in the Yukon,” Hare said.

For thousands of years, caribou took refuge in the summer up high on the alpine ice patches to escape the heat and swarms of harassing insects. That made those ice patches good areas for ancient hunters to get close to the caribou.

Some weapons would miss their marks and disappear in the snow and ice, over time building a treasure trove of artifacts now revealed by the melting ice. Archaeologists have found ancient hunting tools made of wood, antler bone, and now copper.

“The significant part of the story is that [the arrowhead] is so old, and it is such a beautiful expression of copper metallurgy,” Hare said. “Copper only first shows up in the Yukon about a thousand years ago and this is almost at the beginning of that technology.”

The arrowhead was radiocarbon dated to 936 years ago. Bows and arrows only began to be used by First Nation hunters about 1,100 years ago, so this really is an incredibly early example of copper metallurgy in the area. For thousands of years before then the weapons of choice were atlatli, throwing darts launched by striking them with a paddle. It was a technology that was employed by indigenous peoples in Yukon for almost 7,000 years before it was abandoned in favor of the bow and arrow.

The copper in the arrowhead is incredibly pure at 99.9 percent, and it is of local extraction. The nugget from which it was made was recovered in the metal-rich creeks of the southwest Yukon. The quality of workmanship is exceptional and the hunter who missed his target doubtless would have searched for it in the snow and ice-covered terrain for days, even weeks, after it was lost.

The random good luck that put Hare and his team down on that hillside to recover such a rare and important transitional in the evolution of indigenous hunting weaponry would have passed them (and us) by if the timing had been only slightly off. Two weeks after the discovery, Hare returned to the site to explore it further and all the ice had melted leaving nothing behind to find besides lumps of still-frozen caribou dung. If there was anything there, it was carried away by the runoff into the rocks or down the hill.

Look at the condition of this arrowhead. It is a spectacular piece of work and we are very fortunate the right people were in the right place at the right time to rescue it in such pristine condition just as it emerged from the melt.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Michigan State to create vast slave trade database

History Blog - Sat, 2018-01-13 23:04

Funded by a grant of $1.47 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Michigan State University will create a massive database that brings together scattered information about enslaved people as a priceless research hub for scholars and the public alike. The project, entitled Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade, will be one-stop-shop for people seeking slave data for academic, genealogical and personal interest purposes. They will be able to search for specific individuals, create charts, map routes and analyze demographic data.

MSU has long been at the forefront of African studies — US News and World Report ranked its African history graduate program the best in the country — and they are eminently equipped to combine scholarship with digital resources that students, researchers and anybody else who wants to delve deeper into the subject can use. This is the raison d’etre of MSU’s Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences which will be one of the databases linked together with other world-class databases to create the Enslaved tool.

“‘Enslaved’ brings new digital tools and analytical approaches to the study of African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade,” said project co-investigator Walter Hawthorne, professor and chair of MSU’s Department of History. “By linking data compiled by some of the world’s foremost historians, it will allow scholars and the public to learn about individuals’ lives and to draw new, broad conclusions about processes that had an indelible impact on the world.” […]

The partner projects in phase one are “African Origins and Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” led by David Eltis, professor emeritus, Emory University, and Paul Lachance; “The Slave Societies Digital Archive” led by Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University; “Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography” and “Dictionary of African Biography and African American National Biography” led by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Steven Niven and Abby Wolf, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; “Freedom Narratives” led by Paul Lovejoy, York University; “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership” led by Keith McClelland, University College, London; and “The Liberated Africans Project” led by Henry Lovejoy, University of Colorado Boulder; and “Slave Biographies” led by Daryle Williams, University of Maryland.

The first phase of the project is expected to about 18 months. The goal is develop a functional framework that proves that it’s even possible to link the eight online collections in the initial pilot into one searchable, cross-navigable, publicly accessible database. After that’s done, they can get down to the real nuts and bolts of getting so many moving parts to work together in harmony. It’s going to be a while, but the results could be groundbreaking. Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix and one the leaders of the project:

“In bringing together data from a number of highly successful projects, we have the opportunity from many small threads of data to weave together lives of enslaved individuals once thought lost to history.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Precise date of Porta Nigra in Trier identified

History Blog - Fri, 2018-01-12 22:32

Archaeologists have discovered the precise date of the Porta Nigra, the majestic Roman gate in the ancient city walls of Trier that is the largest ancient city gate north of the Alps. Researchers have determined conclusively that the Porta Nigra was built in 170 A.D. Up until now it was only possible to estimate a date range, a fairly broad one at that of between 150 and 320 A.D. Later modifications obscured the original structure, and while there are date markers on some of the sandstone blocks in the western tower, they are incomplete.

Its massive size also suggested that it was built at least in part to fend off regular attacks from Germanic tribes during the turbulent 3rd century like other large, highly fortified gates from the period. The city walls of Trier (Colonia Augusta Treverorum) were built during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) which was relatively peaceful. The battles Marcus Aurelius fought against Germanic tribes were east of the Danube. Trier was way west of the hot zone. There wouldn’t have been an obvious need at that point to build a gate with such extensive defensive features. The need, it turns out, was probably the sort of motivation that often underpins monumental construction: to convey the power and prestige of the city.

It was trees that made this discovery possible, trees, water and the science of dendrochronology (tree ring analysis). In the fall of 2017, archaeologists seeking to answer the question of when the gate was built dug a deep cylindrical shaft at a site adjacent to the Porta Nigra where the ancient walls (demolished by shortsighted wretches after the unification of Germany in 1871) once stood. The site was carefully chosen because the Mosel River flowed through it in Roman times. The team hoped the waterlogged substrate might have preserved timbers used in construction of the gate.

At first they came up empty. Then to their jubilation they found two planks and a round piling, but it was a very tempered, serious archaeologically skeptical jubilation because not every piece of wood can be tree-ring dated. In fact it seemed their worry was well justified. The wood looked good from the outside, but were so soft that couldn’t even take the necessary samples. Freezing the pieces helped, making it possible to take a cross-section and get some partial information, but you need more that a piece of a tree to calculate the exact year it was felled. The dendrochronological gods were on their side, however, and the scientists found a small piece of park on one of the timbers that completed the annual tree ring record.

“This is a milestone in the history of the city of Trier,” said the director of Trier’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum, as the results of the findings were made public on Friday. […]

The fact that the ancient oak wood that was found could be dated to the winter of 169/170 AD was a “stroke of luck,” said Mechthild Neyses-Eiden, an expert in dendrochronology — the science of three-ring dating — who led the research at the Trier museum. At the time, wood was used for construction immediately after being felled, she explained.

Trier was founded by Augustus Caesar in 16 B.C., but very little is known about the first couple of centuries of its existence. (The orgy of destruction after unification didn’t help.) Finally getting a firm date for the Porta Nigra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an iconic symbol of the city, helps sharpen an otherwise very hazy picture.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Penn Museum training loot-detecting dogs

History Blog - Thu, 2018-01-11 23:09

The Penn Museum is deploying one of nature’s highest precision weapons, the canine olfactory sense, in the fight against artifact looting. The museum, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the nonprofit Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research are working together on a project that will train dogs to detect and protect smuggled artifacts.

No longer a matter of local desperadoes trying to make a quick buck, artifact smuggling is big business now, generating an estimated four to six billion a year in blood-drenched profits for the criminal and terrorist organizations.

“[K-9 Artifact Finders is] an innovative way to disrupt the market in illicit antiquities, and that’s really what needs to happen to slow down the pace of looting and theft in conflict zones,” consulting scholar for the Penn Museum and 2000 Penn doctoral graduate Michael Danti said. “Currently, art crime, that means fine arts, antiques, antiquities, is usually ranked as the fourth or fifth largest grossing dollar criminal activity in the world on an annual basis.”

Danti said terrorist organizations often use stolen cultural artifacts to fund their operations, deliberately destroying them and using them for propaganda and “click-bait.” He added that high-profile groups like the Islamic State have continuously done this, setting a precedent for other similar organizations to employ the same techniques.

The K-9 Artifact Finders program is still in the initial setup phase at this point. The plan is divided into three parts, much like Caesar did to Gaul. To narrow down the almost impossibly broad range of smells associated with cultural heritage objects, trainers will focus on the Fertile Crescent which has been devastated by war, instability and increasingly professional organized criminals that treat the area’s immense cultural patrimony like their personal piggy bank. Penn Museum’s world-class collection of Mesopotamian artifacts will be invaluable in this pursuit.

Four dogs from the Working Dog Center’s, carefully selected for their noses and temperament, will learn to distinguish between up to three types of newly excavated objects. Once the dogs have completed the scent imprinting and recognize what they’re supposed to look for, the trainers will teach them to distinguish between different subsets of odor.

[Penn Vet professor Cynthia] Otto said there is a special procedure to introduce the smell of artifacts to dogs without compromising the artifacts.

“Our main training approach will be to use cotton balls and let the artifacts and cotton sit together in a closed non-permeable bag. That way the odor from the artifacts is absorbed by the cotton and we don’t have to risk damage to the artifacts,” Otto said. “We will also train the dogs to ignore the odor of the plain cotton and other things that might be similar but not the actual artifact.”

The second phase will be on-the-ground testing and the third a demonstration program that would give customs officers the tools to train their own K-9 units to find smuggled artifacts. Phases II and III don’t have all the funding they need yet. To make a tax deductible donation to help get the program from theory to practice, click here.

There are a lot of unknowns about this ground-breaking idea, like whether it’s even possible for dogs to distinguish between artifacts and things that smell like them due to a shared environment or what have you. I bet it is. One should never underestimate the power of the canine nose, and the anti-looter squad wouldn’t be the first dogs used in aid of archaeologists. Migaloo, a very good girl from Brisbane, Australia, was trained to detect human remains of archaeological age. Cadaver dogs have been around a long time, but Migaloo was the first to have the nose and the training to detect ossified remains, not decaying flesh. She found 600-year-old skeletal remains buried eight feet underground during one her tests.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First book remains found in Blackbeard’s ship

History Blog - Wed, 2018-01-10 23:15

Conservators at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in Greenville, North Carolina, have discovered something they never expected to find on a shipwreck: paper, wadded up into a plug and stuffed down the barrel of a breech-loaded cannon, one that would have been fired by men under the command of infamous English pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was the flagship of his fleet. It ran aground in the treacherous waters of the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718 and was discovered in 1997.

The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) conservation team have been cleaning, conserving and documenting artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site off the coast of Beaufort Inlet since 2006, and committed to full recovery of all the archaeological materials in 2014. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of objects, 280,000 of them recovered before the decision was made to leave no Blackbeardiana behind. It was during the course of this ambitious project that the paper was found in the cannon.

These fragments survived 300 years on the coastal seabed of North Carolina because they were protected by being balled up tight in a confined space. The wadding and cannon coffin kept them from dissolving into nothingness. In that context, the waterlogging was the key to its preservation rather than a means of destruction.

That’s not to say that the paper was in tip-top shape and could be read like a Kindle. The QAR Lab’s artifact conservators teamed up with paper conservation experts, art conservators and scientists to do examine the mass. Upon closer examination, conservators found that the plug of sodden paper were all that was left of a book, tiny fragments of pages at the most the size of a quarter. Still, there was faint text still legible on some of the fragments.

With such small snippets to work with, researchers had to spend months investigating the source of the pages. They were finally able to identify it as the 1712 first edition of A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World by Captain Edward Cooke.

As the prolix full title indicates, the book documents Captain Cooke’s voyages undertaken in 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711. It’s a journal of routes, weather patterns, notable events, an atlas with current maps of coastlines, details on native flora and fauna and histories of the countries and their residents. The notable events have something of a recurring theme: the taking of “prizes,” meaning the overt and unrepentant assaults on Spanish treasure galleons along the Manilla route. Cooke talks about it constantly, which ships they took, when and where. It’s really something of pirate’s manual to despoiling Spanish shipping, truth be told, complete with essential navigation details of relatively fresh date. I can see why Blackbeard’s crew would be into it. The feeling would not have been mutual.

Cooke’s book was a “voyage narrative” describing his adventures on an expedition made by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which sailed from Bristol, England in 1708. The expedition leader was Captain Woodes Rogers, who also published an account of the expedition, and who was later sent in 1718 as Royal Governor to rid the Bahamas of pirates.

Voyage narratives were popular literature in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, inspiring new voyages both real and fictional. Both Cooke’s and Rogers’ works describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island on which he had been marooned for four years. Selkirk’s story became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, “Robinson Crusoe.” Although books like these voyage narratives would have been relatively common on ships of the early 18th century, archaeological evidence for them is exceedingly rare, and this find represents a glimpse into the reading habits of a pirate crew.

This unique find from the wreckage of Queen Anne’s Revenge provides archaeological evidence for books carried on ships in the early 18th century, and adds to our knowledge of the history of Blackbeard’s flagship and those who sailed her. The historical record has several references to books aboard vessels in Blackbeard’s fleet, but provides no specific titles; this find is the first archaeological evidence for their presence on QAR.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2,500-year-old dragon bed pieced back together

History Blog - Tue, 2018-01-09 23:02

Dismantling, cleaning, conserving and coating the largest the expanse of medieval glass in the UK took a decade. Piecing together a single lacquer bed frame took almost two. The dragon bed was unearthed in 2000 from a tomb complex on Commercial Street in downtown Chengdu, capital of China’s southcentral Sichuan province, but it was not arranged for ease of interpretation. It was in pieces, various sections of it placed in multiple coffins. First the archaeologists had to locate every part — 45 in total, the largest more than 10 feet long, the smallest about eight inches long — and then they had to immediately conserve the water-logged wood to ensure it didn’t dry up, shrink, crack and suffer irremediable paint and lacquer loss.

For 10 years, from 2000 until 2010, the wood parts were kept underwater for their own protection. In 2010, the dehydration process began. The bed pieces were soaked in a combination of chemicals that replaced the water content with an air-stable waxy substance similar to the way PEG was used in the preservation of the Mary Rose. This stage took four years. Next was a very slow drying stage that according to national regulations must be carefully monitored to ensure there is no more than 5% shrinkage. The conservators at the Cultural Relics and Rehabilitation Center of the Chengdu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology managed to keep the shrinkage rate even lower than that, 3%.

Once dried and stabilized, the bed was ready for reconstruction. The problem was that it was hard to even know where to start, like a thousand piece jigsaw without a map on the underside of the box lid. Then the ghosts of Shu spoke to the engineers and conservators through little engraved icons near each joint. They look like a child’s line drawing, not proportional or to scale, more like symbols on a Mahjong set, but each symbol near a mortise has a match near a tenon. Fit the joints with the matching symbols together and you have yourself a 2,500-year-old dragon bed.

All told, it has taken 17 years, but they finally accomplished it. The lacquer bed is one majestic piece again, 2.55 meters (8.37 feet) long, 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) wide and 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) high. Named after the cinnabar dragons that decorate its long sides, the bed is the largest, oldest ancient lacquer bed ever discovered in China, and it is exceptionally well-preserved, with all of its original mortise and tenon joints still in fine functioning order.

“Parts of the bed were scattered in a number of boat-shaped coffins at the time of the discovery, and it took archeologists and their staff 17 years to restore the bed to its original form to the best of their ability, using various techniques,” said Xiao Lin, who heads the restoration department of the institute.

“Based on its structure and patterns, the bed is very likely to have been used by an ancient king of Shu State, who ruled the region in the early Warring States period 2,500 years ago,” said Yan Jinsong, an archeologist who headed the excavation work of the tomb complex. “The signs that makers left on the bed are highly related to the language used in the Shu State, offering new and valuable clues to archeologists keen to decode the mysterious ancient language.”

According to later chroniclers (all of whom were keen to connect their emperors or rulers with mythical godlike power figures of the distance past), the Bronze Age Shu culture has legendary antecedents going back thousands of years. There isn’t any archaeological evidence connecting the Shu to, say, the “Yellow Emperor,” but there are remains of settlements and artifacts dating as early as 2,000 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., the Shu kings were firmly established and founded Chengdu as their new capital. It’s around this time that the dragon bed was made, like for one of the Shu kings or princes. They didn’t have long to enjoy it. The Shu kingdom was conquered by the state of Qin in 316 B.C. during the Warring States period and victorious Qin general Zhang Yi rebuilt Chengdu.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restoration of York Minster’s Great East Window complete

History Blog - Mon, 2018-01-08 23:19

A decade after it began, the restoration and reinstallation of the Great East Window of York Minster is complete. The window was design by master glazier John Thornton of Coventry in the first decade of the 15th century. It only took him and the gifted assistants in his workshop three years, from 1405 until 1408, to design, cut and execute the sweeping, majestic richly colored vista of Biblical scenes from the Creation of the world in Genesis to the end of it in the Book of Revelation. He was paid £56 by the Chapter of York for this masterpiece.

Composed of 311 individual panes, the Great East Window is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK. Experts believe it also the largest depiction of the Apocalypse in the world. It survived German bombs in World War II, something Thornton’s windows in Coventry Cathedral were unable to do because while they were taken down for their protection and technically made it through the Blitz, they were stored haphazardly with no references whatsoever to their original configuration and so could not be pieced back together.

The window panes were last conserved after World War II, so a thorough refurbishment was very much in order. The Great East Window conservation became a key component of the York Minster Revealed project. In 2008, the experts at the York Glaziers Trust dismantled the window, taking down all 311 panels and removing them to their restoration lab. For five years, every individual piece of glass, large or small, was painstakingly studied, cleaned, conserved and examined in the Bedern Glaziers Studio where visitors could see the conservation team at work. Broken pieces and ones misplaced in previous conservation efforts were fixed. The latest and greatest protective coating was applied to keep the newly refreshed colors from fading or suffering damage from UV rays.

The cost of the restoration was £11.5 million, much of it contributed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Between 2011 and 2017, conservators spent a cumulative 92,400 hours working to repair and protect the window for future generations. Halfway through, in 2015, the first half of the restored glass panels (157 of them) were returned to the window. Visitors could see the revived color in situ again. Gradually the other 154 panels were returned to their original locations in the Tracery and Old Testament areas.

The last of the 311 panes was installed on Tuesday, January 2nd, ushering in a very auspicious New Year. It was money and time very well-spent. The revived Great East Window is so pristine and vivid now it’s much easier to follow the complexity of the Biblical narrative, and the pioneering use of technology will be a template for future glazing restorations at York Minster and beyond.

Sarah Brown, Director at York Glaziers Trust, said: “This has been a once in a lifetime project for the team and it’s a huge privilege to be part of this milestone in the Minster’s history.

“The Great East Window is one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages, a stunning expanse of stained glass of unparalleled size and beauty in Britain. The work undertaken as part of this project will ensure this masterpiece is preserved for hundreds of years to come.”

The Dean of York, The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, added: “It’s a triumph to have the Great East Window complete once again and we look forward to seeing it in all its glory when the scaffolding is removed and the project formally completed in the spring.

“Its completion marks the start of a multi-million pound campaign in partnership with the York Minster Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to provide state-of-the-art protective glazing to all 128 of our medieval stained glass windows.

“It will take us 20 years to achieve this but the environmental protection will stop the corrosion and decay caused by the glass being exposed to the elements, buying us much needed time for vital conservation work which will preserve the irreplaceable windows for generations to come.”

The glass panels have all been returned to the Great East Window but there's still lots to be done at the East End to get it game-ready.
We'll keep you up to date on how things are looking ahead of the big reveal later in the year! #BehindTheScenes pic.twitter.com/fXKDwWkXkb

— York Minster (@York_Minster) January 5, 2018

Big start to the New Year for a big project! After 10 years, 311 panels & an average of 500 hours spent on each – the FINAL panel of the Great East Window is installed!
Well done to @yorkglaziers on a fantastic job

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History