Arts and Sciences

Caravaggio, Rubens receive Getty panel conservation grant

History Blog - Thu, 2014-07-31 23:50

David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Stormy Landscape with Jupiter, Mercury, Philemon and Baucis by Peter Paul Rubens, both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, are the latest recipients of a conservation grant from the Getty Foundation. They join the spectacular Ghent Altarpiece and Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper, brutalized in Florence’s great flood of 1966, as part of the Panel Paintings Initiative, a program that funds the conservation of damaged oil on wood panel masterpieces in order to train the panel painting conservators of tomorrow.

The €300,000 ($416,000) grant will be well-spent on dealing with the major issues plaguing both paintings. The Caravaggio depiction of the Biblical David holding his sword over his shoulder in one hand and the head of Goliath in the other, one of only two known surviving panel paintings by the Baroque genius, was savaged by past restorations that shaved the wood support to the thickness of a piece of paper. The plan is to remove the panels from the rigid wood cradle that is meant to keep them from warping and then, after they’ve had a chance to breathe a little and assume their natural positions, build a new cradle that is flexible and moves with the natural expansion and contraction of the wood. Conservators will also repair the panoply of fractures on the wood panels that you can see have already had an impact on the integrity of the paint.

The Rubens painting, which in a style typical of the Flemish Baroque adds figures from mythology or religion to a landscape, depicts Jupiter and Mercury leading their favored humans Philemon and Baucis away from a storm set to destroy their entire neighborhood. It’s a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 8: 679-724 and while it wasn’t an unheard of subject for a painting, it wasn’t very popular and almost all of the previous treatments set the foursome inside Philemon and Baucis’ modest little cottage.

This work is immense at 20.85 meters (68.4 feet) wide and 14.60 meters (just short of 48 feet) high [EDIT: I misread the dimensions. The painting is actually 2 meters by 1.46 meters. Thank you for the correction, Maurizio!]. Rubens made it all himself rather than enlisting the aid of his workshop painters, and did so without a commission. He used 10 pieces of wood joined together to make the vast panel and each plank has aged differently. The aging has left gaps between the 10 pieces that are clear to the naked eye.

The grant will not only enable the Kunsthistorisches Museum experts to work with some of the most accomplished and experienced panel painting conservators in the world on solving the thorny problems of the Caravaggio and Rubens masterpieces, but it will create a core of expertise that will expand in central and eastern Europe. Five conservators from Krakow, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna will be trained on these works. They will then be able to bring the invaluable expertise they learn on the job back to their homes. Two of the five are already teachers at conservation schools, so they’ll be able to immediately pay it forward to their lucky students.

Panel paintings are extremely complex to conserve because unlike artworks on canvas, they require an in-depth knowledge of carpentry as well as paint conservation in order to repair properly. It takes years to develop the necessary abilities and expertise, and there aren’t a lot of people in the pipeline. With the vast majority of current panel painting conservators approaching retirement age within the decade, in 2009 the Getty Foundation launched the Panel Paintings Initiative to bridge the alarming knowledge and experience gap.

With two more years of grant-giving to go and more years after that of continuing work, the PPI has already proven a brilliant success. More than 20 conservators have received in-depth training and years of practical experience working on some of the world’s greatest masterpieces on wood, and hundreds of other conservators and students have learned from workshops offered as part of the conservation projects, in university classes taught by people connected to the projects and from published studies.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

History Blog - Wed, 2014-07-30 23:39

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Four pelvises on a stick found in Jutland peat bog

History Blog - Tue, 2014-07-29 23:22

The Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, Denmark, continues to produce exceptional and exceptionally gruesome finds. Thanks to the history-preserving wonder of peat, the remains of more than 200 Iron Age warriors who were sacrificed after a defeat in battle around 1 A.D. have been unearthed from in excavations from the 1950s to the present. The 2012 dig found a skull with a hole in the back from a projectile or spear, a thighbone hacked in half, numerous other bones and well-preserved weapons including an axe with its entire wooden shaft intact. The teeth on the pierced skull were in good enough condition for a testable sample of DNA to be extracted.

This year’s excavation has discovered evidence that the sacrifice of victims didn’t just happen in the immediate aftermath of the battle, but rather that remains were left to rot where they fell for six months before being butchered for ritual purposes. Cut and scrape marks on bones mutely testify to how the rotted flesh was removed from the bones. The bones were then sorted and collated for sacrifice: bones were bundled together, skulls were crushed, and in one particularly gruesome find, four pelvic bones were mounted on a wooden stick.

Here’s a 3D video composite of the pelvises in situ:

Once sorted and desecrated, the bones were thrown into the ancient lake that would become today’s bog along with animal remains and clay pots that archaeologists believe probably contained food offerings.

“We are fairly sure that this was a religious act. It seems that this was a holy site for a pagan religion – a sacred grove – where the victorious conclusion of major battles was marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors,” adds [Aarhus University Project Manager] Mads Kähler Holst.

Geological studies have revealed that back in the Iron Age, the finds were thrown into the water from the end of a tongue of land that stretched out into Mossø lake, which was much larger back then than it is today.

“Most of the bones we find here are spread out over the lake bed seemingly at random, but the new finds have suddenly given us a clear impression of what actually happened. This applies in particular to the four pelvic bones. They must have been threaded onto the stick after the flesh was cleaned from the skeletons,” explains Field Director Ejvind Hertz from Skanderborg Museum.

We still don’t know exactly where the fallen warriors came from, whether they were local fighters or other Germanic peoples attempting to move northwards under pressure from Roman activity across the Alps.

If you’re fortunate enough to be summering in Jutland right now, the Alken Enge site will be open to the public for guided tours on Thursday, July 31st, and 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM. The tours are free but you must register ahead of time so they can control numbers. The maximum number of people allowed is 200 per tour. You can register online on the website of the Skanderborg Museum here.

The artifacts and remains from the Alken Enge digs are being conserved at the Skanderborg Museum, and some of the more exceptional finds are on display there, including the four pelvises on a stick. The exhibition has been four years in the making and covers not just the history of the site, what the science says took place there 2,000 years ago, but also the history of archaeological explorations of the bog from the 19th century to the high tech laboratory work of modern day archaeologists. As soon as I find that winning lottery ticket someone dropped, I’m making a beeline for this show.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Carving defaced by Akhenaten found in tomb

History Blog - Mon, 2014-07-28 23:36

A carving of the god Amun that was defaced by order of Akhenaten has been discovered in a tomb in the necropolis of Sedeinga, Sudan. The slab of Nubian sandstone was 5.8 feet high and 1.3 feet wide and was found in two pieces, broken across the width just above the god’s elbow. The carving was used as a bench for the coffin to rest on in the tomb, but that wasn’t its original intent or location. It was recycled as a mortuary platform several hundred years after it was created in the mid-1300s B.C.

It was first made to adorn the temple of Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten. A tribute to the high esteem her husband held her in, the temple presented Tiye as the incarnation of the goddess Hathor and was a companion to a temple to Amenhotep a few miles to the south in Soleb. Tiye’s deification in her lifetime was one of several firsts for a queen of Egypt. She was depicted as a female sphinx, an honor previously reserved for the pharaoh, and attributes of Hathor — the horns and sun disk — were added to headdress is other images. An inscription in the Sedeinga temple calls her “great of fear, mistress of all the lands,” meaning her greatness dominated the women of foreign lands (Sedeinga was part of the Egyptian colony of Nubia during the reign of Amenhotep) just as her husband’s greatness conquered the men.

Tiye outlived her husband by many years — inscriptions indicate she was living in the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign — so she may even have been witness to her son’s defacement of her own temple. Akhenaten changed his name from Amenhotep and founded a new religion worshiping the sun disc Aten in the fifth year of his reign. That same year construction began on his new capital Amarna where inscriptions continued to call Tiye queen and beloved of the pharaoh.

It wasn’t a falling out, therefore, that spurred Akhenaten’s defacement of her temple in Sedeinga. It wasn’t personal; just religious business, part of his policy of chipping away the face and name of Amun in all the major sites, including his mom’s temple in Nubia.

The new religion could not long outlast its founder, however, and the newly discovered carving attests to the reinstatement of the worship of Amun as well.

The archaeologists also found that, after Akhenaten’s death, the god’s face and hieroglyphs on this carving were restored. This restoration may have been done during the reign of the boy king Tutankhamun (reign 1336-1327 B.C.), who is famous for his rich tomb.

“The name of Amun as well as his face were first hammered out and later carved anew, proving that the persecution of this god extended to this remote province during the reign of Akhenaton and that his images were restored during the following reigns,” Francigny and Claude Rilly, director of the French archaeological mission in Sedeinga, wrote in the most recent edition of the journal Sudan and Nubia.

Over time, Tiye’s temple decayed into ruin and people helped themselves to pieces of it. The carving of Amun with its historically significant restored damage was thus preserved in a new location. Today the temple is almost completely gone. All that remains is a single wonky column standing forlornly in a pile of rocks.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

King Richard III Visitor Centre opens in Leicester

History Blog - Sun, 2014-07-27 23:31

Leicester’s new King Richard III Visitor Centre opened on Saturday. The £4 million ($6.8 million) museum was built in the former Alderman Newton Boy’s School, a Victorian brick building that over the years has housed a boy’s school, a girl’s school and most recently the Leicester Grammar School which closed in 2008. The building has been empty since then, but location is everything in real estate, and it just happens to be adjacent to the council parking lot under which the remains of King Richard III were discovered in September of 2012. Three months later, the city council providently bought the school building.

The inside of the school has now been transformed into a voyage through the life and death of Richard III, and of the archaeological excavation that against all conceivable odds, found the king’s mortal remains. The ground floor is dedicated to Richard III’s life, his controversial rise to the throne at the expense of the nephews he declared illegitimate and locked up in the Tower of London never to be seen again, the three decades of conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet dynasty known as the Wars of the Roses, and Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The story is told through high tech audio-visual displays where video projections recreate the places where Richard lived and died in an atmospheric, stylized manner. A digital reconstruction of Grey Friars Church shows visitors what the medieval church that used to stand where they are standing looked like. It includes a virtual visualization of Richard’s tomb as it would have looked after Henry VII had a proper tomb built a few years after Bosworth.

The second floor focuses on the excavation and takes an unusual approach that makes the quotidian elements of the dig into artifacts for exhibit. The boots worn by Richard III Society’s Philippa Langley at the dig site are on display, as are the hard had and neon yellow vest Mathew Morris was wearing when he first unearthed King Richard’s bones on the first day of the excavation. The highlight is a 3D-printed replica of the skeleton. The original will be buried at Leicester Cathedral next year. The cathedral is just across the street from the former school, so people will be able to make an easy day of it and see the tomb then walk over to the visitor center.

The best part of the new center is that the site of Richard III’s Grey Friars grave has been integrated into it. It’s a minimalist space, no glowing blue neon or elaborate set pieces, as it should be given that it was a king’s grave for 500 years, with clear plexiglass over the burial site. The only video element is a subtle projection of the skeleton in the position it was in when the archaeologists found it.

There is very little information on the center’s website. Right now it’s all about directions and ticket bookings, but I hope they flesh it out further in the days to come. You can get a glimpse of the King Richard III Visitor Centre in this video:

I don’t want to judge without seeing, but it looks a little low-information for my taste. Lots of video projections, few period artifacts, boots and hazard vests from the dig, but not much about the science (DNA, osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating) that actually identified the king. Or about the 3D printing process, for that matter, a subject I am completely obsessed with, especially in regards to archaeological and museum applications. I’m glad they didn’t just repave the burial site and keep it a parking lot, which was the original plan, let’s recall, so at the very least the center has that going for it, and that’s quite a lot.

I’d love to hear an eye witness report, so please do share your impressions should you visit the center.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Possible 1792 Vancouver fleet anchor at Texas A&M

History Blog - Sat, 2014-07-26 23:53

A large anchor that may be the sole surviving relic of Captain George Vancouver’s 1792 exploration of Puget Sound is now at Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation where it will be conserved and, if all goes well, conclusively identified. If it does prove to be the anchor lost by the HMS Chatham on June 9, 1792, it will upend convention historical wisdom.

The anchor was discovered in 2008 by sea-cucumber diver Doug Monk when his airhose got caught on it off Whidbey Island. He and a group of amateur historians including medical device salesman Scott Grimm spent years researching the artifact, reading ship logbooks, explorers’ journals, nautical charts, 19th British patent office records as well as numerous books. They concluded that the anchor was the Chatham‘s that got stuck in a large rock grouping and broke free when its hemp cable snapped.

The loss of the anchor and the failed attempts at recovery were recorded in the log books, but the exact location was unclear. Historians have long held that it was lost 30 miles away from Whidbey Island in Bellingham Channel, but the channel has been searched repeatedly and no anchor has ever been found. The Bellingham theory also assumes that Vancouver’s ship, the HMS Discovery, and its smaller companion the Chatham were together when the anchor was lost. Several journals said they were, but Grimm noticed the wording in those entries was identical, as if they’d been copied from each other at a later date. When he stuck to the witness accounts from the Chatham‘s crew, the terrain they described and the logged compass bearings fit Whidbey more than Bellingham. He also contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose maritime history experts calculated that on the day of the accident, the currents around Whidbey were 5.5 knots, much faster than they were in Bellingham Channel.

Earlier this year Monk and Grimm secured the necessary permits to recover the anchor. On Monday, June 9th, exactly 222 years after the Chatham lost its anchor, the one off Whidbey Island was raised. It spent a few weeks on display at the Northwest Maritime Center being prepped for transport, then Monk and Grimm loaded the anchor into a custom-made tank on the back of a truck and drove it the 2,200 miles to Austin. The anchor is 10 feet long and weighs about 1,400 pounds, so that was no mean feat. They also had to keep the anchor wet the whole time with soaker hoses.

The anchor is now in the hands of a team headed by Jim Jobling, a research associate at the Texas A&M center’s Conservation Research Laboratory, a veteran in tackling such tasks.

Jobling estimates work on the anchor will take 18 to 24 months, at which time Grimm and Monk will retrieve it for the trek back to the Northwest and hopes of finding a museum or other location for its permanent display.

“Our goal is definitely to keep it in the Northwest,” Grimm said.

“Also, we’re confident the anchor is from the HMS Chatham, and we’re confident—certainly hope—that the conservation work at Texas A&M will uncover some markings that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it belonged to the (British) crown,” he added.

They university team will use a variety of methods — chemicals, electricity — to remove the thick concretions that may be obscuring any marks identifying the anchor. The design of the anchor does fit the admiralty pattern, but makers didn’t always put a mark on their work in the 18th century, so we may never get a firm yea or nay on whether the anchor belonged to the royal navy.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

James IV and Margaret Tudor wedding chest found

History Blog - Fri, 2014-07-25 23:26


University of Aberdeen experts have confirmed that an oak chest acquired by a collector was made for the 1503 wedding of King James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England. When antique furniture collector Aidan Harrison researched the carvings on the chest he’d acquired a few years ago, he found they were very similar to the iconography associated with the history-making union celebrated in person (there had been a proxy wedding in England a few months earlier) at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh on August 8th, 1503. One of the carved panels on the front of the chest features the IM monogram (for James and Margaret) linked by a love knot, a symbol of their marriage that was repeated in multiple decorative elements.

Harrison brought his research to art history Professor Jane Geddes from the University of Aberdeen. The university has a facsimile of the Hours of James IV, an illuminated prayer book made as a wedding gift for Margaret (the original is now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna), so Professor Geddes was able to compare the design on the chest to the Book of Hours.

“The similarities between the carvings on the chest and the illuminations in the Book of Hours are striking. Three illuminated documents relating to the royal wedding all show the IM monogram (James and Margaret) tied together with a similar love knot, just as it is carved on the chest. This was such a trademark for the union that even the floor tiles for Linlithgow Palace were made with the same design. James gave the palace to his bride for a wedding present. The tassels on the knot are shaped as thistles, a reminder of the king and his country.

“A wooden chest was one of the most important items of medieval furniture, because aristocratic families spent so much time travelling with pack-horses all around the country to their various homes. All the royal bride’s personal items would be kept in a chest like this. It is remarkable that it has survived for so long before its significance was fully appreciated.”

The chest and the facsimile Book of Hours will go on display together at the University of Aberdeen’s Sir Duncan Rice Library. This is especially meaningful for the school because William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, accomplished diplomat and founder of the university, played an important role in negotiating the wedding.

The hope was that the marriage of James and Margaret would end hostilities between the countries and establish a lasting peace. Their marriage treaty was signed the same day as the Treaty of Perpetual Peace (January 24th, 1502), an agreement that would prevent the countries being dragged into war over border skirmishes. Although the Treaty of Ayton had established a truce between England and Scotland in 1497, it was slated to expire in 1504. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace was the first long-term peace treaty between the countries since the Treaty of Berwick had ended the Second War of Scottish Independence in 1357.

Unfortunately it was perpetual in name only. Henry VII died in 1509 and his son Henry VIII was keen to make a name for himself on the battlefield. In 1513, Henry VIII invaded France, expecting the treaty to keep Scotland out of it. Scotland had been allied with France for centuries, however, and by the terms of the Auld Alliance of 1295, France and Scotland were to come to each other’s defense. James, hoping also to reclaim some border territory occupied by England, declared war on England and led his army into Northumberland. On September 9th, 1513, James IV met the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Field. It was a rout. James was killed along with 28 of his nobles, 50 knights and more than 10,000 infantry.

Margaret, who had opposed her husband going to war with her brother, was left regent of Scotland for her son, the future James V who was just over a year old when his father died. The crown of Scotland passed from James V to his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, to her son James VI. After the death of Henry VIII’s daughter, Margaret’s niece, Queen Elizabeth I of England, James VI inherited the throne of England through his descent from Margaret. In 1603, a few months short of a century after James IV and Margaret spoke their vows at Holyrood Abbey, their great-grandson became James I of England and the two crowns were united.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

13th c. frescoes in Rome monastery opened to public

History Blog - Thu, 2014-07-24 23:59

The Augustinian monastery complex of Santi Quattro Coronati on the north slope of Rome’s Caelian Hill has a rich history dating to the earliest days of the Christian city. Construction of the first church was begun by Pope Miltiades in the 4th century on top of an aristocratic villa. It was one of the earliest Christian churches in Rome and its location made it one of the most important.

Miltiades was pope from 311 to 314 A.D., a short but incredibly pivotal time in Church history since it saw Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius under the sign of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312. It was Pope Miltiades who first moved into the Lateran Palace after Constantine gave it to him around 313. The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a five minute walk from the Lateran Palace, so by the time construction was complete in the 6th century, the church was closely associated with the papacy.

It was expanded and renovated by subsequent popes over the centuries, with more buildings added including a palace for the basilica’s titular cardinal. Much of the church was burned down in the 11th century during the Norman sack of Rome, but the original apse still stands and was incorporated into the new church built by Pope Paschal II. In the 13th century the cardinal’s residence was enlarged and reinforced by Cardinal Stefano Conti, Vicarius Urbis, so it could provide protection for the princes of the Church during the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

It was during that 13th century renovation that some artistically and historically significant frescoes were painted. On the ground floor of the fortified side of the basilica, the Chapel of Saint Sylvester was adorned with legendary scenes from the life of Pope Sylvester I and one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Donation of Constantine. On the second floor is a large hall that became known as the Gothic Hall because of the arch vaulting of the roof. It was decorated with 800 square meters of primarily profane topics like the Zodiac and Constellations, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Months, the Ages of Man, a seascape, the Liberal Arts and a panel of saints with the Virtues on their shoulders and the Vices under their feet. King Solomon, the wise judge, in the center position suggests the hall may have been used as a court of law as well as for feasting and banqueting.

The basilica and the cardinal’s palace in particular were nearly abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in the 14th century. The buildings were restored by Cardinal Alfonso Carillo when the pope returned to Rome during the papacy of Martin V starting in 1417, but when the Papal Court moved from the Lateran Palace to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in the mid-15th century, Santi Quattro Coronati never recovered its former importance. In 1564, the complex was given to Augustinian nuns and became the monastery it still is to this day.

Damaged by earthquakes, neglect, refurbishment that knocked holes in the walls and painted layer upon layer of plaster and solid color over the frescoes, the great Gothic Hall lost its magnificent frescoes. In 1995, a chance discovery revealed that parts of the 13th century frescoes were still there underneath the overpaint. It took a full decade of restoration by Rome’s Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to repair the damage that could be repaired. In 2007, 300 square meters of the original 800 were restored as close to their former glory as possible. Very few frescoes from this period have survived in Rome, so their rediscovery and restoration is a big deal. (See this article for a wonderful description of the frescoes.)

They couldn’t be opened to the public, however, because it’s still an active cloistered monastery. In order to make the Gothic Hall accessible, parts of the cloister needed to be restored and all the public traffic areas closed off so the presence of tourists would not violate the sisters’ religious isolation. That took another seven years and 150,000 euros donated by Arcus.

Now for the first time in its existence, the Gothic Hall can be seen by members of the general public. The hall will be open two days a month, with one group of no more than 20 visitors allowed in every hour from 8:30 – 12:30 and 2:30 – 4:30.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique mortuary bundle found in Hidalgo

History Blog - Wed, 2014-07-23 23:28

A pre-Hispanic mortuary bundle had been found in a rock shelter near the town of Zimapán in the Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo, southeastern Mexico. The skeletal remains wrapped in a dyed fabric and a braided mat were discovered by locals who alerted the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH archaeologists examined the bundle and believe it is intact, although only the cranium with some hair still attached, tibias, clavicle, shoulder blades and some ribs are visible above the wrapping.

The remains haven’t been dated yet. It’s the positioning of the body in a seated posture, the plant fibers used in the shroud and the placement in a rock shelter that all point to this being a pre-Hispanic burial. In many Mesoamerican cultures, rock shelters and caves were believed to be entrances to the underworld and the abode of death gods. Thus these locations were seen as ideal burial spaces. Despite the rocky terrain of the Sierra Gorda being replete with these sorts of nooks and crannies, this is the only mortuary bundle of its kind found in the state of Hidalgo.

Forensic anthropologists have determined from the teeth and leg bones that the deceased was about 20 years old when he or she died. The third molars, which grow in early adulthood between 16 and 24 years of age, are present but show no signs of wear. In the tibia, the epiphyseal plate, a cartilaginous plate at the end of the long bones that is replaced by bone after puberty, has hardened into bone, leaving behind the scar of the epiphyseal line. The line is still visible, however, and that fades with time, so that suggests the person died in early adulthood.

Although there does not appear to have been any preservation of soft tissues, the semi-arid climate of the eastern Sierra Gorda did help preserve the organic fibers of the wrapping. The bundle has been moved to an INAH lab where it will be studied in detail and the wrapping removed to reveal the rest of the remains. First a conservator will treat the fabric and plant fiber mat to ensure they’re not damaged in the opening. Then experts will hopefully be able to determine the sex of the deceased from the pelvic and hop bones.

INAH researchers hope the bones will tell more of the person’s history — disease, nutrition, lifestyle — as well as which culture he or she was a part of. The rock shelter is an area that saw a variety of peoples living there, nomadic and sedentary. The bones might fill in some of those blanks. The archaeological context might help on that score. Vegetation found in the soil of the rock shelter (palm leaves, agave cactus) appears to have been deliberately layered on the spot. Archaeologists also found a small group of abstract cave paintings about 550 yards from the mortuary bundle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New burials found at Ostia necropolis

History Blog - Tue, 2014-07-22 23:50

Excavations in Ostia, the ancient Roman harbour town at the mouth of the Tiber, have unearthed a group of more than 12 tombs from the 3rd-4th century A.D. Underscoring the cultural diversity of the port city, the necropolis includes inhumations and cremations, some right next to each other. The newly unearthed tombs are early Christian and surround a central tomb that belonged to someone of religious or social significance. The central tomb is a circular mausoleum lined in travertine that was originally built in the late Republican era and was reused in late antiquity. Archaeologists believe it may be an extended family unit who wanted to be buried at an important location, perhaps associated with one of the saints buried in early Christian Ostia.

The area being excavated, Parco dei Ravennati, was a suburb of the ancient city of Ostia on the left bank of the Tiber, now long since silted over. The area was used as a necropolis from the early imperial era through the 5th century when a basilica was built around the nearby tomb of 3rd century martyr Saint Aurea, patron saint of Ostia. The church was extensively renovated over the centuries; the current building was built by the Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, commissioner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the 15th century. Another important saint, Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, died in Ostia in the late 4th century and was buried there. Her remains were moved to the Saint Aurea church in the 6th century before moving again to the Church of Saint Augustine in Rome.

There may be more information on the burials forthcoming courtesy of some inscriptions.

Additionally, several tombs had funerary inscriptions and archaeologists found a possible tabella defixionum, a lead curse tablet intended to protect the dead and bring anathema to tomb desecrators.

“They were really horrible curses to protect the dead”, Paola Germoni, head of Ostia’s archaeological superintendency, added.

Studies remain ongoing, according to Michele Raddi, excavation co-director, who said “we found a number of fragmentary inscriptions in the tombs as well as a possible tabella defixionum, but we need to evaluate its context and see if it has an inscription”.

Parco dei Ravennati wasn’t just a necropolis, however. Multiple domestic spaces have been unearthed, including an elaborate opus sectile marble inlay floor from the late 4th century. This season’s excavations have found even more of that aristocratic home, a space adjacent to the opus sectile room that was paved with paving stones and converted to commercial use. The discovery of hooks and lead weights from fishing nets suggest the elegant home was re-purposed for fish processing in the early Middle Ages. Ancient sources and earlier archaeology pointed to Ostia being in steep decline as a commercial center starting in the reign of Constantine I (306-337 A.D.), so the discovery of active businesses from the early Middle Ages is going to change what we know about Ostia.

“What’s amazing is that you have continual use in this park straight through from republic and imperial times through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, its giving us precious information about the later periods and how it relates to Ostia Antica”, [director of the American Institute for Roman Culture Darius] Arya said.

“The discoveries in the Parco dei Ravennati underlines the extraordinary continuity of life and activity along the Tiber River banks, in Ostia Antica’s suburbs”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Sam’s iconic piano from Casablanca for sale

History Blog - Mon, 2014-07-21 23:58

The piano on which Sam played As Times Goes By at the behest of a melancholic Ilsa and a choleric Rick in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca will be put up for auction later this year. It’s one of more than 30 pieces from the film that will be sold at Bonhams New York’s TCM Presents: There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction on November 24th, all of which belong to a single private collector. Along with the piano, the sale will feature the interior and exterior doors from Rick’s Café Américain, passports and other papers used in the movie, including the letters of transit that were hidden in this piano in a pivotal plot point.

Casablanca has long been one of the most beloved of Hollywood’s wartime classics and continues to be one of the most popular films in the Turner Classic Movies library,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president of digital, affiliate, lifestyle and enterprise commerce at TCM, TBS and TNT. “With the addition of this extraordinary collection of Casablanca memorabilia, TCM and Bonhams’ There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction is going to be a truly unforgettable and historic event.”

“Bonhams is thrilled to represent this remarkable Casablanca collection, certainly one of the most significant film memorabilia collections still in private hands,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams.

Last year the centerpiece of the Bonham’s auction of movie memorabilia curated by the experts of Turner Classic Movies was from another of Humphrey Bogart’s iconic films, The Maltese Falcon. The lead falcon prop sold for an astonishing $4,085,000 including buyer’s premium. No pre-sale estimate for the piano has been announced yet, but Bonham’s expects it to sell for seven figures as well. There’s no guarantee, of course. The gorgeous 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca‘s final scene sold for $380,000, $70,000 below the low estimate at last year’s sale.

The piano used in the Paris flashback scene where Sam first plays the song for Rick and Ilsa in happier times sold for much less than its estimate at Sotheby’s in December of 2012. The estimate was $800,000 to $1.2 million, but the hammer price was $500,000 ($602,500 including buyer’s premium). Some articles have erroneously conflated the two pianos. The one for sale this November was last purchased at public auction in the 1980s and has since then been loaned to Warner Brothers Studio Museum and the Hollywood Bowl for a 2006 performance.

This piano, which is salmon-colored in real life, looms large in film history as the song sung by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam has become part of the cultural lexicon. Wilson didn’t actually play the piano (he was a drummer) so as he sang he imitated the real pianist Elliot Carpenter who was playing out of view of the cameras but in view of Wilson. Incidentally, the line most associated with the scene, “Play it again, Sam,” was never actually spoken in the movie.

The full auction catalogue is not yet available online, but keep an eye on this page where it will appear a month or so before the sale.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

See the lunar suface live tonight in high def

History Blog - Sun, 2014-07-20 20:00

In honor of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s landing on the moon, at 8:30 PM EST tonight the Slooh Space Camera will broadcast live high definition video of the lunar surface. Host Geoff Fox will welcome a panel of experts including astronomer Bob Berman, science journalist Andy Chaikin and filmmaker Duncan Copp who directed the phenomenal The Planets — An HD Odyssey setting breathtaking images of the planets in our solar system with Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite. While you enjoy the high definition views of the moon today, the panelists will discuss the moon landing of 45 years ago,

The YouTube is embedded below. If that doesn’t work for you, you can follow the broadcast on the Slooh website.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

History Blog - Sat, 2014-07-19 23:29

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Burned, cut bones from Boudiccan uprising found in Colchester

History Blog - Fri, 2014-07-18 23:04

Burned and cut bone fragments from the Boudiccan revolt have been discovered at the redevelopment site of supermarket Williams & Griffin in Colchester, southeast England. The two pieces, one of mandible and the other of tibia, were found mixed in with burned building debris that had been moved to the location and used as fill during the reconstruction of Colchester after Boudica’s army burned the city to the ground in 61 A.D. Although the revolt-era layer of the town has been extensively excavated, these are only the second human remains ever found in Colchester’s Boudiccan debris, and the first were unearthed 50 years ago in 1965.

The reason so few bones have been found in a city that was completely destroyed is that the inhabitants were rounded up and killed in the sacred groves of the Iceni war goddess Andraste. Cassio Dio goes into gruesome detail on the subject in Book 62, Chapter 7 of his Roman History:

The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate.

Colchester, the Roman colony of Camulodunum, was the first target of Boudica’s forces. It had great symbolic significance to them. The city had been the capital of the Trinovantes, the Iceni’s allies in the uprising, and it was there that they had had to surrender to Claudius in 43 A.D. The next year a temple to Claudius was built to commemorate the great victory/humiliating defeat and the legions used the city as a fortress for another five years. When they left, retired Roman veterans moved in, displacing the native Britons, taking their land and enslaving them. The veterans didn’t bother to build fortifications, however, so Boudica’s army made short shrift of the city. Surviving veterans fled to Claudius’ temple where Boudica besieged them for two days before it too fell and was torched along with the rest of Camulodunum.

When the bone pieces were first unearthed last week, the evidence of burning was clearly visible in situ, but it wasn’t until archaeologists removed the fragments for additional study that the found evidence that the bones had been cut with a sharp instrument of some kind, possibly a weapon.

The cut mark on the shinbone is the most convincing. The bone is a left tibia where the top front left-hand side has been sliced off with a sharp blade. The blow must have been ferocious and it must have cut through part of the end of the thigh bone (femur) and probably the kneecap (patella) and the fibula (the thin bone alongside the tibia). The angle of the cut suggests that the leg must have been flexed and that the person who cut it wasn’t standing directly in front of him but to his right or left.

The mandible is more difficult to interpret. Now that it is out of the ground, we can see that it does indeed have its third molar and that the person was much older when he died than we thought. What is striking, however, is that the inside edge of the raised part at the back of the jaw is missing. It looks as if this part of the jaw has been sliced off where the bone is quite thin. But the cut looks rather delicate for a sword blow. It may be that the jawbone simply cracked in the ground and this part became detached. But then, in the light of the chop mark on the leg bone, some kind of deliberate incision, violent or delicate, needs to be considered as a possiblity [sic]. If the damage was the result of a sword blow, then it must have been a downwards one from the man’s left. The sword must have crashed clean through his left cheek bone (the zygomatic bone) between his left eye and ear so that it just nicked the front of the upper part of his jaw.

The cut marks on the bones look very clean to be shovel marks, but it is possible that the mandible in particular was damaged during the reconstruction by a shovel, say, rather than by a blade.

These bones and those unearthed in 1965 were found 100 yards from each other. Archaeologists have just begun to dig at a third site that lies between the two find spots, so there may be more interesting news from the Boudiccan revolt to report soon.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

La Belle moves from freeze dryer to museum

History Blog - Thu, 2014-07-17 23:58

La Belle, one of the ships French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on his ill-fated colonizing mission, sank in a storm in Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1686. In 1995, the wreck of the 54-1/2-foot-long supply ship was found in excellent condition, the bottom third preserved intact with its contents by the mud of the sea floor. Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission spent two years excavating the wreck, building a cofferdam around it, draining the water and then digging it out of the mud. They were able to recover the hull of the ship and 700,000 artifacts, including swords, cannons, bronze hawk bells, pottery, thousands of glass beads and mirrors intended for trade and a skeleton so well preserved that there was still tendon tissue on the bones and a large amount of brain material in the skull.

As with other exceptional raised shipwrecks like the Mary Rose and the Vasa, La Belle’s wooden hull needed to be conserved immediately to ensure it wouldn’t dry out too quickly and warp or shrink. The ship’s timbers were sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where they were soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and stabilizes it. PEG treatment takes a long, long time, like decades, and since it’s petroleum-derived, the cost rises with the price of oil.

When the budget for the conservation ballooned from $330,000 to $1.4 million solely because of PEG prices, in late 2010 conservators changed course and decided to put the ship timbers in a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide. Kept at a constant temperature of 60 degrees below zero, the seawater bound to the wood sublimates — transforms directly from solid to gas — in significantly less time than it takes for PEG to replace water.

To ensure that the timbers retained their shape and size, the hull was disassembled and each piece tagged and scanned. Molds were made so researchers had the original shape of each part for comparison. After running some tests on smaller items, the ship components were placed in the freeze dryer for four to six months until all the bound water was gone. The wreck of La Belle has 600 component parts, including the keel, keelson, ceiling planking, mast and futtocks (those curved ribs in the ship’s frame), so it took several loads to dry them all.

Reconstruction of the ship was scheduled to begin in October of 2013 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, but it has taken a little longer than originally planned. On Thursday, July 17th, the largest portions of La Belle were loaded onto an 18-wheeler and transported from the Riverside Campus of Texas A&M to the Bullock Museum. Included in this first delivery were the 800-pound keel, the 1,100-pound keelson, the forefoot, more than 20 floor planks, buttresses, the mast, 40 first futtocks, more than 20 second futtocks and 25 third futtocks. (Yes I am completely in love with the word futtocks and plan to use it as a curse word on a daily basis from now on.)

On October 25th, the museum will debut a new exhibition, La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, which in addition to traditional displays of artifacts, maps and pictures of the excavation and conservation, will most excitingly feature the public reassembly of the hull. Reconstruction should be completed in May of next year, after which the hull will be encased in glass and placed on display in the center of the museum. A replica of the rest of the ship will be built around the encased hull and visitors will be allowed to walk on the glass over the original ship so they can look down at it and all around at the replica. Such a brilliant idea. This is going to be a blockbuster exhibition.

There will also be a “4D” film, Shipwrecked, for visitors to enjoy. From the museum’s upcoming exhibits page:

Created in collaboration with award-winning production house, Cortina Productions, the film will be on view daily in the Bullock’s popular Texas Spirit Theater, a 4D venue that offers an immersive experience combining the high-drama of 3D with sensory effects built into the seats and environment. Filmed on board one of the few sea-worthy vessels modeled after ships of the 1600s, the film dramatizes the story of La Salle’s venture, revealing the struggles, personalities, and conflicts through the eyes of one of the only survivors of the expedition, Pierre Talon. Pierre’s family was recruited as colonists for the voyage, and at the age of 10, he was separated from his mother and siblings and sent by La Salle to learn the language of the Caddo people in the hopes of establishing trade and facilitating the expedition. Adopted by the tribe, at the age of 14 Pierre was subsequently captured by the Spanish. In the film, he recounts to his captors all that he saw from the moment the ships were setting sail from France.

This news story has a brief overview of La Salle’s mission, some great footage of the hull during the conservation process and a phenomenal mockup of the exhibit with the encased hull and replica built around it that seriously looks real.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rome pyramid restoration ahead of schedule

History Blog - Wed, 2014-07-16 23:24

In December of 2011, Japanese retail clothing mogul Yuzo Yagi offered to donate €1 million to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a pointy marble-clad vanity pyramid built in Rome in the 1st century B.C. At the time, the agreement was scheduled to be signed in January of 2012 and work to start in April, but the donation agreement didn’t get signed until March, the scaffolding didn’t begin to go up until November and it wasn’t finished until February. Actual restoration work began in March of 2013. Then in a shocking twist, it was completed five months early.

The Culture Ministry contacted Yuzo Yagi and asked him to donate another million euros for a second stage of restoration that would return the Carrara marble cladding to its original whiteness as opposed to its longstanding grimy gray. White happens to be Mr. Yagi’s favorite color — he is known for his stylish all-white ensembles — so he was happy to double his original donation.

In December of 2013 he signed a second donation agreement, again requiring nothing more than a discreet plaque near, not on, the pyramid, naming him as the donor. Even during the restoration the only signs on the pyramid are informational billboards at ground level and white banners assigning themes to each side — the mystical side, the scientific side, the historical side and the secret side. The billboards explain the history of the pyramid through these four themes. Yagi’s company gets credit for his patronage on the billboards, but just in discreet text lines. No logos or glaring anything. The images of the pyramid and information of its background dominate completely. Masterpiece Theater is more cluttered than that, like by a lot.

Now phase two is well on the way to being finished and they’re ahead of schedule again. Restorers expect to be done three months before the expected November deadline. The early finish means Yagi isn’t ready for an inauguration ceremony. He’s thinking of just waiting until next summer and making a big event. He’s also so pleased with how this venture has gone that he’s contemplating donating more money for the preservation of another monument.

Yuzo Yagi toured the pyramid on Tuesday, accompanied by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to promote Mr. Yagi’s dignified generosity as a model for future donors and to tout the state’s new tax incentives for businesses who donate to cultural heritage projects.

You can see how great the pyramid looks inside and out in this news story on Mr. Yagi’s visit:

Oh man, I want to wear a hardhat and go inside! If the burial chamber looks modest it’s because Augustus’ sumptuary law of 18 B.C. forbade ostentatious luxury in tombs. Unlike the Egyptians whose tombs he modeled his own after, Gaius Cestius was not buried with lavish treasures to accompany him to the afterlife. He got white walls with small frescoes of alternating winged Victories and ceremonial vessels, plus a few bronze statues of him outside the pyramid.

The frescoes were in serious danger from water leaking through the marble slabs into the brick and concrete structure. Those leaks have all been plugged now. Also gone are the severe microorganism infestation that was making a meal of the marble and the copious vegetation sprouting through the damaged exterior walls. The pyramid hasn’t looked this good or been this healthy since it was built, I wager.

Here’s a 3D animation of a point cloud generated from laser scan data before the scaffolding went up. It gave restorers a clear picture of the condition of all four sides, the deterioration of the marble cladding, any unevenness in the surface or cracks and evidence of shear.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hiker falls onto monolith, saves it from looters

History Blog - Tue, 2014-07-15 23:15


A tourist hiking in the foothills of a waterfall in Mexico two weeks ago fell from a branch onto a Mesoamerican monolith that was in the process of being carved out of the stone by looters. You’d think looters would be deterred by the weight of the stone — an estimated 10 tons — and its size — five feet wide, five feet high and almost seven feet deep — but no; they just started cutting the carving out of it, removing the porous red volcanic cantera stone around the figure which is about a foot and a half wide and two and a half feet high. Given enough time they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky hiker falling out of a tree.

The tourist reported the find to the authorities in the nearby city of Calvillo in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes who in turn called in regional experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Archaeologists examined the monolith and discovered it’s a unique piece of major historical import in the region. Carved in the image of a man with a headdress and earrings, its location near a waterfall and spring suggests a connection to a deity.

The figure shows a strong influence of Teotihuacan style from between 200 to 600 A.D. The urban center of Teotihuacan was 350 miles southeast of Calvillo, but its cultural sphere of influence was vast. Before now, however, archaeologists thought the local culture was entirely Chichimeca, nomadic hunter-gatherers of varied language and ethnicity, but no artifacts this old have been found in the state before. It significantly predates known Chichimeca settlements in the area.

In order to keep it safe from human depredation, experts will be completing the looters’ work. The 10-ton stone is simply too big and unwieldy to remove. It’s in the wilderness where there are no roads. It would require specialized equipment and a cargo helicopter to air lift it out of the jungle, and officials have neither the material nor the funding to make that happen. Instead, they’ve installed a shelter around the stone and will have a joint police and army surveillance team on site while archaeologists detach the carved figure from its rocky home. The operation is expected to take 15 days to a month.

Once it’s been removed, the carving will be kept at the INAH lab where archaeologists can study it fully. Its ultimate destination will be the Municipal Museum that is currently under construction in Calvillo.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

200-year-old seltzer water bottle found on shipwreck

History Blog - Mon, 2014-07-14 23:11

An intact sealed mineral water bottle from the German town of Selters has been retrieved from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Poland. There’s a maker’s seal on the front of the bottle, a faded dark brown circle around the circular text “Selters” with the initial H and N topped by a crown inside, which identify it has having been manufactured between 1806 and 1830. The stoneware bottle still has liquid inside which is not seawater, but it’s possible the bottle was reused and recorked so archaeologists won’t know if there’s prized 200-year-old mineral water in there until they test the contents in a lab.

The H and N on the seal stand for Herzogthum Nassau, meaning Duchy of Nassau, a province in western Germany that is today the state of Hesse. The Selters area of the province on northern slopes of the Taunus mountains was famous for its mineral springs. Long before the duchy existed when the region was part of the Electorate of Trier ruled by a prince-archbishop, local monasteries documented the wells in records from the 8th century. By the 16th century Selters’ naturally carbonated water was well known all over the country. German doctors wrote papers on its curative properties and the crisp, pleasantly sour taste from its uniquely high alkaline salt content.

Starting in the mid-18th century, the water was packaged in stoneware vessels and sold internationally. Shipments went out to the Netherlands, Sweden, England, France, Russia, Africa, even as far afield as America and Jakarta. It was a highly profitable venture, with more than a million jugs sold in 1791. The Electorate west of the Rhine was occupied by France in 1803 and absorbed into the French diocesan system. East of the Rhine its territories were secularized and incorporated into the county of Nassau-Weilburg which merged with Nassau-Usingen to form the Duchy of Nassau in 1806.

The Duchy would only last for 60 years (it was annexed by Prussia in 1866), but during its existence the Selters water was its primary export. In 1850 three million jugs were sold, bringing in annual net profits of 100,000 guilders to the Duke’s privy purse. A public fountain allowed locals to collect the prized water free for home use.

The stoneware bottles were quite ingeniously designed to preserve the freshness and carbonation of the water. The necks were kept short and the bottles filled all the way to the top before being corked and cemented. The aim was to keep air out in order to preserve the fizz and flavor. As long as the air bubble in the neck was small (or non-existent, ideally) and the cork held, the water would retain its unique qualities in the sealed bottle for months. In the mid-19th century, analytical chemist Dr. Remigius Fresenius of the Wiesbaden Agricultural Institution stored Selters water for 15 years and found it substantially unchanged when he retested it.

Selters water was so famous worldwide that when artificial carbonation was invented, some of its products were referred to as “Selterser water,” aka water of Selters, aka seltzer water. Thus Selters became a genericized trademark, like Xerox for photocopies or Kleenex for tissues.

With millions sold every year for more than a century, many Selters stoneware bottles have survived. Corked and sealed ones, however are much more rare. The one discovered on the shipwreck is by far the most valuable object recovered from the unidentified vessel, labeled simply F-33-31, which lies 40 feet deep in Gdańsk Bay. In addition to its inherent coolness, the bottle has helped narrow down the ship’s age. Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the ships planks should narrow it down further.

The underwater archaeologists from the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk surveying the wreck have also found pottery fragments, small metal and ceramic vessels, shoe parts and ship parts, including wooden pulley blocks. They’ve also found a number of large stones which they believe were the ship’s main cargo, used in the construction of foundations or fortifications.

Once the survey is complete, the data and images will be used to create a 3D digital model of the wreck. The team has taken more than 7,000 pictures of the site from which a highly detailed virtual model can be constructed, an innovative approach to underwater archaeology that the National Maritime Museum has pioneered. After testing, the water bottle will go on display at the National Maritime Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Metal feline claws found in Moche tomb

History Blog - Sun, 2014-07-13 23:39

The ancient capital of the Moche culture lies five miles south of the city of Trujillo on the northern coast of Peru. Its inhabitants lived in an urban center bracketed by the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, the largest adobe structures known. The Spanish looted the former extensively, diverting a river to erode the bricks and wash out the gold from burials of Moche rulers. The Temple of the Moon is in better condition and still retains 200 square feet of painted murals depicting the daily life, human sacrifice, deities, wars of a people who have left no written records. The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon Archaeological Project has been excavating the site for 20 years, and still it holds magical surprises.

The latest surprises are some wonderfully vicious-looking feline claws made of metal in the 1,500-year-old tomb of an elite man excavated under the urban center of the site. The claws were found towards the top of the burial, below his head around neck or shoulder height and archaeologists aren’t sure how they were worn. They could have been part of a costume used in ritual combat where the winner was given the claws as a prize and the loser was sacrificed.

Big cats and deities with feline characteristics played an important role in Moche cosmology. They are frequently depicted in figurines, murals and painted on ceramic vessels. One of the painted friezes at the Temple of Moon, as a matter of fact, depicts large felines attacking and killing human victims, and a feline features prominently on what may be the most important artifact discovered in the tomb: a pyramid-shaped copper scepter which is topped with the face of a feline, fangs bared. The four sides of the scepter are also decorated, three of them with warriors displaying their weapons and the fourth with a large cat that has just killed a nude prisoner.

The scepter is very similar in shape and design to one discovered in the tomb of the Lord of Sipán with one major difference: Sipán’s sceptre was made of gold, not copper. The scepter is a symbol of rule, but the copper indicates this man was a local ruler, certainly a person of high social rank, but a vassal of Moche royalty rather than standing atop the hierarchy himself. Hence the preponderance of copper and brass in the tomb. The only gold found was a few modest pieces inlaid in a pair of large round earplugs. The quality of the earplugs again is high, but not the highest. He was a nobleman, a political or religious leader, possibly an envoy sent to newly conquered territories.

The high status is confirmed by the presence of a metal mask that once covered his face. It is in pieces now, but the shiny metal buttons used to cover his eyes are in excellent condition. The presence of eye coverings confirm his elevated status. Ten decorated ceramic vessels were buried with him, most of which have been painted with pattern motifs but some of which depict figures from Moche cosmology, another indicator of the importance of the deceased. Metal blades placed at the hands and feet are also characteristic of elite burials. Archaeologists believe these metal objects coded information of the deceased’s place in Moche hierarchy.

Archaeologists hope to determine whether he was a native ruler or if he came from elsewhere by using stable isotope analysis which can reveal where a person was raised based on the proportion of certain elements in their teeth and bones. It’s a time consuming process; results won’t be expected until next year. Meanwhile, once the artifacts and remains were removed, the tomb was promptly sealed to keep the archaeological context safe from the coming rains. It will be re-opened for further study.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Crucifix from the 1620s unearthed in Newfoundland

History Blog - Sat, 2014-07-12 23:35

An archaeological team excavating the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, founded in 1620 by George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, has discovered a small copper crucifix dating to the early days of the settlement. It’s just 2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms and has the traditional image of Christ on the cross on the front. On the back is the Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. The features of the relief are worn almost smooth, indicating that the devotional object was rubbed constantly. Coupled with its small size and broken top, it suggests the crucifix was once part of a rosary.

The crucifix was amongst a collection of ceramics, bones, nails and building debris associated with the construction of a large stone dwelling built for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The dwelling was started sometime after 1623 and completed before the arrival of Calvert, most of his family and about 40 additional settlers in 1628. The cultural deposit containing the crucifix was sealed sometime in the second half of the 1620s, thus providing a securely datable context for the artifacts and a window into the lives of those who worked at Calvert’s colony of Avalon during this early period.

This is the first unambiguously Catholic object found from the time of Calvert’s founding of the colony, and as such it is of singular importance. George Calvert served as King James I’s Secretary of State for six years before resigning and officially converting to Catholicism in 1625. There’s some question as to whether that was the result of a revelation in the moment or the public confirmation of a long-held but hidden faith. His father Leonard was Catholic and in the fraught environment of the Elizabethan religious reforms, suffered constant harassment from the authorities for such crimes as employing Catholics and not going to Church of England services. Little George became a pawn in this game, being forced at age 12 to change tutors to an approved Protestant who would eschew the “popish primer” his previous tutor had employed.

In order to graduate from Oxford and carve out a career for himself as a diplomat and politician at the court of King James, George Calvert certainly professed Protestantism. His wife was Protestant and he raised his children Protestant. By all accounts he was an honest, decent man so there’s no reason to assume he was being deceptive about his religious faith, but either way his experience with religious persecution played an integral role in his plans for Avalon.

He first bought property on Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan and named it Avalon after the island from Arthurian legend where Christianity was introduced to Britain. Colonists arrived in 1621 led by Captain Edward Wynne who wrote glowingly (and inaccurately) to Calvert describing Newfoundland as a bountiful land with a mild climate. Calvert thought fishing was the key to making the colony self-sustaining, maybe even profitable. In 1623 Calvert secured a royal charter extending his lands to the whole southeast peninsula, officially naming it the Province of Avalon “in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America.”

George Calvert’s 1623 charter for the province enshrined freedom of conscience by not requiring that colonists take the oath of supremacy accepting the sovereign as the head of the Church of England. That principle was underscored when Calvert took his first trip to Avalon in the summer of 1627. He brought two priests with him — Father Anthony Smith and Father Thomas Longville (later that year Longville returned to England and was replaced by a Father Hackett) — who according to the colony’s disapproving Puritan clergyman Rev. Erasmus Stourton “said mass every Sunday at Feiryland and used all other ceremonies of the church of Rome in the ample manner as it is used in Spain.” Very much against Stourton’s inclination, Avalon was the first North American colony to practice religious tolerance.

It’s possible that the recently discovered crucifix belonged to one of the three priests, one of the 100 colonists who were established at Ferryland by 1627, or maybe even Calvert himself. Given the early dating, it’s probably more likely to have been lost one of the home’s builders or by Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Avalon from 1625 to late 1626, or by one of the Catholic colonists he brought with him.

Calvert went back to England before he could experience the joys of a Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1628 with his wife and most of his children. That’s when he found out that Wynne’s letters had been more fiction than fact. A frigid, long winter and fishing ships bedeviled by French privateer the Marquis de la Rade, made life very hard, nigh on unbearable for the good Baron. He and his family left Avalon in 1629 for more hospital climes in the Virginia territory. Two years later, he received another royal charter granting him property north of the Potomac on both side of the Chesapeake Bay. He died five weeks before the charter for Maryland was issued. His son Cecilius took over where his father left off, enshrining the same principle of religious freedom in Maryland as his father had instituted in Avalon.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History