Arts and Sciences

Happy Richard III cortege day!

History Blog - Sun, 2015-03-22 02:49

I’ve been listening to BBC Radio Leicester for the past half hour because they said coverage would start then. “Coverage” turned out to have been used loosely — there’s only so much 70s easy listening and random gospel music I can take (Ooh! Woman in Love by Barbra Streisand! I had forgotten that song existed) — but there have been a couple of neat descriptions of the town being decked out in bunting, people already beginning to congregate, some historical background tidbits and a lovely, moving interview with a reenactor chap who was part of a dawn bonfire vigil at Fenn Lane Farm.

I’m keeping my eye on the RichardReburied hashtag on Twitter in the hopes of locating some live video once the actual events begin at 10:50 AM GMT (6:50 AM EST). Meanwhile, the city of Leicester’s Richard III website has started live blogging the day, although there isn’t much up as of yet.

I’ll keep updating this entry as the day progresses.

3:00 White boar pennant in Leicester! So cute.

3:11 Dammit. I just got rickrolled by BBC Radio Leicester.

3:23 Coolness: when the cortege stops at St. James’ Church in Sutton Cheney (Richard heard his last mass the night before the Battle of Bosworth at Sutton Cheney Manor which sadly no longer stands), one of the VIPs at the brief 10-minute service will be Dominic Smee, the young man with scoliosis who was given custom armor and taught to fight in a test of Richard’s capabilities and completely aced it.

3:50 Judith Bingham composed an anthem for the Cathedral service that was inspired by a book Richard III owned. When she was preparing to write, she was given access to some of Richard’s books. One of them was an English copy of The Book of Ghostly Grace by 13th century Saxon Christian mystic Saint Mechtilde of Hackeborn which Richard’s mother had given to him. Inside the book in spidery brown ink Richard had written his name, “R. Gloucester,” and his wife’s “Anne Warwick.” Bingham found it deeply compelling and ultimately titled her piece Ghostly Grace.

5:15 A live blog from the BBC will have news, pictures and video of today’s events.

You know, it’s crazy to me that nobody seems to have full day video coverage. I assumed it was just not available online, but it seems no television channels are doing it either, just highlights here and there.

6:08 The hearse has arrived at the University of Leicester.

6:18 BBC News has a segment from the University right now. I bet they’ll show the coffin reveal live. EDIT – Confirmed! News guy just said they’ll be back live when the coffin moves. If you’re not in the UK, you can watch it here.

6:50 The coffin just came out! Six pallbearers carried the oak and yew coffin to a stand in front of guests and podium. Speech now. It’s on BBC News live.

A photo posted by KRIIILeicester (@kriiileicester) on Mar 22, 2015 at 3:57am PDT

Finally a live stream! It’s from The Mirror and I have no idea if they’ll cover the entire cortege or just pop in and out like the BBC is doing.

7:04 Members of the excavation and research team — Richard Buckley, Matthew Morris, Turi King, Jill Appleby, among others — are placing white roses on top of Richard’s coffin.

7:07 Also members of the Richard III society, Philippa Langley in high relief, and now members of Richard’s family Michael Ibsen, Jeff Ibsen and Wendy Duldig, all placing roses.

7:17 Coffin loaded onto the hearse. These pallbearers are amazing. They have a changing of the guard-like precision of movement.

8:50 The cortege has stopped at Fenn Lane Farm, close to the spot where archaeologists believe Richard III fell in battle.

Revd Hilary Surridge leads the short service on the field where it is believed King Richard III #richardreburied

A photo posted by KRIIILeicester (@kriiileicester) on Mar 22, 2015 at 5:52am PDT

9:05 Dr. Alexandra Buckle, expert in medieval music and member of the Reinterment of King Richard III committee, has created a blog dedicated to her research on medieval reburial ceremonies. She’s been posting on it this month to celebrate the reinterment. It’s fascinating: How to Rebury a King.

9:11 The cortege is off to Dadlington where some of the dead from the Battle of Bosworth are believed to be buried.

9:21 There are two men in plate armour leading the cortege on horseback. They’re being called “mounted heralds.”

10:26 The hearse is about to arrive at the Bosworth Battlefield Centre. There are people in medieval costume lined up waiting for him. BBC News is covering it live.

10:42 The coffin is at the Bosworth Battlefield Centre being escorted through the field by a military procession. Modern Lancers cadets, camo and black berets, not knights in armour.

11:09 The Duke of Gloucester (Richard’s title before he was king) lit a flaming beacon and it was extremely cool.

11:42 The Hinckley Times has an excellent live blog of today’s events. It’s the best I’ve seen today at covering the cortege and filling in the blanks with relevant detail.

1:23 The horse-drawn gun carriage bearing the coffin is slowly processing towards the Cathedral. Channel 4 is covering live now and will continue to do so for the next three hours.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Richard III cortege through Leicester on Sunday

History Blog - Sat, 2015-03-21 05:09

The week of events leading to the reinterment of King Richard III on Thursday, March 26th, begins this Sunday with a cortege bearing his coffin from the University of Leicester to the Leicester Cathedral. After emerging from the university’s Fielding Johnson Building, the coffin holding Richard III’s remains will depart in a hearse at 11:40 AM and begin a slow procession stopping at historical sites from Richard’s last days.

The first stop is Fenn Lane Farm, the spot where archaeologists believe Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. There the Reverend Hilary Surridge will lead a private ceremony bringing together soil from three locations of significance in the king’s life: Fotheringhay (where he was born), Middleham (where he spent his early teens learning the knightly arts), and Fenn Lane (where he died).

Further stops include the Sutton Cheney church, the nearby Bosworth Heritage Centre and Bow Bridge, the medieval boundary of Leicester where the City Mayor, Lord Mayor and Gild of Freemen will welcome the remains. The cortege will then follow on foot to St. Nicholas Church where after a brief service the coffin will be transferred to a horse-drawn hearth to process through the city center.

The final stop at 5:45 PM is Leicester Cathedral where the king’s remains will be formally handed over from the University, holder of the Ministry of Justice exhumation license, to the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester. The congregation will hold a service of Compline with a sermon preached by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. On Monday the Cathedral will open to members of the public who wish to view the coffin and pay their respects. It will remain open during the week.

I haven’t been able to find any live video feeds of the entire cortege, but BBC Radio Leicester will be covering it. Listen live here. Channel 4 television will be covering the reinterment live on Thursday but is only scheduled to broadcast the arrival of Richard’s coffin at Leicester Cathedral on Sunday at 5:10 PM GMT.

Leicester has a website dedicated to reinterment week with lots of information and details about the events. The BBC has interactive maps of the cortege’s stops outside and inside the city. I’m hoping the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel, which has been replete with Ricardian goodness in anticipation of the reinternment, will have complete video of all the ceremonies.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Celtic 3rd c. BC bronze anklet found in Poland

History Blog - Fri, 2015-03-20 07:51

On February 28th of this year, Peter Kotowicz, an archaeologist with the Historical Museum of Sanok, received a phone call from a history-loving friend named Tomasz Podolak who told him he had found something interesting, possibly treasure, in the village of Pakoszówka near Sanok in southeastern Poland. Podolak has discovered ancient bronze artifacts before that are now in the museum — he received an award by the Minister of Culture last year for the finds and his reporting of the objects while they were still in situ — so as soon as Kotowicz hung up he got in his car and started driving.

When he arrived at the find site, he saw several shallow wells in the earth, each containing some bronze fragments. One of them held a larger piece with only the tip showing above the soil. At first glance, Kotowicz was unable to identify the objects although he suspected they might be of Celtic origin. When he excavated the initial finds and an area of approximately 20 feet around them, he realized the fragments were all pieces of a single item of a jewelry: a bronze anklet in a characteristic Celtic design from the 3rd century B.C.

The largest piece formed about half the ring. The traces of two hinges are visible on the end pieces. The edges of the fragments suggest the jewel broke apart in antiquity rather than as a result of modern activity. As one piece was found more than 50 feet away from the central cluster, it’s possible the anklet had been deliberately destroyed and its fragments strewn about, perhaps for ritual purposes.

Known by German term hohlbuckelringe, meaning hollow bulge ring, these ornaments are among the most distinctive Celtic designs. You can follow the trail of Celtic expansion into eastern Europe in the 3rd century B.C. by following the hohlbuckelringe like breadcrumbs. They first appear in southern German and the territories of the Boii tribe in what is today Bohemia, Czech Republic, in the early 3rd century. As the Celtic tribes moved east, so did the hohlbuckelringe. Examples have been unearthed in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and southeast from there into Asia Minor.

While Celts were known to have settled in the Sanok area during the La Tène period (450 B.C. – 1 B.C.), very little of their material culture has been recovered from this part of Poland. Almost nothing was known of the Celtic presence in the San river valley until excavations in the 1990s found evidence of settlement like pottery sherds, fragments of a glass bracelet, a hearth, an iron sword and, the most prized Celtic artifact in the Historical Museum of Sanok, a gold coin discovered by happenstance in the village of Trepcza.

So while this newly discovered anklet is in pieces, incomplete and plain in decoration (more elaborate versions were made from precious metals and added swirls and bumps to the bulges), it’s a significant and unique find. No other examples of this archtypical form of Celtic female adornment have been unearthed in the region. Kotowicz believes that after the gold coin and the iron sword in the Regional Museum in Rzeszów, this ankle ring is the most exceptional Celtic artifact south of the Carpathians.

The location where the hohlbuckelringe was discovered has not previously been considered of archaeological import. Archaeologists plan to thoroughly scan the area with metal detectors. They’re also hoping to secure funding for more in depth research and additional excavations, but that will depend on the assessment of the regional conservation office.

The ankle ring is now being conserved at the museum in Sanok. It will go on display later this year in one of the underground exhibition halls of Sanok castle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Microsoft co-founder finds wreck of Musashi

History Blog - Thu, 2015-03-19 10:44

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his underwater research team have discovered the wreck of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s World War II battleship Musashi. Musashi was the younger of the two Yamato class ships, the heaviest and most armed battleships ever constructed. The ship went down in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, an engagement of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II, on October 24th, 1944. The Sibuyan Sea is between the Visayan Islands and the island of Luzon in the Philippines, so the general area where the ship went down was known, but even with numerous extant eyewitness accounts of the battle, the shipwreck’s precise location was unknown. The wreck of Musashi‘s older sister ship Yamato, sunk in August of 1945, was found in 1982 leaving Musashi the largest of history’s undiscovered shipwrecks.

Paul Allen being a billionaire and a history nerd with a particular fascination for World War II, put together a team of researchers eight years ago with the goal of finding the elusive giant. They scoured historical records from four countries and deployed the latest and greatest technology to survey the floor of the Sibuyan Sea. The multi-beam bathymetric survey of the seafloor didn’t find the wreck, but it did allow the team to eliminate large areas from the search and, on a cool oceanographic note, identified five previously unknown geographic features.

In February of this year, Allen and his team took his superyacht M/Y Octopus equipped with submersible vehicles to search underwater for the wreck. They first deployed an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Thanks to the survey’s elimination of large swaths of the area, the AUV found the wreck on the third dive on March 2nd, 2015. Researchers then sent a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with an HD camera to explore the wreck and find identifying features. It was a valve wheel that provided the first confirmation that the wreck was of a Japanese ship. It had Kanji on it that read “open” and “main valve handle.”

Japanese warships didn’t have their names written on their sides, so identifying the Musashi requires an accumulation of circumstantial evidence and it’s challenging because the ship, which went down whole, apparently exploded at least once underwater. There’s a vast debris field 2,600 feet by 1,640 feet wide with pieces of the ship scattered all around. They found the mount for the teak chrysanthemum, the Imperial Seal of Japan, on the bow, the teak flower long since rotted away, and a catapult used to launch the six or seven float planes the Musashi carried. They also found the main gun turret mount and beneath it damage from US torpedoes that matched the known hits.

On March 13th, Paul Allen and the Musashi Expedition team sent the ROV back down to explore the wreck and released a live feed of the video on the Internet. The quality of the footage is amazing at 3,280 feet below the surface, and even though the ship is torn to bits, you can still see just how massive it was.

One of the viewers of the live feed doesn’t need to wait for official confirmation to know it’s the wreck of the Musashi.

Also watching the feed in Japan was 94 year-old Shigeru Nakajima, one of those who survived the Japanese battleship’s sinking. He said he was certain the wreckage was that of the ship he was aboard 71 years ago when it was sunk by U.S. forces. [..]

“I am certain that this is the Musashi by now looking at the images such as the anchor, the imperial seal of the chrysanthemum,” Nakajima told the Associated Press as he watched the video.

Nakajima was an electrical technician for the sub battery on the vessel. He survived the torpedo attack by jumping into the water as he was ordered to evacuate by his senior officer.

Nakajima, who became the chef at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo after the war, said he had no words but “thank you” for the team that found the wreckage, adding that the ship’s captain Toshihira Inoguchi and other crew members who perished “must be delighted to hear this news… in heaven.”

As large (862 feet long displacing 72,800 tonnes at full load), powerful and armed to the teeth as the Musashi was (it had 18-inch armor plating and nine 18-inch Type 94 main guns, the largest calibre guns ever mounted on a warship), the ship saw limited engagement during the war. She had suffered significant damage after being torpedoed by the submarine USS Tunny in Palau on March 29th, 1944, but two weeks of repair work fixed the 19-foot hole and new anti-aircraft armament was added.

On October 22th, both the Musashi and the Yamato along with the main Japanese fleet were deployed to Leyte in the Philippine where American forces, including General Douglas MacArthur who famously declared “I have returned” when he came ashore, had landed on the island on October 20th, 1944. The fleet was spotted by a US aircraft at 8:10 AM on October 24th, 1944. Just over two hours later, 30 American planes were heading for it, focusing their attack on Musashi.

The Japanese fleet did not have sufficient air cover to defend against the American planes. Musashi used its anti-aircraft guns to create a canopy of flak over the fleet and shot its Type 94 guns into the water to create geysers massive enough to take down American bombers. It’s a testament to how powerful those guns were that the tactic almost worked. TBF Avenger pilot Ensign Jack Lawton described them thus: “Running into one of these geysers would be like running into a mountain. I felt the muzzle blast each time they fired. I could swear the wings were ready to fold every tie these huge shockwaves hit us.”

It wasn’t enough to counter the battering they were getting from the air, or from under the sea, for that matter. Over the course of the afternoon, the Musashi was attacked by wave after wave of bombs and torpedoes. The final attack ended at 3:30 PM. By then 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs had torn through her and she was in very bad shape. Moving north with a heavy cruiser and two destroyers escorting her, she got slower and slower, began to list to starboard and was increasingly down by bow as her hull took on more and more water. Attempts to correct the list failed.

When the list reached 12 degrees at 7:15 PM, Musashi‘s commander Vice Admiral Toshihira Inoguchi gave the standby to abandon ship order and retired to his cabin where he would go down with the Musashi. The list reached 30 degrees at 7:30 and the order to abandon ship was given. The Musashi capsized and sank at 7:36 PM. Although more than half of the crew was rescued, a staggering 1,023 people died aboard Musashi, including Inoguchi, out of a crew of 2,399.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

History Blog - Wed, 2015-03-18 06:13


A finger ring discovered in a grave in the Viking trading center of Birka on Björkö Island, Sweden, in the 19th century is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site. It was unearthed by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe during his two-decade-long (1872–1895) excavation of the Birka burial grounds in the grave of a woman dating to around 850 A.D. Although the skeleton was completely decomposed, the grave goods — two oval brooches, one with a needle case hanging in a chain, one with a pair of scissors underneath that were probably attached with a string, an equal-armed brooch, a row of glass, rock crystal and carnelian beads — and remains of clothing — a flax undergarment and a blue wool garment — identify the deceased as female.

The ring was found inside the wooden coffin where her chest would have been, next to the scissors under the right oval brooch. Either it too was connected to the brooch with a now-decayed string, or the woman’s hands may have been placed on her chest when she was placed in the coffin. It is made of silver and set with a translucent purple cabochon stone engraved with Arabic Kufic script. Rings of similar design have been found in Viking graves before, including three in graves at Birka, and in Eastern European graves of the period, but none of them have inscriptions.

The ring is part of the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm now, but it has never been scientifically analyzed. To answer some questions about its material and construction, the ring was recently subjected to non-invasive examination while a replica took its place on display. Researchers studied the ring under a standard optical stereomicroscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped for elemental analysis which would allow them to determine the metal content and identify the stone without having to take any destructive samples.

They found that the museum’s interpretation of the ring was wrong on several counts. The museum’s inventory catalogue describes its as a gilded silver signet ring set with an engraved violet amethyst. It’s not gilded silver. It is a high-grade silver alloy consisting of 94.5% silver and 5.5% copper. The stone is not an amethyst. It is not even a stone. It’s colored soda-lime glass, which isn’t to say it was cheap or a fake because glass was a prized luxury import in Viking Scandinavia. The inscription, engraved in an angular form of Arabic Kufic script that was in use from the 7th century through the 12th, reads, researchers believe, “il-la-lah”, or “For/to Allah.” Interpretation is challenging due to the stylized script, so it could be saying something else, but Allah is definitely a part of it, which means that it’s not a signet ring.

The ring shank was at some point in its history broken in three places and then glued back together. This couldn’t have been done before the burial because the glue is a polymer rather than an animal glue and the latter wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the ring together anyway. It’s more likely that it was either found broken or damaged in the excavation and then glued back together. There is no documentation of any such action being taken.

Researchers also found that the metal surface of the ring bears parallel striations that are likely file marks left by the original maker when he filed the ring to remove flash and mold lines left by the casting process. There are file marks on the prongs as well, which means the filing was done before the glass was added. These marks would normally be eroded away by usage. The fact that they’re still everywhere on the ring body indicates the ring was barely used before being buried. That suggests it didn’t gradually wend its way to Sweden trade by trade, but rather got from the maker to the deceased with no or very few other owners in between.

The glass, on the other hand, has the scratches and dents of moderate use. It may have been recycled from an older piece, or it may just be the victim of how far it juts out from the ring and of glass’ inherent softness compared to the silver of the ring body.

Nobody’s disappointed that the ring isn’t gilded and the stone isn’t a gemstone. The value of this ring is not in its materials, but in the historical significance of the inscription which connects it to the Islamic world. In fact, gilding would have obscured the file marks and those marks are key archaeological evidence of direct or at least very close interaction between Viking Scandinavia and the Caliphate. There are historical records documenting direct contact (The 13th Warrior, man! Just because it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.) and archaeological evidence of direct contact in Spain and Eastern Europe, but not in Scandinavia itself. That’s what makes this ring so important.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

“A ship of war changed into an angel of mercy”

History Blog - Tue, 2015-03-17 20:22

When the potato blight first wound its steel skeleton hands around Ireland’s throat in 1845, funds were raised for famine relief not just in the British Empire (Indian donors were particularly forthcoming) but in the United States as well. With its large Irish population, Boston was the epicenter of American efforts driven by the Catholic Church and the local branch of Daniel “The Liberator” O’Connell’s Repeal Association, a political organization dedicated to the repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 which had united the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland. They considered the famine to be a direct result of the union and thus famine relief was very much relevant to their political activism.

Nobody thought it would last, though. Ireland had had potato blights before and while they caused much suffering, they only lasted for one season. Then the blight struck again in 1846, this time hitting harder and earlier. In January of 1847, news reached the US that the blight was destroying another year’s crop and that tens of thousands were dying. Vice President of the United State George Dallas exhorted Washington, D.C. politicians — 33 senators and 11 representatives, including the one from Illinois’ 7th district, Abraham Lincoln, were at the meeting — to raise as much as money as they could in their home states for Irish famine relief.

Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy took the Vice President Dallas’ exhortation and ran with it. On February 18th, 1847, he called a meeting of 4,000 of Boston’s richest and most prominent residents. They gathered in Faneuil Hall and were regaled with testimonials on the horrors visited upon the Emerald Isle by the famine. Quincy and other speakers, most notably Harvard President and former US Ambassador to Britain Edward Everett, appealed to the assembly that they do their Christian duty to help the destitute and dying of Ireland. (The religious aspect is significant because this was a heavily Protestant crowd, unlike the first donors to the cause who were Catholic and working class.)

One of the attendants at the Faneuil Hall meeting was Robert Bennet Forbes. Born in the Jamaica Plain, now a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1804, the son of Ralph Bennet Forbes and Margaret Perkins Forbes. Both the Perkins and Forbes families were Boston Brahmin, members of the wealthy Protestant upper class of the city. They were merchants by trade and young Robert traveled with his parents from a very young age, crossing the Atlantic for the first time when he was six and experiencing a number of confiscation adventures at the hands of British interference with American ships during the War of 1812. His years of private schooling in France and at the Milton Academy outside Boston came to an end when he was 13 years old. His father’s business failures and ill health spurred the barely teenaged Robert to get a job to help support his parents and seven younger siblings. He went to sea.

His maternal uncles James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins owned a company in the Old China Trade selling ginseng, cheese, iron and furs at first before in 1815 specializing in the illegal export of Turkish opium to China. In 1817 little Robert boarded the Canton Packet as a cabin boy, the first of several voyages to Canton and back he made under the command of his uncles. He was a fine sailor and was promoted to officer (third mate) at the age of sixteen. He received his first command of a ship when he was 20 years old and sailed the vessel around the world.

By the time he was 28, Robert Bennet Forbes was rich in his own right, thanks in disturbingly large part to drug trafficking that would have such disastrous consequences for China, and settled down to run the business from Milton, Massachusetts. He became a ship designer, ultimately designing 70 ships. He was also involved in philanthropic works and charitable causes. When Mayor John Quincy appealed for aid at Faneuil Hall, Captain Robert Forbes and his brother John Murray Forbes decided to take immediate action, heading the newly founded New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland.

Two days later, the Forbes brothers had come up with a workable plan: to petition Congress to let them use the USS Jamestown, a warship moored in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard, to transport desperately needed supplies to Ireland. Forbes volunteered to command the vessel and recruit a crew of volunteers. Because he was an experienced ship’s captain, this offer held weight with his fellow Bostonians on the Committee and with Congress. Two days after that, the New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland officially petitioned Congress to grant them use of a warship to deliver relief supplies to famine-stricken Ireland.

On March 3rd, the last day of session, a joint resolution of both Houses was passed authorizing the loan of the frigate Macedonian to Captain George C. DeKay and the Sloop of War Jamestown to Captain Robert Bennet. The resolution stipulated that the President, James K. Polk, and Secretary of the Navy, John Y. Mason, would decided whether the expenses of outfitting the ships and their voyages were to be paid for by the government or by the merchants. As the United States was at war with Mexico at that time and money were tight, Mason opted for the latter, lending the ships to the Boston merchants for them to outfit at their expense.

Congress had never before permitted the use a warship by private parties and it never has since. This remains the only time it has ever happened.

Meanwhile, the Relief Committee got busy raising money and securing supplies.

Over the course of only three weeks, a relief committee chaired by Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. raised more than $150,000 from donors stretching from Arkansas to Maine. Railroads agreed to ship produce to Boston for free, wharf proprietors donated the use of their docks and newspapers at no charge ran notices from Forbes seeking volunteer crewmembers. The children of Massachusetts donated pennies, churches took up special collections and newly arrived Irish immigrants bore sacks of flour and potatoes to the docks to feed relatives back in their homeland.

The Jamestown was stripped of her armaments and on March 17th, appropriately enough, volunteers from the Laborers Aid Society of Boston began to load the cargo of more than 8,000 barrels of wheat, cornmeal and other non-perishable stores. Bad weather delayed the loading which was completed on March 27th. The next day, the Jamestown set forth for Cork, Ireland, arriving two weeks later on April 12th.

(Random coincidence: the Jamestown had begun its naval duties in 1845 off the coast of West Africa patrolling the sea to suppress the slave trade. Forbes’ uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins was a slave trader in his younger days when it was still legal. The Jamestown first arrived at the Charlestown Navy Yard in August of 1846 from her first deployment catching slave traders. She was still moored there when the news came of the blight’s persistence.)

In his report on the mission, The Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy, Captain Forbes noted that when the Jamestown dropped anchor in Cove, a welcoming committee of local citizens greeted the crew with the Cove Temperance Band on hand to play Yankee Doodle over and over. Forbes was invited to receptions and banquets thrown by the (mainly English) authorities both on land and on board the Royal Navy ships that had helped bring the Jamestown in and unload its cargo. Ladies read him poetry. Here’s an apt verse from a poem by a lady known to us today only as Emma:

The “Jamestown” now no ship of war,
Her peaceful way she wends;
A mighty conquest she’s achieved,
And hearts of oak she bends.

The supplies carried by the Jamestown were distributed to more than 150 locations in County Cork. Since heavy bureaucracy was a huge problem with relief supplies then as it is now, the efficient and wide distribution of life-saving food to the starving within 10 days of the ship’s arrival was a notable achievement.

It wasn’t all parties and poems. Here is a passage from Forbes’ report detailing the horrors he witnessed:

I went with Father Mathew, only a few steps out of one of the principal streets of Cork, into a lane; the valley of the shadow of death was it? alas, no, it was the valley of death and pestilence itself! I saw enough in five minutes, to horrify me — hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing. From this very small sample of the prevailing destitution we proceeded to a public soup kitchen, under a shed, guarded by police officers, here a large boiler containing rice, meal, &c, was at work, while hundreds of spectres stood without begging for some of this soup, which I can readily conceive would be refused by well bred pigs in this country.

I do not say this with the least disrespect to the benevolent who provide the means and who order the ingredients; the demand, for immediate relief, is so great at Cork, that if the starving can he kept alive, it is all that can be expected; the energies of the poor are so cramped and deadened by want and suffering of every type, that they care only for sustenance, and they are unable to earn it; crowds flock in, from the country to the west and south-west and south-east of Cork, the hospitals and poor houses and jails, are full to overflowing, though numbers die daily to make room for the dying; every corner of the streets is filled with pale care worn creatures, the weak leading and supporting the weaker, women assail you at every turn, with famished babes, imploring alms[.]

Forbes headed back to Boston after 10 days. The Jamestown arrived at Boston Yard on May 17th and Forbes returned it to the Navy. The other warship authorized by the joint resolution, the Macedonian, set out on its relief trip in July. More than 100 civilian relief ships also did their bit that year, bringing food and cash donations from all over the United States to Ireland. The Great Hunger spurred America’s first major disaster relief effort, and indeed the first global disaster relief effort.

While he was outfitting the ship, Forbes received a letter from his friend and Unitarian pastor Reverend R.C. Waterson pointing out that in 1676, Ireland had sent donations to help relieve the suffering of the Plymouth colonists during King Philip’s War. It doesn’t get much attention today, but King Philip’s War was an unmitigated disaster for the New England colonies leaving their population literally decimated, a dozen towns destroyed, half of all the towns attacked and their economy in tatters. (It was a disaster for the Native Americans too. The Wampanoags and Narragansetts were all but destroyed.) Forbes calculated that adjusted for inflation, the 1676 Irish donations would amount to $200,000 in his day ($1,450,000 in ours).

“It is an interesting fact, that the people of Ireland nearly two hundred years ago, thus sent relief to our ‘Pilgrim Fathers,’ in the time of their need, and that what we have been doing for that famishing country is but a return for what their fathers did for our fathers, and the whole circumstance proves a verification of the scripture, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.’

I cannot but think that this fact will be of interest in the pamphlet which you intend to publish. I consider the mission of the Jamestown as one of the grandest events in the history of our country. A ship of war changed into an angel of mercy, departing on no errand of death, but with the bread of life to an unfortunate and perishing people.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

From Ming China to Persian princess to Shah Jahan to Sotheby’s

History Blog - Mon, 2015-03-16 06:20

The Mahin Banu Grape Dish is a serving vessel 17 inches in diameter made during the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Period in around 1420, and that’s just where the story begins. Its voyage would take it to the royal courts of Persia, the palace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan during the time when he was building the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the modern era to New York where it starred in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and now to Sotheby’s where it is set to go up for auction at the Important Chinese Works of Art sale on March 17th (short video covering the dish’s design and history here).

Persian traders were key middlemen in the trade between east and west, so much so that Persian became a common tongue along the Silk Road. As early as the 13th century Chinese porcelain was imported into Iran, and by the early 14th century Chinese kilns were manufacturing porcelain specifically for export to Persia. The demand was great enough that Persian tastes influenced the production of porcelain in China, particularly after the chaos and violence of the Mongol invasions severely inhibited the local market for expensive porcelain goods. Kilns started to produce larger plates than would be used in Chinese food service and included more geometric decorative elements like those seen in Islamic art.

Chinese potters also used Persian raw materials. The cobalt blue that is now so characteristic of Ming porcelain was imported from what is today the Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. When the foreign blue underglaze first began to be used to paint the prized pure white porcelain, in fact, the Chinese elite turned their noses up at it as vulgar and barbarous. Over time they realized it was extremely kickass, and Ming blue-and-white porcelain came to be considered the sine qua non of refinement and elegance.

The dish probably made its way west to Persia under the Timurid dynasty, founded by famed Timur (aka Tamerlane) in 1370. The Timurid aristocracy loved blue and white porcelain and amassed large collections of pieces from China. The Safavid dynasty, founded in 1501 by Shah Ismail I, carried on the practice of collecting blue-and-white porcelain and it was one of Ismail’s daughters, Princess Mahin Banu Khanum, who put her stamp (figuratively and literally) on the grape dish.

Born in 1519, Mahin Banu was a highly educated, politically savvy, devout woman. She earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, architecture and religious centers. With her own money derived from her properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray and Isfahan, Mahin Banu supported holy shrines and founded charitable organizations, including one dedicated to funding dowries for orphaned girls who would otherwise have been destitute. Her father died in 1524 when she was just five years old, and her 10-year-old brother Tahmasp I came to the throne. A chaotic regency followed which Tahmasp put an end to with the execution of the regent in 1533.

Mahin Banu was Tahmasp’s youngest full sister and his favorite, so much so that she became his right hand, not just socially or in the arts or in a religious context, but politically as well. Mahin Banu was one in a line of unmarried royal Safavid women who became trusted counselors to their brothers and fathers. Without conflicting loyalties, husbands or children to deal with, they could put all of their talents to work helping their relatives. Safavid women of wealth and rank were educated as thoroughly as their brothers. They were tutored in reading, writing, fine art, calligraphy, religion and even martial arts like archery and horseback riding.

Mahin Banu accompanied her brother in the thick of the hunt and sat on horseback by his side during ceremonies when all the other royal women watched from a distance. According to chronicler Qumi’s Khulasat al-Tavarikh, Tahmasp was so dependent on his sister’s counsel that he wouldn’t make a move without seeking her approval first. She was his top advisor in all affairs of state and acted in an official capacity, engaging in diplomatic discussions with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s powerful wife, Hurrem Sultan. She became known as the “Queen of the Age, the Mistress of the time.”

That unmarried status was not happenstance. Tahmasp jealously guarded his sister’s celibacy, chasing off all suitors until he found a permanent solution: a ritual betrothal to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Twelve Imams revered in Shi’a Islam who had died 600 years earlier in the 10th century. Tradition had it that the Mahdi would return again any day — a saddled white horse was left at the palace gate every night just in case — but this engagement wasn’t based on the premise that he’d actually come back and marry the princess. It was a device to prevent her from marrying anyone else and leaving her brother’s side for her husband’s.

Tahmasp shared his sister’s love of art (initially; towards the end of his reign he lost interest). His court created one of the most lavishly illuminated and calligraphied copies of the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, an epic poem recounting the mythical history of the Persian empire written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, on which the top artists worked for two decades. After the masterpiece was complete, Tahmasp gave it to the Ottoman sultan Selim II as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Contemporary sources record it was part of a train of 34 camels laden with luxurious presents including brocades and other textiles, silk carpets, books and prized porcelain from the far east.

One of the artists who contributed to Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was painter, master calligrapher and head of the royal library Dust Muhammad who also taught the young Mahin Banu calligraphy, some samples of which have survived and are now in the fabulous wonderland known as the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He left the Safavid court in the late 1530s, traveling to Kabul which was ruled by Kamran Mirza, brother of the embattled Mughal emperor Humayun, and then in 1555 went to India by invitation of Humayun himself.

Humayun had had a tough go of it, empire-wise. He became emperor after his father’s death in 1530, but there were disgruntled parties who sought to place his uncle on the throne. He had the armies of two kings looking to reclaim the territory his father had conquered. His brothers, including Kamran Mirza, betrayed him and fought against him repeatedly. He lost much of his Hindustan territory to the forces of Sher Shah Suri and in 1543 retreated to his brother’s lands in what is today Afghanistan. Again his brother was less than supportive, leaving Humayun to seek refuge in Persia where Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms and gave him the royal treatment.

When in 1545 Kamran offered to give Shah Tahmasp Kandahar in exchange for his brother’s body, dead or alive, Tahmasp refused and instead gave Humayun military support against his traitorous older brother. Mahin Banu played a major role in establishing this alliance. Tahmasp had threatened to kill Humayun at one point if he didn’t convert from Sunni to Shi’a Islam, but Mahin Banu convinced her brother to support the Mughal emperor in his attempts to reclaim his territories.

Humayun took Kandahar and Kabul, lost them (he was an awful battlefield general), took them again, and ultimately in 1555 reclaimed Hindustan in large part thanks to the thousands of Persian troops Tahmasp had loaned him. Finally returned to the Mughal throne in Delhi, Humayun invited the Persian artists and craftsmen to do for his empire what he had seen them do during the months he spent traveling in Persia and becoming enamoured with its art and architecture. The Persian influence on Mughal art would long outlast his reign.

We know that Mahin Banu still owned the grape dish when she died in 1562 because there’s a circular cartouche (vaqf) on the base of the plate that identifies it as having been donated to the Shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the Twelve Imams, in Mashhad, as a pious gift. It reads: “Endowed to the Razavid Shrine, By Mahin Banu, the Safavid (princess).” According to 16-17th century chronicler Qazi Ahmad-e Qomi, all of her jewels and her porcelain collection were endowed to the shrine which she had been a dedicated patron of in life.

The next time the Mahin Banu Grape Dish appears on the historical record is at the Mughal court of Shah Jahan in 1643. Even though Mughal history intersected with Safavid Persia during the period of Mahin Banu’s ownership of the dish and even though she was so closely involved in her brother’s dealings with Humayun, the Ming vessel did not make its way to Agra through the kind of diplomatic channels that had directed 34 camels’-worth of precious objects to Selim II.

So how did the grape dish make its way from a holy shrine to Shah Jahan 80 years later? Probably as war booty that was then traded. The Shrine of Imam Reza was sacked by the Uzbek troops of Abdolmomen Khan in 1590. They picked it clean of all its many treasures, and 17th century Safavid court historian Eskandar Beyg specifically mentions “Chinese vessels” being among the precious objects stolen by the Uzbek soldiers who traded them amongst themselves “for the price of cheap ceramic shards.” Mashhad was reconquered by Shah Abbas I, grandson of Shah Tahmasp, in 1598. (Related factoid: there is only one collection of blue-and-white Ming porcelain from the Safavid dynasty still in Iran today, and it’s that of Shah Abbas I, on display in the National Museum in Tehran.)

It was probably during this period before Jahan acquired the piece that someone tried to erase the vaqf from the bottom of the dish. The inscription marked the vessel as having been endowed to the shrine. Owning it was a violation of Islamic law. Knowing that religiously observant buyers would not purchase the piece because of that, whoever was trying to unload it tried to scratch off the vaqf. Abrasion marks marred the surface, but the inscription was too deep to destroy it completely.

Instead it seems they came up with another cunning plan: cover it up. There are mysterious drill marks on the bottom of the plate that could have been used to add a mount that obscured the incriminating markings. Also, Shah Jahan inscribed his name and the year the dish was acquired on the outer edge of the foot ring. Other Shah Jahan plates have his inscription on the base, which strongly suggests there was something attached down there that made it necessary to move the standard position.

After that, there are no more handy inscriptions on the dish that might illuminate its travels back west. Sotheby’s has a lovely map tracking its known movements like unto Indiana Jones in Raiders which indicates it stopped in Quebec in the late 19th century, but this stop is not referenced in the provenance information. It goes from Shah Jahan to an art dealer in New York and thence into the hands of Alastair Bradley Martin’s and his wife Edith Park Martin’s Guennol Collection in 1967. They loaned it to museums for many years and are now selling it. The pre-sale estimate is $2.5 – 3.5 million. Considering the unbelievably rich history of the piece, its unique version of the grape pattern, its beautiful condition and the sheer madness of the Chinese antiquities market right now courtesy of lots of newly minted Chinese billionaires keen to reclaim cultural heritage scattered by war, trade, looters and time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that estimate was left in the dust.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ice divers to return to Erebus in April

History Blog - Sun, 2015-03-15 05:39

April in the High Arctic does not involve showers bringing flowers. It still the dead of winter up there, the water frozen over with ice more than six feet thick. When the Parks Canada-led underwater exploration of the Victoria Strait in search of the two ships from Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 voyage to find the fabled northwest passage discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus last year, it was the first week in September. The 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition began in mid-August. They found the wreck three weeks later using side-scan sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle. After that they only had two days to dive to the wreck before storms came in, the temperatures dropped below freezing and the summer diving season came to an abrupt end.

Now that the Erebus has been found, this year’s expedition will be able to focus on diving the wreck site, but that tiny window of less than a month of above-freezing temperatures can’t quench the Canadian government’s thirst to explore the shipwreck. Researchers want to get back to the Erebus as soon as possible to explore it more thoroughly before artifacts are damaged by the elements or any putative looters with Bond-villain levels of equipage. Canada’s government and military want to get the show on the road “to assert Canada’s sovereignty over its northernmost regions, demonstrate the ability to operate in the harsh environment in remote areas of the High Arctic, and enhance its capability to respond to any situation in Canada’s North.” That’s a quote from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s press release announcing that this year the diving will begin in April.

Winter dives are, it goes without saying, hugely dangerous. They require heavy equipment to cut through the ice sheet, specialized diving gear including an umbilical to provide air and communication lines, extensive supplies, emergency medical services and lots and lots of training. It’s not something Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists can handle on their own, so for nine weeks they’ve been working with expert ice divers from the Royal Canadian Navy’s Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic. Parks Canada divers and the Navy divers have been training together so that the former can learn how to dive safely in below-freezing water under a sheet of ice that’s at least six feet thick (a terrifying practice known as confined space diving) and the latter can learn how to properly handle an underwater archaeological site and its artifacts.

The logistics are daunting, to say the least. The Navy will establish a divers’ camp on the sea ice in eastern Queen Maud Gulf where more than 50 people will live for the 11 days of the expedition. Those people all have to be fed, housed, fueled and heated. Inuit Rangers will be on the team to handle wayward polar bears and help the camp survive any frigid gales from the North Pole that might assault it. Once the divers’ ice camp is set up, three triangular dive holes with sides two meters (6’7″) long will be made in the ice sheet with a gas-fired hot water drill. Each hole is expected to take five hours to cut and the blocks of ice they cut out will weigh something in the neighborhood of four tons. Heavy equipment will be needed to haul the ice chunks out of the water.

About two dozen team members will be divers who will go down the hole to explore the wreck site in pairs — one underwater archaeologist, one Navy diver — in shifts over a 12-hour workday. The tasks they will perform include trimming the kelp bed that is obscuring the view of the ship, testing a new laser device that makes 3D scans of the interior of the hull and film/photograph inside the hull with cameras affixed to a pole. Mapping and documenting the wreck is the primary focus, but the team will also come prepared to recover any artifacts they think should be recovered. They won’t be wearing specialized hot water-warmed suits; they’ll be protected from frozen death by thermal underwear, cotton gloves and triple-layered dry suits. In those kinds of temperatures the fingers get creaky very quickly, but if you pile on the layers you can’t use your hands. The solution is short shifts just 50 minutes long. That’s why there are so many divers on the team, to man 12 or so dives a day.

All of this is conditions permitting, of course. Storms over the ice sheet can be brutal and could grind operations to a halt. The thick ice actually seals the sea underneath it keeping it relatively calm in a storm, so divers would actually find good conditions and visibility even in violently unpleasant surface conditions, but obviously their lives are dependent on base operations being uninterrupted so if the weather gets too severe the dives will have to stop.

To learn more about the team members, their training and to follow their adventures on the 2015 Franklin Expedition, check out this Parks Canada site. The Dive Diary is particularly bookmarkworthy.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

St. Patrick’s Cathedral gates in salvage sale

History Blog - Sat, 2015-03-14 04:45

Before Urban Archaeology (UA) became a manufacturer of tiles, lighting, furnishings, bathroom fixtures, etc. based on period designs it was in the business of salvaging the originals. Even though it’s been decades since the primary focus of the company changed, Urban Archaeology still has thousands of architectural features of illustrious heritage salvaged from historic buildings like the St. Regis Hotel, the Paris department store Bon Marche, the Yale University Library, Place de la Concorde, the Chrysler Building and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At the end of the month, Guernsey’s auctioneers will be selling 6,000 of these salvage treasures at UA’s Franklin Street office. The auction will be held in two parts, part one on March 27th (catalogue here) and part two the next day (catalogue here). Follow the links to the catalogue entries to bid online.

Although the day one catalogue starts a little dry with pages of duplicate light fixtures, once you get past that hump it’s a wonderland for anyone who enjoys fantasizing about Frankensteining themselves up a house full of vintage features. Look at this enamel cast iron stove made by the Glenwood Stove Company around 1920. It runs on both gas and wood, with four gas burners, two wood burners, one gas oven and one wood-burning oven. Look at the white enamel handles to control the burners. Gorgeous and still in working order. Very useful for zombie apocalypse preparedness. The starting bid is $1,500 and the top estimated sale price is $4,000.

In the more affordable range, how about a 1940s bobsled? It’s handmade, hence the car steering wheel, but by someone who knew what they were doing because that is some quality bobsled construction. It seats four, too, so instant winter party. The high estimate is $500.

If it’s an actual piece of architectural history you’d like, look no further than this Art Deco pendant light from Chrysler Building, icon of Art Deco and of New York City since it was built in 1930. The Chrysler Building’s design is still inspiring artists and architects today. The brass and clouded glass pendant light used to hang over the building’s staircase. The opening bid if $4,000 with a top estimate of $12,000.

You could make practically build yourself a whole Grand Central Station with the spate of architectural features salvaged from iconic Paris department store Bon Marche, including iron balcony railings and curved glass ceiling panels by French Art Deco blacksmith Edgar Brandt. Then you can mix it up by adding two cast iron mermen and one cast iron mermaid made by sculptor Jacques Hittorff in the 1830s for the fountain in the Place de la Concorde. The fountain is still in place in Paris but the sculptures there are replicas. The originals can be yours for just an estimated $150,000 each.

How about a public clock or two to decorate your new gigantor Frankenpalace? I’m partial to this Reed & Stern train clock from Union Station, Troy, NY, made in the early 1900s. It’s made of white terra cotta and glazed in a handsome malachite green. I am completely in love with the locomotive charging out of a tunnel through its own steam cloud above the clockface. I also heart the Karl Flugel iron tower clock from 1878. It used to keep time in a German tower but now stands a new iron base with the mechanical version of its swimsuit area exposed to our fixed stares.

Another architectural gem of illustrious pedigree is these St. Patrick’s Cathedral wrought iron gates made around 1880, possibly by Arts and Crafts decorative ironwork master Samuel Yellin. They were installed at the cathedral’s 51st Street and Madison Avenue corner at the entrance of the baptistery. In the 1980s the baptistery was moved and the gates found a new home at Connecticut museum of master metalsmith Kenneth Lynch. Lynch has decided to donate his museum collection to Xavier High School and is putting the gates up for sale with the proceeds benefitting St. Patrick’s.

If you prefer your entrance areas to have fewer holes in them, consider these gorgeous Art Deco nightclub doors from around 1940. They’re wood painted in a metallic silver and the circular pattern is mesmerizing.

But they’re flimsy little sticks compared to these 1910 brass pocket doors salvaged from the United States Assay Office in lower Manhattan. Not only do they look badass, but they have the badass history to support the look. The doors weigh 1500 pounds each and were used to secure precious metals in the last public gold refinery in the country (it was shut down in 1982, its gold refining duties contracted out to private concerns, the building and its fixtures sold at auction in 1983). Until the day it was shut down, the Assay Office and its sturdy doors protected 4,140 bags of gold coins confiscated from the Nazis in World War II and more than 100,000 28-pound gold bars. Even the horse-drawn cart bomb that exploded in the Financial District on September 16, 1920, killing 38 people, injuring hundreds and taking large chunks that are still visible on some of the building facades couldn’t scratch these doors.

Seeing catalogues like this ignites the secret hoarder within me. No I cannot have enough cast iron planters, large Art Deco skylight ceiling panels and train station clocks, thank you very much. I DON’T CARE IF WE HAVE NO PLACE TO PUT THEM.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

250-year-old pretzels found in Bavaria

History Blog - Fri, 2015-03-13 02:52

Archaeologists excavating the Danube Market location of Regensburg, Bavaria, have discovered the charred remains of two pretzels, three bread rolls and a croissant that date to the 18th century. Radiocarbon dating placed the baked goods to between 1700 and 1800, but historical research suggests they were made in the second half of the century. While very ancient bread products have survived thanks to charring — Herculaneum leaps to mind — these are the oldest pretzels ever found.

The Danube Market site has been a rich source of archaeological finds. The waterlogged soil next to the river has preserved a swath of history that would otherwise have decayed, like the remains of wooden house that is 1,200 years old (the only Carolingian home ever found in Bavaria), a medieval place of execution and a wooden jetty that is at least 1,100 years old.

The site was excavated between 2012 and 2014 to thoroughly explore its archaeological layers before construction of the Museum of the Bavarian History to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Free State of Bavaria in 2018. Archaeologists found the bakery goodies in the remains of a house that once stood at number 3 Hunnenplatz which was demolished in 1964 along with much of the neighborhood. City archives indicate that the house at 3 Hunnenplatz was bought by one Johann Georg Held, a master baker, in 1753. He used it as his shop for years. The house remained a bakery for more than a century even as it passed through different hands. The last known baker to reside there was Karl Schätz in 1881.

Archaeologists believe the pretzels, rolls and croissant were burnt to a crisp under Held’s tenure, probably part of a tray of failed baked goods that were thrown away. They were found in a waste pit dug into the soil in the corner of the house. Once dumped into the pit, the charred breads were covered with soil. With the moisture firmly burned out of them and the soil they were buried in low in oxygen, the discarded pretzels and friends survived intact for 250 years and now Mr. Held’s trash is our treasure.

There are many origin stories for the pretzel with Italy and France in the running as the starting point as well as Germany. Whichever country it was in, it was likely a monastery kitchen that baked the first pretzels in the early Middle Ages. The looped form of the pretzel was said to be inspired by the crossed arms of monks, and a simple flour and water pretzel became a traditional Lent food since Catholics were forbidden from eating eggs and dairy. By the 12th century pretzels were firmly ensconced in the secular culture of southern Germany where the pretzel was the symbol of bakers and bakery guilds. Pretzels were a special issue in the beginning, baked and sold on Saturdays only. In 1532 that changed when the Duke of Bavaria ordered all bakers to make and sell pretzels daily.

The baked goods are now on display at the Historical Museum of Regensburg.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bedlam burial ground dig to unearth 3,000 bodies

History Blog - Wed, 2015-03-11 04:42

The construction of the high-speed Crossrail train line in London has generated the UK’s largest archaeological project. So far more than 10,000 artifacts spanning 55 million years of history have been unearthed at more than 40 worksites over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the city. This week, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) began to excavate the burial ground of Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, next to the Liverpool Street railway station. While the hospital building began life as a priory in 1247, it was seized by the crown in the 1370s and by the early 1400s was detached from its religious roots and administered by the City of London as a hospital for the mentally ill.

This burial ground, known as the New Churchyard, was built in 1569 and was in use until at least 1738, spanning some prime years for death in London: the English Civil War, the Great Plague of 1665 (and three other major outbreaks of Bubonic plague) and the Great Fire of 1666. Unaffiliated with any parish church, it was London’s first municipal burial ground. When the hospital itself moved to a new facility in Moorfields in 1676, the New Churchyard continued to be used as an overflow cemetery during mass death events, by people who could not afford or did not want (for religious or political reasons) a church burial.

A single trial pit dug in 2011 found more than 100 skeletons, and preliminary surveys in 2013 and 2014 found more than 400. Archaeologists predict there are at least 3,000 individuals buried on this site and they plan to unearth them all over the next few weeks. The excavation is going on while the eastern entrance of the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station is being built, so surrounded with the noise and vibration of heavy construction, the MOLA team of 60 archaeologists will work in two shifts six days a week to dig through layer upon layer of skeletal remains. Right now they’ve dug down about a meter into the topmost layer and they’re finding individual burials were stacked on top of previous ones. When the wooden coffins decayed, the human remains pancaked downwards. Separating these bones pressed into each other over centuries is an arduous task, and they haven’t even gotten to the plague pits and mass graves in the lower layers.

The skeletons will be excavated over the next four weeks. The remains will be moved the MOLA laboratory for osteological examination and tests that will hopefully determine diet, work, demographics, geographic origin, sex, medical history and more of the thousands of people interred at Bedlam. Archaeologists hope that tests on plague victims will provide a new understanding of how the plague pathogen moved through the early modern population.

Jay Carver, Crossrail Lead Archaeologist said: “This excavation presents a unique opportunity to understand the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th century Londoners. The Bedlam burial ground spans a fascinating phase of London’s history, including the transition from the Tudor-period City into cosmopolitan early-modern London. This is probably the first time a sample of this size from this time period has been available for archaeologists to study in London. The Bedlam burial ground was used by a hugely diverse population from right across the social spectrum and from different areas of the City.”

Identification of any of the remains is unlikely, to dramatically understate the case. Since the Bedlam burial ground didn’t keep its own records of who was buried there, 16 volunteers enlisted to scour the records of parish churches who made a note when parishioners were buried at “Bedlam” or “New Churchyard.” Archaeologists also appealed to the public for any family records, lore or anecdotes that might illuminate the history of the cemetery.

Here’s a video of researchers digging through the church registers at the London Metropolitan Archives. Keep your eye open for the “New Churchyard” annotations on the records.

When that video was shot, Jay Carver said they expected to find about 1,000 relevant burial records which would be used to help interpret the archaeological data from the dig and be compiled in a single database and made available to the public for genealogical or other research. Well, they left that already lofty goal in the dust. The final tally of names and histories of individuals buried at Bedlam cemetery was more than 5,000, an incredible accomplishment that testifies loudly to the dedication of the volunteers and the phenomenal record-keeping of 16th and 17th century churches and the London Metropolitan Archives.

According to the research Dr John Lamb (also known as Lam or Lambe), an astrologer and advisor to the First Duke of Buckingham, is among those buried at the site. Lamb was said to have been stoned to death by an angry mob outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Others identified in the research include victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques,’ noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January 1661.

Plague was the most common listed form of death, followed by infant mortality and consumption. The burial ground was established in 1569 to help parishes cope with overcrowding during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. Crossrail workers recently discovered the gravestone of Mary Godfree who died in September 1665, as a result of the ‘Great Plague’ which peaked that year.

The Bedlam Burial Ground Register can be searched on the Crossrail website.

Once the skeletons are fully excavated, the MOLA team will continue to dig down through the medieval marsh and lost Walbrook River to the Roman layer. Tunnelers installing utility cables 20 feet below the surface in 2013 encountered Roman artifacts and human remains. The Liverpool Street excavation is scheduled to finish in September after which construction on the station will begin on the site. The human remains will be reburied after they are studied.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Unique Olmec jadeite corncob found in Mexico

History Blog - Tue, 2015-03-10 08:50

Underwater archaeologists exploring a stream in the Arroyo Pesquero site in southern Veracruz, Mexico, have discovered a unique Olmec artifact carved out of jadeite that appears to be a stylized corncob. The small object is 8.7 centimeters high by 2.5 centimeters wide (3.4 inches by 1 inch) and is made of mottled orangey brown and white jadeite. It is highly polished and is carved in smooth relief with some scratched incised lines. At the base is tapering cylinder that was broken at some point and was smoothed afterwards. Above the base the object has three sides divided by grooves, each side carved with two rectangular stacked shapes that have v-shaped clefts in the center top. At the bottom of each rectangle is a scratched incision in a scalloped shape. At the top of the object is a tapered cone emerging from the top row of clefts.

Cleft rectangles with cones emerging from them are relatively common in Middle Formatic Olmec iconography, but this piece is unique because the cleft rectangles are stacked instead of being a single individual and because they are carved in three dimensions in the round. Many Olmec scholars contend that cleft rectangles represent an ear of corn, but if that is accurate in this case, the artifact depicts six stacked ears of corn with an ear of an entirely different shape rising from the top of the stack. The archaeologists who found and published the artifact in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica believe that the cleft rectangles represent corn kernels, perhaps of seed corn, which would make the conical element on top a representation of the corn plant as it grows from seed. It could also be a husked corn cob. If their reading is correct, the standard interpretation of corn elements in Olmec iconography will have to be revised.

Archaeologists date it to the Olmec Middle Formative period (900–400 B.C.). No Olmec buildings from that period have been discovered at Arroyo Pesquero above or below ground, but just 10 miles northeast lies the Olmec center of La Venta which at its peak during the Middle Formative had a population of 10,000 and is renown for its 112-foot-high Great Pyramid, mosaic pavements and monumental sculptures including four of the colossal heads most associated with Olmec culture.

In addition to its one-of-a-kind iconographic approach and three-dimensional form, this artifact is unique for having been the first found at Arroyo Pesquero as part of a systematic archaeological investigation. The underwater archaeological site of Arroyo Pesquero was discovered by a local fisherman in 1969 who was searching in a deep stream for a metal basin that had been dropped by the son of a friend when he was at stream collecting fresh water for the family’s use. In the course of looking for the basin, he found stone masks, anthropomorphic figurines, celts (smooth axes). Archaeologist Manuel Torres Guzman heard about it and visited the site in 1970, hiring divers to retrieve thousands more stone artifacts and pyrite mirrors from the streambed.

Since then, the site has been a magnet for local and foreign artifact looters. There was only one other official archaeological exploration of the Arroyo Pesquero site: a week-long expedition in 1986 that aimed to recover objects for the new Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa. They found some pottery sherds downstream of where the masks were found in ’69 and that’s it. Artifacts discovered at Arroyo Pesquero are now in the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, the Museum de la Universidad de Veracruz and in major museums and private collections all over Mexico, the United States and Europe.

In 2005, archaeologists Carl Wendt and Roberto Lunagómez initiated the Proyecto Arqueológico Arroyo Pesquero (PAAP), a research program to collect survey data and excavate a number of Olmec sites in the Arroyo Pesquero area. It was the first underwater archaeology work done in Veracruz. Since then PAAP has completed a regional reconnaissance survey and seven years of fieldwork. The 2012 season focused on the Arroyo Pesquero streambed where the Olmec artifacts were discovered in 1969. The goal was to map the topography of the underwater surface and to record the presence and distribution of artifacts.

Between April and May of 2012, PAAP divers braved atrocious underwater conditions — zero visibility and obstructions including large logs, debris, decomposing leaves and assorted other vegetation — to measure the streambed features, precisely note artifact positions using sub-meter GPS and recover a few them. The corncob was the most significant of the finds. It was recovered from a shallow depression on the bed between two and three meters under the water’s surface.

Given the great numbers of artifacts found at the bottom of the freshwater stream, archaeologists believe the site held religious significance to the Olmecs. The cache spot is in a point of the stream where fresh and brackish water meet. If this confluence of fresh water necessary to sustain human life and salt water necessary to sustain the life that helps sustains human life was in the same location 2,500 or so years ago, that would make it an ideal place for votive offerings. In many Mesoamerican cultures, springs, cenotes, watery caves were held as sacred, entrance points between the underworld and our living earth. People would leave offerings and make sacrifices to the gods in these hallowed places.

The corncob, symbol of abundance, life, power and authority, would make for a powerful offering. Archaeologists aren’t certain how it was originally used. The bottom is truncated and was smoothed over after the breakage. It could have been a finial topping a scepter or staff carried, as one sees often in Olmec art, in one hand by individuals presented as lords or rulers. It could also hae been the handle of a perforator (aka a blood-letter) which was deliberately broken and then refinished at the break point. Or it could just be a portable figurine representing corn.

Whatever its use, its symbolism was powerful. Depositing such a representation of abundance and strength at the spot where salt and fresh water meet would have been a highly meaningful offering, all the more so because the coastal region is replete with salt water while freshwater sources are rare.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dürer’s Arch of Maximilian I restored, on display

History Blog - Mon, 2015-03-09 08:49

The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I was created in 1515 by master printmaker Albrecht Dürer. It was one of three monumental works inspired by Roman imperial triumphs commissioned by the emperor to emphasize his family’s illustrious lineage, his political and military victories, his piety, strength and overall greatness. Two of them, the Arch and the Great Triumphal Chariot were designed by Dürer. For the Arch of Honour of Maximilian I alone, his workshop carved a total of 195 wood blocks, 171 of which survive at the Albertina in Vienna, which were printed on 36 large sheets of paper. (Dürer didn’t do any of the carving or printing himself. He did the drawing; Hieronymus Andreae of Nuremberg was Dürer’s blockcutter.) When placed together as a single artwork, the Arch is a massive 9′ 10″ by 11′ 6″. It’s the largest woodcut created in the Renaissance and one of the largest in the world.

Denmark’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art has two complete sets of the Arch of Honour of Maximilian I prints. They were both stored in loose leaf form initially, until the 1860s when folklorist and art historian Just Matthias Thiele, director of the Royal Collection, had one of the two glued onto canvas so the masterpiece could be display in one huge billboard-sized artwork the way Dürer and the emperor had intended for it to be seen as part of what art historian Hyatt Mayor has called “Maximilian’s program of paper grandeur.” The canvas version was on display in the Prinsens Palæ (the Prince’s Mansion) in Copenhagen, then home to the Royal Collection of Graphic Art, and remained on display there when the Prinsens Palæ became the official home of the National Museum of Denmark in 1892.

After decades exposed to direct sunlight and unstable climactic conditions, the paper had discolored, darkened and deteriorated to the point where curators decided it was no longer fit for public display. It was taken down and placed in storage. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, now a department of the National Gallery of Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), last year set SMK conservators to the arduous task of restoring the Arch in time for a major exhibition this spring.

Conservators analyzed the paper (flax and hemp fibers which means it was made of pulped clothes) and adhesives (boiled wheat paste, likely used in the mounting of the paper on the canvas, and animal skin glue likely used in the 16th century during the paper production process), examined the surface using raking light photography to reveal extensive damage to the paper (they found folds, tears, bulges, cracks) and ink. Transmitted-light photography found a watermark on the paper: a dual-headed eagle wearing the imperial crown, the Holy Roman Emperor’s coat of arms, which underscores how personally connected Maximilian I was to the project.

Once the analysis and documentation were done, the SMK conservators worked assiduously to clean the yellowed surface and stabilize the leaves. They used enzymes specifically targeted to break down the wheat paste adhesive without harming the original paper glue. Once the pages were removed from the canvas backing, conservators mended the myriad tears and folds that had developed over the centuries. They did this in public in an exhibition called Dürer under the Knife! which ran from September to December 2014 so visitors to the SMK could observe the marvels of conservation science in action on a massive piece of equally massive artistic and historical significance.

The restored Arch of Honour of Maximilian I is now on display at the Might and Glory: Dürer in the Emperor’s Service exhibition which runs from March 5th through June 21st of this year. If you can’t make it to Copenhagen by then, you can explore the cleaned and restored Arch in this huge zoomable image on the SMK website. There are a few annotations explaining the complex imagery, enough to make you wish there were about a thousand more of them. Also, it’s not as large or as sharp as the new one, but in case you, like me, can never get enough before-and-after pictures, here’s a zoomable image of the print before it was cleaned. It looks like it was soaked in black tea compared to the clean version.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

25th anniversary Gardner Museum theft virtual tour

History Blog - Sun, 2015-03-08 05:22

March 18th marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the museum on the pretext that they were responding to a call. It was against protocol for the museum’s guard to let anyone past the security doors, but they talked their way in. They then proceeded to bamboozle the security guard so thoroughly that he all but tied himself up and gave them their pick of the priceless artworks on the walls.

Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.

The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.

The robbery took 81 minutes total. In the end, the thieves made away with:

  1. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt’s only seascape
  2. A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt
  3. Self-Portrait (ca. 1634) etching by Rembrandt
  4. The Concert (1658–1660) by Vermeer
  5. Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) by Manet
  6. Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) by Govaert Flinck
  7. La Sortie de Pesage, pencil and watercolor by Degas
  8. Program for an Artistic Soirée (1884), charcoal by Degas
  9. Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2 (1884), charcoal by Degas
  10. Cortège aux Environs de Florence, pencil and wash by Degas
  11. Three Mounted Jockeys, ink and wash by Degas
  12. Bronze finial in the form of an eagle, French, 1813–1814
  13. Chinese Bronze Beaker or Ku, 1200–1100 B.C.

The total estimated value of the haul is $500 million. The FBI is still on the case. As recently as two years ago they announced they’d narrowed down the suspect list to members of a New England or Mid-Atlantic organized crime family. The also found the thieves had made an attempt to sell some of the artworks in Philadelphia 12 years ago. That’s the last time they appear on the record.

The Gardner’s offer of a $5 million reward for the return of the 13 purloined pieces remains open, and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the theft, the museum has created a virtual tour in collaboration with Google Art Project. It takes you on a walk through the museum using Google Street View technology and stops at every blank space where the stolen pieces used to be displayed. High resolution images of the artworks and historical photographs of the museum before the theft flesh out the story of the artworks and their loss. It’s a wistfully lovely look at one of the most charming, idiosyncratic and beautiful museums in the world.

Follow the Gardner’s Instagram account for individual images and stories about the stolen works from now until the anniversary.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Agate tool found under ash layer 15,800 years old in Oregon

History Blog - Sat, 2015-03-07 05:25

Archaeologists excavating the pre-historic Rimrock Draw Rockshelter outside Riley, eastern Oregon, have discovered a stone scraper underneath a 15,800-year-old layer of ash from an eruption of Mount St. Helens. If the layer can be shown to have been unbroken and that the tool didn’t work its way down through a natural process, the scraper would predate the earliest known sites of human occupation west of the Rockies.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers the land where the rockshelter is found, and the University of Oregon
Archaeological Field School have been excavating the site since 2011. In 2012, they unearthed a small translucent orange chalcedony tool. It’s a thick cortex flake, a stone chipped off a larger piece that has then been further flaked to make a usable tool. This one is had a single edge that was flaked to create a serrated cutting surface. The serrations are smooth and of uniform height, an indication of wear caused by usage. Archaeologists believe it was used for butchering animals, scraping their hides or for carving wood. Blood residue analysis found animal proteins on the scraper consistent with bison, possibly Bison antiquus.

The scraper was found nine feet into a layer of sand and clay that goes 12 feet down from ground level before terminating in a bedrock layer. Near the bottom of the layer above the scraper, archaeologists found a layer of volcanic ash from the ancient eruption. Other objects found in the sand and clay layer above the agate tool include obsidian projectile points and large fragments of tooth enamel that comparisons with specimens in the paleontological collection of the University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History indicate came from a Pleistocene camel, a species that went extinct about 13,000 years ago.

Dr. Patrick O’Grady, with the University of Oregon Archaeological Field School, has been directing the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter excavations since they began.

“When we had the volcanic ash identified, we were stunned because that would make this stone tool one of the oldest artifacts in North America. Given those circumstances and the laws of stratigraphy, this object should be older than the ash,” said O’Grady. “While we need more
evidence before we can make an irrefutable claim, we plan to expand our excavation this summer and hopefully provide further evidence of artifacts found consistently underneath that layer of volcanic ash. That’s the next step.”

For many years archaeologists believed that the first people to inhabit the Americas were the Clovis people who crossed the land bridge from Siberia around 13,000 years ago when a warm period made some transit space through the previously unsurpassable glaciers covering all of what is today Canada and the northern United States. Recent discoveries, like the 14,300-year-old fossilized feces found in Oregon’s Paisley Caves in 2008, suggest humans may have come over earlier than that, perhaps following a coastal route down the Pacific Northwest that was less ice-choked.

The team will continue the excavation this summer and hope to discover if the ash layer covers the whole area without any breaks. If they can prove that the layer is undisturbed, that will confirm that there were people making tools and eating Pleistocene fauna at the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter 1,500 years before the earliest pre-Clovis site known.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Princely tomb from 5th c. B.C. found in France

History Blog - Fri, 2015-03-06 09:52

Not content with digging up mass graves under Paris supermarkets, France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) announced Wednesday that archaeologists have unearthed a large princely tomb from the early 5th century B.C. in the Champagne region town of Lavau. Excavations on the site began in October 2014 in advance of construction of a new commercial center. The team found a tumulus 40 meters (130 feet) in diameter that had been used as a funerary complex for more than a thousand years. The earliest tombs are cremation burials and small mounds encircled by moats that date to the end of the Bronze Age (1,300-800 B.C.). Next are early Iron Age inhumations of an adult male warrior buried with an iron sword and an adult woman buried with solid bronze bracelets.

At the center of the tumulus archaeologists found a burial chamber 14 square meters in area containing adult human remains, a chariot and extremely wealthy grave goods. At an angle from the skeletal remains are a group of vessels, a bronze bucket, fine ceramic decorated with a fluted pattern and a knife still in its sheath. At the bottom of the chamber is a bronze cauldron one meter (three feet) in diameter. This is a metallurgic and artistic masterpiece, each of four circular door knocker-like handles decorated with the bearded, behorned, bull-eared and moustachioed visage of the Greek river-god Achelous. Eight lion heads adorn the rim of the cauldron.

Inside the cauldron are more treasures: a perforated silver spoon, likely used to strain wine into drinking cups, smaller bronze vessels, and most signficantly, an Attic black-figure oinochoe (wine jug) depicting the wine god Dionysus sitting beneath a vine across from a comely lass. It would be precious just as the rare Greek vase it is, but someone went above and beyond with this example, gilding the lip and foot of the jug and adding a gold filigree border in a kind of squiggle Meander design. The vase is of either Greek or Etruscan manufacture and its the northernmost discovered to date.

The Champagne-Ardenne region in northeastern France on the border with Belgium marked the westernmost reach of the Hallstatt culture, the Late Bronze Age, Early Iron Age predecessor of the La Tène culture. The presence of Greek artifacts in the wealthiest burials in Hallstat-period Gaul are evidence of a vigorous trade in luxury goods between Greece and its colonies and pre-Roman France. The end of the 6th century and beginning of the 5th saw the city-states of Attic Greece, Etruria and the Greek colonies develop new economic ties to western Europe. Greek traders sought slaves, metals, gemstones, amber and other valuables from the Celts whose elites then acquired artifacts of exceptional quality from Greece.

The city of Massalia, today’s Marseille, was founded as a Greek colony in 600 B.C. and became an important center for luxury imports from Greece like Attic black-figure pottery and massive bronze cauldrons. So valued were these objects that they were buried in monumental tumuli with their owners. The Vix krater is probably the most prominent Greek bronze object found in a Celtic grave from the late Hallstatt, early La Tène period. This massive volute krater is 5’4″ tall and weighs 450 pounds (see the picture to get a sense of its immense scale). It is the largest metal vessel known to survive from antiquity. The krater was discovered in the grave of a woman in Vix, northern Burgundy, about 40 miles south of Lavau, who was buried around 500 B.C.

Just like we have no idea who the Lady of Vix was, we are unlikely to ever put a name to the resident of the princely tumulus. He was a person of august rank and great fortune, that much is made undeniable by the rich contents of his grave and the fact that he was buried in the center of an already sacred funerary complex. His burial and the ones that predate him were only united into one monument in around 500 B.C. when ditches were dug deep around the perimeter to create a single large enclosure. The complex was still in use during the Gallo-Roman era when people were buried in the tumulus’ moat.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of 14th c. tower

History Blog - Thu, 2015-03-05 02:31

In the Middle Ages, Rye was one of the towns of the Cinque Ports Confederation providing ships to the crown for coastal defense. Located at the tip of an embayment of the English Channel, Rye was an important shipping center for the iron bloomeries (smelting furnaces) of the Weald and other trade goods. Its tactical importance and close links to the monarchy made Rye a target for French attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. One of those attacks in 1339 during the reign of King Edward III saw French troops burn down 52 houses and one mill. In response, the city began to build permanent defenses, among them the Landgate Arch, a fortified entrance into the medieval city center over the only road that connected Rye to the mainland at high tide.

Landgate was a masonry structure with two towers on either side of an arched gateway. One of four fortified entrance gates to the city, it is the only one still standing today. Today it is still the only through-way for light vehicular traffic to reach the medieval city, but the tower itself is not open to the public. The floors and roofs of the towers are long gone leaving them open to the elements. Said elements include the excrement of pigeons and lots of it.

The fact that pigeons were converting the Landgate Arch towers into massive poop silos was noticed last month by members of the Rother District Council. Since guano is acidic and can eat through stone over time, the council contracted CountyClean Environmental Services to clean out the monument. CountyClean used a combination tanker truck that provides a high pressure jet while vacuuming up the sludge.

Mike Walker, Managing Director for CountyClean Environmental Services said: “Whilst we’ve removed other massive blockages such as giant fatbergs in sewers, we have never seen such a monumental mass of festering faeces before.”

“The build up of pigeon poo behind the doors was so big we had to force the them open. Once inside, it was like walking on a giant chocolate cake and the smell was awful – even through a facemask.”

“The floors of the towers and the steps leading to the top were swamped with 25 tonnes of pigeon poo. We filled our tanker several times over.”

The bird crap was almost three feet deep.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dallas Museum of Art acquires Mayan effigy vase sold by St. Louis Society

History Blog - Wed, 2015-03-04 07:35

One of the artifacts that was controversially put up for auction by the St. Louis Society of the American Institute for Archaeology last year has been acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s the effigy vase from the Late Classic Era (700-900 A.D.) excavated at Quiriguá, Guatemala, in 1911. According to a December press release from the St. Louis Society, the vase was bought by a university museum, but the DMA is not affiliated with a university so either it passed through another set of hands over the last three months or the release was mistaken.

“We are delighted that the Maya effigy vase, a beautiful work of ancient American art, has found a new home in our institution,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the DMA. “Given the art historical importance of this pre-Columbian vessel, its clearly documented provenance, and its cultural heritage in the Americas, the DMA deemed it important to maintain this historical vase within a public collection, one which offers free access to visitors interested in seeing it and to scholars for research and publication.”

“The vase is a stunning example of Late Classic Maya modeled ceramic art. Its acquisition both advances the DMA’s ancient Americas collection and offers a striking object for appreciating the diversity and refinement of Maya visual representation,” added Kimberly L. Jones, the Museum’s Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of Arts of the Americas.

Quiriguá was first explored by Europeans in 1840 when artist Frederick Catherwood, partner of travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, sought out the rumored ruins on the banks of the Motagua River in southeastern Guatemala in 1840. They found monoliths, altars and a number of obelisk-like stelae elaborately carved on all four sides that remain to this day the tallest ever discovered in the Mayan world. Stela E, dedicated in 771 A.D. by the city-state’s greatest hero, King K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (meaning Cauac, or Rain/Storm, Sky), is almost 35 feet high and weighs 65 tons. It is the largest stone ever quarried by the Maya and is believed to be the largest free-standing carved monolith in the Americas.

The carving on Stela E celebrated K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat greatest victory, the defeat, capture and beheading of King Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit) of Copán. For centuries before then Quiriguá had been a vassal state of Copán, so when Cauac Sky defeated 18 Rabbit in 738 A.D., he won his kingdom’s independence. The victory had larger political implications for the power balance of the region. Copán was allied to the Mayan superpower state of Tikal. Historians believe that Cauac Sky’s rebellion was fomented by Calakmul, Tikal’s rival superpower to the north. After Copán’s defeat, Quiriguá controlled the trade of precious stones and other goods on the lower Montagua River, the main trade route linking the Caribbean and Mayan central America.

K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat ruled from 724 to 785 A.D. In the 37 years between Quiriguá’s independence and the death of the king, he commissioned many of the stelae, zoomorphs, altars, etc. that make the site such a spectacular example of Mayan stonework. He probably got the stonecutters from Copán, in fact, since there is an absence of carved inscriptions in Copán for 20 years after the city’s defeat.

Catherwood’s drawings of the stelae with their hieroglyphs, zoomorphs, kings and Mayan calendar dates coupled with Stephens’ account of their travels introduced the wider public to Mayan art and architecture when they were published the next year in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. British Diplomat and archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay explored Quiriguá on repeated trips in 1881, 1882, 1883 and 1894. He and his team cleared some of the jungle brush to reveal more works and used techniques like making plaster casts of the stone monuments and taking pictures with dry-plate photography (only introduced to the market in 1878). There’s a selection of pictures from Maudslay’s excavations in the Alfred P. Maudslay collection of the Brooklyn Museum. You can also leaf through his pictures, maps and drawings of Quiriguá in volume 2 of Maudslay’s five-volume compendium Biologia Centrali-Americana, or, Contributions to the knowledge of the fauna and flora of Mexico and Central America published in 1889.

In 1909, the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America funded three seasons of fieldwork at Quiriguá by Edgar Hewett, director of the newly-founded School of American Archaeology (SAA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and SAA archaeologist Sylvanus Morley. Hewett and Morley’s excavations cleared even more of the jungle and unearthed two major structures Hewett termed the First and Second Temples. Temple 1 is far more significant architecturally, with complex carvings on the inside and outside walls. Temple 2 is small and sparsley decorated, but it’s the earliest of the structures in the Quiriguá Acropolis and was found to contain artifacts distinctly superior to those found in Temple 1 both in quantity and quality.

According to Morley’s publication of the finds in the March 1913 issue of National Geographic, the most exceptional find from all three seasons of excavations was the effigy vase found in Temple 2 during the 1911-2 season. Discovered broken in more than a dozen pieces, once the object was put back together its quality made it the stand-out piece and for decades it regularly made an appearance in published studies of Mayan art. Hewett and Morley gave the effigy along with a Zapotec figural urn excavated at Monte Albán, Mexico, to the St. Louis Society in gratitude for their funding.

The Maya effigy vase was on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum until 1980 when it was removed to make way for a donation of Mesoamerican artifacts by Morton D. May. The effigy was then put in storage at Washington University until the St. Louis Society decided to sell it at a Bonhams auction in November of last year.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lead coffin inside stone coffin from Richard III dig opened

History Blog - Tue, 2015-03-03 03:25

When the skeletal remains of King Richard III were found under a Leicester parking lot in two magical weeks September of 2012, the excavation team encountered another four graves in Trench 3 (Richard was found in Trench 1, see map here) on the site of what had once been the Grey Friars’ church. One of them stood out thanks to its limestone sarcophagus which was the first complete medieval stone coffin excavated in Leicester using modern archaeological methods. The other bodies had no surviving caskets, although evidence was found of two of them having been buried in long-decayed wooden coffins. Since the University of Leicester excavation team was under extreme time constraints, there was no question of exploring any other graves than the potential Richard’s at that time.

In July of 2013 the team returned to the Grey Friars site to excavate more of the church and, if possible, lift the stone sarcophagus found in the presbytery. The limestone box was cut in a tapered shape from a single block of limestone. The wider end was carved into a curve on the inside to create a niche for the head. The lid, also carved from limestone, didn’t quite fit and the mortar sealing it to the coffin was damaged. Water was able to get inside the coffin and over the centuries the unbalanced but very heavy lid fractured the sarcophagus extensively.

While they had hoped to lift the sarcophagus whole, archaeologists realized once they’d chiseled away the dirt caked on the sides of the coffin that the stone was too cracked to remain intact during the lifting process. They decided instead to lift the lid and remove it separately first. Nine people used lifting straps to manually raise the lid to ground level. Inside the sarcophagus they found a second coffin, this one made from lead. It was intact except for a hole at the feet where the lead had collapsed inwards.

Now the team had to lift the lead coffin before they could remove the fractured sarcophagus. They did this by dismantling one end of the limestone box, taking it apart piece by piece according to the existing fracture pattern. When they made enough space for it, they slid a wooden board underneath the lead coffin and two people lifted the lead coffin out like they were carrying it on a stretcher. The coffin was then transported to an infirmary so the insides could be explored with an endoscope to make sure there were no preserved soft tissues requiring special conservation conditions. There weren’t any; the remains were fully skeletonized.

Armed with the endoscope data, the team’s next step was opening the lead coffin. There were still intact solder joints that researchers did not want to damage because they could contain information about the construction of the coffin, so instead they decided to cut an opening all around the base of the coffin, lift the lid and sides and leave the skeleton on the lead base. In addition to the skeletal remains, archaeologists found some hair, small fragments of a fragment that looks like linen and a piece of cord. The fabric is probably what’s left of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in while the cord is a piece of the rope used to secure the shroud by tying around the legs.

When the stone sarcophagus was first unearthed, experts thought it might have contained the remains of Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, a knight and former mayor of Leicester who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362. Its location in presbytery of the friary church near the high altar was extremely prestigious, and a stone coffin with a lead coffin inside was an ultra deluxe burial package, a combination only someone with a great deal of wealth and position would be able to secure. Sir William seemed the likeliest candidate at first glance. Documentary research discovered two other possible candidates: leaders of the English Franciscan order Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272) and William of Nottingham (d. 1330).

Well, throw all of that out because surprise, the skeleton inside the lead coffin is female! She was a woman of means, as confirmed by stable isotope analysis of her bones which found that she ate a high-status, protein-rich diet — game, meat and a great deal of sea fish — only just below Richard III’s adult diet in quality. She was over 60 at time of death and radiocarbon dating found she died in the latter half of the 13th century or in the 14th.

Documentary research found the names of seven women closely associated with the friary. The radiocarbon dating results eliminated three names of women who died in the 16th century. Of the four remaining, the biggest shot was Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, who was a dedicated patron of the friary. She died in France, however, and as far as we know was buried there as well. Of the three remaining women on the list, only one is specifically recorded as having been buried in the church: Emma Holt. All we know is her name and that she was buried in the friary church in 1290 because in September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence shaving Purgatory sentences off by 20 days for anyone who would say “a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester.” There’s no way to confirm is our leaden lady is Emma Holt. There are no known descendants for DNA matching. We don’t know her age at death, her looks or anything else about her that could link her to the skeleton.

Although the identity of the woman who had such significance to the Franciscan order that she was buried in the fanciest casket in the fanciest part of the friary’s church is likely to remain unknown, it is worth noting that she was not the only woman granted the honor of being laid to rest under the feet of praying monks. In the two Grey Friars digs, archaeologists found 10 graves. Five were left undisturbed in place. Five were excavated and the remains examined. One of those five proved to be King Richard III. The other four were all women.

Two of them were inside the choir on the opposite side of it from where Richard was found. They were between 40 and 50 years old at time of death and radiocarbon dating shows indicates they died between 1270 and 1400. One of them had what seems to be a congenital hip dislocation which would have required her to walk with a crutch. The other lived a life of physical labor. Her arms and legs bore the tell-tale sign of regular use in lifting heavy weights. Like the woman in the lead coffin, these ladies also ate a high quality, varied diet rich in proteins.

The fourth female skeleton had been disturbed — note for RM: these were the disarticulated female remains mentioned in the first press conference — so there’s limited information on her, but she too appears to have done hard physical labor in her short life before dying in her early to mid-20s. Since the choir and presbytery would be reserved for important, wealthy people, the fact that two women who did hard labor for years were buried there may suggest the friary’s top donors were not just aristocrats and clerical leaders, but members of the burgeoning middle class of merchants and tradespeople who had money in their pockets but made it by working hard with their hands.

As for the ratio of men to women being so lopsided, as unexpected as that is, it could very well just be a coincidence.

Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: “Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.

“Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.

“In Leicester, ULAS’s excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester’s Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.”

Here’s a brief documentary video of the lead coffin’s removal from the stone sarcophagus in situ and its opening in the laboratory. You can see how they took apart the stone coffin, how they cut the lead with what look like pruning shears and the fragments and remains inside in the lead coffin.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

200 bodies found in mass graves under Paris supermarket

History Blog - Mon, 2015-03-02 01:47

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have discovered the skeletal remains of more than 200 individuals buried in eight mass graves under the basement of the Monoprix Réaumur-Sébastopol supermarket in Paris. The team was doing an archaeological survey in advance of construction and expected to encounter human remains because the building was known to have been constructed on the site of Trinity Hospital cemetery. The cemetery was in active use from the 12th century through the 17th and was destroyed at the end of the 18th. Its graves were excavated and bones transferred to the Paris catacombs in the second wave of transfers in 1843, then the Félix Potin grocery store was built on the site in 1860. That building was demolished and reconstructed in 1910. The current Monoprix store occupies the ground and first floor of that 1910 Art Nouveau building by architect Charles Lemaresquier.

So after centuries of disuse, revolution, a dedicated municipal program of bone collection and two buildings erected on the site, archaeologists had little expectation of discovering anything more that a few scattered bones. Instead they found well-organized and carefully laid-out mass graves. Seven of the graves contain between five and twenty bodies laid down in two to five layers. The eighth grave is much larger. So far the remains of more than 150 individuals have been unearthed in this one pit. They were deposited with exacting precision in five or six layers. At least two rows of the dead are placed head to toe. A third row appears to continue beyond the perimeters of the current excavation.

“What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals – men, women and children – were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” said archeologist Isabelle Abadie.

The bodies appear to have been buried all at the same time, which she said suggested they might have been the victims of the plagues which struck Paris in 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Whatever mortality crisis struck — plague, other epidemics, famine — it struck wide. There are adults and children of all ages and both sexes buried in the largest mass grave. Initial examination of the bones has found no specific evidence of disease or injury. INRAP archaeologists will attempt to extract DNA samples for the bone which may reveal the presence of fatal pathogens. Other tests on the bones will determine their physical condition at death, if they were malnourished, if they had repetitive strain injuries from hard labor, etc. The remains will be radiocarbon dated to sort out which layers were deposited when.

Researchers hope this excavation and the subsequent study will result in a more thorough understanding of how the living managed bodies in mass-death crises, a clearer picture of the spatial and temporal organization of the cemetery. The team will also study period sources and maps of Paris to find out more about the Trinity Hospital and its cemetery. It’s a rare opportunity to study such a site; fewer than a dozen mass burial sites in France have been subject to a thorough archaeological study, so there isn’t much scholarship on the subject and there is a great deal that remains unknown about funerary practices at cemeteries associated with medieval and early modern hospitals.

Once the study is complete, the state will claim the remains and arrange for reburial.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History