Arts and Sciences

Original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster for sale

History Blog - Tue, 2016-06-28 11:06

Before it was an inescapable meme of infinite variety plastered on every crappy consumer product ever cranked out by Chinese industry, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan graced a British Ministry of Information poster printed, but never used, in the early days of World War II. It was one of three poster designs in plain text bearing the crown of King George VI printed in August of 1939 to shore up the morale of the country through the confusion and fear that were sure to follow should war break out.

The other two posters — “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory,” and “Freedom Is in Peril Defend It with All Your Might” — were quickly distributed after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. “Keep Calm,” which was intended for use in the worst case scenario of a German invasion and since that never happened, those posters were never posted. They were widely distributed as part of the preparations for war, but most of the print run of 2.5 million posters was pulped when paper shortages struck.

Never seen by the public, the poster was unknown until 2000 when one Stuart Manley, co-owner of Barter Books, a beautiful bookstore in a restored Victorian train station in Alnwick, Northumberland, found one folded in the bottom of a box of old books he’d bought at an auction. His wife Mary thought it was awesome, because it is, so she had it framed and hung it on the wall near the cash register.

Customers went gaga for it, so the Manleys made copies of the poster to sell. Soon the original was outside the shop, drawing crowds and advertising the copies for sale. When it hit the internet, the slogan spread worldwide and in short order became the meme template we know today.

For more than a decade, the Manleys’ poster was one of only two known. Then in 2012, Moragh Turnbull brought a cache of 15 of them to the Antiques Roadshow at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh. Her father William worked for the Royal Observer Corps in Edinburgh during the war and had kept many papers, including the “Keep Calm” posters that were distributed but never actually posted. The AR appraiser valued her posters at £1000.

Now, four years later, the original poster that launched a thousand dish towels will be available for purchase at the Manning Fine Art stand at the Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia in London, open now through July 3rd. According to The Guardian price tag is £21,250, but the headline says it’s up for auction so that may be the reserve set or maybe even a pre-sale estimate.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Teapot is Smithsonian’s millionth digitized object

History Blog - Mon, 2016-06-27 00:05

A teapot made by 19th century silversmith Peter Bentzon is the one millionth object digitized by the Smithsonian’s Mass Digitization Program. There are 154 million objects in the many collections of the Smithsonian Institute, so just 153 million more to go.

Peter Bentzon was born on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies around 1783. The child of a free mulatto woman and a white father, he was what the Danish categorized as a “mustice” or “mustee.” His family was comparatively well-off; it is believed his father was Norwegian lawyer Jacob Bentzon who was a royal judge advocate on St Thomas for several years. Peter was sent to school in Philadelphia when he was eight years old, and was apprenticed to a Philadelphia silversmith in 1799 when he was 16. His completed his apprenticeship in 1806 and moved to Christiansted, St Croix, where he started his own silversmithing business.

The British occupied the island from 1807 to 1816 which was advantageous for Bentzon because the British didn’t have the strict laws the Danish had controlling the movements, professions and political rights of the free coloured population of its colonies. Denmark reclaimed St Croix in 1816 and Bentzon made arrangements to move his family and business back to Philly. He lived and worked there until 1829, after which he returned to St. Croix for another 20 years. He relocated to Philadelphia again in 1848. His name is on the 1850 Census. After that, he disappears from the historical record. Wherever he was living, he regularly traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and St Croix.

Bentzon was the only free silversmith of African descent in slavery-era America whose work can be identified from his hallmarks, P. BENTZON and PB. There were at least four other black silversmiths in Philadelphia during his time. Henry Bray and Anthony Sowerwalt are listed as silversmiths and “persons of color” in the 1813 and 1818 Philadelphia directories. Joseph Head and John Frances, a runaway slave, were also working as silversmiths. None of the four produced work under their own hallmark, however, so it’s impossible to link any surviving silver to them.

Very few of Bentzon’s pieces are known to have survived, fewer than three dozen, most of them teaspoons. That makes his work rarer than that of famed fellow silversmiths like Paul Revere and Thomas Fletcher. The Smithsonian’s teapot is the only one confirmed to have been made in Bentzon’s Philadelphia shop.

The silver teapot is an oval vase-shape on a pedestal foot. The scroll handle is made of wood topped with a leaf design. The cover has an acorn finial. It is stamped twice on the bottom with Bentzon’s mark and is inscribed “Rebecca Dawson” on the base. Bentzon rented his workshop from a Robert Dawson, so perhaps Rebecca was a relative of his landlord. The monogram “MC” on the side is a later addition.

It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which isn’t an actual museum yet. There had been efforts to create a national museum displaying art and artifacts from African-American history since 1915, but with little funding and no Congressional support, proposals went nowhere. A state initiative was more successful. The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, received a federal charter from Congress in 1981 and opened in 1988 with no public funding. Its focus was more narrow than that envisioned for the national museum, however, with its main exhibition dedicated to the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and others featuring the city of Wilberforce’s history an important stop on the Underground Railroad and the founding of historically black college Wilberforce University, the first college in the United States that was owned and run by African Americans.

The Smithsonian’s collection of African-Americana didn’t see much light until dedicated exhibitions in the National Museum of American History in the 1980s. For a long time the Board of the Smithsonian itself questioned whether the collection could sustain a stand-alone African-American history museum, and it wasn’t until December of 2003 that all the pieces came together with the passage of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act establishing the new museum within the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. It took another three years for the site, part of the Washington Monument grounds, to be selected. Settling on a design for the building took even more time. Finally, ground was broken on February 22nd, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian took the innovative step of creating a virtual museum when the physical museum was still years away from construction. It created a website for the NMAAHC with select objects from the collection and online exhibitions. The first exhibition in the three dimensional world took place in New York in 2005. In 2012 the NMAAHC partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to put on an exhibition about slavery at Monticello held at the National Museum of American History.

By 2015, the museum’s collection had grown to more than 33,000 objects including Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Selmer trumpet, 39 extremely rare Harriet Tubman artifacts donated in 2012 by collector Charles L. Blockson, Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket, a 1922 Pullman railroad car from Chattanooga, Tennessee, used to carry Black passengers under Jim Crow segregation and a guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary which was is big the museum had to be build around it.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will opens its doors in the new building on September 24th, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Another Samnite tomb, skeletons, gold coins found in Pompeii

History Blog - Sun, 2016-06-26 01:41

Last year, the international and interdisciplinary archaeological team from the Jean Bérard Center of Naples excavating the Porta Ercolano are outside Pompeii’s northwest gate made headlines when they discovered a rare intact 4th century B.C. Samnite tomb. Now the same team has found another Samnite tomb from the same period, plus the skeletal remains of four people fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius and a few of the treasures they carried with them.

As is traditional with Roman cities, areas outside the walls were used for tombs and for artisanal workshop, in this case primarily pottery shops, because they’d make a lot of noise, produce smoke, noxious odors, etc. that would be a nuisance in the densely populated city center. In fact, the team has been excavating this area for five years to study the pottery production facilities and the role of crafts in the Pompeiian economy. They didn’t really think they’d find anything new in this particular spot because it had already been excavated in the 19th century by the great Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s groundbreaking director of works who devised the plaster cast system to capture the last moments of Vesuvius’ victims.

Soon after the dig season began on May 16th, the team was delighted to find, in keeping with their mission, the remains of two shops. One had a vertical pit with a staircase built into the side, a unique design never found before in Pompeii. Archaeologists believe it may have been a furnace used to manufacture bronze objects. The second workshop, closer to the city gate, has a circular well dug into the soil that may have been used to extract construction materials. Archaeologists aren’t certain of its purpose. It was accessible by a spiral staircase carved into the terrain. Research will continue over the next month and other shops nearby will be excavated.

The remains of Vesuvius’ victims were found in the back room of one of the shops. The four appear to be young people, one of them a teenage girl, who made it outside the city gate but must have been compelled to stop and seek shelter, probably in the futile attempt to dodge the pyroclastic flow ringing the death knell for the city. The remains were jumbled up against the wall, the result of looters known as fossores who tunneled through the ash to scavenge any valuables people had taken with them when they tried to outrun the volcano. The exact date of this incursion is hard to establish; sometime between the eruption of 79 A.D. and the official excavations of the 19th century.

The fossores didn’t get everything, though. Three gold coins and a gold foil pendant in the shape of a flower were found amidst the bones. The coins are aurei of the emperor Vespasian dating to 74, 77/78 A.D. There were also some undamaged ceramics: a bowl, three small pitchers, two lids of cooking vessels charred from their quotidian use, not the eruption, and an elegant white urceus, a tall, slender, one-handled vessel used to contain garum, the fermented salted, sun-cured fish intestine sauce that Romans used on everything.

Dating to the 4th century B.C., the Samnite tomb is lined with limestone slabs and contains the remains of an adult male with grave goods quite different from those found in the tomb of a woman last year. There are six vases — among them an oinochoe, a lekythos, a kylix, a skyphos and a globular aryballos with a flat bottom — all black painted without any decoration painted over it, unlike last year’s tomb. The tomb is not fully excavated yet, but archaeologists are on the look-out for remains of a belt buckle and/or weapons that have been found before in the graves of Samnite men.

From the late 5th century, early 4th century B.C., a period of great transition when the Samnite peoples, originally located in the Apennines, spread into the territories of other Italic tribes and Greek colonies finally reaching the Mediterranean. Before the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was less than a third of a mile from the coast, so the Samnite presence there is an important benchmark of the last stages of its expansion. Very little archaeological material has been found from this period, so all discoveries take on even greater significance.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

12th c. fortified town found under Illinois cornfield

History Blog - Sat, 2016-06-25 03:48

Under a cornfield in Cass County, Illinois, near where the Sangamon River flows into the Illinois, are the remains of a bustling Native American town that thrived from the 12th century through the 15th. The town had a central plaza, surrounded by three platform mounds, houses and defensive walls 10 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long in each direction. Known as the Lawrenz Gun Club Site after a shooting club built on one of the mounds in the mid-20th century, the site has been studied by archaeologists and students from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) every summer for six years.

It was the remains of the mounds that first indicated a community of the Mississippian culture had once inhabited the site, but the town ranges far beyond that, covering over 26 acres. IUPUI’s archaeology field school used remote sensing technology to establish the perimeter of the site and, since they can’t dig up the whole cornfield, to identify areas likely to contain artifacts. This excavation season alone they’ve unearthed 97 bags of archaeological material including projectile points, pottery of many different kinds from cookware to storage vessels to dishes, stone tools, plant and animal remains. Only once in the six years have they encountered a human burial. Officials were notified in compliance with federal law, the grave was reburied and the remains left undisturbed.

“The last couple of years, we have focused inside the city’s walls. This year, we are looking at earlier structures, built before the walls were put up,”” [graduate student John] Flood said. “We are looking at an early house, about 5-by-5 meters in size, and how the city started to develop, trying to understand how the very early Mississippian community arranged their structures.”

For Flood, the most fascinating part of the multi-year investigation has been the huge, elaborate defensive walls built to protect the city.
“You have several portions of walls that were constructed at different points in time. Bastions and archers’ towers, you see a change in shape as they go from more circular to more rectangular in design. It shows they are really taking their time and thinking about their defensive fortifications,” Flood said. “We see that throughout all sorts of archaeology all over the world. Usually about the time you see agriculture, things like corn or maize, all of a sudden when you have food in one location, you find you have a need to protect that food.”

“You also need to make your presence known,” Flood said. “If you’re coming down the river and see a big, fortified city with 10-foot walls and archers’ towers, that’s a big mark of presence. It says ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay.’”

Based on the artifacts unearthed so far as, the walls and the dwellings, researchers estimate that the village had a population of 400 to 600 people from around 1100 through 1450 A.D., making it probably the largest village in the area. The inhabitants grew crops, primarily maize, and also foraged wild resources from their environment, including seeds, grasses, nuts and marshelder, a ragweed relation with edible seeds that was cultivated by the earlier Kansas City Hopewell culture of Kansas and Missouri before maize displaced it. The surrounding area also provided abundant hunting and fishing. The IUPUI team has found a great many bones of fish, waterfowl and land mammals.

A large community with impressive fortifications in a fertile location with plentiful plant and animal resources, the village likely traded with the great city of Cahokia, now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, to the north. Like Cahokia and other known Mississippian communities, the Lawrenz Site met an abrupt end in the mid-15th century. Archaeologists believe a combination of the Little Ice Age and severe drought may have brought on repeated crop failures which drove the population to abandon their settlements and seek greener pastures. With no food left to protect, fortifications that once defended the stores become prison walls enclosing only the prospect of mass starvation.

This season’s excavation will conclude at the end of the month. The 97 bags of artifacts and remains will be sorted, cleaned and analyzed in laboratory conditions back the university in Indianapolis. Every fragment is of interest as a potential source of information about the daily lives of the inhabitants of the prehistoric town.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Exhibition marks 350th anniversary of Great Fire of London

History Blog - Fri, 2016-06-24 01:51

The Great Fire of London broke out in the wee hours of September 2nd, 1666, and raged for three days, leveling the old city within the Roman walls, a quarter of London, and destroying more than 13,000 homes, St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and London Bridge. The Museum of London will mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration with a new exhibition, Fire! Fire!, which will showcase life in the city before the fire, the events of the fire itself and how London recovered.

The museum will display period art and artifacts in its collection that illustrate the devastating fury of the fire. Some, like burned and melted pottery fragments from a shop on Pudding Lane near where the fire first sparked, have been on display before. Others have never been seen in public before, for example a ceramic roof tile melted and bent in half by temperatures of at least 1500 Celsius and a singled floor tile, burned iron padlocks and keys found at Monument House on Botolph Lane, one street down from Pudding Lane. Another piece on display for the first time is an unfinished needlework panel believed to have been saved from a house in Cheapside during the fire.

There are also two letters written by eye witnesses, one from James Hicks, a post office employee whose office burned down just after 1:00 AM on September 3rd. He fled with his family taking as many letters as he could with them. His letter informed postmasters of the destruction. The other letter was from Robert Flatman to his brother Thomas who worked in the city as a barrister but was out of town for the Great Fire. In the letter of September 9th, 1666, Robert told his brother that he had saved his books from his chamber in one of the Temples (professional associations where barristers kept their offices and lodgings).

In 1666, much of the City of London was little changed from the Middle Ages, a warren of cobblestone alleys tightly packed with crowded timber tenement buildings whose upper storeys jutted over the street to maximize precious square footage. By the mid-17th century the overhanging jetties projected so far over the alleyways that they kissed the jetties from buildings across the street, which made fire very easy to spread and practically impossible to stop. When the fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, it quickly jumped from building to building and soon formed an implacable wall of flame too hot for people to even attempt to counter. Perhaps controlled demolition of structures forming a firebreak perimeter could have contained it, but Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth didn’t order those until the fire had burned all night and day.

What little firefighting equipment existed was small-scale and ineffective: tall ladders, leather buckets of water and squirt guns that look like large syringes could douse a building fire when deployed quickly, but once fire spread these tools couldn’t keep up. Long firehooks were used to pull down buildings, and when the buildings were too high for that, controlled demolition by gunpowder might do the trick. Once the fire was raging, it was too hot and fast for these methods to work. Once the Thames waterfront was on fire, the city’s supply of water was cut off.

Early fire engines carried barrels of water to a fire and pumped it out, but they delivered a comparatively meager stream of water, and that’s assuming they could even make it down the winding alleys of the City of London. Some were on sleds, other on wheels. The Museum of London has a very rare surviving 17th century fire engine which it acquired in 1928. It has been on display, but since all that remains in the central barrel and pump, it just looks like a wooden keg with an iron tap sticking out the top.

For the new exhibition, the museum employed Croford Coachbuilders in Kent to reconstruct the vehicle that carried the barrel and pump. They used traditional methods, tools and material to recreate the carriage. With no plans to go by, the coachbuilders used a 19th century photograph located by museum curators of the engine from when it was still complete with undercarriage, tow bar and pumping arms. Curators also found a print showing the fire engine, designed by John Keeling in London around 1678, in action, which helped the craftsmen replicate the original.

This video documents the construction process. It’s a fascinating summary which I wish were longer. My favorite part is when they take the completed wheel made of three different kinds of woods — elm for the hub, oak for the spokes, ash for the felloes (the part that goes around the spokes) — and fit the iron rim onto it. The rim has to be slightly smaller than the wheel to keep it all together, so they heat that bad boy up so it expands, slap it on the wheel, then quickly dump cold water on it to keep the hot iron from burning the wood and to force the iron to contract around the wheel. It’s smoke-filled awesomeness.

Fire! Fire! opens on July 23rd, 2016, and runs through April 17th, 2017.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Long head of Silla woman reconstructed from skull fragments

History Blog - Thu, 2016-06-23 09:21

In late 2013, archaeologists excavating in advance of a driveway construction project near Gyeongju, a town in southeastern Korea that was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, unearthed human skeletal remains. Found in a mokgwakmyo, a traditional wooden coffin, in a marshy area, the skeleton was complete and relatively well-preserved, albeit fragmented in places. Grave goods, including pottery and a wooden comb, were found inside the coffin that identify it as a Silla-era burial.

The Silla Kingdom started as a small city-state in 57 B.C. and ruled an increasingly large part of the Korean Peninsula until 935 A.D. Its thousand-year duration is one of the longest in the historical record, and two of its ruling dynasties — the Parks and the Kims — transcended the kingdom to become the most common family names in Korea today.

Despite the Silla Kingdom’s long life and enormous influence on the history and modern culture of Korea, researchers have had few opportunities to study Silla bones at all, and never with multiple analytical technologies. Intact human remains from the Silla period are rare because Korea’s acidic soil and the cycles of hot/wet, cold/dry weather accelerate the decomposition of soft tissue and bone alike. A 4th-6th century grave discovered in 2009 contained unprecedented complete sets of human and horse armor, for example, but not a single human remain. The wooden coffin survived, as did a box with assorted grave goods. The bones had disintegrated. The discovery of a complete skeleton in 2013 gave scientists the chance to carry out anthropological analysis, extract mitochondrial DNA, run stable isotope tests and craniofacial analyses that led to a full facial reconstruction.

The person deceased was a woman between 35 and 39 years of age at time of death. The length of the femur indicated she was around 155 cm (five feet) tall. The mitrochondrial DNA results placed her haplogroup F1b1a, a haplogroup typical of East Asia but not the dominant group in living Koreans today. Stable isotope analysis found that her diet consisted mainly of foods in the C3 category (wheat, rice and potatoes) and was likely vegetarian.

Her skull was found broken in dozens of pieces. In order to help determine her gender and to create a facial reconstruction, archaeologists cleaned the fragments and dried them. Each piece was scanned and imported into 3D modelling software to figure out how the pieces fit together. Once the model was complete, the team then puzzled together the actual skull from the fragments.

Her skull was unusually long and narrow. This kind of head shape often seen in cases of intentional cranial deformation. It appears to be natural in her case. Intentionally deformed crania are flatter in the front and the bones of the side grow to compensate from the pressure of the deforming agent (usually a piece wood or tight bindings applied to infants when their skulls are still soft).

In the craniometric analysis, the major cranial indices were compared with the corresponding data derived from the subjects of modern Korean adults. The results showed that the skull has longer, narrower and lower cranium with a narrower facial bone and orbits than those from the modern Korean adults groups. The nasal aperture demonstrated an average width in the nasal index. In terms of appearance, it was assumed that the individual had horizontally long & vertically short head with inclined forehead from lateral view and narrower face from frontal view.

This dolichocephalic or long-headedness trait is rare in the population of Korea today. Koreans are more often brachycephalic, defined as the width of their skull being at least 80% of the length.

Here is the complete craniofacial reconstruction:

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

La Belle restoration complete

History Blog - Wed, 2016-06-22 08:06

After 17 years, restoration of the hull of La Belle, one of four ships that carried French explorer René-Robert de La Salle and 300 would-be colonists on his mission to the Gulf of Mexico, is finally complete.

La Belle was a 54-foot frigate that could navigate open ocean but was had a shallow enough draft that it could hand coastal and river waters as well, an essential design for this trip since La Salle’s aim was to found a colony in the Mississippi River Delta. Their poor maps of the Gulf sent the explorers way off course. When his main storeship, L’Aimable, ran aground, La Salle was compelled to transfer as much of her contents as he could salvage to La Belle, so when a storm claimed her too off the coast in Matagorda Bay, 400 miles west of the Mississippi Delta, in 1686, she sank with a disproportionately huge complement of artifacts and supplies.

That gave the Texas Historical Commission archaeologists who discovered the wreck in 1995 a lot of work to do. They built a double-walled cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out the water and from September of 1996 to April of 1997, excavated the surviving bottom third of the ship’s oak hull. By the end of the excavation they had recovered nearly 1.6 million objects — barrels of gunpowder, weaponry, personal items, cookware, crates full of trade geegaws (brass rings, pins, hundreds of thousands of glass beads).

The hull was sent to Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program where the timbers were soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol (PEG) solution, a petroleum-based polymer that replaces the water in wood to keep it from warping, cracking or shrinking when it dries, for 10 years. When the high price of oil made the use of PEG prohibitively expensive, conservators put the timbers in the largest archaeological freeze-dryer in the world. After four years in the freezer, in the summer of 2014 La Belle‘s timbers were transported to the o the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. There they were reassembled in a side gallery where the process could be viewed by the public.

In May of 2015, reassembling of the timbers was complete and the entire hull was moved to the main gallery of the museum, its final resting place after 20 years of upheaval. While the hull timbers were back together again, the restoration wasn’t finished yet. The were gaps that needed to be closed and additional surviving sections of the hull added to the structure. While conservators were working on that, the main gallery was refurbished around the ship’s hull to create the permanent exhibition that would fully showcase La Belle and its many artifacts.

The restoration is now complete and the ship positioned at a 21-degree angle, just as it was on the sea floor when archaeologists excavated it. The temporary exhibition La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, is ongoing now. The permanent exhibition is scheduled to open in November, after which some of the artifacts from the wreck will become part of a traveling exhibition that will visit several locations in the United States and France, which is still the legal owner of La Belle and everything on it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

UK bars export of lavish Florentine inlaid table top

History Blog - Tue, 2016-06-21 03:58

The UK Culture Ministry has put a temporary export bar on an Italian inlaid pietre dure table top that sold for £3,509,000 ($5,323,855), more than five times its high estimate, at a Sotheby’s auction last December. Made in the Grand Ducal workshops in Florence between 1600 and 1620, the table top is a glorious technicolor extravaganza of marble and semi-precious stone including agate, quartz, chalcedony, jasper and imported Persian lapis lazuli of the highest quality.

The four corners of the table are inlaid with coats of arms of the Grimani family, one of Venice’s most wealthy and powerful noble families. Family crests are rare motifs in the hard stone tables made by the Grand Ducal workshops, and this table is unique in having four of them. The abstract decoration around the crests is also unique. Other armorial table tops were commissioned by the Medici family as gifts for allies and dignitaries, and almost everything produced in the workshops was done at the behest of the Medici family. It is possible that the Grimanis arranged a private commission. There are no extant records to confirm either way.

The family certainly had enough pull to access the Grand Ducal workshops. Founded by spice and textile merchant Antonio Grimani (1434-1523), the family’s fabulous wealth catapulted them to the top of Venetian society. Antonio was the first Doge, elected in 1521 and serving until his death. There would be another two Doges in the family — Marino Grimani (1532-1605) and Pietro Grimani (1677-1752) — and a great many other big shots in the Church, business and politics.

The table top’s decoration telegraphs the prominence of the family in multiple fields. Each of the four crests is topped with a different symbol. The red domed hat (bottom right corner in the picture) is the Corno Ducale, the traditional headpiece of the Doge. The crossed keys of St. Peter (bottom left) represent the family’s support of the papacy and the many papal offices they held in reward for that support. The lion holding a book (top left) is the symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist, Venice’s patron saint, is a nod to two cardinals in the family who held the prestigious position of Cardinal Priest of San Marco. The double cross (top right) refers to the Grimaldi holders of the coveted and highly lucrative position of Cardinal Patriarch of Aquileia.

The Grimanis were not shy about parading their wealth. They amassed major collections of antiquities and art and packed them into two great palaces, the Palazzo Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa and the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca on the Grand Canal. Both palaces employed some of the greatest architects of their time, including Sansovino and Palladio. Family members and the palaces were painted by the likes of Tintoretto and Canaletto. The pietre dure table top had to be grand to decorate these homes.

The fortunes of the Grimani family began to decline in the late 18th century courtesy of the Napoleonic invasions. The family started selling off their collections piecemeal in 1806. They sold off the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca to their new Austrian overlords in around 1816-1818 and the Austrians converted it into a post office. The table top was in the Palazzo Grimani Santa Maria Formosa until 1829 when it was acquired by Henry Greville, 3rd Earl of Warwick (1779-1853) through British Consul William Taylor Money (1765-1834) who acted as Lord Warwick’s agent in the purchase of the table top and a marble floor for the earl to install in the renovated Great Hall of Warwick Castle.

Interestingly, the Grimani’s refused to sell the entire table. The insisted on keeping the legs and base of the table which they then topped with a fake apparently to save face. Lord Warwick had a new base made and by 1847 the table was on display in the Gilt Drawing Room. Another pietre dure table top Warwick bought from the Grimani’s was displayed in the State Bedroom. The second table top was made in Rome and doesn’t have anything like the same visual impact or historic iconography, but it’s still an exceptional example of the art form.

Both table tops were sold at the Sotheby’s auction. The Roman piece sold for £1,625,000 ($2,465,450), more than three times its high estimate. The UK is not blocking export of that one, but there’s no reason to assume the buyer applied for an export license in the first place. British institutions have until September to raise the purchase price plus VAT of the Florentine table to keep it in country.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Elusive 4,000-year-old petrographs found in Russia

History Blog - Mon, 2016-06-20 03:44

Archaeologists have finally tracked down prehistoric petrographs that were rumored to exist in a remote area of southeastern Russia. Locals have long whispered of ancient rock art in the craggy mountains of the Shilka River basin in the Transbaikal region, but nobody knew the exact location. Local legend has it that the petrographs were first discovered by a hunter many a years ago. He left his hometown and was never heard from again. More recently, a teacher from a village on the Shilka River was reputed to have taken her students to see the rock art in the 1990s. She died before archaeologists began looking.

In 2013, a team of archaeologists from Novosibirsk State University and the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography decided to explore the mountainous region in search of the petrographs. Local man Evgeny Karelin served as a guide to the area even though he didn’t know where the rock art was either. Then the archaeologists, led by associate professor Sergey Alkin, searched until they found the petrographs on a craggy rock face overlooking the Largi River at the end of summer.

It was truly a last-minute find. The field season was coming to a rapid close so the archaeologists only had one hour to study the rock art. They returned the next year and again in 2015, thoroughly examining and documenting the petrographs. They made a complete copy of all the art work and took samples of the pigment.

Now that they’ve found it, archaeologists are not disappointed. It’s quite a large piece with multiple figures painted on the rocky surface with red and ochre pigments. The condition is excellent, thanks in part to its remote location keeping people from messing with it. Other petrographs found in the area are much smaller and more worn. There are more than 20 elements, most of them human figures, plus an animal with hoofs, a tree, what may be birds and geometric shapes.

“Of course, interpretation of the images is disputable. Some elements can be explained only through archaeological and ethnographic analogues. Even the human figures can be interpreted as hunters, spirits or somebody else. For instance, one figure has a circle nearby, which should be a solar sign. With a cross inside, this circle is likely to represent a shaman’s drum, which is typical for many Siberian cultures. Thus, we may assume that this figure shows a shaman with a drum.”

[Sergey Alkin] is quite sure about distinguishing a hoofed animal, presumably a bull. Other distinct elements show some birds. Bird images are typical for other known petrographs in Transbaikalia. An important part of the Largi petrograph is numerous points and lines. “Such points can be interpreted as a symbol of counting with the painter fixing the number of some objects (say, cattle). As for the vertical lines above a horizontal one, this could be a long boat with people sitting in it. Archaeologists often identify similar images from other regions in such a way; however, in Eastern Transbaikalia it is the only known image of this type,” says the scientist.

While other petrographs in the region often are accompanied by ledges underneath the drawings that bear artifacts — tools, arrowheads — which archaeologists believe were part of a ritual sacrifice, there is no ledge here, and no evidence of religious activity. A nearby site at the mouth of the Largi river which was used by hunters and fisherman in the Bronze Age has a large number of pottery fragments and ceramic vessels. The team hopes to do more comparative studies to see if there may be a link between the new find at the site at the mouth of the river.

Comparison with other rock art in the Eastern Transbaikal and Yakutia regions indicates the petrographs were made about 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. Now the team will study samples and the detailed copy to learn more about the imagery and arrangement of the figures. They deliberately kept the discovery to themselves to ensure they had all the time they needed to make the copy and to keep the site free of interference from tourists and other researchers. They won’t be releasing the exact location of find site to the public anytime soon and it’s enough of a challenge to get there that archaeologists think the rock art will remain pristine.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cygan is back! Eric will be. What about Kaiser?

History Blog - Sun, 2016-06-19 03:09

The imposing 1950s robot Cygan has been restored to his former dapper rakishness and is going on display next year at the Science Museum in London as part of its Robots exhibition which brings more than 100 historic and contemporary robots to the museum. Cygan is one 12 working robots who will be on display, his nearly eight-foot height, powerful pincer hands and renewed shiny good looks will be put to use smashing things and lifting other things for the delight of visitors, just like in the old days. No word on whether he’ll be picking up showgirls in each arm.

When last we saw Cygan, he was about to be sold at auction and there was an attempt to secure him for the city of Leeds as robot in residence. The attempt was not successful and on September 5th, 2013, Cygan sold to American collector Jerry Wallace for £17,500 ($27,300). Mr. Wallace intended to restore the gentle giant, and when I checked in with him a year later, he told me via email that Cygan’s condition was dire. They had to strip him down to his skeleton to remove all the rust, corroded metal, bad screws and everything else that had gone wrong in his many long years of being exposed to the elements. Wallace’s team sandblasted the skeleton and repainted it with rust-proof paint. The motors all needed to be replaced. Then they created a wireless remote system to automate his various movements. The exterior was cleaned and repaired, but the restorers left it original.

If you’d like to hang with Cygan, you don’t have to wait until next year. He’s already out and about in the Science Museum. Meanwhile, roboticist Giles Walker will be bringing another grand old mechanical man back to life: Eric, built by Captain W. H. Richards & A.H. Reffell in 1928 and billed as the UK’s first robot. Eric was a showman too, with an aluminium plated body, light bulbs for eyes and an electrical charge that would shoot blue sparks from his teeth.

He made his debut on September 20th, 1928, at the Society of Model Engineers’ annual exhibition where he was a big hit. He traveled all over the UK, to the continent and the United States where he was roundly beloved, before disappearing without a trace. Thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Eric will be rebuilt. We have the technology. What we don’t have is a lot of information about how he was made. His creators kept their secrets close to their chests, so all we have to go on is a few stories in the press of the period and a few relevant papers curators were able to secure from descendants of Richards and Reffell. Between those archives, period photographs and films and a little deductive reasoning, Walker will make if not an exact replica, a pretty damn close approximation of the original Eric for the Robots Exhibition.

Does Eric really deserve the title of the UK’s first robot, though? New Zealand inventor Captain Alban Joseph Roberts had a robot skating the streets of London eight years before Eric was a twinkle in Captain Richards’ eye. Robot aficionado and researcher par excellence Reuben Hoggett of Cyberneticzoo has has the scoop about him (and about Eric, for that matter). Roberts created an automaton named Kaiser who he controlled by remote control light waves. Unlike Eric who was fixed to the power box under his feet, Kaiser could walk, or glide, and he didn’t need to carry a giant battery box to do it.

Here’s a 1920 Pathe’ newsreel of Kaiser rolling around and opening his arms with his stylish headdress and cape.

Roberts had an eclectic approach to invention. An expert in electricity who ran the municipal electrical utility in Patea, New Zealand, when he was 24 years old, he would go on to experiment with remote control flight, both vessels (dirigibles, cars, ships) and devices (marine and aerial torpedoes). In 1912, he held a demonstration of a remote-controlled model dirigible 10 feet long which he made fly around the Lyceum Theater in Sydney and drop a toy bomb on the precise spot indicated by an audience member, a proto-drone, basically. Scientific American called him “the Edison of Australia,” an intended compliment foiled by the fact that Roberts was from New Zealand.

He also worked on vehicles flying and terrestrial controlled by sound and light. In 1916, he created a resonator that could operate a model aircraft with sound (Sci Am article about it page one, page two). In 1920, the same year he took Kaiser for its first spin, he operated a driverless car with a whistle. The newspaper account of the demonstration presciently explained the significance of Roberts’ invention: “it may mean that before long we shall be able to explode a mine or fire a battery in Constantinople by pressing a button in London.” Again in 1920, as if he wasn’t busy enough that year, he also took a turn to the whimsical when he demonstrated a synesthesia machine that translated the tones of the human voice into different colors.

In a move that Cygan would later copy with gusto, Roberts spent the 1920s on the vaudeville circuit, first with light and sound control demos, then operating a second robot of his invention that trundled around on a wheeled base and could move its mouth as if speaking. It didn’t have Kaiser’s legs, though. The electronics in its base were covered by an Arabian costume. You can see Roberts demonstrate it on the streets of London on January 1st, 1928, in this newsreel. (They attribute the demonstration to the magician Jasper Maskelyne, but it’s Roberts, who was a part of his show, operating the remote.)

Captain Roberts moved from inventing potential wonders of the world to show business to plain ol’ business. He died in 1950 with much of his early genius forgotten.

So was Eric the UK’s first robot? I’m not sure what criteria the Science Museum is using, but even if you disqualify the Arabian fellow because it doesn’t have the tin man form with functioning legs and arms, Kaiser still has Eric beat by close to a decade. The only leg they have to stand on is that Eric was called a “robot” (the R.U.R. on his chest stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, after a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek which introduced the word “robot” to the English language), while Kaiser was called an automaton, but that’s a shaky leg. The Robots exhibition includes automata going back to the 16th century, after all.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Denmark’s heaviest hoard of Viking gold found in Jutland

History Blog - Sat, 2016-06-18 03:46

Three metal detectorists have discovered a group of bangles which add up to the greatest amount of Viking gold ever found in Denmark. Last week Marie Aagaard Larsen, her husband Christian Nedergaard Dreiøe and their friend Poul Nørgaard, aka Team Rainbow Power, were scanning a field in Vejen, south Jutland, where a gold chain from the Viking era had been discovered in 1911. Ten minutes after they started, Poul struck gold. They unearthed a gold bangle that they recognized was old, but it was bigger than anything quite they’d encountered before.

Team Rainbow Power emailed a photograph of the artifact to the Museum Sønderskov in nearby Brørup. Curator and archaeologist Lars Grundvad was amazed to see what they’d found. He and his colleagues had discussed returning to that field to explore it further because of the gold chain weighing 67 grams that had been unearthed there in 1911, but in his wildest dreams he hadn’t imagined there would be multiple finds of such quality and size.

Within 15 minutes, they found another gold piece. Then they found another. In the final tally, Team Rainbow Power discovered six gold and one silver bangle. The total weight of the gold bangles is 900 grams, just shy of two pounds. The previous record holder for the greatest amount of gold from a Viking treasure was the hoard found in Vester Vedsted, Southwest Jutland, in 1859. That hoard contained two gold neck rings, five gold bangles, a fragment of gold chain, two filigree pendants and two gold beads which totalled 750 grams. The Vejen find beats it by a lot in just six bangles, which goes to show just how big these pieces are. The sole silver bangle is a hefty one too at 90 grams (3.17 ounces). The bangles were likely buried together with the previously unearthed chain in the 10th century.

It’s not unusual for objects from the same hoard to be found at different times, even a century apart. Buried hoards could be broken up and scattered over a wide area by centuries of agricultural activity, and since metal detectors only began to be used in Denmark in the 1980s, even archaeological excavations were unlikely to find every artifact.

“Finding just one of these bangles is massive, so finding seven is something very special,” said Peter Pentz, a Viking expert and curator from the National Museum of Denmark.

Pentz went on to explain that silver was the most used metal during the Viking Age, which makes the golden find even more audacious.

One of the gold pieces is decorated in the stylized animal figures characteristic of the Jelling style, as is the chain discovered in 1911. The Jelling style in particular is associated with the elite of Viking society and considering the richness of the find, the Vejen area was likely home to a person of great wealth and position. The bangles could have been gifts for allies, rewards for his best men or oath rings. The style also helps date the hoard because it was in vogue for a short period from the first half of the 10th century until the year 1000 when it disappears from the archaeological record.

The precise location of the find is being kept secret for now as Team Rainbow Power, in collaboration with the Museum Sønderskov, is still searching the field. Lars Grundvad is working on raising funds now for a full archaeological investigation of the find site to take place as early as this fall. The museum hopes to display the finds before they are transferred to the National Museum in Copenhagen, where they will be studied and evaluated as treasure trove. Team Rainbow Power will receive treasure trove compensation based on the National Museum’s assessment.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restored 6th c. purple gospels return home

History Blog - Fri, 2016-06-17 03:30

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is a 6th century Greek manuscript written in uncial script (upper case script with rounded letters in use from the 4th-8th centuries) that contains the gospel of Matthew, most of the gospel of Mark (verses 14-20 of chapter 16 are missing) and the Epistula ad Carpianum (a letter from Eusebius of Caesarea, the “Father of Church History,” to Carpianus on the concordance of the four gospels). Because of the letter and an illumination of all four evangelists, scholars believe the 188-page codex was originally more than double the size and included all four gospels. It’s not certain where it was written. Comparisons with other manuscripts suggest Antioch is a possibility, as is Byzantium.

It is one of several surviving manuscripts of the New Testament known as the Purple Uncials or Purple Codices after their reddish or purple pages. The vellum was dyed the royal color and the text written in silver and gold ink. St. Jerome, author of the Vulgate, the first comprehensive translation of most of the Bible into Latin, defended himself against charges that he was rejecting the authority of the Greek writers of the Septuagint in his translation by dismissing the purple codices as pretty but inaccurate.

“Let whoever will to keep the old books, either written on purple skins with gold and silver, or in uncial letters, as they commonly say, loads of writing rather than books, while they leave to me and mine to have poor little leaves and not such beautiful books as correct ones.”

For them to have been held up as examples of old-fashioned scholarship, the purple Bibles must have been widespread in Christian theological circles when Jerome wrote that in 394 A.D.

Most of the surviving Codices Purpurei date to the 6th century, but there are examples as early as the 4th or 5th century (Codex Vercellensis Evangeliorum,
Codex Veronensis, Codex Palatinus) and as late as the 9th century (Minuscule 565, Minuscule 1143). There are Purple Codices written in Greek and Latin, and one in Gothic (Codex Argenteus). They were created in numerous place within the Roman’s former sphere of influence, from Syria to Anglo-Saxon England to Byzantine Greece.

The Rossano Codex is particularly notable for its 14 illuminations depicting the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the earliest surviving illuminated gospels and contains two of the first and most significant representations of Pontius Pilate. He’s depicted as a white-haired judge seated on a curule chair, a symbol of Roman political power because only magistrates were allowed to sit on them. Only one other purpureous codex from the 6th century, the Vienna Genesis, is illuminated, and it’s a fragment of the Septuagint, specifically the Book of Genesis, so no Jesus or Pilate. Images include the above-mentioned four evangelists, Lazarus being raised from the dead, the entry into Jerusalem, the parable of the ten virgins, the Last Supper (in which Jesus and Peter recline to dine) and washing of the feet, Jesus healing the blind man, the Good Samaritan, the suicide of Judas and the Pilate scenes.

It was first brought to light by poet, literary critic and journalist Cesare Malpica in 1846, but the first to track it down to the sacristy of the cathedral of Rossano, Calabria, in southern Italy, and study it with scientific rigour were German theologians Adolf von Harnack and Oscar von Gebhardt published it internationally to great scholarly acclaim in 1879.

The manuscript has suffered many centuries of dismemberment, arduous travel, fire and a botched restoration in 1919 which applied hot jelly to the illuminated vellum leaves causing them to turn transparent. Alarmed by its deteriorating condition, the Rossano archdiocese enlisted the aid of Rome’s Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage (ICRCPAL). From 2012 until 2015, ICRCPAL conservators worked with chemists, physicists, biologists and the latest technology to analyze and repair the Codex. There’s a nice selection of photos of the Codex and its restoration on the project website. They’re small, sadly.

In 2015 was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register of documentary heritage. Now that the restoration is complete, the Codex will return to the Diocesan Museum where it is the featured exhibit. Three newly renovated galleries are dedicated to the manuscript: one to display the Codex itself, one in which a documentary film about the work is played, one dedicated to the restoration. A new climate-controlled, continuously monitored display case will house the fragile document. The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis goes back on display on July 2nd.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Long-lost Neolithic figurine found in Orkney museum

History Blog - Thu, 2016-06-16 01:20

I don’t know why stories sometimes form little geographical clusters, but it seems to happen fairly regularly. Last month it was Denmark and now it’s Scotland. Today’s Scottish report comes to us from the Stromness Museum which has rediscovered a highly significant Neolithic figurine that was undocumented and unrecognized its collection for almost a century.

It’s an anthropomorphic figurine 9.5cm (3.7 inches) high and 7.5cm (3 inches) wide carved out of whale bone. Holes were carved to indicate eyes, a mouth and a navel. There are also holes carved through the sides of the head and body, possibly used to hang it as a pendant. The figurine was discovered in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney, in the 1860s. Skara Brae is the most complete Neolithic village in Europe with eight dwellings clustered together. was found in the stone bed compartment of Skara Brae’s House 3, a structure that stratigraphically and from radiocarbon testing of the context to between 2900 and 2400 B.C., so the figurine is about 5,000 or 4,500 years old. It is one of only a handful of prehistoric representations of humans discovered in Britain. It was the first one found and the only one made of whale bone.

The figurine was found by William Watt, Laird of Skaill House and owner of the property, who had discovered the site in 1850 when a storm exposed stone walls and a midden previously hidden under drift sand. Watt excavated the entire site with occasional visits from other amateur archaeologists James Farrer and George Petrie. The only existing documentation of the figurine is in Petrie’s 1867 report (pdf) in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on the Skara Brae settlement and its artifacts. He described it as a “small piece of Whalebone, cut as if intended for an idol or ‘Fetish.’” Petrie also made a sketch of it in his notebook.

The historical significance of the piece wasn’t recognized at the time. The artifact was assumed to be in the private museum Watt created at Skaill House, but there was no record of it. When the collection was broken up in the 1930s and distributed to various museums including the Stromness Museum, the figurine appeared in none of the inventories. It was believed lost forever.

The figurine was rediscovered by Dr. David Clarke who was going through Stromness Museum’s Skaill House artifacts as part of a research project on Skara Brae. None of the Skaill pieces included a provenance, so Dr. Clarke had to look through the entire collection for anything that might have come from Skara Brae. When he saw that little face peering out of a bed of tissue in the last box of the day, he immediately recognized it from Petrie’s illustration.

Additional research by Clarke and museum experts confirmed the identification and its original find spot. The figurine has been given a new name, Skara Brae Buddo (“buddo” is the Orcadian word for “friend”), and is now on display in the Stromness Museum’s new Rediscovered exhibition along with other artifacts from Skara Brae that have never been on display before.

You can explore Skara Brae Buddo’s amiable mien in this 3D model created by Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

Skara Brae 'Buddo' Figurine, Orkney
by Stromness Museum
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The rediscovery of a Pictish silver hoard

History Blog - Wed, 2016-06-15 02:44

In 1838, a Pictish hoard of silver was unearthed on the grounds of Ley Farm near Fordyce, Aberdeenshire. Two prehistoric stone circles, Gaulcross North and Gaulcross South, were located a few hundred yards from the farmhouse, and the hoard was discovered a few feet south of the north circle. Maybe. Found by labourers clearing the land for agricultural use by the new tenant, the silver pieces were poorly documented at the time. The precise find spot was not recorded, nor were the pieces themselves. There were vague, conflicting accounts of what was found. Some said a silver chain four feet long, assorted buckles, pins and brooches; others reported just a silver chain, pin and armlet. The stone circles were all but destroyed during the brutal clearing process (dynamite was involved), leaving just one stone standing by 1867 when the first account of the hoard was written by John Stuart. He said the artifacts were buried inside the stone circle.

The fate of whatever pieces were found was also unclear. The property owner, Sir Robert Abercromby, 5th Baronet of Birkenbog, was said to have kept the hoard. He was also said to have given some pieces to the Banff Museum (his maternal grandfather was Alexander Ogilvie, 7th Lord Banff) in Aberdeenshire or to the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. The three surviving pieces of silver were in fact at the Banff for a while. They are now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In 2013, the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts project and National Museums Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project combined their efforts to investigate the site in the hopes of finding out more (anything, really) about the context of the original Gaulcross Hoard. Since they didn’t know exactly where the first pieces of the hoard had been found in the 19th century, the team had to cover a great deal of ground. A geophysical survey of the site was followed by metal detector enthusiasts scanning the Gaulcross site.

Archaeologists expected to find no more than a few fragments of silver here and there, just enough to pinpoint the find site, but on the second day metal detectorist Alistair McPherson found three Roman silver siliquae (a type of 4th century Roman silver coin that was widely cut up for use in the 5th century when fresh Roman currency was no longer imported into Britain), pieces of folded hacksilver, the endpiece of a silver strap and a silver bracelet fragment. With the tantalizing prospect of greater finds than they had expected and the daunting prospect of the field being ploughed and planted soon, the team got cracking with metal detectors and two trenches.

They ultimately unearthed more than 100 pieces of hacksilver chopped up from Roman and Pictish coins, jewelry, dishes, flatware, between the 4th and 6th centuries. It is the northernmost hoard of pre-Viking hacksilver ever discovered. The finds also included intact artifacts: a crescent-shaped pendant with double-loops at each end, a double-link chain, and two silver hemispheres that may have originally been part of a single piece.

Compared to other two other hacksilver hoards found in Scotland — the Traprain Law hoard and the Norrie’s Law hoard — the discovery of so much material left in the ground after the 1838 find gave researchers new insight into the evolution of silver in Scotland since its introduction during the Roman era.

Silver was not mined in Scotland during this period, instead it had its origins in the Hacksilber from the late Roman world, as exemplified by the Traprain Law hoard. The differing compositions of individual objects in the three Scottish Hacksilber hoards will show how, through time, late Roman silver was recycled and re-cast into high-status objects that underpinned the development of elite society in the post-Roman period. During the process of recycling, the Roman silver was remade into new objects, but its origin may not have been entirely forgotten. Some of these later objects may have also directly referenced the late antique world, with items such as hand-pins showing the adaptation of late Roman military styles, both in terms of design and decorative techniques. As Gavin notes, the use of Roman models may have been intended to evoke military prowess and ostentation amongst elites in early medieval Britain and Ireland.

You can read the full report of the investigation and discoveries in the journal Antiquity.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Pierced Roman sling-bullets whistled when hurled

History Blog - Tue, 2016-06-14 09:26

Archaeologists studying Roman artillery at the ancient Roman battle site of Burnswark Hill in Dumfriesshire, southwest Scotland, have discovered that a type of sling-bullet that whistled when thrown. They believe this was a deliberate design intended to instill fear in enemy troops under assault.

Burnswark Hill is an Iron Age hillfort embraced by two Roman camps, one of the north slop, one of the south. The camps were first believed to be siege camps built to assault the fort, but in the 1960s some archaeologists postulated they might instead be training camps. There are references in ancient sources to the assiduous Roman training procedures, but evidence of them in the archaeological record is almost impossible to pinpoint. Training exercises could be the reason for the large number of Roman projectiles — 130 lead sling-bullets, 11 ballista shots, nine iron arrowheads — found on Burnswark Hill in earlier excavations.

Initial research found that the bullets, cast from lead and thrown with a sling apparatus, came in two main varieties: type I, larger and lemon-shaped, and type II, smaller and acorn-shaped. When Dr. John Reid of the Trimontium Trust secured a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to survey and dig the site, his team found a third type: a small oblong in which a hole had been drilled on one side. The type III bullets weigh 20 grams (type I goes up to 60 grams) and the holes are just .5 mm in diameter. They are all the same standard size.

Drilling holes in cast lead is time and labour-intensive for a projectile that is going to be thrown and almost certainly lost. It also lightens the ball which means it will cause less damage in a direct hit. Reid at first considered whether the holes might have been used to deliver poison, a form of early chemical warfare, but his brother had a better idea.

Reid’s brother, a keen fisherman, offered some insight into their possible purpose when he suggested the bullets were designed to make noise in flight.

“I said, ‘Don’t be stupid; you’ve no idea what you’re talking about. You’re not an archaeologist,’” Reid joked. “And he said, ‘No, but I’m a fisherman, and when I cast my line with lead weights that have got holes in them like that, they whistle.’”

“Suddenly, a light bulb came on in my head — that’s what they’re about. They’re for making a noise,” Reid said.

Experiments with replica bullets and slings confirmed that Reid’s brother was onto something. They were useless for holding poison. The hole was tiny and there was no guarantee the small, ballistically inferior bullets would even penetrate the skin. While flying towards their targets, however, the projectiles did make a whistling or high-pitched buzzing noise like an irate bee. The replica experiments also confirmed that the bullets could be successfully thrown in small clusters of three or four for a grapeshot effect.

The point of the sound was to intimidate and make the enemy crouch down or dodge around in the attempt to avoid the strike. If you throw a projectile and it hits, you take out a guy, but if you throw a projectile and it makes a sound as it approaches, anyone in the line of fire is going to duck or dodge reflexively. In a full-on assault, the missile storm would generate a huge amount of noise as hundreds, even thousands of bullets whistled toward the enemy lines.

It total, the Burnswark Project found 700 sling-bullets, more than have been found on any other Roman battlefield in Europe. The projectiles ranged over a full half kilometer (third of a mile) across the battle front. The type III bullets are unique. They have been found on no other Roman battlefields. Examples of pierced sling-bullets have been found on Greek battlefields from the second and third centuries B.C., but they were ceramic, not cast from lead.

The Burnswark Project findings do not support the training camp theory. That high of an expenditure in effort and materiel would be wasteful in training. Reid believes the fort on Burnswark Hill was targeted by a sustained Roman attack probably during the reign of Antoninus Pius who went north of Hadrian’s famous border wall in an attempt to conquer Scotland. He did gain some ground — see the Antonine Wall — but Roman legions retreated to Hadrian’s Wall in less than a decade.

Dr. Reid’s full article on the Burnswark project, “Bullets, Ballistas, and Burnswark,” is available in the print edition of Current Archaeology. There’s a tantalizing exerpt of the beginning of the article on the magazine’s website. There’s also a cool drone flyover video of Burnswark Hill with Roman fortlet and camps labeled. There are sheep on the Roman north camp now and I don’t think they don’t like the drone much.

Here’s a recording of the sounds the replica type III bullets made when thrown with a replica sling. The thwack-pew combination is pretty badass. It would surely have been scary hurtling at you or whizzing past you, downright terrifying when multiplied by hundreds.

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Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bones in Trondheim well confirm Norwegian saga

History Blog - Mon, 2016-06-13 03:19

On November 17th, 2014, archaeologists from The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research unearthed a skeleton at the bottom of a well on the grounds of Sverresborg, the castle of King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway (r. 1177–1202). Bones had been found there before in 1938, but they weren’t removed or studied. The well was refilled to preserve the remains. Then World War II and the German occupation of the area blocked further archaeological investigation. The 2014 dig was the first time archaeologists returned to the spot in the hope there was still something left to excavate. There was.

The location of the remains was notable because it matched a story in the Sverris Saga, one of a series of sagas that recount the lives of historic kings of Norway. There are few other sources for the history of this period, so any evidence that might corroborate one the accounts in the Kings’ sagas is exciting.

From 1130 to 1240, Norway was gripped by civil wars in which pretenders and puppets of various factions vied for the throne. Sverre claimed the throne on the grounds that he was the illegitimate son of King Sigurd II Haraldsson who was killed by his brother in 1155. Magnus V Erlingsson had been installed as king in 1161 when he was five years old. His father Erling Skakke held the real power when his son was a child and after he’d reached his majority, fighting off pretenders with even more tenuous claims than Sverre’s.

Supported by Swedish earls and a Norwegian rebel party known as the Birkebeiner (birch bark shoe-wearers), Sverre challenged Magnus and in 1177 declared himself king. The king and his father begged to differ, however, and it took another seven years before Magnus was finally defeated and killed in the Battle of Fimreite on June 15th, 1184, and Sverre was elected king.

Sverre and the Birkebeiner were proponents of a strong centralized monarchy that brought the Church to heel as well as secular potentates. His choice to build Sverresborg on a plateau in the city of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim), see of the archdiocese and center of Christian Norway, was a pointed one. The Archbishop of Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson, had fled to England in 1180 and remained there until 1183. Sverre took advantage of his absence to build the castle. Conflict between the archdiocese and the king was abated for a few years only to flare up again in 1188 with Eysteinn’s death and the appointment of Eirik Ivarsson as his replacement.

Conflict between the Church and its supporters and the king and his supporters continued throughout Sverre’s reign. In 1197, a pro-Church faction that would later become known as the Baglers attacked Sverresborg when Sverre was wintering in Bergen after a successful but costly assault on Oslo. The small garrison of about 80 men held the castle thanks to its excellent defensive position, but their commander turned coat and let the enemy into Sverresborg.

The event is described in the Sverris Saga:

The [Baglers] seized all the property in the castle, and then they burnt every building of it. They took a dead man and cast into the well, and then filled it up with stones. Before they left the castle they called upon the townsmen to break down all the stone walls; and before they marched from the town they burnt all the King’s long-ships. After this they returned to the Uplands, well pleased with the booty they had gained in their journey.

The skeletal remains found at the bottom of the well in 2014 were indeed covered with stones, just as the saga said. A fragment of bone recovered from the site was radiocarbon dated and found to be about 800 years old, so just the right age to match the story of the Baglers poisoning the castle’s water supply with a dead body. Analysis of the bones indicated they belonged to a man of about 30-40 years of age when he died.

Now the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research has returned to the site to fully excavate the well and the entire skeleton.

The excavation of the stone debris down to the very first stone that hit the Birkebeiner’s body has given the archaeologists additional insight into the nature of events in 1197. In addition, it exposed the timber posts and lining for the large castle well. [...]

“This is truly astonishing. As far as I know there is no known example of the discovery of an individual historically connected with an act of war as far back as the year 1197. And the fact that this actually corroborates an event described in Sverre’s saga is simply amazing,” says lead archaeologist at the site, Anna Petersén.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Antikythera Mechanism was an astronomy text

History Blog - Sun, 2016-06-12 15:01

It’s been 115 years since sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera recovered a bronze gear device that we now know as the first analog computer, and researchers are still working on solving the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism. The mechanism has been at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens since its discovery. For the first couple of years, nobody had any idea what a unique treasure it was. Museum staff focused on the more showy objects from the shipwreck — the divers had raised 36 marble statues, many pieces of bronze statues, jewelry, glassware, lamps and amphorae from the site — and paid little attention to the corroded lump of bronze in storage. In 1902, an archaeologist noticed there was a gear in that lump, and there were words on that gear. The lump broke up as corrosion loosened its grip, eventually splitting up into 87 fragments.

Launched in 2005, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) brings together an international team of researchers and the latest technology to thoroughly reexamine the Antikythera Mechanism in the hopes of shedding new light on how it worked, what it was used for, who made it and a panoply of other questions raised by the remains of the complex device. The first research published in the 1970s dated the mechanism to around 80 B.C., but the AMRP has confirmed a later date, between 150 and 100 B.C., based on the form of the lettering.

The first inscriptions read from the mechanism in 2,000 years were “Venus” and “sun ray.” Within months another 600 characters were deciphered and published. The advances slowed down after that, with 923 characters deciphered into the 1970s. Using 3D CT scanning, surface imaging and high resolution photography, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) was able to more than double the number of characters deciphered on the device. Their first publication in 2006 brought the total up to 2,160. The most recent data, presented on Thursday, June 9th, at the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, brings that number up to 3,400 characters. There are 14,000 characters discovered this far on the device — even the smallest fragments have proved an important source of inscriptions — so there’s still plenty of deciphering left to do.

By examining the structure of the gears, the numbers of teeth, how they interact with each other, and the inscriptions, the AMRP confirmed that the device was an incredibly detailed astronomical calendar that could predict eclipses, calculate the dates of the Olympics, the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the solar system and more. There is nothing else like it known from antiquity, and no other mechanical device would even come close to its complexity until the Middle Ages.

The latest research suggests that this mechanism wasn’t used by astronomers in their daily work, however.

“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos,” Jones said. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”

“I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”

The letters — some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall — were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism, which originally had the rough dimensions of an office box-file, was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank.

There is so much more to be learned about this precious device, and hopefully there will be new pieces of the puzzle discovered. The Return to Antikythera project, which in October of 2012 began exploring the shipwreck site for the first time since Jacques Cousteau’s two-day 1976 survey, proceeds apace. Artifacts like pottery, sculptures, a huge anchor and a bronze spear two meters long have been recovered from the shipwreck. Fingers crossed they’ll find more of the Antikythera Mechanism too. The newly deciphered texts have given researchers a much better idea of what parts are still missing, so marine archaeologists have a precise idea of what to look for now. The new diving season began in late May.

This video, produced four years ago for the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, gives an overview of the wreck and its many inestimable treasures.

Also, I love this picture so much I had to feature it. It’s a marble statue of a wrestler that was half stuck in the sand and mud of the sea floor and half exposed to the water. One guess which side is which.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

A romp through the Prelinger film archive

History Blog - Sat, 2016-06-11 10:43

It’s been a while since I had a proper weekend romp through historic films. The Prelinger Archive, a wonderfully eclectic group of home movies, commercials, government and corporate educational and instructional films and a wide range of other assorted clips is today’s fertile field.

Confused by those newfangled rotary dial phones? Have no fear, AT&T is here (or was, in 1927).

This is how you brush your teeth, boys and girls of 1928. To reinforce the message, Goofus and Gallant apply for a summer job to the man with the pince-nez glasses. Goofus’ blackened grill and busted outfit does not impress, while Gallant’s sparkly whites and sharp suit win the day. Mr. Gorman is pretty mean to poor Bill about it.

This is a 1945 Army picture about insomnia associated with what was then called Combat Fatigue and is now PTSD. It’s not the most compelling of reels — perhaps it was designed to help cure insomnia — but there are two elements of note: 1) the movie within a movie starring Donald Duck, and 2) Dick York, best known as the first Darrin from Betwitched, in the role of the lead insomniac’s friend Lucky who laughs uproariously at Donald Duck’s entirely unfunny antics and generally babbles way too much. Bonus points for the shower scene.

Lessons learned from a 1961 prom. Shake hands with the receiving line of chaperones. The boy fills in the dance card, putting his own name in the first and last positions. Showing off on the dance floor is bad; accompanying a girl off the dance floor “so she’s not stranded” is good. Shake hands with the exit line of chaperones. Enjoy the midnight supper offered by parents afterwards. Say goodnight. Nobody even come close to making out. Enjoy Coca Cola.

The Prelinger Archive was assembled in New York in the 1980s, but it acquired a collection of California pictures so they have quite a few films of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

It starts off in the Western Addition neighborhood which surviving the earthquake with limited damage. Many of its Victorian homes still stand today. A shot at the beginning shows one of those amazing thickets of overhead cables from electric and telephone companies so common in cities before consolidation and monopolies began to thin out the volume of them. Around the 3:07 mark, the view changes starkly from the comparatively unscathed Western Addition to the rubble-filled war zone of Market Street.

This one captures one of the fires that devastated the city even more than the quake had. It’s remarkable how crowded the streets are, and there’s one car zipping down the street, driving around horse-drawn vehicles, people and rubble. The film rate is sped up, so it’s not actually going fast as it looks to be, but you can see later in the film that other kinds of vehicles stayed in their lanes a lot more. There’s a running streetcar and the destroyed dome of San Francisco’s grand City Hall makes an appearance.

This one was taken from Market Street and has a wider view of what was left of the City Hall and Hall of Records complex.

San Francisco passed the first anti-drug legislation in the country in 1875 and opium was its target. The law made it illegal to own or frequent an opium den, but as usual, prohibition did nothing to stop the growth of opium in the city. By the turn of the century there were hundreds of opium dens in Chinatown. In the end it took force majeur to bring down the opium dens. Unfortunately the earthquake also took down the rest of the city with it. In 1907 the sale of the drug itself was outlawed, except for prescription purposes. The police tried to combat the scourge of opium with very public bonfires of confiscated opium and smoking accessories, but other than creating huge, dense clouds of opium smoke in downtown San Francisco for passersby to get inadvertently high off of, the autos-da-fé accomplished little.

Here’s a video of one of these opium bonfires from 1914. In an interesting contrast to the earthquake films, in the background you can see the new City Hall with its dome still under construction. It would open a year after this film was shot.

Speaking of vice, since it’s Saturday and one hopefully doesn’t have to worry about keeping one’s viewing safe for work, perhaps you might enjoy the archive’s significant group of old-timey stripper videos. This is burlesque dancing, mainly from the late 1940s and 1950s, I would guess, although there may be earlier ones in the mix. They are not dated, alas. There is a hint of nudity here and there — sheer undies, the occasional glimpse of underbutt or rhinestone pasties, that sort of thing — but nothing to clutch pearls over.

Red-Headed Riot has a Rita Hayworth thing going on.
Dance of the Doves” involves no doves whatsoever, but rather one cockatoo and one macaw. Nora the Quivering Torso lives up to her name by moving more than the rest of them put together. This lady is unnamed but is notable for her proto-twerking skills and the black censor band built into her panties to obscure her scandalous butt cleavage.

Betty Rowland, “Burlesque’s Ball of Fire,” closes out the show. She starts off with a fine gown and ends up behind the curtain (still in her underwear, of course) à la Gypsy Rose Lee.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Satellites, drones find huge new structure at Petra

History Blog - Fri, 2016-06-10 01:31

Archaeologists using high-resolution satellite imagery and drone photography have discovered a massive structure in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the Rose City after the red sandstone of the rock cliffs its most famous buildings were cut into, was built by the Nabateans beginning in the 2nd century BC and prospered as a trade hub linking East and West. It was abandoned in the 7th century and rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1812. Since then, it has been extensively explored. Finding a previously unknown structure of monumental dimensions is therefore unexpected, to say the least, especially half a mile south of the main city center.

Archaeologist Christopher Tuttle, who has worked at Petra for nigh on 20 years, collaborated with everyone’s favorite (only?) space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who scanned the satellite imagery for spots of interest. She saw a large rectangular shape with a smaller rectangle inside it at a site that Tuttle was somewhat familiar with, but the glimpse he’d seen of it looked like there were just a few crumbling terrace walls of a type widely seen all over the city. Tuttle then took to the field to discover if there was anything of note at the site. Aerial drone photography confirmed the outlines of an ancient structure worth exploring further, and then Tuttle took to the field to examine the site with his own eyes.

He realized that it wasn’t busted old terrace walls but rather the remains of a massive previously unknown building. Some pottery found there dates back to 150 BC, which may indicate the platform was built in the early days of Petra’s founding.

The newly revealed structure consists of a 184-by-161-foot (about 56-by-49-meter) platform that encloses a slightly smaller platform originally paved with flagstones. The east side of the interior platform had been lined with a row of columns that once crowned a monumental staircase.

A small 28-by-28-foot (8.5-by-8.5-meter) building was centered north-south atop the interior platform and opened to the east, facing the staircase.

This enormous open platform, topped with a relatively small building and approached by a monumental facade, has no known parallels to any other structure in Petra. It most likely had a public, ceremonial function, which may make it the second largest elevated, dedicated display area yet known in Petra after the Monastery.

Most of the large public monuments, including the Monastery (which is actually a temple), were built between the late 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D., so if the pottery dates pan out, the platform could be the oldest structure in Petra of monumental scale. It’s not clear how the Nabateans used these shrines as they left no written records and few hints carved in the stone since their religious monuments eschewed icons for the most part, or used portable figures that are long gone.

There are no current plans to excavate the site. Tuttle and Parcak have co-authored a study on the find published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. It can be read here if you have a JSTOR login or nine bucks to spare.

You can take a virtual walk through the glories of Petra with Google Street View. Also, PBS’ always excellent NOVA had a fascinating episode last year on how the great buildings and elaborate water systems of Petra were constructed. It’s jaw-dropping at times. The Nabateans were genius engineers, truly.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First ancient oracle found in Athens

History Blog - Thu, 2016-06-09 01:07

Archaeologists have discovered the first ancient oracle of Apollo in Athens. Others have been found elsewhere in Greece, most famously the Oracle of Delphi, but this one is the only discovered in Athens. It’s in Kerameikos — the old potters’ quarter (hence the name) — northwest of the Acropolis in downtown Athens. It’s the site of a necropolis used over different periods known today as the Street of the Tombs for the funerary moments and stelae that line the road to Eleusis where the mysteries were performed.

Just south of the burial ground is a sanctuary discovered by Kyriakos Mylonas, a pioneer of scientific archaeology in Greece, in 1890. Myolnas unearthed a marble omphalos stone set in a rectangular enclosure between the altar and a triangular statue base in a cult niche. The omphalus, meaning navel, symbolized the center of the world. It was also believed to enable direct communication with the gods. The omphalos stone at the Oracle of Delphi was hollow and is believed to have been part of the ritual reading the oracular gases that came up through it. Because Hecate was frequently depicted as having three forms, Myolnas thought the base once held a statue of Hecate and that the sanctuary was dedicated to her, but Artemis was also sometimes depicted in triplicate, and several inscriptions and other artifacts were later found on the site indicating it was a sanctuary of Artemis Soteira, meaning Artemis the Saviour.

In 2012 during some cleaning work on the site, the German Archaeological Institute found that the omphalos was mounted on a marble slab that covered an opening. Last year, the omphalos was raised with a crane to reveal what it had been concealing for thousands of years: a circular well nine meters (30 feet) deep constructed out of semi-cylindrical clay tiles engraved with more than 20 inscriptions of the phrase “ΕΛΘΕ ΜΟΙ Ω ΠΑΙΑΝ ΦΕΡΩΝ ΤΟ ΜΑΝΤEΙΟΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΣ,” which translates to “Come to me, O Paean, and bring with you the true oracle.” Paean was an epithet of Apollo, son of Zeus and brother of Artemis. The repeated phrase was a prayer, an invocation to the deity that he reveal faithful and accurate answers to believers’ questions.

The shaft is only about 65 cm in diameter (just over two feet) which makes it a very tight fit for archaeologists to explore. Still, researchers were lowered in cautiously by crane. The style of the inscriptions place them in the Roman period, probably the third century, but the well is likely to have been in place much earlier.

Though the powers of the oracle at Delphi and others were famously plied by the ancient Greeks, this is the first ancient oracular edifice to Apollo to have been found in Athens itself, Dr. Jutta Stroszeck, director of the Kerameikos excavation on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens, told Haaretz. The well would have been used for hydromancy, a method of divination by means of water.
The ancients routinely sought oracular guidance not only on the future, for simple everyday matters, such as finding/keeping a lover, ahead of a journey, after falling ill, and so forth – or applying for asylum in the sanctuary.

This find is also significant because it confirms that the omphalos is in its original location. It is the only one in Greece to bear that distinction. The one in Delphi was moved over the years and is now in an unrelated location inside the sanctuary.

A wooden lid with a waterproof cover has been placed over the oracle well for its protection. The plan is to move some of the marble pieces, including the omphalos, to the Kerameikos museum. A replica will be placed in the sanctuary so it can take the brunt of the elements while the original is spared.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History