Arts and Sciences
H.G. Wells first published his groundbreaking alien invasion story The War of the Worlds in serialized form in Pearson’s Magazine from April to December of 1897. The next year the first edition of the complete novel was published. It was an immediate success. Translated editions in Dutch, German, Polish, French, Russian and Italian followed in close succession, as well as several other English language editions, and while some of them had a smattering of graphic elements — the occasional tripod on the cover or title page — the first fully illustrated edition wasn’t published until 1906. It was this expensive special edition of only 500 copies that would influence the depiction of Wells’ creations for the next century.
The illustrator was Henrique Alvim Corrêa, a Brazilian artist who lived a short but intense and productive life. Alvim Corrêa was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1876 to a wealthy family. His father, a prominent lawyer, died when he was seven years old. His mother was remarried to banker José Mendez de Oliveira Castro in 1888, and in 1892, when Alvim Corrêa was 16 years old, the family moved to Lisbon before settling permanently in Paris a year later. In 1894 at the age of 18, he began his formal instruction in art under military painter Édouard Detaille. Military themes had been extremely popular in French art since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and Henrique followed in his master’s footsteps, exhibiting well-received military pieces in the Paris Salons of 1896 and 1897.
In 1898 Alvim Corrêa suddenly quit his studies, and against the wishes of his family married 17-year-old Blanche Fernande Barbant, daughter of engraver Charles Barbant, who was himself a successful illustrator of books by Jules Verne, among other authors. The newlyweds moved to Brussels and had their first child late that year. Cut off from his family’s financial support and connections in the art world, Alvim Corrêa had to scrape together whatever commercial work — advertisements, house painting — he could find to make do. By 1900 his finances were stable enough that he was able to move his family to the suburb of Boitsfort where he opened a studio.
Still little known as an artist, Alvim Corrêa hustled like crazy to get his work out there. He developed a style of strong contrasts and dynamic movement in drawing and painting, exploring surreal dreamscapes, caricatures, figures in action (military men, working women), landscapes real and fictional, themes of eroticism and violence individually and in combination. In 1903 he read The War of the Worlds and was inspired to draw his vision of Wells’ Martians which fit so handily with the recurring themes in his private work. Entirely unsolicited, Alvim Corrêa took his handful of drawings to London and showed them to Mr. Wells, who didn’t know him from Adam. The author was so impressed with the artwork that he invited Alvim Corrêa to illustrate the upcoming special edition of The War of Worlds by Belgian publisher L. Vandamme.
Alvim Corrêa returned to Boitsfort where he spent two years working on the illustrations. At the same time, he organized a solo exhibition of his own work which opened in 1905 and garnered him significant buzz. He went back to London that year to show Wells the finished group of 32 drawings. Wells loved them and in 1906, L. Vandamme published the large format luxury illustrated French edition of The War of the Worlds. Each of the 500 copies of the special edition was numbered and signed by Henrique Alvim Corrêa. Wells would say of the illustrations: “Alvim Corrêa did more for my work with his brush than I with my pen.”
Unfortunately his busy 1905 also included several months spent in Switzerland where he had surgery in the vain attempt to stop the tuberculosis that was laying waste to his lungs and intestines. He recovered from the surgery but not from the TB. That powerful drive of his could not overcome tuberculosis. He had to slow down his hectic work schedule considerably, but even a slowed down Alvim Corrêa continued to produce unique art, like Visions Erotiques, a collection of 20 erotic drawings entwining sex and death that he published under the pseudonym Henri Lemort (Henry the dead) in 1908. In 1910 he put together another exhibition of his work, this time alongside other artists’ pieces.
Working until the very end, Alvim Corrêa died in 1910 at the age of 34. He remained virtually unknown, even in his own country, outside of a small circle of rare book collectors and Wells connoisseurs. In the early 1970s Brazilian art historians brought him back into the light as a native son of great talent and innovation. Over the following decades his work, especially the Wells drawings, went on display at museums all over the country. His original drawings for The War of the Worlds remained in his family until 1990 when 31 of the original 32 were sold to a private collector, along with a poster announcing the special edition and a charming note Wells wrote to Alvim Corrêa in November of 1903 in which he told him he was “very glad indeed you like my Moon Men.”
That entire set is now on sale again at Heritage Auctions. Each piece is being sold in individual lots, with the letter being the least expensive at an estimated sale price of $500-$700, which is basically its autograph value. The estimate for the poster is $3,000-$5,000. The illustrations range from $5,000 to a high range of $25,000 for the title page. The collection all together could take in $500,000.
Such a shame it’ll be broken up, though. I hope some proper nerd buys the whole group and donates or loans it permanently to a museum. The 31 original artworks, poster and letter were displayed at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame’s inaugural The War of the Worlds exhibition in Seattle, Washington, from October 2004 to October 2005. That was the first (and last, as far as I know) time Alvim Corrêa’s drawings were exhibited in the United States. The museum is the passion project of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who could light his cigars with half a million dollars and has repeatedly proven himself unafraid to pour money into his love of history.
The archaeological survey in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the Danish island of Lolland has discovered another pre-historic treasure in exceptional condition. After the flint dagger with intact bark handle, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and the flint axe with the intact wood handle, now archaeologists have unearthed a Stone Age wooden eel fishing spear with the central bone prong still in place.
Similar spears, known as leisters, are still used to capture eels today, but archaeologists could not confirm whether the design of two lateral prongs that curve outwards with a straight, sharp central prong was used in pre-historic times as well. While individual lateral wooden prongs, bone points and more rarely pairs of prongs have been found before, this is the first time a leister has been found with all three prongs in position. It confirms that Neolithic eel spears had the same configuration as modern ones, which means the craft of eel fishing hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.
“Unfortunately, the string winding and the shaft were missing, but the position of leister prongs and bone point in relation to each other can only be interpreted as the result of a leister that has broken off – the pieces were still sitting at an angle in the old seabed. This means that we can now say with a greater level of certainly that Stone Age fishing leisters had both lateral wooden prongs and a centred bone point, although a tiny amount of uncertainty remains until we find a complete preserved leister,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist] Søren Anker Sørensen continues.
The leister has not been radiocarbon dated yet. It was discovered in an area that in the Late Stone Age had two lagoons and a 65-foot-wide belt of stone marking the spot where the coast was in around 3,000 B.C. The spear points could range from the middle to the late Neolithic. An individual lateral prong from a leister was found at another dig site in the ancient lagoon which dates to the late Neolithic.
Another exciting find from the excavation is the end of a hafted arrow. The shaft isn’t complete — the piece is about four inches long and broken in two — but the most important part of the weapon is: the pointy end. The flint arrowhead is attached, and the adhesive and binding used to fix the point to the shaft is still preserved. There was some discussion about how Stone Age peoples attached the flint parts of their weapons to the wood in the comments on the axe article (hi Virginia Burton!). This arrow answers the question neatly. You can see in the photograph how tightly wound the string binding is.
While frolicking through silent movie history yesterday, I came across a veritable treasure of a comedic short. It’s called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and it stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday the “scientific detective,” a parody of Sherlock Holmes who was a cocaine aficionado albeit nowhere near as rabid a one as Mr. Ennyday. The character’s name isn’t the only shameless, even joyful, drug reference. Our hero is not only an avowed drug user, he wears a bandolier of syringes filled with liquid cocaine strapped to his chest and injects himself every few minutes. He also has a large round box labelled “COCAINE” in large print that he grabs fistfuls of powder out of that he then buries his face into with Scarface-like gusto. His wall clock eschews hour markers in favor of four words at the cardinal points: eats, sleep, drinks, dope. When the single hand points to drinks, Ennyday’s manservant makes him the beverage of champions: equal parts Gordon’s Gin, laudanum and prussic acid (a solution of hydrogen cyanide).
This is no Reefer Madness. There is no stern moral conclusion about the evils of drugs. Fairbanks is his usual gregarious, athletic self, just sillier than usual. This was filmed in 1916 when drugs like cocaine, cannabis and opiates were readily available from pharmaceutical companies. Many states had laws against the sale and use of coca and opium and in December of 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which in theory made it a federal crime. Authorized companies (pharma) and individuals (doctors, patients) could still dispense and use cocaine and opiates, however.
Douglas was still a comparative rookie when he made this wacky picture, having moved to Hollywood in 1915 and signed a contract with the newly formed Triangle Pictures where he worked under the D.W. Griffith point of the triangle (the other two points were Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet). His first film was released in November 1915. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released just seven months later in June of 1916. By then, with fewer than 10 films under his belt, he already had above the title billing. It was the second time he worked with husband and wife writing team John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson directed the picture — very amusingly, I might add; there are some great comedic beats in there — and Loos wrote the intertitles with tongue firmly in cheek. Fairbanks made his own contributions to the script, something you see reflected in the beginning and closing sequences where he’s playing himself pitching the madcap story of Coke Ennyday to a studio writer who naturally tells him this is a ridiculous idea for a picture that will never be made.
(Loos would later go on to write the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a huge success in print, on stage and in film, with the most famous movie version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Emerson would go on to be a huge parasite on his wife, sponging off her success, stealing her money, losing it all and stealing it again when she bounced back, all the while cheating on her and manipulating her with faked illnesses and endless drama.)
When Fairbanks rose to the loftiest heights of Hollywood fame, he reportedly came to hate this wild foray into drugged-out good times and tried to have it destroyed. With all the silent pictures we’ve lost to time and nitrate volatility and studios not giving a crap about their history, it’s remarkable that this bizarre little two-reeler survived even when the greatest star of the era wanted it gone.
Also of historical note is the relatively subdued racist angle. There’s a Chinese laundry guy/opium dealer stereotype, but it’s small potatoes compared to the blatant racism of the debate around the passage of the Harrison Act which was all about cocaine making black men crazy, aggressive, superstrong and driving them to rape white women, while the Chinese used opium to lure innocent white girls into drug addiction, illicit relationships and, inevitably, prostitution.
The movie really doesn’t care about any of that noise. It’s quite remarkable, because studios were consistently cowardly when it came to potentially controversial issues, even before the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the later implementation of the Production Code. The story was by Tod Browning, best known today for his ground-breaking and still creepy as hell talkie Freaks. He had run away from home to join the circus when he was a teenager, so he was not easily scandalized.
Anyway, without further ado, here is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.
Last night Turner Classic Movies aired the restored work print of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson found in Pordenone, Italy, in 2008. It was the second film Welles ever made (the first was a short eight minutes long; the third was Citizen Kane) and had long been thought lost before the silent film experts of Cinemazero discovered the print that had been languishing forgotten in a shipping company warehouse since the 70s.
An adaptation of an 1894 play by William Gillette, Welles made significant changes to the original script of Too Much Johnson for an experimental staging by his Mercury Theatre company. The original plan was for the three reels of the picture to be introductions to each act, the first reel 20 minutes long, the remaining two 10 minutes each. The film was silent slapstick in the style of Mack Sennett’s early comedies and it would set the stage for a performance of the play done as a screwball comedy.
This was Welles’ first full experience of shooting and editing a movie. In 10 days of filming, he shot 25,000 feet of film. He took all 25,000 feet of highly flammable 35mm nitrate to his hotel suite at the St. Regius and edited it himself on a Moviola machine. Producer John Houseman and assistant director John Berry aided him in this slightly insane endeavor, and would later recall that nitrate film covered the floor of the suite reaching knee-high. There was at least one fire. Somehow, the men, the film, the hotel suite and the hotel, for that matter, survived this cockamamie scheme, and Welles managed to narrow down the 10 reels of footage to a rough working print just over an hour in running time.
He never did finish editing the movie. There may have been an issue with royalties — Paramount owned the film rights to the original play — and legend has it the Stony Creek Theatre, the theater near New Haven where the play was to have its trial run, did not have the fireproof projection booth and/or a high enough ceiling to show the film. However, Paramount has no record of sending Welles a letter asserting their rights and the Stony Creek Theatre started out as the Lyric Theater, a nickelodeon, in 1903 (the same year The Great Train Robbery altered the movie-going landscape forever) so even though it was purchased by a community theater group in 1920 and a proper stage and fly gallery added, it seems odd that it would have lost all its original film projection capabilities by August 16th, 1938, when the Too Much Johnson preview began.
Whatever the reason, the movie part of the Mercury staging of the play never did happen. Without it the play, which Welles had modified extensively assuming there would be introductory films, didn’t work and the New Haven trial was a flop. Although Welles made noises that the play would move on to Broadway, the debut kept getting postponed and ultimately dropped. The Mercury Theatre company had begun putting on live hour-long radio dramas in July of 1938, and in October of that year they pulled off the greatest radio drama caper of all time with the broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The huge reaction got them a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and two more years of weekly shows, so Too Much Johnson fell by the wayside.
The footage wound up in storage. Welles himself completely forgot about it until he found a print at his house in Madrid in the 1960s. He refused to show it publicly, saying that it made no sense without the play context, much like the play had made little sense without the companion film. When that print was lost in a fire, scholars thought this important transitional piece that had much to reveal about the development of Welles’ directorial approach was gone forever. That’s why the discovery of the second print in Pordenone was greeted with such joy by film nerds and Welles’ fans.
Too Much Johnson was restored by the geniuses at the George Eastman House with invaluable help from Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands and had its world debut at a silent film festival in Pordenone in October of 2013 before making its US debut later that month at the George Eastman House. That viewing was for members only; the rest of us had to wait to get our eyeballs on it, so I was kicking myself for not realizing ahead of time that the movie would finally air on a widely accessible cable channel. It’s pretty great, too. I didn’t find it all that confusing, even though there are no intertitles and there are repetitive takes included.
The stand-outs for me are Joseph Cotten, who legs it over the rooftops of New York City with impressive gameness, grace and skill, the cinematography and the angled shots, surprising quick-cuts and close-ups that would come to define the Welles of Citizen Kane and after. Cotten makes Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, one of Welles’ inspirations for the picture, look like an accountant at a desk job. This was done with a shoe-string budget. There were no stunts, no carefully arranged shots that made a guy dangling from a clock a few feet above a platform look like he was dangling from a clock many stories in the air. Cotten and the man he has cuckholded, played with moustache-twirling zest by Edgar Barrier, scramble up and down Battery tenements, scooch around ledges and plank over chimneys with the greatest of ease.
Cinematographer Paul Dunbar pulled a rabbit out of a hat, making this two-buck-chuck of a film look way more expensive than it had any right to look. There are great shots capturing the geometry of the city (diagonal criss-cross fire escapes, stacks and stacks of boxes, background skyscrapers, hats covering the ground like confetti). Scenes set in “Cuba” were shot in a quarry over the Hudson River planted with palm trees Welles picked up at a local plant nursery. It’s downright eerie how well it all works.
But you don’t have to take my word for it just because I neglected to alert you to the impending airing. Thankfully the National Film Preservation Foundation has come to the rescue. When I posted about the restoration two years ago, the NFPF was raising money to digitize the movie and make it available for free on its website. Well, they were successful! You can watch the whole restored 66-minute work print online here. Being a particularly awesome organization, they have also uploaded an edited version which is an “educated guess” of how Welles might have pared down the footage for use alongside the play.
The NFPF version (I’ve only seen the work print all the way through) is actually better than the version TCM showed, in my opinion, because the score is so much better. They’ve added a proper silent movie score whereas the TCM version was a very repetitive, sloooooow, minimalist composition that doesn’t match the slapstick action at all. They’ve also provided phenomenal notes explaining the full context of the play, comparing the original to drafts of the Mercury version so it’s much easier to follow the story. So yeah. Two thumbs most enthusiastically up.
From the dig that brought you the barrels full of 14th century human excreta in the city center of Odense, Denmark, the latest find is a small wooden stick inscribed with runes in the early 13th century. Excavations were already complete (the last day was August 29th, 2014) when archaeologists picked out three small pieces of wood while processing the large number of finds. The three fragments fit together to form a stick 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long, 1.2 cm (.47 inches) wide and a few millimeters thick. Archaeologists saw there were lines on the front and back and recognized them as runes.
Lisbeth Imer, a rune expert from The National Museum of Denmark was called in to examine the stick. Preserved for 800 years in the anoxic, water-logged environment, the wood was soft with the texture of cold butter. After conservation — a long soak in water-soluble wax — the wood will firm up, but it might also obscure key details of the runes making them harder to interpret accurately. Imer therefore had to work with the soft piece as it was. There’s also a divot missing in the middle and at some point in its long life the stick was gouged by a root growing against the back.
She was nonetheless able to extract key words. The runes are in Latin (the runic alphabet can be used to write in any language, just like the alphabet I’m using right now). There’s the word salu, which can mean “good health” and the back is inscribed t = umi or t = ume famulum suum which together can be read as “Tomme his servant,” Tomme being the stick’s owner and the “his” referring to God. It seems, therefore, that this rune stick was an amulet meant to keep its bearer healthy. A broken hole at one end suggests it may have been worn on a string.
It’s the first runic inscription on a wooden stick found in Denmark in 50 years, but we know these sorts of objects were widespread in medieval Scandinavia despite their relatively poor survival rate because a stash of 670 rune sticks were discovered during excavations at the Bryggen commercial buildings in Bergen, Norway, after a 1955 fire. This rune stick was also found in a commercial milieu. It was unearthed in a layer containing the remains of trade stalls from the 1200s when the area is known to have had a fish market before it was moved just north to a site still known today as Fisketorvet or Fish Square.
The rune stick was displayed to the public on April 25th at Møntergården, Odense’s cultural history museum, as part of Research Day, but it won’t be exhibited again until conservation is completed.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Runes shmunes. What about the poop?! I’m delighted to report there is an update on the barrels of 700-year-old poop excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Square in 2013, and it may be the greatest update of all time.
First about the barrels themselves: dendrochronological analysis found that the trees used to make the barrels came from Kolobrzeg, Poland, and were felled from 1348 to 1352 and 1346 to 1358. They were used to transport salt from Poland to Denmark and once the contents were removed, the barrels were repurposed. The poop dates to the 1360s, so the turn-over was quite quick. The staves of used barrels loosen up leaving gaps between them, a bug if you’re trying to carry salt, but a feature if you’re using them as latrines. The loose staves allowed liquid to slowly seep out into the ground leaving the solid waste to compact in the barrel. Studies have shown that with proper seepage, a single barrel can remain usable for one person for 20 years.
The compacted poop was removed from the two barrels and is being kept in plastic bags in refrigerators at the Odense City Museums. Researchers take out a teaspoon at a time, run it through a sieve and look at the particulate matter under the microscope. Grains and seeds can be identified by their cellular structure to give us a comprehensive picture of people’s diets in medieval Odense. So far they have found the remains of a variety of lovely fruits — apples, figs, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries — and mustard seed which would have been used as a flavoring spice. They also found miller’s bran and corn cockle seeds from a weed that grows alongside edible grains. The seeds are actually poisonous, but because they are difficult to separate from the grain during harvest and processing, a few seeds make their way up the food chain and down the poop chute. Corn cockles are most commonly found in rye fields, so it was likely rye bread or porridge.
Regarding the moss discovered in the barrels, moss has been found in medieval latrines in England as well. Several species of moss make excellent toilet paper, it seems, and sphagnum moss, aka peat moss, not only provides a comfy wipe, but it has additional hygienic properties as well. There are two kinds of cells in the leaves. The larger of the two can hold water much like a sponge, so it acts as a wet wipe, washing the business area instead of just drying it. In the Middle Ages it was also believed to have antiseptic properties. Interestingly, peat moss is a common additive to modern composting toilets because it encourages the absorption of liquid, encourages aerobic action and helps block odor.
Speaking of odor, Odense City Museums invited Kouki Fujioka from Tokyo’s Jikei University to take a whiff of their medieval poop. He is a scent expert, you see, and has developed a system to detect, isolate and categorize scents. He took odor samples from the barrel excrement and will measure the proportions of acids and alcohols in them which will indicate the level of spoilage. He will also work to replicate the various hearty aromas of 700-year-old human excrement which may sound less than enjoyable, but the museum is excited about the possibilities of recreating the smells of the past. Imagine a museum exhibition in Smell-O-Vision. What an intensely immersive connection to history.
Human excrement isn’t the only scatological gold unearthed at this site. Archaeologists also found a perfectly formed dog crap from the 12th century, a very rare survival, which they are analyzing for pollen and seeds to discover what dogs ate in medieval Denmark.
Oh and they found some gold gold too — a 14th century cross pendant and a delicate 13th century ring with a cabochon garnet — if you’re the kind of weirdo who’s into that sort of thing.
An international team of archaeologists and British war veterans have come together to excavate the Waterloo battlefield. It’s the first large-scale archaeological survey of the Hougoumont Farm area which proved to be a vital position attacked repeatedly by French forces during the June 18th, 1815, battle. So far the team has focused on the site of a wood south of the farm buildings that took the brunt of early French attacks. It’s been less than a week and a geophysical survey, a metal detector survey and test trenches have found coins, uniform buttons, fragments of firearms and English and French musket balls.
Dr Tony Pollard, Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, leading the archaeology, said: “The full team has only been working on site for two days and we have made some very interesting discoveries. In particular, we have started a comprehensive survey, including metal detecting, of the area of the former wood to the south of the Hougoumont buildings and we have already found spent and unfired musket shots at the southern-most tip of the wood, also fragments of firearms and clothing such as uniform buttons.
“We know that shots were exchanged between the French and Allied armies in these woods during the night before the battle, as the French probed the allied position and the first real fighting took place in the same spot. I am confident these shots were fired very early in the battle, probably in the first exchanges.”
The team is hoping this excavation will answer questions about the battle. Much has been written about it, but eye-witness accounts and reports from the battlefield can be biased, muddled and contradictory. Although some topographical features have been altered either deliberately (the Lion Mount) or through natural processes and illegal metal detecting by souvenir hunters has removed a lot of the metal artifacts, the field has been left largely undeveloped in the 200 years since the battle. Battlefield archaeologists are optimistic that there is a great deal left to discover, including the locations of mass graves. The geophysical survey of the area around Hougoumont Farm detected anomalies that could be buried human remains. Any human remains discovered will be studied but not disturbed. The aim is to mark the graves, not to exhume bodies.
The Waterloo Uncovered excavation project was conceived by Major Charles Foinette, serving with 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, and Mark Evans, an Afghanistan veteran who was also an officer with the Coldstream Guards. The dig is all the more meaningful to them because a company of the Coldstream Guards were stationed at the farm and defended it valiantly against French attacks. Several other former and current Coldstream Guards are part of the excavation team through project partner Operation Nightingale, a program found in 2012 that puts soldiers injured in Afghanistan to work on archaeological excavations as a form of vocational training and physical and social therapy. It’s been a great success from the first year and Mark Evans is living proof of it since he was first introduced to archaeology through his participation in Operation Nightingale as an Afghanistan veteran suffering from PTSD. To have soldiers working at the site lends valuable insight to battlefield archaeology.
“Now we’ve got some of the top archaeologists in the world working on this site, but none of them has ever been in a battle, and it’s that perspective that the soldiers bring. They’ve been there, they’ve seen it. A different time and a different place, but they understand the confusion, they understand how ground is so important to cover and to make into advances,” Evans said.
The project is currently slated to last a year, but it could develop into a longer-term investigation if the will is there.
During the restoration of the 16th century Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in the Peruvian town of Maras, 25 miles northwest of Cuzco, researchers discovered a crypt with skeletal remains and the original murals that had been covered with more fashionable artworks by a famous native son in the 17th century. Experts from the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco (DPDDC), the governmental organization in charge of administering the cultural patrimony of the Cuzco region in southeastern Peru, found the crypt under the floor of the Virgen de las Nieves chapel. Inside are a jumble of human bones that researchers estimate belong to 32 people interred in the early days of the church. The remains are disarticulated and scattered likely as a result of deliberate and repeated desecrations that are known to have occurred in the region.
The Templo Mayor San Francisco de Asís was built in 1556, 22 years after the conquest of Peru, the same year the town was founded by Spanish general Pedro Ortiz de Orué. It was constructed in colonial style with adobe walls on a masonry foundation and a tile roof and packed with religious art. Since the restoration of the church is a top-to-bottom project covering the building and all the art inside of it, paintings on the presbytery wall by Antonio Sinchi Roca were removed for conservation.
Antonio Sinchi Roca, born in Maras, was one of the most prominent artists of the Cuzco School, many of whom are unfortunately anonymous today. Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo, born to a wealthy Madrid family in 1626 and the powerful bishop of Cuzco from 1673 until his death in 1699, was his patron. His painted a series of portraits of the saints and scenes from the Gospel for the church of Saint Francis in his hometown. There are some great views of them in this video from right before the refurbishment began.
Underneath Roca’s paintings researchers found a multi-panel mural with scenes of the Virgin Mary. Covered up barely a century after their creation, the murals are in remarkable condition with beautifully bright colors. Another mural was discovered on the wall of the central nave that has more abstract geometric and zoomorophic designs.
These murals predate the Cuzco School of religious art, the first organized artistic movement in the New World of which Roca was one of the most famous exponents. Keen to dive right into the conversion of the Inca people after the conquest, Spain sent artists to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, to found a school that would teach the local Quechuas and mestizos to paint religious art in the European style. The Cuzco School artists painted scenes integral to the Catholic catechism — the Holy Family, the Virgin and Child, Christ in Glory, saints, angels (often depicted as warriors), the Final Judgement, the sacraments — using a palette of bright reds, yellows, earth tones and shining gold. They eschewed perspective, focusing instead of emphasizing the important figures by making them dominant in size and in the splendour of their robes.
Restoration of the church began in July 2013 and is scheduled to be complete by July of 2016. The art has been removed to a lab for conservation. No word on whether or how they’ll integrate the original murals with the works that have been covering them for more than 300 years.
The cave was discovered in December of 1994 by three speleologists: Jean-Marie Chauvet (after whom it was named), Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. They were the first people to see the splendour on the walls since the cave opening was sealed by a rockfall 23,000 years ago. France learned a hard lesson with the Lascaux Cave which was discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and in dire condition by 1955 thanks to the carbon dioxide, moisture, contaminants and lichens introduced by unwitting visitors. This time they took no chances. The French government declared the Chauvet Cave a protected heritage site almost immediately and only made it available to fewer than 200 researchers a year.
Because of its excellent condition, the density and quality of the art, which includes some species of animals like the panther and owl seen in no other Paleolithic art, and the rich remains of prehistoric fauna and human footprints found on the ground, the cave was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June of 2014. But how to share said heritage with said world without causing irreparable harm to it? Again Lascaux paved the way. Lascaux II, a replica of the main sections of the cave and its art, opened in 1983 and has been very popular to the tourists who can no longer see the original cave.
In 2008, a contest was launched to select the architect who make a replica of the Chauvet Cave. French architects Fabre and Speller won, but their design for the concrete building that would house the replica cave was only one part of a complex whole. This construction and art project would ultimately requiring the close collaboration of 500 people employed by 35 different companies. A 3D laser scanning survey was carried out in 2011 so that every feature of the cave interior could be duplicated. Since the cave is very long, it was rearranged in the replica, basically folded into a circle with all the art consolidated, but meticulously mapped out to its original topography. The original 91,000 square feet were thus reduced to a more manageable but still vast 32,000 square feet, 10 times the size of Lascaux II.
The construction of the walls, ceilings and floors with their accurate topographic features was achieved by bending thousands of metal rods to precisely match the natural lumps and bumps mapped by the 3D scans. The rods were then welded together in sections that could be affixed to steel beams in the ceiling of the new structure. Before they were installed in place, the cage-like sections were covered with two layers of mortar: one of landscape mortar and a top layer of finishing mortar the same colors and textures as the clay and limestone of the original. Even the cracks were reproduced exactly. A thin layer of fine mortar sprayed with a retardant to keep it damp while the artists work was used for the walls with engraved images and finger paints.
Once the sections were prepped, the artists got their turn. Painters used the same kind of charcoal made from Sylvester pine trees and the ocher pigment used by the Aurignacian artists tens of thousands of years ago. Pictures of the originals were projected onto the wall sections, ensuring they were reproduced accurately to the millimeter. Thanks to the mortars used as a base, these materials will sink into the walls over time just the original ones did.
Because they wanted to reproduce not just the art but convey the experience of being in the original cave, geological features like stalactites and calcite concretions were recreated out of epoxy resin or concrete. Crushed or powdered glass was added to the resin to give it that beautiful glittery look you see in natural cave formations. Some of the pieces were treated with glossy topcoat that make them look wet, like the water that formed them is still dripping.
Once all 27 large panels were complete, they were installed in the building along with replicas of the bones and footprints found on the ground in the original cave. It took only 30 months from the time construction began in 2012 until its completion. The cost was $59 million, sure to be recouped many times over by the expected influx of 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year. On Saturday, April 25th, 2014, the replica opened to the public.
This video is in French, but even if you don’t speak any you should still be able to follow it roughly based on the descriptions above, and you really should watch it because it is mind-blowing how they put this thing together.
Also, if you have Netflix, you have to watch Werner Herzog’s breathtaking documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He was allowed very rare access to the original cave and the result is an artistic tour de force as much in execution as in subject matter.
In April of 1917, construction of the Rome-Cassino railroad line just outside the gates of the Porta Maggiore on the Via Praenestina in Rome was halted by a cave-in. The cause turned out to be the collapse of an ancient roof of a building nobody knew was under their feet. As it happens, most ancient Romans probably had no idea it was under their feet either. It was deliberately built about seven or eight meters (23-26 feet) below the level of the ancient Via Praenestina in the early decades of the 1st century A.D. and constructed in such a way as to give little indication that something was going on down there.
The part that caved in was the barrel vaulted roof of a dromos, a long entrance gallery that sloped down from the surface and then turned at a right angle for a short passageway into a small square atrium topped by a domed vault. Light was provided by a skylight at the beginning of the dromos, another where it corners into the short passageway and a third in the atrium vault. The atrium opens into a rectangular hall 12 meters (40 feet) long and nine meters (30 feet) wide divided into three barrel-vaulted sections. Two rows of three square pillars separate the central nave from the aisles on either side. The nave is wider than the aisles and opens into a semi-circular apse at the bottom. The main hall was lit by chandeliers and lamps.
This is the classic basilica design, used by the Romans as loci for business transactions, court proceedings and imperial audiences. What makes this building unique in the Roman world is that it is a basilica built for a pre-Christian religious purpose. Roman temples had columned porticos, a main room where the deity’s image was housed and one or more back rooms to store equipment, sacrifices and treasure. When Christianity was decriminalized by the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Constantine wanted to build impressive churches, as opposed to the cramped underground chapels, catacombs and private homes used when it was a suppressed religion. He turned to the basilica as a public building of widely-recognized civic importance that was not associated with pagan religious practices, and Christian churches have embraced that ancient design ever since.
The Porta Maggiore basilica is not a temple and it’s not Christian, but it’s definitely a religious building. The decoration attests to that, as does the fact that it was built underground in the first place. Above a wainscoting-like band of red paint of which there are sections extant, the walls and vaults are covered with exquisite white stucco reliefs of mythological scenes like Sappho’s legendary suicide by throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff into the ocean, Zeus’ eagle abducting Ganymede, Medea offering a magical narcotic beverage to knock out the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, Orpheus leading Eurydice back from the underworld, Hercules rescuing Hesione from the sea monster, Paris and Helen, Hippolytus and Phaedra, the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, and one of the Dioscuri kidnapping one of the Leucippides for his bride. There are also heads of Medusa, children at play, animals, plants, a wedding, winged Victories, Nereids, bacchantes, herms, urns, a pygmy returning to his hut after a successful hunt, a table groaning with food and drink, stylized landscapes with garlanded columns and votive trees, worshippers praying to or decorating altars, ritual devotions, and all kinds of geometric and floral flourishes. The quality of the reliefs is exceptionally high and the consistency of style confirms a first century A.D. date.
The method of construction is one of the most fascinating aspects of this unique structure. Nothing else like it has been found. Builders dug seven or eight meters down into the soft volcanic tufa creating trenches where the perimeter walls would go and squared pits where the pillars would go. They then poured that fabulous Roman concrete into pits and let it set. No need for forms or scaffolding; the tufa itself provided the support necessary. Once the concrete had hardened, they poured the concrete for the arches over the pillars and the barrel vaulted ceilings. Lastly they dug out all the tufa from the interior and voila: underground basilica. So damn ingenious. Even though the walls were painted and stuccoed, you can still see the rough texture imprinted on them by the tufa as they dried.
The mosaic floors have remained essentially intact. Made primarily of white tiles with black borders around the walls and pillars, there are untiled areas whose outlines suggest they were once the bases of statues or large urns. In the center of the nave and aisles are small pits that archaeologists believe were the anchor points for the chains used to raise and lower the chandeliers. The skeletal remains of a dog and a pig were found underneath the floor of the apse, likely a sacrifice made during the consecration of the basilica.
Since its discovery, historians have proposed several possible uses for the building — tomb, nymphaeum, site of a funerary cult of the dead — but the prevailing theory at the moment is that it was a place of worship for members of a Neopythagorean mystery religion. Neopythagoreanism was a revival of an earlier school of thought espoused by the mathematician Pythagoras of Theorem fame that held that union with the divine was possible through ascetic living and contemplation of the cosmic order. Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, was a central tenet. The presence of multiple scenes dealing in the movement of souls to and from the underworld (Orpheus, Sappho) and transitions from one state of being to another (Ganymede, the Dioscuro and Leucippid) on the basilica decorations are clues to its possible association with this Hellenistic mystery cult. There is so much variety in the stucco reliefs, however, and so much we don’t know about the symbolism behind them, that the basilica’s usage may remain a mystery forever, which is fitting, really.
This marvelous space was filled with rubble and sealed just a few years after it was built. Its location may explain its fate. The basilica is believed to have been built on property belonging to the Statilius family. This is evidenced by a burial ground nearby for the servants and freedmen of the Statilii. This family was new, only a few generations from its first consul Titus Statilius Taurus I who had fought for both Anthony and Octavian during the Triumvirate and ultimately backed the right horse at the right time leading Octavian’s armies at Actium.
The Statilii were very wealthy (gotta have big money to come from nothing and successfully climb the cursus honorum) and one of them,
Tacitus describes the events in his Annals, Book XII, Chapter 59:
Statilius Taurus, whose wealth was famous, and whose gardens aroused [Agrippina's] cupidity, she ruined with an accusation brought by Tarquitius Priscus. He had been the legate of Taurus when he was governing Africa with proconsular powers, and now on their return charged him with a few acts of malversation, but more seriously with addiction to magical superstitions. Without tolerating longer a lying accuser and an unworthy humiliation, Taurus took his own life before the verdict of the senate.
Rubble found in the basilica dates to the middle of the first century, and archaeologists believe it was sealed during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. So we have a brilliantly built, expensively decorated, secret underground basilica constructed on Statilius land just outside the ancient walls of the city. Sounds like something a very rich person with “an addiction to magical superstitions” might build, no? The missing statuary and urns and missing altar could have been confiscated and/or destroyed by imperial order, or they could have been removed by his people before the basilica was sealed to prevent them from getting into any more trouble.
That theory was proposed by French historian Jérôme Carcopino who was Director of the French School in Rome in 1937. More recently, historian and professor of Roman art and archaeology Gilles Sauron proposed that the basilica was constructed by an earlier Statilius, Titus Statilius Taurus III, second son of the original new man Titus Statilius Taurus, who was consul in 11 A.D. Recent conservation work has found different sizes of mosaic tiles and possible indications that some of the stucco reliefs may have been done at different times, so both historians may be right after all.
Once it was rediscovered by the railway workers, the basilica was restored several times. To provide access to the structure which is now 13 meters (about 43 feet) below street level, a staircase was built from the Via Praenestina connecting to the short passageway right before it opens into the atrium. It has very rarely been open to the public, however, because of its delicate condition. Stucco is extremely susceptible to moisture and as early as 1924, just seven years after it was found, water damage became such a concern that conservators covered the top with a cap of pipe-clay to form an impermeable membrane. It proved not to be impermeable, unfortunately, so 25 years later they tried again. In 1951 the railway paid for construction of a dome of reinforced concrete to protect the delicate basilica beneath from the vibrations of the trains and water damage. It was a stop-gap measure and the basilica continued to deteriorate.
Because of its precarious condition, this beautiful basilica, unique in the world, is barely known. That may change now that a new restoration more than 10 years in the making has addressed long-term issues with water penetration, cleaned out the plague of parasitic microorganisms that feast on stucco, and installed eight machines that filter the air to operating-room cleanliness and monitor the temperature and humidity. Work on the dromos, atrium and apse is complete, but it is ongoing on the vaulted ceilings. They’re still raising funds to restore the naves.
The basilica will be open to guided tours only, reservations obligatory (call 0639967700 to book a visit). Because an excess of human bodies with their breathing and sweating and greasiness and germs can drastically alter the precarious environmental balance of the structure, tours are offered on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
This Italian news story shows the basilica before restoration:
This is a fly-through with some CG effects of the basilica as it is now:
In November of 1792, the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, then 46 years old, was afflicted with a severe illness that almost claimed his sanity if not his life. Symptoms included deafness, dizziness to the point of being unable to stand and vision loss. He spent six months, the first half of 1793, convalescing at the home of financier and collector Don Sebastián Martínez in Cádiz. Martínez secured the best medical attention available for his friend but Goya never did fully recover. He lost his hearing permanently. Martínez described his slow recovery in a letter to Goya’s close friend Martín Zapater, an Aragonese merchant Goya had known since they were schoolboys together at the Escuela Pia in Zaragoza:
The noises in his head and the deafness have not improved, but his vision is much better and he is no longer suffering from the disorders which made him lose his balance. He can now go up and down stairs and in a word is doing things he was not able to do before.
Some doctors today speculate that his symptoms may have been caused by Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder which can cause vertigo, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), migraines, vomiting, abnormal eye movements and temporary of permanent deafness. Whatever the cause, the illness had a profound effect on Goya. It altered his understanding of his body, and therefore of the body in general, profoundly. He wrote to Zapater at the end of 1792 saying “Now I don’t fear witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars or any kind of body except human ones.”
That would turn out to be a prophetic vision of his art after his recovery. Goya, who up until that point had focused on idealized beauty, relatively sunny compositions and portraits commissioned by the wealthy and aristocracy of Spain, began to explore darker subjects, starting with a series of 11 small oil-on-tinplate pieces that would become known as the Fantasy and Invention series. In a 1794 letter to his friend Bernardo de Yriarte he wrote: “Vexed by my illnesses, and to compensate in part for the great wastes of time they have cost me, I have dedicated myself to painting a group of cabinet pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations that ordinarily find no place in commissioned works.” He mentions one in particular, a courtyard in a madhouse “in which two nude men fight with their warden beating them and others with sacks (a subject which I witnessed in Zaragoza).” Yard with Madmen (1794), now at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, could not be starker in contrast to the Watteauesque tapestry cartoons of his early career, religious paintings and royal portraits painted just three years before his illness.
Although Goya continued to be court painter and make flattering portraits by commission, in his private art he wrestled with those witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars that so compelled him since his own body had turned traitor. Most of these were not for public consumption, although he did paint several witch-themed canvases for the country home of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. In 1799 he published Caprichos, a group of aquatint etchings depicting “numerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society,” whose most famous plate today is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, but he quickly withdrew it from sale out of concern that the Inquisition might come calling over his depictions of clerical folly.
Later in life, between 1819 and 1823, his explorations of haunted humanity came to their fullest fulgor in the Black Paintings, 14 murals he painted on the walls of his country house outside of Madrid called the Quinta del Sordo, meaning the House of the Deaf Man (named after a previous owner). Black because of the dark palette and because of the subject matter, their unflinching horror and modernity have deeply influenced and continue to influence artists ever since. Saturn Devouring His Son remains unparalleled in its depiction of cannibalistic madness, and The Great He-goat (Witches Sabbath), originally on the wall to the left of Saturn on the ground floor of the Quinta del Sordo, is probably the second best-known masterpiece of the collection. The Black Paintings were removed from the walls and transferred to canvas in 1873 and are now in the collection of the Prado.
In the same period when he was so uniquely decorating his walls at Quinta del Sordo, Goya also created an album of drawings known today as the Witches and Old Women album. It was one of eight albums Goya filled with his private visions, imaginings and dreams after his illness and you can see parallels between the small drawings and the figures in this vast Witches Sabbath mural. After his death in 1828, Goya’s son Javier rearranged the drawings into three large albums and after Javier’s death in 1854, his son Mariano sold the three albums. Eventually the drawings were removed and sold piecemeal winding up in collections all over the world.
In the dismantling of the albums, Goya’s careful numbering of each drawing was sometimes cut off, so even though we know, for example, that the 22 ink drawings of witches and old women were once all together in one of the original eight albums, their order was lost. Now for the first time since were sold at auction in Paris in 1877, the witches are all together again and on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London, and in their original order.
In what the noted Goya scholar Juliet Wilson-Bareau calls a “feat in forensics”, conservators and curators spent months examining the sheets to determine the pictures’ correct order. Although Goya (1746-1828) meticulously numbered each sketch, eight lost their numbers over the years. The team analysed the brown and grey ink marks on the back of the drawings and “realised that some stains might be more than just accidental workshop marks”, says Stephanie Buck, the Courtauld’s curator of drawings. These offset marks corresponded with the sketches on the front, which means that the Spanish master drew the pictures in a bound sketchbook and not on loose sheets of paper that were later bound. Buck says that the discovery of the offset marks was instrumental in determining the correct sequencing.
This is not only the first time the drawings from the Witches and Old Women album have all been together again in a public exhibition; it’s the first time any of the eight albums’ drawings have been shown together. Goya only ever shared them with close friends and associates. If you’d like to share the great artist’s unfettered examinations of human nature as he originally composed them, The Witches and Old Women Album exhibition runs through May 25th, 2015.
Last fall, farmer Leif Arne Nordheim borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove some pesky flagstones from his garden in Sogndalsdalen on the southwestern coast of Norway. Lifting the last flagstone revealed tools — a hammer and tongs — which Nordheim first assumed were of relatively recent manufacture. When he found a bent blade, he realized it was likely archaeological and called in the county Cultural Department. Archaeologists from the University Museum of Bergen soon followed and an excavation of the find site ensued.
The find turned out to be far greater than originally realized, and the ancient blacksmith tools were impressive enough already. Archaeologists unearthed a large collection of forging tools and weapons, including three hammers of different sizes, two anvils, blacksmith tongs, coal tongs, a rake to remove coals, a tray used to add coals, a chisel, a scythe, a sickle, a drill, pieces of grindstone, nails, a single-edged sword, an axe, two arrows and a knife. Underneath the tools and products of the blacksmith trade archaeologists found more personal items: a razor, beard trimming scissors, tweezers, a frying pan and a poker.
The deepest layer of excavation contained ashes, charcoal and small bone fragments. The pieces of bone haven’t been identified yet, but archaeologists believe they are human remains, likely the blacksmith owner of the marvelous tools above. Between the ashes and bones fragments, researchers found the objects that the deceased was probably wearing when his body was cremated: beads and a bone comb.
In total the excavation yielded about 60 artifacts and 150 assorted fragments. Forging tools have been found in graves before, but this is an exceptionally rich collection for a blacksmith burial. Indeed, it’s the richest burial, blacksmith or not, found in the area in years.
“We think that the blacksmiths’ contemporaries wished to show how skilful he was in his work by including such an extensive amount of objects. He might have forged many of these tools himself.”
“The grave gives the impression that this was a local blacksmith and he enjoyed a high status in his society beyond being his trade,” says [co-leader the excavation Asle Bruen] Olsen.
The artifacts are currently being conserved by experts at the University Museum of Bergen. Once they’re stabilized they will go on display, possibly in a dedicated exhibition. Incidentally, the University Museum of Bergen has a neat Instagram account, incidentally. As always, I wish the pictures were bigger, but the highlights from the museum’s collection are fascinating.
The excavations under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan have unearthed another exceptional find: large quantities of liquid mercury. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez and his team have been excavating the tunnel underneath the pre-Aztec pyramid, discovered by accident in 2003 when a sinkhole opened up in front of the temple, since 2009, using a robot to reveal three chambers at the end of the tunnel and last year discovering an enormous cache of 50,000 artifacts (sculptures, jade, rubber balls, obsidian blades, pyrite mirrors) and organic remains (animal bones, fur, plants, seeds, skin). It has taken so long to excavate it because the tunnel was filled to the brim with soil and rocks and sealed 1,800 years ago by the people of Teotihuacan about whom we know very little.
The mercury was found in one of the chambers discovered by the robot at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s something that completely surprised us,” Gomez said at the entrance to the tunnel below Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.
Some archeologists believe the toxic element could herald what would be the first ruler’s tomb ever found in Teotihuacan, a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities, but so shrouded in mystery that its inhabitants still have no name.
Unsure why the mercury was put there, Gomez says the metal may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake.
(mercuric sulfide) is the most commonly found source of mercury ore and ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with it both as a red pigment and for its mercury content. They knew how to extract mercury from crushed cinnabar — heating the ore separates the mercury from sulfur and the evaporated mercury can then be collected in a condensing column — and employed it as a gilding medium and possibly for ritual purposes. It was very difficult and dangerous to produce. Before now, traces of mercury have only been found at a two Maya sites and one Olmec site in Central America. This is the first time it has been discovered in Teotihuacan, and I suspect this is the first time it has been discovered in large amounts anywhere in ancient Mexico. (The exact quantities discovered under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the other sites haven’t been reported.)
Reflective materials held a great deal of religious significance in Mesoamerican cultures. Mirrors were seen as conduits to the supernatural. A river of mercury would make one hugely expensive and ritually important conveyance to the underworld. Added to the exceptional finds already made in the tunnel, the presence of so much mercury indicates that if anybody was buried in these chambers, it would have to be someone of enormous importance in Teotihuacan society. It could be a king, but we don’t know what kind of governing system they had in Teotihuacan, so it could be a lord, several oligarchs or religious leaders. The hope is that this excavation and its unprecedented finds will answer many of the long-outstanding questions about the city of Teotihuacan.
I’m excited about this discovery because I’ve been fascinated by the notion of underground rivers of mercury since I first read about the ones reportedly created for the tomb of the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Better known today for the terracotta army found in pits around the emperor’s burial mound, the mausoleum itself was apparently a thing of shimmering splendour. Grand Historian to the Han emperor Sima Qian, writing a century after the Qin emperor’s death, described Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum in Volume Six of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first official dynastic history.
They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land.
As the emperor’s burial mound has not been excavated (just the environs), we don’t know if the rivers of flowing mercury really existed, but high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples taken from the tumulus so significant amounts of the heavy metal were certainly used for some purpose. I think it would be the coolest thing if the people of Teotihuacan created their own shimmering splendor of an underworld too.
In his short life Joachim Murat rose from modest beginnings as an innkeeper’s son in the small southwestern French town of Labastide-Fortunière to the King of Naples at 41 years of age. In between he became one of Napoleon’s best generals and, after his marriage to Caroline Bonaparte, Prince and Grand Admiral of France and the Grand Duke of Berg. Famous for his daring cavalry charges and for his flamboyant dress sense involving as many buttons, gold tassels, medals and feathers as can be crammed onto a uniform, Murat fought in approximately 200 battles and looked great doing it.
In her memoirs, Caroline Murat, daughter of Joachim’s second son Prince Napoleon Lucien Charles Murat, described her grandfather’s dashing style of dress and fearlessness in combat.
His form was tall, his tread like that of a king, his face strikingly noble, while his piercing glance few men could bear. He had heavy black whiskers and long black locks, which contrasted singularly with his fiery blue eyes. He usually wore a three-cornered hat, with a magnificent white plume of ostrich feathers. [...]
My grandfather’s dazzling exterior made him a mark for the enemy’s bullets. The wonder is that, being so conspicuous, he was never shot down and was rarely wounded. At one battle a bullet grazed his cheek. Like lightning his sword punished the offender by carrying away two of his fingers. I have read that at the battle of Aboukir he charged with his cavalry straight through the Turkish ranks, driving column after column into the sea.
Murat’s ascent was too inextricably tied to Napoleon’s to survive his mentor’s fall. In the attempt to preserve his throne, he went so far as to enter into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, but his Austrian allies turned out to be fair-weather friends at best, and when he realized they planned to remove him from the throne during the Hundred Days, he declared himself in favor of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated and fled, first attempting to get his old job back but Napoleon wouldn’t even see him, a choice the emperor would come to regret bitterly. (On St. Helena he said: “at Waterloo Murat might have given us the victory. For what did we need? To break three or four English squares. Murat was just the man for the job.”) After Napoleon’s rejection, Murat went to Corsica and mustered up 250 or so men with whom he planned to reconquer the throne of Naples from the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand IV.
This was not a well conceived plan, needless to say. His three ships were scattered in a storm. The one carrying him and 26 men was blown off course and landed in the southern Italian town of Pizzo, Calabria, near the toe of the boot, where he was promptly captured by Bourbon forces. Napoleon noted dryly that “Murat has tried to reconquer with 200 men the territory he was unable to hold when he had 80,000 of them.” Ferdinand ordered a show trial — the judges were appointed on the same day the order for his execution was sent by telegraph — and on October 13th, 1815, Joachim Murat was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death by firing squad.
He died how he lived — well dressed, vain and fearless. His last request was for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children. He refused the offer of a stool to sit on and a blindfold and stood unblinking before the fusiliers, dressed to the nines and smelling terrific. The phrasing has come down in several versions, but his last words to his executioners were so epic people are still quoting them without realizing that they’re quoting anyone: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”
His old friend and administrator of his duchy Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosburg, eulogized him poetically: “He knew how to win. He knew how to rule. He knew how to die.” Napoleon’s final assessment was a tad harsher: “In battle he was perhaps the bravest man in the world; left to himself, he was an imbecile without judgment.”
Murat’s remains are thought to have been interred in a mass grave underneath Pizzo’s Church of St. George, but there were rumors that they had been spirited away to France. There’s a memorial grave for Joachim Murat and his family in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1899, his granddaughter Countess Letizia Rasponi Murat tried to find his remains in the St. George crypt so they could rebury them with dignity in the Certosa di Bologna cemetery. They were not successful. In 1976, the crypt was exposed during repairs to the church floor. Photographs were taken through a foot-wide hole in the trap door but all they captured was the basement full of bones and humus. Determining which parts belonged to Murat would seem a fool’s errand.
In April of 2007, Professor Pino Pagnotta, president of the Joachim Murat Association, got a hold of the pictures from the 70s and studied them closely. He had them enlarged and enhanced and was able to see more than 1976 photographic technology had allowed. He spied a broken casket made of a plain wood with a cord entwined in the boards. This matches contemporary eye-witness accounts like the one of Antonino Condoleo, a youth of 15 in 1815, who assisted in the burial of Joachim Murat. Condoleo describes a mishap on the way to the church when the plain fir casket containing Murat’s body was dropped and broken. They hastily tied the casket back together with a long cord and got it to St. George’s church where it was dumped unceremoniously in the crypt.
The discovery made news at the time and the Joachim Murat Association advocated strenuously that the remains in and/or around the broken coffin be DNA tested. Eight years later, they’ve finally gotten all the various authorities clerical and secular to sign on to the project. (I suspect Richard III was not far from their minds. Pizzo’s main tourist draw is the 15th century castle built by Frederick I of Aragon in which Murat was tried and executed. The castle was renamed after him and now receives thousands of visitors a year.)
In May, the heavy marble slab sealing the basement will be moved and biologist Sergio Romano will be lowered into the crypt where he will take pictures and samples from the broken casket. If DNA can be extracted from the samples — a very big if — it can be tested against Murat’s many descendants, among then his three times great-grandson actor René Auberjonois, aka the shapeshifter Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, whose late mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat.
Last summer, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark, unearthed a rare enameled brooch in the shape of an owl. The excavation of the Lavegaard settlement on the outskirts of the town of Nexø was carried out in advance of construction of a daycare center. The archaeological team from Bornholms Museum has found large quantities of pottery, the remains of workshop ovens, hearths, clay and daub construction, traces of iron smelting and ceramics firing and more than 1,300 postholes. The owl pin was found by metal detectorists working with the archaeologists a few meters from an ancient home in the Roman Iron Age layer. Its design and composition date it to the middle of the 1st century through the end of the 3rd century A.D.
The owl’s most prominent features are its huge round eyes with bright orange irises around a black pupil. Its body has a wing decoration filled with green enamel inset with five circles, each containing concentric rings of red, yellow and black. The bird’s tail feathers are marked with semi-circular indentations and its neck is encircled by a rope design. All the colors are made of enamel.
The artifact is a plate or disk fibula, a pin used to fasten garments made from a flat disk that could be shaped into a variety of designs, including zoomorphic ones. It was made of bronze and decorated with multi-colored enamel accents. The enamel in the piece was created by applying various colors of powdered glass onto the glass rods you see in millefiori designs (that’s how those concentric circles in the eyes and on the body were made) and then firing the brooch until the powder fused into enamel. The technique used to make the owl so colorful is known as pit enamel because the surface of the enamel becomes uneven upon subsequent firings done to harden the enamel.
Roman enamel came in a variety of colors — orange, red, azure, dark blue, green, yellow, white, black — but it rarely survives in brilliant condition. Many enameled fibulae found today have seen their colors fade or change into a yellowish brown. The owl’s colors are still diverse and bright because it was preserved by archaeological layers topped by a thick clay sealing layer. Also, the area was not ploughed anytime in the recent past which saved the little owl from being churned up and potentially damaged by heavy equipment.
While enameled fibulae do not appear to have been very popular north of the Germanic border — Scandinavia had excellent artisans of its own, particularly metalworkers, and the fashion was to leave metal jewelry as is rather than putting lots of color on it — more of them have been found on the island of Bornholm than anywhere else in Scandinavia, about a dozen of them so far. This is the only owl fibula known to have been found in Scandinavia. They’re rare anyway, and the few that have been found were unearthed in German frontier forts or closer to the heart of the empire in what are today Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.
Somebody must have loved this colorful owl, perhaps appreciating its rare design or symbolic significance, enough to take it home. Archaeologists believe it was likely to have been brought to Bornholm by a mercenary returning from a stint in the Roman army rather than openly traded.
Owls have a keen sense of night vision, enabling these highly skilled silent hunters to catch their prey unawares. This notion of owls as intelligent and wise animals is one that has endured throughout the ages as famous companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and later to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war.
In fact, Minerva was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier.
We do not know if the Germanic perception of the owl was the same as the Romans, but many of them would have been mercenaries in the Roman territories and developed a deep insight into the Roman mentality and culture. It is likely that they also adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery.
The brooch must have been something quite special at the time, both because of its unusual shape and bright colours. It must have given the wearer a great level of prestige.
In Danish the word for owl fibula is uglefiblen which is, I think we can all agree, extremely adorable. The uglefiblen is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark along with other treasures discovered in 2014.
Researches doing a routine examination of a sabre in the collection of the Yaroslavl Museum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl 160 miles northeast of Moscow have discovered that the blade is the oldest crucible steel weapon ever found in Eastern Europe. The bent and broken sabre was unearthed in 2007 in the shadow of the Dormition Cathedral in the historic center of Yaroslavl. Originally built in 1215, the cathedral suffered a great deal of damage during the Russian Revolution and was demolished by the Soviets in 1937. It was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in time to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2010.
Dr. Asya Engovatova from the RAS Institute of Archaeology led an archaeological excavation of the area which in 2007 found a mass grave of defenders and civilians killed when Mongol invaders under Batu Khan sacked and burned Yaroslavl in 1238. The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry. The sabre, missing its hilt and fittings, was one of several weapons found in the mass grave. Swords from the 12th and 13th centuries are very rare finds in Russia, and most of the ones that have been unearthed were discovered in warrior graves in southern Russia. Finding one in the archaeological layers of a city is even greater a rarity.
In March of this year, the Yaroslavl Sabre underwent metallographic analysis at the RAS Institute of Archaeology to find out more about its composition and internal structure. The blade was examined under a scanning electron microscope and using X-ray microphotography.
The metallographic methods used in the analysis revealed that the sword was made from crucible steel. The technology used to produce steel of this kind was first perfected in India, in the 1[st century] A.D. Artifacts crafted from such steel later begin to turn up in Central Asia. European sword makers appear to have known nothing of this technology. The techniques for making crucible steel were later lost and European steel makers reinvented it only at the end of the 18th century.
In the Middle Ages and thereafter, crucible steel was very expensive. It produces bladed weapons more exactly than any other material, conferring a combination of great strength and the ability to maintain sharpness throughout the length of the blade.
The only native metal available for swords in early medieval Europe was bloomery iron which was made by heating iron ore and charcoal in a furnace. This created an end-product replete with slag inclusions and only occasionally absorbed enough carbon to form steel. Crucible steel was made by placing pieces of iron and charcoal in a crucible and heating it until they combined to form a steel ingot. The ingots were then forged into hard, sharp blades at low temperatures.
According to ancient weapons expert Alan Williams, the only European swords forged at least in part from crucible steel known from this period were made in Germany between the 8th and 9th centuries and inscribed “ULFBERHT” (or variants thereof) on the blade. About 100 ULFBERHT swords have been found, mainly in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast. Only a handful of them have the high-steel content indicating Central Asian crucible steel may have been used in their forging, but the ULFBERHT smiths didn’t have the know-how to forge this material to its ideal strength.
The Yaroslavl Sabre, on the other hand, is made entirely of crucible steel by highly skilled smiths. It was likely made in one of the Central Asian steel production centers that had been conquered by the Mongols before they invaded Russia. It was almost certainly a Mongol weapon, and must have belonged to a very wealthy, high-ranking Mongol warrior. That might explain its ignominious fate. Analysis of the blade revealed micro-cracks with metal in them cause by long exposure to burning. It seems the blade was deliberately heated to a high temperature so it could be bent and then was thrown into the mass grave.
Bending the enemy’s expensive and lethal sword may have had a ritual purpose to it, although any hope that it might curse away the Mongol conquest would prove futile. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and the ruler of the Golden Horde, the northwest section of the Mongol Empire, and his 35,000 mounted cavalry cut a deadly swath through the splintered Kievan Rus in the last month of 1237 and early months of 1238, razing almost every major city including Moscow, Vladimir, Rostov and Kiev. Only Novgorod and Pskov would be spared destruction.
The last organized resistance to the invasion was at the Battle of the Siti River on March 4th, 1238. The Russian forces were led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir, who had survived the levelling of his capital to raise an army. Fighting by his side were three of his nephews, one of whom was Prince Vsyevolod Konstantinovich, the first independent ruler of the Principality of Yaroslavl. The Russians were annhilated. Yuri and two of his nephews were killed on the battlefield. The third, Vasilko, Prince of Rostov, was taken prisoner and only lived long enough to call Mongol general Subutai “a dark kingdom of vileness” before Subutai had his throat slit. After that, all Russian states submitted to Mongol rule ushering in two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day-Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
British Museum organics conservator Verena Kotonski was tasked with a unique assignment last November: conserving a model boat made of cloves. The museum doesn’t know much about the boat’s history. They think it was made in Indonesia anywhere from 18th to the early 20th century, probably in the middle of that range. It entered the collection in 1972 but there are no records nothing how it made its way to the museum, who made it where and when, whether it was donated, purchased, etc. It’s such a rare and intriguing piece that despite the many questions attending its history the clove boat is the cover model for the British Museum’s Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange exhibition which is on now and runs through May 31st.
The boat is slim and long with a central canopy and a raised openwork prow and stern. Rowers with long paddles stand on both sides, back and front, and the canopy is topped with a pennant. A drawing of the boat made when it first arrived at the British Museum indicate there was a second pennant at one point as well. The boat is made of dried cloves strung together on threads or threaded together with thin wooden pins. The hull is formed of layered strands of cloves tied together. Charmingly, even after at least a century and probably two it still smells like cloves. The conservator said as soon as she opened the crate she was overwhelmed by the scent of cloves.
The artifact has never been on display before because of its condition issues. Already in the 1970s there were detached pieces kept in a box with it, and by the time Kotonski received it there were 14 detached elements, plus evidence on the boat that there were more pieces missing. It was also veritably caked in dust which she had to clean painstakingly with a brush, a vacuum to suction off the dust and conservation-grade rubber to extract the more deeply embedded particles.
Once the boat was clean, the damaged areas needed to be fixed and detached pieces reattached. The thorniest issue was puzzling out where everything should go. Out of the 14 detached pieces — five torsos, one standing figure, two pairs of arms and paddles (these were made as one piece and then attached to torsos), one long paddle (possibly a rudder), one pennant without its pole, three round objects of indeterminate nature — the standing figure, two of the torsos and their matching arms and paddles could be immediately identified as fitting vacant spots on the boat.
Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.
A similar boat in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection helped fill in some of the blanks. It has three figures on the roof of the canopy with round objects, most likely drums, in front of them. Kotonski examined the round objects under a microscope and was able to match the break edges of one of them to one of the torsos. It still wasn’t clear where the drummers and their drums were placed atop of the canopy. There are multiple holes allowing for any number of arrangements. The conservation team debated whether they should even reinstall the drummers without being certain about the original placement.
We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.
They made the opposite decision when it came to the long paddle, the pennant and one drum with an attached pole. In order to reattach these pieces to the model, they would have had to reconstruct significant missing parts. Since they couldn’t know their original positions nor what the lost parts looked like, the reconstruction and reattachment would have entailed more guesswork than they were comfortable with. The pieces were returned to the boat’s storage box.
They did reconstruct one piece: a teeny tiny little retaining collar that was important for the boat’s stability. These collars fit on top of posts on each corner of the canopy, keeping the roof from gradually inching upwards and coming off its poles. The replacement collar was made of Japanese tissue paper, one of the modern conservator’s best friends, to distinguish it from its clove-wrought brethren.
Because conservators are magical (and because the model is small), the entire process took just 34 hours. The boat is now on display, but conservation isn’t over yet. Verena Kotonski would like anyone with any information that might help them suss out the original positions of the detached pieces to email the team at email@example.com.
The Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, was only 19 years old when he defied his family and a direct order of King Louis XVI of France to join the American colonists in their fight for independence from Britain. He outfitted a vessel, La Victoire, with his own money and set sail for the one-year-old United States of America in 1777. The Continental Congress gave him a commission as major general on July 31st, 1777, just over a month after his arrival. An unpaid commission, it’s worth noting, because Lafayette offered to fight for his Enlightenment ideals on his own dime.
He met General George Washington a few days later and the two formed an instant rapport. They were both freemasons — a signficant factor in Lafayette’s prompt acceptance by the mason-heavy Founding Fathers — and Washington appreciated Lafayette’s committment to the cause. Soon Lafayette put his lifeblood where his mouth was, receiving a gunshot wound to the leg during his first engagement, the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th, 1777. He suffered alongside Washington and the Continental Army through the horrors of Valley Forge that winter and went on to fight in several important battles and use his considerable diplomatic skills to smooth over tensions between the Americans and the newly arrived French fleet.
In January of 1779, he returned to France with an eye to encouraging a direct confrontation with Britain. When he was unable to persuade anyone of the dubious wisdom of attempting an invasion of Britain, he turned his sights on securing troops and aid for a return to America. He worked with Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ first ambassador to France whose homespun style and scintillating wit made him a sensation at the French court. Together they were able to get 6,000 French troops and five frigates to reinforce the American side. Lafayette was in France for a year, long enough to impregnate his wife and name his newborn son Georges Washington Lafayette, before returning to America.
He departed from the port city of Rochefort in western France aboard the Concorde class 32-gun frigate Hermione on March 11th, 1780, and landed in Boston on April 27th. The Hermione fought the British in multiple engagements, ultimately participating in the blockade of Chesapeake Bay that kept British supplies and reinforcements from reaching Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in September of 1781. Lafayette also played a key role in the decisive Battle of Yorktown, the last land battle of the Revolutionary War. He harried Cornwallis’ troops around Virginia for months before the British put down stakes in Yorktown. Then he took a high position on a hill outside Yorktown and pinned the British in with artillery. Washington’s army soon joined his old friend’s and together they laid siege to the city. Lafayette and 400 men took Redoubt 9 on October 14th, 1781. Four days later Cornwallis surrendered.
Lafayette returned to France two months later, continuing to advocate for French support even as the war wound down to the occasional naval skirmish. He visited the United States again in 1784 and tried to convince Washington to manumit his slaves. He also made a speech in front of the Virginia House of Delegates calling for the abolition of slavery in the spirit of human liberty that he had fought for in the war. Unfortunately for millions of enslaved people and the history of this country, he failed to convince them. His last trip to America was in 1824 when he was welcomed by cheering crowds, parades and a wide variety of honors. His efforts for democracy in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary France were not so well-received by the radicals in the National Assembly, Napoleon and the restored Bourbon monarchs. He was imprisoned for five years, exiled for more, had all his properties confiscated and even when he was restored to some of his fortune and allowed to return to France, he would continue to have a fraught relationship with the government because he refused to abandon his democratic principles. In the United States, on the other hand, he was unequivocably beloved. He was considered a great hero on a par with Washington: generous, unselfish, loyal to a country that was not his own.
As for the Hermione, she ran aground on the west coast of France in September 1793 and was destroyed. In 1992, a non-profit company was founded to recreate the lost Hermione using period methods and materials as much as modern safety requirements allow. Construction began in 1997 in the same town where she was built the first time: Rochefort, site of the Royal Shipyard. In a dry dock next to the Corderie Royale (the Royal Ropemaker), the replica of the Hermione was built in public view. This video has a compilation of pictures and video showing the sloooow construction process from shipyard framing to installing the masts:
Once the ship was completed in 2014 (the original Hermione only took six months to build, but finding properly shaped oak trees for a helm these days is much harder than it was back then), 150 volunteers selected from 600 applicants had to be trained to sail as small boys could do blindfolded, malnourished and whipped 300 years ago. Seaworthiness tests in fall of 2014 went well and the Hermione was ready to follow in her namesake’s hullprints.
On Saturday, April 18th, 2015, the replica Hermione set sail from Rochefort for Yorktown, Virginia. It’s scheduled to arrive there in June, after which it will visit another 12 historic towns along the eastern seaboard, among them Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Mount Vernon will be the second stop, an homage to the undying deep bonds of love and camaraderie between Lafayette and Washington. The Hermione will be in New York for the Fourth of July where she will join the Harbour Parade. People will be able to visit the ship at other ports of call as well. Return to this page (it’s a little empty now) to find out more about events as they’re finalized.
A brief overview of the history of the ship and the construction of the replica:
Boarding the crew:
Preparation of the boat:
The Hermione sails for America:
Last year Parks Canada released a minute of the video taken by the remote operated vehicle which found the HMS Erebus and a minute of the film taken by divers when they discovered the ship’s bell was included in a brief video about the recovery and analysis of the bell, but other than that, we’ve only had a few photographs of the wreck.
On Thursday, VIP visitors to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto got an unexpected treat when what they thought would be a few minutes of recorded footage of the new Erebus ice dive turned out to be a live broadcast of a dive to the wreck complete with narration by underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris. The ROM event was attended by government types like Treasury Board president Tony Clement and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of the Environment Colin Carrie and by an extremely lucky seventh grade geography class from University of Toronto Schools. After the video tour, they were able to ask questions about the ship to diver Marc-Andre Bernier.
Now Parks Canada has released a recording of that live stream so those of who are neither government officials nor in the seventh grade can get their first long, hard look at the wreck of the HMS Erebus. It shows Harris, supported by an off-screen Leading Seaman Caleb Hooper, moving from stern to bow pointing out areas and artifacts of interest like the bronze six-pound cannons, the tracks that allowed the crew to lift the screw propeller out of the water when ice was heavy, the quarterdeck, the ship’s very long tiller, the capstand, the remains of the mainmast and the port side bilge pump.
The quality of the picture is excellent, thanks in part to the two feet of ice on the surface that block waves and allow particulate matter to sink to the seafloor. There are moments when it’s a bit dark down there, what with it being 36 feet deep under a thick ice sheet, but you can still see what Harris is describing just fine. The video is just short of 10 minutes long (time totally flies, though, so don’t let that daunt you) and ends a little abruptly which I hope means there will be a part two released soon.
The dives only began last week because they were delayed by bad weather and are expected to continue through Friday. There’s a photo gallery of the Erebus base camp, the triangular holes cut into the ice sheet, the blocks of ice removed after being cut out and more here. Also, Parks Canada Archaeology tweeted this amazing picture of a tent shot from the hole in the ice.
Here’s the video about the HMS Erebus bell released in November 2014. It’s short but awesome:
Inspired by my recent foray into Swiss watchmaker automata, I decided to revisit one of my old favorites from the archives: the creepy Creeping Baby Doll. When I first posted about this monstrous hybrid of human baby and machine four years ago, it was within the context of the National Museum of American History’s extensive collection of robots which includes the patent model for a crawling (called “creeping” in the 19th century) baby doll patented in August of 1871 by one George P. Clarke. The only photograph of robobaby was a blurry black-and-white which while dissatisfying still managed to convey the disturbing incongruity of the baby face and limbs attached to a heavy mechanical torso.
The museum has lately expanded its online collection so now there’s a full entry dedicated to the Creeping Baby Doll patent model complete with a proper high resolution color picture. Feast your eyes upon her, I dare you!
Now you can see her ice blue eyes and toothy grin which add a whole new dimension of horror. What’s that you say? You wish she were staring right at you, sucking your soul out through your uncontrollably slackened jaw? Done!
Temporarily satiated, she can now move on to her next victim, leaving your empty zombified body to shuffle behind her, another drone in her growing army.
To be fair to George Pemberton Clarke, whose model was an improvement on one invented by his boss, Robert J. Clay, earlier that year, the final production toy was nowhere near as terrifying as the patent model. The National Museum of American History has one of those too, although they’re not certain when it was made.
You can just see the gear and wheels peeking out from under her belly and armpit, but all dressed up with her little bonnet she’s significantly less spine-chilling. Still not much of a cuddly toy for little girls to play house with, however. Indeed, she ultimately found a market as a novelty, one of a number of wind-up metal toys including Girl Skipping Rope and Toy Gymnast made by the Automatic Toy Works, a small New York mechanical toy company founded by Robert J. Clay.
In 1872, a year after the first Creeping Baby made her debut, he submitted a patent application for another so-called improvement to the design: the Crying Creeping Baby Doll. A projecting blade made of rubber or paste would strike the notches of a toothed wheel as it turned, thus producing a sound that Clay assures us is “in imitation of the crying of a child, or of an animal voice.” I like that baby and animal cries are entirely interchangeable, in his opinion. Sadly, I have been unable to locate a recording of whatever god-awful ululations this mechanism produced, or even any evidence that this version of the toy ever went into commercial production.
The non-crying Creeping Baby went on to have a long career. Clay’s company was in business from 1868 until 1874 when it was bought by Connecticut toy makers the Ives Manufacturing Company in 1874. Ives continued to produce automata under the Automatic Toy Works imprimatur for years after the acquisition, expanding the line with clockwork mechanisms that make the Creeping Baby look like the teddy bear from the Snuggle commercials.
This trade catalogue from 1882 has made the rounds of the Internets because of its wide array of painfully racist toys. Out of 17 toys on offer, seven are caricatures of black people, including a fiddling Uncle Tom and “The Woman’s Rights Advocate” who is unnamed but is an unmistakable reference to Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who had been born a slave in upstate New York and became nationally famous as an anti-slavery and gender equality advocate. Her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” became a rallying cry for abolition and the women’s rights movement. Two more toys are caricatures of the Chinese (doing laundry, of course) and one is an Italian Organ Grinder, who while stereotypical does not have the cringe-worthy exaggerated caricature features of the other racialized toys. He also plays music, unlike the fiddler, with a mechanism the catalogue proudly attributes to those masters of automata, the Swiss.
On the last page of that catalogue you’ll find the one, the only Wonderful Creeping Baby, “the best doll ever made.” She’s the second most expensive at $5 (the Organ Grinder runs $6, doubtless because of his Swiss music box) and her “resemblance to life is almost startling,” we are assured.
The Ives Manufacturing Company was the top producer of mechanical wind-up toys in the 1880s, but by the end of the century cheaper copycats were so widespread the business shifted to focus on toy trains. After a fire leveled the Ives factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1900, they rebuilt as a state-of-the-art toy train manufacturer. They were hugely successful, the largest toy train company in the country, until model railway makers Lionel overtook them in 1924. Four years later they were bankrupt and were eventually bought out by their rivals Lionel in 1933.
As for George Clarke, the patent office records his long career, before and after his foray into toy design. Here’s his 1857 application for first a new arrangement of steam boiler safety valves. Ten years later he was living in New York and was inventing more entertaining mechanisms like this extremely cool globe made of discs he called “zones” depicting the “animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms of the earth.” That would have been just before the time when he worked with Clay at the Automatic Toy Works.
A decade after that his patents returned to more practical mechanisms, including this cane with an electric current in the head (1878) that would gently zap the hand wielding it. Although Clarke noted in the patent application that “the effect of a gentle galvanic current on the human organization is not in the present state of electrical and physiological science fully explained” but that doesn’t stop him from claiming it “functions as a battery for the relief or cure of diseases of the nerves.” As if that weren’t a sufficient selling point, the mechanism can be fitted inside the “handle of any portable tool or weapon, as a policeman’s club or the like, if desired.” Billy club and taser all in one. I’m amazed it never went into production.
There are 38 historical markers in Lower Manhattan. None of them acknowledge the city’s massive debt to the slaves who literally built it. That will change this year because the city council has approved a marker on the site of New York’s first slave market at the corner of Wall Street and Pearl Street.
In 1627, a year after the Dutch West India Company imported the first 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam, slaves built the wall that Wall Street was named after. It started out as a defensive earthwork embankment along the northern boundary of the settlement meant to keep Native Americans from attacking the settlement, a Manhattan version of Hadrian’s Wall. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered the construction of a more elaborate palisade wall spanning Lower Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River in 1653, slaves again formed the bulk of the work force.
The Wall Street wall came down in 1699. By then slavery had grown exponentially. The Dutch had imported slaves to do the hard work of clearing land for houses and farms, filling shore areas for docks and building roads that free Dutch immigrants refused to do preferring the easier and more lucrative route of the fur trade which allowed them to make money quickly and return home. When the English conquered the colony in 1664, they continued to rely heavily on slave labour as farmers, dockworkers and household servants. New Amsterdam was renamed New York after the Duke of York, the future King James II, who had received a vast swath of the newly conquered territories from his brother King Charles II. The good duke just happened to be the major investor in the Royal African Company which had the monopoly over English trade with West Africa, a trade which primarily consisted of the sale of human beings. James gave slave ships priority access to docks and warehouses in New York City.
By 1703, slaves were found in 42% of the households in New York City, more than anywhere else in the north and second only to Charleston in all the English colonies of America. In 1711, almost 1,000 of New York’s population of 6,400 were black people, most of them enslaved. Their masters often sent them to make extra money by renting themselves out for short and long terms. All those slaves milling about, rubbing elbows with each other and free people of color without supervision, gave the powers that be agida, so on December 13th, 1711, the New York City Common Council passed an ordinance “Appointing a Place for the More Convenient Hiring of Slaves”
Be it Ordained by the Mayor Recorder Aldermen and Assistants of the City of New York Convened in Common Council and it is hereby Ordained by the Authority of the same That all Negro and Indian slaves that are lett out to hire within this City do take up their Standing in Order to be hired at the Markett house at the Wall Street Slip untill Such time as they are hired, whereby all Persons may Know where to hire slaves as their Occasions Shall require and also Masters discover when their Slaves are so hired and all the Inhabitants of this City are to take Notice hereof Accordingly.
It wasn’t just slaves for hire who were contained in the market at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets. Market House — known as the Meal Market since 1726 when the city granted it exclusive rights to the sale of grains — was the first official slave market in New York City. People were bought and sold there for more than 50 years and the city taxed every sale, thus making New York City itself not just the beneficiary of slave labour, but an active participant in the trade.
Other sites in Lower Manhattan sprang up where slaves were traded, and by 1762, the Meal Market had become an eyesore to the elite who for decades had enjoyed the prosperity and convenience its human cattle provided them. They submitted a petition to the Common Council:
Said Meal Market greatly obstructs the agreeable prospect of the East River, which those that live on Wall street would otherwise enjoy. That it occasions a dirty street, offensive to the inhabitants on each side and disagreeable to those that pass and repass to and from the Coffee House, a place of great resort, that same be removed.
Heaven forfend anything spoil the view of the East River or sully the way to the Merchants Coffee House. The Council responded with alacrity. In February 1762, the Meal Market was demolished. Slavery was far from over in the city. Even after the Revolutionary War when slavery began to wane in the northeastern states, New York doubled down. In 1790, Philadelphia had a population of 28,522, 300 of them slaves. Baltimore which, like New York, was a busy port city but which unlike New York was in close proximity to the plantations of the south, had 1,300 slaves out of a population of 13,503. New York City, for the first time overtaking Philadelphia as the most populous city in the nation with a population of 33,131, counted more than 2,300 slaves among them.
In 1799, the state legislature passed a gradual emancipation law declaring children of slaves born after July 4th, 1799 free, but even that half-assed measure was only technical freedom. Those children had to serve as indentured servants to their mothers’ masters until they were 28 years old (for men) or 25 years old (for women). Slaves born before that date were still slaves until they died, but they would now be called indentured servants. On July 4th, 1827, black people in New York held a parade celebrating their official freedom, but the sad truth is there were still slaves in New York until the 1850s.
Despite the enormous role of slaves in the birth and development of New York City, the African Burial Ground National Monument is currently the only memorial that makes any reference to slaves in all of Lower Manhattan. The new marker
The new plaque may be unveiled on Juneteenth (the anniversary of the official announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas by Union General Gordon Granger on June 19th, 1865, which has evolved into a wider celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery in all of the Confederate states), but the date is still up the air. The council hasn’t decided where exactly the plaque will be installed yet nor even the exact wording. Wall Street is swaddled in scaffolding at the moment; they need to pick a spot where the memorial will actually be visible.