Arts and Sciences

500-year-old teratoma found in Peru skeleton

History Blog - Sun, 2015-06-28 15:35

Oh, and it’s a good one, too. (By good I mean super gross.) Teratomas, for those of you not as repulsed/fascinated by them as I am, are benign tumors in which germ cells gone awry grow random body parts like teeth, hair, bone and soft tissue like muscle, thyroid and skin. They usually set up shop in ovaries or, more rarely, testicles because that’s where germ cells are supposed to be going about the business of making sperm and eggs during embryonic development, and often go undetected for their host’s entire life. While not uncommon, teratomas make the news because of how creepy they are — they’re not absorbed “evil” twins, no matter what the headlines might say — and how infrequently they’re found.

Teratomas are even rarer in the archaeological record. An encapsulated calcified teratoma was found in the remains of late Roman-era woman from the early 5th century unearthed from a necropolis in La Fogonussa, Spain, in 2010. Before that specimen was published, only one other example was known, found inside the skeleton of a Roman woman unearthed in 1999-2000 from a slave necropolis attached to an aristocratic villa just outside of Rome (pdf of the paper in French here). Now we can add a third to this very elite list: an ovarian teratoma discovered inside the abdominal cavity of a girl unearthed from the Colonial-era cemetery in Eten, Lambayeque Region, on the northwest coast of Peru.

Archaeologists from the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project (LVBP), a multidisciplinary international program founded in 2003 that studies skeletal remains on the desert north coast of Peru for what they reveal about the 10,000-year history of human settlement in the area, excavated the ruins of Eten between 2009 and 2011. The skeleton of the young woman was found in the cemetery of the Chapel of the Divino Niño Serranito de Eten, one of 500 Colonial Period burials in the chapel cemetery. Eten had been a small fishing village before the Spanish came. It was expanded into a colonial settlement called a reducción in the 1560s. Reducciónes were forced labour/Christianization resettlement towns, designed to break the cultural structure of small kin-based, self-sustaining villages scattered in the area, corral the work force in larger urbs for more efficient exploitation in the Andean silver mines and two-birds-with-a-stone conversion to Christianity. Eventually reducciónes spread throughout Spanish holdings in Central and South America, but they began in Peru, the brainchild of 5th viceroy Francisco de Toledo.

The young woman, labelled burial CNS U2-60, was one of the earliest to die in Eten after resettlement. It’s not clear what killed her, but her teratoma is so extreme that it might have been a factor. The Spain teratoma had four small, malformed teeth and bone formation inside the calcified capsule. The one found in Rome had five malformed teeth inside a fragmented spherical bony structure. The Andean teratoma has 83 pieces of bone and 37 malformed baby teeth. And that’s all that’s left now. Who knows what kind of random organ bits were in there before decomposition. It was such a large assortment of bones and teeth that at first researchers thought it might be a sacrificed animal, but its location in the abdominal cavity meant that it had to have been inside of her at the time of death, and besides, none of those bones and teeth looked like regular bones and teeth of any kind of animal.

Looking closely at the dozens of extra bony bits, [George Mason University bioarchaeologist and LVBP director Haagen] Klaus and [Brigham Young University archaeology graduate student Connie] Ericksen write that “the general morphology of the bones could be described as unclassifiable in terms of normal human or general mammalian anatomy.” The dental tissue was “approximately the size of human deciduous teeth,” and looked like either small anterior teeth or large molar-like teeth, but “in most cases, occlusal anatomy was an irregular, highly variable arrangement of cusps and cusplets,” they write. [...]

In the case of CNS U2-60, Klaus and Ericksen note that “it is not possible to determine if the lesion was benign or malignant, but a teratoma of this complexity and size likely impacted morbidity via impeded circulation.” She may not have died from the teratoma directly, but the large tumor probably made her appear pregnant and may have factored into her early death.

The Spanish woman was 30 to 40 years old when she died; the Roman woman (who was originally from the near East) was in a slightly wider age range, 25 to 45, at time of death. The fusion of her long bones indicate the Peruvian woman was in her late teens.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

5,500-year-old fingerprint found on ceramic vessel

History Blog - Sat, 2015-06-27 04:13

It’s time to add another bullet point of to the list of exceptional artifacts discovered by the archaeological excavation in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the island of Lolland, Denmark. There was the flint dagger with intact bark handle in October 2014, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and human footprints a month later, the flint axe with the intact wood handle 10 days after that and just last month they unearthed a Stone Age wood and bone eel fishing spear. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists have discovered a ceramic vessel bearing the fingerprint of the potter that made it 5,500 years ago.

Discovered just east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn on the same site where the intact flint axe was found, the vessel is an important in and of itself. It’s a funnel beaker, a pot with a flat base and a funnel-shaped neck that was so ubiquitous among the earliest farmers in Denmark that the period in which they were in use, the Funnel Beaker Culture (4,000 – 2,800 B.C.), was named after them. The funnel beakers from the early part of the period are simply decorated, but as potters gained experience in the technology, ornamentation got more elaborate. The beaker found on Lolland is from the late Funnel Beaker period and is decorated with an extensive pattern of small wedged dashes. A variety of tools were used to create the decorations, sometimes even fingers, but this is the first time a fingerprint has been found on a funnel beaker.

The beaker was found in large pieces, one of three funnel beakers unearthed at the site which were probably deliberately left as votive offerings. The axe was embedded in the seashore in a vertical position — not a likely posture had it just been discarded without a care — along with dozens of other artifacts from wooden candlesticks to spears and hundreds of animal bones. The vessels were likely deposited whole with food or drink inside. Over time the contents were lost and the ceramic broken.

After they were excavated, the beaker pieces were sent to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for conservation. It was there upon close study that experts spotted the precious fingerprint.

“The fragile fingerprint, left unintentionally, is an anonymous, yet very personal signature, which somehow brings us a bit closer to the prehistoric people and their actions,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Line Marie] Olesen said.

Last year the same archaeological survey unearthed 5,000-year-old footprints left by people who attempted to save parts of their fishing system before it was flooded and covered in sand.

“An unknown persons gallery is gradually developing before our eyes, of the people who lived by Lolland’s southern coast at the time when agriculture was introduced some 6,000 years ago,” Anne-Lotte Sjørup Mathiesen of the Museum Lolland-Falster, said in a statement.

The beaker and fingerprint are still being studied at the National Museum. The vessel is expected to return to the Museum Lolland-Falster in December after which it will be put on display next to its brethren artifacts from the Rødbyhavn excavation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Artifacts found on 700-year-old Swiss battle site

History Blog - Fri, 2015-06-26 12:29

November 15th marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, a historic clash between the militia army of the nascent Swiss Confederation and a highly trained troops of Habsburg Duke Leopold I of Austria. Fought on the banks of Lake Ägeri near the Morgarten Pass in the central Switzerland Canton of Schwyz, it was the first battle of the Confederation and their victory helped cement the cantons’ unity to form the kernel of what would become Switzerland.

The three cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden first joined in the Eternal Alliance in 1291, just 24 years before the Battle of Morgarten. The Federal Charter of 1291 united the rural valley communities of the central Alps for the purposes of trade and defense of their property and trade routes. This was necessary because the Hapsburgs, newly risen to princely power in what is today Germany, were putting increasing pressure on the territories of the Forest Cantons. The cantons had been granted Imperial immediacy, technically the right to be ruled directly by the Holy Roman Emperor rather than by a long line of feudal lords but in practice a form of political autonomy within the empire, by the Hohenstaufen emperors and in 1308 by Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Germans, but the Habsburgs wanted to annex the cantons with their valuable lands and Alpine passes outright.

Territorial conflicts with the Habsburgs generated constant skirmishes and raids in the area from the 12th century until the mid-14th. One of those raids — Schwyz militia attacked Einsiedeln Abbey, a Habsburg ally, in a dispute over pasture and forest land — gave the Habsburgs the pretext to attack the cantons they coveted with a force of thousands (estimates vary from 3,000 to 22,000) including armoured cavalry. The cantons only had from 1,000 to 3,000 men in their combined militias, farmers and tradesmen who while likely experienced in fisticuffs hardly seemed a match for the mounted knights of Duke Leopold of Austria. The cantons had the advantage of intimate familiarity with the terrain, so when they found out which direction the Habsburg forces were taking, they blocked the Morgarten Pass and ambushed the Austrians from the surrounding hillside, raining rocks, boulders, tree trunks and assorted projectiles on the army trapped between a steep wooded slope on one side and the marshy lake shore on the other. The Swiss then swarmed down upon them and fought hand to hand, felling knights with halberds and taking no quarter.

One month after the Battle of Morgarten, the cantons signed the Pact of Brunnen, expanding the defensive alliance into a broader confederacy by adopting a common foreign policy. The treaty ushered in the era of the Old Swiss Confederacy as more cantons joined the Pact over the next few decades. Until the late 19th century, the Pact of Brunnen was widely considered by historians the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Federal Charter became seen as Switzerland’s founding document.

As important as the Battle of Morgarten was in Swiss history, the medieval chronicles documenting it, most notably that of Franciscan monk Johannes of Winterthur written in the 1340s, are thin on factual accuracy. The exact location of the battle is unclear and no confirmed archaeological remains from the battle have been found. This Spring, archaeologists did an intensive excavation of one likely site and discovered for the first time weapons and other artifacts from the period of the Battle of Morgarten.

The cantons of Schwyz and Zug authorized the excavation with celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the battle on the horizon and out of concern for a recent spate of would-be looters scouring the site. The dig unearthed 12 silver Pfennigs dating from 1275 to the early 14th century minted by the diocese of Basel, the Fraumünster Abbey of Zurich and the cities of Solothurn and Schaffhausen. The coins were found next to two 14th century dagger blades. Archaeologists also discovered a knife scabbard, two projectile points from an arrow or crossbow bolt and an iron spur, all from the 14th century. Other artifacts like a knife and a horseshoe, can’t yet be dated with certainty but could also be from the 14th century.

These workmanlike finds are so exciting they eclipse the more precious objects — the gold head of a brooch from the 7th century and an openwork bronze disc brooch with central glass insert from 10th century — unearthed at the site. They could well prove to be the first archaeological evidence of the Battle of Morgarten. The problem is archaeologists can’t be certain the artifacts were left on the field during that specific battle. Because of all the fighting that went on in the area during the period (and before and after), the objects may have been used in another encounter or encounters.

That won’t stop the artifacts from being celebrated as significant in this anniversary year. A selection of the 14th century finds is currently on display at the Museum Burg Zug through July 31st. From August 22nd to September 30th they will be on display at the Federal Charter Museum in Schwyz.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Plunderer of Swedish Churches arrested, plunder returned

History Blog - Thu, 2015-06-25 04:29

Spanish police have arrested an infamous cultural heritage thief known as “el expoliador de iglesias suecas,” or “the plunderer of Swedish churches.” The 63-year-old Spanish man was arrested last month at his home in Tenerife, Canary Islands, where police found 46 artifacts stolen from Swedish churches and museums. Twelve of those pieces — 11 carved wooden statuettes and one wood chest — have now officially been returned to the Swedish embassy in Madrid.

The bust was a joint operation of the Spanish National Police, Swedish police, German police and Danish authorities. The Spaniard was a target of the Swedish police first who suspected him of being responsible for a rash of thefts from churches and small museums in Sweden over the past two years. He had already been convicted of similar property crimes in Sweden and served a five-year prison sentence, so when stuff started to go missing again, the police zeroed in on him. Swedish authorities alerted the Spanish police and they investigated the case together.

In May, the Spanish National Police searched the suspect’s Tenerife home and found 43 objects including candlesticks, metal and wood vessels, four carved wooden figures from the 15th century, a 15th century wood chest, an 18th century bible and an oil painting of canvas of unknown age but significant cultural interest. Another four carved figures part of a matched set with the four found in the home were recovered after being sold at auction in Madrid.

Then the investigation found that the suspect had a storage unit or warehouse in Denmark. The Swedish police and judicial authorities contacted the Danish authorities to discover the location of the warehouse and any records they might have of it. Danish police found two storage units connected to the suspected. Searches of both locations and found more carvings and religious objects stolen from Sweden. Based on information from the material recovered in Denmark, the Spanish police returned to the man’s Tenerife home and searched it again, finding three more carved wooden figures of the Holy Family that were part of a 15th century altarpiece.

The 12 objects returned were the eight 15th century wooden statuettes, the three carvings from the 15th century altarpiece and the 15th century wooden chest. Presumably the rest of the plunder will be returned as well, perhaps after they’re used in court against the plunderer. Meanwhile, Sweden is delighted to have halted the remorseless advance of the Plunderer of Swedish Churches and to have gotten their religious treasures back. They may look a little rough-hewn, but they’re historically and culturally significant. Sweden’s ambassador to Spain, Cecilia Julin:

“I think people will be celebrating in some parts of central Sweden. It is a fantastic story. Sometimes justice is done,” she said.

“It is not possible to put a price on the items.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bronze Age gold sun disc on display for first time

History Blog - Wed, 2015-06-24 11:36

A gold sun disc discovered in an early Bronze Age grave in 1947 went on public display Friday for the first time in its history. The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes celebrated the Summer Solstice by adding the gold circle about the size of a penny that represents the sun to its permanent exhibition of prehistoric artifacts.

The sun disc is one of only six of its kind ever found in Britain. It was unearthed from a burial mound at Monkton Farleigh in 1947 along with some flint arrowheads, a pottery beaker and pieces of the skeletal remains of an adult male. The grave was discovered by dowser and author Guy Underwood who believed dowsing could be used to locate archaeologically significant sites and whose studies of the alignment of prehistoric British sites evolved into theories about earth energy patterns that would be published after his death in The Pattern of the Past.

Monkton Farleigh is 24 miles or so northwest of Stonehenge and the sun disc dates to around 2,400 B.C. which is about the time when the great sarsen stones were arranged in a circle at Stonehenge (between 2,600-2,400 B.C.). Both the stone circle and the sun disc are connected to ancient solar worship.

The sun-disk is a thin embossed sheet of gold with a cross at the centre, surrounded by a circle. Between the lines of both the cross and the circle are fine dots which glint in sunlight. The disc is pierced by two holes that may have been used to sew the disc to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, and may have been used in pairs.

After its discovery in the 1940s, the sun disc was kept by the property owner (that sort of thing wouldn’t fly today because ancient precious metals would be considered treasure and by law property of the Crown) Dr. Denis Whitehead. After almost 70 years squirreled away — it wasn’t shown to an actual archaeologist until 2013 — the sun disc was donated to the Wiltshire Museum in memory of Dr. Whitehead.

The Wiltshire Museum has a new Prehistoric Wiltshire gallery that includes the gold artifacts unearthed in 1808 from a grave at Bush Barrow one kilometer (.6 miles) south of Stonehenge, most famously a lozenge-shaped sheet of gold about seven inches long incised with geometric decorations that was found on the breastbone of the deceased. The Bush Barrow artifacts — a gold belt buckle, a second much smaller gold lozenge, three copper daggers, a bronze ax, a bronze spearhead, a stone mace with bronze fittings, the remains of a shield, a bone scepter — were on display before at the Wiltshire Museum in the 19th century but security concerns spurred the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society to lend the Bush Barrow gold to the British Museum. After a disastrous restoration in 1985 that irreversibly altered the large lozenge’s shape, the society took the pieces back. Now they and the Monkton Farleigh sun disc are on display together in the new gallery, an exceptional collection of Bronze Age gold.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Fetus found in coffin of mummified 17th c. bishop

History Blog - Tue, 2015-06-23 13:01

The mummified body of Peder Winstrup, Bishop of Lund from 1638 until his death in 1679, is being studied by researchers from Lund University who have discovered that not only are his remains extraordinarily well-preserved, they are not alone in the coffin. Underneath the bishop’s feet are the skeletal remains of a four or five-month-old fetus.

Peder Pedersen Winstrup was born in Copenhagen in 1605, the son of theologian, professor and Bishop of Sjaelland Peder Jensen Winstrup. (They were Lutheran bishops, not Catholics, obviously.) The young Peder followed in his father’s footsteps, studying theology at university. After graduating from the University of Copenhagen in 1633, Peder quickly rose through the clerical ranks. He was appointed royal chaplain to King Christian IV in 1635; three years later he was appointed Bishop of Lund. He remained in the position after the transfer of the province Scania from the Denmark–Norway empire to Sweden in 1658, even though there were doubts as to his loyalty to his new monarch King Charles X Gustav. He repeatedly encouraged the king to found a university at Lund which was finally done in 1666, eight years after Winstrup’s first letter to King Charles suggesting he establish a university. Winstrup presided over the university’s inaugural ceremonies and was appointed its chancellor in 1671.

When the good bishop died, his body was entombed in the family grave in Lund Cathedral. During an extensive program of restoration under architect Axel Nyström in 1833, the Winstrup tombs had to be moved. The exceptional condition of Peder Winstrup’s remains was noted at the time and documented by an artist. They were moved again several times during the 19th century until in 1875 all of the Winstrup family coffins were buried together in the cemetery with the exception of Bishop Peder Winstrup’s. The fine condition of his remains and the fact that he had no other marker in the cathedral inspired officials to keep his tomb in the church crypt.

In 2012, officials decided to relocate Winstrup’s tomb in Lund Cathedral to make space for the increasing numbers of visitors. At the same time, researchers at the Lund University Historical Museum found an old photograph of the bishop’s remains taken when the coffin was opened in 1923. His clothes, including a velvet cape and leather gloves, were perfectly intact and his body was in such good condition that his face, while shrunken, was still entirely recognizable from portraits. Since his rest was to be disturbed anyway, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Lund University was assembled to study the bishop’s mummified remains.

What they found is a veritable time capsule of 17th century life, albeit a very privileged one. Winstrup was not embalmed or deliberately mummified. His internal organs are still in place and identifiable in CT scans. The preservation of his remains was a natural process, the result of copious quantities of plant materials occupying fully half of the space in the casket, constant air flow, his death in December and burial in January and centuries passed inside the dry, cool family crypt. Another factor in his unusual preservation may have been his long final decline which left him very thin, a key step in the self-mummification process.

Peder Winstrup was 74 years old when he died, and his remains show the tell-tale signs of it. He had osteoarthritis in his knee and hip joints and was missing several teeth. Cavities found in his remaining teeth suggest he enjoyed sugary foods, an indication of high status since most people couldn’t afford much sugar in their diets.

The first results show dried fluid and mucus in the sinuses, indicating that Winstrup had been bedridden for a long period before he died. Calcifications in the lung could indicate both tuberculosis and pneumonia. Plaque was also found in the left coronary artery of the heart, the aorta and the carotid artery, indicating that the bishop suffered from atherosclerosis.

“The gall bladder also has several gallstones, which could indicate a high consumption of fatty food”, says Caroline Ahlström Arcini, an osteologist working on the project.

Researchers also found he had an injured tendon in his right shoulder that likely limited his mobility to the point that common tasks like putting on a shirt or combing his hair would have been painful.

It was the CT scan of the bishop’s coffin that revealed the biggest surprise of the study: the tiny baby tucked under his feet. Nobody knew it was there because it’s hidden by the plant matter in the casket and by Peder Winstrup’s voluminous robes. Researchers believe that it was miscarried or prematurely delivered and hidden in the bishop’s coffin by a member of his family or staff, or perhaps someone involved in the preparation of his body for entombment.

According to Dr. Per Karsten, director of the Historical Museum at Lund University, there was a tradition in 17th century Scandinavia of mothers bribing cemetery workers to inter babies who had died before they could be baptized in the coffins of other people so that the little ones would be laid to rest in consecrated ground. There are instances of babies being buried in the very church walls for this same reason. As Winstrup died on December 7th, 1679, and wasn’t buried until January 27th, 1680, there would have been plenty of time for someone with access to hide the baby in the bishop’s coffin without the family’s or his staff’s knowledge.

“You can only speculate as to whether it was one of Winstrup’s next of kin, or whether someone else took the opportunity while preparing the coffin. But we hope to be able to clarify any kinship through a DNA test”, says Per Karsten.

The next step will be investigations into the textiles in the coffin, as well as further study of the body. Tissue samples from the internal organs are to be removed, among other things. In addition, the extensive plant material in the coffin will be investigated.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Napoleon’s last gift to his son: wee dueling pistols

History Blog - Mon, 2015-06-22 07:22

Napoleon was by all reports a loving father to his only child, his son with Marie Louise of Austria Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, styled at birth the King of Rome, a modified version of the traditional title, King of the Romans, granted to all heirs apparent of the Holy Roman Empire. The last time Napoleon saw his little King of Rome was in the middle of the night of January 24th, 1814, at the palace of Saint Cloud. He said his goodbyes to his wife and son before heading to the north of France to fight the encroaching Allied forces.

If the Roi de Rome received a goodbye present from his father, it may well have been a present his father commissioned for his son’s upcoming third birthday in March. Napoleon ordered a pair of bespoke dueling pistols from gunsmith to the French monarchs Jean Le Page. Made of blue steel with walnut and ebony stocks and inlaid with gold, the guns were custom-made to fit a young boy’s hands. Engraved on the lock of the pistols is the fateful production date, Janv. (January) 1814.

Whether the Roi de Rome received his last present from his father is not known. The pistols remained behind as Napoleon’s empire fell completely apart in a matter of weeks and he was compelled to abdicate under pressure from the Allies, first in favor of his son, and then in favor of nobody. Technically the King of Rome’s pistols were now the property of the newly restored Bourbon King of France Louis XVIII, but the new king wasn’t all that keen to keep a tight grip on the previous throne-holder’s stuff. People who wanted to buy a piece of Napoleon, and there were many such people, could do so easily on the streets of Paris. One of those people was William Bullock.

Bullock began as a jeweler and silversmith by profession, living and working in Liverpool. Conveniently located in a port city that was a trade capital of the empire, Bullock was able to acquire specimens and artifacts from sailors who had traveled all over the world. He opened his first museum of curiosities in Liverpool in 1795. He was a dedicated naturalist, an elected member of several exclusive natural history societies, an interest reflected in his collection and which gave its display an educational purpose as well. Bullock was the first in England to arrange exhibits in habitat groups, displaying specimens in some semblance of their natural surroundings.

In 1809 he moved to London and opened the Liverpool Museum at 22 Piccadilly. It was an immediate hit, welcoming more than 22,000 visitors its first month, and 80,000 in its first six. In April of 1811, one of the visitors was the 35-year-old Jane Austen who wrote to her sister Cassandra that she and her cousin Mary Cooke “after disposing of her father and mother, went to the Liverpool Museum and the British Gallery, and I had some amusement at each, though my preference for men and women always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight.”

By then Bullock had already begun construction of a new building to house his museum at the south end of Piccadilly (today street numbers 170-173). Designed by architect Peter Frederick Robinson who was inspired by the engravings in Description de l’Egypte, the building was the first building in England constructed entirely in Egyptian style, interior and exterior, since Egyptomania had swept Europe after Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt. The new building had a vast grand hall modeled after the Temple of Dendera that allowed exhibitions of large scale art and artifacts.

In A Companion to Mr. Bullock’s London Museum and Pantherion, a brochure with descriptions of many of the thousands of specimens in the museum, makes it clear that when it opened in 1812, Bullock’s museum on Piccadilly was almost entirely focused on natural history. Animals dominate, with more than 100 pages dedicated to specimens from stuffed giraffes to porpoise jaws. Artifacts were mainly garments, jewelry and use objects from the South Seas, Africa, North and South America, although there is a 16-page chapter dedicated to the museum’s armoury most of which had been acquired from the estate of Dr. Richard Greene’s, a surgeon who a few decades earlier had exhibited his own museum of curiosities in two rooms of his Lichfield home.

The Egyptian Hall’s capacity was put to test in 1816 when Bullock exhibited Napoleonic artifacts while Waterloo was still fresh in the public mind. The centerpiece of the show was Napoleon’s bullet-proof travelling carriage which he had used as a home away from home during his campaigns all over Europe and which had been captured by the Prussian army after the Battle of Waterloo. In October of 1815, General Blücher arranged for the carriage to be presented to the Prince Regent who, terminally in need of money, turned around and sold it to William Bullock for around £2,500. That price won bought the carriage, its contents — Napoleon’s personal belongings including his folding camp bed and his travelling kit with 100 solid gold pieces and a million francs in diamonds stashed inside — and two of the deposed emperor’s horses.

The Napoleon exhibition ran from January to August 1816 and drew massive crowds of up to 10,000 visitors a day. They crowded the Egyptian Hall, climbing all over Napoleon’s carriage and pawing through his stuff. In the final tally, about 220,000 visitors saw the Napoleon show in London and more than 800,000 people saw the carriage and associated exhibition on its traveling tour of England, Scotland and Ireland. From his initial outlay of £2,500 for the carriage, Bullock made £35,000.

With visions of even sugarier plums dancing in his head, Bullock decided to open the Museum Napoleon to make even more money from the public fascination with the fallen foe. To add to the exhibition, he went to Paris in January of 1816 and purchased a myriad Napoleonic knick-knacks from the Emperor’s servants, friends and his imperial residences of Malmaison and St. Cloud. It was probably at one of the palaces where Bullock acquired the Roi de Rome’s dueling pistols.

The fever for all things Napoleon couldn’t and didn’t last. By 1818, Bullock was actively looking for buyers, universities and museums, to acquire his entire collection. When the University of Edinburgh and the British Museum turned him down, he took matters into his own hands. In 1819, Bullock sold his collection, by then composed of more than 32,000 objects, in an auction that lasted 26 days and netted him £9,974. Napoleon’s carriage was sold to a coachmaker for £168. In 1843 it was bought by Madame Tussaud’s where it remained on display until it was destroyed in a fire that devastated the waxworks in 1925.

The Roi de Rome Pistols were bought at the great 1819 auction by someone identified in the documents only as “Levery.” They likely passed through several hands before they made their next appearance in the historical record in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 where they were put on display by gunmakers James Purdey & Sons. The pistols soon thereafter found a home with Cora, Countess of Strafford, the rich widow of soap magnate Samuel Colgate and model for the character of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey. In the 40s the pistols were acquired by William Keith Neal for his renown collection of arms and his descendants have decided to sell.

The toddler king’s wee pistols will be put on the auction block at Sotheby’s Treasures sale on July 8th. The presale estimate is £800,000-1,200,000 ($1,251,844 – 1,877,856).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Millions of Freedmen’s Bureau records digitized

History Blog - Sun, 2015-06-21 14:02

When African Americans research their genealogy, they often hit what is known as the wall: no records to be found before the 1870 United States Federal Census which was the first to enumerate former slaves. Before that number of slaves he owned was noted under the master’s entry, but it was purely statistical. There were no individual names listed. The first federal census since emancipation recorded the name, location, age, birthplace, familial relationships, marital status, occupation, ability to read and write, the total value of a person’s estate and more. That’s rich information, but it doesn’t link former slaves to their past so it’s usually a dead end for genealogists.

There is one other federal source for precious information on formerly enslaved Americans that predates 1870: the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was a federal agency created in March of 1865 with the end of the Civil War in sight to help the freed slaves in the 11 states of the Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia), border states Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and the District of Columbia. With four million people free but destitute, the Freedmen’s Bureau ran a relief operation providing food, clothing, medical care and temporary housing in camps. Over the course of its seven years of operation, the Bureau helped freedmen locate family members separated by war and the sale of human beings, founded and supported schools, performed marriages (slave marriages were illegal so the Bureau often solemnized and legalized couples who had been de facto married for years), provided jobs and banking, oversaw labor contracts between former slave owners and former slaves, resettled freedmen on abandoned lands, represented former slaves in court, helped soldiers and sailors secure their back pay and future pensions.

The records generated by the Freedmen’s Bureau therefore cover an immense amount of ground. They include key information like the name of former masters and plantations that would allow genealogists to delve into the pre-Civil War history of African American families. The National Archives has preserved FB records on microfilm and made them available to researchers at the National Archives building in Washington, DC, and at regional archives in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington State. Some of the microfilm records have been digitized, but only a fraction of them and without name indexing which would allow people to look up individual family members and pull all their records.

FamilySearch, a non-profit genealogy organization run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has already digitized some of the Freedman’s Bureau records — 460,000 records of the Freedmen’s Bank, 800,000 records from Virginia — but on Friday, the 150th Juneteenth, it announced a major initiative to digitize and index the names of freedmen recorded in 1.5 million Bureau records. In collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum, the project seeks to mine raw records for names of freedmen and refugees and make the searchable database available for free online.

In order to complete so vast project, FamilySearch is enlisting the power of the crowd. There’s a dedicated website, Discover Freedmen, where volunteers can learn more about the digitization project. If you would like to help digitize the Freedman’s Bureau records, you must first download FamilySearch’s dedicated indexing program and then register an account. A quick introductory video explains how to use the program, but it’s fairly intuitive and user friendly. Once you’re registered and the software is up and running, click the Download Batch button, click Show All Projects and scroll down to US – Freedmen’s Bureau projects. Here’s a list of all the FB batches. There are labor contracts, education records, court records, hospital records, land records, records of complaints, employment, military service claims and rations issued. Only the indexing of the medical records is close to completion; most of the batches have barely been touched.

After you’ve selected a batch, the image of a record will appear in your software. Your job is to scour it for name of anyone who is not a Bureau official and enter any names you find in the appropriate data entry fields. If you have any difficulty reading handwriting, you can view the next and previous documents which might have associated information written more legibly. You can also use the Share Batch feature to enlist the aid of other indexers. If you just can’t make heads or tails of it, you can Return Batch to give it to other indexers.

To get started, download the indexing program here. When you open it up after installation, it will prompt you to register. After that, wade into the records of your choice. If all goes well, the project is expected to take a year after which the records will be exhibited at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in late 2016. You can search by ancestor name right now on the Discover Freedmen website (click Discover in the header menu), although of course there are many fewer names in the database than there will be next year.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lavau noble buried wearing 1.28-pound gold torc

History Blog - Sat, 2015-06-20 12:15

The excavation of the princely tomb from the early 5th c. B.C. unearthed at Lavau in France’s Champagne region was completed a few days ago. Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have now published more about what they found in the richly appointed grave.

The deceased is laid out in the center of the tomb, head oriented south, with his two-wheeled chariot. The prince wears a torc in solid gold weighing 580 grams (1.28 pounds), significantly heavier that 480-gram 24-carat gold torc in the Lady of Vix grave discovered in 1953 about 40 miles south of Lavau. This rigid neck ring is richly decorated in a double motif of winged monster, extended by pear-shaped stamps. On his wrists are gold bracelets while his bicep is encircled by an lignite armlet. Near the nape of his neck are several finely worked amber beads, the remains of a necklace or hair ornament. There are also very rare surviving organic remains from his clothing. Archaeologists found two iron and coral hooks attached to fragments of leather and a row of rivets — remnants of the collar from his top — bodkins and bronze hooks from his shoes.

The largest and most elaborately decorated find — the bronze cauldron three feet in diameter adorned with four circular handles attached to the head of Greek river-god Achelous and eight lion heads around the rim — is part of a wine set that includes the Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe, perforated spoon and smaller bronze vessels found inside the cauldron. It’s Greco-Latin in manufacture and was probably the centerpiece of an aristocratic Celtic banquet.

The Lavau burial has several elements in common with the Lady of Vix, including the huge and hugely fancy banquetware. It dates to around 500 B.C., on the cusp between the end of the Hallstatt and the beginning of the La Tène period. She too was buried with exceptionally rich grave goods of Greek and Celtic extraction: a bronze volute krater of immense size — 5’4″ high, 290 gallon capacity, 450 lbs total weight including base and lid — which is the largest metal vessel from Classical antiquity known to survive, an oinochoe wine jug (although the Vix one was bronze while Lavau’s is black figure ceramic with a gilded rim and foot) a two-wheeled chariot, a heavy gold torc and jewelry with amber beads.

Another slightly later tomb (mid-4th century B.C.), that of the Princess of Reinheim, unearthed near Saargemünd, Germany, just across the border with Lorraine, also has similar grave goods: a gold torc around her neck and gold bangles on each wrist, amber beads by her side (once held in a long-decayed wooden jewelry box, perhaps), and an expensive beverage set composed of a large bronze flagon (1’8″ high), other bronze basins and the remains of gold fixtures thought to be from drinking horns.

The Lady of Vix’s remains were almost completely decomposed. She was deemed a lady because even with all the priceless treasures interred with her none of them are weapons. The same conclusion was drawn from the lack of a weapon in the grave goods of the Princess of Reinheim whose skeletal remains were annihilated by the acidic soil, but modern archaeology is reluctant to draw firm conclusions on sex based on the nature of the grave goods. A knife still in its sheath was found in the Lavau grave, but Celtic women were known to have fought, so we can’t assume the prince is not a princess. The bones that have survived are in very poor condition so it’s not possible to determine the deceased’s sex just by observation. Unlike with the Lady of Vix who was unearthed in 1953, modern archaeology may be able to make the determination by other means (DNA testing, stable isotope analysis).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Getty acquires rediscovered papal bust by Bernini

History Blog - Fri, 2015-06-19 11:53

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has acquired the recently rediscovered Bust of Pope Paul V carved in 1621 by Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The bust was known to art historians from an 1893 photograph, a bronze copy now in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen that was cast by Sebastiano Sebastiani right after the marble original was sculpted, and from Vatican archives detailing the commission of the marble and bronze versions, but it had been secreted in unknown private collections since the 19th century. It recently resurfaced in a private collection and the Getty was contacted by Sotheby’s to arrange a private sale. Obviously the museum was more than interested and since it has an enormous endowment, money was no object. We don’t know what they paid for it, but it was certainly multiple millions of dollars.

The work was one of pair of busts commissioned by Paul V’s nephew and an important early patron of Bernini’s, Cardinal Scipione Borghese.Paul V, a patron in his own right who employed Pietro Bernini, Gian Lorenzo’s father, is said to have seen some drawings done by Gian Lorenzo when he was a boy and declared “This boy will be the Michelangelo of his age.” The other bust in the pair was of Paul V’s successor Pope Gregory XV who was actually pope when Bernini carved both busts. It is now in the private collection of Joseph M. and Toby Tanenbaum. You can see how similar they are in the dignified demeanor of the popes and in the decorative carving of their garments.

Bernini’s portrait of Paul V depicts the pope almost bareheaded, his hair cut in the “tonsure of St. Peter,” which signified the renunciation of worldly fashion, and dressed in traditional pontifical vestments. The thick cope covering his shoulders is richly decorated with embroideries of the Apostles Peter and Paul – the saintly patrons of Rome – with borders of plant motifs. The cope is fastened in the middle of the chest by a complex brooch called a morse, composed of a gemstone set in an elaborate metallic frame. Underneath the cope is a surplice in thin fabric with small vertical pleats on the chest, an embroidered upper edge and a very fine, delicately carved, lace border at the neck.

Bust of Pope Paul V exemplifies Bernini’s precocious mastery in capturing his sitters’ characters and in conveying a powerful liveliness of expression,” said Anne-Lise Desmas, head of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Getty Museum. “Beyond its extraordinary naturalism, the sculpture manages to combine a gravitas appropriate to the Pope’s status with an air of kindness and approachability. In addition, the rich embroidery decoration of the cope is technically a tour de force in low-relief carving. Remarkably, the portrait survived through all these centuries in perfect condition.”

The bust was in the Borghese family’s enormous art collection until 1893 when it was sold to a non-Italian private collector at an auction of antiquities and artworks at the Villa Borghese in Rome. At the time of the sale the bust was mistakenly attributed to Alessandro Algardi, a sculptor who would become a rival of Bernini’s 15 years or so later, but who didn’t get to Rome until 1625 and even then only worked restoring ancient sculptures for Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (Gregory XV’s beloved nephew) for a year or so. The Bust of Paul V was re-attributed to Bernini by Rome’s Inspector of Monuments Antonio Muñoz in a 1916 art journal article. I doubt the Borghese family would have ever sold it had they known it was a Bernini. Another bust of Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is still in Rome’s Galleria Borghese museum today.

Bernini was hugely famous and successful in his lifetime. He had a large studio and much of his work after he hit the big time was physically made by his assistants. When he was very young he collaborated on sculptures with his father. A work like this bust, therefore, that predates the studio but postdates his cooperative works with Pietro, is extremely significant because it was carved by his hand only.

Sculptures by Bernini are very rare in US museums. The Getty has another one — Boy with a Dragon — but it wasn’t made by Bernini alone; his father Pietro collaborated with his then-teenaged son in its execution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has another father-son Bernini collaboration, the sculptural group Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children, made when Gian Lorenzo was just 18 years old. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has a pair of terracotta models of angels and the terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor in Piazza Navona both by Gian Lorenzo. National Gallery of Art in Washington has one of only two other busts in the country, Monsignor Francesco Barberini. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) acquired the other, Portrait of a Gentleman, just this March.

With the Getty’s acquisition of Paul V, Los Angeles is now the proud host of two-thirds of the Bernini busts in the US. The bust went on display yesterday for the first time since Gian Lorenzo Bernini put chisel to marble almost 400 years ago.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wellington’s cloak from Waterloo for sale

History Blog - Thu, 2015-06-18 09:36

The cloak worn by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo is being offered for sale for the first time in 200 years. Wellington was a practical fellow when it came to his wardrobe, as evinced by his invention of that most sensible of boots. He eschewed the showy military outfits that were popular in his day (shout out to Joachim Murat), and this simple navy blue worsted cloak with purple velvet collar and plain gilt buttons is a fine example of his utilitarian style.

It also has a splendidly juicy ownership history. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a highly accomplished swordsman in more ways than one. He cut a swath through the fine ladies, married or not, and courtesans of Regency England, and his conquests in the bedroom figured prominently in society gossip, courtesan memoirs (the famous phrase “Publish and be damned” was his response to the publisher of Harriette Wilson’s memoirs when they offered to keep the Duke’s name out of her scandalous book for a fee), satirical cartoons and divorce court documents. Count Molé, who met Wellington after Waterloo, described him as having “a taste for women, continual amours of extreme ardour and equally extreme frivolity, all the habits of a man of the world and a thirst for the pettiest amusements.”

After Napoleon’s final defeat, abdication and exile, Wellington went to France where he enjoyed an active social life in the packed salons, ballrooms and theaters of Bourbon Restoration Paris. As the greatest military hero on the winning side, Wellington had his pick of the noble groupies that flocked to him. One of them was Lady Caroline Lamb who was then two years out of her scandalous affair with Lord Byron and its even more scandalous aftermath in which she stalked him with violently unhinged dedication.

She and her poor, benighted husband William Lamb, went to Paris in August of 1815 for some R&R after she had spent a month helping nurse her brother Frederic back to health. Colonel Frederic Ponsonby, commander of the 12th Light Dragoons, was a great favorite of Wellington’s who had been so seriously wounded at Waterloo that it’s hard to believe he survived. Leading a cavalry charge, he was shot in both arms. Then he took a sabre blow to the head which knocked him unconscious and off his horse. When he came to, he raised his head only to be spotted by a French lancer who stabbed him with said lance in the back, puncturing a lung. Unable to move, he was roughly searched for plunder at least three times by soldiers on both sides and was unintentionally trampled by Prussian cavalry.

Finally, after languishing 18 hours on the field, the morning of June 19th Ponsonby was rescued and carted to nearby farmhouse where his wounds were tended to. Sort of. Here’s his description of his medical treatment as told to Wellington’s great friend (and lover, of course) Lady Frances Shelley: “I had received seven wounds; a surgeon slept in my room, and I was saved by continual bleeding — 120 ounces in two days, besides a great loss of blood on the field.” So yeah, first he survived getting shot, stabbed and trampled at Waterloo, and then he survived his surgeon tapping his veins like a keg.

Wellington visited Ponsonby on June 20th, missing Lady Caroline and William who arrived in Brussels in early July and stayed with Frederick until he was well enough to go back home. When they moved on Paris, Caroline was ready to party. English novelist Frances Burney, aka Madame d’Arblay, described Caroline in her diary after seeing her in Paris:

“I just missed meeting the famous Lady Caroline Lamb who had been there at [Madame de la Tour du Pin's] dinner, and whom I saw, however, crossing the Place Royale, from Mme de la Tour du Pin’s to the Grand Hotel ; dressed or rather not dressed, so as to excite universal attention and authorise every boldness of staring from the general to the lowest solider among the military groups then constantly parading the Place — for she had one shoulder, half her back and all her throat and neck displayed as if the call of some statuary for modelling a heathen goddess.”

Lady Caroline’s first cousin, Lady Harriet Granville, daughter of the 5th Duke of Devonshire and the famously unconventional Duchess Georgiana, was also in Paris at that time. She wrote in her diary:

“Nothing is more agissant [agitating] but Lady Caroline William Lamb in a purple riding habit, tormenting everybody, but I am convinced she is ready primed for an attack upon the Duke of Wellington and I have no doubt but that she will to a certain extent succeed, as no dose of flattery is too strong for him to swallow or her to administer. Poor William Lamb hides in a small room while she assembles lovers and tradespeople in another. He looks worn to the bone. The D of W talked a great deal about Caroline William. I see she amuses him to the greatest degree especially her accidents which is the charitable term he gives to all her sorties.”

There are no extant letters that conclusively show the Duke of Wellington and Lady Caroline Lamb had an affair, but they were into each other for it to be noticed in public. American writer Washington Irving saw Wellington at a party in Paris paying the men little men as he was “quite engaged by Lady Caroline Lamb.” The news of their mutual interest soon grapevined its way back to London where Harriette Wilson, in a letter to her lover Richard William Meyler, wrote this finely crafted double-burn: “My old beau Wellington … has made I understand a desperate conquest of Lady Caroline Lamb, but then her ladyship was never very particular.”

It’s during this period that the Duke apparently gave Lady Caroline a cloak he had worn at Waterloo as a memento. The only source we have for this gift is the cloak’s first documented owner: Grosvenor Charles Bedford. He got it in 1823 from anatomist Anthony Carlisle who told him he had been given the cloak by Lady Caroline who received it from the Duke.

From the Sotheby’s lot notes:

The appearance and characteristics of the cloak itself, together with its provenance, leave little doubt that this was a cloak worn by Wellington during the Waterloo campaign, but it remains impossible to be sure whether he wore it on 18 June 1815. It is almost certain that that he took more than one cloak on campaign; at least one other Waterloo campaign cloak candidate once existed in the hands of Wellington’s friend John Wilson Croker, although that cloak has been lost since 1824. Croker tells the story of how Wellington had given him the cloak worn at Waterloo, but that he lent it to Sir Thomas Lawrence when he was commissioned to paint Wellington for Sir Robert Peel …, and when he asked for it back Lawrence admitted that he had given it – with the Duke’s permission – to a lady, whom Croker declines to identify (The Croker Papers: Volume 3 (1888) p.279). In 1853 Croker wrote to Bedford’s niece, then owner of the present cloak, confirming that her cloak was not the one he had once owned and that Caroline Lamb was not the lady to whom his cloak had been given. This is unsurprising since Lamb’s cloak had already passed to Bedford when Croker lent his cloak to Lawrence.

The cloak, still splattered with mud from the battlefield, will be auctioned on July 14th. The presale estimate is £20,000 – 30,000 ($30,840 – 46,260).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Bulgarian Customs finds coin hoard smuggled in routers

History Blog - Wed, 2015-06-17 04:28

The Bulgarian Customs Agency discovered a hoard of 82 coins from the reign of King Philip II of Macedon smuggled inside three routers at Sofia International Airport. The coins were taped to the routers’ circuit boards. The routers were put in a box destined for the United States via courier, but officials from the Customs Intelligence and Investigation department at the Sofia Airport Customs House were able to seize the parcel just before it was smuggled out of the country.

The 82 silver tetradrachms date to the 4th century B.C. and experts believe they are all part of a single find. Minted between 359 and 336 B.C., some of the coins bear the idealized profile of King Philip on the obverse. Each of the 82 tetradrachms is considered of “extraordinary cultural, financial and scientific value” according to Bulgaria’s Law on Cultural Heritage.

It’s not clear whether the coins were unearthed in Bulgaria or whether they were just passing through Sofia. Sections of modern Bulgaria were part of the Macedonian Empire under Philip, and in any case there was extensive trade throughout the region so the coins could easily have been illegally excavated in Bulgaria. The country is plagued by looters who feed artifacts into organized crime networks that then sell the loot on the black market, finding infinitely creative ways to smuggle it out of the country, like inside routers, for example. Authorities estimate antiquities smuggling brings in 260 million euros ($293,000,000) a year, the second most lucrative endeavor for the Bulgarian mob after the traffic in drugs.

Little more information is forthcoming since Customs is continuing to investigate the case of the 82 silver tetradrachms. It seems to me they must have known to check that particular box, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they were tipped off or if this was part of a larger investigation.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Magna Carta copied by church, not royal, scribes

History Blog - Tue, 2015-06-16 07:34

The peace treaty that has gone down in history as Magna Carta was negotiated over 10 days at Runnymede in June of 1215. The rebel barons and King John came to an agreement on terms on June 15th, 1215, which is why yesterday we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter even though the formal copies were issued on June 19th. Only four of those original 1215 copies, called exemplifications, are known to have survived. Two of them are in the collection of the British Library; one belongs to Salisbury Cathedral and the last to Lincoln Cathedral.

As part of a project of extensive study of Magna Carta in anticipation of the 800th anniversary, scholars from the University of East Anglia and King’s College London compared the handwriting of the original copies. They have identified the scribe who wrote the Lincoln charter and probably the one who wrote the Salisbury charter as well. They were not scribes of the royal chancery, as long thought.

The Lincoln charter was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln. The Salisbury charter was probably produced by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

It makes sense that Magna Carta would be copied by cathedral scribes rather than the royal ones because the bishops, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, were in favor of the charter which guaranteed their rights as well as the barons’, while John had to be forced into it and had no real intention of living up to the agreement. If it had been up to John, Magna Carta would never have gotten nation-wide distribution.

A recent study of one of the British Library’s two copies, Cotton Charter XIII 31A, which was damaged in a 1731 fire and then damaged even harder by a botched restoration attempt a century later, has found that it too had an ecclesiastical origin. Multispectral imaging has made it possible to view text invisible to the naked eye and comparison of the charter text with transcriptions in a cartulary (a manuscript of transcribed documents relating to the foundation and rights of the church) from Canterbury Cathedral found that this exemplification was the one sent to the cathedral for its records in 1215. Since Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton played a pivotal role in the Runnymede negotiations, the discovery of a Canterbury Magna Carta that may well have passed through his hands is of major historical import.

King’s College London professor of medieval history David Carpenter:

“We now know, therefore, that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals: Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Probably cathedrals were the destination for the great majority of the other original charters issued in 1215.

“This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties. That would have been fatal since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces.

“The church, therefore, was central to the production, preservation and proclamation of Magna Carta. The cathedrals were like a beacon from which the light of the charter shone round the country, thus beginning the process by which it became central to national life.”

We know later reissues of Magna Carta were sent to cities and counties as well as churches, even more extensively than first realized, as the recent discovery of the Kent copy indicates, but by then the reissuing of Magna Carta was almost a given. Every king for 75 years did it whenever he got into disputes over taxes and forests and whatnot. It’s those original 1215 iterations that appear to have been primarily supported and preserved by church authorities. Church officials wrote them, distributed them, kept them safe in their archives.

Because nothing is ever simple, the Church in the person of the Pope was no fan of Magna Carta. After clashes over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury led to his excommunication, King John had submitted to Pope Innocent III in 1213 and become his vassal. This secured him the pope’s consistent political support against enemies foreign (France) and domestic (the barons, the bishops) and, just 10 weeks after Runnymede, garnered him a Papal Bull annulling Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.” The result was the First Baron’s War.

There are piles of events and resources out there right now because of the anniversary. The British Library has put together an excellent website dedicated to Magna Carta. There are articles, a zoomable image and translation of one of the original 1215 exemplifications and more than 150 other artifacts related to Magna Carta and King John in the library’s collection. If you can get to the library in person, they have a rich exhibition on the history of the charter and its evolution in meaning from a treaty between warring factions whose terms were regularly ignored by all parties to the foundations of democratic principles like trial by jury and due process.

One of the more unusual objects on display is entirely modern, an artwork by Cornelia Parker called Magna Carta (An Embroidery). It is a 13 meter-long embroidery of the Magna Carta Wikipedia page as it was last year on June 15th. More than 200 people were involved in this project, from lawyers to barons to 40 prisoners who embroidered the word “freedom.” Every color, image, table, bullet point, reference and footnote is duplicated in embroidery.

For a cool look at the history of Magna Carta scholarship, check out the English Historical Review‘s special online Magna Carta issue which is available for free on its website. It’s a selection of articles about the charter published in the EHR over its 130 history, which makes it as interesting from a historiographical perspective as it is a study of Magna Carta.

This video is a nice overview of the history and significance of Magna Carta featuring experts from King’s College London.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Medieval ships found in Tallinn construction site

History Blog - Mon, 2015-06-15 05:36

Construction workers building a new apartment complex in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, have discovered the remains of two medieval ships. Workers were digging the foundations on May 22nd when the bucket of the excavator encountered large pieces of very old wood. The construction company stopped work and alerted the National Heritage Board (NHB) who sent experts to examine the find. On May 26th the crew unearthed another shipwreck at the other end of the construction site. The area was then scanned with ground-penetrating radar and a third likely shipwreck was located.

Construction has been suspended and this week NHB archaeologists began excavating the first shipwreck. The bones of the ship are now clearly visible and can be seen by members of the public who care to glance down. It’s 15 meters (50 feet) long, four meters (13 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (five feet) deep at the deepest point. Archaeologists tentatively date it to between the 14th to 17th century.

It was found close to four meters below modern ground level, in the sediments of what was once the seabed. Although the site is 200 meters (ca. 220 yards) from the water today, for centuries it was a port. In the late 1930s the area was infilled with ash and household refuse. It’s not clear if the ships sank there are were gradually buried over time by siltification, or if they were deliberately sunk after reaching the end of their natural lives. They were certainly stripped of all usable parts — metal fittings, rigging and masts — before being abandoned.

Estonian Maritime Museum archeologist Vello Mässi believes it was a short-haul transport vessel, used to move cargo from the shore to the large ships in the deeper waters of the bay. Archaeologists are excited to have the opportunity to study such old ships in detail. This is the first time multiple historic wrecks have been found so close together. The last time the remains of a wreck were found in Tallinn was 2009 when road construction unearthed a 13th century ship. They are keen to examine these finds to learn about how they were built and when and what wood was used.

Archaeologist Priit Lahi admits the find was an important discovery to shed light on possible shipbuilding methods from centuries before.

“At the time, shipbuilders used their own methods — it wasn’t very scientific. There weren’t project drawings like we have today,” he told the Associated Press.

Excavations are scheduled to continue at least through July 8th. While the developers building the apartment complex have expressed interest in display the find in some way, construction won’t be delayed much longer or halted. It would be too expensive and time-consuming to keep the wrecks in situ, so they will be raised, documented and studied before their ultimate disposition is decided. They may be reburied in sand at another location for their own preservation, which would allow future examination of the wrecks by scholars and make them easy to retrieve for future conservation and display.

For more pictures of the ship and site, check out the photo galleries here and here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Merovingian wine jug found in Denmark cemetery

History Blog - Sun, 2015-06-14 04:59

Archaeologists excavating the oldest cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Denmark, have discovered an intact Merovingian-era pitcher. It is the only vessel of its type ever found in Denmark and because Ribe, founded in the early 8th century, is not only the oldest extant city in Denmark, but the oldest in Scandinavia, this teapot-sized jug is of disproportionately large historical significance.

The pitcher was found underneath a large upside-down vessel which was cracked and broken. It may have been deliberately placed over the little treasure to protect it, but if it wasn’t, it performed that function anyway, keeping the jug from being damaged or broken over the centuries. When the archaeologists removed the pieces on top of it, they immediately saw they had something special. Danish pottery from the early Middle Ages is black, brown or red. The bright color of this ceramic marked it as imported. When they excavated it fully they were amazed to find a complete piece of such high quality and great age.

Unsure of what exactly they had unearthed, the team consulted with experts who identified it from its features — the clover leaf spout, the shape of the handle — as a trefoil pitcher made during the Merovingian dynasty (circa 450-750 A.D.) in France or Belgium. Unlike domestic ceramics, this pitcher was made on a turntable and fired in a kiln.

Merovingian vessels have also been found in the late 8th century trading settlement of Hedeby, also on the Jutland peninsula but today just across the border in Germany about 80 miles south of Ribe. They are very rare. Out of 2,000 graves excavated in Hedeby, only three of them included Frankish pitchers, none of them of the trefoil type.

“It is a unique find,” said Morten Søvsø, the head of archaeology at Sydvestjyske Museum.

“The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era.” [...]

“The jug is a masterpiece from the French or Belgian workshops, and its elegant form is a direct legacy from ancient Roman potters. No pottery at home could technically produce such a thing at the time,” said Søvsø.

Archaeologists couldn’t narrow down the precise date it was made or when it was buried. It was certainly interred more than 1,000 years ago and most likely when Ribe was still new. Archaeologists have long thought that Ribe grew gradually into a city of import, but the discovery of the pitcher suggests there were early connections with the Franks. It could have been traded or the person with whom it was buried was of Frankish origin. According to lead archaeologist Søren Sindbæk, the grave goods found in its cemetery are useful objects that had meaning to the people buried with them, not exotic objects like this pitcher would have been to someone native to the area. If he was a Frank, he must have been well-enough known in Ribe society to garner a formal burial in the cemetery.

The archaeological team is hoping to be able to answer some of the questions about the origin of the pitcher and the person whose grave it adorned by studying the bones found in the grave. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth and bones can narrow down where someone lived in early childhood.

The burial ground has a wide variety of graves from different periods: pre-Christian cremation burials, urn burials, boat burials, Christian inhumations, animal burials. Last year the team unearthed the unique grave of a fully outfitted warhorse and rider from the earliest days of the city. Elite mounted warrior burials have been found before, but they date to the 10th century, the end of the Viking period, while this grave is from the early 8th century almost a hundred years before the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne (793 A.D.).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iconic Bach portrait returns to Leipzig

History Blog - Sat, 2015-06-13 06:44

The most famous and best-preserved portrait of composer Johann Sebastian Bach has returned home to Leipzig after an absence of at least more than a century, possibly two. It was painted in Leipzig by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748, the second of two virtually identical portraits he made of the Baroque composer. The first iteration, painted in 1746 and now in the Stadtgeschichtlichen Museum Leipzig, was damaged by excessive cleaning and overpainting particularly on the face. With the exception of a small overpainted area of the background, the 1748 Haussmann portrait is entirely original. The colors are vibrant and rich. The difference is so pronounced that the 1748 portrait is considered to be the sole authentic depiction of Bach’s facial features.

The Haussmann portraits are the only surviving images of Bach painted during his lifetime. They are also the only portraits commissioned by Bach. They depict him in a serious, formal pose wearing his Sunday coat and peruke and holding a sheet of music entitled “Canon triplex à 6 Voc[ibus]” (triple canon for six voices) signed “by J. S. Bach.” Bach chose not to be painted with a keyboard instrument or with a conductor’s baton, but with one of his counterpoint canons. He wanted to be immortalized as a composer, even though during his lifetime he was better known for his playing.

Before he died in 1750, Johann Sebastian gave the 1748 portrait to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Carl died in 1788. We know the painting was still in the possession of his widow two years later because it is described in detail in a 1790 inventory of Carl’s estate. After that it’s unclear where the painting went until the 19th century when it was in the possession of the Jenke family of Breslau (present-day Wrocław, western Poland), Silesia. The family was Jewish, so in 1936 descendant Walter Jenke hastened out of Germany to Dorset where Rolf Gardiner, an old friend from their days together at a German youth camp, had a country estate. When war broke out Jenke was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man; the painting stayed in Dorset out of harm’s way.

After the war, the Walter reclaimed the painting but soon had to sell it to support his family. In 1952 it was put up for auction. The buyer was oil baron, collector, philanthropist and accomplished Bach Scholar William H. Scheide who kept it in his Princeton, New Jersey, home for more than 60 years. When Scheide died at a venerable 100 years of age on November 14th, 2014, he bequeathed the painting to the Leipzig Bach Archive.

As coincidence, fate or inspiration would have it, Rolf Gardiner’s son John Eliot, who grew up under the gaze of the Haussmann portrait, would become one of the preeminent musicians and conductors of our time, renown for his performances of Baroque music on original instruments. He has published a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach and is today the president of the Leipzig Bach Archive.

On June 12th, the opening of Leipzig’s Bach Festival, the portrait was unveiled in St. Nicholas Church by Leipzig’s mayor Burkhard Jung, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Mr. Scheide’s widow Judith and daughter Barbara. Hundreds of dignitaries attended the event which was broadcast live on a huge screen in the city’s market square. The choir of St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as cantor for 27 years, sang to mark the joyous homecoming.

As of today, the portrait is in the Bach Archive Museum’s Treasure Room along with the only known surviving painting of Johann Sebastian’s father Johann Ambrosius Bach. In the archive’s historic 16th century building across from St. Thomas Church, the 1748 Haussmann portrait is now on permanent public display for the first time in 267 years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Wellcome Collection’s tattooed human skins

History Blog - Fri, 2015-06-12 07:47

Pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome was a passionate collector of medicalia, amassing more than one million books, artworks and artifacts by the time of his death in 1936. He dispatched purchasing agents to acquire objects of interest for his collection. One of them, Captain Peter Johnson-Saint, bought 300 tattooed human skins from a certain Dr. La Valette at the Rue de l’Ecole de Medecine in Paris in June 1929.

La Valette claimed to have collected and cured all of the skins himself, using a dry preparation method of his own invention which modern testing indicates may have involved dangerous chemicals mercuric chloride and/or arsenic trioxide. That was almost certainly an exaggeration, since Johnson-Saint noted that the skins dated from the first quarter of the 19th century through the 1920s, so at least some of them must have been preserved before La Valette was born. Also, there are several specimens that were roughly cut off the body so that parts of the tattoos are missing. This may have been by necessity — because of an injury or decomposition, for example, that broke up the tattoo — or they may have been harvested hastily by people hoping to be able to sell them to, say, a Parisian doctor.

The ones that he did harvest and prepare himself were probably taken from the corpses of French sailors and soldiers. La Valette worked in several military hospitals over the course of his career, which gave him access to a concentration of tattooed bodies that a doctor in general practice would not have.

It was sailors, the crew of James Cook’s ship Endeavour, who brought the new fashion for tattoos back to Europe from Australia and New Zealand in 1771. By the 19th century Western iconography — religious figures, female nudes, florals — and military symbols — anchors, weapons, men in uniform — were well established in European tattoo culture, but tattooing’s roots among the so-called “savages” of the Pacific islands suggested to some scholars that people who chose to adorn their bodies with tattoos were themselves primitives, throwbacks with criminal and degenerate tendencies.

Criminologists and forensic scientists in the late 19th century studied tattoos extensively, looking for some pattern that would explain the criminal psyche that drove men to ink. French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne recorded thousands of tattoos, tracing precise copies of them from the bodies of prison inmates. By 1881 he had 1,600 drawings of tattoos in his collection, accompanied by detailed notes about where the tattoos were located on the body. He created a taxonomy of tattoos, arranging them by design and location, in the hope of cracking the code of criminal character. He called them “speaking scars,” which is both poetic and literal, especially since many of the tattoos included text.

Lacassagne’s contemporary, Italian criminologist Cesar Lombroso, believed that tattoos were as much indicators of born criminals as congenital physiological characteristics like a sloping forehead, long arms and big ears. While tattoos are obviously consciously acquired rather than innate, Lombroso believed they were symptoms of another feature inherent to the criminal body: insensibility to pain.

English doctor Havelock Ellis in his 1890 book The Criminal dedicates a chapter to tattooing. He cites Lombroso’s studies of juvenile criminals, Lacassagne’s studies of convict soldiers and other sources for statistical evidence of the high percentage of tattoos in criminal populations, far higher than the general public and even higher than the non-convicted military population.

The greater number of tattooed criminals are naturally found among recidivists and instinctive criminals, especially those who have committed crimes against the person. The fewest are found among swindlers and forgers, the most intelligent class of criminals.

With so much attention in the medical literature paid to tattooed bodies, it’s little wonder that Henry Wellcome approved heartily of Johnson-Saint’s acquisition of Dr. La Valette’s specimens. Wellcome noted in the margin one of Johnson-Saint’s reports that the skins were “of great interest to us for certain section” of the medical museum he was planning to house his vast collection. His plans for a “Museum of Man” did not come to fruition before his death, and the 300 pieces of tattooed human skin were stored out of view. Some of his collection went on display at London’s Science Museum starting in 1976, and that’s where the tattoo collection has been stored.

A few individual pieces have gone on display since then. Two are on display in the permanent exhibition Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection museum in London, and seven were part of its 2010 Skin exhibtion, but the collection as a whole has yet to see the light of day. It hasn’t even seen the light of the scanner. Only a small selection of tattooed skins are in the huge Wellcome Images database.

They are haunting, macabre and fascinating, from rudimentary pinups to beautifully drawn elegant ladies, from melancholy inscriptions to travel souvenirs. Some of them have the scalloped edges and puncture marks that are the result of the drying process. Others are neatly trimmed to look more like illustrations on parchment, possibly done to make them look less like skin stripped off of human beings in preparation for display.

That’s what they are, though, and here are three pictures that bring that reality very much home. The first is a photograph taken of prisoner Fromain on July 24th, 1901, at an unknown prison, next to two pictures of what’s left of his chest in the Wellcome Collection.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

18th c. horse skeleton unearthed in St. Augustine

History Blog - Thu, 2015-06-11 08:01

An archaeological excavation on the site of future construction in St. Augustine, Florida, has unearthed the intact and articulated skeleton of a small horse. The remains have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but fragments of ceramic pieces in the layer alongside the horse are from the late 18th century. It’s the only horse burial ever found in the colonial downtown district of the city.

The site once housed the Spanish Dragoon barracks in a pre-existing two-story early Spanish structure. The dragoons and their stables were there from 1792 until the waning days of Spanish control. The deteriorating buildings were razed in 1822 but the dragoons were long gone by then as Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. The horse was therefore probably a mount belonging to a dragoon officer, which explains its careful burial.

“I think there’s reverence here,” [St. Augustine archaeologist Carl] Halbirt said. “They actually laid it out on its side with the legs folded in the chest area. That’s a sign of reverence.”

It was once a companion that meant a lot to a St. Augustine man – a dragoon – who relied on it.

“It was a cavalry man’s life,” [colonial cavalry researcher Amanda] LaPorta said. “They were a special kind of soldier. The horse was their best friend. It was all important to them.”

LaPorta thinks the small size of the horse indicates it was a Marsh Tacky, one of several horse breeds descended from the Iberian horse stock the Spanish brought to the Americas. At less than 15 hands (about five feet) at the withers, the petite horse was agile on Florida’s swampy terrain, easy to house and feed. There are other Colonial Spanish Horse breeds, however, that are just as small as the Marsh Tacky — for example the Banker horse and the Florida Cracker Horse — so only DNA testing can determine its breed with certainty.

The horse skeleton has been removed from the site and will be kept at St. Augustine’s archaeology lab.

St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States, but its history long predates Columbus. Archaeological investigations in the area have discovered 3,000-year-old shell middens. In the city itself, Native American artifacts and human remains have been found dating to between 1100 and 1300 A.D., and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found well-established Timucua towns. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spanish governor Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in a section of the Timucua town of Seloy. According to Spanish accounts, at first relations between the Spanish and Timucua were friendly — the locals allowed the Spanish use of their homes and territory on the site of what is now the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park — but soon the Spanish outstayed their welcome and relations grew strained. After less than a year, the Spanish moved across the bay to Anastasia Island. In 1572 they moved back to the mainland to what is now the downtown St. Augustine area.

St. Augustine was the capital of Florida for 259 years, through the entire duration of Spanish rule, the period of British control from 1763 until 1783, and the early American era until it was moved to Tallahassee in 1824. Because of its unique and long history, the city of St. Augustine has extensive heritage protection regulations. Its Archaeology Preservation Ordinance requires that all “subsurface disturbances” (ie, ground-penetrating construction), whether on private or public land, are subject to archaeological review for their potential effect on buried history. It has a city archaeologist, currently Carl D. Halbirt, who performs reviews, archaeological surveys before construction and test excavations and monitors all ongoing construction in case it turns up anything that needs further investigation or salvage. This archaeology-focused approach is relatively common in European countries, but it’s a regulatory unicorn in the US where generally people can do whatever they want on private property even in places that are famously packed with ancient remains.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Explore the Revolutionary gunboat Philadelphia

History Blog - Wed, 2015-06-10 07:00

In the early days of the American Revolution, the northern border with Quebec was of great strategic importance as a potential entry point for British troops. After some initial successes like Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, the Continental Army launched a pre-emptive invasion of Quebec. They captured Montreal on November 13th, 1775, and moved on to attack Quebec City where they were soundly defeated on December 31, 1775. By spring of 1776, the Continental Army had retreated out of Canada back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Licking their wounds and anxious to prevent the British from traveling south via the Hudson into New York, Continental Congress ordered the construction of a fleet of 15 ships to replace the ones Arnold had destroyed to keep them out of British hands. At Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall) in upstate New York at the head of Lake Champlain, Hermanus Schuyler, the assistant deputy commissary general of the Northern Department, oversaw the construction of four galleys and eight gundalows, larger and armed versions of the flat-bottomed cargo boats used for transportation across the lake. It was the summer of 1776 and this was the first American Navy.

Commanded by Benedict Arnold, who as a civilian had captained his own ships as a successful merchant in the West Indies trade, the small fleet patrolled Lake Champlain getting in the way of the British invasion. On October 11th, 1776, most of the fleet met its end at the Battle of Valcour Island, but not before fighting the larger and much fancier British fleet to a standstill. One of the fatalities was the Philadelphia, a 54 foot, 29-ton gundalow armed with one 12-pounder cannon, two 9-pounders and mounts for up to eight more swivel guns. It was struck by a British cannonball and sank to the floor of Lake Champlain.

For 160 years the Philadelphia rested in the frigid embrace of the northern waters. In 1935 civil engineer and World War I veteran Lorenzo F. Haggulund, who had discovered Arnold’s flagship the Royal Savage in 1932, found the Philadelphia sitting straight up on the bottom of the lake. It was in excellent condition, considering the beating it had taken a century and a half earlier. The mast was missing its top but was otherwise still in place, as were the timbers of the hull. So much of it remained that there were three clear holes shot into the hull, one of them with the 24-pound cannon ball still lodged inside it. That was the proverbial smoking gun, the actual hit that took down the ship still in place after all those years. Hundreds of artifacts from tools to clothes to cooking gear and human remains were also found.

Using a system of slings and spreaders, Haggulund raised the wreck on August 2, 1935. Here is footage of the raising of the Philadelphia, its incredible white pine mast standing proud:

Haggulund put the Philadelphia on a barge and exhibited her at various places on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. He continued to search for other wrecks from the fleet but only made one more find: a gunboat he raised in 1952. He was unable to secure funding to maintain and display the gunboat and it soon decayed and was picked away at by looters until there was nothing left to display.

In the wake of that sad loss, Hagglund approached the Smithsonian Institution to see to the long-term safety of the Philadelphia, and in 1961, bequeathed her and associated artifacts to the SI where they were thoroughly studied. When the National Museum of American History opened in 1965, the Philadelphia was on display.

Conservation of the wreck is an ongoing problem, and since visitors to the museum can only observe it from the front and over its decks, in 2013 the Smithsonian made a digital 3D model of the Philadelphia. For curators, it gives them the tools to ensure the ship’s stability and preservation. For the rest of us, the model gives us the opportunity to virtually explore the floating gun platform that was deployed against the might of Britain’s navy.

You can click and drag to change the angle of the model. Scroll to zoom in and out. Be sure to click the dropdown menu on the top left to view the model fullscreen. Once you’ve done that, click the globe icon of the expanded left menu and select “#1 Gunboat Philadelphia Overview” to kick off the guided tour. It takes you through the different parts of the ship, its design, its weapons, the cannonball that took it down and more.

Edit: I’ve removed the embedded 3D model because it may cause mobile devices to crash. Here again is the link to it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

LACMA acquires, restores 18th c. Damascus Room

History Blog - Tue, 2015-06-09 04:39

In late Ottoman-era Damascus, the wealthy had homes built in the Old City that looked plain on the outside but only because they were saving all the good stuff for the interiors. Richly decorated rooms with elaborately carved and painted wood panels and colorful stone inlays faced onto courtyards kept cool and fragrant by fountains and fruit trees. The rooms were designed to welcome and impress important visitors with luxurious comfort. They would enter the home through a modest door and walk down an unassuming hallway before turning the corner onto a courtyard surrounded by living spaces often on two stories. The more expensive the home, the more courtyards it had.

There were 17,000 of these 18th and 19th century courtyard homes still standing in Damascus in 1900, but the clock was ticking. The great beauty of the rooms made them worth more than the homes when they were stripped and sold to museums and collectors overseas. Doris Duke bought two of them and installed them in her Honolulu home Shangri La, now the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City scored their Damascus Room in 1970.

Most of the late Ottoman homes were demolished in the late 1970s when a building boom laid waste to the Old City. One of the casualties of the boom was a courtyard house built around 1766 that was demolished during the construction of a road in the al-Bahsa quarter. Before it was destroyed in 1978, a Lebanese art dealer bought the home’s 15 by 20-foot reception room, known as the qa’a. The decorated wood panels on the walls, the inlaid stone floor, an inlaid limestone and marble wall fountain, everything that was nailed down was unnailed and moved to Beirut where it was stored in a warehouse for thirty years.

After somehow surviving more than three decades in a war zone, the dismantled room caught the eye of Linda Komaroff, head of the Middle Eastern art department at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 2011 she saw pictures of it and by the end of the year she was actively lobbying the museum to acquire the room. As the conflict in Syria took an increasingly monstrous toll on the country’s cultural heritage, Komaroff’s advocacy took on additional urgency. Finally in spring of 2014, the purchase was finalized and LACMA became the proud owner of an 18th century Damascus Room of its own.

The room is in excellent condition. Only one important part of it — the ceiling — is missing, likely due to water intrusion since the wall panels have visible water damage up top where they would have once joined the ceiling. Unlike most of its compatriots, this room was never renovated, altered or painted over so the original surfaces are still brilliant and saturated underneath a few layers of grime.

As is typical, it has multicolored inlaid stone floors, painted wood walls, elaborate cupboard doors and storage niches, a spectacular arch with plaster voussoirs decorated with colored inlays that served to divide the room into upper and lower sections separated by a single tall step; and an intricately inlaid stone wall fountain with a carved and painted hood. Perhaps because the room remained in storage for so many years and had never been reinstalled or restored, it is largely in its original, though aged, state, with one of the best-preserved painted surfaces—including bright pinks, oranges, blues, and greens—of any similar room of the period. The decoration, mainly floral, incorporates on the cornices detailed depictions of platters of fruit, nuts, and even baklava, which must have served to whet the appetites of visitors to the room as they awaited the same types of refreshment.

The poplar wood panels were decorated using a technique called ‘ajami in which a thick layer of gypsum and glue was applied to the wood and carved in relief before being painted and accented with tin leaf which itself would be painted with colored glazes. Gold leaf accents added shine while egg tempera paints produced contrasting matte surfaces. Because LACMA’s room has managed to avoid the fate of so many others of its kind and has such a well preserved original surface, researchers expert to learn more about the ‘ajami technique and materials used by examining it.

Cleaning and conservation on the room has begun, funded in large part by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The stone only needs cleaning; it’s the wood panels that need to be cleaned, repaired and stabilized for permanent display. The LACMA team is also taking an innovative approach by building an armature for the room so that it can be moved whole to different exhibition spaces.

This will be immediately relevant because the renovated room will first go on display in Dhahran at the inaugural exhibition of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in March of next year. Accompanied by 130 of the best pieces from LACMA’s extensive Islamic Art collection, the room will be in Saudi Arabia for two years before returning to Los Angeles. That gives LACMA a breather because they have no idea where to put this room. The problem is they need ceilings 20 feet high and LACMA’s current building doesn’t have any of those. There’s a new building in the works, but construction isn’t even scheduled to begin until 2018.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History