Arts and Sciences

Vast stone monument found under “super-henge”

History Blog - Mon, 2015-09-07 22:46

In the Salisbury Plain three kilometers (1.8 miles) from Stonehenge lie the banks of a “super-henge” known as Durrington Walls. It’s super because of its sheer size: 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter, 1.5 kilometers (one mile) in circumference with a surrounding ditch 18 meters (59 feet) wide with an outer bank 40 meters (131 feet) wide. Heavily eroded, the outer slope of the ditch and inner slope of the bank form a ridge that is one meter (three feet) high at its highest points; the ridge is the “walls” of Durrington Walls. It was built around 2,600 B.C. in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age.

Using the latest and greatest ground penetrating radar technology, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project has found that underneath the bank is a row of up to 90 standing stones, 30 of which appear to be intact and are as much as 4.5 meters (15 feet) high. Others are broken or missing, the latter identified by huge foundation pits. Even incomplete and unexcavated, this is the largest stone monument ever found in Britain.

At Durrington, more than 4.5 thousand years ago, a natural depression near the river Avon appears to have been accentuated by a chalk cut scarp and then delineated on the southern side by the row of massive stones. Essentially forming a C-shaped ‘arena’, the monument may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon. Although none of the stones have yet been excavated a unique sarsen standing stone, “The Cuckoo Stone”, remains in the adjacent field and this suggests that other stones may have come from local sources.

Previous, intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only Stonehenge and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue possessed significant stone structures. The latest surveys now provide evidence that Stonehenge’s largest neighbour, Durrington Walls, had an earlier phase which included a large row of standing stones probably of local origin and that the context of the preservation of these stones is exceptional and the configuration unique to British archaeology.

This new discovery has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. The earthwork enclosure at Durrington Walls was built about a century after the Stonehenge sarsen circle (in the 27th century BC), but the new stone row could well be contemporary with or earlier than this. Not only does this new evidence demonstrate an early phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, it also raises significant questions about the landscape the builders of Stonehenge inhabited and how they changed this with new monument-building during the 3rd millennium BC.

Archaeologists believe the stones were toppled and the later henge whose earthwork remains are visible above ground built on top of them. The former standing stones became the awkwardly flat southern perimeter of the Durrington Walls henge. Here’s a digital model of the standing stones as they would have looked when they still stood that fades into the later bank.

That C-shape is familiar. Remember the stone circle found on Dartmoor that was the southernmost point of a crescent formed by other stone circles? The Dartmoor stones fell around 4,000 years ago, so the circles and the henge could well have been contemporaries.

Lastly, here is an extremely adorable picture of one of the magnetometer surveys in the area.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The long, strange tale of The 120 Days of Sodom

History Blog - Sun, 2015-09-06 22:35

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, served a total of 32 years in prisons and insane asylums for transgressions that by the standards of ancien régime aristocrats were comparatively modest. His first prison stay (two weeks in 1763) in the donjon of the Châteaux de Vincennes was the result of a prostitute complaining not that he had abused her, but that he had engaged in and forced her to engage in blasphemies like stomping on a cross and cursing God.

The second time he was arrested his victim was a destitute widow named Rose Keller who he had promised a job as a housekeeper. When she arrived at his home in Paris, there was no housekeeping job waiting. Instead, de Sade forced her to strip, whipped her and locked her in a room from which she escaped a few hours later. She also claim he cut her buttocks with a pen knife and poured sealing wax in the cuts, although when she was examined two days later the authorities found no cuts. For this crime he was imprisoned for seven months in 1768, before being banished to his family estate in La Coste, Provence.

The third incident ultimately sealed his fate, but only because it pissed off the one person he should have taken special care not to piss off: his mother-in-law, Madame la Présidente de Montreuil. On June 23rd, 1772, de Sade had his valet Latour hire five prostitutes in Marseilles. The seven of them spent the morning whipping each other and having sex in various configurations. None of that was in any way remarkable. What went wrong was that the marquis tried to persuade the women to eat aniseed candies coated in Spanish fly. Only one of them ate any, but a sixth prostitute he hired that evening ingested several. Both of them became ill, with the evening shift women who had eaten the most becoming so violently ill that the last rites were administered.

All six of the women were questioned by the police and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the Marquis de Sade and Latour for poisoning and for sodomy (with each other). The marquis was tipped off that the cops were after him again, so he fled to Italy taking his wife Renée-Pélagie’s sister Anne-Prospère de Launay with him. Sade was then 32; Anne-Prospère was just nineteen years old, 11 years younger than her sister, and was a secular canoness of the Benedictine community in Alix. La Présidente had fished her son-in-law’s overactive chestnuts out of the fire every time before this, but the seduction of her youngest daughter crossed a line that could not be uncrossed.

Sade and Latour were tried in absentia, sentenced to death and burned in effigy. The marquis and his sister-in-law/lover traveled under assumed names to various cities in Italy for a month before Anne-Prospère left him and returned to her sister and mother. Because he was nothing if not reckless, Sade wrote to La Présidente mentioning that he was in Savoy. She promptly alerted the Savoyard authorities and the marquis and his valet were arrested and imprisoned in Fort Miolans. They escaped four months later and returned to La Coste where Sade’s unbelievably loyal wife protected him from her mother’s wrath and kept him just out of reach of the law’s long arm.

After five years on the lam, he was lured to Paris on a pretext and arrested. He was imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes in 1777. It was the beginning of 13 years of imprisonment because even though his sentence was overturned on appeal in 1778, his formidable mother-in-law had obtained a lettre de cachet, the controversial means by which the king could order someone jailed without charge or trial indefinitely with no possibility of appeal, against him. Even when the liberal reformist zeal of the 1780s freed hundreds of disgraced debauched nobles imprisoned by lettres de cachet, the marquis was not among them. The official in charge read his letters for signs of repentance and found the polar opposite. Sade never did know when to keep his mouth shut.

His first forays into prison literature were revisions of Italian travel notes, later published as Voyage d’Italie. He began to write verse plays a couple of years into his time in Vincennes. This was his original literary dream, to be a respected playwright. He wrote to his former teacher and lifelong friend Abbé Amblet in 1784: “It would doubtless be a great pleasure for me to see my works played in Paris and if they were successful, a reputation for being a man of intellect might perhaps lead people to forget my youthful trespasses and would in some way rehabilitate me.”

Sade was an incredibly prolific correspondent and wrote 20 plays during his imprisonment. When his long-suffering wife Pélagie and Amblet didn’t gave less than glowing critiques of most of them, the marquis eschewed verse and drama and turned his attentions to pornographic prose. He kicked off his new literary pursuit in high style and in a new location. On February 29th, 1784, he was dragged naked out of his cell in Vincennes and moved to another prison on the other side of Paris, a little place you might have heard of called the Bastille. It was there that he began to write what he would consider his masterpiece: The 120 Days of Sodom.

To ensure this vomit-inducing catalogue of violent horrors and sexual depravity (I couldn’t get past the 9th day and it’s a walk in the park compared to what comes after) was not confiscated by his jailers, Sade wrote it in the tiniest of handwritings on sheets of paper five inches wide. Once he’d filled in a page, he’d glue it to the next page so the whole manuscript could be rolled up tightly and hidden in a crack in the wall (one biographer says he hid it in a dildo). He wrote for three hours a night over 37 days, producing a working draft of 250,000 words. The scroll was 39 feet long.

He intended the finished work to be twice or three times longer, but for unknown reasons he never did complete it. He certainly had the time. The Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille for five years. He was abruptly transferred, naked again, from the Bastille to the insane asylum of Charenton on July 4th, 1989, 10 days before the fortress was so famously stormed. This too he brought on himself by yelling “They’re killing prisoners in here!” out of his window to the disgruntled crowds below on July 2nd. His precious scroll was left behind in the transfer and he assumed it was destroyed for good after the storming of the Bastille. In a 1790 letter to his steward Gaufridy, Sade said he shed “tears of blood” over the loss of of this manuscript and all his other writings (plus the expensive furniture, paintings and his library of 600 books) and blamed his poor wife for not recovering his belongings from his cell when she had 10 whole days to get it done.

His first transit in Charenton lasted only a year; he was freed in 1790 when the French Revolutionary legislature abolished the lettre de cachet. He was elected to the National Convention that same year and served until he was arrested in late 1793 during the Reign of Terror for “moderatism.” Sade was freed seven months later in July of 1794 after the execution of Robespierre. Then Napoleon came along and he wanted a piece of the marquis too. In 1801 de Sade was arrested and imprisoned. Two years later his family had him declared insane and got him transferred back to the Charenton asylum where he would live out the rest of his days until his death in 1814.

Many of his surviving papers and writings were destroyed by his son Donatien-Claude-Armand after his father’s death. He was the first in a long line of de Sades to repudiate their notorious ancestor’s writing and to erase all obvious signs of their family connection to him. They stopped using the Marquis de Sade title or even the first name Donatien for 300 years. (The current family has reversed the trend. They make significant bank off their notorious ancestor and the heir to the title is named Donatien.)

Although de Sade died believing his magnum opus was gone forever, in fact The 120 Days of Sodom had been found in its hidey hole by one Arnoux de Saint-Maximin who took it home with him two days before the storming of the Bastille. Eventually it was acquired by the wealthy Villeneuve-Trans family and it remained in their hands for three generations until it was sold in the late 19th century to Berlin psychiatrist Dr. Iwan Bloch, who published the first edition in 1904, 119 years after it was written. Bloch used the pseudonym Eugène Dühren to keep the censors off his case and printed 180 copies replete with transcription errors. Bloch emphasized that he was publishing the book because of its “scientific importance … to doctors, jurists and anthropologists” and compared its anecdotes to those recorded by pioneering psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing who was the first to popularize the term “sadism” in his seminal work Psychopathia Sexualis.

The manuscript stayed in Berlin until 1929 when it was purchased by Maurice Heine at the behest of Viscount Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure who was a direct descendant of de Sade’s. Heine published a new version in three quarto volumes from 1931 to 1935 available to subscribers only. This is considered the authoritative version because it is free of Bloch’s transcription errors.

The original scroll remained in the possession of the Vicount and Marie-Laure’s daughter Natalie de Noailles until 1982 when she entrusted it to someone she thought was a trusted fried, publisher Jean Grouet. He turned out to be a con man who told her it had been stolen while he smuggled the manuscript out of the country to Switzerland where he sold it to erotica collector Gérard Nordmann for $60,000. Natalie sued and in June of 1990, a French court ruled that the manuscript was stolen and should be returned to the Noailles family. Nordmann just ignored the French judgment and since Switzerland at that point was not a signatory of the UNESCO convention, Noailles had to sue again in the Swiss courts. The dispute was ongoing when Nordmann died in 1992. In 1998 a Swiss federal court found that it was lawfully acquired because Nordmann had acted “in good faith.” I mean, the Noailles had reported the theft to Interpol and everything. Why even have laws against theft if legal title can be transferred based only on the buyer’s supposed state of mind? Absurd.

Anyway, it went on display for the first time in 2004 at the Martin Bodmer Foundation library and museum near Geneva. Nine years later, Nordmann’s heirs decided to sell the manuscript to a French collector. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France geared up for a fight, raising more than $5 million to purchase the scroll. The money would then be divided between the Noailles and Nordmann heirs, a necessary step because the manuscript would be confiscated as soon as it crossed the border into France unless the people French courts declared the legal owners were part of the deal. Negotiations fell through and a year later, in April of 2014, it was bought by Gérard Lhéritier, founder of Aristophil, a company which owned the world’s largest private collection of manuscripts (including Napoleon and Josephine’s prenup), for seven million euros ($9.6 million).

Lhéritier put the unfurled scroll on display at his private Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris and proposed to donate it to the Bibliothèque Nationale after five years. The library didn’t respond immediately to his overtures. Seven months later, anti-fraud officers raided the Paris headquarters of Aristophil and freezing all the company’s accounts forcing it into insolvency. The firm appears to have been a giant Ponzi scheme built around its historic document collection.

Lhéritier invented a new way to sell in his niche market. For the past 11 years, he has been actively purchasing valuable documents such as the manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton, Louis XVI’s will or Napoleon’s wedding certificate. He offered them for sale, divided into hundreds of shares. Clients were told that, after five years, Aristophil would buy back their share with at least a 40% interest payment. Here was the catch, claim the investigators: the clients thought the company was guaranteeing the payment; in fact, there was no obligation of the kind in the contract.

But in fact, the company has always done so, winning the confidence of 18,000 investors, who in the past year alone paid €160m for a share of the action. According to the judge’s order, of which The Art Newspaper has a copy, this was made possible only by launching new sales, so that new investors paid those selling their shares.

In March of this year, Gérard Lhéritier, his daughter, his accountant and a prominent Parisian bookseller were indicted on charges including fraud, money laundering, creating false accounts and embezzlement. In August, a court in Paris ruled that the vast Astrophil collection was to be sold as the company was completely insolvent.

And so it seems The 120 Days will be on the move again. Lhéritier denies all the charges and says the entire case is a government conspiracy to get its greedy mitts on his collection. Honestly, I hope it is, because otherwise those 135,000 documents will be scattered to the four winds unless the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s director Bruno Racine manages to get the whole lot of them declared national treasure, which I expect he’s working on right now. At least the iconic The 120 Days of Sodom manuscript is certain to qualify. Then for the first time it will belong to the country which imprisoned its author under two kings, one Committee of Public Safety
and one Consulate, and which banned his books until 1957.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman coin hoard with name on pot found in Sofia

History Blog - Sat, 2015-09-05 22:32

Archaeologists excavating Sveta Nedelya square in Sofia, Bulgaria, have discovered a hoard of 2,976 Roman coins in a clay pot with a lid. It’s the largest Roman coin hoard ever found in Sofia, but that’s not the only exceptional thing about this find: the clay pot has a name scratched on its side. The vessel contains 2976 silver denarii from the 1st and 2nd centuries, the earliest from the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79) and the latest from the reign of Emperor Commodus (177-192). There are coins bearing the faces of every Antonine emperor — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius — and their wives, daughters and sisters — Sabina, Faustina the Elder, Faustina the Younger, Bruttia Crispina and Lucilla.

It was hidden under the floor of an ancient public building and we know who buried it, one Selvius Callistus who had the presence of mind to scratch his name on the pot perhaps to prove ownership should it be disputed when he returned to collect his treasure. Unfortunately these tiny photographs are the only ones I could find and they don’t show the name. Usually that would be a deal-breaker for me — I discard potential stories all the time if there are no good pictures — but I’ve written about a great many coin hoard finds and this is the first one with a name carved on the vessel.

EDIT: Still no shots of the name, but here are some decently sized pictures of the find courtesy of Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s Facebook page. Now that I can see them properly, the coins soaking in that blue solution give me the willies. They’re all scrunched together in the foot of what looks like a trifle bowl. Surely cleaning them one at a time, or at least in a tray where they aren’t rubbing against each other, would be more appropriate treatment for 2,000-year-old coins.

Founded by the Thracian Serdi tribe in the 8th century B.C., the city that would become Sofia was called Serdica. It was conquered by the Romans in 29 B.C. who renamed it Ulpia Serdica. Thanks to its location just south of the Danube frontier at the crossroads of several trade routes, the city grew to prominence within the empire. When Diocletian divided the province of Dacia Aureliana into two parts at the end of the 3rd century A.D., Serdica was awarded the status of municipium, the administrative center/capital of the new province of Dacia Mediterranea.

For a short time between 303 and 308 A.D., Serdica had its own imperial mint. The Thessalonica mint had been shut down and its employees moved to Serdica to operate the new mint. Although it was only in operation for five years, the Serdica mint was important while it lasted. Coins struck there bear the mintmark “SM” for sacra moneta (sacred money or mint) which means it was one of very few mints where gold solidi were produced. Most mints struck regular coinage marked “MP” or moneta publica.

The city prospered under Roman rule, even as the Goths and Capri devastated the former Roman province of Dacia north of the Danube (modern-day Romania) in the 3rd century. It was razed by the Huns under Atilla in 447 A.D. during his second campaign against Theodosius and the Easter Roman Empire but was rebuilt a century later by Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In 550, Justinian’s cousin Germanus was based in Serdica where he was assembling an army to wrest Italy from Gothic control. Before he could leave, he had to fight the invading Slavs. The Battle of Serdica was a great victory for the Byzantine Empire, although it only delayed the inevitable a little while.

The hoard and vessel are currently being conserved at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ National Institute of Archaeology. They are expected to go on public display on September 17th at the official reopening of the Sofia History Museum in its new location, the restored Central Mineral Baths, a beautiful Vienna Secession style building constructed in the first decade of the 20th century which was a municipal bathhouse until 1986 when it fell into disrepair and was closed out of concern that the roof might collapse on bathers.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Drought turns Vistula into archaeological dig

History Blog - Fri, 2015-09-04 22:36

Another summer of severe drought has dropped the water level of Poland’s Vistula river to just 16 inches, creating what is basically a vast archaeological buffet table through the middle of Warsaw. Three years ago when the Vistula was 24 inches deep it was already the lowest level since recording began in 1789, and archaeologists were able to recover a trove of marble and alabaster architectural features looted from the city’s Royal Castle by Swedish invaders in 1656. More pieces of the Royal Castle are being recovered now, but that’s not all.

Other items to emerge from the Vistula this summer include pieces of bridges and boats, as well as ceramic objects dating as far back as 700 to 400 BC.

They include obelisks and bases of columns that likely came from Warsaw’s Kazimierz Palace, which was built in the 17th century and is today a Warsaw University building.

Last week archaeologists were able to recover pieces of two destroyed bridges. One of them is the Poninski Bridge, a wooden pontoon bridge built in 1775 that was supported by a line of 43 boats spanning the river. It was burned on November 4th, 1794, on the orders of Thomas Wawrzecki, leader of the Kosciuszko Uprising against Russian occupation. (Its leader and namesake, American Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, had been captured and imprisoned by the Russians a month earlier.) The Russians had just broken the Polish lines on the outskirts of Warsaw and massacred 20,000 civilians in the suburb of Praga. Wawrzecki hoped that disabling the bridge would keep them reaching the left bank of the Vistula and taking Warsaw proper.

The tactic failed. Wawrzecki and what was left of Poland’s army retreated and Russia took Warsaw unopposed. Russian General Aleksandr Suvorov had the bridge temporarily repaired a few days later. Poninski Bridge was fully repaired by April of 1795 only to be destroyed again in November of 1806 by the allied Prussian and Russian forces retreating from Napoleon’s army.

The other bridge is the Poniatowski Bridge, originally built between 1904 and 1914. Just a year after it was completed, the bridge was severely damaged when the retreating Russian army exploded four of its eight spans to hamper the German army on its heels. It was reconstructed in the interwar period only to get blown up again this time by Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising on 13 September 1944. The Germans went ahead and blew up all eight spans, leaving only the piers still standing. Archaeologists have retrieved parts of the stone benches that were once on the bridge.

Two weeks ago the wreck of a Soviet bomber was unearthed from the black muck of the Bzura River, a tributary of the Vistula. The wreckage was moved to the Vistula River Museum in nearby Wyszogrod. The instrument panel, engine, one wheel from the landing gear and radio equipment were recovered, the radio in good condition. Inside they found fragments of a uniform, a parachute, a sheepskin coat collar from a bomber jacket, fragments of boots, heavy ammunition and a Soviet semi-automatic TT pistol.

While the plane was too twisted and torn by the crash for the model to be identified, based on the winter gear and some of the markings on the plane, museum experts believe it may be a bomber witnesses saw shot down in January of 1945, when the Red Army was pushing the Nazis back towards Berlin. The Russian Embassy believes the bomber and its crew might be identified from numbers on what’s left of the plane. Remains of the pilots were found and the embassy hopes they can be identified for proper burial.

The lowering Vistula continues to reveal Jewish tombstones thought to have been stolen from the Brodno cemetery during and right after World War II and used to line the banks of the river. Another artifact found may also be connected to the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s a freight wagon of German manufacture that historians believe was used to transport rubble from the Northern District of Warsaw which was razed after the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ventnor artifacts seek owner

History Blog - Thu, 2015-09-03 22:04

On October 27th, 1902, the steamer SS Ventnor left Wellington, New Zealand, carrying the mortal remains of 499 Chinese miners. It was taking them to Hong Kong where they would be transported to China’s southern Guangdong province, the birthplace of the 499 dead, so the remains could be reburied in their native soil in accordance with Chinese custom. New Zealand had recruited Chinese labourers to extract gold from mines that Europeans had already worked to near exhaustion, and despite the passage of draconian exclusion laws, the Chinese community grew. Choie Sew Hoy, a wealthy Dunedin merchant and leader of the Cheong Sing Tong, arranged for the repatriation of the bodies and when he died suddenly a year before the ship’s departure, his remains joined the others on board the SS Ventnor.

A day after its departure, the ship struck the shoals near the coast of Taranaki and was damaged but seemed to be capable of limping its way to Auckland. It was not. The Ventnor took on water and sank on October 29th. The crew and a half-dozen Chinese passengers tending to the remains managed to scramble onto four life boats. One of the four capsized killing all 13 people on board, including the captain and third officer.

The tragedy caused great distress in the Chinese community of New Zealand and in Guangdong. Choie Sew Hoy’s family offered a reward of $25,000 for the recovery of his remains, but the heavy coffins held in the cargo of the ship could not be retrieved. The Tong hired another steamer that searched for remains without success. A few coffins stored on deck did float ashore where the remains were buried with respect by the Maori of the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes.

While the general area of the wreck was known, the precise location of the ship wasn’t discovered until 110 years after it sank. The Ventnor Project Group (VPG) found the wreck 15 kilometers (nine miles) off the Hokianga Coast with sonar in 2012 and later divers confirmed its identity. In April of 2014, divers returned to the wreck and recovered a few artifacts: a ceramic plate, the ship’s bell, a lamp holder, a porthole and the ship’s telegraph. At the time, the organization thought the artifacts could be given to a museum in Guangzhou, but the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) was vocally opposed to the idea because of how significant they were to the Chinese community in New Zealand.

The NZCA was also concerned that the wreck site was in danger from looters, so it worked with New Zealand Heritage to fast-track protection of the site. All sites from before 1900 are automatically accorded protected status, but the Ventnor was just outside that dividing line. New Zealand Heritage quickly gazetted the site, protecting it under the provisions of the Historic Places Act 1993, making it illegal for anyone to interfere with the wreck in any way.

Now the question is what to do with the artifacts removed from the shipwreck before it was protected. On Monday New Zealand’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage published a notice on their website and in newspapers asking that claims of ownership be submitted to the ministry.

New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage invites submissions of claims for ownership and/or possession from parties who may have an interest in some or all of the objects. We also invite submissions from parties who are not claiming ownership and/or possession but who wish to make submissions for consideration regarding the future care of the objects whether by them or by another party. Submissions should be received by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage by 23 November 2015.

It seems to me that the only people with a legitimate ownership claim to pieces of the Ventnor would be the owners of the ship, but as far as I could find, the Glasgow-based shipping company is no longer in business. Perhaps it has legal corporate descendants. Even so, I doubt they’d want to take an old porthole out of the context where it has such profound meaning. The NZCA plans to make a submission to the ministry with the goal of creating a traveling exhibition. The government reserves the right to make a claim as well. Once the claims have been submitted and the deadline expires, the Chief Executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage will decide who gets custody of the artifacts.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Scottish soldiers found in Durham mass grave

History Blog - Wed, 2015-09-02 22:05

In November of 2013, construction crews building a new coffee shop for Durham University’s Palace Green Library came across human skeletal remains. Construction was halted immediately and an archaeological excavation ensued. Under an internal courtyard at the south end of the site, archaeologists unearthed a jumble of bones, the remains of more than a dozen people who had been buried in two pits. The mass graves extend north, south and east past the excavated area under buildings and walls and only the area directly impacted by construction was excavated so there are likely many more human remains still underground. The bones in the path of construction were removed for study before reburial.

University researchers found that there were at least 17 individuals and as many as 29 buried in the pits. Because they had been buried with little care, the skeletons were disarticulated and it wasn’t possible to identify the exact number. Most of them ranged in age from 13 to 25 with a few older individuals. All the adults were male and the adolescents probably were as well but their sex could not be conclusively determined. The sex and age indicate these individuals were soldiers. If they had been general population struck by plague, say, there would have been a representative proportion of men, women, children and elderly. (They also probably wouldn’t have been buried in the city center on the castle grounds.)

Stable isotope analysis from tooth enamel revealed that six of the deceased were likely from Scotland, four from Scotland or Northern England, one more likely to be Scottish than English and three who were not from the British Isles. They grew up further east, in a cooler climate or a higher altitude; they may have been German or Dutch. Two of the men had crescent-shaped notches in the teeth called “pipe facets” caused by habitual biting on the stems of clay pipes.

That’s a key date marker because clay pipe smoking became popular in Britain in the early 17th century, so the bodies can’t have been buried before 1620. A building was constructed over some of the mass grave in 1754 which narrows the date further. Radiocarbon testing dates the remains to 1625-1660. That range is mighty suggestive. There was a civil war going on in Britain in the middle of those dates, after all.

Durham University experts believe all the evidence points to the men buried in these mass graves being soldiers in the Scottish army who were on the losing side of the Battle of Dunbar, fought on the southeast coast of Scotland exactly 365 years ago today on September 3rd, 1650. It was a short but brutal fight in which Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army crushed the Royalist Scottish Covenanter army in less than an hour. According to contemporary sources, up to 5,000 men lost their lives on the battlefield. Modern historians estimate that 4,000 Scottish soldiers were captured by Cromwell and marched through Newcastle upon Tyne 100 miles south to Durham. Approximately 1,000 of them died on the way, mainly from starvation, exhausting and dysentery.

When the 3,000 or so survivors reached Durham, they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral which at the time was no longer functioning as a church since Cromwell had kicked out the Dean and Chapter. Conditions were appalling. It was cold and there was little food or water to be had. The Scottish prisoners stripped the cathedral’s wood to burn for heat, sparing only Prior Castell’s Clock out of deference for the Scottish thistle carved on it. (That’s the romantic story. The more practical version is that the clock was dismantled and removed when the cathedral was converted into a prison.) An estimate 1,700 of the prisoners died in captivity.

As for the survivors, some of them were forced to work in salt and coal mined in northeast England or to drain the Fens in Norfolk. About 500 were conscripted to fight in the Parliamentarian army in Ireland. Others were sold as indentured servants to the tobacco plantations of Virginia and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. About 150 of them were sent to New England where they were sold as indentured servants to sawmills and ironworks for £20 a head. The term of indenture was limited and if they raised sufficient funds they could buy themselves free before the term was up.

There is no evidence of cause of death in the bones exhumed from the mass grave, nor are there extensive healed wounds or perimortem wounds as you might expect to find on soldiers’ remains. Counterintuitively, that supports a Dunbar connection because the Scottish soldiers who fought there are known to have been largely inexperienced fighters and the ones who suffered severe injuries either died on the field or were released back to their side right after battle. Only the soldiers who had made it out of the fight relatively intact were taken prisoner and marched down south where they eventually died of starvation or disease.

The presence of non-Scots is also in keeping with what we know about the Scottish army. Contemporary sources note the presence of Dutch and German soldiers in the Scottish army just weeks after the Battle of Dunbar. It seems likely they were at the battle too.

Richard Annis, senior archaeologist at Archaeological Services Durham University, said: “This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.

“Their burial was a military operation. The bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham Castle grounds, as far as possible from the castle itself – they were out of sight, out of mind.

“It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now university buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-17th Century.”

The remains will be reinterred as required by the terms of the exhumation license. Durham University and Durham Cathedral are working together with other interested parties (the Church of Scotland, for instance) to determine the most respectful approach. Certainly burial in the cathedral is out given that most of the dead were probably Presbyterians and even if they weren’t the last place in the world they’d want to be buried is in the prison where they experienced so much death and misery.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New technology reveals Rembrandt hidden portrait

History Blog - Tue, 2015-09-01 22:23

Like many artists, Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt van Rijn was known to have reused materials, especially in his younger days. Instead of discarding a canvas or wood panel after a false start, it’s a lot cheaper and faster to just flip it and start over again. The figure underneath An Old Man in Military Costume (1630-31) has been known to scholars since 1968 when the Rembrandt Research Project X-rayed the painting, then in the collection of Sir Brian Mountain, and found a young man’s face upside down to the right of the Old Man’s face. While the figure was visible, it was indistinct.

The painting was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1978 and it’s been studied with different imaging techniques repeatedly since then. Improvements in X-ray technology provided slightly clearer views of the man under the Man in 1978 and 2008. In 1996, neutron activation autoradiography (NAAR) was able to provide a cleaner image of the figure and, most importantly, the distribution of some of the chemical elements in the paint. If you know the chemical composition of the paint, you may be able to accurately extrapolate color, but the NAAR data was insufficient.

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning can generate a detailed map of single-element distribution, but until recently required bulky instruments only found in select laboratories and could only scan small sections of a painting or objects small enough to fit into a cabinet unit. When the Getty first attempted an XRF scan on an area near the lips of the underlying figure, they only caught a glimpse of it. Macro-XRF (MA-XRF) technology, possible at synchrotron radiation laboratories, could scan the entire painting, but the Getty wasn’t keen to move its precious Rembrandt around the country. Just as they were exploring sending Old Man to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, the development of a mobile MA-XRF scanner that could scan the painting in place made concerns about the danger and inconvenience of transporting the delicate artwork moot.

Now a new study combines the new mobile MA-XRF scanning technology with data from the early NAAR scans to reveal the most complete image of the young man yet.

The general shape of the face of the figure underlying An Old Man in Military Costume was revealed by X-radiography: NAAR imaging provided more details about the shape of the face and the cloak worn by the figure along with indications of the chemical composition of some of the pigments Rembrandt used. MA-XRF scanning significantly added to the understanding of the hidden painting by providing detailed images of the distribution of individual chemical elements, from which the specific pigment(s) – and colors – Rembrandt used to paint the first figure could be inferred. For example, the underlying figure’s face is rich in the element mercury, indicative of the presence of the red pigment vermilion, one of the components used to create flesh tones. The MA-XRF map of mercury provided a nearly complete, detailed image of the face of the underlying figure; similarly, the map of copper, typically associated with blue or green pigments, provided an image of the cloak.

Together, the information from the NAAR and MA-XRF scans was used to create a tentative digital color reconstruction of the hidden image: a young man, seen in three-quarter view wearing a voluminous cloak around his shoulders. The full significance of the hidden painting within Rembrandt’s oeuvre will continue to be the subject of ongoing research.

One possibility that will be studied further is that the underlying image is a self-portrait. Rembrandt often used his own face in his early character studies and it’s likely this young man is the artist as a young man. The study has been published in the journal Applied Physics A and can be read in its entirety for free here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

DVR alert: Drunk History is back tonight!

History Blog - Mon, 2015-08-31 22:41

The new season of Drunk History premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 EST. I’ve been a loyal viewer since it was on YouTube and while the transition to television was a little awkward — a sketch on the short-lived Funny or Die HBO show — it has found its footing on Comedy Central and is now heading into its third season.

In the first two seasons of the Comedy Central show, each episode revolved around a city as a unifying theme. Three comedians told a story each about, say, Detroit or New York City of Nashville, and it worked because hometown yarns are always good fun, and anyway history is so dense and rich that there’s no chance of so broad a range as an entire city feeling limited. Still, I missed the theme shows of the olden days, so I was delighted to see a few of them in season two (First Ladies, American Music) and they’re back this season. The first episode has a theme, in fact, the history of science, one of my favorite subtopics.

If you haven’t seen it before, I envy you, because you can watch every episode of the first two seasons on Comedy Central’s website with enthralled new eyes. The episodes are just over 20 minutes long, so you can totally marathon through all 18 of them in less than seven hours. I’m not saying you should call in sick, but you should probably call in sick. Priorities, man.

Drunk History co-creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Connor, were on a panel at this year’ Comic-Con. Waters talks about the inception of the show — Otis Redding was involved — and how it took off, the processes of narration and reenactment, topics they thought would work but turned out to be buzzkills, ie, the Donner Party and serial killer H.H. Holmes. Fun fact: the first season they made narrators tell two stories which means they were drunk non-stop from 3:00 in the afternoon until after the wee hours of the next morning. Oh, and the narrators have to blow in a breathalyzer regularly throughout filming to ensure they are efficiently but not dangerously wasted. Guest stars this season include Octavia Spenser, Parker Posey, Will Ferrel, Josh Hartnett and Maya Rudolph.

If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll wish the panel video were longer. More showing how the sausage is made!

** Embed removed due to stupid autoplay. Have a nice, quiet link instead. **

The follow-up Q&A is, alas, very brief, but it still manages to cover a couple of key questions I’ve been curious about, most significantly how are the stories chosen and by whom.

** Second embed also removed due to stupid autoplay. Link. **

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Retired electrician found guilty of holding stolen Picassos

History Blog - Sun, 2015-08-30 22:19

Retired electrician Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle have been convicted of possessing stolen goods, namely 271 drawings, collages and paintings by Pablo Picasso. The trove of previously unknown works came to light in September of 2010 when Pierre Le Guennec carried a suitcase full of them to the Picasso Administration to have them authenticated. His story was that either Picasso himself or his wife Jacqueline gave the art to Pierre as a gift for having installed a security system and done some other work around the Côte d’Azur estate.

Picasso’s son Claude found this account unbelievable because while the artist was generous with his prolific work, he routinely signed and dated a piece before giving it to someone. There was certainly no precedent for Picasso handing over hundreds of random, unsigned pieces at one time. Claude pressed charges against the Le Guennecs for receipt of stolen goods.

Pierre and Danielle gave different accounts of how they had acquired this multi-million dollar treasure.

[On the stand Pierre] recalled that one day, in a corridor, Jacqueline Picasso had handed him a closed box containing the works, saying: “Here, it’s for you. Take it home.” He said: “Thank you, madame” and they never discussed it again. During the inquiry, Danielle Le Guennec had separately recalled a different version: that her husband came home with a stuffed rubbish bag, and told her Picasso had given the works to him when tidying his studio.

Both stories strained credulity, as far as the Picasso heirs were concerned, and no clear answers were forthcoming in court. They do suspect that third parties may be involved.

The Picasso heirs’ lawyer had suggested in court that the couple might have been manipulated by an art smuggling ring. Pierre Le Guennec had claimed that, despite knowing nothing about art, he had personally used books about Picasso to draw up an inventory that was found with the cache of 180 lithographs, collages and paintings and 91 drawings. But in court, lawyers cast doubt over whether he wrote the inventory himself. It contained a note about a similarity to a Picasso work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But in court, Pierre Le Guennec seemed not to have ever heard of MoMA.

The couple are in the 70s now and won’t be going to jail. They were given a two-year suspended sentence and the collection will be returned to Picasso’s heirs. The court made no determination as to who was responsible for the theft.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Herbert Hoover’s World War I laces

History Blog - Sat, 2015-08-29 22:14

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has a collection of beautiful Belgian laces made during World War I at the behest of future President of the United States Herbert Hoover. Hoover’s name is nowadays most commonly associated with the lack of relief for the destitute of the Great Depression — the notorious tent cities of the homeless and poverty-stricken were famously called Hoovervilles — but before he was president Herbert Hoover was actively involved in relief efforts. As head of the Food Administration under Woodrow Wilson, Hoover was in charge of the administration’s food and fuel conservation programs during the war, but before that, when war first broke out in 1914, Hoover ran the Committee for Relief in Belgium (CRB) which organized the distribution of food supplies to ten million people in occupied Belgium.

Hoover wasn’t in government at the time. He wasn’t even in the United States. He was living in London, a wealthy mining engineer and investor who translated Renaissance mining tracts with his wife Lou in his spare time. That translation is considered the standard for its clarity of language and extensive scholarly footnotes and is still in print today. He was drawn into relief work after World War I broke out and tens of thousands of American citizens suddenly found themselves stranded in London. Hoover organized a committee to get them back home and was so effective that in October of 1914 the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James asked Hoover to take on a far more onerous job: keep all of Belgium from starving to death.

Belgium had been invaded by Germany at the start of the war and famine immediately became a very real prospect. The small country only produced enough food to supply 20-25% of the population, but whatever food was available was requisitioned by the occupiers to supply the troops. Britain put Germany and the occupied countries under blockade making food imports nigh on impossible.

That was the Gordian knot Hoover had to cut through. He was able to arrange for the relief supplies to be shipped to Belgium where the CRB monitored their distribution by the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA), the Belgian organization dedicated to famine relief. The CRB personnel weren’t just passing the time of the day. They had to be involved in every step of the distribution process because as occupied Belgians, CNSA personnel were legally bound to follow German orders. The primarily British and American CRB staff was under no such obligation. Their job was to ensure the food made it to Belgian plates and they did it well. The CRB raised funds, shipped 5.7 million tons of donated food past Germany’s unrestricted U-boat warfare and then literally fed Belgium from 1914 through 1919.

Hoover’s concern wasn’t just to keep Belgians from mass starvation. He also arranged for thread to be distributed to Belgian lace makers and for the sale of their finished lace to buyers in Allied countries. Belgium had been famous for its delicate handmade laces since the 17th century, and while industrialization and mass-production had hobbled the traditional craft, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium instituted promotional and improvement programs had helped spur a revival of interest in handmade lace just before World War I.

The Belgian lace committees worked closely with the “Commission for Relief of Belgium” as the work on behalf of the lace makers became even more important during World War One. Several famous Belgian artists were enlisted to make new designs. Among them were Isidore de Rudder, his sister Maria de Rudder, Charles Michel, and Juliette Wytsman, who designed some of the War Laces that are now part of the collection at the National Museum of American History.

World War One laces often included names of people, places, inscriptions, and dates; a characteristic not usually found in other lace work. The lace often incorporates the coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations as well as the nine Belgian provinces in recognition of the help received. It was hoped that these distinguishing elements would appeal to generous people around the world who might buy these laces in support of the Belgian people.

Sometimes the appeal was even more direct. This exquisite banner panel features a pair of cupids holding a banner inscribed “Augusta-Virginia,” the name of the mother of the Vicomtesse de Beughem. The Vicomtesse, an American married to a Belgian aristocrat, was one of four women in charge of the Lace Committee. It is believed she commissioned the banner in honor of her mother, Augusta Virginia Mitchell. One of the other three women, Mrs. Brand Whitlock, wife of the US ambassador to Belgium, commissioned this table cloth with the seals of the United States, Belgium and the Whitlock family crest.

The program ultimately kept 50,000 lace makers in Belgium working from 1914 through 1919.

The war laces in the Smithsonian collection are not on public display, but they have been digitized and can be viewed online. It’s a gasp-generating browse, even though I dearly wish the pictures were larger. I know, I know… I always wish the pictures were larger, but the minute details of this lace just beg to be viewed in extreme closeup. It’s a little awkward to navigate, but you can feast your eyes on the minutiae by clicking on the name of the object. This takes you the catalogue entry. Scroll down to the bottom for additional images. Those are detail images, so while you can’t see the whole piece zoomed all the way in to the stitching, you can explore the a section of the lacework in satisfying detail.

One of my favorites is Table Mat With English Scene which has an unbelievable allegorical depiction of the coronation of British King George V in 1911. The image started out as a cartoon by Bernard Partridge published in Punch Magazine which was the converted into lace using the Point de Gaze technique. The Isidore de Rudder Designed Pillow Top goes in a completely different direction, commemorating the battle at the Yzer River with a glorious sea creature design in Point de Venise needle lace. I love the Monogrammed Fan Leaf with Designer’s Name because while it has the monograms of Belgian King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth writ large on either side of the Belgian Lion, it also has the names of designer Juliette Wytsman and the manufacturer Maison Daimeries-Petitjean in very petite cursive under the monogrammed initials. It’s incredible to me that it’s even possible to write your name so small and clear in Point de Gaze needle lace. Oh, and here’s one for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Collar with Peace Doves.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Small but sweet Viking hoard declared treasure

History Blog - Fri, 2015-08-28 22:21

A hoard of Viking-era silver ingots and coins discovered in Wales has been officially declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The hoard was found in March by metal detectorist Walter Hanks in a field in Llandwrog, north-west Wales. Consisting of fewer than 20 coins and coin fragments, three complete ingots and one partial, it’s a small trove of outsized historical significance because of its age and rarity.

Fourteen of the coins are silver pennies minted in Dublin under the reign of the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Anlafsson, aka Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r. 989-1036). Eight of them date to 995 A.D.; the other six, three of which are fragments, were minted in 1018 A.D. Sihtric’s coins are very rare discoveries on the British mainland. There are also fragments of three or four silver pennies from the reign of Cnut the Great, the Danish King of England who reigned from 985 or 995 through 1035. The Cnut coins were probably produced in the mint at Chester.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was lost or buried between 1020 and 1030. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard, unearthed in 1979 near Llandudno in Conwy, north Wales, was buried around that time — after 1024 — and it too contains coins minted by Cnut and Sihtric: 203 Cnut silver pennies and just two Sihtric silver pennies. The Bryn Maelgwyn coins are thought to have been Viking booty rather than a savings account, however, unlike the Llandwrog hoard. The weight of the ingots is 115.09 grams out of a total hoard weight of 127.77 grams. That means fully 90% of the weight of the hoard is in the ingots which suggests the hoard’s main role was silver storage.

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the Department of History and Archaeology at the National Museum Wales said the find will help historians to form a picture of the eleventh century Gwynedd economy.

He said: “There are three complete finger-shaped ingots and one fragmentary finger-shaped metal ingot. Nicking on the sides of the ingots is an intervention sometimes undertaken in ancient times to test purity, and evidence that they had been used in commercial transactions before burial.

“At least four hoards on the Isle of Man indicate that bullion retained an active role in the Manx economy from the 1030s to 1060s, and the mixed nature of the Llandwrog hoard falls into the same category. As such it amplifies the picture we are building up of the wealth and economy operating in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.”

The National Museum Wales is hoping to secure the hoard. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard is at the Cardiff branch of the Nation Museum, so it would be in excellent company. First the valuation committee must decide the fair market value of the hoard. The museum will then try to raise the price, ideally through a Lottery Fund grant, which will be divided between the finder and the landowner.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rossetti didn’t paint Botticelli lady’s hair red

History Blog - Thu, 2015-08-27 22:29

A new restoration of Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470-5) by Sandro Botticelli has redeemed the reputation of a much later artist, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Lucille Ball hue of Smeralda’s hair was long thought to be an alteration done by Rossetti after he bought the painting in 1867. Experts at the V&A conserving the work for next year’s
Botticelli Reimagined exhibition have discovered that the flaming red hair is original.

It was Rossetti’s own words which placed him under scrutiny. In a letter dated three days after he bought the painting, Rossetti told his secretary “I have been restoring the headdress, but don’t mean to tell.” The hair was thought to have suffered the brunt of Rossetti’s sneaky intervention, but when V&A conservators removed the top layer of discolored varnish, they saw that there were fewer layers of paint than they expected to find. Analysis of the paint confirmed it was tempera and that the red pigment of the hair was applied by Botticelli’s hand. The only areas Rossetti appears to have retouched were some areas of the face and the cap.

Infrared reflectography revealed interesting details about Botticelli’s process. He drew incised lines on architectural features like the pillars, window framing and door which add depth and precision and help ensure the perspective looks accurate. For Smeralda’s garment, Botticelli first used liquid sketching to rough out the clothing before covering it in a wash of paint with high carbon content to enhance the shading.

When Rossetti acquired the painting from a Christie’s auction, Botticelli’s genius wasn’t as widely recognized as it had been during his lifetime. The 19th century saw a gradual revival of appreciation for the Renaissance master, and the pre-Raphaelites played an important role in the reevaluation of Botticelli’s significance. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones collected Botticelli paintings and drawings, which goes to show how different the market was for his work back then. Rossetti paid £20 for Smeralda Bandinelli (plus £4 to have it professionally cleaned). When he sold it to collector Constantine Alexander Ionides just 15 years later, the sale price had leapt to £315. It hasn’t been sold since and isn’t likely to be ever again — Ionides included it in his bequest of 82 paintings to the V&A in 1901 — but Botticelli’s Rockefeller Madonna set a record for the artist when it sold at auction for $10,442,500 in 2013.

The upcoming exhibition looks at Botticelli’s work, how it was seen in his time and how, after three long centuries of obscurity, it came back to prominence through the work of artists influenced by him. There are more than 50 original works by Botticelli in the exhibition. Pre-Raphaelite reimaginings of Botticelli like Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata and Burne-Jones’ The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River will be on display alongside works by Botticelli-inspired artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, and designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

It’s a joint exhibition with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin which has eight paintings and 86 drawings by the Renaissance master in its permanent collection. The show opens in Berlin on September 24th of this year and closes on January 24th. It opens at the V&A on March 5th, 2016.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Roman water law inscription found in Laodicea

History Blog - Wed, 2015-08-26 22:40

A marble slab inscribed with Roman-era water laws has been unearthed in the ancient city of Laodicea in western Turkey. The highly detailed law law was written by the Laodicea Assembly in 114 A.D. and approved by Aulus Vicirius Martialis, proconsul of the Roman Asia province, in the provincial capital at Ephesus. It was carved on a slab and erected in the city to put fear in the heart of all water scofflaws.

The Roman affinity for practical engineering ensured cities had access to public water. Aqueducts carried enormous quantities of water from nearby sources to the urbs where it was split up into lead pipes and reservoirs supplying the fountains, baths and drinking water throughout the city. Keeping people from illegally tapping into the pipes to supply their own homes was a constant struggle. If too many people helped themselves, not only would the water flow be disrupted for their neighbors, but the sewer system tied into the water system suffered as well since it required regular flushing. Backed up sewers and low water supply make for uncomfortable and dangerously unsanitary conditions in any city.

Water management was thus an essential aspect of city administration and violators of the common water good were subject to heavy penalties. In Laodicea, anyone caught polluting the water, damaging the pipes and channels, opening sealed pipes or stealing the city water for private use would have to pay fines as high as 12,500 denarii. A legionary was paid 300 denarii a year in the early second century A.D., so fines in the thousands would be complete disasters for regular people. Many of the most egregious public water thieves were quite wealthy since they had homes into which city water could be easily and discretely diverted, so it was important that the fines be large if they were to act as any kind of deterrent.

[Excavations head Professor Celal Şimşek of Pamukkale University] said the 1,900-year-old rules to prevent water pollution had a very special place, adding, “The fine for damaging the water channel or polluting the water is 5,000 denarius, nearly 50,000 Turkish Liras. The fine is the same for those who break the seal and attempt illegal use. Also, there are penalties for senior staff that overlook the illegal use of water. They pay 12,500 denarius. Those who denounce the polluters are given one-eighth of the penalty as a reward, according to the rules.”

A translation from the Greek of one section of the inscription:

“Those who divide the water for his personal use, should pay 5,000 denarius to the imperial treasury; it is forbidden to use the city water for free or grant it to private individuals; those who buy the water cannot violate the Vespasian Edict; those who damage water pipes should pay 5,000 denarius; protective roofs should be established for the water depots and water pipes in the city; the governor’s office [will] appoint two citizens as curators every year to ensure the safety of the water resource; nobody who has farms close to the water channels can use this water for agriculture.”

Founded in the 3rd century B.C., Laodicea was part of the Kingdom of Pergamon when its last king Attalus III bequeathed it to Rome in 133 B.C. Laodicea was hard hit during the two decades of war between Rome and Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, and it was only after the end of the last Mithraditic War (75-63 B.C.) that the sleepy town grew into prosperous city under Roman rule. Strabo, who was himself a native of Amasya, Pontus, (now Turkey) and whose family held important positions under Mithridates VI, describes the rise Laodicea in Book XII, Chapter 8.16 of his Geography:

Laodiceia, though formerly small, grew large in our time and in that of our fathers, even though it had been damaged by siege in the time of Mithridates Eupator. However, it was the fertility of its territory and the prosperity of certain of its citizens that made it great: at first Hieron, who left to the people an inheritance of more than two thousand talents and adorned the city with many dedicated offerings, and later Zeno the rhetorician and his son Polemon, the latter of whom, because of his bravery and honesty, was thought worthy even of a kingdom, at first by Antony and later by Augustus. The country round Laodiceia produces sheep that are excellent, not only for the softness of their wool, in which they surpass even the Milesian wool, but also for its raven-black colour, so that the Laodiceians derive splendid revenue from it[.]

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Heads roll in Slovakia over sale of Bernini bust

History Blog - Tue, 2015-08-25 22:17

The bust of Pope Paul V by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year has left a trail of criminal investigations and fired civil servants in its wake. When the museum announced the rediscovery and acquisition of the long-lost sculpture this June, the only details released about the purchase where that it belonged to an unnamed private collector who arranged a private sale via Sotheby’s London. The last time before then that it appeared on the historical record was when it was sold to a Viennese collector at an 1893 Borghese family estate sale.

Last month, details started to leak about the acquisition. The Getty was reported to have paid a jaw-dropping $33 million to buy the bust from a still-unnamed Slovakian art dealer who had bought it unattributed and then found out it was the real thing, not a copy after Bernini’s original. Somehow, the work had migrated from Vienna at the end of the 19th century to modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia. where it was in the collection of Slovakian painter Ernest Zmeták. In 2013, Zmeták’s heirs put some of this collection, including the bust of Pope Paul V, up for auction.

The bust, then attributed solely to an “unknown Italian sculptor,” was put up for auction twice, once in December of 2013 for 47,000 euro, and when it failed to sell, again almost a year later for 24,000 euro. Shortly after the bust couldn’t find a buyer even at the 50% off fire sale, the auction house sold the bust privately for the reserve price of 24,000 euro to one Clément Guenebeaud, a French collector living in Bratislava.

It was Guenebeaud who realized the bust was made by Bernini himself. He tried to sell it on his own but the large hole in its ownership history made potential buyers wary. A famous work of art that mysteriously traveled from Vienna to Slovakia over the course of the 20th century runs the risk of being Nazi loot which could mire the current owner in a messy and expensive restitution battle. Sotheby’s was game, though, and through them Guenebeaud was able to sell the bust to the Getty. The Baroque masterpiece left Slovakia without incident.

After the Getty announced their new treasure with a splash, the fact that a small country with limited resources that could really use a tourism boost had somehow let a 17th century bust by one of the greatest sculptors in the world slip through its fingers did not go unnoticed back in Bratislava. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič ordered an investigation into the bust debacle and filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender involved in the sale on suspicion that someone involved in the appraisal and sale knew its true value but deliberately and fraudulently obscured it.

As of now, there is no evidence of deliberate deception. The auction house in Bratislava is a local outfit without the depth of expertise necessary to confidently attribute a sculpture to Bernini. Ernest Zmeták apparently had no idea the bust was original, nor did his heirs. The only person who had any idea, Guenebeaud, didn’t hide the fact that he thought it was a genuine Bernini in his application for an export license. He wrote that it was probably by Bernini and estimated its value at around €7 million, but the ministry employee in charge or arranging the permits changed the description from “bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini” to “bust after Bernini.” Apparently she decided to go with the auction house’s assessment rather than Guenebeaud’s, and the commission that reviews permanent export applications accepted it without ordering an expert examination to confirm or deny the disputed authorship. Minister Maďarič fired her and the director of the department in charge of issuing export permits.

The timeline of all these events is foggy. It’s not clear who determined the bust was original. It could be Alexander Kader, head of the department of European sculpture at Sotheby’s London, but usually the top experts in the field are consulted for works of this importance. Presumably the Getty wouldn’t have shelled out $33 million without being satisfied the bust was by Bernini.

If the special commission tasked with investigating irregularities in the export license find it to have been granted improperly, it’s possible the license will be revoked and the Slovakian government will request that the Getty return the bust. The museum does not seem concerned.

In an email to artnet News Ron Hartwig, the Getty Museum’s vice-president of communications assured that the bust “will remain on view to the public at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

He explained “The Bust of Pope Paul V (1621) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was legally exported from Slovakia, legally sold in the United Kingdom and legally imported into the United States. Whatever the nature of the Slovakian government’s inquiry, it has no impact whatsoever on the Getty’s ownership of the bust.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Aztec skull rack found in Mexico City’s Templo Mayor

History Blog - Mon, 2015-08-24 22:10

Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have unearthed part of a large rack of human skulls in the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico City. The Aztecs would pierce the heads of the sacrificed, string them together on wooden stakes and mount them on a vertical posts. This structure, called a tzompantli, would be erected for all to see as a highly effective symbol of ruthless power. A five-skull tzompantli was discovered underneath a sacrificial stone and a mound of skulls and jawbones at the Templo Mayor in 2012, but this latest discovery is on a whole other scale. Archaeologists believe it is the major tzompantli of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan described in Spanish accounts of the city before its destruction in 1521.

The team was digging in a well under the floor of a colonial-era home on the western side of the temple complex. Six feet under floor level, they discovered a wall of volcanic rock coated with stucco with a flagstone floor. The rectangular platform, estimated to be more than 34 meters (111.5 feet) long and 12 meters (40 feet) wide, has at its center a circular structure made from skulls cemented together using a lime, sand and volcanic gravel mortar. Many of the skulls have a hole 25 to 30 centimeters (10-12 inches) in diameter piercing the parietal bones. They are all facing inwards at the open space inside the circle. Adult male skulls predominate, but there are skulls from adult women, youths and children as well. So far archaeologists have counted 35 skulls, but expect to see that number increase exponentially as they dig further down under the stucco and stone slabs.

Preliminary dating places this structure in Stage VI of the construction of the Templo Mayor (between 1486 and 1502), during the reign of Aztec warrior king Ahuízotl. He was succeeded on the throne of Tenochitlan by his nephew Moctezuma II who would meet his end fighting Conquistador Hernán Cortés. Cortés himself described the great tzompantli of Tenochtitlan, as did early ethnographers Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and Dominican friar Diego Durán. They wrote of tzompantli with low, elongated bases supporting the vertical posts with horizontal racks of skulls. There is also at least one account of skulls mortared together; this is the first time a tzompantli has been discovered matching that description.

University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the project, wrote that “I do not personally know of other instances of literal skulls becoming architectural material to be mortared together to make a structure.” [...]

“They’ve been looking for the big one for some time, and this one does seem much bigger than the already excavated one,” Gillespie wrote. “This find both confirms long-held suspicions about the sacrificial landscape of the ceremonial precinct, that there must have been a much bigger tzompantli to curate the many heads of sacrificial victims” as a kind of public record or accounting of sacrifices.

The second stage of excavations will begin in November. Meanwhile, the skulls will be examined in the laboratory. They’ll test the DNA if they can recover any and will test stable isotopes in the bones and teeth to determine the geographic origin of the sacrificed.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Noah’s round ark takes to the water

History Blog - Sun, 2015-08-23 19:26

Five years ago, the news broke that premier cuneiform scholar Dr. Irving Finkel, Deputy Keeper of Middle East at the British Museum, had translated a new account of the ancient Babylonian Flood Story on a clay tablet from 1,750 B.C. and found directions for making a round ark. There are multiple versions of the deluge myth in the ancient Near East. One features Ziusudra, King of Sumer, as the Noah figure and is found on a single tablet from the 17th century B.C. excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Utnapishtim who was tasked by the god Enki-Ea to build a boat that would save his family, craftsmen, plants and animals from the flood the other gods were sending to destroy humanity. The earliest surviving Gilgamesh tablets date to the 18th century B.C. The Akkadian version is named after its hero, Atra-Hasis, and is found on fragments of tablets also dating back to the 18th century B.C. The Flood Story on the tablet recently translated by Dr. Finkel is the Akkadian Atra-Hasis version.

All of these versions of the Flood Story precede the Biblical version with the one God and Noah by a thousand years, a fact that caused a sensation in 1872 when British Museum Assyriologist George Smith announced he’d found the first cuneiform account of the Great Flood, now known to be the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Smith published his find in the 1876 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, a seminal volume in the history of Assyriology even though several of his translations, admittedly makeshift solutions to missing bits in the sources (he suggested Gilgamesh was to be read Izdubar), have since been corrected.

Finkel published his translation of the Atra-Hasis tablet last year in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, a fascinating archaeological detective story that manages that rare feat of conveying its author’s contagious enthusiasm along with the scholarly information. I’m sure in someone else’s hands the analysis of cuneiform tablets can make for dry reading, but Dr. Finkel’s ebullience shines through on every vigorously-turned page.

That endlessly renewable resource of enthusiasm played a key role in the translation of the round ark tablet. Dr. Finkel first encountered the small cuneiform tablet in 1985 when it was one of several pieces Douglas Simmonds brought to the British Museum for expert assessment. Douglas’ father Leonard was in the Royal Air Force after World War II and had amassed a significant collection of Near East artifacts during his travels. After Leonard’s death, Douglas researched the objects. Finkel had already helped him with several cylinder seals and clay tablets before the fateful 1985 encounter.

As one of very few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform, Finkel was able to read the clean first verses of the tablet: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-Hasis…” That passage is famous among Assyriologists as the opening lines of the Atra-Hasis Flood Story. Finkel was thrilled at such a rare find and asked to keep the tablet so he could translate the whole thing which is covered in cuneiform front and back, but Mr. Simmonds was unwilling to part with it. It wasn’t until 2009 when Dr. Finkel spotted Douglas Simmonds at the Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition that the latter finally agreed to bring the tablet in for translation.

The sixty lines of the Ark Tablet go into unprecedented detail on the design of the boat and the materials used in construction. None of the other Atra-Hasis tablets describe the vessel. This is most of what’s on the front of the tablet:

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat;
Spurn property and save life!
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan;
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high,
You saw kannu ropes and aslu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]
Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!
It will surely consume 14,430 (sutu)!”
“I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long;
I set up 3,600 stanchions within her
Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high;
I constructed her cabins above and below.”
“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides;
I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior;
I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins;
I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sutu) of kupru-bitumen
And I poured 3,600 (sutu) of ittu-bitumen within.
The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me];
(so) I added five fingers of lard,
I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure;
(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)
…(= I completed the mixture).

These quantities are enormous, enough palm-fiber rope, wooden ribs and stanchions to build a coracle 3,600 square meters in area, almost two-thirds the size of a soccer field, with walls 20 feet high. If the amount of rope described here were laid out in a single line, it would reach from London to Edinburgh. The vats of bitumen were necessary to waterproof a boat whose hull is, after all, made of rope.

The back of the tablet is more damaged than the front, with significant chunks missing, but what is there continues the discussion of bitumen application and then describes Atra-Hasis and his family getting on the boat. In one moving passage, Atra-Hasis prays to the moon god Sin that the coming tragedy be averted. Sin’s reply includes a line that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever heard the Noah story.

“Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation
And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)]”
“But the wild animals from the steppe [(...)]
Two by two the boat did [they enter]…”

Armed with this unique description, Dr. Finkel contacted ancient ship specialists to see if they could construct a scale version of the ark. The project was filmed for a television program called The Real Noah’s Ark which first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last September. It apparently aired as Rebuilding Noah’s Ark on the National Geographic channel, but I missed it. The British Museum’s YouTube channel just posted a five-minute introduction to the episode a few days ago, which was the first I’d heard of it. The program doesn’t appear to be available on demand from the Channel 4 website at the moment, or at least it’s not working for me. It has, however, been posted on Vimeo and I strongly urge you to watch it while the watching’s good.

Simply stated, this show has everything: Mesopotamian history, issues in ancient urban water management, the Ziggurat of Ur, dangers military and ecological, southern Iraq’s enchanting marshlands, cuneiform tablets and the laser-scanning thereof, ship design, archaeological geology, traditional crafts, how reeds can be used to make an AMAZING house, bitumen drama, flood legends and their transmission from Babylon to Judea, the reality of regular flooding in the Fertile Crescent, several exceptional beards and at the end, a big ol’ round boat.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Campbell Sisters dance into UK museums

History Blog - Sat, 2015-08-22 22:29

A unique life-sized marble sculpture capturing the lovely young Campbell sisters mid-dance has been jointly acquired by the Victoria & Albert and the Scottish National Gallery. The sculptural group sold at auction last July for $868,090 to a foreign buyer. To keep the rare masterpiece in the country, the sale price was raised by the museums thanks to grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. The V&A and the Scottish National Gallery will share joint custody of The Campbell Sisters, each museum displaying it for seven years at a time.

Made by Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini around 1821, The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz depicts the girls stepping lively side-by-side as their delicately draped gowns seem to flutter in the breeze. (It was Bartolini who dubbed the dance a “Valtzer” even though it’s obvious they’re not waltzing. The face-to-face whirling dance we know as the waltz became popular in aristocratic circles starting in the 1770s, so you’d think he would have been familiar with it.) Sisters Emma and Julia were the youngest of the eight children of Lady Charlotte Campbell, daughter of the 5th Duke of Argyll, and her distant cousin/husband John Campbell. It wasn’t a great match, fortune-wise, and after his death the Lady Charlotte had significant money troubles. By the time Bartolini immortalized Emma and Julia in graceful motion, they were living with their widowed mother in Florence where a noblewoman in reduced circumstances could live more comfortably than she could in England or Scotland.

Given their comparative brokeness, it’s not certain who commissioned the work. According to Bartolini’s studio notes, the sculpture was commissioned by the girls’ brother Mr. Campbell, but the whole family had limited funds so it’s unlikely their eldest brother Walter would have spent £500 on a marble life-sized portrait of his sisters. Perhaps a more likely candidate is the girls’ uncle, Lady Charlotte’s brother, George William Campbell, the 6th Duke of Argyll. Bartolini’s notes say they shipped it to Edinburgh and at some point the sculpture wound up in the dining room of Inveraray Castle, seat of the Dukes of Argyll. There are no references to its arrival in the castle archives.

Bartolini was famous in his time for his portrait sculptures. He had been one of Napoleon’s favorites and his fortunes suffered somewhat in the wake of his patron’s final defeat and exile, but he made a decent living in the late 18teens and twenties in large part thanks to portrait commissions. A great many portrait busts of prominent men and women of the period (the Bonaparte siblings and spouses, Alexander I of Russia, the Duke of Alba, the Duchess of Sutherland and dozens more) made by Bartolini are in museums and collections all over Europe and the United States today.

Canova’s static, posed neoclassical aesthetic still dominated, while Bartolini preferred a softer, more naturalistic approach he’d learned studying painting in Paris under Jacques-Louis David. Despite his eye for naturalism and movement so clearly evinced in The Campbell Sisters, the portrait of the young ladies is one of only two action sculptures made by Bartolini. The other one was Neoptolemus Casting Astyanax from the Walls of Troy, made in 1841 and widely considered Bartolini’s chef-d’oeuvre. Commissioned by Donna Rosa Poldi-Pezzoli, the Astyanax group would become the core of Poldi-Pezzoli Museum founded in Milan by her son Don Gian-Giacomo. Bartolini created a scene of dynamic action — Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) about to throw the child Astyanx from Troy’s ramparts to his death while his mother Andromache lies prostrate at his feet, one arm reaching up his leg — in marked contrast to his static portraits.

Sadly the sculpture and its plaster model were destroyed by aerial bombing in World War II. A bronze replica made in 1902 after the original marble, then located in the courtyard of the museum building, was damaged in a hailstorm, has survived, as have preparatory drawings now in the Uffizi and the Morgan Library and Museum. That makes The Campbell Sisters the only surviving Bartolini sculpture that captures characters in movement. Because of that and because it’s a much earlier work that uniquely combines the portraiture he was best known for and an action scene, the UK museums are thrilled to get to keep The Campbell Sisters.

It is on display at the V&A right now, where it will remain until November 20th. After that, it moves to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh for the first seven year visitation period. For more about Lorenzo Bartolini, peruse the marvel that is this website dedicated to the artist and his art by Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. It literally has his entire output in the Works gallery, plus gobs more information everywhere. The English version works too! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the alternate languages of smaller museum sites only have a single introductory page while all the rest of the links are broken.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest message in a bottle found in Germany

History Blog - Fri, 2015-08-21 18:26

There’s a new contender for oldest message in a bottle. This one was found by retired postal worker Marianne Winkler when it washed up on the shore of the German island of Amrum on the North Sea coast. She was there on vacation, walking on the beach, when she came across the clear bottle on April 17th.

A card inside invited the finder in big, bold red letters to “BREAK THE BOTTLE” but Marianne and her husband Holst first tried to open it without breaking the glass. When that proved impossible, they followed instructions. The message in the bottle was a postage-paid postcard that asked in English, German and Dutch for finders to answer questions about where they’d found the bottle and when. Everyone who sent their postcard to the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth would earn one shiny shilling in reward. The Winklers photocopied the postcard, filling in the information as requested on the copy, then mailed the card and copy to the MBA.

MBA researchers were shocked to receive the Winklers’ missive. There was no date on the card, but they recognized it as one of 1020 bottles released from December 1904 through August 1906 by MBA council member and future president George Parker Bidder. Bidder was studying bottom water currents (currents just above the seabed) and sent out what he called “bottom bottles” to trace the movements of the currents and fish.

Bidder’s experiment revealed a number of interesting results, one being that it confirmed the view of naturalists who supposed that bottom feeders tend to move against the current. He concluded that the main drift in all his series of bottle releases seemed to be in the opposite direction to the migration of plaice at the same time of year. Moreover, Bidder expressed the opinion that the percentage of bottles recovered by the trawls did not differ from the percentage of plaice in the same area caught by the trawl at the same time. This meant that Bidder could use the bottles as an instrument for assessing the intensity of trawling because they cannot migrate.

What was probably his most significant finding from his experiments was that many of his bottom-trailers got cast on the English shore, whereas surface bottles would, for the most part go across the North Sea. He deduced, regarding the bottom flow, “that the isochrones of the stream-front were shaped on the shoreline; and such a formation of the bottom current suggested the creeping-in of heavy water.”

Most of the bottles were retrieved by trawlers in the year immediately after their release and researchers assumed the rest were long gone, destroyed or in the open ocean. It’s been years since any cropped up, so many years that nobody even knows when the last one was found. This bottle has traveled more than 600 nautical miles over 108 years, making it the oldest known message in a bottle.

The official record-holder for oldest message in a bottle, found 99 years and 43 days after its 1914 release, was also released as part of a study of undercurrents. It was one 1,890 bottles released by the Glasgow School of Navigation to map the currents around Scotland and it seems to have understood its brief well because it was retrieved from the waters west of the Shetland Islands.

It’s not really the oldest message in a bottle, though. The message from a German hiker found by Baltic fishermen last year was released in 1913 and floated for almost 101 years, and one found in British Columbia in 2013 was released in September of 1906 by a passenger on a steamer traveling from San Francisco to Bellingham, Washington. The Baltic message hasn’t been confirmed as a record yet, and the finder of the bottle in Canada didn’t want to open it for fear of damaging it, so even though he said he was planning on writing the Guinness World Records committee, unless he was willing to open the bottle its age couldn’t be confirmed.

The Winkler’s bottle is older than both of them. The latest it could have been released was a month before the one found in British Columbia was released, and it stayed in the water two years longer. I know the records committee isn’t in the business of judging quality, but perhaps there should be some distinction made between bottles released in oceanographic studies and ones released by individuals. The odds of one of thousands of bottles surviving a century are obviously significantly higher than the odds of a single bottle surviving, and when you think “message in a bottle,” mass-mailings aren’t really what come to mind. The fascination of the message in a bottle relies on the romantic image of one person casting his or her thoughts into the world in the hope that someone somewhere might find it.

The MBA has submitted its candidate for the oldest message in a bottle to the Guinness Book of World Records and are waiting to hear back. Meanwhile, they made good on Bidder’s promise. They found a period English shilling on eBay and sent it to the Winklers.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Mother meets daughter 70 years after war tore them apart

History Blog - Thu, 2015-08-20 18:16

A little balm for the soul is in order, I think, and a mother meeting her daughter for the first time 70 years after she was taken from her just after birth during World War II definitely qualifies.

While still a teenager, Gianna (she prefers to remain anonymous) left her hometown of Novellara in northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna province to work in Germany. Italy and Germany were still allies then, and many Italian women were recruited as labourers. She worked in a factory in Eberbach where she met and fell in love with a young Nazi soldier. After Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in September of 1943, the Italian labourers found themselves stuck in Germany under significantly less cordial circumstances. They were converted to forced-labour status and moved into camps. Gianna got pregnant and gave birth in October 1944 only to have her parental custody revoked a month later and her infant daughter taken from her by the Nazi Welfare and Juvenile Office.

When the war ended, Gianna returned home, certain her daugher and the baby’s father were dead. In fact, the baby girl had spent a short time in a children’s home before her father, still very much alive, “adopted” her. Unbeknownst to Gianna, the soldier had been married all along. He brought his daughter home and he and his wife raised her and the seven half-siblings born after the war. Margot Bachmann, as the baby girl was named, was told only that her mother was Italian and dead. Her strict father forbade her to ask any questions about her parentage.

She had an inkling even as a youngster that there was something off about this story, but her father was so adamant that she not look into it that even as an adult she was intimidated. It was only after his death two years ago and with the encouragement of her daughter that she began to break free of the psychological chains and seriously contemplate searching for the truth about her mother, never expecting to find her still alive. With the wreckage of war to sift through, Margot hit a few walls before finally finding her certificate of baptism that recorded her mother’s name.

Armed with the precious name, Margot contacted the German Red Cross who put her in touch with International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, an organization dedicated to reuniting families torn apart by war. ITS has a vast archive of 30 million documents — original papers, thousands of envelopes with personal effects like wallets, correspondence files and much more — pertaining to victims of Nazi camps, 90% of which have been digitized. After an extensive search, ITS was able to find Gianna’s name and information this July. Working with the Italian Red Cross’ Family Links Networks, they were then able to locate Margot’s mother, alive and in good health at 91 years old and still living in her hometown. Had she moved at any point in the past seven decades, they would probably never have found her.

Margot wrote her mother a letter:

“Dear Mum, my name is Margot Bachmann and I am your daughter, born on Oct 25 1944 in Heidelberg. All my life I asked my family about you, without being given any answers. I want to come and find you so that I can hug you once again. I’m immensely happy to be able to finally know you.”

The weekend before last, that dream came true and mother and daugher embraced for the first time.

Laura Bastianetto of the Italian Red Cross, who was there to witness the event, said Bachmann was moved to see her mother last weekend after so many years.

“The embrace took place in a small and modest house in Novellara — a little town in the north of Italy,” she said. “It was really emotional. There were Italian and German families together with a bottle of sparkling wine for celebrating this magic moment. Margot brought an album with pictures of her family. She was very touched by the meeting and she cried.”

During the encounter, according to Bastianetto, the mother said, “I’ve paid a lot, now I want to laugh.”

The fact that Gianna has asked not to be named or photographed is an ancillary cost of that high price she’s had to pay. Women who fraternized with Germans in occupied countries were not treated well after the war was over. There are stories from France, Norway, Italy, all over, of women being forced to parade through town with their heads shaved, spat upon and derided by crowds. They were ostracized for years, and it’s not so far in the past either. Norway just allowed its handful of surviving “German whores” to receive a state pension in 2005.

“I can understand [Gianna's] position,” said Elena Carletti, the mayor of Novellara. “In this village, people have not forgotten [the war]. Even my generation knows the names of those who, during the war, were for or against the Germans. These stories still weigh heavily on many families. This encounter between a mother and daughter reminds us of a complicated chapter of history.”

Margot is planning to visit her mother again as soon as possible.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

History Blog - Wed, 2015-08-19 13:21

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History