Arts and Sciences
Archaeologists have discovered an archive of 19th and early 20th century Russian history assembled by birds nesting in the attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, a small medieval town 40 miles west of Moscow. Restorers have been working on the church, built in the early 15th century, since 2009, repairing the facade, windows and dismantling 19th century brick archways to return the arches and vaults to their original dimensions. Underneath the brick they found a fragment of a fresco of a seraphim surrounded by saints whose composition suggests it may have been painted by Andrei Rublev, Russia’s greatest medieval artist of icons and frescoes, or an artist from his school.
This summer restoration began on the roof of the cathedral. To clear the space before construction, archaeologists surveyed the attic which had a thick layer of debris deposited by the swifts and jackdaws that have been nesting under the roof for centuries. The debris is composed of soil, organic litter, branches and layer upon layer of soft and warm paper fragments collected by the birds to line their nests. Among the fragments are pieces of personal letters, scores of them written in an aristocratic hand that mention Russian foreign minister Count Karl Nesselrode, pieces of printed books, pre-revolutionary official documents drawn up by the military and police, a birth certificate, a college diploma, student notebooks with multiplication tables and Easter hymns. The oldest piece is thought to date to the 1830s when the church roof was last replaced.
One fragment holds historical weight out of proportion to its dimensions. It’s a calendar page from December 6th, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II’s name day, that has a handwritten note on the back quoting a verse by poet Yakov Polonsky about taking comfort in the loss of hope and happiness which in hindsight seems a little premonitory. Nicholas and his family were still alive at the time, but imprisoned in a mansion in Tobolsk. The scrap is a keyhole into the transition of the Old Style Russian dating to the New Style. Russia had used the Julian calendar for centuries, but the Soviets finally switched the country over to the Gregorian system on January 1st, 1918. Both dating systems appear on this calendar page scrap. The big red six is the Julian date, while underneath it in French is the Gregorian date, December 19th, 1917.
There are also fragments of ration coupons, a bread coupon from December of 1933, and a stamped ration card from August of 1941. Other financial records found in the attic are a contract on the delivery of a cow in 1936, a donation to the monastery of St. Sava Storozhevsky and a loan to a merchant. There’s even a piece of a 1,000 ruble banknote which was worth a great deal of money when it was lost and claimed by the avian archivists.
Some of the most intact pieces are candy wrappers, probably just because they’re small and didn’t need tearing. They were also probably popular discards on the street, giving the birds a rich source of litter to warm their babies. There are numerous wrappers from pre-revolutionary caramels and candies, plus cigarette packaging of brands from the Petrograd Soviet.
The scraps suffered beak damage — there’s extensive hole punching — but they are still legible, some with great graphics in surprisingly bright color. Zvenigorod Museum archaeologist Alexey Alexeev has uploaded dozens of pictures of the bird archive scraps to this photo album.
From the annals of every history nerd’s fantasies, a home renovation revealed a treasure trove of vintage movie posters under a linoleum floor (and the original hardwood to boot). Builder Robert Basta purchased the southern Pennsylvania home cheap at auction because it needed a lot of work. He planned to renovate it for resale, something he’s done many times before. While he was away on business, his son Dylan wanted to earn a little extra money while he was home from college, so Robert had him take on a bear of a job — tearing up the lino in a small upstairs room. Robert had seen a newspaper from 1946 peeking out through the broken flooring; he told Dylan to keep it in case it was interesting.
The newspaper preserved, Dylan and his brother Bob went on to find a poster of Tarzan the Ape Man, the 1932 movie starring five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. They texted a photo of the poster to Robert. By the time he got back home and the linoleum was all gone, Bob and Dylan had found 16 more movie posters, all in excellent condition. There were other newspapers under the lino too. It seems a previous owner of the house, possibly artist MSW Brungart who is known to have worked for the local movie theater, used paper he had lying around to protect the floorboards before covering them with linoleum.
At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had found. None of the posters were for films they recognized, so they figured they were of small value. A little Googling soon illuminated them to the fact that they had stumbled on a stash that included some of the rarest posters highly desirable to collectors.
They’re all one sheets from the pre-Code era, a woefully brief period between 1929 and 1934 when studios largely ignored the censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code because the Great Depression had hit them like a freight train and sex, nudity and violence sold then just like they sell now. The party came to an abrupt end when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began enforcing the code with the iron fist of committed fanatic and equally committed hypocrite Joseph Breen. One of his henchmen Val Lewton explained Breen’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy to producer David O. Selznick:
“Mr. Breen goes to the bathroom every morning. He does not deny that he does so or that there is such a place as the bathroom, but he feels that neither his actions nor the bathroom are fit subjects for screen entertainment. This is the essence of the Hays’ office attitude towards prostitution, at least as Joe told it to me in somewhat cruder language.”
Breen, in concert with Catholic Legion of Decency (the Production Code was co-written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord), threatened the studios with nation-wide protests, draconian local censorship and the possibility of federal censorship and they had the muscle to make real trouble. The studios caved and for the next 20 years the sex and violence was hidden in oblique dialogue, those weird face-mashing close-mouthed kisses and implied off-screen.
I really, really love pre-Code movies, but I wouldn’t have seen any of them were it not for Turner Classic Movies. Unlike other classic movies, the pre-Codes never aired on TV until TCM revived interest in them in the 1990s. This is why the Basta family didn’t recognize any of the films on the posters.
The Bastas contacted Heritage Auctions for an expert valuation and that’s when they discovered they had been standing on more than $200,000 worth of movie posters. This weekend, the 17 under the floor posters went under the hammer at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale.
It was the first poster they found, Tarzan the Ape Man (MGM, 1932) that was the rarest, most desirable piece. The movie was Johnny Weissmuller’s first appearance on film in the role that would make him famous. In fact, other than a non-speaking, uncredited, seconds-long practically naked cameo in the 1929 Ziegfield musical Glorifying the American Girl, this was Weissmuller’s first part in any movie. He would go on to shoot another 11 Tarzan movies, five of them with Maureen O’Sullivan. This one-of-a-kind Style D one sheet is the only one that pictures him and O’Sullivan in a scene from the film. It sold yesterday for $83,650.
The second biggest seller is my favorite poster from one of my favorite movies. It’s one of only three known surviving Style C one sheets of Red Headed Woman (MGM, 1932), starring Jean Harlow at her gleefully naughty best. This is one of the greatest of all pre-Code movies, certainly the most unrepentant. The bad girl wins in the end and she wins big. Jean Harlow, a literal scarlet woman, glowers alluringly from this vivid poster like a demon from the flames of Hell. It is a perfect encapsulation of the character and just freaking gorgeous. It sold for $77,675.
The poster for another terribly juicy pre-Code movie, Doctor X (First National, 1932), sold for $23,900. This was Fay Wray’s first horror movie. There’s a creepy doctor, an amputee with a penchant for cannibalism, murder and some quality mad science. It’s also a very early example of a two-color Technicolor movie. The poster is even more vivid than the movie.
Three other posters from the under the floor collection are the only known surviving posters of their movies:
Heritage Auctions didn’t note which of the lots came from under the linoleum, so I wasn’t able to make a complete list. Based on news stories, the following pieces were also part of the collection: The Golden West (Fox, 1932) sold for $6,572.50; The Rider of Death Valley (Universal, 1932) sold for $4,302; The Long, Long Trail (Universal, 1929) sold for $2,987.50; Blondie of the Follies (MGM, 1932) sold for $1,792.50; The Dance of Life (Paramount, 1929) sold for $1,254.75. Tess of the Storm Country (Fox, 1932) sold for $776.75. Some of the articles about this story claim this movie was Academy Award nominated, but I believe that’s a misreading of Heritage Auction’s lot information which refers to the first Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell outing, the 1927 silent picture 7th Heaven as receiving three Oscar nominations. I searched the Academy Awards Database and there are no nominations for Tess.
Counting only the dozen posters that I could confirm were part of the subflooring collection, sales topped $217,000. Robert Basta was still in shock before the first hammer fell.
“You always dream of coming across something valuable hidden in a closet or under the floorboards but it had never happened – until now.”
“I’m a simple man – I own my house but I don’t have a pension and at some point soon I’ll want to retire. The money from this sale will be life-changing.
“It will make things so much easier for me and my family – it’s a real blessing.”
Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:
The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.
There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.
The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.
The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.
For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.
University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).
Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.
The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.
Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.
The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.
Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.
Farmer Alfred Loosli was walking through in his cherry orchard in Ueken in the northern Swiss canton of Aargau last year when he saw a green coin contrasted against the rich brown of the soil. At first the he assumed someone had lost it, but then he found another five. This July, Loosli poked a molehill under one of his cherry trees and found another 19 bronze coins. He asked his son to research the coins to see if they might be ancient, remembering that in 2013 a Roman settlement was discovered in the nearby city of Frick.
They called the authorities and in September canton archaeologists began to excavate the site. The excavation was kept secret to keep looters from interfering with the site when the archaeologists weren’t around, and it was productive beyond all expectations. By the end of the dig earlier this month, archaeologists had recovered 4155 Roman coins for a total weight of 33 pounds in just a few square meters. At least some of the coins were buried in cloth and leather bags and probably they all were only the bags have disintegrated.
The hoard in now at the Vindonissa Museum in Brugg where conservators are painstakingly cleaning the coins. Swiss numismatist Hugo Doppler has examined the 200 coins cleaned thus far and has identified them as Antoniniani minted by emperors Aurelian (270-275), Tacitus (275-276), Probus (276-282), Carinus (283-285) Diocletian (284-305) Maximianus (286-305). The most recent were minted in 294 A.D. They are in exceptional condition. Hopper believes they were taken out of circulation almost immediately after minting.
The Antoninianius coin is named after the emperor Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) who first introduced the denomination in 215 A.D. as a silver piece worth two denarii, but because it only contained 1.5 denarii worth of silver, people raised prices and hoarded the coins causing rampant inflation. The Antoninianius became increasingly debased until by the reign of Emperor Gallienus in 268, the silver content was a meager 4%. Aurelian bumped it back up to 5%, but even that small boost was short-lived. At the end of the 3rd century, the Antoninianius was almost entirely bronze and considered worthless. People just threw them away.
The 200 coins from the cherry orchard hoard, however, are all of particularly high silver content, about 5% silver. Hugo Doppler believes the owner of the hoard deliberately chose the coins with the highest silver content because they “would have guaranteed a certain value conservation in a time of economic uncertainty.” In a rural area like Ueken, there would have been no banks to put valuables in, and the area was subject to several Germanic incursions. Burying bags of relatively high silver content coins underground was a reliable method of keeping the treasure safe.
Significant hoards like these have been unearthed many times in Britain, but are much rarer in Switzerland. Only four Roman coin hoards of more than 4,000 pieces have been found in Switzerland. Two were discovered a century ago; the third was found last year in Orselina, 150 miles south of Ueken near the Italian border.
The hoard will continue to be cleaned and examined. Doppler suspects there may be more exciting discoveries among the coins, like previously unknown mints and denominations. The hoard will eventually be put on public display at the Vindonissa Museum alongside other Roman artifacts discovered at the Frick excavation and elsewhere in the area.
If like me you’ve wept openly at StoryCorps‘ Friday broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition for the past decade, or at their beautiful animated shorts on PBS, you may have wondered how to go about recording the oral histories of your own loved ones. StoryCorps uses professional radio equipment to record and has a platoon of trained volunteers to facilitate the interviews. Interviews are recorded one at a time in the StoryCorps MobileBooth that travels the United States or in one of the permanent StoryBooths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta.
Despite its limited geographical reach, StoryCorps has been able to record thousands of stories a year and now have more than 65,000 recordings from 100,000 participants. This Thanksgiving, they hope to at least double that figure in just one long weekend. Obviously they don’t have 65,000 sets of radio equipment and facilitators. This goal can only be achieved with new technology, and that’s what StoryCorps has created.
Every year the TED conference awards a $1 million prize to someone with “a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay was the winner of the 2015 Ted prize and his bold vision was the StoryCorps.me app, a smartphone app that anyone anywhere in the world with an Android and iOS device could download and use to record high-quality audio.
That vision has now become a reality. More than $400,000 of the prize money went to the development of the app; the rest was spent creating a dedicated website and adding server capacity so that interviews can be uploaded directly to the site. The free app extends StoryCorps’ range to the entire world.
Armed with a working beta of the StoryCorps.me app, anyone can participate in the Great Thanksgiving Listen. The project seeks to take advantage of a holiday where multiple generations of family and friends are locked together in a house with no way easy way out. The focus of the initiative is on working with high school teachers to encourage their students to record a grandparent or other senior family member during Thanksgiving weekend as part of their social studies, history, civics, journalism and political science classes. There’s a teacher toolkit (pdf) with instructions for students on how to plan and conduct the interview as well as the mechanics of recording and uploading the result. All interviews recorded this weekend will be uploaded not just to the StoryCorps website, but also the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
It’s not just for students, however. Anybody with a compatible device can take their shot at capturing the invaluable oral histories of a whole generation of elders. The app helps users prepare questions, find the best location for the interview, record the conversation on a mobile device, take a photograph to accompany the interview, share the completed recording with friends and family celebrating the holiday and finally upload the interview. It also provides editing tools. All recordings uploaded in the first year will be archived at the Library of Congress as well as on the StoryCorps.me website.
“In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ Founder and President. “We are excited to use the new StoryCorps app to bring the country together in a project of listening, connection and generosity. Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”
Download the StoryCorps.me app here and start planning your interview now. If you haven’t watched or heard any of StoryCorps’ interviews, please check them out on StoryCorps’ website. The animations are here, the audio interviews here.
Here’s one example of the kind of profoundly meaningful oral history these conversations record:
Chinese archaeologists have unearthed the largest, most complete and best preserved Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-25 A.D.) cemetery near Nanchang, the capital of eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. The cemetery has only eight tombs, but they’re huge, covering 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet or about 10 acres). The largest tomb has a chariot burial with walls almost 900 meters (2,953 feet) long. Excavations of the site began five years ago but the discoveries were only announced earlier this month, with new finds still coming in.
The site is a city of the dead, with memorial temples, roads and drainage systems structured around the tombs. The tombs are the most intact Western Han yet found, their layout exceptionally clear. The chariot burial is exceptional. There are five chariots, each with four horses sacrificed in a funerary ritual, and more than 3,000 artifacts and fittings decorated with gold and silver. It is the only tomb found south of Yangtze River to have real chariots, or real vehicles of any kind, for that matter.
And that’s just the beginning of the wealth discovered in these tombs. The main tomb was found to hold more than 10 tons of Wuzhu bronze coins, more than two million individual pieces. The coins date to the reigns of three Western Han emperors: Emperor Wu (141-87 B.C.), Emperor Zhao (87-74 B.C.) and Emperor Xuan (74-49 B.C.). Most of the coins were in a pile, but archaeologists found six strands of 1,000 coins each. Ancient sources reference 1,000 low-value Wuzhu coins being strung together via the square hole in the center to create a larger denomination. Based on the documentary evidence, this monetary adaptation was thought to have started in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but no archaeological evidence of it has been found before. The discovery of six intact groups of 1,000 coins strung together on hemp ropes confirms the historical sources and pushes back the date of the practice at least 600 years. To give an idea of the value, the ancient documents say that ten of the strings could be exchanged for one Jin (250 grams) of gold. Ten Jin was the total net worth of a middle-class family in the Western Han Dynasty.
So far, the excavation of the cemetery has unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts, including bronze mirrors, bells, cooking pots, wine vessels and two exceptional lamps shaped like geese with fish in their beaks which in addition to being beautiful are also practical. The candle was held in the mouth of the goose so that smoke would enter the goose’s body through the fish. The goose lamp’s belly would be filled with water and the trapped smoke would dissolve into it like a one-way bong. (The geese don’t exhale.) They’ve also found jade objects, wood tablets, bamboo slips and musical instruments, among them a se (a plucked zither with 25 strings), pan flutes and sheng (a mouth-blown reed pipe instrument). There are also terracotta figurines known as Kuregaku figurines depicting how the instruments were played.
Then there’s the lacquer screen. It was broken into vertical painted panels. One of the panels has a portrait of a man who archaeologists believe may be Confucius. If they’re right, it will be the earliest known portrait of Confucius found in China. There are pictures of the screen in situ here and video of it here. Fair warning: you can’t see the portrait at all. You can’t even tell it’s a screen, frankly.
But wait! There’s more! On Tuesday archaeologists struck gold, specifically, 25 gold ingots shaped like hooves and 50 large and heavy gold coins. This is the greatest amount of gold ever discovered in a Han Dynasty tomb.
While the identity of the dignitary buried in the largest tomb has yet to be conclusively established, archaeologists believe it was Liu He, the grandson Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.). Liu He did not take after his venerable and supremely competent grandfather. He reigned for a mere 27 days, from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C., before being deposed by the Dowager Empress Shangguan and court officials on 1127 charges of misconduct, most of them revolving around his sexing, feasting, hunting and all-around partying when he was supposed to be in mourning for his uncle, the deceased emperor. He was replaced by Emperor Xuan, the great-grandson of Emperor Wu, who had been raised a commoner after his father and grandfather died when the latter was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft against Emperor Wu.
Liu He was stripped of his titles after he was impeached, but in 63 B.C. Emperor Xuan was persuaded to make him the Marquess of Haihun which had the added advantage of shipping a potential rival away from the capital of his former principality (modern-day Jining) 900 miles south to the modern-day Jiangxi province. He died four years later in 59 B.C. The Haihunhou cemetery is named after the title, which in turn was a feudal descendant of a small kingdom that had once ruled the north of Jiangxi.
Lead archaeologist Li Xiaobin of the China National Museum, who has studied an impressive 4,000 Han Dynasty tombs, hopes the question of who the main tomb was built for will be answered when the sealed coffin in the central mausoleum is opened. If there’s a royal seal or jade accoutrements, that would identify the occupant as an emperor and may even identify him by name. If it is Liu He, it’s probable his wife occupies one of the other tombs and other family members or high-ranking nobles the remaining six.
The regional culture ministry has set up a number of laboratories so that researchers can examine the enormous quantity of artifacts recovered according to their relevant fields — archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, metallurgy, textile studies. Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie wants the site to be excavated with an eye to a future application for the cemetery to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Lod mosaic, one of the largest and most complete Roman mosaic floors ever found, was discovered by accident during highway construction in the Israeli city of Lod, 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, in 1996. The initial excavation revealed a floor 50 feet long by 27 feet wide with a series of kaleidoscopic mosaics depicting animals at hunt, great sea creatures and fish crowding ships, urns and floral garlands, birds perched on branches and small, individual birds and fish all framed with bold black lines, geometric shapes and intricate knots. The total mosaic covered 600 square feet and was composed of two million individual tesserae (tiles).
Pottery sherds and coins found littering the floor dated it to the early 4th century A.D., and while no other parts of the structure were found, archaeologists believe it was a private home whose frescoed mud-brick walls had collapsed onto the floor preserving the mosaics for 1,700 years. Different sections of the mosaic were installed at different times and designed by different artists. The three north panels — individual animals in hexagonal frames, the largest panel with smaller animal and hunting scenes in triangular frames around a central octagonal mountain hunting scene, the great marine scene — were made by one mosaicist. The two south panel with birds on branches and fish and birds in frames were made by another. The urn and garland panel between them was made by a third artist, the least accomplished of the three, and was likely the last one to be installed. It probably took around three years for the whole floor to be completed.
The exceptional beauty and rarity of find vaulted the mosaic to international fame. The mosaic was opened to the public for one weekend and during those two days 10,000 people came to see it. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) didn’t have the budget to properly conserve such a huge masterpiece, so after that one weekend of public display, the floor was reburied for its own protection.
In 2009, a $2.5 million gift from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation gave the Israel Antiquities Authority the wherewithal to re-excavate the mosaic, lift it from the floor (they found footprints and drawing lines in the mortar bedding), clean it and conserve it for exhibition. The three sections of the north panel, the best preserved and most intricate design, toured the United States starting in 2010 and moved on to Europe in 2013. It is now at the Cini Gallery in Venice.
The donation also made possible the construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, a museum dedicated to the mosaic built on the discovery site. The traveling panels were reinstalled in their original location and the building went up around the floor. The center was originally scheduled to open in late 2014, but that date was pushed back, and with good reason. Between June and November of 2014, IAA archaeologists surveyed an unexcavated area south of the previously unearthed mosaic in advance of construction.
The second Lod mosaic is 36 feet by 42 feet and is part of the same private villa. The newly discovered mosaic shares the same themes of animals at hunt, fish, birds, urns and floral elements, and is of outstanding artistic quality. This mosaic decorated the floor of the villa’s courtyard, while the first mosaic decorated the floors of several reception rooms where the homeowner would have entertained clients and guests. The courtyard was surrounded by porticos, covered walkways, with lines of columns supporting the ceiling, none of which survive, although numerous fragments of wall frescoes have been recovered.
This elegant, expensively appointed home was part of a wealthy enclave during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Founded by Canaanites around 5600–5250 B.C., the city of Lydda was destroyed by Rome during the First Jewish War (66 A.D.) and besieged in the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) Much of the Jewish population was slaughtered and the Christian population increased significantly in the years afterwards. In 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus granted it city status and named it Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. It was the district capital and a regional center of commerce and government administration. The owner of the villa was part of the city elite, either an official or a rich merchant.
The site is bounded by modern buildings on the east side, so the entire home cannot be excavated. The new discovery will be incorporated into the visitor center.
For an in-depth examination of the first Lod mosaic and its significance, watch these videos compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First is a short film documenting the original find and the lifting of the mosaic in 2009. The next to are lectures given during the mosaic’s stop at the Met in 2011 about the discovery of the mosaic, the interpretation of its imagery and the influence of Rome on local art.
When a member of a mountaineering club first spotted what would prove to be the frozen mummy of an Inca child 17,400 feet up Argentina’s Aconcagua Mountain in 1985, he mistook it for a patch of grass. The other climbers, knowing grass didn’t grow at that altitude, checked it out and found not vegetation, but black and yellow feathers on the headdress of a young boy who had been sacrificed on the mountain 500 years earlier. With only part of the mummy exposed by erosion, the climbers wisely left it alone and returned to the city of Mendoza at the foothills of the Andes where they alerted archaeologist Dr. Juan Schobinger to the find. Fifteen days later, Schobinger and a team of volunteer archaeologists climbed the mountain and carefully excavated the mummy bundle.
This was a milestone in the history of mountain archaeology because it’s extremely rare that the professionals get to excavate the find before the people who discover it. Folks just can’t resist having a dig, sometimes because they were only up there in the first place looking for ancient treasure, as in the case of the El Plomo Mummy found in the Chilean Andes in 1954, or because they thought it was a recent death and called the cops, as in the case of Otzi the Iceman or out of simple curiosity.
The Aconcagua Mountain region in northwest of Argentina was once part of Collasuyu, the southern-most province of the Inca Empire. It was in this empire that lasted less than 100 years from 1438 A.D. until the Spanish conquest in 1532 A.D. that mountain sacrifices reached their apogee. The Incas built shrines at the peak of the highest mountains — Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia — and there practiced the ceremony of capacocha, the ritual sacrifice of children on occasions of great import like the death of an emperor or in the wake of a natural disaster. The children selected were the most beautiful and healthiest in the empire. They would be given narcotics and alcohol, taken to mountaintop shrines and either left to die of exposure or killed outright.
The Aconcagua child appears to have been killed by a blow to the head when he was about seven years old. The cold and dry of the Andean environment preserved his body, the two wool tunics he was wearing, the wool, hair and vegetable sandals on his feet, and multiple layers of cotton cloths and fiber cords wrapped around him, included the outermost wrap festooned with yellow parrot feathers. A total of 25 textiles were found in the bundle. Because the mummy was excavated with proper archaeological procedures, the exceptional preservation was maintained and additional objects were found in the fill underneath the child: six figurines, three human with clothes and feather accessories, and three stylized flames, one gold-plated and two made of Spondylus shell.
Preserved first by 500 years in a frigid and arid climate and then by careful archaeological practice — a replica is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Cuyo while the mummy itself is kept in a freezer at all time — the Aconcagua mummy was a rare pristine subject for interdisciplinary studies. Researchers found red dye, probably from the achiote tree, on his skin and a red liquid, also probably involving achiote, in his stomach. He’s been examined by medical doctors to determine cause of death, been subject to histological, microbiological, osteological, genetic and environmental analysis. He’s been X-rayed and CT scanned.
Now a team of geneticists has has mapped his mitochondrial genome, a first for any Native American mummy. In fact, not only is he the first Native American mummy whose full mitochondrial DNA has been successfully extracted, he’s the first for whom complete sequencing has even been attempted. Geneticist Antonio Salas from the University of Santiago de Compostela had high hopes that the Aconcagua mummy’s unique preservation conditions might have preserved enough of his DNA to be testable. A small sample of the child’s lung was tested — internal organs are less likely to be contaminated — and all 37 genes passed down from his mother were sequenced.
The boy’s pattern of genetic variations placed him in a population called C1b, a common lineage in Mesoamerica and the Andes that dates all the way back to the earliest Paleoindian settlements, more than 18,000 years ago. But C1b in itself is very diverse — as its members spread throughout Central and South America, smaller groups became isolated from one another and started developing their own particular genetic variations. As a result, C1b contains many genetically distinct subgroups. The Aconcagua boy’s genome didn’t fit into any of them. Instead, he belonged to a population of native South Americans that had never been identified. Salas and his team dubbed this genetic group C1bi, which they say likely arose in the Andes about 14,000 years ago. They detail their findings today in Scientific Reports.
When Salas combed through genetic databases, ancient and modern, he found just four more individuals who appear to belong to C1bi. Three are present-day people from Peru and Bolivia, whereas another sample comes from an individual from the ancient Wari Empire, which flourished from 600 to 1000 C.E. and predated the Inca in Peru. Clearly, C1bi is extremely rare today, but the fact that it has now popped up in two ancient DNA samples suggests that it could have been more common in the past, says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist who studies the Americas at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato and was not involved in the current work. If you sample just one or two individuals, “what are the chances that you pick the rare guy?” he says. “Most likely, you’re picking the common guy.”
It’s likely only so rare today because the Spanish and their diseases did such a thorough job of annihilating the native population. An estimated 90% were dead shortly after the conquest, and the rest interbred with Europeans, other Native American groups and Africans imported to the continent as slaves making the genes of modern Central and South Americans very distant indeed from the ones of their pre-conquest ancestors. The mummy’s DNA is frozen in time just as he was, providing us a rare window into past peoples. For instance, we know now that it took only 4,000 years for the earliest migrants to America to travel from Alaska to the Andes. The speed with which the continent was populated has been much debated, so this is very signficant new information.
Salas plans to go even further. He is working on mapping the complete nuclear genome of the Aconcagua mummy and when that’s done, he will turn his attentions to sequencing the genome of all the microorganisms in the boy’s digestive tract. That would lend new insight into the evolution of the microorganisms that live inside of us, helping us or actively trying to kill us.
You can read the full study here.
The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and the British Museum have worked together to make it possible people all over the world to enjoy the museum’s many offerings from the comfort of their homes. So far 4,654 objects and artworks have been made available for our perusal. Google’s Street View cameras have trundled through the museum’s vast halls, so you can virtually walk through them from the second basement to the fifth floor, the largest indoor space yet captured on Street View. They’ve even captured the outdoors so you have a stroll around the beautiful museum building itself.
The British Museum has an excellent website with more than 3.5 million objects in its searchable database, 920,000 of them with one of more photographs attached. Many of the pictures are very good, but even the largest of them are modestly sized (the usual caveat regarding my obsession with high resolution photography applies, of course) and there are a significant number that look dated or are in black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, therefore, to have fresh images of thousands of objects in ultra high resolution courtesy of Google’s gigapixel cameras.
For example, the museum’s entry for the Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese painted silk handscroll more than 11 feet long from the 5th to the 8th century that depicts scenes from a 3rd century court poem, has 247 images. If you want to explore the details, you can go through the pictures one by one, but it’s tedious to have to go back and forth and the photo quality is less than satisfying. There are duplicates, old black and white shots and none of the pics I clicked on are more than 750 pixels wide. The scroll looks dingy, the painting dim.
Contrast that with the version on the Google Cultural Institute’s British Museum page. It’s a whole different viewing experience, like someone turned the light on in the room. You can see the whole thing in front of you at once. You can view the work in a depth of detail that you couldn’t possibly achieve in person unless your name is Steve Austin and they’ve made your other eye bionic too. You can see the weave of the silk, the individual hairs in the brushstrokes. It’s stupefying.
In addition to the objects from the permanent collection, there are also online versions of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, six of them right now with more to come. I’ve been pining to see Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain since it opened at the end of September. Gorgeous examples of Celtic metalwork, jewelry, objects of daily use and more are now viewable in detail online. It’s a curated online exhibit, not just a list of objects, arranged in a logical progression accompanied by explanatory notes. No Gundestrup Cauldron, though, sadly. It’s on the National Museum of Denmark’s GCI page, but not in gigapixel fun.
The collaboration between Google and the British Museum has also paved new territory for digital museum offerings. The Museum of the World microsite allows viewers to explore a timeline of artifacts divided into their continents of origin but then linked together by thematic connections. You swoop through time to a sparkly wind chimes sound effect while the objects load as polka dots, different colors for each part of the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. When you click on one of the dots, you see a small thumbnail and the title of the object and lines radiate outwards connecting it to other objects. If you want to learn more, click again. The detail view has a text explanation of the piece, an audio description introduced by a narrator and expanded on by a relevant curator. Click on the picture to see it in high resolution. On the right side under the audio there’s a map so you can see where the piece came from and then a few thumbnails of related works if you’d like to skip directly their detail views.
I found it thoroughly engrossing. I scrolled all the way to the back of the timeline to the oldest artifact in the museum: a 1.8 million-year-old basalt chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It has only one connected piece — an 800,000-year-old Olduvai handaxe — by the related objects thumbnails take you far afield to an archaic Native American birdstone (1,000-1,500 B.C.) and an early 19th century Inuit ulu (a crescent-shaped knife). Once you get to the handaxe, the radiating lines proliferate.
You can browse by continent — just click the name and all the other dots will disappear, click it again for them to return — or by the themes listed in the menu to the right. Click the three squares in the upper left corner to cut the scrolling and jump to specific times.
Seriously this feature is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. I would strongly recommend you only click on the first link when you have a nice chunk of time available, because there is no way in hell you’ll be able to stop once you get started. This is ideal lost weekend material.
University of Reading archaeologists have discovered a fragment of a Roman inscription that matches a piece unearthed in 1891. Both pieces of the marble slab were excavated from the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum next to the modern village of Silchester in Hampshire. The first and larger fragment was discovered by the Society of Antiquaries of London which excavated the entirety of the town within the Roman walls between 1890 and 1909. The piece had two truncated lines of text, “IN” on the top row, “AT” on the bottom. It was added to Reading Museum’s Silchester collection where it has remained for nearly a century and a quarter. The second fragment was found by the university team in 2013 during the excavation of Insula III, a block of the Roman town, just 10 meters (33 feet) away from the find spot of the first piece. The second piece has only one truncated row extant inscribed with the letters “BA.”
While just a small piece of a marble slab, it’s of considerable archaeological significance on its own because it’s likely a remnant of a plaque erected on a building to commemorate its construction or the deity to whom the structure was dedicated. Archaeologists believe the dedication was broken when the building was destroyed in the middle to late 1st century A.D., and very little material evidence of the destruction of an important building has been found in Britain.
The fragment was analyzed by Oxford University’s Dr. Roger Tomlin, an expert in Roman inscriptions. He’s the one who made the connection to the first fragment, finding they were both inscribed with the same style and size lettering on a slab of the same material — Purbeck Marble, a limestone native to Dorset that was extensively quarried in Roman Britain — and dimensions. Tomlin believes they are adjacent pieces, that the “BA” comes after the “AT” on the bottom row of the first fragment to spell out the word “At(e)ba(tum)” meaning “of the Atrebates,” the Gallic founders of the town of Calleva in the 1st century B.C.
Despite this amazing occurrence there could be more revelations to come. The name of the building is yet to be revealed but previous work at Silchester has connected the site to the infamous emperor Nero, as well as queen Boudica who led a famous rebellion against the Roman Empire.
Professor Fulford added: “We now know what the bottom line of the sign reads – however the top line remains a mystery. It’s a tantalising thought that this might link to Nero himself who is known to have commissioned major building projects in Silchester. Our work to uncover the origins of Silchester continues next year — perhaps a name could emerge. It’s unlikely — but this story goes to show that when it comes to archaeology, anything is possible.”
Calleva was a fortified settlement or oppidium that was the Atrebates’ seat of power. Numismatic evidence suggests that it was something of a mini-kingdom first ruled by Commius, a chieftain who at first had been Julius Caesar’s ally in the conquest of Gaul but who then turned on him and fought with Vercingetorix in his revolt against Rome in 52 B.C. According to Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius who wrote the eighth and last book of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in 51 B.C. Commius finally struck a deal with Mark Anthony: he’d take his troublemaking ass out of Gaul on condition that he never had to see a Roman again. Anthony agreed and Commius crossed the Channel to Britain with a small group of followers.
It was that group which built the oppidium of Calleva. Coins have been found with Commius’ name and the names of his successors, so it seems Calleva was something of a city-state with him as its ruler. The Atrebates was added to Calleva’s name in a nod to its founders when the Iron Age oppidium was converted into a proper Roman town with streets on a grid pattern and solid stone walls after Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. The city was at a crossroads leading to important Roman urban centers, so it prospered and was known to have several large public buildings any one of which might have had a relevant inscription slab affixed to its walls.
Both inscription fragments will be on display in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life through November 27th.
Last July, workers on a waterway restoration project near the Diana Gate on the north side of the ancient Etruscan city of Volterra stumbled on the remains of two walls 20 meters (66 feet) long. Archaeologists from the regional Superintendency were observing the works and took over when the ancient walls were found. Extrapolating from the shape and direction of the structures already unearthed, they dug test trenches in two locations that would have more walls if the building were, as they suspected, an amphitheater. Lo and behold, they found exactly what they expected to find: two more masonry walls each ten meters long with a marked elliptical curve.
Calculating from the established curvature, the building is an oval 80 meters (262 feet) long by 60 meters (197 feet) wide, which is a pretty massive structure for people to forget ever existed. Volterra already has one Roman theater from the late 1st century BC, early 1st century AD that was discovered in 1950 by Volterran native son and historian Enrico Fiumi who was actually a trained economist, not an archaeologist, and whose excavation team was composed of patients from a local psychiatric hospital. The theater was partly dug into the side of a hill in Greek fashion and seated 3500. Some of the seats were found with the names of the most prominent local families, season ticket holders, if you will. A large section of the two-level skene (the building behind the stage) 50 feet high survives.
There is some mention in 15th and 16th century sources of an amphitheater in Volterra, but the writers were considered less than reliable on the details and thought to have been referring to the theater Fiumi discovered rather than a real amphitheater.
The discovery of the amphitheater caused a stir, but there was no funding to continue digging. The city had to go begging hat in hand to the local bank for sponsorship which thankfully they were able to secure. This September excavations resumed. Archaeologists found two rows of steps and additional architectural features were discovered: a large carved block that was part of the cryptoporticus roof and the base of an entrance arch. Like the ancient Etruscan city walls, these features are made of a porous sandstone native to the area called panchina which is soft and easy to work but hardens when exposed to the air.
“This amphitheater was quite large. Our survey dig revealed three orders of seats that could accommodate about 10,000 people. They were entertained by gladiators fights and wild beast baiting,” Elena Sorge, the archaeologist of the Tuscan Superintendency in charge of the excavation, told Discovery News.
By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome could seat more than 50,000 spectators during public games.
“The finding sheds a new light on the history of Volterra, which is most famous for its Etruscan legacy. It shows that during the emperor Augustus’s rule, it was an important Roman center,” she added.
Tuscany’s oldest continuously inhabited town, Volterra was an important urban center from the 6th century BC through the Renaissance, falling under the Roman sphere of influence in the 3rd century and under direct Roman control in the 1st century BC. Although there’s never been any doubt that it retained its cultural and political significance in the imperial era, the discovery of a second much larger public entertainment complex possibly from the 1st century A.D. indicates the city was more prominent and more populated than historians realized.
The goal of this fall’s excavation was very limited: analyze the remains to get a solid idea of what else is out there. With more data to work with, the archaeological team will be able to design a plan for a more thorough future excavation and a budget. Then they’ll have some figures to use when scrambling for more funding.
On November 12th, 1799, the first known record of a meteor shower in North America was written in the journal of a witness observing the Leonids from the deck of a ship in the Florida Keys. The occasion is marked in many an iteration of “This Day in History” entries, but in almost all of them there is a glaring error: the journal entry is attributed to Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an astronomer and founder of the modern science of dendrochronology who was born in 1867, 68 years after the Leonids put on such a spectacular show in the Keys.
The real observer of the 1799 Leonids meteor shower was Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor who was in Florida on assignment from President George Washington to ascertain the official boundary line between the United States and Spanish territory as negotiated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo.
About two o’clock in the morning I was called up to see the shooting of the stars (as it is vulgarly termed), the phenomenon was grand and awful, the whole heavens appeared as if illuminated with sky rockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after daybreak. This phenomenon extended over a large portion of the West India islands and was observed as far north as St. Marys where it appeared as brilliant as with us.
The Leonids show up annually around this time and sprinkle light in the sky at the rate of about 20 meteors per hour, but every 33 years they put on a glorious light show with thousands of meteors per hour showering the sky. The 1833 storm was so strong at least 100,000 meteors, and maybe double that, streaked over North America in nine hours. The 1799 storm was just short of the peak of the cycle, but it was exceptionally strong nonetheless, which is why Ellicott hauled his cookies out of bed at two in the morning to see the show.
Although you might think the profession of surveyor would ensure Andrew Ellicott kept his eyes on the earth more than the skies, that his having made so meaningful a mark in the history of American astronomy was a fluke, in fact the line between heaven and earth, Horatio, was not so clearly demarcated. Jacques Cassini, son of astronomer Giovanni Cassini after whom the spaceprobe was named, was both astronomer and surveyor, having done the first triangulation of France and used the data to create the first scientifically rigorous map of France just a few decades before Ellicott saw the Leonids. Chemist Antoine Lavoisier, identifier of oxygen and hydrogen, also participated in surveys of France while watching the skies. Not coincidentally, Ellicott brought up Lavoisier’s theory that the atmosphere was composed of multiple elements right after seeing the Leonids. In the same November 12th journal entry, he wrote:
Many ingenious theories have been devised to account for those luminous and fiery meteors, but none of them are so satisfactory to my mind as the conjecture of that celebrated chemist M. Lavoisier, who supposes it probable that the terrestial atmosphere consists of several volumes, or strata of gaz or elastic vapour of different kinds, and that the lightest and most difficult to mix with the lower atmosphere will be elevated above it, and form a separate stratum or volume, which he supposes to be inflammable, and that it is at the point of contact between those strata that the aurora borealis, and other fiery meteors are produced.
Andrew Ellicott was renowned in his time for his great accuracy in surveying, determined in large part by his celestial observations. Born in 1754 to a large Quaker family of modest means in Pennsylvania, Ellicott fought in the Revolutionary War ultimately rising to the rank of major. After the war he worked with James Madison and David Rittenhouse continuing the survey of the Mason-Dixon line that had been abandoned during the conflict. He turned out to be really good at it. In 1786 he was commissioned to survey the western border of Pennsylvania, a meridian that is still today known as the Ellicott Line.
In 1792 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appointed Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, which would be renamed the District of Columbia nine years later. That same year he surveyed the land that would become the city of Washington, then forming the nucleus of the Territory rather than the entirety of it. He worked with Pierre Charles L’Enfant on the plan of the city until L’Enfant pissed off the Commissioners overseeing the project enough to get the boot. Ellicott’s revised plan of Washington (which L’Enfant strenuously opposed) became the basis on which the capital was constructed.
In 1796 George Washington gave him the biggest assignment yet: surveying the border between Spanish North America and the United States. He spent four years travelling the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Gulf Coast and into Florida, deploying impressive diplomacy and patience in his dealings with Spanish commissioners, and recording everything in his journal. Another one of his boundaries that is still called Ellicott’s Line remains today the border between Alabama and Florida.
After that bear of a job was done, he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where, among other things, he taught Meriwether Lewis how to survey in preparation for his great expedition to the Pacific with William Clark. In 1813 he took a job as Professor of Mathematics at the Military Academy at West Point. His last survey was in 1817 when he helped establish the western border between Canada and the United States as defined in the Treaty of Ghent. Andrew Ellicott died of a stroke on August 28th, 1820.
The term surveyor appears nowhere in his obituary printed in the New York Evening Post of August 29th. His great professional gifts belong to the field of “practical Astronomy” in which he was “pre-eminent, both in the expert use of Instruments, and the accuracy of his calculations, which were the results of his observations. The reputation which he gained for those rare and peculiar acquirements, was evinced by the number and frequency of his appointments, both by individual states and the United States, for the purpose of adjusting such boundary lines as depended on the most nice Astronomical observations.”
The obit concludes:
The Geography of our country, in particular, is indebted to him for many interesting details, and descriptions of its unfrequented parts, as well as for the most accurate adjustment of the relative situation of particular places. By his death, science is deprived of a devoted admirer — the Military Academy of one of its best friends and most distinguished Professors — society of a benevolent & useful member, and his family of a tender husband and a kind and affectionate parent.
We should all wish for such a glowing and meaningful final assessment.
What a pity, then, that the record of this great man has been erroneously subsumed into the life of another. I suspect the error originated with History.com and then spread around in the usual pattern of Internet epidemiology. I have emailed the site to let them know of the mistake, but I’m afraid there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Over much of the web, Andrew Ellicott will be denied his seminal astronomical observation, his rich contributions to the history and geography of the United States and even his very name while Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who has many genuine accomplishments worthy of This Day in History lists, will be taken out of his time and saddled with posthumous plagiarism of his own great-grandfather.
Yes, the name is not a coincidence or a distant tribute. Andrew Ellicott’s daughter Anne married David B. Douglass and they had a son named Malcolm. Malcolm Douglass and his wife Sarah Hale named one of their sons Andrew Ellicott after his illustrious great-grandfather.
University of Cambridge historian Dr. Ulinka Rublack, author of the excellent Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, and Maria Hayward have published a unique 16th century manuscript documenting one German accountant’s daring and elegant forays into personal style. The Klaidungsbüchlein, or “book of clothes,” is the ancestor of every fashion blog, Instagram and Tumblr and it slays them all.
Matthäus Schwarz was born in Augsburg on February 20th, 1497, the son of a wine merchant and innkeeper. Even as a teenager Schwarz showed an interest in fashion, realizing how quickly trends came and went. That understanding would inspire him to meticulously record what he wearing, when and why, noting his age down to fractions of years. After learning bookkeeping through apprenticeships in Milan and Venice, as soon as he returned to Augsburg in 1516 he got a job as a clerk with Jakob Fugger, the head of one of the richest, most powerful mercantile, mining and banking firms in Europe. Schwarz quickly worked his way up, becoming head accountant by the age of 23.
That same year he began to document his outfits, keeping a style blog in the form of illuminated manuscript. He commissioned local artist Narziss Renner, then just 19 years old, to reconstruct 36 images of him from birth through his early 20s based on detailed descriptions and old drawings. Renner then made tempera portraits of each important outfit going forward, while Schwarz made notes on the date, his age and the occasion.
Schwarz took pleasure in gorgeous, expensive clothes, but they were also an important form of self-expression for him. He was successful at his job and made good money, but he wasn’t rich. He was a middle class burgher, but he spent all of his discretionary income on clothes and was involved in every aspect of the design. There was no prêt-à-porter and if there had been Schwarz still would have gone for the couture. This wasn’t just a foppish indulgence. He put on a sartorial display as a means to better himself socially. His grandfather Ulrich had pulled himself up by his bootstraps, rising from common carpenter to guild leader to mayor of Augsburg only to be charged with corruption by opponents of greater wealth and status. He was convicted and hanged in 1478, a stain on the family reputation that Matthäus, like his father, felt keenly. The right kind of clothes were essential to Matthäus’ hopes that he might regain the ground lost by his grandfather’s disgrace.
It worked. He caught the eye of Ferdinand, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who invited Schwarz to his wedding. When Charles returned to Germany after a nine year absence and he and Ferdinand were in Augsburg for the Imperial Diet in 1530, Schwarz commissioned six extremely intricate outfits he hoped would please them. Schwarz’s employer Jakob Fugger was very close to the emperor, having spent huge sums to help secure his election to the office, so Schwarz wasn’t just a nameless face in the crowd. A devout Catholic in a region rent by the religious conflicts of the Reformation, Schwarz telegraphed his support for the emperor and the Church by his choice of colors. In 1541 he and two of his brothers were ennobled.
Renner and Schwarz worked together for 16 years. After that, Schwarz kept going, employing other artists, including one from Christoph Amberger’s studio, to paint his looks until 1560 when he was 63 years old. By then he had 75 pages of parchment with 137 portraits of himself, including the first secular nude since Albrecht Durer’s. It was a bold nude, too, with both front and back views and an unstinting self-assessment: “That was my real figure from behind, because I had become fat and large.” His son followed in his father’s footsteps, although he was less prolific and his styles less colorful.
Schwarz had the manuscript bound in 1560 and while it was basically a personal account, he appears to have shown it to a select audience. Over the years word got out because in 1704 Sophie of Hanover, granddaughter of James I and mother of George I of England, borrowed the manuscript and had it copied by scribe J.B. Knoche. She kept a copy and gave another to her to her niece Elizabeth Charlotte of Orléans, sister-in-law of King Louis XIV of France. Sophie’s copy is now in the State Library of Hanover.
The original is in the collection of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, one of the oldest museums in the world. The book is so fragile that even scholars very rarely get to see it, and then only with two trained curators gingerly turning each page. Before now, most of the color photos of the manuscript were taken from the Hanover copy. The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthäus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg is the first, and given the caution with which the manuscript is treated very possibly the last, edition to publish all the original images in color. Since the copies have notable errors in coloration that Schwarz would have been appalled by, having a full color record of the delicate original is a precious thing.
The First Book of Fashion is available in hardcover and EPUB eBook from the publisher and in hardcover and Kindle from Amazon. If delayed gratification is not your bag, you can peruse Mr. Schwarz’s analog Instagram in this pdf which is a scan of the Hanover copy. The picture quality isn’t great, though.
Two years ago, Dr. Rublack collaborated with Tony award-winning costume designer and dress historian Jenny Tiramani, who also collaborated on the book, to recreate one of Schwarz’s most dramatic and politically significant outfits: a gold and red silk doublet over a fine linen shirt with yellow leather hose he wore for the 1530 return of the emperor. Watch this video documenting the recreation because it’s awesome. Even just putting on the outfit is crazy complicated. Oh, and killer codpiece too.
The First Book of Fashion includes a pattern for the gold and red outfit, just in case you want to try your hand at recreating such a glamorous Renaissance look.
Russian archaeologists have unearthed a letter written on birch bark in Moscow’s historic Zaryadye district close to Red Square. The archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences found the letter 13 feet below street level in a layer with more than 100 small and large artifacts dating to the 14th century.
The first birch bark letters were discovered in 1951 in Novgorod, preserved in its heavy, waterlogged clay soil. Letters were scratched on the inner, trunk-facing side of the birch bark sheet using a stylus made of iron, bone or bronze. The letters were dated with a combination of stratigraphy (dating of the layers in which they were found), dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and palaeography (handwriting analysis) and linguistic analysis (examining the features of the text). They range in date from the 11th through the 15th century.
The vast majority are letters from private individuals detailing the minutiae of their lives. Some are petitions of peasants to their lords. Some are debt lists, but since they open with the imperative “Take” it’s probable that they too were letters, probably of instruction on collecting the enumerated debt. One very special group of birch bark letters appear to be lessons and doodles. There are 17 drawings and notes by a young boy named Onfim. He lived in the 13th century and was around six or seven when he drew scenes of men on horseback, knights in battle, even himself as a fantastical beast next to alphabet and writing exercises. It’s a remarkable testament to a how highly literate this society was at all economic strata.
Since that first discovery in 1951, more than 1000 birch bark letters have been found, almost all of them in Novgorod. The second greatest number, 45, were found in Staraya Russa, a town 60 miles south of Novgorod. Only nine other cities can claim birch bark letter discoveries. None were found in Moscow until 1988. It took 20 years before a second and third were unearthed at the foot of the Kremlin. None of those three quite followed the Novgorod standard. Moscow 1, as the 1988 find was dubbed, was a draft or copy of a property deed or claim. Moscow 2 had a small inscription that was hard to make out. Moscow 3 was a very long inventory of property of a Muscovite prince and it was written in ink, not scratched with a stylus. (Only two of the thousand plus Novgorod letters were written in ink.)
That makes Moscow 4, the newly discovered piece, the first true Novgorod style birch bark letter found in the city. Like the overwhelming majority of the Novgorod ones, this is a private letter. The strip of bark has the smooth surface and carefully cut edges indicating it was specifically prepared for use as stationary. Each letter is printed very clearly and distinctly along the length of the fibers, as they are in Novgorod. The other Moscow letters were written against the grain.
The letter is a sad one. Addressed simply to “Sir,” it tells of the writer’s misfortunes while traveling to Kostroma, a city 217 miles to the northeast that was part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The writer was detained along with a certain Yuri and his mother by someone “who had the right to do so.” This person, likely an official of some kind, took 13 bel (a relatively small denomination of currency in medieval Russia) from them and then another three. Finally the author had to pay 20 and a half bel more to buy their freedom. The total of 36.5 bel was a signficant amount of money back then. Since it appears the captor had legal rights, this may have been the repayment of a debt with extra tacked on for interest.
Every Novgorod birch bark letter find is exciting, but the rarity of a Moscow find and the precise printing of this letter make it of particular interest to archaeologists. It will be conserved to ensure its long-term survival and studied further at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Most of the birch bark letters have been uploaded to an online database. The website is down right now but it was working earlier. From what I could gather when it was up, it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not quite a complete record. Still, you can photographs of each letters in high resolution, plus transcriptions and translations.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge has unearthed the remains of the first known Christian church in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição was built around 1470, shortly after the Portuguese discovered the island, out of wood. What the team has found are the remains of an expansion of the church from 1500 with masonry walls and an interior decorated with vibrant colored tile imported from Lisbon.
Documentary evidence pointed to the location of the first church, so in 2007 the team dug test pits and found foundations and a significant burial ground. With the support of the mayor and the Cape Verde government, archaeologists were able to return this season and fully excavate the site.
“We’ve managed to recover the entire footprint-plan of the church, including its vestry, side-chapel and porch, and it now presents a really striking monument,” said Christopher Evans, Director of the CAU.
“Evidently constructed around 1500, the most complicated portion is the east-end’s chancel where the main altar stood, and which has seen much rebuilding due to seasonal flash-flood damage. Though the chancel’s sequence proved complicated to disentangle, under it all we exposed a gothic-style chapel,” he said.
“This had been built as a free-standing structure prior to the church itself and is now the earliest known building on the islands — the whole exercise has been a tremendous success.”
The Cape Verde archipelago was discovered in 1456 by Alvise Cadamosto, an Italian explorer hired by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal to explore the west coast of Africa. The islands were uninhabited. There weren’t any mammals at all, in fact, or trees. They were, however, conveniently located in the Atlantic 350 miles off the coast of Africa, which would soon make the archipelago an important platform for the transatlantic slave trade. In 1462 the Portuguese founded the first permanent European settlement in the tropics on the Cape Verde island of Santiago. The island and its capital, the city of Ribeira Grande (modern-day Cidade Velha), flourished from the trade in human flesh both economically and culturally, becoming the second richest city in the Portuguese empire and developing through the mixing of European and African cultures into the first Creole society.
The city declined rapidly in the 18th century after it was sacked by the French pirate Jacques Cassard in 1712. He gutted Cape Verde so thoroughly that, according to his memoirs, he had too much loot to fit on his eight ships and had to leave some of it behind for fear his fleet would sink from the weight. Ribeira Grande never recovered from the Cassard blow. When the slave trade was outlawed in the 19th century, the economic engine of the city died. Necessary maintenance was abandoned and the hill wash carried down into the city by seasonal floods was left to accumulate. The capital was moved to the town of Praia and Ribeira Grande became a sleepy village.
Nossa Senhora da Conceição followed this pattern, falling into disuse around 1790. The archaeological remains from its heyday, however, give us a unique glimpse into the early history of the island. The discovery of the tombstones of dignitaries like mid-16th century town treasurer and slave trader Fernão Fiel de Lugo confirm the existence of people who while known were enveloped in an aura of legend. An estimated 1,000 people were buried under the floor of the church before 1525, an incredible density of information about the dawn of the first Creole society.
Preliminary analysis of samples shows that about half the bodies are African, with the rest from various parts of Europe. An excavation is being planned to collect data for isotope analysis of more bodies to learn more about the country’s founding population and its early slave history.
“From historical texts we have learned about the development of a ‘Creole’ society at an early date with land inherited by people of mixed race who could also hold official positions. The human remains give us the opportunity to test this representation of the first people in Cabo Verde,” said Evans.
Watch this video for an overview of the history of the city and for great footage of the excavation of the church.
Workers installing a new water main on Washington Square Park East last Tuesday discovered a burial vault probably dating to the early 19th century. Work stopped and Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants were called in to examine the vault at the intersection of Washington Square Park East and Washington Square Park North and carefully excavate the surroundings. They immediately discovered a second vault parallel to the first.
Cameras dropped into the vaults found the chambers are about the same size — 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 to 27 feet long — with fieldstone walls and barrel-vaulted brick ceilings. The interiors are whitewashed and have a wooden door at one end. The first vault has jumbled skeletal remains of maybe 10 individuals. The second holds about 20 intact wooden coffins.
Numerous coffins, perhaps two dozen, covered the floor of the vault. Some were in disarray but others looked to be in a fine state of preservation. Smaller coffins attested poignantly to the burial of children, when it was not uncommon for families to suffer the loss of their youngest members.
More helpful to historians than anything, perhaps, many of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped ornamental identification plates that will — once they are decipherable — help [Alyssa Loorya, President and Principal Investigator of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants,] and others put names to the skeletons; and with the names, context; and with context, new stories of old New York.
With space at such a premium, Manhattan is replete with built-over burials. In fact, the what is now Washington Square Park was first acquired by the city specifically for use as a graveyard. It was farmland in the late 18th century, outside the confines of the city. In April of 1797, the New York City Council bought 90 lots, the eastern two thirds of the future park, for use as a potter’s field, a public burial ground for the indigent. Its brief was expanded every time New York was hit with a yellow fever epidemic (there were four major outbreaks during the lifetime of the cemetery). Victims’ bodies were buried in the potter’s field outside of the city for sanitation purposes. Historians estimate that more than 20,000 people were buried there between 1797 and the cemetery’s closure in 1826.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that human remains have been found before during work at the park, starting in 1890 when the foundations were dug for the Washington Square Arch. Architect Stanford White stopped work to document the bones, gravestones, pieces of coffins and one relatively intact coffin. Since then individual graves had cropped up on occasion when the city had cause to dig in the Washington Square Park area, but when in 1965 Con Edison workers broke through an intact burial vault at the northeast corner of the park (the same location where the vaults were found last week), nobody had seen anything like it. The remains of three partially burned coffins and 25 individuals were found in that vault.
There is cartographic evidence from the early 19th century that a large plot extending across the northeast corner of the park from Washington Square Park East to Washington Square Park North and several adjoining blocks belonged to the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Pearl Street Church and Cedar Street Church, both Presbyterian, are each known to have had small cemeteries carved out of the larger lot. The Cedar Street Church cemetery was the larger of the two. It is now the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church which has kept excellent records going back to 1808, so it may be possible to identify one of the names on the coffins, should they have been part of the Cedar Street congregation.
All construction work at the site has been halted. By city policy, all burials must be left in place and intact. The water main project is now being redesigned around the vaults.
A badly corroded box found in a 17th century tomb has been virtually opened by powerful synchrotron X-ray imagining and its contents revealed in exceptional high resolution. The box and its contents are not so portentous, archaeologically speaking, but the phenomenal quality of the imaging opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
The metal box was found in one of more than 1,500 tombs unearthed under the old Saint-Laurent church which is now the Grenoble Archaeological Museum. The site has been in use since the 4th century when it was a cemetery outside the ancient city. Starting with a cruciform church in the 6th century, buildings were constructed on top of the remains of earlier buildings in four known stages. The current Saint-Laurent building is a 12th century Romanesque church that was deconsecrated in 1986 and converted into the museum.
The crypt from the 6th century church was discovered in the basement of the Romanesque church in 1803 and subsequent excavations peeled back layers to reveal burials from the 4th through the 18th century. This one church and its environs encompass a complete history of Christian burials over an astonishing 16 centuries. Modern archaeologists have been exploring the burials for the past 20 years, taking the unique opportunity to study the evolution of Christian funerary traditions spanning 1600 years.
More than 2,000 artifacts have been discovered in the tombs, many of which are on display in the museum which beautifully weaves the open excavated crypts into exhibition space. The box was found buried next to a body in a group of 195 graves from the 17th centuries. It’s a tiny piece — just 4 centimeters (an inch and a half) in diameter — and is so fragile conservators decided to restore it only to the point of stopping the oxidation process that was eating away its metal. Because corrosion had worn a hole in the lid, they could see that there were three round coin-like objects inside, but couldn’t make out any further details.
This technique, which can be likened to a highly powerful medical scanner, is capable of producing high resolution 3D images of the inside of a sample in a non-destructive manner. “It was only supposed to be a small feasibility study to produce an image for an exhibition. However, the results were so astounding that it turned into a full scale research project”, says Paul Tafforeau who carried out the experiments and produced the 3D images of the box.
The scanner found that the “coins” inside were actually clay religious medals. There were also two pearls inside the box. The medallions were stuck together and in bad condition, but the synchrotron X-ray was able to virtually separate them and make a 3D virtual model so crisp and detailed it has to be seen to be believed. Behold:
The imaging is far better than anything we can see with our puny human eyeballs so markedly inferior to those of any cephalopod. We now know that there are two identical medals sandwiching a different one between them. The middle medal, which has the most surviving detail, depicts Christ on the cross with two figures — probably Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary — standing on either side. The other side of the medal shows Christ wearing the crown of thorns, rising from the tomb with one leg out of the coffin and holding the standard of the Resurrection and Victory.
The other two medals were both more damaged, but fortunately in different places so it was possible to use the image of one medal to fill in the blanks on the other. One side shows the baptism of Christ and bears an inscription from John 1:14 VERBUM CARO, FACTUM EST (“And the word was made flesh”). The other side is a Nativity scene, with the Magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus on Mary’s lap. The inscription is a verse recited during the Stations of the Cross: ADORAMUS TE, CHRISTE ET BENEDICIMUS TIBI (“We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee”).
Images of cats have gone viral long before the Internet, or even the computer, was a thing. A 19th century painting of cats that drew crowds and critical accolades in the analog era sold at Sotheby’s Tuesday for $826,000, almost three times the high pre-sale estimate.
My Wife’s Lovers is a monumental 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting weighing 227 pounds, so heavy Sotheby’s had to construct a special wall to display it during the preview period. It was painted by Austrian artist Carl Kahler who specialized in horse racing scenes and had never painted a cat before he went to San Francisco in 1891. There he met Kate Birdsall Johnson, a wealthy philanthropist, art collector and animal lover who had begun buying fancy Angora cats during her travels in Europe in the 1880s and never stopped.
Mrs. Johnson invited Carl to Buena Vista, the Johnsons’ country estate near Sonoma and home of the oldest winery in California, still in operation today. (It wasn’t actually a working concern in the decade plus the Johnsons lived there as they had no interest in wine production, but as aficionados of art and architecture, they did ensure the preservation of the original press house and winery so the estate could return to its proverbial roots after World War II.) There she commissioned him to make a portrait of 42 of her cats and Kahler got to work. He spent close to two years sketching individual cats in their many and varied postures.
Lore has it that the painting was given its exquisite moniker by Kate’s husband Robert, but that can’t be true because he died in March of 1889 in Paris after a sudden illness struck him while he was traveling abroad. I imagine the name was Mrs. Johnson’s idea, a tribute to her beloved husband, doubtless inspired by something he had often said about her feline companions. It reads to me like an old inside joke between a long and happily married couple.
The painting was finished by the spring of 1893. Justifiably proud of her cat colony captured in all their dynamism and character by Kahler’s brush, Mrs. Johnson loaned My Wife’s Lovers for exhibition in the California Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It went on display in the Women’s Department (yeah, I know) and was a smash hit with the crowds. From the Final Report of the California World’s Fair Commission
The pictures on the walls were numerous, and embraced novel and meritorious works of art. Probably the one that attracted the most attention was a large canvas painted by C. Kahler, and owned by the late Mrs. Kate E. Johnson of San Francisco, the title being “My Wife’s Lovers.” It contained figures of forty-two large Angora cats, being only a fraction of the total number in possession of the owner, and represented these household pets in every conceivable attitude of playfulness.
Kate Birdsall Johnson only had a few months to enjoy her pets’ fame as live art models. She died on December 3rd, 1893, of pneumonia. Sotheby’s lot information says she left $500,000 in her will for the care in perpetuity of her cats, but that’s not correct. Her will was published in the paper when it was filed for probate a week after her death, and there is no half million dollar bequest.
~ Tangent time! ~
Kate Johnson’s will opens with a sweet nod to her father-in-law:
Thanking God for his undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts, I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul.
George C. Johnson’s soul may well have needed those prayers, primarily because of the way he made the fortune that Kate so graciously and devoutly bequeathed. A Norwegian immigrant, he first came to northern California in 1850 as captain of a ship carrying US Army food stores into the epicenter of the California Gold Rush of 1849. He sailed up the Sacramento River to its tributary the Feather River and stopped in Nicolaus, California, where he settled in waiting for further orders. Two years later, the army sent Major Richard Livingston Ogden, quartermaster of the Department of the Pacific, to track Johnson down. He found the ship permanently moored, draped with awnings, and Captain Johnson on deck swinging in a hammock while his wife rocked in a rocking chair.
Ogden inspected the cargo, consisting mainly of barrels of salt pork, and found it no longer suitable for army consumption, or human consumption, really. So naturally he ordered it sold at auction where it was bought for a dollar a barrel. By George C. Johnson. Johnson rinsed the rust and stink off the pork, repackaged it and sold it in Marysville, a Gold Rush boom town, for $16 a barrel. He used the profits to invest in a San Francisco hardware business which was hugely successful, soon becoming the largest hardware company on the Pacific Northwest coast. By the end of the decade he was consul for Norway and Sweden and acting-consul for Denmark to the Port of San Francisco.
George died in 1872, leaving his estate of an estimated $3 million to his only son Robert.
~ End Tangent ~
By the time it got to Kate, the estate was worth around $2 million, much of it in property. She willed that a third of it be donated to the Roman Catholic Church for the purpose of building a free hospital for “all sick women and children of the poor, without regard to religion, nationality or color.” Mary’s Help Hospital took years to get off the ground, then more years to get back on its feet after the 1906 earthquake, but eventually Kate’s legacy was honored and the hospital still exists today as Seton Medical Center.
There is no reference to Kate Johnson’s cats in her will. Apparently at the time cats had no legal designation — livestock qualified as personal property, but not pet cats — and therefore could not be explicitly provided for in her final will and testament. There is, however, a significant bequest of $20,000 to Helen Shellard “a maiden schoolteacher,” as the San Francisco Call describes her. Later articles note that Miss Shellard, a distant relative of Kate’s, had agreed while Kate was still alive to care for her cats after her death. Kate Johnson put the $20,000 bequest in her will specifically so Helen could afford to take on her many cats. Twenty thousand dollars in 1893 money is worth about $525,000 today, but that’s not where Sotheby’s got their spurious figure. They got it from an inaccurate 1949 article in the Shamokin News-Dispatch which also went wildly overboard with the total cat numbers. The papers at the time of her death claimed she had 200 cats; by 1949 that figure had grown to 350.
Mrs. Johnson didn’t have hundreds of them, though, not even close. On February 1st, 1894, when Helen was finally able to sort out the technicalities and rescue the by-then neglected cats from Buena Vista, there were 32 of them. Given that, I strongly suspect the 42 cats in Kahler’s painting were the full complement of Kate’s cats in 1893. Mind you, 32 was more than enough for Miss Shellard’s modest Telegraph Hill home to accommodate. She had to evict two tenants, screen in a porch and some of the yard to make room for the Johnson cats.
As for the painting, it led an exciting life after Mrs. Johnson left this one. It was purchased at her estate sale in 1894 by Ernest Haquette, a French-born art dealer who hung the painting in his Palace of Art gallery and cafe’, an innovative combination which made it a hot spot for the city’s social and business elite to enjoy elegant meals and cocktails for lunch and hugely expensive art any time. It was the best museum in the city before the de Young or SFMoMA were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
In 1906, the Palace of Art burned to the ground in the raging inferno that leveled whatever parts of the city were still standing after the earthquake. My Wife’s Lovers was hanging in the gallery at the time, but it somehow survived the conflagration. It was acquired by another gallery owner and passed through several hands over the decades. In the 1940s it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Julian of Julian Art Galleries who put it on tour culminating in a cat show at Madison Square Garden. Again Mrs. Johnson’s cats were a smash hit and more than 9,000 prints of the painting were sold spurring Cat Magazine to dub it “the world’s greatest painting of cats.”
The anonymous California buyer who just spent $826,000 to buy it was directly inspired by its past popularity: “I purchased My Wife’s Lovers by Carl Kahler based on my mother’s fond memories of the image. I bought a print of it for her, and it hung in her living room until she passed away at 91. Its California history made it all the better.”
Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.
The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.
In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.
Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.
Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.
In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.
Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:
Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.