Arts and Sciences

A Dutch girl at breakfast joins Vermeer’s Milkmaid

History Blog - Sat, 2017-01-14 00:52

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) was a Swiss-French artist of Huguenot extraction who is best known today for his very fine pastels. Trained as a miniaturist in Geneva and portrait painter in Paris, Liotard preferred medium was pastel on paper. They make up the overwhelming majority of his surviving work, 540 individual pieces, as opposed to only 30 oil-on-canvas paintings. In his time, Liotard was very much in demand as a portraitist and miniaturist. He travelled extensively through Europe, staying in Paris, Naples, Florence and Rome before going to Constantinople in 1738 where he lived for four years.

He returned from Constantinople with a great big bushy beard, a taste for Turkish dress and the crowned heads of Europe lining up for his services. He lived in Vienna from 1743 to 1745 where he made several portraits of the Empress Maria Theresa and her family. In 1748 he was in Paris painting King Louis XV and his family. In 1755 it was London and the Prince of Wales’ turn. His portraits were notoriously expensive, driving the bitter rival artist Andrea Soldi to grumble that the English measured “the value of his works by the length of his beard.”

After his London sojourn, Liotard went to Holland. He stayed for a year, studying the masters of the Dutch Golden Age and building a collection of more than 60 paintings from the period. He also found himself a wife: Marie Fargue, a Dutch Huguenot who posed in Turkish dress for one of his loveliest pastel portraits, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Liotard was strongly influenced by the Dutch artists of the 17th century. Even before his sojourn in Holland, his portraits were unusually restrained and naturalistic at a time when the fashion was for very stylized portraits with contrived poses, symbolic gestures and accoutrements conveying the wealth, power, profession and/or abilities of the subject. The intimate spaces, plain painted walls, varied textures and scenes from daily life captured in the works of Jan van Huysum, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and Johannes Vermeer inspired Liotard.

With one small oil-on-canvas painting, A Dutch girl at breakfast, Liotard became one of the first non-Dutch 18th century artists to create an explicit homage to the Golden Age masters. The painting depicts a modestly attired young woman seated a tripod table pouring a beverage (both coffee and chocolate have been proposed) into a cup. She sits in a classically Dutch interior. There’s a simple wood armoire against the wall, a foot-warmer on the floor beside her chair and, just in case the reference wasn’t clear enough, there’s a 17th-century Dutch painting of a church on the wall.

One of less than three dozen Liotard oil paintings and one of the only genre paintings he did (he was well-known for genre treatments in pastel, but not in oil), A Dutch girl at breakfast is rare and of great art historical significance as an example of the spreading influence of Dutch Golden Age painters. Liotard kept the painting for close to 20 years. He finally sold it in 1774 at a Christie’s auction. The buyer was Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, an old friend and patron of Liotard who had traveled with him in 1738 and would go on to become his biggest supporter, buying more than 70 of his works over the decades.

A Dutch girl at breakfast stayed in the Ponsonby family for 242 years until it was sold at Sotheby’s in July 2016 for $5,695,000. The buyer was revealed last month as the Rijksmuseum which has now installed Liotard’s Dutch girl next to Vermeer’s Milkmaid in the Gallery of Honour. Inspiration and inspired will only briefly be side by side. By the end of the month, the painting will be installed in its permanent location, the 18th century arts gallery. There it will be reunited with a host of brothers and sisters, the museum’s extensive collection of Liotard pastels that were donated by descendants of his and Marie Fargue’s eldest son.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rialto Bridge fully restored after 425 years

History Blog - Fri, 2017-01-13 00:13

The Rialto is by far the oldest and most famous of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal of Venice. Until the 19th century, it was the only bridge across the canal. The first iteration was built out of wood in 1255. The two sides of the bridge inclined upwards towards a central platform that could be removed to allow for the passage of taller ships. It was called the Bridge of Coin then, because of the toll for pedestrian passage. In 1458 shops were added to the sides and it was renamed the Rialto Bridge. With the popular Rialto market on the eastern bank and the bridge being the only non-nautical means to cross to Grand Canal, it had to withstand an enormous amount of traffic. It collapsed twice from the weight of crowds and had to be rebuilt. Another time the crowds viewing the passage of the spectacular 1,500-people-strong cortège of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in 1468 put so much pressure on the iron railings that they collapsed, dozens of spectators fell into the canal and died.

In the 16th century, Venetian authorities began to explore the possibility of replacing the wooden bridge with a stone bridge. It took almost the whole century to go from concept to execution. In 1551, top architects were invited to submit stone bridge ideas, but none of the submissions were deemed acceptable because they employed multiple Roman-style arches which would be a problem for boat traffic. The great Venetian architect Andrea Palladio envisioned a three-arch bridge topped with a monumental temple-like structure that would have dwarfed the mighty Mississip’. Finally architect and engineer Antonio da Ponte designed a single-span stone bridge very similar in shape, elevation and structure to the wooden bridge. Construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591.

Legend has it that Antonio da Ponte paid dearly for having created an icon of La Serenissima. When the bridge was almost done, the Devil himself approached the architect and demanded an offering of the first soul to cross the bridge. If da Ponte refused, Satan would forever prevent the completion of the Rialto Bridge. Unable to refuse, he tried to outsmart the Devil, arranging for a rooster to be the first living being to cross the bridge. The Devil was furious. He promised to punish the architect dearly, and so he did. In disguise, he went to da Ponte’s house and told his pregnant wife that her husband was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge. She ran across and unwittingly doomed the life she was carrying. The baby was stillborn. For years the baby’s spirit was said to haunt the Rialto until a kindly gondolier finally helped him rest in peace.

The bridge’s design caused some consternation at the time. Without arches, the full weight of the structure was shouldered entirely by the two pylons and foundations and each end. There were grave doubts among some architects, most notably Vincenzo Scamozzi, that the heavy stone bridge could stand without additional supports. And yet, it stood. Over the centuries it was repeatedly altered and repaired. The first major restoration was in 1740, but it stipulated that the arch itself could not be touched. The repairs focused on the stairs, balustrade, colonnade and paving tiles. Later restorations took a similar tack, fixing the peripherals — steps, drainage issues, shops.

More than 400 years would pass before the Rialto Bridge got a thorough top-to-bottom restoration. That’s a good thing from a historical preservation perspective, because it leaves conservators with a great deal of original material and limits the damage inflicted by well-intentioned but overly invasive interventions.

The restoration project started in 2011 with an extensive nine-phase preliminary investigation of the bridge: 1) a historical survey analyzing all the different phases of construction and repair over the centuries, 2) a photogrammetric and laser scanning survey of the bridge surface to gather precise measurements, 3) geotechnical drilling into the soil of the bridge foundations, 4) underwater inspection of the foundations, 5) archaeological analysis of the foundation coring samples, 6) monitoring a year’s worth of geological stresses and shifts, 7) a structural survey of the bridge, 8) research and analysis of the bridge’s petrographic materials and state of conservation or decay, and 9) identification of underground utilities.

Armed with reams of hard data, conservators began the hands-on part in May of 2015.

The restoration has systemically treated all of the bridge’s structural elements for the first time in more than 400 years. A team of 25 conservators dismantled the sandstone paving on the central steps and the two exterior ramps for cleaning, while workers relaid the telephone, gas and electric cables powering the bridge’s 24 shops. They strengthened the walls of the arcades and added a further layer of waterproof insulation, as well as new internal sheets to the 700 sq. m of lead sheets covering the roofs.

To protect the northern and southern balustrades from the lagoon’s brackish waters, as well as the thousands of tourists who walk across it each year, the banisters were reinforced using carbon-fibre bandages and duplex stainless steel brackets that resist corrosion. The 364 columns, which presented fractures on their capitals and bases, were also reset in molten lead and some of the cornerstones were completely replaced.

This was all done piecemeal so the bridge was never closed to visitors. Unsightly scaffolding was the worst of it. Shocking everyone who has ever had needed any construction done in Italy, the restoration finished on time (but not on budget, of course) and reusing 99% of the bridge’s materials. The remaining 1% requiring replacement was mostly paving.

The scaffolding is down now, but the official opening will take place in May at the Venice Biennale.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Anglo-Saxon settlement found in Cambridge

History Blog - Thu, 2017-01-12 00:40

Artifacts from an early Anglo-Saxon settlement have been unearthed at the site of a future housing development in Cherry Hinton, a suburb of Cambridge. Developers Weston Homes hired Oxford Archaeology East to excavate the construction site on the corner of Hatherdene Close and Coldham’s Lane after test pits identified an area of particular archaeological interest. The excavation discovered architectural remains of a village and a range of artifacts from the utilitarian to the rarified.

The team unearthed expensive, high-end jewelry including brooches, multi-colored glass, amber beads, rings and hairpins from the 6th century. There were tools including small knives and larger weapons, and intact pottery vases and bowls. The greatest stand-out piece is a glass vessel known as a claw beaker, so named because of the H.R. Giger-like claw-shaped handles attached to the conical walls. The glass is tinted amber or brown. These vases were very highly prized, probably imported from Germany, and have mainly been found as grave goods in 5th and 6th century Anglo-Saxon burials.

Duncan Hawkins, Head of Archaeology and Build Heritage for CgMs, said: “Evidence of the time period 5th to 7th century AD is almost non-existent so this gives us a highly important window into understanding how people lived in that era, their trade activities and behaviours.

“The academic value of this collection is therefore immeasurable. The site fell out of use in the 7th century but we discovered evidence of 8th century Middle Saxon activity including post-built structures, possibly workshops and livestock pens.

“Pits dug in this attest to local industrial activity and further processing of soil samples should help us understand what these were used for.”

The excavation also unearthed Roman dishware, early Roman kilns and a network of Late Iron Age and Roman boundary ditches. After the Middle Saxon settlement, there was a manor house built on the site in the 9th or 10th century. In the 11th century, Hinton Manor was one of several Cambridgeshire holdings of Edith the Fair, aka Edith Swanneck, first wife of Harold II. They were married in accordance with the more danico, a traditional Norse form of marriage, which is why nobody raised the bigamy issue when Harold married a Welsh princess in a Christian ceremony in 1066. Edith is best known for having identified Harold’s mutilated body after the Battle of Hastings, ostensibly from marks that only she knew he had on his chest. (One 19th century poet alleged they were hickeys.)

The town of Cherry Hinton appears in the Domesday Book (1086) listed as “Hintone: Count Alan. 4 mills.” Count Alan was Alan Rufus, a kinsman of William the Conqueror’s who fought with him at the Battle of Hastings. After the Norman Conquest, he took Hinton Manor from Edith. He got the lion’s share of her properties, in fact, sweeping up all but one of her Cambridgeshire estates.

The housing development of 60 homes will still be built on the site. All the artifacts have been recovered. They will be documented, conserved and exhibited in local museums.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare medieval Madonna that survived Reformation, Revolution goes home

History Blog - Wed, 2017-01-11 00:07

One of very few English-made statues of Catholic iconography to survive the Reformation has been acquired by the British Museum and will return to its homeland after centuries abroad. The alabaster figure of Virgin and Child was made in England, likely in the Midlands area, by an unknown artist in around 1350-75. Alabaster was highly prized by carvers in the 14th century because of its translucent glow, ivory tones and a surface that welcomed painting and gilding. Cheaper and easier to carve than marble, gypsum alabaster was extensively quarried in the Midlands during the 14th and 15th centuries. During this period, Nottingham had an active and lucrative trade in small devotional statues and reliefs, buoyed by the rich supply of local raw materials.

How this statue survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the destruction of icons of the Protestant Reformation is unknown.

Early religious royal injunctions issued by Henry VIII had merely called for objects of religious “idolatry” to be taken down, citing the words of the second commandment: “Thou shalt make thee no graven image, neither any similitude of things that are in heaven above, neither that are in the earth beneath, nor that are in the waters under the earth.”

But a more severe injunction followed after the succession of his son, Edward VI, in 1547. It called for the clergy “to take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition: so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their several houses.”

In the following months religious statues were smashed, while a few were hidden behind walls and under floorboards. Some had their eyes deliberately damaged or their heads lopped off.

All we know is that at some point after it was created, the Madonna and Child made its way to Saint Truiden Abbey, in the Flemish province of Limburg, Belgium. Founded in the 7th century by Saint Trudo, aka Saint Truiden, the monastery was an important site of pilgrimage for centuries during the Middle Ages. A deep-pocketed pilgrim could have bought the statue in England and gifted it to the abbey shortly after it was created. Or it could have been saved from destruction in the 16th century and smuggled out of the country.

It then survived another orgy of destruction: the French Revolution. French Revolutionary forces arrived at Saint Truiden in 1794. They looted and pillaged the abbey and church, setting the latter on fire. Everything of value was stripped and sold for cash, from the artworks to the building materials. Perhaps the statue survived by being sold.

It first appears on the historical record in Brussels in 1864 where it was exhibited and purchased by Austrian collector, Dr. Albert Figdor. After his death it was acquired by an anonymous European family who put it up for auction. That’s where it was spotted by the British Museum who arranged a sale through art dealers Sam Fogg with funding from the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Whatever traumas it has experienced, the statue is in incredible condition. It still retains some of its polychrome paint and gilding. Quite a signficant amount of red and gold still decorates Mary’s crown. Most of the visible wear is the result of devotion, not violence. The faces of both Mother and Child and foot of the Child are worn from centuries of kisses and caresses from pilgrims.

The statue is now on display in the British Museum’s medieval gallery next to the South Cerney head and foot. The head and one foot of Christ are all that remain of the wooden crucifix of All Hallows Church in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. They were found hidden behind the wall of the church’s nave in 1915. It seems it was secreted whole, a desperate attempt to save it from destruction, and then over the centuries most of the crucifix rotted away leaving only the head and foot. The placement illustrates the shared context of the still-beautiful Madonna and Child and the ruins of the crucifix.

3D model time! I enjoyed zooming in and searching for polychrome paint remnants.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Massacre of drinking cups at a 15th c. party

History Blog - Tue, 2017-01-10 00:52

Single-use paper or plastic cups are products of modern consumer culture, cheap, convenient, plentiful and easily discarded. You never have to worry about cleaning them or potential damage to wedding registry china or beloved “#1 Dad” mugs. In the 15th century there were no red Solo cups to fill at the keg line, but that didn’t mean some people couldn’t enjoy the convenience of not having to clean their drinkware or worry that a vessel might slip through drunken fingers to its untimely demise. They just had to be rich and like to show it.

Wittenberg castle, historic residence of the Electors of Saxony, has been undergoing an archaeological excavation since November in advance of the installation of a new sewage pipeline. The team has unearthed the remains of a ring wall encircling the castle site and courtyard pavers from the first castle built by the House of Ascania which ruled the Electorate of Saxony until the branch of the family died out in 1422. After that, the Duchy of Saxony passed to the House of Wettin. The third Elector from the Wettin dynasty, Frederick III, built the current castle on the site of the old Ascanian castle in 1480.

Multi-colored oven tiles decorated with secular and Biblical motifs found during the excavation date to Frederick’s time. They are very rare surviving examples of the original fixtures of the electoral castle. Ovens with such fancy tiles were hugely expensive, the kind of equipment found only in the grand homes of high-ranking aristocrats and ecclesiastical authorities. Martin Luther, who in 1517 famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church Frederick had built, was known to have owned one of these luxury tiled ovens. It had to have been a gift from someone very wealthy and powerful.

But it’s the fragments from thousands of porcelain cups found in the castle courtyard that captures the 15th century Electors of Saxony’s version of conspicuous consumption. The cups all date to the 15th century. They are decorated in a variety of patterns, styles and colors. Some have elaborate scrollwork or masks, some are smooth. There are fragments of bright green and yellow, and in neutral shades of brown, grey and ochre red. Except for having been smashed to bits, they are brand new. Archaeologists believe they were used only one time. Once the beverage was quaffed, the imbiber tossed his cup was over his shoulder. It shattered on the courtyard floor and servants quickly supplied the guest with a new filled cup.

“We found entire layers of cups and animal bones. They ate a lot of wild meat, especially venison,” Holger Rode, the archaeologist in charge of the dig in the castle’s courtyard in Wittenberg, told German news service dpa. “The parties took place in the summer here in the courtyard. The cups were simply thrown away. That’s equivalent to paper cups today.”

Except that porcelain mugs decorated with roll stamps and mask designs likely provided a more luxurious drinking experience. Disposable dishes were a sign of great wealth at the time and only the nobility used them at the castle.

This massive porcelain cup graveyard is unique to the castle site. Nothing like it has been found in the city of Wittenberg itself. In fact, very few individual cups from this period have been found at all, nevermind broken to pieces in huge quantities. Archaeologists think large numbers of cups were made to order before each feast to supply guests with single-use porcelain to showcase the host’s devil-may-care wealth.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Latin city mythically founded by Aeneas opens to public

History Blog - Mon, 2017-01-09 00:54

The ancient Latin city of Lavinium, according to legend founded by Aeneas, son of Venus, hero of Troy and ancestor of Julius Caesar, has some of the most significant archaeological remains predating the ascendance of Rome. Less than 20 miles from the modern city of Rome, the archaeological site was first excavated in the mid-1950s by Professor Ferdinando Castagnoli from the University of La Sapienza’s Topographical Institute. He and his archaeologist colleague Lucos Cozza unearthed a tumulus 60 feet in diameter richly furnished with more than 60 grave goods dating to the 7th century B.C., including a chariot, weapons, objects made of precious metals and vases for the funerary banquet. It was modified in the 4th century B.C.; a square room with a large tufa door was added. Research found that the Romans called this tumulus the Heroon of Aeneas (a heroon is a shrine dedicated to a hero, usually believed to be built over his tomb or to hold his relics).

Later excavations discovered what would become known as the Sanctuary of the XIII Altars, a cult center where 13 altars made of soft volcanic tufa were carefully lined up for religious rituals. A 14th altar was recently unearthed, and all appear to have been made between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists believe Lavinium was the main religious center of Latium at that time, and that the altars represent each of the important Latin cities. Excavations also unearthed an archaic temple to Minerva and two kilns used to make terracotta votive statuary.

Archaeological evidence indicates the town is very ancient indeed, going back to the 12th century B.C., the Bronze Age. It expanded in the 8th century B.C. and achieved its greatest size in the 6th century B.C. It began to decline in the 5th century, possibly after suffering damage in an earthquake, and by the 2nd century was no longer a religious center for the region having been eclipsed by its putative descendant, Rome.

The legend connecting Lavinium to Aeneas and the future capital of an empire only grew in prominence as the town itself shrank into a sleepy suburb of Rome. After years of exciting adventures, Aeneas landed in Latium where the gods and his dead father Anchises had told him he would found the greatest of all cities and sire the greatest of all lineages. Latinus, king of the Latins, welcomed Aeneas and offered him the hand of his daughter Lavinia in marriage. He accepted, married the princess and founded a new city which he named after her. His son Ascanius founded the town of Alba Longa where he and his descendants ruled for generation upon generation. The twins Romulus and Remus were born to one of those descendants, Rhea Silvia, courtesy of divine impregnation. Then there was the whole she-wolf thing and the fratricide and the Rape of the Sabine Women and voila! Rome.

The founding of ancient Rome traced to the heroes of Troy has come down to us from historian writing hundreds of years after the events they purported to describe. Early Greek historians proposed a bewildering combination of founding legends, the earliest of whom was Helanicus of Lesbos (5th century B.C.) who claimed Aeneas founded the city of Rome itself and named it after a Trojan woman. The oldest surviving source on the Lavinium version is Quintus Fabius Pictor, a third century B.C. senator from the patrician gens Fabia who is considered the first Roman historian, but all we have of his history of Rome are a few quotations and references cited by later writers including Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. The first book of Livy’s great compendium of all of Roman history, Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”), written between 27 and 9 B.C., recounts the story of Aeneas’ arrival in Latium, his marriage to Lavinia and his founding of Lavinium. By Livy’s time, this was the story that had stuck. Livy’s contemporary Virgil wrote about it in The Aeneid which sealed its popularity for 2,000 years.

Despite the endurance of the legend, the ancient city itself faded as the Western Empire fell apart. Around 1200, the walled medieval burg of Pratica di Mare was built over the remains of Lavinium’s ancient acropolis. It was owned by Benedictine monks until the 14th century when it passed into the hands of a succession of noble Roman families. The last of these was the Borghese family which took ownership of Practica di Mare in 1617. It is still their private property. They have an obligation to maintain the medieval town and any dispositions made regarding the archaeological site and the nature preserve that surrounds it must go through the Borgheses.

Because of this, it has been very difficult for people to get access to the ancient remains. On very rare occasions they would be open to the public, but otherwise arranging a visit to the altars or the heroon took a lot of jumping through behind-the-scenes hoops. In 2005, the Lavinium Archaeological Museum opened, giving tourists a chance to enjoy some of the archaeological treasures of Lavinium. It focuses on the legendary connection to Aeneas. Video installations tell the story of his eventful voyage after the fall of Troy and follow a virtual priest through the Sanctuary of the Altars. The terracotta statues made in the kilns are on display, as is an archaic statue of Minerva found at her temple and the tufa door from the Heroon of Aeneas.

Now a new agreement has been struck between the Commune of Pomezia, the Archaeological Superintendency for metropolitan Rome and the Borghese family to open the archaeological site of Lavinium to visitors. January 7th was the first day. It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone in Rome or environs to see ancient Latin archaeology before the distinction between Rome and its neighbors was blurred by empire and expansion. You can’t find this kind of thing in Rome. Archaeology from the legendary days, even from the kings and early Republic, is all but non-existent.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Experimental 1942 glass penny sells for $70,500

History Blog - Sat, 2017-01-07 23:57

A glass penny, the only known intact survivor of a World War II experiment, sold at auction Friday for $70,500 including buyer’s premium, more than twice its presale estimate of $30,000. The price was driven up in a bidding war between a phone buyer and one present in the room. The phone bidder, an American collector, won.

The metals used to make pennies and nickels — copper, tin and nickel — were needed for the war effort so in 1942 the Treasury experimented with coins made from alternative raw materials. Private contractors, eight plastic manufacturers — Bakelite Corporation (Bloomfield, New Jersey), E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. (Arlington, New Jersey), Durez Plastics and Chemical, Inc. (North Tonawanda, New York), Patent Button Company Inc (Knoxville, Tennessee), Monsanto Chemical Company (Springfield, Massachusetts), Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company (Hartford, Connecticut), Tennessee Eastman Corporation (Kingsport, Tennessee), Auburn Button Works (Auburn, New York) — and one glass company — Blue Ridge Glass Corporation (Kingsport, Tennessee) — were commissioned to strike coins with a variety of non-critical materials including Bakelite, other plastics, hard rubber, wood pulp and our hero today, glass.

Chief engraver John R. Sinnock created the pattern dies using simple designs. The obverse was a Liberty Head facing right, a copy of the head on the Colombian two centavos coin, with “LIBERTY” and “JUSTICE” on the left and right border and the date 1942 underneath the head. The reverse is a simple olive branch wreath designed by Anthony C. Paquet for a Washington medalet. Washington’s dates in the middle of the wreath were replaced with “UNITED STATES MINT.”

The dies were sent to the manufacturers who struck prototype cents with their experimental materials. The Blue Ridge Glass Corporation struck their pennies on amber tempered glass blanks from Corning Glass Co.

Blue Ridge had considerable difficulty making glass 1942 sample coins. For impressing a design into glass, both glass and the dies had to be very hot — just below glass melting temperature — then the glass had to cool quickly to preserve design detail. But Blue Ridge was not able to heat the die, and the resulting experimental cents were softly detailed and had many minute surface imperfections. Blue Ridge described their process and results in a six-page report, which has been preserved among U.S. Mint documents in the National Archives.

The surface of the glass coins was susceptible to crazing — clearly visible in the “UNITED STATES MINT” on the reverse of the penny that was just sold — but at first that didn’t trouble the Treasury Department. Blue Ridge was led to believe they’d get a contract to produce the glass pennies and even began to expand their facilities and plan the additional security necessary for mint work. Then, all of a sudden, Blue Ridge’s president J.H. Lewis was informed by Treasury that the project was called off. He was not told why.

Official records indicate Treasury thought the glass coinage would be “too brittle,” but that was just a smokescreen. The real reason was as top secret as it gets. The planned production line glass pennies would have contained traces of uranium oxide that would make them fluoresce under ultraviolet light, a cool and ingenious anti-counterfeiting system. But another project that started in 1942 required every molecule of fissionable material that could be scrounged up, so the glass coins were scrapped and Blue Ridge had to send all of its uranium stock to Oak Ridge for use in the Manhattan Project.

None of the plastic, rubber and glass experiments ever went into production. The Treasury doubted if plastic would ever be accepted by the public as legitimate currency and anyway the most successful plastics, urea and phenol, soon made the critical materials list themselves. The glass penny with its poor impressions and secretly invaluable uranium wouldn’t do either. Alternative metals won the day. The wartime penny would be zinc coated steel. It was minted in 1943. For a year it was lighter than the standard 3.11-gram Lincoln Wheat penny that preceded it, weighing 2.7 grams. Starting in 1944, the weight was back up to 3.11 grams and copper was back in the mix with zinc.

Very few of the experimental coins still exist today. The Mint destroyed most of them. A few examples managed to avoid that fate, mostly reddish plastic ones. Only one other glass example is known to have survived, and it is broken in half.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Thousands of jars reveal Britain’s saucy history

History Blog - Sat, 2017-01-07 00:39

Archaeologists have unearthed a vast collection of pottery (pdf) during construction of Crossrail’s new Elizabeth line station at Tottenham Court Road in London. The station is being built on the site of the former Crosse & Blackwell factory at Soho Square, where some of Britain’s most popular sauces, condiments and jams were manufactured from 1838 until 1921. The basements of the bottling warehouse were unexpectedly well-preserved. Kilns, furnaces and a refrigeration system were discovered in the warren of underground rooms. More than 13,000 pots, jars and bottles of pickle, mustard and jam were found in a cistern on the site. While many of them were broken, there were an impressive number of intact, unused pieces of ceramic, stoneware and glass.

The finds include glass bottles for Mushroom Catsup, ceramic bung jars for mustard and Piccalilli and delicately painted white jars for Preserved Ginger. Archaeologists also found white earthenware jars for Pure Orange Marmalade, Household Raspberry Jam and Plum Jam, some of which still bare their original labels. They illustrate the ambitions of one of Victorian Britain’s most prolific and enduring enterprises and evidence the development of British tastes.

Nigel Jeffries, [Museum of London Archeaology]‘s Medieval and Later Pottery Specialist and author of the book, said: “Excavations on Crosse & Blackwell’s Soho factory produced a large and diverse collection of pottery and glass related to their products, with one cistern alone containing nearly three tonnes of Newcastle made marmalade jars with stoneware bottles and jars. We think this is the biggest collection of pottery ever discovered in a single feature from an archaeological site in London.”

The company began under the name Jackson in the early 18th century. It was changed to West & Wyatt in 1819. West & Wyatt had a shop at 21 Soho Square where they sold soup, pâté, pickles and sauces to the wealthy and titled. That same year two apprentices were hired: Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell. Like something out of The Secret of My Success, Crosse and Blackwell climbed the ladder with impressive speed until just 10 years later they bought the company lock, stock and barrel for £600 and changed its name to a brand that would soon become renown around the world for canned foods, sauces and condiments. The Soho Square shop became an ever-expanding bottling factory.

Crosse & Blackwell were one of the first companies to secure a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her accession to the throne when she was 18 years old. They were also pioneers in the use of celebrity chef as endorsers and collaborators. In the late 1840s, Alexis Soyer, high society chef, inventor, cookbook author, soup kitchen innovator and the most famous culinary genius of his time, created the tangy Soyer’s Sauce sold by Crosse & Blackwell in two versions: a stronger “Soyer’s Sauce for Gentlemen” and a milder “Soyer’s Sauce for Ladies.” They quickly became bestsellers. He followed up with “Soyer’s Relish,” which was the bestselling sauce in London in 1849 and would be sold by Crosse & Blackwell for more than 70 years, and “Soyer’s Sultana’s Sauce.”

The company also jumped on the opportunity to introduce Indian flavors to their product line. A Crosse & Blackwell employee went to India with the first troops sent by the East India Company. He came back with recipes that would shortly become Captain White’s Oriental Pickle and Curry Powder and Abdool Fygo’s Chutney.

Crosse & Blackwell was an official wholesaler of another India-inspired condiment that is still a top seller today: Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. You’d think with a name like Worcestershire it would have an English origin, but in fact, the recipe was brought back from India to Worcester by Lord Marcus Sandys in 1835. Sandys had the local pharmacists cook him up a batch but it tasted terrible, so the chemists, Messrs. John Lea and William Perrin, stashed the barrel in the cellar and forgot about for two years. In 1837 they noticed the barrel in the cellar and gave the contents another taste. They were stunned by how delicious it was. They bought the rights to the recipe from Lord Sandys and in 1838 introduced the pantry staple that makes my mom’s stuffed celery so great.

Crosse & Blackwell is repeatedly mentioned in Lea & Perrin’s 19th century ads as a purveyor of “the only good sauce,” but the excavation revealed that the Crosse & Blackwell factory was also involved on the production side. Lea & Perrins branded glass stoppers were unearthed at the factory site.

The Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) has published a book about the factory finds. Crosse and Blackwell 1830–1921: a British food manufacturer in London’s West End is part six of MOLA’s Crossrail Archaeology series, 10 publications that explore different aspects of the unprecedented archaeological project engendered by the construction of new subway lines and stations. You can buy it online for a tenner.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Colonial cannon pulled from Cape Fear River

History Blog - Fri, 2017-01-06 00:27

A Colonial-era cannon has been recovered from Cape Fear River at the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site (BTFA) in North Carolina. It was pulled from the river during a dredging operation on December 21st. The cannon is 93 inches long with an 80-inch bore four inches in diameter. There are no visible markings to identify the type of cannon and a section of the muzzle is gone, perhaps damaged in an explosion caused by a casting flaw. For now all experts can say is that it was likely a six or nine-pounder manufactured before 1756.

Brunswick was an important port town on the banks of the Cape Fear River in Colonial times. Founded in 1726, the town grew into a center for the trade in tar, pitch and turpentine, necessary materials for the construction and maintenance of the wooden ships of the era. Its commercial and naval significance were matched by Brunswick’s political prominence. Two royal governors in a row had their official residences in the town and the colonial assembly met in the courthouse. Royal taxes were also collected there. Brunswick challenged the collection of stamp taxes eight years before colonists disguised as Native Americans threw East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

The town began to fade in significance when the residence of the royal governor was moved to New Bern in 1770. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Brunswick’s population was depleted, which turned out to be a good thing when British troops burned the town in 1776. The town was never rebuilt. In the mid-19th century, the Orton Plantation took over the land, but what was left of Brunswick became strategically important again during the Civil War when Fort Anderson was built in 1861 as part of the Cape Fear defenses protecting Wilmington and running the Union blockade.

The historic site focuses on both the Colonial and Civil War history. The discovery of the cannon has given the BTFA a unique opportunity to study and conserve a Colonial artifact at Brunswick where it was used 250 years or so ago.

The cannon currently sits, wrapped in burlap and under a light water spray to keep it wet, at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson, until efforts can be made towards conservation.

“It was logical that it should stay here,” [Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Site Manager Jim] McKee said. “But what is going to be so unique about this, is this is the first opportunity that an artifact like this is actually going to be conserved on site. Now that the gun is here … there’s no reason for it to ever leave again.”

The cannon is awaiting conservation efforts. McKee said the cannon will be visible to the public during that time. It’s the first of its kind at the site and could take several years before the restoration is complete.

Here’s an interview with Jim McKee perched next to the cannon discussing its discovery and conservation.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

First 18th c. American true porcelain bowl found in Philadelphia

History Blog - Thu, 2017-01-05 00:23

The Chinese figured out how to make hard-paste or true porcelain, the finest ceramic known for its hardness and translucency, in the 7th century. It would take almost another thousand years, in the 16th century under the Ming Dynasty, for fine Chinese porcelain to be exported to Europe in significant quantities. There it was admired and puzzled over. European ceramicists tried to crack the code — the combination and quantity of raw materials, the firing temperature — but failed. Only in the 18th century did Johann Friedrich Böttger, at the behest of Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony, solve the mystery of hard-paste porcelain. The Meissen factory, founded in 1710, was the first European producer.

That wasn’t the end of the story, however. In the American colonies, particularly in the southern states, experimentation with porcelain took off in the 1730s, and continued for decades. There is documentary evidence of the study and eventual production of China in America, but no actual evidence of 18th century hard-paste porcelain in the archaeological record. The excavations at the site of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia in 2014 finally found that evidence.

The survey of the museum site has proven to be one of the greatest archaeological bonanzas in American history, and so deliciously on topic to the institution that will open in historic downtown Philadelphia on April 19th, 2017. The behind-the-scenes hero of the piece is, yet again, poop. Archaeologists unearthed 12 brick-lined outhouse vaults packed with artifacts from the first decade of the 18th century through the mid-19th century. Private residents, shops and hostelries all used the privies as trash cans as well as toilets for 150 years or so, leaving 21st century archaeologists almost 85,000 artifacts to sort through.

One of the 85,000 is a small white punch bowl, unearthed in fragments in 2014. Archaeologists from Commonwealth Heritage Group initially thought the bowl was a piece of white stoneware, but a recent material analysis by Saint Mary’s University geologist Dr. J. Victor Owen, an expert on archaeological ceramics and glass, found that the bowl is true-porcelain, probably manufactured in Philadelphia.

“One of the most intriguing stories in the world of ceramic history is the search for the secrets of making hard-paste porcelain,” said Robert Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America and an author and archaeologist. “The search, however, for physical evidence of making true porcelain in 18th century America has been frustratingly unsuccessful – until now. The discovery of this bowl is like finding the holy grail of American ceramics, and is a thrilling addition to the history of the American effort to produce this coveted material.”

It also has direct relevance to the theme of the Museum of the American Revolution, because buying domestic, even for luxury goods, was a political statement in the lead-up to the Revolution.

“The discovery of this remarkable little bowl reminds us that the ‘buy local’ movement has very deep roots in American history,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, Vice President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming at the Museum of the American Revolution. “It is also an important reminder that when colonists boycotted imported British goods as a way to protest Parliamentary taxation, they did not have to settle for crude versions of beloved luxuries from abroad. Colonial tradespeople produced elegant textiles and ceramics for a market eager use the ‘power of the purse’ to make a political point.”

A report on the discovery and analysis of the punch bowl will be published in the January issue of Ceramics in America. The little broken white Holy Grail will go on permanent display in the “homespun” gallery of the new museum when it opens this Spring, but will make its first public appearance at the New York Ceramics and Glass Fair this month. Co-author of the article Robert Hunter will be giving a lecture at the fair on the quest to make true porcelain in 1700s America and how the Philadelphia punch bowl fits into that history on Thursday, January 19th.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Will of 12th c. Georgian king on display for the 1st time

History Blog - Wed, 2017-01-04 00:46

The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, Georgia, has put on display the only surviving fragment of the last will and testament of the 12th century King of Georgia, David the Builder. The Georgia’s Medieval Treasury exhibition “showcases Georgian Christian art that reflected the unity and continuity of cultural traditions and formed the basis of the Georgian statehood and the national identity.” It opened in June but the objects on display are constantly changing and the will only went on display a week ago. It is the first time this priceless relic has been on public display.

David the Builder is Georgia’s greatest national hero. Just 16 years old when his father abdicated in his favor, David fought the Seljuk Turks for more than 20 years, chipping off territories under their control from 1101 until 1123 when he wrested their last stronghold of Dmanisi from them and unified the country. According to Arabic scholars like Badr al-Din al-Ayni, David the Builder respected other faiths, granted legal protection to Muslims and Jews living in the kingdom as well as adherents to minority Christian denominations like the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In 1125, King David wrote a will and determined the orderly succession of his kingdom. He died on January 24th of that year. He was just 53 years old but had reigned for 36 years. His son Demetrius succeeded him. The Georgian Orthodox Church canonized him a saint for his dedication to the faith.

Together the reigns of David the Builder and his granddaughter Tamar (r. 1184–1213) are considered the Georgian Golden Age, a military, political and cultural Renaissance in the east hundreds of years before Western Europe got around to it. The Golden Age didn’t long outlive Queen Tamar. First the Mongol invasions of the 1230s and 40s broke Georgian independence, rendering it a vassal state. In the late 14th century Timur (Tamerlane) devastated the country and forced the king to pay tribute. By 1466, the Kingdom of Georgia no longer existed even in name only; it disintegrated into several small kingdoms and principalities. It was carved up some more by neighboring powers — Persia and the Ottoman Empire, then the Russian Empire which absorbed it in 1801.

Even after centuries without a functional Georgian state, Georgian cultural identity still held on strong and David the Builder was widely revered. On display along with the fragment of the will is a glass negative of the whole document made in 1895 by photographer and Georgian nationalist Alexander Roinashvili. He took numerous photographic portraits of prominent Georgian public figures and of important sites and objects of Georgian cultural heritage. So dedicated was he to sharing and promoting Georgian history that he conceived the idea of a mobile museum of Georgian antiquities that would feature both photographs and historical artifacts — weapons, silverware, coins — he’d collected for years. In 1887, Roinashvili finally got his museum off the ground and took it on tour. The museum never did travel as far and wide as Roinashvili had hoped, but it’s thanks to his unwavering committment to documenting Georgian culture that we have a copy of David the Builder’s will.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History