Arts and Sciences

Happy 950th anniversary, Battle of Hastings!

History Blog - Thu, 2016-10-13 21:59

On October 14th, 1066, a date that will live forever on 6th grade pop quizzes, the army of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings ushering in the Norman conquest of England which ultimately claimed 100,000 lives. The Norman conquest irrevocably altered the evolution of the English language and landscape. It was William who made it a point of policy to build large stone castles to consolidate his power, replacing the more earthworks and wood motte-and-bailey castles favored by the Anglo-Saxon with the intimidating fortresses preferred by powerful lords in Normandy. Stone churches and cathedrals were also a Norman contribution.

To celebrate the anniversary in grand style, this weekend English Heritage will be hosting a program of events at Battle Abbey, built on the site of Harold’s death by William by order of Pope Alexander II as penance for having killed so many, and the battlefield. There will be music, readings, lectures, a display of falconry, panel discussions, faux battles on the hour for children, something called “Have-a-go Archery” which sounds as fun as it is potentially dangerous, cavalry, Norman and Saxon encampments with living history for visitors to interact with, and in the afternoon a full-on reenactment of the Battle of Hastings with more than 1,066 volunteers participating.

Tickets for the weekend sold out quickly, so alas, unless you managed to score your own already or knows somebody who know somebody who knows an extremely nerdy scalper, I’m afraid you won’t be able to attend the festivities. You can still visit the abbey and battlefield on Friday, though, which is the actual anniversary.

Meanwhile, The Royal Mint, which was already in operation under King Harold, has issued a 50p coin commemorating the anniversary. With all due respect to the dignified profile of Queen Elizabeth II, because my love for the Bayeux Tapestry is stronger than the foundations of the earth, it’s the reverse of this coin that absolutely slays me (pun intended). It’s a coin version of the man believed to be Harold shown with an arrow in his eye and several in his shield in scene 57 of the Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidered Latin above the scene reads “Hic Harold rex interfectus est,” or “Here King Harold is killed.”

There’s also another fellow next to him being felled by a sword, though, so it’s not entirely clear which of the two is meant to be Harold. The earliest known account of the conquest, the Song of the Battle of Hastings, written in 1067 by Bishop Guy of Amiens, says that Harold was hacked to death and his dismembered body buried under a stone pile on a cliff “that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.” Fifty years later, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England (1118) said Harold’s “brain [was] pierced with an arrow” shot “from a distance,” and that is the account that has taken root, bolstered by the epic drama of the Bayeux Tapestry. (There is, incidentally, significant debate as to whether the arrow in the eye detail is original to the tapestry or the product of a later restoration to bring the work closer in concert to what was by then the accepted story.)

Five million of these 50p pieces will be going into circulation. Collectors can purchase fancier limited edition gold proofs (£785, or $960), silver proofs (£50, or $60) and double-thick “piedfort” silver proofs (£95, or $116), plus mint condition uncirculated versions of the regular coin (£10, or $12). Only the last one comes with a booklet. I love it when things come with a booklet.





Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Intact 1,600-year-old roasting pit unearthed in Alberta

History Blog - Wed, 2016-10-12 22:54

Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,600-year-old untouched roasting pit at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwest Alberta, Canada. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was used by native peoples of the North American Plains to hunt, butcher and process bison for 6,000 years. It is one of the oldest and best preserved buffalo jumps, which archaeological features still surviving on the surface and under ground.

The site has four areas that were used for different purposes: the gathering basin, where the bison would graze on the lush grasses and drink fresh water well into the fall, the drive lanes, stone cairns built in lanes that hunters would chase buffalo down, the cliff kill site, the edge of the cliff which the stampeding bison would be forced off of, and the processing area where the bison were butchered, their meat roasted, the bones boiled for grease rendering, strips of meat dried in the sun and pemmican, a highly nutritious staple made of dried meat grease, marrow and berries pounded together, made to keep people alive during the long winter.

Artifacts and remains are present throughout the site. An astonishing 36 feet of deposits have accumulated below the cliff kill site alone over the course of 5,700 years, and the processing area is repeat with kitchen tools like scrapers, knives, drills, pottery and boiling stones cracked by fire.

It was in the processing area where archaeologist Robert Dawe, now Royal Alberta Museum Inventory Curator, discovered the roasting pit in 1990. He had been excavating the area for four years when he unearthed a canine paw (probably wolf rather than dog) and the articulated leg bones of a bison calf. It was the articulation of the bones that indicated this was a roasting pit, and even more intriguingly, a roasting pit whose contents had never been eaten. The stratigraphy pointed to this as a Blackfoot site about 1,600 years old. As soon as he realized that this was an incredibly rare find, Dawe covered it back up to preserve for future excavation.

The future took 26 years to happen. Dawe returned this year and dug out the entire pit encased in a soil block and wrapped tight in layers of plaster, burlap and foil.

“This thing hasn’t seen the light of day since 1,600 years ago,” Dawe said. “Nobody has seen the contents of this meal that was prepared for a delicious feast. For some reason the people never came back and opened it up.” [...]

“This is a classic example of an earth oven,” Dawe said. “This is a common thing that is found all over the world.”

Dawe compared the earth oven or roasting pit used by the Plains people thousands of years ago to the modern luau in Hawaii.

“The idea is you dig a pit, line it with rock, and build a hot fire and let it burn down to coals,” Dawe explained. “Typically they would put down a layer of vegetation like willows here, put the food on top of the willows, another layer of willows, an insulating layer of earth, and then they would build a hot fire on top.”

“They would let it cook overnight and the heat from the upper fire would bring the heat from the coals through the animal, and in the morning it would be fall-off-the-bone tender — just delicious.”

What caused the Blackfoot to abandon this delicious slow-cooked meal is a mystery. It could have been anything from a fire to a sudden storm.

Once secured and removed, the block was then craned onto a truck and transported to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, a newly built facility that has all the bells and whistles necessary to excavate, preserve and ultimately display this treasure. Dawe and his team will painstakingly excavate it “with toothpicks and a light vacuum cleaner,” a process that will take months. Everything they find will be conserved, the bones treated to keep them from deteriorating.

Piikani Nation elder Conrad Little Leaf conducted a traditional prayer in the Blackfoot language and made a ceremonial offering of tobacco blessing the excavation team. It was a bittersweet farewell, as Head-Smashed-In’s Marketing and Special Events Coordinator Quinton CrowShoe noted, because as something their ancestors left behind, the roasting pit and its contents are sacred to them so they would much rather the pit stay in place.

But while the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump site has an excellent interpretative center, it does not have the facilities to preserve delicate archaeological materials in ideal environmental conditions, so the roasting pit is slated to go on display at the Royal Alberta Museum’s new First Peoples gallery that will open at the end of 2017. There is still hope it might return to Head-Smashed-In should an appropriate facility be built.

Watch Conrad Little Leaf’s prayer, the removal of the pit and Robert Dawe’s explanation of the find in this video:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Find out if your ancestors fought at Agincourt

History Blog - Tue, 2016-10-11 22:23

The Soldier in Later Medieval England website has added the names of more than 3,500 French soldiers known to have fought in the Battle of Agincourt, the 1415 clash between the English forces of Henry V and the French under King Charles VI (in name only; Charles was suffering one of several bouts of severe mental illness at the time and was not present on the battlefield). The French fighting men are now part of a database which lists more than 250,000 names of English soldiers who fought in campaigns between 1369 and 1453, including Agincourt. All together, the database is the largest list of medieval people ever assembled.

It’s amazing the level of detail the researchers involved in this project have assembled. It’s not just lists of names, but also any additional information. For instance, of the 3,500 French soldiers in the database, researchers were able to determine that 550 died on the field of Agincourt and that another 300 were taken prisoner to be ransomed. The database also records any known geographical origins of the soldiers, their ranks, where they served and when. You can search by name, rank or year of service. There are also biographies of a number of English soldiers of particular interest to researchers and contributors.

Muster rolls were the main source of information — records keep track of the money, if nothing else — and for the English soldiers, Chancery court documents were a rich source, pace Charles Dickens and Bleak House. Soldiers had to purchase letters of protection from the Chancery to ensure they wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits when they were deployed. Very useful information if you’re looking for year of service.

Professor Anne Curry, project Director and Dean of Humanities at the University of Southampton, says: “It is fitting that this new resource has been made available following the major 600th anniversary commemorations of Agincourt in 2015, in which our university played a key role. The Medieval Soldier website has already proved an invaluable resource for genealogists and people interested in social, political and military history. This new data will help us to reach out to new users and shed fresh light on the Hundred Years War.” [...]

Professor Adrian Bell, fellow project Director and Head of the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School at the University of Reading, comments: “Our newly developed interface interrogates sources found in many different archive repositories in England and France. Without our site, searching for this information would require many visits to the National Archives of both England and France, the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale and all of the Archives Départementales in Normandy.”

Even if you don’t have an ancestor who was pincushioned by Henry V’s Welsh longbowmen or stared down the charge of the French heavy cavalry but would still like to learn more about the Battle of Agincourt, the University of Southampton is offering a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the subject that starts October 17th. They’ve run it before and it was very popular, so they’re doing it again to give people who missed the first iteration another chance. I haven’t taken this particular course, but I did do their Archaeology of Portus MOOC (that’s being offered again too) and it was excellent.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Civil War ordnance exposed by Matthew detonated

History Blog - Mon, 2016-10-10 22:20

A cluster of Civil-War era artillery churned up from the sands of Folly Beach in South Carolina by Hurricane Matthew was safely detonated on Sunday evening. The 16 corroded cannonballs were found Sunday morning on the beach at East Ashley Avenue by former Folly Beach mayor Richard Beck who was walking the shoreline taking pictures of the wreckage Matthew left behind.

“I knew they were cannonballs,” he said. “One of them had a very distinct hole in it that went directly into it. Just knowing a little bit about the Civil War, I know that they put fuses in cannonballs for them to explode when they desired them to.”

Recalling a time back in his mayor days when Civil War cannonballs were found in the basement of a home and had to be detonated, Beck called the police to report the find. One of the officers who answered the call is a Civil War reenactor and confirmed the rusted lumps were indeed cannonballs.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and Charleston police bomb squad were on the scene by 12:30, but couldn’t do anything until the tide was out. At around 7:00 PM, with the help of the United States Air Force Explosive Ordnance Team, authorities were able to safely detonate the cannonballs. While it’s unlikely the black powder inside of them would have ignited given their age, condition and sodden environment, as a matter of public safety, the policy is to avoid all risks and destroy the ordnance.

“We call it ‘rendering safe’ and we did that right there on the beach front,” [Charleston County Sheriff's Office spokesman [Eric] Watson said. “They’re putting the dirt from the detonation back in the hole and they’re transporting the device to (Joint Base Charleston).”

It’s not a single device, to be clear, but most of the balls are fused together by the corrosion. According to the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, some of the cannonballs were detonated on the spot. The rest were transported to a nearby naval base where they were destroyed Sunday night.

Just to give you an idea of the lay of the land, Folly Beach is less than 12 miles from Charleston Harbor (by road; it’s closer by sea). A couple more miles over the water will take you to Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannon barraged the Union garrison at the fort. Folly Island itself didn’t see a great deal of combat during the war — there was a single battle (more of a skirmish, really) on May 10th, 1863, when Confederate troops scouting the island attacked Union troops they found there — but the island was occupied by 13,000 Union Army in August of 1863. They used it as a supply station, building a fort and an artillery battery in support of the Union troops besieging Charleston. It was a staging area for both Battles of Fort Wagner (July-September 1863), which took place on the adjacent Morris Island. The second Battle of Fort Wagner was famously depicted in the film Glory and the remains of at least 19 men from all African-American units including the 55th Massachusetts, 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry and the Second U.S. Colored Infantry were discovered at the west end of Folly Beach in 1987.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hidden self-portrait found in 17th c. Dutch painting

History Blog - Sun, 2016-10-09 21:37

Royal Collection conservators have unmasked a hidden self-portrait of the artist in Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten’s A Vanitas (c.1666–1700). It’s an unexpected find in still life symbolizing the fleeting nature of life and the material things we value. The vanitas was a flourishing theme in Dutch art of the 17th century, and Roestraten’s scene includes some of the most popular imagery of the genre. Coins and a medallion hanging from a Mr. T-like thicket of chains represent all those worldly goods that you can’t take with you, a skull and cinerary urn represent the certainty of death, an open pocket watch on a silk ribbon signifying transience, Democritus, known as the Laughing Philosopher, laughs at human folly from the pages of a book captioned “Everyone is sick from birth / vanity is ruining the world,” and hanging from a string above the table is a glass orb representing the fragility of life.

The rest of the room is reflected in the orb, but before conservation, all you could really see was the light shining through window panes and a bulbous shape that has to be the skull but doesn’t look like much of anything. Still, Roestraten is known for concealing surprise images in his paintings and at least nine of them are tiny self-portraits hidden in reflections in glass and mirrors. Hoping his Vanitas might have just such an Easter egg, Royal Collection conservators set to cleaning it in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition Portrait of the Artist

During the removal of discoloured varnish, Royal Collection Trust conservators found the 3cm-high image of the artist at his easel painted as a reflection on the glass sphere. Roestraten can be seen in the surroundings of his studio, looking directly at the viewer and towards the skull and silver ginger jar in the foreground of the picture.

Anna Reynolds, Senior Curator of Paintings, Royal Collection Trust, and co-curator of the exhibition, said, ‘Vanitas paintings traditionally focus on symbolic objects that are designed to make us think about how we live our lives. The discovery of Roestraten’s reflection, previously hidden beneath a layer of varnish, is very exciting and adds a new element to the work – a sort of pictorial game that encourages us to look more closely.’

A Vanitas with its newly exposed self-portrait will go on display in Portrait of the Artist along with more than 150 artworks from the Royal Collection that feature the artist in his or her own creation. Other stand-out pieces are a self-portrait drawing of Annibale Carracci (ca. 1575-80), the famous profile red chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to his student Francesco Melzi (ca. 1515-18), Jan de Bray’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (1652) in which he used himself and his family as models, a self-portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1623) and one my personal favorites, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (ca. 1638-9).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost Viking rune stone found at Swedish church

History Blog - Sat, 2016-10-08 22:39

A thousand-year-old Viking rune stone whose whereabouts have been unknown for almost 200 years was rediscovered next to Hagby Church in Uppland, eight miles west of Uppsala in southeastern Sweden. It was discovered when workers dug a trench a few feet from the church to install a lightning conductor. Uppland Museum archaeologist Emelie Sunding was present to supervise the work in case anything of historical interest was found. When she saw the edge of a large, flat stone slab with some sort of engraving, she suspected it might be a rune stone. When the dig area was expanded and more of the stone exposed, her suspicion was confirmed.

The rune stone is six feet long and more than four feet wide and is decorated with a snake-like creature with almond eyes. Its head and tail come together in the middle of the stone, and the body winds along both long edges, although one edge is broken. The head of a bird is carved opposite serpent. The runes are carved into the animal’s long body, so the missing piece makes the full inscription unreadable. The legible part reads: “Jarl and … stone after Gerfast, his father.” Rune stones were often dedications to deceased loved ones by surviving family members, so it’s likely the missing section includes the names of Jarl’s brothers and sisters.

Although the stone is unsigned, the decorative style is recognizable as the work of a rune carver named Fot who was working in the mid-11th century. He worked in southern Uppland is believed to have carved more than 40 rune stones. Fot was known to be very particular about the stones he used and his runes are long and slender. Most of what we know of his work has survived only in replicas, so an original Fot is a very exciting find.

Uppland is rich with rune stone — more than 1,300 of the 2,700 known Viking rune stones in Sweden are located there — but most of them are fragmentary. Intact rune-decorated slabs are very rare. This one was known from a number of sources long after it was carved. It was first published, as many of its brethren were, in the 17th century. A woodcut of the stone made in the late 1600s by Johan Hadorph and Johan Leitz can be seen in the 1750 book on Swedish rune stones Bautil by Johan Göransson. It was the threshold stone of Hagby Church, installed at the door of the church portico in the 1400s.

It last appears on the historical record in the early 19th century, but much of the original church was demolished in the 1830s and the stone went missing. There were stories of it having been pulled up and dumped into a nearby millstone. Thankfully those were just rumors. The stone wasn’t even moved; it was just covered with soil when the new church went up next to it and people forgot all about it.

The stone will now be fully cleaned, studied and documented, including the back which, if we’re lucky, might have more carving that hasn’t been seen before because it has been embedded in the earth on its back since the late Middle Ages. Once conserved, the plan is for it to return to Hagby Church where it will be display in pride of place at long last.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient cannabis burial shroud found in China

History Blog - Fri, 2016-10-07 22:11

An ancient grave unearthed in Jiayi cemetery in China’s Turpan Basin contains the remains of man covered in cannabis plants. Radiocarbon dating found that the man was buried between 2,400 to 2,800 years ago. The remains of a man about 35 years of age at the time of his death were laid to rest on a wooden bed with his head on a reed pillow. Thirteen female cannabis plants, all of them close to three feet long, were laid diagonally on the man’s body. The roots placed below his pelvis, the tops reaching his chin and going up the left side of his face.

About 240 graves have been excavated in Jiayi cemetery. Archaeologists believe it was a burial ground of the Subeixi culture which lived in the oasis between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Cannabis has been found in other graves in the Turpan Basin before, most notably a solid two pounds of seeds and powdered leaves found in a shaman’s burial in 2008, have been found in graves from this period before, but this is the first time entire plants have survived and the first time they’ve been found in a shroud configuration.

The plants are in excellent condition, good enough to answer key questions about how cannabis was grown and used for funerary purposes in the region.

Since previous cannabis finds in Turpan burials consisted only of plant parts, it has been difficult for researchers to determine whether the plant was grown locally or obtained through trade with neighboring regions.

The plants in the Jiayi burial, however, were found lying flat on the man’s body, leading archaeologists to conclude that the cannabis had been fresh—and therefore local—when it was harvested for the burial.

In addition, while nearly all of the flowering heads of the 13 female plants had been cut off before they were placed on the body, a few that remained were nearly ripe and contained some immature fruit, suggesting that the plants were collected—and that the burial occurred—in late summer.

The surviving flowering heads also provide clues to the role of cannabis in the Turpan cultures. The fibrous plants might have been valued for their usability in textile and rope-making, for example, rather than inhaled or eaten to alter consciousness. No hemp textiles or artifacts have been found, however, and the buds found in the Jiayi grave are rich in “hairs” THC-heavy hairs, suggesting that they were grown at least in part for their psychoactive properties.

The study of the cannabis in the Jiayi grave has been published in the journal Economic Botany and can be read here for a fee (unless you have an institutional login).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Greek police bust massive looting operating

History Blog - Thu, 2016-10-06 22:54

Greek police have busted a large-scale criminal organization that trafficked in looted antiquities. More than 2,000 artifacts, most of them coins dating from as early as the 6th century B.C., were confiscated in the bust. There are 2024 coins, 126 assorted artifacts, the oldest of which is a marble Cycladic figurine from the 3rd millennium B.C. Other artifacts include gold jewelry, three gold plates weighing a total of 110 grams, bronze arrow tips, a bronze animal figurine, a glass vase, five Byzantine icons, a Byzantine cross, and two medieval statues of a male warrior and a woman which were found hidden in a well in Nemea.

Led by the police directorate in Patras, southwestern Greece, authorities investigated the operation for 14 months. More than 50 people are believed to have been part of the ring which ranged all over the country and covered every part of the traffic from illegal excavations to illegal export. The gang found artifacts by digging at or nearby known archaeological sites and by using satellite imagery to identify new potential sites. The worker bees would dig at night to avoid detection, and the leaders of the ring would then arranged for the sale of the artifacts by directly negotiating with auction houses and private buyers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK.

Thanks to extensive documentation found in the bust, police have the full receipts on who bought what when. The dirty auction houses, which Greek authorities are not naming because of laws protecting suspects from exposure before trial, not only knowingly ginned up bullshit ownership histories (heyo Swiss private collection!), they also conspired with the looters to artificially jack up the bids during live auctions to squeeze more money out of buyers and even went so far as to give these bastards tens of thousands of euros so they’d have the cash to buy black market artifacts, mainly coins, that they hadn’t themselves excavated.

Underscoring the wide range of the criminal conspiracy, police also found a cache of weapons — modern shotguns, rifles, pistols, air guns, bullets, a silencer, plus an antique pistol and antique swords — 21 metal detectors, 73 cellphones, 17 computers, currency measuring scales, piles of cash in euros, dollars and Kuwaiti dinars and counterfeit plates. But wait, there’s more! Seven cars and some cannabis, to be precise.

Two of the leaders of the gang, a 54-year-old father and 27-year-old son, were arrested Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border. Police found 946 ancient coins and 32 ancient artifacts hidden in the bumper of their car. Another 24 members of the gang were arrested as well. It seems this outfit has been operating for at least 10 years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restituted Egyptian mummy portraits for sale

History Blog - Wed, 2016-10-05 22:57

Two rare Egyptian mummy portraits with a dramatic history will be sold at Christie’s Antiquities auction in New York on October 25th. One is an encaustic on wood portrait of a woman, identifiable from her hairstyle (a single braid wrapped around her head) and earrings as dating to the 2nd century A.D.; the other, also encaustic on wood, is a portrait of a bearded man from the 2nd century A.D. The pre-sale estimate for the woman is $150,000-250,000, for the man $100,000-150,000.

They are being offered for sale by the Mosse Art Restitution Project which represents the heirs of Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), a German Jewish publisher and philanthropist who amassed an extensive collection of art and antiquities in his lifetime. The portraits were part of that collection, probably acquired thanks to his sponsorship of archaeological excavations by German Egyptologist Heinrich Karl Brugsch. Brugsch died in 1894, so if the portraits did come through him, they left Egypt legally in the 19th century which is not something you see every day with mummy portraits.

Mosse published the liberal newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt. After his death, his daughter Felicia’s husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse took over as publisher. When the Nazis came on the scene, the newspaper under editor-in-chief Theodor Wolff was heavily critical of them. Then came February 1933, the Reichstag fire and the quick series of legislative changes that instituted single party rule and suspended civil liberties. In the beginning of March, 1933, Hans Lachmann-Mosse succumbed to pressure to take Wolff off the masthead and drastically shift the direction of the paper to the political right. Wolff, who was Jewish (he was Rudolf Mosse’s cousin, in fact), liberal and the founder of one of the parties that would soon be outlawed, had already fled by then, taking off for Austria the day after the fire.

Hans’ efforts to go with the flow were wasted, of course. He and Felicia were forced to flee, leaving the great Mosse collection behind to be preyed upon by Nazi art gluttons. The collection was confiscated by the state and sold at auction. The Egyptian portraits were acquired by none other than Erich Maria Remarque, author of the classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Nazis hated Erich Maria Remarque. Even before the Nazi takeover of Germany, Joseph Goebbels excoriated Remarque’s novel and dispatched Hitler Youth to cause gross disruptions — releasing large numbers of mice, throwing stink bombs — in theaters showing the extremely popular and critically acclaimed Hollywood movie of the book. Remarque was derided as a crypto-Jew (he was Catholic from a long line of Catholics), a Marxist (he wasn’t even a leftist, just a pacifist) and a coward who hadn’t even seen combat in World War I (he was wounded on the Western Front, taking shrapnel in his leg, back and neck). Remarque’s books were officially banned on May 10th, 1933, just over two months after the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree that all but abolished civil liberties. He was burned in effigy in front of Berlin’s opera house, and his books were thrown on the great bonfire alongside those of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.

Remarque moved to his villa in Switzerland. His collection of art and Egyptian antiquities, now including the two Mosse mummy portraits, went with him. After his death in 1970, his collection passed to his wife Paulette Goddard-Remarque, famous in her own right as a silent movie actress and Charlie Chaplin’s ex-wife who starred in with him in Modern Times and, in a lovely middle finger to Hitler, in The Great Dictator. She sold the portraits to the University of Zurich. Researchers at the university identified them last year as having been part of the Mosse collection and they were restituted to the foundation.

This kind of deep background is unusual for mummy portraits, not just because there are celebrities involved, but because when they crop up in the market, they often have very little in the way of documented history. For instance, this exquisitely beautiful portrait of a woman from ca. 55-70 A.D. that sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $262,400 has a single line in the Provenance category: “Thierry Cambelong, Switzerland, 1970s.” It’s every art dealer’s favorite mythical Canadian girlfriend, the Swiss private collection vaguely dated to the 1970s so it won’t fall afoul of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Interestingly enough, if you Google “Thierry Cambelong,” all you get are four entries from antiquities auctions. This mummy portrait of a striking young man from ca. 80-140 A.D. has even less to go on in terms of ownership history. There is no provenance category at all, only a reference to it having been published in a 1999 book on Romano-Egyptian funerary art.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Pompeii house virtually reconstructed in 3D

History Blog - Tue, 2016-10-04 21:09

After the magnitude 6.9 Irpinia earthquake devastated Naples and its environs in 1980, damaging the ancient city of Pompeii, authorities invited international researchers to help thoroughly document the ruins. The Swedish Pompeii Project was founded in 2000 with the aim of recording and studying a full block of the city, Insula V 1. Since 2010, the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University has been working on the project, ushering in a new approach that combines archaeological finds, photographs and data recorded at the site and makes 3D models out of them.

“By combining new technology with more traditional methods, we can describe Pompeii in greater detail and more accurately than was previously possible”, says Nicoló Dell’Unto, digital archaeologist at Lund University.

Among other things, the researchers have uncovered floor surfaces from AD 79, performed detailed studies of the building development through history, cleaned and documented three large wealthy estates, a tavern, a laundry, a bakery and several gardens. In one garden, they discovered that some of the taps to a stunning fountain were on at the time of eruption – the water was still gushing when the rain of ash and pumice fell over Pompeii.

The researchers occasionally also found completely untouched layers. In a shop were three, amazingly enough, intact windows (made out of translucent crystalline gypsum) from Ancient Rome, stacked against each other. By studying the water and sewer systems they were able to interpret the social hierarchies at the time, and see how retailers and restaurants were dependent on large wealthy families for water, and how the conditions improved towards the end, before the eruption.

You can already peruse 3D models of the structures on the entire block on the Swedish Pompeii Project website, but they’re still a tad on the minimalist side at this point. One structure, however, the grand house of Caecilius Iucundus, has been virtually reconstructed in glorious detail. They recreated it as it was before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. laid waste to the city while simultaneously preserving it.

Here is a quick overview of the project and model:

Here is a quick walkthrough of the 3D reconstruction of the house:

And here is the money, a beautifully thorough 11-minute tour through the ruins and reconstruction of the house of Caecilius Iucundus:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2,200-year-old lease contract found on tablet in Turkey

History Blog - Mon, 2016-10-03 22:13

An archaeological excavation of the ancient Greek city of Teos on the west coast of modern-day Turkey has unearthed a marble tablet inscribed with an incredibly detailed leasing contract. The tablet was discovered west of the early 2nd century B.C. Temple of Dionysus, the largest temple to Dionysus in the ancient world which according to Vitruvius was built by famed Hellenistic architect Hermogenes of Priene. One of 400 tablets discovered at Teos (200 unearthed since 2010), the stele is five feet long and contains an impressive 58 lines of Greek text.

The inscription covers the minutiae of a lease on property in the city’s gymnasium. In ancient Greece, the gymnasium was an open-air facility for training for athletic contests like the Olympics and other public games, general physical education, scholarly disquisitions on and discussion of philosophy, art and literature. As all public games were religious festivals whose outcomes held portentous meaning to the participating cities, the gymnasia were usually carefully regulated by the local authorities.

The tablet illuminates the pivotal role played by the gymnasium in Teos as well as exploring previously unknown details about the city’s laws and social order. The gymnasium students, known as Neos, had inherited a substantial property from a resident of Teos. He donated his land, all of the buildings on it, the slaves attached to it and an altar to the Neos who were not kids, but citizens between the ages of 20 and 30. Of course maintenance of property, buildings, human chattel and religious shrines takes money, which the Neos didn’t have, so they had to rent the land in order to keep it.

Because of the altar on the land, the property was categorized as holy and therefore exempt from taxes. The Neos wanted use of the holy altar, so they included a codicil allowing them access to the altar three days in the year. They put the land up for auction — just for lease, not for sale — and it was rented to the highest bidder. The tablet records the name of the previous owner and of the lessor. One guarantor and six witnesses, three of them city administrators, were required to validate the agreement.

“This inscription reveals the structure of the Gymnasium and that the Neos were able to own a property. This is first and only example in the ancient world. Almost half of the inscription is filled with punishment forms. If the renter gives damage to the land, does not pay the annual rent or does not repair the buildings, he will be punished. The Neos also vow to inspect the land every year,” said [Professor Mustafa Adak, the head of Akdeniz University's Prehistoric Languages and Cultures Department].

“There are two particularly interesting legal terms used in the inscription, which large dictionaries have not up to now included. Ancient writers and legal documents should be examined in order to understand these words mean,” Adak said.

The Neos were citizens closely involved in the political life of the city. The renter would not have been wise to mess with them because all those punishments literally carved into stone could and certainly would be enforced.

I love that the legalese on the tablet retains its impenetrability even to experts in ancient languages 2,200 years after it was written.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Conservators dismantle 1830 Appleton pipe organ

History Blog - Sun, 2016-10-02 22:10

Boston-born Thomas Appleton was apprenticed to cabinet maker Elisha Larned when he was a youth, a trade that he would not pursue but that nonetheless taught him key skills for his true vocation. He switched to organ building in his early 20s, getting a job in the workshop of William Marcellus Goodrich in Templeton, Massachusetts, in 1807. Goodrich would become known as the father of organ building in New England and Appleton was an apt pupil. He went into business with piano makers Hayt and Alpheus Babcock in 1810, but the company went under in the economic recession following the War of 1812. Appleton’s collaborations with Goodrich from 1810 through 1820, on the other hand, were very successful. Together they built organs, pianos and claviorgans which dominated the Boston market. During the three decades Goodrich’s shop was in operation — 1803 to 1833 — only three organs were imported into Boston because he (and later he and Appleton) were able to fill the city’s considerable demand for high quality instruments.

Appleton struck out on his own again in 1821. Over the next two decades, he did what is generally held to be his best work. According to the Organ Historical Society, Appleton “brought the hand-made organ to the zenith of craftsmanship.” Thomas Appleton lived a long, fruitful life, dying in 1872 at age 87. During his lifetime, he built 35 organs for Boston churches and organizations, and more than 100 for other cities.

One of the latter was an organ he built in 1830, the only instrument he made that year, for South Church in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a two-manual organ with 836 pipes in sixteen ranks and an 18-note pedalboard. The façade pipes were covered in gold leaf and the instrument was cased in an extraordinary Greek Revival case 15 feet tall. The church replaced this majestic instrument with a larger model in 1854, moving the original somewhere else. It popped back up again in 1883, when it was acquired by the Sacred Heart Church in Plains, Pennsylvania. The installer, Emmons Howard, added nine notes to the pedalboard at that time.

The Appleton pipe organ was used in the Plains church until it was replaced by an electronic organ decades ago. The church thankfully did nothing at all to the Appleton instrument and it was left to gather dust in the rear gallery. That’s where it was, all but obscured by clutter, when a young organ buff happened upon it in 1980. He alerted Alan Laufman of the Organ Clearing House, an organization founded by the Organ Historical Society to rescue endangered pre-electric organs, who recognized it as the very special instrument it is. The date “1830″ inside the case made it clear that this was the organ Appleton built for South Church, now the earliest surviving Appleton pipe organ.

Two years later, the organ was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of no more than four two-manual Appleton organs known to survive, this one was the earliest and the only one with ironclad documentation identifying it as an Appleton. It had some condition issues after so many decades of neglect — cracks in the air reservoir, dried leather on the bellows, plywood nailed to some of the mahogany veneer surfaces, bad paint jobs on others, a few broken pipes — but nothing but a few stopknob labels, a few of the keyboard ivories and bits of the moldings were missing. The giant hand-pump handle was still there. Even the initials of the choir boys tasked with pumping it were found carved on the back of the case.

Organ expert Lawrence Trupiano was tasked with restoring the organ, an exacting job to be sure, but at least there was nothing to rebuild, no modern pieces needed to replace broken or unusable origins. He regilded the façade pipes, fixed the broken pipes, renewed the mahogany case and brought it back to its original splendor. Laurence Libin, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of musical instruments, described it as “the finest and best preserved and possibly the largest early 19th-century American instrument still intact.”

The restored Appleton pipe organ was installed in the equestrian court of the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments at the Met in 1983. Since then it has been played regularly for gallery visitors and special events. In February of this year, the André Mertens Galleries closed for refurbishment. The Met took the opportunity to do some conservation work on the organ. Over the course of three weeks, the Appleton pipe organ was completely dismantled, under the hawkeyed supervision of Lawrence Trupiano. Its needs will be seen to and it will be back in place for the reopening of the gallery in 2017.

Meanwhile, enjoy this time-lapse video of the dismantling process which serves some hardcore reverse-IKEA realness accompanied by the strains of Louis Vierne’s “Divertissement” from 24 Pièces en style libre, Op. 31, performed on the Appleton organ by Paolo Bordignon on November 4th, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History