Arts and Sciences

Well that was horrific

History Blog - Sat, 2017-02-11 10:33

You may have noticed your trusty blog about history has not been so trusty the past couple of days. A server update is apparently the culprit. The site went down Thursday afternoon and we’ve been struggling ever since to get it back. Finally the planets aligned and we are back. Buggy and error-riddled, but I’ll take it for now while we iron out the kinks.

The trauma of the last few days has only underscored how desperately important it is that I upgrade the software of this site. It’s ancient and all kinds of features are broken because of it. Perpetually perched on the razor’s edge of functionality, it can fail at the least provocation. That means we’re going to have to say goodbye to my old-fashioned theme and the blog will look completely different. As history nerds tend to like old-fashioned things, I’ve dragged my feet to avoid having to make so big a change. Time to face facts.

I’m so sorry for the outage. Real post coming up.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

New Harriet Tubman photo found in 1860s album

History Blog - Thu, 2017-02-09 00:59

A previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman has been found in a carte-de-visite album compiled in the 1860s. She is seated, immaculately clad in a gingham skirt and dark shirt with gathered sleeves. It was taken shortly after the Civil War, between 1865 and 1868, and captures a younger, less care-worn Harriet than she is usually pictured.

[Historian and Tubman biographer Dr. Kate Clifford] Larson said that in her 20 years of researching Tubman, she’s been sent dozens of photos of black women by people claiming to have discovered a new image of the soon-to-be face of the $20 bill. But not one has actually depicted Tubman, Larson said.

On the other hand, she continued, she knew it was Tubman in Swann Galleries’ photo as soon as she saw it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind about the provenance of the photo and that it is Tubman,” she said. “I had never run across it.”

The album belonged to Emily Howland, an abolitionist and educator from a prominent Quaker family in Sherwood, New York, whose childhood home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. She taught at schools for free blacks in the late 1850s, and during the Civil War taught freed slaves and the children of slaves to read and write in the contraband camps of Union-occupied Virginia. After the war she donated land and founded dozens of freedmen’s schools in multiple states.

Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 when she was in her 20s and spent the next two decades dedicated to the abolitionist cause in the most dangerous, hands-on way. She personally risked her life returning to Maryland no fewer than 13 times to free 70 of her families members and other slaves, guiding them up north over the Underground Railroad to safety, which after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the north almost as terrifying a place for escaped slaves as the south, often meant Ontario. Abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses” because she led her people out of slavery. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was a Union Army scout, spy and guide of the successful Union raid on Combahee Ferry, South Carolina, which liberated 750 slaves. After the war, she worked several jobs to support her family, gave extensively to charity though she had very little, and was a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage.

Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, in 1859 where she bought land from Senator William Henry Seward, future Secretary of State under Lincoln and engineer of the Alaska purchase under Johnson. The Sewards were part of a tightly knit network of abolitionists in Cayuga County, Emily Howland among them, and Harriet and Emily soon met. They became life-long friends, and worked together in the suffragist movement. Harriet Tubman died in 1913 at around 90 years of age. Emily Howland lived to cast her first vote in the 1920 election at the age of 92 after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She lived almost another decade after that, passing away in 1929 at the age of 102.

The album has 44 pictures of prominent figures, including two of Tubman (the other is a very well-known full-length portrait of Harriet standing with her hands on a roll-back chair taken by Harvey B. Lindsley in the early to mid-1870s) and one of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress in 1868. He would have represented Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district had he ever been seated, but his opponent, Caleb Hunt, lodged a challenge contesting Menard’s right to be seated which was ultimately decided by the full House of Representatives in neither’s favor. The black man was too black and the other guy didn’t even bother to show up, so they voted both of them down and left the seat vacant.

The new photograph goes under the hammer at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City on March 30th. The carte-de-visite album will be sold in its entirety, including the pictures of Tubman and John Willis Menard. The pre-sale estimate is $20,000 to $30,000.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen Van Goghs on display before going home

History Blog - Wed, 2017-02-08 00:53

The two early oil paintings by Vincent Van Gogh stolen from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2002 and recovered in Italy last fall will be heading home next month. When the announcement that the paintings had been found was released last September, it wasn’t clear when they would be returning to Amsterdam. As evidence in a complex international drug trafficking trial, the artworks could have been tied up in Italy’s Bleak House-slow court system for years. Italian authorities took quick action, however, and on January 19th, a judge in Naples released the paintings from attachment, freeing them to be returned to the Netherlands.

In gratitude for the efforts of the Guardia di Finanza, the financial police who spearheaded the raid on the apartment of drug trafficker Raffaele Imperiale the village of Castellammare di Stabia and discovered the stolen paintings in the basement, other law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and people of Naples, Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), have gone on display at the Capodimonte Museum for a short exhibition before their homecoming. The paintings went on public view for the first time in 14 years on Tuesday. The show ends on February 26th.

Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum: “It is really a miracle that the paintings, which since 2002 were thought to have vanished from the face of the earth, have been found. The efforts of so many people have made the impossible possible. The fact that these two Van Goghs are again on public display after fourteen years calls for a celebration worthy of the occasion. As a ‘grazie mille’ for the efforts of all those involved in Italy in the recovery of the artworks, they are first being shown to the public in the region where they were found. Afterwards, our Van Goghs will return home, where a festive welcome awaits them and our visitors can once more admire them in the Van Gogh Museum. I cannot tell you how happy I am!”

The discovery of the paintings has inspired an upsurge of Van Gogh love in Naples. Vincenzo De Luca, the President of the Campania region, asked Joep Wijnands, the Dutch ambassador to Italy, to help arrange a new Van Gogh exhibition at the Capodimonte Museum. He also said they’re working on a loan of Van Gogh’s iconic The Starry Night, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That’s a lofty goal. The Starry Night has never been loaned to an Italian museum before.

The case raises an interesting question on the wider issue of art crime. This article quotes Giorgio Toschi, general with the Guardia di Finanza:

“More than ever we are seeing art works being used by criminals either as safe haven investments or as a way of making payments or guaranteeing deals between organized criminal groups,” he said at the unveiling of the two paintings on Monday.

This is the first I’ve heard of extremely valuable and recognizable artworks being used as a kind of black market currency in the criminal underworld. It’s fascinating. The most popular explanation, that major paintings are stolen on commission by shadowy private collectors in volcano lairs, almost never seems to pan out. When the paintings are found, they’ve been stashed in barns or sheds or moved all over the place because volcano lairs aside, it’s actually really, really hard to unload a world-famous painting whose theft made international news. It’s always seemed more likely to me that the most of the time thieves have no idea they’ll be saddled with unsaleable goods. Organized crime networks, on the other hand, are hardly cash-poor, so they don’t have to scrounge for buyers. Whether it moves or not, a Van Gogh is still worth tens of millions of dollars. Using it as a marker or a pension fund makes perfect sense.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Science reveals Selden Map’s secrets

History Blog - Tue, 2017-02-07 00:16

New research has discovered a fascinating hidden history of the Selden Map, the oldest surviving merchant map in the world. About 60 inches long and 40 inches wide, the map was drawn in ink and hand-painted with watercolors between 1607 and 1619. It plots 18 trade routes in an area of East Asia bounded by Siberia to the north, the Spice Islands to the south, Japan to the east and southern India and Burma to the west. At the top of a map is a compass labeled in Chinese characters to indicate the orientation of the map. The routes all start from the port city of Quanzhou in China’s southern Fujian province, which at the time this map was drawn in the late Ming Dynasty was a major shipping hub for trade between Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

By an unclear route, in the 17th century the map made its way into the possession of an English lawyer, avid Orientalist and collector named John Selden (1584–1654). He valued the map so highly that he granted it its own line-item in his 1653 will: “a Mapp of China made there fairly and done in colloure together with a Sea Compasse of their making and Devisione taken both by an englishe commander.” Selden bequeathed it to the Bodleian and it entered the collection in 1659. The Bodleian’s inventory note described it as “A very odd mapp of China. Very large, & taken from Mr. Selden’s.”

The “very odd” map was often put on display, unfortunately to its detriment, but it fell out of fashion in the 18th century after famed astronomer Edmond Halley declared it cartographically inaccurate. In 1919, the Selden Map was mounted on a linen backing so it could hung on the wall. This would have disastrous consequences. The fabric backing stiffened over time, distorting and cracking the fragile paper, and its brittle condition was exacerbated by being kept rolled up. In the 1970s conservators noted the map’s dire condition, but decades would pass before the conservation issues were addressed.

In 2008, Robert Batchelor, a professor of British and Asian history at Georgia Southern University, sought out the Selden Map. He identified two features on the map which made it unique compared to all other known historic Chinese maps: 1) it’s not a map of China, and 2) the shipping routes plotted from Quanzhou. China was placed in the center of other maps, but in this one it’s just one of many countries around the South China Sea that traded with each other. The shipping routes marked it as the earliest example of Chinese merchant cartography, commissioned by traders, not the imperial court. It also contravenes the received wisdom that China was isolated from the rest of the world during this period. Its merchants were still doing plenty of business.

Batchelor’s research spurred a new conservation and restoration plan. This time conservators took their time, researching past interventions to determine what parts of the map were original and which later alterations, if any, should be kept. They decided to keep a border added the map in the late 17th century because of its historically significant Latin annotations. The linen backing and earlier patching attempts were removed. The restored map was digitized and put online.

The restoration gave researchers the opportunity to learn more about this mysterious cartographical rarity. It was examined with remote multispectral imaging technology which revealed parts of the map invisible to the naked eye. They way the map was drawn, the materials used to make it,

The researchers found the binding medium used for the map was gum Arabic, a gum made from the sap of the acacia tree – typically used by European, south and west Asians – and not animal glue, which was almost always used in Chinese paintings at the time.

Examinations of the pigment used found a mixture of indigo with orpiment, a yellow mineral – rather than gamboge, a yellow dye – to make a green colour, which is also very unusual for a painting in China in this period. And the detection of a basic copper chloride in the green areas suggests an influence from south and west Asia, where it was often used in manuscripts. This green pigment was not typically used in paper-based paintings from China.

The binders and pigments used are more consistent with those found in manuscripts from a Persian or Indo-Persian tradition –and the Islamic world – than the European or Chinese, the researchers state.

Detailed examination even found instances where the cartographer made alterations – some stylistic, others unintentional, and some made as the cartographer’s knowledge of a certain area developed. The scientists were able to identify that the trade routes were laid down before the land was drawn in.

They believe that the cartographer did not plan the full map from the beginning, which was why they had to redraw some of the routes many times – and why they ran out of space at the southern and western points of the map, forcing the trade routes to be off the compass directions. Two trade routes were drawn without their corresponding compass directions, suggesting the map was unfinished.

As a result of this new evidence, the research team proposes that the map was drawn not in China, but in Aceh on the island of Sumatra.

It is the most westerly port in south east Asia marked on the map and has the longest history of the presence of Islam in south east Asia, as well as a long history of Chinese contact.

It is also one of only six ports on the map marked with a red circle – possibly indicating the main trading network of the map’s owner – and is the only port marked on the map to have a magnetic declination in the early 17th Century closest to that indicated by the tilt of the map’s compass rose.

The new research has been published in the journal Heritage Science and can be read in its entirety free of charge here.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost songs of Holocaust survivors found

History Blog - Mon, 2017-02-06 00:43

Lost recordings made just after World War II of Holocaust survivors singing songs have been rediscovered at the University of Akron. These recordings were part of a project by Dr. David Boder, a Latvian Jewish psychologist who had settled in the United States in the 1920s and quickly made a name for himself in academia and as a clinician. He became an American citizen in 1932, but he traveled regularly to Europe and kept in touch with his family until the war disrupted movement and communications.

In May of 1945, just days after the Allies accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender, Boder got the idea to interview displaced persons, Holocaust survivors, victims of the dislocations and horrors of World War II. His aim was first to get a record of victims’ experiences while it was all still painfully fresh. It was important to him to ensure Americans understood fully what had happened to people, how they managed to survive in ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps and on the run hiding in forests or barns or wherever shelter was to be found. He hoped that disseminating their stories would generate public support for immigration of war refugees to the US. Also, as a psychologist, he had a broader interest in how people cope with great trauma, a subject he would continue to investigate throughout his professional life.

His plans took a while to come to fruition. Financing the trip, securing the necessary permits to travel through occupied Western Europe delayed his plans for more than a year. Finally in July 1946, he arrived in Paris and dove right in to the project. Using what was then bleeding-edge technology, a wire recorder, Border spent the summer at 16 different locations in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, interviewing 130 displaced persons — mainly Jews, but also 21 non-Jews — in nine languages. The recordings, which included religious services and songs as well as interviews, took up 200 spools of steel wire. Border’s interviews are the earliest extant recordings of Holocaust oral histories today.

David Boder died in 1961. His archives, including the 1946 wire reels, were dispersed among several different institutions. In 1967, 48 spools of Boder’s wire recordings entered the collection of the University of Akron’s Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology. They were fully inventoried at the time. Most of the other recordings mentioned in Boder’s writings were at UCLA or were rediscovered in the Library of Congress and the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1990s. There was one spool Boder listed that was missing, however. It was songs song in Yiddish and German by Holocaust survivors recorded at a refugee camp in Henonville, France.

Despite years of attempts, researchers at the University of Akron had not been able to play the wire reels. They had some old wire recorders, but they either weren’t compatible or couldn’t be repaired without a major overhaul of the original parts, which is far from ideal, obviously, from a historical preservation perspective. Finally they were able to find one on eBay which they repaired with new and cannibalized parts from other machines. With their new/old Frankenrecorder, the research team was able to convert the spools to digital format.

The digitization project was underway when they found one spool in a tin box that had been inventoried as “Heroville Songs.” It was a mistake. The label on the box actually said “Henonville Songs.” It was the long-lost spool. UA multimedia specialist Jon Endres digitized the song recordings and was the first to hear those haunting voices in decades. You can read his blog entry about the discovery here.

The team shared the digitized content with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where experts translated the songs, five in Yiddish, one in German, and explained the background.

For [Cummings Center executive director David] Baker, hearing the recording for the first time was exceptionally moving. “There was a Holocaust survivor, after 70 years, singing to us,” he says. “Obviously we had a lot of questions.”

Some of Baker’s questions were soon answered. The singer was Guta Frank, and [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum musicologist Bret] Werb knew her history. Frank was a Polish Jew who fled from one ghetto to another with her family for four years. Parents and siblings were killed along the way, and she and her sister finally ended up at a forced labor munitions camp outside Czestochowa, Poland. Her sister left behind a memoir, which can be read online.

Werb also provided Baker with a translation of the songs Frank sang to Boder. One, called, “Our Town is Burning,” is a well-known song often performed at Holocaust commemorations. Written shortly before the war broke out, the song calls out the complacency of bystanders watching a town burn and doing nothing to help.

But Frank’s version was different from the standard rendition of that song. She sang: “The Jewish people are burning.” On the recording, Frank tells Boder that the composer’s daughter sang the song in the basements of the Krakow ghetto to inspire people to rebel against the Germans.

A second song sung by Frank was the official song of the labor camp where she was held. Camp commanders encouraged the inmates to sing such songs on their way to work. “They liked it,” says Werb. The lyrics were long known, but the melody had never been heard before. “It’s sung by someone who must have been there,” says Werb.

Here are a selection of clips from the Henonville Songs spool. The first is Dr. Boder’s introduction which explains the interviews are taking place at the Henonville camp. The other three are song clips, the last of which is “Our Camp Stands At The Forest’s Edge,” the song inmates were forced to sing for their commanders’ enjoyment.

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Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Large Roman mosaic floor found in Leicester

History Blog - Sun, 2017-02-05 00:28

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) have discovered a large Roman mosaic pavement at a construction site in Leicester. The property on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way has been excavated since November and already archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a Roman street, two other buildings and an elegant villa with mosaic floors. Highcross Street today runs along the path of the Roman road that went from the Roman forum to the north gate of the city. The excavation site covers almost two-thirds of a Roman insula, or city block, which gives archaeologists an incredibly rare view into a cross-section of Roman Leicester.

The Roman house with the mosaic was unearthed on the east side of the site next to the John Lewis parking lot. At least three of its rooms had mosaic floors. One of them has a particularly large extant section about two meters (6.6 feet) by three meters (9.8 feet) in size. Archaeologists estimate this surviving section is about a quarter of the size of the original mosaic. It is the largest Roman mosaic pavement found in Leicester in last 30 years.

Mathew Morris, site director for ULAS, said: “The mosaic is fantastic, it’s been a long time since we’ve found a large, well-preserved mosaic in Leicester. Stylistically, we believe it dates to the early fourth century AD. It would have originally been in a square room in the house. It has a thick border of red tiles surrounding a central square of grey tiles. Picked out in red in the grey square are several decorations, including a geometric border, foliage and a central hexafoil cross. The intricate geometric border follows a pattern known as ‘swastika-meander’. The swastika is an ancient symbol found in most world cultures, and it is a common geometrical motif in Roman mosaics, created by laying out the pattern on a repeating grid of 4 by 4 squares. As part of the project, our plan is to lift and conserve it for future display.”

Another large Roman dwelling was found on the western side of the site. It has two sets of rooms along a corridor with a central courtyard. There are no mosaic floors, but there is a hypocaust system in one of the rooms which means heated flooring or a private bathing facility. This was likely a townhouse, and indeed a very similar townhouse was discovered on nearby Vine Street underneath the John Lewis lot in 2006.

The third Roman building is smaller. It was found in the center of the site and has a peculiar feature: a large sunken room, possibly a cellar. There may be an apse on one side of the sunken room. Archaeologists don’t know what this building was used for or what the purpose of the sunken room may have been. They are a rare feature in Roman architecture.

Mathew Morris added: “At the moment there is a lot of speculation about what this building might be. It could be a large hypocaust but we are still investigating. It seems to be tucked away in yards and gardens in the middle of the insula, giving it privacy away from the surrounding streets; and the possible apse is only really big enough to house something like a statue, which makes us wonder if it is something special like a shrine.”

Developers plan to build apartments on the property, but they are working with ULAS to determine how to construct the new building without destroying ny significant archaeological materials underneath the surface. They’ve removed rubble and soil accumulated from the Victorian era to now to reveal where the Roman and medieval remains are. Archaeologists and architects will collaborate on the ideal placement of the foundations of the new building to ensure remains are either left unmolested in situ or excavated and raised before construction. Most of the archaeology will remain in place under the new building.

The excavation is scheduled to continue through at least February. No medieval structures have been unearthed thus far, but in the 12th century Leicester’s first hospital, St Johns’ Hospital, was founded on the site. The medieval town goal was also there, so archaeologists are hoping to find at least some evidence of these important buildings.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

18th c. pagoda clock automaton enchants at auction

History Blog - Sat, 2017-02-04 00:26

An exquisite 18th century English-made automaton musical clock in the shape of a multi-tiered pagoda sold for just shy of a million dollars ($998,250) at Fontaine’s in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, last month.

Magnificent English made bronze pagoda form automaton table clock, sits on a large black wood base with an engraved chessboard pattern brass top. 5 in. painted metal dials on the front and both sides with Roman hour numerals; 8 day double fusee chain movement, quarter striking on 2 bells and drives 3 dials including sweep seconds on the front dial. The time movement triggers the automaton mechanism once every 2 hours. The heavy bronze case has elegant color paste set jewels around the bezel and at the floral corner spandrels; each side of the upper tiers is gold gilded with silver doorways, pearl studded roof tops with hanging corner bells[....]

The large and powerful double fusee chain automaton movement is responsible for both raising and lowering the pagoda tower in a controlled manner as well as playing 2 different tunes on a nest of 8 bells, including Chinese folk song, Mo Li Hua, which has been popular since before the 18th century in both China and abroad. The pagoda animates every 2 hours, corresponding to the 12 hour Chinese zodiac time system as well as the music, which also plays every 2 hours accompanying the automation of the pagoda.

Produced for the Chinese Qing Imperial Court, the automaton’s striking design was based on the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, aka, the Temple of Repaid Gratitude, a pagoda built in the 15th century by order of the Yongle emperor (r. 1402–1424), third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Construction began in 1413 in the imperial capital of Nanjing (then Nanking) and took almost 20 years to complete. Built on an octagonal base, the tower had nine tiers topped with a pineapple-shaped brass sphere. The pagoda soared to a total height of 260 feet. A spiral staircase inside the structure had 184 steps to the top.

It wasn’t the tallest pagoda in the empire, but its white porcelain bricks, decorated with animals, flowers, Buddhist motifs and landscapes in a multi-colored glazes made it the most striking. Bells hung from every corner of every tier, strung from chains connected to roof finials. When the wind blew, their dulcet tones could be heard for miles. It was widely considered the most beautiful of all the pagodas in China, and visitors from the West showered it with praise. Many classified it as one of the (post-medieval) Seven Wonders of the World.

The reports of the wonderous Nanjing tower launched a trend of pagoda construction in 18th century Europe. The fashion for Chinoiserie had exploded, and with pagodas it went big. Kew Gardens in London got itself a pagoda in 1762. The nobility had pagoda follies built on their estates. Smaller versions were popular for interior decoration.

There’s an elaborate nine-foot-high porcelain model of a pagoda in the Victoria & Albert Museum thought to be a replica of the Porcelain Tower. It’s not an exact copy — there are different numbers of tiers and the base is hexagonal — but the polychrome porcelain tiles, animal and plant decorations and the bells hanging from the roof finials and the brass sphere topping the tower identify its inspiration.

The model was made in the first 15 years in the 19th century and was bought by the then-Prince of Wales for the Royal Pavilion, Prince George’s splendid Indo-Saracenic Revival seaside estate at Brighton. Records in the Royal Archive indicate the pagoda was one of six bought by the prince between 1806 and 1816. George’s gluttony for porcelain pagodas is evidence of how extremely fashionable they were at this time, and the archives confirm that they were very expensive, luxurious objects.

The Porcelain Tower was by lightning in 1801 but was repaired. It could not survive the Taiping Rebellion, sadly. In March of 1853, the Taiping took Nanjing. The tower didn’t have much of a chance with the rebels targeting Buddhist iconography and imperial symbols, both of which it incarnated. First to go was the inner staircase, which the Taiping rebels destroyed ostensibly to keep enemy fighters from using the tower as a spying post. Three years later in 1856, the rebels razed it to the ground. Now the replicas, inspired-bys and this fantastic automaton is all we have left of the original.

View this video full screen to see the automaton’s amazing movement at the beginning and around the 1:30 mark.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ashmolean secures Alfred the Great hoard

History Blog - Fri, 2017-02-03 00:33

The Ashmolean Museum has raised the £1.35 million ($1.7 million) needed to acquire the Watlington Hoard. Discovered on October 7th, 2015, by retired advertising executive and metal detector hobbyist James Mather in Watlington, Oxfordshire, the mixed hoard of Saxon coins and Viking jewelry and ingots is modest in size but grand in historical significance.

James Mather’s cautious, archaeology-focused approach to metal detecting played a large part in preserving the hoard’s integrity. He first found an oval silver bar that he recognized as a Viking ingot similar to ones he’d seen in museums. Digging a few inches under the surface he found a small group of silver pennies. He realized he had a hoard on his hands, but instead of digging it all up, he reburied what he’d already exposed and alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme. PAS archaeologist David Williams raised the hoard in a soil block so it could be excavated in laboratory conditions.

First the block was X-rayed to provide a roadmap of the artifacts within and where they were located in the thick clay soil. Conservator Pippa Pearce painstakingly excavated the contents of the hoard. The final count was almost 200 coins, some of them fragments, seven pieces of jewelry — three silver bangles, probably arm rings, and four broken silver — and 15 silver ingots. A tiny scrap of twisted gold is the first gold ever discovered in a Viking hoard in Britain.

But the wee bit of gold is overshadowed by the significance of the coins. The hoard contains 13 examples of an extremely rare coin type known as the ‘Two Emperors’ penny which show King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871–899) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874–ca.879) enthroned next to each other under a winged Victory or an angel. Only two examples of these pennies were known before the discovery of the hoard, and both of those were struck in the same year. The coins in the Watlington Hoard were struck in different mints over several years. This is huge news because it proves that Alfred and Ceolwulf II were allies who worked closely together, at least on issuing currency, for years.

It’s a revelation compared to the very little information that has come down to us about Ceolwulf. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history commissioned by Alfred the Great, dismisses the King of Mercia as “an unwise king’s thane,” who was placed on the throne of Mercia by the Vikings as a puppet. The evidence of the coins suggests Alfred erased their alliance from the history books.

In February of 2016, the Oxfordshire coroner declared the hoard Treasure after which the Treasure Valuation Committee assessed its value a £1.35 million. Since local museums are given first crack at purchasing archaeological treasures found in the area, the Ashmolean began a campaign to raise the money before the January 31st deadline. They went a long way towards achieving their goal last October when the received a grant of £1.05 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The Art Fund contributed another £150,000 and more than 700 private individuals contributed the rest. The museum reached its £1.35 million target just days before the deadline.

The Watlington Hoard will now go on display in the Ashmolean’s England Gallery along with another Alfred the Great treasure, the Alfred Jewel, a teardrop-shaped piece of rock crystal (likely recycled Roman jewelry) encasing an allegorical or saintly figure in multi-colored cloisonné enamel. On the side of the gold filigree frame is inscribed “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN,” meaning “Alfred ordered me to be made.” It’s one of the most popular, if not the most popular, exhibits in the museum, and it’s one of the only surviving objects directly associated with King Alfred. It will make an ideal companion for the hoard which has rewritten the history of Alfred’s reign.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Well-preserved Roman shipwreck found off Mallorca

History Blog - Thu, 2017-02-02 00:31

A Roman shipwreck from the 3rd or 4th century A.D. has been discovered next to the island of Cabrera just south of Mallorca, Spain. Dubbed Cabrera XIV, the wreck is in untouched condition, preserved where it fell for almost 2000 years. Archaeologists Sebastià Munar and Javier Rodríguez Pandozi of the Balearic Institute of Studies in Marine Archeology (IBEAM) describe the find as “the best preserved wreck of the Balearic Islands and, most likely, one of the best preserved in the western Mediterranean.”

“As far as we know, this is the first time that a completely unaltered wreck has been found in Spanish waters,” says Javier Rodríguez, one of the marine archeologists who participated in the exploration and documentation of the remains of the ship, describing it as an “architectural jewel.”

The difficult-to-reach location and the fact the waters are part of a National Park have been key factors in the preservation of the vessel.

The ship was found in waters 70 meters (230 feet) deep in April 2016 after fishermen reporting pulling up some amphora fragments in their nets at that location. IBEAM scouted the site with a robot. The robot’s images revealed a vast mound of amphorae covering 50 feet of the seabed. In October, human divers dove the site, exploring and photographing in greater detail and at the level of the wreck itself. They took more than 2,000 pictures of the site from all angles which allowed experts to determine its size and orientation.

The ship was 20 meters (65 feet) long and carried a cargo of between 1,000 and 2,000 amphorae. Most of them were made in North Africa and are about one meter (3.3 feet) high. The rest were smaller and made in the south of the Iberian peninsula. Both types of jars carried garum, the sauce made from fermented fish intestines that the Romans put on everything.

Archaeologists believe the ship was transporting garum along a trade route between North Africa and Spain with stops in Gaul and Rome. When the ship sank in antiquity, it capsized on the sea floor. The amphora field covered the ship’s hull, preserving it as an oval mound about 15 meters (50 feet) long and 10 meters (33 feet) wide. With the cargo still in the position it landed in after the wreck, archaeologists are optimistic that there may be surviving timbers from the boat preserved underneath the amphorae.

The discovery was kept under wraps until last Friday to keep looters and sightseers from interfering with site. Now that the news is out, the authorities will police and secure the wreck to ensure it is not looted or inadvertently damaged.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare Han treasures at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum

History Blog - Wed, 2017-02-01 00:59

A new exhibition opening next month at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty will display 160 artifacts discovered in recent archaeological digs of Han dynasty tombs. Very few of these objects have never left China, and this is the show’s only US stop. The exhibition opens on February 17th and runs until May 28th, so don’t dally in making your way there.

The rule of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) is considered the first Chinese golden age, a period of relative peace and great economic prosperity in which the arts, sciences and trades flourished. Most of what we know of the Han emperors and their courts comes from ancient chroniclers, but they tend to focus on major events — wars, diplomacy, political intrigue — paying little attention to the daily lives even of the rich and royal. Because Han nobles built large tomb complexes with multiple rooms filled with every necessity and luxury to ensure their high standard of living would carry over into the afterlife, objects discovered in tombs lend unique insight into the day-to-day of Han dynasty monarchs, their families, functionaries and courtiers.

Most of the artifacts in the exhibition were unearthed from the mausoleum of Liu Fei in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Liu Fei was the son of Emperor Jing of Han (r. 157–141 B.C.). He ruled the valuable fiefdom Jiangdu from 153 B.C. until his death in 127 B.C. He was interred a vast tomb complex of almost 2.7 MILLION square feet that included the tombs of his wives, concubines and attendants, plus weapons and chariot pits. The tomb was discovered on Dayun Mountain in 2009. Even though it had been looted repeatedly since antiquity, the floors of the outer chambers collapsed early enough in the tomb’s existence to preserve artifacts stored in the chambers below. Archaeologists found more than 10,000 artifacts crammed into storage rooms.

The exhibition is divided into three galleries. The first, Everlasting happiness without end, displays objects that reveal the kinds of entertainment enjoyed in Han dynasty palaces: music, dancing, food, wine. Artifacts include musical instruments, most notably a set of bronze bells and stone chimes that would have been used only on formal court occasions, smoke-eating lamps to keep the party going well into the night and ceramic dancers captured in dynamic movement. Containers used to prepare and eat food held offerings that would nourish the Han ruler in the afterlife had ritual significance in tombs, and elegant dinnerware like jade cups, bronze bowls and tables inlaid with gold and gemstones ensured their heavenly food would be eaten in the high style to which they had become accustomed.

The second, Eternal life without limit, is set in a tomb-like space and features artifacts used to prepare the deceased for the afterlife and to prevent the decay of the flesh. There are medical implements and divination tools, but jade is the star player here. It was used in Chinese burials long before the Han dynasty (or any dynasty at all, for that matter) because it was considered to have the power to prevent the decay of the flesh. The Han took jade funerary artifacts to new heights. They believed that people had two souls, one that went straight to heaven after death, the other that stayed in the body. To keep the latter safe inside an intact body, the dead were covered in jade. Jade plugs were placed in all orifices and jade masks on the face. If the deceased was of high enough rank — emperor, king, important nobles — the body would be put in a suit made from hundreds of jade scales. An exquisite jade suit from the tomb of Queen Lian, Liu Fei’s second and likely favorite wife, is a highlight of this gallery.

The theme of the third gallery is Enduring remembrance without fail. It explores the private, personal spaces of Han palaces, exhibiting objects from people’s bedrooms and bathrooms. Artifacts in this gallery include personal hygiene and grooming tools, a silver bath basin, incense burners, lacquer cosmetics boxes and sex toys. There are gifts from kings to their wives and lovers — silver belt hooks, a bronze mirror, a jade pendant — identifiable as such from inscriptions. There’s even an earthenware model of a toilet from the 2nd century B.C. found in 1995 in the tomb of the King of Chu dug into Jiangsu’s Tuolan Mountain.

I’d like to conclude with a special note of thanks to Zac Rose of the Asian Art Museum for the beautiful photographs and wealth of information he was kind enough to share with me. I’ve written about ancient Chinese tomb discoveries before, and I would have written about more of them had there been any remotely usable pictures. There’s no relief once artifacts are in museums either, since most Chinese museums don’t have detailed pictures of their collection online. Getting such spectacular high resolution shots of recently excavated artifacts from Han tombs is an incredibly rare treat and I’m so grateful.

And now, even more pictures!

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

George Washington’s field tent stands again

History Blog - Tue, 2017-01-31 00:37

George Washington’s Headquarters Tent was his most consistent office, following him on campaigns for almost the entire duration of the Revolutionary War. He slept there (for real this time!), planned battles, wrote letters, met with his staff and visitors. Washington’s portable headquarters was kept in the family with many other artifacts from his service in the Revolutionary War for generations. It was the Civil War that wrested it from the family. The tent belonged to Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Robert E. Lee. After her husband resigned his commission in the United States Army on April 20th, 1861, he set out for Richmond within days, leaving Mary behind at Arlington House in Alexandria, Virginia, the estate she’d inherited from her father George Washington Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s grandson).

She, like many on both sides, was sure the war would be over in a matter of months. Mary planned to ride out the short-lived hostilities in the comfort and safety of her home. That fantasy was shattered in less than a month. With the Union troops rapidly approaching, Mary Custis Lee packed a small selection of family treasures, including as many pieces of her Washington collection as she could carry. The headquarters tent and other marquees (she had several Washington tents) were too large to pack, so she locked them in the cellar and gave the keys to her elderly slave Selina Gray. She left Arlington House on May 15, 1861. Union troops occupied it on May 24th, confiscating the Washington field tents and other artifacts. Arlington House became the headquarters of Union General Irvin McDowell and the 1,000-acre plantation became a camp for 14,000 Union soldiers. Mary would never again return to her beloved family home. After the war, the Arlington House plantation was turned into the Arlington National Cemetery.

Meanwhile, the cellar key was burning a hole in Selina Gray’s pocket. McDowell was sympathetic to Mary Custis Lee — he wrote her a very kind letter promising to help safeguard her home — and had the utmost respect for her illustrious ancestry, but as the war dragged on into the end of 1861, he was increasingly unable to keep his restive troops from breaking into the house and pocketing any valuables they could find. When Gray saw that the cellar had been broken into and some of the Washington objects were missing, she told McDowell everything. She told him how historically significant these treasures were, gave him the key and a list of the missing artifacts.

With no realistic way to keep his men from stealing the house blind by dribs and dabs, McDowell wrote to his bosses in Washington that Arlington House was no longer safe “for the preservation of anything that is known to have an historical interest small or great.” In January of 1862, the tents and all other remaining pieces of the Washington patrimony were sent to the Patent Office in Washington where they went on display within two weeks in an exhibition organized by former Congressman Caleb Lyon called Captured at Arlington. Lyon had visited with the Lees before the war, and he personally saw to the packing, shipping, inventorying and installation of the tents in the Patent Office’s main exhibition hall.

The tents remained on display at the Patent Office for almost 20 years. The disastrous 1877 fire which destroyed 80,000 patent models and 300,000 drawings raised concerns about the safety of the Washington artifacts. In 1881 they were moved to more secure facilities at the Smithsonian Institution.

Despite her ailing health, Mary never stopped writing to anyone in the federal government who might help her get back her family heirlooms. She was ignored for years. Then for a moment in 1869 it looked like she might prevail after all when President Andrew Johnson approved the return the “relics of Mount Vernon.” He took it back when the press reported the story as the feds giving away all of the Father of Our Country’s stuff to rebel general Robert E. Lee.

Mary Custis Lee died in 1873 but the struggle lived on with her eldest son George Washington Parke Custis Lee. He petitioned successive administrations for the return of Arlington House and took it all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor. (Thousands of soldiers were already buried there, so Lee sold the property back to the government. It was the principle of the matter.) Then he hounded them for decades over the Washington memorabilia. Finally it was William McKinley, the last US President to be a Civil War veteran, who ordered the return of the Washington tents and artifacts to George Washington Parke Custis Lee. It was 1901.

After a struggle lasting 40 years, the family heirlooms were back in family hands. The Headquarters Tent was sold by Mary Custis Lee, Robert and Mary’s daughter, in 1909 to raise funds for Confederate widows. The buyer was Reverend W. Herbert Burk who spent a whopping $5,000 on it. An avid history buff, he was the founder of the Valley Forge Historical Society and of the Washington Memorial Chapel built at Valley Forge. He also founded the Valley Forge Museum of American History where the Headquarters Tent was erected outdoors in the snow, just like it was in George Washington’s Day. Burk’s extensive Revolutionary War collection, including the tent, became the core of the new Museum of the American Revolution’s collection in 2003.

Fourteen years later, the tent will one of the jewels of the new museum slated to open at long last this April. It needed a lot of care to make it ready for display. Textile conservator Virginia Whelan had to repair the linen’s 550 holes, a large missing piece (likely a victim of the practice of cutting souvenirs from famous textiles like the poor Star Spangled Banner) and numerous stains.

Wearing a thimble but no gloves, Ms. Whelan layered fine, nearly invisible netting over and under each hole, then used polyester thread finer than human hair to stitch around the damage to prevent further fraying. For large tears and the missing piece, she worked with the faculty of Philadelphia University’s textile design department to make high-resolution images of the fabric, which were printed on polyester with a digital inkjet printer.

The whole effort took 525 hours of handwork by Ms. Whelan and an assistant.

Then they had figure out to erect so fragile a textile. The original wooden poles and tent pegs are extant, but they’d be way too rough on the fabric these days.

Alex Stadel, a structural engineer from Keast & Hood, devised the custom base, which looks like two unfurled umbrellas, standing upright and connected by a ridgepole, adding some upright poles on tracks for additional flexibility.

To attach the walls to the tent top, the team avoided iron hooks and eyes that were used in the original design, and chose rare-earth magnets that tether the fabric in place.

The Museum of the American Revolution opens in the historic center of Philadelphia on April 19th, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History