History

Unique mortuary bundle found in Hidalgo

History Blog - Wed, 2014-07-23 23:28

A pre-Hispanic mortuary bundle had been found in a rock shelter near the town of Zimapán in the Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo, southeastern Mexico. The skeletal remains wrapped in a dyed fabric and a braided mat were discovered by locals who alerted the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH archaeologists examined the bundle and believe it is intact, although only the cranium with some hair still attached, tibias, clavicle, shoulder blades and some ribs are visible above the wrapping.

The remains haven’t been dated yet. It’s the positioning of the body in a seated posture, the plant fibers used in the shroud and the placement in a rock shelter that all point to this being a pre-Hispanic burial. In many Mesoamerican cultures, rock shelters and caves were believed to be entrances to the underworld and the abode of death gods. Thus these locations were seen as ideal burial spaces. Despite the rocky terrain of the Sierra Gorda being replete with these sorts of nooks and crannies, this is the only mortuary bundle of its kind found in the state of Hidalgo.

Forensic anthropologists have determined from the teeth and leg bones that the deceased was about 20 years old when he or she died. The third molars, which grow in early adulthood between 16 and 24 years of age, are present but show no signs of wear. In the tibia, the epiphyseal plate, a cartilaginous plate at the end of the long bones that is replaced by bone after puberty, has hardened into bone, leaving behind the scar of the epiphyseal line. The line is still visible, however, and that fades with time, so that suggests the person died in early adulthood.

Although there does not appear to have been any preservation of soft tissues, the semi-arid climate of the eastern Sierra Gorda did help preserve the organic fibers of the wrapping. The bundle has been moved to an INAH lab where it will be studied in detail and the wrapping removed to reveal the rest of the remains. First a conservator will treat the fabric and plant fiber mat to ensure they’re not damaged in the opening. Then experts will hopefully be able to determine the sex of the deceased from the pelvic and hop bones.

INAH researchers hope the bones will tell more of the person’s history — disease, nutrition, lifestyle — as well as which culture he or she was a part of. The rock shelter is an area that saw a variety of peoples living there, nomadic and sedentary. The bones might fill in some of those blanks. The archaeological context might help on that score. Vegetation found in the soil of the rock shelter (palm leaves, agave cactus) appears to have been deliberately layered on the spot. Archaeologists also found a small group of abstract cave paintings about 550 yards from the mortuary bundle.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

An interview with Deborah Harkness, author of The Book of Life

Medievalists.net - Wed, 2014-07-23 13:31
Deborah Harkness, professor of history at the University of Southern California, has just published the final novel in her All Souls Trilogy. It follows the story of Diana Bishop, a historian and modern-day witch, Matthew Clairmont, a 1500-year-old vampire, and an enchanted manuscript at Oxford University's Bodleian Library.

Click here to read DuJour’s executive editor, Nancy Bilyeau, interview Deborah about The Book of Life

See also Deborah reading an excerpt from her novel:

Categories: History, SCA news sites

New burials found at Ostia necropolis

History Blog - Tue, 2014-07-22 23:50

Excavations in Ostia, the ancient Roman harbour town at the mouth of the Tiber, have unearthed a group of more than 12 tombs from the 3rd-4th century A.D. Underscoring the cultural diversity of the port city, the necropolis includes inhumations and cremations, some right next to each other. The newly unearthed tombs are early Christian and surround a central tomb that belonged to someone of religious or social significance. The central tomb is a circular mausoleum lined in travertine that was originally built in the late Republican era and was reused in late antiquity. Archaeologists believe it may be an extended family unit who wanted to be buried at an important location, perhaps associated with one of the saints buried in early Christian Ostia.

The area being excavated, Parco dei Ravennati, was a suburb of the ancient city of Ostia on the left bank of the Tiber, now long since silted over. The area was used as a necropolis from the early imperial era through the 5th century when a basilica was built around the nearby tomb of 3rd century martyr Saint Aurea, patron saint of Ostia. The church was extensively renovated over the centuries; the current building was built by the Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, commissioner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the 15th century. Another important saint, Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, died in Ostia in the late 4th century and was buried there. Her remains were moved to the Saint Aurea church in the 6th century before moving again to the Church of Saint Augustine in Rome.

There may be more information on the burials forthcoming courtesy of some inscriptions.

Additionally, several tombs had funerary inscriptions and archaeologists found a possible tabella defixionum, a lead curse tablet intended to protect the dead and bring anathema to tomb desecrators.

“They were really horrible curses to protect the dead”, Paola Germoni, head of Ostia’s archaeological superintendency, added.

Studies remain ongoing, according to Michele Raddi, excavation co-director, who said “we found a number of fragmentary inscriptions in the tombs as well as a possible tabella defixionum, but we need to evaluate its context and see if it has an inscription”.

Parco dei Ravennati wasn’t just a necropolis, however. Multiple domestic spaces have been unearthed, including an elaborate opus sectile marble inlay floor from the late 4th century. This season’s excavations have found even more of that aristocratic home, a space adjacent to the opus sectile room that was paved with paving stones and converted to commercial use. The discovery of hooks and lead weights from fishing nets suggest the elegant home was re-purposed for fish processing in the early Middle Ages. Ancient sources and earlier archaeology pointed to Ostia being in steep decline as a commercial center starting in the reign of Constantine I (306-337 A.D.), so the discovery of active businesses from the early Middle Ages is going to change what we know about Ostia.

“What’s amazing is that you have continual use in this park straight through from republic and imperial times through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, its giving us precious information about the later periods and how it relates to Ostia Antica”, [director of the American Institute for Roman Culture Darius] Arya said.

“The discoveries in the Parco dei Ravennati underlines the extraordinary continuity of life and activity along the Tiber River banks, in Ostia Antica’s suburbs”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Sam’s iconic piano from Casablanca for sale

History Blog - Mon, 2014-07-21 23:58

The piano on which Sam played As Times Goes By at the behest of a melancholic Ilsa and a choleric Rick in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca will be put up for auction later this year. It’s one of more than 30 pieces from the film that will be sold at Bonhams New York’s TCM Presents: There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction on November 24th, all of which belong to a single private collector. Along with the piano, the sale will feature the interior and exterior doors from Rick’s Café Américain, passports and other papers used in the movie, including the letters of transit that were hidden in this piano in a pivotal plot point.

Casablanca has long been one of the most beloved of Hollywood’s wartime classics and continues to be one of the most popular films in the Turner Classic Movies library,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president of digital, affiliate, lifestyle and enterprise commerce at TCM, TBS and TNT. “With the addition of this extraordinary collection of Casablanca memorabilia, TCM and Bonhams’ There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction is going to be a truly unforgettable and historic event.”

“Bonhams is thrilled to represent this remarkable Casablanca collection, certainly one of the most significant film memorabilia collections still in private hands,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams.

Last year the centerpiece of the Bonham’s auction of movie memorabilia curated by the experts of Turner Classic Movies was from another of Humphrey Bogart’s iconic films, The Maltese Falcon. The lead falcon prop sold for an astonishing $4,085,000 including buyer’s premium. No pre-sale estimate for the piano has been announced yet, but Bonham’s expects it to sell for seven figures as well. There’s no guarantee, of course. The gorgeous 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca‘s final scene sold for $380,000, $70,000 below the low estimate at last year’s sale.

The piano used in the Paris flashback scene where Sam first plays the song for Rick and Ilsa in happier times sold for much less than its estimate at Sotheby’s in December of 2012. The estimate was $800,000 to $1.2 million, but the hammer price was $500,000 ($602,500 including buyer’s premium). Some articles have erroneously conflated the two pianos. The one for sale this November was last purchased at public auction in the 1980s and has since then been loaned to Warner Brothers Studio Museum and the Hollywood Bowl for a 2006 performance.

This piano, which is salmon-colored in real life, looms large in film history as the song sung by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam has become part of the cultural lexicon. Wilson didn’t actually play the piano (he was a drummer) so as he sang he imitated the real pianist Elliot Carpenter who was playing out of view of the cameras but in view of Wilson. Incidentally, the line most associated with the scene, “Play it again, Sam,” was never actually spoken in the movie.

The full auction catalogue is not yet available online, but keep an eye on this page where it will appear a month or so before the sale.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

See the lunar suface live tonight in high def

History Blog - Sun, 2014-07-20 20:00

In honor of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s landing on the moon, at 8:30 PM EST tonight the Slooh Space Camera will broadcast live high definition video of the lunar surface. Host Geoff Fox will welcome a panel of experts including astronomer Bob Berman, science journalist Andy Chaikin and filmmaker Duncan Copp who directed the phenomenal The Planets — An HD Odyssey setting breathtaking images of the planets in our solar system with Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite. While you enjoy the high definition views of the moon today, the panelists will discuss the moon landing of 45 years ago,

The YouTube is embedded below. If that doesn’t work for you, you can follow the broadcast on the Slooh website.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

History Blog - Sat, 2014-07-19 23:29

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Burned, cut bones from Boudiccan uprising found in Colchester

History Blog - Fri, 2014-07-18 23:04

Burned and cut bone fragments from the Boudiccan revolt have been discovered at the redevelopment site of supermarket Williams & Griffin in Colchester, southeast England. The two pieces, one of mandible and the other of tibia, were found mixed in with burned building debris that had been moved to the location and used as fill during the reconstruction of Colchester after Boudica’s army burned the city to the ground in 61 A.D. Although the revolt-era layer of the town has been extensively excavated, these are only the second human remains ever found in Colchester’s Boudiccan debris, and the first were unearthed 50 years ago in 1965.

The reason so few bones have been found in a city that was completely destroyed is that the inhabitants were rounded up and killed in the sacred groves of the Iceni war goddess Andraste. Cassio Dio goes into gruesome detail on the subject in Book 62, Chapter 7 of his Roman History:

The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate.

Colchester, the Roman colony of Camulodunum, was the first target of Boudica’s forces. It had great symbolic significance to them. The city had been the capital of the Trinovantes, the Iceni’s allies in the uprising, and it was there that they had had to surrender to Claudius in 43 A.D. The next year a temple to Claudius was built to commemorate the great victory/humiliating defeat and the legions used the city as a fortress for another five years. When they left, retired Roman veterans moved in, displacing the native Britons, taking their land and enslaving them. The veterans didn’t bother to build fortifications, however, so Boudica’s army made short shrift of the city. Surviving veterans fled to Claudius’ temple where Boudica besieged them for two days before it too fell and was torched along with the rest of Camulodunum.

When the bone pieces were first unearthed last week, the evidence of burning was clearly visible in situ, but it wasn’t until archaeologists removed the fragments for additional study that the found evidence that the bones had been cut with a sharp instrument of some kind, possibly a weapon.

The cut mark on the shinbone is the most convincing. The bone is a left tibia where the top front left-hand side has been sliced off with a sharp blade. The blow must have been ferocious and it must have cut through part of the end of the thigh bone (femur) and probably the kneecap (patella) and the fibula (the thin bone alongside the tibia). The angle of the cut suggests that the leg must have been flexed and that the person who cut it wasn’t standing directly in front of him but to his right or left.

The mandible is more difficult to interpret. Now that it is out of the ground, we can see that it does indeed have its third molar and that the person was much older when he died than we thought. What is striking, however, is that the inside edge of the raised part at the back of the jaw is missing. It looks as if this part of the jaw has been sliced off where the bone is quite thin. But the cut looks rather delicate for a sword blow. It may be that the jawbone simply cracked in the ground and this part became detached. But then, in the light of the chop mark on the leg bone, some kind of deliberate incision, violent or delicate, needs to be considered as a possiblity [sic]. If the damage was the result of a sword blow, then it must have been a downwards one from the man’s left. The sword must have crashed clean through his left cheek bone (the zygomatic bone) between his left eye and ear so that it just nicked the front of the upper part of his jaw.

The cut marks on the bones look very clean to be shovel marks, but it is possible that the mandible in particular was damaged during the reconstruction by a shovel, say, rather than by a blade.

These bones and those unearthed in 1965 were found 100 yards from each other. Archaeologists have just begun to dig at a third site that lies between the two find spots, so there may be more interesting news from the Boudiccan revolt to report soon.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

La Belle moves from freeze dryer to museum

History Blog - Thu, 2014-07-17 23:58

La Belle, one of the ships French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on his ill-fated colonizing mission, sank in a storm in Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1686. In 1995, the wreck of the 54-1/2-foot-long supply ship was found in excellent condition, the bottom third preserved intact with its contents by the mud of the sea floor. Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission spent two years excavating the wreck, building a cofferdam around it, draining the water and then digging it out of the mud. They were able to recover the hull of the ship and 700,000 artifacts, including swords, cannons, bronze hawk bells, pottery, thousands of glass beads and mirrors intended for trade and a skeleton so well preserved that there was still tendon tissue on the bones and a large amount of brain material in the skull.

As with other exceptional raised shipwrecks like the Mary Rose and the Vasa, La Belle’s wooden hull needed to be conserved immediately to ensure it wouldn’t dry out too quickly and warp or shrink. The ship’s timbers were sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where they were soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and stabilizes it. PEG treatment takes a long, long time, like decades, and since it’s petroleum-derived, the cost rises with the price of oil.

When the budget for the conservation ballooned from $330,000 to $1.4 million solely because of PEG prices, in late 2010 conservators changed course and decided to put the ship timbers in a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide. Kept at a constant temperature of 60 degrees below zero, the seawater bound to the wood sublimates — transforms directly from solid to gas — in significantly less time than it takes for PEG to replace water.

To ensure that the timbers retained their shape and size, the hull was disassembled and each piece tagged and scanned. Molds were made so researchers had the original shape of each part for comparison. After running some tests on smaller items, the ship components were placed in the freeze dryer for four to six months until all the bound water was gone. The wreck of La Belle has 600 component parts, including the keel, keelson, ceiling planking, mast and futtocks (those curved ribs in the ship’s frame), so it took several loads to dry them all.

Reconstruction of the ship was scheduled to begin in October of 2013 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, but it has taken a little longer than originally planned. On Thursday, July 17th, the largest portions of La Belle were loaded onto an 18-wheeler and transported from the Riverside Campus of Texas A&M to the Bullock Museum. Included in this first delivery were the 800-pound keel, the 1,100-pound keelson, the forefoot, more than 20 floor planks, buttresses, the mast, 40 first futtocks, more than 20 second futtocks and 25 third futtocks. (Yes I am completely in love with the word futtocks and plan to use it as a curse word on a daily basis from now on.)

On October 25th, the museum will debut a new exhibition, La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, which in addition to traditional displays of artifacts, maps and pictures of the excavation and conservation, will most excitingly feature the public reassembly of the hull. Reconstruction should be completed in May of next year, after which the hull will be encased in glass and placed on display in the center of the museum. A replica of the rest of the ship will be built around the encased hull and visitors will be allowed to walk on the glass over the original ship so they can look down at it and all around at the replica. Such a brilliant idea. This is going to be a blockbuster exhibition.

There will also be a “4D” film, Shipwrecked, for visitors to enjoy. From the museum’s upcoming exhibits page:

Created in collaboration with award-winning production house, Cortina Productions, the film will be on view daily in the Bullock’s popular Texas Spirit Theater, a 4D venue that offers an immersive experience combining the high-drama of 3D with sensory effects built into the seats and environment. Filmed on board one of the few sea-worthy vessels modeled after ships of the 1600s, the film dramatizes the story of La Salle’s venture, revealing the struggles, personalities, and conflicts through the eyes of one of the only survivors of the expedition, Pierre Talon. Pierre’s family was recruited as colonists for the voyage, and at the age of 10, he was separated from his mother and siblings and sent by La Salle to learn the language of the Caddo people in the hopes of establishing trade and facilitating the expedition. Adopted by the tribe, at the age of 14 Pierre was subsequently captured by the Spanish. In the film, he recounts to his captors all that he saw from the moment the ships were setting sail from France.

This news story has a brief overview of La Salle’s mission, some great footage of the hull during the conservation process and a phenomenal mockup of the exhibit with the encased hull and replica built around it that seriously looks real.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends - exhibition now underway at Royal BC Museum

Medievalists.net - Thu, 2014-07-17 16:17
For those living in North America who were envious of the British Museum's recent exhibition on Vikings, there is now an exhibition under way at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends features over 500 artifacts. It will be on display until November 11th.

You can see this preview of the exhibition:



 For more details, please visit the Royal BC Museum website


Categories: History, SCA news sites

Rome pyramid restoration ahead of schedule

History Blog - Wed, 2014-07-16 23:24

In December of 2011, Japanese retail clothing mogul Yuzo Yagi offered to donate €1 million to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a pointy marble-clad vanity pyramid built in Rome in the 1st century B.C. At the time, the agreement was scheduled to be signed in January of 2012 and work to start in April, but the donation agreement didn’t get signed until March, the scaffolding didn’t begin to go up until November and it wasn’t finished until February. Actual restoration work began in March of 2013. Then in a shocking twist, it was completed five months early.

The Culture Ministry contacted Yuzo Yagi and asked him to donate another million euros for a second stage of restoration that would return the Carrara marble cladding to its original whiteness as opposed to its longstanding grimy gray. White happens to be Mr. Yagi’s favorite color — he is known for his stylish all-white ensembles — so he was happy to double his original donation.

In December of 2013 he signed a second donation agreement, again requiring nothing more than a discreet plaque near, not on, the pyramid, naming him as the donor. Even during the restoration the only signs on the pyramid are informational billboards at ground level and white banners assigning themes to each side — the mystical side, the scientific side, the historical side and the secret side. The billboards explain the history of the pyramid through these four themes. Yagi’s company gets credit for his patronage on the billboards, but just in discreet text lines. No logos or glaring anything. The images of the pyramid and information of its background dominate completely. Masterpiece Theater is more cluttered than that, like by a lot.

Now phase two is well on the way to being finished and they’re ahead of schedule again. Restorers expect to be done three months before the expected November deadline. The early finish means Yagi isn’t ready for an inauguration ceremony. He’s thinking of just waiting until next summer and making a big event. He’s also so pleased with how this venture has gone that he’s contemplating donating more money for the preservation of another monument.

Yuzo Yagi toured the pyramid on Tuesday, accompanied by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to promote Mr. Yagi’s dignified generosity as a model for future donors and to tout the state’s new tax incentives for businesses who donate to cultural heritage projects.

You can see how great the pyramid looks inside and out in this news story on Mr. Yagi’s visit:

Oh man, I want to wear a hardhat and go inside! If the burial chamber looks modest it’s because Augustus’ sumptuary law of 18 B.C. forbade ostentatious luxury in tombs. Unlike the Egyptians whose tombs he modeled his own after, Gaius Cestius was not buried with lavish treasures to accompany him to the afterlife. He got white walls with small frescoes of alternating winged Victories and ceremonial vessels, plus a few bronze statues of him outside the pyramid.

The frescoes were in serious danger from water leaking through the marble slabs into the brick and concrete structure. Those leaks have all been plugged now. Also gone are the severe microorganism infestation that was making a meal of the marble and the copious vegetation sprouting through the damaged exterior walls. The pyramid hasn’t looked this good or been this healthy since it was built, I wager.

Here’s a 3D animation of a point cloud generated from laser scan data before the scaffolding went up. It gave restorers a clear picture of the condition of all four sides, the deterioration of the marble cladding, any unevenness in the surface or cracks and evidence of shear.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hiker falls onto monolith, saves it from looters

History Blog - Tue, 2014-07-15 23:15


A tourist hiking in the foothills of a waterfall in Mexico two weeks ago fell from a branch onto a Mesoamerican monolith that was in the process of being carved out of the stone by looters. You’d think looters would be deterred by the weight of the stone — an estimated 10 tons — and its size — five feet wide, five feet high and almost seven feet deep — but no; they just started cutting the carving out of it, removing the porous red volcanic cantera stone around the figure which is about a foot and a half wide and two and a half feet high. Given enough time they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky hiker falling out of a tree.

The tourist reported the find to the authorities in the nearby city of Calvillo in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes who in turn called in regional experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Archaeologists examined the monolith and discovered it’s a unique piece of major historical import in the region. Carved in the image of a man with a headdress and earrings, its location near a waterfall and spring suggests a connection to a deity.

The figure shows a strong influence of Teotihuacan style from between 200 to 600 A.D. The urban center of Teotihuacan was 350 miles southeast of Calvillo, but its cultural sphere of influence was vast. Before now, however, archaeologists thought the local culture was entirely Chichimeca, nomadic hunter-gatherers of varied language and ethnicity, but no artifacts this old have been found in the state before. It significantly predates known Chichimeca settlements in the area.

In order to keep it safe from human depredation, experts will be completing the looters’ work. The 10-ton stone is simply too big and unwieldy to remove. It’s in the wilderness where there are no roads. It would require specialized equipment and a cargo helicopter to air lift it out of the jungle, and officials have neither the material nor the funding to make that happen. Instead, they’ve installed a shelter around the stone and will have a joint police and army surveillance team on site while archaeologists detach the carved figure from its rocky home. The operation is expected to take 15 days to a month.

Once it’s been removed, the carving will be kept at the INAH lab where archaeologists can study it fully. Its ultimate destination will be the Municipal Museum that is currently under construction in Calvillo.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

200-year-old seltzer water bottle found on shipwreck

History Blog - Mon, 2014-07-14 23:11

An intact sealed mineral water bottle from the German town of Selters has been retrieved from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Poland. There’s a maker’s seal on the front of the bottle, a faded dark brown circle around the circular text “Selters” with the initial H and N topped by a crown inside, which identify it has having been manufactured between 1806 and 1830. The stoneware bottle still has liquid inside which is not seawater, but it’s possible the bottle was reused and recorked so archaeologists won’t know if there’s prized 200-year-old mineral water in there until they test the contents in a lab.

The H and N on the seal stand for Herzogthum Nassau, meaning Duchy of Nassau, a province in western Germany that is today the state of Hesse. The Selters area of the province on northern slopes of the Taunus mountains was famous for its mineral springs. Long before the duchy existed when the region was part of the Electorate of Trier ruled by a prince-archbishop, local monasteries documented the wells in records from the 8th century. By the 16th century Selters’ naturally carbonated water was well known all over the country. German doctors wrote papers on its curative properties and the crisp, pleasantly sour taste from its uniquely high alkaline salt content.

Starting in the mid-18th century, the water was packaged in stoneware vessels and sold internationally. Shipments went out to the Netherlands, Sweden, England, France, Russia, Africa, even as far afield as America and Jakarta. It was a highly profitable venture, with more than a million jugs sold in 1791. The Electorate west of the Rhine was occupied by France in 1803 and absorbed into the French diocesan system. East of the Rhine its territories were secularized and incorporated into the county of Nassau-Weilburg which merged with Nassau-Usingen to form the Duchy of Nassau in 1806.

The Duchy would only last for 60 years (it was annexed by Prussia in 1866), but during its existence the Selters water was its primary export. In 1850 three million jugs were sold, bringing in annual net profits of 100,000 guilders to the Duke’s privy purse. A public fountain allowed locals to collect the prized water free for home use.

The stoneware bottles were quite ingeniously designed to preserve the freshness and carbonation of the water. The necks were kept short and the bottles filled all the way to the top before being corked and cemented. The aim was to keep air out in order to preserve the fizz and flavor. As long as the air bubble in the neck was small (or non-existent, ideally) and the cork held, the water would retain its unique qualities in the sealed bottle for months. In the mid-19th century, analytical chemist Dr. Remigius Fresenius of the Wiesbaden Agricultural Institution stored Selters water for 15 years and found it substantially unchanged when he retested it.

Selters water was so famous worldwide that when artificial carbonation was invented, some of its products were referred to as “Selterser water,” aka water of Selters, aka seltzer water. Thus Selters became a genericized trademark, like Xerox for photocopies or Kleenex for tissues.

With millions sold every year for more than a century, many Selters stoneware bottles have survived. Corked and sealed ones, however are much more rare. The one discovered on the shipwreck is by far the most valuable object recovered from the unidentified vessel, labeled simply F-33-31, which lies 40 feet deep in Gdańsk Bay. In addition to its inherent coolness, the bottle has helped narrow down the ship’s age. Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the ships planks should narrow it down further.

The underwater archaeologists from the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk surveying the wreck have also found pottery fragments, small metal and ceramic vessels, shoe parts and ship parts, including wooden pulley blocks. They’ve also found a number of large stones which they believe were the ship’s main cargo, used in the construction of foundations or fortifications.

Once the survey is complete, the data and images will be used to create a 3D digital model of the wreck. The team has taken more than 7,000 pictures of the site from which a highly detailed virtual model can be constructed, an innovative approach to underwater archaeology that the National Maritime Museum has pioneered. After testing, the water bottle will go on display at the National Maritime Museum.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Metal feline claws found in Moche tomb

History Blog - Sun, 2014-07-13 23:39

The ancient capital of the Moche culture lies five miles south of the city of Trujillo on the northern coast of Peru. Its inhabitants lived in an urban center bracketed by the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, the largest adobe structures known. The Spanish looted the former extensively, diverting a river to erode the bricks and wash out the gold from burials of Moche rulers. The Temple of the Moon is in better condition and still retains 200 square feet of painted murals depicting the daily life, human sacrifice, deities, wars of a people who have left no written records. The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon Archaeological Project has been excavating the site for 20 years, and still it holds magical surprises.

The latest surprises are some wonderfully vicious-looking feline claws made of metal in the 1,500-year-old tomb of an elite man excavated under the urban center of the site. The claws were found towards the top of the burial, below his head around neck or shoulder height and archaeologists aren’t sure how they were worn. They could have been part of a costume used in ritual combat where the winner was given the claws as a prize and the loser was sacrificed.

Big cats and deities with feline characteristics played an important role in Moche cosmology. They are frequently depicted in figurines, murals and painted on ceramic vessels. One of the painted friezes at the Temple of Moon, as a matter of fact, depicts large felines attacking and killing human victims, and a feline features prominently on what may be the most important artifact discovered in the tomb: a pyramid-shaped copper scepter which is topped with the face of a feline, fangs bared. The four sides of the scepter are also decorated, three of them with warriors displaying their weapons and the fourth with a large cat that has just killed a nude prisoner.

The scepter is very similar in shape and design to one discovered in the tomb of the Lord of Sipán with one major difference: Sipán’s sceptre was made of gold, not copper. The scepter is a symbol of rule, but the copper indicates this man was a local ruler, certainly a person of high social rank, but a vassal of Moche royalty rather than standing atop the hierarchy himself. Hence the preponderance of copper and brass in the tomb. The only gold found was a few modest pieces inlaid in a pair of large round earplugs. The quality of the earplugs again is high, but not the highest. He was a nobleman, a political or religious leader, possibly an envoy sent to newly conquered territories.

The high status is confirmed by the presence of a metal mask that once covered his face. It is in pieces now, but the shiny metal buttons used to cover his eyes are in excellent condition. The presence of eye coverings confirm his elevated status. Ten decorated ceramic vessels were buried with him, most of which have been painted with pattern motifs but some of which depict figures from Moche cosmology, another indicator of the importance of the deceased. Metal blades placed at the hands and feet are also characteristic of elite burials. Archaeologists believe these metal objects coded information of the deceased’s place in Moche hierarchy.

Archaeologists hope to determine whether he was a native ruler or if he came from elsewhere by using stable isotope analysis which can reveal where a person was raised based on the proportion of certain elements in their teeth and bones. It’s a time consuming process; results won’t be expected until next year. Meanwhile, once the artifacts and remains were removed, the tomb was promptly sealed to keep the archaeological context safe from the coming rains. It will be re-opened for further study.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Crucifix from the 1620s unearthed in Newfoundland

History Blog - Sat, 2014-07-12 23:35

An archaeological team excavating the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, founded in 1620 by George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, has discovered a small copper crucifix dating to the early days of the settlement. It’s just 2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms and has the traditional image of Christ on the cross on the front. On the back is the Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. The features of the relief are worn almost smooth, indicating that the devotional object was rubbed constantly. Coupled with its small size and broken top, it suggests the crucifix was once part of a rosary.

The crucifix was amongst a collection of ceramics, bones, nails and building debris associated with the construction of a large stone dwelling built for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The dwelling was started sometime after 1623 and completed before the arrival of Calvert, most of his family and about 40 additional settlers in 1628. The cultural deposit containing the crucifix was sealed sometime in the second half of the 1620s, thus providing a securely datable context for the artifacts and a window into the lives of those who worked at Calvert’s colony of Avalon during this early period.

This is the first unambiguously Catholic object found from the time of Calvert’s founding of the colony, and as such it is of singular importance. George Calvert served as King James I’s Secretary of State for six years before resigning and officially converting to Catholicism in 1625. There’s some question as to whether that was the result of a revelation in the moment or the public confirmation of a long-held but hidden faith. His father Leonard was Catholic and in the fraught environment of the Elizabethan religious reforms, suffered constant harassment from the authorities for such crimes as employing Catholics and not going to Church of England services. Little George became a pawn in this game, being forced at age 12 to change tutors to an approved Protestant who would eschew the “popish primer” his previous tutor had employed.

In order to graduate from Oxford and carve out a career for himself as a diplomat and politician at the court of King James, George Calvert certainly professed Protestantism. His wife was Protestant and he raised his children Protestant. By all accounts he was an honest, decent man so there’s no reason to assume he was being deceptive about his religious faith, but either way his experience with religious persecution played an integral role in his plans for Avalon.

He first bought property on Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan and named it Avalon after the island from Arthurian legend where Christianity was introduced to Britain. Colonists arrived in 1621 led by Captain Edward Wynne who wrote glowingly (and inaccurately) to Calvert describing Newfoundland as a bountiful land with a mild climate. Calvert thought fishing was the key to making the colony self-sustaining, maybe even profitable. In 1623 Calvert secured a royal charter extending his lands to the whole southeast peninsula, officially naming it the Province of Avalon “in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America.”

George Calvert’s 1623 charter for the province enshrined freedom of conscience by not requiring that colonists take the oath of supremacy accepting the sovereign as the head of the Church of England. That principle was underscored when Calvert took his first trip to Avalon in the summer of 1627. He brought two priests with him — Father Anthony Smith and Father Thomas Longville (later that year Longville returned to England and was replaced by a Father Hackett) — who according to the colony’s disapproving Puritan clergyman Rev. Erasmus Stourton “said mass every Sunday at Feiryland and used all other ceremonies of the church of Rome in the ample manner as it is used in Spain.” Very much against Stourton’s inclination, Avalon was the first North American colony to practice religious tolerance.

It’s possible that the recently discovered crucifix belonged to one of the three priests, one of the 100 colonists who were established at Ferryland by 1627, or maybe even Calvert himself. Given the early dating, it’s probably more likely to have been lost one of the home’s builders or by Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Avalon from 1625 to late 1626, or by one of the Catholic colonists he brought with him.

Calvert went back to England before he could experience the joys of a Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1628 with his wife and most of his children. That’s when he found out that Wynne’s letters had been more fiction than fact. A frigid, long winter and fishing ships bedeviled by French privateer the Marquis de la Rade, made life very hard, nigh on unbearable for the good Baron. He and his family left Avalon in 1629 for more hospital climes in the Virginia territory. Two years later, he received another royal charter granting him property north of the Potomac on both side of the Chesapeake Bay. He died five weeks before the charter for Maryland was issued. His son Cecilius took over where his father left off, enshrining the same principle of religious freedom in Maryland as his father had instituted in Avalon.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iconic WWI Kitchener poster sells for $37,000

History Blog - Fri, 2014-07-11 23:28

One of only four known original World War I recruitment posters featuring the iconic image of Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer sold at auction on Wednesday for £22,000 ($37,656), double the low estimate of £10,000 – £15,000. The other three are in museums, one in the Imperial War Museum in London, one in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and one in the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising in London (the display wing of the massive Robert Opie Collection). They’re not likely to come up for sale, well, ever, so this was a unique opportunity.

The poster was part of a remarkable collection of almost 200 World War I posters that spent decades out of the light in an attic in Kent. The sellers inherited the collection from their grandfather, who had helped distribute surplus posters to libraries, museums and collectors on behalf of His Majesty’s Stationary Office at the end of the war. The grandfather died some years back, but the sellers didn’t realize what an absolute treasure they had until they gave the collection a good, hard look inspired by all the discussion and activities around the hundredth anniversary of the start of the war. They had a complete collection of all posters published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee between 1914 and 1916 (when conscription rendered recruitment moot), plus additional ephemera.

The Kitchener poster is one of the latter. It wasn’t an official publication of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, but rather a recruitment message privately issued by the popular magazine London Opinion. London Opinion had a circulation of about 250,000 a week at this time and was swept up in the patriotic fervor that characterized the weeks after Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914. The magazine commissioned illustrator and cartoon artist Alfred Leete to create a recruitment-themed cover for its September 5th issue. He scared it up in less than a day.

It was not a complex design. Leete used a photograph of Lord Kitchener, probably the one shot by famed portrait photographer Alexander Bassano around 1885 which had become very well known in postcard form, and modified it so that both his eyes stared forward (Kitchener had a pronounced strabismus in one eye), his jawline was more heroically square, and his moustache larger and more dramatically shaped. He added the uniform hat and the foreshortened arm and finger pointing at the viewer, a design that had been used before in a 1906 cigarette ad, among others. Under Kitchener’s neck were the words “Your country needs YOU,” while magazine promotions above and below offered recruits £1,000 worth of insurance and 50 photographs for a shilling.

The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, meanwhile, was still using text-only recruiting pitches in periodicals and on posters. These were scions of the upper classes who had no high opinion of commercial advertising and its eye-catching gimmicks. A royal coat of arms was acceptable, but the first poster with an actual image on it had a simple silhouette of the United Kingdom behind the legend “Britons! Your country needs you.” Kitchener himself had no interest in being on posters.

So the London Opinion took it upon themselves to put him on one. Unlike the magazine cover, the poster version had some color. “BRITONS,” it blared in large bold red letters above the famous image of the Secretary of State for War, Kitchener “Wants YOU. Join your country’s army! God save the King.” It was printed in September of 1914 in a relatively modest run of about 10,000 units. Since it was not an official poster, it wasn’t on display in military recruitment offices and other common PRC outlets, but it still got around, distributed along with magazines at newstands, at train stations and even on a Belfast tram dedicated to recruitment posters.

Kitchener’s basilisk stare and engorged index finger made an impression. By 1915, there were versions of Leete’s designs on posters in Canada and New Zealand, and other countries soon followed. The PRC issued their own Kitchener poster in 1915. He wasn’t pointing or hollering in all caps — the rallying cry was a 30-word quote from a speech — but the face was similar to Leete’s drawing of the youthful 1885 Kitchener. Later that year the PRC finally issued an official poster featuring Leete’s design. There were combatant flags at the top and walls of text on the sides and bottom, but there was Lord Kitchener pointing sternly, informing viewers that “Your country needs YOU.”

The year after that, Leete’s vision was transformed into another iconic image. On July 6th, 1916, the cover of the illustrated news magazine Leslie’s Weekly was a drawing by James Montgomery Flagg of a stern Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, asking them “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” This was almost a year before the United States’ entry into the war, but advocates for intervention on the British side like former President Theodore Roosevelt and former Secretary of War Elihu Root had been campaigning for a massive boost of military funding and troop training (not just of the regular army but of hundreds of thousands of conscripts as well) so the country would be prepared for war when it came.

The Preparedness Movement got its way with the National Defense Act of 1916, passed in June 1916, and the hawkishly patriotic Leslie’s Weekly was fully on board. The Flagg cover became a full-on recruitment poster the next year after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917. It was a massive success with more than four million printed in 1917 and 1918. Flagg himself modestly declared it “the most famous poster in the world,” but even if that’s true, Alfred Leete and Lord Kitchener deserve a large portion of the credit.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Skeletons at Roman villa could be first owners found

History Blog - Thu, 2014-07-10 23:21

Five late Roman-era skeletons unearthed at the site of an ancient villa near Blandford in North Dorset may be the first owners of a Roman villa ever found in Britain. The team of archaeologists and 85 students from Bournemouth University excavated the villa on a corn field near Winterbourne Kingston last year. This year they did a geophysical survey of the grounds using electrical resistance meters to map archaeological features beneath the earth and found a grave site 300 feet away from the building. Excavation revealed the individual burials of five people: two adult males, two adult females and one elderly females.

The remains date to the 4th century (around 350 A.D.), the same period when the villa was built. Researchers believe the remains represent three generations of the family who owned the villa. Even though many Roman villas have been unearthed in England, most of them were discovered in the 19th century when archaeological practices and technologies were still artifact-focused. Human remains were poorly documented or ignored altogether, thus there is much we don’t know about the landowning elite of late Roman Britain.

The bones have been removed and sent to laboratory for testing that will hopefully narrow down the date and fill in many blanks about the people who lived in the villa.

Miles Russell, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Bournemouth University and one of the archaeologists leading the dig, said, “The discovery is of great significance as it is the only time where evidence of a villa and the villa’s occupants have been found in the same location in Britain. This could provide us with significant information, never retrieved before, about the state of health of the villa owners, their ancestry and where they came from.”

Miles continued, “One of the big questions in South West is whether the villas in the South West were owned by Britons who have become Roman or owned by people from another part of the Empire who have come to exploit an under-developed rural area. All villas in this region in the South West are late-Roman – and our findings should tell us more about what life was like in this period of history. This is what can be assessed when the bones are analysed.”

The period was a turbulent one, characterized by political upheaval, economic decline, military dissension and increasing Saxon incursions. Britain supported the usurper emperor Magnentius (reigned 350-353 A.D.), and it suffered the displeasure of the legitimate emperor Constantius II after Magnetius was defeated and killed. Magnetius’ supporters in Britain were hunted down and killed by Constantius II’s envoy.

Ten years later, the Barbarian Conspiracy saw masses of Saxons, Scotti, Picts, Attacotti join with some native Britons and rebellion legions on Hadrian’s Wall ravage the province. They were defeated by general Flavius Theodosius, father of the future emperor Theodosius I, in 368. Meanwhile, the minting of new coins all but stopped by the end of the century. Getting a richer understanding of the occupants of a Roman villa during this era will open a window on how the elites lived when all this was happening around them.

If you’re fortunate enough to be in the neighborhood this weekend, the dig will be hosting an Open Day this Sunday July 13th from 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM. There is no fee and you don’t have to register. Visitors will get a guided tour of the site, a chance to meet the team and to see some of the artifacts that have been excavated this year.

For the less fortunate rest of us, we can follow the Durotriges Project dig on their outstanding Twitter account which is very active and crammed with great pictures.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

X-rays, scans reveal lives, deaths of baby mammoths

History Blog - Wed, 2014-07-09 23:23

Much of what we know about woolly mammoths has come from discoveries of skeletal remains, and even when the occasional soft tissues were discovered, scientists weren’t able to examine thoroughly and non-invasively until the advent of technologies like computer tomography. The discovery of two baby mammoths preserved virtually intact for 40,000 years by the Siberian permafrost have given scientists a unique opportunity to learn about their lives and deaths using full-body CT scans and cutting edge X-ray technology.

Lyuba, who died when she was one month old, was found on the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia in 2007. Khroma was two months old when she died in the northernmost area of Yakutia. She was discovered in 2009. They are the most complete examples of mammoths ever found, Khroma more so because her body was frozen almost immediately after death while Lyuba’s suffered some decomposition before it was stopped in its tracks by ice. Although they were found 3,000 miles apart, they are the same species and died around the same time which allowed for the first comparative study of mammoth skeletal development from two examples of known age.

Their completeness proved a challenge for researchers. Lyuba was too big to fit in standard CT scanners so at first scientists had to make do with partial scans done in Tokyo in 2009 and Wisconsin in early 2010. When the remains were transferred from Chicago to New Jersey later in 2010, University of Michigan researchers convinced the Russian team to let them take the mammoth on a detour to the Ford Motor Company’s Nondestructive Evaluation Laboratory in Detroit. They have an oversized scanner used to examine vehicle transmissions which was big enough to accommodate Lyuba. At Ford she got her first full-body scan.

Researchers were then able to compare the Ford scans with ones taken of Khroma at two French hospitals, and compare Micro-CT scans of both mammoths’ teeth done at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. It was the dental scans that pinpointed their ages at death — Lyuba was 30 to 35 days old, Khroma 52 to 57 days old — while the CT scans revealed interesting skeletal differences.

Scans of Khroma’s skull showed she had a brain slightly smaller than that of a newborn elephant, which hints at the possibility of a shorter gestation period for mammoths.

Lyuba’s skull is conspicuously narrower than Khroma’s, and her upper jawbones are more slender, while Khroma’s shoulder blades and foot bones are more developed. These differences may simply reflect the one-month age difference between the calves, or they could relate to the different populations from which the two calves derived.

The scans also found that the mammoths died in similar tragic accidents.

In Lyuba, the scans revealed a solid mass of fine-grained sediment blocking the air passages in the middle of the trunk. Sediment was also seen in Lyuba’s throat and bronchial passages. If Lyuba had died by drowning rather than suffocation – as some have suggested – then traces of sediment should also have been detected in parts of the lungs beyond the bronchial passages, but that was not the case.

Slightly coarser sediment was found in Khroma’s trunk, mouth and throat. Her lungs weren’t available for study because they were scavenged before the carcass was recovered. Since both animals appear to have been healthy at the time of death, a “traumatic demise” involving the inhalation of mud and suffocation appears to be the most likely cause of death in both cases, according to the authors.

The researchers suspect that Lyuba died in a lake because sediments found in her respiratory tract include fine-grained vivianite, a deep blue iron- and phosphate-bearing mineral that commonly forms in cold, oxygen-poor settings such as lake bottoms.

It’s possible that Lyuba crashed through the ice while crossing a lake during the spring melt. If she was struggling to breathe while submerged in a frigid lake, the mammalian “diving reflex” may have kicked in during her final moments, Fisher said. The reflex is triggered by cold water contacting the face, and it initiates physiological changes that enable animals to stay underwater for extended periods of time.

You can read the entire study, complete with 30 previously unpublished high resolution scan images, online free of charge in the Journal of Paleontology.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen Matisse returns to Venezuela

History Blog - Tue, 2014-07-08 23:14

Odalisque in Red Pants is back in Venezuela after more than a decade on the lam. The 1925 Matisse painting of a semi-nude woman wearing a pair of red pants was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art as early as 2000. Nobody knows for certain exactly when it was stolen because the thieves replaced it with a fake which was not noticed until 2002. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, it was a really, really bad fake, too, and not just in the small details that experts would recognize. The vase in the front right of the canvas was the wrong color. Not the wrong shade. The wrong color. The original is yellow while the fake is blue.

Matisse made a series of Odalisques in the 1920s. He decorated a corner of his Nice apartment in Moorish style with a low couch, fretwork screens, carpets and colorful wall hangings. He returned again and again to theme of the harem concubine standing, sitting, reclining in sensual poses, clad in languorously draped fabrics or nothing at all. Matisse explained his motivation thus: “I paint odalisques in order to paint the nude. Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial? But also, I know they exist. I was in Morocco. I saw them.” There are Matisse Odalisques in museums all over the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst. Venezuela’s Odalisque in Red Pants was the only one in a Latin American museum.

It was purchased from a New York art gallery in 1981 by Sofia Imber, art critic, collector and founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for $480,000. Its estimated worth today is $3 million. The museum started in Imber’s garage in 1973 became a world-class museum with a collection of about 3,000 works by contemporary masters like Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Kandinsky and Botero.

The theft of the painting came to light in late 2002 when Miami-based Venezuelan gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino alerted museum officials that he had been approached by someone attempting to sell him the Odalisque in Red Pants. After no further leads on the theft for nine years, in 2011 the F.B.I. found out that a Cuban man was attempting to sell the painting in Miami. Agents made a deal with the seller, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, to buy the painting for $740,000 and in July of 2012, agents met with Guzman and a woman named María Martha Ornelas, wife of Guzman’s “Mexican partner,” who carried the Matisse rolled up in a poster tube from Mexico City to a Miami hotel. They told the agents during their sales pitch that the painting was stolen by museum employees and replaced with the crappy fake. After examining the work, the F.B.I. agents arrested the would-be sellers.

Repatriation discussions have been ongoing ever since. Finally on Monday the painting arrived at the Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas where it was greeted by Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito and a live television broadcast.

“It’s generally well preserved,” Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito told local television from Caracas airport where a white box containing the painting was shown upon arrival after a court in south Florida authorized its return.

“This is another achievement of the Bolivarian revolution, of a government in touch with the arts,” the minister said, referring to the country’s 15-year-old socialist government that began in 1999 with the election of the late Hugo Chavez.

Barbarito said the painting would undergo a delicate 72-hour “acclimatization process” and be back on display at the museum in around two weeks. There was damage to the edges of the work but not the painting itself, he said.

That statement about the Bolivarian revolution was a not at all subtle reference to the controversy that has plagued the Venezuelan government’s approach to the arts since January of 2001 when then-President Hugo Chávez announced on his weekly radio broadcast that he had fired Sofia Imber as director of her own museum because “culture ha[d] become elitist as a result of being managed by elites,” and that he was firing her and other “elites” in the first salvo of a “Bolivarian cultural revolution.” The purge was roundly criticized by the art world.

The subsequent discovery of the stolen Matisse and unnoticed fake didn’t exactly cast this “revolution” in a positive light, hence the big show at the airport on Monday.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

History Blog - Mon, 2014-07-07 23:25

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.

The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.

The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.

Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.

The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.

There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.

The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Welsh Castles from the Clouds

History Blog - Sun, 2014-07-06 23:48

Cadw, the Wales’ Historic Environment Service, has launched a neat new initiative as part of its Time Traveller campaign to inspire interest in Welsh history and encourage tourism to Welsh historic sites. It’s a video series called Castles from the Clouds, so named because some of Wales finest castles are filmed by a remote controlled drone carrying high resolution cameras. The videos are short but sweet, providing sweeping bird’s eye view vistas of the castles.

So far there are four videos uploaded to the Cadw YouTube channel, with more to come.

Laugharne Castle:

Laugharne Castle was built in the 13th century on top of a 12th century Norman earth and timber fortification by the de Brian family. It was destroyed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last sovereign prince of Wales. Most of what stands today are the remains of a Tudor-era mansion built by Sir John Perrot who was reputed to be one of Henry VIII’s bastards. In 1644, it was besieged for a week and captured by Parliamentary troops. Already severely damaged by cannon fire, after its capture the castle was slighted (deliberately destroyed in whole or in part) leaving it in ruins. Those ruins inspired Dylan Thomas who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in the castle’s garden gazebo overlooking the estuary of the River Tâf.

Caerphilly Castle:

Caerphilly Castle was watershed (no pun intended) in the history of castle construction. Built by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th century, the castle is encircled by a series of concentric walls and is surrounded by elaborate water defenses, artificial lakes and moats created by the damming a local stream. It’s the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor is number one). By the late 15th century the castle was in decline. By the 18th several towers had collapsed and the waters receded. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the castle was given to the state that the water defenses were re-flooded. One tower still standing today leans even more than a certain tower in Pisa.

Kidwelly Castle:

Kidwelly Castle is a Norman castle that began as a ringwork castle in the 12th century. The stone castle was built in the mid-13th century by the de Chaworth family with the outer defenses added in the 14th century. It remained in English hands until Henry VII gave it to Rhys ap Thomas who had fought for him ably at the Battle of Bosworth. You might recognize it from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

St Davids Bishop’s Palace:

St Davids Bishop’s Palace began life as a monastery in the 6th century. The Norse raiders made a meal of it at least 10 times over the next four centuries. The Normans built a motte and bailey fortification to protect the holy site which held the relics of St. David, patron saint of Wales. A succession of bishops in the late 13th and 14th centuries built the stone structures. Bishop Henry de Gower built the cathedral in the 14th century, including the Great Hall with its beautiful wheel window.

Another bishop, Bishop William Barlow, is largely responsible for its ruin. Initially a Augustinian prior, he became prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation and an active participant in the Dissolution of Monasteries. In 1536, he stripped the Palace’s lead roof to raise money for his daughters’ dowries. Without a roof, the palace began to fall apart. By the 17th century it was considered a derelict hulk unfit for repair.

Subscribe to Cadw’s channel to see new Castles from the Clouds videos as they’re uploaded.

As a dedicated aficionado of coloring (no, I never grew out of it and never will), I must point you towards another aspect of Cadw’s Time Traveller campaign, the printable coloring sheets of Welsh heroes and (there’s one heroine but she’s a rather passive, tragic one). They’re very simple line drawings suitable for crayon work and young colorers. I’d love to see them add more intricate examples.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History