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Northernmost hacksilver hoard found in Aberdeenshire

Thu, 2014-12-04 23:57

Archaeologists from National Museums Scotland (NMS) and Aberdeen University’s Northern Picts Project have unearthed a hoard of Late Roman and Pictish silver fragments in a field in Aberdeenshire (the exact location of the hoard of more than 100 pieces is being kept secret to deter looters). It’s a hoard of hacksilver — bits of larger silver objects cut up for use as currency — made from coins, vessels, bracelets, brooches and more between the 4th and 6th century A.D. This is the northernmost hoard of Late Roman hacksilver ever discovered and the Pictish silver is unique.

As part of the Glenmorangie Research Project, an investigation into the history of early medieval Scotland funded by the Glenmorangie whisky company, National Museums Scotland experts will analyze, document and catalogue every silver fragment in the hoard. The project’s aim is to gain a better understanding of how silver went from a new, exotic Roman material to the most prestigious precious metal used to decorate high status objects in early medieval Scotland.

The discovery fits in to a sequence of silver use and re-use over several centuries that can now be studied alongside two other Scottish hacksilver hoards, the purely Late Roman silver from Traprain Law, East Lothian and the Pictish silver from Norrie’s Law, Fife.

These hoards contain a range of interesting material: earlier items from all over the Roman Empire, but also some unique objects and other later objects which have links to Ireland, the near continent and Anglo-Saxon England and give a snapshot of Scotland in Early Medieval Europe.

NMS researchers hope the comparison of the hoards will help illuminate the interactions between the late Romans and Picts. So far, the project’s investigations in northeastern Scotland have found that the area Picts were part of powerful early medieval kingdoms.

This phase of the project is expected to take three years, but you won’t have to wait that long to see some of the Aberdeenshire hoard in person. Select pieces from the hoard will go on display at the University of Aberdeen’s King’s Museum January 20th to May 31st, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Turner’s Mount Aventine sells for $47.5 million

Wed, 2014-12-03 23:30

Rome, from Mount Aventine, one of less than 10 paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner still in private hands, sold at Sotheby’s in London for £30.3 million ($47.5 million). It’s a new record auction price for the artist, surpassing the previous record-holder, the sublime Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino by $2 million and leaving its pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million ($24,530,000 – $32,707,000) in the dust. In fact, it’s the highest auction price for any pre-20th century British artist.

A landscape of Rome viewed from the Aventine Hill looking north over the Tiber, the 1835 painting wasn’t done live, but rather from the sketches Turner did of the city during his 1828 visit. It’s an unusual prospect: the bustling Porto di Ripa, the Trastevere dock yards in front of the Ospizio di San Michele, in the midfield left, with Saint Peter’s dome in the far distance, the Ponte Emilio in center, and the Capitoline Hill with the bell tower of the Palazzo del Senatore crossing the horizon to the right. On the curve of the Tiber’s right bank stand the ruins of the ancient city: the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus, even the arches of the Colosseum visible in the misty light of dawn between the trees of the Aventine on the far right of the canvas.

It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 to much acclaim. It remained the property of the man who commissioned it, Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, until his death. It was purchased from the estate in 1878 by Archibald Primrose, the Fifth Earl of Rosebery and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (March 5th, 1894 – June 22nd, 1895), who also bought Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino. The Primrose family owned both paintings until they sold Campo Vaccino four years ago to fund an endowment that will support the Rosebery estates indefinitely.

The painting’s rarity, classic subject matter, impeccable provenance and exceptional condition engendered the bidding war. The award-winning success of the movie Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the artist, may have played a part too, at least in keeping Turner’s name on people’s lips.

Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, said: “It is hard to overstate the importance of Rome, From Mount Aventine. There are no more than half a dozen major works by Turner left in private hands and this work must rank as one of the very finest.

“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, his fingerprint, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.”

The buyer is an anonymous phone bidder who went up against three strongly motivated bidders on the floor. I’m hoping we’ll get a press release from a museum claiming responsibility. If the buyer plans to take it out of Britain, he or she can expect a temporary export ban like the one that delayed, but ultimately was unable to block, the Getty’s acquisition of Campo Vaccino.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iron Age tunic found in Norway glacier recreated

Tue, 2014-12-02 23:15

In 2011, archaeologists exploring the rapidly melting Lendbreen glacier in Norway’s Breheimen National Park discovered an intact woolen tunic dating to between 230 and 390 A.D. It is the oldest garment ever found in Norway, and it wasn’t new when for unknown reasons it was left on a glacier to freeze solid. There are several patches and the sleeves were sewn onto the tunic after the original manufacture. Although it could have been decades old, it was still entirely in wearable condition, and yet it was found bundled up and covered in horse manure. Archaeologists speculated that its 5’9″ wearer removed it believing himself to be hot, a common delusion caused by hypothermia, but it may also have been put to some other purpose rather than as clothing.

Its exceptional condition and the visible repairs afford researchers a unique chance to examine Iron Age wool, textile production and garment construction. To learn more about how the tunic was made, two museums — the University of Olso’s Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Mountain Museum in Lom — will create reproductions using traditional techniques. It’s going to be a highly detailed and complex process that enlists the labour of expert craftsmen.

First they have to source the proper wool. Ancient Norwegian sheep breeds had two kinds of wool: the long, stiff, water-resistant outer coat known as overhair, and the soft, fluffy inner layer known as underwool. The two layers were used to make different kinds of garments. The overhair was ideal for outerwear to protect from the elements, but the Lendbreen tunic was made almost entirely from underwool.

Wool from most modern sheep breeds is akin to the ancient underwool, but wild breeds still have the two layers. Researchers are therefore securing the wool of Norwegian wild sheep from a farmer at Hareid in northwestern Norway’s Sunnmøre region. Then traditional wool spinnery at Selbu Spinneri wll separate the overhair from the underwool by hand. They have no idea how long this painstaking work will take (my guess is a long damn time). Once the overhair has been plucked out, the spinners will spin some of the underwool on a hand spindle just as it would have been done in the Iron Age. (Spinning wheels were invented in the 18th century. EDIT: According to the linked release about the project, that is, but several erudite commenters below have corrected the contention. I suspect is a translation error and they were referring to mechanized spinning.) The project can’t afford to spin all the wool they need by hand, so some of it will be spun mechanically.

Because the tunic was woven in a diamond twill pattern, the Selbu Spinneri will sort the underwool into shades of grey so the darkest and lightest wool can be woven into this distinctive pattern. Once spun, the yard will be woven into the diamond twill textile on a vertical warp-weighted loom, an ancient machine that is simple, functional and slow.

Consisting of a simple upright frame with two horizontal beams, the loom is leant against a wall. The vertical warp threads hang freely from the upper beam. To keep the warp threads taut, stones or other heavy weights are hung from the bottom of bundles of warp threads. The weaving is done from the top of the loom downwards and every line of weft thread is beaten tightly in place with a sword beater.

The textiles will be woven by handweaver Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg. Lena specializes in reconstructing prehistoric textiles.

Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg, you are so cool.

After Ms. Hammarlund does her thing, the woven textile will be sewn into two tunics by traditional tailors from Heimen Husflid in Oslo. Once the tunics are completed, they will go on display, one at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the other at the Lom museum. The latter is just six miles east of the Lendbreen glacier and has a large collection of artifacts recovered since the thaws began accelerating in 2006.

Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, hopes the reconstruction won’t just give us a new understanding of the manufacture of ancient woollen clothing, but will also have an impact on Norwegian clothing design today.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time. Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all. We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design. If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry. Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds currently goes to waste.”

I’m picturing a Norwegian wild sheep overhair trench coat. I know I’d wear one.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

View restoration of della Francesca’s Resurrection by app

Mon, 2014-12-01 23:41

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, a fresco judged by Aldous Huxley to be “the best picture in the world,” is receiving a much-needed restoration. A team from Florence’s conservation institute the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will spend a projected 18 months in the Upper Tiber Valley town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, restoring the 15th century masterpiece and they will do it in plain view of the public thanks to a custom scaffolding bridge that will leave the painting visible while experts work on it. Public restorations are increasingly common these days, but this project will vastly expand the range of public view with an app that will allow people to follow the restoration from the comfort of their own smartphones. The app debuts in January.

Restoring The Resurrection is a complex problem. Piero della Francesca used different types of paint — fresco, tempera — and design techniques. Pigments like cinnabar red lacquer, malachite and white lead are typical of tempera. Because of the diverse materials, restorers will have to work on the painting inch by inch. The Opificio experts have studied the work using 20 non-invasive techniques — among them UV imaging, infrared imaging, careful visual examination of the surface — and found areas where the paint is discolored, flaking and cracking, and which of those are original, which past restorations. There are places where the fresco’s plaster is peeling off the wall. A 3D reconstruction of the work derived from the imaging data indicates that damage and dirt have obscured many of the painting’s unique perspectival elements.

The wall itself is in need of repair because multiple earthquakes over the centuries have caused structural problems. Although it adds another layer of difficulty to the project, treating the wall has an upside. Restorers are hoping it will answer questions about when the painting was moved to its current location. Della Francesca painted it for the Town Hall in the 1460s to celebrate Florence returning control of the building and some measure of political autonomy to Sansepolcro, but it was originally on the wall of another room in the building. The bottom-to-top perspective suggests it was once placed higher than it is now. It was thought to have been moved to its current room in the 16th century, but there are a lot of open questions about the history of the work.

In Huxley’s 1925 essay The Best Picture (pdf), he provides a whole other backstory:

The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall. Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date. Thanks to the vandals, the visitor who now enters the Palazzo
dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous Resurrection almost as Piero della Francesca left it. Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.

If Huxley’s description is accurate, the condition of the work has degenerated precipitously in just 90 years.

The Resurrection has a profound connection to Sansepolcro. Piero della Francesca was a native son (the sleeping soldier in the brown armour underneath the staff of Jesus’ banner is thought to be a self-portrait). He incorporated the city’s symbolism into the painting. The rock in the bottom right depicts the stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that according to legend pilgrims Arcanus and Aegidius brought back from Jerusalem with them when they founded the town they then named after the church. The Christ figure from the painting is the central element of the city’s coat of arms.

Then there’s the more recent history when The Resurrection saved Sansepolcro from destruction in World War II. In 1944, Royal Horse Artillery captain Anthony Clarke was ordered shell the city in advance of Allied infantry troops. Clarke had seen the obliteration of the monastery at Monte Cassino as a result of Allied bombing, a destruction that turned out to be not just futile (the Germans weren’t occupying the monastery as the Allies believed) but counterproductive since German paratroopers moved into the ruins which gave them outstanding cover and made them very hard to dislodge. He had also read Huxley’s essay and remembered, even though he had never seen the painting, that The Resurrection was in Sansepolcro. Taking an enormous personal risk, Clarke did not relay the order to fire.

He later said his commanding officer had come on the radio urging him to get on with it so he had to stall for time, peering at the town through binoculars and assuring his commander that he could see no German targets to go after.

It was a brave action. Had Allied infantry been ambushed as they advanced on Sansepolcro, his court martial would have been brutal.

But, for the love of art, he kept the guns silent. The Germans fled and the town was liberated the following day without any damage to the 500-year-old work of art.

There’s a street named after Tony Clarke in Sansepolcro now.

The restoration is estimated to cost 200,000 euros ($250,000). The town council has scared up 40,000 euros from its threadbare budget. Former Buitoni pasta and sauce executive Also Osti has pleged 100,000 euros. A friend convinced him to donate, and he was easily persuaded because he although he now lives in Switzerland, he lived in Sansepolcro, headquarters of the Buitoni company, for many years. His son was born there. The city is working on raising the remaining 60,000 euros from other private donors. Meanwhile they have enough to get started and keep going for a while.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lost avant-garde painting found in Stuart Little’s living room

Sun, 2014-11-30 23:49

Art historian Gergely Barki was watching Stuart Little with his daughter Lola on Christmas Day 2008 when he recognized a painting above the living room fireplace as Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase, a lost masterpiece by Hungarian Avant-Garde painter Róbert Berény. Berény painted Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase at the turn of 1927/1928. The model was his second wife, cellist Eta Breuer who posed for several of her husband’s post-Impressionist works, often with her cello even though she had stopped playing professionally when she married Berény. Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, is writing a biography of the artist and recognized the painting from the last known record of it: a black and white photograph taken at an exhibition in Hungary in 1928. It was bought at that exhibition by an unknown person, perhaps someone Jewish who fled the country before or during World War II. In the chaos of war and its aftermath, Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase disappeared.

After he beheld the work in living color casually hanging behind Hugh Laurie, Geena Davis and a stylishly attired CGI mouse 90 years after its disappearance, Barki barraged Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, cameramen, propmasters, directors, anyone connected with the movie that might have some information about the painting, with emails, but nobody knew where the piece was. It was no longer on Sony’s books because at some point between 1999 and 2002 it had been loaned to the CBS drama Family Law and was removed from the warehouse inventory at that time.

Two years later, he heard from Lisa S., an assistant set designer on Stuart Little. She had bought the painting for $500 from an antiques store in Pasadena specifically for the movie because she thought its cool elegance was perfectly suited for the Little’s New York City apartment. Lisa S. had tracked it down in another warehouse and purchased it from Sony just because she liked it so much. When she contacted Barki, she had no idea of the history of the painting hanging on her bedroom wall.

After Barki visited the painting in person and confirmed its identity, Lisa sold it to a private collector. That collector has now been persuaded to sell it in Hungary. It will go up for auction at the Virag Judit Art Gallery in Budapest on December 13th with a starting price of 110,000 euros ($160,000). Gergely Barki won’t make a dime off of his discovery, but he will have a great story to tell in his biography of the artist.

Róbert Berény’s fame today is centered around his being one of The Eight, a group of artists who introduced the Post-Impressionist avant-garde to Hungary in 1909. He had studied art in Paris starting when he was 17 years old in 1904, exhibiting with the French Fauvists and then incorporating the influence of Cezanne and Matisse into his work with The Eight. The Eight had a profound influence on Hungarian culture, literature and music as well as the visual arts.

In addition to his work in painting and other graphic arts (he designed a well known propaganda poster entitled To Arms! To Arms! for Béla Kun’s Hungarian Revolution of 1919), Berény was also a writer, violinist, pianist, composer and inventor who experimented with moving film and even made an early version of 3D glasses. He and his first wife Ilona Somló, nicknamed Léni, were also close friends with pioneering psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi and were involved in early psychoanalysis experiments including ones on telepathy.

In his personal life, Berény was a notorious lothario. Among his lovers are numbered Marlene Dietrich and a so-called “Russian princess” who may actually have been Anna Anderson, the Polish factor worker who for decades claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and magical survivor of the firing squad that slaughtered the Romanovs in 1918.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Help fund Sandby ringfort excavation

Sat, 2014-11-29 23:59

If we ever want to find out what happened at the Sandby Borg ringfort in the 5th century A.D. that left dead bodies to rot where they fell and treasure hidden for 1,600 years, we’re going to have to contribute funds. Sandby Borg was discovered on the island of Öland off the southeastern coast of Sweden in 2010 when the presence of looting pits alerted archaeologists to the site. A scan with metal detectors found five hoards each containing highly decorated gilded silver brooches, finger rings, silver bell pendants and glass beads with millefiori designs, buried in the corners of five houses in the central block of the fort.

The next year, archaeologists from the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden returned to excavate and found human skeletons of men killed by violence. In subsequent digs, more skeletons were discovered for a total of at least 10. This summer a potentially highly significant gold solidus was found in a posthole of House 40. In September of this year, for the first time the remains of a small child aged two to five years were found, an extremely important discovery since it suggests there were families in the fort, not just adults. The child was found in the same house as a middle aged man (50-60 years old) who was found lying prone in the fireplace. He was probably struck by a weapon and fell face-down into the fireplace where he came to a gruesome end.

So far less than 3% of the fort has been excavated. Each year archaeologists have only a few short days to dig test pits and every time they’ve uncovered tantalizing evidence of the horror that befell the residents of Sandby Borg in the 5th century. They don’t have the funding to thoroughly excavate any one part of the ringfort, however, which is not only frustrating for our insatiable historical curiosity, but also potentially dangerous since it leaves precious archaeological context and material culture in danger of interference.

Enter Kickstarter. The Kalmar County Museum Department of Archaeology has started a campaign to raise 400,000 kronor ($52,000), a modest goal that will allow them to zero in on one area and produce a book about their finds.

If we reach our goal with this Kickstarter campaign, we will be able to excavate the remaining 1/3 of the house known as House 40 and produce a richly illustrated book presenting the results in English and Swedish. This is the house where at least six people are lying dead on the floor. Two of them have already been recovered, but the remaining four or more are still there. One main objective of investigating the rest of the house is to recover the skeletons. Furthermore, this particular house has proven to contain numerous potential clues to what actually happened here, and why. The Roman gold coin mentioned above is one example; some exquisite details from weaponry are another. The funding will cover both costs for personnel during fieldwork and post-excavation work and analyses, but also for the production of the book.

You have to donate at the 1,000 kronor level ($134) to get the book. If you have deeper pockets (15,000 kr, or $2,012), you can secure a VIP tour of the site personally guided by lead archaeologist Dr. Helena Victor. If you’re Oprah rich, pledge 50,000 kr ($6,700) and you get to get in the trenches and dig! God that’s such a cool reward I can’t even stand it.

The Kickstarter has been open since November 27th and has already raised 68,155 kronor just from small donors. The deadline is December 31st. A donation would make a fine present for the history nerd on your list.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

23,000-year-old limestone Venus found in France

Fri, 2014-11-28 22:58

Archaeologists excavating the Renancourt neighborhood of Amiens in northern France have unearthed a small artifact of large historical significance. It’s a limestone statuette of a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks of a type known as a Paleolithic Venus. She’s 23,000 years old, an artifact of the late Gravettian culture found in France and eastern Europe, reaching all the way to western Siberia. About a hundred Gravettian Venuses have been found all over Europe, including 15 examples in southwest France, but this is the first one discovered in the north of France. The last one unearthed in an archeological context in France was found in Tursac, Dordogne, in 1959.

In July of this year, the team was excavating a deposit of eolian silt from the end of the last glacial period (40,000 to 10,000 years ago), expecting to find relatively common Paleolithic remains like flints and animal bones. On the second day of the dig, they found a pile of limestone fragments that didn’t seem like natural chips. That night, they were able to puzzle together the 20 fragments to form an almost complete female statuette about 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) tall. Only the right leg piece is missing. It was carved from a single piece of limestone and archaeologists believe it shattered from the cold.

Typical of the 244 Upper Paleolithic Venuses that have been found from different periods in Europe (the oldest being the 35,000-40,000-year-old Venus of Schelklingen which is also the oldest known human figurative art), the secondary sex characteristics are unmistakably prominent, while the head and extremities are barely present. The Venus of Renancourt has a simple rounded shape for a head and roughly engraved arms and legs.

In a space of only nine square meters, archaeologists recovered an abundance of Paleolithic remains along with the Venus, including flint projectile points used for hunting and large blades used as tools like knives and scrapers. Numerous animal bones attest to horse meat having been on the menu regularly. Chalk jewelry — rounds pierced with a hole — discovered at the site is very unusual and may be unique to this deposit. The remains indicate this was a hunter’s camp which radiocarbon dating found to be 23,000 years old, the last phase of the Gravettian period.

It’s not just the Venuses that are rare discoveries in the north of France; evidence of Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon presence is rare because at that time there were still glaciers reaching all the way down to the modern-day Netherlands. This discovery suggests there was a window of warmer temperatures that allowed the Cro-Magnon hunters to travel north over impressively long distances. The Gravettian areas in the southwest of France are 125-185 miles away. That’s a lot of ground to cover on foot during an ice age.

The Venus of Renancourt will be studied thoroughly for the next few months before going on display at Museum of Picardie in Amiens.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Flint axe with wood handle found at Lolland dig

Thu, 2014-11-27 22:40


The tally of marvels unearthed at the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel construction site on the Danish island of Lolland seems to get longer every weeks. We can now add a flint axe with an intact wooden handle to the flint dagger with the intact bark handle and the 5,000-year-old human footprints around the hazel stick gillnets. The axe is about 5,500 years old, around the same age as the footprints and 2,500 years older than the dagger.

Only eight complete Stone Age axes with the full wooden handle preserved have been found in Denmark before now. All of those were discovered in peat bogs. This is the first example discovered on the site of a former fjord lagoon. Jammed into the dense clay of the seabed, the axe was covered in layers of sand and soil that kept oxygen away and waterlogged the organic material, keeping it moist and intact.

Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists discovered the axe stuck vertically 30 centimeters (just under a foot) below the sea floor east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn. It was not the only artifact found jammed into what was then the seashore in a vertical position. There were numerous wooden candlesticks, two oars, two bows, eight spears and 14 axe shafts. There were also deposits of ceramic objects and animals. In one grouping they found 60 jaws from different animals and two axes made from red deer antlers with fragments of the wooden hilts in the shaft holes. This was the only complete axe with both head and hilt in perfect condition.

Axes were important tools for Stone Age people, but particularly so around the time when agriculture was introduced to the region. In order to begin planting things, people had to clear the virgin forests that covered the country. The establishment of stationary agricultural communities engendered new social hierarchies and religious rituals. Wetlands were a consistent locus for cultic practices, and burials and sacrificial offerings testify to how important these liminal grounds between water and land were to the people who lived near them.

The proliferation of vertical objects excavated at Rødbyhavn are a prime example of a coastal area being used for offerings. These objects, all of them with significant practical uses and value, were planted into the clay as part of a ritual sacrifice. Their deliberate placement and the lack of any utilitarian purpose to the Stone Age people burying their stuff and animal bones in the shallows identifies them as religious deposits.

Excavations will continue until next summer when construction on the tunnel begins and these precious sites will be bulldozed away. Archaeologists hope what they find in the upcoming months will lend them greater understanding of Stone Age religious practices.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Rare Shakespeare first folio found in French library

Wed, 2014-11-26 23:53

One of only 233 known copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays has been discovered in the library of Saint-Omer, a small town in northern France 30 miles south of Calais. Rémy Cordonnier, director of the medieval and early modern collection, found it this September when looking through the library’s stack for materials that would suit an upcoming English literature exhibition. Missing its telltale title page, the volume was wrongly classified as an 18th century edition, but Cordonnier suspected the missing pages might be making a secret identity as one of the rarest and most sought-after books in the world.

He contacted Eric Rasmussen from the University of Nevada, an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio who spent 20 years cataloguing all known copies and who happened to be visiting the British Library. Last Saturday he took the Eurostar train to France too see the work in person. He authenticated it almost at first glance. The paper, its watermarks and certain errors that were corrected in later editions immediately identified it as the 233rd First Folio, the first new one discovered in a decade. Printed in 1623, just seven years after Shakespeare’s death, by his friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, the First Folio contains 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, and is the earliest, most reliable extant source for half of them.

There are differences between this copy and the 232 other ones known to survive. The printers made corrections and alterations throughout the original print run of around 800, so each First Folio is a unique work. In addition to the printing differences, the Saint-Omer copy is also missing the entire text of Two Gentlemen of Verona; the pages were deliberately torn out. There are also annotations that suggest the volume was used for performances. Some of the words are replaced with more modern language, and a character in Henry IV is changed from “hostess” to “host” and from “wench” to “fellow” with utter disregard for iambic pentameter.

The library has had the book in its stacks for 400 years, thanks to its arrangement with the now-defunct college of Jesuits in Saint-Omer which used the city library’s Heritage Room as its own library. Saint-Omer is a small town now, but in the Middle Ages it was an important city with the fourth greatest library in Western Europe. The Jesuit college was founded in the late 16th century when Catholics were forbidden by law to attend college in English. They could just cross the Channel and get an education in France instead, and Saint-Omer was well attended by English Catholics.

One particularly intriguing note is the name “Nevill” written on the first page of The Tempest (also the first page of the book entire since the title pages are gone). It could be the explanation of how the folio got to Saint-Omer since there is only one other known copy in the whole country. Neville was a name adopted by several members of the Scarisbrick family, a prominent Catholic family of landed gentry with a pedigree stretching back to the 1200s. Edward Scarisbrick (Neville), born in 1639, was educated at the Jesuit college of St. Omer, and, following in the footsteps of others in his family, became a Jesuit in 1660.

There’s some speculation that the find may be relevant to the question of whether William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, but I don’t see how. Shakespeare was dead and gone when this book got to Saint-Omer. It could be relevant to how Catholics read and performed his plays in the 17th century; I doubt it goes beyond that.

First Folios are of course very valuable. One sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $5.2 million, but this copy would not be so expensive because of its missing pages. It doesn’t matter anyway, because there is no way the library is selling it. As Rémy Cordonnier notes succinctly: “It is an inalienable property that cannot be sold, like all the works of the library.”

It will be conserved for a while and then put on display some time next year. There are also tentative plans to scan it and make it available on the library’s website.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Hoard of Roman silver found in The Hague

Tue, 2014-11-25 23:12

Archaeologists excavating the future site of the Rotterdamsebaan access road in The Hague announced on Friday that they’ve unearthed a Roman-era pot containing a hoard of coins and jewelry. The contents of the pot were discovered fused together in a large lump of metal. Conservators were able to separate the individual parts of the mass and discovered 107 silver coins, six silver bracelets, a large silver plated fibula (cloak brooch) and some glass beads that were probably on a chain that has now disintegrated. The silver bracelets look the same, but there are small differences between them that indicate they are three matched pairs.

Restorer Johan van der Helm did such a fine job detangling the rusted lump and cleaning the coins that in the end all 107 coins were readable. They are all silver denarii, a very valuable collection at a time when brass coins were far more common in circulation. The oldest coin dates to the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.), the youngest to the reign of Marcus Aurelius about a century later (161-180 A.D.). One extremely rare coin was struck under the reign of Emperor Otho who only ruled three months, from January 15th to April 16th 69 A.D., the second in the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors which came to a close with the ascent of Vespasian.

This find doubles the number of Roman coins discovered in The Hague, which in the 2nd century was sparsely populated countryside in Rome’s Germania Inferior province. The area that is now The Hague was just south of the estuary of the Rhine, the empire’s western frontier, so there were fortifications here and there but the regional capital was the nearby town of Forum Hadriani, modern day Voorburg, which was the northernmost Roman city in continental Europe. It was abandoned in the wake of Saxon raids in around 270 A.D.

Earlier this fall, the Rotterdamsebaan excavations uncovered the remains of two Roman houses and several wells close to where the coins were unearthed. It seems to have been a small farming community. Since the hoard was buried all at once rather than deposited over time as savings, it was either an offering to the gods or the earthly goods of an area resident seeking to protect them from marauders.

The hoard is now on display at the Historical Museum of The Hague.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Norfolk museum acquires Bronze Age dirk used as doorstop

Mon, 2014-11-24 23:52

When a farmer turned up a hunk of bent bronze while ploughing a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, 12 years ago, he had no idea he’d found an archaeological treasure. He used the four-pound object as a doorstop for years and was considering throwing it out when a friend suggested he have it checked out by an archaeologist first. In 2013, the object was reviewed by Andrew Rogerson, Senior Historic Environment Officer of Norfolk’s Identification and Recording Service which is in charge of county’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. He identified it as an extremely rare and important ceremonial dirk from the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,500 B.C.

The landowner agreed to sell it to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for £40,970 ($64,272). Thanks to a £38,970 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and a £2,000 donation from the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, the Norwich Castle Museum is now the proud owner of a 3,500-year-old bronze ceremonial dirk.


Images of Rudham Dirk courtesy of the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Its large size, deliberately blunt edges and the lack of rivet holes where a handle would be attached are what mark it as having no practical use. Dirks meant for actual stabbing are sharp, pointed and can be wielded easily with one hand. This piece was designed for a ritual purpose, which is why it was found folded. Bending a metal object as a symbolic act of destruction before burial was a common practice in the Bronze Age and later.

Early Bronze Age metal work was done on a small scale for local usage, much like flint knapping or the production of pottery. The Middle Bronze Age saw the development of more specialized metallurgy. Metalworking became the province of increasingly skilled artisans who would have needed workshops and apprentices and imported raw materials to create more elaborate objects. The ceremonial dirks were prestige pieces, the work of the best artisans money could buy. Owning such a heavy, large metal object intended for no practical use was a symbol of power both temporal and, given their ritual purpose, spiritual.

Bronze is composed of 90% copper and 10% tin, and it’s that 10% that was hard to come by in quantities sufficient to make a giant four-pound unusable dagger. In Bronze Age Europe, sources of tin were few and far between. There were in tin mines in the Ore Mountains on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, on the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, in Brittany in France and in Devon and Cornwall in England. The tin for the Rudham Dirk could have come from the English mines, but the artifact could have been fabricated on the continent.

Only five other ceremonial dirks of this type have been found. Two were discovered in France — the Plougrescant Dirk (1,500–1,300 B.C.), now at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Beaune Dirk (1,500–1,350 B.C.), now at the British Museum — two in the Netherlands — the co-type find the Ommerschans Dirk (1,500 – 1,100 B.C.) which at last tally was in Bavaria, still in the possession of the family who owned the estate where it was discovered, and the Jutphaas Dirk (1,800-1,500 B.C.), now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden — and one in Oxborough, Norfolk (1,450-1,300 B.C.), which is also in the British Museum.

Their dimensions and details are so similar that all dirks likely came from the same workshop, perhaps even the same hand. They are virtually identical in form, decoration and cross-section. The Beaune and Ommerschans examples are the same length (68 centimeters or just short of 27 inches) as the Rudham Dirk. The Oxborough Dirk is slightly longer at 70 centimeters, while the Jutphaas Dirk is 20 centimeters shorter. If one shop is responsible for all of them, it had an impressive reach through ancient trade networks.

The Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk is momentous not just because of the artifact’s immense rarity and archaeological significance. It’s also a homecoming that was denied them the first time a ceremonial dirk was unearthed in the county. The Oxborough Dirk was found in 1988. It was thrust into the peat vertically and erosion had exposed the hilt leaving the finder to literally stumble over it.

The artifact was exhibited at the Norwich Castle Museum in 1989 and the British Museum in 1990 before the owner decided to sell it at a Christie’s auction on July 6th, 1994. It was purchased by high society antiques dealer and notorious loot fencer Robin Symes for £51,000 ($79,076), five times the pre-sale estimate. An export block stopped it from leaving the country and gave the British Museum the time to fundraise so they could buy the dirk from Symes for the price he paid. Thanks to a £20,000 Art Fund grant, the museum was able to acquire the Oxborough Dirk later that year.

So it was saved for the nation, but not so much for Norfolk. The dirk visited its home county three times, twice in exhibits at the Norwich Castle Museum, last winter at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. This time around, Norfolk’s principal museum gets to keep the rare Middle Bronze Age ceremonial dirk in the county where it was discovered, the only county in the world where two of them have been found.

Dr Tim Pestell, Senior Curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle said: “We are delighted to have secured such an important and rare find as this, which provides us with insights into the beliefs and contacts of people at the dawn of metalworking. Through its display we hope to bring residents and visitors to Norfolk closer to the remarkable archaeology of our region and stories of our ancient past.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Leaning Tower of Bad Frankenhausen saved

Sun, 2014-11-23 23:58

The funding cavalry has arrived to save the dangerously leaning tower of the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill in the Thuringian spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. The 14th century bell tower, built on a chalk foundation over subterranean salt deposits that get washed out by the springs that put the Bad in Bad Frankenhausen, has been leaning precipitously since a 1908 landslide. It leans 15 feet eastward of the perpendicular, more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM), owner of the church for most of its life, tried to stabilize it several times over the years, but to no avail. Finally in December of 2011, the EKM decided to demolish the roofless, structurally unsound church and its leaning tower. The only chance of reprieve was if the city could raise the funds necessary to restore the tower, the EKM would sell the Church of Our Dear Ladies to the city for a token sum of €1 and chip in the money they had planned to spend on demolition (about €150,000).

It was a close call. By a vote of nine votes for, seven against and three abstentions, the Bad Frankenhausen city council agreed to the acquisition of the church. The estimated total cost of restoration was €1 million. Subtracting the demolition funds, that left the city with €850,000 to scare up. They put €50,000 into immediate stabilization work in early 2012, and then went to work trying to secure government funding. Without it, the city would not be able to raise the €800,000 and Bad Frankenhausen’s most recognizable landmark, symbol of the town just as the Leaning Tower is of Pisa, would have to be demolished for safety reasons.

The city applied to the Thuringian Ministry of Construction for state funding, but were rejected. With time running out, Bad Frankenhausen threw a hail mary pass and applied to the National Urban Planning Projects, a new €50 million federal program to support city development projects of “national visibility, high quality, above-average investment volume or high potential for innovation.” The program received 271 applications, 24 from Thuringia alone, for a total of €900 million in requested funding.

A jury of members of parliament, academics and urban planning experts selected 21 applications for project funding. The Bad Frankenhausen tower was one of only two winners from Thuringia. The stabilization of the tower will now be funded to the tune of €950,000. Mayor Matthias Strejc was particularly pleased to note the tower was considered a historic landmark of national importance by the federal government because the state government had sent them yet another rejection letter just a few days before they heard their application had been accepted by the National Urban Planning Projects.

The next step for the tower is research into the movement of the soil underneath it. Three holes will be dug, one 400 meters (437 yards) deep and two 70 meters (77 yards), and sensors inserted into the holes. The sensor readings will be viewable in real time by visitors to the tower’s information pavilion. The data will be submitted in a new report due by December 31st. Structural engineers will use that information to fine tune the stabilization plan which as of now involves building a reinforced concrete core in the basement of the tower and creating a steel corset structure on the outside.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Medal of Honor awarded to Gettysburg hero 151 years later

Sat, 2014-11-22 23:59

Union Lieutenant Alonzo Hersford Cushing died at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. On November 6th, 2014, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the country, for his heroism on that field of battle that day. It has taken 151 years and a campaign of more than three decades for Cushing to get this richly deserved recognition. It’s the longest gap between the act of valor and the awarding of a Medal of Honor in history.

Alonzo Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, on January 19th, 1841. He was one of four brothers and his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. The congressman who recommended Alonzo to West Point described her as “poor but highly committed and her son will do honor to the position.” He was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated in June 1861, two months after hostilities began at Fort Sumter, with a commission as first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was in the thick of all the most famous battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and of course, the one that would claim his life, Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville Cushing was promoted to commander of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery of the Army of the Potomac II Corps.

He was in command of 126 men and six cannons on July 3rd, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. They were positioned inside a bend in the rock wall, known as the Bloody Angle, on Cemetery Ridge that was the center of the line General Robert E. Lee hoped to break through with a massive 13,000-person infantry attack known as Pickett’s Charge. After being pounded by Confederate artillery, Battery A was all but destroyed. All the officers and most of the soldiers were dead. Only two cannons were still functional.

Cushing himself had been grievously wounded during the artillery assault. A shell fragment hit him in the shoulder and shrapnel gutted him, tearing through his groin and abdomen. He refused categorically to move to the rear, saying he would “stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” Instead, literally holding his intestines in one hand, Cushing ordered that the two remaining cannons be moved right up to the stone wall to shoot at the three Confederate divisions of infantry advancing in rows a mile wide towards the Angle.

Weak and unable to shout, Cushing was bodily supported by 1st Sergeant Frederick Füger who relayed his orders to his men. He observed the charge through a field glass, and ordered his men to fire double-shotted canister, deadly anti-personnel rounds. He used his own thumb to stop the cannon’s vent, burning his fingers to the bone. With the Confederate infantry less than 100 yards away, he yelled “I will give them one more shot.” A few seconds later a bullet hit Cushing in the mouth, exiting out the back of his skull and killing him. He was 22 years old.

Cushing had stood his ground for more than an hour and a half after his wounding, inflicting heavy casualties and opening gaps in the Confederate lines that played an important role in the Union’s repelling Pickett’s Charge. He was given a posthumous brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for his service at the Battle of Gettysburg, but no medal. He was buried at West Point, a very high military honor, under a headstone inscribed “Faithful unto death.”

The story of Alonzo Cushing wasn’t widely known, but he was still beloved in his hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin. That’s where Margaret Zerwekh heard about it when she married her second husband and moved into his Delafield house that had once belonged to the Cushing family. An amateur historian, she researched Alonzo’s story and sometime in the 1980s (she doesn’t remember the exact date), wrote a letter to then-Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin recommending Cushing for a Medal of Honor. It would be the first of many, many letters sent to many, many members of Congress.

The procedure for awarding a Medal of Honor more than three years after the events being recognized are complex. First the branch of the military in which the would-be recipient served has to approve the nomination. In Cushing’s case, the U.S. Army approved his nomination in 2010. Then legislation had to be passed by both Houses of Congress to waive the three-year time limit. That took three years. Then the President has to approve the nomination. This August, the White House announced that Alonzo Cushing would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The deed was done at a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House attended by more than two dozen Cushing family members and Margaret Zerwekh. Alonzo’s next of kin, cousin twice removed Helen Loring Ensign, accepted the medal on his behalf.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Thomas Hart Benton’s epic America Today murals at the Met

Fri, 2014-11-21 23:48

Before he become cover-of-Time-magazine famous as a muralist and leading light of the realist style inspired by local scenes known as Regionalism, Thomas Hart Benton’s first mural commission was a series of 10 murals for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Alvin Johnson, the school’s director and one of its co-founders, wanted its mission of unfettered inquiry and progressive thought to be reflected in the art and architecture as well. He commissioned Joseph Urban to design a new building in modernist International Style that stood out dramatically from the Greenwich Village town houses on West 12th Street. Benton collaborated with Urban to create murals that will flawlessly fit the walls of the third floor boardroom.

The new building opened on New Year’s Day 1931 with nine of the panels in place (Benton finished the tenth later) on the four walls of the 30-by-22-foot room. America Today depicts a wide view of American life in the 1920s: city and country, industry and farming, steel workers and bankers, coal miners and doctors, black and white, boxers and lovers, a hard day’s work and wild nights of dancing, north and south. Benton painted these murals, most of which are seven and a half feet high, referring to sketched studies he had made while traveling the country in the 1920s. Fun fact: his student Jackson Pollock posed for several of the figures.

Benton received no fee for this immense work, just expenses, but he got a whole lot of artistic recognition. The critical success of the cycle led directly to commissions for eight other murals, including the Indiana Murals which cemented his mainstream fame and put money in his pocket. His dynamic, fluid, colorful style was a major influence for the WPA artists that soon followed.

The murals saw some hard treatment over the years, as students leaned their chairs against them, smoked like chimneys, exhaled moisture and transmitted bacteria. Thomas Hart Benton returned to restore his murals twice, once in 1956, once in 1968. He died in 1975 and seven years later, the school decided to sell the murals to fund its endowment. The plan was not happily received in New York City. If the panels were sold to a dealer or auction, they could be scattered to the four winds. Mayor Edward I. Koch even expressed dismay at the prospect of the mural cycle being split up and/or leaving the city.

In May of 1982, the school sold the 10 murals to the Maurice Segoura Gallery. The gallery kept them for two years before selling them to the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (aka AXA) for $3.1 million. AXA agreed to always display America Today to the public and proudly sported the murals in the lobby of its corporate headquarters on Seventh Avenue for years before the company and artwork moved to a new building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas. In February of 2012, a building renovation saw the murals moved into storage.

With no prospect of a proper display site coming up any time soon, AXA decided to donate the murals to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met was more than happy to accept them. Before they could go on display, however, the museum had to create an appropriate space. As of September 30th, it has.

The keystone of the exhibition—the mural—will be installed in a reconstruction of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom as it existed at the New School in 1931, allowing viewers to experience the mural cycle as Benton conceived it. A highlight of this extraordinary opportunity to view the reconstructed mural in its nearly original setting is the incorporation of elements that were part of the architect Joseph Urban’s modernist aesthetic for the New School building, such as the black and red color scheme he used for the room. Among the mural’s most distinctive features are the aluminum-leaf wooden moldings, which not only frame the mural but also create inventive spatial breaks within each large panel. When the mural was installed at the New School, these moldings echoed the Art Deco details of Urban’s building design.

The exhibition also features Benton’s studies from this travels in the 20s and related works by other artists from the Met’s collection.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Wreck of SS Ventnor, ship carrying 499 Chinese dead, found

Thu, 2014-11-20 23:59

The wreck of SS Ventnor, a ship that went down in 1902 carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand back to their homes in China’s Guangdong province, has been found. The ship was discovered 21 kilometers (13 miles) west of Hokianga Harbour under 150 meters (492 feet) of water. The general area of the sinking was known, but it has taken 112 years to find the actual wreck.

The Ventnor Project Group, funded by Definitive Productions which is making a documentary about the shipwreck, first spotted the wreck in December of 2012 using echo sounding sonar. In January of 2013, they enlisted Keith Gordon, former president of the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group, to investigate the site further. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, the team was able to photograph the wreck. The last step was sending divers to record the wreck on video. They confirmed that it was indeed the Ventnor.

In April the divers returned and were able to retrieve artifacts that might aid in identification. They recovered the ship’s bell and a few other pieces (some plates, a porthole window) which have been cleaned and conserved, but nothing with a name that would clinch the deal. Authorities in China and New Zealand were notified of the discovery and the shipwreck was gazetted by New Zealand Heritage, which means no objects can be removed the site without permission. No coffins or human remains have been found yet. The Ventnor Project Group needs to raise another 400,000 New Zealand dollars to dive the wreck site more extensively. Meanwhile, the Royal New Zealand Navy is going forward with separate plans they made before the announcement of the find to search for the wreck next month.

The tragedy of the Ventnor is a window into the Chinese experience in New Zealand. The first Chinese immigrants were invited to New Zealand by the Otago Provincial Council who needed people willing to do backbreaking labour in the gold mines of Otago on the South Island. Gold had been found in Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, setting off the Otago gold rush. Five years later, the gold fields had been thoroughly picked over and the work of extracting gold, never easy, got so hard miners left for greener pastures. The population of European miners plummeted from 19,000 men in early 1864 to 6,000 in late 1865. That’s when they sent the call out to Guangdong province for miners to rework the area. Guangdong was suffering in the aftermath of the suppressed Taiping Rebellion, so thousands of men made their way to New Zealand in hope of making a decent living.

By 1869, there were more than 2,000 Chinese, most of them from the Guangzhou area, in New Zealand. By 1881, there were more than 5,000. That same year, the New Zealand government passed its version of the U.S. Exclusion Act, a poll tax that charged ever Chinese immigrant £10 to enter the country, and only allowed one Chinese immigrant for every 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 those numbers got a lot worse: the per head tax was raised to £100 and only one Chinese immigrant was allowed per 200 tons of cargo. The poll tax remained in force until 1934 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

Amid the simmering racial tensions and the regulatory aggression, the Chinese miners banded together to maintain their customs and support each other. In 1882, a year after the poll tax was enacted, men from Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties of Guangdong Province founded the Cheong Sing Tong, a subscription association that allowed members to pool their resources so they could send the remains of the dead back to their hometowns in China. According to Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried in the ground of their homes so their descendants can properly tend to them to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased and good fortune for their survivors.

The leader of the Cheong Sing Tong was Choie Sew Hoy, a successful merchant who had arrived with the first wave of immigrants from Poon Yu. Just like in the American gold rushes, the most successful people were those who sold stuff to the miners rather than the guys panning in rivers. Choie Sew Hoy started off with a general store and eventually ran a dozen mining ventures of his own. He was a prominent community leader in Dunedin and well respected by Chinese and European alike.

In 1883, Hoy and the Cheong Sing Tong exhumed 230 bodies and successfully sent them back to China for reburial. In 1901, they began arrangements for a second shipment. From early 1901 to the September 1902, bodies of Chinese immigrants were exhumed from more than 40 cemeteries, most of them in the Otago area but also from elsewhere in the country. The remains were sent to Choie Sew Hoy’s farm where the bones were individually washed and each bone counted. The small bones were each wrapped in calico. The large bones placed in calico bag to which the small bones were added along with the name of the deceased. The bag was tied and put inside a coffin which was stored in a shed until all coffins were ready to be shipped.

While this process was taking place, Choie Sew Hoy died suddenly in July of 1901 at the age of 64. His son Choie Kum Poy took over the project and Choie Sew Hoy’s body was added to the others for return to China. The ship they chartered to carry this cargo was the SS Ventnor. The Glasgow-built cargo ship was only a year old in October of 1902 when the coffins were loaded and it left Wellington headed for Hong Kong. Along with the crew, there were nine or six (accounts vary) elderly Chinese men on board who were given free passage by the Cheong Sing Tong in exchange for looking after the coffins.

One day after leaving Wellington, the ship, which was apparently traveling too close to the shore, hit rocks near the coast of Taranaki. The captain decided the damage wasn’t so bad they should make for the nearby port of New Plymouth, and there was little point in turning back around to Wellington since they could go almost the same distance north to Auckland and be going in the right direction. His judgment was flawed. The Ventnor took on water and sank off the Hokianga Heads on October 28th, 1902, two days after setting sail. Four lifeboats were launched holding the crew and passengers. Three of them made it to safety. The one holding the captain, among others, did not. Thirteen people died.

The tragic fate of the Ventnor was big news at the time, spurring a magisterial inquiry into the cause of the sinking. The official finding, announced on November 21st, 1902, was that the striking of the rocks off Cape Egmont was due either to negligence or incompetence on the part of the captain. Drunkenness, while possible, could not be proven. No blame was assigned to the decision to keep going towards Auckland instead of turning back to Wellington.

The Cheong Sing Tong chartered the Auckland steamer Energy to search for the Ventnor and any of the remains, but most of the coffins, including that of Choie Sew Hoy, were lead-lined and ensconced in the hold. Some plain wooden coffins that were stored on the deck floated and washed ashore. Maori tribespeople from the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes buried the remains with care. They too share the belief that the remains of their people must be buried in the soil of their home, an issue that has been at the forefront of requests for repatriation of Maori remains in anthropological collections around the world.

The disaster of the Ventnor led to the disbanding of the Cheong Sing Tong and the end of the practice of sending coffins back to China in bulk. Remains were still sent home, but on an individual basis. The ship’s manifest was lost with the ship, so we don’t even have a list of names of the 499. Only Choie Sew Hoy is known. Recovering remains from the wreck would be extremely meaningful to the descendants of the miners in New Zealand and China.

The documentary The Lost Voyage of the 499 aired on Maori TV just Monday before the news of the discovery was announced. It’s a moving look at the history of the Ventnor as seen through the eyes of Choie Sew Hoy’s living descendants who travel to the Maori burial sites and to Hoy’s home village to see the first home he built in the 1860s and to pay their respects at his proxy grave.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Scaffholding for Capitol Dome restoration finished

Wed, 2014-11-19 23:26

Scaffolding around the cast iron Dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been completed so that the full restoration of the Dome can begin. The construction of the scaffolding system is an impressive project in its own right. More than 52 miles of metal piping and two miles of wood planking form 25 tiers of platforms that surround the Dome from the skirt up to the base of the Statue of Freedom. The total weight of the scaffolding materials is 1.1 million pounds. Work is expected to take about two years and will be done mainly at night so as to minimize the disruption of Congressional business.

It’s been 150 years since the Dome was constructed, and although it was refurbished once in 1960, it’s in dire need of extensive repairs. Age and weathering have caused almost 1,300 cracks and breaks, 12,800 inches worth, in the exterior skin. There are pits and voids, rusted areas, missing and loose ornaments. So far workers have collected more than 100 ornaments that had either fallen off or were just about to fall off. Water leaks in through the cracks and pinholes in the Statue of Freedom causing rust and damage to the protective paint and corrosion in the interstitial space between the Dome and the Rotunda.

These are critical condition issues that need immediate attention lest the artwork in the Rotunda, the Apotheosis of Washington in the oculus of the Dome and the Frieze of American History underneath the windows, are at great risk of damage due to water leaks. There are already noticeable water stains on the coffers at the first visitors’ gallery. Further damage could cause things to start breaking off onto visitors in the Rotunda. A white donut-shaped catenary system was installed above the Frieze to protect visitors and the floor from construction debris while leaving the Apotheosis and Frieze still viewable.

Now that the scaffolding is up, the next stage is paint abatement and removal. Workers will sand blast eight layers of paint, some of it lead paint, some of it dating to 1866 when the first paint was applied to the completed Dome. To do this safely, the paint will sucked into large tubes that will run from the scaffolding to specialized trucks parked on the lower West Front of the Capitol. During this process, workers will also remove all loose ornaments and anything else precarious. Conservators will restore whatever pieces they can and recast the ones that are too damaged to repair.

As soon as the paint is removed, a primer coat will be applied. Cast iron is subject to “flash rusting,” meaning it starts to oxidize instantly as soon as it’s exposed to oxygen. To prevent flash rusting, the Dome will have to be primed within eight hours of paint removal. After the entire Dome is primed, the cracks in the cast iron will be repaired. Welding doesn’t work with cast iron unless you disassemble the object and bake it an oven at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, a technique that obviously doesn’t apply to a giant dome. Of the 12,800 crack inches, 8,200 of them will be repaired using a technique called “lock and stitch” in which each crack is filled by hand with metal pins (that’s the stitching part) and then the edges brought together across the width with steel locks. The rest of the cracks will be filled with the “Dutchman” technique wherein large pieces are replaced with parts of the same shape. The restored or recast ornamentation will then be readded and damaged windows replaced and repaired.

All of that work will be done from the boiler plate at the bottom of the Dome to the base of the Statue of Freedom. The next phases will be done from top to bottom so the scaffolding can be removed as work is completed. Cast iron filler will be applied to any areas in need of it, then the Dome will be repainted in three layers. The top coat will be, appropriately enough, Dome White. Next fall protection and bird deterrent systems will be installed. After that, all that will be left is the clean-up. Everything should be shiny and new for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

The Architect of the Capitol has made tons of fascinating photographs of the Capitol dome available on its Flickr page. The main photostream has current pictures, plus there are photo albums dedicated to subjects like the original construction of the iron dome in the 1850s and 60s, the 1960 restoration, the restoration of the Brumidi frescos inside the Capitol and a set of almost 300 images of the restoration that began this month. The there are all the pictures of various events, holidays, seasons and oh man, the Capitol artwork. It’s seriously one of the greatest Flickr accounts I’ve ever seen.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Zealand ring fortress dates to 10th century

Tue, 2014-11-18 23:22

The remains of a Viking ring fortress discovered on the Vallø Estate on the Danish island of Zealand have been radiocarbon dated and the results confirm the tested area was built in the 10th century. Two samples of charred wood from the northern gate of the structure were tested and produced identical dates: between 895 and 1017 A.D. The samples were taken from the outermost tree rings of the logs and tested at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Aarhus University in collaboration with Accium BioSciences’ laboratories in Seattle.

The archaeologists from the Danish Castle Centre and Aarhus University who made the find were convinced they had uncovered the first Trelleborg-type fortress in more than 60 years. Only seven of these ringforts built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D. probably as part of a defensive network against the Germans have been found in Denmark and southern Sweden. The discovery of a new one was big news, therefore, but since only excavated small sections of the gates and ramparts had actually been unearthed, some archaeologists felt they were jumping the gun in labeling the find a Viking ring fortress.

The excavation wasn’t all they had to go on. The team had done extensive research on the site, performing a detailed laser survey followed by a geomagnetic survey that revealed a structure 475 feet in diameter underneath a mound barely visible to the naked eye. Like the other Trelleborg fortresses, this structure too appeared to be perfectly circular with four gates at the cardinal points of the compass. Armed with the survey data, the team excavated two areas likely to be gates. At the north gate, the team found the large burned oak timbers that were radiocarbon dated.

The oak logs aren’t done testifying to their age. Carbon-14 dating by its nature can’t be narrowed down any further, but tree rings can dated to the individual year. Dendrochronological analysis may give us a precise date. If it’s 980 A.D. or thereabouts, that will be powerful evidence that it’s one of Harald Bluetooth’s Trelleborg fortresses.

The sheer amount of effort required to build this fort, dubbed Borgring, suggests it was meant to convey power. Archaeologists found there was a basin of fresh or brackish water next to one of the walls, an inlet between Køge Bay and the ring fortress. The builders must have had to dig out hundreds of tons of clay from the subsoil into the inlet in order to support the fort. If they had built it a little further inland, none of that extra work would have been necessary. According to Nanna Holm, curator of the Danish Castle Centre, the location was chosen deliberately to signal the power of its owner.

The excavation has also shown that the construction of the fortress is closely related to other Viking fortresses such as Fyrkat near Hobro, Aggersborg near the Limfjord and Trelleborg near Slagelse. These fortresses were undoubtedly built during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, and still more evidence suggests that Borgring, as the fortress has been named, might have belonged to the same building programme.

“There are a lot of similar details in these structures. And it’s been wonderful to see the same things coming to light at Borgring. In addition to the structure of the rampart and the gates, we have also found traces of a street with wood paving running along the inside of the rampart – just like in Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Trelleborg. The most striking thing, however, is the measurements of the fortress. The rampart of Borgring is 10.6 metres wide. That is exactly the same width as the rampart of Fyrkat. So it’s hard to avoid the sense that the same master builder was responsible,” says [Aarhus University medieval archaeology professor Søren] Sindbæk.

Here’s a 3D reconstruction of Borgring based on the excavation with some hypothetical extrapolation:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

5000-year-old human footprints found in Denmark

Mon, 2014-11-17 23:04

The excavations of future construction sites for the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel continue to strike archaeological gold. Last month it was a 3,000-year-old flint dagger with an intact bark handle. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists reveal they’ve discovered two sets of Stone Age human footprints left around an extensive system of fixed gillnets, sticks of hazel mounted on stakes to form continuous weirs that trapped fish when the tide came in, on the Danish island of Lolland.

The Stone Age footprints are estimated to date back as far as 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC, to the time when water levels in the Baltic Sea were rising due to melting glaciers in northern Europe, and prehistoric people were able to use the inlets as bountiful fishing grounds. The individuals that made the footprints constructed elaborate fishing fences to catch their prey, and researchers say that the large wooden fences which interconnected to create a single continuous trap, were likely the cause of the footprints.

“What seems to have happened was that at some point they were moving out to the [fish fence], perhaps to recover it before a storm” project manager for the Museum Lolland-Falster, Lars Ewald Jensen says. “At one of the posts, the footprints were found on each side, where someone had been trying to remove it from the sea bottom.”

At least two people were involved in this rescue operation, leaving two sets of footprints of different sizes. They walked onto the wet seabed to pull up what they could of the gillnets and left deep impressions when their feet sank into the ground. Sand and mud then flowed into their prints. Thousands of years later, those prints were still clearly visible to archaeologists, both at the original depth and in dents on the surface.

Up until land reclamation efforts in the late 19th century, the coastal area where the footprints were found was dotted with fjords and streams and subject to regular flooding from the sea. A major Baltic flood in 1872 claimed 80 lives on Lolland. As a result, a vast dyke was built along nearly 40 miles of the island’s south coast. The dyke dried out the fjords. The gillnets bear witness to the constant battle against the incursions of sea water. The wattle had to be repeatedly repaired over the lifetime of the gillnets due in part to flood damage. Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Terje Stafseth notes in the museum press release (pdf):

“The investigations have shown that the Stone Age population repeatedly repaired, and actually moved parts of the capture system in order to ensure that it always worked and that it was placed optimally in relation to the coast and currents. We are able to follow the footprints and sense the importance of the capture system, which would have been important for the coastal population to retain a livelihood and therefore worth maintaining.”

These are the second-oldest human footprints found outside of Africa, with the oldest being the 800,000-year-old ones discovered on the rapidly-eroding foreshore of a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, in May of 2013. Most Stone Age remains recovered in Denmark are midden piles, broken tools or pottery. Archaeologists have found animal footprints from the period, but these are the first Stone Age human footprints ever found in Denmark.

Footprints and fishing trips weren’t the only discoveries on this ancient beach. Archaeologists also discovered several animal skulls from domestic and wild animals that appear to have been placed there deliberately as part of a ritual offering by farmers who inhabited the area in around 4,000 B.C. Fragments of skulls from assorted animals were placed on the coastal sea floor and then surrounded by crania of cattle and sheep. Axe shafts were placed around the skull sacrifice area which turned out to be quite large at 70 square meters (83 square yards).

The excavation is ongoing but the clock is ticking. This site along with so many others is likely to be destroyed when construction of the tunnel begins in a few months. The footprints and gillnets will be covered by an above-ground facility. All that will be left of the footprints that survived thousands of years will be flat molds taken by the archaeologists.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Earliest officially licensed Batmobile for sale

Sun, 2014-11-16 23:34

The Batmobile made for the 1966 TV show from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car by legendary car customizer George Barris may be the one we think of as the first Batmobile, but that’s just because the TV show was such a smash hit (pow! bam!) and the car so damn cool that it became an instant icon. Its iconic status garnered it $4.62 million including buyer’s premium when it sold at auction in January of 2013, and I myself repeatedly referred to it as the first Batmobile.

I was wrong. It’s the first of a long line of sublime to ridiculous television and film custom Batmobiles (the 1940s serials used a black Cadillac, a limo and a Mercury Eight, all off the line), but National Periodic Publications, owners of DC Comics, officially licensed a Batmobile built years before the TV show for promotional purposes. Its design comes straight from the comic book, a particularly great one at that, a product of the vision of artist Dick Sprang.

Dated February 1950, Detective Comics #156 hit the newsstands in December 1949 (spanning two decades!) and introduced a new Batmobile for a new decade. The story is that Batman is chasing mobster Smiley Dix when the bridge he’s driving over collapses. Batman breaks his leg and the Batmobile is totalled. Our hero takes advantage of his convalescence to build a new Batmobile — stronger, faster, and full of new bells and whistles. The “Batmobile of 1950″ was high-tech marvel with a radar antenna in the tail fin and a forensic laboratory in place of a back seat. It made an indelible impression on Batman fans, many of whom consider it the definitive design to this day.

Forrest Robinson was 13 years old when Detective Comics #156 was issued, and it certainly made an impression on him. For years he sketched ideas for a real Batmobile in his notebook. Ten years later, he bought a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and designed a new look for it inspired by Sprang’s Batmobile. It took Robinson and his friend Len Perham three years of work in the Robinson family barn in New Hampshire to replace the Oldsmobile body with a custom fiberglass body 17 feet long and seven feet wide with the iconic single giant dorsal fin, an upturned bat-nose front, quad headlights, horizontal tailfins and doors that slide into pockets on the rear fenders. In 1963 the car was done. Robinson painted it space-age silver and drove it as his personal ride.

In 1966, the popularity of the Batman television program caused a Batmania throughout the land. The All Star Dairy Association, a national dairy co-op, spent $3 million to tap into this groundswell, licensing Batman, Robin and the Batmobile from National Periodic Publications for use in dairy-based promotional campaigns. They sold Batnog that Christmas and a variety of fruit drinks, ice cream, cones, sandwiches, etc. with Batman and Robin on the packaging. (Slam Bang Vanilla Ice Cream with Banana Marshmallow needs to make a comeback, by the way. It should never have left us.) It worked like a charm. By early 1967, sales on Batman-packaged ice creams increased 300%.

All Star’s New Hampshire affiliate, Green Acres Ice Cream, leased Robinson’s car to play to make personal appearances as the Batmobile. They repainted it in Batman black, put the Batman Dairy Foods logo on the doors and under the dorsal fin, and drove it around three northeastern states promoting Batman & Robin ice cream products. This was the first ever officially licensed touring Batmobile. George Barris’ Batmobiles, the Futura and its fiberglass-on-Ford-Galaxie copies, didn’t start touring until 1967.

After its turn selling ice cream to the kiddies, Forrest Robinson sold the car for $200 to a friend of his in 1967. The friend didn’t show the car much love, I’m afraid, and it spent decades rusting in a New Hampshire field before passing through several hands until it was acquired in 2011 by Florida car collector George Albright. He researched its history, contacting Robinson, Perham and dairy executives who remembered its service as the Batmobile. Not having the time and resources to dedicate to a proper restoration of the vehicle, in 2013, a month after the Barris Batmobile made such a splash at auction, he put it up for sale on eBay with a minimum bid of $19,800. He wound up pulling it and doing a private deal, selling it for an undisclosed amount to Toy Car Exchange LLC who have spent the past year restoring it to pristine condition. Thanks to the addition of red accents, it looks more Batmanny than it ever did.

Toy Car Exchange has now put the restored 1963 Batmobile for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Entertainment & Music Memorabilia auction on December 6th. The opening bid is $90,000.



Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

St. Francis manuscripts leave Italy for the first time

Sat, 2014-11-15 23:26

Nineteen medieval artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi that have never left Italy since their creation 700 years ago are heading to New York. There are no known extant documents written in Saint Francis’ own hand (historians think he dictated rather than writing himself). These 13th and 14th century manuscripts are the earliest surviving documents about Francis’ and the mendicant order he founded. The exhibition, Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images, will be on display at the UN Headquarters from November 17th through the 29th but it’s not open to the public. They will be on public display when they move to the Brooklyn Borough Hall from December 2nd to January 14, 2015.

It’s divided into three sections. The first section, Traces, focuses on documents that are closely connected to Francis’ lifetime. The centerpiece is Codex 338, a collection of the oldest existing copies of Saint Francis’ writings, including the 12 chapters of the Rule of the Friors Minor and the Canticle of the Creatures or Canticle of the Sun, one of Francis’ most celebrated poems. The Canticle of Creatures is the first surviving works written in a dialect (Umbrian) recognizably resembling modern Italian. It is considered the oldest poem in Italian literature. There are also several Papal Bulls issued in the 1220s by popes Honorius III and Gregory IX regarding the regulation of the new order and, after Francis’s canonization in 1228 just two years after his death, ordering the construction of a new church to house his earthly remains.

The second section, Words, deals with hagiographies of Francis written after his death. The oldest is a fragmentary parchment of Vita Beati Francisci (The Life of Blessed Francis) by Father Tommaso da Celano commissioned by Pope Gregory IX around the time of Francis’ canonization. There’s also a very rare manuscript of Celano’s second biography, Memoriale Desiderio Animae de Gestis et Verbis Sanctissimi Patris Nostri Francisci (Memorial of the Desire of a Soul Concerning the Deeds and Words of Our Most Holy Father Francis), aka Seconda Vita (Second Life), which was commissioned in the mid-1240s by Crescentius of Jessi, Minister General of the Franciscan Order. A later work from the end of the 14th century, Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), is an idealized portrayal that would become the most popular hagiography of the saint and the basis for many future works of literature and art about Francis.

The last section, Images, features depictions of Saint Francis in miniature from illuminated manuscripts. There’s Francis at the foot of the crucified Christ in Ubertino da Casale’s Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu, Francis in a little box amidst floral borders in the Breviarium Fratrum Minorum illuminated by painter Sano di Pietro for the convent of Saint Claire in Siena, and Francis ranking with Adam and Christ on the first page of Genesis in a Bible.

Before these precious and fragile documents could travel, they were subject to months of careful conservation.

Over the past five months, Father Massetti, two other monks and three young restoration experts have cleaned all the manuscripts with a soft paint brush, page by page.

In some, the medieval ink had perforated the page; in others it had faded. Some were missing entire figures or miniatures, others the binding cover.

The restoration experts have repaired the fissures of the parchment with Japanese vegetable fiber or a bovine membrane. They have consolidated the ink and the colorful paintings through a starch gel.

Five of the manuscripts, ranging from the size of a choral book to the pocket format, were unbound, parchment by parchment, and were finally reassembled and stitched back together with a linen thread.

So not only is it the first (and probably only) chance people in the US will have the chance to see these rare artifacts, they will be in the greatest condition they’ve been in for centuries. The exhibition was on display at the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of parliament, in the Montecitorio Palace earlier this year, and although many countries have asked to host it, only New York has received the honor. It’s a fitting choice, seeing as 40% of the six million visitors to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi hail from the United States.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History