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Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

Sun, 2016-01-17 23:51

After the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s and 1860s, European artists like Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler and Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese fine and decorative arts. One of Van Gogh’s friends and compatriots, George Hendrik Breitner, was inspired by the Japonisme trend to create a series of 13 paintings of a young girl wearing a kimono.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857. For the decade between 1876 and 1886 he studied and worked in The Hague where he explored working class areas of the city, sketching the people and places he encountered. He embraced the social realism movement and considered himself le peintre du peuple, the painter of the people. He moved to Amsterdam in 1886 where he was soon able to add photography to drawing and painting. Breitner took pictures of street life, people at work and going about their business in the city, some of the photographs reminiscent of the kind of work Jacob Riis was doing in the crowded and scary tenements of New York City at the same time.

Breitner was one of the first artists to use photos as studies for specific paintings, not just of street scenes but in the studio as well. He integrated his social realist perspective in his studio portraits, making a point of employing models from the working class. One of them was a milliner’s shopgirl named Geesje Kwak who, along with her sister Anna, posed for Breitner in around 1893-1895 when she was 16-18 years old. It was Geesje Kwak who would be immortalized as the girl in a kimono.

Japonisme had intrigued Breitner since he’d traveled to Paris in 1884. He collected Japanese woodcuts and in 1892 visited an exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. The show was his immediate inspiration for the kimono series. He acquired several Japanese kimonos and a pair of folding screens that he set up in his studio on the Lauriergracht canal. Geesje Kwak posed in the kimonos — one red, one white, one blue — against the backdrop of the folding screens on a bed draped in oriental rugs. She was paid for her time and there was no hanky panky going on; all strictly professional. Breitner kept meticulous records of which models posed for him when, for how long and at what rate.

Breitner’s work with Geesje Kwak ended when she emigrated to South Africa with her younger sister Niesje in 1895. Geesje died of tuberculosis in Pretoria in 1899, just shy of her 22nd birthday. The Girl in a Kimono series was not a success with critics initially, but today they are considered the pinnacle of the Dutch expression of Japonisme in the fine arts. The Rijksmuseum will celebrate the series with an unprecedented exhibition that brings together all of the Girl in a Kimono paintings, including a previously unpublished one from a private collection, plus the preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

There have been exhibitions in the past devoted to this beloved theme of Breitner’s, but the paintings of Girl in a Kimono have never been displayed all together. Displaying all the Girl in a Kimono works together, combined with the preliminary studies in the form of drawings, sketches and photographs, as well as Breitner’s easel and paint box, gives the exhibition above all an impression of the way in which the painter went about his work in his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam. [...]

In total there are 20 paintings on display, including 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude. Furthermore, 15 drawings and 15 photographs will be displayed, plus Japanese prints. Moreover, there are two beautiful kimonos from the same period as the ones worn in the paintings.

Breitner: Girl in Kimono opens on February 20th and runs through May 22nd at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Site of Salem witch trial hangings confirmed

Sat, 2016-01-16 23:50

Researchers have confirmed the site in Salem, Massachusetts, where 19 accused witches were executed by hanging between June and September of 1692. It’s called Proctor’s Ledge, a rocky, wooded area between Proctor and Pope Streets at the foot of Gallows Hill. As the name suggests, Gallows Hill was generally thought to be the place where the 19 victims were hanged, but it’s a big hill and the precise location has been subject of debate and study for many years.

While almost 1,000 documents pertaining to the trials have survived, making it one of the most thoroughly documented events in early American history, there are virtually no eyewitness reports of the actual hangings. The Proctor’s Ledge spot was first suggested as the hanging site by local historian Sidney Perley in a 1921 essay. Based on his research, in 1936 the city of Salem purchased a chunk of Proctor’s Ledge “to be held forever as a public park” dubbed “Witch Memorial Land,” but the park was never made and instead of being memorialized the hanging site fell down the memory hole.

In 2010, the Gallows Hill Project was founded to re-investigate Perley’s research, examine other period documents and use new technology to pinpoint the site of the hangings.

Marilynne Roach discovered a few key lines of eyewitness testimony in a Salem witch trials court record…. The record in question is the examination of Rebecca Eames and Mary Lacey, dated August 19, 1692, the same day that five executions were carried out at the Gallows Hill site. The record quotes the defendant Rebecca Eames, who had been on her way to the court in the custody of her guards and traveled along the Boston Road, which ran just below the execution site.

A few hours later, she appeared the Salem court for her preliminary examination. The magistrate asked Eames whether she had witnessed the execution that took place earlier that morning as she was passing by. She explained that she was at “the house below the hill” and that she saw some “folks” at the execution. Roach determined that the “house below the hill” was most likely the McCarter House, or one of its neighbors on Boston Street. The McCarter house was still standing in 1890 at 19 Boston Street.

Professor Benjamin Ray conducted research that pinpointed the McCarter house’s location and worked with geographic information system specialist Chris Gist of the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab to determine whether, in fact, it was possible for a person standing at the site of the house on the Boston Street to see the top of Proctor’s Ledge, given the rising topography of the northeastern slope of the hill. Gist produced a view-shed analysis, which determined that the top of Proctor’s Ledge was clearly visible from the Boston Street house, as well as from neighboring homes.

Geo-archaeological remote sensing on the site found that the ledge is almost entirely rock, with no more than three feet of soil in a few cracks. That means that the victims were not buried there, although they were buried somewhere nearby since as witches they were excommunicated and denied Christian burial in churchyards. There is also no evidence that there was an actual gallows erected on the site. The condemned were likely hanged from ropes slung over large tree limbs.

The city plans to go ahead with the memorial plan now, although it will have to be a modest marker since the spot is in the middle of a residential area with no clear public access or place for parking.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Excavation of mysterious Honduran site begins

Fri, 2016-01-15 23:45

Archaeologists have begun to excavate an ancient site that may be the kernel of truth inside the legends of the lost White City in the tropical rainforest of the Misquitia region on the eastern Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The local Pech and Payas peoples have an oral tradition transmitted through the generations of a forbidden city with large buildings built from local white limestone. Spanish Bishop Cristobal de Pedraza wrote about the tale of the lost in a letter King Charles V of Spain in 1544. He said he’d seen a large city in a river valley while traveling through the jungle. His guides told him the nobles there ate on plates made of pure gold. For hundreds of years explorer searched for it, some even claimed to have found it, reporting fantastical finds of gold idols and carved white stones.

Over time the mysterious city became known as the White City after those stones. It was also dubbed “The Lost City of the Monkey God” by explorer Theodore Morde who announced to great fanfare in 1940 that he had discovered the city where ancient Mesoamericans worshiped a giant ape idol. He didn’t reveal where he’d found it to keep it safe from looters. He planned to return the next year, but he never did and he never revealed the location.

In 2012 an aerial lidar survey over the jungle spotted the remains of three urban centers that scientists unromantically dubbed T1, T2 and T3. In February of 2015 archaeologists did a preliminary exploration of T1 and counted an extraordinary 51 artifacts partially buried but still visible on the surface on the jungle floor. The President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, quickly moved to protect the site from looters, deploying armed troops to guard it.

Archaeologists from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), Colorado State University and National Geographic recently returned to T1 and have already unearthed more than 60 objects, including ceramic vessels decorated with figures of jaguars, lizards, macaws and vultures. The most glamorous find so far is a stone chair or throne carved with the figure of a jaguar. Colorado State University researcher Chris Fisher believes one of the vessels with the head of a bird dates to between 1,000 and 1,500 A.D.

They have also found evidence of a pyramid and adobe structures that suggest the site was used for religious ceremonies. According to IHAH director Virgilio Paredes, the site does not appear to be Maya, the dominant culture in the region, nor is it Aztec or any other known culture.

President Hernández was present at the site on Tuesday, January 12th, to announce the finds. He has dubbed the three urban centers collectively “Kaha Kamasa” which means White City in the Misquito language, and T1 “Jaguar City” after the jaguar artifacts. T1 is the smallest of the three cities and archaeologists have barely scratched the surface. They believe the sites together could be four times larger than Mayan site of Copan, a major regional capital in western Honduras.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

MH370 search discovers 200-year-old shipwreck

Thu, 2016-01-14 22:43

The Australian government is conducting an ongoing search operation for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which disappeared on March 8th, 2014, on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board. The Malaysian government asked Australia for help searching the southern Indian Ocean which satellite communications indicate is where the airplane was flying before its disappearance. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB)has been scanning the seabed about 100 miles southwest of Perth since October of 2014.

There is as yet no trace of the aircraft, but on December 19th, 2015, one of the ships spotted an anomaly on the sonar. Analysis of the image suggested it was a man-made object, probably a shipwreck, but to be sure the search ship Havila Harmony sent down an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to examine the anomaly. This area of the ocean floor is so mountainous it’s difficult to search with the deep tow sonar; the AUV can get detailed information on what’s down there without having to be tied to the ship.

On January 2nd, 2016, the AUV captured a high-resolution sonar image of the object which confirmed that it is indeed a shipwreck at a depth of 2.3 miles. The sonar imagery was sent to experts at the Shipwreck Galleries of the Western Australian Museum. Their preliminary conclusion is that the wreck is of steel or iron-hulled ship from the early 1800s.

Considering it sank 200 years ago landing on a rugged ocean floor, it looks to be in remarkable condition. It’s still shaped like a ship, only with a large curve in the middle it didn’t have when it was sailing the seas, and I see little scattered debris in this image. Early iron ships often had significant wood parts like planked weather decks, so there would have been plenty of material to scatter.

Compare it to the remains of ship discovered during the search in March of 2015. They were discovered at a depth of 2.5 miles, so the ship had a little longer to fall, but all that’s left of it is an anchor, some black balls that are probably lumps of coal and some unidentified man-made objects including a rectangle about 20 feet long.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Round houses found at Bronze Age Must Farm site

Wed, 2016-01-13 00:39

The Must Farm Quarry in the Cambridgeshire fens near Peterborough, southeast England, is the site of the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever discovered in Britain. It was first found in 1999 by a local archaeologist who saw the tops of timber posts bristling at the edge of the working quarry. Small archaeological investigations followed in 2004 and 2006, with the latter unearthing pottery of exceptional quantity and variety, plant fiber textiles, woven willow baskets used as fish weirs, glass beads, tools, weapons, even a bowl of food — later found to be nettle soup — with a spoon still standing inside it. A 2011 excavation discovered an unheard of eight perfectly intact log boats.

The reason so many organic remains survived for more than 3,000 years at Must Farm is that soggiest of archaeological jackpots: waterlogged soil. When the settlement was built on the ancient Nene River channel in about 1,300 B.C., the land that would become the Flag Fen basin was still mostly dry with the river as the major thoroughfare. Water levels started to rise, flooding the low-lying areas and forcing the inhabitants to adapt their architecture and lifestyles accordingly. Things lost to the rising waters were embraced by the mud and covered by deposits of silt and clay that protected them from oxygen and microorganisms that cause organic materials to decay.

In the early stages of settlement, large square cut oak piles were driven into the river channel to support a wooden platform. Part of the structure collapsed, pinning a fish weir beneath it for our edification. Water flooded the structure. Between 1,000 and 800 B.C., new piles were sunk and a wooden palisade was added around the platform to impede the flow of water. Sometime between 920 and 800 B.C., the site was struck again, this time not by water but fire. The structure burned and dropped into the river. The water doused the flames; the charred organic material sank to the bottom of the stream. The combination of fire carbonizing organic remains, water stopping the fire before it consumed all and mud encasing everything was a perfect storm to preserve an entire Bronze Age household for 3,000 years.

Last September, a new excavation funded by Historic England and Forterra, the company that owns the clay quarry, set out to explore the timber platform. The Cambridge University Archaeological Unit has been digging for three months. They have five more months to go and they’ve already made extraordinary finds, most significantly evidence of collapsed round houses on stilts, at least five of them. They are the best preserved Bronze Age homes ever discovered in Britain by far. Usually all archaeologists have to go on is postholes.

[Site director Mark] Knight said possible reasons for the fire included a cooking accident, deliberate destruction and abandonment of the site, or even enemy attack. But whatever happened, the people abandoned their possessions and left precipitously: “This is a world full of swords and spears – it is not entirely a friendly place.

“We’re used to finding a bit of pottery and trying to reconstruct a civilisation from that,” he said. “Here we’ve got the lot. We should be able to find out what they wore, what they ate and how they cooked it, the table they ate off and the chairs they sat on.

“These people were rich, they wanted for absolutely nothing. The site is so rich in material goods we have to look now at other bronze age sites where very little was found, and ask if they were once equally rich but have been stripped.”

This wealth is confirmed by animal remains which are overwhelmingly land animals like sheep, pigs and cows rather than the plentiful fish, eels and mussels the inhabitants were living on top of. The articulated spine of a cow was found in one of the houses, likely a carcass that was being butchered before the fire stopped time. At this point the water levels in the settlement and environs were high, so the livestock can only have been pastured on land a third of a mile away.

Archaeologists also found the first human remains a few weeks ago. So far only a skull has been excavated; archaeologists don’t know if there’s a skeleton yet to be dug up — one of the residents of the home caught in the fire, perhaps — or if the skull was a standalone item like a war trophy or amulet or devotional object.

The timber platform excavation has gotten a lot of press in the past few days, very deservedly so, but the news stories are cursory at best and they also weirdly treat the Must Farm settlement as if it’s an entirely new discovery instead of the latest phase of years of excavations. If you crave detail and accuracy, you can follow the progress of the dig on the Must Farm’s exceptional site diary and Facebook page of wonders. The team does a phenomenal job of keeping the public updated, explaining the finds, their archaeological significance, the excavation process and sharing great photographs.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Infernal Landscape drawn by Hieronymus Bosch

Tue, 2016-01-12 15:45

A drawing previously thought to have been made by an assistant in the workshop of medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch has been authenticated as a piece by the master himself. Infernal Landscape is a little-known drawing first emerged in 2003 when the anonymous owner sold it auction to an equally anonymous buyer. It has been squirreled away in a private collection since the sale. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), an international art history study that has been researching, analyzing and documenting the oeuvre of the medieval master since 2010 in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death this year, were able to examine the drawing before its first public exhibition this year in honor of the anniversary.

The drawing shows a chaotic, scary, monstrous hell where the souls of the damned are caught in a large fishing net rigged up to a water wheel in the maw of a hellbeast. Some are condemned to act as clappers for giant bells, others cluster in groups while fantastical creatures devour, torture and abuse them. Naked people are made to straddle the blade of a huge knife in the mouth of a giant in a basket. It’s the kind of scene Bosch is best known for, reminiscent of the Hell panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.

In fact, it was its very Boschishness which initially led scholars to think it was the work of an assistant. They thought it was a pastiche, a copy of several Bosch figures made by a student. The BRCP used state-of-the-art technology to analyze the drawing. They examined it with infrared reflectography, ultra high-resolution macrophotography in both infrared and visible light, X-radiography and microscopy. They tested the paper, handwriting and inks, comparing them to known Bosch drawings from major European collections. The team found that some of the figures in the Infernal Landscape match underdrawings in paintings. There is a similar fellow in a basket underneath The Garden of Earthly Delights, even though Bosch chose not to include him in the final painting.

“It’s not just a ‘successful pastiche’, as some have called it. I’ve seen quite a few of these, and 99% of the time, they are not very inspiring,” [BRCP project coordinator Matthijs] Ilsink says. “This one is very, very good.” He says the argument that the work is “too Bosch to be by Bosch” does not hold water, given the fact that other, equally “Boschian” drawings — including Tree Man (around 1505) in Vienna’s Albertina — are considered to be authentic works. “You can’t blame Bosch for being too Bosch,” he says. [...]

Ilsink says that Bosch often changed his mind as he worked, so his paintings have a lot of overpaint and underdrawings. “Someone creating a pastiche of his works wouldn’t have access to these earlier versions,” Ilsink says. He admits that some might argue that Infernal Landscape was made in the artist’s workshop, but he does not believe this to be the case.

The drawing is an important addition to Hieronymus Bosch’s body of work. It’s large in size and so richly chaotic that it gives art historians a glimpse of Bosch’s additive, free-association approach to composition.

The BRCP’s research has also gone the other way. The team discovered that two paintings attributed to Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross and The Seven Deadly Sins are likely the work of followers, not the artist. Macrophotography, x-radiography and infrared reflectography revealed that Christ Carrying the Cross that it was produced after 1525, nine years after Bosch’s death, and the painting style is dissimilar enough to make it unlikely that it was even made in his workshop. The Seven Deadly Sins was exposed by its underdrawings and overall quality as definitely not the work of Bosch himself, although it’s possible that it was made in the family workshop.

The Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, commonly referred to as Den Bosch, birthplace, home and workplace of Hieronymus Bosch, is celebrating the anniversary year with a great many parades, concerts, games, theatricals, art shows, lectures and, for the December finale, “the lighting of the Bosch beast” in the city center which I haven’t been able to find a precise description of but sounds like the greatest Burning Man ever. The Noordbrabants Museum will hold a major exhibition of Bosch’s work. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius brings together masterpieces from top institutions in Europe and America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. For the first time, a majority of Bosch’s works will be together on public display in the city where they were painted. Artworks include world-famous pieces like the Haywain Triptych and the Ship of Fools, as well as virtually unknown works like the newly authenticated Infernal Landscape drawing and 12 panels recently restored by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative which have never been on view to the public before. The exhibition runs from February 13th through May 8th, 2016.

Den Bosch was founded in the 12th century a fortress city and much of the historic center has survived intact, including the complete medieval ramparts that encircle the old town. It was spared from destruction in World War II and spared from even worse destruction by well-meaning modernizers after the war thanks to the city council’s quickly declaring the entire old city a protected historical townscape before the first rampart could be felled or the first canal filled. That means if you take one of the special Bosch Experience tours available from March to November of this year, you will be seeing things he actually saw, walking the same winding roads he walked, visit the same places he worked and lived.

All of the research and analysis the BRCP has done over the past six years will be published in a two-volume monograph later this month. There will also be a website, funded by the Getty Foundation, where all the BRCP’s research and images will be available for our rapt perusal. It’s set to launch before the opening of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibition but there’s no url yet. I’ll update when the site goes live.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Neglected remains from Newburgh Colored Burial Ground finally get attention

Mon, 2016-01-11 13:16

The remains of more than 100 African Americans buried in the Colored Burial Ground in Newburgh, New York, that have been languishing in storage for seven years due to the neglect of the City Council are finally getting some attention. The bones were unearthed in 2008 by archaeological contractors Landmark Archaeology who surveyed the site of the former Broadway School before it was renovated into the city court building. The city agreed to pay $75,400 for the excavation and the archaeology report necessary for reburial of the remains. Only $52,000 was paid because they had raised the funds through a bond. The remaining $23,000 for the report was supposed to come out of the general fund, but the Newburgh City Council never authorized payment. The bones were stuck in the limbo of storage in a climate-controlled facility at SUNY New Paltz while the years passed. Today, the City Council will finally vote on a resolution to pay Landmark Archaeology and get the ball rolling on a the long-denied dignified reburial of the human remains.

This is one in a long line of indignities inflicted on the bodies of deceased black citizens of Newburgh. The Colored Burial Ground, like its equivalents in every other city in the United States, was in an isolated, undeveloped area of the town when it was first founded in around 1832. What was out of the way farmland in 1832, however, was rapidly industrializing by the late 1860s. An oilcloth factory was built on the east and north borders of the cemetery. A new road, Robinson Avenue, was built to its immediate west in 1873. By 1869 foot and wagon traffic had encroached on the burial ground to such a degree that erosion exposed some of the bodies. When Robinson Avenue was constructed, they found remains in their way and moved them to the Alms House Cemetery.

In 1905, the oilcloth factory was demolished and both its property and the burial ground were slated for construction of a new elementary school, the Broadway School. This time the disinterred remains were moved to the colored section of Woodlawn Cemetery and nothing of the cemetery above ground — gravestones, monuments — remained. If there was an effort to fully clear the Colored Burial Ground and remove all the remains to proper graves, they royally half-assed it, clearing some of the area they wanted to use and washing their hands of the rest, even constructing the very building directly on top of some of the bodies still in their graves. The 2008 excavation found graves cut into by utility lines, others missing the sidewalk by mere inches. There were skeletons literally sticking out of the walls.

Here’s a description of the approach taken in the July 3rd, 1908 issue of The Newburgh Democrat & Register newspaper:

It was a grewsome [sic] sight that was observed at the grounds now being excavated for the foundation of the new Grammar School Building, on Broadway at the corner of Robinson Avenue, last evening by a Democratic representative.

There was a procession of boys marching to the unmusical melody furnished by the beating of a tin pan with a stick. At the front and head was the leader, bearing aloft on a piece of pine scantling what had at one time been the skull of a human being.

When the oil cloth factory was removed from the site on which excavation is now in progress two or three years, in clearing up the debris and grading down the grounds to make the place look presentable, a number of human bones were found, hence it was not surprising that since the men had been excavating to a general depth over a tract of ground that other bones should be found by laborers. It was one of the skulls thus unearthed that the boy had taken from the box into which pieces were thrown and with the general disregard boys have for things of a serious character had started in to head a parade with it. [...]

Yesterday there was unearthed a box containing the remains of a person who had been buried with his boots and work clothes on. As soon as the air struck the remains everything except the boots crumbled to dust. Last evening there was another box partially exposed to view at the grounds. This will doubtless be unearthed this morning during the day. The bodies that were left in the ground after the general transfer of remains to Woodlawn were those of persons whose graves had not been marked and consequently no investigation was made as to their whereabouts.

More than a century later, with the defunct Broadway School about to be converted into the city courthouse, the extent of earlier neglect became clear when Landmark Archaeology’s excavation revealed more than 100 graves to the west and northwest of the courthouse. They were in seven quite even rows, burials on an east-west axis, feet pointing east, as is traditional in the Christian religion. This is the first indication of the original configuration of the cemetery.

One of the rows continues beyond the property western boundary of the school/courthouse, which suggests there may be more remains to be found heading west beneath Robinson Avenue that were ignored during construction of the road. It’s also likely that the rows continued north under what is now the courthouse parking lot. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove all of the remains; the ones pinned underneath the courthouse walls couldn’t be moved. There could well be more remains underneath the bulk of the building too; we only know about the ones that were findable along the edges.

Unfortunately there are very few extant records that can tell us anything about the Newburgh Colored Burial Ground, or about the African American community of Newburgh in the 19th century, for that matter. Based on census data, we know that there were 148 free “colored” people living in Newburgh in 1822. (New York profited mightily from slavery and it was legal for decades after the neighboring New England states had outlawed it.) There were two black churches near the cemetery, but there no associated burial records have survived, so we don’t know if the cemetery was associated with a specific church, was privately owned or a segregated cemetery for the poor. Burial permits were not required by the state until 1866, so the few records we do have of burials in the graveyard date to 1866 and 1867. It didn’t even appear on a map (that we know of) until 1869 when the City Surveyor marked the spot as the “Colored Burial Ground” in his survey of the area before the construction of Robinson Avenue.

Analysis of human remains and artifacts found at the cemetery, therefore, will fill blanks in a historical record that is all but devoid of information about the cemetery and the black citizens of Newburgh. Once the report is completed and filed, the City Council will have to figure out where and how to reinter the remains. They may even build a memorial in the courthouse parking lot unceremoniously plonked on top of the dead. After being treated with such callousness for 150 years, they’ve earned a little care and respect.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

More 1917 blackboards found in Oklahoma school

Sun, 2016-01-10 14:44

More frozen-in-time blackboards from 1917 have been found at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City. While the students were home for winter break, workers pulling old blackboards and corkboards from the wall of a classroom on the third floor discovered slate blackboards with the lessons still fresh as the day Miss Walker first chalked them for classes 7A and 7B on December 10th, 1917.

There’s a December calendar with a beautiful floral header in colored chalk, a sentence being diagrammed, studies of how to draw a three-dimensional cube, a geometry lesson with parallel lines, triangles, rectangles, a square and diamond shape. Those shapes are then deployed in a charming drawing of a cottage. While there are no colorful little girls or turkeys in this set, there is an exquisite color drawing of a home with trees covered in pink and white flowers in the foreground. It looks like something Monet would have drawn on a chalkboard.

Of particular historical significance is a map of Indian Territory, modern-day eastern Oklahoma, marking the tribal boundaries and capitals. This is historically significant because the state of Oklahoma was formed by combining the Oklahoma Territory in the west with the Indian Territory in the east. While this had been Congress’ plan since the 1890 passage of the Oklahoma Organic Act, the people of the Indian Territory resisted being forced into a state with their land-grabbing neighbors to the west. As late as 1905 Indian Territory attempted to join the Union as its own state, the State of Sequoyah, but were refused. Instead President Roosevelt encouraged passage of the Oklahoma Enabling Act in 1906 which allowed delegates from both territories to come together for a state constitutional convention with a view to creating a single state. The combined Oklahoma and Indian Territories officially became the State of Oklahoma in November of 1907. That’s just 10 years before the teacher drew that map on the chalkboard. It was practically current events.

The first group of historic chalkboards was discovered last June in four classrooms on the second floor that were having their old blackboards replaced with whiteboards and smart boards. Underneath the blackboards were thin slate boards covered in math, music and handwriting lessons, hygiene tips, student names and brilliantly colored chalk drawings dated November 30th and December 4th, 1917.

It seems when the old slate boards were covered with new ones over a couple of weeks in late November, early December of 1917, several teachers decided to leave their work up, dating it and signing it for posterity. The new boards were mounted on top of the old ones in wood casings with enough of a snug fit to keep the 1917 chalk from wearing away.

Now that they’ve been revealed, school district officials need to figure out how best to preserve them going forward. They can’t just keep them up as is because these are classrooms and wall space is a basic necessity of instruction. Besides, the chalk will fade quickly exposed to the elements (not to mention the little angels with their poor impulse control and inability to fully grasp long-term consequences). The slate boards cannot be removed and reinstalled elsewhere because the slate is so thin it would turn into a pile of debris as soon as someone started to pry it off.

One of the smaller boards found last year with eight handsome red stars outlined in white has been preserved under plexiglass as a test subject. So far so good. The rest of the boards have been covered up with wood so classes can go on as normal. The covers are removable, however, and the school will uncover the chalk work for viewing on occasion. If the plexi works, perhaps the historic boards can be made visible to viewing while teachers still have space to do their daily work on top of them. I’m thinking like a sliding screen sort of jobby.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Remains of Settlement Era Reykjavík longhouse to be preserved

Sat, 2016-01-09 13:04

The remains of the Icelandic Settlement Era (874-930 A.D.) Viking longhouse discovered by surprise last summer in downtown Reykjavík will be preserved and integrated into the hotel that will be built on the lot. The longhouse was an unexpected find because archaeologists thought Settlement Era Reykjavík started and ended significantly west of modern-day Lækjargata street. The discovery of the remains has dramatically altered our understanding of the size and breadth of the early city. Add to that the fact that it’s one of the largest longhouses ever found in Iceland — the central fire pit was 17 feet long — and the incentive to preserve this groundbreaking find was strong.

When the archaeological survey of the parking lot on Lækjargata began in advance of construction of a new hotel, the team led by Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir expected to find the remains of a 1799 turf farm known to have been on the site. They had a plan in place to remove all archaeological remains and artifacts to a local museum. They did find the turf farm, but when they then unearthed the history-changing longhouse, the removal plan had to be revisited.

The hotel developers were amenable to the idea that the remains stay in situ and be somehow incorporated into the hotel. The city quickly formed an advisory committee to explore their options. Last week the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland announced that the remains would stay put and the hotel would have to work around them. They did compromise, however.

Archaeologist Lísbet Guðmundsdóttir, who oversaw the dig which discovered the ruins, told RÚV that all un-organic remains will be preserved on location. Turf from the walls will not be reserved because completely intact because of cost. “Moreover, their preservation adds very little to people’s understanding of the remains we have here,” she adds.

I don’t know about that. The longhouse was dated by analysing the volcanic ash captured in the turf, so it seems to add a great deal to everyone’s understanding of the remains. Also, Iceland has a great tradition of turf houses dating back to the first settlement days and continuing well into the 20th century. The turf walls of the longhouse are an important part of that history. By the same token I understand that it would have been a logistical nightmare for the hotel trying to keep the turf from drying out and crumbling to dust.

Based on the location of the fireplace, which was always at the center of a longhouse, archaeologists believe the structure extended well into the center of what is now Skólabrú street. There will be no excavation into the busy city street (archaeologists believe the construction of the road in the early 20th century destroyed any surviving longhouse remains) but already excavated sections of the longhouse that abut the street, including the central fireplace and trough, but are outside of the hotel’s boundary line will be part of the larger exhibition. The perimeter outline of the longhouse will be marked inside the hotel and on the sidewalk.

The architecture of the hotel will have to be changed to accommodate the remains. That’s going to take more expertise, time and money, of course, but once it opens the hotel is sure to profit from being on top of so important an archaeological site. Besides, if the plans for the soon-to-be-completed Antakya Hilton Museum Hotel on the site of a 2,000-year-old, 9,000-square-foot mosaic in the ancient city of Antioch are anything to go by, the new hotel is going to be about a million times cooler than whatever the original design was.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Joe the Quilter’s murder cottage found

Fri, 2016-01-08 06:20

The evening of Tuesday, January 3rd, 1826, began like so many others for Joseph Hedley. He bought a pound of sugar, picked up a pitcher of fresh milk, a sheep’s head and pluck (an offal package of heart, liver, spleen, sweetbread and lungs often sold with the head) from Mrs. Colbeck, the wife of a local farmer, and headed home to his secluded cottage on the outskirts of Warden, Northumberland. At 6:00 PM, labourer William Herdman stopped by the cottage on his way back from his job at the paper mill and spent a few moments visiting with Joe. They sat by the fire and chatted while Joe prepared some potatoes for his dinner. At around 7:00 PM a peddler named Mrs. Biggs asked Joe for directions having missed her turn in the dark. That was the last time he was seen alive, except by his murderer.

Four days later, some of his neighbors grew so concerned by their elderly friend’s absence that they broke into his house. They found the food he’d gotten Tuesday evening on the table as if he’d just walked in and set it down. They found Joseph lying a pool of blood in a small inner room where he kept his chickens and wood for the fire. He had been cut 44 times on his head, face, chest and neck. His hands had deep defensive wounds inflicted during the old man’s desperate struggle to fend off his attacker. A garden hoe with blood and grey hairs on the handle and head lay across his chest.

The cottage bore the evidence of his brutal last struggle. The bed tester was torn down. Blood was found on the door lintels, the chimney, the walls, the plates on the table, and splattered on the walls and floor. His clogs were found outside, lost in a futile attempt to flee, an attempt also testified to by the muddy state of his clothes.

The tiny cottage had been ransacked. All of the drawers and containers were open and the contents strewn about, but as far as could be ascertained, only a handful of Hedley’s few possessions — two silver table spoons, four tea spoons, two silver salt cellars — seemed to be missing. Authorities suspected the motive for the murder and destruction was theft. Despite his humble means, there was a completely unfounded rumor going around that the 75-year-old man on parish relief had secret riches stashed in the house. It seemed someone of malicious intent had heard the gossip and was willing to chop an old man to ribbons to get to the non-existent treasure.

The brutal murder of Joseph Hedley made news around the country. A widower who had cared tenderly for his bed-ridden wife for eight years before her death, Hedley was reputedly a kind, charitable man who gave to those in need even though he himself had very little and relied on the likes of Mrs. Colbeck and the support of the parish to survive. He was more than gainfully employed, however. In fact, he was widely known as Joe the Quilter due to his gifts with the needle.

Joe the Quilter started out as a tailor, but didn’t take to the trade. Pattern-cutting and seam-sewing were not for him. Decorative stitching, on the other hand, was. He became adept at stitching floral patterns, geometrics and figures onto linen and cotton. He would cut the patterns on cardboard, put the template on the fabric stretched across a frame and pencil through the holes, creating the outline of the design on the textile. Over time Joe developed an impressive collection of designs for his clients to pick from when ordering a quilt. And order they did, from Ireland and the United States as well as closer to home. Very few of his works have survived. The ones that have are in museums.

His fame as an artisan earned assured the government made a genuine effort to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Home Secretary Robert Peel offered His Majesty’s full pardon to any accomplices who came forward with information, as long as they were not ones who wielded the weapon. The Overseers of the Poor of Warden offered a 100 guinea reward for information leading to the capture of the culprit. A few people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder, but they were released shortly thereafter. The trail went cold and the murder of Joe the Quilter was never solved.

The cottage was demolished in 1872. By 1887, the location of the cottage was lost. Last year, student archaeologists from University College London and Newcastle University and local volunteers led by experts from the Beamish Museum began looking for the cottage. Because of the sensational murder, the cottage was recorded in architectural detail by police, journalists and others, giving researchers today rare insight into the living quarters of the working poor in Georgian England who did not, as a rule, have elevations and floor plans of their hovels drawn up for posterity.

The initial exploration in November of 2014 discovered promising clues that they might have found the cottage site. It was covered for the winter and excavation resumed last September. The dig has unearthed the bases of three walls, part of the flagstone floor, one side of the brick fireplace, evidence of a wooden partition that once separated the main room from the chicken room. About one third of the width of the cottage, including what would have been the front wall, was trimmed off when a field boundary cut through the home’s footprint. The cottage turns out to have been slightly larger than reported, about 30 feet long by 20 feet wide, or 600 square feet total surface area.

The team has also found hundreds of pottery fragments, iron nails, buttons, a four-penny silver groat used for Maundy money (charitable giving) and a bone pick, a tool used by quilters. One key artifact discovered is a copper alloy name badge inscribed “Rev R. Clarke, Walwick.” A Reverend Clarke is known to have trudged through almost impassable snow to bring succor to Joe when he trapped by the snow and “perishing of want” during the winter of 1823. The copper plate probably came off his saddle.

The remains of the cottage have been numbered brick by brick, stone by stone, and will be removed to storage at the Beamish Museum. Beamish is an open air museum telling the stories of daily life in north England in the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. A new project entitled Remaking Beamish will expand the museum to include a new typical 1950s town and to enlarge the 1820s section. Joe the Quilter’s cottage will be rebuilt, complete with the original flagstones his clogs once trod, as part of the enlarged Georgian exhibition, a poor working’s man dwelling to contrast with the Pockerley manor house of the local gentleman farmer which is in the section.

For more about the discovery of the cottage and its significance, see the Beamish Buildings blog

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Run those medieval fingerprints through AFIS

Thu, 2016-01-07 06:23

A new study will apply modern forensic crime solving techniques to the Middle Ages by examining the hand and fingerprints left on wax seals from the 12th to 14th centuries. The three-year research project will collect the prints left on seals attached to a variety of documents in the collections of Exeter, Hereford and Lincoln cathedrals, Westminster Abbey and the National Library of Wales. Project leaders Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln and Dr. Elizabeth New from Aberystwyth University will explore what the prints call tell us about authority, bureaucracy, authentication and the law in medieval England and Wales.

The prints will also literally be run through AFIS, comparing fingerprints that are at least 700 years old to modern ones. Researchers are looking for any close or approximate matches even over centuries. Any such discoveries will contribute significantly the study of print identification, which isn’t as well-established, scientifically speaking, as some TV programs would have you believe. Having said that, I really hope someone films Professor Hoskin or Dr. New looking at a fingerprint on a wax seal and saying “Let’s run it through AFIS.”

Because many of the seals are found on financial documents — property sales, business contracts, assorted transactions — there’s even a chance the study will veer from CSI into Cold Case as the fingerprint comparisons might detect 900-year-old fraud or forgery.

Wax seals were ubiquitous by the 12th century, used as a secure mark of the owner’s agreement the way a valid signature is
today on any legal document. Administrative documents of any kind required seals to be validated. Despite their legal significance when the seals were first pressed into wax, the seals themselves have rarely been studied. Historians tend to focus on the documents, not the dangly bits, except insofar as they hold identifying information regarding the parties to the documents. The Imprint study is breaking new ground.

Dr Elizabeth New, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, comments that: “Hand prints on wax seals bring us close to medieval people in a very tangible way. It is important to remember that seals were not just the preserve of kings and great nobles: men and women from all levels of society also set their seals on documents.

“Medieval seals contained a variety of images and words, providing strong statements of identity and very valuable sources of information about people, culture and society. The images can tell us what things actually looked like, and provide glimpses of humour, piety and family pride. They also enabled otherwise illiterate men and women the means to ‘write’ their name.

“These small objects have always had great significance, and are rich time-capsules that can open exciting windows into past lives. Examining the hand prints left – both accidentally and deliberately – in the wax along with impressions of seal matrices provides further important opportunities to deepen our understanding of our medieval ancestors.”

All the prints collected will be entered into an online database along with information about the documents and the seals the prints were taken from. That archive will be made accessible to researchers and the general public.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

George III’s huge map collection digitized

Wed, 2016-01-06 14:28

The British Library has begun a massive project to digitize all of King George III’s 50,000-piece map collection. George III was an avid collector, not just of things he personally loved but in true Enlightenment style, of things he thought would be of intellectual value to the nation. He added significantly to the royal art collection, dedicated a lifetime to collecting books that he made available to all scholars (not even John Adams was barred) and put together an extensive collection of mathematical and scientific instruments.

Maps and topography were a genuine passion of the king’s and had been since he was a young boy. There’s a well-known portrait of George III when he was Prince of Wales with his younger brother Edward Augustus at their lessons with tutor Francis Ayscough. Next to the future king is a globe, a book with an imprint of the Prince of Wales’ feathers leaning against it. It’s a prescient image. Once he was king, his love of geography became professionally important as well, and there are accounts of his dedication to learning every detail about the topographical details of ports, fortresses and cities.

While British monarchs before him had squirreled away maps and atlases in various nooks of royal palaces, it was George III who brought them all together into a single collection that he then added to extensively. He had agents scouring Europe to acquire important pieces and even whole collections. He incorporated all gifts of maps and atlases to the monarch from his subjects into the collection. He even straight-up stole from royal engineers, military and colonial mapmakers who sent drawings, prints and watercolors for his inspection. Late 18th century land surveys done by British military surveyors for the American Board of Trade, for example, never made it to their commissioner. George was so enthralled with the series, which included a map of the Florida coast more than 22 feet long, that he just kept them all, bless his heart, and added them to the ever-expanding collection kept in a room next to his sleeping chamber in Buckingham House, then not yet an official palace.

By the time of King George III’s death in 1820, the Topographical Collection included 60,000 drawings, watercolors, manuscripts, prints, letters, reports and atlases dating from 1500 to the then-present. Half of the material covers Britain and its colonies (or former colonies after the American Revolution) while about 30% covers European countries like Italy and France that were popular Grand Tour destinations. The map collection was gifted to the nation by his son, George IV, along with the late king’s book collection. (He kept all the military maps for national security purposes.)

Originally dispatched to the British Museum, George III’s Topographical Collection was moved to the British Library. Despite its royal pedigree and historical significance, the full collection was never thoroughly catalogued. The British Library moved to remedy that in 2013, raising funds from private donors to catalogue, conserve and digitize George’s beloved maps. It’s a massive job, expensive in time and money, and the library still doesn’t have the funds needed to complete it. They’ve started piecemeal using the donations they have. So far they have conserved, catalogued and digitized all color views, the maps and atlases of South and North America, China, Scotland, southwest England, Spain and 30% of London and southeast England. As of last month, about 25% of the collection has been digitized.

Right now the project is working on the gem of the collection, the gigantic The Klencke Atlas which was the world’s largest atlas until the publication of the Earth Platinum atlas in 2012 which is new so as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t count. At 5’9″ by 6’3″ when open, the atlas is literally man-sized. It wasn’t actually one of George III’s acquisitions. The atlas was given to King Charles II, a known map aficionado, in 1660 by a group of Dutch merchants led by sugar merchant Johannes Klencke as a gift celebrating the king’s restoration to the throne. On its huge pages are 41 walls maps of Europe, Britain, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Charles II liked it so much he put it with his most prized objects in his cabinet of curiosities at Whitehall Palace.

The Klencke Atlas has long been a favorite with British Library staff — there are photographs of curators being dwarfed by it going back to the 19th century — but photographing the giant pages themselves in any kind of quality was all but impossible until recently. The technology now makes it possible to capture high resolution images of sections of every page and digitally knit them together into a single image. This will give viewers the chance to the see both the big picture, as it were, of each page and to zoom in on the tiny details — names, labels, etc. — that would have been too blurred out to read a decade ago.

The digitization of the Klencke Atlas and 80 other pieces was funded by a donation from rare book seller Daniel Crouch who has a lovely outlook on the matter.

Crouch admits that it is “an unsexy cause — it’s not like naming a gallery. It is the digitisation of a lot of old stuff.” He stresses that, although “it doesn’t sound important or life-saving, it actually is. It’s the kind of resource that will be used in years to come and will make the holdings of the British Library accessible to all.”

The digitization of the Klencke Atlas is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2016. Meanwhile, there’s the other 75% of the Topographical Collection that still needs love and attention before we can spend entire weekends on a nerd bender of George III’s maps. The British Library needs another £500,000 ($730,000) to finish the job. To donate to the digitization project, go here and select “Unlock London maps” from the dropdown (it should be selected by default) once you’ve chosen an amount and clicked through.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

18th c. scuttled ship found on Potomac riverfront

Tue, 2016-01-05 12:03

Archaeologists overseeing construction on the Potomac riverfront in Alexandria, Virginia, have found the well-preserved remains of a ship that was scuttled in the late 18th century. The 50-foot section of the port side of the hull, an estimated 1/3 of the original length of the ship, including some of the keel, frame, bow stem, stern and exterior boards and interior flooring, survived the centuries thanks to the waterlogged soil which kept oxygen and microbes from devouring the wood.

The ship is being thoroughly documented in situ via 3D laser scanning, high resolution photography and precise measurement. Each layer of the wood — archaeologists believe there are at least three — will be scanned and photographed before removal. An expert will examine the remains to identify the wood and date it precisely with dendrochronological analysis. The dismantled ship parts will be kept under water for preservation purposes — a lab has yet to be found that can accommodate it — while the city decides seeks funding for long-term conservation, study and possible display.

While we await an exact date based on when the trees were cut, historians have already pinpointed a tight date range by documentary study. The site was originally located on a bluff overlooking a Potomac cove. That cove was filled in to extend the property in the late 1700s. Historical maps showing how the shoreline changed in the second half of the 18th century provide a possible window for when the ship was buried of between 1775 and 1798.

The frame sections were placed very close together, an indication that the ship was built to carry heavy loads. It was likely a coast-hugging vessel rather than ocean-going, and while archaeologists tentatively believe it was a merchant ship, they cannot yet rule out that it had a military use. There is evidence of deliberate chopping of the hull, probably with a broad axe. This may have been done during the filling in the cove as the ship was chopped up to fit into the given space.

The site of the future Indigo Hotel at 220 S. Union Street is part of a major redevelopment project of Alexandria’s historic waterfront. The ship is the second significant historical find in the one-block site. In September archaeologists unearthed the remains of a warehouse built in 1755 that is thought to be the first public building erected in Alexandria which was only six years old at the time. Historical records of a June 18th, 1755, meeting of the Trustees of Alexandria document their order that a warehouse “One hundred feet long twenty four feet wide thirteen feet Pitch’d To be three Divisions double strided” be constructed, and archaeologists found almost exactly that: the outline of a wooden building 90 feet long and 24 feet wide. The 10 missing feet were destroyed by later construction on the site.

With the stone foundations, large beam framing and even sections of the floor and interior walls surviving, the warehouse remains give historians the unique chance to explore mid-18th century construction elements like the extensive use of mortise and tenon joints even in the studs and beams, and to study the city’s very early commercial history. It was dismantled and sent to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab in St. Leonard to be preserved in its tanks.

Unlike the warehouse whose location was recorded in the Trustees meeting, the discovery ship came as a complete surprise to excavators. There are no surviving records known that document its scuttling and installation, nor are any expected to be found.

“It’s very rare. This almost never happens,” said Dan Baicy, the hard-hatted field director for Thunderbird Archeology, the firm watching for historic evidence during construction. “In 15 years that I’ve done this work, I’ve never run into this kind of preservation in an urban environment where there’s so much disturbance.”

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Skeleton found under Scottish school playground may have been a pirate

Mon, 2016-01-04 12:15

An excavation at Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School last year unearthed the skeletal remains of what may have been a 16th century pirate.

Founded in the 1840s, Victoria Primary School is the oldest working elementary school in Edinburgh and is housed in a historic building in the neighborhood of Newhaven which was once a thriving fishing village with a harbour on the Firth of Forth. In the early 1500s, King James IV, visions of a great Scottish navy dancing in his head, established a deep-water port with a dock for the construction of large warships in Newhaven. The first ship constructed at the Newhaven port was the Great Michael, the largest ship in the world when it launched in 1511 with twice the displacement of its exact contemporary and King Henry VIII’s pride and joy, the Mary Rose.

When the City of Edinburgh Council decided to build an addition to the primary school building, AOC Archaeology was contracted to do a thorough archaeological survey before construction. With the school near the present harbour and practically on top of the original one, archaeologists expected to find the remains of structures from the old harbour and the shipbuilding concerns that once proliferated there. Instead they found skeletal remains in very poor condition.

Because of its condition and because shards of 4,000-year-old Bronze Age pottery were unearthed alongside the skeleton, the archaeological team at first thought the remains were very ancient. Radiocarbon dating performed by AOC Archaeology revealed that in fact the remains date to the 16th century or 17th century. The date, location and condition of the remains suggest this man, who was about 50 years old at the time of death, did not die a peaceful death and go to a respectful repose.

At that time, there was a gibbet on the Newhaven dockyards where pirates and others convicted of capital crimes would be hung for weeks until their bodies rotted away. Pirates were particularly popular candidates for the Newhaven gibbet because hanging their decaying bodies in plain view of the ships in the harbour was meant to be a deterrent to any other would-be scurvy dogs. Whatever was left of the body would eventually be taken down and buried wherever. The Victoria Primary School skeleton was buried in a shallow grave close to the shore, not in one of three graveyards in the area.

Laura Thompson, Head Teacher at Victoria Primary School, added: “As the oldest working primary school in Edinburgh, we are proud of our history and heritage and the school even has a dedicated museum to the local area.

“The pupils think it’s fantastic that a skeleton was found deep underneath their playground. The archaeologists will hold a special lesson with some of the children about how they have used science to analyse the remains and it will be a good learning opportunity for them.”

Not to mention an outstanding opportunity for pirate-themed recess games.

Forensic artist Hayley Fisher has made a facial reconstruction of what the man may have looked like from the remains of the skull. He looks a little young for a 50-year-old pirate/criminal. Needs more weather beating.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ginger Churchill goes to hell on Austrian church ceiling

Sun, 2016-01-03 09:08

On the ceiling of the Three Kings’ church in Hittisau, western Austria, is a large scale painting of The Last Judgement. That is not unusual. What is unusual is that one of the figures depicted going to hell is Winston Churchill in a red wig.

The Roman Catholic parish church of Hittisau was built in 1842, funded by a bequest from priest Josef Schnell who stipulated in his will that construction on the new church would have to begin within five years of his death or no dice. Schnell died in 1838, so they just made it in under the wire. The Three Kings’ church was completed in 1845. In 1850, artist Josef Bucher made three altarpieces to adorn the high altar, but other than that the interior decoration was quite spare.

When Father Josef Maisburger was assigned to the parish church in 1934, he wanted to gussy it up a little. In 1936 he contacted well-known Munich artist Waldemar Kolmsperger the Younger to explore the idea of painting a mural on the ceiling. Waldemar Kolmsperger the Younger followed in the footsteps of his father Waldemar Kolmsperger the Elder (1852-1945) whose Neo-Baroque extravaganzas earned him the title of the “last Baroque painter.” The younger Kolmsperger specialized in church decoration, a signature of the elder, and worked in a style reminiscent of the Baroque flourishes that had made his father famous. A professor of the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, the son of a famous artist and a leading church painter in his own time, Kolmsperger the Younger didn’t come cheap. His final price was too high for a small village church budget, so Maisburger packed his dreams away for a rainy day.

That rainy day came in 1940. Now Austria and Germany were the same country, and it was a country at war. New church mural commissions were few and far between and this time when Maisburger reached out to Kolmsperger, his fee had dropped enough to make him affordable for the Three King’s church. The linked article says Kolmsperger was motivated to accept this small-potatoes gig in a tiny village in rural Austria in part because he feared conscription, but he was born in 1881 and I seriously doubt 60-year-old men were in fear of the draft, not in 1940 at any rate. It was at the end of the war when old men and young boys were dragged into service.

As the Battle of Britian raged in the late summer and fall of 1940, Waldemar Kolmsperger began work on the Apotheosis of Christ in Heaven and Hell. He worked behind a white sheet so people didn’t see the painting until after it was completed in 1941. When the work was finally revealed to the public, the people of Hittisau were horrified to find that Kolmsperger had not only flipped the entire village the bird, but he had pulled a Dante and put a living political figure in hell.

Hans Weiss said: “The fresco did not include on one side heaven and hell on the other, apparently the artist disliked the area so much, he decided to paint two hells.

“Secondly, there was quite noticeably a picture of Winston Churchill right at the heart of the hill where Judgement Day was being carried out, showing him carrying a huge bag of money which represented his ill-gotten gains for his treacherous behaviour, and containing the writing “100,000 pounds”.

“Despite the protests of locals the artist refused to change it, and there was a huge row that went right up to the bishop. Locals were convinced that once bomber command found out about the insult, they would deliberately target the church in order to eradicate it.

“The Bishop apparently agreed and he eventually ordered the artist to disguise Churchill by giving him a red wig, and to change the word pounds to gold.”

So Kolmsperger grudgingly made the changes, plopping a ginger Moe wig on Churchill’s head so instead of looking like a bomb-baiting Winston Churchill, he looked like a bomb-baiting Winston Churchill in a ginger Moe wig. He wasn’t happy about it, though, and apparently plotted revenge. His plan was to add a few of the locals to the hellscape, and since he’d already put a couple of topless ladies in the mural who were eerily similar to women from the village who Kolmsperger was suspected of having bedded, nobody put it past him. The villagers are said to have chased him out of town before he could make his final alteration.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ivan the Terrible-era weapons cache found

Sat, 2016-01-02 12:52

Archaeologists excavating the site of future highway construction near Zvenigorod, a medieval town in the Moscow Oblast about 40 miles west of the capital, have unearthed a cache of weapons from the era of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584). The arsenal was discovered alongside the remains of the 16th century village of Ignatievskoe. The team unearthed about 60 buildings from the village. One of them had burned down in the mid-16th century but its basement survived remarkably unscathed. It’s in the underground timber-lined storage room that archaeologists discovered what they believe was the private arsenal of one of Ivan the Terrible’s elite cadre of knights.

They found helmets stored in leather boxes, kolchugs (a kind of cuirass), sections of military sabres, belts, and arrows and more. It seems possible that this was a cache of weapons for a military expedition, stored in special boxes, including even sections of camp tents and billy cans. This warlike inventory, along with the status of its owner, probably indicated the existence of a standing army of troops in readiness, who were armed, billeted and fed at the cost of members of the nobility as part of their responsibility as courtiers.

The spherical helmets with the pointed spikes decorated with gold and silver fittings are particularly splendid examples. There are similar ones in major Russian museums today, but these are the only ones ever found still inside their leather storage boxes with their fabric linings and ear-pieces intact.

The identity of the cache’s owner is unknown, but Ignatievskoe which was the home of the Dobrynins, an important boyar family who had at least one son among the oprichniki, a personal guard hand-picked by Ivan to police an area that was under his exclusive control. Ivan had demanded the creation of this new region as a condition of his return to Moscow after his sudden December 1564 departure. Distrustful of many nobles and clergy who he was certain were a pack of treasonous thieves, Ivan had left Moscow and sent a letter announcing his abdication. The boyar court was terrified that Moscow would fall into violence and chaos without Ivan’s leadership, so they agreed to all of his terms. Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina, a territory that he thought was rife with rebellious nobles (and, coincidentally of course, valuable industry), over which he had absolute power, including the power to execute anyone he wanted no matter how aristocratic without having to justify himself to the boyar council. Even family wasn’t exempt. Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa, the grandson and nephew of Tsars, was one of the nobles who was executed and had his property confiscated under the oprichnina.

His army of a thousand men swore loyalty to him alone. Famed for their black horses and ruthless application of Ivan’s notion of justice, the oprichniki killed thousands, noble and peasant. Their unchecked violence culminated in the 1570 Massacre of Novgorod when more than 1500 nobles and uncounted numbers of commoners were tortured, killed or kicked out of the city to die from exposure and starvation. The massacre turned the tide against the oprichniki so decisively that Ivan was compelled to disband it in 1572.

Ignatievskoe was in the middle of several towns in the Moscow Oblast added to the oprichnina. It’s possible the arsenal was intended to arm Ivan’s terrible black-horsed guard in the performance of their brutal duties. It’s also possible that it was meant for other campaigns as the late 16th century was plagued by incursions from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as internal conflict.

“This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign—each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness. This excavation enables us to ‘see’ for the first time the preparations made by the noblemen who made up the officer corps elite of the Russian army at the time of the flowering of Muscovy as a Russian state,” Mr. Alexeyev remarked.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

18th c. bridge collapses in northern England floods

Fri, 2016-01-01 13:43

Northern England has suffered massive flooding over the past weeks. Thousands of people have been evacuated from small towns and big cities like York and Manchester. One of the small towns, Tadcaster, 10 miles southwest of York, has lost a large section of a historic stone bridge to the flood waters. Bystanders captured dramatic footage of the moment of collapse.

The bridge was closed to foot and vehicular traffic after the River Wharfe began to flood on December 26th due to fears that the rising waters had caused structural damage. Obviously that was a wise precaution because on December 29th the bridge started coming down. The collapse of the bridge formed a dangerous wave — you can see it in the video — and authorities asked all residents in the area to evacuation immediately. Also, gas pipes threaded along the bridge were exposed in the collapse. Witnesses and journalists watching the events smelled a strong smell of gas right after the stones fell down, so an area of 150 feet around the bridge was cordoned off to deal securely with the gas leak. Residents were allowed to return to their homes the next day.

The Tadcaster Bridge, also known as the Wharfe Bridge, was built around 1700 in the same location as an earlier bridge built around 1200 of stones purloined from Tadcaster Castle. Its seven bays are made of Magnesian Limestone, a local stone that has been quarried in the area since Roman times (Tadcaster was called Calcaria back then, the Latin word for lime) and is still quarried today. It is Grade II listed as a structure of significant architectural or historic interest. The bridge is the main road connecting to halves of the town. Only one bridge remains now — a modern one for the A64 bypass — and it’s on the other side of town so locals have to go six miles, 12 roundtrip, out of their way to cross Tadcaster town center.

Environment Secretary Liz Truss visited the town and assured residents that getting the bridge up and running again was a “national priority.” It better be, because the A64 around Tadcaster is slated to be shut down for resurfacing in 10 days which would leave the town entirely bisected. (Pedestrians can use the Tadcaster Viaduct, a 19th century railway bridge just north of town.)

And that was just the aftermath of Storm Eva. Frank is on the way now.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The Year in History Blog History

Thu, 2015-12-31 12:11

The end of 2015 is upon us and so is what has become an annual tradition here, the Year in History Blog History. We had another milestone which, while the number was a tad on the random side, turned out to be my favorite milestone celebration ever. Why? Because we rang in six million pageviews with Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive but somehow still able to rock the double-knit polyester leisure suit. I was surprised and delighted to find so many comments from people who love the Six Million Dollar Man as much as I do. Engine block Steve Austin action figure 4EVA!

The most read story of the year going by pageviews was the one about the Dutch soccer hooligans vandalizing the newly restored Barcaccia fountain at the base of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Short on its heels was one of my favorite, if not the favorite, post of the year: the cuneiform tablet that added 20 more lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. The awesomeness of the Viking blacksmith’s grave drew the third largest numbers of views, and the momentous discovery of an archaic home from the 6th century B.C. underneath the Quirinale Hill in Rome came in fourth.

Number five on the list is also my favorite photograph of the year. It’s the CT scan of the cross-legged meditating Buddha statue that has a mummified person inside of it. I learned about the brutal process of self-mummification thanks to that post, which was horrifying and fascinating at the same time if not in equal measure, even though the CT scan showed the internal organs had been removed so the person inside the statue hadn’t actually gotten that way by starving, dehydrating and poisoning himself over the course of six years.

That post also corrected an error that was widespread in the general media coverage of the Buddha mummy, namely that its presence inside the statue was revealed by the CT scan. The statue was part of a traveling museum exhibition about mummies, so obviously the fact that there was a mummy inside the state was already known. That’s why they scanned it in the first place. Still, once a mistake like that gets into a headline or a lede, it’s almost impossible to carve it out. The days of a front page correction fixing the problem are over.

That goes double for a big mistake in History.com’s Today in History feature. I informed History.com that they had confused 18th century surveyor Andrew Ellicott with his great-grandson and dendrochronology pioneer Andrew Ellicott Douglass in their entry on the first recorded observation of a meteor shower in North America. I got an email back saying they were looking into it, but their erroneous article still stands. Perhaps they’ll have fixed it by the time November 12th comes around next year.

Another widespread story that needed some correcting is runner-up for favorite picture: the sale of the “world’s greatest cat painting.” Carl Kahler’s monumental 1893 painting of wealthy San Francisco socialite and philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson’s 43 cats sold for $826,000 made news all over the cat-loving Internet. Mrs. Johnson came off of her posthumous virality a little the worse for wear since apocryphal stories of her being a crazy cat lady with hundreds of cats roaming the house got repeated over and over again. In fact she was a thoughtful, devout, generous person who left valuable property and monies in her will to found a hospital for indigent women and children. That hospital still exists, albeit in a new location (the old one was felled in the 1906 earthquake) and under a new name.

It was a particular good year for film discoveries, I think. I don’t just mean lost films that were found hiding out in vaults, but personal discoveries, films that were known but that I discovered in 2015. The most important actual discovery of the year was the film of the 1915 Eastland disaster found in Dutch newsreels. The ship which killed 844 people when it capsized while still moored just feet from the bank of the Chicago River was captured in important photographs by groundbreaking photojournalist Jun Fujita, but this is the first film of the disaster known to have survived.

As far as personal finds go, I still laugh like an idiot at Douglas Fairbanks as the brave, clueless, high as a kite detective Coke Ennyday. That was a random surprise find. Finding The Daughter of Dawn on Netflix, on the other hand, was the happy outcome of years of checking in on the story. I’ve been anxious to see the rediscovered treasure since I first wrote about it in 2012, and much to my amazement, it did not disappoint even after years of buildup. It’s a great picture in many ways, capturing an era that was bygone even as it was being filmed.

My favorite videos of the year were all about the technology and procedure of historical preservation and exploration. First there was the all-too-brief view of how Historic Royal Palaces conservators go about washing the fragile 17th century tapestries under their care. With all the custom technology — the giant horizontal car wash made specifically for tapestries — the best part was how tenderly the conservators sponge away the dirt and blot away the moisture. The composite video made from synchroton X-ray imaging of a corroded 17th century metal box blew my mind purely from a tech standpoint. The detail and resolution of the images opens up a world of new possibilities for non-invasive exploration of artifacts that are otherwise too fragile to be touched.

Speaking of history and technology, the discovery that an eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon book of remedies for illness, kills MRSA superbug bacteria with ruthless efficiency could have enormous implications in our soon-to-be post-antibiotic world. There were some heartbreaking responses to that story from people who have lived for years with persistent infections and are desperate to find a solution. Here’s hoping the research gets all the support it needs going forward so they don’t have to crowdfund for a measly £1,000 to hire a summer intern.

Is it weird if I transition from bacterial infection to poop? Oh well, at least there’s some sort of segue in there, even if it is a pathogenic one. Let’s face, it’s not a good History Blog year without some good poop stories, like the 25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of the 14th c. tower in Rye, a medieval city on the English Channel coast. Also we saw the greatest of all updates to the story of the barrels of poop found in Odense, Denmark. Researchers sifting through compacted 14th century excrement one teaspoon at a time, a designated expert poop-sniffer, museum Smell-O-Vision: that post and its comment thread made me inordinately happy. As did the hidden pooper found in the 17th century Dutch painting by Royal Collection curators.

The hidden pooper may be my favorite restoration find, but my favorite artifact find of the year is probably the Roman owl fibula found on Danish island of Bornholm. Its bright enameled colors, rarity and sheer cuteness completely won me over. If Lorenzo ever graduates from making Mjölnir amulets out of his mom’s tea spoons into a full-fledged artifact reproduction business, I vote he make us a whole bunch of Bornholm owls.

Close seconds are the blackboards from 1917 discovered with beautiful chalk artwork and class exercises preserved in pristine condition in an Oklahoma City school and the 132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree in Great Basin National Park in the Snake mountains of eastern Nevada. Several comments on the latter story appreciated that I’d said conservators were keeping the rifle in its highly weathered condition “because it’s cool.” What’s funny is that I actually thought about it a lot when I was writing. I was going to break down all the reasons they’d decided not to restore it, but then I realized that it all boiled down to the same thing: because it’s cool. There are a million Winchester ’73s. This one stands out because some poor devil left it leaning against a tree for 130 years and now it looks kickass.

As far as precious metal finds go, the treasure of the year has to be the Bronze Age gold spirals found on Zealand, Denmark. They were found under a pile of gold coins and the spirals are so awesome they completely eclipsed the gold coin hoard. The comment thread on the spirals is particularly great too. Lots of interesting contributions from people who use or produce similar objects in embroidery and machining metal. The inscribed sword from the 13th or 14th century inspired a wealth of fascinating comments as well. Everyone likes a mystery, or at least we few, we nerdy few, we band of history-obsessed brothers do.

I also loved the comments on the story about the 7th century Christian skeletons found in front of the Temple of Concordia at Paestum because you were so enthusiastic about the fabulous hidden prostitute conspiracy story. One of the joys of writing this blog is when something that tickles me tickles y’all too. I love it even more when it’s a tangent that you pick up on rather than the main thread of the story. I’m not sure why. Validation that my meanderings were worthwhile, I suppose.

Sometimes the meandering becomes an entire post of its own, as in the case of Childeric’s treasure, a story I came across while researching something else I can’t remember anymore and that became something of an obsession for days. The story about Emily Post’s madcap road trip from coast to coast came about in much the same way.

It’s been a heartbreaking year for history lovers. The destruction of so much of our shared cultural heritage in the Middle East by terrorism and war is almost unbearable. The brutal murder of Khaled el-Asaad, a great man who dedicated his life to the historic patrimony of Syria and the gave his life for it too, was an agonizing loss to his family, colleagues and all the rest of us who where so beholden to him without even realizing it until he was gone.

In the end, it’s history itself that soothes me even in such dark times. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was facing the rubble of its own history, torn apart by total war. The sculptures and reliefs of Tell Halaf in Berlin were bombed to smithereens when the museum took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1943. Seventy years later, they were put back together.

Three years ago, author Hilary Mantel, author of the exceptional Tudor historical fiction Wolf Hall, gave a speech about the public’s relationship to royal families at a London Review of Books event. It made the news because some media outlets plucked quotes about the Duchess of Cambridge and made them out to be cruel criticisms of the former Kate Middleton rather than the astute and apposite observation about how people, spurred on by an obsessive press, fetishize her and box her in. It’s a great speech, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the discovery of the remains of Richard III.

Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king? Perhaps because the present is paying some of the debt it owes to the past, and science has come to the aid of history. The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity. This is the essential process of history, neatly illustrated: loss, retrieval.

I’ve thought of that last line so many times this year, as horrific destruction followed horrific destruction. What was lost can be found again, even if its original form is gone forever. That is what history does. That is what we do every time we read history. We find what was lost.

Thank you all so very much for reading and commenting and sending me the kindest compliments and hottest story tips. May your 2016 be glorious.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Civil War-era cedar log “corduroy road” found in Virgina

Wed, 2015-12-30 01:36

A county construction crew in Fairfax County, Virginia, has unearthed a section of a rare Civil War-era cedar log highway. A crew from the Fairfax County Utilities Design and Construction Division (UDCD) was digging for a new road shoulder and sidewalk on Ox Road when workers found a layer of old macadam (a small stone aggregate road surface invented by John MacAdam in the 1820s). Beneath it was a line of cedar logs laid next to each other, a design known as a corduroy road because of its resemblance to the striated fabric. Ken Atkins, senior inspector for the UDCD and avid history buff, made sure the macadam stones were removed very carefully so as not to disturb the wood underneath.

Atkins stopped excavation and alerted UDCD engineer Mohamed Kadasi who called the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch (CRMPB). They sent archaeologists to assess the site who confirmed that Mr. Atkins’ instincts were spot-on. His cautious, thoughtful approach saved a very rare surviving historic Civil War road surface. Logs were a common road surface at the time, especially during the war when the constant tramping of Union and Confederate soldiers turned dirt roads into sucking mud pits.

The CRMPB documented the site, taking photographs and planning a more thorough future recording of the historic road. When they were done for the day, Atkins covered the excavated trench with a steel plate to protect the cedar logs and keep members of the public from falling into the pit.

Then came the bureaucracy. While the county is using the land for public works, it actually belongs to the state of Virginia and is being worked under the aegis of an easement held by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Therefore before a formal excavation of the cedar road could be done, the CRMPB needed a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Usually that sort of thing can drag on for weeks, but everyone pulled together. Within 48 hours, the CRMPB had drawn up a work plan and submitted the permit application, the VDOT had agreed to the plan and signed the permit.

Armed with the permit, the CRMPB team used a total station, one of those surveyor’s tools that looks like a big yellow plastic camera on a tripod, to record the cedar log road in 3D. They also got a favor from the Fairfax County Geographic Information System (GIS) department which has been using high definition LiDAR data to create a detailed topographic map of the county. The CRMPB asked them to process the data from the area around the road find and it returned evidence of a Civil War circular fort that once protected the roadway.

CRMPB archaeologists recorded every log and its exact location, numbered them and then attached two tags with the assigned number to each end of the log. Then they cut through them. I know it sounds horrible and it is, but the UDCD had a drainage pipe to install, and the decision was made that it was better for historical accuracy and preservation to cut the logs but leave them in situ rather than pull them out. Once the pipe was in place, the trench was backfilled up to the cedar log road. The cut ends of the logs were put back in their original places and then the trench was backfilled again, this time up to the modern ground level.

While the road is now reburied and will likely remain so in perpetuity, thanks to the documentation and GIS data, the CRMPB hopes to digitally reconstruct the area as it was during the Civil War.

Jim Lewis, a member of the executive committee of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, said a corduroy road from the Occoquan River to the Fairfax courthouse was a major pathway in the war.

The logs that the county workers found are almost certainly part of the first section of that road, from the courthouse to Fairfax Station, which was built in 1862, Lewis said. “Almost certainly” because Lewis pointed out that a specific dating process hasn’t been used to verify that the wood is from the Civil War and not from a later incarnation of Ox Road.

If the corduroy road does date to the Civil War, the historian said, it would have been traveled by Union Gen. Joseph Hooker, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and other famous generals.

The road would have been a link to get supplies from the railroad at Fairfax Station to the Fairfax courthouse, a significant Union supply depot, he said.

Most other corduroy roads have long rotted away, Lewis said, which makes the Fairfax discovery substantial.

“To find a corduroy road intact is spectacular,” he said.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Iron Age settlement unearthed in Norway

Tue, 2015-12-29 13:48

A unique opportunity to excavate an undeveloped field on Norway’s Ørland peninsula has revealed the remains of a large and wealthy Iron Age settlement. The site is adjacent to Norway’s Main Air Station which is expanding to make room for 52 new F-35 fighter jets the government recently purchased. By Norwegian law, the property must be surveyed by archaeologists before construction begins, and because this site is so extensive (91,000 meters squared or more than 22 acres), the survey is a major project with more than 20 staff working for 40 weeks at a cost of 41 million Norwegian Krone ($4,700,000), not counting the additional costs for room and board and large excavators.

The excavators are necessary to strip a very thin layer of topsoil which has been churned up by farming. The land has been farmed for centuries, going at least as far back 1,500 years ago when it was right on the bay. Now it’s a mile inland. Its former position on the coast made it an important location for Iron Age Norwegians.

“This was a very strategic place,” says Ingrid Ystgaard, project manager at the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at NTNU University Museum. “It was a sheltered area along the Norwegian coastal route from southern Norway to the northern coasts. And it was at the mouth of Trondheim Fjord, which was a vital link to Sweden and the inner regions of mid-Norway.”

Excavations have already confirmed that the people who lived there were prosperous, as testified to by the quality of their garbage. Archaeologists were delighted to find middens — ancient garbage pits — on the site, because they rarely survive so long in the acidic soil of Norway. Thanks to its coastal history, the site’s soil is composed of alkaline ground-up seashells which has allowed delicate organic remains like animal and fish bones to survive to this day.

“Nothing like this has been examined anywhere in Norway before,” Ystgaard said.

There are enough bones to figure out what kinds of animals they came from, and how the actual animal varieties relate to today’s wild and domesticated animals, she said. The archaeologists have also found fish remains, from both salmon and cod, and the bones from seabirds, too.

These finds will give archaeologists a unique glimpse into the daily lives and diets of the Iron Age residents. Other artifacts found in the middens include a blue glass bead, several amber beads and a shard from a green drinking beaker that was imported from the Rhine Valley. These are expensive pieces, a testament to the wealth of a settlement that could afford to trade for such high-end goods.

The precision work of the excavators has peeled back the top layers of soil a centimeter at a time revealing discolorations and holes in the soil that are basically a blueprint of the structures in the settlement.

So far, these marks in the soil show that there were three buildings arranged in the shape of a U. The two longhouses that were parallel to each other measured 40 metres and 30 metres and were connected by a smaller building.

The 40-metre longhouse contained several fire pits, at least one of which was clearly used for cooking. Other fire pits may have provided light for handwork, or for keeping the longhouse warm.

Ystgaard believes there are probably more archaeological remains outside the 22 acres available to them to survey, perhaps a burial ground and harbour with the remains of boat houses, but they have more than enough meaty material to sink their teeth into on the airbase site. The opportunity to explore how the Iron Age site was laid out — where the houses were, where the fireplaces were, where the garbage pits were — is precious and rare and they intend to take full advantage of it.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History