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17th c. royal flagship unearthed in central Stockholm

Thu, 2017-09-07 23:50

Earlier this summer, the remains of a shipwreck were discovered during renovation of a quay on the Skeppsholmen islet in central Stockholm. Stockholm is no stranger to shipwrecks underneath its feet. Like Manhattan, San Francisco and other major port cities, large parts of it were constructed over the rubble of discarded ships. Archaeologists from the Stockholm Maritime Museum were overseeing the work and so were on site when the wreck first emerged and it was quickly clear to them that this ship was much older than anything they had expected to find in the area.

“We were really surprised, because we have some old maps that show some wrecks from the early 1800s, and it seems like the older wrecks don’t show up on the map. There were no indications of this wreck on the maps,” [marine archaeologist Jim Hansson] said, adding the remains uncovered include a section of the ship two metres up from the keel and parts of the transom.

“It was really well preserved. It is only to the first deck level, but you can still see the cut marks from the axes on the timber, for example. It’s been really nice to excavate the parts.”

Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the shipwreck found that the oak timbers were cut in the winters of 1612/3 and 1613/4 from trees in Sweden. The principle of Swedish shipbuilding in the early 17th century held that wood should be used within two years of cutting, so most of the ship was probably built between 1612 and 1614 with bursts of activity through 1616. The team searched through the naval archives for major warships that were built at that time. Only four warships were found on the lists made then. Two of them were too small, the third sank in a storm at sea leaving one likely identification: the Scepter, the largest of them all.

The Scepter was built by Isbrand Johansson, the Dutch-born master shipwright at Stockholm’s Royal shipyard, starting in late 1612, early 1613. She entered the lists in 1615 but was only fully completed and ready for action in 1617. Displacing 800 tons and armed with 36 guns, it was one of the flagships of young King Gustavus Adolphus’ fleet. In 1621, the Scepter carried that same king on a mission of conquest to Riga, then part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. They got it as far as Estonia before a storm forced them to stop. The king disembarked and made his way to Riga overland. The surviving ships of the 148 that had set out for Riga tried again only to meet another brutal storm. The fleet, including the Scepter, finally did make it to Riga, although Scepter ran aground once she got there and the whole fleet had to wait for the crew to extricate her.

After a long and distinguished career, the Scepter was retired in 1639 and sent to a farm in the country with lots of other ships to play with in a big crystalline lake. Naw, jk, they scuttled her on the coast of Skeppsholmen so her woodsy skeleton could be part of the foundation of a new shipyard being built on the island.

The king who ordered her construction when he was a teenager and caught a ride to nowhere on her a few years later, was a brilliant military commander whose success in warfare on sea and land during the Thirty Years’ War made Sweden one of the great powers of Europe. From his ascension to the throne as Gustav II Adolf in 1611 two months shy of his 17th birthday until his early death in 1632, Gustavus fought constantly, first to keep his throne and then to expand its territories and powers exponentially. He inherited wars against three foreign powers and was beset by enemies/family members who thought a boy king made an easy target.

They were wrong. Little Gustav turned out to be really good at fighting. (When will we learn the lessons of Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island?) His innovative approach combined modern technology (artillery), cavalry and infantry to work together seamlessly. All of his troops received extensive cross-training and were not saddled with all the hierarchical obsessions about which branch of the armed services were superior to others, cavalrymen being higher-up on the socio-military scale than infantry, etc. Gustavus did away with those entrenched inequities kept other nations’ militaries splintered in function and fractious in disposition. Every branch was treated equitably with full financial support from the king’s efficient and, most importantly, solvent administration.

Because of his forward-thinking integration of resources human, animal and technological and his gift for logistics, Gustavus Adolphus has been called the Father of Modern Warfare. After he died leading a cavalry charge at The Battle of Lützen on November 6, 1632, the Swedish Estates of the Realm declared that King Gustavus Adolphus would hereby be known as Gustavus Adolphus Magnus, Gustav Adolf the Great. That remains his official name in Sweden. He is the only king of Sweden to be granted this honorific.

It was Gustavus Aldophus who created the modern Swedish navy, taking it from the small Royal Fleet his grandfather King Gustav Vasa had started with ships he bought from the powerful Hanseatic city of Lübeck into a naval force of state-of-the-art warships. Gustavus started from scratch, building and expanding shipbuilding facilities that could supply new vessels at a brisk pace. He also started young, still effectively under regency, ordering new, heavily armed warships so he had a chance against in all those wars Sweden had been embroiled in while he was still in diapers. Ten years after the Scepter was launched, Gustavus launched an even larger beauty queen of a ship that also wound up wrecked. This one wasn’t wrecked deliberately — it was too top-heavy and just toppled over like a real life Barbie doll would — and good thing too because then we would have been denied the misty fantasy dreamship that is the Vasa.

“It’s a really important find because the ship is from the generation before Vasa, so we can see the technical building methods that were used, and it can help us understand what went wrong with the Vasa as well,” said Hansson[.]

The poor Scepter doesn’t rate the kind of huge-budget, multi-decade commitment that resurrected the Vasa. It isn’t intact, obviously, and there are no plans to raise it. Researchers have done some 3D imaging of the wreck in situ, fully documented it and taken samples. She’s staying where she is. Construction continues at the site, still overseen by Stockholm Maritime Museum archaeologists who are hoping more of the ship, or artifacts therefrom, may be discovered.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stone latrine found in Byzantine basilica in Egypt

Wed, 2017-09-06 23:33

Archaeologists excavating the site of an ancient city on the shore of Lake Mariout southwest of Alexandria have unearthed a stone latrine in the remains of a Byzantine-era basilica. Built in the late 5th century A.D., the basilica was the second largest of its kind in Egypt. During its heyday, masses were attended by huge crowds. Congregants filled the interior and pilgrims lined the exterior of the church. Hence the need for toilet facilities.

“We believe that they were available to the believers – from the inside of the basilica, and to the pilgrims – from the outer walls of the building” – said [excavation director Dr. Krzysztof] Babraj. According to the scientist, the discovery is not a surprise for researchers, because the latrines were a standard facility in ancient churches. There probably were separate rooms for women and separate for men.

“Interestingly, the priest had a private latrine in one of the side chapels of the basilica” – added the archaeologist.

In keeping with the fine tradition of important artifacts being found in and around toilets, the team has discovered two exceptional pieces of jewelry in the rooms next to the latrines: a bronze seal ring engraved with the figure of a saint, and a tiny bracelet (probably worn by a child) engraved with an apotropaic symbol to ward off evil and bad luck. The seal ring is the only one known to have been discovered in northern Egypt. Researchers think it is a bishop’s ring used to stamp the official’s seal on official documents and correspondence.

The Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw and the Archaeological Museum of Krakow have been excavating the site since 2000. They believe it is the ancient city of Marea, a port town that gained international fame in the Greco-Roman era for its high quality wine, glass and pottery. Marea’s proximity to the Nile at full flood and to the Mediterranean enabled it to create a direct navigable route to the sea via a series of canals. The city prospered from the Mediterranean and Upper Egyptian trade for centuries and a great deal of archaeological evidence attests to the importance of its port. Six massive stone piers more than 100 meters (330 feet) long have been unearthed, the largest of which was made from large stone blocks sealed with waterproof mortar. Archaeologists have also found quays, a causeway linking the port an island 100 meters east on which additional piers and quays were built. There were sufficient harbour facilities to allow hundreds of ships to load and unload cargo at the same time.

While the Polish mission calls the site Marea, there is not universal agreement among scholars that they’re right. Marea was an important city already in the early Roman and was likely already coming to prominence during the reign of the Ptolemies, but in almost two decades of excavation, the mission has found very few remains from the Greco-Roman period, most notably a kiln from the 2nd-3rd century A.D. which is one of the largest ever found in Egypt. The basilica, public baths, and massive stone piers, the kind of imposing structures you would expect a city like Marea to have had in its ancient heyday, all date to much later, the 5th and 6th centuries.

Another possible identification for the city has been posited by the University of Warsaw’s Mieczyslaw Rodziewicz, an expert in Greco-Roman Alexandria. He suggested it might be Philoxenite, a Byzantine city founded during the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius (491-518) to provide shelter and supplies for pilgrims on their way to the monastery of Abu Mena less than 20 miles southeast of the city. The body of martyr and saint Menas of Alexandria was said to have been transported from Alexandria past Lake Mariout into the desert. The monastery was built on the spot of his burial. It makes sense that a city built to accommodate pilgrims on their way to Abu Mena would be located on the path his body took, that it would have the large-scale facilities necessary to host this kind of traffic and that they would date to the early Byzantine era.

There’s a chance we might find the answer to this question written on potsherds. In a group of commercial buildings and residences behind the apse of the basilica, the Polish mission found a large number of ostracons (pottery fragments with writing scratched onto them). These are records left behind by the workers who built the basilica. They date to the 5th-6th century and most of them appear to have been written by one man. Translation is ongoing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

16th c. local nautical map from colonial Mexico is satellite accurate

Tue, 2017-09-05 23:43

When the Spanish first colonized the Americas in the 16th century, they were starting from scratch, cartographically speaking. The maps of the New World were largely line drawings of the east coast done by explorers and navigators. These were combined to create large scale coastal maps of the entire continent, but they weren’t complete, accurate or in proper scale. Spain needed detailed, precise maps and not just of the coastline to fully exploit its newly conquered territories and to settle disputes with Portugal over who owned what. As a consequence, in the last third of the 16th century King Philip II launched a project to map the entire continent, coastal and interior. To aid in this goal, they employed Relaciones Geográficas, surveys sent to the colonial authorities in every community soliciting an array of information about local geography, languages, natural resources, trade, religion, botany, demographics, place names and topography. The completed surveys also had to include a map of the area.

Data came trickled in — political boundaries, topographical features, the largest roads and towns mapped using diverse sources ranging from pre-Columbian indigenous tradition to contemporary artists to Spanish officials — but the regional maps, if they were submitted at all, were not the accurate representations Spain had hoped for. Most of them contained no distance measurements (which means no scale) or usable coordinates. Many of the colonial authorities in these towns were local leaders and had no training in formal cartographic methods, and they commissioned the maps from Spanish, Creole and indigenous artists, not people likely to take exact measurements and transfer them to the page. The standards of European cartography were only employed by a handful of punctilious functionaries from Spain.

One of the most adept Spanish mapmakers was Francisco Gali, a sailor, explorer, author from Seville who is best known today for having explored the Pacific Northwest coast in the search for a port that could be used by the Manila galleons on their way to Peru. Before making it all the way up north, he arrived in New Spain in 1580. He settled in the town of Tlacotalpa, modern-day Tlacotalpán, in the state of Veracruz, southeastern Mexico, where a group of local mayors asked him to make the regional map demanded by the Relaciones Geográficas questionnaire.

Architect and professor of Graphic Engineering at the University of Seville Manuel Morato has been studying topographic maps and regional cartography since 2010. Gali’s map of Tlacotalpa is highly relevant to his interests because it is one of the earliest examples of nautical cartography in Spanish America and is exceptionally accurate. In fact, His study of the map has found that it matches up to modern technologically-derived data with startling precision.

Gali produced a hand-drawn nautical chart in February 1580 with great exactitude by the standards of the time. It shows in great detail the coast, the estuaries, bays, capes, lagoons and rivers, and in some areas, indicates the depth of the water. Both the chart and the text of the Relación are kept in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. According to the text of the Relación, in the local tongue, “náhuatl-Tlacotalpa” means “divided land,” which refers to the fact that the village was founded in the Pre-Hispanic era on an island in the river Papaloapan, as is represented on the map.

“The Gali map has been compared with current satellite photographs, and the images are practically the same, apart from the distances of the time and the growth of the populated areas, like the city port of Veracruz and its surroundings,” adds the researcher. So the planimetric deformation of the map, compared with a current one, could be due to the fact that Gali did not take sufficient measurements or that he did so, but too quickly, as he was only passing through the area.

North American experts like Barbara Mundy suggest that these deformations could be due to Gali having used an existing padrón (a master map that was updated as new lands were discovered) that included these deformations. In this case, Gali only had to complete the information by adding locations and detailing geographical features. Manuel Morato maintains that this hypothesis is quite unlikely due to the secret nature of the Padrón Real, which was jealously guarded in the Casa de la Contratación in Seville, and of which obsolete copies were destroyed so that they did not fall into the hands of foreign powers. Other causes could have been motivated by the lack of in situ measurements and the impossibility of determining geographical length in the 16th century.

Morato ‘s study of the Gali map of Tlacotalpa has been published in The Cartographic Journal. It’s a fascinating read, and not just for map nerds either because it covers so much ground, if you’ll pardon the on-the-nose metaphor.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Oldest known gospel commentary in Latin now in English

Mon, 2017-09-04 23:00

A complete copy of a long-lost book from antiquity, the Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus, Bishop of Aquileia, has been translated into English for the first time. The commentary was written in the middle of the fourth century and was believed to have been lost in early medieval period. Before the full commentary was found in a library in Germany in 2012, only three fragments from it were known to exist. Now that it has returned to us in its complete glory, it is the oldest surviving Latin commentary on the Gospels.

About 100 pages long, Fortunatianus’ commentary is divided four sections: an overview on the characteristics of the four Gospels, a detailed treatment of Matthew in three chapters, an index listing the 160 chapters of the commentary and lastly the commentary itself. Matthew gets the vast majority of the bishop’s attention, with 129 of those chapters covering the Gospel of Matthew. The famous opening verses of John get 18 chapters. Luke gets a little something with 13 chapters. No soup for Mark.

The commentary’s long-lost identity was rediscovered in 2012 by Dr. Lukas Dorfbauer from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) of the University of Salzburg. He found it in Codex 17, a 9th century manuscript in the collection of the Archbishop’s Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne. It was catalogued as an anonymous commentary, but Dorfbauer recognized it as a copy of an older original and when he read further he discovered three quotations that were the only known remnants of Fortunatianus of Aquileia’s gospel commentary.

According to Jerome’s account of him in De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Fortunatianus was Bishop of Aquileia during the reign of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361). His commentary was important enough to rate a mention, but as far as Jerome was concerned, Fortunatianus was a heretical liar who was “considered detestable” because he had badgered and abused Pope Liberius into accepting Arianism after Constantius II, who supported the Arian side, had exiled the Liberius over the controversy.

Other than Jerome’s writings, there is no evidence of any conflict between the Arian Fortunatianus and the Orthodox Liberius. The Pope speaks of Fortunatianus in glowing terms in a letter to Eusebius, with no reference to any disagreement over whether, as Arius posited, Jesus Christ was separate and subordinate to God the Father.

“I have also sent letters to Fortunatianus, our brother and fellow bishop, whom I know does not fear human persons and has greater consideration for the future rewards, so that he too may see fit to be vigilant with you even now, for his personal integrity and for the faith which he knows he has kept even with the risks of the present life.”

Nor is there incontrovertible evidence that Liberius ever backed down from his vocal opposition to Arianism. The three letters that indict him for caving to pressure from the emperor are very likely forgeries.

Even as the question of the nature of the Christian Godhead raged in the highest ecclesiastical and imperial circles, even the most rabid Niceneans held Fortunatianus’ gospel commentary in high regard. Jerome admitted with characteristic grudging gracelessness that he had referred to Fortunatianus’ work when writing his own gospel commentaries.

Jerome wrote at the very end of the 4th century A.D.; after that, there are only a smattering of references to Fortunatianus’ commentary which don’t even credit the author by name. Centuries would pass before Fortunatianus got a few namedrops again. Carolingian scholars mention him by name in the 9th century, but wistfully remark on how the work itself was impossible to find by that point. Copies of the commentary were likely purged because of his purported Arian beliefs. As Jerome put it, his work was “held in detestation” too just like he was.

Dr. Dorfbauer began work on a new edition of the commentary in 2013, publishing multiple papers on the work as he progressed. Now he and Dr. Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, have created an English translation of Commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus of Aquileia.

Dr Houghton, University of Birmingham, said:

“Most of the works which survive from the earliest period of Latin Christianity are by later, more famous authors such as St Jerome, St Ambrose or St Augustine and have attained the status of classics. To discover a work which predates these well-known writers is an extraordinary find.

“One of my contributions was to compare the biblical quotations in the Cologne manuscript with our databases here in Birmingham. Parallels with texts circulating in north Italy in the middle of the fourth century offer a perfect fit with the context of Fortunatianus.

“Astonishingly, despite being copied four centuries after the last reference to his gospel commentary, this manuscript seems to preserve the original form of Fortunatianus’ ground-breaking work.” […]

The biblical text of the manuscript is of particular significance, as it predates the standard Latin version known as the Vulgate and provides new evidence about the earliest form of the Gospels in Latin.

The identification of the lost manuscript has also allowed the researchers to identify other, shorter pieces as the work of Fortunatianus. Previously these works had been assigned to other ancient authors, such as Chromatius, a later Bishop of Aquileia, or Hilary of Poitiers but are now proven to be extracts from Fortunatianus.

Existing textbooks about the early reception of the Gospels will need to be revised to take account of this major find, which also contains important new material for liturgical studies and other aspects of early Christianity.

The best part of all is that this newly translated edition of a prodigal son of ancient literature has been returned to us in digital form. The entire book is available for free online in pdf format. It’s a beautiful fusion of ancient source and digital technology, and a perfect wheel-has-come-full-circle moment because Dr. Dorfbauer rediscovered the commentary while browsing the digitized version of the manuscript.

You can follow in his footsteps on the extraordinary Codices Electronici Ecclesiae Coloniensis website, which contains digital reproductions of all the medieval manuscripts owned by the Archbishop’s Diocesan and Cathedral Library in Cologne.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Record-breaking Triceratops fossil found in Denver

Sun, 2017-09-03 23:52

On August 25th, a construction crew working on a new Public Safety Facility for police and fire services in Thornton, in the metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado, stumbled across the remains of one of the top 5 favorite dinosaurs of every child who just got his first dinosaur book: a Triceratops. Dan Wagner, a construction inspector with Terracon Consultants, made the first discovery. It was just a small piece of brownish bone but he wisely investigated further. He swept the area and found more of the bone embedded in the soil. When he had uncovered enough to see that this one bone was about four inches wide, he realized it had to be a dinosaur fossil.

A team of paleontologists and volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) excavated the fossil at the construction site. The excavation quickly yielded results. By August 29th, they’d unearthed a horn and a shoulder blade. The next day a second horn made its appearance, as did a piece of the frill, the lower jaw beak, a few ribs and vertebrae. As of September 1st, the bone count was up to 12.

The first bone to be fully excavated and removed from the site was a rib bone that weighs 40 pounds. Extrapolating from the size of the bones, Sertich estimates the Thornton Triceratops was rather petite, approximately the size of a rhino. Triceratops fossils discovered in Montana and North and South Dakota were notably larger than the Denver fellow, about the size of a medium elephant.

Because of its location on the K-Pg (Cretaceous–Paleogene) boundary — a thin geological stratum that marks the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Paleogene Period — Denver sits atop a wealth of paleontological remains. There was a mass extinction event during this transition, one that took out all of the dinosaurs (except for the birdlike ones), so digging underneath the boundary in Denver can reveal a variety of fossils from the late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago. Because Denver is so extensively built over, it’s not often that paleontologists have the opportunity to excavate below the boundary layer, and when they do, most of what they find are plant fossils; large animals like dinosaurs are rare finds in the Denver area. Dr. Sertich believes this Triceratops is one of the most important finds of the decade in Colorado.

“Based on what we’ve uncovered up to this point, this find is likely the most complete Cretaceous period skeleton ever found in this region,” said Joe Sertich, Denver Museum of Nature & Science curator of dinosaurs. “This is what we as curators dream about — getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it’s not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!”

This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the conscientiousness and immediate response of the construction crew.

“I really have to credit the professionals working at the site that discovered the fossils,” Sertich said. “They knew they hit something important and started making calls right away. It’s an unusual circumstance that everyone will benefit from for years to come since we’re able to preserve these bones on behalf of the people of Thornton and Colorado.”

The excavation is ongoing even as construction continues at the secure site. When a bone is fully excavated, the team covers it in a plaster jacket so that it will be protected during transportation to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Once safely in the care of the museum’s the paleontology lab, the plaster is cracked open like a cast and study and conservation of the bone begins. The conservation lab is behind glass in the museum’s Prehistoric Journey exhibition, so visitors will be able to view the Triceratops fossils at various stages in the process.

Teachers, the museum will be hosting a two-way interactive webinar for classrooms grades 4-12 on Tuesday, 9:30 AM Mountain time. Registration and your basic desktop computer setup with internet access are required. Register here for a unique opportunity to hear about this exciting find from Joe Sertich himself, ask him questions and generally spend the early hour of the school day doing something awesome. The rest of us will have to make do with a Facebook Live update about the Thornton Triceratops on the DMNS page Tuesday at 9:30 AM.

This video has no commentary or background music or anything extraneous whatsoever. Only close views of the excavation accompanied by ambient sounds, not even explanatory interjections from the experts. This is so exceedingly rare I must take a moment to thanks the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for trusting in the raw material being fascinating to anyone who would watch videos like this in the first place. Keep your eyes peeled for a magical moment of whimsy starting at the 2:04 mark.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Casanova seduces at the Kimbell

Sat, 2017-09-02 23:12

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has invited the roguiest of the rogues to use his legendary powers of seduction on its visitors. Casanova: The Seduction of Europe uses the life of Giacomo Casanova, adventurer, memoirist and lover extraordinaire, as the backbone of an exhibition on 18 century European fine and decorative arts. The biggest events of his life provide the chronological underpinning for the display of material culture from his time and society. More than 200 paintings, sculptures, piece of furniture, silver, porcelain boxes, metal objects, stylish period outfits and musical instruments from elegant palaces and salons of mid-18th century Europe.

Casanova is the perfect icon for the job because he so vividly documented the mores and manners of his era in his autobiography, and because he was so widely traveled. Born in Venice, the opulent, permissive city with its stunning lagoon setting and famously elegant masquerade balls, as a young boy he went to boarding school and university in Padua. For the rest of his life he would travel the continent, alternating between prison stays for debt and morals charges and a dizzying array of careers from priest to gambler to playwright.

The son of an actress and a dancer, a jailbird and avowed libertine, Giacomo Casanova’s ability to seduce was not limited to women of all ages, degree of consanguinity to him and stations of life. He seduced his way into the highest echelons of ancien regime. He was invited to join the secret societies so favored by the aristocracy and was the toast of imperial courts from Constantinople to Saint Petersburg. Casanova navigated with equal ease the dark, greasy back alleys of the underworld and the gilded Rococo parlours of the rich and titled, and he wrote about it all in frank detail.

This is the first important exhibition outside of Europe to reconstruct the rich worlds Casanova inhabited. The cultural and political capitals of Europe — Venice, Paris, London, Russia — are all represented by the artworks and objects on display, as are the naughtier environments Casanova frequented — gambling halls, mistresses’ boudoirs, theaters. The exhibition is divided into four sections. Amorous Pursuits takes pole position, as any narrative centered on Casanova would have to, and it explores how the 18th century elite’s shifting attitudes towards sexuality were expressed in artworks by the likes of Tieopolo, Fragonard, Hogarth and Boucher.

The Theater of Identity focuses on depictions of the mask and theatrical pursuits, something Casanova was intimately familiar with as a Venetian, the neglected child of show business parents, and as an unparalleled master of self-invention, often crossing over into outright fraud. The Art of Luxury presents the decorative arts of the period, from silver tableware to a men’s three-piece suit of velvet embroidered with silver thread, the kind of thing Casanova might have worn during his more successful stretches.

The last section looks at The Adventure of Travel. Casanova by his own account clocked more than 40,000 miles in travel on crap roads and dangerous seas in slow conveyances. That was not a lifestyle for the faint of the heart in the 18th century. Some of the paintings on display depict the allure that might draw someone to risk life and limb on long journeys, idealized scenes of exotic beauties in foreign courts. One masterpiece, Canaletto’s Bacino di San Marco, captures the reality of Venice as a capital of international trade, its main harbour bristling with the masts of ships flying many different flags. Then there’s a whole other category of reality: a gilt, painted and silk upholstered sedan chair that must have once carried the posterior of an Italian noble to and fro, although probably not so much on the rough roads as inside and between palaces.

The exhibition runs at the Kimbell from August 27th through December 31, 2017. After it departs Texas, the show will move on to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and then to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Extraordinary mosaic found in ordinary Roman villa

Fri, 2017-09-01 23:49

Archaeologists and community volunteers have unearthed an extraordinary Roman mosaic floor in the remains of an otherwise modest Roman villa in Boxford, West Berkshire. The mosaic dates to the late 4th century, about 380 A.D., when incursions from Saxons, Picts and Irish were on the rise and the usurper Western Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus (r. 383–87 A.D.) was withdrawing troops stationed in Britain to reinforce his army in his home base of Gaul. Other villas in Britain have been found with handsome new mosaics laid around this time, however, so it seems some of the rural villas at least were prosperous and secure enough to invest in new art. (Urban population, on the other hand, cratered and richly appointed town houses from this period are rare.)

The villa itself was not one of the huge luxury country estates. It had a farmhouse, a bath and a medium-sized villa of no special architectural interest with one big exception: a spectacular mosaic floor. The excavation team was only able to unearth less than half of it before the close of the dig, and the fraction that has been revealed is already breaking new ground in the art history of Roman Britain. The mythological themes depicted include imagery that hasn’t been found before in Britain. That iconographic variety has inspired one expert to call this the most important Roman mosaic unearthed in Britain in the last 50 years. The figures and flourishes aren’t as finely drawn as those in the fanciest homes and public buildings — the owner must not have had access to or been able to could afford the services of the greatest artists — but the subject matter makes the mosaic unique in the British art historical record.

The central panel, which has not been fully uncovered yet, depicts scenes from the life of the her Bellerophon. In one he is borne aloft by the winged stallion Pegasus as he attacks the chimera. Another scene is believed to depict King Iobates offering Bellerophon his daughter Philonoe’s hand in marriage as a reward for his successful killing of the chimera. If the provisional identification can be confirmed when the rest of the mosaic is excavated, this will be the only known mosaic depiction of this particular scene from the Bellerophon mythos ever discovered from Roman Britain.

Another rare element on this mosaic is an inscription. Experts haven’t deciphered it yet, but first impressions suggest it may be related to the scenes from the life and acts of Bellerophon depicted in the central panel. The thick bottom border of the mosaic contains more significant iconography. There’s a Cupid in a medallion in the middle, a telamon and an atlantid (bemuscled male versions of caryatids used as architectural features) in the corners, set in medallions of their own tilted diagonally. All three figures stretch outside the confines of their medallions, the corner figures performing their mythologically correct functions by holding up the borders of the central panel. This extension of the bodies outside the edges of their framing devices is extremely unusual in Roman mosaics.

Between the Cupid and the atlantid is an outline drawing of a man in a thick cloak wields a club against a centaur, likely a depiction of Hercules, clad in the skin of the Nemean Lion, battling Nessus. Technically Hercules killed Nessus with a poison arrow (a key plot point), but their battle was often depicted as hand-to-hand combat in artworks from antiquity well into the modern era. I’m thinking it could be Theseus vs. Eurytus. Mythological accounts describe that fight as hand-to-hand. The iconography could work too, at least from what I can see in the pictures. Hercules wasn’t the only hero with a club. Theseus had a particularly good one, the bronze club with which he’d killed its former wielder Periphetes, the cyclopean son of Vulcan. He was frequently shown holding the club in vase decorations and mosaics. I can’t see a lion head on the garment — unless those lines on his left pectoral muscle are meant to be a lion head? — and without that key evidence it could just be a cloak, another accessory common in portraits of Theseus and many other heroes.

The site has been excavated in short summer seasons as part of the Boxford History Project since 2011, led by professional archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology and staffed largely by volunteers. The last three seasons, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, have unearthed masses of tile, pottery fragments and the walls of multiple buildings, including the small villa. The team has reburied all of this year’s finds for their own safety and conservation. They will return next year and pick up where they left off excavating the mosaic.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Museum acquires rare sufragette banner found in Leeds charity shop

Thu, 2017-08-31 23:48

The People’s History Museum (PHM) has acquired a very rare suffragette banner that was made in Manchester in the early 1900s and will now return to its native city again more than 80 years of exile in Leeds. Created by premiere Manchester banner maker Thomas Brown & Sons, the banner celebrates the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the fiercest and most committed suffragette leaders, in her home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, in 1903. The date of its manufacture is not known, but the banner glows with the colors of the WSPU campaign: green signifying reform, white purity and purple dignity. The green, white and purple weren’t adopted as the WSPU’s official colors until 1908.

The WSPU marched and assembled under their banners, but unlike many of their sisthren in the cause, they took an explicitly militant stance. Sick of failed attempts to extend the franchise by ostensibly allied politicians, the WSPU took as their motto “deeds not words” and hit the streets. They tied themselves to railings, blew up mailboxes, went on hunger strikes when they were arrested and refused to eat even under threat of force-feeding. They made a very effective nuisance of themselves until World War I broke out in 1914 and the WSPU suspended all its activities.

As far as researchers have been able to determine, the banner was taken to Leeds in the 1930s by Edna White. It was sold to the charity shop after her death and this rare textile treasure remained in the shop, unrecognized and unappreciated, for 10 years. The charity shop put the banner up for auction on June 20th of this year where it was bought by a private collector.

The People’s History Museum, which has the largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world and a top notch textile conservation studio to ensure their long-term health, wasted no time. They reached out to the collector and agreed on a buying price for the banner. They then raised most of the money in grants from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. With £5,000 still to go, the museum turned to crowdfunding. The Bring Manchester’s Suffragette Banner Home campaign was an almost instant success, meeting the original target in a week.

The PHM has added another £2,500 as a stretch goal to help fund interpretation of the newly acquired banner for its display in a 2018 exhibition celebrating the centenary of the passage of the Representation of the People Act which granted suffrage to all men 21 and older and women 30 and older. (Women 21 years of age and above were not enfranchised until 1928, a matter of a few weeks after Emmeline Pankhurst’s death.) The rest of the stretch money would go to getting the rest of the museum’s suffrage collections in top shape and creating learning resources and events associated with the exhibition. They’ve only raised a few hundred pounds of the stretch goal with just over two weeks to go.

Helen Antrobus, Programme & Events Officer at PHM, says…

“This is a truly spectacular piece, beautifully crafted and powerfully representative of its time. It is also an important part of the nation’s social history and we hope to find out more about Edna White and her suffragette story as part of this project’s research. The banner’s life began in Manchester and we’d like to continue its life by sharing its story with our visitors who travel across the region, nation and world to join us on a march through time that narrates Britain’s struggle for democracy.”

The campaign will ensure that the banner not only becomes a part of the People’s History Museum collection, but that plans are in place for its continued care and conservation by the museum’s specialist team.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Cuneiform tablet is oldest (& newest) trigonometric table

Wed, 2017-08-30 23:03

Mathematicians at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, in think they’ve cracked a cuneiform code that has given rise to vigorous debate in the mathematical community for almost a century. The bone, or in this case clay tablet, of contention is known as Plimpton 322 and has been in the Columbia University collection since it was bequeathed to them in 1936 by the wealthy publisher and avid collector of historical written materials George Arthur Plimpton. (His grandson was George Plimpton, author, literary critic and one of the shrinks Matt Damon chases away in Good Will Hunting.) George Arthur left the tablet and the rest of his exceptional collection of rare books and manuscripts to the Butler Library; they are now in the university’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The tablet is five inches wide, 3.5 inches high and .8 inch thick and features a table of cuneiform numbers four columns across and 15 rows long. The outer left edge is broken, possibly in the modern era because there are remains of glue indicating a repair attempt with the now-missing piece. This break took some of the first column figures with it, forcing mathematicians to have to extrapolate what the complete numbers were based on the extant ones. Experts think the complete table was six columns wide and 38 rows long. All of the numbers are in Babylonian sexagesimal (base 60) notation.

Its origins are obscure because the tablet was one of hundreds acquired by roving antiquarian/adventurer/novelist/diplomat Edgar James Banks starting in the late 19th century. He sold it to Plimpton in around 1922, reportedly for $10. Neither of them realized the significance of the cuneiform text. Based on the writing style and formatting, researchers believe the tablet was created in the Sumerian city of Larsa in what is today southern Iraq between 1822 and 1762 B.C., right around the time of Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 B.C.), 6th king of the First Babylonian Dynasty and promulgator of the law code that bears his name. Several other tablets with inscriptions of Babylonian mathematics came from Larsa.

Mathematicians have been studying Plimpton 322 since it was first published at the end of World War II and there have been rollicking debates on the purpose of the table, whether it’s a complex accounting tool, a mathematical table (if so what kind), a teacher’s edition list of answers for math students or something else entirely. Austrian mathematician and historian of science Otto Neugebauer recognized that the numbers on the table are Pythagorean triples, two different integers that squared and added together equal the square of the third integer, but to what end did ancient scholars take the immense trouble to compile the lists?

The UNSW team posits that it is indeed a trigonometric table, but one that takes a previously unknown approach to calculation.

“Our research reveals that Plimpton 322 describes the shapes of right-angle triangles using a novel kind of trigonometry based on ratios, not angles and circles,” said Dr Daniel Mansfield of the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the UNSW Faculty of Science.

“It is a fascinating mathematical work that demonstrates undoubted genius. The tablet not only contains the world’s oldest trigonometric table; it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry.

“This means it has great relevance for our modern world. Babylonian mathematics may have been out of fashion for more than 3000 years, but it has possible practical applications in surveying, computer graphics and education. This is a rare example of the ancient world teaching us something new.”

Until now, the Greek mathematician Hipparchus has been granted the title the Father of Trigonometry because he designed a table in a circle that was long credited with being the oldest known trigonometric table. If the scribe who wrote Plimpton 322 had signed his work, Hipparchus would have had to take that crown off his own head and put it on his Sumerian predecessor’s.

“Plimpton 322 predates Hipparchus by more than 1000 years,” says Dr Wildberger.

“It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own.” […]

“Plimpton 322 was a powerful tool that could have been used for surveying fields or making architectural calculations to build palaces, temples or step pyramids,” added Dr Mansfield.

Their research has been published in the journal Historia Mathematica and can be read in its entirety here (download it now before it ends up behind a paywall).

This may be the nerdiest web of nerdery I’ve ever woven (which is saying something), but when I first saw this story I couldn’t help but imagine the following dialogue.

Plimpton 322: I’m an idiot because I can’t make a lamp?
Diogenes: No, you’re a genius because you can’t make a lamp.
Plimpton 322: What do you know about trigonometry?
Diogenes: I could care less about trigonometry.
Plimpton 322: Well did you know without trigonometry there’d be no ziggurats?
Diogenes: Without lamps, there’d be no honest men.

I’ll see myself out.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Neolithic homes, 19th c. whale skeletons found on Orkney

Tue, 2017-08-29 23:59

Archaeologists excavating Cata Sand, a bay on the Orkney island of Sanday, have unearthed the remains of an Early Neolithic house and at least a dozen 19th century whale skeletons. The prehistoric structure dates to between 3400 and 3100 B.C. and is fairly extensive with its original hearth and remains of walls. Northwest of the core structures is a second hearth that archaeologists believe is from a later expansion and reconstruction of the house.

Prof [Colin] Richards said: “The early Neolithic house is both interesting and unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which rests on rounded beach stones.

“At least two construction phases have now been recognised. The primary house has a stone set hearth, internal pits and boxes, and remains of the lower courses of a double-faced thick stone outer wall and small dividing stones, which partition the house into different living areas. This phase of the structure is comparable with examples of dwellings at Stonehall, Mainland and Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Although excavations at Pool uncovered some early Neolithic structures in the 1980s, this is the first ‘classic’ early Neolithic house to be discovered in Sanday.”

A number of artifacts have been found in the remains of the house — pottery fragments, flint knapping debris, animal bones, Skaill knives — and they are all well preserved, which is particularly key for the bones because time, soil and the elements have chewed up organic remains at other Neolithic sites in Orkney. The rich red-brown floors in the house indicate they have a rich complement of organic remains for researchers to study in the lab.

A team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute (UHI), the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and specialists from other institutions have been excavating the site since mid-August using a geophysical survey and midden finds from a previous exploration as their guide. When the site was discovered by UHI and UCLan researchers in November of last year, their survey found evidence of a large settlement they thought might date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-2000 BC). This was a transitional period which saw a great deal of social upheaval in Northern Scotland, so archaeologists were excited at the prospect of discoveries from so significant a time. If the dating on the Neolithic structure proves accurate, even though it will be earlier than expected nobody will be disappointed because it such a rare find in unusually good condition.

Sandy beaches are never easy to excavate, and the team has to do battle with the constant erosive action of wind and water. To top it off, the site is in the intertidal zone which means it is fully submerged twice a day. With less than a month to dig — the excavation is scheduled to end on September 8th — researchers are working assiduously to uncover as much of its archaeological material as they can.

The whales are an even more unexpected find, especially so many of them. The bones have been unearthed in two large cut pits. Local traditions suggest they are the detritus of a practice known as “ca,” from a word meaning “driven,” in which whales, dozens, even hundreds at a time, were chased towards the shore until they beached themselves. There they were butchered for their blubber, a valuable source of oil that was used in lamps, motors, soaps, even margarine. It smelled terrible burning, however, and I don’t even want to know what whale margarine tastes like, so when less unpleasant replacements were invented in the 20th century, the popularity of whale oil cratered.

The Cata Sand site is open to visitors. If you happen to be in the Sanday area, park in the parking lot and walk the western side to the highest dune. If it’s raining they won’t be there, but otherwise you can perch on the dude and see the excavation team at work.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Tomb of China’s Shakespeare found

Mon, 2017-08-28 23:17

Archaeologists excavating the site of a demolished factory in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, east China, have discovered the tomb of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). A large grouping of tombs was first unearthed after the demolition of the old plant last year, 42 of them in total, 40 dating to the Ming Dynasty. Tomb M4 was identified as Tang’s from an epitaph, one of six found at the site some of which are believed to have been written by the playwright himself. His third wife Fu was buried with him in the tomb; his second wife Zhao was buried in the neighboring tomb labelled M3.

“The epitaphs can help us learn more about the calligraphy, art and literature in Tang’s time,” Xu [Changqing, head of Jiangxi Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute,] said.[…]

“This discovery is significant, because it tells us more about Tang’s life, his family tree and relationships with other family members,” said Mao Peiqi, vice chairman of the Chinese Society on Ming Dynasty History.

“Besides, by learning about the status and lives of Tang’s family, we can learn about education, culture and agriculture in the Ming Dynasty as well as the development of society,” he said.

Tang’s best known works are a series of plays known as the Four Dreams. One of them, The Peony Pavilion, is considered his masterpiece. It was the most popular play of the Ming Dynasty and continued to be performed in the classical Chinese opera tradition uninterrupted for hundreds of years until the present. Updated, experimental versions as well as the traditional style have been performed all over the world. There are references to it in popular music, novels, television and film.

Tang Xianzu and William Shakespeare died the same day: April 23rd, 1616. They had other things in common: exceptional lyrical qualities in their verse, themes of star-crossed romance, plot-driving dreams, ghosts, comical elements combined with the tragic and dramatic, historical settings and personages, and legacies as literary giants that loom large in their native countries and beyond. Because they were contemporaries with such enduring cultural influence, comparisons between Tang and Shakespeare are rife. Tang is often referred to as the Chinese Shakespeare as shorthand to explain the enormity of his importance in Chinese theatrical history. Last year, the 400th anniversary of both men’s deaths, The Peony Pavilion was performed at Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the Bard. This year, a statue of the two great playwrights standing side by side gifted to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by the city of Fuzhou in 2015 was unveiled in the garden at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The discovery of Tang’s tomb is exciting not just for what it can tell us about his personal life, Ming Dynasty history and culture, but also because until now there was no commemorative location linked to his life for his myriad fans to visit to pay their respects. An empty tomb was built in a Fuzhou park in the 1980s just so there’d at least be some kind of monument. Now the city plans to create a destination site where Tang Xianzu and his family were really buried that will attract tourists, fans, artists and scholars alike.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Misunderstood dodo gets its due

Sun, 2017-08-27 23:16

A new study of bone sections has revealed new information about the life and reproductive cycles of the dodo bird. Because very few skeletal remains of dodo’s have survived, researchers have been reluctant to slice and dice them to use the latest technology that might discover more about a very misunderstood animal. Recent discoveries of bone fragments gave scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Cape Town a rare opportunity to take a look inside the dodo.

According to evidence in the different layers and types of tissue of the 22 bones examined, the dodo seems to have adapted its lifestyle to Mauritius’s stormy summer, from November to March.

During this period, heavy rain and strong winds can strip trees of leaves, flowers and fruit, causing severe food shortages for the island’s animals.

The dodo bones show repeated lines of arrested growth, which the researchers suggest correspond to the harsh conditions of the summer months when the birds were starved of food. […]

In common with many modern birds living on the island, the breeding season for dodos appears to have begun around August. Once chicks hatched, they grew quickly to almost adult body size, attaining sexual maturity before the stormy summer began.

Moulting began after the summer had passed, around March, with the replacement of the feathers of the wings and the tail. By July, the moult would have been completed and the bird would have had a chance to fatten up, ready for the next breeding season to begin.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read free of charge here.

The dodo has become an icon of species extinction, unfairly painted as a clumsy weirdo who couldn’t find a way to survive, when, as this new evidence underscores, it was very well adapted to its unique environment before people hunted it mercilessly and destroyed its ecosystem. A native species of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the dodo’s large beak and rotund body gave it something of a comical appearance which has played into the narrative of the goofy bird who just couldn’t hack in the real world.

It was the Dutch they couldn’t survive. Dutch ships first made landfall on Mauritius in 1598. Forty years later, the Dutch established their first settlement to harvest the island’s ebony trees. They also attempted to grow sugar cane and introduced domestic animals and deer. None of these endeavors proved financially successful and the first colony was abandoned two decades years after its founding. Some desultory attempts to colonize the island ensued until the Dutch gave up once and for all in 1710.

They sure left their mark, though. They destroyed the ebony forests, depriving endemic species of their habitat. They slaughtered local birds and turtles for food, and overwhelmed the ones they didn’t eat with competing animal species. One of those local birds was the dodo. The last living one was sighted in 1662 and the Dutch cared not one whit, so little, in fact, that they didn’t even notice that by the early 1690s the entire species was gone, extinguished in less than a century.

For a long time the dodo was considered mythical and the only evidence that it had ever existed were a few drawings made from life by explorers and a smattering of bones. The 19th century saw a sudden surge of interest in the curious bird, but there was so little to go on that scientists had to make do with a few drawings and random body parts. In their 1848 monograph The Dodo and Its Kindred, Strickland and Melville remarked on how difficult scientific study of a bird that had gone extinct less than two centuries earlier was because the source material was so sparse and unreliable.

In the case of the didinae, it is unfortunately no easy matter to collect satisfactory information as to their structure, habits, and affinities. We possess only the rude descriptions of unscientific voyagers, three or four oil paintings, and a few scattered osseous fragments, which have survived the neglect of two hundred years. The paleontologist has, in many cases, far better data for determining the zoological characters of a species which perished myriads of years ago, than those presented by a group of birds, which were living in the reign of Charles the First.

The first dodo fossils were found in 1865, but they were fragmentary. Research based on those finds that was published in science journals still had to rely heavily on speculation to fill in the many unknowns about this bird. Amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux was the first to discover complete or almost complete skeletal remains of dodos during his excavations in Mauritius between 1899 and 1910. Decades after the Dodo became a subject of fascination despite the lack of osteological material bemoaned by Strickland and Melville, Thirioux’s finds made little impact on the scientific community. One Thirioux skeleton, almost complete minus a few bones, wound up in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa. The second is in the Mauritius Institute, appropriately enough. The one in the Mauritius Institute is the only complete dodo skeleton known and the only one that is from a single bird. The Durban skeletal is believed to be a composite of two partial dodo skeletons.

Neither museum realized what rare and significant specimens they had until a few years ago when the Natural History Museum’s Dr. Julian Hume sought them out to do the first comprehensive study of dodo anatomy in 150 years. The study was capped off with this nifty 3D laser surface scanning reconstruction of the skeleton at the Durban Natural Science Museum shows a detailed rendering of the bird’s skeletal structure in what scientists now believe is an anatomically accurate position.

Durban Dodo Skeleton – Anatomically Correct Pose
by Aves 3D
on Sketchfab

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

From the annals of people are terrible

Sat, 2017-08-26 21:19


On Friday, August 4th, visitors to the Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, Essex, did something so stupid and reckless it defies understanding. Parents of a young child lifted him over the barrier into a medieval sandstone sarcophagus, presumably to capture a precious memory of their cherub desecrating a funerary artifact. As anyone with two neurons to rub together could have predicted, the coffin was knocked off its stand. The impact cracked the fragile sandstone down the middle and took a chunk out of the floor of the coffin.

Museum staff discovered the damage later that day because in addition to being irresponsible numbskulls, the parents are also craven cowards who hightailed it out of the museum as quickly as their chicken legs could carry them without notifying anyone to the havoc they’d wreaked. Curators only found out what had happened by reviewing CCTV footage from security cameras.

“The care of our collections is of paramount importance to us and this isolated incident has been upsetting for the museums service, whose staff strive to protect Southend’s heritage within our historic sites,” said Claire Reed, the conservator responsible for repairing the sarcophagus.

“My priority is to carefully carry out the treatment needed to restore this significant artefact so it can continue to be part of the fascinating story of Prittlewell Priory.”[…]

The sandstone casket that was damaged is the last of its kind. “It’s a very important artefact and historically unique to us as we don’t have much archaeology from the priory,” said Reed.

Conservators are currently assessing the damage, but at first glance they expect it should be able to be repaired without breaking the bank. The council thinks it might take fewer than £100 ($130). Suitable materials for restoring historical artifacts can be expensive, however, and then there’s the cost that will be incurred by creating a new display for the coffin when it goes back on display. For its own protection, it will have to be completely enclosed, so museum visitors will have to pay in distance and separation from the artifact for the carelessness of two idiots.

Founded in around 1110 A.D. by Robert FitzSuen as the Priory of St Mary, a cell of the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras in Lewes, Sussex, Prittlewell was a small monastery with fewer than 20 monks at any given time. Most of the medieval priory was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. That and later construction is why archaeological material from the original priory is so sparse. Henry VIII granted the monastery, its lands and revenues to Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor of England and Keeper of the Great Seal, who also scored a number of far larger and more valuable monastic estates in the wake of the Dissolution.

Prittlewell remained in private hands until the early 20th century. The Scratton family made the most pronounced mark on the estate in the Victorian era, extensively renovating, rebuilding and adding to what was left of the medieval monastery to create an impressive and livable country home. Having lived in the era before Poltergeist, they created a walled kitchen garden over what had been the monks’ burial ground. The inevitable hauntings ensued and visitors have reported seeing a ghostly monk wandering the halls of the former cloister.

In 1917 Prittlewell Priory, the buildings, the 22-acre property and six adjacent acres were bought from Captain Scratton by prosperous local jeweler and benefactor Robert Arthur Jones. He donated the whole kit and caboodle to the city of Southend with the explicit intent that it be turned into a multi-use public facility for the benefit of the people of Southend. Jones explained his reasoning at the time:

“I think it is a sin for a man to die rich, it is a great privilege to me to be able to do this, for I believe strongly in facilities for recreation. There will now be no need for such an out of the way and costly park as Belfairs. Prittlewell, with its historic and old-world associations, its beautiful trees and lakes, and its nearness to the centre of town, is an ideal place. Part of the building would be suitable for a museum, and there would also be refreshment room accommodation, while the grounds would provide facilities for cricket, football, tennis, hockey and other sports. I propose that the name of the park should be Priory Park”

In 1922 Prittlewell Priory opened as Southend’s first museum and Priory Park as its first public park. The damaged sarcophagus was unearthed near the former priory church in 1921 during the archaeological exploration of the site that accompanied its conversion into the museum and park. It contained a skeleton, likely the remains of senior monk because a stone coffin was an expensive object that would have been used for brothers of high rank.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Chinese workers found buried in ancient Lima pyramid

Fri, 2017-08-25 23:20

The remains of 16 Chinese labourers from the late 19th and early 20th century have been found buried in a 1,000-year-old adobe pyramid in Lima, Peru. The bodies were discovered at the top of the Huaca Bellavista pyramid built by the Ichma people who flourished in Lima before they were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. The pyramid was used as a clandestine cemetery by the Chinese because they were forbidden from using Catholic cemeteries. Historians believe they may have been drawn to the ancient sacred spaces which were used for high status burials when they were first built and for centuries afterwards. The remains of Chinese labourers have been found at other adobe pyramids in Lima, but this is the largest group of Chinese migrant burials ever found in Peru.

In a possible sign of how the Chinese gradually emerged from dire poverty in Peru, the first 11 bodies were shrouded in cloth and placed in the ground, while the last five wore blue-green jackets and were buried in wooden coffins, [lead archaeologist Roxana] Gomez said.

“In one Chinese coffin, an opium pipe and a small ceramic vessel were included in the funerary ensemble,” said Gomez.

The opium pipe has a porcelain base decorated with blue seashells. Other grave goods discovered in the graves include an inkwell and an unusual flat wooden box that historians believe may have held an important document like his work contract. In addition to the blue-green jackets, other clothing was found on the bodies, among them cotton hats and blue jeans.

One of the deceased was found with a fractured skull, likely the result of violent trauma. Even broken, his skull still retained the traditional braid of hair at the base. Chinese labourers were treated abysmally and there are several cases on record of them being beaten severely. The court cases were not about owners/overseers abusing Chinese workers, mind you. It was the Chinese on trial for responding with violence to the violence inflicted on them. Perhaps this young man was a victim of a workplace “injury.”

The cotton plantations in the foothills of the Andes in the Lima area were hard to farm. The land is arid desert, virtually rainless, and cannot grow any kind of crop at all without extensive irrigation systems piping water down from the mountains. Even irrigated, the land was only productive enough for two crops of cotton a year. The first was of comparatively good quality, but the manufactured product was still low-end. The second crop was worse in quality, lower in quantity and even more difficult to harvest. Harvesting by machine was not possible because the machines left too much of the bolls (the white fluffy part) behind while picking up too much of the leaves and stems that are useless in the manufacture of cotton textiles.

From a description on the back of a stereoscopic card of Chinese cotton plantation pickers published by Underwood & Underwood in 1900:

It has been found that Chinese laborers are the most reliable for work on a cotton plantation. They receive seventy cents, silver, per quintal (100 pounds) and they average two quintals a day. An expert picker will gather three quintals per day on the first crop of the season. On the second crop the laborers receive one dollar, silver, per quintal, because this crop is harder to pick. The cotton grown here is of medium grade, such as is used in the manufacture of coarse muslins and rough cotton goods.

With slavery abolished in 1854, the solution to the thorny question of who would willingly do this awful job for crap wages was what it always is: immigrants. Chinese indentured labourers migrated to Peru starting in 1849, when slavery was being phased out and there was a dire shortage of workers for the sugar and cotton plantations and guano mines. Just as in the United States with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese labour in Peru played a key role in the Guano Boom, a period of great prosperity for Peru thanks to profits from guano exports to Europe where it was highly prized as fertilizer.

In the mid-19th century, 100,000 Chinese labourers, almost entirely Cantonese men from Guangdong province, immigrated to Peru to work in brutal conditions for spare change. They were deceived into signing contracts with the promise of making a decent living only to find almost immediately they’d been lied to. The ships that transported them were called “floating hells” and the ones who survived the four-month voyage arrived riddled with disease and injury. They were immediately put to work in the plantations and mines, working from dawn until night. After 12 hours of back-breaking labour, they were locked into their quarters to keep them from running away.

Little wonder they hit the opium pipes once those doors locked, and the plantation owners encouraged the habit because they just so happened to have a monopoly on opium sales granted by the British. They couldn’t make that kind of money off of alcohol and coca.

Chinese immigration was severely restricted in 1909 and prohibited entirely in 1930. By then there was a well-established community of mixed Chinese and Peruvian heritage. Their descendants, the Tusans, still live in Peru today. Up to 3% of the population is of Chinese ancestry, more than 1,000,000 people according to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, the largest ethnically Chinese community in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. Lima has more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants that serve a unique fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine and a small but thriving Chinatown (the Barrio Chino) with schools, temples, benevolent associations and multiple Chinese language periodicals.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient child sarcophagi found at Rome’s Olympic Stadium

Thu, 2017-08-24 23:39

Workers installing new pipelines near Rome’s Olympic Stadium this summer uncovered two ancient Roman children’s’ sarcophagi. The ENEA utility company stumbled on the artifacts while digging in the Monte Mario neighborhood just behind the north curve of the stadium. They stopped the work and reported the find to the Special Superintendency for the Colosseum and the Archaeological Area of Central Rome which sent an archaeological team to excavate the site.

The marble sarcophagi were found about eight feet below street level. One of them is rough hewn, the chisel marks clearly visible on the interior and exterior, while the other is decorated with a bas relief on the exterior. The relief depicts a central pair of erotes (Cupid-like figures also known as putti or cherubs) holding aloft a circular medallion that is either too eroded or too soil-encrusted to identify the image it bears. It was likely an image of the deceased called a clipeus portrait, or perhaps a mythological reference. Two small figures recline underneath the medallion. On the right and left sides of the central scene are pairs of embracing Cupids and Pyches. Individual erotes cap the ends of the panel. Both it and the other, plainer sarcophagus were expensive luxury items that only the wealthy could afford. The children buried in them must have been from well-to-do families.

Erotes were common motifs in funerary reliefs, particularly for children because they’re basically babies with wings. They continued to be used into the Christian era, reinterpreted as angels bringing the souls of the dead to heaven. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a sarcophagus with very similar iconography to the one found near the stadium, although the clipeus portrait identifies the deceased as a young man, not a child.

Preliminary examination suggests the sarcophagi date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. — the Met’s sarcophagus dates to the late 2nd, early 3rd century and the more refined carving is indicative of an earlier date than the cruder art on the newly discovered one. The dating can’t be asserted with confidence until the objects have been subjected to further testing. Concerned that the open excavation pit was too easily accessible to vandals and looters, archaeologists decided to remove the sarcophagi from the site as soon as they could. They have been transported to the laboratories of the Special Superintendency to be cleaned, studied and conserved. The first dating results and other research will be published next fall.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

6th c. mosaic inscription found near Damascus Gate

Wed, 2017-08-23 23:51

A team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists surveying the site of a cable line installation near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate this summer have discovered a rare 6th century mosaic inscription that namedrops the Emperor Justinian. The excavation was just about complete with little to show for it besides a few extremely damaged ancient remains that were mangled by repeated infrastructure projects in the area in recent decades. Then the team spied a piece of the mosaic inscription between the network of pipes and cables.

When they excavated it fully, they found large room with a surviving mosaic tile floor. Most of the floor is covered in simple white tesserae, but one section has an inscription in black tile. The six lines of Greek mention the precise date, Constinius (aka Constantine), who was in charge of the building project, and the Byzantine Emperor Flavius Justinianus, better known to us today as Justinian the Great.

Dr. Leah Di Segni, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the expert on ancient Greek inscriptions, deciphered the inscription. The inscription reads, “In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction”. According to Di Segni, “This inscription commemorates the founding of the building by Constantine, the priest. The inscription names the emperor Flavius Justinian. It seems that the building was used as a hostel for pilgrims.” Di Segni added, “‘Indiction’ is an ancient method of counting years, for taxation purposes. Based on historical sources, the mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 AD.”

For centuries the Damascus Gate was the main entrance into northern Jerusalem, and the area became a hive of activity during the 6th century under the fully Christianized Byzantine Empire thanks to a sharp increase in religious construction and pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The building with the mosaic floor was on the road leading into and out of the gate, the perfect location for a pilgrim hostel.

Constinius is also mentioned in another inscription a church in the Old City: the Nea Church dedicated in 542 A.D., the largest church in Jerusalem at that time and one of the most important in the Byzantine Empire. It even made it on the extraordinary Madaba Map, a cartographic floor mosaic of the Middle East in the apse of the 6th century church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan, which contains the first known map of Jerusalem. An inscription found on the vault of the Nea Church, first excavated in 1970, again mentions Constantine, the abbot of the church, and Emperor Justinian.

That Constinius oversaw the construction of Jerusalem’s most important church inside the city walls as well the pilgrim hostel outside the walls shows how prominent a person he was in mid-6th century Jerusalem. Since a number of other structures from this time have been unearthed in the Damascus Gate area, archaeologists believe he was involved in large-scale, organized building projects of churches, monastery complexes and other religious structures both inside and outside the city walls.

Di Segni adds, “This new inscription helps us understand Justinian’s building projects in Jerusalem, especially the Nea Church. The rare combination of archaeological finds and historical sources, woven together, is incredible to witness, and they throw important light on Jerusalem’s past.”

The mosaic has been lifted from the site and, after briefly being displayed to the press at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, is now undergoing conservation at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s laboratory.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen de Kooning found 32 years after theft

Tue, 2017-08-22 23:00

In a happy counterpoint to yesterday’s sad news, a painting by Willem de Kooning stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson 32 years ago has been found and returned to the museum. Woman-Ochre was snatched November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, in a classic two-person misdirection ploy. A woman and a man waltzed into the museum bright and early at 9:00AM. The woman ran interference with the security guard, capturing his attention while her partner cut the painting out of the frame. They quickly left together and that was the last anyone saw of them. The whole operation from entry to exit had taken less than 15 minutes.

The subsequent police investigation failed to find the culprits or the painting and for three decades the case was cold as ice. It turned burning hot earlier this month when David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. Van Auker saw it hanging behind the bedroom door at the home of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, and decided to buy it along with a pile of other assorted gewgaws from the sale. He had no idea it was an original de Kooning; he just thought it was cool.

He propped the painting up against the wall of his shop and a customer told him it looked like a de Kooning. Then another customer noticed it and mentioned it could be a de Kooning oil painting. A third soon joined the chorus. Van Auker started getting antsy. Much Googling ensued, and when he read about the theft from the museum, he realized he very likely had a gazillion dollar stolen painting in his shop. He nervously moved it into the bathroom to keep it out of view of any more customers.

Van Auker called the UAMA and told them he thought he had their long-lost de Kooning. The next day the head of the museum, a curator and a restorer from the Arizona State Museum scrutinized the painting. The restorer examined it for two hours at the end of which she confirmed that it was authentic. After spending a night under lock and key at the local police station, Woman-Ochre was transported back to the museum in Tucson.

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” said Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries. This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre’ was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.

Woman-Ochre is one of a series of paintings de Kooning did exploring the female form, a subject that many critics and artists asserted had been superseded by abstract, non-representational art. While eschewing the traditional depictions of what he called “the idol, the Venus, the nude,” Kooning drew from a wide range of iconographic references — prehistoric mother goddess figurines, advertising models, pinup girls — to create abstract expressionist versions of figures out of thick lines and dynamic slashes of color.

Paintings in de Kooning’s Woman series today grace the walls of the world’s top museums, and on the rare occasions when they become available on the market, they sell for astronomical prices. Ten years ago one sold for $137.5 million. Bound by the terms of the Gallagher donation, the UAMA cannot sell the painting even if it wanted to, which it most emphatically does not, but based on the comparables, it could be worth something in the neighborhood of $160 million.

At the time of the theft, the painting was insured for $400,000, a risibly small sum compared to its market value today. The museum very wisely put the money in an endowment fund and used the interest to upgrade its security systems. Upon the painting’s return, the museum paid back the original $400,000 to the insurers so they again have clean title to the artwork.

The de Kooning is in need of some tender loving care. The edges are ripped from being hacked out of the original frame and whatever jackass reframed it stapled it to a board. The thieves also rolled it up for ease of transport, making the paint brittle in parts. Thankfully it has not begun to flake yet. Before the painting goes back on display, it will undergo thorough restoration and study. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating how the stolen work wound up in the nice but humble three-bedroom home of a retired music teacher and a retired speech pathologist.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

400 Viking, Iron Age artifacts stolen from Bergen museum

Mon, 2017-08-21 23:57

At least 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the University Museum in Bergen, Norway, during the weekend of August 11-1. The burglars climbed scaffolding on the exterior of the museum’s building (currently undergoing renovation) and broke in through a 7th floor window. They ransacked the rooms where the objects were being kept in cabinets and on shelves, making off with hundreds of pieces.

Two alarms rang on the evening of Saturday, August 12th. Security guards investigated the building, but reported nothing untoward, which does not speak highly of their competence given the 7th floor was left in a total shambles by the burglars. The theft was discovered on Monday by museum staff.

The museum acknowledges that the artifacts were insufficiently secured. In a painful irony, they were scheduled to be moved to a more secure location on August 14th, that same Monday when the theft was discovered.

Conservators are still tallying up the stolen artifacts. Most of the more than 400 that have been identified so far date to the Iron Age (500 B.C.-1030 A.D.) and the Viking period (800-1030 A.D.). They are small, portable objects, primarily jewelry of negligible monetary value, nor is there any particular value in the metals they’re composed of. It’s their historical value that matters, and the thieves are unlikely to be able to cash in on that.

To the museum, however, the loss is devastating.

“For us as a museum it is to take care of the cultural heritage our most important task. We have not met our requirements. It is incomprehensible and no explanations are good enough. The items that are gone do not have so much economic value, but very high historical value. We can now only hope that the lost is coming back and we can work purposefully to prevent the like from happening again. But I feel heavy,” says the museum director [Henrik von Achen].

All safety systems have been reviewed, the scaffolding and building secured, but closing the barn door after the horses have fled is little consolation to the museum staff. Many of the objects were going to be on display in an upcoming Viking exhibition scheduled for later this year. Unless the artifacts are recovered quickly, the exhibition will probably have to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Norwegian police are actively investigating the theft, working with their counterparts in other countries in the hope of catching the thieves in the attempt to smuggle or sell the artifacts. The University Museum staff aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the police to solve the crime. They are enlisting the power of social media to get the word out. As conservators work to inventory the stolen objects, images of the artifacts are being uploaded to a dedicated Facebook page. The museum asks that the photo album be shared as widely as possible and that people keep their eyes peeled for any pieces that might crop up on auction and sale sites that don’t monitor whether sellers have legitimate title to the items being sold. The more widely seen the artifacts are, the harder it will be for the thieves to unload them under the radar.


Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

The 1st photographs of a total solar eclipse

Sun, 2017-08-20 23:08

It’s been far too long since I indulged in a theme post. As total eclipse of the sun mania has struck the US, I’m jumping on the bandwagon too. The subject covers three of my favorite obsessions: the history of photography, the history of astronomy and historical firsts, all accompanied by that greatest of all obsessions, great high-resolution pictures.

William and Frederick Langenheim were born in Schöningen, Germany in 1807 and 1809 respectively. The were from a prominent family — their father Friedrich Wilhelm was mayor of Schöningen from 1808 until 1813 — but left what was then the Duchy of Brunswick in the 1830s. They immigrated to the United States and carved out careers as journalists. By 1842, they had opened a photography studio in Philadelphia.

The Langenheim daguerreotype studio quickly rose to preeminence in the city, thanks to the brothers’ great talent, inventiveness and embrace of new technology. In 1850 they debuted a new projectable photographic slides they called Hyalotypes. The device used to project them was a better-mousetrap version of the magic lantern which projected small drawn or painted images onto large screens. The stereopticon, as the Langenheim’s device became known, was a huge leap forward because it projected photographic images, not drawings, and because daguerreotypes capture even the most minute detail that cannot be seen with the naked eye, they could be magnified onto a screen at enormous dimensions, large enough that an auditorium of thousands could see spectacular images of, say, Niagara Falls or St. Peter’s Basilica without loss of resolution.

The brothers’ stereopticon had another feature that would prove momentous: a twin lense system that allowed the images to be faded one into the other, a smooth transition that far outshone the magic lantern’s choppy switch-overs. When they conceived of showing slides in an orderly progression, one dissolving into the other in a chronologically rational sequence, they unwittingly introduced the forerunner to the moving picture. The Langenheims charged people a dime to see pictures of natural, historical, architectural, artistic and scientific wonders projected on the big screen and the device was a huge hit.

A perfect subject for the stereopticon appeared in the skies over North America on May 26th, 1854. It was a total eclipse of the sun, the first one in the US since Louis Daguerre announced his new image-fixing process in 1839. The Langenheim brothers took eight daguerreotypes of the eclipse as it progressed. Only seven of them have survived. They are now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event, only these seven daguerreotypes survive. In the northern hemisphere, the moon always shadows the sun from right to left during a solar eclipse; these images therefore seem odd because they are, like all uncorrected daguerreotypes, reversed laterally as in a mirror.

It is noteworthy that these daguerreotypes are quite small, three exceptionally so. In order to produce any kind of image at all, the Langenheims were forced to use the smallest cameras available, since smaller cameras require proportionally less light and there was virtually no available light when the disk of the new moon eclipsed the largest part of the sun. The missing eighth image was probably made on the smaller plate size and showed nothing at all-a total eclipse.

As for our eclipse, now so easily captured by terrestrial and satellite technology, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is going all out. They have secured safe solar telescopes from the National Air and Space Museum and will make them available to the public between 1:00 and 4:00PM so people can watch the eclipse up close and in total security. They’ve also created an exhibition, Solar Eclipses: Past and Present, from their pictures and records of other eclipses.

For all you eclipse watchers out there, don’t forget your protective eyewear. If you don’t have the opportunity to view the eclipse in person, you can follow its whole extraordinary path on NASA’s website.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dutch shipwreck yields more treasures

Sat, 2017-08-19 23:12

Divers exploring the wreck of the Rooswijk, an 18th century Dutch ship off the coast of Kent, England, have discovered a sealed seaman’s chest whose contents are unknown but could be actual treasure. The largest of several chests recovered from the wreck, it is about one meter long and could contain objects like sabre blades (known to have been on board) that need a long container. Or, like other chests previously recovered from the wreck, it could contain silver ingots and coins, a conventional treasure as well as a historical one.

Of course, any contents at all would be archaeologically precious, but archaeologists dare not open it for risk of damaging the chest and/or its contents.

It may never be possible, or even desirable, to open the mystery chest. Conventional x-rays often don’t reveal much of heavily concreted objects. Angela Middleton, a conservation expert at Historic England, hopes to persuade the customs authorities to bring along one of the scanners they use at the port to check for people and goods hidden in lorries, and see if it shows up anything.

“We might find out it is impossible to open the chest without destroying it. Or we might find out what is in it and decide it’s just not worth even trying to open it,” she said.

The Rooswijk, a three-masted Dutch East India (VOC) trading ship, had just set off from Amsterdam on its way to Jakarta with a hold full of silver bullion and coins to buy spices when it was blown off course in a storm and sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off Kent in January of 1740. Known as the Ship Swallower, the Goodwin devoured the Rooswijk and all 250 crew and passengers on board.

The ship was so heavily laden it went down in a flash. British newspapers reported on the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship in the storm. Letters and debris washed ashore. It’s not clear whether the VOC was made immediately aware of these reports. The voyage to Jakarta was so long Dutch East India officials wouldn’t have had reason to worry until after the ship failed to reach its scheduled stop at the Cape of Good Hope, months after its departure and sinking.

Whatever was left of the Rooswijk and its very heavy, very valuable cargo was covered over by the Goodwin Sands and its location remained a mystery for centuries. After years of documentary research and a magnetometer survey, a diver found the wreck and in 2005, a team of underwater archaeologists explored it. They recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, including musket parts, knives, sword blades, hilts and scabbards, pewter dinnerware, silver coins, more than 500 four-pound silver ingots. Because the wreck is owned by the Dutch government by virtue of its having absorbed the Dutch East India Company in 1798, the artifacts recovered from the wreck are property of the Netherlands and were returned to it. Some of them are now on display at the Maritime Museum in Vlissingen.

Because of its historical importance and rarity — just a third of the 250 known VOC wrecks have ever been found and the Rooswijk is the only one of them to be scientifically investigated — in 2007 the site was designated a protected wreck. The designation made any unauthorized interference with it a crime. Still, the location was kept under wraps to discourage treasure hunters from trying their luck.

Last year, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Historic England launched a new excavation of the Rooswijk. There was an urgent need to survey the site because changing tides had drastically shifted the deep silt layers, exposing timbers that have long been shielded under the sediments. This not only triggered precipitous decay, but it made it more likely that looters might find the ship.

Working with the divers who first explored the wreck in 2005, archaeologists have recovered pewter tankards and spoons, glass brandy bottles, elaborately carved knife handles, shoes, wine glasses with twist stems, an onion jar, cooking tiles, Mexican silver dollars and cut up pieces of eight. All of the artifacts have been taken to a huge warehouse in Ramsgate to be recorded and receive any emergency treatment they require. They will then be moved to a Historic England facility for further conservation before being returned to the Netherlands.

There will be an open day at the Ramsgate warehouse on September 16th to give the public what may be their only chance and seeing some of these finds before they leave the country.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History