History fetish? What history fetish?
Updated: 52 min 10 sec ago
Retired security system specialist Bruce Campbell (no relation to Ash from Evil Dead) was looking for Victorian-era coins and artifacts along the Gorge Waterway in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 13th, 2013, when he found a coin buried three or four inches deep in the mud flats at low tide. It was so caked in the area’s characteristic blue clay that he couldn’t identify it. He posted pictures of his finds — an 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s a silver dime, an early Canadian penny and the mystery coin — on the Official Canadian Metal Detecting forum where he is a moderator. It was the clay-caked coin that aroused the most interest of the forum denizens, some of whom recognized it as a rare silver shilling from the brief reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I.
The coin is one millimeter thick and 33 millimeters in diameter and was minted at the Tower of London between 1551 and 1553. On the obverse is a bust of the young king crowned facing left. It is inscribed EDWARD VI D G AGL FRA Z HIB REX (Edward VI by the Grace of God King of England, France and Ireland). On the reverse is a shield bearing the royal coat of arms over a long cross fourchee, a heraldic term for a cross where the end of each arm is forked. The inscription reads POSUI DEU ADIUTORE MEUM (I have made God my helper).
This is a significant coin for many reasons. It was one of the earliest shillings — the 12 pence coin was called the Testoon when it was first minted — and it’s the first one that was made of sterling silver instead of base. Edward VI restored the silver standard in 1551, increasing the silver content from a paltry 0.250 (meaning 25% silver by mass) to 0.925. The sterling silver shilling was popular and widely circulated, but that popularity means surviving coins tend to be heavily worn, trimmed or damaged.
The one Bruce Campbell found is in quite good condition. The dense blue clay of the Gorge is a low oxygen environment which makes it an excellent preserver of 500-year-old coins. Campbell attempted to remove the mud crust by cleaning the coin first in olive oil. When that didn’t work, he soaked it in lemon juice for two days and then wrapped it in aluminium foil for a half hour. The crust came off, revealing the details of the design. Obligatory disclaimer: although the results in this case appear to be okay, don’t clean things! Let the experts handle it. You could so easily damage the artifact, ruin its market value and historic patina. Also, you never know what’s in the stuff that looks like dirt.
The coin’s condition and discovery spot has led some to speculate that it might have made its way to Victoria via Sir Francis Drake who may or may not have visited Victoria on a secret mission in 1579. The main evidence of this mission appears to be two other English coins from the 16th century found elsewhere in British Columbia, which is not exactly solid ground considering that coins can travel at any time after they’re minted.
It doesn’t need a Drake association to be awesome. It’s the oldest coin found on the west coast of Canada and it’s an important coin in English history. Now it has drawn the attention of the Royal B.C. Museum. Curator Grant Keddie has made contact with Mr. Campbell and plans to examine the shilling. He’s interested in the Drake theory and will test the material to attempt to discover how long the coin has been in Victoria. Keddie would like other metal detector enthusiasts and mudlarks “to take another look at things they may have found here that are not identified — such as ceramics or glassware — that might date to the same time period as the coin.”
Two paintings by French rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard will be on display together for the first time in 25 years in an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Blind Man’s Buff and The See-Saw were created as a matched pair when Fragonard was still a student in the atelier of François Boucher. Like almost all of his works, the two paintings are not dated. We know they were done after he began to study under Boucher in 1750 and before 1752 when the young Fragonard won the prestigious Prix de Rome. He was just 18-20 years old, therefore, when he painted these works that already display the characteristic playfulness and thinly veiled eroticism that would make him famous.
The paintings are thought to have been commissioned by Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien, a writer, amateur artist and avid collector. It is certain that the pair were in his collection when it was sold in 1784 after the Baron’s death. Blind Man’s Buff and The See-Saw sold as a pair for 500 livres to the leading art dealer of the time: Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, grand-nephew of painter Charles Le Brun and husband of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, official portrait painter of Queen Marie Antoinette. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun was a pioneer in his field. He actually invented the saleroom lit by overhead lighting, now a staple of art galleries and museums.
The pair then moved through the hands of various other dealers and collectors, including Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in Vienna and Baron Maurice de Rothschild in Pregny-Chambésy, Switzerland, always staying together. In 1954 they were sold again by Baron Maurice three years before his death. This time, they did not survive as a couple. They were sold separately. Blind Man’s Buff was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art with funds from the Libbey Endowment, a gift from glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey, founder of the Toledo Museum of Art and president from its founding in 1901 until his death in 1925. The See-Saw was bought by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, heir to a great naval construction and oil fortune which he spent building a world-class art collection. It was on display at his private museum in the 17th century palace Villa Favorita on the banks of Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and when those works were transferred to Spain to become the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid starting in the late 1980s, The See-Saw went with them.
Divided by an ocean, the two Fragonards rarely caught a glimpse of each other. They’ve come together three times since their separation: in London in 1968, Paris in 1987 and New York in 1988. Now, thanks to a loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, they’ll be together again in Toledo.
“They’re risqué, they’re provocative—and the artist intended these canvases to be seen together,” said Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. “So to reunite these two very important paintings by one of the most significant French artists of the 18th century is quite an exciting opportunity.”
They may not seem all that risqué to our jaded eyes, but even though the only actual glimpse of slightly naughty flesh is the leg of the woman on the see-saw, the erotic imagery was clear to its original audience.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, artists and authors used blind-man’s buff as a symbol of the folly of marriage, where one took one’s chances in choosing a mate. In Fragonard’s portrayal, however, because only one couple plays the game, neither the ultimate partner nor the final outcome is in doubt. As the youth tickles his blindfolded beloved on the cheek with a piece of straw, an infant, in the role of a classical cupid or putto, brushes her hand with the end of a stick to distract her from the object of her desire. Reaching out to locate her lover, the woman steals a glance from underneath her blindfold and catches the viewer’s gaze with a knowing look—she is the one in control of the situation.
The setting for this courtship game is a terrace surrounded by a low wall—a reference to the enclosed garden, traditional symbol of virginity. Leaning against the wall is a gate that has fallen off its posts. The sexual symbolism of the gate—not only open but broken off—would have been obvious to eighteenth-century viewers.
Blind Man’s Buff and The See-Saw will be on display at the Toledo Museum of Art from January 24th through May 4th, 2014.
It’s not certain who first built the castle. Clan MacDougall is one possible candidate, but by the time the window was sealed, Mingary Castle was the seat of Clan MacIain, one of the most powerful septs (vassal branches) of Clan MacDonald. Although technically they were vassals of kings of Norway and Scotland at various times, in practice they ran their territories independently as Lords of the Isles. Mingary was one of a chain of strategically important castles in the MacDonald fiefdom.
It was a new threat from the landward side that caused the MacIains to block up the north windows. The slender pointed arch windows, used to fire arrows and crossbow bolts onto attackers, were in walls that ranged in thickness from 60 centimeters (ca. 1’12″) to 80 centimeters (2’7″). This was the thinnest the castle walls got and since they faced land, they were particular susceptible to recently-invented cannons that packed enough punch to pierce much thicker masonry walls. To fix this weak spot, the MacIains had stonemasons fill in the windows and the chambers where defenders wielded their weapons. They did a most thorough job of it, too.
The castle fell out of MacIain and MacDonald control in the early 17th century. The Campbell family, Earls of Argyll, took the castle and held it so effectively that they destroyed Clan MacDonald when they attempted to retake the castle by besieging it. In the early 18th century the Mingary estate was sold to Alexander Murray; 50 years later it was sold to James Riddell whose family owned it until 1848. All of these post-MacIain owners made modifications and additions to the castle, keeping it in livable condition without destroying the original structure from the 1200s. After 1848, the estate was still used by locals, but the castle increasingly deteriorated until the interior was too dangerous to inhabit.
The estate was purchased by Donald Houston 20 years or so ago. He has restored many of the structures on the property, and is now restoring the castle itself with the goal of keeping the walls from crumbling and making the castle inhabitable as a residence for humans again. Because of its relative remoteness and the long centuries of occupation, Mingary Castle is the best preserved 13th century castle in Scotland. It’s therefore of great historical significance to the country.
Mr. Houston has founded the Mingary Preservation Trust, a charitable organization that is raising the £2 million ($3,300,000) needed to restore the castle. (If you’d like to contribute, click here to donate or, if you’d prefer to get a piece of the castle itself, you can adopt your very own stone.)
Part of the restoration project was the reopening of the north wall chambers and lancet windows. On Thursday, January 16th, workmen broke through the incredibly hard infill that blocked off the left top window, gingerly removed the stones and opened it to expose a beautiful view last seen by human eyeballs 500 years ago.
Jon Haylett, a local historian who has been overseeing the excavation said: “There was a real sense of excitement that we could, for the first time in 500 years, look out at a view which was last seen when members of Clan MacIain held Mingary Castle.
“Looking out of the window was an eerie experience, realising that the last person to see that view was probably a stonemason, some half a millennium ago.
“Next to me, doing the clearing, were two modern stonemasons from Ashley-Thomson, the building restoration firm, and I think they were equally moved.”
They were hoping to find organic material or some artifacts embedded in the fill that would help narrow down when the windows were sealed, but so far all the attending archaeologist has found are some tiny bone fragments, probably the detritus of a meal left behind by the masons who last worked there half a millennium ago. They did find an interesting architectural element: a groove around the inside of the window, probably used to hold a shutter or wooden board to close the window when necessary.
Now the restoration team is digging across to the double lancet windows on the right. You can read all about their progress and enjoy the exceptional photographic documentation of the restoration on the marvelous Mingary Castle blog authored by Jon Haylett.
I’m excited to report that two members of the team who excavated and analyzed the remains of King Richard III in September of 2012 will be coming to the US in February for public lectures. This is the first chance we norms in the US have had to hear from the horses’ mouths about the extraordinary discovery that riveted the world.
The first stop will be Washington, D.C. where they will be giving a talk on the discovery on February 5th, 2014. The lecture is being offered by the Folger Shakespeare Theatre as part of a program devoted to the Bard’s tragedy Richard III. A new staging of the play will be accompanied by Q&As with the performers, talks by the literary director and local poets. The University of Leicester’s Greyfriars Project will be represented by geneticist Dr. Turi King and fieldwork director Matthew Morris, two of the co-authors of the first paper published on the excavation.
Their lecture, entitled Finding Richard, will cover the archaeological excavation (Matthew Morris’ bailiwick) and the DNA analysis (Dr. King’s expertise) that established a genetic link between Michael Ibsen, direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister Anne of York, an unnamed second female-line descendant and the skeleton found under the Leicester council parking lot.
The lecture will be held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation 212 East Capitol Street on Wednesday, February 5th at 7:30pm. Tickets cost $25 for regular people and $20 for members of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. You can book over the phone at (202) 544-7077 or online here.
After that, Turi King and Matthew Morris will join professors in history, humanities, forensic pathology and English at St. Louis University for a full day colloquium on Saturday, February 8th. The discussion will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the university’s Il Monastero on 3050 Olive Street. It is open to the general public and free of charge.
Jealous of the fine folks of St. Louis who, as if having a kickass arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River weren’t enough, now get to enjoy a day of Richard III nerdery with two pivotal figures from the Greyfriars team? Well don’t be, because the whole thing will be streamed live over the internet!
Bookmark this website, mark your calendar, set your alarm clock to wake you up before 10:00 AM Central Time (11:00 AM EST), get breakfast, lunch, beverages and possibly some sort of vessel to hold your waste, then settle down in front of your computer for a luxurious six hours of nothing but Richard III.
Syracuse University Spanish professor Alejandro García-Reidy has discovered a copy of a lost play by Spanish Golden Age playwright and poet Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio. Lope de Vega is like Spain’s Shakespeare, only he was far, far more prolific. By his own tally, Lope de Vega wrote about 1,800 plays (although he is generally thought to have been exaggerating with the real number closer to 1,500), plus 3,000 sonnets, three novels, four novellas and nine epic poems, an oeuvre so impressive that it inspired his contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, to dub him a “Monster of Nature.”
Only approximately 300 of his plays have survived, a small fraction of the total. The rediscovery of one of the works that hasn’t been seen in centuries, therefore, is a find of great significance to the literary and cultural history of Spain and modern theater. The newly found play is called Mujeres y criados (Women and Servants), a comedy written in 1614. We knew it existed because Lope de Vega included it on a list of his plays published in the 1618 edition of El peregrino en su patria (The Pilgrim in his Own Country), but it was never published in any of the collections of his works. It was therefore believed to be lost and has not been included in modern catalogs of his works.
This particular version of the play wasn’t published either. It’s a manuscript copied in 1631 by Pedro de Valdés, director of a theatrical company that staged Lope de Vega’s plays. Later the 56-sheet quarto was bound and acquired by the Library of Osuna, a town in the province of Seville, southern Spain. The Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) bought the Osuna Library in 1886 and absorbed its book collection. García-Reidy found the volume at the BNE in 2010 while researching Spanish theater of the 16th and 17th centuries. He spent the next three years analyzing the manuscript and ensuring the attribution to Lope de Vega was accurate.
Stylistic analysis and documentary evidence support the attribution. A document from 1614 notes that a theatrical troupe purchased a comedy by Lope de Vega called Women and Servants. When García-Reidy checked the catalogs of the playwright’s work, there was no title by that name. However, he noticed the National Library had an unattributed manuscript entitled Women and Servants, so he checked it out. He found that the play matched the meter characteristic of the author’s work from the period of 1613-1614 and the subject matter covered themes, like the subversion of social hierarchies and conventions, that are common in his plays.
Women and Servants is an urban comedy of considerable quality, according to García-Reidy. That’s meaningful because Lope de Vega was known to have sacrificed quality to achieve his insane output. His work in this period is considered his best. He was at the peak of his abilities and popularity when he wrote this play.
The story takes place in Madrid and stars two sisters, Violante and Luciana, and their lovers, Claridán and Teodoro, one a waiter and the other the secretary of Count Próspero. These two couples, whose love for each other remains secret, find their relationships put to a test with the appearance of two new suitors: Count Próspero himself, who chases after Luciana, and the rich Don Pedro, who courts Violante with the approval of her father. This initial scene leads to a game of hide-and-seek and confused identities in which Luciana must intervene to stay close to her lover. These entanglements give way to several very comical scenes, and the house in which they occur becomes a place where all actors are at the mercy of the tricks played by the two women and their lovers.
García-Reidy thinks this play will work for audiences today because it combines vaudeville-like comedy, sharp wit, dominant female characters and the satire of societal convention. His assessment will be put to the test soon since the Fundación Siglo de Oro theater company has agreed to put on the play this fall. The company specializes in updating historical theater for modern audiences and they have collaborated with researchers to stage Lope de Vega works before.
The play will be presented officially with a public reading by Fundación Siglo de Oro actors within the next few months, but the entire manuscript has been digitized and can be downloaded in pdf form on the BNE website.
Last summer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced a major restoration project to clean, conserve and regild the statue of Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that graces the top of the museum’s Great Stair Hall. The 13-foot statue of the Huntress drawing her bow was made in 1893 to top the tower of architect Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. Standing on one foot on a spherical base, Diana was originally a weather vane, turning with the wind atop her tower; only later was she riveted to her base for her own safety. She was the tallest point in the city in her day, and shone so brightly that she could be seen from New Jersey.
Sadly, her fate was tied to that of the building which was demolished in 1925 to make way for the New York Life Insurance Building. New York Life put her in storage hoping she would find a new home in the city, but every attempt to keep her in New York failed and in 1932 she was adopted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(New York did come to regret its callous rejection of its once-iconic golden lady. In 1967, with the city in the process of building the fourth and last iteration of Madison Square Garden over the graveyard of yet another demolished Beaux Arts masterpiece, the original Penn Station, New York mayor John Lindsay asked Philadelphia mayor James Tate if they could have Diana back to put her inside the new Garden. Tate declined, pointing out that “when no one wanted this poor little orphan girl, Philadelphia took her in, gave her a palatial home and created a beautiful image for her with a worldwide reputation.”)
After three decades exposed to the elements and seven years in storage, Diana needed some work when she got to Philadelphia. She was in decent condition overall, but her surface was darkened by corrosion and everything but a few traces of the original gilding was gone. In the midst of the Great Depression, the museum had neither the means nor the inclination to regild her. Decades later, in the mid-1980s, the museum did consider regilding Diana, but the time and funding wasn’t there. There was no immediate conservation need since the statue was structurally sound.
Thanks to the financial support of Bank of America’s Global Art Conservation Project, in 2013 Diana finally got a full makeover. The focus of the project was first and foremost to analyze and document the statue’s surface and structure. The armature, including the weather vane mechanism which still exists inside the spherical base, was examined for condition and to learn more about how Diana was built. Traces of gilding were examined by a scanning electron microscope to determine the exact composition and color of the original gold. The whole statue was X-rayed and subjected to ultrasonic thickness testing to assess the condition of the molded copper sheets Saint-Gaudens soldered and riveted together.
One the initial observations and tests were complete, conservators cleaned the corrosion, revealing the lovely copper color and the joins. The statue was then primed with a corrosion inhibiting paint containing zinc chromate which left the surface an alarming canary yellow. Thankfully that phase didn’t last long. The statue was then painstakingly covered with 180 square feet of 23.4-karat red gold leaf. Because Saint-Gaudens disliked the use of very bright gold at eye level, the gilding was toned down to match his original intent.
The process took five months. In November, the scaffolding came down and Diana was revealed in her freshly gilded splendor. Behold the shiny:
Visitors to the museum during the restoration got to observe it happening in real time, and the whole process was filmed and shown on screens in the museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s conservation page has two videos illustrating the restoration process. I hope many more will follow because those two are straight awesome.
In this one you see conservators sampling traces of the original gilding, doing cleaning tests before removing the corrosion over the whole statue, doing a boroscopic (self-lit remote camera) examination of interior, opening the ball and removing the bow and arrow.
This video features the steam cleaning done after the acidic cleanser removed the corrosion, the X-ray imaging and ultrasonic thickness testing, and the scanning electron microscope analysis of the gold traces.
Yesterday, Getty Publications, publishers of exhibition catalogs, art history monographs and studies of archaeology, history, conservation, photography, architecture, and so much more, launched Virtual Library which makes freely available more than 250 titles published since 1966. The books can be read online or downloaded in their entirety in pdf format and are fully searchable.
The publications, the earliest of which dates from 1966, span the Getty’s rich publishing history, and include collection catalogues that highlight masterpieces from Getty collections, translations of groundbreaking texts on the visual arts, essential works of art historical research, exhibition catalogues, journals, and publications that serve as key resources in the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. The Virtual Library includes titles published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute. Titles will be added to the Virtual Library on an ongoing basis.
There are some real treasures on the list. I’ve already downloaded Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum, a short 1982 text on the beautiful Roman Egyptian mummy portraits also known as the Fayum Portraits, The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, sure to feed my fascination with the painstaking process of decorating Greek pottery, The Restoration of Ancient Bronzes: Naples and Beyond, an essay collection on the history of restoration and conservation of ancient Greek and Roman bronzes centered around Naples where so many bronzes were retrieved from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and a thematically related book, History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures, which covers restoration practices from antiquity to today.
One of the great things about the Virtual Library books is the quality of the scans. Often pdf versions of books are so low resolution they’re really glorified text files for reading. The Getty, on the other hand, has seen to it that the images in these books are just as compelling as the text. You can zoom in to an impressive degree and enjoy flipping through the photographs just as you would with the hard copy. Since, let’s face it, looking at the pictures is the main reason people buy exhibition catalogs, this is an important facet of a library containing so many books on artifacts and paintings in the museum collection.
Some of the picture-intensive books I’ve got my eye on are Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors, Greek Gold from Hellenistic Egypt and Gardens of the Roman World. The second of those is a subject that I literally know nothing about, and according to the summary, the experts don’t know much about them either. The book is about a collection of glorious Hellenist gold jewelry in the J. Paul Getty Museum that is unprovenanced (looted?) and it covers the turbulent history of Egypt from Alexander the Great through the last ruler of his general Ptolemy’s dynasty: Cleopatra VII.
The Virtual Library is part of a larger initiative the Getty has undertaken to share their rich cultural and educational resources as part of their educational mission. Last year they launched the Open Content Program, a database of high resolution images of artworks in the Getty Museum collections and the special collections of the Getty Research Institute. There are more than 10,000 images available now, all of them free to download and use. I have lost many a weekend browsing the Medieval and Renaissance illuminations, photographs from the Civil War to Walker Evans and great art works in the museum.
The efforts to excavate the archaeological remains of the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Nunalleq before climate change erodes it into the Bering Sea have been markedly boosted by a £1.1 million in ($1,800,000) research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been digging at the site since 2009 when they were called in by the Yup’ik living in the nearby village of Quinhagak who were alarmed to see their ancestral artifacts being swept out to sea.
Organic elements from human hair to woven grass baskets to wooden planking had been preserved in the permafrost for centuries after the village was abandoned around 1650, but rising global temperatures are melting the permafrost leaving behind brittle soil that is particularly susceptible to erosion. Add the rising sea levels and extreme weather events battering the coast and you have a recipe for destruction. Since that first excavation season, the coastline has lost more than 30 feet.
In order to preserve a uniquely rich archaeological record that project leader Dr. Rick Knecht describes as “one of the clearest records of the past that we know of anywhere in the north,” the University of Aberdeen team in conjunction with the local Yup’ik community have worked assiduously to recover everything they can from the site of the 700-year-old village. So far they’ve already unearthed thousands of artifacts. Highlight artifacts of the 2013 dig include an ivory carving of a mythological monster thought to be a Palraiyuk, a gator-like creature that lived in rivers and lakes emerging to devour humans and animals, and a ceremonial face mask that depicts a person, probably a woman, in the act of transforming into a wolf or fox.
The archaeologists excavating Nunalleq don’t just remove artifacts as they come across them; they remove the entire context so they can sift through the soil and organic matter looking for wood chips, plant remains, insects, tiny fish vertebrae, fur, human bone fragments and hair, all the unglamorous but essential sources of information on how the Yup’ik lived in Nunalleq from the 1300s until the village was raided and abandoned.
It’s important research because while the Yup’ik are the largest indigenous group in south-western Alaska today, they only came in contact with Europeans in the 1820s and the vast region they inhabit has barely been explored archaeologically.
“The discovery of these artefacts is helping to reintroduce lost skills back into these communities – the skills used to make them may have been lost and are being re-learned. We literally have pieces being recreated within days of being discovered.
“I think the dig is helping to get the local young people interested in their heritage. A group of youngsters recently asked the village elders for permission to form a traditional dance group – something that was supressed by the missionaries more than a century ago. They did their first dance last year and the first song was about the storms washing the site away, and this year they did their first dance in Quinhagak itself – the first in 100 years – and they did it when we showed our summer’s finds to the community.”
The grant will allow archaeologists to keep digging for the next four years. Part of it will go to archaeological education and training programs, and to fund a regional survey that will identify more sites endangered by the eroding coastline.
The artifacts, bulk samples and other materials recovered have all been packed up and sent to Scotland for analysis and conservation. They all remain property of the people of Quinhagak and once the objects have been studied, they will be returned to the area. The plan is to build a local research center and artifact repository where the collection can be maintained in proper conditions. It will also be a pivot for ongoing site protection and rescue operations along the endangered coast.
For more pictures and wonderful write-ups about each day of the dig, do yourself a favor and read the Nunalleq Project blog. These folks work in challenging conditions — here’s Lindsey looking ridiculously cheery despite having to wear an eyepatch because A MOSQUITO BIT HER ON THE EYEBALL — but their commitment, dedication, work ethic and positive attitudes are irrepressible.
Curators at the York Castle Museum were cleaning out the stores to make room for an upcoming exhibition when they stumbled on boxes of previously unknown archival material from the First World War. Two diaries written entirely in shorthand caught their eye. A card found with them identified the diaries as records of the Palestine Campaign in 1917-1918, written by Wass Reader of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry C Squadron.
Nobody at the museum is able to read this particular shorthand and they’re appealing to the public for any insight.
“We don’t know what kind of shorthand it uses – it could be a military style – so we would love to hear from people with expertise in military shorthand. The name Wass Reader is very unusual, so if anyone recognises that name we would like to hear from them as well,” [assistant curator of history] Katie [Brown] added.
Like so many other museums in the UK, the York Castle Museum will be marking the centenary of the beginning of World War I with an exhibition dedicated to the conflict. 1914: When the world changed forever opens on June 28th, the hundredth anniversary of the day Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo. The exhibition won’t focus solely on the war, but on its societal context, on the rapidly changing world of the turn of the century.
Curators are keen to include the newly discovered diaries, but they know nothing about them beyond what was written on that card.
Katie added: “It’s frustrating because we don’t know even really know when we acquired the diaries. We want to know whether this is a record of someone’s personal opinions on the war, or the mundane details of his day-to-day life.
“We want to know more about York’s links in the war as well, and these come from a local regiment.”
The diaries are even more intriguing because they come from the Palestine campaign, a part of the war that is not as well known as the European campaigns, she added.
Contact Katie Brown by phone at 01904 650363 or email email@example.com if you have any information about the regiment, Wass Reader or the shorthand in the diaries.
On a tangentially related note, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of The Great War, Joe Sacco’s 24-foot cartoon of the first day of the Somme, for Christmas and it is truly an astounding piece of work. To give you a sense of its breathtaking breadth, here is a video of the whole book unfurled:
It comes with a second book that is all annotations so you can follow along and make sense of the incredible density of visual information from Lord Kitchener doing the recruitment point before the title page to the massive explosions in the trenches at the end of the day.
Last year, in the wake of the announcement that the remains of King Richard III had been discovered, the church authorities granted archaeologists permission to exhume an unmarked grave reputed to hold the bones of King Alfred the Great in the cemetery of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Winchester. To exactly no one’s surprise, they did not find the bones of Alfred the Great.
Alfred’s bones were moved several times after his first burial in Winchester’s Old Minster in 899. In 1110, the remains of Alfred, his wife Ealhswith, his son and successor Edward the Elder and Edward’s children were moved to Hyde Abbey. The Abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII’s marauders during the dissolution of the monasteries but reportedly the human remains interred there weren’t damaged. Construction of a prison on the site in 1788, on the other hand, appears to have been a riot of damage. A Catholic bishop named John Milner wrote about the destruction:
Miscreants couch amidst the ashes of our Alfreds and Edwards; and where once religious silence and contemplation were only interrupted by the bell of regular observance, and the chanting of devotion, now alone resound the clank of the captive’s chains and the oaths of the profligate! In digging for the foundations of that mournful edifice [the prison] at almost every stroke of the mattock or spade some ancient sepulchre was violated, the venerable contents of which were treated with marked indignity, A great number of stone coffins were dug up, with a variety of curious articles, such as chalices, patens, rings, buckles, the leather of shoes and boots, velvet and gold belonging to chasubles and other vestments as also the crook, rims and joints of a beautiful crozier, double gilt.
According to Captain Henry Howard who heard it from the foreman of the construction site 10 years after the events,
A great stone coffin was found, cased with lead both within and without, and containing some bones and remains of garnets. The lead, in its decayed state, sold for two guineas; the bones were thrown about and the stone coffin broken into pieces. There were also two other coffins and no more found in this part, which were also broke for the sake of the garden in which they lay, broken up and buried as low as the spring.
The stone coffins and expensive artifacts suggested these brutes may have desecrated royal graves, and for nothing because the prison didn’t even last 50 years. It was demolished in 1840. When antiquarian John Mellor excavated the Hyde Abbey site in 1866, he claimed to have found the Wessex dynasty tombs and identified one of five skulls he had unearthed as that of Alfred the Great based on a visual comparison with Alfred’s face on a coin. Yeah, he was a … creative fellow. He created several other entertaining tale tales about discoveries he purportedly made and also salted the site with supposedly 10th century artifacts. After the dig, Mellor gave the bones he had unearthed to the rector of Saint Bartholomew’s Church who buried them in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.
When University of Winchester archaeologists opened the grave, they found the skeletons of at least six people, including five skulls. After a few months, the Diocese granted them permission to clean and test the bones. Radiocarbon dating proved that these could not be the bones of Alfred and his immediate family. Alfred reigned from 871 – 899; his son Edward the Elder died in 924; Edward’s son Athelstan died childless in 939 and his other son Edmund I died in 946. The oldest of the bones from the unmarked grave dated to 1100. The rest dated from 1230 to 1500 and showed extensive signs of degenerative health conditions which suggests they may have been patients who died in the Hyde Abbey infirmary.
All hope was not lost, however. In 1999, an excavation of the abbey site done by the Winchester City Museum had recovered some bones. These were stored in two boxes at the museum but had never been thoroughly analysed due to lack of funds. After the St. Bartholomew’s Church bones were found to be too recent, Winchester University’s Dr. Katie Tucker, team leader of the exhumation project, was notified of the Winchester City Museum bones and arranged to have them tested. A piece of pelvic bone, recorded as having been found in a pit in front of the monastery’s High Altar, was radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017. Osteological analysis identified the bone as having probably belonged to an adult male who was between 26 and 45 at the time of death.
This is the only bone ever found to date to the era when Alfred and his family were interred. Its find spot in front the High Altar is also an important piece of the puzzle because only the royal family was buried there. This could indeed be a small piece of either King Alfred or King Edward.
Or not. The problem is the chances of actually identifying a third of a pelvic bone as belonging to a king who died 1100 years ago are infinitesimally small. With the Richard III discovery, they found a fully articulated skeleton in its original context. There was a wealth of circumstantial evidence derived from the bones — battle wounds, scoliosis — and they were able to extract DNA for comparison to modern descendants of Richard’s sister. One chunk of pelvis really can’t tell us much about its owner, and recovering historical DNA is already a great challenge even when the bones haven’t been moved and exposed to God knows what conditions multiple times over the centuries.
Even if they did catch the luckiest of breaks and were able to extract DNA from the bone, finding someone to compare it to for identification would be a whole other snipe hunt. A modern descendant, if there even are any, could take years to locate. DNA from Alfred’s granddaughter Queen Eadgyth (her remains were found in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany in 2008) would have done the trick, but her bones were too damaged to extract a viable DNA sample.
They’ll give it the old college try, though. Meanwhile, the renewed interest in Alfred’s remains has renewed interest in the Hyde Abbey site. The University of Winchester team is hoping to parlay that into a new excavation.
BBC cameras have followed the team on their journey. The Search for Alfred the Great debuts on BBC2 on Tuesday, January 21st. They’ve released some clips from the show already, and by some miracle they are both embeddable and viewable outside the UK, so here you go.
A new study on residue found in Scandinavian artifacts from 1500 B.C. to the first century A.D. has revealed that the wide variety of ingredients used to make Nordic grog ranged from local fruits, grains, herbs and spices to grape wine imported from southern or central Europe. The ancient sources on the grog question are all Greek and Roman, written a thousand plus years after the earliest archaeological evidence. They aren’t exactly objective either, clearly disdaining the barbarous northern rustics and their uncouth alcoholic beverages. First century B.C. Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus said the Celtic fermented brew was made out of “barley rotted in water.” His contemporary Diodorus Siculus said they strained their thick drinks through their mustaches.
These descriptions are less than useful from an archaeological perspective. They are aren’t geographically specific beyond referring to peoples north of the Alps and don’t delve into the details of the ingredients. To find out what Bronze and Iron Age Nordic grog was made of, therefore, researchers turned to artifacts discovered in burials and hoards from Denmark and Sweden.
Four archaeological samples were chosen. The oldest is a jar buried with a warrior in a tumulus in Nandrup, Jutland, northwest Denmark, that dates to Period II of the Nordic Bronze Age (ca. 1500–1300 B.C.). The second is a strainer found in a hoard in Kostræde, southwest of Copenhagen, which dates to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1100–500 B.C.). The third sample came from a large bronze bucket (situla in Latin) found in the grave of a high-status woman in Juellinge, on the island of Lolland, southeast Denmark. It dates to the Early Roman Iron Age (ca. 200 B.C.). The last artifact tested in the study is a long-handled strainer-cup from a bronze wine-set from the Early Roman Iron Age (first century A.D.) that was buried next to a ring fort in Havor on the Swedish island of Gotland.
All four of the artifacts have ancient residue still attached in sufficient quantities to be tested for their composition. Researchers used a combination of analytic techniques including microscopic examination, infrared spectrometry and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.
In the Nandrup jar, the residue was entirely composed by pollens — lime tree, meadowsweet and white clover — indicating the presence of a honey product. It wasn’t just honey, though. The residue is from an evaporated liquid and given the lack of any other elements in the residue, researchers believe the vessel contained unadulterated mead.
Honey was a rare and expensive commodity in the days before hive cultivation. Pure mead was reserved only for the elite, although the more ingredient-rich hybrid drinks could also be high status. The incredibly well-preserved grave of a young woman, a priestess or ritual dancer, from the same era found at Egtved in Jutland contained a birch bucket with residue of bog cranberries, cowberries, wheat grains, bog myrtle filaments, lime tree pollen, meadowsweet, and white clover. So it seems she was buried with the same mead the warrior had in his grave, but with the addition of barley beer and fruit elements.
The Kostræde sample returned birch tree resin, beeswax, pine resin, azelaic acid (probably a derivative of oleic acid, found in a variety of plants, but could also come from grains like wheat, rye, and barley), juniper, herb bog myrtle, grape wine and eucalyptol, a compound found in mugwort, cranberry and rosemary. In the Juellinge residue, testing discovered the remains of barley, bog cranberry, lingonberry, juniper, herb yarrow, grape wine, bog myrtle and yeast. The Havor sample was found to contain birch tree resin, plant products, grape wine and eucalyptol.
This is the first chemical proof of the use of bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin and grape wine in Nordic grog. It testifies to the hybrid nature of fermented beverages in Bronze and Iron Age Scandinavia, how diverse the ingredients were. The discovery of the wine elements is particularly significant.
It demonstrates the social and ceremonial prestige attached to wine, especially when it was served up as ‘Nordic grog’ in special wine-sets imported from the south. It also points to an active trading network across Europe as early as the Bronze Age in which amber might have been the principle good exchanged for wine. The presence of pine resin in the beverages likely derives from the imported wine, added as a preservative for its long journey northward.
Penn Museum archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh from Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, ca. 1650 B.C., in Abydos. The new pharaoh’s name is Woseribre Senebkay and his tomb was found next to that of 13th Dynasty pharaoh Sobekhotep I last week.
The tomb of Senebkay consists of four chambers with a decorated limestone burial chamber. The burial chamber is painted with images of the goddesses Nut, Nephthys, Selket, and Isis flanking the king’s canopic shrine. Other texts name the sons of Horus and record the king’s titulary and identify him as the “king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Woseribre, the son of Re, Senebkay.”
Senebkay’s tomb was badly plundered by ancient tomb robbers who had ripped apart the king’s mummy as well as stripped the pharaoh’s tomb equipment of its gilded surfaces. Nevertheless, the Penn Museum archaeologists recovered the remains of king Senebkay amidst debris of his fragmentary coffin, funerary mask, and canopic chest. Preliminary work on the king’s skeleton of Senebkay by Penn graduate students Paul Verhelst and Matthew Olson (of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) indicates he was a man of moderate height, ca. 1.75 m (5’10), and died in his mid to late 40s.
This is a highly significant discovery because it confirms that there was an independent ruling dynasty in Abydos contemporary with the dynasties ruling northern and southern Egypt. The northern 15th Dynasty rulers were Hyksos, invaders from what are today Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Down south in Thebes the 16th Dynasty was native Egyptian. Right around the time the Kingdom of Abydos ended, ca. 1600 B.C., the Thebans began a war to expel the occupiers in the north and re-unify Egypt. The war lasted 50 years. The Hyksos were defeated and the New Kingdom founded.
This Abydos Dynasty may have been a kind of buffer state between the two. They used the Anubis-Mountain area of South Abydos as a royal necropolis conveniently located next to the richer tombs of Middle Kingdom pharaohs like Sobekhotep I. There are approximately 16 tombs from the Abydos dynasty in the necropolis which range in date from 1650–1600 B.C., making Senebkay one of the first to be buried.
The archaeological team has located 10 of the possible 16 tombs. Six of them have been excavated; four have been detected by ground penetrating radar but not entered yet. Four of the six explored tombs had been gutted by ancient looters, but tomb number five had the remains of Senebkay. The cedar canopic chest that held his organs was, shall we say, borrowed from Sobekhotep I’s tomb. We know this because his name is still on it, although Senebkay’s people tried to obscure the name by gilding the chest.
That’s not the only piece of Sobekhotep’s funerary regalia to get recycled. The 60-ton red quartzite sarcophagus originally in his tomb was discovered in the sixth tomb of the Abydos kings. Archaeologists haven’t yet found a cartouche or any other information that might identify the pharaoh who pilfered the massive sarcophagus, but they think that wasn’t the first time it was re-used by the Abydos rulers.
The short-lived dynasty fills in a hole in the Turin King List. The ancient papyrus from the reign of Ramses II (ca. 1200 B.C.) has been damaged. There are two partial king names that read as “Woser…re” that top a list that originally had more than a dozen king names but now all have been lost.
The Abydos kings were nowhere near as wealthy and powerful as their neighbors to north and south. Senebkay’s limestone tomb is small and poorly appointed. The painting is colorful and lovely, but it’s fairly unsophisticated and sparse. This is probably why they recycled older pharaoh’s fancy gear.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time archaeologists have stumbled on these tombs. Legendary Egyptologist Flinders Petri unearthed four of the tomb in 1901-1902, but he didn’t recognize them as royal or even high-status tombs because of how modest they are.
The excavation season is over for now, but team leader Josef Wegner of the University of Pennsylvania believes they will discover much more about the Abydos dynasty when they return in the spring. King’s tombs are usually flanked by the tombs of queens, courtiers and other important officials.
Some despicable piece of human garbage broke into the Golders Green Columbarium in London and, in an apparent robbery attempt, smashed the antique Greek vase that held the ashes of Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha. This happened on New Year’s Eve. When the Golders Green staff arrived on New Year’s Day, they found pieces of the 4th century B.C. urn on the floor in front of the plinth. There are no further details on the damage done to vase or about the fate of the ashes it contained. I imagine cemetery officials are being circumspect out of consideration for the Freud family.
The urn was on public display in the columbarium along with the cinerary urns of many other luminaries, among them ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, author Enid Blyton, The Who drummer Keith Moon, actor Peter Sellers and Dracula author Bram Stoker. The room is open to visitors who wish to pay their respects. Or rather it was. Golders Green is understandably reviewing its security arrangements after this horror. The severely damaged vase has been removed to a safe place where experts can examine it and hopefully put it back together. These Greek vases are often found in pieces, either through natural processes or because looters deliberately smash them to make them easier to smuggle out of the country, so I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that conservators will be able to restore the urn.
The vase was very important to Sigmund Freud. He was an avid collector of antiquities, amassing by the time of his death a collection nearing 2,500 pieces of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Asian artifacts. He used them in his practice with patients and famously included the mythology in his psychiatric theories. The Freud Museum in Hampstead, London, his former home and study, has his antiques collection, and there are multiple Oedipus themed pieces — vases, sculptures, even a fresco fragment.
The urn which would hold his ashes was a gift from Princess Marie Bonaparte, the extremely wealthy great-grand niece of Napoleon and wife of Prince George of Greece and Denmark. She was a patient of Freud’s starting in the 20s and did her own research on female sexuality with a particular focus on clitoral orgasm. The princess gave her analyst many gifts over the years, including his famous rug-draped sofa, but the southern Italian krater decorated with images of Dionysus, Greek god of wine, ecstasy and madness, and a maenad, was one of his most prized possessions. For years it stood on the windowsill behind his desk in his study in Vienna.
It was in significant part thanks to the financing and influence of Marie Bonaparte that Freud was able to get himself, his wife, his daughter and his antiquities out of Vienna in 1938. The Nazis hated Freud (his books were some of their favorites to burn), but the Nazi Kommissar in charge of his application to leave, Anton Sauerwald, had respect for Freud as a scholar, so he helped the family escape. He hid evidence of their foreign bank accounts to give them a chance to raise the extortionate “flight tax” but with his money out of reach to Freud, it was Marie who stepped in to pay the ransom. The family made it out of Austria on June 4th, 1938, and arrived in London two days later.
Princess Marie Bonaparte also helped him buy the Hampstead home and set up his office. She visited him there at the end of June to plan the escape of his sisters. Unfortunately, she was unable to secure exit visas for the four older women. They would all be murdered in the concentration camps.
They still outlived their brother, however. Freud had been diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1923 and over the next 15 years had dozens of surgical procedures to remove the tumors. By 1939, there was nothing left to operate on and Freud was in constant agony. His personal physician from 1929 on, Dr. Max Schur, had followed him to London. When Freud decided the pain was too great to live with, he reminded Schur that when they first met Freud had made him promise that “when the time comes, you won’t let them torment me unnecessarily.” Schur acquiesced and on September 23rd, 1939, he gave Sigmund Freud a fatal overdose of morphine.
The family decided to place his cremated remains in the vase, a fitting choice given that it was probably used as a cinerary urn in antiquity as well. The black granite plinth the urn stood on was designed by architect Ernst Freud, Sigmund’s middle son and the father of artist Lucien Freud who was almost 17 at the time of his grandfather’s death. When Martha Freud died in 1951, her ashes were added to her husband’s.
The London police have asked that anyone who may have information relevant to the attempted theft call DC Candler at 020 8733 4525 or Crimestoppers at 0800 555 111.
The burial mound of the Adena culture on west side of the Scioto River in Chillicothe, Ohio, has been radiocarbon dated to the first century A.D. The Adena culture extended from around 800 B.C. to 100 A.D., a time known as the Early Woodland period, and until now, that thousand-year range was as specific as archaeologists could get in dating the Adena Mound. There were multiple ancient American mounds in the area, but this particular mound is the type site, the find considered the most representative of the culture. In this case, it’s also the source of the name of the ancient peoples because the mound was located on the estate of Ohio Governor Thomas Worthington, an estate he named Adena, the Hebrew word for “delightful place.” Thus the pinpointing of its age sheds a whole new light on the early history of Ohio and the United States.
There is nothing left of Adena Mound today. Almost 27 feet high, 140 feet in diameter with a circumference of 445 feet as measured in 1901, the once dominant mound is now a slight bump in the road in a Chillicothe subdivision. In the 1840s, archaeologists excavated the Mound City tumuli north of Adena Mound and Chillicothe group of mounds south of it. They tried to do the same to Adena Mound, but the Worthington family (the governor himself died in 1827) refused to allow any digging. It wasn’t until the property was sold to Joseph Froehlich in the waning days of the 19th century that the virgin mound, topped with mature trees, was cleared and excavated.
It was William C. Mills, curator of archaeology of the Ohio Historical Society, who took on the job. According to his published account, he was saving the mound’s archaeological importance in the nick of time because Froehlich wanted to use the fertile alluvial valley soil for farming and so planned to destroy the mound. According to a letter Mills wrote to a colleague in February of 1901, however, he had approached Froehlich proposing a dig as soon as the property left Worthington hands so he wasn’t so much a savior as an opportunist at best, instigator at worst.
In June of 1901, Mills signed a contract with Froehlich to excavate the mound and dump the compacted earth from which it was built in a nearby cut of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Froehlich cleared all the trees from the surface first, then Mills’ team started at the top and dug down in five foot sections. He found three strata, layers of construction and use. The first and earliest layer was made of dark sand from neighboring Lake Ellensmere. It was packed together so hard diggers had to use pickaxes to budge it. The second layer was lighter sand mixed with soil. The third was leaf mould, most likely a natural accumulation from when the mound was covered with trees.
Mills found human remains in both construction layers. The earliest stratum had 23 burials, the second 13. The burial practices differed significantly between the two stages. The first round of burials were concentrated at the base of the mound and were considerably more elaborate. The deceased were wrapped in bark and/or textiles and buried in crypts made of logs. The second period burials were spread out and had no log crypts. The grave goods were also far more dense in the first period. Twenty of the 23 burials included funerary objects while only four of the 13 second period burials included funerary offerings.
One particular burial stood out. Burial 21, found at the north base of the mound, was an adult male buried in a large sepulcher made of logs up to 17 inches in diameter. The floor was made of bark and the roof of smaller logs and brush. Grave goods buried with this man included 500 shell beads, once sewn to a loincloth, three strings of bone beads and freshwater pearls, a raccoon effigy carved out of a shell, seven flint spear points, three flint knives and three antler spear points. It was what he held in his left hand that made Mills’ heart sing: it was a pipe carved into the effigy of a man, deity or anthropomorphic figure of some kind.
The Adena Effigy Pipe, as it became known, is the first representation of a human in Ohio history. Carved out of pipestone, a form of catlinite native to the hills along the Scioto River which is soft when first quarried but hardens when exposed to air and heat, the Adena Pipe is one of a kind. Plenty of Adena pipes have been found, but they’re relatively simple tubular pieces with a widened bottom for the bowl and a hole at the top for a mouthpiece. This is the only Adena pipe ever discovered to be carved in the shape of a person. It is eight inches tall and weighs a pound, significant heft for a pipe. The figure wears large ear spools in his pierced ears (round jewelry had been found in burial mounds before, but the Adena Effigy Pipe provided the explanation for their use) and an unusual loincloth decorated with carved lines in the front that may be stylized animal figures and a feather bustle in the back.
Last May the Adena Pipe was named the official state artifact of Ohio thanks to the indefatigable lobbying efforts of four years of Fourth-graders at the Columbus School for Girls. Still, its precise date remained as much a mystery as the dates for the rest of the mound. Along with former Ohio State University provost Richard Sisson, the Columbus School for Girls helped raise the funds to finance the new C-14 dating.
It was Mills’ foresight that made the new dating possible. Despite the horrifying destructiveness and hastiness of the dig — the mound was busted down to nothing by the end of 1901 — and the vague disposition of the human remains, at least one set of which appears to have been shipped to the Smithsonian while the rest are lost, Mills made a point of keeping several pieces of black locust tree bark used to line the central burial in the mound and fragments of coarsely woven cloth found within. There was nothing he could do with them at the time. They weren’t pretty, so no institution would be interested in displaying or studying them. There was no radiocarbon dating in 1901. Even after there was nearly 50 years later (Willard Libby led the team that discovered carbon-14 dating in 1949), for decades the sample size required to date organic materials was so large the Adena Mound specimens could not be tested.
Advances in technology now make it possible to obtain dates from much smaller samples. Using two pieces of bark and a piece of the textile, researchers were able to obtain three dates. The bark samples both dated to around 40 A.D. The cloth is older, dating to 140 B.C. Archaeologists believe it was an heirloom textile used to enshroud the dead.
Bradley T. Lepper, Mills’ heir as curator of archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society and co-author of the dating study, explains its significance:
If we are to understand the historical processes that led to the rise of the Hopewell culture from its roots in the preceding Adena culture, we first have to be able to place key events into a reliable chronological framework.
The Adena Mound, as the type site of the Adena culture, is an important cultural landmark in Ohio’s past. Knowing its relationship, in time as well as space, to the other earthworks in the Scioto Valley will help archaeologists eventually write the history of this important chapter of our past.
A little goldfinch is giving a pretty girl with a pearl earring a serious run for her money at New York’s Frick Collection, and literature is the catalyst. The Goldfinch, a small, unassuming 1654 panel painting by Dutch master Carel Fabritius, has become the surprise breakout star of the Frick’s Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis exhibition. Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring was expected to be the number one box office draw. That’s how it was at every other stop in the year-long American tour. At the Frick, the last leg of the tour, her beautiful face got its own room, the cover of the catalogue and 99% of the products in the museum shop.
But a random coincidence would defy expectations. The October 22nd opening of the Frick’s show just happened to coincide exactly with the publication date of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt , a novel in which Fabritius’ Goldfinch plays a hugely significant central role. Neither the author, the publisher nor the museum had any idea of this synchronicity. It took Tartt 11 years to write the book; she got the idea 20 years ago when she saw a copy of the painting on a trip to Amsterdam. The Goldfinch was unmoving in the Mauritshuis throughout most of those decades. Nobody at the Frick was aware that Fabritius’ bird was the main character of an upcoming novel that would become an immediate best-seller.
Now the museum is reaping major benefits in visitor numbers, gift shop sales and new memberships.
The Frick is now selling 800 Goldfinch postcards for every 1,000 postcards of Girl With a Pearl Earring. “There is a feeling among us that people are nearly equally interested in both,” says a Frick spokeswoman.
With The Goldfinch’s help, the exhibition has become the best attended in Frick history. The museum expects the show to exceed 200,000 visitors, more than a third of its typical annual attendance of 275,000 to 300,000. Membership to the museum (which costs between $25 and $600) has also more than doubled during the exhibition’s three-month run, growing from 5,000 to 12,000. Around 100 people are joining daily, according to the spokeswoman, compared to an average of three new members per day during a typical fall season.
Fans of the book are traveling to New York from all over the country to catch The Goldfinch before it flies back to Europe. This story quotes a woman from Atlanta who made the trip just because of the book, and the exhibition was actually in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art right before it went to the Frick. The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which was itself boosted into international superstardom by the success of Tracy Chevalier’s eponymous novel published in 2000, wasn’t enough to draw Ms. Anderson to the museum in her hometown, but The Goldfinch lured her 1,000 miles to see it. This article about the exhibition focuses entirely on The Golfinch, painting and the novel.
The Goldfinch‘s charm has been more than evident to curators and fans of the Dutch Golden Age for centuries, of course. That’s why it’s included in what is basically a greatest hits exhibition. The petite piece, about the size of a piece of A4 paper, is a trompe l’oeil, a painting that creates the deliberate illusion of reality. A goldfinch stands on a feedbox, a delicate chain tethering him to the spot, against a whitewashed wall with crumbling bits of plaster. The shadows cast by the box are at a fairly steep upward angle and we see the box’s semicircular perches from below, suggesting Fabritius planned the piece for display relatively high on a wall.
Fabritius’ confident, smooth brushstrokes create an incredibly lifelike bird despite the lack of precision photorealistic detail. He learned from the best, studying under no less of a master than Rembrandt in the early 1640s in Amsterdam. You can see Rembrandt’s influence in the splash of yellow in the bird’s wing. Fabritius laid the yellow on thick and then scratched it while it was still wet using the butt of his brush. The scratch exposed the underlying layer of black. This is a technique Rembrandt taught him.
The overall look of the painting, however, is a departure from Fabritius’ early work in Amsterdam. Fabritius was 28 years old when he moved to Delft in 1650 and over time, he moved on from Rembrandt’s dark palette and atmospheric lighting to the brighter scenes and homier subjects of the Delft school of artists. Johannes Vermeer was influenced by this approach (he may have even been an actual student of Carel Fabritius, but the evidence for this is very thin).
Unfortunately Fabritius’ great artistry was severed shortly after he painted The Goldfinch. On October 12, 1654, a gunpowder magazine in Delft exploded, destroying a quarter of the city. Fabritius was killed at the age of 32. His studio was reduced to rumble and most of his paintings were lost. Only a dozen or so of his paintings are known to survive today. It’s possible that The Goldfinch was a witness to this tragedy. When the Mauritshuis restored it in 2003, they found microscopic damage to the surface. It may have been rescued from the rubble.
The Goldfinch, Girl with a Pearl Earring and the rest of the treasures will be on display at the Frick through January 19th, so you have no time to lose if you want to see the exhibition before it leaves the country. There is one more international stop of the tour in the Palazzo Fava in Bologna from February 8th until May 25th, and then the group returns to The Hague in time where they will be installed in the newly renovated Mauritshuis in time for its grand re-opening on June 27th.
Archaeologists with the University of Reading excavating an Anglo-Saxon royal complex at Lyminge, Kent, have unearthed an extremely rare board game piece dating to the 7th century. It’s the first discovery of this particular form of gaming piece in 130 years, and it’s the only time one has ever been found outside of a burial context. This one was unearthed in a room adjacent to the feasting hall, a place where it would actually have been used in active play rather than as a ceremonial grave good.
Alongside this astonishing discovery, Dr Gabor Thomas and his team have also uncovered items of jewellery, numerous fragments of luxury vessel glass and pits with animal bones, confirming that feasting and social display were integral to Lyminge’s role as a place of royal ceremonial events and gatherings during the late 6th and 7th centuries.
Dr Gabor Thomas from the University’s Department of Archaeology is leading the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded dig. He said: “Our excavation is providing an unprecedented picture of life in an Anglo-Saxon royal complex. Gaming, along with feasting, drinking, and music, formed one of the key entertainments of the Anglo-Saxon mead-hall as evoked in the poem Beowulf.
“The discovery of Anglo-Saxon gaming-pieces and gaming-boards has previously been restricted to male burials, particularly those of the Anglo-Saxon elite. To find such a well preserved example in the hall, where such board games were actually played, is a wonderfully evocative discovery.”
The piece is a made of a hollow tube of bone capped at both ends with bone discs held together through the middle by a copper alloy rivet. Anglo-Saxons were fond of a board game and a number of pieces, even sets, have been found, but this kind of craftsmanship is top of the line. The only comparable pieces of this type ever discovered in Britain were found in the Taplow burial, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon princely burial mound in Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, that was excavated in 1883. The grave goods interred at Taplow include a pair of drinking vessels made out of aurochs’ horns with elaborate gilded silver fittings, a gorgeous set of four glass claw beakers, a lyre, multiple weapons, gold braids, a gold and garnet belt buckle and a set of game pieces laid out at the prince’s feet. The Taplow burial is contemporary in age with the Sutton Hoo burial and the artifacts are of a same high level of quality.
The game pieces were almost certainly an import from Germanic Europe, most likely of Langobardic manufacture. The most apt parallels have been found in the Lombard kingdom of Italy. Saxons were part of the Lombard invasion force of Italy in the late 6th century, and it’s probable these luxury goods made their way up north through trade routes that ranged as far as the Byzantine Empire.
The Lyminge game piece was discovered by a volunteer. He’s a metal detectorist who works side by side with the archaeologists exploring the site as they dig. He wasn’t actually using his metal detector the time. He was digging in a trench in the spot where several buildings in the complex intersect when he found this small but immensely important artifact. The structural evidence reveals a complex with large timber halls, floors made out of Roman-style mortar with opus signinum, a crushed tile finish, and huge entrance portals larger than any other from this period unearthed in England.
As far as what games the royal hall denizens might have been playing with these pieces, we don’t know. There are no written descriptions of the fine sport to be had in the feasting halls of Anglo-Saxon royalty. What we have to go on is archaeological evidence from the Germanic burials pre-dating the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England. One burial in Leuna, Saxony, dating to around 300 A.D., contained a set of black and white pieces on a double-sided wooden board. This was used to play two games: tabula, an early form of backgammon, and latrunculi (soldiers), a checkers-like game wherein matched sides attempt to capture each other’s pieces. These games were brought to England in the fifth century during the Anglo-Saxon migrations.
For more photographs of this season’s and the previous four years of excavation at Lyminge, see this photo gallery.
Using specimens from the Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, researchers from the at McMaster University and the University of Sydney have mapped the genome of the 19th century cholera bacterium that killed millions of people during the 1800s. There are two genetically distinct biotypes of the main cholera strain, Vibrio cholerae. One of them, the classical, was dominant in the 19th century only to be overtaken by the other, El Tor, in the 20th century. Since cholera does its damage by colonizing the intestines rather than the blood, it doesn’t leave behind traces of its DNA in the teeth or bones. You can only find cholera bacteria in the intestinal soft tissues, and obviously they decay very quickly so although many cholera burial sites are known, there’s no use attempting to extract cholera DNA from historical remains.
That’s where the Mütter Museum’s remarkable collection comes into play. Founded in 1858 by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia around Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s collection of medical specimens, tools and oddities, the Mütter Museum contains a number of preserved specimens of intestines of cholera victims. One specimen, labeled 3090.13, holds a chunk of intestine from a man who died in the cholera epidemic that struck Philadelphia in May of 1849, killing 340,045 people in the city by the time it was finished. (The 1849 epidemic killed a total of 1,772,193 around the country.) The specimen was collected by Dr. John Neill for a study on the effects of cholera on the lining of the intestine. He delivered a report on his findings to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the specimens he displayed became part of the Mütter Museum collection a decade later.
Researchers took a small sample of the intestinal specimen and were able to extract sufficient DNA traces to map the entire genome of the bacterium. They were able to confirm that it was the classical biotype that spread in the 1849 epidemic, and that indeed it was responsible for five of the seven major cholera outbreaks since 1817. (Before this study only the culprit of the most recent two outbreaks was identified as El Tor.)
Using a sophisticated technique to extract, purify and enrich fragments of the pathogen’s DNA, the team collected precious genomic data, which answered many unresolved questions.
The researchers identified “novel genomic islands”, or genome regions that don’t occur in current strains. In addition, a well-known genic region involved in toxicity of the pathogen (a sequence called “CTX”) occurs more times in the ancient strain than in its modern descendants.
This may mean that this strain was more virulent, say researchers, but further testing will be needed.
Regarding the origins, the team’s calculations show that the classical strain and El Tor co-existed in humans and estuaries for many centuries, potentially thousands of years prior to the 19th century pandemics, and emerged as a full-blown infection in humans in the early 1800′s.
That’s not to say the 19th century is the first time the cholera bacterium made humans sick. Scientists believe the strains co-evolved in a water column in the Bay of Bengal for thousands of years before crossing over into people’s intestines around 5,000 years ago. This was a time of major transition, when the climate in Indian was drying up and causing formerly nomadic peoples to settle around water sources, farm the land and form communities. The population expanded and with more people comes more poop and contaminated water which then creates novel forms and bacteria and back and forth in the dizzying, endless waltz between pathogen and humanity.
This discovery underscores the importance of what may seem like dusty old useless pieces of people bobbing in specimen jars still held in museums, universities and hospitals all over the world. They may hold the key to the history of past epidemics and provide invaluable insight into diseases that still afflict millions of people.
It’s great to see the Mütter Museum still breaking new ground in medical research 156 years after it was founded for that very purpose. I think they should have a sale on their cholera plushie to celebrate their role in the mapping of the genome of its less adorable cousin.
A court has ruled that the Renoir landscape that went on sale for $100,000 last year after its owner claimed to have bought it for $7 at a West Virginia flea market belongs to the Baltimore Museum of Art from which it was stolen in 1951. The federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, agreed with the museum’s argument that established law holds “a thief cannot pass title to stolen goods even to an innocent purchaser,” and that therefore the would-be seller, once known as Renoir Girl but now identified as Marcia Fuqua, cannot hold title no matter how she acquired the painting.
According to Fuqua, she found Paysage Bords de Seine in a box along with a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow in 2009 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market and bought the whole box for $7. Three years later in July of 2012, she brought the painting to the Potomack Company auction house in Arlington, Virginia. Apparently her mother had told her to have it appraised and the gilded wooden frame had a plaque with Renoir’s name and dates on it, so Fuqua wanted to find out if it really was a work by the Impressionist master. The auction company researched the work and determined it was authentic, that it had been sold in 1926 by the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris to Baltimore lawyer and art collector Herbert L. May.
There the trail appeared to end, but intrepid Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira dug deeper. He had the idea to look through the papers of Saidie Adler May, Herbert May’s wife at the time of the purchase (they were separated in 1924 and divorced in 1927) and a great collector in her own right who donated her art and personal archive to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Shapira found a note in her correspondence files recording the loan of Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine to the museum in 1937. There was a loan registration number on the record, and when museum director Doreen Bolger looked it up, she found an index card describing the history of the painting, its purchase and its theft from the museum in November of 1951. Further research found the original police report of the theft.
The museum alerted Potomack Company and three days before the auction was supposed to take place, the painting was withdrawn from sale. The FBI seized the painting and asked the federal court to determine who the legal owner was. The painting had been insured for $2,500 when it was stolen, and the insurance company did pay the museum for the loss so technically Fireman’s Fund Insurance would own title, but it gave up its claim. The auction house also took itself out of the running. Fuqua and the Baltimore Museum of Art were the only parties left.
Fuqua’s argument was that the museum’s documentation of the theft hadn’t been properly authenticated, but the court didn’t buy it. Fuqua now has 30 days to file an appeal of the ruling, but the decision was very clear cut and it’s very unlikely to be reversed. Besides, Fuqua may find it wise to let this whole thing go, because her flea market story hasn’t exactly stood up to scrutiny.
[A] number of people who know Fuqua have cast doubt on her flea market story, including her brother. Some family acquaintances told The Post that they remember seeing the Renoir in the 1980s and 1990s at the Fairfax County home of her mother, Marcia Fouquet, who attended art college in Baltimore at the time of the painting’s theft in 1951. (The mother passed away five months ago at the age of 85.) [...]
Matt Fuqua, Martha’s brother, who attended the hearing, was elated by the judge’s ruling and stood outside the courthouse before a bank of television cameras, giving interviews.
Before she died, his mother had urged Martha to return to the painting to the BMA, he said. “My mother wanted this.”
That’s like the third version of Matt’s story. The whole family has issues.
Anyway, the BMA is delighted by the outcome of the case and looking forward to the return of their prodigal Renoir. They’ll take possession after the 30-day appeal window closes. It will be examined by conservators first and then the museum plans to exhibit it in late March in a special installation.
Researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing have discovered the world’s oldest decimal multiplication table on 21 strips of bamboo made around 305 B.C., during the Warring States period before Qin Shi Huang unified China as the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets have been discovered with mathematical tables, including times tables, from around 2,000 B.C., but the Babylonians used a local base-60 notation. The Chinese strips long pre-date the first known European decimal multiplication tables which are from the Renaissance.
The historic table was part of a large collection of 2,500 bamboo strips donated to the university five years ago. The donor had purchased them at a market in Honk Kong, but the artifacts showed the tell-tale signs of having been recently looted from a tomb. They were in abysmal condition — stinking and covered in mud and mold — and in no particular order. The strips are less than a half-inch in width at most and half a meter (just under 1’8″) long. Each strip has ancient Chinese calligraphy painted on the surface.
Deciphering them was no small task. After radiocarbon dating and conservation, researchers spent years puzzling together the strips which when knew were connected with strings forming a readable manuscript. Trying to figure out how such a massive collection of strips related to each other 2,300 years later with the strings long and gone and damaged or lost strips was like solving a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the lid to go by and lots of missing pieces. Eventually they were able to figure out that the bamboo strips formed 65 ancient texts.
Twenty-one of the 2,500 strips stood out from the rest because they were painted only with numbers. Feng Lisheng, historian of mathematics at Tsinghua University, and his team found that when arranged in the proper order, those 21 strips formed a multiplication matrix, just like the ones in the back of notebooks when I was a kid.
As in a modern multiplication table, the entries at the intersection of each row and column in the matrix provide the results of multiplying the corresponding numbers. The table can also help users to multiply any whole or half integer between 0.5 and 99.5. Numbers that are not directly represented, says Feng, first have to be converted into a series of additions. For instance, 22.5 × 35.5 can be broken up into (20 + 2 + 0.5) × (30 + 5 + 0.5). That gives 9 separate multiplications (20 × 30, 20 × 5, 20 × 0.5, 2 × 30, and so on), each of which can be read off the table. The final result can be obtained by adding up the answers. “It’s effectively an ancient calculator,” says Li [Junming, a historian and palaeographer at Tsinghua].
And a highly versatile one at that, although there’s no way of knowing exactly which functions would have been used in what context 2,300 years ago. Possible practical uses of the table include calculating surface idea, crop yields and taxes. It could also have been used for theoretical math or teaching.
“The discovery is of extraordinary interest,” says Joseph Dauben, a maths historian at City University of New York. “It’s the earliest artefact of a decimal multiplication table in the world.”
It “certainly shows that a highly sophisticated arithmetic had been established for both theoretical and commercial purposes by the Warring States period in ancient China,” he adds.
It’s considerably more advanced than later times tables produced in the Qin Dynasty. Those tables date to between 221 and 206 B.C. and they’re simple sentences like the kind you recited in class of the “two times one is two, two times two is four, two times three is six” variety. You can’t really use sentences to calculate elaborate multiplications, never mind divisions, square roots, etc. in the same way you can with a matrix. Qin Shi Huang did a lot of book burning in his efforts to forcibly unify Chinese scholarship just as he had Chinese territory. Perhaps matrix multiplication tables were part of what was lost in Qin’s Procrustean reformation of China’s intellectual tradition.
Barry Ager, curator of the British Museum’s Early Medieval Scandinavian and continental Europe collection, has discovered a Celtic brooch dating from the 8th-9th century hidden among Viking burial artifacts found in the late 19th century and kept in the museum’s stores. The objects were excavated in Lilleberge, Norway, in 1886 by British archaeologist Alfred Heneage Cocks. The 9th-10th century burial was a long barrow 128 feet in length containing a 30 foot boat, grave goods and the skeletal remains of a high status woman. The artifacts included beaded necklaces, two oval brooches, a whalebone plaque decorated with horse heads that may have been a food serving tray, an iron grid, possibly used as a pot stand or as a boat fitting, a pottery spindle-whorl, plus iron rivets, nails and wood fragments from the boat.
Five years after the excavation, Cocks sold his collection of Lilleberge artifacts to the British Museum. Some of the objects were indeterminate, still encased in blocks of soil and organic matter from the excavation. They were kept in storage for more than a century and only recently been subject to further research. Their uncleaned condition has proven to be an archaeological boon since small organic fragments survived in the dirt and the kind of things that people paid no attention to back then are extremely valuable to researchers today.
Barry Ager was looking over the collection in anticipation of a visiting Norwegian expert researching the Lilleberge find when he noticed a piece of metal sticking out of a lump of organic material. He had the lump X-rayed to see what it might contain.
“It turned out, quite remarkably, to be this Celtic disc… It’s extremely exciting… It’s a very rare example of its sort within the collection… shows contact between the British Isles and Norway in the Viking period … objects seized as loot in this country and taken back.”
He believes that it was originally made in Ireland or Scotland, that it came from a shrine or a reliquary, and that the Vikings converted it into a brooch by attaching rivet holes and a pin.
The brooch couldn’t just be pulled out of the block because there are significant organic survivals — wood fragments, possibly from a box that held the brooch, and very rare Viking textiles from which three different patterns, including a herringbone, have already been identified — that needed to be preserved. Conservators painstakingly removed the brooch using scalpels to separate it from its context without damaging the fragile organics.
Once it was removed and cleaned, the brooch was found to be elaborately decorated and in excellent condition with its original gilded surface still shining. It’s six centimeters (2.3 inches) in diameter and engraved with a central roundel with three stylized dolphin-like heads looping around it.
“The …patterns, the quatrefoil of the central roundel and the form of the ‘dolphins’ heads have clear parallels in Celtic metalwork and manuscripts of the 8th to early 9th centuries, such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Mac Regol,” Ager said.
He described the craftsmanship as “very fine” and said that the Vikings valued “eye-catching” objects: “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye.”
The brooch will go on public display for the first time starting March 27th. It will join the exquisite beauties of Sutton Hoo in Room 41 of the British Museum when the gallery re-opens after refurbishment.