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Lost Viking rune stone found at Swedish church

Sat, 2016-10-08 22:39

A thousand-year-old Viking rune stone whose whereabouts have been unknown for almost 200 years was rediscovered next to Hagby Church in Uppland, eight miles west of Uppsala in southeastern Sweden. It was discovered when workers dug a trench a few feet from the church to install a lightning conductor. Uppland Museum archaeologist Emelie Sunding was present to supervise the work in case anything of historical interest was found. When she saw the edge of a large, flat stone slab with some sort of engraving, she suspected it might be a rune stone. When the dig area was expanded and more of the stone exposed, her suspicion was confirmed.

The rune stone is six feet long and more than four feet wide and is decorated with a snake-like creature with almond eyes. Its head and tail come together in the middle of the stone, and the body winds along both long edges, although one edge is broken. The head of a bird is carved opposite serpent. The runes are carved into the animal’s long body, so the missing piece makes the full inscription unreadable. The legible part reads: “Jarl and … stone after Gerfast, his father.” Rune stones were often dedications to deceased loved ones by surviving family members, so it’s likely the missing section includes the names of Jarl’s brothers and sisters.

Although the stone is unsigned, the decorative style is recognizable as the work of a rune carver named Fot who was working in the mid-11th century. He worked in southern Uppland is believed to have carved more than 40 rune stones. Fot was known to be very particular about the stones he used and his runes are long and slender. Most of what we know of his work has survived only in replicas, so an original Fot is a very exciting find.

Uppland is rich with rune stone — more than 1,300 of the 2,700 known Viking rune stones in Sweden are located there — but most of them are fragmentary. Intact rune-decorated slabs are very rare. This one was known from a number of sources long after it was carved. It was first published, as many of its brethren were, in the 17th century. A woodcut of the stone made in the late 1600s by Johan Hadorph and Johan Leitz can be seen in the 1750 book on Swedish rune stones Bautil by Johan Göransson. It was the threshold stone of Hagby Church, installed at the door of the church portico in the 1400s.

It last appears on the historical record in the early 19th century, but much of the original church was demolished in the 1830s and the stone went missing. There were stories of it having been pulled up and dumped into a nearby millstone. Thankfully those were just rumors. The stone wasn’t even moved; it was just covered with soil when the new church went up next to it and people forgot all about it.

The stone will now be fully cleaned, studied and documented, including the back which, if we’re lucky, might have more carving that hasn’t been seen before because it has been embedded in the earth on its back since the late Middle Ages. Once conserved, the plan is for it to return to Hagby Church where it will be display in pride of place at long last.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Ancient cannabis burial shroud found in China

Fri, 2016-10-07 22:11

An ancient grave unearthed in Jiayi cemetery in China’s Turpan Basin contains the remains of man covered in cannabis plants. Radiocarbon dating found that the man was buried between 2,400 to 2,800 years ago. The remains of a man about 35 years of age at the time of his death were laid to rest on a wooden bed with his head on a reed pillow. Thirteen female cannabis plants, all of them close to three feet long, were laid diagonally on the man’s body. The roots placed below his pelvis, the tops reaching his chin and going up the left side of his face.

About 240 graves have been excavated in Jiayi cemetery. Archaeologists believe it was a burial ground of the Subeixi culture which lived in the oasis between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Cannabis has been found in other graves in the Turpan Basin before, most notably a solid two pounds of seeds and powdered leaves found in a shaman’s burial in 2008, have been found in graves from this period before, but this is the first time entire plants have survived and the first time they’ve been found in a shroud configuration.

The plants are in excellent condition, good enough to answer key questions about how cannabis was grown and used for funerary purposes in the region.

Since previous cannabis finds in Turpan burials consisted only of plant parts, it has been difficult for researchers to determine whether the plant was grown locally or obtained through trade with neighboring regions.

The plants in the Jiayi burial, however, were found lying flat on the man’s body, leading archaeologists to conclude that the cannabis had been fresh—and therefore local—when it was harvested for the burial.

In addition, while nearly all of the flowering heads of the 13 female plants had been cut off before they were placed on the body, a few that remained were nearly ripe and contained some immature fruit, suggesting that the plants were collected—and that the burial occurred—in late summer.

The surviving flowering heads also provide clues to the role of cannabis in the Turpan cultures. The fibrous plants might have been valued for their usability in textile and rope-making, for example, rather than inhaled or eaten to alter consciousness. No hemp textiles or artifacts have been found, however, and the buds found in the Jiayi grave are rich in “hairs” THC-heavy hairs, suggesting that they were grown at least in part for their psychoactive properties.

The study of the cannabis in the Jiayi grave has been published in the journal Economic Botany and can be read here for a fee (unless you have an institutional login).

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Greek police bust massive looting operating

Thu, 2016-10-06 22:54

Greek police have busted a large-scale criminal organization that trafficked in looted antiquities. More than 2,000 artifacts, most of them coins dating from as early as the 6th century B.C., were confiscated in the bust. There are 2024 coins, 126 assorted artifacts, the oldest of which is a marble Cycladic figurine from the 3rd millennium B.C. Other artifacts include gold jewelry, three gold plates weighing a total of 110 grams, bronze arrow tips, a bronze animal figurine, a glass vase, five Byzantine icons, a Byzantine cross, and two medieval statues of a male warrior and a woman which were found hidden in a well in Nemea.

Led by the police directorate in Patras, southwestern Greece, authorities investigated the operation for 14 months. More than 50 people are believed to have been part of the ring which ranged all over the country and covered every part of the traffic from illegal excavations to illegal export. The gang found artifacts by digging at or nearby known archaeological sites and by using satellite imagery to identify new potential sites. The worker bees would dig at night to avoid detection, and the leaders of the ring would then arranged for the sale of the artifacts by directly negotiating with auction houses and private buyers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK.

Thanks to extensive documentation found in the bust, police have the full receipts on who bought what when. The dirty auction houses, which Greek authorities are not naming because of laws protecting suspects from exposure before trial, not only knowingly ginned up bullshit ownership histories (heyo Swiss private collection!), they also conspired with the looters to artificially jack up the bids during live auctions to squeeze more money out of buyers and even went so far as to give these bastards tens of thousands of euros so they’d have the cash to buy black market artifacts, mainly coins, that they hadn’t themselves excavated.

Underscoring the wide range of the criminal conspiracy, police also found a cache of weapons — modern shotguns, rifles, pistols, air guns, bullets, a silencer, plus an antique pistol and antique swords — 21 metal detectors, 73 cellphones, 17 computers, currency measuring scales, piles of cash in euros, dollars and Kuwaiti dinars and counterfeit plates. But wait, there’s more! Seven cars and some cannabis, to be precise.

Two of the leaders of the gang, a 54-year-old father and 27-year-old son, were arrested Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border. Police found 946 ancient coins and 32 ancient artifacts hidden in the bumper of their car. Another 24 members of the gang were arrested as well. It seems this outfit has been operating for at least 10 years.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Restituted Egyptian mummy portraits for sale

Wed, 2016-10-05 22:57

Two rare Egyptian mummy portraits with a dramatic history will be sold at Christie’s Antiquities auction in New York on October 25th. One is an encaustic on wood portrait of a woman, identifiable from her hairstyle (a single braid wrapped around her head) and earrings as dating to the 2nd century A.D.; the other, also encaustic on wood, is a portrait of a bearded man from the 2nd century A.D. The pre-sale estimate for the woman is $150,000-250,000, for the man $100,000-150,000.

They are being offered for sale by the Mosse Art Restitution Project which represents the heirs of Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), a German Jewish publisher and philanthropist who amassed an extensive collection of art and antiquities in his lifetime. The portraits were part of that collection, probably acquired thanks to his sponsorship of archaeological excavations by German Egyptologist Heinrich Karl Brugsch. Brugsch died in 1894, so if the portraits did come through him, they left Egypt legally in the 19th century which is not something you see every day with mummy portraits.

Mosse published the liberal newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt. After his death, his daughter Felicia’s husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse took over as publisher. When the Nazis came on the scene, the newspaper under editor-in-chief Theodor Wolff was heavily critical of them. Then came February 1933, the Reichstag fire and the quick series of legislative changes that instituted single party rule and suspended civil liberties. In the beginning of March, 1933, Hans Lachmann-Mosse succumbed to pressure to take Wolff off the masthead and drastically shift the direction of the paper to the political right. Wolff, who was Jewish (he was Rudolf Mosse’s cousin, in fact), liberal and the founder of one of the parties that would soon be outlawed, had already fled by then, taking off for Austria the day after the fire.

Hans’ efforts to go with the flow were wasted, of course. He and Felicia were forced to flee, leaving the great Mosse collection behind to be preyed upon by Nazi art gluttons. The collection was confiscated by the state and sold at auction. The Egyptian portraits were acquired by none other than Erich Maria Remarque, author of the classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Nazis hated Erich Maria Remarque. Even before the Nazi takeover of Germany, Joseph Goebbels excoriated Remarque’s novel and dispatched Hitler Youth to cause gross disruptions — releasing large numbers of mice, throwing stink bombs — in theaters showing the extremely popular and critically acclaimed Hollywood movie of the book. Remarque was derided as a crypto-Jew (he was Catholic from a long line of Catholics), a Marxist (he wasn’t even a leftist, just a pacifist) and a coward who hadn’t even seen combat in World War I (he was wounded on the Western Front, taking shrapnel in his leg, back and neck). Remarque’s books were officially banned on May 10th, 1933, just over two months after the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree that all but abolished civil liberties. He was burned in effigy in front of Berlin’s opera house, and his books were thrown on the great bonfire alongside those of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.

Remarque moved to his villa in Switzerland. His collection of art and Egyptian antiquities, now including the two Mosse mummy portraits, went with him. After his death in 1970, his collection passed to his wife Paulette Goddard-Remarque, famous in her own right as a silent movie actress and Charlie Chaplin’s ex-wife who starred in with him in Modern Times and, in a lovely middle finger to Hitler, in The Great Dictator. She sold the portraits to the University of Zurich. Researchers at the university identified them last year as having been part of the Mosse collection and they were restituted to the foundation.

This kind of deep background is unusual for mummy portraits, not just because there are celebrities involved, but because when they crop up in the market, they often have very little in the way of documented history. For instance, this exquisitely beautiful portrait of a woman from ca. 55-70 A.D. that sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $262,400 has a single line in the Provenance category: “Thierry Cambelong, Switzerland, 1970s.” It’s every art dealer’s favorite mythical Canadian girlfriend, the Swiss private collection vaguely dated to the 1970s so it won’t fall afoul of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Interestingly enough, if you Google “Thierry Cambelong,” all you get are four entries from antiquities auctions. This mummy portrait of a striking young man from ca. 80-140 A.D. has even less to go on in terms of ownership history. There is no provenance category at all, only a reference to it having been published in a 1999 book on Romano-Egyptian funerary art.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Pompeii house virtually reconstructed in 3D

Tue, 2016-10-04 21:09

After the magnitude 6.9 Irpinia earthquake devastated Naples and its environs in 1980, damaging the ancient city of Pompeii, authorities invited international researchers to help thoroughly document the ruins. The Swedish Pompeii Project was founded in 2000 with the aim of recording and studying a full block of the city, Insula V 1. Since 2010, the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University has been working on the project, ushering in a new approach that combines archaeological finds, photographs and data recorded at the site and makes 3D models out of them.

“By combining new technology with more traditional methods, we can describe Pompeii in greater detail and more accurately than was previously possible”, says Nicoló Dell’Unto, digital archaeologist at Lund University.

Among other things, the researchers have uncovered floor surfaces from AD 79, performed detailed studies of the building development through history, cleaned and documented three large wealthy estates, a tavern, a laundry, a bakery and several gardens. In one garden, they discovered that some of the taps to a stunning fountain were on at the time of eruption – the water was still gushing when the rain of ash and pumice fell over Pompeii.

The researchers occasionally also found completely untouched layers. In a shop were three, amazingly enough, intact windows (made out of translucent crystalline gypsum) from Ancient Rome, stacked against each other. By studying the water and sewer systems they were able to interpret the social hierarchies at the time, and see how retailers and restaurants were dependent on large wealthy families for water, and how the conditions improved towards the end, before the eruption.

You can already peruse 3D models of the structures on the entire block on the Swedish Pompeii Project website, but they’re still a tad on the minimalist side at this point. One structure, however, the grand house of Caecilius Iucundus, has been virtually reconstructed in glorious detail. They recreated it as it was before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. laid waste to the city while simultaneously preserving it.

Here is a quick overview of the project and model:

Here is a quick walkthrough of the 3D reconstruction of the house:

And here is the money, a beautifully thorough 11-minute tour through the ruins and reconstruction of the house of Caecilius Iucundus:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

2,200-year-old lease contract found on tablet in Turkey

Mon, 2016-10-03 22:13

An archaeological excavation of the ancient Greek city of Teos on the west coast of modern-day Turkey has unearthed a marble tablet inscribed with an incredibly detailed leasing contract. The tablet was discovered west of the early 2nd century B.C. Temple of Dionysus, the largest temple to Dionysus in the ancient world which according to Vitruvius was built by famed Hellenistic architect Hermogenes of Priene. One of 400 tablets discovered at Teos (200 unearthed since 2010), the stele is five feet long and contains an impressive 58 lines of Greek text.

The inscription covers the minutiae of a lease on property in the city’s gymnasium. In ancient Greece, the gymnasium was an open-air facility for training for athletic contests like the Olympics and other public games, general physical education, scholarly disquisitions on and discussion of philosophy, art and literature. As all public games were religious festivals whose outcomes held portentous meaning to the participating cities, the gymnasia were usually carefully regulated by the local authorities.

The tablet illuminates the pivotal role played by the gymnasium in Teos as well as exploring previously unknown details about the city’s laws and social order. The gymnasium students, known as Neos, had inherited a substantial property from a resident of Teos. He donated his land, all of the buildings on it, the slaves attached to it and an altar to the Neos who were not kids, but citizens between the ages of 20 and 30. Of course maintenance of property, buildings, human chattel and religious shrines takes money, which the Neos didn’t have, so they had to rent the land in order to keep it.

Because of the altar on the land, the property was categorized as holy and therefore exempt from taxes. The Neos wanted use of the holy altar, so they included a codicil allowing them access to the altar three days in the year. They put the land up for auction — just for lease, not for sale — and it was rented to the highest bidder. The tablet records the name of the previous owner and of the lessor. One guarantor and six witnesses, three of them city administrators, were required to validate the agreement.

“This inscription reveals the structure of the Gymnasium and that the Neos were able to own a property. This is first and only example in the ancient world. Almost half of the inscription is filled with punishment forms. If the renter gives damage to the land, does not pay the annual rent or does not repair the buildings, he will be punished. The Neos also vow to inspect the land every year,” said [Professor Mustafa Adak, the head of Akdeniz University's Prehistoric Languages and Cultures Department].

“There are two particularly interesting legal terms used in the inscription, which large dictionaries have not up to now included. Ancient writers and legal documents should be examined in order to understand these words mean,” Adak said.

The Neos were citizens closely involved in the political life of the city. The renter would not have been wise to mess with them because all those punishments literally carved into stone could and certainly would be enforced.

I love that the legalese on the tablet retains its impenetrability even to experts in ancient languages 2,200 years after it was written.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Conservators dismantle 1830 Appleton pipe organ

Sun, 2016-10-02 22:10

Boston-born Thomas Appleton was apprenticed to cabinet maker Elisha Larned when he was a youth, a trade that he would not pursue but that nonetheless taught him key skills for his true vocation. He switched to organ building in his early 20s, getting a job in the workshop of William Marcellus Goodrich in Templeton, Massachusetts, in 1807. Goodrich would become known as the father of organ building in New England and Appleton was an apt pupil. He went into business with piano makers Hayt and Alpheus Babcock in 1810, but the company went under in the economic recession following the War of 1812. Appleton’s collaborations with Goodrich from 1810 through 1820, on the other hand, were very successful. Together they built organs, pianos and claviorgans which dominated the Boston market. During the three decades Goodrich’s shop was in operation — 1803 to 1833 — only three organs were imported into Boston because he (and later he and Appleton) were able to fill the city’s considerable demand for high quality instruments.

Appleton struck out on his own again in 1821. Over the next two decades, he did what is generally held to be his best work. According to the Organ Historical Society, Appleton “brought the hand-made organ to the zenith of craftsmanship.” Thomas Appleton lived a long, fruitful life, dying in 1872 at age 87. During his lifetime, he built 35 organs for Boston churches and organizations, and more than 100 for other cities.

One of the latter was an organ he built in 1830, the only instrument he made that year, for South Church in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a two-manual organ with 836 pipes in sixteen ranks and an 18-note pedalboard. The façade pipes were covered in gold leaf and the instrument was cased in an extraordinary Greek Revival case 15 feet tall. The church replaced this majestic instrument with a larger model in 1854, moving the original somewhere else. It popped back up again in 1883, when it was acquired by the Sacred Heart Church in Plains, Pennsylvania. The installer, Emmons Howard, added nine notes to the pedalboard at that time.

The Appleton pipe organ was used in the Plains church until it was replaced by an electronic organ decades ago. The church thankfully did nothing at all to the Appleton instrument and it was left to gather dust in the rear gallery. That’s where it was, all but obscured by clutter, when a young organ buff happened upon it in 1980. He alerted Alan Laufman of the Organ Clearing House, an organization founded by the Organ Historical Society to rescue endangered pre-electric organs, who recognized it as the very special instrument it is. The date “1830″ inside the case made it clear that this was the organ Appleton built for South Church, now the earliest surviving Appleton pipe organ.

Two years later, the organ was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of no more than four two-manual Appleton organs known to survive, this one was the earliest and the only one with ironclad documentation identifying it as an Appleton. It had some condition issues after so many decades of neglect — cracks in the air reservoir, dried leather on the bellows, plywood nailed to some of the mahogany veneer surfaces, bad paint jobs on others, a few broken pipes — but nothing but a few stopknob labels, a few of the keyboard ivories and bits of the moldings were missing. The giant hand-pump handle was still there. Even the initials of the choir boys tasked with pumping it were found carved on the back of the case.

Organ expert Lawrence Trupiano was tasked with restoring the organ, an exacting job to be sure, but at least there was nothing to rebuild, no modern pieces needed to replace broken or unusable origins. He regilded the façade pipes, fixed the broken pipes, renewed the mahogany case and brought it back to its original splendor. Laurence Libin, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of musical instruments, described it as “the finest and best preserved and possibly the largest early 19th-century American instrument still intact.”

The restored Appleton pipe organ was installed in the equestrian court of the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments at the Met in 1983. Since then it has been played regularly for gallery visitors and special events. In February of this year, the André Mertens Galleries closed for refurbishment. The Met took the opportunity to do some conservation work on the organ. Over the course of three weeks, the Appleton pipe organ was completely dismantled, under the hawkeyed supervision of Lawrence Trupiano. Its needs will be seen to and it will be back in place for the reopening of the gallery in 2017.

Meanwhile, enjoy this time-lapse video of the dismantling process which serves some hardcore reverse-IKEA realness accompanied by the strains of Louis Vierne’s “Divertissement” from 24 Pièces en style libre, Op. 31, performed on the Appleton organ by Paolo Bordignon on November 4th, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Library acquires hand-drawn 1790 map of Detroit

Sat, 2016-10-01 17:51

The University of Michigan’s Clement Library has acquired a previously unknown map of Detroit from 1790. The hand-drawn, hand-colored map entitled “Rough sketch of the King’s Domain at Detroit” was found in a home in Almonte, Ontario. The owner believed his grandfather had bought in the 1930s, but he didn’t know anything about it. He contacted experts to find out if it was an original 18th century piece as labeled and they confirmed that its authenticity. The owner wanted an educational institution to have the map so that it could be of use to students, teachers and researchers, and the University of Michigan was the ideal place for an early map of Detroit.

The map is 21-by-40 inches in dimension and shows Fort Lernoult, built by the British in 1779 and ceded to the United States in 1796, top center, its surrounding fields and defenses, the shipyard and associated Navy garden on the Detroit River and, just south of the fort, the grid lines of the early city which by then had a population of about 2,000 people. The town was protected east and west by wooden stockades running from the river to the fort. Drawn on watermarked 18th century paper, it dated September 1790 and signed by “DW Smith Actg Fort Adjutant.” That was Captain David William Smith, the son of Major John Smith, commander of the 5th Regiment of Foot at Fort Lernoult. Major Smith was the chairman of the land board of the District of Hesse (the section of English Canada that included the city of Detroit); his son was the secretary.

It wouldn’t be Captain Smith’s only foray into map-making. The Clement Library has another map of Detroit drawn by him, but he would really go pro once up north. Two years after he put pen to paper on the “Rough sketch of the King’s Domain at Detroit,” he was appointed deputy surveyor general by Canada’s Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe (the real life inspiration for the highly fictionalized and scenery-chewing villain on the AMC’s American Revolution series Turn: Washington’s Spies) and was elected to the 1st Parliament of Upper Canada. In 1798 he was appointed surveyor general of Upper Canada and the next year published A Short Topographical Description of His Majesty’s Province of Upper Canada in North America, with an annotated second edition published at Simcoe’s behest in 1813. He also managed to purchase 20,000 acres of land in Ontario that would form fully half of the original city of Toronto.

Brian Dunnigan, curator of maps and associate director of the Clements Library[:]

“This is a really special find because there aren’t any other maps that depict Detroit at this particular time period, which was about six years before the British peacefully evacuated the town and fort to make way for the arrival of United States troops.” [...]

According to Dunnigan, who is an expert in early Detroit, Mackinac, Niagara and 18th-century Great Lakes history, and author of “Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit,” the manuscript plan identifies the east and west boundaries of the “Domain,” an extra-wide ribbon strip of land that Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit, granted to himself in 1701.

The map includes many new details of the frontier city. Within the platted ground of the Domain is a very specific plan of the town, its defenses, and Fort Lernoult, constructed during the American Revolution and located (in modern terms) at the intersection of Fort and Shelby streets. It also includes proposed fortifications that were never constructed.

Due to a number of parcels of land bearing numbers, Dunnigan believes the map was once accompanied by a key or a report that has not yet been found.

The map will be the star of an exhibition at the Clement Library in 2017.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Stolen Van Gogh paintings found after 14 years

Fri, 2016-09-30 22:43

Two oil paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002 were found by Italian police in a town outside of Naples. The anti-mafia squad raided the apartment of Raffaele Imperiale, a major drug dealer who is currently on the lam probably in the United Arab Emirates, in the village of Castellammare di Stabia as part of a large-scale investigation into drug smuggling by the Amato Pagano clan affiliated with the Camorra, the mafia-like criminal organization centered in Naples. It was in the basement that they found the two paintings wrapped in cloth.

The police called in experts to confirm the identity of the paintings, but they already knew what they had. The theft from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is notorious, one of the FBI’s top 10 art crimes thanks to the paintings’ (very conservative) estimated value of $30 million. The two thieves climbed a ladder to the roof and broke into the museum in December of 2002. They stole Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), two of the artist’s important early works. Two men were convicted of the theft a year later, but the paintings were never recovered and how they wound up a thousand miles south of Amsterdam in the hands of Camorristi 14 years later remains a mystery.

Van Gogh Museum officials are ecstatic. Museum director Axel Rüger said at the press conference in Naples: “The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.” The paintings are priceless to the museum, of course; their less left the collection with yawning lacunae.

The art historical value of the paintings for the collection is huge. Seascape at Scheveningen is the only painting in our museum collection dating from Van Gogh’s period in The Hague (1881-1883). It is one of the only two seascapes that he painted during his years in the Netherlands and it is a striking example of Van Gogh’s early style of painting, already showing his highly individual character. The hoped-for forthcoming return of the Seascape will fill an important gap in the museum presentation.

Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is a small canvas that Van Gogh painted for his mother in early 1884. It shows the church of the Reformed Church community in the Brabant village of Nuenen, Van Gogh’s father being its Minister. In 1885, after his father’s death, Van Gogh reworked the painting and added the churchgoers in the foreground, among them a few women in shawls worn in times of mourning. This may be a reference to his father’s death. The strong biographical undertones make this a work of great emotional value. The museum collection does not include any other painting depicting the church. Moreover, it is the only painting in the Van Gogh Museum collection still in its original stretcher frame. This frame is covered in splashes of paint because Van Gogh probably cleaned his brushes on it.

Colonel Giovanni Salerno, head of the Guardia di Finanzia (financial police) division that executed the raid, said they recognized those unique paint marks on the back even before the paintings were authenticated as the missing Van Goghs.

The works appear to be in good condition, all things considered. The frames are gone. Seascape at Scheveningen has suffered some damage and is missing a small rectangle of paint (5 x 2 cm) from the bottom left corner. Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen has some damage around the edges. Conservators will have to examine them more closely to assess their condition. Clearly they have not been kept in ideal climactic condition, so there’s bound to be issues there.

Because the paintings are evidence in a giant organized crime case, they won’t be heading back to Amsterdam anytime soon. They will remain in the hands of Italian law enforcement at least until the criminal case is presented in court, perhaps even through the trial, which could take years. Police in Italy are very sensitive to art theft issues, however, and the museum has every confidence that they’ll do their utmost to get the paintings home as soon as possible.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

200-year-old pub, liquor found in Manchester

Thu, 2016-09-29 22:54

There are many old pubs in Britain. Interruptions in service, moves, rebuilds make it ambiguous which is the oldest, but there are candidates in the running that are literally ancient, like 6th century ancient, and the Feathers Hotel, the oldest continually licensed pub, dates to 1619 and incredibly still has its original wooden facade. So within that venerable context, a pub from the early 19th century isn’t all that remarkable in and of itself.

Manchester is a city of a half a million people today and while it can trace its history back to the 1st century when it was founded as a civilian settlement attached to the Roman fort of Mancunium, for almost 1,800 years it was a small country market town. It wasn’t even a city until 1853. Industrialization made the difference. Manchester exploded in the 19th century when it became a center for cotton processing. In the three decades between 1820 and 1850, the rural hamlet became an urban metropolis bristling with smoke-belching factories and mills.

What make the discovery of the ruins of an early 19th century pub in Manchester’s city center is that so few structures from that period survived the rapid change brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Archaeologists found the foundations and walls of the pub and a bank vault during a survey of a site on the corner of Port Street and Great Ancoats Street where a skyscraper is slated to be built. That there was anything left at all of buildings from the Napoleonic era in downtown Manchester was surprise enough, but then they also found a great many artifacts that included names of people and the pub throughout its history. More than 20 glass bottles survived, some in excellent condition, three or four them still full of booze. (Brandy, apparently.)

Historians know which pub it is because it was still functioning as such until 1928. Opened in 1821 as The Astley Arms, the pub was renamed the Paganini Tavern in 1840, returned to the Astley Arms the next decade before ending its century-long run as Cornbrook House. The building remained standing. It was restored and partially reconstructed in 1986, but eventually was demolished leaving a vacant lot.

Aidan Turner, supervisor at the site and senior archeologist, said it was exciting to be able to link the findings to living people today.

He said: “We found pottery and bottle from the Astley Arms which actually has the name of the proprietor Thomas Evans, and the name of the pub written on it, so it must have been a commissioned piece for the pub.

“It’s brilliant because you can suddenly connect it to the local people in the area. We looked online about his family history and one of his descendants now lives in Texas.

I hope they contact the Texan descendant before the site is covered back up and the 13-story skyscraper is built on top of it. Some of the artifacts will go on display in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. (I’m partial to the handsome glass bottle with the workman’s arm emblem, traditionally a symbol of manufacturing and industry seen on everything from the Great Seal of Wisconsin to mechanic signs to the logo of the Socialist Labor Party of America, but probably best known in the United States as one of the most enduring corporate logos of all time: Arm & Hammer baking soda.) What happens to the rest, including that ripe old brandy, is up to the property owners.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Lord of Sipan’s face digitally reconstructed

Wed, 2016-09-28 22:38

Like the Egyptian pyramids, huacas (monumental structures) in Peru have been plagued by looters for centuries, and the eroded adobe pyramid built by the Moche before 300 A.D. in Huaca Rajada, near the town of Sipan, was no exception. It was looters, in fact, who first broke into the pyramid and struck literal gold. The archaeological gods were on the job that day, thankfully, and when the thieves got into a dispute over their loot, one of them squealed to the police.

The police called in archaeologist and Moche expert Walter Alva who excavated the site and discovered an elaborate royal burial. In the center of the tomb was the skeleton of a man about 5’4″ tall and 35 to 45 years old at the time of his death. His body was bedecked in precious ornaments — headdresses, face masks, ear rings, nose rings, a large pectoral, necklaces — and all around him were rich grave goods of gold, jewelry, pottery and much more, a total of 451 artifacts. Buried in the tomb with him were three women, two men, a child around nine or 10 years old, a dog and two llamas. The skeletal remains of one more man were found perched in a niche over the chamber roof. It was then and remains today the richest intact pre-Hispanic tomb ever found.

The central figure became known as the Lord of Sipan. The contents of the tomb were removed for study and conservation. They are now on display at the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Lambayeque. At the site of the adobe temples in Huaca Rajada, replicas of the Lord’s tomb and others found in the pyramids have been installed so visitors can see them in the open air.

A reconstruction of what the Lord of Sipan might have looked like adorned in all his finery is on view at the museum, but recently a new project was launched to use the latest technology to reexamine the remains and create a digital reconstruction of the Lord of Sipan’s visage. It was a tough challenge. The skull was discovered in 96 pieces, and museum staff had glued the fragments together supported by a plastic frame.

The study’s osteological analysis advanced the Lord’s age a decade (he was 45-55 years old when he died) and increased his height (he was a quarter inch shy of 5’6″). He was not very well muscled, which fits with his high status as he would not have been doing much in the way of heavy lifting. He had a few cavities, but nothing to write home about; overall his dental health was excellent. There was no sign of violence or trauma on his bones, just the beginnings of osteoarthritis in the spine, likely at the site of a long-ago injury in his youth.

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega University commissioned the Brazilian Team of Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Odontology to see if they could virtually take the skull apart and put it back together more accurately. They performed a high resolution 3D scan of the skull by photographing it from a variety of angles (photogrammetry). Those images were then entered into a software program that could unglue all the pieces and start over from the beginning. Using an average male skull as a template and with the input of a forensic dentist, the team was able to put the skull puzzle back together. The areas with missing pieces were filled in gray. Then the musculature and facial features with digitally constructed from the skull.

Walter Alva, who is still very much on the job as director of the Sipan Archaeological Project and of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum (whose construction he championed with unmatched zeal), says of the facial reconstruction of the Lord of Sipan:

“This brings us closer and connects us especially to the current indigenous population. We see that the face of the Lord of Sipan is very similar to the Moches of Lambayeque who still survive to this day. The faces of the fishermen, the farmers of the region are direct descendants of this creative race.”

The digital reconstruction process is captured in this video:

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Parks Canada confirms HMS Terror found

Tue, 2016-09-27 22:43

Parks Canada has confirmed that the shipwreck discovered in Terror Bay by the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) is indeed the HMS Terror. The crew of the ARF’s research vessel Martin Bergmann notified the government agency of their find on September 11th. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team arrived to explore the wreck on September 15th. With help from the Canadian Coast Guard and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the team surveyed the site with side-scan sonar and a multi-beam echosounder. Underwater archaeologists dove the wreck three times.

The dives took place during difficult weather conditions and through poor visibility. The wreck’s upper deck is heavily covered by silt and marine life. Nevertheless, the divers were able to observe a number of features that were typical or unique to 19th century British polar exploration ships and the wreck has a number of design specifications that were common to both HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, including three masts, iron bow sheathings and a double-wheeled helm. There are no wrecks other than HMS Erebus with these features in the region.

Comparing this solid archaeological data to an extensive research archive that includes ship plans of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team was able to confirm that the wreck is HMS Terror. The scans showed the well preserved wreck has and features matching the historic records for HMS Terror, including: the configuration of the bowsprit (the spar extending from the ship’s bow); placement of the ship’s helm; the boarding port; and deck scuppers (holes on the side of the ship to allow drainage) which differ from HMS Erebus.

The Parks Canada marine archaeologists found that the shipwreck is intact from stem to stern. No artifacts or human remains were spotted on board, but the visibility was so bad that doesn’t mean there aren’t any to be found. The thick layer of silt and marine life is obscuring anything on the deck. It’s also preserving it.

Next on the agenda is working with the Government of Nunavut and the Designated Inuit Organizations to protect the wreck site.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History