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Jewelry hoard hidden from Boudicca’s army found in Colchester

History Blog - Thu, 2014-09-04 22:57

The excavation of the Williams & Griffin supermarket site in Colchester has born rich fruit again. Two months ago it was historically significant bone fragments. Now, three days before the dig was scheduled to end, archaeologists have found a collection of jewelry that was hidden under the floor of a house that was destroyed when Boudicca’s forces leveled Colchester in 61 A.D.

The hoard was buried in a small pit dug in the initial phase of Boudicca’s revolt, when her army was marching on Colchester which, despite its population of Roman veterans, stood largely defenseless and unfortified. Archaeologists believe a wealthy Roman woman or her slave collected her valuable jewels and hid them to keep them from being pillaged and it worked, to some extent. Boudicca’s troops never did find the lady’s valuables; they just burned her house to the ground and left the treasures to be found by archaeologists 2,000 years later. The entire hoard has been removed in a solid block of soil so that it can be excavated with all due deliberation in a conservation laboratory.

So far, archaeologists have found three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a silver armlet, a small bag of coins and a small jewelry box holding two pairs of gold earrings and four gold rings. When the block is fully excavated, they expect to find even more precious objects. It would be an extremely rich find no matter where it was unearthed, but it’s particularly significant given its location and the momentous events surrounding its burial. This is the first time a hoard of precious metals form the Roman era has been discovered in Colchester’s historic center.

Its historic value is far greater than its gold and silver content. There are traces of organic remains in the hoard’s soil block, like the remains of the purse that held the coins. That’s one of the reasons archaeologists have kept it intact, so that the earth could be carefully removed without damaging even the smallest remnants of surviving textiles, leather and wood.

The lady of the house’s valuables aren’t the only remarkable survivors in the house.

Ingredients for meals that were never eaten lay burnt black on the floor of the room in which the jewellery was found. These include dates, figs, wheat, peas, and grain. (Others will almost certainly be identified when soil samples are examined by a specialist in ancient seeds and plant remains.) Foodstuffs like these would not, generally, have survived, but here they had been carbonised by the heat of the fire so that their shapes were preserved perfectly. Some of the food had been stored on a wooden shelf which collapsed during the revolt, and the remains of the carbonised remains lay on the floor. The dates appeared to have been kept on the shelf in a square wooden bowl or platter.

Under normal circumstances, a discovery of ancient precious metals would be subject to a Treasure Trove inquest. The finds would be assessed for fair market value by experts from the British Museum and the objects offered to a local museum who would then pay the finders/landowners the amount assessed. Thankfully, Fenwick Ltd, owners of the Williams & Griffin store, have decided to waive any finder’s fee they would be entitled to under the Treasure Act and donate the hoard to Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. That means the British Museum won’t have to get involved, and the archaeologists and conservators can focus solely on the work of excavating, stabilizing and analyzing this exceptional find.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Pennsic 43 photos online

SCAtoday.net - Thu, 2014-09-04 14:23

Rowena reports that she has created several albums of photos from Pennsic 32. The albums are posted on her Photobucket website.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Burial discovery sheds light on late Roman Britain

SCAtoday.net - Thu, 2014-09-04 08:39

The discovery of five skeletons dating to Roman times near a villa in Dorset, England has led archaeologists to postulate that they were from the same family. This is the first incidence of Roman families buried together near where they lived.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Pól ó Briain elevated to Pelican at Raglan Ffair

SCAtoday.net - Thu, 2014-09-04 01:26

Genevieve, Rouge Maunche, reports that at Their Court at Raglan Ffair, Their Majesties Leif and Morrigan of the Kingdom of Drchenwald, offered elevation to the order of the Pelican to Baron Pól ó Briain.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Conserving St. Ambrose’s 4th-century silk tunics

History Blog - Wed, 2014-09-03 22:59

University of Bonn researchers are working with textile conservators to study and preserve delicate silk tunics attributed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop and patron saint of Milan whose skeletal remains are on display in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. The silks are also kept at the Milan basilica and are venerated as relics of the saint. The textiles have not been conclusively dated to the 4th century, but they are certainly from late antiquity which makes them very rare survivals that can lend unique insight into the period.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple. [...]

In the course of many centuries,time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Since the textiles are far too delicate to travel, conservators have brought their mobile restoration lab to Milan to do the work on site. In addition to stabilizing and repairing the damage of centuries of display under heavy glass or sandwiched between other fabrics in a chest, the restorers hope their analysis will illuminate the evolution of relic worship in Early Christian Italy. Saint Ambrose himself, along with other doctors of the Church like Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was an early advocate of veneration of relics.

The tunics were revered as relics of Saint Ambrose at least by the 11th century, and probably earlier. A red cross was woven onto one of the textiles in late antiquity or early Middle Ages, an indication that they were held to be of religious significance. A woven band kept with the tunics dates to the 11th century. The inscription describes the silks as Saint Ambrose’s vestments to be held in great reverence.

Restorers believe the band was the work by Archbishop Aribert of Milan (1018-1045) who had political reasons as well as religious ones to emphasize the significance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose had famously stood up to Roman emperors on a number of issues, refusing two orders from Western emperor Valentinian II that he surrender two churches in Milan for Arian worship and excommunicating Eastern emperor Theodosius I for the Massacre of Thessalonica. Aribert wanted a strong Ambrosian archbishopric that held virtually independent temporal power over northern Italy. He created a princely court in Milan, as luxurious as a royal court only under ecclesiastical rather than princely control. He even called his bishops cardinals, as if he were Pope in the North.

At first he was a strong supporter of the German emperors, an alliance that strengthened his political position in the region. However, when he allied with the great lords of northern Italy against the lesser vassals, arbitrarily confiscating lands and denying them feudal rights of inheritance, the resulting conflict that would pit him against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry III. Aribert refused to restore fiefdoms he had taken from the minor nobility and refused even to defend his actions before the emperor, insisting that as Archbishop of Milan, he was equal in authority to the emperor and if the emperor wanted those lands back from the see of Milan, he could just try and take them. Indeed, in a presage of the Investiture Controvery that would poison relations between the papacy and imperial throne for decades staring in the reign of Henry III’s son Henry IV, Aribert had personally crowned Conrad II with the Iron Crown of Lombardy making him King of Italy.

Conrad’s attempt to besiege Milan failed thanks to Aribert’s enhanced defenses and a militia he had created from every class of Milanese citizen. Conrad died in 1039 and the conflict between the archbishop and Henry II was finally resolved by diplomacy in 1040. Even though Pope Benedict IX had sided with Conrad and excommunicated Aribert in 1038, in the end the archbishop maintained control over his territory with his political and military strength, a lesson that future popes less in harmony with the Holy Roman Emperors would take to heart.

So the study of these silk tunics really covers centuries of religious, political and social history. Researchers hope it will shed light on economic history of late antiquity as well. There is a widely held belief among historians that in the 4th century silk thread was all imported from China and then woven in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Syria. Professor Schrenk suspects there may well have been a silk weaving industry in Milan, however, because it was a center of imperial power as the capital of the Western Empire from 286 to 402 A.D.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Don Lodovick of Gray's Inn placed on vigil in AEthelmearc

SCAtoday.net - Wed, 2014-09-03 17:34

Dame Vivienne Marie de Beauvais, Vambrace Pursuivant, reports that at Their Morning Court at Sommerfrische, Their Majesties Magnus Tindal and Etain of the Kingdom of AEthelmearc placed Don Lodovick of Gray's Inn on vigil to contemplate elevation to the Order of the Pelican.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Society-wide Social Media Groups for Rapier

East Kingdom Gazette - Wed, 2014-09-03 15:49

There are two new SCA-wide social media groups which rapier fighters may wish to join. The unofficial SCA Society Rapier Marshal’s discussion group can be found on both Google+ and FaceBook.

The G+ community can be found here:
https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/105795618011651864369

The FaceBook group is here:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/945632195453505/


Filed under: Fencing, Tidings

35th Anniversary Issue of The Mudpuppy

East Kingdom Gazette - Wed, 2014-09-03 12:45
Dueña Mercedes Vera de Calafia, East Kingdom Seneschal, shared this link to a very special newsletter. We encourage all to read and reminisce!

I don’t often post things like this, but as a former resident of Settmour Swamp, I think everyone should see the 35th Anniversary Issue of The Mudpuppy, put out by their fabulous chronicler, Baroness Ursula of North Woods. As the SCA Archivist said when he received it “WOW!!! Just WOW!. This issue has raised the bar to cross for group history distribution.” Read it here: August 2014 issue of The Mudpuppy

 


Filed under: Local Groups, Tidings Tagged: Settmour Swamp

Lady of the Rose Tourney Update

East Kingdom Gazette - Wed, 2014-09-03 10:26

This update was just received from Duchess Anna:

Lady of the Rose Tourney
Medieval Warriors supporting Today’s Soldiers

As the time grows near, We wanted to answer a few questions and update some information for the day.

The Ladies of the Rose have chosen to support the Wounded Warrior Project.  Special tokens to commemorate the Rose Tourney will be available for a donation of $5.00 the day of the tourney.  Your support of these brave men and woman will be greatly appreciated.

Each Rose has been putting together her team, chosen from outside her household.  Additional teams will be assembled on site from the Fighter/Fencers who are not already on a Rose team, so everyone will get a chace to play and have a good time.  If you are planning to fight at the tourney, please message Mistress Lylie of Penhyll and let her know you are coming.  This will allow us to get the care written and the tourney going quicker, meaning more fighting.

We are Still in need of voice heralds, if you are interested in heralding during the day please contact Master Rowen Cloteworthy.

In addition to the tourney there will be a Populace choice Arts and Sciences display, a Heraldic consultation table, youth fighting, and a short dance class during the day, so lots to do for everyone.

EVERYONE PLEASE NOTE:  The Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) is in full swing, which may affect hotel availability and traffic in the area.  You may want to consider staying a little futher away from the site (Enfield CT to the south, Holyoke or Northamption MA to the north, for example) and leave extra time to travel.

TOURNEY DETAILS:

The tourney will be done in rounds. Each round will consist of 3 bouts.
Each fighter will receive points for each bout.
Once the round is complete, and we get all the cards back, we will pair the next round.

We can fight as many rounds as the day has time for.

Points are tallied at the end of each round.

This is how it will tally up. Each Fight is a possible three bout:
1)  Fighter A wins the first two bouts – 10 pts
2)  Fighter A wins two out of three bouts he/she gets 7 and Other Fighter gets 3
3)  Fighter A wins bout one then they double kill – Fighter A gets 7 and Fighter B gets 3
4)  Fighter A wins bout one the other fighter wins the 2nd and they double kill in the third bout, it will be considered a tie and each fighter will receive 5 points.
5)  If there is a bye, it will be fought by a bye fighter, it will be a destructive bye, and the points will be scored as above.

The paired cards are held by the Marshal (having been given to him by a list runner) and given to the combatants to return to the MoL table with the bout outcome.  The fighters MUST show up at the MoL table and report their bout outcome.

We tally the scores as the day processes.

At the the end of the tourney we will have: A heavy list winner, a Rapier list winner, and a winning team.


Filed under: Events, Fencing, Heavy List Tagged: Ladies of the Rose

Emily Guendelsberger, reporting from Pennsic 43

SCAtoday.net - Wed, 2014-09-03 07:40

"I am surprised to find that my iPhone is able to give me directions to Cariadoc’s Path and Fletcher Road, an intersection that only exists two weeks out of the year. It’s like finding Brigadoon on GPS," writes Emily Guendelsberger in an article for the Philadelphia CityPaper. Guendelsberger attended her first Pennsic in 2014 as a guest of the Barony of Bhakail.

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Categories: SCA news sites

691 artifacts seized in Spain returned to Colombia

History Blog - Tue, 2014-09-02 22:13

A trove of 691 pre-Colombian artifacts seized by the Spanish police in a 2003 drug raid has finally been repatriated to Colombia after more than a decade of legal limbo. It’s one of the largest lots of illegally exported artifacts ever returned to Colombia, and it’s of inestimable value because of the breadth of cultures, periods and artistic styles represented. There are examples from all of the major civilizations to have flourished in Colombia over the course of 10 centuries before the arrival of the Spanish.

Eighty percent of the artifacts are clay pieces smaller than 12 inches high. These small pieces are disproportionately significant because there are very few examples in the warehouses of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), the National Museum of Colombia or in the collections of the archaeological parks of St. Augustine and Tierradentro. The other 20% are larger pieces including funerary urns and vases from St. Augustine, anthropomorphic figures, faces and masks from the archaeological site of Tumaco, ocarinas, whistles and other musical instruments shaped like snail shells from the Nariño region, whistles from Tayrona, ceramic vessels and bowls from the Calima region, stamps, rollers and human figurines from the Quimbaya area, metal votive objects (tunjos) from the Muisca culture, and an unusual collection of tubular glasses and ceramics from Tolima.

These treasures were part of a group of 894 artifacts from different countries confiscated 11 years ago in Operation Florence, a police operation against drug cartels and money laundering. The authorities gave the artifacts to the Museum of the Americas in Madrid for proper safekeeping. Space was made for the vast collection in the museum stores with constant climate control and high security. The museum director and his team of experts began cataloging and conserving the pieces in 2005. The process of identifying each artifact and determining a place of origin took years.

When careful analysis proved that the bulk of the collection came from Colombia, the museum informed the Spanish Police who in turn notified the Colombian Embassy. That was in 2011. The artifacts weren’t immediately returned because it wasn’t clear who owned them. Apparently they were smuggled out of Colombia by a man who laundered money for drug cartels. They don’t appear to have been stolen from museums or archaeological sites, not that anyone can prove, at any rate, so there was some question of whether a previous legitimate owner should get them back or if, as confiscated proceeds of illegal activity they were now property of the state under Spain’s version of asset forfeiture laws.

Colombia formally applied for repatriation of the artifacts to the Spanish cultural and law enforcement authorities in 2012. While the wheels of justice were slowly grinding, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History sent an archaeologist who examined the seized objects in the museum. His findings confirmed those of the Museum of the Americas’ experts that 691 of the 894 pieces seized originated in Colombia.

On June 24th of this year, a Spanish High Court ruled that the artifacts were Colombian cultural patrimony and thus should be immediately repatriated. The police picked up the 681 pieces from the museum and delivered them to the Colombian government via its ambassador in Madrid. The formal exchange being done, the Colombian ambassador asked the Museum of the Americas to keep them while arrangements were made for their return. An ICANH expert was on site to assess condition and help with the painstaking process of packing fragile artifacts for shipment across the Atlantic.

On Monday representatives from both countries took part in a repatriation ceremony in Bogotá.

The deputy attorney general of Colombia, Jorge Fernando Perdomo, said that after seeing these works “the efforts made by the entities” to recover the archaeological treasure give them added value.

“We have repatriated a museum which was abroad and which returns to Colombia to strengthen the historic identity of the country”, he said.

Perdomo thanked the Spanish government for the police work involved in seizing the items and for their return.

The director of the Colombian Anthropology and History Institute, Fabian Sanabria, announced that it was preparing an extensive exhibition for next year when the artifacts are to go on display.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Sackler Gallery presents Persian Calligraphy exhibit

SCAtoday.net - Tue, 2014-09-02 18:40

The Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. will present Nasta'liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy beginning September 13, 2014. The exhibit will showcase Persian calligraphy from the 14th-16th centuries.

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Categories: SCA news sites

All Things Scribal – CANCELED

East Kingdom Gazette - Tue, 2014-09-02 11:37

The Barony of Concordia of the Snows (Albany, NY) regrets to announce that due to conditions beyond their control, the upcoming All Things Scribal event scheduled for September 20th has been canceled.

Please consult the East Kingdom Events Calendar for a list of other events taking place that weekend.


Filed under: Events, Official Notices Tagged: All Things Scribal, Cancellation

Proposed Corpora Language Change

SCAtoday.net - Tue, 2014-09-02 07:15

The SCA Board of Directors seeks commentary on a proposed Corpora language change recommended by the Laurel Sovereign at Arms.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Rediscovered Ur skeleton on public view at Penn Museum

History Blog - Mon, 2014-09-01 21:39

The 6,500-year-old skeleton excavated from Ur in 1929 and rediscovered last month in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum is now on public view. It was moved from storage on Saturday to the museum’s In the Artifact Lab, glass-walled conservation lab that gives visitors the chance to see conservators at work. The focus is usually the conservation of mummies and artifacts from the museum’s Egyptian collection, but special projects from other departments also get a turn in the Artifacts Lab.

The Ur skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

Conservators estimate that the skeleton will be ready to move to the case by late September (date to be posted on the Museum website when known); the skeleton will stay on view through Saturday, October 18, when the Museum celebrates International Archaeology Day with a host of family activities and a chance to visit the new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials.

Museum visitors will have the opportunity to ask questions of the researchers. Every day through September 14th, a physical anthropology expert will be available from 11:00 until noon and 1:00 to 2:00 PM to answer questions. From September 16th through October 18th, an expert will be available Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 2:00 PM.

I love Penn Museum’s emphasis on giving their visitors immersive experiences (Touch Tours for the blind, 40 Winks with the Sphinx sleepovers for kids). The discovery of the Ur skeleton generated a lot of interest, so they set up a way for people to see him and learn more about him while conservators take care of business.

Speaking of learning more about the skeleton, Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager who found the reference to the skeleton in the division lists of Sir Leonard Woolley’s Ur excavation, has written a fascinating blog entry about the history of the dig and the excavation of the skeleton. This is my favorite part:

[Woolley] covered the bones in wax, just as he had done with the later skulls in the Royal Cemetery, and almost certainly thought of this as a display item rather than a study item. That is probably why he sent it to Philadelphia. We didn’t have a Physical Anthropology Section at the time, but a representative sample of all Ur material was to be sent to each museum, and the human remains had mostly gone to London. [...]

Nearly 85 years later, not only does Penn have an excellent Physical Anthropology Section, we also have new techniques for analyzing the fragile and wax-coated skeleton, such as CT scans, DNA testing, and isotope testing. By reconnecting a skeleton to its records, we have reestablished a key portion of the history of this person and he can now help us to learn about his culture in ways that his excavators never predicted.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Protecting Ashby St Ledgers

SCAtoday.net - Mon, 2014-09-01 17:55

Tiny, deserted, medieval villages across the English landscape have been disappearing, moving English Heritage to recommend historical designation to preserve what is left. Now the government of Northamptonshire is taking action by proclaiming such villages "scheduled monuments."

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Categories: SCA news sites

Practice in the Park Photos

SCAtoday.net - Mon, 2014-09-01 13:31

Master Caelin on Andrede reports that he has posted an album of photos from the Barony of Elfsea's June 5, 2014 Practice in the Park. The photos are available to view on Flickr.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Newest Issue of Ars Scientia Orientalis Available

East Kingdom Gazette - Mon, 2014-09-01 08:45

Ars Scientia Orientalis, the Arts and Sciences Quarterly publication of the East Kingdom is now available.  This issue has articles about silkworms, glass beads, Google Earth, and stained glass.

There are currently difficulties hosting it at the Ars Scientia Orientalis website, so it is available here.


Filed under: Arts and Sciences Tagged: a&s, publications

Roman and Iron Age coins found together in Derbyshire cave

SCAtoday.net - Mon, 2014-09-01 07:05

1st century Roman coins and coins from Iron Age tribes should not be found together, but that is excatly what happened recently when a local found the treasure buried in a Derbyshire, England cave. (photo)

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Categories: SCA news sites

Bison return to National Zoo for 125th anniversary

History Blog - Sun, 2014-08-31 22:31

You may have seen the famous picture of American bison who lived behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the late 19th century. I posted it a few years ago when the Castle was damaged in an earthquake just because it’s such a charming image. What I didn’t realize at the time is that those incongruously located bison played a pivotal role in the creation of the National Zoo.

In 1886, the Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist William Temple Hornaday spent three months taking a census of bison numbers by corresponding with ranchers, hunters, zookeepers, and military officers all over the country. It was widely known that the situation was dire, that all the great herds were gone, indiscriminately slaughtered by hunters, that from the 10-15 million that once roamed the range, maybe a few thousand individuals remained in the more inaccessible regions of the northern range. Hornaday’s research found that extinction loomed even closer, that instead of thousands there were probably fewer than 300 head of wild bison left in the entire United States.

Spencer F. Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, concerned that the National Museum only had a handful of ratty skins, a skeleton, a couple of heads and assorted bones in its collection, agreed to send Hornaday on a mission to secure enough specimens before there were none left to be had. Hornaday’s brief was to kill between 80 and 100 bison, possibly a third of the entire surviving population, to ensure the Smithsonian, smaller museums and future museums not yet in existence would have specimens to display and study when the bison were extinct.

This is a passage from a letter Hornaday wrote to Baird in December of 1886 reporting on the team’s success:

I consider that we have been extremely lucky in finding a sufficient number of buffalo where it was supposed by people generally that none existed. Our “outfit” has been pronounced by old buffalo hunters “The luckiest outfit that ever hunted buffalo in Montana,” and the opinion is quite generally held that our “haul” of specimens could not be equaled again in Montana by anybody, no matter what their resources for the reason that the buffalo are not there. We killed very nearly all we saw and I am confident there are not over thirty-head remaining in Montana, all told. By this time next year the cowboys will have destroyed about all of this remnant. We got in our Exploration just in the nick of time, — the last day in the evening, so to speak, and I do not hesitate to say that I am really rejoiced over the fact that we have been successful in securing the specimens we needed so urgently.

I understand his perspective — hunters would have killed those bison anyway, so this way they were preserved for posterity at least — but my modern sensibilities can’t help but find the impulse to conserve by destruction contradictory.

William Temple Hornaday didn’t stop there, however. He became a powerful advocate for the wild bison, realizing he had to at least try to prevent the total annihilation of the noble beast. He actually brought back a live bison, a calf he named Sandy, from his 1886 hunt, but Sandy only lived a few months. Hornaday got the idea for a national zoo and wrote to Baird proposing it. Baird was very ill and would soon pass away, so his assistant Professor George Brown Goode, appointed acting secretary until a permanent replacement could be found, picked up the mantle.

In the fall of 1887, Goode created the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum and made Hornaday its curator. Their plan was to test the public’s interest in a zoo in the capital. If people were into the test run, getting the necessary legislation passed for a full-on national zoo would be much more likely. Hornaday went off on another field trip to assemble some actual living animals and came back with 15 American natives: one cinnamon bear, one white-tailed deer, one Columbia black-tailed deer, five prairie dogs, a Cross fox, a mule deer, two badgers, a red fox, and two spotted lynx. He set up a rather rickety group of paddocks and sheds on the National Mall and Field of Dreams-like, people came.

The Smithsonian’s mini-zoo was an instant success. Crowds flocked to see the live animals, and donors from President Grover Cleveland (he donated a golden eagle that had been given to him as a Christmas gift) to wealthy collectors quickly increased the complement of animals. In December of 1887, Hornaday wrote to Goode proposing that they obtain a nucleus of a bison herd to breed them in captivity without diluting the genes by mating them with domestic cattle (something that had been happening on ranches for years) or damaging the line by in-breeding.

In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum, one or both, take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes. Having been spared the misfortune, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, of being left without a series of skins and skeletons of the species suitable for the wants of the National Museum, it now seems necessary for us to assume the responsibility of forming and preserving a herd of live buffaloes which may, in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.

To purchase the nucleus herd would be expensive, and space was going to be an issue sooner rather than later. Hornaday’s dream would become closer to reality shortly when frontier surgeon and Indian Agent Dr. Valentine Trant McGillycuddy donated a breeding pair of bison and two of their calves (one male, one female). That wasn’t enough for a breeding program, but it was a great start.

By the spring of 1888, the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum had 172 animals in its charge. The paddocks and shanties around the Smithsonian Castle could not handle the burgeoning population, and Hornaday turned his considerable energies to Congress. A Senate bill was drafted in May of 1888 proposing that $200,000 be spent buying 166 acres of Rock Creek Park for a national zoo. Hornaday testified before the House Appropriations Committee, and although his testimony was well received, a few squeaky wheels had a problem with the proposed bill. Democrat Thomas Stockdale of Mississippi told the press that a national zoo “would be of no use to the poor who come to Washington to visit the last of the buffaloes,” and the idea “does not sound like republicanism. It echoes like royalty.” The bill was defeated soundly with 36 votes in favor, 56 against and one abstention.

So the Smithsonian’s Mall zoo had to keep making do for the foreseeable future. In December of 1888, they were forced to decline a most wonderful offer from Buffalo Bill Cody of 18 bison, the third largest private collection in the world, because they didn’t have the room for them. The tragic loss proved to be a public relations victory for the zoo since everyone was bummed at the missed opportunity. Three months later, on March 2, 1889, Grover Cleveland signed the bill establishing a National Zoo which had passed the House by a vote of 131 to 98.

That wasn’t the end of the struggle. Hornaday had to fight for his vision against his new boss, Samuel Pierpont Langley, and for funding with Congress. He secured the funding, but he couldn’t persuade Langley to go along with his plans for how the zoo should be designed and operated (Hornaday wanted naturalistic enclosures that flowed with the landscape, two entrances, full public access; Langley did not). Hornaday resigned later in 1889 but kept on fighting for the conservation of the bison. His passionate advocacy took published form in his highly influential 1889 book The Extermination of the American Bison. The National Zoo opened to the public on April 30th, 1891.

Five years later, William Temple Hornaday got another chance to build a zoo from the ground up. The New York Zoological Society appointed him creator and director of what would become the Bronx Zoo. He remained its director until 1926. He continued to lobby tirelessly for the conservation of the American bison and for other endangered species. Today there are 30,000 bison in conservation herds in national parks, zoos and protected areas. There are half a million in commercial herds.

Now, 125 years after their impending extinction drove the creation of a national zoo, American bison are back at the National Zoo.

 

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History