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Swansea remembers its medieval past

SCAtoday.net - Sun, 2014-10-26 15:43

Officials in Swansea, Wales are trying to bring the city's medieval past to life for citizens and visitors by installing street markers pinpointing major sites in the town. Cemlyn Davies, of the BBC, reports. (video)

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Categories: SCA news sites

New Event Concept Allows Easterners to Explore Research in a Novel Way.

East Kingdom Gazette - Sun, 2014-10-26 12:30

On Saturday October 25, in Carolingia, over 70 Easterners participated in a new way to hold an event. There was a autocrat, gate, classes, even a musician playing in the social hall throughout the day. There was even a dayboard, unconventional as it was. (Those who pre-registered had the option of ordering a burrito lunch catered in) What there wasn’t, was garb, court, or people in persona.

Autocrat Lady Aildreda de Tamworth has spent a lot of time talking with people over the last year or so about how the current Arts and Sciences model works really well for some subjects, and less well for others. Most of what we do at events and in persona is based on finished products, and competition. She learned from others that was what missing, what people truly wanted, was a place to talk about process, a place to talk about what went wrong, what they did not understand, where to go next. The idea came up again and again. What if we talked like researchers?

A member of the tech team, Baroness Imigla Venture, sets up a slideshow for a presenter.

The concept for Voyages of Discovery was born. A non-garb event, run like a research conference. With the help of Lady Eadgyth aet Staeningum, the Massachusetts Convention Fandom Inc loaned the event projectors and screens, Baron Colin Ursell loaned computers as well as ran the technology team that helped all of the presenters use the equipment to help share their work.

The staff also assembled a team to put together and run a research library, staffed throughout the day by reference consultants, many who work as modern librarians or researchers.

There was an impressive collection of books on many topics of interest to Scadians, organized by subject. A great moment occurred when one attendee, who had brought a book in Russian for the great pictures of iconography, discovered that one of the reference assistants in fact spoke and read Russian fluently. They spent much of the afternoon translating the explanations of each photo on sticky notes.

There was a slate of classes on topics varying from Geometric Art in the Renaissance to Medieval Mortuary Rolls, Persian Plants, and the effect on volcanos on medieval weather. Some of the topics deeply benefitted from the technology available. Others were sort of meta-topics, hard to talk about at a traditional SCA event, such as Mistress Lakshmi’s discussion on adopting another culture.

In addition to the classes and reference library, the other new concept was that of a poster session. Researchers used tri-fold boards used most often for science fairs to present information on their works in progress, show their process, and share research.  Don Donovan Shinnock presented his work on the similarities and differences between the fencing masters Capo Ferro and Fabris. In addition to his poster, throughout the day he modeled the two different styles.

Mistress Nataliia Anastasiia Evgenova Sviatoslavina vnuchka presented a poster on her process in creating a 15th century paintbrush for illumination, which included her works in progress as well as her finished paintbrushes available for people to try out.

Throughout the day, people had nothing but compliments for this style of event. Many described it as a “rabbit-hole event” People started with one idea or topic, and stumbled down the rabbit-hole through others, moving to different conversations, or running to the research room to check out a new topic they hadn’t considered.

Her Excellency Imigla Venture, Baroness of Carolingia, was excited to leave her coronet and regalia at home, saying that, “This type of event was much less stressful to prepare for, making it much easier to truly focus on the Science aspect.” Don Donovan echoed this, saying, “Without all the other responsibilities of a normal event, we really get to just sit around and geek.” Many others appreciated the conference-like name badges, which had both SCA and modern names on them, helping people connect names to faces and research.

Countess Marguerite inghen Lachlan also held one of her discussion salons, which was perfectly suited for this concept, as they are designed to be regalia and precedence-free discussions of meta-SCA issues. This one discussed the responsibility and feasibility of citing sources and doing research within an SCA context.

As the event ended, many echoed the sentiment that the event be repeated again. People left enthused, ready to begin new avenues of research, and with fresh ideas on how to implement what they learned in a day to day SCA context.


Filed under: Arts and Sciences, Events Tagged: events, research

Madison, Wisconsin: Hub of geekery and activism

SCAtoday.net - Sun, 2014-10-26 08:20

What is it about Madison, Wisconsin that attracts passionate followers of such geek genres as gaming, steampunk and the SCA, and why do such folk become politically active? In a feature article for Isthmus the Paper, Julia Burke interviews gamers and con attendees about their culture and activism.

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Categories: SCA news sites

13-angled stone found in Inca hydraulic system

History Blog - Sat, 2014-10-25 22:39

Archaeologists exploring a stretch of the Inca trail network of Qhapaq Ñan that passes through the archaeological site of Incahuasi have discovered a stone cut with 13 angles. The trail is vast, covering 30,000 kilometers and crossing six countries. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site this June, which has drawn new attention to the network from researchers, including the section in Incahuasi. While investigating the trail, the archaeological team found a hydraulic system with two masonry fountains connected to canals carved out of the mountain rock. It was one of those fountains that has a large 13-angled cut stone in the center.

Inca masonry is famous for its finely hewn polygonal stones that fit together without mortar like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Even today, half a millennium after they were constructed, many of these dry walls are still joined so perfectly you can’t pass a piece of paper between stones. The variety of shapes and precision cutting provided exceptional seismic resistance, hence their longevity even in earthquake-prone areas.

One particular polygonal stone has become a Peruvian icon: the 12-angled stone in a wall on Hatun Rumiyoc Street in Cusco. The wall is all that remains of the palace of Inca Roca, sixth Sapa Inca (ruler) of the Kingdom of Cusco, and the Stone of Twelve Angles has become a hugely popular tourist attraction. Its unique shape features in logos from beer to railroads.

The fame of the Hatun Rumiyoc stone lends a special cachet to the discovery of a stone with 13 angles. The city of Incahuasi was built in the mid-15th century by Túpac Yupanqui, the 10th Sapa Inca, to serve as a military and administrative center of the empire he expanded south along the coast. He called it New Cusco and deliberately evoked the power and glamour of the great Inca capital by building a smaller version of its monumental structures and planned grid of streets and squares.

The dry, subtropical desert climate required the construction of extensive canal and irrigation systems for agricultural purposes. Incahuasi is 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) above sea level and was strategically located next to the Viscacha River, the water source for irrigation of the whole valley. Two mountain springs fed the fountains. The water then traveled through the canal system carved from the mountain rock in zig-zag, straight sections and waterfalls that slowed down the flow of water on its descent to the Viscacha.

Archaeologists believe the water systems had more than just a practical use. They also held ritual significance. In Andean cultures, bodies of water were considered sacred places of origin. The Incas promoted this notion, emphasizing the symbolic importance of water management as a defining standard for community membership. In Incahuasi, the canal system invoked multiple sacred origins: the mountain springs feeding the fountains, the departure point of the Viscacha to water the valley, which, once the river descends to the coast, becomes an important tributary of the Pisco River.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dorchester garden produces wealth of medieval pottery

SCAtoday.net - Sat, 2014-10-25 20:12

Rosemary Maw's gardening has produced more than just beautiful flowers. Her home, The Old Manor in Stratton, three miles from Dorchester, England, has produced over 100 historical artifacts including "over 150 bottle fragments, almost 20 pieces of medieval jugs, and extensive cobble and flint foundations" from its back garden.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Green Vikings

SCAtoday.net - Sat, 2014-10-25 12:35

Artifacts unearthed from an 11th century Viking settlement near Cork, Ireland show evidence that the settlers were good at recycling and land reclamation. A new report, Archaeological Excavations at South Main Street 2003-2005 by Ciara Brett and Maurice F Hurley, has been published by the Cork City Council.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Restoration on unique Medusa mosaic almost finished

History Blog - Fri, 2014-10-24 22:46

The only known surviving opus sectile mosaic of Medusa is finally being restored five years after its discovery in the ancient Odeon theater of Kibyra, in southwest Turkey’s Burdur Province. The 1,800-year-old masterpiece of the mosaic arts was unearthed during an archaeological excavation in 2009, but on the advice of Culture and Tourism Ministry experts was quickly covered with five layers of sand and gravel to preserve from the elements it until proper treatment could be arranged.

At 36 feet in diameter and 14 feet at the widest point, it’s the largest mosaic still in situ in Anatolia. It is almost entirely intact, with an estimate 95% of its thin marble tiles still in place. Authorities are keen to keep it in its original context so visitors can enjoy the rare pleasure of seeing it the same way the ancients did rather than removed from its orchestra pit semi-circle and placed in a museum. The Kibyra Odeon could seat 3,600 people and was used for musical and theatrical events as well as serving as legal court and legislative chamber during the cold months when its roof made it the most comfortable structure in town suitable for public use.

Last year the Medusa mosaic was uncovered for the first time since its discovery to allow conservators to perform a detailed feasibility study. This year, the Culture and Tourism Ministry funded the restoration based on the recommendations in last year’s report. Regional archaeologists are working with an Istanbul conservation company to restore the mosaic. They’ve been working on it for two months and expect to continue for another month.

According to Düzgün Tarkan from the archaeology department of Mehmet Akif Ersoy University in Burdur, the mosaic has survived some very hard times.

He said they believed that the mosaic had suffered from a large fire in the ancient era. “In its original, it was covered with a wooden roof. This is why we believe that the timbers that fell during the fire burned the mosaic for days. The marble pieces that form the mosaic received great damage. Now we are merging them and the broken pieces are being attached to the mosaic.”

You can see in the images from last year’s study that there are areas where the opus sectile marble veneers are in fragments. That’s apparently the result of this devastating days-long fire that took down the wooden roof that once covered the Odeon. Some of the marble plaques that characterize the opus sectile style (as opposed to the small, regular squares of the opus tessellatum style) are just a single millimeter thick. It defies belief that all those shards remained in place so archaeologists could painstakingly piece them back together and reinstall them on site. Clearly Medusa’s petrifying visage really did protect her.

Once the mosaic is stabilized, it will be covered with a layer of glass (or a transparent material of some kind) to protect it from grubby tourist feet and hands, bad weather and all manner of other potential damage sources. That way visitors to the Odeon will be able to walk on Medusa’s face without hurting her.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Podcasting the Middle Ages

SCAtoday.net - Fri, 2014-10-24 15:12

The Medieval Archives Podcast vault, maintained by the Archivist (Gary) includes a comprehensive list of topics of interest to those who study the Middle Ages. The podcasts are available for download or through RSS subscription or iTunes.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Missive from the New Kingdom Rapier Marshal

East Kingdom Gazette - Fri, 2014-10-24 11:02

“Unto the mighty East Kingdom do I, Don Frasier MacLeod send greetings,

As many of you know by now I have been selected to take the reins of the Kingdom Rapier Marshal’s position. I would like to start by thanking Don Caine Ramsey for his years of service and guidance, you have earned a well deserved rest my friend.

Quite a few questions have been floating around, so I’ll try to answer a few of them. As a brief introduction, I have been in the Society for 25 years, with Rapier my primary focus in those years. I have held Rapier-related offices in two separate Kingdoms, both here in the East (my home Kingdom) and in AEthelmearc, where I served briefly as KRM before moving home to the East.

Second, the question of Rapier Spears. Rapier Spears will remain as they are now in this Kingdom. I have no plans to legalize them for any sort of use in the near future. I have a Rapier Spear Committee with which I will be working closely to examine these new weapons to determine their viability to our game. Beyond that, as I have stated, they will remain as they are.

Third, I have been asked about my Deputy position. I have chosen my Deputy Kingdom Rapier Marshal, and that is Don Donovan Shinnock. I have discussed this position with Donovan and he has expressed a willingness to step into the role and I am happy to have him.

Lastly, my contact information should be updated as of the December issue of Pikestaff. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail or the phone number provided if you have any questions or concerns. I look forward to the next several years with great anticipation.

In Service,

Don Frasier MacLeod, Kingdom Rapier Marshal”


Filed under: Fencing, Official Notices, Tidings

Medieval site with a royal connection

SCAtoday.net - Fri, 2014-10-24 09:55

Archaeologists in York, England will have the rare opportunity to investigate a site which has lain undisturbed for nearly 500 years. The Hidden Guildhall investigation will focus on riverside property once the site of the medieval friary visited by the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Replica of Vasa bronze cannon shot

History Blog - Thu, 2014-10-23 22:23

In late 2012, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home of the beautiful but unstable flagship of the Swedish fleet that sank a mile from the shore on its maiden voyage in 1628, put together a team to recreate one of the ship’s 24-pounder bronze cannons. Although Vasa went down in ignominy before it had a chance to make a name for itself, the light cannon that became known as the Vasa gun would be adopted all branches of the Swedish military as the standard artillery piece during the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden was the world’s largest exporter of cannon in the 17th century, and other European countries developed their own versions of the Vasa gun, so learning more about this particular weapon illuminates a far broader stage than just the ship or Swedish naval warfare.

The aim of the project was to make an accurate copy of the cannon and its accessories (mount, ammunition, powder, etc) and then fire it on range. The experiment would be documented with film, audio recordings, doppler radar and pressure monitoring to provide a wide range of data on the ballistic and tactical capabilities of the Vasa gun. Because Vasa was recovered in such excellent condition thanks to the cold, woodworm-inhospitable waters of the Baltic Sea, it was possible for the team to recreate every element of the weapon system, not just the barrel which is the only part that usually survives.

It took almost two years for the project to get to the firing stage. Designing and building the molds and fittings, testing the pour with an iron version first, composing the proper alloy, casting and curing the final product, was no small task. No detailed was spared to make it an exact replica, right down to the decorative motifs on the outside of the gun. The bronze 24-pounder was cast in November of last year. It is ten feet long, weighs 1.5 tons and the alloy is made of around 93% copper, 4-5% tin, and trace amounts of zinc and lead.

Here is video of the casting of the cannon at the foundry last November. The gentleman with the impressive beard is Tom Ward, a Boston sculptor and Fulbright scholar who has been documenting the creation of the replica in an outstanding blog on the Vasa Museum website which I highly recommend reading last page to first so you can see the insane amounts of work that went into this ambitious project:

It took another 11 months after that to get the cannon in proper firing order. On October 2nd, 2014, a Vasa gun fired for the first time in nearly four centuries. In this proofing run, the cannon shot four rounds, the largest of which used 3.3 kilos of powder to generate 10,400 psi of breech pressure and a muzzle velocity of 399 meters per second or mach 1.17. The ball doesn’t beat the speed of sound for long, however. Exponential drag slows it down very quickly.

On Wednesday, October 22nd, the official trials began, witnessed by 200 journalists, museum staff and members of the armed forces.

In this Swedish language video, you can see the cannon being muzzle loaded, details of the replica section of the side of Vasa‘s hull used for target practice, a nice glimpse of the gun and recoil after firing before the entire scene is obscured with smoke, and a close view of the hole left in the target. It’s quite a small hole, really, but it goes all the way through.

Here is film of the cannon being fired at different frame rates:

And here is the proverbial money shot, a detailed view of the cannon being fired at the target, a close-up of the hit, and the impact of the ball on the wood recorded on high speed film so when it’s played back you see every shard and splinter create almost a loose tornado effect. So, so cool.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Event update: Musicians’ Day

East Kingdom Gazette - Thu, 2014-10-23 14:50

The Crown Province of Østgarðr will be welcoming musicians from throughout the Kingdom to their Musicians’ Day event on November 21st – 23rd.

The event organizers would like the populace to be aware of the following additional information which is not, at present, available on the event announcement:

Send reservations to

William Bornander
8 Clark Place
Port Chester, NY 10573

Make checks payable to “SCA-NY / Ostgardr”

Full and up-to-date information can be found on the Østgarðr website.


Filed under: Events Tagged: Ostgardr

Medieval cloister walls found at Merton Priory dig

SCAtoday.net - Thu, 2014-10-23 13:02

Merton Priory, in Surrey, England, was founded in 1117 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. In recent years, archaeologists have been excavating the foundations of the Merton Priory Chapter House and have uncovered the priory's medieval cloister walls. (photos)

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Categories: SCA news sites

Successor to the East Kingdom Marshal of Fence Announced

East Kingdom Gazette - Thu, 2014-10-23 12:30

Don Frasier MacLeod in a photo from the Queen’s fashion challenge at Birka earlier this year.

Sir Osgkar of the Wood, Earl Marshal of the East has announced that Don Fraiser MacLeod has been chosen to succeed Don Caine Ramsey as East Kingdom Marshal of Fence. Sir Oskar described the choice as difficult, but expressed his confidence that Don Frasier was the correct choice to continue to guide the rapier community in the East and help keep it dynamic and growing.

The transition in the office will occur at Crown Tourney in Stonemarche on November 1st.

Don Caine has expressed his gratitude to the rapier community at large for their support over the past three years.  “It has been my sincerest joy and pleasure to serve you all” he said in an email.

 


Filed under: Fencing Tagged: EKMOF, fencing

Lost Louvre portrait of Henry III found at auction

History Blog - Wed, 2014-10-22 22:33

A late 16th portrait of King Henry III of France that has been missing from the Louvre since World War II was discovered about to go up for auction in Paris. A small work at eight by five inches, the painting was valued by the Ader-Nordmann auction house at only €400-€600 ($505-$758). One week before the October 17th auction, Pierre-Gilles Girault, assistant curator of the Royal Château de Blois, found out about the sale from a Henry III keyword alert he’d set up on a public auction search site.

The Château de Blois played a dramatic role in the bloody intrigues of Henry’s turbulent reign, and in 2010 the museum held an exhibition dedicated to the period, Renaissance celebrations and crimes, the Court of Henry III. When Girault saw the painting for sale, he recognized its rare iconography of Henry on his knees at the foot of the Cross and its unusual medium — oil on paper mounted on panel — as a work he had seen in a 1930s-era catalogue of the Louvre collection. The size was slightly different, however, so he thought it might be a contemporary copy. The museum was still interested in acquiring it to expand its Henry III materials. Even a copy of a realistic portrait of a king, whose life and reign were mired in Wars of Religion, depicted in such a heavy-handedly devout posture could well be worth the small purchase price. There are very few extant realistic portraits of Henry III, and they’re standard court paintings. This one ties Henry directly into the defining issue of his reign and of 16th century France.

Although as Duke of Anjou the Catholic Henry had played a major role fighting the Protestants in the French Wars of Religion — he was the leader of the army, defeating Hugenots forces in several battles and besieging the Hugenot city of La Rochelle — when he became king after the death of his older brother Charles IX, he took a more practical approach. With the Protestant army led by his younger brother François, formerly Duke of Alençon and now Duke of Anjou, besieging Paris, in 1576 Henry signed he Edict of Beaulieu which granted the Hugenots freedom of religion and major political concessions.

Henry I, Duke of Guise, didn’t take kindly to that. He formed the Catholic League, a coalition of French Catholic societies supported by the Pope and Philip II of Spain, to apply military and political pressure in favor of the eradication of the Hugenots. His efforts were very successful. Henry III was forced to fight both Protestants and Catholics arrayed against him, and he just didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off. He was forced to roll back the concessions in the Edict of Beaulieu and Peace of La Rochelle and give the League everything it asked for, including that the king pay its troops. From the Treaty of Nemours in 1585 through the end of 1588, Henry was king in name only. For a short while the Duke of Guise even took Paris, forcing Henry III to flee to the royal palace at Blois in May of 1588.

With his marriage childless, Anjou dead and his presumptive heir now the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, Henry III had good reason to fear not just for his throne, but for his life. It was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in August of 1588 that weakened the Catholic League and emboldened Henry III. In September, Henry called a meeting of the Estates General at the Château de Blois. In December, he invited the Duke of Guise and his brother Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, to the council chamber. The Duke was directed to join Henry III in the adjoining bed chamber where he was set promptly set upon by Henry’s loyal bodyguards, the Forty-five, who stabbed him to death at the foot of the king’s bed. The next day, the Cardinal of Guise met a similar fate in the castle’s dungeon. Henry’s formidable mother Catherine de’ Medici, horrified at the assassinations, died two weeks later and was buried at Blois since Paris was still held by Guise’s men. (Her body was later moved to St. Denis and would ultimately suffer the fate of all the monarchs of France buried there when in 1793 a revolutionary mob looted the cathedral and threw all the royal remains in an unmarked mass grave.)

This is why the painting of Henry III that embeds him, monarchical ermines and all, praying on the ground with human bones in the center of the apex of Catholic iconography, the Crucifixion, held such interest for the Château de Blois museum. Chief curator Elisabeth Latrémolière, in accordance with standard museum acquisition protocols, sought out expert opinions on the piece. Girault emailed the Louvre’s 16th century art curator and received an immediate response even though it was Sunday. The Louvre sent its people to examine the painting in person, and on October 14th, they verified by comparing it to the sole known pre-loss photograph of the painting taken in 1925 that it was the original work, gone missing more than 70 years ago under mysterious circumstances.

Ader Nordmann immediately withdrew the work as soon as the Louvre experts authenticated it. It was being sold as part of the estate of an elderly woman; nobody had any idea how she had acquired it or what winding road took it from the Louvre to the auction. The painting will be returned to the Louvre posthaste, but Elisabeth Latrémollière hopes the museum will throw them a bone and lend them the portrait for display at the Château de Blois. After all, if it weren’t for the Blois curators, the painting would still be lost, an unknown budget purchase in someone’s private collection.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Damsels, Tree Bark and York/Jorvik: Medieval News Roundup

Medievalists.net - Wed, 2014-10-22 15:48
This week's roundup finds some stories on how York is promoting its connection to its Viking past, wonderful images of writing on tree bark from medieval Novgorod and the troubles of being a historian in Cambodia.

[View the story "Damsels, Tree Bark and York/Jorvik: Medieval News Roundup" on Storify]

Categories: History, SCA news sites

Barley malting oven found in Northampton, England

SCAtoday.net - Wed, 2014-10-22 14:20

A nearly perfectly-preserved barley malting oven from the 13th century has been discovered by archaeologists working on an excavation in Bridge Street, Northampton, England. The construction was found complete with char marks on the hearth. (photo)

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Categories: SCA news sites

Plague burial discovered in Barcelona

SCAtoday.net - Wed, 2014-10-22 10:49

Spain in the 14th century was one of the countries hardest hit by the Black Plague, yet no burial of plague victims had been discovered, until now. Recently archaeologists working on the Basilica of Sant Just i Pastor in Barcelona unearthed a burial of 120 bodies "packed like sardines" under the sacristy.

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Categories: SCA news sites

Missing head of Amphipolis sphinx found

History Blog - Tue, 2014-10-21 22:56

The hits just keep on coming at the Amphipolis tomb excavation. Archaeologists have crossed from the second chamber with the Persephone mosaic floor over the threshold into the third chamber. Lying just six inches on the other side of the marble threshold they found the decapitated head of one of the sphinxes that stands guard in the tomb’s entryway. There is some damage to the nose and lips, but otherwise the head is remarkably intact.

The head is about 24 inches high and depicts the serene visage of a beautiful woman. Her hair is long and wavy, falling over the left shoulder and tied around the head with a white band. Traces of red paint are visible to the naked eye in her hair. She has a column or pillar on her head, a shorter version of the architectural support the caryatids in chamber two sport on their heads, that would have abutted the stone arch at the entry. It’s a tight fit. At a glance, I’m not entirely persuaded that the head really does fit the sphinx — if you look at a photomontage the proportions seem off — but it’s impossible to draw any conclusions from images alone, so I’ll defer to the archaeologists on the ground.

The entire neck is still there, including the join area where it was ostensibly broken off the sphinx’s body. It could match the breaking point on the trunk of the eastern sphinx. Additional fragments of the wings of the sphinxes were also discovered around the head. How these pieces got inside the tomb especially in such great condition is a mystery. It seems too preservative to be vandalism, and why would a looter bother to move a head and wing fragments to the comparative safety of the interior?

Besides the head, archaeologists discovered the northern section of the marble threshold which is seven feet long and more than five wide. Dug into the marble are two deep curved depressions that experts believe once held metal rails that facilitated the movement of the heavy marble doors. The western wing of the door was also found, broken in two pieces. Limestone flooring is extant on both sides of the threshold. On the east side the wall intersecting with the floor appears to have collapsed. The west side of the floor has been damaged by falling blocks of limestone.

Those blocks will be removed over the next few days, clearing the way for archaeologists to continue the excavation of the third chamber, shoring up the roof and walls as they go, as they head towards the entry to the fourth chamber.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History

Dr. Livingstone’s beetles, I presume?

History Blog - Mon, 2014-10-20 22:34

First Darwin’s barnacles turned up in the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum. Now the Natural History Museum in London has discovered a collection of previously unknown beetle specimens gathered by Dr. David Livingstone during his Zambezi expedition of 1858–64. These are the only known surviving specimens collected by Livingstone on the chaotic history-making expedition to open up the Zambezi River to English trade and resource exploitation. Impassable rapids and waterfalls ensured his utter failure on that score, but the expedition was the first to reach and explore Lake Malawi.

The specimens were discovered by Max Barclay, the Natural History Museum’s Collections Manager of Coleoptera and Hymenoptera. He was doing a check of the museum’s vast stores as part of an effort to catalog some of the collection online when he found a wooden box containing 20 pinned beetles neatly labeled “Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone.”

Max Barclay comments, “The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest, oldest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, consulted every year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. The beetle collection alone includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries. To study them all will take a lifetime. I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day. These specimens are still valuable to science. Museum researchers use historical specimens to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world.”

The beetles were a bequest by Edward Young Western, a lawyer and dedicated amateur entomologist who left a large collection of 15,000 insect specimens to the Natural History Museum after his death in 1924. Museum researchers believe he acquired the box of beetles from one of the members of Livingstone’s expedition, perhaps Livingstone’s own brother Charles. The expedition had been funded by the government and David Livingstone considered all material collected to be government property, so the sale of these specimens had to be done on the quiet. Experts believe they were sold at a natural history auction in the 1860s.

They were easier to dispose of quietly because the specimens were never published. Although the Zambezi Expedition was considered an abject failure due to its escalating costs, high body count (David’s wife Mary died of malaria shortly after she joined her husband at Lake Malawi in 1862), prodigious rate of personnel being fired or quitting and, most importantly to the government, its failure to find a navigable river route to the interior, the scientific exploration was very successful. Physician and naturalist John Kirk (left the expedition in 1863), physician and botanist Charles James Meller and geologist Richard Thornton (fired by Livingstone) collected a great many specimens for study.

In David and Charles Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi, published in 1866, two years after the expedition was recalled, they laud John Kirk’s collecting work in particular, noting that he’s not listed as a co-author solely because they hope he will publish his own record.

He [Dr. Kirk] collected above four thousand species of plants, specimens of most of the valuable woods, of the different native manufactures, of the articles of food, and of the different kinds of cotton from every spot we visited, and a great variety of birds and insects, besides making meteorological observations, and affording, as our instructions required, medical assistance to the natives in every case where he could be of any use.

Charles Livingstone was also fully occupied in his duties in following out the general objects of our mission, in encouraging the culture of cotton, in making many magnetic and meteorological observations, in photographing so long as the materials would serve, and in collecting a large number of birds, insects, and other objects of interest The collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose.

Many of the new mammal, reptile and avian species found on the expedition were published in scientific journals and were very well received, but for some reason, the insects were neglected, leaving a hole through which 20 beetles could slip through into Edward Young Western’s hands. Because the Natural History Museum has such a massive insect collection, Livingstone’s beetles joined the teeming masses without anybody noticing.

Categories: Arts and Sciences, History