Kitchen of Shakespeare’s last home found

November 29th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the site of William Shakespeare’s last home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, have discovered the remains of the property’s kitchen. They have identified a fire hearth (the Tudor equivalent of an oven) and a cold pit (the fridge) and a brew house where the playwright’s staff would have made beer and preserved food by pickling and salting. They also found fragments of dishes and cups. The latest archaeological finds have made it possible to create accurate drawings of what New Place looked like in Shakespeare’s time.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has raised £5.25 million from sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore and redesign the site of New Place. The three sections of the property — Nash’s House, home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Nast built adjacent to the New Place home, the Knot Garden, a sunken garden inspired by Jacobean designs installed on the grounds after World War I, and the Great Garden, a former priory garden incorporated into the New Place property in the mid-16th century — will be refurbished and reconceived as a museum and garden dedicated to Shakespeare, his life, family and works. The archaeological surveys of the site are part of this program.

The house that would become known as New Place was originally built by Hugh Clopton, a wealthy mercer (a merchant specializing in the trade of imported luxury fabrics and dress accessories) who had made his fortune in London where he served terms as Sheriff and Lord Mayor. He was a proud native son and benefactor of Stratford-upon-Avon, rebuilding a guild chapel, replacing a rickety wooden bridge with a beautiful stone arch bridge and leaving provisions in his will for further improvements to the city along with funds to help support maidens, scholars and apprentice mercers. Even as he held important guild and municipal offices in London, in about 1483 Clopton had a new house built for himself in his hometown on Chapel Street. It was the second largest house in town.

The property stayed in the Clopton family until the mid-16th century when it passed to the recusant Catholic Underhill family. Shakespeare purchased the house and property including gardens, two barns and an orchard, from William Underhill on May 4th, 1597, for £120 in silver. It was a grand home, with impressively wide frontage, 20 rooms and 10 fireplaces, but by the time Shakespeare bought it, the house, which had been described by antiquary John Leland sixty years earlier as a “praty house of bricke and tymbre” was in “great ruyne and decay and unrepayred.” Renovations began immediately. Shakespeare’s wife Anne seems to have moved in full-time right away; William split his time between Statford and London for a while before moving permanently into New Place in 1610. There he planted the first mulberry tree in Stratford, according to legend with his own two hands.

The Bard lived there until his death on April 23rd, 1616. He bequeathed the property to his daughter Susanna Hall who lived there until her death in 1649. It then went to her daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth died in 1670. After her husband’s Thomas’ death in 1674, New Place was sold to Sir Edward Walker who in turn left it to his daughter, wife of Sir John Clopton. Thus by 1700, New Place once again belonged to the Clopton family. Sir John had it almost entirely rebuilt before 1702 for his son Hugh.

Sir Hugh Clopton took pride in the association of his family home with William Shakespeare. He opened New Place to visitors and told stories of questionable likelihood about finding epigrams scratched onto the windows by Shakespeare and his daughters (his only son, Hamnet, had died the year before they bought the house). The next owner would not be so genial.

Reverend Francis Gastrell, a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, bought the property from the Clopton estate in 1753. He had no interest in opening his home to literary pilgrims and was sick to death of people showing up at his house expecting to get a show the way they had in Sir Hugh’s day. In 1756, he chopped down the mulberry tree that was the focus of many a literary pilgrim’s attention thanks to the story that it had been planted by the Bard himself. In 1759, he got into a dispute with the city on whether he should pay the full tax rate or get a reduced rate because he lived part of the time in Lichfield. Vowing New Place would never be assessed again, he razed it to the ground.

Several depictions of New Place in the 18th century survive. Engraver and antiquary George Vertue visited Stratford in 1737. He sketched New Place and took notes describing the property as a two storey, half-timbered building with an attic, five gabled bays and a central gateway facing onto Chapel Street. Scholars now believe the Vertue sketch is not of the home itself, but of a gatehouse with servants’ quarters and a long gallery. There’s also an extant print of a drawing by Samuel Winter of the main house ca. 1759.

The New Place property was sold multiple times in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of it were sold piecemeal and became detached from the original property. What had once been the Great Garden became the Royal Shakespearean Theatre in 1829, but it didn’t even survive 50 years. Shakespeare enthusiast J.O. Halliwell launched a fundraising campaign in 1861 to acquire the full grounds of New Place. He cleared some parts of the property of its later construction and excavated the site in 1862 and 1863, finding parts of the original 15th century home and the 18th century rebuild. In 1872 the former Royal Shakespearean Theatre was demolished. The grounds were redesigned as a pleasure garden and in 1884, the entire New Place property was transferred the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Because the site is now a listed park and garden, so the Trust can’t just reconstruct the house as they think it was when Shakespeare lived there. Instead, they’ve designed an imaginative way to convey the important areas of the structure within the parameters of the garden. Brass lines in the ground will mark the footprint and key areas of the previous structures. Halliwell’s excavations will be of aid in this because he never had them backfilled which has helped archaeologists determine which part of the buildings were in which location and where else to dig to find undisturbed archaeological features. The garden will be re-landscaped with themes evoking Shakespeare.

The redesign was originally scheduled to be complete in time to commemorate the anniversary of William Shakespeare death in April of 2016, but the archaeological discoveries have pushed back the opening date to the summer.


Pre-Inca mummy remains found in Lima temple

November 28th, 2015

The remains of four mummies of the pre-Inca Ychsma people have been unearthed in the Huaca Pucllana temple in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, Peru. All of the mummies are of adults, three women, one man, buried in a seated posture. They were originally mummy bundles, wrapped in layers of textiles, straw and ropes then covered with mats. Today they are very decomposed, almost entirely skeletonized, with few of their organic grave goods extant. Next to them were found ceramic pots, mate’ drinking vessels and objects related to textile production (needles, yarn, woven fabric and more).

They were found at the top of the Great Pyramid, an impressive structure made of adobe and clay brick by the Lima culture between 200 and 650 A.D. as a religious and administrative center. Its bookshelf style construction in which bricks were placed side by side like books on a shelf with the outer ones leaning in made it earthquake resistant and when the Wari Empire took over the area in around 650 A.D., they continued to use the pyramid, burying their important dignitaries within its walls. Now it appears the Ychsma did the same.

Earlier evidence of Ychsma activity at the Great Pyramid was discovered in 1967 when offerings of anthropomorphic figurines were found at the foot of the western slop of the pyramid. A follow-up excavation revealed that the spot was used by the Ychsma to dry their crops. As farmers and weavers, they would leave offerings of their most significant products: packets of cotton and food jars filled with beans and maize. The discovery of burials at the top of the pyramid suggests stronger presence of the Ychsma in the area that would become Miraflores.

“Our hypothesis is that they were involved in politics, religion or of high status,” said archaeologist Mirella Ganoza. “This site was not chosen at random.”

Isabel Flores, director of the Museum of Site of Huaca Pucllana, notes that we may discover more about the remains and burial practices of the Ychsma when the remains are analyzed. The exact date of the burials will also hopefully be revealed by radiocarbon dating. The only date range we have now is 1000 to 1450 A.D., the known range of Ychsma presence in the area.

Before the city of Lima was founded by conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, it was a river valley populated by the Ychsma people who were one of two cultures who came to dominate central coastal Peru after the collapse of the Wari Empire around 1000 A.D. The Ychsma developed the Rímac and Lurín river valleys, modifying old Wari temples and building new ones of their own. When the area was conquered by the Inca under Emperor Túpac Inca Yupanqui in 1470, the Ychsma were absorbed into the Inca Empire and ceased to exist as a separate political and cultural group.


Frescoes torn from Paestum tomb walls found

November 27th, 2015

A group of five frescoes torn from the walls of a tomb in Paestum, southern Italy, have been found by the Carabinieri art theft squad. The frescoes date to around the 4th century B.C. and depict a warrior returning triumphant from battle on his horse followed by attendants, one of them driving a mule laden with spoils, and being greeted by the lady of the household and two of her servants. They originally adorned the tomb of a wealthy man of the indigenous southern Italian tribe of the Lucanians before looters got to them. Unfortunately, since the frescoes were brutally removed and smuggled into the netherworld of the antiquities trade, we don’t know which tomb they came from or anything about its contents that might give us more information about the tomb’s owner.

The slabs were discovered last May, 20 years after the seminal investigation that first alerted the art squad to their theft. Operation Geryon was launched by the Carabinieri in 1995 after the theft of eight Greek vases from a Castle of Melfi in south central Italy. A fatal accident ultimately broke the case, when dealer Pasquale Camera crashed his car and died. Highway police found Polaroids of what appeared to be freshly looted artifacts in Camera’s car. A subsequent search of his house which turned up hundreds more pictures and a paper trail a mile long which named names, leading to 70 more raids and the arrest of close to 20 people involved in the looted antiquities trade.

The frescoes were found locked in a bank in Campione d’Italia, a town in Lombardy just a few miles form the Swiss border, which is a shocking twist to the oft-told tale because usually the ill-gotten goods cross the border into Switzerland as soon as possible. The collector who was in illegal possession of them claimed he had no idea they were stolen. We’re to believe he saw five Lucanian fresco panels, each of them cracked and damaged in the same way across the middle, and didn’t realize those were the characteristic wounds left by smugglers when they broken the frescoes in half for easier illegal export.

The recovered paintings will be on display at the Historic Museum of the Carabinieri in Rome before moving to their permanent home at the Paestum Archaeological Museum on January 10th.

Paestum was a Greek colony founded around 600 B.C. 65 miles south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. They called it Poseidonia after Poseidon, god of the sea. The Lucanians conquered the city in the late 5th century B.C. and renamed it Paistos. The name was Latinized to Paestum when the Romans took control in 273 B.C. after their final defeat of King Pyrrhus of Epirus whom the Lucanians had sided with against Rome.

The Lucanians left behind hundreds of richly decorated tombs in necropoli around Paestum. They are and have long been a prime target for tombaroli, the Italian term for the grave robbers who, through chains of increasingly well-connected and well-paid dealers, supply the international antiquities market with archaeological treasures that auction houses and museums can pretend come from “a Swiss private collection.”

Browse this Flickr album for a marvelous collection of photographs of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the Paestum Archaeological Museum. The ones with men reclining at a symposium and the last picture of the diver are from the Tomb of Diver and are Greek, not Lucanian. The painting of the diver is unique in its iconography and is the most famous artifact in the museum, so much so that the silhouette of the man diving is the museum’s logo. Wikimedia has a great many pictures of Lucanian tomb frescoes from the museum as well.


7th century tavern with plates still on shelf found in Ephesus

November 26th, 2015

The Austrian Archeological Institute (OAI) has unearthed a 7th century Byzantine-era tavern in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus one mile southwest of the town of Selçuk, Turkey. The tavern was discovered by accident during work to protect one of the three main roads of the city, the Embolos (the OAI call it the Kuretenstraße), from landslides. In its heyday during the Roman imperial era, the road linked the Commercial Agora with the State Agora and ran through the valley between the two hills that framed the city. It was paved with marble slabs and decorative mosaics, lined with colonnades, funerary monuments to prominent citizens, public fountains, shops, a brothel and overlooked by luxury homes on the slopes. When those buildings collapsed from earthquakes, sacking and abandonment, the denuded hillsides became subject to erosion and landslides. In order to protect the archaeological remains of the city, the OAI team regularly monitors their condition and takes necessary measures to prevent landslides, like shoring up the slopes and building dry-stone retaining walls to make the site safe and legible for visitors.

They were building just such a wall when they unearthed the tavern. While the street was dotted with many shops, archaeologists were able to identify this one as a tavern because they found an exceptional collection of more than 100 vessels — cups, bowls, plates, amphorae — in perfect condition. Archaeologists even found a shelf with dishes stacked on it ready for service. Low benches, chairs and small marble tables (probably recycled from earlier buildings in ruin) were also found.

According to Sabine Ladstätter, OAI’s excavation director of Ephesus, the discovery increases our understanding of the road as a community lifeline and center of communication in late antiquity when the once-dominant city was in steep decline. The main focus of public, social and economic life in the city moved from the Agorae of old to the streets and the businesses that lined them. The tavern served local food and wines as well as beverages from further afield. The amphorae were found to contain local grape varieties and ones from Gaza and Cilicia, which means that trade was still active enough and there was enough money in the citizens’ hands to make it worthwhile for the pub to stock premium brands.

The tavern’s fate was indicated by coins found in a highly destructive fire layer. A greater than average number of large denomination coins were discovered in the tavern, left behind in a fire so severe that people didn’t even bother trying to recover valuable cash in an era when monetary circulation dropped precipitously to a tenth of its previous quantity and coin was scarce. This was during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641 A.D.), who for years was engaged in fighting off a Persian invasion. The Persians sacked Ephesus in 616, two years after an earthquake had brought down a significant portion of the city. Then the forces of the Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I sacked the city again in 654-5.

Whether it was the Persians or Arabs or fires in the wake of earthquake that caused the destruction of the tavern, it was never rebuilt. It wasn’t even pillaged for supplies. It was just closed and left to decay as were the other shops along the street. The street itself was swept and kept clear of debris for centuries after that, probably because it was a useful connection to the port before it silted up irredeemably and a straight shot for Christian pilgrims to use when visiting shrines.

The Austrian Archeological Institute assumes that duty now, which is how it found the tavern. The OAI has a long, strong connection to the city of Ephesus. In fact, the organization was founded specifically to excavate the ancient city. German archaeologist Otto Benndorf started excavating Ephesus in 1895, financed by a large donation by Austrian businessman Karl Mautner Ritter von Markhof. Benndorf founded the Austrian Archaeological Institute in 1898, with the excavation of Ephesus as its first brief. The Institute had been digging and conserving the site ever since, pausing only during both world wars.


Staedtler erasers help solve mystery of ultra-thin 13th c. parchment

November 25th, 2015

For a short window of about 80 years in the 13th century, small, portable bibles were produced on a large scale to satisfy the needs of the growing mendicant friar community and university students. Both groups needed bibles that were lightweight and easy to transport, a far cry from the large, thick-paged, multi-volume bibles common in scriptoria, libraries, churches and learning institutions. Between around 1220 and 1300, at least 20,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 portable bibles were produced, most of them in Paris, but also elsewhere in France, plus England, Italy and Spain. The university centers of Paris, Bologna and Oxford were the main production centers.

The first pocket bibles were pandects (single-volume bibles) and were consistently organized which made them easy to scan for a particular passage, a handy tool for the student and itinerant preacher. The script was tiny, with each letter a mere two millimeters high, and of course written painstakingly by hand. Each page was made of a tissue-thin parchment known as uterine vellum, the key to the books’ portability. Without pages a fraction of a millimeter thick, the pocket bibles of the 13th century could not have existed.

The economic woes and turmoil of the 14th century ended the pocket bible boom and soon the technology used to make the ultra-thin parchment, which had been kept hush-hush by producers keen to keep their lucrative trade secrets secret, was forgotten. Approximately 2,000 pocket bibles still exist today, the majority of them, about 54%, of French manufacture.

Codicologists, people who study the physical object of the book, have long debated how uterine vellum was made. Some medieval and early modern sources refer to the parchment as abortivum or charta non nata (meaning “unborn sheet”), suggesting that it was made from the skin of miscarried or aborted fetal calves. The sheer numbers of aborted livestock fetuses necessary to produce enough parchment for thousands of pocket Bibles and other manuscripts would have materially damaged the health of any herd, however, so some scholars have proffered alternative animal sources for the parchment, like rabbits or squirrels which unlike cows already have very thin skins. Others theorized that the thicker skins of cows or sheep could have been split to produce the ultra-thin parchment.

A study led by University of York bioarchaeologists sought to unlock the mystery of uterine vellum, to discover whether it was made using animals with exceptionally fine skin or the result of a specialized craft that worked any skins into tissue-thin sheets. The research team studied samples of uterine vellum drawn from 72 pocket Bibles and seven nonpocket Bibles. The sampled parchment ranged in thickness from .03 to .28 mm. The delicate, more than paper-thin pages were sampled using one of the greatest school supplies of all time: the Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser. Remember how the bright white eraser would make little tubular crumbs greyed with pencil graphite that you had to blow or brush off your paper? Those characteristic crumbs were the means by which the samples could be taken without damaging the fragile parchment.

Participating archives and libraries were sent a kit with erasers, acid-free paper, nitrile gloves and 1.5 mL microcentrifuge tubes. Staffers donned gloves and collected the sample by erasing in one direction on an area of the page that had no writing, holes, tears or any other indication of weakness in the structure. The crumbs were caught on a folded page of acid-free paper and tipped into the tubes which were sealed and sent to the University of York laboratory.

The gentle unidirectional rubbing of the eraser on the pages generated an electrostatic charge that extracted protein from the parchment surface. Those protein samples were then studied using zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) peptide mass fingerprinting and hair follicle pattern analysis, technologies that can determine which species of animals were used to make the parchment and their age at slaughter. The study found that none of the parchment was made from the skin of fetal or neonate animals. The youngest were eight week old calves and adult sheep and goats were also used. Of the 220 folios from 72 pocket bibles sampled, 68% were calfskin, 26% were goat, and 6% were sheep. Most of them were consistent within one bible, but five bibles were found to have parchment from more than one species. Researchers think that those five may be composite bibles rather than a single producer using skins from multiple animals to create one bible.

So since exotic animal hides weren’t behind the production of this practically see-through parchment, it must have been a specialized craft.

In order to make goat, sheep and eight week old calf parchment look as fine as if it had all come from new-born calves, the medieval artisans had to immerse the skins in alkali-rich liquefied lime so as to get rid of the fats in those skins by transforming the lipids into a form of detergent. That natural soap not only helped thin the skins but also helped whiten them by dissolving all the ingrained grime and stains.

The alkali in the lime also served to remove the thousands of tiny hairs in the skin – by weakening the chemical bonds which hold protein molecules together. However, too much exposure to lime would have also turned the skins’ collagen content into gelatine – thus irreversibly swelling and damaging the product. The medieval craftsmen seem to have discovered the precise time required to thin and whiten the skins in the lime, while not destroying them.

As well as immersing the skins in lime, the artisans also stretched them on wooden frames, scraped them with a special bladed tool – then spent many hours rubbing them with volcanic pumice stone to further thin and smooth them.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and can be read in its entirety here (pdf).


Pendant found in Bulgaria is among oldest known gold jewelry

November 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Solnitsata near the northeastern Bulgarian town of Provadiya have discovered what may be some of the oldest known worked gold in Europe. It’s a small pendant made of two ounces of what archaeologists estimate is 24-carat gold although it hasn’t been assayed yet. It was found in a necropolis dating to around 4,300 B.C., but lead archaeologist Professor Vasil Nikolov believes the piece could be 200-300 years older.

The earliest known gold hoard in the world was unearthed about 23 miles east of this settlement in a prehistoric necropolis in the Black Sea resort town of Varna in 1973. Radiocarbon testing dates the Varna tombs to around 4560-4450 B.C., so the Solnitsata piece is at least contemporary with the Varna gold and may be older. Unlike the Varna riches, however, this wee pendant was not found in a grave.

“What’s interesting regarding the gold jewel that we have found now is that it was discovered not inside one of the graves but between them, which might testify to some kind of a more special ritual. In any case, this jewel is another specimen of the art of jewelry making that was developed at the time,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

He notes that the term “jewel” might not be the most precise one for the gold item found near Bulgaria’s Provadiya because it was not worn as a decoration but as a status symbol.

The Solnitsata settlement was immensely prosperous thanks to the salt trade. Salt processing at the site began in the Late Neolithic (about 5500 B.C.) when brine from salt water springs was boiled in small, thin-walled ceramic vases and baked into blocks in large domed kilns. The production of salt increased markedly in the Middle Chalcolithic (4700-4500 B.C.) through the Late Chalcolithic (4500-4200 B.C.) when the method of extraction shifted to boiling brine in large ceramic vases placed inside deep, open-air pits up to 10 meters (33 feet) wide. This allowed salt to be produced on an industrial scale and salt blocks were traded locally and throughout the Balkans on pack animals or possibly sleds. There was no wheel yet, so no carts were involved.

The settlement, which archaeologists estimate had a population of 350 people at its peak, was fortified with wood palisades and earthworks in the Late Neolithic and then strengthened during the Chalcolithic with stone walls whose bases were as much as 13 feet thick. By then the Solnitsata salt complex was producing an eye-watering 4,000 to 5,000 kilos (8,800 to 11,000 pounds) of dry salt at a time (the Neolithic kilns produced about 25 kilos or 55 pounds of salt in one load). At a time when salt was highly valued as the only means of food preservation, the small Solnitsata settlement might as well have been a mint. That’s why they needed such thick walls, to Fort Knoxify the place.

Given that their neighbors in Varna were mining copper and gold at the time, you might expect the salt-based wealth of Solnitsata to result in burials with similar valuables, but the little pendant is the first gold excavated at the site and it wasn’t a grave good.

It’s one of several exciting finds at the site. The exploration of the masonry fortifications is of particular interest as Solnitsata’s defensive wall is the oldest stone fortress in the world. Professor Nikolov explains:

“The [fortress] wall that we are unearthing right now shows that the fortress had a shape of a circle with a diameter of about 90 meters. It is interesting that back then the people had valuable knowledge about military affairs. In order to ensure a better defense, the wall was not made round but its sections follow straight lines. That’s because the round shape would have been harder to defend.”


Historical archive found in Russian birds nests

November 23rd, 2015

Archaeologists have discovered an archive of 19th and early 20th century Russian history assembled by birds nesting in the attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, a small medieval town 40 miles west of Moscow. Restorers have been working on the church, built in the early 15th century, since 2009, repairing the facade, windows and dismantling 19th century brick archways to return the arches and vaults to their original dimensions. Underneath the brick they found a fragment of a fresco of a seraphim surrounded by saints whose composition suggests it may have been painted by Andrei Rublev, Russia’s greatest medieval artist of icons and frescoes, or an artist from his school.

This summer restoration began on the roof of the cathedral. To clear the space before construction, archaeologists surveyed the attic which had a thick layer of debris deposited by the swifts and jackdaws that have been nesting under the roof for centuries. The debris is composed of soil, organic litter, branches and layer upon layer of soft and warm paper fragments collected by the birds to line their nests. Among the fragments are pieces of personal letters, scores of them written in an aristocratic hand that mention Russian foreign minister Count Karl Nesselrode, pieces of printed books, pre-revolutionary official documents drawn up by the military and police, a birth certificate, a college diploma, student notebooks with multiplication tables and Easter hymns. The oldest piece is thought to date to the 1830s when the church roof was last replaced.

One fragment holds historical weight out of proportion to its dimensions. It’s a calendar page from December 6th, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II’s name day, that has a handwritten note on the back quoting a verse by poet Yakov Polonsky about taking comfort in the loss of hope and happiness which in hindsight seems a little premonitory. Nicholas and his family were still alive at the time, but imprisoned in a mansion in Tobolsk. The scrap is a keyhole into the transition of the Old Style Russian dating to the New Style. Russia had used the Julian calendar for centuries, but the Soviets finally switched the country over to the Gregorian system on January 1st, 1918. Both dating systems appear on this calendar page scrap. The big red six is the Julian date, while underneath it in French is the Gregorian date, December 19th, 1917.

There are also fragments of ration coupons, a bread coupon from December of 1933, and a stamped ration card from August of 1941. Other financial records found in the attic are a contract on the delivery of a cow in 1936, a donation to the monastery of St. Sava Storozhevsky and a loan to a merchant. There’s even a piece of a 1,000 ruble banknote which was worth a great deal of money when it was lost and claimed by the avian archivists.

Some of the most intact pieces are candy wrappers, probably just because they’re small and didn’t need tearing. They were also probably popular discards on the street, giving the birds a rich source of litter to warm their babies. There are numerous wrappers from pre-revolutionary caramels and candies, plus cigarette packaging of brands from the Petrograd Soviet.

The scraps suffered beak damage — there’s extensive hole punching — but they are still legible, some with great graphics in surprisingly bright color. Zvenigorod Museum archaeologist Alexey Alexeev has uploaded dozens of pictures of the bird archive scraps to this photo album.


Movie posters found under old linoleum sell for more than $200,000

November 22nd, 2015

From the annals of every history nerd’s fantasies, a home renovation revealed a treasure trove of vintage movie posters under a linoleum floor (and the original hardwood to boot). Builder Robert Basta purchased the southern Pennsylvania home cheap at auction because it needed a lot of work. He planned to renovate it for resale, something he’s done many times before. While he was away on business, his son Dylan wanted to earn a little extra money while he was home from college, so Robert had him take on a bear of a job — tearing up the lino in a small upstairs room. Robert had seen a newspaper from 1946 peeking out through the broken flooring; he told Dylan to keep it in case it was interesting.

The newspaper preserved, Dylan and his brother Bob went on to find a poster of Tarzan the Ape Man, the 1932 movie starring five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. They texted a photo of the poster to Robert. By the time he got back home and the linoleum was all gone, Bob and Dylan had found 16 more movie posters, all in excellent condition. There were other newspapers under the lino too. It seems a previous owner of the house, possibly artist MSW Brungart who is known to have worked for the local movie theater, used paper he had lying around to protect the floorboards before covering them with linoleum.

At first they didn’t realize what a treasure they had found. None of the posters were for films they recognized, so they figured they were of small value. A little Googling soon illuminated them to the fact that they had stumbled on a stash that included some of the rarest posters highly desirable to collectors.

They’re all one sheets from the pre-Code era, a woefully brief period between 1929 and 1934 when studios largely ignored the censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code because the Great Depression had hit them like a freight train and sex, nudity and violence sold then just like they sell now. The party came to an abrupt end when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began enforcing the code with the iron fist of committed fanatic and equally committed hypocrite Joseph Breen. One of his henchmen Val Lewton explained Breen’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy to producer David O. Selznick:

“Mr. Breen goes to the bathroom every morning. He does not deny that he does so or that there is such a place as the bathroom, but he feels that neither his actions nor the bathroom are fit subjects for screen entertainment. This is the essence of the Hays’ office attitude towards prostitution, at least as Joe told it to me in somewhat cruder language.”

Breen, in concert with Catholic Legion of Decency (the Production Code was co-written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord), threatened the studios with nation-wide protests, draconian local censorship and the possibility of federal censorship and they had the muscle to make real trouble. The studios caved and for the next 20 years the sex and violence was hidden in oblique dialogue, those weird face-mashing close-mouthed kisses and implied off-screen.

I really, really love pre-Code movies, but I wouldn’t have seen any of them were it not for Turner Classic Movies. Unlike other classic movies, the pre-Codes never aired on TV until TCM revived interest in them in the 1990s. This is why the Basta family didn’t recognize any of the films on the posters.

The Bastas contacted Heritage Auctions for an expert valuation and that’s when they discovered they had been standing on more than $200,000 worth of movie posters. This weekend, the 17 under the floor posters went under the hammer at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Movie Posters sale.

It was the first poster they found, Tarzan the Ape Man (MGM, 1932) that was the rarest, most desirable piece. The movie was Johnny Weissmuller’s first appearance on film in the role that would make him famous. In fact, other than a non-speaking, uncredited, seconds-long practically naked cameo in the 1929 Ziegfield musical Glorifying the American Girl, this was Weissmuller’s first part in any movie. He would go on to shoot another 11 Tarzan movies, five of them with Maureen O’Sullivan. This one-of-a-kind Style D one sheet is the only one that pictures him and O’Sullivan in a scene from the film. It sold yesterday for $83,650.

The second biggest seller is my favorite poster from one of my favorite movies. It’s one of only three known surviving Style C one sheets of Red Headed Woman (MGM, 1932), starring Jean Harlow at her gleefully naughty best. This is one of the greatest of all pre-Code movies, certainly the most unrepentant. The bad girl wins in the end and she wins big. Jean Harlow, a literal scarlet woman, glowers alluringly from this vivid poster like a demon from the flames of Hell. It is a perfect encapsulation of the character and just freaking gorgeous. It sold for $77,675.

The poster for another terribly juicy pre-Code movie, Doctor X (First National, 1932), sold for $23,900. This was Fay Wray’s first horror movie. There’s a creepy doctor, an amputee with a penchant for cannibalism, murder and some quality mad science. It’s also a very early example of a two-color Technicolor movie. The poster is even more vivid than the movie.

Three other posters from the under the floor collection are the only known surviving posters of their movies:

    1. Congorilla (Fox, 1932), a documentary filmed in the Congo which is the first to have authentic sound recorded in Africa, sold for $2,390.
    1. Any Old Port (MGM, 1932), a classic Laurel and Hardy short produced by Hal Roach, sold for $8,962.50
    1. Sporting Blood (MGM, 1931), Clark Gable’s first starring role in a picture, sold for $2,987.50.
  • Heritage Auctions didn’t note which of the lots came from under the linoleum, so I wasn’t able to make a complete list. Based on news stories, the following pieces were also part of the collection: The Golden West (Fox, 1932) sold for $6,572.50; The Rider of Death Valley (Universal, 1932) sold for $4,302; The Long, Long Trail (Universal, 1929) sold for $2,987.50; Blondie of the Follies (MGM, 1932) sold for $1,792.50; The Dance of Life (Paramount, 1929) sold for $1,254.75. Tess of the Storm Country (Fox, 1932) sold for $776.75. Some of the articles about this story claim this movie was Academy Award nominated, but I believe that’s a misreading of Heritage Auction’s lot information which refers to the first Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell outing, the 1927 silent picture 7th Heaven as receiving three Oscar nominations. I searched the Academy Awards Database and there are no nominations for Tess.

    Counting only the dozen posters that I could confirm were part of the subflooring collection, sales topped $217,000. Robert Basta was still in shock before the first hammer fell.

    “You always dream of coming across something valuable hidden in a closet or under the floorboards but it had never happened – until now.”

    “I’m a simple man – I own my house but I don’t have a pension and at some point soon I’ll want to retire. The money from this sale will be life-changing.

    “It will make things so much easier for me and my family – it’s a real blessing.”


    Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

    November 21st, 2015

    Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

    The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

    There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.


    Vermeer’s Little Street discovered

    November 20th, 2015

    The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.

    The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.

    For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.

    University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).

    Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.

    The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.

    Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

    The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.

    Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.





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