Leaning Tower of Bad Frankenhausen saved

November 23rd, 2014

The funding cavalry has arrived to save the dangerously leaning tower of the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill in the Thuringian spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. The 14th century bell tower, built on a chalk foundation over subterranean salt deposits that get washed out by the springs that put the Bad in Bad Frankenhausen, has been leaning precipitously since a 1908 landslide. It leans 15 feet eastward of the perpendicular, more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM), owner of the church for most of its life, tried to stabilize it several times over the years, but to no avail. Finally in December of 2011, the EKM decided to demolish the roofless, structurally unsound church and its leaning tower. The only chance of reprieve was if the city could raise the funds necessary to restore the tower, the EKM would sell the Church of Our Dear Ladies to the city for a token sum of €1 and chip in the money they had planned to spend on demolition (about €150,000).

It was a close call. By a vote of nine votes for, seven against and three abstentions, the Bad Frankenhausen city council agreed to the acquisition of the church. The estimated total cost of restoration was €1 million. Subtracting the demolition funds, that left the city with €850,000 to scare up. They put €50,000 into immediate stabilization work in early 2012, and then went to work trying to secure government funding. Without it, the city would not be able to raise the €800,000 and Bad Frankenhausen’s most recognizable landmark, symbol of the town just as the Leaning Tower is of Pisa, would have to be demolished for safety reasons.

The city applied to the Thuringian Ministry of Construction for state funding, but were rejected. With time running out, Bad Frankenhausen threw a hail mary pass and applied to the National Urban Planning Projects, a new €50 million federal program to support city development projects of “national visibility, high quality, above-average investment volume or high potential for innovation.” The program received 271 applications, 24 from Thuringia alone, for a total of €900 million in requested funding.

A jury of members of parliament, academics and urban planning experts selected 21 applications for project funding. The Bad Frankenhausen tower was one of only two winners from Thuringia. The stabilization of the tower will now be funded to the tune of €950,000. Mayor Matthias Strejc was particularly pleased to note the tower was considered a historic landmark of national importance by the federal government because the state government had sent them yet another rejection letter just a few days before they heard their application had been accepted by the National Urban Planning Projects.

The next step for the tower is research into the movement of the soil underneath it. Three holes will be dug, one 400 meters (437 yards) deep and two 70 meters (77 yards), and sensors inserted into the holes. The sensor readings will be viewable in real time by visitors to the tower’s information pavilion. The data will be submitted in a new report due by December 31st. Structural engineers will use that information to fine tune the stabilization plan which as of now involves building a reinforced concrete core in the basement of the tower and creating a steel corset structure on the outside.

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Medal of Honor awarded to Gettysburg hero 151 years later

November 22nd, 2014

Union Lieutenant Alonzo Hersford Cushing died at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. On November 6th, 2014, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the country, for his heroism on that field of battle that day. It has taken 151 years and a campaign of more than three decades for Cushing to get this richly deserved recognition. It’s the longest gap between the act of valor and the awarding of a Medal of Honor in history.

Alonzo Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, on January 19th, 1841. He was one of four brothers and his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. The congressman who recommended Alonzo to West Point described her as “poor but highly committed and her son will do honor to the position.” He was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated in June 1861, two months after hostilities began at Fort Sumter, with a commission as first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was in the thick of all the most famous battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and of course, the one that would claim his life, Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville Cushing was promoted to commander of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery of the Army of the Potomac II Corps.

He was in command of 126 men and six cannons on July 3rd, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. They were positioned inside a bend in the rock wall, known as the Bloody Angle, on Cemetery Ridge that was the center of the line General Robert E. Lee hoped to break through with a massive 13,000-person infantry attack known as Pickett’s Charge. After being pounded by Confederate artillery, Battery A was all but destroyed. All the officers and most of the soldiers were dead. Only two cannons were still functional.

Cushing himself had been grievously wounded during the artillery assault. A shell fragment hit him in the shoulder and shrapnel gutted him, tearing through his groin and abdomen. He refused categorically to move to the rear, saying he would “stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” Instead, literally holding his intestines in one hand, Cushing ordered that the two remaining cannons be moved right up to the stone wall to shoot at the three Confederate divisions of infantry advancing in rows a mile wide towards the Angle.

Weak and unable to shout, Cushing was bodily supported by 1st Sergeant Frederick Füger who relayed his orders to his men. He observed the charge through a field glass, and ordered his men to fire double-shotted canister, deadly anti-personnel rounds. He used his own thumb to stop the cannon’s vent, burning his fingers to the bone. With the Confederate infantry less than 100 yards away, he yelled “I will give them one more shot.” A few seconds later a bullet hit Cushing in the mouth, exiting out the back of his skull and killing him. He was 22 years old.

Cushing had stood his ground for more than an hour and a half after his wounding, inflicting heavy casualties and opening gaps in the Confederate lines that played an important role in the Union’s repelling Pickett’s Charge. He was given a posthumous brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for his service at the Battle of Gettysburg, but no medal. He was buried at West Point, a very high military honor, under a headstone inscribed “Faithful unto death.”

The story of Alonzo Cushing wasn’t widely known, but he was still beloved in his hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin. That’s where Margaret Zerwekh heard about it when she married her second husband and moved into his Delafield house that had once belonged to the Cushing family. An amateur historian, she researched Alonzo’s story and sometime in the 1980s (she doesn’t remember the exact date), wrote a letter to then-Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin recommending Cushing for a Medal of Honor. It would be the first of many, many letters sent to many, many members of Congress.

The procedure for awarding a Medal of Honor more than three years after the events being recognized are complex. First the branch of the military in which the would-be recipient served has to approve the nomination. In Cushing’s case, the U.S. Army approved his nomination in 2010. Then legislation had to be passed by both Houses of Congress to waive the three-year time limit. That took three years. Then the President has to approve the nomination. This August, the White House announced that Alonzo Cushing would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The deed was done at a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House attended by more than two dozen Cushing family members and Margaret Zerwekh. Alonzo’s next of kin, cousin twice removed Helen Loring Ensign, accepted the medal on his behalf.

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Thomas Hart Benton’s epic America Today murals at the Met

November 21st, 2014

Before he become cover-of-Time-magazine famous as a muralist and leading light of the realist style inspired by local scenes known as Regionalism, Thomas Hart Benton’s first mural commission was a series of 10 murals for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Alvin Johnson, the school’s director and one of its co-founders, wanted its mission of unfettered inquiry and progressive thought to be reflected in the art and architecture as well. He commissioned Joseph Urban to design a new building in modernist International Style that stood out dramatically from the Greenwich Village town houses on West 12th Street. Benton collaborated with Urban to create murals that will flawlessly fit the walls of the third floor boardroom.

The new building opened on New Year’s Day 1931 with nine of the panels in place (Benton finished the tenth later) on the four walls of the 30-by-22-foot room. America Today depicts a wide view of American life in the 1920s: city and country, industry and farming, steel workers and bankers, coal miners and doctors, black and white, boxers and lovers, a hard day’s work and wild nights of dancing, north and south. Benton painted these murals, most of which are seven and a half feet high, referring to sketched studies he had made while traveling the country in the 1920s. Fun fact: his student Jackson Pollock posed for several of the figures.

Benton received no fee for this immense work, just expenses, but he got a whole lot of artistic recognition. The critical success of the cycle led directly to commissions for eight other murals, including the Indiana Murals which cemented his mainstream fame and put money in his pocket. His dynamic, fluid, colorful style was a major influence for the WPA artists that soon followed.

The murals saw some hard treatment over the years, as students leaned their chairs against them, smoked like chimneys, exhaled moisture and transmitted bacteria. Thomas Hart Benton returned to restore his murals twice, once in 1956, once in 1968. He died in 1975 and seven years later, the school decided to sell the murals to fund its endowment. The plan was not happily received in New York City. If the panels were sold to a dealer or auction, they could be scattered to the four winds. Mayor Edward I. Koch even expressed dismay at the prospect of the mural cycle being split up and/or leaving the city.

In May of 1982, the school sold the 10 murals to the Maurice Segoura Gallery. The gallery kept them for two years before selling them to the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (aka AXA) for $3.1 million. AXA agreed to always display America Today to the public and proudly sported the murals in the lobby of its corporate headquarters on Seventh Avenue for years before the company and artwork moved to a new building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas. In February of 2012, a building renovation saw the murals moved into storage.

With no prospect of a proper display site coming up any time soon, AXA decided to donate the murals to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met was more than happy to accept them. Before they could go on display, however, the museum had to create an appropriate space. As of September 30th, it has.

The keystone of the exhibition—the mural—will be installed in a reconstruction of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom as it existed at the New School in 1931, allowing viewers to experience the mural cycle as Benton conceived it. A highlight of this extraordinary opportunity to view the reconstructed mural in its nearly original setting is the incorporation of elements that were part of the architect Joseph Urban’s modernist aesthetic for the New School building, such as the black and red color scheme he used for the room. Among the mural’s most distinctive features are the aluminum-leaf wooden moldings, which not only frame the mural but also create inventive spatial breaks within each large panel. When the mural was installed at the New School, these moldings echoed the Art Deco details of Urban’s building design.

The exhibition also features Benton’s studies from this travels in the 20s and related works by other artists from the Met’s collection.

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Wreck of SS Ventnor, ship carrying 499 Chinese dead, found

November 20th, 2014

The wreck of SS Ventnor, a ship that went down in 1902 carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand back to their homes in China’s Guangdong province, has been found. The ship was discovered 21 kilometers (13 miles) west of Hokianga Harbour under 150 meters (492 feet) of water. The general area of the sinking was known, but it has taken 112 years to find the actual wreck.

The Ventnor Project Group, funded by Definitive Productions which is making a documentary about the shipwreck, first spotted the wreck in December of 2012 using echo sounding sonar. In January of 2013, they enlisted Keith Gordon, former president of the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group, to investigate the site further. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, the team was able to photograph the wreck. The last step was sending divers to record the wreck on video. They confirmed that it was indeed the Ventnor.

In April the divers returned and were able to retrieve artifacts that might aid in identification. They recovered the ship’s bell and a few other pieces (some plates, a porthole window) which have been cleaned and conserved, but nothing with a name that would clinch the deal. Authorities in China and New Zealand were notified of the discovery and the shipwreck was gazetted by New Zealand Heritage, which means no objects can be removed the site without permission. No coffins or human remains have been found yet. The Ventnor Project Group needs to raise another 400,000 New Zealand dollars to dive the wreck site more extensively. Meanwhile, the Royal New Zealand Navy is going forward with separate plans they made before the announcement of the find to search for the wreck next month.

The tragedy of the Ventnor is a window into the Chinese experience in New Zealand. The first Chinese immigrants were invited to New Zealand by the Otago Provincial Council who needed people willing to do backbreaking labour in the gold mines of Otago on the South Island. Gold had been found in Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, setting off the Otago gold rush. Five years later, the gold fields had been thoroughly picked over and the work of extracting gold, never easy, got so hard miners left for greener pastures. The population of European miners plummeted from 19,000 men in early 1864 to 6,000 in late 1865. That’s when they sent the call out to Guangdong province for miners to rework the area. Guangdong was suffering in the aftermath of the suppressed Taiping Rebellion, so thousands of men made their way to New Zealand in hope of making a decent living.

By 1869, there were more than 2,000 Chinese, most of them from the Guangzhou area, in New Zealand. By 1881, there were more than 5,000. That same year, the New Zealand government passed its version of the U.S. Exclusion Act, a poll tax that charged ever Chinese immigrant £10 to enter the country, and only allowed one Chinese immigrant for every 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 those numbers got a lot worse: the per head tax was raised to £100 and only one Chinese immigrant was allowed per 200 tons of cargo. The poll tax remained in force until 1934 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

Amid the simmering racial tensions and the regulatory aggression, the Chinese miners banded together to maintain their customs and support each other. In 1882, a year after the poll tax was enacted, men from Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties of Guangdong Province founded the Cheong Sing Tong, a subscription association that allowed members to pool their resources so they could send the remains of the dead back to their hometowns in China. According to Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried in the ground of their homes so their descendants can properly tend to them to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased and good fortune for their survivors.

The leader of the Cheong Sing Tong was Choie Sew Hoy, a successful merchant who had arrived with the first wave of immigrants from Poon Yu. Just like in the American gold rushes, the most successful people were those who sold stuff to the miners rather than the guys panning in rivers. Choie Sew Hoy started off with a general store and eventually ran a dozen mining ventures of his own. He was a prominent community leader in Dunedin and well respected by Chinese and European alike.

In 1883, Hoy and the Cheong Sing Tong exhumed 230 bodies and successfully sent them back to China for reburial. In 1901, they began arrangements for a second shipment. From early 1901 to the September 1902, bodies of Chinese immigrants were exhumed from more than 40 cemeteries, most of them in the Otago area but also from elsewhere in the country. The remains were sent to Choie Sew Hoy’s farm where the bones were individually washed and each bone counted. The small bones were each wrapped in calico. The large bones placed in calico bag to which the small bones were added along with the name of the deceased. The bag was tied and put inside a coffin which was stored in a shed until all coffins were ready to be shipped.

While this process was taking place, Choie Sew Hoy died suddenly in July of 1901 at the age of 64. His son Choie Kum Poy took over the project and Choie Sew Hoy’s body was added to the others for return to China. The ship they chartered to carry this cargo was the SS Ventnor. The Glasgow-built cargo ship was only a year old in October of 1902 when the coffins were loaded and it left Wellington headed for Hong Kong. Along with the crew, there were nine or six (accounts vary) elderly Chinese men on board who were given free passage by the Cheong Sing Tong in exchange for looking after the coffins.

One day after leaving Wellington, the ship, which was apparently traveling too close to the shore, hit rocks near the coast of Taranaki. The captain decided the damage wasn’t so bad they should make for the nearby port of New Plymouth, and there was little point in turning back around to Wellington since they could go almost the same distance north to Auckland and be going in the right direction. His judgment was flawed. The Ventnor took on water and sank off the Hokianga Heads on October 28th, 1902, two days after setting sail. Four lifeboats were launched holding the crew and passengers. Three of them made it to safety. The one holding the captain, among others, did not. Thirteen people died.

The tragic fate of the Ventnor was big news at the time, spurring a magisterial inquiry into the cause of the sinking. The official finding, announced on November 21st, 1902, was that the striking of the rocks off Cape Egmont was due either to negligence or incompetence on the part of the captain. Drunkenness, while possible, could not be proven. No blame was assigned to the decision to keep going towards Auckland instead of turning back to Wellington.

The Cheong Sing Tong chartered the Auckland steamer Energy to search for the Ventnor and any of the remains, but most of the coffins, including that of Choie Sew Hoy, were lead-lined and ensconced in the hold. Some plain wooden coffins that were stored on the deck floated and washed ashore. Maori tribespeople from the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes buried the remains with care. They too share the belief that the remains of their people must be buried in the soil of their home, an issue that has been at the forefront of requests for repatriation of Maori remains in anthropological collections around the world.

The disaster of the Ventnor led to the disbanding of the Cheong Sing Tong and the end of the practice of sending coffins back to China in bulk. Remains were still sent home, but on an individual basis. The ship’s manifest was lost with the ship, so we don’t even have a list of names of the 499. Only Choie Sew Hoy is known. Recovering remains from the wreck would be extremely meaningful to the descendants of the miners in New Zealand and China.

The documentary The Lost Voyage of the 499 aired on Maori TV just Monday before the news of the discovery was announced. It’s a moving look at the history of the Ventnor as seen through the eyes of Choie Sew Hoy’s living descendants who travel to the Maori burial sites and to Hoy’s home village to see the first home he built in the 1860s and to pay their respects at his proxy grave.

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Scaffholding for Capitol Dome restoration finished

November 19th, 2014

Scaffolding around the cast iron Dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been completed so that the full restoration of the Dome can begin. The construction of the scaffolding system is an impressive project in its own right. More than 52 miles of metal piping and two miles of wood planking form 25 tiers of platforms that surround the Dome from the skirt up to the base of the Statue of Freedom. The total weight of the scaffolding materials is 1.1 million pounds. Work is expected to take about two years and will be done mainly at night so as to minimize the disruption of Congressional business.

It’s been 150 years since the Dome was constructed, and although it was refurbished once in 1960, it’s in dire need of extensive repairs. Age and weathering have caused almost 1,300 cracks and breaks, 12,800 inches worth, in the exterior skin. There are pits and voids, rusted areas, missing and loose ornaments. So far workers have collected more than 100 ornaments that had either fallen off or were just about to fall off. Water leaks in through the cracks and pinholes in the Statue of Freedom causing rust and damage to the protective paint and corrosion in the interstitial space between the Dome and the Rotunda.

These are critical condition issues that need immediate attention lest the artwork in the Rotunda, the Apotheosis of Washington in the oculus of the Dome and the Frieze of American History underneath the windows, are at great risk of damage due to water leaks. There are already noticeable water stains on the coffers at the first visitors’ gallery. Further damage could cause things to start breaking off onto visitors in the Rotunda. A white donut-shaped catenary system was installed above the Frieze to protect visitors and the floor from construction debris while leaving the Apotheosis and Frieze still viewable.

Now that the scaffolding is up, the next stage is paint abatement and removal. Workers will sand blast eight layers of paint, some of it lead paint, some of it dating to 1866 when the first paint was applied to the completed Dome. To do this safely, the paint will sucked into large tubes that will run from the scaffolding to specialized trucks parked on the lower West Front of the Capitol. During this process, workers will also remove all loose ornaments and anything else precarious. Conservators will restore whatever pieces they can and recast the ones that are too damaged to repair.

As soon as the paint is removed, a primer coat will be applied. Cast iron is subject to “flash rusting,” meaning it starts to oxidize instantly as soon as it’s exposed to oxygen. To prevent flash rusting, the Dome will have to be primed within eight hours of paint removal. After the entire Dome is primed, the cracks in the cast iron will be repaired. Welding doesn’t work with cast iron unless you disassemble the object and bake it an oven at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, a technique that obviously doesn’t apply to a giant dome. Of the 12,800 crack inches, 8,200 of them will be repaired using a technique called “lock and stitch” in which each crack is filled by hand with metal pins (that’s the stitching part) and then the edges brought together across the width with steel locks. The rest of the cracks will be filled with the “Dutchman” technique wherein large pieces are replaced with parts of the same shape. The restored or recast ornamentation will then be readded and damaged windows replaced and repaired.

All of that work will be done from the boiler plate at the bottom of the Dome to the base of the Statue of Freedom. The next phases will be done from top to bottom so the scaffolding can be removed as work is completed. Cast iron filler will be applied to any areas in need of it, then the Dome will be repainted in three layers. The top coat will be, appropriately enough, Dome White. Next fall protection and bird deterrent systems will be installed. After that, all that will be left is the clean-up. Everything should be shiny and new for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

The Architect of the Capitol has made tons of fascinating photographs of the Capitol dome available on its Flickr page. The main photostream has current pictures, plus there are photo albums dedicated to subjects like the original construction of the iron dome in the 1850s and 60s, the 1960 restoration, the restoration of the Brumidi frescos inside the Capitol and a set of almost 300 images of the restoration that began this month. The there are all the pictures of various events, holidays, seasons and oh man, the Capitol artwork. It’s seriously one of the greatest Flickr accounts I’ve ever seen.

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Zealand ring fortress dates to 10th century

November 18th, 2014

The remains of a Viking ring fortress discovered on the Vallø Estate on the Danish island of Zealand have been radiocarbon dated and the results confirm the tested area was built in the 10th century. Two samples of charred wood from the northern gate of the structure were tested and produced identical dates: between 895 and 1017 A.D. The samples were taken from the outermost tree rings of the logs and tested at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Aarhus University in collaboration with Accium BioSciences’ laboratories in Seattle.

The archaeologists from the Danish Castle Centre and Aarhus University who made the find were convinced they had uncovered the first Trelleborg-type fortress in more than 60 years. Only seven of these ringforts built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D. probably as part of a defensive network against the Germans have been found in Denmark and southern Sweden. The discovery of a new one was big news, therefore, but since only excavated small sections of the gates and ramparts had actually been unearthed, some archaeologists felt they were jumping the gun in labeling the find a Viking ring fortress.

The excavation wasn’t all they had to go on. The team had done extensive research on the site, performing a detailed laser survey followed by a geomagnetic survey that revealed a structure 475 feet in diameter underneath a mound barely visible to the naked eye. Like the other Trelleborg fortresses, this structure too appeared to be perfectly circular with four gates at the cardinal points of the compass. Armed with the survey data, the team excavated two areas likely to be gates. At the north gate, the team found the large burned oak timbers that were radiocarbon dated.

The oak logs aren’t done testifying to their age. Carbon-14 dating by its nature can’t be narrowed down any further, but tree rings can dated to the individual year. Dendrochronological analysis may give us a precise date. If it’s 980 A.D. or thereabouts, that will be powerful evidence that it’s one of Harald Bluetooth’s Trelleborg fortresses.

The sheer amount of effort required to build this fort, dubbed Borgring, suggests it was meant to convey power. Archaeologists found there was a basin of fresh or brackish water next to one of the walls, an inlet between Køge Bay and the ring fortress. The builders must have had to dig out hundreds of tons of clay from the subsoil into the inlet in order to support the fort. If they had built it a little further inland, none of that extra work would have been necessary. According to Nanna Holm, curator of the Danish Castle Centre, the location was chosen deliberately to signal the power of its owner.

The excavation has also shown that the construction of the fortress is closely related to other Viking fortresses such as Fyrkat near Hobro, Aggersborg near the Limfjord and Trelleborg near Slagelse. These fortresses were undoubtedly built during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, and still more evidence suggests that Borgring, as the fortress has been named, might have belonged to the same building programme.

“There are a lot of similar details in these structures. And it’s been wonderful to see the same things coming to light at Borgring. In addition to the structure of the rampart and the gates, we have also found traces of a street with wood paving running along the inside of the rampart – just like in Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Trelleborg. The most striking thing, however, is the measurements of the fortress. The rampart of Borgring is 10.6 metres wide. That is exactly the same width as the rampart of Fyrkat. So it’s hard to avoid the sense that the same master builder was responsible,” says [Aarhus University medieval archaeology professor Søren] Sindbæk.

Here’s a 3D reconstruction of Borgring based on the excavation with some hypothetical extrapolation:

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5000-year-old human footprints found in Denmark

November 17th, 2014

The excavations of future construction sites for the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel continue to strike archaeological gold. Last month it was a 3,000-year-old flint dagger with an intact bark handle. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists reveal they’ve discovered two sets of Stone Age human footprints left around an extensive system of fixed gillnets, sticks of hazel mounted on stakes to form continuous weirs that trapped fish when the tide came in, on the Danish island of Lolland.

The Stone Age footprints are estimated to date back as far as 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC, to the time when water levels in the Baltic Sea were rising due to melting glaciers in northern Europe, and prehistoric people were able to use the inlets as bountiful fishing grounds. The individuals that made the footprints constructed elaborate fishing fences to catch their prey, and researchers say that the large wooden fences which interconnected to create a single continuous trap, were likely the cause of the footprints.

“What seems to have happened was that at some point they were moving out to the [fish fence], perhaps to recover it before a storm” project manager for the Museum Lolland-Falster, Lars Ewald Jensen says. “At one of the posts, the footprints were found on each side, where someone had been trying to remove it from the sea bottom.”

At least two people were involved in this rescue operation, leaving two sets of footprints of different sizes. They walked onto the wet seabed to pull up what they could of the gillnets and left deep impressions when their feet sank into the ground. Sand and mud then flowed into their prints. Thousands of years later, those prints were still clearly visible to archaeologists, both at the original depth and in dents on the surface.

Up until land reclamation efforts in the late 19th century, the coastal area where the footprints were found was dotted with fjords and streams and subject to regular flooding from the sea. A major Baltic flood in 1872 claimed 80 lives on Lolland. As a result, a vast dyke was built along nearly 40 miles of the island’s south coast. The dyke dried out the fjords. The gillnets bear witness to the constant battle against the incursions of sea water. The wattle had to be repeatedly repaired over the lifetime of the gillnets due in part to flood damage. Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Terje Stafseth notes in the museum press release (pdf):

“The investigations have shown that the Stone Age population repeatedly repaired, and actually moved parts of the capture system in order to ensure that it always worked and that it was placed optimally in relation to the coast and currents. We are able to follow the footprints and sense the importance of the capture system, which would have been important for the coastal population to retain a livelihood and therefore worth maintaining.”

These are the second-oldest human footprints found outside of Africa, with the oldest being the 800,000-year-old ones discovered on the rapidly-eroding foreshore of a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, in May of 2013. Most Stone Age remains recovered in Denmark are midden piles, broken tools or pottery. Archaeologists have found animal footprints from the period, but these are the first Stone Age human footprints ever found in Denmark.

Footprints and fishing trips weren’t the only discoveries on this ancient beach. Archaeologists also discovered several animal skulls from domestic and wild animals that appear to have been placed there deliberately as part of a ritual offering by farmers who inhabited the area in around 4,000 B.C. Fragments of skulls from assorted animals were placed on the coastal sea floor and then surrounded by crania of cattle and sheep. Axe shafts were placed around the skull sacrifice area which turned out to be quite large at 70 square meters (83 square yards).

The excavation is ongoing but the clock is ticking. This site along with so many others is likely to be destroyed when construction of the tunnel begins in a few months. The footprints and gillnets will be covered by an above-ground facility. All that will be left of the footprints that survived thousands of years will be flat molds taken by the archaeologists.

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Earliest officially licensed Batmobile for sale

November 16th, 2014

The Batmobile made for the 1966 TV show from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car by legendary car customizer George Barris may be the one we think of as the first Batmobile, but that’s just because the TV show was such a smash hit (pow! bam!) and the car so damn cool that it became an instant icon. Its iconic status garnered it $4.62 million including buyer’s premium when it sold at auction in January of 2013, and I myself repeatedly referred to it as the first Batmobile.

I was wrong. It’s the first of a long line of sublime to ridiculous television and film custom Batmobiles (the 1940s serials used a black Cadillac, a limo and a Mercury Eight, all off the line), but National Periodic Publications, owners of DC Comics, officially licensed a Batmobile built years before the TV show for promotional purposes. Its design comes straight from the comic book, a particularly great one at that, a product of the vision of artist Dick Sprang.

Dated February 1950, Detective Comics #156 hit the newsstands in December 1949 (spanning two decades!) and introduced a new Batmobile for a new decade. The story is that Batman is chasing mobster Smiley Dix when the bridge he’s driving over collapses. Batman breaks his leg and the Batmobile is totalled. Our hero takes advantage of his convalescence to build a new Batmobile — stronger, faster, and full of new bells and whistles. The “Batmobile of 1950″ was high-tech marvel with a radar antenna in the tail fin and a forensic laboratory in place of a back seat. It made an indelible impression on Batman fans, many of whom consider it the definitive design to this day.

Forrest Robinson was 13 years old when Detective Comics #156 was issued, and it certainly made an impression on him. For years he sketched ideas for a real Batmobile in his notebook. Ten years later, he bought a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and designed a new look for it inspired by Sprang’s Batmobile. It took Robinson and his friend Len Perham three years of work in the Robinson family barn in New Hampshire to replace the Oldsmobile body with a custom fiberglass body 17 feet long and seven feet wide with the iconic single giant dorsal fin, an upturned bat-nose front, quad headlights, horizontal tailfins and doors that slide into pockets on the rear fenders. In 1963 the car was done. Robinson painted it space-age silver and drove it as his personal ride.

In 1966, the popularity of the Batman television program caused a Batmania throughout the land. The All Star Dairy Association, a national dairy co-op, spent $3 million to tap into this groundswell, licensing Batman, Robin and the Batmobile from National Periodic Publications for use in dairy-based promotional campaigns. They sold Batnog that Christmas and a variety of fruit drinks, ice cream, cones, sandwiches, etc. with Batman and Robin on the packaging. (Slam Bang Vanilla Ice Cream with Banana Marshmallow needs to make a comeback, by the way. It should never have left us.) It worked like a charm. By early 1967, sales on Batman-packaged ice creams increased 300%.

All Star’s New Hampshire affiliate, Green Acres Ice Cream, leased Robinson’s car to play to make personal appearances as the Batmobile. They repainted it in Batman black, put the Batman Dairy Foods logo on the doors and under the dorsal fin, and drove it around three northeastern states promoting Batman & Robin ice cream products. This was the first ever officially licensed touring Batmobile. George Barris’ Batmobiles, the Futura and its fiberglass-on-Ford-Galaxie copies, didn’t start touring until 1967.

After its turn selling ice cream to the kiddies, Forrest Robinson sold the car for $200 to a friend of his in 1967. The friend didn’t show the car much love, I’m afraid, and it spent decades rusting in a New Hampshire field before passing through several hands until it was acquired in 2011 by Florida car collector George Albright. He researched its history, contacting Robinson, Perham and dairy executives who remembered its service as the Batmobile. Not having the time and resources to dedicate to a proper restoration of the vehicle, in 2013, a month after the Barris Batmobile made such a splash at auction, he put it up for sale on eBay with a minimum bid of $19,800. He wound up pulling it and doing a private deal, selling it for an undisclosed amount to Toy Car Exchange LLC who have spent the past year restoring it to pristine condition. Thanks to the addition of red accents, it looks more Batmanny than it ever did.

Toy Car Exchange has now put the restored 1963 Batmobile for sale at Heritage Auctions’ Entertainment & Music Memorabilia auction on December 6th. The opening bid is $90,000.



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St. Francis manuscripts leave Italy for the first time

November 15th, 2014

Nineteen medieval artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi that have never left Italy since their creation 700 years ago are heading to New York. There are no known extant documents written in Saint Francis’ own hand (historians think he dictated rather than writing himself). These 13th and 14th century manuscripts are the earliest surviving documents about Francis’ and the mendicant order he founded. The exhibition, Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images, will be on display at the UN Headquarters from November 17th through the 29th but it’s not open to the public. They will be on public display when they move to the Brooklyn Borough Hall from December 2nd to January 14, 2015.

It’s divided into three sections. The first section, Traces, focuses on documents that are closely connected to Francis’ lifetime. The centerpiece is Codex 338, a collection of the oldest existing copies of Saint Francis’ writings, including the 12 chapters of the Rule of the Friors Minor and the Canticle of the Creatures or Canticle of the Sun, one of Francis’ most celebrated poems. The Canticle of Creatures is the first surviving works written in a dialect (Umbrian) recognizably resembling modern Italian. It is considered the oldest poem in Italian literature. There are also several Papal Bulls issued in the 1220s by popes Honorius III and Gregory IX regarding the regulation of the new order and, after Francis’s canonization in 1228 just two years after his death, ordering the construction of a new church to house his earthly remains.

The second section, Words, deals with hagiographies of Francis written after his death. The oldest is a fragmentary parchment of Vita Beati Francisci (The Life of Blessed Francis) by Father Tommaso da Celano commissioned by Pope Gregory IX around the time of Francis’ canonization. There’s also a very rare manuscript of Celano’s second biography, Memoriale Desiderio Animae de Gestis et Verbis Sanctissimi Patris Nostri Francisci (Memorial of the Desire of a Soul Concerning the Deeds and Words of Our Most Holy Father Francis), aka Seconda Vita (Second Life), which was commissioned in the mid-1240s by Crescentius of Jessi, Minister General of the Franciscan Order. A later work from the end of the 14th century, Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), is an idealized portrayal that would become the most popular hagiography of the saint and the basis for many future works of literature and art about Francis.

The last section, Images, features depictions of Saint Francis in miniature from illuminated manuscripts. There’s Francis at the foot of the crucified Christ in Ubertino da Casale’s Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu, Francis in a little box amidst floral borders in the Breviarium Fratrum Minorum illuminated by painter Sano di Pietro for the convent of Saint Claire in Siena, and Francis ranking with Adam and Christ on the first page of Genesis in a Bible.

Before these precious and fragile documents could travel, they were subject to months of careful conservation.

Over the past five months, Father Massetti, two other monks and three young restoration experts have cleaned all the manuscripts with a soft paint brush, page by page.

In some, the medieval ink had perforated the page; in others it had faded. Some were missing entire figures or miniatures, others the binding cover.

The restoration experts have repaired the fissures of the parchment with Japanese vegetable fiber or a bovine membrane. They have consolidated the ink and the colorful paintings through a starch gel.

Five of the manuscripts, ranging from the size of a choral book to the pocket format, were unbound, parchment by parchment, and were finally reassembled and stitched back together with a linen thread.

So not only is it the first (and probably only) chance people in the US will have the chance to see these rare artifacts, they will be in the greatest condition they’ve been in for centuries. The exhibition was on display at the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of parliament, in the Montecitorio Palace earlier this year, and although many countries have asked to host it, only New York has received the honor. It’s a fitting choice, seeing as 40% of the six million visitors to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi hail from the United States.

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Hospital scan reveals contents of Carolingian pot

November 14th, 2014

The Carolingian pot that was part of a Viking hoard discovered by metal detectorist Derek McLennan in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, last September has been CT scanned in a hospital. The silver alloy vessel is covered in verdigris (the green powdery substance produced from the corrosion of copper) and experts were concerned that it was too fragile to just take off the lid and dig out its contents blind. Richard Welander, Historic Scotland’s head of collections, contacted Dr. John Reid, a radiographer at Borders General Hospital and avid amateur archaeologist who had previously collaborated with Historic Scotland to scan the remains of a Roman soldier’s head discovered at the Trimontium fort in Newstead.

Dr. Reid secured permission from hospital chief Calum Campbell for the £485,000 CT scanner to be used on the pot. So as not to interfere with the machine’s normal operations on actual human beings, the vessel was brought in the evening and was scanned. Derek McLennan and Richard Welander were present to witness the pot’s innards scanned in 120 visual slices accurate to within a half a millimeter.

At first glance, one view revealed the presence of an Anglo-Saxon openwork brooch, a 9th century style seen in several pieces from the Pentney Hoard, now in the British Museum. Further examination of the CT scan results identified four other silver brooches, some gold ingots and ivory beads coated in gold. The contents are all wrapped in an organic material of some kind, possibly leather.

Now that they know the layout of the contents, conservators will be able to remove the contents in a controlled way.

Richard Welander, head of collections with Historic Scotland, said: “When I saw the results I was reminded of the words of Sir Howard Carter when Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922 – “I see wonderful things”.

“We are all so grateful to the Borders General Hospital for allowing us to forensically examine one of the key objects of the hoard.

“As with human patients, we need to investigate in a non-invasive way before moving onto delicate surgery.

“In this case, that will be the careful removal of the contents and the all-important conservation of these items.”

The wrapping is going to make it a particularly challenging mission since it could easily fall apart the minute it’s exposed to air or interfered with in any way. I hope they film the surgery like they did the CT scan (see video below) because it’s sure to be fascinating.

The scan also revealed more detail of the decoration on the exterior of the pot which is partially obscured by mud and a textile of some kind (no word yet on what that is). It’s that decoration that identifies the pot as Carolingian in origin, created between 780 and 900 A.D. It is a very rare discovery in Britain — only three, including this one, have ever been found — and this one is complete with its original lid still attached.

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