Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Well that was horrific

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

You may have noticed your trusty blog about history has not been so trusty the past couple of days. A server update is apparently the culprit. The site went down Thursday afternoon and we’ve been struggling ever since to get it back. Finally the planets aligned and we are back. Buggy and error-riddled, but I’ll take it for now while we iron out the kinks.

The trauma of the last few days has only underscored how desperately important it is that I upgrade the software of this site. It’s ancient and all kinds of features are broken because of it. Perpetually perched on the razor’s edge of functionality, it can fail at the least provocation. That means we’re going to have to say goodbye to my old-fashioned theme and the blog will look completely different. As history nerds tend to like old-fashioned things, I’ve dragged my feet to avoid having to make so big a change. Time to face facts.

I’m so sorry for the outage. Real post coming up.

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The Year in History Blog History

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

This year The History Blog celebrated its 10th anniverary. The Six Million Dollar Man didn’t make an appearance at this party like he did at the Six Millionth View party last year, but we made up for it with a really great comment thread. I love when readers who rarely (or never!) comment mingle with the regular commenters to say nice things about the blog. It’s downright invigorating. (No, that is not a prompt for more of same in the comments on this post. Okay it kind of is. Not that you need prompting.)

It’s the on-topic posts that capture people’s attention on the larger web. The article about the 17th century silk gown found on the Texel shipwreck was the runaway most visited of the year with 11,555 views. The story of the murder of Joe the Quilter and the discovery of the remains of his cottage was the second most popular of the year with 6,276 views. It was also one of my favorites. The tragic story, Joe’s outstanding artisanship, the rare survival of a labourer’s cottage from the 1820s and my first encounter with the Beamish Museum all captivated my attention. Then the modern Joe the Quilter topped it all off by commenting.

That wasn’t the only murderous story of the year. I was particularly interested in the story of Martha Brown, the woman who killed her abusive husband and was hanged for it. Among the thousands of people who attended her execution was a 16-year-old Thomas Hardy. Years later he would write Tess of the d’Urbervilles about a woman who kills her abuser and is hanged for murder. The century-old cold case of the Fontaubert bones only has the legend of a gloriously lurid murder behind it, but maybe the new forensic investigation will turn up something if not equally interesting, at least mildly so. Then there was the first known boomerang victim, killed in the 13th century by a fighting boomerang, a heavy, sharp-edged wood weapon that cut through his bone like metal. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that the remains of the victim of a huge 17th century royal sex scandal have been found, but the odds are slim.

I allowed myself some shameless photographic indulgences this year. The Australian quilts were probably my richest haul in a single post, but in sheer size and beauty, the Dream Garden Tiffany mosaic gets very high ranking in the end of the year summary even though I only just posted it a couple of days ago. Another December entry gave me my greatest source of photographic gluttony, however. It’s the boxwood miniatures. When the Art Gallery of Ontario gave me access to their folder of high resolution photographs, I seriously got a rush. It’s because the carving is so, so small. Having gigantic pictures where the details could be seen in extreme close-up totally made my year.

Along similar lines, I love how high resolution 3D scans of artifacts and remains are becoming more common. This year alone we saw 3D scans of Chinese oracle bones, the Dandaleith Pictish stone, a Pictish cross slab, an Anglo-Saxon name stone found at Lindisfarne, bones and objects from the Tudor flagship Mary Rose, the first church where Norway’s Viking saint king Olaf II was buried and the irrepressible charm of the Skara Brae “Buddo” figurine.

Some of my favorite finds of the year were inscriptions. There was the Etruscan stele found in the foundations of an ancient temple in Tuscany, later found to include the name of the goddess Uni. Newly discovered Etruscan inscriptions are always cause for celebration, and this one is very long and very old. I also loved the two from modern-day Turkey, the 2,000-year-old horse racing rules and the amazing 2,200-year-old lease contract. It’s a contract! Literally carved in stone! And thus metaphor becomes literal.

With no particular thread connecting them other than my personal interest, I got a big kick out of discoveries from all over the world. There was that group of small ceremonial iron weapons found in Oman, the small fragment of 13th century pottery from Teruel, Spain, decorated with a unique depiction of a Jewish man, the Tuscan villa of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a 4th century senator and one of the last politically prominent adherents of traditional Roman religion to fight for its preservation, that freaking huge gold torc found in Cambridgeshire and the unbearable cuteness of the Canaanite “Thinker” figurine.

In the ephemera category, the only copy of Utrecht’s first newspaper, published in 1623, was found in a hand-bound anthology in the City Archives and Athenaeum Library in Deventer, the Netherlands. The news wasn’t fresh (even our Dutch-speaking readers struggled to follow it), but the history of newspapers was entirely unknown to me before I researched the find. Fascinating subject. The account of another battle of Thermopylae, this one between invading Goths and a combined Roman-Greek force during the 3rd century Gothic wars, discovered in a palimpsest in Vienna is a stand-out of the year. It’s a previously unknown passage in the Scythica, a history of the wars written by Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus who lived through them. Only a few fragments from this history survived quoted in later books. The palimpsest gave us by far the longest surviving passage, and a riveting one at that.

Denmark may win the award this year for most exciting finds in one country. There was the wee gold pendant found by a metal detectorist that is the earliest figure of Christ found in Denmark, the lead amulet invoking elves and the Christian Trinity, the rediscovery of the long-lost Ydby Runestone, the stabby beauty of the Viking treasure hoard found in Lille Karleby, the
two pounds of Viking gold bangles, the Viking toolbox unearthed at Borgring, and that amazingly smooth giant Neolithic flint axe. But of all the great and wondrous treasures Denmark has brought us this year, the greatest of them all was the 17th century bishop’s turd. The title alone made me laugh for a solid two days.

The hoards of the Danes had sturdy competition this year from Spain and Switzerland. The sheer quantity, 1,300 pounds of Roman coins, found in Tomares outside Seville, Spain, would have been impressive enough on its own, but they came in custom matching amphorae of a type never seen before. Researchers are still going through the tens of thousands of coins from the late 3rd, early 4th century. It’s not cash or pounds of gold, but the Roman lamp hoard found in Switzerland stands next to these glories with its head held high, just because it’s so pristine and unique.

I think the highlight of the year, maybe the highlight of the first decade of The History Blog history, was the chilling Halloween three-parter about the Harrison Horror (part I, part II, part III). I’d been thinking about writing a serial for years, and a long-form treatment of the body-snatching of John Scott Harrison and Augustus Devin for at least two years. I finally did it and it was so, so worth it. I’m warning you, though, there is no way I’m even trying to top it next year, not for Halloween anyway. Maybe some other theme will inspire me, or maybe it’ll just be something that I randomly stumble across. Stay tuned to find out!

I wish you all the very best of New Years, full of prosperity, peace and nerdery. I will continue to do my utmost to contribute to the last of those.

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Coming attractions

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

I won’t be posting a full article today because I’m working on a special Halloween treat for all you boys and girls. For the first time in The History Blog history, I am writing a multi-part story. It is a macabre tale full of chills, thrills and shocking twists that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hammer Horror movie, only it’s all true.

The first part will go live (or is it? ) at the stroke of midnight tonight.

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The History Blog’s Tin Anniversary

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Ten years ago today, I wrote the first post on The History Blog. It was a more innocent time then, a time when a crappy thumbnail picture was good enough for me, when a post could consist of little more than a link and a blockquote, sometimes two threadbare posts a day, more often with days-long gaps between them, when it hadn’t yet occurred to me that people might actually be interested in reading about the deep background stuff and the leaps and tangents that often sucked up entire weekends of my time. And so, after a grand total of 21 posts including the introduction, I meandered off somewhere and The History Blog fell fallow like so many blogs before and since.

I did have the decency to feel guilty about it, but that only served to keep me away longer because the more time passed, the worse I felt about abandoning the project and the worse I felt, the more I shrank from returning. A year and a half would pass before I finally got my act together and started posting again. This time I told myself I had to post daily, to make a real committment to produce content on a reliable schedule. If I still had readers after so long an absence, then by Odin I was going to give them something to read.

I’ve (almost) held to that committment ever since. There was a little three month radio silence relapse in the Spring of 2009, but other than that, the history nerddom has flowed like wine up in here. Over time I have developed several new obsessions y’all might recognize, most notably an insatiable greed for high resolution images, linking to any relevant source I can find, wandering around to barely related topics, and appreciating the more salacious or disgusting parts of any given story. Also poop. Poop is just the best. Note to self: it’s been way too long since I posted a poop story.

Thank you for bearing with my idiosyncracies all these years. Now onto the next decade!

:thanks: :love: :chicken: :love: :thanks:

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This is not an April Fool’s post

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Seriously. I don’t really do April Fool’s because I can never come up with anything clever. Last year my not even remotely fooling post was dismissed as a joke by one commenter because of the date, but the story was actually released a few days earlier and I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. So yeah, this year I’m holding the place so all y’all know there is no April Fool’s post.

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A Portrait of the Blogger as a Sick Puppy

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

With profuse apologies to James Joyce.

When you sweat the bed first it is warm and then it gets cold. Claaammy, Claaaaamy, Clammy’s in love. Kick them off! Kick them off! Ah, air. No no too cold. Covers. Covers and hot water bottle. Hug hot water bottle. Mmmmm warm… Why do my ribs hurt? I think I smell weird. Yeah, I definitely smell weird. Sweat. Gross. Fluids, fluids, fluids, bed rest. The water’s too cold. The tea is too hot. Oh god not sweat again. I ALREADY SMELL WEIRD.

Warm nourishing broth. I would like it to stay inside this time please. Ohh that’s why my ribs hurt. Sleep, sleep, fitful sleep. Sit up. Turn to side. The other side. Stomach? Nope nope nope nope definitely not stomach. Curled up in fetal. With trusty hot water bottle.

Through swimming eyes, 50 comments. Kind, thoughtful, funny. sweet. Warmer than a hot water bottle. I am suffused with gratitude.

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Calling in sick

Monday, January 25th, 2016

I am in the merciless grip of a stomach bug so the first time that I can recall, I’m going to have to take a sick day. Try not to miss me too much.

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The Year in History Blog History

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

The end of 2015 is upon us and so is what has become an annual tradition here, the Year in History Blog History. We had another milestone which, while the number was a tad on the random side, turned out to be my favorite milestone celebration ever. Why? Because we rang in six million pageviews with Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive but somehow still able to rock the double-knit polyester leisure suit. I was surprised and delighted to find so many comments from people who love the Six Million Dollar Man as much as I do. Engine block Steve Austin action figure 4EVA!

The most read story of the year going by pageviews was the one about the Dutch soccer hooligans vandalizing the newly restored Barcaccia fountain at the base of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Short on its heels was one of my favorite, if not the favorite, post of the year: the cuneiform tablet that added 20 more lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. The awesomeness of the Viking blacksmith’s grave drew the third largest numbers of views, and the momentous discovery of an archaic home from the 6th century B.C. underneath the Quirinale Hill in Rome came in fourth.

Number five on the list is also my favorite photograph of the year. It’s the CT scan of the cross-legged meditating Buddha statue that has a mummified person inside of it. I learned about the brutal process of self-mummification thanks to that post, which was horrifying and fascinating at the same time if not in equal measure, even though the CT scan showed the internal organs had been removed so the person inside the statue hadn’t actually gotten that way by starving, dehydrating and poisoning himself over the course of six years.

That post also corrected an error that was widespread in the general media coverage of the Buddha mummy, namely that its presence inside the statue was revealed by the CT scan. The statue was part of a traveling museum exhibition about mummies, so obviously the fact that there was a mummy inside the state was already known. That’s why they scanned it in the first place. Still, once a mistake like that gets into a headline or a lede, it’s almost impossible to carve it out. The days of a front page correction fixing the problem are over.

That goes double for a big mistake in History.com’s Today in History feature. I informed History.com that they had confused 18th century surveyor Andrew Ellicott with his great-grandson and dendrochronology pioneer Andrew Ellicott Douglass in their entry on the first recorded observation of a meteor shower in North America. I got an email back saying they were looking into it, but their erroneous article still stands. Perhaps they’ll have fixed it by the time November 12th comes around next year.

Another widespread story that needed some correcting is runner-up for favorite picture: the sale of the “world’s greatest cat painting.” Carl Kahler’s monumental 1893 painting of wealthy San Francisco socialite and philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson’s 43 cats sold for $826,000 made news all over the cat-loving Internet. Mrs. Johnson came off of her posthumous virality a little the worse for wear since apocryphal stories of her being a crazy cat lady with hundreds of cats roaming the house got repeated over and over again. In fact she was a thoughtful, devout, generous person who left valuable property and monies in her will to found a hospital for indigent women and children. That hospital still exists, albeit in a new location (the old one was felled in the 1906 earthquake) and under a new name.

It was a particular good year for film discoveries, I think. I don’t just mean lost films that were found hiding out in vaults, but personal discoveries, films that were known but that I discovered in 2015. The most important actual discovery of the year was the film of the 1915 Eastland disaster found in Dutch newsreels. The ship which killed 844 people when it capsized while still moored just feet from the bank of the Chicago River was captured in important photographs by groundbreaking photojournalist Jun Fujita, but this is the first film of the disaster known to have survived.

As far as personal finds go, I still laugh like an idiot at Douglas Fairbanks as the brave, clueless, high as a kite detective Coke Ennyday. That was a random surprise find. Finding The Daughter of Dawn on Netflix, on the other hand, was the happy outcome of years of checking in on the story. I’ve been anxious to see the rediscovered treasure since I first wrote about it in 2012, and much to my amazement, it did not disappoint even after years of buildup. It’s a great picture in many ways, capturing an era that was bygone even as it was being filmed.

My favorite videos of the year were all about the technology and procedure of historical preservation and exploration. First there was the all-too-brief view of how Historic Royal Palaces conservators go about washing the fragile 17th century tapestries under their care. With all the custom technology — the giant horizontal car wash made specifically for tapestries — the best part was how tenderly the conservators sponge away the dirt and blot away the moisture. The composite video made from synchroton X-ray imaging of a corroded 17th century metal box blew my mind purely from a tech standpoint. The detail and resolution of the images opens up a world of new possibilities for non-invasive exploration of artifacts that are otherwise too fragile to be touched.

Speaking of history and technology, the discovery that an eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon book of remedies for illness, kills MRSA superbug bacteria with ruthless efficiency could have enormous implications in our soon-to-be post-antibiotic world. There were some heartbreaking responses to that story from people who have lived for years with persistent infections and are desperate to find a solution. Here’s hoping the research gets all the support it needs going forward so they don’t have to crowdfund for a measly £1,000 to hire a summer intern.

Is it weird if I transition from bacterial infection to poop? Oh well, at least there’s some sort of segue in there, even if it is a pathogenic one. Let’s face, it’s not a good History Blog year without some good poop stories, like the 25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of the 14th c. tower in Rye, a medieval city on the English Channel coast. Also we saw the greatest of all updates to the story of the barrels of poop found in Odense, Denmark. Researchers sifting through compacted 14th century excrement one teaspoon at a time, a designated expert poop-sniffer, museum Smell-O-Vision: that post and its comment thread made me inordinately happy. As did the hidden pooper found in the 17th century Dutch painting by Royal Collection curators.

The hidden pooper may be my favorite restoration find, but my favorite artifact find of the year is probably the Roman owl fibula found on Danish island of Bornholm. Its bright enameled colors, rarity and sheer cuteness completely won me over. If Lorenzo ever graduates from making Mjölnir amulets out of his mom’s tea spoons into a full-fledged artifact reproduction business, I vote he make us a whole bunch of Bornholm owls.

Close seconds are the blackboards from 1917 discovered with beautiful chalk artwork and class exercises preserved in pristine condition in an Oklahoma City school and the 132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree in Great Basin National Park in the Snake mountains of eastern Nevada. Several comments on the latter story appreciated that I’d said conservators were keeping the rifle in its highly weathered condition “because it’s cool.” What’s funny is that I actually thought about it a lot when I was writing. I was going to break down all the reasons they’d decided not to restore it, but then I realized that it all boiled down to the same thing: because it’s cool. There are a million Winchester ’73s. This one stands out because some poor devil left it leaning against a tree for 130 years and now it looks kickass.

As far as precious metal finds go, the treasure of the year has to be the Bronze Age gold spirals found on Zealand, Denmark. They were found under a pile of gold coins and the spirals are so awesome they completely eclipsed the gold coin hoard. The comment thread on the spirals is particularly great too. Lots of interesting contributions from people who use or produce similar objects in embroidery and machining metal. The inscribed sword from the 13th or 14th century inspired a wealth of fascinating comments as well. Everyone likes a mystery, or at least we few, we nerdy few, we band of history-obsessed brothers do.

I also loved the comments on the story about the 7th century Christian skeletons found in front of the Temple of Concordia at Paestum because you were so enthusiastic about the fabulous hidden prostitute conspiracy story. One of the joys of writing this blog is when something that tickles me tickles y’all too. I love it even more when it’s a tangent that you pick up on rather than the main thread of the story. I’m not sure why. Validation that my meanderings were worthwhile, I suppose.

Sometimes the meandering becomes an entire post of its own, as in the case of Childeric’s treasure, a story I came across while researching something else I can’t remember anymore and that became something of an obsession for days. The story about Emily Post’s madcap road trip from coast to coast came about in much the same way.

It’s been a heartbreaking year for history lovers. The destruction of so much of our shared cultural heritage in the Middle East by terrorism and war is almost unbearable. The brutal murder of Khaled el-Asaad, a great man who dedicated his life to the historic patrimony of Syria and the gave his life for it too, was an agonizing loss to his family, colleagues and all the rest of us who where so beholden to him without even realizing it until he was gone.

In the end, it’s history itself that soothes me even in such dark times. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was facing the rubble of its own history, torn apart by total war. The sculptures and reliefs of Tell Halaf in Berlin were bombed to smithereens when the museum took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1943. Seventy years later, they were put back together.

Three years ago, author Hilary Mantel, author of the exceptional Tudor historical fiction Wolf Hall, gave a speech about the public’s relationship to royal families at a London Review of Books event. It made the news because some media outlets plucked quotes about the Duchess of Cambridge and made them out to be cruel criticisms of the former Kate Middleton rather than the astute and apposite observation about how people, spurred on by an obsessive press, fetishize her and box her in. It’s a great speech, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the discovery of the remains of Richard III.

Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king? Perhaps because the present is paying some of the debt it owes to the past, and science has come to the aid of history. The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity. This is the essential process of history, neatly illustrated: loss, retrieval.

I’ve thought of that last line so many times this year, as horrific destruction followed horrific destruction. What was lost can be found again, even if its original form is gone forever. That is what history does. That is what we do every time we read history. We find what was lost.

Thank you all so very much for reading and commenting and sending me the kindest compliments and hottest story tips. May your 2016 be glorious.

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Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.

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Boy it sure got quiet in here

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

At first I just assumed I’d bored everyone to death once and for all. When I found myself all alone nerding out over Richard III’s cortege for 18 hours or so, I was bummed, but still not suspicious. Yes, it took another three days of complete radio silence in my comments for it to dawn on me that something might just be rotten in technological Denmark. So I looked under the hood and lo and behold, the last comment was posted on March 16th and on March 17th I installed an update to the anti-spam plugin. Coincidence or just two things happening at the same time? Neither! There was, gasp, a causal relationship between the two events.

So now I have a new anti-spam plugin that is not dead set on silencing you and eviscerating my self-esteem. Group hug!

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