Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Scarf mourning Alexander Hamilton’s death goes under the hammer

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Scarf mourning the death of Alexander Hamilton, ca. 1804. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

An exceedingly rare cotton printed scarf mourning the death of Alexander Hamilton in 1804 will be coming up for auction on May 15th. The scarf is unusually large – 24″ x 20 1/2″ framed to 30 1/2″ x 27″ — and features two portraits of the Founding Father, one in portrait miniature style at the top in his Revolutionary War uniform, and one marble bust in Roman style in the central roundel. The bust is perched atop his tomb (a fantasy version, not his actual tomb) where women weep for the fallen hero. To their left is a small hut with palm trees, symbolizing Hamilton’s birth and childhood in Nevis. To the right is a tree with a cut limb, symbolizing his life cut short.

The portrait miniature hangs from the center of a ribbon held by an eagle on the left and cherubs on the right. Written on the banner is “IN MEMORY OF THE LAMENTED HAMILTON.” In the bottom left is a women with three children sitting under a tree, likely a representation of his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, and family, as the panegyric extolls him as “honourably united in marriage” and laments that “he has left behind him a numerous family to deplore the loss of his protecting arm and directive talents.” In the bottom right, a Black woman mourns at an effigied tomb or bier.

Among the text on the scarf is an encomium (middle left) that studiously avoids the words “duel,” “Aaron” or “Burr” even as it praises his life and recounts its loss.

Endowed with many noble qualities, high in rank as an Officer; enlightened and ardent as a Statesman; preeminent as a Lawyer; rever’d as a Citizen; beloved as a friend; affectionate as a Husband and Father. To the regret of all the great and good, this distinguished Character fell, in an unhappy rencounter, July 11th, 1804; in the 48th year of his AGE.

On the right side is an appeal to legislators to take action against the deadly practice of dueling. Again, the word “duel” does not appear.

Health and Honour to the Senator who shall devise the most effectual means of abolishing that fatal practice which deprived AMERICA prematurely of the talents and virtues of her much lamented HAMILTON!

The scarf has intersecting diagonal lines of stitching that indicate it was once incorporated into a quilt or bedspread. That only adds to its character as the sewing is discrete and does not interfere with the print which is in excellent condition. The only other known example of this scarf, now part of the collection of the Hamilton Grange National Memorial in Manhattan, has no stitching, but it has suffered significant fading and staining.

The pre-sale estimate is $20,000, but Hamilton memorabilia is insanely desirable due to the explosion of interest in the wake of the musical about his life. The Alexander Hamilton powder horn which bears his name and family iconography but is otherwise entirely devoid of any proven connection to the man himself, sold at auction in January 2016 for $115,620, including buyer’s premium.

I can’t let mention of the Hamilton Grange National Memorial pass without paying homage to the amazing feat of conservatorial skill that has saved and revitalized it. When Alexander Hamilton had his handsome Federal-style home built in 1802, it was on 32 bucolic acres in upper Manhattan. They didn’t remain bucolic, needless to say, and in 1889 the house was slated for demolition because it jutted into the street and was in the way of the development of the Manhattan’s street grid. Its neighbor, the Episcopal Church of St. Luke in the Fields bought the house and moved it two blocks away where it no longer impeded the grid.

It became a museum in 1933 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, but, hemmed in by an apartment building on one side and St. Luke’s on the other, many features of the home were obscured and it was in dire need of major restoration. So they moved it again. They jacked the whole house up, building Jenga-like wood block cribbing underneath it as it rose to sustain its weight. On June 7th, 2008, the Grange was moved at a snail’s pace one block east and one block south to its new location on St. Nicholas Park where it was once again in bucolic surroundings.

It was a much-covered event and I watched it in real time, but the blog was in its dormant phase before I would resurrect it in December of that year, so there was no post about the great move of the only house Alexander Hamilton ever owned. Now I right that wrong.

Here is a time-lapse video of Hamilton Grange 30 feet in the air being moved from its tight quarters between the apartments and church onto the street:

The six-hour move in 39 seconds:

Its installation on new foundations at St. Nicholas Park:


Thank you

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

Thank you all for reading, for your comments, for all the kindness and appreciation you’ve shown me this year. As 2020 took on its increasingly bubonic 1347 tinge, I tried as much as possible to keep the blog as unchanged in focus and consistency as it has been since I began posting daily 12 years ago. My wish was The History Blog could be for you (and me!) what Philosophy was for Boethius, who dealt with quite the lockdown of his own. I hope 2021 is a renaissance year for cultural heritage and that this blog, in its fractionally tiny way, can help support the revival of endeavours  that have been laid waste in 2020.

Happy New Year! Now let’s the get hell out of this one.


Two of Vesuvius’ victims found, cast

Saturday, November 21st, 2020

New plaster casts have been made of two victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in a villa on the outskirts of Pompeii. The skeletal remains of two adult men were found in a side room of the cryptoporticus at the suburban villa at Civita Giuliana about half a mile northwest of Pompeii’s city walls. This is the same villa where the remains of a purebred horse dressed with a bronze-plated saddle and tack, were found in the stables in 2018. A graffito discovered earlier this year suggests the estate may have belonged to a member of the wealthy and influential Mummius family.

The room where the two bodies were found is in the northwest residence where the family and guests lived. It’s next to the cryptoporticus below the terrace peristyle garden overlooking the Bay of Naples. A vaulted opening led from the cryptoporticus to a rectangular room that allowed access to the upper floor. The room was seven feet wide and of undetermined length. It had a wooden floor and was destroyed when the first stories of the house collapsed when it was slammed by the pyroclastic flow. Archaeologists first found the tell-tale hollows in the layers of hardened ash that were left behind after the soft tissues of the bodied decayed. Digging down through a small hole to preserve as much of the void as possible, archaeologists found the bones. Most of them were removed for analysis. Plaster was then poured into the voids to capture the shape of the bodies.

They were both in supine position. One was a young man between 18 and 25. He was approximately 5’1″ tall and evidence of compression of his vertebrae, unusual in someone so young, indicates he had carried out manual labour for a long time. The imprint of his clothing was left in the ash hollow and therefore on the cast. He was wearing a short tunic of heavy fabric, likely wool.  The tunic and bone damage suggests he may have been a slave. The other victim was found with his head turned, cheek in the hardened ash, his arms folded, hands on his chest, legs spread wide apart. He was older than the first victim, between 30 and 40, and an inch taller. He was more elaborately attired in a tunic topped with a woollen mantle.

Both died in the second pyroclastic flow. They and the other Pompeiians had survived the pumice rain that fell for 19 hours an the first pyroclastic flow that struck the town when the eruptive column collapsed. Vesuvius then tricked them by quieting down for about half an hour, just long enough to encourage the survivors to leave their hiding places and attempt to flee with their lives. The second pyroclastic flow hit with sudden fury, faster and far more powerful than the first, blowing through vertical walls, pancaking the tops of buildings into the bottoms and killing the people who had hoped to escape their fate. The flow appears to have flooded the room in the Civita Giuliana villa through multiple points of entry, engulfing the men in hot ash that would harden into their tomb. Their entire bodies were encased in a gray ash layer 6.5 feet deep created by the second flow.

Other voids were discovered in this room three or so feet from the victims. The hollows were manually examined and plaster poured into them revealing items that may have been lost during the attempted escape, mainly heaps of heavy, draped cloth. The wool clothes they were wearing and carrying are additional evidence that the eruption took place October 24-25, not the traditional August date that may be the result of a medieval translation error.

This video shows the process of opening the voids, pouring the plaster and excavating the casts.


Head of Hermes found in Athens sewer

Friday, November 20th, 2020

A marble bust of the Hermes, messenger of the gods, has been discovered during sewer construction in Athens, Greece. It is estimated to date from the end of the 4th century or early 3rd century B.C., when it was originally part of a herm, a rectangular pillar with a sculpted bust on top and genitalia at the base. Crews found the head on Friday, November 13th, built into the south wall of a modern drainage duct.

The newly-discovered bust is typical of the Hermes Propylaeus (Hermes of the Gateways) type created by ancient Greek sculptor Alcamenes in the mid-5th century B.C. and frequently copied throughout the Greco-Roman world. Alcamenes was known for blending elements of Archaic style from the 6th century B.C. with the greater expressive naturalism of Classical period. His Hermes couples the stylized curly hair and beard of an Archaic kore with the differentiated facial features of the Classical. Also typical of the Archaic style, Hermes is depicted in mature age. His iconography would shift in the later Classical and Hellenistic periods to depictions of the deity as a lissome young man.

Because Hermes with his winged sandals was the god who protected travelers on their journeys, herms were erected at boundaries, crossroads, gateways and graves. This herm was originally a crossroads or gateway marker in Athens and was recycled for use in the sewer drains many centuries later.

The work is in good condition despite its checkered past, and is now in the care of the Ephorate of Antiquities.


A brief update, with thanks

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

Many thanks to everyone who left such thoughtful and supportive comments on Tuesday’s Programming Note, and to everyone who waited with quiet patience for my return to history blogging.

Even in the midst of the on-going maelstrom, I can say without reservation that I loved working the polls on election day. It was nothing but good vibes from my fellow workers and from the voters. The youngest volunteer was just 16! He did a great job managing the lines.

Quite a few voters brought their children who were so excited to see how the process works. Some got to slide the ballot into the box for their parents and I made sure they got as many “I Voted” stickers, which were particularly cool and varied this year, as they wanted.

After the polls closed, I witnessed and signed the vote count along with two other members of the team, and I removed all the paper ballots from the ballot box for delivery to city hall. I found it genuinely affecting to be literally elbows deep in the physical manifestations of democracy. And here’s a cool discovery I never expected or even entered the antechamber of my mind: thousands of paper ballots smell wonderful. You know how some coffee table books with thick paper and fine ink smell amazing? It was like that but a hundred times stronger.


Programming note

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020

I’m volunteering as a poll worker, and since the call time is 5AM and we don’t leave the premises until the polls close at 8PM, I won’t have time to write today. Posting will resume as normal on Wednesday. (Assuming I don’t sleep all day. Which I might, as I am going to need to ingest industrial quantities of coffee to make it through today.) 


Possible French Revolution bones found in memorial chapel wall

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

Osteological remains believed to date to the French Revolution have been found in the wall of the Chapelle Expiatoire, a memorial chapel dedicated to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette built on the site of a cemetery where they were buried after they were guillotined.

Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz, the chapel’s administrator, turned historical detective after he noticed curious anomalies in the walls between the columns of the lower chapel. Anxious not to damage the building’s foundations, the French authorities called in an archaeologist, who inserted a camera through the stones in the walls.

In his report, archaeologist Philippe Charlier confirmed Peniguet de Stoutz’s hypothesis: “The lower chapel contains four ossuaries made of wooden boxes, probably stretched out with leather, filled with human bones,” he wrote. “There is earth mixed with fragments of bones.”

The Madeleine Cemetery had been in use for less than 75 years when it was shuttered by the Revolutionary government in 1794 after residents complained about the stench. It opened in 1721 and received an average of about 160 new burials a year. Those figures were eclipsed by tragedy in 1770 after 132/3 people died when a fireworks display on Place Louis XV (modern-day Place de la Concorde) celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette went awry and a stampede ensued.

Come the Revolution, the plodding pace of burials picked up briskly. Part of the Revolutionary agenda was the creation of large extramural cemeteries to replace the hundreds of insalubrious, shoddily-maintained churchyards grossing up the city, but the death toll of Revolution necessitated a more immediate solution. La Madeleine fit the bill nicely. It was a ten minute stroll from the former Place Louis XV, now renamed Place de la Révolution, where the guillotine was erected. As a relatively new cemetery, it still had space for inhumations. It was also walled in, keeping the ugly work of the constant grave-digging and body dumping away from prying eyes.

Some of the victims of the Revolution believed to have been buried there are the Madame du Barry, more than 600 Swiss guards killed defending the royal family in the Tuileries Palace during the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, more than a thousand prisoners killed in the September Massacres including Marie Antoinette’s closest friend the Princess de Lamballe, the Duke of Orléans aka Phillipe Égalité, dozens of Girondists, Charlotte Corday and last but not least, Jacques Hébert and his followers who were buried there on March 24th, 1794, right before the cemetery’s closure.

Walls notwithstanding, people were definitely watching the Revolution’s body count get buried and watching very closely at that. In 1802, Olivier Desclozeaux, a royalist who had lived next door to the cemetery since 1789, bought the land. He claimed to have seen where the guillotined bodies of King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette had been buried and paid his respects by planting trees and hedges around the burial site. He sold the land to Louis XVIII in 1815 and the king had the remains of his older brother Louis XVI and his queen moved to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the ancient necropolis of the kings of France. The next year Louis XVIII commissioned construction of the Chapelle Expiatoire where his brother’s remains had once lain. It was completed in 1826.

The Madeleine cemetery was only fully cleared in 1844. All extant bones were removed to the West Ossuary. When it was closed in 1859, the bones moved to their final resting place: the Catacombs of Paris. Today a plaque notes the stack of bones said to have come from Madeleine.

There is no way of knowing whether the bones in the chapel wall were the remains of guillotined aristocrats, Swiss guards, revolutionaries killed by other revolutionaries, victims of the fireworks debacle or any of the regular 160 yearly burials that took place at the Madeleine Cemetery from 1721. Louis XVIII ordered that “no earth saturated with victims [of the revolution] be moved from the place for the building of the [Chapelle Expiatoire],” but it seems somebody involved in the construction didn’t follow directions, probably because the exigencies of building over a cemetery required a little flexibility lest the remains be destroyed in construction.


Young girl’s graffiti points to villa owner

Friday, June 5th, 2020

The name of a young girl scratched on the frescoed wall of a luxury villa in Pompeii has proven to be an invaluable clue to the home’s owner. A graffito of the name “Mummia” was found 4.5 feet above the floor on one of the interior walls of the villa. The low height of the name indicates the graffiti artist was a child, probably Mummia herself and likely a member of the family to be so bold as to write on the finely painted walls.

Mummia is the female version of the gens (family name) Mummius. By Roman naming conventions, the praenomen (personal name) of girls was usually the female version of the family name, so it’s likely the girl who scribbled on the wall was Mummia Mummius. The plebian Mummius family came to prominence in the 2nd century B.C. when Lucius Mummius was the first of the family to be elected consul in 146 B.C. As consul, he led the Roman army in the Achaean War against Greece and conquered Corinth with scorching brutality. He was granted a triumph upon his return to Rome and received the agnomen Achaicus in recognition of his conquest. He was the first New Man (someone with no consuls in his ancestry) to be so honored.

Among the women of the gens, only one Mummia has a notable presence in the history books. Mummia  Achaica, great-grandaughter of the general, was the mother of the emperor Servius Galba who took the throne after the suicide of Nero. His brief reign from June 68 A.D. to January 60 A.D. ushered in the Year of the Four Emperors.

The villa north of the city walls was first discovered in 2018 and made the news for the discovery of three sets of horse remains, including the first confirmed horse ever discovered in Pompeii. Archaeologists began the excavation as an emergency salvage operation after looting tunnels under the house imperiled its structural stability. They first unearthed the service rooms of the grand suburban villa, including stables and servants’ quarters. Continuing excavations this year have brought to life the family’s living space. The team has unearthed beautifully frescoed vault of a large cryptoporticus which has yet to be fully explored. Mummia’s handiwork was discovered on one of the walls of the cryptoporticus.

When the stable was discovered in 2018, archaeologists deduced from the thoroughbred horse, bronze plated saddle and tack that the villa must have belonged to a military officer of high rank. Thanks to that scamp Mummia, we now have solid evidence that officer was a member of the Mummius family. They held a number of important political and military officers in the 1st century before Pompeii was destroyed. One of them, Mummius Lupercus, fought the rebellious Germanic Batavi in 69 A.D., just 10 years before the eruption of Vesuvius. (He was defeated, captured and killed, so if the villa had been his, it wasn’t anymore by the time that horse was saddled to take his master out harm’s way. The horse didn’t make it, so his master probably didn’t either.)


Roman leather toy mouse found in Vindolanda scrap bag

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

Curators at the Vindolanda Museum have discovered a Roman leather mouse in a bag full of scraps and off cuts. The flat piece of leather cut in the shape of a mouse dates to the early 2nd century. It is an angular, geometric outline and rather fat-tailed, reminiscent more of an Escher lizard than a mouse at first glance, but upon closer inspection there are dashes indicating hairs on the body and down the tail.

There are more than 7,000 leather objects in the museum’s collection, preserved in the anaerobic soil of the ancient fort site. Some of the Roman leather pieces now on display at the Vindolanda Museum are tents panels, patches, bags and enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos blush. Excavations have also unearthed many leather scraps which are in storage, not notable enough on their own to warrant going on display. Curators discovered the mouse in a box of leather offcuts and scraps that had been found in the period IV/V residence of the  commanding officer in 1993. That dates the mouse to around 105-130 A.D.

The Trust’s Curator, Barbara Birley said “One of the most wonderful things about the Vindolanda collection is that we never know what we are going to find next. Even though we have had to delay the start of our 2020 excavations this year we see the collection still has hidden treasures to be revealed. Although we have a significant amount of evidence of children at Vindolanda we have very few toys, it would be wonderful if this little mouse had been a toy and a source of entertainment for a child here on the northern frontier”.

Real mice were indeed everywhere in ancient Vindolanda, in every fort, likely to be present in all houses and spaces and would have been a consistent pest and companion to the people who lived there. When the Vindolanda granaries were excavated in 2008, the bones from thousands of dead mice were uncovered below the floors of the building, where they had been living and feasting on the ears of grain that dropped between the flagstones. It is quite wonderful that someone 2,000 years ago crafted this toy mouse from leather, in the knowledge that their creation would not have sharp teeth nor eat them out of house and home.

The museum will study and conserve the newly-discovered rodent and will then put it on display in the leather case.


Prince’s seal found at Ming battlefield site

Thursday, May 7th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed an incredibly rare gold seal belonging to a prince of the Ming Dynasty at the site of a 17th century battlefield in Jiangkou Township, Sichuan Province, southwest China. The square seal is made of all but solid gold (95%) and is four inches square and more than an inch thick. On top is a large knob handle in the shape of a tortoise. The characters on the underside of the seal read “Shu Shi Zi Bao.” Shu is the Ming-era name for the modern-day province of Sichuan and “Shi Zi” is the title for the first son of a prince.

The Jiangkou Chenyin historic site on the banks of the Minjiang river was pilfered by looters first. In 2016, police opened an investigation after a proliferation of extremely rare gold and silver Ming artifacts began to pop up on the black market. The investigation bore rich fruit — 10 looting gangs and 70 traffickers were busted, hundreds of artifacts recovered — and the subsequent archaeological investigation bore even richer fruit. Within two months, the 2017 dig discovered more than 10,000 artifacts. The 2018 and 2019 seasons unearthed another 42,000.

Objects retrieved include earrings, finger rings, bracelets, clasps, bullion, coins, and decorative objects in gold and silver. One gold coin is a medallion bearing the name of rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong who would have gifted it to a subordinate for a military success. Some of the silver bullion is stamped with the name of the local government under Zhang’s brief rule. A Ming-era firearm discovered last year was joined this year by the discovery of lead balls of different sizes.

The gold seal of Zhang Xianzhong, the most important artifact from the site that was looted, sold to a private collector and recovered by police in 2016, was discovered in two parts. The tiger handle had broken off cleanly from the square seal. The gold seal discovered in this year’s dig, on the other hand, has multiple cut marks and was found in several pieces. The writing is also more worn than the pristine writing on Zhang’s seal. Much of the damage was likely inflicted before it fell in the river when the prince’s seal was looted by Zhang’s forces.

These rich finds are of archaeological significance beyond their artifact value because they add important information to what we know about Ming Dynasty metal craft, fiscal systems, military technology and governance during the troubled final years of its rule that gave rise to Zhang Xianzhong and the peasant revolt he joined.

This year’s dig was the last. The artifacts will be conserved and stored for now while a new museum is built to house the massive collection of precious Ming objects. Construction is slated to begin at the end of the year and is expected to be completed in three.





August 2022


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