Archive for the ‘Ex Cathedra’ Category

Objects from Piceni princely grave go on display

Sunday, January 9th, 2022

Objects recovered from a high-status grave of the Piceni people discovered in Corinaldo, in the central Italian region of Le Marche, have gone on display for the first time. Unearthed in 2018, the princely chariot grave was unusual for the richness of its funerary furnishings and for its location in the north of Le Marche. Other monumental graves of the period found in Le Marche were in the south of the region.

The tomb’s presence was first discovered from the air, during an aerial survey performed as part of a preventive archeology campaign at a site scheduled for construction of a new sports complex. The flyover revealed ring ditches in the vegetation that are typical of large graves of high-ranking individuals in Piceni necropoli. They were likely tumuli (the mounds are now gone) and were ringed by moats.

The excavation unearthed a funerary complex with at least four circular tombs datable to between the 6th and 8th centuries B.C. The large tombs belonged to the elite and were richly furnished with grave goods, as a rule. Inside the central ring was a grave crammed with a mass of objects, including more than 100 ceramic vessels and an iron-wheeled chariot. It dates to the first half of the 7th century B.C.

A selection of 12 objects from the first batch of finds has now gone on temporary display in Corinaldo’s public art gallery. The artifacts were chosen as representations from two significant aspects of the lifestyle of the Piceni rich and famous: banqueting and war. Items on display include drinking vessels, skewers and andirons used to spit and cook meat, a bronze helmet, bronze greaves and one of two iron wheels from the chariot.

These are twelve pieces that best express the most representative ideological components of the trousseau and its multiplicity of meanings: a helmet and a greaves celebrate the dimension of political and military power, the chariot symbolizes land ownership, the funeral banquet ceremony is represented. from containers to accommodate and pour food and drinks, and the meat sacrifice with the practices of cutting and cooking dedicated animal meats is evoked by the ax, skewers and andirons.

The exhibition therefore aims to tell the public about this important archaeological discovery , making known even to non-specialists all the methodologies adopted and the long and laborious work that hides behind an excavation, paying homage to the local community which has always shown a profound interest and cultural involvement, in the hope that the project will merge into a permanent museum.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 31st, 2021

Here’s to a 2022 replete with long-delayed archaeological digs, museum exhibitions attended by record-breaking crowds and lots of history nerd-themed travel. And if circumstances continue to make such resolutions too hard to keep, then we’ll just have keep the nerdfires burning virtually right here. 😎

I hope your day was merry and bright

Saturday, December 25th, 2021

I could do without the white, though, truth be told. I shall return to my regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.  🙂

The eagle’s head made of Lincoln’s hair

Sunday, September 26th, 2021

In the collection of a small historical society in Syracuse, New York, is a unique and seldom-seen object: an 1864 eagle on a globe made entirely of hair contributed by leading politicians and their wives, most notably President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

It was created for the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, an exposition to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency supporting the sick and wounded soldiers of the United States Army. Local women’s charitable groups affiliated with the USSC had successfully thrown fairs before in Chicago and Boston, and the Beneficent Ladies of New York followed suit in April of 1864. (These unapproved initiatives caused some consternation among the all-male Commissioners at USSC headquarters in Washington, but they could not deny the hundreds of thousands of dollars the fairs brought in.)

When the Metropolitan Fair was still early in the planning stages — the venue hadn’t even been determined yet — the committee appealed to individuals and businesses in New York and around the world for contributions of money and exhibits to entice visitors and raise funds for the cause. The expositions had pavilions showcasing all kinds of militaria, memorabilia, crafts and curiosities with heavy emphasis on Union patriotism linking the dramatis personae of the Civil War (Grant’s sword) and Revolutionary War heroes (Washington’s camp chest).

According to press accounts of the Fair, Mrs. Caroline Wright, wife of the former Governor of Indiana and Senator Joseph A. Wright, commissioned Brooklyn jewelers Spies & Champney to create a national symbol out of the hair of nationally-important politicians. The letter Spies & Champney sent to President Lincoln in January 1864 soliciting “as large a lock as you can well spare” is in the Library of Congress.

It’s pretty remarkable that from January they were able to receive locks of hair from dozens of top politicians and their wives in time to weave such a large, intricate, detailed design which was completed and framed in time for exhibition at the Fair on April 4th. It hung on one of the piers of the Temple of Flora, the pavilion showcasing dramatic floral arrangements.

“The Hairy Eagle” was singled out for praise in the New York Herald‘s account of the fair printed on opening day, April 4th, 1864, issue.

The curiosities in the Fair may be numbered by the thousand; but of all the strange and curious things, the hairy eagle is, without doubt, entitled to take the highest flight. It has winged its way from Indiana, having been donated to the Fair by Mrs. Governor Wright, of that State. It measures about twelve inches in length, and the head, eyes and back bone of this curious bird are formed of hair from the head of President Lincoln. The bill is formed of Secretary Chase’s hair, being symbolical of greenbacks and other bills. The wing feathers are made of hair from the heads of thirty-four prominent Senators, arranged in the order of their age. The tail and parts of the body are also of hair. Crowning this airy nothing is a wreath formed of the hair of the wives of representative men. It will be hung at the front of the pillar on the right of the Floral Temple, and underneath will be a small book, in which all admirers of President Lincoln will be allowed to enter their names on paying one dollar for the privilege of doing so. The money will go for the benefit of the Fair. The eagle, together with the book of autographs, will ultimately be presented to President Lincoln.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper edition of April 23, 1864, sang the fair’s praises on the front page, and in a humorous take on the exhibits and visitors, recounted that the book had nothing like a thousand signatures yet. It also threw in a couple of burns on Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the only cabinet member not to contribute hair as he “had none to spare,” and Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania who was “innocent of a single hair, and has sported a wig for the last 20 years.”

Whether the goal of $1000 and 1000 signatures was met is unknown, but the report of the fair compiled three years later noted that the book was so popular 400 signatures and $400 were collected within the first three days of the Fair. We do know the Hairy Eagle was never presented to Mrs. Lincoln or the President. Instead, it hung in the window of the Champney & Smitten shop in Brooklyn for many years. It moved upstate in the 19teens with Francis Champney’s wife Ida. After his death, she moved to Syracuse to live with their daughter Mrs. Sarah Wanamaker. The family donated the Hairy Eagle to the Onondaga Historical Association some time before 1917. With the weaving she donated a key that maps and lists all the different hair contributors.

No OHA records of the acquisition survive, but one undated newspaper clipping in the OHA archives calls Ida’s gift “both historic and extremely artistic,” adding, “There is no better specimen of patience and wonderful intricate weaving.”

According to OHA curator Thomas H. Hunter, the wreath has never been loaned out to another organization. A man alleging to own an article of Lincoln’s bloodstained clothing once requested to remove some of the president’s hair from the sculpture for a DNA test, but as Hunter recalls with a droll smile, “I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.'”

Encased in a wood frame covered with convex glass, the Hairy Eagle’s reverse is covered with plaster of Paris. “Basically, it’s hermetically sealed; there’s never been any examination of [the wreath],” Hunter says. “If it were opened now, the deterioration process would be exponentially accelerated. … I would never want to chance that.”

The OHA only displays the Hairy Eagle only on rare special occasions to keep it out of the light as much as possible. The last time it was exhibited was February 2019 to celebrate the 210th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

House of the Muses to open to the public

Wednesday, August 18th, 2021

The House of the Muses, a Roman imperial-era domus decorated with elaborate mosaics and wall paintings, in the ancient city of Zeugma in southeastern Turkey’s Gaziantep province, will open to the public for the first time since it was discovered in 2007.

Built in the late 1st century, the villa was expanded and redecorated in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. It was destroyed by the invading Sassanids who sacked the city in 252/3 A.D., but its spectacular mosaic floors from the villa’s later period survived in excellent condition under the rubble fill. The house is named for perhaps the most specular of the mosaics: circular portraits of the Nine Museums bordered with geometric spirals and waves. Calliope, muse of epic poetry, is in the center circle.

Another floor mosaic found in 2014 depicts the Titan Oceanus, the divine personification of the world-encircling river, and his sister/wife Tethys, mother of all the river gods. They both have wings sprouting from their foreheads, traditional attributes of the sibling spouses, and she bears a ketos, a dragon-headed snake, on her shoulder. Relatively rare in Greek iconography, the couple became a popular motif in the eastern Greek provinces of the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 4th centuries. In Zeugma, they appear in mosaics of luxury homes as symbols of marriage. The muses were also associated with marriage, as according to mythology they descended from Olympus to dance and sing at marriages of divinities/heroes like Cadmus and Harmonia and Peleus and Thetis.

Earlier this year archaeologists revealed they’d found two symmetrical rock-cut chambers under 16 meters (52 feet) of fill. Flanking the east and west sides of the central courtyard, the chambers are hypothesized to have been dining rooms used to create an indoor-outdoor space for guests during all seasons.

Stating that the ancient city of Zeugma was one of the most important cities in Anatolia, especially on the Eastern Roman border, [excavation leader Professor Kutalmış] Görkay said that the excavations in the House of Muses, which have been ongoing since 2007, provided important information about the private lives, personal preferences and identities of the inhabitants of Zeugma.

“When we look at the places and the general structure of the house, we think that Zeugma belonged to a family having better than the middle-class economy. These houses may have one or two courtyards. Courtyards are areas where air and water enter, where rainwater is collected and used as water collection basins. In these wet areas, we see more water-related scenes. The courtyards of these houses were also used for dinner parties. The courtyards were filled with water, helping the house to stay cool during hot weather. The two rock chambers found here may also have been used as dining rooms. We are currently working on reinforcement. We aim to open them to visitors as soon as possible,” he said.

Much of the ancient town was flooded when the Birecik Dam was built over the Euphrates in 2000. Out of the estimated 2,000-3,000 ancient houses in Zeugma, 25 are fully submerged now, and archaeological excavations have barely scratched the surface of what remains. The House of the Museums will be an important addition to Zeugma’s heritage attractions which feature the largest mosaic museum in the world with more than 18,000 square feet of mosaics salvaged from the city.

Roman tomb stele found in ancient Parion

Monday, August 9th, 2021

A carved funerary stele dating to the 1st century has been unearthed in the ancient Greek city of Parion, Kemer Village, in northwestern Turkey’s Çanakkale province. It was discovered in the town’s southern necropolis in an area which had been damaged by mechanical diggers during construction of a primary school in 2004. Many of the graves were damaged in the process, but the stele and burial chamber of Tomb 6 were found in comparatively good condition covered with five large stones.

The stele is approximately three feet square and features a funerary banquet scene set inside an architectural border of fluted columns left and right. To the left is a seated female figure attended by a female servant (disproportionately small to distinguish attendants from their masters). Above her to the left is a calathus, a basket type used to hold skeins of wool or bring in the fruit harvest that was associated with women, marriage and fertility.

The central figure is a reclining man. Before him is a sturdy mensa Delphica, a tripod table with legs carved to look like animal legs. The table is heavy with fruit. To his right are two servants, one serving a beverage from a large krater, one groom with, presumably, the master’s horse. Above the servants to the right are a chest and box, representing the household’s wealth.

A Latin inscription on the bottom of the stele identifies the couple in the relief: “Lucius Furnius Lesbonax, who was freed by Lucius, had this burial stele built for himself and his wife, Furnia Sympnerusa.”

Four burials containing the remains of 10 individuals were discovered around Tomb 6. One was a child, the other nine were adults. Each individual was buried with their own separate grave goods.

Pointing out that the stele is a significant find, [excavation leader Professor Vedat] Keleş said: “This stele showed us that the southern necropolis of Parion was heavily used during the Roman and earlier periods. At the same time, when we look at the condition of the tomb stele and the city, it shows us that the ancient city was a rich one in the Roman period, as it was a colonial city.”

“The names on the stele are also very important. For instance, Lesbonax is not a Latin name. His wife’s name is also not a Latin name. These are Greek names. We can even say that Lesbonax was someone who lived on the island of Lesbos. We understood that they were slaves and were later given Roman citizenship. We understood that when the Romans came to this city, they enslaved those who were here and then gave them citizenship,” he added.

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.




December 2022


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