Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Dracula’s cannonballs found

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov, Bulgaria, have unearthed cannonballs likely used by Wallacian Voivode Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlas Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, during his assault on the fortress in 1461. The balls were shot from culverins, early cannons that evolved from hand-held weapons (ancestors of the musket) to field artillery. They were in use just up to the beginning of the 16th century. The balls were discovered in the layer dating to the 15th-16th century.

“What’s really interesting is that from the [early] Ottoman period we have found cannonballs. We rejoice at those small cannonballs because they are from culverins. These were the earliest cannons which were for the 15th century, up until the 16th century, they weren’t in use after that. These were still very imperfect cannons. That was precisely the time of Vlad Dracula, there is no doubt that they are connected with the siege [and conquest of the Zishtova Fortress] by Vlad Dracula in 1461,” [Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia] says.

The fortress is on a hill in the center of the town. It dates to the 13th-14th century, but the hill’s strategic location with clear views to the east, west and north has ensured its constant occupation since the Romans built the first fortress there in the 4th century. In 1389 it was besieged by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I commanded by Grand Vizier Çandarlızade Ali Pasha, only falling when the last of its supplies ran out. Pasha’s campaign forced Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shisman to surrender to the Ottoman Turks and while fighting would continue in some areas for another five years, Bulgaria would remain largely under Ottoman control from that point until the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Ottoman chronicles record Vlad Dracula’s capture of Zishtova Fortress, and in a letter Vlad wrote to the King of Hungary Matthias Corvinus in February of 1462 he boasts of having killed 410 Turks during the siege.  It seems he lived in the fortress for a few months that winter as well.

The fortress didn’t make it the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878. It was partially destroyed during the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-1812 after the surrender of the Ottoman garrison. Russian General Kamensky ordered it burned down so that the Turks could never reoccupy it.  Sturdily built, the fortress held up quite well to the fire. Significant parts of it were still standing until 1850 when the stones were pillaged to build a new barracks for the Turkish army.

Even so, the ruins of the fortress are in better shape than you might think. Professor Ovcharov notes that Zishtova Fortress has high sections of wall still standing making one of the best preserved in Bulgaria.


1,000-year-old sarcophagus opened in Mainz

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Lid of sarcophagus raised. Photo by ANDREAS ARNOLD/AFP/Getty Images.An international team of researchers has opened a 1,000-year-old sarcophagus buried under the floor of St. John’s Church in Mainz, Germany. The team had to work very quickly to document and analyze the contents and reseal the sarcophagus out of respect for the dead and to complete their work before exposure to air damaged any remains. It took months of planning to organize the complex procedure. First, the lid of the sarcophagus, which weighs 1,540 pounds, was lifted using a pulley system. Then 14 researchers from different specialties — anthropologists, metallurgists and textile experts, radiologists, etc. — went to work examining what was inside.

They were hoping to find the remains of Archbishop Erkanbald, Bishop of Mainz from 1011 until his death in 1021, but the only human remains were fragments of bones. It seems the body was covered in quicklime before the sarcophagus was closed to accelerate decomposition. It worked. Not even teeth remain. The radiologists on the team who were present to do immediate X-rays of the bones went home unfulfilled.

They did find sections of gold textiles near the head and lower leg, evidence that the individual was buried wearing very fine headgear and robes. Scraps of cloth shoes made from high quality fabric were also found. The gold fabric near the head could be all that remains of a bishop’s hat. The placement of the burial in the central nave pointed towards the altar indicates he was certainly a high church official.

St. John’s is the oldest extant church in Mainz and the only surviving example of late Carolingian cathedral architecture in the country. The Catholic diocese of Mainz and the Protestant church hoped opening the sarcophagus would reveal new information about the church’s early history. If the bishop was indeed inside that sarcophagus, that would confirm that St. John’s was the first cathedral church of Mainz, the seat of the bishop before it was moved to the current Cathedral of Mainz in 1036.

The sarcophagus may yet give up its secrets. In the next few days it will be scanned with a metal detector. If there’s a ring inside, it could confirm that the person laid to rest was indeed Bishop Erkanbald. Tissue and bone samples will be DNA tested and radiocarbon dated.

Furthermore, the sarcophagus itself is of singular interest. There is evidence that it was altered significantly before its burial in the church. The design of the interior was chiseled off. It’s possible it was used twice and had to be enlarged to make space for the clergyman. Whatever was done to it was done before the burial. The sarcophagus has not been opened or interfered with in any way since it was placed under the floor of the church 1,000 years ago.

The sarcophagus will be open in public view this weekend only.


Long-lost Lewis Chessman for sale

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

A Lewis Chessman whose whereabouts, nay, very existence, were unknown for almost 200 years has been identified and will be sold at auction next month. Picture it: the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, April, 1831. There, on the inlet of Uig Strand, a hoard of 93 objects was unearthed under nebulous circumstances that quickly became more legend than fact. It was a collection of 93 chessmen, pawns and tablemen (circular game pieces), plus one random belt buckle. That’s enough for almost four complete sets of figure pieces. Most of them were carved out of walrus ivory, likely in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th or 13th century.

Whatever the true story of their discovery, the Lewis Chessmen made their international debut at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1831. A merchant named Roderick Pirie was the first named owner. He sold them to an Edinburgh dealer for £30. That dealer sold 10 of them to antiquary and artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and 81 of them to Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Sharpe was able to acquire an 11th piece after his original purchase. Today, Sharpe’s chessmen are part of the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The British Museum has a total of 82 of the original 93 pieces.

But were there really only 93 pieces unearthed? The mystery attendant the find and the five figure pieces (one knight and four warders, ie, rooks in the modern game) missing to complete the four sets left open the possibility that there could be floaters out there. That possibility has now become fact as for the first time a new Lewis Chessmen Warder has emerged.

It was bought for £5 in 1964 by an Edinburgh antiques dealer. He did not realize the treasure he had found. It has been his family ever since, beloved, even revered as an artifact with almost magical properties. His grandchildren, who prefer to remain anonymous what with having hit the antiquities lottery and all, took it to Sotheby’s for appraisal.

Sotheby’s expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said his “jaw dropped” when he realised what they had in their possession.

“They brought it in for assessment,” he said. “That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations.

“We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it’s not worth very much.

“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis Chessmen’.”

The warder is being offered for sale at Sotheby’s Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on July 2nd in London. The pre-sale estimate is £600,000-1,000,000 which looks way low to me, but we’ll see. This is the first time one of the Lewis Chessmen will have appeared on the auction block. Will it come to blows between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland? Will a deep-pocketed private party foil them both? Man, I hope they livestream the bidding.


Hoard of 15th c. coins found in Dijon

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

A hoard of coins from the late 15th century has been unearthed in downtown Dijon. National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) archaeologists were surveying a site near Saint Bégnine Abbey when they discovered 34 gold and silver coins buried in the remains of a stone house. The house was built in the late 15th or early 16th century and the coins were cached under the floor near a wall.

Of the 34 coins, 10 are gold, 24 silver. They were put in a small bronze box, now surviving only in part due to damaged by development in the 20th century. Also included in the box was a green and white enamelled gold pendant. Corrosion had clumped the coins together into a single group.

INRAP conservators were able to separate and clean them in the laboratory. They found that all the coins date to the second half of the 15th century and were issued from states in Italy (Papal States, Ferrara, Milan, Venice) and the Holy Roman Empire (Brabant, Savoy, the Palatinate). The oldest is a gold coin issued by Brabant between 1432 and 1467. The newest is a gold coin issued by Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492). Their condition suggests they were stashed before seeing much of any circulation.

There is only one French coin, issued by King Louis XI. Italian coins dominate, with silver testones issued by the Sforza in Milan the best represented.

This deposit is of great numismatic interest. Very few examples of some of these coins are known. They often testify, especially among the Italian princes, to a strong personalization of the iconography, inherited in part from the codes of the Roman Empire. This iconographic “revival” participates in the styles of the Italian Renaissance. These often heavy and high-quality coins show the power of these Lords and their motivation to make reference currencies.

Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Philip Ist of Palatinate, Pope Innocent VIII, Louis XI, the Doge Nicolo Tron, Philip the Good, Duc de Bourgogne, etc… This deposit resembles a catalog of the great princes of the late Middle Ages.

This set of coins also constitutes a precious testimony of the frequentation of the area at the end of the 15th century. The origins of the coins, the relative richness of the lot — perhaps the savings of a family gradually acquired over fifteen or so years — reflects the social market sphere and the European trading world. The issuing locations cover regions that played a major role in the European trade of the time or were in connection with the Burgundy world (Brabant, Northern Italy, etc.).

The pendant is a wedding medallion. It had two initials (a V and a C) connected by a golden cord. This was a popular type in the late Middle Ages and is common in wedding portraiture. It’s a handsome piece, but not made of the kind of expensive materials seen in aristocratic courts. It suggests the owners of the hoard were wealthy but did not mix in the highest ranks of the elite. They could have been petty nobility or members of the increasingly moneyed bourgeoisie.

The precise circumstances of the deposit remain uncertain, but this handful of coins reflects the end of the century in Dijon with the fall of Charles the Bold, the annexation of the Duchy of Burgundy, the arrival of the troops of the King of France in the walls of Dijon while beyond the Alps, the sounds of the wars of Italy are heard.


Prittlewell burial keeps some secrets, tells others

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

In the fall of 2003, archaeologists surveying the site of future road widening project near Prittlewell, south Essex, spotted a piece of bronze sticking up out of the ground. The ensuing excavation found that the bit of bronze marked the spot of an Anglo-Saxon chamber burial of exceptional wealth and historical significance. While the skeletal remains were gone, devoured by the acidic soil that had made its way into the wooden sides of the tomb, more than 60 objects were found, among them an iron folding stool, several bronze vessels, drinking cups made of wood (some surviving) and gold, blue glass jars, a gold buckle, gold foil crosses, traces of a wood lyre, a sword and shield. The chamber was in such good condition that copper-alloy bowls were found still hanging from hooks in the walls. All of the grave’s many furnishings were in the original position they’d been placed in on the day of the burial.

The richness of the grave goods and the size of the burial chamber (13 feet square and five feet high) strongly suggested the deceased was someone of great importance, likely royalty. The placement of the gold foil crosses pointed to them having been laid on the body, perhaps the eyes, or stitched to a shroud that covered it. Archaeologists hypothesized that the deceased was an Anglo-Saxon king on the cusp of the transition from paganism to Christianity. The crosses were symbols of his new religion, but the plethora of grave goods were a nod to traditional funerary practices which furnished graves with objects of use to the deceased in the afterlife and ones symbolizing his rank.

There was some speculation about which king this might have been, and there weren’t a lot of options so the likeliest candidates were Saebert,  King of Essex (converted to Christianity in 604, died in 616), or Sigeberht II,  King of the East Saxons (converted in 653, died ca. 661).

A meticulous excavation followed by years of analysis by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) of the archaeological material from the Prittlewell burial has put the kibosh on both those possibilities. Researchers were able to get radiocarbon dates from the sparse organic remains, wood fragments attached to metal decorations on a drinking horn and wooden cup, using accelerator mass spectroscopy which only requires a miniscule sample of material and yields high-precision results. The Prittlewell burial took place 575 and 605 A.D., excluding both of the candidates believed to have been the first East Saxon kings to convert to Christianity.

The radiocarbon date range can be narrowed down a little further from stylistic analysis of the grave goods and coins which point to the burial dating to the last two decades of the 6th century. If true, it could even predate the dawn of Christianity in Essex. St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived to convert the East Saxons in 597. Not that there couldn’t have been less direct avenues to conversion before then. The Britons had been converted to Christianity during Roman rule and while they were completely walled off from the Roman Church by the Anglo-Saxon invasions, they were still there and still Christian. Also, Aethelbert, King of Kent, married a Frankish princess who was not only a Christian but the great-grandaughter of a saint. She brought a bishop with her when they married in 580 A.D. to ensure she could practice her religion and is believed to exerted a great deal of influence on the spread of Christianity in Britain long before the arrival of St. Augustine. Aethelbert’s sister married Saebert’s father.

The person’s identity will remain unknown unless some future technology makes it possible to solve the mystery. All that remains of the body are tiny fragments of tooth enamel. The type of buckles and the weapons in the grave suggest the deceased was male, and judging from the placement of the belt buckle, garter buckles and the crosses over his eyes, he was about 5’8″.

Even more extraordinary finds were made in the soil of the grave which was lifted en bloc so it could be micro-excavated in the lab. A few scraps of wood from a decayed object thought to be a box lid revealed themselves to be the only known surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork. The maple wood is decorated with a yellow border in a ladder pattern and two ovals, one white, one red, filled with a cross-hatch.

There weren’t even scraps of wood left of another one-of-a-kind discovery: an Anglo-Saxon lyre. All that was left of it was a stain in the soil containing tiny bits of wood and two copper discs inlaid with garnets that had riveted the yoke of the lyre to the arm, still in their original positions. The wood of the lyre was maple with a hollow sound box and the tuning pegs were made from ash wood. Raman spectroscopy identified the garnets in the center of the metal fittings as having originated in India or Sri Lanka. There was also a copper vessel from Syria and two gold coins from Merovingian France, so clearly the young man had access to the finest, most expensive imports money could buy.

Artifacts found in the Prittlewell burial will go on display at Southend Central Museum starting Saturday, May 11th. To learn more about the burial and its unique treasures, check out the excellent dedicated website MOLA has created.


Cracks in Viking Gokstad ship cause alarm

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

The largest preserved Viking ship in Norway, the Gokstad ship at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, is cracking. Two large cracks have appeared and museum conservators are sounding the alarm that the ship needs a comprehensive change to its support infrastructure before disaster strikes.

“When 1,000-year-old ship planks begin to weaken, the situation is extremely serious,” said Håkon Glørstad, director of the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History that’s responsible for the Viking ships. “Wood that’s so old doesn’t have the same flexibility as modern wood and can totally collapse, quickly and without warning.”

Glørstad told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday that in its current location, “we can’t develop the overall support systems needed to secure the ship’s entire hull.” He said the current base is no longer adequate and the space around the ship too confined.

The bow and the stern are the most unstable parts of the ship. The rest of the hull is braced by a wood base and 12 additional supports. The bow didn’t get its own supports until last year when three were installed to help contain the shifts in movement that cause cracking. Last month supports were added to the stern.

The new supports have sensor technology that allow them to pull double-duty: keeping the ship as stable as possible and measuring its movements. The data revealed that the Gokstad ship is experiencing significant vertical and horizontal movements, enough to move the ship millimeters in both directions. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s huge in conservation terms and significantly above the limit of what a ship built in the 820s and buried for a thousand years can withstand.

Extra supports are only an emergency measure for the short-term. The Norwegian government has allocated funds to construct a new state-of-the-art building a hundred yards from the current one, but the grant hasn’t come through yet and construction can’t begin until it has. The most optimistic projection of when the new facility will be complete is 2025.

The Gokstad ship was unearthed in 1880 in Sandefjord, Vestfold, southeastern Norway. The mound where it was found was on a farm, and the sons of the owner began digging it out of the frozen ground looking for a royal treasure that was rumored to be buried there. Archaeologists were able to take over the job and unearthed the 9th century clinker-built ship, the remains of an adult man with cutting wounds indicating death in battle and highly significant grave goods although any gold, silver or weapons buried with him had been looted centuries earlier. It has been on display at the museum since 1932.

The other two Viking ships in the museum, the elaborately decorated Oseberg ship (discovered in 1903) and the Tune warship (the first Viking ship ever excavated, discovered in 1867), are more stable at the moment, but Oseberg’s enormous complement of wood artifacts have dangerously softened because of the alum treatment they received in 1904. Experts have been working non-stop since 2014 on saving them. The long-term condition, even survival, of the ships and their contents require that issues be addressed as they arise, not years in the future.


Wild boars unearth medieval coin hoard in Slovakia

Saturday, April 27th, 2019

Wild boar can now join badgers as some of the most effective archaeologists of the animal kingdom. Diligent boars in the Choč mountain near Likavka, Slovakia, unearthed a large hoard of silver coins and two gold coins from the late 15th, early 16th century and then generously left them behind for a nice married couple to find during a hike. The couple had the presence of mind not to touch the coins. They alerted archaeologists and waited for three hours at the find site to ensure somebody less morally upright than they and the boars wouldn’t interfere with the treasure.

Because of the couple’s responsible approach, Slovakian archaeologists had the extremely rare opportunity to excavate a coin hoard in situ. Usually they only see them when people show up to their offices with bags of loot and dump them out on their desks. Over an area of two square meters (about 21 square feet), archaeologists recovered more than 1600 silver Hungarian denarii.

In the shallow hole, there was the broken clay bottom of a jug with coins that were, thanks to corrosion, attached to the remains of the fabric on the inner side of the jug. Nearby, there was a metal pot-lid.

The treasure was covered by a fine layer of soil. We can assume that the person who covered the coins was in hurry. The treasure was located near to an historical trade road.

Researchers suspect that the coins were buried around 1527, a year in which a dynastic conflict over the Hungarian throne broke out between Ferdinand of Habsburg, (brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and  John Zápolya, Voivode of Transylvania. John was crowned king by one faction of nobles, Ferdinand by another. While John was busy dealing with a peasant uprising, Ferdinand invaded Hungary. In September of 1527, Ferdinand’s forces, mostly German and Austrian mercenaries but with a few thousand allied Hungarian troops, soundly spanked John Zápolya’s Hungarian army. Ferdinand was crowned King of Hungary on November 3rd, 1527, but the upheavals were far from over. Zápolya regrouped and returned in 1528 with a new army. Ferdinand defeated him again, and this time Zápolya turned to the Ottoman Empire to fight his battles for him. By 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent had not only kicked the Germans and Austrians out of Hungary but was laying siege to Vienna.

Whoever buried this hoard had a lot to lose in this war-torn period. A labourer at that time earned between 6 and 10 silver coins per day. They’d never see a single gold coin in their life and certainly wouldn’t be able to get their hands on two of them on top of thousands of silver ones.

The coins are still being counted and cleaned. Once they’ve been thoroughly documented and researched, the hoard will be exhibited in the Liptov museum in Ruzomberok. As for the finders (the human ones), they will reap the rewards of their conscientiousness.  The monetary value of the coins will be determined by experts, and because the finders acted in total accordance with cultural heritages laws by leaving the treasure at the find site and calling archaeologists, they have earned the right to a finder’s fee in the amount of 100% of the market value. I hope they buy the boars some acorns or carrion or something with some of that cash.


Did the Inca loot ancient mummies?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

Excavations at the ancient site of Pachacamac on the Pacific coast of Peru have unearthed a 1,000-year-old cemetery. Université Libre de Bruxelles’s Center for Archaeological Research (CReA-Patrimoine) have been excavating the site 25 miles southeast of Lima for 15 years and have found numerous cemeteries. This one is in an area of the archaeological site that hasn’t been excavated before.

[The team] found a cluster of burials in foetal positions, wrapped in numerous layers of plant materials, nets and textiles.

“These burials were interred in groups” says Professor Peter Eeckhout (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB) – director of the Ychsma Project – “interred in deep pits sunk into the sand, accompanied with ceramics and other offerings, then covered with wood and rushwork roofs”.

Previous excavations have found an unusually high proportion of disease in the skeletal remains. Inca sources claim the city was a religious center with a reputation for healing, making it a pilgrimage site for people suffering from illness. The latest find confirms those accounts. Physical anthropologist Dr. Lawrence Owens led the team that examined the remains.

“Most of the people at the site had hard lives, with various fractures, bad backs, bad hips…but the individuals from this cemetery show a higher than usual concentration of tuberculosis, syphilis and really serious bone breaks that would have had major impacts on their lives. Still, the fact that most of these are healed – and that disease sufferers survived for a long time – suggests that they were being cared for, and that even in the sites’ early history people felt a duty of care towards those less fortunate than themselves”.

Pachacamac was founded by the Wari around 200 A.D., but most of the major public buildings and temples were constructed by the Lima and Ychsma cultures between 800 and 1450 when the polity was absorbed into the Inca Confederacy. The Inca respected the local creator god and the city’s namesake Pacha Kamaq, incorporating him into their pantheon albeit as secondary to the Incan creator god Viracocha. They built several new temples in the city, expanding the facilities for pilgrims and spreading its reputation as religious healing center throughout the Confederacy.

As with most of the mummy bundles unearthed at Pachacamac (one salient exception was found last year), the ones found in the recently-discovered cemetery are not intact. They were damaged during the construction of a large building above the cemetery under Inca rule. It’s not just general damage caused by building work or the extensive looting that took place in the 17th century after the Spanish conquest. There is evidence here of targeted action against the mummies. Almost all of the mummies are missing their heads and some other specific parts.

This strongly suggests the Inca deliberately desecrated the city’s ancient dead, perhaps harvesting them for their own religious purposes. The Inca treated their own graves with reverence, but they were not related to the ancient peoples of Pachacamac and while they promoted some of the local traditions, they didn’t revere their dead as they did their own ancestors.


Treasures emerge from Rijksmuseum storage

Friday, April 19th, 2019

The Rijksmuseum is showcasing some of the humble magnificence from its storage depot. This group of domestic and everyday use objects haven’t been on display for at least a hundred years, overshadowed by the museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces.

They’re getting their moment in the sun thanks to the Netherlands Collection Centre , a new shared storage building currently under construction in Amersfoort which will maintain the stored treasures of the Rijksmuseum, Paleis Het Loo, the Dutch Open Air Museum and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands all in one state-of-the-art facility. To prepare for the move, the Rijksmuseum is revising their inventory entries for each piece, taking new photographs and writing new descriptions.

The objects range in date from the Middle Ages to the 19th century and will be displayed in five different galleries. The Middle Ages are represented by the museum’s entire collection of bronze mortars and pestles, used in pharmacology and perfume-making and for grinding spices in the home. The oldest mortar is a marquetry red copper and niello piece made in Khorasan, Persia, between 1100 and 1225. It is octagonal on the outside and cylindrical on the inside. The rest of the collection are of European, mosty Dutch, manufacture and decorated with all kinds of motifs from florals to lion heads to saints and hearts and slightly threatening studded ribs.

The Dutch Golden Age, so often associated with great artworks by the likes of Rembrandt, is viewed through a homier perspective in 17th century fireplace and kitchen bricks and tiles and cast iron firebacks. They performed an important function, protecting homes from areas of open flame, but that’s no reason not to make them a beautiful adornment as well. If I didn’t love my kitchen and fireplace as they are, I would be sorely tempted to get my mastic on and cover every conceivable surface with them. I mean, Scipio and Hannibal glowering at each other across a roaring fire? Yes please.

We may think of them as relatively mundane objects today, but when the mirrors in this collection were made in the 16th through 19th centuries, they were extremely expensive in materials, craftsmanship and human life as toxic mercury was essential to the process. This is reflected in their frames, which featured elaborate gilding, carving, molding and marquetry inlay. Some aren’t even looking glasses, but rather used as a striking medium for portraiture.

Small in size but not in stature are textile samples from 19th and early 20th century designers. Fabric swatches by Theo Nieuwenhuis, a student of Pierre Cuypers, architect of the Rijksmuseum whose design paid a great deal of attention to interior decoration with colorful, highly patterned wall frescoes and furnishings, are examples of the upholstery and wall textiles that once adorned Amsterdam’s Shipping House and other important city buildings. Most of the original interiors were discarded and replaced when fashions changed or they wore out.

Because the Rijksmuseum is very kind to those of us not fortunate enough to have regular access to it, almost all the objects on display in this exhibition have been collected in a Rijkstudio gallery so we can browse them online.


Notre Dame stands

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

The roof is gone, the spire is gone, but the north and south towers of Notre Dame have withstood the conflagration. The rose windows survived, which is a freaking miracle. I thought they were goners for sure. The bells, including the great 13-ton bourdon Emmanuel, the only bell of Notre Dame to survive the cultural holocaust of the French Revolution, are intact. The artistic and religious treasures it held are safe in an undisclosed location.

Watching that spire collapse was so deeply horrifying I still can’t stand to recollect it, but it could have been so, so much worse, as in burned to the ground worse. The statues on the roof, which would have melted into puddles for sure, were removed prior to the beginning of the restoration work on the spire that was ongoing when the fire broke out.

The damage is massive and quite literally irreplaceable in the case of the wooden beams that formed the structure of the roof. They were cut down in the 13th century and there haven’t been any trees left that size in France for hundreds of years. It’s traumatizing to confront that level of loss. What’s gone is gone for good.

At the same time, the soaring Gothic majesty of that wood framing is the reason why the fire burned so thoroughly. Lots of oxygen, lots of combustible fuel, no way to break the fire, no way to fight it from the inside. Whatever architectural solution is devised to reconstruct the roof, I imagine fire security will be a top priority.

The church is owned by the state with the Church having rights of use. In the past this arrangement has caused lots of delays and nonsense when it came to restoration, but the agony of yesterday’s events will, one hopes, remain perpetually sharp and the outpouring of support — French billionaires have already pledge $339 million to the repairs — will keep attention fixed on bringing Notre Dame back.

My mother reminded me when we spoke just after the spire fell that when we lived in Rome many decades ago, a fire raged through St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, my favorite church when I was a kid. She said you could hear the stone cladding explode in the heat. St. Paul’s is far more modest in size and height than Notre Dame, and still the fire burned so viciously that it turned marble into artillery shells. Today it is more beautiful than ever, its gold facade gleaming even brighter than when I was a child with my face pressed against the window of the car to see the brilliant glow of the sun reflect against the mosaic every time we drove by it.

A reminder of what Notre Dame’s bells sounded like when her new ones were inaugurated just over six years ago. They will sound again. Between 43:20 – 45:18 all ten tower bells were rung along with the three in the spire, now lost forever.

(Between 12:15 – 21:50 the ten tower bells are rung in groups from largest to smallest. At 58:12 is the “Grand Solemnity,” beginning with Emmanuel followed by Marie and then the eight smaller ones.)





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