Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Agincourt thank-you sceptre to go on display

Monday, October 12th, 2015

For the first time in 600 years, a sceptre King Henry V gave to the City of London in gratitude for its support in the Hundred Years’ War will go on public display. The City of London helped finance the Battle of Agincourt, loaning Henry 10,000 marks (about three million pounds in today’s money). After Henry’s forces won so decisive a victory against the flower of French chivalry arrayed in much greater numbers against them on October 25th, 1415, the king had the sceptre made and presented it to the city as a thank you gift.

Made by the finest craftsmen — including French ones — of the age, the sceptre is 17 inches long and made out of two spiral-carved stems of rock crystal with ribbons of inlaid gold. At the top of the sceptre is a gold crown topped with fleurs-de-lis and crosses and decorated with gemstones from around the world: red spinels from Afghanistan, sapphires from Ceylon, pearls from the Arabian gulf. Inside the crown is the king’s coat of arms painted on parchment. The sceptre was made between 1415 and February of 1421 when it appears in a painting of the coronation of Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V.

It’s a near-miracle that the sceptre has survived all this time.

Under the republican protectorate of Oliver Cromwell which followed the Civil War, the Crown Jewels were sold off and there was a danger the sceptre could have met the same fate, had it not been hidden away by the City authorities.

Eight years after Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the Monarchy which followed, it took the cowardly self-interest of the serving Lord Mayor to save the sceptre.

During the Great Fire of London of 1666, Sir Thomas Bloodworth – rather than lead the rescue efforts – made sure his personal treasures were safely sent out of the City, including the sceptre, only returning in person three days later.

It’s been seen by very few people in the past 600 years. The sceptre emerges from the protective confines of London’s Guildhall during Coronations when it is borne by the Lord Mayor of London, and for the “Silent Ceremony” in which the outgoing and incoming Lord Mayor place their hands upon it during the annual inauguration of a new mayor. The last time it was seen in public was at the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The sceptre’s connection to Agincourt was only recently discovered by Dr. Michael Hall, curator of the Rothschild Collection at Exbury House, Hampshire, and Ralph Holt while researching the treasures of Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London since the 18th century. Dr. Hall and Mr. Holt with the help of Dr. Clare Taylor, wife of former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford, have authored a book on the silver and gold of Mansion House. The book, the third in a series about the collections of Mansion House, covers more than 80 precious objects, including the regalia of the Mayorality.

The Honour and Grandeur: Regalia, Gold and Silver at the Mansion House will be released later this month to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. This is the first time the sceptre has been published in its long life, believe it or not. The sceptre itself will celebrate the anniversary by going on public display for the first time. Unveiling the Crystal Sceptre: Henry V’s Gift to the City opens at Guildhall Art Gallery on Saturday, October 24th, the day before St. Crispin’s Day. The exhibition will tell the full story of the sceptre, starting with the City of London’s financial support for Henry V’s great battle and following King Henry’s 1421 pilgrimage to holy sites associated with his three patron saints.

During that pilgrimage he may have stopped in Hedon where he presented the mayor with another Agincourt-related treasure: the Hedon Mace, an iron mace believed to have been an actual weapon used at the Battle of Agincourt which Henry had silver-gilt and presented to the city again as thanks for its support. The Hedon Mace will be on display with the Crystal Sceptre, the only objects given by Henry V that have remained with their original recipients for 600 years.


10th c. Danish Borgring fortress to be excavated

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

The 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand last year was identified by a geomagnetic survey and a few test pits dug at the gates and ramparts. There are only seven ring fortresses of the Trelleborg type known to exist, and the last one was found 60 years ago. The discovery of Borgring 30 miles south of Copenhagen was exciting because of its rarity and because it opened up the possibility of an excavation done with the latest archaeological technology.

The Danish Castle Centre will bring that possibility to life, thanks to a 20 million kroner (ca. $3 million) grant from the AP Møller Fund and 4.5 million kroner (ca. $687,000) from Køge Municipality. These generous gifts will fund a three-year excavation of the Borgring fortress.

blockquote>”With the grant, the Danish Castle Centre – a division of Museum Southeast Denmark and Aarhus University – has worked out a unique research project seeking to explore the secrets Borgring is hiding beneath Danish soil,” the Danish Castle Centre said.

“With the use of modern archaeological methods the scientists and archaeologists will investigate how the fortresses were used, how they were organised, how quickly they were built, their age and what environment, landscape and geography they were a part of.”

So far, it has become clear that the massive ring fortress has a diameter of 142 metres with 7 metre-high palisades, while it also endured a fiery blaze at one of its gates.

The Trelleborg fortresses were all built according to the same geometric plan — circular with gates aligned on the cardinal compass points — within an hour’s march of each other. Counting tree rings at the type site of Trelleborg pinpointed the construction date to early 981 since the timbers were felled in autumn of 980 and would have needed some time to cure before use. The other fortresses date to approximately the same time, and their strikingly similar design and aligned placement suggests they were conceived by a single mind.

There are some anomalies with the Borgring, however. Its gates are not perfectly aligned along the cardinal points; there is an 11-degree dislocation which may have been a topographical necessity to ensure that it looked properly symmetrical in its landscape. Also samples of burned oak timbers found at the north gate were radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D., which places the fort in the general age range of the other trelleborgs but isn’t precise enough to confirm that it is in fact one of them. Dendrochronological analysis can narrow it down further.

The precise date is important with these fortresses because the most prevalent theory right now about their construction is that they were built by King Harald Bluetooth in reaction to his defeat at German hands in 974. To defend his territory from further incursions, Bluetooth set about building an extensive network of forts and infrastructure (bridges, roads) in Denmark and southern Sweden. Harald Bluetooth died in 985 or 986, just five or six years after the first Trelleborg ringfort was built. If Harald didn’t build them, his son Sweyn Forkbeard may have, not to as a defensive installation to keep out the Germans, but as military training camps to prepare his troops for his raids on England in the first decade of the 11th century and his full-scale invasion of the island in 1013.

The excavation is slated to begin next year and with the fortress being a short distance from the highway so close to Copenhagen, the archaeological team is expecting a significant amount of interest from the public. The team plans to build an observation deck so visitors can follow the archaeologists at work without getting in their way.


Woman executed for witchcraft 299 years ago may get new trial

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

A woman who was convicted of witchcraft and executed in 1716 may get a new trial 299 after her death. The city council of Brentonico, the town in the Italian Alps where Maria Bertoletti Toldini was put to death for her ostensible crimes, has petitioned the court to reopen the case. Brentonico Mayor Christian Perenzoni believes Maria’s fate was the result of “folkloric excess around the trials and killings of so-called witches” and wants “to render justice and historical truth, and give back the condemned woman her ethical, moral and civil dignity.”

Maria Bertoletti Toldini, known as Toldina, was born and raised in Pilcante, a village eight miles southeast of Brentonico. She was widowed and remarried Andrea Toldini, sacristan of the church of San Martino in the neighboring town of Ala. Toldina had no children with either of her husbands. She was 60 years old when she was arrested for witchcraft, acts of evil, sorcery, sacrilege, idolatry, apostasy, sodomy, fornication, consorting with the devil and infanticide. The child murder allegations in particular inflamed the population against her and sealed her fate.

According to the prosecution, as recorded in an 18th century transcript of the sentencing, Toldina’s life of depraved ignominy began when she was 13 years old and was seduced to evil by her witch aunt Agostina Bertoletti. In the middle of a Monday night, Agostina took her niece to a meeting of demons presided over by the devil with goat’s hooves as hands and feet. Maria, on her knees before the devil, renounced God, the Trinity, the Holy Virgin and all the saints. She repudiated the Christian faith, the Catholic religion, the sacrament of Baptism and her first name of Maria which was odious to Satan. The demon gave her a new name, rebaptised her by pouring a foul black liquid down her back and marked her with a cold iron instrument on her left arm.

The 13-year-old then purportedly swore fealty to the demon and declared herself his vassal. She agreed to bewitch one child a month and perform every kind of evil on them, to spread grave illness among people. In return the devil would make miracles for her, satisfy her uncontrollable lusts and bless her after her death. From then on, Toldina attended witches’ sabbaths every night, using an ointment made of sacramental ashes, holy water, oil and wax from candles lit during Holy Week (all materials easily secured because of her sacristan husband) to fly to local meetups and far-flung ones. There she danced, stepping always to the left, and repeatedly kissed the devil’s ass. Toldina gave her virginity to the demon who appeared in the form of a young man and had sex with her, his touch freezing cold.

Using the ointment, Toldina killed a girl, Margarita, daughter of Saiano of Saiano of Pilcante, she had already afflicted with dropsy. In 1714 she smeared the unguent on a baby from the same family, Felice Saiano, who developed tumors and died. The year before she mixed ashes in butter and killed Lorenzo, son of Giovanni Ecchelli of the Iseppi of Pilcante, also with cancerous tumors. In 1711, she broke into the home of Giacomo Antonio Venturi of Pilcante and threw his five-year-old son Pietro in a bronze cauldron full of boiling cheese. Her unguent claimed another young victim — three-year-old Antonio, son of Carlo Balconi — after she spread it on his stomach. The same fate awaited Toldina’s own nephew, Adrea, son of her brother Giovanni Bertoletti, who was two years old, and Bartolomea, four-year-old daughter of Giovanni Maria of Vallarsa. Toldina killed the child of Maddalena, wife of Francesco Balconi, in the womb.

Her dark arts cut a swath through the adults of Pilcante and environs as well, most of them women. They weren’t killed, but struck with severe illnesses and their husbands were cursed with sterility. We can rest assured all of these things happened because witnesses testified to them and Toldina herself, under torture, confessed to these acts and more.

The trial took place at the Castle of Avio, the last witch trial ever held at the castle. After she was sentenced to death, on March 14th, 1716, Toldina was taken to Palù Park in Brentonico where a gallows stood. A headsman was paid 75 German florins to decapitate her before the assembled townspeople. Her body and head were then burned.

Toldina was tried by lay authorities, not the church, because Bretonica, part of the Prince-Bishopric of Trent since the Middle Ages, was reclaimed as a direct dominion of the Habsurg Holy Roman Emperors in the early 1700s. In fact, the town had just received its Captain of Justice — a role combining chief of police and criminal judge — a few weeks before Toldina’s trial. Unfortunately the municiple archives were destroyed during World War II so the only original records of the trial to survive were the sentence and the defense summary by Toldina’s lawyer, notary Giovanni Battista del Pozzo.

The legal challenges to reopening this case are significant, to put it mildly. Bretonico is in the nothern Italian autonomous region of Trentino so the court of appeals of regional capitol Trento will hear the case. They will have to establish the facts with only two original documents from her trial extant. Not only that, but the court will have to use the law applied to the original trial, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. That means the new advocates will have to be knowledgeable in 16th century German jurisprudence, a tall order if I’ve heard one. Historian Carlo Andrea Postinger, already commissioned by the city council to search for original documents, will be on hand to consult should the appeal be granted.


Spitfire excavation suspended when human remains found

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

An excavation to recover a Mark 1A Spitfire which crashed in the Cambridgeshire Fens during a training flight on November 22, 1940, was suspended when a fragment of human skeletal remains was found. The excavation began on Monday and was slated to last a week. Permission was only granted because the pilot’s remains were believed to have been recovered in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Before excavation can continue, the coroner must examine the remains and give the all clear.

Spitfire X4593 of the 266 Rhodesian Squadron Royal Air Force piloted by Harold Edwin Penketh was flying with other Spitfires over the fens when he suddenly broke formation and entered a precipitous dive. According to witnesses, the plane seemed to make a partial recover at around 2,000 feet above the surface, but it quickly turned back into the dive and crashed, hitting the ground at 300 miles per hour with its nose down and tail up. Pilot Officer Penketh was unable to deploy his parachute in time and was killed. He was 20 years old. A later investigation in the wake of the disaster determined that the cause was a physical failure of the airplane, possibly of the oxygen system. The RAF sent a recovery team who worked for a week to find Penketh’s body in the wreckage. The pilot’s remains were sent to his home in Brighton.

The exact location of the crash was lost over the years. It was rediscovered this August when archaeologists from Cranfield University Forensic Institute did a geophysical survey of the area. The Spitfire crashed in Holme Lode in the Great Fen, a waterlogged, peaty environment ideal for the preservation of organic materials. When it hit the ground it created a large crater that immediately began to fill with the water, so the unique preservative powers of peat were at work from the very beginning.

With the fenland water table rising and this year being the 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain (July 10th – October 31st, 1940), archaeologists were keen to recover whatever they could from the Spitfire as quickly as possible. Excavation began on Monday, October 5th, led by Oxford Archaeology East with the help of volunteers from the Great Fen Archaeology Group and from the Defence Archaeology Group, an exceptional initiative that teaches injured servicemen new professional skills in field archaeology. The volunteers used metal detectors around the crash site to locate any debris that may have been scattered in the crash. Every find was flagged and scanned so that a complete 3D model of the site can be made which will allow experts to better understand the angle and impact of the crash. The team hoped to recover key parts of the plane, like the its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, its armaments, that would add more information to the greater picture.

The peat was stripped in spits and on the second day the team uncovered the impact crater just over two feet under the surface. By the end of the day they had recovered some engine wiring, a piece of the fuel tank and the pilot’s headrest. On the third day they found ammunition, two more pieces of the fuel tank, part of the engine starter motor, the cover for the pilot’s headrest and part of the cockpit which was deliberately broken open by the RAF team who recovered P/O Penketh’s body. On day four they found the rest of the engine starter motor, one of the Spitfire’s lights, the pilot’s leather helmet in very good condition and the fragment of bone that immediately stopped all work.

The coroner has now given the go-ahead to continue excavation. Friday will be the last day of the dig.

The Oxford Archaeology Flickr page has a wonderful collection of photographs of the dig arranged in albums, one for each day of the excavation. You can also read a daily roundup of discoveries on the Oxford Archaeology website. A selection of finds will be on display at Holmewood Hall on Saturday, October 17th, and the dig is being filmed by the BBC for a program that will first air on November 8th, Remembrance Sunday.


Tintin drawing earns $1.23 million at Hong Kong auction

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

A rare original drawing of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Georges Prosper Remi, better known as Hergé, has sold at auction in Hong Kong for $1.23 million. The India ink and gouache drawing depicts Tintin and his dog Snowy riding in a rickshaw on the streets of Shanghai while a police officer keeps a watchful eye on them. It’s the third of five single-page drawings included as color plates, the first color elements in a Tintin book, in the first edition of The Blue Lotus, published in 1936 by Casterman. The drawings from this original Casterman edition are highly prized by collectors because The Blue Lotus is considered the first masterpiece of the Hergé oeuvre. In fact, every other surviving original drawing from The Blue Lotus is in a museum; this is the only one in private hands.

It’s not a record for Tintin art. That was set in May of last year when a double page of Tintin and Snowy vignettes sold for $3,434,908. It’s not even runner-up. That title goes to the original cover art of Tintin in America which sold in 2012 for $1.6 million. It is arguably a more historically significant piece, however, because Hergé included actual historic events in The Blue Lotus that had happened only five years before the publication of the volume, and because of how thoroughly researched this story was compared to his earlier outings.

When Georges Remi first began drawing Tintin comics in 1929, they were serialized in a newspaper called Le Petit Vingtième (“The Little Twentieth”). It was the children’s supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle (“The Twentieth Century”), a conservative Catholic newspaper published in Brussels whose editor, Abbé Norbert Wallez, was an outspoken nationalist, fascist fan of Mussolini. He was so ultraconservative that in 1940 he supported a Belgian political party that embraced Nazi occupation with open arms and after the war was tried and convicted of collaboration. Wallez’ ideological positions are what drove the first three volumes of Tintin. He saw Le Petit Vingtième and Hergé’s dashing young reporter as propaganda tools to spread his anti-communist, colonialist and anti-consumerist message to the youth of Belgium.

Wallez told Hergé what to write starting with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (spoiler: the Soviets are bad), published in serialized form in 1929 and 1930, and followed by Tintin in the Congo (spoiler: the Congolese need white Belgian daddies to take care of them like the childish simpletons they are), published in 1930 and 1931. For the Tintin’s third outing, Hergé got to pick his own setting — the United States — but Wallez insisted he treat the subject with the paper’s far-right agenda which at the time held American-style capitalism, consumerism and increasingly mechanized industry to be as dangerous to the Belgian way of life as Soviet collectivism. Hergé wanted to focus on Native Americans, depicting their exploitation and rejecting the violent savage stereotype while still managing to make them look like gullible marks. Wallez won the argument, and most of the volume is about Al Capone, gangsterism and the literal meat-grinder of American industry with just a subplot about a Blackfoot tribe getting tricked into trying to kill our hero.

All three of these stories are problematic, to put it mildly, with the last two still causing waves today because of the stereotypical depiction of indigenous peoples. Tintin in the Congo was recently subject to a lawsuit because of its painfully racist images of the Congolese, and Tintin in America caused an uproar in Canada just a few months ago.

The fourth book, Cigars of the Pharaoh wasn’t a single pre-planned story, but rather part of a long mystery adventure à la Agatha Christie serialized as The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter, in the Orient starting in December of 1932. It was divided into two books for publication by Casterman, Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus. While Hergé had done some research for Tintin in America — read an ethnographic compendium of Indian tribes, visited a museum, meticulously copied Blackfoot garments from period photographs — The Blue Lotus was a whole new kettle of fish.

Chinese characters had cameos in Soviets as torturers and in America as would-be Snowy eaters, and a certain Abbot Léon Gosset wanted to stop Hergé from resorting to the same ugly stereotypes in a story set in China. He was a chaplain at the Catholic University of Louvain who had Chinese students under his tutelage. Since the students were made to read Le Petit Vingtième in class, Gosset reached out to Hergé asking him to maybe meet an actual Chinese person and learn something before tackling the subject.

Hergé was game, and Gosset arranged for him to meet two of his students, one of whom, Zhang Chongren, introduced Hergé to the traditional Chinese art and calligraphy that would influence the Belgian artist for the rest of his life. Zhang contributed some of his own artwork to The Blue Lotus, and Hergé believed he was so important a contributor that he should share credit as co-author. (Casterman disagreed, obviously. Hergé snuck Zhang’s name in several panels on shop signs.) Hergé also contacted scholars of Chinese history, read books by contemporary Chinese authors and learned about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria from the Chinese perspective which would become a key plot point in The Blue Lotus.

The end-result was an indictment of European cluelessness about and interference in China and of the Japanese occupation. It infuriated the Japanese, who are depicted as the bucktoothed bullies that would become so familiar in American propaganda during World War II, nearly causing a diplomatic incident. The Chinese, on the other hand, accustomed to being the ones depicted as opium-addled brutes in Western fiction and media, loved it. Through his wife, Chiang Kai-shek invited Hergé to visit China as his guest in 1939, but the war made it in impossible.

This history is part of the reason the Paris auction house Artcurial chose the drawing from The Blue Lotus for its first Hong Kong sale, because it has a particular appeal to Chinese buyers.


Original drawings of Nazi booby trap bombs found

Monday, October 5th, 2015

In 2005, the British National Archives released drawings and photographs of Nazi bombs disguised as everyday objects that had been collected by agents of the security service MI5 during World War II. The quotidian objects packed with hidden explosive devices would not be out of place in an episode of Get Smart: chocolate bars, Thermos flasks, cans of motor oil, canned peas, cough drops, lumps of coal, a shoe bomb, and my personal favorite, a tin of Smedley’s English red dessert plums.

(The Germans weren’t the only ones trying to sabotage the enemy with disguised explosives. The British can boast booby-trapped Chianti bottles with the bomb obscured by the traditional straw basket on the bottom then topped with wine, exploding beets and exploding cow excrement.)

MI5 agents intercepted the concealment devices from known Nazi spies and saboteurs, among them Herbert Heinz Tributh, a gymnast from German South-West Africa tasked with blowing up Buckingham Palace, English double agent Eddie “Zigzag” Chapman and French collaborationist Guy Vissault de Coëtlogon. Tributh and his two co-conspirators were caught wandering lost around County Cork Ireland asking random strangers if they knew anybody in the IRA. (Just because they were Nazi spies on a mission to bomb Buckingham Palace doesn’t mean they were any good at it. In their defense, apparently they only got one day of training.) When captured they were carrying four cans of peas packed with explosives.

MI5 was a shoestring operation in those days and its explosives and counter-sabotage unit B1C had exactly three employees: the head Victor Rothschild, scion of the great banking family and 3rd Baron Rothschild, his secretary and future wife Teresa Georgina Mayor, and police detective inspector Donald Fish. None of them were capable of drawing clear and recognizable diagrams of the explosive devices that could be used to train operatives on how to defused then safely. Donald Fish knew someone who could, however: his son, Laurence Fish, a self-taught graphic artist who had worked in advertising before the war.

Rothschild commissioned Laurence Fish to draw the intercepted devices. The letters Rothschild wrote asking Fish to draw, in one now-famous example, an explosive chocolate bar using an operative’s rough sketch as his sole guide, have survived.

Rothschild then asked artist Laurence Fish to draw poster-sized images of the chocolate to warn the public to be on the lookout for the bars.

“I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate,” the letter, written from a secret London bunker and addressed to Fish read. “We have received information that the enemy are using pound slabs of chocolate which are made of steel with a very thin covering of real chocolate.”

He continued, “Inside there is high explosive and some form of delay mechanism… When the piece of chocolate is pulled sharply, the canvas is also pulled and this initiates the mechanism.”

Laurence drew the chocolate bomb and many more explosive devices. He developed a warm and friendly relationship with Rothschild and kept those commission letters for decades, hidden away in his papers. They were only rediscovered in 2009 after Laurence’s death when his widow Jean Bray was looking through his things.

Of the original drawings, however, no trace remained. Copies were part of the 2005 release, but the hand-drawn diagrams Fish had made were thought to be gone forever. This summer, Victoria Rothschild Gray found more than two dozen of Laurence Fish’s drawings in a chest of drawers in Rushbrooke Hall, the Rothschild estate in Suffolk, England, while cleaning out the house. (It was put on the market by Victoria’s son James, recently wed to hotel heiress Nicki Hilton, in April.) Victoria contacted Jean Bray to let her know of the marvelous find and arranged to give her her husband’s drawings.

There are 25 drawings ranging in size from A4, 8.27 x 11.69 inches (the standard page size in Europe), to A1 which is quite large at 11.69 x 16.53 inches. Bray is thrilled to discover they weren’t destroyed during the war. She’s keeping them in her husband’s studio for now, but she would like them to go to a museum or archive which will honor her husband’s clean and detailed freehand graphics and the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction wartime reality they depict.


Crowds wait 10 hours to spend minutes with “China’s Mona Lisa”

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Along the River During the Qingming Festival is a 12th century painted handscroll by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) which is widely considered the greatest painting in China. Some scholars have dubbed it “China’s Mona Lisa,” because of its immense cultural hold, but artistically it has nothing in common with Renaissance portraiture.

The almost monochrome (there are some pops of green here and there) ink-on-silk scroll is 17 feet wide and just 10 inches high and depicts the vignettes of exuberant life on the Bian River, which runs through Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty, during the Qingming Festival. Originally meant to unscrolled slowly by the viewer to enjoy an arm’s width at a time, from right to left, the painting moves from countryside to city and people change with it. Farmers tend their crops and men load their donkeys with wood outside the city so that they can sell it inside the city. Then the peaceful bucolic pursuits shift to hectic, population-dense urban environment bustling with activity: peddlers hawk their wares, fortune tellers tell fortunes, people buy food from street vendors or visit an elegant two-storey tavern, a long-range rice boat transports its cargo on the river. There are 814 people, almost all of them men, 28 different boats, 60 animals (livestock of various sorts), 30 buildings, 20 carriages and eight sedan chairs in the painting.

What there isn’t is any religious activity. The Qingming Festival, held in early spring, is dedicated to the worship of ancestors. People sweep their ancestral tombs and clean temples during the festival, but none of that is overtly present in the painting. The only hint of it is a group of people with willow brooms in a sedan chair who could conceivably have just come from sweeping their ancestors’ graves. There’s debate whether the Chinese title of the work, Qingming Shanghe Tu, actually refers to the festival. The scenes don’t match 12th century chronicles describing the city during the festival at all. “Shaghe tu” means “going along the river picture” but “Qingming” on its own means “clear-bright.” There are several possible interpretations not involving the festival.

In any case, the aim of the painting is to display the prosperity and peace. Most every stratum of society is represented except for the not-so-picturesque beggars, criminals and slum-dwellers. It’s not known exactly when Zhang Zeduan painted it, but if it was after the overthrow of the Northern Song Dynasty by the Jin in 1127, the artist was likely depicting an idealized view of the good ol’ days before Kaifeng was sacked by Jin armies and the emperor captured. Not that it’s literally Kaifeng in the painting. There are no recognizable landmarks, so it could be an ideal city from an ideal time.

The painting has been famous and coveted for 800 years. The first recorded time of many that it was stolen from the imperial collection was in the 1340s and for centuries afterwards emperors would find the stolen masterpiece when estates were confiscated from rich, troublesome nobles. There are more than one hundred seals and colophons (provenance notes) from different owners on the scroll. The earliest is by Zhang Zhu, a Jin Dynasty official, and dates to 1186.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival was a great favorite of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who took it with him when he was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. When the Soviet army captured him in 1945 as he attempted to flee the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo of which he nominally ruled, Pu Yi had the painting on him. The Soviets put it in a bank in northern China where it remained until 1950 when it was moved to a local museum. Eventually it made its way back to the Forbidden City, just as it always had, this time to the Palace Museum where scholars announced its rediscovery in 1954.

It has been there ever since, but is rarely displayed because of how fragile and precious it is. It last saw light at the Tokyo National Museum in 2012. Before then it went to Hong Kong in 2007 to take part in a nakedly nationalistic exhibition of China’s greatest artistic masterpieces on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Britain’s return of the island to China. The last time it was on display in Beijing was 2005 in honor of the museum’s 80th anniversary. Now it’s on display again in the Palace Museum for the 90th anniversary, and there are lines a thousand people long waiting to see the iconic masterpiece an hour before the museum opens.

“There’s been so much hype about this painting, so I decided to come early to check it out myself,” said Jacqueline Zhang, 25, who works at a bank in Beijing and came at 5 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line. She added, “This just shows how easily excited Chinese people can get.”

Past exhibitions of the scroll have attracted huge crowds, but the heightened fervor these days comes as the term “wenhua,” or culture, and the desire to appear cultured have become increasingly prominent in China.

“Now that people have money and social status, they want to show other people that they understand culture,” said Chen Yimo, an expert in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

What a change from the Eliminating the Four Olds. It’s like The Cultural Revolution 2: The Re-Enculturing.

Here’s the whole scroll at a satisfyingly high resolution of more than 38,000 pixels wide. I recommend slowly scrolling from right to left, taking in all the details of dress, architecture, animals (Bactrian camels ftw), ship design, food, to experience the progression the way it was meant to be experienced.


3 Civil War cannons raised from Pee Dee River

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

A team of archaeologists from the University of South Carolina have raised three Civil War cannons from the Pee Dee River in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The cannons were the armament of the Confederate gunboat CSS Pee Dee which launched in January of 1865 and was deliberately scuttled by her crew just a month later when defeat seemed imminent. With the impending arrival of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army fresh from putting Columbia to the torch, the crew jettisoned the ship’s guns into the river, dismantled the boat, set it on fire and set it adrift down the river.

The three cannons are two Brooke rifles, a 6.4-inch and a 7-inch, and a 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbore which was originally a Union weapon. The cannon was salvaged from the wreck of the USS Southfield after it was sunk by the formidable Confederate ironclad ram CSS Albemarle during the Battle of Plymouth on the Roanoke River in Plymouth, North Carolina, on April 19th, 1864. The Albermarle had been commissioned literally two days earlier and would cut a deadly swath through the Union Navy until she was brought down in October of 1864 by Lieutenant William B. Cushing in a raid so daring it belongs in a Dumas novel.

The Southfield‘s Dahlgren was transported by train to the Mars Bluff Naval Yard where it was mounted on the Pee Dee. It wasn’t mounted on a traditional carriage, however, which one of the reasons the cannons are of particular historical significance. All three of the Pee Dee‘s guns were swivel mounted so they could turn a full 360 degrees. The Pee Dee was the only ship ever built at the Mars Bluff Naval Yard. The Confederacy had no navy when the war began. The naval yard was one of a few constructed inland, safe from Union interference, with the aim of producing vessels that could harry the Union blockade choking Confederate shipping.

Two of the guns, the 6.4-inch Brooke and the Dahlgren, were discovered in 1995 and 2006 by amateur diver Bob Butler of the Pee Dee Research and Recovery Team. The wreck itself was found in 2010 by the University of South Carolina’s Maritime Research Division. It turns out to have caught on the first bend of the river, but because of its destruction and drifting, the debris field is spread over a great deal of the river and several parts of the ship — the propellers, the boilers — have been salvaged by locals over the decades.

The third cannon was finally located in 2012. Unlike the other guns which were found in alignment close to the riverbank, the 7-inch Brooke was deeper in the water. It was discovered thanks to adjacent landowners Dutton and Rufus Perdue who took advantage of extreme low water levels which had exposed two piling stumps to search the river with metal detectors. They found a large anomaly and alerted the University team. Although they initially hoped to raise the cannons in late 2013, it took another two years for everything to get sorted out, so this has been a long time in coming.

The weapons appear to be in very good condition. They’ve been softly treated by the fresh water of the Pee Dee and retain identification markers like serial numbers and foundry marks. The cannons have a new home: the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston where the CSS Hunley submarine is being conserved. After an estimate two-year process of stabilization and conservation, the cannons will be put on display in the Florence County Museum.


Plaster casts of Pompeii given first CAT scans

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

CAT scans on 30 of the recently restored plaster casts of people killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. have found that Pompeiians had far better teeth than their modern counterparts. The scans showed the victims’ teeth were in excellent condition (the orthodontist who analyzed the scans called their teeth “perfect”) without a single cavity among them. There was some evidence of wear, but no tooth decay whatsoever.

The sample is too small to draw broad conclusions about the dental health of the overall population of the city, but that they ate healthy high-fiber foods low in fat and sugar is in keeping with what we know of their diet from previous poop studies. There’s another reason for their fine teeth: samples of Pompeii’s water and air found high levels of fluoride. Volcanic rocks and hot springs are high in fluorine which dissolves into water as fluoride, the same thing 25 countries deliberately add to their tap water for public dental health purposes.

While the casts have been X-rayed before, this is the first time any of them have been CAT scanned. One of the reasons for that is that the density of the plaster varies — the oldest of it dates to the 19th century, plus layers from subsequent restorations — but it can be as dense as bone. People with our squishy outsides are comparatively easy to scan, but add a thick plaster exoskeleton and it gets tricky. The archaeological team was able to borrow a 16-layer scanner from Philips SpA Healthcare that allowed them to see through the plaster to the bones in great detail. The scanner is superfast, taking only 100 seconds for a full body scan, and is able to block distortions to the images caused by metal elements. It was designed for people with prosthetics or implanted devices. The dead of Pompeii don’t have titanium hips and pacemakers, but metal pieces were added to some of the casts to reinforce the plaster structure.

The aperture of the scanner is just 70 cm (28 inches), so they had to select smaller casts that would fit all the way through, or limit the scan to the head and chest. The 30 casts of men, women and one child, plus two more casts of animals (a dog and a pig or wild boar) were CAT scanned. The mother holding her child discovered under the staircase in the House of the Golden Bracelet, for example, could not be scanned, but a slighter older child, probably a boy, found a few yards away from the mother was small enough to be fully scanned. The cast of the child contained a full skeleton. The length of femur established that the child was between two and three years old at time of death. A bump on the sternum previously thought to be a knot has now been identified as a fibula, probably gold, a baby version of the heavy gold bracelet found on his mother’s wrist which gave the house its name.

The scans also found fractured cranial bones, indicating that some of the deaths believed to have been caused by asphyxia from volcanic gases were in fact the result of victims being struck hard on the head by falling roof tiles or rocks.

Another fascinating find was actually the lack of a find. The cast of a woman thought from her silhouette to have been pregnant at the time of her death is empty. The CAT scan found no fetal bones and no adult bones. This is an artifact from the 19th century when some of the early casts were done after the skeletal remains were removed, possibly for ethical or religious reasons. One of the most iconic casts, the dog writhing on its back from the House of Orpheus, is also completely devoid of bones and it’s unlikely they would have been removed out of respect for the dead.

The analysis of the scans is still in the beginning stages so we’ll hear more about this project as it progresses. They have collected sufficient data to create 3D virtual models that will not only provide invaluable information about the lives and deaths of the people of Pompeii, but also about the plaster itself which will be of great aid in future conservation decisions. The team is planning to create a database of the 3D models so scholars around the world have access to them.


Erebus summer dive season goes swimmingly

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Parks Canada‘s Underwater Archaeology Team has more than doubled the dive time on the wreck of the HMS Erebus thanks to an unexpected bout of good weather this summer. Divers explored the wreck from August 28th to September 10th, logging a total of 100 dives and 109 hours underwater. The excellent visibility and comparative warmth allowed them to remove the kelp from the full 30-meter (98-foot) length of the ship. With the kelp gone, the team was able to document the structure of the ship, identify the areas damaged by ice, record the debris field surrounding it and fully survey the upper deck. Divers were also able photograph all sides of the ship and thread small cameras through openings in the deck to get a look at what’s inside.

Using reference points and with lines stretched between them, the team took precise measurements to draw up a complete site plan of the wreck. They then noted the location of every new artifact revealed by the removal of the kelp. They selected a total of 39 objects to recover from the ship after they were carefully documented in situ. When the good weather ran out and a fierce Arctic hit Queen Maud Gulf, those precise measurements and the guide lines enabled the divers to locate the artifacts in the murky water.

Among the recovered artifacts are a piece of the ship’s wheel, a sword hilt, a leather boot, a belt plate and a Blue Willow pattern dinner plate. They are in good condition but require very careful conservation. They are being sent to the Parks Canada conservation labs in Ottawa where they will be kept wet and in cold storage while the objects are analyzed for their individual conservation needs.

Parks Canada has worked closely with local Inuit fist when searching for the wreck and in ongoing researching. Inuit tradition provided key information leading to the discovery of the Erebus, and the group of objects found on the upper deck is another confirmation of the accuracy of Inuit oral history about the wreck. The account handed down through the generations tells that the last Inuit to visit the ship before it sank assembled a number of belongings on the upper deck before leaving.

One of Parks Canada’s Inuit partners in the study of this history, Inuit oral historian Louie Kamookak, visited the site and performed a traditional blessing in honor of his ancestors and of the men who died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition. Kamookak said about the visit: “It was a great honour to be there and do a ceremony in respect to my ancestors for their knowledge and wisdom that have played a valuable role in what we all have achieved.”

The success of this season’s dive has mapped out the next steps the team will take. The bow is almost entirely intact, stable enough that divers in future seasons should be able to swim right into it. Where the structure has been too damaged by ice and time, it will have to be reinforced before any divers attempt to go inside. There is no rush; this is a long-term project. Archaeologists expect the full exploration of the wreck will take at least five years. Meanwhile, the search for the Erebus‘ companion ship, the Terror, continues.





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