Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

King Richard III Visitor Centre opens in Leicester

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Leicester’s new King Richard III Visitor Centre opened on Saturday. The £4 million ($6.8 million) museum was built in the former Alderman Newton Boy’s School, a Victorian brick building that over the years has housed a boy’s school, a girl’s school and most recently the Leicester Grammar School which closed in 2008. The building has been empty since then, but location is everything in real estate, and it just happens to be adjacent to the council parking lot under which the remains of King Richard III were discovered in September of 2012. Three months later, the city council providently bought the school building.

The inside of the school has now been transformed into a voyage through the life and death of Richard III, and of the archaeological excavation that against all conceivable odds, found the king’s mortal remains. The ground floor is dedicated to Richard III’s life, his controversial rise to the throne at the expense of the nephews he declared illegitimate and locked up in the Tower of London never to be seen again, the three decades of conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet dynasty known as the Wars of the Roses, and Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The story is told through high tech audio-visual displays where video projections recreate the places where Richard lived and died in an atmospheric, stylized manner. A digital reconstruction of Grey Friars Church shows visitors what the medieval church that used to stand where they are standing looked like. It includes a virtual visualization of Richard’s tomb as it would have looked after Henry VII had a proper tomb built a few years after Bosworth.

The second floor focuses on the excavation and takes an unusual approach that makes the quotidian elements of the dig into artifacts for exhibit. The boots worn by Richard III Society’s Philippa Langley at the dig site are on display, as are the hard had and neon yellow vest Mathew Morris was wearing when he first unearthed King Richard’s bones on the first day of the excavation. The highlight is a 3D-printed replica of the skeleton. The original will be buried at Leicester Cathedral next year. The cathedral is just across the street from the former school, so people will be able to make an easy day of it and see the tomb then walk over to the visitor center.

The best part of the new center is that the site of Richard III’s Grey Friars grave has been integrated into it. It’s a minimalist space, no glowing blue neon or elaborate set pieces, as it should be given that it was a king’s grave for 500 years, with clear plexiglass over the burial site. The only video element is a subtle projection of the skeleton in the position it was in when the archaeologists found it.

There is very little information on the center’s website. Right now it’s all about directions and ticket bookings, but I hope they flesh it out further in the days to come. You can get a glimpse of the King Richard III Visitor Centre in this video:

I don’t want to judge without seeing, but it looks a little low-information for my taste. Lots of video projections, few period artifacts, boots and hazard vests from the dig, but not much about the science (DNA, osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating) that actually identified the king. Or about the 3D printing process, for that matter, a subject I am completely obsessed with, especially in regards to archaeological and museum applications. I’m glad they didn’t just repave the burial site and keep it a parking lot, which was the original plan, let’s recall, so at the very least the center has that going for it, and that’s quite a lot.

I’d love to hear an eye witness report, so please do share your impressions should you visit the center.

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Possible 1792 Vancouver fleet anchor at Texas A&M

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

A large anchor that may be the sole surviving relic of Captain George Vancouver’s 1792 exploration of Puget Sound is now at Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation where it will be conserved and, if all goes well, conclusively identified. If it does prove to be the anchor lost by the HMS Chatham on June 9, 1792, it will upend convention historical wisdom.

The anchor was discovered in 2008 by sea-cucumber diver Doug Monk when his airhose got caught on it off Whidbey Island. He and a group of amateur historians including medical device salesman Scott Grimm spent years researching the artifact, reading ship logbooks, explorers’ journals, nautical charts, 19th British patent office records as well as numerous books. They concluded that the anchor was the Chatham‘s that got stuck in a large rock grouping and broke free when its hemp cable snapped.

The loss of the anchor and the failed attempts at recovery were recorded in the log books, but the exact location was unclear. Historians have long held that it was lost 30 miles away from Whidbey Island in Bellingham Channel, but the channel has been searched repeatedly and no anchor has ever been found. The Bellingham theory also assumes that Vancouver’s ship, the HMS Discovery, and its smaller companion the Chatham were together when the anchor was lost. Several journals said they were, but Grimm noticed the wording in those entries was identical, as if they’d been copied from each other at a later date. When he stuck to the witness accounts from the Chatham‘s crew, the terrain they described and the logged compass bearings fit Whidbey more than Bellingham. He also contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose maritime history experts calculated that on the day of the accident, the currents around Whidbey were 5.5 knots, much faster than they were in Bellingham Channel.

Earlier this year Monk and Grimm secured the necessary permits to recover the anchor. On Monday, June 9th, exactly 222 years after the Chatham lost its anchor, the one off Whidbey Island was raised. It spent a few weeks on display at the Northwest Maritime Center being prepped for transport, then Monk and Grimm loaded the anchor into a custom-made tank on the back of a truck and drove it the 2,200 miles to Austin. The anchor is 10 feet long and weighs about 1,400 pounds, so that was no mean feat. They also had to keep the anchor wet the whole time with soaker hoses.

The anchor is now in the hands of a team headed by Jim Jobling, a research associate at the Texas A&M center’s Conservation Research Laboratory, a veteran in tackling such tasks.

Jobling estimates work on the anchor will take 18 to 24 months, at which time Grimm and Monk will retrieve it for the trek back to the Northwest and hopes of finding a museum or other location for its permanent display.

“Our goal is definitely to keep it in the Northwest,” Grimm said.

“Also, we’re confident the anchor is from the HMS Chatham, and we’re confident—certainly hope—that the conservation work at Texas A&M will uncover some markings that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that it belonged to the (British) crown,” he added.

They university team will use a variety of methods — chemicals, electricity — to remove the thick concretions that may be obscuring any marks identifying the anchor. The design of the anchor does fit the admiralty pattern, but makers didn’t always put a mark on their work in the 18th century, so we may never get a firm yea or nay on whether the anchor belonged to the royal navy.

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Unique mortuary bundle found in Hidalgo

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

A pre-Hispanic mortuary bundle had been found in a rock shelter near the town of Zimapán in the Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo, southeastern Mexico. The skeletal remains wrapped in a dyed fabric and a braided mat were discovered by locals who alerted the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH archaeologists examined the bundle and believe it is intact, although only the cranium with some hair still attached, tibias, clavicle, shoulder blades and some ribs are visible above the wrapping.

The remains haven’t been dated yet. It’s the positioning of the body in a seated posture, the plant fibers used in the shroud and the placement in a rock shelter that all point to this being a pre-Hispanic burial. In many Mesoamerican cultures, rock shelters and caves were believed to be entrances to the underworld and the abode of death gods. Thus these locations were seen as ideal burial spaces. Despite the rocky terrain of the Sierra Gorda being replete with these sorts of nooks and crannies, this is the only mortuary bundle of its kind found in the state of Hidalgo.

Forensic anthropologists have determined from the teeth and leg bones that the deceased was about 20 years old when he or she died. The third molars, which grow in early adulthood between 16 and 24 years of age, are present but show no signs of wear. In the tibia, the epiphyseal plate, a cartilaginous plate at the end of the long bones that is replaced by bone after puberty, has hardened into bone, leaving behind the scar of the epiphyseal line. The line is still visible, however, and that fades with time, so that suggests the person died in early adulthood.

Although there does not appear to have been any preservation of soft tissues, the semi-arid climate of the eastern Sierra Gorda did help preserve the organic fibers of the wrapping. The bundle has been moved to an INAH lab where it will be studied in detail and the wrapping removed to reveal the rest of the remains. First a conservator will treat the fabric and plant fiber mat to ensure they’re not damaged in the opening. Then experts will hopefully be able to determine the sex of the deceased from the pelvic and hop bones.

INAH researchers hope the bones will tell more of the person’s history — disease, nutrition, lifestyle — as well as which culture he or she was a part of. The rock shelter is an area that saw a variety of peoples living there, nomadic and sedentary. The bones might fill in some of those blanks. The archaeological context might help on that score. Vegetation found in the soil of the rock shelter (palm leaves, agave cactus) appears to have been deliberately layered on the spot. Archaeologists also found a small group of abstract cave paintings about 550 yards from the mortuary bundle.

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Sam’s iconic piano from Casablanca for sale

Monday, July 21st, 2014

The piano on which Sam played As Times Goes By at the behest of a melancholic Ilsa and a choleric Rick in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca will be put up for auction later this year. It’s one of more than 30 pieces from the film that will be sold at Bonhams New York’s TCM Presents: There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction on November 24th, all of which belong to a single private collector. Along with the piano, the sale will feature the interior and exterior doors from Rick’s Café Américain, passports and other papers used in the movie, including the letters of transit that were hidden in this piano in a pivotal plot point.

Casablanca has long been one of the most beloved of Hollywood’s wartime classics and continues to be one of the most popular films in the Turner Classic Movies library,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president of digital, affiliate, lifestyle and enterprise commerce at TCM, TBS and TNT. “With the addition of this extraordinary collection of Casablanca memorabilia, TCM and Bonhams’ There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction is going to be a truly unforgettable and historic event.”

“Bonhams is thrilled to represent this remarkable Casablanca collection, certainly one of the most significant film memorabilia collections still in private hands,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams.

Last year the centerpiece of the Bonham’s auction of movie memorabilia curated by the experts of Turner Classic Movies was from another of Humphrey Bogart’s iconic films, The Maltese Falcon. The lead falcon prop sold for an astonishing $4,085,000 including buyer’s premium. No pre-sale estimate for the piano has been announced yet, but Bonham’s expects it to sell for seven figures as well. There’s no guarantee, of course. The gorgeous 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca‘s final scene sold for $380,000, $70,000 below the low estimate at last year’s sale.

The piano used in the Paris flashback scene where Sam first plays the song for Rick and Ilsa in happier times sold for much less than its estimate at Sotheby’s in December of 2012. The estimate was $800,000 to $1.2 million, but the hammer price was $500,000 ($602,500 including buyer’s premium). Some articles have erroneously conflated the two pianos. The one for sale this November was last purchased at public auction in the 1980s and has since then been loaned to Warner Brothers Studio Museum and the Hollywood Bowl for a 2006 performance.

This piano, which is salmon-colored in real life, looms large in film history as the song sung by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam has become part of the cultural lexicon. Wilson didn’t actually play the piano (he was a drummer) so as he sang he imitated the real pianist Elliot Carpenter who was playing out of view of the cameras but in view of Wilson. Incidentally, the line most associated with the scene, “Play it again, Sam,” was never actually spoken in the movie.

The full auction catalogue is not yet available online, but keep an eye on this page where it will appear a month or so before the sale.

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See the lunar suface live tonight in high def

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

In honor of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s landing on the moon, at 8:30 PM EST tonight the Slooh Space Camera will broadcast live high definition video of the lunar surface. Host Geoff Fox will welcome a panel of experts including astronomer Bob Berman, science journalist Andy Chaikin and filmmaker Duncan Copp who directed the phenomenal The Planets — An HD Odyssey setting breathtaking images of the planets in our solar system with Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite. While you enjoy the high definition views of the moon today, the panelists will discuss the moon landing of 45 years ago,

The YouTube is embedded below. If that doesn’t work for you, you can follow the broadcast on the Slooh website.

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Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

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La Belle moves from freeze dryer to museum

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

La Belle, one of the ships French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on his ill-fated colonizing mission, sank in a storm in Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1686. In 1995, the wreck of the 54-1/2-foot-long supply ship was found in excellent condition, the bottom third preserved intact with its contents by the mud of the sea floor. Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission spent two years excavating the wreck, building a cofferdam around it, draining the water and then digging it out of the mud. They were able to recover the hull of the ship and 700,000 artifacts, including swords, cannons, bronze hawk bells, pottery, thousands of glass beads and mirrors intended for trade and a skeleton so well preserved that there was still tendon tissue on the bones and a large amount of brain material in the skull.

As with other exceptional raised shipwrecks like the Mary Rose and the Vasa, La Belle’s wooden hull needed to be conserved immediately to ensure it wouldn’t dry out too quickly and warp or shrink. The ship’s timbers were sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where they were soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and stabilizes it. PEG treatment takes a long, long time, like decades, and since it’s petroleum-derived, the cost rises with the price of oil.

When the budget for the conservation ballooned from $330,000 to $1.4 million solely because of PEG prices, in late 2010 conservators changed course and decided to put the ship timbers in a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide. Kept at a constant temperature of 60 degrees below zero, the seawater bound to the wood sublimates — transforms directly from solid to gas — in significantly less time than it takes for PEG to replace water.

To ensure that the timbers retained their shape and size, the hull was disassembled and each piece tagged and scanned. Molds were made so researchers had the original shape of each part for comparison. After running some tests on smaller items, the ship components were placed in the freeze dryer for four to six months until all the bound water was gone. The wreck of La Belle has 600 component parts, including the keel, keelson, ceiling planking, mast and futtocks (those curved ribs in the ship’s frame), so it took several loads to dry them all.

Reconstruction of the ship was scheduled to begin in October of 2013 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, but it has taken a little longer than originally planned. On Thursday, July 17th, the largest portions of La Belle were loaded onto an 18-wheeler and transported from the Riverside Campus of Texas A&M to the Bullock Museum. Included in this first delivery were the 800-pound keel, the 1,100-pound keelson, the forefoot, more than 20 floor planks, buttresses, the mast, 40 first futtocks, more than 20 second futtocks and 25 third futtocks. (Yes I am completely in love with the word futtocks and plan to use it as a curse word on a daily basis from now on.)

On October 25th, the museum will debut a new exhibition, La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, which in addition to traditional displays of artifacts, maps and pictures of the excavation and conservation, will most excitingly feature the public reassembly of the hull. Reconstruction should be completed in May of next year, after which the hull will be encased in glass and placed on display in the center of the museum. A replica of the rest of the ship will be built around the encased hull and visitors will be allowed to walk on the glass over the original ship so they can look down at it and all around at the replica. Such a brilliant idea. This is going to be a blockbuster exhibition.

There will also be a “4D” film, Shipwrecked, for visitors to enjoy. From the museum’s upcoming exhibits page:

Created in collaboration with award-winning production house, Cortina Productions, the film will be on view daily in the Bullock’s popular Texas Spirit Theater, a 4D venue that offers an immersive experience combining the high-drama of 3D with sensory effects built into the seats and environment. Filmed on board one of the few sea-worthy vessels modeled after ships of the 1600s, the film dramatizes the story of La Salle’s venture, revealing the struggles, personalities, and conflicts through the eyes of one of the only survivors of the expedition, Pierre Talon. Pierre’s family was recruited as colonists for the voyage, and at the age of 10, he was separated from his mother and siblings and sent by La Salle to learn the language of the Caddo people in the hopes of establishing trade and facilitating the expedition. Adopted by the tribe, at the age of 14 Pierre was subsequently captured by the Spanish. In the film, he recounts to his captors all that he saw from the moment the ships were setting sail from France.

This news story has a brief overview of La Salle’s mission, some great footage of the hull during the conservation process and a phenomenal mockup of the exhibit with the encased hull and replica built around it that seriously looks real.

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Rome pyramid restoration ahead of schedule

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

In December of 2011, Japanese retail clothing mogul Yuzo Yagi offered to donate €1 million to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a pointy marble-clad vanity pyramid built in Rome in the 1st century B.C. At the time, the agreement was scheduled to be signed in January of 2012 and work to start in April, but the donation agreement didn’t get signed until March, the scaffolding didn’t begin to go up until November and it wasn’t finished until February. Actual restoration work began in March of 2013. Then in a shocking twist, it was completed five months early.

The Culture Ministry contacted Yuzo Yagi and asked him to donate another million euros for a second stage of restoration that would return the Carrara marble cladding to its original whiteness as opposed to its longstanding grimy gray. White happens to be Mr. Yagi’s favorite color — he is known for his stylish all-white ensembles — so he was happy to double his original donation.

In December of 2013 he signed a second donation agreement, again requiring nothing more than a discreet plaque near, not on, the pyramid, naming him as the donor. Even during the restoration the only signs on the pyramid are informational billboards at ground level and white banners assigning themes to each side — the mystical side, the scientific side, the historical side and the secret side. The billboards explain the history of the pyramid through these four themes. Yagi’s company gets credit for his patronage on the billboards, but just in discreet text lines. No logos or glaring anything. The images of the pyramid and information of its background dominate completely. Masterpiece Theater is more cluttered than that, like by a lot.

Now phase two is well on the way to being finished and they’re ahead of schedule again. Restorers expect to be done three months before the expected November deadline. The early finish means Yagi isn’t ready for an inauguration ceremony. He’s thinking of just waiting until next summer and making a big event. He’s also so pleased with how this venture has gone that he’s contemplating donating more money for the preservation of another monument.

Yuzo Yagi toured the pyramid on Tuesday, accompanied by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to promote Mr. Yagi’s dignified generosity as a model for future donors and to tout the state’s new tax incentives for businesses who donate to cultural heritage projects.

You can see how great the pyramid looks inside and out in this news story on Mr. Yagi’s visit:

Oh man, I want to wear a hardhat and go inside! If the burial chamber looks modest it’s because Augustus’ sumptuary law of 18 B.C. forbade ostentatious luxury in tombs. Unlike the Egyptians whose tombs he modeled his own after, Gaius Cestius was not buried with lavish treasures to accompany him to the afterlife. He got white walls with small frescoes of alternating winged Victories and ceremonial vessels, plus a few bronze statues of him outside the pyramid.

The frescoes were in serious danger from water leaking through the marble slabs into the brick and concrete structure. Those leaks have all been plugged now. Also gone are the severe microorganism infestation that was making a meal of the marble and the copious vegetation sprouting through the damaged exterior walls. The pyramid hasn’t looked this good or been this healthy since it was built, I wager.

Here’s a 3D animation of a point cloud generated from laser scan data before the scaffolding went up. It gave restorers a clear picture of the condition of all four sides, the deterioration of the marble cladding, any unevenness in the surface or cracks and evidence of shear.

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200-year-old seltzer water bottle found on shipwreck

Monday, July 14th, 2014

An intact sealed mineral water bottle from the German town of Selters has been retrieved from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Poland. There’s a maker’s seal on the front of the bottle, a faded dark brown circle around the circular text “Selters” with the initial H and N topped by a crown inside, which identify it has having been manufactured between 1806 and 1830. The stoneware bottle still has liquid inside which is not seawater, but it’s possible the bottle was reused and recorked so archaeologists won’t know if there’s prized 200-year-old mineral water in there until they test the contents in a lab.

The H and N on the seal stand for Herzogthum Nassau, meaning Duchy of Nassau, a province in western Germany that is today the state of Hesse. The Selters area of the province on northern slopes of the Taunus mountains was famous for its mineral springs. Long before the duchy existed when the region was part of the Electorate of Trier ruled by a prince-archbishop, local monasteries documented the wells in records from the 8th century. By the 16th century Selters’ naturally carbonated water was well known all over the country. German doctors wrote papers on its curative properties and the crisp, pleasantly sour taste from its uniquely high alkaline salt content.

Starting in the mid-18th century, the water was packaged in stoneware vessels and sold internationally. Shipments went out to the Netherlands, Sweden, England, France, Russia, Africa, even as far afield as America and Jakarta. It was a highly profitable venture, with more than a million jugs sold in 1791. The Electorate west of the Rhine was occupied by France in 1803 and absorbed into the French diocesan system. East of the Rhine its territories were secularized and incorporated into the county of Nassau-Weilburg which merged with Nassau-Usingen to form the Duchy of Nassau in 1806.

The Duchy would only last for 60 years (it was annexed by Prussia in 1866), but during its existence the Selters water was its primary export. In 1850 three million jugs were sold, bringing in annual net profits of 100,000 guilders to the Duke’s privy purse. A public fountain allowed locals to collect the prized water free for home use.

The stoneware bottles were quite ingeniously designed to preserve the freshness and carbonation of the water. The necks were kept short and the bottles filled all the way to the top before being corked and cemented. The aim was to keep air out in order to preserve the fizz and flavor. As long as the air bubble in the neck was small (or non-existent, ideally) and the cork held, the water would retain its unique qualities in the sealed bottle for months. In the mid-19th century, analytical chemist Dr. Remigius Fresenius of the Wiesbaden Agricultural Institution stored Selters water for 15 years and found it substantially unchanged when he retested it.

Selters water was so famous worldwide that when artificial carbonation was invented, some of its products were referred to as “Selterser water,” aka water of Selters, aka seltzer water. Thus Selters became a genericized trademark, like Xerox for photocopies or Kleenex for tissues.

With millions sold every year for more than a century, many Selters stoneware bottles have survived. Corked and sealed ones, however are much more rare. The one discovered on the shipwreck is by far the most valuable object recovered from the unidentified vessel, labeled simply F-33-31, which lies 40 feet deep in Gdańsk Bay. In addition to its inherent coolness, the bottle has helped narrow down the ship’s age. Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the ships planks should narrow it down further.

The underwater archaeologists from the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk surveying the wreck have also found pottery fragments, small metal and ceramic vessels, shoe parts and ship parts, including wooden pulley blocks. They’ve also found a number of large stones which they believe were the ship’s main cargo, used in the construction of foundations or fortifications.

Once the survey is complete, the data and images will be used to create a 3D digital model of the wreck. The team has taken more than 7,000 pictures of the site from which a highly detailed virtual model can be constructed, an innovative approach to underwater archaeology that the National Maritime Museum has pioneered. After testing, the water bottle will go on display at the National Maritime Museum.

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Crucifix from the 1620s unearthed in Newfoundland

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

An archaeological team excavating the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, founded in 1620 by George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, has discovered a small copper crucifix dating to the early days of the settlement. It’s just 2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms and has the traditional image of Christ on the cross on the front. On the back is the Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. The features of the relief are worn almost smooth, indicating that the devotional object was rubbed constantly. Coupled with its small size and broken top, it suggests the crucifix was once part of a rosary.

The crucifix was amongst a collection of ceramics, bones, nails and building debris associated with the construction of a large stone dwelling built for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The dwelling was started sometime after 1623 and completed before the arrival of Calvert, most of his family and about 40 additional settlers in 1628. The cultural deposit containing the crucifix was sealed sometime in the second half of the 1620s, thus providing a securely datable context for the artifacts and a window into the lives of those who worked at Calvert’s colony of Avalon during this early period.

This is the first unambiguously Catholic object found from the time of Calvert’s founding of the colony, and as such it is of singular importance. George Calvert served as King James I’s Secretary of State for six years before resigning and officially converting to Catholicism in 1625. There’s some question as to whether that was the result of a revelation in the moment or the public confirmation of a long-held but hidden faith. His father Leonard was Catholic and in the fraught environment of the Elizabethan religious reforms, suffered constant harassment from the authorities for such crimes as employing Catholics and not going to Church of England services. Little George became a pawn in this game, being forced at age 12 to change tutors to an approved Protestant who would eschew the “popish primer” his previous tutor had employed.

In order to graduate from Oxford and carve out a career for himself as a diplomat and politician at the court of King James, George Calvert certainly professed Protestantism. His wife was Protestant and he raised his children Protestant. By all accounts he was an honest, decent man so there’s no reason to assume he was being deceptive about his religious faith, but either way his experience with religious persecution played an integral role in his plans for Avalon.

He first bought property on Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan and named it Avalon after the island from Arthurian legend where Christianity was introduced to Britain. Colonists arrived in 1621 led by Captain Edward Wynne who wrote glowingly (and inaccurately) to Calvert describing Newfoundland as a bountiful land with a mild climate. Calvert thought fishing was the key to making the colony self-sustaining, maybe even profitable. In 1623 Calvert secured a royal charter extending his lands to the whole southeast peninsula, officially naming it the Province of Avalon “in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America.”

George Calvert’s 1623 charter for the province enshrined freedom of conscience by not requiring that colonists take the oath of supremacy accepting the sovereign as the head of the Church of England. That principle was underscored when Calvert took his first trip to Avalon in the summer of 1627. He brought two priests with him — Father Anthony Smith and Father Thomas Longville (later that year Longville returned to England and was replaced by a Father Hackett) — who according to the colony’s disapproving Puritan clergyman Rev. Erasmus Stourton “said mass every Sunday at Feiryland and used all other ceremonies of the church of Rome in the ample manner as it is used in Spain.” Very much against Stourton’s inclination, Avalon was the first North American colony to practice religious tolerance.

It’s possible that the recently discovered crucifix belonged to one of the three priests, one of the 100 colonists who were established at Ferryland by 1627, or maybe even Calvert himself. Given the early dating, it’s probably more likely to have been lost one of the home’s builders or by Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Avalon from 1625 to late 1626, or by one of the Catholic colonists he brought with him.

Calvert went back to England before he could experience the joys of a Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1628 with his wife and most of his children. That’s when he found out that Wynne’s letters had been more fiction than fact. A frigid, long winter and fishing ships bedeviled by French privateer the Marquis de la Rade, made life very hard, nigh on unbearable for the good Baron. He and his family left Avalon in 1629 for more hospital climes in the Virginia territory. Two years later, he received another royal charter granting him property north of the Potomac on both side of the Chesapeake Bay. He died five weeks before the charter for Maryland was issued. His son Cecilius took over where his father left off, enshrining the same principle of religious freedom in Maryland as his father had instituted in Avalon.

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