Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Century-old fruitcake found in Antarctica

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Fruit cakes are famous for their longevity, mainly because they start off close to inedible so it takes years for them to cross the line into fully inedible. Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) have found a 106-year-old fruit cake in a 19th century hut on Cape Adare. It looks remarkably well-preserved, although none of the conservators have sampled the confection.

The hut is the oldest structure in Antarctica. The Borchgrevink huts are the only surviving first constructions by humans on a continent. It is one of two structures built by the Norwegian pioneer of polar exploration Carsten Borchgrevink in 1899 and used by later explorers. AHT experts believe the cake dates to the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s calamitous final expedition to the South Pole. He and four others reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912 only to find to their dismay that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had gotten there a month earlier on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his men died on the return voyage when their dog teams failed to meet them at the pre-determined rendezvous spot.

The fruitcake was made by the Huntley & Palmers company, purveyors of sweet treats since 1822, and Huntley & Palmers cakes are known to have been among the supplies for the Terra Nova expedition. Scott himself didn’t go to Cape Adare. It was First Officer Victor Campbell’s Northern Party who sheltered in Borchgrevink’s hut and used it to hold their stores in the summer and winter of 1911. When the party was picked up in January of 1912, they left tinned supplies behind.

The New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust began a project in May 2016 to recover and conserve all the artifacts in the Cape Adare huts before the huts themselves are conserved. Because the site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), the objects will all be returned to their original locations after the conservation of the buildings is complete.

The complexity of the project and the short seasons of the polar environment required stringent deadlines for everything to get done on time. The team has conserved close to 1,500 artifacts between May of last year and July of this year. The fruit cake was one of the last ones and conservators had no idea what it was because the tin was so corroded the label and brand could not be identified. It was only when they opened the tin that they saw it was a Huntley & Palmers fruit cake still in its original paper wrapper.

Conservation treatment involved rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating of the tin remnants. Deacidification of the tin label and some physical repair to the torn paper wrapper and tin label was also carried out. The cake itself was in excellent condition.

Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek said “With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artefacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise. It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern trips to the Ice.”

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Silver in coins tracks Rome’s rise to power

Monday, August 14th, 2017

A study of Roman coins has discovered a significant shift in the source of the silver in the early 3rd century B.C. from Greece and its former colonies in southern Italy to the Iberian Peninsula. German and Dutch researchers took samples from 70 silver coins minted between 310 and 101 B.C., drilling minute holes in the rims of the coins to access unweathered heart metal. The samples were subjected to geochemical analysis to determine their metal composition. The team was able to determine the quantities and proportions of major elements (identified by an electron probe microanalyzer or EPMA), trace elements (identified using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry or LA-ICP-MS) and lead isotope signatures (identified using a Multicollector-Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer or MC-ICP-MS).

The lead isotope values of Roman silver coins before 209 B.C. largely overlap with coins minted in Magna Graecia from silver ore mined in the Aegean and Rhodope Mountain regions. The study found that the majority of coins minted after 209 B.C. were made from silver mined in the southern Iberian peninsula, source of the richest silver mines in the Mediterranean. The post-209 B.C. coins also have a higher silver content, greater than 96% by weight.

These findings are evidence of a massive shift in wealth from Carthage to Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War (218-201 B.C.). That 209 B.C. would be a demarcation line is no coincidence. Rome’s first attempt to relieve Carthage of its Iberian territories in 211 B.C. had failed miserably with the defeat of brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio in the battles of Castulo and Ilorca.

Their humiliation would be redeemed two years later by Publius’ son Scipio Africanus. He did what his father and uncle could not do and conquered Qart Hadasht (the Carthaginian name for the city of Carthage), modern-day Cartagena, a Mediterranean port city founded in 227 B.C. by Hasdrubal the Fair as the jumping off point for the Punic conquest of Spain. More than a century later, it was still the seat of Carthaginian power on the Iberian peninsula. By taking Cartago Nova, as Scipio renamed it, Rome hobbled Carthage’s control of the southeast. The loss was compounded in 208 B.C. when Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal at Baecula. Scipio broke the last of Carthage’s power in Iberia in 206 B.C. when he defeated an allied army of Carthage and Numidia at the Battle of Ilipa.

Cartago Nova had massive silver mines and indeed would go on to provide a constant supply of silver for the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire for centuries. Between Scipio’s successful conquest of Carthage’s silver-rich southern Iberian territories, war booty and, after the cessation of hostilities, the forced payment of punitive reparations, Rome was newly in possession of enormous silver resources. It wasted no time in converting them to cold hard cash.

Dr Katrin Westner, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University, Frankfurt, one of the leaders of a group of scientists in Germany and Denmark that carried out the research, said the effect on the Roman empire was profound.

“This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire.” […]

Professor Kevin Butcher, of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick, said the project had confirmed what had previously only been speculation. “This research demonstrates how scientific analysis of ancient coins can make a significant contribution to historical research. It allows what was previously speculation about the importance of Spanish silver for the coinage of Rome to be placed on a firm foundation.”

The results of the study were presented on Monday at the Goldschmidt Conference which is being held in Paris this week.

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Staedtler erasers extract DNA from medieval parchment

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Two years ago, University of York bioarchaeologists used Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers’ characteristic soft, pure white crumbs to collect samples of ultra-thin uterine vellum from 13th century pocket Bibles without damaging the incredibly delicate pages. The microscopic samples collected on the eraser crumbs were then analyzed to determine the animal source of the vellum/parchment and the ages of the animals at time of death. It was a great breakthrough which answered a centuries-old question about the composition of so-called uterine vellum, namely, that it’s neither uterine (made from the skin of aborted or miscarried animals) nor necessarily vellum (made from cow skin) but the product of various young animals whose skin was treated with an unknown technique to create the paper-thin pages.

Now the Staedtler Mars eraser has enabled another great leap forward in the study of medieval manuscripts. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin and the University of York team who did the uterine vellum study have successfully performed DNA and protein analysis on samples from the pages of the York Gospels, an pre-Norman Conquest 11th century codex held at York Minster that is one of very few Anglo-Saxon gospels to have survived the Reformation’s orgy of destruction, and a 12th century Gospel of Luke in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This isn’t the first time DNA has been retrieved from medieval parchment, but as with the extraction of DNA from archaeological remains, the process requires the destruction of some of the material. The Staedtler Mars eraser-based system, which has been dubbed the triboelectric sampling technique, is entirely non-invasive. They don’t even have to deal with the time and expense and making a special trip to take samples from the manuscript. Conservators already use the erasers to keep the pages clean without risking damage, so all they have to do is keep the crumbs instead of brushing them off and then send them in for analysis. It’s cheap, easy, risk-free and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the information that can be derived from the samples.

The proteins helped identify the animals used to make the book’s pages – mostly cattle in the case of the York Gospels, with some pages made from sheepskin. The DNA also revealed the sex of the animals that provided some of the parchments – most were female. Knowing information like this could, in future, help the researchers understand which livestock populations contributed to parchment making. Or it might even show how bookmakers periodically changed their materials following an outbreak of disease among specific kinds of livestock.

Perhaps more useful, as far as conservators are concerned, is the detection of DNA from bacteria including Saccharopolyspora. This genus is associated with unsightly spots that can develop on old parchment manuscripts. Finding it could alert conservators to the likelihood of the spots appearing on the manuscripts.

Just knowing the type of animal used is useful, says book and paper conservator Emma Nichols at Cambridge University Library. This is because, in their work, conservators often try to match replacement materials with those originally used so that the conservation work is as sympathetic to the document as possible.

The DNA reveals other secrets too. For instance, pages containing oaths for clergy that would have been touched and kissed regularly were associated with higher levels of human DNA.

North Carolina State University. English professor Timothy Stinson, who has been building a database of DNA from medieval manuscripts for the past eight years, calls this novel approach ground-breaking because it gives scholars access to a thousand years’ worth of information about European animal husbandry trapped in manuscripts without sacrificing even a tiny fraction of the precious pages themselves.

The results of the study have been preprinted (meaning not yet peer reviewed) online and can be read free of charge in this pdf.

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Long-gone Montreal cemetery won’t give up ghost

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Archaeologists in Montreal are trying to identify the remains of, among other individuals, a soldier whose bones were unearthed last year during construction work. A Hydro-Québec discovered the bones when laying a power line underneath one of Montreal’s central thoroughfares, René Lévesque Boulevard. Then they found more. These were the remains of people interred in a Protestant cemetery that was in use from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th.

Known variously as the Dufferin Square Cemetery, the Saint Lawrence Burial Ground and the Dorchester Street Cemetery, the Protestant cemetery was created in 1797 outside the city walls of what is now Old Montreal. It was made necessary by the city’s rapid population growth after the British conquest of French Canada, ushered in by the Surrender of Montreal in 1760 and formalized in the 1764 Treaty of Paris. The cemeteries inside the city walls were overcrowded and taking up increasingly valuable real estate, and authorities were concerned about all that decaying flesh spreading infectious diseases like cholera amongst the living. (John Snow’s ground-breaking epidemiological study identifying fecal contamination in drinking water as the source of cholera was still more than 50 years away.)

Because there were laws against Protestants and Catholics being buried together, the city authorized two new cemeteries in the suburbs. The Protestant one opened first; the Catholic one followed two years later. Montreal’s Protestant residents were given the opportunity to move their loved ones’ remains to the St. Lawrence. Over the next few years as the old city cemeteries were sold off for development, people scrambled to transfer remains before they were built over. One of those people was fur trader and successful entrepreneur James McGill, best known today as the founder of McGill University. His dear friend and former business partner John Porteous had been buried in one of the old city cemeteries and in 1799, Porteous’ remains were in danger of being unceremoniously ploughed under when the land was reclaimed for new construction. McGill personally saw to it that Porteous’ body was moved to the shiny new Protestant cemetery in the burb and buried in the plot he had bought for himself.

Montreal’s continued expansion in the 19th century ensured the new Protestant burial ground was soon as overcrowded and inconvenient as the ones inside the old city had been. The roomier Mount Royal Cemetery opened in 1852. Two years later, the old cemetery was closed to new burials and left to its own devices. Reclaimed by nature, its headstones broken and leaning precariously, graves sunken, the grounds studiously unmaintained with weeds as high as an elephant eye, the cemetery was razed in 1875 to make way for Dufferin Square, a public green space off Dorchester Boulevard. (The elegant street, dotted with mansions and running through Old Montreal, would be expanded into an eight-lane artery running east-west through Montreal in 1955 and renamed René Lévesque Boulevard in 1987.)

Again the city alerted people that it was going to go down so if they wanted their deceased to rest in peace, they’d have to move the remains themselves. Some of Montreal’s most famous sons were buried in the St. Lawrence Burial Ground. James McGill was interred there in 1813 alongside his old friend John Porteous. (He couldn’t be buried next to his wife because she was Catholic.) John Molson, founder of the brewery that still bears his name, was buried there in 1836. They and other wealthy, prominent people were moved. McGill was reinterred on the campus of the university that bears his name. Molson and other big shots were moved to Mount Royal. The poor, tradespeople, middle class, people without surviving family or who had simply been forgotten, were left behind.

Over time, the exact location of the cemetery was forgotten until in the late 1970s a massive government office building was built on Dufferin Square. Planners thought they’d taken care of the whole cemetery situation by taking a page out of the Leicester handbook and turning it into a parking lot, but when construction of the Complexe Guy Favreau began, they started turning up body after body, eventually unearthing more than 100 sets of human remains. Some were reburied in Mount Royal, but rumor has it there are a lot of restless spirits lingering at the site and the complex has a reputation for being haunted by some very angry ghosts.

Even with this ghoulish history looming in the background, archaeologists didn’t expect to find the bones of dozens more people when the work on the power line was done last year.

“We weren’t certain if we were within the cemetery borders or not,” says André Burroughs, an archeologist with Hydro-Québec who oversaw the work. “At first, we were surprised.”

The discovery turned up the remains of 61 individuals, many of them just bones gathered in collective burial boxes. […]

About half the individuals’ remains were discovered inside three pine boxes. They were probably exhumed from the original Protestant cemetery in Old Montreal and re-buried collectively.

The officer’s skeleton and military accoutrements offer some of the most extensive clues into someone’s personal history. The man had suffered from poor nutrition, based on marks found on his teeth.

He was fairly tall – about 5-foot-10 – and lived to middle age, judging from his long bones. His body shows no trauma to indicate he was injured in battle.

Some of the bones discovered during the construction of the Complexe Guy Favreau also belonged to soldiers, identified as members of the British garrison who guarded Montreal before 1814. Perhaps he was one of their comrades.

The bones are being kept in a laboratory for study at the moment. Once the research is done, the plan is to give them to the city of Montreal to store in its extensive archaeological collection, but this story has gotten a lot of media attention and a number of individuals and organizations have offered to provide a more personal disposition for the remains.

The Last Post Fund, whose National Field of Honour is in suburban Pointe-Claire, says it would consider burials for any soldiers. The St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal expressed interest in caring for the remains of Scottish Montrealers. Two women wondered whether the remains might be those of their ancestors, and one offered a DNA sample.

Mr. Burroughs says the remains could eventually end up at the Mount Royal Cemetery on the mountain, following the path that their predecessors took about 160 years earlier.

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Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reunited online in live relay

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh painted five of his most famous works, the Sunflower series, from August 1888 to January 1889 when he was living in Arles in the South of France. Each of the paintings depict a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase using three shades of yellow (there’s blue in the backgrounds and in some accents). This was a deliberate choice by the artist, his attempt to convey the vibrancy and variety of the flower with the color most characteristic of it. He also used thick, layered brushstrokes, a bold impasto that captured the dimension of the sunflower head and seeds as well as their color.

Van Gogh had explored sunflowers before. When he lived in Paris with his brother Theo in 1887, he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers, two to four cut blooms withering on the floor. They were very different in palette and mood to the bright bouquets of the Arles works. In a letter from August of 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother that he’d returned to the subject with a new approach:

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers. […]

Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go”

The new series of sunflowers was meant to be as welcoming and warm as the one he fondly recalled from the shop next door. Van Gogh was expecting a guest in a few months, his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. He had an idea that they might live and work together sharing a studio, a studio that would be decorated entirely with sunflowers, hence his plan for a dozen paintings in the series. He never got that far, nor did the two artists get a studio together, but Gaugin did come to visit him in the aptly named Yellow House at Arles, and Van Gogh hung two of the sunflower paintings on the walls of his room.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888-9. The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection, 1963. Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.Paul loved them so much he point-blank asked Van Gogh if he could keep one. Vincent wanted to make his friend happy — they had fought during Gaugin’s stay and he left earlier than planned on a rancorous note — but he was so desperately strapped for cash and so concerned that Theo, who was engaged to be married, have some money to make a home for his new bride, that Paul’s request put him in an awkward position. He wrote to Theo that he would let Gaugin have one of the sunflowers and redo it so Theo could exhibit it and perhaps sell it.

You’ll see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I’d advise you to keep them for yourself, for the privacy of your wife and yourself.

It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things:

“that — … that’s… the flower.”

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.

He didn’t know how right he was. His Arles Sunflowers are now in top museums on three continents: The National Gallery, London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. The five will be reunited for the first time in virtual space on August 14th in a Facebook Live event. Curators from each museum will speak for 15 minutes about the paintings in a globe-trotting relay dedicated to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers.

This video from the National Gallery gives a brief introduction to the paintings and the #SunflowersLive event:

The Van Gogh Museum, meanwhile, has created a virtual tour of the Sunflowers so you can explore them at your leisure accompanied by Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo van Gogh. They’re also the only one of the museums to have a fully zoomable high resolution image of their Sunflowers painting on their website (see the link above). You can get way, way up in the details of the work, and you can’t put a price on that especially with an artist like Van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so meaningful.

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Cache of WWII Mosquito plans found days before destruction

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

A priceless collection of technical and engineering designs for the World War II Mosquito aircraft has been discovered hidden in a factory days before its demolition. An engineer found more than 20,000 drawings on microfilm cards in the building at Hawarden Airfield in Broughton, near Chester on the Welsh side of the border with England. This is the only complete archive of Mosquito technical drawings known in the world, all of which were top secret classified material during and after the war. It includes plans for experimental models that never made it to the prototype stage, including one that would carry torpedoes to attack German battleships, a previously unknown photo-reconnaissance plane, and a “Mosquito Mk I, Tropics” model that featured a compartment in the rear fuselage for storing desert equipment. It’s a great stroke of luck that they were discovered by an engineer who had the knowledge to recognize what a massive historical treasure he had stumbled upon and saved it before the bulldozers came in to raze the old factory and everything inside of it.

The factory did not actually make Mosquitos during World War II. It was operated by the Vickers Armstrong company at the time and manufactured Vickers Wellingtons and 235 Avro Lancasters. Only in 1948 did The de Havilland Aircraft Company take over the former Vickers factory and use it to produce Mosquitos and many other aircraft types. The Mosquito was a work of unique genius, designed by aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland (first cousin of legendary actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, daughters of his father’s youngest brother). The twin-engine two-seater aircraft was so versatile it was immensely effective in combat as, among other things, a tactical bomber, a day and night fighter, a U-boat striker and a pathfinder for bomber squadrons in large raids.

Its service in the RAF began in 1941 and its qualities were immediately apparent. For one thing, it was one of the fastest planes in the world. For another, it was made out of wood. Like Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the Mosquito was constructed out of wood to preserve precious aluminum stores. Unlike the Spruce Goose, a giant lumbering folly that barely made it into flight a single time and that after the war, the Mosquito was manufactured quickly and efficiently by joiners and carpenters who transitioned seamlessly from civilian roles into aircraft production. Pieces of spruce, balsa and plywood were glued together and pressed into moulds, which allowed for fast production of a lightweight, nimble plane in factories that before the war had been manufacturing furniture, cabinets and pianos. This earned it the well-deserved moniker of “The Wooden Wonder.”

This 1944 newsreel shows how the Mosquito was made with bendy woods and glue like a theatrical prop, only deadly, fast and, you know, real.

Even the head of the Luftwaffe Field Marshall Herman Goering himself had to admit through gritted teeth that it was freaking awesome: “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses, and we have the nincompoops.” His bitterness was informed by personal experience, as a Mosquito raid on a Berlin radio station where he had been scheduled to deliver a speech delayed him by more than an hour.

It was the remarkable wooden construction that shortened the aircraft’s lifespan so dreadfully. Plywood and balsa don’t last long, so while its metal contemporaries like the Spitfire survived for decades after the war, the Mosquitos degraded into nothingness. Production stopped in 1950 and any surviving stock was left to rot in storage. The last airworthy Mosquito in Britain crashed at an air show in 1996, killing both pilots. There are only three Mosquitos in the world today that can fly, one in Canada, the other two in the US.

The microfilm archive was donated to The People’s Mosquito, a charitable organization that seeks to rebuild a crashed Mosquito so that the aircraft that has been credibly described as “the plane that won the war” can fly again over England’s green and pleasant land. The technical drawings will allow them to reconstruct the plane to modern aviation safety standards while ensuring its historical accuracy.

The charity hopes to resurrect the remains of a Mosquito night fighter that crashed at RAF Coltishall, in February 1949, while serving with No 23 Sqn.

Ross Sharp, engineering director for the project, said: “As you can imagine, restoring an aircraft that is 70 years old presents several challenges, one of which is a lack of information on the building techniques, materials, fittings and specifications.”

“These plans enable us to glean a new level of understanding and connection with the brilliant designers who developed the world’s first, true, multi-role combat aircraft.” […]

[The People’s Mosquito chairman John] Lilley said: “No other aircraft has amassed such a remarkable combat record in so short a time, flying so many different types of mission and excelling in each one.

“Even today, it remains one of the world’s most successful multirole combat aircraft, and it was all British, made by men and women who only a few months earlier had been building furniture and mending pianos.”

Despite the great boost the discovery of the archive gives the project, they still have a long ways to go before restoration can begin. Money is the issue. The estimated cost of the restoration is £6 million and only a small portion of that has been raised. If you’d like to pitch in, the People’s Mosquito has some nifty merchandise available in its shop, a club membership with all kinds of perks and takes online donations.

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Is Spain’s first historian of the Americas buried under Columbus’ tomb?

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

In 1992, workers excavated the tomb of Christopher Columbus in the cathedral of Santo Domingo to translate bones believes to be his (over the centuries, Columbus’ remains were moved over longer distances than any saint’s — from Valladolid to Seville to Santo Domingo to Havana and back across the Atlantic to Seville — so authentication has proven all but impossible) to their new home in the Columbus Lighthouse monument. A few meters underneath Columbus’ tomb, an older crypt was found. It had once had a vaulted brick ceiling, now damaged, but its brick floor and side walls and size (28 feet by 12 feet) attested that someone of importance had been buried there.

Esteban Prieto Vicioso, the cathedral’s head of conservation thinks he knows who that individual may have been: Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Oviedo was something of a Forrest Gump figure in his day, not in the “stupid is as stupid does” way, but in the sense that he seemed to pop up regularly in the midst of great historical events and personages. In 1492, he was by the side of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during their triumphant entry into Grenada after the final defeat of what was left of Moorish Spain. He was present at Columbus’s audience with their majesties when returned from his first voyage to the New World in 1493. He lived in Italy after that, palling around with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and the notorious Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

In 1514, Oviedo was appointed by King Ferdinand supervisor of gold smeltings at Santo Domingo, a lucrative and enormously important post given the high priority Spain placed on scraping as much precious metal out of America as possible. This would be his first trip to the Americas. He hitched a ride with Pedrarias Dávila on his voyage to the New World, which with 19 ships and 1,500 men was the largest Spanish expedition yet sent to the Americas. He witnessed the Dávila’s replacement of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama and reach the Pacific Ocean through the Americas, as governor of the Spanish central American province of Castilla de Oro, and five years later, he witnessed Dávila’s show-trial of Balboa on trumped up treason charges and Balboa’s subsequent execution.

Oviedo documented it all. He returned to Spain in 1523 and in 1526 he published Summary of the Natural History of the Indies. Very few eye-witness chronicles of Spain’s colonization of the New World were published, so the Summary would quickly be translated into multiple languages and remain in print for centuries. His contemporary and fellow chronicler Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who is far better known than Oviedo today, accused him of being a despoiler and thief who plundered the Americas for all he could steal and then packed his book full of lies. As an advocate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, de las Casas had good reason to bitterly oppose Oviedo who considered them animals without souls and therefore had no qualms about their being subjected to slavery, abuse and mass slaughter. Yet, Oviedo’s book was the first to introduce indigenous foods, plants, objects and techniques that are now commonplace to European readers, including the pineapple, tobacco and the barbecue.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, appointed him Governor of the Fortaleza Ozama in Santo Domingo in 1532. So Oviedo returned to the Americas and lived the rest of his days in Santo Domingo. There he completed A General and Natural History of the Indies, a multi-volume version of the Summary, which wasn’t published in full until the 19th century. He died in 1557 at the age of 80.

By then, the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor had been completed for almost 20 years. It was the first cathedral built in the Americas. Commissioned by Pope Julius II (who also commissioned a certain Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) in 1504, the cathedral was built between 1512 and 1540. Oviedo was well into his tenure as governor when the cathedral was finally finished.

“We know that up to the middle of the 16th century there was an altar dedicated to Santa Lucía built on Oviedo’s instructions, and that right underneath he ordered a vault to be constructed, where he was buried,” says Prieto Vicioso. “There is no documentary evidence that his body was ever moved from there.”

The restoration team at the cathedral – the first one built in the Americas – is trying to raise money to excavate the crypt, which they hope will allow them to identify Oviedo. They believe they will find an iron key in the tomb to the fortress of Santo Domingo, of which Oviedo was governor for the last 25 years of his life. A final detail they believe will definitively establish that the tomb is Oviedo’s would be damage to the skull, which was the result of a knife fight with another Spaniard that took place in the Darién Gap, in what is today Panama.

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Luna settlement was the largest in the southeast

Monday, August 7th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the Santa Maria de Ochuse settlement in Pensacola, Florida, have discovered that it was the largest of Spain’s mid-16th century settlements in the southeast of what is now the United States. Founded by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano in August of 1559, Santa Maria de Ochuse was the first European (albeit populated by a significant proportion of indigenous Mexicans and African slaves) multi-year settlement in the US. It lasted two years, a not inconsiderable feat considering their supply ships were destroyed by a hurricane a month after they set up stakes. Relief fleets resupplied them, but in 1561 the survivors abandoned the site and Spanish ships carried them back to Mexico. It took another four years before Spain tried again with the St. Augustine colony, founded in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez. That attempt had a far more successful outcome and St. Augustine is today the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental US.

Located in downtown Pensacola within view of three wrecks of Luna’s ships just offshore in Pensacola Bay, the Luna settlement was first excavated in late 2015 by University of West Florida archaeologists. Since then, UWF Archaeology Institute teams have returned every summer to excavate the site. Finding evidence of its perimeter was one of their priorities, and with 900 shovels tests under their belt, this season they have accumulated enough information to get a real understanding of the dimensions of Santa Maria de Ochuse.

“We now know that the site really does have a definitive boundary and that encompasses an area of about 27 total acres minimum…and if we turn it into a grid, it’s about 31 acres,” said Dr. John Worth, the project’s principal investigator. “Either one of those numbers makes this the largest mid-16th Century Spanish residential settlement in the entire southeast.”

That makes the Luna Settlement, known as Santa Maria de Ochuse, larger than St. Augustine when it was first established in 1565; and it was bigger than Santa Elena when it was initially established in 1566 on the coast of South Carolina.

“That’s because Luna brought 1500 colonist, whereas St. Augustine and Santa Elena had something on the order of 300-600 settlers (at first),” said Worth in reference to the initial size of those colonies.

“So, we had the largest settlement at the time. Therefore, we have the largest archaeological site of the 16th Century Spanish Colonial era here, which really puts it on the map.”

The excavations have also revealed some of the settlements lay-out. Luna’s colonists choice a bluff overlooking the bay as the main site. It was a level terrace, an advantageous location for construction and for defense. This season archaeologists hoped to discover more traces of a building they believe was the home of a high-status individual, likely the expedition’s treasurer, but did not find the posthole they were looking for. They’ll continue to search in future excavations, because postholes could give them a clearer picture of the precise location and orientation of the settlement’s buildings.

To follow the Luna Settlement Project excavation and read more about the history of the Luna expedition, read Dr. John Worth’s excellent blog. It’s not updated very often, but the posts are very content-rich with bibliographies that can lead you down many a rabbit hole. The project’s Facebook page is more frequently updated albeit in less depth.

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Historic Massachusetts mill helps restore iconic Glasgow building

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

In May of 2014, a 100-year-old architectural gem in Glasgow was devastated by fire. The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building, was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who had attended the Glasgow School of Art as a teenager, and built between 1897 and 1909. The Mack, as it is lovingly nicknamed, seamlessly blends multiple styles — modernism, Japonisme, Art Nouveau — and was enormously influential in its day. Today it is an icon of Glaswegian architecture, receiving more than 20,000 visitors a year, and its library was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.

Mackintosh’s undisputed masterpiece, The students were working on their final exams when one of them inadvertently set off a chain reaction that resulted in calamity. The spray foam she was using as part of her project was sucked into a projector’s cooling fan and set alight. The fire quickly spread throughout the west wing via the wooden flues that Mackintosh had installed to keep warm air circulating, reaching from the basement to the roof.

MackIntosh library before the fire. Photo by Alan McAteer.Thanks to the prompt action of firefighters, the 200 students and staff in the building were evacuated and unharmed. By the time the fire was put out 12 hours later, three floors of the building had been consumed in the conflagration. The hard work and dedication of firefighters limited the damage so that 90% of The Mack remained intact, but the 10% that was destroyed unfortunately included two of the most significant parts of the building: the Japanese-inspired Studio 58 and the Mackintosh library, famed for its original built-in wood cabinets, furniture, windows and light fixtures. A long glazed corridor at the roof level known as the “hen run” also suffered heavy damage.

The Hen Run after the fire. Photo by Alan McAteer.Faced with such terrible devastation, the Glasgow School of Art had some hard decisions to make. So much was lost that there were serious questions about what could be recovered and at what cost. The final choice was to undertake the challenges of restoration preserving as many of the original elements as could be salvaged from the smoldering rubble. Volunteers flocked to help remove everything inside the building, from relatively unscathed sculptures and other artworks to charred and water-logged architectural features, decorations and furniture.

What could not be salvaged and restored would be replaced with materials as close as to the originals as possible. The conservation team went above and beyond to rescue everything they could and recreate what they couldn’t. They were able to restore 28 of the Art Nouveau light fixtures from the library out of pieces salvaged from the fire, seven more were Frankensteined together from recovered parts and new parts, and 18 new replicas were made.

Studio 58 posed a whole other kind of challenge. It was built in Japanese-inspired style with a steep pitched roof held up by huge yellow pine beams. Because they performed an important structural function, the columns were made of massive, fine-grained timbers without weaknesses like large knot-holes and cracks. Replacing them was a dauntingly tall order.

That’s when the historic cotton mill complex in Lowell, Massachusetts, the epicenter of the industrial revolution in the United States, came to the rescue. One of the last buildings added to the complex, the 1904 Picker Building, is in the process of being converted into affordable apartments. Last year a section of it had to be demolished, but every part of it that could be salvaged was reclaimed before the demolition. Among the salvaged elements were very high-quality, old growth southern yellow pine timbers used to frame the structure. They were recovered and stored by Longleaf Lumber, experts the salvage of historic woods.

Liz Davidson, Senior Project Manager for the Mackintosh Restoration:

“The original wooden uprights had been made out of American yellow pine which we knew had come from Massachusetts. So when our contractor, Kier Construction, began the search for replacement timber they immediately looked into possible sources in the area where the original timber had come from at the turn of the 20th century.”

“We were delighted to discover that not only did Long Leaflumber have the quality yellow pine in the size that we needed, but that the wood had come from a building which had been constructed at the same time as the Mack,” she adds.

“Longleaf Lumber are truly excited and humbled to be part of such a tremendous restoration project,” a spokesperson said. “It is fitting that these beams, cut from the grand longleaf pine forests and originally milled for a factory in the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, have been reclaimed and repurposed in a restoration effort that pays homage to an architectural master who was influenced both by nature and the industrial changes of his time.”

Eight 13-1/2 inch x 15-1/2 inch x 23 foot beams were loaded into a shipping container in late 2016 for the trip across the Atlantic and arrived in Scotland at the beginning of this year. After testing and shaping the wood was ready for the final part of its journey from Cotton Mill to Artists studio.

Four massive replacement uprights were finally craned into the Mackintosh Building and manoeuvred into place in a delicate and complex operation. This landmark day cemented the relationship between Glasgow and Massachusetts which had begun over a century ago at the time when both the Picker Building and the Mackintosh Building were constructed.

The restoration of Mackintosh Building is a labour of love, but with more than 30 specialized subcontractors from lead glaziers to horse-hair plasterers involved, it’s far from cheap with an estimated total cost of £35 million ($43 million). A great deal of money has been raised already, but there is still a long way to go. If you’d like to donate to the fund, click here if you’re in the UK, or here if you’re in the US. If all goes according to schedule, the restoration will be completed by February 2019.

MackIntosh Building gallery damaged by fire. Photo by Alan McAteer.

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Gainsborough’s Blue Boy to be conserved in public

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

The iconic painting by Thomas Gainsborough formally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman but known worldwide as The Blue Boy will get its first thorough technical analysis and conservation at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The painting will be removed from public view on Tuesday, August 8th, and will first undergo preliminary analysis. That phase is scheduled to end on November 1st, after which conservators will use the new information to plan an extensive year-long conservation from September 2018 through September 2019. In total, Project Blue Boy will take two years.

The Blue Boy won’t be hidden from view all that time, however, because the year-long conservation will be done in the Thornton Portrait Gallery where the painting usually hangs. That will give visitors, who are probably there in the first place primarily to see the greatest jewel in The Huntington’s crown, a unique opportunity to observe experts at work conserving the art historical masterpiece.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. The painting is so important and popular that it has been on almost constant display since The Huntington opened to the public almost 100 years ago. “The most recent conservation treatments have mainly involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep The Blue Boy on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to loss and permanent damage; and the adhesive that binds the canvas to its lining is failing, meaning the painting does not have adequate support for long-term display. These issues and more will be addressed by Project Blue Boy.

In addition to contributing to scholarship in the field of conservation, the undertaking will likely uncover new information of interest to art historians. O’Connell will use a surgical microscope to closely examine the painting. To gather material information, she will employ imaging techniques including digital x-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet fluorescence, and x-ray fluorescence. The data from these analytical techniques will contribute to a better understanding of the materials Gainsborough procured to create The Blue Boy while at the same time revealing information about earlier conservation treatments.

“One area we’d like to better understand is, what technical means did Gainsborough use to achieve his spectacular visual effects?” said Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition. “He was known for his lively brushwork and brilliant, multifaceted color. Did he develop special pigments, create new materials, pioneer new techniques?” She and O’Connell will build upon clues gleaned from previous conservation projects to learn more. “We know from earlier x-rays that The Blue Boy was painted on a used canvas, on which the artist had begun the portrait of a man,” she said. “What might new technologies tell us about this earlier abandoned portrait? Where does this lost painting fit into his career? How does it compare with other portraits from the 1760s?” McCurdy also looks forward to discovering other anomalies that may become visible beneath the surface paint, and what they might indicate about Gainsborough’s painting practice.

Gainsborough painted the work in 1770 on his own initiative. No client commissioned it. The Blue Boy was Gainsborough’s first foray into creating a Van Dyck-style court portrait, hence the characteristic 17th century garb of silk knee breeches, doublet with slashed sleeves and lace collar. His aim was to prove himself against the standards of the previous century’s most illustrious portraitist to Britain’s royalty and nobility and he succeeded. The portrait was a great hit at the 1770 Royal Academy exhibition and Thomas Gainsborough, the son of a weaver whose clientele had been merchants and country squires, was now acclaimed on a par with Sir Anthony van Dyck, son of wealthy parents, child prodigy and portraitists to the aristocracy of Europe since he was 21 years old.

The identity of the sitter is unknown, but one possibility is that its first owner Jonathan Buttall, who was 18 in 1770, is the subject. He was the son of a prosperous businessman (raw iron and retail manufactured goods) and a good friend of Gainsborough’s. They bonded over their love of music and remained close friends until the artist’s death in 1788, so much so that at the end of his life Gainsborough asked Buttall to attend his funeral, an honor he accorded very few people even amongst his circle of friends of family.

The Blue Boy was sold to railway magnate Henry E. Huntington, founder of the museum that bears his name, in 1921 by British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen who had acquired it that same year from the second Duke of Westminster. Huntington paid the greatest amount ever paid up until that time for a painting — $728,800, about $9 million today — and the sale generated massive publicity and protests. Back then, there was no law that could block export of an object of exceptional cultural significance so Britain lost The Blue Boy to California. It’s been hanging at The Huntington since the museum opened in 1928.

Duveen made a fortune matchmaking American plutocrats with the cultural patrimony of impoverished British aristocrats and would later become notorious for his slipshod, aggressive and damaging “restorations” of artworks to make them shiny (literally) before selling them. The Blue Boy did not escape his less than tender mercies. He told the press shortly after he bought the portrait from the Duke of Westminster that he planned to have it “cleaned and revarnished” before putting it on display. Perhaps Project Blue Boy will discover the remnants of Duveen’s interventions as well.

The Huntington has set up a website dedicated to Project Blue Boy where you can track the progress of the analysis and conservation of this iconic work of art.

The Blue Boy, (ca. 1770), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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