Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Turner’s High Street, Oxford to remain in Oxford

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

The High Street, Oxford, an iconic view of the city’s main thoroughfare by Joseph Mallord William Turner, has been on display at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum since 1997, on loan from a private collection. Earlier this year the owners offered the painting to the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. Because the appraised market value of the painting, £3.5 million ($5,387,000), is more than the tax owing, the Ashmolean had to come up with the difference of £860,000 ($1,324,000) to secure the masterpiece. If they couldn’t meet the price, the painting would be sold at public auction and very possibly to a foreign buyer who would take it out of the country.

Most of the sum was raised through grants — £550,000 ($846,570) from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £220,000 ($338,630) from the Art Fund, £30,000 ($46,180) from the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean — leaving just £60,000 ($92,300) outstanding to acquire the painting. On June 3rd, the museum launched a campaign to raise the last £60,000. The response from the public was immediate and enthusiastic. More than 800 individuals donated to the cause and the target was reached in just four weeks. Once the paperwork is done, The High Street, Oxford will officially be part of the Ashmolean Museum’s permanent collection.

JMW Turner had deep connections to Oxford. As a child he spent time in the area visiting his uncle so he was familiar with the city — there is at least one surviving watercolor of Oxford Turner painted when he was in his teens — and over the course of his lifetime he would finish more than 30 watercolors of the city, the largest number of works depicting a single place in his oeuvre. In 1799 when he was 24 years old, he received his first important commission: two watercolor of the college town to be published in the Oxford Almanack, the University’s prestigious annual calendar which had been printed every year without interruption since 1676. The watercolors were so well-received, he got commissions to make another eight watercolors which were published between 1799 and 1810.

The watercolors caught the eye of Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, who commissioned Turner to create a view of High Street that Wyatt would then have engraved so he could sell prints of the work. Turner worked on the painting over the winter of 1809-1810, consulting with Wyatt as he went along. Wyatt, while a townie, had many begowned friends, so the painting deliberately includes men in academic dress as well as more colorful townspeople at focal points along the street. Turner had once contemplated a career in architecture and as a young man he had worked for several architects as a draughtsman. That fascination greatly informed High Street which is drawn with exceptional attention to the architectural details of the buildings.

When the painting was finished in March of 1810, Wyatt put it on display in his High Street print shop. Both the oil painting and the print made from it were hugely popular. Turner displayed the oil painting in his personal gallery in Queen Ann Street, London. In 1812, The High Street, Oxford and a companion townscape Wyatt commissioned after the success of the first were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Because, as anyone who has watched Morse and Inspector Lewis to the point of overdose can tell you, Oxford is basically frozen in time, what Turner saw when he looked down High Street is pretty much what you see today looking down High Street, give or take a bike or two (thousand). Any institution would be keen to have a Turner oil painting, but this work is so bound to its context, a context which has survived almost unchanged, that it would have been a tremendous loss to see it sold away from the city whose sempiternal beauty he captured so flawlessly.

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You have two weeks left to design the World War I Memorial

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

On May 21st, the US World War I Centennial Commission announced that they were opening a design competition for a World War I Memorial to be built in Washington, DC. Every other war of the 20th century has a memorial on the National Mall or environs except for World War I in which 53,402 US servicepeople died in battle and 63,000 more died from disease and accident. More than 200,000 veterans came home wounded and had a damned hard time of it too. World War I is the third bloodiest war in the US history after the Civil War and World War II, but the only monument that comes close to paying respects to the many dead from that war is a memorial dedicated to General John J. Pershing, the commander of American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. A bronze statue of the general and two small granite walls inscribed with maps and quotes describing the American effort stand in a corner Pershing Park, a 1.8-acre urban park a block from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In December of 2014, Congress authorized the World War I Centennial Commission to expand the current Pershing memorial into a national World War I Memorial. It won’t just be in the corner of the park with the statue and walls, however. The entire park will be transformed. It’s in dire need of a new purpose, too, because the main feature of the park was a shallow sunken concrete basin that held water for an ornamental pool in the summer and an ice-skating rink in the winter. When the pool’s mechanics failed a few years ago, they weren’t repaired so the park is now dominated by an eyesore of a useless concrete slab taking up the bulk of its area.

Here’s your chance to make all your Sim City/Leslie Knope visions come true. The competition is wide open. Anyone — students, professional architects, WWI history nerds from around the world — can submit an entry.

The memorial should honor and commemorate the service of American forces in World War I with sufficient scale and gravity that the memorial takes its place within the larger network of memorials and monuments situated on and around the National Mall. At the same time, designers should forge functional and perceptual linkages to the pathways, streets, and civic spaces and architectural landmarks around the site. Design and landscape elements should contribute to the park composition and strengthen the park’s relationship to the larger urban context, while complementing, and not detracting from, the meaning of the commemorative elements (whether new or pre-existing) within the site.

It seems like a tall order for anyone who is not an accomplished architect or designer, but remember, Maya Lin was still an undergraduate when she submitted her design for the Vietnam Memorial in 1981. She got her BA later that year and went on to graduate school where she got her Master of Architecture degree in 1986, four years after the wall was built. So there’s a very important precedent for someone with a great vision but no architecture experience to win a memorial design competition.

The deadline for submissions is July 21st. Memorial Design Competition website has tons of information and resources for anyone interested in taking the plunge. Get started by downloading the competition manual here and the Pershing Park site plan here. If turning a sad little blighted park into a worthy memorial is outside your skill set, you can contribute to the project by donating here. The memorial cannot be funded by Congress so it relies on private donations to raise the projected $25 million necessary and there’s a long way to go.

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Restored 1813 presentation flag, Betsy Ross & the Lost Dauphin

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

A rare presentation flag the United States government gave to the Six Nations Iroquois in 1813 has been restored and is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The flag measures 60 inches by 118 inches, has 15 horizontal stripes (eight red, seven white) and a painted eagle with the shield of the United States in the blue canton instead of stars. The number of stripes matches those on the official US flag at the time — from 1795 there were stripes for each state until 1818 when Congressional passed a law requiring flags to have 13 stripes representing the original colonies while a star would be added to the canton every time a new state was admitted to the Union — including the most famous of them all, the Star Spangled Banner.

While authorship is not certain, the painted eagle on this flag is close to identical to others painted by Philadelphia ornamental painter William Berrett. Berrett’s friend and neighbor, one Elizabeth Claypoole, was his colleague in flag production. Elizabeth Claypoole has gone down in history as Betsy Ross. Ross was the name of her first husband John who died in 1776. She remarried and was widowed again. Her third marriage in 1783 was to John Claypoole, and it was under this name that Betsy had her greatest success as a flagmaker.

Although she was making flags during the Revolutionary War as part of her upholstery business, the story of her making the first American flag at George Washington’s behest with the 13 alternating white and red stripes and the 13 stars in a circle on a blue canton is probably apocryphal. It doesn’t appear on the historical record until a century after the supposed events, promoted entirely by her grandsons, William and George Canby, who first announced the tale in a talk at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. Their evidence was solely family lore, but that was more than enough for people to run with in the heady patriotism of the approaching national celebration of the Centennial. William Berrett makes a cameo in the Ross legend as the artist who made a painting of George Washington’s flag design for Betsy to use as a model while she was stitching the flag.

It was during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, particularly during the War of 1812, that Elizabeth Claypoole draped forts around the young country with her work. She had contracts with the War Department to make garrison flags for the US Army. One contract was for six flags to be flown in a New Orleans fort. Another was for an astonishing 46 garrison flags to be delivered to the Schuylkill Arsenal, quartermaster for the US military. These flags were massive, each 18 by 24 feet in dimension. That’s 432 square feet (Betsy’s house was 468 square feet per floor) unfurled, and 24 feet of seam for each stripe. Since the seams were felled (ie, the edges were sewed down flat), she actually sewed 48 feet of stitches per stripe. You can see how her experience as an upholsterer rather than, say, a tailor, was invaluable to work on this scale.

The War Department, then tasked with handling Indian affairs (the Department of the Interior only got the job after the slaughter was over and all that was left was reservation management), also commissioned Betsy to make presentation flags to be used as diplomatic gifts for Native American tribes as the country began exploring/appropriating territories west of the Mississippi. She collaborated with Berrett on the presentation flags, doing the stitching while he did the painting.

That’s not to say that Betsy Ross made this particular presentation flag, but it’s certainly a possibility. The provenance of the flag is nebulous, however, so it’s unlikely there will ever be a solid attribution. The New York State Museum acquired it in 1962 from the Minnesota Historical Society who received it as a donation from Clay McCauley in 1889. McClauley claimed the flag had once belonged to Eleazer Williams, an Episcopal minister, missionary who was the son of Mohawk Chief Te-ho-ra-gwa-ne-gen, also known as Thomas Williams. Thomas was the grandson of Eunice Williams, a Puritan English colonist (her mother was a Mather) who had famously been captured when she was seven years old by French and Mohawk warriors at the Deerfield Massacre of 1704. She and 100 other captives, including four of her siblings and her parents, were marched north to Canada. Although the rest of her surviving family was eventually ransomed, Eunice was adopted by a Mohawk woman, converted to Catholicism married a Mohawk man and refused to return to Massachusetts no matter how many entreaties her Puritan father made.

Her great-grandson Eleazer also lived in two worlds. He spoke fluent Mohawk, Oneida and several other languages which he made use of when attempting to convert Oneidas and in negotiations between the tribes and the US government. He represented the St. Regis Mohawk tribe at multiple conferences between the Indian commissioners and the tribes. Williams thought the northeastern tribes of New York state and Canada should move west, settle down permanently in a reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they could create a new confederacy like the Iroquois free from northeastern population and political pressures that were endlessly chipping away at their territory. Williams was a signatory witness to the 1848 treaty with the Stockbridge tribe in Wisconsin, and as a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe he was not just a signatory to the 1838 treaty with New York tribes, but was specially singled out in Article 9 as the acknowledged owner of extensive lands along the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Known as the Williams Tract, the 4,800-acre property belonged to his wife Madeleine Jourdain, daughter of Joseph Jourdain, a successful French blacksmith and Margaret Craselle, the granddaughter of a Menominee chief, who he had married in 1823 when she was 14 years old.

A small part of the Williams Tract is now in Wisconsin’s Lost Dauphin State Park, and Eleazer is entirely responsible for the excellent name of that park because, not content with making up military exploits and diplomatic victories, Williams also claimed to be Louis-Charles, doomed son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the long-lost Dauphin of France. He hadn’t been killed as a child by his cruel jailers, but rather had been spirited away by supporters when he was 10 years old and sent to French Canada where he was adopted by kindly Thomas Williams and kept safe from the pernicious lies of Revolutionaries. He only came to understand his true identity in 1841 when he met the Prince de Joinville, younger son of the restored Bourbon King Louis Philippe, who was touring the waterways of what had once been New France aboard the steamer Columbia. Joinville recognized him instantly, Williams said, from scars on his face, and asked him to sign an abdication document to ensure his father wouldn’t lose his throne.

The story, which had morphed over the years, finally hit the big time with the publication of an article entitled “Have we a Bourbon among us?” in the February, 1853, issue of Putnam’s Magazine. The Iroquois Bourbon became a huge thing, engendering much published back and forth between people who were enthralled by the tall tale and people who rejected it on the grounds that it was blatantly unsupported nonsense. The con man character of the “king” in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who claims to be the lost Dauphin of France is modelled after Williams.

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The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented sword with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

Tournai was then part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.

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Rare intact rosary found in Michigan colonial fort

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the fur trading village and colonial fort of Michilimackinac on the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula have discovered a rare intact rosary that may be as much as 250 years old. Colonial Michilimackinac is an open air museum and state park on the site of an 18th-century French fort and fur trading village just west of Mackinac Bridge on the shores of Lake Michigan. It has been excavated every summer since 1959, one of the longest continuous excavations in the country, and more than one million artifacts have been unearthed. The most common finds are fish bones and small objects like beads, buttons and broken glass. Finding an intact artifact of any kind is very rare — the last one was a pocketknife about four years ago — and finding a delicate rosary still intact is exponentially rarer.

State parks archaeologist James Dunnigan found the rosary, made of ivory beads with brass links, while excavating at the home of French-Canadian fur trader Charles Gonneville, who worked the area between the 1730s and 1750s.

The assumption is that the rosary belonged to Gonneville or a family member.

It makes sense that a rosary would fall through the cracks in the floorboards of Gonneville’s house since he and his family were Roman Catholic. The English who occupied in the fort after 1761 when it was ceded to the British along with the rest of France’s Canadian holdings after its loss in the French and Indian War would have been predominantly Anglican. Still, it was a hard-won find. The Gonneville house has been excavated for the past eight seasons.

The fort was built in 1715 on the Straits of Mackinac, part of a vast network of supply depots and trading posts established by the French from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi. The British only occupied it for 20 years, abandoning it in 1781 for greener pastures in the form of the limestone fort on Mackinac Island. They were concerned that a wooden fort on the mainland was too vulnerable to attack by the rebellious American colonies, so from 1779 to 1781 the British moved everything that could be moved from Fort Michilimackinac to Fort Mackinac, including wooden buildings which were taken apart and rebuilt on the island. The rest was burned and soon buried by the wind-blown sands of the shore.

The site managed to survive without being developed or built over. When Mackinaw City was constructed in the mid-19th century, the fort site was made a park. The town gave the park to the State of Michigan in 1904 and the Mackinac Island State Park Commission claimed it in 1909 for Michigan’s second state park. A popular campground in the 1920s, the fort site saw its first attempts at reconstruction in 1933 when the palisade was rebuilt. In 1959, a year before it was designated a National Historic Landmark, the fort site saw its first professional excavation. The archaeological exploration made more accurate reconstructions of fort structures. Reconstruction began in earnest in 1960. The 1933 palisade was demolished and a more historically accurate one constructed.

Just as archaeology is an ongoing process in Colonial Michilimackinac, so is site reconstruction. The aim is to rebuild the fort as it looked in the 1770s. Guides, known as interpreters (of history), dress as British soldiers in the classic red coats, Native American residents, French traders, family members, anyone who would have had reason to be at the fort in colonial times. Visitors to the park can get a glimpse of colonial life through the reconstructions and reenactments like the ever-popular cannon fire demonstrations, and see archaeologists at work during the dig season from early June to mid-August.

The rosary is being conserved now. Curators expect that it will be ready for display at the fort’s permanent Treasures of the Sand exhibit this fall.

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Hermione leads New York Parade of Ships

Saturday, July 4th, 2015


L’Hermione arrived in New York City on July 1st, firing its cannons in salute to the city that welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette with a screaming throng of 50,000, a third of the city’s population at the time, in 1824. It docked at Pier 15 on the East River in Lower Manhattan right across from the South Street Seaport Museum and opened for visitors to explore the replica of the ship that brought Lafayette back to America in 1780 bearing reinforcements of troops and ships to support the neonate nation in its fight for independence from the British Empire.

Today the Hermione led the Parade of Ships past the Statue of Liberty to celebrate the 239th anniversary of the American independence that Lafayette fought for with such dedication and at no small personal cost.

The Hermione YouTube channel has a great video showing the ship’s arrival in New York from the perspective of the crew.

There are tons more videos of Hermione previous stops along the east coast of the United States and I suspect the channel will soon have better footage of today’s parade than I was able to find.

New York will continue to celebrate Lafayette and the Hermione even after she leaves. The New-York Historical Society Museum’s exhibition Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione examines Lafayette’s youth when, still a teenager, he became a tireless advocate on behalf of US independence, his involvement in the war and his continuing close ties to the people who know now as the Founding Fathers after the war was over. On display are artifacts that have never been seen before from Lafayette’s chateau La Grange. There are letters he wrote to and from his family, swords, medals, secret codes he shared with Washington, locks of hair from Washington and Jefferson that he was given as fond keepsakes.

Three of my favorite pieces on display in the exhibition are written materials. One is the letter announcing his arrival that Lafayette wrote to Washington from the Hermione after it dropped anchor in Boston Harbour in 1780. Datelined “At the entrance of Boston Harbour 27th April 1780,” the letter opens with a beautiful glimpse into the genuine love Lafayette bore Washington: “Here I am, My dear General, and in the Mist [sic] of the joy I feel in finding Myself again one of Your loving soldiers.”

The second is an almost unbearably adorable letter written to George Washington by Lafayette’s six-year-old daughter Anastasie in 1784 (all idiosyncratic spellings hers).

Dear Washington, I hope that papa whill come back son here. I am verry sorry for the loss of him, but I am verry glade for you self. I wich you a werry good health and I am whith great respect, Dear Sir, your most obedient servent, anastasie la fayette.

Washington was reportedly charmed to bits by this letter, and how could he fail to be? Not only are the sentiments expressed so sweet and brave and polite, but look at how great her handwriting is! She was six years old and using a quill pen, for crying out loud. In response, Washington asked Lafayette to convey his warmest regards and an invitation from his wife Martha for the Marquis, his wife Adrienne, their daughters Anastasie and Virginie and son Georges Washington Lafayette to visit Mount Vernon someday.

The third is an invitation to dinner Lafayette sent to Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1785. Lafayette’s house on the Rue de Bourbon served as the unofficial headquarters of the Americans in Paris. Dinners with the likes of Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and Madame de Staël were weekly events and the invites, like the conversation, were always in English. I am in deeply love with the capital W and F.

Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione is at the New-York Historical Society through October 4th, 2015.

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Two 16th c. silver vessels found in pre-Inca fortress

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

High in the Andean cloud forest of Peru’s remote Amazonas Region, archaeologists excavating the site of Purunllacta de Soloco have unearthed two silver vessels that lend unique insight into the history of the area in the transitional period after the Spanish conquest. Built by the pre-Inca Chachapoya culture, Purunllacta de Soloco is a thousand-year-old fortress with forbidding stone walls perched on a mountain top covered in jungle vegetation. The site, while known, was excavated by archaeologists for the first time in 2014, and no wonder, since it takes three hours of hard climbing from the town of Chachapoyas to reach the summit.

The cups are ceremonial vessels known as aquillas, used by the Inca in almost every ritual and found all over their former empire. They are 4.4 inches high and 4.6 inches in diameter at the widest point around the rim. They each weigh 152 grams (5.36 ounces) and are made from sheets of relatively thick (.8 – 1mm) silver. They taper to a wide mouth with a straight lip around the rim. They are in excellent condition, with no visible signs of corrosion or any corrosive by-products like carbonates, chlorides and copper oxides. The lack of silver chlorides indicates the percentage of pure silver is very high.

The slightly concave walls are decorated under the rim with a high relief of figures divided into four scenes separated by two parallel vertical lines. Horizontal parallel lines frame the relief top and bottom. Each of the scenes features two characters, male and female, wearing clothes with geometric patterns and hats or headdresses. The characters hold hands, facing outwards. Some of them carry a bag or an axe. There are also points and notches in low relief in the background. The hats are typical of Spanish colonial style and the geometric garments are the traditional dress of the Inca empire.

The decoration was made using a mixture of three techniques: repoussé, embossing and incision. The repoussé was done by wrapping a single sheet of metal around a wooden mold on which the decoration had been carved and hammering the sheet against the molds until the relief transferred. Embossing was done by drawing concave shapes into both sides of the metal with a blunt tool. The incised designs were carved into the outside of the metal sheet. The quality of the relief work is exceptional.

Because of the Spanish influence, archaeologists believe these vessels were carved during the first Spanish occupation of the area between 1536 and 1580. This is the first time silver aquillas have been found at Chachapoya sites. They were not known to have worked in precious of semi-precious metals so it’s probable the vessels were of Inca manufacture rather than made locally. Wood artifacts carved with Inca-style figures dating to 30 years after the Spanish conquest have been recovered from Chachapoya sites before, however, and it’s not entirely impossible that the aquillas were made by Chachapoya artisans influenced by the Inca and Spanish, but the strength of the relief indicates very expert silversmithing that was not native to Chachapoya culture.

The aquillas were found nested into each other inside a hole and were probably ceremonial offerings. A stone building was then constructed above the vessels. The fact that they were made and deposited up to 50 years after the Spanish arrived means that the Andean elites were still practicing traditional rituals for decades after the conquest. It also confirms that both the Inca Empire, which conquered the Chachapoya in the 15th century (a fitful conquest, since the Chachapoya resisted their invaders so consistently for so long that they actually sided with the Spanish when they first arrived), and the Spanish in the 16th century reached the remote, strongly fortified settlement of Purunllacta de Soloco, something archaeologists have believed but found no archaeological evidence of until now.

After they were excavated, the aquillas were sent to the Brüning National Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque for cleaning and conservation. Some kind of organic residue has been found inside the vessels. Researchers will test the substance to identify its makeup. Since the vessels were likely used for ritual purposes before their deliberate burial, whatever they held will tell us more about the ceremony. (The Incas used chicha, fermented corn beer, in their rituals.)

Conservation took three months and is now complete. The aquillas have been officially transferred to the Regional Directorate of Culture of Amazonas who will keep them until they go on display in the new Regional Museum of Chachapoyas which isn’t open yet. The space will need to be modified to display the vessels in ideal climactic conditions and keep them secure.

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Unique pre-Civil War Brooklyn Atlantics card for sale

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

It’s a card and there’s a picture of a baseball team on it, but it’s not a baseball card in the classic sense. It’s not a trade card, printed by a business to promote a product. It’s not part of a series depicting multiple players and teams. It is a precursor and a very important one because not only does the card feature the Brooklyn Atlantics, baseball’s first champion team, but it dates to 1859 or 1860 making it the only team card known to have been printed before the Civil War. It’s one of a kind, as far as we know, and unlike the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics card that sold at auction in 2013 for $92,000, it has an impeccable ownership history.

The 1860 Brooklyn Atlantics team card is a carte de visite (CDV), a studio photograph affixed to card stock to be handed out as a calling card. The technology to print multiple copies of photographs at comparatively cost was developed in France in the 1850s, and calling cards with photographs depicting their owners soon followed, as did collectible ones featuring celebrities, military and political figures. Photography studios would take the pictures and produce the cartes. The Atlantics CDV was produced by the Farach & Lalumia Studio at 336 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.

(Lurid digression time! Twenty-five years after the Atlantics had their picture taken by him and his partner, John Farach made the news when his brother Carmel was found stabbed twice, a small wound to the chest and the fatal one in his back, by a sword cane on Staten Island in 1884. Suspicion alighted on Carmel’s boon companion Antonio Flaccomio but he was released when the coroner declared the death suicide, as one does with backstabbings. Two years later Flaccomio confessed to John Farach that he had killed his brother during a duel. Farach didn’t buy it — his brother was left-handed, the sword cane was found in his right hand — and he told Flaccomio never to set foot in Brooklyn again or he’d kill him.

Two years after that on October 14th, 1888, Flaccomio was stabbed in the heart with a stiletto in front of Cooper Union in Manhattan and died. Farach was at first suspected of killing him in a vendetta, but the police soon refocused their attention on “the powerful secret Sicilian society known as ‘the Mafia’” who were thought to have ordered the hit because Flaccomio killed Carmel Farach without authorization or because he snitched out their counterfeiting operation to the cops. One Vincenzo Quartararo was arrested on the testimony of three supposed witnesses which was contradicted by other witnesses. The trial concluded with a hung jury, nine for acquittal, three for murder in the first, with the three holdouts insisting that Quartararo had to be guilty because he was Italian and Italians were always guilty of whatever crimes they were arrested for.)

The Brooklyn Atlantics club was established in 1855 and in 1857 would become one of the founding members of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first official governing body of American baseball. The first year the NABBP teams played a full season, 1859, the Atlantics won the pennant. They won again in 1860. They won again in 1861. The early roster included Richard “Dickey” Pearce, pioneer of the shortstop position and inventor of the bunt, and outfielder Archibald McMahon.

It was McMahon who kept this 1860 carte de visite of America’s first baseball champions. There’s a newspaper clipping from 1859 affixed to the back of the CDV that lists the nine players, probably pasted by McMahon himself. From him it passed to his brother John, and it was so treasured a memento that it got a mention in John’s 1928 obituary: “He also was an ardent baseball fan and had a picture in his home of the original Atlantics team, of which his brother, Archibald McMahon, was a member.” It has remained with John’s descendants ever since.

The card is being offered by western Massachusetts resident and New York native Florence Sasso, 75, the great grand-niece-in-law of Archibald McMahon, one of the players on The Brooklyn Atlantics. The card, which was given to Sasso by her mother, the late Mildred Sasso, spent the decades with various family members before ending up with Sasso’s mother, who kept it in a secret compartment in a piece of furniture the family inherited from an uncle.

Once the card was given to Sasso, she moved it from place to place — often from safekeeping in the pages of a book into another book — until she realized that the card, aside from being a link to her family history, could be quite valuable. Without children to pass it on to, Sasso has decided the time has come for a new caretaker for the artifact.

There are only two other currently known Brooklyn Atlantic team CDVs, both produced by Williamson Studios in Brooklyn. One of them is in the Library of Congress where photographer Charles H. Williamson registered the prototype for copyright purposes in 1865. The other, the one auctioned off in 2013, is not identical — there are slight changes in the subjects’ postures — but it’s from the same photo shoot. There are some notable problems with the CDV sold in 2013. The photograph has been affixed to the card stock in a sloppy way. The adhesive shows through the photograph and the edges of the picture are rough making them stand out sharply from the card. It’s amateurish for studio work. There is concern among some experts that the photograph might have been recently glued to the backing of another Williamson CDV and indeed the first appraisers, Lelands auction house, declared it a fake and decline to accept it for consignment.

The reason could be more sinister than mere forgery: to disguise the evidence of an infamous theft. In the 1970s, more than 100 rare 19th century baseball images from the A. G. Spalding Baseball Collection in the New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue Branch were stolen, along with a trove of documents and other pieces from the collection. Every once in a while suspicious items appear on the market, and according to a 1921 inventory, the NYPL collection had an 1865 Williamson Atlantics CDV with the exact same lineup in the same positions as the one sold in 2013. The NYPL stamps the back of their cards, so anyone trying to sell it would have had to replace the backing with an unmarked Williamson card. Peter Nash lays out the issues with the CDV here and here.

The auction house insisted this pearl of great price was discovered by a picker in a moldy old photograph album in someone’s garage in Maine, not that that obviates the possibility that it was stolen from the NYPL before winding up in a box of junk in a Maine garage. Whatever the truth of it, this $92,000 CDV has problems of condition, consistency and provenance. The 1860 CDV, on the other hand, could not be on more solid ground if you’d designed it in a time lab. The estimated price is $50,000+ and bids have already reached $22,000. The sale will take place on July 30th-31st at Heritage Auctions’ Platinum Night Sports auction in Chicago.

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156 years ago today, the first man crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

On June 30th, 1859, French acrobat Charles Blondin was the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Born Jean François Gravelet in 1824, Blondin began his career as performer of acrobatic stunts when he was five years old. Orphaned at age nine, he continued in his chosen career, constantly challenging himself to develop new stunts until he grew from child prodigy into one of the greatest funambulist in France. In 1851 he was invited to join the Ravel Troupe, a sort of acrobatic-ballet-pantomime Menudo with a revolving door of members drawn from some of the most prominent French and Italian performing families, on their tour of the United States.

In 1855 the Ravel Troupe was booked by café owner, caterer and theatrical impresario William Niblo to play Niblo’s Garden theater on Broadway in New York City. Always popular, the Ravel Troupe got rave reviews and had their booking extended, ultimately performing more than 300 shows from 1857 to 1859. Blondin, however, didn’t stay put. He formed a splinter troupe (this happened all the time with the Ravel groups; it wasn’t rancorous; everyone got more work that way) with one of Ravel’s lead acrobats, Julian Martinetti, and they toured the country as the Martinetti-Blondin troupe. Blondin was reviewed glowingly in the press as “the bold and fearless Mons. Blondin.” In a six degrees of separation coincidence, at Crisp’s Gaiety in New Orleans in November 1857, the Martinetti-Blondin troupe shared billing with “the popular young native tragedian, Mr. Edwin Booth.”

After almost eight years on the road with the Ravels, Blondin’s troupe disbanded in late 1858 in Cincinnati. According to his 1862 biography by George Linnaeus Banks, the night of the troupe’s farewell dinner Blondin dreamed that he crossed “the boiling flood” of Niagara Falls “on a silken line as delicate as a thread of gossamer” to the wild acclaim of throngs of spectators. Never one to shy away from a seemingly insane proposition, Blondin went to Niagara to see if he could make his dream come true. He realized it wouldn’t work in the winter because the ice formed by the mist would make the line slippery and brittle.

Undeterred, Blondin returned to Niagara in spring of 1859 and began to plan his crossing. He and his manager Harry Colcord struggled to get the permits to string the rope. Blondin wanted it strung across Horseshoe Falls where all the drama is, but landowners protested that the mist would soak the hemp rope and make it too slick. In the end Blondin strung his cable from the trunk of an oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds on the American side across Niagara Gorge to a rock in front of the Clifton House on the Canadian side, near to where the Rainbow Bridge is today. The rope was 1,100 feet long and just 3.25 inches in diameter. It was poised 160 feet above the Niagara River with a slight sag in the middle 50 feet where it was impossible to attach the guy lines that kept the rest of the cable from swaying too vigorously. It took Blondin and Colcord almost five months to get the cable and lines strung.

At 5:00 PM on June 30th, Charles Blondin gripped his 26-feet-long ash balancing pole and walked across the tightrope from the United States to Canada. He sat down in the middle, looked around like he hadn’t a care in the world, then stood back up and kept walking. He stopped again to lay down on his back, did a back somersault and then traipsed with a gait described by one spectator as akin to that of a “barnyard cock” to the other side. The whole crossing had taken him five minutes.

Twenty minutes later, Blondin started the return trip. This time he had a Daguerreotype apparatus strapped to his back which he duly deployed 200 feet into his crossing. He tied his balancing pole to the rope, set up the camera and took a picture of the crowd waiting for him on the American side. Then he strapped the camera back onto his back and finished the crossing. That one took 23 minutes.

As soon as he was done, still basking in the acclaim of the stupefied audience of 25,000, Blondin announced he’d attempt another Niagara tightrope walk on the Fourth of July. He accomplished that one too, without a balancing pole, doing flips and tricks and the return crossing wearing a bag over his head. Blondin would make many more crossings, each with different and increasingly daring stunts. He walked it backwards, did flips all the way across, crossed at night, pushed a wheelbarrow across the rope and strapped a stove to his back so he could make an omelette midway through the crossing which he didn’t even eat himself. He lowered it on a rope to the passengers on the Maid of the Mist. He carried Henry Colcord on his back several times.

His Niagara Falls exploits made him internationally famous and quite wealthy. His name became synonymous with walking a tightrope, a metaphor that became painfully apt for a divided country soon after his first crossing. Abraham Lincoln was repeatedly depicted in editorial cartoons as Blondin. In 1860, when Lincoln was running for president, Vanity Fair put “Mr. Abraham Blondin De Lave Lincoln” in pantaloons and tights crossing a breaking rail with a black baby in a carpetbag. Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicted him carrying a slave — the Republican party’s position on slavery — across a tightrope with the Constitution as his balancing pole.

Lincoln embraced the comparison himself, utilizing it in response to his critics during the 1864 election.

Gentlemen, suppose all the property you were worth was in gold, and you had put it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope, would you shake the cable, or keep shouting out to him — “Blondin, stand up a little straighter–Blondin, stoop a little more–go a little faster–lean a little more to the north–lean a little more to the south?” No, you would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was safe over. The Government are carrying an immense weight. Untold treasures are in their hands. They are doing the very best they can. Don’t badger them. Keep silence, and we’ll get you safe across.

Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fun of September 1st, 1864, published a cartoon of the scene, with Lincoln carrying two men on his back this time (Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on Lincoln’s shoulders and War Secretary Edwin Stanton on Welles’s shoulders), pushing a wheelbarrow filled with money, Columbia and the American flag while all around him people talk smack.

As for Blondin, he would go on to perform all over the world, drawing amazed and horrified crowds everywhere he went. He retired briefly in the late 1870s, but went back on the stage in 1880 and continued to walk, cycle, push lions in wheelbarrows over the tightrope until his final performance in 1896. He died just a few months later in February of 1897 at the age of 72 from diabetes.

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Lost chapel found in Mike and Mary Hudd’s yard

Monday, June 29th, 2015

In June of 2014, Mike and Mary Hudd of Bincknoll Cottage, Bincknoll, Wiltshire, were doing some landscaping in their garden, employing a machine to pull out the roots of a fallen tree, when they unearthed stonework remains. Mary, an avid amateur archaeologist, stopped the landscaping and started excavating, carefully exposing enough of the upper layer of chalk block walls to indicate there might be the remains of a larger structure under the Hudd’s yard. They called in the Wiltshire County Archaeologist to determine how to proceed.

They had good reason to believe the stonework might be of archaeological significance. Bincknoll is a tiny hamlet with a few houses and a farm that is part of the civil parish of Broad Town today, but it first appears in the Domesday Book as Bechenhalle, a manor of Norman lord Gilbert de Breteuil. Just south of the garden is an escarpment overlooking Bincknoll Cottage where the remains of an early motte and bailey castle stand as an earthwork ridge. Other archaeological features in the hamlet include enclosure boundaries, ridge and furrow plough patterns visible in earthworks when surviving and in the path of lanes and hedgerows when not and a ridge thought to be the remnant of a medieval fish pond. There has been very little in the way of archaeological exploration of these features, so all that’s known is what’s visible to the naked eye from the ground and air.

The Wiltshire County Archaeologist and the Hudds decided on a plan to excavate the yard further with the goal of determining the full measurements of the structure, finding datable artifacts and architectural remains that would help them identify what kind of building it was. The planned called for four trenches (later increased to six to further investigate features found during the excavation), to be dug across the stonework Mary Hudd had partially exposed. Because the chalk block walls were visible at ground level, all the trenches would have to be dug by hand.

Events kicked off in late July with a geophysical survey of the front and back yards of Bincknoll Cottage. The front yard was found to have underground features that were likely to be more buried walls. In August the excavation began in earnest, and what a glorious team was there, my friends. Because the trenches had to be dug by hand, many hands were needed. Broad Town Archaeology, a non-profit organization dedicated to community archaeology in the Broad Town area, got involved and ultimately more than 60 volunteers worked the site supervised by professional archaeologists from, among others, the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, English Heritage, the Wiltshire Museum and Wessex Archaeology. Volunteers ranged from organized amateurs like the North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club to members of the community who were excited to get their hands dirty in the history of their town.

Excavations ran from through August through September 2014 and were remarkably productive. They revealed three sides of a chalk block and rubble structure 20 feet wide with walls three feet thick. The walls were in generally good condition except for the very tops which have been exposed to the elements for a very long time. The building is aligned perfectly along the east-west axis.

Artifacts found include roof tiles, mortar, nails, carved chalk from the 14th century and a range of pottery types dating from the 11th century through the 17th. The team found chunks of whitewashed plaster, some decorated with red lines painted across them, some plain white, some small pieces with residue of other colors that could be green and black. The excavation of the south wall in trench four unearthed ten voussoirs, a wedge-shaped stone used in arches, that were probably part of a doorway or window.

Excavations also revealed some organic remains, oyster shells and animal bones. The articulated skeletal remains of a large animal were found in trench four. In order to excavate the skeleton fully, the team opened a new trench, trench six, and found a cattle burial. The beast was interred in a pit with some difficulty as the head is bent back and the left foreleg twisted up above its body. The burial postdates the ruin of the medieval structure. A clay pipe unearthed in the same layer was identified as the work of John Greenland of Marlborough which dates it and the burial to the late 17th, early 18th century at the earliest.

Four more trenches were dug during this season’s excavations from April through June, exploring the east side of the structure. While conclusive dates are still elusive, archeologists believe they’ve found the remains of a chapel that documents attest once stood in Bincknoll from at least the early 13th century. A 1209 record notes that the Prior of Goldcliff had a holding Bincknoll that paid a yearly tithe of £1. A 1291 document refers to a chapel at Bincknoll Manor whose tithes were granted to the Priory of St. Denis in Southampton. The chapel comes up a couple of more times in church records from the 13th and 14th century. The last record of it is in a Bond from 1609 which describes it as “that decayed Chapell with appurtainment situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll within the parish of Brodehinton in the above said County
of Wilts and all that rectory parsonage and manor house called the parsonage house of Bincknoll alias Bynoll situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll aforesaid.”

The east-west alignment and dimensions suggest this structure is the chapel rather than the parsonage house which probably was more of a wooden affair than one made out of large blocks of chalk stone.

[Archaeologist and president of the town historical society Bob] Clarke said: “There may have been an early cell around which a larger structure was built later. We found fragments of painted plaster from the building’s interior, painted red lines depicting borders, pinks and green and black possibly from wall paintings. The excavation and post-ex work has taken about 18 months so far and we are now pretty convinced this was the lost chapel of Bincknoll, of which the last recorded mention was in the early 17th century.”

The remains of a small inner wall is thought to be of late Saxon origin, which is surrounded by a later massive Norman structure. The clearly defined site, with the remains of substantial walls almost a metre wide with foundations over a metre deep, internally the building measures 4.4 metres by 13 metres and would have been an impressive sight when still standing. Nearer to the surface of the site the team discovered the remains of two cows and a pig, buried in later years over the ruined building.

You can read the preliminary report written after the first season of excavation here (pdf). The final report is expected to be published at the end of the year. Broad Town Archaeology has tons of pictures of both seasons of excavations on their Facebook page. The North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) put together a great online dig diary documenting their work over two weekends this season. It’s amazing how much they accomplished in just four days. Community archaeology is the best.

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