Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

St. Patrick’s Cathedral gates in salvage sale

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Before Urban Archaeology (UA) became a manufacturer of tiles, lighting, furnishings, bathroom fixtures, etc. based on period designs it was in the business of salvaging the originals. Even though it’s been decades since the primary focus of the company changed, Urban Archaeology still has thousands of architectural features of illustrious heritage salvaged from historic buildings like the St. Regis Hotel, the Paris department store Bon Marche, the Yale University Library, Place de la Concorde, the Chrysler Building and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At the end of the month, Guernsey’s auctioneers will be selling 6,000 of these salvage treasures at UA’s Franklin Street office. The auction will be held in two parts, part one on March 27th (catalogue here) and part two the next day (catalogue here). Follow the links to the catalogue entries to bid online.

Although the day one catalogue starts a little dry with pages of duplicate light fixtures, once you get past that hump it’s a wonderland for anyone who enjoys fantasizing about Frankensteining themselves up a house full of vintage features. Look at this enamel cast iron stove made by the Glenwood Stove Company around 1920. It runs on both gas and wood, with four gas burners, two wood burners, one gas oven and one wood-burning oven. Look at the white enamel handles to control the burners. Gorgeous and still in working order. Very useful for zombie apocalypse preparedness. The starting bid is $1,500 and the top estimated sale price is $4,000.

In the more affordable range, how about a 1940s bobsled? It’s handmade, hence the car steering wheel, but by someone who knew what they were doing because that is some quality bobsled construction. It seats four, too, so instant winter party. The high estimate is $500.

If it’s an actual piece of architectural history you’d like, look no further than this Art Deco pendant light from Chrysler Building, icon of Art Deco and of New York City since it was built in 1930. The Chrysler Building’s design is still inspiring artists and architects today. The brass and clouded glass pendant light used to hang over the building’s staircase. The opening bid if $4,000 with a top estimate of $12,000.

You could make practically build yourself a whole Grand Central Station with the spate of architectural features salvaged from iconic Paris department store Bon Marche, including iron balcony railings and curved glass ceiling panels by French Art Deco blacksmith Edgar Brandt. Then you can mix it up by adding two cast iron mermen and one cast iron mermaid made by sculptor Jacques Hittorff in the 1830s for the fountain in the Place de la Concorde. The fountain is still in place in Paris but the sculptures there are replicas. The originals can be yours for just an estimated $150,000 each.

How about a public clock or two to decorate your new gigantor Frankenpalace? I’m partial to this Reed & Stern train clock from Union Station, Troy, NY, made in the early 1900s. It’s made of white terra cotta and glazed in a handsome malachite green. I am completely in love with the locomotive charging out of a tunnel through its own steam cloud above the clockface. I also heart the Karl Flugel iron tower clock from 1878. It used to keep time in a German tower but now stands a new iron base with the mechanical version of its swimsuit area exposed to our fixed stares.

Another architectural gem of illustrious pedigree is these St. Patrick’s Cathedral wrought iron gates made around 1880, possibly by Arts and Crafts decorative ironwork master Samuel Yellin. They were installed at the cathedral’s 51st Street and Madison Avenue corner at the entrance of the baptistery. In the 1980s the baptistery was moved and the gates found a new home at Connecticut museum of master metalsmith Kenneth Lynch. Lynch has decided to donate his museum collection to Xavier High School and is putting the gates up for sale with the proceeds benefitting St. Patrick’s.

If you prefer your entrance areas to have fewer holes in them, consider these gorgeous Art Deco nightclub doors from around 1940. They’re wood painted in a metallic silver and the circular pattern is mesmerizing.

But they’re flimsy little sticks compared to these 1910 brass pocket doors salvaged from the United States Assay Office in lower Manhattan. Not only do they look badass, but they have the badass history to support the look. The doors weigh 1500 pounds each and were used to secure precious metals in the last public gold refinery in the country (it was shut down in 1982, its gold refining duties contracted out to private concerns, the building and its fixtures sold at auction in 1983). Until the day it was shut down, the Assay Office and its sturdy doors protected 4,140 bags of gold coins confiscated from the Nazis in World War II and more than 100,000 28-pound gold bars. Even the horse-drawn cart bomb that exploded in the Financial District on September 16, 1920, killing 38 people, injuring hundreds and taking large chunks that are still visible on some of the building facades couldn’t scratch these doors.

Seeing catalogues like this ignites the secret hoarder within me. No I cannot have enough cast iron planters, large Art Deco skylight ceiling panels and train station clocks, thank you very much. I DON’T CARE IF WE HAVE NO PLACE TO PUT THEM.

Share

250-year-old pretzels found in Bavaria

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Danube Market location of Regensburg, Bavaria, have discovered the charred remains of two pretzels, three bread rolls and a croissant that date to the 18th century. Radiocarbon dating placed the baked goods to between 1700 and 1800, but historical research suggests they were made in the second half of the century. While very ancient bread products have survived thanks to charring — Herculaneum leaps to mind — these are the oldest pretzels ever found.

The Danube Market site has been a rich source of archaeological finds. The waterlogged soil next to the river has preserved a swath of history that would otherwise have decayed, like the remains of wooden house that is 1,200 years old (the only Carolingian home ever found in Bavaria), a medieval place of execution and a wooden jetty that is at least 1,100 years old.

The site was excavated between 2012 and 2014 to thoroughly explore its archaeological layers before construction of the Museum of the Bavarian History to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Free State of Bavaria in 2018. Archaeologists found the bakery goodies in the remains of a house that once stood at number 3 Hunnenplatz which was demolished in 1964 along with much of the neighborhood. City archives indicate that the house at 3 Hunnenplatz was bought by one Johann Georg Held, a master baker, in 1753. He used it as his shop for years. The house remained a bakery for more than a century even as it passed through different hands. The last known baker to reside there was Karl Schätz in 1881.

Archaeologists believe the pretzels, rolls and croissant were burnt to a crisp under Held’s tenure, probably part of a tray of failed baked goods that were thrown away. They were found in a waste pit dug into the soil in the corner of the house. Once dumped into the pit, the charred breads were covered with soil. With the moisture firmly burned out of them and the soil they were buried in low in oxygen, the discarded pretzels and friends survived intact for 250 years and now Mr. Held’s trash is our treasure.

There are many origin stories for the pretzel with Italy and France in the running as the starting point as well as Germany. Whichever country it was in, it was likely a monastery kitchen that baked the first pretzels in the early Middle Ages. The looped form of the pretzel was said to be inspired by the crossed arms of monks, and a simple flour and water pretzel became a traditional Lent food since Catholics were forbidden from eating eggs and dairy. By the 12th century pretzels were firmly ensconced in the secular culture of southern Germany where the pretzel was the symbol of bakers and bakery guilds. Pretzels were a special issue in the beginning, baked and sold on Saturdays only. In 1532 that changed when the Duke of Bavaria ordered all bakers to make and sell pretzels daily.

The baked goods are now on display at the Historical Museum of Regensburg.

Share

University at Buffalo rediscovers ancient coins after 80 years

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

The State University of New York at Buffalo has rediscovered a priceless collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins that spent 80 years unpublished and unrecognized in the library’s archive. The 55 coins were donated to the UB Libraries Special Collections by Buffalo lawyer and rare book collector Thomas B. Lockwood. Lockwood had donated the money to build the university library, now named the Lockwood Memorial Library in his honor, and donated his vast collection of rare books in 1935. The coins, acquired by Lockwood at the auction of a Danish collector’s estate in 1925, were included in the Lockwood’s collection of more than 3,000 rare books, medallions and more recent coins from America and England.

Even though they didn’t get any scholarly or curatorial attention, the coins were vaguely known to exist. In 2010, University at Buffalo assistant professor of classics Philip Kiernan heard a rumor from a UB alumnus that there was a collection of rare ancient coins in the library somewhere. In 2013, Kiernan, who studies ancient currency and whose previous job was at a German coin museum, hit the archives to look for the rumored numismatic treasures.

He found three wood-frame glass casings, one containing 12 gold Roman coins labeled the Aureii of the Twelve Caesars, an appropriately literary grouping for a collector of rare books with its reference to Suetonius, and two containing 40 silver Greek coins from as early as the 5th century B.C. In a small pouch he found another three ancient Greek gold coins.

“I saw these trays and thought, oh this is some kind of reproductive set from the early 20th century, some kind of copies,” Kiernan said Wednesday, displaying the find for reporters. “However, when we opened up the trays and pulled out the coins – nope, they’re perfectly good ancient coins.” [...]

“I was flabbergasted,” Kiernan said. “I couldn’t believe that an institution like UB had a collection of this quality in its special collections, as of yet unstudied, unpublished … coins that were issued by the most powerful and most important city-states of the Classical and Hellenistic worlds.”

He brought in numismatists to examine the coin collection and they confirmed its authenticity. The aureii, one each from the rule of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, were extremely valuable in antiquity, worth so much that they were barely circulated but instead were treated more like portable savings accounts so they experience far less wear and tear than smaller denominations. The silver coins circulated more widely throughout the Mediterranean world, but the ones in the Lockwood collection are almost all in excellent condition. Only a few of the silver coins will require conservation. The 80-plus-year-old casings need some sprucing up as well.

The Otho aureus is the most rare. Otho only ruled for three months, January to April, in 69 A.D., the infamously awful Year of the Four Emperors. His aureii are therefore particularly hard to find, and this example appears to have a mistake in its engraving: the goddess Securitas on the reverse holds a wreath and a cornucopia. On the usual version of this coin she holds a wreath and scepter.

UB Libraries will make the collection available for study to students and members of the community. UB graduate students will benefit in a big way because Kiernan is developing a graduate course that will study and research each coin’s history. The seminar’s findings will be the first scholarly literature published about this group of rare coins.

Share

Bedlam burial ground dig to unearth 3,000 bodies

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

The construction of the high-speed Crossrail train line in London has generated the UK’s largest archaeological project. So far more than 10,000 artifacts spanning 55 million years of history have been unearthed at more than 40 worksites over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the city. This week, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeaology (MOLA) began to excavate the burial ground of Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam, next to the Liverpool Street railway station. While the hospital building began life as a priory in 1247, it was seized by the crown in the 1370s and by the early 1400s was detached from its religious roots and administered by the City of London as a hospital for the mentally ill.

This burial ground, known as the New Churchyard, was built in 1569 and was in use until at least 1738, spanning some prime years for death in London: the English Civil War, the Great Plague of 1665 (and three other major outbreaks of Bubonic plague) and the Great Fire of 1666. Unaffiliated with any parish church, it was London’s first municipal burial ground. When the hospital itself moved to a new facility in Moorfields in 1676, the New Churchyard continued to be used as an overflow cemetery during mass death events, by people who could not afford or did not want (for religious or political reasons) a church burial.

A single trial pit dug in 2011 found more than 100 skeletons, and preliminary surveys in 2013 and 2014 found more than 400. Archaeologists predict there are at least 3,000 individuals buried on this site and they plan to unearth them all over the next few weeks. The excavation is going on while the eastern entrance of the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station is being built, so surrounded with the noise and vibration of heavy construction, the MOLA team of 60 archaeologists will work in two shifts six days a week to dig through layer upon layer of skeletal remains. Right now they’ve dug down about a meter into the topmost layer and they’re finding individual burials were stacked on top of previous ones. When the wooden coffins decayed, the human remains pancaked downwards. Separating these bones pressed into each other over centuries is an arduous task, and they haven’t even gotten to the plague pits and mass graves in the lower layers.

The skeletons will be excavated over the next four weeks. The remains will be moved the MOLA laboratory for osteological examination and tests that will hopefully determine diet, work, demographics, geographic origin, sex, medical history and more of the thousands of people interred at Bedlam. Archaeologists hope that tests on plague victims will provide a new understanding of how the plague pathogen moved through the early modern population.

Jay Carver, Crossrail Lead Archaeologist said: “This excavation presents a unique opportunity to understand the lives and deaths of 16th and 17th century Londoners. The Bedlam burial ground spans a fascinating phase of London’s history, including the transition from the Tudor-period City into cosmopolitan early-modern London. This is probably the first time a sample of this size from this time period has been available for archaeologists to study in London. The Bedlam burial ground was used by a hugely diverse population from right across the social spectrum and from different areas of the City.”

Identification of any of the remains is unlikely, to dramatically understate the case. Since the Bedlam burial ground didn’t keep its own records of who was buried there, 16 volunteers enlisted to scour the records of parish churches who made a note when parishioners were buried at “Bedlam” or “New Churchyard.” Archaeologists also appealed to the public for any family records, lore or anecdotes that might illuminate the history of the cemetery.

Here’s a video of researchers digging through the church registers at the London Metropolitan Archives. Keep your eye open for the “New Churchyard” annotations on the records.

When that video was shot, Jay Carver said they expected to find about 1,000 relevant burial records which would be used to help interpret the archaeological data from the dig and be compiled in a single database and made available to the public for genealogical or other research. Well, they left that already lofty goal in the dust. The final tally of names and histories of individuals buried at Bedlam cemetery was more than 5,000, an incredible accomplishment that testifies loudly to the dedication of the volunteers and the phenomenal record-keeping of 16th and 17th century churches and the London Metropolitan Archives.

According to the research Dr John Lamb (also known as Lam or Lambe), an astrologer and advisor to the First Duke of Buckingham, is among those buried at the site. Lamb was said to have been stoned to death by an angry mob outside a theatre in 1628 following allegations of rape and black magic. Others identified in the research include victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques,’ noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January 1661.

Plague was the most common listed form of death, followed by infant mortality and consumption. The burial ground was established in 1569 to help parishes cope with overcrowding during outbreaks of plague and other epidemics. Crossrail workers recently discovered the gravestone of Mary Godfree who died in September 1665, as a result of the ‘Great Plague’ which peaked that year.

The Bedlam Burial Ground Register can be searched on the Crossrail website.

Once the skeletons are fully excavated, the MOLA team will continue to dig down through the medieval marsh and lost Walbrook River to the Roman layer. Tunnelers installing utility cables 20 feet below the surface in 2013 encountered Roman artifacts and human remains. The Liverpool Street excavation is scheduled to finish in September after which construction on the station will begin on the site. The human remains will be reburied after they are studied.

Share

25th anniversary Gardner Museum theft virtual tour

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

March 18th marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the museum on the pretext that they were responding to a call. It was against protocol for the museum’s guard to let anyone past the security doors, but they talked their way in. They then proceeded to bamboozle the security guard so thoroughly that he all but tied himself up and gave them their pick of the priceless artworks on the walls.

Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.

The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.

The robbery took 81 minutes total. In the end, the thieves made away with:

  1. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt’s only seascape
  2. A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt
  3. Self-Portrait (ca. 1634) etching by Rembrandt
  4. The Concert (1658–1660) by Vermeer
  5. Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) by Manet
  6. Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) by Govaert Flinck
  7. La Sortie de Pesage, pencil and watercolor by Degas
  8. Program for an Artistic Soirée (1884), charcoal by Degas
  9. Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2 (1884), charcoal by Degas
  10. Cortège aux Environs de Florence, pencil and wash by Degas
  11. Three Mounted Jockeys, ink and wash by Degas
  12. Bronze finial in the form of an eagle, French, 1813–1814
  13. Chinese Bronze Beaker or Ku, 1200–1100 B.C.

The total estimated value of the haul is $500 million. The FBI is still on the case. As recently as two years ago they announced they’d narrowed down the suspect list to members of a New England or Mid-Atlantic organized crime family. The also found the thieves had made an attempt to sell some of the artworks in Philadelphia 12 years ago. That’s the last time they appear on the record.

The Gardner’s offer of a $5 million reward for the return of the 13 purloined pieces remains open, and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the theft, the museum has created a virtual tour in collaboration with Google Art Project. It takes you on a walk through the museum using Google Street View technology and stops at every blank space where the stolen pieces used to be displayed. High resolution images of the artworks and historical photographs of the museum before the theft flesh out the story of the artworks and their loss. It’s a wistfully lovely look at one of the most charming, idiosyncratic and beautiful museums in the world.

Follow the Gardner’s Instagram account for individual images and stories about the stolen works from now until the anniversary.

Share

25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of 14th c. tower

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

In the Middle Ages, Rye was one of the towns of the Cinque Ports Confederation providing ships to the crown for coastal defense. Located at the tip of an embayment of the English Channel, Rye was an important shipping center for the iron bloomeries (smelting furnaces) of the Weald and other trade goods. Its tactical importance and close links to the monarchy made Rye a target for French attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. One of those attacks in 1339 during the reign of King Edward III saw French troops burn down 52 houses and one mill. In response, the city began to build permanent defenses, among them the Landgate Arch, a fortified entrance into the medieval city center over the only road that connected Rye to the mainland at high tide.

Landgate was a masonry structure with two towers on either side of an arched gateway. One of four fortified entrance gates to the city, it is the only one still standing today. Today it is still the only through-way for light vehicular traffic to reach the medieval city, but the tower itself is not open to the public. The floors and roofs of the towers are long gone leaving them open to the elements. Said elements include the excrement of pigeons and lots of it.

The fact that pigeons were converting the Landgate Arch towers into massive poop silos was noticed last month by members of the Rother District Council. Since guano is acidic and can eat through stone over time, the council contracted CountyClean Environmental Services to clean out the monument. CountyClean used a combination tanker truck that provides a high pressure jet while vacuuming up the sludge.

Mike Walker, Managing Director for CountyClean Environmental Services said: “Whilst we’ve removed other massive blockages such as giant fatbergs in sewers, we have never seen such a monumental mass of festering faeces before.”

“The build up of pigeon poo behind the doors was so big we had to force the them open. Once inside, it was like walking on a giant chocolate cake and the smell was awful – even through a facemask.”

“The floors of the towers and the steps leading to the top were swamped with 25 tonnes of pigeon poo. We filled our tanker several times over.”

The bird crap was almost three feet deep.

Share

Dallas Museum of Art acquires Mayan effigy vase sold by St. Louis Society

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

One of the artifacts that was controversially put up for auction by the St. Louis Society of the American Institute for Archaeology last year has been acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s the effigy vase from the Late Classic Era (700-900 A.D.) excavated at Quiriguá, Guatemala, in 1911. According to a December press release from the St. Louis Society, the vase was bought by a university museum, but the DMA is not affiliated with a university so either it passed through another set of hands over the last three months or the release was mistaken.

“We are delighted that the Maya effigy vase, a beautiful work of ancient American art, has found a new home in our institution,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the DMA. “Given the art historical importance of this pre-Columbian vessel, its clearly documented provenance, and its cultural heritage in the Americas, the DMA deemed it important to maintain this historical vase within a public collection, one which offers free access to visitors interested in seeing it and to scholars for research and publication.”

“The vase is a stunning example of Late Classic Maya modeled ceramic art. Its acquisition both advances the DMA’s ancient Americas collection and offers a striking object for appreciating the diversity and refinement of Maya visual representation,” added Kimberly L. Jones, the Museum’s Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of Arts of the Americas.

Quiriguá was first explored by Europeans in 1840 when artist Frederick Catherwood, partner of travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, sought out the rumored ruins on the banks of the Motagua River in southeastern Guatemala in 1840. They found monoliths, altars and a number of obelisk-like stelae elaborately carved on all four sides that remain to this day the tallest ever discovered in the Mayan world. Stela E, dedicated in 771 A.D. by the city-state’s greatest hero, King K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (meaning Cauac, or Rain/Storm, Sky), is almost 35 feet high and weighs 65 tons. It is the largest stone ever quarried by the Maya and is believed to be the largest free-standing carved monolith in the Americas.

The carving on Stela E celebrated K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat greatest victory, the defeat, capture and beheading of King Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit) of Copán. For centuries before then Quiriguá had been a vassal state of Copán, so when Cauac Sky defeated 18 Rabbit in 738 A.D., he won his kingdom’s independence. The victory had larger political implications for the power balance of the region. Copán was allied to the Mayan superpower state of Tikal. Historians believe that Cauac Sky’s rebellion was fomented by Calakmul, Tikal’s rival superpower to the north. After Copán’s defeat, Quiriguá controlled the trade of precious stones and other goods on the lower Montagua River, the main trade route linking the Caribbean and Mayan central America.

K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat ruled from 724 to 785 A.D. In the 37 years between Quiriguá’s independence and the death of the king, he commissioned many of the stelae, zoomorphs, altars, etc. that make the site such a spectacular example of Mayan stonework. He probably got the stonecutters from Copán, in fact, since there is an absence of carved inscriptions in Copán for 20 years after the city’s defeat.

Catherwood’s drawings of the stelae with their hieroglyphs, zoomorphs, kings and Mayan calendar dates coupled with Stephens’ account of their travels introduced the wider public to Mayan art and architecture when they were published the next year in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. British Diplomat and archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay explored Quiriguá on repeated trips in 1881, 1882, 1883 and 1894. He and his team cleared some of the jungle brush to reveal more works and used techniques like making plaster casts of the stone monuments and taking pictures with dry-plate photography (only introduced to the market in 1878). There’s a selection of pictures from Maudslay’s excavations in the Alfred P. Maudslay collection of the Brooklyn Museum. You can also leaf through his pictures, maps and drawings of Quiriguá in volume 2 of Maudslay’s five-volume compendium Biologia Centrali-Americana, or, Contributions to the knowledge of the fauna and flora of Mexico and Central America published in 1889.

In 1909, the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America funded three seasons of fieldwork at Quiriguá by Edgar Hewett, director of the newly-founded School of American Archaeology (SAA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and SAA archaeologist Sylvanus Morley. Hewett and Morley’s excavations cleared even more of the jungle and unearthed two major structures Hewett termed the First and Second Temples. Temple 1 is far more significant architecturally, with complex carvings on the inside and outside walls. Temple 2 is small and sparsley decorated, but it’s the earliest of the structures in the Quiriguá Acropolis and was found to contain artifacts distinctly superior to those found in Temple 1 both in quantity and quality.

According to Morley’s publication of the finds in the March 1913 issue of National Geographic, the most exceptional find from all three seasons of excavations was the effigy vase found in Temple 2 during the 1911-2 season. Discovered broken in more than a dozen pieces, once the object was put back together its quality made it the stand-out piece and for decades it regularly made an appearance in published studies of Mayan art. Hewett and Morley gave the effigy along with a Zapotec figural urn excavated at Monte Albán, Mexico, to the St. Louis Society in gratitude for their funding.

The Maya effigy vase was on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum until 1980 when it was removed to make way for a donation of Mesoamerican artifacts by Morton D. May. The effigy was then put in storage at Washington University until the St. Louis Society decided to sell it at a Bonhams auction in November of last year.

Share

Lead coffin inside stone coffin from Richard III dig opened

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

When the skeletal remains of King Richard III were found under a Leicester parking lot in two magical weeks September of 2012, the excavation team encountered another four graves in Trench 3 (Richard was found in Trench 1, see map here) on the site of what had once been the Grey Friars’ church. One of them stood out thanks to its limestone sarcophagus which was the first complete medieval stone coffin excavated in Leicester using modern archaeological methods. The other bodies had no surviving caskets, although evidence was found of two of them having been buried in long-decayed wooden coffins. Since the University of Leicester excavation team was under extreme time constraints, there was no question of exploring any other graves than the potential Richard’s at that time.

In July of 2013 the team returned to the Grey Friars site to excavate more of the church and, if possible, lift the stone sarcophagus found in the presbytery. The limestone box was cut in a tapered shape from a single block of limestone. The wider end was carved into a curve on the inside to create a niche for the head. The lid, also carved from limestone, didn’t quite fit and the mortar sealing it to the coffin was damaged. Water was able to get inside the coffin and over the centuries the unbalanced but very heavy lid fractured the sarcophagus extensively.

While they had hoped to lift the sarcophagus whole, archaeologists realized once they’d chiseled away the dirt caked on the sides of the coffin that the stone was too cracked to remain intact during the lifting process. They decided instead to lift the lid and remove it separately first. Nine people used lifting straps to manually raise the lid to ground level. Inside the sarcophagus they found a second coffin, this one made from lead. It was intact except for a hole at the feet where the lead had collapsed inwards.

Now the team had to lift the lead coffin before they could remove the fractured sarcophagus. They did this by dismantling one end of the limestone box, taking it apart piece by piece according to the existing fracture pattern. When they made enough space for it, they slid a wooden board underneath the lead coffin and two people lifted the lead coffin out like they were carrying it on a stretcher. The coffin was then transported to an infirmary so the insides could be explored with an endoscope to make sure there were no preserved soft tissues requiring special conservation conditions. There weren’t any; the remains were fully skeletonized.

Armed with the endoscope data, the team’s next step was opening the lead coffin. There were still intact solder joints that researchers did not want to damage because they could contain information about the construction of the coffin, so instead they decided to cut an opening all around the base of the coffin, lift the lid and sides and leave the skeleton on the lead base. In addition to the skeletal remains, archaeologists found some hair, small fragments of a fragment that looks like linen and a piece of cord. The fabric is probably what’s left of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in while the cord is a piece of the rope used to secure the shroud by tying around the legs.

When the stone sarcophagus was first unearthed, experts thought it might have contained the remains of Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, a knight and former mayor of Leicester who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362. Its location in presbytery of the friary church near the high altar was extremely prestigious, and a stone coffin with a lead coffin inside was an ultra deluxe burial package, a combination only someone with a great deal of wealth and position would be able to secure. Sir William seemed the likeliest candidate at first glance. Documentary research discovered two other possible candidates: leaders of the English Franciscan order Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272) and William of Nottingham (d. 1330).

Well, throw all of that out because surprise, the skeleton inside the lead coffin is female! She was a woman of means, as confirmed by stable isotope analysis of her bones which found that she ate a high-status, protein-rich diet — game, meat and a great deal of sea fish — only just below Richard III’s adult diet in quality. She was over 60 at time of death and radiocarbon dating found she died in the latter half of the 13th century or in the 14th.

Documentary research found the names of seven women closely associated with the friary. The radiocarbon dating results eliminated three names of women who died in the 16th century. Of the four remaining, the biggest shot was Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, who was a dedicated patron of the friary. She died in France, however, and as far as we know was buried there as well. Of the three remaining women on the list, only one is specifically recorded as having been buried in the church: Emma Holt. All we know is her name and that she was buried in the friary church in 1290 because in September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence shaving Purgatory sentences off by 20 days for anyone who would say “a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester.” There’s no way to confirm is our leaden lady is Emma Holt. There are no known descendants for DNA matching. We don’t know her age at death, her looks or anything else about her that could link her to the skeleton.

Although the identity of the woman who had such significance to the Franciscan order that she was buried in the fanciest casket in the fanciest part of the friary’s church is likely to remain unknown, it is worth noting that she was not the only woman granted the honor of being laid to rest under the feet of praying monks. In the two Grey Friars digs, archaeologists found 10 graves. Five were left undisturbed in place. Five were excavated and the remains examined. One of those five proved to be King Richard III. The other four were all women.

Two of them were inside the choir on the opposite side of it from where Richard was found. They were between 40 and 50 years old at time of death and radiocarbon dating shows indicates they died between 1270 and 1400. One of them had what seems to be a congenital hip dislocation which would have required her to walk with a crutch. The other lived a life of physical labor. Her arms and legs bore the tell-tale sign of regular use in lifting heavy weights. Like the woman in the lead coffin, these ladies also ate a high quality, varied diet rich in proteins.

The fourth female skeleton had been disturbed — note for RM: these were the disarticulated female remains mentioned in the first press conference — so there’s limited information on her, but she too appears to have done hard physical labor in her short life before dying in her early to mid-20s. Since the choir and presbytery would be reserved for important, wealthy people, the fact that two women who did hard labor for years were buried there may suggest the friary’s top donors were not just aristocrats and clerical leaders, but members of the burgeoning middle class of merchants and tradespeople who had money in their pockets but made it by working hard with their hands.

As for the ratio of men to women being so lopsided, as unexpected as that is, it could very well just be a coincidence.

Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: “Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.

“Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.

“In Leicester, ULAS’s excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester’s Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.”

Here’s a brief documentary video of the lead coffin’s removal from the stone sarcophagus in situ and its opening in the laboratory. You can see how they took apart the stone coffin, how they cut the lead with what look like pruning shears and the fragments and remains inside in the lead coffin.

Share

200 bodies found in mass graves under Paris supermarket

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have discovered the skeletal remains of more than 200 individuals buried in eight mass graves under the basement of the Monoprix Réaumur-Sébastopol supermarket in Paris. The team was doing an archaeological survey in advance of construction and expected to encounter human remains because the building was known to have been constructed on the site of Trinity Hospital cemetery. The cemetery was in active use from the 12th century through the 17th and was destroyed at the end of the 18th. Its graves were excavated and bones transferred to the Paris catacombs in the second wave of transfers in 1843, then the Félix Potin grocery store was built on the site in 1860. That building was demolished and reconstructed in 1910. The current Monoprix store occupies the ground and first floor of that 1910 Art Nouveau building by architect Charles Lemaresquier.

So after centuries of disuse, revolution, a dedicated municipal program of bone collection and two buildings erected on the site, archaeologists had little expectation of discovering anything more that a few scattered bones. Instead they found well-organized and carefully laid-out mass graves. Seven of the graves contain between five and twenty bodies laid down in two to five layers. The eighth grave is much larger. So far the remains of more than 150 individuals have been unearthed in this one pit. They were deposited with exacting precision in five or six layers. At least two rows of the dead are placed head to toe. A third row appears to continue beyond the perimeters of the current excavation.

“What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals – men, women and children – were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” said archeologist Isabelle Abadie.

The bodies appear to have been buried all at the same time, which she said suggested they might have been the victims of the plagues which struck Paris in 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Whatever mortality crisis struck — plague, other epidemics, famine — it struck wide. There are adults and children of all ages and both sexes buried in the largest mass grave. Initial examination of the bones has found no specific evidence of disease or injury. INRAP archaeologists will attempt to extract DNA samples for the bone which may reveal the presence of fatal pathogens. Other tests on the bones will determine their physical condition at death, if they were malnourished, if they had repetitive strain injuries from hard labor, etc. The remains will be radiocarbon dated to sort out which layers were deposited when.

Researchers hope this excavation and the subsequent study will result in a more thorough understanding of how the living managed bodies in mass-death crises, a clearer picture of the spatial and temporal organization of the cemetery. The team will also study period sources and maps of Paris to find out more about the Trinity Hospital and its cemetery. It’s a rare opportunity to study such a site; fewer than a dozen mass burial sites in France have been subject to a thorough archaeological study, so there isn’t much scholarship on the subject and there is a great deal that remains unknown about funerary practices at cemeteries associated with medieval and early modern hospitals.

Once the study is complete, the state will claim the remains and arrange for reburial.

Share

Historian finds rare postcard of 1909 shipwreck on eBay

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

Janet DeVries, local historian and president of the Boynton Beach Historical Society in Palm Beach County, Florida, was browsing eBay on December 19th of last year when she came across a period postcard with a picture of a shipwreck well known to her. It was the wreck of the Norwegian barkentine Coquimbo which ran aground on a reef off Boynton Beach on January 31st, 1909. The postcard had been sent and was postmarked Boynton, August 9th, 1909. The message on the back read:

Boynton Fl. 8/8/09 – Dear Roger. It has ben (sic) a long time since I have heard from you so I wanto (sic) know if you are still living. I have ben (sic) all over hell since I last wrote you but I am home now carpentering. clyde

DeVries clicked the “buy it now” button and acquired the postcard for $10, a bargain considering what a rare testament to the town’s early history it is.

The Coquimbo, an iron-hulled sailing ship with two square-rigged masts forward and schooner rigged mast aft, was carrying a hull full of pine lumber from Gulfport, Mississippi, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she hit the reef. The ship’s foghorns awakened guests at the oceanfront Boynton Hotel who hastened to the waterside to see what the commotion was about. The Coquimbo was perched on a sandbar, not sinking, but there were 15 crew members stranded on board, all Scandinavian, including Captain I. Clausen. Locals crossed the canal on a skiff and built a breeches buoy to rescue all 15 men.

The crew couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel so for the next two months they used the ship’s sails to make tents and camped out on the beach while they waited for the steam tugboat that would attempt to dislodge the ship. The tugboat spent days trying to budge the Coquimbo but it wouldn’t move an inch. It was destined to stay where it stood until the ocean waves tore the hull apart.

In 1909 southern Florida was still pioneer country, sparsely populated with limited supplies. The town of Boynton was only 11 years old at the time with a population of less than 700 souls. A ship full of long-leaf pine lumber with beams as long as thirty feet was a figurative gold mine for the settlers. Residents collected the wood that had washed up on the beach, stacking it in piles that reached as high as fifty feet. The lumber, along with the ship’s rigging, tackle, stores and provisions would be sold at auction (scroll down to see the notice) on March 30th, 1909, but the U.S. Marshall who oversaw the sale allowed the Boynton residents to mark the piles they had made and buy them for bargain prices at the auction.

There aren’t many extant photographs of the Coquimbo. DeVries has been actively searching for pictures of the wreck for the past 20 years and this is only the fourth she’s ever found. That it also comes with a reference to the building boom that resulted from the harvesting of the Coquimbo‘s cargo makes it an even rarer historical gem. To flesh out the story behind the postcard, DeVries tried to identify the “Clyde” who had mailed it. From her decades of historical research into the area, she knew that there were only two Clydes in Boynton Beach at that time. One of them was a carpenter who had helped build the hotel, so she thought he was the likely candidate. The dates didn’t pan out, however, so she turned to the second Clyde.

C.O. Miller is best known for creating Boynton’s most enduring and splendid roadside attraction, Rainbow Tropical Gardens. In addition, the master gardener designed the exquisite gardens of the famed Addison Mizner designed Cloister Inn.

Born Clyde O’Brien Miller in 1885, near Logansport, Indiana, Miller worked as a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad before settling in Boynton in 1909.

By following census records, news accounts and government documents, it seems Miller did indeed move about or travel often (as described in his 1909 postcard).

The recipient of the postcard was one Roger C. Middlekauff of Jacksonville, Florida. There’s no further information about him at this time. Keep an eye on the Boynton Beach Historical Society blog for more about Clyde Miller.

The postcard will be added to the documentation of the wreck that DeVries has been compiling for years in order to have the site recognized by the state. What’s left of the Coquimbo was discovered in January of 2013 by free-diver Steve Dennison.

His heart pounded when he saw it: The huge bow of a ghostly ship jutting from the sand as if rising from its watery grave.

The hull that had looked black from the surface was reddish-brown close up, covered with marine organisms. He went down and grabbed the bow, and felt the cold metal underneath the barnacles.

He then saw a metal mast, then another mast, and about 200 feet from the bow he could see the stern and the steering mechanism. The hull was still buried underneath the sand.

It had been exposed by the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. You can see a slideshow of the wreck here and I’m embedding video of it below. The ship was only visible for a brief three months. When Dennison returned in April it was completely covered in sand again.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

March 2015
S M T W T F S
« Feb    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication