Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

France returns skull of New Caledonian chief

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Chief of La Foa district Bergé Kawa (middle) receives his ancestor's remainsAfter 135 years, the skull of High Chief Ataï from the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia has been returned to his homeland. In a ceremony on August 28th, France’s Overseas Territories Minister George Pau-Langevin gave the skull to Bergé Kawa, a chief in his own right and a direct descendant of Ataï. This is a righting of a wrong that has been very long in coming.

Captain Cook was the first European to encounter the main island in 1774. He named it New Caledonia because the cliffs of the east coast reminded him of the Scottish Highlands. French explorers mapped more of the archipelago, Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in 1792, Durmont d’Urville in 1827. British Protestant missionaries arrived in 1840 and with the discovery of sandalwood the next year, British merchants followed. French Catholic missionaries came in 1843. Religious conflict ensued with the Catholics ultimately coming out on top. New Caledonia was formally claimed as a French colony by Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes in 1853, and two years later all land on the main island was declared property of the French state.

Outside walls of Canak prison before 1906The French used it as a penal colony for the second half of the 19th century. An estimated 20,000 prisoners were transported to New Caledonia between 1864 and 1897, including 4,000 or so deported for their involvement in the Paris Commune and 100 Algerian insurrectionists. Most of them were put to work in the nickel and copper mines. While French authorities sent foreign laborers and settlers to the archipelago, they took indigenous people out. Many of the Kanak (a general name given to people from a wide variety of different tribes and clans with almost 30 mutually unintelligible languages) were enslaved or coerced into forced labor in Australia, Fiji, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia and Chile, to name a few.

The ones were remained were in barely better straits. In 1864, convicts who were deemed worthy were freed and given land grants. More than 100,000 hectares of the richest farmland were deeded out to former convicts. In 1868, an order was promulgated forcing the indigenous people onto reservations, moving them inland close to the mountains where the land was barely arable. Many were made to work the plantations and ranches of French settlers without pay.

Engraving of Ataï published in French magazine "Le Voleur" on October 4th, 1878Under these kinds of pressure, it’s no surprise that conflicts exploded. Small revolts began in the 1850s but were quickly suppressed by overwhelming French force. It all came to a head in 1878. A drought in 1877 had taken a huge toll on the cattle, so the governor granted ranchers grazing rights on reservation lands. The stock were let loose on fallow fields, but there weren’t any fences. The cattle just walked on over to the farmed land and ate the yam and taro crops that were all the tribes had to live on. Already displaced from lands which defined their identities and to which they had a profound religious connection, the Kanaks couldn’t tolerate having what was left of their livelihoods threatened by French cows.

High Chief Ataï of the Petit Couli tribe sought out the French governor. The chief poured out a bag of soil in front of the governor and said, “This is what we had.” Then he dumped a bag of rocks out and said, “This is what you have left us.” The governor replied that they should protect their crops by building fences. Ataï responded: “When the taro eat the cattle, I’ll build the fences.”

Violent clashes ensued, with Kanaks attacking settlers and tribal leaders being imprisoned in retaliation. Ataï realized that localized revolts would go nowhere. He created an alliance between multiple tribes to fight the French. In June of 1878, the allied tribes launched an attack on troops and settlers. Their guerilla warfare was so successful that the French commander called for reinforcements from Indochina.

In August, Ataï and 500 warriors besieged a fort the French had built in La Foa on the southwest coast. At first the siege appeared to be going well for the Kanak side, but then the French managed to make a deal with Gelina, the High Chief of the Canala tribe, dividing the Kanak forces. Then the reinforcements from Indochina arrived. At the end of the month, a motley team of French regulars, convicts, former Communards who were promised their freedom in return for fighting on the side of a government they had once fought against so passionately, former Algerian rebels in the same position, and Kanak warriors from the Canala tribe surrounded Ataï’s army.

Louise Michel, 1880On September 1st, a detachment of French military encountered the chief, his three sons and his bard (the French anthropologists called him a “sorcerer”) Andia on the way back to the Kanak encampment. A Canala warrior with the French identified the chief from his shock of white hair. Communard hero Louise Michel, aka the Red Virgin, who had taught school during her New Caledonian exile and who was one of the only Communards to side with the Kanak, seeing in them the same struggle for liberty that she and her comrades had fought for, described the scene thus in her memoirs (pdf):

The traitor Segou faltered for a moment under the look of the old chief, but then, wanting it all to be over, he threw his short spear at Ataï and it pierced the old chief’s right arm. Ataï raised his axe in his left hand as his sons were shot down around him, one killed and the others wounded.

Andia lunged forward crying out, “Tango! Tango! (Cursed! Cursed!),” but he was shot dead instantly. Then Segou moved in against the wounded Ataï, and with his own axe struck blow after blow, the way he would have chopped at a tree.

Ataï fell, and Segou grabbed at his partially severed head. He struck him several more blows, and Ataï was finally dead. Seeing Ataï fall at Segou’s hands, the Kanaks unleashed their death cry in an echo to the mountains. The Kanaks love the brave.

Engraving of the heads being given to the French, 1881The war would claim 1,000 Kanak lives and 200 French. Enslavement, disease and war took a terrible toll on the Kanak population. There were about 70,000 indigenous people living on the islands of New Caledonia when Cook arrived in 1774. By 1921, there were only 27,000 left.

The heads of Ataï, Andia and Ataï’s adolescent son were all severed, as was one of Ataï’s hands. Ship’s Lieutenant Servant received Andia’s head and Ataï’s head and hand from Segou and sold them for 200 francs to Dr. Navarre, a naval doctor. He packed the remains in tin boxes filled with phenol and shipped them to Professor Paul Broca, founder and president of the Anthropological Society of Paris (SAP). According to the minutes of SAP’s 396th meeting held on October 23, 1879 (Page 616 here), they arrived in a “perfect state of conservation. They emit no odor and we hope that the brain, even though they’re still in their skulls, will still be good for study.” Professor Broca:

Atai's skullThe magnificent head of the chief Ataï draws the most attention. It is very expressive; the forehead is especially very beautiful, very high and very wide. The hair is completely woolly, the skin completely black. The nose is very platyrrhine, as wide as it is high. The hand, broad and powerful, is very well-formed, except for one finger that is retracted due to an old injury. Palmar creases are similar to ours.

Andia’s head gets the same treatment, although it’s worse in some ways because it seems he suffered from some form of dwarfism so there’s a lot of gross talk about how savages see deformity.

Ataï death maskChief Ataï’s head was cast in bronze by Félix Flandinette, after which it was stripped of flesh and that brain they were so keen to get a look at, and the skull was kept with the SAP collection of skulls in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. In 1951, SAP’s skull collection was transferred to the Musée de l’Homme where they’ve been kept in a cabinet for decades. Ataï’s death mask has been on display, but Ataï’s and Andia’s skulls never have been.

Nonetheless, their treatment as specimens was and is deeply offensive to the Kanak. It has played a part in the consistent tension between New Caledonia and France even after the 1998 Noumea Accord, which granted some measure of autonomy to the territory along with the promise of a referendum on independence by 2018.

“These remains bring us back to our own reality: we are two peoples, two cultures which have never ceased to clash with each other and still clash today,” Kawa said [at the return ceremony].

“We were ravaged by the French state. It is therefore up to the French state to give us back our property,” he added.

Share

Vast archive of pre-war European Jewish life digitized

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Photographer Roman Vishniac’s vast archive documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and after World War II is being digitized and made available to the public. The joint project of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has already scanned almost 9,000 negatives that have never been seen or published before. More negatives continue to be added all the time. Ultimately 40,000 items — photographic prints, contact sheets, films, letters, interviews, recordings — will be scanned and uploaded to the dedicated website: vishniac.icp.org.

The goal of the project, in addition to making this precious record widely available to all who wish to study it, is to crowdsource as much information as they can about the photographs.

ICP and the Museum invite scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines, families across generations, and members of the public to explore the archive, contribute their research and family stories, and help identify the people and places depicted in the images. The diverse perspectives brought together by this unique effort, and by the work of a dedicated group of internationally recognized scholars, have already yielded exciting discoveries.

“We believe this initiative represents a new model for digital archives, and we are excited to bring this collection to an even-wider audience,” said Mark Lubell, ICP’s executive director. “Our shared goal is to make the images available for further identification and research, deepening our knowledge of Vishniac’s work and the people and places he recorded in his images.”

Born near Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1897, Roman Vishniac received his first camera as a gift on his seventh birthday. Even as he studied biology and zoology in college, he continued to explore photography and was an accomplished amateur photographer by the time he left Russia in 1920. He and his new wife joined his émigré family in Weimar Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, Roman took copious pictures documenting the street life of the city, particularly his own neighborhood populated primarily by Russian Jews. He experimented with framing and composition, and even built his own darkroom in his apartment.

In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jews are increasingly marginalized. Vishniac kept taking pictures, documenting the increasing dominance of anti-Semitic laws and attitudes in Berlin. He soon traveled further afield. From 1935 to 1938, the Paris headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned him to photograph rural Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. They aimed to publicize the images in the United States to raise awareness of the deep need in these impoverished communities.

In 1938 and 1939, the AJDC sent Vishniac to Poland and the Netherlands to photograph Jewish refugees expelled from Germany. From the Netherlands he traveled to France, working as a freelance photographer. In 1940, he gave all his negatives to a friend in Paris, asking him to take them to the United States. That was very well timed since shortly thereafter he was arrested and interned in Camp du Ruchard in Clichy for three months. He got out and managed to leave France for Lisbon where he reunites with his wife and children and together they flee to New York.

His pre-war negatives had finally reached him in 1942 and prints of some of them had already been displayed in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews. The vast majority of them, however, remained unprinted negatives, and Vishniac never labeled them or annotated them in any way. That’s why it’s so important that those negatives are now published online. There are still people alive who may be able to recognize the people and places in the pictures but the clock is ticking. Others may recognize something they’ve seen in family photographs even if they weren’t born when Vishniac took the pictures.

You can search the collection by keyword, date, location, etc., or you can browse through all 8999 scanned negatives. Register here to help with the labeling.

Share

Camp Security saved, excavations begin

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

The only Revolutionary War POW camp to survive in undeveloped condition has been saved for posterity thanks to donations from the public. When I first wrote about Camp Security last April, the 47-acre plot in Springettsbury Township, Pennsylvania, between the city of York and the Susquehanna River, was in danger of being sold. More than half a million dollars of a bridge loan secured by non-profit The Conservation Fund for its purchase was still outstanding, and if the money couldn’t be raised by August, the Fund might have to sell the land or face disastrous budgetary consequences.

They must have gotten an extension on that bridge loan, because at the end of the July they were still $250,000 short and there was no news I could find in August, but come December, the Springettsbury Township announced that the full sum had been raised and that The Conservation Fund had transferred the deed to the property to the township. Thanks to more than a decade of hard work from the township, The Conservation Fund, York County, the York County Heritage Trust, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Friends of Camp Security, plus donations from people all over the country, the field now belongs to the township in perpetuity.

It joins an adjacent 115-acre parcel and a small park that already belong to the township to form a large public open space. Hunting and digging are prohibited, but people can walk it or picnic on it or throw frisbees to their hearts’ content. The overall plans for the property include environmental preservation, historic preservation and archaeological exploration.

On Monday, the excavation of the Camp Security site began. There was limited survey on a small section of the site in 1979 that returned thousands of Revolutionary War artifacts — that’s how it was identified as the location of Camp Security — but this is the first time archaeologists and volunteers will really get to explore the site. More than 75 people have volunteered to help. They will work four-hour shifts over 25 days in the field.

Since the site has been plowed by a farmer, volunteers will first scan the surface for artifacts. Next the team will dig about 100 holes looking for evidence of the two camps built on the site. Camp Security was the POW camp — sharpened picket fence, wooden stockade and fieldstone cabins — built by prisoners when they arrived in August of 1781. Outside the picket fence was Camp Indulgence, unenclosed fieldstone huts built to house the wives and children who followed their husbands.

Most of this first group of prisoners had been captured after the surrender of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. They were used to living in America, despite have experienced considerable hardships during nearly four years of imprisonment, and at Camp Security they were given many freedoms. They could work — gets jobs or run their own cottage industries — travel freely within 10 miles of the camp, and even live with their families at Camp Indulgence. It was the newer prisoners, particularly those captured after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown in October of 1781, who were confined to Camp Security and closely guarded. Once the archaeological team identifies the location of one of the camps, they can figure out where the other one is.

For more about the history of Camp Security, check out local historian June Lloyd’s fantastic York Blog.

Share

Action Comics #1 shatters record at auction

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

A copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman which revolutionized the industry, in almost perfect condition has sold on eBay for $3,207,852, shattering the previous record price of $2.16 million set in 2011 by Nicholas Cage’s famously purloined copy. It is the first comic to pass the three million dollar mark. The buyers are Metropolis/ComicConnect, renown vintage comic dealers who in fact sold the Cage copy. It is not known if they were acquiring it for a private collector or for themselves.

Given a Certified Guaranty Company universal grade of 9.0 with White Pages, this copy is considered the finest Action Comics #1 ever graded. The previous record-holder was a 9.0 as well, but this one is a stronger 9, with glossy front and back covers, more brilliant colors and those perfect white pages. There is no yellowing whatsoever. It looks like it came fresh off the presses, with only two spine stress marks testifying to its ever having been opened at all. Only one other copy of this comic was graded Perfect White Pages, and that one had a mere 2.5 CGC grade.

Its condition is so astonishing that the first dealer who got his hands on it thought it might be a later reissue he didn’t know about. He had never seen a copy that was so flat with such white pages. The reason it was in such impeccable condition was that the while the first owner bought it for 10 cents from the newsstand in 1938 like 200,000 other people did, unlike most everyone else he lived at fairly high altitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and when he finished reading it, he put the comic in a cedar chest where it remained virtually untouched for four decades. The cool, dark, dry environment of the cedar chest froze time for this comic.

In the late 70s, comics and collectibles dealer Joe Mannarino got a phone call from the son of the original owner. He had seen an ad Mannarino put in a local paper offering to buy vintage comics and wanted to sell the stack of comics in his father’s hope chest. There were about 35 comics in the collection, an eclectic mish-mash that included most notably Action Comics #1, Action Comics #2 and Planet Comics #2. Mannarino bought the books for several thousand dollars.

He decided to store his pristine new Action Comics #1 exactly as it had been stored all these decades: in a cedar-lined chest. A few years later he sold it to another dealer who kept its existence secret for 30 years until this year when he decided to sell it to Darren Adams of Pristine Comics. It’s Adams who sold it on eBay on Sunday, with 1% of the proceeds going to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in honor of Reeve’s iconic Superman.

You can see how incredible the copy looks in this video that leafs through every page.

You can also virtually leaf through every perfect white page yourself on the CGC website. The photographs of the covers and pages aren’t as high resolution as I would like them to be for optimal reading, but it’s still legible and conveys clearly what a special copy of Action Comics #1 this is. Don’t miss the first appearance of Zatara, Master Magician, and his fabulous arch-enemy The Tigress. I love how everyone sports such varied and stylish headgear.

Share

Impressionism’s exact date and time of birth

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Impressionism was born on November 13th, 1872, at 7:35 AM. That’s the result of calculations done by Texas State University astrophysicist Donald Olson on the work by Claude Monet that gave the movement its name. Monet called the painting, the harbour of Le Havre as seen through his hotel window, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) because it captured a fleeting moment and thus couldn’t really be called a view. He came up with the title a year and a half after he painted the scene when it went on public display April 15th, 1874, at the first exhibition of works that would within days become known as Impressionist at the Paris studio of the photographer Nadar. It had to have a title for the exhibition catalogue.

Thirty artists, among them Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Sisley and Boudin, put their work on display at Nadar’s studio. All of them had been soundly and repeatedly rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts who insisted on traditional realism with invisible brushstrokes and muted colors for their prestigious Salon de Paris art shows. By order of Napoleon III (who was bowing to public clamor, not indulging a personal preference), they had gotten a chance to show their works in the Salon des Refusés, the Salon of the Refused, in 1863, but even though the Refusés saw far more traffic than the jury-selected works in the Salon de Paris, future petitions requesting new Refusés shows were, well, refused.

Finally the denied artists founded an anonymous collective and arranged for an independent show. They rented Nadar’s old studio (he had just moved to new digs) on the first floor (European first floor, that is, the storey above the ground floor shops) of a building at 35 Boulevard des Capucines and put 163 of their works on display two weeks before that year’s Salon de Paris opened.

Ten days later, on April 25th, 1874, the exhibition was reviewed by artist, playwright, journalist and critic Louis Leroy in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari. Entitled Exhibition of the Impressionists, the review used Monet’s term for his landscape of Le Havre to deride the weirdly blurry, poorly drawn, sloppy “palette-scrapings … on a dirty canvas” that so obnoxiously rejected the traditional forms of the great masters.

Leroy’s use of Monet’s term stuck, and the movement became known as Impressionism. As for the canvas that launched the label, Impression, soleil levant was purchased in May of 1874 by collector Ernest Hoschedés. He sold it four years later to Dr. George Bellio for a quarter of what he had paid. Bellio left it his daughter Victorine. On September 1st, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, Victorine transferred the work to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, which at that time had no Impressionist paintings in its collection, due to “risk of war.” Within days it was evacuated to the Château de Chambord along with the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and other masterpieces from the Louvre.

In May of 1940, with German forces advancing inexorably into France, Victorine donated the painting to the museum. Impression, soleil levant remained in hiding in Chambord for the duration of the war. For nearly two decades after the donation, the painting appeared in the museum’s inventories as Impression, soleil couchant (Impression, Sunset) and even though Monet had dated it 72 next to his signature, not much was known about him that year and there was dispute about whether he was actually in Le Havre in 1873.

The museum, now the Musée Marmottan Monet, to celebrate its 80th anniversary and the 140th anniversary of the seminal exhibition of the painting that named one of art’s most influential and revolutionary movements, enlisted the aid of Donald Olson to answer some of the questions about Monet’s piece.

He has pinpointed a particular third-floor bedroom with a balcony in the Hotel d’Amirauté au Havre, at 45 Grand Quai. Monet would have looked across the outer harbour, facing towards the Quai Courbe, to the southeast.

[...] Olson demonstrates that because of the sun’s position towards the east it must have been rising. He also calculated that the sun rises in the position shown in the Monet painting twice each year, in mid-November and late-January. The sun is depicted two to three degrees above the horizon, which corresponds to 20 to 30 minutes after sunrise.

Olson then looked at the level of the sea, since large ships can only pass in or out of the outer harbour for three to four hours at high tide. Taking the sun’s position, plus the high tide, this narrowed down the possibilities to 19 dates in 1872-73.

The next stage of the puzzle was to examine weather reports—to exclude days when cloud would have obscured the sun and to include only days when there was fog. This further winnowed the dates to six: 21 and 22 January 1872, 13 and 15 November 1872 and 25 and 26 January 1873.

Olson then focussed on the plumes of smoke on the left side of the painting, which rise into the sky towards the right. Meteorological reports suggest that this wind direction would have occurred on only two of the six dates, on 13 November 1872 and 25 January 1873.

The final factor is the research of Géraldine Lefebre, a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux in Le Havre. She is convinced that the year “72″ inscribed by Monet on the painting is correct, since what we know of Monet’s movements makes it very unlikely he was there the following January. This means that Impression, Soleil Levant depicts the view in La Havre on 13 November 1872, at 7.35am.

Impression, soleil levant will be the centerpiece of an exhibit that runs from September 18th, 2014, to January 18th, 2015. It will join another 24 works by Monet, including a night view of the harbour of Le Havre painted from the same hotel room, plus works by Delacroix, Turner, Renoir and Pissarro, among others, loaned from top museums and private collections around the world.

Share

Gift from Charles Darwin found in Danish museum

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

The University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum has found a unique treasure in its stores: 55 barnacle specimens personally assembled and labeled by Charles Darwin. It all began, as so few things do but many should, with a 160-million-year-old Diplodocus skeleton.

Raimond Albersdörfer and sons excavating Misty, 2009Misty is the skeleton of a Diplodocus longus discovered by the teenage sons of German paleontologist Raimond Albersdörfer during a 2009 excavation in Dana Quarry near the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. The young men wanted the chance to find something, so to keep them out of his hair their father shooed them away from his excavation site to go dig in an area where he thought they might unearth an innocuous fragment or two. By the end of the day they had unearthed a bone so big the two of them couldn’t carry it. Dad shifted his attention to his sons’ find and excavated almost the entire 56-foot-long skeleton of the dinosaur.

Because it was found on private land, there were no legal barriers to the fossil’s export and sale. After the bones were conserved in the US, they were sent to the Netherlands for assembly and then to London for auction. One of only six nearly intact Diplodocus fossils known, Misty was acquired on November 27th, 2013 for $651,100. Two weeks later, the anonymous buyer revealed itself to be the Natural History Museum of Denmark which was able to afford the pricey giant thanks to a donation from the Obel Family Foundation.

Misty, Diplodocus longus, 160 million years old

To properly welcome Misty, the museum planned its largest exhibition ever around her. The Precious (or The Cherished, should your Danish tend less towards the Tolkien) would showcase the museum’s most precious (hence the name) objects alongside their most recent acquisition, items that have been in storage for years unavailable to the public, the best of the best specimens from the fields of zoology, geology, botany, and paleontology: a Dodo skull, a stuffed Great Auk, a collection of snails assembled by Hans Christian Andersen during his travels in Denmark, a meteorite that fell in 1749. The focus of the exhibition is the full context of the objects, their natural and human history, how they came into existence coupled with how they came to the museum.

Charles Darwin, 1854Exhibition Manager Hanne Strager was tasked with going through the museum’s collection of 14 million objects to select pieces for display. Strager is an evolutionary biologist and the author of By Confessing a Murder: Darwin and the Idea that Changed the World, a book on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution and discoveries in the field since then. The title refers to a letter Darwin wrote to botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844 in which he wryly declared, “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”

As an accomplished Darwin scholar, Strager knew that Darwin had had a professional relationship with zoologist Japetus Steenstrup, the former director of the then Royal Natural History Museum (precursor to the modern-day Natural History Museum’s Zoological Museum), and that Steenstrup had loaned Darwin some specimens during the decade of intensive research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin wanted to compare species from different locations, to examine the differences and commonalities of related species. He had met Johan Georg Forchhammer, Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Copenhagen, in Birmingham, and he offered to send Darwin some barnacle fossils from the Copenhagen Geological Museum. He also connected Darwin to his friend Japetus Steenstrup, Professor of Zoology at the University of Copenhagen, who had his own collection of barnacles.

Japetus Steenstrup, undatedSteenstrup contributed some barnacle fossils from his collection to a parcel Forchhammer sent Darwin in November of 1849. When Darwin received them two months later — he had been so worried about his delayed barnacles that he put an ad in the paper offering a reward for their return — he wrote Steenstrup an abjectly delighted thank you note on January 25, 1850:

Dear Sir

I am quite delighted in at last being able to tell you that your Box with the fossil cirripedes has arrived quite safely this morning.— It is a great load off my mind.— Not one specimen is injured, except, perhaps, some of the valves of your Anat(?) cretæ.— It is a noble collection, & I feel most grateful to you for having entrusted them to me.— I have now a great many collections in this house, so that I have good means of comparison.— Most of your species, as far as a hasty first glance tells, are different from the British. Your P. medius. is the same as P. sulcatus of Sowerby; & instead of being a Pollicipes, it is a Scalpellum, though these genera differ much too little.— The P. elegans I have (unnamed) from our Chalk.— I will do my best in comparing all the specimens which I have now together; but I am not hopeful of producing good results: I much dislike giving specific names to each separate valve, & thereby almost certainly making three or four nominal species for each true species.—

I am extremely pleased to see the Alepas. The cause of the great delay was in Prof. Forchhammer having sent the box within another to a dealer in minerals, who uncourteously did not take the trouble to inform me. Please to tell Prof. Forchammer that owing to his note I have got the Box, & pray give him, & accept yourself my most cordial thanks.— I will take great care of your specimens.— I hope now that this Box has arrived safely, that you will add to your already great kindness, & send me the northern species alluded to in your former letter.—

I will hereafter write again to you.—

Pray believe me | my dear Sir | Yours most gratefully | C. Darwin

(NB: The Darwin Correspondence Project website, a massive database that seeks to digitize all letters written by and to Charles Darwin, is down as of right now, which is why I linked to cached versions of the letters in this entry. I hope it will be up and running again soon because it’s awesome.

EDIT: And it’s back! I’ve replaced the cached links with live ones. Do yourself a favor and have a browse around the site now. It lends such rich insight into Darwin and his work. They’ve done a great public service by making his correspondence available at the click of a mouse.)

It was Steenstrup’s barnacle fossils, which Darwin had returned as promised, that Hanne Strager was hoping to find for the exhibition. The barnacle study was an important part of Darwin’s research, so if they could be found they would have a great story to tell. Strager was reading through Steenstrup’s papers in the museum archives looking for clues that might identify the specific fossils Darwin examined when she found something even better: an 1854 letter from Darwin in which he mentioned a list of 77 species of barnacles he had sent to Steenstrup as a thank you gift for his help.

The list itself was not in the letter. More searching through Steenstrup’s papers ensued and lo and behold, the list was found. It was hard to read, however, and took some time to decipher. Once that was done, Strager had to dig through storage looking for the 77 specimens. They weren’t kept together because in 1854 there was no reason for it. On the Origin of Species was five years away. The barnacles were seen as specimens like any other, not the curated collection of a great pioneering scientist. They were spread throughout the museum collection according to their species.

Darwin's barnacle specimens and listStrager finally located 55 of Darwin’s barnacles. Most of the missing 22 are samples from a single genus. They were probably loaned to another institution or scientist who was researching that specific genus at some point over the past 160 years and never returned. Somebody somewhere may have 22 barnacle specimens collected by Charles Darwin and have no idea of their illustrious history.

Not that anyone’s complaining. The collection of 55 specimens, with original labels and an inventory list in Darwin’s hand, is an exceptional find. The museum believes it’s the most significant Darwin collection outside of London’s Natural History Museum.

“To be able to display a gift from one of the world’s greatest scientists is unique for a museum,” Stager said.

“Here we have a personal connection to the man responsible for what is probably biology’s greatest ever scientific breakthrough: the Theory of Evolution.”

Darwin’s barnacles will go on display with Misty and many other treasures starting October 1st.

 

Share

Victorian railway flying arches saved and reinstalled

Thursday, August 21st, 2014


The Chorley Flying Arches are 16 flying buttress arches built in 1841 on the Bolton & Preston railway (opened in 1843) a mile and a half northwest of Chorley Station in Lancashire. These rare architectural features were used to brace the high retaining walls on either side of the cut. Scottish civil engineer Alexander James Adie, Resident Engineer of the Bolton & Preston Railway, feared the heavy clay soil behind the walls would eventually collapse them inwards onto the track, so he built masonry arches connecting to the walls at the 11-foot mark (the arches rise to 15 feet at the center point). Like their namesakes on Gothic churches, the flying arches strengthened walls under pressure without adding bulk. They were slender and elegant, the thickness of a single stone less than a foot wide across the center.

The Chorley arches were the first of their kind and today they’re one of only two examples remaining in England. The others were lost to modernization, and these could have succumbed to a similar fate had English Heritage and Network Rail not come together to save them. In 2008, the Chorley track was in dire need of stabilization as drainage problems had forced trains that can run 145 miles per hour to slow way down to a maximum speed of 20 mph. To properly install new drains, the arches had to be taken down. Steel arches were wedged between the walls first, then the Victorian masonry arches were removed intact and taken to a secure storage site.

The original plan was to reinstall them within three years, but in 2009 a new project to electrify the line was announced. Electric trains require overhead wires to power them, and 173-year-old masonry arches were bound to get in the way. Engineers came up with a solution, however, that preserved the original structures while bringing them in compliance with modern safety and operation standards. Each arch was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt atop a custom steel brace. This ensures they won’t be shedding masonry onto the trains below. The steel brace will also accommodate the overhead electrical lines.

Earlier this week, the Chorley Flying Arches returned home after seven years in storage. They were placed in a slightly higher position to make room for the electrification equipment, and now their role is entirely aesthetic. The steel brace underneath them will do the work of stopping the retaining wall from falling in on commuters.

Here’s a riveting time-lapse video of the 2008 removal of the arches. An equally cool video of the reinstallation is not yet available, but Northern Rail is into that sort of thing, so keep an eye on their YouTube channel.

Share

Guercino masterpiece stolen from Modena church

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

A 17th century Baroque masterpiece by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known by his nickname Guercino, has been stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo in the historic center of Modena. The painting, Madonna with the Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus, was painted by the master in 1639 and has been in the church ever since. An allied bomb struck San Vincenzo on May 13th, 1944, destroying the presbytery and the choir and its late 17th century frescoes, but the Guercino survived. Let’s hope it can survive human greed.

The painting was not insured because “church cannot afford to insure every painting in its possession,” as San Vincenzo’s priest Father Gianni Gherardi put it, and as callous as that sounds, the truth is that practically every church in Italy is stuffed to the gills with masterpieces. It would be prohibitively expensive, even if private insurers could be secured, to cover everything. The alarm system installed with funding from the Modena Savings Bank Foundation a decade or so ago was turned off because “it was too expensive to keep up,” which I presume refers to the monthly bill.

San Vincenzo is not a parish church so it doesn’t stay open all week. The doors are opened every Sunday for mass and locked after the service is over. The thieves made their way inside, stole the painting and got out without leaving a trace. There is no sign of forced entry on the church door. The priest only realized something was wrong because the door was open.

Police believe at least three men were involved in the theft because the piece is so big and heavy, especially still inside the frame, that it one or two people wouldn’t be able to move it. They probably got in during mass on Sunday, August 10th, and hid until they could do their dirty deed under cover of night. They must have had transportation, most likely a van.

Not that insurance would be much consolation. The painting is invaluable and irreplaceable. It could be worth something like $8 million if we hypothetically considered a market value and if it were actually salable, but of course it’s not. It’s hugely famous and at nine and a half feet high and six feet wide, it’s impossibly conspicuous. Authorities are concerned that the thieves might cut it up into individual figures in the attempt to sell it, but they went through a lot of trouble to keep it whole. That’s why the current preferred theory is that it was a theft commissioned by a Bond-villainesque collector. That’s the go-to preferred theory, but time and time again we’ve seen thieves steal something first and only think of disposal once the object is burning a hole in their pockets. Then they bumble around for years trying to unload their ill-gotten gain in the most ridiculous ways, often to undercover cops.

The Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) are in charge of the investigation. They’re looking through phone records and security camera footage from along the street. There are no cameras pointed at the church, but a van large enough to contain the painting should have been captured by other cameras.

Share

Update: 200-year-old seltzer bottle contains alcohol

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The 200-year-old salt-glazed stoneware bottle recovered from a shipwreck at the bottom of Gdańsk Bay off the coast of Poland does not contain its original prized mineral water from the internationally known springs of Selters, Germany. Or at least, that’s not all it contains. Testing at the J.S. Hamilton laboratory in Gdynia has found the contents are 14% alcohol distillate. The remaining 86% could still be the original seltzer water since its chemical composition is consistent with Selters mineral water.

It’s not certain what variety of distilled spirits is inside the bottle.

[A]ccording to the laboratory staff, the alcohol may be a kind of genever gin (jenever) – traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium. “Did someone really pour this drink into a soda bottle, or are we dealing with a different beverage? Experts will try to determine this in another series of analyses, which will be completed in early September” – said [National Maritime Museum archaeologist Tomasz] Bednarz.

Chemical analysis suggests the alcohol is still potable in the sense that it won’t kill you, but it might make you wish you were dead.

The archaeologist added that according to laboratory workers, the alcohol in the bottle is suitable for drinking. “This means, it would not cause poisoning. Apparently, however, it does not smell particularly good” – he explained.

There’s a little more information about the bottle as well.

Bednarz explained that according to the latest findings, stoneware bottle recovered from the Gulf of Gdańsk was made in Ransbach, approx. 40 km from Selters springs. “The manufacturer was determined by reading the print under the main emblem +Selters HN+: letter R and the number 25, denoting the number of the manufacturer.

I looked for but couldn’t find any kind of master list of the manufacter names and their corresponding numbers. There were dozens of small producers in all the towns around Selters, so we know the town thanks to the R mark but not the shop.

Share

Mummification in Egypt began 1,500 years earlier

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Archaeologists have long believed that artificial mummification in Egypt began during the Old Kingdom, around 2,500 B.C. Mummies have been found from the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods (ca. 4500 – 3100 B.C.), but they were thought to have been naturally mummified in the arid heat of the desert. Evidence for the use of embalming agents was found on one examples from the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2,200 B.C.), only becoming frequent in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2,000-1,600 BC).

Now the results of an 11-year study are upending the conventional wisdom with chemical analysis of preservative resins found in prehistoric funerary wrappings. Researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford have identified complex embalming agents in linen fragments from some of the earliest tombs in Egypt found in the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda in Upper Egypt.

Egyptologist Dr. Jana Jones of Sydney’s Macquarie University started the ball rolling in 2002 when she examined 51 wrapping samples excavated from Badari and Mostagedda in the 1930s and preserved in the collection of the Bolton Museum. Viewing them under a microscope revealed the presence of “toffee-like” substance likely to be resin. Researchers from Oxford University radiocarbon dated the samples to confirm they were indeed prehistoric as the archaeological evidence had indicated.

The resinous substances had to be confirmed chemically, however, because the microscopic analysis couldn’t conclusively identify them. That’s where University of York archaeological chemist Dr. Stephen Buckley came in.

Corresponding author on the article, Dr Buckley, used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.

Dr Buckley, who designed the experimental research and conducted the chemical analyses, said: “The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period.”

Dr Buckley added: “Having previously led research on embalming agents employed in mummification during Egypt’s Pharaonic period it was notable that the relative abundances of the constituents are typical of those used in mummification throughout much of ancient Egypt’s 3000 year Pharaonic history. Moreover, these resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later.”

This revolutionary discovery underscores the importance of historic specimen collections in museums. They may seem like dust-magnet clutter, but as technology advances they can be an invaluable resource. First the cholera genome was mapped from 19th century specimens in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, now the history of Egyptian mummification has been rolled back 1,500 years.

Share