Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Pavers made from Jewish headstones found in Prague

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

Redevelopment of Prague’s historic downtown has revealed dozens of paving stones made from desecrated Jewish headstones. Wenceslas Square, the site of massive popular demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, is one of two main squares in Prague and the heart of the city’s nightlife. As part of a revamp of the tourist district, the cobblestones paving its long rectangular expanse were raised. They were installed in the 1980s when the former Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. At that time, Leo Pavlat, the current director of Jewish Museum in Prague, found two paving stones with Jewish markings. When the plans to revamp the square became known, Pavlat’s recollections spurred the city council to allow observers from the Jewish community to survey the work on Wenceslas Square.

Rabbi Chaim Kočí, a senior official with the Prague rabbinate, witnessed workers unearthing cobblestones whose undersides revealed Hebrew lettering, the star of David and deceased dates. Other stones were blank but had polished surfaces that indicated they had also been taken from cemeteries.

Jewish leaders hailed the unearthing as proof of long-held suspicions that the communist authorities – who ruled the former Czechoslovakia for more than four decades during the cold war – had taken stonework from Jewish burial sites for a much-vaunted pedestrianisation of Wenceslas Square during the 1980s.

“We feel this is a victory for us because until now this was just a rumour. Maybe there were Jewish stones here, but nobody knew,” said Kočí, who had been at Wenceslas Square since early morning to witness the stones being dug up. “It’s important because it’s a matter of truth.

“We are making something right for the historical record. These are stones from the graves of people who were dead for maybe 100 years and now they are lying here. It’s not nice.”

Only small segments of the headstone markings can be seen because they were broken down into cubes. There are dates, Hebrew letters and stars of David visible, but no full names. The oldest visible date is 1877, the most recent is the 1970s. They were stolen from different cemeteries.

Synagogues and cemeteries were allowed to fall into disrepair under an officially sanctioned hostile policy towards religious institutions in general and Judaism in particular, making them vulnerable to looting.

František Bányai, the chairman of Prague’s Jewish community, said the discovery made him angry at the communist regime.

“More Jewish synagogues were destroyed in the area of the current Czech Republic during communist times than under the Nazis,” he said. “It was because of their special approach to religion. Anti-Judaism was official policy and all the Jewish committees were supervised and managed by control of the secret police. To be Jewish was negative from any point of view – but it was the same for the Christian church.”

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Original tile floors found in Jersey City City Hall

Monday, May 4th, 2020

Like many cities in lockdown, Jersey City, New Jersey, has been taking advantage of the closure of public facilities to do necessary repairs and upgrades that under normal circumstances would be disruptive to residents.  One of those tasks was the removal of sad 60s vinyl flooring from a corridor in the city hall. Mayor Steven Fulop tweeted Sunday that they found a happy surprise underneath: the glamorous original tile floor from 1896.

Jersey City’s City Hall was designed by Lewis H. Broome, city architect from 1880 until 1884 and future state architect of New Jersey. He entered a contest for the commission and his striking neoclassical design won. The cornerstone was laid on May 26th, 1894, and the mayor moved in to the new city hall in January 1896.

Today the grand façade with its granite and marble veneers, marble columns and pediments with allegorical figures in classical garb wielding shovels and pitchforks, is a popular backdrop for many a wedding photo and productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but when it first debuted the building was not received with universal acclaim, to put it mildly. Architectural Record absolutely savaged it in its “Architectural Aberra­tions” feature, an unsigned takedown of buildings the reviewer (New York Times editorial writer and architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler) deemed deficient in design. City Hall hadn’t even opened yet when it was brutalized in Architectural Record‘s July-September 1895 issue. A whole city block had been demolished to make room for the new building with a large landscaped park like the one in front of New York’s City Hall. This was its fundamental failing, according to the critique, that because Broome had attempted to “simulate a public building more solid and costly than his client can afford, with an array of cheap finery, the resulting edifice fairly reeks of vulgarity.”

[Broome’s] principal front has things enough for a front three times as long. At the centre, to begin with, there is a porch with two columns on each side, with composite capitals, inclosing a Romanesque entrance-arch with two nook-shafts on each side. Behind this portico rises a tower with three openings, which are two too many for its width, squeezed into its surface and extended through two stories with a most preposterous treatment of the interpolated transom. In this tower we have the “note” of the whole building. This characteristic is the squeezed and pinched appearance that comes from the designer’s effort to get more things in a given space than it will accommodate, and all that it can be made to hold by extreme crowding. […]

It remains to be added that the skyline is as tormented as the designer knew how to make it, mainly with cupolas over the towers bearing minarets, and entirely incongruous with any of the things below them, as many of these things are with each other. The culminating atrocity is that all this is cheap and imitative finery. Above and including the cornice all this ornament, excepting the urns at the corners in cast iron, is in sheet metal, the meanness and vulgarity of which are rather exposed than enhanced in the present state of the work by the fact that the pediments are faced with paper held in place with laths.

If one encountered this disreputable structure in Oshkosh he would say, how Oshkoshian ; in Peoria, how Peorian — it is so rude and raw a travesty of the architecture of civilization. As a matter of fact, it is in one of the oldest settlements of the United States and within a mile or less of it is a respectable dwelling erected in 1666. This is not the brutality of a blundering beginning, but the hopelessness of a completed degeneration. The building which expresses the municipal aspirations and standards of Jersey City, and which would disgrace a municipality of South Dakota by its crudity and vulgarity, serves to show how exceedingly thin is our veneer of “art.”

Schuyler may have had a point beyond mere gleeful acidity on the “cheap and imitative finery” issue. In 1897, a year after City Hall opened, Broome was indicted for a misdemeanor in office, specifically “giving a false certificate as to the materials used in the building.” New Jersey’s contention was that Broome’s commission by the state to build a city hall made him the holder of a state office and therefore he was guilty of official misconduct. Broome’s lawyers argued he was a contractor, not an office-holder and therefore he was only bound by the terms of his contract with the commissioners. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed and quashed the indictment. I couldn’t find any details about what the material deficiencies may have been and the court never addressed the question because they were just deciding on whether the charge of official malfeasance was valid.

If the cupolas are anything to go by, at least some of the quality concerns might have been valid. They were removed in 1955 after they were found to be structurally unsound. Even so, the rest of the building survived a major fire in 1979 and was extensively rebuilt over the next couple of decades. All of that work, a whole ass fire, and there are still hidden treasures to be found.

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Earliest (good) evidence of a death by meteorite

Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Researchers have discovered the earliest credible evidence of a person being killed by a meteorite. The event took place on August 22nd, 1888, in what is now Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The event was recorded by Ottoman officials in contemporary reports that have recently been digitized.

While meteorite debris striking the surface of the earth is not particularly rare, the odds of any of it hitting and killing someone are slim, approximately 1 in 250,000. Still, you’d think at some point in human history there would be solid evidence of a fatal meteorite hit, but the stories that are out there are notably unreliable. No established death from a meteorite hit exists on the historical record.

Most injuries that have occurred during meteorite fall are caused by shock waves, most notably the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteorite impact which sent more than 1600 people to the hospital for cuts suffered when the windows broke. Media reports of a man killed in an explosion in India in 2016 claimed that was the first meteorite death, but scientists put the kibosh on that story as there was no meteor activity that entire month, plus the description of the explosion and the crater left behind are not consistent with meteorite fall.

The only actual meteorite-to-human strike incident that is fully evidenced was not fatal. Mrs. Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama, was hit by a meteorite that fell into her house on November 30th, 1954. The fragment bounced off her radio and hit her leg. She suffered bruising on her thigh, but recovered without permanent damage. The rock that hit her was collected by George Swindle of the United States Geological Survey and he was able to prove conclusively that the object was a meteorite.

We do not have the full-circle evidence from the meteorite debris for the 1888 Sulaymaniyah event. What we do have are three detailed reports in written in Ottoman Turkish explaining the event to the authorities. They are not sensationalized, overblown, based on rumor or hearsay or dressed up for public consumption. They are bureaucratic records, dry and factual, from a government that recorded and kept copies of everything.

The first manuscript describes how a meteoroid impact at a village near Sulaymaniyah created a “fireball” (an airburst in modern parlance) and meteorites fell on a pyramid-shaped hill for 10 minutes “like rain.” A bright light and smoke was were seen in a neighboring village. The crops growing in the fields were destroyed and one man was killed. Another man was severely injured and survived but was paralyzed.

The letter was sent by the local governor, Mustafa Faik Mustafa Pasha, to the Ottoman equivalent of the Interior Minister, Ahmed Munir Pasha, on September 13th. It reached Constantinople on October 8th and it was taken seriously right away. The report was forwarded to the sultan the very next day, October 9th.

The second manuscript is a basically a forward.  Ahmed Munir Pasha repeats the summary of the event and relays the governor’s request for instructions from the sultan on how to respond to the event. It was forwarded to the sultan by Grand Vizier Mehmed Kâmil Pasha. Any reply the sultan might have sent has not been discovered yet, but there are millions and millions of documents in the Turkish national archives that have yet to be digitized.

The third manuscript again summarizes the event and notes that Ahmed Munir Pasha sent “a stone piece” to the grand vizier on October 18th, 1888.

This event is the first report ever that states a meteor impact killed a man in history ever with the support of three written manuscripts that report an event in a such detail up to our knowledge. Due to the fact that these documents are from official government sources and written by the local authorities, even grand vizier himself as well, we do not have any suspicion on their reality. At this stage, it is obvious that we cannot speculate these stones sent to the administration are really meteorites since we do not have any real physical evidence and even a real sample/(s). However, we are still covering the archives regularly and encounter some documents (unpublished data yet) state that some samples of meteorites in different events were delivered to the Muze-i Hamayun (Archaeology Museum in Istanbul, today).

That is a small needle in a very giant haystack, but it would be so cool if researchers managed to find the sample and confirm its extraterrestrial nature. Even if it did turn up, it wouldn’t be incontrovertible evidence of a deadly meteorite strike because there’s no way to link the man who died in the meteorite fall to that particular specimen as was done with Mrs. Hodges. Still cool though!

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From the Met’s film vault

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate their sesquicentennial, the Met has been uploading movies from their vast archive of films about art going back to the 1920s.

The Met’s Office of Cinema Works opened in 1922 when the moving image captured on film was less than 30 years old. The medium was still considered the cultural inferior to its cousin the so-called legitimate theater. The Met was one of the first museums to embrace its great education potential. The Office of Cinema Works produced films that would be screened first for museum members and then to visitors. It filmed the museum’s excavations in Egypt and made documentaries about the museum, objects in its collection, artist profiles, explanations of different artistic techniques.

Because the Office’s mission was educational, from its earliest days in 1922 the films it produced were made available for rent to other museums, schools and societies. The Met soon did brisk business in film distribution as well as production. They also pioneered the use of safety film. To be able to send their films to more screens and make them as easy and safe to use as possible, in 1928 they moved from the industry standard 35mm nitrate film to 16mm non-flammable acetate that could be screened with portable projectors.

The Office of Cinema Works was active through 1935, and its descendants at the museum continue to produce films about art well into the 2000s. Most of the 1,500 treasures in its climate-controlled vault have been in permanent retirement, however. Starting in January of this anniversary year, From the Vaults has been releasing a film from the archive every Friday, beginning, as is only right and fair on the Internet, with a film about cats.

Earlier this month, From the Vaults released a self-referential gem: The Hidden Talisman, a 1928 historical romance/ghost story that was filmed at the original Cloisters. The faux medieval setting is very apt to the drama. The first Cloisters was only in use for 24 years, from its opening in 1914 until the Met Cloisters as we know and love it today moved to its current location in 1938, so this film is a rare glimpse into a long-gone classic.

Here’s another great early one from 1924 about the Met’s Armor Galleries.

View the rest of the treasures from the Met’s film vaults on the museum’s YouTube channel.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring revealed Tuesday

Friday, April 24th, 2020

In 2018, the Mauritshuis museum performed an in-depth scientific examination of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). The last time it had been thoroughly examined was during a 1994 conservation, and technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then. The goal of the Girl in the Spotlight project was to discover new information about the master’s brushstrokes and impasto, about his use of pigments, oils, canvas and other materials.

The research was conducted in public view in a specially-made glass enclosure in the museum’s Golden Room gallery. Over the course of two weeks, a team of specialists deployed state-of-the-art technology including MA-XRF scanning, optical coherence tomography and digital microscopy to analyze the painting. The project was documented in daily posts by lead conservator Abbie Vandivere on the outstanding Girl with a Blog, which is a wonderland of information about Vermeer, his most famous work and the latest conservation practices.

More than two years have passed since the project’s conclusion, and during that time researchers have published individual reports focusing on one particular aspect of Girl with a Pearl Earring in the journal Heritage Science. Now the full results of the technical examination have been published and the Mauritshuis is making a bit of a fanfare about it, putting up a placeholder for a web page dedicated to revealing the findings. On Tuesday, April 28th, the page will go live.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got a little time on your hands to do a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of one of the world’s most famous paintings, you can read all the previously published papers from the Girl in the Spotlight project leading up the final report. They each stand on their own so you can read whatever catches your eye, but they are intended to be read in the following order:

  1. From ‘Vermeer illuminated’ to ‘The Girl in the Spotlight’: approaches and methodologies for the scientific (re-)examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  2. Revealing the painterly technique beneath the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring using macro- and microscale imaging.
  3. Mapping the pigment distribution of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  4. Comparison of three 3D imaging techniques for paintings, as applied to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  5. Imaging secondary reaction products at the surface of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by means of in situ macro X-ray powder diffraction scanning.
  6. Beauty is skin deep: The skin tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  7. Out of the blue: Vermeer’s use of ultramarine in Girl with a Pearl Earring.
  8. Fading into the background: the dark space surrounding Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

And the last but certainly not least of them: The Girl in the Spotlight: Vermeer at work, his materials and techniques in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Absolute unit of an Ottoman shipwreck found

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

Maritime archaeologists have discovered a dozen shipwrecks off the coast of Lebanon in the Levantine Basin. Ranging in date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 19th century, there are wrecks from the Hellenistic, Roman, early Islamic and Ottoman eras. A team from the Enigma Shipwrecks Project (ESP) found the wrecks up to a mile deep on the sea floor. They scanned and documented the area with remote operated vehicles, capturing high-resolution images and HD video. The field exploration of the wrecks ended in late 2015, but as researchers continue to work on the data and artifacts, the find has been kept under wraps until now.

One ship dominated the others in size and in richness of cargo. It was an Ottoman merchant vessel that sank around 1630 during a voyage between Egypt and Istanbul. At 140 feet long displacing 1,000 tons, it was so huge that two regular ships could have fit comfortably on its deck and its hold contained hundreds of artifacts of astonishing diversity representing 14 different cultures, among them western North Africa, China, India, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Artifacts include the earliest Chinese porcelain ever found on a Mediterranean wreck, Italian ceramics and Indian peppercorns.

The objects illustrate the global reach of trade in the early 17th century and how consumer demand in one country drove production of goods across the globe.

The Chinese porcelain includes 360 decorated cups, dishes and a bottle made in the kilns of Jingdezhen during the reign of Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor that were designed for sipping tea, but the Ottomans adapted them for the craze then spreading across the East – coffee drinking. Hidden deep in the hold were the earliest Ottoman clay tobacco pipes found on land or sea. They were probably illicit because there were severe prohibitions then against tobacco smoking.

[ESP archaeologist Sean] Kingsley said: “Through tobacco smoking and coffee drinking in Ottoman cafes, the idea of recreation and polite society – hallmarks of modern culture – came to life. Europe may think it invented notions of civility, but the wrecked coffee cups and pots prove the ‘barbarian Orient’ was a trailblazer rather than a backwater. The first London coffeehouse only opened its doors in 1652, a century after the Levant.”

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Exeter to repatriate Blackfoot regalia to Siksika Nation

Saturday, April 18th, 2020

The regalia of Blackfoot leader Chief Crowfoot, now held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, will be returned to the Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada, the Exeter City Council has decided. The regalia includes a buckskin shirt, two beaded bags, a horsewhip with beaded holsters, a knife with feather bundle and a pair of leggings.

Born in 1830, Crowfoot was a prominent Blackfoot warrior and diplomat. As chief of the Siksika Nation, he strove for peace between the peoples of the northern Great Plains and between the Blackfoot Confederacy, agents of the British government and traders like the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was instrumental in the negotiation of Treaty 7, an agreement signed by Crowfoot and other First Nations leaders in 1877 that was supposed to secure them part of their traditional lands in perpetuo and some supplies and money in exchange for allowing settlers.

Canadian officials promptly violated the terms of the treaty and by early 1882, tensions between the government/traders and the Blackfoot had escalated to the brink of violence. Crowfoot managed to stave off pitched battle and to mollify him, Lieutenant Governor Edgar Dewdney appointed a new  agent to administer the terms of Treaty 7: Cecil Denny of the North-West Mounted Police and one of the signatories on the treaty. Crowfoot knew and respected Denny and believed he would be a fair administrator, which he was, as far as that went. (Spoiler, not far at all.)

Crowfoot’s regalia are believed to have been acquired around the time of the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. Sir Cecil Denny, 6th baronet of Tralee Castle before moving to Canada, bought them from Chief Crowfoot, but a year later they were already in Britain. Denny’s sister loaned them to RAMM in 1878. The museum bought the regalia from the Denny family for £10 in 1904 and they’ve held on tight ever since.

The Siksika have been trying since 2008 to get the regalia back. The first formal repatriation request was lodged by Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (BCHP) in 2015. The request was supported by Alberta’s premier, but the Royal Albert Memorial Museum denied it on the grounds that the BCHP is not an accredited museum and therefore had to provide detailed conservation plans as well as information about the Nation’s governance to ensure another tribal organization wouldn’t lodge a competing claim on the objects.

After five years of wrangling, in February  RAMM suggested putting the matter of repatriation before the executive committee of Exeter’s city council. That meeting has now taken place and the council voted in favor of repatriation.

[Councillor] Rachel Sutton, Exeter City Council’s Portfolio Holder for Climate and Culture said, “When considering the claim for repatriation, the council recognised that the original injustices still reverberate today with First Nation Canadians. Giving back Crowfoot’s regalia returns control to the Siksika Nation over their cultural identity, dignity and authority and is the right thing to do.”

The objects will be repatriated to the Siksika Nation as soon as the coronavirus travel restrictions are lifted. Chief Ouray Crowfoot will go to Exeter to receive the regalia in a formal hand-over ceremony. The Siksika Nation will then transfer the regalia to the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park where it will remain on permanent loan.

Chief Crowfoot said, “As a direct descendant of the Great Chief Crowfoot, I am pleased that the regalia will be returned to its rightful home, the Siksika Nation. The returning of this regalia will contribute to healing and reconciliation and the Great Chief’s spirit can rest easy once all his belonging are gathered from the four corners of Mother Earth and returned back to his home.

“The Siksika Nation will lend Chief Crowfoot’s belongings to BCHP for display and the education of all peoples around their significance as part of world history, together with their journey to the UK and their return to the Chief’s traditional homelands.”

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Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, also SHEEP

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

For more than a decade, archaeologists have been studying the rapidly melting Lendbreen ice patch in Norway’s Breheimen National Park as the receding ice exposes a wealth of ancient and medieval remains and artifacts. The latest results published in the journal Antiquity delve into the chronology and distribution of the finds which indicate the Lendbreen ice patch was a mountain pass, not just a reindeer hunting ground.

It was short cut over the Lomseggen ridge and while it would have been nigh on impossible to traverse the bare ice with pack animals, it was usually covered in snow which smoothed the way. The central track is dense with transport remains, including horse skulls, horse shoes, horse dung, tools used to clamp fodder on a wagon or sled and even an equine snowshoe. The pass was in active use from around 300 A.D. until the early modern period, with peak traffic around 1000 A.D. during the Viking era. At some point between 1500 and 1700, the pass fell into disuse and its very existence was forgotten until climate change and the retreat of the ice revealed the objects left behind by many travelers over more than a thousand years of use.

Lendbreen’s historical significance made worldwide news in 2011 when archaeologists discovered a wool tunic from the Roman Iron Age, 230-390 A.D., the oldest garment ever found in Norway. Since then, more than 800 artifacts (many transport-related like iron horseshoes, sleds and walking sticks), 150 bones and antlers, 100+ burial cairns delineating the route and the remains of a stone shelter at its top have been discovered, evidence of how extensively the pass was used from the Roman Iron Age through the Middle Ages into the 16th century. None of other passes over the Lomseggen ridge — and there are five known from local oral history or archaeological investigation — have a stone-built shelter, nor do they have anything like Lendbreen’s quantity of cairns.

Although similarities in function exist, Lendbreen’s use as a mountain pass occurred later than the earliest known Alpine examples. This chronological difference probably reflects low settlement density and low economic activity in the Lendbreen region before AD 300. Once the pass was in use, the radiocarbon dates from Lendbreen imply chronological variability in the intensity of high-elevation activity. Dates on objects probably associated with the site’s use as a mountain pass cluster in the Roman Iron Age and peak in the years around AD 1000. This chronology may reflect shifts in the demand for mountain products and in the motivation behind local and long-distance travel, based on a combination of environmental, social, economic and demographic influences.

The post-medieval and late medieval decline in the KDE distribution could, in part, relate to climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age…, and to depopulation during the well-documented impact of the fourteenth-century plague…. That the dates cluster in the Viking Age, particularly around AD 1000, is unlikely to be coincidental as it was a time of high mobility, emerging urbanism and increasing political centralisation in Scandinavia, and a period in which markets around the Irish, North and Baltic Seas were growing…. The resulting demands on rural producers, and the need to transport outfield products, may explain the increased activity in the high mountains….

Speaking of the wool tunic found in the thawing ice, some of you old timers at this here blog might recall that in 2014 the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Mountain Centre in Lom each commissioned a reconstruction the Lendbreen tunic using traditional techniques. This would give each institution the opportunity to exhibit the recreations and to research how woolen textiles were made in Iron Age Norway. Starting with wool from a Norwegian heritage breed of sheep that retain both the overhair and underwool that have been bred out of most modern domesticated sheep, experts investigated the materials, tools and weaving techniques used to made the 2/2 diamond twill textile, how the sleeves were sewn on and how the garment was finished.

The fascinating and complicated process was published in Archaeological Textiles Review in 2017, but I didn’t realize that until, driven by the new publication of the wider Lendbreen research, I sought out follow-up information on the tunic reproductions just now. I apologize for the unconscionable delay to all the textile craft aficionados who commented on the 2014 post with so much enthusiasm and additional information.

The whole paper can be read here and omg y’all seriously it’s amazing. I can’t sew a stitch and I was absolutely riveted. But wait! There’s more! There’s a video about the tunic starting with the discovery and then going into depth on the reconstruction. The Villsau sheep, total scene-stealers every one of them, were not shorn, incidentally. The farmer just plucked the fleece off when the animals were shedding on their own. That ensures the fibers are sealed at both ends and greatly increases the water-repellent and insulating capabilities of the wool. The before and after of the plucked sheep is priceless.

Just to give you an idea of what kind of work was involved here, each tunic required 2.5 kilos (5.5 lb) of underwool. Ten people timed themselves spinning the wool by hand and it took them 11 hours to spin 50 grams (.1 lb). Extrapolating from that experiment, it would have taken one hand-spinner 544 hours to make enough yarn for the tunic. No wonder the garment was extensively repaired; this was not a discardable consumer product. It was a treasured valuable.

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Museum acquires Frederick Douglass walking stick

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

The South Carolina State Museum has acquired a walking stick that was presented to Frederick Douglass in 1888. The ebonized wood cane sold at a Cowan’s auction in Cincinnati on February 20th of this year for an impressive $37,500, far exceeding the presale estimate of $3,000-5,000. The museum was able to stay in the exorbitant bidding thanks to its acquisition and collections fund, moneys set aside to secure coveted objects for the museum’s permanent collection.

The cane was a beautifully customized gift given to the Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of South Carolina. Its gold cap features strawberries (in Christian art, the strawberry symbolizes righteousness and nobility of spirit) against a hammered background and is engraved “Hon. F. Douglass / From D.L.I. / Charleston S.C. / Mar. 6th / 1888.” It bears the makers mark of Robert Fitz Simmons of Attleboro, Massachusetts, a chaser and engraver who had a thriving business as a watch chain manufacturer and then expanded into other product lines.

Reconstruction had ended with abrupt finality in 1877 and like the rest of the former Confederate states, South Carolina had resegregated with bloody gusto. Douglass’ speaking tour 11 years later to South Carolina and Georgia was fraught with peril. He was the most famous black man in the country, instantly recognizable (he was the most photographed African American of the 19th century) and just as outspoken a critic of white supremacy after the war as he had been an abolitionist before and during.

On his stop in South Carolina, he delivered two lectures: European Travels and Self-Made Men. The former gave an account of his observations of the difference between racial attitudes in Europe and the United States as he had experienced on his travels, particularly his two-year-long abolitionist lecture tour in the mid-1840s. The latter was a speech about men born into misery who achieve their ambitions without any advantages of birth, connections, wealth, early education or any kind of encouraging environment. First written in 1859, it was a popular lecture that he continued to deliver to rapt crowds night unto his death in 1895.

A review for his delivery of these speeches at Claflin College, a historically black university founded by Methodist missionaries in 1869 for the education of freed slaves and their children, in The Orangeburg Times and Democrat was positive, if tinged with ominousness. The brief blurb described Douglass as “no doubt the most distinguished colored man in the world” but noted that “Upon being questioned by a student on civil rights matters in America, he advised him to “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!'” That didn’t go down so well. “His manner was pleasing and dignified, but his subject for the time was assuredly ill chosen.” I somehow doubt the paper would have approved of the subject matter at any other time either.

In Charleston, he delivered the speeches at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1882 as the daughter church of Mother Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, founded almost 50 years before emancipation in 1817. Charleston’s population was majority black and there were several local African American militia companies named after black and abolitionist heroes Like Crispus Attucks and William Lloyd Garrison. One of them was the Douglass Light Infantry. After Douglass’ speech at Mount Zion AME, the members of the Douglass Light Infantry sang to him at their armory and presented him with the walking stick.

“Walking sticks and canes were often given as presentation gifts during the 19th century, and it is almost certain that Douglass received more than one in his lifetime,” noted Danielle Linn, senior specialist in American history at Cowan’s. “That said, I’ve never seen another cane owned by Douglass! It is especially significant that we were able to determine exactly when and where Douglass was gifted the walking stick,” Linn said. … “It is a rare privilege to hold something that we know belonged to one of the greatest figures of American history.”

“This walking stick is not only a notable object of national history, gifted to the preeminent abolitionist, writer and lecturer Frederick Douglass, it is a significant and meaningful piece of South Carolina history,” said JoAnn Ziese, the museum’s cultural history curator. “Adding this one-of-a-kind piece to our collection will help us continue to tell the wonderful stories of South Carolina for years to come.”

I’m curious to see if they tell the not-so-wonderful story of how South Carolina’s black militias were formed during Reconstruction to keep black voters from being murdered by white supremacist thugs, and how they were suppressed so thoroughly that even their beloved (by black people) Fourth of July parades in Charleston would be eliminated by the end of the century.

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Goddess found painted inside and outside mummy’s coffin

Monday, April 6th, 2020

Conservators at Scotland’s Perth Museum and Gallery have discovered two painted images of a goddess in the coffin of an Egyptian mummy. The figure of goddess Amentet is painted on the interior and exterior of the coffin base (which I have just learned is called a “trough”).

The mummy is of a woman named Ta-Kr-Hb, likely a priestess or princess,  who lived around 760-525 B.C. in Thebes. Damaged by grave robbers breaking into the coffin looking for valuables and from centuries of flash floods, Ta-Kr-Hb and her coffin are in poor condition. The museum embarked on a public conservation project to save the mummy (on hold now).

In March, for the first time in more than a century the mummy of Ta-Kr-Hb was removed from the coffin. Amentet’s presence underneath her came as a surprise. It was also the first time they raised the coffin to get a look at the underside so Amentet’s presence there was another surprise. The one inside the trough is the best preserved of the two.

It shows Imentet in profile, looking right and wearing her typical red dress. Her arms are slightly outstretched and she is standing on a platform, indicating the depiction is of a holy statue or processional figure. Usually, the platform is supported by a pole or column and one of these can be seen on the underside of the coffin trough.

The platform and supporting pole are very clear, as is the torso in its red dress, with ribbons draping her arms, but unfortunately, the feet, legs, and head are missing in the painting.

The mummy and wooden coffin of Ta-Kr-Hb was donated to Perth Museum in 1936 by the Alloa Society of Natural Science and Archaeology. It was donated to the Society by William Bailey who had previously acquired from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Little is known about its discovery. Conservators hope to fill in some of the many blanks in Ta-Kr-Hb ‘s history by studied her remains and the coffin.

The museum has raised funds for a comprehensive conservation project to stabilize the mummy and delicate wood coffee in time for them to be exhibited again when the new museum opens in Perth City Hall in 2022. The body has been rewrapped and is now stable. They still need to raise another £7,395  for which they’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. Donate here.

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