Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Reviewing the Dare Stone, clue to Lost Colony of Roanoke

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

The first Dare Stone was found by a California grocer named Louis E. Hammond who claimed to have discovered it while looking for hickory nuts in a swamp on the east bank of the Chowan River near Edenton, North Carolina, in September of 1937. He couldn’t read the inscription which appeared to be in an unknown foreign language. Two months later he showed the stone to historians at Emory University in Atlanta, among them Dr. Haywood Pearce, Jr., hoping to get the inscription translated. They determined that it was English and made out the names “Ananias Dare & Virginia” on the front of the stone.

Those names rang a very loud bell. The daughter of Ananias and Eleanor White Dare, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in North America. She and her parents were part of a group of English settlers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to settle his land claim in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. Eleanor’s father John White dropped the 118 people off on Roanoke Island in July of 1587 and went back to England for supplies a couple of weeks later. His return was delayed by a little contretemps with the Spanish Armada. When he finally reached the shores of Roanoke again three years had passed and the only sign of his daughter, granddaughter and the rest of the colonists was the word “CROATOAN” carved on a wooden post. Neither White nor anyone else that we know of saw any of the Roanoke colonists again.

The full inscription appeared to be a note from Eleanor White Dare to her father. The front read: “Ananias Dare &/ Virginia Went Hence/ Unto Heaven 1591/ Anye Englishman Shew/ John White Govr Via.” On the back was carved:

“Father Soone After You/ Goe for England Wee Cam/ Hither. Onlie Misarie & Warre/ Tow Yeere. Above Halfe Deade ere Tow/ Yeere More From Sickenes Beine Foure & Twentie./ Salvage with Message of Shipp Unto Us. Smal/ Space of Time they Affrite of Revenge Rann/ Al Awaye. Wee Bleeve it Nott You. Soone After/ Ye Salvages Faine Spirits Angrie. Suddaine/ Murther Al Save Seaven. Mine Childe. Ananais to Slaine wth Much Misarie./ Burie Al Neere Foure Myles Easte This River/ Uppon Small Hil. Names Writ Al Ther/ On Rocke. Putt This Ther Alsoe. Salvage/ Shew This Unto You & Hither Wee/ Promise You to Give Greate/ Plentie Presents. EWD”

History.com has an excellent zoomable viewer that allows you to vew the stone and its inscription in great detail. Here’s the front. Here’s the back.

Excited at the prospect of having found a remarkably full account of one of the great mysteries of American history, Pearce decided to follow up on the stone. Emory wasn’t interested in pursuing it, so Pearce, who was vice president of Brenau College (today Brenau University) in Gainesville, Georgia, where his father, Haywood Pearce, Sr., was president, recommended the college acquire the stone. It did, for $1,000. Shortly thereafter, Pearce Jr. went with Hammond to the purported find site. Pearce thought it might be a grave marker and hoped to discover the grave of Ananias and Virginia Dare. They found nothing that first time and found nothing the four more times they explored the swamps over the next year and a half, but the locals reported all kinds of stories of having seen other stones, even the mast of a ship, in the swamp.

Pearce was tantalized by the possibility that there might be more markers with information on the Lost Colony and recklessly offered a $500 reward for any stones connected to the Roanoke colonists. Not surprisingly, inscribed stones suddenly started popping up like weeds. Brenau University wound up with close to 50 of these stones, most of them “discovered” by a stonecutter from Fulton County, Georgia, named Bill Eberhardt. Three other people who claimed to have found inscribed stones were later found to be connected to Eberhardt.

A 1940 preliminary report by a team of 34 historians commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution and headed by Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard found no evidence the stones were fake and declared that a “preponderance of evidence points to the authenticity of the stones.” The Dare Stones made big headlines, putting Brenau on the map. Cecil B. DeMille expressed interest in doing a movie about Roanoke based on the stones.

The good press came to an end on April 26th, 1941, when an article by Boyden Sparkes in the Saturday Evening Post exposed the stones as frauds, possibly made in collusion with the Pearces who had received much benefit in prestige and attention. The spelling was too consistent to be Elizabethan, Sparkes’ research concluded, and words like “primeval” and “reconnoiter” in the inscriptions weren’t used in English until a century after the time they were meant to have been carved in stone. Hammond was a shadowy figure that not even the Pinkerton Detective Agency could pin down. The stones were found as far south as the Chattahoochee River just outside Atlanta, an implausible distance for this trail of stone bread crumbs to travel.

Just like that, the Dare Stones fell into ignomy and obscurity. They were kept in the Brenau University basement boiler room and only rarely received attention from scholars and documentarians. They made an appearance in a 1977 episode of the In Search of… series hosted by Leonard Nimoy dedicated to the Lost Colony. (Watch the full episode here.) A book published in 1991, A Witness for Eleanor Dare, by Robert W. White, rebutted Sparkes’ article and weighed in on the side of authenticity. In 2013, the History Channel documentary Mystery of Roanoke touched on the stones. Last October, the History Channel dedicated a new special to the Dare Stones. Roanoke: Search for the Lost Colony found new linguistic evidence suggesting that the first stone might be authentic.

Now Brenau University is taking a fresh look at the first Dare Stone, the only one that has even a chance of being real.

[Brenau President Ed] Schrader has begun to assemble a team of experts in various disciplines—archaeology, geology, history and the study of Elizabethan writing—to re-examine the quartz stone. Sometime in this year or next, he wants to launch an expedition to the Chowan River near Edenton, N.C., where the first rock is believed to have been found, to search for more evidence.

“If it is real, it is the most important pre-colonial artifact by Europeans in the Americas,” the 64-year-old says, softly placing is fingers on the stone. “The speculation’s gone on long enough.”

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15th c. Theodelinda Chapel fresco restored

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

The Duomo of Monza has antecedants dating to the 6th century when the Lombards ruled swaths of Italy. Monza, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was the summer residence of the Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628). In 595 she had a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist built next to her royal palace in Monza. In the 13th century a new church was built on the remains of Theodelinda’s chapel. It was rebuilt again in the early 14th century and expanded significantly at the end of the century. Two chapels were added in the expansion, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another across from it on the north side of the cathedral transept dedicated to Queen Theodelinda. She got such high billing because she converted her first husband King Authari to Catholic Christianity and after his death, she converted her second husband King Agilulf first to Christianity and then to Catholicism. Arianism was predominant among Lombards at the time, so Theodelinda was instrumental in establishing a foundation of Nicene Christianity among the Lombards.

The vault of the Theodelinda Chapel was painted with figures of saints and evangelists in the 1430s. In 1441, the Zavattari family of Milan were commissioned to decorate the chapel walls with a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Lombard queen. Pater familias Franceschino, who worked for decades on the stained glass windows of the Duomo of Milan, and his sons Giovanni and Gregorio painted 45 scenes on five levels from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. They used a variety of media — egg tempera, oil tempera, dry painting, fresco, stucco relief, gilding — showcasing the Zavattari’s workshop experience in diverse art forms.

The result was a massive masterpiece covering 5,400 square feet of wall space. It is considered by many to be the greatest example of the International Gothic style espoused by artists like Carlo Crivelli. Also like Crivelli, the Zavattari used gesso decorative elements to create dimension and relief and then gilded them. In fact there is gold everywhere. The skies aren’t blue; they’re gold. The crowns, the jewels, the hair, the helmets, the clothes, the musical instruments, the tables, the goblets, the spurs, the scepters, the reliquaries, the crosses, the candelabra, the candles, the horses’ manes, architectural elements are all gilded. Little wonder that it’s been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of the North.”

The scenes of Theodelinda’s life story were taken from 8th century monk Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards (the parts about Theodelinda start here) and from 13th century historian Bonincontro Morigia’s Chronicle of Monza. The first 23 cover the meeting and marriage of Theodelinda and Authari. Scenes 24 to 30 depict her second marriage to Agilulf. In scenes 31 to 41 are the founding of the church, the death of Agilulf and of Theodelinda. The last scenes depict Byzantine Emperor Constans II’s failed attack on the Lombards of southern Italy and his return to Byzantium with his tail between his legs.

In keeping with the standard practice of the time, the style of dress is typical of the courts of 15th century northern Italy. The frescoes are replete with scenes of courtly life — hunts, banquets, balls, parties — and provide a uniquely rich window into the attire, hairstyles, weapons and armour of the 15th century Milanese court. There are no fewer than 28 scenes dedicated to weddings or preparation for weddings. This is thought to be a symbolic reference to the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, legitimized natural daughter and sole heir of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza. Theodelinda had chosen her second husband thereby making him king. Bianca’s marriage to Francesco ultimately transferred the dukedom of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza family after her father’s death. They were married in 1441, the same year the Zavattari were commissioned to paint the chapel, probably by Filippo Maria Visconti.

The chapel frescoes were repeatedly restored between the 17th and 19th centuries. During World War II, the walls were protected from bomb damage using sandbags, which had the unfortunate unintended consequence of increasing the moisture and salt levels inside the chapel. Those earlier restorations became increasingly unstable and the paint and stucco cracked and flaked. By 2007, the condition of the masterpiece was dire. Paint was lifting off and significant areas had suffered permanent losses.

The World Monuments Fund, the Region of Lombardy, the Fondazione Gaiani (the organization in charge of preserving the Duomo of Milan) and other private foundations, began a three million euro restoration project in 2008. The latest technology — lasers, nanotech, imaging — combined with traditional arts to revive details lost for centuries, like a delicate damask pattern that had morphed into a dark block and reflections of red wine on the inside of a gold chalice. Areas of loss were filled in using organic paints without acrylic that can easily be removed with a wet sponge. “A favor for future restorers,” as project leader Anna Lucchini put it. A new lighting system was also installed to make the frescoes more easily seen by visitors on the ground. The restoration took seven years.

The newly refreshed frescoes were officially reopened to the public in a ceremony on October 16th, 2015.

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17th c. Indian textile 30 feet long goes on display

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016


A 17th century devotional textile 30 feet long is going on display at the British Museum as the centerpiece of an exhibition about cultural history of the northeastern Indian state of Assam where it was made. Made around 1680, it’s a type of devotional textile known as the Vrindavani Vastra. This is example is the largest surviving Assamese devotional textile. It is composed of 12 strips of colored silk made using the lampas technique of weaving that were later stitched together to form a huge devotional wall hanging.

According to the 10th-century Hindu scripture the Bhagavata Purana, Vrindavan, a town in Utter Pradesh, was the god Krishna’s childhood home and as such is considered a holy site to pilgrims today. Vrindavani Vastra means “the cloth of Vrindavan.” It is woven with scenes from Krishna’s youth in the Vrindavan forest. Krishna is depicted in repeated motifs fighting the bird demon Bakasura, dancing on the serpent Kaliya, swallowing the forest fire and other elements of Krishna worship that were significant to the 16th century Assamese scholar, mystic and saint Sankaradeva who wrote about them in his devotional dramas. A verse from one of Sankaradeva’s dramas is woven into the textile.

Assam is famous for its weaving, especially in silk and cotton. The lampas technique used to create this textile involved weaving on a a wooden draw-loom with two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads. It was famed for the vibrant and detailed textiles it could produce, and you can see in the Vrindavani Vastra what a wide range of figures, colors, designs, even text, could be made with this technique. Unfortunately despite its extensive use from the 16th through the 18th centuries, the technique is now lost.

The 12 strips of woven silk are each different but related. Experts believe they may have been used to wrap copies of the Bhagawad Purana or to decorate altars. At some point between their creation in the late 17th century and the early 20th century, the 12 strips made their way from Assam, which is just south of the eastern Himalayas, to Tibet where they were stitched together. Four horizontal strips of Chinese brocade and metal suspension loops were added to the top at that time so the now-huge textile could be hung on the wall of the monastery.

It was hanging on the wall of the Gobshi Temple near Gyantse in southern Tibet when Perceval Landon, correspondent for The Times came across it during the British expedition to Tibet, aka the Younghusband Expedition, in 1903-04. He acquired the piece and donated it to the British Museum in 1905.

The textile has rarely been exhibited in its entirety. The new exhibition is the first to explore the vibrant cultural history of Assam.

In the exhibition, the Vrindavani Vastra will be displayed alongside other Assamese objects from the British Museum and several important loans, including another magnificent example of one of these Krishna textiles on loan from Chepstow Museum. This survives as the lining of a remarkable item of 18th-century Anglo-Indian costume. Manuscript leaves from the British Library, masks (the making and acquisition of which have been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation) and modern textiles will help reveal this intriguing period in Indian history.

Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian textile runs from January 21st through August 15th.

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1910 slaughter of African Americans gets historical marker

Monday, January 18th, 2016

The village of Slocum in Anderson County, east Texas, was a relatively well-off farming community founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War. It was small but well-appointed, with a school, two churches, a store and a post office, all black owned and operated. On July 29th, 1910, that all came to an end when a mob of hundreds of white men descended on the town and gunned down every resident they could find. While the official list of the dead is eight people, those are only the ones who can be confirmed today. The real tally will likely never be known. Whoever wasn’t killed ran for their lives to other towns in Texas or up North (hopefully not to Tulsa or East St. Louis or Chicago), forced to leave their property behind to be stolen by the murderers.

Information on the events as they unfolded over the two ensuing days of mayhem was chaotic and confused. Slocum was an isolated town and the mob had cut many of the phone lines before the attack to ensure their targets were as helpless as possible. The stories that were able to make it into the press came from the perpetrators. They claimed a white farmer had shot a black man who owed him money, spurring the black population of Slocum to take up arms and go full Nat Turner on the white people in surrounding communities. Nothing gets a good white mob going better than rumors of a black insurrection, and it doesn’t have to be true to work. Other stories circulating involved an unpaid debt that resulted in the black debtor insulting the white creditor, and a lynching in a nearby town fomenting revolt among the black people of Slocum.

The source of much of this deadly chatter was likely a prominent white man named Jim Spurger who was angry when African American Abe Wilson was put in charge of a road improvement project that Spurger wanted for himself. A witness would later tell a grand jury that Spurger claimed he’d been “threatened and outraged until it had become unbearable”. Whatever the cause, the white avengers assembled and started shooting.

Even within a single article there were vastly differing reports, see this story in the July 31st The Abilene Daily Reporter so charmingly subtitled “Whites Gathered Arms and Went Coon Hunting.” The headline declares “23 Negroes, 4 Whites Dead,” but in the very first paragraph the figures change to “two white men and fifteen negroes have already been killed,” and when the story continues on page six, the numbers change again, dropping to zero in the case of white fatalities.

According to official statements made here tonight 18 negroes are known to be dead as a result of the race riots which occurred during the day and the number will likely be increased to 25, and a dozen more injured. It is not known definitely that any white men have been killed, but several have been injured.

No white men were killed. It wasn’t a “battle” or “race riot.” It was a premeditated massacre. Here’s how Anderson County Sheriff William Black, who was on the scene, described what was going on as quoted in an August 1st, 1910, New York Times article (pdf):

“Men were going about killing negroes as fast as they could find them, and so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause. These negroes have done no wrong that I could discover. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them. I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut the telephone wires. They hunted the negroes down like sheep.”

Texas Rangers and state militia were deployed to restore order. District Judge B.H. Gardner ordered all area saloons closed (the mob was very thoroughly liquored up, to nobody’s surprise) and prohibited the sale of firearms or ammunition. By then most of the black residents were hiding in the swamps or safely out of town, so there weren’t many targets left. At the end of the first week in August, 16 white men, including James Spurger, and six black men were held in jail without bail. At least one of those black men was Jack Holley who had fled to Palestine, the county seat, when the violence engulfed Slocum killing one son and wounding another and asked to be jailed for his own protection.

Gardner convened a grand jury and gave them these extraordinary instructions:

“All of you are white men, and all of you are Southern men, and it is your duty now to investigate the killing and murder of a large number of Negroes, say at least eight and possibly 10 or 12 or more, who have been killed in the southeastern part of your county by men of your color. I regard this affair as the most damaging that could happen in this county: That it is a disgrace, not only to the county, but to the state, and it is up to this jury to do its full duty.”

He subpoenaed virtually the entire town of Slocum. When some of the so-called leading white citizens refused to testify, Gardner had them arrested. Some black witnesses returned to town to give testimony only to mysteriously disappear again before they could take the stand. On August 17th, seven men, Jim Spurger among them, were indicted on 22 counts of murder. The cases were moved to Harris County for trial and that’s when things fell into the usual Jim Crow template: the defendants were released on bail and nobody was ever tried. Gardner and Black were voted out of office in the next elections.

Black residents never returned to Slocum. Their property was confiscated by various “legal” means (liens, sale of abandoned property for non-payment of taxes) and extralegal (just taking it) and people like Jack Holley, who had owned a store, a dairy and 300 acres of prime farmland, moved to Palestine without a dime and died a pauper. His family changed the spelling of their name to Hollie out of fear of reprisals, a perfectly reasonable fear when you consider that Gardner who was a) white and b) a judge, was violently assaulted by Spurger six years later.

The history of the massacre was covered up, ignored in text books and by the local historical society. People told the old stories in private, however. For years one of Jack Holley’s descendants, Constance Hollie-Ramirez, worked with other descendants of the victims to pull this ugly history out of the shadows into the light. Her father and uncle had tried to get a historical marker in the 1980s, but the chairman of the Anderson County historical commission, Jimmy Ray Odom, rejected their petition saying that “It was mislabeled a massacre. A massacre is when you kill hundreds of people.”

Hollie-Ramirez picked up where her parents left off and in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a resolution (pdf) officially acknowledging the Slocum Massacre. Prospects for a historical marker picked up steam in 2014 with the publication of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas by Fort Worth journalist E. R. Bills. Hollie-Ramirez and Bills applied to the county for a roadside historical marker to commemorate the victims of the massacre. They were rejected. Anderson County Commissioner Greg Chapin wrote: “Without further evidence of legal documentation, or the facts of guilty parties taken (sic) responsibility for the incident, Anderson County cannot support the marker.”

So they went over the county’s head and applied directly to the Texas State Historical Association in Austin. Again the county historical commissioned was in opposition. Apparently not clear on how historical markers work, Odom wrote to state officials, “The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago. This is a nice, quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.” A wonderful school system with some painfully glaring omissions in their history texts, that is, and evidently by design.

The application for a marker was approved last January after getting an exceptionally high rating of 98 out a possible 100 points. On Saturday, January 16th, 2015, Constance Hollie-Ramirez joined other descendants of the victims, author E. R. Bills and even Jimmy Ray Odom at the unveiling of the roadside marker commemorating the Slocum Massacre.

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Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

After the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s and 1860s, European artists like Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler and Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese fine and decorative arts. One of Van Gogh’s friends and compatriots, George Hendrik Breitner, was inspired by the Japonisme trend to create a series of 13 paintings of a young girl wearing a kimono.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857. For the decade between 1876 and 1886 he studied and worked in The Hague where he explored working class areas of the city, sketching the people and places he encountered. He embraced the social realism movement and considered himself le peintre du peuple, the painter of the people. He moved to Amsterdam in 1886 where he was soon able to add photography to drawing and painting. Breitner took pictures of street life, people at work and going about their business in the city, some of the photographs reminiscent of the kind of work Jacob Riis was doing in the crowded and scary tenements of New York City at the same time.

Breitner was one of the first artists to use photos as studies for specific paintings, not just of street scenes but in the studio as well. He integrated his social realist perspective in his studio portraits, making a point of employing models from the working class. One of them was a milliner’s shopgirl named Geesje Kwak who, along with her sister Anna, posed for Breitner in around 1893-1895 when she was 16-18 years old. It was Geesje Kwak who would be immortalized as the girl in a kimono.

Japonisme had intrigued Breitner since he’d traveled to Paris in 1884. He collected Japanese woodcuts and in 1892 visited an exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. The show was his immediate inspiration for the kimono series. He acquired several Japanese kimonos and a pair of folding screens that he set up in his studio on the Lauriergracht canal. Geesje Kwak posed in the kimonos — one red, one white, one blue — against the backdrop of the folding screens on a bed draped in oriental rugs. She was paid for her time and there was no hanky panky going on; all strictly professional. Breitner kept meticulous records of which models posed for him when, for how long and at what rate.

Breitner’s work with Geesje Kwak ended when she emigrated to South Africa with her younger sister Niesje in 1895. Geesje died of tuberculosis in Pretoria in 1899, just shy of her 22nd birthday. The Girl in a Kimono series was not a success with critics initially, but today they are considered the pinnacle of the Dutch expression of Japonisme in the fine arts. The Rijksmuseum will celebrate the series with an unprecedented exhibition that brings together all of the Girl in a Kimono paintings, including a previously unpublished one from a private collection, plus the preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

There have been exhibitions in the past devoted to this beloved theme of Breitner’s, but the paintings of Girl in a Kimono have never been displayed all together. Displaying all the Girl in a Kimono works together, combined with the preliminary studies in the form of drawings, sketches and photographs, as well as Breitner’s easel and paint box, gives the exhibition above all an impression of the way in which the painter went about his work in his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam. [...]

In total there are 20 paintings on display, including 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude. Furthermore, 15 drawings and 15 photographs will be displayed, plus Japanese prints. Moreover, there are two beautiful kimonos from the same period as the ones worn in the paintings.

Breitner: Girl in Kimono opens on February 20th and runs through May 22nd at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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Site of Salem witch trial hangings confirmed

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Researchers have confirmed the site in Salem, Massachusetts, where 19 accused witches were executed by hanging between June and September of 1692. It’s called Proctor’s Ledge, a rocky, wooded area between Proctor and Pope Streets at the foot of Gallows Hill. As the name suggests, Gallows Hill was generally thought to be the place where the 19 victims were hanged, but it’s a big hill and the precise location has been subject of debate and study for many years.

While almost 1,000 documents pertaining to the trials have survived, making it one of the most thoroughly documented events in early American history, there are virtually no eyewitness reports of the actual hangings. The Proctor’s Ledge spot was first suggested as the hanging site by local historian Sidney Perley in a 1921 essay. Based on his research, in 1936 the city of Salem purchased a chunk of Proctor’s Ledge “to be held forever as a public park” dubbed “Witch Memorial Land,” but the park was never made and instead of being memorialized the hanging site fell down the memory hole.

In 2010, the Gallows Hill Project was founded to re-investigate Perley’s research, examine other period documents and use new technology to pinpoint the site of the hangings.

Marilynne Roach discovered a few key lines of eyewitness testimony in a Salem witch trials court record…. The record in question is the examination of Rebecca Eames and Mary Lacey, dated August 19, 1692, the same day that five executions were carried out at the Gallows Hill site. The record quotes the defendant Rebecca Eames, who had been on her way to the court in the custody of her guards and traveled along the Boston Road, which ran just below the execution site.

A few hours later, she appeared the Salem court for her preliminary examination. The magistrate asked Eames whether she had witnessed the execution that took place earlier that morning as she was passing by. She explained that she was at “the house below the hill” and that she saw some “folks” at the execution. Roach determined that the “house below the hill” was most likely the McCarter House, or one of its neighbors on Boston Street. The McCarter house was still standing in 1890 at 19 Boston Street.

Professor Benjamin Ray conducted research that pinpointed the McCarter house’s location and worked with geographic information system specialist Chris Gist of the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab to determine whether, in fact, it was possible for a person standing at the site of the house on the Boston Street to see the top of Proctor’s Ledge, given the rising topography of the northeastern slope of the hill. Gist produced a view-shed analysis, which determined that the top of Proctor’s Ledge was clearly visible from the Boston Street house, as well as from neighboring homes.

Geo-archaeological remote sensing on the site found that the ledge is almost entirely rock, with no more than three feet of soil in a few cracks. That means that the victims were not buried there, although they were buried somewhere nearby since as witches they were excommunicated and denied Christian burial in churchyards. There is also no evidence that there was an actual gallows erected on the site. The condemned were likely hanged from ropes slung over large tree limbs.

The city plans to go ahead with the memorial plan now, although it will have to be a modest marker since the spot is in the middle of a residential area with no clear public access or place for parking.

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MH370 search discovers 200-year-old shipwreck

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

The Australian government is conducting an ongoing search operation for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which disappeared on March 8th, 2014, on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board. The Malaysian government asked Australia for help searching the southern Indian Ocean which satellite communications indicate is where the airplane was flying before its disappearance. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB)has been scanning the seabed about 100 miles southwest of Perth since October of 2014.

There is as yet no trace of the aircraft, but on December 19th, 2015, one of the ships spotted an anomaly on the sonar. Analysis of the image suggested it was a man-made object, probably a shipwreck, but to be sure the search ship Havila Harmony sent down an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to examine the anomaly. This area of the ocean floor is so mountainous it’s difficult to search with the deep tow sonar; the AUV can get detailed information on what’s down there without having to be tied to the ship.

On January 2nd, 2016, the AUV captured a high-resolution sonar image of the object which confirmed that it is indeed a shipwreck at a depth of 2.3 miles. The sonar imagery was sent to experts at the Shipwreck Galleries of the Western Australian Museum. Their preliminary conclusion is that the wreck is of steel or iron-hulled ship from the early 1800s.

Considering it sank 200 years ago landing on a rugged ocean floor, it looks to be in remarkable condition. It’s still shaped like a ship, only with a large curve in the middle it didn’t have when it was sailing the seas, and I see little scattered debris in this image. Early iron ships often had significant wood parts like planked weather decks, so there would have been plenty of material to scatter.

Compare it to the remains of ship discovered during the search in March of 2015. They were discovered at a depth of 2.5 miles, so the ship had a little longer to fall, but all that’s left of it is an anchor, some black balls that are probably lumps of coal and some unidentified man-made objects including a rectangle about 20 feet long.

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Neglected remains from Newburgh Colored Burial Ground finally get attention

Monday, January 11th, 2016

The remains of more than 100 African Americans buried in the Colored Burial Ground in Newburgh, New York, that have been languishing in storage for seven years due to the neglect of the City Council are finally getting some attention. The bones were unearthed in 2008 by archaeological contractors Landmark Archaeology who surveyed the site of the former Broadway School before it was renovated into the city court building. The city agreed to pay $75,400 for the excavation and the archaeology report necessary for reburial of the remains. Only $52,000 was paid because they had raised the funds through a bond. The remaining $23,000 for the report was supposed to come out of the general fund, but the Newburgh City Council never authorized payment. The bones were stuck in the limbo of storage in a climate-controlled facility at SUNY New Paltz while the years passed. Today, the City Council will finally vote on a resolution to pay Landmark Archaeology and get the ball rolling on a the long-denied dignified reburial of the human remains.

This is one in a long line of indignities inflicted on the bodies of deceased black citizens of Newburgh. The Colored Burial Ground, like its equivalents in every other city in the United States, was in an isolated, undeveloped area of the town when it was first founded in around 1832. What was out of the way farmland in 1832, however, was rapidly industrializing by the late 1860s. An oilcloth factory was built on the east and north borders of the cemetery. A new road, Robinson Avenue, was built to its immediate west in 1873. By 1869 foot and wagon traffic had encroached on the burial ground to such a degree that erosion exposed some of the bodies. When Robinson Avenue was constructed, they found remains in their way and moved them to the Alms House Cemetery.

In 1905, the oilcloth factory was demolished and both its property and the burial ground were slated for construction of a new elementary school, the Broadway School. This time the disinterred remains were moved to the colored section of Woodlawn Cemetery and nothing of the cemetery above ground — gravestones, monuments — remained. If there was an effort to fully clear the Colored Burial Ground and remove all the remains to proper graves, they royally half-assed it, clearing some of the area they wanted to use and washing their hands of the rest, even constructing the very building directly on top of some of the bodies still in their graves. The 2008 excavation found graves cut into by utility lines, others missing the sidewalk by mere inches. There were skeletons literally sticking out of the walls.

Here’s a description of the approach taken in the July 3rd, 1908 issue of The Newburgh Democrat & Register newspaper:

It was a grewsome [sic] sight that was observed at the grounds now being excavated for the foundation of the new Grammar School Building, on Broadway at the corner of Robinson Avenue, last evening by a Democratic representative.

There was a procession of boys marching to the unmusical melody furnished by the beating of a tin pan with a stick. At the front and head was the leader, bearing aloft on a piece of pine scantling what had at one time been the skull of a human being.

When the oil cloth factory was removed from the site on which excavation is now in progress two or three years, in clearing up the debris and grading down the grounds to make the place look presentable, a number of human bones were found, hence it was not surprising that since the men had been excavating to a general depth over a tract of ground that other bones should be found by laborers. It was one of the skulls thus unearthed that the boy had taken from the box into which pieces were thrown and with the general disregard boys have for things of a serious character had started in to head a parade with it. [...]

Yesterday there was unearthed a box containing the remains of a person who had been buried with his boots and work clothes on. As soon as the air struck the remains everything except the boots crumbled to dust. Last evening there was another box partially exposed to view at the grounds. This will doubtless be unearthed this morning during the day. The bodies that were left in the ground after the general transfer of remains to Woodlawn were those of persons whose graves had not been marked and consequently no investigation was made as to their whereabouts.

More than a century later, with the defunct Broadway School about to be converted into the city courthouse, the extent of earlier neglect became clear when Landmark Archaeology’s excavation revealed more than 100 graves to the west and northwest of the courthouse. They were in seven quite even rows, burials on an east-west axis, feet pointing east, as is traditional in the Christian religion. This is the first indication of the original configuration of the cemetery.

One of the rows continues beyond the property western boundary of the school/courthouse, which suggests there may be more remains to be found heading west beneath Robinson Avenue that were ignored during construction of the road. It’s also likely that the rows continued north under what is now the courthouse parking lot. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove all of the remains; the ones pinned underneath the courthouse walls couldn’t be moved. There could well be more remains underneath the bulk of the building too; we only know about the ones that were findable along the edges.

Unfortunately there are very few extant records that can tell us anything about the Newburgh Colored Burial Ground, or about the African American community of Newburgh in the 19th century, for that matter. Based on census data, we know that there were 148 free “colored” people living in Newburgh in 1822. (New York profited mightily from slavery and it was legal for decades after the neighboring New England states had outlawed it.) There were two black churches near the cemetery, but there no associated burial records have survived, so we don’t know if the cemetery was associated with a specific church, was privately owned or a segregated cemetery for the poor. Burial permits were not required by the state until 1866, so the few records we do have of burials in the graveyard date to 1866 and 1867. It didn’t even appear on a map (that we know of) until 1869 when the City Surveyor marked the spot as the “Colored Burial Ground” in his survey of the area before the construction of Robinson Avenue.

Analysis of human remains and artifacts found at the cemetery, therefore, will fill blanks in a historical record that is all but devoid of information about the cemetery and the black citizens of Newburgh. Once the report is completed and filed, the City Council will have to figure out where and how to reinter the remains. They may even build a memorial in the courthouse parking lot unceremoniously plonked on top of the dead. After being treated with such callousness for 150 years, they’ve earned a little care and respect.

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More 1917 blackboards found in Oklahoma school

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

More frozen-in-time blackboards from 1917 have been found at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City. While the students were home for winter break, workers pulling old blackboards and corkboards from the wall of a classroom on the third floor discovered slate blackboards with the lessons still fresh as the day Miss Walker first chalked them for classes 7A and 7B on December 10th, 1917.

There’s a December calendar with a beautiful floral header in colored chalk, a sentence being diagrammed, studies of how to draw a three-dimensional cube, a geometry lesson with parallel lines, triangles, rectangles, a square and diamond shape. Those shapes are then deployed in a charming drawing of a cottage. While there are no colorful little girls or turkeys in this set, there is an exquisite color drawing of a home with trees covered in pink and white flowers in the foreground. It looks like something Monet would have drawn on a chalkboard.

Of particular historical significance is a map of Indian Territory, modern-day eastern Oklahoma, marking the tribal boundaries and capitals. This is historically significant because the state of Oklahoma was formed by combining the Oklahoma Territory in the west with the Indian Territory in the east. While this had been Congress’ plan since the 1890 passage of the Oklahoma Organic Act, the people of the Indian Territory resisted being forced into a state with their land-grabbing neighbors to the west. As late as 1905 Indian Territory attempted to join the Union as its own state, the State of Sequoyah, but were refused. Instead President Roosevelt encouraged passage of the Oklahoma Enabling Act in 1906 which allowed delegates from both territories to come together for a state constitutional convention with a view to creating a single state. The combined Oklahoma and Indian Territories officially became the State of Oklahoma in November of 1907. That’s just 10 years before the teacher drew that map on the chalkboard. It was practically current events.

The first group of historic chalkboards was discovered last June in four classrooms on the second floor that were having their old blackboards replaced with whiteboards and smart boards. Underneath the blackboards were thin slate boards covered in math, music and handwriting lessons, hygiene tips, student names and brilliantly colored chalk drawings dated November 30th and December 4th, 1917.

It seems when the old slate boards were covered with new ones over a couple of weeks in late November, early December of 1917, several teachers decided to leave their work up, dating it and signing it for posterity. The new boards were mounted on top of the old ones in wood casings with enough of a snug fit to keep the 1917 chalk from wearing away.

Now that they’ve been revealed, school district officials need to figure out how best to preserve them going forward. They can’t just keep them up as is because these are classrooms and wall space is a basic necessity of instruction. Besides, the chalk will fade quickly exposed to the elements (not to mention the little angels with their poor impulse control and inability to fully grasp long-term consequences). The slate boards cannot be removed and reinstalled elsewhere because the slate is so thin it would turn into a pile of debris as soon as someone started to pry it off.

One of the smaller boards found last year with eight handsome red stars outlined in white has been preserved under plexiglass as a test subject. So far so good. The rest of the boards have been covered up with wood so classes can go on as normal. The covers are removable, however, and the school will uncover the chalk work for viewing on occasion. If the plexi works, perhaps the historic boards can be made visible to viewing while teachers still have space to do their daily work on top of them. I’m thinking like a sliding screen sort of jobby.

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Remains of Settlement Era Reykjavík longhouse to be preserved

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

The remains of the Icelandic Settlement Era (874-930 A.D.) Viking longhouse discovered by surprise last summer in downtown Reykjavík will be preserved and integrated into the hotel that will be built on the lot. The longhouse was an unexpected find because archaeologists thought Settlement Era Reykjavík started and ended significantly west of modern-day Lækjargata street. The discovery of the remains has dramatically altered our understanding of the size and breadth of the early city. Add to that the fact that it’s one of the largest longhouses ever found in Iceland — the central fire pit was 17 feet long — and the incentive to preserve this groundbreaking find was strong.

When the archaeological survey of the parking lot on Lækjargata began in advance of construction of a new hotel, the team led by Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir expected to find the remains of a 1799 turf farm known to have been on the site. They had a plan in place to remove all archaeological remains and artifacts to a local museum. They did find the turf farm, but when they then unearthed the history-changing longhouse, the removal plan had to be revisited.

The hotel developers were amenable to the idea that the remains stay in situ and be somehow incorporated into the hotel. The city quickly formed an advisory committee to explore their options. Last week the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland announced that the remains would stay put and the hotel would have to work around them. They did compromise, however.

Archaeologist Lísbet Guðmundsdóttir, who oversaw the dig which discovered the ruins, told RÚV that all un-organic remains will be preserved on location. Turf from the walls will not be reserved because completely intact because of cost. “Moreover, their preservation adds very little to people’s understanding of the remains we have here,” she adds.

I don’t know about that. The longhouse was dated by analysing the volcanic ash captured in the turf, so it seems to add a great deal to everyone’s understanding of the remains. Also, Iceland has a great tradition of turf houses dating back to the first settlement days and continuing well into the 20th century. The turf walls of the longhouse are an important part of that history. By the same token I understand that it would have been a logistical nightmare for the hotel trying to keep the turf from drying out and crumbling to dust.

Based on the location of the fireplace, which was always at the center of a longhouse, archaeologists believe the structure extended well into the center of what is now Skólabrú street. There will be no excavation into the busy city street (archaeologists believe the construction of the road in the early 20th century destroyed any surviving longhouse remains) but already excavated sections of the longhouse that abut the street, including the central fireplace and trough, but are outside of the hotel’s boundary line will be part of the larger exhibition. The perimeter outline of the longhouse will be marked inside the hotel and on the sidewalk.

The architecture of the hotel will have to be changed to accommodate the remains. That’s going to take more expertise, time and money, of course, but once it opens the hotel is sure to profit from being on top of so important an archaeological site. Besides, if the plans for the soon-to-be-completed Antakya Hilton Museum Hotel on the site of a 2,000-year-old, 9,000-square-foot mosaic in the ancient city of Antioch are anything to go by, the new hotel is going to be about a million times cooler than whatever the original design was.

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