Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Lady Jane Franklin’s Egyptian mummy mask

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

A wood mask that once adorned the head of a mummy from the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1295 B.C.) sold at auction on Thursday for £116,500 ($151,291). A beautifully carved visage with full lips and a small, straight nose features big eyes with stone whites and obsidian pupils. The eyebrows used to be inlaid as well, but the stone is gone leaving only the recess in the wood. Under the chin is a small groove where a false beard was once attached. There are traces of the bitumen used to glue the piece in place still left. The inlay and fine details indicate this was an expensive piece used for a person of high status in New Kingdom society.

In addition to being a beautiful and rare artifact, the mask has another claim to fame: it was first acquired in Egypt by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of that Sir John Franklin who died with all of his crew on a doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The discovery of one of his ships, the HMS Erebus, has been the subject of many an entry on this blog.

Jane Franklin had even more of a traveling jones as her husband, and she voyaged without the support of a navy often in extremely challenging conditions. She was born Jane Griffin in 1791 to family of means. Her father was a wealthy silk weaver of Huguenot extraction. Her mother, also of Huguenot descent, died when Jane was three years old. Jane was educated at a boarding school for elegant young ladies, but it was insufficiently challenging for a girl of her wits and energy. From the age of 17, she fleshed out her education with extensive travel on the continent, accompanied and supported by her family. She did all the stops of the Grand Tour and more, spending years on the road in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Denmark.

Finding a husband does not appear to have been as high on the priority list for Jane as was customary for women of her class in 19th century England. She had a couple of romances, one with medical student Adolphe Butini, another with Dr. Peter Mark Roget of thesaurus fame, but neither got past the chaste yearning stage and both men married other women. Jane was just shy of 37 years old when she married John Franklin, a remarkably advanced age for a woman’s first marriage in 1828. She was his second wife — his first, poet Eleanor Anne Porden who was a good friend of Jane’s, had died in 1825 — and her new marital status changed her peripatetic ways not a bit. The tone was set when they were still engaged and she caught up with in St. Petersburg to travel around Russia together.

After he got a new assignment captaining the HMS Rainbow in the Mediterranean in 1830, Jane took the opportunity to travel widely whenever he was busy, which was often as the area was mired in tension courtesy of the Greek War of Independence. She went to Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, traveling independently and often going off the beaten track. In Egypt she sailed from Cairo up the Nile to the Second Cataract, even engaging in a slightly naughty (for the time) flirtation with a Prussian minister on board.

Franklin was called back to London in 1834 while Jane was still traveling in Greece. She kept doing her thing for another year, eventually meeting back up with her husband and joining him in the long voyage down under when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1836. Once there, she dedicated her endless energy to founding a museum, a scientific society, acquiring land for a botanical garden, working for prison reform and of course, travel. She was the first European woman to climb Mount Wellington. She took the arduous overland route to Macquarie Harbour along Tasmania’s untamed west coast and traveled from Melbourne to Sydney, likely the first woman to do so.

It wasn’t all voyaging good times. Jane took a liking to an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna and adopted her, ie, just took her from her still-living parents who had already had one child stolen by British authorities to blackmail them into resettlement against their will. That daughter was dumped in an orphanage and died. Now their second daughter became Jane Franklin’s black doll. Mathinna was dressed up pretty, went on carriage rides next to Eleanor, John Franklin’s daughter from his first marriage, and was educated by her governess. When John Franklin’s term as lieutenant-governor ended in 1843, the Franklins returned to London leaving Mathinna behind in the same orphanage where her sister had died. Jerked around for her whole life and left unable to fit in anywhere, Mathinna would die at age 17, apparently from drowning in a puddle while drunk.

The Franklins just went about their business, oblivious to the fate of the little girl they had displaced so callously. Driven in significant part by Jane’s efforts, Sir John Franklin got the chance he had long yearned for to return to the Arctic. This would be his fourth and final expedition. He and a crew of 108 men took HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to Canada in 1845. Arctic Canada would be their graves.

When her husband failed to return in 1847 as planned, Lady Franklin marshalled her considerable resources of finance and dedication to his rescue. In 1848 she offered rewards of $10,000 and $15,000 to anyone who should attempt to bring succor to the missing expedition. In April of 1849, she wrote a letter to the President of the United States, noting that the ships had been provisioned with enough supplies for three years and with four years nearly gone, any survivors would be in extreme need. She hoped to persuade the US to send out rescue ships as the Russian Empire was planning and the British Admiralty had already done.

When other missions failed to find traces of the Franklin expedition, Jane outfitted her own. In the 1850s she poured money into five different search missions. Even though by then there was no chance of anyone having survived, in 1854 she redoubled her efforts after Captain John Rae, first sent by the Admiralty and then by the Hudson Bay Company on a rescue mission, returned with artifacts from the Franklin expedition and Inuit testimony of survival cannabilism among the crew. Disgusted and horrified by Rae’s news, she rejected it vehemently as the gossip of savages and became even more motivated to find what was left of the ships and their logs. She was sure they would prove conclusively that her husband, officers and crew had behaved with nothing but the most British of honor to the last.

Her last attempt to directly fund a search team was the steam yacht Fox captained by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1857. Ice blocked his path for two years, but finally in 1859 he encountered Inuits who told him of the ships crushed by ice off King William Island and of its crew who subsequently died of starvation. When McClintock reached King William Island, he bought several Franklin expedition artifacts from the Inuit. McClintock’s second-in-command, William Hobson, found an Admiralty form in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island which had a note scrawled in the margin revealing that Franklin had died on June 11th, 1847. These were the only official records of the expedition ever found.

Lady Franklin and Captain McClintock were awarded the 1860 patron’s medal from the Royal Geographical Society. She was the first woman to receive the award, and for many decades the only one. It was exceptionally fitting since the missions she had funded ended up discovering and mapping more of the Canadian Arctic than any explorer ever had, including her husband.

Jane Franklin would outlive Sir John by 30 years, and never stopped traveling the world. She dined with Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, hiked in Yosemite, had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome, stipulating ahead of time that she would not be kneeling, climbed Mount Olympus, became friends with Queen Emma of Hawaii, went on her first trip to India when she was 74 years old and traveled the subcontinent for three years.

When she died in 1875 at the age of 84, six Arctic explorers were her pallbearers.

Four 17th c. tapestries repatriated to Sweden

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

The National Museum of Sweden, has acquired four tapestries that graced an elegant home in late 17th century Stockholm but have been out of the country for more than a century. A large bequest from Gunnar and Ulla Trygg gave the museum, which has no acquisitions budget, the rare opportunity to bring these wall hangings home. They are in exceptional condition.

The tapestries were made in the early 1690s. They were commissioned by Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger to adorn the Stockholm home of Swedish statesman Carl Piper, a commoner whose abilities earned him advancement and a noble title at the court of King Charles XI. In 1690, he married Christina Törne, the daughter of a rich merchant who also happened to be Piper’s stepbrother. His father-in-law/stepbrother gifted the couple a handsome property in Stockholm’s old town. Tessin, then the premier architect in the country who could count the king and queen among his clientele, was given the task of refurbishing the old house.

Later known as the Grotesques de Berain, the tapestries were mistakenly thought to be the design of Jean Bérain the Elder, a Dutch artist in Paris known for his arabesques and grotesques who was a good friend of Nicodemus Tessin’s, but extensive surviving correspondence between Tessin and Daniel Cronström, the Swedish envoy to Paris, proves that the artist was in fact someone else. Cronström’s was Tessin’s go-to guy in France, a close friend who could negotiate directly with the purveyors of the most fashionable goods and services in Paris. The real designer for the Piper tapestry series was Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, a Flemish painter who worked for both of the great tapestry workshops in France: Gobelins and Beauvais. He specialized in floral still-lives and was in demand both for his tapestry cartoons and for decorative painting. He worked under Charles Le Brun, then director of the Gobelins factory, on the fresco decorations for royal residence the Château de Marly and under Jean Bérain at the Dauphin’s residence the Château de Meudon.

Tessin commissioned two suites of tapestries from Beauvais: one with a “port de mer” (harbour scenes) theme, the other “grotesques,” meaning a style drawn from the frescoes of ancient Rome which were usually discovered in underground cave-like spaces or “grotte,” in Italian. Curling foliage elements embrace mythological figures (Bacchus, Pan), animals (elephants, peacocks) and heroic figures against the background of Classical architectural elements. Beauvais’ grotesque motif was hugely popular from the time of its launch in 1688 for another 40 years. Carl Piper’s set did not have his coat of arms or monogram in the border because Tessin was in a hurry and the customization would take too much time to complete. Cronström had the idea of making matching chairs with Piper’s monogram. It is a lot easier and faster to weave a monogram onto an upholstered chair than a big ol’ wall hanging. Some of those chairs have survived. Here’s one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The tapestries were installed in the Piper palace in early 1696. After that, it’s not clear what happened to them. Carl Piper was taken prisoner in 1709 after the Battle of Poltava in the Great Northern War. He was largely blamed for Sweden’s terrible defeat, accused of having taken bribes from England to sway King Charles XI to the calamitous invasion of Russia which had concluded in such ignominy. Piper and his wife (who did indeed get a lovely pair of diamond earrings as a “gift” from the Duke of Marlborough) were disgraced. Carl died in captivity in Russia in 1716. His formidable wife, who had wielded great power when her husband was an important royal minister, went on to become a real estate mogul, industrialist and philanthropist of immense success.

At some point before 1909, the tapestries left Sweden, probably in the late 19th century. In 1909 they were sold to Louise Mackay, an American collector, who bequeathed them to her son Clarence. After his death in 1938, they were sold at Christie’s in New York and the grotesque tapestry suite was split up. Two other tapestries from the series are now in museums in England and Spain.

The National Museum is proud to have repatriated four of the tapestries from the grotesque suite. Their exquisite condition and brilliant color would make them a catch for any museum (compare them to the matching armchair to see how pristine they are), but they’re even more significant thanks to that surviving correspondence between Tessin and Cronström. The letters make these suites of tapestries the best-documented personal orders for French tapestries from the 17th century. They’re also the first documented order of tapestries with matching chair upholstery.

Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods

Monday, July 4th, 2016

In 1746, Peter Collinson, wealthy merchant, philanthropist, botanist and Fellow of the Royal Society of London, gave Benjamin Franklin one of those newfangled Leyden jars that were all the rage. Well, technically he gave it to the Library Company of Philadelphia, but that was founded by Franklin and Collinson was a long-time friend and supporter of Franklin’s endeavors, so it was understood that Franklin was going to be using the new toy which could capture “electrical fire”. Thomas Penn, son of colony founder William Penn and inheritor of his title Proprietor of the Colony of Pennsylvania, chipped in all the rest of the equipment necessary to start investigating electrical phenomena, a pursuit engrossing many gentlemen of scientific disposition in the Old World at that time. The Library Company’s electrical setup formed the first scientific research laboratory in America.

Benjamin Franklin was hooked. Alongside Ebenezer Kinnersley, Thomas Hopkinson, and Philip Syng, Franklin studied and experimented with electricity for the next three years. From 1747 through 1750, he shared his findings in a series of letters to Collinson. In these letters Franklin detailed his experiments and described for the first time principles of electricity that are commonly held today. For example, he recognized that friction did not create electricity so much as collect it from materials like metal and water to which it was attracted; he coined the terms positive and negative/plus and minus to describe electrical charge (as opposed to the prevailing thought that they were two different kinds of electricity, “vitreous” named after the glass that accumulated electrical charge when rubbed with silk, and “resinous,” like amber rubbed with fur); he first used the terms “charging” and “discharging” for the operations of a Leyden jar; he coined the term “battery” for a group of connected jars that could store more charge than an individual jar, like a battery of cannon concentrated shot on the battlefield.

Franklin also determined through experimentation that a sharp point is far more effective at drawing electricity than a blunt end. When he put a “long slender sharp bodkin” close to an electrically charged shot, it drew the charge from a foot away, while a “blunt body” had to be no more than an inch away and unlike the sharp point, it generated a spark. Extrapolating from his small-scale experiments, he proposed that a long, sharp rod properly grounded could save structures from the destruction of lightning.

I say, if these things are so, may not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships &c. from the stroke of lightning, by directing us to fix on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting, and from the foot of those rods a wire down the outside of the building into the ground, or down round one of the shrouds of a ship, and down her side till it reaches the water? Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief?

For his idea of a lightning rod to work, first Franklin had to confirm that “clouds that contain lightning are electrified,” still an open question at the time. He suggested an experiment.

On the top of some high tower or steeple, place a kind of sentry-box, big enough to contain a man and an electrical stand. From the middle of the stand, let an iron rod rise and pass bending out of the door, and then upright 20 or 30 feet, pointed very sharp at the end. If the electrical stand be kept clean and dry, a man standing on it when such clouds are passing low, might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to him from a cloud.

While Franklin did his experiments in Philadelphia, other people were doing similar work across the Atlantic. Collinson circulated the letters among the Royal Society fellows, including William Watson who at the same time as Franklin had independently determined that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were a surplus and deficiency, as he called it, of charge. In 1751, Collinson published the letters and other papers Franklin had sent him in a book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America.

Franklin’s writings were accepted but with subdued enthusiasm at first in Britain. In France, on the other hand, people were excited and inspired to try his experiments. Famed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, received a copy of the book from Collinson and asked his frequent collaborator botanist Thomas-François Dalibard to translate it into French. Dalibard got so into it he enlisted the aid of a certain Delor who had the necessary equipment to replicate Franklin’s experiments. They worked so well that Buffon, Dalibard and Delor performed them before Louis XV and a delighted court where (forgive me) sparks flew.

Their success drove them to try the experiment that Franklin had described but not done yet: the sentry-box lightning rod experiment. They wisely forewent perching a man next to an iron rod in a box on top of a tower roof, modifying it into a test with distinctly less killing potential. A 13-meter (43-foot) iron rod insulated by silk ropes and wine bottles was inserted into a wooden table under a little roofed structure (the sentry-box). When a thunderstorm passed over, the iron rod drew sparks.

Franklin didn’t hear about Dalibard’s experiment for a while. Meanwhile, he’d come up with a new idea to test the charge of storm clouds without the complications of the sentry-box. On June 15th, 1752, Benjamin Franklin and his son William flew a silk and cedar kite with a sharp wire at the top. Twine coming down from the kite had a silk ribbon tied to it and a key tried to the ribbon. This experiment has gone down in legend with an image of Benajamin Franklin running in the rain as lightning strikes the key, but in fact it was essential the silk ribbon stay dry so it could insulate the key from the ground and ensure the electric current accumulated in the key. Franklin was indoors while the kite was getting wet. If he hadn’t been, he never would have seen the sparks fly off the key.

When the news of Dalibard’s success reached him, Franklin installed an insulated iron rod on the roof of his home. Within a few months grounding conductors were installed in the Academy of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). In 1753, Franklin published instructions on how to protect homes from lightning strikes using iron rods in Poor Richard’s Almanack (page 72 of this pdf). Some people were apprehensive about it, railing at early adopters for attempting to defy God’s will and attracting deadly lightning, but over time lightning rods became commonplace and Franklin refined and modified his design to improve them.

The invention of lightning rods saved not only property but lives. Before them, the only method considered valid against thunderstorms was in hindsight insanely counterproductive: vigorous ringing of church bells in the belief that sound could break up storm clouds. That put the poor bell ringers of the world up church steeples, the highest structures around, yanking on soaked ropes connected to large metal bells precisely when lightning was most likely to strike. The practice continued for decades after Franklin’s experiments proved there was a simple architectural solution that did not put lives in danger. A study by Johann Fischer published in Munich in 1784 found that in the 33 years between 1750 and 1783, bell towers were struck by lightning 386 times killing 103 bell ringers.

During the Revolutionary period, the embrace of Franklin’s design for the lightning rod was a political statement of allegiance to New World ideas. In Britain the blunt-ended lightning rod was popular. Rejecting them in favor of Franklin’s sharp points was a philosophical choice. In 1788, the Maryland State House in Annapolis had a 28-foot lightning rod installed on its new dome according to Franklin’s specifications. It is still there, making its inventor proud. On Friday it was put through its paces and even after 208 years it handled the strike like a boss.

Danish police to study 10th c. arson at Borgring

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the 10th century Viking Borgring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014, are calling the cops to help solve a 1,000-year-old mystery. The fortress was first identified with drone footage, laser scanning and a geomagnetic survey. Test pits were then dug at key positions which confirmed that this was Trelleborg-type fortress, one of a series of defensive ring forts built around 980 A.D. by King of Norway and Denmark Harald Bluetooth.

One of the original test pits was dug where the north gate would have been. Archaeologists found large oak timbers, evidence of the massive gates typical of Trelleborg forts, that were charred from fire. Funds for a full excavation of the site were secured last year. Excavations began in earnest this year. Thus far the team has unearthed more evidence of fire at the east gate. The outer posts of the gate are charred through, and posts from inside the gate bear marks of burning.

The working theory right now is that the fort was attacked by Danish noblemen before it was completed during an uprising against Harald Bluetooth’s rule. Harald’s son Sweyn Forkbeard rebelled against his father in the mid-980s. According to Saxo Grammaticus, chronicler and author of the Gesta Danorum, Sweyn’s forces defeated Harald and forced him to flee to Jomsborg where he died of his wounds.

Archaeologists also found that the fort was not complete, that construction appeared to have ended halfway through. That suggests it was the last fort Harald built, that it was started at the end of his reign, became a target of rebel forces and was left unfinished after his defeat and death.

In the hopes of getting more information about the fire, archaeologists have reached out to police fire safety investigators. They want forensic arson specialists to study the burned areas of the structure.

“Hopefully, they can say more about how the fire was started. We generally have good experience of cooperation with the police. For instance, we have previously used their sniffing dogs to dig out bones from the earth,” Sanne Jakobsen, communications manager at Southeast Museum Denmark told Danish Radio.

The team will also do dendrochronological analysis of the timbers to narrow down the date of the fort. Excavations will continue for three months every summer through 2018, after which the plan is to close up archaeological shop and let the field return to nature. The clock is ticking, therefore. If you have a chance to see the site in the next couple of years, take it. Visitors can download an app to learn more about the other Trelleborg forts, Borgring and the archaeological finds made at the site.

Here’s a video of the site which is open to the public right now. There are mounds and trenches from the active excavation at the east gate.

You can keep up with the excavation on the Vikingeborgen Borgring Facebook page.

Escape tunnel found at Lithuanian massacre site

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, and environs were occupied by the Soviets in 1939 and 1940. The USSR and Germany were allies at the time, and Soviet troops occupied areas of Eastern Europe in concert with Germany’s invasion of Poland. In 1940, the Soviet army began to dig pits for oil storage tanks in the Ponar forest, today known as Paneriai, outside Vilnius to supply a planned airfield. The oil storage project was still in progress in 1941 when Hitler violated the Nonagression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army retreated from Vilnius and the Nazis took over.

Being as practical as they were murderous, the Nazis thought of another use for the big pits: as execution chambers for tens of thousands of Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma and political prisoners. Between July of 1941 and August of 1944, approximately 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews, were forced by SS Einsatzkommando 9 and Lithuanian collaborators to walk down a steep ramp into the pits in the forest. The soldiers standing at the rim of the pit then mowed down everyone inside of them. The victims were buried in the forest.

As the Red Army advanced in 1943 and it became clear Germany would not be able to hold occupied territories in Eastern Europe for long, the Gestapo ordered that all evidence of genocidal mass-murders be destroyed, in keeping with the Aktion 1005 directive. To accomplish this gruesome goal in Ponar, 80 prisoners from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp were assembled into a “Burning Brigade,” as it became known, and tasked with digging up all the mass graves, cutting wood, piling the corpses onto pyres made from the logs they’d cut, dousing them in gasoline and burning them to ash.

Guarded by 30 Lithuanian militia and German soldiers and 50 SS men, one guard for each prisoner, the members of the Burning Brigade had to work for three months with their legs shackled together. At night they slept in an execution pit where they knew full well they themselves would be shot to death after their work was done. Eleven of the prisoners had been shot and killed already because of illness of for no particular reason other than sadism or to instill even more terror in the survivors.

Some of the prisoners decided to make an attempt to get out of this hell alive. The lead organizer of the escape attempt was Isaac Dogim, a Jewish man who had recognized his own wife amongst the decaying corpses from a medallion he had given her as a wedding present. His wife, three sisters and three nieces were in the pile of bodies he was forced to burn. With the help of prisoner Yudi Farber, who had been a civil engineer before the war, they dug a tunnel out of the pit with spoons and their own hands as their only tools. Shackled, guarded and using spoons for shovels, the prisoners managed to dig a tunnel 35 meters (115 feet) long over the course of three months.

They decided to make a break for it on Passover night, April 14th, 1944. They cut their shackles off with a file and crawled through the tunnel. Forty prisoners made it out of the tunnel, but the guards heard footsteps on branches and began to shoot. Fifteen prisoners made it to the forest. Only 11 eventually reached resistance forces in the Rudniki forest and survived the war. Five days after the escape, the 29 prisoners left at Ponar were shot.

After the war, the Soviets used the Ponar massacre as propaganda, claiming only Soviet prisoners were killed there and denying the overwhelming numbers of Jews and Poles murdered. The survivors of the escape and their descendants kept the real story alive, but the precise location of the tunnel was lost.

Excavating the site in an attempt to rediscover the tunnel was not possible because it might disturb remains of people murdered by the Nazis, but several attempts were made to locate it with non-invasive means. In 2004, a Lithuanian archaeologist found the entrance to a tunnel inside Pit 6. This year, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius enlisted a team of researchers from Lithuania, Israel, the United States and Canada to map and explore the tunnel itself without excavation.

Led by Richard Freund, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Hartford, and Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the team of historians, archaeologists and geophysicists used ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), a technology which detects different elements underground from their different levels of electrical resistivity, to scan the entrance to the tunnel. ERT is commonly used by the oil and gas industry as a prospecting device, and by scientists to investigate the water table, fault lines, landslides and more. It can also pinpoint buried archaeological features because their electrical resistivity is different from that of the soil in which they’re buried. On June 8th, the team successfully mapped the entire length of the tunnel and found its exit.

The discovery of the tunnel has been filmed for PBS’ always-excellent NOVA series. The episode will cover the history of the Jews in Vilnius, a city with such a rich Jewish culture it was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the slaughter of 95% of the city’s Jewish population in World War II, and modern archaeological investigations including that of the Ponar tunnel and the excavation of the The Great Synagogue of Vilna. The program is scheduled to air in 2017.

The research team plans to return to the pit. Working with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and the Tolerance Center of Lithuania, the team will open the tunnel to public view as part of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the massacres in Vilnius.

UPDATE: Here is a video of Holocaust survivor Mordechai Zeidel telling the story of the liquidation of the Vilnus (Vilna, then) ghetto, his forced labour in the Burning Brigade and his escape through the tunnel. He was one of the 11 to survive and reach a Jewish partisan group with whom he participated in the liberation of Vilnius. It is subtitled in English.

Original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster for sale

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Before it was an inescapable meme of infinite variety plastered on every crappy consumer product ever cranked out by Chinese industry, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan graced a British Ministry of Information poster printed, but never used, in the early days of World War II. It was one of three poster designs in plain text bearing the crown of King George VI printed in August of 1939 to shore up the morale of the country through the confusion and fear that were sure to follow should war break out.

The other two posters — “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory,” and “Freedom Is in Peril Defend It with All Your Might” — were quickly distributed after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. “Keep Calm,” which was intended for use in the worst case scenario of a German invasion and since that never happened, those posters were never posted. They were widely distributed as part of the preparations for war, but most of the print run of 2.5 million posters was pulped when paper shortages struck.

Never seen by the public, the poster was unknown until 2000 when one Stuart Manley, co-owner of Barter Books, a beautiful bookstore in a restored Victorian train station in Alnwick, Northumberland, found one folded in the bottom of a box of old books he’d bought at an auction. His wife Mary thought it was awesome, because it is, so she had it framed and hung it on the wall near the cash register.

Customers went gaga for it, so the Manleys made copies of the poster to sell. Soon the original was outside the shop, drawing crowds and advertising the copies for sale. When it hit the internet, the slogan spread worldwide and in short order became the meme template we know today.

For more than a decade, the Manleys’ poster was one of only two known. Then in 2012, Moragh Turnbull brought a cache of 15 of them to the Antiques Roadshow at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh. Her father William worked for the Royal Observer Corps in Edinburgh during the war and had kept many papers, including the “Keep Calm” posters that were distributed but never actually posted. The AR appraiser valued her posters at £1000.

Now, four years later, the original poster that launched a thousand dish towels will be available for purchase at the Manning Fine Art stand at the Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia in London, open now through July 3rd. According to The Guardian price tag is £21,250, but the headline says it’s up for auction so that may be the reserve set or maybe even a pre-sale estimate.

Teapot is Smithsonian’s millionth digitized object

Monday, June 27th, 2016

A teapot made by 19th century silversmith Peter Bentzon is the one millionth object digitized by the Smithsonian’s Mass Digitization Program. There are 154 million objects in the many collections of the Smithsonian Institute, so just 153 million more to go.

Peter Bentzon was born on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies around 1783. The child of a free mulatto woman and a white father, he was what the Danish categorized as a “mustice” or “mustee.” His family was comparatively well-off; it is believed his father was Norwegian lawyer Jacob Bentzon who was a royal judge advocate on St Thomas for several years. Peter was sent to school in Philadelphia when he was eight years old, and was apprenticed to a Philadelphia silversmith in 1799 when he was 16. His completed his apprenticeship in 1806 and moved to Christiansted, St Croix, where he started his own silversmithing business.

The British occupied the island from 1807 to 1816 which was advantageous for Bentzon because the British didn’t have the strict laws the Danish had controlling the movements, professions and political rights of the free coloured population of its colonies. Denmark reclaimed St Croix in 1816 and Bentzon made arrangements to move his family and business back to Philly. He lived and worked there until 1829, after which he returned to St. Croix for another 20 years. He relocated to Philadelphia again in 1848. His name is on the 1850 Census. After that, he disappears from the historical record. Wherever he was living, he regularly traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and St Croix.

Bentzon was the only free silversmith of African descent in slavery-era America whose work can be identified from his hallmarks, P. BENTZON and PB. There were at least four other black silversmiths in Philadelphia during his time. Henry Bray and Anthony Sowerwalt are listed as silversmiths and “persons of color” in the 1813 and 1818 Philadelphia directories. Joseph Head and John Frances, a runaway slave, were also working as silversmiths. None of the four produced work under their own hallmark, however, so it’s impossible to link any surviving silver to them.

Very few of Bentzon’s pieces are known to have survived, fewer than three dozen, most of them teaspoons. That makes his work rarer than that of famed fellow silversmiths like Paul Revere and Thomas Fletcher. The Smithsonian’s teapot is the only one confirmed to have been made in Bentzon’s Philadelphia shop.

The silver teapot is an oval vase-shape on a pedestal foot. The scroll handle is made of wood topped with a leaf design. The cover has an acorn finial. It is stamped twice on the bottom with Bentzon’s mark and is inscribed “Rebecca Dawson” on the base. Bentzon rented his workshop from a Robert Dawson, so perhaps Rebecca was a relative of his landlord. The monogram “MC” on the side is a later addition.

It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which isn’t an actual museum yet. There had been efforts to create a national museum displaying art and artifacts from African-American history since 1915, but with little funding and no Congressional support, proposals went nowhere. A state initiative was more successful. The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, received a federal charter from Congress in 1981 and opened in 1988 with no public funding. Its focus was more narrow than that envisioned for the national museum, however, with its main exhibition dedicated to the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and others featuring the city of Wilberforce’s history an important stop on the Underground Railroad and the founding of historically black college Wilberforce University, the first college in the United States that was owned and run by African Americans.

The Smithsonian’s collection of African-Americana didn’t see much light until dedicated exhibitions in the National Museum of American History in the 1980s. For a long time the Board of the Smithsonian itself questioned whether the collection could sustain a stand-alone African-American history museum, and it wasn’t until December of 2003 that all the pieces came together with the passage of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act establishing the new museum within the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. It took another three years for the site, part of the Washington Monument grounds, to be selected. Settling on a design for the building took even more time. Finally, ground was broken on February 22nd, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian took the innovative step of creating a virtual museum when the physical museum was still years away from construction. It created a website for the NMAAHC with select objects from the collection and online exhibitions. The first exhibition in the three dimensional world took place in New York in 2005. In 2012 the NMAAHC partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to put on an exhibition about slavery at Monticello held at the National Museum of American History.

By 2015, the museum’s collection had grown to more than 33,000 objects including Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Selmer trumpet, 39 extremely rare Harriet Tubman artifacts donated in 2012 by collector Charles L. Blockson, Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket, a 1922 Pullman railroad car from Chattanooga, Tennessee, used to carry Black passengers under Jim Crow segregation and a guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary which was is big the museum had to be build around it.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will opens its doors in the new building on September 24th, 2016.

12th c. fortified town found under Illinois cornfield

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

Under a cornfield in Cass County, Illinois, near where the Sangamon River flows into the Illinois, are the remains of a bustling Native American town that thrived from the 12th century through the 15th. The town had a central plaza, surrounded by three platform mounds, houses and defensive walls 10 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long in each direction. Known as the Lawrenz Gun Club Site after a shooting club built on one of the mounds in the mid-20th century, the site has been studied by archaeologists and students from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) every summer for six years.

It was the remains of the mounds that first indicated a community of the Mississippian culture had once inhabited the site, but the town ranges far beyond that, covering over 26 acres. IUPUI’s archaeology field school used remote sensing technology to establish the perimeter of the site and, since they can’t dig up the whole cornfield, to identify areas likely to contain artifacts. This excavation season alone they’ve unearthed 97 bags of archaeological material including projectile points, pottery of many different kinds from cookware to storage vessels to dishes, stone tools, plant and animal remains. Only once in the six years have they encountered a human burial. Officials were notified in compliance with federal law, the grave was reburied and the remains left undisturbed.

“The last couple of years, we have focused inside the city’s walls. This year, we are looking at earlier structures, built before the walls were put up,”” [graduate student John] Flood said. “We are looking at an early house, about 5-by-5 meters in size, and how the city started to develop, trying to understand how the very early Mississippian community arranged their structures.”

For Flood, the most fascinating part of the multi-year investigation has been the huge, elaborate defensive walls built to protect the city.
“You have several portions of walls that were constructed at different points in time. Bastions and archers’ towers, you see a change in shape as they go from more circular to more rectangular in design. It shows they are really taking their time and thinking about their defensive fortifications,” Flood said. “We see that throughout all sorts of archaeology all over the world. Usually about the time you see agriculture, things like corn or maize, all of a sudden when you have food in one location, you find you have a need to protect that food.”

“You also need to make your presence known,” Flood said. “If you’re coming down the river and see a big, fortified city with 10-foot walls and archers’ towers, that’s a big mark of presence. It says ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay.’”

Based on the artifacts unearthed so far as, the walls and the dwellings, researchers estimate that the village had a population of 400 to 600 people from around 1100 through 1450 A.D., making it probably the largest village in the area. The inhabitants grew crops, primarily maize, and also foraged wild resources from their environment, including seeds, grasses, nuts and marshelder, a ragweed relation with edible seeds that was cultivated by the earlier Kansas City Hopewell culture of Kansas and Missouri before maize displaced it. The surrounding area also provided abundant hunting and fishing. The IUPUI team has found a great many bones of fish, waterfowl and land mammals.

A large community with impressive fortifications in a fertile location with plentiful plant and animal resources, the village likely traded with the great city of Cahokia, now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, to the north. Like Cahokia and other known Mississippian communities, the Lawrenz Site met an abrupt end in the mid-15th century. Archaeologists believe a combination of the Little Ice Age and severe drought may have brought on repeated crop failures which drove the population to abandon their settlements and seek greener pastures. With no food left to protect, fortifications that once defended the stores become prison walls enclosing only the prospect of mass starvation.

This season’s excavation will conclude at the end of the month. The 97 bags of artifacts and remains will be sorted, cleaned and analyzed in laboratory conditions back the university in Indianapolis. Every fragment is of interest as a potential source of information about the daily lives of the inhabitants of the prehistoric town.

Exhibition marks 350th anniversary of Great Fire of London

Friday, June 24th, 2016

The Great Fire of London broke out in the wee hours of September 2nd, 1666, and raged for three days, leveling the old city within the Roman walls, a quarter of London, and destroying more than 13,000 homes, St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and London Bridge. The Museum of London will mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration with a new exhibition, Fire! Fire!, which will showcase life in the city before the fire, the events of the fire itself and how London recovered.

The museum will display period art and artifacts in its collection that illustrate the devastating fury of the fire. Some, like burned and melted pottery fragments from a shop on Pudding Lane near where the fire first sparked, have been on display before. Others have never been seen in public before, for example a ceramic roof tile melted and bent in half by temperatures of at least 1500 Celsius and a singled floor tile, burned iron padlocks and keys found at Monument House on Botolph Lane, one street down from Pudding Lane. Another piece on display for the first time is an unfinished needlework panel believed to have been saved from a house in Cheapside during the fire.

There are also two letters written by eye witnesses, one from James Hicks, a post office employee whose office burned down just after 1:00 AM on September 3rd. He fled with his family taking as many letters as he could with them. His letter informed postmasters of the destruction. The other letter was from Robert Flatman to his brother Thomas who worked in the city as a barrister but was out of town for the Great Fire. In the letter of September 9th, 1666, Robert told his brother that he had saved his books from his chamber in one of the Temples (professional associations where barristers kept their offices and lodgings).

In 1666, much of the City of London was little changed from the Middle Ages, a warren of cobblestone alleys tightly packed with crowded timber tenement buildings whose upper storeys jutted over the street to maximize precious square footage. By the mid-17th century the overhanging jetties projected so far over the alleyways that they kissed the jetties from buildings across the street, which made fire very easy to spread and practically impossible to stop. When the fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, it quickly jumped from building to building and soon formed an implacable wall of flame too hot for people to even attempt to counter. Perhaps controlled demolition of structures forming a firebreak perimeter could have contained it, but Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth didn’t order those until the fire had burned all night and day.

What little firefighting equipment existed was small-scale and ineffective: tall ladders, leather buckets of water and squirt guns that look like large syringes could douse a building fire when deployed quickly, but once fire spread these tools couldn’t keep up. Long firehooks were used to pull down buildings, and when the buildings were too high for that, controlled demolition by gunpowder might do the trick. Once the fire was raging, it was too hot and fast for these methods to work. Once the Thames waterfront was on fire, the city’s supply of water was cut off.

Early fire engines carried barrels of water to a fire and pumped it out, but they delivered a comparatively meager stream of water, and that’s assuming they could even make it down the winding alleys of the City of London. Some were on sleds, other on wheels. The Museum of London has a very rare surviving 17th century fire engine which it acquired in 1928. It has been on display, but since all that remains in the central barrel and pump, it just looks like a wooden keg with an iron tap sticking out the top.

For the new exhibition, the museum employed Croford Coachbuilders in Kent to reconstruct the vehicle that carried the barrel and pump. They used traditional methods, tools and material to recreate the carriage. With no plans to go by, the coachbuilders used a 19th century photograph located by museum curators of the engine from when it was still complete with undercarriage, tow bar and pumping arms. Curators also found a print showing the fire engine, designed by John Keeling in London around 1678, in action, which helped the craftsmen replicate the original.

This video documents the construction process. It’s a fascinating summary which I wish were longer. My favorite part is when they take the completed wheel made of three different kinds of woods — elm for the hub, oak for the spokes, ash for the felloes (the part that goes around the spokes) — and fit the iron rim onto it. The rim has to be slightly smaller than the wheel to keep it all together, so they heat that bad boy up so it expands, slap it on the wheel, then quickly dump cold water on it to keep the hot iron from burning the wood and to force the iron to contract around the wheel. It’s smoke-filled awesomeness.

Fire! Fire! opens on July 23rd, 2016, and runs through April 17th, 2017.

Long head of Silla woman reconstructed from skull fragments

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

In late 2013, archaeologists excavating in advance of a driveway construction project near Gyeongju, a town in southeastern Korea that was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, unearthed human skeletal remains. Found in a mokgwakmyo, a traditional wooden coffin, in a marshy area, the skeleton was complete and relatively well-preserved, albeit fragmented in places. Grave goods, including pottery and a wooden comb, were found inside the coffin that identify it as a Silla-era burial.

The Silla Kingdom started as a small city-state in 57 B.C. and ruled an increasingly large part of the Korean Peninsula until 935 A.D. Its thousand-year duration is one of the longest in the historical record, and two of its ruling dynasties — the Parks and the Kims — transcended the kingdom to become the most common family names in Korea today.

Despite the Silla Kingdom’s long life and enormous influence on the history and modern culture of Korea, researchers have had few opportunities to study Silla bones at all, and never with multiple analytical technologies. Intact human remains from the Silla period are rare because Korea’s acidic soil and the cycles of hot/wet, cold/dry weather accelerate the decomposition of soft tissue and bone alike. A 4th-6th century grave discovered in 2009 contained unprecedented complete sets of human and horse armor, for example, but not a single human remain. The wooden coffin survived, as did a box with assorted grave goods. The bones had disintegrated. The discovery of a complete skeleton in 2013 gave scientists the chance to carry out anthropological analysis, extract mitochondrial DNA, run stable isotope tests and craniofacial analyses that led to a full facial reconstruction.

The person deceased was a woman between 35 and 39 years of age at time of death. The length of the femur indicated she was around 155 cm (five feet) tall. The mitrochondrial DNA results placed her haplogroup F1b1a, a haplogroup typical of East Asia but not the dominant group in living Koreans today. Stable isotope analysis found that her diet consisted mainly of foods in the C3 category (wheat, rice and potatoes) and was likely vegetarian.

Her skull was found broken in dozens of pieces. In order to help determine her gender and to create a facial reconstruction, archaeologists cleaned the fragments and dried them. Each piece was scanned and imported into 3D modelling software to figure out how the pieces fit together. Once the model was complete, the team then puzzled together the actual skull from the fragments.

Her skull was unusually long and narrow. This kind of head shape often seen in cases of intentional cranial deformation. It appears to be natural in her case. Intentionally deformed crania are flatter in the front and the bones of the side grow to compensate from the pressure of the deforming agent (usually a piece wood or tight bindings applied to infants when their skulls are still soft).

In the craniometric analysis, the major cranial indices were compared with the corresponding data derived from the subjects of modern Korean adults. The results showed that the skull has longer, narrower and lower cranium with a narrower facial bone and orbits than those from the modern Korean adults groups. The nasal aperture demonstrated an average width in the nasal index. In terms of appearance, it was assumed that the individual had horizontally long & vertically short head with inclined forehead from lateral view and narrower face from frontal view.

This dolichocephalic or long-headedness trait is rare in the population of Korea today. Koreans are more often brachycephalic, defined as the width of their skull being at least 80% of the length.

Here is the complete craniofacial reconstruction:

You can read the full study published in the journal PLOS ONE here.

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