Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Museum acquires rare sufragette banner found in Leeds charity shop

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

The People’s History Museum (PHM) has acquired a very rare suffragette banner that was made in Manchester in the early 1900s and will now return to its native city again more than 80 years of exile in Leeds. Created by premiere Manchester banner maker Thomas Brown & Sons, the banner celebrates the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the fiercest and most committed suffragette leaders, in her home at 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, in 1903. The date of its manufacture is not known, but the banner glows with the colors of the WSPU campaign: green signifying reform, white purity and purple dignity. The green, white and purple weren’t adopted as the WSPU’s official colors until 1908.

The WSPU marched and assembled under their banners, but unlike many of their sisthren in the cause, they took an explicitly militant stance. Sick of failed attempts to extend the franchise by ostensibly allied politicians, the WSPU took as their motto “deeds not words” and hit the streets. They tied themselves to railings, blew up mailboxes, went on hunger strikes when they were arrested and refused to eat even under threat of force-feeding. They made a very effective nuisance of themselves until World War I broke out in 1914 and the WSPU suspended all its activities.

As far as researchers have been able to determine, the banner was taken to Leeds in the 1930s by Edna White. It was sold to the charity shop after her death and this rare textile treasure remained in the shop, unrecognized and unappreciated, for 10 years. The charity shop put the banner up for auction on June 20th of this year where it was bought by a private collector.

The People’s History Museum, which has the largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world and a top notch textile conservation studio to ensure their long-term health, wasted no time. They reached out to the collector and agreed on a buying price for the banner. They then raised most of the money in grants from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. With £5,000 still to go, the museum turned to crowdfunding. The Bring Manchester’s Suffragette Banner Home campaign was an almost instant success, meeting the original target in a week.

The PHM has added another £2,500 as a stretch goal to help fund interpretation of the newly acquired banner for its display in a 2018 exhibition celebrating the centenary of the passage of the Representation of the People Act which granted suffrage to all men 21 and older and women 30 and older. (Women 21 years of age and above were not enfranchised until 1928, a matter of a few weeks after Emmeline Pankhurst’s death.) The rest of the stretch money would go to getting the rest of the museum’s suffrage collections in top shape and creating learning resources and events associated with the exhibition. They’ve only raised a few hundred pounds of the stretch goal with just over two weeks to go.

Helen Antrobus, Programme & Events Officer at PHM, says…

“This is a truly spectacular piece, beautifully crafted and powerfully representative of its time. It is also an important part of the nation’s social history and we hope to find out more about Edna White and her suffragette story as part of this project’s research. The banner’s life began in Manchester and we’d like to continue its life by sharing its story with our visitors who travel across the region, nation and world to join us on a march through time that narrates Britain’s struggle for democracy.”

The campaign will ensure that the banner not only becomes a part of the People’s History Museum collection, but that plans are in place for its continued care and conservation by the museum’s specialist team.

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Neolithic homes, 19th c. whale skeletons found on Orkney

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating Cata Sand, a bay on the Orkney island of Sanday, have unearthed the remains of an Early Neolithic house and at least a dozen 19th century whale skeletons. The prehistoric structure dates to between 3400 and 3100 B.C. and is fairly extensive with its original hearth and remains of walls. Northwest of the core structures is a second hearth that archaeologists believe is from a later expansion and reconstruction of the house.

Prof [Colin] Richards said: “The early Neolithic house is both interesting and unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which rests on rounded beach stones.

“At least two construction phases have now been recognised. The primary house has a stone set hearth, internal pits and boxes, and remains of the lower courses of a double-faced thick stone outer wall and small dividing stones, which partition the house into different living areas. This phase of the structure is comparable with examples of dwellings at Stonehall, Mainland and Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Although excavations at Pool uncovered some early Neolithic structures in the 1980s, this is the first ‘classic’ early Neolithic house to be discovered in Sanday.”

A number of artifacts have been found in the remains of the house — pottery fragments, flint knapping debris, animal bones, Skaill knives — and they are all well preserved, which is particularly key for the bones because time, soil and the elements have chewed up organic remains at other Neolithic sites in Orkney. The rich red-brown floors in the house indicate they have a rich complement of organic remains for researchers to study in the lab.

A team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute (UHI), the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and specialists from other institutions have been excavating the site since mid-August using a geophysical survey and midden finds from a previous exploration as their guide. When the site was discovered by UHI and UCLan researchers in November of last year, their survey found evidence of a large settlement they thought might date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-2000 BC). This was a transitional period which saw a great deal of social upheaval in Northern Scotland, so archaeologists were excited at the prospect of discoveries from so significant a time. If the dating on the Neolithic structure proves accurate, even though it will be earlier than expected nobody will be disappointed because it such a rare find in unusually good condition.

Sandy beaches are never easy to excavate, and the team has to do battle with the constant erosive action of wind and water. To top it off, the site is in the intertidal zone which means it is fully submerged twice a day. With less than a month to dig — the excavation is scheduled to end on September 8th — researchers are working assiduously to uncover as much of its archaeological material as they can.

The whales are an even more unexpected find, especially so many of them. The bones have been unearthed in two large cut pits. Local traditions suggest they are the detritus of a practice known as “ca,” from a word meaning “driven,” in which whales, dozens, even hundreds at a time, were chased towards the shore until they beached themselves. There they were butchered for their blubber, a valuable source of oil that was used in lamps, motors, soaps, even margarine. It smelled terrible burning, however, and I don’t even want to know what whale margarine tastes like, so when less unpleasant replacements were invented in the 20th century, the popularity of whale oil cratered.

The Cata Sand site is open to visitors. If you happen to be in the Sanday area, park in the parking lot and walk the western side to the highest dune. If it’s raining they won’t be there, but otherwise you can perch on the dude and see the excavation team at work.

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Tomb of China’s Shakespeare found

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the site of a demolished factory in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, east China, have discovered the tomb of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). A large grouping of tombs was first unearthed after the demolition of the old plant last year, 42 of them in total, 40 dating to the Ming Dynasty. Tomb M4 was identified as Tang’s from an epitaph, one of six found at the site some of which are believed to have been written by the playwright himself. His third wife Fu was buried with him in the tomb; his second wife Zhao was buried in the neighboring tomb labelled M3.

“The epitaphs can help us learn more about the calligraphy, art and literature in Tang’s time,” Xu [Changqing, head of Jiangxi Provincial Cultural Relics and Archeology Research Institute,] said.[…]

“This discovery is significant, because it tells us more about Tang’s life, his family tree and relationships with other family members,” said Mao Peiqi, vice chairman of the Chinese Society on Ming Dynasty History.

“Besides, by learning about the status and lives of Tang’s family, we can learn about education, culture and agriculture in the Ming Dynasty as well as the development of society,” he said.

Tang’s best known works are a series of plays known as the Four Dreams. One of them, The Peony Pavilion, is considered his masterpiece. It was the most popular play of the Ming Dynasty and continued to be performed in the classical Chinese opera tradition uninterrupted for hundreds of years until the present. Updated, experimental versions as well as the traditional style have been performed all over the world. There are references to it in popular music, novels, television and film.

Tang Xianzu and William Shakespeare died the same day: April 23rd, 1616. They had other things in common: exceptional lyrical qualities in their verse, themes of star-crossed romance, plot-driving dreams, ghosts, comical elements combined with the tragic and dramatic, historical settings and personages, and legacies as literary giants that loom large in their native countries and beyond. Because they were contemporaries with such enduring cultural influence, comparisons between Tang and Shakespeare are rife. Tang is often referred to as the Chinese Shakespeare as shorthand to explain the enormity of his importance in Chinese theatrical history. Last year, the 400th anniversary of both men’s deaths, The Peony Pavilion was performed at Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the Bard. This year, a statue of the two great playwrights standing side by side gifted to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by the city of Fuzhou in 2015 was unveiled in the garden at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The discovery of Tang’s tomb is exciting not just for what it can tell us about his personal life, Ming Dynasty history and culture, but also because until now there was no commemorative location linked to his life for his myriad fans to visit to pay their respects. An empty tomb was built in a Fuzhou park in the 1980s just so there’d at least be some kind of monument. Now the city plans to create a destination site where Tang Xianzu and his family were really buried that will attract tourists, fans, artists and scholars alike.

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Misunderstood dodo gets its due

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

A new study of bone sections has revealed new information about the life and reproductive cycles of the dodo bird. Because very few skeletal remains of dodo’s have survived, researchers have been reluctant to slice and dice them to use the latest technology that might discover more about a very misunderstood animal. Recent discoveries of bone fragments gave scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Cape Town a rare opportunity to take a look inside the dodo.

According to evidence in the different layers and types of tissue of the 22 bones examined, the dodo seems to have adapted its lifestyle to Mauritius’s stormy summer, from November to March.

During this period, heavy rain and strong winds can strip trees of leaves, flowers and fruit, causing severe food shortages for the island’s animals.

The dodo bones show repeated lines of arrested growth, which the researchers suggest correspond to the harsh conditions of the summer months when the birds were starved of food. […]

In common with many modern birds living on the island, the breeding season for dodos appears to have begun around August. Once chicks hatched, they grew quickly to almost adult body size, attaining sexual maturity before the stormy summer began.

Moulting began after the summer had passed, around March, with the replacement of the feathers of the wings and the tail. By July, the moult would have been completed and the bird would have had a chance to fatten up, ready for the next breeding season to begin.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read free of charge here.

The dodo has become an icon of species extinction, unfairly painted as a clumsy weirdo who couldn’t find a way to survive, when, as this new evidence underscores, it was very well adapted to its unique environment before people hunted it mercilessly and destroyed its ecosystem. A native species of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the dodo’s large beak and rotund body gave it something of a comical appearance which has played into the narrative of the goofy bird who just couldn’t hack in the real world.

It was the Dutch they couldn’t survive. Dutch ships first made landfall on Mauritius in 1598. Forty years later, the Dutch established their first settlement to harvest the island’s ebony trees. They also attempted to grow sugar cane and introduced domestic animals and deer. None of these endeavors proved financially successful and the first colony was abandoned two decades years after its founding. Some desultory attempts to colonize the island ensued until the Dutch gave up once and for all in 1710.

They sure left their mark, though. They destroyed the ebony forests, depriving endemic species of their habitat. They slaughtered local birds and turtles for food, and overwhelmed the ones they didn’t eat with competing animal species. One of those local birds was the dodo. The last living one was sighted in 1662 and the Dutch cared not one whit, so little, in fact, that they didn’t even notice that by the early 1690s the entire species was gone, extinguished in less than a century.

For a long time the dodo was considered mythical and the only evidence that it had ever existed were a few drawings made from life by explorers and a smattering of bones. The 19th century saw a sudden surge of interest in the curious bird, but there was so little to go on that scientists had to make do with a few drawings and random body parts. In their 1848 monograph The Dodo and Its Kindred, Strickland and Melville remarked on how difficult scientific study of a bird that had gone extinct less than two centuries earlier was because the source material was so sparse and unreliable.

In the case of the didinae, it is unfortunately no easy matter to collect satisfactory information as to their structure, habits, and affinities. We possess only the rude descriptions of unscientific voyagers, three or four oil paintings, and a few scattered osseous fragments, which have survived the neglect of two hundred years. The paleontologist has, in many cases, far better data for determining the zoological characters of a species which perished myriads of years ago, than those presented by a group of birds, which were living in the reign of Charles the First.

The first dodo fossils were found in 1865, but they were fragmentary. Research based on those finds that was published in science journals still had to rely heavily on speculation to fill in the many unknowns about this bird. Amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux was the first to discover complete or almost complete skeletal remains of dodos during his excavations in Mauritius between 1899 and 1910. Decades after the Dodo became a subject of fascination despite the lack of osteological material bemoaned by Strickland and Melville, Thirioux’s finds made little impact on the scientific community. One Thirioux skeleton, almost complete minus a few bones, wound up in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa. The second is in the Mauritius Institute, appropriately enough. The one in the Mauritius Institute is the only complete dodo skeleton known and the only one that is from a single bird. The Durban skeletal is believed to be a composite of two partial dodo skeletons.

Neither museum realized what rare and significant specimens they had until a few years ago when the Natural History Museum’s Dr. Julian Hume sought them out to do the first comprehensive study of dodo anatomy in 150 years. The study was capped off with this nifty 3D laser surface scanning reconstruction of the skeleton at the Durban Natural Science Museum shows a detailed rendering of the bird’s skeletal structure in what scientists now believe is an anatomically accurate position.

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Chinese workers found buried in ancient Lima pyramid

Friday, August 25th, 2017

The remains of 16 Chinese labourers from the late 19th and early 20th century have been found buried in a 1,000-year-old adobe pyramid in Lima, Peru. The bodies were discovered at the top of the Huaca Bellavista pyramid built by the Ichma people who flourished in Lima before they were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. The pyramid was used as a clandestine cemetery by the Chinese because they were forbidden from using Catholic cemeteries. Historians believe they may have been drawn to the ancient sacred spaces which were used for high status burials when they were first built and for centuries afterwards. The remains of Chinese labourers have been found at other adobe pyramids in Lima, but this is the largest group of Chinese migrant burials ever found in Peru.

In a possible sign of how the Chinese gradually emerged from dire poverty in Peru, the first 11 bodies were shrouded in cloth and placed in the ground, while the last five wore blue-green jackets and were buried in wooden coffins, [lead archaeologist Roxana] Gomez said.

“In one Chinese coffin, an opium pipe and a small ceramic vessel were included in the funerary ensemble,” said Gomez.

The opium pipe has a porcelain base decorated with blue seashells. Other grave goods discovered in the graves include an inkwell and an unusual flat wooden box that historians believe may have held an important document like his work contract. In addition to the blue-green jackets, other clothing was found on the bodies, among them cotton hats and blue jeans.

Chinese labourer with fractured skill and braid. Photo by Martin Mejia, AP.One of the deceased was found with a fractured skull, likely the result of violent trauma. Even broken, his skull still retained the traditional braid of hair at the base. Chinese labourers were treated abysmally and there are several cases on record of them being beaten severely. The court cases were not about owners/overseers abusing Chinese workers, mind you. It was the Chinese on trial for responding with violence to the violence inflicted on them. Perhaps this young man was a victim of a workplace “injury.”

The cotton plantations in the foothills of the Andes in the Lima area were hard to farm. The land is arid desert, virtually rainless, and cannot grow any kind of crop at all without extensive irrigation systems piping water down from the mountains. Even irrigated, the land was only productive enough for two crops of cotton a year. The first was of comparatively good quality, but the manufactured product was still low-end. The second crop was worse in quality, lower in quantity and even more difficult to harvest. Harvesting by machine was not possible because the machines left too much of the bolls (the white fluffy part) behind while picking up too much of the leaves and stems that are useless in the manufacture of cotton textiles.

From a description on the back of a stereoscopic card of Chinese cotton plantation pickers published by Underwood & Underwood in 1900:

It has been found that Chinese laborers are the most reliable for work on a cotton plantation. They receive seventy cents, silver, per quintal (100 pounds) and they average two quintals a day. An expert picker will gather three quintals per day on the first crop of the season. On the second crop the laborers receive one dollar, silver, per quintal, because this crop is harder to pick. The cotton grown here is of medium grade, such as is used in the manufacture of coarse muslins and rough cotton goods.

With slavery abolished in 1854, the solution to the thorny question of who would willingly do this awful job for crap wages was what it always is: immigrants. Chinese indentured labourers migrated to Peru starting in 1849, when slavery was being phased out and there was a dire shortage of workers for the sugar and cotton plantations and guano mines. Just as in the United States with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese labour in Peru played a key role in the Guano Boom, a period of great prosperity for Peru thanks to profits from guano exports to Europe where it was highly prized as fertilizer.

In the mid-19th century, 100,000 Chinese labourers, almost entirely Cantonese men from Guangdong province, immigrated to Peru to work in brutal conditions for spare change. They were deceived into signing contracts with the promise of making a decent living only to find almost immediately they’d been lied to. The ships that transported them were called “floating hells” and the ones who survived the four-month voyage arrived riddled with disease and injury. They were immediately put to work in the plantations and mines, working from dawn until night. After 12 hours of back-breaking labour, they were locked into their quarters to keep them from running away.

Little wonder they hit the opium pipes once those doors locked, and the plantation owners encouraged the habit because they just so happened to have a monopoly on opium sales granted by the British. They couldn’t make that kind of money off of alcohol and coca.

Chinese immigration was severely restricted in 1909 and prohibited entirely in 1930. By then there was a well-established community of mixed Chinese and Peruvian heritage. Their descendants, the Tusans, still live in Peru today. Up to 3% of the population is of Chinese ancestry, more than 1,000,000 people according to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, the largest ethnically Chinese community in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. Lima has more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants that serve a unique fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine and a small but thriving Chinatown (the Barrio Chino) with schools, temples, benevolent associations and multiple Chinese language periodicals.

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Stolen de Kooning found 32 years after theft

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

In a happy counterpoint to yesterday’s sad news, a painting by Willem de Kooning stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson 32 years ago has been found and returned to the museum. Woman-Ochre was snatched November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, in a classic two-person misdirection ploy. A woman and a man waltzed into the museum bright and early at 9:00AM. The woman ran interference with the security guard, capturing his attention while her partner cut the painting out of the frame. They quickly left together and that was the last anyone saw of them. The whole operation from entry to exit had taken less than 15 minutes.

The subsequent police investigation failed to find the culprits or the painting and for three decades the case was cold as ice. It turned burning hot earlier this month when David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. Van Auker saw it hanging behind the bedroom door at the home of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, and decided to buy it along with a pile of other assorted gewgaws from the sale. He had no idea it was an original de Kooning; he just thought it was cool.

He propped the painting up against the wall of his shop and a customer told him it looked like a de Kooning. Then another customer noticed it and mentioned it could be a de Kooning oil painting. A third soon joined the chorus. Van Auker started getting antsy. Much Googling ensued, and when he read about the theft from the museum, he realized he very likely had a gazillion dollar stolen painting in his shop. He nervously moved it into the bathroom to keep it out of view of any more customers.

Van Auker called the UAMA and told them he thought he had their long-lost de Kooning. The next day the head of the museum, a curator and a restorer from the Arizona State Museum scrutinized the painting. The restorer examined it for two hours at the end of which she confirmed that it was authentic. After spending a night under lock and key at the local police station, Woman-Ochre was transported back to the museum in Tucson.

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” said Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries. This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre’ was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.

Woman-Ochre is one of a series of paintings de Kooning did exploring the female form, a subject that many critics and artists asserted had been superseded by abstract, non-representational art. While eschewing the traditional depictions of what he called “the idol, the Venus, the nude,” Kooning drew from a wide range of iconographic references — prehistoric mother goddess figurines, advertising models, pinup girls — to create abstract expressionist versions of figures out of thick lines and dynamic slashes of color.

Paintings in de Kooning’s Woman series today grace the walls of the world’s top museums, and on the rare occasions when they become available on the market, they sell for astronomical prices. Ten years ago one sold for $137.5 million. Bound by the terms of the Gallagher donation, the UAMA cannot sell the painting even if it wanted to, which it most emphatically does not, but based on the comparables, it could be worth something in the neighborhood of $160 million.

At the time of the theft, the painting was insured for $400,000, a risibly small sum compared to its market value today. The museum very wisely put the money in an endowment fund and used the interest to upgrade its security systems. Upon the painting’s return, the museum paid back the original $400,000 to the insurers so they again have clean title to the artwork.

The de Kooning is in need of some tender loving care. The edges are ripped from being hacked out of the original frame and whatever jackass reframed it stapled it to a board. The thieves also rolled it up for ease of transport, making the paint brittle in parts. Thankfully it has not begun to flake yet. Before the painting goes back on display, it will undergo thorough restoration and study. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating how the stolen work wound up in the nice but humble three-bedroom home of a retired music teacher and a retired speech pathologist.

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The 1st photographs of a total solar eclipse

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

It’s been far too long since I indulged in a theme post. As total eclipse of the sun mania has struck the US, I’m jumping on the bandwagon too. The subject covers three of my favorite obsessions: the history of photography, the history of astronomy and historical firsts, all accompanied by that greatest of all obsessions, great high-resolution pictures.

William and Frederick Langenheim were born in Schöningen, Germany in 1807 and 1809 respectively. The were from a prominent family — their father Friedrich Wilhelm was mayor of Schöningen from 1808 until 1813 — but left what was then the Duchy of Brunswick in the 1830s. They immigrated to the United States and carved out careers as journalists. By 1842, they had opened a photography studio in Philadelphia.

The Langenheim daguerreotype studio quickly rose to preeminence in the city, thanks to the brothers’ great talent, inventiveness and embrace of new technology. In 1850 they debuted a new projectable photographic slides they called Hyalotypes. The device used to project them was a better-mousetrap version of the magic lantern which projected small drawn or painted images onto large screens. The stereopticon, as the Langenheim’s device became known, was a huge leap forward because it projected photographic images, not drawings, and because daguerreotypes capture even the most minute detail that cannot be seen with the naked eye, they could be magnified onto a screen at enormous dimensions, large enough that an auditorium of thousands could see spectacular images of, say, Niagara Falls or St. Peter’s Basilica without loss of resolution.

The brothers’ stereopticon had another feature that would prove momentous: a twin lense system that allowed the images to be faded one into the other, a smooth transition that far outshone the magic lantern’s choppy switch-overs. When they conceived of showing slides in an orderly progression, one dissolving into the other in a chronologically rational sequence, they unwittingly introduced the forerunner to the moving picture. The Langenheims charged people a dime to see pictures of natural, historical, architectural, artistic and scientific wonders projected on the big screen and the device was a huge hit.

A perfect subject for the stereopticon appeared in the skies over North America on May 26th, 1854. It was a total eclipse of the sun, the first one in the US since Louis Daguerre announced his new image-fixing process in 1839. The Langenheim brothers took eight daguerreotypes of the eclipse as it progressed. Only seven of them have survived. They are now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although six other daguerreotypists and one calotypist are known to have documented the event, only these seven daguerreotypes survive. In the northern hemisphere, the moon always shadows the sun from right to left during a solar eclipse; these images therefore seem odd because they are, like all uncorrected daguerreotypes, reversed laterally as in a mirror.

It is noteworthy that these daguerreotypes are quite small, three exceptionally so. In order to produce any kind of image at all, the Langenheims were forced to use the smallest cameras available, since smaller cameras require proportionally less light and there was virtually no available light when the disk of the new moon eclipsed the largest part of the sun. The missing eighth image was probably made on the smaller plate size and showed nothing at all-a total eclipse.

As for our eclipse, now so easily captured by terrestrial and satellite technology, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is going all out. They have secured safe solar telescopes from the National Air and Space Museum and will make them available to the public between 1:00 and 4:00PM so people can watch the eclipse up close and in total security. They’ve also created an exhibition, Solar Eclipses: Past and Present, from their pictures and records of other eclipses.

For all you eclipse watchers out there, don’t forget your protective eyewear. If you don’t have the opportunity to view the eclipse in person, you can follow its whole extraordinary path on NASA’s website.

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Dutch shipwreck yields more treasures

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Divers exploring the wreck of the Rooswijk, an 18th century Dutch ship off the coast of Kent, England, have discovered a sealed seaman’s chest whose contents are unknown but could be actual treasure. The largest of several chests recovered from the wreck, it is about one meter long and could contain objects like sabre blades (known to have been on board) that need a long container. Or, like other chests previously recovered from the wreck, it could contain silver ingots and coins, a conventional treasure as well as a historical one.

Of course, any contents at all would be archaeologically precious, but archaeologists dare not open it for risk of damaging the chest and/or its contents.

It may never be possible, or even desirable, to open the mystery chest. Conventional x-rays often don’t reveal much of heavily concreted objects. Angela Middleton, a conservation expert at Historic England, hopes to persuade the customs authorities to bring along one of the scanners they use at the port to check for people and goods hidden in lorries, and see if it shows up anything.

“We might find out it is impossible to open the chest without destroying it. Or we might find out what is in it and decide it’s just not worth even trying to open it,” she said.

The Rooswijk, a three-masted Dutch East India (VOC) trading ship, had just set off from Amsterdam on its way to Jakarta with a hold full of silver bullion and coins to buy spices when it was blown off course in a storm and sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off Kent in January of 1740. Known as the Ship Swallower, the Goodwin devoured the Rooswijk and all 250 crew and passengers on board.

The ship was so heavily laden it went down in a flash. British newspapers reported on the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship in the storm. Letters and debris washed ashore. It’s not clear whether the VOC was made immediately aware of these reports. The voyage to Jakarta was so long Dutch East India officials wouldn’t have had reason to worry until after the ship failed to reach its scheduled stop at the Cape of Good Hope, months after its departure and sinking.

Whatever was left of the Rooswijk and its very heavy, very valuable cargo was covered over by the Goodwin Sands and its location remained a mystery for centuries. After years of documentary research and a magnetometer survey, a diver found the wreck and in 2005, a team of underwater archaeologists explored it. They recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, including musket parts, knives, sword blades, hilts and scabbards, pewter dinnerware, silver coins, more than 500 four-pound silver ingots. Because the wreck is owned by the Dutch government by virtue of its having absorbed the Dutch East India Company in 1798, the artifacts recovered from the wreck are property of the Netherlands and were returned to it. Some of them are now on display at the Maritime Museum in Vlissingen.

Because of its historical importance and rarity — just a third of the 250 known VOC wrecks have ever been found and the Rooswijk is the only one of them to be scientifically investigated — in 2007 the site was designated a protected wreck. The designation made any unauthorized interference with it a crime. Still, the location was kept under wraps to discourage treasure hunters from trying their luck.

Last year, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Historic England launched a new excavation of the Rooswijk. There was an urgent need to survey the site because changing tides had drastically shifted the deep silt layers, exposing timbers that have long been shielded under the sediments. This not only triggered precipitous decay, but it made it more likely that looters might find the ship.

Working with the divers who first explored the wreck in 2005, archaeologists have recovered pewter tankards and spoons, glass brandy bottles, elaborately carved knife handles, shoes, wine glasses with twist stems, an onion jar, cooking tiles, Mexican silver dollars and cut up pieces of eight. All of the artifacts have been taken to a huge warehouse in Ramsgate to be recorded and receive any emergency treatment they require. They will then be moved to a Historic England facility for further conservation before being returned to the Netherlands.

There will be an open day at the Ramsgate warehouse on September 16th to give the public what may be their only chance and seeing some of these finds before they leave the country.

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Oldest surviving original picture of US President found

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

A daguerreotype portrait of John Quincy Adams taken in March of 1843 by Philip Haas, the earliest surviving original photographic image of a US president, has been rediscovered after more than a century and a half of languishing in obscurity. It is going up for auction at Sotheby’s Photographs sale on October 5th in New York. This silver plate portrait has been in the family of Horace Everett, a congressman from Vermont who served in the House of Representatives from 1829 to 1843, since Adams gifted it to him in 1843, but the seller, a descendant who wishes to remain unnamed, thought it was a portrait of Horace Everett and had no idea that an object of national significance was stashed amidst his attic clutter.

Claims of historical precedence tend to come with caveats and asterisks, and it must be noted that the daguerreotype, a so-called half plate measuring about 5 inches by 4 inches, is not, technically, the earliest photographic image of an American president.

That honor, if few others, belongs to William Henry Harrison, who had his likeness taken in 1841, around the time of his inauguration. He died of an uncertain illness 32 days into his term, and the original daguerreotype is not known to survive, though the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy, made by the Boston firm Southworth and Hawes around 1850. And Adams himself was first photographed in 1842, by the Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr., though the images appear to be lost.

With the earlier pictures surviving only in later reproductions, that makes this daguerreotype the oldest known original image of a US president. (Until someone reads the headlines, is inspired to dig through grandpa’s junk and finds the William Henry Harrison portrait.)

The son of second President of the United States John Adams and his redoubtable wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams ably filled his father’s very large footsteps, carving out an exceptional career as a diplomat and politician. He started out with a bang as a US Minister to the Netherlands under President George Washington. Other high ranking diplomatic posts followed, in between which he held his first high elected office as a Senator from Massachusetts (1803-1808). He was President James Monroe’s Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825 — it was Adams who actually crafted the Monroe Doctrine, not Monroe — and then succeeded him to the highest office in the land when he was elected the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829).

After his loss to Andrew Jackson in the 1829 presidential election, despondent by the ugliness of the campaign and devastated by the suicide of his son, Adams contemplated retirement. Within two years he was back in the public service game. John Adams had been a one-term president, after all, the first one. John Quincy was the second, so he was still very much following in his footsteps. Between 1831 and 1848 he was repeatedly elected to the US House of Representatives from Massachusetts.

Horace Everett’s time in Congress overlapped with John Quincy Adams’. The two men were politically aligned and personal friends. Everett happened to be at Haas’ studio when the former president sat for the portrait. Adams had interrupted Everett’s sitting, in fact, which is why Adams gave him the signed plate as a gift since he’d been witness to its conception and had graciously allowed him to cut the line.

A patchwork of labels on the back of the newly discovered daguerreotype, which is in a simple ebonized wood frame, attests to that personal connection. There’s a piece of brown paper, apparently clipped from an envelope, with “J.Q. Adams” in the return address space, in what appears to be the former president’s handwriting. “He had a distinctive way of making his H’s,” Ms. Bierman said.

There’s also a bookplate with the Everett family crest, on which someone else wrote “Presented by J.Q.A. to his Kinsman H.E. 1843,” and noted that it was said to be “one of the earliest daguerreotypes.”

That was a bit of an overstatement. Louis Daguerre released his process of fixing images onto metal plates in August of 1839 and American photographers were experimenting with his system within months.

It wasn’t even one of the earliest daguerreotype portraits. Hell, it wasn’t even one of earliest daguerreotype portraits Philip Haas made of John Quincy Adams. This plate was the product of Adams’ second portrait shoot with Philip Haas. The first one had taken place a week earlier. In his diary entry for March 8th, 1843, John Quincy Adams recorded with wonderment his impressions of the technology.

I walked this morning to Mr Haas’ shop, and he took from his camera obscura there Daguerrotype likeness of me. The operation is performed in half a minute, but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me. Mr Haas says it is a chemical process upon mercury, silver, gold and Iodine. It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.

He returned for a follow-up shoot on March 16th. From his diary entry from that day:

According to promises I walked up to Mr Haas’s shop about 9. my hands in woolen lined gloves bitterly pinched with cold. Found Horace Everett there for the same purpose of being facsimileed. Haas took him once, and then with his confront took me three times – the second of which he said was very good – for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.

The daguerreotype is estimated to sell for $150,000–250,000, but it’s likely to go for much more than that due its illustrious subject, uniqueness and historical significance.

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Tudor palace remains found under Old Royal Naval College

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

The remains of the Tudor-era palace have been discovered under the floor of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. The crew was working on an ambitious project to restore the King William Undercroft of the hall and reveal English Baroque architecture designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that was covered up more than a hundred years ago when they found the remains of two rooms from Greenwich Palace. One has a rare surviving stretch of lead-glazed tile flooring.

Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were.

One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.

The first palatial structure on the site was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. Appointed Lord Protector upon his brother’s death, he largely ruled the country while his nephew was a small child and was even Regent, albeit a contested one, after the death of his elder brother. In 1433 he had a palace he named Bella Court built on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from London.

When he was accused of treason by his enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and died in jail in 1447, she took Bella Court and renamed it the Palace of Placentia (from the Latin for pleasantness). From then on, it was the monarch’s playground and a highly popular one at that. Nestled in the bucolic splendor of Greenwich Park, it was a quick boat ride from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, the primary London palaces of the Tudor monarchs. It offered all the clean air and verdant beauties of the country with all the advantages of easy proximity to the metropolitan heartbeat of London.

King Henry VII rebuilt and expanded the palace, and Henry VIII, never one to be outdone when it came to lavish spending on his personal luxuries, turned into one of the most glamorous palaces in the country, on a par with Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII was born in the Palace of Placentia, so he had a particular affection for it. The future Queen Mary I was also born there. So was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Her mother Anne Boleyn was arrested there before being taken by barge to the Tower of London. Henry’s much longed-for but ultimately sickly and ineffectual male heir Edward VI died there.

Elizabeth I spent many a summer at Greenwich Palace and several events of momentous import in her reign took place there, including the parade of booty captured from the Spanish Armada, a performance by William Shakespeare, her knighting of Sir Francis Drake and, according to an almost certainly apocryphal tale, Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalric act of covering a puddle with his cape so the Queen would not soil her dainty regal feet.

The Stuart monarchs weren’t as fond of Greenwich Palace as the Tudors had been, but it was still one of the most frequented palaces thanks to its prime location. Placentia was eclipsed when the Queen’s House was built nearby on the Greenwich Park grounds. Commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, Queen’s House was built between 1616 and 1635 by architect Inigo Jones, his first big royal job and the first palace built entirely in the classical style Jones would become famous for.

As with so many buildings associated with the British monarchy, aristocracy and church, the Palace of Placentia declined precipitously during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Cromwell tried to sell it at first, as he had sold off so many royal possessions. In 1652 the House of Commons authorized its sale to defray the Navy’s expenses. They ordered the palace, park and all associated lands be surveyed and their value assessed, but while the survey did take place, there is no record of the sale attempt going any further. Always practical minded, Cromwell converted the palace into a biscuit factory. Later he used it as a prisoner of war camp.

Come the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II decided to call time on the one glorious Palace of Placentia, by now so dilapidated it was beyond repair. He ordered it demolished and a new even grander palace built in its place. The expansive luxury compound he envisioned was never finished. His successors William and Mary had no interest in picking up where he left off. In 1685 they gave Charles’ unfinished nub of palace, a chunk of the grounds and other structures to Sir John Sommers with the intent that he use the estate to build the new Royal Hospital for Seamen, which he did.

And so Greenwich Palace became the Naval Hospital and then the Old Royal Naval College. When the restoration of the undercroft and elaborately painted ceiling after which the Painted Hall is named is complete in 2019, the hall will be the new visitor center for the Old Royal Naval College. The ORNC is hoping to include the newly discovered Tudor remains in the new visitor center, but that will require more money, and they’re still £2 million short of the total they need to complete the Painted Hall Project as it is. I’m sure they’ll find a way. How many more kings and queens had to have been born and died there before they can scrounge up the cash to preserve some of the only surviving remains of Greenwich Palace?

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