Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

La Belle exhibit opens at Austin’s Bullock Museum

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

The wreck of La Belle, one of explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle’s supply ships, is on view to the public now, 328 years after it sank in Matagorda Bay and 17 years after it was recovered from the sea floor.

When the 54-1/2-foot frigate went down in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1686, it was packed with supplies to support a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi and a planned military expedition into Mexico. Neither of those two aims were achieved. When the wreck was found by Texas Historical Commission archaeologists in 1995, the bottom third of the ship’s oak hull was completely intact. To keep this marvel of preservation together, the recovery team built a cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out all the water and excavated the hull from six feet of mud. After two years, the excavation retrieved the remains of the ship and more than 1.6 million artifacts including 21,500 pounds of gunpowder, cannons, muskets, cooking vessels and navigational tools. Whole crates were found full of an enormous quantity of trade goods, including 1,571 brass Jesuit rings, 17,000 brass pins, 664 axe heads, and 618,000 glass beads strung together by color.

The ship’s hull was sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where it was soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and keeps it from drying out or warping. After 15 years in PEG, the timbers were moved to a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide where the process of drying them out without damage could be accomplished faster and cheaper.

This summer the timbers were transported from Texas A&M to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. On October 25th, reassembly of the hull began in full public view at the museum. Visitors can watch La Belle rise again and interact with the archaeologists, asking questions as they work.

More than 100 artifacts and a live-action reassembly tell a story that was lost at sea for 300 years. Discover what items 17th century French settlers thought were important enough to transport across the ocean to establish a new North American colony. Artifacts such as brass kettles, cooking utensils, and carpentry and farming tools shed light on both European domestic culture and future colony planning. Colored beads and other trade goods perhaps speak to strategies for interacting with American Indians. An iconic La Belle artifact, the bronze cannon, tells more than a military story. It was the carved dolphin handles, along with other cannon insignia, that helped historians determine that the wreckage they had discovered was indeed La Belle. A replica of the ship pinpoints where the artifacts were found during excavation. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, watch up-close inside the gallery as the ultimate artifact of the exhibition, the ship itself, rises again as experts reassemble the vessel, timber by timber.

Assembly is expected to be completed by May of next year, so you have seven months to see the ship come together before the hull is encased in a glass structure that will allow people to walk on the ship and experience the feeling of being on deck looking down into the cargo hold.


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Replica of Vasa bronze cannon shot

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

In late 2012, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home of the beautiful but unstable flagship of the Swedish fleet that sank a mile from the shore on its maiden voyage in 1628, put together a team to recreate one of the ship’s 24-pounder bronze cannons. Although Vasa went down in ignominy before it had a chance to make a name for itself, the light cannon that became known as the Vasa gun would be adopted all branches of the Swedish military as the standard artillery piece during the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden was the world’s largest exporter of cannon in the 17th century, and other European countries developed their own versions of the Vasa gun, so learning more about this particular weapon illuminates a far broader stage than just the ship or Swedish naval warfare.

The aim of the project was to make an accurate copy of the cannon and its accessories (mount, ammunition, powder, etc) and then fire it on range. The experiment would be documented with film, audio recordings, doppler radar and pressure monitoring to provide a wide range of data on the ballistic and tactical capabilities of the Vasa gun. Because Vasa was recovered in such excellent condition thanks to the cold, woodworm-inhospitable waters of the Baltic Sea, it was possible for the team to recreate every element of the weapon system, not just the barrel which is the only part that usually survives.

It took almost two years for the project to get to the firing stage. Designing and building the molds and fittings, testing the pour with an iron version first, composing the proper alloy, casting and curing the final product, was no small task. No detailed was spared to make it an exact replica, right down to the decorative motifs on the outside of the gun. The bronze 24-pounder was cast in November of last year. It is ten feet long, weighs 1.5 tons and the alloy is made of around 93% copper, 4-5% tin, and trace amounts of zinc and lead.

Here is video of the casting of the cannon at the foundry last November. The gentleman with the impressive beard is Tom Ward, a Boston sculptor and Fulbright scholar who has been documenting the creation of the replica in an outstanding blog on the Vasa Museum website which I highly recommend reading last page to first so you can see the insane amounts of work that went into this ambitious project:

It took another 11 months after that to get the cannon in proper firing order. On October 2nd, 2014, a Vasa gun fired for the first time in nearly four centuries. In this proofing run, the cannon shot four rounds, the largest of which used 3.3 kilos of powder to generate 10,400 psi of breech pressure and a muzzle velocity of 399 meters per second or mach 1.17. The ball doesn’t beat the speed of sound for long, however. Exponential drag slows it down very quickly.

On Wednesday, October 22nd, the official trials began, witnessed by 200 journalists, museum staff and members of the armed forces.

In this Swedish language video, you can see the cannon being muzzle loaded, details of the replica section of the side of Vasa‘s hull used for target practice, a nice glimpse of the gun and recoil after firing before the entire scene is obscured with smoke, and a close view of the hole left in the target. It’s quite a small hole, really, but it goes all the way through.

Here is film of the cannon being fired at different frame rates:

And here is the proverbial money shot, a detailed view of the cannon being fired at the target, a close-up of the hit, and the impact of the ball on the wood recorded on high speed film so when it’s played back you see every shard and splinter create almost a loose tornado effect. So, so cool.

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Dr. Livingstone’s beetles, I presume?

Monday, October 20th, 2014

First Darwin’s barnacles turned up in the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum. Now the Natural History Museum in London has discovered a collection of previously unknown beetle specimens gathered by Dr. David Livingstone during his Zambezi expedition of 1858–64. These are the only known surviving specimens collected by Livingstone on the chaotic history-making expedition to open up the Zambezi River to English trade and resource exploitation. Impassable rapids and waterfalls ensured his utter failure on that score, but the expedition was the first to reach and explore Lake Malawi.

The specimens were discovered by Max Barclay, the Natural History Museum’s Collections Manager of Coleoptera and Hymenoptera. He was doing a check of the museum’s vast stores as part of an effort to catalog some of the collection online when he found a wooden box containing 20 pinned beetles neatly labeled “Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone.”

Max Barclay comments, “The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest, oldest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, consulted every year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. The beetle collection alone includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries. To study them all will take a lifetime. I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day. These specimens are still valuable to science. Museum researchers use historical specimens to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world.”

The beetles were a bequest by Edward Young Western, a lawyer and dedicated amateur entomologist who left a large collection of 15,000 insect specimens to the Natural History Museum after his death in 1924. Museum researchers believe he acquired the box of beetles from one of the members of Livingstone’s expedition, perhaps Livingstone’s own brother Charles. The expedition had been funded by the government and David Livingstone considered all material collected to be government property, so the sale of these specimens had to be done on the quiet. Experts believe they were sold at a natural history auction in the 1860s.

They were easier to dispose of quietly because the specimens were never published. Although the Zambezi Expedition was considered an abject failure due to its escalating costs, high body count (David’s wife Mary died of malaria shortly after she joined her husband at Lake Malawi in 1862), prodigious rate of personnel being fired or quitting and, most importantly to the government, its failure to find a navigable river route to the interior, the scientific exploration was very successful. Physician and naturalist John Kirk (left the expedition in 1863), physician and botanist Charles James Meller and geologist Richard Thornton (fired by Livingstone) collected a great many specimens for study.

In David and Charles Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi, published in 1866, two years after the expedition was recalled, they laud John Kirk’s collecting work in particular, noting that he’s not listed as a co-author solely because they hope he will publish his own record.

He [Dr. Kirk] collected above four thousand species of plants, specimens of most of the valuable woods, of the different native manufactures, of the articles of food, and of the different kinds of cotton from every spot we visited, and a great variety of birds and insects, besides making meteorological observations, and affording, as our instructions required, medical assistance to the natives in every case where he could be of any use.

Charles Livingstone was also fully occupied in his duties in following out the general objects of our mission, in encouraging the culture of cotton, in making many magnetic and meteorological observations, in photographing so long as the materials would serve, and in collecting a large number of birds, insects, and other objects of interest The collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose.

Many of the new mammal, reptile and avian species found on the expedition were published in scientific journals and were very well received, but for some reason, the insects were neglected, leaving a hole through which 20 beetles could slip through into Edward Young Western’s hands. Because the Natural History Museum has such a massive insect collection, Livingstone’s beetles joined the teeming masses without anybody noticing.

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Remains of 1923 DeMille sphinx recovered from dunes

Saturday, October 18th, 2014

The remains of a large plaster sphinx made for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments have been recovered from the sands of Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach, California. It is one of 21 hollow plaster sphinxes, each 12 feet tall and weighing five tons, used to line the boulevard leading to the main gates of “The City of the Pharaoh,” an imposing visual borrowed from the Boulevard of Sphinxes at Luxor Temple.

An excavation in 2012 recovered the head of one of the boulevard sphinxes, but the team didn’t have the time to recover the body at that time. They buried the body in sand hoping to protect it until they returned, but the elements were unmerciful and when they returned this year the body was in pieces. They found another body nearby, however, that was in much better condition, but keeping it that way once it was exposed to the air was a challenge.

The archaeologists planned to protect the sphinx for removal using the same technique that preserves artifacts excavated in the Middle East — coating them with epoxy and a layer of cheese cloth.

But the humidity from a persistent marine layer prevented the epoxy from adhering, Jenzen said, and the crew had to come up with another plan. [..]

The protective process they came up with was to place a sheet of thin plastic over the plaster, then coat it with expanding foam insulation that hardens to protect the fragile pieces while they’re moved.

The improvised system worked and the sphinx was successfully removed for conservation at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center.

DeMille spared no expense making the set for this Moses vs. Pharaoh epic. He wanted it to look big so he made the biggest set in movie history. The City of the Pharoah set was 720 feet wide, 110 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of Rameses II. The total weight in statuary for the entire movie was 500 tons, which is a particularly astounding weight when you consider that each statue was made of plaster of Paris pieces that could be transported from Los Angeles 175 miles up the coast to the dunes and put together on site. Designed by Art Deco master Paul Iribe, the set took 1,600 craftsmen to build using 500,000 board-feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails, 75 miles of reinforcing cable. There were 2,500 human extras and 3,000 animals. It cost $1.4 million and made $4 million, a record box office for Paramount that would stand for 22 years until DeMille’s remake of the movie shattered it.

Among the extras were 250 Orthodox Jews who DeMille specifically sought out to give the Exodus scenes authenticity and it was by all accounts an incredibly moving experience.

“These Jews streamed out of the great gates with tears running down their cheeks, and then without prompting or rehearsal, they began singing in Hebrew the old chants of their race, which have been sung in synagogues for thousands of years,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Hallett Abend.

According to syndicated Hollywood columnist Jack Jungmeyer, the Jews chanted “Father of Mercy” and “Hear O Israel.” He heard one of the older Jews say to a crew member, “We know this script – our fathers studied it long before there were movies. This is the tale of our beginnings. It is deep in our hearts.”

An elderly woman, overcome with emotion, fell to her knees and shook a fist at the gates of Pharaoh, weeping and casting sand on her head.

Legend has it that when the shooting was over, DeMille had his glorious set dynamited so no budget production could run over to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes and reuse his masterpiece, but archaeologists have found no evidence of wholesale destruction. The set was dismantled and buried in the sand and now nearly a hundred years later, it has been eroded away by sun, sand and rain. For 60 years the exact location of the set was lost until in 1983 filmmaker Peter Brosnan found the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” as it had become known, going on a clue in DeMille’s posthumous autobiography and tips from extras on the film who were still living.

In 1998, Brosnan’s organization, Friends of the Lost City, began to collaborate with the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, then the Nature Conservancy, to excavate and preserve the set. The found pieces of the set as well as artifacts left behind by the cast and crew, putting them on display in what is today the Dunes Center.

The sphinx head recovered in 2012 has been conserved as is now part the star of the Dunes Center Lost City exhibition. Once the newly recovered sphinx body has been reconstructed next year, it will go on display with the head of its companion.

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Build your own 17th c. oak beam tithe barn

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Is Ikea just not a challenge for you anymore? Have you long since mastered the Billy bookcase, dominated the Fjell bed frame and left the Hemnes TV storage combination with glass doors cowed and trembling in your wake every time you breeze by? Well have I got the deal for you: the Acton Hall farm barn, 121 feet long, 28 feet wide and 25 feet six inches high at its central ridge and completely dismantled into its component oak beams. The beams, all individually numbered and complete with plans, will be offered for sale at Summers Place Auctions in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on October 22nd.

Almost entirely in its original condition and dismantled more than 25 years ago. The barn would have originally have had a thatched roof and walls of wattle and daub over the oak aisled wall frames. There are two main threshing bays, each with large double doors. Ten main bays (of approx. 12ft) formed by very substantial jowled oak posts connected to the arcade plate and tie beams by main mortise and tenon, subsidiary teazle tenon and lapped dovetail joints. Aisle wall frames of substantial oak studs. The main tie beams and arcade plates are supported and braced by mainly heavy curved braces, with a few replaced in the 19th century with solid knee braces.

Here is what it looked like before dismantling:


Images courtesy Summer Place Auctions.

Here is what it looks like now:


Images courtesy www.investmentphotography.co.uk.

The structure began its long as storied life as a tithe barn (technically a barn in which the yearly tithe in kind of farmers were stored upon payment to the church, but the term is used loosely to encompass old barns even when they weren’t used for collecting the 10% due local ecclesiastical authorities) on the Suffolk estate of Acton Hall in the mid-17th century. It was later converted into a home. In the late 1980s, the property owners decided to dismantle it to make way for new construction. They were going to sell the timbers piecemeal, but historic barn expert John Langdon, who has a trove of historic barns he reconstructs for buyers like Steven Spielberg and John Kerry, bought the entire structure and numbered each beam so it could be rebuilt elsewhere.

A brewery bought the dismantled barn, planning to use it as a space for special events, but they never found the right location for it and after 25 years of the beams languishing in storage, the brewery sold them back to Langdon. He is now hoping to find a buyer who will pay the £100,000 he estimates the structure is worth as well as another £100,000 for Langdon’s team to re-erect it.

It’s not at all unreasonable, really. You’d pay more than that for a new house of these dimensions. It’s recycled, ecofriendly and those bleached oak beams have more than stood the test of time so you know you’re working with quality materials. A modern imitation couldn’t possibly be as cool no matter how much it tried to reproduce the look of that fabulous oak skeleton so characteristic of centuries of English barn construction. Although its walls and roof were different, the interior of the Acton Hall barn is very much like the glorious buttressed cathedral interior of the Harmondsworth Great Barn, built more than 200 years earlier in 1426. Even the Lacock tithe barn, built a hundred years before that with masonry walls, has similar roof and ceiling architecture.

Just in case you’d like to take a crack at it yourself, here are plans of how the beams come back together:




Images courtesy Summer Place Auctions.

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Louvre crowdfunds to buy gorgeous Teschen Table

Friday, October 10th, 2014

It’s a cultural institution throwing a bake sale to secure a national treasure again, this time the Louvre museum in Paris which needs the funding power of the crowd to purchase the Teschen Table, a masterpiece of 18th century goldsmithing, mineralogy and furniture-making that has an illustrious political history to boot. The table is priced at 12.5 million Euros, most of which the Louvre has already raised. The last remaining million ($1.67 million) they hope to raise in donations by January 31st, 2015.

The table was made in 1779 by Johann-Christian Neuber, a goldsmith, jeweler and lapidary at the Dresden court of Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony. Neuber became known for his gold snuff boxes inlaid with hardstones and gemstones. He called them Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox) because they were like miniature cabinets of curiosities. Neuber would number every stone and include a booklet with the numbered list identifying each mineral and where it was mined. His work combined the high craftsmanship of the goldsmith with the scientific approach of the geologist, and it was highly sought after by scholars and collectors alike. They weren’t easy to get as Neuber’s pieces weren’t for retail; they were usually given as gifts by the Elector of Saxony.

In 1778, Frederick Augustus became embroiled in the War of the Bavarian Succession. Maximilian III Joseph, Prince-Elector of Bavaria, died childless of smallpox in 1777. A number of high-powered candidates vied to claim his title, among them Charles Theodore of Sulzbach, Prince-Elector and Count Palatine, who was the direct heir, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, her son and co-ruler Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, King Frederick II of Prussia and the Elector of Saxony. Negotiations between interested parties proposed various partitions, but nobody could agree on how to slice the Bavarian cake and in July of 1778, Austria and Prussia went to war.

The conflict almost immediately settled into a stalemate. Maria Theresa, who was intimately familiar with how messy wars of succession could be, got Frederick of Prussia and her reluctant son to engage in peace talks brokered by Russia and France. France sent its Ambassador to Vienna, the Baron de Breteuil, to the Austrian Silesian town of Teschen, strategically located between Austria and Prussia, to negotiate a treaty in March of 1779. On May 13th, 1779, the belligerent parties signed the Treaty of Teschen. Charles Theodore would inherit Bavaria, but it and the Palatinate would combine to give him just the one vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he would have to cede some territory to Austria. Austria had to recognize Prussia’s claim to the margraviates of Ansbach and Bayreuth. The Elector of Saxony got a sweet payoff of six million guilders.

With six million extra guilders jingling in his pocket, Frederick Augustus was in a generous mood after Teschen. He gave the Russian representative, Prince Nikolai Wasilyevich Repnin, a Meissen porcelain service composed of hundreds of pieces and a large allegorical centerpiece (now lost) with bases made by Neuber. The Baron de Breteuil got Neuber’s masterpiece: a table made in the style of his snuffboxes only far grander, with miles of gilded bronze, stone insets 10 times larger than on the boxes and far more of them. On the tabletop there are 128 stones — including agate, amethyst, onyx, opal, topaz, sardonyx, jasper, petrified wood — all from Saxony. Five Meissen porcelain medallions bearing allegories of peace and art painted in grisaille by Johann Eleazar Zeissig (also known as Schenau), are placed in the center and cardinal points.

As he did with his snuffboxes, Neuber numbered each stone and created a booklet identifying the type and find site of every number. The numbering begins in the center of the table with the small round gemstones then continues clockwise in concentric circles. You can hover over the tabletop insets on this page to see what kind of stones they are and where they came from.

The hovertext can’t possibly do the booklet justice, however. For this very special assignment, Neuber commissioned Dresden artist and engraver Carl Gottfried Nestler to write every entry in the booklet in a hand so beautiful, so clean, so regular that if you didn’t know it was handwritten you wouldn’t believe it. Someone needs to make a Nestler font because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.

The table became famous in its own time. Historians wrote about it as early as 1782, and it even made a cameo in volume one of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past as a prized piece belonging to the Princesse d’Iéna. In the Swann In Love section, the terribly fashionable Princesse de Laumes laments that her husband wants her to visit the Princesse d’Iéna whom she does not know. She and General de Froberville have this exchange:

“But I must tell you what he’s told me about their house; it’s quite enough. Can you imagine it, all their furniture is ‘Empire’!”
“But, my dear Princess, that’s only natural; it belonged to their grandparents.”
“I don’t quite say it didn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less ugly. I quite understand that people can’t always have nice things, but at least they needn’t have things that are merely grotesque. What do you say? I can think of nothing more devastating, more utterly smug than that hideous style—cabinets covered all over with swans’ heads, like bath-taps!”
“But I believe, all the same, that they’ve got some lovely things; why, they must have that famous mosaic table on which the Treaty of…”
“Oh, I don’t deny, they may have things that are interesting enough from the historic point of view. But things like that can’t, ever, be beautiful … because they’re simply horrible! I’ve got things like that myself, that came to Basin from the Montesquious. Only, they’re up in the attics at Guermantes, where nobody ever sees them.

The Breteuil family did not hide it in the attic. It’s been at the Château de Breteuil about 25 miles southwest of Paris since 1821, leaving only on rare occasions on loan to museums for special exhibitions. In 2010, the family decided to sell the table to raise money to maintain the château and deal with some inheritance issues. They had a foreign buyer lined up and applied to the government for an export license. To block its export, the Teschen Table was declared National Treasure, but the block would expire in 30 months (March 31st, 2013) if the state did not acquire the piece.

In July of last year, the Teschen Table was declared “a work of major patrimonial interest” which granted it another reprieve while funds were raised. The Louvre managed to scrape almost the entire value from its acquisition budget and corporate donors, but needs the aid of the public to reach the final goal. You can donate online here.

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Franklin expedition shipreck is HMS Erebus

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

The shipwreck found last month near King William Island in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf has been identified as Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus. Captained by explorer Sir John Franklin on the hunt for the legendary Northwest Passage, Erebus and its companion ship HMS Terror got stuck in the ice in September of 1846. Nearly 130 souls were lost and as were the ships. People have been searching for the Franklin ships ever since.

When a coalition of private and public organizations led by Parks Canada discovered the ship on September 7th, they weren’t certain which of the two Franklin vessels it was. Storms kept researchers from exploring the wreck for three days, leaving only a brief two-day window before the temperatures dropped below zero and put an end to the summer campaign. They made those two days count, sending four two-man teams on seven dives lasting a cumulative 12 hours. The divers took high resolution photographs, high-definition video and measurements of the wreck

It was the measurements taken during the dives that allowed the research team to identify it as HMS Erebus. The ship is such a good state of preservation that it was possible to compare the measurements to the plans of the ship at the UK National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Erebus is longer and wider than Terror and the measurements and sonar data found that length and breadth aligned with the Erebus plans. The position of certain deck structures also matched Erebus, not Terror.

No artifacts have been recovered as the divers did not go inside themselves. With the limited time they had, researchers would not have been able to explore the interior with the kind of diligence required for a maritime archaeological exploration. The team will be returning next summer (and who knows how many summers after that), so these two days were more gainfully employed surveying the structure and layout of the site. Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris:

“As an archaeological and underwater site, it’s complex and novel, in that it’s a significant three-dimensional structure that we’re going to have to figure out to work inside the interior spaces,” he said.

They did send a camera through an opening in the deck to get a glimpse of the interior of the ship. They were able to view the ship’s galley and the crew’s sleeping quarters. They also saw a mechanism that was part of the custom alterations done to the ship especially for the expedition: a lift that pulled the propeller out of the water up a bronze track to save it from being damaged in thick ice.

Exploring the interior of the stern is a high priority. That’s where Franklin’s cabin and log room were. It’s possible that there could be surviving documents, believe it or not, because the logs were written on rag paper that is very durable and because the cold and darkness of the Arctic water is an excellent preservative. Even if the ink has washed off, imaging technology could detect what was written on any surviving pages.

On a tangentially related note, the discovery has brought to the fore a macabre but awesome story involving a cursed painting that freaked out students taking their exams. In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer exhibited a painting he’d done inspired by the lost Franklin expedition. It’s entitled Man Proposes, God Disposes and features two ravenous polar bears tearing into the wreck of a ship and the skeletal remains of one of its crew members.

It made a strong impression on critics who described it using words like “tragic grandeur” and “living fire of imagination” and was by far the most popular piece at the Royal Academy that year. Lady Franklin and the Admiralty were less enthused. At best the scene was a horrific depiction of Franklin’s fate. At worst those bears were allegorical references to reports that the crew had succumbed to cannibalism which had been very much in the news since Captain John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company had returned from a rescue expedition in 1854 with Inuit testimony of mutilated bodies and bones in kettles. You can read both sides of the cannibalism question debated in Charles Dickens’s literary journal, Household Worlds. Dickens believed Franklin and the fine men of the British navy would never stoop to such behavior. He made his moral argument in two parts, then printed Rae’s response also in two parts.

In his response, Rae specifically rebutted the contention that those gnawed bones could have been the work of polar bears.

Had there been no bears thereabouts to mutilate those bodies — no wolves, no foxes? is asked; but it is a well-known fact that, from instinct, neither bears, wolves, nor foxes, nor that more ravenous of all, the glutton or wolverine, unless on the verge of starvation, will touch a dead human body ; and the carnivorous quadrupeds near the Arctic sea are seldom driven to that extremity.

Franklin’s crew certainly were driven to that extremity, however, and the Inuit who told Rae about it also found Franklin’s telescope which is in the painting.

Victorian patent medicine mogul Thomas Holloway bought the painting at auction in 1881. Holloway died in 1883; in 1886, Man Proposes, God Disposes moved to Royal Holloway College, the all women’s college he had founded in 1879. It now hangs in the school’s Picture Gallery at eye level to students trying to take their exams.

“Originally, it was bad luck if you sat next to it. We really do not know where the rumour started. It must be the subject matter – the biggest failure that Victorian Britain tackled up to that point,” said Royal Holloway curator Dr. Laura MacCulloch.

“When you look at this picture, it’s so miserable and so bleak.”

Yet for one student in the 1970s, the thought of sitting next to a depiction of such failure while writing exams invoked a strong protest.

“The poor registrar had to find something to cover it and the only thing that was big enough was a Union Jack,,” said Dr MacCulloch.

To this day, the painting is covered by the Union flag while students sit exams but Dr MacCulloch denied a story that the painting’s curse was so strong that a student who sat by it committed suicide, leaving a diary entry saying ‘the polar bears made me do it’.

“There is no evidence of that ever happening,” she clarified.

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L’Aquila earthquake reveals mummified fetus

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

The earthquake that struck the central Italian city of L’Aquila on April 6th, 2009, also devastated the small town of Casentino 10 miles to the southeast. The church of St. John the Evangelist, a masonry structure largely built in the 18th century, was heavily damaged. The apse, the vault over the altar, collapsed, reducing the floor to rubble and exposing a long corridor leading to an underground room. When the firefighters arrived to clear the rubble, they found the remains of 150 people, about 30 of them naturally mummified and about 10 of those exceptionally well-preserved.

The find came as little surprise to the residents of Casentino, since the little village didn’t even have a dedicated cemetery until the 20th century; before then people were regularly buried in the ossuary under the church. Over the years the bone pile grew enough to be visible through a lancet window on the back of the church. They didn’t know there were natural mummies in excellent condition, however.

Since the needs of earthquake cleanup and repair took priority, the remains were moved to a protected area of the church for later retrieval. It was two years before experts from the cultural patrimony ministry and archaeological superintendence were able to remove the 10 or so mummified remains in the best condition to the superintendence’s headquarters in Chieti. There they could be preserved in ideal climactic conditions and studied by the anthropology department of the University of Chieti. The rest of the remains were reinterred in the church.

This Italian language news story has some good views of the damaged church and some of the mummies:

Archaeologists studied the clothing and human remains in the hope of learning more about how people lived and died in this small countryside hamlet. Their clothes were in the French style of the Napoleonic era, but upon closer examination the deceased were found to date to different periods over a 200 year range, at least some of the victims of a documented plague in the 1800s. Textiles, shoes, corsets, skirts, shirts, shrouds, rings and rosary beads can be dated by their materials and styles to the 19th century or earlier. People of all sexes and ages are represented: women, men, children, the elderly and even one fetus.

Anthropological examination found an unusually high number of bodies bore evidence of having been autopsied. Dissected skulls (craniotomy) and ribs (costotomy) were particularly common. This wouldn’t be so incongruous in, say, a university city, but in a little country village it’s practically unheard of. There must have been a very curious physician practicing in the area.

It’s the fetal mummy that proved the most startling. Researchers were able to radiocarbon date the shroud wrapping the tiny mummy and found that it was buried around 1840. The fetus died around 29 weeks of pregnancy, so small that sex determination from the bones was not possible. An X-ray of the mummy bundle found the skeleton was not articulated. The skull was dissected in several places and separated from the neck. The arm bones were removed from the skeleton and dislocated at various joints.

This disarticulation is different from the autopsies found in the other mummies from the site. It appears to have been done in utero, not outside of the mother’s body.

All of these characteristics “strongly suggest a case of embryotomy,” which was a procedure that occurred before removing the fetus from the womb, study author Ruggero D’Anastasio of University Museum at University of Chieti, Italy, told Live Science.

This likely case of embryotomy “is the only anthropological proof of this surgical practice up to now in this geographical region,” he added.

Embryotomy was a common practice in ancient times, D’Anastasio said. The procedure was practiced in Alexandria and then in Rome during the first and second centuries, the researchers wrote in the study. Physicians typically performed it when a mother’s life was threatened due to delivery complications or when the fetus was already thought to be dead in the womb.

The little fellow was buried with the utmost care, all the body parts placed back together in the proper anatomical placement and then clothed. The skull fragment was placed on top of the mummy’s head and covered with a little cap.

The concluding paragraph of the study report in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology:

In summary, our report provides evidence for what is likely the best example of embryotomy in the archaeological record of Italy. It also demonstrates that the praxis specialised in gynecology was surprisingly diffused into a very little and peripheral village in Central Italy, where evidently physicians with high degree of professionalism worked. By contrast, the recomposition of the cut-up body and its perfect dressing indicate high sense of pity for the death and for children never born.

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Wedgwood Collection saved!

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I am delighted to report that the Wedgwood Collection has been saved and in record time. The Art Fund’s public campaign to keep this irreplaceable archive that combines 8,000 ceramics with more than 80,000 documents recording 250 years of the political, social, industrial, artistic, technological history of Britain began on September 1st. Their goal was to raise £2.74 million by November 30th. Added to the £13.1 million they had already raised with contributions from the Heritage Lottery fund and private organizations, the total £15.75 million ($25,617,000) was the price to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection.

Within two weeks we had raised £700,000, contributed by 4,000 members of the public. A few days later, the campaign reached £1m from the public and £1m from major donors and grant-making foundations, propelling the total to £2m.

In the last week the match fund was extended and public donations continued to flood in. The appeal surged towards its final target thanks to donations from two regional sources: £250,000 from the Bet365 Foundation, led by Denise Coates CBE, and £100,000 from Staffordshire County Council.

Nearly 7,500 people donated sums as small as £10 and as large as six-figure checks. The most popular amount was £25. Donors chipped in from all over the world, but fully one fifth of the public donations came from the Midlands, the home region of the Wedgwood Collection. Every donation from individual tenners to large pledges like £100,000 from Staffordshire construction equipment manufacturer JCB was matched by a private foundation, a generous gift that was originally only going to last the first few weeks of the challenge but was then extended through the entire campaign.

The massive groundswell of support to save the Wedgwood Collection was unprecedented in the 111-year history of the Art Fund. This was its fastest fundraising campaign ever.

Now the Art Fund has to acquire the collection as per their agreement with all parties. They will then donate it to the Victoria & Albert Museum who will be the archive’s legal owner in perpetuity. The V&A will set up a long-term loan of the archive to the Wedgewood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. At no point will the collection physically move. It’s in the Wedgwood Museum now and there it will remain while money changes hands and legalities are sorted out.

The post-bankruptcy merged company Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD) is in the middle of an extensive £34 million redevelopment of the Wedgwood factory site which will include a new visitor center at the museum. The new World of Wedgwood is slated for completion next spring. (No, I don’t know why they had £34 million to spend on the center but had to get charity to spend less than half that amount securing the actual collection that is the major part of what visitors go to see. It’s probably some hideous legal Gordian Knot involving the bankruptcy and the pension fund liability.)

Now is the time on The History Blog when we dance, Wedgwood style.

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Adoration of the Magi cleaning reveals new details

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi has been in the hands of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure conservation institute in Florence since November of 2011 after Uffizi Gallery curators determined that the painting’s progressive darkening was becoming an increasingly urgent problem. After a year of preparatory work deploying a wide array of diagnostic technologies — Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence, Infrared reflectography, X-Ray imaging, 3D relief for the measurement of micro deformation, Optical Coherence Tomography, chemical analysis, spectrophotometry — to analyze the paint and wood panel, conservators began cleaning the surface a year ago.

The oil on panel painting was commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinian monks of the monastery of San Donato in Scopeto, but Leonardo, who was then a youth of 29 just starting his career, sought greener pastures with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and the next year moved to Milan leaving the Adoration of the Magi incomplete.

The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres (8.2 by 8.2 feet) depicts the three wise men who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies.

Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.

“This is perhaps the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art,” said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery next year.

“Leonardo never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like,” she said, standing in front of the piece.

The monks eventually turned to Filippino Lippi who completed his Adoration of the Magi in 1496, and Leonardo’s piece wound up in the collection of the de Medici family 100 years later. The Medici restorers filled in paint and added layers of clear and brown varnish to give it a more finished, monochromatic look.

In addition to the accumulation of dirt, smoke and pollutants, the Opificio curators had to deal with all those past restorations. The paint and varnishes have changed over the centuries, oxidizing, discoloring, sometimes separating, sometimes adhering to the original surface and blending into it, so conservators had to be very selective in deciding what to remove. The bottom layer of varnish, for example, could be kept as a fixative and a patina, so there was no danger of damaging the original paint. Their goal was not to return the painting to original condition which simply cannot be done, but to restore its readability and brightness in a way that respects the passage of time while ensuring the most authentic and stable possible result.

The cleaning phase is almost done now (about three quarters of the painting has been cleaned) and it has brought to light much of the expressiveness of Leonardo’s faces, color details like the blue of the sky, design elements like the volume of the clothing and figures previously invisible to the naked eye. You can now see builders working on the ancient temple in the left background, and even subtle sketched details. One of the horses on the right has several heads in different positions, while other horses have an extra leg, evidence that Leonardo wasn’t working from a perforated cartoon outline, but rather drawing freehand as he painted.

The cleaning is expected to be finished in 2015, after which the team will turn their attentions to the wood panels. There are four major vertical cracks that need to be fixed to restore structural integrity to the fragile work. The total cost of the four-year process is expected to be €170,000 ($218,000), which will funded by the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Once restoration is complete (hopefully by the end of 2015), the Adoration of the Magi will return to the Uffizi Gallery where it will be on display in a special room along with two other works by Leonardo.

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