Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

The last days of the Romanovs

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

Marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year, The Hague Museum of Photography is hosting an exhibition of pictures capturing the last days of the Romanov family before their execution by Bolshevik soldiers. The photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard, a tutor to the Romanov children and an intimate friend of the family.

Pierre Gilliard was born in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1879. He became a teacher and, Swiss tutors being all the rage in aristocratic circles, in fall of 1904 accepted a position as French tutor to Duke Sergei, the son of Duke George of Leuchtenberg who was Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin. The family spent their summers at the Duke’s datcha at Peterhof on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great built the Grand Palace of Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, while working on the construction of St. Petersburg, but he preferred his little maisonette of Monplaisir to the grandeur of the big house. Tsar Nicholas II avoided the giant formal palace too, spending the summers with his beloved family in the charmingly oxymoronic Cottage Palace.

Tsarina Alexandra and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were close friends and during the summer of 1905 the two families socialized often. That’s when Gilliard first met the imperial family. In September of 1905, Gilliard picked up two new pupils: the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Nicholas and Alexandra’s eldest daughters, then 10 and eight years old respectively. In his memoirs he described them and their mother as polite and considerate and his pupils clever, albeit very much behind where he thought they should be in their command of French.

The third daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Maria joined her sisters’ lessons in 1907, and Grand Duchess Anastasia followed in 1909. Gilliard continued to tutor Duke Sergei until 1909, after which he focused on his imperial students. He taught the girls in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo five times a week as long as they were in residence, and when the Grand Duchesses failed to make as much progress as Gilliard, the Tsar and Tsarina had hoped, he joined the family during their months-long summer sojourns at Livadia Palace in the Crimea.

It is a testament to how trusted a member of the royal household Gilliard had become that he was given the responsibility of tutoring the Tsarevitch Alexei. The heir to the Russian Empire was a very sick little boy, afflicted terribly by the hemophilia that Queen Victoria’s genes had spread throughout the royal families of Europe. (Alexandra’s mother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s favorite daughter.) His illness was a state secret and hidden from everyone. Gilliard was one of a very small inner circle who knew how sick he was and from what.

So close was he to the Tsar’s family that he chose to join them in exile after the February Revolution and Nicholas’ abdication in August of 1917. The family and a select group of the most loyal family and retainers were first confined to Tsarskoye Selo for five months and then sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in the Governor’s Mansion. It was no Grand Palace, but it was downright luxurious compared to what was to come. When the White Army got too close to Tobolsk in April of 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to Yekaterinburg. They were imprisoned in Ipatiev House, the home of local industrialist, and were subjected to a million petty indignities by their Bolshevik guards.

Gilliard went with them as far as he could. He made it to the train platform at Yekaterinburg, but then, for some unfathomable reason, the Bolsheviks refused to let him out of the train and told him he was free to go. He didn’t go. He remained in the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the imperial family, a glimpse he never got. The Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses were shot and bayoneted to death on July 17th, 1918.

In Gilliard’s memoirs, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, he wrote movingly about what a loving, close family they were, all the more so under the extreme duress of their last days. He describes entering Ipatiev House on July 25th after the fall of Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik announcement that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, had been executed while the rest of the family was in a “safe location.”

I went down to the bottom floor, the greater part of which was below the level of the ground. It was with intense emotion that I entered the room in which perhaps – I was still in doubt – they had met their death. Its appearance was sinister beyond expression. The only light filtered through a barred window at the height of a man’s head. The walls and flour showed numerous traces of bullets and bayonet scars. The first glance showed that an odious crime had been perpetrated there and that several people had been done to death. But who? How?

I became convinced that the Tsar had perished and, granting that, I could not believe that the Tsarina had survived him. At Tobolsk, when Commissary Yakovlev had come to take away the Tsar, I had seen her throw herself in where the danger seemed to her greatest. I had seen her, brokenhearted after hours of mental torture, torn desperately between her feelings as a wife and a mother, abandon her sick boy to follow the husband whose life seemed in danger. Yes, it was possible they might have died together, the victims of these brutes. But the children? They too massacred? I could not believe it. My whole being revolted at the idea. And yet everything proved that there had been many victims.

The Soviets continued to deny having slaughtered the imperial family until 1922. Gilliard stayed in Siberia for three years, helping magistrate Nicholas Sokolov investigate the murders. He married Alexandra Alexandrovna Tagleva, Grand Duchess Anastasia’s former nanny and one of the loyal few who went into exile with the Romanovs in 1919. They returned to Switzerland in 1922 where Gilliard returned to his study, becoming a professor of French at the University of Lausanne in 1926. He and his wife both interviewed Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and concluded she was a fraud. Gilliard wrote a book debunking her claims, but there was so much mystique around the alleged Anastasia that plenty of people bought her ludicrous story until DNA evidence proved once and for all that she was a mentally ill Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. He also debunked the first of many Alexei impostors.

An avid amateur photographer, Gilliard took many pictures of the family at leisure — Alexei playing with his dog Joy, the Grand Duchesses putting on a Moliere play, the Tsar shoveling snow — and on official occasions. The original negatives are now in the collection of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. For the new exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography, more than 70 enlarged gelatin silver prints have been made from those original negatives. I hope they digitize them all because there are a lot of sad, grainy, copies-of-copies of Gilliard’s pictures out there. It would be wonderful to be able to see the last happy days of the Romanovs in high resolution. The exhibition runs through June 11th of the this year.

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The Colosseum after antiquity

Monday, March 6th, 2017

The Colosseum is the most visited monument in the world today. The great amphitheater built in Rome during the reigns of the Flavian dynasty emperors Vespasian and Titus (72-80 A.D.) is an icon of ancient Roman engineering and bloodlust, but it has outlived the empire that created it by 1,500 years. The Colosseum saw many changes in its long post-antiquity lifespan, its architecture altered by activity both human and seismic, dedicated to a wide variety of uses from cemetery to shopping mall to fortress. That rich later history is overshadowed by its ancient resume, and the millions of tourists who flock to the Colosseum every year hear a lot more about the gladiatorial combat of the 1st century than about the butchers’ stalls of the 11th.

A new exhibition seeks to correct that oversight. Colosseum. An Icon is the first exhibition to tell the full story of the Flavian Amphitheater, from the gladiators to the butchers and beyond. It covers the numerous attempts at repair and restoration, how the space was repurposed over the centuries, the construction of brick buttresses in the 19th century to keep the outer walls from collapse, how it became a favorite subject of artists from the Renaissance through the Grand Tour era, launching it as the iconic representation of the city of Rome and ancient Roman grandeur. That image spread even wider when moneyed travelers brought back fine marble miniatures and micromosaics of the Colosseum as souvenirs in the 19th century.

The exhibition also illustrates the profound shift in attitude towards the amphitheater from Christians in general and the Papacy in particular. The last recorded games were held in 523 A.D., an animal hunt celebrating the consulship of Anicius Maximus, and already then the Colosseum was very much reduced. The top gallery had collapsed, entrances were impassable, the hypogeum flooded. Neglect, earthquakes and the failure of the unmaintained drainage system took an enormous toll on the building. Travel writers in the Middle Ages thought it was some sort of pagan temple and associated it with nefarious demonic goings-on.

That demon-haunted reputation clung to the Colosseum well into the Renaissance. Renown goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a raucously occult experience at the amphitheater in the 1530s which he recounts in his memoirs.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odour. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils.

As late as 1594, the Popes were still renting the Colosseum out to glue makers and contemplating converting the whole structure into a factory with residences for the workers in the top galleries. That changed in the Jubilee year of 1675, when Pope Clement X declared the Colosseum a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians said to have been condemned to death in the arena. (There is little evidence that Christians were martyred at the Colosseum, btw, and the stories of martyrdom in the amphitheater only began circulating in the Renaissance.) Clement had ambitious plans to dedicate a church to the martyrs inside the Colosseum, asking the great polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini to design it. It was too expensive, though, so Clement just had a cross installed in the arena instead.

The idea didn’t die with him. Twenty years later, architect Carlo Fontana was enlisted to design a prospective Church of the Holy Martyrs inside the Colosseum. Again, the church never happened, but he studied the amphitheater in great detail for this project and wrote a book about its architecture, ancient history, current condition and the proposed church that was published posthumously in 1725. (Random History Blog connection: Fontana’s original architectural drawing of the church in the Colosseum is in the collection of the wonderful Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.) The architectural model and several of Fontana’s drawings are on display in the new exhibition.

The major restoration of the Colosseum, which is still ongoing, discovered many objects and remains from its later life which are will be part of the exhibition. An abundance of butchered animal bones and cooking utensils were found, a testament to the butchers, eateries and private residences which rented space in the ground-level vaults through the 12th century. Of course they unearthed ancient sculptures and architectural details galore. They will join one of only two surviving statues of the 160 that adorned the arches of the second and third-floor arcades when the Colosseum was first built.

The restoration also discovered traces of the Colosseum’s life as a fortress for the powerful Roman noble Frangipani family. Restorers found holes bored into travertine blocks on the top tier of the southern wall. The holes held beams that supported a wooden walkway used by Frangipani soldiers as a lookout station. The find was announced Monday at the press conference about the new exhibition.

Colosseum. An Icon opens Wednesday, March 8th and runs almost a full year until January 7th, 2018. It’s at the Colosseum, in case that wasn’t clear.

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Unique Lodz Ghetto photos at the MFA, Boston

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

The Lodz Ghetto was the second largest (after the Warsaw Ghetto) of more than 1,000 ghettos created to corral Jews in cities as the first step in the “cleansing,” ie, extermination, of European Jewry. Conditions were appalling by design, so that the overcrowding, disease and starvation would do the Nazi’s murderous work for them. Starting in 1942, ghetto residents were regularly deported to concentration camps. Chelmo, the first extermination camp with a gassing system (trucks, not chambers), opened in December of 1941 just 30 miles from Lodz; its first victims came from the Lodz Ghetto, 70,000 of them in 1942 alone.

Because the Lodz Ghetto was uniquely productive — its factories produced uniforms and other materials for the war effort — it lasted longer than any other World War II ghetto, from 1940 until 1944. In August of 1944 it too was liquidated; everyone was rounded up and sent to their deaths, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, more than 200,000 Jews had passed through the Lodz Ghetto on, their way to almost certain death at Chelmno and Auschwitz. When the Red Army liberated Lodz on January 19th, 1945, only 877 survivors, 12 of them children, emerged from their hiding places in the ghetto. Out of the 223,000 Jews who lived in Lodz before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, just 10,000 survived the war.

One of those survivors was Henryk Ross, a Polish Jew who before the war had been a journalist and sports photographer. He was employed as an official photographer for the Jewish Council, aka the Judenrat, ostensibly a self-governing body which administered the day-to-day operations of the ghetto and enforced Nazi orders. Working for the council’s the Department of Statistics, Ross’ job was to take pictures of the ghetto factories, demonstrating their productivity, and of the registered workers for their identification cards.

Ross and the other Department of Statistics photographer, Mendel Grossman, secretly took unauthorized photographs of the horrors all around them. Ross captured the deportations, destruction and deprivations — barefoot workers pushing carts of human excrement out of the ghetto (there was no plumbing or sewage), public executions, children torn from their parents during the Sperre, the September 1942 mass deportation of almost all of the children under 10 to Chelmo where they would be murdered. He also captured small moments of daily life, even happy ones, amidst the nightmare, like young lovers kissing behind a shrub and a children’s birthday party. The variety and range of Ross pictures underscored the class divisions that persisted even in so extreme a context. His photos show the contrasts of ghetto life — the workers, the destitute, the well-fed and well-dressed elite.

In the summer of 1944 when it became clear the Nazis were winding down operations in the ghetto and preparing for the final slaughter, Henryk Ross saw the writing on the wall. Not expecting to survive, he buried 6,000 negatives. His wife and a few select friends helped him, so they knew where Ross’ photographic treasure trove was hidden should he die. As it happened, Ross was not deported to the extermination camps. He was one of the 800 Jews ordered to clean the ghetto. Of course they Nazis were going to kill them all once the clean-up was done — they had eight mass graves dug already — but the Soviets arrived before they could get to it.

After the liberation of Lodz, Ross dug his negatives back up and found that more than half of them had survived. He later said of his fateful decision: “Just before the closure of the ghetto I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

He certainly got his wish — his pictures were used as evidence in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann — but he left a broader historical record than that, documenting the realities of life and death in the ghetto.

Ross’ collection of photographs and film was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2007. The AGO has collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) to organize an exhibition of Henryk Ross’ Lodz Ghetto photographs, plus film of the Eichmann trial and Lodz artifacts like identification cards from the ghetto, notices and announcements. Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross debuted at the AGO last year. It will open at the MFA on March 25th and runs through July 30th, 2017.

The AGO has created an exceptional website with more than 4000 images from the Henryk Ross collection. You can search by keyword and create an online collection of your own for the price of a free registration.

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Skeletons of early colonists found under Florida mall

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed human remains under a Florida mall that may be some of the earliest colonists in what would become the United States. The excavation began this February after David White, owner of the Fiesta Mall in downtown St. Augustine, offered city archaeologist Carl Halbirt a chance to dig under a recently closed wine shop whose floor had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew last fall. They quickly found a human bone, a right elbow, and further excavation found that it belonged to an articulated and complete skeleton. A second skull was found near the skull of the intact skeleton. Meanwhile, digging just outside the building unearthed a leg and a skull from two different individuals.

Carl Halbirt believes they were buried inside the Church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, the earliest documented parish church in the United States. The 2010 excavation of a parking lot a block west of the Fiesta Mall discovered a builder’s trench and the back wall of the church. The front of the church faced the bay, just like the mall building does today. The 1888 structure is a National Historic landmark today, but it’s just the latest in a long line of different buildings constructed around the St. Augustine’s historic Plaza area, the central green characteristic of Spanish urban design. The plaza served as community’s meeting ground and recreational area, and would be ringed with important civic, religious and military buildings. The plaza and Nuestra Senora de los Remedios were built in the same year: 1572, seven years after the founding of the city by conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

The first church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was burned down in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake. Queen Elizabeth had sent him to raid Spanish holdings in the Old World and New. England’s support of the Dutch rebellion against Spain had been made official in the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585, and Philip II retaliated by seizing English merchant vessels in Spanish waters. While he began the naval build-up that would lead to the Spanish Armada’s miserably failed attempt to invade Britain three years later, Elizabeth sent her privateers to harry Spanish shipping and holdings. Drake did quite the round trip: England to Vigo in Galicia (sacked), to Baiona (sacked), to Santiago, Cape Verde (sacked), across the Atlanta to Santo Domingo, modern-day Dominican Republic (sacked), to Cartagena de Indias, modern-day Colombia (sacked). Last on his hit list was St. Augustine, sacked on June 6th, 1586. After that, he sailed up to Roanoke, picked up all the original colonists and returned to England.

Neustra Senora de los Remedios was rebuilt in 1587. That one burned down too, in 1599, although apparently it was an accident the second time around. The hurricane took what the fire did not. The church was rebuilt one more time before the British burned it and the city of St. Augustine to the ground in 1702. After the third fatality, Nuestra Senora was not resurrected. The parish moved to a new church and the location of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was forgotten until its archaeological remains were rediscovered under that parking lot in 2010.

The pottery sherds found near the skeletal remains stylistically date to 1572-1586, so to the time of the first church in the 20 years after the founding of the city. The deceased were likely interred under the floor of the church, a common practice in mission churches of the colonial period. As time passed, it could be a tight fit under a modest church floor. The excavation has now unearthed at seven more burials in a compact area about 12 by six feet. Three of the burials are of children.

“We’ve mapped some of the particular bones,” [archaeologist Kathleen] Deagan pointed to some round circles she said indicated skulls. She says two of the children found were buried in the same pit, possibly at the same time.

“The bio-archaeologist will be able to tell us the precise age but he thinks — based on the bones — they probably are under 7 years old,” Deagan said.

It was not unusual for children to die so young. “When you look at the parish registers of St. Augustine, children died at a much higher rate than they do today,” Deagan explained.

Researchers will need permission from the state of Florida and the Catholic Church to do any further testing, like collecting DNA from the bones. Out of respect for the remains and the consecrated ground they were once in, the skeletal remains found under the floor will remain where they were buried. They will not be removed. The bones found outside the building will be reburied in a Catholic cemetery because the city is running a water line through the area.

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The greatest one sheet I’ve ever seen

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

I love film history so I’ll browse movie poster sales whenever I get the chance. The catalogue for Heritage Auctions’ upcoming Vintage Movie Posters Signature Auction in Dallas on March 25-26 is a treasure chest of cinematic gems. Amidst the many iterations of cat people and leopard men, there are a surprising number of Italian posters for classic Hollywood movies as well as classic Italian ones, lobby cards and one sheets for much of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, iconic horror films — Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong — and all-time greats like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain.

Some of the posters are more iconic than the movie. The famously scandalous poster for The Outlaw (United Artists, 1946) starring Jane Russell’s magnificent cleavage, was so controversial that the film, which was made in 1941, didn’t get wide release until 1946. Howard Hughes, the film’s director and producer and a connoisseur of the cleavage arts and sciences, had a new bra designed with cantilevered underwire construction to display Ms. Russell’s bosom to its best advantage. (It was terribly uncomfortable, apparently, so Jane just hiked up her straps, stuffed the cups and used her regular bra for filming and never told Hughes.) He intended to promote those breasts, Motion Picture Code be damned, hence the famous still of Jane Russell leaning back on the haystack, one of World War II’s most popular pinups, and this poster from an image originally designed by pinup illustrator and model Zoë Mozert. The pre-sale estimate for this poster is $1,500 – $3,000.

It’s not exceptional for its artistry, but the half sheet of Manhattan Melodrama (MGM, 1934) is still noteworthy for its stars — Myrna Loy and William Powell in their first of more than a dozen movies together, an up-and-coming Clark Gable — and for the crucial role the movie it advertises played in real-life historical events. Bank robber John Dillinger was shot to death by the FBI upon exiting an evening showing of Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22nd, 1934. The pre-sale estimate of $2,000 – $4,000 rests primarily on the film’s connection to this iconic moment.

The Art Deco style of this double grande poster of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Gaumont, 1928) is not only striking, but fits perfectly with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s jaw-dropping expressionist cinematography. The massive 5’3″ x 7’11″ poster was designed by Rene Peron, a leading French artist already in the 1920s who would go on to have a decades-long career illustrating more than 2,000 movie posters. This is one my favorite movies. It was so original, so groundbreaking that people are still trying (and failing) to capture the emotional impact Dreyer conveyed with bare sets, rudimentary costumes, camera angles, lighting and the sublime visage of Renée Falconetti who delivers what is in my opinion the greatest tour-de-force cinematic acting performance of all time. It’s such a stellar representation of a landmark film, that it’s no surprise the pre-sale estimate for the poster is $12,000 – $24,000.

But it’s the poster for a classic horror film that inspired the title of this post. My previous favorite was the gloriously lurid red one sheet for James Whale’s 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein, but this one sheet for The Invisible Man (Universal, 1933) has just supplanted it. Like the one sheet for the The Bride of Frankenstein, this one was a teaser poster, released by the studio in advance to generate buzz in theaters for an upcoming attraction. Studios didn’t usually bother with the expense of teaser posters for their horror pictures, but when they did invest in a little advance marketing, the posters that resulted were often spectacular, viz:

The Bride of Frankenstein red teaser was estimated to sell for $700,000 because of its graphic impact, the importance of the movie, and most relevantly, its extreme rarity. Apparently the reserve was not met because the poster failed to sell. The Invisible Man isn’t as rare nor the movie as culturally significant, so its pre-sale estimate is $80,000 – $160,000. I suspect that’s largely a tribute to the powerful impact of the imagery.

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Help transcribe World War I love letters

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Do you speak English, French, German, Dutch, Italian or Slovene? Okay well if you’re reading this you can obviously speak English, and I know many of you are fluent in other languages, ancient and modern. You can put your polyglot skills to good use by transcribing a collection of World War I-era love letters in Europeana’s digital collection.

Europeana, an online cultural heritage network that brings together millions of digitzed items from libraries, museums, collections and assorted other institutions in Europe, launched a crowdsourcing campaign last November to transcribe personal, handwritten texts from World War I. The records come from libraries and archives all over the world, and from members of the public who submitted their precious family keepsakes to memorialize their loved ones’ experiences in the Great War. The Transcribe Europeana 1914-1918 project enlists the aid of an Internet’s worth of eyeballs to decipher the idiosyncracies of handwriting. Once transcribed, the item can then be translated and searched by keyword, subject, author, etc.

The Love Letter Run, as this sub-initiative of Transcribe Europeana is called, contains more than 40 letters, notes, postcards, diaries, autograph books and other personal documents written by soldiers at the front and their loved ones waiting desperately for their safe return.

To cope with the separation, many soldiers sent long, romantic letters of to their loved ones back home. Some women waited longingly for their lovers on the field, while others sought companionship with the men left behind. There was love that transcended borders, love that lasted the ages, and love for one woman fought over by two different men. In the Love Run, we present you stories of romance and betrayal, of lust and longing, heartbreak and new beginnings – all the makings of your favourite melodrama, but from real, handwritten sources of real, lived experiences.

It’s a poignant experience reading the sweet yearnings of young war-torn lovers. There are also all kinds of interesting side-issues that crop up. For instance, if you’re a postcard aficionado (which I am), there are some fascinating pieces in the collection: war propaganda postcards, postcards featuring slightly naughty stolen kisses, sentimental postcards targeted to loved ones separated by war, postcards bearing the official “censored” mark.

Because I am not the only sucker for a theme, the Love Letter Run was launched on February 14th. It will run through 2018, the centennial of the end of the Great War. The database of love letters will be updated with new documents regularly so check back every so often to see the latest offerings. There are plenty of records yet to be transcribed even in English which tends to be the first category completed in crowdsourcing project because the pool of English-speakers on the Internet is so large.

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Stolen “Arbeit macht frei” gate returned to Dachau

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

A wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” stolen from the entrance to Dachau in 2014 was returned to the concentration camp memorial in a ceremony on Wednesday, Feb. 22th. The gate was stolen from the Dachau memorial on the night of November 1-2, 2014. It was found two years later rusting under a tarp in a parking lot in Ytre Arna outside Bergen, Norway. The thieves remain unknown.

“This is a meaningful day for the memorial,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian minister of cultural affairs. He called the theft of the gate an attack on a place of remembrance and said that the integrity of the memorial could now be “somewhat healed.”

Karl Freller, who heads the foundation responsible for the Dachau memorial, said he was “happy and grateful,” stating “now that we have the gate back we will not let it out of our sight.”

Dachau bears the repulsive distinction of being the first concentration camp established by the shiny new Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship of Germany. The former munitions factory was converted into a forced labour camp for political prisoners which at that time were the Communists and Social Democrats who opposed the Nazi Party. As soon as Hitler was appointed chancellor, he ordered the systematic persecution of his political rivals to consolidate his grip on power. Dachau became a death camp for the slaughter of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and anyone else they deemed inferior during the war, but of course they kept that “Works Sets You Free” sign (always a blatant lie since from day one none of those political prisoners could ever work their way to freedom), as if the purpose of the camp were labour, not mass-murder.

The Jourhaus, the entrance and exit to the prison camp, was built by prisoners by command of the SS in May and June of 1936. The SS ordered Communist political prisoner Karl Röder to make the “Arbeit macht frei” sign. The news stories about the theft, recovery and reinstallation all refer to the stolen gate as the “original,” in contrast to the replica that was put in its place in 2015 for ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau by the US Army on April 29th, 1945. In fact, the “Arbeit macht frei” sign in the stolen gate is not the original made by Röder.

It’s not clear what happened to the original original. It was in place right after liberation. There’s an undated photograph of the gate taken by former political prisoner Franz Brückl that shows the sign in place. Researchers believe it was taken immediately after liberation. Another photograph, also unfortunately undated, but taken after Brückl’s shows the gate with the inscription removed. An exact replica was created from historical photographs and installed in the gate after the Dachau memorial opened in 1965. This is confirmed by a 1972 memorandum in the memorial’s archives which notes: “Reconstruction of the inscription removed from the iron gate, work is free.”

So the gate is original, but the sign is not. The symbolic significance of the gate and the most chilling words inscribed over a doorway since Dante’s Inferno remains undiminished, which is why it and the much larger Auschwitz sign were stolen in the first place.

The recovered gate is now being treated by conservators. It will go back on public display this April 29th, but will not be reinstalled in the Jourhaus. Instead, it will be on view in the Dachau concentration camp memorial museum. The 2015 replica will stay in place.

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Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign launched

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

A new campaign has been launched to keep the Galloway Viking Hoard for exhibition in the county where it was found. Buried in the 10th century, the hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in September of 2014. Archaeologists excavated the hoard and found more than 100 silver and gold pieces, from ingots to jewelry to fragments of Byzantine silk to an extremely rare Carolingian pot stuffed with more treasure. The Galloway Viking Hoard is the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891.

Since then, the Carolingian pot CT has been scanned and painstakingly excavated in the laboratory and the other objects cleaned and stabilized, but there’s still much more to be learned from this unique assemblage of artifacts. Bordered by the Cumbria, with its high Norse population, to the south, and the Viking-dominated Irish Sea to the west, Galloway had a strong Viking presence from the 9th until the 11th century. The person who buried the hoard was almost certain Norse, burying his or her most precious valuables, many of them heirlooms, handed down spoils from long-ago raids on Anglo-Saxon, Irish French and/or German communities. No other Viking hoard has been found with such a wide variety of objects — gold, silver, glass, enamel, textiles — from such a wide geographic area. The rare survival of textiles, the precision wrapping of each object and careful burial in order of priority makes this hoard a particularly rich source of information about Viking Galloway beyond just the value and significance of the precious objects.

The news of the hoard made headlines all over the world and electrified its home county of Dumfries and Galloway. A pre-existing plan to convert the Kirkcudbright Town Hall into a major art gallery gained whole new steam with the prospect of the Galloway Viking Hoard as the centerpiece of the collection. The budget for the conversion was cranked way up and hefty contributions secured from the Heritage Lottery fund, the Kirkcudbright Common Good Fund and the council itself. The new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery would be a secure, state-of-the-art setting for the display of the hoard near where it was discovered.

But the course of true hoard love never did run smooth, and some David-and-Goliath museum drama has churned in the background of this campaign. The Kirkcudbright Art Gallery doesn’t actually exist yet, while National Museums Scotland (NMS) sure does. NMS wants the Galloway Hoard. The Dumfries and Galloway Council released a statement last month expressing their support for a joint bid with NMS that would give the county and the national museum joint custody of the hoard.

In order to find a way forward, our Council has conducted a detailed options appraisal. This appraisal highlighted 3 main options that our Council could take. We could apply for sole ownership of the Hoard, we could enter into a joint agreement with NMS, or we could withdraw our interest in homing the Hoard. This appraisal provided many positive and negative reasons why each option should be explored, but mainly highlighted that the Hoard needs to have some connection with Kirkcudbright and the region, and that applying for sole ownership would bring serious financial pressures with it. It was therefore decided by Members at the meeting on 24 January to pursue a joint agreement with NMS, but for adjustments to be made to the current proposal, to give Kirkcudbright Gallery and Dumfries and Galloway as a whole, a more flexible position in terms of a joint ownership of the Galloway Viking Hoard.

NMS totally ghosted them. Requests from the council that National Museums Scotland spell out the details of the partnership and clarify how much time the hoard would spend in Kirkcudbright went unanswered. With deadlines on the horizon and the ominous prospect of a deep-pocketed national museum bidding against the scrappy county underdog, the Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign has taken matters in hand.

[Campaign chair Cathy Agnew] said: “This is a time for Scotland to take the lead. The Galloway Viking Hoard is quite extraordinary and should have pride of place in a specially created exhibition space in the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery. Remarkable finds have so often been whisked away from the communities where they were discovered only to become a small feature in a large national museum. This is a very old-fashioned approach and in 2017 we should be making sure that regions fully benefit from their cultural riches.

“Having a collection of this kind in Dumfries and Galloway would act as a powerful magnet to bring in visitors from all over the country and overseas, benefiting the local economy by encouraging them to spend time here visiting historic sites.”

The Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP), the body of the Treasure Trove Unit tasked with advising the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer which museum a treasure should be allocated to and how much the ex gratia payment to the finder and landowner should be, is scheduled to meet on March 23rd to determine their recommendation for the Galloway Viking Hoard. The campaign is hoping to make some substantial noise before that meeting in the hopes of boosting Dumfries and Galloway’s bid. The website is still a work a progress — there isn’t even a donation button yet — but for now the campaign is asking for people to send letters to the Dumfries and Galloway Council and SAFAP. They also have an email sign-up if you’d like to receive updates on the campaign.

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This Roman road brought to you by McDonald’s

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

On Tuesday, February 21st, the first archaeological museum underneath a McDonald’s opened in the Frattochie ward of Marino, a town about 12 miles south of Rome. The museum was built around a pristine stretch of Roman road dating to the 2nd/1st century B.C. discovered in 2014 during construction work on a new McDonald’s. McDonald’s Italia financed the conservation of the road to the tune of 300,000 euro ($317,000). The local Archaeological Superintendency supervised its careful excavation and the installation of underground museum gallery.

The restaurant was still built over the site, but it was designed in a bridge-like shape with transparent flooring that makes the Roman road visible under your feet both when you’re waiting inside for your Royale with Cheese and when you’re sitting outside on the patio. If you prefer to eat elsewhere, what with being in Italy and all, you can still visit the underground museum. It has independent access so you don’t have to walk through MickyD’s to get to it, and entrance is free of charge, courtesy of the Clown.

The road begins near the XI mile of the Via Appia. It’s stretch 45 meters (148 feet) long paved with slabs of siliceous rock bounded on both sides with opus incertum walls made of medium to large pieces of local volcanic rock (peperino and basalt) set in a grey mortar. The ruts of hundreds of years of wagon wheels are deeply embedded in the pavers. The average width is 2.1 meters (a hair under 7 feet). Going towards the Appia, a u-shaped drainage canal runs along the right side of the road, while on the left side the edge stones survive in excellent condition and there’s a little sidewalk .8 meters (2.6 feet) wide. There is evidence that the road was repaired repeatedly in antiquity.

The section was cut off relatively recently, on the east end by the construction and demolition of an industrial plant and by the construction of the New Appian Way on the west end. Nobody noticed the ancient road they cut through. It wasn’t a complete unknown, mind you, just forgotten. The existence of a road feature had been noted on topographical maps as early as the 18th century, but it was architect and antiquarian Luigi Canina who put it on the archaeological map. Canina in his role as Papal Commissioner of Antiquities directed the project of cleaning, restabilizing and restoring the Via Appia Antica and its many funerary monuments between 1851 and 1855. His efforts transformed fragmented, overgrown, ramshackle ruins into the usable road and open-air archaeological park it still is today. In his 1853 work documenting the first section of the Appia, La prima parte della Via Appia dalla Porta Capena a Boville, Canina identified it as a “communication route of the Appian Way at Castrimenio.”

Frattochie, next to Castrimenio, is the modern descendant of the ancient Roman town of Bovillae, the legendary place of origin of the Gens Julia. According to the founding myth of Rome, its father city Alba Longa was destroyed by Roman king Tullus Hostilius in the 7th century B.C. and all of Alba Longa’s sacred objects were moved to Bovillae. These objects and the rituals connected to them were the foundations of Rome’s religions, so Bovillae became an important (and wealthy) religious center. The offshoot of the Appia was likely built for the benefit of a wealthy noble resident of Bovillae who wanted a nice, properly paved road to take him to his doorstep.

Bovillae reached its peak when the Julians came to prominence in Roman politics. Augustus’ body lay is state there before returning to Rome, and Tiberius invested heavily in public buildings including a theater, a circus and a chapel dedicated to the Gens Julia. The town declined after the Julio-Claudians died out in the 1st century. By 326 A.D., it was so insignificant it didn’t garner a mention in a document wherein Emperor Constantine I donated land that included Bovillae to a cathedral in Albano Laziale. Whatever was left of it must have suffered greatly when Alaric I sacked Rome in 410. The towns along the Via Appia were the first to feel the Visigothic wrath.

Following the fortunes of the town, between the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. the road fell into disuse. It became overgrown with vegetation and covered with soil. The locals put the path to good use. Like the Via Appia, it was lined with burials and tombs. One of the tombs is still visible today on the property of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Sacrament, a Trappist monastery in Frattocchie which, just fyi, makes outstanding chocolate.

The McDonald’s excavation unearthed the skeletons of three adult males buried in the 2nd-3rd century A.D. along the stretch of road. Each was in his own grave, with the three graves relatively close together towards the center of the surviving road section. Casts of the skeletons have been placed in the locations of the original graves along the road in the underground museum.

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Is this the skull of the legendary “weasel bear”?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

A huge polar bear skull with very different features from modern polar bear skulls has been discovered at an eroding archaeological site in northernmost Alaska. Its massive size and elongated, narrow shape recall an unusual polar bear reported by Inuit hunters but never photographed, filmed or in any other way scientifically verified.

In interview projects documenting the traditional knowledge of the Inuit peoples of northern Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic, hunters report very rare sightings of a bear “that has a longer neck; it’s high and pure white, but looks like a weasel and runs fast like a weasel”. This creature is known as “tiriarnaq” in the Siglitun dialect, “tigiaqpak” in the Kangiryuarmiut dialect, all of them translating to “weasel bear.”

Here’s a description of a weasel bear by a Sachs Harbour hunter from a 2010 interview:

“You get sometimes bears which we call tiriarnat, and they get over 11 foot. They get very big; they’re slim, their necks are way longer than the stubby bears that we get now. I never seen a weasel type bear for years, years and years…. We used to see some north of Storkerson Bay when we travel…. And they’re very big…. Stubby bears get ten [feet] three [inches], ten [feet] four [inches], that sort of thing. But a weasel type bear is 11-foot plus.

There are differences between some of the accounts of the weasel bear — some say they’re fat, not slender, others say they’re all male — but the large, long, narrow head and neck is common to all the stories. The recently discovered skull fits the description.

“It looks different from your average polar bear,” said Anne Jensen, an Utqiaġvik-based archaeologist who has been leading excavation and research programs in the region.

Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull — which appears to be the fourth largest ever found — is from a period between the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature that owned it: The Old One.

Exactly what accounts for its differences is yet to be determined; genetic testing is needed for that, Jensen said. It could have been a member of a subspecies or a member of a different “race” in genetic terms — similar to the varying breeds that are found among dogs — or possibly something else entirely, said Jensen, who works for the science department of the Native village corporation, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., or UIC.

The rapid thawing of the permafrost on the Chukchi Sea coast has exposed the archaeological site of Walakpa, 13 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik (the northernmost city in the United States formerly known as Barrow). First excavated by Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford in the late 1960s when the permafrost was still perma, Walakpa is a settlement from the Birnirk period (600-1300 A.D.). It was widely believed to have been so thoroughly explored by Stanford’s team that there were no archaeological materials of note left to discover.

Climate change proved that consensus wrong in the late summer of 2013 when the face of a bluff sheered off after a storm, exposing the timbers of an ancient house. They could not be fully excavated due to adverse environmental conditions and lack of funding. In 2014, a 90-foot section of soil collapsed. A local discovered the polar bear skull at that time, although exactly where and when is unclear.

Anne Jensen was finally able to raise the funds for a solid three-week dig last summer. The exposed timbers were lost by then, but Jensen’s team unearthed a number of artifacts and remains preserved for centuries in the permafrost and recovered before their decay was accelerated by the warming soil. The sheered-off bluff where the timers were found still harbored a rare treasure: four mummified seals, naturally preserved in what had once been an ice cellar. These are the only mummified seals ever found outside of the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Jensen excavated one of them, a female dubbed Patou dating to the mid-1940s whose body is intact from fur to claws.

Time is running out for this site and many others in Alaska, and funding hasn’t come to close to keeping up with the pace of site deterioration.

The good condition of the artifacts is only temporary. As thaw and erosion occurs, items fall into the sea or, if exposed to the air, are at risk of decay.

Even if they are not exposed to air, artifacts can be vulnerable to below-ground degradation, Jensen said. As soils warm, bacteria are better able to decompose bones and other items. Even worse, warming soils can bring the items to a point where they generate their own heat, speeding the decomposition process.

With open water present up to eight months of the year instead of two and with temperatures rising and shorelines crumbling, the threats to the archaeological sites are increasing exponentially, Jensen said. Sites are eroding at a rate that far outpaces the normal grant process used to secure funding for work, and some new emergency approach is probably warranted, she said.

“It’s like the library is essentially on fire — now,” she said.

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