Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

“The Two Maidens” of Pompeii are men

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Cast of the misnamed "The Two Maidens" from House of the Cryptoporticus. Rapiti All Morte exhibition, 2015.An ongoing project to CT scan the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. has revealed that the cast of two embracing figures known as The Two Maidens are in fact men. The skeletal remains of the couple and the cavity in the volcanic rock left by the decay of their soft tissues were discovered in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus in a 1914 excavation overseen by Pompeii’s director of works Vittorio Spinazzola. The remains of eight people were found in that little peristyle garden, two of them in 1913, the rest between July 2nd and 21st of 1914.

Casts and skeletons in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1914, Vol XI, p.261.All eight were found in the fine ash layer that followed the pumice fall, encased by the pyroclastic flow that covered the town. Plaster casts were made of three of the eight (the right conditions for creating the casts are rare; out of more than 1,100 human remains found at Pompeii, casts have been made of only 86 of them), with particular attention paid to the more complex problem of the couple. The Two Maidens were erroneously assumed to be women because of their posture and the shapeliness of their legs. Here is how Spinazzola described the find in the yearly report on the excavation (translation mine):

Cast of "Two Maidens" in the garden of the House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, 1914, Vol XI, p.261.One of the fallen lies on the left side, the head pointing to the east and the legs, a bit contracted, to the west. The left hand is folded near the head, in the ashes, and the right is under the chin as if to push away something obstructing the mouth and preventing breathing. The other person is bent on the right side with his head on the breast of the first. And this pose against the abdomen of the first fallen, the right arm buried in the ashes, the left gently bent under the breasts, the legs with full and tender female contours, one more, one less contracted, as of someone sweetly reclining to sleep an eternal sleep in a protective womb.

Apparently seeking comfort in the face of apocalyptic death was deemed to be a feminine impulse rather than a human one. The supposed “female contours” of the legs and later descriptions of “little rings” found on the fingers were extensions of that assumption.

Detail of cast of couple from House of the Cryptoporticus, 1914. Rapiti All Morte exhibition, 2015.Examination of osteological and morphological features on the CAT scan indicates that both individuals are male and that the individual with his head against the chest of the other was a young man about 18 years old at the time of death. The other person is believed to be an adult male who was at least 20 years old when Vesuvius claimed his life. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from one tooth and bone fragments established conclusively that the younger of the two was male. DNA analysis confirmed that the two were neither brothers nor father and son. Some news stories have leapt to the conclusion that they were therefore lovers, which is not remotely supportable by the evidence and seems to me just another iteration of the same prejudices that caused the original Two Maidens error.

Conservators work on "Two Maidens." Photo courtesy the Archeological Site of Pompeii.The scans are part of the Great Pompeii Project, an extensive program of architectural restoration and stabilization of the most endangered features of the ancient city. The 86 human casts, the oldest of which date to the 1860s when pioneering archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first filled a cavity with plaster to capture the final death throes of one of Vesuvius’ victims, are in need of restoration as much as the buildings are, and they pose a thorny challenge since they contain human remains. In order to get a clear idea of what’s inside the plaster shell — bones, metal supports, more plaster in varying states of decay — conservators borrowed a state-of-the-art 16-layer CT scanner that was able to penetrate the dense materials.

With the scans as guides, the team was able to extract mitochondrial DNA (which survives far better than nuclear DNA in archaeological contexts) from the skeletal remains with pinpoint precision and minimal damage. This opens up a whole new arena of information about the people of Pompeii.

 

Share

Jorvik Viking Centre reopens 16 months after flood

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

HRH Prince Charles with archaeologists Peter Addyman and Richard Hall at the Coppergate dig in 1976. Photo courtesy York Archaeological Trust.On December 27, 2015, the Jorvik Viking Centre was flooded by the heavy rains that submerged downtown York. One of York’s most popular attractions, the Jorvik Centre is a recreation of the streets of Viking York whose foundations were discovered on and around Coppergate Street during an excavation by the York Archaeological Trust from 1976 to 1981. The excavations unearthed artifacts like a silk cap, coins, amber and cowrie shells that proved 10th century Viking York had extensive trade links stretching as far as the Byzantine Empire and beyond.

(The Lloyds Bank Coprolite. Photo courtesy the York Archaeological Trust.Coppergate is also the find spot for a record-breaking archaeological treasure: the Lloyds Bank Coprolite, discovered in 1972 at the construction site of the bank branch. It is the largest known human coprolite, a majestic turd eight inches long by two inches wide, that was mineralized and thus preserved in exceptional condition. The crap provided a rich glimpse into the life of a 10th century York Viking. He or she subsisted mainly on bread and meat, which explains the sheer size of that beast, and was riddled with parasites and parasite eggs.

This video featuring York Archaeological Trust paleoscatologist Dr. Andrew Jones talking about the coprolite beats raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens by a mile on my personal favorite things scale.

(Pardon the digression. You know I can never resist archaeological poop.)

Foundations of Coppergate's Viking streets under the museum floor. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.Curators were able to rescue the large collection of artifacts unearthed in Coppergate from the floodwaters, but the mannikins of Vikings going about their daily lives and their recreated homes and businesses could not be moved. They stewed in the murky water that filled the first floor of the museum until it receded. The damage to the exhibits and the facilities was extensive.

New recreation of Viking latrine being flushed. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.Insurance payments and copious fundraising allowed the Jorvik Centre to rebuild and expand, improving some of the tableaux, adding new stinks to the beloved smell-o-vision feature of the recreations, and creating a new gallery that will allow the museum to securely host important loans from other institutions. After 16 months and £4.3 million ($5,380,000), the newly renovated Jorvik Viking Centre reopened to the public on April 8th.

York Helmet. Photo courtesy the York Archaeological Trust.One of the centerpieces of the grand reopening is the Coppergate or York Helmet, an 8th century Anglo-Saxon helmet that was found in a wood-lined well during construction of a shopping center in 1982. The pit was near the site where the remains of Viking York were discovered that is now the Jorvik Viking Centre. Even though the helmet was damaged by the mechanical digger that found it, conservators at the British Museum were able to reconstruct it to its original condition. It is one of only three intact Anglian helmets ever discovered in Britain.

The York Helmet’s permanent home is the Yorkshire Museum. It will be on display at the Jorvik Centre for four weeks in honor of the reopening.

“Although itself not strictly Viking, it is likely that it was appropriated and used by one of the Viking settlers into the late ninth century. It is a prestigious piece of armour, so it could have been buried in its wood-lined pit by the new owner to hide it, but for some reason, was never reclaimed, and remained underground until the very last excavations of the Coppergate dig in 1982,” comments director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, Sarah Maltby. “We are looking forward to bringing the helmet back in Coppergate — it is a real treat for those visiting during our first month of re-opening that they will see it in almost exactly the same spot as it was unearthed.”

Bedale Hoard after conservation. Photo courtesy the Yorkshire Museum.After this brief visit to its old stomping grounds, the helmet will return to the Yorkshire Museum for a new exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend. A collaboration with the British Museum, the exhibition will bring together for the first time some of the greatest Viking and Anglo-Saxon archaeological treasures ever discovered, including the Bedale Hoard, the Vale of York Hoard, the Gilling Sword and the Lewis Chessmen. It opens at the Yorkshire Museum on May 19th and runs through November 5th before touring the country, stopping at the University of Nottingham, The Atkinson, Southport, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Norwich Castle Museum.

Jorvik Viking Centre's new boat recreation. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre. Blacksmith recreation at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Photo by Anthony Chappel-Ross courtesy the Jorvik Viking Centre.

 

Share

St. Ambrose’s silk tunic liberated from glass prison

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Textile conservation experts from the University of Bonn have been preserving the fragile silk textiles believed to have belonged to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century archbishop and patron saint of Milan, since 2014. Considered holy relics of the saint, the ancient silks are so delicate the team created a mobile conservation lab so they could be preserved in situ at Milan’s Basilica of Saint Ambrose. The process of cleaning damaging dust from the silk fibers using small brushes and miniature vacuum cleaners has taken years.

Suction cups attached to glass pane covering the silk tunic of St. Ambrose. Photo by Jochen Schaal-ReichertNow conservators have taken on the most daunting project of all: raising a pane of glass weighing 80 kilos (176 pounds) from the silk tunic it was meant to protect. The pane was supposed to keep the silk threads clean and allow the tunic to be displayed without damage, but instead the fibers formed undulations under the massive weight of the glass. The fine threads also adhered to the glass over the years, making it extremely difficult to remove the pane without tearing the tunic. Even simply moving the tunic still under glass into a space where it could be conserved required elaborate planning.

Carrying the tunic sandwich through the winding narrow corridors of Sant'Ambrogio. Photo by Sabine SchrenkThe silk tunic measuring an impressive approx. 170 x 280 centimeters was stored in a drawer cabinet in the gallery of Sant’Ambrogio. However, this room was unsuitable for the preservation work. The transporters thus packed the glass panes with the valuable cargo between two large wooden boards, and the huge artwork was then carried vertically along the narrowest, winding corridors into the basilica’s archive, which was transformed into a workshop for a month. “This transportation was highly risky,” reports the restorer Ulrike Reichert. In some places, the art transporters had to proceed millimeter by millimeter to ensure the transit was ultimately successful.

Restorer Ulrike Reichert uses flat bar to gently separate silk threads from the glass plate. Photo by Sabine SchrenkOnce they arrived in the workshop, the six art transporters heaved the glass, silk tunic and wood sandwich onto a large table. The most dangerous moment of the preservation was now imminent. While the art transporters lifted the glass pane very slightly using suction handles, Ulrike Reichert used a flat stick to very carefully separate adhering parts of the silk tunic from the glass pane square centimeter by square centimeter. “This work took a long time – for the helpers, it was a feat of strength to keep the heavy pane in the air the whole time,” says Schrenk.

Glass pane lifted with suction cups. Photo by Sabine SchrenkOnce all the silk fibers were separated from the pane, the transport crew lifted the heavy glass slowly a centimeter at a time. If the suction cups had failed or the glass had broken, the tunic could have been irreparably damaged. Thankfully nothing went wrong. The glass lifted clean and the silk didn’t budge. The crew was able to quickly move the pane off the tunic and put it down.

Glass pane moved aside. Photo by Sabine SchrenkThe tunic can now be painstakingly cleaned as its brethren were. Once it has been fully cleaned and stabilized, it will be covered with a lightweight acrylic pane which will preserve the silk textile without forcing it to bear the weight of a grown man sitting on its chest for decades.

 

Share

Fabergé egg reunited with missing surprise in Texas

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

Diamond Trellis Egg and elephant surprise. Photo courtesy the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.An imperial Fabergé egg will be reunited with its original surprise for the first time since the 1920s in a new exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS). Made of a translucent celadon stone and crisscrossed with a trellis pattern of rose-cut diamonds, the Diamond Trellis Egg is part of the McFerrin Fabergé Collection, the largest private collection of Fabergé treasures in the world, which is housed in the HMNS. The surprise inside, a jeweled ivory elephant wind-up automaton, was recently rediscovered in the Royal Collection and has been loaned to the museum by Queen Elizabeth II.

The Chain of the Order of the Elephant with Insignia, gold with enamel and table-cut stones. The Chain was possibly made in Copenhagen by the goldsmith Jean Henri de Moor after 1693; the elephant possibly by Paul Kurtz, 1671. The Royal Danish Collection, Rosenborg.Presented by Tsar Alexander III to his wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna (née Princess Dagmar of Denmark) for Easter in 1892, the Diamond Trellis Egg held an elephant surprise that was a virtually identical replica of the badge of the Order of the Elephant, Denmark’s highest chivalric order. The only differences are the materials — Fabergé used ivory instead of white enamel — and the automaton mechanism. It was the second egg Alexander commissioned for his wife to have a Danish theme. The first was the Danish Palaces Egg, presented to Maria Feodorovna on Easter, 1890. The surprise inside was a ten-panel folding screen with miniatures of the Tsarina’s favorite Danish and Russian palaces. After Alexander’s sudden death in 1894 at the age of 49, his son Tsar Nicholas II continued the tradition of Fabergé Easter eggs, gifting them to both his wife and to his mother. It was Nicholas who gave the Dowager Empress her third and last Danish egg, the Royal Danish Egg, now lost.

Ivory elephant automaton, side view. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.The Diamond Trellis Egg and its elephant were confiscated from the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg, Maria Feodorovna’s home base, by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It was sold in 1930 by the Antikvariat, the agency tasked with selling off Russia’s cultural patrimony to raise money for the Soviet government, probably to Emanuel Wartski, although there are no records of the sale.

At some point in the saga the three parts of the egg, the base (now lost), the elephant and the egg got separated. In 1935 King George V bought the little elephant without knowing it was part of an Imperial Egg or even that it was made by Fabergé. It has been in the Royal Collection ever since, on display in one of the state rooms for decades.

Ivory elephant automaton, front view. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.In 2015, Caroline de Guitaut, Senior Curator of the Royal Collection Trust, was cataloguing the collection when she noticed the elephant figurine bore a resemblance to the surprise in the Diamond Trellis Egg as described in Fabergé’s ledgers: “ivory figure of an elephant, clockwork, with a small gold tower, partly enamelled and decorated with rose-cut diamonds,” with “a black mahout…seated on its head.” The Trust’s restorers and clockmakers painstakingly took the elephant apart down to the internal mechanism. They finally found the confirmation of the figurine’s origin under the top part of the castle on the elephant’s back. There was the unmistakable hallmark of Carl Fabergé.

Windup hole under the diamond cross. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.When the cleaned and restored elephant was put back together, curators were ecstatic to find that the mechanism still worked. They slid the key into the hole hidden under the diamond cross on the elephant’s side, wound it up, and the little guy walked and nodded his head like he’d never lived through war, revolution and separation from his home egg.

The reunited egg and elephant will help inaugurate the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new gallery dedicated to the Artie and Dorothy McFerrin Collection and its whopping 600 pieces of Fabergé. Fabergé: Royal Gifts featuring the Trellis Egg Surprise opens April 10th. The elephant will be on loan for a year before returning to the Royal Collection.

There are some beautiful views of the glittering egg and surprise in this brief video in which Caroline de Guitaut and Joel Bartsch, President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, discuss the discovery of the missing piece. There’s an all too brief glimpse of the elephant’s movement at the 1:57 mark.

This video from the Royal Collection Trust, on the other hand, shows nothing but the automaton’s motion, starting with the wind-up. He raises his head every few steps. It’s absurdly cute.

Oh hey, guess what?

Ivory elephant automaton, rear view. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

ELEPHANT BUTT!

 

Share

Stolen Norman Rockwell painting found after 41 years

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

"Boy Asleep with Hoe" by Norman Rockwell, 1919. Photo by Matt Rourke, AP.Norman Rockwell’s original painting for Boy Asleep with Hoe, a.k.a. Lazybones or Taking a Break, has been recovered by the FBI more than 40 years after it was stolen. The 25-by-28-inch oil painting was stolen from the home of Robert and Teresa Grant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on June 30th, 1976. The thieves also helped themselves to the Grants’ silver coin collection and their television. The Cherry Hill Police Department investigated the crime at the time but made no progress.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team got involved last year, partnering with the Cherry Hill police to launch a fresh appeal for leads in the very cold case on the 40th anniversary of the theft. It apparently worked, because a few months later in October the FBI got a phone call from a lawyer representing an anonymous client who wanted to return the painting.

Apparently the client was an antiques dealer who had the painting for years. He didn’t realize it was the original. He assumed it was a copy and had tried to sell it but never found any buyers, so he just hung it on his kitchen wall. That’s where it stayed for almost 40 years. The authorities found no evidence whatsoever that he was involved in the theft. It seems he was an unwitting fence of a stolen Norman Rockwell, and as soon as he realized it he made arrangements to return it. He is cooperating with the authorities in creating a composite drawing of the man he bought it from, but since four decades have passed it’s unlikely to lead to a sudden unmasking of the geriatric Lupin.

FBI Special Agent Jacob Archer points to pool cue damage on recovered Norman Rockwell painting. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP.The image of a boy napping under a tree, the hoe between his legs a mute testament to the work he’s not doing, graced the cover of the September 6th, 1919, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. While Rockwell’s magazine covers enjoyed great popular success, his original paintings weren’t in demand at all, not for decades. Robert Grant acquired Boy Asleep with Hoe for $50 in 1952, and he only bought it because he had to after he poked a hole in it with a pool cue at a friend’s house. Robert’s son John says the friend told his father, “You just bought yourself a painting.”

FBI Special Agents Don Asper, left, and Jacob Archer displays a recovered Norman Rockwell painting. Photo by Matt Rourke, AP.That hole from the pool cue was key to the authentication of the painting. Experts from Christie’s and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, confirmed it was the real thing. Because the Grant family submitted a claim to their insurer, Chubb, at the time of the theft and the claim was paid, Chubb was the legal title-holder. The company graciously agreed to allow the Grant family to reimburse them for the $15,000 claim payment in exchange for the painting. Given that the estimated value of the painting today is between $600,000 and $1,000,000, this was an incredibly generous act. Chubb isn’t even keeping the money. It plans to donate the claim payment to the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The painting was officially returned to the Grant family at a ceremony attended by representatives from the FBI and Chubb in Philadelphia on March 31st. There are six Grant heirs who now have to decide together what they’ll do with it. For obvious reasons, none of them wants to run the risk of keeping the painting in their home, so for now it’s going into storage.

 

Share

Michelangelo’s crucifix in 360 degrees

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Michelangelo crucifix hangs in new location in the basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence. Photo by Niccolo Cambi/Massimo Sestini.A painted wooden crucifix by Michelangelo Buonarrotti has returned to its original home, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Florence, after a fresh restoration and a year on the road. Carved by the artist when he was 18 or so, it’s one of his earliest extant works. Not the earliest, though, because Michelangelo’s artistic gifts were evident from a very young age.

Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, then at the peak of his popularity and productivity, in 1488. It’s a testament to Michelangelo’s indisputably immense talent (and his irascible father’s insistence) that even though he was just 13 years old, his apprenticeship contract guaranteed him a salary, six florins for the first year, eight for the second, 10 for the third. This kind of deal was very much against custom for such a young, unproven apprentice. Michelangelo was special, though, and Ghirlandaio knew it.

Battle of the Centaurs by Michelangelo, ca. 1490-2. Casa Buonarrotti.The lad didn’t end up spending three years in Ghirlandaio’s workshop as per contract anyway. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici asked Ghirlandaio to send his two best students to an academy for sculptors and painters Lorenzo had founded in his palace gardens where he also maintained an extensive collection of Roman antiquities. This was a seminal period for the teenaged Michelangelo. Lorenzo took a personal interest in him, inviting him to live in the palace and exposing him to the greatest Humanist thinkers, artists and poets of the era assembled at the Medici court. He carved his first two sculptures at Lorenzo’s academy, the marble bas reliefs the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, the latter showcasing how strongly influenced Michelangelo was by classical design already. For the rest of his life he would consider himself first and foremost a sculptor no matter how famous and in demand he became for his frescoes and paintings.

The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici on April 8th, 1492, put an abrupt end to Michelangelo’s formative idyll. He moved back in with his father, but he continued to study on his own. The Augustinian prior of the convent of Santo Spirito allowed the artist rooms to live with them from the spring of 1493 until the fall of 1494 so he could do anatomical studies of cadavers in the associated hospital of Santo Spirito. Lorenzo’s son Piero de’ Medici, called the Unfortunate, who was a big fan of Michelangelo, gave him permission to dissect and examine the hospital’s corpses, a rare opportunity for a young artist, and one he did not squander.

Detail of crucifix hanging in Santo Spirito. Photo by Niccolo Cambi/Massimo Sestini.He carved the polychrome wooden crucifix to thank the prior for giving him lodgings and an invaluable understanding of the human body. When medical professionals examined the carving a few years ago, they determined it was an accurate and realistic reproduction of a dead youth about 14 years old. It seems Michelangelo, then just a few years older than the deceased boy who served as his unwitting model, gave Santo Spirito the very fruits of the anatomical studies it had made possible.

Restored Michelangelo crucifix hanging at Santo Spirito. Photo by Maurizio Degl'Innocenti, ANSA.The sculpture hung above the high altar of Santo Spirito until the early 17th century when the altar was replaced with a more elaborate one. Michelangelo’s simple design was no longer deemed appropriate for the new setting and it was moved. After the French occupation in the late 18th century and the dissolution of the monasteries, the crucifix was considered lost. In fact, it never left Santo Spirito. It was rediscovered in 1962 by German art historian Margrit Lisner during her cataloguing of Tuscan crucifixes. It was hanging in a corridor at the convent and had been so thickly overpainted that not just its color was altered, but its form as well. With the original features dreadfully obscured in this condition, Lisner’s identification of it as the Michelangelo work was very much in doubt.

Side view of crucifix hanging at Santo Spirito. Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP.Nonetheless, it was cleaned and restored and put on display in the Casa Buonarrotti Museum, where it remained until December 2000 when it was returned to the basilica of Santo Spirito. While still not universally accepted, the attribution question was largely settled the next year when Umberto Baldini, director of the cultural division of Italy’s National Research Council, declared the carving the work of Michelangelo after a thorough artistic and forensic examination.

Now it has returned to its original stomping grounds, but in a new location. When the church reinstalled it in 2000, the crucifix was affixed to a side wall and could only be seen from the front. Today it hangs above the church’s old sacristy so people can walk beneath and around it and can view it from all sides.

 

Share

Update on 18th c. scuttled ship found in Alexandria

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

50-foot section of 18th century ship in situ, December 2015. Photo courtesy the City of Alexandria.There’s news about the large piece of an 18th century ship discovered on the Potomac riverfront in Alexandria, Virginia, in December of 2015. Archaeologists have been studying the 50-foot section of hull which was deliberately scuttled to fill waterfront property. Property records were able to narrow down the date of the ship’s burial to between 1775 and 1798, but it took dendrochronological analysis to discover the ship’s age. The tree-rings in the planks reveal that the trees used to make the timber were cut down in Boston after 1741.

[City of Alexandria archaeologist Benjamin] Skolnik said some of the earliest tree rings from the ship are from 1603 — four years before John Smith showed up in Jamestown and 17 years before the Pilgrims showed up in Massachusetts.

“So the wood in the ship comes from a time of early American history that even predates the earliest permanent English settlements here in the New World,” he said.

Preserving these venerable timbers poses a great challenge. The surviving section of the hull includes some of the keel, frame, bow stem, stern, exterior boards and interior flooring. The archaeological team dismantled the ship one board at a time, numbering, tagging and inventorying each timber so it could be reassembled in its original configuration once the wood was stabilized. Getting to that point was by no means a foregone conclusion, however.

The immediate problem when I first wrote about this find early last year was locating a space that could accommodate 50 feet worth of ship timbers in a climate and humidity controlled environment. The wood had to be kept in water to keep it from drying out and warping, and there were no facilities that could accommodate the sheer size of the 18th century ship parts. The solution was a building known as the “bus barn,” a large depot used by the City of Alexandria to store emergency vehicles and school buses.

Ship timbers kept wet on tarps in the bus barn. Photo copyright Scripps Media.The ship’s timbers were transported to the bus barn by archaeologists and volunteers. The largest pieces were submerged in two massive water tanks lined with plastic. The smaller timbers were placed on a tarp, hosed down and covered with another tarp to create a wood-preserving tarp sandwich. The ship has been in the bus barn since January of 2016.

The next step is permanently preserving the wood with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a waxy substance that gradually replaces the water in wood leaving it supple and stable, the same treatment that preserved the Mary Rose and the Vasa. The problem with PEG is that it’s expensive and it takes decades, but that time can be significantly shortened if the PEG treatment is followed by freeze-drying, as was done with French explorer La Salle’s frigate La Belle.

Even so, the conservation process will take five or six years and will cost more than the city can afford by itself. So far, the costs have been defrayed by a combination of private donations, grants and city funds, but the long-term preservation and display of the ship requires significant additional funding. It’s worth it, though.

“One of the appeals of the ship is, I mean it’s something large, and it’s very visible and very tangible piece of the past that you know, sometimes when you’re in school and you’re learning about history, it’s sort of in the abstract. You sort of have to imagine it, but if you have a 46-and-a-half-foot chunk of a ship standing in front of you, I mean it’s very very visible and very very real,” Archeologist Benjamin Skolnik said.

The City of Alexandria has set up a donation page on its website.

 

Share

Cape Fear’s first flushing toilet goes on display

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Photo courtesy the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site.A stone toilet bowl from the 18th century that is believed to be the first flushing toilet in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina has finally been given the pride of place it deserves at the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site after years of sad neglect in archaeological storage.

The bowl was discovered by archaeologist Stanley South during his excavation of the remains of the Russellborough colonial mansion in 1966. Originally built by Captain John Russell in 1751, Russellborough would become the home of two colonial governors, Arthur Dobbs and his successor William Tryon. It was burned to the ground by the British in 1776 at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but South’s excavation discovered notable remains, including a wine cellar that held at least 300 bottles when the house was burned, a brick well used to cool bottles (probably some of those 300 wines and liquors in the cellar), and one big stone toilet bowl.

Toilet in situ, vaulted entrance to brick tunnel behind it, May, 1966. Photo courtesy the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site.Installed in the home in the 1760s, likely when Dobbs was governor, this is believed to be the first example of an indoor plumbing system in the lower Cape Fear area, although not in the state of North Carolina as a whole. It was discovered in what had once been a side porch of the home, which is a sensible location for a privy with its many noxious odors and miasmas. Next to it was a brick vaulted tunnel which likely served as a pipeline carrying both trash and sewage out of the house to the Cape Fear River or its adjacent swamps and rice fields.

No detailed archaeological reports were published from the original excavation 50 years ago, so a few old low resolution pictures, Stanley South’s field notes and a few articles he wrote over the years are all researchers have to go on when trying to determine what the toilet may have looked like and how the flushing system worked in the 18th century. This is all he had to say about the discovery in a 1967 article (pdf) published by The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology:

Immediately in front of the tunnel opening was a tabby object, twenty inches square at one end with a round, tapering hole throughout its 18 inch length. Just what this object was used for is unknown, though it might have been a liner for a water closet associated
with the tunnel and the porch.

Tunnel that carried waste to the river. Photo by Christina Haley.Made out of coquina, a type of limestone composed of shells of various marine invertebrates that was extensively quarried in the Cape Fear region during the 18th century, the bowl has a hole at the bottom where the waste would be flushed into a pit, either through a lead pipe or a simple drain. The tunnel ran from the pit to the bluff, dumping the untreated sewage from there into the swamp or river. The top of the bowl is eroded now, but originally would have been square and a wooden seat or bench added on top to cover the gaping maw of the bowl creating a more human-sized hole and, most importantly, keeping the governor’s tender bits from grinding against ancient mineralized cockle shells.

Stanley South's field notes describing possible flush valve. Photo by Christina Haley.The field notes describe what the archaeologists believed at the time to be an iron flush valve, but if it still exists, it has yet to be rediscovered. There are uncatalogued artifacts in the Raleigh storage facility; perhaps the valve is among them. Based on the design of other toilets from this period, researchers believe there was likely a tank installed above this one. No parts of it have survived, to our knowledge. It would have been filled manually, and when the rope was pulled, the valve would open, dumping water from the tank straight into the bowl. The force of the water pushed the waste down the drain into the pit.

The bowl was put in storage in Raleigh and that’s where it remained until Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site director Jim McKee rescued it from oblivion and put it on display in the site’s museum on March 16th of this year.

The toilet excites McKee because it is so different from the dishes, pots, pans, bullets and smoke pipes on display.

“A toilet is universal,” he said. “Everyone has used one, and everyone can relate to it. Now visitors can see where they come from, how they were built, and how did we get to the throne we have today.”

McKee thought of all sorts of puns to name the display: Royal Flush, Royal duty or Royal throne.

Instead the placard is a bit more professional. It just reads, “Russellborough toilet.”

What, no Flushy McFlushface? Seems like a missed opportunity.

 

Share

LoC, Smithsonian buy Harriet Tubman photo

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman found in Emily Howland's carte-de-visite album, ca. 1865-8. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.The previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman recently discovered in a carte-de-visite album compiled by Quaker abolitionist and educator Emily Howland has been acquired by the ideal owners: the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The album was sold at a Swann Auction Galleries auction in New York City on March 30th for $130,000 plus a $32,500 auctioneer fee. The joint purchase allowed the institutions to be able to afford the exorbitant cost.

The collaboration ensures these pieces of American history will be accessible to the public in perpetuity.

“It is a distinct honor to have these photographs that tell an important part of America’s history,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We are pleased and humbled to work with the Library of Congress to ensure that this rare and significant collection will be preserved and made accessible to the American public.”

“To have a new glimpse of such key figures in American history is rare indeed,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “Through this extraordinary collaboration, these images will be forever part of our shared heritage and will be a source of inspiration for many generations to come.”

The pre-sale estimate was $20,000 to $30,000, which was always modest given the great historical significance of the earliest known picture of Harriet Tubman. Add to that the 43 other rare photographs of prominent personages from the period in the album, including the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to (although never seated in) Congress, and there was little doubt the album would exceed the estimate. Well aware of this, the Library of Congress and Smithsonian pooled funds from existing donations to ensure they had the wherewithal to bid successfully against collectors with deep pockets.

The two institutions will be perfect partners in this endeavor. Both of them have unparalleled expertise in the conservation of historic documents and photographs and long-standing commitments to the digitization of their massive collections. In keeping with their dedication to making the historical patrimony in their care as widely accessible to the public as possible, the entire Howland carte-de-visite album will be digitized as soon as possible and high resolution photographs of each of the 44 pictures will be made available online for the free use of scholarly researchers and history nerds alike.

 

Share

Medieval Jewish cemetery unearthed in Trastevere

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Medieval Jewish cemetery discovered in Trastevere. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.Archaeologists have unearthed a medieval Jewish cemetery in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. The discovery was announced last week, but it was made over the course of six years of excavations done in conjunction with the restoration of the Palazzo Leonori, now the new headquarters of the Assicurazioni di Roma insurance company. It was under the palazzo’s courtyard that 38 graves were found, neatly aligned in rows. Iron nails and wood fragments indicate the bodies were buried in coffins, now long-decayed.

Each grave contained a well-preserved, intact, articulated skeleton. The remains are of adult men and women, mostly men, and contain almost no grave goods. The only exceptions were two of the women, found wearing small gold rings, and one man who was buried with a set of iron scales, perhaps an indication of his profession or a metaphoric representation of a just man. Examination of the bones found signs of malnutrition and protein deficiencies. These were not wealthy people.

Gold ring worn by one of the women interred in the cemetery. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.Because there were no grave markers discovered and with the excavation area limited by later construction, at first archaeologists weren’t sure whose bodies they’d found. They searched archives for maps and documents that might shed light on the question, and the find spot was marked on several maps as the Campus Iudeorum, or Field of the Jews, the cemetery of the Jewish community that lived in Trastevere from the mid-14th century through the mid-16th. Radiocarbon dating of the remains returned dates within that range. The lack of grave goods is also characteristic of Jewish burials. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when a marble fragment inscribed in Hebrew with the words “here lies” was discovered nearby.

Jews have lived in Rome since the Maccabees sent a delegation in the 2nd century B.C., and by the Middle Ages the Trastevere area, with its bustling Tiber-side commerce and diverse population, was one of Rome’s main Jewish quarters. That ended abruptly in 1555, when all the Jews in Rome were ordered to pay for the privilege of being forced into the waterless, claustrophobic, flood-prone, malarial ghetto by the virulently anti-semitic Pope Paul IV. His Papal Bull, Cum nimis absurdum, decreeing their confinement to the ghetto and many other hateful provisions, minces no words. It opens:

Since it is completely senseless and inappropriate to be in a situation where Christian piety allows the Jews (whose guilt-all of their own doing-has condemned them to eternal slavery) access to our society and even to live among us; indeed, they are without gratitude to Christians, as, instead of thanks for gracious treatment, they return invective, and among themselves, instead of the slavery, which they deserve, they manage to claim superiority….

Skeleton unearthed at Jewish cemetery in Trastevere. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.So the living Jews who stayed in Rome after 1555 moved across the river into the ghetto hellhole. Their deceased ancestors remained in place. It was not to be a peaceful sleep of death, alas. In 1625, our Barberini friend Pope Urban VIII found the time between tapestry appreciation, adding bees to everything and stripping ancient bronze off the Pantheon to decree that all Jews in Rome must be buried in unmarked graves. No names of Jews were to be carved in stone, period. (Exceptions were occasionally made for very prominent rabbis or wealthy men.) Extant gravestones were to be destroyed. Then in 1645, the cemetery was built over when a new city wall was constructed. This is why only a single fragment of a headstone was found in the excavation.

The Jews were allowed to move what remains they could to a new cemetery on the Aventine, but struggle followed them. Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome marks the spot as the “Ortaccio degli Ebrei,” meaning “Garden of the Jews,” although that doesn’t convey the pejorative connotation of the suffix -accio. (The Ortaccio was the name for 16th century Rome’s red light district where the prostitutes were walled in much like Jews were in the ghetto.) Interestingly, Nolli’s map also shows how the Jews were forced to move across the river to the Aventine and may have been bumped one more time after that. The Trastevere cemetery site is on the left side of the map outlined in green. On the right side outlined in red is another “Ortaccio degli Ebrei,” presumably the active one in Nolli’s time, directly overlooking the Circus Maximus, which was itself divided into farmland. Just a hop to the southwest outlined in blue is the “Ortaccio Vecchio degli Ebrei,” or the “Old Garden of the Jews.” If that was the old one, the other one must have been (relatively) new.

Three Ortacci degli Ebrei outlined in green, red and blue on Giambattista Nolli's Map of Rome, 1748.

The Aventine cemetery had an even shorter life than the Trastevere one. It was destroyed in 1934, this time courtesy of Mussolini’s grandiose plan to redesign Rome to showcase its ancient glories. Workers dug up all of the graves, put the bones in boxes and moved them to the Campo Verano cemetery outside the Roman walls where they were reburied in the Jewish section. The last Garden of the Jews is now a rose garden. Today only a modest memorial records what had once been a field of white gravestones with generations of Roman Jews buried beneath them.

Tannery tubs and foundations, 3rd century A.D. Photo courtesy the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.The Palazzo Leonori site will become a mini-museum where some of the discoveries made in the six years of excavation will be on display. Large plastered tubs identified by an inscription as part of the Coraria Septimiana, 3rd century A.D. tanneries built by the emperor Septimius Severus to tan leather products for exclusive supply to the Roman army, will be viewable to the public in the courtyard of Palazzo Leonardi, a sort of mini-archaeological park.

The human remains will not be part of any future such plans, nor will they be studied further out of respect for the dead. Presumably they will be reinterred, but no decision has been announced at this time. The archaeological team is working closely with rabbinical authorities, among them Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, to determine the next steps.

 

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

August 2017
S M T W T F S
« Jul    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication