Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Howard Carter the artist

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Before Howard Carter became the world-famous archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, he was an artist. In fact, it was pretty much all he knew how to do. Howard, the youngest of 11 children of Samuel and Martha Carter, was sick a lot in his youth. The many and varied miasmas of London were considered injurious to his health, so he was sent to live with his aunts in Swaffham, Norfolk, where his father and grandfather had been gamekeepers on the Hamond family estate.

Because of his sickliness he was never enrolled in school. His father, an artist who carved out a successful niche for himself painting portraits of the gentry and their pets, tutored Howard on regular trips to Swaffham, teaching him how to draw and paint. One of Samuel Carter’s patrons was William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall, an estate eight miles from Swaffham. As a boy, Howard visited Didlington Hall when his father painted Lord Amherst’s portrait, and this is where he first became exposed to Egyptology.

Amherst was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. He, his wife Margaret Mitford (whose father had a passion for all things Egyptian as well) and their seven daughters traveled frequently to Egypt, constantly acquiring new artifacts. A whole wing of Didlington Hall was dedicated to housing his vast collection. Seven statues of the lion-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet guarded the door of the museum, one for each of the Amherst daughters. Those statues are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Amherst family didn’t just give Howard Carter the chance to explore Egyptian art through their extensive collection. It was their recommendation and contacts that secured him his first job in Egypt. He was just 17 years old when he was hired as a tracer — someone who copies inscriptions and art work found in excavations onto paper for later study — for the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1891. This was an essential job in the age before color photography. Watercolors were the only accurate recreations of tomb decorations available.

Carter’s first assignment was the Beni Hasan excavation where the princes of Middle Egypt were buried. He immediately distinguished himself with his artistic ability and dedication, often working all day and then spending the night in the tomb. Carter began to learn archaeology on his next assignment at El-Amarna under pioneering Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1892. He was still an artist, recording artifacts as they were discovered, but Petrie allowed him to dig too, and Carter made some signficant finds.

In 1894, Carter was appointed Principle Artist of the EEF’s excavation of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. For five years Carter made drawings and watercolors of the wall reliefs in the temple. One of his watercolors from this period, The Temple of Hatshepsut (1899), is going up for auction at Bonhams’ Travel, Exploration and Natural History Sale in London on December 3rd.

Carter also joined in the excavation of the temple and learned restoration techniques as well. He did such a fine job that in 1899 the Egyptian Antiquities Service offered him the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. He was 25 years old, had no formal education, and was now the supervisor of all archaeological excavations in the Upper Nile Valley. Carter did great work, installing the first electric lights in six Valley of the Kings tombs and at the temples in Abu Simbel.

His extraordinary run of success came to a halt in 1905 when a group of drunk and belligerent French tourists became violent towards the Egyptian guards at Saqqara. Carter told the guards they could defend themselves. The tourists complained to people in high places and the diplomatic hotshots insisted Carter apologize. He refused. In retaliation, Carter was shipped off to an obscure site with not much in the way of archaeology. Rather than twiddle his thumbs in exile, Carter resigned.

For the next two years, Howard Carter had something of a hard scrabble existence. He sold his watercolors or guided tours to make a living. Then he hit the jackpot. French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service who had given Carter the Chief Inspector General job, introduced him to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon had deep pockets and was keen to fund archaeological excavations. He got the necessary licenses and made Carter the Supervisor of Excavations in Thebes.

During this time, Carter painted Under the Protection of the Gods (1908), a composite fantasy that depicts a vulture — representing the goddess Nekhebet, protector of Upper Egypt — above a solar disc wrapped in a cobra — representing the goddess Wadjet, protector of Lower Egypt. It’s likely that the iconography of the watercolor was inspired by some of Carter’s finds in Thebes, including the 18th Dynasty Tomb of Tetaki and a 15th Dynasty tomb with nine coffins.

The Carter-Carnarvon partnership was very successful. By the time World War I began in 1914, Carnarvon had amassed a hugely important collection of Egyptian antiquities. That same year he secured a 15-year license to excavate the Valley of the Kings and Carter got to work. He painted The Valley of the Kings (1914) the first year of excavations. Excavations were disrupted by war, but Carter still managed to dig in 1915 and 1917.

In 1918 excavations restarted in earnest. For the next four years, Carter scoured the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh whose name he had discovered. It became something of an obsession with him, but in 1922 when the tomb continued to be elusive, Carnarvon got sick of funding what seemed like a fool’s errand and told Carter that he had one digging season left. Three days after the last excavation began in November of 1922, Carter’s diggers found the top of a staircase. Three weeks later, Carter peered in through a small hole in the doorway and saw the “wonderful things,” that would take the world by storm and make him immortal.

Carter never forgot the people who helped him overcome his humble beginnings. His connection with the Amherst family continued throughout his life. William and Margaret Amherst’s eldest daughter Mary, known as May, wife of Lord William Cecil, took her family’s fascination with Egypt to even greater heights. Between 1901 and 1904, she personally funded and ran excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan. Howard Carter was Chief Inspector for Antiquities then, and he helped advise her.

In 1906, the family was left financially devastated when their solicitor and land agent, Charles Cheston, was found to have embezzled hundreds of thousand of pounds to support his gambling habit. Cheston committed suicide. Lord Amherst was forced to sell the collections he had spent decades building into some of the greatest private holdings in the country. His library went first, auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1908 and 1909. William Amherst died two months before the second sale.

May, heir to her father’s estate and title, had no choice but to continue the sell-off. In 1910, the estate itself, home and park, was sold to Colonel Herbert Francis Smith. May refused to sell her father’s Egyptian collection, however. She held on to that resolutely for a decade until her death from breast cancer in 1919. Only after May was gone was the legendary Amherst collection of Egyptian papyri, statues and other artifacts put up for sale at Sotheby’s in 1921. It was Howard Carter who catalogued the collection that had first inspired his great vocation. At the time of the sale, even though some individual objects had been sold piecemeal before then, the Amherst Egyptian collection was the third largest private collection in England.

In 1950, Didlington Hall, broken and neglected after requisition during World War II, was stripped of its last valuables when the interior fittings were sold at auction. The house was demolished and thus what had once been one of Norfolk’s greatest treasures was lost forever.


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HMS Erebus ship’s bell recovered

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

After the wreck of explorer Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, was found in September, Parks Canada researchers had only two days to explore the site before temperatures plunged below zero making diving impossible. The team made seven dives during those two days, filming, photographing and measuring the wreck as extensively as possible, but they didn’t want to disturb the interior so they only sent cameras inside and did not recover artifacts.

They were holding out on us, though, because one object was removed from the sea floor: the ship’s bronze bell.

The bell was found on the deck adjacent to the ship’s displaced windlass (a form of anchor winch), above which it was originally mounted. Since then, the bell has been undergoing conservation stabilization and additional research.

The bell is intact and generally in very good condition. Two embossed markings – introduced when the bronze bell was first cast – are evident on the artifact: a Royal Navy “broad arrow” indicating property of the British Government, as well as the date “1845.”

Ship’s bells hold a great deal of meaning. In addition to their practical purpose — they struck the half-hour day and night, and signalled the change of the watch — bells are symbolic incarnations of the ship. There’s a tradition in the Royal Navy that upside down bells are used as baptismal founts for sailors’ babies. The names of the baptized children are then engraved under the bell’s lip.

Given its symbolic and archaeological value, Parks Canada decided it would be more prudent to recover the bell instead of subjecting it to another long, frigid winter in the Queen Maud Gulf. It could conceivably be damaged by ice scraping the seabed, although it has survived 168 winters thus far without serious damage. Besides, a ship’s bell can provide essential confirmation of the wreck’s identity, and on a PR note, is an iconic symbol that makes a far more immediate rallying point than sonar scans.

As the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, puts it:

“The bell of HMS Erebus provides a tangible and compelling connection to the Franklin ships and is an important part of naval and Canadian history. The recovery of this important artifact is the crowning achievement for an incredibly successful 2014 search campaign that has captivated Canadians and the entire world.”

Still, the marketing coup had to wait. Parks Canada archaeologists wanted to examine the bell without public scrutiny and begin the process of stabilizing the find before making the announcement, which is why we’re only hearing about it six weeks after the bell was recovered. At first, the bell had to remain damp to keep it from corroding when exposed to the air. It was wrapped in bubble-wrap and kept humid during transportation to Ottawa.

The bell is now sealed in a tank of distilled water in an environmetally-controlled secure location at the Parks Canada conservation laboratory. The water is being tested daily to detect any changes in the artifact. Over the course of months, perhaps as many as 18 or more, the bell will transition from fresh water baths to chemical baths that will leach all the salt from its surface and protect it from corrosion.

One the bell is cleaned and stabilized, it may reveal additional clues that are currently not visible. It will eventually go on public display at a location yet to be determined.


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Witchmarks to protect James I after Gunpowder Plot found at Knole House

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Building archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) surveying Knole House, the stately Kent seat of the Sackville family, have discovered protective witchmarks carved on the beams of a room built to house King James I. The marks, checkerboard lines known as demon traps because the evil ones would follow the lines and get caught in them, and interlocking Vs that stand for Virgo Virginum and invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary, were carved by craftsmen in the beams and joists under the floor and on the oak fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room.

Thanks to tree-ring dating, we know exactly when the marks were carved. The oak timber was felled in the winter of 1605-06 and was used while it was still green, which means the beams were in place by the summer of 1606 at the latest. Guy Fawkes and seven other conspirators in the plot to blow up the House of Lords during the Opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605, were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 31st, 1606. Fawkes had been arrested tending to 36 barrels of powder in the undercroft of the House of Lords just 12 hours before the explosion was set to go off, so the King and the entire ruling hierarchy of Britain came very close to annhilation and the memory of it was very fresh when the work was done at Knole.

The discovery answers a long-debated question about witchmarks. Some historians contend that they are carpenters’ marks used for practical purposes as installation guides, but the Knole timbers have both standard carpenters’ marks and witchmarks. Add to that the remodeling in anticipation of the King’s visit and the precise date in the looming shadow of the Gunpowder Plot, and the Knole marks are strong evidence that they were intended to play a supernatural protective role.

Their power never did get tested. All the construction, refurbishment and witchmarking was for nought as King James didn’t go through with his planned visit to Knole. Thomas Sackvillle, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I on her mother’s side, died in 1608 before the King’s visit, and his son didn’t have the clout in court to motivate James to keep Knole on the schedule.

Sackville acquired Knole House in 1566. His descendants (including his grandson Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, whom you might recall as Lady Anne Clifford‘s no-good first husband) have lived there ever since. They are still part owners of the estate, sharing it with the National Trust. The Trust is currently in the midst of the largest conservation project in Knole’s history, a multi-year $30 million restoration that is repairing and documenting the structure down to the individual beams. The MOLA team is recording the timber frame structure on behalf of the National Trust to provide essential information necessary to make the proper decisions on the conservation of the estate.

The showrooms are closed during the restoration, but the King’s Room will be open to the public for a special showing on November 20th and 21st. Visitors will have the chance to see the witchmarks before they are covered back up.

Speaking of the Gunpowder Plot, the earliest written report of the arrest and interrogation of Guy Fawkes is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on December 9th. It’s a letter written by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, James I’s Secretary of State and spymaster, to Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador to the Hague.

Dated November 9th, just four days after the plot was discovered, it appears to have been written earlier as it still refers to Fawkes as John Johnson, the alias he had used when posing as co-conspirator Thomas Percy’s servant in order to rent a house next to the House of Lords. Fawkes insisted he was Johnson and had acted entirely on his own for the first two days of interrogations before escalating torture got him to confess his real name on November 7th, and the names of his co-conspirators on November 8th and 9th.

Cecil notes in the letter that despite the threat of the torture, “Johnson” insisted he acted alone and confessed solely to his own crimes from illegal practices of Catholicism to planning the destruction of the entire political hierarchy. They only got him to admit Percy was involved by claiming he’d already been captured and confessed. From the letter:

[Y]et could no threatening of torture draw from him any other language than this, that he is ready to die, and rather wisheth ten thousand deaths, than willingly to accuse his master or any other ; until by often reiterating examinations, we pretending to him that his master was apprehended, he hath come to plain confession, that his master kept the key of that cellar whilst he was abroad ; had been in it since the powder was laid there, and inclusive confessed him a principal actor in the same.

Robert Cecil sent copies of this letter to a number of ambassadors in Europe to enlist them in rumor control and to recommend they deploy a few men-at-arms in countries where the conspirators’ supporters might have been preparing military aid. You can read the full text of the letter to Sir Charles Cornwallis, British ambassador to Spain, in this 1905 book about the Gunpowder Plot. Spoiler: author Philip Sidney is no Robert Cecil fan. Check the footnote).

Cecil’s letter to Winwood was bought by the Harcourt family in the 19th century. They are now selling it. The presale estimate is £40,000 to £60,000 ($64,000 – $96,000).

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Madison’s Montpelier gets $10 million donation

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Montpelier, the Virginia estate of fourth President of the United States and Father of the Constitution James Madison, went through some tough times after his widow Dolley Madison sold it in 1844. Later owners, most prominently the du Pont family who bought it in 1901 and built on it extensively, developing it into a prominent equestrian facility. Marion du Pont Scott willed Montpelier to the National Trust for Historical Preservation upon her death in 1983. The Trust established The Montpelier Foundation, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to the management of the historic estate, and in 2003 the Foundation undertook a massive architectural restoration to return the mansion to the condition it was in when Madison retired there after the end of his second term as president in 1817.

The restoration was officially concluded on Constitution Day, September 17th, 2008, and was celebrated as one of the most ambitious, authentic restorations ever done in the United States. That was just the beginning, however. There was still a great deal more to be done to return the estate to its historical condition. James and Dolley Madison’s original furnishings were long gone, sold under the financial duress of Dolley’s widowhood or dispersed through the family and then out into the market. There are more Montpelier pieces in museums and private collections scattered around the country than there are in the historic mansion.

In the five years since the architectural restoration was completed, The Montpelier Foundation has dedicated itself to locating furniture, wallpaper, paint colors, accessories and any other relevant objects that if not the actual original pieces, at the very least are authentic to the period and similar or identical to things that would have been in the home in the 1820s, like the 18th century ivory chess set model on which Madison and Thomas Jefferson played their marathon games.

The goal is to restore everything, mansion and landscape, including the dwellings of the domestic slaves, to their appearance in Madison’s time. It’s a massive research project, requiring punctilious examination of the physical space — for example analyzing the window casings for hints of how the treatments were hung and excavating the grounds for evidence of the period landscaping — as well as documentary analysis. Researchers are going through tens of thousands of pages of documents, from letters to visitor descriptions to receipts to estate financial records and so much more, to get the full picture of what was in the house and how the estate as a whole functioned in the 19th century.

About $6.5 million have already been invested in the project. Several rooms are now furnished and excavations in the South Yard have found the footprints of the six structures where Montpelier’s slaves lived and worked. To get the project into the endzone, private equity billionaire, philanthropist and committed history buff David Rubenstein has donated $10 million to The Montpelier Foundation.

Rubenstein is deeply committed to preserving history for the nation and he puts his money where his mouth is. Last year he purchased the Bay Psalm Book for $14,165,000 to loan it to libraries all over the country before settling on one library to be the recipient of a long-term loan of the book. The year before that he donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument when it was damaged by a 2011 earthquake. After buying the only privately owned copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives and then gave them $13.5 million to build it a new custom display case.

Most of the donation, $6.5 million will go to the furnishing and restoration of the mansion’s interior. The priority areas are the South Passage entry hall, James’ mother Nelly Madison’s sitting and dining rooms, several upstairs bedrooms and their closet spaces, plus the cellar kitchens and work areas.

The South Hall used to be central hall of the original Georgian home from the 1760s. In Madison’s day, it was used as a secondary parlor and gallery space with an impressive array of art on the walls. It’s completely bare now, despite being the first stop on the daily tour. Nelly’s rooms are off the South Passage. The upstairs bedrooms are the Madisons’ primary bedchamber, guest and family bedchambers that once furnished will show visitors what a bustling, busy, active home it was. The closets will be stocked with linens and clothing, and the rooms furnished from bedding to seating to artwork to window treatments.

The cellar, which covers the entire footprint of the mansion, was the domain of Montpelier’s enslaved domestic staff. The space includes two kitchens, a wine cellar and multiple storage and work areas. The whole space is empty (the modern mechanical systems were moved to an underground vault during the architectural restoration). With Rubenstein’s donation, the Foundation will add interpretative elements that bring attention to the individual slaves who worked there, highlighting their personal histories and family links, their daily work on the plantation, how they traveled, their influence on Montpelier.

The rest of the donation, $3.5 million, will be dedicated to the reconstruction of the South Yard adjacent to the mansion. In Madison’s time, the South Yard had three duplex slave quarters (relatively comfortable housing for house slaves; the field hands lived in log and mud shacks next to the fields), two smokehouses and a detached kitchen. The kitchen, one of the duplexes and the smokehouses will be reconstructed and fully furnished to give visitors the chance to see where and how Montpelier’s enslaved community lived. The second duplex will be used as a classroom for student programs, the third for exhibition space on the slaves, field, house and skilled craftsmen, who kept Montpelier going.

Rubenstein wants to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave money to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.

“It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country — Jefferson, Washington, Madison — yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do, much about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.”

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“Arbeit Macht Frei” gate stolen from Dachau

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

In what is becoming a sickening trend, the wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”) at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp was stolen in the early hours of Sunday. There are private security guards on the premises, but the camp has no surveillance system, a deliberate choice to eschew the ugly association of constant monitoring.

Gabriele Hammermann, [Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial], said Monday. “We have irregular guard patrols six to seven times per night at the camp, but all of the former concentration camps in Germany have so far not installed cameras, as we do not want to make these locations once again a high-security facility in respect for the deceased.”

The theft happened while the guards were patrolling sometime between 11:45 PM Saturday and 5:30 AM Sunday. The thieves, and there had to have been at least two of them, scaled the outer gate to reach the wrought iron one, then removed the entire door that carries the slogan off its hinges. They then had the heft it back over the outer gate. Because it’s six-and-a-half-feet high, three feet wide and weighs an estimated 225 pounds, the thieves must have had a getaway vehicle.

Police and state security are investigating the theft. They have appealed to anyone who might have seen a vehicle or suspicious people in the area Sunday morning to come forward with any information. Authorities suspect it may be a politically motivated act by right-wing extremists, although a commissioned theft is certainly possible. It has happened before.

The large “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in December of 2009 only to be recovered less than 72 hours later. The thieves were Polish men hired by Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Högström who claimed to have acted solely as a middle man but ultimately pleaded guilty to masterminding the theft and was sentenced to serve two years and eight months in a Swedish prison.

I think this theft is slightly less likely to have been a deranged collector because the sign is not actually original. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30th. It was built on the site of an abandoned munitions factory on the outskirts of the Bavarian town of Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich, as a forced labour camp for political prisoners. One of those political prisoners, Communist Karl Röder, was ordered to craft the iron lettering by the SS in 1936. Röder’s sign was removed after the war. A replica was installed in its place when the memorial was created in 1965.

That does not diminish the symbolic significance of the theft. Dr. Gabriele Hammermann considers it a:

“deliberate, reprehensible attempt to deny and obliterate the memory of the crimes committed in this place. The assault on this relict of highly symbolic importance demonstrates a new dimension, since it is an attempt to demolish the memorial at its very core.”

More than 200,000 people — political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, gyspies, clergy, reistance fighters, POWs (mainly Poles) — from all over Europe were imprisoned at Dachau in its 12 years of operation. More than 40,000 died from starvation, disease, torture, executions and death marches before US Army forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Today Dachau has the most visitors of any concentration camp memorial in Germany, approximately 800,000 a year.

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Cache of 17th c. luxury goods found in Dublin castle

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

A hoard of 17th century luxury consumer goods was found hidden under the floor of a tower in Dublin’s Rathfarnham Castle. All the floors in the tower had been removed to construct an elevator shaft that would make the space wheelchair accessible (the work was monitored by an archaeologist since the castle is a National Monument). At the bottom of the tower underneath the 18th century stone floor, they discovered a large cache of what may have been garbage to the inhabitants of the castle, but would have been precious treasure to most people in their era and certainly in ours.

Because the cache was sealed by the floor, the hiding place had very little air circulating. It was also quite damp and muddy, which helped preserved organic matter as well as delicate artifacts like glass bottles and porcelain. It’s an impressively large collection. Archaeologists recovered them from the mud by the bucketful. The objects may have been hidden deliberately when the castle was under attack (which it was a lot in the mid-17th century), or they may have been set aside for washing and then forgotten about, or simply thrown away. Or maybe some things were stashed with the intention of retrieval while other items were dumped as trash.

A number of late 17th century glass wine bottles, all intact, were found, some of which still had their seals, marked with a date stamp of 1688 and initials AL for Adam Loftus. Glass wine bottles only began to be used in 1650, so we’re talking very early survivals here of very fragile material. Another rare survival is of an intact crystal drinking glass, about the size and shape of a lipped shot glass. The crystal is much thinner than the wine bottles, so very few of them have made it out of their time without breaking. Then there’s the mysterious corked glass vial that still has liquid inside, possibly a perfume or essential oil. Its contents will be examined in a laboratory.

There is a complete set of pottery ointment or cosmetic jars, possibly made in Italy, one of which still has ointment in it. They’re graduated in size so they can stack neatly one inside the other. Porcelain wasn’t produced in England until 1750. Before then, it had to be imported from the far east. The porcelain discovered at Rathfarnham Castle is Chinese. The maker’s mark on the base of one plate identifies it as from the 1660s.

Other assorted objects include a group of clay pipes, chamber pots, coins going back as far as 1602, jewelry, buckles, shoes, a rare foldable travel toothbrush and weaponry. A Cromwellian armour breastplate with a musket ball hole in the lower abdomen is the stand-out piece amidst the gun flints and musket balls.

The organic remains testify to some very fine meals enjoyed at the castle. There are pits from olives, cherries, peaches and plums, melon and grape seeds, hazelnuts, oyster shells, fish bones, bird bones and perhaps most excitingly, tea leaves. Tea was also introduced in the mid-17th century, so again we’re looking at a very early luxury import.

The artifacts tell a story about the early history of the castle and of the lives of the elite. Since the 17th century was a very tumultuous time of wars and rebellions, not a great many fragile artifacts have survived. Finding so many of them in one place is an archaeological gold strike.

Built in 1583, the castle was the country retreat of Adam Loftus, Church of England Archbishop of Dublin, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, co-founder and first Provost of Trinity College Dublin. After his death in 1605, Rathfarnham Castle passed to his eldest son Sir Dudley Loftus and then to Dudley’s son Sir Adam Loftus in 1616. The artifacts date to Sir Adam’s tenure and that of his sons Sir Arthur and Dr. Dudley Loftus.

As a Protestant English noble, Loftus was a target in the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the castle was besieged by Irish Catholic forces. Adam was imprisoned, but the castle held out and was garrisoned by Royalist troops from 1641 through 1647 when Dublin surrendered to Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War. The Irish Catholic Confederation allied with the Royalists in 1648 and by 1649, Dublin was the only Parliamentary city in Ireland. Cromwell arrived in Ireland in August of 1649. He was said to have stayed at the castle and held council there before the Sack of Wexford in October of 1649. Adam Loftus sided with Cromwell and got his property back, only to be killed at the Siege of Limerick in 1651.

Dr. Dudley Loftus, a prodigy who graduated from Trinity College at age 18 and became a noted expert in languages, inherited Rathfarnham Castle in 1659. He held it in less turbulent times until his death in 1695. In addition to his reputation as a scholar and linguist, he also had a reputation as a voluptuary whose fondness for fashion, pageantry and women was known in some excruciating detail thanks to the pamphlets he himself wrote about his exploits. God knows what shenanigans those oysters were in aid of.

The artifacts have been removed to a laboratory for cleaning and conservation, after which they will be exhibited somewhere, ideally in the castle itself. Please watch the video at this link to see the tower floor and a lovely little tour of the artifacts recovered.

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Brian Willson: Preserving History through Fonts

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Nestler's glorious handwriting in the Teschen Table bookletIn a post earlier this month about the Teschen Table, I waxed lyrical about the gorgeous handwriting of Carl Gottfried Nestler, the Dresden engraver who Johann-Christian Neuber commissioned to write the booklet that identified every mineral inlaid in the table top. “Someone needs to make a Nestler font,” said I, “because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.”

As it happens, I knew of a someone who might just be able to accomplish such a noble feat. I have long been an admirer of the historical handwriting and typeface fonts created by Three Islands Press (3IP). When I finally get around to upgrading this site, 3IP fonts will feature prominently because they’re a) beautiful, b) meticulous and c) a history nerd’s ideal playground. On the off-chance that Mr. Nestler’s elegant hand might be of interest, I sent 3IP a message with a link to the Teschen Table story.

Much to my delight, 3IP founder and designer of my favorite fonts of all time Brian Willson answered me. He was intrigued by Nestler’s lettering, so much so that he envisions creating an organic hand and a complete text typeface from it. :boogie:

That project has to get in line, though, because Willson has other irons in the fire at the moment. Thankfully, he is extremely generous with his time and despite his insanely busy schedule, he agreed to sit for the second History Blog interview ever.

I told him that the first interview subject, the incomparable Janet Stephens, got famous a year after I posted her interview. Oh sure, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her particular genius at decoding the Vestal Virgin’s incredibly complex Seni Crines hairstyle, but that’s no reason not to brag that I was there before the Wall Street Journal. The entirely unrelated correlation of interview and fame proved no incentive anyway. As it turns out, his work is already famous the world over, if not by name then certainly by sight.

* * *

Q: How did you first get the idea to create fonts from historical handwriting?
Thomas J. Rusk's handwriting, Texas Hero fontA:
Back in 1994, when I was doing a little graphic design and desktop publishing on the side, I had occasion for some reason to use a font that looked like old handwriting, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. So I decided to create one. At the time, my mom — a historical librarian — worked at The Center for American History at the University of Texas, so I asked if she could send me copies of any old letters she might find lying around. Within a week or two, she’d sent me photocopies of a whole bunch of letters written by famous early Texans like Sam Houston, Mirabeau B Lamar, Emily Austin Perry, and Thomas J Rusk. Rusk’s handwriting seemed the most legible and least peculiar of the bunch, so I chose to work with that.

[Texas Hero was the result.]

Q: What was the first handwriting font you created and when was that?
A:
The first handwriting font I created was also the first font I created — and it was not at all historical. The year was 1993. I was working either in the production or editorial department (I spent time in both) at a company that published trade magazines, and one of our art directors had some of the coolest hand-lettering I’d ever seen. I had by then experimented briefly with (then) Altsys Fontographer making logos and such and proposed turning her handwriting into a font. She agreed and drew out the alphabet on a piece of poster board. A few weeks (months?) later, I’d finished my first generation of the Marydale family. It’s what got me started in this whole wacky enterprise.

Q: Fonts were only a decade old in the early 90s, the province of computer manufacturers, software companies and visionary traditional typesetters like Monotype. Did you have any experience in graphic design or typesetting? How did you go from curiosity to execution? What tools did you use? How long did it take you to make the first one?
A:
I had absolutely no training in typography at all. Up until then I’d worked mainly as a journalist — but that career had, by the mid- to late-1980s, put me in close proximity with early Apple Macintosh computers, and I couldn’t stop playing around most evenings with programs like Adobe Illustrator and (then) Aldus Pagemaker. Just fiddling. Exploring. Learning things. Soon I was offering to design newsletters for a couple of local non-profits I belonged to, and before I knew it I actually had some paying graphic design jobs.

I’d guess it took me a couple hundred hours to make that first version of Marydale. I would scan each character very large, hand-trace it with Illustrator’s vector tools, import the outlines into Fontographer, and finish things up there. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing at first, but when you have a perfectionist streak you tend to keep banging away until you arrive at that “Voila!” moment. I had a bunch of those moments along the way, but I’m sure my font-making methods remain roundabout and inefficient. This all happened a year or two before the Web exploded on the scene, but I figured I’d release those first few fonts as shareware on CompuServe and America Online. I was pretty dang stunned — albeit pleasantly so — when checks started arriving in the mail. Which is pretty much all the incentive you need to keep going in a capitalist society like ours, ha ha.

Emily Austin Perry letter homeOver the years, as I’ve learned more about type design, I’ve repeatedly gone back and revised my early type designs — fixing inconsistencies, adding OpenType features, stuff like that. I now use FontLab Studio to create all my type.

Q: Did you think of it as a form of historical preservation from the beginning? Now that pen-to-paper writing has become increasingly rare as even the few remaining formal settings for handwriting like wedding invitations go virtual, has that added a sense of urgency to your work?
A:
Not at first. I thought of it as: 1) a really cool, fun, sometimes tedious form of play; 2) a way to provide new and interesting resources for graphic designers. But I couldn’t help becoming immersed in the content of the source materials — Emily Perry’s letters home, Sam Houston’s “talks” to his Native American compadres — and I began to understand and empathize with the kind of urgent devotion to communication that went into putting pen to paper back then. Ironically, of course, this whole crazy pursuit of mine quite logically coincided with a modern decline in the art of handwriting. Heck, these days cursive is rarely even taught in school. I never saw it coming, but in the past few years it’s dawned on me that my type work truly is a kind of an odd form of historical preservation.

Q: Do you deliberately set out to look for good font candidates or do you mainly stumble on them in the course of doing other things?
Page one of Rev. Samuel Clarke's letter, Schooner Script fontA:
Stumble. I stumble around a lot. I wander, I ramble, I play. The first few fonts, especially, came from random moments of, “Hey, cool!” Once I started getting interested in the historical stuff, though, I have tended to keep an eye out for interesting source documents — Schooner Script is the result of an off-hand query I made to the owner of a local antique shop, and Broadsheet came from some old newspaper pages saved by a dealer of ancient longcase clocks. While on a trip to England several years ago, I came upon a business specializing in antique maps and ended up buying a page of an early-18th century Atlas: Antiquarian Scribe.

But I’ve also made fonts on a whim or at the suggestion of a customer. An example of the former is Viktorie, modeled after the barely legible scrawl of a waitress in a local restaurant; an example of the latter is Douglass Pen, after I had my interest piqued by an actor who had portrayed — and therefore knew a heck of a lot about — the famous American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass.

Q: What characteristics make for a good handwriting or historical typeface font?
A:
I’m not sure I know that answer to that, at least not generally. I’d say a modicum of legibility, for one. But beyond that I suppose just an interesting sort of look or flourish or expressiveness that strikes you, that at once (if subliminally) makes you wonder at the character and personality of the person who took pen to paper (or set the type) in the first place. For some reason I’m reminded of my Bonsai font, an interpretation of a flawed, topheavy letterpress job. I’ve often wondered if the printers noticed the problem and maybe thought, “Meh, it’s legible enough.” (I, for one, think it’s lovely.)

Q: You make a point of explaining where the font came from in all your descriptions. How important is the backstory — the author of the hand, the source of the writing — to you?
A:
Really important. Essential, to me — and, I think, to the folks who have licensed my fonts. I think humans generally have a keen curiosity about how things got the way they are and where things come from. Where we came from. Witness our interest in genealogy. Since we have fairly good memories, centuries of records at our fingertips, and brains that are prone to solving puzzles and imagining things, it’s no wonder that our thoughts turn to the preservation and illumination of the dim times that have gone before.

Emily Austin PerryQ: Do you have a favorite or favorites among the fonts you’ve made? What makes it/them stand out to you as particularly compelling?
A:
I think Lamar Pen is perhaps the best of my old handwriting fonts — at least the most elegant and handsome. (Note, though, that I am certainly not a fan of Mirabeau B Lamar, the second president of Texas, whose hand it simulates.) But I have a special fondness for Emily Austin. I believe this has a lot to do with the spirit of the woman herself, her expressiveness in her letters, how she wore her personality on her sleeve, so to speak, in the words and sentences she strung together. Emily was a product of her time, and her extant portraits show a strict and proper pioneer woman, but from all I’ve read she was a loving, thoughtful, motherly presence in the many lives she touched. Her descendants still celebrate her birthday every year down Texas way.

Q: I didn’t realize that you immersed yourself in your historical sources to the point of developing an understanding of their characters and lives, although from your description of Abigail Adams it’s clear you’ve read extensively enough to be able to discern different phases of her handwriting over the years. How thoroughly have you read the correspondence of Emily Austin, Frederick Douglass, Abigail Adams, Mirabeau Lamar and the other figures whose writing you have converted to fonts? Has there been a widely varying range of depth for each personage?
Picking out Emily Austin's lettersA:
I would say a fairly varied range. Ma sent me probably six or eight of Emily A Perry’s letters home from when she was traveling up East looking for a cure for her daughter’s spells and seizures. I had nearly that many of Lamar’s letters — and also a great reproduction of his journal on first traveling from Georgia to Texas in 1835.

I must confess: I didn’t read every page of that journal. Nor did I read all of Abigail Adams’s letters to John (or many of his to her) but rather found myself pausing every now and then while looking near at the shapes of letterforms and pulling back to find myself immersed in her words. Nor did I read every page of her son’s diary — which is no doubt a good thing, considering it spans some seventy years, because I’d probably still be reading!

Selecting an E of Emily'sI probably read about a half dozen of Frederick Douglass’s letters and a number of his written lectures. And come to think of it, I believe I only had three or four of Rusk’s letters on which to base Texas Hero. This is the first time I’ve actually gone back and reviewed this measure. Kind of funny how it all worked out.

Q: You eloquently describe the experience of becoming engrossed by the source material. Primary sources taught in school history classes are often transcriptions rather than images of the original documents. Sometimes the writing is hard to decipher otherwise, but if we posit legibility, do you think it would help draw students in if they had to read letters/reports/news stories the way they were read in their time? That might help keep the dying art of penmanship alive too, since forgetting how to read it is part and parcel of forgetting how to write it.
A:
I do certainly think it would help. There’s unquestionably more allure to original old — to a school kid, ancient — artifacts and documents than boring typeset transcriptions. In fact, I bet many kids would get a huge kick out of working to figure out how to decipher old handwriting. Trouble is, how many teachers would think it worth the bother? (It would so be worth the bother.)

Q: You’re read correspondence and diaries of notable figures, discovered obscure historical events like the dramatic destruction by water-and-quicklime fire of the Governor detailed in the letter that became Schooner Script, pored over antique maps, periodicals and rubbings of headstones. It seems to me that you’ve become a historian in the course of becoming a historical preservationist, all without remotely setting out to do it. Given how important the backstories are to you, have you considered writing more about them? I’m certain you have more than enough material for a fascinating book, a compendium of personal stories linked solely by great handwriting and texts.
Emily Austin font comes togetherA:
I’ve recently started an occasional blog about the vanishing art of penmanship, and I have so far tended to dwell on my historical adventures. I hadn’t really thought of a book, a compendium. You’ve piqued my interest!

Q: One of the aspects I love the most about your fonts is your inclusion of graphic elements like the ink blots of Remsen, the cartographic ornaments of Antiquarian and Terra Ignota and the printer’s flourishes of Broadsheet. Have you thought about using them as the kernels of complete, stand-alone historical icon sets? Because I am in a position to guarantee you at least one very keen customer.
Terra Ignota with cartographic ornamentsA:
I sure enough have considered of this. A while back I even started work on an ink-blots-only font but then got sidetracked by somebody else’s handwriting. Pen-and-ink blots, antique cartographic ornaments, old printer’s flourishes — hm, it might just work!

Q: How is your own penmanship? Doctor scrawl, Palmer method roundness, John Hancock big, serial killer cramped? Would you ever make a font of your own hand?
A:
I already have, so check for yourself!

[Spoiler: It's called Cedar Street and it's phenomenal. I heart the small caps so much I'd marry them.]

* * *

Brian kindly sent me images of his font-making process using Emily Austin as the example. One of the pictures was a page from Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You which I realized with a start used Emily Austin in the chapter headings! This is when I finally understood that Brian Willson’s work was already crazy famous, so my boasting was as superfluous as it was unjustified.

I asked him how Emily had gotten such an illustrious gig; did he have a font agent or publicist or something? He replied:

I’ve never heard of a font agent or publicist, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. From nearly the beginning, though, I’ve stumbled on my fonts “in the wild” — used on book covers, signs, packaging, and whatnot. (Still seems highly implausible, but there you go.) With Arthur Spiderwick, someone bought a copy of Emily Austin on my website and, in the field on my checkout pages asking how people found us, mentioned that book by name. Turns out the publisher had listed the font name in the credits. (I have no idea where they bought it, but likely through one of my distributors.) I immediately ordered a copy, of course.

On my 3ipfonts.com site, there’s a “sightings” page where you can see a few examples. (I haven’t updated it in a while.)

Actually, many of my customers over the years have sent me photos or links showing my fonts in use. They’re really nice to do that.

Lamar Pen as the signature of the Half-Blood PrinceThat sightings page is AMAZING. From a boat name in Penobscot Bay, Maine, to a package of crackers in Switzerland to the side of a U-Haul van, Brian Willson’s fonts are ubiquitous. They make appearances in blockbuster movies, best-selling books and chart-topping records too. That’s totally Lamar Pen playing the signature of the Half-Blood Prince in the sixth Harry Potter movie, and the “Dear John” on the cover of Nicholas Sparks’ eponymous novel is written in Schooner Script. Attic Antique is on the cover of Dave Matthews Band’s first studio album, Under the Table and Dreaming. Even Jimmy Kimmel got in on the action, using Texas Hero for his parody of Ken Burns.

It’s a testament to Brian Willson’s great selective eye and flawless execution that his historical handwriting and typeface fonts have spread so far and wide. I love to imagine what Emily Austin or Mirabeau Lamar would make of their writing starring in a Spiderwick Chronicles book and the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie. Willson isn’t just preserving history by creating fonts from beautiful and unique period handwriting; he’s proving that great penmanship remains relevant in the era of keyboard dominance.


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Last chance to see Royal Armoury arms in America

Monday, October 27th, 2014

For the past decade, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, has had the unique distinction of being the only place outside of the UK to have a permanent exhibition of weapons and armour from Britain’s Royal Armouries. In fact, it was the first time any British national museum entered into a long-term collaboration with an institution outside of national borders. This arrangement was so special it literally required an act of Parliament to allow the artifacts to leave the country and create a Royal Armouries annex in America.

An assortment of more than 400 pieces of armature from the 11th century to the beginning of the 20th century have been on display on the third floor of the Frazier History Museum. While most of the artifacts are English, the Royal Armoury has amassed a collection of military and sporting weapons and armour from Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, India and more. The Frazier exhibition features selections from all over Europe.

The items — on loan from the National Museum of Arms and Armour — have been displayed at the Frazier since its 2004 opening in downtown Louisville. The Royal Armouries collection was a prize catch for Louisville philanthropist and businessman Owsley Brown Frazier, who founded the museum.

The formal agreement creating the collaboration was signed at the Tower of London in 2003.

Both sides said Friday the partnership has been a success, and said they looked forward to working together again.

“This pioneering arrangement has brought hundreds of our best objects, vivid exposure to English history, and aspects of our common story, to a U.S. audience,” Dr. Edward Impey, director general and master of the Royal Armouries, said in a statement.

The loan and the exhibition will end on January 4th, 2015. The Royal Armouries collection will return home and artifacts will be split between the Tower of London and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Ten years ago they didn’t have the room to show the objects — that was one of the reasons the loan was beneficial to both parties — but recent renovations have increased the space at the Royal Armouries museums.

The Frazier has also undergone renovations and will be reconfiguring the third floor exhibition space in keeping with a shift in its thematic focus from weaponry to history, particularly the history of Kentucky and Louisville. The Royal Armouries display will be replaced with artifacts from the museum’s expanding permanent collection, including objects from the personal collection of museum founder Owsley Frazier.

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La Belle exhibit opens at Austin’s Bullock Museum

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Replica of Vasa bronze cannon shot

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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