Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

The Charles Mitchell v. John L. Sullivan draw belt

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Title belts in boxing today are the ostentatious displays of official victors, but it wasn’t always thus. In the 19th century, before the rules for title championships were encoded, both the title and the waist accessory were more loosely assigned. John L. Sullivan was considered the first heavyweight champion of the world, even though any consistent standard would give English boxer Jem Mace that honor for his defeat of Tom Allen in 1870. Why not, then, have a belt made to celebrate one fighter’s triumph even when said fight resulted in a draw?

The draw in question was a brutal contest between John L. Sullivan and English fighter Charles Mitchell. Nobody saw it coming. The opponents were evenly matched in some ways. They were close in age (Sullivan was 29, Mitchell 26) and close in height (Sullivan 5’10 1/2″, Mitchell 5’9″). Both had championship titles. Both had winning records, although only Sullivan was undefeated. The big difference was weight. Rarely weighing more than 160 pounds, Charley Mitchell was a welterweight, a middleweight on a good day. John L. Sullivan was a heavyweight who was 190 pounds at his leanest and who regularly crossed the 200-pound mark. (He weighed 238 pounds when he knocked out 170-pound middleweight Jack Burke in 1885.)

The weight of his punch was in keeping with his physique. Sullivan had defeated Paddy Ryan in 1882 to claim the title heavyweight champion of America and kept it for a decade until Gentleman Jim Corbett relieved him of it by knock-out in 1892. Ryan would later describe being hit by Sullivan as feeling as if “a telegraph pole had been shoved against me endways.” Sullivan was expected to knock out Mitchell, who pound for pound was one of the hardest hitters in the ring. Pound for pound being the salient issue. Mitchell had a reputation for being fast and avoiding blows — in his memoirs Sullivan called Mitchell a “bombastic sprinter boxer”) — but despite his proven ability to hit and run, Mitchell was considered simply too puny to take out Sullivan.

Mitchell wasn’t intimidated. Not only did he want this fight, he actively picked it for five years. Mitchell and Sullivan first went at each other in a bout at Madison Square Garden in 1883. Police stopped the fight after the third round, three rounds that Sullivan dominated with one glaring exception: Mitchell had knocked him down in the first round with a left hook to the chin. Sullivan had never hit the floor before in his career and he didn’t take kindly to it. Mitchell vociferously demanded a rematch and one was actually proposed for the next day but Sullivan would not accept it. A rematch was scheduled for June 30th, 1884, but it was cancelled when Sullivan turned up drunk.

The beef was not squashed, only refrigerated. When Sullivan traveled to London in November of 1887 to fight in front of the Prince of Wales, Mitchell taunted him, telling the press that Sullivan was afraid to fight him because he’d knocked him down four years earlier. One reporter described Mitchell as “snarling out challenges to [Sullivan] by the dozen.” Sullivan, who fought more than 50 exhibitions during his two months in England as Mitchell goaded him relentlessly, was livid. He agreed to fight Mitchell on March 10th, 1888.

When this fight took place, bare-knuckle prizefighting was illegal in all 38 states and several countries. Bouts had to be arranged in secret locations and even so were often broken up by the police. Fighters and promoters were regularly arrested and fined, sometimes sentenced to prison. Fleeing the state or country in disguise after a fight was commonplace. The thorny search for a location was resolved when Baron Gustave de Rothschild offered to host the fight on the grounds of his Château de Laversine, a stately home on the banks of the River Oise three miles north of Chantilly in the Picardy region of northern France.

The 24-foot ring Mitchell had insisted on (as opposed to the 16-foot ring Sullivan wanted to help corral Mitchell’s avoidance tactics) was erected outdoors near the stables. The fight began at 12:50 PM. At first it seemed to be going as expected, with Sullivan pummeling the bejesus out of Mitchell, knocking him down repeatedly in the first eight rounds. Mitchell landed some good ones, though, and as time passed, his running game served him well and he seemed to be getting stronger while Sullivan’s strength faded. It started raining during the sixth round or so, and soon the rain turned torrential, transforming the ground to swampland which sapped Sullivan’s energy all the more. Again from John L.’s memoirs:

Running and dropping was [Mitchell's] game, and to such an extent did he practise the former that, when the fight was over, a track like a sheep run was to be noticed all around the ring. Once he dropped without a blow and received a caution, and after this he went down a number of times for a mere tap.

After three hours and 11 minutes and 39 rounds, both sides agreed to call it a draw, but the fact that the English fall-taking sprinter boxer held out so effectively against the Irish-American Boston Strong Boy felt a lot more like a stinging defeat to Sullivan and his fans. Reams of newsprint were dedicated to musings on how this could have happened. Back in England, Mitchell was hailed as a conquering hero.

To show their appreciation for his having managed to avoid being beaten unconscious, a group of English supporters presented Charley Mitchell with a championship belt.

[A] truly breathtaking belt crafted from British sterling and velvet for presentation to Sullivan’s plucky challenger. The pertinent details are artfully printed on the center plate:

“Presented to Charles Mitchell to Commemorate His Gallant Fight with John L. Sullivan for the Championship of the World on March 10th 1888 near Paris Resulting in a Draw, 39 Rounds being Fought, in 3 Hours 11 Minutes.”

Framing this center plate are portraits of Mitchell and Sullivan in relief, followed by British and American flags topped by a figural lion and eagle respectively, and then further figural plates completing the design against a backing of royal red velvet. On the final plate on the left side, the interior is engraved with the names of the gentlemen who funded this quite clearly expensive token of esteem. A second such engraved plaque is affixed to interior of center panel, though we suspect it was originally attached to the final plate on right. The velvet is well worn and the silver exhibits some tarnishing and storage wear, but the aesthetics remain spectacular after nearly thirteen decades.

This ornate trophy was a slap in Sullivan’s face. He had already had to deal with belt nonsense the year before when Richard K. Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette and holder of a very long grudge against Sullivan for having snubbed him in a saloon once, declared the undefeated Irish-American heavyweight Jake Kilrain the new world champion and gave him a silver championship belt on behalf of the Gazette. Sullivan’s supporters responded by giving him a championship belt of 14-carat gold engraved “Presented to the Champion of Champions, John L. Sullivan, by the Citizens of the United States.” Sullivan’s name was spelled in diamonds, 397 of them, no less. It was the most expensive belt ever given to a fighter. Mitchell’s was the second most expensive. The latter has now sold at auction for $55,000, which is quite modest, really, considering it cost $10,000 to make.

Kilrain, incidentally, was a witness to the Mitchell-Sullivan fight in Chantilly. He had a great vantage point from Mitchell’s corner, and Mitchell would be in his when Kilrain went up against Sullivan for the world heavyweight title in Richburg, Mississippi, in 1889. This would be the last title match fought with bare knuckles under London Prize Ring Rules and it was one for the ages. Fought in the noon sun of a Mississippi July, the bout lasted two hours, 16 minutes and went 75 rounds. Kilrain had to be carried to his corner by the 17th round. Sullivan vomited in the 44th. Scheduled to run 80 rounds, the bout was finally stopped when Kilrain’s cornerman Mike Donovan, very much against his fighter’s wishes, threw in the towel because he was sure Kilrain, who could barely stand by this point, wouldn’t survive a 76th round.

John L. Sullivan and Charley Mitchell died the same year, 1918. Sullivan preceded his old rival by two months to the day, dying of a heart attack at age 59 on February 2nd. Mitchell died at the age of 56 suffering from locomotor ataxia, a progressive neurological disorder of the spinal column which causes jerky and unbalanced gait. Also known as tabes dorsalis, it is a symptom of late-stage syphilis but is not fatal on its own. It’s the underlying condition that killed him. I wonder if he’d have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s or ALS today. Jake Kilrain outlived them both, dying of complications from diabetes in 1937 at 78 years old.


Jamestown remains identified as four early leaders

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

When the Virginia Company sent the first batch of 104 settlers to colonize the New World, they chose Jamestown Island, marshy and mosquito-ridden with virtually no farmland, bad hunting and no fresh water but secure from any potential attack by Spanish ships, as the site for their new colony. They built James Fort, a triangular wooden palisade, within two weeks and the first Jamestown settlement was established inside its perimeter. It was small, but soon contained at least a storehouse, several houses and one church, the first Protestant church in the New World.

Built in 1608, the church served the community for almost decade. Secretary of the colony William Strachey described it as “pretty chapel” 60 feet long and 24 feet wide with a cedar wood chancel. In 1614 Pocahontas married tobacco planter John Rolfe there. Within three years of that wedding, the church had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned when a new church was built nearby as the settlement expanded eastward from the original confines of Fort James. Over time the location of the first fort and its church was lost.

It was Strachey’s description that helped archaeologists identify the remains of the church when they were discovered during a 2010 excavation of the rediscovered Fort James site. The structural posts matched the dimensions documented by Strachey, as did the structure’s orientation in the middle of the fort. At the eastern end of the building, archaeologists found four graves. This space was the cedar chancel Strachey mentioned, the area in the front of the church with the altar which was reserved for the most important people during services. Only people of very high status were honored with burial under the chancel.

Since the archaeological site of Jamestown is open to visitors, the church remains were refilled for safety. Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists, working with forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, returned in November of 2013 to fully excavate the graves in the hopes they might be able to identify the people buried there. The remains were under threat, as is the entire Jamestown site, by rising sea levels, and one of the skeletons had been significantly damaged by workers in 1938 (when the location of the fort was still unknown) unwittingly dug a trench through the chancel to install electric cable. The excavation revealed one body had been buried only in a shroud (the others had wooden coffins) and two of the people were buried with artifacts that could help identify them.

The team carefully unearthed and documented the graves, using a precision laser tool to record the positions of the graves, skeletons, coffin fragments and artifacts. Then the Smithsonian’s outstanding 3D Digitization Program Office did their magic, laser scanning the entire site, collecting millions of data points and high resolution photographs that would allow them to create an interactive 3D model of the burials. I won’t embed it because the last time I did it caused some loading problems, but here’s the 3D model of the chancel graves on the Smithsonian website.

The skeletal remains were then removed to the lab for analysis. Time and environment had not been kind to them — only 30% of each skeleton was recovered — but the bones could still speak through science. All four were men who were between their early 20s and their 40s when they died, and all four were found to have carbon and oxygen isotope values indicating they were raised in England. None of them show the tell-tale osteological signs of strenuous labor, but the teeth of two of them were in bad shape with numerous cavities and abscesses. That was a clue that those two men may have been in America longer than the other two and had thus been exposed to a potentially tooth-rotting sweet corn diet for a few more years. High levels of lead in the bones of two of the men suggested they were high-born since in the 17th century the wealthy and noble ingested more lead than the poor courtesy of lead-lined and pewter tableware.

The artifacts proved as challenging to study as they were revelatory. In the southernmost grave, archaeologists found a textile made of silk cloth, silver threads and silver spangles between the rib cage and left arm of the skeleton. A near-miraculous survival, the artifact was too fragile to be excavated and was removed in a soil block. X-rays found the hundreds of silver threads and spangles in the soil block. Micro CT 3D scanning revealed the object was a captain’s sash decorated with bullion fringe.

The two artifacts found in the other burial were placed in the grave outside the coffin. One was an iron fragment three inches long that turned out to be the finial below the tip of a ceremonial spear known as a leading staff. The other was a silver box placed on top of the coffin. The box was corroded shut, so the research team turned to X-ray and CT scanning in the attempt to see what might be inside. With help from increasingly higher resolution microCT scanners, gradually the silver box gave up its secrets. It’s a reliquary containing a lead ampulla, a vial used to hold holy water, oil or the blood of a saint, broken in two pieces and seven fragments of bone, also probably holy relics. Their final scans were so detailed they were able to 3D-print reproductions of the contents for examination.

Reliquaries are Catholic and like other Catholic devotional objects they were outlawed by Elizabeth I and her successor James I. This box may be evidence of a crypto-Catholic presence in the colony, which is also supported by other more modest finds made elsewhere in Jamestown like pilgrim’s tokens, crucifixes and rosary beads.

Thanks also to copious documentary research on likely candidates, the Jamestown Rediscovery team was able to identify the four men as:

  1. The Reverend Robert Hunt, the former vicar of Reculver, England, who arrived with the first settlers in 1607 and died aged around 40 between January and April of 1608.
  2. Captain Gabriel Archer, a bitter rival of Captain John Smith (he once called for his execution), who explored the interior along the James River valley. He died during the horrific “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610 at the age of 35. The reliquary is his, and since his parents were Catholics, once fined for non-attendance of Anglican services, he could very well have been as well, only on the downlow.
  3. Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the earliest English knight known to have been buried in the New World, arrived in June of 1610 with his relative, the first governor of Virginia Thomas West, Lord De La Warr. He was appointed Jamestown’s master of the ordnance and cavalry, but he didn’t have a chance to serve for long as he died between July and August of 1610. He was 34.
  4. Captain William West, another relative of Lord De La Warr’s who arrived in June 1610 only to die within months. He was killed in battle against Powhatan warriors in the fall or winter of 1610. The glorious sash is his.

The two men with the high lead levels were Wainman and Archer.

The Historic Jamestowne website is excellent, packed with information on the history of the site and its ongoing archaeology. I strongly advise starting on the chancel burials page and clicking through the large icons which will lead to pages with other large icons beneath. In addition to detailed information on the four men, they have many videos related to this find, all short enough to binge on like popcorn one after the other.

This one about the church has footage of the 2011 excavation and shows how respectfully the site was refilled with mounds and crosses marking the four burials:

The 2013 excavation of the burials:

Overview of the discovery and identification of the skeletal remains:

Flythrough of a 3D rendering of the chancel burials:

Captain West’s fabulous silk and silver sash:


Remains of soldiers in mass grave show toll of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

Monday, July 27th, 2015

In late 2001, workers doing construction on the site of a former Soviet Army barracks in a northern suburb of Vilnius discovered a mass grave which fragments of military uniforms identified as the final resting place for more than 3,000 soldiers and support staff of Napoleon’s Great Army who died during the horrific retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812. The grave was excavated in two stages in 2002 and the preliminary results of the study of the skeletons were published in February of 2004 (pdf). Thanks to two new studies on the skeletal remains, we now know more about the geographical origin and diet of some of the men and women who died in Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign.

First an infographic. I get emails all the time from people asking me to post their ostensibly history-related infographics and I decline because they tend to be marketing gimmicks that are very light on content. This one is different. Created in 1869 by French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard, a pioneer of statistics relayed in graphic form, this chart plots the advance of the Great Army into Russia and its devastating retreat. The width of the line marks the size of the army at any given time. The beige line, obese with troops in the beginning, thins out to a quarter of its original size when the army reaches Moscow. The black line then shows the retreating army as it doubles back in the sadly vain attempt to make it out of the Russian winter alive. By the time the black line reaches where the beige line begins, it’s pencil-thin. The 422,000 invasion troops are reduced to 10,000 in retreat, starving, frozen, defeated on an unthinkable scale by a brutal Russian winter and overly extended supply lines.

The deceptively simple chart captures six variables: the size of the army (represented by the thickness of the line), the longitude and latitude of the army (represented by the position of the line), the direction of the army (represented by the two different colored lines), the location of the army on certain dates and, in a line chart underneath the main graphic, the temperature during the retreat. Many cartographers and graphics experts today consider it the greatest information graphic ever made. (Click here for a much larger version translated into English.

The immensity of the disaster that Minard’s graphic conveys so adroitly is exposed on a more human scale by the bones of the fallen. Buttons found in the two trenches of the mass grave identified soldiers and officers from around 30 regiments, most of them infantry, some cavalry, dragoon and foot artillery. There were uniform remains from Italian, Polish and Bavarian regiments as well as the Imperial Guard. There are female skeletons in the mass grave because since 1805 the French army had an official cadre of women working as cooks, laundresses, nurses and sellers of goods like tobacco and alcohol which accompanied the Grand Army in every campaign. Archaeologists were able to determine the sex of 29 female skeletons, but there were probably more women buried with the men as the remains of 1317 individuals were impossible to sex.

The two new studies by University of Central Florida researchers used stable isotope analysis to find out where some of Napoleon’s dead came from and what, if anything, they ate. In one of the studies (pdf), oxygen isotopes in the bones revealed that none of the dead tested were from Vilnius. Of the eight males and one female tested, five of the men were from central and western Europe, three from the Iberian peninsula. The woman was most likely from southern France.

The other study (pdf) took specimens from the bones of 73 men and three women for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis. Carbon isotopes revealed that most of Napoleon’s troops ate wheat in their youth and a few, perhaps from Italy, were raised more on millet. More than a third of the specimens were found to have exceptionally high nitrogen isotope values. While that’s often an indication of a diet high in protein (Richard III, for instance, had a diet rich in game, meat and sea fish and the nitrogen values to prove it), it’s also a reaction to the exact opposite: protein deprivation dramatically raises nitrogen isotope values. Disease can spike nitrogen values as well.

Napoleon’s men were not in good health, even before their ill-fated stop in Vilnius. Research on the teeth of the soldiers in the mass grave showed rampant dental cavities and indications of stress during childhood, and over one-quarter of the dead had likely succumbed to epidemic typhus, a louse-borne disease. A febrile illness like typhus could cause increased loss of body water through urine, sweat, and diarrhea, which may also cause a rise in nitrogen isotopes. And, of course, historical accounts detail how troops fruitlessly scoured the countryside for food and how many of them ate their dead or dying horses.

Consumption of seafood is unlikely to be the cause of the high nitrogen since the frozen Vilnia River wasn’t producing and there were no salted stores to be had. Canning was still in its infancy as French brewer Nicolas Appert had only devised a method to seal food in glass jars in 1809. He did so specifically for the French army, incidentally, after Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc reward to anyone who could solve the military’s thorny supply problems. Glass doesn’t transport well and while a metal can system was invented by Peter Durand in 1810, Durand was British and his patented food preservation products went straight to the Royal Navy, not the Grand Armée.

The culprit is almost certainly prolonged nutritional stress.


1,000,000 minutes of historical news on YouTube

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Remember when British Pathé uploaded their archives to YouTube last year and I was all “Smell ya later, guys. I’ma be watching newsreels for the next 48 hours straight.”? Well, those 85,000 historic films comprising 3,500 hours of footage were a modest little rabbit hole compared to this one. The Associated Press and its partner British Movietone are putting their entire archives on YouTube. That’s a grand total of more than 550,000 videos and 16,500 hours of footage filmed from 1895 until the present. The British Movietone channel will host the oldest pieces, footage from 1895 through 1986. The AP channel has plenty of historical news as well, but also focuses on current events with new film from its breaking news channel added daily.

They’re also bringing together the past and the present in a very clever way. In the wake of the publication of that video of the future Queen being taught how to do the Nazi salute in 1933 when she was seven years old, British Movietone put together a collection of videos showcasing pre-World War II attitudes to Nazism and Fascism in England. Even polar bears were being taught the Nazi salute in 1934.

In happier memories, English football fans won’t want to miss the glorious conclusion of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany in color for the first time. (The whole match is available in black and white here for comparison.)

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, filmed almost 110 years ago:

I remember this clip like it was yesterday:

The AP has been very slow to adapt to the brave new world of free online content. It wasn’t that long ago that they were issuing cease-and-desist letters to bloggers who quoted too much of an article. They’ve had their video archives available on their own website for some time, but only unembeddable, painfully low resolution previews. The good stuff had to be paid for, which left it the province of documentarians and big budget news outlets. It’s nice to see the AP finally catch on to the fact that they’ll get more licensing requests by opening up their archives to the place pretty much everyone goes to look for videos rather than by keeping them squirreled away on their website.

Alright guys, smell ya later. If you don’t hear from me in a month, send food and water. I won’t be needing soap BECAUSE I’M NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN.


Captain’s Kidd treasure neither treasure nor Kidd’s

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

A UNESCO investigation into the claimed discovery of a massive silver ingot from the wreck of Captain Kidd’s ship Adventure Galley has found that the silver ingot isn’t silver and the wreck isn’t a ship. The so-called ingot is 95% lead and has no silver in it at all. It’s just a large hunk of ballast. As for the so-called wreck, it’s a pile of stones, probably rubble from a broken section of the port.

Days after the putative discovery was made in the shallow waters of the bay of the island of Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar, UNESCO’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) sent an emergency mission to the island at the behest of the Ministry of Culture and Crafts of Madagascar. A team composed of seven divers, archaeologists, curators and photographers was to report on the general condition of the historic wrecks in the bay and to evaluate Clifford’s excavation project. They explored the site for four days, ultimately finding nothing that could be part of a ship, just stones. Team leader Dr. Michel L’Hour, a French underwater archaeologist who has explored 150 wrecks in his career and is in his ninth year as Director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research of France’s Ministry of Culture, thinks the stones may be all that’s left of a jetty or the base of a sea wall.

Determining that the bar wasn’t silver was a simple matter of testing it. Clifford admits that he never did have the metal tested before announcing to the world it was the biggest silver ingot ever found on a shipwreck. He claims he was going by the word of his collaborator John de Bry, a historian who has worked with Clifford for 15 years, but de Bry says he never got a chance to examine it or touch it, that he only saw the piece from a distance. “It looked like a silver bar except the markings were unusual.” Clifford persists in believing that it could still be silver despite UNESCO’s results.

John de Bry, who is not an archaeologist despite having been erroneously described as such in the media and by Clifford, was quoted at the time of the discovery saying that the underwater remains and the ingot were “irrefutable proof that this is indeed the treasure of the Adventure Gallery.” Yet, shortly thereafter he was cooperating with the UNESCO investigation very much against Clifford’s wishes, sharing the expedition’s research data which according to UNESCO Clifford refused in writing to provide.

Clifford has a history of UNESCO disputing his breathlessly announced finds. I didn’t post about this story at the time because it was just so blatantly crap, but last May Clifford claimed to have discovered the wreck of Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti. Five months later UNESCO announced their team had investigated the wreck and found bronze or copper fasteners which conclusively date the ship’s construction to the 17th or 18th century.

Now that they’ve poured cold water on his Captain Kidd fantasies too, Clifford insists UNESCO is out to get him. The organization is only trying to besmirch his discoveries because it’s opposed to all private archaeology, he says, and is “heavily anti-American and anti-British.” Sam Browne, producer of the documentary about the wreck for the History Channel, agrees that UNESCO is just hating on Clifford. Apparently without a shred of irony, Browne decries UNESCO’s “frankly shocking lack of transparency and impartiality throughout,” which is pretty rich coming from the people who emerged out of the sea with a hunk of lead, called a press conference to announce without proof or even a single decent picture of the site that they’d found Captain Kidd’s treasure and then refused to share their research data with UNESCO. He insists that their methods were scientifically rigorous, that they conducted “the most comprehensive geophysical study ever done” of Sainte Marie bay, that the UNESCO team wasn’t even looking in the right place.

Judging from the UNESCO report (pdf), it’s not Clifford’s private funding and Americanness that irks them, but rather his shameless mediawhoring and lack of adherence to the strictures of its Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The work of the film team and its lead‐explorer, undertaken in spring 2015, as well as prior work by the same explorer, was distinguished by a media‐led approach, which has not respected the regulations of the 2001 Convention, and which jeopardized the scientific understanding of the sites concerned and the preservation of the artefacts recovered.

UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, ratified by Madagascar, requires, among other things, that any contact with the wrecks be led by a qualified underwater archaeologist. Clifford is not an archaeologist, nor is de Bry or the members of the film crew documenting the find. October Films, the production company shooting the documentary, said that “all the work was carried out by a team of experienced underwater explorers lead by a respected marine archaeologist,” the last apparently being a reference to Clifford who is not in fact an archaeologist.

It’ll be interesting to see if this documentary ever sees the light of the day. They should just edit in an addendum questioning ominously whether the UNESCO team might be aliens. The History Channel will eat that right up, no questions asked.


Metal detectorist finds actual Nazi gold

Monday, July 20th, 2015

On October 10th of last year, licensed metal detectorist Florian Bautsch struck gold on the outskirts of Lüneburg in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. Nazi gold. Scanning an area with hillocks that archaeologists suspected might be ancient burial mounds, Bautsch first found a single gold coin and then nine more in the hollow under a pine tree. He recorded the find location by GPS and notified the relevant authorities at the Lüne­burg Museum .

Thanks to Bautsch’s conscientiousness, archaeologists were able to do something they rarely get the chance to do: excavate a portable treasure in its proper context. The two-week excavation unearthed another 207 gold coins buried under that three, bringing the total up to 217. The oldest coin dates to 1831, the newest to 1910, and none of them were minted in Germany. The majority — 128 coins — are Belgian. Another 74 coins were minted in France, 12 in Italy and the last three in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite their diverse origins, all of the coins have the same diameter (21 millimeters) and weigh the same (6.45 grams). The total coin weight is 1.4 kilos (3 lbs). These are not circulation coins. They were minted in large batches to be purchased by individuals and banks for investment purposes.

Archaeologists also found two aluminium seals bearing the swastika, the imperial eagle and stamped “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” They also found remnants of tar paper and some individual fibers. These elements are what’s left of two coin bags, lined with tar paper and sealed by the Berlin Reichsbank during World War II. Those type of seals were used starting in 1940 and the chemical composition of the tar paper identifies it as a type produced before 1950. It is the greatest treasure from this period ever found in northern Germany. Had the finder just dug it all out himself and taken the gold, nobody would have been the wiser and the key evidence identifying it as Nazi gold, as fragile as it is important, would have been lost forever.

The working theory right now is that the gold coins, likely looted by Nazis from occupied territories before being grouped by exact size and weight, bagged and sealed, were stolen in the waning days of the Second World War. If so, it was almost certainly an inside job, a theft by a bank employee looking for some financial security in the most insecure of times.

As the coins were buried relatively recently under shady circumstances, at first authorities gave any potential legitimate owners the opportunity to claim the treasure. It was a long shot (although it has been known to happen) and indeed, nobody stepped forward to claim ownership. Then, because the find bears the marks of a previous government bank, state authorities contacted the German Ministry of Finance but they weren’t interested in claiming the coins either. Finally the orphaned gold was adopted by Lower Saxony which of course had wanted it all along.

England’s Treasure Act has a mechanism that gives finders and landowners a reward in the amount of the discovery’s market value as assessed by a valuation committee. German monument protection laws (they differ from state to state) have no such mechanism, so while the estimated value of the coins is €45,000 ($49,000), Florian Bautsch will receive a €2,500 ($2,710) reward from the state of Lower Saxony. He’s a proper history nerd, bless his heart, so the money isn’t what matters to him. The archaeological significance of the find is reward enough.

The gold coins went on temporary display at the Lüne­burg Museum yesterday. Curators are now discussing how best to integrate the hoard into the museum’s permanent display in the future.


“Forgotten Winchester” had cartridge in butt stock

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

The cracked and weathered Winchester ’73 rifle found leaning against a Juniper tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park like its owner just stepped away for a moment 132 years ago and forgot to come back gets more mysterious the more it’s studied. The rifle was found in November of last year by park archaeologists and was sent to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, for conservation and additional research.

When the rifle arrived, the wood of the stock was chipping and a white salt encrusted it. Museum curators first stabilized the wood with a solution of adhesive, distilled water and ethanol and then sent the weapon to nearby West Park Hospital for non-invasive examination of its insides. At the hospital patient “Rifle” — literally, that’s the name on the file — was X-rayed and found to have an object lodged in its butt stock, namely a cartridge stuck in the trap. To remove the cartridge, conservators lubricated the butt plate with penetrating oil* so it would loosen up enough that it could be unscrewed without damaging the splintered stock. The cartridge was taken out and identified as a Union Metallic Cartridge Company .44 WCF cartridge, manufactured between 1887 and 1911.

The Winchester also had an unusual modification. The carrier block and carrier lever are missing. These parts are necessary for the rifle to fire repeatedly, so that means someone deliberately customized the a repeating rifle so that it could only fire a single shot. As a single shot rifle it could still be used for hunting, but it would be less than adequate for personal defense. What the advantage might be to the modification is unclear to me. It’s not like you have to fire back-to-back shots just because it’s a repeater. What’s to prevent hunters from firing one cartridge at a time, if that’s what they want?

As far as identifying the owner or even any elements of the story behind the rifle’s century of Rip Van Winkling, that continues to be an enterprise with a very remote chance of success. When the Winchester was first discovered, Great Basin Cultural Resource Program Manager Eva Jensen found the serial number of the lever action repeating rifle listed in the Cody Firearms Museum’s archive of Winchester factory data, but the only information noted was its year of manufacture: 1882. The information of the cartridge shaves five early years off the possible date of the rifle’s abandonment.

So far nothing else has been discovered to help narrow down the dates. Park archaeologists examined the find site for clues, maybe even human remains, and found nothing. Nor do area records help. Researchers perused fire records to see if there was one in the area. Since there is no evidence of fire damage to the Forgotten Winchester, if there had been fire in there then that the rifle could only have been left leaning against the tree significantly after the flames were doused. They found no recorded fire in the area. Cody Museum researchers are still studying the museum’s vast collection of Winchester company records to see if anything else might be buried in the files.

The Forgotten Winchester is currently drawing crowds at the Cody Firearms Museum where it is on display with another example of the same rifle in good condition so visitors can make a before and after weathering visual comparison. It will stay in Cody until this fall when it will return to Great Basin in time for the park’s 30th anniversary and the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. After that it will remain on permanent display behind security glass at the Great Basin Park visitor’s center.



Head of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu, stolen

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

The head of pioneering German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has been stolen from his grave in the historic Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery outside Berlin. The theft was discovered Monday by cemetery manager Olaf Ihlefeldt who found Murnau’s iron coffin had been broken into and his skull removed. Authorities aren’t certain when exactly the theft took place, sometime between July 4th and July 12th.

F.W. Murnau, one of the early cinematic masters who brought the sharp shadows and distortions of German Expressionism to film, died in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries sustained in a car wreck near Santa Barbara, California. His embalmed body was returned to Germany and interred in a crypt in the bucolic forested splendor of the Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf. When they died years later, his two brothers Bernhard and Robert were laid to rest with him in the tomb. His brother’s coffins were not tampered with, so it seems this could have been a targeted theft rather than a random desecration. Someone wanted F.W. Murnau’s head.

Authorities found a candle inside the tomb. Murnau is most famous today as the director of cinematic masterpieces with occult themes — 1922′s Nosferatu vampires and 1926′s Faust Satan — so candles may have been part of some sad wanna-be ritual, or it may just have been used to cast some appropriately atmospheric light for a selfie.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the grave has been interfered with, although it is the first time any remains were stolen. The coffin was first damaged in the 1970s and there was another break-in as recently as February of this year. The cemetery is now considering walling in the burial chamber or separating F.W. Murnau’s remains from his family’s and burying them.

If you haven’t seen Nosferatu, or even if you have but it was some creaky old print, you must watch the version that was beautifully restored in 2006. They used a French tinted print as the basis then pulled in missing elements from other rare survivals. Even the score is a recreation of Hans Erdmann’s original, which is particularly meaningful because Nosferatu was one of the first feature films to have an original score.

It’s a miracle that we have any version of Nosferatu to enjoy. Bram Stoker’s widow Florence, her husband’s literary executor, sued Murnau and the production company for copyright infringement demanding full compensation and, brutally, the destruction of the movie which she never watched. Florence won. In 1925 the court ruled that the original negative and all existing prints of the movie were to be burned. It’s hard to put the movie genie back into the lamp three years after its premiere, however, even back when distribution wasn’t instantly global like it is now. Some prints survived the conflagration and began cropping up in theaters and private showings in the late 1920s.


Original floor of Coventry Cathedral revealed

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

For the first time since Luftwaffe all but destroyed the medieval city of Coventry in the Second World War, the original floor of the Gothic cathedral of St. Michael’s has been revealed.

Coventry, an important industrial center that manufactured everything from bicycles to munitions, was the target of many bombing raids during the Battle of Britain, the most damaging of which struck on November 14th, 1940. German bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive devices, intended to destroy infrastructure like water mains and roads, and 36,000 incendiary bombs, intended to burn down industrial targets (and pretty much everything else) in the city center.

St. Michael’s suffered multiple direct hits from incendiary bombs. Volunteer Firefighters were only able to put out the first of the fires before finding themselves overwhelmed by the inferno raging all over the Coventry’s historic center. The Cathedral was soon engulfed in flame. When the dust settled the next morning, St. Michael’s was a smoldering ruin, only the tower, spire and outer wall still standing on the scorched pavement. Thankfully the precious Gothic stained glass windows had been removed in 1939 to spare them from just this fate and have survived to this day.

After the war, a new cathedral was built next to what was left of the old one. Because the ruins of the medieval cathedral were exposed to the elements, the original floor was covered with rubble and concrete and topped with flagstones. Because it had been so pitted and scarred by the bombing and fire, the new pavement varied in depth from 50 centimeters (20 inches) to a meter (3’3″). In 1955 the ruins were added to England’s National Heritage List with a Grade I designation.

Listed structures cannot be altered without special permission, permission that was granted to the ruins of St. Michael’s because the floor is in danger from water damage. A new watertight membrane and drainage system will ensure the original floor doesn’t crumble underneath the mid-century concrete and pavers. The first step in the process was to lift the post-World War II flooring to expose the floor as it was before the bombs fell.

Although the church was built in the 14th century, much of the floor that has been uncovered consists of memorial stones laid down in the 18th century and later. The wooden base of the choir stalls were also found, carbonized by the fires.

Also uncovered is a wall of the 13th century Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the cemetery. While archaeologists expected to find parts of it, they can now confirm that it was a two storey building – the top floor of which was removed as the cathedral was expanded over it.

The cathedral team had hoped to discover a third concealed crypt similar to the Wyley Chapel. Although no crypt was discovered, there was a small space containing rubble from the interior of the ruined cathedral. Most of it was broken down after World War Two and the carved masonry is seen as a ‘time capsule’ of stonework from the time.

If you’d like to see the parts of Coventry Cathedral that have been hidden for 60 years or so, the project’s lead archaeologist will give two half-hour talks in the ruins, the first on Wednesday, July 15th, the second on Friday, July 17th, both from 1:00-1:30 PM. If there’s enough interest from visitors, the Cathedral will host more such events.


Happy birthday, Dymaxion Car!

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

R. Buckminster Fuller’s first prototype for the innovative Dymaxion vehicle rolled off the factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 12, 1933, her creator’s 38th birthday. If Dymaxion 1 had lived, she would be 82 years old today. Dymaxion, a portmanteau of dynamic, maximum and tension, was a brand name Fuller used for a number of his creations, from a house to a map of the globe to his sleep schedule of 30 minute naps every six hours. The Dymaxion Car wasn’t even supposed to be a car, although Fuller knew people would think of it as one. He designed it to be an “Omni Medium Transport,” a vehicle that would be able to travel by land, water and air. It’s just that “jet stilts” he envisioned to raise it in the air didn’t exist (jet engines were still 20 years in the future, vertical takeoff technology almost 30) and making it water-worthy would be too expensive and technologically daunting, so he decided to focus on the “ground-taxiing under transverse wind conditions” phase which meant in practice that his prototype was a car.

It wasn’t a car like any other, though. Teardrop shaped for optimal aerodynamicism, the Dymaxion Car was 20 feet long, had three wheels (two on in the front, one in the back) and could carry 11 passengers. It was powered by the brand new 85-horsepower Ford flathead V8 engine and had another Ford part — the rear axle of a roadster — which he converted into the front-wheel-drive axle. As large as it was, it was built on a lightweight steel chassis and skinned in aluminium sheeting making it weigh no more than a VW Beetle. It was remarkably fast — Fuller said he’d reached 128 miles per hour in a road test — and fuel-efficient, routinely getting 22 miles per gallon and capable of achieving up to 36 mpg.

Fuller and his co-designer, naval architect Starling Burgess, made three prototypes in 1933 and 1934. They filed a patent application (pdf) on October 18th, 1933, which was finally approved more than four years later on December 7th, 1937 but by then it was too late for the Dymaxion Car. At first the response to the vehicle was hugely positive. Luminaries like Amelia Earhart and Diego Rivera wanted rides. People flocked to see demonstrations of its speed and its most thrilling feature, the 20-foot-long car’s ability to turn on itself so that it could parallel park in a spot just six inches longer than its body by pulling up to the car in front of it and then drifting its back end to the curb.

Then tragedy struck. On October 27th, 1933, Dymaxion Car #1 was just in front of the entrance to the Century of Progress Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair, when it was hit by another car that had been following it dangerously. The Dymaxion rolled over and its driver, professional racer Francis Turner, was killed. He had been wearing a seatbelt, but the button-down canvas roof collapsed, killing him. One of the passengers, British aviator, peer and Japanese spy William Sempill, was seriously injured. The other, Air Minister of France Charles Dollfuss, was thrown from the car and landed on his feet entirely unharmed. Because the driver of the car that caused the crash was an influential Chicago parks commissioner, he and his vehicle were hustled away before reporters got to the scene.

When the news of the crash hit the papers, therefore, there was no mention of another car having plowed into the Dymaxion. Instead it was the unique shape and design of the vehicle that took the blame for the fatal accident; it had hit a “wave” in the road and flipped ass over teakettle. The Dymaxion was excoriated as inherently unstable and dangerous. Because of the English and French dignitaries in the car, the crash made the international press as well. Evidence given at the coroner’s inquest, including the testimonies of Sempill and Dollfuss, exonerated the Dymaxion vehicle, but the inquest had been delayed two months to give Sempill a chance to recover from his injuries, so by the time the truth came out, the story was old news and was barely covered in the press.

Fuller and Burgess repaired the prototype, and the next year they brought Dymaxion Car #3 to Chicago for the second run of the World’s Fair (the Exposition had been so lucrative that organizers reopened it from May to October of 1934). Crowds flocked to see Fuller do demonstrations like “waltzing” (a zig-zagging maneuver) down the main street and turning the car on itself. Primed by the horrible reputation the Dymaxion had been saddled with the year before, visitors expected the car to flip over. It did not. Instead it regained its reputation as a futuristic technological marvel.

The bad press had done its damage, though. Between that and the Depression, Fuller was unable to secure investors for new prototypes. He had only managed to make the third one by selling stocks he’d inherited, going into debt and taking advantage of Henry Ford’s offer to let him have anything he wanted from the Ford line of products for 75% off. Number three would be the last of the Dymaxions. Fuller liquidated the company’s assets, paid off his creditors and called it a day.

Of the three prototypes, only one survives today. Car #1 was purchased by the U.S. Bureau of Standards. It was destroyed in a fire at the BoS’s Washington D.C. garage. Car #3 was sold to conductor Leopold Stokowski but he found he didn’t like driving it so sold it a few months later. It passed through various hands before meeting its end in a Wichita junkyard where it was cut up and sold for scrap during the 1950s. Car #2 saw some hard living (apparently it was used a chicken coop) before being sold to Las Vegas casino executive and car collector William Harrah. After his death many of Harrah’s cars were sold at auction, but Dymaxion #2 was one of a selection donated to the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, where it is on display today.

Architect and Fuller collaborator Norman Foster borrowed Prototype #2 to make a replica of the Dymaxion. In return for the loan, he restored the interior of #2 which was in such atrocious condition the car’s windows were made opaque so visitors to the museum wouldn’t be able to see inside. Now that the car is back in Nevada and looking great, the museum is currently raising funds to repair the mechanics so that the Dymaxion can show off its talents on the road once again. Donors get a chance to win a ride in the Dymaxion.

Here’s a quick clip of the Dymaxion Car driving fast, turning tight and parallel parking like a boss.

This clip features Fuller describing the vehicle and has great footage of its clown car-like ability to carry more humans than seems possible.

Here Fuller narrates a period video of the Dymaxion in action featuring Amelia Earhart and then, in a 1975 Philadelphia talk, he discusses the car’s redemptive performance at the Century of Progress Exposition the year after the fatal accident.





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