Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

The woman in the iron coffin

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

In 2011, construction work on Corona Avenue in Queens accidentally (and roughly) unearthed the remains of a woman. The backhoe had wrenched open the coffin, dragged the body out and covered it with piles of soil, but still the remains were so well-preserved that at first it was investigated as a potential crime victim. Scott Warnasch, forensic archaeologist with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, identified it as a historical burial from fragments of iron he recovered at the site, pieces of the damaged coffin of a type that was made in the mid-18th century.

A visual examination of the mummified remains determined that they belonged to an adult African-American woman. She was clad in a loose-fitting garment recognizable as a 19th century nightdress, knee-high socks and a knit cap. Her skin was largely intact and in so free of decomposition that smallpox lesions could clearly be seen on her head, chest, legs, even feet. Experts from the CDC were called in to ensure there were no infectious pathogens still active in the remains.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans allowed the scientists to examine the body noninvasively and create a biological profile of the woman: They determined she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall (1.6 meters), African-American and about 25 to 30 years old, Warnasch explained.

The site where she was discovered was formerly an African-American church and cemetery; the church was founded in 1828 by the region’s first generation of free black people, but there are newspaper accounts of an African-American cemetery on that land dating to a decade earlier, according to Warnasch.

An expensive iron coffin was an unexpected final resting vessel for a young African-American woman from Newtown (modern-day Elmhurst), Queens, which was then a small farming town. First patented by Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848, the cast iron coffins quickly became very desirable items for the wealthy. Fisk had been inspired to invent them when his brother William died in Mississippi in 1840 and could not be transported to New York for burial in the family plot because the journey was so long. His father Solomon was devastated by this, and in response to Solomon’s heavy grief, Fisk conceived the idea for an air-tight coffin that would preserve a body for transport even over great distances. The market for such a product was wider than that. Anybody who could afford to keep a loved one out of the hands of the dreaded resurrection men would buy a Fisk coffin too. When former First Lady (the first First Lady as we think of the role today) Dolley Madison was buried in a Fisk coffin in 1849, they became immensely popular among the political and societal elite.

In 1850, a pine coffin cost $2 in 1850. A Fisk metal coffin cost $100. This was an unaffordable price for people of modest means such as the African-American community of Newtown, all of them either the children of slaves or freed slaves. (Slavery was only fully outlawed in 1828 in the state of New York.) The woman had been lovingly prepared for burial, cleaned, dressed in a lace nightdress, a handsome comb and bonnet placed in her hair, but none of her funerary accessories indicated the kind of wealth needed to make an iron coffin even remotely possible.

Warnasch used the date the coffin was manufactured (1848-1854) and the first federal census to include free people of color by name (1850) to seek out the woman in the iron coffin’s identity. He was able to narrow it down to one very strong possibility: Martha Peterson, daughter of John and Jane Peterson, who died at the age of 26.

John Peterson was the president of the United African Society, the organization which purchased the land for the cemetery. He was a prominent member of the community and had a direct link to the founding of the burial ground. That would help explain the high level of care given the body despite her death from a highly infectious air-borne disease as well as the expensive coffin.

The smallpox alone would have been sufficient reason to pay the price for a Fisk coffin because infected cadavers could still transmit the deadly disease. Burying her in an air-tight coffin would protect the close-knit community from a potential epidemic.

Forensic specialists initially thought that Peterson might have been buried in the iron coffin because her loved ones feared the spread of disease. However, further analysis led the investigators toward a different explanation, Warnasch said, adding, “but I don’t want to give too much away.”

He doesn’t want to spoil the episode of the PBS show Secrets of the Dead which covers the discovery of the body and subsequent research. I have no such scruples because revealing 150-year-old spoilers is pretty much the entire point of this blog. I’ve watched the program and I’m sure it will be just as fascinating to watch even if you know ahead of time what they’ve discovered, but in case some of you are highly sensitive to revelation of denouements in history documentaries, I’ll put the key discovery on page two.

Or you could just go right to the documentary. In addition to the interesting find Warnasch refers to, there is an amazing section about the results of the MRI and how the smallpox lesions were founds inside her brain. The full episode is available for viewing on the PBS website. Watch it now before they take it down.

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Stephenson’s Rocket in 3D

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Stephenson’s Rocket, an iconic steam locomotive from the early days of train travel has been laser-scanned in all its 13-feet-long, three-ton glory. It is the largest object in the collection of the Science Museum Group ever to be 3D scanned.

Built in 1829 by Robert Stephenson and Company, Rocket won its manufacturers a lucrative contract with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway when it slaughtered the competition at the Rainhill Trials on Thursday, October 8th, 1829. It did 70 miles back and forward over a 1.5 mile track with an average running speed of 12 miles per hour and reaching a peak speed of 30 miles per hour. The competition favorite, Novelty, barely moved at all due to multiple joint failures. Sans Pareil was above the weight limit and guzzled fuel at triple Rocket’s rate and ground to a halt when its boiler ran dry.

Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson, aka the “Father of the Railways,” worked with his father and other partners to design innovative trains and railways. Rocket incorporated several technological innovations — a single pair of driving wheels, multiple boiler fire-tubes, pistons angled close to horizontal rather than vertical, etc. — which made it faster, more stable and more fuel-efficient than its competitors. These features would be replicated (and improved upon) in future steam locomotives.

Thanks to the 3D model, Rocket can now be studied in detail from anywhere in the world. Audiences can move this three-tonne locomotive around with ease on screen, peer underneath and explore the innovations which made Rocket the fastest locomotive of its time. […]

Working with Science Museum Group colleagues, a team from ScanLAB spent 11 hours recording every angle of Rocket to create the 3D model using over 200kg of camera, lighting and scanning equipment. Scanning and photography was particularly challenging due to Rocket’s colour, glossy texture and complex shape.

The 3D model was created from 22 high resolution LIDAR scans and 220 gigabytes of photographs (more than 2,500 individual pictures). The ScanLAB team processed the data for six weeks to generate a point cloud of spatial coordinates, color and intensity values for 750 million points. The 3D model is just the beginning. The point cloud information and scans will be set to other uses as well, including an augmented reality environment.

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Study the Book of Kells in free online course

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

The Book of Kells, the 9th century illuminated Gospel manuscript that is one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval calligraphy and illumination (if not the greatest), is on display at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, but you can’t check it out or leaf through it, for obvious reasons. As Ireland’s best known and beloved cultural treasure, it is kept in a secure, climate-controlled display case.

The Book of Kells exhibition is artfully curated with large blow-ups of key pages of the manuscript so people can get a good look at some of the book’s contents in replica form. Visitors get an information leaflet and can rent audio tours. There are no guided tours and no photography is allowed.

Trinity College Dublin has created an online course for the many, many people around the world thirsty to see more of and learn more about the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece is a four-week course offered through FutureLearn free of charge to all comers.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has been designed by academics from the School of Histories and Humanities, the School of Religion and staff from the Library. Using the Book of Kells as a window the course will explore the landscape, history, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland and explore how that past is understood in modern Ireland. Rachel Moss, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Architecture, and one of the course designers, commented: “Every year the campus of Trinity fills with expectant visitors, keen to see the world famous Book of Kells for themselves. There are few experiences to beat the experience of gazing on these precious pages, and imagining who else has shared that privilege over the past 1,200 years. The longer you dwell, the more detail reveals itself, and the more intriguing the manuscript becomes.”

“In this course we look forward to being able to share the manuscript with those who have yet to see it for themselves, and share it again with those that have. The course will bring the learner beyond that initial encounter to explore its minute and intricate art, how it was made and what it might have meant to its makers. The course will not just dwell in the past. The manuscript is extraordinary in the way in which it has managed to grip the public imagination up to the present day. Despite centuries of scholarship, new research continues to disentangle some of the enigmas that it presents.”

A different aspect of the book will be the focus of each week, exploring how it relates to the wider context of Irish art. The course will cover the illumination and calligraphy as well as the substance of the Latin Gospel text and the physical object of the book itself. I hope some of the new research addressed in the course is the study of parchment that was able to extract DNA from Staedtler Mars eraser crumbs. Trinity College Dublin was part of the research team.

At the end of the course learners will be able to explain the function and meanings of medieval Irish art; understand how medieval manuscripts were made and engage critically with methodologies and scholarly debates which have shaped interpretations of the period. The course will also equip learners with knowledge of the distinctive features of the Irish Church in this era and an understanding of the visual, theological and historical characteristics of medieval material culture.

The course starts on my birthday, October 8th. Is that not the best present a history nerd could ask for? Downright auspicious, I call it. Register for The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece here.

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New discoveries from the warship Mars

Saturday, July 21st, 2018

The exploration of the wreck of the 16th century Swedish warship Mars 250 feet under the surface of the cold, dark Baltic Sea has been ongoing since its discovery in 2011, and despite the zero visibility and the life-threatening challenges involved in diving the wreck, new finds continue to be made.

“This year, we have come closer to the people aboard. We found more skeletal parts, including a femur with trauma around the knee which we believe to stem from a sharp-edged weapon,” says maritime archaeologist Rolf Fabricius Warming, who is one of the researchers involved in the investigation.

“We also found large guns and a hand grenade. We can see from the wreckage that it was a very intense and tough battle. Between 800 and 1,000 men were on board. That is comparable to the population of an entire medium-sized town at the time. Most of them died in the explosion or when the ship sank into the watery depths,” he says.

The ship was the largest in the fleet of King Eric XIV (r. 1560-1568), capable of carrying a crew of 800. The reason for the estimate of how many went down with the ship is that it sank mid-boarding. The Swedish navy engaged in battle against Denmark, Lübeck and the Polish–Lithuanian Union off the coast of Öland on May 30th, 1564. On the second day of ferocious fighting, the Mars was boarded by the Danish and Lübeckian forces who didn’t know that the ship was already on fire from a cannon shot. The gunpowder stores exploded with enormous force, blowing the front of the ship clean off — that part of the wreck was found 130 feet away from the main body of the ship — and killing whatever crew had survived up until that point died along with the enemy they had been fighting. Historians estimate that at least 300 of the dead of the Mars were Danish-Lübeckian boarders.

The diving team has also discovered a historic first this season.

This time, one of the most spectacular finds was a large grapnel (grappling hook) an anchor-like hook, which hung from the bowsprits of warships and was used to cling onto another ships in order to board it.

Grapnels are illustrated in historical sources from the 16th century, but no actual surviving examples are known apart from this particular one, says Warming.

“It’s totally unique. Together with other exciting finds, it can shed new light on Medieval and Early Modern naval warfare,” he says, and adds that the divers also found remains of possible arms and armour, including helmets and swords.

Alas, there are no pictures of the grappling hook which is a bummer, but we must forgive because visibility down there is so terrible that it’s a miracle we get any photos at all, never mind the exceptional ones we’ve gotten so far. The divers have to use high-intensity bright lights to see a foot in front of their masks and they film everything they see for the archaeologists to examine. They do this carrying big tanks with a special gas mixture to keep them from getting the bends/dying and under a crazy time crunch because for their own safety, they can only dive 40 minutes at a time.

That precious footage they’ve shot is being used to create a detailed ultra high-resolution 3D model of the shipwreck. It’s not complete yet, but here’s an all-too brief demo of the 3D photogrammetry model of the Mars and it’s awesome.

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A riveting look at the Gardner heist via podcast

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Boston’s National Public Radio station WBUR and the Boston Globe have produced a podcast series dubbed Last Seen on the greatest unsolved art crime in history, the theft of 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18th, 1990. The case has bedeviled authorities local and federal for 28 years and is still being actively investigated. The reward money is now up to $10 million, and yet, concrete evidence of any kind remains elusive.

The 10-episode series will look at the events of March 18th, 1990 and follow the track of the investigations, but it won’t be a retelling of what went down. There will be interviews with people who have never been interviewed before, among them the second security guard on duty that night and in-depth examinations of the investigative trail over the decades. The reporters have been given unprecedented access to the Gardner heist materials and many of those materials will be posted online in tandem with the podcasts.

“Our reporters have spoken to key people who have never before publicly talked. They have seen places and documents that no other reporters have seen before. Their work even led federal authorities to conduct a high-stakes excavation in a residential neighborhood in Florida. It all comes together in a provocative look not only at the crime and all the colorful characters around it, but at the investigation that has failed to solve it,” said Jane Bowman, Vice President, Marketing and Strategic Partnerships, The Boston Globe. […]

Who pulled off what the FBI describes as the largest property crime case in U.S. history? Was it a mob associate who ran the TRC Auto Electric repair shop in Dorchester, the Irish Republican Army and Whitey Bulger, two wannabe rock ‘n’ rollers or someone else entirely? Last Seen looks at these and many more suspects as hosts Horan and Rodolico travel from Boston to Philadelphia, Florida, Ireland and Italy investigating motives, scenarios and dead bodies with key players and leading experts on the robbery.

The series begins on September 17th and subsequent episodes will air every Monday. There’s an associated Facebook group you can join to comment on the podcasts and discuss it with other listeners. If you have iTunes (I broke up with it years ago and it was a nasty split), you can subscribe to the podcast here. The podcast will also be available for streaming on WBUR’s Last Seen page and for streaming and download in any other of your favorite podcast purveyors (here it is on Podbay.fm, for example).

Get a tantalizing taste of Last Seen in this excellent trailer. That old-time radio announcer opening and the clips of statements from investigators, witnesses and suspects give it a genuinely haunted crime-thriller vibe.

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Beautiful bibliophile bait

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018


The Boston Public Library (BPL) has made available online more than 200 high-resolution photographs of its collection of exquisite fore-edge paintings. These are miniature masterpieces painted just inside the edge of the pages on the side of books. Some of them match the subject of the book; others are tributes to the wealthy aristocrats who commissioned them. All of them are gorgeous.

The idea of painting the outer page surface of a closed book took hold in the 17th century and became a popular trend for a while. It continued into the early 18th century but had largely fallen off the radar as the century came to a close. The Edwards family of Halifax, first William Edwards around 1755, followed by his even more innovative sons, revived the medium and turned it up to eleven.

John and James Edwards, sons of William, opened a bookshop on Pall Mall in London in 1784. They also maintained the family shop in Halifax which was much larger and may have been the place where some or most of the actual bookbinding for the Pall Mall shop was done. Both of the Edwards shops had a reputation for the elegance and quality of their bindings, but it was the London store that brought them the most rarified clientele of the age.

They used fine materials like calf leather, colored morocco, silk (for markers and end-leaves) and gold tooling to create expensive prêt-a-porter books and ultra-luxurious custom editions for bibliophiles and collectors from the staunchly respectable (vicars, scholars, assorted professionals) to the highest echelon of Britain society. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Marchioness of Rockingham and Queen Charlotte were repeat customers.

In 1785, James Edwards received a patent for a process to create transparent vellum that would line the covers and couple be painted or printed on the underside. This allowed books to be decorated to order with ink or pencil designs that would never rub off or smudge. The book’s front and back covers could be dusted and wiped clean with a wet cloth without any risk of the drawing on the delicate vellum lining would run. Family crests, monograms and initials were popular personalizations, on their own or accompanying figures drawn from the subject of the book.

The customized artwork of the vellum paintings neatly segued into fore-edge painting. Traditionally fore-edge paintings has been florals and heraldic motifs applied to the flat surface of the edge that could only be seen when the book was closed. The Edwards brothers eschews those limitations and created elaborate miniature widescreen panoramas of grand estates, landscapes, cityscapes, religious scenes, all applied to a thin sliver at the very edge of the pages so the pages had to be ever so slightly fanned out for the image to be seen. The painting became a sort of Easter egg, invisible when the book was closed because the outer surface was gilded; if the book was closed, all you saw was gold.

Their ambitious approach made bibliophiles swoon. Rev. Thomas Hartwell Home of the University of Cambridge described the technique in glowing terms in his 1814 book, An Introduction to the Study of Bibliography, Vol I:

To Messrs. Edwards, the lovers of ornamented books are indebted for a method of gilding upon marbled leaves, and decorating the edges of leaves with exquisite paintings; we have seen landscapes thus executed, with a degree of beauty and fidelity that are [sic] truly astonishing; and when held up to the light in an oblique direction, the scenery appears as delicate as in the finest productions of the pencil.

A Mrs. Thrale wrote about it in a letter to her daughter ca. 1812:

I have seen a newer – to me at least – a newer Method of displaying Elegance, in which, if you do not exceed all Your Competitors, it will be your own fault. Tis in Bookbinding – a White smooth Vellum cover to – [Mason] The English Garden – for example: must be painted with some Device relative to the subject on both sides – and the Leaves apparently gilt, must when you hold them in a particular manner – slanting, exhibit a beautiful Miniature Landscape painted likewise by the Lady; but concealed when the Book is shut. They are ten Guineas each, if you purchase; and Edwards of Pall Mall is the Owner of the Invention; but perhaps I am talking of a well known contrivance, which however surprized me.

We don’t know who painted the Edwards fore-edge mini-masterpieces. There are no signatures. Mrs. Thrale’s attribution of authorship to “the Lady” may have just been a groundless assumption on her part. Other accounts by people more closely connected to the Edwards suggest they were painted by one of the brothers, possibly John who made some of the finest of the vellum binding paintings.

Edwards weren’t the only bookbinders to create beautiful fore-edges. The Boston Public Library’s collection, amassed by Albert H. Wiggin in the second half of the 1940s, is the second largest in the country and the largest public collection. Its 258 volumes feature the work of several bookbinders and some of the most important fore-edge paintings extant, including a few very rare signed works.

Browse through the gallery here or click Browse to look through them by subject, category or title.

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Virtually palpate Neolithic Scottish balls

Monday, June 18th, 2018

About 525 intricately carved stone balls from the Late Stone Age have been found in northern Europe, 430 of them in Scotland, the rest in England, the Orkney Islands, Ireland and Norway. These balls have stymied antiquarians and archaeologists since they were first discovered two centuries ago. They come in a variety of designs, some with abstract carved reliefs, some carved into curious shapes, and their purpose or purposes have yet to be divined. Researchers have hypothesized that they could have been weapons like maceheads or sling projectiles, weights and measures, or symbols of power with religious significance as many of the carvings — circles, spirals, patterns of straight lines — have also been found carved on tombs.

Most of the Scottish balls were found in Aberdeenshire, including the most famous of them all, the Towie ball. It was discovered when a drain was dug near the village of Towie in or before 1860. Made of a hard black stone, the Towie ball has four discs, three of them carved with spirals and wedges, the last left blank. It is considered one of the finest examples of Neolithic art known.

Of the hundreds of Neolithic carved balls found in Scotland and the Orkneys, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has around 140 of them in its collection, the Towie ball among them. Very few of them are on display, however. The museum is making up for this by creating 3D models of 60 of its Neolithic balls and posting them online so that anybody with an Internet connection can see them in far greater detail than they ever could in person.

These models were made using photogrammetry, which uses around 150-200 images of each artifact to produce an exceptionally high-resolution 3D model. The resolution allows you to examine and appreciate these artifacts in unprecedented detail. Indeed, the model of one carved stone ball (X.AS 90) revealed traces of fine concentric circles on one projecting knob that had never been recorded before, despite the artifact having been in the museum for more than 100 years and examined by dozens of scholars. Traces of decoration and working are particularly clear in ‘matcap’ mode, which makes the artifact look like shiny metal, emphasising any irregularities in the surface.

The high resolution has also revealed evidence of how the balls were carved. Several of them show that the design changed as the balls were shaped, perhaps over the course of years of work. They are all relatively regular in dimension, a convenient size that would fit in one hand. It’s likely the stone carver held them in one hand and chipped or chiseled them with harder stone tools in their other hand.

You can examine this remarkable collection of Neolithic Scottish balls one after the other on this page. You can kick things off taking a look at a small group of them and once you get the feel of them, virtually palpate them all, starting with the exceptional Towie ball.

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YouTube masterclass on the Cosmati pavement

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

I see from the recent story on the opening of Westminster Abbey’s triforium galleries that I am not alone in my obsession with its Cosmati pavement, the glorious inlaid semi-precious stone, marble, metal and glass mosaic in front of the High Altar. It was commissioned by King Henry III for his rebuild of the less glamorous Abbey built by Edward the Confessor. Odoricus, an Italian mosaicist trained in the geometric, abstract, allegorical Cosmati style, brought tesserae from Rome and combined them with local materials to create a unique pavement.

The mosaic was finished in 1268 and has been the epicenter of monarchical ceremony ever since. Thirty-eight kings and queens have been crowned on the Cosmati pavement. Trod upon for centuries by the softest royal slipper and roughest pilgrim clog alike, the pavement suffered greatly from wear and ground-in dirt. The marble tiles, which Odoricus is believed to have sourced from the remains of ancient Roman floors, likely had a millennium’s head start on wear, and layer upon layer of wax and polish only served to darken and dim a surface that had once been vividly colored and highly reflective.

Concerned about its deteriorating condition, church officials covered most of the Cosmati pavement with carpet in the 1870s. That’s how it remained, revealed in part or on rare ceremonial occasions until 2008 when Westminster Abbey undertook a comprehensive two-year conservation project. The team cleaned the surface, removing the old wax, polish and dirt with specialized solvents. Stone and glass conservators stabilized damaged areas, repairing damaged glass, stone and mortar. The last step was applying a new protective coating to make it possible for the pavement to be displayed safely and to its best shiny, colorful advantage.

When the conserved pavement was finally revealed in 2010, I yearned to write about it but how could I without proper high resolution before-and-after images? That would be just be cruel. Unfortunately, no such photographs were to be found, not from the Abbey’s communications department, not in the press, not from funders like the Getty which is always great about providing high-res pictures when it comes to its own projects, not even in a publication that I could buy. To this day, almost a decade later, as far as I know there are no books whatsoever documenting the conservation.

The recent discussion on the Cosmati pavement view from the triforium drove me to try one more time. I checked a site dedicated to the conservation that the Abbey had put up in 2012, hoping its sad little 500-pixel images had been upgraded, but the site doesn’t exist anymore. Then I checked YouTube.

Y’all, Westminster Abbey’s channel has a playlist of 51, count’em 51, videos covering the history, symbolism and conservation of the Cosmati pavement. These films are absolutely riveting. Interested in the background of Henry III’s commissioning of the mosaic? Done. Curious about the cosmological significance of the design and how the precise date of the end of the world is calculated in the inscription? Keep watching. How about those glass tesserae so atypical in Cosmati style mosaics? Six videos about them enough for you? Want to hear from the stone masons about the Purbeck Marble background repair? The mortar repair? The yellow limestone repair? The black marble repair? Boom, a video for each.

Clear your social calendar for the next few days and make way for the greatest playlist ever played.

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Roman Republic coin collection digitzed

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Rutgers University has digitized its Ernst Badian Collection of Roman coins from the Republican era, a group of more than 1,200 coins that cover the period from 280 B.C. through 31 B.C. and the end of the Republic. Numismatics provide a unique perspective on history, not just monetary but political and social. The Badian Collection’s focus on Republican Rome makes it an invaluable (pun intended) resource for students of a period that in the earliest years of coin production has limited surviving contemporary historical documentation.

The collection begins with examples of cast bronze coinage, used in the earliest stages of monetization. The Republic moved to struck coins, some made of silver as the standard metal for coins. The denarius, half-denarius and quinarius all were struck from silver. Smaller denominations continued to be struck from bronze. Early coins found in the collection often imitate examples from the Greek colonies in southern Italy (Magna Graecia). The movement to silver denominations, like the denarius, unique to Rome, also is documented. There also are examples of brockage, an error caused when a coin adhered to the die and was struck a second time.

Coins in the collection also document the political aspects of striking coins unique to Rome. Young politicians served as official moneyers (tresviri monetales). They put their names on coins and selected motifs that conveyed messages about their families’ histories and the virtues they claimed these had. The most common message was the importance of military virtues. Patriotic images like the helmeted head of Rome and the she wolf appear together with images of deities. Reflecting affairs in Italy and beyond, changes in money weights and the addition of victory motifs show the fortunes of a rising empire. This includes evidence of the difficulties of the Republic during the Second Punic War, when Hannibal campaigned in Italy. An unusual use of gold as an “emergency” coinage during the Second Punic War is represented among the coins at Rutgers. The collection also documents financial pressures that caused debasement of currency in the same period. Victories were commemorated with special coins and the use of images of trophies won by the armies of the Republic.




The collection thus illustrates comprehensively the progressively heated political climate of the later Republic, and the various fortunes of charismatic leaders such as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Lepidus and Marc Antony, as well as those of numerous other ambitious families and individuals.

In-person access to the collection is limited by preservation and security concerns, so the digitization project opens up previously closed doors not just to scholars and academics, but to everyone who is interested in Roman and numismatic history. Rutgers graduate students did the work, spending four years photographing every coin from multiple angles and uploading the images to the dedicated website. They can be searched by keyword, which makes it easy to use the coins for research on a subject that is not literal monetary history.

The coins were collected by Harvard professor Ernst Badian who donated the coins to Rutgers in 2001. Professor Badian researched his own collection assiduously and wrote notes on many individual coins. Those hand-written notes identifying the coins, their dates, inscriptions and iconography have also been digitized so you can see scans of the original notes in his hand as well as transcriptions.

To search or browse the Ernst Badian Collection, click here.



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Digging the Carnoustie Bronze Age Hoard

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

If you’re at a loss on how to fritter away some time this weekend, I have a solution for you. Watch a couple of videos about the hoard of Bronze Age weapons discovered at the former Newton Farm in Carnoustie, eastern Scotland.

The first video captures the excavation in GUARD Archaeology’s Glasgow laboratory of the soil block containing the hoard. When I first wrote about this story last February, the only video available of the painstaking excavation of the 175-pound block of soil was a continuous scene a few seconds long of archaeologists scratching at the soil in minute movements. This video, uploaded to YouTube in December, summarizes the excavation and finds. There’s still minute scratching, which is awesome, but there’s so much more, plus descriptions of what you’re seeing.

In addition to the sensational weapons hoard, postholes and pits from two Neolithic rectilinear timber halls, one the largest Neolithic structure ever discovered in the British Isles, and gulleys and hearth remains from at least 12 Bronze Age roundhouses were found at the site. There wasn’t a great deal of information about these finds in February 2017, but in May, GUARD Archaeology Project Officer Alan Hunter Blair delivered a lecture packed with details, photographs and diagrams of the structures. That lecture is now available on YouTube.

He also covers the discovery of the hoard, its excavation in the lab and includes great pictures of the organic remains like the pouch the spearhead was found in and the fragment of strap still attached to the pommel of the sword. That part begins around the 15:45 mark.

I should warn you that he speaks very quickly, which is both a blessing and a curse. The former because it keeps the video nice and short at about 20 minutes; the latter because he zooms through it without looking up from his paper so delivery is a little dry and rushed. The information is fascinating, however, and the visual aids illuminating so it’s well worth watching.

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