Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

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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Lost Louvre portrait of Henry III found at auction

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

A late 16th portrait of King Henry III of France that has been missing from the Louvre since World War II was discovered about to go up for auction in Paris. A small work at eight by five inches, the painting was valued by the Ader-Nordmann auction house at only €400-€600 ($505-$758). One week before the October 17th auction, Pierre-Gilles Girault, assistant curator of the Royal Château de Blois, found out about the sale from a Henry III keyword alert he’d set up on a public auction search site.

The Château de Blois played a dramatic role in the bloody intrigues of Henry’s turbulent reign, and in 2010 the museum held an exhibition dedicated to the period, Renaissance celebrations and crimes, the Court of Henry III. When Girault saw the painting for sale, he recognized its rare iconography of Henry on his knees at the foot of the Cross and its unusual medium — oil on paper mounted on panel — as a work he had seen in a 1930s-era catalogue of the Louvre collection. The size was slightly different, however, so he thought it might be a contemporary copy. The museum was still interested in acquiring it to expand its Henry III materials. Even a copy of a realistic portrait of a king, whose life and reign were mired in Wars of Religion, depicted in such a heavy-handedly devout posture could well be worth the small purchase price. There are very few extant realistic portraits of Henry III, and they’re standard court paintings. This one ties Henry directly into the defining issue of his reign and of 16th century France.

Although as Duke of Anjou the Catholic Henry had played a major role fighting the Protestants in the French Wars of Religion — he was the leader of the army, defeating Hugenots forces in several battles and besieging the Hugenot city of La Rochelle — when he became king after the death of his older brother Charles IX, he took a more practical approach. With the Protestant army led by his younger brother François, formerly Duke of Alençon and now Duke of Anjou, besieging Paris, in 1576 Henry signed he Edict of Beaulieu which granted the Hugenots freedom of religion and major political concessions.

Henry I, Duke of Guise, didn’t take kindly to that. He formed the Catholic League, a coalition of French Catholic societies supported by the Pope and Philip II of Spain, to apply military and political pressure in favor of the eradication of the Hugenots. His efforts were very successful. Henry III was forced to fight both Protestants and Catholics arrayed against him, and he just didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off. He was forced to roll back the concessions in the Edict of Beaulieu and Peace of La Rochelle and give the League everything it asked for, including that the king pay its troops. From the Treaty of Nemours in 1585 through the end of 1588, Henry was king in name only. For a short while the Duke of Guise even took Paris, forcing Henry III to flee to the royal palace at Blois in May of 1588.

With his marriage childless, Anjou dead and his presumptive heir now the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, Henry III had good reason to fear not just for his throne, but for his life. It was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in August of 1588 that weakened the Catholic League and emboldened Henry III. In September, Henry called a meeting of the Estates General at the Château de Blois. In December, he invited the Duke of Guise and his brother Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, to the council chamber. The Duke was directed to join Henry III in the adjoining bed chamber where he was set promptly set upon by Henry’s loyal bodyguards, the Forty-five, who stabbed him to death at the foot of the king’s bed. The next day, the Cardinal of Guise met a similar fate in the castle’s dungeon. Henry’s formidable mother Catherine de’ Medici, horrified at the assassinations, died two weeks later and was buried at Blois since Paris was still held by Guise’s men. (Her body was later moved to St. Denis and would ultimately suffer the fate of all the monarchs of France buried there when in 1793 a revolutionary mob looted the cathedral and threw all the royal remains in an unmarked mass grave.)

This is why the painting of Henry III that embeds him, monarchical ermines and all, praying on the ground with human bones in the center of the apex of Catholic iconography, the Crucifixion, held such interest for the Château de Blois museum. Chief curator Elisabeth Latrémolière, in accordance with standard museum acquisition protocols, sought out expert opinions on the piece. Girault emailed the Louvre’s 16th century art curator and received an immediate response even though it was Sunday. The Louvre sent its people to examine the painting in person, and on October 14th, they verified by comparing it to the sole known pre-loss photograph of the painting taken in 1925 that it was the original work, gone missing more than 70 years ago under mysterious circumstances.

Ader Nordmann immediately withdrew the work as soon as the Louvre experts authenticated it. It was being sold as part of the estate of an elderly woman; nobody had any idea how she had acquired it or what winding road took it from the Louvre to the auction. The painting will be returned to the Louvre posthaste, but Elisabeth Latrémollière hopes the museum will throw them a bone and lend them the portrait for display at the Château de Blois. After all, if it weren’t for the Blois curators, the painting would still be lost, an unknown budget purchase in someone’s private collection.

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Dr. Livingstone’s beetles, I presume?

Monday, October 20th, 2014

First Darwin’s barnacles turned up in the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum. Now the Natural History Museum in London has discovered a collection of previously unknown beetle specimens gathered by Dr. David Livingstone during his Zambezi expedition of 1858–64. These are the only known surviving specimens collected by Livingstone on the chaotic history-making expedition to open up the Zambezi River to English trade and resource exploitation. Impassable rapids and waterfalls ensured his utter failure on that score, but the expedition was the first to reach and explore Lake Malawi.

The specimens were discovered by Max Barclay, the Natural History Museum’s Collections Manager of Coleoptera and Hymenoptera. He was doing a check of the museum’s vast stores as part of an effort to catalog some of the collection online when he found a wooden box containing 20 pinned beetles neatly labeled “Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone.”

Max Barclay comments, “The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest, oldest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, consulted every year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. The beetle collection alone includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries. To study them all will take a lifetime. I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day. These specimens are still valuable to science. Museum researchers use historical specimens to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world.”

The beetles were a bequest by Edward Young Western, a lawyer and dedicated amateur entomologist who left a large collection of 15,000 insect specimens to the Natural History Museum after his death in 1924. Museum researchers believe he acquired the box of beetles from one of the members of Livingstone’s expedition, perhaps Livingstone’s own brother Charles. The expedition had been funded by the government and David Livingstone considered all material collected to be government property, so the sale of these specimens had to be done on the quiet. Experts believe they were sold at a natural history auction in the 1860s.

They were easier to dispose of quietly because the specimens were never published. Although the Zambezi Expedition was considered an abject failure due to its escalating costs, high body count (David’s wife Mary died of malaria shortly after she joined her husband at Lake Malawi in 1862), prodigious rate of personnel being fired or quitting and, most importantly to the government, its failure to find a navigable river route to the interior, the scientific exploration was very successful. Physician and naturalist John Kirk (left the expedition in 1863), physician and botanist Charles James Meller and geologist Richard Thornton (fired by Livingstone) collected a great many specimens for study.

In David and Charles Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi, published in 1866, two years after the expedition was recalled, they laud John Kirk’s collecting work in particular, noting that he’s not listed as a co-author solely because they hope he will publish his own record.

He [Dr. Kirk] collected above four thousand species of plants, specimens of most of the valuable woods, of the different native manufactures, of the articles of food, and of the different kinds of cotton from every spot we visited, and a great variety of birds and insects, besides making meteorological observations, and affording, as our instructions required, medical assistance to the natives in every case where he could be of any use.

Charles Livingstone was also fully occupied in his duties in following out the general objects of our mission, in encouraging the culture of cotton, in making many magnetic and meteorological observations, in photographing so long as the materials would serve, and in collecting a large number of birds, insects, and other objects of interest The collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose.

Many of the new mammal, reptile and avian species found on the expedition were published in scientific journals and were very well received, but for some reason, the insects were neglected, leaving a hole through which 20 beetles could slip through into Edward Young Western’s hands. Because the Natural History Museum has such a massive insect collection, Livingstone’s beetles joined the teeming masses without anybody noticing.

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Louvre crowdfunds to buy gorgeous Teschen Table

Friday, October 10th, 2014

It’s a cultural institution throwing a bake sale to secure a national treasure again, this time the Louvre museum in Paris which needs the funding power of the crowd to purchase the Teschen Table, a masterpiece of 18th century goldsmithing, mineralogy and furniture-making that has an illustrious political history to boot. The table is priced at 12.5 million Euros, most of which the Louvre has already raised. The last remaining million ($1.67 million) they hope to raise in donations by January 31st, 2015.

The table was made in 1779 by Johann-Christian Neuber, a goldsmith, jeweler and lapidary at the Dresden court of Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony. Neuber became known for his gold snuff boxes inlaid with hardstones and gemstones. He called them Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox) because they were like miniature cabinets of curiosities. Neuber would number every stone and include a booklet with the numbered list identifying each mineral and where it was mined. His work combined the high craftsmanship of the goldsmith with the scientific approach of the geologist, and it was highly sought after by scholars and collectors alike. They weren’t easy to get as Neuber’s pieces weren’t for retail; they were usually given as gifts by the Elector of Saxony.

In 1778, Frederick Augustus became embroiled in the War of the Bavarian Succession. Maximilian III Joseph, Prince-Elector of Bavaria, died childless of smallpox in 1777. A number of high-powered candidates vied to claim his title, among them Charles Theodore of Sulzbach, Prince-Elector and Count Palatine, who was the direct heir, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, her son and co-ruler Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, King Frederick II of Prussia and the Elector of Saxony. Negotiations between interested parties proposed various partitions, but nobody could agree on how to slice the Bavarian cake and in July of 1778, Austria and Prussia went to war.

The conflict almost immediately settled into a stalemate. Maria Theresa, who was intimately familiar with how messy wars of succession could be, got Frederick of Prussia and her reluctant son to engage in peace talks brokered by Russia and France. France sent its Ambassador to Vienna, the Baron de Breteuil, to the Austrian Silesian town of Teschen, strategically located between Austria and Prussia, to negotiate a treaty in March of 1779. On May 13th, 1779, the belligerent parties signed the Treaty of Teschen. Charles Theodore would inherit Bavaria, but it and the Palatinate would combine to give him just the one vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he would have to cede some territory to Austria. Austria had to recognize Prussia’s claim to the margraviates of Ansbach and Bayreuth. The Elector of Saxony got a sweet payoff of six million guilders.

With six million extra guilders jingling in his pocket, Frederick Augustus was in a generous mood after Teschen. He gave the Russian representative, Prince Nikolai Wasilyevich Repnin, a Meissen porcelain service composed of hundreds of pieces and a large allegorical centerpiece (now lost) with bases made by Neuber. The Baron de Breteuil got Neuber’s masterpiece: a table made in the style of his snuffboxes only far grander, with miles of gilded bronze, stone insets 10 times larger than on the boxes and far more of them. On the tabletop there are 128 stones — including agate, amethyst, onyx, opal, topaz, sardonyx, jasper, petrified wood — all from Saxony. Five Meissen porcelain medallions bearing allegories of peace and art painted in grisaille by Johann Eleazar Zeissig (also known as Schenau), are placed in the center and cardinal points.

As he did with his snuffboxes, Neuber numbered each stone and created a booklet identifying the type and find site of every number. The numbering begins in the center of the table with the small round gemstones then continues clockwise in concentric circles. You can hover over the tabletop insets on this page to see what kind of stones they are and where they came from.

The hovertext can’t possibly do the booklet justice, however. For this very special assignment, Neuber commissioned Dresden artist and engraver Carl Gottfried Nestler to write every entry in the booklet in a hand so beautiful, so clean, so regular that if you didn’t know it was handwritten you wouldn’t believe it. Someone needs to make a Nestler font because that handwriting deserves to be immortalized.

The table became famous in its own time. Historians wrote about it as early as 1782, and it even made a cameo in volume one of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past as a prized piece belonging to the Princesse d’Iéna. In the Swann In Love section, the terribly fashionable Princesse de Laumes laments that her husband wants her to visit the Princesse d’Iéna whom she does not know. She and General de Froberville have this exchange:

“But I must tell you what he’s told me about their house; it’s quite enough. Can you imagine it, all their furniture is ‘Empire’!”
“But, my dear Princess, that’s only natural; it belonged to their grandparents.”
“I don’t quite say it didn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less ugly. I quite understand that people can’t always have nice things, but at least they needn’t have things that are merely grotesque. What do you say? I can think of nothing more devastating, more utterly smug than that hideous style—cabinets covered all over with swans’ heads, like bath-taps!”
“But I believe, all the same, that they’ve got some lovely things; why, they must have that famous mosaic table on which the Treaty of…”
“Oh, I don’t deny, they may have things that are interesting enough from the historic point of view. But things like that can’t, ever, be beautiful … because they’re simply horrible! I’ve got things like that myself, that came to Basin from the Montesquious. Only, they’re up in the attics at Guermantes, where nobody ever sees them.

The Breteuil family did not hide it in the attic. It’s been at the Château de Breteuil about 25 miles southwest of Paris since 1821, leaving only on rare occasions on loan to museums for special exhibitions. In 2010, the family decided to sell the table to raise money to maintain the château and deal with some inheritance issues. They had a foreign buyer lined up and applied to the government for an export license. To block its export, the Teschen Table was declared National Treasure, but the block would expire in 30 months (March 31st, 2013) if the state did not acquire the piece.

In July of last year, the Teschen Table was declared “a work of major patrimonial interest” which granted it another reprieve while funds were raised. The Louvre managed to scrape almost the entire value from its acquisition budget and corporate donors, but needs the aid of the public to reach the final goal. You can donate online here.

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Cirencester cockerel goes on display

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The enamelled bronze cockerel found in a child’s grave in the western cemetery of Roman Cirencester in 2011 has gone on display at the Corinium Museum along with other artifacts excavated during that dig. The site was known to have had a Roman cemetery since the 1960s when it was surveyed before the construction of Bridges Garage, but the auto body shop had dug deep to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks, so archaeologists thought whatever was left of the cemetery was probably destroyed.

When the Bridges Garage property was slated for redevelopment in 2011, the archaeologists who returned to survey the site had modest expectations. Much to their surprise, they found 71 inhumations and three cremations, a surprisingly high number of the former (the 60s excavation had found 46 cremations and eight inhumations). The cemetery spanned almost the entire period of Roman Britain, from the late 1st century through the fourth. Archaeologists were able to identify 30 females and 21 males from the inhumations (the sex of the remaining 20 could not be determined). There was significantly more bone wear in the shoulders of the male, probably an indication of repetitive motion strain from skilled crafts like stone-working rather than agricultural work.

The grave in which the cockerel was found is one of the earlier ones, dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D. The child was about two or three years old and must have come from a wealthy family because she or he was buried in a wooden coffin with the bronze cockerel placed near his head and a pottery feeding cup with a drinking spout known as a tettine. The cockerel was a very expensive piece, the product of high quality workmanship made in northern Britain and exported all over the empire.

Only eight of these objects survive, four in Britain, four in Germany and the Low Countries. This is the only one of the British cockerels to have been found in a grave, and the only one of all of them that still has its tail. That’s significant not just because it’s a fabulous openwork enameled rooster tail, but because before it was found, archaeologists speculated that these figurines might have had a practical use, like as lamps, due to their hollow bodies. The tail was soldered in place, however, making the hollow body inaccessible and usage as a lamp impossible. It was likely included in the grave as a symbol of the god Mercury who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

In the same display case with the cockerel are a selection of jewels also found in the grave of a child. Jet beads found around the neck were once part of a necklace. Jet bracelets and bangles were found at the wrists, while two bronze bracelets were buried under the child’s feet. This was a later burial than the cockerel child’s, dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century. Other jewels on display were found in the grave of a late Roman woman. Near her wrist archaeologists found bone bracelets with metal clasps, a sheet metal bracelet with abstract designs and a bracelet of glass and bone beads strung on a copper-alloy wire chain.

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Wedgwood Collection saved!

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I am delighted to report that the Wedgwood Collection has been saved and in record time. The Art Fund’s public campaign to keep this irreplaceable archive that combines 8,000 ceramics with more than 80,000 documents recording 250 years of the political, social, industrial, artistic, technological history of Britain began on September 1st. Their goal was to raise £2.74 million by November 30th. Added to the £13.1 million they had already raised with contributions from the Heritage Lottery fund and private organizations, the total £15.75 million ($25,617,000) was the price to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection.

Within two weeks we had raised £700,000, contributed by 4,000 members of the public. A few days later, the campaign reached £1m from the public and £1m from major donors and grant-making foundations, propelling the total to £2m.

In the last week the match fund was extended and public donations continued to flood in. The appeal surged towards its final target thanks to donations from two regional sources: £250,000 from the Bet365 Foundation, led by Denise Coates CBE, and £100,000 from Staffordshire County Council.

Nearly 7,500 people donated sums as small as £10 and as large as six-figure checks. The most popular amount was £25. Donors chipped in from all over the world, but fully one fifth of the public donations came from the Midlands, the home region of the Wedgwood Collection. Every donation from individual tenners to large pledges like £100,000 from Staffordshire construction equipment manufacturer JCB was matched by a private foundation, a generous gift that was originally only going to last the first few weeks of the challenge but was then extended through the entire campaign.

The massive groundswell of support to save the Wedgwood Collection was unprecedented in the 111-year history of the Art Fund. This was its fastest fundraising campaign ever.

Now the Art Fund has to acquire the collection as per their agreement with all parties. They will then donate it to the Victoria & Albert Museum who will be the archive’s legal owner in perpetuity. The V&A will set up a long-term loan of the archive to the Wedgewood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. At no point will the collection physically move. It’s in the Wedgwood Museum now and there it will remain while money changes hands and legalities are sorted out.

The post-bankruptcy merged company Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton (WWRD) is in the middle of an extensive £34 million redevelopment of the Wedgwood factory site which will include a new visitor center at the museum. The new World of Wedgwood is slated for completion next spring. (No, I don’t know why they had £34 million to spend on the center but had to get charity to spend less than half that amount securing the actual collection that is the major part of what visitors go to see. It’s probably some hideous legal Gordian Knot involving the bankruptcy and the pension fund liability.)

Now is the time on The History Blog when we dance, Wedgwood style.

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First coin in a hoard of 22,000 is one millionth PAS find

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has reached a milestone in a most dramatic fashion: its one millionth recorded find is a 4th century Roman coin proved to be the first in a hoard of 22,000 coins. It was found on November 16th of last year by semi-retired builder and metal detector hobbyist Laurence Egerton on the Clinton Devon Estates, near Seaton Down, Devon. He found the first two coins just under the surface, then dug deeper. His shovel came up overflowing with similar coins.

Here’s video his wife shot of his discovery:

Egerton alerted the Devon PAS Finds Liaison Officer and the county archaeologist. He was told to remove all the loose objects and refill the hole while the Devon County Council arranged a professional excavation. Just to be sure nobody else interfered with the hoard, Egerton slept in his car next to it for three nights. Between November 18th and 22nd, contract archaeologists excavated an area of three square meters around the find spot.

They found thousands of coins stuck together in one main group in a small pit. There are two concreted lumps within the main group which may indicate several deposits were made over time. The lozenge shape of the main deposit suggests they were buried in something flexible like a bag rather than, say, a chest. Underneath the coins fragments of what may be a fabric of some kind were recovered. They’ll be tested to determine whether they could be the remains of the bag that once held the coins.

The Seaton Down Hoard was transferred to the British Museum where the coins were lightly cleaned so they could be valued in compliance with the Treasure Act. The total weight of the coins is 68 kg (150 pounds). They range in date from the 260s A.D. to the 340s with 99% of them struck between 330 and 341 A.D. in the reigns of Constantine and his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. The most recent coins date to 347-8 A.D. from the joint reign of Constantius II and Constans, the latter of whom was the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343 A.D.

Almost all of the coins are a very common type known as a nummus made of copper-alloy with a small amount of silver. (The handful of 3rd century coins are radiates.) Most of them, more than 11,000, were struck at the mint in Augusta Treverorum (Trier), with 3500 struck in Lugdunum (Lyon) and 2000 at Arelate (Arles). In total an impressive 17 mints are represented in the hoard, and there are some ancient forgeries of indeterminate origin too.

The millionth PAS find, the first coin Egerton unearthed, is a nummus struck in 332 A.D. at the Lyon mint to celebrate Constantine’s founding of the new imperial capital of Constantinople. The obverse of the coin features a personification of Constantinopolis, a laureate and helmeted bust with a scepter over the left shoulder; the reverse depicts winged Victory standing on ship’s prow, holding a scepter of spear in front of her and a shield behind.

Coin hoards from the reigns of Constantine and his sons are among the most commonly found in Britain, but Seaton Down is notable both for its large size (the fifth largest ever found in Britain) and because it was excavated and recorded by archaeologists. All the other big Constantinian hoards, like the one of 22,670 coins unearthed at Nether Compton, Dorset, in 1989, were never recorded, analyzed or studied before being returned to the finder who broke up the collection and sold the coins piecemeal. Copper coins weren’t considered Treasure Trove by the laws at that time, and the local museum that kept the hoard until it was returned to finder just didn’t have the resources to study it properly.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was founded in 1997 to help prevent that kind of loss to the nation’s scholarship cultural heritage. In this case it has functioned as planned, giving archaeologists the opportunity to remove the coins in solid blocks so that even tiny fragments can be analyzed for key information by an institution (the British Museum) that has the technology, expertise and funding to thoroughly study and document the find.

The hoard was officially declared treasure this month. Next on the schedule for the Seaton Down Hoard is for its market value to be determined by the Valuation Committee. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, the museum in Devon closest to the find, wants to get a jump on the process. They’ve launched a fundraising campaign so they’ll have the money to pay the finder and landowner the amount of the valuation and keep the hoard together in the county where it was discovered. You can donate online here.

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Do you recall the 1954 London Mithraeum dig?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.

For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.

Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.

For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.

The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.

The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.

The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”

In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.

They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.

If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at oralhistory@mola.org.uk or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.

Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?

A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:

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MoMA finds lost 1913 film with all-black cast

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.

It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)

Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.

Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.

Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.

Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.

The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.

The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.

Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.

The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.

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17th c. Codex Chimalpahin returned to Mexico

Friday, September 19th, 2014

The Codex Chimalpahin, a seminal three-volume handwritten indigenous history of pre-Hispanic and 16th century Mexico, has returned to Mexico after almost 200 in the archives of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). The codex was slated to be sold at a Christie’s auction in London on May 21st of this year. Before the sale, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) contacted Christie’s in the hope they could acquire the codex privately. The BFBS was glad to work with them so that this founding document of national significance could go home.

The day before the auction, INAH became the delighted new owner of the Codex Chimalpahin. The three volumes arrived in Mexico on August 18th, 2014, where they were secured in the vault of the National Library of Anthropology and History. On September 17th, the Codex Chimalpahin was welcomed home in an official ceremony attended by officials from the government, INAH and the National Museum of Anthropology (MNA). The next day the Codex Chimalpahin went on display in the Mexican Codices: Memories and Knowledge exhibition at the MNA along with 43 other codices from the National Library vault that have never been exhibited to the public before.

The Codex Chimalpahin is considered the first history of Mexico. It’s a collection of several chronicles, calendars, lists of rulers, locations, accounts of the Spanish conquest and more written in Nahuatl and Spanish. Prominent in the first two volumes are the writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (b. between 1568 and 1580 – d. 1648), a direct descendant of Ixtlilxochitl I and Ixtlilxochitl II, rulers of Texococo, and of Cuitláhuac, the penultimate ruler of Tenochtitlan. He was heir to their titles and property, but unfortunately there wasn’t much of the latter. Educated in Nahuatl and Spanish, Alva Ixtlilxochitl had a profound knowledge of his ancestors’ oral histories, songs and traditions. He worked his whole life for the people who ruled the land his fathers had ruled as a translator and historian. He died in poverty.

The Historia Chichimeca. a history of the Nahua peoples through the Spanish conquest from the Texoca perspective, is Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s most enduring work. It’s in the Codex along with several other of his writings. They are the only surviving copies of his histories in his own handwriting. Volume One even has his signature.

Most of Volume Three was written by Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (b. 1579 — d. 1660), a Nahuatl historian who also claimed to be a descendant of Aztec rulers. His Nahuatl names mean “Runs Swiftly with a Shield” (Chimalpahin) and “Rises Like an Eagle” (Quauhtlehuanitzin), and the first of them gives the codex its name. His writings were not commissioned by the Spanish viceroys, unlike Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s. They were written in Nahuatl for Nahuatl readers. There are only six of his works extant in his own handwriting. The other five were already in public institutions and now this last one is as well.

The manuscripts were compiled and bound into three volumes by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (b. 1645 – d. 1700), a poet, historian, former Jesuit, philosopher and all-around intellectual born in Mexico City of Spanish parents. He had a particular interest in the indigenous cultures and created a legendary library of native documents, including manuscripts by Chimalpahin and Alva Ixtlilxochitl. He in fact became good friends with Don Juan, the son of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who gifted him many of his father’s works to thank him for his help in a lawsuit against Spanish settlers trying to steal his property near the great pyramids at San Juan Teotihuacan. After Don Juan died, he bequeathed the rest of his collection to Sigüenza.

Much of Sigüenza’s famed library was acquired by Italian-born antiquary and ethnographer Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (b. ca. 1702 – d. ca. 1753). Benaduci fell afoul of the Spanish viceroy and in 1743 he was arrested and his collection impounded. Although eventually Benaduci was absolved and the King ruled his collection should be returned to him, it never was. During the years it was kept in the office of the viceroyalty, it was horribly neglected and many items disappeared. Parts of the collection can be found in the Berlin State Library, the National Library in Paris and the National Museum of Anthropology.

The Codex Chimalpahin fell into the hands of priest, politician, historian José María Luis Mora Lamadrid (b. 1794 – d. 1850). One of his favored political causes was national literacy. To further that aim, in 1827 he made what seems like a completely insane deal with James Thomsen of the British and Foreign Bible Society: already rare original handwritten works by Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Chimalpahin in return for a bunch of Protestant Bibles to be used in a national literacy campaign.

The codex was never published or even studied. Once it left Mexico, scholars who would seek out such a source had no idea where it was. It was considered lost until it showed up like magic in the Christie’s sale. Now it’s on display in Mexico and, once the exhibition ends in January, it will be made available to researchers at the National Library of Anthropology and History.

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