Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Lost Guercino found by Sopranos actor on display in US

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

A long-lost painting of Saint Sebastian by 17th century Baroque master Guercino that was found by actor Federico Castelluccio, aka mobster Furio Giunta on The Sopranos, is going on display in the United States for the first time. Its exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum is only the second time the painting has been on display since its rediscovery. It made its world debut at an exhibition dedicated to depictions of Saint Sebastian at the Castello di Miradolo museum in Turin last October. Guercino’s work scored top billing over the likes of Titian and Rubens as the cover picture of the show.

Castelluccio, who in addition to his acting credits is also an accomplished realist painter in his own right and a collector of Renaissance and Baroque Italian paintings, found this masterpiece the way they’re found in art nerd fairy tales. He was driving through Frankfurt in 2010 when a window filled with paintings caught his eye. It was the Dobritz auction house, a small local shop crammed with works scheduled to be sold at an auction in two weeks. In a stack of paintings on the staircase to the second floor of the shop, Castelluccio saw the Guercino. It immediately leapt out at him as the work of the Baroque master, the fine chiaroscuro belying the auction house manager’s lackluster description of the piece as “an 18th-century Italian holy painting of Saint Sebastian.”

It was estimated to sell for between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros ($1,100 – 1,657), which obviously Castelluccio was more than glad to pay on the spot, but the manager insisted that he attend the auction and bid for it like anyone else. When the actor actually showed up, flying back to Frankfurt from his home in New York specifically to bid on that Saint Sebastian, the manager got an inkling that they might have something a little more interesting than some anonymous 18th century holy painting. Someone else apparently had a similar inkling, because Castelluccio wound up in a duel with a phone bidder that drove the final hammer price up to 49,000 Euros ($54,000). Castelluccio and his business partner put in the winning bid.

Then came the hard work. Castelluccio instinctively believed the painting was an authentic Guercino, not the work of his studio or a later reproduction, but one man’s good taste is not an accepted authentication standard. First the painting was cleaned, conserved and suitably framed. This painstaking process took years during which Castelluccio did assiduous research on the painting’s history. Art historians and leading Guercino experts David Stone of the University of Delaware and Nicholas Turner, the former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, were enlisted to thoroughly examine the work. They used X-rays, infrared reflectography and chemical pigment testing to determine the painting’s age and to compare its bones to those of known works by Guercino. They authenticated it as painted by Guercino’s hand around 1632-34.

There are only two other life-size, three-quarter view Saint Sebastians by Guercino known: a 1641 version now in the Moscow’s Pushkin Museum and one in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. The newly rediscovered one is the earliest of the three. While Castelluccio and his partner wound up spending about $140,000 total in acquiring, conserving, testing and researching the painting, if they were to sell it now it would certainly make millions. A King David by Guercino sold at Christie’s in London for close to $8 million (including buyer’s premium) and that was in 2010. The Christ and the Woman of Samaria bought privately by the Kimbell Art Museum that same year is thought to have gone for more than $10 million.

He and the co-owner may eventually sell the portrait, [Castelluccio] said, ideally to a prestigious institution.

A few of its previous owners have been identified, including the German countess Maria von Maltzan, a Resistance fighter during World War II who hid Jews and other escapees from the Nazis.

Once the painting was authenticated, art dealer Robert Simon, to whom Castelluccio had shown the work before it was cleaned, arranged for its loan to the Castello di Miradolo where Guercino’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was seen in the public again after 350 years in obscurity. Castelluccio got it back after the exhibition closed in March and then Princeton reached out to him to see if he’d be amenable to a more local exhibition. He was and now the painting is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum as a special installation until January of 2016.

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Five oversized Bronze Age axes found in Jutland Christmas tree farm

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

Just before Easter of this year, Christmas tree farmer Esben Arildskov asked a metal detecting friend Bent Rasmussen to survey a field on his farm in the village of Boest near Nørre Snede in Jutland, Denmark. Bronze artifacts had been found on the field before, and Arildskov wanted to be sure any historic artifacts were recovered before he cleared the area for planting. That responsible choice proved prescient. Rasmussen’s metal detector alerted to a large metal find and when he dug down, he found two large bronze axe heads. He immediately stopped digging and notified experts at the Museum Midtjylland of the find.

The two axes Rasmussen unearthed are 30 and 26 centimeters (one foot and 10 inches) long. The larger one weighs almost a full kilo (980 grams, 2.16 pounds); the smaller weighs 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Bronze Age axes are usually half this size, so the museum’s archaeologists were excited by the find. They examined the site and realized there was more to be found underneath the surface. They had to wait until after Easter to get started so on April 7th the official excavation began. Archaeologists, museum curators, journalists, neighbors and interested observers made the dig something of a party, complete with coffee and homemade cake. They had good cause to celebrate when three more oversized axes were unearthed. The axe hoard was painstakingly buried, each axe placed deliberately on top of the others inside a pit that was padded with grass.

Radiocarbon dating found the axes were made between 1,800 and 1,500 B.C., a period bridging the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. This places them among the earliest bronze artifacts ever discovered in Denmark.

Bronze axes from this era are so rare only five of them have been found before in Denmark, Sweden and northern Germany. That means the Boest find has in one fell swoop doubled the number of these Bronze Age axes in the archaeological record of northern Europe. When you consider that
Bent Rasmussen and his brother, enlisted by Bent during excavations to cover more ground with their metal detectors, found another four smaller axes and a spear tip, it’s clear that this field in Boest was an important place during the early Bronze Age.

The would-be Christmas tree lot continued its archaeological hot streak when rows of large postholes were discovered. Four parallel rows of holes so large the posts they held would have been at least the height of a man. At first archaeologists thought they might be the remains of a dwelling or a fence, but as they kept excavating they kept finding more postholes. Ultimately they were able to follow an uninterrupted path of postholes for 109 meters before it disappeared into the forest. Now they’re thinking it may have been a processional route leading to burial mounds known to be on the property. This find is unique in Danish history, more akin to the pre-stone standing structures of Avebury and Stonehenge. Archaeologists hope to be able to excavate the entire processional in the near future, but first the funding has to be secured.

At the end of April, archaeologists unearthed another treasure across the post rows and slightly to the right of the axe hoard: two gold bracelets, one gold finger ring and two flint blades. The bangles weigh 21 grams (.74 ounces) apiece while the ring weighs a massive 16 grams (.56 oz). Modern wedding rings weigh a single gram, so this ring is exceptionally heavy. The gold deposit also dates to the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages.

The axes are being conserved at the Museum Midtjylland after which they will be sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen for further analysis. Museum Midtjylland hopes the axes will be available for display this summer. Esben Arildskov has accepted that he won’t be planting Christmas trees on this land anytime soon, but he’s consoled by the fact that he’s the owner of a Bronze Age ceremonial center with huge axes and gold rings the weight of 16 regular rings buried hither and yon. He, his wife Birthe Rosvig and two daughters (aged five and eight) are thrilled to have found actual treasure in their back yard.

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Birmingham Qur’an folio one of world’s earliest

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

A partial Qur’an manuscript in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library has been radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., which makes it one of the earliest Qur’ans known to survive, perhaps even the earliest. The Prophet Muhammad lived around 570 to 632 A.D., so the sheep or goat who whose skin was used to make the parchment was his contemporary or died very soon after he did.

Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet received the revelations of the angel Gabriel in the last two decades of his life, transmitting them orally to his closest and most trusted companions who memorized them word for word. According to Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and after his death the first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, fearing that the people who memorized the scripture would die before they could pass it down, ordered the verses written down. That text was then used by the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, as the basis for the definitive version of the Qur’an which was widely copied and distributed in 650 A.D., just 18 years after Muhammad died. (The Shi’ite tradition holds Uthman Ibn Affan solely responsible for collecting the revelations into a single written scripture.)

The manuscript consists of two folios with parts of Suras 18 through 20 written in a beautiful tilted Arabic script called Hijazi that is so clear it can be easily read by Arabic readers today. The pages have been in the library for decades, one of more than 3,000 of Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s at the behest of Edward Cadbury, chocolate magnate in a long line of chocolate magnates who, when they weren’t busy making delicious creme-filled confections, founded a consortium of colleges later absorbed by the University of Birmingham. The folios were mistakenly bound with the folios of another Qur’an written 200 years later in a very similar hand. There are no records of where Mingana acquired these particular leaves, but the parchment and script look like Qur’an fragments from the earliest mosque in Egypt (founded 642 A.D.) that are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Dr. Alba Fedeli noticed the folios while doing research for her PhD. While the handwriting on those two pages at first glance seemed identical to that on the rest of the manuscript, she saw that the content stuck out, that it didn’t seem to fit with what came before and after. Fedeli pointed out the discrepancy to Susan Worrall, director of the library’s special collections, who decided to have them carbon dated by experts at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They were shocked by the results.

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. [...]

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.”

The folios will go on display at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts from October 2nd through October 25th.

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“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.

*null

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Gilded Late Viking sword found in Norway

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo unearthed a unique sword from the late Viking era in a grave in the town of Langeid, southern Norway. The grave was unusually large, the largest of the 20 graves found in the burial ground, with postholes in the corners indicating that it had once had a roof. So prominent a tomb must have belonged to a person of high status who would likely have been interred with valuable objects for the afterlife, but when the coffin was excavated archaeologists found no grave goods except for the remains of two silver coins. When the team dug outside of the coffin, they found two metal objects on either side. One was a sword, the other a large battle-axe.

The sword is just over a three feet (94 centimeters) long, and while the iron blade of the sword is heavily corroded, the hilt is in excellent condition and of exquisite quality. The guard and pommel are silver engraved with swirls, crosses and what appear to be letters, all filled in with gold and edged with copper alloy thread. The grip is tightly wrapped with silver thread in a herringbone pattern. Conservators found fragments of wood and leather on the blade, likely all that remains of the sheath.

The letters are from the Latin alphabet, but they’re not in a legible arrangement and some are backwards or look like two or more letters were combined.

“At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That’s unique and we don’t know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism. But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man,” added Camilla Cecilie Weenn.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in one of the postholes dates the burial to 1030 A.D., a date confirmed by one of the two coins found inside the coffin. It’s an English silver penny minted during the reign of King Ethelred II, aka Aethelred the Unready (r. 978-1016), and is the only Anglo-Saxon coin ever found in Langeid.

The battle-axe found next to the coffin also has an association to early 11th century England. The shaft was coated with brass, a very rare find in Norway, but very similar to numerous axes that have been discovered in the Thames in London. The Thames axes date to the same time as the Langeid axe, a period when more than one Scandinavian king — Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, his son Cnut the Great, King Olaf II of Norway — fought to conquer England. London was raided repeatedly. The axes may have been left in the Thames by Norse raiders, lost or sacrificed after a victory.

It’s entirely possible that the man buried with the weapons may have fought under one of those kings. There’s a rune stone in the Setesdal valley just south of Langeid inscribed in Old Norse “Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute ‘went after’ England. God is one.” Norway was under Danish sovereignty when Cnut invaded England in 1015. There were Norwegian fighters from noble families in his army who would have been required to arm themselves with the best weapons.

The runic stone dates from the same period as the final phase of the burial ground and testifies that Christianity is about to take root in Norwegian society. It is the oldest runic stone in Norway that refers to Christianity. Could this also explain why the weapons were placed outside the coffin? In a transitional period, people may have chosen to use both pagan and Christian elements in a funeral. The Langeid grave is from one of the last pagan funerals we know of from Norway and marks both the greatness and the end of the Viking Age.

The sword find is being announced now, four years after it was made, because it’s going on display for the first time. It is part of the Museum of Cultural History’s Take It Personally exhibition which examines the history of adornment, with this sword being an example of how the precious metals and decorative details of women’s jewelry were used on weapons and armour to telegraph the bearer’s wealth and power. The exhibition opened on June 12th and will run until June 1st, 2016.

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2,000 Bronze Age gold spirals found in Denmark

Friday, July 10th, 2015

An unprecedented cache 2,000 gold spirals from the Bronze Age has been discovered in a field near the town of Boeslunde on the Danish island of Zealand. Bronze Age spirals have been found before — gold ones in the Syke hoard in Germany, for example, and bronze ones in Poland — but these are the first to be discovered in Denmark.

The spirals are made of very thin, very pure, flat gold thread just 0.1 millimeter thick and up to three centimeters (1.18 inches) long. Some of the spirals are complete at up to three centimeters long; some are in small fragments. All totalled, the gold weight of the spirals is between 200 and 300 grams (7-10 ounces). Two gilded fibulae found with the spirals date the find to 900-700 B.C.

In 2013, metal detectorists Christian Albertsen and his uncle Hans Henrik Hansen found four gold bangles, so-called oath rings, in the same Boeslunde field. Six other gold oath rings had been unearthed in the field earlier (each individually at different times, not as part of a hoard) and in the 1800s local farmers found a group of six elaborately decorated gold bowls, two of which have incredibly thin gold wire wound around elongated handles crafted to look like stylized dragons. The total weight of the 10 oath rings found in Boeslunde is 3.5 kilos (7.7 pounds). The set of bowls weighs another kilo (2.2 pounds). That makes Boeslunde the richest gold field of the Northern European Bronze Age, and there may well be more to find.

It was the oath ring discovery that spurred the discovery of the spirals. After the bangles were found, the West Zealand Museum undertook an excavation of the field. It was a small search area — only a few square meters of soil were dug up — and archaeologists found a small group of three or four spiral fragments bundled together. Christian Albertsen, the finder of the oath rings who was assisting in the dig, brought one of the spirals to a jeweler. He confirmed that it was made of gold, not brass, so the Zealand Museum decided to dig again in the same spot, this time enlisting the aid of experts from the National Museum of Denmark.

During this second excavation archaeologists made the bulk of the find: a large pile of gold coils. Underneath and around the pile were shards of a grey-black material. Analysis in the National Museum’s lab identified these black chunks as birch bark tar, a substance used by prehistoric peoples, including the Neanderthals, as an all-purpose adhesive starting 80,000 years ago. The copper axe found with the 5,300-year-old iceman Otzi was hafted with birch bark tar. The tar chunks found under the spirals bore the imprint of a flat wooden surface on one side of the flakes and the imprint of animal skin on the other, which indicates the tar was used to glue a leather lining into a wooden box. Archaeologists think the spirals were placed inside a jewelry box or dress chest before being buried in the Boeslunde field.

It’s not clear how the coils were used or for what purpose. Given the high quantity of sacrificed gold found in the field, the location may have held ritual importance.

Flemming Kaul from the National Museum also believes that the area had some sort of religious significance as a place where Bronze Age worshippers carried out rituals and sacrifices to the higher powers.

“Maybe the priest king had a golden bracelet around his wrist, and the gold spirals adorned his cape or his hat, where during rituals they shone like the sun. The sun was one of the holy symbols in the Bronze Age and gold was presumably seen as having some sort of particular magic power. It is colored like the sun, it shines like the sun, and because gold lasts forever, it was also seen as containing some of the Sun’s power,” Kaul said.

The Zealand Museum and the National Museum plan to continue to excavate the site in cooperation with amateur archaeologists/metal detectorists like Christian Albertsen who has been so instrumental in the momentous discoveries made in Boeslunde. The gold spirals will be on display at an open house at the Skaelskor City Museum on Wednesday, July 15th. Visitors will be able to enjoy the shiny pretty things and hear curator Kirsten Christensen speak about their discovery.

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Turner’s High Street, Oxford to remain in Oxford

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

The High Street, Oxford, an iconic view of the city’s main thoroughfare by Joseph Mallord William Turner, has been on display at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum since 1997, on loan from a private collection. Earlier this year the owners offered the painting to the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. Because the appraised market value of the painting, £3.5 million ($5,387,000), is more than the tax owing, the Ashmolean had to come up with the difference of £860,000 ($1,324,000) to secure the masterpiece. If they couldn’t meet the price, the painting would be sold at public auction and very possibly to a foreign buyer who would take it out of the country.

Most of the sum was raised through grants — £550,000 ($846,570) from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £220,000 ($338,630) from the Art Fund, £30,000 ($46,180) from the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean — leaving just £60,000 ($92,300) outstanding to acquire the painting. On June 3rd, the museum launched a campaign to raise the last £60,000. The response from the public was immediate and enthusiastic. More than 800 individuals donated to the cause and the target was reached in just four weeks. Once the paperwork is done, The High Street, Oxford will officially be part of the Ashmolean Museum’s permanent collection.

JMW Turner had deep connections to Oxford. As a child he spent time in the area visiting his uncle so he was familiar with the city — there is at least one surviving watercolor of Oxford Turner painted when he was in his teens — and over the course of his lifetime he would finish more than 30 watercolors of the city, the largest number of works depicting a single place in his oeuvre. In 1799 when he was 24 years old, he received his first important commission: two watercolor of the college town to be published in the Oxford Almanack, the University’s prestigious annual calendar which had been printed every year without interruption since 1676. The watercolors were so well-received, he got commissions to make another eight watercolors which were published between 1799 and 1810.

The watercolors caught the eye of Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, who commissioned Turner to create a view of High Street that Wyatt would then have engraved so he could sell prints of the work. Turner worked on the painting over the winter of 1809-1810, consulting with Wyatt as he went along. Wyatt, while a townie, had many begowned friends, so the painting deliberately includes men in academic dress as well as more colorful townspeople at focal points along the street. Turner had once contemplated a career in architecture and as a young man he had worked for several architects as a draughtsman. That fascination greatly informed High Street which is drawn with exceptional attention to the architectural details of the buildings.

When the painting was finished in March of 1810, Wyatt put it on display in his High Street print shop. Both the oil painting and the print made from it were hugely popular. Turner displayed the oil painting in his personal gallery in Queen Ann Street, London. In 1812, The High Street, Oxford and a companion townscape Wyatt commissioned after the success of the first were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Because, as anyone who has watched Morse and Inspector Lewis to the point of overdose can tell you, Oxford is basically frozen in time, what Turner saw when he looked down High Street is pretty much what you see today looking down High Street, give or take a bike or two (thousand). Any institution would be keen to have a Turner oil painting, but this work is so bound to its context, a context which has survived almost unchanged, that it would have been a tremendous loss to see it sold away from the city whose sempiternal beauty he captured so flawlessly.

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Restored 1813 presentation flag, Betsy Ross & the Lost Dauphin

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

A rare presentation flag the United States government gave to the Six Nations Iroquois in 1813 has been restored and is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The flag measures 60 inches by 118 inches, has 15 horizontal stripes (eight red, seven white) and a painted eagle with the shield of the United States in the blue canton instead of stars. The number of stripes matches those on the official US flag at the time — from 1795 there were stripes for each state until 1818 when Congressional passed a law requiring flags to have 13 stripes representing the original colonies while a star would be added to the canton every time a new state was admitted to the Union — including the most famous of them all, the Star Spangled Banner.

While authorship is not certain, the painted eagle on this flag is close to identical to others painted by Philadelphia ornamental painter William Berrett. Berrett’s friend and neighbor, one Elizabeth Claypoole, was his colleague in flag production. Elizabeth Claypoole has gone down in history as Betsy Ross. Ross was the name of her first husband John who died in 1776. She remarried and was widowed again. Her third marriage in 1783 was to John Claypoole, and it was under this name that Betsy had her greatest success as a flagmaker.

Although she was making flags during the Revolutionary War as part of her upholstery business, the story of her making the first American flag at George Washington’s behest with the 13 alternating white and red stripes and the 13 stars in a circle on a blue canton is probably apocryphal. It doesn’t appear on the historical record until a century after the supposed events, promoted entirely by her grandsons, William and George Canby, who first announced the tale in a talk at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. Their evidence was solely family lore, but that was more than enough for people to run with in the heady patriotism of the approaching national celebration of the Centennial. William Berrett makes a cameo in the Ross legend as the artist who made a painting of George Washington’s flag design for Betsy to use as a model while she was stitching the flag.

It was during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, particularly during the War of 1812, that Elizabeth Claypoole draped forts around the young country with her work. She had contracts with the War Department to make garrison flags for the US Army. One contract was for six flags to be flown in a New Orleans fort. Another was for an astonishing 46 garrison flags to be delivered to the Schuylkill Arsenal, quartermaster for the US military. These flags were massive, each 18 by 24 feet in dimension. That’s 432 square feet (Betsy’s house was 468 square feet per floor) unfurled, and 24 feet of seam for each stripe. Since the seams were felled (ie, the edges were sewed down flat), she actually sewed 48 feet of stitches per stripe. You can see how her experience as an upholsterer rather than, say, a tailor, was invaluable to work on this scale.

The War Department, then tasked with handling Indian affairs (the Department of the Interior only got the job after the slaughter was over and all that was left was reservation management), also commissioned Betsy to make presentation flags to be used as diplomatic gifts for Native American tribes as the country began exploring/appropriating territories west of the Mississippi. She collaborated with Berrett on the presentation flags, doing the stitching while he did the painting.

That’s not to say that Betsy Ross made this particular presentation flag, but it’s certainly a possibility. The provenance of the flag is nebulous, however, so it’s unlikely there will ever be a solid attribution. The New York State Museum acquired it in 1962 from the Minnesota Historical Society who received it as a donation from Clay McCauley in 1889. McClauley claimed the flag had once belonged to Eleazer Williams, an Episcopal minister, missionary who was the son of Mohawk Chief Te-ho-ra-gwa-ne-gen, also known as Thomas Williams. Thomas was the grandson of Eunice Williams, a Puritan English colonist (her mother was a Mather) who had famously been captured when she was seven years old by French and Mohawk warriors at the Deerfield Massacre of 1704. She and 100 other captives, including four of her siblings and her parents, were marched north to Canada. Although the rest of her surviving family was eventually ransomed, Eunice was adopted by a Mohawk woman, converted to Catholicism married a Mohawk man and refused to return to Massachusetts no matter how many entreaties her Puritan father made.

Her great-grandson Eleazer also lived in two worlds. He spoke fluent Mohawk, Oneida and several other languages which he made use of when attempting to convert Oneidas and in negotiations between the tribes and the US government. He represented the St. Regis Mohawk tribe at multiple conferences between the Indian commissioners and the tribes. Williams thought the northeastern tribes of New York state and Canada should move west, settle down permanently in a reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they could create a new confederacy like the Iroquois free from northeastern population and political pressures that were endlessly chipping away at their territory. Williams was a signatory witness to the 1848 treaty with the Stockbridge tribe in Wisconsin, and as a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe he was not just a signatory to the 1838 treaty with New York tribes, but was specially singled out in Article 9 as the acknowledged owner of extensive lands along the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Known as the Williams Tract, the 4,800-acre property belonged to his wife Madeleine Jourdain, daughter of Joseph Jourdain, a successful French blacksmith and Margaret Craselle, the granddaughter of a Menominee chief, who he had married in 1823 when she was 14 years old.

A small part of the Williams Tract is now in Wisconsin’s Lost Dauphin State Park, and Eleazer is entirely responsible for the excellent name of that park because, not content with making up military exploits and diplomatic victories, Williams also claimed to be Louis-Charles, doomed son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the long-lost Dauphin of France. He hadn’t been killed as a child by his cruel jailers, but rather had been spirited away by supporters when he was 10 years old and sent to French Canada where he was adopted by kindly Thomas Williams and kept safe from the pernicious lies of Revolutionaries. He only came to understand his true identity in 1841 when he met the Prince de Joinville, younger son of the restored Bourbon King Louis Philippe, who was touring the waterways of what had once been New France aboard the steamer Columbia. Joinville recognized him instantly, Williams said, from scars on his face, and asked him to sign an abdication document to ensure his father wouldn’t lose his throne.

The story, which had morphed over the years, finally hit the big time with the publication of an article entitled “Have we a Bourbon among us?” in the February, 1853, issue of Putnam’s Magazine. The Iroquois Bourbon became a huge thing, engendering much published back and forth between people who were enthralled by the tall tale and people who rejected it on the grounds that it was blatantly unsupported nonsense. The con man character of the “king” in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who claims to be the lost Dauphin of France is modelled after Williams.

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Hermione leads New York Parade of Ships

Saturday, July 4th, 2015


L’Hermione arrived in New York City on July 1st, firing its cannons in salute to the city that welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette with a screaming throng of 50,000, a third of the city’s population at the time, in 1824. It docked at Pier 15 on the East River in Lower Manhattan right across from the South Street Seaport Museum and opened for visitors to explore the replica of the ship that brought Lafayette back to America in 1780 bearing reinforcements of troops and ships to support the neonate nation in its fight for independence from the British Empire.

Today the Hermione led the Parade of Ships past the Statue of Liberty to celebrate the 239th anniversary of the American independence that Lafayette fought for with such dedication and at no small personal cost.

The Hermione YouTube channel has a great video showing the ship’s arrival in New York from the perspective of the crew.

There are tons more videos of Hermione previous stops along the east coast of the United States and I suspect the channel will soon have better footage of today’s parade than I was able to find.

New York will continue to celebrate Lafayette and the Hermione even after she leaves. The New-York Historical Society Museum’s exhibition Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione examines Lafayette’s youth when, still a teenager, he became a tireless advocate on behalf of US independence, his involvement in the war and his continuing close ties to the people who know now as the Founding Fathers after the war was over. On display are artifacts that have never been seen before from Lafayette’s chateau La Grange. There are letters he wrote to and from his family, swords, medals, secret codes he shared with Washington, locks of hair from Washington and Jefferson that he was given as fond keepsakes.

Three of my favorite pieces on display in the exhibition are written materials. One is the letter announcing his arrival that Lafayette wrote to Washington from the Hermione after it dropped anchor in Boston Harbour in 1780. Datelined “At the entrance of Boston Harbour 27th April 1780,” the letter opens with a beautiful glimpse into the genuine love Lafayette bore Washington: “Here I am, My dear General, and in the Mist [sic] of the joy I feel in finding Myself again one of Your loving soldiers.”

The second is an almost unbearably adorable letter written to George Washington by Lafayette’s six-year-old daughter Anastasie in 1784 (all idiosyncratic spellings hers).

Dear Washington, I hope that papa whill come back son here. I am verry sorry for the loss of him, but I am verry glade for you self. I wich you a werry good health and I am whith great respect, Dear Sir, your most obedient servent, anastasie la fayette.

Washington was reportedly charmed to bits by this letter, and how could he fail to be? Not only are the sentiments expressed so sweet and brave and polite, but look at how great her handwriting is! She was six years old and using a quill pen, for crying out loud. In response, Washington asked Lafayette to convey his warmest regards and an invitation from his wife Martha for the Marquis, his wife Adrienne, their daughters Anastasie and Virginie and son Georges Washington Lafayette to visit Mount Vernon someday.

The third is an invitation to dinner Lafayette sent to Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1785. Lafayette’s house on the Rue de Bourbon served as the unofficial headquarters of the Americans in Paris. Dinners with the likes of Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and Madame de Staël were weekly events and the invites, like the conversation, were always in English. I am in deeply love with the capital W and F.

Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione is at the New-York Historical Society through October 4th, 2015.

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5,500-year-old fingerprint found on ceramic vessel

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

It’s time to add another bullet point of to the list of exceptional artifacts discovered by the archaeological excavation in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the island of Lolland, Denmark. There was the flint dagger with intact bark handle in October 2014, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and human footprints a month later, the flint axe with the intact wood handle 10 days after that and just last month they unearthed a Stone Age wood and bone eel fishing spear. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists have discovered a ceramic vessel bearing the fingerprint of the potter that made it 5,500 years ago.

Discovered just east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn on the same site where the intact flint axe was found, the vessel is an important in and of itself. It’s a funnel beaker, a pot with a flat base and a funnel-shaped neck that was so ubiquitous among the earliest farmers in Denmark that the period in which they were in use, the Funnel Beaker Culture (4,000 – 2,800 B.C.), was named after them. The funnel beakers from the early part of the period are simply decorated, but as potters gained experience in the technology, ornamentation got more elaborate. The beaker found on Lolland is from the late Funnel Beaker period and is decorated with an extensive pattern of small wedged dashes. A variety of tools were used to create the decorations, sometimes even fingers, but this is the first time a fingerprint has been found on a funnel beaker.

The beaker was found in large pieces, one of three funnel beakers unearthed at the site which were probably deliberately left as votive offerings. The axe was embedded in the seashore in a vertical position — not a likely posture had it just been discarded without a care — along with dozens of other artifacts from wooden candlesticks to spears and hundreds of animal bones. The vessels were likely deposited whole with food or drink inside. Over time the contents were lost and the ceramic broken.

After they were excavated, the beaker pieces were sent to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for conservation. It was there upon close study that experts spotted the precious fingerprint.

“The fragile fingerprint, left unintentionally, is an anonymous, yet very personal signature, which somehow brings us a bit closer to the prehistoric people and their actions,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Line Marie] Olesen said.

Last year the same archaeological survey unearthed 5,000-year-old footprints left by people who attempted to save parts of their fishing system before it was flooded and covered in sand.

“An unknown persons gallery is gradually developing before our eyes, of the people who lived by Lolland’s southern coast at the time when agriculture was introduced some 6,000 years ago,” Anne-Lotte Sjørup Mathiesen of the Museum Lolland-Falster, said in a statement.

The beaker and fingerprint are still being studied at the National Museum. The vessel is expected to return to the Museum Lolland-Falster in December after which it will be put on display next to its brethren artifacts from the Rødbyhavn excavation.

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