Archive for the ‘Social policy’ Category

Help save unique Hopewell earthworks in Ohio

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

The Junction Group earthworks complex in Chillicothe, Ohio, is one of very few remaining ancient Native American ceremonial sites that hasn’t been sliced and diced by roads or train tracks or development. Situated on the south edge of the city at the confluence of the Paint Creek and its tributary North Fork Paint Creek, the earthworks take up about 25 acres of a 90-acre plot that is going up for auction on Tuesday, March 18th. The field belongs to the Stark family who have farmed it for generations but are now reluctantly selling the entire farm, including the earthworks.

The land has road frontage and is close to city water and sewer lines, which makes it a very attractive parcel for a housing development. There’s already a subdivision kitty corner with the property. Any such construction would destroy the foundations of the earthworks of the Hopewell Culture which we know are still there just underneath the surface. The Junction Group was built 1800-2000 years ago as nine earthworks enclosures: four circular mounds, three crescents, one large square and a quatrefoil. The latter is the only known example of that shape ever discovered in Ohio.

To keep this irreplaceable historical treasure from falling into uncaring hands, the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, the Arc of Appalachia and other non-profit organizations are working together to raise $500,000 to buy not just the earthworks parcel but the entire farm which is being sold in six lots. If they are successful in acquiring the land, the long-term plan is to turn it over to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park which is just six miles northwest of the Junction Group. The national park already administers five Hopewell sites in the Paint Creek Valley, and although the process of transferring a sixth site to national park stewardship requires legislative action that can take years, the Arc of Appalachia has already begun the process for another Hopewell earthwork and are confident they can pull it off in the end. They have the full support of the park service in their endeavours.

The Hopewell culture, also known as the Hopewell tradition because it describes a range of different tribes who developed an extensive trade network along the rivers of the northeast and midwest, flourished from around 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. They were the inheritors of the Adena culture who inhabited the same area in the Scioto River Valley in the first millennium B.C. There are two dozen Hopewell ceremonial sites in Ross County alone, most of them consisting of at least one burial mound and several earthwork structures. There is little evidence of settlement on these sites; their purpose appears to have been almost entirely religious.

The Junction Group was first named and documented by Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis in their seminal 1848 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. It was the first major work on the archaeology of ancient mounds in the United States and the first publication of the Smithsonian Institution. When Squier and Davis recorded the Junction Group in 1845, the largest mound was seven feet high and some earthenwork walls were at least three feet high with deep ditches on either side.

Since then, farming has worn down the mounds and earthworks so they are no longer visible to the naked eye. It was a magnetic imaging survey in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the complex are still crystal clear under the plough line. The survey also was the first to recognize that what Squier and Davis thought was a smaller square was actually the unique quatrefoil.

If you’d like to donate to save this irreplaceable resource, you can make a pledge on the Arc of Appalachia website here or pledge or donate on the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy page here. Pledges are very important to this project because the organizations are applying for grants that will match pledged funds and for loans that will be easier to secure with proof of financial backing.

Please spread the word! There are only a few days to go before the auction. So many of these mounds and earthworks are gone forever in Ohio. Let’s stop the Junction Group from succumbing to this tragic fate.

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Another wall collapses in Pompeii

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Heavy rainfall has claimed new victims among the ruins of Pompeii: two more walls have come down.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus. [...]

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Heavy rains and continued neglect inflicted the coup de grace on a whole gladiator school and took down multiple walls in 2010. There much indignant harumphing about it, but not a lot of necessary maintenance to keep the deterioration at bay. In 2011, the European Union pledged $145 million to the conservation of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the then-Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan, asserted that Pompeii would be a priority for his tenure.

Two years later, after a damning UNESCO report identified the extensive structural damage, vandalism and unqualified employees plaguing the ancient site, Italy launched the Great Pompeii rescue project, a plan to restore the entire site using the UNESCO report as an action plan and the EU’s $145 million in funding. Great Pompeii also has a goal of increasing visitor numbers by 300,000 a year by 2017, however, which seems counterproductive given the danger posed by crowds.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

Meanwhile, a cooperative group of German and Italian institutions has launched the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation project (PSP) which plans to spend €10 million ($13,781,000) over ten years restoring major structures in need of attention and training the experts of tomorrow.

Now that there’s a new government in Rome, there’s also a new Culture Minister. Dario Franceschini was appointed last month by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi. In response to the latest collapse, he has called an emergency meeting of heritage officials on Tuesday. He will hear a report on the collapses and on the progress of the Great Pompeii project. The trick is going to be continuing oversight, since basically every since culture minister has done the same thing every time Pompeii exposed them by falling a little more apart.

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Charles IV statue irreparably harmed by unauthorized “restoration”

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

A bronze equestrian statue King Charles IV of Spain that stands in Mexico City’s Plaza Manuel Tolsá has been damaged beyond repair by a botched and unauthorized “restoration” ordered by city officials. Cast in 1802 by artist and architect Manuel Tolsá (after whom the plaza is named), the statue is legally designated a historic property and is therefore under the purview of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). By law, any work on the piece must be authorized by INAH but in this case the Historic Center officials didn’t even apply for a permit until after the restoration was already in disastrous progress.

The city contracted one Arturo Javier Marina Othón of Marina Monument Restoration to clean, restore and maintain the bronze and its pedestal. He stated up front that he would only apply a weak 30% solution of nitric acid to clean the surface dirt and pollution, but when INAH experts examined the statue to report on the damage, they found a can of partially used 60% nitric acid on the scaffolding. Nitric acid in that high a concentration just eats through metal. Neither nitric nor any other inorganic acid have been used in restoring metals since the 1950s when conservators finally realized how much damage they cause.

Othón denies having used 60% nitric acid. He insists he only used 30% and that it’s a perfectly cromulent material for cleaning the outer grime layer of a bronze statue. In his opinion, he is being scapegoated to distract the public from the city’s failures to protect its cultural patrimony which could certainly be an element, but at the same time, there’s no denying the fact that the acid very obviously went far deeper than the top grime layer to expose the soft coppery underbelly of the statue.

Analysis of the statue’s dark, almost black patina done in September before the so-called restoration found that it was composed of oxide, carbonates, sulfur and sulfates under a layer of grime. Those compounds are what is known as passive corrosives, meaning they’re stable byproducts of exposure to environmental elements like oxygen, rain, carbon dioxide, sulfur compounds. They don’t damage the metal but rather form layers of protective coating.

Only 35% of the sculpture was directed treated with strong nitric acid, but 50% of it has been damaged by the acid dripping down from the application site. As a result, half of the patina is gone forever and the newly exposed bronze is particularly susceptible to corrosion. The strong acid also dissolved the less stable elements of the bronze creating an alchemical alteration of the material itself. Bronze alloy is made of copper, tin, zinc and lead. The nitric acid attacked the tin and zinc dissolving them and leaving behind shiny pink copper. The acid also pitted the surface, vastly increasing the area susceptible to corrosion. They used metal brushes attached to power tools to polish the metal, which of course did a whole other irreparable number on the bronze. There are patches of melted statue staining the stone pedestal now, runoff from the horse and king’s suppurating acid wounds.

The litany of incompetence doesn’t end there. The site was dirty, with trash and unused iron bars from the scaffolding scattered around. The iron stained the marble base and wooden planks trapped moisture in the area to compound corrosion problems. The scaffolding itself was apparently erected by drunken toddlers who had the brilliant idea of stabilizing the structure by tying a few bars to three of the horse’s legs, one of which already has a large crack in it. Some scaffolding planks were supported by the rump of the horse which puts it in danger of friction damage and further corrosion. It’s amazing the whole crew didn’t wind up in a pile of broken arms and legs.

INAH’s report strongly urges immediate intervention to stabilize the statue and restore it where possible. All conservation plans will be submitted to INAH for prior approval, needless to say, and you can bet they’ll be extra vigilant.

EDIT: I originally wrongly attributed the restoration order to the Historic Center Rescue Trust, a private organization founded by multi-billionaire Carlos Slim that has dedicated $150 dollars and much hard work to the revitalization of Mexico City’s historic center. This was my own erroneous reading of the original Spanish. In fact the restoration order came from city officials. I’ve removed the paragraph where I discussed the Trust and have redirected all references to the real culprit.

I apologize for the mistake. Many thanks to the anonymous commenter who corrected me. :thanks:

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US returns silver griffin rhyton to Iran

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:

It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.

The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.

This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.

“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.

He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.

Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.

The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.

Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.

Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.

We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.

In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.

The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.

Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.

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Aragon wants 13th c. frescoes back from Catalonia

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

The autonomous government of Aragon has formally requested the return of 13th century frescoes removed from the monastery of Santa María de Sigena during the Spanish Civil War and now installed in the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña in Barcelona. The also-autonomous government of Catalonia has not been receptive. Ferran Mascarell, Catalan Minister for Culture, said on Thursday that the government will do everything in its power to keep the frescoes where they are on the ground that if Catalans hadn’t conserved the frescoes, they would not exist today.

This is not a solid legal argument, as the Catalan government has good reason to know since it too has campaigned vigorously for the return of historically significant items from places where they were conserved. Most recently the Salamanca Papers, a vast number of documents, books, magazines, newspapers and more that Franco pillaged from universities, trade unions, political parties, private homes, publishers etc. in 1939, have begun to be repatriated after a decades-long struggle in the legislature and courts.

Aragon has wanted the frescoes back for a long time, but the government wasn’t the official owner of the monastery and thus had no legal rights to claim the frescoes. The Order of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem has owned the historic building for eight centuries, although their nuns left in 1835 after anti-clerical legislation promulgated by Queen Isabel II’s prime minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal privatized monastic properties thus stripping the convent of its revenue. Some nuns filtered back over the years and since 1985, the Order of St. John has allowed the sisters of Bethlehem and the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno to carry on the tradition of monastic prayer at Santa María de Sigena.

The Order of St. John couldn’t just hand over the monastery without getting permission from the Vatican. Finally earlier this year the Vatican granted the Order permission to cede the rights to Aragon, so now the Aragonese government is the proud owner of a 13th century monastery in the Spanish Pyrenees. That gives them the right to take Catalonia to court should they refuse to hand over the frescoes. Since Catalonia only possesses the works because they were sent there in 1936 for conservation, not because their ownership was officially transferred, any legal battle is likely to favor the repatriation. The frescoes were removed by order of government during the Civil War, and are therefore spoils of war just like the Salamanca Papers. The monastery was declared a national monument in 1923, which also puts the frescoes’ removal in contravention of pre-existing Spanish law.

Santa María de Sigena was built between 1183 and 1208 by order of Queen Sancha of Castile. Intended to house nuns from the cream of Spanish aristocracy, the monastery was built in rich Romanesque style and was elaborately decorated. No expense was spared. The frescoes on the arches and vaults of the chapter house — plant and animal motifs accompanying scenes from the Old and New Testament and 70-80 portraits of the ancestors of Jesus starting with Abraham — were painted by the best English artists using precious materials like gold and lapis lazuli. This approach was employed nowhere else in Spain at this time. Historians believe the frescoes were painted by English artists who also worked on the Guardian Angels Chapel in Winchester Cathedral, the chapel of St. Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral and on mosaics in Norman-ruled Sicily in the mid-12th century. Queen Sancha was buried in the convent church after her death, as were her daughters Dolça and Leonor and her son King Pedro II of Aragon.

Its royal burials and architectural and artistic beauties couldn’t save it from a hideous fate during the Civil War. In fact, they probably condemned it. Santa María de Sigena was burned in 1936 by Republicans forces who were no fans of the monarchy or the Church. The royal tombs were desecrated Vultures followed to pick at the carcass and looters helped themselves to everything they could take, including the art on the walls, the wooden paneling, the devotional objects, the furniture. The chapter house frescoes were horribly damaged by the fire, some destroyed completely, some missing large pieces, all drained of their once-brilliant color.

To save what was left, in 1960 the paintings were removed and sent to the National Museum in Barcelona. There they were conserved, ultimately finding permanent placement affixed to arches and vaults designed to replicate the convent chapter house’s structure. The museum has an impressive collection of Romanesque frescoes removed from the walls of other churches and monasteries. You can take a tour of the museum’s Romanesque rooms on Google Art Project. (That link isn’t taking me directly to the proper location, for some reason. If you find yourself on the first floor, click the dropdown and choose the ground floor, then click on the light grey rectangle above and just to the right of the large oval room in the middle.) Compare what’s left with the black and white pictures taken right before the fire by photographer Ricardo del Arco.

Meanwhile, back in Aragon, the monastery got some long overdue attention. In 1974 the cloister was rebuilt. Between 1988 and 2009, the government of Aragon undertook an extensive program of restoration costing 3,350,447.71 euros ($4,425,271.34). Now that the structure is stable, Aragon wants to return the frescoes to their original location in the chapter house.

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Portsmouth slaves emancipated after 234 years

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Fourteen of the 20 slaves who in 1779 signed a petition asking the New Hampshire General Assembly to grant them their freedom were posthumously emancipated on Friday, June 7th, when Governor Maggie Hassan signed a bill declaring them free. The bill was submitted earlier this year by state Senator Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth. Both the House and Senate passed it unanimously.

Written in the language of natural rights and freedom that was widespread in the press, broadsides and speeches of Revolutionary America, the petition (pdf text here) protested that the undersigned had been brutally torn from their native land while still but children and forced into servitude in a land where “knowledge, christianity and freedom, are their boast.”

Therefore, your humble slaves most devoutly pray, for the sake of insured liberty, for the sake of justice, humanity, and the rights of mankind; for the honor of religion, and by all that is dear, that your honors would graciously interpose in our behalf, and enact such laws and regulations as in your wisdom . . . we may regain our liberty and be rank’d in the class of free agents, and that the name of SLAVE may no more be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom; and your humble slaves as in duty bound will ever pray.

When the petition was first submitted to the General Assembly in April 1780, the legislators scheduled a hearing and ordered the text be published in the New Hampshire Gazette so “that any person or persons may then appear and shew (sic) cause why the prayer thereof may not be granted.” By the time it was published on July 15th, 1780, the General Assembly had postponed the hearing declaring “the House is not ripe for a determination in this matter: Therefore ordered that the further consideration and determination be postponed till a more convenient opportunity.”

A more convenient opportunity never arose. Six of the petitioners, including Prince Whipple, slave of William Whipple, a New Hampshire delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, gained their freedom before their death. The other fourteen, including Nero Brewster, slave of Col. William Brewster and King of the Negro Court, a shadow justice system in which the slaves of the most prestigious owners ruled on petty crimes committed by slaves, were still property when they died.

The petition sank into obscurity until it was rediscovered in the state archives 30 years ago. It was still pretty obscure until an archaeological find revealed an important piece of New Hampshire’s African-American history. Ten years ago, the remains of 13 people of African descent were discovered during construction work in downtown Portsmouth. This was mentioned in documents as the “Negro Burial Ground” as early as 1705 when it would have been on the outskirts of the city. It’s the only African cemetery from this period known in all of New England. The burial ground was overtaken by the growth of Portsmouth starting in the late 18th century and soon it too was forgotten.

The discovery of the African Burying Ground revived interest in the petition and in the history of slavery and African-American society in Colonial and early Federal New Hampshire. The city appointed the African Burying Ground Committee to work on a fitting memorial on the site of the burial ground. It’s a challenging prospect because there are houses and people live there and because there are still human remains, likely buried at very shallow depths, so construction options are limited. In 2009, the committee submitted a design for the African Burying Ground Memorial Park, a 6,500-­square-foot public space that will include landscaping, sculptures, historical information plaques, seating walls, a piazza and inscriptions of quotes from the 1779 freedom petition to create a quiet, beautiful contemplative space that honors the people who slumber eternally beneath the ground.

The estimated construction cost for the memorial park is $1.2 million. The committee is raising money (donation form here) and hope to break ground on the park this fall. To help raise interest, historians and committee members also lobbied the Portsmouth representative to submit the bill emancipating the petitioners. As of Friday, Nero Brewster, Samuel Wentworth, Cato Warner, Seneca Hall, Pharoah Rogers, Cato Newmarch, Winsor Moffatt, Garrett Colton, Peter Frost, Quam Sherburne, Will Clarkson, Zebulon Gardner, Cipio Hubbard and Kittindge Tuckerman are free. They just had to die and wait 200 years.

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Documents stolen by collector returned to museums

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Some of the thousands of historical documents stolen by collector, historian and presidential inauguration expert Barry Landau and his accomplice Jason Savedoff are making their way home to the museums, libraries and historical societies from which they were pilfered. After Landau and Savedoff were caught in the act by a staffer at the Maryland Historical Society on July 9th, 2011, the FBI found 10,194 stolen documents and ephemera in Landau’s New York City apartment.

By the time the thieves pled guilty and went to prison in February of 2012, researchers from the National Archives and Records Administration had traced 4,000 of the artifacts to 24 institutions nationwide burgled by Landau and Savedoff. Since then, the rest of the documents have been identified, but because they were evidence in a trial, the documents couldn’t be returned right away even after they were matched with their home institutions.

The return process has begun in earnest now. The Maryland Historical Society received 21 of the 60 pieces stolen on Monday, May 13th.

Among the items recently returned to the Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street were a 1920 Democratic National Convention ticket stub and admission passes to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Each document was encased by clear Mylar, carefully placed inside the envelopes and categorized by four-digit penciled numbers by investigators.

In a folder marked number 2977 from Box 22 and dated 8/12/11 was a small, index card-size ticket that read “Admit the bearer May 26th 1868,” to the gallery for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. But on the back was a new mark, Savedoff’s small, penciled mark “W2,” which stood for “Weasel 2.” Landau referred to himself as “Weasel 1,” according to court documents.

Another folder held a narrow, white piece of paper with elegant cursive detailing Lincoln’s funeral procession in Vermont.

The oldest document stolen from the library by Landau and Savedoff was an invitation for the “Baltimore Assembly” dance, held on Nov. 5, 1793.

You can see video of the “W2″ Savedoff penciled on the back of the Johnson impeachment ticket in this news story. Weasel 1 and 2 also wrote “shoot” on the back of documents they intended to steal. The Maryland Historical Society has no intention of removing the thieves’ annotations. There are no conservation issues that would require the removal of a few pencil marks, and now they’ve become a part of the history of the documents. In the case of the MHS, where a staffer unimpressed by their gifts of cupcakes and smarmy bonhomie caught the Weasels in the act and finally stopped their reign of thievery, those pencil markings are a badge of honor.

Overall, authorities say about 20% of the stolen documents have been returned to their legitimate owners with the rest slated to be returned within the next few months. The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has received almost all of the several hundred documents and memorabilia stolen by Landau and Savedoff over four visits. It’s hard to be certain, however, because the ephemera collections are not inventoried in as much detail as the more important document archives. Their unique, historically significant pieces like a letter from George Washington to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and a letter for Marie Antoinette were easier to trace and return than the tickets and programs and invitations.

It took a lot of research to identify the memorabilia. Some of the targeted museums were able to provide records and the Weasels both volunteered information as part of their plea bargains, but the National Archives and Records Administration had to dig deep to find the proper owners. Theme matching was helpful. Institutions known to have strong collections in certain areas were the likely sources for documents in that category. For instance, documents about former Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore were traced to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania which has a vast collection of Moore’s correspondence and papers.

Many of the institutions subjected to the Weasel depredations have revised their security policies in light of the thefts. Staffers at the Maryland Historical Society now check bags and notebooks for any pilfered documents before visitors are allowed to leave, and they’ve rearranged the chairs so visitors can’t hide away and steal their hearts out unseen by librarians. Even the National Archives has added layers of security, with searches of all people leaving the building and regular training for employees to introduce them to the ever-evolving ways thieves devise to steal stuff.

Landau is currently serving a seven year sentence for the thefts. Savedoff was sentenced to just one year.

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Mayan temple in Belize bulldozed for road fill

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Last week, archaeologists from the National Institute of Culture and History’s Institute of Archaeology were called to the site of main temple at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize after learning that heavy equipment was damaging the 2,300-year-old structure. They arrived to find the onetime pyramid, turned by time into an overgrown mound about 100 feet tall, had been brutally whittled away by backhoes. Dump trucks were on site to carry out the limestone bricks, each one carved by hand with stone age tools by ancient Mayans, which apparently make good rubble for road fill.

Nohmul is one of only four important pre-classic Mayan sites in northern Belize and its central temple and namesake (Noh Mul means “big hill”) is one of the tallest in the country. The entire complex covers an area of about 12 square miles in the middle of sugar cane fields. There are 81 buildings, all of them mounds today, which were home to an estimated 40,000 people between 500 and 250 B.C. The main temple, in addition to having a public ceremonial and administrative function, may have also housed the High Priest or important nobles. You can see one of several chambers the Maya built into the structure torn open at the top edge of the destruction. Archaeologists found fragments of monochrome pottery typical of the pre-classic period all over the mangled site.

All of the buildings are on private property, but they are protected by law as ancient monuments. Unfortunately, the statutory protection does not stop unscrupulous fiends from using them as gravel quarries. As Dr. Allan Moore from the Institute of Archaeology put it in a local 7News story, “Belize is 8,867 square miles of jungle. We are only around 16 personnel in the department. We can’t be in the Chiquibul and at the same time being at La Milpa.” They have to rely on tip-offs, and by the time they respond, it’s often too late.

The construction companies are well aware of the advantage this paltry ratio of enforcers to surface area confers. There are tens of thousands Mayan mounds dotting the landscape; gutting them for use as rubble has become an endemic problem. This is a deliberate choice made by the builders. Although the mounds look like hills covered in plant growth rather than the clean pyramids we associate with Maya architecture, they are very well known as Maya structures. It’s not like the construction companies innocently think they’re clawing away at a hill only to find a wealth of limestone bricking. It’s the bricks they’re targeting.

The construction company in this case was identified. Archaeologists saw the name of D-Mar Construction on the equipment, a company owned by one Denny Grijalva, a United Democratic Party candidate for representative of his district, Orange Walk Central. Nohmul is in Orange Walk North. Interesting that the party platform includes rebuilding access roads to major tourist sites. It would seem counterproductive to build those roads using the major tourist sites. Then again, following election laws appears to be a sore point for Mr. Gijalva, so what’s a little cultural patrimony destruction?

When questioned by the 7News team, Grijalva denied knowing anything about his backhoes tearing down an ancient Mayan temple in the district next to the one he is running to represent.

Grijalva … referred us to his foreman who never answered at least a dozen calls we made to him. Then Grijalva said he would be there in twenty minutes, we waited fourty and left – we had been stood up.

Interestingly, Grijalva told us that when his foreman got there, he would apologize on behalf of the company, D-Mar’s and the Deputy Prime Minister, Gaspar Vega. Vega’s name comes in because Noh Mul is in Orange Walk North, and the roadfill is reportedly being used in nearby Douglas Village. Of course, we never met the foreman, but we have learned that after we left with the Archeologists, he did arrive and removed the heavy equipment.

How giving of them to remove their means of illegal demolition once the archaeological authorities and police were on site. Police are now investigating the temple destruction. Let’s hope there are real consequences — ie, prison — for Grijalva and anyone else who was in on this monstrosity.

As for the temple itself, there is no way to restore it. There’s just too little of it left. Archaeologists expect it to lose all structural integrity and collapse when the rains come.

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Slice of ancient Thessaloniki to remain in situ

Monday, April 29th, 2013

A section of ancient Thessaloniki discovered during subway construction in 2006 and threatened with removal to accommodate the state company in charge of building the rail will remain in place where it was found. This is a big turn-around from four months ago when the ancient remains were slated to be moved far out of the way to make station construction easier.

In January, the Central Archaeological Council acceded to demands from the Attiko Metro company and decreed that the antiquities unearthed at the site of the future Venizelos subway station would be removed in their entirety to the Pavlos Melas camp in western Thessaloniki. Attiko Metro said it was not technically feasible to conserve the remains properly and build the station around them, and the General Director of Public Works supported them, as did the Deputy Minister of Education, Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports. The subway line is already four years behind schedule thanks to the excavation and the implosion of Greece’s finances; the government feared further delays might endanger the entire project.

Archaeological organizations responded to the ministerial decree with swift and public outrage. Polyxeni Veleni, the Director of the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, described it poetically: “It is our Parthenon. Would you like to see Parthenon on Mount Taygetus?” (That’s a mountain on the south Peloponnese between Sparta and Kalamata, about 100 miles southwest of Athens.) The municipal leaders of Thessaloniki agreed. The city already lost much of its ancient history to hasty development after World War II, and thus the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople has little of its illustrious past to show for it.

This discovery is a window into that history, and it’s not the kind of find that can be dug up and shipped to a museum. It’s like a core sample of the city, a large section that preserves 83 yards of the 3rd century A.D. Roman marble-paved main street built over the Greek one from 300 B.C. that passed through the center of the city, the remains of buildings, columns, foundations from the 6th through the 9th centuries A.D., a monumental Roman-era gate and pieces of large public buildings from the 7th century that are rare finds anywhere in the Byzantine world.

This was the heart of the city, the crossroads that the main public buildings, smaller retail structures and the public market clustered around for centuries. The daily life of Thessalonians is literally inscribed into the stone. The marble slabs of the road are marked by wheel ruts from years of cart travel and some of them have children’s board games etched into the surface, a kind of permanent hopscotch pitch.

The headlines are calling it Thessaloniki’s Pompeii because apparently any extensive ruin of an ancient city is a Pompeii now, but what’s great about this discovery is not that it’s frozen in time, but rather an illustration of many phases the city went through from ancient Greece, to Roman rule to Byzantine and up to the present considering that the modern Egnatia street up top follows the path of the Roman decumanus below. Then there are the artifacts:

Working ahead of the rail construction drills, archaeologists have recovered over 100,000 objects in the area, including over 50,000 coins.

Vessels, lamps, vials and jewels of various types have also been found — in keeping with the area’s trading character — in addition to 2,500 graves of Hellenistic and Roman times.

Removing 2,500 graves and monument chunks of road, gate and building foundations seems a lot less technically feasible to me than leaving them where they are. The municipal council and the local university submitted alternate plans that would keep 84% of the discoveries (all of the big stuff, basically) in place and ultimately Attiko Metro acquiesced to the new plan. The rail station will be built around the chunk of ancient Thessaloniki giving tourists a fascinating and conveniently located new attraction.

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Drumclay Crannog dig extended one last week

Saturday, March 9th, 2013

The excavation of Drumclay Crannog in County Fermanagh, Ulster, has gotten one last week-long extension. The dig has proven to be such a vast historical bonanza — more than 4000 artifacts and remains from a thousand years of habitation have been unearthed — that the original six week dig which started in June of 2012 has been repeatedly extended, in large part thanks to the huge public outcry over such a rare piece of Irish history being destroyed to build a road.

It looks like this is really the last reprieve the site will receive. Archaeologists will continue to excavate the man-made island through the Easter holidays, but after that the boom will lower.

A spokesperson for the Department for Regional Development (DRD) said: “DRD continues to work with Northern Ireland Environment Agency to resolve the archaeological excavation.

“Whilst the minister has agreed to allow the crannog excavation to continue for a further week over the Easter holidays, we do not wish to see any further extensions as it is essential that this road is open in advance of the G8 summit in June.”

The 39th G8 summit will be held at the Lough Erne Resort in County Fermanagh and according to the DRD, they really need a new road to transport all those dignitaries to their five-star hotel and golf resort which is surrounded by water making it conveniently hard for protesters to congregate. The Carntogher Community Association, which has started a Change.org petition asking Environment Minister Atwood to give archaeologists all the time they need, thinks that’s a flimsy rationale for destroying history. According to them, chances are slim the G8 ministers will even use the road to get to the resort.

People who are not in the DRD think the priority should be excavating the crannog down to the last speck of archaeological evidence. According to archaeologist Nora Bermingham, Drumclay is unlike any other discovered. Instead of the usual two to five houses commonly found on crannogs, almost 30 have been discovered on Drumclay. That makes it more of a lake settlement than a crannog as they’re usually defined. There is evidence of habitation going as far back as the 7th century through to the 17th, and the ancient royal line of the Fermanagh Maguires may have had a presence on the island.

The early work on the road damaged the site irretrievably, draining the water and possibly destroying as much as half of the crannog before that initial dig began. Even if the road were diverted to avoid paving over archaeological paradise, the crannog’s odds of survival under current conditions are slim. That’s why archaeologists need to be allowed to dig all the way down to the earliest layer so they can get as much information from the site before it’s too late.

Even from an economic perspective, it doesn’t make sense to prioritize the road over the archaeology.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone Sinn Féin MLA, Phil Flanagan, welcomed the extension.

“The significance of this find cannot be understated [sic; he means overstated] and the learnings that can be made from its excavation and the potential benefits in terms of the development of our local tourism sector are enormous,” he said.

“This site is of much greater strategic importance than the link road that is going to be built over it, a road that is of minor significance in Fermanagh. The construction of the road can wait, but once this crannog is tarred over, it cannot be recovered.”

The open days confirm that interest in this site is massive. So many people went to visit the site on the February 16th open day that 400 people had to be wait listed. The first open day in December and the most recent one on Saturday also went far over capacity. People are fascinated by this site, and that fascination will bring cash and employment to the county far beyond the G8 summit.

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