Archive for the ‘Social policy’ Category

Bolivia returns 700-year-old toddler mummy to Peru

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

The mummy and shipping package, Bolivian post office, 2010Two years ago, police in El Alto, a suburb of the Bolivian seat of government La Paz, arrested a woman who had been caught during a routine search by postal workers attempting to mail the mummy of a toddler to an address in Compiègne, France. She claimed she had no idea what was inside the package, that she had simply received it in Desaguadero, a small town near the border with Peru, from a man she knew only as Don Gustavo who had instructed her to mail it to France. The mummy was confiscated by the police and then transferred to the Bolivian Ministry of Culture’s Archaeology Unit, which conducted a detailed examination of the artifact.

Investigations since then haven’t contradicted her story, but not many specifics have been uncovered. There’s little doubt the mummy was destined to be sold in France. Smugglers had replaced the missing left leg with the mummified leg of a younger child and added three textiles to the two original cotton and cameloid wool pieces in order to complete the mummy so it would sell for a higher price. The textiles identified the mummy as Peruvian rather than Bolivian (Bolivian mummies were wrapped in straw). Archaeologists believe it dates to the pre-Inca Late Intermediate period (1000 A.D.-1450 A.D.), possibly from one of the southern coastal cultures like the Chiribaya or Paracas.

Peruvian toddler mummy, approx. 700 years oldIn keeping with the Convention for the Recuperation of Cultural Goods and Others Stolen, Imported or Exported Illicitly, a bilateral agreement signed by Bolivia and Peru in 1998 and ratified in 2000, the little mummy was officially returned to Peru in a ceremony at the Peruvian Foreign Ministry in Lima on Tuesday, November 6th. This is the first time Bolivia has repatriated human remains to the country from which they were looted. Peru didn’t add skeletal and mummified human remains to its “red list” of cultural heritage goods endangered by illegal export until 2009. Until recently, most of the looted and trafficked artifacts from Peru were textiles, ceramics, jewels, precious metals and stones. There’s been a notable increase in the trafficking of human remains since the financial crisis, sadly.

The repatriation of the toddler mummy, in addition to being a function of the pre-existing bilateral agreement, was also the symbol of a new pact signed at Tuesday’s ceremony. In recognition of their shared Andean culture, Bolivia and Peru have agreed to a plan of action to combat the trafficking of cultural patrimony that will engage not just both governments but also private companies in the recovery of looted artifacts. The document was signed by Peruvian Minister of Culture Luis Peirano and Bolivian Culture Minister Pablo Groux. It is their hope that this plan will help fight trafficking between the bordering nations and serve as a signal to other countries to respect their cultural heritage.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo spoke during the ceremony, saying that the new agreement will improve procedures and techniques used to combat the trade in illegal artifacts. They won’t be relying only on police work, but principally creating a program of academic and archaeological cooperation between Bolivia and Peru that will be vital to the formulation of a common strategy of heritage protection. Since, like the traffic in drugs and weapons, cultural property trafficking is large-scale organized crime that has elaborate networks in many countries at once, in order for one country to combat it, it must work closely together with other countries. These agreements can pave the way to allow for the repatriation of cultural artifacts with a minimum of complex, time-consuming and expensive bureaucracy.

The traffic in Peruvian artifacts is endemic throughout Latin America.

An archaeologist at Argentina’s National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought, Julio Avalos, said he and his colleagues are frequently called by police to assess whether relics encountered at airports and Buenos Aires’ seaport — or for sale on the Internet — are protected patrimony.

“Most of it is Peruvian because that’s what there is mostly,” Avalos said.

Just last year three skulls and a mummy from the pre-Incan Paracas culture (7th c. B.C.-3rd c. A.D.) of coastal Peru were intercepted by customs agents in Argentina. They had been sent in the mail from (you guessed it) Bolivia to an Argentine citizen in Buenos Aires and were spotted when the package, labeled as containing replica Peruvian ceramics, was X-rayed in the post office. The recipient was detained on smuggling charges, but officials believe the ultimate destination for the trafficked human remains was yet again the European antiquities market.

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Modern soldier finds remains of ancient one

Monday, August 6th, 2012

Rifleman Rowan Kendrick with Anglo-Saxon warriorRifleman Rowan Kendrick of the 5th Battalion, The Rifles (a British Army infantry regiment) has unearthed the remains of an Anglo-Saxon warrior buried about 1500 years ago on Salisbury Plain. Kendrick is a volunteer with Operation Nightingale, a project that places injured veterans on archaeological sites as a form of physical and social therapy and to help them develop new occupational skills. He and a team of more than 100 Riflemen injured in Afghanistan have been excavating the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Barrow Clump under the direction of Ministry of Defence archaeologist Richard Osgood, supervised by professional archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and together with students from the University of Leicester.

The Barrow Clump site is one of approximately 20 barrows in an earthwork near Stonehenge that was in use from the Neolithic period until the Norman invasion. The Anglo-Saxons made a cemetery of a Bronze Age burial ground on the spot. Multiple graves have been discovered since the first ones were unearthed in the late 19th century by archaeologist and former Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army William Hawley (who would go on to make major discoveries at Stonehenge after it was gifted to the state in 1919).

Barrow Clump badger damage, 2003The barrows are under attack. From badgers. They dig extensive tunnel systems, plowing through Anglo-Saxon graves, jumbling the archaeological layers and destroying bones and artifacts. In 2003, English Heritage did a survey and excavation of the site to assess the badger damage and find ways to prevent it going forward. By 2011, broken pieces of pottery and human remains appearing on the surface made it clear that those preventative measures were not working. English Heritage added the barrow to its Heritage at Risk list and advised that the Anglo-Saxon cemetery should be fully excavated, the cemetery’s perimeters determined, and its artifacts and human remains removed since they can no longer be preserved in situ. No badgers will be harmed in the making of this history.

This summer Wessex Archaeology, funded by the British military, began a three-year project to excavate Barrow Clump. It’s a pilot for future Operation Nightingale endeavors and so far it’s going swimmingly. The first digging season the team has focused on excavating later Anglo-Saxon burials. Rifleman Kendrick’s discovery of an early Anglo-Saxon burial was an unexpected delight. Also unexpected was the remarkably well-preserved wood tankard bound with bronze strips. The wood is still intact. A spear head was found above the tankard marking the deceased as a warrior. Unfortunately, he’s missing his right forearm. Judging from the large burrow opening where his arm once was, it was a victim of badgerial interference.

Detail of tankard and spear headAll told, the Operation Nightingale team has discovered 27 Anglo-Saxon burials this season, from warriors to women to children, complete with varied grave goods like jewelry, a shield boss and that bronze-bound wooden tankard. They expected to find around 15 graves since the burial ground is fairly small, so from an archaeological standpoint the project has been a raging success.

The project’s rehabilitative goals have also been achieved with gusto. The riflemen have learned to parlay some of their military skills (surveying, mapping, examining ground features for anomalies that could be IEDs or Anglo-Saxon graves, hard manual labor, living in tents in crappy weather) into a highly rewarding civilian pursuit. Eight of the soldiers are now studying archaeology at the University of Leicester. For now only the five regular battalions of the Rifles, Britain’s largest infantry regiment, have participated in Operation Nightingale. The hope is that the program will eventually expand to cover the entire Army.

Once conserved and cleaned, the artifacts will go on display at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum. For more about the discoveries at Barrow Clump and Operation Nightingale, follow the blog on the Wessex Archaeology website.

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48 tons of silver recovered from WWII shipwreck

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Silver bars found on the Gairsoppa wreckControversial US treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration announced Wednesday that it has recovered 48 tons of silver bullion from the wreck of the British cargo steamship SS Gairsoppa. The ship was carrying 2,600 tons of pig iron, 1,765 tons of tea, and 220 tons of silver ingots when it was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo on February 17, 1941. Although it was a merchant ship not a military one, it was transporting some government-owned bullion along with its private cargo, and the latter was insured by the British government under the War Risk Insurance program. The owners received a payout of £325,000 ($510,000) in 1941, which then gave the state rights to the cargo should it ever be recovered.

At the time, nobody knew exactly where the ship went down. Only one of the 85 crewmen survived the disaster, and data was thin. The UK attempted to salvage the cargo once before in 1989, but the contracted company was unable to locate the wreck. In 2010, the UK Department for Transport opened the Gairsoppa salvage contract to a competitive tender process. Odyssey won. Under the terms of the agreement, Odyssey gets to keep 80% of the net value of all the salvaged silver after expenses. That means their expenses are paid from the government’s 20% cut. It’s an incredibly sweet deal, but the UK is up for it because they stand to make tens of millions of pounds on their outlay of £325,000 71 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, that payout would be worth approximately £14,290,250 ($22 million) in today’s money, so the odds are good that they’ll come out well in the black by both relative and absolute standards.

Last summer, Odyssey found the wreck three miles deep in the North Atlantic about 300 miles west of Ireland. Its depth and the treacherous conditions of the ocean posed a significant challenge to recovery efforts. They spent the autumn and winter months assembling specialized equipment for the salvage — they don’t specify what those tools are, probably because they don’t want to make it easy for anyone else to follow in their footsteps — then began recovery operations on May 31st of this year.

So far, they have recovered 1,203 silver bars; that’s approximately 1.4 million troy ounces and about 43% of the insured bars. Adding in the government-owned bullion, the quantity recovered thus far is about 20% of the total silver cargo. The haul has been moved to a secure facility in the UK and JBR Recovery Limited has been contracted to process and monetize the shipwrecked bullion.

Odyssey is also working a second salvage contract for the British government. While looking for the Gairsoppa last year, they found the World War I steamship SS Mantola which was sunk by another German U-boat torpedo on February 8th, 1917. It too was carrying silver bars, although considerable fewer of them (600,000 total ounces of silver versus Gairsoppa‘s 7,000,000). The Department for Transport awarded Odyssey the contract to recover the Mantola’s loot as well for the same 80% deal. When they’re done with the Gairsoppa salvage, Odyssey will move on to the Mantola which is about 100 miles away and 1.5 miles deep.

This is footage of the Mantola wreck recorded by Odyssey’s remotely operated underwater vehicles last summer:

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Karachi police bust truckful of Buddhist antiquities

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Acting on a tip from intelligence agencies, early on Friday Karachi police intercepted a truck carrying a 20-foot container full of ancient Buddhist artifacts hidden under brooms, slippers, furniture and bales of straw. There were 300 artifacts in the back of that truck, include massive statues that required specialized heavy machinery to unload.

Most of the artifacts date to around the third century and come from the kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient Vedic and later Buddhist civilization in the Peshawar valley that stretched from northern Pakistan to the Kabul River in eastern Afghanistan. The statues mostly depict enlightened beings, like an ornamented, mustachioed Bodhisattva that weighs 2,200 pounds and a Jataka (a birth story of the Buddha) tablet that shows Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddhartha while spirits celebrate around her. 2,200 pound Bodhisattva (left), Hariti (right)Another important statue depicts the goddess Hariti with two of her children, who in Gandharan tradition was once a baby-devouring demon but who was taught a stern lesson when the Buddha kidnapped one of her hundreds of children. She converted to Buddhism and become a loving mother goddess.

Truck driver Zafar Ali and another man traveling with him were arrested. Ali claimed they were headed to Rawalpindi, but a delivery order found after a search of his belongings said the cargo was to be transported to Sialkot City. He fingered his boss, Asif Butt, who told the authorities that the truck was loaded in the middle of the night with innocuous broom sticks and shoes from three legitimate businesses, but then a fourth person asked them to load five big and eight small boxes and bring them to Sialkot. Butt of course denies knowing what was in those boxes, one of which, let’s not forget, weighed more than 2,000 pounds, but he’s more than willing to snitch out the man who gave them the boxes.

Jataka sculpturePolice suspected most of the artifacts were stolen from museums, primarily the Swat Museum which is known for its large collection of Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era, but after examining the antiquities Qasim Ali Qasim, the director of the Sindh province archaeology and museums department, told the police they were more likely to have been looted from archaeological sites in Swat, which is currently mired in military anti-Islamist operations. Looters have been taking full advantage of the distracted authorities to help themselves to the rich history of Buddhist and Hindu art in the area. Qasim thinks the objects were looted individually and moved to Karachi in small shipments. Once they had a large group, they planned to truck them out of Karachi and out of Pakistan with deep-pocketed European antiquities markets as the final destination.

Stolen Gandhara artifacts recovered on SaturdayThe information retrieved from the suspects in yesterday’s bust has produced immediate results. A raid on a Karachi warehouse on Saturday uncovered two more boxes of Gandhara kingdom artifacts, including statues of the Buddha, bronze artifacts, pottery and decorative plaques. They’re investigating whether this is part of a larger smuggling ring (it is).

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Restore historic Moscow building and rent’s a ruble

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Derelict Sysoev House on Pechatnikov Lane, 1896, plasterwork by original owner P.S. Sysoev, one of the houses on the short list for the lease restoration programThe city of Moscow has launched an innovative program that gets private developers to pay to restore historic properties in “inadequate condition.” It’s really rather ingenious. The city’s Heritage Commission picks properties that are in dire need of repair and offers 49-year leases for a yearly rent determined by auction. The developers pay the market-price rent — they pay the first year of rent up front — while they restore the building to specifications determined by the Heritage Commission. Once the restoration is done and approved, the yearly rent drops to one ruble per square meter for the rest of the 49 year lease.

Last Wednesday the first auction was held, and it was a notable success. Twenty bidders competed in rent auctions for three historical buildings, the mansion of the merchant Morozov family (late 18th-early 19th century), the mansion of merchant Nikolai Baulin (circa 18th century), both on Nikoloyamskaya Street, and architect Konstantin Busse’s 18th-19th century mansion on Podsosensky Pereulok. The final bids for yearly rents ranged from $470,000 to $682,000.

Based on this first auction, which included three historical buildings in various stages of disrepair, the program looks promising. The first buildings included two city-owned mansions and an apartment building [the Baulin mansion], ranging in size from 705 square meters to 993 square meters. The apartment building is half-destroyed, and of the three was the only one on the city’s list of landmarked buildings whose condition is classified as “dangerous.” [...]

Moscow’s Heritage Commission has indicated that there are a total of 244 historical buildings in a precarious state that it would like to have renovated through this program, and has said they have 50 applications from potential investors.

All restorations must be finished within five years of signing the contract, or the lessors will have to pay a fine equal to six months of market rent. The restoration has to be approved by the Heritage Commission. If it’s substandard or shoddy work, it will not be accepted. Presumably that means the rent reduction won’t take place, but I don’t know what other penalties will be applied, if they’ll have to redo the restoration or if the contract will be considered broken and the property offered to someone else.

Obviously oversight is key to the success of this plan. Rejecting the final restoration at the end of five years will not prevent disasters. The city has to keep an eye on the construction to ensure all historical preservation laws are being obeyed and to do ongoing quality assurance. The Department of Cultural Heritage insists that all landmark laws will be enforced, which means that there can be no altering the interior structure to make, say, a warren of hotel rooms, in any officially designated landmark buildings. Not all historic properties have landmark status, however, so in some cases the rules will allow extensive alteration inside as long as the facade and structure are preserved.

For the three buildings auctioned Wednesday, the restoration standard requires that they be returned to their 19th century condition. All work must be done by qualified restoration experts according to strict guidelines developed by the Department of Cultural Heritage for each project.

If there is proper oversight, this could turn out to be an enormous boon for Moscow’s historic architecture and economy and a damn sweet deal for the renters to boot. Developer MR Group estimates that the cost to restore the three buildings that were auctioned Wednesday could range anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 per square meter, depending on the structures’ conditions. For the 993-square-meter Podsosensky Pereulok mansion, that’s a total restoration price tag of $2.5 million to $10 million.

That would make the restorations cost about four to 15 years of market rent, so assuming they do it right the first time and within the five year limit, investors will be getting at worst 19 years of rent on restored 19th century historic properties in downtown Moscow practically for free.

The city gets someone else to pay to save derelict structures while still owning the properties, plus lots of construction jobs on an ongoing basis. Buildings that would otherwise be vacant/home to squatters will be put to use while Moscow’s historic center preserves and enhances its character instead of just knocking it down. Should it manage to avoid being mired in corruption and look-the-other-wayism, this program might just be crazy enough to work.

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Mexico inches closer to loan of Moctezuma’s headdress

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Moctezuma’s headdress is a large and elaborate 16th century crown which according to legend once belonged to Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, made from the iridescent green tail feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal. Moctezuma either gave it to Hernán Cortés as a gift upon his arrival at Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and modern day Mexico City, or it was pillaged by Cortés’ forces after the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

There is no record of where it was taken, nor is there any evidence that it belonged to Moctezuma. We don’t even know for sure that it’s a headdress. It doesn’t match any of the headdresses depicted in contemporary accounts. In the 19th century the assumption was that it was a mantle, and recent scholarship suggests they might have been right about it being a mantle, but that it was worn by a priest to ritually transform him into the incarnation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, rather than by the king.

What we do know is that by 1575 it was in the extensive private collection of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck. Ferdinand was the nephew of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was also King of Spain during the Conquista. He could easily have gotten his hands on the headdress via his family connections.

It remained in the castle until the early 19th century when Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology was entrusted with most of the Castle Ambras collection. The headdress was the subject of much anthropological fascination from then on, including from Zelia Nuttall, the American archaeologist, anthropologist and expert in pre-Columbian Mexico who in 1890 first identified it as an Aztec “quetzalapanecayotl” or a featherwork crown.

Resplendant QuetzalThe piece is 46 inches high at the peak and 69 inches wide. In addition to the 400 dramatic quetzal tail feathers that adorn the outer layer, there are rows of blue Lovely Cotinga feathers, pink flamingo feathers, smaller quetzal feathers and white and red feathers from the squirrel cuckoo. The inner rings are studded with gold and gemstones. The Aztecs venerated the Resplendent Quetzal as the god of the air, a symbol of rebirth and of freedom.

Given its beauty, historical significance and powerful symbolism, it’s no surprise that the headdress has been the subject of a long-standing dispute between Mexico and Austria. Replica of Moctezuma's headdress at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico CityThere are no Aztec headdresses left in Mexico because the Spanish took them all — the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City only has a replica of Moctezuma’s headdress on display — so Mexico has been trying for decades to get this one back, even going so far as to petition the United Nations for its return, but to no avail.

In 2008, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) entered into talks with the Austrian Government and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the parent institution of the Museum of Ethnology. They agreed first to do an extensive scientific analysis on the headdress to assess its condition and do any conservation necessary that will allow the piece to travel. In 2011, a tentative deal was struck: Mexico would officially recognize Austria’s uncontested ownership of the headdress, Austria would loan Mexico the headdress and in return Mexico would loan Austria the golden stagecoach of Maximilian I of Mexico, emperor of the Second Mexican Empire (1863-1867) and brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

There was still one major stumbling block, however. According to Mexican law, all pre-Columbian artifacts belong to the nation. Once they cross the border, no matter who else might lay claim to them, they become property of the state and cannot leave the country. No matter the terms of the loan agreement, Austria had no intention of letting the headdress into Mexico until the government’s assurances had the force of law.

A new bilateral cultural exchange agreement between Austria and Mexico that would resolve the issue has just been approved by the Mexican Senate and Austria’s cabinet. The Senate’s amendments to the cultural property law allow for long-term loans of artifacts while acknowledging the lender’s ownership rights. Austria’s legislature has to approve the deal, which is expected to happen within the next few months, and both parties need to sort out how to transport the fragile headdress without damaging it, but it looks like the biggest obstacle to the return of this glorious symbol of Mexican heritage might just have been overcome.

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1940 Census to be released online for the first time

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

1940 Census advertisement posterThe United States has taken a census of the population every 10 years without fail since 1790. Census figures determine how many seats in the House of Representatives are allocated to each state. The first census takers were federal marshals who went door to door recording the name of the head of the household and the number of people in each household. Native Americans were not counted. Only three out of five slaves were counted.

(This is the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which stipulated that just three out of five slaves in every state would be counted for the purposes of determining population and thus the number of seats in the House. Slaveholding states wanted all their slaves to count so they could dominate the legislature; non-slaveholding states wanted no slaves counted since they didn’t have the vote, citizenship or even the right not to be sold like so much livestock, and would give the slave states disproportionate power in the House. James Madison suggested the three-fifths figure which was eventually adopted by the Constitutional Convention.)

Tabulating machines turning census forms into punchcard dataThroughout the whole of the 19th century and half of the 20th, political districts were responsible for sending out census takers, called enumerators, armed with forms and pencils to canvass door to door. The enumerators would return completed forms to the precinct office where they’d be entered in ink in bound ledger books. This is why historical census records have all kinds of transcription errors and misspellings, not to mention many omissions particularly in rural areas where enumerators would have to travel for miles to find remote farms, many of whose inhabitants made themselves intentionally unreachable. Starting with the 1950 census, enumerators were replaced with forms mailed out to every address on file with the United States Post Office.

By law, all individual census records are sealed for 72 years. Summaries and statistical reports are released as soon as the data is tabulated, but the information about John Smith at 100 Maple Lane is kept under wraps for three score and 12. In the past, the population schedules were only made available on microfilm. With the rise of the Internet and the explosion of online genealogical research, many of those historical census records have been digitized, but researchers had to drag their cookies to a National Archives and Records Administration branch office and go through all the microfilm by hand.

The 1940 Census, its 72 years come round at last, slouches towards the Internet to be born. Now for the first time, census records will be released online. Bookmark this website: 1940 Census Archives, and return to it on April 2nd at 9:00 AM to see the 1940 Census in all its glory.

FDR fills out his census formIt really is glorious. This is the only census taken during Franklin Roosevelt’s many presidential administrations and the only one to tabulate the statistical realities of the Great Depression. It included new questions about employment, income, and home ownership vs. renting (see a PDF of a blank 1940 form here), which at the time caused some distrust of the census requiring a major media campaign to reassure Americans their answers would be kept in utmost confidence and framing the census as patriotic duty. Cesar Romero gets enumeratedCesar Romero, the future Joker to Adam West’s Batman, pitched the census in a public service film. Pictures of FDR filling in the census form were publicized all over the country.

One not-so-small caveat: the data has not been name indexed yet. The census records are indexed by enumeration district — the geographic area a single census taker could cover in two weeks in an urban center, or in one month in a rural location. Commercial ancestry websites Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have announced that they’ll create a name index (plus indexes of all the other fields too), but it’ll be some time before they’re done. (Ancestry.com is a pay service, but they’ll allow free access to their index and proprietary search tools through the end of 2013. FamilySearch.org is run by the Mormon church. Access is free and you can even help index the census.) If you want to locate a person using the government website, you’ll have to know where the person lived in order to track down his or her census information.

Enumerator records family living in a railcar for 1940 CensusIf you’d like to be ready to hit the records running, you can figure out which enumeration district the person you’re researching lived in. Go to the National Archives’ online public access search page and type “1940 enumeration district descriptions for [city or county]” (without the quotation marks). You’ll get any written descriptions of 1940 Census enumeration districts that include the place you searched for, plus any maps that include it. Track down the address and you’ll see a two part number separated by a hyphen labeling the area. That’s the enumeration district number.

I searched for the tiny town my father was born in just three years before the census and I got three written documents and two maps. I now have both of their enumeration district numbers good to go so I can look up my adorable toddling parents on April 2nd. :boogie:

If you’re daunted by the prospect, check your local public library for resources. This Michigan public library, for instance, is offering a workshop on locating your family members on the census two days after the release.

For a three minute period overview of the census, see this film created as part of the training for enumerators. Notice the strong emphasis on the confidentiality of the data and on how a full and honest response is the duty of all patriotic citizens.

The National Archives YouTube channel has three other videos from this film that go into further detail on the census-taking process. They’re a tad on the dry side, but fascinating for genealogists, statisticians, social historians, archivists and other assorted nerdly species.

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$500 million “Black Swan” treasure flies to Spain

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Gold coins from "Black Swan" treasureWhen earlier this month a federal circuit judge ordered Odyssey Marine Exploration to return the vast treasure recovered from the shipwreck code-named “Black Swan” to Spain, I assumed they’d appeal the ruling to a higher court. That’s what they’ve done every other time a judgement went against them in the five years since they first retrieved the gold and silver coins from the Atlantic seabed in May of 2007. I was wrong.

Odyssey did make one last claim in court, but it was already a form of capitulation: they asked that the Spanish government reimburse them $412,814 for storage and preservation costs. On February 18th, US District Court Judge Mark Pizzo denied the claim and ordered the company to grant Spain access to the treasure this week so they could prepare it for transport. Odyssey announced that it would no longer contest Spain’s ownership of the treasure.

Peru isn’t giving up so easily.

On Thursday, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give that nation more time to make arguments in federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner.

Peru says the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. The appeal was directed to Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not indicate when he would respond.

Probably because he’s not gonna. Anyway it’s too late now.

"Black Swan" treasure loaded on Spanish military cargo planeOn Thursday evening, two Spanish military Hercules transport planes were loaded with 494,000 silver coins, 100,000 gold coins and assorted artifacts Odyssey Marine delivered to MacDill Air Force Base from their secured storage facility in Sarasota. The treasure of the “Black Swan,” aka the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804, is now winging its way to Spain.

Spanish officials counted and weighed the treasure before loading it on the planes. Odyssey actually lowballed the discovery when they announced they had found 17 tons of gold and silver. The total weight was 49,000 pounds, or 24.5 tons. Despite Spain’s floundering economy, massive debt and 23% unemployment, the coins will not be sold or, heaven forfend, melted down. As cultural patrimony, the treasure must by law be preserved intact. The current plan is to divide the coins and display them at a number of museums in Spain.

There’s footage of the cargo being loaded onto the planes and Spanish Ambassador Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo’s tarmac statement in this local news story:

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Collector pleads guilty to stealing thousands of historical documents

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Barry Landau leaving court after copping a plea, February 7, 2012Media relations professional, self-educated presidential historian, collector of inauguration memorabilia, pathological liar and thief Barry Landau pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to stealing thousands of historical documents from museums including (but not limited to) the Maryland Historical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Connecticut Historical Society, the University of Vermont, the New York Historical Society, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Jason SavedoffAccording to the plea agreement (pdf), Landau and his Canadian accomplice Jason Savedoff researched their targets online and off, compiling lists of the most valuable documents in the collections. From December 2010 until July 2011, the two of them cut a swath through museum collections, distracting staff with cupcakes then stuffing documents into hidden coat pockets and folders. They also removed any “finding aids,” like card catalogue entries, to make it hard for the museum to realize a document was missing.

Prosecutors said the value of the stolen documents easily exceeded $1 million. One of 60 documents stolen from the Maryland Historical Society was an 1861 land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln to a former member of the Maryland militia who served in the War of 1812. It’s worth $100,000, prosecutors said.

The oldest pilfered document was penned 533 years ago by Lorenzo de Medici during the Italian Renaissance. Among the most revered were three inaugural addresses delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the president’s handwritten notes and corrections. [...]

Among the items taken from the Pennsylvania archives, prosecutors said, was a 1788 handwritten proclamation by John Hancock regarding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. [...]

Federal prosecutors have described the scope of the thefts as “truly breathtaking,” with stolen documents that include an endorsement for a judge signed by George Washington, a letter written in French from Marie Antoinette, and an 1874 note from Karl Marx inquiring about the price of a book bearing his signature. [...]

Among the most valuable documents stolen was a letter written in 1780 from Benjamin Franklin to naval hero John Paul Jones about gunpowder deliveries from the French. It is worth several hundred thousand dollars, according to prosecutors.

The court documents filed Tuesday list stolen papers signed by luminaries from a broad swath of history: Susan B. Anthony, John Hancock, John Adams, Robert E. Lee, Sir Isaac Newton, Napoleon and Florence Nightingale. Another item was a letter from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allen Poe.

Back at the lair, they would remove any inventory markings or other institutional references on the document by scrubbing them off using sandpaper or other abrasives. They called this “performing surgery.” The surgeried documents were then either sold or kept in Landau’s apartment.

Landau and Savedoff were caught by a sharp-eyed part-time staffer at the Maryland Historical Society in Mount Vernon on July 9, 2011. David Angerhofer thought the pair were “too schmoozy for regular people,” so he spied on them from a balcony and saw them stuff historical documents under their own papers and called the cops. Savedoff was in the bathroom when the police arrived. They banged on the stall door until he came out. The historical society staffer saw pieces of old-looking paper floating in the toilet but wasn’t able to fish them out right away. When he returned, the toilet had been used and flushed by another visitor.

Invitation to inauguration of McKinley in 1901, stolen from Maryland Historical SocietyLandau and Savedoff were arrested and police found 70 documents hidden in a computer bag. Sixty of them belonged to the Maryland Historical Society, including that land grant signed by President Lincoln and presidential inaugural ball invitations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the FBI searched Landau’s New York City apartment, they found 10,000 historical documents and ephemera. Experts from the National Archives and Records Administration have been able to trace 4,000 of them to the libraries and museums from whence they were stolen thus far.

Authorities think Landau has been stealing documents for years (President Bill Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie was sure he stole a signed book of the President’s speeches from her home in 2009) but the plea agreement only covers the thefts from December to July. Savedoff pleaded guilty last October to Conspiracy to Commit Theft of Major Artwork and Theft of Major Artwork. Now Landau has pleaded guilty to the same charges. He will be sentenced in May of this year.

Landau with his inaugural memorabilia collectionThis guy is such a despicable skeeze I can’t even. He spent years collecting presidential inauguration memorabilia, promoting himself as this huge expert with a collection that eclipsed even that of the Smithsonian. He was treated as the main expert on inaugurations by major media outlets, actors and film producers, plus a number of Presidents, First Ladies and Congress. Read this article from 2005, but keep a flight sickness bag handy because in hindsight it’s truly nauseating.

Four years ago, when the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies needed plates for the inaugural luncheon, it turned to Landau, who had a collection of china used at Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801. Presidents come and go, but traditions remain, and Landau is the keeper of traditions, the go-to guy.

“I have a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy,” Landau said, “and she wrote: ‘They should make you the Minister of Inaugurations.’ “

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Spain awarded $500 million “Black Swan” treasure

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Odyssey Marine workers with "Black Swan" treasureIn May of 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, a privately owned marine treasure-hunting company, discovered a Spanish shipwreck somewhere on the Atlantic seabed. Odyssey refused to divulge the exact location or the name of the ship. They ultimately recovered 17 tons of silver coins, plus almost 100,000 gold coins and a number of other artifacts from the wreck, which they code-named “Black Swan.” The site must have been near Spain because Odyssey secretly landed the $500 million treasure on Gibraltar, chartered a flight and flew the loot back to its headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

Spain was displeased, to put it mildly. Odyssey claimed the find was made in international waters in full compliance with the United Nations’ Law of the Seas, but since they refused to reveal the wreck site and pleaded ignorance about the name of the ship, Spanish authorities got suspicious. They filed suit against Odyssey Marine in a federal courthouse in Tampa, demanding that the company reveal everything it knows about the wreck so Spain could claim ownership, and they got a Spanish court order to seize Odyssey ships around Gibraltar and search them for historical artifacts.

The case has been winding its way through the legal system ever since then. In 2009, a Florida judge declared that the “Black Swan” was the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by the British off the coast of Cape St. Mary, Portugal in 1804, that Odyssey had specifically set out to find the Mercedes and had succeeded, and that Spain was the rightful owner of the recovered treasure. Odyssey’s claims of ignorance did not impress.

The judge argued that the coins, all dated prior to 1804, matched the Mercedes’ haul of mainly silver coins minted in Lima – part of a haul being brought back to finance Spain’s European wars. He also said cannon found there matched those on board the Mercedes.

“The debris field’s location, coins, cannons, and artefacts persuasively match the Mercedes’s historical record,” the judge said.

“That Odyssey, which set out to discover the Mercedes, found this mix strewn about in an area a few football fields square where the vessel met its explosive ending makes the conclusion even more compelling.”

Judge Pizzo also ruled that Peru, which had filed a suit of its own in 2008 claiming the treasure because the coins were made from Peruvian gold and silver, did not have a valid claim because there was no nation of Peru in 1804.

Odyssey appealed the ruling. Now a federal circuit court judge has upheld Judge Pizzo’s decision, giving Odyssey Marine 10 days to return the loot to Spain. Odyssey will doubtless appeal to a higher court next, so this story isn’t over yet, but they’ll run out of courts soon enough.

Bronze cannon bearing royal crest of King George I from HMS Victory wreckDon’t worry about Odyssey, though. They just made a sweet deal with the British government and the Maritime Heritage Foundation to recover the wreck of the HMS Victory which an Odyssey team discovered in 2008. This is the predecessor of Admiral Nelson’s famed vessel; it went down in a storm in 1744 carrying four tons of gold.

The terms of the agreement ensure that all of Odyssey’s costs will be reimbursed and they will in addition receive a percentage of the market value of any recovered artifacts. If the Maritime Heritage Foundation chooses, they will get paid in artifacts rather than cash, but Odyssey prefers cash.

  • Odyssey will receive the equivalent of 80% of the fair value of artifacts which were primarily used in trade or commerce or were private property and bear no direct connection to the construction, navigation, defense or crew of the ship, such as coins or other cargo.
  • Odyssey will receive the equivalent of 50% of the fair value of all other objects typically associated with the construction, crewing and sailing of ships including, but not limited to, the ship’s hull, fittings, fasteners, construction elements, clothing, organic remains, foodstuffs, cooking utensils, pottery, weapons, ammunition, ground tackle and navigational equipment.
  • For any private property including coins or other cargo administered through the Receiver of Wreck, the Foundation has agreed that Odyssey shall receive 80% of the value.
  • So yeah, they’re doing okay.

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