Archive for the ‘Social policy’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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:



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).


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.





August 2022


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