Backstage at Versailles

Versailles has been undergoing a massive renovation the past four years, renovations that are projected to continue until at least 2020.

The Hall of Mirrors was reopened last year to great fanfare, but I’ve found a more unassuming but equally fascinating testament to the restoration work that’s been done.

Architectural photographer Robert Polidori has been photographing Versailles over the past two decades using a large format camera. Here’s a sample of some of those pictures.

He’s really captured the moment of transition, hasn’t he? Not only is the subject exquisitely beautiful, but it’s such a unique view: plastic-covered canopy beds, the Sun King’s legs on a giant portrait laid horizontally, dramatic vistas of almost empty rooms.

He’s coming out with a monograph collection of the pictures. Sixty-three smackers is a little rich for my blood, but I’m sure it’s worth it.

Backyard gallows

Urban sprawl has an fascinating side-effect in Europe. Medieval and early modern execution sites which used to be on roadways outside of town are turning up in people’s back yards.

The finds are gruesomely informative. One site in Germany had a skeleton of a woman with a foot and a half long spike driven through her skull.

Apparently part of the executioner’s job was to decorate the area with dead people and body parts and whatnot to let visitors know the town was tough on crime. The lady’s head was nailed to a post as part of the “don’t fuck with us” decor.

She had it easy, though.

Of course, convicts might also have suffered by way of the notorious “wheel.” This punishment was reserved for the worst of all crimes, murder or treason. Using the wheel involved pegging the convict down on the ground with his or her extremities spread wide. Then the executioner would repeatedly drop an iron-mounted wheel onto the victim.

A skeleton from Friedlandburg near Göttingen demonstrates what kind of mess this brutal procedure produced. The ribs are shattered, lower legs and forearms broken, the skull’s left temple shattered.

Then the body was left to rot. The longest period of time recorded for a corpse to have been exposed on a wheel is 3 years.

Five even dirtier presidential elections

Cracked magazine has a great little article covering five historical instances of negative campaigning, all of them surprisingly similar to aspersions cast in the current political climate.

President Adams’ team sent out pamphlets saying if Jefferson was elected he would destroy Christianity, and that, “prostitutes…will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the Most High.”

When the threat of an all-hooker church wasn’t effective enough to destroy Jefferson’s career, Adams’ Federalists stepped up their game, explaining that Jefferson’s America would involve the “teaching of murder robbery, rape, adultery and incest”. Thomas Jefferson wants “murder robbery” taught in our elementary schools, people!

And that’s just the first one. It gets better. Or worse.

As always, history soothes my jangled nerves. Knowing that we aren’t particularly exceptional is a relief, frankly.

Shire horse, archaeologist

A lovely big shire horse by the name of Major is doing the heavy work of preserving an 2000-year-old Iron Age fort in Wessex, England.

Park Hill Camp is basically two ditches and an embankment, but just because there are no remaining structures doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal to be learned from the site.

Martin Papworth, the National Trust’s archaeologist for Wessex, said: “The roots of relatively young trees are digging into the important archaeology – the hill itself. The story of the generations of people who once lived within Park Hill’s ramparts survives as layers of evidence buried in the soil. We need to remove young and immature trees from the hillfort to protect this archaeological information.” […]

Using Major negates the risk of churning up the ground by using heavy vehicles to pull the logs and fallen trees.

The timber Major drags offsite is either sold or used for fences and gate posts on the estate.

Best of all: the footpaths are open so anyone can go watch Major do his thing. Archaeology groupies take note. It’s not every day you get to see preservation at work, and not ever with a horse at the helm.

US gives $13 million grant to restore Baghdad museum

As conditions in Iraq improve, more and more historical attractions are opening back up. Not the main one, though. The National Museum in Baghdad, so brutally looted 5 1/2 years ago, is still a wreck.

The US government is stepping up the plate and donating $13 million to restore the museum and support other archaeological endeavors.

U.S. forces came under widespread criticism in the immediate aftermath of the invasion for failing to prevent the looting of priceless relics from the museum, even while troops were dispatched to secure other sites such as the Oil Ministry.

“This is an investment not only in Iraq’s heritage but in the world’s heritage,” the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said. The money will be used for archaeology and museum training projects as well as the restoration of the museum.

Seems only fair. I wouldn’t mind if the number on the check were larger, but at least this nest egg should be enough to get the museum back on its feet.