Blackbeard’s anchor retrieved from wreckage

Blackbeard, 1726 engravingBlackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground near the Beaufort Inlet in the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718. Rumor was that he intentionally wrecked his ships to kill off some of his crew and keep a larger cut of the treasure after accepting a pardon.

Wreckage of a ship from that time thought to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in the Beaufort Inlet in 1996 during dredging operations that removed the layers of sand that had kept it safe and snug for hundreds of years. Some artifacts came loose during the dredging, but researchers didn’t want to pull any of them up until strictly necessary.

Finally Thursday divers pulled up a small anchor that they feared would be washed away in storms next year. It’s a grapnel, a four pronged anchor likely used for smaller ships to transport people or cargo from ship to ship or ship to shore.

As more artifacts are recovered researchers are more and more confident that the wreckage is what remains of Blackbeard’s ship.

Queen Anne's Revenge grapnel “This is the oldest shipwreck we have worked on in North Carolina.” Mark Wilde-Ramsing, QAR project manager, said. “It is associated with Blackbeard and every artifact is important for understanding what was going on at the time.”

The 160-pound anchor is one of the largest pieces recovered from the ship so far, but researchers will eventually bring up very large pieces, including cannons weighing about one ton each, Wilde-Ramsing said.

The QAR Project is a state-funded research organization that plans to raise 700,000 individual artifacts from the wreck. They already recovered quite a few small pieces earlier this year, like navigational instruments and a thimblefull of teeny gold pieces. They estimate it will take as long as 7 years to recover them all.

The grapnel was on display just on Thursday for a lucky few who had the chance. Now begins the conservation process. The cleaning will take 6 months, then it will sit in a special treated bath for 2 years. Only then will it be ready to go on permanent display in a museum, probably the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Slow Sunday

It’s the usual slow news Sunday, so I’m going to keep it short and sweet today.

First, I really, really, really want this comic about Etruscan life by 6 Italian comic book authors, but I don’t think they ship overseas. 🙁 (Google Translate English version)

Second, I’ve spent many hours today browsing this fantastic blog of iconic photographs. There are some great moments of history captured on this site, and the entries provide deeply satisfying explanations of the photographs and photographers, not just quick captions.

For an awesome overview of some of the icons covered in the blog, see “We Didn’t Start the Camera Fire” which links to any entries referred to in Billy Joel’s paean to the history of his lifetime, We Didn’t Start the Fire.

Lastly, OMG Playmobil Gladiator!!1


Scandal! Vasari archives sold to Russian firm

Giorgio Vasari self portrait, 1566-68A major scandal is brewing in Italy over the recent revelation that the heirs of the late Count Giovanni Festari sold the archive of documents and sketches by Renaissance artist and architect Giorgio Vasari to Russian firm Ross Engineering for a jaw-dropping 150 million euros ($225 million).

Vasari was a fine Mannerist artist and architect in his own right, but today he is best known as the biographer of the most famous artists of Renaissance and Middle Ages. He wrote about them in what is widely acknowledged as the first art historical biography, his Lives of Artists.

This is a foundational work of art history, and his archives contain not only his own notes and sketches, but also correspondence with five popes, Michelangelo and Cosimo de’ Medici, his patron and the ruler of Florence.

Considerable mystery surrounds the sale of Vasari’s papers, which are kept in the house the artist bought for himself in his home town and which he decorated with his own frescoes. The mayor of Arezzo [Giuseppe Fanfani] said he had only learned of the transaction in a letter from a government official which said it had taken place on 23 September – days before the death of the owner of the archive, Giovanni Festari.

The letter informed him that, under the terms of a 1994 government order, he could block the sale by matching the price supposedly offered by a Russian company. “Madness,” said the mayor. “Where am I going to find €150m? That’s equivalent to five times the annual budget of the Arezzo council.”

And he has just six months to match the price or the sale becomes official. The cost is so exorbitant that there is some speculation that it’s not the actual selling price, but a deliberate deception to ensure that it can’t possibly be matched by the town of Arezzo, or the whole region of Tuscany for that matter.

By law, the archive can’t leave Arezzo, but that is little consolation to the mayor. Laws change, after all, and he can’t imagine that the Russians would be content with owning it long distance forever.

A lawyer representing Ross Engineering says they know they can’t move the archive and they have “no problem” leaving it in Arezzo. ”Who knows?” he says. “Maybe they want to have an exhibition and open them up to the public?”

I would say that perhaps their spokesperson might know, should he bother to ask. This kind of vague response is hardly reassuring.

Italy is planning a series of celebrations of Vasari’s 500th birthday next year. If this sale goes through, that would put a major damper on the festivities.

Roman prosecutors are looking into the sale right now. According to Tuscany culture chief Diana Toccafondi, the archive was recently thoroughly renovated using state funds, and the government has expended considerable resources before to keep it out of fureign hands.

Mayor Fanfani isn’t letting this go. He has appealed to the regional parliament, the Russian ambassador, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi and Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is actually in Russia this week meeting with Vladimir Putin.

I hope against hope this issue makes it at least as high on the agenda as Russian hookers and comparing tans.

The Castration of Uranus by Saturn, fresco by Vasari

Rome subway bumps into amphiteater

Metro C excavation in Piazza Venezia, RomeAdd another ancient structure to the long list of wonders uncovered during the prepatory excavations for the third subway line in Rome. This time it’s an amphitheater, possibly one built by Hadrian in the second century A.D.

As they dug through down through layers of modern, Renaissance and Medieval remains to the level of ancient Rome, they found what looked like a grand stairway made with sheets of granite and antique yellow marble. Across the way, the remains of a matching stairway — the steps long, shallow and deep — led archaeologists to the conclusion that they were looking at the seats of a covered rectangular amphitheater, a place where plays, speeches and debates were held by the city’s poets, scholars and politicians.

Archaeologist Roberto Egidi, who directed the excavation, said research in texts by ancient sources suggests they have found the Emperor Hadrian’s “Athenaeum” — an auditorium ancient writers say he built at his own expense on his return from Palestine around A.D. 135.

The new line, Metro C, will run fully 80 feet underground. It has to because Rome is such a huge pancake stack of history that they’d never be able to get a full subway line built any higher than that. You still have to have stations and air ducts and escalators and whatnot, though, and it’s a major challenge raising periscope through two and a half thousand years of habitation.

Metro C dig viewed from on highThe amphitheater, in fact, was found in an area of Piazza Venezia that archaeologists thought (or hoped against hope, really) might be relatively “sterile” so a station could be built. Obviously that’s not on now and they’re going to have to build it a few yards away where there are just an ancient sewer system and some ancient shops.

Finds that in other cities would be hugely exciting, but in Rome, are the path of least of resistance. Ancient, medieval and Renaissance structures will be destroyed by this subway. There’s just no way around that. The historic center is so suffocated by traffic a third line is desperately needed.

Archaeologists are bummed, of course, but at the same time, this project has given them license to excavate areas they haven’t been able to sink their trowels into before. It has also given them funding, which is very hard to come by in this age of cutbacks.

This article has a great video of the Piazza Venezia dig.

Last surviving Trafalgar Union Jack sells huge

Yesterday was Trafalgar Day, the 204th anniversary of the and patriotic fervor was in the air at Charles Miller Auctions when the last Union Jack flag to survive the Battle of Trafalgar sold for £384,000 ($638,000), 21 times its highest estimate.

I can see why.

Union Jack that flew at Trafalgar

Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s riddled with bullet holes and splinters from its final battle. It’s 7’4″ by 11’7″, and was actually sewn together from 31 panels by the crew of the HMS Spartiate.

The 540-man crew lowered the flag from the Spartiate jackstaff after the victory over Napoleon and presented it to Scottish Lieutenant James Clephan for his valorous performance. Being presented the flag was a rare honor, almost an unheard-of honor for a junior officer.

Lieutenant Clephan was highly respected by his men. He was one of only 16 of 300,000 press ganged sailors to rise through the ranks to ultimately become a captain, a remarkable ascent for a Scottish apprentice weaver forced to join the Royal Navy against his will.

The casualty numbers suggest the Spartiate was very well-commanded indeed. The HMS Spartiate suffered 3 men killed, 22 wounded (a 4% casualty rate), while Admiral Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory lost 57 killed (including Admiral Nelson himself), 102 wounded (a 19% casualty rate).

James Clephan’s descendants kept the flag in a dark drawer for the 150 years after his death, so not only are the colors preserved, but it still actually smells of gunpowder from the Battle of Trafalgar. The owner has moved to Australia now and doesn’t have the wherewithal to conserve it properly, so he decided to sell it. He was thrilled with the reserve price of £10,000 ($16,600) — chump change in hindsight — and even the top estimate was a mere £15,000 ($25,000).

The bidding was fierce. A hundred people packed the small room, and all 12 phones were used to take long-distance bids. The winning bid came from an anonymous US buyer over the phone.

He’s not likely to get his hands on it any time soon, though. According to the auctioneers, the buyer plans to contact the British government to arrange for the flag to be displayed in the UK. He’d better get on that, because the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport is likely to put a three month export ban on the flag if the buyer tries to take it out of the country, so he won’t have a ton of options.

British institutions will then be allowed to match the winning bid, possibly using lottery grants to supplement their relatively meager offerings. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, for instance, topped out at £40,000 ($66,000). It’s going to need a lot of help to match the final selling price.