Archive for November, 2009

17th-century Dutch shipwreck found near Brazil

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Gold ducat recovered from the VoetboogThe Voetboog left what is now Jakarta loaded with treasure destined for The Netherlands. It sank with all hands off the coast of Pernambuco, Brazil on May 29, 1700.

Now a team of Hungarian divers have found what little is left of the ship and what lot is left of its cargo.

Owned by the Dutch East India Company, the Fluyt ship carried silk, spices, tea, Japanese and Chinese porcelain as well as nearly 180,000 pieces of Dutch golden ducats.

“The estimated value of the wreckage is about 1 billion dollars,” said [expedition leader Attila K.] Szaloky.

They actually found it in October of 2008, but only announced it now that the first phase of examination and recovery is complete.

The ship has almost entirely disintegrated over the 309 years of its burial at sea, but those ducats are still in fine fettle, hence the enormous price tag on this find. In fact, the cargo remains are how the archaeologists were able to identify the wreckage. Most of the wreck is still untouched until meters of sediment.

The finds will eventually all be brought to the surface and conserved in keeping with Brazilian law.

There are some underwater pictures of the wreckage on this Russian site. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but I likes me some pretty pictures.

Staffordshire hoard even more valuable than thought

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

The Staffordshire hoard was thought at first glance to be worth at least a million pounds. Now that experts have had a chance to examine the treasure closely, the valuation has skyrocketed to an astonishing 3.3 million pounds ($5.5 million).

The reward will be shared evenly between Terry Herbert, the luckiest metal detectorist of all time, and Fred Johnson, the farmer who owns the land on which the hoard was discovered.

Johnson was magnificently underwhelmed by his good fortune this morning. “Right now I’m just trying to get over the flu, and money is the last thing on my mind. I hope it’ll not make any difference to me. I won’t be putting in a swimming pool anyway, this country is wet enough already.

“I’ve been a millionaire for years anyway,” he chuckled wheezily, “isn’t that what they always say about farmers?”

Friends have told him that if it were sold privately it would be worth tens of millions, but he doesn’t care. He wouldn’t even want that kind of responsibility, he says. He’s just awed by the beauty and workmanship of the pieces. He bought his first suit and went on his first trip to the British Museum to see them on display there.

The panel of experts were just as dazzled by the wonders before them.

Professor Norman Palmer, chair of the treasure valuation committee, whose members pored over 1,800 gold, silver and jewelled objects in a day-long session at the British Museum, said: “It was breathtaking – we all agreed that it was not only a challenge but a privilege to be dealing with material of such quantity, quality and beauty. It was hard to stop our imaginations running away with us.”

Now Staffordshire museums are scrambling to find the money to ensure the hoard stays in the county where it was found. If they can’t raise the full sum, another big money museum certainly will.

"The Staffordshire Hoard", just £4.99!The British Museum has quickly published a book about the hoard, written by written by Kevin Leahy, the archaeologist who cataloged the pieces as they came in to the Birmingham museum, and Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. One pound from every sale goes to defray the cost of purchase to keep the hoard where it was found.

It would make a great Christmas present for the history lover in your life.

The history of the world in 100 objects

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Beginning in January 2010, BBC’s Radio Four in conjunction with the British Museum will air 100 15-minute episodes each detailing the history of one object from the British Museum collection. The aim is to cover a vast stretch of history from 1.4 million years ago to modern times, and all over the globe, not just European history.

[Radio 4 controller, Mark] Damazer said each episode would feature a description of the object but most of it would focus on “areas where radio excels as a medium – on how the object was made, its political, economic and cultural significance, how the object came to be in the collection, and so on. I have heard those that have been made so far and they are wonderful.”

[British Museum director Neil ] MacGregor said he would look at each object in roughly chronological order, “spinning the globe so we can see what’s going on in the world at various moments”.

Each week will be focused around a particular theme, such as “after the Ice Age” and “meeting the gods”, with contributors including Bob Geldof, Wole Soyinka, Grayson Perry, Madhur Jaffrey and Seamus Heaney.

Some of the artifacts covered are a 1.4 million year-old hand axe from the Olduvai Gorge, a Chinese Zhou ritual bowl from 1000 B.C., the Croesus Coin (550 B.C.0 from what is today Turkey, thought the be the first modern form of currency, a bust of Roman Emperor Augustus (27-25 B.C.) and the Nef Galleon, a beautiful mechanical toy ship from 1500AD.

This project has been in the works for 3 years. It took MacGregor and a team of curators 2 years just to pick 99 artifacts from the 8 million pieces in the British Museum collection. The last object has yet to be chosen. They’ll wait until later next year to select it since it might not even exist yet.

There will be a companion website which is set to go live in January (it’s just a placeholder now). More information about all of the artifacts will be on the site, as will listeners’ submissions.

For those of us across the pond, every episode will be available on the site in podcast format. In an unprecedented move for the BBC, the podcasts will remain online for 2 years, so no need to rush over to the site to make sure you don’t miss one.

Birthplace of theater to be restored

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Theatre of Dionysus, Acropolis, AthensThe Theatre of Dionysos, known as the birthplace theater because it’s where plays by Sophocles, Euripedes and Aeschylus premiered over 2500 years ago, is to be partially restored.

The project is scheduled to take six years or so, but that could easily turn into a decade.

Standing on the southern slopes of the Acropolis Hill, the theatre is “of immense historic significance,” said Mr Boletis.

Originally a terrace where spectators sat on the ground above the circular stage, the theatre was rebuilt in limestone and marble during the 4th Century BC and could seat up to 15,000 spectators.

It’s the 4th c. marble building that is getting restored. The original wooden theater is long gone. All archaeologists can tell from the original remains is that there was an orchestra (the performance area where the chorus stood at all times, not a musical pit), but they can’t even tell the exact shape it was.

The marble benches that seat 15,000 remain in particular will see extensive conservation. The extant tiers will be reinforced and several new tiers added from a combination of new stone and recovered ancient fragments. There will also be some structural work in other parts of the building.

The restoration budget is 6 million euros ($9 million) and the projected completion date is some time in 2015. There won’t be any performances held again, sadly. Those lofty notions were abandoned in the 70s. The remains are just not sturdy enough to support a theatrical production and an extensive audience.

Revolutionary War skull to get military funeral

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Revolutionary War skull in its burial casketWe can’t know for sure the living possessor of the skull was a Revolutionary War soldier, but given its date, age and location, it seems likely the skull belonged to a Continental Army soldier captured by the British during the Battle of New York in in late 1776.

It was found in Milford, Connecticut, in 1840, when they were laying railroad tracks. The skull was given to the local historical society in 1907 and is now in the hands of State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni. He’s bringing it back to Milford for reburial with full honors on Saturday.

Bellantoni, who examined the skull Tuesday, said it was clearly a male’s between age 25 to 35, and his ancestors were from Europe. The skull still had two teeth left.[…]

[Local historical reenactor] William Macmullen said Saturday’s funeral will resemble a military funeral from the Colonial era. Three historic militias will be represented, including the state’s 2nd Company Governor’s Foot Guard. A fife and drum corps will lead the procession from the church to the cemetery, where a canon will be fired. The skull will be placed in a custom-made casket and buried near the Revolutionary War monument.

This may be the first Revolutionary War reburial with full military honors. It’s the first Bellantoni knows of, anyway.

The British dumped 200 prisoners of war in Milford on New Year’s Day 1777 when they were found to have contracted smallpox aboard a prison ship. Forty-six of them died near what is now Milford Cemetery, where the skull was found.

The British kept many prisoners in ships in Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn shore of the East River. Conditions were opprobrious, needless to say. Over 10,000 people died in the rotting hulks, more than on every Revolutionary War battlefield combined.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, New York, was erected in memory of the soldiers and sailors who died in misery and squalor on those infamous ships.

Amazing WWII aerial reconnaissance photography

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Millions photographs taken by Allied airmen during secret missions in World War II are being declassified and digitized in a huge archive called Tara (The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives).

Peenemunde in Mecklenburg-Vorpommem, Germany, site of Doodlebug bomb factory after bombing, 1944Tara is in Edinburgh, Scotland, now as part of the larger National Collection of Aerial Photography. Researchers have already cataloged and digitized 4000 of the pictures, but it will be years before the full 10 million photograph collection is online.

”The skill of the photo reconnaissance pilot was incredible – they were among the best pilots in the air force,” said Allan Williams, manager of the National Collection of Aerial Photography based in Edinburgh.

”As so many of them lost their lives the archive has become a memorial to them and the events on the ground they photographed. How they could take the photos they did is astonishing.

”When you remember they were taken in combat, and often being shot at – it’s astounding.”

It really is. The pictures are incredibly high quality, detailed images. You’d never guess they were taken under abysmal conditions from an airplane dodging enemy fire. They include photographs of now legendary sites, like Omaha beach in Normandy and the bridge over the River Kwai.

The archive includes pictures taken by the Royal Air Force all the way through to the 1990s and even some taken by the Luftwaffe. The bulk of the collection, however, are World War II reconnaissance.

Landing craft launching on D-Day , 6 June 1944During the war, these pictures were used by analysts to create a 3D rendering of any given area. The compiled data were then used to plan major operations like the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

The photographs are not only of interest to the WWII buffs among us (or the photography buffs, for that matter), but they’ll be an invaluable resource for countries like Germany and Italy where unexploded ordnance is still a concern for building projects. The pictures show exactly where bombs fell but didn’t explode.

You can browse the uploaded images at

Photos courtesy RCAHMS/PA Wire

Google to put Iraqi Museum artifacts online

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, so brutally looted after the US invasion in 2003, is getting a boost into the 21st century thanks to Google. Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced in Baghdad that they would make virtual copies of all the artifacts in the museum at their own expense and put them online by early next year.

Ambassador Christopher R. Hill described the project as “part of an effort spearheaded by the State Department to bring technology to Iraq. We thought, what better way to do that than bring Eric Schmidt here?”[…]

Google chief Eric Schmidt, center, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, left, and Qais Rasheed, chairman of the state board of antiquities and heritage, rightJared Cohen, the State Department official who organized the visit, disputed a suggestion that the event seemed like a government-sponsored infomercial for Google. “This is a really good example of what we’re calling 21st-century statecraft,” he said. A dozen other companies are involved in the project to digitize the National Museum’s collections, so “it’s not an exclusive club,” he added.

The museum sort of re-opened in February of this year, but not really, because it wasn’t open to the public, just to a select few scholars and dignitaries and whatnot. Securing the extensive collection from the Cradle of Civilization has been an insurmountable obstacle to a full re-opening so far.

Digitizing the collection means people will finally really be able to see its full splendor, and not just what’s on display (only 8 of the 26 galleries have been restored), but the treasures in storage as they become available. Google has already taken 14,000 pictures, with many more to come.

Some of the collection has already been digitized by Italy’s National Research Center: The Virtual Museum of Iraq. That’s more of an overview, though, a greatest hits collection, if you will.

Google’s digitization will be done on site, which means you’ll get more of a tour feel than with the Italian site. Also, Google’s will be searchable and not Flash-dependent, a major bonus as far as I’m concerned.

I’m very much looking forward to getting to peruse 4000 years worth of history that has been out of reach for over 5 years.

Original “A Christmas Carol” manuscript on display

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Dickens' orginal manuscript of "A Christmas Carol", 1843Titled “A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” and prominently autographed by the author on the title page, the original manuscript penned by Charles Dickens will be on display at the the Morgan Library and Museum from November 20th to January 10th.

The manuscript reveals the author’s method of composition: the pace of writing and revision, apparently contiguous, is rapid and boldly confident. Revisions are inserted for vividness and immediacy of effect.

Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen, and replaced with more active verbs and fewer words to achieve greater concision. Dickens’s manuscript shows vividly his efforts to create the highest-quality literary work in the shortest possible time.

After Dickens got it back from his publishers in 1843, he had it elegantly bound in red leather and gilt tooled for his childhood friend and sometime lawyer, Thomas Mitton.

Mitton sold it to a bookseller in 1875, 5 years after Dickens’ death, for £50. It passed through various owners after that, ending up in Pierpont Morgan’s hot little hands in the 1890’s. The Morgan doesn’t say how much he paid for it, but the brokers who sold it to him are thought to have purchased it for £1000, which is a remarkable leap in market value over just 15 years. Goes to show how immensely popular the story was right away. Instant classic, as they say.

The manuscript will play a featured role in the Morgan’s Winter Family Day Celebration on December 6th. Educational theater group The Grand Falloons will lead visitors through the exhibit as characters from the story. They’ll also perform an original play where Scrooge confronts not just a myriad ghost, goblins and ghoulies, but also Dickens himself.

Edit: Browse a high resolution scan of the manuscript itself, complete with Dickens’ many crossings-out and revisions. Post the most intriguing revision in the blog comments and get invited to tea at the Morgan. :boogie:

Many thanks to Carolina Valencia for the tip. :hattip:

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", title page, First edition, 1843

Galileo’s missing fingers and tooth found (probably)

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Officials of Florence’s Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (Insitute and Museum of the History of Science) announced Friday that Galileo Galilei’s right thumb, index finger and a tooth, missing since 1905, have been found.

Three fingers, a tooth and a vertebra were removed from Galileo’s body by science historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti in 1737, 95 years after Galileo’s death. By then the Church’s case against Galileo had been weakened by a century of heliocentrism, and after fruitless decades spent lobbying the Church by his disciples and the secular authorities of Florence, the last Medici Grand Duke flexed his muscles and erected a proper memorial in consecrated ground for the great man.

In a solemn ceremony witnessed by many prominent Florentines but no ecclesiastical authorities, Galileo’s body was moved from a non-descript storage area to the memorial tomb in the Basilica of Sante Croce, across from Michelangelo’s tomb. When the casket was opened, Tozzetti whipped out a scalpel and removed the fingers, tooth and veterbra. In his account of the event, he admitted he was sorely tempted to “take away the skull which had housed such extraordinary genius.”

Galileo's middle finger, currently on display in Florence's Museum of the History of ScienceThe middle finger went to the IMSS shortly thereafter. The vertebra went to the University of Padova, where Galileo taught for 19 years. Both institutions have carefully preserved their Galilean remnants ever since. The thumb, index and tooth were claimed by Marquis Vincenzio Capponi, a prominent Florentine from an old family who was one of the witnesses to the reburial.

The Capponi family placed the remains in a blown glass vessel which they later encased in a wooden box topped with a bust of Galileo. Over the generations, the Capponi descendants lost track of what the box contained, and they sold it. It passed through various hands until it disappeared from the record in 1905.

It popped up again at a recent an art auction, listed as unknown human remains in an 18th c. blown glass vessel encased in a 19th c. wooden box topped with a bust of Galileo. A collector bought it, researched it thoroughly and found that it matched the description of the Capponi Galileo reliquary. The collector then contacted the IMSS and donated the remains anonymously.

The museum will take a sample and DNA test it to confirm the identification of the fingers and teeth, but scholars are convinced from the documentary evidence that these are in fact the missing Capponi relics of Galileo. The case and contents match the descriptions of the Galileo artifacts in historical documents. Somebody along the way could have removed Galileo’s bits from the case and replaced them with some random body parts, of course, but the remains match the known ones so that seems unlikely.

The finger and tooth will go on display next Spring when the museum reopens after renovation with a new name: Museo Galileo, the Galileo Museum.

To learn more about Galileo and browse the other Galileo-related items on display at the museum, go here.

Mmm.. Antique jewelry… Damn. Antique jewelry.

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Sometimes I wish I had never found out about how prevalent looted goods are in the antiques trade. Browsing an auction catalog of gorgeous historical pieces I could never afford used to be purely pleasurable. Now a pall is cast on every lot that has no record of ownership prior to 1970, and oh man are they legion. From my experience, they’re the vast majority of artifacts on sale.

Sardonyx cameo of Emperor Constantine, 4th c. A.D.The latest catalog to make me drool and sigh is from an upcoming Christie’s sale. On December 11th, 179 pieces of ancient jewelry ranging from 3700-year-old engraved Minoan gemstones to an early 4th century sardonyx cameo of the Emperor Constantine will go on the block.

I love jewelry and I really, really love ancient jewelry, so of course I go check out the offerings, and the first things listed are 57 engraved Minoan gemstones dating to 1700-1450 B.C. All 57 of them come from a “Swiss private collection”.

Swiss private collections are like the antiquities market version of the Canadian girlfriend you met at camp. Sure, it could be genuine, but it’s been used as a front too many times to be taken at face value. None of these beautiful and precious Minoan talismans were published before 1980, which is another red flag.

Then there’s the no-name not-even-a-country provenance, like the 3rd c. A.D. Roman onyx cameo which Christie’s says is the “THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN GENTLEMAN” (caps original). They claim it’s been in a “European private collection” since the late 19th early 20th century, but given all the fogginess and anonymity I see no reason to believe them without evidence.

Sotheby’s covered for loot purveyors like Giacomo Medici and Bob Hecht for decades, claiming their stolen goods came from some obscure unpublished collection. After a while it became an open secret in the industry. Hecht’s stuff came from an “old Swedish collection”, Medici’s an “old Swiss collection.” Sometimes they bothered to forge some provenance docs, sometimes not.

At least the heart-stoppingly beautiful Constantine cameo is legit. Look at the provenance and literature fields, how specific and detailed they are. Big difference, right? Not surprisingly, it’s the top lot with an estimated value of $150,000-250,000.

Also not looted are a pair of bracelets made in the 19th century by a jeweler who collected sixteen Roman intaglio ringstones (ca 1st century B.C.-4th century A.D.) and set them on gold chains. The bracelets can be linked together to make a choker.


Anyway, next time you come across an article about antiquities on sale or peruse an auction catalog, look for the ownership information. Ignorance may be more blissful than awareness, but it’s not as salutary.




November 2009


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