The T’s hidden world

There’s a neat story in the Boston Globe about the first tunnels built for the T, Boston’s subway system. Some of the tunnels built in the late 19th and early 20th century but long since abandoned are like little ghost towns. Subterranean Pompeiis, if you will.

Others have been refurbished for use as a power station, testing facility for new subway features, or for emergency drills.

Over the years, crews have come through the old Tremont Street tunnel to run utility lines or, in recent years, to consider and then reject the possibility of fitting high-speed Silver Line buses in the narrow tunnels. There is also a large mound, probably 15 feet high, of rusted-out 10-gallon water and biscuit containers that date to the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, when the tunnel was considered a nuclear fallout shelter.

Check out the tunnels in this video:

A sad Nativity story

Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, Caravaggio, 1609One of Caravaggio’s last paintings (painted in 1609, a year before he died), the Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, was stolen from the oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. Despite many appeals from authorities, scholars and art lovers at the time and since, the painting has never been recovered.

The meager hope, if it can be called that, was that the theft had been commissioned by a mafia don and the painting was hanging in some private collection, possibly to turn up after a death or search warrant or trial.

Those hopes both flickered and dimmed in the mid-80’s when during the trial of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti a heroin dealer and mafioso named Francesco Marino Mannoia said he’d been one of the thieves in 1969. According to him, they damaged the painting in removing it from the frame, and the private collector who commissioned the theft wept at the sight of it.

Still, that was better than some of the other theories, like that it was moved to Naples and destroyed in the 1980 earthquake or left the country alltogether. Now a former mafia hitman who has turned state’s evidence says he heard from his boss 10 years ago about the sad fate of the masterpiece.

Gaspare Spatuzza, who was imprisoned in 1997 on multiple counts of murder and turned informer last year, has told magistrates that Filippo Graviano, a Mafia boss for whom he was a hitman, told him in 1999 in prison that the painting was destroyed in the 1980s.

He said that Graviano, who with his brother Giuseppe Graviano ran one of the most powerful Cosa Nostra clans, had told him that the painting, said to be worth at least £20 million [$32 million], was handed for safe keeping to the Pullara family, part of the Santa Maria di Gesu clan in Palermo, who hid it in a farm outbuilding. “There it was eaten by rats and pigs, and so was burnt,” Spatuzza said.

There’s no way to confirm the story, of course, so there’s still a chance the Nativity could be hidden away somewhere instead of destroyed, but I’m afraid it’s a slim one. 🙁

The Secrets of Tomb 10A

Bits of wooden models in a jumble on the floor of the tomb, 1915In 1915, archaeologists with the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition digging in Deir el-Bersha found a 4000-year-old tomb of a governor and his wife. It had been torn apart thousands of years before by tomb robbers looking for jewels and precious metals. Even the mummies were decapitated, and to add insult to injury, the robbers set the tomb on fire on their way out.

Amazingly, the elaborate wooden coffin, decorative items and mummies which the looters hadn’t deemed worth stealing back then, survived. They were in jumbled pieces, but they were still there, and thus began a hundred years of work by archaeologists to reassemble Mr. and Mrs. Djehutynakht’s tomb.

The dramatic results are now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Projected on a wall, the images pull visitors into the harsh desert and the startling moments when MFA registrar Hanford Lyman Story and expedition team members blasted away enormous boulders and encountered a shaft that showed signs of fire and plunder. They dug down another 30 feet to reach the bottom, and there, among the debris, was an entrance to a burial chamber.

“Inside, they discovered a chaotic scene with objects strewn throughout the small room by robbers in search of booty,” according to museum documents. “Proving an eerie greeting for the 20th-century visitors was a linen-wrapped painted head perched on top of a coffin, appearing to observe the excavators. Propped up in the far corner was a limb-less, head-less torso.”

The central part of the exhibit shows artifacts recovered from the tomb, including the mummified head. Computerized tomography scans showed that the bones that would indicate whether the head belonged to Djehutynakht or his wife were removed during mummification. DNA tests currently being undergone might tell us more.

Another room displays the largest known collection of wooden models from the Middle Kingdom which portray people going about their business on Djehutynakht’s estate. Egyptians believed the figures at work, religion and play on 60 ships would come to life and serve their masters in the afterlife. Conservators spent 10,000 hours pieces these objects back together from thousands of shards destroyed by looters.

The highlight of the exhibit is the Bersha coffin, the brightly painted cedar outer coffin in which 3 other coffins were nested to hold Djehutynakht’s mummy. It’s presented disassembled so visitors can see the intricate hieroglyphics on the inside of the coffin, meant for Djehutynakht to read.

The MFA has a great website set up for the exhibit. There’s a slideshow of the tomb as it was found in 1915, and a neat zoomable viewer of the reconstructed artifacts. Then there’s the totally cool 3D computer scans of the mummy head (see below).

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Church sells its Tiffany window for homeless shelter

Rev. Suzanne Andrews stands under Tiffany window of St. John the DivineThe First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vermont, is facing a crushing budgetary crisis. The roof is leaking, the walls are peeling, the furnace is ancient and its homeless shelter has 4 times the occupancy it had just 2 years ago. The $8,000 they have left in the bank isn’t even going to tide them through the winter, especially since the shelter runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which means huge power and gas bills.

So two months ago the congregation had a meeting about the financial fix and they decided to sell the church’s crowning glory: a 1910 signed Tiffany Studios stained glass window of St. John the Divine. The 9-foot tall, 33-inch wide beauty was donated by wealthy supporters 100 years ago.

“The Tiffany, as beautiful as it is, is a material thing. And the choice was, should we keep the Tiffany? Or should we sell the Tiffany, and keep our doors open. So that’s what we’ve decided to do,” said Pastor Sue Andrews.

The pastor said that in the midst of the recession, the church’s donations in the weekly offering have dwindled.

An antique dealer told the pastor that the window would make an estimated $40,000 to $60,000 at auction. Since the AP first carried this story a few weeks ago, the church has received multiple bids, the highest for $75,000. They’re still praying for a miracle donation that will allow them to keep operating the church and shelter without having to sell the window.

I wish them to best, but it doesn’t look good. They’re not the first church to have to sell itself to get by in this economy. An Episcopal church in New Jersey had to sell three Tiffany windows to raise money for operations.

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” Saga

You probably read about it the theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to Auschwitz. It was major news, of course, which is why I didn’t post about it because I figured y’all would have heard about it already. Now that the thieves have been captured and the backstory is coming out, I can’t let it go uncommented.

Just to lay it out clearly for those of you who haven’t seen the story, the infamous wrought iron sign at the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in the wee hours of Friday morning. It caused a furor, needless to say, and Polish authorities went whole hog to get it back. They deployed a full force of police, roadblocks, security checks and airports and border crossings, sniffer dogs, a reward for information, the works.

Investigators found that the sign had been partially unscrewed and partially torn off the gate. The thieves then carried the 16-foor-long, 90-pound sign 300 yards to a gap in the concrete wall. The bars blocking the gap had been cut apart and footprints nearby indicated the thieves carried the sign to a waiting vehicle.

Finally, just before midnight on Monday, less than 72 hours after the theft, the Krakow police found the sign and arrested 5 men on suspicion of having stolen it. The sign was found in the home of one of the suspects outside of Czernikowo, a village 180 miles north of Auschwitz. It was cut into three pieces, one word per section, missing the “I” in “Frei” which the thieves were unable to remove from the gate.

Investigators are still questioning the suspects. They’ve brought three of them back to the scene of the crime to have them re-enact the theft to plug security holes. It turns out these rats actually stopped midway when they realized they didn’t have the proper tools for the job, left the camp, bought a spanner then came back to finish.

The theft was commissioned by a non-Pole. Prosecutors aren’t releasing any details about the commission, but media reports suggest the sign was heading to Sweden. Two of the suspects were apprehended in the port city of Gdynia, where ferries and container ships to Sweden depart.

None of the five men have known neo-Nazi ties, although they have criminal records including robbery and some violent crime. Four of the suspects are unemployed; one owns a small construction company. It was that last guy’s truck which was used to transport the sign.

The five suspects will likely be charged with “theft of a special cultural item” which could garner them as much as ten years in prison. The $40,000 reward provided by the Polish government and various donors will be divided among several people who provided information leading to the culprits’ capture. Interpol is involved now to follow the trail to whatever neo-Nazi collector scum commissioned this outrage.

The sign will be welded back together by conservators and put back in place in time for the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Army on January 27th. Security will be drastically improved, one hopes, before they do that. Auschwitz is strapped for cash, unfortunately, and in desperate need of extensive conservation. Germany recently pledged $86 million to an endowment fund to help preserve the camp, but they need twice that to keep the camp from falling apart.

Police display two pieces of the stolen Auschwitz sign