Archive for July, 2010

Audubon’s first engraved illustration discovered

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

In 1824, John James Audubon was a struggling 29-year-old artist. He noted in his diary that he had made a drawing of small grouse to Philadelphia engraver Gideon Fairman. Fairman’s company specialized in printing currency for banks (each bank at that time issued their own legal tender), and the grouse drawing was meant to be on a New Jersey banknote.

This diary entry, however, is all we’ve had to show for what could be the first published drawing by the ornithological master. Scholars have never been able to find the prints of the drawing or the banknotes.

Robert Peck, curator of art and artifacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, a numismatic historian from St. Louis, decided 10 years ago to work together to find the elusive Audubon grouse. Thursday they announced that they had found the Holy Grail of Audubon studies.

On a trip to Chicago, Peck checked another diary, and found an entry from 1826. Audubon was in England, where his landmark book, The Birds of America, with full-size printings of his bird watercolors, was eventually produced, beginning in 1827.

He noted that he presented a friend “with a copy of Fairman’s Engraving of [my] Bank Note Plate.” But had the money ever been printed? Or was it a plate that never got used?

Newman combed through every book written on New Jersey paper money. “That didn’t help me at all,” he said. Then he checked the 10,000 different banknotes issued in the United States for grouse pictures. “I couldn’t find any.”

Finally, he reexamined his own collection of “sample sheets,” printed with various images that bank presidents might want on their bills. Mostly, such sheets contain portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, images of draped Lady Liberties, and, above all, eagles.

But finally, on a sheet issued by Fairman’s firm, likely in 1825 – there! on the lower right! – was a grouse.

The drawing had no signature or attribution, but animal artists at that time made static depictions and this grouse is running against a backdrop of its natural habitat, a style that was singularly Audubon’s.

Peck and Newman think they’ve pieced together what happened. The New Jersey bank was probably the State Bank at Trenton who were major clients of Fairman’s company. The bank failed in 1825 and its banknotes became worthless. Forgers took those worthless notes and counterfeited them up to look like similar notes from another Jersey bank, the State Bank of Camden, that hadn’t gone bankrupt.

Eventually the Camden bank recalled its currency and burned it along with all the Trenton bills it could find. That would explain why the small grouse seemed to disappear from the historical record.

John James Audubon's first published illustration, a small grouse running

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Sword of Robert the Bruce’s heart sells for $17,000

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Broadsword commemoriating the voyage of Robert the Bruce's heartA broadsword made to commemorate the incredible journey of Robert the Bruce’s embalmed heart, carried by famed knight and loyal Bruce supporter Sir James Douglas on a crusade to the Holy Land which stopped fatally short in Moorish Spain, sold at auction Wednesday for £10,800 (ca $17,000).

Sir James Douglas, known by the English as Black Douglas and used in songs to scare children, was with Robert the Bruce when he died in 1329. According to 14th century Scottish poet and chronicler John Barbour, Bruce asked Sir James to take his heart with him on a crusade against “Christ’s enemies” because Robert had always wanted to go on a crusade but was never able to. After Bruce died, his heart was cut out and put in a silver enameled casket which Douglas carried on a chain around his neck.

Heart safely contained close to his own, Douglas headed out to war, eventually joining Alfonso XI of Castile in Grenada where he was besieging the Moorish castle of Teba. Barbour says Douglas acquitted himself with great courage in the battle, but he fell nonetheless. The battle was eventually won by the Castilian-Scottish forces, so Sir James’ body and the heart casket were retrieved by Sir William Keith and sent back to Scotland.

The heart was buried in Melrose Abbey, as Robert the Bruce had requested in his will. Sir James Douglas’ remains were buried in St Bride’s chapel. From then on, the Douglas family coat of arms would bear a crowned heart in homage.

Closeup of 14th century engraved bladeThe 14th century blade is thought to have been made shortly after Sir James ill-fated trip and is engraved with Douglas family heraldry, inscriptions referring to the heart and a commemorative date of 1331. The sterling silver hilt was made in 1705 by London swordmaker Thomas Vicaridge and attached to the blade which had been in the Douglas family for 400 years by then.

It carries an Imperial crown and a crowned lion rampant between the inscription ‘Pro Rege Et Regno Anno 1331′, and on the other with a similar panel enclosing one of the devices of the Douglas family, a wild man (wodewose) with a heart on his left breast between the inscription ‘For Strength In Stier This [the heart] I Bier’ (for strength in battle this heart I bear).

The seller chose to remain anonymous, but members of the Douglas-Home family say it was sold by a relative. The buyer also chose to remain anonymous saying for the record only “It has gone to a Douglas.” Small consolation for Scots nationalists who have to accept that such a piece so interwoven with the dawn of independent Scotland and the death of its hero king will now disappear into an anonymous collection somewhere in England.

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Churchill’s teeth sell for almost $24,000

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

A set of Winston Churchill’s upper dentures sold at auction at the Keys’ Salerooms in Aylsham, Norfolk, today for £15,200 ($23,741). The pre-sale estimate was £5,000, but since this set was one of a few custom made for the prime minister whose dentures were an integral component of some of the greatest speeches of all time, a British collector of Churchilliana bought them for 3 times the estimate. (This same collector owns the microphone Churchill used to announce the end of the war in Europe in 1945.)

The set of dentures were designed to be loose-fitting so that Churchill could preserve the diction famous from his radio broadcasts during the second world war, an expert said.

“From childhood, Churchill had a very distinctive natural lisp; he had trouble with his S’s,” said Jane Hughes, head of learning at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. “These are the teeth that saved the world.” [...]

“Churchill wanted to maintain [the lisp] because he was already so well known for it,” she said. “The dentures wouldn’t quite connect with the top of the mouth, but that was on purpose.”

These dentures and 3 or 4 identical sets were made in the beginning of the war by dental technician Derek Cudlipp. Churchill carried an extra set with him at all times. One of the other sets rests in peace with the great man himself who was buried with them. Another set is on display at the Hunterian Museum, the medical museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Mr. Cudlipp’s son Nigel sold this set.

Winston Churchill personally destroyed Derek Cudlipp’s draft papers. According to Nigel, Churchill told the technician that he contribute more to the war effort by staying in England and repairing his dentures than by fighting on the front lines.

He was probably right given how important the prime minister’s speeches were to become, and given Churchill’s habit of throwing his dentures across the room at his staff when he was angry. Nigel says his father could tell how the war was going at any given time based on how much repair work he had to do.

Churchill's $24,000 dentures

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Virtually raising the Titanic

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Bow railing of Titanic, picture taken by submersibleOn August 18th, a collaborative team from RMS Titanic Inc., the company that has salvage rights to the wreck of the Titanic, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will be returning to the wreck site not to recover artifacts, but to probe the entire debris field with the eventual goal of creating a 3D virtual rendering of exactly what is left of the ship 2.5 miles under the North Atlantic.

It’ll be the first time the wreck is recorded like an archaeological site instead of explored for salvage booty (and to make the incredibly crappy intro of an incredibly crappy movie out of the underwater footage). The careful mapping will contribute greatly to our understanding of the historical Titanic and will also pinpoint the wreck’s current state of preservation. The plan is to share the virtual rendering with the public once it’s complete.

The “dream team” of archaeologists, oceanographers and other scientists want to get the best assessment yet on the two main sections of the ship, which have been subjected to fierce deep-ocean currents, salt water and intense pressure.

Gallo said while the rate of Titanic’s deterioration is not known, the expedition approaches the mission with a sense of urgency.

“We see places where it looks like the upper decks are getting thin, the walls are thin, the ceilings may be collapsing a bit,” he said. “We hear all these anecdotal things about the ship is rusting away, it’s collapsing on itself. No one really knows.”

The expedition will use imaging technology and sonar devices that never have been used before on the Titanic wreck and to probe nearly a century of sediment in the debris field to seek a full inventory of the ship’s artifacts.

“We’re actually treating it like a crime scene,” Gallo said. “We want to know what’s out there in that debris field, what the stern and the bow are looking like.”

The expedition will be based on the RV Jean Charcot, a 250-foot research vessel with a crew of 20. Three submersibles and the latest sonar, acoustic and filming technology will also be part of the expedition.

They will also take samples of the iron hull, which they hope will answer some questions about how the ship went down. The 3D mapping of the debris field will also provide new information about what happened the night of April 14, 1912. Scientists will be able to examine in detail parts of the ship that haven’t been seen before because they’re jammed into the mud on the seafloor.

The pictures the team retrieves from the submarines will be compared to the pictures taken on RMS Titanic’s first expedition to the wreck 25 years ago. They’ll be able to gauge the rate of decay over that period, and continue to gather data that might be key to conservation on future mapping expeditions.

RMS Titanic, Inc., is still working on a website dedicated to the expedition, but they already have a Facebook page up where you can ask questions and follow the expedition.

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Team begins to disassemble World Trade Center ship

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

WTC ship covered to protect beams from the elementsArchaeologists have begun to disassemble the 18th century ship found on the World Trade Center site. They started taking it apart, plank by plank, on Monday and are hoping to finish this week so construction crews can go back to work.

As the mud is removed, the original color and grain of the wood is revealed. Disassembly also reveals the joining techniques that were used in the ship’s construction. It’s a race against time and climate, though, to keep the wood from degrading. The boat was covered by a canopy to keep it as dark and damp as possible even in the middle of an east coast heat wave.

Port Authority has authorized double shifts so the archaeologist can keep working day and night to get the speedily-disintegrating wood into a safe environment.

On Monday, archaeologists painstakingly tagged and logged each plank of the boat before removing it.

“We’re recording everything as if each piece is going to fall apart — just in case,” said Warren Riess, a professor at the University of Maine who is working on the boat for AKRF.

Workers wrapped each piece of wood in polyethylene foam and plastic sheeting, to keep the moisture in and the sun out, and then loaded them into a dumpster.

The hundreds of timbers will go to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, about 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C., where archaeologists will study them further.

The conservation process will take years. First the planks will be soaked in polyethylene glycol, a waxy plastic that will penetrate the wood and provide it a stable structure, for 3 years. Then they’ll be vacuum freeze-dried to drive out every last drop of water. Once that’s done, the ship will be put back together.

Port Authority hasn’t decided yet what its ultimate fate will be. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., owners of the site where the boat was found, will ask for public input on what should happen to the ship. Here’s hoping they choose to put it on display.

There’s a great deal of documentation of government boats and warships, but private shipbuilders in the 18th c. didn’t publish any blueprints or design plans (they wanted to preserve their trade secrets), so there’s a lot this find can teach us about how these smaller privateers were built.

So far we can tell from the heaviness of the planks indicate this ship was used to carry heavy cargo. It was probably 60 feet long (the section found is 30 feet long) which is fairly large for a ship that traveled the Atlantic coast. Ships that crossed the Atlantic, on the other hand, were usually considerably larger.

It’s not likely to have been a dedicated slave ship. Slave ships were built for speed so they were usually lightweight.

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Tut’s chariot on its way to New York

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Disembled chariots in King Tut's antechamber, 1922When Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb in 1922, he found 4 chariots in the south-east corner of the antechamber (2 more were found in the treasury room). The chariots had been dismantled at the time of the King’s funeral. One of the chariots stood out not because of any elaborate decoration, but because of its lack thereof. Unlike the others, it was small, lightweight, and entirely undecorated. It also showed signs of regular use, again unlike the other more ornamental chariots.

Carter deduced from its open design that it was used for hunting and/or quotidian exercise. Since a recent study of the king’s mummy found that he suffered from a severe leg fracture right above the knee from a fall taken shortly before his death. Septicemia from the injury might have contributed to his death, and he could even have been hunting with this chariot when he took that fatal tumble.

There’s no way of knowing, of course. Still, it adds a little spice to the artifact which for the first time in its long life has left Egypt and is now winging its way to New York City where it will be added to the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibit at the Discovery Times Square Exposition.

The chariot will arrive in New York on Wednesday, accompanied by a conservator and the Director of the Luxor Museum, where the chariot is permanently displayed.

King Tut's hunting chariotPainted chest found in Tut's tomb covered in chariot scenes

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Historic Moulin Rouge casino tower demolished

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

The Moulin Rouge opened on May 24, 1955, the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas. Vegas at that time was known as the “Mississippi of the West” because of its virulent and persistent segregation. Major African-American stars were touted on the Strip marquees, but none of them were allowed to stay in the hotels or play in the casinos where they performed. The Moulin Rouge was integrated at every level — guest, performer, employee — and featured top notch stars like Louis Armstrong, Joe Louis, Nat King Cole, Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Moulin Rouge dancers on cover of LIFE, June 1955Its stylized cursive neon sign was designed by Betty Willis, creator of the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. The exterior walls had murals of dancing couples and hot cars, the interior walls murals of Can Can girls and Duesenbergs. Moulin Rouge dancers even made the June 1955 cover of LIFE magazine.

Despite its auspicious beginnings, the Moulin Rouge didn’t even last a year. By November of 1955, it was closed. By December, its owners filed for bankruptcy. It had one more bright shining moment when in March of 1960 casino owners and state and city officials met at the Moulin Rouge with the president of the NAACP James McMillan to forestall a planned protest march down the Strip. At this meeting the parties struck an agreement to desegregate Las Vegas.

The Moulin Rouge in the 1950sSo the Moulin Rouge is the Civil Rights icon of the city. That notwithstanding, nobody has ever been able to bring it back to life. The West Vegas neighborhood declined, and although the hotel rooms in the tower were converted to apartments and some crappy renovations were made in the 1970s, all the revitalization plans over the decades (and there have been many) have failed to come to fruition. In 2003, an arsonist set a fire that gutted the structure, leaving only the facade and sign.

In February of last year, the Moulin Rouge complex was declared a public nuisance and slated for demolition. Just in case that wasn’t definite enough, in May it was hit by yet another fire. Thankfully the Betty Willis sign had been removed just a week before then for storage in Vegas’ famous Neon Museum boneyard.

Now, the final death knell has rung. On Thursday the Moulin Rouge tower was demolished. It put up a fight, though.

The white tower of the Moulin Rouge hotel-casino, which opened in 1955 and played host to headliners including Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra, was pulled down by cables after initial attempts failed and the structure resisted.

“To them, it’s blight. To me, it’s history,” said Pat Hershwitzky, secretary for a group trying to preserve as much of the Moulin Rouge and its history as possible. [...]

Hershwitzky said she planned to ask city officials and site owners Olympic Coast Investment Inc. to save as much of what’s left of the site as possible.

She said her group would try to find a new place to house the casino’s remaining artifacts.

Moulin Rouge mural behind bar, 2001

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Moche hall for human sacrifice found in Peru

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Moche ceremonial hallA team of Peruvian archaeologists excavating the archaeological complex of Huaca Bandera on the north coast of Peru (about 800 miles from Lima) have uncovered a ceremonial hall used by the the pre-Columbian Moche civilization for human sacrifices.

The Moche civilization flourished between the 1st century B.C. and the 8th century A.D. The ceremonial hall dates to the 6th century A.D., which means that the Moche were still practicing human sacrifice even at the end of their civilization.

Carlos Wester La Torre, director of the Bruning Museum in Peru and a leader of the dig, said the ceremonial site likely hosted ritual killings of prisoners of war.

Archaeologists examine female Moche sacrificial victimPhotographs taken at the site show more than half a dozen skeletons on the floor of the hall.

“There was a great ceremonial hall or passage integrated into the rest of the architecture that establishes the presence of certain figures of the Moche elite and also the practice of complex rituals such as human sacrifice,” Wester told Reuters.

His team uncovered a 60-meter-long (197-foot-long) corridor opening up to face three equidistant porticos and five thrones on the archaeological site’s main pyramid.

Behind the altar are the remains of a mural with colorful designs of 3 highly ornamented figures. Their ornamentation and the objects depicted on the mural indicate they are senior dignitaries, most likely political leaders, involved in the sacred ceremonies of human sacrifice. One of the dignitaries is female, from her ornaments probably the high priestess.

The Moche were a culture of farmers and potters, so unlike the Inca Empire that followed them, the Moche left few large ceremonial halls like this one behind, and this is the only one that dates so late in the civilization’s timeline.

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Cleopatra’s pearls dissolved in vinegar

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

There’s a famous story relayed by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History that Cleopatra drank the largest pearls in the world dissolved in vinegar on a bet with Marc Antony.

There were formerly two pearls, the largest that had been ever seen in the whole world: Cleopatra, the last of the queens of Egypt, was in possession of them both, they having come to her by descent from the kings of the East. When Antony had been sated by her, day after day, with the most exquisite banquets, this queenly courtesan, inflated with vanity and disdainful arrogance, affected to treat all this sumptuousness and all these vast preparations with the greatest contempt; upon which Antony enquired what there was that could possibly be added to such extraordinary magnificence. To this she made answer, that on a single entertainment she would expend ten millions of sesterces. Antony was extremely desirous to learn how that could be done, but looked upon it as a thing quite impossible; and a wager was the result. On the following day, upon which the matter was to be decided, in order that she might not lose the wager, she had an entertainment set before Antony, magnificent in every respect, though no better than his usual repast. Upon this, Antony joked her, and enquired what was the amount expended upon it; to which she made answer that the banquet which he then beheld was only a trifling appendage to the real banquet, and that she alone would consume at the meal to the ascertained value of that amount, she herself would swallow the ten millions of sesterces; and so ordered the second course to be served. In obedience to her instructions, the servants placed before her a single vessel, which was filled with vinegar, a liquid, the sharpness and strength of which is able to dis-solve pearls. At this moment she was wearing in her ears those choicest and most rare and unique productions of Nature; and while Antony was waiting to see what she was going to do, taking one of them from out of her ear, she threw it into the vinegar, and directly it was melted, swallowed it.

It hasn’t been taken terribly seriously by historians because as you can see, Pliny deploys the story more as an illustration of Antony and Cleopatra’s dissipated, luxurious wastefulness than a realistic description. Besides, a basic test of the tall tale fails: if you drop pearls in vinegar, even highly acidic vinegar, they don’t melt. At least not right away like they do in Pliny’s story.

Classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University decided to explore the pearls-in-vinegar possibilities. She didn’t discount the story as fiction off the bat, especially since Cleopatra was said by ancient physician Galen to be well-versed in poison lore. She also wrote a book on cosmetics — fragments of which still exist — displaying an extensive knowledge of chemistry.

Jones began experimenting with calcium tablets, then oyster shells in vinegar. Then in a shocking break, a jeweler gave her two 5 frikkin carat pearls to test.

“Experiments reveal that a reaction between pearls and vinegar is quite possible,” concludes the study. Calcium carbonate plus the vinegar’s acetic acid in water produces calcium acetate water and carbon dioxide, for chemistry fans. Jones finds a 5% solution of acetic acid, sold in supermarkets today and well within concentrations produced naturally by fermentation, takes 24 to 36 hours to dissolve a 5-carat pearl.

Boiling the vinegar, or crushing the pearl, or both, greatly speeds up the reaction, perhaps to under 10 minutes. Interestingly, stronger solutions of acetic acid greatly slows down dissolving (the water takes part in the reaction), something that may have hindered folks testing Pliny’s veracity in the past.

So the straight from earring to vinegar then down the hatch process either didn’t happen, or Cleopatra fixed the bet by softening the pearl for a day or two before wearing them at dinner, or she had the vinegar boiled before dropping in the pearls. I could totally see her hustling Marc Antony like that.

Cleopatra drinks pearls from 'Asterix & Cleopatra'

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New henge found half a mile from Stonehenge

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Magnetometric image of henge structureOkay so it’s not new, and it’s not really even a henge anymore so much as the ditches and postholes therefrom, but archaeologists are still lauding it as the most exciting find on the Salisbury Plain in 50 years. All kinds of smaller finds have been made during that time — from graves and attendant goods to a smaller wood circle — but this could be a major ceremonial monument.

Note of caution: We don’t know yet exactly what it is, though. Right now all we see are images of holes, basically.

Images show it has two entrances on the north-east and south-west sides and inside the circle is a burial mound on top which appeared much later, Professor Gaffney said.

“You seem to have a large-ditched feature, but it seems to be made of individual scoops rather than just a straight trench,” he said.

“When we looked a bit more closely, we then realised there was a ring of pits about a metre wide going all the way around the edge.

“When you see that as an archaeologist, you just looked at it and thought, ‘that’s a henge monument’ – it’s a timber equivalent to Stonehenge.

“From the general shape, we would guess it dates backs to about the time when Stonehenge was emerging at its most complex.

Stonehenge and possible layout of newly discovered hengeDespite the immense fame of the Neolithic standing stones, the surrounding area is surprisingly unexplored. An international team of archaeologists led by the University of Birmingham is surveying the plain to a depth of 3 feet starting with their back to Stonehenge then moving outwards 14 square kilometers (5 square miles). You’d have to deglove the plain and it would take years to do this using traditional pick and shovel methodologies.

That’s why the archaeological team is using new, non-invasive technology to uncover the secrets of the plain, using scanners attached to tractors to cover large amounts of ground in deep detail very quickly. Technologies used include ground penetrating radar, magnetic surveys, resistivity and electromagnetic studies. Ground penetrating radar is usually deployed by one person pushing the detector. The team scaled the detector up 5 times, attached it to a quad bike and were thus able to cover the 14 square kilometers around Stonehenge in just 3 weeks.

There is some loss of resolution in the data gathered at such speed, but they’ve got time to go back and focus on areas that need further exploration. The project is scheduled to continue for 3 years. By the end they’ll have a 3D map of the area

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