Archive for December, 2010

Vandals chop down Glastonbury Holy Thorn tree

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

People gather in front of the remains of the Glastonbury Holy Thorn treeThe Glastonbury Holy Thorn tree, said to be descended from the miraculous hawthorn planted by Joseph of Arimathea 2000 years ago after reaching landfall in England, has been hacked down to a 6-foot stump. Vandals cut off all the branches under cover of darkness Thursday night, leaving behind only the stump festooned with the prayers of pilgrims.

Authorities speculate that the violence might have been done in reaction to Wednesday’s annual cutting ceremony in which a budding sprig is cut from another Glastonbury Holy Thorn relative on the nearby grounds of the Church of St. John and presented to the Queen to adorn her Christmas table. The timing is certainly a notable coincidence. Another theory going around is that it was an act of vengeance against Edward James, the recently indicted major shareholder of the Crown Currency Exchange, a company which went under in October leaving 8,000 creditors short £16 million ($25 million). Inter-denominational conflict is also a possibility.

Glastonbury Holy Thorn intactAccording to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man who gave his tomb to hold the body of Christ crucified, landed on the coast of England a mile or so away. He and his party trudged to the hill then rested on the spot thereafter dubbed Weary-all-Hill (now Wearyall Hill) in honor of their eponymous weariness. St. Joseph thrust his staff, a dried hawthorn branch that once belonged to Jesus, into the ground and the staff miraculously grew into a tree. It also miraculously blooms twice a year, once in the spring along with every other tree, and once at Christmas. That’s the miraculous bit.

Interestingly, trees grown from seeds and planted cuttings of the Holy Thorn do not bloom twice a year; only grafted ones, and there are several of those grafts dotting the landscape in and around Glastonbury.

A major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, the tree was seen as a symbol of Popish superstition and cut down and burned by Cromwell’s Puritan troops during the English Civil War, but in secret the faithful kept its roots and propagated cuttings therefrom ensuring that the tree would continue to live on in its descendants. The current Wearyall Hill tree was planted from one of those heritage pieces in the early ’50s.

Police are going door to door and interviewing potential witnesses. The spot is a popular one for runners and dog walkers so there’s a chance someone might have seen something probative in the wee hours. Meanwhile, Katherine Gorbing, the director of Glastonbury Abbey, holds out hope that the tree will grow back from the large remaining stump.

Hawthorns are sturdy, and this wouldn’t be the first time the Wearyall Holy Thorn recovered from a vicious sawing. According to an 18th century history of Glastonbury, the tree had a double trunk in Queen Elizabeth’s time. A devout Puritan took offense at the tree and sawed off the larger of its trunks. He was prevented from getting to the second one by an unfortunate, some say miraculous, sawing accident which severely cut his leg and, when a bark chip flew up, put out one of his eyes. The hewn trunk, now on the ground and connected to the roots by only a tiny segment of bark, continued to bloom for 30 years as did the intact trunk.


Flag from Custer’s Last Stand sells for $2,210,500

Friday, December 10th, 2010

The Foley-Culbertson guidon from the Battle of the Little BighornThe Foley-Culbertson guidon, one of only two 7th Cavalry battle flags known to have survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, just sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction for $2,210,500, including buyer’s premium. The hammer price was $1.9 million, less than the pre-sale estimate (for a change), which valued the extremely rare and historically significant flag at $2-5 million. It was purchased by an American collector. No news on who the buyer is or whether he’ll be willing to loan it for public display.

The flag was discovered on June 28, 1876, three days after the disastrous battle, under the body of Corporal John Foley, the standard bearer of Captain Thomas Custer’s Company C, by burial detail soldier Sergeant Ferdinand Culbertson. (Thomas Custer was General George Armstrong Custer’s younger brother, and a highly decorated Civil War veteran who was awarded two Medals of Honor for having captured Confederate flags in battle {insert eerie music here}. He is one of only 19 soldiers and sailors to have received two Medals of Honor.)

Culbertson kept it for four years, after which he gave it to friends of his, Sgt. James Fowler and his wife Rose. In 1895 the Detroit Museum of Art bought the guidon from Rose Fowler, now a widow, for $54. At that time the DMA had an eclectic mission of preserving and presenting American history and art, but today the Detroit Institute of Art, as it is now known, has a more narrow focus on being exclusively an art museum. In order to help fulfill their mission, they decided to sell some of the artifacts they’ve been keeping in storage for decades. This flag is the prize piece.

Unlike the record-breaking Revolutionary War battle flag that sold for $12.3 million in 2006, the Culbertson guidon bears many scars from the battle and its aftermath. There are bloodstains, tears and holes, plus cutouts, including a large missing rectangle under the blue ground with the stars that was snipped out by soldiers in the 7th Cavalry burial detail. Interesting factoid about those stars: there are 35 on the flag, even though there were 37 states in the Union in 1876. That’s because it was Civil War surplus. They had so many of those 35-star flags left over after the war that they kept using them until 1883, when there were 38 states in the union.

It’s in great condition compared to the only other surviving flag from the Little Bighorn, however. The Keogh guidon, currently owned by the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, is so fragile that curators describe it as “nearly dust” and is far too delicate to be on display. It was captured by an Indian warrior at Little Bighorn and then captured back by Captain Anson Mills at the Battle of Slim Buttes (September 9-10, 1876). It was found with a pair of gauntlets belonging to Captain Myles Keogh, commander of Company I, 7th Cavalry, hence the name.

Mills loaned the flag to the Museum of the Military Services Institution on Governors Island in New York harbour, but they inexplicably allowed it to be infested with moths, so when Mills got the guidon back it was almost destroyed. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is currently working on an extensive conservation project to try to arrest the damage.

Sotheby’s Vice Chairman David Redden talks about the history of the Foley-Culbertson guidon and the battle in this video. There’s also an online Flash version of the fascinating auction catalog here.


Curse tablet found in Lebanon

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Lead curse tablet found in LebanonA team of archaeologists from Kyoto University have found a lead tablet inscribed with a curse written in Greek. It dates to between the 2nd and 4th century A.D.

The 6-cm-wide, 14.7-cm-long plate, discovered near the entrance of an underground grave, is adorned with ancient Greek text that reads “May the unjust be removed from them” and “May signs of a gag and shame, and disgrace be given to them,” along with the names of four people, the team said Tuesday.

The article describes the curse as “invoking the spirits of the dead,” but curse tablets were fairly widespread in the ancient world and don’t always invoke a specific power, be it a spirit of the dead or another deity. There’s nothing in the text as presented in the article that indicated the spirits of the dead were particularly involved.

Perhaps it’s the locus of the find that underlies the assumption. Buried curses are thought to have been placed close to the gods of the underground to draw their power. The location of the curse was certainly connected to the curse itself. Most of the defixiones (the Latin term for ancient curses) found in Britain, for instance, were discovered near health spas, in the same places where prayers for good health were left. The spa giveth and the spa taketh away, to coin a phrase.

Interestingly, many of the extant Greek curses are over legal matters.

Most of the curses are what we call binding spells: they aim at binding or inhibiting the performance of a rival. A lot of them have to do with legal cases. They say things like, “Bind the tongue and the thoughts of so-and-so, who is about to testify against me on Monday.” We have some that are aimed at rival musicians or actors, and a couple that seem to be connected with athletics. We have some that run something like this, “Bind Helen, so that she is unsuccessful when she flirts or makes love with Demetrius.” But the great majority of them seem to be connected with lawsuits. This actually corroborates evidence from other sources suggesting that the Greeks thought Athenians were abnormally enamored of lawsuits–much as many Americans today think that New Yorkers are especially litigious.


Viking silver thieves arrested, loot recovered

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Stolen Viking silver coins recovered on GotlandFive men have been arrested on the Swedish island of Gotland for having stolen 1,000 Viking-era silver coins. The entire hoard from which the looters helped themselves to 1,000 coins was over twice that size: 2,000 German, English and Danish coins from the 1060s.

Gotland, a large island in the middle of the Baltic off the southeast coast of Sweden, is replete with Viking hoards. Sadly, it is also replete with looters who illegally dig up whatever treasures they can find, then sell them online or through shady dealers. Since there is so much ground to cover and the weather rarely cooperates to keep looted sites in CSI condition, not only do thieves often get away with it, but the thefts themselves are not discovered.

It was a fortuitous chain of circumstance that brought these scofflaws to justice.

Part of a crucifix from the 11th century was found in the ground where the looters dug. Several days later, an email was discovered by chance with a photo of a part of a crucifix.

A comparison of the find and the image showed that the parts belonged together and that the crucifix came from the hiding place in the field in Gandarve.

“The person who had sent the email was suspected of having attempted to sell the crucifix and he led us on to another person with ties to Gotland,” said prosecutor Mats Wihlborg.

During a raid on a property on Gotland, investigators came across three people with metal detectors, shovels and backpacks. After examining computers and GPS equipment, they also found links between the defendants and two other places where the looters had struck on Gotland.

The looters will be charged with preparation of aggravated crime against relics and aggravated crime against relics. The charges carry a potential sentence of four years in prison. Three of the defendants are thought to be the ringleaders responsible for multiple thefts. The prosecutor is delighted. He noted that it’s extremely rare for cases to actually reach the point of prosecution, and especially not of a full-on looting ring.

Looters are not just hobbyists who stumbled on a treasure and decided to keep it or even sell it on the down low. They are organized, experienced and well-versed in the geography of the island. They often operate at night to avoid detection, and they’re damn good at it. That’s why these arrests are so important to the Gotland authorities.


Imperial Chinese robes on display at V&A

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Emperor's summer court robe, 1851-1861An exhibit displaying unbelievably gorgeous Chinese imperial robes opens today at the Victoria & Albert museum in London. Most of these textiles have never left China, and many of them haven’t ever been displayed in the Forbidden City either.

They once adorned only members of the imperial families of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and have been preserved over the centuries in a condition so sterling that it frankly beggars belief. That’s why they’ve so rarely been shown in public, because even after the Forbidden City became a museum in 1925, there were no public galleries that could provide the proper conditions required to conserve these fragile textiles.

Emperor's winter court robe, 1796-1820They remained in the Forbidden City stores for hundreds of years, treated as sacred and carefully tended even as the wars both Opium and World, rebellions both Boxer and Taiping, and the dissolution of the entire imperial system exploded around them. As soon as the emperor, empress, concubines and their children died, their clothing was taken to the stores, never to be worn again, never exposed to sunlight and the various effluvia of humanity. The collection is so enormous that it is has taken almost a century since the opening of the Forbidden City to catalog all the pieces. That’s 5 generations of curators dedicated to the task.

The exhibition includes a wedding gown made in 1889 when Yehe Nara Jingen married the emperor Guangxu, which took three years to make. It is richly embroidered with dragons and phoenix, on red silk, the colour for weddings: the last boy emperor Pu Yi recalled that when he married in 1922, two years before he was expelled from the Forbidden City, the bridal chamber “looked like a melted red wax candle”.

The garments followed a strict hierarchy: bright yellow for the emperor, apricot yellow for his sons, Siberian sable only for the imperial family, pale blue for moon ceremonies, padded robes embroidered with narrow rows of gold to look like metal armour for travelling with an entourage of 3,000 people, 6,000 horses and 1,000 boats. Ordinary Chinese people could never have afforded the sumptuous dragon embroideries, but were in any case forbidden by law to use them.

Women's shoes, 1875-1908The robes are accompanied by accessories, of course, as fashion demands. There are slippers, shoes, helmets and headdresses. The women’s shoes on the left were known as “flower pot shoes” because of the shape of the heel. Manchu women did not bind their feet, so the shoes are normal sized. That heel is something else, right? Lady Gaga, eat your heart out, you amateur.

Please do yourself a favor and browse the V&A website on the exhibit. There are many pictures, all of which are the kind of beautiful that make you audibly exclaim as you browse. Also, check out the curator’s blog for all kinds of fascinating detail about the exhibit, the garments and their conservation.


Da Vinci manuscript uncovered in French library

Monday, December 6th, 2010

A fragment of a manuscript written by Leonardo da Vinci was rediscovered by a local journalist in a library in Nantes, France. The journalist read in a biography of Leonardo of the manuscript’s existence in Nantes. He then tracked the manuscript fragment down in the library.

One of 5,000 documents bequeathed to the city by collector Pierre-Antoine Labouchere in 1872, the rare autograph was filed away and promptly forgotten for the next 130 plus years. The new Mozart composition found in the same library two years ago was also part of the Labouchere collection. Someone needs to go through those archives with a fine-toothed comb, obviously.

Experts have yet to decipher the few lines of text because it is written from right to left in Leonardo’s trademark mirror-writing style and the words are from arcane, 15th century Italian as well as other languages.

The artist is known to have written most of his notes back to front, from left to right and reversing each letter, only using standard writing if he intended documents to be read by others.

The legend that has grown from his mirror-writing is that he was intentionally coding his notes to hide them from prying eyes, but this is a result of questionable scholarship in the late 17th-early 18th centuries. His contemporaries often referred to his left-handedness as the reason for his right-to-left script.

When Leonardo wanted to write in code, he invented an actual code. That was, you know, hard to crack. Not just something that can be figured out with a little practice and a mirror. He was just able to write more quickly right-to-left and without smearing the ink, so that’s why his notes are backwards.

He also painted using his left hand, again something considered notable among his contemporaries. Michelangelo was left-handed, but only one biographer ever mentioned it, perhaps because unlike Leonardo, Michelangelo forced himself to learn how to paint right-handed as there was still a stigma attached to using the “sinister” hand.

da Vinci manuscript found in Nantes library


Site of Britain’s first proven gunbattle found

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Two fragments of handguns from Battle of Towton, 1461Metal detectorist Simon Richardson has found fragments of 15th century handguns and early lead shot on a War of the Roses battlefield in Yorkshire, north England. He was scanning the site of the 1461 Battle of Towton in collaboration with archaeologists who have been excavating the area for over 10 years.

The fragments of the gun barrels were made out of 2 different alloys of bronze and thus in all likelihood came from 2 different weapons. It’s eminently possible that they exploded in their shooters’ hands. Because of the poor quality of the castings and the copious bubbles and defects in the metal, early handguns were notoriously unreliable and prone to explosion when fired. The Battle of Towton would have been especially susceptible to exploding handgun failure because it was fought in the middle of a blizzard.

Archaeologists know of no earlier instance of guns being used on a British battlefield, or even a European one for that matter. Last year a pile of lead shot and artillery found at the site of the Battle of Bosworth made headlines because it suggested far more widespread use of firearms in a late medieval battle than was previously known, and Bosworth happened in 1485, almost 25 years after the Battle of Towton.

Experts at the ISIS Research Centre in Oxfordshire, which uses neutron analysis to examine samples in minute detail, said the finds were “unique in Britain”.

[Lead project archaeologist Tim Sutherland] said: “In terms of its rarity, we don’t know of any other battlefield where one of these has turned up.

“In terms of the Towton battlefield, it’s very important because we’re looking at the cusp of the use of archery and the introduction of handguns.

“When we analyse the internal coating, that has the constituent parts of gunpowder. It’s incredibly important and we still can’t believe we’ve found this.”

The bullet found is also of major significance because it’s a lead ball with an iron core, and thus the earliest composite lead bullet ever found in Europe.

Towton was reputed to have been one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil. According to historical sources, in 10 hours of fighting, 28,000 men were killed. The archaeological evidence so far hasn’t borne this out. Tim Sutherland thinks that’s Yorkist propaganda rather than an accurate body count. The team has found several mass graves over the decade and a half they’ve been researching the site, and the numbers found suggest something more along the lines of 3,000 to 4,000 deaths.

The battle was a rout, however, with no quarter given to retreating forces, so bodies would have littered not just the field itself but areas radiating out from it.

Even without the bloody title, Towton remains a pivotal moment in English history. The Yorkist victory was complete enough to put Edward IV on the throne of England.


Super creepy JFK assassination memorabilia for sale

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

Lee Harvey Oswald's coffinFirst there’s this story about the coffin Lee Harvey Oswald was buried in being put up for sale. Allen Baumgardner was an assistant to the embalming of Oswald’s body at the Miller Funeral Home in Fort Worth, Texas. He was buried on November 25, 1963.

In 1975, lawyer, restaurateur and true crime author Michael Eddowes published a book that claimed that the man who killed Kennedy was a Russian assassin look-alike who had been substituted for the real Lee Harvey Oswald after the latter’s defection to the Soviet Union. Eddowes tried to get county officials to exhume Oswald’s body, running into a variety of obstacles. Finally in 1980 he persuaded Oswald’s wife Marina to authorize the exhumation privately. Robert Oswald, Lee’s brother, was not amused and got a restraining order to stop the exhumation. They went back and forth in court for a year, but Marina ultimately won and on the 4th of October 1981, Oswald was exhumed.

The examination confirmed his identity, and the funeral home, now owned by Baumgardner, gave Marina a new casket in exchange for the badly decayed original. Baumgardner kept the original.

“We placed Lee in a new casket, and I just brought that one back to the funeral home,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve had it all these years.”

He also kept the original embalming equipment and paperwork.

“I just think it’s time to do something with all that stuff,” the soft-spoken funeral director said. “I just felt like I’m 68 years old, I think this would be a good time to go ahead and see if anybody is interested in it.”

The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a museum on the 6th and 7th floors of the Texas School Book Depository focusing on the assassination, will not be among the bidders. The auction is being held online and over the phone even as I type. The bidding is now at $15,863, but the reserve has not yet been met. The auction closes on December 16, so you still have time to score you a historical assassin coffin, if you’re in the market.

Also for sale at the same auction is Lee Harvey Oswald’s original death certificate, signed by his brother Robert as next of kin and the funeral director Paul Groody. When the Justice of the Peace brought it to the county registrar’s office he wrote “Shot by Jack Rubenstein” in the “Describe How Injury Occurred” field. However, since Jack Ruby hadn’t been convicted yet, he couldn’t legally be listed as the killer in the official document. The Justice crossed out the Jack Rubenstein line, then he decided to just fill in a new form to file with the county and kept the original.

JFK assassination limo seatBut wait, there’s more! How would you like a section of the leather seat President Kennedy and the First Lady were sitting on when his brains were blown out? It’s a center section complete with visible blood stains and everything.

[White House Technical Service Rep. F. Vaughn] Ferguson, whose involvement with the limousine before and after the shooting is well-documented, writes in part: “…The leather is from the automobile in which John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, was assassinated in on November 22, 1963…Four days after the assassination the White House upholsterer and I removed this leather at the White House. The light blue leather is from the center of the rear seat…The spots on the leather are the dried blood of our beloved President John F. Kennedy.”


“Star Spangled Banner” first edition sells for $500,000

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

1814 first edition "The Star Spangled Banner"An 1814 first edition copy of the sheet music and lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner” sold for over $500,000 at a Christie’s auction in New York today. The pre-sale estimate was between $200,000 and $300,000, but the rarity of this piece drove the bidding way up. There are only 11 known copies of this edition, and the other 10 all belong to institutions, among them the Library of Congress and the Pierpont Morgan Library. This is the only one in private hands.

It was bound into a book in around 1820 along with sheet music from 48 other popular songs of the time. A note on one of the other songs in the binding mark it as belonging to Mary Barnitz of York, Pennsylvania, or her father George, brother of Revolutionary War hero Joshua Barnitz and uncle of Joshua Jr. The latter fought in the war of 1812 with the 5th Maryland Regiment and was himself a witness to the 1814 bombing of Fort McHenry, the star-shaped Baltimore fort whose shelling inspired Francis Scott Key’s immortal lyrics.

Key, then a young lawyer and amateur poet, is said to have boarded a truce vessel in Chesapeake Bay in an effort to negotiate the release of a detained American doctor, according to documents from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

But Key was himself detained overnight by Royal Navy officials to ensure their plans for the assault on the fort were not revealed to its defenders.

His vantage point aboard the British ship is said to have offered sweeping views of the ensuing battle, spanning the night of September 13 to the morning of September 14, 1814.

“By the dawn’s early light,” Key saw that the fort’s flag — torn and singed from near-constant shelling — had remained flying above its walls. The inspiring words later were put to existing music and printed by Baltimore music publisher Thomas Carr.

The poem was an immediate runaway success. It was published in newspapers and pamphlets as “The Defence of Fort McHenry” and circulated widely. Key’s brother-in-law set the words to the tune of another big success of the era: “The Anacreontic Song,” written by John Stafford Smith in the mid-1760s as a drinking song, basically, for a British gentleman’s club called the Anacreontic Society. (Here’s a YouTube of the Georgia Tech glee club doing a rousing rendition of the original.)

Detail of the heading with typo and author name omittedCarr capitalized on its instant success and rushed the lyrics and music into print by November 18th, making 2 glaring errors in the process. He neglected to put Francis Scott Key’s name on it as the author, and he subtitled it “A Pariotic Song” instead of “A Patriotic Song.” Shortly thereafter he issued an amended version which corrected the mistakes, but of course that only makes the first run with the typo more valuable.

The star-spangled banner itself, the 30-by-34-foot flag (the largest battle flag in existence) that survived a night of constant artillery shelling, is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. They also have an excellent online exhibition that covers the history of the flag and the song. Don’t miss the interactive zoomable flag with all kinds of facts about its history, damage and conservation.

On display at the star-spangled banner centennial, Baltimore, Maryland, September, 1914 Star-Spangled Banner today


Degas stolen 37 years ago will be returned to France

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

"Blanchisseuses Souffrant des Dents," Edgar Degas, 1870-72The New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced today that a Degas painting stolen from a Normandy museum in 1973 will be returned to France. The painting, “Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents” (Laundry Women with Toothache), was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne André-Malraux in Le Havre by a person or persons still unknown, and then disappeared into the shadowy underground for 37 years. Last month a Malraux employee found it while flipping through the catalog of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Day Art sale.

He called the museum’s director and she contacted the French police and the ministry of culture. They in turn alerted Sotheby’s, which immediately withdrew the piece from the auction. Sotheby’s claims they had no idea it was stolen and same goes for the seller, New York orthopedic surgeon and collector of French art Ronald Grelsamer.

Grelsamer says he received it from his father as a gift. Sotheby’s describes him as “shocked” that it was stolen; he hasn’t made any statements to the press about the painting, much less about how his father might have gotten his hands on it. He actually has the right to file a claim for compensation from the French government, believe it or not, although the Sotheby’s estimate doesn’t put it in the astronomical Impressionist value range so hopefully he’ll refrain.

The 6.25-inch-by-8.5-inch piece — painted between 1870 and 1872 — has an estimated value of $350,000 to $450,000, the statement said, quoting the company catalogue.

The painting reflects a break from the academic focus of Degas’ early years when he dedicated himself to the “search for the essence of modern life,” said Sotheby’s spokeswoman Lauren Gioai.

“The 1870s gave rise to some of Degas most celebrated works,” she said.

The painting wasn’t in the Art Loss Register or any of the other theft recovery databases Sotheby’s consulted. There was, however, a stencil on the back of the canvas, “RF 1953-8,” marking it as the eighth work of art acquired by the French Republic in 1953. Also, the catalog entry mentioned the painting’s illustrious provenance, having been first owned by Madame Jeantaud, thought to have been a model for another work by Degas, and then by Carle Dreyfus, a well-known collector and one of the first curators of the Decorative Arts department at the Louvre. Upon his death in 1952, Dreyfus bequeathed the painting to the Louvre who put the registration marks on the back. That last step in the painting’s history, however, didn’t make it into the catalog.

André Malraux, France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs under Charles de Gaulle (1959–1969), loaned the painting to the museum because it was the first French art institution rebuilt and reopened after its destruction in World War II. The Degas was the first government-owned painting placed in the museum, so not only does it have immense cultural value because it’s a beautiful late period Degas, but also because it played an important symbolic part in the cultural revival of post-war France.

Malraux Museum director Annette Haudiquet expects the painting will return to France within the next month, but it hasn’t been determined yet whether it will go back to the Normandy museum.





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