Austrian man finds medieval jewels in his backyard

Medieval brooch found in Austrian backyardIn another happy story of someone putting historical value above personal wealth, an Austrian man has found 200 pieces of centuries-old jewelry in his backyard in Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna, the Austrian Federal Monument Agency (BDA) announced Friday. He was digging to expand a pond in his garden in 2007 when he came across hundreds of these pieces that were encrusted with moist clumps of earth. He put them in a box in the basement and forgot about them for a couple of years.

When he came across them again while packing up his belongings after selling his house, some of the dirt had dried up and fallen off, revealing the presence of precious metals and gems. He cleaned them further with common household cleansers (don’t try this at home, kids) and posted pictures of the jewels on the Internet. Collectors told him they could be very old and valuable. An amateur archaeologist encouraged him to report the discovery to the BDA, so he packed them in a plastic bag and brought them to the Monument Agency.

Austria’s department in charge of national antiquities said the trove consists of more than 200 rings, brooches, ornate belt buckles, gold-plated silver plates and other pieces or fragments, many encrusted with pearls, fossilized coral and other ornaments. It says the objects are about 650 years old and are being evaluated for their provenance and worth.

While not assigning a monetary value to the buried bling, the enthusiastic language from the normally staid Federal Office for Memorials reflected the significance it attached to the discovery.

“Fairy tales still exist!” it said its statement. “Private individual finds sensational treasure in garden.”

It described the ornaments as “one of the qualitatively most significant discoveries of medieval treasure in Austria.”

The monetary value will only be assessed after all the research on provenance and materials has been done, but the finder, who wishes to remain anonymous, has no intention of selling. He wishes to make this beautiful and historical cultural patrimony available to the public.

Many of the jewels will be presented to the public on May 2 in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace complex, the official residence of the President of Austria, the seat of government, and a museum showcasing imperial Hapsburg history.

Belt buckle with pearl inlaymedieval ringBelt buckle with figural representation

Uni employee finds Lincoln signature on his wall

Roger Kent, associate director for television at Western Illinois University, had a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall. It was a picture on cardstock set in a cutout on a red matte. Across from the picture was another cutout around a signed note. Kent had had it hanging on the wall for nearly two years, after fishing it out of the university television station’s prop room where it had languished ever since the University Union Lincoln Room was redecorated and UTV received several of the Lincoln-themed artifacts for use as set decoration four or five years earlier.

Something inspired him to inspect it carefully this year, and that’s when he realized that the writing in the cutout was a note describing the enclosed as a war department document, signed A. Lincoln and dated March 20, 1862. He sent a scanned image of the note to the curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Dr. James Cornelius. Dr. Cornelius said that at first look it appeared authentic, but that of course he needed to see it in person to assess it properly.

On March 23, Kent drove 90 miles to Springfield with the portrait, where Cornelius and other curators and archivists carefully removed the document from the frame and matte. They saw then that the little note was written on the back of a document jacket that had once been folded into thirds, enclosing the document referred to in Lincoln’s note. Comparing it to other Lincoln autographs from the same period, they declared the signature authentic and estimated its market value between $15,000 and $20,000.

Naturally the curators at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum would have loved to have added it to their collection, but Roger Kent thought it should remain at Western Illinois University where it was found.

“I decided this was something that belonged in Western’s Archives, so I got in touch with Archives and Special Collections Director Jeff Hancks and Senior Library Specialist Kathy Nichols. Of course, they were more than happy to have this piece for WIU’s collection,” [Kent] added.

Nichols calls Kent’s donation “extraordinarily commendable.”

“Roger bothered to take an interest in something that probably narrowly escaped a dumpster at one time, and he salvaged a priceless piece of history. Then he took it upon himself to have the signature evaluated by an expert, and finally, he returned the engraving and signature back to Western,” she said.

Kent officially presented the document to the WIU Archives on Monday, April 11th, the day before the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter.

14th c. Chinese split painting to be reunited

"Broken Mountains," the small piece of "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains" by Huang Gongwang, 1347-1350“Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” a 20-foot long handscroll inked by revered Yuan Dynasty landscape painter Huang Gongwang between 1347 and 1350, has been in two pieces for over 300 years. The first and smallest section (about 20 inches wide), renamed “Broken Mountains,” currently resides in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou, mainland China. The much larger second section, known as the “Master Wuyong Scroll,” is in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Thanks to a memorandum of understanding signed in January by both museums, Zhejiang Provincial Museum will fly “Broken Mountains” to Taipei in May and both sections will reunited in an exhibit at the National Palace Museum from June 1st to September 25th.

This idealized depiction of the Fuchun Mountains is one of Huang’s few surviving works and is considered his greatest masterpiece. It’s also one of the ten most famous paintings in Chinese history. Huang painted it at the end of his life as a gift for a fellow Taoist named Master Wuyong. A century later it was acquired by Ming Dynasty painter Shen Zhou and thus began its checkered journey. Shen Zhou sent it to a calligraphist to have it inscribed (nobody knows why since he himself was a famously accomplished calligraphist) and the calligraphist’s son stole the painting and sold it on the black market.

When it emerged on the market for sale, Shen Zhou couldn’t afford it, so he made a copy, an excellent copy, as it happened, which is highly acclaimed in its own right and is now in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Shen Zhou gave the copy to a friend, Fan Shunju, who was able to locate and purchase the original for an exorbitant price. Fan had Shen inscribe the whole story of the theft and copy on the original.

After that, the painting passed through various hands until it was bequeathed to one Wu Hongyu during the early Qing Dynasty (second half of the 17th century). Wu loved it so much he had it burned on his deathbed so it would be with him in the netherworld. Thankfully, his nephew Wu Jing’an rescued the handscroll from the flames, but it was burned in parts already and had been torn in two. That’s where the two pieces parted ways.

“Broken Mountains” belonged to a number of private collectors until painter Wu Hufan got it during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). It went from Wu to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum where it remains today.

The “Master Wuyong Scroll” was owned by a number of court officials, eventually making its way to the Imperial Palace itself. Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736 to 1796) was convinced it was a forgery, however. He fancied himself quite the expert and was sure that a copy he already had was the original and that the original was a copy. Since he was the emperor people agreed with him, and the error wasn’t corrected until well into the reign of his son, Emperor Jiaqing, in 1816.

After the Kuomintang lost the Chinese Civil War (1947–1949), the scroll was brought to Taiwan along with over half a million rare ancient artifacts and books from the Palace Museum and Central Museum in Beijing and Nanking.

China still claims Taiwan as part of its territory and although this has been and continues to be a source of tension, over the past three years relations have been warming thanks to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s campaign of detente. The MOU is another step in the process. Chen Hao, director of the Zhejiang Museum, hopes that Taiwan will reciprocate and send the Master Scroll to Zhejiang so the reunited masterpiece can be displayed in mainland China as well.

Here’s the Master Scroll in all its glory (click to actually see it):

"Master Wuyong Scroll" of "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains"

Roman tomb found under Naples toxic waste dump

Police have uncovered a 2nd century Roman mausoleum beneath 60 tons of trash at an illegal toxic waste dump outside of Naples.

The dump is on the grounds of a 17th-century tower in the coastal town of Pozzuoli, just west of Naples, a town which was called Puteoli in Roman times from the Latin word “putere” meaning “to stink.” Back then the name came from its location right in the middle of the Phlegraean Fields, a caldera that includes the dormant Solfatara crater that regularly emits jets of sulphurous fumes, although it applies even more today given the enormous problem of illegal garbage piles plaguing the area.

When police raided the dump, they employed earth-movers to clear and impound the trash. They found an area where parts of the 17th century tower appeared to have been intentionally ruined so the rubble could disguise the trash. After clearing away a large pile of truck tires, they discovered the entrance to the tomb.

When they saw a marble-lined tunnel behind the opening, they realized they had found something ancient and alerted archaeologists excavating a nearby Greek site to the find. Inside the police and archaeologists found a large stuccoed tomb with marble beams in surprisingly good condition despite being filled with trash from the garbage dump, including car batteries.

The tomb had already been raided, possibly even recently by the people running the dump so they could sell whatever contents they found then use the empty mausoleum to stuff more trash into. The looters broke into the side of the tomb creating two exits then covered them with tires.

“Once again we see an illegal and uncivil act of huge proportions from the point of view of the environment and our cultural history,” said Michele Buonomo, president of the Legambiente environmental pressure group. “The operation is testimony to the neglect and abandonment of our patrimony.”

The owner of the property and another person who leased the land have been charged with violating environmental and historical preservation laws. Nobody reported the dump or the presence of hazardous waste, including local officials, so police intend to investigate who intentionally looked the other way in dereliction of their duty.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this same site has been used as a trash dump. Organized crime figures were charged years ago for illegally dumping trash there, but obviously it didn’t take. Naples is drowning in garbage, and the Camorra, the regional mafia, are behind many of the illegal dumps that have arisen all over an area rich in Greek and Roman heritage.

Titanic plan on public display for first time ever

A 33-foot-long hand-drawn plan of the Titanic that was used in the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the ship’s sinking in 1912 is going on display in Belfast City Hall over the Easter weekend, from April 23 to April 26. It is privately owned, so this the first time it’s been displayed publicly since the inquiry.

Plan of the Titanic used during the Board of Trade inquiry

Drawn by White Star Line architects in India ink on a single piece of paper, the plan is a cross-section scaled to 3/8 of an inch to the foot. It shows all of Titantic’s main features, from passenger cabins to cargo holds and boiler rooms. It was created to give the inquiry commissioners a detailed picture of the ship’s construction, and includes copious notes and red and green chalk marks on the hull where witnesses and officials marked where they thought the iceberg had penetrated five of Titanic’s watertight bulkheads.

The 1912 British inquiry into the sinking of Titanic lasted 36 days. It heard the testimony of nearly 100 witnesses, including surviving crew members, White Star Line officials, and maritime experts.

The only surviving passengers interviewed were Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff-Gordon, and White Star Line President J Bruce Ismay: all first-class passengers.

The inquiry was heavily criticised for not speaking to a single passenger from the lower decks of the ship.

After asking more than 25,000 questions of witnesses, the inquiry eventually concluded that: “The loss of the said ship was due to collision with an iceberg, brought about by the excessive speed at which the vessel was being navigated.”

One of the witnesses was Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio and the wireless telegraphy system which Titanic was one of the first ships to use. Another was Ernest Shackleton, Arctic explorer of recent whisky fame, who testified as an expert in navigating icy waters.

Complete transcripts of the Board of Trade’s inquiry have been put on online at the Titanic Inquiry Project website, along with transcripts from the US Senate’s inquiry, and depositions from the lawsuit against the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the White Star Line’s parent company. It’s a treasure trove for Titanic buffs, of course, but also for general history nerds like yours truly. You can read Shackleton’s testimony here, and Marconi’s here (my favorite part is where he talks about the newly created S.O.S. standard for distress signals).

The plan will be displayed along with over 250 other items of Titanic and White Star Line memorabilia from specialist White Star Line auctioneers Henry Aldridge and Son. The drawing will then go up for auction on May 31, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s launch on May 31st, 1911.

There will be other exhibits and events held by the Belfast City Council as part of their commemoration of the launch, the “Titanic 100” festival, including lectures, film viewings, tours of the Belfast shipyard where Titanic was built, photographs chronicling the building of Titanic and more.