Archive for May, 2011

Washington’s garden restored from myth to reality

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

George Washington’s Upper Garden on his Mount Vernon estate has for many years been the province of English boxwood and formal rose gardens, but has now been returned to its original practical beauty. The experts had assumed that the boxwood, those scions of the classic English garden, were original to Washington’s time, and even the roses were if not fully original, at least close to it. In the 1980s, new research showed that the hybrid tea roses didn’t even exist until 1860; later tree-ring counts performed on deceased boxwoods proved they had been planted around the same time as the roses.

In 1985, the garden was redesigned to bring it closer into line with the authentic garden Washington enjoyed. The roses were removed and replaced with smaller plots of ornamental flowers. The boxwoods, however, remained, kept in place by their own mythology and the mythology they supported of Washington as American royalty. The boxwoods couldn’t live forever, though, and as they began to perish and get removed six years ago, Esther White, Mount Vernon’s director of archaeology, finally had the opportunity to excavate the garden. She discovered evidence of Washington’s first plantings: fruit trees in the 1760s.

Excavations continued over the next few years, the team finding multiple versions of the garden from different periods until they were able to pinpoint the layout of the 1780s garden. It was walled and bullet-shaped walled, with wide paths and fewer large, long beds instead of the small crescent beds that had characterized the garden for so many years.

Starting in August of last year, Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture, and his team began a complete redesign of the Upper Garden to return it to as close to its 1780s landscaping as possible. No more mannered hedges and small groupings of pretty flowers. They used the layout they had discovered, originally designed by Samuel Vaughan, and turned to Washington’s own weekly gardener’s reports to see what he had planted. It wasn’t roses; it was crops.

Which raises the question: Why weren’t these detailed reports used earlier to fashion the Upper Garden? The answer, of course, is that while the new garden speaks to Washington the man, the previous, embroidered versions told of Washington the myth. (The Upper Garden’s twin, the Lower Garden, remains an idealized Colonial Revival fruit and vegetable garden.)

“The [Upper] Garden became a reflection of everything we in the 19th and 20th century think about Washington, this romanticized view of the 18th-century man, strolling his pleasure garden, taking in the colors, the fragrances,” White said. “It’s our projection. One of the things the project did was to make people wipe clean their idea of what the garden should be. We all started again.”

There’s an excellent example of that mythologizing at work in this fascinating blog entry about artist Howard Pyle. In 1896 he wrote a letter to future President Woodrow Wilson in which he describes a painting he wanted to make of Washington the gentleman farmer, the Cincinnatus figure who served his nation when called upon, only to return to his noble bucolic life as man of the earth as soon as possible. “I am informed that the box-walk at Mount Vernon is now very much as it was in Washington’s day. It is very picturesque, and it would be interesting to place Washington in it as a setting,” says Pyle.

The thing is the rows of vegetables rimmed with flowers and clusters of fruit trees would have been, if less picturesque, certainly impressive showings of wealth in Washington’s time. Just because it was practical doesn’t mean it wasn’t also indicative of the landowner’s wealth, available leisure time and large, in this case enslaved, labor force.

The restoration is now almost complete, and it sounds dreamy.

In rebuilding the garden — the construction took place between August and November — crews brought in 350 cubic yards of soil and compost. Bulbs were planted in late 2010, the remaining plantings this spring. Eight mature apple, pear and cherry trees were moved to the orchard bed.

In late spring, the beds of decorative plants feature a mixture of all sorts of heirloom plants — bulbs, annuals, perennials, biennials, shrubs and roses. The gardeners have planted vegetables in strict rows, including peas, beans, beets, lettuce, potatoes, spinach and lots of cabbage-family plants.

$5000 for the head of patron saint of genital diseases

Monday, May 30th, 2011

The purported head of St. Vitalis of Assisi, a 14th century hermit and the patron saint of genital and urinary diseases, was sold at auction to an anonymous California phone bidder for €3,500 ($5,000). The estimated price range was between €800 (about $1,140) and €1,200 (about $1700), but as the news of the sale spread in the media — the words “patron saint of genital disease” have a lot of headline-making appeal — interest was piqued early. Auctioneer Damien Matthews received 100 bids before the sale even started, so the bidding opened well ahead of the top estimate at €2,400 (about $3,500). It took less than a minute for the Californian buyer to seal the deal at $5,000.

The purported head of St. Vitalis in its Queen Anne display caseThe skull is housed in a glass-faced Queen Anne case and belonged to the Anglo-Irish family of Annesbrook House in Duleek, County Meath, Ireland. The history of this macabre artifact is nebulous, but the story is that ancestors of the sellers acquired it on a Grand Tour of Europe during the 19th century and proudly set it in the entrance hall of Annesbrook House for all to see. Once they had children, however, they moved the head into an outbuilding where it gathered dust for decades. That’s where it was when Matthews found it while appraising articles for the upcoming sale.

As for the head itself, I don’t think it’s possible to confirm that it belonged to Saint Vitalis of Assisi, and in fact I think it’s more likely that it does not. The case is labeled “S. Vitalis M.” The “M” stands for martyr, and although there are several Saint Vitalises who died martyrs, the Assisi monk is not one of them.

He was a wayward youth, prone to brigandage and sins of the flesh, who saw the error of his ways and undertook to expiate his naughtiness by going on pilgrimages to the most important Christian sites in Italy, France and Spain. When he returned to his home in central Italy, Saint Benedict appeared to him in a dream and told him to follow his rule. Saint Benedict also got more specific and told him exactly which hermitage he should serve in.

He did as the dream told him and became a Benedictine monk assigned to the hermitage of Santa Maria of Viole, near the Benedictine monastery on the slopes of Mount Subasio, on the outskirts of Assisi. Vitalis lived there for 20 years in seclusion and poverty until his death. He wore rags and lived off the land. His sole possession was said to be a basket he used to carry water from a nearby spring. After his death on May 31, 1370 at 75 years of age, his body was buried on the spot. His reputation for saintliness drew many visitors who attributed miraculous cures to him. When he was canonized, May 31st was declared his saint day and he was made patron of genital and urinary diseases, perhaps because he had been more than passingly familiar with them in his youth.

The 'Deposition' by Dono Doni over the altar of St. Vitalis, in the Cathedral of San RufinoA church was built in Viole over his burial. His body remained in that church’s crypt until 1586 when the bishop of Assisi had it moved to the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi. There an altar was dedicated to him in the right transept of the church, decorated with a painting of the Deposition from the Cross by Dono Doni (1562-3). The left transept has an altar dedicated to St. Rufino, decorated with Dono Doni’s Crucifixion. I suppose the bishop wanted to double up on local saint power. These chapels are on either side of the central altar of the cathedral, under which the remains of St. Rufino are interred. Saint Rufino brought Christianity to Assisi, was its first bishop and patron saint, and was martyred in 238 by having a stone tied to his neck and being thrown in the Chiascio river.

In 2001, the remains of Saint Vitalis were moved one more time, in a solemn procession from San Rufino back to the Cathedral of Viole where they were re-interred under the major altar. At no point in any of these moves was there any recorded comment on a missing head. That’s not to say it couldn’t have been snatched and sold to Anglo-Irish grand tourists, but as far as the locals are concerned, their saint is intact.

British art dealer breaks law to SAVE looted artifact

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Gandharan Buddha statue, 2nd c.In a break from the usual pattern, an art dealer who has chosen to remain anonymous put his freedom and career on the line to rescue an ancient Buddha statue looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul during the 1990s.

The rare 4-foot statue of Gandharan Buddha with flames coming off his shoulders and water flowing from his feet dates to the 2nd century A.D. It was stolen at some time during the civil wars after the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime in 1992 and had traveled the dark halls of the black market in antiquities until it was recently purchased by a Japanese private collector. A Japanese dealer sent our hero a picture of the statue and he immediately recognized it from his years of travel in Afghanistan. He even remembered exactly where it had been displayed in the National Museum.

He contacted the collector and told him that the piece had been stolen, begging him to return it to the museum. Appeals to giving a damn about the cultural heritage of a war-torn nation fell on deaf ears. The collector refused to give it up. Under Japanese law, owners cannot be prosecuted for purchasing a stolen artifact even if there’s concrete proof that the item was looted.

The UK, on the other hand, has laws against buying stolen goods, but faced with the prospect of this precious piece of Afghan heritage disappearing into a private collection forever, the British art dealer (heretofore known as BAD, like in BADASS) decided he had to take the risk of being arrested to save the Buddha and return it to Kabul where it belonged. He offered to buy the statue from the Japanese collector.

He told two people of his plan: Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum and St John Simpson, a curator. They sought legal counsel only to receive confirmation that there was nothing they could do to protect themselves. Getting mixed up in this deal was illegal and they could get in big trouble, despite their best intentions. They decided the public good was more important than holding to the letter of the law, so they supported BAD’s attempt to buy the statue. He spent a year negotiating with the collector, and finally he was able to secure the sale using only his own money.

There are no details in the article about how the artifact was imported, possibly because said import was technically smuggling, but whatever they did worked.

The taller (180 ft) Buddha of Bamiyan before (1963) and after (2008) destruction by the TalibanSimpson described the rescue as “terribly appropriate”, coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan: “They’re gone forever. But one very important piece can be returned. This is a very important and stunningly beautiful piece.”

Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, described it as “one of our most treasured objects”. One source put the sculpture’s value at £600,000, but the British Museum said it is “without value, given its provenance”.

The Buddha is now safe in the hands of the British Museum where it will go on display Wednesday as part of its hugely successful Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which has been so popular the museum extended its run through July 17. The Gandharan Buddha will be returned to the National Museum in Kabul along with the rest of the exhibits.

Detailed van Gogh restoration performed in public

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

'Undergrowth with Two Figures' by Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Cincinnati Art Museum is restoring Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 masterpiece “Undergrowth with Two Figures” in view of the public. At first glance the painting looks to be in good condition. The colors and contrasts appear to be strong with none of the oxidization problem that has recently been discovered as the cause of so many of Van Gogh’s light, bright yellows turning brown over time.

What’s wrong with this painting is solely the result of a 1975 restoration done by Cincinnati Art Museum conservators. They didn’t botch it, exactly. It’s just that the technique they employed, considered a best practice at the time, to keep the paint from flaking and make it less susceptible to variations in ambient temperature and humidity ends up sucking the life out of it instead. Using a wax resin, conservators affixed a second canvas to the back of the original one. Over time, that wax penetrated the canvas, collected in the brushwork crevasses and then turned from clear to milky white. That white resin coating is like a veil obscuring the bright color and textures of the painting.

Per Knutas restores 'Undergrowth with Two Figures' at Cincinnati Art Museum“Undergrowth with Two Figures” will be going on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art next year, so to stabilize it for the trip and ensure its long-term health, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s chief conservator, Per Knutas, is undertaking an in-depth restoration to remove the well-intentioned disasters of past conservators. He views the painting through a high powered microscope, and although past restorations have been done in public, this is the first time the microscope is being connected to a 42″ HDTV so that visitors to the museum can see what he sees instead of just watching a guy make tiny movements on a painting on a table.

Knutas uses a soft brush dipped in solvent to soften the wax, then a soft bamboo stick to scrape off the wax without harming the paint.

He also will be removing varnish, a clear protective top coat, which past conservators had applied to the painting. While varnish can protect a painting, it also can alter its composition, hardening once-soft transitions and deepening colors. Research has shown that van Gogh did not varnish his paintings, Knutas said.

Watching Knutas work last week, museum director Aaron Betsky compared the painting’s amorphous, magnified forms appearing on the TV screen to contemporary video art and said it was a revelation to watch the conservation process happen.

“It’s going to make the quality of the painting come alive so much more,” he said. “One of the joys to me is when we clean our great works of art, and so much comes out that has remained hidden. It’s quite often as if you’re seeing them for the first time.”

Knutas will also take questions from museum visitors as he works. What a magnificent opportunity to see Van Gogh’s work in the minutest of detail and to learn about the art and science of conservation. For those of us outside of Cincinnati range, we must be content to see him at work in this video:


Another Blackbeard anchor retrieved from wreck

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Third largest anchor retrieved from Queen Anne's RevengeCrews from the Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington recovered a 2,500- to 3,000-pound anchor from the wreckage of Blackbeard’s flagship the Queen Anne’s Revenge Friday. It’s 11 feet, 4 inches long with arms that are 7 feet, 7 inches wide, but believe it or not, that’s only the third largest anchor on the site. The ship had multiple anchors ranging from wee 160-pound grapnels like the one retrieved in October 2009 to emergency behemoths deployed during storms. This one was probably the ship’s everyday anchor.

The team originally planned to recover the second largest, which is 13 feet long with arms that are 8 feet across and weighs at least 3,000 pounds, on Thursday, only to encounter adverse weather that forced them to postpone the attempt for a day. They figured the larger one would be the easiest to retrieve since it’s on top of the ballast pile, but it was too deeply embedded in the objects used for ballast so they decided to go for the number three which was perched on the side. Given the configuration of the remaining parts of the ship, it’s likely that future dives will recover artifacts from the side of the ballast pile as well.

The only remaining parts of the ship — the wooden hull structure, ribs and a plank — are at the bottom of the pile, protected by ballast that kept the ship upright. Six cannon and three other anchors are also in the pile.

Wendy Welsh, field conservator and QAR lab manager, and archaeologist Chris Southerly dived in the Atlantic to hook up the anchor for its lift to the ocean surface. “It lifted great,” said Welsh, who has worked with the project for nine years. “I didn’t think I’d see this day so soon.”

Southerly compared the retrieval to the child’s game of Pick-Up-Sticks, where players toss plastic sticks on a hard surface and then remove them one at a time without disturbing the ones underneath. “It’s really satisfying that I’ve had privilege of seeing it,” he said.

The anchor is now in the North Carolina Maritime Museum artifact repository where it will undergo years of conservation. The small grapnel is two years into conservation and is still not display-ready. This much larger anchor with far more extensive concretion (the hardened concrete-like coating of ocean debris that forms around the leaching wrought iron) will require an estimated four years of painstaking attention before it’s stabilized.

The N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort is the official repository for all artifacts recovered from the Queen Anne’s Revenge. They’ve had a small exhibit dedicated to Blackbeard’s flagship, but on June 11th a new permanent exhibit opens to the public featuring a newly renovated 1200-square-foot space, a third of the space in the entire museum, to showcase as many of the 250,000 artifacts recovered from the wreck site as they can.

Engraving of Blackbeard, hair woven with flaming fuses, ca. 1715The Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground off the coast of North Carolina in June 1718. The 300-ton British man-of-war was built in 1710. It was captured by the French in 1711, and they used it as a slaving vessel. It was captured again only by pirates this time in 1717. Pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold gave the ship to one of his crewmen, a certain Edward Teach or Thatch who would become famous under his nom-de-guerre, Blackbeard. He renamed it from La Concorde de Nantes to Queen Anne’s Revenge, packed it with cannon instead of slaves, and with it laid waste to British, Dutch, French and Portuguese shipping from west Africa to the Caribbean.

There’s some speculation that Blackbeard intentionally grounded the ship so he could thin out his crew and keep the lion’s share of booty once he accepted the pardon of North Carolina governor Charles Eden. Not that it would do him much good. Five months later, he had already gone back to piracy and was defeated and decapitated by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy.

If you’d like to read more about the challenges and delights of the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck, there’s an excellent article from a couple of months ago on the QAR salvage operations on the Smithsonian Magazine site. The Queen Anne’s Revenge recovery and conservation project has a website of its own very much worth perusing.

Triptych stolen in Italy in 1971 found in Kentucky

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Virgin Mary triptych attributed to Jacopo del Casentino, 14th c.A 14th century triptych depicting the Virgin Mary that was stolen from a private home in Goito, Italy (southwest of Verona) during a burglary in 1971 has been found at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The Speed purchased it unwittingly from Newhouse Galleries, an Upper East Side New York art gallery, in 1973 for $38,000 and have agreed to return it to Italy.

Since then, it has gone on display at the museum off and on, most recently off. It hadn’t been exhibited in at least a decade when Homeland Security agents were alerted to its location by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Rome a few months ago. The feds aren’t saying how exactly the painting was traced to the museum or how it got from Goito to New York in the first place, but once the authorities contacted the Speed they immediately cooperated with the investigation and helped confirm that their triptych was in fact the one stolen in 1971. Specialists compared the work to pictures of it in the Goito home and identified it based on unique markings.

The small (1.6 feet by 1.9 feet) tempera-on-wood altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary with Christ child in the center panel, Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria on the left panel, and the crucifixion of Christ and the annunciation on the right panel. It has been attributed to Florentine artist Jacopo del Casentino (b. 1297?, d. 1358), but there is still debate among art experts. Some people think it’s a 19th century work made in the style of a 14th century piece. Speed director Charles Venable isn’t convinced it’s Casentino’s, but the Italian authorities and the U.S. Attorney appear to be.

Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Saints, Jacopo del Casentino, ca. 1330If it is Casentino’s work that’s a very big deal because right now the only other work known to exist by that artist is in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. It’s another triptych of the Virgin Mary, in fact, called Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Saints.

The triptych was stolen from Lidia Bianchi Perdomini’s felicitously named home Villa La Giraffa (yes, that does mean Giraffe Villa) on October 2, 1971. Burglars cut through metal bars and a glass window, absconding with the triptych, paintings from the Venetian school and oils by realist painters Giovanni Fattori and Silvestro Lega, among others. The collective value of the stolen pieces was assessed at $33 million, and that was 40 years ago.

When the Speed bought it the piece was attributed to an unknown 14th century artist and given the small original sale price, the museum never bothered to insure the piece, not even for the $38,000 they spent on it, never mind for the millions it would be worth as a confirmed Casentino. They’re taking the hit, such that it is, with good cheer, though. Before they return the piece they will put it on display one more time in an exhibition called The Case of the Italian Altarpiece. The exhibit focuses on putting the painting in the context of the international art trade and will provide visitors with details on how the piece was researched and the history of ownership determined. It’s a neat idea that more museums who get busted with loot should emulate. The exhibit will be open from June 9th to sometime this summer (probably early July).

The Speed is a member of the Blue Star Museums program, a program that allows active duty military personnel and their immediate family members free admission to more than 1,300 participating museums in all 50 states between Memorial Day through Labor Day. If you’re a military family and in the area, take advantage of the opportunity. You can find other Blue Star Museums near you here.

After the final exhibit, as per the settlement drawn up between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Speed, the triptych will be returned to the Cultural Heritage Office of Mantova, Italy. Since the original owner is deceased, the Italian authorities will determine what happens next, if it will be returned to any of Perdomini’s heirs or put on public display.

US Archaeologist finds 17 pyramids via satellite

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

University of Alabama at Birmingham Egyptologist Sarah Parcak, Ph.D has discovered 17 still-buried pyramids using infra-red satellite imagery. Funded by a BBC grant, Parcak’s team spent over a year capturing images of Egyptian sites from both NASA and commercial satellites. The images revealed more than 1,000 tombs and 3,100 ancient settlements as well as the undiscovered pyramids. French archaeologists on the ground were then able to confirm two of the pyramids in Saqqara, the burial ground for the ancient capital of Memphis and the site where the oldest pyramids (from 2,600 B.C.) were found, and a home in Tanis which exactly matched the structures revealed by the satellite imagery.

Considering that there are only 140 confirmed pyramids in Egypt, finding 17 more is of major significance, and this is only the first pass covering areas that are just under the surface. Parcak and Zahi Hawass have plans to collaborate to train young Egyptians to capture images of ancient sites using satellite technology creating a whole new field of Egyptological study and revealing new sites that have been well buried by millennia of Nile silt deposits and shifting sands.

The infra-red imaging technology is so accurate it can capture objects less than 40 inches in diameter from satellites 430 miles (700 km) above the earth. It identifies differences in density, thus distinguishing dense mud brick walls, for instance, and the soil around them. That’s how the imagery can reveal not just large structures but also the road map of entire cities. Having such a map will be of immense help to archaeologists in planning where to excavate, and the satellites will train an unblinking eye on sites that are particularly vulnerable to looting because they are famous and/or because they are unexcavated and unguarded.

Aerial view of modern San El Hagar Infra-red aerial view of ancient Tanis

The Egyptian authorities plan to use the technology to help – among other things – protect the country’s antiquities in the future.

During the recent revolution, looters accessed some well-known archaeological sites.

“We can tell from the imagery a tomb was looted from a particular period of time and we can alert Interpol to watch out for antiquities from that time that may be offered for sale.”

Parcak’s work will be covered in detail in the BBC documentary Egypt’s Lost Cities airing Monday, May 30th. This show won’t air in the US, but the Discovery Channel is putting together a documentary of its own on Parcak’s findings which is tentatively planned to air some time this summer.

To tide you over until then, find out more about Tanis in a Secrets of the Dead episode on PBS called “The Silver Pharaoh.” I just saw it last week. It describes the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes I in Tanis by French archaeologist Pierre Montet. This was in 1939 so the spectacular find, including the only silver sarcophagus ever found in Egypt, got very little attention on account of the Nazis (I hate those guys).

Speaking of which, given the Tanis location and the French archaeologist, I couldn’t help but wonder if George Lucas might have been inspired by Montet’s discoveries. The documentary even gives a shout out to the Ark of the Covenant with a Biblical reference that could be interpreted as an Intermediate Period pharaoh sacking the Temple of Solomon and taking the Ark back to Egypt (at the 7:17 point in the video).

Creepy Creeping Baby Doll

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Creeping Baby Doll, 1871 patent modelI was reading this article and watching the associated video about the robots in the National Museum of American History which is an interesting look into the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of mechanisms, from a 16th century spring-wound automaton of a monk to C3PO to cutting edge miniaturized robots. It includes a picture of a crawling children’s doll patented in 1871. It’s strikingly scary looking but the story provides no information beyond the bare bones caption (“Model for a creep baby doll, which was patented in 1871”), and it’s not even in the video, so of course I had to search high and low to find out more about this AI Chucky.

First of all, creeping is what they called crawling back then, and as recently as the early 19th century the question of whether babies should be allowed to crawl was still hotly debated. Crawling was what crazy people and animals did and as such was morally suspect, even “unnatural” for a sane human. By the mid-1800s, however, crawling was seen as a natural stage of childhood and the popularity of devices such as the standing stool began to wane.

Meanwhile, as industrial mass production took over from individual toy makers and technology itself became a source of convenience and fascination, dolls with clockwork elements became increasingly popular toys. Instead of the rag doll with a change of clothes, wood, ceramic, and metal automata put on a show of blinking eyes, moving limbs and mouths, or two faces that would turn with a flip of a switch. Dollmaking was becoming the province of inventors and machinists, not just designers. After the Civil War, American dollmakers tried to get a piece of the action by upping the mechanization ante. The baby doll with a wax head and a crawling motion powered by an internal clockwork mechanism was an attempt to tap into this trend.

Now a correction: although it’s certainly a creep, it’s actually called a “Creeping Baby Doll” and was first patented by Robert J. Clay on March 14, 1871. In the application, he describes his creepy baby as “a very amusing toy…produced at small cost.”

The prototype in the Smithsonian, however, is a slightly later iteration. Clay’s patent was number 112,550. The creep baby on display at the National Museum of American History is the patent model for patent number 118,435, submitted by George P. Clarke and accepted on August 29, 1871. Clay was Clarke’s boss and the later patent was an improvement on Clay’s original model.

Despite Clay’s belief that his toy would be very amusing, it had limited appeal for its target audience of little girls. It looks scary, weighs a lot and isn’t particularly interactive. It’s more of an exhibition piece than a cuddly toy, and once the mechanism broke (which happened often with the earlier models), its heaviness and hardness made it a dead weight rather than a doll that could be integrated into regular play.

Edison Phonograph Doll, internal phonograph mechanism shown rightEven Thomas Alva Edison’s foray into mechanized dollmaking was a playtime failure, although interesting as a display piece. He invented the first talking doll in 1877 (sold to the public starting in 1890). It was a tall, 22″ doll with a metal body and a bisque head with a wee phonograph inside that was operated by a key in the back. When the key was turned, the phonograph would play a wax cylinder. This was the first phonograph sold for home use, so it’s an important stepping stone in the history of entertainment technology. The only problem was the child had to turn the key steadily at the proper speed the whole time to hear the doll speak, and since you couldn’t switch out the cylinder, once the needle wore it down, that was the end of Chatty Cathy. Oh, also, Edison himself described the sound produced in less than flattering terms. He said “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear” and he wasn’t lying, let me tell you.

Click, if you dare, on play to hear the Little Jack Horner cylinder:

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”RUN, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE”]

The first Bronze Age battlefield found?

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Skull found at Tollense River site with fatal blunt force traumaArchaeologists excavating on land and divers exploring the riverbed of the River Tollense valley of north-east Germany have uncovered what may be the remains of the earliest Bronze Age battlefield ever found. Evidence of human-on-human violence has been discovered as far back as the early Stone Age, but nothing indicating a large-scale battle between opposing factions. The finds on the River Tollense site include the remains of 100 bodies, most of them apparently young men, plus wooden bludgeoning weapons, an arrowhead embedded deep into an upper arm, and horse bones.

Some of the human skeletal remains show evidence of face-to-face combat — large unhealed holes in their head, for instance, that could have been inflicted by weapons like the two wooden clubs that were found in pieces on the site. One was a bat made of ash wood; the other looks similar to a croquet mallet and was made of sloe wood.

Bronze Age mallet weapon found by divers in the riverbed

There is no evidence of formal burial, no pottery used as grave goods or paved stones used to build burial cysts, so archaeologists think the remains might have been washed downriver from the location of the primary battle.

The researchers suggest the bodies may have been dumped in the river before being washed away and deposited on a sandbar. Alternatively, the dead could have been killed on the spot in “the swampy valley environment”, the paper concludes.

[Dr Harald Lubke of the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Germany] believes the real conflict may have been fought out further up the river, and that the bodies so far found represent just a fraction of the carnage wrought by the battle.

“This is only a sample, what we have found up until now – the modern river bed only cuts across part of the river bed of that time. There are likely to be many more remains.

“It’s absolutely necessary to find the place where the bodies came into the water and that will explain if it really was a battle or something else, such as an offering, but we believe that a fight is the best explanation at the moment.”

The Tollense River valley at the time was the conjunction of several streams of the main tributary. It was settled, fertile, and an appealing territory for a foreign tribe to covet. The remains of a non-local millet diet found at the site could indicate the presence of an invading force.

The team’s findings thus far have been published in the journal Antiquity (pdf, subscription only), but the research is ongoing.

English source: William Wallace wanted to be king

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

William Wallace statue in AberdeenResearcher Dr. John Reuben Davies of Glasgow University has found a previously unnoticed reference in the pipe roll, a financial record of King Edward I’s exchequer, for fiscal year 1304-1305 that gives an account of William Wallace’s crimes, death and the disposition of his body parts. Discovered in the National Archives at Kew, the document describes Wallace as “a robber, a public traitor, an outlaw, an enemy and rebel against the king, who in contempt of the king had, throughout Scotland, falsely sought to call himself king of Scotland ….”

This is the first explicit reference found to Wallace seeking the kingly crown. The Scottish sources take pains to emphasize that Wallace never declared himself king or even aspired to the crown. The extant documents we have that were signed by Wallace himself all specify that he takes action in his role as Guardian of Scotland on behalf of imprisoned King John Balliol. Until now, the English sources didn’t say otherwise. This record being an internal financial document not intended for public viewing makes it more likely to be an honest view of the English powers instead of a propaganda exaggeration used to justify the brutal execution of a Scottish hero.

Dr. Davies thinks it may have been the result of a misunderstanding. Wallace was declared Guardian of Scotland by nobles including Robert Bruce after his victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. At first he shared the role with Andrew de Moray, but de Moray died just two months later from wounds incurred at Stirling, leaving Wallace as sole Guardian until shortly after his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk a year later. As Guardian, he issued edicts, commanded the army, and had the right to bear the Scottish National Standard and appoint bishops. The Guardian is basically the acting king, and when the king he acts for is a) imprisoned and b) widely considered a spineless shill (Balliol’s nickname meant “empty shirt”), you can see how the English, unfamiliar with the constitutional role, might have seen Wallace as a pretender for the Scottish crown.

The quartering of Thomas Armstrong in 1683 for treasonThe pipe roll’s entry on Wallace is also the earliest description of his execution. Pipe rolls were accounts drawn up by the office of the exchequer which tracked the moneys sheriffs were tasked to pay to the king each year. The sum would be reduced based on expenditures undertaken by the sheriffs on behalf of the crown, like tax deductions, basically. In this case, the accounts deduct the sums the sheriff spent moving William Wallace’s quartered body parts to Scotland to put on display as a gruesome warning against rebellion. Wallace was executed in London on August 23, 1305. The pipe roll covers the accounting period of Michaelmas (the feast of St. Michael, celebrated on September 29th) 1304 to Michaelmas 1305, so it was drawn up within months of Wallace’s death, maybe even a single month after, depending on how promptly they started working on their accounts after the close of the fiscal year.

The entry describes Wallace as “by sentence of the king’s court at Westminster drawn, hanged, beheaded, his entrails burned, and his body quartered, whose four parts were dispatched to the four principal towns of Scotland. This year, 61 shillings 10 pence.” This level of detail is unique in a dry financial accounting ledger like a pipe roll. Other executions are recorded in earlier rolls, but it’s basic names and dates stuff, not the gory details of the accusations and executions. It underscores that even to accounting clerks William Wallace’s crime and punishment stood out as worth noting, enough so to include a narrative of them in what would otherwise have been the medieval equivalent of a payroll spreadsheet.





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