One of Revere’s last extant bells returns to Boston

The 1801 Revere & Sons bell loaded into a truck for transport to BostonOne of 40 or so remaining bells cast by Paul Revere has returned to Boston, the city where it was made by the Revere & Sons foundry in 1801. It has been purchased from the First Baptist Church of Westborough by the Old South Meeting House, a 1729 Puritan meeting house that was Colonial Boston’s largest building and is now a museum and center of spirited civic discussion. The bell has gone on display at the museum and will continue to be open to visitors this summer, included in the price of admission. Residents of Westborough can visit it free of charge. Come September, it will be installed in the Old South Meeting House’s 1766 clock tower.

Closeup of 'Revere & Sons Boston' stamp on the bellThe people of Westborough are bummed to lose such a prominent piece of their history. The bell was commissioned from Revere’s foundry by the Westborough town fathers for the town’s first meeting house. It was later moved to the Congregational meeting house, and then to the First Baptist Church when the new Congregational church was built with too small a belfry to fit the bell. The Baptists rented the bell from the Congregationalists for $2.60 a year before eventually buying it outright.

Westborough First Baptist Church belfry, crane in place to remove bellThe First Baptist Church of Westborough closed its doors in 2007 due to declining attendance and increasing costs. The town tried to scrape up enough money to buy the bell and keep it in town, but were not able to raise sufficient funds. The bell was appraised by Skinners auction house at one million dollars. We don’t know how much the Old South Meeting House paid for it, but the museum’s executive director Emily Curran says it was considerably less than that.

Old South Meeting HouseBut the 876-pound iron bell, which Westborough town fathers purchased for $2.69 in 1801 from Revere’s foundry, might acquire even more historical significance in its new home.

It is one of the oldest Revere bells in existence — older than the bell at the Paul Revere House. It is returning to the birthplace of the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

And once there, it will be linked to the Old South Meeting House’s 1766 tower clock, one of the oldest operating tower clocks in the country.

Horologist David Hochstrasser examines clock before restorationThe Old South Meeting House tower hasn’t had a bell in it since 1876. The steeple was restored in 2009, including a thorough restoration of the clock, made in 1766 by renowned clock and watchmaker Gawen Brown. The historic clock, which after its completion was on display at Faneuil Hall until it was installed at the Old South Meeting House in 1770, was dismantled gear by gear, then taken offsite in painter’s buckets to be cleaned and fixed. Restored clockIt was put back together in the steeple and is now back to its former glory. It’s New England’s oldest tower clock in continuing operation in its original location.

The bell will be polished and its original yoke, wheel and frame restored. Once the bell is mounted in its new home this fall, it will become the third Revere bell on the Freedom Trail, and most delightfully for Bostonians, it will ring again every hour on the hour. It has a lovely tone, too, which you can hear a muted version of in this video:

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What you see there are Westborough residents Mallory Shane and her mother Mary Batties ringing the 1801 bell by striking the clapper against the side. The bell was on the back of the truck that brought it to Boston, so the video captures the last time the Paul Revere bell rang in Westborough.

The next time it’s heard again will be in the historic center of Boston. For more pictures of the bell’s dismantling from the Westborough church, plus pictures of the clock restoration and news about events, see the Old South Meeting House Facebook page.

Tiny camera looks inside Mayan tomb

Temple XX; the hole the camera dropped down; first glimpse of burial chamber; interior of the burial chamberNational Institute of Anthropology and History lowered a tiny videocamera into a 1,500-year-old Mayan tomb to reveal a riot of color painted on the walls and several funerary vessels in the southern Mexico city of Palenque. Although archaeologists have known the tomb was there since 1999, they haven’t been able to explore it because a later pyramid (called Temple XX) built on top was structurally unsound so any routing around under the foundations could have resulted in cave-ins or worse.

The team ran a two-inch camcorder through a 6-inch square hole on the roof of the vaulted tomb. It dropped 16.4 feet into the funerary chamber and immediately captured a vivid crimson paint on the walls. Further inside the camera revealed murals of nine human figures outlined in black against the blood-red background. The tomb also holds eleven vessels, probably once containing funerary offerings, and fragments of jade and shell that were probably part of the elaborate funeral attire.

There was no sarcophagus. Archaeologists think the body may have been placed directly on the floor.

Features of the funerary chamber, as declared by Dra Martha Cuevas, indicate that the osseous rests could correspond to a sacred ruler of Palenque, probably one of the beginners of the dynasty.

According to the temporality determined by INAH specialists for the mortuary precinct, the osseous remains could correspond to one of these ajau or lords: K’uk’ Bahlam I, first ruler of the city; a lord who’s name has not been translated but some authors call him Ch’away; Butz’ Aj Sak Chiik; Ahkal Mo’ Naab’ I; K’an Joy Chitam I, or Ahkal Mo’ Naab’ II, who was enthroned in 565 AD.

Archaeologist Martha Cuevas mentioned that although the precinct has not been excavated, it can be deduced parting from the type of ceramic and mural painting of the mortuary chamber that Temple 20 was built near 400-550 of the Common Era, at the Early Classic period.

University of Texas at Austin Mayan epigraphy expert David Stuart thinks the date and ancestral figures painted on the wall may be evidence that the tomb belonged to a famous female ruler of Palenque, Ix Yohl Ik’nal.

Here’s the videocamera footage taken inside the tomb. EDIT: Try this link if the embedded video doesn’t work.

Bodies found in Norwich medieval well are Jewish

Researchers from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee have discovered that 17 bodies thrown head first into a Norwich well in the 12th or 13th century were Jews, at least five of them from the same family.

Reconstruction of tightly packed skeletons found in Norwich wellThe remains were first discovered in 2004 during the construction of a shopping center. The archaeological survey of the area had been completed months earlier when archaeologist Giles Emery of Norvic Archaeology got a call from one of the backhoe operators saying he’d seen a skull in a foundation hole over 16 feet below ground level, far deeper than normal burials even from the ancient layers. Emery returned to the site and when the machine pushed aside a clump of dirt, they saw a tight mass of human skeletons which had been dumped into the well. They were shoved in so close together that at first Emery thought there were three or four bodies. It was only after further excavation that he realized there were so many more.

Eleven of the 17 bodies were children between the ages of two and 15, five of them below the age of five. The positions in which they were found indicated many of them had been dropped into the well from their ankles, the adults first. There was no obvious cause of death detected in the initial osteological examination, although some of the bones did show signs of malnutrition and non-fatal trauma like healed minor fractures and arthritis. Radiocarbon testing and some pottery sherds found in the well dated the bodies to the 12th or 13th centuries.

It was a mysterious, unique find. No other pile of bodies shoved into a well has ever been found in the UK. There was a consecrated cemetery within view of the well and the Jewish neighborhood a few steps away, so why had these people been thrown away like trash instead of buried according to religious custom? Even common graves and plague pits are at least holes in the ground.

Recently the BBC program History Cold Case became involved, bringing the University of Dundee team on board to perform cutting edge forensic examinations of the bones. They were able to eliminate disease as a cause of death. Bubonic plague was still a hundred years away at the time of death, and there was no evidence of any other fatal illness like leprosy or tuberculosis in the bones.

It was DNA expert Dr. Ian Barnes who found the smoking gun: five of the individuals had retrievable, testable DNA and it indicated that they were Jewish. The mitochondrial DNA — DNA that remains the same transmitted down the female line — of all five people matched, so they were family members. Stable isotope analysis, which uses the trace elements found in the bones to determine diet and migration patterns during their lifetime, indicated that the skeletons were from the Norwich area.

Norwich had a well-established Jewish community from 1135 until King Edward I expelled all the Jews from England in 1290. That’s not to say they were embraced as fellow men and brothers. When 150 Jews were killed in York in 1190, Norwich followed suit with a massacre of its own. Only the Jews who had fled to the castle survived. In the 1230s, there were a number of Jews executed because of a rumored child abduction, your classic blood libel.

Here’s a striking view of how Jews were seen not just by the population of Norwich but by the government, which had no problem at all borrowing money from Jews while also taxing them at sky-high rates and stealing/confiscating their property. It’s a drawing found on an Exchequer Roll, a document that lists tax payments made by the Jews of Norwich in 1233, during the reign of King Henry III.

Anti-Semitic cartoon from Norwich tax record

That three-headed monster with the crown towering over the center of the drawing is Isaac fil Jurnet, a wealthy Jewish moneylender from Norwich who was banker to King Henry, the Abbot and monks of Westminster, the Bishop of Norwich and many, many other movers and shakers. The man and woman facing each other beneath him with Satan between them are Mosse Mokke and his wife Abigail both of whom were employed as debt collectors by Isaac. On the left there’s a poor Christian monk, his scales full of coin that Isaac is trying to wrest from him using one of the many devils at his command. Isaac had sued the Westminster monks to get the interest from money they had borrowed after they refused to pay it.

That’s the level of anti-Semitism found in the tax rolls of 13th century England. You can imagine how much worse it got outside official government documents. Bad enough, certainly, to explain 17 people, 11 of them children, murdered and stuffed in a well.

First Ice Age engraving of trunked animal found in US

Mastodon bone inscribed with image of a mastodon, about 13,000 years oldResearchers from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida have confirmed in a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science that an engraved fossilized bone fragment discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in Vero Beach, Florida four or five years ago is at least 13,000 years old and is thus the first, and so far only, Ice Age image depicting a trunked animal ever found in the United States.

The engraving is of a mastodon or a mammoth and was done on a bone that once belonged to a mammoth, mastodon or giant sloth. There are all kinds of ancient depictions of mastodons and mammoths on cave walls and engraved on bones in Europe, but even though we know from the fossil record that proboscideans (trunked animals) existed in the Americas, this is the first human representation of one found.

Fossil aficionado James Kennedy discovered the bone in 2006 or 2007 (he can’t quite recall) and put it in a cabinet under his sink where it remained until 2009 when he fished it out and dusted it off. It was only after cleaning it that he saw the engraving and contacted scientists at the University of Florida, the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and National Museum of Natural History who took custody of the object and began to study. Kennedy told National Geographic in 2009:

“I had no idea it was this big of a fuss. [When I heard] there was nothing else like it in the Western Hemisphere, that’s when my heart kind of stopped.”

Initial analysis performed by the researchers consistently pointed to both fossil and engraving being genuine and ancient, but it has taken a full two years for the team to complete the study and publish the final results. Their initial departure point was skepticism because nothing of its kind had been found before, and even if the fossil was genuine, the engraving could well have been a modern hoax modeled after similar ones in Europe.

Kennedy found the bone near the Old Vero site, the spot where geologist Elias Howard Sellards found human bones lying side-by-side with the bones of extinct Ice Age animals in an excavation between 1913 and 1916. He concluded that humans had hunted animals at Vero Beach during the last Ice Age, but his claims have been disputed ever since.

The team compared the elemental composition of the engraved bone to other comparable fossils discovered at the Old Vero site. Rare earth element analysis indicated the fossil was ancient and originated at or around the Old Vero site. Since mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths died out in the area about 13,000 years ago, the bone must be older than that. Forensic examination of the engraving indicated that it was not recent, but rather aged and mineralized along with the bone.

Optical microscopy results show no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material indicating that both surfaces aged simultaneously. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) revealed that the edges of the inscription are worn and show no signs of being incised recently or that the grooves were made with metal tools. In addition, the backscattered SEM images suggest there is no discontinuity in the distribution of light and heavy elements between the scribed region and the surrounding bone indicating that both surfaces aged in the same environment. This is very different from an intentional mark made on the bone for comparison. Energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDXS) shows that the surface contains significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon typical of a mineralized bone surface. Examination of a cast and mold of the incised bone by Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) also provided no evidence that the engraving was made recently.

The data are thus conclusive enough for the researchers to announce that this is indeed the first mastodon/mammoth representation ever found in the Americas.

The bone is still squirreled away in the lab for now, but you can see a cast of it at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Its future is in question. In 2009, Kennedy said he was undecided about whether to sell it or donate it to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Here’s hoping he’s made up his mind to do the right thing and give it (or sell it, for that matter) to a museum.

Mastodon bone with inscription detail blow out

Celebrate Solstice with Druids, the Welsh and LIFE

Druid with a monocle at has collated yet another excellent gallery dedicated to the celebration of the summer solstice in the UK. Druids: Mystery, Faith, Myth stars some nattily attired modern druids celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge, including one gentleman with a monocle whom I absolutely adore. If anyone can tell me who he is, I’d love to know. He must be a prominent figure in the Neo-Druid movement of the 1950s, because the LIFE gallery has another shot of him shaking hands with a second Druid on the Isle of Mull in Scotland in September of 1954 during what was considered the first gathering of Druids in Scotland since antiquity.

We know very little about actual ancient Druids. They didn’t leave written texts behind, so all we have to go on in terms of contemporary sources are Roman and they are uniformly disparaging. Julius Caesar describes the Druids in his Gallic Wars thus:

The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes. Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.

The Roman sources all indicate that the Druids performed human sacrifices. Again, we have little to no evidence of this, and even if it were true that the invading Romans saw Druidic ritual human sacrifice, they could have been performed in response to the destructive trauma of invasion rather than as a regular part of Druidic practice. Certainly the Druids today reject this characterization as an aspersion cast by ancient enemies.

Princess Elizabeth led into the Sacred Circle of Bards, 1946Modern Druid rituals and beliefs spring from a more recent tradition, the late 18th, early 19th century Romantic fascination with ancient Britain and its mystery religions. It is that tradition we see then-Princess Elizabeth celebrating in the LIFE picture from August 6, 1946 where she is being led into the Sacred Circle of Bards at the national Eisteddfod at Mountain Ash, Glamorgan, Wales. We owe the fantastic spectacle of the future Queen of England and Defender of the Faith donning the green robes of the novitiate and being invested a bard in a Druidic ceremony to one man: Edward Williams, a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg, stonemason, poet, Welsh nationalist, manuscript collector and most able forger.

Born in 1747 in Llancarfan in Glamorgan, southern Wales, Williams was a political radical, religious dissenter and pacifist Jacobin who believed Wales should have its own national institutions celebrating its unique culture and heritage. As a young man working as a stonemason in London, he had seen Welsh culture widely disparaged. He believed the Welsh poets were the direct descendants of the Celtic druids, and he set about writing so glorious a history it would put the English to shame, even if he had to forge it, by gum.

Iolo MorganwgIn support of that vision, in 1789 he published a collection of poems by 14th-century Welsh bard Dafydd ap Gwilym. Included were many newly-discovered poems Morganwg had “found,” i.e., written himself. The book was popular and inspired him to return to London to take the next step in promoting Welsh culture.

On the 21st of June, Summer Solstice, 1792, Iolo Morganwg held a ceremony on Primrose Hill in London founding the Gorsedd of Bards (in Welsh the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain), a community of Welsh bards dedicated to preserving Welsh language, poetry and music. He developed the ritual for the ceremony from druidic rites described in ancient manuscripts from his collection that were later found to have been the product of his own very fertile, laudanum-addicted imagination.

It wasn’t just the English disdain that he was combating with his founding of the Gorsedd. There was intra-Welsh snobbery too, courtesy of northern Wales (Gwynedd), which saw itself as the purest expression of the Welsh poetic tradition. Morganwg’s manuscripts were evidence that only in southern Wales, in his own region of Glamorgan, was druidic lore preserved intact from ancient times, through centuries of oppression from Rome, the Christian Church and England.

He kind of pulled it off, too, especially by linking the Gorsedd with what would become the national festival of Wales, the Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod is a folk festival celebrating Welsh language, music, poetry and literature that traces its lineage back to a grand gathering of musicians and poets held by Lord Rhys of Cardigan in 1176. From that early progenitor, a vast number of provincial gatherings proliferated over the centuries, sponsored by local lords all over Wales.

In 1819 the eisteddfod festivals and the Gorsedd of Bards came together, thanks again to Iolo Morgannwg, now 72 years old and still with a keen eye towards promoting Welsh civilization. He traveled to the eisteddfod being held at the Ivy Bush Inn in Carmarthen and drew a Gorsedd circle — meant to be a sacred circle of standing stones a la Stonehenge — on the lawn using a handful of pebbles. In the circle, he invested the notables present as bards and druids, including the local bishop and festival patron, Bishop Thomas Burgess of St. David’s.

Archdruid crown designed by Hubert von Herkomer for Newport Proclamation Ceremony 1896From then on, the Gorsedd and the eisteddfod continued to develop their relationship, and when the National Eisteddfod was established in 1861, the Gorsedd’s Druidic rituals, now considerably more elaborate than they had been at that first Primrose Hill ceremony of 1792, played a central role, providing high drama and pageantry in the medal ceremonies and in the investiture of important political, religious and cultural figures into the Gorsedd in recognition of their contributions to the nation, language and culture of Wales.

It’s a remarkable feat of cultural transformation Iolo Morganwg accomplished, going from naked English contempt for the Welsh to the future Queen herself donning green robes and joining the Gorsedd Circle in a celebration of Welsh language, culture and civilization. You can see a little more of the Gorsedd’s ceremonial flair in this Pathé footage of Princess Elizabeth’s investiture, complete with sung hymns and Archdruid Crwys Williams drinking from the huge and curvy Horn of Plenty.

For more on Welsh history in general and on the Eisteddfod and Gorsedd in particular, do yourself a favor and browse the excellent website of the National Museum of Wales.