Archive for June, 2011

When referee error kills

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Michael Carter, a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada, thinks he has figured out what killed the gladiator Diodorus 1800 years ago: a blown call. All we know of Diodorus we got from the epitaph and engraved image on his tombstone. He was born, fought and died 1800 years ago in Turkey, in the ancient city of Amisus (today called Samsun) on the north coast of Turkey, a major port on the south Black Sea. His tombstone was discovered in Turkey a hundred years ago and donated to the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium just before the beginning of World War I.

The engraved image depicts a gladiator holding two daggers standing over an opponent raising his finger in self-acknowledged defeat. The inscription says, “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.”

Astyanax vs. Kalendio mosaic, summa rudis top right and bottom leftThe summa rudis was the primary referee on the sand, often seen in mosaics as a togate official carrying a long staff (the rudis) which he used to separate fighters. He didn’t get to choose who lived or died, though. That was the job of the editor or munerarius, the sponsor of the games, who usually deferred to the will of the crowd. So the mystery of this epigraph was how could a summa rudis, even a treacherous one, be responsible for the death of Diodorus?

According to Professor Carter, who has made a study of gladiatorial combat and its intricate rule set, the summa rudis snatched Diodorus’ defeat from the jaws of victory.

Diodorus' tombstoneAnother rule that appears to have been in place was that a gladiator who fell by accident (without the help of his opponent) would be allowed to get back up, pick up his equipment and resume combat.

It’s this last rule that appears to have done in Diodorus. Carter interprets the picture of the gladiator holding two swords to be a moment in his final fight, when Demetrius had been knocked down and Diodorus had grabbed a hold of his sword.

“Demetrius signals surrender, Diodorus doesn’t kill him; he backs off expecting that he’s going to win the fight,” Carter said.

The battle appears to be over. However the summa rudis — perhaps interpreting Demetrius’ fall as accidental, or perhaps with some ulterior motive — thought otherwise, Carter said.

“What the summa rudis has obviously done is stepped in, stopped the fight, allowed Demetrius to get back up again, take back his shield, take back his sword, and then resume the fight.”

And thus Demetrius got a do-over and he made good on it, defeating Diodorus and either killing him on the sand or inflicting a fatal wound. Diodorus’ survivors then lodged their complaint against the ref in perpetuity.


Library of Congress gets unique flat earth map

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Don Homuth, a former North Dakota state senator and current resident of Salem, Oregon, will donate the sole complete copy of the Map of a Square and Stationary Earth by Orlando Ferguson to the Library of Congress. Homuth was given the map by his eighth-grade English teacher John Hildreth who had received it from his grandfather. He didn’t realize it was the only one left intact until he contacted the LoC to arrange for the donation.

Robert Morris, senior technical information specialist in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, said they searched through 75 to 100 related maps before confirming they didn’t have a similar map in its collections.

“Probably very few copies were printed, and even fewer survived,” he said. […]

“For years and years I had it folded away,” [Don Homuth] said. “It was a shock to hear it may be the only (map of its kind) in the world.”

The only other copy known to exist is in the Pioneer Museum of Hot Springs, South Dakota, Ferguson’s home town and the city where the map was first printed in 1893 (the same year the building that now houses the museum was built as a school). The museum’s copy, however, is missing the bottom of the map and footer [Edit: No it isn’t! The Pioneer Museum’s map is almost intact, but its left and right sides appears to have been trimmed and it’s in overall poor condition] with Bible verses condemning “the globe theory” and the following irresistible offer from Prof. Orlando Ferguson:

Send 25 Cents to the Author, Prof. Orlando Ferguson, for a book explaining this Square and Stationary Earth. It Knocks the Globe Theory Clean Out. It will Teach You How to Foretell Eclipses. It is Worth Its Weight in Gold.

I have searched high and low but cannot, alas, find a copy of this most excellent book on the Internet. I can’t even find a quote from it, and I’d dearly love to read the explanation of how Ferguson’s earth is supposed to work. Just from looking at it you see that Ferguson espoused not just a flat earth, but a square earth with angels manning each of the four corners; however, the only explanations on the map itself are Biblical rebuttals of a spherical earth (the most adorable of which is a cartoon in the upper right margin depicting men clinging desperately to a swiftly moving globe), not affirmative defenses of Ferguson’s map.

It seems a less than fully honest rendering of the quadri-cornered earth concept. The earth itself, the continents and oceans, are arranged in a circle and only set against a square framework. The northern hemisphere is a convex mound in the middle of a concave bowl of the southern hemisphere, presumably a structure that solves the problem of why the oceans don’t fall off the edge of the flat earth like in that atrocious Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Of course now there’s a whole new problem: how do you persuade the oceans to properly position themselves up the sides of the bowl to keep sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and South America from being constantly under water?


Experts train bacteria to restore 17th c. frescoes in Spain

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Church of Santos Juanes de ValenciaA multidisciplinary team of art experts and microbiologists from the Polytechnic University of Valencia are using bacteria to clean 17th century frescoes by Antonio Palomino in the Church of Santos Juanes of Valencia. The technique was developed by Italian microbiologist Giancarlo Ranalli and first used to clean frescoes from the Camposanto Monumentale, a 13th century cloister next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Premier Italian restorers Gianluigi Colalucci, Donatella Zari and Carlo Giantomassi, who worked on the Camposanto frescoes, are in Valencia sharing their expertise with the Spanish team.

The murals were damaged by a fire in 1936, then damaged again by the faulty restoration in the 1960s. The restorers back then used animal glue to replace detached frescoes. Over time the glue hardened leaving an insoluble layer. Restorers from the Institute of Heritage Restoration began the restoration trying to use a digital printing technique to fill in cracks in the paint only to find themselves thwarted by salt efflorescence, white incrustations caused by the buildup of crystallized salts after the fire, and the glue residue. Conventional methods to fix these problems either require the use of toxic chemicals, which are non-selective and can end up harming elements other than the salts and glue, or mechanical scraping that is time-consuming and can damage the paint further.

Restorer Rosa María Montes applies bacteria gel to church frescoHoping to find a solution, microbiology professor Rosa Maria Montes Estellés and Pilar Bosch, a biologist with a Ph.D. in Science and Heritage Restoration, went to Italy to learn about the new bacteria technology from Colalucci and his colleagues who were just finishing up on the Camposanto frescoes. The Italian team used cotton to apply strains of bacteria specifically selected to address the Camposanto issues.

In nature there are bacteria that feed on pretty much anything, so the first step is picking your bacterium and encouraging it to focus on whatever substances you need removed. Polytechnic University of Valencia biologists then trained their bacteria, a strain of Pseudomonas, to devour the salt efflorescence and glue residue. They developed a gel delivery system which is more effective than the cotton balls because it can be applied more quickly and more evenly and it coats the entire surface, preventing moisture from penetrating into the paint. The gel remains on the fresco for just an hour and a half, then the restorers remove it. Once the surface is cleaned and dried, any remaining bacteria die off.

The bacteria are not dangerous to humans and since they only feed on specific elements, they don’t bother anything else. They eat the salts and the glue then stop, never touching the paint itself. It’s kind of like surgical maggots used in hospitals to clean necrotic tissue: they remove the dead cells at a microscopic level but never touch living tissue.

Thus far the Valencia team has tested the Pseudomonas gel on two lunettes of the church. They’ll do another two next. The entire restoration is expected to take three years. Scientists will continue to experiment with different species of bacteria, different surfaces and different damaging elements.


At long last, a study of brain injuries in Asterix books

Friday, June 17th, 2011

I’m sure we can all agree that it’s high time brain surgeons stopped screwing around and finally dedicated their time to worthy pursuits, namely a thorough investigation of the causes, nature and ethnic breakdown of traumatic brain injuries in Asterix books. A team of researchers from the Department for Neurosurgery of Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf, Germany have published the results of their study in Acta Neurochirurgica: The European Journal of Neurosurgery. The full clinical article is available for subscribers (or regular people like me who happen to know one) here.

Out of the 34 total Asterix books, the research team identified 704 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The injuries were assessed according to their severity using the Glasgow coma scale to rate a variety of post-trauma symptoms like subgaleal swelling, aka large bruised bumps on the noggin, periorbital ecchymoses, aka “raccoon eyes,” and paresis of the hypoglossal nerve, aka an outstretched tongue sticking out the side of the mouth. I could find no cool neurological term for tweeting birds and circling stars, however, which was a disappointment.

Among the 704 identified cases of brain injury, the largest group was composed of Romans (n=450, 63.9%, Fig. 1a, Table 1). Thereof, most characters were members of the Roman imperial army (n=414), as troopers (n=365; 88.2%) or commissioned officers (n=49; 11.8%). Furthermore, 120 cases of head-injured Gaulish citizens were identified, as well as 21 head-injured pirates. The remaining head-injury victims had various sociocultural backgrounds, in that they were Belgians, Britons, Egyptians, Indians, native Americans, Normans, Swiss or Vikings (summarized in Fig. 1b). Also, four extraterrestrial characters suffered from TBI.

Not surprisingly, Gauls caused the vast majority of TBI (n=614, 87.1%). Alone, Asterix and Obelix were responsible for more than half of the detected TBIs (n=406, 57.6%). In contrast, 32 head injuries (4.5%) were caused by Romans and only one by a pirate.

Protective helmets were worn in most instances of traumatic brain injury (70.5%), understandable given the preponderance of armored Romans getting whupped, but were of dubious effectiveness since they often flew off the victims’ heads during a thumping. Out of 497 cases of brain injury sustained while wearing a helmet, the protective gear was lost in 436 of them. That’s an 87.7% helmet loss rate. Interestingly, the loss of the helmet did result in more cases of tongue-sticking-out, but not in more instances of giant goose eggs.

Then there’s the matter of the doping agent. A performance enhancing drug known as “magic potion” was a significant factor in the severity of the brain injuries. Doubtless its exclusive use by the Gauls, in particular Asterix and Obelix, the latter of whom fell into a cauldron of said doping agent when he was a baby, is a major contributor to the preponderance of Roman victims. The “magic potion” also has a secondary usage as a curative. When administered after a traumatic brain injury, the victim is instantly healed.

The good news is through all this devastation of the poor, underpowered Romans and other antis, none of the traumatic brain injuries in Asterix books have ever resulted in death or even long-term impairment. The researchers point out that this highly favorable outcome is remarkable given the limited therapeutic tools in 50 B.C.


Aurelii Hypogeum frescoes restored with lasers

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Eleven togate men, probably apostles, in the hypogeum of the AureliiThe Hypogeum of the Aurelii is a catacomb built for the important Aurelii family during the early third century A.D. It was discovered in November 1919 by construction workers building a body shop (now a large car dealership) on Viale Manzoni, near the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem on the Esquiline hill in Rome. The frescoes drew academic attention because of their copious use of both traditional Greco-Roman polytheistic imagery — Hermes, Hercules, Prometheus, Penelope’s suitors — and early Christian iconography — a Latin cross, the Good Shepherd, eleven men in togas (probably apostles), the creation of Adam. Scholars have been speculating ever since about what kind of theology these frescoes were depicting, perhaps a personal syncretistic combination of Christianity and paganism espoused by the Aurelii of this era, perhaps full-on paganism only decorated with some elements of the up-and-coming Christian culture, perhaps a form of dissident Gnosticism with its own unique symbolic imagery.

The arguments underscore what a historically significant find this is, representing as it does the multicultural milieu of a time and place in which a myriad of religions from a variety of Christian sects to Mithraism to paganism all wrestled with and bounced off each other. The Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology, the office of the Vatican responsible for the restoration of the hypogeum, presents the artwork as capturing the transition from paganism to Christianity — “the parabola of Christianization,” according to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Commission — but I think that’s an oversimplification. There weren’t just two strains of temporally overlapping thought here.

The Aurelii were a very prominent and wealthy plebian family in the Roman Republic. They had consuls in the family starting with the First Punic War in the mid-second century B.C. Aurelia Cotta was Gaius Julius Caesar’s mother. In the imperial era, Marcus Aurelius was the most famous of the Aurelii. We don’t know if the builders of the hypogeum were of the imperial line. Manumitted slaves took the gens of their former owners so it could be freedmen, but even so by this time imperial freedmen could be extremely wealthy, politically powerful and socially respected. Enough to be able to afford large and elaborately decorated burial chambers.

Aurelia Prima (left) mourning her brothers (right)The laser technology used during the ten-year restoration to clean the walls (the same technology that was used in the restoration of the catacombs of St. Tecla) has revealed a newly-discovered fresco depicting the death of two brothers, Onesimus Aurelius and Aurelius Papirius, and their sister Aurelia Prima mourning them, all bound with Homeric imagery.

At the top, where the icon painters of the past recognized the palace and the flocks of Laertes, was discovered Aurelia Prima who, in a sign of mourning, lets down her hair to mourn the two dead brothers who have been placed on the bier in a funerary enclosure. In the lower area …, we see the moment when Odysseus gets Circe to return his comrades, transformed into swine [by her sorcery], back into human form. The story, which unfolds in the tenth canto of the Odyssey, fits well with the funerary themes of the period, keeping in mind that it was Circe who showed a curious Odysseus the pathway to the underworld. The new scenes fall perfectly in the multi-religious system headed by the Aurelii’s personal syncretism, which also involves two enigmatic scenes where you can recognize both Prometheus creating man and Hercules in the garden of the Hesperides, and the creation of Adam and the expulsion from Eden.

It is likely that the three named Aurelii were among those buried in the chambers. In an inscribed marble plaque, Aurelius Martinus and his wife Julia Lydia memorialize their deceased daughter Aurelia Myrsina. The frescoes suggest that these Aurelii wanted to present themselves as members of an imperial elite who were entitled to depict themselves along with gods and demigods in the midst of mythological themes. Their villas and gardens, concrete representations of wealth, are the settings of some of these scenes, including the one of Aurelia Prima mourning her brothers.

In order to preserve the delicate frescoes, the hypogeum will not be open to general tourism, but it won’t be closed all the way either. Any would-be tourists will have to book a visit ahead of time with the pontifical commission.



Cumbria museum cheered up by beautiful helmet loan

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

The Nijmegen helmet sees what Crosby Garrett did thereThe Tullie House museum in Carlisle, Cumbria, the small local museum that against all odds raised £1.7 million to purchase the Crosby Garrett helmet at auction only to be outbid by an anonymous private collector, is getting a beautiful if temporary consolation prize. The Het Valkhof museum in Nijmegen, the Netherlands will loan them their own prize possession, the Nijmegen helmet, for the opening of Tullie House’s new Roman gallery on June 25th.

The Nijmegen helmet is a cavalry display helmet that was found in the gravel on the left bank of the Waal river south of Nijmegen in 1915. Like the Crosby Garrett helmet, it has an elegant face mask visor topped with a head piece. It also features a diadem with five busts in high relief, two male figures and three female. It dates to the 1st century A.D., probably the latter half; the busts are Flavian in style, so from between 69 and 96 A.D.

The visor connects to the diadem via a single hinge in the middle of the forehead. It’s rare that the hinging mechanism survives intact. You can see exactly how, with the mask raised, the helmet could be fit on the head and then the visor lowered. Straps would then have been fitted over studs beneath the ears and tied around the head piece in the back to ensure the whole get-up stayed comfortably (?) in place.

The head piece is made of iron and was designed to contour closely to the wearer’s head. The visor and diadem are brass overlaid with silver. The lips and eyelids of the mask are gilded, as are the beaded borders of the diadem and the drapery, lips, eyelids, and hair of its busts. Again, this is a special feature. Most of the surviving helmets have corroded so the gold and silver are gone leaving just the bronze, brass or iron behind.

The visage on the mask is that of a beardless youth, otherworldly beautiful and androgynous. According to Arrian, these visored helmets were used in cavalry parades and sporting mock battles. They would have come with elaborate plumage and the horsemen would enhance the look by wearing brightly colored clothing, thus appearing to the audience as godlike figures.

Nijmegen helmet, right profile Nijmegen helmet Nijmegen helmet, left profile

That’s going to make a beautiful guest star at the Roman Frontier: Stories beyond Hadrian’s Wall exhibit which opens at Tullie House museum in Carlisle on June 25th. The Nijmegen helmet will remain on display until October.

Tullie House has gotten a great deal of support from other museums and even from private collectors in the wake of the Crosby Garrett disappointment.

“I didn’t have to persuade Nijmegen, they showed me their collection and when I chose this, the most beautiful, they didn’t blink,” Andrew Mackay, collections manager at Tullie House, said. “When this has to go home, we have another coming. We have managed to arrange some stunning loans for the new gallery, and there is no doubt that this saga has helped us.”

That’s a heartwarming unintended consequence, and Tullie House can certainly use some heart warming since the anonymous private collector who bought the Crosby Garrett helmet has thus far refused to make himself known or even to respond to multiple attempts to contact him through the auction house. The museum hoped there was a chance they could negotiate a private purchase with the buyer, but when they got silence in response, they wrote asking if they could at least take some measurements so they could create a replica to display in the new Roman gallery. No answer. Rat fink.


750 bags of Roman poop reveal ancient life

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Archaeologist collects Herculaneum's poopArchaeologists excavating the Vesuvius-blighted town of Herculaneum were thrilled to find a septic tank full of compacted ancient feces. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the pyroclastic surge (fluidized volcanic gas and debris) that swept through the city carbonized organic materials in an instant, thus preserving things like wood and food which would otherwise have rotted. Then, once the surges cooled, they hardened, burying the town under 50-60 feet of volcanic rock. The organic materials continued to be protected from the elements for almost 2000 more years.

Herculaneum has thus been a unique source of information about Roman life. Human excrement provides a particularly thorough snapshot of how people lived: what they ate and what sort of illnesses and parasites they were prone to. The city sewers are small, though. One of the main ones that is thought to have served the public baths and several wealthy private homes is a mere 24 inches (60 centimeters) wide and 3.3 feet (1 meter) high. There’s another of similar dimensions running under one of the north-south streets. In order for archaeologists to explore them and to make them usable again for water drainage, those slender sewers were cleared with pressure hoses.

Herculaneum sewerUnder a third street, however, they found a far larger tunnel, this one almost 12 feet high (3.6 meters) and 282 feet (86 meters) long. That meant the team could clear that sewer by hand instead of by hose, and archaeologists love nothing more than tunneling through 12 feet of ancient poop. There was over a foot and a half of organic waste deposited along the full 282-foot length of the tunnel. It’s not so much a sewer — it didn’t drain into the sea like the small tunnels did — as a septic tank that collected refuse dropped from garbage chutes connected to the sewer from the apartment buildings, homes and shops on the street above.

The residents would drop all their common household waste, from the contents of commodes to food scraps to broken pottery, down the shaft into the sewer. Archaeologists were immediately able to get an idea of some of the foods eaten by the residents of Herculaneum in the days right before the disaster by looking at the identifiable detritus — like cherry pits and fig seeds — in the top layer of excrement. They eventually collected over 750 bags of excrement from the walls of that septic tank, and have spent the past few years analyzing it.

Close scrutiny of the composted human waste has revealed that the estimated 150 middle- and lower-class inhabitants of the three-storey block of flats had a much more varied diet than previously thought.

They regularly feasted on fish, spiky sea urchins, figs, walnuts, eggs and olives, using the olive pips as fuel in their homes.
Each apartment’s kitchen and latrines was linked to the septic tank via waste disposal chutes, down which households would chuck broken plates, cups and other everyday items. […]

“What we’ve found is a fantastically good snap shot of what the Romans were using in their kitchens, from pots and pans to glass ware and broken cups,” said Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

They found 170 crates of artifacts including pottery, jewelry and coins, but it’s the poop that’s the greatest treasure of them all, indicating that even the commoners of ancient Herculaneum ate an exceptionally varied diet rich in fiber, seafood, fruit and vegetables.

For an entertaining jaunt through Herculaneum past and present, check out PBS’ Secrets of the Dead: Herculaneum Uncovered. At around the 35 minute mark there are some amazing shots of the organic items that survived, like a beautifully inlaid wooden bed and a loaf of bread that looks like you could dust it off and eat it right now, followed by a glimpse into the sewer that has provided archaeologists with so much lovely crap to sift through.



Canada returns 21,000 stolen Bulgarian artifacts

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Bulgarian, Canadian, UNESCO officials view repatriated artifactsThe Canadian government returned 21,000 looted ancient artifacts to Bulgaria‘s culture minister in a formal ceremony at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations in Ottawa. The objects range over 2,600 years of Bulgarian history from many different cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, etc. — that have had a presence in the region. They include jewelry, coins, belt buckles, crosses, amulets, bronze eagles and everyday items like bone sewing needles, arrows and spearheads.

Bulgarian Minister of Culture Vejdi Rashidov received the artifacts from Canada’s Heritage Minister, James Moore. Moore noted that the ceremony marked “Canada’s largest-ever return of illegally imported cultural property.” Minister Rashidov described the event as “highly emotional” and awarded the Canadian Cultural Heritage Department with the Golden Century, the highest insignia of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

Some of the artifacts returned to BulgariaIt’s been a long time in coming. The first two imports of illegally excavated Bulgarian cultural property were discovered in 2007 by the Canada Border Services Agency. They were mailed from Bulgaria to an unnamed dealer who authorities believed planned to sell the artifacts on the Internet. The Border Services agents referred the confiscated objects to the Canadian Cultural Heritage Department which in turn called in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for further investigation. The Mounties kept seizing Bulgarian shipments until by November 2008, they had confiscated 21,000 coins, jewels and assorted artifacts.

No charges were filed against the importer, and he only formally abandoned the items in January of this year, thus finally clearing the way for the Court of Quebec to rule under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act that the seized artifacts should be returned to the Republic of Bulgaria.

It’s great news that such a large trove of priceless Bulgarian cultural property is on its way home, but I’m disturbed by the lack of legal repercussions here. You know who is receiving these stolen goods. You have the goods themselves in custody for three to four years, but you can’t make an arrest and instead have to wait until he lets go before you return the artifacts? That’s not much of a deterrent.

Minister Rashidov says the Bulgarian government plans a repatriation ceremony on the receiving end. Most of the artifacts will then be placed in a variety of Bulgarian museums.


When Zeppelins ruled the skies

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Count Ferdinand von ZeppelinOn July 2, 1900, the first rigid airship designed by Count Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin took to the air from a floating hangar on Lake Constance near the factory where it was built in Friedrichshafen, southern Germany. The LZ1 (LZ stood for Luftschiff Zeppelin or Airship Zeppelin) carried five people and flew for 20 minutes until the wind forced it to land in the water, damaging the craft. Count Zeppelin just kept on working on new LZ models until by 1909, Zeppelins were used both in German military and civilian aviation.

The USS Los Angeles, 1929Zeppelin died in 1917, before the end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles which dismantled the Zeppelin program. His successor at the metaphoric helm of the Zeppelin company and later at the literal helm of the record-breaking Graf Zeppelin, the most successful rigid airship of all time, was Dr. Hugo Eckener. He cleverly overcame the Versailles prohibition by building the LZ-126 and offering it to the U.S. Navy as part of Germany’s war reparations. It was commissioned the USS Los Angeles in 1924. Its lifting hydrogen gas replaced with blissfully inert helium, the Los Angeles would go on to become the longest serving airship in the Navy.

The USS Los Angeles goes vertical at LakehurstIt was tough, too, unlike its famous sibling the Hindenburg. Many of the naval airships ended in flaming disaster, but the Los Angeles was decommissioned and dismantled in 1939 after a decade-long tour of duty. It even survived a scary encounter with the elements at the Lakehurst, New Jersey airfield that saw the Hindenburg‘s destruction. On August 25, 1927, a strong wind lifted the tail of the Los Angeles into a current of cold air that lifted the tail even higher. It reached an angle of 85 degrees before going back down, and despite having been basically vertical it was hardly damaged at all. The next day it went happily back to work.

Dr. Hugo Eckener, 1929Eckener followed up his successful revival of the Zeppelin airship program by going on a lecture tour to raise money for his next dirigible. The Weimar government was broke as a joke, so Eckener appealed directly to the German people. It worked, and in 1928 the Graf Zeppelin, piloted by Eckener himself, made the first intercontinental passenger airship flight from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst.

The Graf Zeppelin became a symbol of German engineering, and Eckener was wildly popular as its courageous and skilled pilot and CEO. In 1932 he planned to run for President of Germany against Hitler, but decided not to when President Paul von Hindenburg declared himself a candidate for re-election. The Nazis hated Eckener and the feeling was profoundly mutual. It was only an intervention from Hindenburg himself that kept Eckener from getting thrown in jail.

Graf Zeppelin draws a crowdThe Nazis got to him in another way: by nationalizing the Zeppelin company, dumping Eckener and many of his safety protocols, then enlisting the airships as propaganda tools for the regime. Before the Nazi takeover, the company had a perfect safety record under Hugo Eckener’s management. There were zero serious injuries sustained by Zeppelin passengers over more than 1 million air miles traveled. It was the nationalized, propagandized, slapdash Nazi operation that brought about the fiery end of the Zeppelin era on May 6th, 1937, when the Hindenburg burst into flames at the Lakehurst Naval Station. The explosion killed 35 of the 97 people on board and one person on the ground.

The Hindenburg Disaster, 1937That disaster has become cultural vernacular now, thanks to WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s famously emotional “Oh the humanity!” commentary on the explosion. Had the Nazis had their way, we wouldn’t have ever heard it. It wasn’t broadcast live. Morrison and his sound engineer Charley Nehlsen had recorded it on acetate discs. The SS on site knew of the recordings and followed Morrison and Nehlsen to seize them before the bad publicity got out. The radio men had to hide for several hours before making a break for it and bringing the precious records to Chicago where they aired the next day on WLS.

Today’s entry is brought to you by this outstanding CNET article on the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen. There’s a magnificent slide show of the Zeppelin displays at the museum which is full of information and really underscores the hugeness of these airships.

Here, for instance, on the left is the original construction ladder used to build the Hindenburg. On the right is a scale model of the Hindenburg‘s hangar. That little toy on the bottom left is the construction ladder.

Construction ladder used on the Hindenburg Scale model of Hindenburg hangar

Check the rest of the article and pictures out because they are awesome. I’ll leave you with Morrison’s broadcast attached to some beautiful footage of the Hindenburg flying over New York City and the tragic footage taken at Lakehurst on the day of the disaster.


Debbie Reynolds sells movie memorabilia collection

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Dorothy Gale pinafore, worn by Judy Garland in 'The Wizard of Oz'Debbie Reynolds, star of one of my favorite movies of all time Singin’ in the Rain, was fortunate and forward-thinking enough to purchase an enormous collection of movie memorabilia when the big studios starting selling off their historic costumes, props, art work, cameras, lights, everything but the bare walls, basically, in the early 1970s.

Reynolds explains the studios’ fire sales thus:

“Well, they [the major studios] just weren’t interested. These are real estate developers, and they’re not interested in motion pictures or the ‘history of.’ They’re not preservationists. They’re not people who are interested in preserving. They’re interested in liquidation, and people that are interested in liquidation are interested in money, and not interested in museums or in saving costumes. To them it’s a lot of junk and a lot of nothing to bother with, so they didn’t bother with it, and many people that cared purchased it.”

Charlie Chaplin's Tramp bowler hatHer passion for collecting was born when she was but a teenager under contract to MGM. She was fascinated by the process of movie-making and spent hours in the costume department observing the designers make magic from a few words in the script. It wasn’t until MGM liquidated its inventory in 1970, with Fox following in their footsteps in 1972, however, that Reynolds found herself with the world’s largest collection of movie memorabilia, including many of the most memorable costumes worn by iconic stars like Judy Garland’s ruby slippers and pinafore dress as Dorothy, Marilyn Monroe’s halter dress blown up by the wind from the subway grating in The Seven Year Itch, Claudette Colbert’s gold lamé gown with emerald trim from Cleopatra, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp bowler hat, and so much more.

Marilyn Monroe's gown from 'Two Little Girls from Little Rock' number in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'Her dream was to create a museum to house all these marvels, and in 1972 created a non-profit corporation, the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum, to make her dream come true. In 1993, the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas opened. The collection was on display in the casino. Sadly, the casino soon encountered insurmountable financial problems, closing in 1997 and sending Reynolds’ collection into storage.

Ingrid Bergman's suit of armor from 'Joan of Arc'In 2001, it seemed like her dream might finally come true. The Museum corporation secured 20,000 square feet in a new real estate development in the heart of downtown Hollywood. There was a ground-breaking ceremony and everything. The financing fell through, however, and in 2004 Reynolds announced that the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum would not open in Hollywood, but rather in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Dolly Parton’s “Dollywood.” That too fell through, leaving Reynolds in a great deal of debt.

Marilyn Monroe's Subway dress from 'The Seven Year Itch'And so we come to this very sorry pass. Debbie Reynolds’ magnificent memorabilia collection, lovingly stored and displayed through many ups and downs by the star for 40 years, will be sold at auction on June 18.

Do yourself a favor and download the pdf catalog. It’s page after page of Hollywood history, some of it a great revelation because you see iconic costumes and props in color for the first time. Such a heartbreaking loss for Miz Reynolds and for the rest of us who will never have a chance to see this incredible labor of collecting love in a museum where it belongs. Where is the selfless philanthropist to swoop in and save the day when you need him?

Claudette Colbert's gold lamé 'Cleopatra' gown






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