A historical milestone of one’s own

The History Blog passed a million total pageviews today. Not just in one day, of course; I mean cumulative views since I first installed the counter in mid-September of 2009. That’s not counting my personal viewings, so the milestone isn’t composed primarily of me clicking on my old stories a thousand times a day.

Thank you all for reading, whether ye be silent observers, students searching for help with their homework, people in the news Googling themselves, and of course, my wonderful regular commenters who so generously contribute your own wit, curiosity and understanding to improving every post. :notworthy:

Art looted from Warsaw museum by Nazis returned

Two important works by Polish impressionist painter Julian Falat that were looted from the Polish National Museum in Warsaw by Nazis in 1944 and then disappeared for over six decades are on their way back to Poland. Representatives from U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office officially returned the paintings to the President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski in a ceremony at the Polish Consulate in New York City. At the same ceremony, President Komorowski presented the Presidential Medal to ICE Special Agent Lennis Barrois and retired Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt in gratitude for their efforts in investigating the theft.

In August of 1944, German SS Obersturmbannführer and “Reichsbeauftragter für die Mode” (Reich Agent For Fashion) Benno von Arent took charge of the National Museum in Warsaw and looted the most valuable pieces, including “The Hunt in Nieśwież” and “Before the Hunt in Rytwiany,” two oil-on-panel winter scenes by Julian Falat (1853-1929), a top Polish impressionist painter known for his landscapes. These pieces are considered the finest examples of his hunt-themed work.

“Those paintings are two magnificent and very important pieces of art,” said Bogdan Zdrojewski, minister of culture and national heritage, Republic of Poland. “If you think about all the Falat paintings, these two are definitely the most interesting and most valuable ones.”

The paintings first came to light in New York City in 2006. Polish authorities found out in 2006 that these two masterpieces had been put up for sale at two different New York auction houses. They notified ICE and INTERPOL who conducted an investigation into their history. According to the ICE statement, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a civil complaint in Manhattan federal court in December of 2010 asking that the paintings be forfeited on the grounds that they constituted stolen property illegally imported into the United States.

It’s unclear what happened between 2006 and 2010, nor do we know who put the paintings up for auction in 2006 or where they may have been before that. If any arrests have been made or criminal complaints filed, they haven’t been announced.

Despite the delay and many missing pieces of this puzzle, Poland’s Ministry of Culture is delighted to have the Falats back. Approximately 60,000 works of art that disappeared from Polish collections during World War II are still missing.

“The two World Wars that we experienced and numerous uprisings … left Poland’s national heritage really impoverished,” said Bogdan Zdrojewski, Poland’s culture minister. “That is why every object that returns to our country has huge value that is both spiritual and emotional.”

Necklace from Titanic stolen in Copenhagen

On Saturday, September 17, somebody walked in to the Hans Christian Andersen Castle of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens amusement park during opening hours of Titanic, the Exhibition and helped themselves to a gold-plated necklace that had once belonged to wealthy Philadelphian first class passenger Eleanor Widener.

Officials suspect it was an inside job because the showcase wasn’t broke into and the alarm never sounded. Also, if these were professional thieves, they made a poor choice. The necklace is insured for $19,000, and could easily go for even more at auction, but that’s almost entirely historical value, and it’s almost impossible to sell a well-known historical piece without someone noticing. (See the goofy crew who stole that probably-not-a-Rubens then were stuck with it for a decade, for example.)

Tivoli Gardens, which by the way opened in 1843 and is the second-oldest amusement park in the world (the oldest is also in Denmark), has offered a 1000 euro (about $1,350) reward for any information leading to the recovery of the necklace. Park spokesman Torben Planks wryly described the theft as “pretty embarrassing” for the park, a statement I think we can all agree with.

Mrs. Widener was famed in her day for her jewelry collection. This necklace was not among her most valuable pieces. It was recovered from the wreckage after Titanic went down. Legend has it it was found stuffed in the pocket of a butler when his body was recovered from the water. Mrs. Widener was traveling with a valet of her husband’s, so it’s certainly plausible that he could have grabbed something shiny before he made a break for it.

Eleanor boarded Titanic at Cherbourg with her husband, Philadelphia streetcar magnate George Dunton Widener, her son, Harvard graduate and avid book collector Harry Elkins Widener, her maid Amalie Gieger and her husband’s manservant Edwin Keeping. On the evening of April 14, they threw a private dinner for Captain Edward J. Smith and other distinguished first class types. The Captain left the table at 9:00 PM. The ship struck its fateful iceberg at 11:40 PM.

When the calamity became clear, George Widener pressed his wife and her maid into lifeboat number four (also carrying Mrs. Astor). She at first had refused to leave his side, but he insisted. As the lifeboat pushed off into the night, Eleanor watched her beloved George and Harry go down with the unsinkable ship.

Three years after the Titanic tragedy, Eleanor Widener donated $3.5 million to Harvard to build a library in her son’s name. The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library opened in 1915. She donated Harry’s collection of 3,300 rare books, and more were donated by her other children, Harry’s brother and sister, in 1944. Among them is one of the only extant perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

A far darker, more ancient evil dwells, biding its time, in the shadow of those stacks. H.P. Lovecraft notes in The History of the Necronomicon that one of the five existing copies of the mad Yemeni poet Abdul Alhazred’s speaking of the unspeakable is in the Widener Library.

Remains of massive Roman shipyard found in Portus

The international team of archaeologists led by the University of Southampton and the British School at Rome excavating the ancient Roman harbor town of Portus have discovered the remains of a massive building they think may have been an Imperial shipyard used to build some of Rome’s largest ships.

Few Roman shipyards have been found, and none for the city of Rome itself. Two small possibilities — one in the city on the Tiber near the Monte Testaccio (an artificial hill the Romans made from broken olive oil amphorae unloaded from merchant ships), the other at Ostia — have been advanced, but they would not have been large enough to service all of Imperial Rome’s ship building needs.

Five stories high and with direct access to both the Claudian and hexagonal Trajanic basins of Portus, this shipyard is on a whole other scale.

The huge building the team has discovered dates from the 2nd century AD and would have stood c. 145 metres [475 feet] long and 60 metres [196 feet] wide – an area larger than a football pitch [soccer field]. In places, its roof was up to 15 metres [50 feet] high, or more than three times the height of a double-decker bus. Large brick-faced concrete piers or pillars, some three metres wide and still visible in part, supported at least eight parallel bays with wooden roofs.

“This was a vast structure which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building lead us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities,” comments Southampton’s Professor Keay, who also leads the archaeological activity of the BSR.

They’ve found a wide vaulted area that formed the western wall of the complex and the western-most bay. Estimates based on this one bay suggest they were 12 meters (40 feet) wide and 58 meters (190 feet) long. The piers on the northern end facing the Claudian basin were 6 x 5 feet, while the ones on the southern end on the Trajanic basin were larger at 10 x 5.5 feet, so archaeologists think that the primary entrance point was a massive arch on southern side, with a smaller but still notable entrance on the north.

Epigraphic evidence supports the existence of a major shipyard in Portus. Inscriptions found at the site mention that the guild of shipbuilders (the corpus fabrum navalium portensium) had a presence in the port. There’s artistic evidence that Roman’s had shipyards like this. A mosaic found in a villa just outside the ancient city of Rome shows the facade of a large building with a ship nestled in each arched bay.

One key piece of evidence still missing is the remains of any of the ramps that would have been necessary to launch newly built ships from dry dock into the harbor. Professor Keay thinks they may be hidden beneath the concrete embankment built in the early 20th century. Getting under there would be challenging, to say the least, and there’s no reason to believe any of them have survived.

The Antonine Wall gets its own gallery

Roman emperor Antonius Pius, Hadrian’s successor, had a lot to prove when he ascended the throne in the summer of 138 A.D. He had risen through the political ranks, not the military, and in fact as far as we know, Antonius never even got near a Roman legion. It was in Britain that he decided to prove his commander-in-chief chops by sending governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus north of Hadrian’s Wall into southern Scotland.

Around 142 A.D. Antonius ordered that a wall be built marking the new northern border of Britannia. Urbicus deployed troops from the II Augusta, VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix legions to build the wall, starting with a foundation of stone topped with a turf rampart that was as high as 13 feet in places. The height of the wall was supplemented by a deep and wide ditch on the north side for added protection against the Caledonian hoards. It took 12 years to build and ended up stretching 39 miles across Scotland coast to coast from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde.

For reasons not entirely clear to this day, the Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall just eight years after its completion in 162 A.D. Since the turf wall didn’t last as well as Hadrian’s stone one, what we have left in place today are the defense ditches, remains of the stone foundations of the wall and of the 20 plus forts and fortlets that guarded its length. Excavations have also unearthed a wealth of artifacts, including some that put Hadrian’s fancy pants wall to shame.

The University of Glasgow’s The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow has just opened a new permanent gallery dedicated to the sculptures and artifacts found over three centuries of research, excavation and study of the Antonine Wall.

Through The Hunterian’s rich collections the gallery investigates four key themes: The building of the Wall – its architecture and impact on the landscape; the role of the Roman army on the frontier – the life and lifestyle of its soldiers; the cultural interaction between Roman and indigenous peoples, and evidence for local resistance; and the abandonment of the Wall and the story of its rediscovery over the last 350 years.

Among on the artifacts on display are 16 of the 19 surviving distance slabs, marble slabs elaborately carved by the legions to mark their work on the wall.

The sculptures are, in general, more elaborate and richly decorated than their counterparts on Hadrian’s wall, featuring such scenes as Victory placing a laurel wreath on a Roman legionary standard, and the distinctive mascots of the soldiers’ legions: a running boar for the XX; a Pegasus and a Capricorn (after the Emperor Augustus’s star sign) for the VI.

The sculptures also clearly project the move north as a splendid military victory: several depict Caledonians being trampled by Roman cavalry, or simply crouching in submission, bound and naked.

The gallery emphasizes that life along the wall was not the stark existence you might expect from the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. The remains of bathhouses have been found along the wall, and the number of valuable consumer goods like red Samianware dishes and glass found suggest that some people in the area lived very well indeed.