Wreck from Kublai Khan’s lost fleet found off Japan

Marine archaeologists from the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa have discovered the wreck of a ship from one of Kublai Khan’s invasion fleets off the coast of Nagasaki. Kublai Khan attempted two invasions of Japan, one in 1274 with an estimated 900 ships and 22,000 troops, the other in 1281 with an estimated 4,400 ships and 140,000 troops. Both invasion attempts would quickly end in disaster thanks to two perfectly timed — some would say divinely timed — typhoons, burying the Great Khan’s navies in the Japanese seabed.

A part of the hull was first identified last year, but an in depth archaeological exploration of the site only began last month.

The warship was located with ultrasonic equipment about 3 feet beneath the seabed at a depth of 75 feet. The archeological team, from Okinawa’s University of the Ryukus, had been carrying out a search of the waters around Takashima Island, in Nagasaki Prefecture, because the area had yielded other items from Mongol ships.

Samurai boarding Yuan ships in 1281Historical records suggest that some 4,400 ships carrying 140,000 Mongol soldiers landed in Japan in 1281 and skirmished with samurai in northern Kyushu. But after returning to their boats, the fleet was struck by a devastating typhoon that put an end to the invasion plans – a storm known to all Japanese as “kamizake,” meaning divine wind, and again invoked in the dying days of the Second World War.

The researchers believe the boats tried to find shelter in the coves of northern Kyushu, an assumption borne out by the discovery by Professor Yoshifumi Ikeda’s team.

Anchor stones and cannon balls from the Yuan Dynasty fleets have been found in the area before, but no remains of vessels. This wreck is the first of Kublai Khan’s ships to be discovered, and considering it’s almost 800 years old and sank in a divine wind, it’s in quite good condition. The mast and top structures are gone, but a large section of the ship’s hull, including a keel almost 50 feet long and more than 1.5 feet wide, ribs, bulkheads, and rows of wood planking still nailed to the keel. Preserved by layers of silt, the planks still have some of their original grey paint.

The team also found weapons, ink stones, Yuan Dynasty pottery and hundreds of bricks used as ballast in the immediate vicinity of the shipwreck. It’s the artifacts together with the structure of the vessel that mark the wreck as a 13th century Yuan warship and thus one of Kublai Khan’s invading fleet. The location indicates it was part of the second failed invasion.

Scientists plan to expand the exploration of the area to see if more of the ship can found, with an eye to the possibility of maybe one day lifting the entire vessel and preserving it. As of right now, however, there are no plans to attempt salvage. The wreck will be covered with a protective netting to keep it from further damage. Meanwhile, Ikeda’s team hopes to create a replica of the complete Yuan warship based on the archaeological remains.

Mongol fleet destroyed in a typhoon, by Kikuchi Yōsai, 1847This will answer some important questions about Mongol shipbuilding, and about Kublai Khan’s fleets in particular. Historians and chroniclers have long said that Kublai Khan put together his navies from scratch in less than a year, even the 4,400 ships from the larger second invasion. According to the Goryeosa, a 15th century history of Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), Kublai Khan was in a rush and thus filled his navy with flat-bottomed riverboats instead of taking the time to build proper ocean-going ships. Those traditional boats did not have curved keel so they capsized easily and were extremely hard to manage in high seas. Discovering the first hull and keel of a Yuan warship from the fleet ever found, therefore, is a historical divine wind.

The Kamikaze and Japan’s two-time defeat of the mighty Mongol war machine were nation-defining events. Before the Yuan invasions, the samurai class had never fought together against a foreign invader. They had only fought amongst themselves. Although at first their one-on-one dueling approach to warfare (even large forces arrayed against each other still picked an opponent and duked it out hand to hand) was easily defeated by the Mongol showers of arrows, artillery and coordinated army combat, the Japanese learned the lesson and spent the next seven years fortifying the coastline with stone walls, forts and other defensive structures. Those defenses worked. The outnumbered Japanese were able to repulse Mongol attacks from the fortifications and thus kept the second invasion fleet at sea and smack in the path of the two-day typhoon that would sink 80% of it.

Until War War II, Kublai Khan’s thwarted attempts were the closest Japan would come to invasion in 1500 years.

All of Tolkien’s Hobbit drawings published

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published in September 1937. To mark next year’s 75th anniversary, HarperCollins is releasing The Art of the Hobbit, a collection of all the art work Tolkien made to illustrate his first novel.

Only a few of Tolkien’s drawings were published in the first edition of The Hobbit: 10 black and white illustrations, two maps and the dust jacket designs, front and back. Tolkien was already an accomplished artist before his first book was printed. He had drawn many illustrations and sketches to accompany the original manuscript, and although over the years some of them were published in various new editions of The Hobbit and other books, the entire collection wound up in relative obscurity in the Tolkien archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

When HarperCollins publisher David Brawn checked the archive in preparation for a 75th anniversary reprint of The Hobbit, he found much to his surprise that there were 110 illustrations — ink drawings, plans, maps, watercolors, sketches, preliminary and alternate versions of final pieces — made by the author. Two dozen of them have never been published before, others have never been published before in color.

“[The Art of the Hobbit] includes his conceptual sketches for the cover design, a couple of early versions of the maps and pages where he’s experimenting with the runic forms, as well as a couple of manuscript pages,” said Brawn. “It shows that Tolkien’s creativity went beyond the writing, that it was a fully thought out conception. When he writes about the hobbit hole [“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”], he’s designed it as well. And by doing that, it makes his description more vivid … Tolkien was an accomplished amateur artist. He was a great admirer of Arthur Rackham and you can see a little bit of that style coming through.”

The book will be available starting Thursday, October 27. Even though the anniversary of The Hobbit‘s publication is a year away, this month is the 75th anniversary of Tolkien’s handing the manuscript to his publishers.

D-Day vets meet by chance on same Normandy beach

Bill Betts and Clifford Baker were brothers-in-arms and friends who stormed Gold Beach, the center of the five designated landing beaches (Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah) in Normandy, together on D-Day, June 6, 1944. After training together for two years as radio operators, Bill and Clifford were among the first Allied troops to land ashore. Bill was almost immediately shot in the leg by machine-gun fire. The last they saw of each other, Bill was encouraging Clifford to keep going and leave him behind.

Bill remained motionless under sniper fire on that beach for ten hours before US troops airlifted him to a hospital. He recovered and rejoined his regiment, but Clifford was no longer with them. Given the high casualty rate among the D-Day troops Bill assumed Clifford had never made it off the beach. He had, though. He had just been assigned to a new unit and he too believed that his friend had died on Gold Beach.

Fast-forward 67 years to this summer when Bill Betts was visiting the D-Day Museum at Arromanches. He signed the remembrance book and saw right above his signature a blast from the past: the signature of one Clifford Baker.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw his name but there it was in black and white,’ said Bill, now 88, “I’d just been given a commemorative medal by the Mayor of Arromanches so “I asked her when Mr Baker had been into the museum. She said it was only 20 minutes before and that his coach was now boarding in the car park. I decided I had to take the chance to catch him.”

Bill scoured the car park in search of his missing friend. Meanwhile the mayor frantically gave an order for departing coaches to be stopped.

Then, to cheers and applause, Clifford came down the steps – and into the embrace of his former comrade.

They were part of completely separate groups from different parts of the country. Bill is 88 and that Clifford is a decade older at 98. What are the odds that they would meet again on Gold Beach after three score years of thinking each other killed on that same spot.

Kandinsky painted over his girlfriend’s painting

In preparation for an exhibit dedicated to Wassily Kandinsky’s 1913 oil painting Painting With White Border, the Guggenheim Museum spent several years studying and conserving the painting in its own collection. They collaborated with the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which owns an earlier preparatory oil painting by Kandinsky on the same subject called Sketch I for Painting With White Border (Moscow), and were able to examine both paintings side by side.

The two paintings were examined in the conservation laboratory of the Harvard Art Museum using ultraviolet and infrared scanning, x-ray, microscopy, and cross-sectional and chemical analysis of the paints. Conservators were hoping the unique opportunity to compare the paintings in the most minute detail would expand our knowledge of Kandinsky’s creative process and provide important information to aid in the conservation of his work. Both goals were attained. The examination revealed Kandinsky’s brushwork, paints, his careful and deliberate explorations of the theme and the evolution of his vision. On the conservation side, Painting With White Border is covered in synthetic varnishes which over time alter the color of the paint. Knowing which materials the artist himself used and being able to identify later overlays helps conservators to treat the work without damaging Kandinsky’s work.

The in-depth scientific analysis turned up a surprise, however. Sketch I for Painting With White Border (Moscow) had a completed painting underneath it. Experts have identified it as the work of German artist Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s live-in mistress for thirteen years, based on how similar it is to another work of Münter’s, a gouache called Garden Concert (ca. 1912).

There are very few other examples of Kandinsky’s painting over a used canvas at all, and none of them were Münter’s. It’s an intriguing question of gender/social/relationship dynamics even among unconventional turn-of-the-century avant-garde artists. Münter met Kandinsky when he was her art teacher in Munich. They lived together from 1903 to 1916 while Mrs. Kandinsky went about her business in Moscow.

German Münter expert Annegret Hoberg thinks the piece might have been discarded by Münter herself. She apparently renounced a number of works in 1912; this could have been among them. Still, that’s a lot of self to efface.

Bibiana Obler, an art history professor at George Washington University who studies artist couples, said that the discovery offered some nuances to understanding the Blue Rider group’s relatively avant-garde attitudes, as well the timeline of male-female relations in the arts.

“This was at a moment in the early 20th century when more artist couples are trying to work as equals, but it’s not the norm yet,” Ms. Obler said, pointing out that Franz Marc, the most famous painter of the circle besides Kandinsky, was also married to an artist, Maria.

Ms. Obler said that Münter, even while she pursued her own painting, performed various tasks for Kandinsky, including helping him with sketching and record-keeping.

She added that “it was impossible to imagine Kandinsky giving Münter a canvas to paint over.”

“There were subtle ways in which they continued to adhere to their gendered roles,” Ms. Obler said.

Both Kandinsky pieces, the radiograph of the Münter’s painting and the Garden Concert gouache will be on display at the Guggenheim Museum from October 21, 2011, to January 15, 2012.

American hunting is 800 years older than we thought

New research has confirmed that the wound in a 13,800-year-old mastodon skeleton was inflicted by humans. The mastodon skeleton was found in the 1970s with a sharp sliver of bone embedded in one of its rib bones. It was unclear at that time whether the bone sliver was a weapon point fabricated by humans, or if it was a broken piece of the mastodon’s own bone, or perhaps a chip from another animal embedded during a fight.

Michael Waters, an anthropologist at the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, used modern radiocarbon-dating to confirm that the mastodon was indeed 13,800 years old and thus died 800 years before the Clovis people of North America were thought to have begun hunting on the continent. Then Waters used advanced CT technology to examine the bone point and hit the mother lode.

“We’re all familiar with hospital CT scanners where they can scan your body and look inside to see organs and bones,” Waters said. “This is a high-resolution industrial version that creates digital X-rays spaced every 0.06 millimeters [0.002 inches], about half the thickness of a piece of paper.”

This ultra-sharp look inside the rib revealed the needle-sharp shaft of the projectile point lodged inside the mastodon’s bone. The images suggested the point had been whittled down and sharpened, Waters said, the work of human hands.

To top it off, the researchers extracted bone protein and DNA from the projectile point itself, determining that the weapon had been made from the bones of yet another mastodon.

“That was even more exciting, because what that meant is whoever these hunters were that tracked down and killed the Manis Mastodon were hunting with weapons made from a previous kill,” Waters said.

A weapon as big around as a pencil, no less, which is damn impressive considering the size of the prey. Mind you, it appears this particular mastodon was in the twilight of its life anyway. Its teeth were worn down to nubbins, indicating advanced age. The bone point, either thrown like darts or launched with a small spear-thrower, was driven into the back of the creature, so the poor thing might have already been down when it the point pierced its rib.

This isn’t the first evidence of a pre-Clovis hunter-gatherer culture in the Americas 14,000 years or so ago. There’s even evidence of mastodons and mammoths being butchered and eaten during this period. The bone projectile, however, is the earliest hunting weapon found on the continent.

Here’s video of the CT scan: