Archive for January, 2012

Billionaire donates $7.5 million to repair Washington Monument

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Daniel Gach and Emma Cardini from WJE rappel down the Washington Monument to assess earthquake damageDavid Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder of private equity company The Carlyle Group and an avid history buff, has donated $7.5 million to the Trust for the National Mall to repair the Washington Monument. In December Congress allocated $7.5 million to fund the repair on the condition that the National Park Service raise matching private funds. Rubenstein’s donation thus not only grants the restoration efforts a hefty sum in itself, but also assures the Congressional funding.

The 555-foot obelisk, built in 1884 to honor the first president of the United States, was damaged by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the capital on August 23, 2011. Early assessments found a large four-foot-long, one-inch-wide crack and a number of smaller cracks in the monument, so for safety reasons the monument was immediately closed to the public. Later more detailed assessments found the damage was even worse than they first realized.



The $15 million will go to repairing all of the direct earthquake damage. It’s not enough, however, to cover some of the other issues plaguing the monument, like extensive water damage to the interior from the cracks in the marble and lost mortar at the peak of the obelisk. Some of the marble panels up top were cracked all the way through. The monument also needs structural reinforcement to protect the tallest obelisk in the world against future freak earthquakes, so here’s hoping there are more billionaire history buffs lying around somewhere.

The Washington Monument continues to be closed to the public and it looks like it will remain closed for the next two years. The Park Service is taking bids from contractors now with the aim of starting repair work by the end of August. They expect the repair to take 10 months to a year to complete.

The National Park Service website has an incredible photo gallery of the earthquake damage and the assessments done by civil engineers from the Difficult Access Team of contractors Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE).

The Difficult Access Team is my new obsession. The WJE team did preliminary damage assessments of the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial the day after the earthquake. That work was done visually — by helicopter for the top of the obelisk — but they had to return to the Washington Monument to do an in depth investigation by rappelling off the top. These are engineers, mind you. They could spend their lives in an office drafting things, but instead they badassedly rappel down a 555-foot marble needle. Two of the four are women, so yay sisterhood! Here’s one of those women, engineer Emma Cardini, starting her descent on September 28, 2011:

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Here’s more dizzying video taken from the helmet of WJE engineer Erik Stohn:

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If you’re wondering why they had to rappel this time instead of using a helicopter or scaffolding, according to NPS Acting Chief of Resource Management Jennifer Talken-Spaulding a detailed damaged assessment requires hands-on (literally) work. You have to be able to touch the stone, tap it, listen to the sounds it makes, see the condition of the mortar and marble. They also had to remove spalls, chunks of stone that have come loose and could pose a serious hazard to people on the ground. You have to do that by hand. Scaffolding takes a long time to build, and they wanted a thorough assessment of the damage before the cold winter set in.

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This is what it looked like at the 500-foot level observatory when the earthquake hit. The shaking starts at 1:45, but watch the whole thing to see the security guard just hanging out and tourists walking around casually before things suddenly get hairy.

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For more videos of the earthquake, damage and repair work on the Washington Monument, please visit the National Park Service’s videos page. That 4-foot crack up top looks truly awful from the inside. You can see the light shining through it and it’s huge.


National Park scores deluxe pre-Civil War bathroom

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Dunleith bathtub, shower and commode unitThe National Park Service has carefully dismantled and removed an 1850’s bathroom from the Dunleith Historical Inn in Natchez, Mississippi. One of only 20 antique bathrooms remaining in the United States, the Dunleith lavatory had hot and cold running water, a bathtub, a shower and a commode that were all part of a single large piece of furniture. The shower wouldn’t be out of place in a luxury home today; it has a 10-inch rain showerhead. An immense 400-pound zinc-lined cistern once contained the hot water for the system. (There was also a separate wash table with a marble sink which isn’t in the bathroom anymore, but the NPS hope to secure nonetheless to complete the set.)

The bathroom is thought to have been installed in 1859 by Alfred Vidal Davis who bought the Greek revival mansion that year. When the National Park Service workers were removing the bathroom, they found a packing slip from New Orleans plumbing company Price & Coulon. NPS historian Jeff Mansell believes the entire system was available for purchase from a catalog, hence the packing slip.

Ten-inch rain showerheadIt was installed on the third floor at the top of a forbiddingly steep staircase. Pipes carried water from the laundry room on the first floor where it was heated by boiler up to cisterns in the attic. When someone turned on the faucets or flushed the toilet, the cisterns drained down to the third floor. The toilet waste would then be piped to a septic tank that was also connected to the more traditional outhouses on the property.

That inconvenient third floor location saved its life, because bathrooms are gutted all the time but this one was so out of the way that subsequent owners never bothered renovating it. For the past decade it’s been used as a storage room. Now the Dunleith Historical Inn is renovating the space to make more room for paying guests. Recognizing the rarity and importance of the bathroom, they decided to donate the fixtures to the National Park Service.

Removing the cisternThe NPS accepted with alacrity, but removing the fixtures was an engineering challenge (LiveScience has a photo gallery of the process). Construction crews had to remove the commode, shower and bathtub separately, then build a ramp and use a forklift to get that 400-pound cistern out of the house.

For now the parts will be stored, but the NPS plans to install them in another Greek revival antebellum mansion: Melrose, a National Park Service property that dates to the 1840s. Melrose had some sort of washroom facility in the 1850s, but only the pipes remain so we can’t know what kind of fixtures were originally installed. The Dunleith bathroom will in all likelihood be installed in one of two dressing rooms at Melrose that are currently off-limit to guests.

Once the bathroom is installed, Mansell said, the room will be open for public viewing. He said he believes people will be surprised at the plumbing technology that was used in the bathroom.

“I don’t think (people) think of systems like this existing in the 19th century,” he said. […]

[John Holyoak, manager of Dunleith Historical Inn,] said moving the bathroom’s contents from Dunleith will allow the rare technology to be preserved and displayed.

“If we leave that bathroom where it is, no one will ever see it,” he said. “The benefit of having it moved is that it will be set up as a public display and tourists will be able to see something extremely unique.”

Sign me up. I have had a passion for historical bathrooms since I was a little kid squatting on the Roman latrines at Ostia.


Leonardo da Vinci live at a movie theater near you!

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Okay, so you weren’t able to get to England or sell your kidney to buy a scalped ticket for the sold out blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition at London’s National Gallery. For the many of us all over the world in that sad boat, we will have to content ourselves with a viewing of an HD documentary on the exhibit: Leonardo Live (which isn’t live for us but was broadcast live originally).

Captured live on November 8, 2011, LEONARDO LIVE provides a virtual walk-through of the exhibit, with exclusive commentary from scholars and curators. Hosted by highly respected art historian Tim Marlow and presenter Mariella Frostrup, the exhibition brings together the largest number of da Vinci’s rare surviving painting and some international loans. While numerous exhibitions have looked at da Vinci as an inventor, scientist or draughtsman, this is the first to be dedicated to his aims and techniques as a painter.

When I last blogged about this, the screening dates hadn’t been published yet. Now they have and you can buy your tickets in advance. It opens in 450 theaters around the country on February 16. Since most of the screenings are a one-night-one-showing-only event, I suggest you book early. You can plug your zip code into this site to get a listing and map of the theaters nearest to you that are showing the movie.

For some fascinating background on the Herculean effort it took to put together this unprecedented exhibit, read this article from the Telegraph. It took five years from idea to exhibition, and it would never have happened if Queen Elizabeth II hadn’t agreed up front to allow Luke Syson, the National Gallery’s curator of Italian paintings before 1500, to offer loans of important Leonardo drawings from the Royal Collection in return for loans of Leonardo paintings.

So Syson started by negotiating the loan of the Lady with an Ermine from the Czartoryski Foundation in Cracow. Next he asked his colleagues at the Louvre for La Belle Ferronnière. With two such stunning portraits secured for the show, it would have been hard for Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan to turn down his request for Leonardo’s Portrait of a Musician, because with the addition of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks it looked like every surviving picture painted by Leonardo in Milan would be in the show.

Every picture he painted in Milan (the frescoes in the Castello Sforzesco and The Last Supper excluded, of course, on account of they’re attached to walls) is fully half the total number of the Leonardo paintings known to survive.


New evidence of mass graves found at Treblinka

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Treblinka on fire during prisoner revolt of August 2, 1943A team of archaeologists from the University of Birmingham have discovered new evidence of huge mass graves on the former site of the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka.

Since the Nazis razed the camp in November of 1943 after a prisoner revolt, leaving little visible evidence of the 800,000+ Jews they’d slaughtered in just over a year of operation, Holocaust deniers have claimed that Treblinka wasn’t a death camp at all, but rather a transit station where prisoners were sorted before being shipped off to other labor camps. (Interestingly, that’s just what the SS told new arrivals before making them undress and sending them to the “showers” for “delousing.”)

This is the first coordinated scientific attempt to locate graves at Treblinka. Led by forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls, the research team used ground-penetrating radar and aerial and satellite imagery to look for burial sites without breaking ground, out of respect for Jewish Halacha law which forbids disturbing burial sites.

Bomb crater exposes buried bones, Treblinka, 1945Sturdy Colls said: “All the history books state that Treblinka was destroyed by the Nazis but the survey has demonstrated that simply isn’t the case.”

She added: “I’ve identified a number of buried pits using geophysical techniques. These are considerable in size, and very deep, one in particular is 26 by 17 metres.”

Treblinka excavator digging mass grave pitsDug by an enormous excavator from the quarry at the nearby Treblinka I forced labour camp, each of these large pits are thought to contain the charred remains of thousands of bodies. Some of the pits were used for burial, others as cremation pits. In March 1943, Heinrich Himmler visited the camp and ordered that all the bodies be cremated. The burial pits were opened and the corpses burned on cremation grates built out of railway tracks. There are pictures extant of the resulting ash heaps.

BBC Radio 4 will air a program following the Colls’ work at Treblinka. The Hidden Graves of the Holocaust first airs on Monday, January 23 at 8:00 PM.

A more personal witness to the horrors of the Holocaust can be found in a remarkable book recently published by the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum: The Sketchbook from Auschwitz. In 1947, Józef Odi, a former prisoner who was working as a watchman on the Auschwitz grounds, found 32 sketches on 22 pages rolled into a bottle and hidden in the foundations of a barracks near the gas chambers and crematoria.

These incredible works of art, beautiful and horrifying in equal measure, are the only drawings made in Birkenau to depict the extermination of Jews. They are signed with the initials MM, so we don’t even know the name of the artist. We know from some of the depictions that they were made in 1943 and that the artist was immensely courageous to make these detailed drawings recording the systematic mass-murder of Jews, including badge numbers of functionary prisoners, license plates of trucks and train cars.

This is the first time all of the MM sketches have been published.

Prisoner steps forward at roll call The crematorium at work The separating of families


Lost Darwin fossil slides found in British archive

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Fossil wood Darwin collected on the Island of Chiloe, Chile in 1834University of London paleontologist Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang was looking through an old cabinet in the British Geological Survey archives for some carboniferous fossil-wood specimens. He opened a drawer labeled “unregistered fossil plants” and found hundreds of glass slides of thin, polished fossil plant sections. He fished out a slide and examined it with a flashlight, finding to his great shock the signature of one C. Darwin, Esq. That slide turned out to be a piece of fossilized wood Darwin had collected during his now-iconic voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1834.

The cabinet contained 314 slides of fossils collected by botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin’s best friend who had helped him classify the specimens he had gathered in South America and the Galápagos Islands. Several other slides bear Darwin’s name, and experts think that some of the unlabeled specimens were also prepared by Darwin.

Fossil tree at Craigleith Quarry in Edinburgh, slide by William Nicol, 1831The collection also includes specimens collected by Hooker himself on his travels, pieces from the private cabinet of Reverend John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s Cambridge mentor and Hooker’s father-in-law, and some very early rock sections made by pioneering geologist William Nicol in the late 1820s. Nicol first devised the technique of affixing a crystal or rock section to a slide then grinding it down until it was thin enough to view through a microscope just a few years earlier in 1815. Some of these slides are huge compared to their descendants today, six inches long and a tenth of an inch thick.

Cones of giant club mosses found in a coal measure by Hooker, 1846J.D. Hooker had first assembled the slide collection when he worked for the British Geological Survey from February 1846 to October 1847. At that time the Survey didn’t have a formal registration system for its specimens. One would be implemented in 1848 but by then Hooker was no longer in their employ or even in the country. He was traveling through India and the Himalayas, doubtless collecting more specimens, so was not available to help the BGS properly catalogue his own contributions to their archive. By the time he got back in 1851, the BGS was in the process of moving its collection to new offices.

In 1851, the “unregistered” fossils were moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly before being transferred to the South Kensington’s Geological Museum in 1935 and then to the British Geological Survey’s headquarters near Nottingham 50 years later, the university said.

The discovery was made in April, but it has taken “a long time” to figure out the provenance of the slides and photograph all of them, Falcon-Lang said.

A core of 33 important slides from the collection have been photographed and uploaded to the British Geological Survey’s website. More will follow until the entire collection is online.

If you’d like to know more about Darwin and Hooker’s work and friendship, the Darwin Correspondence Project has almost 1500 letters between Darwin and Hooker available online.


Oldest-known astrologer’s board found in Croatia

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Archaeologists excavating around the stalagmite in 2000Archaeologists excavating a Croatian cave overlooking the Adriatic Sea have discovered what they believe is the oldest astrologer’s board ever found. They were digging at the entrance to the cave in 1999 when one of the researchers’ girlfriends burrowed her way through debris into the cavern. She discovered a 33-foot-long passageway leading to a chamber that had been sealed off in antiquity, probably in the first century B.C. during a war against invading Romans. Inside were thousands of pieces of pottery, ivory, and bones around a stalagmite shaped like a phallus.

Hellenistic drinking cups, 2-3rd c. B.C.It took several seasons to excavate the cave. The floor of the cave and all the artifacts were caked in thick, sticky cave clay making them a challenge to dig out and to clean. Once excavated, researchers spent years piecing together the fragments of what turned out to be high quality Hellenistic drinking vessels from the 3rd and 2nd century B.C. The tiny fragments of ivory turned out to be pieces of a Greco-Roman astrology board, beautifully carved with the signs of the zodiac.

Radiocarbon dating of the ivory indicates the ivory is 2,200 years old, which is just around the time that astrology, originally a Babylonian discipline, became popular under the reign of the Ptolemys in Egypt. It’s the Greco-Egyptian version of astrology that established itself in Europe and that is still in popular use today.

Reconstruction of the astrologer's board using the plaques that have been put back togetherAn ancient astrologer, trying to determine a person’s horoscope, could have used the board to show the position of the planets, sun and moon at the time the person was born.

“What he would show the client would be where each planet is, where the sun is, where the moon is and what are the points on the zodiac that were rising and setting on the horizon at the moment of birth,” said Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University.

“This is probably older than any other known example,” Jones said. “It’s also older than any of the written-down horoscopes that we have from the Greco-Roman world,” he said, adding, “we have a lot of horoscopes that are written down as a kind of document on papyrus or on a wall but none of them as old as this.”

Ivory plaque carved with the Cancer signWe can’t trace where the ivory came from, but Egypt is certainly a viable candidate. Ivory was a precious material, so once harvested from its elephantine owner it could have been hoarded for years, maybe as long as a century, before it was carved. The board was made by carving ivory plaques in a 28-degree arc with a sign of the zodiac on the face. The plaques were then attached to a flat surface, probably a wood board.

Ivory Pisces plaqueThe Cancer plaque is the most complete one, with Gemini and Pisces also clearly identifiable. A partially reconstructed plaque shows the back of an animal that could be Sagittarius’ horse’s ass. The rest of the plaques are too fragmentary to identify.

Ivory horse's ass, possibly SagittariusResearchers aren’t sure how and why these valuable Hellenistic artifacts found themselves smashed around a stalagmite in an Illyrian cave. The location, overlooking the Adriatic, was a well-traveled commercial route. Illyrians, who the Greeks thought of as somewhat barbarous, could have traded for the goods or pirated them and then brought them to the cave for religious purposes.

According to Stašo Forenbaher, a researcher with the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb whose former girlfriend (now wife) tunneled her way into the sealed-off chamber in 1999, the broken artifacts around the stalagmite suggest the chamber was a sacred space which the locals used to sacrifice to a deity.

“There is definitely a possibility that this astrologer’s board showed up as an offering together with other special things that were either bought or plundered from a passing ship,” Forenbaher said. He pointed out that the drinking vessels found in the cave were carefully chosen. They were foreign-made, and only a few examples of cruder amphora storage vessels were found with them.

“It almost seems that somebody was bringing out wine there, pouring it and then tossing the amphora away because they [the amphora] were not good enough for the gods, they were not good enough to be deposited in the sanctuary,” Forenbaher said.

The Illyrians might not even have known what the astrologer’s board was for, but recognizing it as a valuable and beautiful object they sacrificed it anyway.


Tomb of non-royal singer found in Valley of Kings

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Archaeologists from the University of Basel in Switzerland have discovered the tomb of a woman with no connection to the royal family in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. This is the first tomb of a non-royal woman ever found in the Valley of the Kings.

According to an inscription inside the tomb, her name was Nehmes Bastet and she was a singer for deity Amon Ra in the Temple of Karnak during the 22nd Dynasty (945-712 B.C.). She may have been the daughter of the High Priest of Amon, which would explain how she secured such a primo location for eternity.

At the time of her death, Egypt was ruled by Libyan kings, but the high priests who ruled Thebes, which is now within the city of Luxor, were independent. Their authority enabled them to use the royal cemetery for family members, according to [Mansour Boraiq, the Antiquities’ Ministry top official for Luxor].

The unearthing marks the 64th tomb to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings.

The tomb was discovered entirely by accident. The University of Basel team’s remit is to clean and document some of the less glamorous and therefore less studied tombs. While cleaning near the tomb of Thuthmosis III (discovered a hundred years ago), they found a shaft with a chamber at the bottom. Inside the chamber was an intact wooden sarcophagus painted black and decorated with hieroglyphics and a wooden plaque engraved with Nehmes Bastet’s name and titles.

The coffin will be opened this week. Egyptologists expect (probably because of the weight distribution) to find a mummy covered with a cartonnage (plastered layers of linen) mask.

Ahram Online says the burial chamber contains a “treasured collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts.” There are no specifics on what these artifacts are, but they apparently were used to determine that the tomb itself pre-dates the 22nd Dynasty burial. It was originally cut during the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 B.C.), the dynasty of superstars like Tutankhamun and Nefertiti. We don’t know yet what exactly allowed them to date the tomb or who the original resident might have been.

Sarcophagus of Nehmes Bastet in Valley of the Kings tomb KV64

Interesting side note to this story: several Egyptology bloggers first heard rumors that the University of Basel had found a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings around the time of the Egyptian revolution last year. Security police had been withdrawn from the Valley of the Kings, so there was nobody on site to deter and capture the looters who would inevitably descend on the site like locusts should they catch wind of a new tomb.

Bloggers coordinated with Dr. Thomas Schuler of Blue Shield, an international organization for the protection of cultural heritage during emergency situations, to warn the University of Basel team and to publicly dismiss the rumored find as just a secondary shaft to a pre-existing tomb. Thanks to them, researchers were able to do their thing without dangerous interference. :notworthy:


Leonardo da Vinci, handbag designer

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Amidst thousands of drawings of mechanical inventions, artillery, anatomy, the natural world, etc. made by Leonardo da Vinci and collected in the Codex Atlanticus are some fragments of a design that nobody paid much attention to for 500 years. In 1978, Da Vinci scholar Carlo Pedretti paid attention and identified the drawing as a handbag designed by Leonardo da Vinci around 1497.

quot;Pretiosa" by Gherardini above, design by Leonardo da Vinci belowAgnese Sabato and Alessandro Vezzosi of the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci in Vinci recently reassembled the design from the fragments. Vezzosi thinks Leonardo made several drawings of the same bag but they’ve been lost.

As a tribute to the city of Florence, a city that has long been famous for its exquisite leather work, fashion house Gherardini has brought Leonardo’s handbag to life. Designer Carla Braccialini designed the “Pretiosa” (meaning “precious” and yes, I am saying it like Gollum) bag based on Leonardo’s drawing, and artisans made it by hand using luxury materials like embroidered calf leather and an embossed brass handle.

Here is an all too short video of a craftsman making the “Pretiosa”:


Functional and beautiful, creative and provocative, the bag would have certainly stood out among Renaissance fashion.

“While the shape recalls the lectern in “The Annunciation,” painted by Leonardo in the workshop of Verrocchio, its patterns feature rotating spirals and floral motifs, scrolls and foliage in metamorphosis,” Vezzosi said.

Boasting a unique closing system, the bag was designed at the end of Leonardo’s first Milanese period, around 1497. At that time, the artist was painting the tapestries in the Last Supper and knots designs in the Sala delle Asse in the Castello Sforzesco.

“Pretiosa” was on display for just three days (January 11-13) at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, the first art school in Europe which was founded by Cosimo I de’ Medici and Giorgio Vasari in 1563. Gherardini has made only 99 Preciouses. They will theoretically be sold in Gherardini boutiques starting in March, but I highly doubt anybody walking in off the street will be able to get their mitts on one.

This wasn’t Leonardo’s only foray into fashion design. Several of his forays into clothing and accessory design have survived, as have his writings on the subject. He had strong opinions on the fashions of his era, condemning excessive ornamentation, overly tight clothes and shoes.

An appreciation for fashion is not Gherardini’s sole connection to the Renaissance genius. Lisa Gherardini, born to a decayed aristocratic Florentine family in 1479, married successful silk merchant Francesco Del Giocondo when she was 15. In 1503, Francesco commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of her. It took him so long to paint it that he officially gave up the commission in 1506, although he kept working on it for the rest of his life.

After his death in 1519, the painting was bought by King Francis I of France. Now Leonardo’s portrait of Lisa Gherardini, aka la Gioconda, aka Madonna Lisa, aka Monna Lisa, aka the Mona Lisa, smiles serenely at dense crowds of Louvre visitors. One hundred and twenty-six years ago, her relatives founded the Gherardini fashion house.


Victorian astronomy drawings (plus gypsy moths)

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Jupiter, observed Nov. 1, 1880The New York Public Library has digitized and uploaded a gallery of astronomy drawings made in the late 1800s by French artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot and they are gorgeous.

A staunch Republican (of the French variety, not the US variety), Trouvelot fled France when he was just 24 years old after Louis-Napoléon’s December 2, 1851 coup d’état. By the time President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had crowned himself Napoleon III exactly one year later, Trouvelot was living in the United States with his family. He settled in Massachusetts in 1855, earning an income as an artist.

A member of the Boston Society of Natural History, Trouvelot was an amateur entomologist with a particular interest in silkworms. That interest was more than a minor hobby. By 1865, he had a million Polyphemus moth caterpillars living in bushes in his backyard under a vast net. His aim was to improve the health of the disease-prone caterpillars so their silk production would improve. In aid of this, he had the brilliant idea to breed them with a hardier creature: the gypsy moth.

Even in 1868, the gypsy moth already had a reputation as a destructive invasive species. Trouvelot was convinced he could control them, though, so in the winter of 1868/69, he returned from Europe with a clutch of gypsy moth eggs which he put in a tree in the backyard thinking his netting would keep them from spreading. Nature lol’d and with a soft breeze blew the eggs into nearby woods. Trouvelot tried to track them all down but of course couldn’t. He alerted his neighbors and entomologists but none of them did anything.

And thus the gypsy moth was introduced to the US. By 1886, his suburban Boston neighborhood was saturated with the beasties. By 1890, the entire state was. The federal and state governments tried to eradicate the pest, but failed miserably. By 1898 the moths had spread south to Virginia and west to the Great Lakes. Today gypsy moths live all over the contiguous US and cause an estimated $868 million of agricultural damage a year.

Meteor shower, November 13-14, 1868After this mess Trouvelot decided to direct his scientific interests to non-entomological pursuits. He had already begun to draw astronomical phenomena like meteor showers and auroras in the late 1860s. Joseph Winlock, director of the Harvard College Observatory, admired his illustrations and hired Trouvelot to work for the observatory. Space photography had existed for a couple of decades by then, but although the technology was constantly improving, drawings were still considered the most accurate depictions of astronomical phenomena.

Sun spots and veiled spot, June 17, 1875For the next few years Trouvelot made hundred of sketches of what he saw through the observatory’s 15-inch refractor telescope. In 1875 he published a discovery of his own: veiled spots, grey patches that look like shadows on the surface of the sun. He then moved on to other observatories, including the Washington Observatory and the University of Virginia’s.

In 1881, he selected 15 out of his thousands of astronomy drawings to be published in a book using then-cutting edge chromolithography technology, a color printing process that made color illustrations cheap and plentiful. It’s those chromolithographs that the New York Public Library has digitized. Trouvelet described his work thus:

“With a view to making these observations more generally useful, I was led…to prepare, from this collection of drawings, a series of astronomical pictures, which were intended to represent the celestial phenomena as they appear to the trained eye and to an experienced draughtsman through the great modern telescopes provided with the most delicate instrumental appliances…. While my aim in this work has been to combine scrupulous fidelity and accuracy in the details, I have also endeavored to preserve the natural elegance and the delicate outlines peculiar to the objects depicted….”

Goal achieved, I’d say.

Aurora Borealis, March 1, 1872 The moon's Mare Humorum, 1875 Mars, observed September 3, 1877 Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878

Compare his illustrations to period photography of astronomical phenomena in this NYPL gallery. Trouvelot’s work is far more accurate as well as incredibly beautiful.


Two William Wallace letters return to Scotland

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Two letters that are thought to have passed through the hands of Scottish national hero William Wallace will go on display this August at the Scottish Parliament as part of its annual Festival of Politics. These are the only two surviving documents that are directly connected to Wallace and neither of them is actually owned by Scotland, so to see them both together in the motherland is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

One letter, known as the Safe Conduct or the Wallace Letter, was written on November 7th, 1300 by King Philip IV of France to his representatives in Rome. Wallace had left Scotland for France in the fall of 1298 after his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk and his resignation as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert the Bruce. Written in Latin, the letter commands that the King’s ambassadors ask Pope Boniface VIII to agree to Wallace’s requests.

Letter from Philip IV to Pope Boniface VIII re. William Wallace, 1300

Here’s a translation of the letter:

Philip by the grace of God, king of the French, to his beloved and loyal people appointed at the Roman Court, greetings and favour. We command you that you ask the Supreme Pontiff to consider with favour our beloved William le Walois of Scotland, knight, with regard to those things which concern him that he has to expedite. Dated at Pierrefonds on the Monday after the feast of All Saints [7 November 1300]. [Endorsed]: Fourth letter of the King of France.

So it’s not really a safe conduct so much as a King asking a third party to support his ally. The reason it’s called the Safe Conduct is that English records note that Wallace was carrying three safe conducts when he was arrested, one from the King of France, one from the King of Norway and one from the King of Scotland. It was last referred to in an inventory of English records in 1323, then faded in the mists of time until the letter was discovered in the Tower of London in 1820.

We can’t know with certainty that this document is the French safe conduct taken from William Wallace after his arrest. It could have been intercepted by spies, for instance. However, the letter does indicate that Wallace was going to appeal to the Pope in person so it makes sense that he would have carried it on him rather than Philip sending it directly, and given that it was found in the Tower, it makes sense that it was confiscated from one the Tower’s most famous residents.

William Wallace's seal (front), Scottish Lion RampantThe second letter is known as the Lübeck Letter and is the only surviving document we have that was written by William Wallace himself. William Wallace's seal (back), strung bow with arrowAttached to this letter is also the only surviving example of Wallace’s personal seal. It has a Scottish Lion rampant on the front and a strung bow with arrow on the reverse.

After Scottish forces led by William Wallace and his northern ally Andrew de Mornay (aka Andrew Murray) won the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297, Wallace wasted no time trying to get the Scottish economy back on track. The British had captured Scottish ports the year before and severely curtailed trade. Exactly a month after Stirling Bridge, Wallace felt secure enough to write to the Hanseatic League towns of Hamburg and Lübeck alerting them that Scotland’s ports were open for business again. (Mornay was mortally wounded at Stirling Bridge, although it appears he lived for a short time afterwards and Wallace continued to include his name in correspondence until his death.)

Lübeck Letter, 1297

Andrew Moray and William Wallace, leaders of the army of the Kingdom of Scotland and the Community, to their worthy and beloved friends, the Mayors and citizens of Lübeck and Hamburg, greeting. We have been told by trustworthy merchants of the Kingdom of Scotland that you are giving help and favour in all business concerning us and our merchants for which we thank you. We ask that it be made known among your merchants that they will now have safe access to all ports in the Kingdom of Scotland, since Scotland, blessed be God, has been rescued from the power of the English by force of arms. Given at Haddington in Scotland, on the 11th day of October in the year of grace one thousand two hundred and ninety seven.

The Hamburg letter was destroyed in World War II. The Lübeck Letter survived secreted away in a Hanseatic League archive in a Lübeck museum. It is now kept in the National Archives of Lübeck who have loaned it to Scotland for the exhibit.

The Scottish government has long yearned for both letters. Members of Parliament have requested that the National Archives in Kew and Lübeck donate the letters to Scotland. That hasn’t happened, although Kew has agreed to a long-term loan of the Safe Conduct letter. Since both documents are extremely fragile, they will be exhibited for a short time only. The exhibition is free and will be open from August 10 to August 31, 2012 in the Scottish Parliament Building’s Main Hall.






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