Archive for February, 2012

Charlotte Brontë’s lost short story published

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The Brontë sisters (left to right, Anne, Emily and Charlotte), ca. 1834, by their brother Branwell who painted himself out of the middle of the paintingIn February of 1842, Charlotte and Emily Brontë moved to Brussels to enroll in a pensionnat (boarding school) for young ladies run by Belgian teacher Claire Zoé Parent Héger with the help of her husband Constantin who also taught at the nearby Athénée Royale school. The sisters’ ultimate goal was to open a school of their own back home in Haworth, Yorkshire, and quality foreign language instruction, particularly of French, would be key to their school’s success. The Brontës couldn’t afford board and tuition at the pensionnat, so Charlotte, then 25 years old, taught English and Emily, then 23, taught music at the school to pay their way.

The pensionnat on the Rue d'IsabelleConstantin Héger was their French teacher. Charlotte described him thus when she first arrived:

He is professor of rhetoric, a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament; a little black being, with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane tom-cat, sometimes those of a delirious hyena; occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air nor above 100 degrees removed from mild and gentlemanlike….

"L'Ingratitude" by Charlotte BrontëThey already spoke and wrote basic French, so Constantin gave the sisters writing assignments based on French literature. He encouraged them to choose their own subjects inspired by the French authors they had read in class. On March 16, 1842, Charlotte handed in the first of these assignments: a short story called L’Ingratitude, inspired in part by Jean de la Fontaine’s fable The Rat Retired From The World. It tells the story of a spoiled young rat who leaves his father’s humble but loving home for greener pastures only to find they’re not so green after all.

The Héger family in 1846 by Ange FrançoisIn November of 1842, Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth when their aunt Elizabeth Branwell passed away. Charlotte returned alone to the pensionnat in January of 1843 to teach English, and, as she admitted a few years later in a letter to a friend, to be near Constantin Héger with whom she had fallen in love. Her feelings were unrequited. Constantin was devoutly religious, a happily married man with children; his wife ran the school. This was not a comfortable situation.

Address of one of Charlotte's letters to HégerA year later, Charlotte returned to Haworth. She wrote to Constantin for the next two years, a series of reserved and somber love letters in French, four of which have survived. Two of them were reputedly torn up and taped back together; some say Madame Héger tore them in disgust, some that Constantin tore them up and his wife rescued them from the bin for unknown reasons. Charlotte hadn’t been published back then (Jane Eyre was published in 1847), so it’s not likely that Madame saw them as having literary value.

Here’s a passage from one of those letters. The contrast with her initial impression of him is notable.

Day or night I find neither rest nor peace – if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me … I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

Her unrequited love for her teacher inspired Charlotte’s 1853 novel Villette. Spoiler alert! In the book, the fictional teacher character, M. Paul Emanuel, dies in the end.

In real life it was Charlotte who would die before her time. She passed away in 1855, a celebrated author just 38 years old. Her friend and fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell published a biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, in 1857. Gaskell interviewed Constantin Héger for the book but decided not to write about Charlotte’s inappropriate feelings for a married man.

It would take over half a century for the truth to out. In 1913, Constantin and Claire’s son Paul Héger donated Charlotte’s letters to the British Museum and allowed them to be published in the Times. Belgian coal magnate and art collector Raoul Warocqué read the letters in the paper and coveted them. He wrote to Paul asking if there were any more extant Brontë letters that he could buy. There were not, but Paul had another Brontë memento he was willing to part with: Charlotte’s handwritten manuscript of L’Ingratitude.

Warocqué’s collections are now in the Musée Royal de Mariemont. Brontë scholar Brian Bracken was looking through the Musée Royal’s catalog looking for information on Vital Héger, Constantin’s brother, when he found a reference to a manuscript by Charlotte Brontë. It was L’Ingratitude, forgotten since 1914.

On Wednesday the London Review of Books published L’Ingratitude for the first time. It’s posted in the original French and in an English translation, and there’s an audio version read by Gillian Anderson.

Otzi had Lyme disease

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Otzi with his accessoriesResearchers have analyzed Otzi the Iceman’s full nuclear genome sequence and discovered that he had Lyme disease. Otzi died 5300 years ago which makes his the earliest known human case of Lyme disease.

This study confirmed the results of an earlier study which sequenced his mitochondrial genome and found that he has no contemporary descendants. His ancestors in the K haplogroup migrated to Europe from the Middle East at some point during the Neolithic. Their descendants are few in number (only 8% of Europeans belong to the K haplogroup) and concentrated in isolated areas like Sardinia and Corsica. None of them are in Otzi’s branch of the K haplogroup.

Reconstruction of Otzi the IcemanHe also had brown hair, brown eyes (which matches the most recent reconstruction of his face; the first reconstruction gave him blue eyes), type O blood and lactose intolerance. Humans had been husbanding cattle for 5000 years by the time Otzi trekked the Alps, but it took us a few thousand more years of bovine domestication before the ability to digest milk became more common among adults. (Children produce lactase, the enzyme that metabolizes lactose, so they can nurse, but once they’re weaned lactase production decreases or stops altogether. That’s the default setting for all mammals. By domesticating cattle, some human populations, primarily in the northern hemisphere, gradually began to develop lactase persistence into adulthood.)

A more surprising discovery is that he was genetically predisposed to an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Ötzi was genetically predisposed to cardiovascular diseases, according to recent studies carried out by the team of scientists working with Albert Zink and Angela Graefen from Bolzano’s EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, Carsten Pusch and Nikolaus Blin from the Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Tübingen, along with Andreas Keller and Eckart Meese from the Institute of Human Genetics at Saarland University. Not only was this genetic predisposition demonstrable in the 5,000-year-old ice mummy, there was also already a symptom in the form of arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. And yet, in his lifetime, Ötzi was not exposed to the risk factors which we consider today to be the significant triggers of cardiovascular disease. He was not overweight and no stranger to exercise. “The evidence that such a genetic predisposition already existed in Ötzi’s lifetime is of huge interest to us. It indicates that cardiovascular disease is by no means an illness chiefly associated with modern lifestyles. We are now eager to use these data to help us explore further how these diseases developed” says anthropologist Albert Zink with bioinformatics expert Andreas Keller.

Art from Hitler’s collection found at Czech convent

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Hitler's paintings in the convent in Doksany, Czech RepublicFor five years Czech writer and historian Jiri Kuchar has been trying to track down 16 paintings from Hitler’s personal art collection that went missing after the war. As of last July, he’s almost halfway there, because he found seven of them in the convent of the Premonstratensian Sisters in Doksany, a small town 30 miles north of Prague.

Hitler bought or stole about 45 paintings and 30 statues for his private collection which he stashed in the Bohemian monastery of Vyssi Brod along with two other complete collections, one formerly owned by German banker Fritz Mannheimer and the other by the Rothschilds in Vienna. After the war, the Mannheimer and Rothschild collections were removed from the monastery and brought to Munich — a central collection point for art looted by the Nazis — by American troops, but they left the paintings from Hitler’s personal collection behind.

The monks weren’t interested in keeping them so they passed on the hot potatoes. The artworks were split up and went through several hands, including museums and parks, before the group of seven wound up at Doksany. It’s not clear when exactly they showed up there or why.

The Doksany convent was first founded in 1144 but closed by order of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in 1782 as part of his campaign to modernize and reform the Church. After that, it was used as a hospital and then rebuilt into a castle for the Aehrenthal family. Under Communist rule the building was neglected and badly decayed, but it was still standing when Communism fell in 1989. In 1997 the monastery in the neighboring town of Strahov bought the castle from the state and restored it so it could be used as a convent again for the first time since Joseph II’s suppression of the monasteries.

The sisters had no idea the paintings Kuchar found belonged to Hitler, of course, but despite that unsavory association they intend to keep the art. Since Hitler had lame taste the collection is not of huge artistic importance, but the historical significance could bring millions of dollars if the paintings were sold.

"Memories of Stalingrad" by Franz Eichhorst, 1943One piece in particular stands out both in quality and in the subject matter: “Memory of Stalingrad” made in 1943 by Franz Eichhorst, Hitler’s favorite painter. It depicts wounded German soldiers in a trench during the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest and longest battles in history (from August 23, 1942 to February 2, 1943) which ended in catastrophic defeat for Germany.

Kuchar intends to keep searching for the nine remaining paintings.

“I sent DVDs with the pictures to institutions I thought might have the works,” he said.

He managed to track down several statues and paintings, including a group of statues in the park of the southern chateau of Hluboka, which the administrator has since removed to prevent neo-Nazi tourism.

Kuchar also bemoaned the loss of some works in recent years: “To put it delicately, let’s say they disappeared.”

“I’m afraid there’s a channel leading to the west. I’ve found two of the statues on offer at auction houses, one in Frankfurt, the other in London,” he said, adding one was sold for 150,000 pounds (177,000 euros, $237,000) two years ago.

The Ghent Altarpiece online in extreme detail

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Ghent Altarpiece, openThe Ghent Altarpiece, a dramatic and complex painting on multiple hinged oak panels started by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan in 1432, is displayed within a bulletproof glass enclosure in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Painted in the Ars Nova style that rejected the allegorical and idealized forms of the Middle Ages in favor of depicting nature as observed, the polyptych is a watershed in art history and a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish art.

Its historical and artistic significance is matched only by the complexity of keeping a work of such vastness and variety in reasonably good condition. Fully opened, the 18-panel polyptych is 11 feet by 14.5 feet. Over the centuries, the panels were separated from each other and held in all kinds of questionable environments receiving questionable treatments. An elaborate outer frame that encased the entire altarpiece is thought to have been destroyed during the Reformation, and the panels were taken down and hidden twice to keep them safe from marauding iconoclasts and Calvinists. The three middle upper panels depicting Mary, God and John the Baptist had their original frames removed and the top cropped off sometime in the 18th century.

In 1815 the Diocese of Ghent pawned six of the eight original wing panels for a few hundred bucks then failed to redeem them. The King of Prussia ended up buying them, and during their stay in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie gallery, the panels were split in two lengthwise and then cradled at the back. German troops helped themselves to more panels from the Ghent cathedral during World War I, but returned not just the looted panels but also the legitimately purchased ones to Belgium to defray some of the reparations debt stipulated in the Versailles Treaty.

Ghent Altarpiece, closedIn 1940, Belgium decided to ship the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. It was en route in France when Italy declared war as a German ally, so it stopped in its tracks. Military representatives from Germany, France and Belgium actually signed an agreement to leave the altarpiece alone in Pau for the duration of hostilities, but Hitler had other ideas. In 1942 he had the altarpiece seized and sent to Germany. It ended up being stored in a salt mine until the Americans recovered it after the war and returned it to Belgium.

Then there are the fires, vandalism, thefts (at least six separate thefts over six centuries, including the 1934 theft of the Just Judges panel which has never been solved; a copy made shortly after the theft is in its place now) and even its current rig complicating the altarpiece’s conservation needs. The glass enclosure and steel support structure was erected for security reasons. There are extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity within, great enemies of old paint and wood.

In 2007, heritage organizations in Belgium raised the alarm about the altarpiece’s condition issues. In 2008, the cathedral formed an advisory committee of government representatives and panel painting conservation specialists to study the situation and devise a conservation plan. They concluded that fluctuating climate conditions inside the glass enclosure needed to be immediately stabilized using short-term solutions like raising the heat in the cathedral, replacing the hot spotlights with cooler daylight lamps and deploying portable humidifiers.

Dismantling the central panelThe committee also concluded that the altarpiece should be completely dismantled so that all urgent conservation issues could be addressed. That would give experts a chance to do a thorough, in-depth study of the polyptych to provide individual conservation plans tailored to the specific needs of each panel. That in-depth study was performed in the actual cathedral. They just raised a glass barrier around the altarpiece space so experts could work on site moving the delicate paintings as little as possible while providing a fascinating show for visitors.

The advisory committee submitted a grant proposal to the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative to fund the assessment of the structural condition of panel supports and its supporting technical documentation. One of the Panel Painting Initiative’s main objectives is aiding in the transfer of knowledge from senior panel conservators to juniors, and since one doesn’t often get a chance to learn from master conservators working on one of the greatest wood panel paintings of all time, the Getty accepted with alacrity.

Cleaning test in the Adoration of the Magi panelThey added a codicil requiring that the results of the study, including X-rays, extreme high resolution photographs in both visible spectrum and infrared light, and detailed documentation be uploaded to the web. And so they have been: Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. The pictures are so huge you can view details from every panel with microscopic magnification. You can split the screen to compare panels, or compare the photo version to the infrared versions. There are extreme closeups of important details, and pictures of the cleaning tests on each panel which show little clean patches after conservators experimented with dry cleaning using microfiber cloths. The website also offers freely downloadable pdf versions of all the conservation and dendrochronology reports.

It’s amazing, really. I’ve been lost in it all day.

“Guernica” gets new robot primary care physician

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Pablito scans GuernicaPablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica is enormous — 11 feet tall, 25.6 feet wide — and it has lived a peripatetic life since it was first displayed to enormous acclaim in the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It was on tour for 20 years straight, and every time it left for a new destination, it was taken down from its supports and rolled up for ease of transport. All that movement has left the mural-sized oil painting on canvas in a delicate condition, so delicate that curators at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, Guernica‘s permanent home, are reluctant to move it at all, not even to their own conservation lab.

Conservators and experts from the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica worked together to create a technological solution to the problem. The result: a robot that moves along an enormous rig, taking infrared and ultraviolet photographs that will reveal condition details at the microscopic level. He has been affectionately dubbed “Pablito” in a nod to the painting’s creator and in an ironic reference to its hugeness, like when people call a 300-pound bodyguard/mob enforcer “Tiny.” When the museum closes at night and on Tuesdays, the staff drag out Pablito and position him a meter away from the painting.

Throughout the night the 9-meter (30-ft.) long, 5-meter (16-ft.) tall structure weighing 1.5 tons painstakingly scans the masterpiece, slowly compiling photographic DNA.

It can be programmed to take the camera lenses closer or farther away from the painting depending on the shot needed and has a precision of movement of 25 microns, or 25 thousandths of a millimeter, allowing analysts to see even air bubbles and scratches undetectable by the human eye.

“It will give us untold information about the painting,” said Humberto Durán, the restoration computer technician who presided over the project’s design. Durán said the process will give a complete view of the painting’s underlying preparatory drawings and all the later touchups it was subjected to.

So far it seems Guernica is stable and in no need of intervention. Pablito’s regular scans going forward will ensure that any deterioration or conservation problems that arise can be addressed when they are still small issues.

Commissioned by Spain’s Republican government to create a mural-sized painting for the Paris World Fair, Picasso discarded his original design after reading George Steer’s report in The Times about the brutal bombing raid by Nazi warplanes that destroyed the village of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Guernica was the cultural capital of the Basque region, an area considered a hotbed of Republicanism by Franco’s Nationalist forces, but the only legitimate military target was an ammunition factory outside town and it wasn’t bombed at all. The aim was political: demoralize the Republican forces by slaughtering civilians and flattening the village.

Appalled by the destruction and loss of life, Picasso made Guernica a statement on the agony of war. The black-and-white painting depicts animals, people and buildings torn apart and on fire.

Picasso told a great anecdote about Guernica after World War II. Odds are he made it up to make himself look like more of an anti-Nazi badass, but I hope it’s true because it’s so awesome. During WWII, Picasso lived in occupied Paris. He was regularly harassed by the Gestapo because they suspected he was involved in the resistance and just generally because he was a “degenerate artist” by Nazi standards and thus worthy of harassment. One time when they were searching his apartment one of the officers pointed to a sketch, a preparatory drawing Picasso had made for Guernica, and said “Did you do that?” Picasso replied “No, you did.” Bad. Ass.

For a fascinating exploration of the cubist depths of this great masterpiece, see this 3D rendering:


$500 million “Black Swan” treasure flies to Spain

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Gold coins from "Black Swan" treasureWhen earlier this month a federal circuit judge ordered Odyssey Marine Exploration to return the vast treasure recovered from the shipwreck code-named “Black Swan” to Spain, I assumed they’d appeal the ruling to a higher court. That’s what they’ve done every other time a judgement went against them in the five years since they first retrieved the gold and silver coins from the Atlantic seabed in May of 2007. I was wrong.

Odyssey did make one last claim in court, but it was already a form of capitulation: they asked that the Spanish government reimburse them $412,814 for storage and preservation costs. On February 18th, US District Court Judge Mark Pizzo denied the claim and ordered the company to grant Spain access to the treasure this week so they could prepare it for transport. Odyssey announced that it would no longer contest Spain’s ownership of the treasure.

Peru isn’t giving up so easily.

On Thursday, the Peruvian government made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block transfer of the treasure to give that nation more time to make arguments in federal court about its claim to being the rightful owner.

Peru says the gold and silver was mined, refined and minted in that country, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. The appeal was directed to Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not indicate when he would respond.

Probably because he’s not gonna. Anyway it’s too late now.

"Black Swan" treasure loaded on Spanish military cargo planeOn Thursday evening, two Spanish military Hercules transport planes were loaded with 494,000 silver coins, 100,000 gold coins and assorted artifacts Odyssey Marine delivered to MacDill Air Force Base from their secured storage facility in Sarasota. The treasure of the “Black Swan,” aka the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804, is now winging its way to Spain.

Spanish officials counted and weighed the treasure before loading it on the planes. Odyssey actually lowballed the discovery when they announced they had found 17 tons of gold and silver. The total weight was 49,000 pounds, or 24.5 tons. Despite Spain’s floundering economy, massive debt and 23% unemployment, the coins will not be sold or, heaven forfend, melted down. As cultural patrimony, the treasure must by law be preserved intact. The current plan is to divide the coins and display them at a number of museums in Spain.

There’s footage of the cargo being loaded onto the planes and Spanish Ambassador Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo’s tarmac statement in this local news story:

Pipeline work reveals 4 pounds of Bronze Age gold

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Bronze Age gold spiralsIn April of 2011, an archaeological investigation on the future site of the North European Gas Pipeline (NEL) near the Lower Saxony town of Syke unearthed a large hoard of Bronze Age gold jewelry, the regional Ministry of Culture revealed today. An engineer located the cache while exploring an excavation area with a metal detector. They found several corroded bronze pins, a small gold spiral curl and an engraved gold cuff, then decided to cut a solid two-foot square block of the earth around the discovery spot instead of digging any further.

Bronze Age gold on display in HanoverThe block was sent to the State Conservation Office in Hanover where researchers took detailed CT scans so they could know exactly where every artifact was before attempting recovery. They even created a 3D plastic model of the block based on the scans so the conservator could dissect the block and remove each piece with utmost precision.

The final tally was 117 individual items — gold rings, spirals, cloak pins — packed inside a linen bag closed with four bronze needles. The total weight of the artifacts is 1.8 kilos, about four pounds, making it one of the largest prehistoric gold finds in Central Europe.

Gold cloak pinThe gold cuff turned out upon closer investigation to be a cloak pin, decorated with circles and sun symbols. Those decorations date the piece to 1400 B.C., the Middle Bronze Age. The remains of the linen bag are in the process of being radiocarbon dated, but we don’t have the results on that yet.

Bronze Age gold spiralsUniversity of Hanover archaeological metallurgists examined the artifacts using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) testing, scanning electron microscopy and Laser Ablation Mass Spectrometry (LAMS). The results were surprising, even revolutionary, providing a whole new insight into the capabilities and range of our Bronze Age ancestors. For one thing, the gold was not hammered but drawn, a more advanced technique that historians didn’t think was used during the Bronze Age. The gold content of each artifact is 90 percent. Such a high percentage indicates that the jewels were not made from natural gold, but rather from recycled gold. They also discovered that the origin of all the metal in the hoard, gold and bronze, is Central Asia, not a local source.

Research on the find is ongoing, as are excavations all along the 275-mile pipeline route through Germany, from the Bay of Greifswald in the northeast on the Baltic Sea through Lower Saxony in the northwest. The pre-pipeline excavations are some of the largest archaeological projects in Europe, employing hundreds and discovering not just pounds of Bronze age gold, but also Stone Age hearths complete with mother figure, hundreds of cemeteries with cremation urns, Roman-era grave goods, Neolithic graves, a gold ring with a blue pearl from 400 A.D., beads and wood remnants from Egyptian trade goods, and much more. Only 10-20% of the sites were known before the pipeline project began.

This is financed by the developers building the pipeline, who must get an all-clear from the archaeologists before they can begin building on any given spot. They started the surveys in 2010 to ensure that they would have a lot of time to excavate and thus help minimize the chances of delays once construction begins.

Encasing the Magna Carta

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Magna Carta, 1297, after conservationMagna Carta, the English charter in which King John guaranteed certain civil liberties to England’s powerful feudal barons, was reissued by every new king at least once between the first version in 1215 and the final edition in 1297 which remains on the books to this day. Every time the charter was amended, multiple copies (known as “exemplifications”) of the contract would be issued to all signatory parties and pertinent archives.

Seventeen exemplifications from various releases have survived to this day, almost all of them in England. There is only one in the United States and that one is also the only Magna Carta in private hands. It’s a 1297 copy bearing the royal seal of Edward I and was kept for hundreds of years by the Earls of Cardigan. They sold it to Ross Perot in 1984, and the Perot Foundation loaned it to the National Archives where it was on display for many years.

In December of 2007, the Perot Foundation sold the document to raise money for its charitable missions. It was purchased for $21.3 million by David M. Rubenstein, the same history buff billionaire who recently donated $7.5 million to repair the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument. He loaned it right back to the National Archives, and then gave them $13.5 million to build a new custom case and to renovate the gallery in which Magna Carta will be on permanent display.

Last year, the National Archives began a program of conservation on the precious parchment. They removed it from its encasement and examined it carefully to see what needed fixing. Required fixes included removing old patches and glues that were causing the paper to contract, filling in holes and thin spots with archival long-fiber conservation paper and wheat starch paste, humidifying the parchment to keep it from getting brittle, and flattening the document. Ultraviolet photographs taken while the charter was out of its protective encasement found areas of writing that had been erased by water damage.

Here’s a short video documenting the conservators’ work last year:


Looking forward to the long-term challenges of conserving such an ancient document, the National Archives asked the engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create a new encasement that would keep chemically inert argon gas trapped inside the casing instead of air, control for temperature and humidity, and also allow for ease of transport and display.

NIST worked from a three-dimensional laser scan of the document to support it on the platform and to create a nest to hold the original wax seal with Edward I’s likeness, which is attached to the Magna Carta by a frail parchment ribbon.

The platform was created from a single 6-inch thick block of aluminum to minimize the number of joints or spots that could cause leaks in the encasement, explained Brandenburg. About 90 percent of the block was cut away with a computer-controlled milling machine based on the three-dimensional image to create the perfect fit.

The end result is an enclosure about 41 inches wide by 28 inches long and 6 inches deep. It weighs 225 pounds. The encasement cover is made of a special laminated glass with antireflective coatings to ensure maximum visibility of the document while protecting it. The encasement is sealed with close-fitting bolts that hold the frame against double O-rings that create the encasement seal. The case was filled with argon gas and will be monitored to avoid as much oxidation damage as possible.

Here’s a glimpse of the NIST team building this cutting edge device:


Much of that neat technology will be invisible to the National Archives visitor. The encasement is itself encased in a new interactive display in the West Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. Visitors can zoom in on a high resolution image of the document, seeing in detail the areas that were repaired. They can see the ultraviolet pictures of the writing that can no longer be seen with the naked eye. They can compare a translation of Magna Carta with language in the foundational documents of U.S. government — the Constitution and Declaration of Independence — that were influenced by this medieval charter written almost 800 years ago.

Viking sword found in Norway during construction

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Construction workers building residential homes in the village of Melhus, central Norway, have unearthed an unusually well-preserved Viking sword, possibly from a grave site. The developer alerted archaeologists from the Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, a department of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, just south of Melhus. They confirmed that the piece is indeed a Viking weapon, a Type H sword, according to Jan Petersen’s classification system, which dates it to between 800 and 950 A.D. A small companion piece, probably a knife blade, was found buried with it.

Viking sword with organic remains, ca. 800-950 A.D.

Despite its corroded appearance and missing parts, the sword retains organic elements, pieces of wood and leather that researchers believe are the remains of the hilt and scabbard respectively. It was discovered embedded in clay covered by five feet of topsoil, which is why those delicate organic materials were preserved for over a thousand years even as the area was cultivated and built over.

Archaeologists have excavated the find site before but never found anything. The area was reputed to have several Viking burials, but they were razed for construction during the late 19th century. This find is the sole indication that there might be still be human and material remains from the Viking era on the spot.

Construction has been suspended for now and the Trondheim team has asked for permission to excavate the site as quickly as possible.

The village of Melhus has a strong connection to 10th century Viking history. An infamous murder recounted in The Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason took place in a farm in Melhus, that of Haakon Sigurdsson, aka Jarl Haakon, aka Earl Haakon, who ruled Norway for 20 years (975-995). Officially he held the country as a vassal of Danish King Harald Bluetooth, but in practice he had full autonomy.

Haakon and Bluetooth would quarrel, however, over religious matters. Haakon worshipped the old Norse gods, so he didn’t respond well when Bluetooth forcibly baptised him and tried to pack his return ship to Norway with Christian missionaries. Haakon dumped the priests before his departure, then switched allegiance to Bluetooth’s enemy Holy Roman Emperor Otto II. He held his own on the battlefield and successfully fended off Danish raids on Norway, including one by the fearsome Jomsvikings.

The constant wars began to chip away at Haakon’s popularity, as did his habit of taking the daughters of noblemen for his concubines then sending them home despoiled when he tired of them after a week. When Olaf Tryggvason, son of a Norwegian kinglet and direct descendant of the first king of Norway, got wind of Haakon’s political troubles, he sailed to Norway to win himself a kingdom.

Meanwhile, a rebellion against Haakon’s rule drove the Earl into hiding. He and his slave Kark hid in a cave one night, then the next night dug a hole under a pigsty in a farm in Melhus and hid in there. Olaf and his soldiers unwittingly caught up with him. Olaf even gave a rousing “bring me his head” speech right outside the sty before moving on.

Then Olaf held a House Thing (trusting), or council out in the yard, and stood upon a great stone which lay beside the swine-stye, and made a speech to the people, in which he promised to enrich the man with rewards and honours who should kill the earl. This speech was heard by the earl and the thrall Kark. They had a light in their room.

“Why art thou so pale,” says the earl, “and now again black as earth? Thou hast not the intention to betray me?”

“By no means,” replies Kark.

“We were born on the same night,” says the earl, “and the time will be short between our deaths.”

King Olaf went away in the evening. When night came the earl kept himself awake but Kark slept, and was disturbed in his sleep. The earl woke him, and asked him “what he was dreaming of?”

He answered, “I was at Hlader and Olaf Trygvason was laying a gold ring about my neck.”

The earl says, “It will be a red ring Olaf will lay about thy neck if he catches thee. Take care of that! From me thou shalt enjoy all that is good, therefore betray me not.”

They then kept themselves awake both; the one, as it were, watching upon the other. But towards day the earl suddenly
dropped asleep; but his sleep was so unquiet that he drew his heels under him, and raised his neck, as if going to rise, and screamed dreadfully high. On this Kark, dreadfully alarmed, drew a large knife out of his belt, stuck it in the earl’s throat, and cut it across, and killed Earl Hakon. Then Kark cut off the earl’s head, and ran away. Late in the day he came to Hlader, where he delivered the earl’s head to King Olaf, and told all these circumstances of his own and Earl Hakon’s doings. Olaf had him taken out and beheaded.

Olaf Tryggvason ruled for just 5 years, but he cast a long shadow. He forcibly converted Norway to Christianity, giving people the choice of converting to Christianity or suffering torture and execution.

Fever for more cowbell leads to dastardly crime

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Stolen cowbells in hidey-hole under the highway overpassIn Valle d’Aosta, the smallest and least populous region of Italy just on the other side of the French Alps, cowbells have achieved cult status with collectors. One of those collectors had a fever … and the only prescription … was more cowbell. So he hired three men to stalk a 90-year-old widow for a week, then at dawn on February 8th they invaded her home in the town of Gressan when she came back from her morning constitutional. They bound Cornelia Betral’s wrists and ankles, gagged her, hooded her and laid her out on her bed while they broke into a locked room where she kept a collection of ten vintage cowbells with elaborately decorated leather collars worth an estimated 20,000 euros (ca. $26,500).

They got away with their euphonious booty, but not for long. Police received tips from the tightly knit cattle breeders community that this theft had been commissioned by 66-year-old Renato Quendoz, a local cattleman and avid cowbell aficionado. On Saturday, February 18th, police arrested Quendoz and two of the hired thieves, Salvatore Agostino (52) and Corrado Daudry (60). A third suspect, thought to be a Romanian citizen, is still at large. The cowbells were found unharmed, stashed in a hidey-hole under a highway overpass just on the other side of town. They will be returned to Mrs. Betral.

Because we live in a great age, the recovery of the cowbells by Aosta CSI was recorded.


You can tell that those are not just any old cowbell. They’re huge, for one thing, and those thick bedazzled collars are rare and valuable. They were made in the capital of old school cowbell manufacture: the Alpine town of Chamonix on the French side of the Mont Blanc Pass. (The Devouassoud family have been making cowbells and church bells the traditional way since 1829.)

Cornelia Betral was left the cowbells by her husband, a cattle breeder who had won them all as trophies in the yearly Batailles de Reines. Here’s where the cowbell entry gets even cooler than you imagined possible, and I know you imagined a lot.

The human population of the Aosta valley as of last year was 128,000. The last time they counted in 2000, there were 40,000 head of dairy cattle, which means one cow for every three people. These aren’t your garden variety Holstein cows. There are several breeds of cows that have been in the area since at least the Romans, and possibly as early as the Neolithic, and living in the Alps makes for one sturdy cow.

According to tradition, the Valdostane breed of cattle was introduced by the Burgundians when they controlled the area in the 5th century A.D. Hardy, agile, scrappy and quick to temper, Valdostanes took to the challenging mountain topography and climate (because of its positioning, the Aosta valley is considerably colder than other populated Alpine regions) like ducks to water. In the summer they go mountain climbing to graze on fresh grasses and local herbs in the high Alps. Their milk is the exclusive source of regional Aostan heritage cheeses like Fontina, the perfect melter, and Robiola, creamy, spreadable deliciousness.

Cows establishing hierarchy during Spring in the AlpsBecause of the advantages conferred by their tough characters in this tough environment, Valdostane cattle retain a fascinating connection to their primal nature. Every Spring, the females fight each other for a spot in the herd hierarchy. Watching the dominance displays has been a spectator sport since at least the 19th century, and probably for millennia. The gatherings were banned by Mussolini in 1926 as part of his campaign to stamp out regional differences. At the same time he was seeding the Aosta valley with Italian speakers to muscle out the local Francophone dialect and culture.

As soon as the war was over, local organizations started the Queen battles again on an informal basis. In 1957 they made it official and created the Batailles de Reines (the Battles of Queens) as we know it today, a cruelty-free tournament over the course of months wherein the greatest ladycows wearing the greatest bells throw down for lowing rights. Nobody gets gored, nobody gets stabbed, nobody gets ridden, nobody gets hogtied. The cows lock horns (their sharp points have been filed down) and push against each other until one gives, Sumo style. The loser just trots off and the winner hangs out a bit before her owner comes over with a lead and she meekly walks off the field with him. Ornery though they are, they are still dairy cows, after all.


Mr. Betral’s cows won ten of these battles, which is how he got those special bells and why they’re so rare and sought-after that a collector would treat a 90-year-old woman far worse than he would ever treat his cows just to get his hands on them.




February 2012


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