Archive for March, 2012

Native club owned by Cook given to BC museum

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Three views of Nuu-chah-nulth club owned by Captain CookA rare ceremonial yew-wood club given to Captain James Cook by the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island in 1778 during his third and final voyage has returned to Canada for good. Philanthropist Michael Audain donated it to the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) where it was unveiled Tuesday. It was the last Canadian artifact from Cook’s personal collection still in private hands. They’re all in museums in London, Vienna and Berlin, so believe it or not, this is the only Cook artifact from Cook’s voyage to Canada actually in Canada. This is the first time it’s been home since Cook took it with him on his way back to Hawaii 234 years ago.

The artifact, a club in the shape of an arm and hand holding a sphere, was carved with stone tools or possibly mussel shells years before it was given to Captain Cook, probably around the mid-1700s. That puts it in the last generation of First Nations objects made before contact with Europeans. It is the oldest known club of its kind, and it’s the most finely executed. A symbolic mark of high status for whoever owned it, the club might also have been used as a weapon, although it’s in excellent condition so if it saw action it didn’t see much.

Cook’s third voyage of exploration on his trusty ship, HMS Resolution, took him from Plymouth around the Cape of Good Hope to New Zealand to Hawaii (1776–1777). He left Hawaii for parts north seeking the elusive Northwest Passage, landing at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island on March 28, 1778. Cook stayed in a Nootka Sound cove now called Resolution Cove for less than a month, trading with the Nuu-chah-nulth village in Yuquot. The Nuu-chah-nulth were cordial, but they drove a hard bargain, turning up their noses at the low value trinkets Cook was accustomed to fobbing off on First Nations he encountered during his voyages. In exchange for mast timber and the sea otter pelts Cook wanted, the Yuquot villagers wanted metal, and the quality of the metals he offered — lead, pewter and tin — left something to be desired.

“An Exact Representation of The Death of Captn. James Cook, F.R.S. at Karakakooa Bay, in Owhyhee, on Feby. 14, 1779” illustration in a 1784 book by George William AndersonOn April 26th, Cook shipped out, heading north again. He mapped most of the northwest coast of North America on his way to the Bering Strait. He tried to navigate the strait several times but found it impassable. He turned around and headed back to Hawaii where on Valentine’s Day, 1779 tensions with the Hawaiians would erupt over the matter of a stolen boat. When Cook and his men attempted to take King Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage to exchange him for the stolen boat, they were rebuffed by the King’s men. Cook was hit on the head and stabbed during the ensuing fracas and died.

His crew initially tried to complete the voyage, heading back to the Bering Strait. When Charles Clerke, the commander of the second main ship (HMS Discovery) died, they gave up the Northwest Passage and turned back for home. They finally got back in October of 1780.

Cook’s personal collection of objects acquired on his final voyage, including the club from Vancouver, was given to his widow Elizabeth. His family gave it to the Leverian Museum in London where it was on display along with other artifacts from Cook’s voyages. It was sold to a private buyer in 1806 and passed through another museum and various private hands for the next two centuries. In 1967 it made its way to New York, where last year Canadian dealer Donald Ellis bought it from the $40 million estate of antique dealer George Terasaki.

Well aware that there were no Cook artifacts in Canada, Ellis contacted Michael Audain, whose foundation has repatriated several important First Nations artifacts to Canada, offering him first crack at this unique and significant piece of Canadian history. Audain paid $827,000 for the club — its market value is an estimated $1.2 million — and donated it to the MOA.

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Colossal Juno lowered by crane through museum roof

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Colossal Juno in the gardens of the Brandegee (Sprague) Estate in BrooklineA colossal Roman statue of Juno was lowered through a dismantled skylight in the roof of the Italian Renaissance Gallery in Boston’s Museum of Fine Art (MFA) on Tuesday. She’s 13 feet tall including her plinth and weighs 13,000 pounds, making her the largest Classical marble statue in North America. She was purchased for the MFA by an anonymous donor last year, but her enormous size and delicate condition required a great deal of study before she could be moved.

Juno’s dating is uncertain. We know she’s from the early Imperial era, probably from the reign of Trajan or Hadrian in the early second century A.D. Her first appearance in the historical record is in the 1633 inventory of the famed Ludovisi Collection, an immense collection of art and antiquities collected by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi and his uncle Alessandro Ludovisi, aka Pope Gregory XV. Some of the works they purchased, and others, some of the most famous, Cardinal Ludovisi found during construction of his stately pleasure dome.

In 1622 Cardinal Ludovisi bought some vineyards in what was then a suburb of Rome and built the Villa Ludovisi, various smaller buildings, and elaborate gardens on the grounds. Those vineyards turned out to have once been the Gardens of Sallust, a vast garden of renowned beauty built in the first century B.C. by Roman historian Sallust on property that once belonged to Julius Caesar. Subsequent emperors claimed the gardens which were maintained and open to the public until Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 A.D. Workers building Ludovisi’s villa turned up an incredible bounty of ancient statuary, including the Dying Gaul.

Given Juno’s hugeness, it would make sense if she were one of the pieces discovered on the spot rather than one of the acquisitions. Then again, the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square was moved there in 1586 and that bugger is 83 feet tall and weighs 331 tons, so who knows? We do know that Juno remained on the grounds of the Villa Ludovisi where she was photographed in 1890.

A few years before that picture was taken, in 1885, Don Rodolfo Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino, heir to the Cardinal’s great patrimony, sold the villa and much of its property to real estate developers. They demolished everything, creating one of Rome’s toniest neighborhoods where the American Embassy now stands. (The embassy, btw, is housed in the Villa Margherita, built between 1886 and 1890 by that rat of a prince on a piece of Ludovisi land he hadn’t sold to developers. The costs of construction were so crippling that he couldn’t even afford to pay for it, so he ended up selling that villa too to the Italian state.)

Conservator takes detailed measurementsBy 1893, the Boncompagni Ludovisi family was in dire financial straits. The next thing to go was one of the world’s greatest art and antiquities collections. Thankfully much of it was purchased by the state and is in Roman museums today, but in 1897 Juno was bought by Charles Franklin Sprague and his wife, Mary, of Boston. The statue was shipped to Boston first, then in 1904 carted by a team of 12 oxen to the Sprague’s estate in Brookline. It was the centerpiece of their Italianate garden for the next 107 years until it was purchased for the MFA.

Living outdoors in Boston is very different from living outdoors in Rome, however, and that century plus of New England winters has been hard on Juno. Before she could be moved, conservators had to do an in-depth analysis of her condition using X-rays and ground penetrating radar to find her weaknesses. They also took samples of stone from various parts of her to determine which pieces are original to the statue and which were added in later restorations. A 3D laser scan of the entire statue helped conservators model the potential stresses of transportation.

Removal of grout from the neck before decapitationIn December of last year, the MFA team, including structural engineers, stone masons and steel manufacturers as well as conservators, moved her to a storage unit. Their studies showed that her ankles, waist and neck were the salient weak points. The waist has a deep crack and the arm was attached with an iron bracket at some point after its Renaissance rediscovery. The head was also attached to the statue using adhesives and a thick iron pin, and the neck is so thin that simple vibrations from movement could have snapped the head right off. So stone masons snapped it off first.

(It’s not quite as horrifying as it sounds. Stone analysis indicates that the head is not the same marble as the rest of the body, so it’s probably a later replacement, and anyway they cut through the adhesives, not the marble.)

The conservation team also constructed a custom protective steel cradle to keep her stable during the moves and storage. She’s too huge to haul through the front door and upstairs — nor is that the most ginger way to handle so delicate a giant — so yesterday, the crane hoisted Juno, still firmly encased in her metal armature, from the ground up to the wide open skylight above the second floor gallery. It then carefully lowered her to the gallery floor.

Next up: removal of the steel frame and in situ conservation to deal with surface issues and to reattach the head and arm. On April 9th, Juno will go on public display in the MFA’s new George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing for Art of the Ancient World, which will focus on Greek and Roman deities and heroes.

Here is some highly disturbing video of masons decapitating a 2000-year-old marble lady:

Here is some highly cool video of a crane airlifting a 2000-year-old marble lady to her new home:

For more about the conservation process, including lots of great pictures, see the MFA’s Conservation in Action pages.

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Poignant Marilyn Monroe memento up for auction

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Whitey doing Marilyn's makeup on the set of "Let's Make Love"Among the enormous quantities of movie and television memorabilia that will be sold at Julien’s Auctions’ Hollywood Legends sale on March 31st and April 1st will be a collection of Marilyn Monroe pictures, letters and objects from the estate of Allan “Whitey” Snyder, Marilyn’s long-time makeup artist.

Whitey met Marilyn, then still Norma Jeane Baker, when he was assigned to do Marilyn’s makeup for her first screen test for 20th Century Fox in 1946. They formed an immediate bond which would become a lifelong working and personal relationship. From 1952′s Monkey Business on, Snyder was Marilyn’s dedicated makeup artist for all of her movies and personal appearances. He took many pictures of her on set; apparently having her picture taken calmed her stage fright.

The photographs are getting a great deal of the press because most of them have never been published before and because not just the pictures themselves are for sale, but also the publishing rights to them. Marilyn’s estate makes $2 million a year just from the licensing fees for use of her name and image, so there’s big money at stake in publishing never-before-seen pictures of Marilyn on her most famous movie sets.

It’s Lot 521 that really caught my attention. Years before her death, Marilyn asked Whitey to promise her that he’d do her makeup for her funeral should she predecease him. He jokingly replied, “Sure, drop off the body while it’s still warm and I’ll do it.” Amused, Marilyn bought him a gold Tiffany money clip engraved: “Whitey Dear, While I’m still warm, Marilyn.”

Engraved gold Tiffany money clip, gift from Marilyn Monroe to Allan "Whitey" Snyder

Matt Lauer called it “gross” but I find it terribly sweet and sad. I hope against hope that someone not too creepy buys it.

When Marilyn died in 1962, her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio took care of the funeral arrangements. He reminded Whitey of his promise and Whitey, fortified with a flask of gin, kept it. He did her makeup one last time and was one of the pallbearers.

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1940 Census to be released online for the first time

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

1940 Census advertisement posterThe United States has taken a census of the population every 10 years without fail since 1790. Census figures determine how many seats in the House of Representatives are allocated to each state. The first census takers were federal marshals who went door to door recording the name of the head of the household and the number of people in each household. Native Americans were not counted. Only three out of five slaves were counted.

(This is the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which stipulated that just three out of five slaves in every state would be counted for the purposes of determining population and thus the number of seats in the House. Slaveholding states wanted all their slaves to count so they could dominate the legislature; non-slaveholding states wanted no slaves counted since they didn’t have the vote, citizenship or even the right not to be sold like so much livestock, and would give the slave states disproportionate power in the House. James Madison suggested the three-fifths figure which was eventually adopted by the Constitutional Convention.)

Tabulating machines turning census forms into punchcard dataThroughout the whole of the 19th century and half of the 20th, political districts were responsible for sending out census takers, called enumerators, armed with forms and pencils to canvass door to door. The enumerators would return completed forms to the precinct office where they’d be entered in ink in bound ledger books. This is why historical census records have all kinds of transcription errors and misspellings, not to mention many omissions particularly in rural areas where enumerators would have to travel for miles to find remote farms, many of whose inhabitants made themselves intentionally unreachable. Starting with the 1950 census, enumerators were replaced with forms mailed out to every address on file with the United States Post Office.

By law, all individual census records are sealed for 72 years. Summaries and statistical reports are released as soon as the data is tabulated, but the information about John Smith at 100 Maple Lane is kept under wraps for three score and 12. In the past, the population schedules were only made available on microfilm. With the rise of the Internet and the explosion of online genealogical research, many of those historical census records have been digitized, but researchers had to drag their cookies to a National Archives and Records Administration branch office and go through all the microfilm by hand.

The 1940 Census, its 72 years come round at last, slouches towards the Internet to be born. Now for the first time, census records will be released online. Bookmark this website: 1940 Census Archives, and return to it on April 2nd at 9:00 AM to see the 1940 Census in all its glory.

FDR fills out his census formIt really is glorious. This is the only census taken during Franklin Roosevelt’s many presidential administrations and the only one to tabulate the statistical realities of the Great Depression. It included new questions about employment, income, and home ownership vs. renting (see a PDF of a blank 1940 form here), which at the time caused some distrust of the census requiring a major media campaign to reassure Americans their answers would be kept in utmost confidence and framing the census as patriotic duty. Cesar Romero gets enumeratedCesar Romero, the future Joker to Adam West’s Batman, pitched the census in a public service film. Pictures of FDR filling in the census form were publicized all over the country.

One not-so-small caveat: the data has not been name indexed yet. The census records are indexed by enumeration district — the geographic area a single census taker could cover in two weeks in an urban center, or in one month in a rural location. Commercial ancestry websites Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have announced that they’ll create a name index (plus indexes of all the other fields too), but it’ll be some time before they’re done. (Ancestry.com is a pay service, but they’ll allow free access to their index and proprietary search tools through the end of 2013. FamilySearch.org is run by the Mormon church. Access is free and you can even help index the census.) If you want to locate a person using the government website, you’ll have to know where the person lived in order to track down his or her census information.

Enumerator records family living in a railcar for 1940 CensusIf you’d like to be ready to hit the records running, you can figure out which enumeration district the person you’re researching lived in. Go to the National Archives’ online public access search page and type “1940 enumeration district descriptions for [city or county]” (without the quotation marks). You’ll get any written descriptions of 1940 Census enumeration districts that include the place you searched for, plus any maps that include it. Track down the address and you’ll see a two part number separated by a hyphen labeling the area. That’s the enumeration district number.

I searched for the tiny town my father was born in just three years before the census and I got three written documents and two maps. I now have both of their enumeration district numbers good to go so I can look up my adorable toddling parents on April 2nd. :boogie:

If you’re daunted by the prospect, check your local public library for resources. This Michigan public library, for instance, is offering a workshop on locating your family members on the census two days after the release.

For a three minute period overview of the census, see this film created as part of the training for enumerators. Notice the strong emphasis on the confidentiality of the data and on how a full and honest response is the duty of all patriotic citizens.

The National Archives YouTube channel has three other videos from this film that go into further detail on the census-taking process. They’re a tad on the dry side, but fascinating for genealogists, statisticians, social historians, archivists and other assorted nerdly species.

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Poster collection stolen by Nazis to be returned to collector’s son

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Peter Sachs in front of two of his father's posters in 2007In a rare instance of a court ruling in the interests of justice rather than on the precise merits of the law, Germany’s top federal appeals court has decided that the German Historical Museum must return a collection of 4,529 rare late 19th, early 20th century posters to Peter Sachs, the son of the original collector.

Hans Josef Sachs’ lifelong passion for graphic art began when he was a teenager in the late 1890s. His roommate at the Breslau Gymnasium had posters plastered all over the walls and Hans was enchanted. The early focus of his collection was Parisian posters designed by the likes of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. As German artists in Berlin and Munich began to modernize the form, Sachs’ collection embraced them. His taste was impeccable. Posters in his collection advertised food, movies, theatrical performances, political propaganda, museum exhibitions, every one of them rare, printed in very small original runs.

Cover of "Das Plakat"By the time he was 24 years old in 1905, he had the largest private collection of posters in Germany. That year, he and five other poster lovers founded the Verein der Plakat Freunde (the Society for Friends of the Poster). In 1910, Hans founded Das Plakat (“The Poster”), a journal about posters which is considered a highly influential watershed in the history of graphic art. (See some of the amazingly gorgeous cover art on this blog.) The society and journal gave him access to even more posters for his collection. He ran the magazine, writing much of its copy, until it folded in 1921.

After an attic fire that threatened but thankfully did not damage his collection, Sachs began to work on finding a way to display the posters so that the public could see them. In 1926 he had an addition built to house his collection. He dubbed it the Museum of Applied Arts and opened it to the public.

A dentist by profession, Sachs continued to practice until 1935 when his Jewish heritage ran afoul of the Nuremberg Laws. To protect his collection, he transferred technical ownership of it to banker Richard Lenz who was not Jewish. In the summer of 1938, before Lenz could take possession, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels confiscated the entire collection, which had grown to an astounding 12,500 individual pieces. He wanted to install the collection — doubtless purged of all modernism — in a museum of his own.

P.H. Mar poster from Sachs' collection, ca. 1932On November 9, 1938, Hans Sachs was arrested during Kristallnacht and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin. He was released 20 days later and wasted no time collecting his wife Felicia and his one-year-old son Peter and getting the hell out of Germany. They fled to London and thence to New York.

After the war was over, Hans assumed the collection had been destroyed, so he applied for reparations under the Federal Republic of Germany’s refund policy. In March 1961, the West German government paid him about $50,000 (225,000 German marks) as compensation for his loss. It seems a small amount now, but at the time it was a generous offer that everyone advised Hans accept. He did.

In 1966, Sachs discovered that about 8,000 posters from his collection had survived the war and were in an East Berlin museum. He wrote to the East German authorities not even asking for the posters back, but just offering to meet museum officials to offer his expertise. He also wanted to ascertain if the collection were on public display. The East German government replied to him in July of 1966 rejecting his offer because discriminatory West German legislation made collaboration between their experts impossible.

Poster from Hans Sachs' collectionHans Josef Sachs died in 1974 never having laid eyes on his collection again. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the poster collection, now mysteriously reduced to fewer than 5,000 pieces, was transferred to the German Historical Museum in Berlin where it remained mainly in storage, with just a handful of posters on display at any given time.

Hans’ son Peter had no idea the collection still existed until 2005. As soon as he found out, he tried to get it back. He offered to repay the 1961 compensation at their 2005 value of 600,000 euros, but the estimated market value of the posters had skyrocketed well into the millions (it’s assessed at $6 – $21 million now), and the museum did not want to lose such an irreplaceable and important collection. He took the case before the Advisory Committee for the Return of Nazi-confiscated Art in 2007, but since the government had paid reparations, the letter of the law was not on his side.

Peter Sachs holds a book of his father's postersPeter Sachs took the case to district court, but in 2009 they agreed with the decision of the Advisory Committee. He kept appealing to higher courts, and now the Federal Court of Justice has ruled that Peter Sachs is the rightful owner of his father’s poster collection. The decision notes that although Peter did not file for restitution by the deadline and although his father had received legal compensation, for the posters not to be returned “would perpetuate Nazi injustice.” Since the intent of restitution laws was to reinstate the property rights stripped from the victims of Nazi terror, keeping the posters would contravene the entire point of the law.

The museum has accepted the ruling with good grace, even though they’re bummed because the collection is of course a huge resource for scholars. Peter Sachs, now 74 years old, wants to fulfill his father’s dream of seeing the posters on public display, so his top priority is to find a museum where the entire collection can be showcased in all its glory.

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7th c. Anglo-Saxon teen buried in bed with gold cross

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Grave of Christian Anglo-Saxon girl, 7th century A.D.The Cambridge Archaeological Unit has unearthed the 7th century burial of a 16-year-old Anglo-Saxon girl which has two extremely rare features: 1) she was buried in her bed, meaning her actual bed — wooden frame, metal brackets and straw mattress — was buried with her resting eternally upon it, and 2) she was wearing a beautiful gold and garnet pectoral cross. Discovered in the village of Trumpington Meadows three miles south of Cambridge, this is only the 15th bed burial ever found in Britain, and only three of those were discovered in the last twenty years. The cross is only the fifth of its kind ever found.

How many other graves have been found with a combination of bed burial and cross, you ask? That would be one, at most. There was a reported bed burial and pectoral cross discovered in Ixworth during the 19th century, but the find was poorly documented so it’s not certain what exactly was uncovered there. This girl could very well be one of a kind.

Anglo-Saxon cross, front and backShe was certainly a young woman of wealth. All of the bed burials that have been found were of high status people, primarily women, and she was found with particularly valuable grave goods. Most notable is the gold cross, 1.4 inches square, inlaid with red garnets in the same style as the weapon fittings from the Staffordshire Hoard. The four other pectoral crosses that have been discovered in Britain were all pendants, hung from a loop on the top arm. This one has loops on the back of each arm, three of them rubbed shiny, indicating that it was sewn into an article of clothing and worn daily.

Skull detailThere was also an iron knife buried with her, a chatelaine — a chain meant to hang from the waist — and some glass beads that were probably kept in a purse at the end of the chain. Fragments of fabric were found on the knife and chain, which archaeologists are hoping will allow them to figure out what she was wearing when she was interred.

Some news outlets are pouncing on this story as omg maybe the earliest Christian grave ever found in Britain omg. Spoiler: it’s not. Not even close. Britain was already largely Christian when the struggling Roman Empire left it to its own devices in 410. Tertullian writes in the early 3rd century that the Britons have been “subjugated to Christ.” Entire cemeteries of Christian Romano-Celts have been found.

The Anglo-Saxons who swept in to pluck the undefended fruit of southern England after the Romans vacated, on the other hand, had their own polytheistic religion which they adhered to consistently for the next two centuries or so. The Celtic Christians in the west and east of England, by now isolated and out of reach of the Roman Church’s hierarchy, don’t seem to have made an effort to convert them. Pope Gregory I stepped into the breach and in 595 sent St. Augustine of Canterbury, so named because he would become the first archbishop thereof, to convert Æthelberht, the pagan King of Kent whose wife was a Christian Merovingian Frank. Augustine reached Kent in 597 and converted Æthelberht and a great many of his subjects before the year was out.

Grave composite; iron brackets from the bed frame surround the skeletonNow, since the young lady with the cross has not yet been radiocarbon dated we don’t have an absolute date for when she died, but bed burials thus far have only been found within a narrow range of the mid to late 7th century, and the gold and garnet cross stylistically dates the burial to somewhere between 650 and 680 A.D. That means she was Christian, either converted or born, less than 80 years after the first Anglo-Saxon conversions. Our maiden could therefore be the first Anglo-Saxon Christian burial ever found, and she’s without question one of the earliest.

The only other grave remotely like hers, the one found in Ixworth in the 19th century, was not excavated or documented with archaeological practices, so archaeologists are tremendously excited to have an opportunity to examine in detail with all modern technology a grave from this important transitional period in British history.

“The Trumpington bed burial does seem to belong at that transition between the two religions. Did she have a formal role in the church? The site is just behind the village church, which is first documented over 400 years later. Perhaps there was a monastery – even a nunnery – there before that we don’t know about. This is certainly something worth looking into.”

A small number of structures associated with the burials seem to represent part of a settlement that was in use at the same time. Analysis of the finds from these will help to determine the nature and function of that settlement; initial assessment of the pottery has suggested the presence of some high status imports, of a type usually only associated with high status ecclesiastical centres.

Skeleton mid-excavation; you can see edge of the cross looking like a coin just below the skullThe Christian girl isn’t the only person from this era buried at the site. Her grave was one of four grouped together. Two of the graves also held the remains of young women and the third held a person whose sex has yet to be determined. The remains will all be radiocarbon dated to confirm that they were indeed contemporaneous burials. Isotope analysis on their teeth will determine where they lived as children and what kind of diets they had. Researchers are also hoping to pinpoint the causes of death and any other illnesses or injuries they suffered in life.

Cambridge has put together a neat video of the discovery. I love how the archaeologist who was excavating the skeleton when she first brushed dirt off the edge of the cross thought it was a pound coin one of her colleagues had thrown in as a joke.

Pictures courtesy of Cambridge University. You can see more of them on their Flickr page.

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Mass grave found in Chiapas is 1300 years old

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

On Friday, March 9, a mass grave containing the remains of 167 people was found in a remote cave near the southern Mexican town of Frontera Comalapa. Local farmers had stumbled on the cave earlier in the week and alerted the Chiapas Attorney General’s office. Authorities located the cave on the Nuevo Ojo de Agua ranch and discovered piles of bones stacked on top of each other.

Over the past few years, Mexican authorities have found multiple mass graves containing victims of the brutal drug cartels. Approximately 50,000 people have died since 2006 from drug violence in Mexico. The cave is on a route frequented by Central American migrant workers traveling north, and migrants have been targets of mass slaughter by the cartels before, so police suspected the human remains were evidence of a contemporary crime.

Treating the cave like a crime scene, investigators removed the bones and brought them to the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez where forensic experts tentatively estimated that the remains were about 50 years old. That put them outside the temporal range of drug cartels, but Frontera Comalapa is only 11 miles from the Guatemalan border, so investigators theorized that the dead were victims of the civil war that raged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996.

It was only then that the prosecutor’s office contacted the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH anthropologists examined the skeletal remains and found that they are not contemporary crime victims at all, but rather pre-Columbian and between 1000 and 1300 years old.

“The evidence that led us to determine the chronology was the practice of intentional cranial deformation,” [INAH anthropologist Javier Montes de Paz] said, who noted that the remains found at the site have the “tabular erect type of deformed skull.”

The Maya used planks to intentionally flatten and elongate the skulls of infants and the Maya are known to have used that cave for ceremonial purposes at various times, but we can’t say yet if the remains were Maya or another ancient pre-Columbian civilization. Some clay artifacts discovered in the cave might help shed light on who exactly these 167 people were.

Unfortunately the police weren’t thinking about preserving a potential archaeological site when they collected the bones, so essential historical clues have been lost.

“The archaeological context has already been altered and so obviously a lot of information has already been lost. All we can do now is go to the site, see how many of the artifacts were removed, how much damage was done to the archaeological context and remove as much as possible from the context that hasn’t been touched,” [INAH's Emiliano Gallaga] added.

INAH experts have taken over the site now to excavate it thoroughly and will continue to analyze the human remains to determine the age, gender and cause of death.

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Letters from Henry VIII and Jane Seymour found

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Katie Taylor, the house steward of National Trust estate Dunham Massey, was going through a folio of letters in storage when she unexpectedly came across two royal letters, one from King Henry VIII, the other from his third wife Jane Seymour. Most of the letters kept in the home were transferred to the John Rylands University Library at the University of Manchester after the last Earl of Stamford died in 1976 bequeathing the estate to the National Trust. Taylor was almost sure she recognized the signatures as those of Henry and Jane, but to be certain the National Trust called in an expert from John Rylands Library to examine them. He confirmed that they are indeed genuine.

Taylor notes that the letters are in excellent condition, a notable feat given that they were written decades before the first Dunham Massey house was built. They were written on thick, strong paper and stored flat for centuries. Obviously generations of Dunham families treasured them and kept them safe.

1543 letter from Henry VIII to George Booth, Esq.The letter from Henry VIII was written on February 10th, 1543 to George Booth, Esq., the grandfather of the Sir George Booth who built the first Dunham Massey estate in 1600. In it the king exhorts Booth to draft all the men he can muster to fight against the Scots who have done Henry, Britain and his people “manifold injuries, wrongs and displeasures.” Booth is to count the final numbers of cavalry, archers, billmen (infantry bearing hooked polearms called bills) and all other stand-out fighters then write to Henry Radclyffe, the Earl of Sussex and the king’s second cousin, letting him know exactly what forces he can expect Booth to bring him.

The full text of the letter transcribed in modern English:

By the King

Trusty and well-beloved we greet you well, letting you know that forasmuch as by the manifold injuries, wrongs and displeasures done unto us, our realm and our subjects by the Scots, we have been forced lately to enter into open war and hostility with the same, which we intend and purpose, god willing (unless the nobles of Scotland conform themselves to reason), to prosecute with such force as shall redound to our honour and to the commonwealth of our realm and subjects. To the intent that we may better know the forces of our said realm and thereby put the same in such order and readiness as they may serve us in this enterprise as the case shall require, we have thought meet and necessary to have special musters taken of all our people and thereupon to have all such plan and perfect certificate made as shall declare what be trusted to in that behalf. Wherefore our pleasure and commandment is that you, by virtue and authority hereof, shall with all convenient diligence take the musters of all the able men, both horsemen and footmen, which you can make and furnish, both of our tenants inhabiting upon farms, holdings and tenancies within any office under us of which you have the stewardship, if you have any such, and also of your own servants and tenants dwelling upon your own tenancies. And the same so taken, to certify in writing to our right trusty and right entirely beloved cousin and counsellor the Duke of Sussex, lieutenant general in the northern areas, with all possible diligence, with a special note and declaration to be expressed in the said certificate, how many of the said persons are furnished with horses able to occupy [carry] a spear or javelin, how many are archers and how many billmen, and how many principal men may be picked out of every sort of the whole number. Forcing [taking care] that in these musters and certificate you do not meddle in any way with any mariners, forasmuch as we intended to reserve the same of our furniture by sea [i.e. navy], and that you put all the same readiness as they [to] set forth in one hour’s warning, whenever you receive commandment from our said cousin in that behalf. And these our letters shall be your sufficient warrant and discharge herein accordingly. Given under our signet [seal] at our Palace of Westminster the 10th day of February, the 34th year of our reign.

1537 birth announcement from Queen Jane SeymourThe second letter was written on behalf of Queen Jane Seymour and is a birth announcement. It’s dated October 12th, 1537, the actual birth day of Henry’s only (legitimate) son, the future Edward VI, and was not written by Jane herself. She was in no state to be writing birth announcements after two days and three nights of labor, nor would she ever be again. She died just 12 days later, probably from an infection contracted during childbirth.

The full text of her letter in modern English:

By the Queen

Trust and well beloved, we greet you well. And forasmuch as by the inestimable goodness and grace of Almighty God, we have been delivered and brought to child-bed of a Prince conceived in most lawful matrimony between my lord, the King’s Majesty, and us, doubting not but that for the love and affection which you bear unto us and the commonwealth of this realm the knowledge of which you should be joyous and glad tidings unto you, we have thought good to certify you of the same, to the intent that you might not only render unto God condign thanks and praise for so great benefit, but also pray for the long continuance and preservation of the same here in this life to the honour of God, joy and pleasure of my lord the King and us, and the universal peace, quiet and tranquility of this whole realm. Given under our Signet at my lord’s manor of Hampton Court, the 12th day of October.

Both letters are now on display at Dunham Massey as part of its new “Faithful and Obedient” exhibition, which, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee year, documents the history of relations between the English monarchs and the Dunham Massey families. The exhibit is open from Saturdays to Wednesdays, 11 AM – 5 PM.

Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and Prince Edward by Hans Holbein, ca. 1545

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First complete map of Titanic wreck site

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

In the summer of 2010, experts from RMS Titanic Inc., the company that has legal custody of the wreck of the Titanic, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution returned to the famous wreck site off the coast of Newfoundland armed with the latest and greatest submarine imaging technology. The aim of the expedition was to map the entire 15 square mile debris field using high definition 3D and 2D photography and high resolution sonar.

The wreck site had been surveyed before, but none of the previous efforts combined covered more than 60% of the total area. Mappers were constrained by the limitations of manned submersibles (people can’t stay down there for long) and photo sleds (they can’t go very far afield). This time around, however, the Waitt Institute for Discovery provided cutting-edge robot surveyors called autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to capture the entire field with high-resolution side-scan sonar.

Once the sonar map was done, researchers used it to determine which areas have the greatest debris concentration or pieces of particular interest. They then dispatched remote operated vehicles equipped with high definition cameras to photograph those areas.

It took them almost two years to piece together the full picture of the wreck site from over 130,000 individual images, but the deed is done.

The complete Titanic wreck site

That’s the bow of the ship in the top center (detail here). The stern is on the bottom of the picture slightly to the left (detail here). When the ship sank, the stern snapped off and dropped to the ocean floor 2.3 miles below, so that spot is ground zero of the sinking of the Titanic. The stern debris includes the ship’s galley, upper decks, boilers, luggage cranes and cylinders. The bow came to its final resting place 1,970 feet away from the stern and facing in the opposite direction.

The square halfway down the map on the far right edge of the picture has been dubbed the deckhouse debris. It was one of the parts of the wreck that had never been seen before, and it turns out to be an important clue to understanding how the ship broke apart. It contains the ship’s third funnel and surrounding pieces of the deck. Its location, off-set from the bulk of the wreck, underscores the violence with which Titanic tore itself apart.

The History Channel, in a shocking break from their laser-like focus on ice road trucking, will be airing a special about the new discoveries on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved debuts on April 15 at 8:00 PM EDT. It will include footage from the survey, computer simulations of the sinking based on the survey data, and my personal favorite, a “virtual hangar” in which they’ll reconstruct the ocean floor wreckage and reassemble the ship.

Titanic wreck in a virtual hangar

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A fully excavated village of non-indomitable Gauls

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Reconstruction of Acy-Romance Gallic villageIn 1979, an aerial survey found an extensive archaeological site in the town of Acy-Romance, 20 miles north of Reims in the Champagne-Ardenne region of northeastern France. Excavations began on the site in 1980 and continued until 1988, unearthing a complex of tombs and religious monuments dating from 1100 B.C. to 450 B.C. Between 1988 and 2003, archaeological teams staffed mainly by volunteers working on a shoestring budget focused on excavating the later Gallic village on the site. Despite their lack of resources and only being able to dig during the summer months, over time the researchers were able to excavate the entire village of 20 acres.

Reconstruction of aerial view of Acy-Romance Gallic villageAcy-Romance is one of the only completely excavated Gallic villages, and it is the only one where the full layout of the town is discernible. A great number of postholes show where houses were built, their size and therefore the social standing of their inhabitants. Grain pits, cemeteries, temples, and courtyards testify to not just the physical construction of the village, but also the political, cultural and social structures of the settlement.

Ancient burial in Acy-Romance predating Gallic villageIt appears that after around 400 B.C., the Iron Age inhabitants moved out. Although evidence suggests there were still scattered people living in the area, they weren’t living together in a town but rather homesteading on their own. There is no sign of a concentrated population living on the site again until about 180 B.C. when the Gallic village was built by the Remi people from scratch around a large Bronze Age tumulus which they repurposed as a hero’s tomb used for their ancestor cult worship.

Acy-Romance rich tombAround the tomb were five cemeteries, each enclosed by a ditch, embankment and fence. Temples were built around the cemeteries. Around the temples residential quarters were built with actual neighborhoods. Livestock farmers lived in the northeast, agricultural farmers in the east, artisans in the southeast and manual laborers in the north of town. Acy-Romance poor tombThere’s no single large structure indicating a single king or ruler, but there are a number of houses considerably larger than average that suggest a wealthy social caste. Some of the graves are also much richer in burial goods than others.

Carbonized millet dinnerArchaeologists found artifacts and organic remains that give us a unique glimpse into the daily life of the Gallic villagers. Their diets consisted primarily of fish, livestock, legumes, wild fruits and a wide range of grains including spelt, emmer, einkorn, barley, millet and oats. The only grain used to make bread (an unleavened naan-like flatbread) was spelt. The other grains were ground up in a mortar and eaten in preparations like porridge or soup. Pike jawboneThe remains of more than 4500 fish (mainly pike and chub) were discovered in the waste. Their consistently large size suggests they were individually speared rather than trapped in weirs or nets.

Acy-Romance everyday use potsThe livestock raised in the village were mainly horses and cows, both of which were consumed. In fact, the remains of meat in the kitchen waste tell a complex story about the community’s overall wealth and social strata. In the early days of the village, the choicest cuts and youngest animals predominated. Over time the quality and quantity of the meat declined, with what meat there was to distribute coming mainly from older animals and cheaper cuts.

Acy-Romance Roman era potteryBy the mid first century B.C., the village was in decline. After Julius Caesar conquered the Belgian peoples in 57 B.C., he made the town of Reims the Roman capital of the area because the Remi people were his sole Gallic allies to stand by him during the entire war. As Reims grew, nearby Acy-Romance shrank. There are a few Romano-Gallic artifacts — tableware, coins — from the early first century B.C. that show the villagers were involved in the burgeoning consumer good trade that Rome always brought with it. The last villager died, was cremated and buried in Roman style in the early first century A.D.

The French government, as part of its outstanding program of digitizing Great Archaeological Sites, has funded the creation of a truly exquisite website about Acy-Romance. You can enjoy virtual tours (accompanied by the sound of metal being hammered, lowing cows, singing birds and the ocean) of the village, complete with pictures of the excavations and extensive digital reconstructions of how the town must have looked in its prime. Fair warning: the default site is Flash heavy, but they also have a Flashless version so you can browse this incredible treasure trove of information about Gallic life without all the geegaws and slow load time.

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