Authentic 9th c. monastery town to be built in Germany

Model of future Messkirch monastery complexOn April 2nd, 2013, a crew of poorly-paid professionals and volunteers will begin construction near Messkirch, southwestern Germany, of a medieval monastery town using only materials and techniques from the 9th century. That means masons carving stone blocks by hand while blacksmiths forge and sharpen their tools, and it also means no raincoats, authentic period foods cooked as they were 1200 years ago to sustain workers and visitors alike, and teams of oxen carting materials to the work site instead of trucks.

The project is the brainchild of 62-year-old building contractor Bert Geurten, and it’s a dream he’s nurtured since he was 15 years old. In 1965, he saw a scale model of the Plan of Saint Gall, a detailed 9th century architectural drawing of a monastic compound, at the Age of Charlemagne exhibition in Bert (and Charlemagne’s) hometown of Aachen, Germany. It was the first scale model of the Plan ever made — but far from the last; it started a trend — and it ignited young Bert’s imagination so thoroughly that 45 years later he’s making it come to life.

The Plan of Saint GallThe Plan of St. Gall (so named because the designer, Abbot Haito of Reichenau, dedicated it to Gozbert, Abbot of the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland from 816 to 836) is a scale map of a complete Benedictine monastic compound. There’s the monastery itself, of course, but also churches, houses, stables, kitchens, an infirmary, workshops, every component necessary for a successful monastic society and its lay satellites. It is the only surviving architectural drawing between the fall of Rome and the 13th century.

The Carolingian monastery project has some initial funding from local and EU sources, but the $1.3 million they have in the bank is expected to last just a few years. Since the estimated end-date of the project is 2050, fund-raising is going to be a constant issue. Bert Geurten hopes it will be at least partially sustained by visitors coming to see the construction. Meanwhile, he’s pinching pennies and people are so excited about the idea that he has an embarrassment of applications to go through.

Given the tight budget, craftsmen salaries will remain low. “The net wage is about €1,200 (per month),” says Geurten. “I can’t pay more.” The working hours are also a long way from what German trade unions recommend these days. They will work from April 2 — Charlemagne’s birthday — almost without break until St. Martin’s Day, on Nov. 11. During those eight months, there will be one single weekend off. “In the Middle Ages, the rent for the year was always paid on St. Martin’s Day,” said Geurten. The winter break lasts until April when the temperatures are warm enough to work again.

Another model of Messkirch monasteryDespite the difficult conditions, the project has been swamped with applications. “I’ve had 85 stone masons apply already,” says Geurten. “They all dream of having the chance to work with their hands.” This also applies to the blacksmith. “They won’t be hammering kitschy horseshoes for tourists. The forge must supply the site with tools,” he adds.

Overall, the construction site will have 20 to 30 permanent staff in addition to volunteers. There has already been a lot of interest. “From Lufthansa pilots to a teacher, all kinds of people have applied.” One candidate even sent his application written in medieval German on a real roll of parchment. Meanwhile, schools will likely be allowed to join in with the site’s work for as long as a week. “We are developing a plan that will enable the children to prepare for their experience in the classroom first,” says Geurten.

I hope they hire that guy who wrote his application in medieval German.

The interest from volunteers bodes well that there will be ongoing interest from paying visitors for the 40 years it’ll take to build this sucker. That has certainly been the case for Guédelon, a castle being built today in Burgundy according to the architectural principles of the ideal military fortress laid down by King Philip Augustus of France in the late 12th, early 13th centuries, using solely the techniques and materials available to workers in the 13th century. Construction has been going along merrily since 1997 and each year, hundreds of thousands of people go to Guédelon. Many of them are repeat customers who want to compare the progress of construction from year to year.

It doesn’t always go that well, though. Ozark Medieval Fortress, a castle modeled on the Guédelon project that has far more modest ambitions than the huge monastery project, unfortunately ran into financial difficulties. Work stopped in November and earlier this month the board voted to list the property and its castle stump for sale for $500,000.

Roman coin hoard found in Bath by archaeologist

In a shocking departure from the usual way these announcements go, an actual professional archaeologist doing an actual professional excavation on a construction site in Bath, England has discovered a hoard of tens of thousands of Roman coins. Hazel O’Neill of Cotswold Archaeology found a block of silver coins fused together while digging on Beau Street in Bath, the future location of the main pool for the Gainsborough Hotel and Thermal Spa, in 2008. Metal detectors were not involved at any point.

The coins were discovered in a small pit under what was once the floor of a Roman building about 450 feet from the famous Roman Bath after which the town was named. Archaeologists think the coins were kept in a wooden box or cloth bag which has now rotted away leaving only the stuck together coins behind.

During excavation 150 coins were dislodged. Based on the size and number of those coins, the earliest estimates of the total number were fairly low at 1,000 pieces, but the fused block was deceptive. Estimates now put the total number of coins at around 30,000. If that figure is correct, this will be the fifth largest hoard of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain and the largest hoard ever discovered in a Roman town in Britain.

The entire block was cut out of the soil and sent to a Cotswold Archaeology laboratory for storage and preliminary research. They have now forwarded the coins, most of them still fused together, to the British Museum where their experts will separate and conserve the coins. The project is expected to take at least a year.

From what archaeologists have been able to tell thus far, the coins date to the early and middle 3rd century A.D., the same dates as the coins in the Frome Hoard. Despite these recent bonanzas, the period between 240 and 260 A.D. is generally underrepresented in coin hoards especially considering what a politically volatile time it was. Two of the loose coins have been identified as Antoninianii, a debased silver coin worth two denarii issued by 3rd century emperors starting with Caracalla until Diocletian began his program of coinage reform in 301 A.D.

The find has been declared a treasure trove by the coroner as required by law. It has not been formally valued yet, but that’s the next step. Meanwhile The Roman Baths is wasting no time in launching a fund-raising project to secure the £150,000 they think they’ll need to purchase the hoard for conservation and display in Bath. They don’t appear to have an easy online donation system set up yet, but you can call in your credit card number or mail them a check if you’d like to help.

Dutch loan England piece from 17th c. captured ship

Stern carving from Royal CharlesBetween March 4th, 1665 and July 31st, 1667, England fought the Dutch Republic over control of trade routes and their colonies in Africa and North America. The monarchy had been restored in 1660 and Charles II, egged on by various advisers who hoped to profit handsomely from war, became eager to carve off a piece of that Dutch naval dominance for his new kingdom.

Unfortunately England was ill-prepared to confront the Dutch navy. The crown was still suffering financially from debts accrued by doomed King Charles I during the civil war, and Charles II was no frugal monarch himself. Throw in the Great Plague and Great Fire that decimated London, center of English commerce and government, in 1665 and 1666, and there was little money left to build new ships or repair old ones. Meanwhile, the Dutch Republic was prosperous and had new ships ready to fight plus more being built.

By February of 1667 money was so tight that England gave up trying to refurbish their heavy ships and sent them all to the Royal Dockyard at Chatham on the Medway River. Charles tried to buy time to get repairs done by entering peace talks with the Dutch in March at Breda, but he had secretly made a deal with the French that he would support their conquest of the Spanish Netherlands.

Dutch politician Johan de Witt knew what Charles was up to. He decided it would be best to hit the English fleet with one decisive blow that would break the English fleet and will to fight. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter led the Dutch fleet stealthily to the mouth of the Thames. There they captured the Sheerness fort and broke through the chain blocking the entrance to the Medway river. Then they sailed a few yards to Chatham and destroyed the immobile Royal Navy laid up there.

The raid was a shocking, staggering success. Fifteen English ships were destroyed, three of eight big ships were burned, but most symbolically agonizing of all, the English flagship, HMS Royal Charles, was abandoned by its crew and captured by the Dutch without a single shot fired. They just took it, towing the entire ship with its royal crest-emblazoned stern back home with them, the ultimate war prize.

The Royal Charles was built in 1655, under Oliver Cromwell. The largest ship in the Royal Navy, the 80-gun, three-deck ship of the line was originally named the Naseby after the battle wherein Cromwell decisively defeated the royalist army of Charles I in 1645. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, its Oliver Cromwell figurehead was removed and on May 23, 1660, it was sent to pick up King Charles II who was waiting, ironically, in The Hague. When it arrived at Scheveningen harbor, the Naseby’s name was changed to HMS Royal Charles and then set to carry said royal Charles to England and his throne.

The capture of this ship, therefore, was a devastating blow to King Charles II. The fact that an enemy fleet had sailed the Thames and the Medway and reduced the Royal Navy to rubble caused enormous consternation in London and England as a whole. The English had been fond of their unblemished invasion record since 1066; this was just a little too close for comfort. Just as de Witt had planned, the daring raid put a stop to all the backroom shenanigans and to the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

For six years the Royal Charles was kept on public display at the naval port in Hellevoetsluis. It was never enlisted into the Dutch fleet because it was considered too crappy for them and for the rough Dutch waters. When keeping it floating became more trouble than it was worth, the ship was broken up for scrap in 1673. They kept the stern carvings, though, cutting the crest of Charles II off the ship and keeping it on display at the Rijksmuseum.

There it has remained for 345 years, until last week. Now it is back in England temporarily, on loan to the National Maritime Museum which is celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the museum’s 75th anniversary with an exhibit about the role of the Thames in English history: Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames. The exhibit includes dozens of artifacts on loan from the Royal Collection and from other private collections all over Europe that have never before been put on public display.

'The Dutch burn down the English fleet at Chatham' by Peter van de Velde

New music by Wolfgango Mozart found in attic

Sonata, Wolfgango MozartMusicologist Dr. Hildegard Herrmann-Schneider found a previously unknown sonata by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the attic of a brass band leader’s home in the Lech Valley of the Austrian Tyrol. The brass band leader had an extensive music collection, so after his death Dr. Herrmann-Schneider of Innsbruck’s Institute for Tyrolean Music Research was hired to inventory and evaluate the collection for the estate.

She identified a number of music manuscripts and printed sheet music ranging in date from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century. One of the artifacts that caught her eye was a hand-written notebook of music for piano labeled “Johannes Reiserer, Sterzing 1780” on the back of the cover. There are over 160 pages of music within, copied works by composers from the area or just adjacent to it (northern Italy, Austria, Bavaria) who wrote them around the time of the 1780 cover date. Each work is labeled with the name of the composer and their professions, and they’re all accurate.

On pages 12-14 is a sonata tempo marked “Allegro molto” and attributed as “Del Signore Giovane Wolfgango Mozart,” meaning “By Young Mister Wolfgango Mozart.” The work does not appear in the Koechel catalogue, the authoritative directory of Mozart’s music, nor has it been documented in correspondence or any other written sources from the era. Dr. Herrmann-Schneider knew it was written in Mozart’s hand or in his father Leopold’s, but several pieces of Leopold Mozart’s music are also in the book and they are properly attributed as “Del Signore Mozart,” “By Mister Mozart.”

The accurate authorship attribution of the father’s work lends some credibility to the attribution of the son’s, and the peculiar “Wolfgango” phrasing also suggests a link to Leopold Mozart. Leopold personally called his son “Wolfgango” when writing the author note on the manuscripts of two of Wolfgang’s minuets and on the title page of the 1764 London Sketchbook, as do writers closely associated with Leopold from the 1760s.

Dr. Herrmann-Schneider researched Johannes Reiserer, the name on the cover, and found a Johannes Reiserer born in 1765 in Tyrol. The son of a doctor, young Johannes went to high school in Salzburg where he sang on the city cathedral choir from 1778 to 1780. He stayed in the Kapellhaus — a dormitory for boys who sang in the Salzburg Cathedral’s choir — which had famous composers and musicians on staff. One of them was Leopold Mozart.

Researchers have thus concluded that Johannes Reiserer used the notebook to copy compositions as part of a rigorous program of music instruction by Kapellhaus music masters, perhaps Leopold himself. The attribution of the sonata to the Young Wolfgango, therefore, seems on fairly solid ground.

Here is a snippet of the piece as played by Florian Birsak on Mozart’s piano at the home the family moved to when he was 17. The BBC article has video of Mr. Birsak’s playing.


Amazing new Titanic pics in National Geographic

The April issue of National Geographic is marking the centennial month of the sinking of the Titanic with exceptional new pictures of the wreck composed from thousands of side-scan, sonar and high definition images taken by the 2010 expedition.

“This is a game-changer,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) archaeologist James Delgado, the expedition’s chief scientist. “In the past, trying to understand Titanic was like trying to understand Manhattan at midnight in a rainstorm—with a flashlight. Now we have a site that can be understood and measured, with definite things to tell us. In years to come this historic map may give voice to those people who were silenced, seemingly forever, when the cold water closed over them.”

The composite pictures are beautiful and eerie and detailed almost beyond belief. Earlier high definition pictures and video from the site were narrowly focused, bounded by the limits of visibility 2 miles below the surface of the North Atlantic and by the camera lens. The composites put all those little keyhole shots together.

Pictures and captions courtesy of National Geographic.

COPYRIGHT© 2012 RMS TITANIC, INC; Produced by AIVL, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The first complete views of the legendary wreck. Ethereal views of Titanic’s bow offer a comprehensiveness of detail never seen before. The optical mosaics each consist of 1,500 high-resolution images rectified using sonar data.

COPYRIGHT© 2012 RMS TITANIC, INC; Produced by AIVL, WHOI. As the starboard profile shows, the Titanic buckled as it plowed nose-first into the seabed, leaving the forward hull buried deep in mud—obscuring, possibly forever, the mortal wounds inflicted by the iceberg.

COPYRIGHT© 2012 RMS TITANIC, INC; Produced by AIVL, WHOI. Two of Titanic’s engines lie exposed in a gaping cross section of the stern. Draped in “rusticles”—orange stalactites created by iron-eating bacteria—these massive structures, four stories tall, once powered the largest moving man-made object on Earth.

You also see parts of the ship scattered over the debris field which have never been seen before since earlier images focused on the large parts, particularly the bow:

COPYRIGHT© 2012 RMS TITANIC, INC; Produced by AIVL, WHOI. Two sections of Titanic’s double-bottom hull ripped off the stern as it sank. Their hydrodynamic shape may account for their landing well to the east of the rest of the debris. How a collapsed pile of decking landed nearby remains a mystery.

The April issue of National Geographic also has a supersweet poster (aren’t all NG posters supersweet?) of Titanic’s demise, reconstructed based on the new data recovered from the ocean floor. The National Geographic website has an excellent companion layout with a featured article that in addition to covering the recent expedition also covers RMS Titanic, Inc.’s change in approach over the years from a salvage operation dedicated to collecting artifacts for display and sale to a curatorial emphasis on documenting and conserving the wreck.

There’s also a neat gallery comparing images of the wreck to pictures from Titanic’s twin RMS Olympic, an interactive wreck map with information on salient features, and zoomable images of the wreck. Don’t miss the zoomable pic of the stern in profile. It looks like it was torn apart and partially eaten by Krakens.