Archive for May, 2012

Is this Amelia Earhart’s anti-freckle cream?

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra, ca. 1937The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has spent years testing one of the hypotheses explaining the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan somewhere in the South Pacific on July 2, 1937. Based on her emergency radio broadcasts and reported finds of skeletal remains and airplane parts in the late 30s and 40s, this scenario posits that Earhart’s Lockheed Electra made an emergency landing on the uninhabited island of Nikumaroro, then known as Gardner Island, and that the aviator and her navigator survived the landing but died shortly thereafter.

At the time of her disappearance, the US Navy considered Gardner and nearby McKean Island likely candidates because they were along the line of position Earhart mentioned in her July 2 broadcasts, but there was only one Navy ship, the U.S.S. Colorado, in the area and there were several conflicting reports to investigate, so Gardner was only cursorily examined by flyover. It was high tide when the planes flew over Gardner, and crashing surf obscured the northwest side of the reef where later residents would claim they had seen a wreck. Still, the pilots reported seeing “signs of recent habitation,” but they mistakenly thought the island was inhabited at this time; thus those signs weren’t sufficient to send a landing party.

Nikumaroro Island, formerly Gardner IslandIn October of 1937, British colonial explorers reported seeing the remains of a campsite on Gardner. Colonists followed the next year, and they reported seeing aircraft wreckage on the northwestern reef. During World War II, an American pilot reported seeing villagers on Gardner using aircraft control cable to catch fish. When he asked them about it, they said they had found it on the island when they got there.

The colonists also found 13 human bones, a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe next to the remains of a campfire on the southeast end of the island. The bones were sent to Fiji for analysis. They were examined by doctors who declared them the remains of an elderly Polynesian male and an adult male of European or mixed race. Although their facilities were limited, the doctors didn’t send the bones to Australia for more in depth examination. Instead they just lost them. All we have left of those bones now are their measurements, which turn out to not match the rudimentary gender and ethnicity analysis done in 1940.

TIGHAR first picked up the trail in 1988, visiting McKean Island first and then Nikumaroro. The former was barren and dark, not a good candidate for an emergency landing. The latter has a perimeter reef that is smooth enough in some areas to land on and a bright blue inner lagoon that could be easily spotted from 1000 feet in the air. They also found airplane wreckage that had been repurposed by villagers when the island was briefly inhabited during the war.

Possible human finger bone fragment found on Nikumaroro in 2010On later expeditions in 2007 and 2010, TIGHAR researchers found the remains of campfires, clam shells, fish, turtle and bird bones, bone fragments that appear to be human, pieces from broken and melted glass bottles, a small glass jar, fragments from a beveled mirror, a red chemical substance, the remains of a zipper and a jackknife that had been taken apart. There were other remains found that were clearly left behind by World War II-era Coast Guard forays, but the above items were from the 1930s.

Jar found on Nikumaroro (l), Dr. Barry's Freckle Ointment jar (r)TIGHAR put the small glass jar back together and found that it is identical in shape to jars of Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, popular in the early 20th century and guaranteed to eliminate the heartbreak of freckles. Amelia Earhart did have freckles, and sadly, she evinced some contempt for them. According to the biography Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend, even in the midst of her greatest successes — the ticker tape parade held in New York after she became the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic aboard the Friendship in 1928 — her freckles bummed her out.

“As photographers snapped, several spectators, eager for a glimpse of the famous bob, sang out ‘Take off your hat, Amelia!’ She made a little face, but obligingly removed her modish straw cloche. Tossing it to Muriel, she remarked ruefully, ‘Here’s where I get sixty more freckles on my poor nose, I guess!’”

Nikumaroro jar in Dr. Barry's Freckle Ointment boxThe jar is made of translucent glass, however, and all surviving pots of Dr. Berry’s concoction are opaque or opalescent glass. It’s also not exactly the same size as any of the other jars. It is possible that this was a special edition cream. The reconstructed jar fits perfectly into a vintage Dr. Berry’s box that none of the other extant jars fit into.

Bottom of Campana Italian Balm bottle found on NikumaroroTIGHAR was able to trace serial numbers and marks on the other bottle pieces found. Some green glass fragments were once a bottle of “St. Joseph Nerve and Bone Family Liniment,” bottle patented in 1933. Some clear glass pieces come from a 1933 bottle of Campana Italian Balm, the best-selling hand lotion in the US in the 1930s.

The evidence is circumstantial, but it points strongly to the presence of an American woman on Nikumaroro in the 1930s. There’s no way to know for sure that it was Amelia Earhart unless researchers find identifiable chunks of Amelia’s Lockheed Electra or DNA evidence from skeletal remains that identifies her once and for all. DNA analysis of the bone fragments TIGHAR found at the campfire site were inconclusive (pdf).

TIGHAR, funded by private donors and in collaboration with the US State Department, will return to Nikumaroro this July. They will explore the deep waters around the island this time, hoping to find some airplane remains that the surf dragged off the reef.

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Roman wrecks found a mile deep off Greek islands

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Experts from the Greek Department of Underwater Antiquities and the Greek Center for Marine Research have discovered two Roman-era shipwrecks almost a mile deep on the Ionian seabed off the islands of Corfu and Paxoi. The ships were found during an archaeological survey that took place between May 11th and May 17th over a 200 square kilometer (77 square mile) area of the Greek continental shelf where a Greek-Italian gas pipeline known as the Poseidon project is scheduled to be sunk.

Researchers used side-scan radar to locate potential wrecks that would be damaged or disrupted by the pipeline. Twelve targets of interest were identified. Unmanned submersibles were then used to explore the sites, two of which proved to be ancient and one historic. Archaeologists were able to date the shipwrecks from the artifacts recorded and recovered by the subs. The first two ships, dubbed Poseidon 1 and Poseidon 2, date to the third century A.D. The last, Poseidon 3, is of more recent extraction, probably the 17th or 18th century.

Poseidon 1 was found .7 miles deep. Submersible footage revealed jars, kitchenware, two anchors, North African amphorae of various types, ballast stones and traces of the wooden hull. Some of the artifacts were recovered from the wreck, including a marble vase about 12 inches in height. The amphorae suggest the ship may have originated in North Africa and was on its way to Greece after a stop in Italy when it sank.

Poseidon 2 was found about .85 miles deep. Footage of the wreck showed a range of cargo, including vases, plates, cooking utensils, metal objects and again ballast stones and what appears to be a piece of the hull. None of the artifacts were able to be recovered, however, because they were too well-embedded in the mud of the seafloor for the submersible to remove any without disturbing the site.

The third wreck is, not surprisingly given its relative youth, the best preserved. It’s .78 miles deep and the sub found the ship’s hull, iron anchors, a wide variety of ceramic vessels — glazed jugs, plates — used for cooking and storage.

This is the first archaeological survey conducted in the deep water of the Ionian Sea. The results confirm that ancient oceanic traffic regularly ventured into deeper waters, upending the old conventional wisdom that ancient ships mainly sailed closed to shore.

These recently exposed ships are now among the deepest known ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean. Experts say that sunken ancient ships are generally located at about 100-130 feet deep. It is popular belief that early traders were reluctant to go too far offshore, unlike warships which were freed by ballast and cargo. The smaller vessels did not have the capacity to navigate far from the coast, so that if there was a wreck they would be close enough to the coast to save the crew.

A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution representative has stated that a series of ancient shipwrecks located far from land over the past decade or so has forced experts to reconsider the coast-hugging theory. In fact, these latest finds are crucial hard evidence showing the actual patterns of ancient seafaring and commerce. According to a CBS News report, in many cases — as when winds threatened to push ships onto rocks — ancient mariners made a conscious effort to avoid coastal waters.

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Benjamin Franklin, founding father of firefighting

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

One of Benjamin Franklin’s many accomplishments was cofounding the first volunteer fire department of Philadelphia. It was December of 1736 and he was 30 years old.

Franklin was born in Boston but ran away when he was 17, even though he was a legally bound apprentice to his brother James, publisher of The New-England Courant. His brother had refused to publish his writing in the newspaper, so at just 16 years of age, Benjamin assumed the first of many personas, a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood, and submitted 14 letters (click next to read them in order) all of which James unwittingly printed. Silence Dogood’s saucy humor quickly made her the talk of town and the subject of several marriage proposals. When James found out he had been duped, he was displeased, to say the least, and Benjamin decided it was best to get out of Dodge.

Benjamin Franklin, The Fireman, by Charles Washington Wright, 1850Fast-foward 13 years and Benjamin was a prominent Philadelphian and publisher of a newspaper of his own, the Philadelphia Gazette. He had already founded the first lending library in the country, and seeing the need for an organized response to fires, he advocated in the Gazette for the creation of a volunteer firefighting brigade. A fire in 1730 had started on a ship and spread to Fishbourn’s wharf on the Delaware River. All the warehouses on the wharf burned as did three homes across the street, causing thousands of pounds of damage (rumor has it Franklin had invested in some of that property), but calm winds had kept the fire from spreading all over town. Franklin noted that there had been no wind that night. If only the city had had some decent firefighting equipment and people who knew what they were doing, the fire could easily have been contained before it spread. He pointed out that it was only dumb luck that had kept Philadelphia from city-leveling fires.

To further explore the argument, Benjamin Franklin whipped out yet another pseudonymous letter-writing persona. Quoting from Poor Richard’s Almanac (Benjamin was a pioneer of corporate synergy as well), “A.A.” wrote to the Gazette On Protection of Towns from Fire and was published in the February 4, 1735 issue.

Mr. Franklin, Being old and lame of my Hands, and thereby uncapable of assisting my Fellow Citizens, when their Houses are on Fire; I must beg them to take in good Part the following Hints on the Subject of Fires.

In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I would advise ‘em to take Care how they suffer living Brands-ends, or Coals in a full Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down Stairs, unless in a Warmingpan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into Chinks, and make no Appearance till Midnight; when your Stairs being in Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows, and hazard your Necks to avoid being over-roasted.

That’s good advice in any age, I’m sure we can agree.

After a few more articles along those lines, Franklin and four friends founded the Union Fire Company on December 7, 1736. There were 26 members of this first brigade. Each member agreed to bring six leather buckets — to carry water — and two stout linen bags — to rescue endangered property — to every fire upon first being alerted of the emergency. Members were appointed to different roles — water management, property protection, putting lights in neighboring windows — to ensure an organized and prompt reaction.

The Union Fire Company was immediately popular and they soon had more volunteers than they needed. When they reached 30 members, they refused new volunteers and instead told them to organize a new brigade. The more brigades, the more city could be covered. It worked, too. Philadelphia has never had one of those massively destructive fires like the Chicago Fire of 1871.

Possible 1736 Union Fire Company membership rosterTom Lingenfelter of Heritage Collectors Society, Inc. believes he has found a unique document from this watershed moment in firefighting history: a 1736 Union Fire Company member roster. It has yet to be authenticated so large grain of salt, but it appears to be a correct list of the 1736 membership written by Joseph Paschall, the company’s clerk and the first name on the list. Benjamin Franklin’s name is seventh. There are little x’s next to each name, possibly from taking attendance. If it does prove to be authentic, it will be the only known Union roster extant.

One of the names on the list is Philip Syng, the silversmith who would later make the inkstand used in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Philip Syng was also intimately involved in another one of Benjamin’s pioneering efforts in the reduction of damage from fires: the country’s first property insurance company.

By 1752, there were eight volunteer fire companies in Philadelphia. Ever the innovator, Benjamin Franklin got together with his Union team and members of the other companies and founded The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire, a mutual insurance company that offered seven year policies to cover the cost of fire damage to buildings only. (The company still exists today as The Philadelphia Contributionship.)

Again he enlisted the Gazette to promote the project and again it was an immediate success. They wrote 143 policies that first year, but it wasn’t until the next year that the first insured property, a house on Water Street, burned. Franklin assured Gazette readers that all damages would be repaired at no cost to the owner, and they were. It cost 154 pounds, almost a third of The Contributionship’s funds. Fortunately there weren’t another two fires on covered properties that year or the company would have gone under.

The Philadelphia Contributionship fire mark, mid-1800'sPhilip Syng, along with Benjamin Franklin, was one of the first 12 directors of the company. He also designed The Contributionship’s logo: four hands clasping each other in support. The company made cast iron fire marks of that logo and required policy holders to affix them to the front of their houses, much like those home security companies do with decals today only far, far cooler.

The fire marks probably got more attention from those same volunteer fire companies that the directors were all members of than houses not displaying the logo. The less fire damage, the less the payout, so it was in their self-interest to put out Contributionship-insured properties as quickly as possible. Despite that thumb on the scale, the volunteer firefighters still put out fires on all buildings, insured or not. They would simply present the property owner or another insurer with a bill for services rendered.

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An archive so great, it crashed as soon as it opened

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Last month, New York City’s Department of Records announced that it had digitized and uploaded 870,000 of the best photographs out of the 2,200,000 kept in the city’s Municipal Archives. The pictures date from the mid-1800s onward and document every aspect of city governance, from bridges to iconic buildings to mug shots to crime scenes to road work that captures vibrant immigrant neighborhoods as they were before gentrification flattened their characters. A few of them have been published before, but most of them are revelations.

Main concourse of Grand Central Station as seen from the Campbell apartment, 1937The Department of Records has been working for four years to make this vast store of hidden gems available to the public as part of an initiative to make city records generally accessible. Until now, if you wanted to see any of these pictures, you had to go to the archive building and go through the microfilm and print records. Although the entire archive hasn’t been uploaded at this point because it’s on a tight technological and funding budget, the department will continue to add new content to the online database.

Traffic in Manhattan, January 29, 1923Those technological limitations became immediately obvious when the day after the database opened, it crashed. The interest was massive and came from all over the world, which meant that the poor server never caught a break.

“There is so much world-wide interest,” said Eileen Flannelly, deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Records. “We knew it would be huge in the city and for New Yorkers, but the actual interest coming in from Germany and Spain and Brazil and the Czech Republic, all of these places, they can’t get enough of it. Like 12,000 hits every few minutes in the middle of the night.”

It was down for weeks before they finally got their act together. Now the site is stable and therefore finally bloggable.

Painters hang from suspension wire on the Brooklyn Bridge, taken by de Salignac, October 7, 1914Most of the pictures were taken by anonymous municipal workers in the course of their duties, although there are some standout pieces by professionals like Eugene de Salignac, the Boston-born descendant of French nobility who at the age of 42 became the official photographer for the Department of Bridges/Plant and Structures in 1906. The department’s only photographer, over the next three decades he took 20,000 pictures of Manhattan’s most famous landmarks as they went up. He retired in 1934 and died in 1943, a virtual unknown, until in 1999 Municipal Archives photographer Michael Lorenzini recognized that a number of outstanding photographs had to be the work of one man. Lorenzini dug through the archives and historical records and finally put a name to the prodigious talent, bringing de Salignac out of obscurity into museum exhibits and coffee table books.

Elevator operator Robert Green (l), building engineer Jacob Jagendorf (r) dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft, November 24, 1915The database also includes a grimly fascinating collection of glass-plate photographs taken by the New York City Police Department. It’s the largest collection of criminal justice evidence in the English-speaking world, and it’s amazing how many of these grisly murder scenes are so artful they could easily be stills from a film noir.

Times Square, January 1938, WPA collectionLess bloody but just as fascinating are the 1,279 images collected by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program that between 1935 and 1943 collected pictures from Art Project photographers and others for inclusion in publications like the WPA Guide to New York City. When the program ended, the Municipal Archives acquired the collection.

You can search the database by keyword or department, or you can browse by categories. I prefer the categories because I like going through the pictures from oldest to newest.

Horse carts under Brooklyn Bridge, May 6, 1918 Horse cart street cleaners

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Hatfields & McCoys debuts on the History Channel

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Bill Paxton as Randolph McCoy with familyThe feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families of Appalachia has transcended its origins as a bloody multi-generational backcountry conflict to become a metaphor for all vendettas. Yet, despite its lexical fame and inherent drama, it has rarely been depicted on television outside of documentaries, cartoons (Bugs Bunny, The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo have all done versions) and a particularly awesome episode arc of Family Feud. Kevin Costner as Devil Anse HatfieldStarting Monday at 9:00 PM EST, the History Channel will step into that void with Hatfields & McCoys, a three-episode miniseries starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy.

I understand the show is basically faithful to the historical record, although of course it’s fictionalized to some degree. If you don’t want to read spoilers for something that happened 140 years ago, stop here. If you want to follow in the footsteps of these most notorious of feuders, check out the Pike County website which has a handy printable brochure (pdf) describing the key Hatfield-McCoy landmarks, as well as tips for other activities in the area, places to eat, hike, etc. They also have a companion CD to enhance your Hatfield-McCoy driving tour. Call Pike County Tourism at (800) 844-7453 or contact them via email to purchase a copy.

And now for the backstory.

The Hatfields and McCoys were early settlers of Tug Valley, an area on the border between Kentucky and what is now West Virginia. The Hatfields lived mainly on the West Virginia side in Mingo County, the McCoys on the Kentucky side in Pike County. During the Civil War, the Hatfields fought for the Confederacy while the McCoys sided with the Union. The trauma of the war underpinned much of the conflict between the two families.

Asa Harmon McCoyIn fact, the first to die at the hands of the other family was Asa Harmon McCoy, a Union soldier who returned home after breaking his leg. He was immediately threatened by a posse of ex-Confederate vigilantes headed by Devil Anse Hatfield who called themselves the “Logan Wildcats.” After he was shot at while drawing water from his well, Asa Harmon fled his home and hid in a cave. The Wildcats found him by following his slave Pete (yes, the Union soldier had a slave well after the Emancipation Proclamation) to the cave where they shot Asa dead on January 7, 1865.

Devil Anse HatfieldThe McCoys blamed Devil Anse, who as it happened was not among the killers that day because he was home sick. It was Devil Anse’s uncle Jim Vance who probably did the killing. Nobody was ever brought to trial. Much of the community, even many members of his own family, thought Asa had it coming for fighting for the Union, so no witnesses ever came forward and the case was never officially solved.

Randolph McCoyIt was 13 years before tensions erupted again; this time the central bone of contention was a pig. The McCoys said the pig belonged to them, but the Hatfields claimed that since it was found on their property, it was now theirs. Unlike the murder of Asa Harmon, the pressing matter of the pig was taken to court, or rather, to the home of the local Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield. Bill Staton, who was related to both feuding families, testified for the Hatfields and the Hatfield judge ruled in the Hatfields’ favor.

Two McCoy men took their revenge by killing Staton. They were acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense.

Roseanna McCoyThe next year came the Romeo and Juliet portion when Roseanna McCoy, daughter of Randolph, and Devil Anse’s son Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield fell in love. She squealed on her own family in order to save Johnse when they captured him. Despite that and despite the fact that she was pregnant with his child, Johnse married someone else, specifically, Roseanna’s cousin Nancy. The McCoys were less than pleased, and in 1882 Roseanna’s brothers Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud killed Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anse’s younger brother.

The brothers were on their way to trial when Devil Anse captured them, waited until Ellison died of his wounds, and then killed all three of them in retribution. Sadly, that wasn’t even the peak of the violence. The culmination of this murderous madness came in 1888 with the New Year’s Night Massacre. The Hatfields, led by Uncle Jim Vance, surrounded Randolph McCoy’s home in the dark of night and shot up the cabin before setting it on fire. Randolph managed to escape, but two of his children were killed and his wife was beaten severely and left for dead.

The hanging of Ellison "Cottontop" MountsBy now the murders were making headline news all over the country. The governors of Kentucky and West Virginia were under pressure to stop the slaughter. Devil Anse’s brother Wall (played in the History Channel mini-series by Powers Boothe who was so chillingly brilliant as Cy Tolliver on Deadwood) and seven other Hatfields were arrested for one of the New Year’s Night Massacre killings. After legal vicissitudes that reached as high as the United States Supreme Court, all of the men were found guilty. Seven were condemned to life in prison. Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts was sentenced to hang from his neck until dead.

Although trials on various Hatfield-McCoy charges continued into the 20th century, the bloody murder sprees stopped after the hanging. Almost a hundred years passed before Hatfields and McCoys shook hands in 1976. That laid the groundwork for that awesome three-parter of Family Feud in 1979, and by 2000 the Hatfield and McCoy descendants were having joint family reunions. They officially signed a truce document in 2003, inspired to come together permanently by the events of September 11, 2001.

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Raphael’s Sistine Madonna turns 500

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Raphael's Sistine Madonna in its new frameThe Sistine Madonna, the iconic Madonna with saints and cherubs that is the last painting Raphael finished with his own hands before his premature death, turns 500 years old this year. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, proud owner of the masterpiece, is putting on a major new exhibition to celebrate the quincentennial. In honor of the special occasion, the painting has been reframed in what is basically a gilded temple, complete with modified Corinthian columns and a huge cornice.

In 1512, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to create an altarpiece of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child for the newly-built Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza. The pontiff required that the painting include Saint Sixtus, in tribute to his uncle Pope Sixtus IV, and Saint Barbara, one of Fourteen Holy Helpers whose powers of intercession are deemed particularly keen. Raphael finished the painting around 1513 or 1514. He died in 1520, and although he designed and worked on other Madonnas and paintings in the six or seven intervening years, his assistants did much of the work.

The painting remained enshrined over the altar in the little-known monastery until 1754 when Augustus III, absentee King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, purchased it from the Benedictines for 110,000-120,000 francs. Augustus III, like his father and grandfather before him, was an avid art collector. They created a world-class collection of Old Master paintings with the Sistine Madonna as the jewel in the crown. Legend has it that Augustus moved his throne so the painting could have the best light in the room, but the entire collection had been moved from Dresden Castle to the more spacious Stallgebäude (the Electors’ Stable Building) next door in 1747; thus, either Augustus wanted some alone time in the throne room with the Raphael for a while, or the story is apocryphal.

Raphael's Sistine MadonnaThe only Raphael in Germany, the Sistine Madonna was an immediate sensation. Even though Protestant Saxony was uneasy about its very recent Papist extraction and general Catholic imagery, the painting’s embrace of classicism (the Madonna could just as easily be a Juno and the composition follows the ancient principle of the sectio aurea or golden ratio) and its self-aware presentation as a piece of art (see the green curtains in the upper corners and the cherubs down below who rest against a balustrade much like the altar which the altarpiece was created to adorn) made it a favorite with budding Romantics and classicists alike. Goethe wrote a song about it; Wagner made special trips to Dresden just to see it; Alfred Rethel said, “I would not swap for a kingdom the delight I have had from standing before this picture,” and that was before he went insane.

As war loomed in 1938, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister closed up shop and removed its collection to safety in underground storage in Switzerland. Thus the Raphael survived the firebombing of Dresden that so severely damaged the gallery it wasn’t fully reconstructed until 1960. It also survived the Soviet army, which according to its own press had “saved” the precious painting from a flooded out cave. In fact the storage area was climate-controlled and entirely functional; the Soviets simply felt entitled to claim any and all of the enemy’s treasures as payment for all of their own cultural patrimony looted by the Nazis (see this excellent article for more on the subject).

In 1955, two years after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union decide to return the Sistine Madonna to Germany as a gesture of goodwill to strengthen relations between the countries. The jewel in the crown went back on display in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.

The cherubs, kitsch deities in their own rightThe 500th anniversary exhibit opened Saturday, May 26 and continues through August 26. It covers the painting’s checkered history in four sections: Raphael in Rome — an examination of the context in which Raphael painted the piece; Augustus III’s acquisition and the move from Piacenza to Dresden; the influence of the Sistine Madonna on art, literature, music and design; and lastly, a romp through the rich separate life of the two little cherubs at the bottom who were first copied on their own in 1800 and have been on everything from posters to coasters to t-shirts ever since.

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Earliest evidence of Iberian Jews found in Portugal

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Archaeologists from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany have uncovered the oldest evidence of Jews living in the Iberian peninsula: a 16-by-24-inch inch marble slab inscribed with the name “Yehiel” in Hebrew. Researchers believe it may have been a tomb slab. Antlers found in rubble next to the slab were radiocarbon dated to 390 A.D., which means that the slab is at least that old if not older. That makes it the oldest evidence of Jewish inhabitants on the Iberian Peninsula.

Before this discovery, the earliest archaeological evidence of Jews living in what is now Portugal was a tomb slab from 482 A.D. that was inscribed with a menorah. There was text on that slab as well, but it was in Latin. The earliest Hebrew inscriptions came considerably later, in the 6th or 7th century A.D.

The find was surprising not just for its age, but also its location. The site where the slab was unearthed is a Roman villa first discovered in 2009 by Portuguese archaeologist Jorge Correia during an archaeological survey around the village of São Bartolomeu de Messines in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. This is a remote spot, far from the urban centers of the Roman province of Lusitania. Archaeologists were not expecting to find evidence of Jews and Romans living together in such a rural area, and it’s the first time a Jewish artifact has been found inside a Roman villa.

Actually, the Jena researchers were hoping just to find any inscriptions at all that would tell them about Roman-era life far from the well-excavated centers of west coastal Portugal. Hebrew inscriptions were the last thing on the list, especially from this time period. Theodosius I, the last emperor of both the western and eastern Roman Empire, had made Nicene Christianity the sole official state religion in 380 A.D. The new state-enforced dominance of orthodox Christianity made for an ugly environment for anyone of a different religious persuasion. Fearing persecution, Jews during this time wrote in Latin rather than Hebrew.

Perhaps that’s part of why the Hebrew in this inscription was so roughly carved. The archaeologists couldn’t even identify the language at first, so poorly were the letters rendered.

Only after long research the Jena Archaeologists found out which language they were exactly dealing with, as the inscription was not cut with particular care. “While we were looking for experts who could help with deciphering the inscription between Jena and Jerusalem, the crucial clue came from Spain” Dennis Graen says. “Jordi Casanovas Miró from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona — a well-known expert for Hebrew inscriptions on the Iberian Peninsula — is sure that the Jewish name “Yehiel” can be read, — a name that is already mentioned in the Bible.”

There are more letters after the name which have yet to be identified. The Jena team has excavated 1722 square feet (160 square meters) of the villa already, but most of the site is still under ground. The archaeologists will pick up where they left off this summer.

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Gnawed Roman skeleton that inspired Plath back on display after 30 years

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Skeleton of a Roman woman found at Arbury, 4th c. A.D.The skeleton of a Roman woman that inspired one of Sylvia Plath’s most memorable poems is back on display after 30 years in storage.

Coffin discovered on Fortescue Road in Arbury, August 1952The skeleton of a wealthy woman from the 4th century A.D. was one of a number of high-status Roman burials found by construction workers clearing land in Arbury, just outside of Cambridge, in 1952. She had been wrapped in a woolen shroud and laid to rest in a massive stone and lead-lined coffin, but despite her expensive accommodations, the undertakers made two notable mistakes: they put her in the wrong way around, and they either didn’t put the lid on flush or they let a mouse and a shrew move in before covering the coffin. When the coffin was opened in 1952, the skeletons of the mouse and shrew were found inside and the 40 to 55-year-old woman’s ankle showed signs of having been gnawed by her companions.

Shrew and mouse bonesThe coffin and skeletons were put on display in the Clark Gallery of Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Cambridge researchers arranged the bones of the mouse and shrew on a placard and displayed them along with the coffin. Sylvia Plath attended Newnham College, Cambridge, on a Fulbright scholarship between 1955 and 1957. The gnawed-upon woman and her rodent friends at the museum inspired her to write All the Dead Dears.

Rigged poker-stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

These three, unmasked now, bear
Dry witness
To the gross eating game
We’d wink at if we didn’t hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.

Coffin is hauled out of storage to put back on display at refurbished museumThe Dead Dears remained on display from the 1950s until the 1980s when they were moved to storage because of overcrowding. Now that the museum has completed a major 18-month, $2.8 million dollar refurbishment, many important pieces that have never been on public display and some important pieces that have been out of public view for decades have returned, including the gnawed-upon Roman woman and the original shrew and mouse placard which so impressed Sylvia Plath.

Newly refurbished Clark Gallery of the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, coffin in foregroundCambridge has a huge collection of artifacts from around the world donated by wealthy alumni and scholars, as well as local discoveries that illustrate the ancient Roman and Anglo-Saxon history of the Cambridge area, all the way through to the founding of the university and beyond. The new gallery will have almost double the number of objects on display, but even so that is less than 1% of the museum’s entire collection.

The refurbished gallery reopens on May 25th. See the museum’s Facebook page for tons of pictures and updates documenting the refurbishment. Here’s a lovely video about the refurbishment and the collection. Watch it full screen because there are some beautiful shots of the artifacts, including a 45-foot-tall totem pole from British Columbia, the Arbury skeleton and a Roman vase decorated with naked ladies and a proliferation of phalluses. It was discovered in Great Chesterford, Essex in the 19th century and so scandalized the Victorians who found it that they never recorded it as one of the finds from the site.

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1000-year-old pre-Inca tomb found intact in Peru

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Newly discovered Pachacamac tomb, ca. 1000 A.D.Archaeologists from the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) have discovered a huge intact tomb in the ancient religious center of Pachacamac, 20 miles southeast of Lima. Provisionally dated to around 1000 A.D., 200 years after the collapse of the Huari culture which first built the city and 450 years before the Inca Confederacy invaded the area, the oval tomb is 65 feet long and contains the remains of more than 70 people including a dozen infants.

Ceramic piece from Pachacamac tombThe tomb was dug into the ground, then covered with a roof of reeds supported by carved tree trunks. The babies were found around the perimeter of the tomb with the heads pointing inward towards the center of the tomb. The main chamber is divided into two parts by a mud brick wall. More mummies and skeletons of men and women of all ages were found buried in fetal positions near the mud brick wall. They were buried with a wealth of around 100 grave goods: ceramic animals (dogs, guinea pigs) and vases, copper and gold alloy jewelry, gourds and wooden masks with faces painted on them known as “false heads.”

Despite the material wealth buried with the people, the tomb does not appear to be royal. It’s more likely a family plot.

The team’s group of physical anthropologists, under the direction of Dr Lawrence Owens (University of London), have posited the possibility of a genetic relationship between many of the individuals, on the basis of certain morphological traits recorded in the skeletons. Certain of the individuals suffered mortal injuries, physical trauma or serious illness.

Previous work by the Ychsma Project has revealed the extensive presence of disease in the Pachacamac skeletal population, leading to the suggestion that the affected individuals had, as testified by Inca sources, travelled to the site in search of a cure: a form of Prehispanic Lourdes.

Painted wood "false head" mask from Pachacamac tombIt’s an incredible stroke of good fortune that a tomb of such advanced age was discovered untouched by Conquistadors, wars and looters. The tomb was discovered in front of the Temple of the Sun that was built by the Inca, who treated Pachacamac with reverence after their conquest because of its long history as the main religious center of coastal Andean cultures. The Inca allowed the local priests autonomy instead of absorbing them into their own religious hierarchy and made the city a major administrative center.

The tomb site is next to a cemetery, but there’s a wall between them. The area was thoroughly explored by diggers in the 19th century who announced definitively that there was nothing left to find behind the wall, because if there were something, looters would have found it already. As luck would have it, looters didn’t bother because over the centuries the roof of the tomb had been covered by layers of construction debris. They didn’t want to dig that deep. As even luckier would have it, nobody in the modern era built on the spot either.

The ULB team had been exploring the cemetery since 2004, working for two or three months each year during the digging season. The season is now over so they can’t dig again until next year, which is a tad frustrating from the team because they found the remains of beams that could mean there’s another tomb right next to this one. There are Peruvian archaeologists still working in the area, but their brief is the preservation of the temples, not further excavation.

Any new discoveries will have to wait. For now, researchers have cleaned and inventoried the finds on site before moving them to a laboratory for further study. There they will be radiocarbon dated and tested for consanguinity, place of origin and cause of death. Researchers are hoping to determine whether the babies were sacrificed and whether the tomb was used over a long period of time by a family or if everyone was buried at the same time.

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Crush, kill, destroy Senator Fistus

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Lead tablet cursing Senator FistusTwo 1,600-year-old lead curse tablets in the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna were recently deciphered, and one of them turns out to be the first known surviving curse directed at a Roman senator.

It’s a juicy one, too. It starts with a dramatic drawing of a snake-headed deity, possibly Hekate, underworld goddess of crossroads, sorcery and necromancy (among other things), with her arms crossed and a star carved over her groin. Although her name is not mentioned, the phrasing of the invocation is similar to other curses that enlist Hekate to their dark cause. The crossed arms symbolize the binding of the deity to the curse. The goddess will remain bound until its terms are fulfilled.

Drawing of the tablet cursing Senator FistusThe text is written mainly in Latin with Greek invocations, and it’s highly reminiscent of the killer android from Lost in Space.

The Latin expression for “crush” is used at least four times in the curse. “Crush, kill Fistus the senator,” part of the curse reads, “May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

I bet there’s a “destroy” in there somewhere, but sadly the article doesn’t include the complete translation. This was probably more of a personal vendetta than a political one. In the late Roman empire, senators held no political power. Emperors had stopped bothering to have their accession ratified by the Senate since Carus in 282, and once Diocletian instituted his constitutional reforms in 300 AD, the Senate lost even the pathetic semblance of consent. The only powers still delegated to the Roman Senate were determining its own membership and control of the public games. So Fistus would have been a rich and prominent citizen, but not much more than that.

Lead tablet cursing PorcelloThe second curse tablet has a less august target, but is just as vigorously hateful. The cursed people are a veterinarian felicitously named Porcello and his wife Maurilla. It is directed towards the same snake-headed deity with crossed arms and the starred groin, but this time Porcello gets a drawing too. He is portrayed as a wrapped mummy with his arms crossed and his name written on both of them.

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …” part of it reads.

There’s the destroy we were looking for! I do love it when a pop culture meme shows up in the archaeological record.

Drawing of lead tablet cursing PorcelloDespite their commonalities, there’s no evidence the tablets were written by the same person. Unfortunately we don’t know where they came from. They were acquired by the museum in the 19th century, then forgotten until their rediscovery in 2009. The museum has no specific record of the acquisition and the tablets’ provenance. They could be from anywhere in the late Roman empire.

Doctoral student Celia Sánchez Natalías from the University of Zaragoza did the deciphering. Her findings were recently published in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (the Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), which does not post issues more recent than 2008 online.

I leave you with this clip from HBO’s spectacular Rome in which Servilia Caepionis, mother of Brutus and jilted mistress of Julius Ceasar, shows us how to do a lead curse and mean it.

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