Archive for June, 2012

Oldest archaeological pearl found in UAE cemetery

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Ancient pearls have been discovered in fossil form going back to the Cretaceous Period (145-65 million years ago), but they don’t appear in the archaeological record until fairly recently. Conventional jeweler’s wisdom has it that the oldest archaeological pearl known is the 5000-year-old Jomon pearl, found in Japan and named after the semi-settled hunter-gatherer period of Japanese prehistory (ca. 14,000 B.C.-300 B.C.) to which it dates, but as so often happens, conventional wisdom is wrong. There isn’t much reliable information about the Jomon pearl that I was able to discover online, no academic research, no details about where it was found, just the same two sentences on page after page of “famous pearls” websites, but there are properly documented pearls that are far older than 5000 years.

Persian Gulf archaeological pearl sitesAccording to Pearls: A Natural History, a gorgeously illustrated book written in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History’s and The Field Museum’s Pearls exhibit that I had the great fortune to see when it was on the road in 2003, the oldest pearls found connected to human habitation have been found in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites in Mesopotamia and Arabia. Some of them were found in shell midden piles, discards from harvests of freshwater mollusks. Two perforated pearls dating to between 3700 and 3400 B.C. were found grasped in the right hands of one male and one female skeleton buried facing the sea at the Ras al-Hamra site in Oman.

Pierced pearl, As-Sabiyah, Kuwait, ca. 5000 B.C.Excavations in the early 2000s by the British Archaeological Expedition to Kuwait unearthed a pearl dating to around 5000 B.C. at the As-Sabiyah site inland from the northern edge of Kuwait Bay. The pearl is pierced through so clearly its intended use was decorative. A number of mother-of-pearl beads, buttons and other kinds of shell jewelry were also found, evidence of the long tradition of pearling in the Persian Gulf.

Oldest archaeological pearl found in Umm al-Quwain 2 burial, 5500 B.C.A new study has moved the oldest date of archaeological pearls even further back to approximately 5500 B.C. Researchers with the French Foreign Ministry have found 42 burials in the Neolithic site of Umm al-Quwain 2 in the United Arab Emirates. The burials were spread through four shell layers from different periods alternating with layers of sterile sand. In the earliest shell layer, recently radiocarbon dated to 5500 B.C., a small pearl 0.07 inches in diameter was recovered after excavation from sand stuck to the skull of skeleton/burial 4.

Pearl on upper lip (see red arrow), beads on the cheek, from Jebel Buhais cemeteryInterestingly, this pearl was not perforated. It wasn’t worn on a string or embroidered onto clothing. Like more recent archaeological pearls discovered placed on the upper lip of a buried skeleton, it appears to have had a ritual role.

The pearl is remarkably well preserved, its luster dimmed, perhaps, but not destroyed, thanks to the layers of shell which lowered the pH level of the sand layers. That same mechanism preserved an impressive 18 pearls from 4700 – 4100 B.C. found on the UAE island of Akab. The Akab pearls come in white, pink and orange shades and retain their original luster. Almost all of them are round, which are far less frequently found in nature than the baroque shapes.

Pearls from Akab island, 4700 – 4100 BCFrench adventurer Henry de Monfreid described going traditional pearl fishing on the Red Sea with four men in 1935. They worked all day and found only 27 pearls in 1000 oysters. Out of that 27, 20 were baroque and five were round ones the size of a pinhead. That means the Neolithic pearl divers, who already were doing an incredibly dangerous and difficult job, discarded the vast majority of the pearls they found in favor of the ones closest to spherical.

It’s amazing to think of how powerful a role pearls played in Neolithic sea-dependent cultures and how far back that goes. They weren’t just objects of great beauty and fragility, prizes to be kept and to inspire trade with Mesopotamian civilizations. They were also symbols used in the most profound rituals surrounding life and death.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Ariel’s song, Act 1, Scene 2, The Tempest


Catherine de Medici’s hairpin found in palace toilet

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Catherine de Medici hairpinConservators have discovered a four-inch gold hairpin that once belonged to Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II and Queen of France from 1547 until his death in 1559, in a communal latrine at Fontainebleau Palace. Archaeologists were excavating the Henry IV courtyard at the royal palace outside of Paris in preparation for an upcoming restoration project when they found the precious object.

Catherine's monogram before cleaningThe pin is identifiable as Catherine’s because it is decorated with a pair of interlocking C’s that look exactly like the Chanel logo but are actually her monogram from when she was Dauphine of France, i.e., married to the heir presumptive, between 1536 and 1547. When Fontainebleau Palace conservator Vincent Droguet cleaned the encrusted grime off the jewel, he noticed the remnants of a white and green finish in the monogram area. White and green were Catherine’s colors.

Catherine de MediciThis small pin is of outsized historical significance because very little of Catherine de Medici’s jewelry has survived, especially jewels from before she was widowed. Other than what we see in portraits, there are only two jewels known to have belonged to Catherine extant. One is a gold and emerald pendant currently on display in a cabinet of medals in the National Library in Paris. The other is a portrait miniature medallion currently in Vienna. Neither of them have her characteristic monogram design.

The latrine itself was a surprise discovery as well. In 2013, the interior of the Henry IV section will be converted into offices for the tourism bureau of Seine-et-Marne (a French administrative division within the center-north region of Île-de-France). The adjacent courtyard was excavated to ensure they wouldn’t be damaging or disturbing archaeological remains during construction. They expected to find the remains of two long-gone buildings and so they did. They did not expect to find a third building containing the remains of a communal latrine. In the cesspit below, they found ceramics, glassware and three jewels: a cross, a gold Virgin Mary medal, and Catherine de Medici’s hairpin.

How it got there is and will doubtless remain a mystery. She had a royal commode of her own and it’s highly unlikely she would have used a communal latrine even under the direst of excretory pressure. Droguet surmises that the pin was either stolen by or given away to someone who then lost it or dropped it in the toilet.


WWII art from UK National Archives on Wikimedia

Monday, June 18th, 2012

"It's up to You (Britannia)" by Tom PurvisMore than 350 original World War II artworks from the National Archives collection have been scanned and uploaded to Wikimedia. Wikimedia UK gave the National Archives a grant to take high resolution pictures of part of their 2000-piece collection of art created for Ministry of Information propaganda during the Second World War. The long-term goal is to scan the entire collection, but they’re starting off with 350 posters, drawings, oil paintings, portraits, and caricatures by well-known artists and talented artists who should be well-known, including famous images and slogans.

The National Archives is hoping the new visibility of their collection will garner additional attention from scholars and the public. They’re also hoping the crowdsourcing power of Wiki will help them identify some of the unknown artists and fill in other informational blanks. Wikimedia is excited to have a whole new source of images to accompany old and new Wikipedia entries. Many of the artists in the collection who already have a Wikipedia page haven’t had any representations of their work on the page until now.

Bombing scene with penciled correction by James GardnerSome of the artworks have been classics of the propaganda poster genre, like the “Careless talk costs lives” posters from the campaign against sharing sensitive information with civilians (especially dangerous blondes). Others are sketches that were submitted to the Ministry but never published. You can see notes penciled in on the borders, among them a pointed critique of artistic license: “Bomb racks open from centre and not from side as in your sketch.”

Portrait of Winston Churchill by William TimymThere is a series of flattering oil portraits of Allied leaders about two-thirds of the way down on the second page by Austrian artist William Timym who moved from Vienna to London in 1938 after the Anschluss. He was naturalized a British citizen in 1949 and would later become known as the creator of the Bleep and Booster series of animated shorts.

"Assassination of Heydrich" by Terence CuneoIt’s the more dramatic war scenes that most catch my eye. Terence Cuneo is widely collected today for his post-war paintings of railways and locomotives. He was also the official artist for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. During the war he served as a combat engineer in the British Army and as an artist for the War Artists Advisory Committee. In the Wikimedia collection you can see his paintings of an invasion in the Far East, tanks in production, tanks in battle and most striking of all in subject matter at least, the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Final Solution.

"Tower Bridge" by Eve KirkOne of my favorite pieces is an oil painting by Eve Kirk, a landscape painter and graphic designer whose wartime work showed at the Royal Academy in 1945. It depicts Tower Bridge and the Thames harbor protected by a sky full of barrage balloons. Barrage balloons were tethered balloons intended to collide with and damage low-flying, fast-moving aircraft like dive bombers. They were deployed in British cities starting in 1938. By 1940 there were almost 500 of them in the skies over London.

"Stand Firm!" by Tom PurvisThen there are the symbolic illustrations, like the proud Aslan-like lion representing England painted by Tom Purvis, the British pincer cracking the swastika by Frank Newbould, the squirrels lining up to get their ration of coal by Clive Uptton, the British and Soviet arms strangling the German eagle rising from a bombed-out city by an unknown artist, and also by an unknown artist, this sort of dark Pink Floyd vision of a sword impaling a bleeding Germany through to a rainbow and sun behind.

"Give us the tools and..." by Frank Newbould"Order your fuel now" by Clive UpttonSoviet and British unity strangling predatory Germany, by unknown artistSword piercing Germany by unknown artist


1886 one-room schoolhouse moves back home

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Ford schoolhouse on the moveA 20- by 36-foot, 22-ton historical building in the town of Algonquin, Illinois was moved a quarter-mile down the road to the village of Lake in the Hills today. Built in 1886 on the Lucy B. Ford Farm in what is now Lake in the Hills, the school had no indoor plumbing and just one room where up to 26 children in first through eighth grades were taught together.

Watching the painstakingly slow movement of the schoolhouse were three Lake in the Hills residents with a particular connection to Ford School: two former students — Albert Ebel Friday (94) and his sister Eunice Andreas (98) — and Duane Andreas (78), the son of Eunice and her husband Weldon Andreas, the last teacher Ford School ever had. People watching the move crowded around them to listen to them reminisce about the old times.

Weldon Andreas teaching the Ford School class of 1931Duane said his dad, the schoolteacher, would take him to Ford School when he was just 4 or 5 so he could see what it was like. At the time, there were only eight kids and it was OK to have a little kid watching them.

“It’s so different now,” he said. Back then, students would listen to the lesson of each grade, and become exposed to higher learning at younger ages, Duane said. “People, they helped each other,” he said. It was a nicer time then, there was no need to compete for the highest grade, or the best classroom scores, he said. The children helped each other succeed.

Eunice was proud of her spelling skills then. She had 100 perfect spelling lessons. “First time they had a spelling bee in McHenry, I won the first time,” she said.

Albert joked about playing hooky and swimming instead. It was just kids being kids. “You were allowed to raise a little hell, people would look the other way,” Duane noted. “Everyone (now) is so afraid of getting in trouble.”

The school closed in 1939 with the advent of graded education. After World War II, a development company bought 800 acres in the area to create a community of affordable housing for returning GIs, and the schoolhouse was slated for demolition. It was saved from that dire fate by George Sticklemeyer, a farmer down the road who in 1945 bought the building for $250 and moved it to his land. He added a kitchen and bathroom and used it as a bunkhouse for migrant workers.

Boarded up schoolhouse in 2011In 1960 it was purchased along with various outbuildings and used as a home. In 2003 the land and buildings were sold again to Stonegate Nursery, a landscaping and plant nursery business. The schoolhouse was used as an office. The nursery went out of business three or so years ago, leaving the schoolhouse and six other outbuildings vacant targets for vandals and thieves. By 2011, the property owner had demolished the other outbuildings, but she knew the schoolhouse was historically significant so she just boarded up the windows hoping that it could be saved.

The Lake in the Hills Historical Society stepped up to the plate. They proposed to move the schoolhouse back to its original location, now a park. Thanks to generous donations from the community and local businesses, they were able to raise sufficient money to take the building off its foundations then move it to Ford School Park, which was named after the school that once stood there. They have $13,000 of the $15,000 cost of the move, so historical society volunteers collected donations from the many people watching the move.

Inside the Ford School in 1937Historical accuracy actually saved them money because they could eliminate sewer and water costs by returning the schoolhouse to its former bathroom-and-kitchenless splendor. They’re hoping that beneath the carpeted walls (yes, carpeting on the walls; I guess that’s as much insulation as the house ever got) they will find the original wood siding. They’ll also recreate the cloak room area and find a period-appropriate teacher’s desk and globe, plus student desks and a potbelly stove.

Restoration will take another two years, depending on how many volunteers and donations they get. The plan is to open the schoolhouse as a museum. If you’d like to chip in, call the Lake in the Hills Historical Society at 847-658-1066, send a check to the address on this page, or click the PayPal Donate button on the same page.

Here’s raw footage of the schoolhouse moving down Algonquin Road, which was closed for the occasion, as people line the streets to watch. I find the slow precision of the movement rather zenlike.


The medieval vampire pirate mayor of Sozopol

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

Skeleton with iron ploughshare in the chestA couple of weeks ago, news broke that archaeologists in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Sozopol had unearthed the skeletal remains of two men whose corpses had been stabbed with iron rods to prevent them from rising up and feasting upon the blood of the living. An iron ploughshare was still in one grave, piercing the rib cage of the would-be revenant. An iron implement was also left behind in the second skeleton but in his abdomen, which has considerably less lore-appeal, so he hasn’t gotten as much attention as the other one.

They were found buried in the necropolis of the St. Nicolas the Miracleworker monastery. (That’s according to the National Museum of History in Sofia; this article says the necropolis was outside the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a church very much in the public eye right now as the host of the purported bones of John the Baptist which were discovered on the island of St. Ivan in 2010. The bones have recently been dated to the first century A.D., and DNA testing confirmed that they’re all from the same Middle Eastern man. Cue the inevitable St. John hysteria.)

The skeletons date to between the 12th and 14th centuries. The fellow with the ploughshare jammed in his chest was buried near the apse of the church, an indication that he was an important figure. Iron was used to pierce the corpses of the wealthiest men while wood was used for the less wealthy, but all the people deemed to be potential vampires were powerful, influential men in life. Clerics, civic leaders, aristocrats, intellectuals: if they were cruel and abusive with their gifts when they were alive, their souls would not ascend to heaven but would remain in their rotting corpses, driving them to rise from the grave to terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.

Archaeologists have a theory about who this particular scoundrel might have been.

Bulgarian historians believe that the vampire grave most likely belong [sic] to one of the medieval mayors of Sozopol. The man’s name was Krivich, and he is known to have had a background as a pirate and bandit who exemplified evil for the town which was part of both the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages.

“He demonstrated incompetence when defending the town from a siege. As a result, Sozopol was overrun by the Genoese who took everything away from the local residents,” [Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the Bulgarian National History Museum,] said.

I’m not sure what their grounds are for this speculation, other than the generally appropriate date (Krivich failed to protect the city from Genoese troops in the 14th century) and the plum burial spot indicating he was a man of importance, but still, medieval vampire pirate mayor …. That’s the kind of cool that cannot be denied.

Sozopol "vampire" skeleton at National Museum of History in SofiaThe remains of 100 vampire-treated people, all of them men, all of them prominent citizens, have been found in Bulgaria. These two are the first ever discovered in Sozopol, a tiny fraction of the 700 graves unearthed in the necropolis. Most of them have been reburied, as will the Sozopol skeleton with the iron stomach. The one sporting the ploughshare in his chest, on other hand, has been sent to Sofia to go on display at the National Museum of History. It will become part of a permanent exhibit on medieval Bulgarian folklore.

It’s tourist season, you see, and vampires are big business. Already thousands of people from Germany, Britain, Russia and the US are flocking to Sozopol to catch a glimpse of a vampire skeleton in situ. Souvenir stores are stocking up on truly awful Dracula mugs and t-shirts; “vampire steaks” and “vampire cocktails” have sprung up on menus all over town. Just to pin down the cheeseball tourism trade like it’s a dead evil nobleman, Sozopol also has plans in the works to become twinned with Sighisoara, Romania, the birthplace of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula.


Ancient church in Roman Forum to reopen restored

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Restorers at work at Santa Maria AntiquaAfter more than a decade of restoration work, Santa Maria Antiqua, one of the earliest and most historically significant Christian churches in Rome, will be open to tour groups by invitation only starting in September of this year, then open to the public at large in 2013. Built out of part of a palace complex on the Palatine dating to the reign of Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 A.D.), the building was converted into a Christian church in the sixth century. It was the second Christian church consecrated in the Roman Forum, the religious and political center of the ancient city, and thanks to various sackings and demolitions of later structures, it remains one of only two Christian churches in the Forum today. (The other is Santi Cosma e Damiano, built a few decades before Santa Maria.)

Santa Maria AntiquaSome of the materials used and style of the paintings are characteristically Byzantine, an unusual approach in the city of Rome, perhaps the product of artists and workshops from the Eastern Empire. Over the next three centuries, the walls were extensively frescoed, with later works sometimes painted over earlier ones. These layered paintings provide unique insight into the development of Byzantine and early medieval art, especially since much Byzantine religious art was destroyed by 8th and 9th century Iconoclasm in the East. Thankfully, Byzantine control over the West was weak by that time. Popes Gregory II and Gregory III rejected Byzantine imperial edicts to destroy all religious art, thus sparing Rome from the wholesale destruction of early Christian art suffered in Constantinople.

Maria Regina and the palimpsest wallThe earliest painting dates to the middle of the 6th century. It’s known as a Maria Regina because it depicts the Virgin Mary enthroned, wearing a garment festooned with pearls in the style of a Byzantine empress. It’s thought to be the earliest surviving depiction of Mary as Queen of Heaven. It’s on a wall to the right of the apse, and probably was painted before the apse was even finished. On top of her are another six layers of frescoed plaster. Flaking and wear reveal fragments of each layer. This wall is known as the palimpsest wall because of the exposed superimposed layers. The website of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome has a neato Flash applet illustrating the stratigraphy of the palimpsest.

Eastern medical saintsAnother notable work is the portraits of medical saints, painted during the early 8th century during the papacy of John VII. Historians believe people came to the chapel to be healed by the images of the saints, a tradition of the Eastern Church instituted in Rome during the Byzantine Papacy (537-752) when all the popes were selected by the Eastern Emperor. When the Roman papacy sought the patronage of Frankish King Pepin instead, Eastern customs fell out of favor. This is one of the only depictions of the medical saint tradition extant.

Chapel of TheodotusThe frescoes in the chapel of Theodotus, named after a wealthy and prominent official at the court of Pope Zaccarias (r. 741-752) whose family is depicted in one of the paintings, are some of the best preserved. Sequences include the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of Quiricus (aka Cyricus) and Julietta, and the Virgin and Christ Child accompanied by Saints Peter, Paul, Julietta and Pope Zaccarias.

Theodotus and family; square halo indicates the person depicted was still aliveThe church was abandoned in the 9th century after it was damaged by an earthquake and subsequent landslide in 847. In a classic historical paradox, the earthquake that wiped it off the map is probably what saved the frescoes from getting obliterated by war or new architectural fads. A new church, Santa Maria Liberatrice, was built on top of part of the old church in the 13th century. Santa Maria Liberatrice was rebuilt in Baroque style in 1600.

Santa Maria Antiqua was rediscovered again in 1701 by scavengers looking for building material in the Roman Forum. The apse was excavated and became a popular subject for artists and tourists to visit. They only got three months to enjoy the view, however, because the landowner decided to rebury it.

Demolition of Santa Maria Liberatrice, ca. 1900Urban legend has it that it was rediscovered yet again in 1900, when a monk fell into a sinkhole while digging in the vegetable garden. What we know for sure is that in 1900, as new excavations revealed more and more of the Roman Forum around it, the government decided to dispose of that pesky medieval/Baroque church in their way. Archaeologist Giacomo Boni took on the task of destroying history. The old church was so well built it took them two years to take it down. They had to use dynamite in the end, and no, there was no archaeological survey done on the site at any point during those two years.

Santa Maria Antiqua no roof, 1902-1910Once fully excavated, Santa Maria Antiqua revealed more than 250 square meters (that’s 2690 square feet) of frescoes in brilliant color which of course immediately began to degrade courtesy of exposure to the elements. As excavations in the Forum continued, the church was used as a storage space for ancient artifacts. A wooden roof was built over the central nave in 1910 to try to stop the rapid deterioration.

It wasn’t enough. From 1912 until 1957, 12% of the frescoes were detached from the wall, transferred to new supports and kept in the Forum museum. In 1980 the church was closed permanently to the public and conservation work began in situ this time. In 2001, a program of thorough documentation and restoration was begun with funding and collaboration from the World Monuments Fund, among others, and it’s this program that is finally coming to an end. Some of the detached panels have been returned to their original locations.

The portraits of saints, surrounded by images of date trees and improbable fringed curtains, will remain partly unrestored and noticeably eroded.

“It leaves space for imagination,” said Werner Matthias Schmid, a principal conservator for the project, while giving a recent tour of the damp and dimly lighted church. Glaring white patches where paint had peeled away have been toned down to a grayish color. “We diminished the distortions of the losses,” he said.

The conservators have methodically documented their decisions about every millimeter of the restoration, as they stabilized flaking paint and undid failing old repairs. […]

The conservators have found Latin and Greek inscriptions in the murals in addition to traces of ancient brush strokes. The saints’ eyes and pearl strands are formed from dots of white lime. “Up close they’re almost three-dimensional,” Mr. Schmid said.

And now my favorite part: the before and after pics.

Medical saints before restoration Medical saints after restoration
The Crucifixion before restoration The Crucifixion after restoration
Christ's crucified feet before Christ's crucified feet after
Chapel of Theodutus before restoration Chapel of Theodutus after restoration


12th c. Romanesque cloister found decorating a pool

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Romanesque cloister adorns the Mas del Vent swimming poolGerardo Boto, professor of Medieval Art History at the University of Girona in Catalonia, Spain, was leafing through the July-August issue of Architectural Digest France in 2010 when he was astonished to see what looked very much like a medieval Romanesque cloister bordering the swimming pool of a 22-hectare estate in Palamos on the Costa Brava in northeastern Spain. The estate, named Mas del Vent (“House of the Wind”), belongs to German pharmaceutical billionaire Curt Engelhorn, one of the world’s 50 richest people, but he doesn’t live there. The estate is available for rent, in fact, but despite that, the Engelhorns have been extremely reluctant to allow the pool area to be photographed. AD photographer Vincent Leroux had to beg for permission to take a picture of the dramatic gallery of arches under umbrella pines embracing the swimming pool.

Romanesque cloister on the Mas del Vent estateEnticed by the large double-page picture, Boto attempted to secure Engelhorn’s permission to examine the structure in person, but he was repeatedly refused. Boto contacted Leroux and was able to examine his high resolution photographs in detail. He also used Google Earth to get fairly precise measurements of the gallery. His research confirmed his initial impression that the pool folly was a 12th century Romanesque cloister very similar in style to the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos, a Benedictine monastery in the northwestern region of Castilla y León that is famous for its elaborately carved and exquisitely preserved two-story cloister built sometime in the span from the last quarter of the 11th century through the second half of the 12th century.

Detail of double capital with human figures, boarsLike the cloister at Silos and only two other medieval Spanish monasteries, the pool cloister is composed of double columns, each carved separately, crowned with single block capitals decorated with carvings of human figures, plants and animals both real (birds, lions, wild boars) and mythological (griffins, dragons, harpies), but no religious scenes whatsoever. Boto recognized the style of the Palamos capitals as derived from two primary approaches used at Silos, the First Workshop style from around 1100 and the Second Workshop from around 1165. There is no doubt in his mind that whoever carved the Palamos capitals was very familiar with the Silos forms.

Municipal archives picture of 1959 cloister assemblyThis style is very rare in the history of the Spanish Romanesque style, so even if some of the Mas del Vent cloister was a reproduction, any authentic parts at all would be a major addition to the art historical record. Thus Boto continued to research the cloister and he hit the jackpot: in the municipal archives of Palamos, he discovered pictures of the arches being assembled at the estate in 1959. From those pictures he could assess the masonry piece by piece, the weight of the stone, the erosion from centuries of elements, the incised mounting marks characteristic of Romanesque stonemasonry.

In May of this year, Boto gave a presentation of the results of his research at the Fugitive Art conference hosted by the Romanesque and Gothic art preservation organization of the University of Barcelona. Engelhorn’s representatives continued to refuse experts access to the cloister, even though they allowed anyone who could afford to pay for it to suntan underneath the columns.

Gerardo Boto measures cloister columnThen last Tuesday the newspaper El Pais published an article about the pool cloister and broke the story wide open. All of a sudden the government, which had showed zero interest when preservation organizations pestered them to look into the cloister last year, was sending experts to assess the authenticity of the gallery, and Engelhorn’s people finally allowed the press and Boto to look at the cloister in person.

The Engelhorn family claims to have a report of inauthenticity (for real) issued in 1967 by an expert from the Metropolitan Museum of Art who made the determination after looking at some pictures. The report has not been released, and it seems odd that for years they would allow photographs of the 18th century stone farmhouse and grounds to be taken, even posted online, only refusing access to the incredibly gorgeous pool, which is always a major selling point in any real estate transaction. Even the restorer they hired to assess the cloister’s condition in 2000 had to fight with them for half a day before they’d let him take the pictures he needed to do his job.

Red hue from exposure to prolonged high temperaturesAnyway the veil is torn now. The estate management company released a statement saying that the cloister was purchased in Madrid by Hans Engelhorn, Curt’s grandfather, on July 23, 1958 for one million pesetas, big money back then but the equivalent of just 6,000 euros ($7500) today. It wasn’t originally built in Madrid, however. It was acquired by art dealer Ignacio Martínez Martínez in 1931 and brought to Madrid from parts unknown, which means this cloister has been dismantled and rebuilt at least twice in its long life.

There is also evidence on some blocks of exposure to high temperature for several days. The Ortiz family who lived on the Madrid property with the cloister from 1931 to 1958 says there was no fire during that time. According to Juan Manuel Ortiz (86), marauding militants threatened to burn it during the Spanish Civil War, but the women wept and pleaded for them to spare the cloister and it worked.

Detail depicting the castle of King Alfonso VIII, 1155-1214, probable modern replacement of the originalThe final report of the Ministry of Culture will take some weeks to complete, but the government’s initial assessment is that the cloister is an authentic medieval structure with some modern elements, possibly from the reconstructions. Since the Engelhorns purchased it legally in 1958, even once it’s officially authenticated there’s no question of the government confiscating it or anything like that.

According to Catalan Cultural Heritage laws, the government can declare the cloister a Cultural Asset of National Interest or add it to the Catalan Cultural Heritage list. If it’s declared the former, there will be a number of prohibitions applied to keep it from being moved or sold or exported without government permission. That won’t be an issue since the Engelhorns have no interest in moving their medieval cloister. They will, however, be required to open it to the public. Their representative says they’ll comply with any such regulations.


Do you recognize the people in these Civil War pics?

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Seven Civil War-era mystery pictures in the Museum of the Confederacy collectionThe Museum of the Confederacy headquartered in Richmond, Virginia needs your help. They have an extensive collection of Civil War artifacts, including many period pictures, but even though they have excellent provenance records from donors, some of the pictures were found on battlefields or left behind with civilians for safekeeping so the museum has no idea who they depict. For curators to attempt to research each picture and locate potential relatives would be prohibitively expensive.

The museum is therefore releasing eight pictures, mainly of women and children, to the public on the very remote chance that someone might just recognize their great-grandmother from old family albums. Perhaps crowdsourcing can step into the void.

“We don’t know who they are and the people who picked them up did not know who they were,” said Ann Drury Wellford, curator of 6,000 Civil War images at the Richmond museum that has the largest collection of artifacts of the Confederate states, civilian and military. “They evoke an utter and complete sentimentality.”

Museum officials can only speculate on the children and adults, including soldiers, shown in the photographs. But whether they were sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, or siblings the prospect of identifying each grows dimmer with the passage of time.

Typically they were found by another soldier and handed down through generations. Ultimately an attic would be cleared or a trunk would be emptied and the photo would be given to the museum. Some have been in the museum’s possession for 60 years or more.

Considering the circumstances behind the discovery of these photos, it’s amazing that the museum knows as much as they do know about them. Take this Ambrotype of a doll-like little girl, for instance:

Ambrotype of unidentified girl found between the bodies of a Confederate and Union soldier

This photograph was found by Confederate Private Thomas W. Timberlake of the 2nd Virginia Infantry on the battlefield at Port Republic, Virginia in 1862. It was wedged between two dead bodies, one of a Confederate soldier and one of a Union soldier. Private Timberlake couldn’t tell which soldier the picture had belonged to, so he kept it. His descendants donated the photograph to the museum and told the battlefield tale that had come down to them through the generations.

We know the picture of this little girl belonged to a Union soldier:

Unidentified child of a Union soldier

It was found by Confederate Private Heartwell Kincaid Adams of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry in the haversack of a Union soldier who died in the Battle of High Bridge, Virginia on April 6th or 7th, 1865. Lee would surrender at Appomattox on April 9th.

You can see all eight of the pictures on the museum website here, and higher resolution ones on the MSNBC photoblog. If by some incredible twist of fate you recognize anyone, please email the Museum, call 855-649-1861 x113, or drop them a line on Twitter or Facebook.


Rare remains of soldier found at Waterloo

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Skeleton found in shallow grave on the field of WaterlooLast Friday, June 8th, Belgian archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of a soldier killed during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Buried under just 15 inches of soil, the position of the skeleton suggests the young man died where he fell and was hastily covered with a thin layer of dirt, probably by his comrades. This is a very rare find. The victorious armies cleared the battlefield of their dead, and the defeated French were eventually buried on site in mass graves. It’s the first time in a century that a body from the Napoleonic wars has been found on a Belgian battlefield, and this one is almost entirely undisturbed.

Lion MoundWaterloo was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, which is why there is a man-made conical hill called the Lion Mound memorializing the spot where the Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne, was hit in the shoulder by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo. The soldier’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Lion Mound.

Unfortunately his skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers prepping the area for the upcoming demolition and re-construction of the visitor’s center, shops, hotels and parking lots. The Ministry of Archaeology for the region of Walloon Brabant took over and excavated the rest of the skeleton, finding it almost complete. Only the skull, one foot and some hand bones are missing.

Coins found with skeletonThe body was spared any Thénardier-style looting. Coins were found in his pocket, one of them a half franc from 1811, the others too corroded to identify immediately. Experts are cleaning them now. He was also carrying a flint and a small red sphere in his right pocket. Next to his body were discovered a spoon and an unidentified wooden object, possibly a rifle butt, with the initials “C.B.” carved into it.

Wood fragment with initials "C.B." carved into itHis uniform has rotted away but his leather epaulets survived. Archaeologists are hoping they will be able to identify the soldier’s regiment from the epaulets, and possibly from the spoon if it’s army-issue. If they can discover his regiment, they’ll probably be able to find his name on the combatant records. The initial analysis of the bones indicates that he was around 20 years old, 5’1″ tall and had abrasion grooves on his molars from tearing opening gunpowder tubules with his teeth.

Musket ball in his ribcageOne particularly poignant artifact was a musket ball found inside the soldier’s ribcage. This is probably the smoking gun, as it were: he took a bullet to the chest, then either retreated or was carried by comrades 100 yards or so behind the front line. The location of his burial was 100 meters (109 yards) behind the British front line, close to the Duke of Wellington’s army infirmary. It’s highly unlikely that a French soldier would have fallen in this position. Although we don’t know for sure yet, the soldier was probably British.

The British cleared the field of their dead after their victory, burying them in consecrated ground. This fellow could have been overlooked because he was buried, albeit shallowly, where he died. The French dead, in contrast, remained unburied for days, their bodies robbed by locals, until they were put in mass graves and burned with quicklime. Any skeletal remains still recoverable from the mass graves were removed in subsequent decades for the grotesque practice of fertilizer production.

There is some footage of the skeleton being examined in the lab and of the battlefield in this BBC News video.


New terracotta warriors, horses, accessories found

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Excavating Pit OneA three-year excavation of Pit One in the mausoleum complex of Qin Shi Huang (259 B.C.–210 B.C.), the first emperor of a unified China, has uncovered more than 100 new terracotta warriors, 12 horses, two chariots and hundreds of accessories, including war drums and the first shield of its kind ever found in the four main pits of the complex. This is the third excavation since the first warriors were discovered by farmers digging a well outside the city of Xi’an, Shaanxi province, central China in 1974, and most of the estimated 8000-strong army is still buried.

Newly-discovered shieldThe shield is an impressive 28 inches high and 20 inches wide and decorated with red, green and white geometric patterns. Discovered on the right of one of the chariots, the shield probably belonged to an official of high rank. A bronze shield and chariot were found during the 1980 excavation, but the bronzes are half the size of the terracotta warriors. Archaeologists think the newly discovered shield is life-sized, an accurate depiction of Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) shields.

Newly-discovered terracotta soldiers after restorationThe 100+ newly-discovered figures contain great rarities and new information as well. Eight of them are officials, identifiable as such from their more elaborate, more delicately patterned armor. Much more of the original paint has survived on these new warriors than on any previously discovered. Every figure in the massive army was initially painted with raw lacquer, a technique that doesn’t stand the test of time very well. The lacquer pulls away from the terracotta surface, flaking off and fading. Some of the warriors were put under even more stress by water and fire during the millennia. Eyelashes painted on a warrior's faceMost of the figures that still had color attached when they were unearthed in the 1970s quickly shed it once they were exposed to the air.

The colors are far better preserved this time, still brilliant in hue and showing the amazing detail work artisans did to make every figure have its own distinctive look. They have different colored eyes and different flesh tones, and one of the heads even has delicate little eyelashes still clearly visible.

Painted arm Painted warrior face Broken warrior with extensive surviving paint

Pit 9901, a smaller site in the southeast area of the tomb complex that archaeologists only started excavating last August, has produced a fascinating set of 20 figures that appear to be non-military, likely performers intended to keep the emperor entertained in the afterworld. They aren’t wearing armor and they strike curious poses: one holds his left arm with his right hand, one is crouched. They stand face to face, portly figures looking south and slender figures looking north.

Headless giant from Pit 9901One of the Pit 9901 pieces stands literally head and shoulders above the others. He was found missing his head, but his remaining body from neck to toe is 7’3″ tall. His feet alone are over 12″ long. Assuming a proportional head, when complete this figure was 8’2″ tall.

Archaeologists have also discovered additional evidence that the figures were deliberately burned and broken in antiquity. The warriors were found in pieces, some of them with their clay melted and misshapen. There is charcoal residue and white ash in some of the pits, signs of a high temperature fire deliberately set using organic materials like wood and hemp ropes. Excavating a terracotta warrior blackened from having been burned in antiquityThat puts the dates of the fires close to the time of burial because if they had been set by looters centuries later, the organic kindling would have been too decayed to turn to charcoal. The fires do not appear to have been set as part of a burial ritual because only a few of the pits were burned.

The primary arson suspect is Xiang Yu, a general who along with other ambitious war leaders and would-be kinglets rebelled against Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s son Qin Er Shi in 209 B.C. Xiang Yu was reputed to have been particularly ruthless, slaughtering entire cities even after they surrendered to him and burning down every palace he encountered. He defeated the Qin army in 207 B.C., burying them all alive after they surrendered. According to several ancient Chinese historians, after his victory Xiang Yu looted and burned Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. He wasn’t kind to his allies either, setting them up for assassination and backstabbing them regularly.

Mal and Wash getting tortured by Niska in "War Stories"On the pro side, he did give himself a pretty awesome title, Hegemon-King of Western Chu, and according to ancient historian Sima Qian (ca. 135 B.C.–86 B.C.) he composed a song lamenting his impending defeat at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 B.C. He also apparently had a double pupil in one eye which was part of his mystique as a king and sage. Last but certainly not least, he makes an appearance in War Stories, one of the greatest Firefly episodes, in which Xiang Yu’s writings on torture are a recurring theme raised by both Shepherd Book and the crime boss/torturer Niska.






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