Archive for July, 2012

700 rare, pristine baseball cards found in Ohio attic

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

1910 E98 baseball cards, 27 out of a set of 30A collection of 700 rare baseball cards from a 1910 promotional series has been discovered in pristine condition in an attic in Defiance, Ohio. Restaurant owner Karl Kissner and his cousin Karla were going through their late grandfather’s attic when they came across a green cardboard box underneath a crumbling wood dollhouse. The box that had once held women’s clothing was now covered in soot. Karla opened it and saw hundreds of small baseball cards tied with twine. Some of the names — Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Honus Wagner — were immediately recognizable, but not knowing whether these particular cards were authentic or of any value, the cousins set the box aside and continued to explore the attic.

Karl researched the cards and discovered there was a chance they might be valuable. He sent eight of them to Peter Calderon at Heritage Auctions in Dallas to determine whether they were authentic; the rest he locked up in a bank vault. Calderon confirmed that they were authentic 1910 E98 series baseball cards, a set so rare few people even know about them, and that they were in exceptionally good condition. The few 1910 E98 cards that have survived are faded, stained and worn, handled roughly by the sticky fingers of pre-World War I children. Most of the Kissner cards look like they’ve never been touched at all.

Ty Cobb cardHeritage Auctions checked the context — the age of the house, how Karl’s grandfather Carl Hench might have acquired 700 1910 E98 cards — and all the pieces seemed to fit. Carl Hench was a butcher who ran a meat market in Defiance. The cards were promotional items distributed with caramels — one of the mysteries of the set is exactly which company manufactured them — so Hench probably sold the caramels in his shop, keeping some of the cards and giving away others. The family suspects he put the box of cards in the attic and forgot about it.

He died in 1944. After his wife died in 1976, the house was left to their daughter Jean Hench, Karl Kissner’s aunt. She was a pack rat, bless her heart, and never threw anything away. She died last October, leaving her possessions to 20 family members, including Karl and Karla. The family spent months looking through the house, finding all kinds of wonderful treasures like dresses from the turn of the century, a steamer trunk from Germany, and calendars from Carl Hench’s meat market. They finally got to the attic in February. Karla opened that fateful box on Leap Day.

Hans Wagner cardOnce the probable history of the cards was pieced together, Heritage Auctions sent them to Professional Sports Authenticator to confirm the authentication and to adjudicate condition. They authenticated the cards and judged them the finest E98 series they have ever seen. The Honus Wagner (he’s called “Hans” on this series) card is a perfect 10 in condition, the first 10 ever given an E98 series card. The highest grade an E98 Ty Cobb card has gotten before this was a seven. PSA graded 16 of the Ty Cobbs in this collection a nine.

The 20 members of the family mentioned in Aunt Jean’s will split the cards up. Some of them want to keep their cards; most of them want to sell them. The 37 star cards will be auctioned at Baltimore’s Camden Yards baseball field during the National Sports Collectors Convention on August 2nd. Heritage Auctions is taking bids on a set of 27 on their website and the current bid is already at $120,000 20 days before the auction. The rest of the cards will be spread out for individual sale so they don’t flood the market and lower the value. Experts think the whole collection could prove to be worth as much as $3 million.

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The 100 Caravaggios controversy

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Last week, a huge story broke: art historians had discovered 100 previously unknown drawings by Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio, from his student days in Milan. Since there are only 90 surviving paintings by the master of chiaroscuro, this collection would more than double the Caravaggio catalog and would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Self-portrait of Simone Peterzano, 1589Art historians Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli spent two years going through 1,378 paintings and drawings from the workshop of Simone Peterzano, a late mannerist who had been a student of Titian’s in Venice and was Caravaggio’s teacher in Milan from 1584 to 1588. The collection is kept in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, not on public display but open to scholars.

By comparing the drawings from the Peterzano collection to later works by Caravaggio, Curuz and Fedrigolli claim to have developed “a rigorous survey methodology for identifying underlying geometric patterns from the artist’s early Roman period” which allowed them to pick out his student work from the workshop group. The final tally was 100 drawings, 10 oil paintings and a letter to Peterzano that “highlights the friction and misunderstandings between two temperaments at odds” written in a “swift and violent style” that a handwriting expert claims is likely in Caravaggio’s hand.

Instead of submitting their groundbreaking conclusions to scholarly peer review, however, the researchers decided to publish their findings in two e-books translated into four languages, available for sale on Amazon.com and via links on their own website (netiquette warning: there’s an autoplay video on the homepage) for $17.36 a pop. The exceptional announcement coupled with e-book sales did not go over well in the art historical community, to put it mildly.

Tomaso Montanari, a professor of Baroque art at the University of Naples, said: “They didn’t pass through a scientific peer review, and that gives them little credibility. The Web site that claims that this is a great discovery reminds me of TV sales promotions. From the scholarly point of view, it really has no value.”

Even the city of Milan, which owns the Castello Sforzesco and the Peterzano collection within, was reluctant to jump on board the Caravaggio train. A city council spokesperson noted that those drawings have been browsed by plenty of experts before and nobody has ever attributed any of them to Caravaggio. City council member Stefano Boeri sounded similar notes of caution, insisting that the new attributions be carefully examined by a panel of experts before anyone sounds the “100 new Caravaggios found!” publicity trumpet. He is also launching an investigation into “the correctness of the procedures regarding the publication” of the e-books.

Curuz’s response to the question of why they went straight to e-books instead of seeking out scholarly review is the classic insider conspiracy trope, so often seen in medical and scientific quackery.

Mr. Bernardelli Curuz, who is the artistic director of the Fondazione Brescia Musei, which manages monuments and organizes art exhibitions in the northern city of Brescia, said that they had opted to make their discovery known through an e-book because academic research in Italy was in the hands of an established, tight-knit group that tried to thwart younger scholars. The book was published in four languages “because we wanted to reach the most scholars possible,” he said, denying any underlying commercial interests.

Protip: if you want to reach the most scholars possible instead of looking like you’re just out to make a buck, make your research available for less than $34.72, maybe even for free.

This is not to say that they’re entirely wrong about the attribution. Several of the drawings do bear some resemblance to Caravaggio’s later work, but most of them are really rough sketches, body parts and the like. Even the portraits that when reoriented and resized look like they fit into one of his oil paintings are pretty raw work when you look at the drawings on their own terms in decent resolution. For example, here’s one of the composites in the e-book:

Detail from "The Conversion of Saul" with comparable drawing inset

That’s a detail from Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saul with an inset of one of the drawings from the Peterzano collection. Here are the complete painting and the drawing side by side:

"The Conversion of Saul" by Caravaggio, ca. 1600 Old man drawing in Peterzano collection, attributed to Caravaggio

The resemblance is unimpressive seen in full, isn’t it? The drawing is fairly rudimentary and although it may be a function of the scan, it looks to me like the composite made generous use of the contrast tool in Photoshop to give it more of that chiaroscuro depth that is so characteristic of Caravaggio’s famous work.

The fact is, attribution is a tricky thing and if style matching is your only evidence, then you don’t have much evidence at all. They’ve gone about this in a highly shady way and their claims have been far more definite than is prudent, or even decent, really. On Tuesday Amazon removed the e-books from their offerings — they won’t say why — but they are still available on self-publishing site Lulu (Young Caravaggio – One hundred rediscovered works – Volume I, Volume II).

The city of Milan has made all of the drawings in question available for download in six zip files on their website free of charge, naturally. The drawings and catalog information will be consolidated in a website that will go live July 12th so bookmark http://graficheincomune.comune.milano.it/ now and check it tomorrow.

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The return of Coventry’s medieval stained glass

Monday, July 9th, 2012

The West Midlands city of Coventry was a prosperous town during the Middle Ages, a major center of the textile trade, and by the 14th century the fourth largest city in England. It had two churches, the 12th century cathedral in St. Mary’s Priory, which was destroyed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and St. Michael’s, a 14th century Gothic church that was the largest parish church in the country. The guilds saw to it that St. Michael’s was packed with top quality stained glass by artists like John Thornton, the master glazier who created York Minster’s Great East Window.

Memorial service held in St. Michael's for King Edward VII, May 1910After St. Mary’s was demolished — the only cathedral to suffer this fate during the Reformation — Coventry was absorbed into the nearby Lichfield diocese. In 1918, the new diocese of Coventry was created and since the city already had a large, dramatic church in St. Michael’s, it became the new Coventry Cathedral.

Just over 20 years later, in 1939, with World War II looming on the horizon, the stained glass panels were removed from the cathedral windows as a precaution to prevent their destruction in any German bombing raids. Coventry was replete with industrial targets both civil and military, so there was little doubt that it would see action. The glass was packed into 30 crates and stored in the cellar of the rectory in the small village of Hampton Lucy.

Churchill tours Coventry Cathedral after its destruction in the BlitzCoventry was bombed a number of times in the early days of the war, but the targets were primarily military and industrial. The damage to the historic center and loss of life were small. On the evening of November 14, 1940, German bombers dropped high explosive bombs on the city’s utilities and roads. Once the water was knocked out and the roads were impassable from bomb craters, the next wave of German planes dropped explosive and incendiary bombs with the express purpose of starting fires that fire brigades could not contain thanks to the damaged water mains and cratered roads.

Coventry Cathedral suffered multiple direct hits. Firefighters were able to put out the first fire of the evening, but as the bombing progressed that night, the fires became impossible to contain. By the time the all-clear sirens rang the next morning, there was nothing left of Coventry Cathedral but smoldering ruins. A few walls and the tall spire were all that remained. Those ruins are still on the spot. A new cathedral was built in Modernist style right next to it, with the ruins as a consecrated garden space dedicated to peace and reflection. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and the new church was consecrated in 1962.

Medieval stained glass reused in Coventry CathedralMeanwhile, in 1957 the little rectory in Hampton Lucy was sold. The crates full of medieval stained glass had remained unharmed in the cellar for almost 20 years, but with the sale they were returned to Coventry. The architect of the new cathedral, Sir Basil Spence, wanted to incorporate some of this glass into the new building in some way. Putting together whole windows wasn’t going to happen because most of the panes had been removed and crated without any annotation of their original arrangement. Instead, Spence and his team selected a few choice pieces and in 1965 installed them in a small chapel in the south porch of the old cathedral ruins known today as Haigh Chapel.

Since then, other panes have been integrated into the new cathedral, including mosaic-style combinations that had been put together during 19th century modifications to the church. Around 5,000 pieces of stained glass were still in storage.

Medieval stained glass portrait from Coventry CathedralThanks to a joint fundraising project by World Monuments Fund Britain and Coventry Cathedral that raised £250,000 ($388,000), conservators will begin work on the medieval stained glass of Coventry Cathedral this summer, and best of all, they’ll be doing it in public. The Faces in the Glass Live exhibit at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum will run from August 6th through October 31st. Admission is free, and visitors will be able to watch the conservators as they clean the panes, meet them, and interact with them. Every Thursday at 3:00 conservators will give a 30 minute talk about the glass and their work.

The stored glass is currently catalogued by color and subject, but there is hope that they might be recomposed into their original medieval configurations thanks to a piece of software originally designed to piece together shredded Cold War documents.

Medieval stained glass pieces from Coventry CathedralIan Crick-Smith, a researcher at the University of Lincoln, says that renderings of the broken edges of the glass will be created using two- or three-dimensional laser scanning, and that software will then be used to suggest best matches and alignment. “There is definitely a growth area for digital technology in the heritage investigation sector,” he says. Similar technology was used by Princeton University to help reconstruct fragments from ancient frescoes at Akrotiri.

The software was developed after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when it was used to recreate documents that had been destroyed by shredding and tearing. “It has also been used to reassemble damaged works of art on paper,” Crick-Smith says. “We don’t know of any other instance where this has been used for stained glass.” The composition of the glass and Thornton’s production system are also being explored.

The ultimate plan is to create a display area for a selection of the pieces in the crypts underneath the ruins of the old cathedral. Other panes might be used to make contemporary art installations in the new cathedral.

For more on the history of the stained glass windows of Coventry Cathedral, read this excellent article. To explore the ruins and the new cathedral, see these QuickTime panoramas.

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New De Soto site found in Florida

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

De Soto route proposed by Charles Hudson in 1997Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto was the first European to explore deep inland within what would become the United States. For three years (1539-1542), his search for (non-existent) gold and a (non-existent) passage to China drove him and his men to cut a violent, disease-ridden swath through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas.

Very little in the way of archaeology has been found marking his route. What we know of it has mainly been pieced together with difficulty from his journals and from tribal oral histories, all of which use references to features of a landscape long gone. The only confirmed site is in Tallahassee, Florida, where they wintered the first year. Any discovery of material remains left behind by the expedition, therefore, is of major historical significance.

Ethan (left) and Ashley White (right) sifting sand at the De Soto site on their family propertyArchaeologist Ashley White has found strong evidence on his own family property that De Soto’s team stopped there in the summer of 1539 when it was an Indian town called Potano near present-day Orange Lake in north Marion County, Florida. White had explored the 700-acre property before looking for the remains of a 17th century Spanish cattle ranch he thought might have been there, but all he found were relatively common Indian artifacts.

Copper coin found at Hernando De Soto encampment, late 15th centuryIt was Florida weather that ultimately showed him the way. Heavy rainfall in 2005 flooded the land. When it drained away, it took hardened sand with it, leaving once-buried artifacts totally exposed on the surface. On the west bank of an old creek, Dr. White found a copper coin from the late 1400s. East of the creek bed, White, his bioarchaeologist wife Michele and their son Ethan found even more coins — ultimately they recovered 100 cooper coins minted in Spain between 1556 and 1621 — plus Murano glass trade beads, Spanish blue on white porcelain and postholes.

Spanish coins found at the mission siteDuring the first two years of excavations, White’s working hypothesis was that they had discovered the remains of that early Spanish cattle ranch. When he examined the artifacts and the architecture of the building remains in detail, however, he realized they were very similar in style to what you see in Spanish missions built along Indian trails in Florida. The missionaries used De Soto’s journals and maps to determine where the potential converts were located.

Nueva Cadiz beads, ca. 1520Returning to the other side of the creek where he had found the 15th century Spanish coin, White found another two from around the same period. The three copper coins were two Ferdinand and Isabellas (1497-1504) and one Enrique IV (1471-74), at least half a century older than the ones at the mission site. He also found seven beautiful cobalt blue Nueva Cadiz beads from around 1520, probably originally arranged into a crucifix, and more Venetian glass trade beads, these ones older and more elaborate than the ones on the east side of the creek. Chevron beads of Murano glass from the De Soto encampment siteThe facets, multi-layered coloring and chevron patterns of the Murano beads are identical to other beads found at the known De Soto site in Tallahassee and the suspected De Soto site found three years ago in Georgia.

Spanish chain mail linksThen White found a few links of iron chain mail from Spain, with designs De Soto’s men would have woven onto their garments to protect them from Indian spears and arrows. The way the chain mail was linked predated the mission.

He also unearthed a pig jaw, unique to the domesticated herd of European animals De Soto brought to help feed his men.

There had been other Spanish explorers, such as Panfilo de Narvaez, but they had not brought Old World pigs, nor had they traveled as far inland.

Lower jaw of a long-legged black boarExperts have analyzed the finds and so far all the results confirm they were left by the De Soto expedition. A numismatics curator at Princeton confirmed that the three coins were of the age and type used to pay De Soto’s troops and workers. The chevron beads were sent to Italy to confirm they were of 16th century Murano origin. Radiocarbon dating found the Sus scrofa, a long-legged black Spanish domestic pig, to whom the jawbone was once attached was slaughtered in 1539. Several museums compared the chain mail to Spanish pieces in their collections and found it was manufactured in Spain between 1490 and the 1530s. X-ray fluorescence testing confirmed that the iron in the mail dates to the 15th century.

Three coins found at Hernando De Soto encampmentAccording to Jerald Milanich, an expert in De Soto’s expedition who has written multiple books on the subject and who is the archaeology curator emeritus at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, “there is absolutely no doubt that is a De Soto contact site,” and he is “99.99 percent sure this is the town of Potano, the major Indian town.” De Soto sought out Native American settlements in his eternal search for food and in the hope that they could tell him where all the (non-existent) gold was. He would have traded the glass pieces in exchange for food, but also occupied the town with his army to plunder their food stores and infect them with measles and smallpox while he was at it.

Eventually he moved on, going north to Tallahassee, doubtless to the great relief of the Potano Indians. In 1542, Hernando De Soto died of a fever on the banks of the Mississippi and was buried in secret, possibly in the Mighty Mississip’ itself, by his comrades who wanted to keep the locals thinking that he was the incarnation of the sun god instead of a puny human. Sixty-four years later, the Spanish returned to the Potano where they built the Mission San Buenaventura de Potano by the creek just east of De Soto’s old encampment.

The Ocala Star-Banner has the most in depth coverage of this discovery, including an excellent photo gallery. Keep an eye on their Discovery De Soto page for more news as it develops.

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Karachi police bust truckful of Buddhist antiquities

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Acting on a tip from intelligence agencies, early on Friday Karachi police intercepted a truck carrying a 20-foot container full of ancient Buddhist artifacts hidden under brooms, slippers, furniture and bales of straw. There were 300 artifacts in the back of that truck, include massive statues that required specialized heavy machinery to unload.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phuFLAuPzcg&w=430]

Most of the artifacts date to around the third century and come from the kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient Vedic and later Buddhist civilization in the Peshawar valley that stretched from northern Pakistan to the Kabul River in eastern Afghanistan. The statues mostly depict enlightened beings, like an ornamented, mustachioed Bodhisattva that weighs 2,200 pounds and a Jataka (a birth story of the Buddha) tablet that shows Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddhartha while spirits celebrate around her. 2,200 pound Bodhisattva (left), Hariti (right)Another important statue depicts the goddess Hariti with two of her children, who in Gandharan tradition was once a baby-devouring demon but who was taught a stern lesson when the Buddha kidnapped one of her hundreds of children. She converted to Buddhism and become a loving mother goddess.

Truck driver Zafar Ali and another man traveling with him were arrested. Ali claimed they were headed to Rawalpindi, but a delivery order found after a search of his belongings said the cargo was to be transported to Sialkot City. He fingered his boss, Asif Butt, who told the authorities that the truck was loaded in the middle of the night with innocuous broom sticks and shoes from three legitimate businesses, but then a fourth person asked them to load five big and eight small boxes and bring them to Sialkot. Butt of course denies knowing what was in those boxes, one of which, let’s not forget, weighed more than 2,000 pounds, but he’s more than willing to snitch out the man who gave them the boxes.

Jataka sculpturePolice suspected most of the artifacts were stolen from museums, primarily the Swat Museum which is known for its large collection of Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era, but after examining the antiquities Qasim Ali Qasim, the director of the Sindh province archaeology and museums department, told the police they were more likely to have been looted from archaeological sites in Swat, which is currently mired in military anti-Islamist operations. Looters have been taking full advantage of the distracted authorities to help themselves to the rich history of Buddhist and Hindu art in the area. Qasim thinks the objects were looted individually and moved to Karachi in small shipments. Once they had a large group, they planned to truck them out of Karachi and out of Pakistan with deep-pocketed European antiquities markets as the final destination.

Stolen Gandhara artifacts recovered on SaturdayThe information retrieved from the suspects in yesterday’s bust has produced immediate results. A raid on a Karachi warehouse on Saturday uncovered two more boxes of Gandhara kingdom artifacts, including statues of the Buddha, bronze artifacts, pottery and decorative plaques. They’re investigating whether this is part of a larger smuggling ring (it is).

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Scottish bog mummies are Frankenstein composites

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Male Cladh Hallan bog mummyIn 2001, archaeologists found two bog mummies, one apparently male, one apparently female, buried under a roundhouse in the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. There was no soft tissue left, but their skeletons were found in a tight crouch posture, something that would have been impossible to maintain for thousands of years in the soggy environment of the Outer Hebrides without there having been soft tissues keeping the bones in place in the beginning. They made news at the time for being the most ancient mummies discovered in Britain — they’re about 3500 years old — and for having been deliberately mummified.

Tests indicated that shortly after their deaths, the bodies were placed in a peat bog for about a year until the acidic anaerobic environment good and pickled them. They were removed when the tissue was mummified but before the acidic environment ate away at the bones. Then they were wrapped in fetal position and kept somewhere unknown. Hundreds of years later (about 500 for the male, 300-400 for the female), they were buried under the roundhouse foundations.

Researchers also noticed that the male skeleton was not just one man. The head and neck belonged to one man, the jaw to a second and the body to a third. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the head, neck and jaw were 100 to 200 years younger than the body. At some point during the interregnum between his mummification in the bog and his burial under the roundhouse, parts of him were replaced.

Female Cladh Hallan bog mummyIsotopic dating and DNA tests carried out last year by University of Manchester biomedical archaeologist Terry Brown have revealed that the Frankensteining of these bog bodies goes far deeper than first realized. He sampled DNA from the jawbone, skull, arm and leg of the female mummy and found that they all came from different people. None of them have mitochondrial DNA in common, so if they were even related, none of them had the same mother.

All of the female’s body parts date to the same period. Isotopic dating on the male skeleton confirmed the earlier result that he was made out of people who died a century or two apart.

Prof Parker Pearson, an expert in the Bronze Age and burial rituals has a theory about why the mummies were put together this way.

“These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people’s body parts seems to be a deliberate act,” he said.

“I don’t believe these ‘mummies’ were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world.”

He said as part of ancestral worship, the mummies probably would have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.

This raises the question if there are other composite skeletons that have already been discovered but that we’ve assumed were the remains of only one person. When scientists test bones for DNA, they want to minimize damage to the remains, so they only test from one area. They only tested multiple areas in this case because they had reason to suspect from the fit that some of the bones came from different bodies.

There’s also the question of whether other Bronze Age crouch burials found elsewhere in the UK may have been mummified for a spell. Pearson’s team is examining remains from crouch burials in Cambridge for evidence of previous bog embalming, and they have already found some cases where bacterial decay appears to have been stopped in its tracks, just as it was with the Cladh Hallan bodies.

For more about the Cladh Hallan dig, see the University of Sheffield’s website.

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Stolen Codex Calixtinus found in caretaker’s garage

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Medieval facsimile of the Codex Calixtinus kept on public display in the cathedral of Santiago de CompostelaThe Codex Calixtinus is an illuminated 12th century manuscript collection of stories, sermons, prayers, and chants, as well as a travel guide with road directions and local customs for pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It has been kept in the cathedral archives for more than 800 years, the primary jewel of the collection and one of Spain’s greatest cultural treasures.

On Tuesday, July 5, 2011, cathedral staff noticed that it was missing from a reinforced case in the archive room. After a frantic search turned up nothing, they called the police. It seems that the manuscript had been stolen as early as Sunday, but large security loopholes allowed the thieves to strike without anybody realizing for days. Cameras were supposed to be trained on the manuscript case at all times, but none of the active cameras in the room were pointing at the Codex Calixtinus. In theory, only two archivists and the cathedral dean had access to the archive room, so they apparently got complacent about securing the case itself. They couldn’t confirm if the case had been locked before the theft. The door to the archive room was not forced open. Then, to top it all off, the manuscript wasn’t even insured.

It was a major scandal. The Spanish press dubbed it the “theft of the century.” Authorities initially suspected the theft might have been commissioned by a black market manuscript dealer (a go-to theory whenever important art is stolen that never seems to pan out) and feared the Codex was smuggled out of the country before the theft was even discovered. The truth was a little closer to home.

On Wednesday, July 4, 2012, the police found the stolen Codex Calixtinus in a garbage bag inside a cardboard box in the garage of a former cathedral caretaker in Milladoiro, just a few miles from Santiago de Compostela. The day before they had arrested four suspects — the caretaker, Manuel Fernández Castañeiras, his wife, his son and the son’s girlfriend. Under interrogation, Castañeiras confessed to the crime but would not tell them where he stashed the loot. It seems his son spilled the beans in the end.

This is raw video of the garage with the invaluable medieval codex in a garbage bag in a box against the wall. (My apologies for the autoplay which I can’t figure out how to disable.)

EDIT: I’ve removed the embed because the autoplay is just too annoying. Watch the video here.

An initial examination of the Codex Calixtinus indicates that it’s in excellent condition, despite its highly questionable storage circumstances over the past year. The police also found €1.2 million ($1.5 million) in cash, several other books stolen from the cathedral and a silver tray. They also found a set of keys to the cathedral. I shudder to think of how Castañeiras got his grubby mitts on that million and a half. At this point in the investigation, the police think he may have pilfered cash and valuables donated to the cathedral by pilgrims over the course of decades.

So yet again the mysterious theft first attributed to nebulous underworld characters turns out to be the work of an insider. In this case, it was the most classic of insider thieves: the disgruntled former employee. After 25 years working for the cathedral as an electrician and all around handyman, Castañeiras had been let go in early 2011 ostensibly due to restructuring. The Bishopric wanted to standardize employment and Castañeiras was a contract worker, so he got the chop. Rumor has it that was a cover story, however, and he was really fired because he was suspected of those petty thefts.

He filed suit against the cathedral for unfair dismissal and was reputed to hold a grudge against the dean. The suit was ongoing when the theft occurred. Also ongoing was his habit of going to Mass at the cathedral every day, a routine which didn’t stop until he was arrested.

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Rare early map including America found in Germany

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Researchers at the Munich University Library have discovered a rare, probably unique, 1507 print of a world map by German cartographer and monk Martin Waldseemüller that includes the newly christened continent of “America.”

In the spring of 1507, Waldseemüller designed the first map of the world that included a continent he named “America” after explorer Amerigo Vespucci who was the first to recognize that the lands Columbus had stumbled on were not part of Asia, but rather a new continent altogether. Using information gathered by Vespucci in his 1501-1502 expedition to the New World, Waldseemüller created the first map to depict a separate Western Hemisphere and a separate Pacific ocean. He printed an edition of 1,000 copies of that first map, made out of 12 large woodcut prints that put together compose a huge 32 square feet wall map. Nicknamed “America’s Birth Certificate,” there is only one copy of it known to survive.

For hundreds of years it was hidden in Schloss Wolfegg, the Renaissance castle of the House of Waldburg-Wolfegg. It was rediscovered there in 1901 to much excitement worldwide, including from the United States which offered to buy it regularly for a century. Finally in 2001 the Library of Congress purchased it from Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg for $10 million. Since it’s such a rare and important part of Germany’s cultural patrimony, the German government had to agree to let it go, which they did after a review as required by law. It took the LoC another two years to raise the money from public and private sources. In 2003, the map went on temporary display and in 2007, 500 years after Waldseemüller created it, America’s Birth Certificate was officially transferred to the American People by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a ceremony at the Library of Congress.

Waldseemüller “America's birth certificate” map, 1507

The map found in Munich was a smaller version made by Waldseemüller after he’d completed the wall map. It depicts the same revolutionary vision of the world, but on a much smaller scale. The world is divided into 12 tapered segments, globe gores that were intended to be cut out and glued onto a sphere three inches in diameter to make a small globe. That makes it the first globular map to include a continent named “America” separated from Eurasia by the Pacific Ocean.

Only four other copies of Waldseemüller’s segmented globe map are known. There’s one in Minneapolis, one in Offenburg and one in another Munich library, the Bavarian State Library. The fourth was purchased by a private collector at auction in 2005 for a cool $1 million. The University Library’s version is different in key ways from the other four. The top halves of the segments are not as crisply incised, and the lettering and hatching lines are also different. The city of Calicut (today Kozhikode) on the southwestern Malabar Coast of India is placed on the fourth segment in this map; it’s on the fifth segment in the others.

The map was discovered during a catalog revision wedged between two early 16th century geometry prints that had been rebound together in the 19th century. Researchers don’t know if Waldseemüller’s map and the geometry subjects were connected in some way other than being from the same period, but it’s certain that the 19th century librarians did not realize what a rare gem they had since they didn’t document it or highlight it.

But it survived the Second World War unscathed, although the University Library itself was devastated by air raids. In November 1942, large portions of the holdings of older books, including the unassuming volume containing the two geometry treatises, had been transferred to a safer rural location. Stefan Kuttner [, Curator of the Library’s Department of Early Printed Books,] has ascertained that the book was among the contents of deposit box No. 340, which was first stowed away in Burghausen, and later transported to Niederviehbach near Landshut. The box was returned to Munich in 1955, and provisionally stored in the Northeastern Repository at LMU.

Waldseemüller globe segment map, Munich University Library, ca. 1507

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Oldest Neolithic bow in Europe found in Spain

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Neolithic bow found at La Draga, ca. 5400-5200 B.C.A research team from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the National Scientific Research Council (CSIC) in Catalonia has unearthed a complete Neolithic yew bow at the La Draga archaeological site on the Lake of Banyoles in northeastern Catalonia, Spain. The bow is 42.5 inches long (108 centimeters) and dates to between 5400 and 5200 B.C., the earliest period of settlement in the area, which makes it the oldest Neolithic bow ever found in Europe.

These aren’t the oldest bows in Europe, just to be clear. That title goes to Paleolithic bows discovered in the Holmegård Swamp in Denmark in the 1940s. Two elm bows found there date to around 6,000 B.C. One of them is complete, has a biconvex (curved on both sides) D-shaped center section with flat arms, and at five feet long is considerably larger than the La Draga bow. Arrows have been found in Germany from 9,000-8,000 B.C.

Excavations at La DragaThis recently discovered bow is the oldest yet found from the dawn of agriculture in Neolithic Europe. Earlier excavations in 2002 and 2005 discovered fragments of bows from the same period, but they were too small for scientists to derive any new information about the tools, including their manufacture and use. Other Neolithic bows have been found in central and northern Europe, but they are newer than the La Draga discoveries and also fragmentary. This long plano-convex (curved on one side, straight on the other) ancient bow will allow scientists detailed analysis and reveal new information not just about how the bow was made and used, but also about the technology, rituals, and culture of one of the first farming communities in Europe.

The site at La Draga is exceptional for several reasons. Firstly, due to its antiquity, which is considered to be one of the oldest of the Neolithic period existing in the Iberian Peninsula. Secondly, because it is an open-air site with a fairly continuous occupation. Lastly, and surely most remarkably, because of its exceptional conditions in which it is conserved. The archaeological levels are located in the phreatic layer surrounding Lake Banyoles, giving way to anaerobic conditions which favour the conservation of organic material. These circumstances make La Draga a unique site in all of the Iberian Peninsula, since it is the only one known to have these characteristics. In Europe, together with Dispilo in Greece and La Marmota in Italy, it is one of the few lake settlements from the 6th millennium BCE.

La Draga bow and bovine skulls presented to the pressIt’s an incredibly varied early Neolithic site, particularly compared to its cave-bound contemporaries. Postholes from housing have been discovered, wood, stone and bone tools, decorative pieces, cereal grains, and more than 22,000 animal remains, most of them from domesticated animals like sheep, goats, pigs and cows. The ages of the animals indicate that they were used not just for meat, but for dairy production as well. The inhabitants also collected vegetables, fruits, berries and nuts, hunted wild oxen, boars, rabbits, deer, and fished from the lake and the ocean 30 miles away. In terms of diet alone, the folks at La Draga had a far better standard of living than people have in most of so-called civilized European history.

That’s not to say that it’s definite that the bow was used to procure food. It could have had an entirely different purpose, been a symbol of social prestige, for instance, or a weapon of war or means of self-defense. That’s why the complete bow is such an exciting find; it might answer some of those questions while fragments cannot.

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Grave robber steals teeth of Brahms, Strauss

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Brahms' grave, Viennese Central CemeteryA Czech man known only as “OJ” (the initials of his first and last name) filmed himself purportedly breaking into the tombs of Romantic composer Johannes Brahms and Waltz King Johann Strauss, Jr. in the Viennese Central Cemetery to steal their teeth for a dental museum he either already owns or wants to open. In the film, he picks up a skull and removes a tooth with a pair of pliers, then walks past grave after grave undisturbed. He uploaded the video to his website along with pictures of an open grave and of Brahms’ dental prosthesis.

None of the stories link to the website, but one of the early articles written about this story in the Austrian press quotes OJ complimenting the quality of Brahms’ dentures: “The prosthesis is a bunch of excellent work, made of rubber and porcelain. It must have been a contemporary Viennese dentist ….” Don’t worry, though. He assures us that “this project is charitable and noble. I did not want to get the teeth of the composer into the wrong hands.”

In other quotes from the website, OJ claims to have robbed hundreds of graves for 14 years, leaving him with a massive collection of 400 artificial limbs and hundreds of human skulls. How exactly the prosthetic limbs and skulls are supposed to fit into his vision of a museum of dentistry is not clear. The only reference to a museum of dentistry in Prague that I could find on the Internet was in a novel, so who knows what’s delusion and what’s fact.

Strauss' grave, Viennese Central CemeteryThe timeline is also perplexing. OJ says that he first broke into Brahms’ and Strauss’ graves in 2002, noting that the contents had already been plundered before by other relic hunters before him. In 2008, cemetery officials reported that some graves had been meddled with. As a result, OJ was apparently investigated by Vienna prosecutors for “disturbing the peace of the dead” but they dropped the case because the statute of limitations had run out.

After the press picked up on the video and ran with the story, police took a new look at the Viennese Central Cemetery. Strauss’ and Brahms’ graves were reopened and their respective teeth and dentures were indeed missing. The police also found evidence of other graves having been disturbed well within the statute of limitations, thus allowing the authorities to reopen the investigation. Thomas Vecsey of the state prosecutor’s office says that they are contemplating charging OJ with burglary, disturbing the peace of the dead and other related crimes.

First they have to find him, though. The Federal Criminal Police Office, a national police force similar to the United States’ FBI, is on the case.

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