Archive for August, 2012

Happy 2000th birthday, Caligula!

Friday, August 31st, 2012

It’s the day before the Kalends of September and you know what that means: it’s the birthday of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka the emperor Caligula. This one is a special birthday even under a numerical system without a zero because if Caligula really had been the immortal deity he hallucinated himself to be, he’d have turned MM years old today.

Gaius was born in Anzio to military hero Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus and Vipsania Agrippina, Caesar Augustus’ grand-daughter. Gaius was just two years old when the family moved with Germanicus when he was appointed commander of the army in Germany. His father dressed little Gaius in a miniature army outfit, including child-sized versions of caligae, the hobnailed sandal boots worn by common soldiers. That’s how he got his nickname, Caligula, meaning little caliga. He became a much-beloved mascot. Suetonius says the army loved him so much that his mere presence stopped a mutiny after the death of Augustus.

Roman caliga, Munich Archaeological MuseumWhen he was around six years old, Little Boot and his family were dispatched to Asia where Germanicus made Roman provinces out of Cappadocia and Commagene and was poisoned in Antioch probably by Piso, the governor of Syria. Emperor Tiberius was thought to have ordered the murder of his nephew and adoptive son. Gaius lived with his mother until Tiberius had her exiled in 29 A.D., then he moved in with his redoubtable grandmother Livia. She died that same year, so he moved in with his other grandmother Antonia, daughter of Augustus’ sister Octavia and Mark Anthony.

By 31 A.D., Tiberius had exiled/killed everyone in his family except for himself and his sisters. They were theoretically free, but in reality under constant guard and in constant danger of falling afoul of the emperor and suffering the same fate as their brothers, mother and father. Tiberius brought Caligula to live with him in his villa of debauchery in Capri, and Little Boot made himself an able collaborator. His ability to ingratiate himself with the emperor saved his life, although it may have severely twisted his morals at the same time. Suetonius seems to think he was a bad seed all along.

Villa Jovis, Tiberius' largest palace on CapriYet even at that time he could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.

(Phaeton was the son of the sun god Helios and Clymene who asked to be allowed to drive his father’s chariot for a day to prove his paternity. He was horrible at it, alternately freezing and burning the earth so badly that he turned half of Africa into a desert. Zeus had to kill him with a thunderbolt to prevent him from burning the globe to a cinder.)

When Tiberius died in 37 A.D., Caligula took the throne. Tiberius was old and sick, but Caligula might have had a hand in his final disposition. He is said to have poisoned the old man first, and then smothered him when he wasn’t quite dead enough to give up the imperial ring.

Murderous or not, there was an auspicious beginning to his reign. The first few months were pure honeymoon. The army still loved him as Little Boot, son of the great general Germanicus, and everyone else was just so thrilled to be rid of the blood-thirsty, treason-happy degenerate Tiberius that they gloried in the dawn of a new day. He recalled the unjustly banished, stopped the censorship of certain authors, allowed magistrates to take independent action, called new elections and restored the vote, threw lavish games, cut taxes and finished public works that stingy Tiberius had defunded.

All this largesse was costly. By 39 A.D., the treasury was broke and Caligula had to resort to increasingly desperate means of fundraising, from levying new taxes to auctioning off the lives of gladiators to starting a brothel staffed by senators’ wives and daughters to executing rich men for treason and confiscating their wealth. The last two years of his reign were characterized by increasing insanity, sadism and perversion. Of course that makes for the best reading, which is why you should definitely not quit halfway through Suetonius’ Life of Caligula. He even gives you the perfect starting point. Chapter 22 begins: “So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster.”

The stories of brutal murders, incest, going to war against the sea, declaring himself a god greater than all the deities in the pantheon, declaring his sisters goddesses first and then eventually killing them all, planning to make his horse Incitatus a senator and ever so much more crazy are Caligula’s primary legacy. I, Claudius draws liberally on Suetonius as does the hilariously atrocious quasi-porn movie Caligula, which started off as a legitimate film with a script by Gore Vidal starring Malcolm McDowell as Caligula and Helen Mirren as his favorite wife Caesonia, but ended up as a Bob Guccione Penthouse special.

The Senate was a favorite target of Caligula’s and over the years several senators hatched conspiracies to assassinate him. They all failed. It was officers in the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s bodyguards, who finally did the deed in 41 A.D., apparently instigated by one too many gay jokes.

When they had decided to attempt his life at the exhibition of the Palatine games, as he went out at noon, Cassius Chaerea, tribune of a cohort of the praetorian guard, claimed for himself the principal part; for Gaius used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy by every form of insult. When he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him “Priapus” or “Venus,” and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, he would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion.

Cryptoporticus (underground passage) where Caligula may have been assassinatedSome senators were also in on the plot. On January 24th, 41 A.D., Cassius Chaerea and some other guards approached Caligula in a passageway under his palace on the Palatine and stabbed him. Chaerea struck first, then the others took their turns, but still he lived. It took dozens of blows to kill him. Once he was dead, the guards killed his wife and their daughter.

After his death, all the statues of Caligula (and there were lots of them because at one point Caligula had insisted that every statue be of him, going so far as to replace the heads of ancient statues of gods and heroes with portraits of him) were destroyed. The few statues that have been found of him are often in pieces.

This is how Suetonius describes him:

He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. Because of this to look upon him from a higher place as he passed by, or for any reason whatever to mention a goat, was treated as a capital offence. While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror.

He didn’t seem to have practiced them before a sculptor. The heads of Caligula that have been found are rather mild and sweet-faced, as befits a man who died six months before his 30th birthday. One of the best preserved ones is in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark. There are still traces of the original polychrome paint (a lot of the weathering on the white marble is actually paint remnants) on the head, which allowed experts to create a reconstruction of the original colored version.

They examined the portrait using raking light (light held at an angle almost parallel to the surface which reveals the effects of painting that impressed itself onto the marble over the centuries even though it’s gone now), ultraviolet and infrared to get as much information as possible about how the original was painted. A second head was computer-carved into marble to be an exact copy of the original, then it was painted according to the scheme determined by analysis.

I’m not seeing the goat, but he’s definitely got sunken temples and a broad forehead.

But it’s his birthday, so let’s not just wallow in Little Boot’s bad reputation. As much as the ancient sources uniformly depict Caligula as a depraved madman, they have their own agendas. It was common practice to depict notable figures fallen out of favor as hopelessly insane and sexually perverse. There’s also an echo chamber effect as the ancients borrow from each other and from original works that are now lost to us.

Some modern historians have tried, as much as possible, to sift through the limited information to reassess Caligula’s character and reign in a more objective light. For a less lurid look at this most lurid of emperors, check out the work of Sam Wilkinson, Aloys Winterling and Anthony A. Barrett.

WWII-era bomb detonated in downtown Munich

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Another unexploded Allied bomb from World War II was discovered in Germany on Monday, but unlike some of the earlier examples which were removed and defused without difficulty, this one was destined to play a more dramatic role.

The 550-pound US bomb was found during construction work at the site of the late, lamented Schwabinger 7, a post-war dive bar known as the “darkest bar in the world” which was demolished last year to howls of protest from people who wished to preserve its grungy charm as characteristic of an increasingly bygone Munich, replaced by gentrified soullessness. Fortunately for last year’s demolition crew, the bomb was buried three feet deep, so they never encountered it. The workers digging the foundations of the new office building going up at the site, on the other hand, found it.

Authorities attempted to defuse the bomb on the spot but had trouble with the chemical delay-action detonator, a mechanism that was used in only 10% of bombs, but because it had a bad habit of not working appears in a disproportionate number of unexploded bombs. Finally they gave up trying to defuse it and decided to explode it inside. Even a controlled explosion is dangerous in the densely populated center of Munich, so 2,500 people in the area around the bomb were evacuated and cars removed. Streets were blocked off, three subway stations closed and people further out were asked not to leave their homes.

Bales of hay and thousands of sandbags were stacked around the bomb to help absorb the explosive shock, and then, just before 10:00 PM on Tuesday night, this happened:


The strength of the explosion shattered surrounding windows. Some of the hay drifted up to rooftops and set them on fire. Firefighters were on alert and were able to put them out promptly with only minor damage. No people were injured.

Experts say that the undiscovered bombs in Germany become more dangerous with each passing year. Last year, a former bomb disposal chief told SPIEGEL ONLINE that “unexploded bombs are becoming more dangerous by the day through material fatigue as a result of ageing and through erosion of safety elements in the trigger mechanisms.”

Bombs are found so often in Germany — thousands a year, an average of 15 a day — that most of the time the removals don’t even make the news. Only the really big ones do, or the rare ones that put on a sound and light show like the above.

Germany isn’t the only country affected. Also on Tuesday, a massive 1.5-ton German mortar bomb from the 1944 bombardment of Warsaw was found by construction workers underground in the Polish capital. Three thousand people were evacuated from the area, and the bomb was defused and removed without incident. On Wednesday a section of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was closed after a suspected Allied bomb from World War II was found near the main terminal.

Smithsonian buys Benjamin Franklin’s silk suit

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

A three-piece silk suit Benjamin Franklin wore in 1778 while serving as the United States of America’s first ambassador to France has been purchased by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The iconic garment had been on loan to the museum from the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston since the 1970s for conservation and research, but its fragility only allowed it to go on display three times: in 1974, in 2006 at an exhibit in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday, and in April of this year for the American Stories exhibit. Recognizing the long-term preservation needs of the garment that it could not fulfill, the Boston society has now allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the suit.

Elkanah Watson by John Singleton Copley, 1782It must have been hard for the MHS to let it go after so many years. It was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society by Elkanah Watson in 1803, just 22 years after he received it as a gift from Benjamin Franklin himself. As a young man, Elkanah Watson was apprenticed to merchant, slave trader and committed Federalist John Brown, co-founder of what would later be named Brown University in honor of him and his brothers. In 1779, Brown and some other Revolutionary leaders asked the 21-year-old Watson to carry some dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France. Elkanah, dissatisfied with what he’d seen of the merchant gig and yearning to see more of the world, gladly took the assignment.

Patience Wright ca. 1782He continued to act as courier between the nascent United States and its delegation in France for several years. On one of those trips he met Mrs. Patience Lovell Wright, an eccentric widow who supported her family after her husband’s death by turning her hobby of sculpting faces in bread dough and wax into a wildly successful profession. So successful was she that she moved to England and sculpted the likes of the King and Queen — whom she called George and Charlotte — as well as William Pitt and Admiral Richard Howe. She also spied on them all in support of the Revolutionary cause. Legend has it that she would make wax heads of Patriots, then hide them under her apron when a Royalist came to her studio. Legend also has it that she would hide spy notes inside the wax heads, then ship them back to the States. During 1775 and 1776, she was one of Franklin’s best sources of intelligence about what the British were planning.

In 1781 Watson commissioned Mrs. Wright to make a wax sculpture of Benjamin Franklin’s head. When the work was done, Franklin invited them both to dinner at Passy. Here’s the passage describing the events from Elkanah’s memoirs.

I employed Mrs. W. to make the head of Franklin, which was often the source of much amusement to me. After it was completed, both being invited to dine with Franklin, I conveyed her to Passy in my carriage, she bearing the head upon her lap. No sooner in presence of the Doctor, than she had placed one head by the side of the other. “There!” she exclaimed, “are twin brothers.” The likeness was truly admirable, and at the suggestion of Mrs. Wright, to give it more effect, Franklin sent me a suit of silk clothes he wore in 1778. Many years afterwards, the head was broken in Albany, and the clothes I presented to the “Historical Society of Massachusetts.”

There’s an inscription inked on the inner lining of the vest that claims Franklin wore this very suit when he signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France on February 6, 1778, but in the letter he wrote to the Massachusetts Historical Society from Albany in 1803 Watson wrote:

This may certify that in the year 1781, being at Paris, in France, the celebrated Mrs. Wright executed for me an excellent likeness in wax of the immortal Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Dining with her at the Doctor’s, in Passy, and on comparing the heads, I suggested that such a head deserved a suit of his own clothes, on which he rang for his servant, directing him to bring the suit he wore…in the year of the signing of the famous Treaty of Alliance between France and America, in February, 1778.

Treaty of Alliance, page oneWatson then wrote a follow-up emphasizing that the clothes were from the year Franklin signed the treaty, not the precise time he signed the treaty. This doesn’t in any way decrease the historical importance of the suit. Franklin’s clothes played a massive role in the ginger diplomatic balancing act he had to do to secure the vital support of France for the baby United States. Treaty of Alliance, last page with signatures and sealsThe Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance, both signed on the same day, ensured that the raggedy new country would have economic and military support from one global superpower in its war against the other. Without France’s contribution of money, weapons and supplies, the American Revolution would have had a very different outcome.

Franklin's Reception at the Court of France, March 1778, by Anton Hohenstein ca. 1823Franklin’s “ditto” suits, so called because they were all designed in the same simple style out of the same silk, projected an image of America as virtuous, plain, hard-working, frugal and sober. Instead of rejecting Franklin for his rustic presentation amidst the embroidered silks, satins and brocades of the court, French high society went completely gaga for him. He was a huge celebrity, so often depicted in portraits that people all over the country would recognize him and flock to him wherever he went. He was the incarnation of the democratic spirit of the new country, and everyone from King Louis XVI to Queen Marie Antoinette on down thought he was the bees knees.

Reproduction at the Massachusetts Historical Society showing the original plum colorThis particular suit looks a very somber brown now, but it was originally a plum or claret color. Still modest and restrained, of course, but not quite as much as his brown homespun he called his “Quaker” suit. The fading of the color is one of the main conservation issues the Smithsonian will have to tackle. Although the structure of the three pieces — breeches, waistcoat and coat — remains sound, as does the linen lining, there are places where the fabric is puckering and flaking. Now that the museum owns the suit outright, it can work on a conservation plan based on their years of research and the latest technologies that will stabilize it to ensure it remains in the American cultural patrimony for centuries to come.

Below is the account in Elkanah Watson’s memoirs of Mrs. Wright’s creation of the wax head of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin’s donation of one of his suits to complete the look, and the later wacky adventures of the suit and the head in France and England. Keep reading for a few pages after the first two because it’s awesome. Watson pulled many a Weekend at Bernie’s with that suit and wax figure, bless his youthful scampery.

230-million-year-old mites found in Dolomite amber

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Scientists have found two gall mites and a fly preserved in 230-million-year-old Late Triassic amber from the Dolomite Alps in northeastern Italy. These are the first arthropods (a phylum of invertebrates including insects, arachnids and crustaceans) found in amber from the Triassic. Although arthropods appear in the fossil record starting in the Early Cambrian period around 540 million years ago, these are the oldest arthropods ever discovered trapped in amber, 100 million years older than prior examples.

Amber droplets found in Triassic outcrops of the Dolomite AlpsResearchers gathered thousands of droplets of amber no more than six millimeters long from outcrops on the Dolomites, then spent two years screening each tiny piece for any plant or creature they might contain. If you think this must have been a painfully tedious experience, you think right.

“Before preparation, one of the tiny flecks of amber, about 1 millimeter in diameter, wafted onto the floor of my lab,” [David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York,] recalled. “Alex Schmidt and my assistant who did the prep, Paul Nascimbene, spent about three hours on their hands and knees with flashlights. I don’t know how, but they found the speck on the floor hidden in the corner between two lab benches. It was a nerve-wracking time.”

Triassic midge fly parts, head upper leftIt’s a good thing they were that dedicated to the task, because out of the 70,000 droplets of amber they analyzed for inclusions, three of them contained the groundbreaking arthropods: one partial midge fly (Diptera) about the size of a head of a pin, and two new species of gall mites. The amber had preserved the head, antenna, four legs and some fragments of the body of the midge fly which taken together were 1.5-2 millimeters in size.

The mites were complete and far tinier. One of them, Triasacarus fedelei, is shaped like a worm and is 210 microns long. Due to its body shape and differences in the structure of the mouth, researchers believe it may be an ancestor of modern gall mites. The second mite, Ampezzoa triassica, is even smaller at 124 microns in length. Its shape is more typical of modern gall mites.

Gall mites in 230-million-year-old amber dropletsThe amber preserved these creatures so well that scientists could examine them in microscopic detail, allowing them to identify minute characteristics like tiny waxy filaments on the surface of Triasacarus fedelei’s body that are thought to have helped protect them from predators, parasites and the elements. Both mites have two pairs of legs like present-day mites.

One way in which they’re different from their modern relatives is that the Triassic mites must have fed on conifers, since it’s conifer resin that hardens into amber. Today 97% of Eriophyoidea, the group gall mites belong to, feed on flowering plants, which means the mites changed their eating and living habits entirely when the new plant species came on the scene about 140 million years ago.

The Dolomite amber study has been published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read it here if you have access to a subscription.

Family receives soldier’s will left on a bus in 1944

Monday, August 27th, 2012

In October of last year, employees at the National Express bus depot in Birmingham were clearing out the lost property office so it could be painted when they came across something that had been lost since 1944. When she moved a heavy cardboard box on top of a dusty old metal cabinet, Christine McDaid found an old war office envelope. Inside she found the last will and testament of Private Gordon Albert James Heaton of Handsworth, Birmingham, and a letter from the war office dated November 1944 asking his family about his estate.

The official envelope was still sealed, which means in all likelihood these documents had never reached their destination 67 years ago. They were probably left on the bus by the courier. In attempt to ensure the family finally received this sad and important part of their history, National Express put out a press release about the find. The story was picked up by the BBC at the time.

While they waited for a response, Christine McDaid did some research on Private Heaton and found that he had been killed in France in August of 1944, less than two months after he made the will. He was 21 years old. Heaton was a member of the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment who took part in the River Seine Crossing at Vernon between August 26th and August 28th, 1944. This was the final Allied push chasing retreating German troops out of Normandy. Private Heaton was killed in the advance on Tilly on August 27th and was buried at the Vernonnet Cemetery outside of Vernon along with 15 other members of his regiment.

This month, David Hall was researching his family history when he came across the story about Private Heaton’s will on the BBC website. Hall’s 80-year-old great uncle John Heaton is sick in the hospital and David has been visiting him. He got the idea to look for information about his uncle’s long-lost brother Gordon who they thought had died during the war. When he searched for “Private Gordon Heaton” he found the story about the will. He knew the name alone wasn’t enough information to be certain it was the same person, but he contacted National Express and did further research. War department records confirmed that the will was indeed the last testament of the great uncle he never knew.

In a sad coincidence, the Heatons never received the war office telegram informing them of their son’s death. Then months later, the will, as we know, was left on a bus, so they never received anything official notice that Gordon was dead at all. They just assumed he had died when the war was over and he didn’t come back.

Last week, Christine McDaid returned the documents to David Hall who accepted them gratefully in his great-uncle’s name. John Heaton has not yet been told about this momentous find as the family believes he is too ill at the moment to take it in, but when his health improves they will have his brother’s final testament to show him.

Historic Green-Wood Cemetery vandalized

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

Shattered headstone of McNeil graveBrooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery was brutally vandalized the night of Monday, August 20th. Grounds workers discovered during the course of their duties Tuesday morning that at least 43 memorials, monuments and gravestones had been intentionally damaged. Some of the damage was minor, disrespectful but fixable with a cleaning. Much of it was considerably more severe, ranging from a trampled 19th-century American flag to shattered headstones. The total estimated cost of repair is more than $100,000.

Urns were cracked and pushed off their bases. Four marble crosses were toppled; three of them broke into pieces.

Two memorial porcelain photographs of the deceased were scratched repeatedly; another was smashed with a rock. Three gravestones were smeared with mud. And, this: a trash receptacle rolled down a hill, two stop signs were folded in half, and a Toro Workman cart was pushed up an embankment in an apparent effort to turn it over.

Vandalized Law family plotsThree headstones in the Law family plot were knocked over. The mausoleum of the Bourne family, designed by Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg, had one of a pair of classical stone vases framing it toppled and broken in two. The cemetery is in the process of contacting family members of all the vandalized graves, but it’s taking some time to reach the families of people who died in the mid-19th century. Their contact information is not current, needless to say.

Decapitated angel from the tomb of Dwight Abbey, died at 5 years oldAlthough Green-Wood, like most cemeteries, has dealt with vandalism before, it has excellent security. The 478-acre grounds are surrounded by a high cast iron fence; there are video cameras all over the park and a car patrol that operates 24 hours a day. A possible suspect was captured on video. The recording has been handed over to the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force which is investigating the case.

The cemetery has already begun making repairs and will foot the bill, but they are asking for donations to help defray the cost. Click here if you would like to contribute.

Bronze angel on Matarazzo grave knocked down and cross toppled on top of it Angel and cross restored

Established in 1838, Green-Wood was one of the first garden cemeteries in the country. Spacious burial grounds set in a landscaped park-like environment on the outskirts of a city were a reaction to the increasingly crowded urban churchyards which were often putrid, poorly guarded and vermin-infested. Old remains in such places had to be regularly disinterred to make room for new ones since there was little room for expansion.

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was the first garden cemetery established in 1804. The first one in the United States was Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston in 1831. Its pastoral vista of rolling hills with classical monuments, bodies of water and groves of trees had the appeal of an English garden, then a popular landscaping trend. It was also non-sectarian, unlike the churchyards which determined who could be buried in them based on their religious affiliation.

Gothic revival entrance to Green-WoodSo beautiful and peaceful were the new garden cemeteries that they become popular tourist attractions. People would make a day of it and picnic on the grounds. These wide-open pastoral spaces for the dead inspired the creation of wide-open pastoral spaces for the people still living in the city, hence the construction of Central Park in New York City.

In the late 19th century, Green-Wood was the premiere burial ground for the rich and famous of New York. It also provided eternal rest to Civil War veterans, including ones who couldn’t pay, and to the victims of tragedies like the Brooklyn Theater Fire of December 5th, 1876.

Some of Green-Wood’s 560,000 permanent residents include composer Leonard Bernstein, several Roosevelts, newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, Lola Montez (the dancer and courtesan whose charms brought down King Ludwig I of Bavaria), pioneering journalist Nellie Bly who famously beat Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg to go around the world in a record 72 days, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Boss Tweed.

There are some lovely pictures of the cemetery today and in years past on Green-Wood’s Flickr photostream. Even today it’s a tourist destination, known not just for interesting themed tours of its permanent residents, but also for its excellent bird-watching and as a Revolutionary War battlefield (the Battle of Long Island was fought there).

Experts dig under parking lot for Richard III’s grave

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

King Richard III, painter unknown, ca. 1590-1610King Richard III, last Plantagenet king of England and the last king of England to die in battle, was buried exactly 527 years ago on August 25th, 1485. Today, on the anniversary of his burial, archaeologists from the University of Leicester will try to dig him up again. It’s the first archaeological excavation ever to search for the lost grave of a British sovereign.

It’s all the Tudors’ fault, of course. Henry Tudor’s Lancastrian troops defeated Richard’s Yorkist army at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Richard died on that field, felled by blows to the head from a poleaxe. With Richard’s death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. One of his first acts as monarch the day after the battle was to bring Richard’s body to nearby Leicester where it would be exposed, naked, and then hanged for all to see so there would be no question that the old king was dead.

Richard III falls at Bosworth; Shakespeare Window in Southwark Cathedral, designed by Christopher Webb, 1954After two days of being subjected to public ignominy, Richard’s body was buried at Leicester’s Church of the Franciscans, aka the Greyfriars. After years of dynastic dispute, the new king certainly wasn’t going to have the one he considered a usurper buried in kingly pomp with his ancestors in London, so instead the friars buried him unceremoniously in their abbey. Ten years later, Henry’s guilty conscience gnawed at him enough that he would spend £50 to have an alabaster memorial monument built over Richard’s tomb.

Then came the second Tudor Henry. Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church and the violent dissolution of the monasteries that followed did not spare Greyfriars. In November of 1538, the Greyfriars abbey and church in Leicester was destroyed. There is no record from that time describing what happened to Richard’s tomb and remains. The popular legend is that his tomb was smashed to bits and Richard’s body was taken by a mob and thrown in the River Soar. The earliest source for that story comes from mapmaker and historian John Speede writing seventy years after the purported events, however, and people who certainly would have written about it in the interim had it happened never mention a desecrating mob.

In fact, according to Christopher Wren, father of the famous architect, in 1612 there was a new monument over Richard’s grave. The property where the monastery once stood had been purchased by Leicester’s former mayor Robert Herrick who built an elegant house and gardens on the site. On the spot where the tomb of the king had been, Herrick erected a pillar inscribed, “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.” Wren worked as a tutor to Herrick’s nephew at that time and saw the monument while walking the grounds with Robert.

Richard III Society plaque on Grey Friars StreetAs the centuries passed, development entirely changed the cityscape and the exact location of Greyfriars church was lost, although the neighborhood was known. (There’s a street in the area conveniently called Grey Friars Street.) The Richard III Society put a plaque on a building to mark one potential spot.

A recent archaeological survey on Grey Friars Street done when a 1950s structure was being demolished to make way for new construction cast a whole new light on the question of where the church had been. It was a case of the dog barking in the night. The dig was in the center of the Greyfriars location, but archaeologists found nothing but a small piece of stone coffin lid. If the church had been there, they would have found much more evidence of its presence. This non-discovery discovery moved the epicenter of the Greyfriars site considerably to the west, an area that has more parking lots than real estate.

John Speede map of Leicester county and city, 1616Another recent discovery that boosted the odds of finding Richard’s burial was made by genealogist and Richard III expert Dr. John Ashdown-Hill. While researching his book The Last Days of Richard III, Ashdown-Hill examined the maps John Speede had made when he searched for Richard’s grave. He found that Speede had been looking at the wrong monastery, Blackfriars instead of Greyfriars.

Armed with this new information, University of Leicester experts used map regression analysis (a systematic comparison of different kinds of maps from different eras) to pinpoint the most likely site of the former Greyfriars church. It’s a parking lot used by the Leicester City Council.

Leicester City Council parking lotThe parking lot was surveyed Friday with ground-penetrating radar, and several archaeological hot spots were identified. Today the excavation begins. Guided by the GPR data, the archaeological team plans to start digging two long trenches.

The trenches will run North-South and should intersect with the church’s East-West walls (helpfully, Christian churches are usually built on the same alignment). The ULAS team shouldn’t have to dig too deep as, although there are hundreds of years of remains to get through, the actual strata are fairly shallow. Previous Leicester excavations have shown that the Roman layer is less than a meter down – and if you reach that, you’ve gone way past 1485.

The excavation will continue for two weeks. No visits to the dig will be allowed because the parking lot is for Council employees only, and it’s not in a publicly accessible area under normal circumstances. The weekend of September 8th, however, the site will be opened to the public. Come Monday the trenches will be filled back in and a week later it will be a parking lot again.

Archaeologists are very cautious in their estimates of what they might find. Fragments of an alabaster tomb would be nice; human remains of a male of proper age bearing evidence of fatal battle wounds would be ideal. Since time is very limited, they won’t be able to excavate any remains that aren’t likely Richard candidates, and given that churches and abbeys were thick with burials inside and outside the buildings, they could well encounter an embarrassment of options.

Michael Ibsen swabs his cheek for his royal DNAIf by some freakish good luck they do find remains that could be Richard’s, DNA experts will attempt to match its mitochondrial DNA to that of a direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Dr. Ashdown-Hill traced this unbroken matrilineal genealogy to Mrs. Joy Ibsen, an English-born journalist who had emigrated to Canada in her 20s. She was in her 80s when Ashdown-Hill found her and was highly amused to discover she was a 16th generation niece of Richard III. Mrs. Ibsen has since passed away, but her son Michael, a furniture-maker who lives in London, gave a swab of his precious mtDNA to the project. He was also present on Friday when the University of Leicester team explored the parking lot with ground-penetrating radar.

For more about the Greyfriars project and Richard III, see the University of Leicester’s microsite. For a short but thorough overview, see this video featuring University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the Greyfriars project.


The last XXIV hours of Pompeii on Twitter today!

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Pliny the Elder's first tweet

Today is the 1933rd anniversary* of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Starting at 8:00 AM MT, Pliny the Elder will tweet the eruption live just as it all went down.


I felt this was a fitting occasion for my first tweet, which was actually a retweet. It’s a little strange and offputting, but then again, so are tremors in the earth and a Vulcan’s forge inside a mountain belching smoke.

Twitter Pliny is a feature of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s A Day in Pompeii exhibit which runs from September 14th, 2012 to January 13th, 2013. They have some neat companion events for children and adults, from a toga party to lectures by volcanologists.

Click to follow Pompeii's last XXIV hours!

*According to traditional dating based on a letter Pliny the Younger, nephew of the elder Pliny who was visiting his uncle on that fateful day, wrote to the historian Tacitus describing the events 25 years later. Archaeological evidence suggests the eruption took place later, sometime in November. A second letter from Pliny to Tacitus puts the date at November 23rd.

SPOILER ALERT: Here are Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus. Do not read if you want to be surprised by Twitter Pliny’s live updates.

Jesus Monkey restoration eclipses original

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

On Monday, August 6th, a group from the Centro de Estudios Borjanos (CESBOR), an institution dedicated to research and support of the history and culture of the small town of Borja, outside Zaragoza in the autonomous region of Aragon, northeastern Spain, visited a local church to examine the condition of a certain fresco. The painting on the wall of the church of the Sanctuary of Mercy was the only work in town done by turn of the century artist Elías García Martínez and one of his granddaughters had just donated money to restore it.

The fresco, a 20-by-15-inch portrait of Christ wearing the crown of thorns called Ecce Homo, was in poor condition. Water leaks and salt damage left the paint flaking off so that in the past 10 years it had gone from looking like this:

'Ecce Homo" by Elias Garcia Martinez as it was 10 years ago

To looking like this two months ago:

'Ecce Homo' by Elias Garcia Martinez, July 2012

When they arrived at the church, however, they were horrified to find it looking like this:

'Ecce Homo' August 7, 2012

In a plaintive blog entry about the discovery, the CESBOR folks deplored the mutilation of the work of art. They had no idea who had perpetrated the vile act, but the initial assumption was that it was a work of vandalism done in secret which they denounced in no uncertain terms. The blog entry noted that the Martínez family had met with the mayor to lodge a complaint and that the possibility of legal action was not excluded.

This week the story made the Spanish press (the El Pais article has an entertaining dragable before and after graphic), then it made the Internet and news outlets all over the world.

As “Ecce Mono” (“Behold the Monkey”) went viral, the culprit stepped forward. It was no malicious vandal, but rather an 81-year-old church volunteer named Cecilia Giménez, an amateur artist who had done touch-ups on the painting several times over the years. In an interview with Spanish television (clips from that story are in this BBC video translated into English), she claimed there was no secret about it at all. She did it with the advanced knowledge and permission of the priest and in full view of anybody who walked into the church as she worked. The church has no money so volunteers are always fixing things and this was no different.

She’s an accomplished artist, she insisted, who once had a four-room exhibition of her work from which she sold 40 paintings. Something just went wrong this time. She doesn’t know why, but it just got out of hand. When she realized she was in way over her head, she reported her work to the town councilor for culture, Juan Maria de Ojeda. She loved the painting and just wanted to help.

The city council is still considering taking some kind of legal action against her because her good intentions notwithstanding, her unsolicited intervention was “an assault on artistic patrimony.” I seriously doubt they’ll take it to the law. She’s an elderly church booster who is the sole caretaker of her disabled 60-year-old son. The diocese also thinks the reaction has been exaggerated since little old ladies are always doing stuff like this in churches out of devotion and nobody gets too wound up about the quality of their work.

City officials are bringing in professional restorers Monday to see if Cecilia Giménez’s “restoration” can be undone. Prospects are grim. The original work is a hundred years old and it was done directly on the unprepped wall with oil paints. There’s a reason frescoes are made with pigment applied to wet plaster; oil on wall tends to flake right off.

Tourists get their picture taken with the Jesus Monkey, photo by Gorka LejacegiIf it can’t be re-restored, that might be a boon for the city. “The world’s worst restoration” has a growing fan club now. It has become a major tourist attraction and subject of a petition to keep the new version rather than allow restorers to revert it back to the original. As the petition puts it:

The daring work of the spontaneous artist in the Ecce Homo of the Sanctuary of Mercy of Borja is an endearing and a loving act, a clever reflection of political and social situation of our time. It reveals a subtle critique of creationist theories of the Church, as well as questioning the emergence of new idols. The result of the intervention cleverly combines primitive expressionism Francisco de Goya, with figures such as Ensor, Munch, Modigliani or Die Brücke group of German Expressionism.

Also the Monchichi school of Sekiguchi Corporation and Hanna-Barbera.

Anyway it’s not like the original is a masterpiece, despite what some of the more sensationalistic headlines said when the story first broke. It has more sentimental value than artistic or historical significance. Elias Garcia Martinez was a fairly well-known local painter of traditional-style popular works in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a professor at the Fine Arts School of Zaragoza from 1894 until his retirement in 1929, and he and his family used to vacation in Borja during the summer break. One of those summers he spent two hours painting Christ with a crown of thorns on a church wall in honor of the Virgin of Mercy.

It wasn’t even a work born from the fires of his imagination. He copied it from a mass-production print, etching, maybe a porcelain plate or one of those prayer cards with cheesy pictures of saints. The true original was Baroque master Guido Reni who around 1630 made an oil on copper panel painting called Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts. He made several other similar pieces (here’s one in the Louvre), and by the time Martinez was painting, versions of Reni’s roll-eyed Christ — now modestly attired in bulky tunics — were ubiquitous.

Martinez’s version isn’t even all that great of a copy, in my opinion. The chromolithograph and porcelain plate below are much better. Their illustrators probably took longer than two hours to make them.

'Ecce Homo' after Reni, chromolithograph published in Dresden ca. 1890 Porcelain plate made in Germany ca. 1900

And now for my own composition. I call it The Devolution of Christ.


Unknown MLK recording found in Nashville attic

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.A previously unknown interview given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1960 has been discovered in the attic of a Nashville home. Stephon Tull was looking through old boxes of his father’s when he came across a reel labeled “Dr. King interview, Dec. 21, 1960.” He borrowed an old reel-to-reel player from a friend and listened to the recording. It was of his father interviewing Martin Luther King, Jr. about the civil rights movement, the philosophy of non-violence, the political impact of that year’s sit-ins and his certainty that the child his wife Coretta was carrying would be a boy. (He was right; Dexter Scott King, Dr. King’s second son, was born just over a month later.)

Tull had no idea that his father, an insurance salesman, had recorded an interview with King as part of a book he planned to write. The book would have been a first person exploration of his father’s childhood in segregated Chattanooga and his adult life in Nashville under Jim Crow and during the civil rights era. The book was never completed, and Tull’s father stored the recording in the attic. Stephon doesn’t know if anyone other than his father heard the recording before he stashed it away. His father is in his 80s now. He’s ill and is currently under hospice care, so he’s not able to fill in the blanks on this remarkable find.

Here’s the only clip I’ve been able to find from the recording:


Mr. Tull is asking Dr. King about the effect of the sit-ins that were held at segregated lunch counters all over the South in 1960. The sit-ins in Nashville had taken place earlier that year, from February 13th to May 10th, at the whites-only lunch counters of Woolworth’s, Walgreens and other major downtown retailers. Congressman John Lewis, then a student at Nashville’s Fisk University and of the philosophy of non-violent protest, was one of the notable participants.

Sit-in at the Nashville Woolworths lunch counter, February 19, 1960The earliest sit-ins passed without incident, but as they continued they engendered increasing wrath among the business owners and segregationist crowds. By the end of February, sit-in protesters were getting arrested for disorderly conduct. The pro-segregation protesters harassing and attacking them were not. To support the sit-ins, religious leaders from Nashville’s black churches encouraged a boycott of businesses with segregated counters. An estimated 98% of Nashville’s black population participated in the boycott. Retailers promptly felt the financial sting.

On April 19th, the home of Z. Alexander Looby, a lawyer who was defending many of the demonstrators arrested at sit-ins, was bombed. He and his wife were unharmed, but the incident spurred a major protest in which 4,000 people marched on City Hall. The protest leaders met with Mayor Ben West on the courthouse steps, and he agreed publicly that segregation was immoral but said that store managers had to decide on their own whether to serve customers regardless of the color of their skin. On May 10th, a half-dozen Nashville retailers opened their lunch counters to black customers, making Nashville the first major city in the South to begin to desegregate its facilities.

It wasn’t smooth sailing from there on out, needless to say. Desegregation would remain an arduous struggle over the next four years until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited segregation in public places in the entire country.

Martin Luther King’s thoughts on non-violent protest and the sit-ins are well-known. He released many interviews and wrote about the topics extensively. Another subject addressed in Tull’s recording is of particular interest to historians: King’s recent trip to Africa and how the civil rights movement in the United States had an impact on the independence movements taking root on that continent.

In another part of Tull’s recording, King describes a recent trip to Africa. He explains to Tull’s father the importance of the civil rights movement both in the United States and abroad.

“There is quite a bit of interest and concern in Africa for the situation in the United States. African leaders in general, and African people in particular are greatly concerned about the struggle here and familiar with what has taken place,” he said, “We must solve this problem of racial injustice if expect to maintain our leadership in the world, and if we expect to maintain a moral voice in a world that is two thirds color.”

According to Clayborne Carson, founding director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, King is talking about a trip to Nigeria he took in November of 1960, just a month before the Tull interview. King was personally invited to Lagos by Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first governor-general of African descent, to attend his inauguration on November 16th, 1960. In 1963, Azikiwe would become the first president of the independent Republic of Nigeria.

Carson notes that there isn’t very much information out there about the Nigeria trip. King didn’t do any interviews or press conferences while he was there, nor does he talk about the Nigerian trip in any extant letters or documents. The Tull interview is a rare gem on that score.

Stephon Tull is planning to sell the recording through collector and broker Keya Morgan in New York City. Will it fall into the private abyss or will a museum, the King Center or another institution get to preserve it for posterity?





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