Archive for September, 2012

Exhibit to reunite art from Kennedy’s last hotel room

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

JFK speaking outside Hotel Texas the morning of November 22nd, 1963It’s not the kind of art you usually find on hotel room walls. The artworks that surrounded John and Jacqueline Kennedy on the last night of his life were not just of museum quality but were actual museum pieces, assembled by art lovers from local institutions and private collections to turn a mundane hotel suite into an impromptu art installation of the highest calibre.

In the days before President John Kennedy’s trip to Texas, the hotel accommodations arranged for the President and First Lady in Fort Worth were the subject of some discussion in local papers. Their schedule had been released to the public. The President and First Lady would spend the night of Thursday, November 21st in Suite 850 of the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, which would also be the venue of a fundraising $100-a-plate breakfast the next morning sponsored by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. After the breakfast, they would take a short flight to Love Field and drive right through downtown Dallas in a motorcade before heading to a luncheon.

Parlor of Suite 850, Lyonel Feininger's "Manhattan II" left of the windowDescriptions of Suite 850 made the local press, and even the national wire services got in the action when they found out the Will Rogers Suite at the Hotel Texas where the Vice President and Mrs. Johnson would be staying cost $100 a night while the Kennedy’s unnamed suite ran $75 dollars a night. Next to the Will Rogers Suite’s western-themed decor, Suite 850’s “Chinese modern,” whatever that means, must have seemed downright drab. The hotel said the suite had been selected because it “has brighter colors and would be more to the liking of the Kennedys.”

It was not, however, to the liking of James Owen Day, part-time art critic for the Fort Worth Press. Day worked in the public relations office of rotorcraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter but had a passion for art which he fulfilled by painting, taking photographs and covering art stories for the Press. He came by it honestly. His great-grandfather Thomas Patton Day had settled in Fort Worth in 1876, opening a tintype studio. He also dug the first artesian well in town and as a result had the first bathtub with running water.

Suite 850 parlor, Eros Pellini nude on the coffee table, cheesy "Chinese modern" screen on the wallOwen Day wanted the aesthetic taste of Fort Worth to be represented in grander style than the “Chinese modern” of Hotel Texas could provide. He contacted Samuel Benton Cantey III, an art collector and president of the Fort Worth Art Association, who in turn contacted his friend Ruth Carter Johnson, daughter of Amon G. Carter, founder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who had died in 1955 and willed that a public museum be built from his extensive art collection. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art opened in 1961, and Ruth Carter Johnson was president of the board. Together they came up with a hugely ambitious solution to the Suite 850 dilemma. They would turn the three-room suite into a three-part art exhibition specifically tailored to the tastes of the President and First Lady, featuring works by the finest American and European artists.

The Parlor featured the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet, alongside works of modern sculpture and painting, including a bronze sculpture, Angry Owl, by Picasso, 1951–53; an oil painting of Manhattan by American expressionist Lyonel Feininger, 1940; an oil on paper study by Franz Kline, 1954; and a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, 1939–40.

The Master Bedroom, which was designated as Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom, was adorned with impressionist masterworks, per her well-known affinity for the genre. The room included Summer Day in the Park, 1918–23, by Maurice Brazil Prendergast; van Gogh’s Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade, 1887; John Marin’s watercolor Sea and Rocks, 1919; and Bassin de Deauville, an oil on canvas by Raoul Dufy.

The Second Bedroom, the president’s room, featured late 19th-century and early 20th-century American art, including Thomas Eakins’ Swimming, 1884–85; Marsden Hartley’s Sombrero with Gloves, 1936; and Charles Marion Russell’s Lost in a Snowstorm, 1888; among others.

Delivered to the hotel by couriers and station wagons, the art collection was set up in the suite on the day of the Kennedys’ arrival. The President and First Lady arrived so late, however, that they went to sleep without realizing that their Chinese modern suite was actually a miniature MoMA. It wasn’t until they awoke the next morning that they noticed the marvels around them. Before they left the hotel to meet their sad fate in Dallas, Mrs. Kennedy called Ruth Carter Johnson to thank her.

Second bedroom of Suite 850, Eakins' "Swimming Hole" (left) and Russell's "Lost in a Snowstorm" (right)The tragic events of that day would of course overshadow the remarkable story of the world-class museum assembled in a $75-a-night hotel suite. In the decades since, most of the art works have been sold and dispersed to other cities. The only ones still in Fort Worth are Thomas Eakins’ Swimming Hole and Charles Marion Russell’s Lost in a Snowstorm which are part of the Carter’s permanent collection.

Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy will bring the Suite 850 collection together again for the first time since November 22nd, 1963. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, the exhibit will open next year at the Dallas Museum of Art on May 26th and will run through September 15th. It will then move to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art where it will be on display from October 12th through January 12th, 2014. That means it will be at the Carter on the 50th anniversary of its installation in the Hotel Texas, an appropriate setting given Ruth’s personal involvement.


Etruscan pyramids found carved out of Orvieto caves

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

OrvietoThe city of Orvieto in the central Italian region of Umbria is perched atop a vertiginous cliff of a soft volcanic ash stone called tufa or tuff. The appeal of its excellent natural defenses has kept it continuously populated from Etruscan times onward, and its vast panoply of underground tunnels and chambers, first dug out of the tufa by the Etruscans, has been used by the residents ever since. A census of the labyrinth underneath the city documented 1200 caves/tunnels/cavities of various shapes and sizes, and there are many more than that which have never been documented.

Excavating Etruscan cavern carved in pyramid shape under OrvietoIn an archaeological first, a group of alumni and students from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire led by classics professor David George and Claudio Bizzarri of the Parco Archeologico Ambientale dell’Orvietano has found that at least two of those caves were carved by the Etruscans in the shape of a pyramid. Etruscans did a lot of digging and central Italy is flush with their underground tomb cities, but none of those structures so far as we know start with a narrow peak that gets progressively wider as you go down to the square base.

On May 21st, the team began to dig under an Orvieto cellar with a fascinatingly checkered history. In the 1950s it was a furniture shop. The tools and work benches are still in place. In the 1920s and 30s it was used by renowned painter and ceramic artist Ilario Ciaurro who had a kiln in the space and produced pieces heavily influenced by Orvieto’s ancient and medieval past. In the first two decades of the 1900s, the cellar was also used for making pottery, but not the innocent bowl-and-teapot kind. This was the workshop of the notorious Riccardi brothers, a family of artifact forgers who duped major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.

Fake Etruscan colossus and head on display at the MetTheir most spectacular coup happened between 1915 and 1921 when they sold the Met three purported Etruscan statues — one life-sized terracotta warrior, one colossal warrior and one colossal head — that they had of course made themselves in the Orvieto cave. The Met was committed to its deception even though many experts in Italy knew or strongly suspected the statues were fakes. Actually, art historical expertise wasn’t even necessary to spot the fraud, because apparently the exposed genitals of the colossal warrior (Etruscans often depicted their warriors naked from the waist down) were modeled after those of Riccardo Riccardi himself, and a number of the young ladies in town had recognized them.

The Met just wrapped itself in denial and kept the fakes in public view until 1959 when a visiting Italian scholar declined the opportunity to inspect the pieces. He told the curators he had no need to see them because he knew the man who had made them. That was the last straw. They ran some chemical tests in 1960 and discovered the presence of manganese, a substance the Etruscans never used, in the glaze. The statues were hustled off to storage, and the Met had to make a rare public announcement that exposed their own tender bits to general hooting.

Etruscan pyramidal caveAt a level just slightly below the cellar with its delicious recent history, archaeologists found passageways of Etruscan construction. They also found some steps dug into the wall that bore the mark of Etruscan carving, so they kept digging down to see where the steps might lead. They were intrigued to see that the walls were tapering outwards, getting wider apart the further down they went.

Fragment of Etruscan bucchero cup from the fill, 6th c. B.C.In short order they reached a medieval floor from the early 13th century. Just underneath the medieval floor was a layer of fill composed of fragments of ancient Etruscan and Greek pottery from the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. There was nothing at all from the interim period. The layers went abruptly from 1200 A.D. to 400 B.C. Some of the Etruscan fragments in the fill were considerably more ancient, dating as far back as 1200 B.C.

Tunnel between pyramids one and twoUnderneath that was another layer five feet deep of grey sterile fill which had been poured into the cave from a hole in the top. The next layer was filled with brown material which the team is currently excavating. It dates to the mid-5th century B.C. At this depth, around 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface, excavations have revealed an Etruscan tunnel of the same age going from one pyramid cave into another one right next to it. The second pyramid appears to be older than the first, carved before the 5th century B.C.

Bizzarri believes there may be five of these pyramidal cavities under the city. These are the only two that have begun to be excavated, though. Since the pyramid shape has not been found anywhere else in Etruria, there are no comparable finds to help explain what the space’s intended use might have been.

“We know it’s not a quarry or a cistern; the walls are too well dressed to be a quarry and there is no evidence of mud which would point to a cistern. That leaves just a couple of things, some sort of a religious structure or a tomb, both of which are without precedent here,” says George.

The answer may be found at the bottom of the pyramid, but the steps are still going strong and archaeologists have no idea how far down this structure may go. Based on another find with similar steps which was unfortunately not excavated by archaeologists but by looters, Bizzarri speculates that they may have another 40+ feet to dig through before they reach the final layer.

You can take a virtual stroll through the excavation in the following video. It’s in Italian, but it’s worth seeing just for the view. I’ve listed a few salient points and the times they appear below.


Ads until 0:55 then a brief intro
1:23 A few atmosphere shots of the current excavation layer.
1:33 Bizzarri is at the entrance to the cavity, which is number 254 according to the great census of the man-made caves under Orvieto. He talks about who’s involved in the dig and how forbearing the owner had been to let them poke around like this.
2:15 This cave is of particular interest because it was put to many of the uses characteristic of these cavities for millennia. Obviously their interests as archaeologists lie in the more ancient life of the space, but the overall slices of history from ancient Etruscan to mid-century modern make this cavern unique and special.
2:45 He starts off taking a left to go down the passageway to the current layer they’re excavating.
3:15 The platform he’s standing on is at a level just below the floor of the surface dwelling, so the basement, basically, looking down at the mid-5th c. B.C. layer. The whole space was previously filled and has now been excavated.
4:16 He points out the walls widening at the base.
4:25 He points out the steps.
4:45 He points out the Etruscan tunnel (cunicolo) into the second pyramid.
5:00 David George says a bit about how the cave is unique, that there are no comparables.
6:15 Bizzarri goes back out towards the entrance.
6:25 He’s now in 20th c. space.
6:40 Points out the 1950s furniture shop with tools, work surfaces, supports for the electrical motors.
7:00 Before that it was used as a kiln for art ceramics by Ciaurro, and before that as a workshop for forging antiquities by the Riccardi brothers.
7:33 Tells the Met warrior story, noting that the director of the Met told people when he was in Etruria that he was looking for large Etruscan artifacts, not the usual small vases and pieces no matter how scientifically interesting or beautiful, so the Riccardi made him some.
8:15 He says they’re hoping to find some fragments from the Riccardi oeuvre so they can do an exhibit of Orvieto fakes.
8:25 Reports on another famous Riccardi fake exported from Orvieto: a bronze two-horse chariot (biga) that was sold to the British Museum.
9:00 Heads back to the dig going all the way down to the current level they’re surveying for stratigraphic data.
9:47 Doesn’t know how far down they’ll go and what surprises they may find.


1,600-square-foot Roman mosaic unearthed in Turkey

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

A team of archaeologists and students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Atatürk University and local workers have uncovered a massive 1600-square-foot Roman mosaic in the ancient town of Antiochia ad Cragum near modern-day Guney on the southern coast of Turkey. The geometric black-and-white mosaic dates to the third or fourth century A.D. and is in excellent condition.

Its condition is particularly impressive given that it was first discovered in 2001 after a farmer turned up some ancient mosaic tiles (tesserae) while plowing the land. Purdue University classics professor Nick Rauh, director of an archaeological survey of the ancient standing architecture in the region, saw the tesserae when he walked through the plowed field. He alerted his team members and experts from the archeological museum in Alanya, 40 miles up the coast.

Although the find was certainly intriguing, located as it was adjacent to the standing remains of a Roman bath structure, the Alanya Museum did not have the funds to excavate further at that time. They returned two years later and revealed a small sliver of the mosaic, then stopped again.

In 2005, the University of Nebraska team under director Michael Hoff began a new research project focusing on the Roman Antiochia ad Cragum. Hoff had been a member of Nick Rauh’s survey team in 2001, so he personally remembered the discovery of the tiles but this project was focused on surveying the third-century Northeast Temple. In 2008 they were granted a full permit by the Archaeological Directorate of the Turkish Ministry of Culture to excavate the temple and the rest of the city, but excavations on the temple didn’t begin until 2009.

Last year the Alanya Museum secured a permit to explore the mosaic further. They invited Michael Hoff’s team to fully excavate the mosaic, clean it and conserve it so tourists and scholars can see it in all its glory. This year’s large team — in addition to the experts from three universities there are 35 students from diverse disciplines like journalism and art participating in the 2012 field school — began to uncover the rest of the mosaic this July.

The more soil they removed, the more mosaic they found, ultimately revealing an entire floor decorated with modular square after modular square of different geometric themes done in black and white opus tessellatum (large marble tesserae) style. With an estimated 40% of the mosaic uncovered, 1600 square feet have been revealed. The curved edge of a 25-foot-long marble-lined bath has also been revealed. The mosaic leads right up to it, so it was a formal poolside pavement.

The pool was uncovered, open to the sun and elements, but piers that once held a roof over the mosaic pavement are still in place. Mosaics in this style were often created to reflect roof elements, so for example each large square with one geometric design could have had a section of roof above it that was the same dimension. By the peak of the Roman Empire, this was the most popular style of mosaics all over Roman territory. It was easier to create than figurative mosaic and the larger tesserae were easier and faster to install.

However, this particular example is exceptionally high quality. It size and detail is not the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a small town in the far reaches of empire. Antiochia ad Cragum was fully Romanized and was very well-appointed with baths, temples, markets, but it was hardly a great capital and it was in a region called Rough Cilicia, best known as the home base for the much-dreaded Cilician pirates who found the profusion of coastal coves and inlets created by the meeting of the Cragus mountains and the Mediterranean Sea congenial to their needs.

With Rome in a panic after pirates sacked the Roman port at Ostia, burning down the port, destroying the consular fleet and killing two senators in 68 B.C., the next year Pompey Magnus was given a blank check by the controversial Lex Gabinia to wage war on piracy. It took him a mere three months to shock and awe the Mediterranean into submission with his fleet of 500 warships, defeating the Cilician pirates with a conclusive naval victory at Alanya. So he claimed, at any rate. There’s some debate as to whether the Cilician pirates really settled down to farm as he said they had or just went back to privateering on the seas only in a more circumspect fashion.

At that time the area was still independently held by Hellenistic rulers. By the first century A.D., though, Rome held sway over the entire region. Caligula gave Rough Cilicia to client king and personal friend Antiochus IV of Commagene in 38 A.D. He lost it for a bit then got it back courtesy of Claudius in 41 A.D. He held it for the next 31 years, and somewhere during that time he built the Roman city of Antiochia ad Cragum, possibly on the site of a previous Hellenistic town founded by Seleucid (meaning the Greek part of Alexander’s empire gobbled up after his death by his former general Seleucus) Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

~ Tangent time! ~

Antiochus IV Epiphanes is personally responsible for an idiom still very much in use today. In 170 B.C., he launched an attack on Ptolemaic Egypt. It was successful; he captured Ptolemy VI then reinstalled him on the throne to act as his puppet.

When Ptolemy VI and his brother Ptolemy VIII Euergetes agreed amongst themselves to be co-rulers, Antiochus was displeased. This was not the puppetry he was looking for. He launched a second attack on Egypt in 168 B.C., but when his armies were just about to reach Alexandria, he was met by a Roman consular delegation led by one Gaius Popillius Laenas.

I’ll let my homie Livy take it from here.

After crossing the river at Eleusis, about four miles from Alexandria, he was met by the Roman commissioners, to whom he gave a friendly greeting and held out his hand to Popilius. Popilius, however, placed in his hand the tablets on which was written the decree of the senate and told him first of all to read that. After reading it through he said he would call his friends into council and consider what he ought to do. Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, “Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the senate.” For a few moments he hesitated, astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, “I will do what the senate thinks right.” Not till then did Popilius extend his hand to the king as to a friend and ally.

And that, boys and girls, is where the expression “to draw a line in the sand” comes from.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes is also responsible for Hannukah, since as ruler of a Judea in revolt against his deputies in 167 B.C. he sided with Hellenized Jews, made traditional Jewish worship illegal, killed a few tens of thousands of people and instigated the Maccabean revolt.

~ End Tangent ~

Antiochus IV of Commagene was finally deposed by Vespasian in 72 A.D. After that, Antiochia, Rough Cilicia and Cilicia as a whole became a directly governed province of Rome. There hasn’t been a great deal of archaeology in the region, but we do know that by the third century A.D., Antiochia had indeed become a prosperous exporter of agricultural goods and timber. The gigantic mosaic indicates that it was perhaps more than that, regionally significant in a way we hadn’t realized.

The field work is done for the season, but next year the UNL team will be back to uncover the second half of the mosaic. They plan to build a roof over it again to help protect it from the elements and keep it safe for future generations.

Here’s a video of archaeologist Michael Hoff talking about the discovery of the mosaic and its import:



Byron’s signed first edition of Frankenstein found

Monday, September 17th, 2012

In a Romantic literature fan’s fantasy come true, Lord Byron’s personal copy of Frankenstein, inscribed to him by Mary Shelley, has been discovered in a private library and is going up for auction. It’s such an incredible confluence of iconic elements from the era, completely unique and so unlikely to have survived that it’s almost impossible to believe.

The story of how Frankenstein came to be would be legendary if it hadn’t actually happened. In May of 1816, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lover and future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her stepsister Claire Claremont rented a small house on Lake Geneva next to the Villa Diodati, the stately home where poet and rakehell Lord Byron was staying with his personal physician John William Polidori. They planned to spend the summer together enjoying the natural beauty of the area, but they were thwarted by a volcano.

Villa Diodati with Byron figure in foreground, engraving by Edward Finden, 1832The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April of 1815 was the world’s largest since 180 A.D., and it drove so much ash into the air that famine, floods, massive rainfalls and other bizarre weather phenomena wreaked havoc all over the world the next year. Thus 1816 became known as “the year without a summer,” and our friends in Switzerland found their plans for lovely picnics, lakeside walks and boat rides ruined by the constant rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.

To pass the time, the company read each other ghost stories. According to Mary Shelley’s introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein, the first illustrated edition and the first one in which authorship was attributed to her rather than kept anonymous, Byron proposed that each of them write a ghost story of their own. All accepted the challenge. Percy Shelley wrote Fragment of a Ghost Story, Polidori wrote a story about a woman whose head is turned into a skull after she looks through a keyhole at something she had been prohibited from viewing, and Byron wrote the beginning of a vampire story which Polidori would later use as a jumping off point for his novel The Vampyre, initially erroneously published under Byron’s name. This was the first modern vampire novel, the foundation of the rich, ruthless, attractive blood-sucking immortal that still stalks our nights.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840Mary, daunted by her own ambition to create a story that would be truly scary and rival the ones they had already read, couldn’t seem to muster up a good idea. One night, after listening to Byron and Shelley discuss Erasmus Darwin, galvanism and the reanimation of dead flesh, that good idea finally came to her.

My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

The creature awakens, frontispiece of third edition of "Frankenstein," the first one with illustration, first one with Mary Shelley named as authorI opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!

Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. “I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.” On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.

The short story that resulted was so successful that Shelley encouraged her to expand it into a novel. When they returned to England in September, Mary was incubating a great classic of literature and Claire the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron to whom she would give birth in January of 1817. Mary finished writing Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in the summer and published a small first edition of 500 in January of 1818. The publishers gave her six presentation copies to give away; one of them she put aside to give to Byron, the man who had started it all.

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran, 1819After the birth of Alba, Claire had written incessantly to Byron, begging him to take them both in, reminding him of their passionate lovemaking and threatening suicide when he rejected her. These letters only alienated him further, and Byron had never exactly been smitten with her. The month his daughter was born he wrote this to a friend:

You know–& I believe saw once that odd-headed girl—who introduced herself to me shortly before I left England—but you do not know—that I found her with Shelley and her sister at Geneva—I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way—the suite of all this is that she was with child–& returned to England to assist in peopling that desolate island…This comes of “putting it about” (as Jackson calls it) & be dammed to it—and thus people come into the world.

Lord Byron by Thomas Philipps, 1814Yeah, Byron was not a nice guy when it came to women. The end-result of their ugly correspondence was that Bryon refused to have anything to do with his daughter unless she was sent to him without her mother. He would acknowledge her and take financial responsibility for her, but only on condition that Claire be nowhere near. He also demanded that her name be changed to Allegra, which it was.

In March, the Shelleys (now married after the horrible suicide of his first wife Harriet had made him a widower), Claire Claremont and Allegra left England for Italy. Claire felt that her daughter’s wealthy, titled father could provide advantages that she could not, so she agreed to Byron’s heartless condition. Shelley had some hope that he might be made to see reason. Their plan was to meet up with Byron, who was staying in Venice at the time, and work something out. In letter after letter Percy Shelley tried to persuade Byron that this forced separation would be unconscionably cruel to Claire and to the child, but he was unmovable. He would not accept their parent-trap invitation to go to their villa in Lake Como to pick up Allegra, nor would he allow Claire to accompany Allegra to Venice.

In the midst of this extra-legal custody battle (you can read some of it here; poor Shelley was stuck in the middle in the worst way), Mary Shelley’s hopes that she’d be able to give Byron his inscribed copy of Frankenstein in person faded. In the end Shelley shipped the three-volume first edition to Byron in a parcel along with some other books.

You will receive your packets of books. [Leigh] Hunt sends you one he has lately published; and I am commissioned by an old friend of yours to convey “Frankenstein” to you, and to request that if you conjecture the name of the author, that you will regard it as a secret. In fact, it is Mrs. S'[helley]s. It has met with considerable success in England ; but she bids me say, “That she would regard your approbation as a more flattering testimony of its merit.”

She signed it without signing it, writing “To Lord Byron from the author” in keeping with her desire for authorial anonymity.

Byron’s reply to Shelley, if there was one, has not survived, but his opinion of Frankenstein has. In May of 1819 Byron wrote to his publisher John Murray:

Mary Godwin (now Mrs. Shelley) wrote “Frankenstein”—which you have reviewed thinking it Shelley’s—methinks it is a wonderful work for a Girl of nineteen—not nineteen indeed—at that time

(That whole letter covers so many juicy details it’s amazing. He talks about receiving a proof of his epic poem Don Juan, crushes his old friend Hobhouse’s charge against it of “indelicacy,” denies that he wrote The Vampyre, confirms Polidori’s claim in the introduction that Shelley freaked out one night while they were telling ghost stories although he can’t confirm that it’s because he hallucinated that the women had eyes on their breasts, rebuts in strenuous terms Poet Laureate Robert Southey’s lurid accusations of an incestuous threesome between Byron, Mary and Claire, plus describes a stormy night in which Shelley, who could not swim, kept his calm when the boat seemed about to capsize and refused Byron’s offer to save him should the worst happen. In June of 1822, three years after that letter was written, Shelley drowned when his boat capsized in a storm off the coast of Liguria. Little Allegra, just five years old, died two months before him.)

After Byron’s death in 1824, his library was dispersed by John Murray whom Byron had appointed the executor of his estate. In January, 1825, Murray received five boxes of Byron’s books shipped to him from Greece, where Byron had died of fever while fighting for Greek independence. He gave many of them away to Byron’s friends, then held a public sale in July to sell the rest. We know the titles offered at that sale. This one was not listed among them.

Douglas Jay, Baron JayPerhaps Murray kept it. He could have given it away or he could have sold it privately. All we know for sure is that one volume of the three survived, the first volume with the remarkable anonymous inscription of its author, winding up in the library of Labour Member of Parliament Douglas Jay, Baron Jay. That’s where it was found almost two centuries later by his grandson when he was going through some of Lord Jay’s papers in 2011. Jay was a good friend of Jock Murray, direct descendant of John Murray, so it’s possible he received the book via his Murray connection. He was also an avid Byron collector, so he could have gotten the book through other contacts as well.

There is only one other surviving copy of Frankenstein inscribed by Mary Shelley. It’s an extremely important first edition from a literary perspective because it includes marginal notes, cross-outs and changes in her own hand that would be made to later editions. Mary gave this copy to an English friend of hers known only as Mrs. Thomas out of gratitude for her kindness to her after she was devastated by Shelley’s death in 1822. This copy is now in the Morgan Library in New York City.

As significant and touching as that version is, the Byron version may even top it. His connection to the foundation of the Frankenstein mythos, the references to it in some of Shelley’s and Byron’s most drama-crammed letters, puts the modest volume square in the center of the vortex of relationships that defined the Romantic era.

Frankenstein manuscript pageLord Byron’s copy of Frankenstein will be on display at rare bookseller Peter Harrington Books from September 26th to October 3rd. They are taking offers of no less than £350,000 (about $568,000), but of course the sky’s the limit on something this special. Let us all cross our fingers and toes that it ends up in a public institution like the Bodleian Library at Oxford which has a great many of Mary Shelley’s papers, including the original notebooks in which she wrote the first draft of Frankenstein with Percy Shelley’s edits.

The Bodleian Library has an excellent online exhibition of some of the highlights of its Shelley collection, including both of Mary’s Frankenstein notebooks that you can read page by page in a zoomable viewer. Here’s volume one, and here’s volume two.


3000-year-old mummy case restored with LEGO

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

LEGO support device with restored mummy case in the backgroundA 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy case which has been in the basement of Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum for almost 50 years has been restored to its former splendor using LEGO supports. Damage done in antiquity and deterioration since its discovery in the late 19th century had left the case cracking and caving in at the chest. Fitzwilliam conservators enlisted the aid of the university’s Department of Engineering to resolve the restoration challenges, and senior engineering student David Knowles enlisted the aid of LEGO.

This mummy case was discovered in the Ramesseum, a mortuary temple of Pharaoh Ramesses the Great in the Theban necropolis across the Nile from modern Luxor, by Egyptologist James Quibell in 1896. Thieves had ripped out the gilded wood face panel and the mummy was gone. What remained was a brightly painted cartonnage case dating to the Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 B.C.).

Cartonnage is an Egyptian technique of layering strips of linen or papyrus with plaster or gum to make a thin, stable surface that can be easily shaped when wet and easily painted once dry. During the Third Intermediate Period, this technique was used to create mummy cases moulded to a mummy-shaped core which would be replaced with the real mummy once the case hardened. The cartonnage case would then be used as the innermost coffin inside a larger sarcophagus. The painting on the Fitzwilliam’s case featured scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead in an unusual dark blue/green color scheme and identified its former owner as Hor.

Damaged 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy caseThe museum has been studying the Hor cartonnage case for years in the attempt to stabilize the piece sufficiently so it can be put back on display. In its early years at the museum, the case had unfortunately been exposed to excessive humidity, and as a result the torn perimeter around the looted face mask and the pectoral area had caved in. That put pressure on the rest of the case, causing long cracks in the cartonnage which threatened the entire structure as well as the surface painting.

Conservators knew they could de-stave the chest and face by softening the cartonnage with water and reshaping it, but they couldn’t wet the entire case since it could easily just collapse into itself, and even in small amounts the water could have damaged the painted surfaces they were trying to stabilize. They needed to have access to the case from the back through to the inside in order to keep the outer painted surface safe while they moistened the cartonnage in small sections and reshaped it at a snail’s pace. How to position the mummy case face downward in a safe, stable way that wouldn’t run the risk of worsening the structural problems and damaging the painting?

That was the conundrum they presented to the Department of Engineering, and the department opened the question as a final project for its seniors.

Hor cartonnage case suspended upside-down in the frameThe challenge was taken up by David Knowles. In close consultation with the Fitzwilliam, David devised and made a frame to suspend Hor face-down while the reshaping was carried out. Using a combination of traditional wooden frames and mouldable materials designed for medical use, Hor could be completely supported for weeks at a time, allowing conservator Sophie Rowe to reshape the cartonnage very gradually.

The work wasn’t over yet. The case of Hor couldn’t be put on display in its ingenious but not visitor-friendly restoration frame and bandages. David Knowles got to work this time creating a display mount that would provide the proper support for the cartonnage case to rest on its back for people to see it. Once the display mount was done, he still needed to find a way to ensure that the chest wouldn’t collapse again just courtesy of gravity. Some kind of internal support that was firm enough to keep the chest in position but light enough not to put an additional weight and pressure burden on the structure was necessary.

LEGO support inside the cartonnage mummy caseThat’s when David had the brilliant idea of using LEGO. He built six lightweight, flexible LEGO lifts with an A-frame base, a central column of adjustable height and a top square of adjustable angle. All you need to change their height and angles is to screw them into position. To ensure the pointy angles of top and bottom don’t harm the cartonnage, conservators padded them with archival foam wherever they are in contact with it.

For this elegant and adorable solution, David Knowles won a well-earned prize from the engineering department. You can see the LEGO devices in movement in this video news story.

Restored coffin


Velvet & gold Queen Elizabeth I saddlecloth for sale

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Queen Elizabeth I was a dedicated and accomplished equestrian. She loved to hawk and hunt, and she took regular high speed rides over long distances well into her sixties. So hardcore a rider was she that she had horses imported from Ireland because her English ones weren’t fast or tough enough to withstand her usage. She rode both sidesaddle and astride, and could literally go all day, far outpacing her ladies.

It wasn’t just for exercise and fun. Her skill on horseback could be a powerful symbol of masculinity and strength as the equestrian statue had been a traditional representation of gods, heroes, kings and military leaders since at least Ancient Greece. Elizabeth was keenly aware of that and used it to her advantage, most famously at Tillbury in 1588 where she wore a silver armour chestplate and delivered a rousing gender-bending speech on horseback to her army amassed to defend against a potential land invasion from the Spanish Armada.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; the which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

She also tapped into that symbol on occasions where the purpose was statesmanship rather than military. Every summer when London became unbearably hot, stinky and disease-ridden, the entire court would leave town and travel to different places around the country. Local nobles would have to foot the bill to host the Queen and her household, and towns would also spend masses of money to spruce themselves up for the royal visit. They also had to scare up some cash since a gift of moneys to the queen was traditional.

These visits were known as royal progresses, the ceremonial entry of a ruler into a town accompanied by processions, orations, ritual exchanges, mock battles and festivities that went on for several days. Elizabeth didn’t invent them, although she did become particularly known for them. Influenced by revived knowledge of Roman triumphs, royal progresses underscored the authority of the sovereign, the fealty owed to her by her subjects and the benevolent favor she bestowed upon them in return. The ruler approaching the city gates on horseback, escorted by a retinue on horseback and greeted by town dignitaries on horseback were key symbolic elements of the pageantry. Queens were also transported on litters to and beyond the city gates, and Elizabeth did this on occasion, but most of the time she rode her horse just as her father and her father’s father had done.

In 1574, the seafaring merchant city of Bristol was chosen for a summer progress. There was supposed to have been one four years earlier, but as time came close the city scrambled to clean up the roads near Newgate so the Queen’s large household could approach in comfort and safe from brigands. After they spent the money and repaired the roads, they found the Queen had changed her plans. They went all out, therefore, to make sure the 1574 royal visit went off without a hitch. The city corporation spent a grand total of £1,053 on preparations and supplies like sand to level the roads, cannon and two tons of gunpowder for salutes and battles, 400 infantry men and their uniforms. That works out to £183,106.17 today (bless the UK National Archives’ online historical currency converter), close to $300,000 for three days’ visit. The human cost was even greater. Ten men died and as many again suffered severe burns in gunpowder explosions the day before the Queen get there.

Here is her arrival described in Adams’s Chronicle of Bristol from 1623:

The High Crosse was new painted and gilded ; and on the 14th of August 1574 our gracious Queene Elizabeth came to this city. The mayor and all the council, riding upon good steeds, with footcloth, and pages by their sides, went to meet and received her Majesty within Lafford’s gate, where the mayor delivered the gilt mace unto Her Grace and she delivered it unto him again. And so the mayor rested kneeling before Her Grace whiles Mr. John Popham, esquire, and Recorder of this city, made an oration unto the Queene, which being ended he stood up and delivered a fair needlework purse wrought with silk and gold unto her Majesty, with 100£ in gold therein : then the mayor and his brethren took their horses, the mayor himself rode nigh before the Queene, between 2 Serjeants at arms, and the rest of the council rode next before the nobility and trumpeters, and so passed through the city….

The exchange of the mace is notable because it symbolized the town handing over its authority to the Queen and receiving it back as a gift of her graciousness. When Henry VII rode into town to assert his authority and establish relations with the city after the Battle of Bosworth, there was no exchange of the mace. The mayor kept it. The King’s visit acknowledged the town’s independence and self-government. By Queen Elizabeth’s time, things had drastically changed. The Tudor/Stuart foray into absolute monarchy would come to a (decapitated) head 80 years later in the English Civil War.

After the three days of sea battles and fort assaults, the Queen made five knights, tipped the band, and gave an elaborate quilted emerald green velvet and gold fringed saddlecloth that she had used during her visit to one of her hosts. Elizabeth had just months before enacted sumptuary laws prohibiting the wearing of velvet and gold by anyone except for a small group of aristocrats, so this was a luxurious gift indeed. The descendants of that host kept the saddlecloth in exceptionally good condition for the next 438 years, later mounting it in wood and glass for display.

I’m not sure how it was used. I wouldn’t have thought it was a saddlecloth as in a blanket that goes underneath a saddle because it has a puffy backrest. It can’t be a saddle, though some articles have called it so, because it has no ties, no stirrups, nothing at all that would keep a person attached to a moving beast. Maybe a sidesaddle pillion? If so, it’s missing a pommel and I can’t see Elizabeth riding demurely behind a man in an actual saddle on an official royal visit. Maybe the puffy part just went behind the saddle backrest as additional support. Or could it have been worn on top of the saddle? Its segmented design would make it fall well around something underneath and there’s a slit in the front center that a pommel could slide through.

Anyway, the last descendant to own it was Miles Kington, a humorist and author best known for his series of Let’s Parler Franglais books which I fondly recall lolling at when I was a kid.

Miles once revealed in a fax to his wife Caroline the dark secret behind the Kington Saddle. I’m quoting the whole thing even though this entry is already ludicrously verbose because it’s awesome. Consider it payoff for having read this far.

My dear Caroline

I sometimes worry that i may pass on to the other side before i have handed down to you the secret of the KINGTON SADDLE. Ridiculous, i know, as the doctor has said given reasonable treatment and a visit to the pub every now and then, there’s no reason why i shouldn’t last another 40 years, but nevertheless i think perhaps the time has come to tell the dread secret of the KINGTON SADDLE.

But it’s just a silly old priceless family heirloom sitting in an old glass case, i hear you laugh. There’s nothing secret about it at all…….Ah, would that be so. But this KINGTON SADDLE has been handed down through eight or nine of, maybe seventeen generations of the Kington family, all of whom are now dead. Yes, every single previous owner of the KINGTON SADDLE is now in another place, and it’s not Saudi Arabia, i’m talking about. Why do you think they were all struck down before they reached 100? Why do you think nobody ever gets the KINGTON SADDLE out and rides around on it on a horse? Why, above all, do you think nobody even wants to have it in their house, and everyone whispers furtively: “Let’s give it to cousin Laurence….. Let’s put it in a museum…..”?

I’ll tell you.

It’s because of the curse of the KINGTON SADDLE. The curse which has scattered the family far afield, from Wrexham to London, from London to Bath, and from Bath to a crazy steam railway between Keighley and Haworth only five miles long, for God’s sake. As a child i remember getting a really nasty sore throat and my father leaning over my bed and saying, “The curse of the KINGTON SADDLE has got him, we must apply the only know antidote, mother, give me a corkscrew” – yes, at the age of ten my life was saved by red wine and i have never looked back since, but that is another story.

I am surprised you have never noticed that none of the Kingtons ever rides a horse. There is a good reason for this. None of us can ever ride a horse because of the secret of the KINGTON SADDLE, and were any of us to mount a horse, it would mean instant death. For the horse. My grand-father, Major Kington, mounted a horse for the regimental race in 1907. It collapsed on the starting-line and my grand-mother lost a lot of money. My great-great-grandfather Colonel Kington took part in the charge of the Light Brigade, and had not gone 5 yards before his mount keeled over, dead, badly creasing his trousers. My great-great great

Sadly, the curse struck again and Miles passed away in 2008 of pancreatic cancer long before he turned 100. Now the saddlecloth is going up for auction at Dreweatts’ Arms, Medals & Militaria sale on September 26th. The explanatory fax is included in the lot. The estimated sale price is £8,000-10,000 ($13,000-$16,000). For something that once hoisted Queen Elizabeth I’s fundament on a momentous occasion and that comes with such a charming history written by a famous humorist, that seems a modest price range.


Earliest films shot in natural color digitally restored

Friday, September 14th, 2012

In 1899, British photographer Edward Raymond Turner and his financier Frederick Lee patented a process for making natural color moving pictures. Color was seen in film from the very beginning. The Annabelle Serpentine Dance was filmed in Edison’s Black Maria Studios in 1895, but it was hand-tinted after the film was shot. At least three inventors had patented natural color processes before him, but Turner’s system was the first that led to a working model.

Turner had worked for still photographers since he was 15 years old. Ten years later in 1898, he worked as an assistant to photographic pioneer Frederic Eugene Ives on his newly-invented Kromskop (pronounced “chrome scope”) color still photography system. Ives’ method involved taking three black-and-white photographs on a single glass plate through red, green and blue filters. When viewed through the Kromskop device’s color filters and mirrored surfaces, those three pictures would combine into one brilliantly colored image. Ives sold prepared sets of pictures called Kromgrams for viewing through a Kromskop. These were immensely popular for Victorian audiences in Britain and the US, especially the stereoscopic model which showed the pictures in 3D as well as color. You can see some beautiful examples of Kromgrams of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake in this post.

While assisting Ives, Turner worked simultaneously on a way to take moving pictures using the three-filter additive process. What he came up with a camera that had a rotating wheel with sections of red, green and blue filters placed in front of the lens. This would record a frame of film three successive times, one in each color. Since the subjects were in motion, each frame was slightly different from the next.

The patent was the easy part. The hard part was making a working a model which would record the film and then a projector that could do the work of the Kromskop on moving pictures. After two years of failures and with money running out, in 1901 Lee and Turner went to American film producer Charles Urban who financed continuing development and enlisted engineer and camera inventor Alfred Darling to help make theory reality.

Darling built a camera that used 38mm film to record moving pictures through Turner’s filter system. They filmed a variety of test subjects — Turner’s three children playing with sunflowers in their back yard, his daughter Agnes on a swing, a goldfish in a bowl, a scarlet macaw, the Brighton pier, a street scene of Knightsbridge in London.

In 1902, Darling built a projector that would play films recorded using the Turner and Lee process. It had a speed of 48 frames per second (much faster than most black-and-white films which ran at 16 frames per second) and a lens that superimposed the red, blue and green frames simultaneously onto the screen. A rotating filter wheel behind the lens applied the proper filter color to each frame. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in practice. The timing of the rotating filters had to be exact relative to the speed of the film and the distance from the screen precisely calibrated or else the results were painfully blurry and unwatchable. They kept working on it until Edward Turner died suddenly of a massive heart attack in his workshop on March 9th, 1903. He was 29 years old.

Urban still thought the process had potential, so he brought in his associate George Albert Smith, a pioneering filmmaker and inventor, to keep developing it. Smith kept slogging at it for a while, then realized if he abandoned the blue, the remaining red and green would produce respectable color pictures with much less trouble. G.A. Smith patented the two-color system in 1906 calling it Kinemacolor. Kinemacolor cameras used rotating red and green filters to record alternating frames which were then projected through two-color filters. Here are two of G. A. Smith’s early films using the Kinemacolor process. He chose his subjects — Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906) and Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs (1908) — wisely to be particularly flush with reds and greens.


Smith’s system was successful for five years. At its peak, 300 theaters in Britain had Kinemacolor projectors installed. Smith was sued for patent infringement by William Friese-Greene in 1914 who had patented a red-green system of his called Biocolour before Smith. Friese-Greene won and put Smith out of the film business for good.

In 1937, Charles Urban donated his collection of films, including the Lee & Turner test films, to the London Science Museum. Four years ago the collection was transferred to the National Media Museum where it was kept in storage until Curator of Cinematography Michael Harvey found it languishing there and decided to see if modern technology could make Turner’s colors come alive.

The first obstacle was the non-standard 38mm film size. In order to scan the frames, experts first had to create a custom gate — a devise that holds film in projectors — that would isolate a frame. They would center a frame of film in the gate, place it into an optical printer, scan the frame, and then start again with the next frame. It was a painstaking process, centering the film to ensure it’s in exactly the same position as the frame before; they topped out at 26 frames per hour.

Once the frames were scanned, the digital file was sent to Prime Focus, a special effects, conversion and restoration company, which used digital editing software to put the proper red, green or blue filter over each frame. Turner lent a hand from the grave, since he had noted which frames were which colors in the margin of the film. They used the exact process as described in the patent: that is, filter frames 1, 2 and 3, and combine them, then frames 4, 5 and 6, and combine them, etc.

Finally, they found themselves watching Edwardian color movies.


The Lee and Turner films, the recording and projecting equipment are now on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford.


More about the Richard III find

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Now that the press conference is over, the University of Leicester has released a detailed statement on the find, new pictures, an excellent video illuminating the timeline of the excavation and awesomely, a five-panel artistic rendering of Richard’s death, burial and (potential) exhumation done in what I can only describe as a combination manga and stained glass style.

We start with the extensive press release. The statements from Richard Taylor and Peter Soulsby are the ones they made during the press conference. One interesting side note that I didn’t catch while live blogging is the reference to a period source for the location of Richard’s burial. Taylor quotes John Rous reporting that Richard was “at last was buried in the choir of the Friars Minor at Leicester.”

John Rous was the priest of the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen at Guy’s Cliffe which was built in 1423 by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. The Beauchamps were Rous’ patrons, whom he served as chaplain from around 1445 until his death in 1491. He was therefore a contemporary of King Richard III’s and may have even known him, or at least seen him, since Richard traveled to Warwick several times.

Rous was an avid antiquarian and historical researcher. He wrote a history of the Earls of Warwick between 1477 and 1485, and a history of the kings of England after 1485. The former voices strong support for the Yorkist faction, including describing Richard as a king who ruled “full commendably, punishing offenders of his laws, and oppressors of his Commons, and so cherishing those that were virtuous that he got great thank of God and love of all his subjects, both rich and poor, and great laud of the people of all other lands about him.” Once England’s political fortunes changed after Bosworth and the ascension of Henry Tudor, Rous’ description of Richard changed too. Drastically. From the Historia Regum Anglie:

“Richard of York … was retained within his mother’s womb for two years, emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders … like a scorpion he combined a smooth front with a stinging tail. He was small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower….”

You can see why Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society thinks the Tudor version of Richard is a myth bearing little resemblance to reality. Philippa, incidentally, was instrumental in making this whole thing happen. She brought together the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council and helped secure funding for the dig. She’s also working with the filmmakers who have been shooting the excavation for a documentary on the search for Richard’s grave that will air on Channel 4 later this year.

The press release sheds some light on the future plans for the remains. The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester, remarks that should the skeleton prove to be that of Richard III, he will likely be reburied in Leicester Cathedral. The cathedral will coordinate with the Royal Household and the Richard III Society to handle the remains with all proper rites and rituals.
There’s already a memorial to King Richard in the cathedral and people leave flowers there now in remembrance of the king, especially on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Dr. Jo Appleby, University of Leicester Professor of Human Bioarchaeology, provides more detail on the bones themselves. She excavated them personally, donning an Outbreak-style body suit and mask to ensure there would be no contamination of the remains.

The skull had a minimum of two injuries. The first was a small penetrating wound to the top of the head that had dislodged two small flaps of bone on the skull interior. The second was a much larger wound to the occipital bone (or base of the skull): a slice had been cut off the skull at the side and back. This is consistent with a bladed implement of some sort, but further laboratory-based analysis of the bones once clean will be needed to fully understand the nature of this injury. It should be noted that this did not cut through the neck and that the skull was still in its correct anatomical position when excavated. In addition to the injuries to the skull, there was evidence of an abnormality of the spinal column. This took the form of scoliosis, or a major sideways ‘kink’ in the area of the ribcage.

His feet appear to have been destroyed at some point, probably during later construction, but the body does not appear to have been moved. It seems he was buried in a simple shroud of which no remnants have survived.

You can see Dr. Appleby hard at work in this video that is an excellent outline of how the excavation progressed. The skeleton itself is blurred, for dignity, I guess? It wouldn’t do to show a potential monarch in the osteological buff.


Now the whole epic saga in five panels drawn by Emma Vieceli, with Kate Brown working on flat colours and textures and Paul Duffield on panel borders and text. Be sure to click on each thumbnail to see the artworks in all their high res glory.


Human remains found at Richard III burial site

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

The archaeologists digging under the Leicester parking lot for the Greyfriars church where King Richard III was buried in 1485 started out with a long list of ifs and maybes. They weren’t sure they had the right location for the church which had been destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and built over for centuries. Even if their research on the location did turn out to be have been correct, there might be no remains left after the Tudor destruction and subsequent development. If there were physical remains of the abbey and church left to be found, they might not have found them in the two trenches they planned to dig. If they did find physical remains of the church, they might not have been sufficient to map an accurate ground plan and find the choir area where Richard was buried. If they did locate the choir area, there might be nothing there. If they did find human remains, they wouldn’t necessarily be significant since many people were buried in abbeys in churches.

Knowing how the long the odds were of discovering anything pertinent at all, the University of Leicester’s excavation team was not so much cautiously optimistic as just plain cautious. They underscored that the archaeological search would nonetheless provide a fascinating window into the long-lost history of Leicester even when/if nothing Richard-specific was discovered. It was an exercise in managing expectations, as they say in the corporate world, not just the public’s but their own.

Then something completely unexpected happened: everything went right. The two trenches immediately revealed the remains of tiled walkways which proved to be the eastern cloister walk of the friary. They found part of the wall of the chapter house abutting it. Spurred by these promising discoveries, the archaeological team dug a third unplanned trench into a neighboring parking lot and found the walls of the church within the friary.

The next discovery was more than anyone had dared hope, or at least voice. Outside of the church perimeter to the south, the team unearthed a stretch of paving made of recycled medieval tiles of different sizes and wears laid in a random pattern. They believe these are the remains of the garden of Sir Robert Herrick, mayor of Leicester. Herrick bought the abbey land in the early 1600s and built a mansion and gardens on the site. Christopher Wren, future father of the famous architect, was tutor to Herrick’s nephew. He recorded that there was a pillar on the grounds inscribed “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.”

Meanwhile, in the third trench inside the church area, archaeologists found large chunks of window tracery and a lead window H-section (part of the support for a stained glass window). There was a large window behind the high altar in the east of the church. The choir where Richard III was buried was in the east side of the church. They also found a medieval silver penny, a stone frieze they think was part of the choir stalls and copper alloy letters that might have come from tomb inscriptions.

Given these giant glaring exes marking the spot, and the huge turnout of 1,500 people who lined up to see the dig during the three hours it was open this past Saturday, the Leicester City Council agreed to extend the dig for at least one more week. It was supposed to have stopped Monday, but they couldn’t quit when they were so close, and the dig has been a huge boon for Leicester making the press all over the world.

Then, early this morning, the University of Leicester announced that human remains have been found. That’s all they said. No further details until the press conference today at 11:00 AM BST which is being tweeted live on @uniofleicester. If you don’t want to follow on Twitter, the UoL website will be posting live updates on this page. The press conference will be carried on BBC and Sky television and will be streamed live on the BBC website. I’ve tweeted Leicester to ask for a link to the live stream because I can’t find it.

Wake up, everyone! This is too exciting to sleep through. :boogie:

Okay I’m doing my own version of live updates just because I’m nerding out like a crazy person. UL is tweeting that they’ll be referring to people at the press conference using their initials so they just posted a bunch of names with their initials. One of the people listed is Dr. Turi King (TK), from UL’s Department of Genetics. Does that mean they’ve got something to DNA test?

BBC News live stream here! And it works in the US too! Head asploding!

* Richard Taylor: the search has resembled something out of a Dan Brown novel in terms of the twists and turns it has taken.

* Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester went over a couple of historical highlights of the city. Thanks the public employees for giving up their parking and says given today’s announcement, they are going to have to go without their parking lot a little longer.

* Richard Buckley, co director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, is describing the site, the layout of the trenches and what was found where.

* Richard Taylor, Director of Corporate Affairs: They have found the remains of two people: one fully articulated skeleton of an adult male found in the choir of the church and one disarticulated human skeleton, one female found in the presbytery.


* Now Richard is telling me to calm the hell down because this isn’t any kind of sure thing, but it is exciting circumstantial evidence. Next up extensive testing and analysis.

* The location and modesty of the burial is in keeping with the historical sources, but the skeleton was not hunchbacked as Richard was described by Shakespeare and other sources. He was strong and appears to have died in battle. Historical sources invested physical deformity with spiritual deformity and could well have exaggerated Richard’s disability.

* Philippa Langley, lead for the Richard III society, had a dream, y’all. She says we should strive to make our dreams come true. She’s very composed, but I think she’s losing it on the inside.

* Exhumation of the male skeleton began Tuesday, September 4th.

* The archaeological site is not really display quality, so it sounds like the parking lot is going right back on top when they’re through.

* Next up is laboratory analysis at the University of Leicester. They’re hoping to recover mitochondrial DNA that can be compared to the DNA of Michael Ibsen, 17th generation nephew of Richard III. DNA analysis will take up to 12 weeks.

* Only DNA can confirm that these are the remains of Richard III. Osteology can confirm that the skeletal remains matches very well what we know of Richard from historical sources.

* The arrowhead found in the skeleton’s spine was barbed. They can’t say anything more than that right now since the find is so new. The barbed arrowhead was found between two vertebrae, not embedded in the bone.

* They haven’t cleaned the skull yet, but there are a couple of injuries to it visible. They don’t know if the head injuries or the arrow were the fatal blow. The only historical source to give details on how he died was the Ballad of Bosworth Field, widely considered unreliable. In the Ballad, Richard died of a poleaxe to the head.

* Philippa Langley thinks the Tudors constructed a mythological Richard, that to get closer to the truth of what kind of person he was, see the pre-Tudor sources from before he became king.

* She hopes the archaeology of Greyfriars will bring Richard’s story to an accurate and truthful conclusion.

And that’s all folks. Amazing. A. May. Zing.


Third original Fahrenheit thermometer surfaces

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Original Fahrenheit mercury thermometerAn original mercury thermometer made by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, inventor of the mercury thermometer and creator of the temperature scale that bears his name, is going up for sale at Christie’s Travel, Science and Natural History sale in London on October 9th. This is only the third Fahrenheit thermometer known to exist today. The other two, one from 1718 and a later one from 1727, are in the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden.

Until the anonymous private collector consigned his for sale at Christie’s, the two in the museum were the only ones known to exist. The collector has had the thermometer since the 1970s but never published it or exhibited it. An original Fahrenheit mercury thermometer, the only known one in private hands, coming up for sale is therefore an immense deal. The estimated sale price is £70,000 ($112,000) to £100,000 ($160,000), but the sky’s the limit for such a rare piece.

The brass instrument is marked on both sides of the glass tube from 0 to 132 degrees Fahrenheit. The mercury and glass tube have been replaced, but the thermometer was deliberately made for those parts to be replaced when necessary. On the back is the greatest prize of them all: an inscription of “Fahrenheit Amst,” his signature and the place where the thermometer was made, i.e., Amsterdam. It actually looks like his autograph, too. It’s not just printed or engraved in generic font. Compare it to the signature on this May 7th, 1736 letter to Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who invented the binomial system of taxonomy we still use today to identify plants and animals.

Fahrenheit signature from letter to Linnaeus

Fahrenheit’s interest in scientific instruments began when he was a teenaged orphan/juvenile delinquent. Born in Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, in 1686 to a wealthy German Hanse merchant, Fahrenheit was orphaned at 15 when his parents died from eating poisonous mushrooms. Although his father had intended he would go to university and study medicine, after his parents’ death in 1701 the city-appointed guardians of the Fahrenheit children (Daniel was the eldest of five siblings) decided he should follow in his father’s footsteps instead and keep the family business going. Daniel was an excellent student with a particular interest in science; he had zero desire to get into sales. In 1702 he was apprenticed against his will to Herman Van Beuningen of the prominent Dutch merchant family and sent to Amsterdam to learn bookkeeping and the mercantile trade.

It was during his apprenticeship that he first encountered Florentine thermometers. Invented in mid-1600s Florence by a private academy of scientists, many of them former students of Galileo, under the sponsorship and active support of Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, these sealed glass tubes with bulbs of wine spirits at the base were the first temperature sensors that were not also barometers affected by air pressure. They were in great demand across Europe, which is how Fahrenheit came across them in the course of learning the business.

According to a letter his guardians sent to the Mayor of Danzig four years later, Daniel got into trouble as soon as he stepped foot in Amsterdam, eventually stealing money and repeatedly running away, not to mention indulging in behaviors of such a foul nature they could not stand to describe them. According to later biographers, Fahrenheit managed to get through four years of his apprenticeship, but was already making meteorological instruments by the last years. The money his guardians claimed he stole he in fact appears to have borrowed to fund his experiments in thermometer-making. When he couldn’t repay the debt, his guardians were forced to pay it out of his inheritance.

Sick of dealing with him, his guardians decided to send him overseas with the Dutch East India Company. In 1706, they wrote to the Mayor of Danzig asking the city council to authorize a warrant for Daniel Fahrenheit’s arrest and deportation to the East Indies. In January of 1707, the Mayor complied.

Now 20 years old and with a warrant hanging over his head, Daniel moved around constantly, traveling through Germany, Sweden and Denmark, far out of reach of the authorities. In 1708, he visited Danish astronomer Ole Roemer in Copenhagen. In addition to being the first astronomer to determine the speed of light, Roemer had also worked on thermometers and devised a temperature scale of his own. The Florentine thermometers used widely varying scales. The lowest point was the coldest day in Florence during the year a given instrument was manufactured; the highest point was on the hottest day. Roemer created a fixed-point scale of 60 degrees — freezing brine was 0, boiling water was 60 — and because water froze 1/8th of the way down, divided it into eight parts of 7.5 degrees each.

Sometime after this visit, the warrant for Fahrenheit’s arrest was withdrawn. It’s possible Roemer had a hand in this, since he was not only a figure of great importance in the scientific community but also Copenhagen’s chief of the police. Fahrenheit continued his peripatetic wanderings and his experiments. His aim was to create a thermometer that was easier to manufacture, easy to calibrate and more reliable. He learned how to blow glass so he could make his own capillaries.

Ole RoemerFahrenheit was inspired by Roemer’s scale to create one of his own that was less awkwardly sectioned and with three fixed calibration points: freezing brine, freezing water and “blood heat” or body temperature. He chose to use a factor of eight rather than Roemer’s 7.5, then divided each degree into four. Multiply eight by four and you get 32. That random happenstance is how the freezing point on the Fahrenheit scale wound up being 32 degrees.

His early thermometers used wine-spirits like everyone else’s. In 1714, he managed to produce two thermometers that produced nearly identical results despite their different ranges. This was a major breakthrough. That same year he had another breakthrough when he replaced the alcohol with mercury. Quick-silver, as it was then called, expands and contracts more evenly than alcohol. It is also accurate at a wider range, allowing temperatures to be taken considerably below the freezing brine point and considerably above the boiling water point. Fahrenheit’s mercury thermometer could accurately record lower and higher temperatures and with far more fine gradations between.

You can see that on the scale of the newly-revealed thermometer which is just bristling with degree marks. There is no date on that thermometer, so we don’t know exactly when he made it. Fahrenheit published his new temperature scale in 1724, but he began to produce mercury thermometers when he settled down at his workshop in Amsterdam in 1717. He kept producing them until his sudden death from a fever during a trip to The Hague in 1736.

He was buried in a pauper’s grave in the cemetery of Kloosterkerk (Cloister Church). A commemorative plaque was installed in the church in 2002.





September 2012
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