Archive for September, 2012

Rijksmuseum to reopen after decade-long renovation

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Rijksmuseum main building ca. 1895In 2013, the main building of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum will have been closed for renovations for 10 years. Since 2003 visitors have had to settle for seeing a small core of 400 masterpieces in the Philips Wing while the neo-Gothic palace designed by Pierre Cuypers has undergone a massive program of restoration and modernization. After a seemingly endless parade of thorny problems caused years of delays, the end is finally in sight. The construction work is done and the Rijksmuseum has an official opening date: April 14th, 2013, 10 years to the month after it was first closed.

Cuypers’ building, completed in 1885, was significantly altered over the years in an attempt to accommodate the needs of the ever-expanding collection and ever-increasing numbers of visitors, but there was never a systemic, thorough renovation. That haphazard approach resulted in space-swallowing double ceilings, partitions and offices. Climate control and artificial lighting were sub-standard. New construction encroached on the two original courtyards, cutting off the natural light to the museum and cluttering the large spaces in Cuypers’ original design. The number of yearly visitors had increased from 225,000 in the late 19th century to one million by the end of the 20th. The facilities were woefully inadequate.

Scaffolding obscures the facade in 2009The Dutch government agreed in 2000 to fund a thorough renovation program. Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz were selected to combine Pierre Cuypers’ original intent with state-of-the-art energy systems. Their plan stripped back all the additions clogging the courtyards and converted them into a wide-open two-part atrium divided by a passageway. The new design would capture the soaring grandeur of Cuypers’ interior layout while providing new facilities for visitors and ideal storage, conservation and security measures for the collection.

Construction was slated to begin in 2003 when they hit the first obstacle: asbestos. Abatement required the closing of half the building in April, then the rest of it in December. The original completion date of 2008 went out the window. Then came the planning and permit problems that took years of legal wrangling to solve. Then came the budget cuts which kept the construction company from getting their money and thus from doing any work. The actual reconstruction work didn’t start until the end of 2007, and in the meanwhile a brave new world of iPhones and apps had dawned that required additional planning.

The gutted Grand Hall, 2010The reconstruction was deeply ambitious. In addition to a new Asian Pavilion, an Energy Centre under the garden and a new service entrance with an underground passage to the museum, the Grand Hall of the Rijksmuseum was completely redone. Cuypers’ elaborate decoration of the walls, vaults and Italian terrazzo and marble mosaic flooring, full of text and pictorial symbolism representing Dutch history, had been removed, damaged, painted over. There was no restoring it short of completely redoing it all according to the original plan, so they spent years researching what the Grand Hall had looked like in 1885 and then recreated it from scratch.

Repainted Grand Hall vaults, 2008The 19th century painted decoration and monumental ornaments have also been restored or recreated in the stairwells, the Hall of Fame and the Night Watch Gallery, the room where Rembrandt’s The Night Watch was once and will again be on display. When the 400 masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age return to the main building, the Philips Wing will close for a year to get its own updates and then reopen for major temporary exhibits.

Interior decorators have been furnishing the Rijksmuseum main building with new, secure display cases. The rest of the time between now and April will be dedicated to moving approximately 8,000 major works from the museum’s massive one-million piece permanent collection into the main building. Only The Night Watch will return to its former sweet spot in the exact center of the museum. The rest of the contents will be arranged in a new configuration. Instead of historical objects being in one room, paintings in another, the collection will be grouped thematically and chronologically so visitors can get a sense of the history of Dutch culture from the Middle Ages through to today.

One side of the new courtyard facing the central passagewayThis project will have cost $480 million by the time the doors open again in April, but it will have been worth it. The Rijksmuseum will be the first national museum in the world to be open every day of the year from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. No more tourists showing up on a weird national holiday only to find the doors closed. Admission for children and young adults under 19 is free; for everyone else the cost will be €15 (about $20).

There’s an extensive slide show of pictures from the renovation on this page. Click the top “Take a look” link to launch the slideshow, then click the number 13 on the top menu of the pop-up window to start with the pictures from 2004. Click the rest of the numbers in descending order to go from oldest to newest. I’m embedding the computer animations of the restoration and footage of the reconstructed Great Hall below.

Animation of the new exterior:

Animation of the new interior:

The reconstruction of the Great Hall:


A $7 flea market Renoir?

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Finding a priceless painting in a box of random tchotchkes bought for a few bucks at a flea market is so common a fantasy it’s a cliché now. It may have actually happened, though, to a woman in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. She was browsing a local flea market when a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow caught her eye. They were in a box along with a small painting in an elaborate gilded wood frame. She had never seen a Paul Bunyan doll before, so she bought the box and all its contents for $7.

Once she got her treasures home, she tore the brown paper off the back of the painting and threw it away. She was going to throw the canvas in the garbage too because all she was interested in was the frame, but her mother pointed out that she should have an expert look at it before getting rid of it, just in case in was worth something. A plaque with the name “Renoir” on the front of the frame also suggested it might be a good idea to have it appraised.

Wisely following her mother’s advice, “Renoir Girl,” as the anonymous woman refers to herself, put the painting in a white plastic trash bag and brought it to The Potomack Company, an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia. In-house fine arts specialist Anne Norton Craner examined the painting.

“When I removed the painting from the plastic bag it was stored in, I saw that its radiant plein air quality – the rapid brush strokes, the vibrant purple and pink colors, the Seine as subject matter and the luminous light reminded me immediately of Renoir’s 1879 Landscape of Wargemont,” said Craner.

Gallery label affixed to the painting's frameA gallery label on the back of the frame identified the painting as “Paysage Bords de Seine” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Craner researched the title and found it listed in Renoir’s catalogue raisonné, the compilation of all the known works by the artist. The last records of the painting are from the 1920s. It was purchased from the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in France in 1925. In 1926 it was purchased by lawyer and Renoir collector Herbert L. May, husband (although they had separated in 1924) of Saidie Adler May, a renowned art collector in her own right whose 300 works by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock now reside at the Baltimore Museum of Art. That’s all we know. Presumably May brought it to Baltimore, but the paper trail ends at his purchase.

The Potomack Company brought in an outside Renoir expert to examine the painting and he or she apparently confirmed the painting’s provenance. It’s not clear from the press release or other articles who the expert is and whether the painting itself has been confirmed as Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine.

It seems like the auction house is treading a fine line between claiming authenticity and hedging their bets. The painting is going up for auction on September 29th. The estimated sale price is $75,000-100,000, which is a tiny fraction of what confirmed Renoirs sell for at auction now. Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, a smaller version of the one in the Musée d’Orsay, sold in 1990 for $78,000,000.

The flea market painting is a landscape, possibly from Renoir’s first two decades of work. They are less valued in the market than his later portraits of people. It’s also very small, only 5.5 by 9 inches. Still, flea market “finds” are so often copies or even deliberate forgeries that it would take a lot more than the information currently being publicized for me to believe this nice lady really hit the jackpot.

Here’s the alleged Paysage Bords de Seine (on the left) next to the Landscape of Wargemont, now in the permanent collection of the Toledo Museum of Art (on the right). The pinks, purples, light and brushstrokes in the piece on the left reminded Mrs. Craner of the one on the right. I’m skeptical.

Alleged "Paysage Bords de Seine" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Landscape at Wargemont" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1879


Race against climate change in Alaska excavation

Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Coastal erosion at Nunalleq siteWhen people in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak saw artifacts from their pre-historic heritage being swept into the Bering Sea due to erosion of coastal land exposed by melting permafrost in 2008, they called in the cavalry: archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen. In Nunalleq, the site of the 2008 erosion event, the Aberdeen team has undertaken the first large-scale archaeological exploration of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, home of the Yup’ik people.

The Yup’ik, the largest indigenous group in south-western Alaska today, was one of the last groups contacted by Europeans (in the early 19th century). There’s plenty of ethnographic documentation of the culture, but almost no archaeological research. That adds even more urgency to this project of excavating and recovering artifacts of the prehistoric Yup’ik settlement before climate change and erosion takes them all to sea.

Wooden harpoonsInterestingly, the Yup’ik who inhabited Nunalleq between 1350 and 1650 A.D. themselves experienced a period of climate change, namely the Little Ice Age. Researchers hope that the artifacts and organic remains discovered at Nunalleq will illuminate how the Yup’ik responded to the rapidly cooling environment, how their diets and lifestyles changed. University of Aberdeen’s Dr. Rick Knecht hopes that the pre-history they find might help create a predictive model of how to cope with climate change in the future as well as explaining the past.

Certainly the excavations thus far have provided researchers with an extraordinary wealth of material. In additional to the bone, stone, sod, and charcoal that often survive the centuries, the permafrost has preserved masses of organic materials. Wooden artifacts like carved dolls and harpoons have been found in pristine condition, as have berry seeds, matting, ropes and baskets woven out of grasses, even animal fur and human hair.

Stable isotope analysis of the human hair will reveal what the early Yup’ik ate.

Cut human hairDr Kate Britton from the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Archaeology said: “Stable isotope (chemical) ‘signatures’ in human hair are directly related to the ‘signatures’ of foods consumed – literally, you are what you eat.

“In archaeological studies, this is used to provide evidence for which animal species were being hunted and eaten. Furthermore, human hair grows at an average rate of 1cm per month – so by chemically analysing it 1cm at a time we can obtain a month by month dietary ‘signal’ which indicates what these people were eating over a period of time. […]

“We hope our analysis will allow us to evaluate dietary changes in Western Alaska at this time, determine the contribution of marine and terrestrial animals to the human diet and explore the implications for early subsistence strategies and maritime adaptations.”

With stable isotope and DNA analysis of the animal fur, archaeologists hope to identify which animals donated that fur, if they were domestic animals or hunted, and whether they were butchered for eating or for their pelts.

Carved wooden doll with charred faceThe archaeological record has already been found to support the oral histories of Yup’ik lore. According to stories handed down through the generations to contemporary Yup’ik residents of the nearby town of Quinhagak, the village was destroyed in the mid-17th century by the Kinak warriors during the “bow and arrow wars.” The enemy descended upon the village in the summer, burning the buildings and killing everyone they found. In fact, the remains of burnt houses with arrow points embedded in them, charred wooden dolls and few human remains confirm the village’s demise was a violent one. Radiocarbon dating supports the traditional date as well. A burnt house dates to around 1650.

One of the most exciting finds was a long stretch of wooden planking. Archaeologists initially thought the split driftwood planks formed the roof of an entrance tunnel dug to a sod house. An opening in the central room would have led to the tunnel, which would have also been used for storing food and supplies. According to Yup’ik oral histories, people tried to hide in the tunnels during the bow and arrow wars, but the houses were set on fire and the refugees smoked out and killed. Again the archaeology supported the stories, as the doorway of the sod house was coated with a thick layer of charcoal and ash. Sixteen slate arrow points were also found in the entry area, including one embedded in a structural post.

When the team removed the planks, though, they found that there was no tunnel dug down beneath. The planks were flooring instead, probably a grand boardwalk leading to the entrance of an important house, so the fire was set at the door and arrows were shot at people inside the house itself rather than hiding in a tunnel.

Here’s a video of the excavated boardwalk. You can see how precipitously close to the Bering Sea these important archaeological remains have gotten.


There’s a wonderful blog documenting this year’s three-week dig season: Nunalleq 2012. It’s an easy read and a fascinating one, each entry accompanied by copious photographs. I recommend starting from the bottom and working your way up. Although the archaeological team has packed up the artifacts and brought them to the University of Aberdeen for further study, the blog will continue to be updated with new information as they discover it.


Updates on two Kings: Martin Luther and Richard III

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Great news on two King fronts. First, the interview with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discovered in a Nashville attic has been bought by magician David Copperfield. This is great news because he’s donating it to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the museum located in the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

David CopperfieldCopperfield enjoys collecting historical objects, particularly magic ones (remember the 1906 verbal gypsy fortune teller?), and even though Dr. King never made the Statue of Liberty disappear, as a dream merchant David has been inspired by the man who so famously expressed his own dream of equality and freedom with world-shifting results. He was particularly moved by the intimate, conversational tone of the recording, since so much of what we hear of Martin Luther King Jr. are speeches and sermons.

Copperfield didn’t want the recording to fall into a private collection never to be heard again, so he bought it himself and picked the National Civil Rights Museum because it’s in Tennessee, the same state where the interview was held and the recording found. The estimated monetary value of the recording was $100,000, but the price Copperfield paid has not been disclosed.

Barbara Andrews, Director of Education and Interpretation at the National Civil Rights Museum, said the museum plans to integrate the recording into the exhibit in the motel room where King stayed the last nights of his life. Few museums have audio from Dr. King integrated into their displays — probably because the King Center has the lion’s share of that material — so this will be a rare and important addition to their collection.

Andrews also said this:

The donation of this recording to the museum offers the opportunity to hear from this civil rights giant one more time – almost as though we are able to connect with him in the present again. At the time of this recording, the world and the movement were at a crossroads: the teeming war in Vietnam helped to shape the evolving foci of Dr. King’s work. On the one hand his attention was turned to the matter of economic justice and eradicating poverty while simultaneously pressing to move America’s moral compass toward human rights and away from the war effort on the other.

Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist ChurchUnless it’s a bald misquote, I’m afraid this statement is just plain false. The interview was recorded on December 21, 1960. At that time, the end of the Eisenhower administration, there were fewer than a thousand US military personnel in Vietnam. It was a year after that before the first American soldier died in Vietnam. Kennedy increased the number of covert troops to 16,000 by the time of his assassination in November of 1963, but real ground troop escalation started under Johnson in August of 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granted him carte blanche for combat operations in Vietnam. The first anti-war demonstration took place in San Francisco in December 1964.

Martin Luther King Jr. was working with Johnson on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, so he was reluctant to voice full-throated opposition to Vietnam. His first public statements against the war came in March 1965, and they were attenuated. He expressed dismay that “millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Viet Nam and our country cannot protect the rights of Negroes in Selma,” but he made a point of expressing sympathy for the president’s predicament and supporting Johnson’s call for a diplomatic solution. He first detailed his opposition to the war in specific terms in his Transformed Nonconformist sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 16, 1966 (see page 6 for his indictment of the war).

I will spare you the artless segue about kings and war and instead just abruptly switch tracks to Richard III. The excavations under the Leicester parking lot have already born significant fruit. They’ve found the remains of the Church of the Grey Friars.

Medieval remains uncovered on site, picture from University of LeicesterWhen last we saw our heroes from the University of Leicester excavation team, they weren’t even certain they had the right location. Various places had been suggested in the years since development obscured the ruins of the church, and there was a good chance that any identifiable remains could have been destroyed by later construction. As soon as the first two trenches were dug, it was clear the worst case scenario was not going to materialize.

Medieval inlaid floor tiles from the friary, picture from University of LeicesterThe trenches revealed tiled floors at right angles to each other, one a north-south passageway six and a half feet wide, the other an east-west structure sixteen feet wide. North of the east-west floor they found an open space and then a wall five feet thick. The floor tiles are medieval. Archaeologists think the north-south passageway and the intersecting floor were part of the cloister, a square covered walkway around a peristyle garden characteristic of many monastic communities. Cloisters were often built against the warm south side of a church, so that thick wall may be the south wall of the Greyfriars church.

Medieval remains in one of the trenches, picture from University of LeicesterOn Saturday, the team dug a third trench in the parking lot next door to see if that wall extended eastward, and it does! They found a continuation of the wall, a second wall about 25 feet north and a mortar floor between them. The floor was probably originally tiled as well, but those tiles have been lost.

Dig leader Richard Buckley enthuses:

“The size of the walls, the orientation of the building, its position and the presence of medieval inlaid floor tiles and architectural fragments makes this almost certainly the church of the Grey Friars.

The next step – which may include extending the trenches – will seek to gain more information on the church in the hope that we can identify the location of the choir and high altar. Finding the choir is especially important as this is where Richard III is recorded as having been buried.”

Architectural fragments from the friary buildings, picture from University of LeicesterThe site will be open to the public this weekend for a short window. On Saturday, September 8, from 11 AM to 2 PM, visitors will be allowed to see the excavation and some of the tiles and architectural remains that have been found thus far. Admission is free, but expect to wait in line because this story has spread far and wide and doubtless there will be crowds of people wanting to catch a glimpse of the work in progress.

If anyone reading this goes, please tell us all about it in the comments, or email me via the contact form and I’ll post it.


Second picture of Emily Dickinson found?

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

There’s only one officially authenticated photograph of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson. It’s a daguerreotype taken in 1847 when she was 16 years old, years before she wrote the poems that would make her famous when they were published after her death. Amherst College, founded by Samuel Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather, received it from a donor along with other Dickinson papers in 1956, and the ownership record is clear and unbroken back to Emily’s sister Lavinia.

Other alleged pictures have cropped up over the years, but none of them have ultimately proven authentic. This was not unexpected since Emily herself declared in July of 1862 to have no photographs of herself. In a well-known correspondence with abolitionist, Unitarian minister and Atlantic Monthly columnist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily responded to his request that she send him a picture as follows:

Could you believe me–without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur–and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves–Would this do just as well?

It often alarms father. He says death might occur, and he has moulds of all the rest, but has no mould of me; but I noticed the quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor. You will think no caprice of me.

She means “quick” in the sense of vitality, the essence of life, which she thinks drains out of photographs after a few days, hence her refusal to sit for a portrait even at her beloved father’s behest.

But now there’s a new contender for the title of only picture of Emily Dickinson as an adult poet, and the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections thinks it may just be the real deal. The image is a daguerreotype taken around 1859 of two women sitting next to each other, one with her arm around the other. It belongs to a daguerreotype collector who bought it in a group of items from a Springfield junk dealer in 1995. The collector noticed the woman on the left bore a strong resemblance to the sole picture of Dickinson, so he began to research the subject, starting with an attempt to identify the woman on the right.

After years of study, he was able to confirm thanks to two moles on her chin under either side of her mouth that the sitter on the right was Mrs. Kate Scott Turner Anthon, a school friend of Sue Gilbert Dickinson, wife of Emily’s brother Austin. Austin and Sue lived in the house next door to Emily, and Kate stayed with them several times starting in January of 1859. She struck up a close friendship with Emily, as their extant correspondence attests to, until they had a falling out about a year later.

A book published in 1951 contended that their relationship was romantic, that the falling out was a break-up. It was not well-received by reviewers at the time, to say the least, but if this picture does prove to be incontestably authentic, the book might be seen in a different light. After all, Emily wouldn’t have a picture taken for her father, so there would have had to be a powerful impetus to persuade her to sit for a picture with her arm around her friend.

Emily Dickinson 1847-1859 comparisonIn 2007, the collector showed the daguerreotype to Amherst College Archives and Special Collections staff. Their Dickinson experts have been researching it ever since. High resolution scans of both the 1847 picture and the 1859 were compared, and the physical features of the potential Emily match the confirmed Emily. Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center ophthalmologist Dr. Susan Pepin, who has made a study of Emily’s eye problems, examined the eyes on both images and declared them a match. From Dr. Pepin’s report (pdf):

The two women have the same eye opening size with the right eye opening being slightly larger than the left. The left lower lid in both women sits lower than the right lower lid. The right upper lid from the crease in the lid has more length than the left upper lid. Also, the left upper lid margin height sits lower that the right upper lid margin height (0.1 mm ptosis OS).

Other similar facial features are evident between the women in the daguerreotypes. The right earlobe is higher on both women. The inferonasal corneal light reflex suggests corneal curvature similarity, allowing us to speculate about similar astigmatism in the two women. Both women have a central hair cowlick. Finally, both women have a more prominent left nasolabial fold.

After a thorough examination of both of these women’s facial features as viewed from the 1847 and 1859 daguerreotypes, I believe strongly that these are the same people.

Another argument in favor of authenticity is, oddly, an anachronism. Potential Emily’s dress is at least 10 years out of date. In fact, it has several significant elements in common with the dress worn by the teenage Emily 12 years earlier. This suits the adult Emily just fine, since she was determinedly unfashionable. She told her friend Abiah Root in 1854: “I’m so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare.”

Amherst experts together with the Emily Dickinson Museum’s experts went through their textile collection to see if there was a potential match for the blue check fabric of the potential Emily’s dress, and as long a shot as this was, they actually found a sample that fits in pattern and sheen. The picture is too small to make it a definite match to the swatch, but future research with specialized tools will hopefully be able to magnify the garment in the picture so that a match can be confirmed or denied.

Kate is wearing a black dress whose style is from the mid-1850s. She was widowed for the first time in 1857, so that fits.

The authentication search is ongoing. The picture is available for viewing upon request at the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. Researchers are asking the public to come forward with any relevant information that might be squirreled away in their attics.

Amherst’s Emily Dickinson Collection has a wealth of digitized manuscripts and letters by Emily Dickinson. Given Emily’s famously idiosyncratic syntax which was often conventionalized by publishers, it’s a genuine thrill to see poems like A bird came down the walk in her own hand.

"A bird came down the walk" manuscript


German Prince’s pet Vesuvius erupts again

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Worlitz ParkIn the mid-1760s, Prince Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau took his architect friend Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorff on a Grand Tour of Europe, as was de rigeur for well-to-do youth of that time. They traveled through Italy, the Netherlands, England and France, absorbing the cultural lessons of antiquity and the Renaissance. Pompeii, which had been rediscovered only in 1748, and the ever-smoking Vesuvius that loomed in the background made a lasting impression on the young prince.

Wörlitzer Lake and St. Petri neo-Gothic churchWhen he returned home to Wörlitz, the prince, Erdmannsdorff and landscape architect Johann Friedrich Eyserbeck set to creating a mini-Grand Tour in Leopold’s back yard. Inspired by Enlightenment ideals, the nature-as-educator philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the English garden movement that valued pastoral beauty over the formal landscapes of the Baroque period, over the next decades the prince made almost his entire principality into a public garden with river-fed canals, Neoclassical buildings (including the family’s home castle and separate kitchen), a Worlitz Park synagogueChinese pagoda, a synagogue modeled after the Temple of Hercules Victor in Rome, a neo-Gothic Christian church, a miniature Pantheon with reliefs of gods both classical and Egyptian, temples dedicated to Flora and Venus, bridges in various styles, a labyrinth, and a lake with a bucolic Rousseau Island (a copy of the philosopher’s original tomb in Ermenonville; his body no longer rests Rousseau Islandthere as it was moved to the Panthéon in Paris after the French Revolution) in the middle.

The project took decades to complete, but the final result was a conceptually unified monument to the Enlightenment view of history, art, nature and beauty as ennobling and educational for everyone from prince to pauper. Leopold opened the park to the public from the earliest days and even though it experienced some rough treatment and neglect in its East German period, it is again open today. The park, now a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the Wörlitz Rock Island and the neo-Renaissance Villa HamiltonGarden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz, is a 55-square-mile wonderland adorned with more than 40 follies and architectural features in diverse styles.

There’s one patch of the park which is particularly wondrous: a wee furnace-fed volcano. Twenty-plus years after his trip to Pompeii, Prince Leopold built himself a pet Vesuvius that could erupt on command. It took six years to make and was complete in 1794. The The Rock of Wörlitz by Karl Kuntz, 1797prince would have guests over to watch it erupt, but he left behind no specifics on how exactly he made the fireworks happen. Only one contemporary painting of the event survives and one jeering but helpfully detailed review from a critic.

Rock Island volcano from the other sideAfter Leopold’s death in 1817, his Vesuvius went dormant due to his heir’s lack of interest in the spectacle. The park was maintained for the next century and a half, but the volcano not so much. The garden as a whole survived World War II relatively unscathed. The worst treatment it received was at German hands when the synagogue’s interior was destroyed during Kristallnacht in November of 1938. It was only the courageous intervention of the park’s director, Hans Hallervorden, that kept the building itself from being destroyed; he was promptly fired for his trouble.

After the war, the closest the volcano came to erupting again was when its new East German masters burned some tires in the furnace. Charming spectacle, I’m sure, and how fragrant. I’m sure the crowds came for miles to see the tire fire. By 1983, the volcano was condemned. Some rocks had fallen and killed a visitor, so that was that.

Wolfgang Spyra surveys the smoking volcanoIn 2004, the park management decided to enlist the aid of Brandenburg Technical University chemistry professor Wolfgang Spyra to reignite the volcano’s fires.

“A volcano that can’t explode is a very sad volcano, and I wanted to make it happy again,” Spyra says. “We wanted to help the volcano get its identity back.”

Could he be any more awesome? Answer: yes, because he signs his emails “the Eruptor.” I heart this man.

Spyra researched the historical eruptions, and using the one painting and the one critic’s review, he was able to get a solid idea of the dimensions of the eruptions. He investigated what kind of firepower Leopold would have had available to him, and how the three furnaces underneath the volcano and the reservoir of water in front of the crater were used to create the impression of explosion and lava flow.

So in the summer of 2005, pet Vesuvius erupted again, now with the addition of sound effects through speakers.

Then, with a final rumble of drums and thunder, the moment arrives: red flames flickered at the top of the volcano, growing into a thick column of smoke.

The volcano erupts againRed-tinged water begins to flow from the crater, churning the still lake below. Sharp, loud explosions send sparks shooting into the sky. Hidden in the volcano’s peak is an 86-square-foot oven packed with fresh pine needles. Once lit, they roar into smoky fire, sending sparks high into the night sky along with the billowing smoke.

As the needles burn above their heads, Brandenburg Technical University students in gas masks rush from fireplace to fireplace in the room below, squirting lighter fluid on blazing wood fires and tossing in special powder to create brightly colored smoke that pours out from underneath the summit of the volcano.

Then, red-tinged water begins to flow from the crater, churning the still lake below. To create the illusion of flowing lava, Spyra first filled the artificial pond at the top of the crater. As the volcanic “eruption” peaks, the water is released over a ledge to form a waterfall, lit from behind by bright red Bengal fire.

Throughout, sharp, loud explosions send sparks shooting into the sky, jolting onlookers with each loud bang. The effect is produced using mortars, familiar to any 18th-century artillery expert.

Every year the volcano erupts again, but they don’t announce the exact date and time because, duh, volcanoes don’t give warnings. People lucky enough to be in the vicinity of the park when the rumblings begin just hightail it to the shores of the lake to enjoy the show.

Here’s this year’s eruption, which took place on the anniversary of the eruption that destroyed Pompeii. I think the eruption from 2010 is more dramatic, so I’ve embedded it below.



Giant Roman milk pot going on display

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

A huge Roman coarseware pot discovered on private property in Highworth, near Swindon, in June of 2008 will be going on public display for the first time. The Swindon Museum and Art Gallery bought the pot, known as the Highworth Ceramic, at auction in March 2009 for £740 ($1176) and will put it on display this month after years of research and conservation.

The pot was found along with some other Roman artifacts during the construction of a garage on Cricklade Road. It was damaged — a large chunk was missing from the side — but its sheer size made it notable. It’s 24 inches tall and 18 inches wide. The mouth is a full foot in diameter. Its dimensions alone made recovering it a challenge. With much effort, experts got it out of the ground and transported the monster to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for condition assessment.

Kilns lower right, Roman road and Highworth find spot in the centerAs the size should indicate, the pot was used for storage. It’s British-made coarse sandy pottery classified as Roman Alice Holt/Farnham ware after the Alice Holt Forest and the town of Farnham where pits of grey gault clay provided the raw material for numerous kilns in the area. Conveniently located less than 15 miles from the Roman road connecting Silchester (Calleva) to Gloucester (Glevum), manufacturers produced industrial quantities of domestic pottery from about 100 A.D. until the early 5th century. Part of that same Roman road, now called Ermin Street, passes through Swindon just four miles from Cricklade Road where the pot was discovered.

Although this type of pottery was more of a cheap workhorse than, say, high quality Samian Ware, a pot this size would have been difficult to make on the wheel and difficult to fire without breakage, so it would have been costly to produce and expensive to buy. So much so, in fact, that even if two giant cracks developed from top to bottom, it would have been worth repairing them. That is just what the Roman owners did. They stapled the cracks together with horizontal strips laid outside and inside the pot. They look just like stitches, giving the pot a rakishly Frankensteinesque style.

Dr. Phil Parkes from Cardiff University analysing the staples with X-ray gunThe Objects Conservation team at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre enlisted the aid of Dr. Phil Parkes from Cardiff University, who used X-ray fluorescence to determine what metal the staples were made out of. The analysis proved the staples were made out of lead (traces of iron were also present, but their likely source was dirt clinging to the staples). Lead staple repairs are well-documented in the archaeological record of Roman Britain, although more frequently seen with expensive Samian Ware.

Conservators also found a black residue inside the pot. Val Steele from the University of Bradford, assisted by Wiltshire Conservation Service conservators, collected samples of the residue for analysis and found it was the blackened remains of ancient milk. Later the pot was also used to store dry goods. Initially experts thought the pot dated to the 3rd or 4th century, but the residue analysis indicated that it was first put to milky use in the late 1st or early 2nd century.

According to Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre conservator Beth Werrett — who, by the way, hooked us up with these gorgeously huge pictures from the Wiltshire Council Conservation and Museums Advisory Service to do the gorgeously huge pot justice — the presence of the milk residue is a rare survival. Also rare is a pot this size that is as complete as it is. Also rare are the well-preserved stitches, all the more impressive for their large scale.


Migaloo, world’s first bioarchaeology detection dog

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Migaloo and Gary JacksonGary Jackson, owner of Multinational K9 Dog Training in Brisbane, Australia, has been training dogs in everything from basic obedience to highly specialized detection for government and corporations for decades. Now he can add another specialty to his roster of pioneering cane toad, koala and quoll detection dogs: Migaloo, the world’s first dog trained to detect archaeological human remains.

250-year-old Aboriginal bone on a rod so it can be inserted through tube into ventilating chamberUnlike cadaver dogs, which use their advanced olfactory senses to detect the scent of decomposing human flesh, Migaloo detects bones hundreds of years old, and not just an entire skeleton but even tiny fragments of bone no larger than a tooth. Jackson spent six months training the Labrador mix using 250-year-old Aboriginal bones (handled with the utmost respect according to Aboriginal traditions) on loan from the South Australian Museum. The bones were placed in protective tubes with a ventilation chamber attached that allows the scent to filter through. The human remains were then buried in an impromptu graveyard/proving ground at depths ranging from one to three feet. Numerous animal bones — including kangaroo, horse, chicken, cat — were scattered around as decoys. Migaloo quickly became adept at detecting and indicating only the human bones from as far away as 20 feet, detecting even the traces of bones that had been present 24 hours earlier and then removed.

Migaloo indicating a tree burialWearing her stylish new custom-made jacket with an Australian Aboriginal Flag design, Migaloo successfully conducted her first operational find at an undisclosed location in the Queensland outback in May of this year. After searching miles of terrain and hundreds of trees for traces of historical burials, she indicated strongly on one Eucalyptus tree. The team surveyed the hollow tree non-invasively and indeed found archaeological human remains, buried inside the tree according to an ancient Aboriginal funerary practice. The bones were not disturbed by request of the traditional owners of the land.

Migaloo smilingIn field tests over the next few months Migaloo again performed admirably, but it was her test on August 14th that was a record-breaker. On an Aboriginal burial ground on Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, Migaloo found four burial spots, one of them 600 years old and 8 feet underground. It has never been excavated and was known only because a post-hole digger found a bone fragment deep under the surface which was radiocarbon dated to 600 years ago. That’s a world record, as far as we know.

Candy and Bill indicating human remains from War of 1812, 1987The oldest human remains detected by canine before now were 175 years old. In December of 1987, Candy, a chocolate Lab cadaver dog handled by legendary law enforcement dog trainer Bill Tolhurst, indicated human remains on a spot in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. The archaeologists didn’t have funding to excavate the spot at that time, but once the money came through they excavated the place Candy had pointed to and found three skeletons of men killed during the Battle of Snake Hill during the War of 1812. That record has stood until now.

Migaloo’s abilities are an exciting development for archaeologists in Australia and around the world. Candy wasn’t trained to specifically pick up archaeological remains. Her regular job was working with the police to find cadavers. If Migaloo can be trained to find human skeletal remains that are hundreds, maybe thousands of years old, she and other dogs like her will be a powerful new tool for archaeologists.

Red Centre Consultancy director Bud Streten, who owns Migaloo, plans to use her as a non-invasive way of locating and protecting traditional burial sites.

“It is a massive breakthrough, not only here in Australia but we’ve got some interest from overseas for use in other ancient civilisations.

“At the moment in the world of archaeology there is no tool that can tell you there are human remains underground, we use ground penetrating radar, magnetic susceptibility and historical or oral records.

“But now Migaloo the wonder dog can do it.”

See Migaloo perform her record-breaking feat of findery in the following YouTube video. Protip: you’ll want to turn the volume way up when Quenten Agius of the Adjahdura Land Traditional Owners Group speaks because his voice is much more quiet than anyone else’s. Follow Migaloo’s future adventures on her Facebook page.



18th c. warship used in dockyard floor identified

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Ship timbers under the Wheelwright's ShopIn 1995, an archaeological excavation under the Wheelwright’s Shop of Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent discovered that 167 timbers from a warship had been recycled as floor joists. Many of the great wooden ships of the British Navy during the Age of Sail in the 18th and early 19th centuries had been built at Chatham, most famously Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, but it came as a surprise to find a ship had returned the favor and built part of the dockyard.

Carpenter's mark on timberThe wine-glass shape of the beams is characteristic of a sailing warship’s hull, and the quantity of timber indicated that it had come from a second- or third-rate ship of the line. There were carpenters’ marks on some of the beams which were identifiable as the signatures of workers at the Chatham Royal Dockyard, some of whom had left the same marks on timber in the hull of HMS Victory. It was clear from the historical layers that the floor was not original to the Wheelwright’s Shop when it was first built in the 1780s, but rather was installed during major alterations to the space done in the 1830s. Timbers characteristic of round bow designA key clue was the curve to some of the timbers, indicative of the “round bow” design by naval architect Robert Seppings who was promoted to master shipwright at Chatham in 1804 after the success of his round bow and stern innovations.

So historians were looking for a second- or third-rate ship of the line built at Chatham between 1750 and 1775, repaired at Chatham and thus still in sailing form in 1804, then broken up in time for reuse in the early 1830s. It took them 17 years to conclusively identify it, but there’s only one ship that fits all the clues: it was HMS Namur, a 90-gun second-rate ship of the line that saw an extraordinary amount of action at some of Britain’s most important sea battles between her launch in 1756 and her dismantling in 1833.

HMS Namur at the Battle of Lagos, by Richard Perret, 1806The Seven Years War started in 1756, and the Namur played a major role at the Siege of Fort Louisbourg in 1758, which opened the rest of Canada to British attack; the Battle of Lagos in 1759, which kneecapped France’s planned invasion of England; and the Capture of Havana in 1762, which ended Spanish naval dominance in the West Indies. Namur also fought against the Spanish and French during the American War of Independence, defeating the former at the Second Relief of Gibraltar on April 4th, 1781, then whupping the latter at the Battle of the Saintes almost exactly a year later. Even though she was getting on in years by then, HMS Namur still fought valiantly against the French in the Napoleonic Wars, including at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and in Strachan’s cleanup action after Trafalgar in 1805.

"British Fleet Entering Havana" by Dominique Serres, 1775. HMS Namur is the large one in right foregroundAll told, Namur put in an exceptional 47 years of active service in the Royal Navy and 28 more on guard duty. Most ships from this period had a working life of around 20 years. In 1805 she had her decks shaved down, leaving her a 74-gun ship, and in 1807 was deployed to the east coast of England on harbor service at the Nore, a sandbank in the Thames Estuary which was once the scene of a spectacular kicking of England’s ass by the Dutch. There she remained until her honorable demise in 1833.

As much as it seems the European powers did nothing but fight on sea and land during this period, it was actually rare for any given ship to see a battle at all. The Namur saw nine, of which seven were of decisive importance in establishing and maintaining Britain’s command of the oceans.

Sir Charles AustenAs if that weren’t enough of a claim to fame, HMS Namur was also home to two figures known to history for reasons beyond only their naval roles. Between 1811 and 1814, HMS Namur was captained by one Charles Austen, future Rear Admiral and brother of novelist Jane Austen. She wove the naval experiences of Charles and their elder brother Francis, future Admiral of the Fleet, into several of her works, including Mansfield Park and my personal favorite, Persuasion, her last novel wherein naval officers are central characters and society’s reaction to the new prominence of the navy a central theme.

Olaudah EquianoOlaudah Equiano, former slave, merchant and author of the first slave narrative, worked on board the Namur in 1759 during the Battle of Lagos. He was a boy of around 14 and had been enslaved since he was kidnapped at 11 years of age. His owner in 1759 was Michael Henry Pascal, the 4th lieutenant on HMS Namur. Pascal put Equiano to work as a powder monkey, a dangerous job that entailed carrying gunpowder from the magazine to the gunners. Children were assigned to the task because they were small and could hide behind the gunwale when enemy sharpshooters aimed for them.

Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, published in 1789, was a smash hit and played a pivotal role in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. He describes his experiences aboard the Namur in chapters three and four, with the Battle of Lagos featured in the latter.

Painted timber from Namur gun deckThis series of accomplishments, impressive though they may be, could not keep HMS Namur from returning to her birthplace at the Royal Dockyard in Chatham for dismantling in 1833. Somebody there, however, and we don’t know for sure who or why, saw fit to keep part of the legend alive by using large hull timbers and planking to make a new floor for the Wheelwright’s Shop during renovations in 1834. The long, strong beams from the hull support the full width of the floor and are of obvious structural use, but there are also smaller planks laid flat between the joists. Why include them at all?

Admiral James Alexander GordonOne possible answer is James Alexander Gordon, the Dockyard Captain Superintendent in 1834. Gordon had risen from Midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet, serving an unprecedented 75 years in the Royal Navy. He is thought to have been one of the inspirations for Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester’s fictional naval hero. In 1786, when Gordon was 14 years old (he had already been in the navy for three years by then, believe it or not), he served on HMS Namur as a midshipman. He saw action aboard the Namur at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797. It’s possible that he felt a sentimental attachment to the old bucket and saw to it that she would continue to sustain the Royal Navy in a new position: namely, as a floor.

Namur timbers under the Wheelwright's ShopDoubtless Gordon would have been proud to see that floor become the centerpiece of a multi-million dollar redevelopment of the Historic Dockyard Chatham which, in addition to creating a new visitor center and a Command of the Oceans gallery detailing the history of the dockyard during the Age of Sail, will also be dedicated to long-term conservation of the Namur warship timbers. The Heritage Lottery Fund has granted Chatham £4.5 million ($7,140,000) in matching funds, but the dockyard has to raise £4 million ($6,350,000) within 15 months to secure the grant.

If you’d like to chip in, you can donate online to the Command of the Oceans project here. You can also mail checks to the address listed on this page and if you’re in Britain, you can send £3 that will go directly to the preservation of the timbers by texting “SHIP01 £3” to 70070.


Murdered child at Vindolanda from Mediterranean

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

A child who archaeologists believe may have been murdered in the mid-3rd century at Vindolanda Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland was not a local. Isotope analysis on the tooth enamel found that the child, who was around 10 years old when he or she died, had lived in southern Europe or North Africa until the age of seven or eight.

The skeletal remains of the child were discovered in 2010 buried in a shallow pit in the corner of a barracks. At first archaeologists thought the remains might have belonged to a dog, but when experts examined the bones they discovered they belonged to a human child. They were not able to determine gender, but named the child Georgie just so they wouldn’t have to keep referring to the poor thing as “it.”

The position of Georgie’s hands indicated they may have been tied together, but the most significant evidence of foul play is the burial site itself. Roman funerary customs required that burials be done outside the perimeter of a town or fort. Burying this child inside the barracks would have been against the law and a major cultural taboo. Someone wanted to hide Georgie’s death very badly.

Researchers have not been able to pinpoint the cause of death. The skeleton is well-preserved from the neck down — even the wrist bones, just .4 inches long, were found — but there’s not much left of the skull. This could be explained by blunt force trauma to the head, which could have been caused by a deliberate blow or by an accident. Whatever the circumstances of Georgie’s death, everyone in the barracks where she or he was buried had to know about it. Eight soldiers from the Fourth Cohort of Gauls lived in a room with a decaying corpse buried under a few inches of soil, and none of them snitched.

Before the evidence of the tooth enamel, archaeologists assumed the child was from the Vindolanda area, or at least from Britain. Now a new level has been added to the intrigue. Georgie could certainly have been a slave. Child slaves were common in the empire. Any child born of a slave was also a slave; conquered peoples (including children) were kept or sold into slavery by the legions themselves; unwanted babies who were exposed by their parents would be scooped up and enslaved; by law Roman fathers had the right to sell their own children into slavery as they saw fit, to pay off debt, say. It seems more likely, however, that child slaves would have been secured locally than having been schlepped to the remote hinterlands of Britain from North Africa as seven-year-olds.

Another possibility is that the child was a family member of one of the soldiers. By 197 A.D., common soldiers were allowed to marry and when the legions lived for years in far-flung corners of the empire, they often wound up finding a girl and settling down. The barracks, however, were not fit for family use and the fort would have been unlivably crowded if everyone from top to bottom had wives and kids on site. Since Georgie came from down south, if she was following her father to his post, Dad was most likely an officer.

There’s plenty of evidence of women and children living at Vindolanda Roman Fort, although from a little earlier than Georgie’s time. In 1973 archaeologists discovered an incredible collection of letters written on wooden tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Some of them are official missives; most of them are personal, including one famous letter written by Claudia Severa inviting her friend Sulpicia Lepidina to her birthday party. Claudia was the wife of fort prefect Flavius Cerialis and she mentions in the letter her young son being with them.

Archaeological finds including woolen socks, shoes and jewelry in child and women’s sizes also testify to the presence of families at the fort. There were also civilian traders who helped supply the legions living on or near the fort. Georgie could have come from a trading settlement that grew around the military fort.





September 2012


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