Archive for October, 2012

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Program leader Professor Sarah Tarlow holds dissected skullOne of my favorite areas of study (on any day of the year, not just Halloween, although it certainly dovetails nicely with the grisly ghouls from every tomb closing in to seal your doom) is now the subject of a multi-disciplinary research program at the University of Leicester: the fate of executed criminals in Britain between the 17th and 19th centuries. Generously funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is also offering a critical workshop on how best to cope with a zombie outbreak, Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse brings together experts in archaeology, medical history, folklore, philosophy and literature from the University of Leicester, the University of Hertfordshire and the National University of Ireland to examine how the corpses of executed criminals were used as cautionary tales in the gibbet and as sources of scientific knowledge on the dissection table, the significance they were imbued with culturally and morally, and the lasting effect they had on the physical landscape and on our attitudes about the treatment of the dead body.

“This is a great opportunity to study the history of the body at a fascinating time,” said Professor Sarah Tarlow, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester and the leader of the team. “This is a key period in the development of modern medical knowledge, where the inside of the body was carefully explored and described by anatomists. At the same time it was generally believed that the touch of a hanged man’s hand could cure cancers of the neck, and that suicides should be buried with a stake through their bodies.

“The emotional power of the dead body of the criminal was exploited by the State to enforce conformity with the law, they were exploited as sources of scientific or medical knowledge; they gave meaning to places in the landscape, for example, ‘Gibbet Hills’ and so on. At a popular level, their ghosts were believed to stalk the living and their bodies to be places of lurking malevolence which might threaten our comfortable lives – as Frankenstein’s monster did.”

(I always feel compelled to defend the creature when he’s described as intrinsically evil. He was intrinsically repulsive with his papery skin and yellow eyes, but he was much more than the sum of his Abby Normal parts and had his creator/father not been so mean to him, he would never have killed children and best friends and nice ladies on their wedding night. It’s the hubristic scientist, the modern Prometheus, the grave-robbing narcissist who thinks he can do whatever he wants in the name of scientific advancement whose selfishness, cowardice and obstinacy destroy everyone he loves.)

Captain Kidd hanging in a gibbet after 1701 executionThe team will spend five years following the journey of the criminal body through six strands of study. The first is the criminal justice system, wherein will be examined the crime itself, the legal proceedings at trial, the sentences which were sometimes applied and sometimes commuted, with a subsequent focus on how the body of the executed criminal was used to support the judicial system that created it. Although there’s been plenty of study of the crime and punishment from trial to execution, this research will tread new ground in its study of the body after execution. The team will trace the physical movements of the bodies through the justice system and the people — sheriffs, judges, court officers, legal commentators — involved in the decision-making process.

Strand two focuses on the voyage of the criminal corpse through the anatomical world, how executed bodies were used to sustain the explosion of private anatomy schools, all of which required copious numbers of cadavers for their students to get their money’s worth. The team will examine the condition of the corpses when they arrived and how they were dissected and put on display. The Wellcome Collection, the museum of medical history connected to the Trust funding this program, has a fair few human specimens which traveled this road.

The Reward of Cruelty, satirical depiction of anatomized criminal by William Hogarth, 1751The third strand, “Placing the Criminal Corpse,” pivots off the first two strands to focus on the corpse on display, whether in the gibbet or in the anatomy class or museum, through to its burial. Very few bodies of executed criminals can be firmly located today. They couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground, so where did these gibbeted, dissected, dismembered bodies wind up?

Strand four looks at how the dead sustained life. By studying medical literature and contemporary sources, the team will examine how the dead, whether through anatomical study or through magical and healing cultural traditions, cured or prevented illness and kept people alive.

The Whitby Hand of GloryNext up is “The Criminal Corpse in Pieces,” a particularly Halloween-appropriate strand of research which looks at the part played by the criminal corpse in fiction. The bodies of executed criminals frequently starred in the literature of this period as vengeful ghosts, loci of punishment and relics of supernatural power (the Whitby Hand of Glory, for example, the hand of a hanged man which, when holding a candle made from the fat of the same executed criminal, was said to render motionless whomever it was given to, or to unlock all doors). This connects to strand four in its examination of folkloric traditions but will study the interplay between traditions and literary fiction.

The last strand, “The Criminal Corpse Remembered,” brings it all together through a comparative analysis of historical attitudes towards the criminal corpse and contemporary ones. It will look at how our own anxieties and ambivalence about how we treat the dead are informed by the symbolic and practical significance with which the criminal corpse was imbued from the late 17th century through the mid-19th.

Death mask and a pocketbook made from the skin of executed serial murderer/resurrection man BurkeThe Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse project website is already great reading but will continue to expand as the program proceeds. Any published material that comes out of the project or that is relevant to it will be posted on the publications page. Any news stories and events connected to the project will be posted on the news page.

There’s one particularly exciting event hosted by University of Hertfordshire Professor of Social History Owen Davis (one of the Strand Four researchers). It’s a reenactment of the inquest of the infamous “Elstree Murder” case of 1823, which will be held on November 13th at 8:00 PM in the Old Barge Pub in Hertford. It’s free of charge to all comers. Just show up and you’ll get to be a part of the inquest jury that decides whether John Thurtell, the wastrel son of the Mayor of Norwich, and his accomplices murdered the solicitor William Weare because he had cheated John out of £300 in a card game.

After you’re done presiding over this shocking case, you can head over to the Museum of London to see its Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibit, which has been getting rave reviews.

1922 Ohio carousel in Brooklyn besieged by Sandy

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Jane’s Carousel, the 1922 Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel which once delighted the crowds at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio, which was lavishly restored and returned to duty last year in Brooklyn Bridge Park on the banks of the East River, looked like this last night around 9:35 PM:

Jane's Carousel, October 29th, 2012

The picturesque location right on the river between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge (a neighborhood known as DUMBO) which makes for such a lovely view while riding the ornate gilded horses is not so advantageous when confronted with Hurricane Sandy and her record-breaking 13-foot storm surge. It’s amazing that the lights were still on even as the promontory was turned into an island by the flooding waters.

Although there are no official reports from the carousel website or Facebook account, Gothamist went to check this morning and aside from a few shallow puddles inside the jewel box, the carousel appears to have survived its near-drowning unscathed. There are some overturned trashcans inside and you can see the concrete floor inside the short plexiglass barrier is wet, but it doesn’t look like it reached the wooden platform on which the horses turn. That single row of sandbags around the perimeter of the structure deserves a medal.

Jane's Carousel the morning after Inside Jane's Carousel after Sandy Jane's Carousel after Sandy, trash cans overturned Jane'ss Carousel's heroic sandbags

Architect Jean Nouvel designed the acrylic jewel box pavilion so that it would give people riding the carousel a beautiful view and so that the beauty of the carousel itself would make a spectacular landmark for the neighborhood. Obviously he designed it to be strong and secure as well.

Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses conserved and on display

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Scarlett's green velvet curtain dressSix hundred Gone With the Wind fans from around the world donated more than $30,000 over three weeks in August 2010 to restore five dresses worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in the iconic movie. After nearly a year of preliminary study, conservation began in July of 2011 and continued through spring of this year. The famous green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown Scarlett wore to Ashley’s birthday party were stabilized enough to be sent across the ocean so they could be displayed for the first time in 30 years at the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Conservators from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin spent 180 hours painstakingly reinforcing weakened areas and correcting previous attempts at restoration on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown and the green velvet dressing gown. The fabrics used by costume designer Walter Plunkett are heavy and the construction was not intended to last. Neither were they authentically period, but rather streamlined versions in keeping with 1930s glamour, which means some of the techniques used are unique and not the sort of thing conservators had encountered before restoring period clothing.

Scarlett's burgundy ball gownFor example, the bustle at the back of the burgundy ball gown was gathered and stitched into place. Over the years that the dress was on display before it was donated to the Ransom Center along with the rest of producer David O. Selznick’s collection in the 1980s, the bustle had been repaired repeatedly. Old stitches were removed and new ones put in, which means many new holes poked through the fabric. Over decades, even the tiny holes left by needles add up, so by the time the Ransom Center got the dress, the area on the waist where the bustle was attached was weak and unable to support the weight of the velvet gathered there.

In order to stabilize the garment, conservators first had to determine the original shape and draping of the bustle. Then they had to remove as few of the repair stitches as necessary to return the dress to the shape Plunkett had created. The pierced and weakened areas of the fabric were reinforced with Japanese tissue (a thin but strong paper made from plant fibers) and other stabilization techniques. This accomplished both goals of the conservation: stabilization with as little interference as possible, and the restoration of the original look of the gown.

The ostrich feathers on the burgundy dress were another major headache. At some point, new feathers had been added, but they weren’t stitched in the same way as the originals so they didn’t have the elegant curl Plunkett’s original feathers had. Some feathers fell out, but it seems over time the fabric stretched so it looked like more feathers were missing than had actually been lost. Half-assed replacements that were neither the right color nor the right shape were added, making it look more Old West saloon girl than Scarlett O’Hara vixen. See this video for details on the ostrich feather conservation:


The green curtain dress also had problems with sagging and weak points along the waistline. The heavy pleated velvet of the skirt had been sewn to a slim cotton bodice to ensure there was no extra bulk whatsoever at Vivien Leigh’s waist. At first conservators planned to remove repair stitches and reset the pleats to their original depth and location, but they were unable to determine the exact original locations and stitches of the pleats. Instead they decided to go with the conservative option and stabilize the pleats as they were. You can see some of the work on the curtain dress in this video:


The green velvet dressing gown, which at first glance appeared to be one of the better preserved dresses in the collection, turned out to have significant damage. There were stress tears in the skirt and sleeves, splits, holes, loose threads and loose sequins.


Although the conservation team was able to mitigate some of these problems, the gown is in no shape for a transoceanic voyage. It will remain at the Ransom Center in a carefully climate- and moisture-controlled environment.

The Victoria and Albert exhibition runs from October 20, 2012 through January 27, 2013. After that, the burgundy and curtain dresses will return to Austin in preparation for the 75th anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014. The dressing gown is planned to be on display in that exhibition since it won’t have to travel far. They already have a nice companion online exhibition on the web with details about the casting of the movie, the purchase of the book and, my favorite part, wardrobe and makeup.

Unfortunately, the blue velvet peignoir and Scarlett’s wedding dress and veil are too fragile even to conserve. They will be preserved in their current condition in storage and will not go back on display.

The oldest piggy banks are also the cutest

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Containers with slots have been used as home savings banks since ancient times. A miniature Greek temple from the 2nd or 1st century B.C. was found in the Ionian town of Priene (now in Turkey) with a slot in the pediment to drop coins through and an opening in the back that could be locked and unlocked to retrieve the loot. Money boxes in China made out of clay or porcelain that had to be smashed for the contents to be retrieved were used for official purposes, to ensure money collectors could not easily help themselves, at least as early as the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C.

Historian Sima QianThe Records of the Grand Scribe, a massive multi-scroll history of China written by Sima Qian between 109 and 91 B.C., include a morality tale about one of these clay banks. Gongsun Hong, a high ranking minister and eventual Marquis of Pingjin, was born in poverty and worked as a jail warden and pig herder and various other odd jobs for the first half of his life. He began to study the ancient Confucian chronicles of the state of Lu and passed the scholarly exams with flying colors when he was 40 years old, garnering him a professorial appointment at the court of the Han Dynasty Emperor Wu (reigned 141-87 B.C.). Before he left his village to start his new life, an old man told him to take the lesson of the piggy bank: if you stuff yourself full of treasure, you will eventually be smashed. Instead, live frugally, like the humble clay money box itself. That way you’ll earn your money gradually, honorably, and nobody will be looking to bust you open to get to riches within. Gongsun Hong took the elder’s advice and became known far and wide for his honesty, plain living and incorruptibility.

Tang Dynasty clay bank, 9th centuryBy the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century A.D., the official clay money boxes of antiquity had transformed into the household savings devices, especially for children, that piggy banks are today. An inscription on the clay bank on the right notes that it was made in 867 A.D. to celebrate the birth of a child. Coins or good luck charms (which in China were often cast to look like the round coins with the square cutout in the middle) would have been slid through the slot for the birthday boy.

Tudor pygg jarThe piggy bank in the history of English speaking countries was born from a trick of language. In medieval England, an orange clay called “pygg” (pronounced “pug” in Middle English) was used to make a variety of inexpensive household containers, including coin jars. Again, the pygg jars had a small opening or slot to slide coins into but would have to be broken for the coins to be retrieved.

Then came the Great Vowel Shift. Between 1400 and 1700, English vowels came to be formed increasingly higher up and forward in the mouth. This turned the “pug” sound of “pygg” into “pig,” and although by the 18th century pygg was no longer the commonly used clay, the name had stuck, thus giving artisans a new design theme in the creation of money boxes for the home. Because their total destruction was a key design element, very few of these have survived. The addition of aVictorian painted cast iron piggy bank removable plug in the 19th century ushered in the era of the collectible piggy bank.

Post-Great Vowel Shift England wasn’t the first to make adorable coin banks in the shapes of pigs, however. That honor goes to the Majapahit Empire of Southeast Asia. Based on the island of Java, the Majapahit Empire reigned over what is today the Indonesian archipelago from 1293 to 1500. After defeating an invasion fleet of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, Majapahit settled into a mutually beneficially trading relationship with China and other countries whose ships, laden with spices and other merchandise, passed through the archipelago.

Kepeng coin, obverse and reverseSomewhere around 1300, an enormous quantity of Chinese copper kepeng coins were imported into Majapahit. Although Java had had a gold and silver coin economy for centuries by then, the increase in non-agricultural prosperity under the Majapahit Empire created a new need for lower value cash with which to purchase goods and services. After the initial imports, the Majapahit began to cast copper coins of their own in the shape of the Chinese kepeng. Once regular people started having cash on hand, they needed a place to store it at home. Enter the first pig-shaped piggy banks.

A celeng is a wild boar native to the jungles of Java. As with all its porcine cousins, these boars are fertile, have large appetites and enjoy wallowing in the earth. As such they are symbols of prosperity, of good fortune and of a connection to spirits of the earth. It makes sense, therefore, that clay taken from the earth would be shaped into a fat little pig and used for keeping coins. Prosperity literally lies within its adorable round belly.

Majapahit piggy bank in National MuseumBy the 15th century, terracotta piggy banks were made in all shapes and sizes. They were extremely common across all classes. Large numbers of them, most of them broken, have been excavated around the Majapahit capital of Wilwatikta (modern Trowulan). There are several examples on display at the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta, including this one to the right which was pieced back together from fragments by conservators.

Majapahit piggy bank in National MuseumIntact ones are rare, of course, since you have to smash them to get your money, but here’s a 15th century one made out of terracotta in Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum. If you have $5,000 in your piggy bank at home, take a hammer to it so you can buy this 15th century one in painted red clay. There’s no way your piggy bank is as adorably rotund of belly (and testicle) as the Majapahit one.

Majapahit piggy bank Majapahit piggy bank, front Majapahit piggy bank, side Majapahit piggy bank, back

Iconic Civil War flag on display at NY State Museum

Saturday, October 27th, 2012

Marshall House Flag on display at New York State Museum in Albany

A huge Confederate flag which played a starring role in the dramatic end of the first Union soldier killed in the Civil War is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The Marshall House Flag was loaned to the museum for its “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” exhibit by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, which has a vast permanent collection of almost 2,000 flags from the War of 1812 to the present. Because of its massive size (14 by 24 feet) and delicate condition, this flag rarely travels and will only be on display until February 24th, 2013, while the exhibit will continue through September 22nd, 2013.

“One really has to see this flag in order to appreciate it,” said New York State Historian Robert Weible. “It’s enormous and its significance in American history is equally big. By exhibiting this iconic flag, we are better able to communicate the lasting meaning and relevance of the Civil War to a large and appreciative audience.”

Marshall House Hotel by Matthew Brady, ca. 1860-65The story of the Marshall House Flag reads like one of the romantic melodramas that were so popular on the stage and in novels of this period. On May 23rd, 1861, just over a month after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter started the Civil War, an overwhelming majority of Virginia’s voters ratified the articles of secession which had been passed by the General Assembly’s secession convention on April 17th. The next morning just before dawn, eight regiments of federal troops crossed the Potomac River to claim Arlington Heights and Alexandria, Virginia. Among them was a regiment of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the Fire Zouaves because it was principally composed of New York City firefighters, commanded by its dashing twenty-four-year-old colonel, Elmer E. Ellsworth.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was born April 11th, 1837 in Malta, a small town in Saratoga County, New York. He had always been fascinated by the military and had made a personal study of it, but he didn’t have the formal education to be accepted at West Point. He joined local militias and distinguished himself as a drillmaster. To seek employment sufficiently gainful to impress his fiancée’s father, he moved to Chicago to study law. There he formed his first troop of Zouaves, inspired by the exploits of the French Army in the Crimean War that he had read so much about. He designed their red and blue uniforms and trained them to become a crack drill team. Their gaudy colors and sharp moves made them and their leader famous as they toured the major cities of the northeast in the summer of 1860.

Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth by Matthew Brady, ca. 1861Once the tour was over, he took a position in the Springfield law office of Abraham Lincoln. There he worked as a law clerk and for Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Ellsworth became a good friend of Abraham, Mary and the children. When Lincoln won the election, Ellsworth was put in charge of security for his trip to Washington, D.C.

With the onset of hostilities, Ellsworth saw his chance to finally do more than run a drill team, so he returned to New York and recruited the 1st New York Fire Zouaves which became the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry. They were one of the first recruited regiments to arrive in Washington, D.C., and although they had a reputation as undisciplined rakehells (30 women were found in their camp when they got to D.C.), they also immediately proved their valour by fighting fires in the city.

Lithograph of the death of Col. Ellsworth, 1861When Virginia’s secession became official, the Fire Zouaves were therefore on the spot to ensure the safety of Washington’s perimeter. They encountered no resistance as they stationed troops in strategic locations around Alexandria, like the train station and telegraph office. Seeing a massive Confederate flag large enough to be seen from a spyglass at the White House eight miles away flying over the Marshall House Inn on the corner of King Street and Pitt Street, Colonel Ellsworth and a small detachment entered the hotel to take down the flag. Inside they encountered James W. Jackson, the owner of the hotel, who told them he was just a guest. They made their way to the rooftop where Ellsworth cut down the flag. He was rolling it up on the way back down the stairs when Jim Jackson appeared on the second floor landing wielding a double-barrel shotgun (now in the Smithsonian).

Francis E. Brownell in New York City two days after Ellsworth's deathJackson shot Ellsworth in the heart, killing him instantly. Private Francis E. Brownell immediately responded, shooting Jackson in the face with his Army-issue Model 1855 U.S. percussion rifle (also in the Smithsonian), and then running him through with the bayonet as he fell to the floor. Brownell would later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for this act. Although he received it in 1877, his “shooting the murderer of Col. Ellsworth,” as the inscription on the medal states, was the first in the Civil War to merit the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Ellsworth's funeral in the East Room of the White House, drawing on May 25th, 1861, by artist Alfred WaudThe Zouaves, heartbroken by the loss of their beloved leader, were sent to dig earthworks outside of Alexandria out of fear that they would destroy the city in retaliation. Ellsworth’s body and the flag he had died to capture were transported to the Washington Navy Yard. The Lincolns were devastated by the news of his death. By order of the President, Ellsworth’s body was taken to the East Room of the White House to lie in state. Thousands came to pay their last respects. Lincoln was seen openly weeping in grief. He told a group of dignitaries who approached him, “Excuse me but I cannot talk. I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness but I knew Ellsworth well, and held him in great regard.”

Ellsworth memorial envelopeCarried by telegraph and newspapers, word of Ellsworth’s death spread like wildfire across the North. He became an instant martyr, the first Union officer to die at the hands of those dastardly ambushing rebels. His youth, good looks and death for the cause made him an ideal symbolic figure for the Union to rally around. His image and death scene were sold all over the North on lithographs, prints, ceramic mugs, plates, even envelopes. Souvenir hunters flooded the Marshall House, stripping it of the furniture, carpeting, window shutters, stairs, handrail, floorboards and flagpole.

Ellsworth's grave in Mechanicsville, New YorkAfter the funeral service in the East Room, Ellsworth’s body was brought by train home to New York escorted by Francis Brownell, who carried the Marshall House Flag with him. Ellsworth’s body lay in state at City Hall in New York City and at the State Capitol in Albany where again thousands lined up to pay their respects. He was finally buried in the Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicsville, the Saratoga County town where he grew up.

Ellsworth's kepi at the Fort Ward MuseumAll along the way, pieces of the Marshall House Flag were cut out by people as relics of the gallant martyred officer. Today there are fragments in various museums, including a complete star in the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria, Virginia. They also have Col. Ellsworth’s red kepi, his uniform hat.

Ellsworth's coat with the hole in the chestThe bulk of the flag went to the New York State Military Museum, which also has Ellsworth’s uniform coat with the silver dollar-sized hole in the chest from the fatal shot. The museum recently received a large cotton star they think is the central star from the flag representing the Confederate State of Virginia. Here’s a video about the conservation of the Marshall House Flag at the New York State Military Museum. You get a real sense of its hugeness seeing it dwarf five people cleaning it at the same time.


“Iron Man” meteorite carving may be fake

Friday, October 26th, 2012

"Iron Man" carved from meteorite may not be ancient or TibetanNot the meteorite part. The figure was definitely carved from a piece of the Chinga meteorite which fell near the Mongolian-Siberian border 15,000 years ago. It’s the part about it being an 11th century Bön culture artifact that is suspect, and, even more sadly, the part about it having been found during Ernst Schäfer’s Tibet expedition. Buddhism expert Achim Bayer from Dongguk University in South Korea argues persuasively in this article (pdf) that the statue’s features mark it as a European counterfeit probably made between 1910 and 1970.

Bayer first notes that the team led by University of Stuttgart planetologist Dr. Elmar Buchner included no experts in Tibetan or Mongolian art, no ethnologists, no archaeologists. The team’s expertise rested entirely on the fields of mineralogy and planetary science, which is great for the analysis of the material but left them relying on what amounts to hearsay on the question of the sculpture’s origin. According to Bayer, Buchner’s team contacted museums and some individuals to determine which character from Tibetan culture the figure might represent, but no Tibetologists, a glaring oversight, especially considering that one of the paper’s authors is from the University of Vienna which has a well-known and highly respected South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies department.

Had they sought out the input of such experts in the field, Bayer believes they would have immediately been confronted with severe doubts about the statue’s authenticity. The pseudo-Tibetan characteristics of the iconography are glaringly obvious, in his opinion. He brings up 13 main examples, but there are even more minor issues. The posture, positioning and design of the hands, legs and feet are wrong, as is the full beard. The halos, the small one behind the head and the large one behind the body, are suspiciously round and plain. Halos are elaborately decorated in Tibetan art and either do not appear on metal statues or appear only as separate pieces.

The biggest red flags are with the garments. The sleeves, hat and cape do not match those worn by Vaiśravaṇa and other deities, or really anything at all in the Tibetan tradition — the knotted and draped cape looks more Roman than Asian — but it’s the shoes and pants that get top billing on Bayer’s list of errors:

1. The lama is neither barefoot nor does he wear traditional boots. The shoes cover the feet, like European shoes, up to the ankles and no further.
2. Obviously, the trousers worn by the lama do not resemble anything seen in Tibetan or Mongolian sculpture. Traditional statues feature robes, occasionally armour at the shins, but never trousers. The slits at the end of the trousers are probably meant
to make a vaguely oriental, mediaeval or pastoral impression.

That seems to be the common thread with all these would-be Tibetan elements: they’re what a Westerner with little knowledge of Tibetan and Buddhist iconography would imagine is Tibetan based on, say, a two dimensional image they’ve seen in a book. Tibet became a subject of fascination in Europe in the early 20th century, but since its traditional craftsmanship and iconography were not well-known, artists relied on images of sculptures and their own imaginations to create objects for the Tibetica market. The consumers didn’t know any better either. Genuine Tibetan scholarship took root in the European academy in 1970, and the art and antiquities markets followed suit. Bayer therefore places the creation of the Iron Man piece in the period between the dawn of European fascination with Tibetan art (ca. 1910) and the actual study of it (ca. 1970).

"Kim and the Lama" by J.L. Kipling, 1901One possible source of inspiration for this statue is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was published in 1901 with illustrations by his father John Lockwood Kipling. J.L. Kipling was a sculptor, art teacher and museum curator in India for decades starting in 1865. The illustrations depicting Kim’s Lama mentor have several elements in common with Iron Man: the non-standard short hat, the siddha-like earrings, even the swastika on his begging bowl which is positioned in the middle of his torso like it is on the statue (see illustration on page 44). The orientation of the swastika is reversed, probably from the printing, Rudyard Kipling's seal from "Kim"but Rudyard Kipling’s swastika seal before the title page is facing left as in the Asian tradition.

Is there a chance that even if it is a counterfeit it was produced in Asia to sell to Nazi dupes on an expedition to find the spiritual source of the Aryan race? As much as I’d like it to be so because it would make the whole Schäfer story even better, it’s unlikely that local craftsmen would have made so many iconographic errors. It’s more likely that the raw meteorite chunk made it to Europe from Asia and was carved there, either for the general market in Tibet artifacts or for the market in Nazi memorabilia. In the latter case, it would likely have been commissioned with the specific intent of selling it as an artifact from the famous Schäfer expedition.

Bayer has corresponded with Buchner and asked him what evidence the team was given for the Schäfer provenance. The answer is none. They have no evidence whatsoever beyond the word of the anonymous collector who believed that’s where it came from. Bayer’s doubts on the provenance were confirmed by researcher Isrun Engelhardt, an expert on Schäfer expeditions, who is also looking into the Iron Man story and believes the connection to Schäfer is fiction.


Stone slabs stolen from Brontë chapel churchyard

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Old Bell ChapelMore than one hundred feet of gravestones, paving stones and coping stones have been stolen from the churchyard of the Old Bell Chapel (also known as the Brontë Bell Chapel because Patrick Brontë, father of the literary sisters, was the curate there from 1815 to 1820) in the West Yorkshire village of Thornton. It appears to have been a multi-stage plan involving multiple robbers.

Wall after coping stones were stolenMembers of the Old Bell Chapel Action Group, who have worked assiduously for 12 years to restore this historic chapel and cemetery from 150 years of neglect into a beautiful, welcoming site for history, nature and literature buffs alike to enjoy, first saw that coping stones had been torn from a wall outside the chapel on Wednesday, October 17th. On the morning of Saturday the 20th, they arrived to find even more devastation: paving stones from the Brontë Way footpath had been pried up and stolen, as were three horizontal grave slabs and 15 grave toppers from the cemetery.

Grave with missing slab and missing paving stones on the sidesThe grave slabs are huge, each of them six feet long, three feet wide, and four to six inches deep. Two have been marking the final resting places of the children of John and Mary Pickles and the daughter of Hannah and James Abbott since the 1820s. The third grave slab does not have a name inscribed, but it dates to 1790. It must have required a great deal of strength to pry up and remove these heavy slabs of solid rock. Police estimate that you would need four men to lift just one of them. The 15 York stone grave toppersStolen grave topper stolen are not as large as the gravestones, but are nonetheless ponderous, heavy pieces. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d do on the spur of the moment. The theft required tools, organization and manpower, in addition to a callous disregard for history and human dignity, of course.

Stolen paving stonesPolice ask that anyone with information about the thefts contact the North Bradford Neighbourhood Policing Team by calling 101. You can also report anything suspicious to CrimeStoppers at 0800 555 111. Meanwhile, police are patrolling the grounds regularly and have reached out to local stonemasons asking them to report anybody attempting to sell the looted stones. The large grave slabs are inscribed, some in more detail than the headstones, so they’ll be impossible to sell toInscribed grave slabs in the Old Bell Chapel churchyard buyers with any sense and morals. The paving and coping stones, on the other hand, have no distinguishing marks. Recycled York stone, the older the better, is an extremely popular material for landscape design and decorative construction. It’s durable and weathers beautifully.

Some path stones pried up and stacked by the thieves but not removed from the premisesThe Old Bell Chapel Action Group is hoping against hope that at least the gravestones, which are irreplaceable, may be found discarded somewhere. The publicity this dastardly act has garnered may hinder the robbers’ attempts to profit and force them to dump the highly recognizable pieces. Meanwhile, the organization is looking into security cameras and SmartWater, an ingenious anti-theft liquid that contains microscopic chemical particles encoded with a unique signature that glows under UV light. It identifies stolen property like DNA identifies people, and when found on a suspect, it ties them conclusively to the stolen object or the place where it was stolen.

These security measures cost money, money which this small, dedicated group of history lovers does not have. To donate, call Steve Stanworth at 07786 028 889 or email at this address. You can also follow them on Facebook to stay apprised of the investigation and rebuilding efforts.

Date stones in Old Bell Chapel wallThe Action Group had already increased fundraising efforts this year, selling commemorative plates and some lovely Christmas cards in honor of the 400th anniversary of the construction of Old Bell Chapel. There was an even earlier church known as Saint Leonard’s built in 1587 (the date stone is part of the walls of the chapel today), but in 1612 it was rebuilt from scratch and called Saint James’ Church.

Patrick Brontë in old ageBy the time Patrick Brontë arrived 200 years later, the chapel was dilapidated. The growing Dissenter movements of the 17th and 18th centuries had turned many people from the small, cramped Anglican church to its Independent Congregationalist competition, the Kipping Chapel. It was still a popular spot for burials, though. The churchyard has seen 6000 burials from 1597 until the last one in 1965, and up until Patrick’s time, people could pay extra and be buried under the floor of the church itself. Brontë put a stop to that practice because it was making the church smell awful. He also spearheaded a major renovation of the church in 1818, rebuilding the south walls with windows and erecting a bell tower.

Brontë baptismal font, St. James' ChurchAlthough the nearby village of Haworth where the children grew up and Emily and Charlotte would write their masterpieces is more widely associated with Patrick’s clutch of world-famous children, the five of them born during his curacy of St. James’ Church were baptized there: Elizabeth (baptized August 26th, 1815), Charlotte (June 29th, 1816), Patrick Branwell (July 23rd, 1817), Emily (August 26th, 1818) and Ann (March 25th, 1820). The baptismal font they all used still exists. It has been moved across the street to the current Saint James’ Church, built in 1872 to replace the old church which had fallen into disrepair after Patrick Brontë took the Perpetual Curacy of Haworth and moved the family there in April 1820.

Old Bell Chapel in 1988 before clearing and restorationIt was a crumbling ruin ceded to the wilderness when the Old Bell Chapel Action Group took it upon themselves to clear and preserve it starting in 2000. They cleared the brush, revealing the remaining walls of the chapel and opening the cemetery so locals could visit their ancestors’ and relatives’ graves and Brontë lovers could pay homage to where it all began.

14th c. sword looted in Alexandrian Crusade for sale

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

14th c. Italian-made sword with rich Cypriot and Mamluk historyAn arming sword (a knight’s sword for single-handed use smaller than a broadsword) from the 14th century with a storied past from the waning days of the Crusader kingdoms will be the star of Bonham’s Antique Arms and Armor sale on November 28th. The auction catalogue won’t be available until four weeks before the sale; bookmark this page and check back if you’re interested.

It’s longer than your average arming sword, with a tapering double-edged blade more than three feet long (92.5 centimeters or 36.4 inches). The hilt has an iron wheel pommel engraved with a crosslet cross (a heraldic symbol signifying the spread of Christianity to the four corners of the earth by means of four Latin crosses combined so that their tops point north, south, east and west), a leather-wrapped grip and a straight cross-guard. It is nine inches (23.2 centimeters) long, bringing the total length of the sword to an impressive three feet nine and 35/64 inches (115.7 centimeters).

The sword was made in Italy in the mid-14th century. Its first duty was diplomatic, as a gift to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt al-Nasir Hasan from Peter I, King of Cyprus. By Peter’s time, Cyprus was the last Crusader state in existence. Although he held the titles of King of Jerusalem and Count of Tripoli, these were in name only, and even the empty titles weren’t exactly grounded in valid claims of descendance. Peter was a Lusignan, a branch of a French knightly family whose most famous son Guy had married extraordinarily well. Guy de Lusignan was one of those troublesome knights who spent his downtime back home in Aquitaine assaulting people and stealing their stuff. One of his victims was Patrick, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, who died in an ambush by Guy and his scoundrel brothers in 1168.

The Lusignans were exiled for this crime, reputedly by their overlord Richard, acting Duke of Aquitaine and future Lionhearted king of England, but since Richard was 11 years old in 1168, it was probably his redoubtable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine’s doing. On the other hand, he did get a very early start. Richard was touring the duchy as official Duke just three years later in 1171. His mother was by his side, but by all accounts Richard was a well-established ruler in his early teens. He led his first army when he was 16.

As was so often the fate of the many and varied violent criminal knights of medieval Europe, Guy de Lusignan made his way to Jerusalem, which had been the capital of a Catholic kingdom in Palestine since the First Crusade in 1099. His older brother was already there and doing well for himself. Guy did even better, marrying Sibylla, sister of Baldwin IV, the leper King of Jersualem, in 1180. Baldwin IV died in 1185. His nephew, Sibylla’s son from a former marriage, was crowned Baldwin V, but he died soon thereafter. Sibylla became Queen, and she saw to it that Guy became King with a clever deception. She had the marriage annulled to appease his enemies in court, on the condition that she could choose her next husband. They agreed, the marriage was annulled and then Sibylla announced that her choice for a new husband was (drumroll) Guy de Lusignan. They remarried in August 1186, and she literally handed him her crown so he could crown himself King of Jerusalem.

Guy de Lusignan and Saladin by Jan Lievens, 1625The good times didn’t last. On July 4th, 1187, Guy made the extremely bad call of leading the army of Jerusalem across the desert in the middle of the summer day to relieve Tiberias, under siege by the forces of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, aka Saladin. The Battle of Hattin was a rout, the army destroyed and Guy captured. Saladin moved on to Jerusalem, besieging it from September 20th until its capitulation on October 2nd. The King and Queen of Jerusalem no longer had Jerusalem in their kingdom.

The movie Kingdom of Heaven depicts a highly fictionalized version of these events. Despite its many, many historical inaccuracies, it is a visually stunning film and well worth watching, especially the director’s cut on Blu-ray. Guy does not get a sympathetic portrayal, to put it mildly.

Guy was released in 1188. In 1190, he besieged Acre in anticipation of the arrival of the Third Crusade. His wife and daughters died of plague there, leaving him without even the titular right to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He insisted it was still his, though, and appealed to his old overlord Richard, now King Richard I of England and a vigorous crusader. Ultimately he would lose, but as compensation for Guy’s loss of the crown his wife had given him, in 1192 Richard pulled some strings so Guy could purchase Cyprus from the Knights Templar, who had just purchased it from Richard after he had taken it from self-styled Byzantine “emperor” Isaac Komnenos in 1191. Guy ruled there as king (even though it wasn’t really a kingdom) and kept his fake King of Jerusalem title to boot. Thus began the reign of the Lusignan Dynasty in Cyprus which would continue until 1474.

As for Peter I’s claim to be Count of Tripoli, Qalawun, the seventh Mamluk sultan of Egypt, captured Tripoli on April 27, 1289, putting an end to the Crusader County of Tripoli for good. In 1291, Qalawun’s son and successor, Al-Ashraf Khalil, took Acre, the last fragment of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem remaining in Palestine. After that, Cyprus, once the consolation prize for the failed would-be King of Jerusalem, was the only Crusader kingdom left.

King Peter I of Cyprus, detail from fresco in Santa Maria Novella in Florence by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1365Peter’s fondest dream was to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity, redeem the Lusignan name and make his phantom title real. Since his ascension to the throne in 1358, his allies in Armenia had asked him to fight the Turks, who were harrying the town of Korikos. Seeking to establish a bulwark in Asia Minor, Peter sent troops to Korikos who successfully defended the city. Now the Turks were mad, so they sent ships straight to Cyprus. Peter was again successful, and he responded by attacking Antalya and other towns in Asia Minor.

While all this was going on, he really didn’t need the other Islamic powers on his jock, so he struck a treaty with the Sultan of Mamluk Egypt, even though he was fully planning on attacking them too when he got a moment. That moment came on October 9th, 1365, when a Cypriot force, fortified by ships and troops from Venice, the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes and the other European powers he had lobbied for three years to support him in this new crusade (which like many of the old crusades turned out to have less to do with religion than with plunder), attacked Alexandria. For the next three days, Peter’s troops sacked the city, helping themselves to its armory which of course included the sword he had given the sultan a few years before.

The Taking of Alexandria, illumination in book by Guillaume de Machaut, 1372-1377Peter wanted to move on to capture Cairo, but his patchwork army had zero interest in going against the far stronger Mamluk garrison there, so they just loaded the treasures of Alexandria onto ships and went home. The exact path of the sword from that point on is unknown, but I suspect it ended up back on Cyprus again. The reason I suspect this is the Arabic inscription on the blade, which translates to “Donation to the armory in the frontier city of Alexandria in the days of al-Sayfi Faris al-[Muhammadi].” Amir Faris was a inspector in Alexandria in 1436-7, so that means the sword made its way back to the armory after the Alexandrian Crusade. Mamluk Sultans attacked Cyprus in force in 1426, capturing King Janus and pillaging far and wide, so perhaps they got this hot potato of a sword back then.

Janus was eventually ransomed, but from then on, the Lusignan kings of Cyprus paid a yearly tribute to the Sultans of Egypt. The last Lusignan king of Cyprus was James II. He died in 1473, just a few months after his marriage to an 18-year-old Venetian noblewoman Catherine Cornaro. Rumor has it she or her relatives might have hastened his death. Catherine was pregnant at the time, so she was made regent. Her son died in 1474 before he was a year old, again under suspicious circumstances, officially ending the Lusignan line.

Caterina Coronaro as St. Catherine of Alexandria by Titian, ca. 1542Although Catherine continued to reign as Queen by virtue of her marriage, she was a puppet; a highly cultured and beloved one, but nonetheless it was the power brokers of Venice who pulled the strings on Cyprus. They forced her to abdicate in 1489, leaving Cyprus as a colony of Venice until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1571.

Fun fact in the everything is linked to everything else category: Catherine Cornaro was the great-granddaughter of Marco Corner, Count of Zara and future Doge of Venezia, depicted in the painting recently reclaimed for the dining room of The Elms mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.

Revolutionary War general gets a grave marker

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Horatio Gates wearing the gold medal given him by Congress for the victory at Saratoga, portrait by Gilbert StuartGeneral Horatio Gates was the commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga, which took place in eastern New York in two phases on September 19th and October 7th, 1777. The conclusive victory resulted in the surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s army and was the immediate cause of France’s agreement to negotiate an alliance with the ragtag colonists, which would force Britain to fight on multiple fronts and would provision the Revolutionaries with much-needed arms and money. The Battle of Saratoga is widely considered America’s greatest victory in the War of Independence.

For some time after Saratoga, General Gates was held in the highest esteem. He and George Washington were treated as equally great heroes, appearing on the cover of almanacs and in contemporary histories as luminaries of the Continental Army. Then things went awry, which is why few people have heard of Gates today while we daily palpate George Washington’s visage on the dollar bill. The main problem was that General Gates had a gigantic ego which led him to take more credit than he may have deserved, and to attempt to secure more power than was wise.

"The Glorious Gates and Washington" on the cover of Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack, 1778Born in 1727 in Deptford, England, Horatio Gates was the son of a housekeeper with outstanding connections to the aristocracy and a civil servant. His mother’s service for the Duke of Bolton secured a military commission for her son, who ten years later would move to New York and serve under British General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War. An injury early on in the campaign kept him from doing much field duty, but by all accounts he was an excellent military administrator.

By 1769, he was over the British army with its strict class-based promotion system that had kept him stuck at the rank of major for years. He sold his commission and bought a small plantation outside Leetown in what was then Virginia and is now West Virginia. When hostilities broke out with Britain in 1775, Gates immediately presented himself to Washington, whom he had known when they both served under Braddock in the French and Indian War, as an experienced candidate for high rank in the nascent US army. Valuing his inside knowledge of British military tactics and his administrative abilities, Washington appointed him Brigadier General and Adjutant General of the Continental Army.

Gates wanted a field command, though. In fact, he wanted the whole command, actively lobbying the Continental Congress in 1776 to appoint him Commander-in-Chief instead of Washington. He had many influential backers, especially among the New England delegates, but Washington’s victories at Trenton (after he famously crossed the icy Delaware River standing up in the front of a rowboat) on December 26th, 1776 and at Princeton on January 2nd, 1777 entrenched his position at the head of the army. General Gates was sent to New York State to help Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the army’s Northern Department.

When Schuyler lost Fort Ticonderoga to the British, Gates saw his chance (even though he was plenty involved in the failed campaigns). Congress appointed him commander of the Northern Department in August of 1777, a month before the initial encounters with General Burgoyne’s troops at Saratoga.

Benedict Arnold Boot Monument on the spot where he was shot in Saratoga National Historical Park; his name is not mentioned anywhere on itThere is much debate on the question of how much credit he deserves for the victory there. His field generals, most notably Benedict Arnold, did much of the on-the-ground fighting, and Arnold’s greatest success repelling a British attack on the left flank happened against Gates’ orders. Arnold was shot in the leg in that battle. The shot broke his leg and killed his horse, which then fell on top of him and broke his leg some more.

Gates liked his action defensive, always advocating for retreat and holding back. It’s not as glamorous as Arnold’s inspiring charge into the breach, but in this case Gates’ cautiousness served the troops well since it ensured they were well-established in a defensive position on Bemis’ Heights with solid supply lines all the way back to Albany. The British Army, on the other hand, had major supply issues and although they had won the first encounter in September, they did so at great human cost, particularly among their officers who had been successfully targeted by American shooters. The American army was able to cut off British resupply, and the German troops refused Burgoyne’s orders to attack again. On October 17th, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates.

"The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga" by John Trumbull, 1822Riding high on the Saratoga victory, Gates was appointed head of the Board of War, a civilian position which put him in the absurdly conflict-rife position of having political command over George Washington who was his commanding officer in the army. During this time, he and a cabal of officers, including General Thomas Conway, discussed having Washington fired and Gates appointed Commander-in-Chief in his place. It never went beyond an exchange of letters, and the Conway Cabal, as it became known, failed when Washington found out about it and confronted the grumblers. Gates apologized, resigned from the Board of War, and quietly took command of the Eastern Department.

In 1780, he was given command of the Southern Department after the British victory in the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina. This would turn out to be his military nadir. At the Battle of Camden on August 16th, Gates’ army was beaten like a red-headed stepchild by General Charles Cornwallis. The British took 1,000 of Gates’ men prisoner and all of his artillery. Gates reputedly distinguished himself in one way: by running 170 miles in three days on horseback to get back to safety up north.

Congress called for an inquiry into Gates’ conduct in the aftermath of the disaster, but it went nowhere and his supporters had it repealed in 1782. With the end of hostilities in 1783, you’d think his chances to mess up would also end, but Gates was involved in one more embarrassment, the Newburgh conspiracy, in which officers unhappy about the prospect of their promised pensions remaining unpaid due to Congressional brokeness tried to stir up trouble. They proposed Washington be replaced by Gates, but Washington yet again headed them off at the pass by delivering a speech which, though unpersuasive in substance, swayed his officers back to his side with a reference to his now having to wear glasses because of the hardships he’d suffered along with them during this war.

Traveler's Rest in Leetown, West Virginia, picture from 1933 or laterGates went back to Traveler’s Rest, his estate in Virginia, for a few years. Then he sold the estate, manumitted his slaves, and moved to New York. He died in Manhattan in 1806 and was buried in the Trinity Church graveyard on Wall Street. Doubtless he had a gravestone at that point, but over time it was lost, as was the exact location of his burial.

DAR lay wreath at Trinity ChurchNow, thanks to the efforts of James S. Kaplan, a tax attorney/historian/tour guide who for the past 16 years has given a walking tour of Revolutionary War sites in Manhattan every July 4th from 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, General Horatio Gates has an official memorial marker at the Trinity Church cemetery. The marble marker was installed on the south side of the church and a wreath lain in a ceremony on Sunday, October 21st.

Read James Kaplan’s assessment of General Gates’ role in the Battle of Saratoga in this article. You can listen to James Kaplan’s Trinity Church tour here. Search for “Kaplan” on this page to access recordings of his many other tours of New York City, including his ten-stop Great Crash of 1929 tour of Wall Street in collaboration with real estate executive Richard M. Warshauer.

Germany using signs to stop Baltic shipwreck looters

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Diver observes World War II U-boat off the coast of BoltenhagenThe low salinity and cold temperatures of the Baltic Sea provide ideal conditions for the preservation of shipwrecks and their contents. There are an estimated 100,000 shipwrecks resting on the floor of the Baltic Sea, with perhaps 6,000 of them deemed of particular archaeological and historical significance. Although Swedish Baltic archaeological finds have made much of the news lately, there are approximately 1,500 protected marine monuments (mostly shipwrecks, but also some downed aircraft and submerged archaeological remains that were once on dry land) in German Baltic waters.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, these were mainly left alone. Much of the coastal Baltic was restricted territory. Except for a few select people, divers weren’t allowed to explore the vast historical wealth under water. Since reunification, areas that were once off limits are now open, and advances in diving technology have greatly increased the numbers of sports divers hoping to see the Baltic sights. They can also go further offshore to reach shipwrecks that 20 years ago wouldn’t have been accessible. Add to that a wider range of available tools for the sports diver, and now stealing objects of historical value from Baltic wrecks becomes a lucrative proposition.

Steel plate sealing gap in U-boat turret hatchOnly 350 of the marine monuments have been officially explored and mapped, which makes it hard to know exactly how bad the undersea looting situation has gotten. The evidence on the sites that have been documented, however, is extremely disturbing. For example, one World War II U-boat, a small two-man vessel discovered 60 feet under Baltic waters off the coast of Boltenhagen in 2000, was found with its turret hatch closed and undamaged. It was therefore designated a war grave, since its crew remained sealed within. In 2002, divers broke into the hatch. Regional government officials sealed the hole with a steel plate which is still in place today, but shows clear signs of having been tampered with in an attempt to break into the U-boat.

“It’s one of our big worries, over the years people keep trying to get into it and that is of course utterly disrespectful,” says Detlef Jantzen, an archaeologist at the regional agency for monument protection in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

It’s possible that these divers don’t realize the U-boat is a war grave, or at least aren’t consciously thinking about the fact that they’re desecrating a grave by messing with the hatch. Some of the other wreck sites that are regularly visited by hobby divers may be damaged because the tourists with good intentions don’t understand how their interactions with the artifacts can cause harm. In an attempt to appeal to better natures, and maybe to enlist conditioned reactions to museum signs, Germany’s Society of Maritime Archaeology has started a project to add underwater signs to historic shipwrecks.

The first sign, next to 100-year-old tugboatLast week the first sign was added to a 100-year-old tugboat thought to have been sunk during or just after World War II. At only 30 feet deep, it’s a popular site for sport divers to visit. The wreck was discovered three years ago and is already showing the ill-effects of diver interference. The sign informs divers that the wreck is a protected historical monument and provides additional information about the site’s layout and history.

The group will start by signposting nine monuments. One particularly valuable wreck is that of the “Darsser Kogge,” a 14th century ship that is a rare example of medieval shipbuilding. “It’s lying on its side and the remains provide valuable information on construction and manufacturing techniques of the time,” said [Society of Maritime Archaeology chairman Martin] Siegel. “These preserved vessels are often the only source of research into traditional shipbuilding.”

The Darsser Kogge has enough to worry about as it is without divers making things worse. The Baltic Sea is increasingly subject to the depredations of the dreaded Teredo navalis, naval shipworm, which used to stick to saltier waters leaving Baltic wooden wrecks free of its destructive devouring. As the waters of the Baltic have gotten warmer and their salinity has increased, particularly over the past decade, the wood boring creatures have spread from the coast of Denmark east into German Baltic territory and north into Swedish waters.

Spread of Teredo navalis surface larvae in Baltic, 1980-1989 (l), 1990-1999 (m), 2000-2008 (r)

The EU has funded a study of the presence of shipworm in the Baltic, the Wreck Protect Project, to determine how far Teredo navalis has spread, whether, as researchers suspect, climate change is the underlying cause of the Baltic’s environmental changes, and how best to preserve archaeological and historical sites in situ, since logistics and funding make it impossible to contemplate raising every wreck for conservation on dry land.

Darsser Kogge wreckThe EU’s MoSS (Monitoring Safeguarding and Visualizing North European Shipwreck Sites) Project worked to document and protect four wreck sites in the Baltic and elsewhere in Northern Europe, including the Darsser Kogge. There are some good pictures and information about the history of the ship and its conservation challenges on its website.





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