Archive for October, 2012

Men seek cat, find catacomb

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Mirko Curti and Raimondo Turnu in front of the newly exposed side of the caveOn the night of Tuesday, October 16th, 25-year-old bartender Mirko Curti left his apartment building at 196 Via di Pietralata in the Tiburtina neighborhood of Rome with his friend Raimondo Turnu in search of a missing cat. They heard meowing and followed the sound to an aperture that, due to heavy rains, had recently appeared in a low volcanic tufa cliff nearby. It was the entrance to a cave. Inside they found a number of human bones and a wall of niches called a columbarium which once held the ashes of Roman dead. “It was impressive,” said Curti. “I felt like an explorer. You go behind your house and you end up feeling like Indiana Jones.”

You might think this sort of thing happens all the time in a city as ancient and layered as Rome, but it really doesn’t, hence their elation. Tiburtina is within the current boundaries of the city, not in the historic center. It’s a relatively modern residential neighborhood, outside of the pomerium, the ancient sacred boundary that marked what was Rome and what was just land Rome owned. It was prime real estate for burials, though, since by law people could not be buried inside the pomerium. Plenty of archaeological finds have been made in the area (especially along the ancient Roman road), but you wouldn’t expect to stumble on one while looking for your cat behind your building.

Opening in the wall they slipped throughDespite their excitement at having stumbled onto an Indy moment of their own, the young men did the proper thing and left, calling the police to alert them to the find. (Sadly, there’s no word on whether they found the cat too.) The next day, the police called in various authorities, including municipal agents and firefighters, but first on the scene were archaeologists from the city Superintendence of Cultural Goods. Their preliminary findings indicate that the columbarium is of early Imperial date and was violated long ago. The human bones appear to have come from a higher level burial. They probably collapsed to their current location as a result of an earthquake or a landslide.

The area is susceptible to that kind of thing because tufa is very soft rock, which makes it easy to dig for necropolis purposes and makes it vulnerable to the elements. The ancients carved many caves into the Tiburtina cliffs, and recent rains caused stones and earth obscuring the large entrance of the cave to collapse. The city Superintendence has fenced off the cave entrance and closed off the small opening for now out of concern for public safety given the precariousness of the walls and roof of the structure.

Colombario of Pomponio Hylas on the Appia AnticaWith the premises secured, now the state archaeologists are examining the contents. According to their assessment, the columbarium dates from the 1st century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., an era when this style of burial was very popular among Romans of modest means. They would make monthly payments to a collegium, a burial society, which would then foot the bill for cremation, an urn and a dignified burial with all the proper rites in a communal columbarium for members and their families. More prosperous families would sometimes team up to share a columbarium, or one family would purchase one for themselves and sell any leftover spots to individuals.

Because of the landslides, the recently discovered columbarium has a mound of earth obscuring most of the niches. When the cave is stabilized (which may be a while because Rome is expecting heavy rains in the upcoming days and weeks), archaeologists will excavate to reveal the full wall as well as recover the scattered bones. The finders estimate that there were at least 100 loose bones. Archaeologists expect that they will be of later date, although there could be overlap on the more recent end of the estimate. Inhumation was becoming increasingly fashionable by the second half of the 2nd century A.D. It would make cremation virtually obsolete by the fourth.

Kelly Clarkson buys Jane Austen ring; export blocked

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Jane Austen turquoise and gold ring in its original boxAt the Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale in London this July, a turquoise and gold ring which had once belonged to Jane Austen was purchased for £152,450 ($244,000). As is their wont, Sotheby’s did not release the name of the buyer, but now the buyer has revealed herself. In an interview with British tabloid the Daily Star, singer and first American Idol Kelly Clarkson identified herself as the bidder who won Jane Austen’s ring.

The ring has a flawless provenance. When Jane died in 1817, she left all her possessions to her sister and best friend Cassandra. Three years later, Cassandra gave the ring to Eleanor Jackson, soon to be her sister-in-law as the second wife of her brother Rev. Henry Thomas Austen, the brother Jane was closest to. Eleanor Austen passed it to her niece Caroline, who had known Jane briefly when she was a little girl. It has been kept in the family this entire time, only becoming public knowledge now because of the sale. This ring is the first piece of Jane’s jewelry to come up for auction in a generation. Note from Eleanor Austen, wife of Rev. Henry Austen, Jane's brother, to her niece Caroline bequeathing her the ringIncluded in the lot is a hand-written note Eleanor wrote to Caroline shortly before her death in 1869:

“My dear Caroline. The enclosed Ring once belonged to your Aunt Jane. It was given to me by your Aunt Cassandra as soon as she knew that I was engaged to your Uncle. I bequeath it to you. God bless you!”

Unfortunately for Ms. Clarkson, she won’t be wearing Jane’s ring back home. She applied for an export license as required by law, but the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest advised the Secretary of State not to grant it on the grounds that the object is of national importance. With the export ban in place, the item cannot leave British soil. Kelly is going to have to cross an ocean to visit her ring.

The Reviewing Committee assesses each object according to three criteria established by a 1950 export policy committee chaired by Viscount Waverley. There are three Waverley criteria against which an export item is to be judged:

1. History — Is the object so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
2. Aesthetics — Is the object of outstanding aesthetic importance?
3. Scholarship — Is the object of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Jane Austen's ringAlthough Jane Austen’s ring is a lovely cabochon natural turquoise, it’s too simple a design, I suspect, to qualify as a national treasure under Waverley two. There is little of scholarship value in the ring. Jane was known to have simple tastes in jewelry, something reflected in her characters and in at least one letter to her sister Cassandra from May 24th, 1813:

“I have bought your Locket, but was obliged to give 18s* for it-which must be rather more than you intended; it is neat & plain, set in gold.”

It’s a limited area of study, however, and there’s nothing in the correspondence or in the literature about this particular ring. Keeping the ring in country isn’t likely to add anything of major import to Jane Austen scholarship.

Jewelry on display at the Jane Austen's House Museum; topaz cross on the right is Jane's, Cassandra's is on the leftThat leaves Waverley one, which assesses an object’s significance as an individual artifact or in the context of local history or of a collection, or in its association with important events, people or places. It’s that personal association with one of England’s greatest authors which I suspect underpinned the Reviewing Committee’s decision to recommend an export ban. The ring is also quite rare, as Jane Austen lived a modest life and wasn’t dripping jewelry to begin with. Even less of it is known to have survived. The most famous piece is a topaz cross, now on a necklace with a cross of Cassandra’s, both of them gifts from their seafaring brother Charles who purchased them in 1801 with prize money he received for the capture of a French ship during the Napoleonic Wars. The crosses are on display along with some of Jane’s and Cassandra’s other jewels at the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.

First edition of "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion," printed 1818Kelly Clarkson won’t leave England entirely empty-handed. At the same auction, she also purchased a first edition Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously in 1818, for £4,000 ($6,200).

In the article, Clarkson also cops with pride to being one of our brethren of history nerds by way of explaining all the nerdy things she does whenever she’s in the UK. This time she forwent her usual tour bus in favor of a car and driver that would allow Kelly and her sister to see the sights wherever they wished. They apparently had a Jane Austen theme going on, since one of the stops was to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire where the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet was filmed.

Possible Richard III grave to remain open

Friday, October 19th, 2012

King Richard III, painter unknown, ca. 1590-1610The original plan for the Leicester parking lot dig that was so astonishingly successful was to excavate two trenches over the course of two weeks which would be filled in and reverted to a parking lot at the end. That was based on everyone’s modest expectations of what they might find. Then the deities of archaeological good fortune laid giant sloppy kisses all over them so they were able to locate the Greyfriars church and abbey and, most importantly, human remains of a male with scoliosis, sharp force trauma to the skull and an arrowhead embedded in his back.

At the press conference where the discovery of the potential Richard III skeleton was announced, speakers noted that the plans for the dig site had obviously changed somewhat. Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester, noted that the Leicester Council members were going to have to make do without their parking lots a while longer, as examination of the trenches would continue for the foreseeable future. At the same time, they made clear that the parking lot would return as soon as the archaeologists were through. When a reporter asked if there was any chance of the site remaining open for visitors, he was told that the archaeological site is not really “display quality” because there’s little to see other than the trenches themselves.

Grey Friars site mapNow it seems they’ve devised a compromise plan. Two of the three trenches will be entirely refilled and paved for parking lot purposes; however, the section of the trench where the skeleton was found will not be filled. (On the site map, it’s the bit that juts out from the Walking Place marked with a line. The dot at one end of the line is where the head was found.) It’s been covered by a protective tent to keep it safe from the elements. This is a temporary solution until they make a final decision on how best to preserve the grave site for future display, but it’s certain that the grave itself will be kept open.

As for the rest of the dig, the fragile parts of the trenches were first lined with a geotextile membrane (synthetic polymer sheets that are used in construction to separate substrate layers and keep them from intermixing but still allowing water to drain through normally), then backfilled with the same material that was removed during the initial excavation. This will preserve some of the more delicate church and abbey remains like the exposed mortar bedding from the tiled cloister floor even as it allows most of the dig site to be resurfaced and returned to parking lot duty.

Diggers removing the tarmac from the parking lot for the first trench - University of LeicesterAfter six enormously successful open days over the second half of September when vistors flocked in thousands to see what is very likely to be the grave of the last king of England to die in battle, clearly the Leicester City Council realizes it would be madness to bury the goose that lays the golden eggs. If I had my druthers they’d kiss their parking lots goodbye and dig up the entire Greyfriars site, but that was never going to happen. They’d have to knock down buildings to expose all of the church and abbey, and they probably wouldn’t find anything underneath those buildings anyway because whatever ruins were there were probably destroyed during the later construction.

In fact, the skeleton itself came precipitously close to being irretrievably damaged by a Victorian building. Nineteenth century foundations begin less than a foot above where the skull of the probable king was found. Site director Mathew Morris said: “It was incredibly lucky. If the Victorians had dug down 30cm more they would have built on top of the remains and destroyed them.”

The DNA analysis is still ongoing. Results are expected before the end of the year. If DNA does confirm, the question of where the remains should be reinterred will explode. The Richard III Foundation has already started an online petition asking that Richard’s remains be buried in York Minster instead of the place where he was betrayed and defeated, corpse paraded naked through the streets and then unceremoniously buried as a usurper. The Leicester press has dismissed this effort because the organization is based in Virginia. Philippa Langley, secretary of the Scottish Branch of the Richard III Society, spent years working to make this dig happen and she is firmly on Leicester’s side, both for historical and practical reasons.

York Minster stained glass Richard III window“When I started the process everybody said the remains should stay in Leicester. There’s a huge case for that because he’s been here for the past 527 years and it’s the Leicester authority which has paid for the dig and provided assistance from the start.”

She said York Minster waited 15 years before agreeing to house a stained-glass window dedicated to Richard. “It worries me to think the same will happen with the remains,” she said. “The problem is that York Minster is full and there might not be anywhere for him. I don’t want the body sitting around for more than decade [sic] before they decide where they’re going to put him.”

Ultimately the decision is going to rest with the Royal Household, and so far all signs suggest they’ll leave it in Leicester’s hands.

Long Live the King! by Emma Vieceli, Kate Brown, Paul DuffieldOn a lighter note, Emma Vieceli, the artist who along with Kate Brown and Paul Duffield created the five manga panels inspired by stained glass depicting Richard’s death, burial and excavation that were used as graphic backdrops during the press conference (you can see all five of them at the bottom of this entry), is working with her collaborators on a series of graphic novels about Richard III. They won’t be about the dig, just about the history of the king from his youth in Middleham to his death at Bosworth Field. She’s in talks with publishers now.

159 pristine Roman gold coins found near St. Albans

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

A 34-year-old car salesman who had just decided to try his hand at treasure hunting went into this store in Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and purchased a $150 entry-level metal detector advertised as ideal for children and beginners. A few weeks later, he came back to the store with 55 Roman gold coins he had found on private land north of St. Albans and asked the staff what he should do with them. Store owner David Sewell, who has spent years metal detecting (and his best score was a rare medieval silver penny), told the lucky bastard to contact the local Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer.

In early October, local officials, the finder and the guys from the store, armed with more powerful metal detectors, joined up for a second, more extensive investigation of the field. In the 15 yards of woodland they explored, they unearthed another 104 gold coins, bringing the total up to 159.

All of them are 22-carat gold solidus coins struck in Milan (capital of the Western Empire from 286 A.D. to 402 A.D) and Ravenna (capital of the Western Empire from 402 A.D. until the collapse in 476 A.D.) in the late 4th century. The solidi bear the names and faces of the five different emperors who issued them: Gratian, Valentinian, Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius, the last Roman emperor to rule Britain. They are in incredible condition. When I first saw a thumbnail of the find, I thought they were double eagles or some other relatively recent gold minting. The high resolution picture confirms that they look as fresh as the day they were struck. Be sure to click on the picture to see them in all their impeccable glory.

Their condition is particularly impressive considering that they’ve almost certainly encountered the business end of farming equipment. The woodland where the coins were discovered has been quarried and farmed over the past two centuries, which is probably why the coins were found scattered over the area instead of together in a container. Given how immensely valuable solidi were, particularly in the waning days of Roman Britain when very little new currency was sent up north from Italy, they must have been buried in a container rather than just wrapped in an organic textile. No remains of a vessel were found.

Solidi were not circulation coins. Here’s David Thorold, Prehistory to Medieval Curator at Verulamium Museum, on the subject:

“Gold solidi were extremely valuable coins and were not traded or exchanged on a regular basis. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land or goods by the shipload.

“The gold coins in the economy guaranteed the value of all the silver and especially the bronze coins in circulation. If you saved enough bronze, you could exchange it for a silver coin. If you saved enough silver, you could exchange it for a gold coin. However, most people would not have had regular access to them. Typically, the wealthy Roman elite, merchants or soldiers receiving bulk pay were the recipients.”

End of Roman rule in Britain 383-410Hoards were buried either as a sacrifice to the gods or to keep valuables safe during dangerous times. I’m guessing the latter is the case here, since they were buried at a time when Roman troops were withdrawing from Britain and Saxon raiders were making mincemeat of southeastern England.

What is now St. Albans was known in Roman times as Verulamium. It was granted the rights of a Roman city in 50 A.D., extremely early in the history of Roman Britain, and became a large, prosperous market city on a major Roman road. At its height, it was the third largest town after Londinium (London) and Corinium (Cirencester). The city was already in decline by the second half of the 4th century, its once-beautiful theater, one of the few in Britain, used as a Remains of the Roman theater of Verulamiumgarbage dump. After Honorius withdrew the last Roman garrisons in 410 A.D., the city of Verulamium was abandoned. Its remains were used as a quarry in the Middle Ages by the nearby town of St. Albans which eventually expanded to include the area of the old Roman city.

This is one of the largest collections of solidi ever found. (The largest was the Hoxne Hoard, which included 569 solidus coins among many other treasures.) It’s certainly a discovery of national significance, and the local museum, the Verulamium Museum, is very keen to acquire them for display. Before that can happen, the coins have to be assessed by experts at the British Museum and then declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The local museum will then be given the opportunity to purchase the treasure at the assessed value, with all proceeds split between the finder and the landowner.

Touch Tours of ancient Egypt for the blind

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Penn Museum Lower Egyptian galleryPenn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, is offering a pilot program that gives the blind and vision-impaired the opportunity to explore ancient Egyptian artifacts with their hands. The new Touch Tours kick off this fall with Insights into Ancient Egypt, a docent-led exploration of six carefully chosen artifacts in the museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery. Every Monday from October 1st through December 10th, pre-booked guests remove all rings and bracelets and degrease their hands with sanitizing wipes, then are invited to touch the artifacts in slow detail, something that is prohibited under normal circumstances in this museum as in all the others. Guide dogs are also allowed into the exhibit.

Sponsored by the BNY Mellon Mid-Atlantic Charitable Trusts and the Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, the Touch Tours are a new approach to education and community outreach for the non-sighted community. It’s not the first time Penn Museum has created a space where the blind could experience artifacts through touch. The Nevil Gallery for the Blind and Sighted allowed a variety of objects, including many in contemporary art exhibits by blind artists, to be touched by visitors. It was highly popular during its years of operation (from 1971 until 1988), but it was closed after the theft of a Sri Lankan mask on display.

This time the tours are not open to the general public. All groups must book in advance and the museum is otherwise closed on Mondays, so there will be no opportunity for people of ill intent to mingle and disguise themselves among legitimate visitors. Also, the six artifacts chosen for the pilot program are not so vulnerable to theft as they are all large, heavy pieces: Stela of Qa'a, ca. 3000-2800 B.C.the Stela of King Qa’a (ca. 2800 B.C.), a relief from the temple wall from Bubastis (picture here), the head of Tuthmosis III, the column of Ramesses II from the Harsaphes Temple at Heracleopolis, a window from the Palace of Merneptah (picture here), and the Sphinx of Ramesses II from the temple of Ptah at Memphis, which at 12 tons is the third largest sphinx in the world.

Each artifact was selected by museum staff working with conservationists, Egyptologists and blind focus groups over the past year. Museum Coordinator for Special Tours Trish Maunder has a daughter who is blind, giving her particular insight into what sort of object would be ideal for the Touch Tour. It’s not just artifacts that have elaborate carvings to trace, but also things that have interesting, diverse textures, that have a good backstory and lend themselves to rich descriptions, that have diverse temperatures (granite is colder than limestone, for example), and that are on enough of a human scale that you can get a sense of their entirety by touching them.

The massive sphinx would appear not to qualify on that last score, but since it’s the centerpiece of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian collection they didn’t want to leave it out. Besides, the statue was found buried in the sand with only the head exposed, so the hieroglyphic inscriptions around the base and shoulders are well-preserved while the face and beard are deeply worn. Visitors therefore have more to “see” by touching the areas they can reach. The museum made an accurate scale replica to give people the chance to feel the face and the top of the head.

There are other small replicas on display, as well as tactile diagrams that elucidate some of the details, like individual hieroglyphs. For visually impaired visitors, flashlights are shone on certain areas of the artifacts to illuminate elements that would otherwise be impossible for them to see in the generally dim lighting of the space.

Musician Blessing Offor, blind from birth, touches sphinx during September 24th special sessionThe volunteer docents also play a key role in making the artifacts “visible” to the blind and vision-impaired. They were given several weeks of training by specialists to learn how to describe for the blind. They had to learn to pack their descriptions with verbal cues of color, shape and size to focus on the details of the artifacts in a way they’ve never had to do with sighted visitors. The weeks of training culminated in a special hands-on experience day on September 24th where seven blind and visually impaired visitors, three of them with guide dogs, gave the docents constant feedback to help improve their descriptive skills and communication.

The docents have found that the enrichment of the experience goes both ways. Docents who have been giving tours in the museum for years have had to learn a new language of descriptive detail, getting to know the artifacts in a whole new depth, such as textural changes in areas where conservators have filled in eroded gaps. Sighted visitors usually view an artifact for a few minutes then quickly move on. The visually impaired spend an average of one hour exploring six objects. The blind have alerted them to details they never noticed before, for instance how the sphinx’s paws have lines indicating the claws and how the sides have perceptible ribs.

The program is a huge success already and most of the tours are booked solid. You can try to sign up for a Touch Tour by calling Penn Museum’s Community Engagement Department at (215) 746-6774 or by emailing If you’re not able to secure a spot in this round of tours, you can register for future ones. There are no dates for future Touch Tours established yet — the museum needs to raise more money to fund them — but the hope is that the program will continue and expand to the rest of the Egyptian gallery, as well as to the Greek and Roman galleries.

This excellent article covers a recent tour group from the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia touring the gallery. It gave the students a hands-on appreciation for history in a way they can’t get from sitting in class. Here’s video of the students exploring the Egyptian gallery:

Seal matrix of medieval priory found 160 miles away

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

On August 22nd, 2011, metal detectorists Tony and Veronica Burke found a bronze seal matrix while exploring a field in Cobham, Surrey. As history lovers and members of the Surrey Archaeology Society, they recognized that the pointed oval with the indented image of Mary with the Christ child on her knee was a seal matrix, a form pressed against wax to make an impression of a seal on official documents. They also recognized that this one was unusually large at three inches long, 1.7 inches wide, weighing three ounces.

In keeping with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the Burkes brought the artifact to David Williams, the Finds Liaison Officer for Surrey County Council, who identified it as the seal matrix of the Augustinian Priory at Stone in Staffordshire, a full 160 miles from the find spot. It’s the iconography and inscription that identifies it as the seal of Stone Priory. Mary wears a crown and is seated on a throne holding a flower in her right hand. Jesus holds a book in his left hand and points upwards with his right, two fingers raised in benediction. The inscription around the edge, “S’ecc Sce Marie et Sci W(v)lfadi Martiris de Stanis,” translates to “The Seal of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Wulfade, Martyr of Stone.”

Sulphur cast in British Museum (l), Stone Priory seal matrix (r)David Williams researched it further, comparing it to a sulphur cast made in the 19th century of a medieval Stone Priory wax seal now at the British Library. They are identical. That means this isn’t just a seal of Stone Priory; it is the seal of Stone Priory in use between ca. 1200 and 1300 A.D. and probably for longer on both sides.

The first priory at Stone was founded around 670 A.D. by King Wulfhere, the first Christian king of Mercia, and dedicated to Saint Wulfad, a local saint we know nothing about. Legend has it Wulfad was the son of King Wulfhere who was killed, along with his brother Ruffinus, by his own father out of fury over their conversion to Christianity by St. Chad. After killing them, their father was so remorseful that he converted to Christianity and allowed his wife Ermenild to build a priory over their graves. This tale is very likely apocryphal. According to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book 3, Chapter XXIV, Wulfhere was already Christian when he became king in 658 A.D., and Chad was the second bishop assigned to Mercia during Wulfhere’s reign.

King Wulfhere sculpture on the west front of Lichfield CathedralThe Benedictine monks of Petersborough Abbey, 118 miles southeast of Stone, also made the same claim: that their monastery was built by Wulfhere to expiate his sin of having murdered his sons after their conversion by St. Chad, that it was located on the very scene of the crime, and that St. Chad concealed Prince Wulfad’s heart inside a cloister well at the abbey. Meanwhile, Bede (Book 4, Chapter VI) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle both say that Petersborough was built by the Saxon nobleman and monk Saxulf. So yeah, the Wulfad story is less than reliable.

What we do know for a fact is that the monastery was destroyed by the Danish invaders in the 9th century. It was rebuilt in 1135 as an Augustinian priory dedicated to St. Mary and St. Wulfad. Over the next centuries it prospered thanks to the support of local lords and the Crown, acquiring property all over Stone, including a number of churches, sheep pastures, fish ponds, farms, a mill, hunting and timber rights to various Stafford lands and a royal charter granting them weekly market and yearly fair rights. By the 13th century Stone Priory was the largest and wealthiest monastery in the county. The seal matrix dates to this time, the 13th or 14th century.

Remains of Stone Priory todayThe monastery began to decline in the 15th century. The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII sealed its fate. Many of its treasures were transferred to Austin Priory in Stafford in 1536 in the vain hope that Austin would survive the dissolution, and in 1537 the priory was shut down. The church remained in use as a parish church until it collapsed in 1750. A new church was built on the site using the old stone. All that’s left of the medieval priory is on the grounds of the rectory attached to the 18th century church.

How a seal matrix from this storied priory found its way to Surrey, we don’t know, but one plausible scenario proferred by Cobham historian Dr. David Taylor is that after the dissolution, the seal was taken to Newark Priory in the village of Pyrford, Surrey. Newark Priory is just six miles from Cobham and it too was Augustinian. It could well have taken in a brother refugee from Stone carrying the seal matrix, a highly portable and highly significant identifier of the lost priory. He might have thought Newark was large enough that it would not be targeted according to the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act of 1536 which had brought down Stone. Unfortunately Newark Priory would not long outlive Stone Priory; it was dissolved the next year in 1538.

Newark Priory todayAfter dissolution, Newark Priory was purchased by Sir Anthony Browne, who also owned Cobham Mill. One of Browne’s servants, George Bigley, acquired the Manor of Cobham from Henry VIII. Either one of them could have gotten their hands on the seal as a trinket or a devotional object, and they or later generations could have lost it in a field. This is all purely speculative, of course, and odds are slim we’ll ever find documentation to prove it, but it’s certainly a viable possibility.

Whatever the vicissitudes that carried the seal matrix so far from home, there’s a good chance it’ll find its way back now. Since the bronze seal is not official treasure (only silver and gold or massive quantities of artifacts of advanced age qualify), it was returned to the finders. They could have sold it at auction or to anyone offering them gobs of cash, as long as they shared half the proceeds with the landowner, Dominic Combe. An independent appraiser valued it at £10,000, which is probably conservative.

Thankfully they actually care about the history of the piece, so they made a deal with Stone Historical and Civic Society to sell it to them for £8,000. While Stone raises the money to buy the seal matrix and for a secure display case to keep it in, the finders have given the piece to the Society on long-term loan. In December of 2011, it went on display at St. Michael’s Church in Stone where hundreds of visitors came to see it.

Anybody who’d like to donate to the cause should mail a check payable to “The Seal Appeal” to Steve Booth, Treasurer, 18 Larchfileds, Redwood, Stone, ST15 0DD.

Is Sir James Tillie’s body buried in his mausoleum?

Monday, October 15th, 2012

No, this is not a “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” trick question. Sir James Tillie left such unusual instructions on the disposition of his mortal remains that after his death his servants were forced to improvise. No documentation of what they did has survived, so the location of Sir James’ body has been a mystery since the early 18th century.

Sir James Tillie, 1687James Tillie was born on November 16th, 1645. His early years are also shrouded in mystery, both because there isn’t much to be found in the historical record and because what there is to be found relies heavily on his own claims, and he was a notorious liar. He came from humble circumstances, we know that much. According to this print he commissioned of himself the year he was knighted, he was born at Winfield, presumably a town in England, and educated at the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in London, at that time a law school and still today one of the four professional associations that is entitled to make their members official barristers.

Who knows if he really attended the Middle Temple (probably not), but we do know that by the 1680s, he had managed to garner an excellent position as land agent to Sir John Coryton, a baronet and member of parliament who owned the large estate of Newton Ferrers in the Tamar Valley of Cornwall. He made a lucrative business of it by God knows what shady means, and in 1687 Tillie bought himself a knighthood from King James II. Apparently he misrepresented himself so massively that King James later launched an investigation into Tillie’s knighthood and coat of arms on suspicion that he had secured the “favour of knighthood” under false pretenses. Luckily for Sir James, King James’ days on the throne were numbered. He fled and was replaced by William of Orange and Mary Stuart (King James’ daughter) in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Two years later, someone else’s misfortune turned out to be another great stroke of luck for Sir James Tillie. His patron, Sir Coryton, died in 1690 at the early age of 42. His death was agonizing, sudden and highly suspicious. There were rumors that he had been poisoned, possibly by Sir James, possibly by Sir James and Sir John’s 37-year-old wife Elizabeth Chiverton, the wealthy daughter of a former Mayor of London. Even before Sir John’s death, the buzz in the valley was that Sir James and Elizabeth were altogether too chummy. Tillie married the widowed Elizabeth shortly thereafter, which didn’t exactly allay suspicions, especially since Sir John had died without a surviving male heir, leaving his estate to his wife.

Sir James was now considerably wealthier than he had been and with an estate courtesy of his wife that encompassed a good part of the Tamar Valley. Next on the arriviste checklist was building himself a stately home. He divided the Newton Ferrers estate and took a chunk of it for his new digs. Construction on Pentillie was completed in 1698.

Mausoleum of Sir James TillieHe had only 15 years to enjoy it. Sir James Tillie died childless but with a quiverfull of ego on November 17th, 1713. Convinced that this whole death thing wouldn’t last for him, he ordered that a three-story mausoleum be built on the highest hill of his estate, Mount Ararat. With beautiful views of his mansion and the bend in the River Tamar, his mausoleum was not to be his burial site, but rather a picturesque place for his body to wait for his resurrection. He expected this to happen within two years, so he instructed that his body be dressed in his finest silks and brocades, his head adorned with his zazziest peruke and finest hat, and that he be placed in a throne-like chair with his hands on his knees. He was to be secured to this chair with iron bands and the chair placed facing the window. Next to him would be an oak chest of his favorite books, port and pipe.

His servants fulfilled his wishes. Sir James sat clamped to his chair, rotting away, for the next two years. The mausoleum roof rotted with him. When the expected time of resurrection had come and gone, his staff finally decided that the decayed corpse of Sir James Tillie really should be buried instead of being left exposed to the elements. Where they buried him we don’t know. They could have buried him in the mausoleum itself, or in the cemetery of the parish church of St. Mellion where the Corytons were buried. There is no marker to be found nor surviving documentation. A limestone statue of Sir James Tillie sitting in his chair was erected in the same place where the original had sat.

Tillie left Pentillie to his nephew, James Woolley. Woolley, who changed his name to Tillie for the inheritance, left it to his son James who in turn left it to his daughter Mary Jemima Tillie who, in an appropriate historical twist, married Peter Coryton, heir to Newton Ferrers. They reunited the estate Sir James had divided after possibly killing a Coryton to get it, and thereafter Pentillie became the seat of the Coryton family.

The family did very well, increasing their holdings to more than 20,000 acres, and in 1809 decided it was time to make Pentillie a proper castle to reflect their prosperity. They hired landscape designer Humphry Repton, known as the intellectual heir to Capability Brown, to design a new look for the grounds and home. Architect William Wilkins, famed for his neo-classical Palladian style buildings at first and then for his neo-Gothic creations, implemented Repton’s plans in 1810, adding three wings to the house and transforming it into a full-on Gothic castle.

It seems that around this time they also altered the mausoleum, adding a plinth around the base of it and putting another story on top. That would explain why Sir James’ statue is now on the ground floor when early accounts described his body as sitting on the first floor.

In 1968, the mausoleum was listed as a Grade II* building, i.e., a particularly important building of more than special interest. Despite its importance and special interest, the mausoleum was not maintained well. It was already crumbling just a few years after it was built, and its decay was not halted by any of the alterations that may have been made in the 1810 expansion.

Pentillie itself, its Gothic additions demolished between 1966 and 1968 right before it too was listed and a new home built around the core, was in dire condition. Its reclusive owner from 1980 to 2007 shut herself in and went full Miss Havisham, only allowing a handful of servants access to the home or grounds. Neither the heirs, who lived on a nearby farm, nor construction workers were allowed to step foot on the property. It wasn’t until her death in September of 2007 that the current owners, Ted and Sarah Coryton, fell in love with the place and decided to open it up to events and B&B guests to fund the vast repairs it needed.

Last year, the Corytons, English Heritage, Natural England and local conservation officers came together to discuss repairs on the mausoleum. Overgrown with brambles and greenery, the structure was in imminent danger. They worked out a funding arrangement with Natural England and the Country Houses Foundation and a restoration team has now begun exploratory work. The first order of business: see if Sir James is in there somewhere.

To see if there’s a ground floor the plinth was built up around, the restoration team dug a hole in the internal floor of the mausoleum. Underneath they found a brick vaulted roof indicating there is a room under there. Is this where the staff put Sir James’ body to rest? Ted Coryton thinks so, and that his wife/possible poisoning accomplice Elizabeth could be under there too. Restoration is slated to begin in earnest this winter, so we should find out soon if the bones of Sir James Tillie were buried in what is now the mausoleum basement.

Pentillie today

Sisters of fastest steam locomotive return to England

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

No. 4468 Mallard at the National Railway Museum in YorkThe London and North Eastern Railway No. 4468 Mallard, an A4 Class Pacific steam locomotive, broke the world land speed record for steam locomotives on July 3rd, 1938, reaching 125.88 miles per hour between Little Bytham and Essendine in Lincolnshire, east England. This was a great point of national pride for Britain since the previous record of 124.5 miles per hour had been set by a German DRG Class locomotive on the Berlin–Hamburg line in 1936. With tensions between Britain and Nazi Germany escalating in the lead-up to war, Mallard, built at London and North Eastern Railway’s Doncaster Works in March of 1938, was chosen to defeat the Germans on the railway battlefield. Mallard’s record still holds today.

Mallard at Kings Cross in 1962, right before its retirementThe Class A4 series locomotives were designed by Sir Nigel Gresley in 1935 with the specific aim of creating a steam locomotive that could pull passenger cars at high speed. They were streamlined on the outside, making them look extremely cool as well as improving their aerodynamics and moving the smoke upwards so it would no longer obscure the engineer’s view. They were also streamlined on the inside, making their steam circuits far more efficient than their predecessor models and reducing their fuel intake. Mallard had an additional improvement, a double chimney and double blastpipe which boosted the engine’s exhaust flow when it was running at high speeds. After Mallard’s great success, the remaining A4 trains built also had the double chimney and double blastpipe, and the older ones were retrofitted with them in the 1950s.

A4 Mallard engine and tender by Sunset ModelThe A4 Class’s record-breaking cachet and handsome streamlined design made them popular with train enthusiasts, who nicknamed them “streaks” for their high speed and their distinctive curved-nose look. The A4s starred in several movies, appeared in books and were favorite subjects for model trains. The 35 A4 locomotives built remained in use on the East Coast Main Line route in England until the early 1960s. They lasted a little longer in Scotland, until 1966. After that, they were all retired, replaced by faster but nowhere near as sexy Deltic Class 55 diesel engines.

No. 60009 Union of South AfricaAfter their withdrawal from service, most of the A4s were sold or scrapped. For a few years they were cannibalized for parts for the engines that were still running, then were left derelict in depots. Out of the 35 that were built, only six were preserved and still exist today. Four of them — Bittern, Union of South Africa, Sir Nigel Gresley, and of course Mallard — are in the UK, all based in museums but three of them approved for mainline use. Mallard was restored to operational fitness and did some runs from 1986 to 1988, but she’s been on static display ever since at the National Railway Museum in York.

Dominion of Canada lifted onto MV Beaverbrook at Royal Victoria Dock, Liverpool, April 10, 1967The two remaining A4s were sent to the colonies, as it were. Dominion of Canada was donated to the Canadian Railroad Historical Association and was shipped to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1966. It is on static display at Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum, in Saint-Constant, a suburb of Montreal. Dwight D. Eisenhower (originally named Golden Shuttle but rechristened in honor of the General in 1946) was shipped to New York in 1964 and became part of the collection of the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The four remaining in the UK came back together in 2008 in honor of the 70th anniversary of Mallard’s record, but nobody even considered the prospect of a full reunion of the six. When the last two were sent abroad, it was a huge endeavor and they were expected to remain there until the end of days. The National Railway Museum wanted to do something extra special for the 75th anniversary in 2013, so in 2011 they negotiated a two-year loan of the North American engines.

Once the deal was struck, there was the small matter of figuring out how to move two 100-ton locomotives and their coal cars thousands of miles from their display tracks to Halifax, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool and thence to the National Railway Museum. It took a team of heavy haulage specialists and Canadian National employees 10 hours just to move Dwight D. Eisenhower from its display berth to active tracks 80 feet away. Then they had to put together a custom loading ramp, weld wheel chocks onto a transporter wagon and load the locomotive so it could be brought 1800 miles to Halifax via rail. A month later, Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in Halifax (watch video of the excruciatingly slow unloading process here). The same transporter wagon and loading ramp were then sent to Montreal to pick up Dominion of Canada and carry her the 775 miles to Halifax so both trains could be shipped to Liverpool at the same time on an Atlantic Container Line oversize cargo vessel.

Dwight D. Eisenhower unloaded at LiverpoolAs of the first week in October, both Dominion of Canada and Dwight D. Eisenhower are home again. You can see Dominion of Canada unloaded from the container ship at the Liverpool dock in this video. From Liverpool they were trucked to the National Railway Museum in Shildon where they are being examined by conservators. They’ll be receiving a cosmetic restoration so that they will be as glossy and pretty as their sisters for the 2013 celebration.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada at the NRM in ShildonThey can both be viewed at the Shildon sidings until October 22nd. Admission is free. Union of South Africa will be joining them the weekend of October 19-21, and that weekend there will be a special event held where enthusiasts will be able to photograph the three A4s together. That will not be free. Tickets for the photography event are £60 per person and must be pre-booked.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada at ShildonAfter this, Dwight D. Eisenhower will be trucked to the museum in York where it will be repainted in its current British Railway green livery in the museum workshop. The public will be able to view the repainting in the York workshop. Dominion of Canada will remain in the Shildon workshop where it will be converted to its 1937 form (single chimney with Canadian bell and chime whistle) and painted the gloriously rich Garter Blue color of the London and North Eastern Railway livery, the same color as Mallard which is herself getting a new coat of paint to look her best.

The plans for the 75th anniversary events are still being made. Right now, the six A4s are scheduled to be on display together in July 2013 at York, then again at Shildon in early 2014. Keep an eye on the National Railway Museum website for more information. The museum also has an outstanding blog that any train lover and even general vintage travel enthusiasts will enjoy. It’s an impressively varied read; I highly recommend it.

Below is a very cool video of Mallard doing her thing on the mainline in 1988. She really gets going around the 4:15 mark and you can hear her adorable soprano toot-toot! Stick around to the 5:00 mark to see the prodigious quantities of steam Mallard can produce. It’s clear why the issue of steam staying low and causing poor visibility for the driver was so significant. Imagine trying to drive through that cloud.


The day a shot to the chest failed to stop TR’s speech

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt riding a bull mooseTomorrow, October 14th, 2012, will be the hundredth anniversary of the day Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest and then proceeded to deliver a 90 minute speech to an aghast crowd as blood seeped through his shirt and his breath shortened. Only when he was finished delivering his prepared remarks did he allow his aides to rush him to the hospital.

TR was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for president as a candidate for the Progressive Party. He had already served two terms as President, the first from 1901 to 1905 when he finished William McKinley’s term due to McKinley’s assassination six months after he took office. The second, 1905 to 1909, was his only elected term. He deliberately chose not to run for a third consecutive term in the 1908 election, supporting William Howard Taft over his own Vice President Charles Fairbanks.

Taft as TR's sheep; political cartoon by William H. Walker, 1908Taft won the election, but TR would soon fall out with the successor he had picked. Although Taft prosecuted more trusts than Roosevelt had, as a lawyer and judge he believed any such actions to be the role of the judiciary. Roosevelt was disappointed with what he saw as Taft’s do-nothing administration, and Taft’s conservative rhetoric had little in common with Teddy’s heated defense of the consumer and government by, for and of the people. On a somewhat two-faced note, he also resented the Taft government’s 1911 attempt to break up U.S. Steel, whose purchase of its main competitor Roosevelt had personally approved in 1907.

Theodore Roosevelt thus decided to run again for President in 1912. Things got raw on that campaign trail. Roosevelt called Taft a shill for the bosses and politically corrupt; Taft called him the greatest menace to American instutions. Roosevelt called Taft a “puzzlewit” and Taft called him a “prize honeyfugler,” which I think we can all agree is objectively awesome. Roosevelt won nine out of twelve Republican primaries that spring, but most of the states didn’t hold primaries. Their delegates were assigned at state conventions and caucuses via deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Republican National Convention, June 1912At the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June, the Republican National Committee, controlled by the conservative wing of the party which supported Taft, assigned all disputed delegates to their man. It was mayhem on the convention floor. After all Roosevelt’s attempts to secure more delegates failed, he walked out of the Chicago Coliseum and told his pledged delegates not to vote. In August, he founded the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, and ran for President against Taft, Democratic Party candidate Woodrow Wilson and Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs.

With a four-way race and all these political tectonic plates clashing against each other, the presidential campaign of 1912 was a tense one, to say the least. Enter John Flammang Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who had moved to the United States when he was 9 years old. His parents died soon thereafter, and he was raised by his aunt and uncle who ran a saloon in New York City’s Lower East Side.

John Schrank under arrest after assassination attemptIn 1904 when Schrank was 28, his 19-year-old girlfriend Emily Ziegler was on her way to a church picnic on Long Island when the steamboat she was on, the General Slocum, caught fire. John was supposed to accompany her that day, but he couldn’t find anyone to cover his shift at the tavern. Emily and 1,020 other people died by fire or drowned in the East River. There were only 321 survivors. Schrank was reported in the local newspapers as having shown up at the morgue “wild-eyed” where he identified her burned body. The General Slocum disaster was New York’s worst tragedy in terms of lives lost until September 11, 2001.

Schrank’s uncle and aunt died in 1910 and 1911, leaving him their property. He was devastated, seeing them more as adoptive parents than as relatives. He sold his inheritance and holed up in sleazy motels, drinking, writing poetry, reading the Bible and several newspapers daily. Although he had admired Roosevelt, even going so far as to have his picture on the wall along with those of Lincoln, Grant and Garfield (the first and third of whom were assassinated, just for the record), when TR sought a third term and even went so far as to create a new party to secure his nomination, Schrank saw Roosevelt’s ambition as a slap in the face to the Founding Fathers (Washington had refused a third term and all presidents after him had also served no more than two terms, although Grant tried and failed to get a nomination for his third). To Schrank, Roosevelt’s campaign spelled certain disaster for the country: if he won, they’d have a Caesar in power; if he lost, he’d call foul like he had at the Republican Convention and plunge the country into another Civil War.

Then there was the dream. In writings the police found in Schrank’s possession, he described a dream he had had:

In a dream I saw President McKinley sit up in his coffin, pointing at a man in a monk’s attire in whom I recognized Theo. Roosevelt. The dead president said “This is my murderer, avenge my death.”

In an alternate version also found among his writings, it was more of a vision:

Schrank's writing regarding his motiveWhile writing a poem someone tapped me on the shoulder and said Let not a murderer take the presidential chair, avenge my death. I could clearly see Mr. McKinley’s features.

Before the Allmighty God, I swear that the above written is nothing but the truth.

So long as Japan could rise to be one of the greatest powers of the world despite her surviving a tradition more than 2000 years old, as General Nogi so nobly demonstrated. It is the death of the U.S.A. to uphold the third term tradition. Let every third termer be regarded as a traitor to the American cause. Let it be the right and duty of every citizen to forcibly remove a third termer.

That note is dated September 14, 1912, the same date on which President McKinley had died 13 years earlier after being shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz (assuming it wasn’t TR in disguise as a monk all along, of course). General Nogi was a hero of the Russo-Japanese War who offered to kill himself when he felt he had lost too many in the process of capturing Port Arthur (1904-1905). Emperor Meiji declined, but on the day of the emperor’s funeral, September 13th, 1912, Nogi committed ritual suicide so as not to outlive his master.

He seems to be saying that Japan became a world power despite its 2000-year tradition of feudal submission even unto death, but that an equal dedication to American tradition even unto death is what will keep the Republic alive in the face of third-termer would-be kings.

Schrank's revolverBy September 14th, Schrank had been following Roosevelt around the country on campaign stops for four days. He kept at it for another month, waiting for the perfect opening to take a shot. That opening happened in Milwaukee on October 14th. Roosevelt, on the way to give a speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium, took a moment to wave to the crowd from his car when Schrank raised his Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver and fired a single shot. Roosevelt bounced back up, at first unaware that he had been hit. His secretary Albert Martin jumped on the shooter, and he and the police kept him safe from the furious crowd demanding Schrank be lynched on the spot.

Roosevelt asked that Schrank be brought before him so he could ask why he had shot him. Schrank did not reply, although he would tell the police everything after his arrest. With an expression of pity for the poor deranged man, Roosevelt and his team got back in the car and headed to the auditorium. On the way, one of his companions noticed there was a hole in TR’s overcoat. Teddy touched it and saw that he was bleeding, that he had in fact been shot. His escorts of course wanted to change direction and drive straight to the hospital; however, Teddy Roosevelt coughed a couple of times and when he saw no blood, figured the bullet hadn’t made it to his lungs, so he insisted on being driven to his speaking engagement as planned.

This is how he opened the speech:

Speech with bullet hole, now bound and on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace museumFriends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet — there is where the bullet went through — and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.

TR's eyeglass case with bullet holeHe opened his overcoat to show the crowd the bloody bullet hole. His 50-page speech had two bullet holes in it (it was folded in half in his pocket) and his eyeglasses case had a hole in it too. These obstacles had slowed down the bullet enough to keep it in the fleshy part of his chest, although it was on an upward trajectory towards his heart.

Roosevelt's chest X-ray, bullet in the bottom leftAn hour and a half later, his speech finally done, he was taken to Johnston Emergency Hospital where six surgeons operated but could not find the bullet. X-rays showed that the bullet was 3.5 inches under the surface of the right side of his chest, touching his fourth rib. Only a thin layer of tissue separated the bullet from the pleural cavity. He recovered for a week at a Chicago hospital. Seeing that he was improving, doctors decided it was better to leave the bullet where it was than to attempt to remove it surgically with all the attendant risks.

Theodore Roosevelt campaigning, October 4, 1912Roosevelt got much sympathy from the people and from the other candidates, who suspended their stump speeches because Roosevelt was unable to deliver his. He was not, however, carried to the presidency on a wave of pity. He beat Taft in popular and electoral votes, but both of them were defeated handily by Woodrow Wilson. President Taft, in one of his last presidential acts, pardoned Captain Van Schaick, the captain of the General Slocum who had been convicted of criminal negligence in the disaster and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing.

Schrank pled guilty to attempted murder, was found to be insane and was confined for the rest of his life to Central State Mental Hopsital in Waupun, Wisconsin. He died of bronchial pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 67. Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of coronary thrombosis in 1919. He was 61 years old.

Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace at 28 East 20th Street in New York City is now a National Park. They had an exhibit on the 1912 campaign earlier this summer which has now moved to the Oyster Bay Historical Society where it will be on view until November 11th. To get a virtual dose of TR, see the Library of Congress’ collection of Teddy Roosevelt captured on film and audio recordings of some of his speeches.

Time Team helps unearth Civil War prison stockade

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Inside Camp Lawton, by Robert Knox Sneden, private 40th New York Volunteers, November 1864Two years ago, Dr. Sue Moore and graduate student Kevin Chapman of Georgia Southern University found the stockade wall of Camp Lawton, a short-lived Confederate prisoner of war camp established in Millen, Georgia to house overflow Union prisoners from nearby Andersonville Prison, the notoriously overcrowded hellhole in which 12,913 out of the total 45,000 Union prisoners received would die from starvation, disease or violence. Camp Lawton was the largest Civil War prison camp in terms of area (42 acres), but it only held 10,000 prisoners for six weeks. It was evacuated overnight in great haste in November of 1864 when General Sherman’s troops approached during the March to the Sea.

Sherman burned the stockade, and a pine forest grew where the camp had once stood. The area was known to historians, but nobody thought there was anything to find since the stockade was ashes and the camp had been in use for such a brief time. Desultory attempts by archaeologists to locate remains had been unsuccessful; treasure hunters had no interest in exploring a remote location with so little expectation of lucrative discovery.

The area became the Magnolia Springs State Park in 1939, and an adjacent chunk of land was made part of the Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery under the aegis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. State and federal protection continued to keep the site in basically untouched condition. There were some archaeological surveys over the years, but shovel tests never turned up any artifacts. A ground-penetrating radar survey of the site by Georgia Department of Transportation archaeologists in 2005 revealed two linear anomalies that seemed to match the documentary evidence of the orientation and placement of the Camp Lawton stockade. Historic Preservation Division archaeologists returned the next year to excavate the anomalies. They found a dark stain in one of their excavation holes which they determined to be a burned log, a likely remnant of the stockade burned by Sherman.

Camp Lawton artifacts on display at Magnolia Springs State Park, August 2010In 2009, experts from the LAMAR Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to archaeological research in the southern US, went back to the locations examined in 2005 and 2006 to perform another, more detailed ground-penetrating radar survey. This study was the initial investigation phase of a long-term project by Georgia Southern University to locate and excavate whatever might be left of Camp Lawton and its residents. The LAMAR Institute followed up with a metal detector survey of the site, which turned up a remarkable quantity of artifacts left behind by Union soldiers.

This was a highly significant step, both because it gave Georgia Southern’s excavation team a map grid of the site with known locations of artifacts and because it upended archaeological conventions that see the metal detector as an unreliable tool for amateurs. Camp Lawton is a Confederate prisoner of war camp in pristine archaeological condition replete with period artifacts, one of the most important Civil War sites we have. It is the metal detectors that identified it as such. Previous shovel testing had revealed a grand total of two artifacts.

So in 2010, Georgia Southern University, using the LAMAR data and extensive research into Civil War documents, primarily eye-witness accounts from surviving prisoners like prolific mapmaker, artist and Union private Robert Knox Sneden, began to excavate the site and hit paydirt. They unearthed hundreds of artifacts and put Camp Lawton on the map, both literally and figuratively in terms of its historical significance.

Stockade wall dig, October 5th, picture by Dan ElliottLast week, Camp Lawton was host to a much bigger crowd of researchers with many fabulous high-tech toys. Georgia Southern University archaeologists were there, of course, as was LAMAR Institute archaeo-geophysicist Dan Elliott who has uploaded several videos of the excavation to his YouTube channel, and most splashily, PBS’ Time Team America. In classic Time Team fashion, they hit the site with all they had for just a week. There were four teams wielding ground-penetrating radar, another team deploying a fluxgate gradiometer (a tool that measures the gradient of the magnetic field to find small objects close to the surface), another team using electromagnetic conductivity meters to locate buried archaeological features, and metal detectorists, all dedicated to mapping the underground landscape as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. Once that was done, heavy machinery and dozens of archaeologists with trowels and sifting screens stepped in.

Their goal was to locate and unearth the former walls of the prison camp. They were successful. On Thursday, October 4th and Friday, October 5th, the team excavated three of the prison stockade walls. Several living areas of prisoners and guards were also excavated. The details of the discoveries are being hushed up for now so that we can be surprised when the Time Team America episode airs. That means we have to wait until summer of 2013, annoyingly enough, to see just what it is this impressive cadre of archaeologists unearthed.

At least we can catch a glimpse of the stockade trenches in Dan Elliott’s videos. This video shows the south stockade wall and it’s my favorite because of the last line:


:giggle: Isn’t that great? You know they had a total blast.





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