Archive for November, 2012

Original Batmobile for sale for the first time

Friday, November 30th, 2012

The first and some would say greatest of all Batmobiles, the one that started it all, is going on sale for the first time at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, on January 19th, 2013. This is the iconic Batmobile made by legendary car customizer George Barris for the 1966 Batman television series starring Adam West in the title role. It still has all the Batgadgets even the most covetous and demanding of comic nerds could wish for and a pre-Bat history that the most covetous and demanding of car nerds could only dream of.

It started its life in 1955, a one-off Lincoln Futura concept car. Designed by Ford’s lead stylist Bill Schmidt who was inspired by manta rays and mako sharks he had seen while scuba diving, the Futura’s body was built entirely at the Ghia Body Works in Turin, Italy, in 1954 and affixed to an experimental Lincoln Mark II chassis made three years before the first Mark IIs were sold. The car was 19 feet long, seven feet wide, and just 4.4 feet high with a double, clear-plastic bubble top, huge outward-angled tailfins on the back and front sides, a wide oval grill to give it that shark-mouth aggressive look and all kinds of newfangled technology like push-button transmission, warning lights and speedometer (among other indicators) housed in the steering wheel, and a circular rear antenna that also served as a microphone to pick up and amplify traffic or horn sounds from any car behind them to the driver and passenger inside the bubble canopy.

This was Ford’s car of the future, a repository of all the Jetsons-like technology that could be crammed into 19 feet of vehicle. Even its paint job was cutting edge, a Pearlescent Frost-Blue white which was one of the first pearlescent car treatments. The effect was created by grinding up actual pearls and adding them to the paint. It was intended for display on the auto show circuit, but unlike many show cars, this one was made to work. It was drivable from day one. The total production cost for the Lincoln Futura was $250,000.

The Futura made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show of January 8th, 1955. It ran the show circuit for the next few years and became immensely popular, so much so that Ford made model and toy car versions for the mass market. In 1959, the Futura had its first brush with show business, snagging a featured role in It Started with a Kiss, and upstaging human stars Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Since pearl white didn’t photograph with the drama the filmmakers were looking for, the car was painted red. See the Futura steal the show in this collection of clips from the movie:


With the dawn of a new decade, the Futura’s days as a star of stage and screen seemed over. Its tailfin-and-bubble look was at odds with the more streamlined aesthetics of the 60s. Ford sold the car to George Barris, who worked for the company’s Ford Custom Car Caravan for six years in the early and mid-60s, for $1. (This token price wasn’t a particular slur on the illustrious Futura, mind you. Ford and Barris had done this before. Concept cars would be retired and sold to Barris for a nominal sum so he could use them in movies and television. Ah, the days before product placement…)

The car sat in Barris’ lot for a few years doing nothing when in late 1965, destiny came calling. Batman producer William Dozier called needing a Batmobile. He gave Barris 15 days and $15,000 to build it and so he did. The Futura’s two-seater design and unique 50s futurist winged look made it the perfect car to customize into Batman and Robin’s main ride. A few metal modifications, engine boosts, racing wheels exposed by opened wheel wells, Batgadget attachments and a gloss black paint job with glow-orange red trim later, history burst out of the Batcave.


Although many Batmobiles have followed in the wake of its turbine flame, the original still holds the pole position in fans’ hearts. Not just because of its fantastic good looks, either. It won a race against the 1989 Tim Burton Batmobile (the race starts at 8:00 in this video) so its badassery has more than stood the test of time.

After years on the convention circuit, in special appearances and on display in museums, the Batmobile is still in pristine shape. It is being sold by George Barris himself who has been the sole owner since it was decommissioned by Ford. Whoever is fortunate enough to buy it in January is going to spend a lot more than the dollar it cost the only other time it was sold.

The car features a 390-in 1956 Lincoln V-8 engine and a B&M Hydro Automatic transmission. Gadgets include a nose-mounted aluminum Cable Cutter Blade, Bat Ray Projector, Anti-Theft Device, Detect-a-scope, Batscope, Bat Eye Switch, Antenna Activator, Police Band Cut-In Switch, Automatic Tire Inflation Device, Remote Batcomputer, the Batphone, Emergency Bat Turn Lever, Anti-Fire Activator, Bat Smoke, Bat Photoscope, and many other Bat gadgets. If needed, the Batmobile was capable of a quick 180° “bat-turn” thanks to two rear-mounted ten-foot Deist parachutes.

I would slap a baby just to get a ride in this car. I don’t even want to consider what I’d do to own it.

Crannog dig sheds new light on medieval Irish life

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

An archaeological dig of a crannog (an artificial island built in a lake or river) in County Fermanagh in the northern Irish province of Ulster has revealed a wealth of artifacts and exceptionally well-preserved wooden structures dating as far back as 900 A.D. This is the first thorough scientific excavation of a crannog in Ulster and it almost didn’t happen at all.

Although Drumclay Crannog, long since filled in and no longer a discernible island in Loch Erne, had been marked on surveys and maps going back to the 19th century, its precise location was unclear. In 2007, the Roads Service began planning construction of a new highway link road outside of the county town of Enniskillen near the crannog. They did some rudimentary surveys of the planned route but the archaeologists they send to walk the area couldn’t pinpoint the crannog due to waterlogged conditions and limited access. The Department of Regional Development clearly stated in its notice of intent to build that the construction would harm the archaeological site, even if it didn’t cross exactly over it. To mitigate the damage, the department said the crew would be really careful stripping topsoil and would be sure to record all archaeological finds so they’d be fully documented before they were destroyed.

In 2011, once it had built a temporary stone haul route over the crannog, the construction company employed archaeologists to dig a single exploratory trench. They confirmed the exact location of the crannog (just slightly north of where it had been marked on the ordnance maps) and that it was a rich archaeological site with extensive structural remains and artifacts. Now the Road Service decided to preserve the site in situ by filling the perimeter with rocks and building a bridge over it rather than putting a road in its place, but in April 2012 it became clear that the heavy machinery and construction work in the area was draining the water-logged land. The crannog began to collapse outward. Road stone was dumped around it in an attempt to keep the island and its stratigraphy stable, but the stones sank like so many Monty Python Swamp Castles.

In June 2012, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency determined that the crannog had to be excavated before it was too late. A small group of contract archaeologists hired by the construction company were given six weeks to do what they could. They had limited tools, no storage facility for keeping organic artifacts in proper conditions, poor recording and sampling practices. Meanwhile construction was still going on all around them. The discoveries were already remarkable — leather clothing, human remains, the foundation of a rare double-walled wattle house — but with the deadline looming and the damage ongoing, things looked bad for the crannog.

Members of the crew contacted archaeologist Robert M. Chapple who got the word out on his blog and in the press. The subsequent outcry spurred Minister of the Environment Alex Attwood to impose a construction exclusion zone around the archaeological site, to extend the excavation another eight weeks and to appoint an independent reviewer to investigate how this debacle had come about. In response to their letters of protests, Attwood assured the Institute for Archaeologists, that he was taking a personal interest in the site, that he had assigned additional staff to the project, including an environmental archaeologist to oversee the sampling strategy and a wood specialist to help with the identification and preservation of organic materials.

Those additional eight weeks of excavation have turned into five months and what glorious ones they have been. Archaeologists have discovered that, contrary to previous estimates that put the age of the crannog at about 700 years old, people lived there from at least 900 A.D. to 1600. The extensive preserved structures of small but well-appointed houses indicate the crannog was home to one noble family whose scions and servants lived in four or five houses at any given time. They were adept at woodwork and metal work, grew their own crops and butchered their own meat. They also spun wool from their own sheep to make their clothes.

Some of the most striking finds are, a wooden bowl with a cross carved into its base, a unique find from an excavation in Ireland, parts of wooden vessels with interlace decoration, and exquisite combs made from antler and bone, status symbols that date to between 1000 and 1100 AD.

Other finds include what is believed to be the largest collection of pottery from a crannog in Northern Ireland, as well as ornaments of iron, bronze and bone.

As the site had been waterlogged, a huge volume of wooden remains have been found, from gaming chess-like pieces, to drinking cups right through to the timber foundations of dozens of houses.

Parts of at least two different log boats have been discovered, and a wooden oar – from deposits several centuries older than the boats – has also been found.

Some of the combs are similar to others found in Dublin and York and dating to Viking times.

Archaeologists have also discovered leather shoes, agricultural equipment, knives and decorated dress pins.

The archaeological dig is now scheduled to conclude on December 30th, but there are still unexplored layers. The 900 A.D. date comes from the dating of pottery found on the site. As they go lower down in to the stratigraphy, archaeologists are likely to find evidence of even earlier habitation.

On Saturday, December 1st, the Drumclay Crannog will host an open day. From 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM, the public will be allowed to view the site from above, see the artifacts and meet the archaeologists. The tours will be guided and space is limited, so if you have the chance, call 028 6632 5000 to book your place now.

Apparently the road will eventually be built over the crannog as per the original plan, but I’m holding out hope that the unique historical significance of this site will keep it in the news and out of the hungry maws of steam shovels.

Gold hippocampus from Lydian Hoard found

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Gold hippocampus from the Lydian HoardIn this blog’s first month of existence, I lamented the tragic state of security at Turkish museums, which had resulted in dozens of known thefts from every museum in the country. Particularly lamentable was the theft of multiple objects, including a gold hippocampus brooch, from the Lydian Hoard kept at the Uşak Museum of Archaeology in western Turkey.

The Lydian Hoard is a collection of 363 artifacts, many of them silver and gold, that were looted from neighboring 6th century B.C. burial mounds in the Uşak and Manisa Provinces of Turkey. The treasure was said to have belonged to King Croesus of Lydia, of “rich as Croesus” fame, but there’s no specific connection to him beyond the fact that they date to around the same time as his reign. The tombs certainly belonged to royalty, but they could have been from Croesus’ family, high functionaries or even the Persian satraps who ruled after Cyrus’ crushing victory over the Lydian king in 547 B.C.

Looted Lydian tumulus at AnktepeThe first tomb was discovered by looters in 1966. When they found they could not penetrate the hard marble outer walls, they used gunpowder to blow up the main entrance. Inside they found the remains of a royal woman and 125 vessels, pieces of jewelry, and sculptures in gold and silver. Looters found other richly appointed tombs in the area over the next two years. The entire haul is known as the Lydian Hoard, or the Karun (the Arabic and Persian name for Croesus) Treasure.

The contents of the tombs and even painted pieces of the walls themselves were stripped and sold by Swiss and American middlemen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1966 and 1970. The Met paid a total of $1.5 million for the Lydian Hoard, but they kept it hidden in storage for more than 20 years. Özgen Acar, a Turkish reporter who had spent years talking to the looters and following the tracks of the stolen hoard, caught wind of a potential Lydian treasure in the Met’s basement but was unable to pin it down.

Silver alabastron from the Lydian HoardFinally, in 1984 many of the artifacts saw the light of day in a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even though the museum intentionally mislabeled them as part of an “East Greek treasure,” Acar immediately recognized them as the Lydian artifacts from the descriptions he had been given by the looters. He alerted the Turkish government. In 1986, Turkey officially requested the hoard be returned. The Met refused; Turkey sued.

The legal wranglings continued until 1993 when the Met, caught red-handed by the minutes of their own acquisition committee which described how a curator had actually visited the looted burial mounds in Turkey to confirm the authenticity of the objects, agreed to return the treasure. The artifacts went on display at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara for two years, after which the hoard became part of the permanent collection of the museum in Uşak near the tombs where it was buried. (This whole story and more is recounted in Sharon Waxman’s excellent Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.)

Turkey spent six years and 40 million dollars pursuing the Lydian Hoard in court. Yet, in 2006, the country’s entire budget for museum and archaeological site maintenance was $66 million. Even when the one-room museum in Uşak went from holding a collection of rugs to one of the greatest treasures in the country, there was no additional security installed. Add to that the remote location and tiny number of visitors to the Uşak museum, and it’s no small wonder that insiders were able to help themselves to pieces of the hard-won Lydian Hoard without anyone noticing for a year.

Fake hippocampus which was substituted for the real one at Uşak museumThe most famous and precious object from the treasure, the gold hippocampus (a mythical winged horse with the tail of a fish representing air, earth and water), had become a symbol of great pride for Uşak. It was stolen and replaced with a fake in 2005. Working on an anonymous tip, authorities found out in 2006. It weighed 23.5 grams; the original weighed 14.3 grams. It had to be an inside job and the main suspect was the museum director, Kazim Akbiyikoglu.

This is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the story. Kazim Akbiyikoglu had worked assiduously to help reclaim the stolen hoard from the Met. He was a renowned archaeologist who had fought for decades against looters and had been threatened with murder and kidnapping by a prominent family who had made millions trafficking in antiquities. He was the first Turkish scholar sent to examine the Lydian Hoard during pretrial discovery when the Met was finally forced to give outside experts access to the artifact. He had submitted an affidavit attesting to the Uşakian origin of the “East Greek treasure.” Özgen Acar considered him one of the most honest men he knew.

Kazim Akbiyikoglu points to Lydian Hoard artifacts; you can see a bit of the hippocampus in the top leftAkbiyikoglu and nine other staffers were arrested in 2006 and put on trial for the theft. In 2009 they were all found guilty. Akbiyikoglu was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He admitted that he had sold the hippocampus and other artifacts to pay off gambling debts, and he blamed his sad decline as a human being to the “curse” of the hoard. The authorities continued to look for the artifacts, but they weren’t optimistic. The hippocampus was so recognizable it would have been a lot easier to melt it down and sell it for its gold value than to sell it on the black market.

But hope is the last to die, as the proverb goes, and after seven years on the lam, the hippocampus has been found in Germany. There are no details on how it was discovered, where, or how it got there. All we know is German officials have agreed to return the hippocampus as soon as the end of the year.

When it goes back on display in Uşak, it will be in a brand new facility scheduled to open in December of 2013 which will hold all of the pieces (including a hundred or so additional objects discovered around the world after the Met lawsuit) of the Lydian treasure. I’m glad to see that some lessons were learned from the humiliating debacle of 2006. If you’re going to invest millions in repatriation suits, you’d better spend hella millions on security.

Civil War blockade authorization for sale

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

"Affix the seal" order for the blockade of Southern states signed by Abraham Lincoln, April 19th, 1861The document signed by President Abraham Lincoln on April 19, 1861 authorizing the Union Navy blockade of Southern ports is being sold by the anonymous private collector who owns it. You can buy it now for $900,000 through the website of high-end document dealer The Raab Collection. A strong, bold, authentic Lincoln autograph like the one signing this document would be highly sought after by collectors even if it were at the bottom of a shopping list. Having it attached to an order of immense historical and legal significance makes it a million dollar piece.

On April 12th, 1861, Confederate batteries unloaded on Fort Sumter, a sea fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Although there had been shots fired earlier after South Carolina declared its secession from the Union in December of 1860, the 34-hour bombardment of federal forces at Fort Sumter is widely considered the beginning of the Civil War. According to the Supreme Court, however, the Civil War began on April 19th, 1861, the day President Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports, an order directing the US Navy to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from all ports in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

In its December Term of 1871, the Supreme Court adjudicated a case wherein to determine whether a statute of limitations applied, it was necessary to pinpoint the exact beginning and end dates of the Civil War. The Supreme Court’s determination was that the April 19th Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports marked the legal opening of the Civil War in the states which it embraced. (A second proclamation issued on April 27th extended the blockade to Virginia and North Carolina, so according to the Supreme Court, the Civil War started eight days later in those two states of the Confederacy.) The end date for every state but Texas was April 2nd, 1866, the date President Andrew Johnson issued Proclamation 153 Declaring the Insurrection in Certain Southern States to be at an End. Texas’ war didn’t officially end until August 20th, 1866, when Johnson issued Proclamation 157 Declaring that Peace, Order, Tranquillity, and Civil Authority Now Exists in and Throughout the Whole of the United States of America.

The blockade proclamation was of momentous legal significance because it conferred belligerent status on the states in rebellion. You don’t blockade ports in your own country; you close them. Proclaiming a closure of ports in states where the federal government no longer held sway, however, would have been entirely empty since the Confederate authorities would obviously have kept their ports open. Port closures also do not allow for the legal search and seizure of neutral vessels. If the Union wanted to be able to intercept British ships coming and going from Confederate ports, by international law only a blockade would grant them the right to do so.

Cartoon of General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, 1861There was much debate in Lincoln’s cabinet about whether the blockade proclamation was a bad idea, since it gave the Confederacy a legitimate position as belligerents which would allow them to make deals with neutral powers for loans and armaments. Lincoln decided that the blockade’s strategic importance as part of General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan to strangle the South’s economy by cutting off their access to coastal and Mississippi ports essential to trade superseded the concerns about legal status. The president made a point, however, of never referring to the states as belligerents in the proclamation itself. They’re described as “rebellious” or engaged in “insurrection.”

The Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports itself is not the document on sale. What’s being sold for just short of a million dollars is the order signed by Abraham Lincoln directing the Secretary of State to affix the U.S. seal to the proclamation. That affixing of the seal is what gives the presidential order the force of law. This simple document is a pre-printed blank authorization form that directs the affixing of the seal to an order which is described in a field filled in by hand as “a Proclamation setting on foot a Blockade of the ports of the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.” The president signed the document and the Proclamation, complete with seal, was issued that same day.

If you’re wondering how it’s even possible that a document marking such a pivotal moment in United States history is in private hands rather than in a government archive, then you’re not alone. I wondered the same thing and asked Nathan Raab, Vice President of The Raab Collection, how it came to be in private hands. It turns out that these seal-affixing documents, orders from a president that an official proclamation with the Seal of the United States be released, appear on the market with some regularity. Often they were sold or disposed of by the government to raise funds or to make space for the official proclamations commissioned in the orders. In the early 20th century, these sorts of documents could be easily bought from book sellers and antiques shops for modest prices.

Most of them treat with less significant subjects — presidential pardons and diplomatic correspondence, for instance — but every once in a while an “affix the seal” of major historical import turns up. The “affix the seal” order for the Emancipation Proclamation was purchased in 2001 by the Chicago History Museum for one million dollars. The seal-affixing order for the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is in the Hawaii State Archives and nobody knows how it got there. The working theory is it was donated by Bruce Cartwright, Jr., a Hawaiian businessman and collector of historic documents who was a strong supporter of the state archive.

Police recover artifacts stolen from Olympia museum

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Greek police have recovered all 76 artifacts stolen from the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Olympia in February of this year. On February 17th, 2012 two masked men, one of them carrying an AK-47, disabled the alarm, broke into the museum and held up the sole security guard during a shift change. It appears the thieves picked the wrong museum, confusing the smaller Olympics-themed museum with the larger Archaeological Museum of Olympia. They demanded that the security guard hand over a pair of gold wreaths. When she pointed out that there are no such artifacts in that particular museum and refused to help them steal anything else, they tied her up and gagged her. They then smashed and grabbed indiscriminately, ultimately making off with 75 bronze and clay artifacts and one gold signet ring.

Ring with gold bull-dancing seal, ca. 1400 B.C.It was that ring, the most valuable of the stolen objects, which led police to the thieves. The ring is of royal provenance, having been discovered in a royal chamber tomb in Antheia, a town in the Peloponnese region of Messenia. It dates to the late Bronze Age Mycenaean period, from around 1400 B.C. The large oval crown depicts two male athletes leaping over a bull. The gold ring was on loan from a museum in Messenia when it was stolen.

After lying low for nine months, the thieves attempted to sell the ring to a buyer who turned out to be an undercover police officer. Their initial asking price was 1.5 million euros ($1,943,000) which was reduced via haggling to a paltry 300,000 euros ($387,000). Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough they were dealing in stolen goods, that price drop would have confirmed it beyond a doubt. First the wrong museum, then the attempted sale to a cop, then the awful negotiating skills. These guys were such amateurs I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

The man attempting to sell the ring was arrested. Upon interrogation, he turned over his co-conspirators. On November 24th, police announced the arrest of three men staying in a hotel in the city of Patra just a few miles from the museum. One was a 50-year-old contractor from Patra, the second a 36-year-old unemployed man from Patra and the third, considered the “mastermind” of this heist, if such a term can be applied, is a 41-year-old unemployed man originally from Patra but now residing in Athens where he sells trinkets to make a living. So yeah, amateurs. They thought they could make a quick buck selling gold only to find that they went to the wrong place and then couldn’t sell any of the objects they’d stolen. Two other suspects are still at large, a 58-year-old man and a 33-year-old, both from Patra.

It’s notable that all the suspects are Greek. The museum security guard said at the time of the theft that they spoke broken Greek. She thought they might have been Albanian, and at the time police did pursue some Albanian jewel thieves thinking they might have had a hand in the museum caper as well. See the links in Conflict Antiquities’ rundown for more details on the police investigation and the various international avenues that now appear to have been abandoned.

Several artifacts were found on the alleged thieves, and once they were arrested, the suspects revealed the location of the rest of the stolen artifacts. The thieves had put them in a bag and buried them in a field two miles from the scene of the crime. The gold ring, a bronze statuette of a victorious athlete, a number of clay lamps, bronze tripods, bronze wheels, charioteers, clay and bronze horses and bulls, everything stolen was found. (Again, see the excellent Conflict Antiquities blog for pictures and descriptions of every stolen artifact.) They will be returned to the museum next week.

Artifacts stolen from Olympia museum

Japanese-American internee letters found in Denver wall

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Letters to T.K. Pharmacy found in wall of Denver buildingWhile renovating a historical brick building in Denver that once housed a pharmacy, Alissa Williams and her husband Mitch discovered a cache of 250 letters and postcards sent from Japanese-Americans being held at internment camps during World War II. The letters had been sent to the T.K. Pharmacy, owned by Coloradan of Japanese descent Thomas Kobayashi and managed during the war by his brother-in-law, Yutaka “Tak” Terasaki. Written in Japanese and English, the notes came from internment camps in California, Wyoming, Arizona, Arkansas, Utah and Colorado and requested everything from chocolate to cough drops to condoms and cold cream.

Internees could make as much as $19 a month doing jobs around the camp, and some of them were able to bring some money from home. Newspapers published in the camps carried advertising for products that could be purchased by mail, and mail order catalogs also floated around. Some catalogs and advertising were discovered among the cache of letters.

American soldier guards Japanese internment camp at Tule Lake, CANeither Thomas Kobayashi nor Tak Terasaki are still with us, but Tak’s younger brother Sam says that Tak was a longtime member of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, a non-profit found in 1929 dedicated to Asian-American civil rights. Tak’s wife Mitchie worked for Ralph Carr, Governor of Colorado from 1939 to 1943. Carr put his career on the line to advocate for the rights of interned Japanese-Americans while he was governor. He spoke out publicly against internment, saying it violated the Constitution, and he welcomed displaced Japanese-Americans into the state even though paranoia and racial animus against them were widespread. His courageous stance did in fact cost him his political career — he lost a senate race in 1942 and never again held elected office — but it won him an enduring reputation as a voice for justice under the hardest of circumstances.

According to Colorado State Historian Bill Convery, the T.K. Pharmacy was one of the few pharmacies owned by Japanese-Americans in the west, since all the property of Japanese-Americans in the coastal west had been confiscated by the government and their owners interned.

[The Denver pharmacy] could offer products favored by internees – who had one week to pack up two suitcases and sell any assets – and they might have felt more comfortable dealing with a Japanese-American-owned company, given tensions during the war.

Internees couldn’t bring much to camp and they didn’t know where they were headed or how long they’d be gone. “So as much as anything could soften the blow of that unimaginable situation, those businesses did what they could,” Convery said.

Wall where letters were foundIt’s not clear why the documents were hidden in the wall. There were letters from internment camps out in the open as well, so why this particular collection was squirreled away is a mystery. The building had been vacant for seven years when the Williamses purchased it in 2010.

Alissa and Mitch Williams have notified the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles of their find. The museum is currently in the midst of a major initiative to collect the oral histories, pictures, and letters of internees, so I’m sure they’ll be very much interested in such a unique perspective into the daily needs and wants of interned Japanese-Americans.

The Remembrance Project was launched earlier this year on February 19th, the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, the presidential order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt which authorized the military to declare parts of the United States areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” That order led to the internment of people with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” living in the designated areas, primarily the Pacific coast. The initiative seeks to make a permanent online museum of the memories of people who were interned as a result of Executive Order 9066. You can read some of the many tributes that have already been uploaded to the site, or you can donate money to the project or upload a tribute of your own by interviewing someone you know who experienced the internment camps.

Here is George Takei reading some of the memories of interned Japanese-Americans and then relaying his own memories of the day he and his family were taken from their home by US soldiers and made to live in a stable at the Santa Anita racetrack. The Takeis would go on to be interned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas and at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California.


Chimney carrier pigeon code stumps UK experts

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Carrier pigeon remainsThe United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British government’s code-breaking unit, has officially given up on cracking the coded message carried by a pigeon whose remains were found in a chimney in Surrey in 1982. GCHQ only began working on the message last month after curators at the Bletchley Park museum spent two years trying to decipher it but were unable to make any headway. When the story first made the news at the beginning of November, GCHQ said they wouldn’t comment on it until the code was broken. Now they’ve released an official statement in which they throw their hands up.

During the war, the methods used to encode messages naturally needed to be as secure as possible and various methods were used. The senders would often have specialist codebooks in which each code group of four or five letters had a meaning relevant to a specific operation, allowing much information to be sent in a short message. For added security, the code groups could then themselves be encrypted using, for example, a one-time pad.

The message found at Bletchingley had 27 five-letter code groups, and the GCHQ experts believe its contents are consistent with this method. This means that without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, it will remain impossible to decrypt. […]

The basis of a “one-time pad” encryption system is that a random key is used to encrypt (and subsequently decrypt) only one message. The advantage of this system is that, if used correctly, it is unbreakable as long as the key is kept secret. The disadvantage is that both the sending and receiving parties need to have access to the same key, which usually means producing and sharing a large keypad in advance.

Coded message found attached to the pigeon in the chimneyThey’d have more of a chance if they could find out more about the pigeon, its destination “X02” and its sender “Sjt W Stot” because it would narrow down the potential codebooks used. However, they still don’t know what “X02” refers to and haven’t been able to locate a “Sjt W Stot” in the records or a pigeon with either of the code numbers listed in the message. Colin Hill, curator of Bletchley Park’s war pigeons exhibition, is still working on tracking down the pigeon.

There is a very slim chance that a surviving World War II veteran might have saved a codebook or two or might be able to identify Sjt Stot and X02. This BBC article includes a contact form at the end for people who have any information or ideas on how to crack the code to submit their ideas. The Telegraph is asking people to email them their solutions. The sender of the best suggestion will win a crossword book.

GCHQ clearly thinks it’s a futile enterprise. They entitled the press release “Pigeon takes secret message to the grave” and include a tribute to the genius of the war-time coders who created encryption methods that could not be broken decades later with all the fancy technology in the world. A GCHQ historian known only as Tony told the BBC that “the most helpful suggestion we had through all of this was from a member of the public who suggested that, since the message was found in the chimney, the first two words were most likely to be ‘Dear Santa’.” No need to be a smartass, Mr. Secret Agent Man, just because you can’t crack a 70-year-old code.

Predynastic Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Gebelein Man on display in the British MuseumA CT scan of a predynastic natural mummy excavated in 1896 from a shallow sand grave in the desert near Gebelein, Egypt has solved a cold case 5,500 years old: Gebelein Man was murdered, stabbed in the back, to be precise. After 112 continuous years on display in the Early Egypt Gallery of the British Museum, on September 1st Gebelein Man was taken to Bupa Cromwell Hospital for a CT scan. He is the first predynastic mummy to receive this treatment. Since he was mummified naturally, Gebelein Man’s organs were not removed and the dry heat of the Egyptian desert preserved much of his organ tissue as well as his skeleton and skin. The scan produced detailed high resolution images of the body which allowed experts to examine the interior of the mummy in great detail.

Gebelein Man's shoulder and rib fractureThe new data showed that the mummy was a young man between 18 and 21 years of age when he died. There were a number of posthumous bone fractures, but his left shoulder blade and the rib right below it were cut. The bone fragments from that injury are still embedded in the muscle, and there’s a clear entry wound in the skin above his shoulder blade. There are no defensive wounds, which suggests that his murderer took Gebelein Man by surprise rather than during a battle. The murder weapon was a copper or flint blade at least five inches long and it was planted with such force that it shattered the rib, penetrating the left lung and severing the surrounding blood vessels. This was a very severe wound and there is no evidence of healing, so the British Museum is calling it: cause of death is murder by person or persons unknown.

The entry wound in Gebelein Man's shoulderJust in case that weren’t cool enough, they went full CSI. Thanks to advanced touchscreen and imaging technology by the Interactive Institute and Visualization Center C from Sweden, the 3D high resolution layered scans of the body have been uploaded to what is basically a huge iPad that works off of gestures. This virtual autopsy table allowed the British Museum experts and consultants to look inside the body in detail without damaging it or even being in the same room with it.

Lucky them, right? They get all the fun toys. But no! Restrain your grumpiness! Between November 16th and December 16th, the virtual autopsy table is in Room 64 of the museum out in the open, available for all visitors to play with. If you’re in London, get thee to the British Museum stat. Maybe you’ll find something the experts missed.

Gebelein Man is one of six discovered by Wallis Budge, a British Museum Keeper for Egyptology, from the same grave site about 25 miles south of Thebes. They were the first complete predynastic bodies discovered in Egypt, and Gebelein Man in particular was instantly popular when put on display in 1900 because of his excellent state of preservation and the visible tufts of red hair which earned him the nickname “Ginger.” He doesn’t go by that anymore, in keeping with the more respectful treatment accorded the archaeological dead these days.

You can see Gebelein Man go through his hospital CT scan and the virtual autopsy table at work in this video:


Moctezuma’s headdress restored

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

The Aztec feather headdress known as Moctezuma’s headdress or the Penacho has been restored and is now back on display at Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology. The headdress was cleaned and conserved with much success. The faded colors of the feathers have been brought back to vibrancy: feathers from the Squirrel Cuckoo that looked orange are now a deep brick red, the small blue Lovely Cotinga feathers that looked powder blue are now a brilliant turquoise, and the smaller quetzal feathers that looked the same powder blue as the Cotinga feathers are now their proper iridescent green, as are the 400 long Resplendent Quetzal tail feathers.

A commission of historians, archaeologists and ornithologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Austria’s Kunsthistorisches Museum spent two years studying the incredibly fragile piece, investigating its historical significance and documenting its condition. They focused on historical questions — its composition, the materials and technique used in its creation — and conservation issues — how to keep it from any further deterioration.

This is the last Aztec feather headdress to have survived, and people have been trying to ensure its survival for centuries. Conservators found and removed several old restoration attempts. They did keep a few springs added in the 16th century. They’re something of historical note in and of themselves, a testament to how long this gorgeous piece has been on display, starting with Archduke Ferdinand II’s extensive private collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck in 1575.

There was an agenda on the table other than cleaning and conservation, namely, could the headdress survive a trip to Mexico. It was once part of the regalia either of the last Aztec king Moctezuma II or of a high priest; the Penacho was either gifted to conquistador Hernán Cortés by the king or he looted it during the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521. At some point thereafter it made its way to Europe where it was first documented in the collection of Ferdinand II, who in addition to being Archduke of Austria was also the nephew of Cortés’ boss, Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Mexico figures half a millennium of absence is long enough and would like it back for a very long term loan. The Austrian museum authorities are amenable to the idea, but only if means of transportation can be found that will not damage the piece.

Such means have not yet been found. The Museum of Ethnology constructed a display case that was custom-built to compensate for the vibrations caused by the footsteps of visitors walking around the room, because even such a small amount of movement could harm the delicate piece. They’ll have to invent something far more complex to protect the headdress from the motion of an airplane or a ship voyage. Although this isn’t likely to happen any time soon, Austria is definitely open to the prospect and talks are ongoing. Austria and Mexico are currently negotiating a new treaty on cultural exchanges. The Penacho will play a starring role in the discussions.

Now, because you’ve been so patient to read down this far (assuming you didn’t just skip to the end which is what I would have done), here are the before and after pictures:

Moctezuma's headdress before restoration Moctezuma's headdress after restoration

Miscellaneous distractions

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Much like the rest of the country, I’m on the road today. While I’m being hassled by the TSA and marching through airports with the joylessly heavy pace of the workers entering and exiting the factory in Metropolis, you can frolic through the following fragrant, flowering historical meadows.

Mrs. Virginia Davis works in the assembly and repair department, the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas, 1942Need to prepare mentally for the trauma of Thanksgiving dinner? Not in the mood to read much? Here are 1600 color photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information between 1939 and 1944. They were taken all over the United States, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and focus on rural life, farm labor and World War II industrial production. It’s a neat contrast. You go from mule teams pulling a cart in Georgia to a state fair in Vermont to real life Rosie-the-Riveters. The color is great too, still rich after all these years.

Roman remains found in BanwellIf it’s the excitement of a new historical discovery you require to keep you sane, check out this article about a wealth of Roman remains, human and material, unearthed during the construction of a water main in Bramwell, North Somerset. They’ve found three inhumation burials, one of them in a partially preserved wooden coffin; several Roman brooches, including a small one that may have belonged to a child; a 4th century coin from the reign of Constantine the Great; a bone stylus; a bronze bracelet; and 9,000 pieces of pottery. The article is a fascinating read not so much because of the things found, but because of the picture they paint of Roman history in the area. Evidence of a removed wall and charcoal deposits, for instance, suggest a structure was destroyed by fire. Fragments of tiles in the debris indicate the building that once stood there was a sumptuous one with its own hypocaust heating system for a private bath.

Archaeologists dig up skeletons of Norse settlers in Greenland, 2010Perhaps you need some reassurance that no matter how much turkey you’ll be force-fed, you could always be worse off. You could be a Viking in 14th century Greenland where in order to survive, you’d have to eat mainly seals. According to a Danish-Canadian study of 80 Greenlandic Norse skeletons, 50 to 80 per cent of their diet was composed of seal meat. That’s not how it was supposed to be. When they first settled in Greenland, the Norse planned to farm and raise stock they had brought with them. As the climate cooled and it became increasingly clear that Greenland was poorly named, they had to supplement their diets with seafood. Eventually, seals became staples for them just as they were for the Inuit who had moved to Greenland from Canada in the early 13th century. (Did you know that the Inuit and Norse lived side by side in medieval Greenland? I did not know that.) No doubt the blubbery monotony of the seal-based diet played a part in the eventual Viking abandonment of Greenland.

Hunt's Link variation patented in 1877 by George G. HuntFinally, if you’re feeling a little hemmed in, consider the unexpectedly awesome story of collectible barbed wire. Until yesterday, it didn’t even occur to me that people would collect rusty, pointy, dangerous chunks of old wire fences, but they do and now I can see why because there are some incredibly intricate, beautiful period designs. Barbed wire came into its own in the second half of the 19th century, spurred on by the growth of the railroads and the demise of the open range brought on by homesteaders fencing in former pasture they’d converted to farm land. Ranchers and farmers went to war over barbed wire. Barbed wire designers went to war with each other to secure patents. Fortunes were made and lost thanks to barbed wire.




November 2012


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