Archive for November, 2012

The game board King Charles carried to the scaffold

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

1607 amber gameboard, closedI can see why he wouldn’t have wanted to let it go until his head was separated from his neck. It’s that beautiful. Attributed to Georg Schreiber of Königsberg, Prussia, a 17th century master craftsman famed as the chess set maker to royalty, the game board is made of opaque white amber and translucent red amber on a wood chassis with an ebony superstructure, carved Roman-style portrait busts and chased silver accents. There’s a Nine Men’s Morris board on one side, a chess board on the other, and it opens up to reveal a diptych backgammon board. Inside it holds 14 game pieces of cream amber, with a white amber profile in the center overlaid with translucent red amber, and 14 pieces of translucent orange amber. The profiles are of all the kings of England from William the Conqueror to James I.

Georg Schreiber game board, signed and dated 1616There is no signature on the board, so we can’t be absolutely certain that it was made by Georg Schreiber. The detail on this piece is one of a kind. No other boards have been found that are so elaborately decorated with allegorical scenes, busts, Latin and German proverbs, silver accents and painted metal underlays. However, Schreiber’s style is hard to mistake, and the many highly specific commonalities between this work and the only known game board to have been signed and dated by Schreiber put the attribution on very solid ground. The signed board is dated 1616. This board is dated 1607, which makes it the earliest Schreiber game board extant.

Game piece with royal profileIn the first half of the 17th century, Königsberg was the center of amber craftsmanship in Europe. The Sambia Peninsula on the Baltic Sea just northwest of Königsberg had been the primary source of amber in the West since antiquity, and in the Middle Ages, the amber trade was controlled by the Teutonic Order, which ruled the area from 1255 until 1525 when their Grand Master, Albrecht of Hohenzollern, converted to Lutheranism and secularized the Order’s former territories into the Duchy of Prussia. Instead of the rosary beads which had been the primary amber product under the Teutonic Knights, artisans in Königsberg, the capital of the new duchy, focused on crafting courtly objects — caskets, cups, inlay and of course, game boards — for the nobility and aristocracy of Europe.

This particular game board with its exquisite craftsmanship and royal English theme may have first been owned by King James I, who ruled England at the time of the board’s creation and who is the last English king portrayed on the game pieces. These high quality objects were often used as diplomatic gifts. The Elector of Brandenburg, ruler of Prussia, could well have gifted it to King James.

The Execution of Charles I, unknown painter, Juxon wearing the long robe next to the King in bottom left panel and central execution panelThe royal provenance is also hard to confirm, but we know that King Charles I was an avid chess player, not even interrupting his game when he was told that the Scots had changed sides and were supporting Parliament. According to the tradition that has accompanied the piece for centuries, King Charles I brought the game board to the scaffold on the day of his execution, January 30th, 1649. There he bequeathed it to William Juxon, the Bishop of London and the king’s personal chaplain who gave Charles the last rites before he was beheaded. Charles also gave Juxon the copy of the King James Bible he had brought to the scaffold with him, and he handed him his “George,” a figure of St. George slaying the dragon that is part of the accoutrements of the Order of the Garter, with the request that Juxon deliver it to the Prince of Wales.

Amber gameboard chess sideBy family tradition, Juxon left the game board to his nephew and it stayed in the family for two generations before being passed down to the Hesketh family, who added Juxon to their name as part of the inheritance stipulations. The Heskeths have owned it ever since. It’s the estate of Frederick Fermor-Hesketh, 2nd Lord Hesketh, which is now selling the piece. The Bible was given by Lady Susannah, widow of Sir William Juxon, son of the bishop’s nephew, to their neighbors the Jones family of Chastleton House. The Jacobean manor is now owned by the National Trust, but the Bible remains in the collection there. The Scaffold George, as the insignia became known, did eventually make its way to Charles’ son and is now in the Royal Collection.

Amber gameboard opened to the backgammon diptychOther than the long oral tradition and the clear lines of descent from William Juxon, there is some documentary evidence supporting the dramatic King Charles I story. The inventory of the King’s possessions after his execution lists “A Paire of Tables [i.e. two game boards joined together to form a diptych] of White and Yellowe Amber garnished with silver.” Written below the entry is a line saying that it was sold to a creditor of the perpetually indebted Charles for £30. Creditors got first dibs in these fire sales. This is how many of them were “repaid” after the King’s death: they bought something from the royal collection with the expectation that they would be able to resell it at a profit and get some of their money back. (One item listed on the inventory that didn’t sell was Charles’ collection of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons.)

King Charles I wearing the GeorgeHow could the game board have been sold to a creditor if Charles gave it to Bishop Juxon, you ask? By order of Parliament, Juxon was allowed to be with the King during his final days under “the same restraint as the King is,” in other words, confined to his rooms in Whitehall Palace. From January 27th, 1649, the day the King was sentenced, until January 31st, the day after the King was executed, William Juxon was being held by Parliament. As soon as he left the scaffold, Juxon was questioned by Parliamentary authorities. They confiscated everything the King had given him and questioned him about the last thing the King said to him (“Remember”). The next day they let him go.

Amber gameboard, Nine Men's Morris sideBoth the game board and the Scaffold George are listed on the inventory. So if these objects were confiscated and sold, how could Juxon have gotten the game board back and bequeathed it to his family? The plausible answer is he simply bought it back from the creditor. The creditor in question was William Latham, a wool merchant, who was doubtless far more interested in cashing out the decorative object than in keeping it, especially since he had had to pony up £30 to buy it from Parliament. We know for a fact that that’s what happened to the Scaffold George: it was purchased by a creditor who then sold it to royalists. They saw to it that George was returned to Charles II in keeping with his father’s request.


Tycho Brahe wasn’t poisoned after all

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Tycho Brahe exhumed in 2010, photo by Jacob C. Raven, Aarhus UniversityAt least not by mercury. The suspicion first arose in 1996 when samples of his whiskers and hair which had been recovered during a 1901 exhumation of his remains were analyzed and found to contain elevated levels of mercury. Tycho Brahe’s body was exhumed again in 2010 so that the latest CAT scan, X-ray and neutron activation analysis could assess the levels of mercury in his hair and bones to determine if he really did die of mercury poisoning.

The cause of Brahe’s death had been subject to much gossip and urban-legending since he felt sick at a party in Prague and died 11 days later on October 24th, 1601. The official diagnosis was that he died of a bladder infection, but his assistant astronomer Johannes Kepler, who was witness to Brahe’s final days, wrote that his bladder had exploded because he refused to leave the dinner table to urinate because he didn’t want to be impolite. Rumors soon circulated that Kepler might have had reasons of his own to make up so outlandish a story, namely that he had poisoned Brahe to steal his ideas and pass them off as his own. Another poisoning rumor bandied about was that Tycho’s cousin Erik had poisoned him at the behest of King Christian IV of Denmark, who allegedly thought Brahe was sleeping with the King’s mother.

Determining whether mercury had a hand in his death wouldn’t resolve the question of whether he was deliberately killed. Mercury was used for all kinds of purposes back then. It was a terrifying treatment for syphilis and used in many other medical nostrums. Alchemists considered it the Prima Materia or “First Matter” from which all other metals sprang, so it was foundational in any attempt to transmute base metals into gold. Brahe could have been exposed to elevated levels of mercury in his work or in his daily life, just as we still are today.

Researchers examine remains of Tycho Brahe in 2010, photo by Jacob C. Raven, Aarhus UniversityAfter two years of studying the samples taken during the 2010 exhumation, the team of researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark and the Nuclear Physics Institute in Prague have sufficient information from his hair and bones to conclude that Tycho Brahe did not die of mercury poisoning, accidental or deliberate.

“We measured the concentration of mercury using three different quantitative chemical methods in our labs in Odense and Řež, and all tests revealed the same result: that mercury concentrations were not sufficiently high to have caused his death,” says Dr Rasmussen[, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark].

“In fact, chemical analyses of the bones indicate that Tycho Brahe was not exposed to an abnormally high mercury load in the last five to ten years of his life,” continues Dr Rasmussen, who analysed the bone samples using cold vapour atomic absorption spectroscopy at the University of Southern Denmark.

“Analyses of hairs from the beard were performed using radiochemical neutron activation analysis and proton microprobe scanning in Řež. They reflect the mercury load in the last approximately eight weeks of Tycho Brahe’s life, and these analyses show that mercury concentrations fell from the high end of the normal level eight weeks before death to the low end of the normal level in the last two weeks before death,” explains Dr Kučera[, professor of nuclear chemistry at the Nuclear Physics Institute in Prague].

So not only did he not have elevated levels of mercury in his system, he had lower levels of mercury in his system in his last weeks than previously. Considering his interest in medicine and alchemy, it’s rather remarkable that the levels of mercury found in his beard are no different than you’d find in any man’s beard today from general environmental exposure. Chemical analysis of his hair and bones turned up no evidence of any other kind of poison either.

Print showing Tycho Brahe's nose prostheticAnother question the team has answered regards Tycho Brahe’s famous prosthetic nose. In 1566, when he was 20 years old and a student at the University of Rostock, Tycho had an argument about a mathematical formula with his third cousin and fellow student Manderup Parsberg. Since they could not resolve who was right by talking it out, they decided a duel with swords would pick the winner. At 7:00 PM on December 29th, Brahe and Parsberg fought in the dark. I guess Parsberg was right about that formula because the duel ended when he sliced off part of the bridge of Brahe’s nose. Tycho went home in April of 1567 and had a prosthetic device made to fill in the disfiguring hole in his nose. According to the legend that grew around the astronomer, his nose was made of silver or gold.

Remains of the skull and mustache in the 1901 jar, photo by Jacob C. Raven, Aarhus UniversityWhen the body was exhumed in 1901, no metal nose was found buried with him. The exhumers did notice a greenish residue around the nasal cavity, however. They presciently placed the remains of the skull in a glass jar before reburial, which helped keep the residue and the mustache in good condition. Researchers this time around took bone samples from the nose to determine its chemical composition. They discovered that the green residue contained equal parts of copper and zinc, which means Tycho Brahe’s fake nose was made of brass, not of precious metals.

The study is not yet complete. Analysis of Tycho’s teeth is ongoing, the results of which might provide an actual cause of death. Researchers also plan to do a facial reconstruction from the CT scans performed on his skeleton in 2010.

This whole process, from the early attempts to get permission to exhume the body to exhumation to laboratory analysis to publication, has been followed by a documentary film crew from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. The documentary aired last night on Danish, Swedish and Czech television. There is no word yet on whether it will air in other markets, but apparently US and German television stations have expressed interest in picking it up. Fingers crossed!


Rome’s Cloaca Maxima sewer needs love

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Map of downtown Rome during the Roman Empire, Cloaca Maxima marked in redRome’s Cloaca Maxima, or Great Sewer, probably began its long and illustrious life as an open canal carrying water through the Roman Forum to the Tiber. According to Livy, it was built by command of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, to drain the marshy and flood-prone valley between the Capitoline, Esquiline and Palatine hills which would become the Roman Forum, originally 20 feet below sea level. Three small rivers flowed down the hills to converge in this area which was also flooded annually by the Tiber, with floodwaters reaching almost 30 feet above sea level. The space was thus unusable and in fact often navigable only by boat.

In the late seventh century B.C., Priscus had the basin filled with layers of soil, rock and debris so that it gradually rose to 30 feet above sea level, the magic number putting it just above the annual flood. The surface of the fill was then paved and ready for construction. A drainage canal that would channel flood waters and smaller tributary rivers out of the area and into the Tiber was essential to ensure the filled land wouldn’t be eroded. Priscus began construction of the canal around 600 B.C. and it was completed by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, in the late sixth century. Archaeology confirms that the archaic walls constructed of massive tufa blocks date to the late sixth century.

Pliny talks about the human cost of this construction in Book 36 of his Natural History:

We should not fail to mention an occasion that is all the more worthy of record because the best-known historians have overlooked it. Tarquinius Priscus was carrying out the work using the common folk as his labourers, and it became doubtful whether the toil was to be more notable for its intensity or for its duration. Since the citizens were seeking to escape from their exhaustion by committing suicide wholesale, the king devised a strange remedy that was never contrived except on that one occasion. He crucified the bodies of all who had died by their own hands, leaving them to be gazed at by their fellow-citizens and also torn to pieces by beasts and birds of prey.

Pliny clearly thinks it was worth it, though:

Through the city there flow seven rivers meeting in one channel. These, rushing downwards like mountain torrents, are constrained to sweep away and remove everything in their path, and when they are thrust forward by an additional volume of rain water, they batter the bottom and sides of the sewers. Sometimes the backwash of the Tiber floods the sewers and makes its way along them upstream. Then the raging flood waters meet head on within the sewers, and even so the unyielding strength of the fabric resists the strain. In the streets above, massive blocks of stone are dragged along, and yet the tunnels do not cave in. They are pounded by falling buildings, which collapse of their own accord or are brought crashing to the ground by fire. The ground is shaken by earth tremors; but in spite of all, for 700 years from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, the channels have remained well-nigh impregnable.

Archaic walls with later vaultingAs the city grew, the drainage system was expanded over time into a patchwork of canals, forever being repaired, expanded into new areas or closed off to allow for safe construction above them. By the second century B.C., the canals were fully covered and became the underground sewer network that we know and love today. There are still active sections of the sewer with archaic masonry walls topped by second century Republican vaults.

Domitian-era section of the Cloaca under the ForumThat mishmash of architectural styles continued through the imperial era as old areas were repaired or closed and new branches built. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus Caesar’s right hand man and son-in-law, had the Cloaca Maxima cleaned, repaired and enlarged during his tenure as aedile (one of the magistrates in charge of city building and entertainment) in 33 B.C. The emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 A.D.) did the same as part of his extensive building program in the city. By then, the Cloaca Maxima was linked to the 11 aqueducts that supplied water to Rome, carrying out the waste water from public buildings, latrines and baths. In his report to the emperor Nerva, Domitian’s successor, Water Commissioner Julius Frontinus got stern about people illegally tapping into the overflow waters because they needed to be at full strength in order to properly flush the sewers.

Outlet of Cloaca Maxima into TiberEven after the traditional Fall of the Western Empire in 476 A.D., the Cloaca Maxima was still in use in the city, although doubtless repairs floundered during the years when Rome went from an imperial city of one million to a holy ghost town of 35,000 during the Babylonian Captivity of the Pope in the 14th century. According to Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century humanist and historian who documented the condition of the ancient ruins of Rome in the first book of his De Varietate Fortunæ, a section of the Cloaca Maxima had collapsed after the Byzantines looted it for its metal staples in the sixth century A.D. I don’t know how reliable the metal staples thing is, but it’s certain that although it remained in continuous use, parts of the Cloaca suffered along with the rest of Rome’s ancient structures during the Middle Ages.

Under the Renaissance papacy, some of the city’s aqueducts and sewers were restored to function and after the Unification of Italy in 1870, more sections of the Cloaca Maxima were excavated, restored and put to use. In the early 20th century, modern sewer building projects connected up to the Cloaca Maxima, thus ensuring it would have a job to do 2600 years after it was built. That job is primarily drainage. There’s plenty of trash and city detritus in there, but there isn’t supposed to be any raw sewage in the tunnels. However, the urban spelunkers at Roma Sotteranea have had some dubious encounters on that score.

Archeobot dodecahedral control booth in the Forum at nightJust as it did when it was only decades and centuries old rather than in its third millennium, the Cloaca Maxima needs regular maintenance. For decades the Cloaca Maxima has been neglected — it hasn’t even been fully mapped yet — and as climatic extremes over the past few years have brought massive rainfall and subsequent flooding, the condition of the Cloaca has become critical. Research programs over the last six years have attempted to document the tunnels. This summer, the regional archaeological superintendence sent in a fantastic little scanning robot named Archeorobot that looks like a clear acrylic version of that little black bot that squeals when it’s racing through the halls of the Death Star in Star Wars. Just in case that wasn’t adorably nerdy enough, the bot is controlled from a portable polycarbonate dodecahedral booth that looks like a giant Dungeons and Dragons die.

Its cuteness is surpassed only by its usefulness. Small and agile, Archeobot took HD footage and 3D laser scans of its path through the main duct and smaller offshoots under the Forum. It also recorded humidity levels and temperatures, took physical measurements and identified the gases in the tunnels.

What it found was alarming. Blockages and structural damage have transmuted the Cloaca Maxima from an essential aid to the health and safety of the city to a serious threat. Any collapse could cause irreparable harm to the historic center, as could the backup of flood waters.

Armed with research data, on Wednesday the city maintenance teams went down into the Cloaca Maxima under the Arch of Janus near the Forum Boarium where the Cloaca disgorges into the Tiber. They will spend the next two months cleaning the tunnel, removing debris and sediment layers that are obstructing the flow of water. Although they are still raising money for it, their goal is a two year project of repair and cleaning that will address the urgent issues afflicting the Cloaca Maxima.


Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl debuts on PBS Sunday

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

Until fairly recently, all I knew about the Dust Bowl was a general outline. I knew that a combination of overfarming, drought and wind had caused massive dust storms through the Plains states of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico during the 1930s. I had seen pictures of displaced farming families taken by Farm Security Administration photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. I had read The Grapes of Wrath. But I had no concept of the full scale of the calamity until I saw a History Channel program called Black Blizzard (view a short clip here, DVD for sale here) two years ago.

Rolling dust storm blocks out the sun in TexasIt was a revelation to find out that the amount of topsoil displaced during the decade could fill the Grand Canyon, that dirt which had once supported amber fields of grain was blown so far that it blanketed Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City before landing in the Atlantic Ocean, that it was impossible to keep the talcum-like dust out of the house no matter how many wet sheets were stuck to the walls, that people and animals caught in storms died of suffocation, that the gradual buildup of dust in the lungs caused dust pneumonia which was even deadlier, especially for children and the elderly who died in misery, coughing up mud. Then there were the grasshoppers and hares who descended Old Testament-style upon any plant material that managed to survive the widespread erosion, drought and wind storms.

It was a decade of hell on earth and it was entirely man-made. Before the Civil War, the Great Plains area was known as the “Great American Desert.” Rainfall was scarce and cyclical. The native grasses with their deep roots and moisture retention capabilities thrived in the region’s semi-arid climate, but crops would not. As white settlers increasingly moved west of the Missouri after the Civil War, they bumped into a wet cycle. Hack climatologists decided that the increase in rainfall was a result of the increase in settlement, that “rain follows the plow” and that therefore the Great American Desert was now a lush fertile land to be farmed at will. The government espoused this theory and actively encouraged settlement and farming, with no attention paid to even the most basic good farming practices like crop rotation and terracing.

Farm buried in dust, 1936With the increase in immigration in the early 1900s, more and more settlers claimed a homestead in the Great Plains. The prime farming land near rivers that could be irrigated was already taken, and the government specifically encouraged farming of the prairies in the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 which doubled the size of land grants to 320 acres per farmer to make up for the lack of water resources. Using deep plough techniques which eradicated the native grasses and exposed the topsoil to the winds, farmers planted thousands of acres of single cash crops like wheat and cotton. High prices during World War I and another wet cycle in the 1920s encouraged ever more extensive ploughing and planting. Prices dropped drastically after the Wall Street Crash in 1929, but that only gave farmers more incentive to plant as much as they possibly could to make up for the shortfall.

When the wet cycle ended and drought began in 1930, the land which had been so dramatically altered by farmers over the preceding decades literally threw itself in their faces. Those deep furrows ploughed into the topsoil exposed it to the winds. Without water or grasses to keep it in place, the dirt was simply swept away, sometimes creating massive rolling clouds that for days blanketed everything in their path with dust and grew so huge they blocked out the sun. Some farmers tried to tough it out hoping next season the rain would fall again, but as the years went on and conditions only got worse, by 1935 many lost their homes to the banks and were forced to move, seeking out employment as migrant workers. A total of 2.5 million people moved out of the Plains states between 1930 and 1940. Many of them wound up in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Government sign promoting terracing, Taylor, Texas, April 1939As soon as Franklin Roosevelt took office, his administration initiated programs to conserve soil, encourage anti-erosion farming practices (even as late as 1937 the government literally had to pay farmers to utilize crop rotation or terracing or contour ploughing), plant a shelterbelt of 200 million trees from Texas to Canada to break the wind and keep the soil in place, distribute canned foods to help the needy, and purchase drought-stricken cattle from ranchers so the strongest animals had access to more resources. By the end of the decade, these programs helped significantly reduce the amount of blowing soil. In the autumn of 1939, rain fell again.

In standard History Channel fashion, the show I saw two years ago was packed with CGI and reenactments for which I have a limited tolerance, but it also featured survivors of the Dust Bowl telling their stories for which I have an unlimited hunger. Although I didn’t know it at the time, by the time I watched that program, Ken Burns and his team had been working for a year on collecting oral histories for his own documentary on the Dust Bowl. Realizing that time was short if they wanted to record the memories of people who lived through the hellish period, in 2009 Burns made a direct plea on PBS asking people for their stories, pictures and film of life in the Dust Bowl. His team scoured the Plains states, putting ads in local newspapers, visiting senior centers, looking for people who could convey the compelling stories of their dirt-besieged youths. They were successful.

Farmer and sons in dust storm, Oklahoma, 1936The oral histories are the focus of this documentary. No cheesy re-enactments, no low-rent CGI. Just real people who went through hell and lived to tell the tale. Also playing a starring role are the pictures taken by the immensely talented photographers of the Farm Security Administration and period films shot by professionals and amateurs.

Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl debuts Sunday, November 18th at 8:00 PM on your local PBS station, followed by episode two on Monday night. The website has an excellent collection of Dust Bowl photographs, clips and other videos about the documentary, and biographies of the survivors featured. This video about the eye witnesses is my favorite.


Local museum raising funds to buy Ackworth Hoard

Friday, November 16th, 2012

The British Civil War-era ceramic pot stuffed with gold and silver coins and one poignant ring discovered last year by a doctor while gardening in his backyard has been assessed by the British Museum’s treasure trove experts as having a fair market value of £54,500 ($86,400). Local museums get first dibs on finds of this nature, so Pontefract Museum, which neighbors the West Yorkshire town of High Ackworth where the treasure was discovered, is trying to raise the money to secure this historic treasure. The council for the Wakefield district (which includes both Ackworth and Pontefract) has applied for national grants that would supply £49,000 of the required sum. They’re fairly confident they’ll receive the grants given how significant this find is and how it relates to the strong Civil War history of the area, but they still need help from private donors to raise the remaining £5,500 ($8719).

Silver and gold coins, ring, ceramic vessel buried during English Civil War found in High Ackworth yardWe know a little more about the discovery than we did when I first blogged about it in March, and from pot to contents, it’s a remarkable glimpse into Civil War history in the royalist stronghold of Pontefract. The ceramic pot is wheel-thrown earthenware made in the kilns at Wrenthorpe, a town in the Wakefield district 13 miles west of Pontefract. It’s in two pieces, but easily repairable and in excellent condition. Inside were found 52 gold coins, 539 silver coins and a gold ring inscribed “When this you see, remember me.” The earliest coin dates to 1547, the latest to 1645-46. The ring and pot date to around 1645-46 as well, so British Museum experts believe the hoard was buried at that time.

The coins are an eclectic collection of denominations that testify to conditions during the Civil War. The 1547 coins of Edward VI were in circulation for a century before they were buried, but even though they are more worn than the newest coins, they are more well-struck than the Charles I coins with the sun mintmark that were in circulation for less than a year before burial. That’s because Charles I started ramping up coin production in the Tower of London mint in the 1630s in order to fund his interventions in the French wars of religion (on the Catholic side, much to Parliament’s disgust) and in the burgeoning Thirty Years’ War (on his sister Elizabeth’s side in Bohemia against the Holy Roman Emperor and his Spanish allies). He tried to raise revenue without convening Parliament by reinstating ancient feudal taxes, but the income was never sufficient for his needs, so he put the mints into overdrive. The increase in production led to a decrease in strike quality.

By 1645 the Tower of London mint was under Parliament’s control, but they had a Civil War to fight so they kept on cranking out coins. The fact that there are comparatively few of the 1645-46 sun mintmark coins underscore the hoard’s Royalist leanings. There are few Charles I coins from mints held by Royalists as well, but there were far fewer of those in circulation at the time of the burial, so the small number is disproportionately significant.

There are some non-English coins in the collection. Along with Irish and Scottish pieces, there are also silver ducatoons from the Spanish Netherlands. I was not aware there was such a coin as a ducatoon, and I feel very much the richer for knowing it because that is a truly spectacular name. When Royalist forces found themselves short of cash to pay their troops, Charles I made ducatoons legal tender in England. His wife Queen Henrietta Maria personally sent £500 in ducatoons that she had raised on the mainland to the commander of the Royalist troops in York. Returning from a fundraising trip in 1643, she even stopped at Pontefract Castle on her way to join her husband at Oxford. It’s therefore entirely possible that the ducatoons in the hoard have a direct connection with the queen.

Posy ring engraved "When this you see, remember me" on the insideThe range of coins and the gold posy ring (simple gold bands inscribed with an expression of love; the Ashmolean has a huge collection of them) suggest this was the portable wealth of a member of the gentry rather than of a merchant. Someone with royal connections, perhaps, and with Royalist leanings, certainly. You can see why Pontefract, the last Royalist holdout which finally surrendered two months after King Charles I had been beheaded, is keen to keep this treasure.

As of their latest press release issued Monday, November 12th, they have raised £838.50 of the £5,500 needed. I’d hate to think that they’ll have to pass on acquiring the treasure because they can’t raise such a comparatively modest amount. For people in the area, you can donate in person by asking for a donation envelope at the Pontefract Museum, Pontefract Castle, Sandal Castle, the Wakefield Tourist Information Centre or any Wakefield district library. Everyone else must donate by mail. Write a check payable to “Wakefield Council – Ackworth Hoard” and mail it to The Ackworth Hoard, Pontefract Museum, 5 Salter Row, Pontefract, WF8 1BA.

Pontefract Museum in its beautiful Art Nouveau buildingI’ve encountered this checks-only setup so often with culture heritage fundraisers and it bums me out because it assumes that the only people who will give a buck or two to this kind of cause are people who live in the area. You don’t have to be local to want to help out. Globalization can pay off for the little guy too. Many of these museums and associated councils have a web presence. If not a fully fledged website, they almost always have Facebook and Twitter accounts. Throw up a PayPal button, you know what I’m saying? Even locals may not get around to sending a check, but they’ll gladly click to donate. Immediacy is money in the bank.

I’ve tweeted (yeah. I tweeted.) the Wakefield Council if they might set up online donations so we furriners could chip in easily, and they thought it was a good suggestion. They’re going to pass it along to the museum. I’ll keep an eye open for any movement on this score.

Meanwhile, I’m considering taking a page out of the Tesla museum’s book and just starting a proxy campaign. The fees for a third party, non-US campaign are potentially scary, and I don’t have anything like The Oatmeal’s reach. Any suggestions on how best to pull something like this off would be very much appreciated.


Ice hockey games held in Roman amphitheater

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

A hockey rink is built in the ancient Roman Pula Arena

I don’t know how I missed this when it happened two months ago, but some genius in Croatia had the brilliant idea of setting the tooth-loosingest, elbow-to-the-faciest, beatings-will-continue-until-the-score-improvesingest sport of the modern era in its ancient habitat: the Roman amphitheater in Pula, Croatia. The Pula Arena is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters in existence, with all four of its side towers and all three levels of the classical orders still standing. With a capacity of more than 20,000 spectators, it’s one of the six largest ever built.

Pula ArenaLike the Colosseum in Rome, the Pula Arena as we know it today (there were earlier and smaller wooden and stone versions) was started by the emperor Vespasian in 79 A.D. and completed by his son Titus in 81 A.D. Also like the Colosseum, it was used as a source of construction materials after the fall of the Western Empire, but in Pula the practice was prohibited by the Patriarch of Aquileia in the 1200s which is why so much of it remains today. Italian powers from Venice in the 16th century to the Fascist national government during World War II have made attempts to dismantle the entire arena so they could rebuild it back home, but thankfully none of these plans ever came to fruition.

It is felicitously located on the tip of the Istrian peninsula, overlooking the glimmering turquoise waters of the Adriatic, and today is both a tourist attraction and a 5,000-seat venue for events like movies, operas and military ceremonies. Those are fairly staid entertainments compared to the ones that took place in the first four centuries of its existence. Ice hockey games, on the other hand, may at first glance seem incongruous given Pula’s mild Mediterranean climate, but thematically it’s a perfect match.

Not just because of the violence either. (Are the European hockey leagues as rough as the NHL? I’m just assuming they are but I have no idea.) In their heyday, amphitheaters were the pinnacle of high-tech entertainment. They had pulley and trap door systems to raise animals and fighters from the basement, canvas roofing systems that would be unfurled by sailors to give the audience some shade, mechanisms to flood and drain the arena. Pula Arena even has water cisterns in the four towers that were used to supply fountains and spray perfumed water over the spectators.

In the recreations of historical sea battles called naumachia, the arena would be flooded with a few inches of water and re-enactors would fight on ships that weren’t floating so much as mechanical props. (Full-scale naumachia using actual warships and thousands of fighters happened on lakes and in specially built basins, but there wasn’t room for them even in the Colosseum.) If they had had the technology to freeze the flooded floor, I’m sure they would have recreated Hannibal crossing the Alps.

Bleachers go upThe creation of an ice hockey rink in the middle of Pula Arena was no small technological marvel even today. One hundred and fifty tons of rink- and bleacher-building material was transported from Italy to Zagreb in 22 mega-trucks and then moved to Pula in stages. Workers then built a rink on a wooden platform with a complex icing system below and bleachers to accomodate 7,000 spectators.

Pula Arena hockey rink on game nightDimension of ice in Pula Arena will be 57 x 26 meters [187 feet x 85 feet) while the thickness will be 6 – 8 cm [2.3 inches – 3.1 inches]. Ice in Pula Arena will be placed on a specially built platform sized 1,900 square meters [20,451 square feet]; 15,000 liters [4,000 gallons] of a special liquid for freezing- glycol running in 2540m [8333 foot]-long pipes below the surface which is needed to create and maintain the ice in the open of the Pula Arena. World’s highest eco-standards are abided during the use of this machinery so after the event ends, those same 15,000 liters of glycol will be stored back in the same tanks and taken off the site with a high level of responsibility and care! 100 liters [26.4 gallons] of special paint will be used to paint the ice base layer for the purpose of stronger puck contrast on the surface and as much as 1800 square meters [19,375 square feet] of special foil will be used to protect the ice in Pula Arena from sun and high temperatures. Interesting fact is that the same type of foil is used to produce astronauts’ suits designed for astronauts to exit the spacecraft and enter the space. -12°C will be the temperature at which special machinery will maintain the ice surface in Arena; 6 foreign experts will supervise the set-up and ice maintenance helped by 70 domestic, local workers.

Amazingly enough, it all worked. They managed to keep a skatable ice hockey rink going when the temperatures were in the 60s F for the three games held September 14th-16th. Austrian league teams Medvescak Zagreb and Olimpija Ljubljana went head to head on Friday (final score 2-3) and Medvescak Zagreb beat the UPC Vienna Capitals on Sunday 4-0. On Saturday a game pitted retired hockey legends from Croatia and Russia against each other. The Russian legends won 10-3. The total cost was around 500,000 Euros ($627,000), paid for by sponsors and ticket sales.

This whole crazy project went from idea to execution in three months, which is kind of mind-blowing. Players and spectators got a huge kick out of it, as you can see from this awesome video which also features cool time-lapse footage of the construction:


The Sun King’s antiques return to Versailles

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

"Louis XIV and the Royal Family" by Jean Nocret, 1670; Louis on the right as Apollo holding a sun scepterKing Louis XIV, a believer in the theory that kings are chosen by God and rule by divine right, adopted the iconography of classical antiquity to convey his godlike power. As a youth, while still under the regency of his mother, Anne of Austria (who had ceded control to Cardinal Mazarin), he went to a masquerade dressed as the sun, with rays around his head and gold dust on his face. He thereafter adopted the sun as his seal. After Mazarin died in 1661 and Louis acceded to his full power as King of France, he commissioned artists like Jean Nocret and Charles Le Brun to depict him as the deified rulers of antiquity or as the deities themselves, preferably Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of the sun, bringer of heat and light to the world.

The metaphor extended to political reality with the construction of the Palace of Versailles. Louis XIV deliberately had the palace built outside of Paris in what was then a sleepy village, so it wouldn’t be an easy target for the Parisian mobs like the one that had burst into his bedroom in the Palais-Royal when he was 10 years old. By 1682, Versailles was the epicenter of royal power. France’s greatest nobles, who only a few years earlier had fought hard for their feudal rights against an increasingly centralized monarchy during the civil wars of the Fronde, now lived at Versailles at the king’s beck and call. He was the sun and they revolved entirely around him. Feudal lords who had once ruled their own domains and fielded personal armies now vied with recently ennobled courtiers to perform servile duties for the monarch.

Artemis with a Deer, a.k.a. the Diana of Versailles, Roman copy of Greek original, 1st-2nd c. A.D.Although some of his ancestors, most notably Francis I, had purchased large numbers of ancient sculptures from Italy, these collections had been dispersed during the reigns of subsequent uninterested and perpetually broke monarchs. He only inherited one life-sized Roman marble, Artemis with a Deer, now in the Louvre Museum. The rest of his decor was paintings and tapestries, many of them featuring him in the guise of the heroes of classical antiquity.

He realized that wasn’t enough cachet for him when the Baroque master Gianlorenzo Bernini came to Paris in 1665 when Louis was 27 years old. Bernini was invited to present a new design for the east facade of the Louvre, then a royal palace, but his vision did not meet with Louis’ approval. Instead, Bernini made a bust of the king which did meet with his approval and many other art lovers’ approvals in the centuries since. It’s considered a masterpiece of Baroque sculptural portraiture. Louis sat for Bernini 13 times during the making of this piece, and the artist also followed him around to convey the great man in action.

Bust of Louis XIV by Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1665He saw little greatness in the king’s living quarters, however. Bernini publicly declared that “the ornaments of this chamber and the adjoining rooms are ornaments for ladies.” Wounded to the core by this iceburn, Louis spent the rest of his days accumulating life-sized and colossal ancient sculptures or commissioning copies thereof. Soon his vast new digs at Versailles would require filling, and what better stage for a display of (manly) power through art.

Much of his collection of antiquities as well as his sculptures, paintings, tapestries and other decorative pieces inspired by antiquity were removed from Versailles during the French Revolution. Whatever wasn’t tied down was divvied up to French museums and sold abroad. A new exhibition at Versailles, Versailles and Antiquity, seeks to reunite Louis’ collection with other ancien régime antiques and put them on display in ten rooms of the palace they once adorned.

Venus of ArlesThe theme is the relationship of ancient imagery to power. On loan from museums all over the country, mainly the Louvre, the pieces will be returned to the exact locations they occupied during the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. Artemis and her deer have returned, as have the Venus of Arles and Hermes the Sandalbinder, who was mistakenly thought to be Cincinnatus for many years and had a plowshare added to represent the Roman hero who saved his country and then rejected power to go back to his farm.

“The castle finds its splendour,” said museum president Catherine Pegard. “It is of great emotional impact: past masterpieces are returning in their place thanks to the magic of Italian theatre director Pier Luigi Pizzi who has been in charge of the scenery. It is not just an exhibit, this is theatre: we are projected to the apartment of the king, in the intimacy of the art collector.”

Hermes the Sandalbinder“I tried to build a dialogue between a great king such as Louis XIV and the masterpieces on display, making them re-live in a precise atmosphere which corresponded to the spirit of the XVII and XVIII centuries,” observed Pizzi. “It was very much an issue of stage design, the set here was as important as in theatre. It was necessary to adapt the rooms of the royal palace to the context of the collection.”

The Milanese director covered the walls in a burgundy fabric and created imaginary boiseries and doors. “Evoking antiquity entails bringing to mind a certain classicism which influenced the whole style of Louis XIV. His collections needed to find a certain environment. I tried not to make it look like a makeshift environment and preferred to leave the sense of the palace as if objects found their natural collocation, instead of putting them on display as is usually done.”

The exhibition runs from November 13th, 2012 to March 17th, 2013. Versailles’ YouTube channel will post a series of six short videos about the role of antiquities in palace history. So far only one video has been uploaded, but it starts with Francis I and ends with the Bernini burn so it’s a good one.



Time capsule from Battle of Fredericksburg found

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Charred floorboards, sandstone and brick walls of house destroyed in Battle of FredericksburgDuring an archaeological survey of a plot next to City Hall where a new courthouse will be built in Fredericksburg, Virginia, workers have discovered hundreds of artifacts and the remains of a row house that was burned during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It was a big surprise, as before the survey began researchers had searched the city records and the earliest evidence they’d found of a building on the site dated to 1886. Underneath the concrete slab foundation of the most recent structure on the site, the law offices of Thom Savage, they unearthed the cellar of what later research into the tax records indicated was the property of Fredericksburg businessman and pre-Civil War mayor Peter Goolrick. That concrete slab preserved the cellar, turning it into a time capsule of the Confederate victory.

An inkwell found in Fredericksburg cellarIn all probability, the house was destroyed during the 1862 battle. It disappeared from the tax records in 1865, but it was already missing from pictures of the city taken in 1863. The remains of the sandstone cellar walls, a brick fireplace and carbonized heart-of-pine floorboards testify to the house’s demise by fire. The artifacts discovered within suggest the house played an interesting role in the battle fought between December 11th and December 15th of 1862. The team from archaeological contractors Cultural Resources, Inc. (CRI) found dozens of bullets, tobacco pipe bowls,Parts of ration tins found in Fredericksburg cellar chinstrap buckles, pieces of a cartridge box and ration tins, glass inkwells, broken whiskey bottles and plates. Most significantly, they also found buttons and metal company insignia from uniforms, Union uniforms.

Historians believe the cellar was inhabited by Union troops during the Battle of Fredericksburg because its location was less exposed to Confederate shelling than some of the homes in the business district. According to CRI’s project archaeologist Taft Kiser, the insignia left in the cellar belonged to a regiment from Company C with the number “2” in its name. There are several possibilities. The hope is that a Union diarist who was part of that regiment might have left enough clues to their position to allow for a positive identification.

The timing of the discovery could not be more propitious. Fredericksburg has a number of events planned in memory of the 150th anniversary of the battle. The first has already kicked off: an exhibit at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park of the favorite sword of General Ambrose Burnside, the Union officer who had replaced General George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac on November 10th.

Metallic-threaded knot still attached to the hilt of Burnside's favorite swordBurnside decided to move the army towards the Confederate capital of Richmond rather than continue on their southwestern route. The hope was to catch General Lee’s Army of Virginia off guard and bring the battle to the heart of the Confederacy. Unfortunately, the Union Army of the Potomac was an organizational disaster and even though large numbers of troops had reached the crossing point of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg by November 19th, the supplies to build the pontoon bridge to cross the river didn’t arrive until November 25th. By then, Lee was happily ensconced on the hills above the city.

Ambrose Burnside wearing his favorite sword, ca. 1862Burnside, keenly aware of the political pressure on him to score a decisive confrontation and victory rather than pussyfoot around as McClellan had done after Antietam, chose to launch a frontal attack on Lee’s entrenched position. He chose poorly. After a day of intense Union cannon fire on the town, Union troops crossed the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg on the night of December 11th. They sacked the city but didn’t make a dent in Confederate lines. An attempt to breach them on December 13th resulted in the most lopsided slaughter of the Civil War, with eight Union soldiers dead for every one Confederate soldier. Under intense shelling from the high ground on the town perimeter, the Union troops in Fredericksburg hunkered down wherever they could find some shelter, including, apparently, the cellar of the building belonging to Peter Goolrick.

The discovery will not impede construction of the courthouse, I’m sad to say. Over the next two weeks, the brick and sandstone foundations will be removed to make room for the foundations of the new building. Some of the stones of particular architectural interest — the ornamented Aquia stone steps, for example — will be preserved, as will the artifacts which will eventually be returned to the city for storage and display.

Pieces of chamber pot decorated with transfer print of the EnterpriseSome pre-Civil War remains have also been discovered on the site on the other side from the battle-scarred house. The team unearthed an 18th century well and a privy from the livery stables of George Gravatt. Pieces of a creamware chamber pot made in Staffordshire, England were especially charming because you can still clearly see the transfer print image of the Enterprise, a schooner that fought in the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century. Just 30 or so years after the end of the Revolutionary War, England was mass-producing consumer goods with patriotic images for the US market.

For more events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, see this National Parks Service schedule.


The Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I by Albrecht Dürer ca. 1519, © Albertina, ViennaHoly Roman Emperor Maximilian I (reigned 1493-1519) never actually had a triumphal procession. What he did have was a discerning eye for self-aggrandizing propaganda, and he enlisted artists to ensure the image of the great emperor, son of emperors, glorious in victory, bringer of prosperity and high culture to his people, would capture the grandeur of his reign and long outlive the man.

As one often sees today with midlife crisis Lamborghini purchases, Maximilian was overcompensating. His father Frederick III became the first Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor in 1452. Maximilian co-ruled the empire with his father for the last 10 years of his reign (1483-1493). With so fresh a link to the imperial throne, Maximilian made a point of emphasizing royal connections, real or fictional, in his family line. He traced his ancestry back to Hector, son of King Priam of Troy, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Charlemagne and a number of saints. The point of this family tree liberally sprinkled with myth was to underscore that though the Habsburg dynasty might be technically brand spanking new to the throne, its long history of heroism, military genius, leadership, chivalric ideals and piety made it even more of an imperial line than some of the other families with royal claims.

As one also sees today with those midlife crisis Lamborghini purchasers, Maximilian’s mortality weighed heavily upon him. From 1514 on, he carried his coffin with him wherever he traveled, and he traveled a lot. To ensure that his legacy would live on once he was gone, he spent a great deal of money to immortalize his deeds, words and lineage. When questioned on the vast sums he dispensed on this pursuit, Maximilian replied:

“He who does not provide for his memory while he lives, will not be remembered after his death, so that this person will be forgotten when the bell tolls. And hence the money I spend for my memory will not be lost.”

With his historical legitimacy and posthumous legacy in mind, in the last decade of his life the emperor commissioned three monumental works inspired by the victorious generals of Rome: the Triumphal Procession, the Great Triumphal Chariot, and the Triumphal Arch. Engraver Hans Burgkmair began work on the Triumphal Procession in 1512, designing scenes from the life and military victories of Maximilian carried along in a long procession of musicians, hunters, falconers, standard bearers, courtiers, exotic baggage trains, Habsburg ancestors, knights and a hugely elaborate imperial carriage. The original gouache was painted by Albrecht Altdorfer on 109 large vellum sheets which all together were more than 100 meters (328 feet) long.

Behold the glory (click for large versions to truly behold the glory):

"The Ancestors of Emperor Maximilian" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Ancestors of Emperor Maximilian" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The German Princes" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The German Princes" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Emperor's Coach" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Emperor's Coach" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Swiss War and The Neapolitan War" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Swiss War and The Neapolitan War" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Great Venetian War" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"The Great Venetian War" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"Baggage Train" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

"Baggage Train" from the "Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, c. 1512-1515 © Albertina, Vienna

The detail is not only beautiful, but has also proven an invaluable resource for historians of the musical instruments, heraldry, clothing and armor of the period. My favorite part is the Lion of St. Mark turning tail and running from Maximilian’s forces in The Great Venetian War. By 1517, the emperor would lose all the territory he had won in that particular skirmish.

We don’t know how this monster piece was displayed, but some art historians believe it was unrolled and moved forward while the seated emperor watched, a Renaissance animated gif, if you will. We do know that he disseminated this tribute to his military successes and illustrious ancestry to the populace via reproduction prints made from woodcuts engraved by Burgkmair, Altdorfer and the greatest master of them all, Albrecht Dürer.

"The Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian I" by Albrecht Dürer, 3rd edition, 1559 © Albertina, ViennaAlbrecht Dürer also created the Triumphal Arch and the Great Triumphal Chariot, only the former of which was completed before Maximilian’s death. The woodcuts of the Triumphal Procession and of the Triumphal Arch, which ended up being composed of 192 woodcut panels for a total dimension of 9′ 8″ by 11′ 8 1/2″, were the largest woodcut prints ever produced. They were intended to be plastered to walls, like giant billboards advertising the awesomeness of the emperor, and to be issued in large special edition publications.

Half of the original vellum Triumphal Procession sheets are now gone, but sheets 49 through 109 have survived and are part of the permanent collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria, which also has many of the original woodcuts used to make the reproduction prints. They remain in good condition, with the colors and details still brilliant. They are very rarely seen, however, and were last put on public display in 1959 in celebration of Maximilian’s 500th birthday.

Now is your chance to see all 54 meters (177 feet) remaining of the original Triumphal Procession painting. The Albertina has put the complete Triumphal Procession sheets on display along with many other related masterpieces in a new exhibit: Emperor Maximilian I and the Age of Dürer.

"Death Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I" by Monogrammist A.A., 1519 © Steiermärkisches Landesmuseum Joanneum, GrazOn his deathbed in 1519 Maximilian fled from all this splendor he had purchased. Terrified of God’s judgment on his prideful life, after receiving the last rites he abdicated all his titles and ordered that his body be mutilated after death. His hair was to be shorn, his teeth broken off and his back scourged. He was buried in a simple tomb in St. George’s Cathedral in the castle of Wiener Neustadt, northeast Austria, where he was born. Forty years later, his grandson Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I would build a church (the Hofkirche) with an elaborate cenotaph in Innsbruck in Maximilian’s memory.

"Portrait of King Charles V with his English Water Dog " by Jakob Seisenegger, 1532Despite the last-minute foray into mortification, Maximilian’s political, military and dynastic efforts during his life secured for the Habsburg family centuries of power among the crowned heads of Europe. The range of history set in motion by Maximilian’s choices is breathtaking. His marriage to Mary of Burgundy ultimately netted much of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and a considerable piece of northern France for the Habsburg line. His son’s marriage to Joan of Castile (later known as Juana la Loca, Joan the Crazy Lady, for among other things allegedly carrying her husband’s corpse with her wherever she went for years after he died of typhoid fever) resulted in their son Charles V becoming King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor at the same time.

"Portrait of the young Charles II of Spain" by Juan Carreño de Miranda, ca. 1677It was Charles V who sacked Rome in 1527 and imprisoned the Pope, preventing him from granting Britain’s King Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to his wife and Charles’ aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Charles’ son, Maximilian’s great-grandson, would become King Philip II of Spain, King of England during his marriage to Queen Mary I, and sender of the Spanish Armada so soundly defeated by the navy of Queen Elizabeth I, the weather, and the violent moods of the English Channel. The Spanish Habsburg line died in 1700 with poor Charles II who was riddled with congenital deformities and diseases thanks to the family’s penchant for uncle-niece and cousin-cousin marriages, but the Austrian Habsburgs reigned until the 1780 death of the formidable Queen Maria Theresa, mother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France.


Bolivia returns 700-year-old toddler mummy to Peru

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

The mummy and shipping package, Bolivian post office, 2010Two years ago, police in El Alto, a suburb of the Bolivian seat of government La Paz, arrested a woman who had been caught during a routine search by postal workers attempting to mail the mummy of a toddler to an address in Compiègne, France. She claimed she had no idea what was inside the package, that she had simply received it in Desaguadero, a small town near the border with Peru, from a man she knew only as Don Gustavo who had instructed her to mail it to France. The mummy was confiscated by the police and then transferred to the Bolivian Ministry of Culture’s Archaeology Unit, which conducted a detailed examination of the artifact.

Investigations since then haven’t contradicted her story, but not many specifics have been uncovered. There’s little doubt the mummy was destined to be sold in France. Smugglers had replaced the missing left leg with the mummified leg of a younger child and added three textiles to the two original cotton and cameloid wool pieces in order to complete the mummy so it would sell for a higher price. The textiles identified the mummy as Peruvian rather than Bolivian (Bolivian mummies were wrapped in straw). Archaeologists believe it dates to the pre-Inca Late Intermediate period (1000 A.D.-1450 A.D.), possibly from one of the southern coastal cultures like the Chiribaya or Paracas.

Peruvian toddler mummy, approx. 700 years oldIn keeping with the Convention for the Recuperation of Cultural Goods and Others Stolen, Imported or Exported Illicitly, a bilateral agreement signed by Bolivia and Peru in 1998 and ratified in 2000, the little mummy was officially returned to Peru in a ceremony at the Peruvian Foreign Ministry in Lima on Tuesday, November 6th. This is the first time Bolivia has repatriated human remains to the country from which they were looted. Peru didn’t add skeletal and mummified human remains to its “red list” of cultural heritage goods endangered by illegal export until 2009. Until recently, most of the looted and trafficked artifacts from Peru were textiles, ceramics, jewels, precious metals and stones. There’s been a notable increase in the trafficking of human remains since the financial crisis, sadly.

The repatriation of the toddler mummy, in addition to being a function of the pre-existing bilateral agreement, was also the symbol of a new pact signed at Tuesday’s ceremony. In recognition of their shared Andean culture, Bolivia and Peru have agreed to a plan of action to combat the trafficking of cultural patrimony that will engage not just both governments but also private companies in the recovery of looted artifacts. The document was signed by Peruvian Minister of Culture Luis Peirano and Bolivian Culture Minister Pablo Groux. It is their hope that this plan will help fight trafficking between the bordering nations and serve as a signal to other countries to respect their cultural heritage.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo spoke during the ceremony, saying that the new agreement will improve procedures and techniques used to combat the trade in illegal artifacts. They won’t be relying only on police work, but principally creating a program of academic and archaeological cooperation between Bolivia and Peru that will be vital to the formulation of a common strategy of heritage protection. Since, like the traffic in drugs and weapons, cultural property trafficking is large-scale organized crime that has elaborate networks in many countries at once, in order for one country to combat it, it must work closely together with other countries. These agreements can pave the way to allow for the repatriation of cultural artifacts with a minimum of complex, time-consuming and expensive bureaucracy.

The traffic in Peruvian artifacts is endemic throughout Latin America.

An archaeologist at Argentina’s National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought, Julio Avalos, said he and his colleagues are frequently called by police to assess whether relics encountered at airports and Buenos Aires’ seaport — or for sale on the Internet — are protected patrimony.

“Most of it is Peruvian because that’s what there is mostly,” Avalos said.

Just last year three skulls and a mummy from the pre-Incan Paracas culture (7th c. B.C.-3rd c. A.D.) of coastal Peru were intercepted by customs agents in Argentina. They had been sent in the mail from (you guessed it) Bolivia to an Argentine citizen in Buenos Aires and were spotted when the package, labeled as containing replica Peruvian ceramics, was X-rayed in the post office. The recipient was detained on smuggling charges, but officials believe the ultimate destination for the trafficked human remains was yet again the European antiquities market.





November 2012


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