The game board King Charles carried to the scaffold

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

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

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

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

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.