The Year in History Blog History

I said in last year’s Year in History Blog History that I would attempt to make this a yearly tradition, so welcome to the second annual Year in History Blog History! Just a few days ago I was griping about the endless parade of crappy best-of lists so prevalent in the press between Christmas and New Year’s, but naturally I exempt myself from all such judgment and invite you to do the same.

The big news from behind the curtain this year was a marked leap in traffic. The total number of pageviews for 2012 was 1,647,856, more than double 2011’s tally which itself was more than double 2010’s views. Last year I noted that we passed a million pageviews in September as counted from when I installed the statistics plug-in in September of 2009. I mused restrainedly that given the uptick in traffic we might just reach the second million in time for this review, and in fact we’re less than 100,000 views from reaching 3,000,000.

January we crossed the 100,000 pageviews a month threshold and we haven’t looked back since. The lowest number of monthly views after January was July with 107,888. Stupid warm summer sun with the people out of doors grilling things and writing love letters in the sand and whatnot.

Nice weather didn’t stop people from flocking to the blog in May, though. That was our busiest month ever with a crazy 182,488 pageviews. Not coincidentally, the most viewed post of the year (and of all recorded time) was a May post. Hatfields & McCoys debuts on the History Channel, much to my surprise, turned out to be a record-breaker. It got 7,024 views on May 30th, driving that day’s pageviews to 13,135 and beating the previous daily record of 11,541 established in May (again!) of last year when there was that weird search explosion on the Roman Ship Found at Ostia entry. It’s the most viewed post of the year, doubling the pageviews of the next runner-up, good ol’ reliable Michelangelo’s David.

The Hatfields and the McCoys also drew the most comments ever: 213 and counting, none of them mine. I had originally planned to respond to comments as they came in, something I try to do on general principle, but I didn’t want to say anything until I had seen the show. I didn’t get around to watching the programs I had DVRd until a week or so later and by then the comment thread was so towering I was too daunted to even attempt to scale it. I sure did enjoy reading it, though. The back and forth about the so-called bad language (which turned out to be of the “goddamn” variety rather than the naughty naughty bathroom words I had assumed the distressed commenters were talking about) was highly entertaining.

It makes sense in hindsight because the show was a record-breaker for the History Channel as well, drawing more than 14 million viewers. The raging success of History’s first foray into scripted television trickled down to The History Blog and from there, I’m delighted to report, to website of Pike County, the county in Kentucky where many of the events of the infamous feud transpired. Jay Shepherd, Marketing Director of Pike County Tourism, had emailed me before I wrote the post asking if I’d link to their driving tour page in an entry about the Hatfields and McCoys. I did so and when the entry blew up, I could see the Pike County link was getting tons of hits. It turns out they got so many requests for the Hatfields and McCoys driving tour CD that they sold out! At the time they didn’t have the CD available on the website — people had to contact them via email or phone to order it — which makes the sale count even more impressive. He emailed me: “Our small little town really needs that extra push. So much history here.”

Another post whose real world impact delighted me was my interview with Janet Stephens: Intrepid Hairdressing Archaeologist. Janet’s impressive scholarship and nimble fingers inspired many teachers, students and re-enactors. Neal Quillinan, a teacher at a secondary school in Australia, left a comment that made my day and possibly my year.

A fantastic post and a valuble resource. I used this in teaching my senior history girls about the First Triumvirate and the rise of Augustus. It was most engaging and its scholarly tone made it very much useable on their research assignment. You really struck a positive chord with this one…. one student event wore her hair in Agrippina style to her Senior Formal.

Agrippina prom hair! That totally slays me. I emailed Janet to let her know and she was thrilled to pieces, of course.

While I’m on the subject, be sure to subscribe to Janet’s YouTube channel. She’s been posting new videos regularly over the past few months, and they are each one more brilliant than the last. They all feature live models rather than manikins and one of them recreates the late 1st century A.D. orbis comarum style on a woman with short hair. It’s a must-see.

I don’t know if I can pick my single most favorite post of the year. There are several top contenders depending on the criteria, so instead of just nominating one, I’ll cull a few of my favorites in various categories.

For sheer adrenaline-fueled excitement, nothing can beat the announcement that a skeleton of a male with scoliosis and a cleaved skull was discovered at the Grey Friars site in Leicester, the church where King Richard III was buried after he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth. It was my first liveblog and the first time I wrote a whole paragraph in “holy shit can you believe this” all caps. We’re still waiting for the DNA results that might confirm if this skeleton is that of the last Plantagenet king of England. I’ve read some interesting nuggets in the interim, but I’m saving them up for a post next year when we finally get the big news.

Other favorite finds I wrote about this year include Catherine de Medici’s hairpin found in palace toilet, the bed burial of the 7th century Anglo-Saxon teen girl with the beautiful gold and garnet cross, the new terracotta warriors from the mausoleum of emperor Qin Shi Huang which also gave me an opening to namecheck Firefly, the colossal statue of Neo-Hittite warrior king Suppiluliuma whose arms reminded me of Beavis freaking out because he’s never going to score, the 159 pristine Roman gold coins found near St. Albans that are so shiny and new, and the Etruscan pyramids found carved out of Orvieto caves which saw the lead archaeologist post a comment wherein he complimented me on not writing a bunch of vague, inaccurate hype like so many articles in the press had done. My head swelled three sizes that day.

That’s not the only example of an entry where I feel like the mainstream articles either got things wrong or just didn’t focus on the parts I found interesting. My two favorites along those lines were my story about the Jesus Monkey restoration and the sale of the original Batmobile. Cecilia Giménez’s attempt to restore a fresco of Jesus originally painted by Elías García Martínez on the wall of a church in Borja, Spain, has become a full-fledged meme in its own right based solely on its hilarious awfulness. What gets left out, however, is how the original was a dashed off copy of a cheesy prayer card version of Guido Reni’s Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns, not a masterpiece for the ages. The other articles about the Batmobile left off most of the great details about the Lincoln Futura which from my perspective is totally the best part. Not that I’m putting down the greatest of all Batmobiles, mind you. As I said in the entry, I don’t know what I wouldn’t do to get my mitts on that car.

Other beauties that sold at auction this year which I would gladly shower with gold like they were the Danaë to my Zeus are the model of a guillotine made out of animal bones by a Napoleonic prisoner of war in England, the Beau Sancy diamond, the land indenture signed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the only document signed by both men known to exist, the Chief Joseph war shirt which sold to the ubiquitous APC (anonymous private collector) rather than the museum where it belongs, the green velvet and gold saddlecloth used by Queen Elizabeth I on her official visit to Bristol, the amber gameboard King Charles I took to the scaffold with him, Byron’s copy of Frankenstein, that gorgeous pristine Enigma machine and the original Fahrenheit thermometer which could also go in the “I did not know that” category because researching it explained so much about the oddities of the Fahrenheit scale.

I have a bunch of favorite pictures this year. National Geographic’s high definition pictures of the wreck of the Titanic blew my mind, as did the 15th century Pastrana tapestries in all their gloriously restored vibrancy. The picture of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn besieged by Sandy was so compelling it was basically the entire post. Worth a thousand words and all that.

Pictures of two far more modest pieces that made me so happy, though, that they must be singled out. One was the Roman coarseware milk pot with the lead stitches. It’s so big and those stitches are just so damn cool. The other is the 15th century piggy bank from the Javanese Majapahit Empire. Those little piggies are so round and adorable I literally reread the entry like 10 times just to enjoy the pictures all over again.

The piggy banks are also examples of another favorite kind of entry: the one where I start off knowing practically nothing about the subject but tumble to it for whatever reason and wind up immersed in research for days. Dutch Golden Age printmaker Hercules Segers is an example of that. I had never even heard his name before I came across it while researching something else that I can’t remember on the British Museum’s website. To find and investigate such an innovator was an honor and a pleasure.

So was discovering the men who built Manchester’s sewers and took those skills to the Western Front of World War I where they built massive underground networks. Although I did know about her very superficially from a class or two I took in college where her epic lawsuit to claim her inheritance came up, researching Lady Anne Clifford and her struggles against her scoundrel father and husbands was profoundly revelatory. Most moving of all was the story of the Fraterville Mine disaster of 1902. Those final letters documenting the miners’ slow deaths as the oxygen ran out made me weep like a baby.

There’s no category that really covers this one, but the entry about the 100-million-year-old spider attack captured in amber deserves a special mention because it was born from a fit of mad inspiration. Posts like that are the reason the ancient Greeks thought the Muses were real. The words just descended upon me and I wrote them. That doesn’t happen to me very often, or, like, ever, really.

So that’s this year gone then. Thank you all for reading and for sending me tips and just generally for writing the ridiculously kind things you write. Here’s to a 2013 filled with more of the same and even greater things. Happy New Year! :boogie:

Apocalypse tourists damage Mayan pyramid

The crowds of tourists who flocked to Tikal in Guatemala to embrace the end of the world as not-really predicted by the Maya on December 21st, 2012, were as careless as they were ignorant. Tikal is the largest extant Mayan urban center and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temples are too fragile to support climbers so they’re for looking only. I suppose when you’re expecting the world to end just because the 13th Bak’tun cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar is coming to a close, you can’t be bothered to give a crap about preserving irreplaceable archaeological remains.

Ethnic Mayan priests held ceremonies celebrating the end of the cycle and the dawn of a new era at archaeological sites all over Central America. Tikal’s ceremony was attended by 7,000 tourists some of whom thought it would be a nifty idea to climb the stairs of Temple II, also known as the Temple of the Masks. According to Osvaldo Gomez, a technical adviser at Tikal, tourists attending the ceremony climbed Temple II causing irreparable damage. He did not provide specifics on the nature of the damage.

Tikal Temple II was built in honor of his wife Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’ by King Jasaw Chan K’awiil I who ruled Tikal and environs from 682 to 734 A.D. in the Late Classic period of Maya civilization. Jasaw Chan K’awiil I was a powerful king who revived the flagging fortunes of Tikal and conquered its main rival polity of Calakmul which you might recall as the hometown of the Lady Snake Lord. In 695, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I Calakmul so soundly that it never built another victory monument. He captured King Yuhknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’, who had been on the throne less than ten years since the demise of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great, Lady Snake Lord’s father.

Drumclay Crannog dig extended another 3 months

The archaeological excavation of Drumclay Crannog in County Fermanagh, Ulster, which was scheduled to end on December 30th has been extended another three months. Minister of the Environment Alex Attwood granted the extension to give archaeologists time to dig through the earliest layers of occupation of the artificial island before a link road is built through it.

The road almost destroyed the crannog before it had the chance to showcase its thousand years of history. The construction company sponsored a single trench excavation that confirmed its archaeological richness and then planned to continue to build the road ostensibly preserving the crannog in situ. It should come as little surprise that this plan turned out to be unworkable because the road construction altered the water balance and damaged the structure of the island. Buckling outwards and drying out at a precipitous rate, the crannog had to be excavated before it was lost forever.

The first round of excavations began in June. They were done by woefully undersupplied contract archaeologists and scheduled to last just six weeks. The archaeologists leaked the woeful story to bloggers and the media and the subsequent ruckus resulted in the Environment Minister getting personally involved, appointing additional experts and extending the dig another two months. Then the dig was extended another three months, and now three more months again.

The minister explained why he was preserving the site for longer.

“It will reshape national and international thinking on crannogs and the lives of people stretching back 1,300 years at least,” he said. “A unique moment requires a unique approach. That is why the dig is being extended another three months.

“This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found will ultimately lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in Early Christian and medieval times. It is of international importance.

“Given all of that, it is important that we maximise the opportunity to unveil as much of our rich heritage here as possible. That is why I am extending the period in which archaeologists can dig.”

It’s the crannog’s unique wealth of artifacts and structures beautifully preserved by thousands of years in a bog that have saved its archaeological life. It has revealed itself to be an exception source about daily life in medieval and early Christian Ireland, a period for which there is little documentation to help us understand the lives of people who didn’t make the headlines.

In this case, those people were generations of a well-off extended family who lived in several houses with servants and live stock. They made textiles from their sheep’s wool, butchered their own meat, carved wood for work tools, log boats, homes and board games. Some of the objects show stylistic influences from elsewhere in Europe which suggest these people living on a small island they built in the middle of a lake in Ulster had wider trade connections than anybody expected them to.

So far archaeologists have unearthed evidence of occupation from at least 900 A.D. to 1600, but they think there are at least another 300 more years layered underneath that. The most recent find is a woodcutting axe from the 9th century. The additional time will hopefully reveal the earliest occupation of the crannog before road work commences again and the island disappears forever.

The dig has captured the attention of local residents and people around the world. When the crannog dig had an open day on December 1st, 600 people visited the excavation between 9:30 AM and 3:00 PM. Minister Attwood hopes to hold more public viewing days during the next months, and in the long term, to turn this discovery into a source of much-needed tourist cash.

Athenaeum of Hadrian dig completed

Three years ago archaeologists surveying Piazza Venezia in the center of Rome for a much-needed third subway line found the remains of an athenaeum built by the emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D. The brick manufacturers’ stamps confirmed that the structure was built in 123 A.D., 12 years earlier than first suggested based on ancient documentary sources.

It had three rectangular rooms in which poets, philosophers, authors and rhetoricians recited their work and taught lessons to audiences of up to 900 people. Characteristic of Hadrian’s particular interests in architecture, it had an unusual arched roof. Hadrian loved him some domed roofs. According to Cassius Dio (Roman History, Book 69, Chapter 4), Hadrian had Trajan’s favorite architect Apollodorus of Damascus exiled and executed because he had once insulted Hadrian’s penchant for domes.

Once when Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your gourds. You don’t understand any of these matters.”

The gourd in question was apparently the dome of the Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli which Hadrian was in the process of designing at the time.

Apollodorus’ disdain notwithstanding, Hadrian combined his love of architecture with his love of art and Hellenophilic tendencies to create the athenaeum which he had built right next to the Apollodorus-designed Forum of Trajan. Hadrian also wrote poetry in both Latin and Greek, so the auditorium was a perfect storm of the emperor’s interests.

Archaeological evidence indicates the space was used as an auditorium through the 5th century A.D., long after Hadrian’s death and well into the Christian period. Its marble began to be quarried around the sixth century. At the same time, metal ingots and the remains of furnaces found from the 6th and 7th centuries suggest it may have been used as a mint in the Byzantine era for the production of bronze coins. It was also apparently used as a necropolis in the late 7th century, and following the trend of an increasingly depopulated, ruralized Rome, as a livestock barn in the 8th.

In the 9th century the roof collapsed during an earthquake in 848 A.D. After that, new structures were built on top of it, including a hospital in the 16th century. A microcosm of millennia of Roman life, it’s a major find, the most important in 70 years, some archaeologists believe.

So now that the excavation is complete, what about the Metro line? The problem isn’t the subway tunnel itself which will be 80 feet underground to avoid the layers and layers of Roman history. It’s the subway stop, which of course has to come up to modern ground level, causing all the headaches. The final decision has yet to be made, but transit authorities are hoping to work with archaeologists to build the exit along an ancient sewer line. The remains of the athenaeum will be right next to the stop, protected but still visible by tourists and riders.

Russell Crowe stops Gladiator tomb reburial

Not single-handedly like he did with that Tigris guy, but his movie star prominence certainly garnered a great deal of media attention to the plight of the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, Roman general and one of the inspirations for the role Crowe played in Gladiator. After the news broke that the beautifully preserved remains of Macrinus’ imposing mausoleum were slated to be reburied due to lack of funds for proper conservation, the non-profit American Institute for Roman Culture (AIRC) launched a petition campaign to encourage the city to explore alternative options before resorting to burying the site.

American archaeologist and AIRC Executive Director Darius Arya, whose vivacious enthusiasm and matinée idol good looks you might recognize from a number of History Channel programs on ancient Rome, has blogged about their efforts to save Macrinus’ tomb from reburial. I love how he describes the mausoleum and its archaeological environs:

Over the past decade and a half of liv­ing and work­ing in Rome, I have been for­tu­nate to visit the site on numer­ous occa­sions, and I am con­stantly struck by the enor­mity of the site. It is beau­ti­ful — both his­tor­i­cally and phys­i­cally. I think any­one that comes to the site can­not help but have an imme­di­ate con­nec­tion to the past. I am also in awe of the amount of mud that buried site thus pre­serv­ing it (45 feet in height)- it gives you an idea of both what the archae­ol­o­gists had to over­come but also how much lucky they were to even find it.

Arya has also used his Twitter account to publicize the petition. Russell Crowe retweeted the Save the Gladiator Tomb appeal to his 681,342 followers several times. Crowe then upped the ante by releasing a statement to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (AIRC has a pdf English translation of the article here), a statement which singled out the municipal council of Rome for shirking their responsibility to the nation:

“Of all the great nations of the world, Italy in particular should be a leader in promoting the importance of exploring and conserving the ancient past. The members of Rome’s city administration should always encourage the citizens of Italy to be proud of the successes and glorious history of their country.”

The Save the Gladiator Tomb petition has collected 2,465 signatures thus far, just short of half its goal of 5,000 signatures, but te support of an A-list actor who won an Academy Award for portraying a character inspired by Marcus Nonius Macrinus has brought a whole new level of attention to the cause. Five days after the article quoting him was published, a new article in La Repubblica (AIRC pdf translation here) announced that the reburial plan was suspended. Instead, the site would be covered up with tarps to keep it safe from the depredations of winter.

All of the important and delicate areas of the site will be covered with a special geotextile that is usually used for open-air archaeological artifacts. The colossal marbles with their refined decoration, the brick funeral fencing, and everything that threatens the most ruinous collapse at the mercy of the weather.

This will take care of the acute issue, but the chronic problem remains: there’s no money to conserve the site permanently. The tarping gives everyone time to try to work out a long-term solution. The real estate developers who own the land where the mausoleum was found are willing to strike up some kind of a deal with the city authorities to mix new residential construction with an archaeological park. The ideal archaeological park as envisioned by state and regional archaeologists doesn’t have condos on it, however.

Darius Arya also hopes to enlist private sponsors to donate conservation funds. He wants Russell Crowe to come to Rome in person to bring direct attention to the tomb and possibly help lure potential big pocket donors. First, though, that petition needs to reach its goal of 5,000 signatures, so all y’all head on over and add your names to the list.

This CNN story covers the plight of the tomb as a result of EU austerity. It includes some nice footage of the mausoleum, several clips of Russell Crowe kicking ass in Gladiator, a reference to the petition and a brief comment from Darius Arya at the end.