Bullets found from Hatfield ambush of McCoy cabin

The violent culmination of the epic feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys took place in the hilly woodlands of Pike County, Kentucky, in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 1888. While it was still dark, a group of nine Hatfields led by Uncle Jim Vance surrounded Randolph McCoy’s cabin and opened fire on the family slumbering within. The McCoys returned fire through the second floor windows and the front door, but were forced to flee when the Hatfields set the cabin on fire.

Randolph himself managed to escape with some of his children, but his son Calvin and his daughter Alifair were killed in the assault. His wife Sarah was beaten into unconsciousness. The brutal New Year’s Night Massacre, as it became known, made the news all over the country and although two more people would die over the next few weeks and one would be hanged two years later for the murder of Alifair, New Year’s Day 1888 marked the final turning point in the feud.

The exact location of Randolph’s cabin was forgotten over the years. Bob Scott, a descendant of the Hatfields, today owns the land in the hills of Pike County where the cabin was generally known to have been. His parents and grandparents told him stories about the property and its role in the feud. Last year, National Geographic’s metal detecting Diggers, together with local historian Bill Richardson explored the area where according to family lore the McCoy cabin once stood.

They were successful. The Diggers team found three different kinds of bullets, including shotgun pellets, buried into the hillside in an area about 30 feet wide. The ammunition dates to the time of the shootout. Experts believe this bullet-riddled area is across from the front of the cabin since that was the epicenter of the exchange of fire. It matches the oral histories which record the McCoy’s shooting back at the Hatfields from the upper windows and front door. They also found a piece of charred wood with a nail in it that matches the period of the cabin.

These initial discoveries were later confirmed by a team from the Kentucky Archaeological Survey led by archaeologist Dr. Kim McBride. They found fragments of window glass and ceramics from the period of the New Year’s Night Massacre and additional charred wood and nails. They also found supporting documentary evidence.

“This is an incredible discovery behind America’s greatest family feud,” [McBride] said in a recent press release from National Geographic. “After spending two days excavating at the site, we were pleased to find a number of original artifacts from the actual structure, such as window glass and both wrought and machine-cut nails, and we were able to trace the lineage of the property right back to Randall McCoy and his wife, Sarah McCoy. As archaeologists, we are very excited to find real evidence to back theories that have abounded for decades.”

According to McBride, the experience was an unlikely pairing of metal detecting enthusiasts with professional archaeologists, but the partnership demonstrated that the two groups can work together to find and properly document artifacts in a scientific manner benefiting both interests. The effort to find material evidence associated with the McCoy homestead was initiated by the “Diggers” team; however, the discovery of the artifacts would have had little meaning without the additional systematic investigations and recovery of other artifacts by trained archaeologists who could interpret them within the context of where and how they were found, she said.

The first airing of the Diggers episode was January 29th, but there are reruns aplenty to catch. The next airing is Friday, February 1st at 1:10 PM EST. There are some clips available online, but not the entire episode.

The history of the Hatfields and McCoys has seen a resurgence of popularity since the History channel miniseries broke cable viewing records. Bob Scott plans to take advantage of the historic find on his property by developing it for tourism. One of the options he’s apparently considering is a housing development with horseback and ATV trails, which sounds sort of hideous to me so I hope it doesn’t happen.

17th c. gold coin hoard found in Co. Tipperary pub

At noon on Monday, January 14th, construction workers renovating Cooney’s Bar in the South Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir unearthed 81 gold coins from the 17th century. The building crew was digging a hole in front of the pub’s bar area to prep the area before pouring a new concrete pad when Shane Murray found the coins lying on their sides, back to front like they were in one of those paper tubes you get at the bank to organize your penny jar. Whatever was once holding them together has decayed but the shape remains. The space where they were stashed was a recess — possibly an old door opening or a fireplace — opposite where the pub’s front counter once stood.

Murray showed them to his boss, contractor Shane Comerford, and Comerford threw them on the ground thinking they were fakes or tokens or some other kind of insignificant geegaw. Murray knew they were for reals gold, though, so he scooped them up. He and his crewmates examined them more closely and found 17th century dates and the belaureled profiles of English monarchs Charles II, James II, William and Mary and William III.

Shane Comerford took the coins to the pub’s owner, David Kiersey, and they sought legal counsel. By Irish law, all archaeological objects belong to the state and must be declared to the authorities within 96 hours of discovery. Comerford handed over the coins to the Carrick-on-Suir gardai (Irish police) and the gardai brought them to curators at the South Tipperary Museum. They are now being examined by experts at Dublin’s National Museum.

The coins haven’t been thoroughly examined or assessed for value yet, but according the a National Museum statement they are mostly Guineas with a few half Guineas in the mix. (Guineas were coins minted in England from the 17th to 18th century using gold from West Africa, hence the name.) No hoard of gold coins from the 1600s has been discovered in Ireland since 1947.

Marie McMahon, curator of South Tipperary Museum in Clonmel, who was at Cooney’s Bar last Wednesday while the archaeological examinations were taking place, hailed the hoard of coins as South Tipperary’s most important archaeological find since the discovery of the Derrynaflan chalice in the early 1980s.

She said the coins were in very good condition but there wasn’t any clues as to why they were there. The premises they were found in may have been built on the site of one of Carrick-on-Suir’s old lanes.

Carrick-on-Suir was founded on an island in the River Suir in the 13th century. Its location put in smack in the middle of a lot of trade traffic. It was occupied by Parliamentary forces in 1649 during Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland but was returned to the control of Royalist James Butler, the Duke of Ormond, after the restoration of the monarchy. In 1670, the Butler family founded the wool trade in Carrick-on-Suir, another potential source of gold coinage.

The 81 coins were viewed by dignitaries at the National Museum of Ireland on Wednesday, January 30th, but they are not yet on public display. Marie McMahon hopes the collection will return to its hometown for display at the South Tipperary Museum. If insurance proves to be a difficulty because of security concerns at the small local museum, replicas of the coins will be made for display.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon reunited

For the first time since their world-altering acrimonious divorce, King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon have been reunited in painted form in London’s National Portrait Gallery. The early portrait of Henry VIII, painted around 1520 by an unknown Anglo-Dutch artist, has been in the NPG since 1969. The one of Catherine, on the other hand, is a relatively new discovery.

In 2008, Gallery staff went to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain survey. They noticed a portrait of a woman in 1520s dress hanging in private sitting room. The subject was purportedly Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, but the style of clothing and facial features were more reminiscent of Catherine of Aragon.

The Gallery borrowed the painting to analyze it further in their conservation lab. They found that the original portrait had been considerably altered. Under raking light (bright light held at an angle against a surface) the black background was revealed to be an overlay covering what had once been a patterned background painted to look like damask silk. An X-ray clearly indicated that the black overlay was also covering up the veil attached to the headdress. An ultra violet digital photograph showed that the face and chest had been considerably repainted in past restorations. The eyebrows were strengthened, the nose narrowed with shadows, white added to the eyes and a curvy brown line painted between the lips to separate them.

The analysis confirmed that this was not Catherine Parr, but rather a portrait of Catherine of Aragon from the 1520s. With that in mind, conservators worked painstakingly to remove the restorations. They removed the black overlay from the background to reveal the dark green damask pattern, a style very similar to the one in the background of the 1520 portrait of Henry VIII. They were also able to clean and remove the alterations to her face in stages. During the process they discovered diagonal lines of paint loss so strong that they would require the judicious application of translucent glazes to replace what was gone. From the strength of the paint loss and its focus on the face, experts believe the portrait was probably damaged deliberately.

The frame also received some tender loving care from Gallery conservators. It’s a rare thing, the original engaged oak frame that was constructed around the panel before the portrait was painted, a sort of combo easel/frame. Even rarer was the survival of some of the original decorative finish underneath layers of paint and gilding applied over the centuries. Conservators were able to recover much of the original bands of color painted blue with azurite and red with vermillion.

The finished product made a fine companion piece to the 1520s Henry VIII portrait. That’s not to say they were originally a paired set, but they’re from the same period, done in the same style and the same size. They’re examples of types of portraits that would have been copied and spread around, sometimes together, sometimes individually. If these two were ever together or at least paired with versions of each other, the last time was almost 500 years ago, before Catherine was banished from court in 1531.

Dr Charlotte Bolland, Project Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London says: “It is wonderful to have the opportunity to display this important early portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the Gallery. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were married for nearly twenty four years and during that time their portraits would have been displayed together in this fashion, as king and queen of England.”

Henry and Catherine are reunited on the wall of Room 1. The exhibit is free to visitors and will run from January 25th to September 1st, 2013.

Casing of exploded torpedo found on Hunley spar

Researchers at the Hunley Project have found an important piece of evidence that has changed what we know about the mysterious demise of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley: the exploded remains of the copper torpedo casing still bolted to the spar, the 16-foot-long iron pole that served as the sub’s weapon delivery system.

The spar has been on display at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Lab where the Hunley has been conserved since it was raised from Charleston Harbor in 2000, but since the sub itself was the main priority, conservator Paul Mardikian wasn’t able to begin working on removing the concretions from the spar until last fall. Once the thick concrete-layer of silt and sand was gone, he found that the dense area they had seen on an X-ray was not a release mechanism bur rather the copper sleeve of the torpedo itself. This means the torpedo exploded at the end of the spar, a discovery of critical importance.

The Hunley was the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship in wartime. On the night of February 17th, 1864, the 40-foot hand-powered sub manned by a crew of eight rammed its spar torpedo into the starboard stern of the USS Housatonic, a 205-foot, 1,260-ton Union warship that was part of the fleet blockading Charleston Harbor. The blast blew a hole in the ship so wide that witnesses report seeing a couch float out of the hole sideways. Within minutes the Housatonic was sunk and five sailors dead (most survived on row boats and the others climbed the sail rigging that remained above the harbor’s water level).

We know the Hunley survived the explosion because the commander of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island saw the submarine signal with a blue magnesium light indicating the success of the mission. Other witnesses, including one on the Housatonic, also reported seeing the blue signal light. After that, the Hunley and its crew was never heard from again. It sank just outside Charleston Harbor where it remained, buried in sand and silt, until it was raised in 2000.

What the torpedo casing on the tip of the spar proves is that the Hunley was much closer to the Housatonic at the time of the explosion than anyone realized.

Until now, the conventional wisdom has been the Hunley would ram the spar torpedo into her target and then back away, causing the torpedo to slip off the spar. A rope from the torpedo to the submarine would spool out and detonate once the submarine was at a safe distance. This theory has always had difficulty under scrutiny since it would be very hard to actually lodge the torpedo into the hull of the enemy ship.

Finding a portion of the original torpedo casing has enabled the team to confirm a long held suspicion that it was built and designed by a group associated with Edgar Singer (cousin of the famous sewing machine entrepreneur Isaac Singer). A period diagram housed at the National Archives indicates that this Singer torpedo held 135 pounds of gunpowder and was detonated by a trigger mechanism.

This means the Captain had to position the torpedo while still attached to the spar and trigger it when the time was right.

Since the spar is just over 16 feet long and the torpedo was two feet long, the Hunley was less than 20 feet from the warship when those 135 pounds of black powder blew. At that distance, the crew could have been stunned by a shock wave. Even if only a few of the eight crewmen were knocked unconscious, the hand-cranked propulsion system that kept the vessel moving would have been severely undermined.

This possibility is supported by a clue straight out of Agatha Christie: Lieutenant George E. Dixon’s pocket watch was found stopped at 8:23 PM, almost exactly the time the Housatonic crew reported being under attack. Also, the remains of all eight men were found at their stations. There is no evidence that they tried to escape.

The new information about the spar torpedo gives researchers precious information that will allow them to run computer models and simulations of how the explosion affected the Hunley. They now have physical evidence — so much of the eye-witness evidence and conventional wisdom has turned out to be completely wrong — of the distance between submarine and ship, and of the strength of the payload. Hunley Project researchers hope to enlist the aid of third party computer modeling experts to simulate the blast, and then perhaps to create scale models of the attack.

Since thick concretions coat the body of the submarine, we still don’t know if it was disabled in any way by the explosion. Conservation has been everyone’s top priority since 137 years in salt water is not kind to iron. The vessel, submerged in a 90,000-gallon tank of cold fresh water at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, was turned upright in June of 2011 after spending more than 10 years on its starboard side in a truss. The truss only came off two weeks ago, revealing the submarine surface in its unobstructed entirety.

At the end of this year, WLCC scientists hope to replace the fresh water in the tank with a chemical bath that will slowly leach the salt out of the iron. Once the solution has had a few months to do its thing, researchers plan to remove the encrusted layer of silt, sand and rock. This will allow the chemicals direct access to the iron which will speed up the salt removal and will allow examination of the iron skin. Scientists hope this will answer many of the remaining questions about how and whether the sub was damaged in the attack.

Vikings left Greenland for cultural, social reasons?

Vikings from Norway, Iceland and Denmark began to colonize Greenland in the late 10th century. Those were the halcyon days of the Medieval Warm Period (950 to 1250 A.D.), when pastures were green and farmland fertile. The Norse brought cattle with them and started farms in hundreds of settlements on the southern fjords. They prospered at first, founding vibrant communities with dozens of churches.

The good times started cooling off in the 13th century as the fertile warmth was replaced by the frigid storms of the Little Ice Age. For years historians have thought that the colder temperatures had resulted in crop failure and the death of livestock which in turn decimated the Norse colony. Settlers died from famine and disease and whoever was left beat a hasty retreat.

An archaeological study by a team of Danish and Canadian researchers proffers a new reason for the demise of the Norse settlements in Greenland: they chose to leave in orderly fashion in order to sustain their cultural identity and live in the style to which they did not want to become unaccustomed. The bone evidence and material remains suggest that the Viking settlers were not starving or ill, that they left the island deliberately taking all their valuables with them. It wasn’t a matter of life or death. It was a matter of the life they wanted to live no longer being possible.

The Norse settlers had lived for two centuries eating primarily food they cultivated and beef they raised, only supplementing their diet with seafood. Their aim in moving to Greenland was to get some land of their own to farm and ranch. Building materials, wood, iron, were supplied by trade with their homelands. The plan worked as long as the warm period held.

With the onset of colder temperatures, the pastures couldn’t support the cattle over the long winters. For a few decades ranchers tried replacing the cattle with pigs, but by 1300 the pigs were gone too. Sheep and goats lasted longer, but ranching and farming as the Norse practiced them simply could not sustain life in the new climate. There is no evidence that they even tried to keep the cattle alive using a starvation diet, a practice that was thoroughly established by their ancestors in cold climes and remained in use until recently.

Seafood, which had supplied no more than 30% of their diet in the warm days, shot up to 80% in the 14th century. Most of that 80% was seal, a reliable supply of which could be secured during the animals’ yearly migration stops on the island. They also had to use seals and fish to feed whatever livestock they had left.

Trade shriveled up too. The market for walrus tusks and seal skins, the goods the Greenland colonists had to trade, bottomed out. Ships came less frequently until by the middle of the 14th century there was no regular trade between the Norse settlements of Greenland and the motherlands of Norway and Iceland. Without reliable trade they had to hope for a random ship to stop by to renew their supply of iron or wood.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, that was not what they meant at all. That was not it, at all.

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says [National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Jette] Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

The young people of childbearing age left first. Archaeologists found almost no skeletons of young women from the late period of Norse settlement. The documentary evidence supports that pattern. The wedding of Thorstein Olafsson, a lad from Iceland, and Sigrid Bj√∂rnsdottir, a local girl, was held on September 14th, 1408, in Greenland’s Hvalsey Church. We know this because when they moved to Iceland, they had to prove to the local bishop that they had been married in a proper sanctioned church ceremony. Those documents are the last records we have of the Norse settlers in Greenland.

Everyone else left shortly thereafter. The fact that no precious objects have been unearthed anywhere in the archaeological record of Norse Greenland indicates that they moved, packing all their treasures, rather than being devastated by disease, natural disaster or starvation. The bone evidence confirms that there was no more illness and hunger among the late Nordic population of Greenland than among comparable populations in Scandinavia.