Archive for April, 2013

Seoul’s 14th c. South Gate restored after 2008 arson

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

The Namdaemun, or Great South Gate, a wooden pagoda-style gate built in 1398 to serve as the main southern entrance to the walled city of Seoul, will officially reopen on Saturday, May 4th, after five years of painstaking restoration following a devastating fire.

On 8:40 PM on Sunday, February 10th, 2008, a man climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate, poured paint thinner on the floor and set it on fire with a disposable lighter. He quickly climbed back down and fled, leaving behind unused bottles of paint thinner, a backpack, disposable lighters and the ladder. Firefighters were on the scene promptly, but there was some confusion about whether the fire was still burning and the Cultural Heritage Administration had warned the crews to proceed with caution so as not to damage the ancient structure. When the conflagration blew up again, it was too large to put out immediately. By the end of the five hour battle to put out the blaze, the gate had collapsed and was a smoldering pile of wreckage.

A suspect was apprehended the next day. A search of his home found a can of paint thinner and leather gloves used in the arson and he confessed immediately, pleading the public’s forgiveness. Apparently he destroyed this ancient and beautiful monument because he was mad at the government for ignoring a petition he filed complaining that property developers had not paid him proper compensation for land that had been expropriated to build an apartment complex. A four page screed on the topic was also found at his home by police.

He was 69 when he committed this crime, hardly an impetuous youth, and it wasn’t the first he set fire to a historical monument. He was convicted in April of 2006 for setting a fire that burned down part of UNESCO World Heritage site Changgyeong Palace in Seoul. In an example of justice gone very wrong indeed, he was given a suspended 18-month jail sentence and a fine of a few thousand dollars. He was convicted of the arson of Namdaemun in October of 2008. The law learned too late from its mistake, but at least this time he got 10 years in jail, none of them suspended. Let’s hope he’s too old to climb ladders when he gets out.

The destruction of the Namdaemun, officially named Sungnyemun, or The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, was a devastating blow to the country. Seoul has lost a great many of its historic monuments to modernization, occupation and war. This ancient gate, one of four built along the walls protecting Seoul just six years after the city became the capital of the then-new Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910), was the oldest wooden structure in the city. It was given the formal designation of National Treasure Number One in 1962 during a previous restoration to repair damage from the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945). It was only opened to the public for the first time since the occupation in 2006.

As horrific as the devastation was, there was still a fair amount of recoverable material from the site, enough to support a restoration. Authorities thankfully had made detailed architectural plans 182 pages long of the gate before opening it to the public in 2006, so restorers had accurate measurements and construction details to go on. However, given the opportunity to start from scratch, the government decided to restore the gate to its original form, rebuilding walls destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation and using only traditional construction methods. Instead of the modern paint and tiles employed during the restoration of the 1960s, this restoration would use only hand-made roof tiles fired in traditional kilns and natural paints, which had to be imported from Japan because there are no traditional paint manufacturers left in Korea, for the dancheong, the gloriously colorful decorative painting. Carpenters and stonemasons would use no power tools. It was hammers and chisels all the way.

Before the first hammer could strike, historians spent two years researching how the gate had looked originally. Surviving workers from the 1961 restoration were consulted for their memories of what had been changed. Craftsmen worked painstakingly to salvage every last part of the burned structure. Bent nails were heated and straightened one at a time at a rate of 50 to 70 a day. One team identified and tagged each piece of burned wood using radio frequency identification to find whatever could be reused and to collect more information about how they had once been put together. They recovered an incredible total of more than 60,000 original wooden pieces to reuse during the restoration. The 68 stone animals on the roof were pieced back together from fragments.

What could not be reused was recreated using materials as close to the original as possible. Pine wood from old growth trees, very rare in Korea today, was located so there would be time to fell the trees and cure them properly before using them. People flocked to donate pines from their property, so many that experts had their pick of the most noble pines left in the country. They ultimately chose 167 trees from 12 locations, including 20 trees from the Jungyeong Tomb in the city of Samcheok, the source of the pines used by the royal family during the Joseon Period. The total weight tally for the project was 26 tons of pinewood.

The roof tiles were almost obliterated by the fire, but 95% of them were factory-made versions installed during the 1961 restoration. All 23,369 of the new clay roof tiles were produced using traditional methods which result in a lighter weight, unique tile. This was no mean feat. According to traditional tile maker Han Hyung-joon of Jaewajang, who bears the outstanding title of Intangible Cultural Asset No. 91, there are only three kilns left in South Korea that produce traditional tiles. Making thousands and then shipping them to Seoul was tricky because the tiles can easily be cracked by temperature changes and damaged during transportation.

Master carpenter Shin Eung-soo (71) led the project, overseeing a team of 1,000 top woodworkers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and other craftsmen who had to work as their ancestors had. Even the tools themselves required research to find.

Lee Eui-sang, a 72-year-old mason who participated in the project, said the government’s plan to restore Sungnyemun in a traditional way perplexed him at first.

“I didn’t know what to do because all the tools used by the nation’s traditional masons disappeared in the middle of 1970s,” he said. So, he had to travel around the country in search of old tools.

“The past three years that I participated in the Sungnyemun restoration project were the most unforgettable experiences in my 55 years as a mason,” he said.

The project was initially estimated to take three years to complete at a cost of $21 million. It took five years and $24.4 million, which really is impressively close to the estimate considering the kind of detailed handcrafting that went into recreating the gate in all its glory.

On Saturday the gate will be reopened with a traditional cheondo ceremony to eliminate all bad luck and with a performance of traditional folk Korean folk song Arirang. The signboard on the front of the gate, repaired from surviving pieces of the old tablet with some new patching and now covered by a tarp, will be unveiled. Given the revival of traditional customs that this restoration has engendered, it’s eminently fitting that the reopening should feature the same ceremonies traditionally used to inaugurate new homes.


Slice of ancient Thessaloniki to remain in situ

Monday, April 29th, 2013

A section of ancient Thessaloniki discovered during subway construction in 2006 and threatened with removal to accommodate the state company in charge of building the rail will remain in place where it was found. This is a big turn-around from four months ago when the ancient remains were slated to be moved far out of the way to make station construction easier.

In January, the Central Archaeological Council acceded to demands from the Attiko Metro company and decreed that the antiquities unearthed at the site of the future Venizelos subway station would be removed in their entirety to the Pavlos Melas camp in western Thessaloniki. Attiko Metro said it was not technically feasible to conserve the remains properly and build the station around them, and the General Director of Public Works supported them, as did the Deputy Minister of Education, Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports. The subway line is already four years behind schedule thanks to the excavation and the implosion of Greece’s finances; the government feared further delays might endanger the entire project.

Archaeological organizations responded to the ministerial decree with swift and public outrage. Polyxeni Veleni, the Director of the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, described it poetically: “It is our Parthenon. Would you like to see Parthenon on Mount Taygetus?” (That’s a mountain on the south Peloponnese between Sparta and Kalamata, about 100 miles southwest of Athens.) The municipal leaders of Thessaloniki agreed. The city already lost much of its ancient history to hasty development after World War II, and thus the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople has little of its illustrious past to show for it.

This discovery is a window into that history, and it’s not the kind of find that can be dug up and shipped to a museum. It’s like a core sample of the city, a large section that preserves 83 yards of the 3rd century A.D. Roman marble-paved main street built over the Greek one from 300 B.C. that passed through the center of the city, the remains of buildings, columns, foundations from the 6th through the 9th centuries A.D., a monumental Roman-era gate and pieces of large public buildings from the 7th century that are rare finds anywhere in the Byzantine world.

This was the heart of the city, the crossroads that the main public buildings, smaller retail structures and the public market clustered around for centuries. The daily life of Thessalonians is literally inscribed into the stone. The marble slabs of the road are marked by wheel ruts from years of cart travel and some of them have children’s board games etched into the surface, a kind of permanent hopscotch pitch.

The headlines are calling it Thessaloniki’s Pompeii because apparently any extensive ruin of an ancient city is a Pompeii now, but what’s great about this discovery is not that it’s frozen in time, but rather an illustration of many phases the city went through from ancient Greece, to Roman rule to Byzantine and up to the present considering that the modern Egnatia street up top follows the path of the Roman decumanus below. Then there are the artifacts:

Working ahead of the rail construction drills, archaeologists have recovered over 100,000 objects in the area, including over 50,000 coins.

Vessels, lamps, vials and jewels of various types have also been found — in keeping with the area’s trading character — in addition to 2,500 graves of Hellenistic and Roman times.

Removing 2,500 graves and monument chunks of road, gate and building foundations seems a lot less technically feasible to me than leaving them where they are. The municipal council and the local university submitted alternate plans that would keep 84% of the discoveries (all of the big stuff, basically) in place and ultimately Attiko Metro acquiesced to the new plan. The rail station will be built around the chunk of ancient Thessaloniki giving tourists a fascinating and conveniently located new attraction.


First images of Native Americans in Vatican fresco?

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

A new restoration of Resurrection, a fresco by Renaissance master Pinturicchio in the Vatican’s Borgia Apartment, has revealed what may the first images of Native Americans in European art. After cleaning the fresco, art restorer Maria Pustka found that some previously indistinct, distant figures in the middle of the composition beneath the risen Christ and a Roman soldier looking up in awe are nude males wearing feather headdresses whose postures suggest they are dancing. Since Pinturicchio painted Pope Alexander VI’s suite of rooms between 1492 and 1494, these could well be the artist’s vision of the friendly naked natives bedecked in parrots that Columbus described upon his return from the first voyage.

Vatican Museums Director Antonio Paolucci posits in an article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that perhaps the Borgia Pope got his hands on a copy of the diary Columbus kept on his first voyage. According to Paolucci, Columbus gave this journal to their Most Catholic Majesties King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who tried to keep it quiet for political reasons but since the pope was Spanish, he probably heard about it anyway.

I think he’s confusing Columbus’ journal, later edited by Bartolomé de las Casas but not published until 1825, with a letter Columbus wrote about the new islands in Southeast Asia he thought he’d discovered. It wasn’t a secret, though. It was an international sensation.

While still on board the Niña as it approached the Iberian peninsula in mid-February, Columbus wrote the letter to Ferdinand and Isabella reporting his findings. Either when he landed in Lisbon on March 4th or the harbour of Palos on March 15, 1493, Columbus sent the letter to the king and queen and a copy to Luis de Santangel, Ferdinand II’s finance minister who had raised all the money for the voyage and convinced their majesties to approve of Columbus’ plan. He may also have sent a third to Gabriel Sanchez, Treasurer of Aragon; there’s a fair amount of confusion about the recipients and the sources of the copies.

Although there is some evidence that the King and Queen weren’t keen to have the letter get out — no copies of their majesties’ letter were ever published — by early April, a printed copy the Santangel letter was published in Spain. In May, a Latin translation was circulating in Rome, and the Latin version spread to cities all over Europe within weeks. It had already been set to Italian verse by June, 1493. You can read an English translation here.

Pope Alexander VI certainly saw the Latin version of the letter in Rome, and in any case by then he was fully versed in the discovery because he had to arbitrate between Portugal and Spain on the question of who got to claim the New World. Portugal asserted that the new territories belonged to the Portuguese crown, despite the fact that Spanish ships had made the discovery, because previous papal bulls had granted Portugal extremely broad rights to any dominions populated by non-Christians. Romanus Pontifex, for example, issued in 1455 by Pope Nicholas V, stipulated that the King Alfonso and his heirs had exclusive dominion over all lands and seas “though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion” and that no other power, ecclesiastical or temporal, may interfere with this great Christianizing conquest in any way.

Ferdinand and Isabella accepted the previous bulls, but asked Pope Alexander VI to review the question. The pope was Valencian now, so they figured, correctly as it happened, that they might just pull a rabbit out of a hat, or rather a rich new colony out of a mitre. Diplomatic negotiations between Portugal and Spain began in April. Meanwhile, the Pope got to work busily on crafting a new bull. Inter Caetera was issued on May 4, 1493, superseding three edicts issued that same day and the day before. Dudum Siquidem, which resolved some of the issues Inter Caetera had left open, was issued September 26th, 1493.

All of this was going down while Pinturicchio and his assistants lavishly frescoed the Pope’s apartment. Resurrection was painted on the wall of the Hall of Mysteries, one of three rooms in the apartment that were Alexander VI’s personal living space. The pope himself is portrayed prominently in the painting, on his knees, hands joined in prayer, before Christ’s resurrected golden glory. Considering how the Pope spent a great deal of 1493 dealing with the ramifications of Columbus’ discovery, and how all these political issues were framed in terms of who should get to convert the newly-found pagans to Christianity, it makes sense that they would make a cameo in this fresco.

After Alexander VI’s death in 1503, the apartment was closed by his successor Pope Pius III. Neither he nor anyone else for a few centuries wanted to be associated with the scandalous Borgia papacy, so the rooms with their gorgeous frescoes were sealed off for almost 400 years. Pope Leo XII finally opened them in 1889. Their years of disuse had kept the rooms in good condition and kept subsequent popes with bad taste from messing with the frescoes. The rooms are now part of the Vatican Library. Since 1973, they’ve housed the Vatican Collection of Modern Religious Art, a collection of more than 600 donated works by the likes of Chagall, Kandinsky and Gaugin.


Pinault to return bronze rat, rabbit heads to China

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Summer Palace bronze ratThe vicissitudes of the bronze rat and rabbit heads looted from the Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops in 1860 and offered for sale at the epic Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction in February 2009 will come to an unexpected end later this year with their repatriation to China. François-Henri Pinault, husband of Salma Hayek and billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns such luxury brands as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris and, not coincidentally, Christie’s, agreed to return the bronze sculptures during a diplomatic visit to China where he was one of a phalanx of businessmen accompanying French President François Hollande.

Summer Palace bronze rabbitThere’s no precise date for the handover, but Pinault said it would be done in the second half of the year. The rat and rabbit will be given as a gift to China from the Pinault family, he took pains to stress, so as to avoid any appearance that this was an official decision by Christie’s corporate overlords.

The 2009 auction of the heads was highly controversial. The rat and rabbit were once part of a clepsydra (a water clock) in the garden of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. Heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac mounted on human bodies served as water spouts, each head spouting water for a designated two-hour period. Designed by an Italian Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione, who took the name Lang Shining Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress by Giuseppe Castiglione, 1736and became an important painter and artist at the court of Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), this section of the palace and gardens blended Western and Chinese styles. The fountain clock adorned the entrance to the Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang) palace, built in 1759, which was a masonry palace inspired by the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

By the time of Qianlong Emperor’s death, the European art and architecture trend in China was passé. In 1795, the pipeworks were melted down so it no longer functioned as clock or fountain, but the external design was untouched; the heads and every other visible part of it remained in place. That would end in 1860 courtesy of the Second Opium War.

Print of Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang) palace with water clock in frontOn September 29, 1860, two envoys from the French and British expeditionary forces and their escort, who were in the town of Tung-Chow outside Beijing to negotiate a truce, were imprisoned and tortured. Apparently there had been some sort of scuffle between a French officer and some Chinese soldiers, and General Sang-ko-lin-sin ordered the whole Anglo-French party arrested. Although the two envoys and 14 of their escort survived, 20 died in a most brutal fashion.

The British and French were furious. The envoys had been under a flag of truce, so arresting and savaging them was a violation of custom and law. They saw it as a form of extortion, an attempt by the Chinese to strengthen their negotiating position by kidnapping. If it was, it backfired dramatically.

In retaliation, and to deter any future notions of kidnap and torture as negotiating tools, the British High Commissioner to China, also eighth Lord Elgin and the son of the despoiler of the Parthenon marbles, ordered that the Summer Palace be destroyed. The complex was by then populated only by a handful of eunuchs and servants and although there were Imperial troops in the environs, they weren’t about to rush in to protect the old pile. Foreign troops had already begun to loot it before the envoys were released; Elgin took it to a whole new level, saying, “What remains of the Palace, which appears to be the place at which several of the British captives were subjected to the grossest indignities, will be immediately levelled to the ground.”

Charles George Gordon, who would later become a famous martyr of British imperialism after his beheading in the Siege of Khartoum, was there as a 27-year-old volunteer with the Royal Engineers. He had just arrived in China in September and was among the troops dispatched by Elgin to do the deed. In a letter home, he described the destruction of the palace:

“We accordingly went out, and after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying, in a vandal-like manner, most valuable property, which could not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You would scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these palaces were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burned, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army. Everybody was wild for plunder.”

Ruins of the Hall of Calm Seas and the fountain todayThe grandees definitely hated them, and the people weren’t exactly fans either. They still harbor massive resentment over these events, and the destruction of the Summer Palace has become a symbol of how European powers despoiled and humiliated China. Today what’s left of the palace is a heritage park, and Chinese buyers public and private have spent tens of millions of dollars at auctions attempting to reclaim the bronze zodiac heads and the national pride they represent. The state-owned Poly Group purchased the ox (Christie’s, 2000, $78.98 million), tiger (Sotheby’s, 2000, $35.98 million) and monkey (Christie’s, 2000, $1.03 million) and put them on display in the Poly Art Museum. Macau and Hong Kong casino billionaire Stanley Ho bought the boar (Sotheby’s, 1987, $770,000) and donated it to the Poly Art Museum. In 2007, he bought the horse for $8.9 million from a Taiwanese collector who had bought it from Sotheby’s London in 1989 for $400,000. He donated that one to the Capital Museum in Beijing.

There are only two other heads known to have survived: the rat and rabbit. The remaining five — dragon, dog, snake, sheep and rooster — have never surfaced on the market or been published or publicly acknowledged in any way. That’s not to say they aren’t out there somewhere, but if they did make it, they’re deep undercover.

This is why when the last two bronze heads were put up for auction, there was an immediate hue and cry. The Chinese government lodged a protest. A group of Chinese lawyers attempted to halt the sale but had no legal grounds since the pieces have been circulating on the market since they were pillaged. Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime companion and owner of the incredible collection that ultimately sold for almost half a billion dollars, offered to give them to China free of charge if China agreed to “give in return human rights, the liberation of Tibet, and a welcome for the Dalai Lama.” China, needless to say, was not amused and chose to decline the offer.

The auction went ahead and the rat and rabbit ostensibly sold for $20 million apiece to a phone buyer. That buyer soon revealed himself to be Cai Mingchao, a Chinese collector and auctioneer who had no intention of paying for the pieces. It was a protest purchase and he insisted the bronzes should be given to China on moral principle.

I thought at the time that Christie’s would contact the runner-up and sell it for the next highest bid, but apparently Bergé just decided to keep them. At some point between the auction’s end and today, Pinault apparently bought the rat and rabbit heads. There are no specifics on when he purchased them or how this was transacted.

We do know that China immediately hit Christie’s with sanctions, drowning them in complex paperwork requirements that in addition to choking sales also made it clear to Chinese buyers that the government was not pleased with Christie’s, so it would probably be best to avoid them if you wanted to stay in its good graces.

Today, however, relations are much thawed. Downright toasty, in fact, seeing as Christie’s was granted a license earlier this month allowing it to operate independently on the Chinese mainland, the first international auction house so honored. Pinault himself is also deeply involved in doing business in China, which is flush with new money and a taste for the luxury and retail brands Kering owns. I wonder if he called up Bergé a month ago and threw him a few tens of millions of dollars to secure the sweetest of hostess gifts in time for his trip to China.

And thus a hope expressed by Victor Hugo in November of 1861 (pdf) has come to pass.

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. […] All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.[…]

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. […]

The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-à-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.


Medieval skeleton bonanza under Edinburgh car park

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating an Edinburgh parking lot destined to become the site of a rainwater catchment tank keep running into medieval skeletons. The first one discovered in March was a dramatic find: a knight with a richly carved sandstone slab marking his high rank and likely profession. This was just a month after the Richard III announcement, so there were much exclamation about how UK parking lots are apparently a rich vein of medieval warrior remains.

At least two other skeletons were found at the time, but they were overshadowed by the knight and his fancy accessories. Now archaeologists have announced that seven more complete skeletons and one partial have been found under the same parking lot. There are three adults, four infants and a solitary skull. Just beneath the knight’s burial is a skeleton which appears to be that of an adult female. Just to the right of the knight’s sandstone slab are the remains of an infant. Their proximity to the knight may indicate a close familial relationship.

This brings the total number burials under this car park to at least ten. All of the bones were found within the perimeter established by an ancient wall, perhaps the wall of a family crypt. Radiocarbon dating is still ongoing, but archaeologists have dated the carving style of the slab to the 13th century.

That’s in keeping with the history of the site. A monastery was built there in the 13th century. Blackfriars Monastery was founded in 1230 by King Alexander II of Scotland. Much like the Greyfriars monastery under that other parking lot in Leicester, it was destroyed by a mob during the Reformation (John Knox’s rather than Henry VIII’s, though) and the exact location was lost. When archaeologists began the excavation, they expected to find monastery remains somewhere in the area, and it seems they landed right on them.

It was the sandstone slab which marked the spot. Archaeologists first encountered the corner of it and then unearthed the full piece. Carved on its surface are a Calvary Cross — a Latin cross mounted on three steps representing the hill on which Jesus was crucified — and a broadsword. In heraldic terms, the three steps of the Calvary Cross symbolize the three Christian graces (faith, hope, charity) and its use is often linked to the bearer having erected a cross in Rome or taken up arms in a crusade.

The head of the cross is not your standard horizontal bar. The arm-ends appear to be fleurs-de-lis, which are not only lovely floral motifs representing purity but also have the barbed looked of fighting spears. The flowers are linked in the middle by a diamond shape and enclosed by a circle. Fleur-de-lis crosses became popular in the Middle Ages as replacements for the traditional Celtic Crosses which often had round halos embracing the crossing point.

This unusual cross and its companion sword strongly suggest the grave of a fighting man of high status. Osteological analysis has not been completed yet, but Ross Murray, project officer for contract firm Headland Archaeology, notes that the skeleton was that of a strong, healthy, well-built man about six feet tall, a particularly impressive height in the 13th century. His height, powerful build and good teeth were the product of a consistently good diet from an early age.

The location of the burial also underscores his social importance. Archaeologists are still unsure of the layout of the monastery, but it’s possible that he and the rest of the group were buried inside the walls of the building rather than in an outdoor graveyard. The closer the burial to the church, the wealthier and more influential the person. That slab was meant to be seen and it doesn’t look very weathered to me, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it were an indoor grave.

The remains of a later building have also been found on the site. Royal High School was built there in 1578. It was demolished in 1774 to make way for a larger facility, Old High School, which was built in 1777. Sir Walter Scott and James Pillans, inventor of the blackboard, went to school there. The excavation area is known as High School Yards because the parking lot was once part of Old High School’s yard.

All of the human remains will be fully excavated, examined by osteoarchaeologists and then reburied in a respectful manner. The architectural remains will be preserved in situ, I’m glad to report. According to Richard Lewis of the Edinburgh City Council, the remains of Blackfriars Monastery and Royal High School will be left on the site as artifacts of national significance which would be destroyed should they be removed.

The Old High School building was purchased by the University of Edinburgh in 1905 to house various disciplines. In 1995 it housed the Department of Archaeology which Ross Murray attended. He fondly recalls hanging out in the High School Yards area during breaks between classes, just a few steps away from where he would find a wealth of medieval remains.

The building is being renovated at the highest green standards and will become the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, dedicated to researching and inventing new, sustainable low carbon technologies. Hence the rainwater catchment system which will apparently still be installed but without interfering with the structural remains.


“Hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Two years after successfully recovering six experimental early recordings Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory Association stored at the Smithsonian in the late 19th century, researchers at the Library of Congress and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have found the first and only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice. He’s reciting a long list of numbers, dollar amounts and concludes:

This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell and in the presence of Dr. Chichester A. Bell on the 15th of April 1885 at the Volta Laboratory 1221 Connecticut Avenue, Washington D.C. In witness whereof, hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.

The project began in 2011 after National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens read about the Berkeley Lab’s success in recovering sound from damaged and unreadable historical recording media using optical scanning technology. The museum is custodian of a vast collection of 200 early audio recordings made by Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell and their associate Charles Sumner Tainter during their time experimenting with new recording technology. The company they founded, Volta Laboratory Association, only lasted from 1881 to 1886, but during that brief period they worked with an astounding variety of technologies.

They weren’t all original inventions. Some of the work Bell et al did was on pre-existing technology that was in its infancy. They experimented and developed it far beyond their creators’ work. The results were significant milestones in the history of audio technology. Their laterally cut discs were early versions of the format which became the industry standard for the 78/45/33 RPM discs some of us old people still remember. They also pioneered the creation of a system of master recordings coupled with mass production stamping and developed photographic discs, the principle that would later be put to work in optical film soundtracks.

The Volta partners stored these important early recordings, devices and notes at the Smithsonian almost as soon as they produced them in case they needed evidence of their work for patent purposes. None of the recordings in the Volta collection can be played today because the players don’t exist/work and even if they did, the recordings themselves are too damaged to be run through the wringer of those early machines. Imagine how frustrating it must be for a museum to have hundreds of historically significant documents they can’t read.

Optical scanning solves the problem because it doesn’t touch the delicate surface of recordings at all. It scans them using a specially designed machine which creates a high-resolution digital map of the medium surface. The map is then processed to remove scratches and skips, and software reproduces the audio content in a digital sound file.

The pilot program focused on scanning six of the Volta recordings on different media including a variable density photo disc, a green wax vertical cylinder cut on brass and beeswax on composition board. Since the pilot, donations from private and public sources have allowed Berkeley to work on another three recordings.

The first one, a wax on composition board disc, has an inscription on the wax that looked very promising.

Record made April 15, 1885
by A.G.B. and C.A.B.
to test reproduction of numbers

Since the museum had a transcript in Alexander Graham Bell’s hand of a recording of many numbers done on April 15th, 1885, and concluding with a signoff by the inventor, they had reason to hope that this disc might contain the voice of the man himself. Once the recording was recovered and found to match the transcript exactly, it was confirmed: this is the voice of voice-transmission icon Alexander Graham Bell.

The third of the newly deciphered recordings is also notable. It’s one of the earliest in the Volta Laboratory collection, a highly modified Edison phonograph Bell dubbed the graphophone. Made in 1881, it includes both the recording — in wax on a metal cylinder — and the player — a mandrel attached to a hand-cranked rotator which turns the cylinder.

Recorded on the cylinder is none other than Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham’s father. Melville was an expert in acoustic phonetics and elocution. He invented a writing system called Visible Speech to help teach the deaf to speak. His interests in acoustics and elocution shine through in the absolutely charming recording he made in September of 1881.

[Trills] There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. [Trill] I am a graphophone, and my mother was a phonograph.

That last line slays me. Throw in a smell of elderberries and it would be downright Pythonesque. Adorable.


Medieval skeletons found holding hands in Romania

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

As an avowed lover of skeleton sweethearts, I’m charmed to report the discovery of a double burial in Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania, Romania, wherein a male skeleton and a female skeleton from the late Middle Ages were found facing each other and holding hands. The dearly beloved were unearthed by archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Art History and the Cluj National History Museum excavating the courtyard of the Sigismund Toduta Music High School, originally a 15th century Dominican monastery.

The monastery was built around 1455 on the site of a Roman church and an earlier 13th century monastery. It was active only for a century before it was secularized in 1556 amidst the upheaval of the Reformation. The lovers therefore can be contextually dated to between the 1450s and 1556. The material and style of the coffin nails confirms the 1450-1550 date range.

According to Adrian Rusu, senior researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, there is a possible Romeo and Juliet angle here (which of course is being promoted far and wide despite its tenuousness) in that the man appears to have been killed by a blunt-force blow that broke his sternum, while there is no immediately obvious cause of death for the woman. Her skeleton is that of a healthy 30 year old. She can’t have committed suicide Juliet-style when her man died because she would not have been allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, and certainly not within the hallowed walls of a monastery. Perhaps, Rusu speculates, she died from a heart attack or a stroke brought on by the shock of his accidental death.

Sure, he is totally pulling that explanation out of his fundament and his appreciation for the PR value of our collective cultural vernacular, but it is mysterious that they died fairly young, at the same time and only one of them shows signs of fatal trauma. I can think of several explanations that don’t require the broken heart ex machina, though. She could have died first of an illness that can’t be detected in the bones or that hasn’t been yet. She could have had an unfortunate encounter with the wrong mushroom. The male then entirely by coincidence had some kind of workplace accident or tangled with the wrong horse that broke his sternum with one well-placed kick. Really, there are many possibilities.

Two other sets of remains were found in the same area, one of an infant and the leg bones of another individual. Whether they bear any relation to the lovers is unknown. One genuine fact that can be deduced from the burial is that they must have been relatively wealthy, or had wealthy family members, to afford such a premium spot inside the monastery. This was an inner courtyard with a fountain and decorative garden and an area for the monks to pray and read religious texts. Placement here was like a turbo boost of sin forgiveness, something particularly desirable when a person died unexpectedly and thus without a final confession.

This excavation is phase one of a larger restoration project. The Dominican monastery is one of three important ecclesiastical structures from the Middle Ages still standing in Cluj. (The other two are the 15th century gothic St. Michael’s Church and the 15th century late gothic Calvinist Reformed Church.) It’s in desperate need of extensive archaeological renovation. When the courtyard was concreted over in the 20th century, it created a major water problem. No longer able to escape up through the soil, the water began to climb the walls of the building instead.

The funds needed to save this nationally important structure are hard to come by these days, which is why the archaeological team will be applying for EU funding after the preliminary dig is complete in two weeks. This first round of excavations is both an exploration of what kind of work is necessary and about finding material that will sweeten the pitch. A Romeo and Juliet burial that makes international news would seem to be just the thing.

Not that the sexy angle is all this monastery has going for it. In addition to its architectural significance — look at this amazing door — it’s also directly connected to a remarkable historical first: the first edict of religious toleration promulgated by a European ruler. In 1556, Isabella Jagiellon, Queen Dowager of Hungary (which included Transylvania), and her son John II Sigismund were invited by the legislative assembly to put the country, ravaged by wars between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent, back together. The Diet elected John king but as he was only 16, Isabella was co-ruler. During the transitional period when they worked on rebuilding government, she and John lived in the monastery for nine months.

In 1557 she issued the Edict of Religious Tolerance which declared:

Each person [should] maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while we at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.

This was forty years before Henry IV of France issued the famous Edict of Nantes granting freedom on conscience to the Protestant Huguenots after years of religious wars.

Queen Isabella died in 1559. Her son, the first and only Unitarian king, continued to support religious freedom during his rule, sponsoring popular public debates and issuing the Edict of Torda in 1568.

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

Therefore this monastery bears the distinction of having been victim of religious conflict — it was sacked twice before it was decommissioned — and the place that helped nurture ground-breaking religious tolerance. Surely that alone makes it worth funding. (Also the door.)


Richard III documentary airs on Smithsonian Channel

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

The Smithsonian Channel is airing a documentary on the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. I caught The King’s Skeleton: Richard III Revealed last night. You can watch it next on Saturday, April 27th at 5:00 PM, and on Sunday, April 28th at 10:00 AM.

Even though it was advertised as “new,” I assumed when I saw it on the schedule that it was The King in the Carpark, the documentary that aired on Channel Four in the UK the day of the announcement. I think in substance it is the same documentary, but there have been some changes made for a US audience. The only one I can identify for sure, not having seen the UK version, is that the narrator is American. If anybody has seen them both, I’d love to hear of any other differences you detected.

The cameras follow Simon Farnaby, a comedic actor and writer I’ve never heard of before whose sole tenuous relevance to this story that I could determine is that he’s from York. Anyway he seems to be the Greek chorus, our stand-in of ignorant wonder to whom the archaeologists, historians and scientists explain things in lieu of addressing the viewer directly. He also serves to hold Philippa Langley’s hand, metaphorically and literally, whenever she hyperventilates.

Much of the story of the dig, discovery and analysis is known to me now, but there were still some interesting surprises in the documentary. For instance, the team noted at the February press conference that the skeleton was actually found on first day, but they didn’t get into the details of that. The documentary shows the discovery, how those leg bones are the first thing found at the dig, how they’re covered back up to wait for future information since at that point they have no idea if they’d even found the Greyfriars church and priory yet.

Thirteen days later, all three trenches have been dug and archaeologists are able to determine from the artifacts that this was the Greyfriars site and the layout of the structures. Once the floorplan is clear, they return to those skeletal legs because they now realize that they are buried in the east of the church under the choir, which was exactly where Richard III was thought to have been buried.

Fun fact: after they cover the bones back up on day one, storm clouds quickly gather and it began to rain. Philippa Langley thinks that’s downright eerie. Rain in England at the end of August? It feels like a message from Richard, donchaknow. Certainly not an entirely expected minor weather event seen every day. Certainly not that.

Another interesting bit is when Simon visits a historian who shows him a couple of paintings of Richard and how they were tampered with, Medieval Photoshop style, by Tudor artists to make Richard look freaky. They added curves to one shoulder to make him look hunchbacked, narrowed his eyes, even carved his thumb to a point so it looks like he has a demon claw rather than regular human fingers.

Meanwhile, back at the dig they bring the earth movers in to extend the first trench crosswise at the place where the leg bones were found. The original trench isn’t wide enough to expose the rest of the skeletal remains, so the machines have to peel off more pavement and modern layers of soil while the precious legs bones were just beneath them. It’s amazing how delicate heavy machinery can be.

Next up is bone specialist Joe Appleby who takes over in her Outbreak suit to do the careful excavation that will hopefully reveal the rest of the skeleton. Yay she finds a skull! Oops, she found it when she drove her pickaxe through it. It’s cool, though, because the skull is at a weird angle compared to the legs so it’s probably not from the same skeleton.

Twist! Yes it is! The weird angle, Joe finds, is due to the marked curvature of the spine. She calls in Simon and Philippa to show them what she’s found, and Philippa loses the ability to stand when she sees that s-curve in the spine. She has to sit down on a mudpile because that’s one of her biggest bugaboos: Richard couldn’t have been a hunchback because how could he have worn armour and fought?

Then Joe makes her feel better. At least there’s no evidence that his right arm was withered, she tells Philippa. Philippa replies: “Some good news them.” Yes, finally some good news after the tragic discovery of a skeleton with scoliosis in the location where Richard III was buried.

The bones are bagged and sent to the lab for the long process of analysis. The skull goes to Turi King because she’s going to attempt DNA extraction from the teeth. You see her removing one of them, but the narration uses the plural so she had to remove more than one, clean them and grind them into powder in order to get any DNA out of them. That answers the question of whether the tooth loss visible in the skull was pre, peri or postmortem.

The DNA results are going to take months, so off goes Simon to York to talk about how Richard was perceived by the locals. Spoiler: they liked him.

Back at the lab again, we get to see the process of identifying the metal object that was found between two of the skeleton’s vertebrae. The researcher X-rayed the piece, compared it to arrows of Richard’s time and ultimately determines that it’s not an arrowhead but a pre-existing nail, possibly Roman, that just happened to wind up in the burial.

There’s also a rather cool bit about the creation of the facial reconstruction using specialized software. It’s neat to see the muscles being digitally added on to the skull.

So finally it’s time for the full osteological presentation. Philippa, Simon, Joe Appleby and Dr. Pierce Mitchell (specialist in deformities) meet over the bones. Mitchell says he would have been a hunchback with one shoulder higher than the other. Philippa freaks. Out. She can’t stay in the room anymore because she can’t deal with seeing him laid out like that with his glaring scoliotic spine making a mockery of her years of dedication to the idea that the only deformity in Richard was projected onto him posthumously by Tudor propagandists. Simon has to go out and pet her for a while to validate her tender feelers.

When they return, Mitchell points out that when he calls him a hunchback, he just means in the colloquial sense of someone with a spinal deformity. He didn’t actually have a hump on his back. When he was clothed, it would only look like one was shoulder slightly higher than the other.

Things get weird again when the facial reconstruction is complete. Philippa, led by Simon, enters the room with her eyes closed. She opens them to behold the reconstructed face of Richard III. “Doesn’t look the face of a tyrant. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. It’s like you could just talk to him. Have a conversation right now.” She does not lean in for a kiss, but that’s the level of vibe we’re talking about here. There’s a reason they didn’t leave her alone with him.

The show concludes with the DNA results. Adorably, Turi King takes Michael Ibsen to a private room to share the results with him first, because he’s family. Then she tells Simon and Philippa and there is much subdued English rejoicing.

My final verdict is that it’s definitely worth watching just to see the discovery unfold the way it did. It’s lighter on the science and archaeology than I would have liked, but I was steeled for that by the many excellent comments y’all left on the Richard blog entries.

A positive final note: there are no cheeseball reenactments of historical events. When historians and the narrator are talking about Richard’s rise to throne, his life, the princes in the tower, the Battle of Bosworth, his death, the descriptions are accompanied with a stylized, highly atmospheric animation. The art is kind of great and there are some excellent ravens involved. I really enjoyed the animations. Whoever did that needs to make a feature-length movie of the life and death of Richard III.

Edit: Here’s an animated telling of Shakespeare’s Richard III courtesy of WandaSusie which is very similar, if not identical, in style. I can’t tell if it’s the exact same animation as figures in the documentary, though.



Rare gold find in 4,400-year-old Beaker burial

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Archaeological from Wessex Archaeology excavating a gravel quarry in Berkshire discovered a rare 4,400-year-old Beaker burial 18 months ago. The news was kept under embargo until Friday to give the team time to analyze the bones and grave goods, both of which make the grave even more rare: beads made of folded sheet gold and the likelihood that the person buried was female.

Beaker burials — Copper Age graves from around 2,500 B.C. characterized by the ritual inclusion of a fine pottery drinking vessel known as a beaker — are extremely rare in south-east England. Gold has only been found in a small fraction of the already small number of Beaker burials, and those graves held male skeletons. Only the most important people in Beaker society were buried with gold and they were not surprisingly male.

Although researchers were not able to confirm this with complete certainty due to damage to the bone caused by the acidic soil which makes radiocarbon dating and DNA testing impossible, osteological examination indicates the skeleton is that of a woman who was at least 35 years of age when she died. The gold from Beaker burials is some of the earliest gold ornamentation discovered in England, and this is the earliest known woman in England to have been found buried with gold.

She was buried in high style. Five tubular (80s flashback!) beads made from folded pieces of sheet gold were found, once part of a necklace. Black disc beads of a jet-like material called lignite were also part of the necklace. Archaeologists found thirty lignite beads and 29 fragments of amber beads, so this was an elaborate necklace indeed. Lignite beads were also discovered near her hand, perhaps from a matching bracelet.

Larger perforated amber rounds were found in a row down her body. They were probably extremely fancy, extremely expensive buttons going down the front a Copper Age version of a cardigan.

Lastly, a large pottery beaker with nicely even stripes probably applied using a comb-like stamp was placed on her hip, an unusual position for the beaker in the Beaker burials. They are usually found by the feet or shoulders.

All of this elegance and quality strongly suggests the woman was someone of impeccably high status.

Archaeologist Gareth Chaffey of Wessex Archaeology, who is directing the ongoing excavation, said that the woman unearthed at the site “was probably an important person in her society, perhaps holding some standing which gave her access to prestigious, rare and exotic items. She could have been a leader, a person with power and authority, or possibly part of an elite family – perhaps a princess or queen.”

Lead isotope analysis performed on the gold found that it was mined in south-east Ireland and southern Britain. The lignite beads are from Eastern England and the amber buttons probably from the Baltic, although it may have been local amber found on beaches. Scientists hope that further analysis will answer some questions about how the gold was procured and traded along existing trade routes.

This find is not the only significant discovery achaeologists have made since they began excavating Kingsmead Quarry in 2003. During the Copper Age and for thousands of years after that, the quarry was in a floodplain on the shore of the Thames. Its convenient access to water ensure it was inhabited by many subsequent generations. The excavations have found evidence of human occupation steadily from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages.

The quarry is owned by the CEMEX building materials company. They have funded the ongoing excavation to the tune of £4 million ($6,000,000), and it certainly had paid off in terms discoveries. More than 28 hectares of the quarry have been excavated now. There are ancient artifacts, Neolithic houses, entire landscapes that have been exposed to expert eye. The plan is to continue digging for another two years.

Wessex Archaeology and CEMEX will be displaying some of the discoveries, including the gold beads, at an event at Wraysbury Village Hall, Berkshire, on Saturday April 27th between 10.30 AM and 3.30 PM. Admission is free. Visitors not only get to see the artifacts in person, but they also get to meet the archaeologists working on the project and examine a skeleton.

They hope to have the Beaker artifacts on display in a museum by the end of the year.


King Charles I’s Order of the Garter sash?

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Anthony Van Dyck painted many portraits of doomed King Charles I and his courtiers. The most famous among them is probably Charles I in Three Positions, a triple portrait that shows the king face-on, in full left profile and in three-quarters right profile.

Now one of the gems in the Royal Collection, the portrait was originally a work piece sent to the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini in Rome. He had been commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to make a bust of King Charles which the pope would then present as a gift to the Catholic Queen Henrietta. Since the king was not able to sit for Bernini in person, he commissioned his favorite painter, Van Dyck, to make a portrait showing him from several angles which could be used as a schematic by the sculptor. He sports a different silk outfit in each to give Bernini textural options and there’s a tear-drop pearl earring that would make Vermeer salivate in the three-quarters profile, but in all three looks he wears similar delicate lace overlay collars and the blue ribbon of the Order of the Garter.

Bernini, never one to mince words, royalty or no royalty, is said to have remarked upon examination of the triple portrait: “Never have I beheld features more unfortunate.” It seems premonitory in hindsight given just how unfortunate Charles’ ending was, but he probably just meant that all of Van Dyck’s Baroque flourishes and all the lace and silk in King Charles’ closet couldn’t make him look like any less of a sad sack, which, I think we can all agree, is a pretty fair assessment.

Still, Bernini managed to enhance Charles’ qualities enough that the bust, finished in the summer of 1636 and presented to their majesties in July 1637, was a huge hit with King and Queen. It didn’t push the sovereign over the edge to Catholicism as the Pope had hoped it would, but it at least curried favor. The court roundly agreed that it was a most excellent likeness exquisitely executed, if you’ll pardon the term. Charles gave Bernini an expensive diamond ring to reward him for his work. Sadly, the bust was almost as short-lived as the king. It was destroyed by a fire in Whitehall Palace in 1698.

There’s a portrait bust of King Charles I from the early 18th century in the Royal Collection which some believe to be a copy of Bernini’s piece, but there’s no evidence the sculptor ever saw the original before it was lost. The king is wearing something that looks like the three-quarters profile outfit with that big puff of bunched diagonal silk, but the lace collar is much smaller and more twee, and the king’s jaw line bears no relation to the original. He is wearing his Order of the Garter medallion and ribbon, though.

As for the Van Dyck painting, Bernini kept it. It passed to his heirs after his death and remained in the Bernini Palace on the Via Del Corso until it was bought by an agent of British art dealer William Buchanan in 1802. After passing through the hands of two private collectors, it was purchased for the Royal Collection by King George IV in 1822.

But what happened to the King Charles I’s Order of the Garter ribbon? He may have brought it with him to the scaffold. We know he gave one of the George badges that are part of the Order’s regalia to William Juxon, the Bishop of London, just before he was beheaded, but Parliament confiscated and sold everything of Charles’ they could get their hands on to creditors who immediately resold whatever they got, so ownership histories have gotten very muddled. Besides, a blue ribbon, as fond as the king was of it, can’t have been seen as a high ticket item, and as a textile is far easier to destroy than to preserve.

However in 1949, a viable candidate actually surfaced. Queen Mary, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, was given a first edition of Eikon Basilike: The Portraicture of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings. This book was published in 1649 just 10 days after King Charles’ execution and is purportedly musings written by the king himself on his reign, the hardships he endured, his enemies, his faith. There’s long been a debate as to the authorship, but there is evidence that he wrote at least parts of it, or that it was derived from his personal papers.

The copy given to Queen Mary had four lengths of blue silk ribbon attached to the binding. An inscription at the front of the book claimed that these were the remains of King Charles’ Order of the Garter sash.

“The Book was the gift of Sir Oliver Flemming Master of the Ceremonies to King Charles the First, together with ye ribband strings which were the Garter His Majesty wore his George on.”

Nobody was going to take the inscription’s word for it, though. Even if it were a Garter ribbon, it could be anybody’s from any time.

The Eikon Basilike is now kept in the royal library at Windsor Castle. When Royal Collection Trust curators selected the Van Dyck triple portrait for display in an upcoming exhibit called In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, they decided to take a closer look at the ribbons in the book on the off chance that they might actually be the one depicted in the painting.

They radiocarbon dated a piece of the ribbon and found that it dates to between 1631 and 1670. Charles reigned from 1625 until 1649, and he sat for that Van Dyck portrait in 1635-6. It’s also the proper width and length for a Garter sash, 10 centimeters (four inches) wide and 136 centimeters (53.5 inches) long.

So we still don’t know for sure that it’s King Charles I’s Order of the Garter sash — the wording of the inscription appears to be from the 18th century — but we now know that it certainly could be. The book and ribbons will be going on display along with the painting. A lace collar that dates to around 1636 that is believed to have belonged to Charles will join them to truly bring the painting to life.






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