“Hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”

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.

[audioplayer file=”http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/AGB.mp3″ titles=”Alexander Graham Bell sound test 1885″]

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.

[audioplayer file=”http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Alexander-Melville-Bell.mp3″ titles=”Alexander Melville Bell 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

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

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

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?

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.