Archive for May, 2013

Help save earthquake-threatened Bernini masterpiece

Friday, May 31st, 2013

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble bust of Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena, needs your help. This Baroque masterpiece is part of the permanent collection of the Galleria Estense in Modena which houses the internationally important art collection of the Dukes of Este who ruled Modena for more than 500 years (1288–1796). Modena was devastated by the earthquakes that hit the north central Italian region of Emilia Romagna last May and the damage to the Galleria Estense was extensive. The museum has been closed ever since, the bust of Francesco I kept for its protection in a large wooden box where not even the workers can see it.

It’s a miracle that Bernini’s sculpture survived this time. Before the museum can reopen, its masterpieces need to be secured as much as possible against future seismic events. The kind of specialized equipment required to retrofit museums for earthquake safety is very expensive and Italy is flat broke. That means initiatives of government agencies like the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities need private funding.

In the case of the bust of Francesco I d’Este, the non-profit heritage protection organization Fondo Ambiente Italiano (in English known as the Italian National Trust) is helping the ministry raise money to develop a bespoke anti-seismic pedestal which will keep the sculpture from crashing to the floor when the next earthquake hits.

In cooperation with a team of qualified experts of the IUAV University of Venice, we are working on an innovative seismic isolating device system based on the theory of the double pendulum. Essentially, the anti-seismic pedestal diminishes the strength coming from the ground to the piece of art, therefore securing it from destruction.

In the US, they’ve started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $60,000 of the $80,000 they need to build and install the pedestal. There are 30 days left in the campaign and so far they’ve only raised $1,372 from 20 contributors. I think we can do better than that.

Historical preservation and heritage protection suffers enormously from slashed budgets and so often there’s no way for people who care but who happen to live far away from the problem to pitch in. I’ve often wanted to help donate when I’ve come across these kinds of stories and been frustrated by how localized these fundraising campaigns are. Requiring people to send a personal check across oceans by mail in this day and age just locks out the world. Crowdfunding, on the other hand, draws the world in, but it only works if people hear about it, so please spread the word. If you’re on Facebook, here’s the related FB page you can link to to promote the campaign.

There are some exceptional perks for contributors to this one: two free tickets to the museum for a $10 contribution, two free tickets and a book about the Este art collection for $20. For $50 they carve your name — or the name of the person in whose name you donate — on the new pedestal. It keeps getting better from there. A hundred dollars gets you all of the above plus of a bottle of Del Duca PDO Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, a top of the line balsamic aged 12 years. You could easily spend that much on a vinegar of this quality imported from the magical land where all true balsamic vinegar is made. Or if opera is more to your taste, 100 bucks will get and a friend an evening at the Luciano Pavarotti Opera House. Like cars? Modena has got you covered with two tickets to the new Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari . For the big donations, you get Modena handed to you on a plate, with all the goodies at the lower rates plus a personalized tour of the city for $1000 and a weekend with hotel included plus all the above for $5000.

See the video below for more details about the campaign, the Galleria Estense and a very sad shot of the box Francesco d’Este is in right now, and please spread the word. Even if Baroque sculpture of luminaries from Italian ducal families is not your bag, the next campaign that is inspired by the success of this one might save your favorite thing ever.



Oldest complete Torah found at Bologna University

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

The oldest complete Torah in the world has been discovered in the library of the University of Bologna. Known simply as “Scroll 2,” the sheepskin scroll is 118 feet long and 25 inches wide and had been erroneously dated to the 17th century by librarian Leonello Modona in 1889. Modona was the first to catalog the university’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts. He was himself Jewish and highly educated but he wasn’t a Hebrew scholar so his dating was a guess. It was even accompanied by a question mark.

The key to cracking the true age and rarity of this Torah was the script. Modona had described it as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices,” but when Professor Mauro Perani came across the scroll last year while working on a new catalog of the university’s Hebrew manuscript collection, he immediately recognized that the script wasn’t some weird anomalous Italian style, but rather a superb example of a Babylonian script that was in use way earlier than the 17th century. It was in fact a hand more like the 12th or 13th centuries. Perani sent pictures of the scroll to other Hebrew scholars who all concurred with his assessment that the script dated to the 12th or 13th century.

Another important clue to the great age of this scroll is the presence of line justifications, compressed letters and “crowns” over certain letters prohibited in the rules on Torah copying established by the great 12th century rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides’ rabbinical regulation on how scribes should copy the Torah have been followed religiously, if you’ll pardon the term, for almost 900 years. The scribe who copied Scroll 2 either predated Maimonides (d. 1204) or hadn’t yet heard about the new standard.

The textual and graphic evidence of age was confirmed by two radiocarbon tests, one performed at the University of Salento and the other by the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The results date the scroll to between 1155 and 1225. This makes it the oldest complete Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) known to have survived. The previous record-holder dates to the 14th century.

Torahs this old are such rarities because even if they managed to survive destruction during centuries of pogroms, expulsions and the horrors of World War II, Torahs that are worn or damaged can no longer be used for services because they are deemed to have lost their holiness. When a Torah’s lifetime has run out, it is ritually buried.

Scroll 2 appears to be in beautiful condition. We don’t know how long it has been curled up in the University of Bologna library, but Perani thinks it’s been centuries. The University began teaching Hebrew classes in the 15th century, but it’s not likely they’ve had it in their possession quite that long. There’s some speculation that it may have been part of a Dominican monastery scriptorium — in the early Middle Ages, Dominican friars were known to sometimes work with Jewish scholars on ancient texts — when it fell victim to Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796. Bologna became part of a French Revolutionary client statelet called the Cispadane Republic, later expanded into the Cisalpine Republic. They adopted the same constitution of Directory France which came with suppression of monastic orders. Scroll 2 could have been sent to Paris as booty and then brought back to Bologna with other spoils after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 and given to the university library.

There will be further studies to see if the history of this remarkable Torah can be traced. Meanwhile, the majestic scroll is set to go on display at the university next month. Plans are also in motion to photograph it in high resolution and upload it onto the library website.


Chinese teen’s graffiti on Egyptian temple cleaned

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Two years ago, a Chinese teenager visiting Egypt with his parents etched his name on a sandstone relief of Alexander the Great in the temple of Amenhotep III in Luxor. On May 24th, Shen, a Chinese tourist visiting the temple posted a picture of the “Ding Jinhao was here” graffito defacing Alexander’s chest and lap to the microblogging site Weibo describing it as “the saddest moment in Egypt. I’m so embarrassed that I want to hide myself. I said to the Egyptian tour guide, ‘I’m really sorry.’ I tried to erase this shame by rubbing it off, but my effort was in vain.”

The post went viral immediately. Within 12 hours, the picture had been re-tweeted (re-Weiboed?) more than 90,000 times and engendered universal condemnation on and offline. People tracked the vandal down using what is both creepily and awesomely called “a human flesh search” (doxing sounds so innocuous by comparison) and discovered he’s a 15-year-old boy in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, East China. His school’s website was hacked and abusive messages left excoriating him for being an awful 13-year-old tourist (recalling my own youth, that phrase might be redundant).

Things got so heated Ding’s parents spoke to the Nanjing Modern Express taking the blame for their failures as parents and asking for forgiveness. Ding’s mother apologized to the Egyptian people and to all the people in China who were upset by her son’s actions. Ding is older and wiser, according to mom, and now recognizes that what he did was wrong.

Ding’s parents told the Modern Express that it was their lack of education and supervision that led to his mischief.

They said the attack happened when their son, now in middle school, was little. They were with a tourist group and did not notice when he scrawled on the sculpture, the mother said.

“We have taken him sightseeing since he was little, and we often saw such graffiti. But we didn’t realise we should have told him that this is wrong,” she said. The mother also implored internet users not to hound her son.

This is a hot topic because as of 2012, Chinese tourists officially outpaced Americans and Germans as the world’s top spenders on international tourism. In 2012, 83 million Chinese nationals spent $102 billion on travel outside China. Just two weeks ago Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang appealed to his countrymen to be polite when traveling abroad so as to not besmirch China’s reputation with their “uncivilized behavior.”

“They make a racket in public places, carve words at scenic spots, cross the road when the light is red, spit, and do other uncivilized things,” Wang was quoted as saying. “This is detrimental to the image of the country’s people and leaves a bad impression.”

So did the plaid polyester slacks and questionable headgear that marked American tourists in my day.

Anyway, the end result of all this brouhaha was that Egyptian antiquities ministry looked into the graffito and were able to remove it with relative ease. The etched lines were only superficial, which isn’t surprising given that they were scratched by a 13-year-old, and the main layer of the engraving was unscathed. The relief is now back to its former faded splendor. You wouldn’t know Ding Jinhao was ever there.


Documents stolen by collector returned to museums

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Some of the thousands of historical documents stolen by collector, historian and presidential inauguration expert Barry Landau and his accomplice Jason Savedoff are making their way home to the museums, libraries and historical societies from which they were pilfered. After Landau and Savedoff were caught in the act by a staffer at the Maryland Historical Society on July 9th, 2011, the FBI found 10,194 stolen documents and ephemera in Landau’s New York City apartment.

By the time the thieves pled guilty and went to prison in February of 2012, researchers from the National Archives and Records Administration had traced 4,000 of the artifacts to 24 institutions nationwide burgled by Landau and Savedoff. Since then, the rest of the documents have been identified, but because they were evidence in a trial, the documents couldn’t be returned right away even after they were matched with their home institutions.

The return process has begun in earnest now. The Maryland Historical Society received 21 of the 60 pieces stolen on Monday, May 13th.

Among the items recently returned to the Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street were a 1920 Democratic National Convention ticket stub and admission passes to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Each document was encased by clear Mylar, carefully placed inside the envelopes and categorized by four-digit penciled numbers by investigators.

In a folder marked number 2977 from Box 22 and dated 8/12/11 was a small, index card-size ticket that read “Admit the bearer May 26th 1868,” to the gallery for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. But on the back was a new mark, Savedoff’s small, penciled mark “W2,” which stood for “Weasel 2.” Landau referred to himself as “Weasel 1,” according to court documents.

Another folder held a narrow, white piece of paper with elegant cursive detailing Lincoln’s funeral procession in Vermont.

The oldest document stolen from the library by Landau and Savedoff was an invitation for the “Baltimore Assembly” dance, held on Nov. 5, 1793.

You can see video of the “W2” Savedoff penciled on the back of the Johnson impeachment ticket in this news story. Weasel 1 and 2 also wrote “shoot” on the back of documents they intended to steal. The Maryland Historical Society has no intention of removing the thieves’ annotations. There are no conservation issues that would require the removal of a few pencil marks, and now they’ve become a part of the history of the documents. In the case of the MHS, where a staffer unimpressed by their gifts of cupcakes and smarmy bonhomie caught the Weasels in the act and finally stopped their reign of thievery, those pencil markings are a badge of honor.

Overall, authorities say about 20% of the stolen documents have been returned to their legitimate owners with the rest slated to be returned within the next few months. The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has received almost all of the several hundred documents and memorabilia stolen by Landau and Savedoff over four visits. It’s hard to be certain, however, because the ephemera collections are not inventoried in as much detail as the more important document archives. Their unique, historically significant pieces like a letter from George Washington to Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and a letter for Marie Antoinette were easier to trace and return than the tickets and programs and invitations.

It took a lot of research to identify the memorabilia. Some of the targeted museums were able to provide records and the Weasels both volunteered information as part of their plea bargains, but the National Archives and Records Administration had to dig deep to find the proper owners. Theme matching was helpful. Institutions known to have strong collections in certain areas were the likely sources for documents in that category. For instance, documents about former Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore were traced to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania which has a vast collection of Moore’s correspondence and papers.

Many of the institutions subjected to the Weasel depredations have revised their security policies in light of the thefts. Staffers at the Maryland Historical Society now check bags and notebooks for any pilfered documents before visitors are allowed to leave, and they’ve rearranged the chairs so visitors can’t hide away and steal their hearts out unseen by librarians. Even the National Archives has added layers of security, with searches of all people leaving the building and regular training for employees to introduce them to the ever-evolving ways thieves devise to steal stuff.

Landau is currently serving a seven year sentence for the thefts. Savedoff was sentenced to just one year.


Golden phallus so popular museum to sell replicas

Monday, May 27th, 2013

The Roman gold pendant in the shape of a phallus that was discovered in 2011 in Hillington, Norfolk, has become such a popular exhibit at the Lynn Museum that replicas will be sold at the gift shop. The small but proud gold member was unearthed by metal detectorist Kevin Hillier on January 30th, 2011, in a field belonging to farmer Neil Riseborough. Hillier reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and at an inquest in April of 2011, Norfolk coroner William Armstrong declared it official treasure trove.

Experts at the British Museum assessed fair market value of the phallus at £800 ($1200). That sum, which technically is a finder’s fee rather than a sale price, is split between the finder and the landowner. Local museums have first dibs and although Lynn Museum has a budget even tinier than a two-centimeter phallus, they were able to raise the money with donations from the Friends of the King’s Lynn Museum (they contributed £80), and grants from the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund (£400) and the Headley Trust (£320). In January 2012, the phallus went on display.

The figure is formed out of a sheet of gold soldered together along the length with an aperture at the ends and two globes of gold soldered to each side of the base. Between the testicular globes is a transverse loop that was soldered separately. The loop suggests the phallus was worn as a pendant, possibly by a Roman soldier since the use of phalluses as amulets to ward off evil spells was not a local religious practice. It’s a rare object as most of the other ancient phalluses discovered in Britain are made out of base metals. The gold is bright and the piece is in excellent condition.

The little artifact has captured the imagination of museum visitors like nothing else in its collection, so when last year the museum began looking into the possibility of creating souvenirs inspired by local objects, replica Hillington phalluses leaped to mind. The museum has commissioned artist Sue Heaser to create the souvenirs.

Mrs Heaser, who is also an archaeological illustrator, said: “This is the most extraordinary thing I have ever done. I love working with ancient jewellery and the craftsmanship involved here is amazing.”

Normally Mrs Heaser would be able to make a mould directly from the piece but this has not been possible as the pendant is so delicate. Instead Mrs Heaser has had to painstakingly measure, draw and photograph the piece in order to make a mould. A silicon model of the piece has allowed Mrs Heaser to make a mould. She will later use metal clay to make a replica.

The replicas will not be made out of shiny real gold, though, and it will be a solid piece rather than a hollow sheet seamed up at the side. Silver and bronze replica phalluses will be available in the gift shop within the next few months.

Retail manager Maria Wong said the museum was also looking at some of its other exhibits to replicate as souvenirs.

Miss Wong said: “This is a very exciting project. This is the first time we have reproduced from our own collection. The Hillington Phallus is a very popular exhibit at Lynn Museum.”

I think it’s a great idea and I love how cool they are about this. It’s very Roman, really, since they were entirely sanguine about nudity in general and phalluses in particular. Phalluses were everywhere in ancient Rome, so widespread a symbol that when stuffy 19th century curators at institutions like National Archaeological Museum in Naples and the British Museum had to deal with the mountains of penises in art, graffiti and consumer goods found at Roman sites, they locked them all up in secret rooms that only “men of good character” were allowed to enter.

Two hundred years later, I doubt a local museum in the US would be able to even contemplate such an addition to the gift shop without somebody starting a boycott or a letter-writing campaign to stop it from corrupting their children with its penisness. I doubt they’d be persuaded by the historical fact that Romans gave their children phallus amulets to keep them safe. Roman kids were bristling with phalluses.


Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral saved for the nation

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

John Constable’s masterpiece, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, has been secured for the British public for £23.1 million (almost $35 million) plus tax breaks. If you include the value of the tax concessions, the total sale price is equivalent to a market price of £40 million ($60 million).

The collector who owned the monumental six-foot canvas, Barclays Bank director Lord Ashton of Hyde, had loaned it to the National Gallery since 1983, but he died in 2008 and his heirs recently reclaimed it in order to sell it. A major US museum with its major US endowment was extremely interested, asking the sellers for right of first refusal. This was a serious threat. Consider the fate of J. M. W. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, aka My Turner. After it sold at auction to the deep-pocketed Getty, the authorities put a temporary export ban on the painting to give UK museums a few months to raise the purchase price and keep the masterpiece in the country. The ban expired before museums could raise $45 million so the Getty Center in LA now has one of the greatest Turners of all time hanging on its wall.

Rather than risk seeing the painting disappear into a private collection in the UK or go abroad, a group of museums raised money in grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£15.8 million) and the Art Fund (£1 million), from private foundations and museum members.

“It’s one of the quintessential images of 19th century British art and it’s worth every penny,” Tate Britain’s Director Nicholas Serota told the BBC. […]

“This is the one of Constable’s most important paintings,” Sir Nicholas told the BBC’s Will Gompertz. “He regarded it as one of his masterpieces and always wanted it to be in the national collection.”

This collaboration between museums is an innovative approach well suited to an era of slim budgets and empty pockets. The museums in question are national — the Tate Britain, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, the National Galleries of Scotland — and regional — Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Colchester and Ipswich Museums — who came together to form a partnership called Aspire. The deal is, the painting will travel between all the partner galleries. The rondelet began Thursday at the Tate Britain. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows will be on display in the Constable room until the end of the year before hitting the road. It won’t return to London until 2018.

It’s fitting that a such an iconic painting of national significance should be shared between major museums in the UK and local museums that share a thematic connection to the piece. Salisbury Cathedral is one of a series of monumental scale landscapes Constable painted to display in competition at the Royal Academy. Twelve of these large pieces are in the UK, and out of those only two of them were in private hands. Now it’s only one.

He reserved his greatest compositions for these monumental pieces because he felt they would make the strongest impact even in the crowded exhibition space of the Royal Academy. Salisbury Cathedral was first shown at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1831. It depicts Salisbury Cathedral against a dark sky with a cart crossing the river Nadder, a tributary of the Wiltshire Avon, in the foreground. A rainbow penetrates the black clouds and almost embraces the church and its characteristic spire. Constable thought it was his best work. He called it “The Great Salisbury” and wrote “I am told I got it to look better than anything I have yet done.”

Some see the cathedral in a storm as a statement on the political changes that were threatening the traditional temporal power of the Church of England (the Reform Act which increased the electorate, allocated more representatives to new industrial cities and removed the vestigial seats from “rotten boroughs” passed in 1832). Constable was a deeply committed member of the Church of England and a close friend of Salisbury’s Bishop John Fisher and even closer friend of his nephew Archdeacon John Fisher. They are known to have discussed religion and politics during this time.

Constable was also going through a personal crisis. His beloved wife Maria Constable had died of tuberculosis in November, 1828, and he was in deep mourning from then until the end of his life in 1837. He wrote to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me.” His best friend Archdeacon Fisher invited Constable to stay with him at his home near the cathedral twice in 1829. He encouraged him to do a painting of the Salisbury Cathedral to exhibit at the Royal Academy; a preliminary pencil sketch of the composition dates to one of those 1829 visits.

The rainbow’s end in this painting is the location of Leadenhall, Archdeacon Fisher’s home. Perhaps it signifies a more personal ray of hope during a turbulent time — the support of his friend and spiritual brother — rather than a political statement on the present and future of the Anglican Church.


5,000 ancient cave paintings found in Mexico

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

Archaeologists have discovered 4,926 paintings left by pre-Hispanic hunter-gatherers on the walls of caves in Burgos in the San Carlos mountain range of Tamaulipas, in northeastern Mexico. There are three stages of paintings left by three different groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers at different periods in 11 caves. Their existence upturns a long-standing historical assumption that there were no pre-Hispanic peoples in Burgos. We now know there was at least one indigenous nomadic group travelling through the area before the Conquista.

One of the caves, the Horse Cave, had a particular abundance with more than 1,550 paintings recorded. The images in the caves show anthropomorphic figures engaged in activities like hunting, fishing and gathering, zoomorphic figures like deer, lizards and centipedes, local plants and flowers, astronomical imagery, conical tent housing much like tipis and abstract designs.

It hasn’t been possible to date them yet because no pottery or other datable remains were found to associate with the paintings that could establish a timeline. It might be possible to date the paint directly by scraping some samples and radiocarbon dating. The paints used — red, yellow, white and black — were all derived from organic dyes and minerals. Chemical analysis would identify exactly what materials they were made from, but again, that would require intrusive sampling so they’re not rushing into it.

Martha García Sánchez, of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas worked with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), to document the cave paintings. She first learned there was rock art in Burgos in 2006 but was only able to start investigating and recording the paintings in 2011 ago thanks to the support of the National Fund for Culture and the Arts. In two years they’ve covered an exceptional amount of ground, but there are many more than 11 caves in the area.

Trying to pin down who made these works of art is going to be a challenge. Martha García Sánchez, when she announced the finds at the second meeting of Historic Archaeology in Mexico’s National History Museum, said that she had assiduously researched colonial records, news and reports at the National Archives and multiple regional archives but there was nothing in the historical record referring to nomadic groups in Burgos or Tamaulipas predating the arrival of Spain. The only people mentioned are Spanish, Creole and French post-Hispanic settlers.

There are references to indigenous groups who fled the conquering Spaniards and hid out in the San Carlos mountains for 200 years. As late as 1750 there are records of these nomadic peoples making it hard to evangelize Burgos. There are no official names of the tribes. They are referred to by nicknames assigned them based on perceived characteristics like “painted” or “mangy,” clothing or activities like “shoemakers,” or the family names of ranchers by the random assortment of conquistadors, religious men and indigenous peoples who ran into them.

There wasn’t much in the way of congress, therefore. The Spanish avoided following them into the mountains, and since there was a literal bounty on their heads — 25 pesos for every indigenous scalp and 60 pesos for every ransomed “captive” — these groups were destroyed before anything about them was recorded. We know basically nothing about their languages, religious rituals and cultural traditions. This huge cache of art, therefore, is an immensely important anthropological resource.


First paper on Richard III dig full of info about grave, site

Friday, May 24th, 2013

The University of Leicester archaeological team that found the skeletal remains of King Richard III has published its first peer-reviewed paper on the discovery in the journal Antiquity which has generously made the entire thing available in pdf form here. Co-authored by lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, osteoarchaeology expert Jo Appleby, geneticist Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan and historian Lin Foxhall, the paper presents the archaeological evidence unearthed at the site and the basic skeletal evidence for the body being that of King Richard III. Jo Appleby and Turi King will publish separate papers respectively focusing on the osteological evidence and the DNA evidence. There was grumbling from some in the scientific community at the time of the press conference reveal that peer-review should have come before the splashy announcement, so these papers are long-awaited.

The news stories about the paper are mainly interested in the new details it reveals about the grave, but before you even get to the report of the excavation, there’s all kinds of fascinating information about the background of the project, the history of the site and the layout and construction of the Grey Friars church. So this here is a rundown of the parts that stood out to me. Read the whole paper, though, because it’s a rare chance to have a scholarly publication allow free access and it’s eminently readable.

This excavation was an unusual collaboration that brought together amateur history buffs (Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society) with professional archaeologists and city officials. The Richard III lobbied for years to get the excavation done and they funded it; the University of Leicester archaeologists were willing to take the plunge despite the insane (from an academic perspective) dream underpinning the dig; the city was directly involved in that the council had to give up their parking lot for the excavation. This unique combination ensured the questions the excavation sought to answer would include a strong non-academic component.

What is somewhat different from the ways in which archaeological professionals and amateurs have generally worked together is that in this case the non-specialists played a role in shaping the intellectual frameworks of the project, although the final project design (including how questions could appropriately be asked of the evidence), and the execution of the project in practical terms remained in the hands of the archaeologists. Grey Friars offers a case study for addressing the issues of how to formulate multiple sets of research questions and aims, and how different kinds of partners can accommodate each other’s questions.

The tremendous, nearly unbelievable success of this collaboration may inspire future such endeavors. There are so many amateur historical societies, it doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as finding the missing remains of a king of England. I think it’s a cool prospect to see small, local subjects that aren’t likely to scare up much funding interest being investigated when passionate non-professionals work together with professionals and governmental authorities.

The paper goes into depth about what we can and can’t deduce about the structure of the church from the trenches dug. This was such a short excavation they only scratched the surface, but it’s still remarkable how much they found in three short trenches. For instance Trench 3 encountered a section of a buttress and a wall across that reveal the east end of the church where the choir was was a large, tall building 34 feet wide. Inside that structure archaeologists found three phases of flooring, steps, walls and three graves, one of which held a stone coffin.

None of the graves were excavated due to time constraints, but the archaeological team has applied for permission to return in July and exhume the stone sarcophagus. They believe they know who’s buried there: Sir William Moton, a knight who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362, 123 years before Richard’s death in 1485. They’ll also expand the dig onto the property of the former Alderman Newton Grammar School which is slated to become the new Richard III heritage center. Sir William’s tomb, assuming it is his, will be part of the new center.

An interesting piece of Reformation-era information: none of the graves found at Grey Friars showed any signs of having been disturbed during the dissolution of the monastery. The building was razed very thoroughly and much of its masonry appropriated probably to build new structures, but the destruction stopped at floor level. A little residual concern for the Catholic dead, perhaps?

An interesting piece of architectural information: stains of brick dust were found on the eastern end of the church that indicate the church may have been constructed or faced in brick.

This would have given the building a striking appearance, with off-white limestone tracery windows framed in red brick; quite a contrast to the pale grey sandstone walls of the cloistral buildings. If the eastern end of the church was partially built of brick, this would place it among the earliest medieval brick buildings in Leicestershire.

Now on to the burial details. Unlike the other graves unearthed in Trench 3, Richard’s grave in Trench 1 is too short and irregularly dug. It’s a lozenge shape with a scooped concave base and sloping sides, not a clean vertical-sided rectangle. It’s not a poverty issue, although by the time of the dissolution the handful of Franciscan monks remaining at Grey Friars subsisted entirely on alms. The much poorer parish church in Leicester has neatly dug graves of proper size with coffins.

Because the grave was too short, the body was placed on one side of the grave, its torso pressing against the northern side. This was probably because the body was handed by one man down to another man standing in the grave and taking up space. The position of the body and legs suggest there was no shroud or coffin keeping the limbs swaddled together, nor where there any remains of clothing, jewelry, any adornments.

It seems his nude body was lowered into the grave feet first and then torso and head which is why his head was propped up against the side of the grave and was so much higher than the body that Jo Appleby thought it was from a different skeleton at first. The hands were crossed at the wrist and placed awkwardly above the right pelvis. This may have been how the diggers arranged him after burial, but given that there is no evidence that they took the time to arrange his body at all, it’s more likely that his wrists were bound when he was interred. The hastiness of this procedure makes sense when you remember that by the time it was buried, Richard’s abused body had been on public display for days. In August. He cannot have been a pleasant sight or smell.

If you have the chance, the University of Leicester is hosting a Richard III Family Open Day on June 29th. There are kid-friendly family activities, and best of all, nerd-friendly nerdy activities like three hour drop-in sessions at the Genetics and Archaeology Departments, multi-disciplinary mini-lectures like “What Were the Chances of Finding Richard III?” delivered by the Math Department, and “Richard III in History and Drama” by the School of English. The keynote lecture will be three blissful hours of Professor Lin Foxhall talking about “The Discovery of Richard III.”

I wanna gooooooo. :love:


NYPL original copy of Bill of Rights to go on display

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

The New York Public Library and the state of Pennsylvania announced Wednesday that they will both exhibit the library’s rarely-seen original copy of the Bill of Rights over the next six years. Beginning in the fall of 2014, the 225th anniversary of the drafting of the Bill of Rights, the document will spend equal time on display at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. After the six years are up, the parchment will be on display at the library for at least 60% of the time, but Philadelphia will get custody the other 40% for the next 94 years.

This landmark agreement came about because there’s a good chance the NYPL’s copy was originally Pennsylvania’s. In 1789, after approving the first twelve potential amendments to the Constitution (two of them didn’t make it into the ratified version), Congress commissioned 14 original copies. They were all signed by Vice President John Adams, president of the Senate. One was kept in by the federal government and the rest sent to each of the 13 states to use during ratification deliberations. The federal government’s copy is on display at the National Archives and Records Administration, while most of the other copies are in the archives of their states.

The copies of four states are missing, however. Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania lost their copies somewhere along the road. Two unidentified copies survive, one in the Library of Congress, the other at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s copy was donated by iron magnate John Stewart Kennedy (no relation to the later dynasty) in 1896. He had acquired it from Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, a surgeon and collector of American history. There have long been rumblings that Emmet may have somehow gotten his hands on Pennsylvania’s copy of the Bill of the Rights which went missing in the late 1800s. New York’s is thought to have been destroyed in a fire at the state archives. Although there is no proof of which state it once belonged to, the possibility that it’s Pennsylvania’s copy underpins this historic sharing agreement.

The document hasn’t been on public display in decades because of its delicate condition. It’s been very carefully preserved over the past century by experts at the NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and shown to visitors by appointment only. Display and travel will be made possible by a new high-tech encasement.

To ensure the document’s safety during display and while it travels, a special case will be constructed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, based on technology developed for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives. Estimated to cost $600,000, this crucial and state-of-the-art preservation measure is made possible as part of a generous gift from New York Public Library Trustee Ed Wachenheim III and his wife Sue.

It’s one of those nifty contraptions that replaces the oxygen inside the case with inert argon gas, reduces damaging light and stabilizes humidity. It’s basically a portable micro-environment ideal for preserving historic parchment.

The exhibits in Pennsylvania and New York will both be free of charge to all visitors.

“This is a win for Pennsylvania, New York and the citizens of the United States,” said Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. “For the first time in decades, this historic document will be seen by We the People, the people who were granted these inalienable rights and privileges that we are still guided by today.”


Potato Famine culprit identified from 166-year-old dried leaves

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

An international team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology have identified the strain of Phytophthora infestans that caused the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852. In the thick of blight, botanists classified it as a mildew-causing fungus of the Botryotinia genus. In the 20th century it was reclassified as Phytophthora but was thought to be a strain called US-1 which is still widespread today. By analyzing dried specimens collected between 1845 and 1896 that have been kept in herbaria at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in England and the Botanische Staatssammlung Munchen in Germany, researchers were able to find trace amounts of Phytophthora infestans DNA, map its genome and identify a previously unknown strain they’ve named HERB-1. (Full pdf study here.)

“Both herbaria placed a great deal of confidence in our abilities and were very generous in providing the dried plants,” said Marco Thines from the Senckenberg Museum and Goethe University in Frankfurt, one of the co-authors of this study. “The degree of DNA preservation in the herbarium samples really surprised us,” adds Johannes Krause from the University of Tübingen, another co-author. Because of the remarkable DNA quality and quantity in the herbarium samples, the research team could evaluate the entire genome of Phytophthora infestans and its host, the potato, within just a few weeks.

They found that HERB-1 is related to US-1 more than it is to any other modern strain, but it is unique. Phytophthora infestans originated in Toluca Valley, Mexico, among the potatoes that grow wild there. It was already endemic when Europeans arrived in America and brought the potato back, and yet, hundreds of years would pass before any Phytophthora strain made its way across the ocean. Scientists believe the US-1 and HERB-1 strains diverged in the Americas in the early 1800s. The newly individual HERB-1 hitched a ride on a trading ship and landed in Europe in Antwerp, Belgium, in the summer of 1845 before rapidly spreading to the Low Countries and other countries in Western Europe. Then it made the sea voyage to England and, most disastrously, Ireland.

Ireland was hit the hardest because more than a third of its population was dependent on potatoes as the sole source of nourishment. Irish Catholics were prohibited by law from owning land. Instead, the became tenant farmers who paid rent and worked the property of absentee English or Anglo-Irish landlords producing crops and cattle for export. This was a hand to mouth existence. Potatoes had the most bang for your caloric buck and could grow in the marginal land which was all the tenant farmers had left once the export crops and cattle pastures got the choicest bits.

By the early 1800s, the potato was the sole staple of the Irish farmer. Not only was it their only food, but almost all of the potatoes grown in Ireland were one breed: the Irish Lumper. The profound dependence on the potato coupled with a lack of genetic variety geometrically expanded the impact of the late blight when it arrived. HERB-1, used to the challenges of tough wild varieties, just slaughtered the cultivated potato crop. Author and scientist E.C. Large wrote in his seminal work The Advance of the Fungi that the blight “spread faster than the cholera amongst men.” Over the seven years of the Famine, HERB-1 destroyed crops so thoroughly that the Irish Lumper breed was almost driven to extinction. (It’s back now as an heirloom potato.)

The population of Ireland was more than decimated. In 1845 the population was more than eight million. By 1852, there were only five million people left in Ireland. One million of them died from starvation and the diseases that ravage the hungry. Two million emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Ireland’s population today at just 4.5 million has yet to recover from the devastation of The Great Hunger.

HERB-1 may have been defeated by human-directed evolution, namely the breeding of new blight-resistant potato strains in the early 20th century. US-1 is probably the strain that replaced HERB-1. Now that the genome of HERB-1 has been decoded, researchers can see if it really was driven to extinction or if it still exists in secluded pockets somewhere around the world that the genetically resistant potato varieties haven’t reached yet.

This is the first time the genome of a plant pathogen has been decoded from dried samples. It brings new life to musty old specimen collections that aren’t exactly exciting to most museum visitors and have been relegated to storage. Scientists studying the evolution of pathogens, how they develop in concert with human breeding of crops will find a rich new vein to mine in the back rooms of Victorian museums.






Add to Technorati Favorites