Archive for July, 2013

Schindler’s List for sale again

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

The only remaining copy of Schindler’s List in private hands is on the market again, three years after it was first sold by the heirs of Itzhak Stern, Oskar Schindler’s accountant and right hand man. This time it’s being on offered to pre-qualified buyers only on eBay, of all places, with a $3 million starting bid. Again it’s Gary Zimet and Eric Gazin of autograph dealers Moments in Time brokering the sale for the same anonymous seller who bought it three years ago when it priced at $2.2 million. He purchased it as an investment and I guess he’s ready to cash in now.

“Some real deep pockets shop on Ebay,” Gazin told ABC News. “We feel this type of valuable needs to be exposed to a different type of auction.”

Gazin said the auction is only open to pre-qualified bidders because he needs to vet that they actually have $3 million to spend. He has already received several inquiries, he said, but declined to provide the identities of those who were interested.

There are no bids showing on the page itself right now. Nonetheless, Zimet and Gazin hope the purchase price will rise to $5 million by the time the auction is over on July 28th.

This is one of seven original lists typed by Itzhak Stern and given to Nazi authorities. On the lists were Jewish employees (in a manner of speaking; this was slave labor) of an enamelware factory owned by Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German, Czech national and member of the Nazi Party who bribed and charmed other Nazis into keeping his workers out of the death camps. Only five of the typed lists are known to have survived. Two are in the Yad Vashem Holocause Museum in Israel, one is in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., one is a government archive in Koblenz, Germany, and the last is the privately held one which is now on eBay.

This list is 14 pages long and lists 801 male names (the number on the final list would be 1,200, 200 of them workers at a textile factory owned by Julius Madritsch, a Viennese businessman who also stuck his neck out to save Jewish lives). It’s dated April 18, 1945, and was typed on onion skin paper. The fact that so delicate an artifact has survived war and 68 years is a testament to Stern’s dedication and that of his descendants.

Stern’s dedication to Schindler was just as powerful. He and other Schindler Jews supported him for years after the war when all his businesses failed. At a 1962 reunion of Schindler survivors in Israel, Stern’s spoke about Oskar’s efforts on behalf of Krakow’s Jews and they went far beyond the list. He warned them when they were about to be driven into the ghetto, rescued people from trains destined for concentration camps, was the only German to visit the Budapest Rescue Committee (a Zionist group who worked to rescue Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation of Hungary) to tell them what was happening to Polish Jews, even built a Jewish cemetery following all religious strictures to inter just one Jewish woman who had died of natural causes but was going to cremated by the Nazis against Jewish tradition. That was the only Jewish cemetery established in occupied Europe.

It was used again in January 1945 when Schindler saved 107 skeletal and frostbitten Jews from cattle cars transporting them from Auschwitz and back again. There were 13 who did not survive that brutal journey without food and water in the dead of winter. The SS were going to burn them, but Schindler bribed and cajoled the authorities into allowing the dead to be buried according to Jewish tradition in that little cemetery.


Leicester Cathedral plans grand tomb for Richard III

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Even as a legal challenge contesting the University of Leicester’s license to determine where the remains of King Richard III are to be buried winds its way through the courts, Leicester Cathedral is moving forward with its plans for the monarch’s tomb. The church originally proposed a modest floor-level slab tomb, but when they opened it to public consultation the response was less than positive. The Richard III Society declared themselves “appalled” by the design. The cathedral went back to the drawing board and came up with a far more ambitious plan.

The Dean of Leicester, The Very Revd David Monteith, said the plans were influenced by feedback from a variety of sources, including members of the public who had been visiting the Cathedral and commenting in the media.

“We are committed to reinter King Richard with honour and we have listened carefully to the different views that were expressed. We want to create a really wonderful space in the Cathedral for him and the many thousands of people we know will want to come to visit and pay their respects.

With input from the Richard III Society, the University of Leicester and the City Council, the firm of van Heyningen and Haward Architects is working on several designs for an elaborate tomb that is both king-worthy and that will accommodate the large number of visitors expected to flock to Richard’s new home. The architects have been working on renovations of Leicester Cathedral since 2009. When the remains of Richard III were discovered, the cathedral asked them to integrate the tomb into the reordering.

Instead of being flush with the floor, Richard’s tomb will be raised in the center of dedicated space with new floors, lighting and a new stained glass window. The precise design has yet to be finalized, but here’s an artist’s rendering of the prospective tomb:

The inlaid marble white rose of York under the raised sarcophagus is a particularly nice touch, I think.

It won’t come cheap. The estimated cost to construct the tomb is £1 million ($1,525,000), moneys which the cathedral is going to have to raise before construction begins. Final approval is slated for November and then they’re going to have to get a move on, because when the Ministry of Justice granted the University the license to remove the remains, they stipulated that the remains would have to be reinterred by August 31st, 2014. Any delays from fundraising, the legal challenge or construction could run afoul of the deadline.

Meanwhile, the University of Leicester is back at the Greyfriars site. This time they’ve been able to open a far larger trench to accompany their far wider brief. The goals are to unearth more details about Richard’s final resting place, discover more about the layout of the church, unearth other burials in the church, most notably the stone coffin thought to contain the body of a local dignitary (perhaps the founder of the friary Peter Swynsfeld, perhaps a knight named Sir William Moton) and the remains of three friars who were hanged and beheaded by Henry IV for treason in 1402 after they were found to be spreading rumors that Richard II was still alive thereby undermining Henry’s legitimacy.

The archaeological team has already found the outlines of the church walls and many medieval floor tiles, some reused in Robert Herrick’s 17th century garden, some still in situ in the choir floor. They’ve also re-excavated the stone coffin and Richard’s grave. The latter they scanned using laser and digital photogrammetric technologies to get the most detailed 3D map possible. Once the grave is covered up again so people can park their cars on it, archaeologists will have an interactive reconstruction to study and to use for comparison in any future excavations. It will also be part of the display at the new Richard III Visitor Centre being build adjacent to the former Greyfriars church.

They’ve erected a public viewing platform at the north end of the parking lot which will be open every day between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM until the end of July.


Navy finds stone boat effigy on San Clemente Island

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Navy archaeologist have discovered a rare Native American boat effigy on San Clemente Island (SCI). SCI, one of Southern California’s Channel Islands 90 miles west of San Diego, is owned by the US Navy which uses it as ship-to-shore live firing range. The island also has thousands of archaeological sites dotting its 57 square miles. As part of its legally mandated stewardship of the land, the Navy employs archaeologists to survey and excavate these sites. They’ve already identified 4,000 archaeological sites on the 55% of the island that has already been surveyed; experts estimate there are at least that many again yet to be found. Artifacts like hooks carved from shellfish, stone knives, carved animal, drills and bone needles have been discovered that are up to 10,000 years old.

This exceptional archaeological wealth is due to its lack of permanent residents for many centuries and an ecological quirk: the island is completely devoid of burrowing rodents or worms. Archaeologists don’t even have to dig to find artifacts from the pre-Columbian inhabitants. They sit on the surface, where they’ve sat undisturbed for thousands of years. That’s where archaeologists found the boat effigy, in fact, on the surface of a site they were surveying.

The stone boat is nine inches long, weighs about three and a half pounds and was carved from submarine volcanic rock. This is a difficult material to sculpt because submarine lava has smaller vesicles than lava on land. All those little pores make the rock as brittle as it is hard. The artist who carved the boat was a highly skilled craftsman paying homage to the canoes that were an essential part of their culture as ocean-dependent people. These canoes were crafted from redwood logs carried by floods down the coast. They were cut into planks which were then sewn together with plant ropes. The gaps were caulked with natural tar.

As important as the canoes were for transportation to the mainland, trading and fishing, boat effigies are not at all common finds amidst the plethora of artifacts on the island.

“In 30 years, it’s the first time I’ve found one. Even for a reasonably jaded archeologist, this was a reasonably rare find,” Andy Yatsko, the Navy’s archaeologist for San Clemente Island, said during an outing on the island this week. […]

Yatsko said it likely dates back 500 to 1,000 years — a relatively recent artifact for the island, which was inhabited for at least nine millennia.

Dr. Yatsko has seen references to boat carvings in old records, but has never seen one in person. Archaeologists from the San Diego Museum of Man excavated the island before the Navy purchased it in 1934 and they never found anything like a boat effigy either. Plenty of carved volcanic rock animals, but no boats.

Researchers aren’t sure which Native American tribes populated the island. The prime candidates are the Tongva people who are known to have inhabited nearby Santa Catalina Island. The Chumash were in the northern Channel Islands and may have interacted with the people on San Clemente, positively or negatively. Skeletons have been found piled on top of each other on SCI which suggests hostile encounters, even wars, took place on the island.


6,000-year-old decorative wood carving found in Wales

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Archaeologists monitoring the construction of a substation at Maerdy Wind Farm in the Rhondda Valley of south Wales last September discovered 12 oak timbers preserved in peat deposits. One of them appeared to have abstract designs of parallel zig-zags and an oval shape carved into it. Ancient timbers, like all organic materials, survive exceptional well in peat thanks to the waterlogged anaerobic environment, but decorative carvings are a far rarer find.

Before they got too excited, the archaeologists sent a sample of the 5’5″ length of timber to be radiocarbon dated. The test returned a date range of 6,000-6,270 years old, the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic period in the UK. Most of the artifacts surviving from that period are stone tools, so the discovery of art carved on timber shines a new light on the culture of Late Mesolithic Britain, an important time when people were transitioning from hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyles to sedentary tribal communities.

They still needed to be sure the designs were deliberate human carvings rather than the freak effect of erosion or some other natural process. The carved timber was sent to the Newport Ship Centre where a 100-foot-long 15th century ship discovered buried in the banks of the River Usk in 2002 is being preserved and examined. They have the facilities to preserve the timber and to 3D laser scan it so the putative carving could be recorded in detail.

With the scans in hand, a team of archaeologists and paleo-entomologists examined the carvings and confirmed that they were not natural features. This conclusion was supported by the lack of any such designs on the other timbers found at the site, all of which are oak and all of which spent thousands of years in the same environment, like a handy ancient wood control group.

“In archaeological circles, this is the is equivalent to winning the lottery,” [Richard Scott Jones, an archaeologist from Heritage Recording Services Wales,] said.

“Finding a piece of decorative art like this is incredibly rare in this area of Wales, especially on uplands. And in terms of timber, this is truly unique. It gives us an idea of the sophistication in terms of artwork around at that time.”

The only other decorative art of this kind from this era has been found on pottery or carved into standing stones like the passage grave slabs in the Neolithic cairn at Gavrinis in Brittany. Researchers believe it may have been used a boundary marker of tribal property, of a hunting ground or maybe even a sacred site.

Archaeologists returned to excavate the discovery site in the hopes of finding something associated with the carved timber, perhaps tools used to carve, perhaps more pieces of it, but they didn’t find anything. The took some samples of the environment which are now in the process of being analyzed.

The timber is at the York Archaeological Trust being preserved with polyethylene glycol (PEG). It is also having its tree rings counted so it can be dated more precisely. The PEG treatment should take about a year. Once that’s done some time in 2014, the timber will be moved to the National Museum Cardiff. The eventual plan is for it to go on permanent display at the National History Museum, St Fagans, in the new galleries that are currently being built.


New Snake queen stele fills blanks in Maya history

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Excavations under the main temple of the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Guatemala have uncovered a stela that adds a new chapter to our knowledge of Maya history. The engraved hieroglyphic text tells the story of two 6th century kings of the Wak or Centipede dynasty — King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin (meaning “He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle”) and his father King Chak Took Ich’aak (meaning “Red Spark Claw”) — and Lady Ikoom, a queen of the powerful Snake dynasty of Calakmul, none of whom were previously known to historians.

The stela, officially dubbed El Perú Stela 44, was commissioned by King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin around 564 A.D. in honor of his father who had died eight years earlier. For the first hundred years of its existence, the stela stood out of doors, exposed to the elements. Its hieroglyphics are worn from a century of erosion. Around 700 A.D., the stela was moved inside the main temple by order of King K’inich Bahlam II, probably as an offering for the funeral rites of his wife, the one, the only Lady K’abel, daughter of King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great of the Calakmul Snake dynasty, Supreme Warrior of the Wak kingdom and Lady Snake Lord.

It’s likely that the king particularly prized the stela because as a scion of the Snake dynasty Lady Ikoom would have had a familial connection both to him and to his wife. Fragments of another stela, Stela 43, found in the walls of the temple last year also mention Lady Ikoom.

There is a gap in the region’s hieroglyphic record for more than a hundred years starting in the early 6th century at Calakmul and extending through 692 A.D. at Tikal. In Waka’, the gap starts in 554 A.D. and ends in 657. The stela is thus a unique source of information about the history of this “dark period,” shortening “The Hiatus” by a decade. It tells a riveting story of war and political intrigue.

The front of the stela … features a king standing face forward cradling a sacred bundle in his arms. There are two other stelae at the site with this pose, Stela 23 dated to 524 and Stela 22 dated to 554, and they were probably raised by King Chak Took Ich’aak. The name Chak Took Ich’aak is that of two powerful kings of Tikal and it is likely that this king of Waka’ was named after them and that his dynasty was a Tikal vassal at the time he came to the throne, the research team suggests.

The text describes the accession of the son of Chak Took Ich’aak, Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin, in A.D. 556 as witnessed by a royal woman Lady Ikoom, who was probably his mother. She carries the titles Sak Wayis, White Spirit, and K’uhul Chatan Winik, Holy Chatan Person. These titles are strongly associated with the powerful Snake or Kan kings who commanded territories to the north of El Perú-Waka’, which makes it very likely that Lady Ikoom was a Snake princess, Guenter argues.

“We infer that sometime in the course of his reign King Chak Took Ich’aak changed sides and became a Snake dynasty vassal,” [research director David] Freidel said. “But then, when he died and his son and heir came to power, he did so under the auspices of a foreign king, which [epigrapher Stanley] Guenter argues from details is the reigning king of Tikal. So Tikal had reasserted command of Waka’ and somehow Queen Ikoom survived this imposition.

“Then in a dramatic shift in the tides of war that same Tikal King, Wak Chan K’awiil, was defeated and sacrificed by the Snake king in A.D. 562. Finally, two years after that major reversal, the new king and his mother raised Stela 44, giving the whole story as outlined above.”


All 4 surviving Magna Cartas to come together for the first time

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the British Library is bringing together all four of the surviving original copies of the iconic charter limiting monarchical authority. This is the first time in history the parchments will all be together in one place. The exact dates haven’t been released yet, but this once-in-800-years occasion will happen in early 2015 for only three days.

The unification will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and the public to see the documents side-by-side. 1215 adults and children will be able to enter a ballot to win free tickets to see the unified manuscripts, and the manuscripts will be examined in the British Library’s Conservation Centre by some of the world’s leading experts on the documents who are currently undertaking a major research project on Magna Carta and the charters of King John, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This unique opportunity will allow the historians involved to study faded or obscured parts of the text more closely and to look for new clues about the identity of the writers of the texts, which is hitherto unknown.

The writers were unnamed scribes working in the royal chancery. When the barons rebelling against King John forced him to concede to their terms at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215, he affixed the Great Seal to a document known as the Articles of the Barons which listed their stipulations. (This document and its Great Seal are on display in the British Library’s Magna Carta room.) Negotiations on the terms and wording continued for the next few days. Once the details were finalized, the barons swore new oaths of fealty to King John and, a month after Runnymede, the royal scribes wrote up the final terms in multiple copies known as exemplifications. Each exemplification bearing the Great Seal was distributed to signatories, bishops, sheriffs and various other officials throughout the country.

We don’t know how many copies went out, but only four of the originals survive today, two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral. Other Magna Cartas were issued after the first round. Between 1215 and the final edition of Magna Carta in 1297, every time a new king came to the throne or amendments were added to the original agreement new exemplifications were drawn up and distributed. There are a grand total of 17 surviving exemplifications from all the editions, most of them in England, one of them at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The charter has come to symbolize freedoms guaranteed by law, but most of its 63 clauses aren’t statements of general legal principle but rather specific points about the administration of justice and the feudal rights of the nobility. Those questions were the core of the beef between King and barons, after all, and thus are the focus of the agreement between the factions. The vast majority of the terms were rendered obsolete over time. Only three of the clauses are still valid in English law today: one guaranteeing the freedoms of the English Church, one conferring privileges to London and other cities, and one that looms the largest:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This little clause, granted no particular emphasis or importance in the original document, has been interpreted by the courts, politicans and philosophers over the centuries as the foundation of such fundamental rights as trial by jury, due process, speedy trial and freedom from governmental caprice and excess.

Magna Carta was written in medieval Latin using copious abbreviations, as was standard practice for scribes at that time. If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s an annotated translation of the original text.


Kilim-like motifs found in Roman mosaics in Turkey

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating the village of Yavru in Turkey’s Black Sea Amasya Province have discovered a mosaic with an unusual geometric pattern reminiscent of motifs found on kilim rugs.

Çorum-based Hitit University Black Sea Archaeology Research and Practice Center Deputy Director Associate Professor Esra Keskin said the mosaics that had been found in a palace-like place had a different design when compared to the other artifacts in the same era.

Keskin said the mosaics were surrounded by curbstones. “The eye shapes on the kilim designs of the mosaics still retain their secrets. The mosaics cover an area of 30 square meters and the kilim-like motifs on it show that they might have been the coat of arms of a military unit in the Roman era.”

I have no idea why the triangles, diamonds, chevrons and zig-zags in the mosaic would be the “coat of arms” of a Roman legion. As far as I know, Roman standards used animals, deities, mythological figures as emblems, not abstract geometric shapes. I suspect there’s some weird translation issue going on here.

Intriguing geometric mosaics aren’t the only kind that have been unearthed at this site. Birds, fruit, ropes, flowers and people also decorate the floors of the palatial villa, and they’re all extremely high quality work. The mosaics haven’t been dated yet, but Professor Keskin thinks they have some stylistic similarity to the mosaics found in Zeugma.

Zeugma was a Hellenistic city founded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, in south central Turkey. It’s famous for the vast number and exceptional quality of mosaics recovered from the remains of Roman villas and baths before the ruins disappeared underneath the floodwaters from dam construction in 2000. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum has the largest square footage of mosaics in the world, housing an astonishing 24,000 square feet of ancient Roman mosaics. The odds are slim that the Yavru finds will ever come anywhere close to Zeugma. At this point, comparing a place to Zeugma has become shorthand for cool mosaic finds of any kind in Turkey. (See this mosaic-heavy site in Izmir, on the Aegean coast of western Turkey, for another example.)

The region’s capital Amasya has in the past few years begun to focus on its rich history to attract tourism, so it’s no wonder they’d like to be thought of Zeugma 2: The Zeugmaning. Many of its traditional Ottoman houses have been restored and become part of the burgeoning hospitality industry as bars, restaurants and hotels. Behind them loom cliffs where the kings of Pontus (Amasya, known as Amaseia in antiquity, was the capital of Pontus) carved their tombs. Already hundreds of thousands of tourists, most of them Turkish but the number of international visitors is increasing geometrically each year, visit Amasya each year. A trove of uniquely beautiful Roman mosaics is sure to draw even more crowds.


The Great Gathering of A4 steam locomotives

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

When last we saw the six surviving A4 Class Pacific steam locomotives, the two that live abroad — Dominion of Canada from the Canadian Railway Museum in Montreal and Dwight D. Eisenhower from the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin — had just arrived in Liverpool, England. This massive effort was undergone so that all six of the A4s could come together to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the day one of them, Mallard, broke the world land speed record for steam locomotives by hitting 125.88 miles per hour during a run between Little Bytham and Essendine in Lincolnshire. Mallard set that record on July 3rd, 1938, and it still stands to this day.

The noble A4s couldn’t hold out against the advent of diesel engines and were gradually taken out of service in the 1960s. By the time they were finished being used for parts and decaying unused in depots, only six of the original 35 were still intact. Two were sent to North America and the others wound up in museums in the UK. The record-breaking Mallard has been on permanent display at the National Railway Museum in York since the 1980s.

It’s the National Railway Museum that had the ambition and vision to organize a full class reunion to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mallard‘s record run. They surmounted unimaginable obstacles to bring the Canadian and US locomotives home so there could be a Great Gathering of the surviving A4s. Once Dominion of Canada and Dwight D. Eisenhower were safely on English tracks, they needed some sprucing up. Both were repainted, Dwight D. Eisenhower with a fresh coat of the British Railway green livery it was wearing when it arrived, Dominion of Canada with the shiny new Garter Blue livery of the London and North Eastern Railway livery. The latter also needed a few mechanical and accessory modifications to restore it to its 1937 condition. Here they are before and after restoration:

So shiny!

While all of that was going on, the National Railway Museum found itself fighting for its life. Cuts in government grants left its parent organization with large projected deficits that put the museum in danger of closure. The York Press launched a campaign to save the NRM which was strongly supported by train lovers and the people of York. It worked, and the looming threat of closure was extinguished just in time for the anniversary celebrations.

On July 3rd, the Great Gathering opened to the public. It was an instant smash hit, so much so that the museum had to institute a “one in one out” policy in the mornings due to massive lines. People flocked to see the six A4s with their sleek lines and handsome curved noses and they’re still flocking now. The last day of the Great Gathering is July 17th, but there will be two more opportunities to view all six locomotives together: the Autumn Great Gathering at the museum in York from October 26th to November 8th, 2013, and the Great Goodbye in Shildon from February 15th to February 23rd, 2014.

There are lots of wonderful pictures of the trains and crowds of train fans enjoying this singular exhibition on Flickr. The National Railway Museum’s Facebook page has a variety of lovely and interesting views of the trains in action and on display. Many of them were taken by members of the public watching the trains go by. My favorite is this phenomenal shot of Union of South Africa departing the station at Lincoln. This is why nothing can replace the steam engine in the crucial moments of mysteries, romances and films noir.


WPA mural at Cedar Rapids City Hall restored

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Decades after it was painted over twice, a Depression-era mural on the wall of the City Council chamber in Cedar Rapids’ City Hall has been restored to its former splendor. Scott Haskins, Chief Mural Conservator for Fine Arts Conservation Laboratories, and two assistants spent weeks removing five layers of paint covering the mural and retouching the damaged areas. The city worked repaired plaster on the walls, raised the ceiling height to ensure the entire mural would be visible and installed new lighting to showcase the historic art work. The total cost of the project was about $125,000 ($87,940 of that for the mural restoration alone) funded by the city and by matching funds from donors.

The newly restored mural is one of four painted in 1936 and 1937 by Harry Donald Jones and other Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists in what was then a federal courtroom. The murals were commissioned under the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), a Treasury Department program that allocated funds from the WPA to decorate existing and new federal buildings. It allowed buildings that had no room in their budget for art to prettify their walls while at the same time giving work to unemployed but highly skilled artists. The vast majority of TRAP artists (90% at first, 75% later) were drawn from the relief rolls.

Harry Donald Jones was a midwestern native, born in Indiana and working in Iowa until he joined the Navy in 1941. He was the head of the WPA for the city of Des Moines and led several teams of artists commissioned to paint murals in Iowa public buildings. Jones and his colleagues were young visionaries who favored progressive political statements about the strength of workers, the progress of industry and agriculture, historical injustice towards Native Americans and other potentially touchy subjects. Once the 50s rolled around, those statements weren’t exactly popular. Only one of them managed to survive the decade without getting painted over: The Social History of Des Moines, a Jones fresco in the Des Moines Public Library. The library board had voted to paint it over, but wealthy local art patrons protested and saved the work.

No patrons of the arts could intervene when the federal judge whose courtroom was decorated with the four murals, a cycle called Law and Culture, decided to get rid of them all. Apparently it was one particular image that caused the most trouble. The Evolution of Justice scene, part of the American Civilization mural on the east wall, depicted a man with a noose around his neck sitting on a horse. This image represented frontier justice while the rest of the mural welcomed the arrival of American judicial system. The soon-to-be-hanged man was on the wall right across from the jury box. In 1951, Judge Thomas Graven ordered them painted over because he was sick of hearing complaints about it and because, as he told the Gazette newspaper, it was giving him “moral turpitude.”

Ten years later someone chose moral turpitude over staring at a white wall, reportedly motivated by regret at the loss of the historic art works, and the overpaint was removed. Unfortunately the whitewash was stripped by city workers instead of art conservation specialists and the harsh cleansers damaged the original paint of the murals. They remained on view for three years until in 1964, Judge Edward McManus ordered the murals painted over again in response to yet more complaints.

This sad track record was put permanently in the past after the flood of 2008. The federal government gave the Beaux Arts building to the city of Cedar Rapids on the condition that all four murals in the cycle be restored and preserved. The first mural on the north wall was restored in 2011. Painted by Iowa native Francis Robert White, it’s called the Opening of the Midwest and depicts the suffering of Native Americans, the arrival of the settlers, the struggles of industrial workers and farmers.

It took some time to raise the money to work on the second mural, a piece called Inherited Culture by Harry Jones himself which depicts men unearthing artifacts from pre-Columbian civilizations ranging from Maya pyramids to the pottery and crafts of southwestern tribes. Watch restorer Scott Haskins reveal the murals underneath the layers in this neat video:


See the retouching and the restored mural in this video:


Cedar Rapids is now raising funds to do the same for the third mural, the American Civilization piece with the infamous frontier justice scene, hopefully by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the City Council chamber is open to visitors during the business day, so anyone can go and see the two murals that are already restored.


Medieval leather horse harness found in Cork castle

Friday, July 12th, 2013

In October of 2011, an archaeological survey of a site slated for future road construction near Doneraile, County Cork, Ireland, uncovered the foundations of Caherduggan Castle and its moat. This was a medieval stone castle built by Anglo-Normans next to an early medieval ringfort occupied between 400 and 1169 A.D. by local chieftains of the Duggan family (hence Caherduggan which means “the fort of the Duggans”). The castle was built in tower house style, a stone tower on 40 x 80-foot base with walls more than six feet thick. It was demolished somewhere around the middle of the 19th century and much of the stone was taken away to be reused in new construction leaving behind only the foundations.

The defensive moat around it was deep and had been filled with soil, discarded pottery and animal bones by the 17th century, but the archaeological team from Rubicon Heritage Services were delighted to find that the lower levels were waterlogged, creating an anaerobic environment ideal for the preservation of organic materials like wood and leather. Indeed, within a week the moat turned up its first leather artifact: a 600-year-old woman’s shoe.

Behind the moat they found another blessedly waterlogged area. Archaeologists found it was a deep well, dug down below the water table. The lower levels were still extremely wet and the team immediately encountered large numbers of wood fragments and some fragments of leather preserved by the low oxygen environment.

Then they hit paydirt. On November 30th, 2011, archaeologists discovered a leather belt complete with buckles on both ends and covered with metal studs. Such an elaborate leather piece is a very rare survival. In short order the belt was followed by a pair of leather shoes for indoor use and a bone gaming die in pristine condition. Unlike modern dice, the numbers on the faces (represented by concentric circles) are sequential, one and two are on opposite sides, then three and four, then five and six. The die, shoes and belt all date to approximately the same era, the 13th or 14th century.

After months of conservation, the leather studded belt revealed itself to be something even more precious than anyone realized. Almost three feet long, the belt was not for human waists but for horse chests. It’s a peytrel, also known as a breast-collar, the part of a harness that connects the saddle to the breast plate. The studs aren’t studs, they’re a group of 36 gilt copper-alloy heraldic shields decorated with lions counter-rampant (meaning they face to the viewer’s right). Each pendant is connected by a hinge to a fixed mount that also bears the counter-rampant lions. The hinges ensured the pendants would move prettily when the horse was in motion.

At each end of the strap are gilt copper-alloy buckles. They were recycled, cut off another piece and attached to the ends of the peytrel so that it could be attached to harness fittings on the saddle and breast plate. They were too valuable to discard once whatever they were previously attached to wore out, and the peytrel with all its pendants was of course even more valuable. However it ended up down that well, it’s unlikely to have been deliberately thrown away.

The counter-rampant lions may help answer some questions. It’s an extremely rare design. The Office of the Chief Herald in Ireland is looking into possible associations, but they may have simply been a decorative choice rather than a nobleman’s arms.

Even if it turns out to be impossible to establish the owner or affirmatively connect the piece to a specific noble house, it is still an exceptional discovery. Archaeologist Damian Shields:

“Post-excavation analysis has revealed it is the only intact example ever found in Britain or Ireland and it may have belonged to a medieval knight or one of his retainers or retinue. It was certainly belong to [sic] someone important in the medieval period. This is a hugely significant find in Ireland.”

Not just in Ireland. Thousands of medieval heraldic pendants from harnesses have been found in Britain in Ireland, but they were the only part to survive. This is the only peytrel we know of that has survived with every part, including the leather, intact. That makes this a discovery of international significance, a museum quality piece that is one of the greatest secular medieval leather objects ever discovered in Ireland.






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