18th c. wooden railway found in Newcastle shipyard

Archaeologists excavating the site of the Neptune Shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, northeastern England, before development have discovered a 25-meter (82 feet) stretch of an 18th century wooden railway. These rails weren’t transporting trains — they wouldn’t be invented until the next century — but rather wooden wagons, aka chaldrons, pulled by horses. This is a section of the Willington Waggonway built in the 1760s to transport coal from several local collieries to the river Tyne.

Coal mining defined Newcastle starting in the Middle Ages (the expression “carrying coal to Newcastle” meaning a pointless activity dates to the 1600s) and the networks of waggonways were essential to the development of the industry. They enabled collieries to transport far more coal than wagons on traditional roads. One horse could deliver between 10 to 13 long tons of coal per trip along the waggonways, four times more than that same horse could deliver off track. They were built like Roman aqueducts, at a slight downhill incline from colliery to dock, whenever possible so gravity could help drive the wagons.

The archaeologists were expecting to find Roman remains because the fort of Segedunum, the easternmost fort on Hadrian’s Wall, is less than five miles away, but they were far from disappointed with what they found instead. It’s a discovery of major historical significance, not just because of its importance to the history of the region, but because the rail gauge is standard gauge, still the most widely used rail width in the world. This is the earliest example of it known to survive and it’s exceptionally well preserved, thanks yet again to a waterlogged environment.

Historians can now see something in three dimensions that they’ve only been able to study in books, drawings and paintings.

Archaeologists have revealed a “main way” heavy duty waggonway lined with double wooden rails, one laid on top of the other to prolong the life of the system. A loop from the main line enters a dip which would once have been a pond into which the wooden wheels of the coal wagons would have been immersed to stop them from drying out and cracking. […]

The pond loop has a stone central section between the rails which the horse drawing the waggon would have used to stay dry.

It’s no coincidence that the steam locomotives which replaced the wagon transport came to share Willington Waggonway’s gauge. The collieries along the Tyne used a variety of gauges ranging from as small as 3’10” to as wide as 5’0″. George Stephenson, later known as the “Father of the Railways,” worked for the collieries from a very young age, starting out as a picker cleaning coal of stones and other debris, then rose through the ranks. By the age of 15 he was a fireman. By the age of 17, he was an engineer of a stationary fire engine. The next year he went to night school where he learned to read for the first time. In 1802, when he was 21 years old, he worked as a brakesman at a coal pit in Willington Quay.

That same year, Cornishman Richard Trevithick designed the first steam engine tramway locomotive. That design came to fruition two years later, hauling 10 tons of iron on February 22, 1804, for the iron works at Penydarren in Wales. It only made three trips before the seven-ton engine broke the cast iron rails, so the iron works abandoned it as impractical. Trevithick built his second locomotive in 1805 for the Wylam Colliery in Tyneside. This was one weighed a mere 4.5 tons but it was using 5′ wooden tracks built for the wagons in 1748. Again, the tracks could not handle Trevithick’s engine.

George Stephenson watched the trials and was impressed despite the ultimate failure of the locomotive. His early experience with fire engines and hard-won education developed into an engineering career. By 1813, he was the engine-wright at the Killington Colliery, improving many of their mining machines and in charge of all steam engines. In 1814, Stephenson built his first locomotive for the Killingworth Waggonway which had been joined to the Willington line in 1801. He used the gauge that he was most familiar with from his years of work on the line: Willington Waggonway’s 4’8″ gauge.

Stephenson’s locomotive worked. On its first trip it drew eight loaded wagons weighing 30 tons at four miles per hour. Thereafter it went into regular operation on the Killingworth Waggonway. (Fun fact: that first locomotive was named Blücher after Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Anybody who has seen Young Frankenstein knows how to respond.) He spent the next years building railways, locomotives and stationary steam engines for many of the area collieries. Some of those locomotives remained in use for decades.

In 1823, Stephenson was appointed Chief Engineer of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. He designed the whole thing from top to bottom — selecting the locations, building the tracks, structures, trains, everything. Again he used the 4’8″ gauge that he knew best. On September 27th, 1825, the first railway built to carry the general public rather than an industrial product opened. He then moved on to build the Liverpool & Manchester railway, the first inter-urban passenger railway with timetables and tickets for passenger travel. It also carried raw and finished materials between the port of Liverpool and the textile mills of Manchester. The first run was on September 15th, 1830, and you guessed it, it was on 4’8″ gauge tracks.

At some point in the 1830s an extra half-inch was added to the Liverpool & Manchester tracks to give the flanges a little extra space for lateral movement during higher speed runs and to reduce binding between the train’s wheels and the track on curves. Because Liverpool’s port was such an important hub for industrial transportation, L&M’s tracks became the British standard when it was established by the Railway Regulation Act of 1846. Because of Britain’s global empire and economic power, other countries employed the same standard.

Reconstructed Chinese altar dedicated at Deadwood

The Gold Rush boomtown of Deadwood in the Black Hills of what is today South Dakota drew thousands of people of all ethnicities to its mining industry and associated trades. By 1880, Deadwood was a well-established town, a transportation hub for the Dakota Territory and home to almost 5,000 souls making it one of the largest cities in the territory. There were Chinese immigrants in Deadwood from the beginning in the early 1870s when it was an illegal settlement in Indian territory. They set up homes and businesses clustered around the lower end of Main Street which became known as Chinatown although there were people of various ethnicities living there. Calamity Jane is said to have lived in Chinatown off and on.

According to the 1880 census, there were 116 Chinese residents in Deadwood, more than anywhere else in the Dakota Territory, but many local historians believe the Chinese population was sorely undercounted by the census takers and that in fact it was closer to 400. The population was mostly young men in their 20s and 30s at this time, with the traditional familial structures replaced by community bonds and organizations like the Chinese Masons. Deadwood was seen initially by the Chinese as by pretty much everyone else as a temporary opportunity to make money in the mines or off the miners. This changed over the last two decades of the 19th century until by 1900 the Chinese population was half women.

However, the overall number of Chinese residents began to decline after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which prohibited the immigration into the United States of all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, and all Chinese “employed in mining.” This had a strong impact on the Chinese community of Deadwood who were mostly laborers and miners. No new workers could come to replace the deceased and the people who chose to stay could no longer bring their families to join them. Many of them returned to China rather than be parted from their loved ones forever, and others moved to cities like San Francisco with large Chinese communities.

By 1900, the census recorded only 73 Chinese residents of Deadwood, and they were rapidly aging (the mean age in 1880 was 30.6; in 1900 it was 39.4). Observing their cultural funerary traditions had always been important, but perhaps even more so now that the small community was getting older and dying. In 1908, the Chinese residents built a ceremonial altar and burner used in funerary rituals and ancestor worship in Section Six of Deadwood’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery. The altar was in regular use for the next two decades, but fell into disrepair in the 1930s with the Chinese community in its death throes. Ching “Teeter” Ong, the last of the original Chinese Deadwoodians, left in 1931 after living there for 45 years. In the 1940s, the burner and altar were destroyed leaving behind only the concrete pad on which it had been built.

In 2003, the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission excavated the site of the altar hoping to find out more about the Chinese community’s mortuary rituals. Devastatingly, just two years later one of the only remaining original structure from Deadwood’s Chinatown, the building that once housed the Wing Tsue Emporium, was illegally demolished by the property owner Gene Johner. This caused enormous controversy and upset in Deadwood which is very keen to preserve its historic character.

Wing Tsue, meaning “Assembly of Glories,” was a thriving shop located at 566 Main Street which carried luxury imports like silk, tea, porcelain and a large assortment of Chinese foods and herbs. (See this entry about the Golden Flower of Prosperity Company in Oregon for a fascinating example of Chinese retail from this period.) It was founded, owned and operated by Fee Lee Wong, an original 76er who became a prominent and wealthy citizen thanks to the success of his emporium. His son Hong Quong, born in 1884, was the first Chinese child born in Deadwood. Fee Lee Wong left Deadwood permanently in 1919 to rejoin his family who had returned to Canton, China, in 1902. Some of his descendants still live in California today.

With Deadwood’s Chinese history decimated, the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission decided to rebuild the altar and burner on the excavated concrete foundation. Using $31,105 from the Deadwood Historic Preservation fund, the altar was rebuilt with scrupulous attention to original detail according to the Secretary of Interior’s standards for reconstruction of historic properties. Researchers examined archaeological information from the dig and historic photographs to determine the exact size and dimensions of the altar and burner. The structure was then reconstructed using bricks salvaged from the Wing Tsue building.

On Tuesday, July 23rd, the Deadwood Historic Preservation Committee, city leaders and descendants of Fee Lee Wong came together at Mt. Moriah Cemetery to celebrate the recreation of an important part of Chinese life in Deadwood.

Following brief remarks and a history of the project from Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker, Edith Wong invited the audience to take part in the first ceremonies at the altar of the Chinese burner. After the unveiling and the lighting of incense, a parade of participants took turns setting fake 100-million-yen notes ablaze in the burner, sending them to recipients in the afterlife.

“I’m sorry there’s no whole roasted pig in Deadwood today,” Wong said to a chorus of laughs as smoke wafted from the burner’s chimney.

Beatrice Wong, 82, said she was extremely pleased that clay bricks, salvaged from the Wing Tsue building that housed her grandfather’s modest empire, were used to reconstruct the Chinese burner. The historic Main Street building was demolished on Christmas Eve 2005.

“Chinatown was virtually wiped from the face of Deadwood,” she said. “Today, we replaced a piece of Chinese history in this town. We have deep gratitude to the Historic Preservation Commission and the people of Deadwood.”

Elite Viking jewelry found on modest Denmark farm

An extensive archaeological survey of a farmstead on the Danish island of Zealand slated for residential development uncovered traces of a Late Iron Age/Viking Age settlement and several pieces of important metal jewelry from that era. Between April and December of 2007, experts from Roskilde Museum excavated a total of approximately 27,000 square meters (290,000 square feet) on the 15 hectare Vestervang farm. They found the remains of 18 longhouses and 21 pit houses of modest size — none were more than 65 feet long — which weren’t all constructed at the same time. This wasn’t a town but rather a single farm built up over time in six phases between the late seventh century and the early 11th.

The jewelry unearthed on the site of this farm is far more luxurious than you might expect to find at a modest farm size. There are gilded pieces, intricately carved pendants and brooches, probably imports like a trefoil brooch from 850-950 A.D. designed in a Carolingian style and a pre-Viking brooch with a gold accents in a waffle texture and Christian cross motif in red glass that reminds me of some of the Staffordshire Hoard pieces.

The star of the show is a copper alloy piece 2.9 inches in diameter with a central animal figure wearing a beaded chain around its neck. Three masked figures with moustaches are placed around the object, one on either side of the main character, one across from it. Four holes between the masked men suggest there was additional decoration, perhaps two more animal figures like the central one. Experts believe it may have been part of a necklace.

According to the archaeologist Ole Thirup Kastholm, author of a paper on the excavation published in the latest issue of the Danish Journal of Archaeology, this is a rare piece and would have been extremely high-end in Viking times.

He said that the animal image itself seems to be anthropomorphic, something not unusual in Viking age art. “Some of these anthropomorphic pictures, though, might be seen as representations of ‘shamanic’ actions, i.e. as mediators between the ‘real’ world and the ‘other’ world,” Kastholm wrote in an email to LiveScience. He can’t say for sure who would have worn it, but it “certainly (was) a person with connections to the elite milieu of the Viking age.”

The Christian cross also must have adorned a person of rank. Made between 500 and 750 A.D., it’s not the product of local artisans. It was in all likelihood manufactured in continental Europe and decades or centuries later made its way to Southern Scandinavia, either through trade networks or perhaps carried by a Christian visitor.

What would make this tidy but seemingly unremarkable farm a magnet for such expensive, rare jewelry? Kastholm thinks the key is the farm’s proximity to Lejre, a site just six miles away which according to Beowulf and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki was the royal seat of the legendary first ruling Danish dynasty the Skjöldung or Scylding clan.

In the 1960s, there was vast residential development in the area of Vestervang, but maps that predate the development show two villages near the site with “Karleby” in their name, something that may signify that the area was given to retainers of Lejre’s ruler.

“The old Scandinavian term karl, corresponding with the old English ceorl, refers to a member of the king’s professional warrior escort, the hirð,” Kastholm writes in the journal article.

Together, the rich jewelry finds at Vestervang, the site’s proximity to Lejre and the presence of two nearby villages with the names “Karleby” reveal what life may have been like at Vestervang.

It “seems probable that the settlement of Vestervang was a farm controlled by a Lejre superior and given to generations of retainers, i.e. to a karl of the hirð,” Kastholm writes. “This would explain the extraordinary character of the stray finds contrasting with the somewhat ordinary traces of settlement.”

Hidden chambers, 14th c. toilet found in Drum Castle

Conservators restoring the late 13th/early 14th century square tower of Drum Castle 10 miles from Aberdeen, Scotland, have discovered two hidden chambers not documented on the plans of the castle. One is a garderobe, a toilet with its stone seat still intact. The other is a double chamber, two rooms connected by a doorway.

The chambers were not visible on the inside because they had been walled up during the construction of a library in the medieval keep during the 1840s. There are windows that can be seen from the outside, however, so the conservation team knew there was something between the outer wall and the Victorian library. It could have just been rubble filling an old passage, but since everyone wants to know what’s hidden behind castle walls, Dr. Jonathan Clark of FAS Heritage unblocked the three windows so he could look in from the outside.

Lit solely by a flashlight, the garderobe and its instantly recognizable toilet first greeted his eyes. Then he saw the entrance doorway, long since sealed up by wooden slats with mortar spilling through them. Two of the unblocked windows looked in on this toilet chamber. The third window looked in on second chamber of notable size. Dr. Clark took pictures of the chambers to document them as best he could, and I have to take a moment to slow clap the skills because any photographs I attempted to take by snaking a digital camera through a window slit in a massive medieval wall would come out looking hopelessly drunk. Hell, I’ve seen formal auction pictures that were blurry and poorly framed. My working theory is that Dr. Jonathan Clark has a bionic arm.

In the first flush of excitement, speculation was rife that this might be the secret room in which Alexander Irvine, 17th laird of Drum and committed Jacobite, was hidden by his sister Mary after he fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie on the losing side of the Battle of Culloden (April 16th, 1746). Legend has it that she secreted him away in the keep while the loyalist troops of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, ransacked the castle. Could this be the very room in which Alexander hid from the Redcoats?

No, it could not be. These chambers weren’t hidden in the 18th century. They were just part of the keep. On Friday conservators sent a remote video camera through the windows and discovered that the one large chamber actually has an adjoining second chamber. They weren’t able to explore it so all they could see was the throughway, but the location of this double chamber strongly suggests a far more pedestrian use as a butchery and pantry. It’s on the end of the lower hall against a north-facing wall. This would be the coldest place in the building where it makes little sense to have living spaces but a great deal of sense to have a food preparation and preservation area.

Since conservators have no other way to explore the chambers, we don’t know if there are any artifacts left inside. The space is too dark for eyeball examination and too large for their cameras to explore thoroughly. On Tuesday, a camera crew from local television station STV news threaded a specialized extending camera through the windows to investigate the double chamber. The segment hasn’t aired yet so keep an eye on the website.

Even though these aren’t secret castle chambers in the Gothic romance sense, finding a garderobe, butchery and pantry from the earliest days of Drum Castle is exciting. Drum’s keep is the oldest in Scotland, probably built by Richard Cementarius (Richard the Mason), architect and Provost of Aberdeen, by order of King Alexander III around 1280. It’s next to the Royal Forest of Drum where the kings of Scotland hunted for generations, so it may have been a powerfully reinforced hunting lodge of sorts. In 1323, Robert the Bruce gave the Barony of Drum and its castle to his friend, neighbor, armour-bearer and secretary William de Irwin in recognition of his 20 years of service.

For centuries Drum Castle was the seat of Clan Irvine. A mansion was added to the keep in the 17th century. The old tower was integrated into the new construction and appears to have been occupied for some time after the Jacobean mansion was built, but documentary evidence indicates that by the 18th century the keep was no longer in regular use. The tower was refurbished by the Victorian Irvines. This is when our medieval toilet and pantries were walled up and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves installed for the new library on the lower floor. The top floor was transformed into a dovecote.

The castle remained in the Irvine family from 1323 until 1975 when it was ceded to the National Trust for Scotland. The keep is the Trust’s oldest intact building. Conservators are working today to keep it intact. The plan is to remove all the cementatious mortars added over the years and replace them with lime mortars that match the mortar used in original construction. Dr. Clark notes that mixing materials in historical properties is never a good idea, and cement is particularly injurious to stone structure. Unlike lime mortar, cement doesn’t breathe so when moisture seeps in, it can’t escape through the mortar joints and has no way to get out except through the stone masonry itself. Then when winter strikes, all that damp freezes in the stonework, causing it to crack and crumble. The moisture trapped inside the building is also damaging the library and its extensive collection of books.

Scaffolding went up in March and conservators hope to be finished with the project in September. So far everything is going according to schedule.

Cat people vampire burials found in Poland

Archaeologists excavating the site of future road construction near the town of Gliwice in Silesia, southern Poland, discovered four skeletons buried with their heads between their knees. Stones were placed on the skulls. Further digging unearthed another nine skeletons buried with their heads out of place. Eleven were found with the skull between the legs, one with skull between the hands, two with the skull perched directly on the shoulders. Most of the skeletons found buried this way appear to be female.

Putting the head anywhere but on top of the neck was a common folk practice in Slavic countries for ensuring that the dead would not rise from the grave to harry the living. The idea was that if the dead person attempted to rise, without her head in place she wouldn’t be able to see his victims or even coordinate the climb out of the grave. Other practices — binding feet and hands, pressing with a heavy boulder, pinning the body to the ground by embedding an object in the chest — were also used to ensure the undead would not be able to budge.

Fear of vampirism is not the only possible explanation for the burials, however. There was a gallows near the site of the graveyard. In the Middle Ages, the executed were sometimes left to hang until their corpses rotted and the head disconnected from the body. The decomposed body would then be buried with the head deliberately not placed atop the neck because convicts didn’t deserve a decent burial. That’s not mutually exclusive with the vampirism hypothesis. Locals would have good reason to ensure those executed and left to rot didn’t come back to seek revenge. The deceased might also have been victims of a mass killing — a battle or slaughtered civilians — during the turbulent times of the early Middle Ages, or of a cholera epidemic.

There were no grave goods, not even the remains of clothing like buttons, in the initial discoveries that could give an idea of when they were buried. The ritual was in regular use in Poland from the arrival of Christianity in the 10th century until the First World War (the last known vampire burial in Poland took place in the east-central village of Old Mierzwice in 1914), so that doesn’t help narrow it down. Finally on Thursday, July 18th, archaeologists found a female skeleton buried with two small artifacts. They may be the key to dating these burials. Her bones were also charred, indicating deliberating burning.

Researchers are analyzing the remains now which will hopefully pinpoint a burial date and possible causes of death. Osteological examination has already returned extraordinary results: the eye sockets are much larger than average while the nasomaxillary area (the part between the nose and the upper jaw) is narrower than average. This would have given them a cat-like appearance, a genetic mutation that suggests the deceased are related and that might explain why this group of people were seen as dangerous by their community.