Bones uprooted by Sandy last Halloween revealed

On Monday, October 29th, 2012, a mighty oak in the New Haven Green was toppled by Hurricane Sandy. Planted in 1909 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the oak tree was knocked down by the force of the winds and the large root ball fully exposed. Passerby Katie Carbo saw an oddly shaped rock embedded in the roots but when she looked closely, she found that weird rock was actually a human skull. She notified the police who brought in Alfredo Camargo, a death investigator from the state medical examiner’s office, to collect the human remains for examination.

No foul play was suspected. The Green had been used as a cemetery from early colonial times through the dawn of the Federal era so it seemed likely the remains were historical. In fact, Yale anthropologist Gary Aronsen, State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni and archaeologist Dan Forrest worked with Camargo to collect the bones and any artifacts that might help date or identify the remains. A hand-wrought iron coffin nail from the late 18th century suggested a preliminary date, but a confirmation would require further analysis of the bones.

It was a ghoulish surprise well-suited for Halloween to many New Havenites who had long forgotten that their central green was once a very active cemetery. The Puritans began burying people in the square pretty much as soon as they arrived in 1638, a party of 500 led by Reverend John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton who had left the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the wake of the great Antinomian Controversy, a debate about whether salvation comes through good works or solely by the grace of God that ended with the excommunication of Free Grace advocate Anne Hutchinson. Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop, who had delivered the famous “City upon a Hill” sermon to the colonists while they were still on the ship, sided with the works people and his autocratic style of governance had already alienated the likes of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. Davenport was more of a salvation through grace fellow, so he and Eaton founded New Haven to get out from under Winthrop’s thumb and to worship as they preferred.

The town green was one of the first things they built. It was designed specifically so it would be the proper size to accommodate 144,000 people, the number they believed would be saved in the Second Coming. What better place to inter the dead than underneath the future launching pad of the Rapture? Burials began in 1638 and continued undiminished through 1797. By then the small space was just heaving with bodies. New dead were buried on top of previous burials and most graves went unmarked. An estimate 5,000 – 10,000 people were laid to rest under the New Haven Green.

Finally after a series of epidemics — scarlet fever, yellow fever, dysentery — in the 1790s forced the burial of as many as 5,000 victims within two years, it became palpably clear that New Haven needed a new burial ground. The Grove Street Cemetery was built on the edge of the city limits in 1797. This was the first chartered burial ground in the United States. In 1821, the remaining headstones from the Green were carried to the new cemetery by a procession of Yale students where they were arranged against the north and west walls in alphabetical order.

There were still occasional burials in the Green until 1812 when a new church was built over a section of the Green. Center Church simply absorbed the piece of the burial ground it was built over, keeping the burials and headstones in place in a basement crypt. The crypt holds 137 burials marked with headstones and other monuments and an estimate 1,000 unmarked graves. There are some historically significant personages among those 137: Margaret Arnold, the first wife of Benedict Arnold, Ezekiel Hayes, Revolutionary War hero and great-grandfather of President Rutherford B. Hayes, New Haven co-founder and colony governor Theophilus Eaton, and Reverend James Pierpont, a founder of Yale College whose daughter Sarah married Jonathan Edwards, Great Awakening preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the sermon that scared the crap out of me when I read it in 8th grade English class, and had 11 children whose direct descendants include Vice President and infamous dueler Aaron Burr, financier John Pierpont Morgan and such a vast network of intellectuals, university presidents, captains of industry and political leaders that eugenicists in the early 1900s pointed to the extended Edwards’ family as an example of what good breeding can accomplish.

Despite this rich history writ in the bones of the New Haven Green, general memory of the burials faded over time. When the Lincoln Oak was planted in 1909, there was no mention of the site as a former burial ground. The spot was chosen for the planting because the Connecticut State House had stood on the site from 1828 to 1889 and that’s where the public prayers were said after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

The Lincoln Oak’s skeletal roots brought it all back, and not for the first time either. Believe it or not, Hurricane Esther partially toppled the oak on September 27th, 1961, exposing the roots and, yes, a handful of human bones entangled in them (pdf). New Haveners were as surprised then as they would be 51 years later, which goes to show our memories are ridiculously short even in the age of mass media. There are plenty of people still around who were there in 1961, but it took local historian Rob Greenberg digging through the archives of the New Haven Register to bring the earlier episode to light. Rob Greenberg also doggedly pursued the mystery of a concrete cylinder found under the oak’s 1909 plaque which turned out to contain two time capsules with Civil War and Lincoln mementos that was buried when the oak was planted.

Basically this Lincoln Oak was like the kite-eating tree in Peanuts only with bones instead of kites, and it’s the roots that do all the entrapping rather than the branches. Once it was replanted in 1961, the roots just kept growing until they found more bones to nom. Sadly, the tree could not take root once more after Sandy. This fall was its last. A new oak was planted on the spot, however, so the whole thing can happen again a century from now.

As for the bones plucked out of its roots last year, the first official report of the findings will be made tonight at a panel discussion at the New Haven Museum. The event starts at 5:30 PM, is scheduled to run just over two hours and is open to the public. Analysis did confirm that the evidence of the coffin nail was accurate: the bones date to the late 1790s. There are bones from at least four people in this group: one adult male, one child of 7-9 and two younger children. The adult was buried in a decorated casket, fragments of which survive. One of the children was buried with a red marble toy. There were signs on the teeth of early childhood malnutrition but no cause of death could be determined for any of the four.

Here’s a Yale News video with good shots of the uprooted tree and bones:


The remains will be reinterred when research is complete. No word yet on where they’ll be buried.

Roman eagle & serpent sculpture found in London

Museum of London archaeologists excavating Minories, a street near the Tower of London, before construction of a hotel on the site have unearthed a spectacular Roman-era sculpture of an eagle biting a serpent. The discovery was made six weeks ago in the last few hours of the last day of a 10-week excavation, but the piece is in such fine condition that the museum refrained from announcing the find at first because even though it looked Roman, its exquisite preservation made the archaeologists who found it suspect that it might be a Victorian garden ornament. Several experts have examined the eagle now and all confirm that it is a Romano-British sculpture from the 1st or 2nd century A.D.

Carved out of oolitic limestone from the Cotswolds, the sculpture is more than two feet tall and 1’10” wide. It depicts an eagle with wings spread biting a snake coiled around the bird, its forked tongue protruding. Other than a small piece missing from the broken right wing (the wing hasn’t been reattached; it’s on a custom frame that keeps it in place), the sculpture is complete with every detail from feathers to talons still sharp. It may have been painted originally but so far no trace of paint has been found on the surface.

The symbolism is understood as the struggle of good, the eagle, against evil, the snake. This theme is common in funerary contexts and an important Roman cemetery is known to have been located on the site. It is believed by archaeologists that this statue once adorned a rich mausoleum, the foundations of which were also uncovered during excavation. The lack of weathering on the statue corroborates this theory, as does the absence of detail on the back of the sculpture; suggesting it once sat it an alcove.

Although the eagle vs. snake imagery is widespread in the Roman world, the only other freestanding Roman sculpture known to have survived comparable with this one was found in the great Nabatean city of Petra, in what is today Jordan, and is now part of the permanent collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum. I couldn’t find any pictures of it, sadly, other than a little thumbnail in the Daily Mail article about the discovery. You can see that it’s far from complete, with the beak and chest of eagle missing. The picture on the right is of another eagle from 1st century Petra, a relief, that is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection.

Petra was a major center of trade thanks to its prime location at the crossroads of Middle Eastern caravan routes and the Nabatean’s extraordinary water control systems. It’s a testament to the skill of the Romano-British sculptors that Britannia could produce art of at least equal quality as is found Petra. The Cotswolds is known to have been a center of Roman sculpture, although the sculptures that survive have primarily been small or fragments of larger pieces. Most of the sculptures found have been in the Cotswolds area as the Jurassic vein of oolitic limestone of the Cotswold hills was the source of the stone and sculptors mainly worked on the spot. They did travel, however, to large cities, either bringing the raw stone with them or completing the sculpture at home and then transporting the finished work to its destination. The family of the deceased was clearly willing to pay a pretty penny for a top quality funerary sculpture from the best artists in the province.

The eagle’s rough surface is the natural finish of Cotswolds limestone which is coarse enough that fine details are sometimes hard to convey in this medium. It is, however, an ideal material from the sculptor’s perspective because it’s soft to carve but over time hardens leaving a durable surface, durable enough to survive centuries underneath a burgeoning metropolis. Of course the find spot was outside the city in Roman times, like all cemeteries, but as London grew, Minories was absorbed into the urbs and the tombs that once lined the street were destroyed to make way for new construction. Their materials, including decorative elements, were recycled, used as masonry and fill, which is why we know very little about the Roman cemetery.

Michael Marshall, MOLA Finds Specialist, said: “The eagle is a classically Roman symbol and this new find provides a fascinating new insight into the inhabitants of Roman London and demonstrates their familiarity with the iconography of the wider classical world. Funerary sculpture from the city is very rare and this example, perhaps from inside a mausoleum, is a particularly fine example which will help us to understand how the cemeteries and tombs that lined the roads out of the city were furnished and the beliefs of those buried there.”

Starting today, the eagle and snake are on display in the Museum of London’s Roman London gallery. It will remain on public view for six months after which it will be removed for further study.

Hear only complete surviving ancient song sung

Fragments of ancient music have been found going back as far as the eighteenth century B.C., the most ancient ones recorded on cuneiform tablets, but there is only one complete song from antiquity known to have survived: the Seikilos epitaph. It was discovered carved on a marble column-shaped stele in Tralleis, near Ephesus, Turkey, in 1883, and is now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Dating to the first or second century A.D., the stele announces its function clearly in the inscription. “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The last line is damaged, reputedly by Anglo-Irish railway engineer Edward Purser who was on site building the Smyrna-Aidin Ottoman Railway when the stele was discovered and who sawed off the base so his wife could use it as a flower display, but it appears to be a dedication from Seikilos to a Euterpe, perhaps his wife?

It’s the song that ensured the stele would truly be an everlasting memorial because he didn’t just have the lyrics engraved, but rather also included the melody in ancient Greek musical notation. The lyrical message is your basic carpe diem. These are the lyrics in transliterated Greek and in an English translation:

Hoson zes, phainou
Meden holos su lupou;
Pros oligon esti to zen
To telos ho chronos apaitei

While you live, shine
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll

Herodotus’ The Histories describes an Egyptian practice which puts Seikilos’ song in context:

In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin, in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant sings, “Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, such will you be.”

I suppose this is how they got people back into a revelrous mood when things were winding down, by reminding them life is fleeting so party while you have the chance. I’m not sure how well that would go over today, although given the season, you could totally take a tip from the ancient Egyptians and pass around the realistic mini-corpse in a coffin when your Halloween party looks to be flagging.

Anyway, because of the clear alphabetical notation Seikilos’ song is playable today. Lyre expert and ancient music researchers Michael Levy has a wonderfully virtuoso performance on his YouTube channel for which he uses a wide range of lyre techniques to give it that zesty drinking song vibe.

Musician and Oxford University classicist Armand D’Angour is working on a research project to use the latest and greatest discoveries on Greek musical notation to bring ancient music back as accurately as possible.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.

While the documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists – some were published as early as 1581 – in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds. Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece.

Dr. David Creese, a Classics professor at Newcastle University, has constructed a zither-like instrument with eight strings on which he plays ancient Greek music. Instead of strumming or plucking the strings like you would with a lyre or traditional zither, he strikes them with a little mallet. You can see him playing it in class in this YouTube video. That is the Song of Seikilos he is playing in that video, incidentally, but obviously not a full rendition. Here he is playing it and singing it:

Compare Dr. Creese’s version with Mr. Levy’s. I find it fascinating how different the two performances of such a simple song can be, and it underscores the inherent challenges of resurrecting ancient music even when you have the words and melody.

Roman child’s lead coffin found in farmer’s field

A metal detecting club has discovered a small lead coffin in a plowed field in the village of Witherley, Leicestershire, central England. Members of Digging Up The Past had been searching the field all day, turning up part of a Medieval seal matrix, Medieval silver coins and a few Roman bronze coins probably from the 3rd and 4th centuries, when around 4:00 PM 30-year-old surveyor Chris Wright’s metal detector gave off a very strong signal. It indicated the object was fairly deeply buried, but the signal was strong enough over a large enough area that Wright decided to start digging. After digging down two feet he had a colleague come help him. About three feet down, they encountered a corner of something they at first thought was made of stone, but soon realized it was a metal lid, probably of a coffin.

They called in club founder David Hutchings who agreed that it was a coffin and immediately called the police. The police arrived at the scene with Leicestershire County Council archaeologists and they all kept vigil overnight to protect the open grave from would-be treasure hunters. The archaeologists recognized it as an exceptional find. Preliminary examination suggests it may date to the 3rd century A.D. and its east-west alignment points to it being an early Christian burial. The coffin is less than one meter (3.3 feet) long so if it was used to bury someone, that someone was a young child. Lead was extremely expensive, so the deceased must have been the son or daughter of a wealthy family.

The council archaeologists were not able to start a professional excavation, for reasons that have gone unstated in the news stories but I’m guessing involves budgetary constraints. Police and volunteers guarded the site while Digging Up The Past got necessary permissions and raised funds to have the box excavated privately. Archaeology Warwickshire was enlisted to do the job. On Thursday, October 24th, the casket was exhumed and brought to Warwick for further analysis.

The field in which the coffin was found is about two miles away from the Roman fort and town of Manduessedum (today Mancetter) which was founded around 50-60 A.D. along the Roman road known today as Watling Street. Manduessedum is one of the possible locations historians have suggested for the Battle of Watling Street, Iceni warrior queen Boudica’s final confrontation with Rome in 60 or 61 A.D. The much smaller army of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus decisively defeated Boudica’s army of allied tribes at that battle, the last organized military resistance to Roman control of southern England. After that, Manduessedum settled into a civilian life becoming a local center of pottery making. Thirty kilns from the Roman era have been discovered in the area.

Stuart Palmer, business manager for the appointed experts, Archaeology Warwickshire, said: “Everything points to the coffin being from the Roman era and it is the first lead coffin to be recovered from the area. It might be one of the few Roman burials recovered from the Witherley-Mancetter cross border region.”

“We know quite a lot about the Roman military activity in that part of Leicestershire and Warwickshire but not a great deal about the indigenous population. This coffin might provide us with one of a very few opportunities to examine how those people lived.”

Here’s a video of the finder telling his story and of the coffin in situ:

I wish they hadn’t dug all the way down to expose the sides and everything. That’s archaeological context they’re digging up, not just spoil. At the very least, as soon as they hit the lid they should have stopped. I hate seeing the dig marks on the lid and that big puddle of water.

EDIT: Finder Chris Wright assures me that they did stop digging when they hit the lid. The fuller excavation you see in the pictures was done by professional archaeologists.

Happy birthday, Teddy Roosevelt!

Today would be Theodore Roosevelt’s 155th birthday. In honor of the 26th president, Harvard’s Houghton and Widener Libraries have put together a slideshow of the young Teddy from childhood to his undergraduate days at Harvard College. It’s a small selection from the collection of 172 images of Roosevelt in his youth that was gifted to Harvard by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1943. They provide a glimpse into Roosevelt long before his grinning, bespectacled, moose-riding presence became instantly recognizable, and they’re smartly captioned with brief anecdotes and descriptions. Many thanks to the Houghton and Widener Libraries for allowing me to use high resolution versions of the photographs in this post.

He’s really quite unrecognizable, an adorable little boy and a handsome young man. His blue eyes, later hidden behind his characteristic wire-rimmed pince-nez glasses, are striking. His mutton chops are downright impressive once they get going. Of course instead of simply enjoying the growth and development of TR, I had to go falling down a couple of rabbit holes inspired by the images and captions.

First observe a four-year-old Teddy looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a velvet jacket holding a fuzzy cap. Those baggy pants tied under the knee he’s wearing were known as Knickerbockers after the fictional author in Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Diedrich Knickerbocker is the descendant of 17th century Dutch immigrants who settled New York when it was New Amsterdam, and as such is a member of the highest ranks of New York society. In Irving’s book these New York Dutch aristocrats wear old-timey knee-breeches, emblems of their long heritage in the city. It was an entirely fictional depiction, but the name stuck. From then on, the Dutch-descended patricians of New York became known as Knickerbockers and so did the poofy pants. Later, New York sports teams would take on the name too.

The Roosevelts were Knickerbockers par excellence. They were descendants of one Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt who settled in New Amsterdam in the 1640s and purchased 48 acres of prime farmland bounded by Lexington Avenue and Fifth Avenue between 29th St. and 35th St. Midtown Manhattan, including the lot that now hosts the Empire State Building, was the first American Roosevelt’s personal stomping ground.

The other picture that sent me down history nerd lane was the 1878 tintype of Theodore after he shaved off his fine set of sideburns. The caption quotes a letter Teddy wrote to his sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson on May 3rd, 1878:

“At last the deed is done and I have shaved off my whiskers! The consequence, I am bound to add, is, that I look like a dissolute democrat of the fourth ward. I send you some tintypes I had taken for distribution among my family and friends. The front views are pretty good; although giving me an expression of gloomy misery that I sincerely hope is not natural. The side views do not resemble me any more than they do Michael Angelo or John A. Weeks.”

(John A. Weeks was a wealthy lawyer, real estate mogul, philanthropist and art lover. His wife was Alice Hathaway Delano, relative of Sara Delano who was the mother of Frederick Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin.)

It was TR’s description of himself looking like “a dissolute democrat of the fourth ward” that caught my eye. It just sounds cool, first of all, and it’s a neat early glimpse into a concern that would help define Roosevelt’s political career. The Fourth Ward of New York City was a crime-ridden slum on the Lower East Side. This was full Tammany territory, the uncontested domain of corrupt bosses who could deliver votes en bloc to their pet politicians.

Tammany Hall was a Democratic Party machine and Teddy would fight it at his first opportunity. He was elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly in November of 1881, just three years after he wrote that letter to his sister. The fact that he was a mere baby of 23 years did not deter him from focusing on his reformist agenda. In his first 48 hours of the legislative session, he introduced four reform bills (water purification, alderman election reform, finance reform and judicial reform). Only the alderman one passed and only after major changes, but TR didn’t let that slow him down. He was re-elected in 1882 and in 1884 introduced three bills aimed at kneecapping the party machines. Of the three, the Reform Charter Bill was the highest priority because it focused on increasing the power and accountability of the mayor to weaken the stranglehold of the board of aldermen which was controlled by the party machines.

The Reform Charter Bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who had formed an alliance with Tammany Hall to win the election only to govern with integrity and honesty, much to Tammany’s horror. The bill became known as the Roosevelt Bill and newspapers went nuts over how Roosevelt and Cleveland were cutting Tammany down to size.

Ten years later, Theodore Roosevelt came to a whole new understanding of the Fourth Ward. In 1895, he became New York City Police Commissioner. Accompanied by reformer photojournalist Jacob Riis who had exposed the vile living conditions of the immigrant poor in the tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side in his 1890 book How The Other Half Lives, Roosevelt patrolled the poverty-stricken streets between midnight and dawn, checking up on his beat cops to be sure they were a) awake, b) sober, c) not spending all night in saloons, d) not taking bribes, inspecting tenements for compliance with health codes, deterring crime with his mere presence.

He became such a common figure on the streets of the Lower East Side at night that he earned the outstanding nickname of Haroun al Roosevelt after the character of Harun al-Rashid in the One Thousand and One Nights. In his autobiography Riis described the two years of Roosevelt’s patrols as a Golden Age. Roosevelt called Riis “the most useful citizen of New York” for having shone a light — literally; the new invention of flash made it possible to effectively photograph the dark tenements for the first time — on the reality of life in the slums.

In a complete coincidence, one of those Fourth Ward streets TR patrolled was Roosevelt Street. It was named after one of early Rosenvelts who owned the property in the 17th century. The street is gone now, built over in 1950 by the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing development named after the former governor and candidate for president who made wet dreams come true.