Archive for October, 2013

Heads from university anatomy collection repatriated

Monday, October 21st, 2013

In early 2011, a collection of human remains from indigenous peoples around the world was found in storage at the University of Birmingham Medical School. Some of the skulls and bone fragments were labeled with their places of origin, but there was no documentation beyond that explaining how the collection came about, who donated what and when. The collection has never been on display, as far as anyone knows, nor has it been used in any known study or research. Keenly conscious of the ethical issues surrounding human remains being kept in museums as anthropological exhibits, the university decided to make every effort to return the remains to their ancestral homes.

The first group of remains welcomed home by their living descendants was a collection of seven complete skulls, each in their box, and four bone fragments. The bones were individually labeled as having been excavated from a grave in San Luis Obispo, California, (on the Pacific coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco). From there they were sold to a private collector who later donated the remains to the University of Birmingham at some point in the 19th century. Out of respect for the bodies, no radiocarbon dating or any other kind of testing was performed on the remains, so the university couldn’t be sure how old they were or which tribe to return them to. University biomedical ethics professor Dr. June Jones contacted representatives of the Native American tribes in the area — the Chumash and Salinan tribes both had territory in San Luis Obispo — and the Salinan tribe responded with alacrity that they would be glad to welcome the long-lost ancestors back to their homeland.

In May 2012, Dr. Jones carried the remains to California where they were first brought to the county coroner who confirmed by examination of the teeth that they are indeed Native American. (The standard test for this is to look at the molars. Traditional diets included a constant supply of grit that wore down the molars into a characteristic shovel shape. EDIT: This is the practice as described in Jones’ online diary. Stacey comments below that in fact incisors display the characteristic shovel shape, and it’s due to genetics, not diet.) Two days later, the skulls and bones were reburied in an undisclosed location to keep them from being immediately re-looted. According to June Jones’ short but very sweet diary of the repatriation, the ceremony was private, dignified and moving, with tribal members present and the Sheriff and Coroner also there to pay their respects. From the diary:

As one Tribal leader said to us as we gathered around the grave “tonight our ancestors will sit around the fire together in their own land for the first time in many years.”

The repatriation made the local news in California because it was the first time tribal remains were returned from outside the United States for reburial in their native soil. It was also notable because the University contacted the tribes first rather than the other way around, and paid for the repatriation. In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act allows for tribe members to claim ancestral remains from museums, universities, private collections, etc., but the onus is on the tribes to file suit. It’s expensive and often fraught with conflict with institutions who are reluctant to let go of anything in their collections for fear of a domino effect of repatriation.

On Friday, October 18th, a year and a half after Dr. Jones’ trip to California, a second group of tribal remains — a tattooed mummified Maori head (known as a toi moko) and four skulls (known as koiwi tangata) — have been formally returned to their homeland. A delegation from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa received the remains in a traditional ceremony.


Arapata Hakiwai, co-leader of the New Zealand museum, said the ceremony was important “for the elders to tell the ancestors they’re going to journey home soon”.

Te Herekiekie Herewini, manager of the repatriation programme, said: “In our beliefs your spirit and life force comes from the particular part of the country you’re from. It’s important for your life force to go back to that place. Repatriation allows both sides to reconcile their histories.”

The remains were then flown to New Zealand where they were welcomed in a traditional Maori ceremony in Wellington. Their final destination has yet to be determined. First Te Papa museum researchers will attempt to determine their precise origin so they can be buried in their homelands as per Maori custom. In the meantime, the museum will care for the remains in private with all proper cultural respects.

The Maori have been working for decades to reclaim their ancestral remains scattered in museums, schools and hospitals around the world but overwhelmingly in Europe. They’re increasingly successful as attitudes towards human remains in institutions shift from the impersonal to a recognition of their cultural and religious significance. The University of Birmingham has been a trendsetter in this, taking a strong stand in favor of repatriation and taking it upon itself to see that human remains in its collections find their way home. In ten years, the university’s repatriation program has returned more than 100 items. It also works with Te Papa to identify and return remains in other UK institutions, of which there are an estimated 400 pieces that we know of. There are probably many more still out there undocumented and unrecognized, like these heads were before their rediscovery in 2011.

Titanic violin sells for record $1.78 million

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

The violin believed to be the one played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley as Titanic sank the night of April 14th, 1912, has sold at auction for a record £900,000 ($1,454,000) hammer price, £1.1 million ($1,778,000) including buyer’s premium and taxes. The previous record price for Titanic memorabilia was just set in May of 2011 when the 33-foot-long plan of the ship made for the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster sold for £220,000 ($363,000).

The buyer is a British collector of Titanic artifacts who has of course chosen to remain anonymous. It took less than two minutes for the bids to go from £50 — an artificially low opening point that was a gift from auctioneer Alan Aldridge to two of his friends who just wanted to get a bid in — to £100,000. Within 10 minutes the final two buyers standing, both anonymous phone bidders, had battled it out to the rousing £900,000 finale.

There was a great deal of interest in this piece, not all of it approving. The circumstances of its survival and rediscovery read more like fiction than reality, so much so that an elaborate hoax seems at least as possible as it being Hartley’s violin.

It was found in a leather luggage case monogrammed “W. H. H.” (Wallace Henry Hartley) which also held a silver cigarette case, a signet ring and a letter written by the violin teacher who had given the objects to the current owner’s mother. On the tail piece of the violin is a silver plate inscribed “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.” Wallace Hartley’s fiancé Maria Robinson gave him a violin when they got engaged in 1910, and he brought it on the Titanic.

The violin teacher’s letter told the remarkable story that Maria Robinson’s sister Margaret had given the violin to the local Salvation Army after Maria’s death in 1939. Margaret told the Bridlington Salvation Army leader, Major Renwick, about the instrument’s history and Renwick gave it to one of their members who was a violin teacher. That teacher gave it to one of his students and that years later student’s son found in the attic.

The owner took the violin to auction house Henry Aldridge & Son to have it authenticated in 2006. That was no easy task. The very notion that the violin could have survived intact strapped to the chest of the dead musician while his body floated in the frigid north Atlantic for 10 days is a fanciful one, to put it mildly. Aldridge spent seven years analyzing the instrument, enlisting experts to determine if it was a forgery, a pastiche of period elements like a 1910 silver plate cobbled together and dunked in sea water to make it seem legit.

Henry Aldridge & Son felt they’d sufficiently established its authenticity to announce the find in March of this year. In May, one more test was performed: a CT scan at BMI Ridgeway Hospital in Wiltshire.

Astrid Little, Imaging Manager at the Wroughton hospital explains why a CT scan helped in the authentication process: “A 3D image of the violin was created from the CT scan, meaning the violin could be examined from the inside. The scan revealed that the original wood was cracked and showed signs of possible restoration. The fine detail of the scan meant the auctioneers could examine the construction, interior and the glue holding the instrument together.”


After it was released from the hospital, the violin went on tour, stopping at two Titanic museums in the United States, Branson and Pigeon Forge, where 315,000 people viewed it over the course of three months. After that, it went back across the ocean to the Titanic Belfast, the exceptional museum overlooking historic slipways where Titanic and Olympic were built.

There are still many doubts as to how any wooden instrument could have survived intact the sinking of the Titanic and subsequent week and a half in the water. Still, somebody was willing to bet $1.78 million on the chance of it being the real deal.

Etruscan prince turns out to be a princess

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

The skeletal remains of an Etruscan aristocrat found in an intact tomb in the ancient necropolis of Tarquinia last month turn out to be female. Archaeologists had assumed the person laid out on a funerary bed carved out of the rock with a spear placed by the body was a man, but osteological analysis has found that the bones belonged to a woman between 35 and 40 years of age. It’s the cremated remains found along with what appears to be an unopened jewelery box on the smaller bier across from the skeleton that belonged to a man. He appears to have been younger than the woman and his remains were placed in the tomb years after hers, suggesting they may have been mother and son.

The small bronze vessel known as a pyx that was found on her funerary bed was X-rayed and found to contain bronze or silver needles and what may be a spool. The pyx itself is considerably older than the 7th-6th century B.C. burial, so it may have been an heirloom handed down to the noblewoman.

The archaeologists’ initial gender assumptions based almost entirely on the placement of the grave goods — spear = male, jewel box = female — have thus been thoroughly upended. Alessandro Mandolesi, Etruscanologist with the University of Torino and dig leader, explains (translation mine):

“It’s not usual to find a woman’s body with a spear. For this reason, in the beginning, we thought we’d found a warrior. After seeing the results of the anthropological analyses of the skeleton and after finding the burials of the male, we have a clearly picture of what we’ve found. There is a high probability that the spear was placed as a symbol of unity between the two deceased.”

That last part makes zero sense to me. The spear was found next to the skeleton’s right shin, between the bones and the wall of the tomb. The ashes of the male are on the smaller bed against the opposite wall. In what way does the spear indicate connection, never mind unity, between the two residents of the tomb? When they thought the skeleton was male there was no talk of the spear as symbol of union because weapons are indicators of warrior or at least leadership status. Why should that most obvious of associations be discarded just because the skeleton is female? Notice there is no tortured attempt to explain the jewelry box on the man’s funerary bed as justified by his relation to the woman.

The Etruscans certainly weren’t so narrow-minded. Greek and Roman sources were scandalized by Etruscan society (or at any rate by the urban legends they’d heard about it). The 4th century B.C. Greek historian Theopompus of Chios described gender relations in Etruria as shockingly liberated from the Greek perspective:

Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom. Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive.

The Etruscans raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom. So far from thinking it disgraceful, they say when someone ask to see the master of the house, and he is making love, that he is doing so-and-so, calling the indecent action by its name.

When they are having sexual relations either with courtesans or within their family, they do as follows: after they have stopped drinking and are about to go to bed, while the lamps are still lit, servants bring in courtesans, or boys, or sometimes even their wives.

The emphasis on sexual permissiveness in Etruscan society may be an assumption of his, incidentally, an automatic inference drawn from the mere fact that women in Etruria had so much freedom than Greek women did. In Greek and Roman society at this time, the only women present at dinners with men were prostitutes and servants. Respectable women did not socialize freely with men. Etruscans, on the other hand, had dinner with their wives and sometimes even had sex with them afterwards, much to Theopompus’ shock (horror?). If they recline on dinner couches with men not their husbands, goes the logic, then they must be sexually promiscuous.

The evidence we have from funerary inscriptions and artistic depictions indicates Etruscan women were prominent and had some measure of equality with men. For instance, many tombs inscribed with the name of the deceased mention both their parents’ names. The mothers keep their own names and can even pass it down to their children. They also owned property independently they could bequeath to their children. Etruscan couples are often depicted in a loving embrace on sarcophagi, like the beautiful 5th century B.C. Sarcophagus of the Spouses now in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome, or one from 6th century now in the Louvre.

That’s not to say that the headlines should now all scream “Tomb of Etruscan Warrior Princess Found!” Just because she was buried with a weapon doesn’t mean she was a military leader who actually wielded said weapon. It could be a symbol of leadership or strength. It could be of sentimental significance to her or something associated to her family.

Ancient Britons ate frogs’ legs long before the French

Friday, October 18th, 2013

University of Buckingham archaeologists excavating the Mesolithic site of Blick Mead near Amesbury, Wiltshire, just over a mile from Stonehenge, have found the charred leg bone of a toad along with the bones of other animals feasted upon between 6250 and 7596 B.C. This is the earliest evidence of cooked frogs’ legs ever discovered, pre-dating French examples by 8,000 years and throwing a beloved ethnic slur into turmoil.

Excavations at the Blick Mead site have been ongoing since 2005. Beginning in May 2010, a large number of flint pieces and animal bones dating to the Mesolithic era were discovered. In three trenches, one 20 x 13 feet in size, the other two just six and a half feet square, archaeologists unearthed 12,000 pieces of worked and burned flint, plus more than 650 bone fragments. The flint tools were in exceptional condition, some of them so sharp they actually cut the fingers of the archaeologists who discovered them. The burned pieces are evidence of very large and hot fires built on or very near this site.

Last year researchers examined the bones. They found that a large majority of them, more than 60%, were aurochs bones. Aurochs were large wild cattle which ones roamed the forests of Europe. Highly prized by hunters, they were extinct in England by 2,000 B.C. Their size and fierceness made them quarries as desirable as they were formidable, and they probably held symbolic significance in Mesolithic society, hence the large percentage of aurochs remains in Blick Mead. The bones of other large animals were identified as well, among them an unusually large red deer and wild pig.

It’s a little bone that is making the big splash today, though: the tiny humerus of a toad.

David Jacques, senior research fellow in archaeology, said: “It would appear that thousands of years ago people were eating a Heston Blumenthal-style menu on this site, one-and-a-quarter miles from Stonehenge, consisting of toads’ legs, aurochs, wild boar and red deer with hazelnuts for main, another course of salmon and trout and finishing off with blackberries.

“This is significant for our understanding of the way people were living around 5,000 years before the building of Stonehenge and it begs the question – where are the frogs now?”

Blick Mead’s close proximity to Stonehenge and Bluehenge makes it of particular interest to archaeologists investigating the origin of Stonehenge, its Mesolithic context, why it was built on the Salisbury Plain, what the religious significance of the area may have been before the first ditch was dug. Radiocarbon dating of Mesolithic remains found that the site was occupied every millennium between 7550 and 4700 B.C. That’s 3,000 years of if not continuous use, regular use and reuse. It’s what is known as a “homebase,” a Mesolithic residential site revisited repeatedly over time. This is the oldest place of residence found in the Stonehenge area.

It’s also a contemporary of the only other Mesolithic discovery in the Stonehenge environs: four, perhaps five (one might be the result of a tree falling accident) Mesolithic postholes found underneath the visitor parking lot in the 1960s. They date to approximately the same time as the frog humerus and other bones, ca. 7,500 B.C., and both Mesolithic sites are just over a mile from each other. Perhaps knowledge of these ritually significant spots was passed down through the generations over the site’s 3,000 years of use, cementing its religious symbolism so firmly that it outlasted the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic and inspired the builders of Stonehenge around 3000 B.C.

One possible element of ritual meaning might be the natural springs in the area. The flint and bones were found where once burbled a constant-temperature spring. Bluehenge also has a spring adjacent to it. There are Bronze Age weapons deposits that suggest the Blick Mead spring continued to hold specific religious meaning in 1,400 B.C. and artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon era and 10th-11th century Amesbury Abbey period point to a continuing ritual significance of the area even when the rituals changed enormously.

Andy Rhind-Tutt, chairman of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust and co-ordinator of the community involvement on the dig, said …: “No one would have built Stonehenge without there being something unique and really special about the area. There must have been something significant here beforehand and Blick Mead, with its constant temperature spring sitting alongside the River Avon, may well be it.

“I believe that as we uncover more about the site over the coming days and weeks, we will discover it to be the greatest, oldest and most significant mesolithic home base ever found in Britain.”

“Currently Thatcham – 40 miles from Amesbury – is proving to be the oldest continuous settlement in the UK with Amesbury 104 years younger. By the end of this latest dig, I am sure the records will need to be altered.”

Otzi has living relatives after all

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

When the full genome of Otzi the Iceman’s mitochondrial DNA was mapped in 2008, researchers found that his subhaplogroup type matched no modern samples, that barring the existence of some rare isolated genetic strain of people in the Alps, his maternal line had gone extinct. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from women, so the 2008 comparisons could only rule out surviving descendants of Otzi’s sisters or aunts, not direct descendants of his or male relatives who shared the same Y chromosome.

Last year, scientists from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bolzano (EURAC) and from the Institutes for Human Genetics at the University of Tübingen and Saarland University took a sample of his hip bone and sequenced Otzi’s full nuclear genome from it. They discovered all kinds of interesting facts about the 5,300 man, like that he had brown eyes, was lactose intolerant and had a predisposition to cardiovascular diseases. They also confirmed the results of the mitochondrial sequencing which pointed to a shared ancestry with the modern inhabitants of the Tyrrhenian Sea area even though his particular genetic branch didn’t survive.

It wasn’t a direct study of Otzi’s genes that identified living relatives, however. It was a study exploring the distribution of the Y-chromosome haplogroup G among the population of the Austrian Tyrol, including in remote areas of the Alps. This kind of research can illuminate pre-historic migration routes by tracing the movement of genetic haplogroups and researchers wanted to see how the topography of the Alps affected the movement of peoples. The G haplogroup is common in the Middle East, but rare in Europe. The Tyrol is an exception. In certain areas of the Tyrolian Alps like the Upper Inn Valley there’s a spike in the values of haplogroup G, but in adjacent Landeck the numbers plummet back down to normal European levels. This suggests that Landeck was close to impassable from the south 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

To get a decent statistical sampling for the study, the scientists collected DNA from the Y chromosome of 3,700 Tyrolian men. Among those 3,700, 19 of them were found to share the haplogroup and thus an ancestor with the Iceman.

The team found that about 19 men shared a genetic lineage, called G-L91, with Ötzi. It’s possible that at least one of these men may directly descend from the Iceman, part of an unbroken line of sons going back 5,300 years.

However, “the chances are so extremely low that I would be tempted to say no,” [study co-author Walther] Parson said. “There are just too many other possibilities.”

None of the 19 men have been notified that they share a common ancestor with the famous man who was bashed on the head, shot with arrows and died in the Ötztal Alps leaving his body to freeze into a most fascinating mummy. Researchers plan to expand the study to neighboring countries that share Tyrolean territory, the Val Venosta in the autonomous Alto Adige region of Italy and the Swiss Engadin valley. They’ve already found research partners in Italy and Switzerland keen to participate.

Perhaps once all of Otzi’s likely relatives are located, they’ll have a tri-country family reunion. They should all get a stripey tattoo in his honor.

Assyrian gold tablet taken by Holocaust survivor on trial

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

The fate of an ancient artifact looted from Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum at the end of World War II is now in the hands of the New York Court of Appeals. In a twist from the way these stories usually go, this piece was taken out of Germany by Holocaust survivor Reuven Flamenbaum who, according to family lore, traded a Soviet soldier two packs of cigarettes or a salami for it after his liberation from Auschwitz. The Soviets helped themselves to the contents of German museums during the final days and weeks of the war and they weren’t alone. German troops did the same, as did penniless and desperate civilians some of whom had taken shelter from the bombing, shelling and advancing armies in the museum itself. A tablet of Assyrian gold the size of a very large stamp or very small credit card is a highly appealing form of currency in a black market economy.

Flamenbaum, originally from Poland, took it with him when he moved to the US in 1949, even using it as collateral to buy the liquor store on Canal Street where he worked. He took it to Christie’s in 1954 to have it appraised and they declared it a forgery worth no more than $100. According to his daughter Hannah, her father never wanted to sell it anyway. He kept the gold card, at various times on display on a mantel or in a red wallet, as a memento of his survival. She fondly recalls playing with the delicate 9.5-gram piece.

Reuven Flamenbaum died in 2003 and Hannah was named executor of his estate. Three years later, Reuven’s son Israel Flamenbaum disputed Hannah’s accounting of the estate and notified the Vorderasiatisches Museum that its long-lost gold tablet was in a safety deposit box on Long Island. The museum immediately filed suit to reclaim the artifact, asserting they held legal title since it was legally acquired and illegally removed. The Flamenbaum estate countered citing the spoils of war doctrine which purportedly made anything looted by Soviet troops their legal property and thus legal to sell for two packs of smokes, and the doctrine of laches, a legal doctrine that requires an owner “exercise reasonable diligence to locate” lost property. Their contention was that since the museum hadn’t told the authorities the tablet was missing or listed it on a stolen art registry after the war and hadn’t actively searched for it in the six decades since, it had given up its ownership claim.

Assuming Christie’s was wrong and it’s the genuine article, the tablet was unearthed by an archaeological team from the German Oriental Society excavating the foundations of the Ishtar Temple, a ziggurat in the Assyrian city of Ashur in what is now northern Iraq but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The temple was built by King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.). The gold tablet was inscribed in cuneiform with a dedication calling on all who visit the temple to honor the king’s name.

After the end of excavations in 1914, the tablet was loaded on freighter in Basra headed for Germany. The untimely outbreak of World War I forced the ship to change course and head for Lisbon instead. The vast trove of artifacts — they found 16,000 cuneiform tablets alone — had to be stored in Portugal while war raged. Finally in 1926 the tablet arrived in Berlin. It was put on display in 1934 only to be forced into storage again by another world war. The museum put it in storage for its own protection in 1939. They don’t know when exactly it was removed, which is why they can’t say for certain who stole it, but it was discovered to be missing when inventory was taken after the war in 1945.

The museum didn’t report the loss at the time because it was a drop in a very large bucket of pillaged antiquities and the divided authorities of post-war Berlin made for a chaotic legal environment. As for attempting to locate the tablet on its own, that would have been a needle-in-a-haystack job and the museum had so many missing needles in a world of haystacks.

In 2010, a Nassau County Surrogate’s Court found for the Flamenbaum estate, agreeing that museum had failed to make sufficient efforts to find the property as per the doctrine of laches. The Surrogate’s Court judge mistakenly believed that the museum knew from a tip received in 1954 that the tablet was in New York, but the museum denied knowing anything until it received Israel Flamenbaum’s letter in 2006. In 2012 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court overturned the 2010 decision, agreeing with the museum that it held clear title and that laches didn’t apply because the Flamenbaum estate hadn’t demonstrated that the museum “failed to exercise reasonable diligence to locate the tablet and that such failure prejudiced the estate.” The court noted that even if the museum had reported the artifact stolen to the police and listed it a stolen art registry, there’s no reason to believe they would have found the piece as a result.

The seven judges of the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case on Tuesday. Their decisions typically take four to six weeks, so within the next two months we should know whether the tablet will remain with the Flamenbaums or return to the Vorderasiatisches Museum. If the court finds in favor of the Flamenbaum estate, they want to donate the tablet to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

World’s oldest movie theater reopens

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

The world’s oldest surviving public movie theater, the Eden Theatre in the town of La Ciotat 20 miles east of Marseille on the south coast of France, has been restored and reopened after 30 years of neglect. In a gala opening on Wednesday, October 9th, this little town’s prominent place in film history was reclaimed with a showing of some of the first moving pictures ever filmed, shot in 1895 by the Lumière brothers in La Ciotat’s summer sun.

In 1892, Antoine Lumière, father of the soon-to-be-famous brothers, had a seaside mansion built in La Ciotat. A friend of his had introduced him to the town and he had fallen in love with its charms. After construction on the Tuscan-style villa known as Château Lumière was completed in 1893, entire family spent summers there. The timing was ideal to make the sleepy town of 12,000 a dominant figure in movie history. According to one popular view of events, Antoine saw Edison’s Kinetoscope in Paris in 1894 and suggested to his sons that they look into improving on Edison’s device which was heavy, dependent on electricity and only allowed one person at a time to view the motion picture through a peephole.

Within months, Louis had invented combination device that shot the film, developed it and projected it. The brothers patented the Cinématographe on February 13th, 1895, using the name of an earlier recording and projecting device patented by Léon Bouly in February of 1892. By 1894 Bouly could no longer afford the fees to renew his patents, so the Lumière’s snapped up the name. Some historians believe Louis took more than just the name from Bouly’s device, but if so, he improved upon it drastically. Louis insisted he came up with the idea all on his own, denying even the story about his father and the Kinetoscope.

On March 22nd, 1895, the first movie audience witnessed La Sortie de l’Usine (“Exiting the factory”), less than a minute of footage of workers, mainly women, leaving the Lumière photographic plate factory in Lyons shot three days before the showing. This demonstration took place in Paris for a private audience at the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale (Society for the Encouragement of National Industry). The theme was advances in photography, and indeed very early color photographic film debuted at the same event. Louis was surprised that his moving picture got far more attention than the advent of color.


After this successful debut, the Lumières held private, invitation-only showings of their film shorts in various cities in France and Belgium. La Ciotat was among them, with a screening held on September 21st in the grand salon of the Château Lumière. Several of the shorts were filmed in La Ciotat. La Mer recorded kids jumping off a rickety one-plank pier into the ocean. Le Repas de Bébé starred Auguste and his wife Marguerite feeding their baby girl Andrée in the garden of the Château. That sweet bébé would die tragically at the young age of 24 in the influenza pandemic of 1918.



Those shorts were among the 10 on the bill for the first film screening for a paying public audience on December 28th, 1895, at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. The most famous Lumière film of all which was shot at La Ciotat was not shown at the Salon Indien but debuted shortly thereafter in January of 1896. Arrivé d’un Train à La Ciotat captures the arrival of a train into the station. There’s an urban legend that when audiences first saw that train barreling towards the camera, they panicked and fled to the back of the theater out of fear of the approaching iron horse. That didn’t actually happen. This wasn’t the first movie ever shown and people were quite capable of distinguishing between a real train and a filmed one.


All the articles I’ve read about the restored theater claim Arrivé d’un Train à La Ciotat was the first movie shown at the Eden. This appears to be a new urban legend hitching a ride on the pre-existing urban legend of the screaming audiences terrified of the moving train. In fact, the first moving picture shown at the Eden Theater in La Ciotat was Barque Sortant du Port, in which three men in the Lumière party attempt to row a boat past a jetty into some choppy waters only to be turned back by the waves. It debuted on March 21st, 1899, before an audience of 250. The poster advertising the show has survived, so we know the boat came first, followed by a train trip over the Alps, American cowboys lassoing horses (Western themes were popular even before there were actual scripted movies), baby’s first meal projected in color, a camel caravan at the Pyramids of Giza and more.


It was this 1899 screening that secures for the Eden the title of the world’s oldest movie theater. The Salon Indien du Grand Café was gone by the time of the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. None of the other early theaters have survived either. Built in 1889, the Eden was a coffee house/music hall that put on vaudeville shows, concerts and plays as well as boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling events. Live programming continued even after it added film to its repertoire. Yves Montand performed there when he was a scrappy youth. So did Edith Piaf.

In 1981, a group of local film enthusiasts founded le Festival du Berceau du Cinéma (the Festival of the Cradle of Cinema). For two days in July, the Eden Theater showed the Lumière Brothers’ films that started it all using the authentic original Cinématographe, first of the series, that had projected the movies at the Salon Indien in 1895. The festival was a smashing success, so much so that the town must be very grateful they weren’t using the original highly flammable nitrate film stock because there were 700 spectators crammed into a 380-seat theater.

That was a small tactical victory, however, in a losing war. The Eden’s illustrious history was marred almost to the breaking point in 1982 when its manager, Georges Giordana, 25, was murdered during an attempted robbery. The city was already in a steep economic decline, devastated by the demise of the shipbuilding industry. The Eden, hobbled and decaying, stopped showing regular movies. It only opened one week a year for the festival, which continued to draw huge crowds, until 1995 when it was permanently shuttered and left to crumble.

The festival inspired conservationists to campaign to save the Eden, but political infighting and a lack of funds blocked all attempts at restoration. Finally in 2008, a breakthrough: Marseille was declared European Capital of Culture for 2013. Jean-Claude Gaudin, mayor of Marseille, takes on the restoration of the Eden as a flagship project for the 2013 celebration. It took two more years to prise the necessary €6 million ($8 million) out of the government.

Now the work is finally done. There oak floors where the ratty old carpet used to be, new red velvet seats (166 of them, in keeping with reasonable fire codes for such a small space) and a beautiful yellow and grey-painted facade with mosaic decorations. There’s a permanent exhibition showcasing the history of moving pictures and La Ciotat’s pivotal role therein. At night, the facade is lit by a laser installation of a train in honor of the famous 1895 short.

Eyewitness letter to Ned Kelly’s capture donated to State Library

Monday, October 14th, 2013

A letter written by an eyewitness to the Ned Kelly gang’s last stand at Glenrowan on June 18th, 1880, has been donated to the State Library of Victoria. Donald Gray Sutherland had left Scotland for Australia four years earlier. He got a job as a clerk at the Bank of Victoria in the town of Oxley which was just eight miles from Glenrowan. When news of the shootout between the outlaw Kellies and the police spread, Sutherland went to Glenrowan to witness the events.

He described what he saw in a letter to his family dated the 8th of July. It’s a fascinatingly detailed account of Ned, his famous homemade armour, the bullets he took, the grim fate of other gang members. (All creative spelling and grammar is original.)

On hearing of the affray I at once proceeded to Glenrowan to have a look at the desperados who caused me so many dreams and sleepless nights. I saw the lot of them. Ned the leader of the gang being the only one taken alive. He was lying on a stretcher quite calm and collected notwithstanding the great pain he must have been suffering from his wounds. He was wounded in 5 or 6 places. Only on the arms and legs. His body and head being encased in armour made from the moule boards of a lot of ploughs. Now the farmers about here have been getting their moule boards taken off their ploughs at night for a long time but who ever dreamed it was the Kellys and that they would be used for such a purpose.

Neds armour alone weighed 97 pounds. The police thought he was a fiend seeing their rifle bullets were sliding off him like hail. They were firing into him at about 10 yards in the grim light of the morning without the slightest effect. The force of the rifle bullets made him stagger when hit but it was only when they got him on the legs and arms that he reluctantly fell exclaiming as he did so I am done. I am done. […]

Ned does not at all look like a murderer and Bushranger. He is a very powerful man aged about 27 black hair and beard with a soft mild looking face and eyes. His mouth being the only wicked portion of the face. After his capture he became very tame and conversed freely with those who knew him. Not having the pleasure of his acquaintance I did not speak to him although I should have liked very much to ask why he never stuck up the Bank of Victoria at Oxley. Well he had it down on his programme at one time but a Schoolmaster named Wallace and one who Banks with us put him off it – at least Wallace got the news conveyed through Byrne one of the Gang that he had some deeds and papers here which he did not wish destroyed as it would ruin him. Well Ned said I wont do it and he didnt do it and we were consequently saved from the presence of the Gang.

Poor Ned I was really sorry for him. To see him lying pierced by bullets and still showing no signs of pain. His 3 sisters were there also, Mrs Skillion Kate Kelly and a younger one. Kate was sitting at his head with her arms round his neck while the others were crying in a mournful strain at the state of one who but the night before was the terror of the whole Colony. The night that Byrne and Kelly shot Sherriff at the Woolshed they rode through Oxley on their way to Glenrowan. Some of the people in the Township heard the horses go bye but I didnt being sound asleep.

Byrne was shot in the groin early in the morning as he was drinking a glass of whiskey at the Bar. Then there remained only Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. Whether they shot themselves or whether they were shot by the police will ever remain a mystery. At about 2 PM a policeman named Johnstone whom I knew well at Murchison fired the house and it was only when no signs of life appeared that they rushed the place to find the charred remains of Dan and Steve Hart. They presented a horrible appearance being roasted to a skeleton. Black and grim reminding me of old Knick himself.

Thousands of people thronged to Glenrowan on receipt of the news and not one of the crowd there had the courage to lift the white sheet off the charred remains until I came up and struck a match – it being dark – pulling down the sheet and exposed all that remained of the two daring & murderous Bushrangers.

Dan and Steve are buried in the Greta Cemetery Byrne is buried at Benalla and Ned is now in the Hospital of the Melbourne Gaol treated with every care until he is strong and well enough to be hanged. Such then is Bushranging in Victoria so far.

He closed with a fabulous postscript in which he notes that he’s enclosed some hair plucked from the tail of Ned Kelly’s devoted mare who “followed him all around the trees during the firing. [Ned] said he wouldn’t care for himself if he thought his mare safe.”

Donald Gray Sutherland eventually moved to New South Wales where he died eight years after the shootout at the young age of 36. This exceptional letter has remained in the family until now. They decided to donate it to the State Library of Victoria which has an extensive collection of Ned Kelly-related artifacts, including his armour. Starting Monday, the letter will join the armour on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition, The Changing Face of Victoria.

Charles IV statue irreparably harmed by unauthorized “restoration”

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

A bronze equestrian statue King Charles IV of Spain that stands in Mexico City’s Plaza Manuel Tolsá has been damaged beyond repair by a botched and unauthorized “restoration” ordered by city officials. Cast in 1802 by artist and architect Manuel Tolsá (after whom the plaza is named), the statue is legally designated a historic property and is therefore under the purview of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). By law, any work on the piece must be authorized by INAH but in this case the Historic Center officials didn’t even apply for a permit until after the restoration was already in disastrous progress.

The city contracted one Arturo Javier Marina Othón of Marina Monument Restoration to clean, restore and maintain the bronze and its pedestal. He stated up front that he would only apply a weak 30% solution of nitric acid to clean the surface dirt and pollution, but when INAH experts examined the statue to report on the damage, they found a can of partially used 60% nitric acid on the scaffolding. Nitric acid in that high a concentration just eats through metal. Neither nitric nor any other inorganic acid have been used in restoring metals since the 1950s when conservators finally realized how much damage they cause.

Othón denies having used 60% nitric acid. He insists he only used 30% and that it’s a perfectly cromulent material for cleaning the outer grime layer of a bronze statue. In his opinion, he is being scapegoated to distract the public from the city’s failures to protect its cultural patrimony which could certainly be an element, but at the same time, there’s no denying the fact that the acid very obviously went far deeper than the top grime layer to expose the soft coppery underbelly of the statue.

Analysis of the statue’s dark, almost black patina done in September before the so-called restoration found that it was composed of oxide, carbonates, sulfur and sulfates under a layer of grime. Those compounds are what is known as passive corrosives, meaning they’re stable byproducts of exposure to environmental elements like oxygen, rain, carbon dioxide, sulfur compounds. They don’t damage the metal but rather form layers of protective coating.

Only 35% of the sculpture was directed treated with strong nitric acid, but 50% of it has been damaged by the acid dripping down from the application site. As a result, half of the patina is gone forever and the newly exposed bronze is particularly susceptible to corrosion. The strong acid also dissolved the less stable elements of the bronze creating an alchemical alteration of the material itself. Bronze alloy is made of copper, tin, zinc and lead. The nitric acid attacked the tin and zinc dissolving them and leaving behind shiny pink copper. The acid also pitted the surface, vastly increasing the area susceptible to corrosion. They used metal brushes attached to power tools to polish the metal, which of course did a whole other irreparable number on the bronze. There are patches of melted statue staining the stone pedestal now, runoff from the horse and king’s suppurating acid wounds.

The litany of incompetence doesn’t end there. The site was dirty, with trash and unused iron bars from the scaffolding scattered around. The iron stained the marble base and wooden planks trapped moisture in the area to compound corrosion problems. The scaffolding itself was apparently erected by drunken toddlers who had the brilliant idea of stabilizing the structure by tying a few bars to three of the horse’s legs, one of which already has a large crack in it. Some scaffolding planks were supported by the rump of the horse which puts it in danger of friction damage and further corrosion. It’s amazing the whole crew didn’t wind up in a pile of broken arms and legs.

INAH’s report strongly urges immediate intervention to stabilize the statue and restore it where possible. All conservation plans will be submitted to INAH for prior approval, needless to say, and you can bet they’ll be extra vigilant.

EDIT: I originally wrongly attributed the restoration order to the Historic Center Rescue Trust, a private organization founded by multi-billionaire Carlos Slim that has dedicated millions of pesos and much hard work to the revitalization of Mexico City’s historic center. This was my own erroneous reading of the original Spanish. In fact the restoration order came from city officials. I’ve removed the paragraph where I discussed the Trust and have redirected all references to the real culprit.

I apologize for the mistake. Many thanks to the anonymous commenter who corrected me. :thanks:

Lost Doctor Who episodes found for real!

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

I thought it had to be another hoax when I read last week that long-lost copies of perhaps as many as 100 episodes of 1960s Doctor Who had been found in Ethiopia. You hear about obscure Doctor Whos popping up in remote places sometimes, but there’s rarely fire under all the smoke. Well there’s fire this time, albeit more of a cigarette lighter than a mighty conflagration. The rumors were way off on the number and country, but nine missing episodes of Doctor Who from 1967 and 1968 have been found in a cupboard in the Nigerian city of Jos.

The find was made by Philip Morris, director of a company called Television International Enterprises Archive.

Mr Morris said: “The tapes had been left gathering dust in a storeroom at a television relay station in Nigeria. I remember wiping the dust off the masking tape on the canisters and my heart missed a beat as I saw the words, Doctor Who. When I read the story code I realised I’d found something pretty special.”

He said it had been a “lucky” find given the high temperatures in the African country. “Fortunately they had been kept in the optimum condition.”

They still needed remastering, though. Lots of dirt, dust, scratches marred the film surface.

Phillip Morris describes his discovery of the film cans in Nigeria and how they got there:


The newly-rediscovered episodes star Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, Frazer Hines as Jamie and Deborah Watling as Victoria in two classic six-parters: The Enemy of the World, which is unique in that the Troughton plays both the Doctor and his main enemy, Salamander, and The Web of Fear which introduced the character of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, aka the Brigadier. There was only one episode of The Enemy of the World known to have survived in the BBC archive, episode three. The Nigerian finds include episodes one, two, four, five and six, thus completing the series. The Web of Fear only had episode one extant. Now we can add episodes two, four, fix and six to the tally. Episode three has yet to be found, but it has been reconstructed from stills and audio, which is actually kind of bearable. They do that with silent pictures all the time, and they don’t have any dialogue to make it easier to follow.

All of this is necessary because the BBC had an unfortunately short-sighted policy of destroying the original transmission tapes of its television programming from the 1960s and 1970s. They did this regularly back then, purging the records of what was deemed excess baggage to free up room and so they could reuse the tape. There was also a contract with the actors’ union which stipulated that the fees paid to performers would skyrocket after a certain number of airings. When a program’s repeat rights expired, airing it again became prohibitively expensive so why keep old copies and have to pay for storage on something that can’t be shown? Besides, back then, few people cared in principle about film and television preservation, least of all the makers of said films and television shows.

As a result of this cultural blind spot, a great many early programs only exist now in stills and occasional sound recordings. The reason so many nerds can recite Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches by heart at top volume is that Terry Gilliam got wind of the BBC’s plans and bought the masters before they could be wiped. He was lucky. When Peter Cook tried to save the original recordings of Not Only… But Also, a groundbreaking sketch comedy show he co-created, co-wrote and co-starred in with Dudley Moore, BBC “red tape,” as the Beeb describes it today with understated chagrin, got in the way. Not Only… But Also was wiped.

Doctor Who was no different. Of the 253 episodes that aired in the first six years of the show (that’s a crazy number of episodes in such a short time, btw; British TV sure isn’t like that anymore), 106 were thought lost. Here’s a list of missing episodes (not updated yet to reflect the Nigerian find). The Doctor’s saving grace has been a rare episode cropping up in a random attic or two, and episodes that were copied and sold to foreign broadcasters. They’ve turned up before but this is the largest group found at one time since the destruction of original masters stopped.

The digitally remastered episodes can be purchased on iTunes right now. The Enemy of the World will be released on DVD on November 25th, 2013, The Web of Fear on February 24th, 2014. Collector’s editions will be available on the BBC website. Meanwhile, here are a few previews, some of which include spoilers, just in case a 45-year-old episode of television still needs spoiler warnings, which in this case it actually may because these episodes have not been seen since they first aired.

The Enemy of the World, episode 1 – 23 December 1967



The Enemy of the World, episode 4 – 13 January 1968


The Web of Fear, episode 5 – 2 March 1968:


The Web of Fear, episode 6 – 9 March 1968:






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