Archive for July, 2014

Sam’s iconic piano from Casablanca for sale

Monday, July 21st, 2014

The piano on which Sam played As Times Goes By at the behest of a melancholic Ilsa and a choleric Rick in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca will be put up for auction later this year. It’s one of more than 30 pieces from the film that will be sold at Bonhams New York’s TCM Presents: There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction on November 24th, all of which belong to a single private collector. Along with the piano, the sale will feature the interior and exterior doors from Rick’s Café Américain, passports and other papers used in the movie, including the letters of transit that were hidden in this piano in a pivotal plot point.

Casablanca has long been one of the most beloved of Hollywood’s wartime classics and continues to be one of the most popular films in the Turner Classic Movies library,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president of digital, affiliate, lifestyle and enterprise commerce at TCM, TBS and TNT. “With the addition of this extraordinary collection of Casablanca memorabilia, TCM and Bonhams’ There’s No Place Like Hollywood auction is going to be a truly unforgettable and historic event.”

“Bonhams is thrilled to represent this remarkable Casablanca collection, certainly one of the most significant film memorabilia collections still in private hands,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams.

Last year the centerpiece of the Bonham’s auction of movie memorabilia curated by the experts of Turner Classic Movies was from another of Humphrey Bogart’s iconic films, The Maltese Falcon. The lead falcon prop sold for an astonishing $4,085,000 including buyer’s premium. No pre-sale estimate for the piano has been announced yet, but Bonham’s expects it to sell for seven figures as well. There’s no guarantee, of course. The gorgeous 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca‘s final scene sold for $380,000, $70,000 below the low estimate at last year’s sale.

The piano used in the Paris flashback scene where Sam first plays the song for Rick and Ilsa in happier times sold for much less than its estimate at Sotheby’s in December of 2012. The estimate was $800,000 to $1.2 million, but the hammer price was $500,000 ($602,500 including buyer’s premium). Some articles have erroneously conflated the two pianos. The one for sale this November was last purchased at public auction in the 1980s and has since then been loaned to Warner Brothers Studio Museum and the Hollywood Bowl for a 2006 performance.

This piano, which is salmon-colored in real life, looms large in film history as the song sung by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam has become part of the cultural lexicon. Wilson didn’t actually play the piano (he was a drummer) so as he sang he imitated the real pianist Elliot Carpenter who was playing out of view of the cameras but in view of Wilson. Incidentally, the line most associated with the scene, “Play it again, Sam,” was never actually spoken in the movie.

The full auction catalogue is not yet available online, but keep an eye on this page where it will appear a month or so before the sale.

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See the lunar suface live tonight in high def

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

In honor of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, at 8:30 PM EST tonight the Slooh Space Camera will broadcast live high definition video of the lunar surface. Host Geoff Fox will welcome a panel of experts including astronomer Bob Berman, science journalist Andy Chaikin and filmmaker Duncan Copp who directed the phenomenal The Planets — An HD Odyssey setting breathtaking images of the planets in our solar system with Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite. While you enjoy the high definition views of the moon today, the panelists will discuss the moon landing of 45 years ago,

The YouTube is embedded below. If that doesn’t work for you, you can follow the broadcast on the Slooh website.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/95m8xdhMIec&w=430]

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Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

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Burned, cut bones from Boudiccan uprising found in Colchester

Friday, July 18th, 2014

Burned and cut bone fragments from the Boudiccan revolt have been discovered at the redevelopment site of supermarket Williams & Griffin in Colchester, southeast England. The two pieces, one of mandible and the other of tibia, were found mixed in with burned building debris that had been moved to the location and used as fill during the reconstruction of Colchester after Boudica’s army burned the city to the ground in 61 A.D. Although the revolt-era layer of the town has been extensively excavated, these are only the second human remains ever found in Colchester’s Boudiccan debris, and the first were unearthed 50 years ago in 1965.

The reason so few bones have been found in a city that was completely destroyed is that the inhabitants were rounded up and killed in the sacred groves of the Iceni war goddess Andraste. Cassio Dio goes into gruesome detail on the subject in Book 62, Chapter 7 of his Roman History:

The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate.

Colchester, the Roman colony of Camulodunum, was the first target of Boudica’s forces. It had great symbolic significance to them. The city had been the capital of the Trinovantes, the Iceni’s allies in the uprising, and it was there that they had had to surrender to Claudius in 43 A.D. The next year a temple to Claudius was built to commemorate the great victory/humiliating defeat and the legions used the city as a fortress for another five years. When they left, retired Roman veterans moved in, displacing the native Britons, taking their land and enslaving them. The veterans didn’t bother to build fortifications, however, so Boudica’s army made short shrift of the city. Surviving veterans fled to Claudius’ temple where Boudica besieged them for two days before it too fell and was torched along with the rest of Camulodunum.

When the bone pieces were first unearthed last week, the evidence of burning was clearly visible in situ, but it wasn’t until archaeologists removed the fragments for additional study that the found evidence that the bones had been cut with a sharp instrument of some kind, possibly a weapon.

The cut mark on the shinbone is the most convincing. The bone is a left tibia where the top front left-hand side has been sliced off with a sharp blade. The blow must have been ferocious and it must have cut through part of the end of the thigh bone (femur) and probably the kneecap (patella) and the fibula (the thin bone alongside the tibia). The angle of the cut suggests that the leg must have been flexed and that the person who cut it wasn’t standing directly in front of him but to his right or left.

The mandible is more difficult to interpret. Now that it is out of the ground, we can see that it does indeed have its third molar and that the person was much older when he died than we thought. What is striking, however, is that the inside edge of the raised part at the back of the jaw is missing. It looks as if this part of the jaw has been sliced off where the bone is quite thin. But the cut looks rather delicate for a sword blow. It may be that the jawbone simply cracked in the ground and this part became detached. But then, in the light of the chop mark on the leg bone, some kind of deliberate incision, violent or delicate, needs to be considered as a possiblity [sic]. If the damage was the result of a sword blow, then it must have been a downwards one from the man’s left. The sword must have crashed clean through his left cheek bone (the zygomatic bone) between his left eye and ear so that it just nicked the front of the upper part of his jaw.

The cut marks on the bones look very clean to be shovel marks, but it is possible that the mandible in particular was damaged during the reconstruction by a shovel, say, rather than by a blade.

These bones and those unearthed in 1965 were found 100 yards from each other. Archaeologists have just begun to dig at a third site that lies between the two find spots, so there may be more interesting news from the Boudiccan revolt to report soon.

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La Belle moves from freeze dryer to museum

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

La Belle, one of the ships French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on his ill-fated colonizing mission, sank in a storm in Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1686. In 1995, the wreck of the 54-1/2-foot-long supply ship was found in excellent condition, the bottom third preserved intact with its contents by the mud of the sea floor. Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission spent two years excavating the wreck, building a cofferdam around it, draining the water and then digging it out of the mud. They were able to recover the hull of the ship and 700,000 artifacts, including swords, cannons, bronze hawk bells, pottery, thousands of glass beads and mirrors intended for trade and a skeleton so well preserved that there was still tendon tissue on the bones and a large amount of brain material in the skull.

As with other exceptional raised shipwrecks like the Mary Rose and the Vasa, La Belle’s wooden hull needed to be conserved immediately to ensure it wouldn’t dry out too quickly and warp or shrink. The ship’s timbers were sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where they were soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and stabilizes it. PEG treatment takes a long, long time, like decades, and since it’s petroleum-derived, the cost rises with the price of oil.

When the budget for the conservation ballooned from $330,000 to $1.4 million solely because of PEG prices, in late 2010 conservators changed course and decided to put the ship timbers in a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide. Kept at a constant temperature of 60 degrees below zero, the seawater bound to the wood sublimates — transforms directly from solid to gas — in significantly less time than it takes for PEG to replace water.

To ensure that the timbers retained their shape and size, the hull was disassembled and each piece tagged and scanned. Molds were made so researchers had the original shape of each part for comparison. After running some tests on smaller items, the ship components were placed in the freeze dryer for four to six months until all the bound water was gone. The wreck of La Belle has 600 component parts, including the keel, keelson, ceiling planking, mast and futtocks (those curved ribs in the ship’s frame), so it took several loads to dry them all.

Reconstruction of the ship was scheduled to begin in October of 2013 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, but it has taken a little longer than originally planned. On Thursday, July 17th, the largest portions of La Belle were loaded onto an 18-wheeler and transported from the Riverside Campus of Texas A&M to the Bullock Museum. Included in this first delivery were the 800-pound keel, the 1,100-pound keelson, the forefoot, more than 20 floor planks, buttresses, the mast, 40 first futtocks, more than 20 second futtocks and 25 third futtocks. (Yes I am completely in love with the word futtocks and plan to use it as a curse word on a daily basis from now on.)

On October 25th, the museum will debut a new exhibition, La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, which in addition to traditional displays of artifacts, maps and pictures of the excavation and conservation, will most excitingly feature the public reassembly of the hull. Reconstruction should be completed in May of next year, after which the hull will be encased in glass and placed on display in the center of the museum. A replica of the rest of the ship will be built around the encased hull and visitors will be allowed to walk on the glass over the original ship so they can look down at it and all around at the replica. Such a brilliant idea. This is going to be a blockbuster exhibition.

There will also be a “4D” film, Shipwrecked, for visitors to enjoy. From the museum’s upcoming exhibits page:

Created in collaboration with award-winning production house, Cortina Productions, the film will be on view daily in the Bullock’s popular Texas Spirit Theater, a 4D venue that offers an immersive experience combining the high-drama of 3D with sensory effects built into the seats and environment. Filmed on board one of the few sea-worthy vessels modeled after ships of the 1600s, the film dramatizes the story of La Salle’s venture, revealing the struggles, personalities, and conflicts through the eyes of one of the only survivors of the expedition, Pierre Talon. Pierre’s family was recruited as colonists for the voyage, and at the age of 10, he was separated from his mother and siblings and sent by La Salle to learn the language of the Caddo people in the hopes of establishing trade and facilitating the expedition. Adopted by the tribe, at the age of 14 Pierre was subsequently captured by the Spanish. In the film, he recounts to his captors all that he saw from the moment the ships were setting sail from France.

This news story has a brief overview of La Salle’s mission, some great footage of the hull during the conservation process and a phenomenal mockup of the exhibit with the encased hull and replica built around it that seriously looks real.

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Rome pyramid restoration ahead of schedule

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

In December of 2011, Japanese retail clothing mogul Yuzo Yagi offered to donate €1 million to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a pointy marble-clad vanity pyramid built in Rome in the 1st century B.C. At the time, the agreement was scheduled to be signed in January of 2012 and work to start in April, but the donation agreement didn’t get signed until March, the scaffolding didn’t begin to go up until November and it wasn’t finished until February. Actual restoration work began in March of 2013. Then in a shocking twist, it was completed five months early.

The Culture Ministry contacted Yuzo Yagi and asked him to donate another million euros for a second stage of restoration that would return the Carrara marble cladding to its original whiteness as opposed to its longstanding grimy gray. White happens to be Mr. Yagi’s favorite color — he is known for his stylish all-white ensembles — so he was happy to double his original donation.

In December of 2013 he signed a second donation agreement, again requiring nothing more than a discreet plaque near, not on, the pyramid, naming him as the donor. Even during the restoration the only signs on the pyramid are informational billboards at ground level and white banners assigning themes to each side — the mystical side, the scientific side, the historical side and the secret side. The billboards explain the history of the pyramid through these four themes. Yagi’s company gets credit for his patronage on the billboards, but just in discreet text lines. No logos or glaring anything. The images of the pyramid and information of its background dominate completely. Masterpiece Theater is more cluttered than that, like by a lot.

Now phase two is well on the way to being finished and they’re ahead of schedule again. Restorers expect to be done three months before the expected November deadline. The early finish means Yagi isn’t ready for an inauguration ceremony. He’s thinking of just waiting until next summer and making a big event. He’s also so pleased with how this venture has gone that he’s contemplating donating more money for the preservation of another monument.

Yuzo Yagi toured the pyramid on Tuesday, accompanied by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to promote Mr. Yagi’s dignified generosity as a model for future donors and to tout the state’s new tax incentives for businesses who donate to cultural heritage projects.

You can see how great the pyramid looks inside and out in this news story on Mr. Yagi’s visit:

Oh man, I want to wear a hardhat and go inside! If the burial chamber looks modest it’s because Augustus’ sumptuary law of 18 B.C. forbade ostentatious luxury in tombs. Unlike the Egyptians whose tombs he modeled his own after, Gaius Cestius was not buried with lavish treasures to accompany him to the afterlife. He got white walls with small frescoes of alternating winged Victories and ceremonial vessels, plus a few bronze statues of him outside the pyramid.

The frescoes were in serious danger from water leaking through the marble slabs into the brick and concrete structure. Those leaks have all been plugged now. Also gone are the severe microorganism infestation that was making a meal of the marble and the copious vegetation sprouting through the damaged exterior walls. The pyramid hasn’t looked this good or been this healthy since it was built, I wager.

Here’s a 3D animation of a point cloud generated from laser scan data before the scaffolding went up. It gave restorers a clear picture of the condition of all four sides, the deterioration of the marble cladding, any unevenness in the surface or cracks and evidence of shear.

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Hiker falls onto monolith, saves it from looters

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014


A tourist hiking in the foothills of a waterfall in Mexico two weeks ago fell from a branch onto a Mesoamerican monolith that was in the process of being carved out of the stone by looters. You’d think looters would be deterred by the weight of the stone — an estimated 10 tons — and its size — five feet wide, five feet high and almost seven feet deep — but no; they just started cutting the carving out of it, removing the porous red volcanic cantera stone around the figure which is about a foot and a half wide and two and a half feet high. Given enough time they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky hiker falling out of a tree.

The tourist reported the find to the authorities in the nearby city of Calvillo in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes who in turn called in regional experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Archaeologists examined the monolith and discovered it’s a unique piece of major historical import in the region. Carved in the image of a man with a headdress and earrings, its location near a waterfall and spring suggests a connection to a deity.

The figure shows a strong influence of Teotihuacan style from between 200 to 600 A.D. The urban center of Teotihuacan was 350 miles southeast of Calvillo, but its cultural sphere of influence was vast. Before now, however, archaeologists thought the local culture was entirely Chichimeca, nomadic hunter-gatherers of varied language and ethnicity, but no artifacts this old have been found in the state before. It significantly predates known Chichimeca settlements in the area.

In order to keep it safe from human depredation, experts will be completing the looters’ work. The 10-ton stone is simply too big and unwieldy to remove. It’s in the wilderness where there are no roads. It would require specialized equipment and a cargo helicopter to air lift it out of the jungle, and officials have neither the material nor the funding to make that happen. Instead, they’ve installed a shelter around the stone and will have a joint police and army surveillance team on site while archaeologists detach the carved figure from its rocky home. The operation is expected to take 15 days to a month.

Once it’s been removed, the carving will be kept at the INAH lab where archaeologists can study it fully. Its ultimate destination will be the Municipal Museum that is currently under construction in Calvillo.

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200-year-old seltzer water bottle found on shipwreck

Monday, July 14th, 2014

An intact sealed mineral water bottle from the German town of Selters has been retrieved from a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Poland. There’s a maker’s seal on the front of the bottle, a faded dark brown circle around the circular text “Selters” with the initial H and N topped by a crown inside, which identify it has having been manufactured between 1806 and 1830. The stoneware bottle still has liquid inside which is not seawater, but it’s possible the bottle was reused and recorked so archaeologists won’t know if there’s prized 200-year-old mineral water in there until they test the contents in a lab.

The H and N on the seal stand for Herzogthum Nassau, meaning Duchy of Nassau, a province in western Germany that is today the state of Hesse. The Selters area of the province on northern slopes of the Taunus mountains was famous for its mineral springs. Long before the duchy existed when the region was part of the Electorate of Trier ruled by a prince-archbishop, local monasteries documented the wells in records from the 8th century. By the 16th century Selters’ naturally carbonated water was well known all over the country. German doctors wrote papers on its curative properties and the crisp, pleasantly sour taste from its uniquely high alkaline salt content.

Starting in the mid-18th century, the water was packaged in stoneware vessels and sold internationally. Shipments went out to the Netherlands, Sweden, England, France, Russia, Africa, even as far afield as America and Jakarta. It was a highly profitable venture, with more than a million jugs sold in 1791. The Electorate west of the Rhine was occupied by France in 1803 and absorbed into the French diocesan system. East of the Rhine its territories were secularized and incorporated into the county of Nassau-Weilburg which merged with Nassau-Usingen to form the Duchy of Nassau in 1806.

The Duchy would only last for 60 years (it was annexed by Prussia in 1866), but during its existence the Selters water was its primary export. In 1850 three million jugs were sold, bringing in annual net profits of 100,000 guilders to the Duke’s privy purse. A public fountain allowed locals to collect the prized water free for home use.

The stoneware bottles were quite ingeniously designed to preserve the freshness and carbonation of the water. The necks were kept short and the bottles filled all the way to the top before being corked and cemented. The aim was to keep air out in order to preserve the fizz and flavor. As long as the air bubble in the neck was small (or non-existent, ideally) and the cork held, the water would retain its unique qualities in the sealed bottle for months. In the mid-19th century, analytical chemist Dr. Remigius Fresenius of the Wiesbaden Agricultural Institution stored Selters water for 15 years and found it substantially unchanged when he retested it.

Selters water was so famous worldwide that when artificial carbonation was invented, some of its products were referred to as “Selterser water,” aka water of Selters, aka seltzer water. Thus Selters became a genericized trademark, like Xerox for photocopies or Kleenex for tissues.

With millions sold every year for more than a century, many Selters stoneware bottles have survived. Corked and sealed ones, however are much more rare. The one discovered on the shipwreck is by far the most valuable object recovered from the unidentified vessel, labeled simply F-33-31, which lies 40 feet deep in Gdańsk Bay. In addition to its inherent coolness, the bottle has helped narrow down the ship’s age. Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples from the ships planks should narrow it down further.

The underwater archaeologists from the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk surveying the wreck have also found pottery fragments, small metal and ceramic vessels, shoe parts and ship parts, including wooden pulley blocks. They’ve also found a number of large stones which they believe were the ship’s main cargo, used in the construction of foundations or fortifications.

Once the survey is complete, the data and images will be used to create a 3D digital model of the wreck. The team has taken more than 7,000 pictures of the site from which a highly detailed virtual model can be constructed, an innovative approach to underwater archaeology that the National Maritime Museum has pioneered. After testing, the water bottle will go on display at the National Maritime Museum.

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Metal feline claws found in Moche tomb

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

The ancient capital of the Moche culture lies five miles south of the city of Trujillo on the northern coast of Peru. Its inhabitants lived in an urban center bracketed by the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, the largest adobe structures known. The Spanish looted the former extensively, diverting a river to erode the bricks and wash out the gold from burials of Moche rulers. The Temple of the Moon is in better condition and still retains 200 square feet of painted murals depicting the daily life, human sacrifice, deities, wars of a people who have left no written records. The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon Archaeological Project has been excavating the site for 20 years, and still it holds magical surprises.

The latest surprises are some wonderfully vicious-looking feline claws made of metal in the 1,500-year-old tomb of an elite man excavated under the urban center of the site. The claws were found towards the top of the burial, below his head around neck or shoulder height and archaeologists aren’t sure how they were worn. They could have been part of a costume used in ritual combat where the winner was given the claws as a prize and the loser was sacrificed.

Big cats and deities with feline characteristics played an important role in Moche cosmology. They are frequently depicted in figurines, murals and painted on ceramic vessels. One of the painted friezes at the Temple of Moon, as a matter of fact, depicts large felines attacking and killing human victims, and a feline features prominently on what may be the most important artifact discovered in the tomb: a pyramid-shaped copper scepter which is topped with the face of a feline, fangs bared. The four sides of the scepter are also decorated, three of them with warriors displaying their weapons and the fourth with a large cat that has just killed a nude prisoner.

The scepter is very similar in shape and design to one discovered in the tomb of the Lord of Sipán with one major difference: Sipán’s sceptre was made of gold, not copper. The scepter is a symbol of rule, but the copper indicates this man was a local ruler, certainly a person of high social rank, but a vassal of Moche royalty rather than standing atop the hierarchy himself. Hence the preponderance of copper and brass in the tomb. The only gold found was a few modest pieces inlaid in a pair of large round earplugs. The quality of the earplugs again is high, but not the highest. He was a nobleman, a political or religious leader, possibly an envoy sent to newly conquered territories.

The high status is confirmed by the presence of a metal mask that once covered his face. It is in pieces now, but the shiny metal buttons used to cover his eyes are in excellent condition. The presence of eye coverings confirm his elevated status. Ten decorated ceramic vessels were buried with him, most of which have been painted with pattern motifs but some of which depict figures from Moche cosmology, another indicator of the importance of the deceased. Metal blades placed at the hands and feet are also characteristic of elite burials. Archaeologists believe these metal objects coded information of the deceased’s place in Moche hierarchy.

Archaeologists hope to determine whether he was a native ruler or if he came from elsewhere by using stable isotope analysis which can reveal where a person was raised based on the proportion of certain elements in their teeth and bones. It’s a time consuming process; results won’t be expected until next year. Meanwhile, once the artifacts and remains were removed, the tomb was promptly sealed to keep the archaeological context safe from the coming rains. It will be re-opened for further study.

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1620s crucifix unearthed in Newfoundland

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

An archaeological team excavating the Newfoundland colony of Avalon, founded in 1620 by George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, has discovered a small copper crucifix dating to the early days of the settlement. It’s just 2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms and has the traditional image of Christ on the cross on the front. On the back is the Virgin Mary cradling the Christ child. The features of the relief are worn almost smooth, indicating that the devotional object was rubbed constantly. Coupled with its small size and broken top, it suggests the crucifix was once part of a rosary.

The crucifix was amongst a collection of ceramics, bones, nails and building debris associated with the construction of a large stone dwelling built for Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The dwelling was started sometime after 1623 and completed before the arrival of Calvert, most of his family and about 40 additional settlers in 1628. The cultural deposit containing the crucifix was sealed sometime in the second half of the 1620s, thus providing a securely datable context for the artifacts and a window into the lives of those who worked at Calvert’s colony of Avalon during this early period.

This is the first unambiguously Catholic object found from the time of Calvert’s founding of the colony, and as such it is of singular importance. George Calvert served as King James I’s Secretary of State for six years before resigning and officially converting to Catholicism in 1625. There’s some question as to whether that was the result of a revelation in the moment or the public confirmation of a long-held but hidden faith. His father Leonard was Catholic and in the fraught environment of the Elizabethan religious reforms, suffered constant harassment from the authorities for such crimes as employing Catholics and not going to Church of England services. Little George became a pawn in this game, being forced at age 12 to change tutors to an approved Protestant who would eschew the “popish primer” his previous tutor had employed.

In order to graduate from Oxford and carve out a career for himself as a diplomat and politician at the court of King James, George Calvert certainly professed Protestantism. His wife was Protestant and he raised his children Protestant. By all accounts he was an honest, decent man so there’s no reason to assume he was being deceptive about his religious faith, but either way his experience with religious persecution played an integral role in his plans for Avalon.

He first bought property on Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan and named it Avalon after the island from Arthurian legend where Christianity was introduced to Britain. Colonists arrived in 1621 led by Captain Edward Wynne who wrote glowingly (and inaccurately) to Calvert describing Newfoundland as a bountiful land with a mild climate. Calvert thought fishing was the key to making the colony self-sustaining, maybe even profitable. In 1623 Calvert secured a royal charter extending his lands to the whole southeast peninsula, officially naming it the Province of Avalon “in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America.”

George Calvert’s 1623 charter for the province enshrined freedom of conscience by not requiring that colonists take the oath of supremacy accepting the sovereign as the head of the Church of England. That principle was underscored when Calvert took his first trip to Avalon in the summer of 1627. He brought two priests with him — Father Anthony Smith and Father Thomas Longville (later that year Longville returned to England and was replaced by a Father Hackett) — who according to the colony’s disapproving Puritan clergyman Rev. Erasmus Stourton “said mass every Sunday at Feiryland and used all other ceremonies of the church of Rome in the ample manner as it is used in Spain.” Very much against Stourton’s inclination, Avalon was the first North American colony to practice religious tolerance.

It’s possible that the recently discovered crucifix belonged to one of the three priests, one of the 100 colonists who were established at Ferryland by 1627, or maybe even Calvert himself. Given the early dating, it’s probably more likely to have been lost one of the home’s builders or by Sir Arthur Aston, the governor of Avalon from 1625 to late 1626, or by one of the Catholic colonists he brought with him.

Calvert went back to England before he could experience the joys of a Newfoundland winter, but returned in 1628 with his wife and most of his children. That’s when he found out that Wynne’s letters had been more fiction than fact. A frigid, long winter and fishing ships bedeviled by French privateer the Marquis de la Rade, made life very hard, nigh on unbearable for the good Baron. He and his family left Avalon in 1629 for more hospitable climes in the Virginia territory. Two years later, he received another royal charter granting him property north of the Potomac on both side of the Chesapeake Bay. He died five weeks before the charter for Maryland was issued. His son Cecilius took over where his father left off, enshrining the same principle of religious freedom in Maryland as his father had instituted in Avalon.

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