Archive for August, 2014

Bison return to National Zoo for 125th anniversary

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Bison behind the Smithsonian Castle ca. 1886-1889You may have seen the famous picture of American bison who lived behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the late 19th century. I posted it a few years ago when the Castle was damaged in an earthquake just because it’s such a charming image. What I didn’t realize at the time is that those incongruously located bison played a pivotal role in the creation of the National Zoo.

Pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground into fertilizer, mid-1870sIn 1886, the Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist William Temple Hornaday spent three months taking a census of bison numbers by corresponding with ranchers, hunters, zookeepers, and military officers all over the country. It was widely known that the situation was dire, that all the great herds were gone, indiscriminately slaughtered by hunters, that from the 10-15 million that once roamed the range, maybe a few thousand individuals remained in the more inaccessible regions of the northern range. Hornaday’s research found that extinction loomed even closer, that instead of thousands there were probably fewer than 300 head of wild bison left in the entire United States.

William Temple HornadaySpencer F. Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, concerned that the National Museum only had a handful of ratty skins, a skeleton, a couple of heads and assorted bones in its collection, agreed to send Hornaday on a mission to secure enough specimens before there were none left to be had. Hornaday’s brief was to kill between 80 and 100 bison, possibly a third of the entire surviving population, to ensure the Smithsonian, smaller museums and future museums not yet in existence would have specimens to display and study when the bison were extinct.

Partially completed armature for taxidermy bison, drawing from Hornaday's 1891 book "Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting"This is a passage from a letter Hornaday wrote to Baird in December of 1886 reporting on the team’s success:

I consider that we have been extremely lucky in finding a sufficient number of buffalo where it was supposed by people generally that none existed. Our “outfit” has been pronounced by old buffalo hunters “The luckiest outfit that ever hunted buffalo in Montana,” and the opinion is quite generally held that our “haul” of specimens could not be equaled again in Montana by anybody, no matter what their resources for the reason that the buffalo are not there. We killed very nearly all we saw and I am confident there are not over thirty-head remaining in Montana, all told. By this time next year the cowboys will have destroyed about all of this remnant. We got in our Exploration just in the nick of time, — the last day in the evening, so to speak, and I do not hesitate to say that I am really rejoiced over the fact that we have been successful in securing the specimens we needed so urgently.

I understand his perspective — hunters would have killed those bison anyway, so this way they were preserved for posterity at least — but my modern sensibilities can’t help but find the impulse to conserve by destruction contradictory.

Hornaday with bison calf Sandy at Smithsonian, 1886William Temple Hornaday didn’t stop there, however. He became a powerful advocate for the wild bison, realizing he had to at least try to prevent the total annihilation of the noble beast. He actually brought back a live bison, a calf he named Sandy, from his 1886 hunt, but Sandy only lived a few months. Hornaday got the idea for a national zoo and wrote to Baird proposing it. Baird was very ill and would soon pass away, so his assistant Professor George Brown Goode, appointed acting secretary until a permanent replacement could be found, picked up the mantle.

Taxidermy bison group by William Hornaday in the Smithsonian, 1887In the fall of 1887, Goode created the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum and made Hornaday its curator. Their plan was to test the public’s interest in a zoo in the capital. If people were into the test run, getting the necessary legislation passed for a full-on national zoo would be much more likely. Hornaday went off on another field trip to assemble some actual living animals and came back with 15 American natives: one cinnamon bear, one white-tailed deer, one Columbia black-tailed deer, five prairie dogs, a Cross fox, a mule deer, two badgers, a red fox, and two spotted lynx. He set up a rather rickety group of paddocks and sheds on the National Mall and Field of Dreams-like, people came.

The Smithsonian’s mini-zoo was an instant success. Crowds flocked to see the live animals, and donors from President Grover Cleveland (he donated a golden eagle that had been given to him as a Christmas gift) to wealthy collectors quickly increased the complement of animals. In December of 1887, Hornaday wrote to Goode proposing that they obtain a nucleus of a bison herd to breed them in captivity without diluting the genes by mating them with domestic cattle (something that had been happening on ranches for years) or damaging the line by in-breeding.

In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum, one or both, take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes. Having been spared the misfortune, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, of being left without a series of skins and skeletons of the species suitable for the wants of the National Museum, it now seems necessary for us to assume the responsibility of forming and preserving a herd of live buffaloes which may, in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.

To purchase the nucleus herd would be expensive, and space was going to be an issue sooner rather than later. Hornaday’s dream would become closer to reality shortly when frontier surgeon and Indian Agent Dr. Valentine Trant McGillycuddy donated a breeding pair of bison and two of their calves (one male, one female). That wasn’t enough for a breeding program, but it was a great start.

Group of bison standing in paddock near first National Zoological Park Building, a house for the bison and elk. An elk is visible in his paddock in the distance. Photograph by C.M. Bell 1891By the spring of 1888, the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum had 172 animals in its charge. The paddocks and shanties around the Smithsonian Castle could not handle the burgeoning population, and Hornaday turned his considerable energies to Congress. A Senate bill was drafted in May of 1888 proposing that $200,000 be spent buying 166 acres of Rock Creek Park for a national zoo. Hornaday testified before the House Appropriations Committee, and although his testimony was well received, a few squeaky wheels had a problem with the proposed bill. Democrat Thomas Stockdale of Mississippi told the press that a national zoo “would be of no use to the poor who come to Washington to visit the last of the buffaloes,” and the idea “does not sound like republicanism. It echoes like royalty.” The bill was defeated soundly with 36 votes in favor, 56 against and one abstention.

H.R. 11810, bill establishing national zooSo the Smithsonian’s Mall zoo had to keep making do for the foreseeable future. In December of 1888, they were forced to decline a most wonderful offer from Buffalo Bill Cody of 18 bison, the third largest private collection in the world, because they didn’t have the room for them. The tragic loss proved to be a public relations victory for the zoo since everyone was bummed at the missed opportunity. Three months later, on March 2, 1889, Grover Cleveland signed the bill establishing a National Zoo which had passed the House by a vote of 131 to 98.

Bison standing in front of the Buffalo Barn at the National Zoo, ca. 1895That wasn’t the end of the struggle. Hornaday had to fight for his vision against his new boss, Samuel Pierpont Langley, and for funding with Congress. He secured the funding, but he couldn’t persuade Langley to go along with his plans for how the zoo should be designed and operated (Hornaday wanted naturalistic enclosures that flowed with the landscape, two entrances, full public access; Langley did not). Hornaday resigned later in 1889 but kept on fighting for the conservation of the bison. His passionate advocacy took published form in his highly influential 1889 book The Extermination of the American Bison. The National Zoo opened to the public on April 30th, 1891.

William T. Hornaday in his Bronx Zoo office, 1905Five years later, William Temple Hornaday got another chance to build a zoo from the ground up. The New York Zoological Society appointed him creator and director of what would become the Bronx Zoo. He remained its director until 1926. He continued to lobby tirelessly for the conservation of the American bison and for other endangered species. Today there are 30,000 bison in conservation herds in national parks, zoos and protected areas. There are half a million in commercial herds.

Now, 125 years after their impending extinction drove the creation of a national zoo, American bison are back at the National Zoo.

 

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Grave of fearsome 11th c. warrior found in Siberia

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating a burial mound near Omsk in southwestern Siberia have discovered the intact burial of an impressively large warrior slain in battle around the 11th century A.D. He was powerfully built and 180 centimeters (5’11″) tall. A member of the Ust-Ishim culture, ancestors to the Khanty and Mansi tribes that still inhabit the area today, he was far taller than his comrades; the average height for a male was 160 centimeters (5’3″), so he would have towered over them.

He was around 40 years old when he died, and the cause of death is clear: his left arm was cut off and buried with him. His shoulder was also freshly broken. These were perimortem battle wounds. He was buried with copious grave goods and careful attention to ritual indicating he was a person of high status in his community. The most remarkable indication of the respect accorded to him was the large bear fang embedded in his nose, a fearsome symbol of strength and power. He also wore a death mask, now mostly decayed because it was made of fabric. Part of the mask were caskets of birch bark over his eye sockets and mouth. Inside the caskets were metal fish figurines whose heads were deliberately snapped off before burial.

Other grave goods include a round mirror of bronze decorated with abstract swirls that was placed on his chest inside a birch bark cover and a bronze cauldron with the remains of food still inside that was placed at his feet. These served a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the mirror was a worn as an amulet and served as a tool used to communicate with the gods, while the cauldron and food were meant to feed the warrior in the afterlife.

Close by were remains of leather and fur, perhaps part of his costume or from the quiver decorations on his arrows.

“We found 25 arrowheads – armour-piercing and diamond shaped, made from metal and bone,” said [archeologist Mikhail Korusenko], a candidate of historical sciences, from the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Some of them were clearly of military purpose. Behind his skull we found a ringed bridle” – a sign that the warrior was an accomplished horseman.

The arrows are still sharp today.

Mikhail Korusenko on the significance of the find:

“The first studies we made allow us to date the burial to approximately 11th-12th centuries AD. It is a truly unique find which would allow us to fill pages about not only the cultural, but the military history of this part of the region, as we know very little about this particular period of time.”

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France returns skull of New Caledonian chief

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Chief of La Foa district Bergé Kawa (middle) receives his ancestor's remainsAfter 135 years, the skull of High Chief Ataï from the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia has been returned to his homeland. In a ceremony on August 28th, France’s Overseas Territories Minister George Pau-Langevin gave the skull to Bergé Kawa, a chief in his own right and a direct descendant of Ataï. This is a righting of a wrong that has been very long in coming.

Captain Cook was the first European to encounter the main island in 1774. He named it New Caledonia because the cliffs of the east coast reminded him of the Scottish Highlands. French explorers mapped more of the archipelago, Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in 1792, Durmont d’Urville in 1827. British Protestant missionaries arrived in 1840 and with the discovery of sandalwood the next year, British merchants followed. French Catholic missionaries came in 1843. Religious conflict ensued with the Catholics ultimately coming out on top. New Caledonia was formally claimed as a French colony by Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes in 1853, and two years later all land on the main island was declared property of the French state.

Outside walls of Canak prison before 1906The French used it as a penal colony for the second half of the 19th century. An estimated 20,000 prisoners were transported to New Caledonia between 1864 and 1897, including 4,000 or so deported for their involvement in the Paris Commune and 100 Algerian insurrectionists. Most of them were put to work in the nickel and copper mines. While French authorities sent foreign laborers and settlers to the archipelago, they took indigenous people out. Many of the Kanak (a general name given to people from a wide variety of different tribes and clans with almost 30 mutually unintelligible languages) were enslaved or coerced into forced labor in Australia, Fiji, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia and Chile, to name a few.

The ones were remained were in barely better straits. In 1864, convicts who were deemed worthy were freed and given land grants. More than 100,000 hectares of the richest farmland were deeded out to former convicts. In 1868, an order was promulgated forcing the indigenous people onto reservations, moving them inland close to the mountains where the land was barely arable. Many were made to work the plantations and ranches of French settlers without pay.

Engraving of Ataï published in French magazine "Le Voleur" on October 4th, 1878Under these kinds of pressure, it’s no surprise that conflicts exploded. Small revolts began in the 1850s but were quickly suppressed by overwhelming French force. It all came to a head in 1878. A drought in 1877 had taken a huge toll on the cattle, so the governor granted ranchers grazing rights on reservation lands. The stock were let loose on fallow fields, but there weren’t any fences. The cattle just walked on over to the farmed land and ate the yam and taro crops that were all the tribes had to live on. Already displaced from lands which defined their identities and to which they had a profound religious connection, the Kanaks couldn’t tolerate having what was left of their livelihoods threatened by French cows.

High Chief Ataï of the Petit Couli tribe sought out the French governor. The chief poured out a bag of soil in front of the governor and said, “This is what we had.” Then he dumped a bag of rocks out and said, “This is what you have left us.” The governor replied that they should protect their crops by building fences. Ataï responded: “When the taro eat the cattle, I’ll build the fences.”

Violent clashes ensued, with Kanaks attacking settlers and tribal leaders being imprisoned in retaliation. Ataï realized that localized revolts would go nowhere. He created an alliance between multiple tribes to fight the French. In June of 1878, the allied tribes launched an attack on troops and settlers. Their guerilla warfare was so successful that the French commander called for reinforcements from Indochina.

In August, Ataï and 500 warriors besieged a fort the French had built in La Foa on the southwest coast. At first the siege appeared to be going well for the Kanak side, but then the French managed to make a deal with Gelina, the High Chief of the Canala tribe, dividing the Kanak forces. Then the reinforcements from Indochina arrived. At the end of the month, a motley team of French regulars, convicts, former Communards who were promised their freedom in return for fighting on the side of a government they had once fought against so passionately, former Algerian rebels in the same position, and Kanak warriors from the Canala tribe surrounded Ataï’s army.

Louise Michel, 1880On September 1st, a detachment of French military encountered the chief, his three sons and his bard (the French anthropologists called him a “sorcerer”) Andia on the way back to the Kanak encampment. A Canala warrior with the French identified the chief from his shock of white hair. Communard hero Louise Michel, aka the Red Virgin, who had taught school during her New Caledonian exile and who was one of the only Communards to side with the Kanak, seeing in them the same struggle for liberty that she and her comrades had fought for, described the scene thus in her memoirs (pdf):

The traitor Segou faltered for a moment under the look of the old chief, but then, wanting it all to be over, he threw his short spear at Ataï and it pierced the old chief’s right arm. Ataï raised his axe in his left hand as his sons were shot down around him, one killed and the others wounded.

Andia lunged forward crying out, “Tango! Tango! (Cursed! Cursed!),” but he was shot dead instantly. Then Segou moved in against the wounded Ataï, and with his own axe struck blow after blow, the way he would have chopped at a tree.

Ataï fell, and Segou grabbed at his partially severed head. He struck him several more blows, and Ataï was finally dead. Seeing Ataï fall at Segou’s hands, the Kanaks unleashed their death cry in an echo to the mountains. The Kanaks love the brave.

Engraving of the heads being given to the French, 1881The war would claim 1,000 Kanak lives and 200 French. Enslavement, disease and war took a terrible toll on the Kanak population. There were about 70,000 indigenous people living on the islands of New Caledonia when Cook arrived in 1774. By 1921, there were only 27,000 left.

The heads of Ataï, Andia and Ataï’s adolescent son were all severed, as was one of Ataï’s hands. Ship’s Lieutenant Servant received Andia’s head and Ataï’s head and hand from Segou and sold them for 200 francs to Dr. Navarre, a naval doctor. He packed the remains in tin boxes filled with phenol and shipped them to Professor Paul Broca, founder and president of the Anthropological Society of Paris (SAP). According to the minutes of SAP’s 396th meeting held on October 23, 1879 (Page 616 here), they arrived in a “perfect state of conservation. They emit no odor and we hope that the brain, even though they’re still in their skulls, will still be good for study.” Professor Broca:

Atai's skullThe magnificent head of the chief Ataï draws the most attention. It is very expressive; the forehead is especially very beautiful, very high and very wide. The hair is completely woolly, the skin completely black. The nose is very platyrrhine, as wide as it is high. The hand, broad and powerful, is very well-formed, except for one finger that is retracted due to an old injury. Palmar creases are similar to ours.

Andia’s head gets the same treatment, although it’s worse in some ways because it seems he suffered from some form of dwarfism so there’s a lot of gross talk about how savages see deformity.

Ataï death maskChief Ataï’s head was cast in bronze by Félix Flandinette, after which it was stripped of flesh and that brain they were so keen to get a look at, and the skull was kept with the SAP collection of skulls in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. In 1951, SAP’s skull collection was transferred to the Musée de l’Homme where they’ve been kept in a cabinet for decades. Ataï’s death mask has been on display, but Ataï’s and Andia’s skulls never have been.

Nonetheless, their treatment as specimens was and is deeply offensive to the Kanak. It has played a part in the consistent tension between New Caledonia and France even after the 1998 Noumea Accord, which granted some measure of autonomy to the territory along with the promise of a referendum on independence by 2018.

“These remains bring us back to our own reality: we are two peoples, two cultures which have never ceased to clash with each other and still clash today,” Kawa said [at the return ceremony].

“We were ravaged by the French state. It is therefore up to the French state to give us back our property,” he added.

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First Roman wood toilet seat found at Vindolanda

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

There are many surviving examples of Roman latrines with their characteristic marble bench seating dotted with keyhole-shaped openings. The seats weren’t always stone, however. There were wooden toilet seats as well, but the organic material decays leaving behind only the stone or brick structure. Now archaeologists have unearthed the first Roman toilet seat made of wood perfectly preserved in the waterlogged soil of the Roman fort of Vindolanda.

Vindolanda, a fort and settlement in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, has been an unparalleled source of artifacts illuminating daily life in this remote outpost of the Roman Empire starting with the first timber fort built in the late 1st century (around 85 A.D.). Its anaerobic ground has preserved organic material like letters written on wood, leather sandals and textiles.

The wooden toilet seat was discovered by Dr. Andrew Birley, director of excavations, in a pre-Hadrianic trash pile from the last fort built on the site before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in around 122 A.D. That was the fifth timber fort built at Vindolanda after the demolition of the previous one in 105 A.D., so the toilet seat could have been in use for almost two decades.

That’s a long time for a piece of wood to do such hard duty (yes, I said duty), and there’s no way of knowing how long it was in use, but there is a great deal of wear around the opening. The ass groove, if I may borrow from that great neologist Homer Simpson, indicates the seat was very thoroughly used before being discarded.

Dr Birley commented on the find “there is always great excitement when you find something that has never been seen before and this discovery is wonderful….” Andrew went on to say “We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world which have included many fabulous Roman latrines but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat. As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found. It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable. Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate – their drains often contain astonishing artefacts. Let’s face it, if you drop something down a Roman latrine you are unlikely to attempt to fish it out unless you are pretty brave or foolhardy.” Discoveries at Vindolanda from latrines have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion, and a bronze lamp.

Next on the Vindolanda team’s toilet-related wishlist is a tersorium, a stick topped with a natural sponge that was used to clean the business areas after use. This was a communal device, cleaned in a gutter of running water in front of the latrines and left in a bucket of vinegar for the next guy.

The toilet seat will spend the next 18 months being conserved so the wood won’t dry out and become brittle. Once it’s stabilized, it will go on display at the site’s Roman Army Museum where it will doubtless draw crowds because toilets and their uses are endlessly fascinating subjects to humans in every era.

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Vast archive of pre-war European Jewish life digitized

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Photographer Roman Vishniac’s vast archive documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and after World War II is being digitized and made available to the public. The joint project of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has already scanned almost 9,000 negatives that have never been seen or published before. More negatives continue to be added all the time. Ultimately 40,000 items — photographic prints, contact sheets, films, letters, interviews, recordings — will be scanned and uploaded to the dedicated website: vishniac.icp.org.

The goal of the project, in addition to making this precious record widely available to all who wish to study it, is to crowdsource as much information as they can about the photographs.

ICP and the Museum invite scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines, families across generations, and members of the public to explore the archive, contribute their research and family stories, and help identify the people and places depicted in the images. The diverse perspectives brought together by this unique effort, and by the work of a dedicated group of internationally recognized scholars, have already yielded exciting discoveries.

“We believe this initiative represents a new model for digital archives, and we are excited to bring this collection to an even-wider audience,” said Mark Lubell, ICP’s executive director. “Our shared goal is to make the images available for further identification and research, deepening our knowledge of Vishniac’s work and the people and places he recorded in his images.”

Born near Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1897, Roman Vishniac received his first camera as a gift on his seventh birthday. Even as he studied biology and zoology in college, he continued to explore photography and was an accomplished amateur photographer by the time he left Russia in 1920. He and his new wife joined his émigré family in Weimar Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, Roman took copious pictures documenting the street life of the city, particularly his own neighborhood populated primarily by Russian Jews. He experimented with framing and composition, and even built his own darkroom in his apartment.

In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jews are increasingly marginalized. Vishniac kept taking pictures, documenting the increasing dominance of anti-Semitic laws and attitudes in Berlin. He soon traveled further afield. From 1935 to 1938, the Paris headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned him to photograph rural Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. They aimed to publicize the images in the United States to raise awareness of the deep need in these impoverished communities.

In 1938 and 1939, the AJDC sent Vishniac to Poland and the Netherlands to photograph Jewish refugees expelled from Germany. From the Netherlands he traveled to France, working as a freelance photographer. In 1940, he gave all his negatives to a friend in Paris, asking him to take them to the United States. That was very well timed since shortly thereafter he was arrested and interned in Camp du Ruchard in Clichy for three months. He got out and managed to leave France for Lisbon where he reunites with his wife and children and together they flee to New York.

His pre-war negatives had finally reached him in 1942 and prints of some of them had already been displayed in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews. The vast majority of them, however, remained unprinted negatives, and Vishniac never labeled them or annotated them in any way. That’s why it’s so important that those negatives are now published online. There are still people alive who may be able to recognize the people and places in the pictures but the clock is ticking. Others may recognize something they’ve seen in family photographs even if they weren’t born when Vishniac took the pictures.

You can search the collection by keyword, date, location, etc., or you can browse through all 8999 scanned negatives. Register here to help with the labeling.

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Camp Security saved, excavations begin

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

The only Revolutionary War POW camp to survive in undeveloped condition has been saved for posterity thanks to donations from the public. When I first wrote about Camp Security last April, the 47-acre plot in Springettsbury Township, Pennsylvania, between the city of York and the Susquehanna River, was in danger of being sold. More than half a million dollars of a bridge loan secured by non-profit The Conservation Fund for its purchase was still outstanding, and if the money couldn’t be raised by August, the Fund might have to sell the land or face disastrous budgetary consequences.

They must have gotten an extension on that bridge loan, because at the end of the July they were still $250,000 short and there was no news I could find in August, but come December, the Springettsbury Township announced that the full sum had been raised and that The Conservation Fund had transferred the deed to the property to the township. Thanks to more than a decade of hard work from the township, The Conservation Fund, York County, the York County Heritage Trust, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Friends of Camp Security, plus donations from people all over the country, the field now belongs to the township in perpetuity.

It joins an adjacent 115-acre parcel and a small park that already belong to the township to form a large public open space. Hunting and digging are prohibited, but people can walk it or picnic on it or throw frisbees to their hearts’ content. The overall plans for the property include environmental preservation, historic preservation and archaeological exploration.

On Monday, the excavation of the Camp Security site began. There was limited survey on a small section of the site in 1979 that returned thousands of Revolutionary War artifacts — that’s how it was identified as the location of Camp Security — but this is the first time archaeologists and volunteers will really get to explore the site. More than 75 people have volunteered to help. They will work four-hour shifts over 25 days in the field.

Since the site has been plowed by a farmer, volunteers will first scan the surface for artifacts. Next the team will dig about 100 holes looking for evidence of the two camps built on the site. Camp Security was the POW camp — sharpened picket fence, wooden stockade and fieldstone cabins — built by prisoners when they arrived in August of 1781. Outside the picket fence was Camp Indulgence, unenclosed fieldstone huts built to house the wives and children who followed their husbands.

Most of this first group of prisoners had been captured after the surrender of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. They were used to living in America, despite have experienced considerable hardships during nearly four years of imprisonment, and at Camp Security they were given many freedoms. They could work — gets jobs or run their own cottage industries — travel freely within 10 miles of the camp, and even live with their families at Camp Indulgence. It was the newer prisoners, particularly those captured after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown in October of 1781, who were confined to Camp Security and closely guarded. Once the archaeological team identifies the location of one of the camps, they can figure out where the other one is.

For more about the history of Camp Security, check out local historian June Lloyd’s fantastic York Blog.

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Two Mayan cities found in Yucatan jungle

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Archaeologists have discovered two lost Mayan cities in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve on the southeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The cities have been named Tamchén and Lagunita. Initial exploration indicates both cities were at their peak in the Late and Terminal Classic period (600-1000 AD), the early part of which saw the apogee of the dominant regional power: the kingdom of Calakmul, ruled by the mighty Snake dynasty.

Led by Ivan Sprajc of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, for the past two months the expedition has been macheteing its way through the eastern part of the state of Campeche, a vast area that is thought to be rich in Mayan archaeology but has barely been explored because of how inaccessible it is. This team has the advantage of aerial photography and a geodesist as well as local guides.

Lagunita was actually found once before, by American Mayanist, epigrapher and explorer Eric von Euw in 1970. He drew sketches of a several monuments, most strikingly a façade depicting the open maw of a zoomorphic monster. He never published his drawings nor noted the location of the find, but his sketches are kept in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Maya scholar Karl Herbert Mayer made them available to Sprajc.

It was that dramatic façade that identified the site as Euw’s Lagunita. Its open mouth represents the entrance to the underworld and the creature represents a Maya fertility deity. Other structures were found: a Maya ball game court, a pyramid 65 feet high, massive palaces arranged around four plazas, three altars, 10 trails connecting the buildings and altars, and 10 stelae. There are inscriptions on the altars and stelae, and a key section of stela two has already been translated by Octavio Esparza Olguin, an epigrapher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. For our convenience, it’s a precise date — November 29th, 711 A.D. — and a signature of the “lord of 4 k’atuns” (a k’atun is a 20-year calendar cycle). Olguin notes:

“To judge by both architectural volumes and monuments with inscriptions, Lagunita must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactún, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear.” The importance of Lagunita is further attested by the great density of residential mounds, terraces, albarradas (low dry walls) and other settlement remains in the surrounding area.

The second site, Tamchén, has much in common with its neighbor four miles to the southeast. It too has large buildings arranged around plazas, a pyramid temple, a courtyard with three temples on each side, altars and stelae. It’s significantly older, however, dating to the Late Preclassic (300 B.C. – 250 A.D.). It also has another unusual feature: more than 30 chultuns, underground wells built to collect rainwater. Chultuns are common in Maya cities, but the number at Tamchén is far greater than have been discovered anywhere else, and they are remarkably deep as well, some approaching 45 feet in depth. We can’t know if this proliferation of chultuns is unique to Tamchén or if other Maya cities in the region have similar structures until the area is more fully explored.

There are many intriguing aspects to these cities that may open a new window into Maya history.

The zoomorphic façade at Lagunita does not come as a surprise, considering that Becán, the largest site in the Río Bec zone, is only 15 km away. What has not been expected, however, is the presence of so many pyramid temples and monuments with inscriptions, which are rare in the Río Bec región. Both Tamchén and Lagunita appear to have been largely abandoned around A.D. 1000, sharing the fate of other lowland Maya polities, but a few stelae were modified some time after they had been originally erected, and Postclassic offerings were found at others. These facts obviously reflect continuities and ruptures in cultural traditions, but their significance for understanding political geography and history of the region is yet to be explained.

Particularly interesting are various elements that have not been known elsewhere in the Maya area. Two altars of Lagunita have a curious nail-head shape. The third one is rectangular and has a series of Ajaw glyphs on its sides, with coefficients evidently referring to successive k’atun (20-year period) endings; such records are common in codices, but not on stone monuments. Whereas hieroglyphic texts normally appear in an even number of columns, the inscription on Stela 2 of Lagunita has three, and the Long Count date is incomplete.

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Action Comics #1 shatters record at auction

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

A copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman which revolutionized the industry, in almost perfect condition has sold on eBay for $3,207,852, shattering the previous record price of $2.16 million set in 2011 by Nicholas Cage’s famously purloined copy. It is the first comic to pass the three million dollar mark. The buyers are Metropolis/ComicConnect, renown vintage comic dealers who in fact sold the Cage copy. It is not known if they were acquiring it for a private collector or for themselves.

Given a Certified Guaranty Company universal grade of 9.0 with White Pages, this copy is considered the finest Action Comics #1 ever graded. The previous record-holder was a 9.0 as well, but this one is a stronger 9, with glossy front and back covers, more brilliant colors and those perfect white pages. There is no yellowing whatsoever. It looks like it came fresh off the presses, with only two spine stress marks testifying to its ever having been opened at all. Only one other copy of this comic was graded Perfect White Pages, and that one had a mere 2.5 CGC grade.

Its condition is so astonishing that the first dealer who got his hands on it thought it might be a later reissue he didn’t know about. He had never seen a copy that was so flat with such white pages. The reason it was in such impeccable condition was that the while the first owner bought it for 10 cents from the newsstand in 1938 like 200,000 other people did, unlike most everyone else he lived at fairly high altitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and when he finished reading it, he put the comic in a cedar chest where it remained virtually untouched for four decades. The cool, dark, dry environment of the cedar chest froze time for this comic.

In the late 70s, comics and collectibles dealer Joe Mannarino got a phone call from the son of the original owner. He had seen an ad Mannarino put in a local paper offering to buy vintage comics and wanted to sell the stack of comics in his father’s hope chest. There were about 35 comics in the collection, an eclectic mish-mash that included most notably Action Comics #1, Action Comics #2 and Planet Comics #2. Mannarino bought the books for several thousand dollars.

He decided to store his pristine new Action Comics #1 exactly as it had been stored all these decades: in a cedar-lined chest. A few years later he sold it to another dealer who kept its existence secret for 30 years until this year when he decided to sell it to Darren Adams of Pristine Comics. It’s Adams who sold it on eBay on Sunday, with 1% of the proceeds going to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in honor of Reeve’s iconic Superman.

You can see how incredible the copy looks in this video that leafs through every page.

You can also virtually leaf through every perfect white page yourself on the CGC website. The photographs of the covers and pages aren’t as high resolution as I would like them to be for optimal reading, but it’s still legible and conveys clearly what a special copy of Action Comics #1 this is. Don’t miss the first appearance of Zatara, Master Magician, and his fabulous arch-enemy The Tigress. I love how everyone sports such varied and stylish headgear.

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Impressionism’s exact date and time of birth

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Impressionism was born on November 13th, 1872, at 7:35 AM. That’s the result of calculations done by Texas State University astrophysicist Donald Olson on the work by Claude Monet that gave the movement its name. Monet called the painting, the harbour of Le Havre as seen through his hotel window, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) because it captured a fleeting moment and thus couldn’t really be called a view. He came up with the title a year and a half after he painted the scene when it went on public display April 15th, 1874, at the first exhibition of works that would within days become known as Impressionist at the Paris studio of the photographer Nadar. It had to have a title for the exhibition catalogue.

Thirty artists, among them Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Sisley and Boudin, put their work on display at Nadar’s studio. All of them had been soundly and repeatedly rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts who insisted on traditional realism with invisible brushstrokes and muted colors for their prestigious Salon de Paris art shows. By order of Napoleon III (who was bowing to public clamor, not indulging a personal preference), they had gotten a chance to show their works in the Salon des Refusés, the Salon of the Refused, in 1863, but even though the Refusés saw far more traffic than the jury-selected works in the Salon de Paris, future petitions requesting new Refusés shows were, well, refused.

Finally the denied artists founded an anonymous collective and arranged for an independent show. They rented Nadar’s old studio (he had just moved to new digs) on the first floor (European first floor, that is, the storey above the ground floor shops) of a building at 35 Boulevard des Capucines and put 163 of their works on display two weeks before that year’s Salon de Paris opened.

Ten days later, on April 25th, 1874, the exhibition was reviewed by artist, playwright, journalist and critic Louis Leroy in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari. Entitled Exhibition of the Impressionists, the review used Monet’s term for his landscape of Le Havre to deride the weirdly blurry, poorly drawn, sloppy “palette-scrapings … on a dirty canvas” that so obnoxiously rejected the traditional forms of the great masters.

Leroy’s use of Monet’s term stuck, and the movement became known as Impressionism. As for the canvas that launched the label, Impression, soleil levant was purchased in May of 1874 by collector Ernest Hoschedés. He sold it four years later to Dr. George Bellio for a quarter of what he had paid. Bellio left it his daughter Victorine. On September 1st, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, Victorine transferred the work to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, which at that time had no Impressionist paintings in its collection, due to “risk of war.” Within days it was evacuated to the Château de Chambord along with the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and other masterpieces from the Louvre.

In May of 1940, with German forces advancing inexorably into France, Victorine donated the painting to the museum. Impression, soleil levant remained in hiding in Chambord for the duration of the war. For nearly two decades after the donation, the painting appeared in the museum’s inventories as Impression, soleil couchant (Impression, Sunset) and even though Monet had dated it 72 next to his signature, not much was known about him that year and there was dispute about whether he was actually in Le Havre in 1873.

The museum, now the Musée Marmottan Monet, to celebrate its 80th anniversary and the 140th anniversary of the seminal exhibition of the painting that named one of art’s most influential and revolutionary movements, enlisted the aid of Donald Olson to answer some of the questions about Monet’s piece.

He has pinpointed a particular third-floor bedroom with a balcony in the Hotel d’Amirauté au Havre, at 45 Grand Quai. Monet would have looked across the outer harbour, facing towards the Quai Courbe, to the southeast.

[...] Olson demonstrates that because of the sun’s position towards the east it must have been rising. He also calculated that the sun rises in the position shown in the Monet painting twice each year, in mid-November and late-January. The sun is depicted two to three degrees above the horizon, which corresponds to 20 to 30 minutes after sunrise.

Olson then looked at the level of the sea, since large ships can only pass in or out of the outer harbour for three to four hours at high tide. Taking the sun’s position, plus the high tide, this narrowed down the possibilities to 19 dates in 1872-73.

The next stage of the puzzle was to examine weather reports—to exclude days when cloud would have obscured the sun and to include only days when there was fog. This further winnowed the dates to six: 21 and 22 January 1872, 13 and 15 November 1872 and 25 and 26 January 1873.

Olson then focussed on the plumes of smoke on the left side of the painting, which rise into the sky towards the right. Meteorological reports suggest that this wind direction would have occurred on only two of the six dates, on 13 November 1872 and 25 January 1873.

The final factor is the research of Géraldine Lefebre, a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux in Le Havre. She is convinced that the year “72″ inscribed by Monet on the painting is correct, since what we know of Monet’s movements makes it very unlikely he was there the following January. This means that Impression, Soleil Levant depicts the view in La Havre on 13 November 1872, at 7.35am.

Impression, soleil levant will be the centerpiece of an exhibit that runs from September 18th, 2014, to January 18th, 2015. It will join another 24 works by Monet, including a night view of the harbour of Le Havre painted from the same hotel room, plus works by Delacroix, Turner, Renoir and Pissarro, among others, loaned from top museums and private collections around the world.

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Gift from Charles Darwin found in Danish museum

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

The University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum has found a unique treasure in its stores: 55 barnacle specimens personally assembled and labeled by Charles Darwin. It all began, as so few things do but many should, with a 160-million-year-old Diplodocus skeleton.

Raimond Albersdörfer and sons excavating Misty, 2009Misty is the skeleton of a Diplodocus longus discovered by the teenage sons of German paleontologist Raimond Albersdörfer during a 2009 excavation in Dana Quarry near the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. The young men wanted the chance to find something, so to keep them out of his hair their father shooed them away from his excavation site to go dig in an area where he thought they might unearth an innocuous fragment or two. By the end of the day they had unearthed a bone so big the two of them couldn’t carry it. Dad shifted his attention to his sons’ find and excavated almost the entire 56-foot-long skeleton of the dinosaur.

Because it was found on private land, there were no legal barriers to the fossil’s export and sale. After the bones were conserved in the US, they were sent to the Netherlands for assembly and then to London for auction. One of only six nearly intact Diplodocus fossils known, Misty was acquired on November 27th, 2013 for $651,100. Two weeks later, the anonymous buyer revealed itself to be the Natural History Museum of Denmark which was able to afford the pricey giant thanks to a donation from the Obel Family Foundation.

Misty, Diplodocus longus, 160 million years old

To properly welcome Misty, the museum planned its largest exhibition ever around her. The Precious (or The Cherished, should your Danish tend less towards the Tolkien) would showcase the museum’s most precious (hence the name) objects alongside their most recent acquisition, items that have been in storage for years unavailable to the public, the best of the best specimens from the fields of zoology, geology, botany, and paleontology: a Dodo skull, a stuffed Great Auk, a collection of snails assembled by Hans Christian Andersen during his travels in Denmark, a meteorite that fell in 1749. The focus of the exhibition is the full context of the objects, their natural and human history, how they came into existence coupled with how they came to the museum.

Charles Darwin, 1854Exhibition Manager Hanne Strager was tasked with going through the museum’s collection of 14 million objects to select pieces for display. Strager is an evolutionary biologist and the author of By Confessing a Murder: Darwin and the Idea that Changed the World, a book on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution and discoveries in the field since then. The title refers to a letter Darwin wrote to botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844 in which he wryly declared, “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”

As an accomplished Darwin scholar, Strager knew that Darwin had had a professional relationship with zoologist Japetus Steenstrup, the former director of the then Royal Natural History Museum (precursor to the modern-day Natural History Museum’s Zoological Museum), and that Steenstrup had loaned Darwin some specimens during the decade of intensive research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin wanted to compare species from different locations, to examine the differences and commonalities of related species. He had met Johan Georg Forchhammer, Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Copenhagen, in Birmingham, and he offered to send Darwin some barnacle fossils from the Copenhagen Geological Museum. He also connected Darwin to his friend Japetus Steenstrup, Professor of Zoology at the University of Copenhagen, who had his own collection of barnacles.

Japetus Steenstrup, undatedSteenstrup contributed some barnacle fossils from his collection to a parcel Forchhammer sent Darwin in November of 1849. When Darwin received them two months later — he had been so worried about his delayed barnacles that he put an ad in the paper offering a reward for their return — he wrote Steenstrup an abjectly delighted thank you note on January 25, 1850:

Dear Sir

I am quite delighted in at last being able to tell you that your Box with the fossil cirripedes has arrived quite safely this morning.— It is a great load off my mind.— Not one specimen is injured, except, perhaps, some of the valves of your Anat(?) cretæ.— It is a noble collection, & I feel most grateful to you for having entrusted them to me.— I have now a great many collections in this house, so that I have good means of comparison.— Most of your species, as far as a hasty first glance tells, are different from the British. Your P. medius. is the same as P. sulcatus of Sowerby; & instead of being a Pollicipes, it is a Scalpellum, though these genera differ much too little.— The P. elegans I have (unnamed) from our Chalk.— I will do my best in comparing all the specimens which I have now together; but I am not hopeful of producing good results: I much dislike giving specific names to each separate valve, & thereby almost certainly making three or four nominal species for each true species.—

I am extremely pleased to see the Alepas. The cause of the great delay was in Prof. Forchhammer having sent the box within another to a dealer in minerals, who uncourteously did not take the trouble to inform me. Please to tell Prof. Forchammer that owing to his note I have got the Box, & pray give him, & accept yourself my most cordial thanks.— I will take great care of your specimens.— I hope now that this Box has arrived safely, that you will add to your already great kindness, & send me the northern species alluded to in your former letter.—

I will hereafter write again to you.—

Pray believe me | my dear Sir | Yours most gratefully | C. Darwin

(NB: The Darwin Correspondence Project website, a massive database that seeks to digitize all letters written by and to Charles Darwin, is down as of right now, which is why I linked to cached versions of the letters in this entry. I hope it will be up and running again soon because it’s awesome.

EDIT: And it’s back! I’ve replaced the cached links with live ones. Do yourself a favor and have a browse around the site now. It lends such rich insight into Darwin and his work. They’ve done a great public service by making his correspondence available at the click of a mouse.)

It was Steenstrup’s barnacle fossils, which Darwin had returned as promised, that Hanne Strager was hoping to find for the exhibition. The barnacle study was an important part of Darwin’s research, so if they could be found they would have a great story to tell. Strager was reading through Steenstrup’s papers in the museum archives looking for clues that might identify the specific fossils Darwin examined when she found something even better: an 1854 letter from Darwin in which he mentioned a list of 77 species of barnacles he had sent to Steenstrup as a thank you gift for his help.

The list itself was not in the letter. More searching through Steenstrup’s papers ensued and lo and behold, the list was found. It was hard to read, however, and took some time to decipher. Once that was done, Strager had to dig through storage looking for the 77 specimens. They weren’t kept together because in 1854 there was no reason for it. On the Origin of Species was five years away. The barnacles were seen as specimens like any other, not the curated collection of a great pioneering scientist. They were spread throughout the museum collection according to their species.

Darwin's barnacle specimens and listStrager finally located 55 of Darwin’s barnacles. Most of the missing 22 are samples from a single genus. They were probably loaned to another institution or scientist who was researching that specific genus at some point over the past 160 years and never returned. Somebody somewhere may have 22 barnacle specimens collected by Charles Darwin and have no idea of their illustrious history.

Not that anyone’s complaining. The collection of 55 specimens, with original labels and an inventory list in Darwin’s hand, is an exceptional find. The museum believes it’s the most significant Darwin collection outside of London’s Natural History Museum.

“To be able to display a gift from one of the world’s greatest scientists is unique for a museum,” Stager said.

“Here we have a personal connection to the man responsible for what is probably biology’s greatest ever scientific breakthrough: the Theory of Evolution.”

Darwin’s barnacles will go on display with Misty and many other treasures starting October 1st.

 

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