Archive for September, 2015

200 Napoleonic soldiers’ graves found in Frankfurt

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

The graves of an estimated 200 soldiers from Napoleon’s Grand Army have been discovered at a construction site in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Napoleonic soldiers’ remains were found nearby in 1979, so archaeologists were employed to survey the site before work began. They have so far unearthed about 30 skeletons; the 200 figure is an estimate based on the dimensions of the site.

Unlike the mass grave unearthed in Vilnius, this is a burial ground where each individual was buried neatly in his own coffin, which means the skeletal remains are in significantly better condition.

Andrea Hampel, the heritage and historic monuments director in Frankfurt, said it was certain that the “tombs were erected in an emergency”. Hampel said the skeletons were aligned in a row, without funeral articles, in a north-south orientation – not an east-west axis as was common for European Christians at the time – suggesting they were buried in haste.

I don’t really get that. How could it be an emergency burial if the buriers took the time to inter each body in its own coffin? Surely a mass grave would be the way to go in an emergency. Also, why is it any faster to inter coffins along a north-south axis rather than the traditional Christian east-west orientation? The expenditure of time and resources in the building of coffins and their deliberate arrangement, not in selecting one axis over the other. It’s weird.

Also weird is that in all the articles I’ve read on this find, Olaf Cunitz, the Mayor of Frankfurt, is quoted stating at a press conference that preliminary analysis indicates these are soldiers who died after fighting the coalition armies at the Battle of Hanau during the brutal retreat from Russia. That can’t be right. The retreat from Russia was in the winter of 1812 and it all but destroyed Napoleon’s Great Army. Hanau was fought on October 30-31st, 1813, in the wake of the four-day Battle of Leipzig. It was a rearguard action intended to block what was left of Napoleon’s second Great Army, hastily assembled in the summer of 1813, from reaching the Rhine where they could regroup.

Had it succeeded, it would have obliterated the second Great Army, which had suffered immense losses during the Battle of Leipzig, but Napoleon won the Battle of Hanau. Outnumbered, outhorsed and outgunned, Napoleon’s troops still inflicted 9,000 casualties on the Bavarian army under the command of Karl Philipp von Wrede which had literally weeks earlier been fighting on France’s side, only switching teams after Leipzig. Napoleon suffered half the number of casualties in the battle, but 10,000 of his men were captured. The rest of the Great Army headed for their rear base at Mainz, reaching Frankfurt on November 2nd.

Buttons found in the graves confirm the 1813 date, and given that the Great Army was actually in Frankfurt and environs in late October of that year, it seems likely these soldiers were from the second Great Army, not the Russian retreat.

The excavation will continue for another four to six weeks. Archeologists hope to unearth all of the graves and then study the remains to figure out how they died. Battle wounds are likely candidates for cause of death, as is typhus which had far killed more soldiers in the first Great Army than violence did. There was a major epidemic of typhus in Frankfurt in late 1813, spread by the soldiers, prisoners and city residents who looted the battlefield and brought back deadly microorganisms along with dead soldiers’ belongings.

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Wadsworth Atheneum reopens to great acclaim

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

After a five-year, $33 million renovation, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art reopened to the public on Saturday and the public was eager to renew its acquaintance with the venerable museum, filling the entrance of the museum 15 minutes before opening.

The renovation has refurbished more than 38,000 square feet of the Wadsworth’s exhibition spaces and the historic buildings themselves. Areas that were previously relegated to storage have been reclaimed for display adding 17 new galleries and an exceptional 16,000 square feet of new exhibition space, a 27% increase. Artworks from the European collections that have been gathering dust in storage now have a chance to shine in the expanded museum, setting off the century-old Morgan Memorial Building, the first Beaux-Arts museum building in the United States, to its greatest advantage. This is the first time all the galleries have been open at the same time in 50 years.

The project took so long and was so expensive because there was a great deal of structural work to be done. There were leaks in many of the galleries and all five of the museum’s buildings needed new roofs with proper waterproofing. New climate control systems were installed in both the display areas and the storage facility to ensure the collection is protected. New lighting, restrooms, an elevator, wifi and signage bring the oldest continually operating public art museum in the country into the modern era.

The beauty of the historic buildings — the Gothic Revival Wadsworth building (1844) which housed the entirety of the original collection when the museum opened, the Tudor Revival Colt Memorial building (1910), the Renaissance Revival Morgan Memorial building (1910-15) — has been renewed with the uncovering of original architectural elements like concrete beams and window casings. Natural light is introduced through the placement of new skylights the restoration of a period one.

The Early Baroque gallery, now a rich, appetite-stimulating red, is home to two of the gems in the Wadsworth collection: Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595-96) and Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1616–18) by Artemisia Gentileschi which was the museum acquired last year.

The Morgan Great Hall with its 24-foot-high topped with vaulted ceilings and new skylights has been repainted in a deep blue shade poetically called “evening dove,” an elegant backdrop for the collection of important 16th to 19th century European and American works that now cover the walls in gallery style. Before this renovation, the Great Hall was painted white and exhibited contemporary pieces. Before that, it was a sort of raspberry color and while it had classical works like it does now, there were far fewer of them. When it first opened in 1915 there was a line of large tapestries on the walls and sculptures on the floor.

The inspiration for the Great Hall as it is today is one of my favorite paintings in the Wadsworth collection: Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Panini, master of the architectural fantasy, painted Interior of a Picture Gallery in 1749. He set Cardinal Gonzaga in the center of a vast be-columned fantasy gallery with his entire collection of artworks taking up every inch of space on the walls, propped against the furniture and stacked on tables. The painting was a great success for Panini, inspiring subsequent takes on the subject of the fantasy art gallery commissioned by Étienne-François de Choiseul-Stainville, duc de Choiseul, who was the French ambassador to the papal court in Rome. Panini made a pair of works for him in 1756 depicting the great art and architecture of Ancient Rome and Modern Rome (modern in this case being mainly Renaissance and Baroque), then another pair on the same theme the next year (both now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The reviews of the renovation have so far been uniformly glowing.

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Garfield’s terrible doctors and Alexander Graham Bell’s metal detector

Friday, September 18th, 2015

When President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2nd, 1881, a mere three months and 28 days after his inauguration, the nation was shocked. Lincoln’s assassination was deemed a sort of war casualty, a freak occurrence brought on by Civil War, not the opening of a floodgate, so presidents had no security detail and moved about in public places like anyone else. It was easy, therefore, for a disgruntled office-seeker/nutjob with a delusional amount of self-regard like Charles J. Guiteau to approach Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C., and shoot him twice. One bullet penetrated his lower back; the other grazed his right arm.

Even from a few away and taking his victim by surprise with a shot to the back, Guiteau was too incompetent to kill immediately. Garfield lived for 79 days, two months and 17 days of agony, before dying of blood poisoning on September 19th, 1881. Sadly, as you might have deduced from his cause of death, Garfield’s doctors were in part, maybe even in large part, responsible for the president’s painful death, a point that Guiteau made at his trial when he took responsibility for shooting Garfield but not for killing him. That outcome he laid at the doctors’ door, with a little help from God, of course, who was behind the whole thing, according to Guiteau.

Although Joseph Lister had first published his successful tests of disinfection with carbolic acid in 1867 and had traveled across the United States in 1876 lecturing on his method, even though by 1879 Lister’s antiseptic protocols were almost universally adopted in Europe and Great Britain, the majority of American surgeons in 1881 rejected Listerism. They took pride in that “good old surgical stink” caused by years of accumulated blood and pus and god knows whatall assorted fluids on their surgical gowns. Garfield’s doctors were no exception.

The first doctor to arrive at the scene was the District of Columbia’s health officer Dr. Smith Townsend. He gave Garfield brandy and smelling salts to keep him conscious, and then stuck his doubtless germ-laden fingers into the entrance wound, fishing around hoping to find the bullet. Nine more doctors followed, each poking and prodding the suffering man. As a crowd gathered, Townsend ordered the President be moved to a room on the second floor. Garfield’s cabinet members, who had come to the station to see him off, kept vigil by his side. One of those cabinet members, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, was particularly traumatized by seeing so painful a history repeat itself. He sent for Dr. Willard Bliss, one of the surgeons who had tried (and failed) to save his father’s life.

Bliss arrived and immediately took over. He administered morphine and had a go at tracking the bullet, sticking his pinky finger and a number of metal probes into the wound. One of the probes was jammed in so deep that it got caught in Garfield’s broken rib and had to be jiggled this way and that to remove it. Only after this examination was done did Bliss order Garfield transported to the White House.

There even more doctors showed up, including Dr. Jedediah Baxter, Garfield’s personal physician. Baxter was turned away at the door by Bliss who insisted on taking complete control of the illustrious patient. Bliss dismissed all the doctors who had “helped” at the station and assembled his own team. Only two doctors were allowed to attend Garfield against Bliss’ wishes at the insistence of First Lady Lucretia Garfield: Dr. Susan Ann Edson, Mrs. Garfield’s personal physician and one of a very few women doctors in the country, and Garfield’s first cousin Dr. Silas Boynton. Bliss still managed to shut them out from making any decisions on treatment, relegating them to a nursing role.

When Garfield survived the night and woke feeling refreshed, his breathing even, his temperature normal and his pulse rate a high but not alarming 114 beats per minute, it seemed his strong constitution might pull him through after all. His team of doctors did not leave well enough alone, however. They continued to obsess over the bullet, trying to find it so they could determine whether to remove it surgically or leave it in place. Without X-rays or other non-invasive technologies at their disposal and rejecting Lister’s precautions, unwashed fingers and probes were the method of choice.

Enter Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was then at the crest of the wave of his fame. His telephone, patented in 1876, was a sensation that would make him a very rich man. Spurred by interference on the line caused by telegraph lines running near the a telephone conductor, in 1877 he patented an induction balance system that used two conductors with equal and opposite induced currents to create a “quiet circuit.” Induction balance machines weren’t new (a certain Professor Dove in Germany had invented one in 1841), and metals were known to interrupt the currents. What Bell thought of when he learned of the President’s predicament was how to connect his telephone technology with induction balance technology so that the interruption in the current could be heard as a ring through a handheld earpiece.

Using an induction balance device by Professor D.E. Hughes, with the help of his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter and the input of many eminent scientists (read his detailed report here), Bell created an amplified induction balance machine that would hopefully detect the bullet inside the President. Bliss wouldn’t let him near his patient until the machine was tested on another human guinea pig, so the doctor directed Bell to try it on Lieutenant Simpson who had been carrying a bullet inside of him since the Civil War. On July 22nd, Bell tested the machine on Simpson. He heard a signal but it was weak so he added a condenser which increased the hearing distance and made the sound more detectable.

Bell arrived in Washington on July 26th and passed the induction balance machine over Garfield’s right side and only his right side. That was at Dr. Bliss’ insistence since he was sure the bullet was on the right and wanted to move the President as little as possible. The machine made a feeble sound over Garfield’s abdomen, the area Bliss and his crew thought the bullet was lodged in, but Bell was dubious that it was a legitimate signal. He went made more modifications to the machine, tested it on another Civil War veteran, a side of beef he’d stuck a bullet into and a thick bag of cotton he’d hidden a bullet in, and returned to the White House again on August 2nd. He got much the same results. The doctors took it as confirmation of their assessment. Bell thought it was interference from external metal elements, perhaps the springs under the mattress.

In the end, Bell’s induction balancephone was unable to accurately pinpoint the location of the bullet, and even if it had, by then it was too late. By July 23rd, sepsis had set in. No surgical intervention, filthy or clean, was going to save James Garfield. The pathogen-rich wound probing had already claimed his life. It was just a matter of time. Unable to keep down food, President Garfield lost 65 pounds in those 79 days, shrinking from a stout 200 pounds to a gaunt 135 pounds. His doctors gave him nutrient enemas to keep him from starving to death. Feverish and hallucinating, his poor, infection-riddled body developed painful abscesses which were lanced only to pop up in new places.

The metal detector wasn’t the only invention mothered by the necessity of keeping James Garfield alive and as comfortable as possible. The Navy Corps of Engineers created a rudimentary air conditioning system consisting of wool strips soaked in water and hung over blocks of ice. An electric fan was positioned to blow air through the strips and ice into the President’s room, keeping it at a steady 75 degrees during one of the hottest summers on record when it was 100 degrees outside and 90 indoors for weeks in a row. When Garfield was moved to his cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, to spend his final days bathed in the dulcet breezes of the Jersey Shore, the Navy Corps of Engineers devised a waterbed to keep him from being jostled mercilessly over the train journey. It worked; Garfield reported the trip — which ended literally on his doorstep thanks to a mile-long spur built overnight by the Pennsylvania Railroad — had been quite pleasant.

James Garfield, born dirt poor in a log cabin in Ohio, who worked his way through college as a janitor, rose to the rank of General fighting in major battles of the Civil War, became state senator, then Representative, then Senator-elect, then President before he could take his seat in the Senate, died in Franklyn Cottage in full view of the ocean, his beloved Lucretia and children by his side. An autopsy found that Bliss was completely wrong about the location of the bullet. It had traveled through the first lumbar vertebra and stopped near the spleen, on the left side of Garfield’s body where Bliss insisted it was not.

As for presidential security, believe it or not it took another 20 years and yet another assassination in full public view, that of William McKinley on September 6th, 1901, for Congress to task the Secret Service with protecting the person of the President of the United States.

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Village built on ruins of Rhine fort after Romans left

Thursday, September 17th, 2015


Continuing excavation of the Roman fort in the southwest German town of Gernsheim discovered last year has revealed that civilians built a village on the site after the Romans left. Last year a team of 15 students led by archaeologist Dr. Thomas Maurer of Goethe University found postholes from the fort towers and two ditches the departing troops had filled with demolition waste, trash which turned to treasure when a brick fragment stamped with the identifying the legion, Legio XXII Primigenia Pia Fidelis, was discovered.

The 2014 season excavated about 300 square meters of an undeveloped lot in a residential neighborhood. This excavation season covered double the area in double the time, running from August 3rd to early October. Maurer has a team of 20 students working under his direction this year. They have unearthed the foundations of a masonry building, fire pits, two wells and cellar pits from the village built over the remains of the fort. A great many fragments from a variety of ceramics — high quality, coarse and imports — were recovered which experts hope will be able to narrow down the occupation dates of fort and village. The team also unearthed precious artifacts like fibulae, pearls, dice and pieces from a game and a bone hairpin decorated with a female bust.

The Gernsheim fort was one in a series of military installations that made up the Limes Germanicus, the defended border separating the Roman provinces of Germania Superior, Germania Inferior and Raetia from the unruly Germanic tribes to the east. At its peak, the Limes consisted of 60 forts and 900 watchtowers extending from the North Sea to the Danube at Regensburg. The cohort of Legio XXII was stationed at Gernsheim between 70/80 and 110/120 A.D., and while the destruction of the fort and the soldiers’ departure can’t help but have had a negative impact on the community attached to it, the civilians rallied with surprising speed.

The people who settled in the village around the fort were primarily family members of the soldiers and tradespeople who benefited from the purchasing power of the military. “A temporary downturn probably resulted when the troops left – this is something we know from sites which have been studied more thoroughly”, Maurer adds. However, stone buildings were already erected in the “Gernsheim Roman village” during the 2nd century, which suggests that the settlement was prospering. The population probably had mainly Gallic-Germanic origins, with perhaps a few “true” Romans – persons with Roman citizenship who moved here from faraway provinces. This is illustrated by specific archaeological finds; most notably pieces of traditional dress but also coins. One of the historic finds from Gernsheim is a coin from Bithynia (Northwest Anatolia), which was certainly not among the coins in circulation in Germania Superior but would instead have been a form of souvenir.

Preliminary analysis suggests the village was occupied through the 3rd century, until about 260 A.D. when pressure from the Germanic tribes led to the permanent abandonment of the Limes and all territories east of the Rhine and north of the Danube.

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Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The New York Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow as they digitize their huge collections of photographs, manuscripts, maps. They’re up to 838,384 individual items from The New York Public Library’s collections digitized and uploaded to its website. Many of the scans are in high resolution and while the interface can be a bit clunky (no easy mechanism to move from page to page, for example, in some of the books and pamphlets), they make for riveting browsing.

Arranged in subcollections, there are groups with thousands of items — 2,027 turn of the century posters, 64,243 portraits culled from the library’s Print Collection, 8,915 documents from the Emmet Collection of manuscripts focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the Revolutionary War — and single items like book covers or individual pages.

One striking group of photographs that has recently been uploaded is the William Williams collection. Williams was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island from 1902-5 and 1909-13, some of the busiest years of immigration to the United States. He left his papers, including the pictures he collected from his days at Ellis Island, to the New York Public Library and now the photographs are online. There are an eminently browsable 100 or so pictures and article clippings in the Williams collection, 41 portraits of immigrants going through the process of being allowed into the United States, 49 focused on Ellis Island itself.

Most of the latter were shot by Edwin Levick, a professional photographer with a particular focus on maritime views, which explains why many of his pictures of Ellis Island are taken from the water. The portraits of the immigrants were mostly taken by an amateur, Augustus Frederick Sherman, Chief Clerk of Ellis Island. In sheer fascination and impact, the amateur puts the professional to shame.

Sherman was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1889. In 1892, he got a job as a clerk at Ellis Island. He was competent and dedicated and came up through the ranks, ultimately getting promoted to Chief Clerk in 1905. Part of his job was to deal with appeals by detained immigrants who had been blocked from entering the mainland by one of the Boards of Special Inquiry because of illness, crime, suspect associations, etc. The Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration adjudicated the appeals and determined whether an immigrant could enter the country or was deported. As Sherman had access to detained immigrants as well as immigrants passing through with comparatively few difficulties, he was able to take about 250 photographs of them between 1905 and 1925.

With his eye for the striking image, Sherman was selective about his subjects. He often asked them to pose in their native costumes and he loved a nice, big family line-up. (The National Parks Service has my favorite photograph along those lines: Mrs. Johanna Dykhof and her 11 children on their way to Minnesota from Holland.) Incidentally, the handsome woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe pictured left was not actually an immigrant to the United States. She was part of a group of Guadeloupean women on their way to Montreal, Canada, where jobs as domestic servants awaited them. They spent one night in Ellis Island — April 6th, 1911 — which was long enough for Sherman to capture beautiful pictures of them.

There are more photographs of people at Ellis Island in this NYPL collection. They were taken by Lewis Hine who was very famous in his day for his compelling images of the working poor. Click on his name in the sidebar to see all of photographs capturing labourers, tenements and a variety of social ills in the NYPL. The Library of Congress has thousands of pictures of poverty-stricken children working in dreadful conditions taken by Hines for the National Child Labor Committee. They will haunt you.

Today Ellis Island is a National Park and has been extensively restored. The main building opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. In May of this year, the Peopling of America Center® (note to self: trademark the Verbing of Museum Names before someone else beats me to it) opened, expanding the scope of the museum to cover the whole history of immigration before and after Ellis Island was in operation.

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7th c. skeletons unearthed at Temple of Concordia

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Palermo have unearthed what they believe are two 7th century skeletons at the feet of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. They have yet to be radiocarbon dated, but if the archaeologists are right, the remains are evidence of an Early Christian cemetery in front of the temple in the period shortly after the temple was converted into a church.

The skeletal remains were found in a single grave. A fully articulated skeleton of what preliminary analysis indicates is an adult male is on top, his skull oriented west and his arms crossed on his chest. Underneath his legs are the bones of the other skeleton; its sex has not yet be determined. No grave goods or artifacts of any kind were found to aid in dating. Excavations are ongoing and the remains will be analyzed to pinpoint their age.

Here’s a video of the excavation shot by tour guide Rosa Maria Montalbano.

The Temple of Concordia was built around 440 B.C. in Archaic Doric style in the ancient Greek city of Akragas. It’s not certain which deity it was dedicated to, possibly the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The name Concordia was assigned to it by 16th century Dominican friar and historian Tommaso Fazello, known as the Father of Sicilian history or the Sicilian Livy. He got it from a 1st century Roman inscription on a marble slab in the city of Agrigento which read: “CONCORDIAE AGRIGENTINORUM SACRUM RESPUBLICA LILIBITANORUM” or “[Erected] by the republic of the Lilybaeans, as sacred to the concord of the Agrigentines.” (The ancient city of Lilybaeum is modern-day Marsala, where the wine comes from.) Fazello translated that as “Temple of Concordia of the Agrigentines, made by the Republic of the Lilybaeans,” deducing from the inscription that the temple was constructed at the expense of the Lilybaeans after a military defeat.

In fact, the inscription doesn’t say what was erected and in any case it was carved 500 years after the temple was built, so it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate even if it were referring to the temple. Lilybaeum wasn’t founded until the late 300s B.C., so the city didn’t even exist when the temple was built. Historians starting with 18th century classicist Jacques Philippe D’Orville called out the errors in Fazello’s attribution and now it’s universally acknowledged to be false, but the name stuck anyway.

The Temple of Concordia was converted into a church in 597 A.D. by archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento (559-630) and there’s a wonderfully juicy story behind it. A biography written by the 7th century monk Leonzio, abbot of Saint Saba in Rome, tells the tale. After Gregory was appointed archbishop entirely against his will (he preferred a life of withdrawn contemplation), a priest and presbytery in Agrigento conspired to replace him as archbishop with a certain Leucio who had been exiled for his heretical beliefs on the incarnation. The conspirators bribed the guards and hid a prostitute named Evodia in Gregory’s chambers while he was at church.

The next morning the conspirators “caught” the prostitute and scandal erupted. They had Gregory arrested and imprisoned. The people of Agrigento loved their archbishop who took care of the poor and performed miraculous healings regularly so they didn’t believe the story. They insisted he be freed and caused enough of a stink that the Pope’s deacon had to smuggle Gregory on a ship to Rome for trial. When he got to Rome, he was jailed for two and a half years before his supporters in Agrigento were able to enlist the aid of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Patriarch to finally secure a trial.

There were more than 100 jurors arrayed against Gregory and only a handful, including the imperial delegation, on his side. It seemed Gregory was doomed, but in a shocking Law & Orderesque twist, Evodia recanted her testimony on the stand, naming the conspirators who had coerced her into setting up the saintly cleric. The conspirators were exiled and Gregory returned to Agrigento, his reputation and position restored. Unwilling to preside over his congregation in a church that had been profaned by the usurper Leucio, Gregory turned his back on the city proper and looked to the Valley of the Temples for his new cathedral.

He chose the Temple of Concordia. Planting the signum, the cross of Christ, over its threshold, Gregory exorcised the ancient pagan demons of Eber and Raps who still dwelled in the temple. (The “demons” may be transmutations of an original double dedication, hence the theory that the temple may have been dedicated to Castor and Pollux.) Now consecrated and holy, the temple was converted into the new cathedral.

Gregory of Agrigento is the patron saint of the conservation of archaeological and architectural patrimony. That’s both ironic and appropriate, because while he destroyed significant parts of the temple to Christianize it, as a church it survived in far better condition than the other temples in Agrigento which were damaged in earthquakes and pillaged for construction material. In the conversion process, all of the temple’s decorative elements and the altar were destroyed. The back wall of the cella (the inner chamber) of the temple was demolished to make a new entrance, the columns walled up and 12 arches cut into the sides of the cella to give the building the nave and two aisles of a classic Christian basilica.

Gregory dedicated the new church to Saints Peter and Paul. In the late Middle Ages the church was rededicated to its builder and excellently renamed San Gregorio delle Rape, or Saint Gregory of the Turnips because the humble, ascetic Gregory was said to have tended to the vegetables of his flock. In 1748, Bourbon king Charles V of Sicily had the church dismantled and the temple restored as much as possible to its original form. Today it is considered the second best preserved Doric temple in the world after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens which was itself converted into a Christian church in the 7th century.

There are known Early Christian burials cut inside the temple and in catacombs outside, carved into the rocky outcroppings west of the temple much like Greek catacombs were carved east of the temple hundreds of years earlier. The skeletons unearthed this month are the first indications that there may have been Christian burials in the ground in front of the temple, which in the 7th century would have been the back of the church.

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Medieval skeleton pulled out of grave by uprooted tree

Monday, September 14th, 2015


The newly established Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services (SLAS) had a fasinating first commission: to recover skeletal remains torn out of the ground when a tree was uprooted during a storm.

The beech tree had stood outside Collooney, County Sligo, Ireland, for 215 years before a storm blew it down last winter, pulling out the roots and the top half of a skeleton with them. The body was snapped in two when the tree toppled, leaving both femurs broken while the lower legs remained undisturbed in the grave. The National Monuments Service hired SLAS to excavated the remains in the ground and to painstakingly remove the bones embedded in the tree’s root matrix. The found part of the skull and spine in the roots, but other bones were destroyed by the roots as the tree grew.

Preliminary analysis of the bones by osteoarchaeologist Dr Linda Lynch revealed that the deceased was a young man 17-20 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating found he was buried between 1030 and 1200 A.D. While a strapping 5’10” tall in a time when the average height was 5’5″, the youth suffered mild spinal joint disease likely caused by heavy physical labour from a young age. There is evidence on the bones that he did not die an easy death. Sharp force injuries on the ribs and hand point to his having been cut repeatedly with a knife or sword.

He was given a formal Christian burial. His grave was aligned east-west and he was placed in the grave with his hands folded over his pelvic region. There are records from the 19th century that describe a church and graveyard nearby, but no other human remains or archaeological evidence of a church were found during the excavation. Also, the tree was planted in 1800, so any graveyard in the environs of the medieval body probably wasn’t in its immediate surroundings. He may have been an isolated burial rather than one of many buried in a cemetery.

The skeletal remains will studied in more depth and post-excavation work on the site continues.

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6th c. B.C. home rewrites map of archaic Rome

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

The remains of a home from the early 6th century B.C. discovered under a palazzo on the Quirinal Hill indicate the archaic city of Rome was much larger than previously thought. Built during the putative reign of legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius (578–535 B.C.), it is one of the most ancient homes ever found in Rome and is uniquely well preserved.

The domus was built on a rectangular floor plan 3.5 by 10 meters (11.5 by 33 feet) with was divided into two rooms. The entry point was probably an attached porch. The foundation of the home was tufa, a soft volcanic stone Romans used to build everything from temples to the Cloaca Maxima. The walls were wood covered in clay plaster and about 10 feet tall; the roof was tile.

Palazzo Canevari, built in 1885 to house the Royal Geological Office and its vast natural history collection, is on the Largo di Santa Susanna, close to a mile northeast of the Roman Forum. Just before the Palazzo Canevari was purchased by a real estate firm in 2004, preventative archaeological surveys began. Initial excavations revealed a large block of tufa that was initially thought to be part of the Servian Wall, a section of which is still visible above ground in the Large of Santa Susanna.

A 2013 excavation unearthed more of the structure and determined it was part of the walls of a large 5th century B.C. temple complex. Judging from the extant sections of the walls, the temple was at least 25 meters (82 feet) wide and 40 meters (131 feet) long, which would have made it one of the largest temples in Rome. No evidence was found of which god the temple was dedicated to, but ancient sources record two temples on the Quirinale Hill: a temple of Quirinus and the Capitolium Vetus sanctuary dedicated to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva.

Underneath the temple remains was found the skeleton of a newborn infant dating to the 7th century B.C. The temple and the burial fit with what archaeologists believed the Quirinale area was used for in the archaic period: a sacred precinct with temples and a necropolis. The discovery of the domus upends that belief.

“This building is basically absent in archaic Rome, and there are only traces in the Forum area. The home was probably used for about 50-60 years prior to when the temple was built that was discovered in 2013,” Mirella Serlorenzi said during a press visit, who directed the excavations on behalf of the superintendent’s office.

“The position of the house near the temple hints at it being a sacred area, and that whoever lived there was watching over what happened therein. But it is even more important that we can now retro-date the urbanization of the Quirinal zone. The Servian Walls encircled an area that was already inhabited and not a necropolis.” “This means that Rome at the beginning of the sixth century was much larger than what we expected and not closed in around the Forum,” she added, stressing that “the excavations will continue for months more. But everything depends on what we find.”

Today the building is owned by the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti bank who are planning on using it for office space. It’s not certain what they’d do about the archaeological treasure in the basement, but it will not be infilled. Other palazzi in Rome have full-on archaeological museums underneath them, like the Palazzo Valentini, for example.

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Rare portrait ivories acquired by Scottish museum

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Ivory has been carved since the earliest days of human figural art. In Europe it reached its peak popularity in the high Middle Ages and Paris became the center of production in Europe. (See the caskets with scenes from Arthurian romances in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the British Museum for top notch examples of peak Gothic ivories carved in Paris.) The art form went out of fashion in the Renaissance and for a few century ivory carvings were found integrated into other media (faces on wooden figures, for example) rather than as stand-alone pieces.

The 17th century saw a revival of ivory relief ivory and sculptures, and Dieppe, a bustling Normandy port town on the English channel that was the main port of entry for West African ivory, became the new center of continental ivory carving. Dieppe ivory carvers were known for decorative items and consumer goods like large and complex model ships made hull to rigging from single pieces of ivory, folding fans, rosaries, combs and snuffboxes, many of which can be seen on display now in the spectacular ivory collection of the Castle-Museum of Dieppe.

David Le Marchand was born in Dieppe on October 12, 1674, to a family of Hugenot artists and ivory carvers. When the Edict of Nantes granting religious freedom to French Protestants was revoked by King Louis XIV in 1685, more than 3,000 Hugenots a significant percentage of the population, fled Dieppe for greener pastures. David Le Marchand, then just 10 years old, and his family may have been among them, or he may have fled in 1694 when an Anglo-Dutch fleet bombarded the city to rubble. Whenever he left Dieppe, we know he arrived in Edinburgh in 1696 because a document has survived granting “Liberty and Licence to David Lemerchand designer and cutter in Ivory to exercise the sd. Arte” on condition that he take on the aspiring artist sons of local burghers as apprentices.

Ivory was rare and expensive in Scotland and David Le Marchand’s skills were immediately in demand. The same year he arrived, he secured the patronage of the powerful Mackenzie family. His first dated and signed relief portrait medallion made in Edinburgh was of Sir James Mackenzie, the 22-year-old hellraising son of Sir George Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Cromartie. Three more low-relief portraits — one of the father Sir George, one of Lady Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, one of her 10-year-old son George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh — and one small portrait bust of Sir James followed in quick succession, all completed before 1700.

Other Scottish patrons include the Drummond family, the Earl of Leven, the Earl of Cromartie and the Duke of Perth, but even so illustrious a client list wasn’t enough to keep in Edinburgh after the death of Jean Cavalier, London’s premiere ivory artist, in 1699. With the competition gone, David le Marchand moved to London and again hit the ground running, quickly taking Cavalier’s place as the most fashionable portrait sculptor in the city. He counted among his patrons King George I, Queen Anne, the Duke of Marlborough, Sir Christopher Wren, John Locke, Samuel Pepys and Bank of England directors the Raper family. The Rapers commissioned one of his most famous pieces: a bust of Sir Isaac Newton donated to the British Museum by a Raper descendant which features prominently in a painted portrait of Le Marchand by Joseph Highmore now in the National Portrait Gallery.

The low relief, slender plaques of ivory of his early Scottish days evolved into much larger, more dynamic works once he was established in London. The carving on his portrait medallions went deeper, creating portraits that projected outwards. This is likely a combination of his artistic development and of his having better access to larger pieces of ivory in London than he had in Endinburgh. One of the greatest examples of Le Marchand’s later work in high relief medallions sold at Sotheby’s in 2013 for $478,732.

His career seems to have nosedived in the 1720s. The last datable portrait he carved was of antiquarian Reverend William Stukeley in July of 1722. Less than four years later, on February 3rd, 1726, Le Marchand was admitted to the French Hospital in Rochester, outside London, a charity for sick and destitute Hugenots. He died there a few weeks later on March 17th.

The Mackenzie portraits remained in the family for 300 years, unpublished, unphotographed and known only from published correspondence until 1996. When John Ruaridh Grant Mackenzie, the current Earl of Cromartie and chief of Clan Mackenzie, decided to sell the collection, he wanted to ensure this unique group remained in Scotland. Instead of putting them up for auction, he negotiated privately with National Museums Scotland which was able to acquire the portraits with funding from National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust and the Art Fund.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “This interesting group of ivories, with its excellent provenance and rich object biographies, is an ideal fit for National Museums Scotland, particularly given the Museum’s interest in Scottish identity and its relationship with the rest of the world. Scotland now has a meaningful presence of works by Le Marchand, which will appeal to scholars, students, artists and families alike. I look forward to seeing them in the new galleries.”

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Neolithic skeleton is UK’s oldest case of rickets

Friday, September 11th, 2015

A recent study has found that a skeleton unearthed on the Scottish island of Tiree a century ago is the UK’s oldest case of rickets.

In spring of 1912, A. Henderson Bishop, a wealthy pig-breeder and amateur archaeologist, led a small team of antiquaries to excavate an area near the town of Balevullin on the northeastern part of the island where artifacts and architectural remains had been exposed by wind erosion. They focused their attentions on an early Iron Age structure and its environs, collecting artifacts like flints and hammer-stones from the sandy soil. While gathering surface artifacts, they came across a flat stone pile under which they found skeletal human remains. A little digging turned up another three inhumations.

The islanders heard about the finds and protested that the team was digging up their ancestors to ship them to a London museum. They reported their suspicions to the Duke of Argyle who told Bishop and his team to leave Tiree without taking anything with them. Hoping for a reprieve, they showed their modest artifacts to the local Factor (estate manager) who allowed them to take their finds, including the first skeleton, off the island. It would up in the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian collection.

Because the inhumations were found near the Iron Age structure, the skeleton was classified as Iron Age. This misclassification proved to be the reason why it has now been properly classified. A recent accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating project by University of Bradford and University of Durham researchers sought to date human remains found at Iron Age sites in Scotland. When the Balevullin skeleton was tested, it was found to be much older, dating to between 3340 and 3090 B.C., late Stone Age, not Iron Age.

The result took everyone by surprise, firstly because it was clear from a visual examination of the bones that this individual had suffered from rickets, a disease usually (but not always) associated with the endemic malnutrition and gloom of early modern slums rather than the fresh outdoorsy life of the Neolithic Inner Hebrides. It was also unexpected because while Britain is replete with Neolithic funerary structures — mainly monumental chambered cairns — with individual inhumations, monumentless inhumation cemeteries are extremely rare. Only one other flat inhumation cemetery in known in Britain: two adults and a child buried at Barrow Hills in Oxfordshire.

The Balevullin skeleton is 68% complete which allowed researchers to determine the individual was likely a woman. She was around 25-30 years old and between 4’9″ and 4’11” tall, very petite even by the standards of Neolithic Britain. Her sternum is severely deformed with a condition known as pigeon chest. The ribs exhibit associated deformations, as do the humerus bones whose shafts are bowed and rotated. The one surviving femur is also deformed although less so than the other bones.

All of these bone deformations are classic signs of vitamin D deficiency. Some of them point to rickets during infancy, and all of them are typical of childhood rickets. Evidence of bone repair suggest she suffered repeated periods of vitamin D deficiency in early and later childhood. This was confirmed by stable isotope analysis.

Strontium, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon isotope analyses performed on a tooth and rib revealed that the individual grew up in the Northern or Western Isles of Britain, so was probably a local Tiree girl. Her diet was based primarily on terrestrial plants and proteins with very little in the way of marine vegetables and fish. As weird as that seems, it is consistent with other Neolithic remains from farming communities on the western seaboard (and with medieval Viking settlers in Greenland). It seems the island life in the Neolithic era did not involve eating much of the abundant fish and seaweed all around them. The levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the layers of dentine in the tooth indicated a major dietary or physiological stress between the ages of four and 14, perhaps a result of weaning or the removal of marine proteins during a period of famine or illness.

Professor Ian Armit, from Bradford University, said: “The earliest case of rickets in Britain until now dated from the Roman period, but this discovery takes it back more than 3,000 years. There have been a few possible cases in other parts of the world that are around the same time, but none as clear cut as this.”

Professor Armit said it was unclear how the woman would have developed rickets.

“Vitamin D deficiency shouldn’t be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural, outdoor lifestyle, so there must have been particular circumstances that restricted this woman’s access to sunlight as a child,” he said.

“It’s most likely she either wore a costume that covered her body or constantly remained indoors, but whether this was because she held a religious role, suffered from illness or was a domestic slave, we will probably never know.”

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