Archive for September, 2015

When Emily Post drove from sea to shining sea

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

One hundred years ago, future etiquette guru Emily Post was given a challenging writing assignment by Collier’s Weekly: travel from New York to San Francisco by automobile in as much style as humanly possible. It was a challenge Emily was enthusiastic to accept, so on April 25th, 1915, Emily Post (riding shotgun), her son Ned (behind the wheel) and her cousin Alice Beadleston (crammed into the back seat with a troubling amount of baggage) set out on a grand adventure in a custom car entirely unsuited to the task.

In 1915 cross-country motoring was a new trend, the offshoot of a decade of publicity that aimed to lure travelers out west. Railroads, politicians and assorted other commercial interests in the western states had been exhorting Americans to “See Europe if you will, but see America first” since 1906. Keen to get a piece of the $500 million Americans were spending each year in travel to the Old World, they promoted the unique natural wonders of the American west from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean in contrast to the inconveniences and expense of travel to Europe. Traveling towards the Pacific rather than across the Atlantic was advertised as a patriotic duty, a means to commune with the “Great Architect” through his greatest works.

Don’t be hypnotized by weird tales of European travel. There is not an attraction in the Old World that cannot be duplicated and discounted by the phenomena of America. Facilities for travel are superior and cheaper at home than anything you may expect in foreign lands. Accommodations for the affluent, and others in more moderate circumstances, await the tourist at every turn of the road. You get what you want, and pay for what you get, and are not hounded to death by a horde of mendicants. You encounter the frank-faced business-like American who intuitively knows your wants and sees that they are supplied. […]

Come by rail, come in your auto-car, come afoot if you like, but come!

The railroads vigorously embraced the “See America First” slogan, encouraging people to enjoy rail voyages to the majestic vistas of the expanding National Park system, the pioneer experience without the pain of pioneering, all of the splendor, none of the survival cannibalism. The Great Northern Railway, whose owner Louis Hill had been instrumental in the creation and funding of Glacier National Park, marketed the park as “America’s Switzerland.” The Northern Pacific Railroad offered summer deals from Chicago to Puget Sound through the “Wonderland” of Yellowstone National Park.

The most coveted target of the campaign were wealthy Easterners who toured the opulent capitals and resorts of Europe, but they weren’t persuaded that a log cabin stay in Yellowstone was comparable to the en suite bathrooms and Escoffier dinners of the Paris Ritz. It wasn’t until war broke out in 1914 making travel to Europe potentially fatal that the elite turned their eyes west. The next year even more eyes turned west as the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama–California Exposition in San Diego, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, drew huge crowds.

The railroads appealed to people looking for ease and comfort, but automobile travel offered the promise of entirely private, self-directed journeys in the most exciting (and expensive) technology of the day. Enter Mrs. Emily Post. Born Emily Price, she was the daughter of prominent Baltimore architect Bruce Price and mining heiress Josephine Lee Price. Emily was educated by governesses and in private schools before graduating from Miss Graham’s Finishing School in New York City and making her debut in society in 1892. She was the talk of the season and before the year was out, she married wealthy businessman Edwin Post. They went to Europe, of course, for the de rigeur luxurious honeymoon.

Their marriage fell apart in 1905 when Edwin Post testified in a sensational trial against Col. William D. Mann, a gossip columnist who had attempted to blackmail Post over his showgirl mistress. The distance between them and the public humiliation of the trial drove Emily to divorce him in 1906. With no alimony forthcoming (Edwin had lost much of his fortune in bad investments), she had to work to support herself and her two sons at their fancy private boarding school in Pomfret, Connecticut. Emily took commissions as a decorator and architectural model-builder from her late father’s architect friends and she wrote. She had already had some success as a novelist during the later years of her marriage — her name was spoken in the same breath as Edith Wharton’s in a Washington Post article about working society women — and in 1909 was able to parlay the public’s avid interest in the flood of American heiresses trawling Europe for noble marriage prospects into a popular novel, The Title Market.

Later that year Emily’s mother died in a car accident leaving her daughter a large enough fortune that she wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again. She kept on writing, though, mainly fiction of the “write what you know” variety. It was her background as a wealthy, cultured, widely traveled woman of refined tastes that made her the ideal author for the Collier’s Weekly assignment. Her goal was to see if she could cross the country in the kind of comfort to which her peers were very much accustomed, or at least how far she could get, and to write about the journey in a series of articles.

The opening of the first article underscores what a cockamamie scheme people thought it was.

“Of course you are sending your servants ahead by train with your luggage and all that sort of thing,” said an Englishman.
A New York banker answered for me: “Not at all! The best thing is to put them in another machine directly behind, with a good mechanic. Then if you break down the man in the rear and your chauffeur can get to rights in no time. How about your chauffeur? You are sure he is a good one?”
“We are not taking one — nor servants, nor mechanic either.”
“Surely you and your son are not thinking of going alone! Probably he could drive, but who is going to take care of the car?”
“Why, he is!”

Even the nice young man at the Automobile Club recommended she stick to the eastern roads.

“Unfortunately,” he said suavely, “we have not all our information yet, and we seem to be out of our Western maps! But I can recommend some very delightful tours through New England and the Berkshires.”
“That is very interesting, but I am going to San Francisco.”
“Oh, I couldn’t advise that, madam; the New England roads are very much better.”
“But, you see, San Francisco is where I am going. Do you know which route is, if you prefer it, the least bad?”
“Oh, I see.” He looked sorry. “If you must cross the continent, there is the Lincoln Highway!”
“Can you tell me how much work has been done on it?”
“No, I really couldn’t. But it is the best known route.”

The Lincoln Highway, the first road to cross the continental United States from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, had been inaugurated less than two years before that conversation and was very much a work in progress. Unbridged rivers had to be forded and there were significant stretches in the desert west where the car would be the only sleeping facility. Not to mention the difficulty in finding gasoline stations even in towns and cities, never mind once the stretches between developed areas got long.

Undeterred, Emily and her team hit the road. The search for luxury quickly became desultory as they left the crowded east for the wider open spaces of the midwest and west, but even though Collier’s had told her to turn around the minute she hit discomfort of any kind, Emily kept on trucking through crappy hotels and crappier food and the car getting stuck in the mud outside Chicago (on the Lincoln Highway, no less). The heavy silver picnic set they set out with was shipped back and replaced with a modest ceramic bread basket filled with paper plates. In New Mexico they were mired in a whole new kind of mud on its “natural roads.” The car’s extra long chassis, imported English motor and skinny wheels were no help in handling the challenges of the terrain. Eventually the car broke down altogether in the Arizona desert. They had to get the car to Los Angeles by freight train before picking up the drive again up the Pacific coast. After 27 days and close to $1,800 spent, they finally made it to San Francisco.

It was far from luxurious, but it was a great adventure and Emily Post lived to tell the tale. The story was published in three parts on September 4th, September 11th and September 18th and was well-received. In 1916, a revised version of the series was published in a book entitled By Motor to the Golden Gate.


1813 shipwreck survivors’ camp found in Alaska

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Archaeologists in Sitka, southeast Alaska, have found the camp made by survivors of the wreck of the Russian ship Neva in January of 1813 while they awaited rescue.

The Neva was a famous ship in its day. The three-masted 200-foot vessel began life in 1801 as the British merchant ship Thames but was acquired by Russia in 1802 and renamed Neva after the river that flows through Saint Petersburg. The Neva and another formerly English ship (the Leander, renamed Nadezhda) that had been purchased at the same time set sail together in 1803 from Kronstadt on a three-year voyage that would be the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth.

In October of 1804, the Neva, now separated from the Nadezhda, was in Sitka where the Russian-American Company deployed it against the Tlingit nation. The Tlingit had been fighting to get the Russians out of their territory for years, culminating in the destruction of the Russian outpost of Redoubt Saint Michael in 1802. It took a couple of years, but Russia got its revenge when the Neva and three other smaller ships bombarded the Tlingit fort for three days, ultimately forcing the tribespeople to retreat north to Chichagof Island.

After their victory in the Battle of Sitka, the Russians founded the permanent settlement of New Archangel which in 1808 became the capital of Russian America. A flourishing commercial center when Seattle, Portland and San Francisco were but a twinkle in Manifest Destiny’s eye, New Archangel is where Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl and Secretary of State William Seward signed the agreement selling Russian America to the United States for $7.2 million in April of 1867. The official transfer of the territory from Russia to the United States took place at New Archangel on October 18th, 1867. The city’s name was changed to Sitka when Russian America became the U.S. Department of Alaska after the transfer.

A month after the battle, the Neva continued on its long, slow trip around the world, carrying fur seal pelts from Alaska to China and in 1807 becoming the first Russian ship to visit mainland Australia. In 1812, the Neva headed back to Sitka but was damaged in treacherous weather on the three-month journey from Siberia. With a stop in Prince William Sound, the ship almost made it only to wreck less than 10 miles from Sitka off Kruzof Island on January 9th, 1813. Of the 75 souls on board when the Neva departed Okhotsk, Siberia, in August, 32 died in the wreck. Another 15 had died on the way leaving 28 men to make it to dry land. The survivors had to make do on their own in the depths of an Alaskan winter for 24 days until they were rescued. Two men didn’t make it.

The rescued crew members were taken to safety in Sitka, but despite the importance of the wrecked ship, their experience was barely documented at the time. There are no known official records extant today relating to the wreck, the rescue of the survivors and their month of hardship. The location of the camp was lost.

In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology and the Sitka Historical Society sponsored a survey of a site they had reason to believe might be the survivors’ camp. They dug a few test pits and found two caches of Russian axes. Using archival research, Tlingit oral histories, and analysis of the landscape, the team also found an area near the shore they think may be the site of shipwreck.

This year an international team of Russian and American researchers funded by the National Science Foundation returned to the site for a more extensive archaeological excavation.

In July, researchers discovered at the campsite a series of hearths with early 19th century artifacts such as gun flints, musket balls, pieces of modified sheet copper, iron and copper spikes, a Russian axe, and a fishhook fashioned from copper. Well-preserved food middens–or refuse heaps–will allow reconstruction of the foraging strategies the sailors used to survive.

Gun flints found at the site appeared to have been used by survivors to used start fires, by striking them against steel. Historical accounts credit a firearm used in this manner with helping save the crew from hypothermia. Physical evidence indicates the survivors tried to whittle down musket balls to fit a smaller caliber weapon, such as a flintlock–most likely the same firearm mentioned in the historical accounts. Some of the copper spikes recovered by archaeologists had been broken through shear stress, such as a wreck would produce. The researchers believe one copper or brass artifact is part of a set of a navigator’s dividers, saved by a crewman as the ship violently broke apart over rocks.

The nature of the artifacts seems to strongly indicate that survivors of the shipwreck were active in ensuring their own survival. They modified wreckage in desperation, but with ingenuity.

No artifacts indicative of settlement — ceramic, glass — were found, just the kind of cleverly improvised objects that shipwreck survivors would fashion to make it until the rescuers arrived.

Even though Russians had a hugely significant presence in Alaska for more than a century before 1867, very few Russian sites have been excavated. The Neva survivors’ camp and the shipwreck therefore have the potential to answer a great many questions about the history of Russian America, particularly because they are so narrowly focused in time. They are a snapshot of the Russian presence in Alaska as it was in January of 1813.


Woolly rhino calf died 34,000 years ago

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Sasha, the woolly rhinoceros calf discovered last year by hunters preserved in the permafrost of Siberia’s Sakha Republic, is 34,000 years old. When the find was announced, scientists hadn’t yet had the chance to date the remains. They knew it had to be at least 10,000 years old because that’s when the woolly rhino went extinct. Radiocarbon testing found that Sasha lived and died during the Karginsk interglacial period, a time between ice ages when what is now the Sakha Republic had a much warmer climate than it does today.

Researchers from the Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha who performed a necropsy on Sasha estimate the baby was around one and a half years old when it (the sex of the animal hasn’t been determined) died. This was determined from the size of the skull which is the same as it would be for an 18-month white rhinoceros calf. Its age will be pinpointed with more accuracy when scientists take detailed measurements of the teeth.

Meanwhile, the initial necropsy has already pinpointed a probably cause of death.

Dr Albert Protopopov, head of the Department of Mammoth Fauna Studies, in Yakutsk, said: “The nasal passages of the rhinoceros were clogged with mud, so that we can say that most likely it drowned.” He explained: “Paleontologists believe that the mortality rate in babies of such large animals was very low. We will try to find out in the course of these research what killed this very rhino calf.”

The rhino is missing its midsection, but even so it’s exceptionally well-preserved. The front and back legs and most of its skin, covered with thick light grey hair, are intact. The head is in such condition Sasha looks asleep. The eyes, ears and tongue are all still there. The excellent state of preservation gives scientists confidence that they will be able to recover viable DNA for testing, a prospect that excites scientists all over the world who will be given the opportunity to study this unique specimen. Dr. Protopopov again:

“The DNA of woolly rhino is poorly studied indeed. This find gives us the opportunity to compare the woolly rhino with the modern rhinos and find out how far they are from each other on the evolutionary path.”

The University of California, Santa Cruz will analyze any DNA in the hope they can sequence the woolly rhinoceros genome and compare it to modern rhinoceroses. A plethora of Russian scientists will have a crack at the Sasha apple, as will researchers from the University of Amsterdam, the University of Groningen, the University of Leeds, the University of Bristol and the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha were thoughtful enough to film the necropsy and release clips of it on YouTube.



Vast stone monument found under “super-henge”

Monday, September 7th, 2015

In the Salisbury Plain three kilometers (1.8 miles) from Stonehenge lie the banks of a “super-henge” known as Durrington Walls. It’s super because of its sheer size: 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter, 1.5 kilometers (one mile) in circumference with a surrounding ditch 18 meters (59 feet) wide with an outer bank 40 meters (131 feet) wide. Heavily eroded, the outer slope of the ditch and inner slope of the bank form a ridge that is one meter (three feet) high at its highest points; the ridge is the “walls” of Durrington Walls. It was built around 2,600 B.C. in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age.

Using the latest and greatest ground penetrating radar technology, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project has found that underneath the bank is a row of up to 90 standing stones, 30 of which appear to be intact and are as much as 4.5 meters (15 feet) high. Others are broken or missing, the latter identified by huge foundation pits. Even incomplete and unexcavated, this is the largest stone monument ever found in Britain.

At Durrington, more than 4.5 thousand years ago, a natural depression near the river Avon appears to have been accentuated by a chalk cut scarp and then delineated on the southern side by the row of massive stones. Essentially forming a C-shaped ‘arena’, the monument may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon. Although none of the stones have yet been excavated a unique sarsen standing stone, “The Cuckoo Stone”, remains in the adjacent field and this suggests that other stones may have come from local sources.

Previous, intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only Stonehenge and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue possessed significant stone structures. The latest surveys now provide evidence that Stonehenge’s largest neighbour, Durrington Walls, had an earlier phase which included a large row of standing stones probably of local origin and that the context of the preservation of these stones is exceptional and the configuration unique to British archaeology.

This new discovery has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. The earthwork enclosure at Durrington Walls was built about a century after the Stonehenge sarsen circle (in the 27th century BC), but the new stone row could well be contemporary with or earlier than this. Not only does this new evidence demonstrate an early phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, it also raises significant questions about the landscape the builders of Stonehenge inhabited and how they changed this with new monument-building during the 3rd millennium BC.

Archaeologists believe the stones were toppled and the later henge whose earthwork remains are visible above ground built on top of them. The former standing stones became the awkwardly flat southern perimeter of the Durrington Walls henge. Here’s a digital model of the standing stones as they would have looked when they still stood that fades into the later bank.


That C-shape is familiar. Remember the stone circle found on Dartmoor that was the southernmost point of a crescent formed by other stone circles? The Dartmoor stones fell around 4,000 years ago, so the circles and the henge could well have been contemporaries.

Lastly, here is an extremely adorable picture of one of the magnetometer surveys in the area.


The long, strange tale of The 120 Days of Sodom

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, served a total of 32 years in prisons and insane asylums for transgressions that by the standards of ancien régime aristocrats were comparatively modest. His first prison stay (two weeks in 1763) in the donjon of the Châteaux de Vincennes was the result of a prostitute complaining not that he had abused her, but that he had engaged in and forced her to engage in blasphemies like stomping on a cross and cursing God.

The second time he was arrested his victim was a destitute widow named Rose Keller who he had promised a job as a housekeeper. When she arrived at his home in Paris, there was no housekeeping job waiting. Instead, de Sade forced her to strip, whipped her and locked her in a room from which she escaped a few hours later. She also claim he cut her buttocks with a pen knife and poured sealing wax in the cuts, although when she was examined two days later the authorities found no cuts. For this crime he was imprisoned for seven months in 1768, before being banished to his family estate in La Coste, Provence.

The third incident ultimately sealed his fate, but only because it pissed off the one person he should have taken special care not to piss off: his mother-in-law, Madame la Présidente de Montreuil. On June 23rd, 1772, de Sade had his valet Latour hire five prostitutes in Marseilles. The seven of them spent the morning whipping each other and having sex in various configurations. None of that was in any way remarkable. What went wrong was that the marquis tried to persuade the women to eat aniseed candies coated in Spanish fly. Only one of them ate any, but a sixth prostitute he hired that evening ingested several. Both of them became ill, with the evening shift women who had eaten the most becoming so violently ill that the last rites were administered.

All six of the women were questioned by the police and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the Marquis de Sade and Latour for poisoning and for sodomy (with each other). The marquis was tipped off that the cops were after him again, so he fled to Italy taking his wife Renée-Pélagie’s sister Anne-Prospère de Launay with him. Sade was then 32; Anne-Prospère was just nineteen years old, 11 years younger than her sister, and was a secular canoness of the Benedictine community in Alix. La Présidente had fished her son-in-law’s overactive chestnuts out of the fire every time before this, but the seduction of her youngest daughter crossed a line that could not be uncrossed.

Sade and Latour were tried in absentia, sentenced to death and burned in effigy. The marquis and his sister-in-law/lover traveled under assumed names to various cities in Italy for a month before Anne-Prospère left him and returned to her sister and mother. Because he was nothing if not reckless, Sade wrote to La Présidente mentioning that he was in Savoy. She promptly alerted the Savoyard authorities and the marquis and his valet were arrested and imprisoned in Fort Miolans. They escaped four months later and returned to La Coste where Sade’s unbelievably loyal wife protected him from her mother’s wrath and kept him just out of reach of the law’s long arm.

After five years on the lam, he was lured to Paris on a pretext and arrested. He was imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes in 1777. It was the beginning of 13 years of imprisonment because even though his sentence was overturned on appeal in 1778, his formidable mother-in-law had obtained a lettre de cachet, the controversial means by which the king could order someone jailed without charge or trial indefinitely with no possibility of appeal, against him. Even when the liberal reformist zeal of the 1780s freed hundreds of disgraced debauched nobles imprisoned by lettres de cachet, the marquis was not among them. The official in charge read his letters for signs of repentance and found the polar opposite. Sade never did know when to keep his mouth shut.

His first forays into prison literature were revisions of Italian travel notes, later published as Voyage d’Italie. He began to write verse plays a couple of years into his time in Vincennes. This was his original literary dream, to be a respected playwright. He wrote to his former teacher and lifelong friend Abbé Amblet in 1784: “It would doubtless be a great pleasure for me to see my works played in Paris and if they were successful, a reputation for being a man of intellect might perhaps lead people to forget my youthful trespasses and would in some way rehabilitate me.”

Sade was an incredibly prolific correspondent and wrote 20 plays during his imprisonment. When his long-suffering wife Pélagie and Amblet gave less than glowing critiques of most of them, the marquis eschewed verse and drama and turned his attentions to pornographic prose. He kicked off his new literary pursuit in high style and in a new location. On February 29th, 1784, he was dragged naked out of his cell in Vincennes and moved to another prison on the other side of Paris, a little place you might have heard of called the Bastille. It was there that he began to write what he would consider his masterpiece: The 120 Days of Sodom.

To ensure this vomit-inducing catalogue of violent horrors and sexual depravity (I couldn’t get past the 9th day and it’s a walk in the park compared to what comes after) was not confiscated by his jailers, Sade wrote it in the tiniest of handwritings on sheets of paper five inches wide. Once he’d filled in a page, he’d glue it to the next page so the whole manuscript could be rolled up tightly and hidden in a crack in the wall (one biographer says he hid it in a dildo). He wrote for three hours a night over 37 days, producing a working draft of 250,000 words. The scroll was 39 feet long.

He intended the finished work to be twice or three times longer, but for unknown reasons he never did complete it. He certainly had the time. The Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille for five years. He was abruptly transferred, naked again, from the Bastille to the insane asylum of Charenton on July 4th, 1789, 10 days before the fortress was so famously stormed. This too he brought on himself by yelling “They’re killing prisoners in here!” out of his window to the disgruntled crowds below on July 2nd. His precious scroll was left behind in the transfer and he assumed it was destroyed for good after the storming of the Bastille. In a 1790 letter to his steward Gaufridy, Sade said he shed “tears of blood” over the loss of of this manuscript and all his other writings (plus the expensive furniture, paintings and his library of 600 books) and blamed his poor wife for not recovering his belongings from his cell when she had 10 whole days to get it done.

His first transit in Charenton lasted only a year; he was freed in 1790 when the French Revolutionary legislature abolished the lettre de cachet. He was elected to the National Convention that same year and served until he was arrested in late 1793 during the Reign of Terror for “moderatism.” Sade was freed seven months later in July of 1794 after the execution of Robespierre. Then Napoleon came along and he wanted a piece of the marquis too. In 1801 de Sade was arrested and imprisoned. Two years later his family had him declared insane and got him transferred back to the Charenton asylum where he would live out the rest of his days until his death in 1814.

Many of his surviving papers and writings were destroyed by his son Donatien-Claude-Armand after his father’s death. He was the first in a long line of de Sades to repudiate their notorious ancestor’s writing and to erase all obvious signs of their family connection to him. They stopped using the Marquis de Sade title or even the first name Donatien for 300 years. (The current family has reversed the trend. They make significant bank off their notorious ancestor and the heir to the title is named Donatien.)

Although de Sade died believing his magnum opus was gone forever, in fact The 120 Days of Sodom had been found in its hidey hole by one Arnoux de Saint-Maximin who took it home with him two days before the storming of the Bastille. Eventually it was acquired by the wealthy Villeneuve-Trans family and it remained in their hands for three generations until it was sold in the late 19th century to Berlin psychiatrist Dr. Iwan Bloch, who published the first edition in 1904, 119 years after it was written. Bloch used the pseudonym Eugène Dühren to keep the censors off his case and printed 180 copies replete with transcription errors. Bloch emphasized that he was publishing the book because of its “scientific importance … to doctors, jurists and anthropologists” and compared its anecdotes to those recorded by pioneering psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing who was the first to popularize the term “sadism” in his seminal work Psychopathia Sexualis.

The manuscript stayed in Berlin until 1929 when it was purchased by Maurice Heine at the behest of Viscount Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure who was a direct descendant of de Sade’s. Heine published a new version in three quarto volumes from 1931 to 1935 available to subscribers only. This is considered the authoritative version because it is free of Bloch’s transcription errors.

The original scroll remained in the possession of the Vicount and Marie-Laure’s daughter Natalie de Noailles until 1982 when she entrusted it to someone she thought was a trusted friend, publisher Jean Grouet. He turned out to be a con man who told her it had been stolen while he smuggled the manuscript out of the country to Switzerland where he sold it to erotica collector Gérard Nordmann for $60,000. Natalie sued and in June of 1990, a French court ruled that the manuscript was stolen and should be returned to the Noailles family. Nordmann just ignored the French judgment and since Switzerland at that point was not a signatory of the UNESCO convention, Noailles had to sue again in the Swiss courts. The dispute was ongoing when Nordmann died in 1992. In 1998 a Swiss federal court found that it was lawfully acquired because Nordmann had acted “in good faith.” I mean, the Noailles had reported the theft to Interpol and everything. Why even have laws against theft if legal title can be transferred based only on the buyer’s supposed state of mind? Absurd.

Anyway, it went on display for the first time in 2004 at the Martin Bodmer Foundation library and museum near Geneva. Nine years later, Nordmann’s heirs decided to sell the manuscript to a French collector. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France geared up for a fight, raising more than $5 million to purchase the scroll. The money would then be divided between the Noailles and Nordmann heirs, a necessary step because the manuscript would be confiscated as soon as it crossed the border into France unless the French courts declared the legal owners were part of the deal. Negotiations fell through and a year later, in April of 2014, it was bought by Gérard Lhéritier, founder of Aristophil, a company which owned the world’s largest private collection of manuscripts (including Napoleon and Josephine’s prenup), for seven million euros ($9.6 million).

Lhéritier put the unfurled scroll on display at his private Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris and proposed to donate it to the Bibliothèque Nationale after five years. The library didn’t respond immediately to his overtures. Seven months later, anti-fraud officers raided the Paris headquarters of Aristophil and froze all the company’s accounts forcing it into insolvency. The firm appears to have been a giant Ponzi scheme built around its historic document collection.

Lhéritier invented a new way to sell in his niche market. For the past 11 years, he has been actively purchasing valuable documents such as the manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton, Louis XVI’s will or Napoleon’s wedding certificate. He offered them for sale, divided into hundreds of shares. Clients were told that, after five years, Aristophil would buy back their share with at least a 40% interest payment. Here was the catch, claim the investigators: the clients thought the company was guaranteeing the payment; in fact, there was no obligation of the kind in the contract.

But in fact, the company has always done so, winning the confidence of 18,000 investors, who in the past year alone paid €160m for a share of the action. According to the judge’s order, of which The Art Newspaper has a copy, this was made possible only by launching new sales, so that new investors paid those selling their shares.

In March of this year, Gérard Lhéritier, his daughter, his accountant and a prominent Parisian bookseller were indicted on charges including fraud, money laundering, creating false accounts and embezzlement. In August, a court in Paris ruled that the vast Astrophil collection was to be sold as the company was completely insolvent.

And so it seems The 120 Days will be on the move again. Lhéritier denies all the charges and says the entire case is a government conspiracy to get its greedy mitts on his collection. Honestly, I hope it is, because otherwise those 135,000 documents will be scattered to the four winds unless the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s director Bruno Racine manages to get the whole lot of them declared national treasure, which I expect he’s working on right now. At least the iconic The 120 Days of Sodom manuscript is certain to qualify. Then for the first time it will belong to the country which imprisoned its author under two kings, one Committee of Public Safety and one Consulate, and which banned his books until 1957.


Roman coin hoard with name on pot found in Sofia

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating Sveta Nedelya square in Sofia, Bulgaria, have discovered a hoard of 2,976 Roman coins in a clay pot with a lid. It’s the largest Roman coin hoard ever found in Sofia, but that’s not the only exceptional thing about this find: the clay pot has a name scratched on its side. The vessel contains 2976 silver denarii from the 1st and 2nd centuries, the earliest from the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79) and the latest from the reign of Emperor Commodus (177-192). There are coins bearing the faces of every Antonine emperor — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius — and their wives, daughters and sisters — Sabina, Faustina the Elder, Faustina the Younger, Bruttia Crispina and Lucilla.

It was hidden under the floor of an ancient public building and we know who buried it, one Selvius Callistus who had the presence of mind to scratch his name on the pot perhaps to prove ownership should it be disputed when he returned to collect his treasure. Unfortunately these tiny photographs are the only ones I could find and they don’t show the name. Usually that would be a deal-breaker for me — I discard potential stories all the time if there are no good pictures — but I’ve written about a great many coin hoard finds and this is the first one with a name carved on the vessel.

EDIT: Still no shots of the name, but here are some decently sized pictures of the find courtesy of Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s Facebook page. Now that I can see them properly, the coins soaking in that blue solution give me the willies. They’re all scrunched together in the foot of what looks like a trifle bowl. Surely cleaning them one at a time, or at least in a tray where they aren’t rubbing against each other, would be more appropriate treatment for 2,000-year-old coins.

Founded by the Thracian Serdi tribe in the 8th century B.C., the city that would become Sofia was called Serdica. It was conquered by the Romans in 29 B.C. who renamed it Ulpia Serdica. Thanks to its location just south of the Danube frontier at the crossroads of several trade routes, the city grew to prominence within the empire. When Diocletian divided the province of Dacia Aureliana into two parts at the end of the 3rd century A.D., Serdica was awarded the status of municipium, the administrative center/capital of the new province of Dacia Mediterranea.

For a short time between 303 and 308 A.D., Serdica had its own imperial mint. The Thessalonica mint had been shut down and its employees moved to Serdica to operate the new mint. Although it was only in operation for five years, the Serdica mint was important while it lasted. Coins struck there bear the mintmark “SM” for sacra moneta (sacred money or mint) which means it was one of very few mints where gold solidi were produced. Most mints struck regular coinage marked “MP” or moneta publica.

The city prospered under Roman rule, even as the Goths and Capri devastated the former Roman province of Dacia north of the Danube (modern-day Romania) in the 3rd century. It was razed by the Huns under Atilla in 447 A.D. during his second campaign against Theodosius and the Easter Roman Empire but was rebuilt a century later by Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In 550, Justinian’s cousin Germanus was based in Serdica where he was assembling an army to wrest Italy from Gothic control. Before he could leave, he had to fight the invading Slavs. The Battle of Serdica was a great victory for the Byzantine Empire, although it only delayed the inevitable a little while.

The hoard and vessel are currently being conserved at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ National Institute of Archaeology. They are expected to go on public display on September 17th at the official reopening of the Sofia History Museum in its new location, the restored Central Mineral Baths, a beautiful Vienna Secession style building constructed in the first decade of the 20th century which was a municipal bathhouse until 1986 when it fell into disrepair and was closed out of concern that the roof might collapse on bathers.


Drought turns Vistula into archaeological dig

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Another summer of severe drought has dropped the water level of Poland’s Vistula river to just 16 inches, creating what is basically a vast archaeological buffet table through the middle of Warsaw. Three years ago when the Vistula was 24 inches deep it was already the lowest level since recording began in 1789, and archaeologists were able to recover a trove of marble and alabaster architectural features looted from the city’s Royal Castle by Swedish invaders in 1656. More pieces of the Royal Castle are being recovered now, but that’s not all.

Other items to emerge from the Vistula this summer include pieces of bridges and boats, as well as ceramic objects dating as far back as 700 to 400 BC.

They include obelisks and bases of columns that likely came from Warsaw’s Kazimierz Palace, which was built in the 17th century and is today a Warsaw University building.

Last week archaeologists were able to recover pieces of two destroyed bridges. One of them is the Poninski Bridge, a wooden pontoon bridge built in 1775 that was supported by a line of 43 boats spanning the river. It was burned on November 4th, 1794, on the orders of Thomas Wawrzecki, leader of the Kosciuszko Uprising against Russian occupation. (Its leader and namesake, American Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, had been captured and imprisoned by the Russians a month earlier.) The Russians had just broken the Polish lines on the outskirts of Warsaw and massacred 20,000 civilians in the suburb of Praga. Wawrzecki hoped that disabling the bridge would keep them reaching the left bank of the Vistula and taking Warsaw proper.

The tactic failed. Wawrzecki and what was left of Poland’s army retreated and Russia took Warsaw unopposed. Russian General Aleksandr Suvorov had the bridge temporarily repaired a few days later. Poninski Bridge was fully repaired by April of 1795 only to be destroyed again in November of 1806 by the allied Prussian and Russian forces retreating from Napoleon’s army.

The other bridge is the Poniatowski Bridge, originally built between 1904 and 1914. Just a year after it was completed, the bridge was severely damaged when the retreating Russian army exploded four of its eight spans to hamper the German army on its heels. It was reconstructed in the interwar period only to get blown up again this time by Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising on 13 September 1944. The Germans went ahead and blew up all eight spans, leaving only the piers still standing. Archaeologists have retrieved parts of the stone benches that were once on the bridge.

Two weeks ago the wreck of a Soviet bomber was unearthed from the black muck of the Bzura River, a tributary of the Vistula. The wreckage was moved to the Vistula River Museum in nearby Wyszogrod. The instrument panel, engine, one wheel from the landing gear and radio equipment were recovered, the radio in good condition. Inside they found fragments of a uniform, a parachute, a sheepskin coat collar from a bomber jacket, fragments of boots, heavy ammunition and a Soviet semi-automatic TT pistol.

While the plane was too twisted and torn by the crash for the model to be identified, based on the winter gear and some of the markings on the plane, museum experts believe it may be a bomber witnesses saw shot down in January of 1945, when the Red Army was pushing the Nazis back towards Berlin. The Russian Embassy believes the bomber and its crew might be identified from numbers on what’s left of the plane. Remains of the pilots were found and the embassy hopes they can be identified for proper burial.

The lowering Vistula continues to reveal Jewish tombstones thought to have been stolen from the Brodno cemetery during and right after World War II and used to line the banks of the river. Another artifact found may also be connected to the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s a freight wagon of German manufacture that historians believe was used to transport rubble from the Northern District of Warsaw which was razed after the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


Ventnor artifacts seek owner

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

On October 27th, 1902, the steamer SS Ventnor left Wellington, New Zealand, carrying the mortal remains of 499 Chinese miners. It was taking them to Hong Kong where they would be transported to China’s southern Guangdong province, the birthplace of the 499 dead, so the remains could be reburied in their native soil in accordance with Chinese custom. New Zealand had recruited Chinese labourers to extract gold from mines that Europeans had already worked to near exhaustion, and despite the passage of draconian exclusion laws, the Chinese community grew. Choie Sew Hoy, a wealthy Dunedin merchant and leader of the Cheong Sing Tong, arranged for the repatriation of the bodies and when he died suddenly a year before the ship’s departure, his remains joined the others on board the SS Ventnor.

A day after its departure, the ship struck the shoals near the coast of Taranaki and was damaged but seemed to be capable of limping its way to Auckland. It was not. The Ventnor took on water and sank on October 29th. The crew and a half-dozen Chinese passengers tending to the remains managed to scramble onto four life boats. One of the four capsized killing all 13 people on board, including the captain and third officer.

The tragedy caused great distress in the Chinese community of New Zealand and in Guangdong. Choie Sew Hoy’s family offered a reward of $25,000 for the recovery of his remains, but the heavy coffins held in the cargo of the ship could not be retrieved. The Tong hired another steamer that searched for remains without success. A few coffins stored on deck did float ashore where the remains were buried with respect by the Maori of the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes.

While the general area of the wreck was known, the precise location of the ship wasn’t discovered until 110 years after it sank. The Ventnor Project Group (VPG) found the wreck 15 kilometers (nine miles) off the Hokianga Coast with sonar in 2012 and later divers confirmed its identity. In April of 2014, divers returned to the wreck and recovered a few artifacts: a ceramic plate, the ship’s bell, a lamp holder, a porthole and the ship’s telegraph. At the time, the organization thought the artifacts could be given to a museum in Guangzhou, but the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) was vocally opposed to the idea because of how significant they were to the Chinese community in New Zealand.

The NZCA was also concerned that the wreck site was in danger from looters, so it worked with New Zealand Heritage to fast-track protection of the site. All sites from before 1900 are automatically accorded protected status, but the Ventnor was just outside that dividing line. New Zealand Heritage quickly gazetted the site, protecting it under the provisions of the Historic Places Act 1993, making it illegal for anyone to interfere with the wreck in any way.

Now the question is what to do with the artifacts removed from the shipwreck before it was protected. On Monday New Zealand’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage published a notice on their website and in newspapers asking that claims of ownership be submitted to the ministry.

New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage invites submissions of claims for ownership and/or possession from parties who may have an interest in some or all of the objects. We also invite submissions from parties who are not claiming ownership and/or possession but who wish to make submissions for consideration regarding the future care of the objects whether by them or by another party. Submissions should be received by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage by 23 November 2015.

It seems to me that the only people with a legitimate ownership claim to pieces of the Ventnor would be the owners of the ship, but as far as I could find, the Glasgow-based shipping company is no longer in business. Perhaps it has legal corporate descendants. Even so, I doubt they’d want to take an old porthole out of the context where it has such profound meaning. The NZCA plans to make a submission to the ministry with the goal of creating a traveling exhibition. The government reserves the right to make a claim as well. Once the claims have been submitted and the deadline expires, the Chief Executive of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage will decide who gets custody of the artifacts.


Scottish soldiers found in Durham mass grave

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

In November of 2013, construction crews building a new coffee shop for Durham University’s Palace Green Library came across human skeletal remains. Construction was halted immediately and an archaeological excavation ensued. Under an internal courtyard at the south end of the site, archaeologists unearthed a jumble of bones, the remains of more than a dozen people who had been buried in two pits. The mass graves extend north, south and east past the excavated area under buildings and walls and only the area directly impacted by construction was excavated so there are likely many more human remains still underground. The bones in the path of construction were removed for study before reburial.

University researchers found that there were at least 17 individuals and as many as 29 buried in the pits. Because they had been buried with little care, the skeletons were disarticulated and it wasn’t possible to identify the exact number. Most of them ranged in age from 13 to 25 with a few older individuals. All the adults were male and the adolescents probably were as well but their sex could not be conclusively determined. The sex and age indicate these individuals were soldiers. If they had been general population struck by plague, say, there would have been a representative proportion of men, women, children and elderly. (They also probably wouldn’t have been buried in the city center on the castle grounds.)

Stable isotope analysis from tooth enamel revealed that six of the deceased were likely from Scotland, four from Scotland or Northern England, one more likely to be Scottish than English and three who were not from the British Isles. They grew up further east, in a cooler climate or a higher altitude; they may have been German or Dutch. Two of the men had crescent-shaped notches in the teeth called “pipe facets” caused by habitual biting on the stems of clay pipes.

That’s a key date marker because clay pipe smoking became popular in Britain in the early 17th century, so the bodies can’t have been buried before 1620. A building was constructed over some of the mass grave in 1754 which narrows the date further. Radiocarbon testing dates the remains to 1625-1660. That range is mighty suggestive. There was a civil war going on in Britain in the middle of those dates, after all.

Durham University experts believe all the evidence points to the men buried in these mass graves being soldiers in the Scottish army who were on the losing side of the Battle of Dunbar, fought on the southeast coast of Scotland exactly 365 years ago today on September 3rd, 1650. It was a short but brutal fight in which Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army crushed the Royalist Scottish Covenanter army in less than an hour. According to contemporary sources, up to 5,000 men lost their lives on the battlefield. Modern historians estimate that 4,000 Scottish soldiers were captured by Cromwell and marched through Newcastle upon Tyne 100 miles south to Durham. Approximately 1,000 of them died on the way, mainly from starvation, exhausting and dysentery.

When the 3,000 or so survivors reached Durham, they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral which at the time was no longer functioning as a church since Cromwell had kicked out the Dean and Chapter. Conditions were appalling. It was cold and there was little food or water to be had. The Scottish prisoners stripped the cathedral’s wood to burn for heat, sparing only Prior Castell’s Clock out of deference for the Scottish thistle carved on it. (That’s the romantic story. The more practical version is that the clock was dismantled and removed when the cathedral was converted into a prison.) An estimate 1,700 of the prisoners died in captivity.

As for the survivors, some of them were forced to work in salt and coal mines in northeast England or to drain the Fens in Norfolk. About 500 were conscripted to fight in the Parliamentarian army in Ireland. Others were sold as indentured servants to the tobacco plantations of Virginia and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. About 150 of them were sent to New England where they were sold as indentured servants to sawmills and ironworks for £20 a head. The term of indenture was limited and if they raised sufficient funds they could buy themselves free before the term was up.

There is no evidence of cause of death in the bones exhumed from the mass grave, nor are there extensive healed wounds or perimortem wounds as you might expect to find on soldiers’ remains. Counterintuitively, that supports a Dunbar connection because the Scottish soldiers who fought there are known to have been largely inexperienced fighters and the ones who suffered severe injuries either died on the field or were released back to their side right after battle. Only the soldiers who had made it out of the fight relatively intact were taken prisoner and marched down south where they eventually died of starvation or disease.

The presence of non-Scots is also in keeping with what we know about the Scottish army. Contemporary sources note the presence of Dutch and German soldiers in the Scottish army just weeks after the Battle of Dunbar. It seems likely they were at the battle too.

Richard Annis, senior archaeologist at Archaeological Services Durham University, said: “This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.

“Their burial was a military operation. The bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham Castle grounds, as far as possible from the castle itself – they were out of sight, out of mind.

“It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now university buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-17th Century.”

The remains will be reinterred as required by the terms of the exhumation license. Durham University and Durham Cathedral are working together with other interested parties (the Church of Scotland, for instance) to determine the most respectful approach. Certainly burial in the cathedral is out given that most of the dead were probably Presbyterians and even if they weren’t the last place in the world they’d want to be buried is in the prison where they experienced so much death and misery.


New technology reveals Rembrandt hidden portrait

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Like many artists, Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt van Rijn was known to have reused materials, especially in his younger days. Instead of discarding a canvas or wood panel after a false start, it’s a lot cheaper and faster to just flip it and start over again. The figure underneath An Old Man in Military Costume (1630-31) has been known to scholars since 1968 when the Rembrandt Research Project X-rayed the painting, then in the collection of Sir Brian Mountain, and found a young man’s face upside down to the right of the Old Man’s face. While the figure was visible, it was indistinct.

The painting was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1978 and it’s been studied with different imaging techniques repeatedly since then. Improvements in X-ray technology provided slightly clearer views of the man under the Man in 1978 and 2008. In 1996, neutron activation autoradiography (NAAR) was able to provide a cleaner image of the figure and, most importantly, the distribution of some of the chemical elements in the paint. If you know the chemical composition of the paint, you may be able to accurately extrapolate color, but the NAAR data was insufficient.

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning can generate a detailed map of single-element distribution, but until recently required bulky instruments only found in select laboratories and could only scan small sections of a painting or objects small enough to fit into a cabinet unit. When the Getty first attempted an XRF scan on an area near the lips of the underlying figure, they only caught a glimpse of it. Macro-XRF (MA-XRF) technology, possible at synchrotron radiation laboratories, could scan the entire painting, but the Getty wasn’t keen to move its precious Rembrandt around the country. Just as they were exploring sending Old Man to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, the development of a mobile MA-XRF scanner that could scan the painting in place made concerns about the danger and inconvenience of transporting the delicate artwork moot.

Now a new study combines the new mobile MA-XRF scanning technology with data from the early NAAR scans to reveal the most complete image of the young man yet.

The general shape of the face of the figure underlying An Old Man in Military Costume was revealed by X-radiography: NAAR imaging provided more details about the shape of the face and the cloak worn by the figure along with indications of the chemical composition of some of the pigments Rembrandt used. MA-XRF scanning significantly added to the understanding of the hidden painting by providing detailed images of the distribution of individual chemical elements, from which the specific pigment(s) – and colors – Rembrandt used to paint the first figure could be inferred. For example, the underlying figure’s face is rich in the element mercury, indicative of the presence of the red pigment vermilion, one of the components used to create flesh tones. The MA-XRF map of mercury provided a nearly complete, detailed image of the face of the underlying figure; similarly, the map of copper, typically associated with blue or green pigments, provided an image of the cloak.

Together, the information from the NAAR and MA-XRF scans was used to create a tentative digital color reconstruction of the hidden image: a young man, seen in three-quarter view wearing a voluminous cloak around his shoulders. The full significance of the hidden painting within Rembrandt’s oeuvre will continue to be the subject of ongoing research.

One possibility that will be studied further is that the underlying image is a self-portrait. Rembrandt often used his own face in his early character studies and it’s likely this young man is the artist as a young man. The study has been published in the journal Applied Physics A and can be read in its entirety for free here.





September 2015


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