Archive for February, 2016

Tarkhan Dress confirmed as world’s oldest woven garment

Friday, February 19th, 2016

The Tarkhan Dress isn’t really a dress. It’s a linen chemise nowadays, although when it was new it may have been longer. The hem is gone so there’s no way of knowing. The garment was discovered during Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie’s 1913 excavation of a 1st Dynasty tomb in a 5,000-year-old cemetery at Tarkhan, Egypt, 30 miles south of Cairo, only neither Flinders Petrie nor anybody else realized they had found it. Sixty-four years would pass before somebody did.

The mud-brick niched tomb had been extensively looted in antiquity. There was little left inside besides a set of alabaster jars, two wooden tool handles and pottery (which is why they dated the tomb to around 2,800 B.C.), and what Flinders Petrie described as a “great pile of linen cloth.” The pile of dirty linen went to University College London whose modest collection of Egyptian artifacts would expand by orders of magnitude when they bought Flinders Petrie’s enormous collection in 1913. The university museum is now the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

In 1977, the pile of “funerary rags” was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Conservation Workshop for cleaning and conservation. The conservators discovered the Tarkhan Dress buried between 17 different kinds of textiles. At first they thought it was just another rag, but when they followed one seam they found another rag stitched to it, and then another. That’s when they realized those three rags were in fact a tunic with two sleeves. It was inside out and showed signs of wear, namely creases at the elbows and armpits. The v-neck linen shirt with tiny pleats on the bodice and sleeves was in excellent condition, considering its age. Conservators stitched it onto Crepeline silk so it could be placed on a dress form and displayed the way it was worn thousands of years ago.

Because of the age of the tomb in which it was discovered, the garment was hailed as Egypt’s oldest garment and the oldest woven garment in the world, but because the tomb was not intact and the linens from the burial chamber had been jumbled and dumped by looters, its context couldn’t provide a reliable date. Radiocarbon dating the garment was out of the question in 1977 because back then the test required a sample the size of a handkerchief. Some of the linen in the pile was analyzed in the early 1980s by the then-new technology of accelerator mass spectrometry carbon dating which dated it to the late third-millennium B.C., but the results were too broad to satisfy and the samples weren’t taken from the dress itself.

Last year, a tiny 2.24 milligram sample of fabric was taken from the Tarkhan Dress and radiocarbon dated at the University of Oxford. The testing found there was a 95% probability that the garment was made between 3,482 and 3,102 B.C. Modern AMS dating is usually more precise than that, but the tininess of the sample made a wider range necessary. As the 1st Dynasty is thought to have begun around 3,100 B.C., there’s a good chance the Tarkhan Dress pre-dates the Early Dynastic period and the first pharaohs to rule over a unified Egypt.

Textile fragments made of flax (Linum usitatissimum) are known from at least Egyptian Neolithic times, while weaving on horizontal looms is evidenced from at least the early fourth millennium BC. Iconographic representations in Second Dynasty Egyptian tombs at Helwan (in Greater Cairo) show the deceased wearing similar types of garments to the Tarkhan Dress, indicating that the depiction of clothing was based upon contemporary fashions rather than idealised. […]

The Tarkhan Dress … remains the earliest extant example of complex woven clothing, that is, a cut, fitted and tailored garment as opposed to one that was draped or wrapped. Along with other textile remains from Egypt, it has the potential to provide further insights into craft specialisation and the organisation of textile manufacture during the development of the world’s first territorial state

For all you sewers out there, the Petrie Museum has patterns and instructions on how to create your own Tarkhan Dress. It assumes a basic grasp of skills (like how to pleat) and terminology (what is this whip stitch you speak of?) so it’s not for beginners. Should you take the plunge, I am in a position to guarantee you one glowing blog review and probably at least a good dozen comments.


7,000-year-old upright burial found in Germany

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

In 1962, construction workers in Groß Fredenwalde in Brandenburg, northeastern Germany, accidentally discovered human bones. An excavation unearthed the skeletal remains of six people dating to around 6,000 B.C. when the area was populated by the hunter-fisher-gatherers of the Mesolithic period. The site was re-excavated between 2012 and 2014, and archaeologists unearthed three more burials, these dating to between 6,400 and 4,900 B.C. All told, nine individuals were found in at least four graves, which makes this the oldest known cemetery in Germany and one of the oldest in Europe.

Mesolithic finds tend to be stone tools. Graves are rare and cemeteries are far rarer. This one is on the top of a hill. Archaeologists believe this was deliberate, that the Mesolithic people who buried their dead there over thousands of years chose the spot because it was so prominent in the landscape. In addition to whatever spiritual value the hilltop might have held, from a purely practical perspective it is easy to find, an important feature for a cemetery in use for 1,500 years. Also the area is replete with lakes, which made it resource-rich for a forager cultures.

One of the burials discovered during the recent excavation is exceptional: it’s a young man who was buried standing upright about 7,000 years ago. The burial process was done in several phases. First the young man was placed into a vertical pit five feet deep, his back leaning against the wall of the pit. The pit was then filled with sand to a point above his knees which ensured the body would remain standing. The grave was then either left open or only cursorily covered. Scavengers helped themselves, leaving bite marks on some of the arm bones. Once the body was thoroughly decayed and the upper body had fallen apart into the pit, the grave was filled all the way to the top. A fire was then lit on top of the tomb.

This is an unprecedented find in Central Europe, although there may be comparable burials in the Olenij Ostrov cemetery in Karelia, northwest Russia.

“The burial is unique in central Europe and therefore it is difficult to find a specific reasons for such treatment,” [excavation director at the Lower Saxony Department of Historic Preservation Thomas] Terberger told Discovery News.

“The young man also received grave goods and this is indicating an unusual, but honorable treatment of the body,” he added. “On this background, I see no good argument to interpret the burial as a kind of punishment.”

Another exceptional grave found near the standing burial is an infant burial in which ocher powder was scattered for ritual purposes. The entire grave was excavated in a solid soil block and transported to the University of Applied Sciences Berlin. The remains are in excellent condition, a very rare circumstance with infant remains because there wee, soft bones disintegrate easily. This is easily the best-preserved infant burial every discovered in Germany.

All of the remains found in this cemetery are so well preserved that researchers are optimistic they will able to determine people’s diet using stable isotope analysis. They also hope to recover viable DNA that will allow them to map the genome of the last hunter-gatherers in Brandenburg during the transition to farming. (The first farmers reached Central Europe from Southeast Europe about 7,500 years ago, so these remains date to both before and after that pivotal point.)

The study of the vertical burial has been published in the current issue of the journal Quaternary.


French police tackle 103-year-old cold case

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

In December of 1913, workers looking to dig a cellar under a sharecropper’s house adjoining the Château of Montcigoux in the town of Saint-Pierre-de-Frugie in Dordogne, southwestern France, made a grisly discovery: human skeletal remains. The bones were buried in a shallow grave — the skull was just 10 inches beneath the surface — under the floor near the fireplace. There was no clothing or objects of any kind that might help identify the deceased. There was no sign of decomposition in the soil and the bones were bleached white.

The discovery of the skeleton made the news at the time, but the authorities had no interest in pursuing a death investigation. In 1933, local newspaper Le Courrier du Centre did an investigation of their own and published a series of stories claiming to have solved the mystery. And a truly lurid solution it was. According to the paper, the bones belonged to one Ernest de Fontaubert who in 1850 had left France with his sister Ernestine to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. They were more than just brother and sister, the story alleged. They were incestuous lovers who lived as a couple in the manor house while their younger brother Arthur, who they hated, was forced to live in the small sharecropper’s house. Over the course of their unholy relationship, they had five still-born children who they surreptitiously buried on the estate.

When they returned from California, Arthur killed Ernest with a hatchet blow to the head and buried his brother under the floorboards of his room. He then slaughtered two bullocks at the entrance to the manor so the stench of their decomposition would mask Ernest’s. When she realized her brother/husband was missing, Ernestine went mad and Arthur locked her in the tower.

This very juicy story got a foothold in the local lore, and soon it was being recited as fact. Author Robert Margerit wrote a novel based on the account in 1958 which became a bestseller in Dordogne. In 1987 a documentary was filmed about the purported murder. In 1989 Bertran Visage wrote another novel inspired by the 1933 news articles. The result was a renewed interest in the bones and their context. Tourists queued up to visit Ernest’s remains and the town took full advantage of its notorious boney resident, promoting the château and hosting all kinds of Ernest-related events and tours.

The boost was significant, because while the Château of Montcigoux is lovely, it’s a comparatively modest manor house, not the kind of palatial mansion that people think of when they think of châteaux in, say, the Loire Valley. The first Montcigoux castle was built in the 12th century, but only a single round tower survives from the medieval château. (That’s where Arthur was supposed to have imprisoned Ernestine.) The manor that stands now dates to the 17th century. It was the seat of the Rolle family from 1540 until 1826 when the château was acquired by Pierre Paignon de Fontaubert. Pierre’s son Francois Ernest was the Ernest of skeleton fame. His other son Francois Arthure was the alleged fratricide.

In 2011, Bernard-Jean Aumasson visited Montcigoux and took a tour of locations from the story. A retired mineral expert for a geophysics company, Aumasson was immediately skeptical of the Ernest-Ernestine-Arthur story. He decided to see if he could find any answers himself, and spent the next two years combing through archives in France and the United States for clues about what really happened. He discovered that Ernest was murdered, but not in the Château of Montcigoux, and not by his brother.

Ernest had indeed caught the gold bug and emigrated to California in 1850, as the story said. Like all wise 49ers, he focused on selling things to the masses hoping to strike it rich, not on panning for gold himself. Apparently he was quite successful and respected, but these were dangerous times and on February 26th, 1862, Ernest was found dead in Cave City, Calaveras county.

In Calveras county records Aumasson found that Ernest’s sister gave a statement to an investigating judge. She said her brother had left the day before at nine in the morning carrying 2.6 kilos (5.7 pounds) in gold. His body was found by a neighbor just half a mile from his Cave City home. The gold was gone. The next morning his horse returned home alone.

The murder got a blurb in the Stockton Daily Independent newspaper.

A French merchant named De Fontambert, who has for years done business at Cave City in Calaveras county, was early last week murdered by some ruffians for $1,500 in gold dust which he was carrying to San Andreas for exchange. This is the second time within two years that Mr. De Fontambert’s life was attempted by robbers. He was a most estimable gentleman, highly educated, polished in his manners and a member of a distinguished French family.

Aumasson also found that Ernest was married, a fact entirely elided in favor of the incest angle. He’d been married to Thérese de Tessieres for 10 years before he left for California. Thérese stayed behind and helped manage the estate when Ernest was gone. Ernestine corresponded with her regularly. One letter from 1855 survives and it’s apparently very affectionate. Thérese died in 1860, two years before her long-distance husband was murdered. It would have been exceptionally challenging for Ernest to have knocked up his sister five times in the active presence of his wife and other siblings. Besides Aumasson checked the local records and found five babies born to the family had died of natural causes and been buried on the estate in an entirely above-board fashion. Oh, and her name wasn’t Ernestine. It was Catherine.

Catherine stayed in California another three years after her brother’s death. When she returned to France in 1865, she had a significant sum of 600 francs on her and seemed fine at first. Her sister Hortense welcomed her warmly and she stayed with her in Paris before returning to Montcigoux. Then things went awry. Catherine decided she would go to Paris, but when she missed the train to Limoges, she decided to just walk the 300 miles to the capital. She was found 100 miles away in Chateauroux. In 1866, the family were granted guardianship of their unstable sister. She died the next year.

Aumasson’s research bummed out the locals who love their lore and their skeleton which is kept in a glass-topped box almost like a relic of a saint, but it also inspired the authorities to finally take a look at the bones. On Monday, police packed up the whole box and transported the remains the Institute for Criminal Research of the national police of Cergy-Pontoise. There the bones will be examined forensically in an attempt to determine the individual’s age, sex and possible cause of death.

Gilbert Chabaud, who has owned the Montcigoux manor since 1977 and is the mayor of the hamlet of some 400 inhabitants, said he was sad to say goodbye to “Ernest”.

But Chabrol reassured the townsfolk: “As soon as he has had these little tests, he will return to his place. We will return him to the village.”


Lost cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in Prague

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.

The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri. The daughter of Stefano Storace, an Italian double bass player and composer who would become the musical director of Vauxhall Gardens in London, and Elizabeth Trusler, daughter of the owner of the concert venue Marylebone Gardens, Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.

Stefano sent Stephen to Naples to study composition and in 1778 Nancy and her parents joined him there. Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.

When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna. Her brother Stephen came on as a composer. The inaugural production of the emperor’s new Italian Opera company was La Scuola de’ Gelosi by Antonio Salieri. Nancy played the lead role of the Countess. She enchanted audiences and composers alike with her talent and beauty.

Stefano Storace had died in 1780 or 1781, so Nancy’s mother Elizabeth went with her children to Vienna in 1783. Elizabeth arranged for her daughter to marry composer John Abraham Fisher who was 22 years her senior, more than double her age. It was an unmitigated disaster. Within months after their wedding on March 24th, 1784, rumors were flying around Vienna that Fisher was physically abusing Nancy. Emperor Joseph banished Fisher from the city and that was the end of the marriage, but the consequences of this ill-fated match far outlasted it.

In June of 1785, Stephen Storace’s first opera, Gli Sposi Malcontenti premiered with Nancy in the lead. Suddenly, in the middle of an aria, Nancy lost her voice. The performance had to be cut short. A few weeks later she gave birth to a daughter, Josepha Fisher. Elizabeth Storace wanted nothing to do with the child. She left her with a foundling hospital and reportedly announced that neither she nor Nancy cared if Josepha lived or died. The baby girl only lived a month.

It took Nancy five months for her voice to recover enough for her to be able to perform again. On October 12th, 1785, she returned to the stage singing the part of Ofelia in Salieri’s opera La Grotta di Trofonio. To celebrate her return, Mozart, Salieri and the mysterious Cornetti (possibly Nancy’s brother Stephen) composed Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia. Unfortunately Nancy’s health was not fully recovered. It’s a testament to how beloved she was that Mozart and Salieri both tweaked their operas to accommodate her new vocal limitations. Mozart worked with her on the music for The Marriage of Figaro which debuted on May 1st, 1786, with Nancy as Susanna. He had to lower the pitch of certain parts to ensure Nancy’s voice would hold up.

Less than a year later, Nancy left Vienna to return to London. Mozart wrote the aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? (“You ask that I forget you?”) for her farewell concert in Vienna on February 23rd, 1787. Nancy Storace went on to have a very successful career in London, but her voice never was the same.

We know from period newspaper ads that copies of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia were printed and distributed in Vienna by music publishers Artaria & Co., but none were known to survive. Not even the text of Da Ponte’s libretto, a 30 stanza pastoral poem, could be found. The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.

Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms. When it came to Nancy Storace, they were even collaborators.

And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.


I can’t speak Czech and there are no functioning English subtitles, so I have no idea what this Czech National Museum curator is saying, but she flips through the pages of the rediscovered work very slowly and the quality of the film is good enough that you can get an excellent look at the libretto and the fold-out music.



Astronaut graffiti found in Apollo 11 command module

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Smithsonian staff have discovered graffiti written on the inside walls of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. The command module, the only part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth after Neil Armstrong took that giant step for mankind on July 20th, 1969, was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1970. It is on display in the Milestones of Flight Hall but visitors and scholars can only see the outside of it. To allow people to explore the inside of the historic vessel, experts with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program have been 3D scanning the command module. It was during the scanning process that the notes left by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage were seen for the first time in 50 years.

The writings include numerical calculations, a calendar, labels and notes. One panel to left of the sextant and telescope has figures and other notes copied from Houston mission control audio transmissions. Researchers will compare the notes to recordings and transcripts of the voice transmissions to determine who took the notes, when and what the figures mean. Initial comparisons have already found that the notes on the right side of the lower panel are coordinates sent from mission control that were estimates (inaccurate ones, as it happens) of the Lunar Module’s location on the Moon. The main control panel is also peppered with notes, mainly numbers, which will also be compared to mission control records in order to figure out their meaning and author.

Some of the notes show how the astronauts had to think on their feet and improvise a little once they were in space. NASA had detailed lists of where everything was to be stored and there are stowage maps on the walls of the command module. The astronauts took liberties with the plans, however, and wrote their own labels on several of the lockers. One of the stowage lockers, for example, was meant to store equipment related to the waste management system, but the astronauts repurposed it to hold filled urine bags from launch day before the waste disposal system was operational. They wisely labeled the locker with its contents so there would be no nasty surprises.

The calendar is my favorite because it captures the very human excitement of the moment. It’s a small rectangle with two rows of seven boxes. Nine of the boxes have dates in them, the dates of the mission, July 16th through 24th. All of the dates are crossed out except for the last one. Splashdown day never did get crossed off.

“As curator of what is arguably one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian collection, it’s thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about Columbia,” said Allan Needell, curator of space history at the museum. “This isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s a living artifact.”

Laser scanning the interior and exterior of this living artifact has not been an easy task. Made primarily of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium, the Apollo 11 command module is one big reflective surface which the scanners have difficulty reading. Add to that the complexity of the dashboards with their multiple small, delicate switches and indicators and buttons and the standard 3D capture tools weren’t going to cut it.

Because of the complicated nature of this scan, the Smithsonian 3D team brought in its technology partner, Autodesk Inc. Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, deployed specially designed equipment to scan the artifact, and its advanced Memento software was able to process complex data from multiple 3-D capture devices to create one highly detailed and accurate model.

The model is a work in progress at the moment. It’s scheduled to be completed in June when it will be uploaded to the Smithsonian’s excellent site. That same month a major renovation of the Milestones of Flight Hall will be finished and the Apollo 11 Command Module will be temporarily taken off view. It will go back on display in 2020 in the museum’s new, state-of-the-art Destination Moon exhibition. The 3D model will be used to create an interactive display for the new exhibition.

Here is an early preview of the 3D model still in progress.



Happy Birthday, Teddy Bear!

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

On November 14th, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt was hunting bear in Mississippi with a party including Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino, several reporters and guide Holt Collier. Collier, born a slave in 1848, was a bear hunter of almost legendary status. He’d hunted bear from Texas to Alaska, killing thousands of them. He claimed to have stopped counting when he killed his 2,212th bear. In the Mississippi Delta, nobody was more qualified than Holt Collier to give the big-game hunting President the bear hunt of his dreams. When he was interviewed by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, Collier relayed how “It was going to be a ten day hunt, but the President was impatient. ‘I must see a live bear the first day,’ he said. I told him he would if I had to tie one and bring it to him.”

And that’s pretty much how it went. Collier and his specially trained pack of dogs cornered an old, grey-muzzled 235-pound black bear in a pond. The bear took out several of Collier’s dogs before the huntsman struck him on the skull with the butt of his rifle and managed to rope the wounded animal and tie him to a tree. When the rest of the party caught up, Roosevelt refused to shoot the injured, tied up bear. He thought it was “too easy.” John M. Parker, future governor of Louisiana and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s, had no such scruples. Guided by Collier, he stabbed the bear in the heart.

The reporters in the party recounted the President’s refusal to shoot the tied bear to their papers and the story made national news. On November 16th, 1902, a cartoon by Clifford Berryman ran on the front page of the Washington Post. In it, TR, dressed in his full Rough Rider uniform, stands with his back to a (white) guide holding a sweet, scared-looking bear cub by a rope tied around his neck. The President’s hand is raised, rejecting the offering of the tied bear. The caption says “Drawing the line in Mississippi.”

TR had little idea of the impact the bear story and Berryman’s cartoon would have. At a train stop in Newton, North Carolina, on his way back to Washington, D.C., a week after the event, Teddy spoke to the small crowd that had assembled clamouring to hear from him. Someone in the audience asked him “How about the bear?” and Roosevelt replied, laughing, “There was nothing about the bear.”

Businesses, on the other hand, quickly recognized the bear sensation could be of value to them. As early as November 23rd an umbrella company used the President and a bear to advertise its wares, but the real money idea came to a candy shop owner in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Morris Michtom, a Jewish immigrant who had fled the pogroms of his native Russia while still a teenager in 1887, and his wife Rose read the stories of Roosevelt’s sportsmanlike refusal to shoot. They had a penny candy shop that also sold other small items like toys that Rose would make in the evenings. Inspired by Berryman’s cartoon of the sweet little bear, Rose cut some brown plush velvet into the shape of a bear cub, sewed it, stuffed it and put it in the shop window the next day. Morris named it “Teddy’s Bear.” By the end of the day, a dozen customers had asked to buy it.

Morris realized they could have a successful sideline in stuffed bear sales, but he was concerned that he might get in trouble for using the President’s name without permission, so he wrote Roosevelt asking for his blessing. A little while later he received a reply from Teddy Roosevelt telling him to have at it, although he doubted his name would increase sales. TR’s modesty was misplaced. On February 15th, 1903, the first Teddy’s Bears went on sale at the Michtoms’ shop and they flew off the shelves, so much so that soon Morris Michtom dumped the penny candy business altogether and started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company to mass-produce teddy bears.

Teddy bears were instantly popular and almost instantly copied by other toy manufacturers. By 1906 the craze had swept the country, ushering in a new era of soft, cuddly plush toys replacing the dolls of yore. There was even a fashion among adult woman to drive teddy bears around in their cars and to carry around wherever they went.

Of course there was some handwringing about the new fad. Rev. Father Michael G. Esper of St. Joseph, Michigan, denounced teddy bears from the pulpit as the instruments of “race suicide,” an obsession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that “native” stock (ie, descendant of early European colonists, not actual Native Americans) were being outbred by more recent immigrants of the inferior “races” like the Irish and southern Italians. Esper fulminated:

“There is something natural in the care of a doll by a little girl. It is the first manifestation of the feeling of motherhood. In the development of those motherly instincts is the hope of all nations.

It is a monstrous crime to do anything that will tend to destroy these instincts. That is what the ‘Teddy bear’ is doing, and this is why it is going to be a factor in the race suicide problem if the custom is not suppressed. It is terrible enough that the present generation of parents in this country is leading us into grave danger by the practice of race suicide. If we cannot awaken the present generation let us at least save the future ones.”

Others rebutted that girls still treated their stuffed bears like babies, so the maternal instinct appeared intact. The September 12th, 1907, issue of The Nation gave the teddy bear even more credit: “The bear which waits around the corner to devour naughty little boys and girls loses its terrors when the child knows by experience what an amiable, comfortable beast it is. Thus the toy may have robbed childhood of one of its terrors.”

The fad was so inescapable that Theodore Roosevelt himself embraced the teddy bear as a personal emblem and of the Republican Party he led. Stuffed animal representatives became a recurring theme in political cartoons and campaigns. Toy companies, fearing that the teddy bear’s popularity would fade with its namesake out of office, rushed to figure out a new mascot associated with Roosevelt’s successor William Howard Taft. Taft’s gluttony provided just the opportunity. At a banquet in Atlanta, the new President requested “possum and taters” which he received in spades: an 18-pound opossum surrounded by sweet potatoes. And thus was born Billy Possum, the stuffed animal that was to displace the teddy bear. It lasted a year before manufacturers gave up. The teddy bear, meanwhile, remains a toy industry staple to this day.


Buy Michelangelo’s country villa

Saturday, February 13th, 2016

A drop-dead gorgeous villa in Tuscany that once belonged to the Renaissance genius Michelangelo Buonarrotti can be yours today for a mere $8,441,193. Nestled in the verdant Chianti hills just 22 miles from Florence and nine miles southwest of Siena, this masonry villa looks frozen in time, like Michelangelo might storm up any second and ask just what the hell you’re doing in his house. Except it has bathrooms now. Seven of them. Also eight bedrooms, fireplaces you could spit-roast an ox in and a kitchen that pulls off that rare miracle of integrating modern conveniences with ancient glories. Don’t even get me started on the ceilings.

Michelangelo bought the property in 1549 when he was 74 years old. He was hugely famous and in demand as a painter, sculptor and architect. Just one year after Michelangelo bought the villa, Giorgio Vasari would publish his biography of the master in his seminal work of art history, the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It was the first biography of a living artist and testifies to the high esteem in which he was held by Vasari and most everyone else at this time. Michelangelo had had bouts of serious ill-health in the 1540s and suffered great personal losses when his close friend Vittoria Colonna and his brother Giovansimone Buonarrotti died within a year of each other, but he was still very much active, working on a variety of papal commissions and personal projects in Rome.

He’d been appointed architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1546 and worked on it steadily until his death. In 1542 he was commissioned by Pope Paul III to paint two frescoes, the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, in the Pauline Chapel, a newly built chapel in the Apostolic Palace a door down from the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo had just completed the Last Judgment in 1541. He finished the murals in 1549, the same year he bought the villa in Tuscany. You can see both frescoes, restored to their original brilliant colors in 2009, in this virtual tour of the chapel. They’re almost exactly to the right and left of your default position when you enter the room. From 1547 through 1550 he worked on completing the facade and courtyard of the Palazzo Farnese (Paul III was born Alessandro Farnese). He also started the Rondanini Pietà around 1547.

So Michelangelo was swamped with work which kept him in Rome and left him little free time to return home to his beloved Tuscany, chug Chianti and chill. (He didn’t drink, actually. Michelangelo lived something of an ascetic lifestyle.) As a committed Republican, he also had serious ideological differences with Cosimo I de’ Medici, first Granduke of Tuscany, which kept Michelangelo from returning to Florence no matter how thoroughly Cosimo showered him with inducements.

Michelangelo was in Rome when he died on February 18th, 1564, less than three weeks from his 89th birthday. His nephew Lionardo Buonarroti went to Rome to recover his uncle’s body and arrange its transport to Florence. Vasari’s second edition of the Lives claims, probably hyperbolically, that Roman authorities didn’t want to release the body because they wanted the great artist buried in St. Peter’s so Lionardo hid the corpse in a basket and smuggled it out of the city in the middle of the night. By whatever means, Michelangelo’s mortal remains were interred in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Lionardo inherited the Chianti villa after Michelangelo’s death along with everything else the artist had left behind, including the Casa Buonarroti in Florence which Michelangelo had bought but never lived in and which is now a museum with a rich family archive. The hillside villa remained in the Buonarrotti family for more than three centuries until it was sold in 1867.

The current owner has renovated it with due care for its historical significance and original elements. He also owns the original documents and deed to the home, which I presume comes with the house because you’d have to be a monster to separate the villa and the historic paperwork. That’s almost worth $8 million right there.


Medieval ship raised from Dutch river

Friday, February 12th, 2016

An early 15th century merchant ship was raised from the river IJssel near the Dutch city of Kampen, about 60 miles northeast of Amsterdam, on Wednesday. The wooden ship is 20 meters (66 feet) long, weighs 50 tons and is a type of vessel known as a cog, a single mast flat-bottom ship that was the workhorse of the Hanseatic League’s Baltic maritime trade. It is the best preserved medieval cargo ship ever discovered in the Netherlands. The cog was discovered buried in the sand and silt during dredging operations in the summer of 2011. Two smaller vessels, a barge and a punt, found at the same time were recovered last October, but the cog is the largest, the heaviest, the most intact and the most historically significant, so raising it required a months of advanced planning.

Divers ran straps underneath the hull of the ship and attached them to a steel cage structure that would keep the entire vessel in one piece. Sensors inside the ship reported on the pressure inflicted on various parts of the ship while forty motors lifted the cage and the 50 tons of oak ship within. The raising was expected to take all day, but the cog was in even better structural condition than experts realized, so they were able to lift it out of the water in a few hours. Crowds on the shore cheered when it emerged from the river for the first time in 600 years.

When the cog was first discovered, archaeologists thought it was deliberately sunk as a means of waterway management. On the night of November 18th-19th, 1421, a tidal surge from the North Sea broke through the dikes of a large part of what is now the Netherlands. The 1421 St. Elizabeth’s flood (November 19th is St. Elizabeth of Hungary day) claimed thousands of lives and redrew the map of Zeeland and Holland. The Rhine river, which before the flood had flowed into the IJssel, changed course and flowed over the Waal to the North Sea. The IJssel’s water level dropped, severely hampering its commercial value. The heavy cog and smaller ships could have been dropped onto the riverbed in an attempt to narrow the width of the fairway and raise the water level to make the channel suitable for cargo shipping again.

Going by that theory, archaeologists didn’t expect there to be anything inside the vessel, assuming anything of value would have been stripped before the sinking, but much to their surprise divers discovered the ship’s galley with brick dome oven and glazed tiles.This is the first full galley ever discovered on a medieval ship. They also found a water pump, a willow twig fish trap and two pilgrim badges. They’re not the kind of thing that would be discarded without a thought, so it may be that the cog went down by accident rather than on purpose.

Once it was raised, the ship was moved onto a pontoon where it will stay until Tuesday while a special frame is built to transport the cog, barge and punt to Lelystad where the State Service for Cultural Heritage (RCE) has a custom-built conservation station where the ships will be kept wet and gradually dried over at least three years to ensure the wood is preserved without shrinking, warping or cracking. Conservators will also attempt to reattach parts of the cog that were recovered separately. The public will be able to view the ship during conservation in Lelystad.

After it is conserved and in stable condition, the vessel will need a permanent home. The city of Kampen is keen to have it back. It already has a replica of a 14th century cog, but this is the real thing, an icon of Kampen’s independent trade and Hanseatic League history. Kampen’s location between the Zuiderzee bay and the Rhine made it a bustling center of trade starting in the 13th century. At its peak in the 14th and early 15th centuries, Kampen was a major city eclipsing even Amsterdam. With the St. Elizabeth flood and silting of the IJssel, the city’s fortunes began to decline. The cog, therefore, is an example of Kampen’s great prosperity in its many years of service as a merchant cargo ship as well as being an example of Kampen’s loss of prosperity in the means of its demise.


Early Roman wall fresco found in London

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Archaeologists with the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have discovered the remains of an elaborate wall fresco from the late 1st century A.D. which makes it one of the earliest extant frescos in Roman Britain. The team was excavating in advance of construction of an office building at 21 Lime Street in central London when they found the painted wall lying face down in the ground. Ian Betts, MOLA’s building materials specialist, identified it as likely a frescoed surface even though the painted side wasn’t visible by the characteristic markings on the daub to which the plaster was applied. To keep any surviving paint from flaking off, conservators removed the fresco in 16 sections, cutting out blocks of soil around them. That way the painted plaster surface was protected by the soil that’s been protecting it for 2,000 years.

The 16 soil blocks were moved to the conservation lab where experts set immediately to work micro-excavating the soil before it dried. The revealed a fresco 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (5 feet) high with a painted surface just a single millimeter thick. Solid red panels bordered with thin cream pin stripes are divided by a central section that depicts a stylized candelabrum with deer perched on the top level eating greens, a pair of parakeets underneath them and some fruit underneath them. The background is black and green with vertical cream stripes on the edges. The design is the first of its kind found in Britain. The closest example of it was found in a villa in Cologne, Germany.

The painter had to have been a highly skilled master craftsmen employed by people of signficant wealth. He used natural earth pigments accented with expensive cinnabar red, a mercuric sulphide pigment which was mined in Spain and had to be imported to London. This was top quality work that would only be seen in the most luxurious homes of the era. Small fresco fragments have been discovered before in Lime Street, so it must have been a toney neighborhood in early Roman London where the Joneses kept up with each other by decorating their walls with the most expensive continental-style artworks. This fresco adorned the wall of a public room in the house, perhaps a reception room, where it signalled to all visitors the homeowner’s wealth and taste.

While small pieces of frescoes are more common, a large section of painted wall like this is a very rare find. This is the first such discovery in 30 years. It survived, in classic archaeological irony, because of its destruction. The house whose wall it decorated was demolished in around 100 A.D. to make room for London’s second forum and basilica, the civic and commercial epicenter of the city and at three stories high occupying two hectares of land, the largest building north of the Alps, larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral. The frescoed wall was toppled and fall paint side down into the soil. The forum was built on top of it, preserving it for posterity.

The basilica, forum and most other public buildings were systematically destroyed by Roman troops in 300 A.D. to punish the city for its support of the usurper Carausius. The only civic structure left standing was the defensive wall. After the revival of London’s fortunes in the Middle Ages, a market sprang up on the site of the old forum. In 1881, the current Leadenhall Market was built there. The remains of one of the basilica’s arches were discovered during construction and in the 1980s more forum remains were found on the 21 Lime Street site. MOLA excavations in 1990 and 2001 found sections of the floor of the forum’s east wing. The most recent excavation had to dig 20 feet under the surface to find the toppled wall.

MOLA experts are still studying the fresco and its context. They hope to be able to reconstruct a view of what the neighborhood looked like in the early decades of Roman London before the construction of the forum.


Remains of monumental Roman arcade discovered in Colchester

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

The remains of a monumental Roman column arcade 120 meters (394 feet) long have been unearthed in the old town center of Colchester in Essex, England. The Colchester Archaeological Trust has been excavating the site on 97 High Street in advance of construction of a new apartment building. The site was known to be inside the precinct of the ancient Roman Temple of the Deified Claudius and small finds have been made in the area over the past 60 years, but because there was an office building on the spot a thorough excavation was not possible. When the offices were demolished to make way for the new block of flats, archaeologists were able to fully explore the site and realized for the first time just how massive a structure the arcade was.

Colchester is the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain. The Romans built a legionary fortress there after the conquest of Britain in 43 A.D., and six years later the town was renamed Camulodunum and founded as a veteran colony. It was the first capital of Britannia province. Public buildings — a theater, the town council house, a forum — were constructed befitting the new capital. A large temple completed after the death of emperor Claudius in 54 A.D. was dedicated to him as the Temple of the Deified Claudius. It was the largest classical temple built in Britain and the only one in the province known to have been dedicated to Claudius.

The city was destroyed in the Boudiccan revolt of 61 A.D. The residents fled to the safety of the temple whose cella (inner chamber) had thick, windowless walls and massive bronze doors. Boudicca’s Iceni warriors besieged the temple for two days before storming it and putting it to the torch along with the rest of the town. Camulodunum was rebuilt after the revolt was suppressed. New city walls were built between 65 and 80 A.D., and around the same time the temple was rebuilt within an even grander temple precinct. Later additions expanded the temple and precinct. At its peak in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Temple of the Deified Claudius had a massive monumental arch in the center flanked by an arcade of 14 columns on each side. The vast scale of the temple and precinct was unique in Britain.

Phillip Crummy, the [Colchester Archaeological Trust]’s director told The Telegraph: “This arcade is the largest of its kind in Britain. Its closest rival in terms of size stands in what was Gaul, in northern France, and shares some of the architecture we can see in Colchester today – but that is only around 70-metres long.

“The original arcade and its grand columns are similar to those you see in Bath, at the Roman Baths. It really is an extraordinary find and confirms the grandeur and richness of its Roman culture.”

Large sections of the temple were intact through the Saxon period when it became known as King Coel’s Palace. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the “palace” was in ruins, but the Normans used the base of the temple as the foundation for Colchester Castle, now a museum. The temple podium is still visible in the vaults underneath the castle.

Remains of the monumental central archway were first discovered in 1931. Subsequent investigations in 1953 and 1964 unearthed more of the arcade, but the remains were reburied. It wasn’t until a 2013 evaluation of the site that a large section of the massive foundations of the arcade was discovered. On June 12th, 2014, the archaeological team surveying 97 High Street found a collapsed brick and stone pier from the monumental arcade. Made of alternating layers of brick and stone, the column was found inside the Norman-era layer. It’s evidence that at least part of the colonnade was still standing when the Normans arrived. Archaeologists believe the Normans stripped the prized marble facing stones of the arcade to use in the construction of the castle and then toppled what was left of the column.

Flying Trade Group, the developers who are constructing the new apartments on the site, plan to preserve the foundations and columns of the arcade in the ground floor of the building. They will install a café with glass panels in the floor that reveal the ancient remains. The café/archaeological park will raise money for local and international charities including World Food Aid.

If you’re anywhere near Colchester on Saturday, February 13th, you can surprise your history nerd sweetheart with a romantic early Valentine’s Day outing to the Claudius Temple arcade excavation. From 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM, visitors are welcome to view the site. All 13 meters (43 feet) of the arcade’s foundations will be visible with special labels, lighting and projected digital reconstructions installed just for the day.





February 2016


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