Archive for January, 2017

Rare Han treasures at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

A new exhibition opening next month at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty will display 160 artifacts discovered in recent archaeological digs of Han dynasty tombs. Very few of these objects have never left China, and this is the show’s only US stop. The exhibition opens on February 17th and runs until May 28th, so don’t dally in making your way there.

The rule of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) is considered the first Chinese golden age, a period of relative peace and great economic prosperity in which the arts, sciences and trades flourished. Most of what we know of the Han emperors and their courts comes from ancient chroniclers, but they tend to focus on major events — wars, diplomacy, political intrigue — paying little attention to the daily lives even of the rich and royal. Because Han nobles built large tomb complexes with multiple rooms filled with every necessity and luxury to ensure their high standard of living would carry over into the afterlife, objects discovered in tombs lend unique insight into the day-to-day of Han dynasty monarchs, their families, functionaries and courtiers.

Most of the artifacts in the exhibition were unearthed from the mausoleum of Liu Fei in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Liu Fei was the son of Emperor Jing of Han (r. 157–141 B.C.). He ruled the valuable fiefdom Jiangdu from 153 B.C. until his death in 127 B.C. He was interred a vast tomb complex of almost 2.7 MILLION square feet that included the tombs of his wives, concubines and attendants, plus weapons and chariot pits. The tomb was discovered on Dayun Mountain in 2009. Even though it had been looted repeatedly since antiquity, the floors of the outer chambers collapsed early enough in the tomb’s existence to preserve artifacts stored in the chambers below. Archaeologists found more than 10,000 artifacts crammed into storage rooms.

The exhibition is divided into three galleries. The first, Everlasting happiness without end, displays objects that reveal the kinds of entertainment enjoyed in Han dynasty palaces: music, dancing, food, wine. Artifacts include musical instruments, most notably a set of bronze bells and stone chimes that would have been used only on formal court occasions, smoke-eating lamps to keep the party going well into the night and ceramic dancers captured in dynamic movement. Containers used to prepare and eat food held offerings that would nourish the Han ruler in the afterlife had ritual significance in tombs, and elegant dinnerware like jade cups, bronze bowls and tables inlaid with gold and gemstones ensured their heavenly food would be eaten in the high style to which they had become accustomed.

The second, Eternal life without limit, is set in a tomb-like space and features artifacts used to prepare the deceased for the afterlife and to prevent the decay of the flesh. There are medical implements and divination tools, but jade is the star player here. It was used in Chinese burials long before the Han dynasty (or any dynasty at all, for that matter) because it was considered to have the power to prevent the decay of the flesh. The Han took jade funerary artifacts to new heights. They believed that people had two souls, one that went straight to heaven after death, the other that stayed in the body. To keep the latter safe inside an intact body, the dead were covered in jade. Jade plugs were placed in all orifices and jade masks on the face. If the deceased was of high enough rank — emperor, king, important nobles — the body would be put in a suit made from hundreds of jade scales. An exquisite jade suit from the tomb of Queen Lian, Liu Fei’s second and likely favorite wife, is a highlight of this gallery.

The theme of the third gallery is Enduring remembrance without fail. It explores the private, personal spaces of Han palaces, exhibiting objects from people’s bedrooms and bathrooms. Artifacts in this gallery include personal hygiene and grooming tools, a silver bath basin, incense burners, lacquer cosmetics boxes and sex toys. There are gifts from kings to their wives and lovers — silver belt hooks, a bronze mirror, a jade pendant — identifiable as such from inscriptions. There’s even an earthenware model of a toilet from the 2nd century B.C. found in 1995 in the tomb of the King of Chu dug into Jiangsu’s Tuolan Mountain.

I’d like to conclude with a special note of thanks to Zac Rose of the Asian Art Museum for the beautiful photographs and wealth of information he was kind enough to share with me. I’ve written about ancient Chinese tomb discoveries before, and I would have written about more of them had there been any remotely usable pictures. There’s no relief once artifacts are in museums either, since most Chinese museums don’t have detailed pictures of their collection online. Getting such spectacular high resolution shots of recently excavated artifacts from Han tombs is an incredibly rare treat and I’m so grateful.

And now, even more pictures!

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George Washington’s field tent stands again

Monday, January 30th, 2017

George Washington’s Headquarters Tent was his most consistent office, following him on campaigns for almost the entire duration of the Revolutionary War. He slept there (for real this time!), planned battles, wrote letters, met with his staff and visitors. Washington’s portable headquarters was kept in the family with many other artifacts from his service in the Revolutionary War for generations. It was the Civil War that wrested it from the family. The tent belonged to Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Robert E. Lee. After her husband resigned his commission in the United States Army on April 20th, 1861, he set out for Richmond within days, leaving Mary behind at Arlington House in Alexandria, Virginia, the estate she’d inherited from her father George Washington Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s grandson).

She, like many on both sides, was sure the war would be over in a matter of months. Mary planned to ride out the short-lived hostilities in the comfort and safety of her home. That fantasy was shattered in less than a month. With the Union troops rapidly approaching, Mary Custis Lee packed a small selection of family treasures, including as many pieces of her Washington collection as she could carry. The headquarters tent and other marquees (she had several Washington tents) were too large to pack, so she locked them in the cellar and gave the keys to her elderly slave Selina Gray. She left Arlington House on May 15, 1861. Union troops occupied it on May 24th, confiscating the Washington field tents and other artifacts. Arlington House became the headquarters of Union General Irvin McDowell and the 1,000-acre plantation became a camp for 14,000 Union soldiers. Mary would never again return to her beloved family home. After the war, the Arlington House plantation was turned into the Arlington National Cemetery.

Meanwhile, the cellar key was burning a hole in Selina Gray’s pocket. McDowell was sympathetic to Mary Custis Lee — he wrote her a very kind letter promising to help safeguard her home — and had the utmost respect for her illustrious ancestry, but as the war dragged on into the end of 1861, he was increasingly unable to keep his restive troops from breaking into the house and pocketing any valuables they could find. When Gray saw that the cellar had been broken into and some of the Washington objects were missing, she told McDowell everything. She told him how historically significant these treasures were, gave him the key and a list of the missing artifacts.

With no realistic way to keep his men from stealing the house blind by dribs and dabs, McDowell wrote to his bosses in Washington that Arlington House was no longer safe “for the preservation of anything that is known to have an historical interest small or great.” In January of 1862, the tents and all other remaining pieces of the Washington patrimony were sent to the Patent Office in Washington where they went on display within two weeks in an exhibition organized by former Congressman Caleb Lyon called Captured at Arlington. Lyon had visited with the Lees before the war, and he personally saw to the packing, shipping, inventorying and installation of the tents in the Patent Office’s main exhibition hall.

The tents remained on display at the Patent Office for almost 20 years. The disastrous 1877 fire which destroyed 80,000 patent models and 300,000 drawings raised concerns about the safety of the Washington artifacts. In 1881 they were moved to more secure facilities at the Smithsonian Institution.

Despite her ailing health, Mary never stopped writing to anyone in the federal government who might help her get back her family heirlooms. She was ignored for years. Then for a moment in 1869 it looked like she might prevail after all when President Andrew Johnson approved the return the “relics of Mount Vernon.” He took it back when the press reported the story as the feds giving away all of the Father of Our Country’s stuff to rebel general Robert E. Lee.

Mary Custis Lee died in 1873 but the struggle lived on with her eldest son George Washington Parke Custis Lee. He petitioned successive administrations for the return of Arlington House and took it all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor. (Thousands of soldiers were already buried there, so Lee sold the property back to the government. It was the principle of the matter.) Then he hounded them for decades over the Washington memorabilia. Finally it was William McKinley, the last US President to be a Civil War veteran, who ordered the return of the Washington tents and artifacts to George Washington Parke Custis Lee. It was 1901.

After a struggle lasting 40 years, the family heirlooms were back in family hands. The Headquarters Tent was sold by Mary Custis Lee, Robert and Mary’s daughter, in 1909 to raise funds for Confederate widows. The buyer was Reverend W. Herbert Burk who spent a whopping $5,000 on it. An avid history buff, he was the founder of the Valley Forge Historical Society and of the Washington Memorial Chapel built at Valley Forge. He also founded the Valley Forge Museum of American History where the Headquarters Tent was erected outdoors in the snow, just like it was in George Washington’s Day. Burk’s extensive Revolutionary War collection, including the tent, became the core of the new Museum of the American Revolution’s collection in 2003.

Fourteen years later, the tent will be one of the jewels of the new museum slated to open at long last this April. It needed a lot of care to make it ready for display. Textile conservator Virginia Whelan had to repair the linen’s 550 holes, a large missing piece (likely a victim of the practice of cutting souvenirs from famous textiles like the poor Star Spangled Banner) and numerous stains.

Wearing a thimble but no gloves, Ms. Whelan layered fine, nearly invisible netting over and under each hole, then used polyester thread finer than human hair to stitch around the damage to prevent further fraying. For large tears and the missing piece, she worked with the faculty of Philadelphia University’s textile design department to make high-resolution images of the fabric, which were printed on polyester with a digital inkjet printer.

The whole effort took 525 hours of handwork by Ms. Whelan and an assistant.

Then they had figure out to erect so fragile a textile. The original wooden poles and tent pegs are extant, but they’d be way too rough on the fabric these days.

Alex Stadel, a structural engineer from Keast & Hood, devised the custom base, which looks like two unfurled umbrellas, standing upright and connected by a ridgepole, adding some upright poles on tracks for additional flexibility.

To attach the walls to the tent top, the team avoided iron hooks and eyes that were used in the original design, and chose rare-earth magnets that tether the fabric in place.

The Museum of the American Revolution opens in the historic center of Philadelphia on April 19th, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War.

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Italy’s greatest detective and master of disguise

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Giuseppe Dosi has gone down in history as Italy’s greatest detective, a master of disguise who went undercover to solve the thorniest of crimes and did us the great courtesy of taking pictures of himself in his many disguises. He even had a little postcard-sized contact sheet of a dozen pictures made to give to people. Famous in Italian police circles for his pioneering efforts, Dosi is getting wider attention thanks to the publication of a new biography, the airing of a new documentary about him and the digitization of some his papers, now in the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.

Born in 1891, he had tried his hand at the theater in his youth and even though his stage career was stillborn, he put his love of performance and many other considerable talents into his job as a detective. He wore disguises to alter his appearance, changed his voice, his walk, even his gender when drag was called for. He had at least 17 confirmed disguises — two priests (one foreign, one Italian), a Galician banker, a German doctor, a Yugoslavian merchant, a nihilist, a Czech World War I veteran with a bum leg — and five fully fleshed identities complete with fake documents and background stories.

His enthusiastic embrace of disguises and creating characters in police investigations, known as “fregolismo detectivistico,” (“detectival transformism”) after the actor Leopoldo Fregoli who was so adept at transforming into diverse characters on stage that his last name became a neologism for chameleon-like quick changes. His impersonation of the Czech guy with a limp completely fooled poet and would-be dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio, who in 1922 had mysteriously “fallen” (been thrown?) out of a window. Dosi went undercover to find out what had happened, a politically sensitive investigation since D’Annunzio’s greatest rival and enemy was one Benito Mussolini, who later that year would march on Rome with his Blackshirts and be appointed the new Prime Minister of Italy. Dosi’s detecting discovered that D’Annunzio had indeed been pushed, not by a political assassin, but by his volatile mistress. The case was quietly closed. He did manage to copy 10 sexually explicit letters D’Annunzio wrote to said mistress before he got out of Dodge, though. The poet called him a “dirty cop” when he found out the limping Czech was really an undercover Roman.

In actual fact he was the polar opposite of a dirty cop. Dosi was a man of resolute integrity, fearless in pursuit of the truth, even when his bosses would have preferred he look the other way, and he paid a very high price for it. In 1927, he took on a case that had bedevilled Rome since 1924. It was a horrific series of crimes, the rape of seven little girls and the murder of five of them, the youngest just three years old. The rapes and murders were breathlessly reported by the sensationalistic press and the city was in turmoil. Mussolini himself, who saw the failure to solve these crimes as an embarrassment because it made it seem like his strident law-and-order party could not deliver on its promises, pressured Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini to arrest someone on the double.

So the police found someone. Sure, Gino Girolimoni didn’t match the description of a tall, middle-aged man with a bristling mustache and an imperfect command of the Italian language — he was average height, in his 30s, clean-shaven and a native Roman — but the mild-mannered photographer and mediator for the destitute in legal cases was a warm body, and between riled up public opinion and Mussolini breathing down their neck, that was enough for the cops. They ginned up some blatantly fake evidence and arrested him in 1927.

It was not enough for Giuseppe Dosi. He knew the evidence against Girolimoni was flimsy and was convinced the real murderer was still out there. He reopened the case, over the objections of his superiors, and quickly zeroed in a more likely suspect: a British Anglican priest named Ralph Lyonel Brydges who had gotten caught molesting a girl in Canada before he moved to Rome. In April of 1928, Dosi got a search warrant for Brydges’ room and found a note in a diary referencing the location of one of the murders, newspaper clippings about the crimes and handkerchiefs identical to the ones used to strangle the little girls. Brydges had friends in high places, however, and diplomatic interference from Britain and Canada (his wife was the daughter of a very prominent Toronto politician) kept him out of jail. He was briefly committed for observation to the insane asylum Santa Maria della Pietà only to be released and flee the country.

With the case against Girolimoni in shambles, charges against him were quietly dropped. Every newspaper in the country had splashed his name and face on their front pages as the “Monster of Rome” when he was arrested. His release was covered in a few cursory articles in the middle of the paper. He could no longer make a decent living because everyone thought he was a child rapist and murderer. He died in 1961, penniless and alone. Only a handful of friends showed up to his funeral. Dosi was one of them.

So now the authorities no longer had their patsy to execute for crimes he didn’t commit, and the only other suspect was far out of reach. Mussolini, who in 1925 after Dosi foiled an assassination plot against him had sung his praises and recommended him for a promotion to whatever role he preferred, was deeply displeased by Dosi’s dogged persistence. Dosi’s police bosses, already antsy about him exposing their corruption and lies setting up poor Girolimoni, also felt the pressure from the top to curb their man’s hubris.

First they fired him. Then they just cut to the chase and arrested him. He was imprisoned in Regina Coeli, a truly scary jail in Rome which during the Fascist period was replete with political prisoners. In case that wasn’t extreme enough, they moved him to Santa Maria della Pietà where the police detective spent 17 months forcibly detained in the same psychiatric facility where Brydges, a certain child molester and possible serial child murderer, had spent a few nights. He was finally released in January 1941.

Before the end of the war, his great courage and initiative would perform another historic service. On June 4th, 1944, Allied troops under General Mark Clark liberated Rome. The Nazi occupiers beat a hasty retreat and a mob assembled at the notorious SS torture prison on Via Tasso to free any political prisoners and Jews who hadn’t been murdered by the Nazis on the way out the door. The Germans had set their papers on fire in the attempt to cover their tracks, as was their wont, and when the mob freed the prisoners, they tossed bunches of records out the window in a sort of riot of de-Nazifying the place.

Dosi, who lived on a neighboring street, showed up with a cart and took it upon himself to enter the burning building and save all the surviving records. He turned them over to the Allied Command who wisely saw this guy was a badass and appointed him special investigator of the Counter Intelligence Corp. His testimony and those records he single-handedly saved from the flames, including the list of 75 Jews taken from Regina Coeli to their deaths in the monstrous Ardeatine massacre, would be crucial in the prosecution of numerous Nazi war criminals. In November of 1946, he rejoined the police force as director of the Central Office of International Police.

Over the course of his long and storied career, Dosi put his great energy, dedication and diverse interests into areas of policework that are now standard but were newfangled in his day. He wrote essays on scientific policing, was a vocal advocate for women police officers, promoted photographing and fingerprinting arrestees, the preservation of cultural patrimony and cross-border law enforcement. Not only did he help found the Italian branch of INTERPOL, he coined the name, originally as a telegraphic address for the organization that soon stuck. He retired in 1956 with the title of Chief Inspector General. He wrote several books about his detective work and lived a long life, dying in 1981 at the age of 90.

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38,000-year-old aurochs engraving found in France

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

An international team of anthropologists has unearthed a 38,000-year-old engraving of an aurochs at the Abri Blanchard site in Dordogne, southwestern France.

First excavated in 1910, the Abri Blanchard rock shelter quickly proved itself to be an enormously rich source of archaeological material from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic. It’s one of the top three Aurignacian sites in terms of numbers of bone pieces found, and archaeologists also found large quantities of flint tools, weapons and production waste indicating flint tools were being made inside the shelter. It wasn’t all business at Abri Blanchard, however. Decorative ornaments including soapstone beads, pierced shell and animal teeth were unearthed in the prehistoric deposits as were numerous artworks engraved and painted stone blocks and slabs.

As was accepted practice at the time, the finds from the 1910-1912 excavation of Abri Blanchard were sold in batches to collectors and museums and dispersed across Europe and the United States. The widespread selling artifacts was actually encouraged by the archaeological community because it was one of very few reliable sources of funding for future excavations, and it was inconceivable that all of materials recovered from such a rich dig could find a single home in a local or nationally prominent museum. The dig was also poorly documented, with no stratigraphic and spatial mapping, and while remains and objects were found in two archaeological layers, excavation director Louis Didon mingled the discoveries without concern for which layer they came from, grouping them by type or other shared criteria that appealed to buyers.

In 2011, more than a century after the first excavations began, a new research team returned to Abri Blanchard to reexcavate the site armed with modern equipment and modern archaeological standards. In 2012, they unearthed a limestone slab engraved with the image of an aurochs (wild cow once native to Europe and one of my top three favorite extinct animals) decorated with dozens of dots aligned in neat rows.

The aurochs was a popular motif in Aurignacian art. The Abri Blanchard engraving has notable similarities in technique and design to the aurochs painted on the walls of the spectacular Chauvet Cave, and the aligned dots have been found in Chauvet as well as other Aurignacian sites in Germany and France.

“The discovery sheds new light on regional patterning of art and ornamentation across Europe at a time when the first modern humans to enter Europe dispersed westward and northward across the continent,” explains NYU anthropologist Randall White, who led the excavation in France’s Vézère Valley.

The findings, which appear in the journal Quaternary International, center on the early modern humans’ Aurignacian culture, which existed from approximately 43,000 to 33,000 years ago. […]

White contends that Aurignacian art offers a window into the lives and minds of its makers—and into the societies they created.

“Following their arrival from Africa, groups of modern humans settled into western and Central Europe, showing a broad commonality in graphic expression against which more regionalized characteristics stand out,” he explains. “This pattern fits well with social geography models that see art and personal ornamentation as markers of social identity at regional, group, and individual levels.”

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Fragments found of Amenhotep II box

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Recently identified fragments from an elaborately decorated wooden box inscribed with the cartouche of 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep II have revealed new information about the original design of the box. The fragments were held by London antiques dealers Charles Ede. Egyptologist Tom Hardwick researched them and discovered their connection to the box in the National Museums Scotland. He alerted the gallery and the gallery alerted the museum. Thanks to financial support from the Art Fund and the National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust, the museum acquired the fragments for £25,000. The reunited box and fragments will go on display at the National Museums Scotland where they will be part of the exhibition The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial which runs from March 31st through September 3rd, 2017.

Made from Lebanese cedar wood, the cylindrical box was made around 1427-1400 B.C. with the finest of raw materials and craftsmanship. It is inlaid with ebony strips and ivory plaques with copper alloy and faience accents. Some of the gilding on the central figure of the god Bes and on three bands encircling the cylinder has survived. Ivory cartouches on the top half of the box contain the throne name of Amenhotep II. Underneath the cartouches are the Egyptian hieroglyph for “gold,” a symbol of the divine and eternal life. Notched ribs from palm tree branches, symbolizing the passage of a year and therefore the portent of a long reign, stand on either side of the cartouches. The cartouches and royal symbols festooned around Bes, fierce protector of hearth and home, suggests the box invoked the protection of a very personal, homebody god to ensure a long reign and life for Amenhotep.

The box has been in the collection of the National Museums Scotland for 160 years, but its origins are nebulous. The first time the box appears in the museum records is in the 1890s when it was first reassembled from fragments by archaeologist and museum director Joseph Anderson. According to an article written in 1895 by renown Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, Anderson found the fragments in a box of odds and ends from the Rhind Collection.

Alexander Henry Rhind was a Scottish archaeologists who excavated Egypt in the mid-19th century and who pioneered detailed archaeological documentation. He brought back hundreds of artifacts now in the collection of the National Museums Scotland, including the full contents of a tomb he’d excavated in Thebes which was built in 1290 B.C. for the Chief of Police, looted repeatedly and reused for more than a 1000 years. When Rhind discovered the tomb, its last occupation from the Roman Egyptian era was undisturbed. Until he took it all to Scotland, of course. This is the tomb that is the focus of the National Museums Scotland’s upcoming exhibition.

Unfortunately, Rhind’s archaeological recording skills did not extend to documenting the discovery of the box fragments, and since he died in 1863 when he was just 29 years old he was no longer around to answer any questions by the time Joseph Anderson stumbled on the pieces. Museum curator and expert in Egyptian art Cyril Aldred studied the box in the 1940s. He made a detailed line drawing and watercolor of it in 1946 and proposed that Rhind had discovered the box in a tomb next to the recycled Roman Egyptian tomb. This tomb held the mummies of Amenhotep II’s granddaughters, among other princesses. They would have had good reason to have an extra fancy box dedicated to the grandpa, and since this was not the mummies’ original resting place but rather a second, less visible location used by priests to spare the royal remains from looting, the box’s fragmentary condition could be explained by the move.

The box was restored again in 1950s, and while it was less terrible than the 19th century attempt (the back is missing, but they still curved into a cylinder even though it was too skinny and the ends didn’t meet or match), conservators had to fill in blanks without references to what it might have looked like when whole. The newly surfaced fragments answer some of those questions and confirm that the last restoration was not accurate.

The decoration on one of the fragments features a motif representing the façade of the royal palace, tying in with the rich royal symbolism on the box, and confirming the object’s royal association. Furthermore, where the decoration of the box differs from that of the fragments, it reveals that the part of the box was incorrectly restored in mid-20th century.

The box is a much more elaborate version of the types of wooden containers often found in ancient Egyptian tombs, other examples of which are in National Museums Scotland’s collections. It was probably used in the royal palace to hold cosmetics or expensive perfumes and likely belonged to a member of the king’s family, most probably one of his granddaughters.

Even with its missing bits and questionable past restorations, the box is widely considered a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian decorative woodwork. Petrie described it as “a very interesting example of the fine work of that most wealthy and luxurious period, the 18th Dynasty.” After their stint on display in the new exhibition, the box and fragments will be kept in storage while the museums constructs a new Ancient Egypt gallery to house it. The new gallery is scheduled to be completed in 2018-2019.

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Early aviation collection goes on display for the first time

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

Evelyn Louise Way was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1893. She graduated from nursing school in 1916 and worked as a nurse. In 1926 she married Massachusetts industrialist Henry Plimpton Kendall who had turned a small, unsuccessful textile mill owned by his mother’s family (the Plimptons of Walpole, MA, whose scions include journalist George Plimpton and actress Martha Plimpton) into a hugely successful textile manufacturing company of national scope. Bought by Palmolive in the 1970s, the Kendall Company still lives today through brands like Curad bandages.

Both Evelyn and Henry were avid philanthropists and collectors with a broad range of interests. Together they assembled museum-quality collections that would eventually become the kernels of more than one museum. Their collection of early South Carolina maps and prints they donated to the University of South Carolina. Evelyn put her collection of dolls on display in the Kendall Doll Museum, now alas closed and the collection dispersed at auction. She donated her collection of antique clothing to the Royal Ontario Museum. The Way’s extensive, world-class collection of whaling artifacts went on display in the Kendall Whaling Museum in 1950, also now closed. The collection was donated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2001.

Perhaps Evelyn Way Kendall’s greatest feat of collecting was the three decades she spent assembling the largest private collection of early aviation memorabilia. We don’t know what inspired this passion for aviation in Evelyn. One possible catalyst was a widely publicized rescue mission of lost balloonists that her father William Beal Way, a regional supervisor with the Canadian National Railroads, had participated in. In December of 1920, two U.S. Navy balloonists had been blown way off course from Long Island to the frozen hinterlands of Hudson Bay. The balloon was lost in the crash but the balloonists survived, braving hunger, Canada’s inclement December-January weather, and long distance travel on foot and by dog sled. William Way wrote a detailed account of their month-long ordeal and rescue which Evelyn apparently found riveting.

Whatever the origin story, from the 1920s until the 1950s, Evelyn amassed 78 original artworks, more than 400 prints, 330 books and manuscripts, historic photographs, portraits, aircraft designs and decorative objects from fans to snuff boxes to jewelry, all relating to ballooning, aeronauts and aeronautical history. Aviation was a popular subject for collectors at that time, thanks largely to the explosion of interest in the use of aeronautics — the Red Baron, the Zeppelin raids — during World War I. The likes Harry Frank Guggenheim and Vanderbilt relation William A.M. Burden collected aviation material, but even with their endlessly deep pockets, they came nowhere near breadth and quality of Evelyn Way Kendall’s collection. As early as 1931, scholars were already beating down her door for access to it.

The collection remained in the family after Evelyn’s death in 1979. In 2014, her descendants donated the Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. After documentation and conservation by Smithsonian experts, the unique collection is now going on display for the first time.

When the first balloon rose over the rooftops of Paris in the late 18th century, enormous crowds gathered to watch. This phenomenon spurred a new age of aeronauts dreaming of what else could fly. The excitement of this achievement was captured much like it would be today—in artwork and on memorabilia; objects such as decorative fans, china, snuff boxes and prints will be on display. “Clouds in a Bag” explores the fascination of the first balloon flights through these pieces.

“The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. “After centuries of dreaming, we were airborne at last! Visitors to the exhibition will be able to share some of the excitement experienced by those who watched the first aerial travelers rise into the sky.”

The Clouds in a Bag exhibition opens at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Saturday, January 28th, and runs through 2018.

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3,500-year-old jewelry workshop illuminates dark age

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a 3,500-year-old jewelry workshop on the island of Failaka off the coast of Kuwait. Failaka was one of the major hubs of the Bronze Age Dilmun civilization, which at its peak is believed to have covered parts of modern-day Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and coastal Saudi Arabia. From around 2000 B.C., Dilmun held the monopoly on trade in the Persian Gulf. Failaka’s position at the entrance to Kuwait Bay gave it outsized strategic significance.

Dilmun’s ascendance wasn’t uninterrupted. Somewhere around the year 1700 B.C., the well-established trade network collapsed. The temples and cities were abandoned and the tombs of the kings looted. The next century is known as a dark age for Dilmun and Failaka because whatever the cause and effects of the collapse, there is little in the archaeological record that might shed light on the period.

The jewelry workshop is therefore something of a grail-shaped beacon. It was discovered in a building dated to the period between 1700 and 1600 B.C. and it contains very important garbage: small fragments of semi-precious stones including carnelian and jasper discarded as waste. Carnelian and jasper and not native to Failaka. These were imports, probably from Indian and Pakistan, which means trade across vast distances was still active during the so-called dark ages.

Kristoffer Damgaard, an assistant professor in the department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, believes that Højlund and his colleagues have made an important discovery.

“I have no doubt that this is an important and historically crucial discovery,” said Damgaard. “These are the raw materials for luxury items for the wealthy that reveals the local elite had the option of long-distance trading in commodities such as precious stones.”

Damgaard said that the find is an “example of how far back globalisation extends”. Højlund believes that the stones show that Kuwait resumed trade during the dark period.

“Kuwait must have re-established the trade routes that collapsed around the year 1700 BC,” he said. “It bears witness to a renaissance in Bahrain and Failaka in around 1600 BC, when it resumed relations eastward to Pakistan and India.”

It’s also relevant to Failaka’s particular archaeological record because Dilmun was known for its circular stamped seals (as opposed to ones that were rolled like the cylinders of Mesopotamia). Dilmunian seals have been unearthed in India, Mesopotamia and in Failaka. A great number of them were found in a square stone building in the Al Hakim Palace and Tower Temple complex. They were of different shapes and sizes — circular, rectangular, square, cylinder scarab-shaped — and bore different inscriptions. The sheer numbers and variety of seals found on Failaka underscore that it was a pivot point of cultural exchange between the civilizations of the Gulf.

Danish archaeologists from the Moesgaard Museum, led by Peter Vilhelm Glob famed as the archaeologist who examined the bog body Tollund Man upon its discovery by peat cutters in 1950, were the first to systematically excavate the Persian Gulf countries in the southern Arabian peninsula beginning in 1953. Glob’s team found the first evidence of the Dilmun civilization in Bahrain and thought it was a local power. When they were invited to excavate Kuwait in 1958, they found Dilmun’s reach extended north as well, that they had colonized Failaka around 2,000 B.C. and used as a political, economic and religious center and headquarters for shipping. This most recent series of excavations on Failaka have been ongoing for nine years.

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Ancient skeleton found with tongue replaced by stone

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Archaeologists studying a 3rd-4th century Romano-British skeleton unearthed in 1991 at Stanwick in Northamptonshire’s Nene river valley have discovered a unique feature: his tongue was severed and replaced with a flat, round stone. He was buried facedown, a practice believed to be a deliberate act of disrespect for the dead person, or a means of shunning the deceased to counter a perceived danger to the community. This is the first burial from the late Roman period, facedown or otherwise, discovered with a stone in place of the tongue.

Historic England, then called English Heritage, extensively excavated more than 30 hectares the Stanwick site in advance of gravel extraction from 1984 through 1992. They unearthed evidence of human occupation in the early Iron Age. There was an established settlement on the site by the late Iron Age. That developed into an agricultural village from the late 1st century A.D. to the third. The Romano-British village prospered, with increasingly complex stone buildings replacing the circular timber structures. There was a large villa built in the 4th century A.D. and it remained in use even as the rest of the village were abandoned. Bodies were buried outside the villa walls as late as the 6th century.

The eight years of excavations unearthed more than 11,000 individually documented finds, among them more than 3,500 coins, a large collection of stone sculptures believed to have come from two mausoleums, 2.5 tons of Romano-British pottery, 1,600 samples of organic materials (plant fibers, insects, pollen), 1.4 tons of animal bones, cremation burials, 112 complete or close to complete inhumation burials and eight skulls. Thirty-six of the inhumations and one of the isolated skulls were discovered in a cemetery west of the villa. There was very little material in the graves to date them. Pottery fill used in the burials ranges from the Iron Age to the 3rd-4th century which obviously doesn’t help narrow down dates. Two copper alloy bracelets found in one burial are of a type produced in the 5th century. Archaeologists concluded that the cemetery was likely in use from the 3rd to the 5th century.

It has taken decades for archaeologists to document, study and conserve all of this material, which is why they’ve only gotten to the stone tongue skeleton now. Osteological analysis found evidence of infection which supports the idea that the tongue was cut out since that kind of surgical intervention in our bacteria-infested mouths was almost certain to cause infection. The combination of facedown burial and stone might suggest the deceased was a criminal who was punished with tongue amputation.

Mays said: “There are Germanic law codes which talk about cutting people’s tongues out because they spread malicious accusations against other people. We’re looking into it at the moment, but I don’t know whether there are any Roman laws to that effect. Feedback I’ve had hasn’t indicated that there were … although that is of course still possible. We don’t know much about practices in Roman Britain as opposed to Rome itself.”

Asked how archaeologists know the tongue was amputated, Mays explained: “What gave us this idea is that there are other burials from Roman Britain where missing body parts in the grave are replaced by objects at the appropriate anatomical location. There are only about 10 of these that we’ve so far been able to identify. The great majority are decapitations, where you’ve got a stone or a pot placed where the head should be. We thought that, because of this, perhaps a stone could replace the tongue because it’s in the front part of the mouth where the tongue ought to be.” […]

He added: “The whole idea of replacing a severed body part with an object is interesting in itself. It could be an attempt to complete an incomplete body. Or it could be an attempt to replace part of a body with something obviously inanimate, like a stone or a pot, to prevent the corpse from being complete.”

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17th c. letters found in Knole House attic

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The original Knole House, a stately home in Kent, was a medieval manor house that in 1456 became a palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury who extensively rebuilt and expanded it. It was claimed by Crown during the Reformation; Henry VIII used it as a hunting lodge. In 1603 it was given to Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer and cousin of Anne Boleyn. Sackville began a years-long program of reconstruction and refurbishment to prepare the house for a visit from King James I that never ended up happening, which is a shame because those protective witchmarks scratched into the wooden beams of the king’s rooms during construction in early 1606 went to waste. His descendants followed in his footsteps, doing extensive renovations at the end of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Over time, the family retreated into the nucleus of the house, leaving many of the grand rooms with the fabled Sackville art collection under dust covers. From a historical preservation perspective, this was a salutary choice. Modern systems were never installed in much of the house. In 1946, the Knole House was acquired by the National Trust in an unusual deal which leased most of the living rooms back to the Sackvilles. The formal rooms and the treasures they contain are now open to the visiting public.

Knole House is currently undergoing a $30 million restoration, the National Trust’s largest conservation project ever, that is repairing the timber-frame structure, documenting every single beam and opening spaces that have long been closed to the public. It’s in two of those spaces, attic rooms, that a volunteer and a contractor discovered three 17th century letters. Volunteer Jim Parker found two letters, one dated May 1603, the other October 1633, under the floorboards in the South Barracks attic. Builder Dan Morrison discovered the third, dated February 1622, in some debris in a ceiling void near the Upper King’s Room. It probably fell through the attic floor above.

After centuries in the dirt and rubble of attics, the letters needed immediate conservation. They were photographed to document their original condition and then conservators cleaned the surface using fine brushes, rubber powders and professional archival cleansers. The crumpled up pages were given a nice, relaxing sauna in a sealed humidifying chamber, after which the wrinkles were smoothed out in a paper press.

Though written at different times by different people, all three letters were written on expensive, high quality rag paper. The paper in one of the letters, the one written in 1622, was in particularly poor shape. It tore during the cleaning process and conservators had to repair the gaps with Japanese tissue paper. With a little help from infra-red imaging, most of the letter was deciphered. It’s seems to be a thank you note from some recipients of a charitable donation.

The xviijth of February 1622

[Received] by us the poore prisoners in [ILLEGIBLE] the [ILLEGIBLE]
[from the] right honourable the Earle of Middlesex our worthy [ILLEGIBLE]
[by the hands] of Mr Ayers the some of three Shillings [ILLEGIBLE]
[ILLEGIBLE] for our releefe & succour for which wee give [good]
[ILLEGIBLE] for all our good benefactors.

Richard Roger [ILLEGIBLE]

The 1633 letter is about house administration. The courteous missive asks that some pewter spoons and other domestic goods be transported from a London home to Copt Hall in Essex.

It reads:

Mr Bilby, I pray p[ro]vide to be sent too morrow in ye Cart some Greenfish, The Lights from my Lady Cranfeild[es] Cham[ber] 2 dozen of Pewter spoon[es]: one greate fireshovell for ye nursery; and ye o[t]hers which were sent to be exchanged for some of a better fashion, a new frying pan together with a note of ye prises of such Commoditie for ye rest.

Your loving friend
Robert Draper

Octobre 1633
Copthall

The Cranfields of Copt Hall had close links to the Sackvilles of Knole House. Frances Cranfield, daughter of Lionel Cranfield, 1st Baron Cranfield and Earl of Middlesex, married Richard Sackville, 5th Earl of Dorset in 1637. Extant archives record that she brought a great many large trunks and pieces of furniture with her. Trunks filled with papers were stashed in the attic. The letters could easily have gotten dislodged during the move and wound up underneath the floorboards.

A lot of the art and furnishings in the Knole collection came from the Copt Hall collection which was moved to Knole in the early 18th century, so this apparently quotidian letter about moving some stuff is a pearl of great price for the National Trust because it sheds light on an important part of Knole House’s history.

Nathalie Cohen, regional archaeologist for the National Trust, said: “It’s extremely rare to uncover letters dating back to the 17th century, let alone those that give us an insight into the management of the households of the wealthy, and the movement of items from one place to another.

“Their good condition makes this a particularly exciting discovery.”

She adds: “At Knole our typical finds relate to the maintenance of the house such as wiring and nails or things visitors have dropped such as cigarette packets and ticket stubs. These letters are significant as artefacts but also for the insights they give us into the correspondence of the early seventeenth century.”

The 1603 letter has not been deciphered yet. All three of the letters are on display in Knole’s Visitor Centre.

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Last coins excavated from huge Jersey Celtic hoard

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Excavation of the enormous hoard of Celtic coins discovered by metal detectorists on the Channel Island of Jersey in 2012 is finally complete. Comprised of almost 70,000 coins, multiple gold torcs, glass beads and organic materials including plant fibers, a leather bag and a bag woven with silver and gold thread, the Le Catillon II treasure is the largest Celtic coin hoard ever discovered, six times larger than the runner-up.

When Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard after 30 years of searching the same field because of a story they’d heard from the previous landowners daughter, they only dug down to the surface of the mass of coins before alerting Jersey Heritage so the professionals could take over the excavation. With such a great quantity of coins corroded together, archaeologists dug the entire hoard out of the ground in a single soil block measuring 4.5 x 2.6 feet and weighing three quarters of a ton.

The block was transported to the Jersey Museum where it was painstakingly excavated in the glass-walled laboratory in full public view. The museum’s conservator Neil Mahrer worked with a team of experts and volunteers to document, recover, identify and clean every single speck of archaeological material. For the first two years, they focused on removing and cleaning 2,000 loose coins on the surface of the block. In 2014 excavation of the coin mass began. The overwhelming majority of the coins were found to date to 30-50 B.C. and were made by the Coriosolite tribe of what is now Brittany.

Here’s a timelapse video showing the recovery of objects from the block during just one week, November 21-27, 2015.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/Iut2sebk4-k&w=430]

Before a coin was removed from the block it was laser scanned so its exact position was recorded, and then once it was removed it was laser scanned on its own. One small subblock of coins was not excavated. Instead, it was snugly plastic wrapped and removed whole so that future conservators armed with new technologies have a clean, original section to study.

The scanning and removal of all the rest of the hoard took a lot of time. Four years after the find and almost three years after the excavation of the soil block began, Neil Mahrer scanned and removed the last ten coins of 70,000. Because the Jersey Museum team is composed of wise and provident people with a care for our nerdly needs, they had it filmed.

Neil Mahrer, who has led the conservation project from the beginning, said: “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way.

“There is still plenty to do and I am sure the hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”

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