Mary Rose cannonballs meet synchrotron X-rays

When Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose sank off the Portsmouth coast on July 19th, 1545, it was carrying 1248 cast iron cannonballs, all lined up next to each other, ready to be deployed. They slumbered under 14 meters (46 feet) of sediment, a virtually oxygen free environment, along with about 19,000 other artifacts and remains until excavations began in 1979. In 1982, the whole ship was raised.

That was when its real struggle for survival began. The ship and its contents had been protected for 450 years under the sea. As soon as they were exposed to air, they began to deteriorate. After decades of constant spraying in salt water and PEG, the Mary Rose is now dry, stable and in a new display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, but stabilizing archaeological iron is a whole other kind of challenge. Exposure to air and moisture causes iron to break down into a number of iron compounds, and that deterioration is accelerated when there’s chlorine in the mix. Sea water is rich in chlorine, and after nearly five centuries spent absorbing it, the iron cannon shot is highly susceptible to corrosion now that it’s out of the water.

Conservators have attempted to prevent this ugly fate with a variety of approaches. The bulk of the iron balls were stored in a passive environment — a high pH solution — that kept them as stable as possible to their home under the sediment. This makes them unable to be exhibited and does not remove the corrosive salts and chlorine. Some of the balls were therefore subjected to active conservation techniques, either reduction-based desalination treatments which aim to remove chlorine from iron artifacts by chemically altering the molecules of Iron(III) chloride, or washing methods which remove the chlorine by diffusion it into water solutions.

The problem is that there isn’t much solid scientific evidence to go on that points to which solution works best, whether there are any unintended consequences in the short or long term, etc. There are no real comparable treatments of archaeological iron to go by, and it’s hard to say if the condition of a given artifact is caused by a conservation technique or one of a myriad other variables.

A new study is hoping to answer some of those questions using a few of the cannon balls of the Mary Rose as the canaries in the coal mine. The shot was produced in bulk at the single iron blast furnace that existed in Tudor England; it was new when it sank and it was all buried together. Their uniformity of design, manufacturer and history, and the careful application of diverse treatment protocols after their recovery eliminates a lot of those pesky variables and gives researchers the opportunity to study in detail at the molecular level how effective the different treatments have been.

The UK National Synchroton Facility at Diamond Light Source in Didcot in Oxfordshire has deployed the ultra-bright X-ray power of the particle accelerator to analyze the iron in exceptional detail. Researchers used synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction (SXPD), absorption spectroscopy (XAS), and fluorescence (XRF) mapping to identify the precise location of the chlorine inside the balls and determine what corrosion products have formed in the conservation process.

The study did require a sacrifice, however. In order to do the initial examination, and to move forward on a long-term study that puts samples embedded in lucite on a beamline and maps the chlorine and corrosion over time, six of the shots had to be destructively sampled. It was a difficult decision, but the Mary Rose has an enormous collection that makes it possible to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, so in 2016 conservators decided to cut segments out of the cannon balls that were already showing significant signs of deterioration.

Dr Eleanor Schofield continues: “We knew that we needed to really delve into the material and find out what was going on, and that this would require destructive sampling. This decision was not taken lightly, and was justified by sacrificing a small percentage of our collection for the benefit of the rest and other collections around the world which suffer the same problem.”

Hayley Simon, who is now part way through her PhD adds: “These results represent a first step towards the development of new protective techniques. We are launching next a long duration experiment, which will observe changes in the corrosion product during long-term immersion in various conservation treatments to monitor their effects.”

The first paper charting the results of the synchroton mapping of the elements has now been published (only available free to subscribers, available for rent or purchase for the rest of us).

Keen-eyed Hearst Castle guides spot key to painting’s long-lost author

The large painting of the Annunciation had been hanging on the walls of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, since 1927 when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst bought it the California decorating company Cannell and Chaffin. Other than the obvious — its subject and impressive size (8.5 feet high by five feet wide) — nothing else was known about it, not where it came from, not its ownership history and not its author. That was unchanged for decades, even as the painting hung in the grand Assembly Room of the castle’s main building and was examined closely during two separate conservation treatments.

It took a shaft of light and two highly observant tour guides to illuminate the murky history of this artwork. Last November, Carson Cargill and Laurel Rodger were leading a tour in the late afternoon when the sun’s rays reflected off the mosaic floor lit the painting at just the right angle for them to see there was an inscription on Mary’s lectern. Neither of the previous conservations had recorded the presence of an inscription.

In a Feb. 21 interview, Cargill said, “the sunlight was reflecting off the mosaic tile floor in the West Vestibule” of the Assembly Room, shining on the painting and revealing the previously unreported name of the painter. He said, “at that point, you could see it” on the Virgin’s lectern.

After the tour ended and the Assembly Room was empty, he and fellow guide Rodger investigated further. The two have been Castle guides for three years, having been in the same training class.

Then, Cargill recalled, “Laurel saw an inscription” on the painting’s lower-left corner. He said that they “stood on chairs and used flashlights” to confirm what they had seen.

“Once we realized there was something significant,” he said, they took details of their find to [Museum Director Mary] Levkoff.

Rodger said, “At first, we weren’t really sure if we should be excited. But when I saw how excited Mary (Levkoff) was.”

Levkoff said she was overjoyed. Cargill said, “Then we had permission to be excited, elated!”

Levkoff then climbed a ladder herself and examined the inscription closely with a lantern. A little cellphone Googling later, she was able to identify the artist as Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa, a 17th century Spanish Baroque painter. She confirmed his identity by comparing the monogram to an authenticated work in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and by consulting with Spanish Baroque expert Dawson Carr, curator of European art at the Portland Museum of Art.

Pérez specialized in depicting flowers, usually in vases and baskets, sometimes accompanying religious scenes or as garlands surrounding portraits of saints. He also did fine decorative work, ornamenting architectural features in palaces and painting elaborate theater sets. That was what earned him the title of court painter to Charles II in 1689. There are no flowers in this work, however, which makes it high atypical for Pérez.

The discovery includes an abbreviation of the artist’s name and his title, located on the base of the Virgin’s lectern: “ P.z / Pic[t]or Reg[is].” A lengthy inscription in the lower left corner provides the name of the patron and the date, which was 1690.

The Annunciation painting is unique for Perez, Levkoff said, because he’s known primarily for his floral still-life paintings. She said art experts know of only a few large-scale figural compositions by the artist who was named official painter to King Charles II in 1689.

The inscription indicates the painting was commissioned for a side altar of a church, but which church that might have been we still don’t know. Pérez died in a fall from a scaffold when frescoing the palace of the Duke of Monteleón and multiple religious works, now lost were listed in his will, so the genre was something he explored more widely than most of his surviving oeuvre would indicate.

The Hearst Castle staff have made up for lost time by adding a spotlight to the display so the artist’s name, the patron and the date can finally have their day in the sun even when the sun isn’t reflecting off the mosaic floor in just the right way.

Roman cemetery found at Netherlands highway site

An archaeological survey at the site of new highway construction in Bemmel, in the southern Netherlands’ province of Gelderland, has unearthed a large Roman cemetery with an intriguing mystery about it. There are 48 graves dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., some with stone funerary caskets intact and containing very high quality grave goods. The size of the burial ground, how complete it is, the quantity, variety and quality of the graves make it unique in the archaeological record of the Netherlands. This was a cemetery for the elite.

Excavations were carried out in February, but kept secret to fend off treasure hunters. It was immediately clear to the archaeologists that this was a special find. The cemetery was discovered just 20 inches under the surface, and yet, it was entirely unspoiled, graves intact, grave goods in excellent condition, even the skeletal remains of a baby, which very rarely survive, were found. These were cremation burials as was the Roman custom at this time. The ashes were buried with grave goods and covered by burial bounds. Out of the 48 graves found, tufa funerary caskets were found in six. Four of those urns were completely intact. This is the first time so many cremation urns have been found in one place in the Netherlands. Also notable is that the grave goods were buried in tiled chambers of their own, not in pits adjacent to the person they were buried with, which was the customary practice.

The mysterious part is that Roman burial grounds were usually just outside the city walls, but there is no Roman city known in the Bemmel area. It would have had to have been a town with a sizable population of wealthy people and by now you’d think some archaeological evidence of such a settlement would have been discovered.

The discovery of the cemetery and artifacts were announced to the public by the Rijkswaterstaat [RWS], the Ministry of Water and Infrastructure Management, for the first time on March 8th.

Among the funeral gifts were such luxury items as imported painted earthenware jars, plates and cups, and tableware consisting of glass bottles and decorated bronze jugs, cups and dishes. Although personal items did not usually accompany their owners in death, the archaeologists found clothing pins, mirrors, a pair of scissors and even a complete perfume bottle with its contents intact, RWS says.

Among the more unusual items were fragments of four parchment roll holders and a stone grave monument with a depiction of a woman.

Such gifts are more typical of Roman cities like Nijmegen, or high-ranking Roman officials in Belgium, Germany or France, RWS said. The best explanation therefore is that these were the inhabitants of a Roman villa near Bemmel, which would make it perhaps the most northerly position of a Roman villa in all of the Roman empire.

The artifacts are currently being cleaned and conserved. On April 27-9, a selection of the grave goods will be exhibited to the public in Bemmel as part of the city’s Romans Week. Next year, the discoveries will be displayed at the Museum Vet Valkhof in Nijmegen.

The Dutch-language video shows the dig site and one of the caskets as it was found in situ and removed en bloc to a laboratory for careful excavation. Below is an English transcript (Google translated, so there are bound to be errors).

We see a motorway from the air and a title appears: Archaeological research. Crossing the Ressen-Oudenbroek junction (ViA15) An archaeologist is in his car on his way to work. He says: “We are actually the beginning of the construction, we get everything out of the ground.” He walks through a muddy pasture and says: “We make everything safe and ensure that there is no more archaeology in the ground so that the road can get there.”

Together with a number of colleagues, he is sitting on his knees in the mud. They dig with small scoops and he continues: “You have a well plan, which is on the GPS. Those are just the rectangles that you expand. You put four markers in the grounds you are going to dig. That’s it. It starts with the beeping of the metal detector. Then we heard a very loud signal and then we were already looking at each other: this will be beautiful. I called my colleague, I say I’ve never seen this. So he came and he said, they look like coffins. No, dude, this is not possible. We spent a week and a half working on those pits and then we found this. Then you know right away that you have something special. And then you’re going to dig.”

The archaeologists are standing at a pit with a wooden box. A crane slowly lifts the crate out of the pit. The archaeologist says: “What we got from the ground is a tufa stone casket. There was a big pit next to it, there were the grave gifts. And then there appears to be a whole grave field. It is just a complete burial ground from Roman times. That is really great. I have never experienced it yourself that you find urns. Then you also know right away that it is the elite. You are not simply buried in an casket. You actually feel as happy as a small child.”

The archaeologist visits the archaeological restorer who is cleaning the casket and continues: “The beauty is, we write history here. This is not written. That is what you actually do with archaeology. Everything that is not known, we make a story of that. This is also what you do it for. It’s nice to write a whole story, but if you find such kind of finds that makes your profession really fun.”

Adeline Harris’ masterpiece signature quilt

The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains many marvels of history and art. The Adeline Harris Sears Tumbling Block with Signatures quilt stands up to any of them for its uniqueness, artistry and unparalleled capture of the history and society of mid-19th century America. Quilts incorporating signatures weren’t new when the teenaged Adeline began her project in 1856, but they were community works, the product of families and churches working together to create a piece for an event like a wedding or baptism. The Met has a lovely example of that type of quilt: an Album quilt by members of the Brown and Turner families of Baltimore, begun in 1846. Adeline’ quilt is something else entirely.

The signatures include congressmen (including Elihu Washburne of Illinois, John Sherman of Ohio), senators (including Solomon Foot of Vermont, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and William H. Seward of New York, later Lincoln’s Secretary of State), governors (including Sam Houston of Texas, William Buckingham of Connecticut) Union Army generals (including Ambrose Burnside, George McClellan, Joseph Hooker and George Meade, victor of Gettysburg), an astonishing eight presidents of the United States (Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant) and two vice presidents (Schuyler Colfax and Henry Wilson).

There are also notable academics, university presidents, journalists and editors, actors, reformers, scientists, artists, poets, essayists, novelists, folklorists, clergymen from numerous denominantions. Rubbing shoulders on this extraordinary quilt are the autographs of Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, Alexandre Dumas, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Adeline assembled a who’s who of 19th century society for her quilt, the majority of which are still very much luminaries of their fields, even when, as in the case of most of the clergymen, they are not as well known as they were in their lifetimes.

The tumbling blocks pattern is characterized by a trompe l’oeil that gives it a 3D cube effect. Adeline Harris showcased exceptional skill and mastery in her needlework and fabric choice, emphasizing the 3D effect with her arrangement of the varied patterns of silk pieces. The white pieces with autographs all serve as the top of the cubes, while the two visible sides, corner center, are formed by contrasting silk panels. To these she sewed black silk triangles, thereby creating a deep, velvety background to make the cubes pop.

There are 360 blocks with signatures and 10 signatureless partial blocks in the top border, arranged in 20 columns and 36 rows (plus a half row up top). Adeline first put together the blocks, then stitched them together as columns, then stitched the columns together to form the rows. There are 1,840 pieces of silk of 150 different patterns and colors in the entire quilt, most of them imported from Europe and first used in clothing, hats and ribbons before being reincarnated in the quilt. Even the black triangles are diverse, with five different kinds of silks used to create the background.

Adeline’s stitching is the peak of quilt craftsmanship. Look at how sharp and regular the blocks are, how flawlessly they are sewed together so all the corners meet. Then there’s the condition of the fabrics themselves. These scraps were lovingly preserved for who knows how long, and then the quilt itself was preserved in pristine condition by the family for another 140 years. The colors are still brilliant with only minimal fading on the more delicate pink shades.

The quilt also showcases its maker’s logical mind, mathematical precision and thorough engagement in the politics and literature of her time. She was the daughter of a prosperous Rhode Island textile mill owner and had received what was considered a proper education for a girl of her class (mostly from private tutors in her home, plus three years at private boarding schools). Her granddaughter described her as “a great scholar and student with a brilliant mind” and the quilt certainly doesn’t contradict that glowing report. She placed the autographs in categories — presidents and vice presidents in column seven, generals in columns two and three, authors arranged first by gender, then by prominence, then by genre, etc. It’s like a giant matrix of 19th century celebrities.

The quilt is also a testament to her persistence, stamina and focus. It took her 11 years to collect all of the autographs (1856-1867), and even more years to stitch them together. This is evidenced by her placement of President Grant who was not president when he signed her silk diamond and his vice presidents Colfax and Wilson who signed theirs in the late 1850s long before they reached their highest offices. That means she worked on this quilt for nigh on two decades.

One of the personages Adeline wrote to soliciting her autograph was Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. She explained her project in a letter that so impressed Hale that she wrote a two-part article about the quilt, describing its ambitious reach and design and complimenting its creator for her ingenunity and needlework abilities. Hale saw this quilt as both “intellectual” and “moral” endeavour, as it required brain power and taste to piece together the riot of color and pattern into a matched and pleasing geometry, and a virtuous understanding of “the fitness of things” to pick celebrities whose deeds and talents would make them worthy of being cast in this silken firmament.

In the April 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady Book, Hale wrote in “Autograph Bedquilt”, the first part of the article:

Notwithstanding the comprehensive design we are attempting to describe, we have no doubt of its successful termination. The letter of the young lady bears such internal evidence of her capability, that we feel certain she has the power to complete her work if her life is spared. And when we say that she has been nearly eight years engaged on this quilt, and seems to feel now all the enthusiasm of a poetical temperament working out a grand invention that is to be a new pleasure and blessing to the world, we are sure all our readers will wish her success. Who knows but in future ages, her work may be looked at like the Bayeux Tapestry, not only as a marvel of woman’s ingenious and intellectual industry; but as affording an idea of the civilization of our times, and giving a notion of the persons as estimated in history.

You called it, Ms. Hale.

Adeline’s daughter Sophie and her daughters in turn recognized what a masterpiece their mother and grandmother had created. It does not appear to have been used as a bedspread, but rather was treasured and preserved most careful. There is evidence that it was hung for display at some point.

Even so, close examination of the back of the quilt found an amusing interlude of censorship in its history. The last diamond was covered up at some point by a patch. The needle holes are still visible even though the patch had been removed by the time the Met acquired the quilt. Apparently the poem written on that piece, thought to be by Nathaniel P. Willis whose signature appears in column 18, caused some pearls to be clutched resulting in the application of a quilted fig leaf which thankfully did not endure. I hope your blushing eyes can handle it.

Miss Addie pray excuse
My disobliging Muse,
She contemplates with dread
So many in a Bed.

EDIT: I considered including a full list of the signatures in this post, but it is very long and my only source is a pdf of a 1998 journal article from the Met so formatting it for posting is a bit of a nightmare. Instead, I’m attaching the article with the appendix that lists all the signatures, complete with greetings and brief biographical line identifying the signers, by column. The appendix begins on page 277 (page 15 of the pdf). (But read the whole article because it’s awesome.)

“A Marvel of Woman’s Ingenious and Intellectual Industry”: The Adeline Harris Sears Autograph Quilt, by Amelia Peck, Associate Curator, American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum Journal issue 33, 1998.

Hong Kong’s only dragon kiln in danger

Hong Kong’s only complete dragon kiln is in danger of fatal damage, even demolition, from a plan to build public housing on its lot. Built in the 1940s, the Castle Peak Pottery Kiln in the city of Tuen Mun is designated by the Antiquities Advisory Board a grade three historic building, but that status is not sufficient to enforce its preservation. According to the grading standards, if a grade three site cannot be preserve due to practical considerations, “alternative means” are acceptable. Alternative means apparently include destruction, which makes the whole the designation something of a bad joke.

The brick dragon kiln has a firing chamber 20 meters long that slowly slopes upward. It’s a traditional form that has been in use for thousands of years and is the reason China was able to produce stoneware and porcelain since distant antiquity that eluded the West until the 18th century. Dragon kilns are named after their long, tunnel form reminiscent of the body of a Chinese dragon. The shape dates back to the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 B.C.) when stoneware first began to be fired. It requires very high heat (1200C or higher), and the elongated, slender domed shape of the dragon kiln, built on a slope to capture rising heat, made it possible to achieve such high temperatures as well as to fire multiple pieces at once. Those early kilns were more modestly sized at between five and 12 meters, but over the centuries they grew to enormous dimensions, as much as 60 meters in length, dwarfing the one in Hong Kong.

Because the kilns required a slope to fire pieces along their full length, almost all of them were built on hilly land in the countryside. City dragon kilns are rare, which makes Hong Kong’s sole example all the more worth preserving. The kiln is on a 1.7 acre lot that is one of five properties that the government wants to use to built 10,700 public housing apartments. Just over 1,000 of them would be built in a 40-storey high-rise at the kiln site on Hin Fat Lane. There’s a residential home for people with intellectual disabilities on the site that would have to be rebuilt elsewhere.

The Planning Department doesn’t seem to care about the kiln or the facility or about the wishes of the district council, for that matter. It’s all pretty shady.

[Tuen Mun district councilor Tam Chun-yin] said the district council vetoed the redevelopment plan involving five pieces of land in Tuen Mun last September and November, citing concern about transport with an influx of over 10,000 households.

“But the Planning Department went on to submit its plans to the Town Planning Board, and nothing could stop them after the board held a public forum in April,” he added.[…]

In a preliminary development review published last September, the Civil Engineering and Development Department anticipated that “ground-borne vibration, ground settlement and tilting due to construction works” might affect the kiln’s structural integrity.

The department recommended “a detailed geotechnical assessment and a condition survey” of the kiln before the work began.

[Wan Chai district councilor Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying] said: “So far we haven’t seen a detailed preservation plan for the kiln. Therefore we would like to urge the Town Planning Board to reconsider the plan submitted by the Planning Department to guarantee a full preservation.”

Yeung is the co-founder of the Hong Kong Dragon Kiln Concern Group, an organization of ceramic enthusiasts who have been working for a year to save the kiln from development. They launched an online petition on Tuesday, hoping to scrounge up enough signatures to give the Town Planning Commission pause before the period of public consultation ended. They got 1,815 in less than 24 hours, which is a testament to how meaningful the dragon kiln is to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.