Archive for May, 2018

Lost Debussy score rediscovered

Monday, May 21st, 2018

A manuscript score by Claude Debussy has reemerged more than 90 years after it was last seen. Composed by Debussy when he was just 19 years old and struggling to make ends meet as a voice teacher, the piece is a score, piano and voice, for the play Hymnis by poet Théodore de Banville who along with Paul Verlaine was the poet who most influenced the young composer.

The score was never published and the manuscript was last documented in 1926 when it was sold at auction in Paris. It never made it into any catalogues of the composer’s works and basically disappeared until November of 1917 when a client asked the manuscripts experts at Christie’s Paris to take a look at a manuscript of his and tell him what it was.

This manuscript, which hasn’t been seen or played in public in almost a century since it last appeared at auction in 1926, is one of three known scores for Hymnis that Debussy worked on. Of the others, one contains his strophes for the opening scene, the second for the beginning of scene seven. Both, however, feature different music for the same parts of the play.

Offered in Paris on 29 May, the manuscript contains a further 15 pages of previously unseen music by Debussy. “Everyone I’ve talked to, every musician, is excited, because of course we get to look at this music maybe for the first time in 100 years,” says the composer and pianist Jeff Cohen, who plays the score in our film. “I found that even touching the paper itself is quite moving. Seeing Debussy’s handwriting, it’s as if he is standing there next to you — it’s so personal.”

It was personal in more ways than just the handwriting. Debussy’s first published work was Nuit d’étoiles (1882), set to the poem by the same name by Banville. He wrote the Hymnis score around that time, in 1881-1882, and like his other pieces inspired by the Symbolist poet, it is dedicated to his lover, muse and vocal student Marie Vasnier. She was a cultured woman 14 years older than him who taught him a great deal about the arts, including the amatory ones. She was also married. To top it off, in 1882 they were separated when Debussy traveled through Europe with his patroness Nadejda von Meck. The threesome at the heart of the story of Hymnis may have had particular resonance for him given the complications of his relationship to a married woman.

Several specialists consider that the melodies written for Marie Vasnier are as many love notes that he addresses to him, Hymnis, perhaps more than the others. Thus Eileen Souffrin-Le Breton, later taken up by François Lesure, wonders: “We can ask ourselves about Hymnis if Debussy did not have intimate reasons to love the piece … How (…) do not to see an analogy between the situation of the three characters of Hymnis and Debussy himself vis-à-vis the Vasnier household? (…) When Hymnis sings:
“He sleeps again, one hand on the lyre ! / (…) / Divine Charmer, while you sleep / around you flutter the bees: / The sweet poet is the envoy of the Gods “.
How not to imagine Mrs. Vasnier in the traits of a Hymnis (first) protective (and) maternal:
“To be proud of your genius / To surround yourself as a child / To be encouraged and defended “.
(or) burning (with) passion:
“In the ardor that tears me / The heart full of you, / I offer you, O my king, / My fury and my delirium”
(And the composer in the traits of) Anacreon who proclaims:
“Hymnis! Oh half of myself / Dear Hymnis! I love you”
(To finish with the duet):
“Ah, we are blessed …”.

The manuscript goes under the hammer at Christie’s Paris at the end of the month. The pre-sale estimate is 120,000 – 180,000 euros ($141,856 – $212,785). Composer and pianist Jeff Cohen accompanies soprano Pauline Texier perform a short preview of the score in the video at the top of this page.


Earliest evidence of Roman military found in Poland

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Numerous Roman military artifacts dating as far back as the 1st century A.D. have been unearthed in Kujawy, north-central Poland, a region in the Vistula basin far outside the boundary of imperial Rome even at its greatest extent under Trajan in the early 2nd century. This is a find that could rewrite history, and it came about thanks to looters’ terrible understanding of true archaeological value.

Researchers from the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw were working on a study of the movement of peoples during the Migration Period, specifically looking for evidence that some Germanic settlements may have survived the upheaval and remained populated until the Slavic invasion. Part of the research involved looking through material given up by looters as trash of no interest to them. The team had to sift through buckets full of artifacts — sheet metal, coins, musket balls, lead shot — still caked with mud.

Among the buckets of assorted stuff, Dr. Bartosz Kontny discovered a piece of metal that looked a lot like a fitting from a Roman cavalry horse’s bridle. He set it aside, dampening his excitement by reminding himself that such artifacts aren’t found in Poland. Then he found another. And another. Soon he had a right pile of fittings, all of Roman origin. More Roman military artifacts followed, like 1st century latch buckles and bullae from the cingulum militare (a belt with hanging leather straps studded with rivets).

The bullae date to the late empire (4th century, early 5th century A.D.) and could be explained by barbarian recruits returning home with their gear after serving in the Roman army, but the much earlier cavalry fittings and buckles could not be explained so easily. Given the enormous significance of these objects, archaeologists arranged an official excavation of the area between the villages of Gąski and Wierzbiczany, where the looters reported having made most of the finds.

Among the unique monuments are metal pendants that decorated the straps of the Roman horse gear. They were in the shape of phalluses or vulvas (female womb). “These amulets were believed to ensure happiness and protect against evil forces, they had apotropaic meaning” – said Dr. Kontny.

As a truly unique object among the analysed artefacts, the archaeologist mentions a gold-plated copper [fitting] for a hip belt. It depicts a spear of a beneficiarius, a high-ranking officer of the Roman army. “It was an attribute of his power” – says the archaeologist.

Such a large accumulation of similar Roman objects in other places in the barbarian Europe – for example in central Germany (where, for example, the local population was recruited to the legions) is clearly associated with physical Roman presence.

The beneficiarius was an officer of rank and importance in the Roman army. He could command an advance unit or direct intelligence missions. If there was one in Poland, he wasn’t just passing through to enjoy the charms of the Vistula. Fittings like the one found in Kujawy have been found inside the boundaries of the empire with only two exceptions, and they were in Germania. Where a beneficiarius was dispatched, troops were dispatched with him. He was a commander, not a lone wolf.

Just to give you an idea of the distances involved, to the right is a map of the Roman Empire in 125 A.D. in the reign of Hadrian. The red dashed line is the imperial border. Kujawy is on the west bank of the crook of the Vistula in the territory of the Goths, Burgundians and maybe the Lugii (it’s not clear where exactly their lands were as they’re rarely referenced by Roman historians and geographers, and when they do get a mention they are described in different terms at different periods). The artifacts were unearthed about 20 miles southwest of where the bend straightens out, hundreds of miles from the imperial frontier.

According to historian Cassius Dio, Roman cavalry may have made in appearance in what is now Kujawy in the late 1st century, and it was the Lugii themselves who called said cavalry. Around 91 A.D., they made an alliance with Rome and asked the emperor Domitian to send troops to aid in their fight against the Suebi. Domitian agreed in a desultory fashion and sent a measly 100 horsemen. Dio does not mention them any further, so there’s no way to know if they arrived, fought, returned or anything else. The territory of the Lugii, as far it can be determined, seems to have extended further to the south of modern-day Kujawy, so even if the horsemen went to their aid as promised, they could well have been a long way away from the find site. If they did make it, they would be the first Roman soldiers recorded in what is today Poland.

One key clue that might explain the finds is that the area is located directly on the Amber Road which went from the Baltic south along the Vistula, following that crook before cutting due south overland to the Varta river, then continuing southbound over river and land routes until reaching the Roman Empire at Carnutum in Pannonia (modern-day eastern Austria). Romans loved them some amber, so it’s conceivable that there might have been some kind of military presence to secure the route. Pliny mentions Nero sending a trading expedition to the Baltic, but nothing about a military escort. Still, a highly valued trade route winding through the territories of many and varied tribes with little political stability and a tendency to engage in hostilities could certainly have used some securing. The Kujawy might be evidence that Rome sent legions to keep the amber coming.

None of the artifacts were found in the graves of local people, so it’s unlikely they were random bits of pillage or trade. The sheer quantity of the fittings strongly indicates the presence of the Roman military in the area and is the earliest archaeological evidence of Roman troops in what is now Poland.


Intact Bronze Age cremation found in Cornwall

Saturday, May 19th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered an intact 4,000-year-old cremation urn on a farm in Cornwall. Found less than 10 inches beneath the surface, the clay urn is unbroken and still contains ashes and what appear to be fragments of charred human bone.

The team, led by Australian National University (ANU) archaeologist Catherine Frieman, unearthed the earthenware vessel dating to the Bronze Age during a two-week dig in a field near the town of Looe. The farmers told them the site had been extensively cultivated when they were children and for generations before that, so nobody expected to find a great deal of intact archaeological material, much less an urn buried there 4,000 years ago that managed to duck untold decades of ploughing.

“We were so excited to find such a lot of archaeology on the site despite scores of generations of ploughing, but to find an intact clay urn buried 4,000 years ago just 25 centimetres beneath the surface is nothing short of a miracle,” said Dr Frieman.

This and other evidence from the site has led her to conclude there was most likely a large mound over the burial which existed from prehistory well into the middle ages protecting the centre of the barrow.

“This is a sealed, intact cremation so it has the potential to tell us a lot about the cremation rite as it was practiced 4,000 years ago. We also appear to have some identifiable fragments of bone among the cremated remains so we’ll potentially be able to tell a lot about the individual themselves,” she said.

“We’ll be able to say what gender they were, possibly their age, or an age range, and depending on the bone preservation we can conduct analyses to examine where they were from, what their diet was like, where this food was coming from and what they ate and drank as a child when their teeth were forming. This is a very beautiful, very complete burial, and we’re very excited,” she said.

Other Bronze Age objects have been found in the dig: some pottery, small flint tools and two hammer stones that were used to chip flint flakes off larger pieces to shape and edge tools and weapons. A number of Bronze Age shipwrecks have been found off the coast of southeast Cornwall, so it seems this area was a well-trafficked trade route going back to prehistory.

The analysis of soil, pollen, flint and other samples is underway but it will probably be a year before a comprehensive story of the find is possible.


Row of houses with balconies found in Pompeii

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating have discovered a row of houses with intact second story balconies. So far four adjacent balconies have been unearthed, plus the remains of railings, tile roofs and even empty amphorae that had been tilted on their sides to dry out in the sun.

Second floors of buildings are very seldom found in Pompeii because of the way the eruption of Vesuvius struck the city, burying it from above first with a six-hour fall of pumice and ash. The weight of the volcanic material caused roofs and storeys to collapse and suffocated people as they sought shelter. The superheated pyroclastic surges that followed reduced people and buildings to ashes. Herculaneum, on the other hand, was destroyed by volcanic pyroclasts that flooded the city from bottom to top and then way over the top. They hardened into 20 meters of dense rock, preserving structures and carbonized organic material for 2,000 years.

The balconies were found in a previously unexcavated section of Regio V of the ancient city known as “the wedge” because of its triangular shape. The excavation in this area has been highly productive, rich with frescoed walls in vivid colors and designs — ochre and pompeiian red, geometrics, animals, florals, winged cupids — but the discovery of a whole alley of balconies preserved in great detail is unique for Pompeii.

The excavation is ongoing and in the upcoming months more may be found. Meanwhile, the dig team, which is composed of more than 40 experts from architects to archaeologists to archaeobotanists, is exploring the site more thoroughly than ever with the aid of technology like drones, nanocameras and laser scanners. In the course of their work, they’ve uncovered the very beginnings of Pompeiian archaeology, the excavations of the mid-1700s, which were accomplished by digging one very deep hole and then digging long tunnels radiating out from the central pit. This was not archaeology as the professional discipline dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and preservation of material culture. It was treasure-hunting, pure and simple, and the archaeological team walking in their footsteps today has found evidence of this in the things they dropped or deliberately left behind because they considered them of little value, including fresco fragments and a large, handsome bronze vessel missing one of its handles.

The newly discovered homes and their balconies will be stabilized and added to a new route that will take visitors from the Via di Nola to the Alley of the Silver Wedding, the latter of which takes it name from a luxury villa found on the street. The House of the Silver Wedding is sumptuously appointed, featuring a grand atrium with Corinthian columns 23 feet high, elaborate frescoes in the dining room, mosaics depicting a Roman aqueduct in the private baths, and even rich Pompeiian red frescoes on a cream background covering the entire wall of a small latrine off the kitchen. The villa has been closed for decades but is in the process of being restored and will be reopened to the public as part of the new route. You can get a glimpse of its many wonders in this video tour.


First new Rembrandt since 1974 identified

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

A previously unknown painting by Rembrandt van Rijn has been identified, the first “new” work by the Dutch Golden Age master to appear since 1974. The hidden gem was spotted by Jan Six, an Amsterdam art dealer, art historian and specialist in Dutch old masters, at a Christie’s auction in 2016. Christie’s attributed the portrait “of a gentleman, half-length, in a black velvet cloak and white lace collar and cuffs” to the circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, dating it very generally to his lifetime. The painting itself is neither signed nor dated. The provenance couldn’t shed much light on the painting’s origin as the ownership record starts in England a century later at the earliest.

Six knew from the moment he laid eyes on the work in the Christie’s showroom that it was by Rembrandt, not someone in his circle. The direct gaze of the sitter making eye contact with the viewer was a rare approach in 17th portraiture, but they’re typical of Rembrandt’s portraits, including self-portraits. Then there was the matter of the collar. Six recognized it as a style that was in fashion for a brief period in 1633. Rembrandt had moved to Amsterdam from Leiden in late 1631 to begin his career as a portraitist. He quickly made a name for himself as a gifted portrait painter, but in 1633 there was no circle of Rembrandt yet.

Jan Six and an unnamed investor bought the painting at the Old Masters Day Sale in London on December 9th, 2016, for 137,000 pounds ($185,000), a sum nine times higher than the pre-sale estimate but chump change compared to its market value as a portrait painted by Rembrandt. Confirming attribution of an unsigned painting that is unknown in the literature is no easy task, however.

[Six] spent 18 months using X-ray techniques and analysis of paint samples to prove he had in fact bought a real Rembrandt.

The 39-year-old art dealer eventually won the backing of more than a dozen Rembrandt experts, including [Ernst van de Wetering,] the former leader of the Rembrandt Research Project, who spent a year verifying its authenticity.

“Seeing all these experts agreeing to what you’ve found is truly special. With the support of this vast body of knowledge, anybody contesting the painting would clearly represent a minority,” Six said.

The painting has been cut out of a larger piece. Researchers believe the dapper gentleman was part of a double portrait, likely with his wife as the other subject. That means there could be an unknown lady painted by Rembrandt out there for someone to find.

The cleaned and conserved portrait went on display at the Hermitage Amsterdam on Wednesday, May 16th, and will remain there until Friday, June 15th. Jan Six plans to seek a buyer for it. Here’s hoping it’s a museum.


Tortoises all the way down in Plovdiv Roman tomb

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

When a Roman tomb was discovered in a courtyard behind the Rector’s office at the Medical University of Plovdiv in Bulgaria at the end of March, one of the more curious items found within was the shell of a tortoise next to the head of one of the individuals buried in the grave. Now the shell of a second tortoise has been found in the tomb, a unique discovery in Bulgarian archaeology.

“[The second tortoise in the Roman tomb] is smaller [than the first one], and [its remains] are not so well preserved,” [Plovdiv University archaeologist Zdravka] Kortukova has told local news and culture site Plovdiv Time, emphasizing that the tortoise tomb find is the first such archaeological discovery in Bulgaria.

“In the perceptions of our ancient predecessors, the tortoise is connected with god Hermes in his chthonic (underworld) aspect,” says in turn [Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology archaeologist Maya] Martinova.

“Some researchers think that the depictions of Hermes with a tortoise in his hand is connected with the belief that the dead tortoise, not unlike the deceased [human]’s soul, moved to the afterlife,” she elaborates.

“That is, the tortoise is directly connected with Hermes Psychopompos and the immortality of the soul,” stresses the archaeologist.

She has referred to one of ancient deity Hermes’ functions in (Ancient Greek but also Thracian and Roman) mythology, namely, that of a psychopomp, a conveyor or conductor of souls who escorts newly deceased souls from the Earth to the afterlife.

The discovery of coins inside the grave narrow the burial date down to the 3rd century. The coins were mined in Philipopolis (the ancient name for Plovdiv) and Traianopolis (modern-day Alexandroupoli Municipality in Northeast Greece) and date to the reigns of the Emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217 A.D.) and Elagabalus (r. 218-222 A.D.).

As the Medical University is located over one of four burial grounds known to have dotted the outer perimeter of the ancient city, the discovery of a Roman tomb from this period was not surprising, but its excellent condition is.

“The grave which we have unearthed this year is of the most widespread type of burial facility – a grave of brick masonry with a flat lid, in this case made of flat gneiss slabs. It is oriented north – south, with a little deviation to the northeast. On the bottom [of the tomb], there was a “pillow” made of tilted bricks,” Martinova reveals.

“Our first impression was that the grave had not been opened but after we expanded the research spot, and unearthed the entire facility, it turned out that the lid had been compromised in the southern section, so someone had been here before us. This probably happened back in the Antiquity,” she adds.

The bones of two adults and one child about 10-11 years of age were found in the grave. Archaeologists believe they were a family, but that cannot be conclusively confirmed short of successful extraction and analysis of DNA.


Two pages of Anne Frank’s diary uncovered

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Researchers have uncovered two previously unpublished pages of Anne Frank’s diary. It was Anne Frank herself who covered them with brown gummed paper, blacking out what she had written on those pages on September 28th, 1942, two and a half months after she went into hiding with her family in the secret annex.

The content was revealed using digital technology. In 2016, every page of the diary was photographed as part of a condition check for conservation purposes. The page, front and back, covered with brown paper was held up vertically and backlit with a flash. The high resolution photograph was then analyzed with image-processing software which was able to distinguish the writing underneath the paper from the writing on the reverse sides.

On those two pages, Anne had crossed out five phrases, written four “dirty” jokes and her musings on sex education and prostitution, 33 lines worth. The top of the first page Anne stated her intent: “I’ll use this spoiled page to write down ‘dirty’ jokes.” It’s not clear why she thought it was spoiled.

In the afternoon of Monday 28 September 1942 workmen were busy removing the office toilet, immediately below the secret annexe, so any sound from the hiding place was dangerous and had to be avoided at all costs. Anne was writing. In her diary Anne pretended that she was corresponding with a number of imaginary friends, and that day she wrote a total of four “diary letters”: to her whole circle of imaginary friends, to Kitty, to Pien and to Loutje.

On that day she also leafed through her entire diary and added comments to no less than 18 earlier “diary letters”. She wrote additions to photo captions, to a letter from her father and to a letter from her friend Jacqueline van Maarsen that she had earlier stuck into her diary. What is more, Anne also wrote of how afraid she was that the people in hiding would be discovered, and how much support her diary gave her. She made a list of twelve signs of beauty and assessed the extent to which she lived up to them. It all goes to show that on that day Anne was closely scrutinising herself, her own sexuality and the world around her.

In the 33 lines about sex, Anne, who was 13 at the time, noted that a girl gets her period when she is around 14 years old and that is “a sign that she is ripe to have relations with a man but one doesn’t do that of course before one is married.” Her remarks on prostitution are also direct with a personal angle: “All men, if they are normal, go with women, women like that accost them on the street and then they go together. In Paris they have big houses for that. Papa has been there.”

Anne reread her diaries often during her years in hiding and continued to make changes to her old entries as she saw fit. She crossed out parts of it, added new text, rearranged the wording. These are the only two pages she covered completely. What drove this choice is unknown. There are other dirty jokes and frank reflections on sex, puberty and body image in Anne’s diaries, and she never covered them up. She did evince concern that her father might take her diary away as he’d threatened to do, and apparently Mrs. Van Pels creeped her out when she said she wanted to read them.

The covered pages do not alter our image of Anne. She regularly recorded “dirty” jokes or dealt with sexuality in her diary. Over the decades Anne has grown to become the worldwide symbol of the Holocaust, and Anne the girl has increasingly faded into the background. These – literally – uncovered texts bring the inquisitive and in many respects precocious teenager back into the foreground.


Gold “cabbage” leaves stolen from Vienna landmark

Monday, May 14th, 2018

The gold dome of the Vienna Secession building, the Art Nouveau landmark that is one of Vienna’s most unique architectural masterpieces and a popular tourist draw, has been robbed of several of its laurel leaves. The theft took place some time between 6PM Monday, April 23rd, and 6:30AM Tuesday, April 24th. Authorities believe they likely scaled the scaffolding to reach the dome and then broke off six to eight leaves. The leaves were pulled off roughly, causing an estimated 10,000 euros worth of damage to the head of cabbage. The damage bill exceeds the value of the stolen leaves themselves is only about 1,000 euros each.

Affectionately known as the “Krauthappel” (cabbage head) because of its spherical shape, the dome is undergoing restoration as part of an ongoing renovation of the building. It’s been 30 years since any conservation was done, and it was in acute need of repair to its wrought iron structure. The leaves needed to be removed, cleaned, regilded and reattached. The Secession launched a “Gild the Dome” fundraising drive where people could adopt one or more of the 2,500 leaves to pay for its gilding.

Starting in December 2017, the wrought iron dome structure, 28 feet diameter, was dismantled and the leaves removed for individual treatment. Each of the 2,500 leaves and 311 berries were cleaned, resurfaced and regilded, then manually welded back onto the dome structure on the roof. They’re almost done now. The dome restoration should be complete by the end of the month, theft notwithstanding.

The Secession building was the brain-child of a group of artists, Gustav Klimt most prominent among them, who chafed under the neoclassical strictures of the Viennese artistic establishment at the Academy of Fine Art. They wanted a new exhibition space to showcase diverse modern arts, from literature to crafts to oil paintings, in a setting that was itself a reflection of contemporary architectural styles. In 1897, they formed the Secession, a reference to their abandonment of the Academy to found their own association, and commissioned architect Joseph Maria Olbrich to build an exhibition hall in cutting edge Art Nouveau style.

The building’s modern materials, stark geometry, whimsical decorative elements like owls and lizards on the exterior walls and distinct lack of Greek columns did not endear it to the staid architectural community. It was roundly criticized, and the gilded laurel leaf cupola was derided as a cabbage head.

Because the plans scandalized the conservative city council, the Secession only had a 10-year permit, so they didn’t expect the building to keep standing past a decade. Yet here we are, and the Vienna Secession Hall remains in business today as the oldest artist-led institution dedicated to the display of contemporary art. The snide “cabbage head” insult has evolved into a term of warm appreciation.


4th c. BC Greek bronze reliefs found in Slovakia

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered pieces of an ancient Greek bronze breastplate at a Celtic sacrificial site in Slovakia. Found near the village of Slatina nad Bebravou in western Slovakia’s Trenčín Region, the fragments of finely crafted relief were originally part of the shoulder boulders of an elite warrior’s breastplate.

Professor Regine Thomas from Cologne University analysed the parts of the found breastplate.

She worked out a special analysis by digitizing small pieces of the shoulder boards. Through this method she succeeded in reconstructing the Hellenic scene decoration.

“It was a so-called Amazonomachy, a portrayal of the mythical battle between the Ancient Greeks and the Amazons, a nation of all-female warriors,” explained [deputy director of the Slovak Archaeological Institute in Nitra, Karol] Pieta, as cited by SITA.

They are the oldest Greek artifacts ever discovered in the area, and they were already old when they first arrived there. The breastplate was manufactured in the Spartan Greek colony of Taras (modern-day Taranto, in Puglia, the inner heel of Italy’s boot) in the 4th century B.C., the time when the city reached the apex of its cultural, political, economic and military influence. It was the most powerful city in Magna Grecia and was famed for the beauty and detail of its silver coins and pottery.

While Tarentum’s commercial and trade reach was extensive in the 4th century B.C., it did not likely reach Slovakia. The military nature of the object suggests it was taken as a war prize, something the Celts who inhabited the find site would have had ample opportunity to do a hundred years later.

“There is a justified hypothesis that Celtic warriors, who at that time were moving to the area of middle Danubeland, brought those bronze reliefs here. Theoretically, it is possible that the discovery was stolen from the Delphi oracle, which Celts plundered in the first half of the third century BC,” said Pieta for SITA.

The bronze reliefs were unearthed at a spot used by ancient Celts for ritual purposes. It is less than a mile from a Celtic fortified settlement on Udriana Hill. There is ample evidence of sacrifices having taken place at the site in the late 3rd century B.C., particularly burnt offerings of animals, objects and valuables. Most of the artifacts found there were burned in antiquity.

Archaeologists also unearthed a sacrificial hole, a pit where the blood of sacrificed animals, possibly including human ones, trickled down. Burned animal bones have been found there, as well as burned human bones. Jewelry, horse fittings and metallic clothing decorations were also found in the pit.

The most numerous objects were fragments of ceramics. Archaeologists believe these are the remnants of ritually smashed beverage vessels. The beverage was used at the feast celebrating a sacrifice, and as soon as the fluid was drunk, the containers were thrown on the fire, smashing it into pieces.


Rare early 1800s sleigh restored

Saturday, May 12th, 2018

A rare early 19th century horse-drawn sleigh is being restored to its former splendor in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The Portland Cutter sleigh, built in the early 1800s, has spent untold years in obscurity in a broken-down shed at Meadow Spring Farm. It was rediscovered by John Nye Cullity, executive director of the Nye Family Association, when the farm was set to go on sale in 1997. It was derelict, only the bottom of it intact, the rest in pieces. Cullity rescued it and kept it safe, but he didn’t have the first idea how to to go about putting it back together.

Former boatbuilder and current historical archaeologist David Wheelock found out about the sleigh while doing some repairs to a grist mill next to the Benjamin Nye Homestead and Museum which is managed by the Nye Family Association. He offered to restore the sleigh.

When the sleigh was collected from the crumbling farm site, its pieces were so covered in animal feces and cobwebs that they looked black, and there was some debate as to whether the sleigh was salvageable.

Undeterred, Mr. Wheelock spread everything he could find of the sleigh, including one of the four wooden wedges used to hold the convertible top on, upon the lawn and spent a day with a scrub brush and pail of soapy water, cleaning each piece.

When the scrubbing was finished, he could see the sleigh’s original colors of red, blue, blue/green, and black.

Mr. Wheelock then reassembled the sleigh. He noticed a black, oily substance under the driver’s bench and realized it was tallow stains from years of the drivers’ boots rubbing against the wood. Tallow was once used as waterproofing grease.

These historic tallow stains will be left untouched when he repaints the rest of the sleigh, he said.

A Portland Cutter was a light sleigh with a square body shape, flat body panels and a dash designed to protect riders from the wind and snow kicked up by the horse. That dash started out flat but later evolved a curved shape The original designer is believed to be Peter Kimball, a carriage maker in Portland, Maine, but their speed and maneuverability made them the most popular form in the country and many manufacturers, particularly in New England, Michigan and Wisconsin, sold models of Portland Cutters all over the country.

Drawn by one horse, the cutter was the most convenient conveyance in snowy climes before the automobile blew all horse-drawn vehicles off the road. Carriages could not negotiate snow-covered roads anywhere near as well. People would take the trotters that drew their carriages when the ground was passable and hitch them up to the sleigh the same way we switch out our regular tires with snow tires today.

A certain song you may have heard once or twice (ie, ad nauseum), written by James Pierport and published in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” now known as “Jingle Bells,” was inspired by the Portland Cutter. The bells were necessary, in some places even legally required, because the horses’ hooves were muffled by snow and the sleighs’ runners so quiet that they often caused traffic accidents. The bells on the horse’s harness were an alert system. The sleighs were open, with no roof or enclosure to protect the riders from the cold of winter (hence the song). People kept warm under blankets, or by putting a metal box of hot coals on the floor of the sleigh and using it as a toasty footrest.

The cutters were so fast (“dashing through the snow” wasn’t a euphemism) that sleigh racing became a fashionable winter sport and going to watch the sleigh races a popular pastime. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about attending the sleigh races in his diary.

So they were road hard and put away wet (for once that idiom can be used literally), and early models are very hard to find in any condition at all. That’s why an early 19th century model is a major discovery, and why it’s worth all the hard work necessary to put one back together.

Wheelock believes that 80% of the original parts can be used in the restoration, wood panels, the original wooden pegs, hand-cut nuts and bolts, the wrought iron braces, all but the bottom of the iron runners. The runners will be photographed and documented so that their precise curve can be recreated after they’re removed from the sleigh because as soon as they’re no longer bearing weight, the curves will release.

By a great stroke of history nerd luck, Mr. Cullity is in possession of a photograph shot around 1900 of his great-great-grandfather Robert Armstrong riding in that sleigh, blanket on his lap, in the snow-covered wilds of Route 6A in Sandwich. That means the sleigh put in at least a century of service. The picture is also invaluable to Wheelock’s restoration since it shows the sleigh intact and in use.

The Nye family will be involved in the restoration in another way too. White oak boards that were cut into planks by Cullity’s grandfather 100 years ago will be used to make new runners and braces for the sleigh.

The restoration should be complete by mid-June, in time for it to go on display at the Nye Homestead when it reopens for the season.






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