Archive for October, 2018

“Oldest drinkable” champagne not drinkable

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

In 2010, a shipwreck laden with intact bottles of centuries-old champagne and beer was discovered in the waters off Aaland, an autonomous island province in the southwest of Finland’s archipelago. The exact date the twin-masted schooner sank to a watery grave could not be determined, but the type of ship indicated it was made in the first quarter of the 19th century, closer to 1830 than 1800.

The cold, dark Baltic had preserved the beverages well — one of the beer bottles leaked its contents and it was still foaming — and there was much excitement in Aaland at the possibility that the oldest drinkable champagne had been found off their coast, so much excitement that the drinking started before the oldest title was conclusively established. Two bottles of shipwreck champagne were opened and served to the press a few months after they were recovered. There was no fizz left and it was crazy sweet (a bottle of champers in the late 18th century had 100 grams of sugar vs. nine grams today), but it was technically drinkable.

As the dating of the ship inched closer to the previous record-holder (a bottle of 1825 Perrier-Jouet), the odds of this being the oldest champagne had to be shaved down from gung ho to razor thin. It was still old and rescued from a shipwreck, though, and Aaland was planning on auctioning off most of the bottles, blending some with modern vintages to make it less gross to the modern palate.

Well, those plans will have to be revised because French vinter Veuve-Clicquot, the revered label that bottled three or four of the 168 bottles recovered from the wreck, has analyzed the champagne and judged it undrinkable.

Åland’s culture minister Tony Asumaa visited France last week, to hear about the champagne firm’s analysis. A sample bottle of the shipwreck bubbly was sent to Veuve Clicot last year.

At the time, the champagne treasure discovery made headlines around the world. It also caused local controversy when Finland’s deputy chancellor of justice reprimanded the Åland regional government for recovering the shipwreck cargo before receiving permission from the National Board of Antiquities. In 2011 and 2012 Åland’s government had sold off some of the bottles for record prices at auction and pocketed the considerable proceeds.

“Sure, it was champagne, but not of the quality that we wanted, so it is not worth it. From now own we will classify [the bottles of champagne] as museum pieces, not something to consume,” Asumaa told Aland Radio.

Maybe something that should have been established before the toasting began eight years ago, but okey dokey.


Twice-stolen Persian bas-relief returns to Iran

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

An ancient Persian bas-relief that has been stolen twice in two places across the world from each other has returned to Iran. It is a carved slab of limestone eight inches square depicting a curly-bearded “Immortal” (imperial guard) from the Achaemenid dynasty. He was one of a long line of soldier reliefs arrayed in precise formation on a balustrade besides the steps of Persepolis’ main building. They were carved between 510 and 330 B.C.

The bas-relief was discovered in Persepolis in a 1933 excavation of the site by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Contemporary photographs show the relief in situ, part of a line of imperial soldiers. Photographs show it still in place and untouched at least up to 1936. After that it vanished, reappearing 15 years later in the hands of French antiquities dealer and expert in Mediterranean sculpture Paul Mallon. Mallon sold it to Canadian department store heir and collector Frederick Cleveland Morgan for a comparative pittance ($1,000). Morgan donated the relief to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the 1950s. It was on display there for six decades.

It was stolen again in September 2011 when a man wearing jeans, a dark jacket and a baseball cap casually walked into the museum in broad daylight and walked out with the Persian relief and a 1st century Roman marble head of a man. The brazen crime was never solved, but the bas relief was found in January of 2014 in the Edmonton home of a collector who claimed he thought it was a replica when he bought it from “a friend of a friend” for $1400 Canadian.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts decided to keep the $950,000 insurance payout it received after the theft and let its insurer, AXA, keep the title to the relief. AXA sold it to British antiquities dealer Rupert Wace. In October 2017, Wace offered the piece for sale for $1.2 million at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). There it was, exposed to some of New York City’s deepest pockets, when the cops and city prosecutors waltzed in and seized it. The vociferous protests of the dealers — apparently the language got a tad bluer than the TEFAF crowd is accustomed to — fell on deaf ears.

Wace and his partner were shocked because the relief had been published and displayed extensively for 80 years, long before the 1970 UNESCO convention cutoff on the illegal export of cultural artifacts, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office was acting on evidence that the relief had been stolen after Persian passed the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in 1930 prohibiting the export of such artifacts.

The Manhattan DA created a full timeline of tracing the location and ownership history of the relief. Their contention was that nobody could own stolen property “in good faith” because there is no valid title to transfer in a sale and because the buyer should do his due diligence in ascertaining the reality of an object’s provenance instead of relying on conjecture. In this case, dealers said they just assumed the bas-relief had been looted from Persepolis in the 19th century. They had no evidence to support that hypothesis nor did they make any effort to determine its veracity.

In July of this year, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered that the relief be repatriated to Iran. After some negotiations, the London dealers agreed to fork it over. As of this week, the relief is back on Persian soil.

“It now belongs to the people who made it in the first place, and who are now going to preserve it, and is part of their identity,” Firouzeh Sepidnameh, director of the ancient history section of the National Museum told AFP on Tuesday.

The limestone relief was handed over to Iran’s representative at the United Nations last month and was personally brought back to Iran by President Hassan Rouhani, returning from the UN General Assembly.


Titian’s Crucifixion torn in a fall

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

A painting of the Crucifixion by Old Master Titian was seriously damaged in a fall at the 16th century royal complex of El Escorial near Madrid in central Spain. The 8 x 4.5-foot oil-on-canvas Christ Crucified was discovered by security personnel around 10:00 AM on Wednesday, October 3rd, in the sacristy of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It had become detached from the wall and struck the 16th/17th century furniture underneath it before bouncing onto the marble floor. The accident caused a considerable horizontal 7-shaped tear in the canvas across the lower portion of the painting.

Experts from Spain’s National Patrimony, the public institution responsible for the management of property of the State that was formerly property of the Crown, were immediately dispatched to examine the masterpiece, assess its condition, come up with a repair plan and determine if possible the cause of the fall. They found that detachment was likely caused by the degradation of the plaster layer on the wall to which the painting had been anchored. Over the years the plaster that held the nails of the mount had gradually crumbled without anybody realizing what was happening. The tipping point came the night of October 2/3 and down came the painting.

Officials are quick to reassure that the figure of Christ himself was not torn. The entire pictorial layer appears to have been spare from any paint loss. The work has been protectively wrapped and packaged for transport to the central National Patrimony workshop in Madrid. There it will be analyzed thoroughly, treated and repaired to ensure its stability. When the restoration is done, the painting will be returned to the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo, presumably, one hopes, in a new location.

Crucified Christ entered the Escorial collection in 1574, added by King Philip II who was an unabashed Titian fan and commissioned almost all of Titian’s outlay in the last 25 years of his life (from 1550 until his death in 1576). It’s not known exactly when Titian painted it. Stylistically it dates to the beginning of his late period characterized by experimentation with daring chiaroscuro night scenes and flesh tones, probably around 1555. It was already on its way to Philip II in 1556.


Public conservation of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy begins

Monday, October 8th, 2018

The carefully planned conservation of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy has begun at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. On Sept. 22, 2018, a temporary conservation studio opened under the spot in the grand portrait gallery where the iconic painting usually hangs.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. “Earlier conservation treatments mainly have involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep it on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator working on the painting and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to paint loss and permanent damage; and the adhesion between the painting and its lining is separating, meaning it does not have adequate support for long-term display.

During three months of preliminary analysis—which was carried out by conservators in 2017, with results reviewed by curators—the painting was examined and documented using a range of imaging techniques that allow O’Connell and Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition, to see beyond the surface with wavelengths the human eye can’t see. Infrared reflectography rendered some paints transparent, making it possible to see preparatory lines or changes the artist made. Ultraviolet illumination made it possible to examine and document the previous layers of varnish and old overpaints. New images of the back of the painting were taken to document what appears to be an original stretcher (the wooden support to which the canvas is fastened) as well as old labels and inscriptions that tell more of the painting’s story. And, minute samples from the 2017 technical study and from previous analysis by experts were studied at high magnification (200-400x) with techniques including scanning electron microscopy with which conservators could scrutinize specific layers and pigments within the paint. Armed with information gathered from the 2017 analysis, the co-curators mapped out a course of action for treating the painting and developed a series of questions for which they are eager to find answers. Funding for the restoration and conservation work was made possible through a grant from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Program.

Visitors to The Huntington will see Blue Boy in various stages of treatment. The painting will be laid out on the table when conservators stabilize areas of flaking paint. They will use a surgical microscope to view the paint in high magnification. The microscope will be connected to a display screen so visitors can see the surface of the painting in microscopic detail along with the conservators. It was also be placed on an easel when the many layers of discolored varnishes, which alter not just the original colors but also the spatial relationships of the composition, are removed.

During the imaging research done in preparation for this year-long treatment project, Blue Boy X-rays and infrared reflectography. They revealed the head of a gentleman (at the Boy’s right elbow) and a fluffy white dog (at the boy’s right side) Gainsborough painted over and an 11-inch-long L-shaped tear in the canvas (at the boy’s left shin). The figures had been seen in earlier radiographs. (The portrait wasn’t a commission so Gainsborough simply took a used canvas he had lying around, cut it down, restretched it and painted the young man who would make his reputation.) The tear, however, was a new discovery.

Conservators hope that once they get under the layers of overpaint and varnish to Gainsborough’s original brushstrokes, they’ll find out more about his approach, about when the portrait was painted, when the tear appeared in the canvas, and maybe, just maybe, establish definitely the identity of the sitter.


The woman in the iron coffin

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

In 2011, construction work on Corona Avenue in Queens accidentally (and roughly) unearthed the remains of a woman. The backhoe had wrenched open the coffin, dragged the body out and covered it with piles of soil, but still the remains were so well-preserved that at first it was investigated as a potential crime victim. Scott Warnasch, forensic archaeologist with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, identified it as a historical burial from fragments of iron he recovered at the site, pieces of the damaged coffin of a type that was made in the mid-18th century.

A visual examination of the mummified remains determined that they belonged to an adult African-American woman. She was clad in a loose-fitting garment recognizable as a 19th century nightdress, knee-high socks and a knit cap. Her skin was largely intact and in so free of decomposition that smallpox lesions could clearly be seen on her head, chest, legs, even feet. Experts from the CDC were called in to ensure there were no infectious pathogens still active in the remains.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans allowed the scientists to examine the body noninvasively and create a biological profile of the woman: They determined she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall (1.6 meters), African-American and about 25 to 30 years old, Warnasch explained.

The site where she was discovered was formerly an African-American church and cemetery; the church was founded in 1828 by the region’s first generation of free black people, but there are newspaper accounts of an African-American cemetery on that land dating to a decade earlier, according to Warnasch.

An expensive iron coffin was an unexpected final resting vessel for a young African-American woman from Newtown (modern-day Elmhurst), Queens, which was then a small farming town. First patented by Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848, the cast iron coffins quickly became very desirable items for the wealthy. Fisk had been inspired to invent them when his brother William died in Mississippi in 1840 and could not be transported to New York for burial in the family plot because the journey was so long. His father Solomon was devastated by this, and in response to Solomon’s heavy grief, Fisk conceived the idea for an air-tight coffin that would preserve a body for transport even over great distances. The market for such a product was wider than that. Anybody who could afford to keep a loved one out of the hands of the dreaded resurrection men would buy a Fisk coffin too. When former First Lady (the first First Lady as we think of the role today) Dolley Madison was buried in a Fisk coffin in 1849, they became immensely popular among the political and societal elite.

In 1850, a pine coffin cost $2 in 1850. A Fisk metal coffin cost $100. This was an unaffordable price for people of modest means such as the African-American community of Newtown, all of them either the children of slaves or freed slaves. (Slavery was only fully outlawed in 1828 in the state of New York.) The woman had been lovingly prepared for burial, cleaned, dressed in a lace nightdress, a handsome comb and bonnet placed in her hair, but none of her funerary accessories indicated the kind of wealth needed to make an iron coffin even remotely possible.

Warnasch used the date the coffin was manufactured (1848-1854) and the first federal census to include free people of color by name (1850) to seek out the woman in the iron coffin’s identity. He was able to narrow it down to one very strong possibility: Martha Peterson, daughter of John and Jane Peterson, who died at the age of 26.

John Peterson was the president of the United African Society, the organization which purchased the land for the cemetery. He was a prominent member of the community and had a direct link to the founding of the burial ground. That would help explain the high level of care given the body despite her death from a highly infectious air-borne disease as well as the expensive coffin.

The smallpox alone would have been sufficient reason to pay the price for a Fisk coffin because infected cadavers could still transmit the deadly disease. Burying her in an air-tight coffin would protect the close-knit community from a potential epidemic.

Forensic specialists initially thought that Peterson might have been buried in the iron coffin because her loved ones feared the spread of disease. However, further analysis led the investigators toward a different explanation, Warnasch said, adding, “but I don’t want to give too much away.”

He doesn’t want to spoil the episode of the PBS show Secrets of the Dead which covers the discovery of the body and subsequent research. I have no such scruples because revealing 150-year-old spoilers is pretty much the entire point of this blog. I’ve watched the program and I’m sure it will be just as fascinating to watch even if you know ahead of time what they’ve discovered, but in case some of you are highly sensitive to revelation of denouements in history documentaries, I’ll put the key discovery on page two.

Or you could just go right to the documentary. In addition to the interesting find Warnasch refers to, there is an amazing section about the results of the MRI and how the smallpox lesions were founds inside her brain. The full episode is available for viewing on the PBS website. Watch it now before they take it down.


Intact grave found in looted Mycenaean cemetery

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the widely plundered Mycenaean-era cemetery in Aidonia, outside of Nemea in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece have discovered a fully intact, undisturbed tomb from the Early Mycenean period (1650-1400 B.C.). The ellipsoid chamber tomb is one of the largest ever found in Aidonia, measuring more than 20 feet at its widest points.

The cemetery was first discovered by looters in 1976 who plundered it with such ferocity that gun fights broke out between rival looting gangs. Local authorities were bribed and priceless archaeological treasures were secretly smuggled out of Greece, including stuffed in watermelons. When Greece put guards on the site and official excavations began in 1978, the looting petered off (although there is evidence that new tombs were plundered in the early 2000s).

During those first excavations, 20 chamber tombs were found, 18 of them stripped bare by looters. The tombs were carved out of living rock and were consistent in design. They had three sections: the road leading to the tomb, the opening or entranceway and the burial chamber. Inside the burial chamber were multiple pits dug into the floor and covered with large stone slabs. These are where bodies were interred with their grave goods, often a rich assemblage of pottery, precious metals and jewelry.

The newly-discovered tomb has four large pits carved into the floor, each covered with megalithic slabs. The earliest of the burials included clay tableware and storage vessels. They were decorated with stylized representations of plant and marine life, motifs typical of the “Palace Style” believed to be descended from Cretan art at Knossos. Archaeologists also discovered copper knives and swords, copper, obsidian and pyrite arrowheads, jewelry, an amethyst and gold bead necklaces, pins and seal stones.

The tomb continued to be used into the late Mycenaean period (ca. 1400-1200 B.C.) when the deceased were interred on the floor of the tomb rather than in carved pits. These were more simple burials with little in the way of grave goods. The collapse of the stone roof of the tomb ended its reuse for new burials and obscured its location thereby protecting it from interference, not just from modern-day looters, but from successive occupiers of the site from the Classical period through the Roman Empire through the Late Byzantine. They all used the cemetery (not knowing that’s what it was) and built over the tomb. The subsequent deposits helped keep it safe, its contents intact for archaeologists to discover.


Enchanted garden of frescoes unearthed at Pompeii

Friday, October 5th, 2018

The excavation of Pompeii’s Regio V section has unearthed a house with an exquisite series of frescoes and a large shrine, one of the largest ever found in Pompeii. It is being called “the house of the enchanted garden” because of the rich wall paintings which retain their vibrant colors and have suffered surprisingly little damage from being buried in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.

The only part of the house that has been excavated so far is the entrance, an open garden space where the lararium, a shrine to the guardian spirits of the household (the lares), was located in the center of riot of frescoed beauty. On each side of the shrine are green plants with small birds hovering over them and alighting on the branches. Under the lararium is a pair of large, sinuous snakes, wound around leafy plants, facing each other with their heads raised. Between them is an altar with a pinecone, a symbol of eternal life. Underneath the snakes is a garden scene with peacocks and yellow flowers (daffodils?).

To the right of the lararium wall is a fresco painted against a full-coverage brilliant red background. In a remarkable dynamic scene, a black wild boar is attacked by a variety of gold and white animals — dogs and what appear to be dear and a horse. Next to it, across from the lararium, is another Pompeiian red wall painted with floral motifs. Another peacock stands proudly against a yellow ochre background.

Snakes are often depicted in lararia because they were considered protectors of the home. The well-known lararium in the House of the Vetti depicts the lares, the genius (the spirit of the paterfamilias) and serpent winding under the three of them. Like the House of the Vetti’s lararium, the newly-discovered one is built to resemble a small temple affixed to the wall. The Vetti shrine’s temple framework is stucco carved with Corinthian columns and a pediment with a highly decorative frieze, but no paint is extant.

The temple surround of the enchanted garden’s lararium, on the other hand, is painted in deep red hues with vertical stripes, swirls, floral garlands and triangles on the columns and pediment. On each side of the central niche are lares, also painted red. The niche’s background, if it had one, is lost. At the foot of the shrine is a terracotta vessel that still contains the burned remains of an offerings, perhaps even the final desperate attempt of the homeowners to petition for rescue from Vesuvius’ wrath during the pumice fall that preceded the final destruction of the pyroclastic flows.

That very moment is captured poignantly by a less overtly glamorous part of the house: a window, its iron grate still intact. Behind the grate are pumice rocks. They fill every nook and cranny of the space, mute witnesses to that first stage of the eruption in which the rain of stone poured in through windows and doorways until the interiors were crammed with stones. This beautiful garden was no exception. When the room up to the top of the window was filled with lapilli, the stones filled the space above the window ledge.

Archaeologists will continue to excavate this splendid domus which has at least two more rooms to explore. They will also dig into a small well found at the base of the lararium wall. It’s filled with stones from the eruption now, but wells can be archaeological treasure chests because people toss all kinds of things in them and the water helps preserve them.


8-year-old girl finds Iron Age sword in a Swedish lake

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Saga Vanecek was skipping rocks at her family’s summer home on the shores of Vidöstern lake in Tånnö, southern Sweden, when she spotted something metallic in the shallow water. She pulled it out and saw that it had a hilt and a pointy end and hollered to her father that she’d found a sword. She had indeed, but Saga had little idea just how proud she’d done her name.

Her family contacted archaeologist Annie Rosén at Jönköping County Museum. She determined that it dates to the Iron Age and is at least 1,000 years old, probably closer to 1,500 years old. The sword is rusted from many centuries under water and will need conservation, but even so museum experts have been able to discern that it is a metal and wood sword in very good condition.

“It’s about 85 centimentres [33.5 inches] long, and there is also preserved wood and metal around it,” explained Mikael Nordström from the museum. “We are very keen to see the conservation staff do their work and see more of the details of the sword.”

Anyone hoping to see the sword will have to wait at least a year, Nordström told The Local, explainig [sic]: “The conservation process takes quite a long time because it’s a complicated environment with wood and leather, so they have several steps to make sure it’s preserved for the future.”

“Why it has come to be there, we don’t know,” he said. “When we searched a couple of weeks ago, we found another prehistoric object; a brooch from around the same period as the sword, so that means – we don’t know yet – but perhaps it’s a place of sacrifice. At first we thought it could be graves situated nearby the lake, but we don’t think that any more.”

Meanwhile, Saga has become the toast of her class, and she more than deserves after keeping her fantastic find secret for months. Museum archaeologists asked her to bite her tongue so they could explore the lake without having to fend off treasure hunters.

Saga confirmed to The Local that the only person she told was her best friend, who she really trusts. Thursday was the first day she could reveal her story to her classmates, and her teacher threw a party to celebrate, handing out ice creams and showing Saga’s TV and radio interviews to the class.

“They thought that it was very fun and interesting to know about my story,” said Saga.

I hope I could have been as discrete as she is when I was eight, but I’m pretty sure I would have blabbed. I doff my cap at thee, Saga.


Opiate traces found in Bronze Age vessel

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

Researchers have found traces of ancient opium in a Bronze Age vessel, the first chemical confirmation that a type of pottery jug long suspected to have been used to hold opiates were indeed used for that purpose.

The vessel in question is a base-ring juglet now in the collection of the British Museum. It was made in Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age period classified as Late Cypriot II (1450-1200 B.C.). This was a period of great prosperity in the Mediterranean, with flourishing trade and prosperity leading to a rise in urban development and the introduction of literacy in the form of a variant of Minoan Linear A.

The juglet has an ovoid body on a ring base with a long, narrow neck. It is made of high-quality clay fired black and then painted with white bands on the body and neck. The shape looks like an opium poppy head turned upside down, and scholars have hypothesized that this is not a coincidence or a mere artistic inspiration, but a deliberate choice to match the design of the container to the substance it was designed to contain.

Past attempts to analyze the residue in base-ring juglets for chemical proof of the presence of the opium poppy were unsuccessful. This particular example gave researchers the unique opportunity to pursue that hypothesis because it is intact with its original seal in place. British Museum scientists found that the residue inside the juglet was primarily composed of plant oil that suggested the presence of opium alkaloids. That suggestion was insufficient to confirm that the vessel had contained opium poppy derivatives. University of York chemists devised a new analytical approach to confirm the presence of those tell-tale alkaloids in the plant oil.

Using instruments in the Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at the University of York, Dr Rachel Smith developed the new analytical method as part of her PhD at the University’s Department of Chemistry.

Dr Smith said: “The particular opiate alkaloids we detected are ones we have shown to be the most resistant to degradation, which makes them better targets in ancient residues than more well-known opiates such as morphine.

“We found the alkaloids in degraded plant oil, so the question as to how opium would have been used in this juglet still remains. Could it have been one ingredient amongst others in an oil-based mixture, or could the juglet have been re-used for oil after the opium or something else entirely?”

The opiate residue does not mean opiates were traded as lotus eater-style mind-altering substances. If the opium poppy was indeed an ingredient in an oil preparation, it could have been a perfume or used for ritual anointing. Opium has been prized since antiquity for its medicinal properties, so it might have been a pharmacological preparation.

Professor Jane Thomas-Oates, Chair of Analytical Science in the Department of Chemistry, and supervisor of the study at the University of York, said: “The juglet is significant in revealing important details about trade and the culture of the period, so it was important to us to try and progress the debate about what it might have been used for.

“We were able to establish a rigorous method for detecting opiates in this kind of residue, but the next analytical challenge is to see if we can succeed with less well-preserved residues.”


Rape confession found in 17th c. sailor’s journal

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

The restoration of a 17th century sailor’s journal in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has revealed a baldly-stated confession of rape that was obscured for centuries in a literal cover-up. The journal was written by one Edward Barlow documenting his four-decade career from 1659 and 1703. He started as an 18-year-old apprentice aboard The Naseby, the flagship of Edward Montagu which brought King Charles II back to England at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Over the forty-plus years of his career, he sailed on navy and merchant ships, participated in several naval battles and was taken prisoner. He detailed all these experiences in his journal. A gifted artist, Barlow illustrated his diary with images of the ships he served on, battles he fought and maps of his journeys.

Very little is known about Edward Barlow beyond the contents of his journal. Not even the National Maritime Museum has been able to trace the full history of the document. The museum received it from Basil Lubbock, a naval historian, sailor and failed prospector in not one but two gold rushes (Klondike, 1896, California, 1898). He had bought it from Charles Alexander Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke, descendant of Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, Vice-Admiral of the White. There were no records of how the journal had wound up in the Yorke library. Lubbock thought it likely that some descendant of Edward’s sold the manuscript to Sir Joseph as there were people named Barlow in Hampshire at that time.

Botched repairs over the years had left the journal in dire need of conservation. Its condition issues have been a long-standing concern — senior paper conservator Paul Cook was told when he was hired at the museum in 1985 that the diary was “a problem” — and the painstaking process of restoration has been ongoing for nine years. It was Cook who saw that a page had been very carefully pasted over the original. The cover-up was so expertly performed that nobody had noticed for more than 300 years.

He originally wrote an excruciatingly frank account of his rape of Mary Symons, a young female servant in a house where he was lodging, an encounter he admitted was “much against her will, for indeed she was asleep but being gotten into the bed I could not easily be persuaded out again, and I confess that I did more than what was lawful or civil, but not in that manner that I could ever judge or, in the least, think that she should prove with child, for I take God to witness I did not enter her body, all though I did attempt something in that nature”.

Barlow inserted a line of warning: “I found by her that women’s wombs are of an attractive quality and dangerous for a young man to meddle with.”

He continued that though he wrote “a loving letter”, he wanted to “forget her and blot her out of my remembrance … as I had done with some before”. However, when his ship returned to England from Jamaica, he agreed to meet Symons and found her “weeping most pitifully and saying she was undone”.

Against the advice of friends urging him that he had a good chance of finding a rich wife, Barlow married her in Deal, “a very decent marriage where we had several people of good repute”. The union celebrated with a two-day party that cost him £10.

Their child was stillborn while Barlow was at sea, but they went on to have several more children and, despite initial doubts, he heaped praise on his wife: “Had I searched England over for a mate I could not have met with one more obliging and ready to do any thing that should give me content.”[…]

Cook became the first person in more than 300 years to read Barlow’s original words, hidden under the rewritten version, which included the weeping woman on the shore but omitted the account of the rape. Instead, Barlow wrote: “I had in part promised her at London that I would marry her … having had a little more than ordinary familiarity with her”.

Scholars think that he probably returned from a sea voyage and thought better of his honesty about the brutal origin of what appeared to have developed into a relatively happy marriage.






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