The last witch to burn in central Norway

During the European witch panics of the 16th and 17th century, more than 800 people were accused of witchcraft in Norway. Three hundred of them were found guilty and executed. The last to die in central Norway was one of the most pathetic victims and the domino effect of her case resulted in the longest and most widespread witch hunt in Trondheim. It dragged on for three years after her execution and ensnared more than 30 people.

Her name was Kirsten Iversdatter. She was a Sámi woman (the people historically known as Lapplanders) who drifted from town to town in the Gauldalen valley of Trøndelag county, begging for food and threatening people with curses when she was refused. She was commonly known as Finn-Kirsten, a reference to her Sámi origin. Her ethnicity played a large part in the fear she struck in the hearts of the locals, for the Sámi were reputed to have connections to the demonic world so powerful that not even the power of Christ could compel.

They could summon the spirits of their ancestors and gods of nature with their magical drums (the so-called ‘rune-drum’), enabling them to both see the future and divine news from distant places. Their percussive magic could find lost items and influence fortunes in life and business. Historical sources tell us that Norwegian farmers would pay the Sami for such magical services, but that one should be wary of their company. If one incurred the wrath of a Sami, so the Norwegians believed, the Sami could release a gand, an evil spirit and/or a physical object, which had the power to strike a man dead, even to split mountains.

So when Kirsten muttered imprecations or quickly appeared and disappeared in doorways, people got scared. Next thing you know, cows’ milk dried up, crops failed, family members got sick, horses died and Kirsten was blamed for it.

On February 18th, 1674, Kirsten was arrested in the village of Støren on suspicion of witchcraft. She was charged with harming people and animals in Gauldalen valley. She denied engaging in witchcraft, casting spells or causing any harm. In the absence of a confession, they came up with other charges that were more easily proven. The chaplain and villagers testified that she never went to church, which was a crime in those days. She also had two daughters, one 20, one two years old, neither of which were born in legitimate wedlock. Fornication was a crime too. So Finn-Kirsten was convicted of skipping church and having extra-marital sex and was condemned to die by beheading.

Her ordeal was far from over. Støren’s bailiff Jens Randulf had a reputation for being adept as getting witches to talk. His methods, one can imagine, were as brutal as they were effective. Even after denying the charges in her first trial and even though she was already condemned to death, Jens was so good at torturing her that she confessed to everything and more. She had “given herself to the Devil” who appeared to her as a dog. She traveled the mountains around Støren with Satan and his other human disciples, local ones this time.

Now that they had their confession, Kirsten’s previous infractions took a back seat and the witch trial started.

After this new confession, the case was transferred to Trondheim Court of Appeal. Finn-Kirsten was detained in ‘Kongsgården’ (the King’s royal palace) in Trondheim city – today known as the Archbishop’s Palace – under the custody of the county governor Joachim Vind. After torture and interrogation by Vind and the public officers of Støren, she named more than thirty people as accomplices, ranging from both wealthy and poor in Trondheim to prominent farmers in the valley of Gauldalen. Amongst other things, Finn-Kirsten ‘confessed’ that the son of Inger Rognessen had visited Hell three times; she claimed that another woman called Inger (who lived by the city bridge) had levitated through air with her, and that she knew both white magic and sorcery. Finn-Kirsten also claimed that Inger was eager to become an apprentice of the Devil, but that she refused her the same ‘honour’ as she had only served Satan for two years. Guri, a carpenter’s wife, was alleged to have been ridden into the mountains to meet the devil twice, but Finn-Kirsten could not say if Guri was the rider or if someone rode her! This was the end for Finn-Kirsten. Her punishment was increased from beheading to death by burning, as the statutes against witchcraft allowed[.]

On October 12, 1674, a great fire was set alight by the city gates of Trondheim. Kirsten was tied to a ladder and tipped into the fire. A large crowd watched her burn to death. As she had confessed to witchcraft, her estate was forfeit. The court records describe this estate as “a few ragged clothes,” a sad testament to a life of poverty ended in brutal fashion.

Of the people she named under torture as co-witches, three of them were put on trial, including one Gjertrud Berdal who like so many “witches” was an herbalist who made home remedies for people (and their animals). Her most notable tool of witchcraft was apparently the ability to magically milk the cream of people’s cows so when they milked their cows all they got was skim. Neither Gjertrud nor the other two were convicted.

Even though it lasted years and marked the conclusion of the witch frenzy in central Norway, the trial of Kirsten Iversdatter and its aftermath was soon forgotten. Other burned witches became folk heroes of sorts. The story of Finn-Kirsten was rediscovered and published in 2014 after Norwegian University of Science and Technology researcher Ellen Alm found surviving accounts of her case in Norwegian court records and county financial statements from the 1670’s.

Grenades from last battle of Revolutionary War detonated

A group of hand grenades from the Revolutionary War have been detonated 238 years after the last shot was fired. The 25 balls filled with gunpowder had slumbered quietly in the stores of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR) for 30 years, or so it seemed.

The grenades came from the wreck of The Betsy, a British collier built in Whitehaven in 1772 that transported coal during the Revolutionary War. In September of 1781, General Charles Cornwallis ordered it scuttled along with dozens of other British ships along the shore of the York River during the Siege of Yorktown in the attempt to prevent the French fleet controlling Chesapeake Bay from attacking British forces on land. The attempt failed and Corwallis, hemmed in on land by the Continental Army and reinforcements by sea blocked by the French navy, surrendered on October 19th, 1781. It was the last major battle of the American Revolution.

The French were granted title to all the British ships after the surrender, including the wrecks. They spent the winter of 1781-2 salvaging what they could. Two centuries later, a team of DHR archaeologists investigated the wrecks to see if there were any artifacts left to recover. A cofferdam was built around the Betsy, the water filtered out and a suprising number of objects spotted. Half of the ship’s contents remained in situ. About 5,000 objects were recovered, inventoried and stored in the DHR collection.

Budget cuts interrupted the arduous process of fully documenting the finds and conservation of maritime archaeological materials wasn’t as sophisticated in 1982 as it is now. The grenades, corroded and caked with concretions, weren’t recognized as grenades. They were about the size of balls for small cannon, so they were temporarily classified as “shot,” bagged, placed in cardboard boxes and shelved until they could be X-rayed. The budget axe dropped before the X-rays could show that they weren’t solid lead balls.

Last fall, DHR’s conservation lab got a grant from the National Park Service to study and conserve the Betsy‘s many artifacts. Their focus was on the organic materials — leather, rope, wood — which quickly deteriorate once removed from a waterlogged environment and preservation techniques are vastly improved now. The box with the “shot” wasn’t high priority because metal doesn’t decay, so it was set aside for later examination.

On Nov. 28, [DHR conservator Kate] Ridgway was working her way through that box in the lab when she pulled out a plastic bag labeled “shot.” Inside: a gray-ish round clump not much bigger than a golf ball.

“I knew right away something wasn’t right,” Ridgway said. “It wasn’t heavy enough to be lead shot. And it had these weird cracks in it. And what looked like crystals inside.”

When she opened the bag, she caught the scent of something ominous.

A whiff of gunpowder crossed 237 years and drifted up. […]

Ridgway figured it could be [live], especially after three decades of drying time. She carried that first strange ball to a microscope. Those were definitely crystals inside.

“I am not happy,” she told [head conservator Chelsea] Blake, before turning to her computer to search for information about weapons of The Betsy’s era. It dawned on her that this ball could be the core of a grenade, what was left after the iron shell had long dissolved.

Ridgway crossed the lab to another instrument that identifies chemical elements. Sulfur. And potassium. The ingredients of gunpowder.

“I am really not happy,” Ridgway said. “We’re done here. Call the police.”

The Richmond bomb squad removed the grenade to a bomb truck and detonated it. A white plume of smoke wafted up, the tell-tale sign of burning black powder. After two centuries underwater and 240 years since it was deployed, that grenade was still dangerous.

The bomb squad was called twice more within days as more of the grenades were found. Conservators realized they had to go through all the Betsy stores to deal with their explosive artifacts all at once. It was a huge production.

Most of December was spent crafting plans and preparing the lab. Guided by the bomb squad and following munitions factory rules, they removed anything that could produce a static spark — plastic, scraping chairs, squeaky carts. Tables were covered with cotton fabric. Extra humidifiers were brought in. Flammable chemicals were carried away.

On Saturday, Dec. 29, they came in just after dawn — Ridgway, Blake, collections assistant Andrew Foster and archaeologist Mike Clem.

All other employees had been told to stay away. Neighbors across the street had been notified with a letter. Experts from an alphabet soup of agencies — FBI, ATF, bomb techs from the city, county and state police — met the four at the lab, parking in a side lot to avoid causing a scene. The fire department and medics stood by.

“We didn’t want to endanger anyone else, but we didn’t want to panic them either,” Ridgway said. “We did whatever law enforcement advised us to do.”

The bomb squads provided helmets, vests and thick aprons for the staffers, who had come to work dressed only in cotton clothing and rubber-soled shoes. Each staffer was assigned a personal bomb tech handler.

“We had 18 people in here,” Ridgway said. “We couldn’t have asked for better help.”

Eight hours later, they’d combed through every single box. And found 20 more grenades. One was still wearing its iron jacket.

They were all detonated safely.

Huge Japanese urn “lost” for 100 years and found in fish restaurant sells big

A monumental Japanese cloisonné vase that represented in spectacular form the art of its country at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was recently rediscovered after hiding in glaringly plain sight for a century and sold at auction on Sunday. The masterpiece of porcelain, enamel and woodwork 8’8″ high went to a private buyer in New York for $135,000 hammer price, almost five times the high estimate of $50,000.

The vases were the largest examples of cloisonné enamel ever made up until that time, and they had a large statement to make at the Chicago World’s Fair. Placed in a group under a canopy in the East Court of the Palace of Fine Arts under a canopy were three exceptional pieces, the work of Japan’s greatest masters: two monumental vases and an incense burner. The combined effort of metalworkers, potters, wood carvers and painters, they were designed especially for the Exposition and took four years to make and decorate. Before they were shipped to Chicago, they were viewed and approved by the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

The designs on the vases and incense burner were conceived by Shin Shiwoda, Special Counsellor for Arts of the Japanese Commission to the Exposition. The ostensible motif is the seasons of the years: chickens symbolize spring, dragon summer, eagles autumn and winter. A full moon and flight of plover on the back of the dragon vase symbolize summer and fall. The birds under a snow laden branch on the back of the eagle vase represent winter. A cherry tree in blossom on the censer represents spring. The dragon, chickens and eagles also symbolize the three virtues of, respectively, wisdom, honesty and strength.

The vases and censer were placed on pedestals of carved keyaki, a hardwood native to Japan. These were not created from freshly hewn lumber, but from pieces salvaged from a temple that had been destroyed in an earthquake. The wood was more than 200 years old when it was carved with 70 different types of flowers in 1890-3.

There was political meaning embedded in the design that far eclipsed the innocuous seasonal imagery in significance. The dragon on one vase represent China. The two eagles on the other vase represent Russia. The chickens are stand-ins for the Korean islands. A rising sun represents Japan.

Japan’s concerned over China’s military and political influence over Korea was escalating in this period and would break out into the First Sino-Japanese War less than a year after the Columbian Exposition. Russia was a looming presence as well, having established the first diplomatic relations in 1884 and quickly gaining a political foothold in support of the Korean ruling dynasty against Japanese interests. That tension would come to a head in the Russo-Japanese War a decade later.

On the tops of the three pieces were designs symbolizing the friendship between the United States and Japan: the red and white stripes and stars of the US flag strewn with the chrysanthemums of Imperial Japan. A bronze eagle on top of the censer represents the United States.

The political implications of the imagery caused some difficulty at the World’s Fair. Organizers wanted to display the works in the Japanese pavilion of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, but Japan’s commission wanted them in the Palace of Fine Arts with the finest examples of artistry from countries around the world. Ultimately Japan got its way and the three-piece garniture went on display in the Japanese Department on the ground floor near the central rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts.

The censer is now at the Tokyo National Museum. One monumental vase is in the Khalili Collection at Oxford but is missing the original pedestal. The location of its pair was unknown from immediately after the World’s Fair until it was recognized sitting bold as brass in the center of the main dining room of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, California. The venerable restaurant is one San Francisco’s Bay oldest and most revered culinary icons. The gigantic urn in the middle of it somehow managed to go unidentified by experts, including the Vice President of Decorative Arts and Furnishings of the auction house that sold it, until the restaurant closed.

The story of the missing vase begins to unfold in 1892 when Michael H. de Young of San Francisco, a businessman and journalist who founded the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and the de Young Museum, was appointed as a national commissioner to the 1893 Columbian Exposition by President Benjamin Harrison. Through this position, de Young saw the opportunity to stimulate California’s economy by proposing an 1894 California Midwinter Fair, which was held the following winter in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA.

Following the Chicago World’s Fair, de Young brought one of the Japanese cloisonné vases to San Francisco for exhibition at the Midwinter Fair. It was at this point, following the fair, that Frank Spenger, avid collector and owner of Spenger’s Restaurant in Berkeley, bought this one vase from Michael de Young and placed it inside the main dining room where it has remained until October 2018.

Apparently he first tried to put it in the family’s penthouse apartment. According to Frank Spenger’s great-granddaughter Alicia, Mrs. Spenger thought the eight-foot vase on its wood pedestal four feet wide was a little much for the living room, so she asked him to move it down to the restaurant with the rest of his ever-expanding collection of art, artifacts and maritime memorabilia. Even the Spenger Diamond, all 34.28 carats of it, wound up on display in the restaurant.

Rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display

An extremely rare portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted during her lifetime has gone on display at Hever Castle. The oil-on-oak panel painting depicts Mary “en deuil blanc” (in white mourning), wearing gossamer white veils instead of the heavy blacks of full mourning she wore in a later portrait.

It is believed to have been the work of the studio of François Clouet, a miniaturist and portraitist to the French royal family, made in late 1560/early 1561 when Mary was mourning the successive deaths of her father-in-law King Henry II of France (d. July 1559), her mother Mary of Guise (June 1560) and her husband Francis II (December 1560) of France. White had been a popular mourning color in France for centuries by the time Mary donned it. She had unusually bucked that association and worn white for her 1558 wedding to the then-Dauphin of France, only to find herself having to wear white again in its traditional symbolism after his death just two and a half years later.

Another Clouet portrait of her “en deuil blanc” shows her covered from chin to chest in a white pleated gauze “barbe” (beard). The original painting is lost but the image was widely copied. The Hever painting has the same head type as the other Clouet but depicts a less severe white veil with an open collar and tiny buttons down the bust. This may have been a less strict form of mourning worn after a certain amount of time had elapsed from the bereavement.

During her active reign in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, there were few artists of note and even fewer portrait painters of royal quality. If any solo portraits of her were painted during her time in Scotland, none have survived. A double-portrait of her and her second husband Lord Darnley now at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is the only known extant portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted when she was in Scotland ruling as Queen of Scots, ca. 1565.

After her forced abdication and imprisonment in England, she did get some access to court painters. Her caretaker/keeper/jailer George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, allowed her to sit for Nicholas Hilliard, the premiere miniature portraitist of the Tudor court. Copies of Hilliard’s work were distributed at Mary’s behest to her supporters during her lifetime, and after the ascension of her son James VI of Scotland to the throne of England and Ireland in 1603. He commissioned idealized versions of them to enhance his own position as king and the strength of the Stuart claim by depicting her as a martyr and victim of Tudor injustice. It’s those posthumous images of Mary that make up the bulk of her portraiture.

The Hever portrait was in a private collection in France (not Switzerland) for many years. It was thought to be a modified 17th century copy of the more famous Clouet. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panels found that the wood dated to 1547. Coupled with stylistic examination, the age of the wood confirms that the portrait dated to the mid-16th century and was done in Mary’s lifetime.

Unique deviant burial found in Sicily

The remains of an adult male were discovered in 2013 in Piazza Armerina, a medieval village in central Sicily that was built over the ruins of a Roman latifundia, one of the immense agricultural estates that Sicily was largely divided into by the 2nd century. The body was isolated, not part of a cemetery or burial ground. As a matter of fact, the remains weren’t even in or near a settlement as they date to the between the first and second half of the 11th century, a time when the area was still unpopulated. The village’s first appearance on the historical record dates to 1122.

The skeleton was buried face down in a shallow grave in a southwest to northeast orientation. The right arm was extended along the side of the body. The left arm was extended over the back; the ulna was found resting on the left pelvis. The feet were so close together that it’s highly likely they were tied. There were no funerary objects found in the pit.

The isolation, orientation and position of the body mark it as a deviant or atypical burial that it not in concert with Christian, Jewish or Muslim funerary practices. The skeleton is almost complete and in excellent condition, allowing researchers to study this unique burial in detail using a combination of osteoarchaeological analysis, forensic anthropology techniques and technology to study the remains.

They identified six stab wounds on the sternum with the shape of the blade tip impressed on the bone. The weapon appears to have been a single-edged knife or dagger, a close-combat blade that nonetheless managed to pierce the thorax and penetrate the posterior sternum from entry points on the victim’s back. A large bone fragment on the right side of the sternum was dislodged when the blade was twisted with significant force.

To get an accurate picture of the dynamics of this fatal stabbing, researchers used 3D modeling technology. They created a virtual model of the chest, the entry points and angles of penetration. They were steep, indicating the assailant was standing behind the kneeling victim. As the blade went through the thorax into the breastbone, it probably punctured his lung and heart, killing him quickly.

The injury pattern is unique. There is nothing like it known in the archaeological record. It is not the result of hand-to-hand combat. There is no evidence of contact anywhere else on the victim’s chest, which almost certainly would have been present during the chaos of a fight.

There was no evidence of other injuries on the man’s vertebrae or ribs that would suggest that the man was involved in some kind of “uncontrolled” fight, said lead author Roberto Miccichè, an archaeologist at the University of Palermo in Italy.

The goal of the man’s killer, it seems, was to attack the victim in a “very effective and rapid way,” Miccichè said; in addition, the assailant likely knew human anatomy “very well.” In fact, the cuts were so clean and smooth, that the man may have been immobilized, perhaps with binding, Miccichè said.

The clear, deep stab wounds, the lack of defensive, uncontrolled action, the evidence of binding, particularly in the closeness of the feet, and the relative positions of aggressor and victim indicate this was an execution.

It is also the first thoroughly documented, archaeologically excavated deviant burial found in Sicily. A number of atypical burials have been recorded by archaeologists on the Italian mainland, but only one appears in the scientific literature for Sicily and it was not well-documented. Atypical burials are believed to have been employed for religious or magical reasons — like to prevent the dead from rising to harm the living — or as a form of post-mortem ostracism, a reflection of the deceased’s marginal position in the social order.

Researchers believe this death occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of Sicily in 1061. It was a period of turmoil, of social and political realignment as the island transitioned from Islamic to Norman rule.