Archive for August, 2019

19th c. silk quilts on view at NMAH

Sunday, August 11th, 2019

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is displaying nine rarely-seen silk quilts in a new exhibition that runs through January of 2020. Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts from the National Collection features exceptional quilts made in the late 19th century alongside related artifacts including personal sewing kits, needlework books, tools and embroidery samples.

The quilts illustrate in vibrant color the explosion of silk manufacturing in the northeastern United States. Silk was a luxury import for thousands of years, more expensive than gold, subject to sumptuary laws that made it the exclusive province of the elites. The bottleneck was always the mulberry tree, home and nourishment of the silkworm without whose cocoons there would be no silk. There had been many attempts to cultivate mulberry trees especially in New England, but the vagaries of the weather did not agree with the sensitive trees.

In 1826 a new, hardier varietal, morus multicaulis, was introduced to the country, and textile manufacturers went all in, buying so many of the new mulberry trees that the price skyrocketed, reaching a high of $30 per 100 trees in 1836, an increase of almost eight times in two years. There was just one problem: morus multicaulis wasn’t all that hardy after all and in 1837 the bubble burst. Mulberry farms went under and the once-precious trees were sold for brush or burned.

Still, the explosion of interest in the potential of locally-grown silk did have a positive effect on industry visionaries like the Cheney brothers of Manchester, Connecticut. They recognized even before the failure of the mulberry farming experiment that there was profit to be made in applying American manufacturing to the raw material imported from Japan, China, Italy and the Middle East. An 1847 Cheney invention, the Rixford Roller, was a major leap forward in US silk manufacture, winding raw silk into much more durable double-twisted threads. Eight years later, the Cheney Brothers discovered how to spin waste silk into a high quality product. They were the first in the world to figure out a way to make unblemished silk fabric out of damaged cocoons.

By the 1870s, silk manufacturing was very big business in the United States and American inventions were found in silk factories all over the world. The industry reached its zenith in the 1920s, declining only with the advent of the Great Depression from which it would never recover. During those 50 heady years, however, silk underwent a process of democratization, shifting from an unattainable symbol of wealth to affordable beauty. Even a working class girl could have a silk dress for her Sunday best.

Inspired by the availability of inexpensive silks, a new fad emerged nationwide in the 1880s for ‘crazy patchwork’ quilts. Quilt makers adopted asymmetry and layered patterning, moving away from the rigid geometric piecework of traditional quilts. Silk embroidery added dimensions and texture to the quilts. These quilts were never meant to be used as bedding. Instead, they were a statement of status and style at the turn of the 20th century. They tell a little-known story of art, industry, trends and marketing in American history.

“The quilts on display demonstrate individual imagination and skill,” said exhibition curator, Madelyn Shaw. “But beyond that, they represent America’s silk industry: thousands of mill workers, hundreds of companies, business people and designers. The quilts offer us a unique perspective on this period of industrialization in American history.”

The nine quilts on display — 1870 – 1890 Marian Frick’s Log Cabin Parlor Throw1855 – 1885 Laura Clark’s Silk Patchwork Table Cover1890 – 1900 Mary Watson’s “Biscuit” Parlor Throw, 1890 – 1900 Bates Family Silk Parlor Throw1877 – 1946 Aimee Hodge’s Crazy-patchwork Parlor Throw1880-1900 Crazy-patchwork Parlor Throw1880 – 1895 Commemorative Ribbon Parlor Throw1870 – 1880 Martha Jane Taylor’s Parlor Throw, 1880 – 1890 Eva Shaw’s Crazy-patch Piano Cover — are part of the burgeoning National Quilt Collection which has more than 500 quilts and quilting artifacts. Most of the collection has been digitized and can be browsed online here.


 
 

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17th c. coin hoard found under Polish church

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

University of Gdansk archaeologists have discovered a hoard of nearly 1,000 coins under the church of St. Andrew the Apostle in Barczewo, northeastern Poland. The coins were found in and around a glazed ceramic mug buried under the north-western corner of the chancel. They date to the late 16th, early 17th century and are in good condition, albeit in need of cleaning.

The coins are silver and were struck for the Polish royal crown and bear the image of King Sigismund III Vasa’s long reign (1587-1632).

The find is made up mainly of lower denomination Polish coins, and includes groschens, 1.5 groschens, as well as 3 and 6 groschen coins.

The haul includes many Prussian shillings struck for Prince George Wilhelm Hohenzollern, who was a fief of the Republic of Poland, as well as Lithuanian coins. […]

Many of the coins have marks on them suggesting that they were in circulation for a long time. One of them has a hole showing that it could have been worn around the neck.

Starting out in the 14th century as settlement around a defensive castle belonging to the Bishop of Warmia, Barczewo, then known as Wartberg, was in the territory of Prussia after its conquest by the Teutonic Knights. Its Franciscan monastery was of central importance to the town politically and economically. Wartberg received city rights on July 4th, 1364, one of a dozen Warmian towns to receive city rights. It was the only one among them with an explicitly reserved square allocated to the monastery. St. Andrew the Apostle was built next to the monastery to serve as the monks’ church.

Barczewo became part of the Kingdom of Poland by the terms of the Second Peace of Thorn in 1466, but it was inside the boundaries of Royal Prussia, an autonomous area ruled by the Warmian bishops. Its autonomy waned when it joined the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 and while it prospered in crafts and grew in size, it was also regularly beset by fires and military conflict. It burned twice in less than five years (1594, 1596) and was occupied by the Brandenburg Army in the mid-17th century.

When the coins were buried, therefore, the monastery church was the safest place in town. After a period of abandonment during the Reformation in the first half of the 16th century, the monastery was restored by the Bishop of Warmia, the Bernardine order replacing the original Franciscans. The Warmian bishops supported the monastery generously for centuries. Archaeologists believe the coin hard was likely cached under the floor by the monks themselves for reasons unknown.

The excavation is a rescue operation before construction work begins to strengthen the subsoil under the church’s foundation. The extensive restoration project for the church is expected to last through 2021. The coins will be conserved and then displayed in the church itself in a new exhibition space.

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Conquest-era home found in Mexico City

Friday, August 9th, 2019

Excavation of early viceregal period home in the historic center of Mexico City. Photo by Melitón Tapia, INAH.An excavation by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in the historic center of Mexico City has unearthed a house built right after the fall of Tenochtitlán. It is an unusual example of the transition between indigenous Mexica architecture, material and workmanship and Spanish design.

A team from the Program of Urban Archeology (PAU) has been surveying the archaeological layers under an 1870s building at 17 Justo Sierra Street for the past four months in advance of redevelopment. The area was part of the sacred enclosure of Tenochtitlán southwest of the Templo Mayor before the Spanish conquest, and differential land subsidence posed a threat to any potential historical remains at the site.

By boring vertical holes into the ground eight feet deep, the team discovered the remains of a pre-Hispanic basalt slab floor indicating there was once a square or open space in the Sacred Enclosure next to the House of Eagles. They also found a platform just 16 inches high but 40 feet long, and that’s just the length that’s been excavated so far; there’s more to be found. The platform has a north-south orientation and may have been connected to one that ran behind the Templo Mayor and is believed to continue under Justo Sierra Street. The depth of the platform suggests it dates to the rule of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1502-1520) and may have been part of the eastern boundary of the Sacred Enclosure.

One of the boreholes revealed a more unexpected find: the architectural remains of a house from the early viceregal period (1521-1620). It was constructed of basalt slabs, blocks of volcanic andesite and tezontle, pre-Hispanic materials recycled into a new home after the destruction of Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521, by Hernán Cortés and his allies.

Architectural remains like this are rare discoveries, so the team extended the borehole into a full-on trench 12 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and almost nine feet deep.  They were able to discover a staircase connected to a wall three feet wide. This was the side access to the home.

[PAU head] Raúl Barrera said that this discovery “is wonderful! Because we are observing its clear manufacturing by surviving Mexicans, because this pair of steps – formed with basalt blocks – and the wall, preserve a fine stucco of lime and sand, of typically indigenous make-up; but the architectural pattern of this house is already clearly European.

“An interesting aspect that we observe in the remains of this house, is that the pre-Hispanic floor was not used, but rather leveled through fillings ranging between 15 and 40 centimeters, and then occupied the basalt slabs. Many times they displaced the viceregal dwellings on the pre-Hispanic structures; sometimes they reuse or adapt walls as foundations,” he said.

Archaeologists consider that the natives were returned to the area occupied by the Sacred Enclosure to serve as labor, under the direction of the Spaniards. An example of this is the open stairway, which denotes the continuity of indigenous construction techniques, but already under Renaissance architectural patterns. “Although Tenochtitlan fell, the Spaniards were afraid of an insurrection, and that caution is noted in the construction and thickness of the walls of the house built in the first years after the Spanish conquest,” the PAU head said.

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Man as Industrial Palace now in motion

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

It has been almost a decade since I first saved a draft post about Dr. Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), the gynecologist and popular science writer who in 1926 designed an image you’ve almost certainly seen before: “Man as Industrial Palace,” an infographic depicting the functions of the human body as an industrial complex. It has taken me this long to delve as deeply as I felt this image deserved because detailed information about Kahn is hard to find on the Internet and because I wanted to include copious English-language labels for the amazing illustration. The originals are in German, and even then very little of what you see is labeled in the intricate poster. The visual takes precedence over the verbal. An exceptional trilingual monograph of Fritz Kahn’s life and works by Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz came to my rescue on every count. I owe this post to them.

The analogy of man to machine was a widespread cultural trend in the 1920s and 30s. The explosion of industry and consumer technology in the early 20th century inspired new approaches to art and literature, integrating the human experience into the dynamic speed, power and sharp edges of the machine age. Futurists stuffed steel ball bearings into roast chicken, Fritz Lang made men cogs in one machine and made a woman out of another, and Fritz Kahn diagrammed the complexities of human biology by comparing them to industrial and household machines.

Born in 1888 in Halle der Saale, Fritz was the son of Arthur and Hedwig Kahn. Arthur was a physician and a writer and his son would follow in his father’s footsteps. He started writing popular science articles for the journal Kosmos while still an undergraduate at Berlin University in 1907. By the time he graduated from medical school as a gynecologist in 1914, he’d already written a book about astronomy for the general public, and after serving as a medic in World War I, he continued to work both as a doctor and as an author, publishing a successful book about the cell in 1919 and writing articles on, among other things, archaeology, aviation, Jewish history and his war experience.

His books sold briskly, going into repeated print runs in their first years, but it was his knack for illustration and design that would become his trademark. (Quite literally, in fact, as in later years a team of illustrators would bring his design concepts to fruition and those images would be stamped with his FK trademark.) From 1922 through 1931, the heyday of the Weimar Republic, Kahn published a five-volume study of human biology, Das Leben des Menschen  (“The Life of Man”), to international best-selling acclaim, wrote articles for Kosmos and other magazines, gave lectures, edited the Encyclopaedia Judaica all the while continuing to practice medicine.

It was in Das Leben des Menschen that Fritz Kahn published the image that would become most indelibly associated with him. The supplementary folding plate entitled Man as Industrial Palace depicted the primary functions of the body as a complex factory complete with homunculi busily operating the controls. Men in suits in the conference rooms of the brain make decisions as Reason and Will; the Mind is run by a librarian. A man in a headset operates a telegraph for Hearing. A photographer snaps the shutter of the bellows camera for Sight. Men at lightboards monitor valves and signals of the Muscle, Gland and Nerve Control Centers. Workers shift gears to move food through the digestive tract. A man seated at a stamping machine produces red corpuscles in the Blood Marrow. Winches, pulleys, pistons, cables and tubes form the infrastructure of all of the body’s systems.

Here is an illustration that labels the “Man as Industrial Palace” graphic in detail. It was included in an explanatory supplement to the poster printed in 1926. I’ve put the lettered and numbered labels translated into English in this pdf file.

 

 

Illustration from an explanatory supplement to the "Man as Industrial Palace" poster, 1926.

 

That was the last of Fritz Kahn’s books initially published in Europe. Kahn, whose grandfather had been a cantor, whose father was deeply devout in his Judaism, who had published tracts against anti-Semitism in the 1920s and was a committed Zionist, happened to be in Palestine when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He wisely decided to stay where he was, and he and his family settled in Jerusalem. In Germany his books were banned and burned, but that didn’t stop his publisher from reprinting a version of Das Leben des Menschen, illustrations included, without attribution and with the addition of a vile new chapter by Nazi sympathizer Gerhard Venzmer promoting scientific racism and anti-Semitism.

He left Palestine in 1939 and moved to France where he barely managed to stay ahead of the German invaders. In 1940 he was interned in Vichy France, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of his wife and humanitarian Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, he was released and the couple fled to Spain and Portugal. They were able to emigrate to the United States in 1941 thanks to the intervention of Albert Einstein. “As I have a high opinion of Dr. Kahn as personality and as author I should be thankful if the visa would be granted to him,” Einstein wrote to the US Consul in Lisbon.

Kahn’s books were already known in the US, but it took him a while to get a foothold in the American literary market. When Das Leben des Menschen was translated into English and published in the United States as Man in Structure and Function in 1943, he finally had a hit again. He continued to publish popular science books even as his generalist approach began to fall out of fashion in favor of specialist authors, and he eventually returned to Europe. He died in Switzerland in 1968.

Some of his books remained in print into the 1980s, but the appetite for his approach had waned and his striking imagery faded from the wider cultural consciousness. Nonetheless, his man-machine visions had a profound influence on many, from his contemporaries like patent medicine hawker Dr. Ferdinand-Gabriel-Aimé Brunerye, to modern-day artists like Madrid illustrator Fernando Vicente who channels a Frankenstein creature of Vargas, Vesalius and Kahn to create dissected biomechanical pin-up girls.

In the Internet era, his images, particularly Man as Industrial Palace, took on new life. His prescient grasp of what would become the ubiquitous infographic — a picture conveying simplified data — made Kahn’s work on trend once again. Photos of them are widely shared and reproductions of the poster are easily available online. The originals will run you a cool two grand on eBay.  The larger format promotional posters subscribers to Das Leben des Menschen received sell for much more than that ($3,750 at a 2007 Christie’s auction, for example). Institutions have given Kahn long overdue attention in the past decade as well, and exhibitions including his work have been displayed at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Art Basel and other museums around the world.

Some of those exhibitions have included an interactive animated display of Man as Industrial Palace created by graphic artist Henning M. Lederer, and the animation is so awesome that it inspired this entire post. If any graphic in the world was ideally designed to see in movement, Fritz Kahn’s man-machine is that graphic.

From the moment on that Henning Lederer got to know Kahn’s poster “Man as Industrial Palace” in 2006, he had the idea to animate this complex and strange way of explaining the functions of a body. He wanted to continue Fritz Kahn’s act of replacing a biological with a technological structure by transferring this depiction with the help of motion graphics and animation. In addition to the moving images, as a framework, Henning created a cabinet for his work including a mixture of old and new technology. This new version of the “Industrial Palace“ is an interactive installation for the audience to interact with – and by this to explore the different cycles of this human machinery.

If you missed this installation in the many museums where it has been exhibited alongside Kahn’s originals, you won’t get to explore the full genius of Lederer’s animation which divides the diagram into six cycles (Respiration, Blood Circulation, Digestive Circuit, Control Center and Industrial Palace) and allows visitors to push a button to see each in action.  Thankfully, Lederer uploaded the Industrial Palace animation to Vimeo for the benefit of biomech/history/anatomy/industrial arts nerds everywhere.

 

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New documentary of Eastland disaster

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

One hundred years and one day after the steamship Eastland rolled onto its side while still tied to the pier of the Chicago River at the Clark Street Bridge killing 844 picnic-goers in what remains Chicago’s greatest loss of a life in a single day, a new documentary aired about the disaster aired on Chicago’s PBS station. The Eastland disaster took the lives of 844 people, most of them women and children. The Great Chicago Fire killed 300, but the former fell down the memory hole even in Chicago while the latter has become an iconic watershed moment in city history. 

Producers Harvey Moshman and Chuck Coppola have engaged the subject before, producing a one-hour documentary, The Eastland Disaster, in 2001. The 2015 discovery of long-lost footage of the catastrophe inspired Moshman and Coppola to delve once more into the events of July 24th, 1915. This treatment goes into more depth, featuring new and archival interviews with witnesses, survivors, descendants and historians, extensive research into the aftermath and CGI-enhanced recreations of how the disaster took place.

The Eastland was built in 1903 by the Jenks Ship Building Company of Port Huron, Michigan, which specialized in freight ships. Cargo is loaded evenly and stays still at the bottom of a ship’s hold. Even a top-heavy vessel will remain relatively stable with a belly full of cargo and proper water ballast. Passengers are not so predictable. They move around and spread out, and the whole reason the Eastland was so top-heavy in the first place was that it had been built with bulky upper decks to accommodate large crowds of vacationers and day-trippers. Ballast can’t counter the constantly shifting weight of moving passengers. Eastland frequently listed and took on water when carrying half as many passengers as were on board on the day of the disaster. It had listed so badly to port on a 1912 voyage that the crew only managed to keep it from capsizing by herding all the passengers to the starboard side.

On July 24th, 1915, the steamship was even more top-heavy, loaded with extra life boats and rafts on the upper deck. The Seaman’s Act requiring sufficient lifesaving craft for every passenger would go into effect at the end of the year and by its terms the Eastland would go from a legal capacity of 2,000 passengers to 1,200. A rainy summer had resulted in very poor ticket sales in June and July of 1915 — on Jun 15th there were a grand total of 41 passengers on the excursion — and the ship’s owner, the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co., was keen to jack the capacity way up to recoup some of their losses. Just two weeks before the Western Electric picnic, they managed to pile enough life boats onto the upper deck to get approved to carry 2,500 passengers and 75 crew. Stability tests were optional at this time, so inspector Robert Reed simply counted the seats available on the life boats and certified the Eastland for that number of passengers on July 10th. 

Exactly two weeks later, the Eastland, now loaded with 33 extra tons of life boats, rafts and new concrete decking to replace old rotten wood, took on its first load of 2,500 passengers. To raise the gangplank and make boarding easier and faster, Eastland‘s Captain Harry Pederson had a standing order that the ballast tanks be emptied, a practice he engaged in despite warnings from naval architects that the perpetually listing Eastland‘s tanks must always be full to keep it balanced. This choice had unbearably tragic consequences by destabilizing the ship all the more and ensuring the highest possible body count. 

A huge crowd of 7,000 employees and family members of the Western Electric company waited elbow-to-elbow on the docks for the five steamers engaged to take them across Lake Michigan on their fifth annual company picnic. The Eastland was the first to load up. Men, women and children flocked on board, many crowded in the hull to avoid the drizzle of the misty Chicago morning, many more seeking some breathing room, river views and a good time on dance floor accompanied by live piano music on the upper decks.

The ship began to list. Then it listed some more. Then it listed to the other side, ever at a steeper incline. With its dock lines still attached, the Eastland capsized, rolling all the way over on the river side. Hundreds tumbled into the river. With barely any room to spread out in the short river berth, they fell on top of each other and desperately pulled people down in their attempts to reach the surface. Anybody in the hull on the river side was trapped, destined to die of suffocation, blunt trauma and trampling before the water even reached them. 

From Nurse Helen Repa’s heartbreaking account of the day and how she gave aid to the victims at the scene of the disaster and at the nearest emergency hospital:

I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a life raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach—at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.

With the ship capsized and thousands of people struggling for their lives, many hundreds of them trapped inside the ship, suffocating under the weight of furniture, debris and other passengers, Pederson, instead of aiding in the rescue of the men, women and children he’d help doom to a monstrous death, tried to stop steel workers from using their acetylene torches to cut holes in the hull. “Stop it,” he yelled. “You’ll ruin the ship.” The steel workers had to waste precious time arguing their way past him.

The captain and five crewmen were arrested. Captain Pederson had to dodge an angry mob when he was released from custody. State and Federal indictments against Pederson, the Eastland‘s chief engineer Joseph Erickson, officials of the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Co. and the inspector, Robert Reed. They were charged with conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship and put on trial. The famous Clarence Darrow was their defense attorney. He argued that the ship had rolled because it struck a hidden pylon under the water. Total fabrication, of course, and everyone knew it. The defendants were all acquitted.

A civil suit was lodged by the heirs of the victims. Only the chief engineer was adjudicated guilty of negligence. The cap on damages was the value of the ship’s hull — $45,000 — and the creditors got to take their payment first. By the time the salvagers, coal suppliers and the rest had been paid, there wasn’t a cent left for the families. The St. Joseph Co. went out of business. Pederson retired to a farm. William Hull, vice president of the company, fled Chicago to avoid prosecution and became a banker in St. Joseph, Michigan. (Extradition laws were different in 1915, and people could not be compelled to return to Chicago for trial even though they lived there when the crime took place and had deliberately left the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.) No one served time in prison or even paid a fine.

In the teens, Chicago had a thriving film industry. There were three newsreel companies — Tribune Selig, Mutual, Universal — all of which had cameras and crews on the scene within minutes of the Eastland‘s capsizing. Films of the disaster was distributed to 40 other cities and around the world. It could be seen in practically any city in the Midwest except for the city where the tragedy took place. Newsreel footage was banned in Chicago. The mayor’s office decided the death and devastation would be too horrific for Chicagoans to watch.

Literally a century would pass before footage of the disaster was seen in Chicago thanks to University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate Jeff Nichols’ discovery of surviving newsreel clips in the Europeana database. The first time it was broadcast in a public theater in Chicago was at a preview showing of the new documentary a few weeks ago.

Eastland: Chicago’s Deadliest Day aired on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW on July 25th and several times since then. It may be available On Demand in that market, but it won’t be distributed to PBS stations nationwide until 2020. It is available for digital download ($9.95) right now and the DVD ($19.95) will be available later this month.

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Serpent sideplate found at Michigan colonial fort

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

The longest ongoing archaeological dig in the United States, the excavation of Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan’s lower peninsula, has unearthed a neat serpent-shaped sideplate from a British trade gun. Just shy five inches long, the sideplate dates to the 1770s. It was discovered in the west wall of the root cellar of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. Only four gun parts have been found there in 12 years of excavations.

The house was first owned by French-Canadian fur trader Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville, who lived and worked in the area between the 1730s and 1750s, and later by an unidentified British trader. The site has proved an archaeological gold mine, with a unique ivory rosary found in 2015, a trade silver triangle pendant and a brass lock in 2017, and the hits just keep coming.

This find continues an amazing streak of discoveries from the past few years in the root cellar, including ceramic vessels, tin-glazed earthenware, creamware plates, Chinese export porcelain, a mostly intact knife, and the handle of a sword, all uncovered during the 2018 season, as well as a large ceramic sherd, a silver trade brooch, a door hinge and a large piece of feather creamware already found in 2019.

In the excavations that have taken place at Fort Michilimackinac every summer since 1959, archaeologists have unearthed more than a million objects and materials, so you wouldn’t think so modest an artifact as a serpent sideplate wouldn’t necessarily rate public comment, but the vast majority of what has been found at the fort are fragments of glass, bones, beads, buttons, literal trash left behind by the soldiers, traders and Native American residents who slowly moved out of the fort in favor of the nearby limestone fort of Mackinac Island. In the two years it took for the fort to be abandoned, all the valuables and every-day items that were still intact or usable in any way were packed up and moved with the people. Refuse is all that’s left, and because archaeology is awesome, what was garbage to the British and French in 1781 is such a rich treasury of information to us today that it has sustained six decades of continuous excavation.

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No McDonald’s at Baths of Caracalla

Monday, August 5th, 2019

There’s are dozens of McDonald’s in Rome — the flagship in Piazza di Spagna next to the Spanish Steps, one near the Fountain of Trevi, another at the Termini station, etc. — and there’s one a dozen miles south of the Eternal City that straddles an archaeological museum displaying a perfectly preserved stretch of Roman road. That last one only happened because the road was discovered during construction of the new location and McDonald’s paid to excavate, conserve and display the archaeological remains underneath its restaurant.

What it won’t get to do, however, is build a new Double Arches adjacent the soaring majesty of the actual arches of the Baths of Caracalla. The crazy thing is that it almost did.  Municipal authorities approved plans to build a huge 8,600-square-foot McDonald’s that would have seated 250 people, had a drive-through, a bouncy house and a big parking lot. Construction had even begun. That’s how residents found out about this plan and began to raise a huge stink, complete with on-site protests and vigils that got tons of press.

Finally, Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli announced on Facebook on Wednesday that the ministry had canceled the authorization for construction.  How it got to the point where the state authorities had to reverse the municipality’s approval is a mystery. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi says she knew nothing about it until she read about the protests in the paper and that she supported the Bonisoli’s decision. “The wonders of Rome must be protected,” she wrote on Twitter (to much derision in comments from Romans sick to death of the garbage that is choking the city this hot summer).

There will be an inquiry of dubious efficacy to figure out how this debacle went down, and there’s still a chance McD’s will take them to court to get to build on a UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site as planned. It wouldn’t be the first time. For now, at least, the Baths of Caracalla will be reserved for summer operas and McFlurry-free tourists.

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Forgotten head of Alexander found in Macedonian museum

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

A long forgotten marble head of Alexander the Great has been rediscovered in storage at the Archaeological Museum of Veroia in Macedonia, Greece, announced Angeliki Kotarides, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Imathia. It was found in a corner of the museum’s warehouse, hidden between crates of pottery, old masonry and dust. It had suffered damage from centuries of rough treatment, but Kotarides immediately recognized the “the leonine mane, the dreamy eyes, the ineffable gaze” so characteristic of the iconography of Alexander the Great.

Veroia was an important city in the Macedonian kingdom. Under the Argead dynasty (Philip and his son Alexander were the 5th and 4th to last Argead kings), Veroia was the second most important city after the capital of Pella. Philip’s resplendent tomb in Vergina is just 7 miles southeast of the center of Veroia. Classical and Hellenistic era cemeteries from the 5th through the 2nd century B.C. practically surround the town. Rock-cut tombs, pit and cist graves have been unearthed in cemeteries in northeast, southeast and southwest Veroia.

The museum is small but dense with exceptional artifacts excavated in the area that date from the Neolithic through the Ottoman period, with particular emphasis on its rich Classical and Hellenistic history. The Hellenistic-era sculpture of Alexander was discovered in the 1970s in a rubble pile near the town in the Imathian plain. It had been reused as building material centuries ago.

After conservation and cleaning, the rediscovered Alexander will go on display at the museum in 2020. It will join another fine sculpture, a 2nd century B.C. head of Medusa, that was discovered in construction rubble, believed to have been reused in the city’s north wall.

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Celtic woman buried in tree coffin found in Zurich

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

In March of 2017, municipal archaeologists unearthed the grave of a Celtic woman at the Kern school complex in Zurich where a new gym was being built. The tomb was found in front of the west façade of the school building, just a few feet from where the foundation of the schoolhouse had been constructed in 1862.

While the neighborhood is archaeologically sensitive and graves have been found during earlier bouts of construction, most of them dated to the early Middle Ages. It is extremely rare to find a prehistoric grave in a highly developed urban area, and even more rare to find one laden with rich grave goods as this one was. Only one other grave of this date has been unearthed in this area before. It was found in 1903 and held the remains of a Celtic man buried with a sword, shield and lance of high quality. It was located about 80 meters (262 feet) away from the recent find.

The grave discovered in 2017 held the skeletal remains of a woman who had been buried in a hollowed out tree trunk. Only the shape of it was visible in the grave, but it was confirmed by the presence of wood residues. The bones were fragmentary. The individual was identified as a woman by the clothing and jewelry interred with her. She was adorned with a delicate bronze belt chain with pendants and a hook closure. She also wore bronze bracelets and a rich necklace strung with beads of amber, blue and yellow glass with two brooches as fasteners. Her robe was closed with several iron fibulae. The objects date to the grave to 250-200 B.C., the early Iron Age.

Sections of the grave were removed en bloc to be excavated and studied further in laboratory conditions, with particular focus on textile remnants. Zurich’s archaeology department has been studying the finds ever since, and has now released the results of their examination.

Stable isotope analysis of her bones revealed that she was a local woman, raised in Zurich, probably in the Limmat Valley. Examination of her bones and teeth found she was about 40 years old when she died and had not performed a great deal of physical labour. Tooth decay points to her having enjoyed a diet high in starchy or sweet foods. Fragments of textiles, fur and leather found in the soil indicate she was buried in a dress made of fine sheep’s wool, then wrapped in a woolen cloth and a coat made of sheepskin.

The newly discovered grave complements today’s picture of the Celtic settlement history in the Zurich area. For a long time Zurich was considered to have been founded by Roman. Archaeological excavations and evaluations of recent years, however, provided evidence for a town-like settlement of the Celts on the Lindenhof hill already from the first half of the 1st century B.C., at least half a century before the arrival of the Romans. This early city then merged seamlessly with the Roman “Turicum”. The two tombs at the Kern school complex are around 100 years older than this first settlement on the Lindenhof and probably belonged to one of several smaller settlements around Zurich, probably in the Sihlfeld, but so far still undiscovered.

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LoC digitizes 2,000-year-old Buddhist scroll

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

The Library of Congress has conserved and digitized an extremely rare 2,000-year-old Buddhist scroll. The scroll was written in carbon ink on strips of birch bark in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist kingdom in the Peshawar Valley, today the northern borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dating from between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., it is one of the oldest known Buddhist manuscripts.

The Gandhara Kingdom was one of the earliest centers of Buddhism after it moved out of India and Gandhara monks were instrumental in the expansion of Buddhism to Persia and India from their strategic location along the Silk Road. Very little was known about the doctrine and practice of Buddhism in Gandhara until a group of 30 scrolls were discovered in the 1990s. Before then, scholars had had to rely solely on inscriptions, coins and sculptures for information, and these sources have little in the way of doctrinal detail. The scrolls had been enclosed in terracotta jars and ritually interred in a stupa, monastic religious structures used as reliquaries. Even in their fragmentary condition, as the only original documents about Gandharan Buddhism, the scrolls were essential to understanding its practice. As a group, they are the earliest known Buddhist texts surviving.

Written in the Gandhari Prakrit language, a derivative of Sanskrit, in the Kharoshthi style script on both sides of the bark scroll, the text is read from top to bottom, right to left, and the bark flipped vertically to right on the other side. The LoC’s scroll tells the story of the 13 Buddhas who were the predecessors of Shakyamuni Buddha, aka Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha. It is narrated in his voice and summarizes the biographies and teachings of each of the 13 Buddhas before him before explaining his own birth and emergence as Buddha and predicting the arrival of another Buddha, Maitreya.

When the Library of Congress acquired the scroll from a private collector in 2003, it was rolled up in a Parker Pen box. It had not, needless to say, been kept in conservation-appropriate conditions in that pen case. It was in fragments and extremely brittle. Nonetheless, between 75 and 80% of the original text survived which is extremely rare for Gandharan manuscripts, most of which survive in far smaller fragments. That any of these birch bark scrolls survived at all is due to the altitude and dry climate of the Gandharan region.

The LoC’s Gandhara scroll is in six large fragments and 130 smaller pieces. Only the beginning and end of the text are missing. Now that they have been artfully conserved by Library of Congress experts, the fragments no longer live curled up in a pen case. They are stored flat in two custom-built transparent boxes, one holding the six large pieces, the other the smaller fragments. It took many years of study and even more years of incredibly painstaking conservation to get to this result. Specialized tools — gold-handled dental tools, handmade light glass weights, bamboo lifters — had to be made specifically for this complex project.

With regard to conservation, it is safe to say that the Gandhara scroll is one of the most complicated and fragile items ever treated at the Library of Congress. The scroll arrived folded and packed in an ordinary pen case, accompanied by a handwritten note: “Extremely fragile, do not open unless necessary.” It took several years of thought and planning to devise a treatment strategy. A memorable anecdote from this time period is that the conservator practiced her unrolling technique on a dried-up cigar—an item that only approximates the difficulty of working with a compacted birch bark scroll.

With assistance from a conservator at the British Library who had worked on similarly ancient materials, the treatment plan was put into action: gradual humidification over a few days, careful unrolling by hand with precision tools on a sheet of inert glass, followed by placing another sheet of glass on top once the scroll was completely unrolled and sealing the edges. The six larger fragments with the majority of the text were placed inside one glass housing, while another was used for the more than 100 smaller fragments, some with only parts of a single syllable. Both glass housings were then placed in specially constructed drop-spine boxes designed to protect the scroll from damage caused by vibration.

Even in their fancy new bespoke cases, the fragments are far too delicate to be placed on public display. The Library of Congress has therefore made this exceptional record of Buddhist history accessible to all by digitizing it. Both sides of all fragments can be viewed in extremely high resolution (much higher than the photos I’ve included here) on the Library of Congress website.

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