Thank you

Thank you all for reading, for your comments, for all the kindness and appreciation you’ve shown me this year. As 2020 took on its increasingly bubonic 1347 tinge, I tried as much as possible to keep the blog as unchanged in focus and consistency as it has been since I began posting daily 12 years ago. My wish was The History Blog could be for you (and me!) what Philosophy was for Boethius, who dealt with quite the lockdown of his own. I hope 2021 is a renaissance year for cultural heritage and that this blog, in its fractionally tiny way, can help support the revival of endeavours  that have been laid waste in 2020.

Happy New Year! Now let’s the get hell out of this one.

Imperial Han tomb identified in central China

A stone vessel found in the remains of a large mausoleum in Luoyang, central China’s Henan Province, has confirmed the tomb belonged to Eastern Han Dynasty emperor Liu Zhi (r. 146 – 168 A.D.). Archaeologists have thought the tomb complex was Liu Zhi’s based on reports in ancient chronicles, but until now there was no archaeological evidence for the contention.

According to the latest excavation, the 25-cm-tall basin-shaped vessel with a diameter of 80 cm was found inscribed with a manufacturing year — the third year of Guanghe, or AD 180.

Wang Xianqiu, an associate researcher of the Luoyang City Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute, said Guanghe was a reign title of Liu Zhi’s successor Liu Hong, and the stone vessel was produced when Liu Hong was building the mausoleum for Liu Zhi.

“Together with the previous documents about the location of the emperor’s tomb, the discovery makes us almost certain that it is the tomb of emperor Liu Zhi,” said Wang, who led the excavation project of the mausoleum.

Luoyang was the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 A.D.) and its location on the banks of the Luo River, a tributary of the Yellow River, held religious significance as well as economic value. Since excavations at the Eastern Han cemetery site in Luoyang’s Baicaopo Village began in 2017, more than 100 tombs dating back as far as 2,200 years ago have been discovered at the site on the south bank of the Luo. Originally on a platform above the river, the tombs were submerged when the river flooded this summer, washing away the platform and taking half the riverbank with it. They resurfaced after the water level dropped, but their condition is precarious and it’s not clear how best for archaeologists intervene.

The imperial mausoleum is a huge building complex in the northeast corner of the Baicaopo cemetery. It can be divided into three sections, each with their own walls and gates independent of each other. The buildings are arranged on a grid of courtyards and include the remains of houses, patios, wells, roads, drainage channels and other facilities found in inhabited towns. Ancient literature suggests these sites were inhabited by the living — cemetery administrators, guards, service personnel, low-ranking concubines, or perhaps nobles appointed to keep vigil over the tomb of the deceased emperor. The emperor himself was buried under ground in a palace for the dead.

Desecrated alabaster effigy emerges from shadow

A 14th century alabaster funerary effigy of a cleric defaced and hidden during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries has been unveiled in the church of St. Wilfrid’s in Barrow-upon-Trent, Derbyshire. It has been tentatively identified as the effigy of parish priest John de Belton who died around 1350. If the identification is correct, this is the oldest existing alabaster effigy of a priest in Britain.

The priest’s face is chipped away, likely a deliberate act. His hands, which were originally joined in prayer over his chest, have been cut off, as have the heads of the angels that cradle each side of his head. A small dog lies at his feet. The quality of the sculpture — the depth of the carved drapery — is exceptionally high.

Alabaster was an expensive material that was highly prized for funerary effigies because it of how artfully details like garment folds and armor can be rendered in the soft freshly-quarried stone. Once it has been exposed to the air, it hardens and can be polished to a high gloss. The earliest ones in England date to around 1330, but the fashion for alabaster effigies really took off after around 1370. Only 34 effigies of 339 recorded in England and Wales are known to date to before 1370.

The translucent luster of polished alabaster provided a realistic skin-tone effect, but much of the rest of the effigies were painted, physical features like hair and eyes in natural tones, garments, armature and heraldry in bright colors. The most high-status monuments were also gilded. The polychromy and gilding rarely survive today, especially on effigies that are still in churches instead of in collections and museums. The St. Wilfrid effigy has more surviving paint and gold than any other known effigies from the early period.

“He would have been a very bright, blingy type of statue when he was first made – so far, the conservators have found dark red, bright blue, black and green paint as well as gold,” said Anne Heathcote, the church warden of St Wilfrid’s in Barrow-upon-Trent, who made the discovery. “He is wearing priest’s robes, which have been very finely sculpted by someone who was obviously a master sculptor.”

St Wilfrid’s is an Anglo-Saxon church built around 800 A.D. After the Norman Conquest, Barrow-upon-Trent, its parish church and much of Derbyshire were granted by the new king to Norman lord Henry de Ferrers. In 1165, Ferrer’s liegeman Robert de Bakepuiz donated the church to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, aka the Knights Hospitaller. Donating properties to the Knights Hospitaller was increasingly fashionable among European nobility who wanted to be seen to be contributing to the support of the Crusades. By the 15th century, the Knights were the largest landowners in England.

While serving the parish in 1348, De Belton is thought to have lost his life to the Black Death. “We have two Black Death pits in the churchyard and because it’s a Knights Hospitaller church, we think that the Hospitallers looked after plague victims and buried them. That was part of their job.”

After the Reformation, the effigy was hidden behind box pews and then, in the 18th century, a pipe organ.

Its existence was documented in the 19th century, but even then it was not appreciated for its early age and sculptural quality. Anne Heathcote has known it was there since she was a child clambering around behind the organ under her father’s tenure as church warden. It was never in public view, however, and was largely forgotten until the Church Monuments Society contacted Heathcote to ask about the effigy four years ago. Even defaced and caked in dirt, the experts could tell it was a nationally significant piece because of its fine carving and the surviving polychrome paint.

The church has been renovated and converted into a community center. The effigy has now been cleaned and conserved and taken out from behind the organ. It is encased in protective glass and a mirror has been mounted over it so visitors can get a clear view of the intricate carving.

Notre Dame’s great organ dismantled for restoration

Notre Dame’s great pipe organ, the largest in France, has been dismantled piece by piece and removed for restoration. The organ was fortunately untouched by the flames that devastated the cathedral in April of 2019 and the ocean of water used to extinguish them, but the consequences of the fire left it in dire need of cleaning and repair.

The organ was coated in 460 tons of toxic lead dust that fell from the roof tiles and the cathedral’s spire during the fire. It has also suffered under the assault of the elements since the roof was destroyed. Variations in temperature — the heat from the blaze as well as the heatwave that cooked France that summer, a cold winter — also damaged some of the organ’s parts. The complex treatments necessary could not be performed in situ, and even the first step was incredibly complicated: the erection of scaffolding 100 feet high. Once it was up, the five keyboards were removed first, followed by the painstaking dismantling of 7,952 metal and wooden pipes and 115 stops. It took four months to take them all down, pack them in waterproof crates and warehouse them.

The plan is for work to be completed by April 16, 2024, five years after fire broke out and just in time for the reopening of Notre Dame before the Paris Olympics, but that’s an optimistic projection as clearing out the debris from the fire has taken so long that reconstruction hasn’t begun yet. Conservation of the organ won’t begin until the middle of next year at the earliest. The government will call for bids for the cleaning, restoration and reassembly in the first half of 2021. Then the bids have be sifted through and accepted before work can start. Even when it is finally reassembled in the cathedral, tuning and harmonizing the organ will take six months.

The organ was originally built between 1730 and 1738, but today only the façade of that instrument survives in its original configuration. It was extensively altered, updated and expanded in the 1860s by innovative organ builder and inventor Aristide Cavaillé-Coll who built a new organ using some of the pipes from its predecessor. The quality of the organ and the acoustics of the soaring cathedral space have made it beloved by organists. Before the fire, anyone who wanted to was allowed to play the Notre Dame organ on Sundays, and there was a waiting list a mile long to get one of those coveted spots on the bench.

Here’s a phenomenal performance by Olivier Latry, one of Notre Dame’s four official organists, playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This was the last recital recorded before the fire last year.

Fast food Pompeii style

A richly frescoed thermopolium, the Roman version of a street food stand, has been fully excavated and will open to the public starting Easter 2021. The cafeteria-style establishment is exceptionally intact, from frescoes painted on the front of an L-shaped counter to the earthenware pots still containing the remains of the snack bar’s last dishes. People ate out a lot in Pompeii. Eighty thermopolia have been found there, but this is the first one to be excavated in its entirety.

It was first discovered during stabilization work at the corner of the Alley of the Balconies and the Alley of the Silver Wedding in the Regio V neighborhood in 2019. The counter fresco of a nereid riding a sea horse was the first to emerge. A fresco on the shorter side of the counter depicted a counter with amphorae leaning against it and covered pots on top. Actual amphorae were discovered in front of the counter, mirroring the painted image which was likely a commercial sign of sorts.

The quality and preservation of the frescoed counter was so exceptional that archaeologists returned this year to excavate the site thoroughly and reveal the complete environment. This year’s phase of the dig unearthed another arm of the counter which was also adorned with frescoes. There were two panels framed in a black border: one wide one with two deceased ducks hanging upside down and a rooster against an architectural background, and the second with a black dog on a leash.

The ducks and chicken represent the wares offered at the cafeteria. The dog fresco has an obscene graffito inscribed into the black border. It reads “Nicia cineadecacator,” an insult to one Nicia (probably a freedman of Greek origin) calling him a shitter and an “invert”. Maybe Nicia was the owner of the establishment?

Bone fragments inside the vessels embedded into the countertops provide evidence of the bill of fare at the restaurant, including a mixed pork, goat, bird, fish and snail dish along the lines of a paella. A duck bone confirms that the mallard fresco was a menu item. One of the dolia contained wine residue and the remains of ground fava beans. The 1st century Roman cookbook Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria instructs that that bean meal and eggs whites should be added to “clarify muddy wine.” Long, vigorous stirring with a whip and an overnight soak apparently altered the taste and lightened the color of questionable vintages.

The skeletons of two individuals trapped and killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, were discovered on the premises. The bones were jumbled, disturbed by looter tunnels dug in the 17th century. One set belonged to an adult about 50 years of age who was lying down on a bed or cot when the pyroclastic flow hit him. The nails and wood fragments from his bed were found under his remains. The bones of a second individual were found inside a large dolium (storage vessel) and may have been stashed there by the looters.

A complete dog skeleton was found in the northwestern corner of the room between two doors. It was the fierce lupine guardian in the fresco, but a tiny canine companion no more than 10 inches tall. This was an adult animal and is not of a known local breed. It was likely a imported toy breed.

Inside the thermopolium were a total of nine amphorae, one bronze patera, two flasks and a tabletop ceramic olla (cooking pot). The floor of the space was a layer of cocciopesto (waterproof flooring made of terracotta fragments) with embedded pieces of polychrome marble.

The analysis of the remains — human, animal, culinary — is ongoing. A multi-disciplinary team of archaeozoologists, archaeobotanists, geologists and vulcanologists will study the material that has been recovered.