Archive for December, 2020

Thank you

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

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

Wednesday, December 30th, 2020

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

Tuesday, December 29th, 2020

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

Monday, December 28th, 2020

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

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

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.

Multi-generational sound archaeology

Friday, December 25th, 2020

I’ve spent the afternoon gainfully employed in digging through family archaeology in the form of old vinyl records. The oldest are my grandmother’s 78 rpm foxtrot party tracks from the 1920s. The newest are from the late 80s. Anyone else out there remember the disco single of the Star Wars theme? No? Well take it from me, laser pew-pews and the R2D2 bleep-blorps make outstanding samples.

I hope your gift-gifting-based holidays were as productively nerdy as mine. Happy Disco Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band Funk Day!

Happy Star Wars Cantina Band Disco Funk Day!

A jolly holly horror to you!

Thursday, December 24th, 2020

Here’s an early Christmas present for all you boys and girls, if you consider triggering a gamut of emotions from uncomfortable to sheer terror a festive gift.

"Twinkle, twinkle little star" ; Edison Talking Doll cylinder, brown wax ; Rolfs collection. Photo courtesy National Parks Service.I’ve posted several stories about the first “talking” dolls, the products of Thomas Edison’s infinite ability to find new markets for his technologies. They were 22″-tall cyborgs with metal torsos that held miniature versions of Edison’s phonograph. A crank on the back was turned to play the short songs engraved first on tin and then on wax cylinders. Even with pretty bisques faces, arms and legs and dressed in frilly finery, their weight, difficult operation and tendency to break made them unpopular with the target audience of young girls. Edison sold fewer than 500 Talking Dolls and many of them were returned due to defects, mainly scratched and eroded cylinders that no longer played.

With the wax cylinders easily damaged and the early tin cylinders easily deformed, surviving Edison Talking Doll cylinders were muted for decades. Technology eventually came to the aid of the history of technology when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California developed the IRENE-3D optical scanner capable of reading the surface of historical media without any contact. The first resurrected Edison doll recording was an absolutely chilling Little Jack Horner recovered from a tin cylinder in the collection of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. A distinctly less threatening Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star emerged the next year.

I’ve just stumbled on another six of them. Eight of the cylinders known to survive of the different rhymes spoken by the Edison Talking Doll (including the above-mentioned Little Jack Horner and Twinkle, Twinkle) have been digitized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts using the IRENE-3D scanning technology. They’ve all been uploaded to the National Parks Service website in both unrestored and restored versions.

My recommendations: Hickory, dickory, dock is thoroughly bloodcurdling, as is this second version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Now I lay me down to sleep should ensure you never will again. The time you would have one spent sleeping peacefully you can while away by reading this fascinating Cultural History of the Edison Talking Doll Record. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page for each recording to browse photos of the associated dolls, mechanisms and cylinders.

Rubens’ handiwork restored to brilliance

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020

London’s National Gallery has cleaned and conserved one of their greatest works by Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. View of Het Steen in the Early Morning was dingy and yellowed from discolored varnishes applied by restorers 75 years ago. 

View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, before cleaning. Photo courtesy the National Gallery.

Look at it now:View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, after cleaning. Photo courtesy the National Gallery.

Rubens’ commissions were mostly portraits of aristocrats, altarpieces and large-scale historical, Biblical and mythological scenes, but he was also an art collector in his own right and a dedicated student of architecture. His townhouse in Antwerp, now known as the Rubenshuis, was extensively renovated and rebuilt based on his designs for both the exteriors and interiors.

His classical humanist education served him in good stead throughout his career, advancing him socially and professionally above the rank most artists, who no matter how elevated their clientele ultimately worked with their hands, were able to achieve. Habsburg patrons deployed Rubens on diplomatic missions when he travelled to other courts for art commissions. He was held in high esteem for his talents as an artist and as a diplomat, and was knighted by Philip IV of Spain in 1624 and Charles I of England in 1630.

In 1635, Rubens bought the Elewijt Castle, also known as the Castle of Het Steen, in the village of Elewijt 20 miles south of Antwerp. His acquisition of a landed estate was symbolic of his rise in status from artist to courtier and gentleman and he put brush to panel to capture his new demesne. He depicted his manor house and the bustle of activity — ox cart going to market, hunter and dog stalking birds — of a country estate shortly after dawn.

By then his phalanx of students at the workshop in the Rubenshuis had been executing commissions for more than two decades, all designed, overseen and finished by the master, but most of the hands-on work was being done by his employees. A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning is 7.5 feet wide and 4.2 feet high and all of it was painted by Rubens himself, probably to decorate one of the grand rooms of the Het Steen. And thus the artist became his own patron.

The discolored varnishes dramatically altered the Rubens palette, yellowing everything and eliminating the delicate warm gold accents from the sun against the white of the clouds. The contrast of the earth tones in the foreground against increasingly cool blues going backwards in the landscape was flattened as well. Now that it has been cleaned and the old varnish removed, Rubens’ original vision shines through.

Autopsy performed on lead cardiotaph

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

A heart-shaped lead urn found placed on the chest of a lead coffin buried in Flers, Normandy, has gotten an autopsy. The cardiotaph was discovered in 2014 during a preventive archaeology excavation in downtown Flers’ Place Saint-Germain, site of the former Saint-Germain parish church and cemetery. Two masonry vaults were unearthed, each containing an anthropomorphic lead coffin. The cardiotaph was on one of them. They date to the 17th-18th centuries.

It was a common practice in France from the Middle Ages to the 18th century for the elite to have the hearts of the deceased placed in heart-shaped containers and buried with their loved ones. This cardiotaph has no inscription, unlike the helpfully explanatory vital statistics found on the one holding the heart of the Knight of Brefeillac, and in 2015 both coffins were opened and excavated in the laboratory.

The skeletal remains found inside belong to adults. Their skulls had been sawn, indicating the bodies has been subjected to an embalming process typical of high-ranking personages, in this case likely the family of the Counts of Flers. Traces of organic remains — the scalp of one individual and textiles on the second — were also found. DNA samples were extracted from both individuals.

At the time, the cardiotaph was not part of the study. Researchers worked to develop an appropriate protocol to explore it and in September of this year, the cardiotaph was operated on. It was cut into with a small circular saw then pried open. Inside it was filled with a brown grainy substance that smelled vaguely of peppermint. The filling was removed revealing a mummified human heart at the center. Dissection found the atrial and ventricular chambers of the heart and collapsed arteries.

The DNA sample taken from the heart will be compared to that of the individuals in the coffins. It could belong to one of them, or they could be a familiar relationship.

Documentary research, started in 2014, completes the excavation. In particular, it makes it possible to put forward hypotheses for the identification of the deceased to whom the heart present in the cardiotaph would belong and on which the DNA analysis will be based. A reasoned inventory of mentions of discoveries of cardiotaphs (rarely studied from the point of view of the funeral rite of embalming) is paired with an inventory of multiple funerals. The latter are identified by references to the division of the body and the burial of the heart in regional and extra-regional archives.

The deepening knowledge about the family of Pellevé and of La Motte Ango, barons and then counts of Flers since the 15th century, makes it possible to link the individual wishes of the various members of the dynasty with the status, but also the place that they occupy in the lineage and in the networks of regional and Parisian powers. Archival research on their funeral wishes (choice of burial, modest or non-modest funeral wishes, categorically declared desire or refusal to open the body for embalming, etc.), compared to what was actually implemented by the living, allow us to understand practices common to the nobility in the modern era. The results obtained for the case of Flers are also compared with other European examples.

Through different funerary choices, the documentary study aims to understand the perception that the members of this family had of themselves and of the rank they held in their social sphere. Funerals are indeed an eminently individual and private choice (as diverse as there are members in a family), but also a collective one, in line with the common practices of the noble elite in the modern era. Beyond the biographical studies that are necessary to place the archaeological remains in their historical context, the examination of wills and funeral costs is a rich resource for understanding the issues and the context of funeral practices, choice of burial, with the choice of the treatment of the body until the funeral home.

1,400-year-old brick tomb found in Vietnam

Monday, December 21st, 2020

A 1,400-year-old brick-lined tomb has been unearthed during construction of a drainage ditch in the commune of Xuan Hong, in central Vietnam’s Ha Yinh province. Workers discovered the arch structure of the tomb six feet under the surface in Village 2 of the rural commune and alerted the local heritage authorities.

The brickwork identifies it as a Han style tomb created during the rule of the Chinese Sui-Tang Dynasty (602-905). It is 13 feet long, three feet wide and four feet high, but the tomb was damaged during construction so what remains is only a part of it. The roof comes to a pointed arch formed by layers of bricks.

Some locals in the commune said they had found similar tombs in their gardens or during the process of building houses.

Many others said the same type of Han graves had been found in other localities in Ha Tinh.

The discovery of the ancient tomb in Xuan Hong Commune has created favourable conditions for archaeologists to study more about the Han tombs in Ha Tinh.

Han style brick tomb, ca. 1,400 years old. Photo by Bách Khoa. Detail of brick layers in arched dome of tomb. Photo by Bách Khoa.




December 2020


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