Gold Rush village found under San Fran parking lot

January 6th, 2011

19th c. doll found under San Fran parking lotArchaeologists excavating the parking lot near the corner of First and Minna streets in downtown San Francisco, part of the future site of the ambitious new Transbay Transit Center, have discovered a large number of artifacts dating to 1848 and shortly thereafter.

The area was a working class enclave of shopkeepers’ homes between sand dunes. The variety of the pieces is testimony to how many people traveled to San Francisco from all over the country after the 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill to make their fortunes.

“This working class came from all over. Eleven feet down, there was tableware manufactured in Philadelphia and coins not minted as money that also came from Philadelphia,” lead archeologist Heather Price said. “And from the ground surface all the way to 12 feet below, we found fancy serving platters … and many, many liquor bottles.”

19th c. plate depicting bear-baiting Twelve feet down, Price said, they found pieces of a tent that roaming miners might have used on their way up to Gold Country.

“The supercool stuff was 12 feet deep,” she said. “We got down to just immediately after the Gold Rush, like 1850 and maybe even late 1840s.”

At that time, the shoreline of San Francisco Bay was about 1½ blocks away. Then the 1906 earthquake and fire pulverized the homes, and the sand was leveled for industrial development.

The artifacts will be preserved, catalogued and stored at a lab for the foreseeable future. The new Transbay Transit Terminal Project, an enormous development covering more than 22 city blocks, plans to install new high speed rail lines around a Grand Central Station-like 1 million-square-foot hub called the Transbay Transit Center. Once the center is built — it’s scheduled to open in 2017 — the artifacts may go on permanent display there.

William Self Associates has done many of the required preliminary excavations to ensure the new construction doesn’t completely annihilate historical sites. They’ll be conserving the artifacts and planning the exhibit in the Transit Center as well as any additional museums within the TTT area.

San Francisco harbor bristling with merchant ships, 1850-1851

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Norman Rockwell mural returns to Agriculture Dept.

January 5th, 2011

Who knew state Departments of Agriculture were such hotbeds of artistic controversy? Last week the Georgia agriculture commissioner said he’d remove murals depicting slavery. Now the Vermont agriculture commissioner is delighted to welcome back a Norman Rockwell photographic mural depicting Vermont’s most famed agricultural product. “Maple Sugaring in Vermont” is a black-and-white picture of men working maple trees around a sugar house. One of those men is Norman Rockwell himself.

Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont in 1939 and became fast friends with Chairman of the Vermont Sugar Makers Association, Colonel Henry Fairfax Ayres. The good Colonel was a World War I hero who retired to Vermont in 1937, invented new devices and processes that revolutionized maple sugaring, and was instrumental in getting grading standards for syrup enacted by the legislature. He rejoined the military after Pearl Harbor, retiring again in 1945 due to an injury he received on a PT Boat raid.

Agriculture commissioner Roger Albee views Norman Rockwell mural on Dept. of Ag's wallIn 1947, he commissioned his friend to make the 5-by-7-foot mural which Ayres then lent to the state for display.

The mural hung in the lobby of the state Agency of Agriculture building in Montpelier for years. In 1987, the state lent it to the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont because building renovations had displaced it.

At the Rutland museum, it came to anchor an exhibit popular with foliage-viewing visitors and Rockwell buffs. The state never sought to reclaim it.

But last year, Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee — who knew of the loan from twin brother Ronald, who held the agriculture secretary job before him — began making inquiries at the museum.

The museum refused to return it. They had had it on prominent display for 23 years, after all, and they were hardly keen to amputate it off of their collection. They asked that the state demonstrate proof of ownership, so Allbee took up the issue with the state attorney general’s office. They researched the ownership issue, locating archives, witnesses and contacting Ayres’ grandson who offered to sue the museum if they continued to refuse to return the mural.

Last week, the dam broke and “Maple Sugaring in Vermont” was returned to the capital where it now hangs in the second-floor hallway of the Department of Agriculture building. The museum is bereft; curator Rachel Lynes-Bell calls the transfer “a tragedy” for them.

For an excellent online archive Norman Rockwell’s work, from Saturday Evening Post covers to preparatory sketches and pictures, see the official Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. I particularly enjoyed this featured archive of his work on The Gossips, one of his most popular Post covers (and possibly the inspiration for Timex Social Club’s classic Rumors video).

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Antioch mosaics depict lost Menander scenes

January 4th, 2011

Classics experts examining four recently discovered mosaics in the ancient city of Antioch have discovered that all of the pieces depict lost scenes from plays by fourth century B.C. Greek playwright Menander.

Menander is known to have written over a hundred comedies. His work was extremely popular in the ancient world, but by the 19th century, all that was left of his plays were fragments quoted in other books. It wasn’t until the 20th century that large parts of six of his plays were found in papyri, mummy linings, palimpsests and manuscripts. Only one of them is complete.

The mosaics were found by Ömer Çelik, a staff archaeologist at the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Antakya during a recent excavation. He contacted a friend at the University of Cincinnati and she contacted Classics Professor Kathryn Gutzwiller to enlist her expertise in ancient literature in trying to decipher the images depicted in the mosaics. It was Gutzwiller who identified them as Menander scenes.

Three scenes depicted in the mosaics are from plays that have been entirely lost, and the last scene is from a play that has survived in part, but is missing the scene in the mosaic.

The mosaics, which were found in ancient Antioch and date to the third century AD, represent scenes in “Women at Lunch,” “Girl Whose Hair is Shorn,” “Sisters Who Love Brothers” and “Possessed Girl.”

“The importance of these mosaics is two-fold. One, they help us to reconstruct each of the four plays. Two, they illuminate significantly the tradition of illustrating Menander and reveal variations in the illustrations of the plays.”

Antioch mosaic depicting Menander scene from "Sisters Who Love Brothers" Antioch mosaic depicting scene from "Girl Whose Hair is Shorn"

They’re also important additions to the rich history of mosaic art uncovered in Antioch and environs. Over the centuries, earthquakes and Persians have ensured that very little of the ancient Hellenistic and Roman city survives. Between 1932 and 1939 an excavation team from a group of prestigious institutions like the Louvre and Princeton sought to uncover the remains of large structures like Constantine’s Great Octagonal Church. They failed utterly.

What they did find, however, was an enormous number of large, intricate mosaics in the floors of ancient villas and baths. Most of those mosaics are now on permanent display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum. There’s a fantastic collection of pictures of the museum’s astonishing mosaic collection on this page.

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Tiffany’s Daffodil Terrace rebuilt in Florida

January 3rd, 2011

The Daffodil Terrace at Laurelton Hall before the fireWhen Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Long Island estate Laurelton Hall burned down in 1957, scavengers flocked to the site to scoop up whatever they could find. Hugh McKean, a personal friend of Tiffany’s who had lived on the estate as fellow-in-residence, and his wife Jeannette took away large chunks of the 84-room house. What they didn’t salvage on the spot, they spent four decades locating and buying from sales, auctions and owners.

The reconstructed Daffodil Terrace on display at the Met, 2006They founded the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida to house the Laurelton Hall pieces and the rest of their collection of Tiffany objects. Most of the collection remained in storage until 2006, when the Morse Museum collaborated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to unpack the pieces and put them together for a temporary six-month display.

Detail of Daffodil Terrace columnThe reconstructed Daffodil Terrace, so named because its columns are topped with long-stemmed glass daffodil capitals, was the centerpiece. As soon as the Morse board members saw it at the Met, they realized they couldn’t just pack it back up once the exhibit was over. So the Morse spent $5 million building a new 6,000-square-foot wing to house the Daffodil Terrace and the 250 other Tiffany pieces in the collection.

Construction is done and the new wing is scheduled to open on February 19th. The new gallery was designed to mirror the flow and placement of Laurelton Hall, and to emphasize Tiffany’s characteristic blurring of indoor and outdoor spaces.

The Daffodil Terrace will be displayed in a glassed-in alcove to recreate the feel of the original outdoor space.

“It’s bathed in natural light for the first time since it was taken from the estate,” said Catherine Hinman, the museum’s director of public affairs.

As it did at Laurelton Hall, the terrace flows directly into a recreation of the estate’s dining room, which includes a nearly 14-foot high mosaic mantelpiece, 25-foot long Oriental carpet and a suite of six leaded-glass wisteria transoms.

The adjoining living room features four leaded-glass panels depicting the four seasons, which won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and five turtleback-glass hanging lamps.

The Morse Museum website has set up a webcam in the Daffodil Terrace gallery. Right now it just looks like grainy security cam footage, but I’ll try again tomorrow when the alcove should be bathed in natural light.

The living room gallery, Morse Museum

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Last roll of Kodachrome film developed

January 2nd, 2011

Kodachrome filmDwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, developed the last roll of Kodachrome film on Thursday. As digital photography took over and developing outlets closed en masse, Kodak announced in June of 2009 that after 74 years of iconic success, they would no longer produce the development chemicals necessary to print Kodachrome negatives. Dwayne’s Photo got a special dispensation. Kodak ensured that as the only shop left not just in the United States but in the world, they would receive the chemicals through the end of 2010.

Kodachrome was the first successful mass-produced color film process. It created a rich depth of color and warm light which made it a favorite of videographers and photographers, peaking in the 1960s. Paul Simon even wrote a song about it whose lyrics include, “They give us those nice bright colours. They give us the greens of summers. Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

Or not so sunny, as the case would have it. Abraham Zapruder shot his famous footage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Kodachrome film.

Before the deadline loomed so prominently, the store was developing an average of 700 rolls of film a day, which is a remarkable amount considering the dominance of digital. The end of an era stimulated a huge final rush of people bringing in every roll they’ve had lying around for decades.

In the last weeks, dozens of visitors and thousands of overnight packages have raced here, transforming this small prairie-bound city not far from the Oklahoma border for a brief time into a center of nostalgia for the days when photographs appeared not in the sterile frame of a computer screen or in a pack of flimsy prints from the local drugstore but in the warm glow of a projector pulling an image from a carousel of vivid slides.

In the span of minutes this week, two such visitors arrived. The first was a railroad worker who had driven from Arkansas to pick up 1,580 rolls of film that he had just paid $15,798 to develop. The second was an artist who had driven directly here after flying from London to Wichita, Kan., on her first trip to the United States to turn in three rolls of film and shoot five more before the processing deadline.

The artist, Aliceson Carter, 42, was incredulous as she watched the railroad worker, Jim DeNike, 53, loading a dozen boxes that contained nearly 50,000 slides into his old maroon Pontiac. He explained that every picture inside was of railroad trains and that he had borrowed money from his father’s retirement account to pay for developing them.

Is it weird if I hope that he’s able to digitize that collection some day?

National Geographic Afghan girlThe last roll of film Kodak made they gave to photographer Steve McCurry, the author of the famous portrait, shot in Kodachrome, of an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes that was on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. He shot pictures in New York and India on the roll and took it to Dwayne’s Photo in person for development.

His wasn’t the last roll to be developed, though. That honor went to Dwayne’s owner Dwayne Steinle, but first he had to fish out a camera that actually worked, because, o tempora o mores, he himself uses a digital camera these days. He took pictures of the town in the last week of Kodachrome, leaving the last space on the roll for a group photo of all of Dwayne’s Photo’s employees standing in front of the store wearing custom printed t-shirts to mark the moment: “The best slide and movie film in history is now officially retired. Kodachrome: 1935-2010.”

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Divers welcome New Year by diving into the Tiber

January 1st, 2011

Marco Fois jumps off Cavour BridgeIt’s a relatively recent tradition for a city like Rome, started just after the end of World War II. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1946, Belgian expat Rick De Sonay dived off the Cavour Bridge into the cold, muddy, sewage-ridden, rat- and dead body-infested Tiber to welcome the new year. He had been an Olympic champion and was looking for work as a movie stuntman.

What started as one man’s publicity stunt became a tradition, and De Sonay became known as “Mr. OK” from the thumb-and-forefinger in a circle gesture he made to reassure the crowd that he was in fine fettle after he surfaced.

That’s not a foregone conclusion. The Tiber isn’t frozen, usually, but it’s still frigid on New Year’s Day — average water temperature is 5°C, 40°F — and at 13 feet deep, it’s shallow for a dive off a 55-foot-tall bridge. The currents and whirlpools are forceful around the pylons of the bridge. Also, there are things going on down there. Things involving boats and many people on them. (You can see some of the traffic in the footage below.)

Mr. OK died in 1988 at age 89. That year lifeguard Maurizio Palmulli (the guy with the long white hair) did his first New Year’s dive off the Cavour Bridge into the Tiber, considering it a duty to De Sonay whom he had known as a boy. He took on Mr. OK’s famous gesture and eventually the nickname followed.

This year Palmulli did his 22nd dive — his threatened retirement a few years ago never panned out — and he told news crews to look for him on bridges over the Seine in Paris and the Thames in London next year. Other divers have also taken on the fond tradition. Bartender and professional diver Marco Fois did his 12th dive this year.

It’s a New Year’s Day tradition now. Instead of diving at midnight New Year’s Eve as Mr. OK did the first year, divers have for decades now used the traditional noontime cannon shot from the Janiculum hill as the starter pistol for their dives.

Have a prosperous New Year, all. :boogie:

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No Pardon for Billy the Kid

December 31st, 2010

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico has decided not to posthumously pardon Billy the Kid, aka William H. Bonney, aka Henry McCarty, for any of his many crimes. Richardson considered pardoning him because the historical record suggests territorial Governor Lew Wallace may have extended the promise of a pardon in exchange for Billy’s testimony against another murderer. Billy testified but the pardon never materialized. He escaped from jail killing two guards only to be caught again, escape again, then finally shot to death by Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881.

The Wallace and Garrett familys were not pleased that Gov. Richardson was willing to re-examine the question of whether Wallace made a deal with Billy the Kid that he welched on and whether Garrett had shot the wrong man. The descendants of Billy the Kid’s victim Sheriff William J. Brady, killed on April Fool’s Day, 1878, were also offended by the very notion of a pardon.

Sheriff Pat GarrettIn July of this year, Garrett’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren wrote to Mr. Richardson: “If Billy the Kid were living amongst us now, would you issue a pardon for someone who made his living as a thief and, more egregiously, who killed four law enforcement officers and numerous others?”

But history buffs who also happen to be Governor can’t be deterred that easily, especially when they can’t run again because of term limits anyway. Richardson set up a website about the Billy the Kid pardon, soliciting comments on the question from the general public. Out of the 809 emails received, 430 of them favored granting the pardon, 379 were against it.

Overwhelming pro-Bonney numbers notwithstanding, the Governor ultimately decided the evidence was just too inconclusive even for this level of tourism-luring stunt pardoning. After all, even if Lew Wallace did offer Billy the Kid a pardon, he could have been lying to get his testimony. There was never any guarantee, nor is there any formal record of Governor Wallace making any such offer.

Some historians suggest that Mr. Wallace never explicitly offered a pardon to the outlaw, who also went by the names Henry McCarty and William H. Bonney, and might have been trying to trick him. Shortly before Mr. Wallace left office, he told a newspaper: “I can’t see how a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me.”

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Högström gets 3 years for Auschwitz sign theft

December 30th, 2010

Swedish national and founder of Sweden’s National Socialist Front party Anders Högström has been sentenced to two years and eight months in prison by a Polish court for masterminding last year’s theft and dismemberment of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to Auschwitz.

Högström, who claimed to have abandoned his neo-Nazi ways over a decade ago, received the sentence as part of plea agreement that allows him to serve his time in a Swedish prison rather than a Polish one. If what I’ve seen on Wallander is at all accurate, I suspect that’s a pretty sweet exchange.

Auschwitz "Arbeit Macht Frei" signThe exact nature of his involvement in the plot is still nebulous. When he was extradited from Sweden, he said he had played the middle man, simply arranging the transportation of the sign from one location to another. He also claimed that he had turned himself in once he discovered the proceeds from the sale of this ultimate symbol of Nazi genocide were going to be used to disrupt the upcoming elections.

Poland convicted him of masterminding the theft after prosecutors failed to turn up any evidence which supported Hogstrom’s claims that he was acting as a middle man in a plot to steal the sign for financial and possibly political gain.

Swedish police arrested him early in 2010. Hogstrom also claimed that rather than being arrested, he had turned himself into the Swedish authorities after he realised that proceeds from the sign’s sale was meant for a political campaign to disrupt Swedish general election in September which saw huge gains by the right-wing Sweden Democrat party. No evidence has emerged to support his claim that there was a political element to the theft

Polish prosecutors said Hogstrom had admitted his guilt at the last minute. The most likely cause for Hogstrom’s change of heart appears to have been the settlement reached with prosecutors which allows him to return to Sweden to serve his sentence.

But whether the motives behind the sign’s theft were political or linked in any way to the election gains by Sweden’s anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, remains a mystery. Robert Parys, the Polish prosecutor who headed the investigation, said he was convinced the main motive was financial.

Two Polish nationals, Marcin Auguscinski and Andrzej Strychalski were sentenced 30 months and 28 months in jail respectively for the theft and dismemberment of the sign. They cut it into three pieces so it would fit in their truck. Marcin Auguscinski knew Högström personally. He did odd jobs on Högström’s southern Sweden estate more than two years ago.

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New Georgia AC to remove slavery murals

December 29th, 2010

George Beattie mural of slaves harvesting sugar cane in lobby of GA Dept. of AgricultureThe incoming Georgia agriculture commissioner plans to remove seven murals by George Beattie from the lobby of the Department of Agriculture in Atlanta across from the state Capitol.

Beattie’s paintings were commissioned in 1956 and depict the history of agriculture in the state, from half-naked Native Americans cultivating corn to a state farmers market to a 20th-century veterinary lab. Somewhere in between there are two idealized depictions of slavery, one of strapping slaves harvesting sugar cane, the other of equally strapping slaves picking cotton and using a cotton gin to separate seed from fiber under the dignified eye of a pair of white overseers.

Conservative Republican Commisioner-elect Gary Black finds them “undesirable” and plans to take them out of the lobby and put them in storage. The unobjectionable state farmers market one might remain in use, but not in the lobby.

“I don’t like those pictures,” said Republican Gary Black, the newly elected agriculture commissioner. “There are a lot of other people who don’t like them.” [...]

“I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture,” Black said.

There are no signs of the whippings, beatings, shackles or brutality used to subjugate the slaves, who appear healthy, muscular, even robust.

George Beattie mural of slaves picking and ginning cottonBeattie’s son George Beattie III says his father thought slavery was terrible but that he was asked to depict the history of agriculture in Georgia, and that means depicting slaves who were 40% of the state’s agricultural workers by 1840. Historical accuracy did not demand that he depict them in the blazing good health of a ruddy Soviet farmer on a propaganda poster, though.

Even Beattie’s close friend, sculptor and professor emeritus at Georgia State University George Beasley, who believes the paintings should remain where they are, admits that the painter had a penchant for idealized, shiny-happy images, which puts the lie to the notion that the paintings are only about presenting Georgia history as it was.

The year those paintings were hung, after all, was a landmark year in Georgia’s racist history. It’s the year a Confederate Battle Flag was added to the state flag in protest of school desegregation. Governor Marvin Griffin declared that “the schools are not going to be mixed come hell or high water.” The Confederate flag remained on the state flag until Governor Roy Barnes replaced it in 2001, a decision that may have played a pivotal role in his failure to secure re-election the next year.

Gary Black is the first new agricultural commissioner in 41 years. Outgoing commissioner Tommy Irvin was appointed by segregationist governor Lester Maddox in 1969 and ran undefeated, often unopposed, for the next 10 elections. If Irvin hadn’t decided to retire this year, Black might have lost yet again, just like he did in 2006. He has all kinds of reasons for wanting a fresh start.

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2,600-year-old Celtic tomb found in Germany

December 28th, 2010

A 2,600-year-old Celtic tomb has been found by archaeologists excavating the ancient hill fort at Heuneburg, Germany. The 13-by-16-foot burial chamber is in an excellent state of preservation and still contains a treasury of gold and amber jewelry.

The jewelry allowed archaeologists to pinpoint a precise date, the first time they’ve been able to do so with early Celtic remains. It also strongly suggests that the tomb belonged to a noblewoman of the fort’s early period of Celtic habitation, the 7th century B.C. Further analysis of the burial chamber will be needed to confirm the date and owner.

This should be a lot easier for scientists since the entire tomb has been lifted out of the ground in one solid block of earth by two cranes, loaded on a specialized flatbed truck and transported tout entier to the lab of the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Stuttgart.

The Heuneburg hill fort site is one of the oldest settlements north of the Alps, and a major source of information about Iron Age Celtic culture at a time when wealth and population were increasing rapidly in a few population centers.

The Celtic citadel was first enclosed with a wood and earth wall in 700 B.C., a standard Celtic building technique. By 600 B.C., however, they had built a mudbrick wall over a limestone foundation almost 20 feet high. The mudbricks were painted in limestone plaster and must have been a very visible landmark in the area for the 70 years they lasted. There are no other similar such walls known in any Celtic settlements in central Europe of the time.

Cranes remove entire burial chamber as solid block of earth Intricate gold jewelry found in the tomb

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