Happy birthday, Teddy Roosevelt!

October 27th, 2013

Today would be Theodore Roosevelt’s 155th birthday. In honor of the 26th president, Harvard’s Houghton and Widener Libraries have put together a slideshow of the young Teddy from childhood to his undergraduate days at Harvard College. It’s a small selection from the collection of 172 images of Roosevelt in his youth that was gifted to Harvard by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1943. They provide a glimpse into Roosevelt long before his grinning, bespectacled, moose-riding presence became instantly recognizable, and they’re smartly captioned with brief anecdotes and descriptions. Many thanks to the Houghton and Widener Libraries for allowing me to use high resolution versions of the photographs in this post.

He’s really quite unrecognizable, an adorable little boy and a handsome young man. His blue eyes, later hidden behind his characteristic wire-rimmed pince-nez glasses, are striking. His mutton chops are downright impressive once they get going. Of course instead of simply enjoying the growth and development of TR, I had to go falling down a couple of rabbit holes inspired by the images and captions.

First observe a four-year-old Teddy looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a velvet jacket holding a fuzzy cap. Those baggy pants tied under the knee he’s wearing were known as Knickerbockers after the fictional author in Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Diedrich Knickerbocker is the descendant of 17th century Dutch immigrants who settled New York when it was New Amsterdam, and as such is a member of the highest ranks of New York society. In Irving’s book these New York Dutch aristocrats wear old-timey knee-breeches, emblems of their long heritage in the city. It was an entirely fictional depiction, but the name stuck. From then on, the Dutch-descended patricians of New York became known as Knickerbockers and so did the poofy pants. Later, New York sports teams would take on the name too.

The Roosevelts were Knickerbockers par excellence. They were descendants of one Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt who settled in New Amsterdam in the 1640s and purchased 48 acres of prime farmland bounded by Lexington Avenue and Fifth Avenue between 29th St. and 35th St. Midtown Manhattan, including the lot that now hosts the Empire State Building, was the first American Roosevelt’s personal stomping ground.

The other picture that sent me down history nerd lane was the 1878 tintype of Theodore after he shaved off his fine set of sideburns. The caption quotes a letter Teddy wrote to his sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson on May 3rd, 1878:

“At last the deed is done and I have shaved off my whiskers! The consequence, I am bound to add, is, that I look like a dissolute democrat of the fourth ward. I send you some tintypes I had taken for distribution among my family and friends. The front views are pretty good; although giving me an expression of gloomy misery that I sincerely hope is not natural. The side views do not resemble me any more than they do Michael Angelo or John A. Weeks.”

(John A. Weeks was a wealthy lawyer, real estate mogul, philanthropist and art lover. His wife was Alice Hathaway Delano, relative of Sara Delano who was the mother of Frederick Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin.)

It was TR’s description of himself looking like “a dissolute democrat of the fourth ward” that caught my eye. It just sounds cool, first of all, and it’s a neat early glimpse into a concern that would help define Roosevelt’s political career. The Fourth Ward of New York City was a crime-ridden slum on the Lower East Side. This was full Tammany territory, the uncontested domain of corrupt bosses who could deliver votes en bloc to their pet politicians.

Tammany Hall was a Democratic Party machine and Teddy would fight it at his first opportunity. He was elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly in November of 1881, just three years after he wrote that letter to his sister. The fact that he was a mere baby of 23 years did not deter him from focusing on his reformist agenda. In his first 48 hours of the legislative session, he introduced four reform bills (water purification, alderman election reform, finance reform and judicial reform). Only the alderman one passed and only after major changes, but TR didn’t let that slow him down. He was re-elected in 1882 and in 1884 introduced three bills aimed at kneecapping the party machines. Of the three, the Reform Charter Bill was the highest priority because it focused on increasing the power and accountability of the mayor to weaken the stranglehold of the board of aldermen which was controlled by the party machines.

The Reform Charter Bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who had formed an alliance with Tammany Hall to win the election only to govern with integrity and honesty, much to Tammany’s horror. The bill became known as the Roosevelt Bill and newspapers went nuts over how Roosevelt and Cleveland were cutting Tammany down to size.

Ten years later, Theodore Roosevelt came to a whole new understanding of the Fourth Ward. In 1895, he became New York City Police Commissioner. Accompanied by reformer photojournalist Jacob Riis who had exposed the vile living conditions of the immigrant poor in the tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side in his 1890 book How The Other Half Lives, Roosevelt patrolled the poverty-stricken streets between midnight and dawn, checking up on his beat cops to be sure they were a) awake, b) sober, c) not spending all night in saloons, d) not taking bribes, inspecting tenements for compliance with health codes, deterring crime with his mere presence.

He became such a common figure on the streets of the Lower East Side at night that he earned the outstanding nickname of Haroun al Roosevelt after the character of Harun al-Rashid in the One Thousand and One Nights. In his autobiography Riis described the two years of Roosevelt’s patrols as a Golden Age. Roosevelt called Riis “the most useful citizen of New York” for having shone a light — literally; the new invention of flash made it possible to effectively photograph the dark tenements for the first time — on the reality of life in the slums.

In a complete coincidence, one of those Fourth Ward streets TR patrolled was Roosevelt Street. It was named after one of early Rosenvelts who owned the property in the 17th century. The street is gone now, built over in 1950 by the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing development named after the former governor and candidate for president who made wet dreams come true.


Fly in 1929 style aboard an original Ford Tri-Motor

October 26th, 2013

Having revolutionized individual transportation and industrial production with his Model T car, after World War I Henry Ford turned his sights to airplanes. He had been interested in aviation from its early days, lending three automobile factory workers to his 15-year-old son Edsel to help build a monoplane powered by a Model T engine in 1909, just six years after the Wright Brothers’ seminal flight at Kitty Hawk. Edsel’s Model T monoplane never did fly well and its brief life ended when it crashed into a tree. During the war, Ford applied his production genius to aircraft engines. In the fall of 1917, the War Department commissioned 22,000 12-cylinder Liberty engines from all of Detroit’s automotive companies. Ford redesigned the process for cylinder production, streamlining it so production rose from 151 cylinders a day to more than 2,000. In the end, Ford produced all of the Liberty cylinders (433,826 in total) and 3,950 complete engines.

(Fun fact: Cadillac initially declined to build Liberty engines because General Motors co-founder William C. Durant was a pacifist. Henry M. Leland, creator of the Cadillac company who had sold it to GM in 1909 but stayed on the payroll as an executive, wanted in on the Liberty order, so he left General Motors and founded Lincoln solely to produce the airplane engines. It was only after the war that the Lincoln plant turned to automobile production, using a luxury V8 engine inspired by the design of the Liberty. Ford bought Lincoln in 1922, streamlined operations to make it profitable, muscled Leland out within months and to this day Ford Motor Company still produces luxury cars under the Lincoln imprint.)

It wasn’t until 1923 that Henry Ford dipped his toe into commercial aviation by investing in William Bushnell Stout’s Stout Metal Airplane Company. Henry and Edsel invested $1,000 each in Stout’s company which went on to produce the Stout 2-AT “Air Pullman,” the first all-metal single engine monoplane. That single engine, by the way, was a Liberty. In April of 1925, the Ford Air Transport Service, the first regularly scheduled commercial airline, went into operation carrying 1,000 pounds of freight aboard an Air Pullman between Detroit and Chicago. In August of 1925, Henry and Edsel purchased the Stout Metal Airplane Company outright and created the Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company.

To get the word out and assure potential customers that air flight was a dependable means of transporting cargo, Ford launched the Ford National Reliability Air Tour with the Air Pullman as its featured player. The tour was effective and less than a year after that first cargo flight, Henry Ford and William Stout accompanied the first bag of air mail to be carried by a commercial flight from Detroit to Cleveland under escort of fighter planes.

While the 2-ATs went to work delivering mail, Stout went to work on a new model: the 3-AT trimotor, an all-metal craft with three engines (originally Liberties until they proved too heavy and were replaced with Wright J-4 engines) and a large passenger or cargo compartment. Ford thought the 3-AT was the future of aviation until he saw the test flights. They were abject failures and Henry barred Stout from the engineering room after that.

Sans Stout, the Stout division of Ford started over after a fire destroyed all their 2-ATs and the prototype 3-AT on January 16th, 1926. They updated the 3-AT design to create a trimotor that was actually able to maintain altitude and the Ford 4-AT Trimotor, aka the “Tin Goose,” was born. Designed for passengers but with removable seats for cargo transport, the sturdy metal plane was an immediate success. It would become the first mass-produced passenger airplane with a total of 199 manufactured between 1925 and 1933. In 1927, Pan American used Trimotors for its first international flights from Key West to Havana, Cuba. Transcontinental Air Transport, with routes and airports designed by Charles Lindbergh, used Ford Trimotors to carry passengers coast to coast (albeit with train legs in between) in 1929. The next year it merged with Western Air Express to create TWA. Franklin Delano Roosevelt flew a Trimotor during his 1932 presidential campaign, replacing the traditional train whistle stop tour.

Its heyday was brief as new technology superseded the Trimotor by 1933, but the plane still flew for decades. Trimotors were used as sightseeing planes, barnstormers, crop dusters and to carry freight to remote mining operations far from city airports. One particularly heroic Trimotor transported 50 people a day off the island during the 1942 Battle of Bataan until Japanese fighters shot it out of the sky.

There are 18 Trimotors still in existence today, eight of which are airworthy. One of them, a 4-AT-E model built in 1929 for Eastern Air Transport, is owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which spent 12 years putting it back together after the plane was lifted up by a gust of wind and slammed into the runway. That model is now touring the country giving nine people at a time the full 1929 experience in its restored cabin.

This weekend it’s in Waco, Texas, at the McGregor Executive Airport.

You can’t book online anymore for this weekend’s rides, but you can still get walk-up tickets, $75 for adults, $50 for children 17 and under. The plane will be in St. Simons Island, Georgia, next weekend and Savannah, GA, the weekend after that. The final flights of the year will take place the weekend of November 14th in Jacksonville, Florida.


Intact Wari mummies found in Lima temple

October 25th, 2013

Two intact mummy bundles from the pre-Incan Wari civilization have been discovered inside the walls of the adobe and clay brick temple of Huaca Pucllana. Seventy burials have been found since intensive excavations began in 2005, but most of them are not intact. They’ve been damaged by deliberate human interference or simply the passage of time. The first intact burial found dates was a young woman with an exceptional death mask buried around 700 A.D. and unearthed in 2008. Two years later another female mummy buried around 850 A.D. with two infants and a young child was found undisturbed. Now three years after that a third intact burial has been found which early estimates date to around 1000 years old.

The two mummies are of different sizes, one is much larger the other and is probably an adult while the smaller one is the mummy of a child. The adult was a member of the elite, a high-ranking official or priest, and the little one may have been a child sacrificed in his or her honor, possibly even buried alive. Alternatively the child may be a relative who died at the same time. Both are wrapped snugly in woven rope bundles. The mummies are still in situ. They will be taken to a Ministry of Culture lab for testing to determine their age and sex. The full array of tests should take about six months, after which we’ll know what diseases they may have had, what they ate, the kind of work they did, and if DNA collaborates, whether the two are related.

Nestled in the cavity along with the mummies, archaeologists also found seven vessels used to drink mate, 12 textile bags and the skeletal remains of three guinea pigs. The burial site was carved out of a wall on the sixth platform of the pyramid, one of the most thoroughly looted areas of the Huaca Pucllana complex. Destruction began long before the arrival of the Spanish, which makes the human remains and artifacts particularly rare survivals and this tomb one of the most important discoveries made at the site.

The pyramid long predates the Wari. The Huaca Pucllana complex was a ceremonial and administrative center built by the Lima culture between 200 and 650 A.D. in what is today the tony neighborhood of Miraflores. The Lima used a construction system known as the “bookshelf” style wherein hundreds of thousands of clay bricks are stacked together like books on shelves. Over time they lean in towards each other at opposite angles, like books on a shelf that isn’t completely full. This made the pyramids highly resistant to earthquakes.

When the Wari spread out from their capital of Ayacucho (about 200 miles southeast of Lima in the Andes) and reached Lima around 650 A.D., they put their own imperialist stamp on the previous culture’s monuments: they buried their elite inside the walls of the pyramids. It was a means to assert their dominance over the Lima culture and to give their important dead impressive eternal resting places.

All the archaeological excavations, research and maintenance of Huaca Pucllana is funded by revenues from the site’s museum and restaurant. Last year, 60,000 visitors went to see the temple; the number is expected to rise to 100,000 this year. The museum is innovative in its exhibits as well, including a room designed for the visually impaired with replicas of ancient artifacts visitors can touch and Braille descriptions. If you’re ever in Lima, Huaca Pucllana is not to be missed.


Bust of Gaius Caesar going home to Italy

October 24th, 2013

A rare bust of Gaius Caesar, grandson, adopted son and heir of Augustus Caesar, is headed back home. It sold at a Bonhams London auction yesterday for £374,500 ($604,758) including buyer’s premium, more than double its pre-sale estimate, to an Italian buyer which means it will be going home for the first time in at least decades.

There’s no telling how long it’s been gone. Its first documented appearance was in art market in Los Angeles in the 1990s. We know it wasn’t recently excavated because there are Italian restorations from the 18th and 19th centuries and it’s mounted on a plinth from around the same time. It could very well have been illegally exported, mind you, like so many of its comrades, but there have been no attempts to block the sale, something the Italian government is not at all reluctant to do these days when they suspect a lot was removed from the country in contravention of cultural patrimony laws.

So there’s very little known history about the bust itself except what can be deduced from its features. Gaius is portrayed in idealized beauty — he seriously looks like a movie star — with long curly sideburns and a short beard just covering his chin.

It’s that facial hair which makes the piece so unusual. Portraits of Gaius Caesar have been classified into five types; this bearded look is the fifth and rarest. The facial hair is thought to be an iconographic allusion to Mars, the god of war, and the bust created in honor of Gaius’ military victory either Arabia in 1 A.D. or in Artagira, Armenia, in 3 A.D. The latter victory turned out to be a Pyrrhic one for Gaius himself since he was wounded in the battle and that wound would claim his life five months later when he was just 23 years old. (If Tacitus is right, Augustus’ formidable wife Livia saw to it that the wound became fatal so that Augustus would have to make her son Tiberius his heir.)

There’s been debate in the scholarship over whether Type Fives even are Gaius. Some historians believe they’re early portraits of Augustus Caesar when he was still Octavian and that the beard was worn in mourning for the death of Julius Caesar, his great-uncle and adopted father. It’s a difficult call to make because Gaius and his younger brother Lucius were both deliberately portrayed as looking like Augustus to provide a visual reinforcement that they were his heirs, destined to carry on his legacy of successful leadership. Bonhams ultimately sides with University of Southern California archaeologist John Pollini who argues in his 1987 book The Portraiture of Gaius and Lucius Caesar that the Type Five portraits are of Gaius, not Octavian.


Qing dynasty murals overpainted with garish cartoons

October 23rd, 2013

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) murals on the walls of Yunjie Temple in Chaoyang, Liaoning Province, northeastern China, have been overpainted by the incompetents hired to do conservation work. The original murals were damaged, with chunks missing and faded colors, and the temple walls they adorned were in need of maintenance because they were constructed out of a cob-like combination of straw and earth. The contractors shored up the walls and just painted over everything, replacing the delicate and elegant original Buddhist scenes with brightly colored cartoons of Taoist myths.

The temple is best known for its very rare square pagoda with 13 levels of eaves built during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) that towers over the modest Qing structures built at its base 270 years ago, but the frescoes adorning the walls of the Qing buildings while much more recent and not well-known are historical and beautiful in their own right. They were before the budget construction crew got their hands on them, at any rate.

Chaoyang is steeped in history. There are records of the city going back to the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century B.C., and its first temple, Longxiang, built in the 4th century A.D., marks the birth of Buddhism in northeastern China. The area is also famous for producing exceptional dinosaur fossils. You’d think, given all this, that historical sites in Chaoyang would be closely regulated, but of course regulations mean nothing if they’re not enforced by the authorities.

This debacle wouldn’t even be known today if it weren’t for Chinese blogger Wujiaofeng. He had visited the temple in 2011 to see the pagoda and was surprised to find handsome Qing frescoes he hadn’t known were there. When he returned a few weeks ago, he found the Qing buildings completely unrecognizable, marred by a hideous new paint job. He posted a blog entry about the devastation. The story went viral on Chinese internet sites and the subsequent outrage spurred an investigation by the municipal government.

According to Li Haifeng, deputy secretary-general of the government of Chaoyang, in May of this year the abbot of the temple applied to the Phoenix Mountain Scenic Area Management Office for a permit to restore the crumbling walls. The Office then applied to city’s cultural heritage authority which informed the scenic area people that because the temple was a listed historical monument, any restoration work had to be in compliance with national heritage law and thus required approval from the cultural heritage department of Liaoning Province which stipulated all interventions follow the proper conservation project management approach. Under this protocol, the restoration would only be done by experts qualified by the National Heritage Board to assess condition, design and execute the conservation project.

That last step never happened. The Phoenix Mountain Scenic Area Management Office never sought the approval of provincial heritage officials. Instead, the abbot just moved forward with the project, hiring a local company that was not qualified in ancient mural restoration. From the look of the final results, that company shouldn’t even be qualified in fence painting. Even if they had left the murals alone, that gloppy red paint coating the once-lovely wooden beams destroying their natural blackened patina would be crime enough.

In the wake of this disaster, the municipal government has fired two officials — the one in charge of temple affairs and the head of Chaoyang’s cultural heritage monitoring team — and given the Communist Party chief of the Phoenix Mountain Scenic Area Management Office a warning. The investigation is ongoing so more heads might roll before it’s over. To ensure the temple suffers no further mutilation, inspectors and police have been dispatched to the site. Cultural heritage experts from the regional government claim the murals can be restored to their original look, but it’s not clear to me what exactly that means. Are the originals even still underneath all that mess? Or do they mean the new ones can be removed and replaced with copies of the originals?

Anyway, a lot of the articles link this botched restoration to the Great Jesus Monkey of 2012, but I think that does Cecilia Giménez a disservice and gives way too much credit to the Chinese contractors. The original over which Monkey Jesus was painted was basically a throwaway copy of a copy of a copy done in two hours by a local artist. It bears little relation to the devotional Buddhist frescoes of Yunjie Temple.


One hour alone at night with Canaletto for €400

October 22nd, 2013

Picture it: midnight on the Grand Canal in Venice. The madding crowds and blanket of humidity that suffocate the daytime have dissipated, replaced by a cool breeze from the lagoon and streets quiet enough you can hear the echo of your footfalls as you step off the gondola and onto the Campo della Salute. The basilica of Santa Maria della Salute rises above you, the baroque whiteness of its cupola glowing in the penumbra just as it had for J.M.W. Turner 173 years ago.

You walk down the side of the great church. The street lights illuminate the great Gothic windows of the triple apse as you approach the Abbey of San Gregorio. You’ve made arrangements in advance. You didn’t want to show up with €50 and the dream that you might be the only one there. No, this date has been 270 years in coming and you want every last minute of your allotted hour to be spent alone with Canaletto. You were glad to spend €400 to buy all eight tickets available for your chosen hour so you could walk solitary down the monastery halls, look out the window he looked out of, stand in the room where his camera obscura perfectly captured the view, allowing him to depict the most minute architectural details of the church, the salt warehouses, the Doge’s palace.

On display in that very room, for the first time since Canaletto laid oil paint to canvas between 1740 and 1745, is the painting he made of that vista. You make good use of your precious hour alone, alternating between the painting — L’Entrata nel Canal Grande e la Basilica della Salute — and the view, marveling at how little has changed even though many of the boats are motorized now and there are two new bell towers. Was it worth it to spend an hour alone with Canaletto, his work and its subject in a 15th century monastery in the dead of night? The Pope remains Catholic and bears still relieve themselves in the woods.

At least that’s what the Fondaco Venezia, organizers of this unique exhibition, hope the reaction will be. Gero Qua Canaletto (“I Was Here Canaletto” in Venetian dialect) is intended to be an emotional experience, a rare chance to commune with the artist and his work where he painted it, to share an intimate connection between art, city and the magnificent austerity of the Medieval abbey. That’s why the exhibition will be open 24 hours a day from November 10th through December 27th, with only a maximum of eight people allowed in at one time.

From nine in the morning to nine at night, tickets will cost €35 ($47.86). From nine at night to nine in morning, tickets will cost €50 ($68.36). If you want that hour to yourself, call ahead to book all eight tickets. If you can stand to share Canaletto, just book a single. It’ll still be a small group and a unique experience, especially, I would imagine, at night. Hell, I’d pay just to roam the monastery. That’s got to be a most splendidly eerie place to be at the witching hour.

I doubt it’s coincidental that the dates of the show will include one of Venice’s greatest holidays (in the original “holy day” sense of the word). On November 21st, the city celebrates the Feast of the Madonna della Salute (the Madonna of Health), a prayerful pilgrimage to the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute to thank Mary for saving the city from the Bubonic plague that ravaged it in 1630 and 1631. A third of the city’s 150,000 residents died, including the Doge Nicolò Contarini and the Patriarch of Venice Giovanni Tiepolo.

Plague broke out in June of 1630. Despite quarantine procedures, by October the city was in dire circumstances. The ruling council organized a procession of constant prayers to the Virgin Mary that lasted three days and three nights. Doge Contarini pledged that he would build a magnificent church to Mary if she returned Venice to health, and that every year the senate, Doge and other dignitaries would process again to thank Mary for saving them. The intercession took a few months to kick in, and even after the plague peaked, it would still continue to kill until November 1631. The elderly Doge died from it on April 2nd, 1631.

His promise outlived him, though. Architect and sculptor Baldassare Longhena was commissioned to design the church in 1631. He worked on it until his death in 1682. It was finally completed five years later and the basilica was consecrated on November 21st, 1687. The yearly processions have taken place without fail ever since. To facilitate the movement of the crowds of pilgrims, an impromptu bridge is built from the opposite bank of the Grand Canal to the church steps. For centuries the bridge was made of gondolas crammed next to each other. Nowadays they build a slightly more stable floating pontoon bridge.

What a spectacular Feast it’s going to be this year, with Canaletto’s vision of the church ensconced right across from it.


Heads from university anatomy collection repatriated

October 21st, 2013

In early 2011, a collection of human remains from indigenous peoples around the world was found in storage at the University of Birmingham Medical School. Some of the skulls and bone fragments were labeled with their places of origin, but there was no documentation beyond that explaining how the collection came about, who donated what and when. The collection has never been on display, as far as anyone knows, nor has it been used in any known study or research. Keenly conscious of the ethical issues surrounding human remains being kept in museums as anthropological exhibits, the university decided to make every effort to return the remains to their ancestral homes.

The first group of remains welcomed home by their living descendants was a collection of seven complete skulls, each in their box, and four bone fragments. The bones were individually labeled as having been excavated from a grave in San Luis Obispo, California, (on the Pacific coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco). From there they were sold to a private collector who later donated the remains to the University of Birmingham at some point in the 19th century. Out of respect for the bodies, no radiocarbon dating or any other kind of testing was performed on the remains, so the university couldn’t be sure how old they were or which tribe to return them to. University biomedical ethics professor Dr. June Jones contacted representatives of the Native American tribes in the area — the Chumash and Salinan tribes both had territory in San Luis Obispo — and the Salinan tribe responded with alacrity that they would be glad to welcome the long-lost ancestors back to their homeland.

In May 2012, Dr. Jones carried the remains to California where they were first brought to the county coroner who confirmed by examination of the teeth that they are indeed Native American. (The standard test for this is to look at the molars. Traditional diets included a constant supply of grit that wore down the molars into a characteristic shovel shape. EDIT: This is the practice as described in Jones’ online diary. Stacey comments below that in fact incisors display the characteristic shovel shape, and it’s due to genetics, not diet.) Two days later, the skulls and bones were reburied in an undisclosed location to keep them from being immediately re-looted. According to June Jones’ short but very sweet diary of the repatriation, the ceremony was private, dignified and moving, with tribal members present and the Sheriff and Coroner also there to pay their respects. From the diary:

As one Tribal leader said to us as we gathered around the grave “tonight our ancestors will sit around the fire together in their own land for the first time in many years.”

The repatriation made the local news in California because it was the first time tribal remains were returned from outside the United States for reburial in their native soil. It was also notable because the University contacted the tribes first rather than the other way around, and paid for the repatriation. In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act allows for tribe members to claim ancestral remains from museums, universities, private collections, etc., but the onus is on the tribes to file suit. It’s expensive and often fraught with conflict with institutions who are reluctant to let go of anything in their collections for fear of a domino effect of repatriation.

On Friday, October 18th, a year and a half after Dr. Jones’ trip to California, a second group of tribal remains — a tattooed mummified Maori head (known as a toi moko) and four skulls (known as koiwi tangata) — have been formally returned to their homeland. A delegation from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa received the remains in a traditional ceremony.


Arapata Hakiwai, co-leader of the New Zealand museum, said the ceremony was important “for the elders to tell the ancestors they’re going to journey home soon”.

Te Herekiekie Herewini, manager of the repatriation programme, said: “In our beliefs your spirit and life force comes from the particular part of the country you’re from. It’s important for your life force to go back to that place. Repatriation allows both sides to reconcile their histories.”

The remains were then flown to New Zealand where they were welcomed in a traditional Maori ceremony in Wellington. Their final destination has yet to be determined. First Te Papa museum researchers will attempt to determine their precise origin so they can be buried in their homelands as per Maori custom. In the meantime, the museum will care for the remains in private with all proper cultural respects.

The Maori have been working for decades to reclaim their ancestral remains scattered in museums, schools and hospitals around the world but overwhelmingly in Europe. They’re increasingly successful as attitudes towards human remains in institutions shift from the impersonal to a recognition of their cultural and religious significance. The University of Birmingham has been a trendsetter in this, taking a strong stand in favor of repatriation and taking it upon itself to see that human remains in its collections find their way home. In ten years, the university’s repatriation program has returned more than 100 items. It also works with Te Papa to identify and return remains in other UK institutions, of which there are an estimated 400 pieces that we know of. There are probably many more still out there undocumented and unrecognized, like these heads were before their rediscovery in 2011.


Titanic violin sells for record $1.78 million

October 20th, 2013

The violin believed to be the one played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley as Titanic sank the night of April 14th, 1912, has sold at auction for a record £900,000 ($1,454,000) hammer price, £1.1 million ($1,778,000) including buyer’s premium and taxes. The previous record price for Titanic memorabilia was just set in May of 2011 when the 33-foot-long plan of the ship made for the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the disaster sold for £220,000 ($363,000).

The buyer is a British collector of Titanic artifacts who has of course chosen to remain anonymous. It took less than two minutes for the bids to go from £50 — an artificially low opening point that was a gift from auctioneer Alan Aldridge to two of his friends who just wanted to get a bid in — to £100,000. Within 10 minutes the final two buyers standing, both anonymous phone bidders, had battled it out to the rousing £900,000 finale.

There was a great deal of interest in this piece, not all of it approving. The circumstances of its survival and rediscovery read more like fiction than reality, so much so that an elaborate hoax seems at least as possible as it being Hartley’s violin.

It was found in a leather luggage case monogrammed “W. H. H.” (Wallace Henry Hartley) which also held a silver cigarette case, a signet ring and a letter written by the violin teacher who had given the objects to the current owner’s mother. On the tail piece of the violin is a silver plate inscribed “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.” Wallace Hartley’s fiancé Maria Robinson gave him a violin when they got engaged in 1910, and he brought it on the Titanic.

The violin teacher’s letter told the remarkable story that Maria Robinson’s sister Margaret had given the violin to the local Salvation Army after Maria’s death in 1939. Margaret told the Bridlington Salvation Army leader, Major Renwick, about the instrument’s history and Renwick gave it to one of their members who was a violin teacher. That teacher gave it to one of his students and that years later student’s son found in the attic.

The owner took the violin to auction house Henry Aldridge & Son to have it authenticated in 2006. That was no easy task. The very notion that the violin could have survived intact strapped to the chest of the dead musician while his body floated in the frigid north Atlantic for 10 days is a fanciful one, to put it mildly. Aldridge spent seven years analyzing the instrument, enlisting experts to determine if it was a forgery, a pastiche of period elements like a 1910 silver plate cobbled together and dunked in sea water to make it seem legit.

Henry Aldridge & Son felt they’d sufficiently established its authenticity to announce the find in March of this year. In May, one more test was performed: a CT scan at BMI Ridgeway Hospital in Wiltshire.

Astrid Little, Imaging Manager at the Wroughton hospital explains why a CT scan helped in the authentication process: “A 3D image of the violin was created from the CT scan, meaning the violin could be examined from the inside. The scan revealed that the original wood was cracked and showed signs of possible restoration. The fine detail of the scan meant the auctioneers could examine the construction, interior and the glue holding the instrument together.”


After it was released from the hospital, the violin went on tour, stopping at two Titanic museums in the United States, Branson and Pigeon Forge, where 315,000 people viewed it over the course of three months. After that, it went back across the ocean to the Titanic Belfast, the exceptional museum overlooking historic slipways where Titanic and Olympic were built.

There are still many doubts as to how any wooden instrument could have survived intact the sinking of the Titanic and subsequent week and a half in the water. Still, somebody was willing to bet $1.78 million on the chance of it being the real deal.


Etruscan prince turns out to be a princess

October 19th, 2013

The skeletal remains of an Etruscan aristocrat found in an intact tomb in the ancient necropolis of Tarquinia last month turn out to be female. Archaeologists had assumed the person laid out on a funerary bed carved out of the rock with a spear placed by the body was a man, but osteological analysis has found that the bones belonged to a woman between 35 and 40 years of age. It’s the cremated remains found along with what appears to be an unopened jewelery box on the smaller bier across from the skeleton that belonged to a man. He appears to have been younger than the woman and his remains were placed in the tomb years after hers, suggesting they may have been mother and son.

The small bronze vessel known as a pyx that was found on her funerary bed was X-rayed and found to contain bronze or silver needles and what may be a spool. The pyx itself is considerably older than the 7th-6th century B.C. burial, so it may have been an heirloom handed down to the noblewoman.

The archaeologists’ initial gender assumptions based almost entirely on the placement of the grave goods — spear = male, jewel box = female — have thus been thoroughly upended. Alessandro Mandolesi, Etruscanologist with the University of Torino and dig leader, explains (translation mine):

“It’s not usual to find a woman’s body with a spear. For this reason, in the beginning, we thought we’d found a warrior. After seeing the results of the anthropological analyses of the skeleton and after finding the burials of the male, we have a clearly picture of what we’ve found. There is a high probability that the spear was placed as a symbol of unity between the two deceased.”

That last part makes zero sense to me. The spear was found next to the skeleton’s right shin, between the bones and the wall of the tomb. The ashes of the male are on the smaller bed against the opposite wall. In what way does the spear indicate connection, never mind unity, between the two residents of the tomb? When they thought the skeleton was male there was no talk of the spear as symbol of union because weapons are indicators of warrior or at least leadership status. Why should that most obvious of associations be discarded just because the skeleton is female? Notice there is no tortured attempt to explain the jewelry box on the man’s funerary bed as justified by his relation to the woman.

The Etruscans certainly weren’t so narrow-minded. Greek and Roman sources were scandalized by Etruscan society (or at any rate by the urban legends they’d heard about it). The 4th century B.C. Greek historian Theopompus of Chios described gender relations in Etruria as shockingly liberated from the Greek perspective:

Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom. Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive.

The Etruscans raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom. So far from thinking it disgraceful, they say when someone ask to see the master of the house, and he is making love, that he is doing so-and-so, calling the indecent action by its name.

When they are having sexual relations either with courtesans or within their family, they do as follows: after they have stopped drinking and are about to go to bed, while the lamps are still lit, servants bring in courtesans, or boys, or sometimes even their wives.

The emphasis on sexual permissiveness in Etruscan society may be an assumption of his, incidentally, an automatic inference drawn from the mere fact that women in Etruria had so much freedom than Greek women did. In Greek and Roman society at this time, the only women present at dinners with men were prostitutes and servants. Respectable women did not socialize freely with men. Etruscans, on the other hand, had dinner with their wives and sometimes even had sex with them afterwards, much to Theopompus’ shock (horror?). If they recline on dinner couches with men not their husbands, goes the logic, then they must be sexually promiscuous.

The evidence we have from funerary inscriptions and artistic depictions indicates Etruscan women were prominent and had some measure of equality with men. For instance, many tombs inscribed with the name of the deceased mention both their parents’ names. The mothers keep their own names and can even pass it down to their children. They also owned property independently they could bequeath to their children. Etruscan couples are often depicted in a loving embrace on sarcophagi, like the beautiful 5th century B.C. Sarcophagus of the Spouses now in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome, or one from 6th century now in the Louvre.

That’s not to say that the headlines should now all scream “Tomb of Etruscan Warrior Princess Found!” Just because she was buried with a weapon doesn’t mean she was a military leader who actually wielded said weapon. It could be a symbol of leadership or strength. It could be of sentimental significance to her or something associated to her family.


Ancient Britons ate frogs’ legs long before the French

October 18th, 2013

University of Buckingham archaeologists excavating the Mesolithic site of Blick Mead near Amesbury, Wiltshire, just over a mile from Stonehenge, have found the charred leg bone of a toad along with the bones of other animals feasted upon between 6250 and 7596 B.C. This is the earliest evidence of cooked frogs’ legs ever discovered, pre-dating French examples by 8,000 years and throwing a beloved ethnic slur into turmoil.

Excavations at the Blick Mead site have been ongoing since 2005. Beginning in May 2010, a large number of flint pieces and animal bones dating to the Mesolithic era were discovered. In three trenches, one 20 x 13 feet in size, the other two just six and a half feet square, archaeologists unearthed 12,000 pieces of worked and burned flint, plus more than 650 bone fragments. The flint tools were in exceptional condition, some of them so sharp they actually cut the fingers of the archaeologists who discovered them. The burned pieces are evidence of very large and hot fires built on or very near this site.

Last year researchers examined the bones. They found that a large majority of them, more than 60%, were aurochs bones. Aurochs were large wild cattle which ones roamed the forests of Europe. Highly prized by hunters, they were extinct in England by 2,000 B.C. Their size and fierceness made them quarries as desirable as they were formidable, and they probably held symbolic significance in Mesolithic society, hence the large percentage of aurochs remains in Blick Mead. The bones of other large animals were identified as well, among them an unusually large red deer and wild pig.

It’s a little bone that is making the big splash today, though: the tiny humerus of a toad.

David Jacques, senior research fellow in archaeology, said: “It would appear that thousands of years ago people were eating a Heston Blumenthal-style menu on this site, one-and-a-quarter miles from Stonehenge, consisting of toads’ legs, aurochs, wild boar and red deer with hazelnuts for main, another course of salmon and trout and finishing off with blackberries.

“This is significant for our understanding of the way people were living around 5,000 years before the building of Stonehenge and it begs the question – where are the frogs now?”

Blick Mead’s close proximity to Stonehenge and Bluehenge makes it of particular interest to archaeologists investigating the origin of Stonehenge, its Mesolithic context, why it was built on the Salisbury Plain, what the religious significance of the area may have been before the first ditch was dug. Radiocarbon dating of Mesolithic remains found that the site was occupied every millennium between 7550 and 4700 B.C. That’s 3,000 years of if not continuous use, regular use and reuse. It’s what is known as a “homebase,” a Mesolithic residential site revisited repeatedly over time. This is the oldest place of residence found in the Stonehenge area.

It’s also a contemporary of the only other Mesolithic discovery in the Stonehenge environs: four, perhaps five (one might be the result of a tree falling accident) Mesolithic postholes found underneath the visitor parking lot in the 1960s. They date to approximately the same time as the frog humerus and other bones, ca. 7,500 B.C., and both Mesolithic sites are just over a mile from each other. Perhaps knowledge of these ritually significant spots was passed down through the generations over the site’s 3,000 years of use, cementing its religious symbolism so firmly that it outlasted the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic and inspired the builders of Stonehenge around 3000 B.C.

One possible element of ritual meaning might be the natural springs in the area. The flint and bones were found where once burbled a constant-temperature spring. Bluehenge also has a spring adjacent to it. There are Bronze Age weapons deposits that suggest the Blick Mead spring continued to hold specific religious meaning in 1,400 B.C. and artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon era and 10th-11th century Amesbury Abbey period point to a continuing ritual significance of the area even when the rituals changed enormously.

Andy Rhind-Tutt, chairman of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust and co-ordinator of the community involvement on the dig, said …: “No one would have built Stonehenge without there being something unique and really special about the area. There must have been something significant here beforehand and Blick Mead, with its constant temperature spring sitting alongside the River Avon, may well be it.

“I believe that as we uncover more about the site over the coming days and weeks, we will discover it to be the greatest, oldest and most significant mesolithic home base ever found in Britain.”

“Currently Thatcham – 40 miles from Amesbury – is proving to be the oldest continuous settlement in the UK with Amesbury 104 years younger. By the end of this latest dig, I am sure the records will need to be altered.”





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