Oldest known Mickey Mouse movie poster sells big

December 10th, 2012

What is certainly one of the first and could well be the first Mickey Mouse movie poster ever sold at auction on November 29th for $101,575, far exceeding its pre-sale estimate of $20,000 – $40,000. Even though it doesn’t mention Steamboat Willie, the animated short where Mickey first debuted on screens nationwide, this 27″ by 41″ one sheet could very well have been used to publicize the mouse that would soon roar.

Celebrity Pictures, the first distributor of Mickey Mouse films, was a low-rent outfit. So much so that they probably didn’t even make posters publicizing individual films, but rather used a single stock image advertising the new “sound cartoon” starring Mickey Mouse, “the world’s funniest cartoon character.” From November of 1928 through December of 1929, Celebrity Pictures distributed twelve Mickey Mouse cartoons. There are no other posters from this period known to exist. The one that just sold at auction is the only one, which explains the price.

Steamboat Willie was not the first Mickey Mouse picture made. That honor belongs to Plane Crazy, a silent short that was screen tested on May 15, 1928, but which was unable to find a distributor. Walt Disney and his collaborator, pioneering animator Ub Iwerks, followed Plane Crazy with another silent Mickey picture, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which suffered the same fate. It was sound that allowed Mickey to finally break through. Film producer Pat Powers sold Disney his Powers Cinephone recording system, a blatant ripoff of the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film system which Powers had invested in and then cloned when he couldn’t buy it out. Iwerks, who was something of a genius, modified the Cinephone system, adding a click-track to aid in synchronization, and put it to use in Steamboat Willie. Powers then offered to distribute the film via his production company Celebrity Pictures.

After the success of Steamboat Willie, Disney went back and added sound to the first two Mickey Mouse pictures so Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho did finally get their day on the silver screen. Celebrity Pictures distributed them along with nine other new Mickey shorts that were made for sound in the first place.

The Celebrity-Disney relationship was short-lived. Disney thought Powers was hogging profits he was promised in the distribution deal. Powers responded by poaching Iwerks who quit Disney in January of 1930 and inked a deal with Powers to create his own animation studio for twice the money he had been making as Disney’s lead animator. Disney secured a major new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. All the surviving posters from the early days of Mickey Mouse date to the Columbia era, except for this one surviving example of the Celebrity stock poster.

The poster was once part of the collection of photographer Steve Schapiro, who is famous for his photojournalism capturing the culture and upheaval of the 60s from the young Andy Warhol to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last days to hippies at Haight-Ashbury. His pictures from the great film sets of the 70s like The Godfather and Taxi Driver are modern classics. He published his movie poster collection in 1979′s The Movie Poster Book. The Celebrity Pictures Mickey Mouse poster is on page 66.

California collector Crowell Havens Beech bought it from Schapiro 25 years ago. When he died in 2008, his daughter and widow could not find the Mickey poster. They knew he had once had it because Heritage Auctions’ Grey Smith, with whom they were working on selling the collection, had seen it in Beech’s home years before. They figured it was lost. It turns out that Beech had hidden it in his house. A handyman who was doing repair work on the house after storms in 2011 found the poster and stole it. He sold it to a New York dealer who advertised it for sale. Smith saw the sale notice and seriously doubted a miraculous second Celebrity Pictures Mickey Mouse poster had suddenly appeared on the market when the only one known to exist was missing.

Smith notified Beech’s daughter Tracy Beech Leighton and she called the art dealer. He told her who had sold him the poster and she recognizes the name as that of the guy who had worked on their home repairing damage from a falling tree a few months before. The dealer returned the poster to the family and they shipped it straight to Heritage Auctions where it was kept safe in their vault until the sale ten days ago. “Mickey had an adventure,” is how Tracy Beech Leighton puts it.

Court rules church can sell chalice to British Museum

December 9th, 2012

After three years of debate, petitions and official filings, an ecclesiastical court has ruled that St. Cyriac’s Church in the unbelievably picturesque Wiltshire village of Lacock can sell its prize medieval chalice to the British Museum. The parcel gilt Lacock Cup dates to the early 1400s. There are no makers marks so we don’t know exactly when it was made or by whom, but its lack of religious decoration indicates it was originally dedicated to secular usage. It was donated to the church (probably by Sir Robert Baynard of Lackham Manor) 400 years ago, after the Reformation so it was never in danger from Henry VIII’s dissolution squads. The precious vessel was used for centuries as a communion chalice until it was loaned to the British Museum in January of 1963. It has remained there, on display in the Edward VII gallery, ever since.

In 2009, the museum had the cup appraised with an eye to purchasing it. The parish was shocked to hear that they owned something worth close to £2 million ($3,200,000), a windfall the church could most certainly put to good use. St. Cyriac’s is a very old church. Parts of it date to the 11th century although most of it was rebuilt in the early 15th century when the village, a market town propitiously located on the sole ford of the river Avon, prospered from the wool trade. Additions and restorations continued through to the late 19th century altered the church, but after World War II it was added to Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest as a Grade I, a building of exceptional national and historic interest.

Like all old buildings, it’s in constant need of repairs, but even the most urgent structural issues have not been addressed because the parish had nothing like the hundreds of thousands of pounds necessary to keep the water out and fix massive cracks in the wall. Selling the cup, which must stay in the British Museum because the parish can’t afford the insurance premiums they’d have to pay in order to have the chalice on site, would not only fund important repairs like a non-leaking roof, but would provide an endowment that without touching the principle could generate as much as £50,000 pounds a year to spend in regular upkeep and special restoration projects.

The Lacock Parochial Church Council and Lacock Parish Council held a village meeting to discuss the possible sale. Some residents opposed the sale of the chalice because they didn’t want to lose so precious a piece of the village’s history. Some, including accountant and former parish treasurer Geoffrey Fox, felt that a recession is the precise time when you want to keep your silver and gold rather than to sell it.

For two years the question of whether to sell remained pending until on December 4th, 2011, the Lacock Parish Council notified the villagers that they had filed a formal petition to sell the cup to the British Museum for £1.3 million ($2,000,000). The villagers had 28 days to object and one of them, Geoffrey Fox, did so. He filed a formal objection which can only be decided by an official hearing of the dioceses’ Consistory Court.

The hearing was held last week at St. Cyriac’s with the Reverend Justin Gau, Chancellor of the Diocese of Bristol, presiding. Arguments were heard for two days (Monday, December 3rd and Tuesday, December 4th) and the end of which Rev. Gau decided in favor of the sale of the chalice. Proceeds of the sale are to be held in a charitable trust dedicated to church repairs.

“I’m satisfied that the unique and exceptional circumstances of this case are sufficient reasons to justify the sale of the cup.

“I direct the faculty to pass the sale of this cup. I make the condition that the sale is only to the British Museum, that a photographic record of the cup be made, along with a short history, which would be appropriately displayed, and that a replica of the cup be made, with the cost not exceeding £5,000.”

Geoffrey Fox is of course very disappointed. He also raises an important point that I haven’t seen any of the news articles address:

“This is such a unique item, with only one other comparable item in the country, which is why its value has shot up. I would have thought it should be sold for more than £1.3m, as the insured value is £2.2m, and I wouldn’t think there would be such a large discount.”

Of course insurance value is higher than market value, but if it was appraised at £1.8 million three years ago, why are they selling it for far less today? There is no depreciation here. It is an extremely rare artifact, one of the greatest examples of English medieval gilt silverwork still in existence and it’s in pristine condition.

I suspect the deal is done at this point. If an appeal is filed it will just delay the inevitable for a short time longer. As long as they get paid as much as the cup is worth, I think it’s fair for the church to sell it. It will never be under their leaky roof again anyway, so all they’re selling is the title, really.

The village of Lacock will not be any poorer for the ownership transfer of its onetime communion chalice. Its greatest treasure is itself, a village composed almost entirely of homes and buildings from the 18th century and earlier. It looks like time stopped. There’s a 14th century Tithe Barn (a barn where farmers and shepherds would pay their rents in kind to the abbey) that is so beautiful I could just weep, and just to make sure you’re completely slain, there’s an 18th century lock-up (the old English village version of the drunk tank) attached to it.

There are some neat pictures, including historical ones, on the Wiltshire website and in this killer Flickr set. If you’ve seen the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice, the village of Meryton where the Bennet sisters first meet George Wickham was played by Lacock. The series Cranford and its sequel Return to Cranford were also filmed in Lacock. They just move the cars, throw down some sand to cover the asphalt paved roads and voila, perfect, dreamy, beautiful, frozen-in-time English village.

Belize archaeologist sues for Crystal Skull profits

December 8th, 2012

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" posterThe Hollywood Reporter has a highly amusing article about a lawsuit filed by Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archeology of Belize, on behalf of the nation of Belize demanding that the current owner of the crystal skull that inspired the latest Indiana Jones movie return the artifact to Belize and that Lucasfilm and its new owner Disney give Belize a share of the film’s profits.

Dr. Awe’s position is that the crystal skull in question was illegally removed from Belize by Defendant Frederick Arthur Mitchell-Hedges (deceased) in 1930 after its discovery in the Mayan city of Lubaantun in 1924. Since Belize, then a colony called British Honduras, had laws on the books as far back as 1894 preventing the removal of artifacts from government-owned property, the skull was stolen and thus Belize is its legal owner. Besides, Mitchell-Hedges didn’t even have the proper permits to excavate the Mayan pyramids at Lubaantun, so his whole operation was illegal to begin with.

F.A. and Anna Mitchell-Hedges on Maya ruinsAwe alleges that Mitchell-Hedges, then his daughter Anna and now his daughter’s widower Bill Homann have all made money exhibiting and promoting the skull. Lucasfilm, Paramount and Disney have also profited from the skull. Although the skull itself was not used in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a fictionalized version was. In the movie it was found in Peru, but it was called the “Mitchell-Hedges Skull” like its real life counterpart.

Given these facts, the current owner, Mitchell-Hedges’ son-in-law Bill Homann, must return the skull to Belize, its rightful owner, and Lucasfilm, Paramount and Disney must pay damages to Belize which has “a right, title and interest in and to the Mitchell-Hedges Skull and its likeness.” There’s basically no chance, in my entirely non-professional opinion, that the court will find the latter argument persuasive. If it does any research at all, it won’t find the former argument persuasive either.

The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal SkullThe reason for this is simple: there is no evidence whatsoever that Frederick Arthur Mitchell-Hedges actually found the crystal skull in Belize. I mentioned the background story in this entry way back in 2008 which links to an article in Archaeology magazine debunking the crystal skull mythos.

F.A. Mitchell-Hedges was a British adventurer, journalist and fabulist who promoted himself in his 1954 autobiography Danger, My Ally as a discoverer of “lost cities” with a Zelig-like ability to find himself at the crux of historic events. In 1913 he was kidnapped by Pancho Villa, who let him live solely because of his stirring rendition of “God Save the King” and then forced him to fight by his side for 10 months. In 1917 in New York he roomed with a Russian named “Bronstein” who turned out to have been Leon Trotsky. He may have been a spy for the British secret service, although he denied it in his autobiography.

F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in Guatemala with his secretary and the 'natives'That doesn’t really matter, though, since you basically can’t believe a word he says. He claimed that in the early 1920s, while looking for a link between Atlantis and the Maya, he and his crew slashed and burned their way through the Belizean rain forest until they came across the “lost city” of Lubaantun. Lie. The locals knew about the ruins and told archaeologist Dr. Thomas Gann about them in 1903. He explored the site and published several papers about it. Another expedition in 1915 followed, and then Gann returned in 1924, bringing Mitchell-Hedges with him.

There is no contemporary documentation recording the discovery of a crystal skull on the 1924 dig. Mitchell-Hedges himself didn’t mention it until his autobiography, even though he wrote plenty of juicy adventurous stories about the Lubaantun expedition in which he starred as the intrepid discoverer and Dr. Gann was nowhere to be found. His 1954 account of the discovery of the crystal skull is less than precise. “How it came into my possession,” he wrote ominously, “I have reason for not revealing.” He called it the Skull of Doom. “It is said that when [the high priest] willed death with the skull, death invariably followed. It has been described as the embodiment of evil.” Yes quite.

After F.A.’s death in 1959, his adopted daughter Anna took on her father’s great bullshitting mantle. In 1968 she wrote to art conservator Frank Dorland, who was studying the crystal skull, that she herself found the piece when she joined her father on his last expedition to Lubaantun in 1926. She later changed her story to a far juicier version. This time she was just a teenager when she found the skull, accompanying her father on the 1924 expedition. Against his wishes, she climbed the tallest pyramid while everyone else was having their siesta because she had heard that you could see the ocean from up there. Instead she saw through gaps in the rock what looked like a light shining inside the pyramid.

Her stern but loving father admonished her upon her return, but curious about her story he and his crew broke a hole in the side of the pyramid just big enough for a little person to squeezle through. On January 1st, 1924, Anna’s 17th birthday, the crew lowered her into the pyramid by two ropes. She was scared. There were scorpions and God knows whatall else in there. She saw the skull, stuffed it in her shirt and had the crew lift her back out. As soon as the Maya villagers saw what she had found, they began to weep and moan and bow before the skull.

Seeing their reaction, Mitchell-Hedges gave the skull to the high priest, who put it on an altar surrounded by a fire that was kept roaring 24 hours a day. Maya people came from all over to see the skull. It stayed there for years until the high priest gave the skull back to F.A. during the 1926-1927 expedition either for “safekeeping” or in thanks for the food and medicine he had given them, depending on which day Anna was telling the story.

Anna Mitchell-Hedges later in life with the crystal skullMitchell-Hedges kept it until his death, then Anna kept it (with occasional gaps when she loaned it out, like to Dorland) until her death in 2007, leaving it to Bill Homann whom she married in 2002 when she was 95 and he was almost 40 years younger. (Homann prefers to think of her as his mentor; according to him the marriage was for insurance purposes.) Bill continues to tell Anna’s story to this day. For him it’s the Skull of Love full of positive vibrations and groovy things, not the Mitchell-Hedges Skull of Doom, and he travels the country taking the skull with him on personal appearances. You can hear him regale a nice New Age crystals-and-chakras lady with it in this interview (the crystal skull part starts at the 5:00 point and goes on a loooong time).

So that’s the tallest tale of the discovery of the crystal skull. There is zero evidence any of it is true, and quite a bit of evidence that it’s not. Besides Mitchell-Hedges’ own uncharacteristic reticence to mention it when self-promoting his faux discovery of the not-really-lost city of Lubaantun, there’s also positive evidence of a whole other provenance.

A 1936 article in Man, the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, compared two crystal skulls, one of them in the British Museum (where it still resides) and the other belonging to London art dealer and antiquities collector Sydney Burney. The two skulls wereBritish Museum's crystal skull almost identical in material and overall design, with the latter being more intricately carved around the eyes and jaw. The measurements of the Burney skull match the Mitchell-Hedges skull exactly. Burney put it up for sale at a Sotheby’s auction in 1943. A note in the archives of the British Museum says that it didn’t sell at the auction, but that one F.A. Mitchell-Hedges bought it from Burney in 1944 for 400 pounds. That would explain why he never mentioned it twenty years earlier.

When questioned about the Burney evidence, Anna claimed that Mitchell-Hedges had “loaned” the skull to Burney in exchange for money to finance an expedition. When he saw an ad in the newspaper advertising the Sotheby’s sale, Mitchell-Hedges bought the skull back. Possible, I suppose, but I can’t say I find it persuasive.

Late Mayan skull reliefs on Temple of the Skull at Chichen ItzaThen there’s the physical evidence. Jane MacLaren Walsh, archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution and author of the Archaeology magazine article linked above, examined the Mitchell-Hedges skull in 2007 and found tool marks left by high-speed diamond-coated rotary cutting implements which would not have been part of the toolkit of 3,600-year-old Mayans. She believes it’s a copy of the British Museum skull, only with more elaborate features added like the articulated mandible and realistic teeth. Both of them date no earlier than the late 19th century, in her opinion, a time when skull art was very much in fashion.

The iconographic evidence is also stacked against the authenticity of the skull. There are no other relatively realistic skulls like this to be found in Mayan art. They either used actual human skulls or they carved them in stylized hieroglyphics and reliefs.

Bill Homann with the skullMeanwhile, even if the Mitchell-Hedgeses didn’t make up their many and varied skull stories, Bill Homann’s ownership is not clear. Several nieces and nephews of Anna’s contested the will, so until the whole probate issue is decided for good, Belize and Dr. Awe couldn’t touch the skull anyway. It’s a fun read of a lawsuit, though. Unlike most of its ilk, it’s short, sweet and thin on jargon. Thin on archaeology too, since it just accepts Anna’s story as fact so that Belize can piggy-back off the success of the crystal skull. Enjoy it below.

Tomb of man who inspired Gladiator to be reburied

December 7th, 2012

Four years ago, archaeologists surveying a future construction site near the Via Flaminia road just north of Rome discovered the remains of a monumental tomb. Latin inscriptions on marble identified the mausoleum as that of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a Roman general from the 2nd century A.D. whose military successes against the Germanic tribes and role as adviser and battle companion of emperor Marcus Aurelius helped inspire the Maximus character in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Of course the Gladiator connection made the biggest PR splash at the time, but even setting that aside the discovery was enormously significant.

Archaeologists had every expectation of finding something because the ancient sources suggested the site would intersect with the ancient Roman version of the Via Flaminia, a major road first built by censor Gaius Flaminius around 220 B.C. which heads north from Rome through the Apennines ending at Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The road was used continuously by friend and foe from the time of its construction under the Roman Republic through World War II. Several major battles were fought along its path.

The discovery of so grand a tomb, however, with large, exquisitely carved architectural elements still in good condition, was not expected. Many important marble remains were quarried in post-Roman times for reuse in other buildings or crushed to make lime. What saved this mausoleum was also what destroyed it: a Tiber flood. The banks of the Tiber are a few tens of yards away. At some point after the tomb’s construction, the river burst its banks and tore the structure down. Safely buried in warm Tiber mud, the architectural components of the tomb remained exactly as the river left them, undisturbed for centuries.

The good condition and copious quantity of remains dangled the exciting prospect before the regional ministry of archaeology that the tomb could be reconstructed. The foundations of the structure were still in place, so it would be a matter of reassembling the columns, friezes, lintels, tympana and arches toppled by the flood. A heroic nude statue found along with some marble blocks during Tiber embankment work in 1956 in the same area as the tomb might also have been part of the mausoleum, perhaps even representing General Marcus Nonius Macrinus himself.

What we know of Macrinus comes almost entirely from epigraphic evidence, including a number of inscriptions found in Brescia, Macrinus’ birthplace and the hometown of the prominent Nonius family. Macrinus climbed the cursus honorum, the traditional ladder of senatorial politics, starting at a bracingly young age. Antoninus Pius was emperor when he began. He was a senator by the age of around 25 in 138 A.D. and consul 16 years later in 154 A.D. Marcus Aurelius succeeded Pius after his death in 161 A.D. and at the end of that decade fought with Macrinus against the Quadi and Marcomanni who had invaded Italy, the first Germanic tribes to do so since Gaius Marius soundly spanked the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 B.C.

One inscription from the base of a statue found in the agora of Ephesus, Greece, covers almost Macrinus’ entire career:

M[arcus Nonius] Macrinus, consul of Rome, proconsul of Asia, quindecimvir sacris faciundis [(the priestly college in charge of guarding the Sibylline Books)], entered by appointment in the college of the closest friends as a sodalis Antoninianus Verianus [(the religious association dedicated to the deified emperor Antoninus Pius, adopted father of Marcus Aurelius)], legate and campaign companion of the very great emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, consular governor of Upper Pannonia, governor of Lower Pannonia, curator of the Tiber and of its two banks, commander of the XIV legion, praetor of Rome, tribune of the plebs, Asian legate , quaestor, laticlave tribune [(i.e., second in command)] of the XVII legion [(this is a mistake; Legio XVII was destroyed in the infamous Battle of Teutoburg Forest under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus and was never reconstituted because of the abysmally bad luck associated with it; Marcinus' laticlave tribunate was probably of the XVI legion)], decemvir stlitibus iudicandis [(one of ten judges assigned to adjudicate capitol cases in the imperial era)], savior of the province.

I can’t find a transcript of the inscriptions discovered at the mausoleum, but it was doubtless much of the same material. More than 10 inscriptions detail his life and works and note that the tomb was built by his son to honor the father. Junior wasn’t stingy about it, either. Archaeologists estimate that one row of columns was at least 50 feet long, so you can imagine what a massive structure this was.

With its impressive size and inscriptions clearly marking it as the final resting place of an illustrious Roman connected to a hugely popular Oscar-winning sword-and-sandal movie, the reconstructed tomb would become the centerpiece of an archaeological park along the ancient Via Flaminia. The park would also include a series tombs discovered on the sixth mile of the road and the villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, famed for its frescoes and as the discovery spot of the Augustus of Prima Porta which now resides in the Vatican Museums. State archaeologist Daniela Rossi called the tomb the most important Roman find of the past 20 or 30 years.

Fast forward to 2012 and with government budgets slashed by austerity, not only is there no chance of the mausoleum being rebuilt, but they can’t even afford to maintain the site anymore. Archaeological superintendent Mariarosaria Barbera announced Tuesday that they have made the painful decision to rebury the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus. Her announcement as quoted in the Italian daily La Repubblica:

It’s a question of security. The superintendence has invested its own funds in additional excavation and study. Now unfortunately the time has come to rebury the area. The site will be temporarily covered to preserve the artifacts that cannot stand another winter in the open exposed to the elements. It’s December; it’s cold; soon it will freeze. The marbles cannot stand another year in these conditions. At the moment there are no funds for any development solutions. It’s painful to cover them up, but it would be even more painful to think that they might not withstand the cold and that they run the risk of falling apart and deteriorating completely.

The site won’t be entirely reburied. The remains will be partially covered, enough to protect them while still making future interventions relatively easy. The dream of the park has not been abandoned. They’re probably going to need private donors, however, to make it happen.

Incredible Blitz map, or, how is there still a London?

December 6th, 2012

The UK’s National Archives has compiled an astonishing interactive map detailing the locations and dates of all the bombs that fell on London and environs during the Blitz. The Bomb Sight project has taken the original bomb census maps which documented the Blitz as it happened between October 7th, 1940, and June 6th, 1941, and uploaded the data onto web map. The bomb census maps used to only be available to visitors who went in person to the Reading Room of The National Archive, so this is an incredible resource now at the public’s fingertips for the first time.

You can type in a zip code to pull up a map of all the bombs in the area, or you can just browse the maps by zooming in and out as you please. You can click on each bomb for details, then click a “read more” link to see period photographs from the Imperial War Museum and the BBC’s People’s War archive of the devastated area. They’ve also collected memories of the bombings from people who lived in the area, so when you zoom in on one bomb you can read first person accounts of the experience from survivors. The sheer density of information is mind-boggling.

The website is having timeout errors right now because it’s so amazing, but don’t give up. You get a whole new understanding of the Blitz by seeing it mapped out. Here are the bombs that fell on London on September 7th, 1940, the first night of bombing:

Here are the bombs that fell on London during the second week of October:

Here are the total bombs that fell on London at night from October 1940 to June 1941:

In. Sane. It’s hard to believe a city could survive that with any structures left standing at all. The statistics — 20,000 civilians dead, a million plus homes destroyed, 57 consecutive nights of bombing — as horrific as they are can’t convey the scale of destruction. An interactive map is worth a million stats, to coin a new cliche.

Bomb Sight is also working on an Android App with Augmented Reality, which uses GPS data so people walking around in London can find out if a bomb hit anywhere near them. People not in London will also be able to explore the city with this app.

Rare late Iron Age helmet found near Canterbury

December 5th, 2012

A metal detectorist scanning farmland near Canterbury in Kent, southeast England, has unearthed a bronze helmet from the late Iron Age. Although seemingly modest compared to gold coin hoards and elaborately decorated ceremonial cavalry helmets, this is a find a major national importance. Only a few intact or near-intact Iron Age helmets have ever been discovered anywhere, only three of them in Britain (including this badass horned one fished out of the Thames in the 19th century) and only one of them, this one, of this particular design. It’s also one of the only helmets whose archaeological context was preserved and examined by professionals, thanks to the responsible actions of the finder (who wishes to remain anonymous). This turned out to be enormously important because the excavation revealed that the helmet is one of a kind in another way too.

Our anonymous metal detecting friend has some familiarity with archaeological practices because he had been a volunteer for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The Trust’s Finds Manager, Andrew Richardson, was previously the Finds Liaison Officer (the expert to whom members of the public bring historical finds to record them for the Portable Antiquities Scheme which is a necessary first step in the process of declaring a find treasure according to the UK’s Treasure Act) for Kent. Richardson knew the finder personally from his days as the Kent FLO, so when in October of this year he got a phone call from the finder claiming to have made “significant discovery” of a “Celtic bronze helmet,” Richardson agreed to go check out it. He was doubtful that it could really be an Iron Age helmet — no such helmets have ever been found in Kent before — but when he went to the finder’s house the next day, he indeed found a 1st century B.C. bronze helmet, a brooch from the same period, a bronze spike that was probably mounted on top of the helmet so a plume could be attached to it and a charred bone fragment.

The bone fragment suggested the helmet might have accompanied a burial, perhaps of a warrior or military leader. Richardson, the finder and the various authorities to whom they reported the discovery as possible treasure, agreed the find site should be promptly excavated. The finder had wisely marked the spot, placing a bag of lead fishing weights in the hole left by the helmet before backfilling it. This made the place easy to find and kept the archaeological context of the discovery intact.

What they found was not a glamorous burial with military regalia, but a shallow oval pit cut into the chalk landscape. A green impression left by the copper alloy of the helmet during its 2000 years in the ground marked the burial spot within the pit. Fragments of the metal sheeting were still attached to the soil and you can clearly see a dense area in the middle which is what’s left of the rounded top of the helmet, which corroded over time leaving behind a hole.

Archaeologists found a number of charred bone fragments as well, all within the helmet impression. That means the human remains were not buried with the helmet, but rather inside of it. The helmet was turned upside down and used an urn, basically. Judging from the location of the brooch above the bone fragments, the cremains were probably placed in a leather or fabric bag, now long decayed away, which was closed at the top with the brooch. The bag was placed inside the helmet either right before or right after it was buried in the eastern half of the oval pit. There’s no evidence of a grave marker and no evidence of any other burials nearby. Either this is a cemetery with widely spaced out plots or this was the sole grave.

If late Iron Age helmets are rare in England, late Iron Age helmet burials are unheard of. This is the first one ever discovered in Britain and the only other helmet burial we know of was found in Poland. If the detectorist had not noticed the bone or not properly marked the site for archaeologists to return to, we would never have known just how unique a find this is.

As it is, it’s nothing short of miraculous that the helmet survived. The archaeological excavation found two deep plough furrows on either side of the helmet impression, a result of years of farming. The rim of the helmet is a little dented and battered, probably from contact with one of the makers of those furrows. Had a plough moved a few inches offset to the right or left, the helmet would have been chewed up and scattered over this large field. Had the finder not found it when he did, there’s a good chance it would have met that fate in the future since the field is still actively farmed.

Initial analysis, including laser scans, of the helmet by experts at the University of Kent and the British Museum indicate that the helmet was probably not locally made. It’s most likely of Gaulish manufacture and given how busy a time the 1st century B.C. was, there are any number of ways that it might have made its way to Britain. British mercenaries went to Gaul to fight on both sides during Caesar’s wars of conquest. Caesar and his troops fought in Britain in 55-54 B.C. They landed on the shores of Kent, in fact, just a few miles from where the helmet was found so perhaps it came with them.

The helmet will remain at the British Museum for further study while the process of determining whether this find qualifies as treasure continues. Unlike the Crosby-Garret helmet which so tragically slipped through a loophole of the Treasure Act, the fact that a brooch was found with this helmet is going to ensure it’s declared treasure because two pieces of ancient base metalwork qualify as treasure whereas just one, no matter how spectacular, does not. Once it’s declared treasure, a market value will be assessed and a local museum, in this case Canterbury Museum, will be given the first chance to purchase it.

120-year-old London Underground carriage restored

December 4th, 2012

On Saturday, January 10th, 1863, London’s Metropolitan Railway line carried its first public passengers over six kilometers (3.7 miles) and from Paddington through five intermediate stations to Farringdon Street. It was the world’s first subway system and it was an immediate success, transporting 40,000 people that first day and 9.5 million the first year. These early subway cars weren’t like the ones we have today, but rather wooden carriages divided into compartments that were pulled by steam engines. They were literally underground trains.

Next month will be the 150th anniversary of the first passenger voyage of what would become known as the Tube and the London Transport Museum will be celebrating the event by running a series of restored trains along that first route from Paddington to Farringdon, now part of the Circle Line. The trains and cars used in 1863 have not survived, but other beauties from the steam era have. After extensive restoration funded by the museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund and private donations, Metropolitan Steam Locomotive No. 1, built in 1898 and Metropolitan Railway Jubilee Carriage Number 353, built in 1892, will return steam-powered mass transit to the London Underground.

Metropolitan Railway Jubilee Carriage Number 353 is the only survivor of 59 carriages that ran along the Circle Line in the last 15 years of underground steam rail. They were named Jubilee carriages because the model was first introduced in 1887 during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Made out of teak wood with gas lighting and gold leaf accents, these were elegant first class carriages. Less than 20 years after the first carriages were produced, they were rendered obsolete when the Metropolitan Railway switched from steam to electric power in 1905.

When the private Metropolitan Railway and Underground Electric Railways Company of London merged with city tram and bus services to become the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, the Met Loco 1 steam engine was renumbered, repainted and used sporadically as part of London Transport’s above ground services. It was retired in 1963 after which it was purchased by the Quainton Railway Society (now the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre) and loaned to various museums and for special events over the years. In 2010, its boiler certificate expired which meant it could no longer run without a complete rehaul and re-certification. A complete restoration began in 2011 with the aim of returning Met Loco 1 to full steam running conditions in time for the 150th anniversary.

Jubilee Carriage Number 353 survived in a far more reduced circumstances. In 1940 it was purchased and moved to Knapps dairy farm in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, where it was used as a garden shed. For 34 years it stayed on the farm, open to the elements. A toilet was attached to the end of it at some point. In 1974 the dairy farm was slated for redevelopment and the carriage was in danger of being destroyed. London Transport bought it for its historical value, adding it to its underground relics collection. It was in surprisingly good shape structurally, despite its hard scrabble post-war existence, and several ideas were considered about what to with it, including cutting out a section to put it on display. Thankfully Number 353 was kept whole and safe until 2011, when funds were raised to restore it too so it could be reenlisted into service 150 years after the first carriages ran underground.

After 15 months of painstaking work by Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway, specialists in heritage railway carriage restorations, Metropolitan Railway Jubilee Carriage Number 353 is back to her former splendor. A team of masters and apprentices did the work, the apprentices a condition of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant to ensure that these skills are passed down to the next generation. Number 353 has been rail tested and runs like a charm. She is now officially the oldest operational subway carriage still known to survive.

Met Loco 1 and Carriage 353 will be recreating the first underground journey on Sunday, January 13th, 2013. For more pictures of the restoration of Number 353, see the museum’s Flickr set. There’s a smaller but still cool set documenting the overhaul of Met Loco 1 here. If you’d like some delicious and nutritious information along with those picture sets, the museum’s blog has a nice entry about the underground testing of the locomotive and lots of entries about the carriage as it was being restored.

Here’s video of the carriage during the 15 months of restoration:

Museum buys Napoleon coded letter on blowing up the Kremlin

December 3rd, 2012

A letter written in a numerical code on October 20, 1812, detailing Napoleon’s plan to blow up the Kremlin on his retreat from Russia was purchased at auction on Sunday by the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris. The coded letter was sold along with its original transcription made in Paris three or four days later, a very rare pairing and a fortunate one since without the period transcription it’s unlikely we’d know the major historical significance of the letter’s contents. Perhaps spurred on by the bids of Russian plutocrats, the lot sold for €187,500 ($243,500), more ten times its pre-sale estimate of €15,000 ($19,500). It’s impressive that a museum won in the end.

Sent from Napoleon to Hugues-Bernard Maret, the Minister of Foreign Affairs (who would later be appointed Prime Minister of France under King Louis Philippe I for exactly eight days in November 1834) who was then in Vilnius, the letter baldly states “Je fais sauter le Kremlin le 22 à trois heures du matin” (“I am going to have the Kremlin blown up at three o’clock in the morning on the 22nd”). The letter then goes on to detail the route of his retreat and orders with unusually emotive urgency that more horses be sent to meet him at Smolensk: “Ma cavalerie est démontée et il meurt beaucoup de chevaux; ordonnez et prenez sur vous que l’on ne perde pas de temps à en acheter” (“My cavalry is in pieces and many horses are dying; order and ensure yourself that no time is wasted in purchasing [more horses]“). The letter is signed with a simple “Nap.”

After a tactical victory at the bloody Battle of Borodino on September 7th, 1812, Napoleon’s path to Moscow was unobstructed. He entered the city on September 14th expecting to find the city leaders greeting him at the door with a key to the city. That was the way things usually worked when an invading army reached an undefended city, but instead he found Moscow evacuated and stripped of supplies. His desperate soldiers and animals would not be housed and fed by a cowed population. They would have to fend for themselves as they’d had to do since their supply lines became hopelessly stretched and their attempts to live off the land thwarted by the impossible logistics of an eastward invasion of Russia’s wide-open sparsely populated and thinly cultivated spaces.

Napoleon had expected Tsar Alexander I to surrender when Moscow fell to the French, but the Russians just regrouped and waited him out. Frustrated that his victories on the field had won his Grande Armée little but huge casualty rates, starvation, frostbite, typhus and mass desertion, Napoleon finally left Moscow on October 19th, the day before he sent the coded letter. He left the city in the hands of Marshal Edouard Mortier, Duke of Treviso. It was Mortier who would follow Napoleon’s orders to blow up the Kremlin. He packed the entire complex with explosives and set them off, but yet again Mother Russia’s Mother Nature interfered with French plans. Rain fell, soaking the fuses and impeding the full destruction of the Kremlin. The arsenal, the wall and a number of towers were destroyed by explosions. Subsequent fires damaged the 15th century Palace of the Facets and several of the churches.

Most of the complex was restored over the next 20 years, although some parts, like the Vodovzvodnaya Tower, were either completely destroyed or so damaged they had to be demolished. The Kremlin Arsenal was restored in neoclassical style and turned into a museum celebrating Russia’s great victory over Napoleon. The walls of the arsenal are decorated with 875 cannons captured by the Grande Armée during its disastrous retreat.

Until the end Napoleon insisted that the Russians had never defeated him militarily, that it was solely the Russian winter than could claim victory over him. He reiterates that point, rebutting critics who blamed his failures of supply logistics and planning, in another document that was sold at the same auction of Sunday. Essay on Countryside Fortification is a 310-page manuscript dictated by Napoleon to his faithful aide-de-camp Grand Marshal Betrand and his secretary Louis Marchand while he was in exile on the island of Saint Helena. Written in 1818-19, the illustrated manuscript details Napoleon’s thoughts on fortifications and the art of war in general. It includes a chapter in which he defends the Russian campaign, saying “Elle ne doit pas s’appeler une retraite puisque l’armée était victorieuse” (“It shouldn’t be called a retreat since the army was victorious”).

The museum paid €375,000 euros ($490,000) for Essay on Countryside Fortification which was the last of Napoleon’s manuscripts still in private hands. That means they dropped three quarters of a million dollars on two documents, bless their hearts. For a museum founded only eight years ago not by some philanthropic Getty-style billionaire but by Gerard Lhéritier, owner of a company that buys and sells historic letters and documents, it is remarkably well-endowed. The newest acquisitions will doubtless make outstanding additions to the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts’ Napoleon I exhibit.

Rare Gaulish treasures found in Lorraine

December 2nd, 2012

Gallic silver coins minted between 60 and 20 B.C. found in BassingIn 2010, archaeologists excavating sites along the route of a new high speed rail line unearthed an exceptional number of Gallic coins and artifacts under communal farmland in the town of Bassing, Lorraine, in northeastern France. The National Institute for Preventive Archaeology (INRAP) announced the find at a press conference in Metz on Thursday, November 29th.

The 3.5 hectare site revealed evidence of continuous occupation from 200 B.C. to 800 A.D., including the remains of a Gallic aristocrat’s home, a villa from the Gallo-Roman period and several early medieval buildings. The earliest structure, an enclosure with a large home and farm within, was built between 150 and 120 B.C. and appears to have been occupied until 14 A.D. The wealth and status of its occupants are testified to by the structures and by the expensive artifacts found, among them a gold ring,Bronze key from the Gallo-Roman era found at Bassing bracelets, cobalt blue glass jewelry, Baltic amber and 132 fibulae (ancient safety pins used to close cloaks and garments). Some of the fibulae were imported and others produced locally. The large number suggests the site was a center of trade. This is confirmed by the remains of many Italian amphorae which probably held imported wine, a luxury only the elite of Gaulish society could afford.

Mouthpieces of Gallic war hornsRemains of both Gallic and Roman military artifacts suggest the homeowners weren’t just involved in farming and trade. Fragments of chariots, a battle axe, arrowheads, metallic trimmings of uniforms, nails from hobnailed shoes, cavalry harnesses, several mouthpieces from war horns and one Roman legionary dagger were found on the site, but there is no evidence that life on the property was interrupted or debased by war. In all likelihood, the artifacts identify the elites who lived there as members of the Médiomatrique tribe who populated the area and supported the Roman invasion. Much of the Gallic nobility participated in the fight on the Roman side, sending their own warriors to fight alongside Caesar’s.

Gold staters of the Médiomatrique tribe found at BassingThe vast amount of cash found on the property was also probably destined for military use. A total of 1165 Gaulish coins from the 1st century B.C., 1,111 silver quinarii (small coins valued at half a denarius or five asses, hence “quinarius”), three gold staters and 51 bronze pieces, were unearthed scattered throughout the site. Some of them are Gallic in style and iconography. Others are rough imitations of Gallo-Roman quinarii (notable for Gallic elements like torques added to Roman profiles) of a kind made between 40 and 30 B.C. when Roman money was in short supply, so Gauls made local versions which could be used in the trade between Rome and Gaul. The total value of the Bassing coins could pay a year and a half’s salary for a legionary at the dawn of the empire.

The silver coins come from different areas of Gaul.

74% of the lot come from the East Central Gaul and belongs to Sequani of Besançon, the Lingons Langres, the Aedui Bibracte or Autun. 14% are from the people of the Loire Valley, 7% from the Remi of Reims (Gaul Belgium) and 3% Arverni of Clermont-Ferrand. Finally, a few copies belong to Ségusiaves, people located near Lyon.

Gallic silver coin with traditional Celtic horse and serpent iconographyThis is an exceptional number of coins for a Gallic site. Only 400 coins total have ever been discovered in the major Gaulish town of Alesia, where Julius Caesar famously defeated Vercigetorix in the final battle of the Gallic Wars in 52 B.C., and they were mainly bronze coins and cheaper denominations in regular circulation. Silver was primarily reserved for use by the elite to secure their military power.

Although found scattered, this cache was probably buried in one group between 40 and 20 B.C. and then scattered by ploughs which have been churning the soil since the Middle Ages.

Titanic Titanic plan goes on display in Belfast

December 1st, 2012

Titanic plan on display at the Titanic Belfast museumThe massive longitudinal sectioned plan of Titanic that was used during the British Board of Trade’s inquiry into the tragedy is now on display at Titanic Belfast, the innovative museum which opened this year on the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard where Titanic was built. This is great news for Titanic enthusiasts because the plan was only displayed in public for the first time last year before being purchased by an anonymous private collector for a record £220,000 ($363,000) on May 31st, 2011, the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s launch. That collector has generously loaned it to the museum for permanent display.

Created by the Naval Architects Department of White Star Line, the plan was hand-drawn in India ink with red and blue chalk marking the places where the iceberg was thought to have torn through five of the ship’s watertight bulkheads on the night of April 14th, 1912. It is 33 feet long and almost five feet wide, drawn to a precise scale of 3/8ths of an inch to one foot, on a single piece of paper which was then affixed to a linen backing. It was captioned in great detail to make the complex design and usage of the boat clear to the members of the Board of Inquiry who used it throughout their investigation.

The plan hung from cables in the hearing room and was referred to constantly by eyewitnesses (among them the only two passengers called to testify: Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff-Gordon), experts (Ernest Shackleton testified on navigating icy waters and Guglielmo Marconi on wireless telegraphy), White Star officials, and commissioners during the 36 days of the inquiry.

Section of the Titanic plan used during the Board of Trade inquiry

You can see the full plan in greater detail in this BBC photo gallery. The red and blue chalk drawings added during the inquiry to mark the areas of impact are on the last two pictures.

Expert Una Reilly, who is co-founder of the Belfast Titanic Society, said the plan helped to dispel one of the enduring myths about the sinking.

“There has been for more than 100 years this theory that there was a 300 foot gash in Titanic,” she said.

“The actual total amount of damage caused by the iceberg was 12 square feet, which is the size of a normal room door. But it was the fact that it was in six different places.”

The Board of Trade inquiry ended on July 3rd, 1912, concluding that “excessive speed” had caused the sinking of Titanic. The plan was returned to the White Star Line and it remained in private hands, unseen by the public until its sale last year. All we know about the person who bought it is that he or she is Irish and a Titanic enthusiast who wants to share the awesomeness of this one-of-a-kind artifact with the public.

Sean Madden examines the Board of Inquiry planBefore going on display, the plan spent five weeks being examined and tended to by paper conservator Sean Madden. He found it in excellent condition, even though it probably spent a few decades gathering dust in a White Star archive before some unknown person saved it from destruction in the 30s or 40s after the 1934 merger of Cunard and White Star. He also believes that a drawing of such detail and size could not have been produced in the ten days between the commissioning of the Board of Trade inquiry on April 22nd, 1912 and the first day of hearings on May 2nd, 1912. Madden thinks it was created in 1908 as a working drawing used for reference during Titanic’s construction in Belfast which is why White Star was able to produce it in time for the inquiry.

Titanic Belfast museumThe titanic Titanic profile went on display in Titanic Belfast’s “Aftermath” gallery on Thursday, November 27th. There it will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people a year. There was concern before the museum opened this year in time for the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of Titanic that it would have a hard time recouping the £90 million ($144,000,000) investment in its construction. The Northern Ireland audit office estimated it would have to attract 290,000 visitors every year just to break even. It has attracted more than 600,000 visitors in just eight months.

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