Tourist breaks a finger off Uffizi’s Rape of Polyxena

April 2nd, 2013

Last Thursday, March 28th, at 11:20 PM, a woman in her 30s identified as a German tourist of Polish origin snapped a finger off The Rape of Polyxena, an 19th century statue by Pio Fedi in the Loggia dei Lanzi adjoining the Uffizi Gallery. The private security guard contracted with watching the Loggia at night alerted the police immediately after the incident, giving them a precise description of the alleged culprit. The police were then able to stop the woman as she attempted to leave the area. She has been charged with damaging the statue.

Rape in this sense means kidnapping, like the rape of the Sabine women, a classical subject that is depicted in another of the statues in the Loggia. The statue depicts Achilles taking Trojan princess Polyxena who has offered herself in exchange for the return of her brother Hector’s body. Achilles grasps her securely in his left arm while he raises the sword with his right arm to beat back Queen Hecuba, Polyxena’s mother, who clings desperately to her daughter. On his back under Achille’s feet is the dead Prince Hector. It’s the index finger of Hector’s left hand that was snapped off.

This is sadly not the first time Hector’s fingers have been subjected to vandalism. They are all plaster now because all of them have had to be replaced at one time or another. This is the third time in just four years that somebody has damaged Hector’s fingers. The most recent incident before this latest one happened last October, again the victim was the index finger of the left hand. That may have been an accident rather than a deliberate act of vandalism, though. Security cameras only show one person getting anywhere near the statue between the last time the finger was seen in place and the time it was found missing: the expert who was dusting it.

When the finger was replaced in October, they wisely planned ahead, inserting a small wooden dowel between the finger and the hand that would make reattaching easier and that would help avoid additional damage to the marble. Alberto Casciani, the same restorer who inserted the dowel and attached a plaster replacement finger in October, was enlisted on Friday morning to reattach the finger again, so poor Hector was only missing his index finger for a few hours this time around.

The Rape of Polyxena was sculpted between 1855 and 1865. Pio Fedi researched it assiduously — many of his sketches and plans for the piece are in museums in Florence and Rome — and it’s widely considered the greatest of all his works. Its held as a highly significant example of 19th century Italian art and has the honor of being the only modern(ish) sculpture in the Loggia dei Lanzi. All of the other sculptures are ancient — like Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus, a late 1st century A.D. Roman copy of a Greek original from the 3rd century B.C. — or Renaissance — like the bronze Perseus with the head of Medusa (1554) by Benvenuto Cellini, his masterpiece and the most famous and beloved of the statues in the Loggia.

The Loggia dei Lanzi is an arched open area in the Piazza della Signoria that was originally built in the 14th century to hold public ceremonies. It got its name in the 16th century when Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici briefly stationed his German mercenary Landsknecht troops — pikemen and infantrymen reputed to be the best fighters money could buy — in the Loggia. Landsknecht was Italianized to Lanzichenecchi which was shortened to Lanzi. It was already a public sculpture gallery by then. Cellini’s Perseus was specifically commissioned by Cosimo I for placement in the Loggia.

It may not retain its public openness for long if this kind of vandalism continues. For now the Uffizi has simply increased security, but there are rumblings of more draconian approaches to come.

“We need to section off the Loggia dei Lanzi and allow only controlled access, not free access, as has been the case up to now. Perhaps it is even the case to close it off at night,” Uffizi Director Antonio Natali said.

“It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and we need to find a protection system so that these events are not repeated.”

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Vesalius’ notes for unpublished edition of De fabrica

April 1st, 2013

Andreas Vesalius, the 16th century physician from Brussels, is considered the founder of modern anatomy. He revolutionized medicine by introducing hands-on dissection of human cadavers into surgical studies and by exposing the errors of medieval authorities like Mondino de’ Liuzzi, the Arabic translators of ancient Greek and Latin sources, and even the newly revived, translated and mass-printed works of Galen who Vesalius followed in many ways. It was Vesalius’ skill at surgery, already widely recognized by the time he finished his studies, and his dedication to practical anatomical exploration which drove him to correct Galenic misapprehensions caused by his dissection of Barbary macaques instead of people.

In 1543, Vesalius published a groundbreaking anatomy textbook: De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The content was based on his lectures as Chair of Surgery and Anatomy at the University of Padua where he was the first physician to insist on performing his own dissections on human cadavers while students closely observed his work. Before him, lecturers read from accepted authorities while barber-surgeons dissected animals, and a human once a year in winter when the cadaver could last longer. A student of his noted with amazement that Vesalius single-handedly did the work three men — the lecturer, the demonstrator and the dissector — had done before him. He also was the first professor to bring detailed anatomically correct drawings into the class as visual aids to his lectures.

This innovative approach was reflected in his book as well. De Fabrica wasn’t the first book based on recent explorations of human anatomy, but it was the first to include truly modern, complex anatomical drawings made by skilled artists from the school of Titian who were actually present at dissections. Other anatomical texts had sketches made by the doctors themselves, so not surprisingly they often were little more than symbolic blobs bearing no resemblance to life. Vesalius’ artwork were professional engravings printed by Joannis Oporini of Basel, Switzerland, one of the greatest printers of the age. The engravings were meticulously precise and detailed to a degree never before seen.

Also represented in De Fabrica is Vesalius’ extensive collection of corrections. For years he had taken notes and published short tracts correcting what he believed were the errors of other anatomists, including living ones like his former teachers Jean Dubois (aka Sylvius) and Johann Guinther von Andernach at the University of Paris. The idea was to create an overview anatomical text along the Galenic model that would fix all the mistakes floating out there and provide evidence not just by argument but also through detailed illustrations.

De Fabrica was a sensation. It became a standard text almost immediately, and it secured Vesalius a position as a household physician to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As exalted a position as this was, at a court that was a center of cultural and scientific patronage, as a member of the emperor’s household, Vesalius’ days as a professor were over, and, he thought, his days as an author were as well. He returned to Padua for a lecture attended by more than 500 students, but that was it. Over the protestations of his friends and colleagues, he also made the insane decision to burn his notes, unpublished works and much of his library, including copies of Galen he had extensively annotated.

He wasn’t quite done writing yet, though. His success at court led to a lucrative private practice in Brussels, and although he traveled with the emperor, in the first half of the 1550s he spent most of his time in his lavish home in Brussels which gave him the opportunity to work on a revision of De Fabrica. This wasn’t a superficial edit. Everything from the typography to the Latin grammar to the placement of the illustrations was made more elegant, more readable. The content was also substantively altered. The new edition would include corrections drawn from his experience at court, tending to war wounds and performing autopsies. The sections on female anatomy, previously heavily reliant on animal dissection, were completely rewritten based on his first-hand knowledge acquired from autopsying the cadavers of pregnant women. He was more secure in his disagreements with Galen and more reliant on his own personal experience rather than his book learning. The result was an edition that was fully rooted in and clearly stated its grounding in hands-on anatomical study of cadavers, that in no uncertain terms prioritized the evidence of scientific examination over the analysis of authorities.

The second edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica was published in 1555. Vesalius died in 1564 on his way back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was two months shy of his 50th birthday. No third edition was ever published, but it seems that in that nine year interim he had planned just that. A copy of the 1555 edition of De Fabrica was recently purchased by a German collector and it contains massive annotations in Vesalius’ hand.

Vesalius expert Vivian Nutton, Emeritus Professor of the History of Medicine at University College London, examined it last year and is the first to publish a study of the edition. At first he doubted that it was possible that a book of such massive significance, the basis of an unpublished third edition of De Fabrica, could exist without anybody knowing about it for four and a half centuries, but upon examination he has found it unquestionably authentic. You can download his paper about it, Vesalius Revised. His Annotations to the 1555 Fabrica, here (pdf).

The 1555 copy of De fabrica on deposit at the Fisher contains over a thousand interlinear and marginal annotations, in the form of additions, deletions and transpositions. There is scarcely a page that does not have some kind of revision on it.

In addition to the many stylistic changes, a good deal of anatomical information has been inserted or revised in light of Vesalius’s own studies and reading since 1555. An examination of the annotations leads inevitably to the conclusion that only Vesalius could have been their author.

Such a logical conclusion is supported by the forensic evidence provided by a comparison of Vesalius’s handwriting in a group of letters preserved at the University of Uppsala, with that in the notes in De fabrica. The case for Vesalius as annotator is incontrovertible.

Now the German collector has generously placed this volume on deposit at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library where it can be examined by scholars. Next year it will go on public display as part of an exhibit celebrating the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth.

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Ring may be centuries older than previously thought

March 31st, 2013

The unique sapphire and gold ring discovered in Escrick, a town six miles south of York, by metal detectorist Michael Greenhorn in 2009 may be as much as 600 years older than previously believed. It also may be of continental European, probably French, origin and worn by royalty, not by a lord of the Church.

The ring’s mixture of styles and materials from different periods has befuddled researchers ever since it was discovered. Although there are no rings like it to make for a viable comparison, the layout, the gold beading, the use of the sapphire, garnet slivers and cloisonné red glass, initially suggested a date in late 10th or 11th century. The combination of red glass and blue glass in a gold setting, however, is typical of early Anglian jewelry (7th – 9th centuries) but they didn’t use sapphires. Experts thought the anomalous sapphire might have been a later addition replacing a blue glass element to increase the value of the ring and make it worthy of royalty.

In an attempt to answer some of the questions raised by this unusual piece, the University of York and the Yorkshire Museum held a workshop at the end of January at which leading experts from all over the country convened to see the Escrick ring in person and discuss its dating. Their new theories moved the date and location of manufacture and excluded the possibility that it had belonged to a bishop rather than a king.

The workshop was attended by more than 30 experts from across the country. After a day of talks, presentations and discussions the main theories were that the ring was of a style similar to others found in Europe in the 5th or 6th centuries.

This link to Europe and the fact nothing has been found like it in Britain before, suggest that is where it was made. When checking for other examples of ring from this period, none similar were found to belong to Bishops, which suggests it would have belonged to a King, leader or consort.

The sapphire in the ring was probably cut earlier, possibly during the Roman period, but the ring itself was specially made around the sapphire. By looking at the wear on the ring it is thought that it was worn for at least 50 years before it was lost.

There could be another explanation for the stylistic anomalies. For instance, the ring may have been created later, the 8th or 9th century, say, but was inspired by 5th or 6th century designs. The inspiration need not have been jewelry either. It could have been local Yorkshire stonework.

It may also have had a previous life as a brooch. The hoop of the ring looks different from the crown. It may have been attached later to convert a brooch into a ring.

The research continues. Archaeologists and historians from the University of Durham will do further investigations of the find location for any information from the 5th or 6th centuries. The ring itself will be examined with X-ray technology and samples will be taken from the good hoop to compare it to the gold in the crown of the ring. Researchers hope some hard data will help eliminate possibilities and maybe even give us some concrete answers to solve the mysteries of the Escrick Ring.

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Duffy’s Cut victim returns to Donegal for burial

March 30th, 2013

A year after five unidentified victims who died during the construction of the Duffy’s Cut section of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in 1832 were buried in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, the remains of another Duffy’s Cut worker have been returned to Donegal and laid to rest. His name was John Ruddy of Inishowen, and he traveled from Londonderry to Philadelphia on the barque John Stamp in June of 1832 to work on the railroad. A few months later, his body was dumped into an unmarked mass grave with an axe hole in his skull.

Duffy’s Cut, named after Philip Duffy, a fellow Irish immigrant who had moved to the US in search of his fortune, was a particularly gnarly piece of railroad 20 miles west of Philadelphia. Duffy’s contract with the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad required him to level a hill and fill the adjacent valley with the clay, shale and stone spoil. Once flattened, the area would be able to accommodate tracks. To accomplish this backbreaking task, Duffy turned east to the motherland, seeking out in his own words “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin” to work incessantly in horrendously cramped and unsanitary conditions for a pittance. Historians believe John Ruddy was one of 15 from the John Stamp hired by Duffy to move a hill into a valley.

Things did not go as planned. The laborers were housed in a shanty on the work site, their sole source of water a contaminated stream. Cholera struck. As people began to die, the rest of the workers were forcibly quarantined in their shanty. They were expendable. There was no attempt to save them, and in fact, the skull damage suggests that all six of the people found in a mass grave died not from cholera but rather from violence, probably inflicted by the Pinkerton-esque “security” personnel of the East Whiteland Horse Company who were hired to enforce the quarantine.

William Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University, and his twin brother Francis, a Lutheran minister, have been investigating the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut ever since they found a file in their grandfather’s belongings describing the railroad’s 1909 investigation into the events. Their grandfather, Joseph Tripican, was the assistant to Martin Clement, president of Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1940s and the man in charge of the investigation in 1909. The Watson’s found that the railroad’s internal findings of 57 dead at Duffy’s Cut contradicted press articles from 1832 which downplayed the situation and said only eight or nine people had died.

After much permit filing and grant requesting, the Watsons collected some volunteers and put their own money into an excavation of the site in August 2004. They didn’t find any human remains until almost five years later, in March of 2009, when they came across the shin bone of a young man. Five other sets of human remains followed, but that first young man’s skull would provide the sole identifying information. He shares an extremely rare mutation — a missing upper right first molar — with the members of the Ruddy family, some of whom still live in Donegal and remember a family story of a young man heading to the US with stars in his eyes in the 1830s who was never to be heard from again.

Although there hasn’t been sufficient funding to confirm the young man’s identity with DNA testing, the age of the bones, the missing molar and ship’s manifest all strongly point to him being John Ruddy. Instead of keeping his remains in a lab indefinitely until the project gets enough money to perform DNA analysis, the original Duffy’s Cut researchers William Watson, Frank Watson, and Earl Schandelmeier decided to send the remains back to Ireland for a dignified burial.

On Saturday, March 2nd, 2013, the mortal remains of John Ruddy were buried in the graveyard of the Church of the Holy Family in Ardara, a town in Donegal next to Ruddy’s home of Inishowen. The plot was donated by Vincent Gallagher, an Irish immigrant and president of the Commodore Barry Irish Center in Philadelphia. He and his family are from Ardara, and they gave up one of their plots for Mr. Ruddy. Gallagher also put the Watsons in touch with local funeral director Seamus Sholvin and parish priest Canon Austin Laverty.

The casket was carried to its final resting place by Earl Schandelmeier, a Historian at Immaculata University, which was the driving force behind the Duffy’s Cut project, accompanied by three pipers in kilts. They were closely followed by Sadie Ruddy, who lives in Portnoo, and her first cousins James and Bernard Ruddy from Quigley’s Point, all three of whom are direct descendants of the deceased.

Canon Laverty told those assembled that “this brings a form of closure to a sad and shameful chapter of American history and re-enforced how desperate times were in this country at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”

Looking out across the graveyard towards Loughros Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, Canon Laverty noted that Slieve Tooey – visible in the distance – was possibly the last piece of Ireland that Mr Ruddy and those who left Derry in 1832 saw through the mists of their tears.

You can see film of the funeral in this RTE News story:

That’s William Watson, Frank Watson and Tom Connors playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.

The Duffy’s Cut Project isn’t over yet. The Watsons are still working on getting permission from Amtrak to excavate what ground penetrating radar suggests is the major mass grave where the cholera victims were interred. They hope that any remains that can be identified will be returned to Ireland for burial.

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Please hold. Your call is important to us.

March 29th, 2013

The blog was offline for a chunk of time today due to an exceeding of bandwidth which remains mysterious. The hosting company has tried to block hotlinking to see if that’s the issue, and somehow this has resulted in none of the images on this entire site loading, which obviously was not the aim. They’re working on it.

Please accept my apologies for this heinousness. If it’s any consolation, I most certainly feel your pain. The downtime was bad enough. The broken pictures are making my palms sweat.

Update: Okay the pictures are back. There are still problems, though. All the permalinks to individual posts return 404 errors. Sigh.

Update 2: We seem to be fully functional. (And programmed in multiple techniques. STAR TREK JOKE.)

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Yorkshire Viking hoard has unique pommel, necklace

March 28th, 2013


Experts have declared that a hoard of gold and silver treasure from the Viking era discovered by two metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, last May is a “significant and nationally important discovery.” Stuart Campbell and Steve Caswell found a part of the hoard, but instead of digging up the rest on the spot, they reported it to the finds liaison officer at the Yorkshire Museum in York. The museum sent two archaeologists to the a pasture (the exact location of the find is being kept secret to deter looters) so the treasure could be professionally excavated.

Once the whole thing was unearthed, the hoard was found to comprise 29 silver ingots, four silver collars, one of which is a large piece made of four plaited silver ropes joined at each end (in the middle of the picture), silver neck rings, half a silver penannular broach, a silver arm ring, an iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques (the big clumpy looking thing in the bottom right of the picture), four gold hoops from the sword hilt, six gold rivets probably from the same sword.

Andrew Morrison, head curator at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “The artefacts uncovered are typical of a Viking hoard, with the majority of it being silver ingots which were used for currency.

“However the gold sword pommel and a unique silver neck ring are incredibly beautiful and rare finds. We now hope to be able to raise the funds needed to keep them in Yorkshire.”

The pommel style and decoration dates the hoard to 850 – 950 A.D. Its triangular shape with a convex base is a late 9th century form of Viking sword. The plaques of gold foil are decoration with incised animal shapes characteristic of the late Anglo-Saxon Trewhiddle Style, also dating to the late 9th century although it continued to be used in the north of England into the 10th century. Two features mark the pommel as an exceptional piece: its size and its gold decoration. The pommel is 3.3 inches wide, 2 inches high, .5 inches thick; the guard is 3.8 inches long. The total weight of the piece is 10.7 ounces.

There is only one other pommel of comparable size, the Abingdon Sword now in the Ashmolean Museum, which is decorated in the same style but all in silver. The gold on the Bedale pommel makes it unique.

The hoard may have been raiding spoils or it could have been legitimately traded goods buried for later retrieval. The Vikings had a particular fascination with finely crafted metal work (see the National Museum of Scotland exhibit for more on that), more so than the general Saxon population, and although the hoard may have been pillaged, it’s more likely that it was buried by someone who was staying in the area. Many Vikings weren’t coming to Yorkshire just to raid and leave, but rather settled down and became farmers.

Right now the treasure is in the British Museum being cleaned and conserved. The next step is the standard treasure inquest which will certainly result in the coroner declaring the hoard treasure. Anything older than 300 years old or composed of precious metals qualifies as treasure, and the hoard hits the bullseye on both scores. It will then be evaluated for market value and the local museum will have the chance to pay the amount of the valuation to the finders. The York Museum Trust is already preparing to raise the necessary funds to keep the Bedale Viking Hoard in Yorkshire.

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Remains unlikely to be Alfred the Great exhumed

March 27th, 2013

In a secret ten-hour mission, archaeologists exhumed the possible but very unlikely remains of Alfred the Great from an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s in Winchester. This wasn’t so much an exploratory mission as a rescue operation. After the world-wide attention the discovery of Richard III’s parking lot burial received, church authorities were concerned that St. Bartholomew’s cemetery, where the putative bones of Alfred the Great were said to have been buried in the 19th century, might be targeted by grave robbers. The Parochial Church Council decided to opt for an ounce of prevention and commissioned a team to excavate the burial thought to be Alfred’s and store the remains in an undisclosed location.

This is even longer of a shot than the Richard excavation. For one thing, Richard died just over 500 years ago. He was also buried in one place. Alfred died in 899, 1114 years ago, and his remains were moved repeatedly over the next thousand years. He was first interred in the Old Minster in Winchester. It’s believed that Alfred had commissioned the construction of a new, larger church where his remains and that of his dynastic successors would be buried, but the New Minster wasn’t finished until around 903 when his son Edward the Elder was king. The son had his father’s body moved from the old church to the new. After they died, Alfred’s wife Ealhswith, Edward the Elder and Edward’s children were also buried in the New Minster.

When the Normans conquered England, they built a new cathedral on the site of the old church and it rendered the New Minster obsolete. King Henry I commissioned a new New Minster be built north of Winchester in the suburb of Hyde. Hyde Abbey was far enough completed by 1110 that Alfred and his family were reburied there. The Abbey was demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, but the graves were left untouched.

As with the Greyfriars church where Richard III was buried, the Hyde Abbey’s location was forgotten over the centuries. It was rediscovered when the county purchased the land for prison in 1788. The convicts building the prison began by clearing the rubble left by Henry VIII’s marauders. They dug deep pits in which to bury the larger pieces of masonry and one of those pits crossed paths with three royal graves in front of the former high altar. According to the prison warden who was interviewed by antiquarian Captain Howard a few years later, the convicts unearthed a large coffin thought to be Alfred’s. It was carved out of a single block of stone encased in lead. They broke up the coffin, buried the stone in the pit and sold the lead. The bones were scattered.

In 1866 antiquarian John Mellor excavated the site and claimed to have found Alfred’s tomb intact. Those are the remains that were reinterred in the St. Bartholomew churchyard.

So yeah, the odds of these bones being Alfred’s are vanishingly small. University of Winchester archaeologist Doctor Katie Tucker who led the exhumation hopes that the bones can at least be radiocarbon dated. If they turn out to date to the late 10th century, she thinks that will be evidence in favor of the remains belonging to Alfred or his immediate family because no other human remains from before Hyde Abbey’s construction in the 12th century were buried there, as far as we know.

I don’t think it’ll be evidence of anything because there’s hardly a well-established chain of evidence here. We can’t know for sure who was buried at Hyde, nor can we know for sure that the bones in this unmarked grave came from there. There’s little chance of DNA confirmation. Even if the bones did belong to Alfred, they’ve been moved so much and been exposed to who knows what conditions that DNA extraction will be a virtually insurmountable challenge. The remains of Alfred’s granddaughter Queen Eadgyth were discovered in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany in 2008, but there were only 40 bones left and none of them were well-preserved enough to extract a viable DNA sample.

Anyway the process hasn’t even started yet. Winchester Diocesan spokesman Nick Edmonds:

“Understandably, there is widespread interest in this situation. For now we can’t say any more about the remains, their nature or whereabouts, but promise to keep people updated when there is something to tell.

Although no application has yet been made to carry out any scientific investigation, we do acknowledge that there is local interest in learning more about the remains found in this grave.”

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Refrigeration container preserves past instead of food

March 26th, 2013

A commercial refrigeration container normally used to transport perishable foodstuffs on the backs of trucks or stacked on cargo ships has been cleverly enlisted in the preservation of delicate archaeological remains at an important historical site in Lübeck, Germany.

Lübeck’s historic Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its layout, planned from the earliest days of its founding in the mid-12th century, and large number of surviving medieval buildings. Even with 20% of the Old Town destroyed in World War II, Lübeck still has more than 1,000 listed buildings, characteristic back courtyards and a thick network of alleys from the Middle Ages.

Because of its dense history, before a major construction project to build luxury housing in the old merchant’s borough could begin, an equally major archaeological survey of the area had to clear the site first. This wasn’t a hasty six-week rush job (*cough* Drumclay Crannog *cough*). Excavation began in 2009 and is slated to end in 2014. In 2012, archaeologists made an incredible find: a wooden storage cellar from around 1180, less than 40 years after the founding of the town (1143) and 60 years before the alliance with Hamburg (1241) that would form the kernel of the future Hanseatic League.

It’s one of the largest and best-preserved medieval cellars in Europe, and remains of hops and cereals have been found indicating it was used to store ingredients for the production of beer. Just 30 years before this cellar was built, the first written description of hops’ preservative power as an additive to beer appeared in the medicinal text Physica Sacra by Hildegard of Bingen, mystic, musician, healer, abbess and as of December 2012, one of only four women named Doctor of the Church. The 12th century was an important transitional time in the political and economic history of beer as well. Secular princes increasingly took control of the brewing business from the monasteries that had been the traditional producers. The merchants of northern Germany, a burgeoning new social class not bound by feudal or monastic regulation, also got into brewing and trading beer.

It was a dangerous gig. You need long, steady fires to brew and in a time when entire cities were built of wood, one home brewing operation could burn the town to the ground. Municipal laws were promulgated preventing home brewing and transferring the industry out of individual houses and into stone communal brew houses which also served as bakeries. I can see masonry around the wooden elements in the pictures, so perhaps the Lübeck structure was a communal brewhouse/bakehouse cellar. That could well be later construction, though, and this the cellar of a wooden home brew operation with the remains of beer-making ingredients which has somehow survived devastation by fire for more than 800 years, several years of which included active aerial bombings. It’s an incredibly rare and important find.

But how to preserve such rare organic survivals quickly and carefully enough to give researchers a chance to study them thoroughly with as little loss as possible? As soon as the cellar was exposed to air it was in danger. Usually archaeologists have to keep wooden artifacts constantly wet, or find a massive freeze dryer or spend years replacing the water with polyethylene glycol. These methods are inconvenient, expensive and require transportation before conservation.

A refrigerated container, on the other hand, can be transported on site within 24 hours, is big enough to store a whole cellar, and has a wide range of environmental controls. A Maersk Container Industry Star Cool container, for instance, not only has precision temperature controls, but also an Automatic Ventilation feature which regulates airflow and relative humidity in the container and a Controlled Atmosphere option which monitors oxygen and carbon dioxide inside the container and maintains them at pre-set levels. Technology necessary to keep food from spoiling is also just what the doctor ordered to keep archaeological remains from decaying.

“Star Cool was chosen because of its extremely precise temperature and atmospheric control. Such precision is a must if you want to preserve sensitive cultural assets like wet organic structures,” says conservator Maruchi Yoshida who is associated with the Fraunhofer-Institute for Building Physics and Leibniz-Gemeinschaft to manage the reefer container project, ARCHe.

(Reefer in this case meaning refrigerated container, not the jazz musician kind of reefer.)

This is the first time a container has been used for archaeological preservation. Yoshida hopes to turn this pilot into a business, deploying units to newly discovered sites at a moment’s notice or to preserve cultural assets in danger from natural disasters or conflict.

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Notre Dame gets new bells for her 850th birthday

March 25th, 2013

Notre Dame de Paris, the Gothic cathedral that is one of the most famous churches in the world, turns 850 years old this year and has gotten a new set of nine bells for a birthday present. The new bells range in size from 767 kilos (1691 lbs) to 1.91 tons. They were blessed in a ceremony at the cathedral on February 2nd (see this YouTube for the full ceremony; the top comment lists the times they were rung), but since they were lined up in the nave, their rings were only heard individually when their clappers were struck against the sides by hand. On Palm Sunday, the new bells rang together with the one surviving old one in all their glory for the first time.

Despite its glamour and celebrity, Notre Dame has been saddled with inferior bells since the French Revolution took down the cathedral’s 20 bells in 1791 and 1792, melted 19 of them down to make cannon. Only one survived the Terror: Emmanuel, the great 13-ton bourdon (the lowest and largest of the bells) in the South Tower. It was first installed in 1685 and its rich deep notes marked the hours of the day and the great events of French history like the coronation of kings and, since Napoleon had it rehung in 1802, the liberation of Paris on August 24th, 1944.

Emmanuel is considered one of the greatest bells in Europe, but Angélique-Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne and Denise-David, the four bells Napoleon III had made and installed in the North Tower in 1856 to commemorate the baptism of his son and replace the ones lost during the Revolution, were considered some of the worst. According to French campanologist Hervé Gouriou, the four formed “one of the most dreadful sets of bells in France. They are damaged and badly tuned.” Built using a cheap bronze alloy, they never sounded great to begin with and wear and tear has only made them worse.

Because of a 1905 law which defines Notre Dame as property of the state with the Catholic Church granted exclusive rights to its use, replacement of the bells was a government matter and the government has had other budgeting priorities, to say the least. The 850th anniversary finally spurred action and the bell replacement project, funded by $3.5 million in donations, began in earnest in early 2012 when the four 19th century bells were removed.

The original plan was to melt them down and reuse the metal to cast new bells, but when the replacement plan was announced in 2011, dozens of historical organizations, artists and religious figures protested the destruction of the old bells. They may not be pretty, but they’re history, immortalized by national literary lion Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A legal challenge brought by Father Alain Hocquemiller, prior of the monastery of Sainte-Croix de Riaumont in Normandy, blocked the destruction of the 19th century bells. They are now being kept at the foundry of Cornille-Havard, the foundry that made eight of the nine new bells, and will remain there until the courts decide their fate.

The new bells, made using medieval methods like pouring bronze into clay, horse manure and horsehair moulds, are the same weight and diameter as ones destroyed in the Revolution. They ring the same notes but in a lower tone. The idea is to recreate the richness and harmonies of the pre-Revolutionary sound without slavish imitation. The eight smaller bells made by Cornille-Havard are named Gabriel (after the archangel), Anne-Geneviève (after the mother of Mary and Saint Geneviève, patron saint of Paris), Denis (after the saint, first bishop of Paris), Marcel (after the saint, ninth bishop of Paris), Étienne (after the first cathedral church of Paris which was named after Saint Steven, the first martyr), Benoît-Joseph (after recently retired Pope Benedict XVI) Maurice (after the bishop of Paris who laid the cornerstone of Notre Dame in 1163) and Jean-Marie (after Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005). They have all been installed in the North Tower.

The ninth and largest bell was made by the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in The Netherlands. Named Marie after the mother of Jesus and its predecessor, the second largest of Notre Dame’s bells which rang low and proud from 1378 to 1792, this bell has been hung next to Emmanuel in the South Tower.

But enough of my yammering. It’s time for the main show. The following is the video of the bell ringing event held outside the cathedral after Palm Sunday mass. It’s very long, so if you’d like to cut to chase, 12:15 – 21:50 is the ten tower bells rung in groups from largest to smallest, 43:20 – 45:18 is all ten tower bells rung with three from the spire for additional flavor, and at 58:12 is the “Grand Solemnity,” kicked off by Emmanuel followed by Marie and then the eight smaller ones.

For comparison, here’s what the four 19th century bells and Emmanuel sounded like Christmas Day, 2011:

For more details about the history of Notre Dame’s bells, the replacement project and the specs of the new bells, see this page on Notre Dame’s website.

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Viking ship recreated with rivets on threads

March 24th, 2013

The National Museum of Scotland’s Vikings!: The Untold Story exhibition has more than 500 artifacts from the permanent collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm which have rarely been seen outside of Scandinavia. The exhibition takes an innovative approach to showing how the Vikings lived, with interactive digital displays and replicas that allow visitors to touch and play with Viking culture. The aim is to dispel the intensely bellicose image of the Norsemen and to show how Scandinavians in the Viking Age, most of whom were farmers and traders rather than warriors, lived.

The coolest exhibit, I think, is a half of a Viking ship recreated with 1200 metal rivets strung on translucent spidery threads that replicate the shape of the vessel. The ship’s planks covered the grave of a wealthy man of status on Orkney. None of the wood survived; only the rivets were still there when the burial was excavated. They made marvelous lemonade out of the limited survival, creating a piece that is downright otherworldly and that can travel easily and safely in a way that a thousand-year-old wooden boat could not even if it had survived.

Is that not brilliant? I love how the rivets are angled as they would have been in the wood. It conveys not just the dimensions of the ship, but also exposes the technical carpentry skill that you couldn’t see if the ship were complete.

The high quality of Scandinavian craftsmanship is a recurring theme in this exhibition. In the sagas there are references to the gods being smiths or craftsmen. The transformation of metal into weapons and other objects was considered a fundamental alteration to the created world. Craftsmen therefore had rituals to perform as they worked to ensure their work was in keeping with the magic and deities of their world.

The jewelry and work in precious metals is as impressive as you would expect, but even the daily use objects are incredibly intricate and beautiful. These are keys:

These were household keys, not the unlockers of mystical treasure. They would be worn as part of her garments by the wife and mother who was in charge of the home. Their intricacy underscores this was a position of pride and importance. Can you imagine having a few of those on a ring clipped to your belt? We’ve lost a lot in our era of Ace Hardware keys made while you wait.

Viking daily life is represented by all kinds of beautifully detailed artifacts, some of them rare survivals. There’s a woven textile embroidered with a stag, wooden board games, an ironing board (maybe slate?) with the large smooth stone used to iron, an engraved folding comb carved out of bone that would honor the pocket of even the most discriminating 50s greaser stereotype.

They even have bread loaves that appear to have survived thanks to carbonization, like the bread from Herculaneum. The Viking bread found in Birka, Sweden, was analyzed and the likely recipe recreated. It’s ridiculously healthy, made primarily from barley flour and including flax seeds. If you’d like to try your hand at making it yourself, here’s the recipe:

Viking Bread

About 150 g barley flour
About 50 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp crushed flax seeds
About 100 ml water
2 tsp lard or butter
A pinch of salt

Work all the ingredients together into a dough and knead. If the dough is too wet or hard, add flour or water. Let the dough rest cold for at least one hour, preferably longer.

Shape the dough into flat cakes (about 1/2cm thick). Bake them in a dry cast iron pan on the stove over medium heat, a few minutes on each side, or in the oven at 150 degrees, for 10–13 minutes.

The exhibition runs from January 18th to May 12th. I’m afraid I can’t find a list of the other stops in the tour, but I know it spent last year in Northern Europe and this is its only stop in the UK. The National Museum of Scotland has an excellent collection of pictures of the Vikings! exhibit on its Flickr page.

For more details about Viking life, the artifacts on display and the brilliantly futuristic, Star-Trek looking design of the exhibit which was actually inspired by Viking iconography, see the exhibition page on the Swedish History Museum’s website.

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