Legendary early center of Viking power found

July 15th, 2012

According to the Royal Frankish Annals, the small port town of Sliasthorp by the Baltic Sea bay of Schlei in southern Jutland was expanded into a powerful military center by the early, possibly the first, Viking King Godfred in 808 A.D. Historians have interpreted Sliasthorp as the trading settlement of Hedeby, the largest Scandinavian city of the Viking era, or as a legend with an unknown factual basis.

An archaeological team from Aarhus University in Denmark have found the remains of an elite Viking town near Schlei Bay that they believe is King Godfred’s Sliasthorp. It all began in 2003 when then-student archaeologist Andres Dobat decided to investigate the area near Hedeby by the Danish-German border looking for other Viking settlements. He took a metal detector to locations where Viking artifacts had been discovered before and near the Schlei Bay town Füsing, he found a gold bracelet. Other metal artifacts from the Viking Age followed indicating a possible settlement.

He then had the excellent idea to fly over the area so he might be able to spot signs of Viking homes. The soil is more fertile over Viking walls, apparently, so if you see a checkerboard of taller, fuller, longer-lived crops, you could well be seeing a map of Viking settlement. Dobat took aerial pictures of cornfields which upon examination revealed the outlines of houses, probably Viking pit-houses. Archaeologists from Dobat’s school, the University of Kiel in Germany, confirmed his work using geophysical surveying tools which found there were at least 100 pit-houses under the soil.

In 2010, Dobat, now a prehistoric archaeology professor at Aarhus University, received a grant to excavate the spot. The excavation is now in its third season and has born exceptional fruit. They have found about 200 houses filled with artifacts like beads, glass fragments, amulets, metal riding equipment, knives, axes, arrowheads and caltrops, large pointy jacks-like items that were dropped in fields to stab the feet of enemy forces.

In addition to the pit-homes, they also discovered the remains of ten smaller longhouses and one longhouse 100 feet long and 30 feet wide that had been burned down during the 10th century. The weapons found on the spot indicate it was destroyed in battle.

The attack took place long after King Godfred’s death. But even if he had been alive, it’s still unlikely that he witnessed the attack. Back then, kings were always on the go and rarely spent long periods at Sliasthorp.

As a consequence, the daily running of the town is likely to have been administered by the town chief, who lived in the lavish longhouse. [..]

The king wasn’t the only one travelling in and out of the Viking town. The town’s population figures fluctuated several times within the same year, depending on whether there was a need for craftsmen and soldiers in the area. Only a select group of the absolute elite Vikings lived in Sliasthorp over extended periods.

Based on the industrial design and the building style, Dobat reckons that a majority of the houses in the town were only used a few weeks a year. At times there were 100 people in the town; other times perhaps over 1,000.

The town was in use for about 300 years between approximately 700 and 1000 A.D. Dobat believes the town was an elite power center, populated by religious military leaders who would then found larger trading centers nearby. The dating supports his hypothesis. Sliasthorp was founded 100 years before Hedeby which is about three miles away. At least one other large Viking Age town, Birka, near Stockholm, seems to have been founded and run by small neighboring elite settlements, not by the merchants who would inhabit it.

Andres Dobat believes this means that the entire urban development in the northern German/southern Denmark region began with Sliasthorp.

“This is common European history. We have actually found the origins of what we today call Hamburg,” says Dobat.

“When the Vikings built this town and Hedeby, they were a precursor of Schleswig, which in the early Middle Ages was the great trading city in the region. Schleswig, in turn, was the precursor of Lübeck, which today has given way to Hamburg. We’re digging at the roots of world economy.”

Philly’s Rodin Museum returns to its original glory

July 14th, 2012

After a three-year, $9 million renovation of the grounds, museum and sculptures, the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia reopened Friday restored to the original 1929 vision of its architect Paul Crét. The Rodin Museum was founded by movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum who in 1926 hired the French-born Crét and landscape architect Jacques Gréber to create a sophisticated Beaux Art building with a formal French garden that would showcase, both indoors and out, the sculptures by Auguste Rodin he’d been collecting since he was first introduced to the artist’s work in Paris in September 1924.

Although Mastbaum died that same year, when the museum was completed in 1929, his wife honored his commitment to gift it to the city of Philadelphia. Thus Philadelphia became home to the largest collection of Rodin’s works outside Paris, including more than 140 original marble sculptures, plaster studies and bronze castings made before and after Rodin’s death in 1917. (Most of the extant Rodin bronzes around the world were actually cast from his original stone and plaster work after his death.) There are also original prints, letters, books and over 600 drawings in the collection.

The bronze casting of The Gates of Hell, a set of monumental doors inspired by Dante’s Inferno that Rodin worked on for 37 years and for which he first created some of his most famous figures, like The Thinker, The Kiss, Adam and Eve, is one of three originals cast from Rodin’s plaster model in 1917. It was made specifically for Mastbaum. The Gates hold pride of place in the museum in the entrance gallery, emphasizing the connection between the doors and the later sculptures Rodin derived from them. A bronze of The Thinker stands watch outside the main entry to the museum.

All of the other sculptures that were originally placed on the grounds have been returned to their original spots in the French garden. They had been brought inside in the late 1960s to protect them from the acid rain that had eaten away at their surfaces. Curators were able to restore the original finishes and to apply protective coatings that will keep the sculptures from suffering the same fate again. Only one piece, The Burghers of Calais, is still in need of refurbishment. It’s been put in place outside and conservators will work on it in situ.

The museum building itself was also thoroughly restored to its period condition but with updated systems like brand new air conditioning for the first time in its life, something that will make summer vacation visits far more bearable. Restorers stripped off layers of paint and faux marble that had been applied in previous renovations to the inside walls. They returned the original paint colors and replicated the original linen wall coverings in the museum’s central gallery. They also removed the paint from wood architectural elements and restored them to their original finishes.

Sally Malenka, conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, spearheaded the archaeological dig into the museum’s past, discovering the original painted wall surfaces and other obliterated elements through examination of paint chips, Crét’s drawings and accounts, and contemporary newspaper descriptions.

“It’s interesting that for a building as recent as 1929, some of the history of what the original interior looked like is really not known,” Malenka said. “We had some old black-and-white photographs and some correspondence. So we knew there was fabric on the walls. We didn’t know at that time that the rooms were red, so there was a combination of looking for archival materials and other historical or contemporary accounts, and also investigating what the finishes were by what remained in situ.”

It’s astonishing how quickly current events become nebulous ancient history. Who’d have thought you’d need to do archaeological research to restore a museum that is only 83 years old.

The Rodin’s Museum website is excellent. You can browse pictures of the sculptures in the collection, or explore them grouped together in relevant themes.

For a fascinating voyage through The Gates of Hell, you simply must view this video from the Canal Educatif a la Demande (CED). Registration is free, and trust me, it is more than worth the price of admission. It’s a riveting story exceptionally well told.

Guns taken from Bonnie & Clyde’s bodies for sale

July 13th, 2012

Clyde Barrow's 1911 Colt .45Two Colt handguns that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were carrying when they were ambushed and killed in a hail of bullets on May 23, 1934 are coming up for auction in September. RR Auction in Amherst, New Hampshire has already opened Clyde’s Colt .45 1911 Government Model semi-automatic pistol and Bonnie’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver to online bidders; the auction closes on Sunday September 30, 2012.

Bonnie Parker's 1933 Colt Detective Special .38Unlike the Winchester shotgun and the Thompson sub-machine gun confiscated from the Barrow gang’s Joplin hideout that were sold at auction earlier this year, these handguns are directly connected to Bonnie and Clyde, and not just directly connected but intimately so. Former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, the leader of the six-man posse that hunted down and ambushed the infamous outlaws, retrieved Clyde’s Colt .45 from the waistband of his pants after he was felled in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana.

With the Colt is a notarized letter from former Special Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, Jr., dated December 18, 1973 in which he states that this pistol, #164070, was removed from the “waistband of Clyde Barrow’s trousers the morning that he and Bonnie Parker were killed by my father in Louisiana.” He goes on to say “This pistol is also described and pictured in my father’s book I’m Frank Hamer. He also states that “this pistol was believed to have been stolen from the federal arsenal in Beaumont, Texas,” and that the federal government gave this Colt to his father. Although Clyde Barrow had many guns during his notorious career, there cannot be any with a closer association to him than this one carried at his death.

Bonnie’s Colt .38 is downright salacious. She kept it taped to her inner thigh which is where Hamer found it after she was killed.

A notarized letter from former Special Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, Jr., dated December 10, 1979, identifies this gun and states, “On the morning of May 23, 1934, when my father and the officers with him in Louisiana killed Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped…Sometime later, my father gave this gun to Buster Davis who had been a Texas Ranger and was, at the time, an FBI Agent.” Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reads “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.”

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, early 1920sHamer got to keep both weapons as part of his compensation for hunting down Bonnie and Clyde. He had quit the Texas Rangers after 27 years on the force two years earlier and in 1934 was working private security for oil companies, mainly breaking strikes. Texas Department of Corrections Chief Lee Simmons commissioned Hamer to find the Barrow Gang, but he could only offer $180 a month. Hamer was making more than double that doing easier work for the oil companies. To sweeten the pot, Simmons allowed Hamer to keep all the guns recovered from the gang and whatever of their possessions he wanted, in addition to his sixth of the reward money (which turned out to be a meager $200.23).

The weapons are being sold by the estate of Robert E. Davis, a Texas collector who bought them from the Hamer family. The pre-sale estimate for each gun is between $100,000 and $200,000, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll go that cheap. The Winchester shotgun sold for $80,000, the Tommy Gun for $130,000. These pistols are in a whole other category of macabre collectability.

Footage of Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled car and bodies taken by posse member and Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton five minutes after the ambush.

Rare, pristine whiskey bottles found in Missouri attic

July 12th, 2012

Bryan Fite holds Hellman's Celebrated Old Crow WhiskeyWhen Bryan and Emily Fite bought an 1850s home in St. Joseph, Missouri last year, they knew it needed work. One of the first projects they undertook was installing central heat and air, which they had to rewire the house to accomplish. Bryan pried up some floorboards in the attic to lay the new wires and underneath found mysterious tubes wrapped in paper with writing on it. His first thought was they were old steam heat conduits from when the house was first built that were wrapped in paper insulation. When he unwrapped the paper, instead of century-old pipe he found a century-old bottle of whiskey. Then he found 12 more of them.

There are three different brands — Hellman’s Celebrated Old Crow whiskey, Guckenheimer Pennsylvania rye whiskey, W.H. McBrayer’s Cedar Brook whiskey — all of them bottled in 1917 and distilled four or five years earlier. On January 16, 1919, the eighteenth amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and Prohibition became the law of the land, decimating the whiskey distilling business. None of the makers of the Fites’ whiskeys survived.

The 1917 Hellman’s Old Crow might have been some of the last bottles ever sold. Hellman’s was sued for trademark infringement by W.A. Gaines and Company, a Kentucky liquor company which had produced a very famous brand of “Old Crow” whiskey since 1835. It was named for Doctor James C. Crow, a Scottish medical doctor who moved to Kentucky and in the 1830s used his knowledge of chemistry to invent the sour mash process for creating bourbon. The aged runs became known as “Old Crow” and were massively popular. After Dr. Crow’s death in 1856, W.A. Gaines and Co. continued to sell his original stock for as long as they could. When they ran out, they made a replica, although Crow’s exact formula was lost.

Mark Twain in a 1960 Old Crow ad“Old Crow” was the favorite brand of many notable 19th and 20th century figures like President Andrew Jackson, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson. It had a huge reputation, a reputation W.A. Gaines and Company was keen not be sullied by the St. Louis blend the Hellman Distilling Company had been selling as “Celebrated Old Crow” since 1863 when the Civil War choked off liquor shipments from the South. Hellman’s countered that they owned the trademark to the name and the case dragged on in the courts for almost a decade until in 1918 the Supreme Court of these United States ruled decisively in Gaines’ favor.

~ Tangent time! ~

Edson Bradley, a New York financier and the son of a prosperous Connecticut shoe manufacturer, invested in the Kentucky whiskey business in the 1880s. When W.A. Gaines and Co. incorporated in 1887, he was appointed vice president. It was he who registered the first company trademark to “Old Crow” in 1887, and all the subsequent trademark registrations done to try to muscle out the many, many copycats.

Bradley House on DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C.Eventually he became president and was widely known in the press as the richest liquor baron in the country. By 1907 he was Scrooge McDuck rich and since this was the Gilded Age, he bought a city block on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. and built a French Gothic mansion complete with entire rooms ripped out of actual Gothic mansions in France. It had a chapel that could seat 150 and a complete multi-story 500-seat theater. It was known as Aladdin’s Palace and was the largest, richest home in D.C.

When Prohibition hit, the Gaines Company struggled along for a few more years until it was dissolved in 1922. Bradley was 70 years old by then, so in February of 1923 he decided to retire to Newport, Rhode Island, along with all the other Gilded Age barons. In the epitome of Gilded Age baron style, he brought his palace with him. Over the next two years, the DuPont Circle house was dismantled stone by stone and shipped to Newport.

Seaview Terrace todayHe bought a property along the Cliff Walk which already had an 1885 Elizabethan Revival mansion on it called Sea View. No problem. Architect Howard Greenley just integrated it into the new house. Sea View became Seaview Terrace, with the old mansion now acting as the east wing of the composite mansion. Greenley gave it an integrated look with turrets inspired by the Loire Valley chateau of Chambord. Two years and two million dollars later, Seaview Terrace was completed.

Edson Bradley died 10 years later. In 1930, Bradley deeded Seaview Terrace to his daughter Julie, but she lost it to the City of Newport during World War II when she couldn’t keep up with the taxes. After that it passed through various hands, was used by two different schools, and most famously, between 1966 and 1971 the exterior was used as the outdoor set for Collinwood Mansion in the vampire soap Dark Shadows.

The estate was purchased in 1974 by Martin and Millicent Carey who restored it, but a building like this is constantly in need of more restoration. It is now known as Carey Mansion. Martin and Millicent’s daughter Denise Ann Carey lives there now, and luckily she’s an architect.

~ End Tangent ~

After the Repeal of Prohibition on December 5th, 1933, the Gaines plant in Frankfort, Kentucky and the rights to the Old Crow label were bought by the American Medicinal Spirits Company, who in turn sold them to National Distillers Products Company in 1947. National was bought by Jim Beam in 1985 who still produce an Old Crow label, although not out of the Frankfort plant which they closed.

Bryan Fite thinks the 13 bottles might have been a stash hidden by the first owner of their home. According to a history of the house they received when they bought it, the first owner lost the house after he was put in a sanitarium for alcoholism. Perhaps he was planning a party for his return from rehab, a party he never got to have.

The Fites do not plan to sell the whiskey. They’re history buffs and they love that they’ve found liquid gold under the floorboards of their attic. They might break the label on a bottle or two in 2017 to celebrate the centennial of their purchase, but otherwise, the whiskey is staying in the house where it was first stashed almost a hundred years ago.

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700 rare, pristine baseball cards found in Ohio attic

July 11th, 2012

1910 E98 baseball cards, 27 out of a set of 30A collection of 700 rare baseball cards from a 1910 promotional series has been discovered in pristine condition in an attic in Defiance, Ohio. Restaurant owner Karl Kissner and his cousin Karla were going through their late grandfather’s attic when they came across a green cardboard box underneath a crumbling wood dollhouse. The box that had once held women’s clothing was now covered in soot. Karla opened it and saw hundreds of small baseball cards tied with twine. Some of the names — Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Honus Wagner — were immediately recognizable, but not knowing whether these particular cards were authentic or of any value, the cousins set the box aside and continued to explore the attic.

Karl researched the cards and discovered there was a chance they might be valuable. He sent eight of them to Peter Calderon at Heritage Auctions in Dallas to determine whether they were authentic; the rest he locked up in a bank vault. Calderon confirmed that they were authentic 1910 E98 series baseball cards, a set so rare few people even know about them, and that they were in exceptionally good condition. The few 1910 E98 cards that have survived are faded, stained and worn, handled roughly by the sticky fingers of pre-World War I children. Most of the Kissner cards look like they’ve never been touched at all.

Ty Cobb cardHeritage Auctions checked the context — the age of the house, how Karl’s grandfather Carl Hench might have acquired 700 1910 E98 cards — and all the pieces seemed to fit. Carl Hench was a butcher who ran a meat market in Defiance. The cards were promotional items distributed with caramels — one of the mysteries of the set is exactly which company manufactured them — so Hench probably sold the caramels in his shop, keeping some of the cards and giving away others. The family suspects he put the box of cards in the attic and forgot about it.

He died in 1944. After his wife died in 1976, the house was left to their daughter Jean Hench, Karl Kissner’s aunt. She was a pack rat, bless her heart, and never threw anything away. She died last October, leaving her possessions to 20 family members, including Karl and Karla. The family spent months looking through the house, finding all kinds of wonderful treasures like dresses from the turn of the century, a steamer trunk from Germany, and calendars from Carl Hench’s meat market. They finally got to the attic in February. Karla opened that fateful box on Leap Day.

Hans Wagner cardOnce the probable history of the cards was pieced together, Heritage Auctions sent them to Professional Sports Authenticator to confirm the authentication and to adjudicate condition. They authenticated the cards and judged them the finest E98 series they have ever seen. The Honus Wagner (he’s called “Hans” on this series) card is a perfect 10 in condition, the first 10 ever given an E98 series card. The highest grade an E98 Ty Cobb card has gotten before this was a seven. PSA graded 16 of the Ty Cobbs in this collection a nine.

The 20 members of the family mentioned in Aunt Jean’s will split the cards up. Some of them want to keep their cards; most of them want to sell them. The 37 star cards will be auctioned at Baltimore’s Camden Yards baseball field during the National Sports Collectors Convention on August 2nd. Heritage Auctions is taking bids on a set of 27 on their website and the current bid is already at $120,000 20 days before the auction. The rest of the cards will be spread out for individual sale so they don’t flood the market and lower the value. Experts think the whole collection could prove to be worth as much as $3 million.

The 100 Caravaggios controversy

July 10th, 2012

Last week, a huge story broke: art historians had discovered 100 previously unknown drawings by Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio, from his student days in Milan. Since there are only 90 surviving paintings by the master of chiaroscuro, this collection would more than double the Caravaggio catalog and would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Self-portrait of Simone Peterzano, 1589Art historians Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli spent two years going through 1,378 paintings and drawings from the workshop of Simone Peterzano, a late mannerist who had been a student of Titian’s in Venice and was Caravaggio’s teacher in Milan from 1584 to 1588. The collection is kept in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, not on public display but open to scholars.

By comparing the drawings from the Peterzano collection to later works by Caravaggio, Curuz and Fedrigolli claim to have developed “a rigorous survey methodology for identifying underlying geometric patterns from the artist’s early Roman period” which allowed them to pick out his student work from the workshop group. The final tally was 100 drawings, 10 oil paintings and a letter to Peterzano that “highlights the friction and misunderstandings between two temperaments at odds” written in a “swift and violent style” that a handwriting expert claims is likely in Caravaggio’s hand.

Instead of submitting their groundbreaking conclusions to scholarly peer review, however, the researchers decided to publish their findings in two e-books translated into four languages, available for sale on Amazon.com and via links on their own website (netiquette warning: there’s an autoplay video on the homepage) for $17.36 a pop. The exceptional announcement coupled with e-book sales did not go over well in the art historical community, to put it mildly.

Tomaso Montanari, a professor of Baroque art at the University of Naples, said: “They didn’t pass through a scientific peer review, and that gives them little credibility. The Web site that claims that this is a great discovery reminds me of TV sales promotions. From the scholarly point of view, it really has no value.”

Even the city of Milan, which owns the Castello Sforzesco and the Peterzano collection within, was reluctant to jump on board the Caravaggio train. A city council spokesperson noted that those drawings have been browsed by plenty of experts before and nobody has ever attributed any of them to Caravaggio. City council member Stefano Boeri sounded similar notes of caution, insisting that the new attributions be carefully examined by a panel of experts before anyone sounds the “100 new Caravaggios found!” publicity trumpet. He is also launching an investigation into “the correctness of the procedures regarding the publication” of the e-books.

Curuz’s response to the question of why they went straight to e-books instead of seeking out scholarly review is the classic insider conspiracy trope, so often seen in medical and scientific quackery.

Mr. Bernardelli Curuz, who is the artistic director of the Fondazione Brescia Musei, which manages monuments and organizes art exhibitions in the northern city of Brescia, said that they had opted to make their discovery known through an e-book because academic research in Italy was in the hands of an established, tight-knit group that tried to thwart younger scholars. The book was published in four languages “because we wanted to reach the most scholars possible,” he said, denying any underlying commercial interests.

Protip: if you want to reach the most scholars possible instead of looking like you’re just out to make a buck, make your research available for less than $34.72, maybe even for free.

This is not to say that they’re entirely wrong about the attribution. Several of the drawings do bear some resemblance to Caravaggio’s later work, but most of them are really rough sketches, body parts and the like. Even the portraits that when reoriented and resized look like they fit into one of his oil paintings are pretty raw work when you look at the drawings on their own terms in decent resolution. For example, here’s one of the composites in the e-book:

Detail from "The Conversion of Saul" with comparable drawing inset

That’s a detail from Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saul with an inset of one of the drawings from the Peterzano collection. Here are the complete painting and the drawing side by side:

"The Conversion of Saul" by Caravaggio, ca. 1600 Old man drawing in Peterzano collection, attributed to Caravaggio

The resemblance is unimpressive seen in full, isn’t it? The drawing is fairly rudimentary and although it may be a function of the scan, it looks to me like the composite made generous use of the contrast tool in Photoshop to give it more of that chiaroscuro depth that is so characteristic of Caravaggio’s famous work.

The fact is, attribution is a tricky thing and if style matching is your only evidence, then you don’t have much evidence at all. They’ve gone about this in a highly shady way and their claims have been far more definite than is prudent, or even decent, really. On Tuesday Amazon removed the e-books from their offerings — they won’t say why — but they are still available on self-publishing site Lulu (Young Caravaggio – One hundred rediscovered works – Volume I, Volume II).

The city of Milan has made all of the drawings in question available for download in six zip files on their website free of charge, naturally. The drawings and catalog information will be consolidated in a website that will go live July 12th so bookmark http://graficheincomune.comune.milano.it/ now and check it tomorrow.

The return of Coventry’s medieval stained glass

July 9th, 2012

The West Midlands city of Coventry was a prosperous town during the Middle Ages, a major center of the textile trade, and by the 14th century the fourth largest city in England. It had two churches, the 12th century cathedral in St. Mary’s Priory, which was destroyed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and St. Michael’s, a 14th century Gothic church that was the largest parish church in the country. The guilds saw to it that St. Michael’s was packed with top quality stained glass by artists like John Thornton, the master glazier who created York Minster’s Great East Window.

Memorial service held in St. Michael's for King Edward VII, May 1910After St. Mary’s was demolished — the only cathedral to suffer this fate during the Reformation — Coventry was absorbed into the nearby Lichfield diocese. In 1918, the new diocese of Coventry was created and since the city already had a large, dramatic church in St. Michael’s, it became the new Coventry Cathedral.

Just over 20 years later, in 1939, with World War II looming on the horizon, the stained glass panels were removed from the cathedral windows as a precaution to prevent their destruction in any German bombing raids. Coventry was replete with industrial targets both civil and military, so there was little doubt that it would see action. The glass was packed into 30 crates and stored in the cellar of the rectory in the small village of Hampton Lucy.

Churchill tours Coventry Cathedral after its destruction in the BlitzCoventry was bombed a number of times in the early days of the war, but the targets were primarily military and industrial. The damage to the historic center and loss of life were small. On the evening of November 14, 1940, German bombers dropped high explosive bombs on the city’s utilities and roads. Once the water was knocked out and the roads were impassable from bomb craters, the next wave of German planes dropped explosive and incendiary bombs with the express purpose of starting fires that fire brigades could not contain thanks to the damaged water mains and cratered roads.

Coventry Cathedral suffered multiple direct hits. Firefighters were able to put out the first fire of the evening, but as the bombing progressed that night, the fires became impossible to contain. By the time the all-clear sirens rang the next morning, there was nothing left of Coventry Cathedral but smoldering ruins. A few walls and the tall spire were all that remained. Those ruins are still on the spot. A new cathedral was built in Modernist style right next to it, with the ruins as a consecrated garden space dedicated to peace and reflection. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and the new church was consecrated in 1962.

Medieval stained glass reused in Coventry CathedralMeanwhile, in 1957 the little rectory in Hampton Lucy was sold. The crates full of medieval stained glass had remained unharmed in the cellar for almost 20 years, but with the sale they were returned to Coventry. The architect of the new cathedral, Sir Basil Spence, wanted to incorporate some of this glass into the new building in some way. Putting together whole windows wasn’t going to happen because most of the panes had been removed and crated without any annotation of their original arrangement. Instead, Spence and his team selected a few choice pieces and in 1965 installed them in a small chapel in the south porch of the old cathedral ruins known today as Haigh Chapel.

Since then, other panes have been integrated into the new cathedral, including mosaic-style combinations that had been put together during 19th century modifications to the church. Around 5,000 pieces of stained glass were still in storage.

Medieval stained glass portrait from Coventry CathedralThanks to a joint fundraising project by World Monuments Fund Britain and Coventry Cathedral that raised £250,000 ($388,000), conservators will begin work on the medieval stained glass of Coventry Cathedral this summer, and best of all, they’ll be doing it in public. The Faces in the Glass Live exhibit at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum will run from August 6th through October 31st. Admission is free, and visitors will be able to watch the conservators as they clean the panes, meet them, and interact with them. Every Thursday at 3:00 conservators will give a 30 minute talk about the glass and their work.

The stored glass is currently catalogued by color and subject, but there is hope that they might be recomposed into their original medieval configurations thanks to a piece of software originally designed to piece together shredded Cold War documents.

Medieval stained glass pieces from Coventry CathedralIan Crick-Smith, a researcher at the University of Lincoln, says that renderings of the broken edges of the glass will be created using two- or three-dimensional laser scanning, and that software will then be used to suggest best matches and alignment. “There is definitely a growth area for digital technology in the heritage investigation sector,” he says. Similar technology was used by Princeton University to help reconstruct fragments from ancient frescoes at Akrotiri.

The software was developed after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when it was used to recreate documents that had been destroyed by shredding and tearing. “It has also been used to reassemble damaged works of art on paper,” Crick-Smith says. “We don’t know of any other instance where this has been used for stained glass.” The composition of the glass and Thornton’s production system are also being explored.

The ultimate plan is to create a display area for a selection of the pieces in the crypts underneath the ruins of the old cathedral. Other panes might be used to make contemporary art installations in the new cathedral.

For more on the history of the stained glass windows of Coventry Cathedral, read this excellent article. To explore the ruins and the new cathedral, see these QuickTime panoramas.

New De Soto site found in Florida

July 8th, 2012

De Soto route proposed by Charles Hudson in 1997Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto was the first European to explore deep inland within what would become the United States. For three years (1539-1542), his search for (non-existent) gold and a (non-existent) passage to China drove him and his men to cut a violent, disease-ridden swath through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas.

Very little in the way of archaeology has been found marking his route. What we know of it has mainly been pieced together with difficulty from his journals and from tribal oral histories, all of which use references to features of a landscape long gone. The only confirmed site is in Tallahassee, Florida, where they wintered the first year. Any discovery of material remains left behind by the expedition, therefore, is of major historical significance.

Ethan (left) and Ashley White (right) sifting sand at the De Soto site on their family propertyArchaeologist Ashley White has found strong evidence on his own family property that De Soto’s team stopped there in the summer of 1539 when it was an Indian town called Potano near present-day Orange Lake in north Marion County, Florida. White had explored the 700-acre property before looking for the remains of a 17th century Spanish cattle ranch he thought might have been there, but all he found were relatively common Indian artifacts.

Copper coin found at Hernando De Soto encampment, late 15th centuryIt was Florida weather that ultimately showed him the way. Heavy rainfall in 2005 flooded the land. When it drained away, it took hardened sand with it, leaving once-buried artifacts totally exposed on the surface. On the west bank of an old creek, Dr. White found a copper coin from the late 1400s. East of the creek bed, White, his bioarchaeologist wife Michele and their son Ethan found even more coins — ultimately they recovered 100 cooper coins minted in Spain between 1556 and 1621 — plus Murano glass trade beads, Spanish blue on white porcelain and postholes.

Spanish coins found at the mission siteDuring the first two years of excavations, White’s working hypothesis was that they had discovered the remains of that early Spanish cattle ranch. When he examined the artifacts and the architecture of the building remains in detail, however, he realized they were very similar in style to what you see in Spanish missions built along Indian trails in Florida. The missionaries used De Soto’s journals and maps to determine where the potential converts were located.

Nueva Cadiz beads, ca. 1520Returning to the other side of the creek where he had found the 15th century Spanish coin, White found another two from around the same period. The three copper coins were two Ferdinand and Isabellas (1497-1504) and one Enrique IV (1471-74), at least half a century older than the ones at the mission site. He also found seven beautiful cobalt blue Nueva Cadiz beads from around 1520, probably originally arranged into a crucifix, and more Venetian glass trade beads, these ones older and more elaborate than the ones on the east side of the creek. Chevron beads of Murano glass from the De Soto encampment siteThe facets, multi-layered coloring and chevron patterns of the Murano beads are identical to other beads found at the known De Soto site in Tallahassee and the suspected De Soto site found three years ago in Georgia.

Spanish chain mail linksThen White found a few links of iron chain mail from Spain, with designs De Soto’s men would have woven onto their garments to protect them from Indian spears and arrows. The way the chain mail was linked predated the mission.

He also unearthed a pig jaw, unique to the domesticated herd of European animals De Soto brought to help feed his men.

There had been other Spanish explorers, such as Panfilo de Narvaez, but they had not brought Old World pigs, nor had they traveled as far inland.

Lower jaw of a long-legged black boarExperts have analyzed the finds and so far all the results confirm they were left by the De Soto expedition. A numismatics curator at Princeton confirmed that the three coins were of the age and type used to pay De Soto’s troops and workers. The chevron beads were sent to Italy to confirm they were of 16th century Murano origin. Radiocarbon dating found the Sus scrofa, a long-legged black Spanish domestic pig, to whom the jawbone was once attached was slaughtered in 1539. Several museums compared the chain mail to Spanish pieces in their collections and found it was manufactured in Spain between 1490 and the 1530s. X-ray fluorescence testing confirmed that the iron in the mail dates to the 15th century.

Three coins found at Hernando De Soto encampmentAccording to Jerald Milanich, an expert in De Soto’s expedition who has written multiple books on the subject and who is the archaeology curator emeritus at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, “there is absolutely no doubt that is a De Soto contact site,” and he is “99.99 percent sure this is the town of Potano, the major Indian town.” De Soto sought out Native American settlements in his eternal search for food and in the hope that they could tell him where all the (non-existent) gold was. He would have traded the glass pieces in exchange for food, but also occupied the town with his army to plunder their food stores and infect them with measles and smallpox while he was at it.

Eventually he moved on, going north to Tallahassee, doubtless to the great relief of the Potano Indians. In 1542, Hernando De Soto died of a fever on the banks of the Mississippi and was buried in secret, possibly in the Mighty Mississip’ itself, by his comrades who wanted to keep the locals thinking that he was the incarnation of the sun god instead of a puny human. Sixty-four years later, the Spanish returned to the Potano where they built the Mission San Buenaventura de Potano by the creek just east of De Soto’s old encampment.

The Ocala Star-Banner has the most in depth coverage of this discovery, including an excellent photo gallery. Keep an eye on their Discovery De Soto page for more news as it develops.

Karachi police bust truckful of Buddhist antiquities

July 7th, 2012

Acting on a tip from intelligence agencies, early on Friday Karachi police intercepted a truck carrying a 20-foot container full of ancient Buddhist artifacts hidden under brooms, slippers, furniture and bales of straw. There were 300 artifacts in the back of that truck, include massive statues that required specialized heavy machinery to unload.

Most of the artifacts date to around the third century and come from the kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient Vedic and later Buddhist civilization in the Peshawar valley that stretched from northern Pakistan to the Kabul River in eastern Afghanistan. The statues mostly depict enlightened beings, like an ornamented, mustachioed Bodhisattva that weighs 2,200 pounds and a Jataka (a birth story of the Buddha) tablet that shows Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddhartha while spirits celebrate around her. 2,200 pound Bodhisattva (left), Hariti (right)Another important statue depicts the goddess Hariti with two of her children, who in Gandharan tradition was once a baby-devouring demon but who was taught a stern lesson when the Buddha kidnapped one of her hundreds of children. She converted to Buddhism and become a loving mother goddess.

Truck driver Zafar Ali and another man traveling with him were arrested. Ali claimed they were headed to Rawalpindi, but a delivery order found after a search of his belongings said the cargo was to be transported to Sialkot City. He fingered his boss, Asif Butt, who told the authorities that the truck was loaded in the middle of the night with innocuous broom sticks and shoes from three legitimate businesses, but then a fourth person asked them to load five big and eight small boxes and bring them to Sialkot. Butt of course denies knowing what was in those boxes, one of which, let’s not forget, weighed more than 2,000 pounds, but he’s more than willing to snitch out the man who gave them the boxes.

Jataka sculpturePolice suspected most of the artifacts were stolen from museums, primarily the Swat Museum which is known for its large collection of Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era, but after examining the antiquities Qasim Ali Qasim, the director of the Sindh province archaeology and museums department, told the police they were more likely to have been looted from archaeological sites in Swat, which is currently mired in military anti-Islamist operations. Looters have been taking full advantage of the distracted authorities to help themselves to the rich history of Buddhist and Hindu art in the area. Qasim thinks the objects were looted individually and moved to Karachi in small shipments. Once they had a large group, they planned to truck them out of Karachi and out of Pakistan with deep-pocketed European antiquities markets as the final destination.

Stolen Gandhara artifacts recovered on SaturdayThe information retrieved from the suspects in yesterday’s bust has produced immediate results. A raid on a Karachi warehouse on Saturday uncovered two more boxes of Gandhara kingdom artifacts, including statues of the Buddha, bronze artifacts, pottery and decorative plaques. They’re investigating whether this is part of a larger smuggling ring (it is).

Scottish bog mummies are Frankenstein composites

July 6th, 2012

Male Cladh Hallan bog mummyIn 2001, archaeologists found two bog mummies, one apparently male, one apparently female, buried under a roundhouse in the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan on the island of South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. There was no soft tissue left, but their skeletons were found in a tight crouch posture, something that would have been impossible to maintain for thousands of years in the soggy environment of the Outer Hebrides without there having been soft tissues keeping the bones in place in the beginning. They made news at the time for being the most ancient mummies discovered in Britain — they’re about 3500 years old — and for having been deliberately mummified.

Tests indicated that shortly after their deaths, the bodies were placed in a peat bog for about a year until the acidic anaerobic environment good and pickled them. They were removed when the tissue was mummified but before the acidic environment ate away at the bones. Then they were wrapped in fetal position and kept somewhere unknown. Hundreds of years later (about 500 for the male, 300-400 for the female), they were buried under the roundhouse foundations.

Researchers also noticed that the male skeleton was not just one man. The head and neck belonged to one man, the jaw to a second and the body to a third. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the head, neck and jaw were 100 to 200 years younger than the body. At some point during the interregnum between his mummification in the bog and his burial under the roundhouse, parts of him were replaced.

Female Cladh Hallan bog mummyIsotopic dating and DNA tests carried out last year by University of Manchester biomedical archaeologist Terry Brown have revealed that the Frankensteining of these bog bodies goes far deeper than first realized. He sampled DNA from the jawbone, skull, arm and leg of the female mummy and found that they all came from different people. None of them have mitochondrial DNA in common, so if they were even related, none of them had the same mother.

All of the female’s body parts date to the same period. Isotopic dating on the male skeleton confirmed the earlier result that he was made out of people who died a century or two apart.

Prof Parker Pearson, an expert in the Bronze Age and burial rituals has a theory about why the mummies were put together this way.

“These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people’s body parts seems to be a deliberate act,” he said.

“I don’t believe these ‘mummies’ were buried immediately, but played an active part in society, as they do in some tribal societies in other parts of the world.”

He said as part of ancestral worship, the mummies probably would have been asked for spiritual advice to help the community make decisions.

This raises the question if there are other composite skeletons that have already been discovered but that we’ve assumed were the remains of only one person. When scientists test bones for DNA, they want to minimize damage to the remains, so they only test from one area. They only tested multiple areas in this case because they had reason to suspect from the fit that some of the bones came from different bodies.

There’s also the question of whether other Bronze Age crouch burials found elsewhere in the UK may have been mummified for a spell. Pearson’s team is examining remains from crouch burials in Cambridge for evidence of previous bog embalming, and they have already found some cases where bacterial decay appears to have been stopped in its tracks, just as it was with the Cladh Hallan bodies.

For more about the Cladh Hallan dig, see the University of Sheffield’s website.




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