Giant stone designs in Middle East seen from the air

September 16th, 2011

Enormous stone structures that can only be seen from the air, like Peru’s Nazca Lines, have been discovered in the desert lava fields of the Middle East. New satellite imagery and a program of aerial photography in Jordan have allowed archaeologists to locate thousands of these mysterious structures. They come in a variety of shapes, the most popular one being a spoked wheel, and can range in size from 82 feet to 230 feet.

According to University of Western Australia professor David Kennedy, whose team has been involved in the aerial photography project documenting ancient structures in Jordan, there are more of these giant figures in Jordan alone than in all of Peru. They also cover more surface area and they are older.

Kennedy’s new research, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, reveals that these wheels form part of a variety of stone landscapes. These include kites (stone structures used for funnelling and killing animals); pendants (lines of stone cairns that run from burials); and walls, mysterious structures that meander across the landscape for up to several hundred feet and have no apparent practical use.

The structures are remote and so difficult to see from the ground (even when you know they’re there), that thus far the wheels have not been excavated by archaeologists. That means we really don’t know how old they are. They look prehistoric but could be much more recent. Some wheels have been found on top of kites but never vice versa, so we know the kite shaped structures — which can be as much as 9,000 years old — predate the wheel shaped ones.

Cairns have been discovered on some of the sites, so perhaps those locations used the giant stonework as part of a cemetery ritual. There’s so much variety, though, discoveries at one wheel can’t be generalized to draw conclusions about the structures as a group.

Some of the wheels are found in isolation while others are clustered together. At one location, near the Azraq Oasis, hundreds of them can be found clustered into a dozen groups. “Some of these collections around Azraq are really quite remarkable,” Kennedy said.

In Saudi Arabia, Kennedy’s team has found wheel styles that are quite different: Some are rectangular and are not wheels at all; others are circular but contain two spokes forming a bar often aligned in the same direction that the sun rises and sets in the Middle East.

The ones in Jordan and Syria, on the other hand, have numerous spokes and do not seem to be aligned with any astronomical phenomena. “On looking at large numbers of these, over a number of years, I wasn’t struck by any pattern in the way in which the spokes were laid out,” Kennedy said.

You can browse a Flickrfull of pictures from the Jordan aerial photography program here.


Lavishly restored 1922 Ohio carousel reopens in Brooklyn

September 15th, 2011

On Friday, September 16, a carousel built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) in 1922 for the now-defunct Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio, will again delight ladies and gentlemen and kids of all ages, only now their view will be of the East River, Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline.

Idora Park officially closed its doors after 85 years on Labor Day 1984, after a fire in April devastated much of the park, including its famed 1929 wooden coaster, The Wild Cat. The carousel, scorched but intact, sold at auction October 20th of that year. It would have been just another sad story of how the decline of the urban manufacturing base decimated a local business until it was sold for scrap, but this merry-go-round got lucky. Each of its 48 horses and 2 chariots were sold individually, but at the end of the auction all the bids were tallied up and a single buyer was offered the opportunity to take the entire carousel for the combined sum. New York real estate developer David Walentas and his wife Jane bought Philadelphia Toboggan Company #61 for $385,000.

They were in the market because Walentas was developing a waterfront shopping complex in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass). A rounded riverside spot seemed like the perfect place for an antique carousel so they went and bought them one. They hired a specialized company to dismantle PTC #61 and ship the whole shebang to Brooklyn, where Jane, who has a master’s degree in fine art, began researching carousel restoration.

Instead of outsourcing, Jane decided to take on the massive restoration herself. It’s an incredible story of obsession and dedication. First she documented like crazy, taking pictures and samples and notes on the main parts of the carousel. The original paint was unsalvageable so she sent the parts to a chemical stripper so the dozen layers of overpaint could be removed. Jane had a carpenter repair the parts, prime them and then set them aside in storage to focus on the stars of the show, the horses and chariots.

I spent years, mostly alone, scraping the many layers of park paint to reveal the original palette and beautiful carvings. I had hoped to be able to keep the horses in their factory paint, but was eventually convinced that it was not possible. Much of the paint was fragile and the surface of most of the horses was rough and needed too much repair to have been left as they were. Once again, I did precise matches of the factory colors, and traced, drew and photographed everything I uncovered. I worked scraping paint off the horses, sporadically over the course of about 16 years.

In June of 2004, the decades of work came to a head. She moved into a new studio, hired more help and set about doing all the repairs to the individual horses. Once repaired, they were repainted with painstaking fidelity to the factory original look, and then, because rich people are crazy, Jane took it a giant mommy step further and gilded all the horses’ metallic fittings and decoration, originally aluminum leaf or aluminum leaf with a gold wash, in freaking palladium and 24 carat gold. She also hired a luxury car customizer from Mercedes-Benz to do all the hand pin striping work on the horse bridles.

The two chariots, “Cherub” and “Liberty” she was able to keep in their original paint. After removing all the coats on top of it, the original paint was sturdy enough to stand on its own with just a little infilling. Although there’s a noticeable cracklure over the chariots’ surface, they still look fantastic even next to the freshly repainted ponies.

In 2006, the carousel was ready to be put back together and on display. Over the years the shopping center project had been scrapped to be replaced with a Empire Fulton Ferry Park, so the Walentas set up the carousel, now renamed “Jane’s Carousel” in honor of its obsessively loving foster mom, in another of their properties, a converted spice warehouse in the DUMBO neighborhood where people could see it among the art galleries but not ride it.

After some struggling with various committees, entities and civic groups, the Walentas got the nod to install the carousel on the waterfront in front of the Civil War-era Tobacco Warehouse. They hired French architect Jean Nouvel to design a suitable pavilion to house it and he created a $9 million transparent acrylic jewel box that would show off the beauty of the carousel during the day, show the riders a most spectacular view and that would at night be lit so that the horses cast huge shadows on the white floor-to-ceiling window shades. They also donated $3.45 million to the park for landscaping and nighttime lighting that will allow the park to stay open until 1:00 AM.

Oh, and they donated a 1922 Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel with palladium and 24 carat gold fittings.

Now the jewel box is done, the parts and horses have been moved in, and as of Friday, Jane’s Carousel will be open from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., every day except Tuesday. A ride costs $2, children under three ride for free.


Roald Dahl’s writing shed in need of rescue

September 14th, 2011

The pocket-sized brick and polystyrene shed at the bottom of Roald Dahl’s garden in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, is in dire need of conservation. Dahl built it in the late 50s after seeing Dylan Thomas’ writing shed and since Styrofoam was involved, obviously it was not built to last. Right now visitors can see the shed but are not allowed inside.

Roald Dahl’s family, including his supermodel granddaughter Sophie (the young heroine in The BFG was named after her), have launched an appeal to raise £500,000 (just short of $800,000) to restore the structure and to remove the entire inside of the hut and install it inside the Roald Dahl Museum where people can see it and it can be properly shielded from the elements. It’s a bit of a jarring thought — conserving history by peeling it out of its context — but what can you do when the context is made of Styrofoam? They moved Julia Child’s Cambridge kitchen to the Smithsonian, and that turned out pretty cool.

It is hoped the structure will be transferred to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre by March next year.

The idea came from the author’s grandson, Luke Kelly, who was inspired by the relocation of artist Francis Bacon’s studio to the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin.

Dahl’s granddaughter, Sophie, said the family wanted to share the writer’s “palpable magic and limitless imagination” with visitors.

A further £500,000 will be needed by the museum to create an interactive exhibit to set the hut in context for visitors.

The appeal has gotten some negative buzz in the press and on the Internet. The Dahl family is hardly impoverished. Roald sold a lot of books in his day, and they still sell steadily. Hearing a supermodel from a wealthy family ask for donations doesn’t sit too well with recession-struck England. According to the Roald Dahl Museum’s Amelia Foster, however, the family has already contributed a large sum and the appeal is targeted to foundations and philanthropists rather than to taking the last coins out of threadbare pockets. They’ve already raised half the £500,000 from large donors, in fact.

The legendary space in which Willy Wonka and the BFG were conceived and born has been kept exactly as Roald Dahl left it when he died in 1990. Dahl wrote all of his most famous stories in that office. He insisted it be a private space; his family were not allowed inside and even his illustrator Quentin Blake, collaborator and personal friend, only ever set foot in the shed one time.

The building was dedicated entirely to writing. There was room for a desk, a file cabinet and his beat up wingback grandpa chair which he sat it with a wooden board on this lap to write on. He had injured his back flying for the Royal Air Force in World War II (during which he also spied/slept with rich ladies for his country) so he wasn’t comfortable using a traditional office chair and desk setup.

The desk in the room was covered with gee gaws, as was pretty much every horizontal surface, including my two personal favorites: his hip bone (the yellow sphere in the center front of the desk) and a large ball made of foil wrappers from the Cadbury’s chocolates he ate over the years (the shiny grey sphere between the rock and the grasshopper, behind the geodes). The bone, the ball of the hip joint, was sawed off from the top of his femur in a hip replacement surgery. The doctor gave it to him after the operation telling him it was the biggest one he’d ever seen. Naturally it occupies pride of place on the desk of Dahl curios.

In a radio interview in 1970s, Dahl described the integral role his poky, ramshackle little shed played in his writing:

You become a different person, you are no longer an ordinary fellow who walks around and looks after his children and eats meals and does silly things, you go into a completely different world. I personally draw all the curtains in the room, so that I don’t see out the window and put on a little light which shines on my board. Everything else in your life disappears and you look at your bit of paper and get completely lost in what you’re doing. You do become another person for a moment. Time disappears completely. You may start at nine in the morning and the next time you look at your watch, when you’re getting hungry, it can be lunchtime. And you’ve absolutely no idea that three or fours hours have gone by.

You can explore the hut and find out more about its contents and Roald’s work on the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre website. Protip: the virtual tour didn’t work for me in Chrome but did in Internet Explorer.


Neolithic lovers seek new home

September 13th, 2011

In February of 2007, construction workers building a warehouse in Valdaro, farm country on the outskirts of Mantua discovered a Stone Age burial site. Archaeologists excavated further and discovered a unique Neolithic double burial, a young man and woman who had died 6000 years ago and been locked in an eternal embrace ever since. The Mantua region during the Stone Age was marshland, an excellent environment for preserving skeletons, and in fact dozens of Neolithic burial sites have been found in the area. Most of them are individual burials, some mass burials, some double burials of mother and child, the occasional head buried under a dwelling, but a man and woman embracing, arms and legs interlocked, had never been found before.

The male skeleton (on the left in the picture) was found with a flint arrowhead near his neck. His lady friend had a long flint blade along her thigh, plus two flint knives under her pelvis. There was initial speculation that the weapons might have been the cause of death, like perhaps the lovers had been found mid-embrace by a jealous husband who killed them both on the spot à la Paolo and Francesca. Osteological examination found no evidence of violent death, however, no fractures, no microtrauma, so the most likely explanation is the flint tools were buried along with the people as grave goods.

After the story made the news with a myriad Stone Age Romeo and Juliet headlines, the site had to be guarded night and day to protect it from the carelessly curious and would-be looters. Plus, the landowner still wanted to build his warehouse, so archaeologists decided to remove the entire grave. To keep the couple in their entwined position, archaeologists cut away and lifted the entire section of earth in which they were entombed. The whole burial, all six and half feet cubed of it, was then taken in a box to a laboratory for further analysis.

Researchers were able to pin down their ages to between 18 and 20. Given their discovery in a necropolis, it’s unlikely that they died by accident while hugging, to keep warm during a freezing night, for instance. They were found embracing because they were positioned that way after death.

Four years later and the “Lovers of Valdaro” are finally out of the lab and on display at the Mantua Archeological Museum. It’s a short exhibit, only lasting through Sunday, arranged by an organization that is trying to raise money to make it a permanent display.

The association “Lovers in Mantua” is campaigning for their right to have a room of their own. According to [Professor Silvia] Bagnoli, 250,000 euros will be enough for an exhibition center, and another 200,000 euros could pay for a multimedia space to tell the world the mysterious story of these prehistoric lovers.


The Encino Rembrandt plot thickens

September 12th, 2011

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Rembrandt drawing that was stolen from an LA-area Ritz-Carlton hallway exhibit only to turn up two days later in the pastor’s office of an Encino church. Almost as soon as the story got traction in the press doubts cropped up as to whether the drawing was a Rembrandt at all (see Rowan’s comment on the original entry). No such drawing is listed in the accepted catalogs of Rembrandt’s work, and none of the experts contacted by reporters had ever heard of it. At least one expert thought the pen-and-ink drawing looked like it came from Rembrandt’s school instead of having been done by the master himself.

The Linearis Institute, owners of the drawing and sponsors of the Ritz-Carlton exhibit, made no rebuttal to these charges. Calls and emails from reporters asking for comment went answered, which is a little weird but not unheard of. Calls from police investigating the theft also went unanswered for a while, which is far weirder.

The weirdnesses continue to accumulate. The alleged Rembrandt is still in the possession of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department because the Linearis Institute refuses to provide proof of ownership.

[T]he institute’s attorney, William Klein, said Linearis purchased “The Judgment,” from a legitimate seller. He said the institute’s officials just don’t want to say who that was.

“Things like that really are trade secrets,” Klein told The Associated Press. “We don’t believe we need to reveal trade secrets to get back what is ours.”

He acknowledged the institute has no trail of paperwork (called provenance in art-world speak) to prove “The Judgment” really is a Rembrandt. But he added that officials at Linearis believe it is and it shouldn’t matter what authorities think.


Call me psychic, but something is rotten in Denmark. Best case scenario this so-called institute purchased a so-called Rembrandt from the back of a truck. Why else hide the seller from the police? If your sources of high-end art are “trade secrets” who sell Old Master drawings without ownership history then you’re buying on the black market, period. The difference is that a legitimate seller would trouble himself to counterfeit an ownership history replete with anonymous Swiss private collectors and girlfriends from Canada so that the new owners can have plausible deniability should the cops start sniffing around.

On top of that, it Linearis also isn’t interested in pressing charges against the thieves should they be found. Mr. Klein, Esq., says the institute is really only focused on finding a “compromise” that will allow them to get the drawing back. If the police arrest the thieves, the institute’s position is they can “do anything they need to do that’s in the interests of justice.” Sounds legit to me.


First prehistoric engraved clay disks found in Alaska

September 11th, 2011

Archaeologists documenting unusual petroglyphs in the Noatak National Preserve in Northwest Alaska have discovered four prehistoric engraved clay disks that are the first such artifacts ever found in Alaska.

Rock art of any kind is rare in Interior and Northern Alaska. The Noatak petroglyphs are engraved on the foundation stones of prehistoric house pits on the shore of Feniak Lake. Archaeologists found them 40 years ago but then left them undocumented. This summer, a multidisciplinary team of artists and archaeologists from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and the National Park Service went to Noatak to sketch and trace all the petroglyphs on site.

During small-scale excavations in the shallow depressions that mark the remains of prehistoric dwellings, Scott Shirar, a research archaeologist with the UA museum of the North, and his colleagues made an exciting discovery. They found four clay disks decorated with lines, grooves and perforations.

“The first one looks like a little stone that had some scratch marks on it,” Shirar said. “We got really excited when we found the second one with the drilled hole and the more complicated etchings on it. That’s when we realized we had something unique.”

After collaborating with experts and looking up examples in the archaeological record, Shirar said the disks appear to be a new artifact type for Alaska. “We only opened up a really small amount of ground at the site, so the fact that we found four of these artifacts indicates there are probably more and that something really significant is happening.”

The disks have yet to be dated officially. They are at the University of Alaska Museum of the North where they will be analyzed and studied further. Preliminary dating based on the features of the ancient dwellings and other observable data suggests the settlement and clay disks date to the late prehistoric era, approximately a thousand years ago. Radiocarbon dating on organic matter recovered during the excavation will provide more detail.

Feniak Lake is about 100 miles northeast of the Inupiat Eskimo community of Kotzebue. Despite the Arctic climate, the location has been populated for 11,000 years, which means people settled there in the first immigrant wave to cross the Bering land bridge between 16,000 and 10,000 B.C.


New discoveries about the WTC shipwreck

September 10th, 2011

Last summer, construction workers on the World Trade Center site uncovered the remains of an 18th century shipwreck. Since then, researchers have identified the ship type as a single mast sloop around 50 feet long with a shallow draft (the section between the waterline and the bottom of the hull which determined the depth of water the ship could navigate without running aground) and rounded stem and stern both.

Scientists from Columbia University’s Tree Ring Lab have studied samples from the ship’s white oak planks and its hickory keel trying to match it to the known record of tree ring history from different parts of the country and world. Since an 18th century ship in New York City could have been built locally or have come from Europe, that makes for a great many possible matches to go through. The use of hickory for the keel narrowed down the search because unlike the white oak that makes up the planking, hickory has been extinct in Europe for two million years.

The team dried the timbers slowly, sanded the samples so the rings would be countable, then got counting. You need at least 100 years of rings to have a viable sample for comparison, which they were lucky enough to secure. They ran their samples through a database of tree ring chronologies from the Hudson Valley, then hit pay dirt when they compared to the chronologies from Philadelphia. One of the samples had come from a Philadelphia tree was at least 111 years old and still growing when it was felled in 1773. The sample had a thick outer section where rivers of sap had flowed through in its last year.

If the hull was part of the original vessel and not part of a refurbishment, the tree ring data point to a launch date for this shallow-sailing sloop that was sometime after the 1773 winter’s Tea Party in Boston, and likely before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in the vessel’s hometown. This is a boat that sailed during the American Revolution with a crew that traded up and down the Hudson River goods, such as leather shoes, they had collected during several long bouts spent in the Caribbean. But the crew were a bit lousy (but, really, who wasn’t back then?) and, in its own way, so was the boat, having picked up tiny wood-boring Teredinidae mollusks, “the termites of the sea.” But as Kevin Eckelbarger of the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center, who identified the shell morphology in the bored-out timbers, told Scientific American, “They are really aggressive. They make termites look like amateurs.”

The ship had other structural problems caused by a luxury fitting. The builder used iron fasteners to common the planks of the hull. Iron was far more expensive than wood, and, as it happens, far less efficient. It was both a luxury and a sloppy construction shortcut. It takes a lot less effort to put parts together with an iron fitting than to drill a hole through the inner and outer planks then jam an oak trunnel through it. Those wood trunnels expanded and contracted along with the planking, however, so even though they were a cheaper and more time-consuming material, they kept the ship together better than the iron that would tear, rust and friction-burn wooden hulls.

Historians speculate that the shipbuilder must have gotten his hands on a cheap source of iron, perhaps captured from the enemy during the Revolution, and decided to use them to put the ship together quickly.

As far as what the ship might have carried, what role it might have played in the American Revolution, there are tantalizing clues but nothing we can pin down. It was a mercantile sloop so could have just carried foodstuffs and consumer goods up and down the Atlantic, but it could also have been used in the war. Similar ships served on both sides, carrying ammunition, evacuating Royalist noncombatants during the war and British troops after, even attacking enemy vessels and ports.

One of the puzzle pieces into the history of the discovered World Trade Center vessel includes a pewter button with the number 52, a regiment of the British Army. Whether this is from a captured British soldier or something a superstitious sailor found remains unanswered. Perhaps the British were the last to claim the vessel. As Riess said, the British held New York City throughout the war, and evacuated in 1783 after the treaty in Paris. The last humans on the sailboat left it to sit on the shores of New York harbor where other occupants endemic to saltwater marshes such as horseshoe crabs, sponges, oysters, and snails made the oak planks home.


Bungling art thieves bungle again harder

September 9th, 2011

Ten years ago, three masked men broke into the Fine Arts Museum of Ghent in Belgium and tore two works by Flemish Old Master Peter Paul Rubens off the wall. While beating a hasty retreat, they dropped one of them, “The Flagellation of Christ,” but made away with “The Calydonian Boar Hunt.”

They picked the wrong piece to be clumsy with because as it happens, “The Flagellation of Christ” is a 1614 preparatory oil sketch for a painting that is part of an important series made by 11 luminaries of 17th century Flemish art like Rubens and Antony van Dyck. The completed painting is in St. Paul’s Church in Antwerp, but even the sketch is extremely significant because it shows Rubens’ process and because he himself gave great importance to his sketches, keeping them until his death. It’s far more valuable that “The Calydonian Boar Hunt” which is a common theme that Rubens returned to often.

Still, they managed to steal at least one Rubens and even if it only garnered them a few hundred thousand dollars rather the millions “The Flagellation of Christ” is worth, that’s an entirely respectable payday for butterfingered burglars. Of course, you actually need to sell it to make any money at all. Fast-forward ten years and Athens police get a tip that two people are trying to sell a Rubens stolen from a Belgian museum 10 years ago. On Thursday, September 1, police set up a sting operation during which one women — a 40-year-old Greek TV host — and one man, a 65-year-old former antique store owner — attempt sell the painting to undercover officers for six million euros ($8.4 million).

The couple are arrested, loudly declaiming their innocence. The woman received it from an Italian lover in 2003, she says. He told her it was a copy, she says. She insists neither she nor her antiquarian accomplice had any idea it was a real Rubens or any idea that it was stolen. There’s a wee problem with this story, though. These doofuses left the “SKETCH BY RUBENS – PROPERTY OF FINE ART MUSEUM OF GHENT” label on the back of the painting. Greek National Art Gallery director Marina Lambraki-Plaka described this crack crew best: “amateurs — unless they had some other reason for keeping the identification details on the back of the painting.”

But wait! There’s more! It turns out the painting probably isn’t a Rubens at all. Since its theft, museum experts have reevaluated its provenance and think it’s more likely a copy, the handiwork of one of his students based on the master’s design. It’s like a Guy de Maupassant story, I swear.

The couple have been arrested and charged with attempted money-laundering. Authorities don’t think they were involved with the theft at this point and they’ve released them on bail with a travel ban. Belgium hasn’t filed the official reclamation paperwork yet, but the Belgian ambassador to Greece announced that the Ghent museum will be delighted to have their Rubens-ish painting back and that they will proceed with the business through normal diplomatic channels.


Marine archaeologist buys fierce Oxford emperor

September 8th, 2011

Oxford marine archaeologist Mensun Bound has purchased a bust that once stared, mouth agape, at people outside the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford University’s ceremonial hall designed by Christopher Wren in the late 1660s. It was only his second public building (the first was the chapel of Pembroke College in Cambridge), designed when he was Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. (Yes, in addition to being a pioneer and luminary of English architecture, Wren was also a math and science genius.) The D-shape of the building was inspired by Rome’s Theater of Marcellus.

Once the building was close to done, Wren commissioned local stonemason William Byrd to carve busts of 13 figures to glare at passersby from the Broad Street boundary wall. Known alternately as “emperors,” “caesar’s heads,” and “philosophers,” the sculptures’ real identities are something of a mystery.

They took a lot of punishment over the centuries. Byrd’s originals were replaced with copies in 1868 after 200 years. The Victorian copies were then treated to the drunken exuberance of the students who splashed paint on them. The cleaning did more damage than the paint, leaving the replacements already in need of restoration by the end of the century. They were finally replaced again with copies carved by Michael Black in 1970 – 1972. Those are the ones you see outside the Sheldonian now.

The auctioneers estimate that it was made in the 1860s, so that would make it one of the Victorian copies. An unnamed source has told Bound that it might actually be one of the 17th century originals and it certainly looks beat up from the picture. Bound spent £3,000 to secure the piece.

[Bound] said: “They are known as the emperors, but I have seen them referred to as philosophers and even the apostles. I thought it would be good for the bust to remain near Oxford.

“I am, of course, interested in busts and archaeology and the courtyard here is an ideal place to put it. The Worcester College choir will be here singing at the unveiling, which will hopefully raise money for the village church.”

The unveiling will be carried out by the poet and dramatist Francis Warner, of St Peter’s College.

Mr Bound said he was hoping eventually to discover which of the emperors he had acquired.

The three-ton hunk of limestone has already been hoisted onto a pedestal, thanks to a local farmer’s forklift, in its new location, a courtyard on Bound’s estate, historic Horspath Manor.


Fourth “Great Escape” tunnel found under Stalag Luft III

September 7th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating Stalag Luft III, the Luftwaffe POW camp in Lower Silesia made famous by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, have found a fourth tunnel dug after the failure of the attempt immortalized/fictionalized on film. Although historians knew about the existence of this fourth tunnel, named George, and that it was dug underneath the camp theater, its exact location was a mystery.

Using ground-penetrating radar and information from POWs who survived internment, archaeologists spent three weeks looking for George. Now they’ve found it and it still contains a number of artifacts left behind when the Germans hastily evacuated the camp in the middle of the night on January 27, 1945, forcing the 11,000 remaining POWs to march 50 miles in below freezing temperatures deeper behind German lines.

[Artifacts] include yards of wire that inmates stole from the Nazi searchlight power-lines to make electric light in the shaft and tunnel. Also found were numerous “klim tins” – powdered-milk containers – which were hollowed out and used as fat lamps stuck into the side of the tunnel walls when the electricity failed.

Others were joined together to form tubes along which air was pumped for the men digging at the face. Numerous bedboards were used to shore up the workings, and many jagged hinges, bits of old metal pails, hammers and jemmies, used to scour away the sandy soil of the camp, were also excavated.

“It is hardly a treasure in the conventional sense,” said Marek Lazarz, director of the museum that has been built to honour the men of Stalag Luft III. “But it is priceless to us and a time capsule of what life was like back then.

The location turns out to be on the other side of the theater from where experts thought it would be. It ran from under the theater towards the section of the camp where the guards were housed. That’s a counterintuitive choice if your plan is escape, but they could have been aiming for a wooded area between the prison camp and the guard camp. Historians also speculate that perhaps the prisoners were planning to break into the guard barracks to steal weapons to fight their way out and/or to defend themselves from a massacre should Allied troops be closing in.

Since 50 of the 76 prisoners who were able to escape had been executed at Hitler’s personal command, the remaining POWs had very good reason to fear that their jailers would kill them all if it looked like the camp was close to liberation. After the Great Escape, British Intelligence was able to convey orders to the POWs that they were to cease all escape attempts.

According to Squadron Leader Ivor Harris, a prisoner at the camp who ran the makeshift air pump they used to ensure the diggers at the end of the tunnel had breathable air, George was apparently not meant to stage another escape, but rather to be used as “for emergencies only,” which sounds to me like a last resort either for running like hell, fighting or for hiding until Allied troops freed them.

These tunnels really were astonishing pieces of ingenuity and engineering. Underneath the blackish topsoil of the camp was golden sand. The German command had specifically chosen the area because of this contrast, so that if anyone was digging the color of the sand would expose them. Sand is also easy to dig through but very hard to shore up; if you’ve ever dug a tunnel with your hand on the beach you know how it just collapses when you pull your hand out. The Germans also put all the prisoner barracks on stilts to make digging more visible and they put microphones underground so they could hear any excavation noises.

In March of 1943, POWs decided to attempt the impossible. They started digging three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry (Nova has a neat interactive map of Harry). They hid the entrance to the tunnels under a chimney, a sewage outlet and a stove in three different barracks. To bypass the microphones, they dug a vertical shaft down deep enough — 9 meters or 30 feet — that the actual tunnel would be dug outside of mic range. They shored up the walls with wooden planks from their bunk beds.

At the base of the shaft, they built three small rooms, a storage chamber for tools and bags of excavated sand, a workshop where they MacGyvered up equipment they needed, and an air pump room where a man constantly pushed a handmade bellows on runners back and forth to send air to the remote digger. The ventilation pipes were made out Klim milk cans, tops and bottoms removed then stuck together.

Those milk cans were also used as lamps initially, filled with mutton fat with a pajama fabric wick. They were so rank and noxious in the confined space of the tunnel, however, that they were soon replaced by actual electric wiring, stolen from German workers who had left it unattended. (The Gestapo executed all those workers after the escape.) The wires were then tapped into the prison circuit board.

Once the POWs started digging the long tunnels, they devised a rope-pull trolley cart system so the digger could send back all the sand he was excavating. That trolley system would also be used to transport the diggers as the tunnel got longer, and transport men the night of the escape. Since the entire tunnel was just two feet by two feet — the size of bed boards used to shore up the walls after digging — and since Harry ended up being the length of a football field, that trolley system was key to the escape plan.

Six hundred POWs worked on the tunnels, but only 200 of them would get a chance to use Harry. The men who were judged to have worked the most, ones who could speak German, ones who had a history of escape were all given priority. The rest drew lots. Once the 200 were selected, they waited for a moonless night to make their attempt. March 24, 1944, was that night.

It didn’t go well from the beginning. The trap door to Harry was frozen shut. It took them an hour and a half of precious time to get the damn thing open. Harry ended up just a little short, 30 feet from the forest, 45 feet from the guard tower, so even once they were able to start sending POWs through, they had to slow down the process drastically to avoid sentries spotting them. Then an air raid killed the power and part of the tunnel collapsed and had to be rebuilt. That’s why the planned 200 escapees ended up being just 76.

Seventy-three of them were promptly recaptured, 50 of them executed, 17 returned to Stalag Luft III, four were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp where they promptly proceeded to dig a tunnel and escape four months later. Sadly, they were again recaptured. Two Norwegian RAF pilots made it to neutral Sweden after three and a half months in Nazi territory. One Dutch RAF pilot escaped through France to the British Consulate in Spain.

In the aftermath of the escape, the Germans took inventory and discovered just how much material had gone into this daring plan: 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 52 20-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,212 bed bolsters, 1,370 beading battens, 1219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 1,000 feet of electric wire, 600 feet of rope, 3424 towels, 1,700 blankets and over 1,400 Klim cans.

It’s a testament to the massive testes on these guys that as soon as the heat died down a little, they started all over again with George even though the guards were now counting bed boards every day.





July 2015
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