RFK’s copy of Emancipation Proclamation on sale

October 6th, 2010

The original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order freeing all slaves in the rebel states issued by President Lincoln in 1863, is in the National Archives, but some printed copies signed by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were made the next year for public sale.

Emancipation Proclamation signed copyForty-eight of these copies were printed in 1864 and sold for 10 dollars each to raise money for the Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the Red Cross. Over the 150 or so years since then, half of them have disappeared. Out of the 24 remaining, 14 are in museums and other public institutions, and 10 in private collections.

One of them was purchased by Robert F. Kennedy in the summer of 1964, a hundred years after Lincoln and Seward autographed it for charity, for $9,500. He hung it on a wall in his 1840s mansion in McLean, Virginia. Robert Kennedy had been a vigorous enforcer of civil rights as Attorney General under his brother and Lyndon Johnson. Not only did he send U.S. Marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce the admittance of the first Black student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi and worked with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to craft the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, but he actively worked to desegregate the executive branch of government, which had been all-white since virulent racist Woodrow Wilson had resegregated the White House while preaching about keeping the world safe for democracy.

In a speech at the White House centennial ceremony, Kennedy spoke of furthering Lincoln’s work: “We have had a great deal of talk in the past 100 years about equality. Deed, not talk, is what is needed now. … We must do more because nations which are free, people who would be free, look to us for leadership, not merely in strength of arms, but in strength of convictions.” [...]

Princeton journalism professor Evan Thomas, a historian, said he wasn’t surprised that RFK would want to own such an important document.

“He enforced and pursued civil rights in a way that no one else in the attorney general’s office ever had,” he said. “He went down South and saw the injustice there, and he was determined to do something about it. … He captured some of the spirit of Lincoln.”

The McLean house was sold last year, and now Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s widow, is putting the Emancipation Proclamation copy up for auction at Sotheby’s New York on December 10th for an estimated sale price of $1.5 million. Sotheby’s will exhibit the document in Boston, Philadelphia and New York before the sale.


Victorian pier in Hastings destroyed by arson

October 5th, 2010

Hastings Pier destroyed by arsonAt around one o’clock this morning, a fire broke out on the historic Victorian pier at Hastings in Sussex, England. Over 50 firefighters and 2 lifeboat crews tried to contain the blaze, but by the time the flames were put out 7 hours later, 95% of the superstructure had been destroyed. Thankfully nobody was injured. Two young men aged 18 and 19 have been arrested on suspicion of arson.

Hastings Pier in 1912, original pavilion at the endThe Hastings Pier was built in 1872 by premier pier designer Eugenius Birch. It was known as the “peerless pier.” The original structure was a 910 feet long wooden boardwalk built on a lattice girder framework supported by 14 cast iron piers.

It was the first seaside pleasure pier to have a large pavilion built on it. The original pavilion seated 2,000 people but it too was destroyed by fire in 1917. It was rebuilt even bigger in 1922 and would be renovated again along with several adjacent buildings in Art Deco style in the 1930s.

Although the pier would begin to decline in popularity after World War II, the pavilion saw a brief revival in the 60s as a concert venue for famous musicians like The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. It also hosted the Bayeux Tapestry during celebrations of the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966.

The buildings and structure weren’t maintained well and storm damage to some of the structural columns raised concerns about the pier’s safety. It was closed to the public between 1999 and 2002, then opened again briefly under new ownership and closed again in 2006. A local historical preservation society, Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust, just this year succeeded in persuading the Hastings council to buy the pier from its current owners using compulsory purchase powers (the British version of eminent domain) as long as funding could be found, and were inviting architects to submit restoration designs.

Despite the devastation of the fire, since 7 of Birch’s original cast iron piers and the lattice framework are still standing, albeit in a weakened state, there is still hope that Hastings Pier might pull through.

Anthony Wills, from the National Piers Society, said: “All is not lost for Hastings. It will take more than two kids with a box of matches to destroy Hastings pier. It has lasted since 1872 and it has been through plenty of crises before.”

Wills said the £50m rebuilding of the Grand pier at Weston-super-Mare, following a similar fire in 2008, provided hope to campaigners in Hastings.

Andy Brown, south-east regional director of English Heritage, agreed that a new pier could rise from the ashes: “There’s a long history of piers catching fire and buildings being replaced. Sadly this is normal.

“The engineering importance of piers survives these fires. The saga of the West pier at Brighton was on the same lines. Despite all the damage it was only when a big storm knocked down the bulk of original structure that we finally threw in the towel.”

Let’s hope it’s a mild autumn and winter, then. Here is some heartbreaking footage of the pier engulfed in flames shot by YouTube user bekka13xx who lives across from it.

To learn more about the history of Hastings Pier, see this Hastings Chronicle essay.


Faces of the Civil War at the Library of Congress

October 4th, 2010

Tom Liljenquist, a jeweler from McLean, Virginia, has donated his collection of 700 high quality ambrotype and tintype portrait photographs of Civil War soldiers to the Library of Congress. He and his three sons spent 15 years building the collection which they decided to donate so they would be preserved in digital perpetuity and so that these important images could be shared with the public without fees or restrictions.

The collection represents an important resource in early photography. The ambrotype made use of the wet plate colloidion process on glass to create images that were cheaper than — and in some ways more attractive than — the daguerrotype. The tintype or ferrotype, which came into use at about the same time as the ambrotype — in the 1850s — was made by creating a direct positive images on treated iron metal.

As an historical archive, the Liljenquist family collection shows Civil War garb, weapons, musical instruments and family portraits.

Carl, died in the Civil War at just 18 years oldCarol M. Johnson, curator of photography in the LoC’s prints and photographs division, calls the collection “a landmark gift.” Some of the rarer pieces depict Black uniformed soldiers and portraits of soldiers with their wives and children. Most of the pictures are unmarked so we don’t know who the subjects were or who photographed them, but a handful of notes of historical information pinned to the photo cases have survived.

The picture on the right is a childhood portrait of a soldier named “Carl”. That’s a lock of his hair on the left and underneath the note from a parent says “My beloved son Carl taken from me on April 1, 1865, at age 18, killed at Dinwiddie. Flights of angels wing thee to thy rest.” The battles at Dinwiddie Court House (March 31) and and Five Forks (April 1) took place just 10 days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865. :(

The entire collection will be exhibited in April 2011, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, but the Library of Congress has been working assiduously to digitize the pictures and put them online. They’ve made sure to digitize all the pictures in their period cases, which are not only beautiful but valuable artifacts in and of themselves. Over half of the collection is online already, and new pictures are being added every week.


Ancient Roman spa in Turkey about to be flooded

October 3rd, 2010

Nymph fountain in situ at Allianoi (has been removed now)The 2nd century Roman thermal spa complex of Allianoi outside of Bergama (ancient Pergamon) in Turkey’s Izmir Province is in the process of being filled in with sand. Cranes and dump trucks manned by workers from the Turkish State Waterworks Directorate are filling the whole site — 17-foot walls, mosaics, colonnaded porticoes, the still-working thermal spa fed by a natural hot spring and much, much more — in preparation for the entire valley being flooded and turned into an irrigation reservoir for area farmers.

This nightmare has been in the offing for 5 years. Organizations like Europa Nostra and UNESCO have tried to stop construction of the Yortanlı Dam and the subsequent flooding of the valley, but they were only able to delay the project. The Turkish government could not be budged. Now the dam is built and the flooding is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

In theory this sand filling is meant to preserve the site so it won’t be damaged in the flooding, but the government is refusing to allow archaeologists access so it’s not like they’re going about this in a responsible way. The flippant comments from officials are hardly soothing.

Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu … said in late August: “Allianoi does not exist, it is an invention… There is just a hot spring like many others across Turkey.”

His remarks were roundly criticized while the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the European non-governmental preservation organization Europa Nostra and archaeologists from the European Union urged the Turkish government in a letter to preserve the “common heritage” at Allianoi.

But the game seems to be over: Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay quashed hope of saving Allianoi last week when he dismissed the idea of questioning the local archaeological commission’s decision in late August to bury the site for preservation.

“After all, Allianoi remained underground for a long time and it surfaced only during drilling works,” he said.

Professor Ahmet Yaraş, who excavated the site for 9 years and is now the leader of the Turkish NGO Allianoi Initiative (in Turkish only), is horrified. He believes 80% of the site has yet to be excavated and that the filling will, at best, do no good at all. Once the valley is flooded, sediment will build up quickly, so even if in some nebulous future the site were drained, archaeologists would have to dig through 20 feet of sediment to even get to the sand fill.

This isn’t the first time Turkey has dammed and flooded an area, submerging its ancient heritage. They’ve been building dams since the 70s to extend agricultural productivity and hydroelectric power, and sadly, preserving cultural patrimony just doesn’t seem to be a priority for the politicians.

Allianoi site, reconstructed thermal baths on the front right


Neat things to do and read

October 2nd, 2010

Instead of doggedly pursing a single obsession, this weekend I’ve been flitting about, enjoying a variety of historical perspectives. Since I don’t really have a single story I want to focus on, I figure I’ll do something other blogs do regularly but I almost never do: share a bunch of links.

Boticelli's Venus totally wants youFirst on the list is the extreme closeup awesomeness of HaltaDefinizione. It’s a company that has a unique photographic system which allows them to take pictures at such a depth of detail that you can literally examine paintings a millimeter at a time. They’re so dense, some of them are almost 20 million pixels in surface area, composed from over 1000 individual photographs.

Most of its offerings are for paying customers only — including restorers, government ministries, museums, etc — but a few masterpieces of Renaissance art are available for free (albeit watermarked) browsing just for the next 4 months. Take advantage!

You can get so close you can see just how few paint chips are actually left on the wall of Leonardo’s Last Supper, or the tiny little barely-there self-portrait of Caravaggio to the right of the white reflection in Bacchus’ pitcher of wine, or count the flowers on Spring’s robe in Boticelli’s Primavera.

Each painting can take a few seconds to load so be patient. Be sure to click the fullscreen icon (bottom right) and then zoom at will. There’s also a nifty ruler icon that shows you the real life dimensions of what you’re viewing.

Now for some highly entertaining reading. A Short, Incomplete, and Somewhat Random List of People Who Have Had Their Heads Impaled on a Spike on London Bridge from Lawrence Person’s blog is exactly what it sounds like, plus it has lots and lots of links for the interested macabre reader to expand upon the short random list.

Next up, a fascinating article on The Cult of Celebrity in Georgian England by historian Lucy Inglis. She posits Queen Elizabeth I as the first modern celebrity, someone who deliberately crafted a Warrior/Virgin Queen persona congruent with Anglo-Saxon traditions of heroism and distinct from her actual personality. The article moves on to cover the 18th century proliferation of the press and growth of The Beauty as a pivotal factor in celebrity.

Garum amphora, mosaic from the villa of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, PompeiiFinally, we have a series. It’s a multi-part history of condiments called De Condimentis. I stronly suggest you bookmark the series and check back every week for the latest installment. The author, Tom Nealon, has thus far written 3 parts. The first is an overview, starting with the ancients-to-modern trajectory of fish sauce. The second is about the role the fifth flavor, umami, plays in condiments. As an ancillary benefit, the article includes the greatest description of Marmite ever articulated:

Marmite is the pinnacle of fraudulent protein engineering and may be directly responsible for the “steely resolve” of the British during the two World Wars. It’s salty, brown, sticky, vegetarian, and a little like dropping a shot of Jagermeister in a glass of soy sauce.

Isn’t that exactly what Marmite tastes like?! A Jager bomb in soy sauce. That’s it, man. La phrase juste.


Hear ancient Babylonian spoken after 2000 years

October 1st, 2010

Stele of Codex Hammurabi, 1792-1750 B.C., LouvreCambridge University Akkadian grammar expert Martin Worthington has recorded spoken Babylonian, the language of Gilgamesh and Hammurabi, which faded out of usage 2000 years ago. We can’t be sure this is how Babylonian sounded, of course, but Worthington thinks they’ve gotten pretty close to the mark by comparing it to related languages that are still spoken.

The Babylonian language, written on clay tablets in cuneiform script, dominated the Near East for centuries before it was gradually displaced by Aramaic. After a long decline, it disappeared from use altogether sometime in the first century A.D. — and was only deciphered nearly two millennia later by 19th-century European academics.

Worthington, who specializes in the study of Babylonian language and literature, said he got the idea of posting audio recordings of the ancient tongue to the Web because “the questions which students of ancient languages most frequently hear from laymen are: ‘How did they sound? And how do you know?’”

He said scholars have a pretty good idea of what Babylonian sounded like by comparing the language to its Semitic cousins — Hebrew and Arabic — and by picking out Babylonian words written in Greek or Aramaic. The vowel patterns within Babylonian itself also provide clues as to how some words are supposed to sound, he said.

The recordings range from different versions and chapters of the Epic of Gilgamesh, to excerpts from the Codex Hammurabi (the ancient law code from around 1790 B.C.), to a rather curious incantation meant to prevent dog bites.

The Ishtar poems, Ammiditana’s hymn to Ishtar and Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld, are both quite sexy, the first praising her hotness and the second lamenting its loss when she goes to hell. Versions of the former are read by two different experts, Karl Hecker and Doris Prechel. It’s interesting to compare the two and hear the differences in the readers’ accents and emphases.

Ammiditana’s Hymn to Ishtar, read by Karl Hecker

Ammiditana’s Hymn to Ishtar, read by Doris Prechel

You can listen to all 30 recordings read by a dozen experts and read along with both the cuneiform script and the English translation on Worthington’s website. Click the link to launch the audio file directly; click the book icon to the right of the link to see the written versions (there’s a link to the recording at the top of each page). More readings will be uploaded as they are recorded.


Germany’s World War I ends Sunday

September 30th, 2010

Signing of Versailles Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors, June 28, 1919No, you have not fallen through a time warp and woken up in 1919. On Sunday, October 3rd, the 20th anniversary of German reunification, Germany will pay the last of the reparations stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles.

The reason it took 92 years is that there were multiple interruptions, restructurings and reduction of the debt from the initial crippling judgment. The first sum assessed in 1919 was a staggering 269 billion gold marks (around 96,000 tons of gold). John Maynard Keynes, the representative from the British Treasury to the Paris Peace Conference, actually resigned in protest. “Germany will not be able to formulate correct policy if it cannot finance itself,” he said at the time, and boy did he turn out to be right.

German kids playing with worthless cashGermany couldn’t keep up with the payments and in 1923 defaulted. France and Belgium responded by sending troops into the Ruhr River valley, the heartland of German industrial production. Germans passively resisted the occupying forces, stopping coal production and railway transit cold. This impasse was a major factor in the hyperinflation that followed, as seen in pictures of kids using stacks of worthless banknotes to build forts and women burning them for heat.

To try to staunch the wound, the Entente powers hastily threw together the Dawes Plan which reduced Germany’s overall war debt to 132 billion gold marks, guaranteed loans from the US and got the occupying troops out of the Ruhr. Although German business rebounded, the damage had been done and the annual payments were still too enormous for Germany to make good on.

Political cartoon depicting (from the left) Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George guillotining Germany at VersaillesThe debt was reduced again to 112 billion gold marks in the Young Plan in 1929, but then the world economy asploded so at the Lausanne Conference in 1932, the Allies to all intents and purposes suspended the payments. The year after came Hitler and he wasn’t keen on paying reparations. It wasn’t until 1953 when Germany had been divided and West Germany was occupied by Allied forces that the subject of the Versailles reparations was addressed again.

But in 1953, West Germany agreed at an international conference in London to service its international bond obligations from before World War II. In the years that followed it repaid the principal on the bonds, which had been issued to private and institutional investors in countries including the United States.

Under the terms of the London accord, Germany was allowed to wait until it unified before paying some €125 million in outstanding interest that had accrued on its foreign debt in the years 1945 to 1952. After the Berlin Wall fell and West and East Germany united in 1990, the country dutifully paid that interest off in annual installments, the last of which comes due on Oct. 3.

And here we are. If you’re very crazy and/or bored, you can read the entire text of the Versailles Treaty here.


Stonehenge boy was from the Mediterranean

September 29th, 2010

Some of the amber beads buried with the skeletonIn 2005, road workers digging an area about 3 miles southeast of the standing stones uncovered the skeleton of a teenage boy who had been buried with a beautiful necklace of 90 amber beads. The fact that he was buried close to the monument and with such a valuable piece of jewelry indicated that he had been someone of importance in life.

From radiocarbon dating we know the young man died 3,550 years ago, a period when Stonehenge had already been finished over 1500 years. Examination of his bones put his age at death to 14 or 15 years old. Now isotope analysis of a sliver of his tooth enamel indicate that he grew up far from where he died, somewhere in the southern Mediterranean.

Boy with the Amber Necklace skeletonProfessor Jane Evans, Head of Archaeological Science at the British Geological Survey, said that recent scientific analyses of the teeth of a teenager buried at Boscombe Down suggest that he ‘spent his childhood in a warm climate typical of Iberia or the Mediterranean. Such warm oxygen values are theoretically possible in the British Isles but are only found on the extreme west coast of south west England, western Ireland and the Outer Hebrides. These areas can be excluded as likely childhood origins of his on the basis of the strontium isotope composition of his teeth.’

The Boy with the Amber Necklace is not the only non-native to be buried in the area. Isotope analysis done several years ago of the Amesbury Archer, whose grave contains some of the earliest gold and copper objects found in Britain, indicated that he had been raised in a colder climate, probably Alpine Germany. He was visiting Stonehenge 800 years before the Amber youth.

The Boscombe Bowmen, who died in 2300 B.C. and were buried near where the Boy with the Amber Necklace would be found, were most likely from Wales, although they may have come from as far afield as Brittany.

We don’t know what brought these people to Stonehenge, of course. They may have been tourists or pilgrims. They may have been traveling for work purposes, in the case of the Boscombe Bowmen, possibly to work on Stonehenge itself.


Cullinan diamond necklace joins the Hope on display

September 28th, 2010

Cullinan diamond necklaceA 1910 silver necklace with more than 200 diamonds, including 9 beautiful and rare blue diamonds was unveiled Monday at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The Edwardian piece was donated by an anonymous California donor who scheduled it to coincide with the National Museum of Natural History’s 100th anniversary.

The necklace is a stunning example of classic Edwardian style, a period when bow and lace were popular motifs in jewelry design. The double bow is encrusted in diamonds, with two large blue diamonds inside each of the loops. The largest single diamond in the setting is a 2.6 carat blue diamond pendant hanging from the center of the bow, almost half the 5.32 carat total weight of the 9 blue diamonds in the piece.

Cullinan rough diamond, Thomas Cullinan holding it on the leftThe blue diamonds in the necklace have a link to the biggest rough diamond ever discovered. In 1905, workers at the Premier Diamond Mine in South Africa found a monster diamond with a total pre-cut weight of 3,106.75 carats. The owner of the mine, explorer Thomas Cullinan, had promised his wife that he would find and gift her the largest diamond in the world.

Star of Africa in the British Royal ScepterOnce he actually found it, though, he sold it uncut to the Transvaal government for 150,000 pounds. The Prime Minister of Transvaal gave it to King Edward VII as a birthday present in 1907, and the next year renowned diamond cutter Joseph Asscher cut the giant into nine stones. The largest, a 530.2 carat white diamond that would become known as the Star of Africa, is now set in the British Royal Scepter. The second largest, a 317.4 carat diamond known as the Cullinan II, is set front and center on the Imperial State Crown of Great Britain.

So Cullinan had a lot to make up for with the missus, needless to say.

In honor of his own knighthood in 1910, Cullinan commissioned the necklace for his wife, Annie, and the nine blue diamonds represented the nine pieces that were cut from the original stone. Parts of the huge diamond were placed — in various settings (scepters, rings, crowns, what have you) — in the jewelry trove of the British royal family.

The necklace was bequeathed to each first daughter in each generation. “In the early 1980s, the great-granddaughter, Anne Robinson, got in touch with Stephen Silver and sold him the heirloom. Then Silver sold the necklace to another owner, who is donating it to us,” Post said.

The 9 blue diamonds in the necklace are said to represent the 9 diamonds cut from the rough diamond that Mrs. Cullinan only got to see in the Tower of London with all the other tourists.


Ethnic cleansing among 9th c. Anasazi Pueblo tribes?

September 27th, 2010

Anasazi Pueblo ruinsArchaeologists excavating the Anasazi Pueblo site at Sacred Ridge, Colorado, have found an enormous deposit of mutilated human remains. Mass graves have been found before at Ancestral Pueblo sites, some of them showing evidence of horrific violence, cannibalism, deliberate desecration of the dead, probably inflicted to terrify enemies.

The Sacred Ridge charnel pit, however, is the earliest and definitely the largest ever found. It dates to around 800 A.D., a period when the first Ancestral Pueblo villages were forming.

The entire assemblage comprises 14,882 human skeletal fragments, as well as the mutilated remains of dogs and other animals killed at the massacre site — Sacred Ridge, southwest of Durango, Colo.

Based on the archaeological findings, which include two-headed axes that tested positive for human blood, co-authors Jason Chuipka and James Potter believe the genocide occurred as a result of conflict between different Anasazi Ancestral Puebloan ethnic groups.

“It was entirely an inside job,” Chuipka, an archaeologist with Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants, told Discovery News.

“The type of event at Sacred Ridge is on the far end of the conflict spectrum where social relations completely melt down,” he added, mentioning that the Sacred Ridge “occupants were targeted to take the blame.” [...]

The unearthed bones and artifacts indicate that when the violence took place, men, women and children were tortured, disemboweled, killed and often hacked to bits. In some cases, heads, hands and feet appear to have been removed as trophies for the killers. The attackers then removed belongings out of the structures and set the roofs on fire.

Chuipka and Potter think the slaughter was the result of massive social stress possibly coupled with severe environmental hardship like a drought, and that the deceased were targeted as group scapegoats. Biodistance analysis done on the teeth of Sacred Ridge human remains indicate that the dead were genetically connected to each other and distinct from neighboring populations. The extent of the mutilations and their systematic disposal suggest the mass killings were planned as such, not spur of the moment responses to circumstances like the other Ancestral Pueblo mass graves which show evidence of starvation cannibalism, war and witch hunts.

These unique characteristics of the Sacred Ridge mass grave suggest to the authors of the study intentional ethnic cleansing. Click here to read an abstract of the study or the study itself if you have a subscription.





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