WWI model of Messines battlefield to be excavated

September 2nd, 2013

Preparatory work began yesterday to excavate a scale model of the battlefield of Messines, Belgium, built at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, by German prisoners of war in 1917. This is one of the most complete World War I site remaining in England. The dig starts next week and will continue into October. Once it has been thoroughly recorded, the original model will be reburied for its own preservation.

Cannock Chase was the site of two training camps, Brocton and Rugeley, that were built to house and train 20,000 men each, the size of a standard infantry division. Half a million troops from all over the empire passed through these camps between 1915 and 1918, spending several months learning how to fight in the trenches of the Western Front. In September of 1917, the 5th Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB) arrived at Brocton fresh from the trenches to train new soldiers, as they themselves had been trained in the same camp when their division was formed in May of 1915.

The New Zealand Division of the II ANZAC Corps had suffered 4,978 casualties fighting to capture the German defenses on high ground south of Ypres during the Battle of Messines Ridge (June 7th-14th, 1917). To convey the realities of the battle to the men they were tasked to train, the NZRB designed a scale terrain model of the section of the front they had successfully captured. Using trench maps, aerial photographs and their own first-hand knowledge, they designed a highly accurate model of the Messines trenches, roads, railways, village buildings, topographical contours, everything tactically relevant.

The finished product, built by German prisoners from a nearby POW camp, was about the size of a tennis court and surrounded on three sides by a viewing platform where trainees could watch and learn. The model was made out concrete. Gaps filled with Bunter pebbles represented roads while weed-filled gaps acted as contour lines. Bricks played the part of buildings. The trenches were modeled in the most detail, every curve, corner and turn recreated in concrete. The precision of the model and the practical training it made possible doubtless helped save lives.

The Great War was winding down when the New Zealanders were struck with an even deadlier enemy: the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. Fifty of them were members of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade stationed at Brocton camp. They are buried in the Cannock Chase War Cemetery. The battalion mascot, a Harlequin Great Dane named Freda, also died in late 1918 and is buried in a Cannock Chase field.

The last of the New Zealanders left the camp barracks in May of 1919. The camps were dismantled and sold for parts, but the model was left alone. The soldiers had given it to the people of Staffordshire at a goodbye ceremony before their departure, so the mini-Messines ridge was the only thing that was not auctioned off. Eventually it was buried to ensure it was not destroyed by the elements and people of ill-intent.

Now the Messines model will see the light again for the first time in years, albeit for a very short time. Once it has been thoroughly recorded, a replica of the model or digital recreation will be installed in the Marquis Drive Visitors’ Centre to help explain how it was used in training. A reconstructed cabin from the camp at the visitors’ center already includes information about the Messines model drawn from period pictures and recent exploratory excavations.

The Staffordshire County Council expects the site and recreated model will play a part in the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I next year. The county has extensive plans for the centenary. Earlier this summer the council received a grant of £80,000 ($124,440) to create a Staffordshire Great War Trail, an ambition project to emphasize Staffordshire’s World War I history by bringing attention to relevant locations and institutions and by digitizing archives and individual memories of the war.

This BBC story from last year has some great views of Cannock Chase and pictures of the camp during the war.



First Iron Age “loch village” found in Scotland

September 1st, 2013

Archaeologists excavating the infilled Black Loch of Myrton on the Monreith estate in Wigtownshire, southwestern Scotland, have discovered that what they thought was an Iron Age crannog (a man-made island built in a lake or river) is actually an Iron Age “loch village,” a small town built on natural peat mounds in the lake, from the middle of the first century B.C. Lake villages have been discovered in England before, for example Glastonbury lake village in Somerset, but this is the first one found in Scotland, which means it’s the first loch village ever found.

What initially appeared to be one of a small group of mounds before excavation was revealed to be a massive stone hearth complex at the centre of a roundhouse. The timber structure of the house has been preserved, with beams radiating out from the hearth forming the foundation, while the outer wall consists of a double-circuit of stakes.

The most surprising discovery was that the house was not built on top of an artificial foundation, but directly over the fen peat which had gradually filled in the loch. Rather than being a single crannog, as first thought, it appears to be a settlement of at least seven houses built in the wetlands around the small loch.

This find is as fortunate as it is historically significant. We know the Black Loch was subject to land reclamation efforts in the first half of the 19th century because on the Ordnance Survey map of 1848 the loch itself is tiny and the adjacent land is labeled Black Loch Plantation. By 1880 the lake had been drained thoroughly enough to allow Sir Herbert Maxwell, 7th Baronet of Monreith, to excavate what he thought was a crannog and to recover Iron Age hammer stones and one whetstone. Those finds didn’t stop the attempts to keep the lake drained so the land could be farmed. Unfortunately for the farmers but fortunately for archaeology, drainage couldn’t keep up with the boggy, peaty terrain. The land was used for pasture when it got too wet to plow and by 1993, the crannog could no longer be seen.

In 2010, new field drains were cut in Black Loch and a run-off channel for the new drains to empty into was dug underneath a forested area near the center of the loch to connect to one of the 19th century drains. During the digging of the run-off channel, worked oak timbers were discovered. A reconnaissance survey by AOC Archaeology Group followed in which test pits were dug around the crannog-like mound and core samples taken along the channel. The team found charcoal in the core samples and horizontal timbers in the test pits. Radiocarbon dating of the timbers found that they date to middle of the first millennium B.C., the early Iron Age.

These elements are often found in crannog excavations, and since the White Loch right next to the Black has a visible crannog, archaeologists had good reason to believe that’s what they had found here too: an early Iron Age crannog. Their final assessment was the site was archaeologically significant and that the new drainage channels posed a serious threat to the timbers and other organic deposits that had been preserved for thousands of years in the wet, peaty environment.

Three years later, funds from Historic Scotland allowed AOC Archaeology Group to return to the site for a pilot excavation this July. Local volunteers also participated in the dig. They found the alder timbers radiating out from the central hearth and outside the radial timbers was a ring of small cobbles that were probably used to keep the perimeter of the roundhouse dry. As they continued to dig down, archaeologists found the earliest iteration of the hearth. This one hearth was reused at least three times, probably by different people who occupied the site over the years.

Archaeologists have sampled, documented and photographed every timber before removing them to the laboratory for conservation and further analysis, but even so they’ve barely scratched the surface of this unique and important find. They hope to be able to return soon for a more extensive archaeological excavation.


Aragon wants 13th c. frescoes back from Catalonia

August 31st, 2013

The autonomous government of Aragon has formally requested the return of 13th century frescoes removed from the monastery of Santa María de Sigena during the Spanish Civil War and now installed in the Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña in Barcelona. The also-autonomous government of Catalonia has not been receptive. Ferran Mascarell, Catalan Minister for Culture, said on Thursday that the government will do everything in its power to keep the frescoes where they are on the ground that if Catalans hadn’t conserved the frescoes, they would not exist today.

This is not a solid legal argument, as the Catalan government has good reason to know since it too has campaigned vigorously for the return of historically significant items from places where they were conserved. Most recently the Salamanca Papers, a vast number of documents, books, magazines, newspapers and more that Franco pillaged from universities, trade unions, political parties, private homes, publishers etc. in 1939, have begun to be repatriated after a decades-long struggle in the legislature and courts.

Aragon has wanted the frescoes back for a long time, but the government wasn’t the official owner of the monastery and thus had no legal rights to claim the frescoes. The Order of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem has owned the historic building for eight centuries, although their nuns left in 1835 after anti-clerical legislation promulgated by Queen Isabel II’s prime minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal privatized monastic properties thus stripping the convent of its revenue. Some nuns filtered back over the years and since 1985, the Order of St. John has allowed the sisters of Bethlehem and the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno to carry on the tradition of monastic prayer at Santa María de Sigena.

The Order of St. John couldn’t just hand over the monastery without getting permission from the Vatican. Finally earlier this year the Vatican granted the Order permission to cede the rights to Aragon, so now the Aragonese government is the proud owner of a 13th century monastery in the Spanish Pyrenees. That gives them the right to take Catalonia to court should they refuse to hand over the frescoes. Since Catalonia only possesses the works because they were sent there in 1936 for conservation, not because their ownership was officially transferred, any legal battle is likely to favor the repatriation. The frescoes were removed by order of government during the Civil War, and are therefore spoils of war just like the Salamanca Papers. The monastery was declared a national monument in 1923, which also puts the frescoes’ removal in contravention of pre-existing Spanish law.

Santa María de Sigena was built between 1183 and 1208 by order of Queen Sancha of Castile. Intended to house nuns from the cream of Spanish aristocracy, the monastery was built in rich Romanesque style and was elaborately decorated. No expense was spared. The frescoes on the arches and vaults of the chapter house — plant and animal motifs accompanying scenes from the Old and New Testament and 70-80 portraits of the ancestors of Jesus starting with Abraham — were painted by the best English artists using precious materials like gold and lapis lazuli. This approach was employed nowhere else in Spain at this time. Historians believe the frescoes were painted by English artists who also worked on the Guardian Angels Chapel in Winchester Cathedral, the chapel of St. Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral and on mosaics in Norman-ruled Sicily in the mid-12th century. Queen Sancha was buried in the convent church after her death, as were her daughters Dolça and Leonor and her son King Pedro II of Aragon.

Its royal burials and architectural and artistic beauties couldn’t save it from a hideous fate during the Civil War. In fact, they probably condemned it. Santa María de Sigena was burned in 1936 by Republicans forces who were no fans of the monarchy or the Church. The royal tombs were desecrated Vultures followed to pick at the carcass and looters helped themselves to everything they could take, including the art on the walls, the wooden paneling, the devotional objects, the furniture. The chapter house frescoes were horribly damaged by the fire, some destroyed completely, some missing large pieces, all drained of their once-brilliant color.

To save what was left, in 1960 the paintings were removed and sent to the National Museum in Barcelona. There they were conserved, ultimately finding permanent placement affixed to arches and vaults designed to replicate the convent chapter house’s structure. The museum has an impressive collection of Romanesque frescoes removed from the walls of other churches and monasteries. You can take a tour of the museum’s Romanesque rooms on Google Art Project. (That link isn’t taking me directly to the proper location, for some reason. If you find yourself on the first floor, click the dropdown and choose the ground floor, then click on the light grey rectangle above and just to the right of the large oval room in the middle.) Compare what’s left with the black and white pictures taken right before the fire by photographer Ricardo del Arco.

Meanwhile, back in Aragon, the monastery got some long overdue attention. In 1974 the cloister was rebuilt. Between 1988 and 2009, the government of Aragon undertook an extensive program of restoration costing 3,350,447.71 euros ($4,425,271.34). Now that the structure is stable, Aragon wants to return the frescoes to their original location in the chapter house.


First Earl of Sandwich’s recipe for iced chocolate

August 30th, 2013

Dr. Kate Loveman, English lecturer at the University of Leicester, has found some early English chocolate recipes in the journal of Edward Mountagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, great-great grandfather of John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, credited with inventing the fine foodstuff that bears the family title on far thinner evidence than recipes written in his own hand. The most complete recipe is for a frozen chocolate product — a 17th century frappé, if you will — and in an age when freezing was still a subject of extensive scientific study rather than the subject of cookbooks, Sandwich’s frappé may be the earliest English recipe on record for an iced chocolate treat.

Loveman specializes in 17th century English literature, especially the diarists. She was reading the papers of Samuel Pepys who repeatedly mentions drinking chocolate at London coffee houses which served coffee, chocolate and tea, all recent introductions courtesy of the Age of Exploration that were viewed with suspicion for their dubious medical properties/dangers and enthusiasm for their dubious medical properties/tastiness. On April 24th, 1661, the day after the coronation of King Charles II, Pepys writes:

Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for; so rose and went out with Mr. Creed to drink our morning draft, which he did give me in chocolate to settle my stomach.

Chocolate as a hangover cure, sure, why not? This was less than 10 years after chocolate was first brought to England in 1652 and it was already being presented as an aphrodisiac and fertility aid, a link to sensuality that still dominates chocolate advertising to this day. It was also supposed to aid in digestion and to provide healthy nutrients to make “such as drink it often, Fat, and Corpulent, faire and Amiable.” (The fat and corpulent bit was seen as a feature not a bug.)

The Earl of Sandwich was one of Pepys’ patrons. He is often mentioned in the journal, so Loveman decided to follow up by reading the unpublished manuscript of Montagu’s journal. She found a 30-page section dedicated to chocolate written in 1668 after the Earl returned from serving as England’s ambassador to Spain.

Chocolate had been introduced to Europe through Spain when Spanish ships began to transport cacao from Central and South America in the first half of the 16th century. Initially it did not make a great impression. Cocoa is very bitter indeed without sugar, but the addition of spices like cinnamon and later with cane sugar made it palatable enough for the habit to be acquired. By the early 17th century, chocolate was a popular elite beverage in Spain, served at Court along with sweets, pastries and snow. They also drank it in public, a social custom known as a Xocolatada or Chocolatada. (See La Xocolatada, a Catalan ceramic tile piece from 1710 illustrating the Spanish custom of chocolate made and consumed as a communal, but still elite, tradition.)

From Spain, chocolate spread to France where its trade became a state monopoly and only the aristocracy were allowed to indulge. Louis XIII’s wife Queen Anne of Austria, daughter of King Philip III of Spain, was an avowed chocolate lover. When she married Louis in 1615, she ensconced the fashion for chocolate in the highest echelons of French society.

England came to the chocolate game a few decades later, first through translations of a 1631 book about chocolate written by Spanish doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma which were published in the 1640s and in 1652. The title page of the 1652 translation notes that the chocolate described in the volume could be purchased “at reasonable rates” from bookseller John Dakins in Holborn. Booksellers often sold medicines and nostrums at this time, which is how chocolate got on the menu.

The first free-standing advertisement for chocolate published in The Publick Adviser in June 1657:

In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade, at reasonable rates.

The Earl of Sandwich’s 30 pages leans heavily on Spanish expertise. He includes Colmenero de Ledesma’s instructions on how to prepare chocolate, plus 10 pages from a spy in Madrid who reported on the Spanish manufacturing process. First the nuts were dried and ground, then sugar and spices (chile peppers, cinnamon and aniseed were the favorites) were ground separately and then cooked together. This produced a thick paste that would keep for a long time once hardened. The Spanish would add hot water to the paste and whip it, adding more water and sugar to taste. The result was a thick, sludgy beverage that even with the sugar was still bitter (it takes an enormous amount of sugar to de-bitterize chocolate, as anyone who has tried to make hot chocolate straight from cocoa powder has learned the hard way).

Montagu collected all this information with a political aim, not just out of personal interest. Cromwell’s Navy had taken Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and there were lots of cacao plantations in Jamaica. As ambassador to Spain, Sandwich had signed a new commercial treaty with Spain cementing the status of Britain’s new West Indian territories. Now England had reliable access to the raw materials of chocolate-making, a rich potential market for the restored Crown. Upon his return to England, Montagu was appointed to the Privy Council’s committee for trade and foreign plantations, so his research was relevant to his job as well.

King Charles II was very much interested personally. He and Sandwich discussed chocolate together and one of the recipes in Montagu’s journal he got directly from the King. From Loveman’s paper, The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730, published in the Journal of Social History:

Sandwich soon obtained a recipe for a chocolate “leaven cake” described as “the Kings receipt for which he gave 200 libre” — that is apparently, if barely credibly, £200. The recipe involved mixing three pounds of cacao nuts with oil of Jamaican pepper, oil of aniseed, oil of cinnamon, cardamom, and Guinea pepper to create tablets that could be stored. “To make the Chacolatte it selfe” then required adding cacao nuts, sugar, and a vanilla pod to “the Leaven.” Perfumed sugar, using musk, ambergris, and civet, could be added to taste

Mmm… Civet musk… That sounds like something out of the Futurist Cookbook. I dearly hope the King didn’t actually pay £200 for that.

The recipe for the frozen chocolate is considerably more appetizing, and it utilizes what was then the cutting edge research of Robert Boyle who had experimented with freezing and published New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold in 1665. It was Boyle who found that adding salt to snow was necessary in order to freeze liquids placed inside a vessel which would be in turn placed inside a container of salted snow.

Here’s the Earl of Sandwich’s recipe for Curdled Chocolate Ice:

Prepare the chocolatti [to make a drink] … and Then Putt the vessell that hath the Chocolatti in it, into a Jaraffa [i.e. a carafe] of snow stirred together with some salt, & shaike the snow together sometyme & it will putt the Chocolatti into tender Curdled Ice & soe eate ^it with spoons.

I’ll take that over the musk chocolate any day. The concept of frozen beverages didn’t catch on in England right away. Ices were popular already in Italy, but in England they were considered dangerous to the health. Sandwich made a point of noting of how to counteract this chilling effect: “one is oblidged for better security to Drinke Hott chocolatti in 1/4 of an houre after.” Then wait another hour before going in the water.

Dr. Loveman made the Curdled Ice herself and she said it was like a very thick frappucino minus the dairy.


Jack the Ripper’s Autumn of Terror on Twitter

August 29th, 2013

At 3:40 AM on Friday, August 31st, 1888, the mutilated body of Mary Ann Nichols was discovered on Buck’s Row in the Whitechapel district of London’s East End. Four more women would be found with their throats slit and bodies butchered in increasingly horrific manner between then and November 9th, a period that became known as the Autumn of Terror. The London Metropolitan Police Service’s Whitechapel Murders investigation covered the murders of 11 women killed from April 3rd, 1888, to February 13th, 1891, but the murders of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly that fall would go down in history as the canonical victims of Jack the Ripper.

In honor of the 125th anniversary of the discovery of Mary Ann Nichols’ body that kicked off the Autumn of Terror, The History Press will be bringing the Whitechapel of 1888 to Twitter so we can experience in real time on social media what London residents experienced with the Ripper-mad press. The four-month project, Whitechapel Real Time, kicked off on August 24th with tweets about life, death and society in the East End.

The sensationalized and often wildly inaccurate stories in the press are part of the Twitter story too, but all the information in the tweets has been researched thoroughly by historians to ensure its accuracy and to provide resources like period photographs, links to blog entries on the History Press website and genuine quotes from police, witnesses and neighbors. The people involved in the investigation of the Whitechapel murders have their own hashtags, as do reporters and locals commenting on events.

The idea is to break through the smog-and-oily-streets imagery that has come to symbolize the Whitechapel of 1888 and bring the time and place into focus by focusing on the people and issues that characterized it.

The mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper has been erroneously fuelled with images of darkened streets and figures in cloaks recounted by storytellers and portrayed in films and TV. The Whitechapel Real Time project seeks to peel back the myths and tell the ‘back story’ of the real people of Victorian London.

The aim of this project will challenge contemporary stereotypes and provoke debate on key issues such as social segregation and press sensationalism. Using today’s social media to tell the story mirrors the way in which the news ‘spreads like wildfire’ across London and throughout the country in 1888.

So far what I like the most about the tweets are the OldBaily Recaps which are like a combination carnival barker and police blotter, and a reporter’s updates on an inquest of Louisa Minnie Fairservice, who died at just 3 1/2 apparently of enteric fever caused by a tainted “street-bought penny lick or ice-lolly.”

There has been some comment from the Twitter account of the murder of Martha Tabram earlier that month (August 7th, 1888). Martha was one of the 11 Whitechapel murder victims who some believe was an early Ripper killing. Most historians exclude her because although her murder was brutal — she was stabbed 39 times in the throat, chest, abdomen and genitals — stabbing doesn’t fit the Ripper modus operandi of slashed throats and disembowelment that would be established with the five canonical murders. When all of this was a developing story, however, any prostitute murdered in Whitechapel was linked by the press and the police.

Some of the tweets are a little obvious — particularly the comments about class made by hashtagged “Dockworker” and “WorkingLady” et al — but I’m hoping that’s just them getting their bearings. Keep your eye on Whitechapel Real Time once the Autumn of Terror kicks in for real on Saturday.


Lycurgus Cup inspires cool new sensor technology

August 28th, 2013

Inspired by a marvel of ancient Roman art glass, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have designed a device that uses inexpensive light-sensitive plastics to do DNA, drug and protein analysis. The British Museum’s Lycurgus Cup is made out of dichroic glass, glass with added nanoparticles of gold and silver which alter the color of the glass depending on how the light hits it and where the observer stands. The cup looks green in reflected light (light shone directly on it) and red in transmitted light (light shone behind and through it).

The nanoscale Lycurgus cup arrays (nanoLCA) device takes a cheap piece of plastic about the size of a postage stamp imprinted with a billion little nanodents which are then sprayed with gold and silver nanoparticles, thus creating a billion little Lycurgus Cups. When substances are poured into the wells, they display a range of green to red colors which can be used to identify the substance. It’s exceptionally sensitive, more so than many fully realized sensors in action today, and the color change makes data that could once only be identified with precision spectrometers or fluorescence labeling easily visible to the naked eye or regular color photography.

“Our label-free colorimetric sensor eliminates the need of problematic fluorescence tagging of DNA/ protein molecules, and the hybridization of probe and target molecule is detected from the color change of the sensor,” stated Manas Gartia, first author of the article, “Colorimetrics: Colorimetric Plasmon Resonance Imaging Using Nano Lycurgus Cup Arrays.” “Our current sensor requires just a light source and a camera to complete the DNA sensing process. This opens the possibility for developing affordable, simple and sensitive mobile phone-based DNA microarray detector in near future. Due to its low cost, simplicity in design, and high sensitivity, we envisage the extensive use of the device for DNA microarrays, therapeutic antibody screening for drug discovery, and pathogen detection in resource poor setting.”

You can read the full article published in the journal Advanced Optical Materials here for free. Fair warning: it’s highly technical. Unless you have a solid chemistry and/or optics background, there will be copious Googling. Oh yes, there will be Googling.

If this technology pans out past the prototype stage, instead of complex, bulky, extremely expensive stationary equipment like spectrometers which require a hospital or well-appointed laboratory, scientists will be able to run a range of tests on the spot using a nanoLCA device in their cellphones. Samples of urine or saliva will be able to be tested for the presence of antibodies or pathogens. Samples of liquids will be able to be tested for explosives, chemical or biological agents at border crossings. Its versatility and portability would make it a jack of all trades, a sort of Lycurgus Cup tricorder.

I find it particularly delicious that so cheap and convenient a device is modeled after an antique artifact that was an incredibly rare, hugely expensive luxury even when it was new in the fourth century. Just over six inches in height and five inches in diameter, the Lycurgus Cup is unique. Not only is it the only complete Roman object made out of dichroic glass to survive, but it’s the only extant dichroic glass to have so extreme a color shift, from opaque jade-like green to a deep translucent ruby red. It’s also the only diatretum, or cage cup — a cup decorated by grinding away parts of a thick glass blank leaving a decorative relief connected to the new surface of the glass — existing today that has a figural design rather than a geometric one.

It’s microscopic particles of gold and silver included in the glass during the molten stage that create the dichroic effect. The glass-maker added 330 parts per million of silver and 40 ppm of gold, but just adding tiny amounts of precious metals to the glass would not create a dichroic effect. The key intermediate step is when the silver and gold form into submicroscopic crystals called colloids which precipitate in the glass forming an alloy. These crystals scatter reflected light fairly evenly. In transmitted light, the crystals scatter blue more effectively than red, thus making the glass look red to the viewer.

The artisanship this required boggles the mind. The glass makers could not have added such minute amounts of gold and silver just to the glass the cup was going to made out of. These particles are 70 nanometers wide. You can’t even see them with an optical microscope, never mind the human eyeball; you need a transmission electron microscope at least. Experts believe the craftsmen added the minimum possible of the metals and then diluted the glass-melt with more and more glass until they had the proportion right.

Once the glass makers finished making the base cup, then another set of geniuses stepped in: the glass cutters. They took the thick-walled blanks and cut away at the surface used a series of painfully small (six to 12 millimeters in diameter) rotary wheels topped with an abrasive slurry made by mixing sad, quartz, emery, maybe even diamond, with water or oil. They finished the fine details using files and abrasives. The result of this insane work is a high relief connected to the surface of the cup with slender “bridges.”

On the Lycurgus cup, these bridges are grape vines and other figural elements. It depicts an unusual mythological scene from the story of King Lycurgus of Thracia. Lycurgus banned the worship of Dionysos in his kingdom. When the wine god and his entourage showed up in Thracia, Lycurgus flew into a range. Driven by his violent temper, the king attacked the maenad Ambrosia. She cried out to Gaia for help and was transformed into a grape vine and wound herself around Lycurgus, trapping him. The cup shows Lycurgus thrashing in the vine while Dionysos dispatches a goat-legged Pan and a full-human satyr to torture the trapped king.

There are many versions of the Lycurgus story, but this particular one has no exact parallels in Roman art. The cup may have been used in Bacchic rituals which were still in practice in fourth century Rome. In addition to the story the cup tells, the color shift from green to red parallels the maturation of the grape. Historians have also posited that it might be a political reference to Constantine’s defeat of Licinius in 324 A.D. It was certainly a specific commission and a hugely expensive one at that, with everything from glass color to theme to decoration being top of the line and one of a kind.

Vopiscus described dichroic glass cups in “The Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus” from the Historia Augusta. He quotes a letter purportedly written by the emperor Hadrian to his brother-in-law Servianus, husband of Hadrian’s elder sister Aelia Domitia Paulina.

I am sending you over some cups, changing colour and variegated, presented to me by the priest of a temple and now dedicated particularly to you and my sister. I should like you to use them at banquets on feast-days.

The letter is probably a fake. Hadrian goes on a rant against Egyptians, accusing them, among many other charges, of saying mean things about his adopted son Lucius Verus as soon as he left the country, but Hadrian was in Egypt in 130 A.D. and he only adopted Verus in 136 A.D. It does, however, indicate that Vopiscus was aware of cups made of dichroic glass and that they were the kind of thing emperors would send to their family members to use in religious rituals.

Now there are a billion of them on an inch of plastic that might diagnose illnesses around the world for a negligible sum.


Pilot’s ring lost in WWII POW camp returned to son

August 27th, 2013

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, David C. Cox dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He graduated flight school on July 26, 1942. To celebrate, his parents gave him a gold ring with decorated with a wee propeller and wings and engraved “Mother & Father to David C. Cox Greensboro, NC 10-4-18-42” (his birthday and the current year) on the inside. Cox went sent to England with the 305th Bomb Group, 364th Squadron, where he flew a B-17 in bombing missions over Germany and occupied France.

Cox flew more than a dozen missions, on one occasion winning the Distinguished Flying Cross when he helped bring his burning plane back after a raid killed half the 10-man crew. On July 28, 1943, he was not so fortunate. Cox’s plane was shot down over Kassel, Germany. He parachuted into a private garden where was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III, the Luftwaffe POW camp in Lower Silesia (now Poland) made famous by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. He was imprisoned there for a year and a half before he and a few thousand other Allied officers were forced to march three days in the January snow and take a train for three more days until they reached Stalag VII-A, Germany’s largest POW camp near Moosburg, southern Bavaria.

They were moved to keep ahead of the encroaching Soviet army. Allied prisoners from other POW camps under threat from the Soviets were also sent to Stalag VII-A. It had been built in 1939 to hold 10,000 Polish prisoners. By January of 1945 when David Cox arrived, there were 80,000 Allied prisoners. Conditions, needless to say, were atrocious. Barracks were painfully overcrowded and the Red Cross rations that had sustained the POWs had dwindled to nothing. The prisoners made do with insect-infested bread and thin soup. Starving, they would trade anything they had for a morsel of food. Cox, who had kept the gold ring through so much hardship, finally traded it for two chocolate bars an Italian POW had managed to scrounge up.

On April 29th, 1945, by Combat Command A of the 14th Armored Division liberated Stalag VII-A. They didn’t even know the camp was there until a few hours before the battle began when a delegation of one SS officer, one Red Cross representative and two Allied officer POWs approached the command post offering surrender terms. The army’s tactical goal of capturing a bridge across the Isar river could not be achieved if they accepted the surrender, so instead the 14th Armored Division forewent an artillery assault to avoid harming the POWs. The Germans destroyed the bridge before the Americans could capture it, so technically they failed in their mission, but they defeated the German defenders at Moosburg anyway and liberated the camp.

They were shocked to find 110,000 prisoners in Stalag VII-A, 30,000 of them Americans. The liberation of so many POWs at once quickly overshadowed the issue of the bridge, and Moosburg became a point of pride. General George S. Patton, commander of Third Army, visited the camp in person.

Once liberated, David Cox was promoted to 1st lieutenant and sent home to North Carolina where his wife Hilda, his parents and siblings were waiting for him. He and Hilda would go on to have three children. David didn’t talk much about his war experience, but one story he told often was how he had had to give up his beloved ring. He had an exact duplicate made shortly after his return and he wore it religiously until shortly before his death in 1994. He bequeathed the replica ring to his son David C. Cox, Jr., who wore it until the band snapped.

Last year, Americans Mark and Mindy Turner moved to the Bavarian village of Hohenberg where Mark got a job as an air traffic controller at the US Army garrison in nearby Ansbach. Earlier this month, the Turners went to dinner at the house of their neighbors Martin and Regina Kiss. After a tour of Martin’s art studio, Martin showed the Turners a special treasure of his: a gold ring with a wee propeller on top and a dedication to a certain David C. Cox engraved on the inside.

He then told them the story of how he had acquired the ring. The Kiss family hails from an ethnically Hungarian area in what is today northern Serbia. Kiss’ grandparents ran a pub. When a Soviet soldier stopped there on his way home after the war, he traded the gold ring in exchange for food and lodging. Grandmama Kiss gave the ring to Martin in 1971. By then it had become something of a good luck amulet for the family, and Martin was moving to Germany so his grandmother wanted him to have the ring to bring him good fortune in his new life and to give him something to sell if he was ever in extreme need. He wore it as a pinkie ring for a while, but then put it in a corked bottle for safekeeping.

Martin Kiss had always been curious about the owner of the ring. He asked the Turners if they could help find him, and thanks to that detailed inscription and the wonders of Google, Mark Turner found a reference to David C. Cox’s war experience and how he had had to trade his gold ring for two chocolate bars in a thesis written by Norwood McDowell, husband of one of Cox’s granddaughters. Mark emailed McDowell a picture of Martin Kiss’ ring. McDowell forwarded it to David Cox, Jr., and he confirmed that that was his father’s precious long-lost ring.

Martin Kiss insisted on returning the ring, no questions asked, no remuneration, not even shipping costs, accepted. His grandfather had been a POW in Soviet camps, so he knew what the ring would mean to the family. On Friday, August 16th, David C. Cox’s ring was in his son’s hands for the first time.

“I thought about him the moment I opened the box,” Cox, who is 67, says of his father and the return of that ring, “and I thought how wonderful it would be if he were the one doing it rather than me. I’m sorry he can’t be here for it … He would have been overwhelmed like we are. He would have loved it.”

Cox also wonders about where that ring was over the years. “What did he do with it?,” he asks about the Italian POW. “How long did he keep it? … For it to go through all of those twists and turns and never leave within two hours of where the prison camp was … is a phenomenal story to me.”

Also phenomenal is the condition of the original ring. Despite having been in a plane fire, shot out of the sky, through two awful POW camps and at least four sets of hands since it was made, it’s in far better condition than the replica.


African coins found on north Australian island may rewrite history

August 26th, 2013

In 1944, an Australian soldier named Morry Isenberg was manned a radar station on the remote Wessell Islands in Australia’s Northern Territory looking out for approaching Japanese aircraft. The enemy planes never materialized, but Isenberg’s sharp eye did spot something else. While fishing on the shore of Marchinbar Island, he found nine coins. He pocketed them, wisely drew a map where X literally marked the find spot and then forgot about them for 35 years.

In 1979, Isenberg found the coins he’d stashed away and took them to experts to determine their origin and value. They determined four of the coins were minted by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th century, which is not unexpected since the first known European to reach Australia was Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606. The other five were the shockers: copper coins from the east African Kilwa Sultanate that date to around 1100.

Before this, only one Kilwa coin has ever been found outside of the Swahili Coast (today the Indian Ocean coasts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique) where Kilwa dominated from 900 until the Portuguese broke up the sultanate in the early 1500s, and that coin was in Oman on the southeast Arabian peninsula. Oman was also colonized by the Portuguese for a few decades while they were in the neighborhood in the early 16th century and in the late 17th century Oman conquered the east African coast where Kilwa once reigned. So there were plenty of opportunities for an old Kilwa copper to wind up in Oman. How five of the made their way more than 6000 miles east to the Wessell Islands is a fascinating historical mystery, one with the potential to rewrite the history of when non-indigenous people first stepped foot in Oz.

Kilwa is a small island off the coast of Tanzania. The sultanate was founded around 900 A.D. by displaced Persian prince Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi and soon became the primary center of commerce and trade on the east African coast. Kilwa territory grew nothing but coconut palms. They built their wealth as middlemen, trading manufactured goods from Arabia and India for food, gold and ivory with the inland Bantu communities, keeping the food and shipping the precious materials to Asia where they bought manufactured goods and started the cycle all over again. The Kilwa traders had sailing ships — coconut wood dhows sewn together with cocoa coir and sporting braided coconut leaf mat sails — that could travel as far as India during monsoon season thanks to propitious winds in the summer and then head back home in the winter. As far as we know, however, the Kilwa dhows couldn’t handle the turbulent waters and winds much further south than Inhambane, in today’s Mozambique.

Ian McIntosh, an Australian archaeologist who is now an anthropology professor of at Indiana University, explored the island when he was writing his doctorate on the Wessel Islands in the 1990s, but there wasn’t the interest or funding to do a proper archaeological excavation. Interest in the coins’ story grew in 1998 after the wreck of an Arabian dhow was discovered off the island of Belitung on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The wreck was laden with 60,000 Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) artifacts including gold, silver and ceramics. The date of the wreck was determined by a handy date of manufacture on one of the ceramic bowls: 826 A.D.

Despite the significant find, it wasn’t until this July that McIntosh was able to return to the Wessell Islands with a team sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society to do a proper archaeological investigation of the site. Oral tradition from the local Yolngu people tells many stories of men from distant lands touching down. The team went looking for any signs of a non-indigenous presence on the island: ballast rocks, ship remains, more African coins, etc.

They didn’t find any more coins, but they did find something of great potential significance: indigenous rock paintings depicting a variety of ships and men wearing hats and trousers. The team documented about 20 images. Some feature whales and other local critters. Ten are ships of different sizes, shapes and configurations. One of them is a steamship with a visible propeller which obviously post-dates Captain Cook but is nonetheless a great find because it’s the only known rock art steamship. Another is a French sailing ship identifiable from its unique rigging.

The find site was a challenge to rediscover because the surveyor’s map from 1944 didn’t match where the radar base was known to be. The team was eventually able to pinpoint the X spot thanks to some topographical features and the remains of oil drums and shell casings from World War II.

“We didn’t find more coins which is disappointing,” Dr McIntosh said. “But the location was very interesting. It’s in a very inhospitable little bit of territory, on this crocodile infested creek littered with flotsam and jetsam amid thick mangroves.”

The coins were clearly not from an old aboriginal settlement, he said, but were most likely part of the detritus washed into the mangrove from the sea.

“There can be only two conclusions, we think: One that they were a product of a storm surge from a shipwreck, and two, alternatively, they were in the possession of one person who just happened to lose them there for whatever reason.”

The team also discovered a piece of timber that at first glance looked like driftwood but upon closer examination appears to be deck bracing for a sailing ship. The wood hasn’t been dated yet, but it might be evidence of a relevant shipwreck.

The timber and rock art will be thoroughly analyzed over the upcoming year. Next summer the expedition will return with underwater archaeologists who will dive the reefs looking for the remains of any ships that may have inspired the paintings.


Ostrich egg globe may be oldest with New World

August 25th, 2013

Figure 1. The early sixteenth-century engraved ostrich egg globe among other ostrich eggs. Photo: Washington Map Society.

Recent research has found that an elaborately carved globe made out of the sealed-together lower halves of two ostrich eggs is the oldest known globe to include the New World. It’s also the earliest engraved globe and the oldest post-Columbian globe known to survive. Last but certainly not least, it’s one of only two globes in the world to feature an epic sentence that people think was common in ancient and medieval maps but in fact is only known exist on these two globes: “HIC SVNT DRACONES,” the famous “here be dragons.”

The ostrich egg globe was purchased by a private institution that has chosen to remain anonymous at last year’s London Map Fair. The dealer who sold it claimed it had been part of “an important European collection” since it was acquired after World War II. Dr. Stefaan Missinne, a Belgian real estate developer, map collector and published scholar of articles on ivory and silver globes, spent the past year researching the globe, consulting with more than 100 experts in his investigation of the artifact’s date, origin, sources, materials and construction. In addition to extensive documentary research, Missinne submitted the globe to scientific analyses including computer tomography, radiocarbon dating, regression analysis and x-ray fluorescence analysis. Missinne published the announcement of the globe’s discovery and the results of his research in the latest issue of The Portolan, a cartography journal published by the Washington Map Society.

The globe is around 11 centimeters (4.33 inches) in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit. Its maker cut the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs to make a proper sphere out of them. The map was carved into the individual eggshells and the lines traced with a blue-black color. X-ray fluorescence analysis found high levels of iron and traces of barium in the colored parts which indicates the engraver did not use paint but rather iron gall ink, perhaps mixed with an indigo blue derived from irises. Once engraved and inked, the two and then the two pieces were joined using the natural polymer gommalacca (shellac).

Figure 4. Asia on the ostrich egg globe, showing the large peninsula jutting southward at the right which is evidence of the influence of Henricus Martellus. Photo: Washington Map Society.

The shells themselves are primarily composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), as are all bird eggshells, but CT scans found that they’ve lost 50% of their calcium bone density compared to a new ostrich egg. Loss of moisture over time causes this in eggshells just like it does in human bones. By examining a random selection of ostrich eggs at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Missinne found that unmounted ostrich eggs lose about 10% of their density every 100 years until they have no moisture left to lose. Regression analysis on the ostrich egg globe found therefore that the egg was new about 500 years ago, giving it a creation date of ca. 1500.

This could not be confirmed with radiocarbon dating. The counterweight material in the bottom of the globe was tested and found to be of fossil origin and 49,310 years (+/– 620 years) old. This is probably because the bottom shell was filled with an organic fossil resin, commonly used as varnish in the Renaissance. Missinne decided not sample the eggshell itself because, according to University of Heidelberg professor Dr. Bernd Kromer, “without knowing the geographical origin of the ostrich egg material and the specific living area of the mother bird, it is very difficult or even impossible to estimate a C-14 date for the egg because of possible interference resulting from the bird’s eating other sources of carbon.”

Missinne turned to historical research to confirm the date. After all, the egg halves could be 500 years old but the engraving relatively new. A globe expert noted that the ostrich shell globe shares many significant similarities with the New York Public Library’s Hunt-Lenox Globe, a small engraved copper sphere from 1504-1506, that until now has held the title of the oldest globe to include the New World. Not only does the Lenox Globe share the overall design of the countries and continents with the ostrich egg globe, but it is identical in minute details like the waves of the ocean, the outline of islands and the Latin nomenclature and script and, most awesomely, in the presence over southeast Asia of the sentence “HIC SVNT DRACONES.”

This degree of similarity could not have been created by human hands working on two different pieces. Missinne concludes that the Lenox Globe was not directly engraved but rather was cast from the ostrich egg globe. That means the latter has to predate the former. The major differences between the two globes are the size, shape and the details at the equator. The Lenox Globe is an accurate sphere, whereas the egg has some irregularities. The Lenox is 11.2 centimeters in diameter, so slightly larger than the ostrich egg globe. Lastly, the details along the equator are crisp on the Lenox Globe while they’re obscured by the gommalacca joinery on the ostrich egg.

We know the egg has shrunk a little over time which explains the discrepancy in size and the unevenness in the sphere. The Lenox Globe is crisp along the equator because it was made from two half-spheres of copper alloy cast from the two half shells after they were carved but before they were joined. The other small imperfections in the eggshell were corrected on the bronze during the finishing process. Missinne believes the Lenox Globe was cast directly from a plaster of Paris mold made from each of the two pieces of the ostrich eggshell. The size discrepancy supports this hypothesis. Calculating back from the 50% density loss, the ostrich egg globe was about 11.4 centimeters in diameter when it was new. Direct casting typically results in 1.5% of shrinkage from model to cast, which is consistent with the Lenox Globe’s diameter of 11.2 centimeters.

As for the map itself, Missinne identified several sources for its geographical information. Ptolemy’s Geographia was used for the maps and nomenclature of Europe, Africa and Asia. The shape of the southern peninsula of Asia is very similar to those in maps of world by Henricus Martellus, a German cartographer who lived and worked in Florence in the late 15th century. The bestselling memoirs of Marco Polo were the probably source for Japan, called “ZIPANCRI” on the ostrich shell map. Information about the New World shows the influence of travel logs by Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral and the Italian after whom the continent would be named, Amerigo Vespucci.

Figure 6. The New World on the ostrich egg globe, which bears three names: “TERRA DE BRAZIL,” “MVNDVS NOVVS,” and “TERRA SANCTAE CRVCIS.” Photo: Washington Map Society.

The New World is rudimentary indeed. There is no North America, just a few islands. ISABEL (Cuba) and SPAGNOLLA (Hispaniola) are named; others are not. South America is labelled TERRA DE BRAZIL (Brazil), MVNDVS NOVVS (New World) and TERRA SANCTAE CRVSIS (the Land of the Holy Cross).

There is no mark or any identifying information about the maker. Missinne thinks it was made in Florence and speculates about a highly tenuous possible connection to Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop based on some globe sketches and sphere surface area calculations in the Codex Atlanticus, but there’s no solid evidence of who made the ostrich egg globe and where. Florence is a likely candidate as it was a center of cartography in the Renaissance and was awash in all that Medici banking money for art patronage, but scholars think the Lenox Globe may have had a Parisian origin and the two globes must have been together in order for the Hunt-Lenox to have been cast from the ostrich egg.


Help Cygan become Leeds’ Robot in Residence

August 24th, 2013

Emma Bearman of Playful Leeds has had the brilliant idea to secure 1950s robot playboy Cygan for the great city of Leeds. He lived there for a while in the 60s employed as a mascot for a car dealership, so it would be a sort of homecoming, and this time he would be the robot ambassador for the whole city, not just for a fine stable of Ford automobiles.

Through Playful Leeds Emma has started a fundraiser to raise not inconsiderable sum of £15,000 which will cover the high pre-sale estimate and leave a little extra for fees and transportation. The Christie’s auction is on September 5th which means time is running out. They have less than two weeks to reach their goal and right now they have £1,057 in pledges.

It’s insanely cool to think that someone might buy one of the artifacts they’ve read about here, restore it and display it for the public good. Go here to pledge and help make the dream a reality.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have Cygan welcoming visitors & residents alike to Leeds? As our first Robot in Residence, we’d love to see how he stimulates us to create our own robots and acts as an ambassador, inviting robots from around the world to Leeds. […]

We’d love to have a go at restoring Cygan back to his 1950s glory and to see if we can dance with him as he crushes cans.

I think we’d all love to see him back in full dancing and can-crushing fettle. In addition to returning Cygan to full working order, Playful Leeds aims to involve him in a variety of public events dedicated to celebrating robotic technology throughout this year and the next. Festivities will kick off with the March of the Robots in October. If they win him at auction, Cygan will be its Grand Marshall and he’d do a phenomenal job, no doubt. When Leeds’ year of celebrating robotics and technology ends, Cygan will be found a fitting permanent where he can delight the city until Judgement Day after which the Terminators will destroy him for being on our side.

The fundraiser is just a few days old and has already made regional news and national news. Everyone from a University of Leeds electrical engineering professor to local businessmen to council members is thrilled at the prospect of welcoming Cygan back to Leeds.

Should the funds raised be insufficient to secure Cygan, Playful Leeds will use the money raised to make a new Robot in Residence for Leeds. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, I think the new guy should have very large feet in homage.





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