Oldest human paintings made by Neanderthals?

February 8th, 2012

Nerja cave paintings of seals, about 42,000 years oldNew radiocarbon dating results indicate that six seals painted on the walls of the Nerja cave in Málaga, southern Spain, are more than 42,000 years old, making them the oldest human art on record. Neanderthals lived in the area at that time — they died out about 30,000 years ago — and they are known to have eaten seals. The Homo sapiens who followed them also painted on the cave walls, but no depictions of seals have been found in any of their art.

The stretch of land from Nerja to Gibraltar is thought to be last area in Europe inhabited by Neanderthals before they were elbowed out by the Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens. The caves were discovered in 1959 by five schoolboys who had observed enormous numbers of bats going in and out of a hole in the ground. They finally decided to explore the hole and once they wriggled through it, they found themselves in an enormous cave now known as the Cataclysm Chamber. The seal paintings are high on the walls of that same chamber.

The paint itself was not tested. Charcoal traces less than four inches away from the seals, which researchers think were used either to make the paintings or as illuminating elements in the composition, were radiocarbon dated to 43,500 and 42,300 years ago. University of Cordoba professor José Luis Sanchidrián, who has been running a conservation project on the site since 2008, wants to carbon date the thin organic film that formed over the paintings shortly after their creation. That’s the only way to absolutely date the art itself. Unfortunately, the project is short of funds so everything is on hold for now.

If the dates are confirmed, then those six seals will not just hold a new record — the current record-holders for oldest art are the 32,000-year-old paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave — but they will revolutionize our understanding of humanity itself. “An academic bombshell,” Sanchidrián calls it, and that’s putting it mildly. The ability to produce art has thus far been considered the exclusive province of Homo sapiens, a distinguishing mark separating us from other human, but not as human as us, species.


Guinea pigs popular for all classes in 16th c. Europe

February 7th, 2012

Guinea pig bones found in Mons, BelgiumSpanish traders introduced guinea pigs to Europe after the conquest of Peru in 1532. The remains of only three guinea pigs have been discovered in Europe’s archaeological record, and the general historical thought is that those early piggies were exotic pets for the upper classes rather than the common household pet they are today. A new study done on the third archaeological guinea pig skeleton, discovered in Mons, Belgium in 2007, proves that in fact pet cavies were very quickly available to middle class Europeans.

The study, published in April’s Journal of Archaeological Science, examined the remains of the Mons guinea pig. They confirmed that the skeleton belonged to a domesticated guinea pig. (Andean peoples domesticated the wild cavy approximately 7000 years ago, so by the time the Spanish got there the tame pigs had clear morphological differences separating them from their wild cousins.)

Researchers were also able to confirm using radiocarbon dating and the archaeological layers of the site that the animal died at end of the 16th/beginning of the 17th century. Isotope analysis of the Mons pig’s bones found that it ate table scraps, unlike the Andean guinea pigs which subsisted primarily on maize, so in all likelihood it wasn’t a fresh export but rather a guinea pig born and raised in Europe. Also unlike his Andean relatives, this guinea pig was definitely a pet, not a food source. The skeleton was discovered complete, buried in skeleton formation. If it had been eaten, there would have been evidence of butchering and dismemberment. This little guy was tenderly buried in the cellar.

(Not that Europeans at the time didn’t also eat them. They do make an appearance in a book written by French agriculturalist Olivier de Serres in 1563 — he apparently found the flavor less than palatable without the use of copious spices — but that’s the only period reference to guinea pigs as comestibles.)

The new study shows that guinea pigs as pets were more widespread through 16th- and 17th-century society than previously thought, Pigière noted.

That’s because ceramics and glassware found at the Mons archaeological site suggest the house’s residents were middle class, meaning “the animal was available to several classes of populations and not only the aristocrat,” she said.

The earliest of the three archaeological guinea pig skeletons was discovered at Hill Hall in Essex, England, an Elizabethan manor house. The remains date to 1575 or so, when Hill Hall was owned by Thomas Smith, secretary to the Earl of Essex and ambassador to France. The Mons pig was found on the outskirts of the town center in the 16th century. It was a residential village with solid, well-appointed houses, a middle class suburb.

So it seems that the exotic guinea pig, doubtless thanks to its exceptional skill at reproducing early and often, took only a few years to go from manor house pet to suburban denizen.

On a related note, you know who liked guinea pigs? Jan Brueghel the Elder. He put them in several paintings in the 1610s, including at least four of the paintings he made with his friend Peter Paul Rubens (The Garden of Eden, Flora and Zephyr, The Return from War: Mars Disarmed by Venus, Madonna and Child), plus in his own landscapes and still lives like The Entry of the Animals Into Noah’s Ark. He used them to represent fruitfulness, and, in my expert opinion, adorableness.

Art historians think he encountered the New World imports in the royal menagerie in Brussels, and certainly the piggies’ front-and-center placement in mythological and Biblical scenes suggests a prestigious association, but who knows? Maybe he saw guinea pigs in Mons’ Levittown instead.

"Venus Disarming Mars" by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, pigs in foreground in front of Mars "The Garden of Eden" by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, pigs in center foreground in front of the peacock


Monumental 15th c. Portuguese tapestries tour US

February 6th, 2012

Afonso V's water wheel standard, detail of "Landing at Asilah"In August 1471, eager to secure control of the strategically important Moroccan cities at the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar, King of Portugal Afonso V attacked the coastal walled city of Asilah. Asilah fell, followed two days later by Tangier which was handed over to the Portuguese by the governor of Asilah. The conquest of Tangier would give Portugal control over maritime traffic between the Mediterranean and Atlantic until 1661, and on a personal note, gave King Afonso the satisfaction of succeeding where his kingly uncles had failed.

It also earned him brownie points with the Church, which had been actively encouraging colonialist crusades since Pope Nicholas V’s 1452 bull Dum Diversas first exhorted the kings of Spain and Portugal to “invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”

To commemorate these glorious victories, four monumental tapestries, each measuring 12 by 36 feet, were commissioned from Flemish weavers in Tournai, Belgium. Begun just a few years after the battles, Landing at Asilah, Siege of Asilah, Assault on Asilah and The Conquest of Tangier were woven from the finest wool and silk and depict the Portuguese conquest as the epitome of chivalric heroism.

Landing at Asilah
Probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, tapestry merchant, Tournai (Belgium), 1470s, Landing at Asilah, 1475-1500, wool and silk, 144-7/8 x 436-1/4 in., Diocese of Sigüenza-Guadalajara and Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Pastrana, Spain. © Fundación Carlos de Amberes. Photograph by Paul M.R. Maeyaert.

Their advanced age, immense size, intense colors and riot of details would make these tapestries rare and marvelous by any standard, but they are also some of the earliest tapestries to depict a contemporary event instead of the allegorical, mythological and religious subjects covered by the vast majority of Gothic tapestry.

Siege of Asilah
Probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, tapestry merchant, Tournai (Belgium), 1470s, Siege of Asilah, 1475-1500, wool and silk, 168-1/2 x 424-7/16 in., Diocese of Sigüenza-Guadalajara and Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Pastrana, Spain. © Fundación Carlos de Amberes. Photograph by Paul M.R. Maeyaert.

The Flemish weavers, amazing geniuses though they obviously were, weren’t so clear on what North African cities and people looked like, so Asilah and Tangier look remarkably like North European cities, complete with flora that are characteristic filler material in Tournai weavings. They were familiar with the Portuguese, however, so Afonso’s forces are depicted in accurate detail, leaving us an incredibly rare encyclopedic visual record of 15th century military regalia.

Assault on Asilah
Probably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, tapestry merchant, Tournai (Belgium), 1470s, Assault on Asilah, 1475-1500, wool and silk, 145-1/4 x 432-11/16 in., Diocese of Sigüenza-Guadalajara and Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Pastrana, Spain. © Fundación Carlos de Amberes. Photograph by Paul M.R. Maeyaert.

All of this beauty might have been lost along with so many other Portuguese treasures during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the tsunami and fires that devastated the area in its aftermath. What saved the Pastrana tapestries is what gives them their name: by the time of the earthquake, the tapestries were kept in a parish church in Pastrana, Spain. We don’t know exactly how they got there, but one prominent theory is that they were given to Philip II of Spain in the late 16th century during the period of Iberian Union, when the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal were joined under Philip’s sole rule.

The Conquest of TangierProbably produced under the direction of Passchier Grenier, tapestry merchant, Tournai (Belgium), 1470s, The Conquest of Tangier, 1475-1500, wool and silk, 157-1/2 x 426 in., Diocese of Sigüenza-Guadalajara and Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Pastrana, Spain. © Fundación Carlos de Amberes. Photograph by Paul M.R. Maeyaert.

In the remote Church of Our Lady of the Assumption at Pastrana, the tapestries remained safe for centuries. They were only removed briefly during the Spanish Civil War to keep them from danger. Still, after hundreds of years, the tapestries were caked with dirt, snacked on by moths, faded from light damage and from the natural deterioration of the dyes. In 2008, a number of organizations worked together with the Fundación Carlos de Amberes to raise money for a complete conservation of the tapestries.

Tapestry conservationAll four tapestries were sent to Belgium, their land of origin, to be conserved by the experts at the Royal Manufacturers De Wit in Mechlin. By all accounts they did a stupendous job. The conservation of the tapestries received a 2011 Europa Nostra Award.

Pastrana tapestries exhibitThus restored to their former splendor, the tapestries have been traveling since 2010. Brussels, Lisbon, Toledo and Madrid got to see them first; then they went overseas to the United States. The exhibit, The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries, first stopped at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from September 18, 2011 through January 8, 2012. The tapestries are now at the Meadows Museum in Dallas until May 13, 2012. Then they move on to the San Diego Museum of Art from June 10 to September 9, and lastly to the Indianapolis Museum of Art from October 5 to January 6, 2013.

The National Gallery of Art website has a pdf version of the exhibition wall panels which explain the overall action in each tapestry and pull out some salient details.


Civil War graffiti preserved by dirt

February 5th, 2012

Graffiti House in Brandy Station, VirginiaThe Graffiti House in Brandy Station, Virginia was built in 1858 next to the train tracks. Though a small town, Brandy Station saw a lot of activity during the Civil War because of its location at the junction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad — the sole rail line linking Confederate capital Richmond with Union capital Washington, D.C. — and of the roads leading to two major fords of the Rappahannock River. The house is thought to have been used as a hospital by both Confederate and Union troops, many of whom left their autographs and sketches of girls, horses, birds, soldiers and more on the second floor walls to mark their stay.

Drawing on second floor wall, possibly of a nurseIt’s their graffiti that has given the house its moniker, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, the homeowners weren’t keen to preserve the doodles soldiers had scribbled all over the walls using charcoal from the fireplaces and the occasional pencil. The owners whitewashed all that tasty social history. Thankfully, a thin layer of dirt and soot had accumulated over the graffiti, keeping the whitewash from destroying the charcoal markings.

Graffiti House in 2002Over the years, the house passed through many hands, some of which made some unfortunately damaging repairs. The graffiti were forgotten until a 1993 renovation stripped off some wallpaper and old paint to reveal the treasures beneath. Despite the rediscovery of this important history, by 2002 the house was derelict. People took chunks of plaster off the wall just to ensure that some part of the graffiti would be preserved when the house was, as seemed inevitable, demolished. This dire fate was avoided thanks to the Brandy Station Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural and historical patrimony of the town, which purchased the house in August 2002.

Chris Mills working on Graffiti House wallsThey restored the house and hired conservator Chris Mills of Christopher Mills Conservation Services out of New York City to work on the graffiti walls starting last year. He has had to stabilize the walls because the 1858 plaster is coming off the wooden lathing, and while he’s at it, he is painstakingly removing the whitewash using q-tips and razor blades, revealing new graffiti and reviving faded ones.

In some cases, previous owners have used strips of porous tape, covered with some type of spackling, to keep the cracks from widening. Removing these foreign substances makes Mills’ job even tougher and results in some minor but unavoidable damage to the graffiti underneath.

Once the tape is removed, Mills pins the cracked plaster to the laths with nail-like plastic fasteners. When the pins are removed, the holes they made are used to inject an alcohol solution into the plaster.

“Then I inject a synthetic resin that adheres the wood lath to the plaster,” Mills says, adding that he makes the substance himself. As it dries, the alcohol solution helps pull the heavier synthetic resin into the hole, says Mills.

The Brandy Station Foundation has researched all the identifiable signatures. Cavalry units dominate, which dovetails neatly with the history of the town because the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863) was the largest cavalry battle of the war, in fact the largest cavalry battle in United States history.

General J.E.B. Stuart, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry, led the Confederate cavalry in the Battle of Brandy Station. Many of the signatures are from members of Stuart’s cavalry, and one very large prominent signature is J.E.B. Stuart’s own. We don’t know for sure that he wrote it, but the Brandy Station Foundation has some copies of his confirmed signature hanging on the wall next to the graffito and they sure do look a lot alike.

JEB Stuart signature on the wall, confirmed signatures bottom left

The Foundation was also able to match a signature to a face. Here’s Private Michael Bowman of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, his signature and a period picture of him in uniform:

Signature of Michael Bowman, 7th Virginia Cavalry Mike Bowman, 7th Virginia Cavalry


Spain awarded $500 million “Black Swan” treasure

February 4th, 2012

Odyssey Marine workers with "Black Swan" treasureIn May of 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, a privately owned marine treasure-hunting company, discovered a Spanish shipwreck somewhere on the Atlantic seabed. Odyssey refused to divulge the exact location or the name of the ship. They ultimately recovered 17 tons of silver coins, plus almost 100,000 gold coins and a number of other artifacts from the wreck, which they code-named “Black Swan.” The site must have been near Spain because Odyssey secretly landed the $500 million treasure on Gibraltar, chartered a flight and flew the loot back to its headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

Spain was displeased, to put it mildly. Odyssey claimed the find was made in international waters in full compliance with the United Nations’ Law of the Seas, but since they refused to reveal the wreck site and pleaded ignorance about the name of the ship, Spanish authorities got suspicious. They filed suit against Odyssey Marine in a federal courthouse in Tampa, demanding that the company reveal everything it knows about the wreck so Spain could claim ownership, and they got a Spanish court order to seize Odyssey ships around Gibraltar and search them for historical artifacts.

The case has been winding its way through the legal system ever since then. In 2009, a Florida judge declared that the “Black Swan” was the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by the British off the coast of Cape St. Mary, Portugal in 1804, that Odyssey had specifically set out to find the Mercedes and had succeeded, and that Spain was the rightful owner of the recovered treasure. Odyssey’s claims of ignorance did not impress.

The judge argued that the coins, all dated prior to 1804, matched the Mercedes’ haul of mainly silver coins minted in Lima – part of a haul being brought back to finance Spain’s European wars. He also said cannon found there matched those on board the Mercedes.

“The debris field’s location, coins, cannons, and artefacts persuasively match the Mercedes’s historical record,” the judge said.

“That Odyssey, which set out to discover the Mercedes, found this mix strewn about in an area a few football fields square where the vessel met its explosive ending makes the conclusion even more compelling.”

Judge Pizzo also ruled that Peru, which had filed a suit of its own in 2008 claiming the treasure because the coins were made from Peruvian gold and silver, did not have a valid claim because there was no nation of Peru in 1804.

Odyssey appealed the ruling. Now a federal circuit court judge has upheld Judge Pizzo’s decision, giving Odyssey Marine 10 days to return the loot to Spain. Odyssey will doubtless appeal to a higher court next, so this story isn’t over yet, but they’ll run out of courts soon enough.

Bronze cannon bearing royal crest of King George I from HMS Victory wreckDon’t worry about Odyssey, though. They just made a sweet deal with the British government and the Maritime Heritage Foundation to recover the wreck of the HMS Victory which an Odyssey team discovered in 2008. This is the predecessor of Admiral Nelson’s famed vessel; it went down in a storm in 1744 carrying four tons of gold.

The terms of the agreement ensure that all of Odyssey’s costs will be reimbursed and they will in addition receive a percentage of the market value of any recovered artifacts. If the Maritime Heritage Foundation chooses, they will get paid in artifacts rather than cash, but Odyssey prefers cash.

  • Odyssey will receive the equivalent of 80% of the fair value of artifacts which were primarily used in trade or commerce or were private property and bear no direct connection to the construction, navigation, defense or crew of the ship, such as coins or other cargo.
  • Odyssey will receive the equivalent of 50% of the fair value of all other objects typically associated with the construction, crewing and sailing of ships including, but not limited to, the ship’s hull, fittings, fasteners, construction elements, clothing, organic remains, foodstuffs, cooking utensils, pottery, weapons, ammunition, ground tackle and navigational equipment.
  • For any private property including coins or other cargo administered through the Receiver of Wreck, the Foundation has agreed that Odyssey shall receive 80% of the value.
  • So yeah, they’re doing okay.


    Gold Rush nuggets stolen from California courthouse

    February 3rd, 2012

    Siskiyou County Courthouse gold display in better daysTwo masked men broke into the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka, California and stole the largest nuggets from a display case replete with gold nuggets, leaf, and dust from the area’s rich mining history. They got in through an unlocked window in the back of the courthouse, then broke a hand-sized hole through the thick bulletproof glass covering the display and helped themselves to the choicest pieces they could reach. Court employees discovered the theft when they arrived in the morning.

    Surveillance footage timestamps the theft at 1:00 AM on Wednesday. For reasons still unclear, a silent alarm connected to the display never sounded. Authorities are investigating whether the alarm was intentionally disabled in some way or whether it simply malfunctioned. An attempted theft in 1979 was deterred by the silent alarm; the thief stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of nugget, but was caught by police just a few blocks away. After that theft, the glass was replaced with even thicker glass and a new alarm installed.

    The County Treasurer/Tax Collector Wayne Hammar is the official in charge of the gold. He and his team will inventory the remaining gold to sort out exactly what is left. According to the Sheriff’s office, an estimated third to a half of the gold was stolen, including a famously huge nugget known as the “slipper” or “shoe” because of its shoe-like shape.

    Siskiyou County Courthouse gold display postcard, 1947The Siskiyou County Courthouse gold was donated to the county over the years since 1851 by miners who lived and worked there. It is (was?) the largest gold display in the continental United States and was exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco’s Treasure Island. The locals, many of whom have been involved in the mining industry for generations, are deeply connected to these artifacts so dazzlingly symbolic of their history.

    That connection is so profound that when faced with a dismal economy the county refused to cash in on their gigantic hoard. They had 20% unemployment in 2010; the county budget was getting slashed left and right. Still, even under that kind of pressure they refused to sell their gold display, worth almost $1,300,000 in gold weight alone and estimated to be worth $3,000,000 because of its historical significance and because the gold is in its natural form rather than melted down into generic ingots.

    There’s a very-sad-in-hindsight video of the gold display at the courthouse from 2007 when the Huell Howser PBS show “California’s Gold” filmed a segment there:

    Here’s the surveillance video from Wednesday night:

    If you have any information about the theft, please contact the Sheriff’s office at 530-841-2900.


    Earliest copy of Mona Lisa found in the Prado

    February 2nd, 2012

    Prado "Mona Lisa" copy before restorationLeonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was copied by other artists and his students starting almost as soon as it was made in the first decades of the 16th century. Some of them have been advanced as Leonardo originals, at least in part (see the Isleworth Mona Lisa, for example), and others have always been known to be copies. One of these known copies is in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

    Prado experts thought it was painted relatively early in the 16th century by an anonymous artist, but with its black painted background, bright red sleeves, and relatively flat shadowing compared to the velvety depth of da Vinci’s original, the Prado’s Mona Lisa didn’t get much attention. They also thought the wood was oak, which was used by northern European artists.

    Last year curators took a closer look in anticipation of an upcoming loan to the Louvre. They found that the panel was actually walnut, a commonly used wood for oil paintings in 16th century Italy. Using infrared reflectography, they then found that underneath that dull black background was a beautiful Tuscan landscape almost identical to the one behind Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

    Prado "Mona Lisa" copy after restorationIR also revealed the copy’s underdrawings, sketches that painters make before they start with the paint. The Louvre took IR images of the Mona Lisa in 2004. When the Prado curators compared the two sets of underdrawings, they found that they matched, suggesting that the copy was made contemporaneously with the original, following the changes to the composition as the master drew them before the final version was painted. There are documentary sources that attest to Leonardo having his students paint alongside him in the studio, but this is the first time we have IR evidence that strongly indicates contemporaneous painting.

    Conservators have spent the past year removing the black overpaint — probably added in the 18th century to make it match other pieces with a black background in a gallery setting — and revealed the refreshed Mona Lisa copy in a presentation two weeks ago at London’s National Gallery.

    The Prado’s technical specialist Ana González Mozo describes the Madrid replica as “a high quality work,” and in the paper she presented at the London conference, she provided evidence that the picture was done in Leonardo’s studio. The precise date of the original is uncertain, although the Louvre states it was between 1503 and 1506.

    Bruno Mottin, the head conservator at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, believes that the most likely painter of the Prado copy was one of Leonardo’s two favourite pupils.

    Mottin proposes that it was either Andrea Salai, who originally joined Leonardo’s studio in 1490 and probably became his lover, or Francesco Melzi, who joined around 1506. If the Prado replica is eventually attributed to Melzi, it suggests a late date for the original.

    "Monna Vanna" by SalaiThere is at least one other copy of Mona Lisa attributed to Salai and it doesn’t look as good as the Prado’s copy to my eye, although that could be the picture. He also painted Monna Vanna, a nude parody of Mona Lisa.

    Salai’s reputation was more about his bad boy living than about the skill of his painting. Leonardo complained about Salai all the time in his notebooks, describing him as a “ladro, bugiardo, ostinato, ghiotto” (thief, liar, obstinate, glutton) whom Leonardo had to bail out of scrape after scrape. Still, he must have had something going for him since da Vinci lived with the youth from the time he was 10 years old until he was 35. Leonardo even left his enfant terrible property and paintings after his death in 1519, including the real Mona Lisa which Salai sold to King Francis I of France.

    The Prado’s discovery might shed some light on details of the original. There are areas of the Prado Mona Lisa that are in much better condition than on the original — the spindles of the chair, for example, and the veil around her left arm — and Lisa herself looks considerably younger without that yellow cracked varnish that darkens and muddies her facial features in the original.

    The copy is in the final stages of conservation. It will be displayed at the Prado in a few weeks, then it will go on loan to the Louvre for its exhibition with Leonardo’s Saint Anne (March 19 – June 25) where it will be back in the same room with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa for the first time in 500 years or so.

    Louvre's original Leonardo da Vinci "Mona Lisa" (l), Prado's copy (r)


    Bone guillotine model by Napoleonic POW for sale

    February 1st, 2012

    During a routine valuation in Dorset, a Duke’s Auctioneers specialist found a rare working model of a guillotine made out of animal bone scraps. According to family lore, the model has been in the family since the 19th century, but they had no idea what it was until Duke’s expert Amy Brenan (who also generously provided the sweet high resolution pictures herein) identified it.

    The guillotine was crafted by a prisoner of war, probably French, who was held in Britain between 1805 and 1815 during the Napoleonic wars. He collected sheep bones from the trash, carved them and put them together with impeccable attention to detail to make the 20-inch high model of an execution. An elaborate superstructure crowns the decapitation machine which rests on a platform with a victim lying horizontally waiting for the blade to fall. The victim is surrounded by armed guards on the platform, and the base of the structure is also manned by armed guards and cannons. Guillotine detailEach figure has a hand-painted face, the blade of the guillotine drops and the soldiers holding weapons have moveable arms.

    Amy Brenan describes its rarity:

    “Napoleonic prisoner of war models made from bone and ivory are hard to come by. Many designs such as the model battle ships, spinning jennies and guillotines are so intricate that they disintegrate overtime and this makes any surviving examples extremely rare.

    The sheer skill in creating a working model of the guillotine coupled with its social significance at the time, has made the guillotine models particularly desirable.”

    Britain held approximately 100,000 prisoners of war over the course of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The Revolutionary government decreed in 1793-4 that prisoners would no longer be ransomed, or even taken, and Napoleon would later also eschew traditional prisoner exchanges. Since Britain was at war with France for pretty much the whole time from 1793 until 1815, they soon had more prisoners than they could stuff into their prison hulks. Enemy officers were allowed parole and housed in various towns across England, but most of the prisoners enjoyed no such privileges.

    Norman Cross depot (aka POW camp)The first permanent camp built intentionally to house prisoners of war was built in Norman Cross, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, in 1797. From 1797 to 1816, about 10,000 prisoners were held at the Norman Cross POW camp.

    Conditions were miserable — prisoners were crammed into barracks on rows of hammocks, disease was rampant, England was cold and wet — albeit comparatively humane. (French soldiers were known to voluntarily surrender to the British because they treated their prisoners better than anyone else.) Typhus cut a swath through the population in 1800 and 1801 killing 1021 prisoners. At least another 770 more died during the camp’s 17 years of existence.

    Many of these soldiers and sailors had been conscripted into the Napoleonic military machine. They had crafting skills from their civilian lives, and desperate to make a little money to pad their meager subsistence, they made models of bone, ivory, wood scraps, even straw which they used to create marquetry baskets. Many of them are signed with the artists/prisoners’ names. The prisoners would then be allowed to sell their crafts to the local inhabitants. (They also fabricated counterfeit banknotes and porn, but the authorities weren’t so supportive of those creative endeavors.)

    A British soldier describes being dispatched along with his regiment in 1799:

    “….to Norman Cross for the purpose of guarding some thousands of unhappy Frenchmen, cooped up in that place and clothed in yellow (the prison dress), to expiate their revolutionary sins by many years captivity and exile in loathsome prison, cut off from family and friends.

    Their necessities forced them to exert their ingenuity in making various curious toys which the disposed of at a very low rate to enable them to procure a few comforts to alleviate their extreme wretchedness…..for want of clothes many of them suffered every privation rather than be clad in a conspicuous and humiliating colour.”

    Norman Cross POW ship modelThe Peterborough Museum has a large collection of these models from the Norman Cross prisoners, and many of them are in deteriorating condition due to their inherent fragility. A working Napoleonic prisoner guillotine with all the parts moving and all the paint still attached, therefore, is a museum-quality find.

    The guillotine will be sold at Duke’s on February 9 with an estimated price tag of £4000 – £8000 (about $6300 – $12,600).


    Otto von Bismarck speaks

    January 31st, 2012

    Wax cylinder containing sole recording of Otto von Bismarck's voiceResearchers at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park have discovered that 17 unlabeled wax cylinder phonograph records found stashed in a cabinet behind Edison’s cot back in 1957 contain extremely rare recordings made in Europe in 1889 and 1890, including the only known recording of Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire.

    Two [of the wax cylinders] preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe’s “Faust” into a phonograph horn. (Moltke was 89 when he made the recordings — the only ones known to survive from someone born as early as 1800.) Other records found in the collection hold musical treasures — lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.

    Since they weren’t labeled or cataloged, nobody had any idea what was on them until last year when Edison laboratory curator Jerry Fabris used an Archeophone device to trace the grooves on 12 of the cylinders and convert them to audible wav files. The recordings were very faint, too faint for Fabris to identify, so he enlisted the aid of sound historians Patrick Feaster of Indiana University and Stephan Puille of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin to try to determine who and what were on the cylinders.

    Thomas Alva Edison (seated center), Theo Wangemann standing behind himThey had a starting point: the words “Wangemann. Edison” carved into the lid of the wooden container in which the cylinders had been found. Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann had been hired by Edison in 1888 to market his newly invented wax cylinder phonograph. Wangemann quickly became adept at recording with the phonograph and was sent to Europe in June of 1889 to supervise the operation of the Edison phonographs on exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair.

    The assignment was only supposed to last two weeks, but after the World’s Fair was over Edison expanded his brief and allowed him to travel Europe collecting quality recordings to use for exhibitions. After Paris he went to his native country of Germany where he set up displays of the technology for scientists and luminaries. In Berlin, Wangemann set up his equipment in a room loaned to him by the Siemens Corporation. He carried the cylinders and accessories to the exhibition room in a lockable wooden box. It’s that box that was discovered back at Edison’s New Jersey lab in 1957.

    Wangemann phonographEdison joined Wangemann in Germany to make a splash during the phonograph exhibits to scientists. While he was there, Edison asked to meet the three most important people in Germany, Bismarck, von Moltke and Kaiser Wilhelm II, but none of them were available. They all replied that they wanted to see the phonograph, though, so Edison sent Wangemann to show them the new toy and get their voices recorded for posterity. He did meet with them all, but although Wilhelm II greatly enjoyed Wangemann’s musical recordings, he never did get his own voice carved in wax. Three of his sons, the eldest just seven years old, did get recorded.

    Otto von Bismarck, 1890In Friedrichsruh on Oct. 7, 1889, Wangemann recorded Chancellor Otto von Bismarck reciting verses from several ditties in four languages. The first is “In Good Old Colony Times,” a British folk song that was altered after the American Revolution to give it an anti-monarchist spin. The second is “Als Kaiser Rotbart lobesam” (When good Emperor Redbeard), an 1814 German heroic ballad by Ludwig Uhland about Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa going on the Third Crusade. The third is the Latin song “Gaudeamus igitur,” a popular graduation song in Europe at the time with your classic “carpe diem” message. The fourth is the first verse of “La Marseillaise,” which is something of an enormous iceburn on the French given their ignominious defeat by Bismarck’s Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.

    The last lines Bismarck speaks are a direct appeal to his son Herbert who would listen to it on a phonograph in Budapest a few weeks later and recognize his father’s voice. “Do everything in moderation and morality, namely work, but then also eating, and apart from that especially drinking. Advice of a father to his son.” Solid Junker advice, that.

    Read about all of the newly converted Edison/Wangemann wax cylinders, listen to the recordings and read the original text and transcripts of the spoken parts on the National Park Service website.


    Cathedral-like Medieval barn rescued from neglect

    January 30th, 2012

    Harmondsworth Barn, built 1426Harmondsworth Great Barn was built in the village of Harmondsworth, Middlesex in 1426 to store grain harvested from the Winchester College manor lands. The barn is 192 feet long, 39 feet wide and 36 feet high making it the largest timber-framed building in England, and fully 98% of the oak timbers are original. The twelve interior bays are made from 13 massive oak posts resting on stone piers. Winchester College records from 1426 indicate that master carpenter William Kypping (or Kipping) got these mighty oaks in nearby Kingston upon Thames, and dendrochronological analysis (tree ring counting and pattern matching) confirms that those oaks that still hold the hipped tiled roof up today were felled in the early 15th century.

    This particular barn design, a long nave with a high roof supported by rows of posts, requires a great many internal braces to ensure the wind doesn’t knock it down. Those exposed buttresses and the central nave with side aisles and bays give the structure a cathedral-like look, and in fact the construction techniques required to build this barn were also used in the building of cathedrals at that time. It’s likely that Master Kypping’s crew included experienced cathedral builders. No wonder, then, that Poet Laureate and passionate historical preservation advocate Sir John Betjeman dubbed Harmondsworth Great Barn the “Cathedral of Middlesex.”

    Harmondsworth Barn interiorThe building used to be even bigger, but a north wing was demolished in 1774. It had a close encounter with a German bomb during World War II, but survived with just a few roof tiles askew. The barn was granted Grade I listed building status — the same grade as Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament — in 1950, and then designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument on top of that. It continued to be used for agricultural purposes until the 1970s when the encroaching sprawl of London made it the only Medieval barn in the area to survive its absorption into the west London suburbs.

    In 1986, the barn was purchased by property developers the John Wiltshier Group who planned a full restoration. When the John Wiltshier Group went into receivership in 2006, the receiver offered the barn to the National Trust, English Heritage and Hillingdon Council for a token £1, but amazingly all three declined to purchase, probably intimidated by the daunting process of dealing with a Scheduled Ancient Monument (every change, even necessary repairs to a leaking roof, say, requires a literal act of Parliament) and the large sums of money they’ve had to spend every year to maintain such venerable carpentry.

    Instead, in 2006 a shady anonymous offshore trust registered in Gibraltar and named Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. purchased the barn for £1 and proceeded to do nothing at all to it. They let it rot and closed it to the public except for one open weekend a year. English Heritage wrote them increasingly concerned letters about the condition of the barn, even going so far as to offer them grants to help fund necessary repairs. Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. didn’t respond. It seems their sole interest in the property was how a proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport would bring a new runway just yards away from the barn. If the Heathrow build had gone through and the barn had been damaged or demolished, then the owners would have been due compensation.

    Harmondsworth Barn, interior detailThe airport expansion plans were abandoned. Obviously the “investors” didn’t exactly spend big money to buy the property and they certainly had no interest in spending the tens of thousands of pounds a year required just to keep a 15th century barn from falling apart. Finally last year English Heritage got the barn delisted as a Scheduled Ancient Monument smoothing the way for them to step in and save the day. Those dirty offshore rats actually had the testes to protest the delisting because they preferred to keep their £1 investment in a state of increasing decay.

    English Heritage immediately spent £30,000 on emergency repairs, primarily to the roof which had holes in it from slipped and broken tiles. They also did some repair work to the weatherboard siding, most of which is also original, a very rare thing for barn siding.

    Once the worst holes were plugged, EH took Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. to court to recover the public moneys they were forced to spend. Again the offshore corporation protested and rejected any attempts to settle out of court. Almost a year later, a settlement has been reached: English Heritage pays £20,000 to Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. and becomes the new owner.

    Last week, English Heritage, which sees the purchase of the Great Barn as a welcome victory after a long series of drastic cuts in its budget, told the Independent that the building is “a supreme example of late-medieval craftsmanship – a masterpiece of carpentry containing one of the best and most intact interiors of its age and type in all of Europe”.

    English Heritage will be handing over the running of Harmondsworth’s Great Barn to members of local campaign group The Friends of the Great Barn at Harmondsworth. It is expected to be open to the public from this April.

    I can’t help but resent that those land speculator groinpulls managed to convert their single pound into 20,000 despite their shameless and deliberate neglect of the place. I bet English Heritage wishes they’d fished through their couch cushions for that pound back in 2006.





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