Wreck of steamship Pulaski found

May 10th, 2018

A 19th century wreck discovered 40 miles off the coast of North Carolina has been conclusively shown to be the steamship Pulaski which sank in a massive explosion in 1838 and claimed the lives of some the southeast’s most prominent individuals and families.

Divers with Blue Water Ventures International found the wreck in January under 100 feet of water. The locations, silver coins dating up to the year of the wreck and no later, plus evidence on the wreckage of a boiler explosion on the starboard side suggested it was the Pulaski, but there was no, pardon the term, smoking gun. To determine the ship’s identity with certainty, they needed to find an artifact with its name on it, like the bell or a labelled part of the boiler.

This week the smoking gun was found in the form of a candlestick holder and a token, both stamped “SB Pulaski” (SB stands for steamboat).

Dr. Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, was among the historians waiting for Webb to prove he was in the right spot. Schwarzer was hoping for the ship’s bell, but he says a candlestick holder with the ship’s name is just as good.

“That really is a smoking gun,” said Schwarzer. “It’s like finding proof of something which was not just history, but almost legendary. This is empirical evidence. The wreck is no longer folklore, on the pages of a book. There is an actually object that proves it is out there.”

The Pulaski sailed from Savannah, Georgia, on June 13th, 1838, and picked up more passengers that afternoon in Charleston. It departed the next morning for its ultimate destination in Baltimore. An easterly wind picked up in the afternoon. The choppy sea forced the boat to ramp up to full steam pressure to make any progress.

According to the testimony of wreck survivors documented in the 1840 book Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents in the United States by Southworth Holland, disaster struck at 11:00 PM when the starboard boiler exploded. It blew up the promenade deck above it, the starboard side of the ship, the bulkhead between the boilers, the forward cabin and the bar room.

The ship first listed on its relatively undamaged side, but it soon rolled onto the starboard side and water flooded into the holes. The women and children had been hustled to the promenade deck above the ladies’ cabin, and men joined them when the aft deck flooded. Soon the waters rose to the promenade deck and the ship broke in two. The stern rose briefly, then split into three, throwing everyone on the deck into the churning waters.

The four lifeboats were launched immediately after the boiler explosion. One fell apart as soon as it hit water. The others took on as many survivors as they could (ie, hardly any) and at various times attempted landfall in crashing surf and high winds. Two of the lifeboats overturned and several passengers drowned. Others were able to make it to shore.

Twenty-three passengers manage to survive on the fore of the ship which floated instead of sinking, and Second Captain (first mate) Pearson clung to a plank overnight until he managed to navigate his way to the remnant of the Pulaski. They were still clinging to the fore, now lashed together into a makeshift raft, baked by the sun, desperately thirsty, on Saturday when another piece of flotsam bearing four more survivors came into view. The four joined the larger group on the raft.

Together they lived through a gale on Sunday, saw four ships on Monday who were too far away to see them and finally, blistered, parched and sleep deprived from having to keep the underwater raft afloat, they were rescued on Tuesday by the schooner Henry Camerdon. The schooner picked up another four people who had been spotted floating in the distance, barely alive, on a raft of planks from the promenade deck. The last eight people to be rescued managed to make it to land on the New River Inlet on Wednesday. They were nearly dead from dehydration and exposure. In total, more than 100 passengers died in the Pulaski disaster.

Writers have called the disaster story “the Titanic of its time.”

“Finding the Pulaski is a big deal,” said Dr. Joseph Schwarzer…. “Saying something was the ‘Titanic of its time’ is an overworked metaphor, since the Titanic was among the greatest maritime disasters in humankind. … But I will say it’s one of the more significant disasters in American maritime history. It was the ‘Titanic of its time’ in terms of the people who were on it. It was a who’s who of the colonial South, and the loss of life was significant. Entire families were lost.”

Maritime archaeologists are still studying the site, ensuring it is explored with the utmost care to ensure the context is preserved. They want to find scientific evidence of what caused the explosion, as so far historians have had to rely on survivor accounts which is less than fully reliable.

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Germany has a historic (former) bridge to sell you

May 9th, 2018

The Bundeseisenbahnvermögen (BEV), aka the German Federal Railway Authority, is offering an exciting if ominous real estate opportunity: half of the ruins of the Ludendorff Bridge are for sale, price negotiable. The two looming, blackened, massive masonry towers in the town of Erpel on the east bank of the Rhine and their twins on the west side are all that remains of the railway bridge built during World War I to aid in the movement of troops and supplies to the Western Front.

It was barely completed when the war ended and the Allies occupied the strategic site. By the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties, the German military was excluded from the entire territory, and specifically from controlling any access points on both sides of the Rhine. It wasn’t until 1936 with the Remilitarization of the Rhineland under Hitler that the Ludendorff Bridge returned to German control.

Germany would enjoy that control for less than a decade. On March 7th, 1945, the U.S. Army’s 9th Armored Division took the bridge. It had been damaged by Allied bombing and German attempts to demolish it before the Allied troops could use it. The underpowered demolition charges had failed to destroy the bridge, giving the Americans the opportunity to move six divisions, 50,000 troops, over it, establish a bridgehead on the east bank and build a pontoon bridge to move the rest of the US forces. On March 17th, the bridge collapsed, killing 28 U.S. Army Engineers who were attempting its repair.

Here is period color film of the bridge before and after it collapsed. The focus is on the spans of the steel bridge itself which is, after all, the key part of any bridge, but the towers on both banks are also in high relief.

The bridge was never rebuilt, and over the years the towers were used for different purposes. Most recently, the east bank towers were used by the Erpel cultural association as galleries, but as of now, they are hardly fit for human habitation, no matter how temporary. From the BEV’s sale listing:

Heating: No
Water supply: None
Windows: Weathered until 6 years ago. Then installation of shipbuilding foil on wooden frame to protect against invading water and small animals. Partially wall-mounted parapets, some bricked windows. […]

It is in need of major refurbishment and due to the danger of falling facade parts, the duty of care must be observed: pedestrians, cyclists and car traffic runs in the immediate vicinity. No residential object.

Notwithstanding its challenges, the bridge has interested buyers, or so says the BEV spokesman. Adding to its dark allure may be the 1969 film The Bridge at Remagen, starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn, which tells a highly dramatized version of the bridge’s role in World War II. It’s not remotely historically accurate, of course, but war movies are adroit mythmakers. It has also been featured in several video games, most recently Call of Duty: Finest Hour.

The towers in Remagen on the west bank of the Rhine are not for sale. They currently host a museum dedicated to the bridge’s history in wartime. Anybody who wants an unheated, waterless, crumbling, lawsuit-waiting-to-happen insurance nightmare that is legally enjoined from being used as housing but comes with a darn cool military history has until May 18th to submit a bid.

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Hiker finds prehistoric pot, hides it, calls it in

May 8th, 2018

When Colorado hiker Randy Langstraat came across a piece of pottery on a popular trail in the Arizona Strip desert just across the state line from St. George, Utah, he reacted in an ideal fashion: he left it exactly where he found it, concealing it so it wasn’t in view of less scrupulous people, and called the Bureau of Land Management.

Langstraat described the exact location of the pot to BLM Arizona Strip archaeologist Sarah Page. In February, Page used that description to find the pot, still buried where Langstraat had left it. Nobody had interfered with it and it had suffered no damage. Except for a piece broken off the handle, likely in the distant past, the pot is intact.

After locating the intact pot, Page began a full documentation process of the site and, along with another agency archaeologist, conducted an intensive archaeological survey to determine if additional artifacts were present. No other artifacts were present and the archaeologists believe the pot was left in the location by the pot’s creator with the intent to collect it later. However, the person never recovered it. A detailed analysis was conducted by archaeologist David Van Alfen who determined the pot to be North Creek Corrugated, which dates to the Late Pueblo II period (AD 1050-1250) of the Virgin Branch of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. The effigy handle appears to be that of an animal, possibly a deer or bighorn sheep. However, the ears or horns have been broken off making it difficult to determine precisely.

Precious resources like the prehistoric North Creek Corrugated pot aid scientists in their study of earlier occupants. In addition, losses of these resources deny present and future generations the ability to enjoy the privilege of learning from and observing the site in its original state. BLM Arizona manages some of the most significant and best-preserved prehistoric and historic archaeological sites in the American Southwest that are important to our understanding of both recorded history and prehistory.

It is illegal to remove or damage artifacts found on BLM land, but with 245 million acres of territory and more than 150,000 cultural heritage sites to cover, its law enforcement program couldn’t possibly prevent the loss of archaeological significant material like the North Creek Corrugated pot without the cooperation of good citizens like Randy Langstraat.

“While the BLM is tasked to protect these resources,” said Page, “we need everyone’s help to do so. Langstraat did the right thing by reporting the discovery of the pot to the BLM and by leaving it in place. Just like Langstraat, everyone can help to protect our nation’s fascinating past. We hope that others will follow his example and respect our past.”

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First confirmed family burials found in Roman cemetery

May 7th, 2018

DNA analysis has confirmed for the first time the presence of family members buried in a Roman cemetery. University of Essex scientists have tested bones found in the Butt Road cemetery in Colchester, a late Roman burial ground that is one of two located outside the walls of the first colonia (city settled by retired Roman soldiers) in Britain, and determined that they were, as suspected, biologically related to each other.

The cemetery first saw use in the mid-third century A.D., its 61 graves oriented north-south as was customary in traditional polytheist burials. In the fourth century, the cemetery transitioned to Christian burials, with at least 620 inhumations (some overlapping the earlier pagan graves) oriented east-west containing no grave goods. A building at the northwest of the cemetery dating to 320-340 A.D. was probably a church and/or a martyrium. Its construction coincides with the relatively abrupt shift to Christian burials at the cemetery.

Around the middle of the fourth century, six timber vaults were built in the cemetery. They contained double and single burials. Also from this period are several plaster burials and three lead-lined coffins, two of them decorated with early Christian symbols. Other burials were clustered around the vaults, primarily two vaults labelled I and II which had more than 30 later inhumations densely packed around them. The presence of multiple infant burials is further evidence of Christian funerary practices.

The spatial relationships of the burials and osteological analysis of the skeletal remains led the archaeologists who first excavated the Butt Road cemetery between 1976 and 1988 to hypothesize that these were probably family groups, but it could not be scientifically verified with the technology available at the time. In order to maximize optimal conditions for DNA extraction and analysis, archaeologists needed to re-excavate in the areas cemetery believed to be family burials and remove human remains under DNA-free conditions to minimize the chances of contamination.

The Colchester Archaeological Trust excavated the Butt Road site and University of Essex scientists successfully extracted DNA samples from the femurs of 26 individuals, most of them from vaults I and II and the densely packed burials around them. Two middle aged men buried next to each other in the vault complex were found to be kin, either father and son or brothers. A young adult woman and two infants buried near her were likely related, possibly a mother and her two babies. There were also another pair of possible brothers, a possible brother and sister or cousins or uncle and niece.

Studies of ancient DNA usually determine relationships by looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Relationships can also be determined using HLA (human leukocyte antigen) typing which shows how closely the tissues of one person match the tissues of another person and is an effective indicator to show if someone is related. Using both approaches, the scientists found that the individuals buried within the vault complex at Butt Road were interrelated and were most likely from Roman descent.

The results also throw some light on Christian funeral practices in Roman Britain. Most of the sampled graves which were arranged around the pair of vaults are interpreted as ‘focal graves’. The results indicate that family burials could be an important focal burial characteristic, with the associated family groupings perhaps representing people of privilege within the community.

Professor Fernández said: “In recent years, aDNA analysis has breathed new life into archaeology as it is such a powerful research tool. It means that we have been able to for the first time scientifically prove the long-held theory that there were family burial areas at the Butt Road Roman cemetery by showing they shared the same inherited genetic markers.”

The results of the study have been published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics and can be read in full here.

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Louise Brooks dances in Technicolor

May 6th, 2018

British Film Institute researchers have discovered a rare cache of Technicolor silent film fragments, including flapper icon Louise Brooks dancing from her first credited movie role in The American Venus (1926). The film is lost, with only the trailer still known to be extant. This short clip of Louise Brooks is not a fragment from the movie itself. The footage appears to be a screen test of some kind, possibly a costume test.

Conservation Specialist Jane Fernandes found the fragments in the BFI National Archive in a reel of The Black Pirate (1926) that had been donated to the BFI by The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1959. A swashbuckling adventure written by and starring Douglas Fairbanks, The Black Pirate was the third feature-length film to be shot entirely in the early two-tone Technicolor technology. It is a milestone of color feature film and one of Fairbanks’ greatest performances.

The BFI restored its copy of The Black Pirate in 1970 at the behest of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since then. Fernandes was examining the original reels for a new restoration project focusing on early Technicolor when she noticed that the celluloid lead on the reel was edited together pieces of film from other movies. Louise Brooks dancing for The American Venus was accompanied by clips from The Far Cry, The Fire Brigade and Dance Madness, all from 1926.

In the same print of Black Pirate, there is also a test shot for historical drama Mona Lisa (1926) starring Hedda Hopper, the ‘Queen of the Quickies’ and legendary acerbic Hollywood gossip columnist for the LA Times, whose biting wit was recently portrayed by Judy Davis in award-winning TV series Feud. The fragment shows Hedda Hopper as Mona Lisa in repose, one assumes, about to be painted by Leonardo da Vinci. No other material from Mona Lisa is currently held by any film archive.

Other extracts from a number of early Technicolor musicals were discovered in a batch of 1950s cinema ads for a local television shop in Chingford, North East London that were donated to the BFI National Archive last year. All dating from 1929 these fragments comprise footage from Sally, which only exists in black and white, a previously lost section of Gold Diggers of Broadway, as well as short clips from Show of Shows and a trailer for On With The Show! In addition a short extract donated by one of the BFI’s curators in 2007, has now been identified as Paris (1929). […]

Potentially coming from test shots, trailers, alternative takes and outtakes these short sequences may not have appeared in the final complete films or have been used for promotional use.

The BFI has compiled the snippets in a single video and uploaded it to their YouTube channel. In a voiceover, BFI curator Bryony Dixon explains the background of the film, why it survived and its significance today. You can see Louise Brooks looking like an Erte’ figurine come to life at the 1:14 mark.

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Remains of carriage burial unearthed in Denmark

May 5th, 2018

Last May, metal detectorist Louise Stahlschmidt found some melted lumps of bronze and round bronze artifacts she called “buttons” while exploring a farmed field in Trompgård, north Jutland, Denmark, for the Vendsyssel Historical Museum. She called in her finds and sent pictures. Museum curator Jeppe Boel Jepsen reacted with unprintable enthusiasm when he saw the “buttons” were red enameled bronze fittings characteristic of an Iron Age wagon burial.

The museum immediately secured funding for an excavation of the site, but they had to wait for the crops to be harvested and for the weather to cooperate, so it was winter before they were able to follow up on the exciting discovery. They also needed to enlist the aid of a cadre of amateur archaeologist volunteers like Louise Stahlschmidt without whom the museum could never cover enough ground for a thorough exploration with the limited time and money at its disposal.

When they finally were able to excavate the site, they found the melted fittings from the carriage. The wagon had been set on fire at the time of the burial, hence the oddly shaped lumps Stahlschmidt had found.

The carriage is a rare prize, the stuff that Danish archaeologists dream of on their most feverish nights. It is a Dejbjerg type carriage, named after the first discoveries of their kind, two wagon burials unearthed by archaeologist Henry Petersen in Dejbjerg Præstegårdsmose, western Jutland, in 1881 and 1883. The early Iron Age wagons were manufactured between 300 B.C. and 100 A.D. somewhere in southeastern Europe, where they are more frequently found, and imported into what is now Denmark. Only eight of them have been found in Denmark and northern Germany combined.

The carriages alone were of immense value when they were burned and buried, and this burial was laden with grave goods — a drinking horn, a drinking glass, bronze kettles, a game board with glass playing pieces, a gold ring, fragments of silver that may have been part of drinking cups of the Boscoreale type, only three of which have been found in Denmark before — which make it one of the richest graves from the transitional period between the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Age ever discovered in Denmark.

The team had to search far and wide with their metal detectors to find more artifacts pointing to the central grave site where the people were buried. At the last hour of three days of searching, they found the grave. Alas, someone had beaten them to the punch in antiquity — the grave was looted — but there were intriguing remains including the hole made by the digging of the original grave, the remnants of cremation and a piece of burned human leg.

After the fire went out, the excavations were collected together with the burned leg of the grave and placed in an oven. The oven has been set in the grave and the fire pit covered. After an unknown period, the tomb has been restored, and the grave has since been moved to a village just a few hundred meters from the grave. This building has previously been partially studied by the museum. This iron age village was simultaneously detected by the detector with the detector, and parts of the burial equipment were also found on this site. Thus, this is a family that reinforces their possessions, their status and their relations with other elite families beyond Europe, at an ancestral cave, not only by the tombs but also at the settlements.

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Anne of Brittany’s heart stolen, found

May 4th, 2018

On the night of Friday, April 13th, thieves broke in through a window of the Musée Dobrée in Nantes, western France, and stole the gold reliquary made to contain the heart of one of my favorite historic personages, Anne of Brittany. The alarm did sound, but it was insufficient to stop the thieves.

The only woman ever to be queen of France two separate times (both entirely against her will), Anne struggled her whole life to keep Brittany independent and after her sadly premature death in 1514 at the age of 37 was a revered symbol of Brittany’s unique history and culture. The reliquary that contained her heart was created shortly after her death and is inscribed “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.”

That dedication may have been part of the attraction for the thieves who may have been hoping to make big bucks by melting it, but the 6-inch reliquary and its lovely crown of nine fleurs-de-lis together total only 100 grams of gold. This is not the first time the gold reliquary and crown had a brush with the crucible. It was confiscated during the French Revolution and Anne’s heart thrown in the trash, a fate suffered by so many royal remains. The container was ordered melted down, but the order was never followed and the reliquary was kept intact in the Bibliothèque Nationale until 1819 when it was returned to Nantes. It has been part of the collection of the Musée Dobrée since the 1880s.

There were murmurs that Breton nationalists might have been behind the theft, but the authorities thought it more likely to have been the work of petty thieves. Councilors of the Loire-Atlantique department accordingly appealed in the press for the return of the precious artifact, pointing out that it has far more historical value than monetary.

A week later, Nantes police found the reliquary, a figurine and some gold coins, all stolen from the museum, at an undisclosed location near the museum.

Two men in their early twenties have been arrested and charged with “association with criminals” and “theft of cultural assets”. One is known to authorities. They both deny involvement. Two other suspects are at large.

According to Pierre Sennes, the Nantes prosecutor, the prized gold case “seems to be in good shape”.

The museum reopened to visitors last week, sans reliquary for the time being, but on Wednesday, May 2nd, the government of the Loire-Atlantique department announced that the Voyage in the Collections exhibition would be closed permanently because of the thefts and the damage inflicted on the display. It was supposed to run through September 30th.

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Ponte Vedra shipwreck made of beechwood

May 3rd, 2018

The 19th century ship’s hull that washed up on Florida’s Ponte Vedra Beach on March 28th continues to prove how unusual it is. Environmental archaeologist Lee Newsom took samples of the hull and examined them under the microscope, the first laboratory analysis of the shipwreck’s wood. Her examination found that it is predominantly American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), a tree native to the Eastern and Southern United States.

“I rarely ever see that,” she said. “So it was a surprise to see that instead of oak.”

She said oak is what ships are usually made of.

“So maybe the usual oak was not available for one reason or another. So whoever constructed this ship shifted to beech,” Newsom said.

The wood is also cut from the tree trunk in different ways, which leads her to ask, “Were the larger trees no longer available? So you shift to this? It means timber was in short supply.”

Newsom said the wood is in fantastic condition, so it’s revealing even more.

“That’s telling me, this whole section has been buried under the sediment since it wrecked probably,” Newsom noted.

Except for the weeks it spent on the beach getting cooked by the Florida sun. Archaeologists were concerned about the condition of the wood before it was removed from its exposed position, so it’s great news that they managed to keep it wet enough to preserve it on a cellular level for analysis.

Preliminary visual examination noted the presence of both hardwood and softwood. Ships are typically made of hardwoods for durability, and the combination suggested it may have been constructed by a small shipwright in the South where softwood is more abundant and less expensive. Beech is a hardwood, but it is found in South and the type of cuts indicate cost was a factor, so the hypothesis still stands.

Possible origins of the wood include Georgia, the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast. Additional analysis will have be done to make a more precise determination, and it may never be narrowed down to a single location, nevermind to where the ship was built. Newsom will continue her research and, as a granddaughter of a shipwright, hopes against hope that she’ll be able to identify the builder. It’s not very likely, however.

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Roman artifacts attest to 1st c. Batavian rebellion

May 2nd, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the North Rhine-Westphalian town of Krefeld have unearthed thousands of artifacts attesting to a 1st century rebellion of Batavian tribesemen against Rome.

The Batavians, whose native territory was the delta between the Lower Rhine and the Waal, were long-time allies of Rome. Considered the bravest of all Germanic tribes, they had formed the core of the imperial guard since Augustus and had a special deal with the empire that exempted them from all tribute and taxes. The only resources the Batavians were required to contribute were fighting men, infantry and especially cavalry, famed for their amphibious ability to cross rivers on horseback in full armour. They contributed soldiers in far greater proportion than other Roman allies, an estimated 5,000 men out of a total population of just 35,000.

In 69 AD, the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors that followed the death of Nero, Rome pissed off the wrong Batavians. The year before Fonteius Capito, the governor of Germania Inferior had had Batavian prince Julius Paullus executed on false charges of rebellion. He sent Paullus’ kinsman Gaius Julius Civilis to Nero in chains on the same trumped up charges, but Nero died before rendering judgment. His successor Galba acquitted Civilis and sent him home. He also dissolved the Germanic bodyguard, however, and the Batavians saw this as a grave insult.

Then came the conscriptions. Roman chronicler Tacitus describes this trigger of the Batavian rebellion in his Histories in reliably salacious terms:

At the orders of Vitellius a levy of the young Batavians was now being made. This burden, which is naturally grievous, was made the heavier by the greed and licence of those in charge of the levy: they hunted out the old and the weak that they might get a price for letting them off; again they dragged away the children to satisfy their lust, choosing the handsomest — and the Batavian children are generally tall beyond their years.

Civilis, who had already decided to rebel against at Rome, used this latest outrage as a fulcrum to move the whole tribe to rebellion and soon persuaded neighboring tribes to join in the cause.

Civilis turned to force and organized the Canninefates, the Frisians, and the Batavians, each tribe in a troop by itself: the Roman line was drawn up to oppose them not far from the Rhine, and the vessels which had been brought here after the burning of the forts were turned to front the foe. The battle had not lasted long when a cohort of the Tungri transferred its standards to Civilis, and the Roman soldiers, demoralized by this sudden betrayal, were cut down by allies and foes alike. There was the same treachery also on the part of the fleet: some of the rowers, being Batavians, by pretending a lack of skill interfered with the sailors and combatants; presently they began to row in the opposite direction and bring the sterns to the bank on which the enemy stood; finally, they killed such of the helmsmen and centurions as did not take their view, until the entire fleet of twenty-four vessels either went over to the enemy or was captured.

This victory was glorious for the enemy at the moment and useful for the future. They gained arms and boats which they needed, and were greatly extolled as liberators throughout the German and Gallic provinces.

The 10-month excavation at the site near the Rhine, archaeologists found coins, weapons, helmets, a soldier’s decorated belt buckle and the skeletal remains of more than 300 horses believed to have been casualties of this battle.

The vast dig (covering almost 10 acres in area) unearthed more than artifacts from the brief window of the Batavian rebellion. Close to 6,500 graves were discovered encompassing burials over the course of a millennium, from 800 B.C. to 800 A.D., many containing significant gave goods. It is one of the largest ancient cemeteries north of the Alps.

The archaeological material is now being studied and conserved at the Burg Linn Museum where a selection of items from before, during and after the rebellion will go on display next year.

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Islay remembers the Tuscania

May 1st, 2018

The SS Tuscania, built as an ocean cruiser of Cunard’s Anchor Line, was one of the first troop ships to carry US soldiers to the Western Front in World War I. While war had been declared against Germany in April of 1917, the sleeping giant took months to rouse, with war declared against Austria-Hungary in December 1917 and actual troop movements only beginning in early 1918. Full-scale mobilization would not take place for weeks after that.

The Tuscania departed from Hoboken, New Jersey, on January 24th, 1918, with 2,164 US Army troops and 239 crew members headed for Liverpool on the way to its ultimate destination, the port of Le Havre in France. It made it as far as the Hebridean waters seven miles off the coast of the Scottish island of Islay where on the night of February 5th German U-Boat 77 torpedoed it. The ship suffered a direct hit and sank in a matter of hours.

The ship was abandoned in orderly, efficient fashion, but many of the damaged lifeboats capsized in the cold, rough sea. The British destroyers Mosquito, Grasshopper and Pigeon saved 1,500 or so men. An estimated 230 men either went down with the ship or were lost in the aftermath.

Many of the survivors, in lifeboats or not, washed ashore on Islay’s treacherous shoals. The people of Islay responded to the disaster with selfless dedication. More than 100 sons of Islay had died in World War I by this point, and their families felt keenly the loss of life of the American lads who had just joined the fight.

Robert Morrison, a shepherd and farmer, was one of several Islay men who risked death to rescue soldiers and crew from the shoals. After personally saving three men, he and his family took 90 survivors into their small cottage and nursed them back to health, losing only two men, one from exhaustion shortly after the sinking, the other three days later from pneumonia. They used up every last morsel of their food stores and all the clothing in caring for the Tuscania troops but categorically refused repayment from the Red Cross. An American Red Cross officer who liaised with Morrison described him in the official report as “one of the greatest heroes that I ever heard of.”

In total, 132 men were rescued on Islay. The villagers’ heroic efforts didn’t end there. They again risked life and limb to wade into the sharp breakers to retrieve the bodies of 183 men who had died in the disaster. The whole island worked tirelessly to treat the perished with the utmost respect and care. The public hall was used as a mortuary where the battered bodies were cleaned and every distinguishing characteristic recorded in police sergeant Malcolm MacNeill’s notebooks to make it possible for the families of the deceased to identify them. Hugh Morrison, Laird of Islay, donated land and timber. In less than three days, four cemeteries were created, and coffins and shrouds made for all of the dead.

But even this Herculean effort was not sufficient for the good people of Islay. They wanted to bury the fallen with the honor and dignity they deserved, and that required an American flag. There was none to be had on Islay or anywhere else within easy range and as time was a factor, the villagers decided to make one. With nothing but an encyclopedia as a reference, Jessie McLellan, Mary Cunningham, Catherine McGregor, Mary Armour and John McDougall stayed up all night on February 7th to cut and stitch together seven red bars, six white ones and 48 white stars. In just a few hours they produced a proper US flag 67 inches long and 37 inches wide.

On February 8th, under the newly-made Stars and Stripes, a pre-existing Union Jack and accompanied by the mournful sound of traditional Scottish bagpipes, the firs group dead soldiers were buried, their surviving comrades serving as pallbearers. Over the next few days, the rest were buried in the four cemeteries. All of the bodies except for one would eventually be exhumed and returned to the United States for reburial.

The flag was gifted by the people of Islay to Woodrow Wilson, with the request that he give it a museum. He gave it to the Smithsonian Institution where it was put on display until at least 1927. Eventually it ended up in storage at the National Museum of Natural History.

Despite the posters and songs exhorting the American public to “Remember the Tuscania,” it has been eclipsed in the collective consciousness and in history texts by the Lusitania, even though the latter wasn’t a troopship and was torpedoed fully two years before the US entered the war. Islay, however, has never forgotten. This year was the centennial of the disaster and Islay held two services on February 5th in honor of the lost.

On May 4th, Islay will commemorate the sacrifices made in World War I with an International Service of Remembrance for the Tuscania disaster, the HMS Otranto collision (which took place in October of 1918) and the men of Islay who fought and died in the war. On its way to join the solemnities is the Islay American flag. The Smithsonian has loaned it to the Museum of Islay Life where it will be on display for five months, a symbol of the dedication, sacrifice and respect shown by the people of Islay to the American doughboys, survivor and fallen alike.

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