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January 20th, 2015

As previously threatened, I am officially marking The History Blog’s passing the six million pageviews milestone with a Steve Austin reference. That’s really the only reason I’m even announcing this particular milestone. One million I announced because it’s a big deal; five million because we got there a lot faster than I expected. The six million figure only means anything to me because to this day I remain inordinately fond of the Six Million Dollar Man, especially the intro. Also, that Lee Majors wore the hell out of suits both track and leisure.

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Remains of five people found in Amphipolis tomb

January 19th, 2015

On Monday Greece’s Ministry of Culture announced the results of the first bone study on the skeletal remains found in the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis. Approximately 550 fragments of bone — some crushed, some whole and one skull missing the facial bones and teeth — were found in the tomb. Multidisciplinary teams from the Democritus University of Thrace and the
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were able to sort 157 of the bone fragments into at least five individuals: a woman more than 60 years old, a man around 35 years old, a man around 45 years old, a neonate of unknown sex and fragments of cremated bones from a person of unknown age and sex.


The woman has the most surviving bones which were found three feet above the floor of the limestone cyst grave. The one almost complete skull is hers and was instrumental, along with the pelvic bones and the long bone measurements, in determining her sex. She was about 157 cm (5’2″) tall and suffered from antemortem tooth loss, degenerative changes of the spine, osteoporosis and frontal hyperostosis. Those conditions led researchers to put her age at over 60 years.


The younger of the men was about 168 cm (5’6″) tall and his bones bear clear unhealed cut marks that indicate he was violently assaulted with a sharp weapon in the left upper thoracic spine, on the nape of his neck and on both his sides. The older of the two was about 162 cm (5’4″) tall. He had fractured his right radius close to the wrist at some point, but it was fully healed before he died. Both men have degenerative osteoarthritis and spondylitis lesions in different areas.


The infant was identified as a newborn by the length and width of the left humerus and mandible. The sex could not be determined because the morphological features that help identify sex are not developed in so young a baby.


The fifth individual was identified from nine fragments of bones that bear the characteristic cracks, deformation and discoloration caused by complete cremations. Researchers believe these are the remains of an adult.

These are just the first round of results. Additional testing will include X-rays to find out more about the lesions and injuries to the bones, electron microscopy, paleogenetic analysis of any DNA recoverable, stable isotope analysis on the bones to identify the types of proteins in their diets, limited strontium analysis on bone samples (there were no teeth recovered except the root of an abscessed right mandibular second premolar, so the usual strontium testing on tooth enamel that can reveal where individuals lived as children is not possible) and Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating.

The hope is that researchers will be able to discover the diets, places of origin and, if DNA is cooperative, whether any of the people entombed were related to each other. It’s a long shot. The lack of teeth is a big minus for DNA extraction, and the neonate and cremated individual have such limited sample material that it’s unlikely they’ll produce testable DNA. The AMS radiocarbon dating will be done on the human remains but also on a number of animal bones, probably belonging to a horse, that were discovered in the tomb. If all goes well, the dates will illuminate the order of deposition in the tomb which can’t solely be determined by the excavation strata because the tomb was disturbed.

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The movie history book that cast a spell on young Martin Scorsese

January 18th, 2015

Some time ago, I watched a documentary called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. The title says it all, really. It’s about the movies that influenced Scorsese to become a director, the ones he loved as a boy, the ones that shaped his understanding of film. Since he’s a huge, huge movie nerd, he covers an enormous amount of ground, including pictures that are largely forgotten today. It’s the kind of thing you take notes on in the hope you might get a chance to see some of these films one day.

The documentary opens with a scene from The Bad and the Beautiful, a 1952 movie about movies starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, and my secret favorite Dick Powell, in which Kirk Douglas’ producer character argues with the director about how to shoot a scene. At the 3:00 mark, Scorsese appears for the first time, sitting in a chair facing the camera. He’s holding a book. He starts talking:

I guess I have to say that when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, I spent a lot of time in movie theaters. I became obsessed with movies. At that time there was nothing really available that I could find written on film except one book, sort of my first film book, although I couldn’t really afford to buy it and I couldn’t find a copy except the only one available from the New York Public Library. I borrowed it from the library repeatedly. It’s called A Pictorial History of the Movies by Deems Taylor, and it was a pictorial history of the movies in black and white stills, year by year, up to 1949.

The book cast a spell on me, ’cause back then I hadn’t seen many of the films shown here in the book, so all I had at my disposal to experience these films were these black and white stills. I’d fantasize about them and they’d play into my dreams and I was so tempted to steal some of these pictures from the book. It’s a terrible urge. After all, it’s a book from the public library. Well, I confess: once or twice I did give in to that urge.

This was in an era before the proliferation of university film schools, when the industry was still new enough that taking a scholarly approach to its history seemed incongruous. In fact, when this book was first published in 1943, there was exactly one film school in the entire world: the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, founded in 1919 by director Vladimir Gardin. The next one, the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, was founded in 1946, three years after the first edition of A Pictorial History of the Movies was published. The United States didn’t get a dedicated film school until 1969 when the American Film Institute‘s Conservatory was established.

Scorsese beat the AFI to the punch, graduating with a master’s degree in film from the Graduate Film program of New York University’s School of the Arts (today the Tisch School of the Arts) in 1966, the year after the program was founded and the year that the author of the book that had ensorceled baby Martin Scorsese to deface it died.

Deems Taylor was a well-known composer, commentator and music critic. Born in 1885, like Scorsese, he too was a graduate of NYU who had made a name for himself as a composer of cantatas in the late nineteenteens. He had great success with two operas he composed for the Metropolitan Opera — The King’s Henchman (1927) and Peter Ibbetson (1929) — now all but forgotten. He was a member of the famed Algonquin Roundtable, the New York literati who gathered to skewer each other over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, and dated the sharpest skewer of them all, Dorothy Parker, for a short time.

While Taylor’s compositions and critiques languish in obscurity today, he was nationally famous in his day. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1931. He was a pitchman for California wines in 1940, his elegance and erudition lending much-needed panache to an American viticulture industry that had been nearly destroyed by Prohibition. Only fortified desert wines like sherry sold well in the United States (you can see that referenced in the ad) but it wasn’t because they paired well with roasts; it’s because they were taxed at a lower rate than hard liquors but had 20% alcohol so they provided the best bang for one’s buck. Table wines didn’t outsell fortified wines in America until 1968.

Fame is fickle, however, and if Deems Taylor is known at all today it is solely for his role as the Master of Ceremonies who introduces each music segment in Disney’s innovative 1940 masterpiece Fantasia. Walt Disney and the conductor Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra had heard Taylor doing commentary for radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic and brought him in on the project. Taylor contributed to some of the musical selections, advocating strongly for the inclusion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the dino wars segment) which even a quarter century after its 1913 premiere in Paris caused an uproar, was still considered controversial.

(Random historical connection: Deems Taylor’s only earlier credited work in films was as composer for 1924′s Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War period piece that was one of the “serious” movies William Randolph Hearst produced to fancy up his mistress Marion Davies from a bubbly comedienne into a dramatic actress. It was a dismal failure, of course.

This is probably a coincidence but it’s a neat one so I am compelled to point out that at 3:18 in the first segment of A Personal Journey, Scorsese stops on a page in A Pictorial History of the Movies. The bottom left and top right stills are from Fantasia. The bottom right still is from Citizen Kane.)

That was pretty much it as far as Taylor’s film career went. He had a brief cameo playing himself in 1941′s version of Camp Rock, The Hard-Boiled Canary, and the rest is TV appearances, primarily on panel quiz shows like What’s My Line?. He must have caught the bug, though, because the first edition of A Pictorial History of the Movies was printed in 1943, three years after Fantasia hit theaters.

It obviously filled a need, because the book went into a second print run in its first year, and this was during World War II when there was paper rationing. Marilyn Monroe had a copy. Scorsese’s edition was printed in 1950, which means it was updated and reissued at least once at the end of the decade.

This preciousness of this volume to Scorsese makes me appreciate the times we live in, because yesterday while nerding around the Internet Archive, I just happened to come across the second 1943 printing of A Pictorial History of the Movies fully digitized and available for any young movie buffs to access whenever their hearts desire. Good resolution, too. You can see far more detail in the online version of those black and white stills than Martin Scorsese ever could cutting them out of the New York Public Library’s copy. I spent half the weekend reading it, and while it’s obviously dated and limited in scope, it’s still a total page turner, a mini-education in film.

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Read and see what Darwin read and saw on the HMS Beagle

January 17th, 2015

HMS Beagle by P.G. King, 1890Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in December of 1831 as a self-funded gentleman naturalist (Josiah Wedgwood II, son of the potter/industrialist and Charles’ uncle by marriage, actually did the funding) on what was supposed to be a two-year survey of the South American coast. He wound up spending five years on board circumnavigating the globe. Darwin was 22 years old and fresh out of Cambridge when his epic voyage began. While the Beagle crew focused on surveying the coasts, Darwin’s job was studying the local flora, fauna and geology. Even though he was an amateur who had only ever put together a beetle collection before, he proved adroit at collecting specimens, over the years amassing a great quantity of them from plankton to Megatherium fossils.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, 23 years after the Beagle’s return to England, but the things he saw and the extensive notes and journal he wrote documenting his trip would be invaluable to his understanding that species are not immutable, but rather evolve over time through a process of natural selection. An essential element of Darwin’s growth from talented amateur to scientist was the research library on the Beagle. There were 404 books on board, mostly non-fiction (one exception Darwin is known to have read was a Spanish translation of a racy French novel by Antoine-Toussaint Desquiron de Saint-Agnan about the adultery trial of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of King George IV), almost all of them the property of the ship’s young captain Robert FitzRoy.

Diagram of poop cabin with Darwin's annotations labeling the bookcasesThe books were kept in cases in the poop cabin at the ship’s stern. Darwin was quartered in the poop cabin, which means for five years he lived in this library. Little wonder, then, that there are obscure notes in his journals that can only be explained by identifying the book referenced. However, the catalogue of the library was lost and the books themselves were dispersed when the Beagle returned home in 1836.

Now a team of researchers led by John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore, have compiled and digitized every last known title from the Beagle’s library.

Among the titles are all 20 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, seven volumes of the Natural History of Invertebrate Animals by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and James Cook’s three-volume account of a Pacific Ocean voyage in the 1770s. [...]

Reconstructing the library provides a more complete picture of Darwin’s world during the expedition. “Darwin literally lived in the library for five years,” said van Wyhe. “The science of his day was already quite sophisticated. All these geology books and all these books on fossils. Darwin could build on what was already known and what had come before.” [...]

The books onboard were identified through a number of methods including letters sent between crew members and their families, lines in Darwin’s notebooks and his surviving book collection. The final number of books digitised for the project is close to a number stated by Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle. In a letter to his sister during an earlier voyage on 16 March 1826, FitzRoy wrote, “I flatter myself I have a complete library in miniature, upwards of 400 volumes!”

Here is the complete Beagle library catalogued by subject, here catalogued by title. There are a total of 195,000 pages in the library with more than 5,000 illustrations.

Montevideo from the anchored Beagle, Conrad Martens, 1833If you’d like to see some of the sights Darwin saw during his voyage, you’ll enjoy another digitization project: Cambridge University’s scanning of the sketchbooks filled by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens. He documented the sights with lightning drawings, most of them quick pencil sketches with some watercolors, during his altogether too brief time on board the ship. He joined the Beagle crew in November of 1833 at Montevideo and left after they reached Valparaiso in August of 1834 due to budgetary constraints. Leaf through Sketchbook III here and Sketchbook I here. (Those are in date order, despite the counterintuitive numbering.)

 

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Citizen Kane to be screened at Hearst Castle

January 16th, 2015

Hearst CastleThere must be some weird spinning noises coming from the Hearst mausoleum at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California, because for the first time ever, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ greatest masterpiece and William Randolph Hearst’s noirest bête noir, will be screened at Hearst Castle. It will be shown in the castle’s private theater on March 13th as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The theater seats 50 people and tickets cost $1,000 a head, with all proceeds benefiting the film festival and The Friends of Hearst Castle, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the property and its contents. The screening at Hearst Castle will be introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and my second-favorite Turner Classic Movies host. (Robert Osborne 4ever!)

The ice was broken in 2012 when Stephen Thompson Hearst, William Randolph’s great-grandson and vice president of the Hearst Corporation’s Western Properties, allowed the first showing of the film at the visitors center two miles from the castle. This time it will be screened in the castle itself, the lavish residence that so loomingly features in Citizen Kane as Xanadu.

Susan Alexander and Charles Foster Kane at XanaduThe depiction of the opulent, art-crammed, oppressive castle didn’t please William Randolph Hearst, but that wasn’t the main reason he hated Citizen Kane so much. It was the character of Susan Alexander, Charles Foster Kane’s mistress and second wife, who offended Hearst the most. She was widely thought to have been based on Marion Davies, the silent film comedienne and Hearst’s mistress of more than 30 years. Her depiction as a talentless, bitter, lonely drunk imprisoned by her husband in the vast mausoleum of Xanadu was deeply insulting to Hearst, and since Marion was in fact a very popular hostess with tons of friends in the Hollywood community, it earned Citizen Kane an indelible reputation for churlishness before the first showing.

Welles’ insistence that Susan Alexander was actually modeled after an entirely different mistress of an entirely different tycoon made little impression, nor did his insistence that the character of Charles Foster Kane wasn’t modeled after Hearst. There were many points of similarity in the biographies of Kane and Hearst, and bits of several of Hearst’s speeches wound up in Kane’s speeches. Hearst’s avid acquisition of art, including entire rooms exported from grand European historical structures, as well as real estate was also mimicked by Kane.

Welles knew from the time he and former journalist Herman Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay that Hearst would be on him like white on rice over this story, but because he had an unprecedented carte blanche contract with film studio RKO that allowed him complete creative control and final cut, he figured he could just brazen his way through Hearst’s opposition. He was wrong. The movie wasn’t even finished when Hearst’s campaign began. He had gotten an early look at the screenplay, and when gossip columnist Hedda Hopper caught an early screening of the incomplete movie on January 3rd, 1941, she went straight to Hearst with the poop.

Newspaper headline from Citizen Kane mocking Susan Alexander as a "singer"Hearst turned his Great Lidless Eye onto Citizen Kane and stared it all the way down. He deployed his newspapers, read by one in five Americans, to expose Welles’ personal and political peccadilloes. Mankiewicz’s DUI arrest got column inches too (although not the part about his acquittal on all charges). Influential Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons dressed Welles down repeatedly, mocking him as a “would-be genius” and portraying him as a New York brat swanning around the movie colony with barely disguised contempt. And that was the relatively clean game. Hearst also played dirty, securing the terrified support of studios by threatening to publish all the scabrous stories about their stars he had killed at their request. He also threatened to turn the harsh glare of his papers on something studio heads were even more desperate to keep quiet: how many of them were Jews, and German Jews at that.

Led by Louis B. Mayer, the studio brass passed around the collection plate and offered RKO $800,000 to buy the negative so they could burn it. The movie’s financial backers had a private screening at Radio City Music Hall that all the movie industry big shots attended in the hope they could persuade the shelving of the film for the good of the “industry.” Orson Welles gave a rousing speech at the event, extolling the virtues of free speech in a world increasingly threatened by tyranny. It was enough to keep the negative out of the bonfire, but it wasn’t enough to beat Hearst.

Orson Welles' Best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane (sold at auction in 2011)Hearst’s next target was movie theaters. He told the theater chains that if they showed Citizen Kane, he would never allow them to advertise any other movies in one of his newspapers. That was brutally effective. Most theaters refused to show it. New York was the only place where it was widely seen, and it was showered with awards. At the 1942 Academy Awards, on the other hand, where Citizen Kane was nominated for nine awards, every time a nominee was mentioned there was booing in the audience. The movie did manage to win one Oscar for best screenplay, shared by Welles and Mankiewicz.

After all this mess, RKO put the film in the vault and left it there gathering dust for years. Citizen Kane came out of obscurity in 1956 when RKO sold its catalogue to television, the first studio to do so, and by the end of the decade it began its reign at the top of greatest movies of all time lists.

All this drama was water under the bridge, as far as Steve Hearst was concerned. He has seen the movie repeatedly, the first time in junior high, so he hadn’t inherited his great-grandfather’s sensitivity to the subject matter.

Hearst recalled that he first saw “Kane” at school as a seventh grader when he was 11 and was told by his parents that it wasn’t accurate depiction. He’s seen it five other times and believes that it gives the incorrect impression on two fronts — Davies being portrayed as talent-free (“That was a pretty sharp blade”) and Xanadu being a dark, forbidding locale (“It’s where I had fun in the summer, swimming in the Neptune pool”).

Yes I bet you did have fun swimming in the Neptune Pool.

A few years ago HBO made a movie, RKO 281, about the battle between Hearst and Welles over Citizen Kane. The actors are all top-notch (James Cromwell makes a remarkably sympathetic Hearst even with all his control freakery), but the story is fictionalized in key points. It’s only available on DVD, although you can watch a crappy pixellated version with Portuguese subtitles on YouTube.

For the non-fiction version, PBS’ always excellent American Experience dedicated an episode to The Battle Over Citizen Kane. It debuted years ago and it’s not available to watch online on the PBS website. It is on YouTube, but only split up into 12 10-minute videos. That’s a bit too much embedding even for me, so I’ll just get you hooked on the first dose.

 

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132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree

January 15th, 2015

Eva Jensen, Cultural Resource Program Manager at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada’s Snake mountain range, was exploring the park with the archaeology team looking for Native American artifacts on November 6th, 2014, when she spotted an object leaning against a Juniper tree. Upon closer examination, she saw that it was a rifle so cracked and weathered that it was perfectly camouflaged by the cracked and weathered tree behind it.

The grayed wood stock was embedded in the dirt, leaves and rocks at the base of the tree. Eva Jensen had to carefully dig away the debris in order to liberate the rifle. Once able to examine the whole thing, the team spied “Model 1873″ engraved on the iron gun body, the classic imprimatur of the Winchester ’73, “the gun that won the West.” Its characteristic crescent-shaped buttstock identified it as the lever-action repeating rifle form (Winchester also made carbine and musket forms of the Model 1873). The octagonal barrel is chambered for .44-40 cartridges, the original caliber that was manufactured from 1873 until production stopped on the model in 1916, but the rifle was found uncharged.

The team then wrapped the stock in non-adhesive orange flagging to keep it from falling apart. They then placed the rifle on a clean white cloth and in a gun case and transported it to the park’s museum storage. Jensen began researching the weapon starting with looking up the serial number on the lower tang. She turned to the Cody Firearms Museum‘s records office in Cody, Wyoming, which has original factory data for select Winchester serial numbers. The Great Basin Winchester’s serial number identifies it as having been manufactured and shipped from the Connecticut warehouse in 1882, but there was no further information, nothing about who ordered it or where it was shipped to.

So Jensen consulted newspapers of the day — the Ward Reflex and White Pine County Record — that chronicled the then-thriving mining industry in northern Nevada. She found tantalizing tidbits, including ads from dry goods stores selling Winchester rifles, even the name of a gunsmith in the area.

But there were no stories of any gun battle or outlaw search that might have put a history to the gun. She found a picture of a member of a prominent family holding a Winchester, but it was the wrong model.

Jensen and the cultural resource staff will continue to search periodicals and family archives in the likely vain attempt to pinpoint the history of this found rifle, one of the 720,610 the company manufactured during the model’s incredibly successful run. The year this Winchester 73 was made was particularly fruitful thanks to a price drop from $50 to $25 engendered by the decline in the iron and steel industries that ushered in a recession that would last three years; more than 25,000 Winchester Model 1873s were made in 1882.

The rifle will be on display Friday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM at the Great Basin Visitor Center classroom, and at the Old Sheepherders Gathering at the Border Inn in Baker on Saturday, January 17th, from 2:30 until 5:00 PM. These brief glimpses are all we’ll get for a while. The rifle’s wood needs to be stabilized and conserved for future display. They will not be restoring it, thankfully. The aim of conservation will be to keep it in the condition in which is was found because it’s cool. Once conservation is complete, it will go on display at the Great Basin National Park as part of the celebrations of its 30th anniversary and the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

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Museum acquires Anglo-Saxon St. Peter carving used as cat grave marker

January 14th, 2015


The Museum of Somerset in Taunton has acquired a medieval carving of Saint Peter that for years was used as a marker for a pet cat’s grave. The 18 by 17-inch stone is carved with the tonsured and clean-shaved saint with his head turned slightly to the right and two fingers of his right hand raised to his chest in benediction. A partial inscription on the top left — SC (S) (PE)TRVS — identifies the figure as Saint Peter.

The design is distinctly Anglo-Saxon, with a close parallel found in the figure of Peter the Deacon on the St. Cuthbert stole and maniple, a richly embroidered vestment made in Winchester between 906 and 916. It is a piece of a larger object, possibly a section of a shaft from a free-standing cross or larger relief panel that was later recycled as a building material. It’s made out of oolitic limestone, a stone that’s native to the south Somerset area where it was discovered. There are several religious institutions nearby that could have been the original source: Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Dowlish Wake, while Glastonbury Abbey is 25 miles away.

Knowing the exact location where it was found might answer some of the questions about its original configuration, but it was only recognized as a rare surviving pre-Conquest carving after the stonemason, Johnny Beeston, who first rediscovered it had died. Beeston brought it home and installed it in his garden rockery in Dowlish Wake where it marked the grave of the dearly departed Winkles, a stray cat he had adopted. The person who recognized it was potter and local historian Chris Brewchorne who had a pottery shop across the road. It caught his eye in 2004. By then Johnny had joined Winkles over the rainbow bridge and Mrs. Beeston was willing to sell the piece.

They offered it to the Museum of Somerset for what would turn out to be a bargain price, but the museum didn’t have the funding at the time and declined the offer. So instead it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December of 2004 to Milwaukee native, timber and oil heir, art collector and all-around eccentric Stanley J. Seeger for £201,600 ($386,628).

Seeger died in 2011. His extensive collection of art was sold at auction, Sotheby’s again, in March of 2014 and the Peter stone sold for a far more modest £68,500 ($114,532) the second time around. That lower price was good news for the museum who could now arrange to buy it for £150,000 thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (who chipped in the largest chunk at £78,600), Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Fairfield Trust, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and other donors.

The stone will go on public display in the Museum of Somerset, which occupies the great hall and inner ward of Taunton Castle, starting this Saturday, January 17th.

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4,000-year-old copper crown found in India

January 13th, 2015

This past August, kiln workers discovered human skeletal remains while digging for clay to make bricks in the village of Chandayan, Uttar Pradesh, northern India. The skeleton was wearing a crown, a copper strip with two copper leaves attached to it decorated with a tubular carnelian bead and a faience one. They also found a redware (terracotta) bowl with a collared rim, a miniature pot and a clay sling ball. The local residents were so excited by the discovery that they, along with the police, protected the site, stopping further clay digging.

Word of the find spread over the region, eventually catching the interest of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which dispatched an archaeological team to Chandayan. They excavated the burial site and found more of the skeleton — a pelvic bone, the left femur — as well as another piece of th crown, potsherds and 21 earthenware pots including storage jars and dish-on-stands. Most of them are plain redware, but there is a grey vessel and some lightly decorated pieces.

About 65 feet away from the burial at the same depth, the team discovered animal bones and more earthenware pots. Archaeologists believe the animal may have been sacrificed during the funerary rites for the crowned person. Another 150 feet from the burial they found evidence of an ancient home: a compacted earth floor, mud walls and postholes.

Carnelian, glazed faience, sling balls and collared pots are artifacts typical of the late Indus Valley (also known as Harappan after the type site discovered in the 1920s) civilization. In fact, work in carnelian and copper metallurgy were innovations introduced in the Indus Valley civilization. The late Indus Valley phase was from 1900 to 1600 B.C., and although burial sites from this period have been found in Uttar Pradesh, this is the first evidence of a habitation site. The crown is also a unique piece. A silver crown from the late Indus Valley period has been found before, but not a copper one.

The crown suggests that the skeleton belonged to someone of importance, perhaps the village chieftain or local leader of some kind. The crudeness of the pottery and the local flavor of the decoration (none of them decorated with the precision and elaborate geometries that make Indus Valley pottery so popular in museums) suggest he was a big fish in a small pond rather than a ruler of a large territory who would have had access to more expensive trade goods. The crown could have had another function or perhaps was merely decorative, so the deceased may have been someone with extravagant taste in jewelry rather than a dominant political figure.

Although with a range of 930,000 square miles it covered far more area than the other great Bronze Age civilizations (Egypt, Mesopotamia and China), the Indus script has yet to be deciphered so there’s still so much we don’t know about the Indus Valley civilization. The large urban centers that have been unearthed are impressive in their meticulous planning, water delivery and drainage systems, public baths, public buildings, residential areas distinct from administrative and/or religious compounds. More than a thousand towns from major cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro to small settlements have been found but only about a hundred of them have been excavated. The Chandayan settlement is the easternmost one found yet.

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42 mastodon bones found in Michigan backyard

January 12th, 2015

Contractor Daniel LaPoint Jr. was digging a poind with an excavator on his neighbor Eric Witzke’s property in Bellevue Township, southern Michigan, last November when he noticed a large bone jutting out of the pile of displaced soil. He pulled it out of the pile and saw it was a curved bone four feet long. Over the next four days, LaPoint and Witzke dug up the yard and unearthed 41 more large bones which at the time they assumed were dinosaur bones due to their impressive dimensions.

They enlisted the aid of Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, who examined the bones and determined they were from a mastodon, not a dinosaur, and are between 10,000 and 14,000 years old.

LaPoint and Witzke’s collection includes several rib bones, leg, shoulder and hip bones, the base of a tusk and pieces of the animal’s vertebrae.

Fisher has spent several hours looking through what they found and believes the mastodon was a 37-year-old male.

“Preliminary examination indicates that the animal may have been butchered by humans,” said Fisher. Bones show what look like tool marks, in places.

Only 330 confirmed mastodon bones have been found in Michigan, so the discovery of 42 in one place is exceptional. Fisher believes there may be more bones to be found in Witzke’s yard, but the wet earth was already difficult to excavate in November. It’s probably close to impenetrable in full winter.

The finders could make a few thousand dollars off the bones if they sold them, but they are awesome people so they’ve decided to keep a few bones as mementos and donate the rest to the museum. The bones will go to the museum at the end of the month. Once they’re there, researchers will radiocarbon date them to narrow down the date range to within a few hundred years.

In further evidence of LaPoint and Witzke’s awesomeness, the pair took the bones to the local middle school so the kids could get the hands-on experience before they disappear into the museum’s stores.

“Once these things go to the museum and get crated up, you’re not going to get to touch them again. It’s over with and I was that kid who wanted to touch that thing on the other side of the glass,” said LaPoint. “All the kids got to pick them up and hold them. Some kids, it was life-changing for them. To change one kid’s life because they got to touch it, I think, is an incredible opportunity.”

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Canada museum buys world’s oldest hockey stick

January 11th, 2015


The Canadian Museum of History has acquired the oldest known hockey stick for $300,000. The seller was social worker Mark Presley who saw it mounted on the wall of a barbershop and bought it from barber George Ferneyhough in 2008 for $1,000. Fascinated by the small, clearly old hockey stick, Presley traced its ownership history and had it tested extensively to determine its age. (You can read the documentation of his research here.) He discovered that the stick was hand-carved out of a single piece of (what else?) sugar maple between 1835 and 1838 in North Sydney along the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The original owners were the Moffatt family, scions of Loyalist shipbuilder Captain James Moffatt, born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1737, who was one of the first settlers of Upper North Sydney’s Pottle Lake area.

It was a Moffatt, Charlie Moffatt, who had given George Ferneyhough the stick thirty years earlier. Presley tracked Charlie Moffatt down. Then 92 years old, Moffatt told Presley that while he never used it himself, he remembered the old handmade stick hanging on the porch of the family’s homestead on Pottle Lake until the farm with its two acres of waterfront property was expropriated by the government in the 1960s when the lake watershed became the protected potable water source for surrounding municipalities. Charlie’s father Warren told him he and his father Thomas had used the stick to play on Pottle Lake when they were young, and Thomas was born in 1837, so Presley realized this stick could well be very old indeed.

Initials “WM” carved into the blade of the stick when it was still new before any of the many layers of paint were applied indicate that the first owner was William “Dilly” Moffatt, Thomas Moffatt’s brother and Charlie’s great-uncle. Thomas and Dilly’s father John Mumford Moffatt probably carved the stick for his sons, and he did an outstanding job of it, starting with the lumber selection. Experts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, studied the wood and found the direction of the pith indicates it was taken from a small tree growing outward and upward from a cliff or creek bank. This growth pattern gave the tree’s lumber a natural J-shaped curve. That made the stick easy and fast to carve and extremely strong since the blade was part of the natural sweep of the wood.

The Mount Allison researchers were also able to date the stick by its tree rings. No other antique hockey stick has been able to be dendrochronologically dated because you need a certain number of rings to establish a pattern that can be matched with a previously known chronology and hockey sticks don’t generally have usable ring groups. The experts determined the minimum number of rings they would need was 30. The butt of the Moffatt stick turned out to have 43 rings, a remarkable number for the small diameter of a hockey stick. Matched against a sugar maple chronology established from Pottle Lake trees and adjusted for additional rings and knots, the date the wood was cut determined to be between 1835 and 1838. The paint evidence supported that conclusion, with the first of the five layers being a natural “red earth” pigment based on iron oxides ground up with charcoal that was in common use in Cape Breton between 1800 and 1850.

That makes the Moffatt stick a good 20 years older than any other hockey stick known to survive. The stick previously thought to be the oldest was made between 1852 and 1856 by Glasgow-born Alexander Rutherford who carved it out of hickory at his farm outside Lindsay, Ontario. His son, Alexander Rutherford Jr., played with it before handing it down to his own son Melville Rutherford. Melville gave to his nine-year-old grand-nephew Gord Sharpe who kept it for three decades before putting it on display at Wayne Gretsky’s Toronto restaurant for a few years and then auctioning it off on eBay in 2006. It sold for $2.2 million Canadian. Sharpe gave the profits to a charity he founded and the buyer put the Rutherford stick on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Given that enticing precedent and needing money to fund his return to college, Mark Presley chose to follow in Sharpe’s footsteps and put the Moffatt stick up for sale on eBay in March of 2014. Excitement was rife with talk of millions of dollars (Mr. Ferneyhough was pretty disgruntled at the prospect) but the highest bid was $118,000 Canadian which failed to meet the reserve.

The Canadian Museum of History, provisioned with moneys from the donor-supported National Collection Fund, was able to make a deal with Presley to secure the world’s oldest known hockey stick for the nation, and boy are they happy about it.

“Hockey is Canada’s game — we developed it and we cherish it like no other country in the world,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History. “The Moffatt stick is a unique and powerful link to the sport’s earliest days in this country, and is an example of the national treasures Canadians will see in their new national museum of history.”

“Our Government is proud that the Canadian Museum of History has acquired this important part of our history,” said the Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. “Through its acquisitions, the Canadian Museum of History provides Canadians with greater access to our rich and diverse history. As we approach Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, this is an opportunity for all of us to appreciate our great heritage.”

The Moffatt stick will go on display in the museum’s new Canadian History Hall on the 150th anniversary, Canada Day (July 1st) of 2017.

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