Medieval silver coin hoard found in Cheshire

March 13th, 2017

A medieval coin hoard was discovered January, 28th 2016, by metal detectorist Malcolm Shepherd in a field in the Beeston parish of Cheshire. He reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Finds Liaison Officer Carl Savage examined the find and estimated based on the dates and types of coins that the hoard was deposited around 1498-1504.

The hoard is composed of a select group of 26 coins: 9 silver groats of Edward IV, 14 silver groats of Henry VII, one Edward IV penny, one Edward II farthing and one double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Silver groats were made of .925 fine silver, meaning they had a silver content of 92.5%, the sterling standard. This was a comparatively large denomination at the time of deposition. The owner deliberately picked silver-rich groats for hoarding, eschewing the smaller denominations that were in wide circulation.

One of the Edward IV groats, minted in 1480-83, held additional meaning to someone beyond its value as currency. It is perforated to the right of the crown at 2 o’clock on the coin face. That indicates the coin was worn as a pendant, as jewelry or maybe a good luck charm.

One penny and one farthing snuck in past the 24 higher denomination coins, and the Edward II farthing was worth collecting anyway because it was at least 190 years old when the hoard was buried. Those farthings turn up in hoards deposited as late as the early 1500s and are known to have remained in use in England until 1544 when all the silver coinage was taken out of circulation as part of King Henry VIII’s Great Debasement of the currency. Henry’s new debased coins were only 25% silver, meager indeed compared to the old groats.

One side-effect of the Great Debasement was that British coins were no longer accepted as currency in other countries because their precious metal content was so low. This had once been established policy, as evidenced by the double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the hoard. Edward IV and Charles the Bold signed a monetary alliance in 1469 which allowed English groats to circulate in the Burgundian Netherlands and Burgundian double patards (.878 silver content) to circulate in England. Double patards crop up fairly often in late Medieval English hoards, and three individual ones found in Cheshire are recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. They disappear from the English archaeological record after the 1530s, victims of the Great Debasement.

Last month, a coroner’s inquest determined that the Beeston Hoard qualified as treasure. Coins more than 300 years old with more than 10% precious metal content are classed as treasure, so assistant coroner Dr. Janet Napier’s decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. As usual, per the terms of the Treasure Act, the next step is to assess the value of the coins which will be a kind of finder’s fee split between the finder and the landowner, to be raised by whichever institution wishes to acquire the hoard.

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Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

March 12th, 2017

Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renown cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st, (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet, his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

I CAN’T BE ANY MORE EXCITED THAN THIS ALREADY, GETTY PEOPLE!

Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like superstars you are. (Get pictures!)

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Colossal statue, maybe of Ramesses II, found in Cairo

March 11th, 2017

A team of Egyptian and German archaeologists have discovered the head and bust of a colossal statue, possibly of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, in a soggy pit in Matariya, a working class neighborhood of northeastern Cairo. The quartzite statue is 26 feet high. The lower part of the head, the crown, the right ear and a part of the right eye have been recovered. There is no cartouche identifying the pharaoh, nor any other inscription on the pieces of the statue that have been found, so archaeologists cannot be certain it was meant to represent Ramesses II. His temple was close to the find site, however, and he did love to make gigantic versions of himself, so he’s the leading candidate.

Matariya’s mud roads and hastily erected buildings are perched above what was once the ancient city of Heliopolis. A center of religious devotion since the predynastic period, Heliopolis was deemed the home of the sun-god Atum, later Ra, and many successive pharaohs built or added onto temples there. The 18th dynasty king Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.) built a temple that was the original home of two of the most famous obelisks in the world: the so-called Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, New York, and another so-called Cleopatra’s Needle in London. Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten (r. 1353–1336 B.C.) had a temple built to his monotheistic iteration of the solar god, Aten. The solar temple built by Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 B.C.) was so massive it was twice the size of the temple of Karnak.

The German-Egyptian team have been excavating the Matariya site since 2012. It’s a race against time to stay ahead of construction, especially since a lot of isn’t legal so they aren’t troubled with zoning and proper permits. The site is also contaminated with industrial waste, rubbish and ever-growing piles of improperly disposed construction rubble. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the ancient remains of Heliopolis are below groundwater level. Moving large objects like architectural features and colossal statuary, or even life-sized statuary, for that matter, out of the water to high and dry ground is challenging, hence the use of the bulldozer to fish out the head of the colossus.

“We used the bulldozer to lift it out. We took some precautions, although somewhat primitive, but the part that we retrieved was not harmed,” said Khaled Mohamed Abuelela, manager of antiquities at Ain Shams University.

Egyptologist Khaled Nabil Osman said the statue was an “impressive find” and the area in the working class neighborhood of Matariya in eastern Cairo is likely full of other buried antiquities.

The top section of a life-sized limestone statue of Pharaoh Seti II, grandson of Ramesses II, 2’7″ long was also found at the Matariya site. Archaeologists hope to find more fragments of both statues as excavations continue. Conservators will work to piece them back together. If restoration is possible and more evidence is discovered identifying the colossal statue as Ramesses II, the huge sculpture will be moved to the entrance of the new Grand Egyptian Museum which is projected to open sometime next year.

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Blenheim Palace flowerpot is a Roman sarcophagus

March 10th, 2017

A 1,700-year-old Roman sarcophagus has been discovered on the grounds of Blenheim Palace where it was being used as a flowerpot. An antiques expert who was visiting the estate on other business spotted the beautifully carved bas-relief on a planter filled with soil and tulips and bolted to a lead cistern. He recognized the carving as a Dionysian scene likely of ancient Roman origin and remembered a previous sale of a garden planter that turned out to be a Roman sarcophagus, because it seems estate appraisers in England glean sarcophagi in the hedgerows

He brought it to the attention of palace staff who determined it was the front of a white marble sarcophagus carved around 300 A.D. The quality of the carving is extremely high. An inebriated Dionysus is supported by a satyr and surrounded by his drunken followers, including the demigod Hercules and Ariadne, who saved Theseus from the Labyrinth and Minotaur only to be abandoned by him after a night of revelry with Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Close to the edges of the scene are two large lion heads facing outward.

While there are no records in the Blenheim archives to pinpoint when the artifact entered the palace collection, experts believe it was acquired in the 19th century by George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough and great-great grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill. The duke was an avid collector of art and antiquities, much of which would eventually be sold to pay off his many, many creditors. Installed as a basin to collect water from a natural spring near the estate’s Great Lake, the sarcophagus managed to survive the great sell-off. In the early 20th century it was moved to a rock garden. That’s where it stayed for a century until its recent rescue from tulipmania.

It’s the Grand Tour that started all this in the 18th century. When the sons of wealthy families returned from their post-university voyages through France, Italy and the other history-rich countries of continental Europe, they were laden with art and antiquities they’d collected along the way. Sarcophagi were a popular choice, the larger and more elaborately carved the better. Their shapes made them convenient receptacles and using an ancient sarcophagus as a garden planter became fashionable in upper class households. By the second half of the 19th century, replicas of classical-style urns and sarcophagi were found in gardens all over Britain. To this day antique forms remain popular planters.

The Blenheim Palace planter is 6’6″ long, but the front panel with the relief is the only part remaining of the original Roman sarcophagus. The base, sides and back are missing, replaced with stone stand-ins that allowed the carved fragment to be seen in a facsimile of its original context. Just by itself, the fragment is six feet long, 2.5 feet high, six inches thick and weighs 550 pounds.

The palace called Nicholas Banfield of Cliveden Conservation to remove the ancient piece and transport it to their lab for cleaning and conservation. They cut the bolts connecting the planter to the cistern, liberating it from its prison. The marble surface was cleaned with nothing but water and soft wooden picks to chip away at the calcified crust left by more than a century of use as a water feature. The restoration took six months and now the sarcophagus fragment has gone on display inside the palace.

“We are delighted to have it back and the restoration work undertaken by Nicholas is very impressive. Now it is in a consistent indoor climate away from the natural elements we are hoping it will remain in good condition and survive for many more centuries to come,” said Kate Ballenger, House Manager at Blenheim Palace.

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66 statues of Sekhmet found in Luxor temple

March 9th, 2017

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed 66 statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet in Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s funerary temple complex in Luxor.

The discoveries were made during excavations by the German mission in the area between the courtyard and the hall of columns in the temple. The excavation was originally made to search for the remains of the wall separating the two sites.

Some of the discovered statues represent goddess Sekhmet in a seated position, others depict her while standing and holding in her hand the symbol of life and a scepter of the papyrus flower, said mission head Professor Horig Suruzaan.

She pointed out that all the discovered statues are made of Diorite rock.

Built on the west bank of the Nile in ancient Thebes, the funerary temple of Amenhotep III has been brutally ravaged by forces natural and human. Amenhotep III (1386-1349 B.C.) was an ambitious builder and his hometown of Thebes was the recipient of his most ambitious project: a temple complex so massive, it would dwarf the great temples of Karnak and Luxor on the east bank of the Nile. From front to back, it was seven football fields long and covered 350,000 square meters (3,767,000 square feet). For reference, Vatican City is 441,107 square meters.

All that remains above ground of the great halls, colonnades, courtyards filled with hundreds of statues are the Colossi of Memnon, the two colossal statues of Amenhotep III that flanked the entrance to the temple. An earthquake a century after it was built was the first to inflict major damage. More earthquakes, big ones in the 8th century B.C. and 27 B.C., and Nile floods did worse. Once the blocks started tumbling down, the looting of building materials followed. For centuries subsequent pharaohs treated the crumbling temple like a quarry. “The House of Millions of Years,” as the temple was known in Amenhotep’s time, was little but sugar cane fields and sand 3,400 years later.

Armenian archaeologist Hourig Sourouzian has working to conserve and explore the site since 1998, leading increasingly complex and well-funded excavations of an area that was long believed to be of limited archaeological interest. She suspected there was more of the great temple to be found underground, and boy was she right. The site is incredibly rich in archaeological material underneath a thin surface of desert and sugar cane. Impressive finds like dozens of statues of deities, sacred animals carved in alabaster, the pharaoh and his wife Queen Tiye, a beautifully carved colossal head and a 42 foot-tall colossus of Amenhotep III.

Statues of Sekhmet, fierce goddess of war and healing, are by far the most numerous. So many have been found (about 150 by my count, including the 66 just announced) that archaeologists think that Amenhotep III may have erected them as offerings to invoke the goddess’ healing powers towards the end of life when he was ill, possibly with arthritis. The team also discovered another statue, a finely carved and polished black granite statue of Amenhotep III as a young man.

All of the statues are of great artistic and historical value and will be conserved as part of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project which aims to rebuild some of the temple’s structures and statuary above ground to convey in some small measure the lost grandeur of a temple that, even in utter ruin, still drew crowds of tourists as late as the Roman era.

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Only surviving view of Renaissance Lisbon street identified

March 8th, 2017

Most of Lisbon was at church when the earthquake hit. It was November 1st, 1755, All Saints’ Day, and the devout were at mass. The first shock struck at 9:40 AM with an estimated magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale. It lasted no more than six minutes, according to eye-witness accounts, but wreaked immense havoc in that time. Fissures as much as 15 feet long opened on the city streets. Almost all of the stone churches, particularly vulnerable as the tallest structures in the city, collapsed, killing the worshippers within. Aftershocks and 10:00 AM and noon compounded the destruction.

Then came the fire. The candles in the churches and chapels are believed to have started dozens of small fires all over the city. The three massive tsunamis that struck the city in short succession after the quake only added to the devastation. They didn’t even have the decency to help put out the fires. Fed by the destruction of the quake and the impossibility of dousing the flames, the conflagration spread throughout Lisbon, burning for five days. By the time it was all over, 85% of Lisbon was in ruins, tens of thousands were dead and millions of pounds in trade goods were lost.

The city was rebuilt with notable efficiency, but its medieval downtown was irretrievably lost, including its main commercial thoroughfare, the Rua Nova dos Mercadores. There was little surviving evidence of what Lisbon had been. Paintings of the city were typically distant panoramic views, not the details of individual streets.

One very salient exception survived and was rediscovered in 2009 (pdf) by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate Lowe hanging on the walls of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Kelmscott was briefly home to both William Morris, of Arts and Crafts Movement fame, and the pre-Raphaelite painter and collector Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris and Rossetti leased the country estate for a time, and the latter lived there for a few months in 1871 and then off and on for two years (1872-1874). He left abruptly after a falling out with Morris, leaving much of his treasured art collection behind in his haste.

An avid collector of Old Masters when they could still be had for a song, Rossetti trawled the print shops, art and antiques shops of London for bargains. On April 3rd, 1866, he wrote to watercolorist George Price Boyce that he’d made an offer on a wonderful piece and hoped Boyce would stop by the shop to give it a look.

It is a large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez — not by the great V. himself. I must needs feel pretty
sure, though it is so fine it almost might be but in abundance of interest as to subject & in grandeur of landscape, nothing could
well be more delightful.

His bid was accepted. In a letter to Edward Burne-Jones a couple of months later, Rossetti was considerably less circumspect about the authorship of his new treasure, calling it “the undoubted and stupendous Velasquez.” He was wrong both times. The painting was neither by Velasquez nor by his school. He did get the peninsula right, at least.

Rossetti is known to have altered his Old Master paintings, overpainting them, “restoring” them, cropping them so they’d fit in his rooms which were crammed to the gills with paintings already. He took a drastic approach to the not-Velasquez. Some time between the purchase in 1866 and his departure from Kelmscott eight years later, Rossetti cut the wide panorama in two and framed them to hang as companion pieces. Yup, another one for the “because people are crazy” file. I mean, he’s so enthralled with the “120 figures” depicted in the piece but then he chops it in half? Nuts.

The view of Lisbon captured in the painting gives it international significance. The Rua Nova dos Mercadores was Lisbon’s largest road and the commercial center of the city. There are records of it going back to the 13th century. By the 16th century, Portugal was the capital of a global empire and the Rua Nova dos Mercadores offered every kind of luxury import — cotton textiles from India, silks from the Far East, Ming porcelain, exotic medicines (rhino horn, bezoar stones) — in a dozens of shops. Records from 1552 count 20 textile shops, 11 bookstores, six porcelain shops and nine drug stores occupying the ground floors of the 90 or so buildings lining the street.

The architecture of the street — the iron railing, the portico with 149 columns, the tall narrow houses with flat roofs at each end and peaked roofs in the middle — was one of the key pieces of information that allowed Gschwend and Lowe to identify it as Lisbon’s Rua Nova dos Mercadores.

Here’s a virtual recreation of the street as it was before the earthquake.

There was a lot more business going on that just road traffic retail. The iron fence in the midground of the painting was a sort of velvet rope. Within its protective confines, merchants, bankers and assorted salesmen made deals and talked shop without having to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. The painting depicts these wealthy traders and money men dressed in black cloaks and hats, a look known as the Spanish style, mingling behind the iron fence, while in front and to the side street vendors, children, farmers, labourers, performers, assorted foreign types and slaves hustle and bustle.

The high proportion of Africans in the picture was another of the key features that identified it as a depiction of pre-earthquake Lisbon. Lisbon was unique for a European city of its time for its large number of black people, mostly slaves, imported from Portuguese bases in western Africa. For more than a hundred years, Portugal dominated the slave trade and transported thousands of them to Lisbon itself. By 1551, an estimated 10% of the population of 100,000 was black. In 1578, about 20% of the 250,000 Lisbonites were black.

It’s not just the multicultural population in the picture that underscores Portugal’s imperial reach. Even the animals attest to it. In the second half of the painting, you can see a dog mauling a bird in the bottom left corner. Look closely at that bird. It’s a turkey, a New World bird that Portugal introduced not just to its capital, but to India, Africa and the Far East as well.

The global empire captured in the details of Rua Nova dos Mercadores will be the focus of a new exhibition at Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The Global City: Lisbon in the Renaissance aims to recreate some of the Lisbon obliterated in the earthquake. The Rua Nova paintings will be displayed in Lisbon for the first time (that we know of), and will be accompanied by precious objects and artworks from all over the empire, like an intricately carved snake-themed ivory salt cellar base from Sierra Leone and a Processional Cross once owned by Catherine of Braganca made out of a narwhal tusk and containing the relics of Saint Thomas Becket. All told, the museum has assembled an unprecedented group of 249 pieces from 77 lenders from private collectors to public institutions.

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The last days of the Romanovs

March 7th, 2017

Marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year, The Hague Museum of Photography is hosting an exhibition of pictures capturing the last days of the Romanov family before their execution by Bolshevik soldiers. The photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard, a tutor to the Romanov children and an intimate friend of the family.

Pierre Gilliard was born in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1879. He became a teacher and, Swiss tutors being all the rage in aristocratic circles, in fall of 1904 accepted a position as French tutor to Duke Sergei, the son of Duke George of Leuchtenberg who was Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin. The family spent their summers at the Duke’s datcha at Peterhof on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great built the Grand Palace of Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, while working on the construction of St. Petersburg, but he preferred his little maisonette of Monplaisir to the grandeur of the big house. Tsar Nicholas II avoided the giant formal palace too, spending the summers with his beloved family in the charmingly oxymoronic Cottage Palace.

Tsarina Alexandra and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were close friends and during the summer of 1905 the two families socialized often. That’s when Gilliard first met the imperial family. In September of 1905, Gilliard picked up two new pupils: the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Nicholas and Alexandra’s eldest daughters, then 10 and eight years old respectively. In his memoirs he described them and their mother as polite and considerate and his pupils clever, albeit very much behind where he thought they should be in their command of French.

The third daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Maria joined her sisters’ lessons in 1907, and Grand Duchess Anastasia followed in 1909. Gilliard continued to tutor Duke Sergei until 1909, after which he focused on his imperial students. He taught the girls in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo five times a week as long as they were in residence, and when the Grand Duchesses failed to make as much progress as Gilliard, the Tsar and Tsarina had hoped, he joined the family during their months-long summer sojourns at Livadia Palace in the Crimea.

It is a testament to how trusted a member of the royal household Gilliard had become that he was given the responsibility of tutoring the Tsarevitch Alexei. The heir to the Russian Empire was a very sick little boy, afflicted terribly by the hemophilia that Queen Victoria’s genes had spread throughout the royal families of Europe. (Alexandra’s mother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s favorite daughter.) His illness was a state secret and hidden from everyone. Gilliard was one of a very small inner circle who knew how sick he was and from what.

So close was he to the Tsar’s family that he chose to join them in exile after the February Revolution and Nicholas’ abdication in August of 1917. The family and a select group of the most loyal family and retainers were first confined to Tsarskoye Selo for five months and then sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in the Governor’s Mansion. It was no Grand Palace, but it was downright luxurious compared to what was to come. When the White Army got too close to Tobolsk in April of 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to Yekaterinburg. They were imprisoned in Ipatiev House, the home of local industrialist, and were subjected to a million petty indignities by their Bolshevik guards.

Gilliard went with them as far as he could. He made it to the train platform at Yekaterinburg, but then, for some unfathomable reason, the Bolsheviks refused to let him out of the train and told him he was free to go. He didn’t go. He remained in the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the imperial family, a glimpse he never got. The Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses were shot and bayoneted to death on July 17th, 1918.

In Gilliard’s memoirs, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, he wrote movingly about what a loving, close family they were, all the more so under the extreme duress of their last days. He describes entering Ipatiev House on July 25th after the fall of Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik announcement that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, had been executed while the rest of the family was in a “safe location.”

I went down to the bottom floor, the greater part of which was below the level of the ground. It was with intense emotion that I entered the room in which perhaps – I was still in doubt – they had met their death. Its appearance was sinister beyond expression. The only light filtered through a barred window at the height of a man’s head. The walls and flour showed numerous traces of bullets and bayonet scars. The first glance showed that an odious crime had been perpetrated there and that several people had been done to death. But who? How?

I became convinced that the Tsar had perished and, granting that, I could not believe that the Tsarina had survived him. At Tobolsk, when Commissary Yakovlev had come to take away the Tsar, I had seen her throw herself in where the danger seemed to her greatest. I had seen her, brokenhearted after hours of mental torture, torn desperately between her feelings as a wife and a mother, abandon her sick boy to follow the husband whose life seemed in danger. Yes, it was possible they might have died together, the victims of these brutes. But the children? They too massacred? I could not believe it. My whole being revolted at the idea. And yet everything proved that there had been many victims.

The Soviets continued to deny having slaughtered the imperial family until 1922. Gilliard stayed in Siberia for three years, helping magistrate Nicholas Sokolov investigate the murders. He married Alexandra Alexandrovna Tagleva, Grand Duchess Anastasia’s former nanny and one of the loyal few who went into exile with the Romanovs in 1919. They returned to Switzerland in 1922 where Gilliard returned to his study, becoming a professor of French at the University of Lausanne in 1926. He and his wife both interviewed Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and concluded she was a fraud. Gilliard wrote a book debunking her claims, but there was so much mystique around the alleged Anastasia that plenty of people bought her ludicrous story until DNA evidence proved once and for all that she was a mentally ill Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. He also debunked the first of many Alexei impostors.

An avid amateur photographer, Gilliard took many pictures of the family at leisure — Alexei playing with his dog Joy, the Grand Duchesses putting on a Moliere play, the Tsar shoveling snow — and on official occasions. The original negatives are now in the collection of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. For the new exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography, more than 70 enlarged gelatin silver prints have been made from those original negatives. I hope they digitize them all because there are a lot of sad, grainy, copies-of-copies of Gilliard’s pictures out there. It would be wonderful to be able to see the last happy days of the Romanovs in high resolution. The exhibition runs through June 11th of the this year.

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The Colosseum after antiquity

March 6th, 2017

The Colosseum is the most visited monument in the world today. The great amphitheater built in Rome during the reigns of the Flavian dynasty emperors Vespasian and Titus (72-80 A.D.) is an icon of ancient Roman engineering and bloodlust, but it has outlived the empire that created it by 1,500 years. The Colosseum saw many changes in its long post-antiquity lifespan, its architecture altered by activity both human and seismic, dedicated to a wide variety of uses from cemetery to shopping mall to fortress. That rich later history is overshadowed by its ancient resume, and the millions of tourists who flock to the Colosseum every year hear a lot more about the gladiatorial combat of the 1st century than about the butchers’ stalls of the 11th.

A new exhibition seeks to correct that oversight. Colosseum. An Icon is the first exhibition to tell the full story of the Flavian Amphitheater, from the gladiators to the butchers and beyond. It covers the numerous attempts at repair and restoration, how the space was repurposed over the centuries, the construction of brick buttresses in the 19th century to keep the outer walls from collapse, how it became a favorite subject of artists from the Renaissance through the Grand Tour era, launching it as the iconic representation of the city of Rome and ancient Roman grandeur. That image spread even wider when moneyed travelers brought back fine marble miniatures and micromosaics of the Colosseum as souvenirs in the 19th century.

The exhibition also illustrates the profound shift in attitude towards the amphitheater from Christians in general and the Papacy in particular. The last recorded games were held in 523 A.D., an animal hunt celebrating the consulship of Anicius Maximus, and already then the Colosseum was very much reduced. The top gallery had collapsed, entrances were impassable, the hypogeum flooded. Neglect, earthquakes and the failure of the unmaintained drainage system took an enormous toll on the building. Travel writers in the Middle Ages thought it was some sort of pagan temple and associated it with nefarious demonic goings-on.

That demon-haunted reputation clung to the Colosseum well into the Renaissance. Renown goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a raucously occult experience at the amphitheater in the 1530s which he recounts in his memoirs.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odour. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils.

As late as 1594, the Popes were still renting the Colosseum out to glue makers and contemplating converting the whole structure into a factory with residences for the workers in the top galleries. That changed in the Jubilee year of 1675, when Pope Clement X declared the Colosseum a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians said to have been condemned to death in the arena. (There is little evidence that Christians were martyred at the Colosseum, btw, and the stories of martyrdom in the amphitheater only began circulating in the Renaissance.) Clement had ambitious plans to dedicate a church to the martyrs inside the Colosseum, asking the great polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini to design it. It was too expensive, though, so Clement just had a cross installed in the arena instead.

The idea didn’t die with him. Twenty years later, architect Carlo Fontana was enlisted to design a prospective Church of the Holy Martyrs inside the Colosseum. Again, the church never happened, but he studied the amphitheater in great detail for this project and wrote a book about its architecture, ancient history, current condition and the proposed church that was published posthumously in 1725. (Random History Blog connection: Fontana’s original architectural drawing of the church in the Colosseum is in the collection of the wonderful Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.) The architectural model and several of Fontana’s drawings are on display in the new exhibition.

The major restoration of the Colosseum, which is still ongoing, discovered many objects and remains from its later life which are will be part of the exhibition. An abundance of butchered animal bones and cooking utensils were found, a testament to the butchers, eateries and private residences which rented space in the ground-level vaults through the 12th century. Of course they unearthed ancient sculptures and architectural details galore. They will join one of only two surviving statues of the 160 that adorned the arches of the second and third-floor arcades when the Colosseum was first built.

The restoration also discovered traces of the Colosseum’s life as a fortress for the powerful Roman noble Frangipani family. Restorers found holes bored into travertine blocks on the top tier of the southern wall. The holes held beams that supported a wooden walkway used by Frangipani soldiers as a lookout station. The find was announced Monday at the press conference about the new exhibition.

Colosseum. An Icon opens Wednesday, March 8th and runs almost a full year until January 7th, 2018. It’s at the Colosseum, in case that wasn’t clear.

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Unique Lodz Ghetto photos at the MFA, Boston

March 5th, 2017

The Lodz Ghetto was the second largest (after the Warsaw Ghetto) of more than 1,000 ghettos created to corral Jews in cities as the first step in the “cleansing,” ie, extermination, of European Jewry. Conditions were appalling by design, so that the overcrowding, disease and starvation would do the Nazi’s murderous work for them. Starting in 1942, ghetto residents were regularly deported to concentration camps. Chelmo, the first extermination camp with a gassing system (trucks, not chambers), opened in December of 1941 just 30 miles from Lodz; its first victims came from the Lodz Ghetto, 70,000 of them in 1942 alone.

Because the Lodz Ghetto was uniquely productive — its factories produced uniforms and other materials for the war effort — it lasted longer than any other World War II ghetto, from 1940 until 1944. In August of 1944 it too was liquidated; everyone was rounded up and sent to their deaths, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, more than 200,000 Jews had passed through the Lodz Ghetto on, their way to almost certain death at Chelmno and Auschwitz. When the Red Army liberated Lodz on January 19th, 1945, only 877 survivors, 12 of them children, emerged from their hiding places in the ghetto. Out of the 223,000 Jews who lived in Lodz before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, just 10,000 survived the war.

One of those survivors was Henryk Ross, a Polish Jew who before the war had been a journalist and sports photographer. He was employed as an official photographer for the Jewish Council, aka the Judenrat, ostensibly a self-governing body which administered the day-to-day operations of the ghetto and enforced Nazi orders. Working for the council’s the Department of Statistics, Ross’ job was to take pictures of the ghetto factories, demonstrating their productivity, and of the registered workers for their identification cards.

Ross and the other Department of Statistics photographer, Mendel Grossman, secretly took unauthorized photographs of the horrors all around them. Ross captured the deportations, destruction and deprivations — barefoot workers pushing carts of human excrement out of the ghetto (there was no plumbing or sewage), public executions, children torn from their parents during the Sperre, the September 1942 mass deportation of almost all of the children under 10 to Chelmo where they would be murdered. He also captured small moments of daily life, even happy ones, amidst the nightmare, like young lovers kissing behind a shrub and a children’s birthday party. The variety and range of Ross pictures underscored the class divisions that persisted even in so extreme a context. His photos show the contrasts of ghetto life — the workers, the destitute, the well-fed and well-dressed elite.

In the summer of 1944 when it became clear the Nazis were winding down operations in the ghetto and preparing for the final slaughter, Henryk Ross saw the writing on the wall. Not expecting to survive, he buried 6,000 negatives. His wife and a few select friends helped him, so they knew where Ross’ photographic treasure trove was hidden should he die. As it happened, Ross was not deported to the extermination camps. He was one of the 800 Jews ordered to clean the ghetto. Of course they Nazis were going to kill them all once the clean-up was done — they had eight mass graves dug already — but the Soviets arrived before they could get to it.

After the liberation of Lodz, Ross dug his negatives back up and found that more than half of them had survived. He later said of his fateful decision: “Just before the closure of the ghetto I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

He certainly got his wish — his pictures were used as evidence in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann — but he left a broader historical record than that, documenting the realities of life and death in the ghetto.

Ross’ collection of photographs and film was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2007. The AGO has collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) to organize an exhibition of Henryk Ross’ Lodz Ghetto photographs, plus film of the Eichmann trial and Lodz artifacts like identification cards from the ghetto, notices and announcements. Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross debuted at the AGO last year. It will open at the MFA on March 25th and runs through July 30th, 2017.

The AGO has created an exceptional website with more than 4000 images from the Henryk Ross collection. You can search by keyword and create an online collection of your own for the price of a free registration.

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Skeletons of early colonists found under Florida mall

March 4th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed human remains under a Florida mall that may be some of the earliest colonists in what would become the United States. The excavation began this February after David White, owner of the Fiesta Mall in downtown St. Augustine, offered city archaeologist Carl Halbirt a chance to dig under a recently closed wine shop whose floor had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew last fall. They quickly found a human bone, a right elbow, and further excavation found that it belonged to an articulated and complete skeleton. A second skull was found near the skull of the intact skeleton. Meanwhile, digging just outside the building unearthed a leg and a skull from two different individuals.

Carl Halbirt believes they were buried inside the Church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, the earliest documented parish church in the United States. The 2010 excavation of a parking lot a block west of the Fiesta Mall discovered a builder’s trench and the back wall of the church. The front of the church faced the bay, just like the mall building does today. The 1888 structure is a National Historic landmark today, but it’s just the latest in a long line of different buildings constructed around the St. Augustine’s historic Plaza area, the central green characteristic of Spanish urban design. The plaza served as community’s meeting ground and recreational area, and would be ringed with important civic, religious and military buildings. The plaza and Nuestra Senora de los Remedios were built in the same year: 1572, seven years after the founding of the city by conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

The first church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was burned down in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake. Queen Elizabeth had sent him to raid Spanish holdings in the Old World and New. England’s support of the Dutch rebellion against Spain had been made official in the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585, and Philip II retaliated by seizing English merchant vessels in Spanish waters. While he began the naval build-up that would lead to the Spanish Armada’s miserably failed attempt to invade Britain three years later, Elizabeth sent her privateers to harry Spanish shipping and holdings. Drake did quite the round trip: England to Vigo in Galicia (sacked), to Baiona (sacked), to Santiago, Cape Verde (sacked), across the Atlanta to Santo Domingo, modern-day Dominican Republic (sacked), to Cartagena de Indias, modern-day Colombia (sacked). Last on his hit list was St. Augustine, sacked on June 6th, 1586. After that, he sailed up to Roanoke, picked up all the original colonists and returned to England.

Neustra Senora de los Remedios was rebuilt in 1587. That one burned down too, in 1599, although apparently it was an accident the second time around. The hurricane took what the fire did not. The church was rebuilt one more time before the British burned it and the city of St. Augustine to the ground in 1702. After the third fatality, Nuestra Senora was not resurrected. The parish moved to a new church and the location of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was forgotten until its archaeological remains were rediscovered under that parking lot in 2010.

The pottery sherds found near the skeletal remains stylistically date to 1572-1586, so to the time of the first church in the 20 years after the founding of the city. The deceased were likely interred under the floor of the church, a common practice in mission churches of the colonial period. As time passed, it could be a tight fit under a modest church floor. The excavation has now unearthed at seven more burials in a compact area about 12 by six feet. Three of the burials are of children.

“We’ve mapped some of the particular bones,” [archaeologist Kathleen] Deagan pointed to some round circles she said indicated skulls. She says two of the children found were buried in the same pit, possibly at the same time.

“The bio-archaeologist will be able to tell us the precise age but he thinks — based on the bones — they probably are under 7 years old,” Deagan said.

It was not unusual for children to die so young. “When you look at the parish registers of St. Augustine, children died at a much higher rate than they do today,” Deagan explained.

Researchers will need permission from the state of Florida and the Catholic Church to do any further testing, like collecting DNA from the bones. Out of respect for the remains and the consecrated ground they were once in, the skeletal remains found under the floor will remain where they were buried. They will not be removed. The bones found outside the building will be reburied in a Catholic cemetery because the city is running a water line through the area.

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