George Takei helps save internment camp artifacts

May 17th, 2015

Thanks to the efforts of George Takei, his legion of fans and thousands of people around the round, a collection of 450 artifacts from Japanese American internment camps have been saved from the auction block and acquired by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles. The collection had been consigned to the Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey, for sale on April 17th, but on April 9th Japanese Americans and heritage organizations including the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation came together to start a Facebook page and Change.org petition protesting the auction.

The Japanese American History: NOT for Sale campaign quickly garnered thousands of supporters, among them actor and activist George Takei. Takei, long before he became famous for playing Star Trek‘s Hikaru Sulu, spent three years of his childhood imprisoned in internment camps with his family — first the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, and then the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. He now serves as chairman emeritus on the JANM’s Board of Trustees. He publicized the efforts to halt the sale and contacted David Rago to work on a solution that would spare the artifacts of Japanese American internment from being dispersed to the highest bidders. Takei negotiated on behalf of the Japanese American National Museum and personally wrote a check to ensure the collection was kept together in the public interest.

On April 15th, Rago announced the lots were being removed from sale. On May 2nd, at a gala event where Takei was given the museum’s Distinguished Medal of Honor For Lifetime Achievement, JANM announced that they had acquired the collection for an undisclosed sum.

“Taking the auction off the calendar was a great victory for the Japanese American community and its friends,” said Sacramento resident Yoshinori “Toso” Himel, an organizer of the “NOT for Sale” campaign. “A second victory was the announcement that now the items will be in a community institution.”

When Himel and his wife, Japanese American historian Barbara Takei (no relation to George Takei), saw an unlabeled photo of Himel’s mother earlier this year in one of the 23 lots up for auction, the couple joined forces with other Sacramento Japanese Americans, including the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, to oppose the public sale. [...]

Himel, also the founding president of the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of California, said the artifacts need to be interpreted and placed in their proper context. He said his mother’s photo, which shows her smiling while her eyes are downcast, was used as propaganda by the War Relocation Authority “to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people.”

The collection was first amassed by folk art expert Allen H. Eaton. Eaton had wanted to document the art produced by the internees as early as 1943 and in 1945 he visited five of the camps in person. He also dispatched colleagues to photograph the works made at four other camps. During his travels through the camps, he collected a unique group of artworks, furniture, photographs and other items, most of them gifts from the internees at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. In 1952, his seminal book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, was published. In it Eaton wrote: “This evacuation, regardless of its military justification, was not only, as is now generally acknowledged, a great wartime mistake, but it was the most complete betrayal, in one act, of civil liberties and democratic traditions in our history, and a clear violation of the constitutional rights of seventy thousand citizens.”

Eaton originally intended to put the artifacts he had received on display in an exhibition that would do justice to the 120,000 Japanese Americans, 60,000 of them children, interned during the war. The internees who gave him their artworks and personal belongings did so with the understanding that they would speak for them in this exhibition, but it never happened.

Ten years later Eaton died and his collection went to his heirs who later passed it on to Thomas Ryan, a contractor who worked for the Eatons and was also a family friend. Thomas Ryan bequeathed it to his son John, a Connecticut credit-card marketing executive. Ryan felt he wasn’t in a financial position to give away the artifacts which Rago had valued at $27,000 but he hoped museums and internment camp organizations would successfully bid for the lots. As large groups of internment artifacts don’t come up for sale often, the auction would have established commercial value benchmarks, a notion that itself was deeply offensive to the Japanese American community, as was the idea of pitting private collectors against non-profit organizations and the families of internees whose likenesses, names and artworks were being sold.

“I believe that through understanding comes respect, and JANM continues to take major steps forward to increase the public’s understanding of a grievous chapter in American history,” said Takei, chairman emeritus of the museum’s Board of Trustees, and the fifth recipient of JANM’s Medal of Honor. “All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored. The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience.”

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Early Canadian canal lock unearthed in Dartmouth

May 16th, 2015

Archaeologists in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, have unearthed a section of the town’s old canal system under the corner of Prince Albert Road and Pleasant Street. Lock 3 is a microcosm of the canal’s construction history, with parts dating to the 1820s and the late 1850s, early 1860s.

The Dartmouth locks were part of the Shubenacadie Canal, one of Canada’s first canal systems which connected Halifax Harbour to the Bay of Fundy. The 70 mile-long system linked a network of rivers and lakes that had been used to transport people and cargo since the Mi’kmaq traveled the waterways by canoe at least 4,000 years ago. Nova Scotia’s governor Sir John Wentworth (in office 1792–1808) first conceived of deepening the Shubenacadie River and adding locks connecting it, Shubenacadie Grand Lake and other waterways. This would give ships a direct route through Nova Scotia, sparing them from the dangerous trip around Cape Sable and cutting travel time for the voyage from a week to a matter of hours.

Construction didn’t begin until 1826, six years after Wentworth’s death. The Shubenaccadie Canal Company, formed by a group of wealthy merchants including shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, engaged civil engineer Francis Hall to design the system. Hall was from Scotland where he had worked as a surveyor on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal. He and his family emigrated to Canada in 1823 where he soon found work surveying and designing canals and bridges. Construction began with the arrival of 44 stone masons from Scotland and Irish labourers who had extensive experience constructing granite locks in the British style. The company even imported granite from Aberdeen to build the locks.

Hall’s plan was for a system of almost 20 locks. As each one being hugely expensive in imported materials and specialized labour, work ground to a halt in 1831 when the Shubenaccadie Canal Company ran out of money with only 13 locks either finished or begun. More than 20 years passed before the project was revived. In 1853 a new company was formed, the Inland Navigation Company, and it approached the construction of the canal with far more modest (and cheap) goals. Engineer Charles W. Fairbanks tailored the canal to two specific kinds of ships made by the Inland Navigation Company, both smaller than the merchant ships Hall had designed for, which allowed him to forgo the expensive imported granite locks in favor of American-style locks made of local stone and wood, replace several of Hall’s planned locks with inclined planes and reduce the draft depth from eight feet to four and a half.

Sections of the new canal system were in use by 1856 and the whole thing was completed in 1861. It transported carried sheep, cotton, linen, rope, fish, coal, gold and people, enough goods and passengers to make a modest profit. In 1862, Hall’s Scottish marble locks in Dartmouth were closed in to create a chamber in which a turbine was installed to power a marine railway that carried boats through the canal via pulley, but the clock was already ticking by that point. The Nova Scotia Railway had begun construction in 1853 — shipping iron for the railroad was actually one of the canal’s most significant revenue streams — and it soon became the preferred conveyance for freight shipments. By 1870, the railroad had replaced the draw bridges built over the canal with fixed rail bridges which blocked canal access to ships of even modest height. Commercial operations on the canal came to an end.

Meanwhile, in 1864 Dartmouth’s Lock 3 was taken over by Starr Manufacturing. Founded by hardware merchant John Starr, Starr Manufacturing built a factory on the site and used the original marine railway turbine to power its plant. The plant first produced cut nails and other iron goods, but it soon turned to the production of spring steel skates invented by Starr employee John Forbes. By 1868, Forbes was general manager of the company and the Forbes Spring Skate was internationally renown. The growth of the railway that had killed the canals came full circle in the 1870s when Starr Manufacturing began to produce coal cars, railway spikes and even made a heavy iron railway bridge, designed by John Forbes and built in Elmsdale.

The plant building was destroyed by fire in 2000, but the canal lock underneath survived. It was filled with gravel to help protect it. Now the site is being excavated as part of the Dartmouth Canal Greenway project, which will integrate the historic canal engineering into an open green space through downtown Dartmouth. The turbine chamber was found to be in good condition, with the east and west walls from Lock 3 of the first canal dating to 1828-1830 still standing. The north and south walls that meet in an arch are from the 1860s construction when the canal was closed in, the turbine chamber created and the turbine installed to power the rail.

Contractors and engineers craned their heads to take in the arches in the turbine pit during Wednesday’s visit as Stewart pointed out the original Irish mason’s markings of asterisks and the letter H carved into the grey rock.

During the excavation, Stewart said they’ve found architectural pieces of interest as well as multiple skate blades, which would have come from the Starr Plant. [...]

Part of the reconstruction will include historical interpretation where a clear covering could protect the historic site, while allowing people to peer into the chamber and see a computer-generated example of the original canal turbine.

For more about the history of the Shubenacadie Canal, watch this half hour documentary:

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Museum acquires Empress Sisi’s silk ankle boots

May 15th, 2015

A pair of white silk ankle boots worn by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi, was acquired at auction by the Sisi Museum in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Bidding at the auction, held by the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna on May 7th, 2015, was so fierce that the shoes, estimated to sell for $9,200 – 16,000 wound up costing the museum $86,000. The shoes were worn only once by the Empress and were given to one of her chambermaids in April of 1899 when Elisabeth’s closets were cleaned out after her death.

Other Sisi-related items sold far higher than expected. A beautiful red morocco leather travel writing and sewing box given to Elisabeth when she was an 11 years old Bavarian princess, just five years before she would marry her cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, was estimated to sell for $11,500 – 23,000, but a furious bidding war erupted over this piece too. In the end it went to a phone bidder who paid $86,000 for it. In a fitting bookend to her life, Sisi’s death certificate issued in Geneva on September 13th, 1898, three days after her assassination by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, sold for $17,500, 15 times the low estimate of $1,150.

On the other hand, her personal traveling chamber pot, a lovely white glazed ceramic vessel along with its lockable wooden doeskin-lined travel box engraved with her monogram and the Austrian imperial crown, went for a comparatively modest $5,800, on the low end of the pre-sale estimate of $4,600 – 9,200. I hope the museum bought it because it’s such an incredibly intimate object it belongs in their permanent collection of her belongings.

The Sisi Museum inhabits rooms in the Hofburg Palace that were once the empress’ suite. The objects on display tell the story of her life, starting with her unusually unstructured youth in Bavaria where her circus-loving father avoided the restrictions and formalities of court in favor of his country estate of Possenhofen where the family lived an outdoorsy, free-spirited life of horseback riding and travel. A shy, timorous girl, she was ill-prepared for the exigencies of her new role when she wed the 23-year-old emperor. The rigidity of the imperial court was a heavy burden on her. Pressured by her formidable mother-in-law/aunt Princess Sophie of Bavaria to produce the male heir, Sissy had three children in three years until her son Rudolf was born. All three of these children were removed from her care immediately after their birth; Princess Sophie raised them, not their mother.

Elisabeth had numerous health problems — coughing, insomnia, anemia — exacerbated by what today we would likely consider disordered eating. She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, fasting and dieting to ensure her weight never went past 50 kg (110 lb), a very low figure considering she was 5’8″. She exercised assiduously, converting the Knight’s Hall of the Hofburg into a gymnasium and riding horses and walking for hours at a time. Her profound dislike of court life played a role in her illness as well. When she traveled to spas to take the cure, or to Corfu or to Madeira, her symptoms quickly disappeared only to return with a vengeance as soon as she neared Vienna.

Considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe, Sisi spent hours a day on her beauty regimen. Her ankle-length hair took two to three hours a day to arrange. She used all kinds of nostrums and creams to preserve her youthful good looks. Here’s a tip for you from Empress Elisabeth: wear a pounded filet of raw veal on your face underneath a leather mask. Keeps the skin supple, donchaknow.

As she got older and most self-assured, she spent more and more time away from court, traveling and avoiding imperial duties as much as possible. She also avoided politics, only getting involved in Franz Joseph’s decision-making once but to great effect. She was a very vocal advocate for the recognition of Hungary’s political rights and played a significant role in persuading her reactionary husband to agree to the Compromise of 1866 which established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary in 1867. The next year Sisi gave birth to their last child, the Archduchess Marie-Valerie. The timing was generally believed not to have been a coincidence, ie, she let Franz Joseph into the bed she’d spent a decade keeping him out of as a reward for the Compromise.

It was a one-time deal. The imperial couple grew increasingly estranged as Sisi continued to travel on her own and avoid the settled domesticity (albeit a massively glamorous version) of life in Vienna that her husband wanted. When their only son Rudolf killed himself in his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 after the death of his 17-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera (we don’t know how she died; it could have been a murder-suicide but the authorities covered everything up and modern examinations of her bones have been inconclusive), Franz Joseph and Elisabeth’s marriage splintered irrevocably. They lived separate lived from then on, although their later letters indicate they eventually developed a genuine friendship.

Ten years later, Sisi was visiting Geneva under an assumed name. She had refused police protection and dismissed her attendants when Luigi Lucheni, aware of who she really was thanks to the newspaper headlines identifying the “Countess of Hohenembs” as the empress, stabbed her in the heart with a sharpened file. Her tight corset slowed her blood loss enough to keep her alive for a few hours before her pericardium filled with blood and her heart stopped beating. Franz Joseph, who had been madly in love with her since she was 15, was devastated by her death. While she had received relatively little press coverage and public attention in the empire during her increasingly withdrawn life, after her death the legend of the beautiful but miserable queen, the open-hearted innocent stifled by imperial etiquette but beloved by the people, sprang into being. A trilogy of films in the 1950s starring Romy Schneider as Elisabeth sealed that image in the modern imagination.

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17th c. Spanish shipwreck found off Panama coast

May 14th, 2015

A shipwreck discovered off the coast of Panama in 2011 has been identified as the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación, a ship from one of Spain’s famed silver fleets that sank in a storm in 1681. The Encarnación was a nao, a merchant vessel loaded with cargo from the New World that was one of several ships from the Tierra Firme to sink in the Caribbean Sea just off the north central coast of Panama while travelling from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.

The shipwreck was found by a research team from The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University who were exploring the area in the hopes of finding wrecks of five ships lost by Captain Henry Morgan on his way to sacking Panama City in 1670. When magnetic sensors alerted to the presence of metal objects, researchers dived down and found the wreck of the Encarnación, the lower part of its hull intact and the cargo still in the hold. They presence of so much cargo suggested this was not one of Morgan’s ships since they were heading to Panama City to fill their coffers when they sank.

The ship’s cargo includes wooden barrels, more than 100 boxes of sword blades, mule shoes and lead cargo seals that once marked perishable goods. While less glamorous than the gold and silver cargos that made the Spanish fleets famous targets for pirates from the early 16th century through the early 19th, this well-preserved merchant cargo is invaluable to historians. Only 16 Spanish shipwrecks have been found in the New World, and all of them have suffered the depredations of looters, the elements and shipworm. With no architectural designs extant, we know very little about the construction of 17th century Spanish ships. The Encarnación has already filled in some blanks.

An initial examination revealed the use of a material called granel, a kind of permanent ballast, says Chris Horrell, a maritime archaeologist working with Hanselmann. It’s “basically a cement consisting of sand, lime, and pebbles,” he explains, that shipbuilders used to coat a ship’s hull with a thin veneer.

Researchers think granel stabilized ships and was also used as a construction material for buildings throughout the New World. Horrell is not yet sure whether granel was a New World invention or an Old World import, but finding out is part of his research agenda.

The cargo also bears witness to the economic life of Spain and its colonies. The mule shoes indicate the ships brought supplies that would enable their hulls to be stuffed with goods delivered to the Spanish crown. The shoes would have been necessary to equip the mule trains that carried silver, gold and other valuables via overland trade routes from South American territories to the Isthmus of Panama where they would be loaded onto the ships of the fleet and transported to Spain.

Research on the ship and its contents continue. The artifacts, which by law belong to Panama, are currently being conserved at the laboratory of the Patronato Panamá Viejo, a non-profit organization that manages the historical site and museum of old Panama City.

Here’s some beautifully clear video of the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación:

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First stone circle in a 100 years found in Dartmoor

May 13th, 2015

A previously unknown stone circle has been found on Dartmoor, the first new stone circle discovery in a hundred years. There are 30 stones, all of them now recumbent although packing stones found at the base of some of them indicate they were upright originally, in a circle 32 meters (105 feet) in diameter. One more stone lies just outside the circle and was built into an enclosure wall in more recent history. Radiocarbon dating of the peat underneath the stones found that they fell about 4,000 years ago. That means there’s a chance they could have been erected before Stonehenge which was built between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C.

At 525 meters (1722 feet) above sea level, it is the highest stone circle in southern England and would have dominated the landscape when the stones were still vertical. It is located 300 meters (984 feet) southwest of Sittaford Tor, one of Dartmoor’s hills topped with granite boulders, which was probably the source for the stones in the circle. The fact that the stones are of relatively uniform size and shape suggests they were deliberately selected and carried down the hill to the site.

The location of the circle is particularly significant because it fits perfectly in a crescent pattern created by seven other stone circles on the northeastern edge of Dartmoor. The newly discovered circle is the southernmost of the eight, just west of the first and northernmost circle, the one at Little Hound Tor. The author of the excellent Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks website has created a map of the arc. Archaeologists believe this pattern is deliberate, evidence of large scale planning and communication between the late Stone Age, early Bronze Age communities living on Dartmoor four to five thousand years ago.

The circle was discovered by Dartmoor native and stained glass artist Alan Endacott in 2007 after a controlled burn of the undergrowth exposed the stones long hidden beneath the brush. The find was not announced until last year and archaeological explorations are still in the early stages. Since this is the first stone circle found in generations, it gives archaeologists the first chance to study a pristine site using modern technology.

Jane Marchand, Senior Archaeologist, Dartmoor National Park said:
“Its discovery is providing an opportunity for investigation using the very latest archaeological scientific methods to provide long awaited insights into the chronology, construction and the purpose of these most elusive and iconic of Dartmoor’s prehistoric monuments.” [...]

Although the full results of the geophysical surveys are not back yet, preliminary results have revealed a wide ditch running in a linear fashion just outside the eastern side of the circle. Further investigation is planned later this summer.

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Explore the 18th c. consultation letters of Dr. William Cullen

May 12th, 2015

Dr. William Cullen was a chemist, surgeon, apothecary, physician, botanist, university lecturer and prominent figure in the Scottish enlightenment who was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the University of Edinburgh Medical School as the top medical school in Britain, if not the entire continent. Philosopher David Hume was a patient and friend. Physician and pioneering chemist Joseph Black was one of his students and remained a close friend throughout their life. The young William Hunter, the distinguished anatomist who brought us Smugglerius and whose collection formed the nucleus of the University of Glasgow’s famed Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, was Cullen’s student and partner for four years before striking out on his own. Anatomist Alexander Monro II, father of that Alexander Monro who dissected William Burke’s body after his execution, was another student and friend.

Cullen lived a long life working almost up to his last breath, only retiring as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 1789 when he was 80 years old, just a few months before he died. During his years in Edinburgh, he established his own private practice which was highly successful even though much of his work was conducted not in person but in letters. Physicians often consulted by correspondence at that time, and Cullen did us the great favor of keeping most of the letters he received from the 1760s onward along with copies of his replies, either handwritten or, after April 1st, 1781, made using the pressure copying machine invented by James Watt of steam engine fame.

That remarkable archive is now in the possession of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) and it is unique in its importance and immensity. There are 17 boxes of letters and 21 bound volumes of Cullen’s replies. Consultations were mainly the province of the wealthy (the cost was a whopping two guineas), but there are a wide range of patients and problems. There’s even a letter from James Boswell asking for help for a very ill Samuel Johnson. To make this treasury of medical history more widely available, the RCPE is working with the University of Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies to digitize the collection and make it publically available to everyone from scholars to people who love falling down research rabbit holes (not that we know anyone who answers to that description here).

[The Cullen Project] will not only render this material viewable as high-quality digital images and readable as diplomatic and normalised transcripts, but the texts will be fully searchable. Internal references to ingredients (materia medica), symptoms, conditions, treatments, preparations, actions and body-parts are being tagged using XML mark-up. Additional metadata for each item, including all associated dates, persons and places is being recorded in the edition’s innovative database.

For example, here’s a featured letter sent to Dr. Cullen by a colleague, Dr. John Cairnie, seeking advice on the treatment of a patient suffering from erectile dysfunction. The young man had suffered from numerous bouts of venereal disease starting when he joined the Navy at 12 years of age. He was now 27 and was unable to get an erection but was nonetheless experiencing unfortunately frequent ejaculations. Cullen replied a few days later and the prescription he suggested to cure the poor fellow was written on the back of the letter to the right of seal: “Take half-a-drachm of Camphor; half-a-drachm of prepared Steel; two drachms of Gentian extract, and a sufficient amount of Gum Arabic mucilage to form pills of nine grains each. Three to be taken every morning and every night.”

On the Facsimile tab of the entry are photographs of the letter, back and front. You can hover over them to zoom in. The Normalized Text tab has a corrected transcript of the letter which replaces abbreviations and numerals with full words. The Diplomatic Text tab has a transcript which cleaves to the original syntax. Every ingredient, disease term, body part, syndrome, etc. is a link to a definition and other instances in which they appear in the good doctor’s correspondence. Care to know more about 18th century testicle doctoring? Click the link in the word “testicle” from the transcripts and you’ll find another 134 references in Cullen’s consultation letters to testes, stones and the scrotum.

It is truly a most alluring Charybdis of a database. I defy anyone to read just one letter without being sucked into the link whirlpool. If your family reports you as a missing person, don’t blame me; blame The Cullen Project.

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The first selfie

May 11th, 2015

Here it is:

Robert Cornelius took this picture of himself outside of his family’s lamp Philadelphia store in October or possibly November of 1839.

Although there were reports that Louis Daguerre had devised a method to fix images captured by a camera obscura onto a metal plate as early as 1835, the daguerreotype was first announced in January of 1839 and the process released to the public on August 19th. After detailed descriptions of how to take daguerreotype were published in Philadelphia journals and newspapers in September and October, Robert Cornelius, who had a great interest in chemistry and worked for his father doing silver plating, was approached by inventor Joseph Saxton to create a light-sensitive silver-coated plate for use in daguerreotypy. With Cornelius’ plate, Saxton took the earliest known surviving picture in the United States on October 16th, capturing the round tower of the Philadelphia Central High School and the old Pennsylvania State Arsenal building at the corner of Chestnut and Juniper from the window of his offices at the US Mint.

Cornelius was intrigued by the new technology and immediately set to doing his own experiments. His first subject was far more challenging than Saxton’s. Daguerreotypes required long exposure times of up to 15 minutes. Even the shortest exposures were at least three minutes, which made the medium less than ideal for capturing living, conscious beings. Schools and arsenals do photographers the courtesy of not even twitching once. Cornelius wanted to give it a go anyway, so he took his homemade camera — a box with an opera glass lens — into the yard behind the lamp store and there, in the daylight, he took a daguerreotype half-portrait of himself with crossed arms and tousled hair that wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion magazine today. He’s a little off-center, but I think it only makes him look more natural and less like he had to hold that pose for minutes on end. The lamp store, incidentally, was located on 8th Street between Market and Chestnut, just five blocks from the US Mint where Saxton took his first photograph.

After his first foray into daguerreotypy, Robert Cornelius caught the bug. In February of 1840 he opened a portrait photography studio and captured the likenesses of other sitters, wealthy clients and family and friends. He also published what is believed to be the first photograph in an advertisement in the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Very few of his works, only around two dozen, have survived. Thankfully his masterful selfie is among them.

Cornelius quit the photography business in 1843 and returned to work for the family’s lamp and chandelier concern where he had a very successful career building a better mousetrap, mainly lamps that ran on cheaper and more easily accessible fuels like pig lard rather than the prohibitively expensive whale oil that was still the default option when he began. Under his tenure the company became the largest lamp business in the country before they were eventually overtaken by other better-mousetrap-makers. Robert Cornelius retired a wealthy man in the 1860s.

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Red Lady of El Mirón buried with flowers

May 10th, 2015

The El Mirón cave the Rio Asón valley of eastern Cantabria, Spain, has seen continuous human occupation from the Middle Paleolithic 41,000 years ago right through to the Bronze Age. The cave has been excavated yearly since the 1996 by a research team co-directed by Manuel González Morales of the International Prehistoric Research Institute of Cantabria and Lawrence Guy Straus, Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. In 2010, they discovered human bones deposited against the wall of a chamber at the back of the cave behind a limestone slab and encircled with the remains of small bonfires. The bones — an incomplete set including a mandible, a tibia with animal bites, several vertebrae and ribs, phalanges and part of the cranium — belonged to a woman between 35 and 40 years old at the time of death. The skeletal remains and the sediment on which they rest were covered in ochre which is why she was dubbed the Red Lady of El Mirón.

Radiocarbon dating found that the Red Lady died and was buried 18,700 years ago near the end of the last Ice Age at the dawn of the Magdalenian period. It is the only relatively intact Magdalenian burial ever discovered on the Iberian Peninsula. Intact burials from the period have been found in France (the country where the type site was found) and Germany and individual bones from the period have been found in Spain before, but they were scattered and not associated with a grave.

Cave burials in this era were very rare. All signs point to the Red Lady having been someone of great importance to the Upper Paleolithic people who used the cave as their home and workspace. The red ochre, very high in sparkly specular hematite, appears to have been imported, and the grave was tended for a significant amount of time because the ochre was reapplied after the long bones and much of the cranium were removed. The bones could have been victim to the unknown canine-sized predator whose teeth marks were found on the tibia, or the removal of the big bones also could have been a deliberate act. Her people could have removed them for display or some other ritual purpose and then reapplied the ochre. The discovery of numerous small hand and foot bones in the 2013 season confirmed that the soft tissues decomposed in place rather than the body having been dismembered before it was skeletonized.

The large limestone block two meters (6.6 feet) long and one meter (3.3 feet) wide had fallen from the roof of the cave and was engraved with symbols — multiple fine lines some of which form a V-shape that may represent the pubic triangle, often used in Paleolithic art as a symbol of the female. The block fell a few hundred years before the Red Lady was buried in the small space behind it. The engravings date to around the time of the burial, so it could be that the Red Lady’s mourners made a grave marker of sorts out of it, hence the possible female symbol.

With no obvious grave goods, researchers have been studying other items found at the burial site to see if they may have been associated with the grave. They discovered a baby tooth of a second person, thousands of stone fragments, bones of red deer, ibex, fish, antler points, bone needles and beads made from pierced shells and animal teeth. Stable isotope analysis of the Red Lady’s teeth found that her diet mainly (80%) consisted of meat from hoofed animals (likely the red deer and ibex whose bones were found) with fish making up most of the remaining 20% except for small amounts of starchy plants, seeds and mushrooms.

Researchers also collected pollen samples.

María-José Iriarte-Chiapusso and Alvaro Arrizabalaga at the University of the Basque Country in Spain have taken a different tack, focusing on the pollen found at the burial site. They found an unexpected preponderance of pollen from the Chenopod group, which includes plants like spinach (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi.org/2vc). Chenopod pollen is rare at archaeological sites from this period, and the high concentration found by the researchers doesn’t match the patterns at burial sites in areas where these plants were a food source, says Iriarte-Chiapusso.

It is possible that the plants were used medicinally at this time, but that would still fail to explain the high levels of pollen. “The extraordinary nature of the finds within the burial suggest that [the plants] had been deliberately sought out for some purpose related to the deceased,” says Arrizabalaga. This leads the team to believe that the woman’s people may have left a floral offering at the grave, probably of small, yellowish flowers.

“You can’t get away from the conclusion that this person, [out of] the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Magdalenians who once existed for several thousand years in Iberia, was given some kind of special treatment,” says Straus. “God only knows why.”

Researches will study her DNA next in the hope that it will lend insight into the repopulation of Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 21,000 years ago). Scientists hypothesize that when the cold was at its worst, people fled to southern climes before spreading back up north when temperatures warmed up again. If the Red Lady’s DNA can be linked to later populations in Belgium, Germany and the UK, it will be evidence that the Magdalenians who took refuge in Iberia went on to repopulate northern Europe.

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Roman pool heater found in Bulgarian resort

May 9th, 2015

Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, so beautifully immortalized on the column that bears his name, was as immense a construction project as it was a military one. Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) built several major roads during his campaigns in Dacia, feats of engineering urged by the military necessity to clear a path for the organized and speedy movement of troops and supplies. The Via Trajana almost bisects central Bulgaria. It started in the Danube city of Ulpia Oescus, today the town of Gigen just south of the Romanian border, then went south through Sostra (modern-day Troyan) and the Troyan Pass in the Balkan Mountains before ending in Philippopolis (modern-day Plovdiv) which in Trajan’s day was in the Roman province of Thrace and is now in southern Bulgaria. The road played an important strategic role in the conquest of Dacia since it provided the army with a vital link connecting the Roman province of Lower Moesia on the Danube Plain with the largest city in Thrace. An even longer road Trajan built, the Via Militaris, intersected Philippopolis going the other way, diagonally from the northwest to the southeast of what is now Bulgaria.

Subsequent emperors maintained and added to the roads, building watch forts and . Along the Balkan stretch of the Via Trajana, Antonius Pius (r. 138-161 A.D.) built a fortress at Sostra in the Osam river valley to garrison the area which is known to have revolted against his rule at least once. Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 A.D.) and Gallienus (r. 253-268 A.D.) built fortresses practically on top of their predecessors’ ones at Sostra. The garrison ranged from 500 to 1,000 soldiers strong at different times, all of whom were housed in long wooden barracks with tiled roofs and well-fed on a diet of domesticated animals, game and mussels from the Osam river.

As so often happened in the Roman empire, a bustling town grew alongside the outpost to take advantage of the security afforded by troops permanently stationed there and the many opportunity for trade. In the 5th century, invading Huns destroyed the fortress and the town which were then left undeveloped. With no subsequent construction to destroy what was left of the Roman structures, the site has proven a rich source of archaeological remains since excavations began in the 1970s.

More recently, a team led by archaeologist Ivan Hristov have been excavating Sostra and environs since 2002. They found a stretch of the Via Trajana in 2010 that’s an impressive 7 meters (23 feet) wide and in excellent condition, the best preserved Roman road ever discovered in Bulgaria. Last year Hristov’s team unearthed a Roman road station 5,400 square feet in area with well-appointed facilities including a praetorium — a general or governor’s council/judgment hall — and baths with hot and cold water pools. The baths were fed by brick channels built to carry water from the Osam through the underfloor hypocaust system that heated the water, floor and walls. Coins, jewelry and votive offerings found at the bottom of one of the channels underscores that the people who made use of the facilities were wealthy. This wasn’t a modest public bath for the villagers; it was more like a luxury resort for the well-moneyed traveler.

This year’s excavation has found a furnace used to heat up the water in a shallow pool next to the large swimming pool, much like the small hot tubs attached to the big pools in modern-day resorts. Hristov believes the resort regularly hosted government administrators and may even have been visited by the imperial family when they were in the area.

The Bulgaria National Museum of History plans to apply for National Monument of Culture status for the Sostra road station which will grease the wheels for additional excavation and partial restoration to enhance its potential as a tourist destination.

The new discovery at the Ancient Roman fortress Sostra is expected to help it receive the status of an archaeological preserve including the fortress, the road station, and a large Early Christian basilica together with several other ancient buildings located at the point where the Lomeshka River flows into the Osam River.

As the report puts it, tourists will be able to walk around an entire labyrinth of authentic archaeological structures.

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Huge silver ingot found on alleged Captain Kidd shipwreck

May 8th, 2015


A massive silver ingot weighing 110 pounds has been found in the Indian Ocean waters near the island Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar. It was discovered by explorer Barry Clifford on a shipwreck that he alleges is what’s left of Captain Kidd’s vessel the Adventure Galley. The silver bar is believed to be the largest ever found on a shipwreck.

The ingot has extensive markings on both sides which Clifford’s team thinks point to its originating in 17th century Bolivia. The History channel (they dropped “channel” from the official name but I just can’t bring myself to call it HISTORY the way they do), which has been filming Clifford’s exploration of the wreck for an upcoming multi-part series, has an image of the underside of the ingot with the marks labelled but not explained. I guess they’re saving the full explanation for the show. The ingot was recovered from the wreck and handed over to Madagascar’s President Hery Rajaonarimampianina in a public ceremony.

Clifford found this wreck 15 years ago and has been returning to it regularly ever since. The problem is there is no concrete evidence that it’s the Adventure Galley. They found an oarlock that’s the proper size for a galley like the Adventure and copious fragments of Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain that stylistically dates to the late 17th century and that’s it. They had hoped to find personal belongings sailors might have left behind that would help identify the wreck, but that came to nought.

Île Sainte-Marie became known as the Island of the Pirates because a number of pirates used it as a base due to its convenient location next to the lucrative shipping lanes of the East India trade, its many protected bays and inlets and its rich endowment of fruit. Captain Kidd is known to have harbored there in the Spring and Summer of 1698, but the ship could have belonged to any of the many pirates and privateers who hung out on Sainte-Marie around that time.

That hasn’t stopped Clifford from making claims that are, to put it generously, hyperbolic.

“Captain’s Kidd’s treasure is the stuff of legends. People have been looking for it for 300 years. To literally have it hit me on the head – I thought what the heck just happened to me. I really didn’t expect this,” Mr Clifford said.

“There’s more down there. I know the whole bottom of the cavity where I found the silver bar is filled with metal. It’s too murky down there to see what metal, but my metal detector tells me there is metal on all sides.”

This has generated many a breathless “Captain Kidd treasure found!” headlines, but it’s really a shameless equivocation because even if Clifford truly did find the remains of the Adventure Galley — an if even bigger than a 150-pound silver bar — the legendary treasure of Captain Kidd was not on it. The £100,000 treasure he claimed in his famous last letter to have hidden was in a secret location in the Caribbean, and indeed, what kind of pirate would leave any part of his vast treasure on a derelict vessel while he took his best ship across the world to the Caribbean Sea?

According to Kidd’s testimony at his trial and a statement from pirate Theophilus Turner, the Adventure Galley, which by then was taking on so much water as to render it barely seaworthy, was burned to the waterline and then sunk. Before it was destroyed, Kidd had anything of value, from the cannon to the very hinges, loaded onto the Quedagh Merchant, a 400-ton merchant vessel he had captured in January of 1698 and renamed the Adventure Prize. Kidd testified that the Adventure Prize was loaded with 10 tons of scrap iron and 14 or 15 spare anchors before leaving Madagascar for the Caribbean. A giant silver ingot is not likely to have been overlooked.

The archaeological record supports his testimony, as the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, discovered in 2007 in the Caribbean Sea near Catalina Island off the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, was found with 26 cannons, most of them stacked in the hold muzzle to cascabel as cargo rather than armed on deck. Three large anchor crowns were found underneath one of the cannon piles and there were magnetic anomalies detected underneath the anchors that are consistent with the tons of scrap iron Kidd mentioned.

Even Clifford himself noted in 2000 when he first found the wreck that the Adventure Galley was stripped to the bone before it was destroyed and that therefore he did not expect to find any treasure. Now that a magnificent ingot has “literally” hit him on head (in actual fact he literally picked it up from the seabed, as is clear from a screencap of the History channel footage), instead of concluding from this that the wreck is likely not the Adventure Galley, Clifford has chosen to embrace it as Kidd’s legendary treasure no matter how groundless a claim it is. The ingot is so awesome on its own it really doesn’t need this kind of sensationlism tarnishing its cool.

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