Vivid murals found in 1000-year-old Chinese tomb

November 11th, 2014


In 2011, archaeologists from the Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology discovered a mural tomb near the railway station in Datong City, northern Shanxi province, China. The tomb dates to the Liao Dynasty, an empire that ruled over Mongolia, parts of what is today Russia, northern Korea and northern China from 907 to 1125 A.D., and although no human remains were discovered inside, the high quality and subject matter of the painting indicates the tomb owner was a wealthy man of Han Chinese ethnicity. The paintings are in excellent condition with only some losses from damage to the structure, and they present a vivid picture of daily life for the elite of the period.

The murals begin at the entry to the tomb. The perimeter of the arched doorway and wall is painted in a thick stripe of red that doesn’t appear to have faded at all. Against a white background, two human figures are painted on either side of the entryway. The left guardian is a man wearing a black hat holding a staff. The right guardian is a woman holding aloft a feathered fan. Between them centered above the arch is the supernatural bird being Garuda, hovering amongst the clouds, watching over the entryway.

Inside the tomb, the largest mural is on the north wall. It’s a domestic scene depicting the tomb owner’s household. In the background are floor-to-ceiling windows with some excellent roll-up shades, a valance on top and curtains pulled back on the sides. There’s an empty bed in the center, flanked by attendants carrying different vessels and accessories. The stars of the show, however, are a black and white cat in front of the attendants on the left and a black and white dog in front of the attendants on the right. They both have ribbons tied around their necks and the cat is playing with a ball on the end of strip of silk.

On the west wall is a dense, dynamic scene of travel through the countryside. An elaborate carriage on the top right of the wall is pulled by Bactrian camel. In the foreground a saddled horse trots, led by a groom. On the top left farmers carry water, plough and hoe their crops. A small figure of horse and rider in the bottom left looks to be transporting goods in packed saddlebags.

The east wall is a riot of food, drink and animals. Attendants on the left carry trays of food and beverages while on the ground in front of them are pitchers and bamboo steamers doubtless groaning with more of the same. On the top right is a saddle hanging on a rack with a lotus flower fountain to its left. A dear sits in front of the saddle. Other animals in the tableau are a crane, a turtle, and a snake crawling behind an axe on a platform. Between the deer and the crane are bamboo plants. A poem written on a banner to the right of the saddle ties the scene together: “Time tells that bamboo can endure cold weather. Live as long as the spirits of the crane and turtle.”

The ceiling of the tomb is the most damaged — more than half of painting is lost — but vermilion stars connected with lines into constellations are still clearly visible on what remains of it.

The tomb was looted at some point in the last 1,000 years, but there was one artifact still present: a statue three feet high of a man sitting cross-legged wearing a black robe. Archaeologists believe it’s a representation of the tomb’s occupant. It may even have been a symbolic substitute for his body, a common practice for Buddhist burials at that time.


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Relief of unknown god found in Turkey

November 10th, 2014

University of Münster archaeologists excavating the ruins of a medieval monastery near the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep have discovered a basalt stele carved with a figure of a previously unknown deity. The monastery of Mar Solomon (Saint Solomon) was built in the early Middle Ages over the remains of the Roman-era temple to Jupiter Dolichenus, a deity who was a syncretized combination of the Greco-Roman thunderer, king of the Olympian gods, and the Hittite sky and storm god Tesub-Hadad. Before the Roman temple there was a sanctuary to Tesub-Hadad on the hill known today as Dülük-Baba Tepesi. The stele was recycled for use as building material in the wall of the monastery.

Archaeologist Blömer described the depiction: “The basalt stele shows a deity growing from a chalice of leaves. Its long stem rises from a cone that is ornamented with astral symbols. From the sides of the cone grow a long horn and a tree, which the deity clasps with his right hand. The pictorial elements suggest that a fertility god is depicted.” There are striking iconographic details such as the composition of the beard or the posture of the arms, which point to Iron Age depictions from the early 1st millennium B.C.

Hundreds of seals from the pre-Roman sanctuary have been found on the site, many of them carved with religious imagery and symbolism that are giving archaeologists new insight into worship practices at the sanctuary in the 1st millennium B.C. The discovery of the fertility god relief is an exciting addition to the archaeological record, and particularly relevant to the team’s investigation of how local cults survived over the millennia and in some cases expanded from their native contexts to widespread religions with adherents all over the Roman empire. Since ancient written sources — usually Roman elites — are unreliable documentation of Near Asian religions, archaeological sources are invaluable.

Excavation director Prof. Dr. Engelbert Winter:

“The image is remarkably well preserved. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs of the Romans and into the continued existence of ancient Near Eastern traditions. However, extensive research is necessary before we will be able to accurately identify the deity.”

Although Doliche was a small town, the empire-spanning prominence of the sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus transitioned into the Christian era. It was an episcopal see at least as early as the 4th century, and remains a titular see of the Roman Catholic Church to this day even though there’s nothing there but a glorious wealth of archaeological remains. The monastery of Mar Solomon was in use through the era of the crusades, but it was only known to archaeologists through written sources until the remains were first discovered in 2010.

Now the entire site is being transformed into an archaeological park even as excavations continue. The ruins are being carefully preserved and a trail was put in last year so visitors can view the Jupiter Dolichenus sanctuary and the remains of the monastery.

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Howard Carter the artist

November 9th, 2014

Before Howard Carter became the world-famous archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, he was an artist. In fact, it was pretty much all he knew how to do. Howard, the youngest of 11 children of Samuel and Martha Carter, was sick a lot in his youth. The many and varied miasmas of London were considered injurious to his health, so he was sent to live with his aunts in Swaffham, Norfolk, where his father and grandfather had been gamekeepers on the Hamond family estate.

Because of his sickliness he was never enrolled in school. His father, an artist who carved out a successful niche for himself painting portraits of the gentry and their pets, tutored Howard on regular trips to Swaffham, teaching him how to draw and paint. One of Samuel Carter’s patrons was William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall, an estate eight miles from Swaffham. As a boy, Howard visited Didlington Hall when his father painted Lord Amherst’s portrait, and this is where he first became exposed to Egyptology.

Amherst was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. He, his wife Margaret Mitford (whose father had a passion for all things Egyptian as well) and their seven daughters traveled frequently to Egypt, constantly acquiring new artifacts. A whole wing of Didlington Hall was dedicated to housing his vast collection. Seven statues of the lion-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet guarded the door of the museum, one for each of the Amherst daughters. Those statues are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Amherst family didn’t just give Howard Carter the chance to explore Egyptian art through their extensive collection. It was their recommendation and contacts that secured him his first job in Egypt. He was just 17 years old when he was hired as a tracer — someone who copies inscriptions and art work found in excavations onto paper for later study — for the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1891. This was an essential job in the age before color photography. Watercolors were the only accurate recreations of tomb decorations available.

Carter’s first assignment was the Beni Hasan excavation where the princes of Middle Egypt were buried. He immediately distinguished himself with his artistic ability and dedication, often working all day and then spending the night in the tomb. Carter began to learn archaeology on his next assignment at El-Amarna under pioneering Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1892. He was still an artist, recording artifacts as they were discovered, but Petrie allowed him to dig too, and Carter made some signficant finds.

In 1894, Carter was appointed Principle Artist of the EEF’s excavation of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. For five years Carter made drawings and watercolors of the wall reliefs in the temple. One of his watercolors from this period, The Temple of Hatshepsut (1899), is going up for auction at Bonhams’ Travel, Exploration and Natural History Sale in London on December 3rd.

Carter also joined in the excavation of the temple and learned restoration techniques as well. He did such a fine job that in 1899 the Egyptian Antiquities Service offered him the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. He was 25 years old, had no formal education, and was now the supervisor of all archaeological excavations in the Upper Nile Valley. Carter did great work, installing the first electric lights in six Valley of the Kings tombs and at the temples in Abu Simbel.

His extraordinary run of success came to a halt in 1905 when a group of drunk and belligerent French tourists became violent towards the Egyptian guards at Saqqara. Carter told the guards they could defend themselves. The tourists complained to people in high places and the diplomatic hotshots insisted Carter apologize. He refused. In retaliation, Carter was shipped off to an obscure site with not much in the way of archaeology. Rather than twiddle his thumbs in exile, Carter resigned.

For the next two years, Howard Carter had something of a hard scrabble existence. He sold his watercolors or guided tours to make a living. Then he hit the jackpot. French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service who had given Carter the Chief Inspector General job, introduced him to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon had deep pockets and was keen to fund archaeological excavations. He got the necessary licenses and made Carter the Supervisor of Excavations in Thebes.

During this time, Carter painted Under the Protection of the Gods (1908), a composite fantasy that depicts a vulture — representing the goddess Nekhebet, protector of Upper Egypt — above a solar disc wrapped in a cobra — representing the goddess Wadjet, protector of Lower Egypt. It’s likely that the iconography of the watercolor was inspired by some of Carter’s finds in Thebes, including the 18th Dynasty Tomb of Tetaki and a 15th Dynasty tomb with nine coffins.

The Carter-Carnarvon partnership was very successful. By the time World War I began in 1914, Carnarvon had amassed a hugely important collection of Egyptian antiquities. That same year he secured a 15-year license to excavate the Valley of the Kings and Carter got to work. He painted The Valley of the Kings (1914) the first year of excavations. Excavations were disrupted by war, but Carter still managed to dig in 1915 and 1917.

In 1918 excavations restarted in earnest. For the next four years, Carter scoured the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of a previously unknown pharaoh whose name he had discovered. It became something of an obsession with him, but in 1922 when the tomb continued to be elusive, Carnarvon got sick of funding what seemed like a fool’s errand and told Carter that he had one digging season left. Three days after the last excavation began in November of 1922, Carter’s diggers found the top of a staircase. Three weeks later, Carter peered in through a small hole in the doorway and saw the “wonderful things,” that would take the world by storm and make him immortal.

Carter never forgot the people who helped him overcome his humble beginnings. His connection with the Amherst family continued throughout his life. William and Margaret Amherst’s eldest daughter Mary, known as May, wife of Lord William Cecil, took her family’s fascination with Egypt to even greater heights. Between 1901 and 1904, she personally funded and ran excavations at Qubbet el-Hawa in Aswan. Howard Carter was Chief Inspector for Antiquities then, and he helped advise her.

In 1906, the family was left financially devastated when their solicitor and land agent, Charles Cheston, was found to have embezzled hundreds of thousand of pounds to support his gambling habit. Cheston committed suicide. Lord Amherst was forced to sell the collections he had spent decades building into some of the greatest private holdings in the country. His library went first, auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1908 and 1909. William Amherst died two months before the second sale.

May, heir to her father’s estate and title, had no choice but to continue the sell-off. In 1910, the estate itself, home and park, was sold to Colonel Herbert Francis Smith. May refused to sell her father’s Egyptian collection, however. She held on to that resolutely for a decade until her death from breast cancer in 1919. Only after May was gone was the legendary Amherst collection of Egyptian papyri, statues and other artifacts put up for sale at Sotheby’s in 1921. It was Howard Carter who catalogued the collection that had first inspired his great vocation. At the time of the sale, even though some individual objects had been sold piecemeal before then, the Amherst Egyptian collection was the third largest private collection in England.

In 1950, Didlington Hall, broken and neglected after requisition during World War II, was stripped of its last valuables when the interior fittings were sold at auction. The house was demolished and thus what had once been one of Norfolk’s greatest treasures was lost forever.


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Recreating Tullio Lombardo’s Adam after the fall

November 8th, 2014

On the evening of Sunday, October 6th, 2002, the medium density plywood pedestal supporting the 15th century marble statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo in the Velez Blanco Patio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art buckled. All 770 pounds, six feet three inches of Adam fell, hitting the ground hard and breaking into 28 large pieces and hundreds of small fragments. The head came off at the neck, the torso skidded across the floor, the right leg broke into six pieces, the left arm into seven. Nobody even heard the crash.

The catastrophe was discovered at 9:00 PM by a security guard doing his routine rounds. The emergency call went out to curators and conservators and the patio was cordoned off to allow for a forensic crime scene-level recovery of every little chip. The museum opened as usual on Monday, but nobody was allowed to photograph the disaster. The Met didn’t want the horror of the scene to be the image of the statue in people’s heads even after it was put back together. It took two days for the precise mapping of each fragment to be completed and all the pieces carefully bagged and tagged.

Extensive damage to a sculpture is any museum’s worst nightmare — stone is much harder to repair than canvas — and this case was a particularly spine-chilling one because of Adam‘s singular importance. Commissioned for the tomb of the Doge Andrea Vendramin (d. 1478) in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Venice, Adam was the first monumental nude carved in the classical style since antiquity. The tomb, inspired by ancient triumphal arches, was recognized for the exceptional quality of its statuary before it was even completed. Venetian historian Marino Sanuto the Younger wrote in his diary in 1493 that the Vendramin funerary monument “will surely be the most beautiful in the world because of the excellent statues which are there.” Lombardo’s Adam was placed in a niche next to the sarcophagus of the Doge in the center of the monument. A matching statue of Eve (once attributed to Lombardo but now thought to have been the work of Francesco Segala) was on the other side.

The monastery and church of the Servi were demolished in 1812 in keeping with Napoleon’s edicts ordering the suppression of religious orders. The Vendramin tomb was rescued and installed in the choir of the church of Saints Giovanni e Paolo, but Adam and Eve never made it to the new location. Times had changed, and the classical nudes were now deemed to be not in keeping with the seriousness of the Christian religion. They were replaced by two warrior figures.

The first man and woman were moved to the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi where they both remained until 1865 (Eve is still there today). That year the palace’s owner, Marie-Caroline de Bourbon-Sicile, Duchesse de Berry, daughter of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and daughter-in-law of King Charles X of France, sold much of the contents of the palace at auction in Paris. Adam was acquired by collector Henry Pereire. After his death in 1932, it passed through the hands of a couple of dealers before being bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1936.

The Met was thrilled to have it. Art historian Preston Remington, who was curator of the Met’s Renaissance Art department at that time, described Adam as “the most distinguished of Tullio’s sculptures” whose “importance to the collection of renaissance sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum is paramount.” Besides, he noted, “aside from its archaeological interest, the Adam is a work of great beauty and lasting charm.”

Key to that great beauty and lasting charm was the unblemished smoothness of the carving, perhaps Adam‘s most famous feature. If he couldn’t be put back together with that flawless surface, it would be an incalculable loss. Monumental Renaissance statuary doesn’t come up for sale very often, or ever, really; finding something of equivalent historical significance would be all but impossible.

Initial prognostications were fairly optimistic: the damage was bad, but there were enough large pieces that conservators thought it could be fixed and returned to display in two years or so. That estimate was left in the dust. They decided to take a far more meticulous approach, studying every aspect of the reconstruction in detail before drilling holes in it and piecing it together with adhesives and pins. They stress tested the reversible organic adhesives to see if they could handle such a large statue. They discovered that fiberglass pins were better than metal ones because when they do break, they don’t take chunks of the marble with them. They used new laser imaging technology to create a 3D model so they could puzzle it out virtually before putting the physical pieces together. They even got a crappy copy of Michelangelo’s David and deliberately broke it in the same places Adam for testing purposes.

Instead of two years it took 12, but they were 12 years well spent. After all the work, all the research, was done behind closed doors, a secrecy that caused some comment as a new decade dawned with no publically visible progress, on November 11th, Adam is going back on display at the Met.

The story of the restoration is part of the exhibition. The statue, originally intended for a niche and therefore less worked in the back than in the front, will now be viewed in the round so people can see it the same way the conservators did. The Met has made some videos explaining the epic 12-year conservation project, and there will be an article about the process in the next volume of the Metropolitan Museum Journal (bookmark this page and check back for volume 49).

3D animation illustrating the order of assembly:

Time-lapse of the reconstruction:

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Yorkshire Hoards on Google Art Project

November 7th, 2014

The Google Cultural Institute and the York Museums Trust have joined forces to create an exhibition of hoards discovered in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Hoards exhibition gives audiences the chance to view buried treasure from the Bronze Age (1000 B.C.) to the Civil War (1650 A.D.). The entries are arranged in chronological order so you can take a virtual trip through Yorkshire history, and descriptions are accompanied by high resolution photographs and video.

Hoards were buried for different reasons in different periods. Bronze Age axe hoards, for example, were buried near bodies of water which suggests there was a ritual purpose behind it. Iron Age and Roman coin hoards are often indicators of unrest, earthly goods buried to keep them safe from danger until the owner could return. Some of them were clearly savings, however, the ancient version of stuffing it in your mattress. Valuables were added to over time, in those cases, instead of being buried in one fell swoop.

Hoards are a great way to explore a region’s history, therefore, because they’re concrete evidence of how people dealt with external threats, their religious practices, the geographic range of their connections, what kind of containers they used, etc. It’s also just cool to be able to zoom in on a great many beautiful artifacts and coins that haven’t previously been photographed in high resolution.

The York Museums Trust is also collaborating with Google to present an online highlight reel of one of their museum’s exhibitions: 1914: When the World Changed Forever, a World War I display currently enjoying great success at the York Castle Museum. Objects include a horse’s gas mask, weapons and an ingenious Zeppalarm device that connected to a home’s gas line and lit a light bulb and sounded an alarm when the gas company turned down the supply to dim the lights and warn of an impending dirigible raid.

The Google exhibitions are just the tip of the iceberg. The York Museum Trust has embraced digitization on a grand scale, placing 160,000 objects in its collections, thousands of which are not on public display, in a freely accessible online database. More than 50,000 of the entries include high resolution images of the objects, all of which are in the public domain so you can download them and use them as you wish. More photographs will be uploaded as they are taken.

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HMS Erebus ship’s bell recovered

November 6th, 2014

After the wreck of explorer Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, was found in September, Parks Canada researchers had only two days to explore the site before temperatures plunged below zero making diving impossible. The team made seven dives during those two days, filming, photographing and measuring the wreck as extensively as possible, but they didn’t want to disturb the interior so they only sent cameras inside and did not recover artifacts.

They were holding out on us, though, because one object was removed from the sea floor: the ship’s bronze bell.

The bell was found on the deck adjacent to the ship’s displaced windlass (a form of anchor winch), above which it was originally mounted. Since then, the bell has been undergoing conservation stabilization and additional research.

The bell is intact and generally in very good condition. Two embossed markings – introduced when the bronze bell was first cast – are evident on the artifact: a Royal Navy “broad arrow” indicating property of the British Government, as well as the date “1845.”

Ship’s bells hold a great deal of meaning. In addition to their practical purpose — they struck the half-hour day and night, and signalled the change of the watch — bells are symbolic incarnations of the ship. There’s a tradition in the Royal Navy that upside down bells are used as baptismal founts for sailors’ babies. The names of the baptized children are then engraved under the bell’s lip.

Given its symbolic and archaeological value, Parks Canada decided it would be more prudent to recover the bell instead of subjecting it to another long, frigid winter in the Queen Maud Gulf. It could conceivably be damaged by ice scraping the seabed, although it has survived 168 winters thus far without serious damage. Besides, a ship’s bell can provide essential confirmation of the wreck’s identity, and on a PR note, is an iconic symbol that makes a far more immediate rallying point than sonar scans.

As the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, puts it:

“The bell of HMS Erebus provides a tangible and compelling connection to the Franklin ships and is an important part of naval and Canadian history. The recovery of this important artifact is the crowning achievement for an incredibly successful 2014 search campaign that has captivated Canadians and the entire world.”

Still, the marketing coup had to wait. Parks Canada archaeologists wanted to examine the bell without public scrutiny and begin the process of stabilizing the find before making the announcement, which is why we’re only hearing about it six weeks after the bell was recovered. At first, the bell had to remain damp to keep it from corroding when exposed to the air. It was wrapped in bubble-wrap and kept humid during transportation to Ottawa.

The bell is now sealed in a tank of distilled water in an environmetally-controlled secure location at the Parks Canada conservation laboratory. The water is being tested daily to detect any changes in the artifact. Over the course of months, perhaps as many as 18 or more, the bell will transition from fresh water baths to chemical baths that will leach all the salt from its surface and protect it from corrosion.

One the bell is cleaned and stabilized, it may reveal additional clues that are currently not visible. It will eventually go on public display at a location yet to be determined.


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Witchmarks to protect James I after Gunpowder Plot found at Knole House

November 5th, 2014

Building archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) surveying Knole House, the stately Kent seat of the Sackville family, have discovered protective witchmarks carved on the beams of a room built to house King James I. The marks, checkerboard lines known as demon traps because the evil ones would follow the lines and get caught in them, and interlocking Vs that stand for Virgo Virginum and invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary, were carved by craftsmen in the beams and joists under the floor and on the oak fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room.

Thanks to tree-ring dating, we know exactly when the marks were carved. The oak timber was felled in the winter of 1605-06 and was used while it was still green, which means the beams were in place by the summer of 1606 at the latest. Guy Fawkes and seven other conspirators in the plot to blow up the House of Lords during the Opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605, were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 31st, 1606. Fawkes had been arrested tending to 36 barrels of powder in the undercroft of the House of Lords just 12 hours before the explosion was set to go off, so the King and the entire ruling hierarchy of Britain came very close to annhilation and the memory of it was very fresh when the work was done at Knole.

The discovery answers a long-debated question about witchmarks. Some historians contend that they are carpenters’ marks used for practical purposes as installation guides, but the Knole timbers have both standard carpenters’ marks and witchmarks. Add to that the remodeling in anticipation of the King’s visit and the precise date in the looming shadow of the Gunpowder Plot, and the Knole marks are strong evidence that they were intended to play a supernatural protective role.

Their power never did get tested. All the construction, refurbishment and witchmarking was for nought as King James didn’t go through with his planned visit to Knole. Thomas Sackvillle, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I on her mother’s side, died in 1608 before the King’s visit, and his son didn’t have the clout in court to motivate James to keep Knole on the schedule.

Sackville acquired Knole House in 1566. His descendants (including his grandson Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, whom you might recall as Lady Anne Clifford‘s no-good first husband) have lived there ever since. They are still part owners of the estate, sharing it with the National Trust. The Trust is currently in the midst of the largest conservation project in Knole’s history, a multi-year $30 million restoration that is repairing and documenting the structure down to the individual beams. The MOLA team is recording the timber frame structure on behalf of the National Trust to provide essential information necessary to make the proper decisions on the conservation of the estate.

The showrooms are closed during the restoration, but the King’s Room will be open to the public for a special showing on November 20th and 21st. Visitors will have the chance to see the witchmarks before they are covered back up.

Speaking of the Gunpowder Plot, the earliest written report of the arrest and interrogation of Guy Fawkes is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale on December 9th. It’s a letter written by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, James I’s Secretary of State and spymaster, to Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador to the Hague.

Dated November 9th, just four days after the plot was discovered, it appears to have been written earlier as it still refers to Fawkes as John Johnson, the alias he had used when posing as co-conspirator Thomas Percy’s servant in order to rent a house next to the House of Lords. Fawkes insisted he was Johnson and had acted entirely on his own for the first two days of interrogations before escalating torture got him to confess his real name on November 7th, and the names of his co-conspirators on November 8th and 9th.

Cecil notes in the letter that despite the threat of the torture, “Johnson” insisted he acted alone and confessed solely to his own crimes from illegal practices of Catholicism to planning the destruction of the entire political hierarchy. They only got him to admit Percy was involved by claiming he’d already been captured and confessed. From the letter:

[Y]et could no threatening of torture draw from him any other language than this, that he is ready to die, and rather wisheth ten thousand deaths, than willingly to accuse his master or any other ; until by often reiterating examinations, we pretending to him that his master was apprehended, he hath come to plain confession, that his master kept the key of that cellar whilst he was abroad ; had been in it since the powder was laid there, and inclusive confessed him a principal actor in the same.

Robert Cecil sent copies of this letter to a number of ambassadors in Europe to enlist them in rumor control and to recommend they deploy a few men-at-arms in countries where the conspirators’ supporters might have been preparing military aid. You can read the full text of the letter to Sir Charles Cornwallis, British ambassador to Spain, in this 1905 book about the Gunpowder Plot. Spoiler: author Philip Sidney is no Robert Cecil fan. Check the footnote).

Cecil’s letter to Winwood was bought by the Harcourt family in the 19th century. They are now selling it. The presale estimate is £40,000 to £60,000 ($64,000 – $96,000).

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Madison’s Montpelier gets $10 million donation

November 4th, 2014

Montpelier, the Virginia estate of fourth President of the United States and Father of the Constitution James Madison, went through some tough times after his widow Dolley Madison sold it in 1844. Later owners, most prominently the du Pont family who bought it in 1901 and built on it extensively, developing it into a prominent equestrian facility. Marion du Pont Scott willed Montpelier to the National Trust for Historical Preservation upon her death in 1983. The Trust established The Montpelier Foundation, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to the management of the historic estate, and in 2003 the Foundation undertook a massive architectural restoration to return the mansion to the condition it was in when Madison retired there after the end of his second term as president in 1817.

The restoration was officially concluded on Constitution Day, September 17th, 2008, and was celebrated as one of the most ambitious, authentic restorations ever done in the United States. That was just the beginning, however. There was still a great deal more to be done to return the estate to its historical condition. James and Dolley Madison’s original furnishings were long gone, sold under the financial duress of Dolley’s widowhood or dispersed through the family and then out into the market. There are more Montpelier pieces in museums and private collections scattered around the country than there are in the historic mansion.

In the five years since the architectural restoration was completed, The Montpelier Foundation has dedicated itself to locating furniture, wallpaper, paint colors, accessories and any other relevant objects that if not the actual original pieces, at the very least are authentic to the period and similar or identical to things that would have been in the home in the 1820s, like the 18th century ivory chess set model on which Madison and Thomas Jefferson played their marathon games.

The goal is to restore everything, mansion and landscape, including the dwellings of the domestic slaves, to their appearance in Madison’s time. It’s a massive research project, requiring punctilious examination of the physical space — for example analyzing the window casings for hints of how the treatments were hung and excavating the grounds for evidence of the period landscaping — as well as documentary analysis. Researchers are going through tens of thousands of pages of documents, from letters to visitor descriptions to receipts to estate financial records and so much more, to get the full picture of what was in the house and how the estate as a whole functioned in the 19th century.

About $6.5 million have already been invested in the project. Several rooms are now furnished and excavations in the South Yard have found the footprints of the six structures where Montpelier’s slaves lived and worked. To get the project into the endzone, private equity billionaire, philanthropist and committed history buff David Rubenstein has donated $10 million to The Montpelier Foundation.

Rubenstein is deeply committed to preserving history for the nation and he puts his money where his mouth is. Last year he purchased the Bay Psalm Book for $14,165,000 to loan it to libraries all over the country before settling on one library to be the recipient of a long-term loan of the book. The year before that he donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument when it was damaged by a 2011 earthquake. After buying the only privately owned copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives and then gave them $13.5 million to build it a new custom display case.

Most of the donation, $6.5 million will go to the furnishing and restoration of the mansion’s interior. The priority areas are the South Passage entry hall, James’ mother Nelly Madison’s sitting and dining rooms, several upstairs bedrooms and their closet spaces, plus the cellar kitchens and work areas.

The South Hall used to be central hall of the original Georgian home from the 1760s. In Madison’s day, it was used as a secondary parlor and gallery space with an impressive array of art on the walls. It’s completely bare now, despite being the first stop on the daily tour. Nelly’s rooms are off the South Passage. The upstairs bedrooms are the Madisons’ primary bedchamber, guest and family bedchambers that once furnished will show visitors what a bustling, busy, active home it was. The closets will be stocked with linens and clothing, and the rooms furnished from bedding to seating to artwork to window treatments.

The cellar, which covers the entire footprint of the mansion, was the domain of Montpelier’s enslaved domestic staff. The space includes two kitchens, a wine cellar and multiple storage and work areas. The whole space is empty (the modern mechanical systems were moved to an underground vault during the architectural restoration). With Rubenstein’s donation, the Foundation will add interpretative elements that bring attention to the individual slaves who worked there, highlighting their personal histories and family links, their daily work on the plantation, how they traveled, their influence on Montpelier.

The rest of the donation, $3.5 million, will be dedicated to the reconstruction of the South Yard adjacent to the mansion. In Madison’s time, the South Yard had three duplex slave quarters (relatively comfortable housing for house slaves; the field hands lived in log and mud shacks next to the fields), two smokehouses and a detached kitchen. The kitchen, one of the duplexes and the smokehouses will be reconstructed and fully furnished to give visitors the chance to see where and how Montpelier’s enslaved community lived. The second duplex will be used as a classroom for student programs, the third for exhibition space on the slaves, field, house and skilled craftsmen, who kept Montpelier going.

Rubenstein wants to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave money to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.

“It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country — Jefferson, Washington, Madison — yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do, much about it,” he said. “We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.”

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“Arbeit Macht Frei” gate stolen from Dachau

November 3rd, 2014

In what is becoming a sickening trend, the wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”) at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp was stolen in the early hours of Sunday. There are private security guards on the premises, but the camp has no surveillance system, a deliberate choice to eschew the ugly association of constant monitoring.

Gabriele Hammermann, [Director of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial], said Monday. “We have irregular guard patrols six to seven times per night at the camp, but all of the former concentration camps in Germany have so far not installed cameras, as we do not want to make these locations once again a high-security facility in respect for the deceased.”

The theft happened while the guards were patrolling sometime between 11:45 PM Saturday and 5:30 AM Sunday. The thieves, and there had to have been at least two of them, scaled the outer gate to reach the wrought iron one, then removed the entire door that carries the slogan off its hinges. They then had the heft it back over the outer gate. Because it’s six-and-a-half-feet high, three feet wide and weighs an estimated 225 pounds, the thieves must have had a getaway vehicle.

Police and state security are investigating the theft. They have appealed to anyone who might have seen a vehicle or suspicious people in the area Sunday morning to come forward with any information. Authorities suspect it may be a politically motivated act by right-wing extremists, although a commissioned theft is certainly possible. It has happened before.

The large “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the entrance to Auschwitz was stolen in December of 2009 only to be recovered less than 72 hours later. The thieves were Polish men hired by Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Högström who claimed to have acted solely as a middle man but ultimately pleaded guilty to masterminding the theft and was sentenced to serve two years and eight months in a Swedish prison.

I think this theft is slightly less likely to have been a deranged collector because the sign is not actually original. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30th. It was built on the site of an abandoned munitions factory on the outskirts of the Bavarian town of Dachau, 10 miles northwest of Munich, as a forced labour camp for political prisoners. One of those political prisoners, Communist Karl Röder, was ordered to craft the iron lettering by the SS in 1936. Röder’s sign was removed after the war. A replica was installed in its place when the memorial was created in 1965.

That does not diminish the symbolic significance of the theft. Dr. Gabriele Hammermann considers it a:

“deliberate, reprehensible attempt to deny and obliterate the memory of the crimes committed in this place. The assault on this relict of highly symbolic importance demonstrates a new dimension, since it is an attempt to demolish the memorial at its very core.”

More than 200,000 people — political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, gyspies, clergy, reistance fighters, POWs (mainly Poles) — from all over Europe were imprisoned at Dachau in its 12 years of operation. More than 40,000 died from starvation, disease, torture, executions and death marches before US Army forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Today Dachau has the most visitors of any concentration camp memorial in Germany, approximately 800,000 a year.

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Pharaonic temple found under house in Egypt

November 2nd, 2014

The remains of a 3,400-year-old temple from the reign of Tuthmose III (1479-1425 B.C.) have been found underneath a house in the Egyptian town of Badrashin 25 miles south of Cairo. It was discovered two weeks ago under shady circumstances. A group of seven men dug nearly 30 feet (nine meters) under their home, even going so far as to secure wet suits, oxygen tanks and diving masks so they could keep digging after they hit the water table. The Tourism and Antiquities Police heard about the clandestine dig and arrested the men for illegal excavation. They were detained briefly but had to be released because the area where they were digging was not a designated archaeological site.

It is now. The entire Hod Zeleikha neighborhood has been declared an archeological site and is now under the control of the Antiquities Ministry. The unauthorized amateur excavation has been replaced with an official dig by archaeologists from Egypt’s antiquities ministry and workers from the state-owned Arab Contractors Company. After pumping out the groundwater, the team discovered seven large limestone blocks engraved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the bases of several columns and a piece of a colossal statue. The colossus fragment is 6.2 feet high and carved out of pink granite. It depicts a seated person.

The hieroglyphics date the structure to the New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.) and at least some of the inscriptions date to the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmose III (1490-1436 B.C.). The reign of Tuthmose III is considered a golden age in Egyptian history. The stepson and nephew of pharaoh Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III was technically pharaoh from the age of two, co-ruler with his stepmother. In practise he didn’t rule until Hatshepsut died 22 years after they ascended to the throne. He ruled another 32 years after Hatshepsut’s death. Under his reign, the Egypt empire reached its greatest extent, from northern Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia.

The recovered artifacts have been transported to Saqqara for conservation and study. Archaeologists hope the inscriptions and future discoveries will reveal more about the history of Egypt under Tuthmose III. The ministry plans to continue the archaeological survey of the site and excavate more of the temple.

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