Medieval bones found under 1950′s Westminster Abbey lavoratory

September 23rd, 2015

Demolition of a 1950s block of bathrooms outside Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner has revealed scores of human skeletal remains dating to the 11th and early 12th century. The lavatory block is being removed to make way for the Abbey’s first new tower in almost 300 years, a subtle addition nestled behind the buttresses of the chapter house that will provide new and improved access to the Abbey’s attic (triforium) museum. Underneath Victorian drainage pipes, archaeologists found bones from at least 50 people, many of them disarticulated and stacked like cord wood, others in graves lined with chalk slabs in Anglo-Saxon/early Norman style, plus the remains of a three-year-old child buried in a wooden coffin and one adult man buried in an expensive coffin of Northamptonshire Barnack stone.

The child is too young to have been pledged to the monastery or to have worked there, and the fact that he or she was buried in a wooden coffin indicates a high social status. The bones aren’t preserved enough to determine sex by visual examination. The adult man is missing his skull. His stone coffin was moved to its current location by work crews under Sir George Gilbert Scott, the Gothic Revivalist architect and Surveyor to the Fabric at Westminster Abbey who restored the 13th century chapter house in the 1860s. Scott had the coffin moved because it would have blocked a new window in the chapter house and had it built into a brick wall. The coffin bears the tell-tale signs of interference from this period. A corner of the lid is broken, likely the result of workers lifting it to have a look inside. The skull was probably removed at that time.

The original Romanesque church that would become Westminster Abbey was built by saint and king Edward the Confessor as part of an expansion of the Benedictine monastery on the site. He dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle but it was known as the “west minster” in contrast to St. Paul’s Cathedral which was London’s minster to the east. St. Peter’s was completed in 1065 only days before Edward’s death. He was buried in front of the high altar.

It was King Henry III, a highly devout man who took Edward the Confessor as his patron saint, who decided to replace Edward’s church with a new one in the glamorous Gothic style pioneered by Abbot Suger in the Church of Saint-Denis in the mid-12th century. Henry envisioned the soaring new church as a more majestic shrine for Edward’s bones and those of England’s kings and queens. The Romanesque church was demolished in 1245 and construction began. Saint Edward’s remains were translated to the new shrine on October 13th, 1269. By the time Henry died in 1272, the apse and radiating chapels of the eastern end, the north and south transepts and choirs were completed.

The stacking of the bones was the work of Henry III’s construction team.

Paw Jorgensen, who supervised the excavation by specialist firm Pre-Construct Archaeology, said they had originally been buried in a small burial ground just outside the south transept walls. The highest status individuals, the kings, queens and most senior clergy, would have been buried within the church itself, but the newly found remains were close enough to indicate they probably were those of senior clergy. When Henry demolished Edward the Confessor’s church and began his own massive construction project, the land was dug up, and they were all reburied in a layer under the surface of what was the 13th-century masons’ yard, littered with chips of the stone used to build a platform to take the enormous weight of the new building.

Some of the skulls have small square holes in them which were likely caused by Henry’s workers wielding pickaxes with less than pious care. Even with holes the stacked bones are in quite good condition, much better condition than the chalk-lined graves which have been damaged by leaks in the Victorian drainage pipes. Archaeologists hope laboratory analysis of the bones will pinpoint who they were, their profession, age, diet, health and where they were raised.

Jorgensen says the lavatory block is “built as solidly as a nuclear bunker” making it “a nightmare to demolish.” As the tedious process continues, archaeologists expect to find more bones. As it is, the 50 or so already discovered bring the total number of people known to have been buried in Westminster Abbey to an impressive 3,350. Once the remains have been studied, they will be reburied in the grounds on the church.


Getty and Armenian Church reach agreement over stolen Bible pages

September 22nd, 2015

Five years ago, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a $105 million lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum alleging that the museum was wrongfully in possession of seven pages ripped out of the 13th century Bible that belongs to the Church. Now the parties have come to an agreement: the Getty acknowledges that the Armenian Apostolic Church owns the pages; the Church donates the pages to the Getty. This way nothing has to actually move or change hands, but the Getty, which in its initial response to the suit insisted that it had “legal ownership” of the pages and that the lawsuit was “groundless and should be dismissed,” has to admit the Armenian Apostolic Church is the true owner.

The Zeyt’un Gospels were commissioned in 1256 by the Catholikos, the leader of the Armenian Church, Constantine I. This Bible is the first signed works of T’oros Roslin, scribe and the greatest Armenian illuminator of the Middle Ages. The pages (there are actually eight of them; the Church didn’t know about the last one when it filed) are canon tables, concordances listing passages in the Gospels that describe the same event. The text is therefore sparse, just chapter and verse references.

In the Middle Ages, canon tables were often depicted in an architectural setting, the columns of numbers placed between drawings of literal columns. What makes these pages exceptional is the illumination by T’oros Roslin who decorated each page in a riot of brilliant colors and gold paint. The tables are divided by columns and topped with intricately detailed geometric panels. Birds, vines, trees, vases line the borders and stand proudly atop the header panels. No two pages are the same.

This Bible, in addition to being an irreplaceable Armenian national treasure, is held to be sacred and miraculous. The Zeyt’un Gospels were venerated as having protective powers which is why in 1915 when the Ottoman government began massacring Armenians, the book was carried through every street of Zeyt’un in an attempt to ensure the entire city would be under its divine protection.

Later that year, church officials gave the Bible to a member of the Armenian royal Sourenian family. The Sourenians had connections in the upper echelons of the Ottoman government, so the hope was they wouldn’t be killed or deported and could keep the Gospels safe. They lasted a year before they were deported to Marash in 1916, but they did receive special treatment that allowed them to survive transportation instead of starving to death like so many of their compatriots.

The Sourenian pater familias loaned the Bible to his friend Dr. H. Der Ghazarian for what was supposed to be a few days. At the perfectly wrong time, the Sourenians were unexpectedly deported and lost track of the Zeyt’un Gospels. It seems the book remained in Marash for the duration of World War I. It surfaced there in 1928 but various obstacles kept it out of the Church’s hands until 1948 when the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul took possession of it and gave it to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, for safekeeping and display. The Bible remains there to this day.

The missing pages were spotted in 1948 when the Bible returned from Aleppo after it was authenticated by the same Dr. Ghazarian who had it for a while during the war. Although the Church investigated, it was never able to discover who stole the pages and when. At some point the pages ended up in an anonymous private collection in Watertown, Massachusetts. They were seen in public for the first time since the Genocide when the collector loaned the pages to the Morgan Library for a 1994 exhibition. After that exhibition, the Getty acquired the pages. Thirteen years later, Armenian attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan who has often represented victims of the Armenian Genocide discovered the pages were at the Getty and alerted the Church. The Getty refused all requests to repatriate the unquestionably stolen pages and the lawsuit ensued.

It seems to me the Church is conceding a great deal for the sake of a statement of historical ownership. There really is no question that the pages were stolen, so why shouldn’t they be reunited with the rest of the Bible?

The following statement from Getty director Timothy Potts irks me:

“That the pages were saved from destruction and conserved in a museum all these years means that these irreplaceable representations of Armenia’s rich artistic heritage have been and will be preserved for future generations.”

The removal of the pages was the destruction. They weren’t “saved.” They were ripped out and sold on the black market, bought by unscrupulous collectors and the Getty. The Bible itself survived a genocide and two world wars and has been conserved in a museum for 67 years. The Getty having taken care of blatantly stolen pages for a decade hardly makes it the heritage-preserving hero of the piece.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys seem happy, at any rate.

“This is a momentous occasion for the Armenian people, coming at a historic time, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. I want to thank the Getty for joining in a solution that recognizes the historical suffering of the Armenian people and that will also allow this Armenian treasure to remain in the museum which has cared for it and made it available to the Armenian and larger community in Los Angeles. We are pleased that both sides arrived at an amicable solution,” said Lee Crawford Boyd, the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder representing the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. “The sacred Canon Tables are now being recognized as having belonged to the Armenian Church. Together with the Church and the Armenian people, we are thrilled with this outcome.”

No word on whether this on-paper ownership switcheroo was accompanied by some kind of financial settlement.

To learn more about the Armenian Genocide, including primary sources, maps, eye-witness statements, a timeline of events and a collection of horrifying photographs, please visit the website of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.


Intact 4th c. B.C. Samnite tomb found in Pompeii

September 21st, 2015

A 4th century B.C. Samnite tomb has been found in the necropolis of Porta Ercolano, a burial ground just outside Pompeii’s northwest gate a few steps from the famous Villa of the Mysteries (see the top left corner on this map). The necropolis was in use from the 1st century B.C. until the city’s destruction on August 24th, 79 A.D. for cremation burials and tombs in keeping with Roman customs at the time, but earlier inhumation burials have been found there as well. They’ve been heavily damaged by construction of the Roman city, Vesuvius, looters, rough excavations and Allied bombing in World War II. That makes this find exceptionally rare because the tomb was discovered intact with an articulated skeleton and all of its grave goods.

The archaeological team from the Jean Bérard Center of Naples wasn’t even looking for graves, even you might think it was considering it was excavating a necropolis. In fact the Porta Ercolano area was what we today would call mixed use with shops, villas and tombs side by side. Archaeologists were exploring the site of a pottery production complex they’ve been excavating for the past four years as part of a research project focusing on artisanship and the economy of Pompeii.

While digging in area that had no surface construction, they unearthed the cyst grave of an adult woman about 35-40 years old with extensive grave goods. She was buried with about 10 vases and urns that date to the middle of the 4th century B.C. The skeletal remains haven’t been radiocarbon dated yet, so the style of the vases is what dates the tomb. The burial type is known in other Samnite centers like Paestum, but has only been recorded in Pompeii from 19th century excavations which leave a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. Finding an intact grave, left completely alone and undamaged by thieves or construction or the bomb that exploded feet away in 1943 leaving burn marks on the stone slabs of the cyst, gives archaeologists the opportunity to study Samnite Pompeii in heretofore impossible depth with all the advantages of modern technology.

“It is an exceptional find for Pompeii because it throws light on the pre-Roman city about which we know so very little,” said Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii. [...]

The woman was buried with a series of clay jars, or amphora, which come from other regions of Italy revealing the extent of trade between the Samnites at Pompeii and other areas across the Italian peninsula. The contents of the jars will be analyzed in the weeks to come – but are thought to contain cosmetics, wine and food.

“The burial objects will show us much about the role of women in Samnite society and can provide us with a useful social insight,” Osanna told reporters.

The extraordinary events of its demise and preservation have ensured that Pompeii is thought of exclusively as a Roman city, but in fact only fell under Roman control when it was conquered by the dictator Sulla in 89 B.C. Pompeii was founded around the 7th century B.C. by the Oscans, a central Italic tribe. In the 6th century it was conquered by the Etruscans and in the 5th century by the Samnites. Rome’s influence over Pompeii came at the turn the 3th century B.C. after the Third Samnite War (298-290 B.C.) when the city was forced to accept status as a socium, an associate, of the Roman Republic. The status afforded them political autonomy — it could retain its ancient Oscan language and govern itself — but compelled military alliance.

For two centuries they took it, but when a series of Roman military defeats caused wholesale slaughter of Italian troops and when my namesake, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus, was assassinated for his efforts in securing Roman citizenship for all of the Italian allied peoples, the Italian socii revolted against Rome in 91 B.C. and Pompeii joined its Italian cousins in the rebellion. Two years later Sulla besieged the city and in 80 B.C. he seeded it with his veterans and made it an official Roman colony.

The tomb dates to the decades just before the Second Samnite War and the humiliating Roman defeat at the Battle of the Caudine Forks (321 B.C.), which was so humiliating there wasn’t even a battle. The Samnites tricked the Roman commanders, co-consuls Titus Veturius Calvinus and Spurius Postumius Albinus, into deploying their army to the relief of the city of Lucera which 10 shepherds had told them was under siege by the forces of Samnite general Gaius Pontius. The shepherds were actually Pontius’ men and Lucera was not besieged by anyone. The Romans took a short cut through the Caudine Forks, a mountain pass that could only be accessed by two very narrow gorges. The Samnites cut off the entrance to the second gorge and when the Romans turned around, they found the Samnites had blocked the first gorge too. With unclimbable mountain cliffs on either side, the Roman army was well and truly screwed and everyone knew it.

To get anyone out alive, Calvinus and Albinus had to surrender unconditionally and the entire army was forced to pass “under the yoke,” (each man had to bow and walk under an ox yoke), the ultimate degradation for ancient soldiers. The consuls then signed a peace treaty that basically gave the Samnites everything they wanted and returned to Rome utterly humiliated. They had to hand in their symbols of office and resign. They even offered their persons to the Samnites to do whatever they wanted with, but Gaius Pontius refused because he thought it was a stratagem to get him to violate the terms of the treaty and render it null and void. Which it probably was.

Excavations are ongoing and archaeologists hope to find other Samnite-era graves around the newly discovered one. Where there’s one tomb, there are often more, but the odds of finding another grave miraculously unharmed by the Allied bomb that fell on this very spot are slim.


200 Napoleonic soldiers’ graves found in Frankfurt

September 20th, 2015

The graves of an estimated 200 soldiers from Napoleon’s Grand Army have been discovered at a construction site in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Napoleonic soldiers’ remains were found nearby in 1979, so archaeologists were employed to survey the site before work began. They have so far unearthed about 30 skeletons; the 200 figure is an estimate based on the dimensions of the site.

Unlike the mass grave unearthed in Vilnius, this is a burial ground where each individual was buried neatly in his own coffin, which means the skeletal remains are in significantly better condition.

Andrea Hampel, the heritage and historic monuments director in Frankfurt, said it was certain that the “tombs were erected in an emergency”. Hampel said the skeletons were aligned in a row, without funeral articles, in a north-south orientation – not an east-west axis as was common for European Christians at the time – suggesting they were buried in haste.

I don’t really get that. How could it be an emergency burial if the buriers took the time to inter each body in its own coffin? Surely a mass grave would be the way to go in an emergency. Also, why is it any faster to inter coffins along a north-south axis rather than the traditional Christian east-west orientation? The expenditure of time and resources in the building of coffins and their deliberate arrangement, not in selecting one axis over the other. It’s weird.

Also weird is that in all the articles I’ve read on this find, Olaf Cunitz, the Mayor of Frankfurt, is quoted stating at a press conference that preliminary analysis indicates these are soldiers who died after fighting the coalition armies at the Battle of Hanau during the brutal retreat from Russia. That can’t be right. The retreat from Russia was in the winter of 1812 and it all but destroyed Napoleon’s Great Army. Hanau was fought on October 30-31st, 1813, in the wake of the four-day Battle of Leipzig. It was a rearguard action intended to block what was left of Napoleon’s second Great Army, hastily assembled in the summer of 1813, from reaching the Rhine where they could regroup.

Had it succeeded, it would have obliterated the second Great Army, which had suffered immense losses during the Battle of Leipzig, but Napoleon won the Battle of Hanau. Outnumbered, outhorsed and outgunned, Napoleon’s troops still inflicted 9,000 casualties on the Bavarian army under the command of Karl Philipp von Wrede which had literally weeks earlier been fighting on France’s side, only switching teams after Leipzig. Napoleon suffered half the number of casualties in the battle, but 10,000 of his men were captured. The rest of the Great Army headed for their rear base at Mainz, reaching Frankfurt on November 2nd.

Buttons found in the graves confirm the 1813 date, and given that the Great Army was actually in Frankfurt and environs in late October of that year, it seems likely these soldiers were from the second Great Army, not the Russian retreat.

The excavation will continue for another four to six weeks. Archeologists hope to unearth all of the graves and then study the remains to figure out how they died. Battle wounds are likely candidates for cause of death, as is typhus which had far killed more soldiers in the first Great Army than violence did. There was a major epidemic of typhus in Frankfurt in late 1813, spread by the soldiers, prisoners and city residents who looted the battlefield and brought back deadly microorganisms along with dead soldiers’ belongings.


Wadsworth Atheneum reopens to great acclaim

September 19th, 2015

After a five-year, $33 million renovation, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art reopened to the public on Saturday and the public was eager to renew its acquaintance with the venerable museum, filling the entrance of the museum 15 minutes before opening.

The renovation has refurbished more than 38,000 square feet of the Wadsworth’s exhibition spaces and the historic buildings themselves. Areas that were previously relegated to storage have been reclaimed for display adding 17 new galleries and an exceptional 16,000 square feet of new exhibition space, a 27% increase. Artworks from the European collections that have been gathering dust in storage now have a chance to shine in the expanded museum, setting off the century-old Morgan Memorial Building, the first Beaux-Arts museum building in the United States, to its greatest advantage. This is the first time all the galleries have been open at the same time in 50 years.

The project took so long and was so expensive because there was a great deal of structural work to be done. There were leaks in many of the galleries and all five of the museum’s buildings needed new roofs with proper waterproofing. New climate control systems were installed in both the display areas and the storage facility to ensure the collection is protected. New lighting, restrooms, an elevator, wifi and signage bring the oldest continually operating public art museum in the country into the modern era.

The beauty of the historic buildings — the Gothic Revival Wadsworth building (1844) which housed the entirety of the original collection when the museum opened, the Tudor Revival Colt Memorial building (1910), the Renaissance Revival Morgan Memorial building (1910-15) — has been renewed with the uncovering of original architectural elements like concrete beams and window casings. Natural light is introduced through the placement of new skylights the restoration of a period one.

The Early Baroque gallery, now a rich, appetite-stimulating red, is home to two of the gems in the Wadsworth collection: Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595-96) and Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1616–18) by Artemisia Gentileschi which was the museum acquired last year.

The Morgan Great Hall with its 24-foot-high topped with vaulted ceilings and new skylights has been repainted in a deep blue shade poetically called “evening dove,” an elegant backdrop for the collection of important 16th to 19th century European and American works that now cover the walls in gallery style. Before this renovation, the Great Hall was painted white and exhibited contemporary pieces. Before that, it was a sort of raspberry color and while it had classical works like it does now, there were far fewer of them. When it first opened in 1915 there was a line of large tapestries on the walls and sculptures on the floor.

The inspiration for the Great Hall as it is today is one of my favorite paintings in the Wadsworth collection: Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Panini, master of the architectural fantasy, painted Interior of a Picture Gallery in 1749. He set Cardinal Gonzaga in the center of a vast be-columned fantasy gallery with his entire collection of artworks taking up every inch of space on the walls, propped against the furniture and stacked on tables. The painting was a great success for Panini, inspiring subsequent takes on the subject of the fantasy art gallery commissioned by Étienne-François de Choiseul-Stainville, duc de Choiseul, who was the French ambassador to the papal court in Rome. Panini made a pair of works for him in 1756 depicting the great art and architecture of Ancient Rome and Modern Rome (modern in this case being mainly Renaissance and Baroque), then another pair on the same theme the next year (both now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The reviews of the renovation have so far been uniformly glowing.


Garfield’s terrible doctors and Alexander Graham Bell’s metal detector

September 18th, 2015

When President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2nd, 1881, a mere three months and 28 days after his inauguration, the nation was shocked. Lincoln’s assassination was deemed a sort of war casualty, a freak occurrence brought on by Civil War, not the opening of a floodgate, so presidents had no security detail and moved about in public places like anyone else. It was easy, therefore, for a disgruntled office-seeker/nutjob with a delusional amount of self-regard like Charles J. Guiteau to approach Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C., and shoot him twice. One bullet penetrated his lower back; the other grazed his right arm.

Even from a few away and taking his victim by surprise with a shot to the back, Guiteau was too incompetent to kill immediately. Garfield lived for 79 days, two months and 17 days of agony, before dying of blood poisoning on September 19th, 1881. Sadly, as you might have deduced from his cause of death, Garfield’s doctors were in part, maybe even in large part, responsible for the president’s painful death, a point that Guiteau made at his trial when he took responsibility for shooting Garfield but not for killing him. That outcome he laid at the doctors’ door, with a little help from God, of course, who was behind the whole thing, according to Guiteau.

Although Joseph Lister had first published his successful tests of disinfection with carbolic acid in 1867 and had traveled across the United States in 1876 lecturing on his method, even though by 1879 Lister’s antiseptic protocols were almost universally adopted in Europe and Great Britain, the majority of American surgeons in 1881 rejected Listerism. They took pride in that “good old surgical stink” caused by years of accumulated blood and pus and god knows whatall assorted fluids on their surgical gowns. Garfield’s doctors were no exception.

The first doctor to arrive at the scene was the District of Columbia’s health officer Dr. Smith Townsend. He gave Garfield brandy and smelling salts to keep him conscious, and then stuck his doubtless germ-laden fingers into the entrance wound, fishing around hoping to find the bullet. Nine more doctors followed, each poking and prodding the suffering man. As a crowd gathered, Townsend ordered the President be moved to a room on the second floor. Garfield’s cabinet members, who had come to the station to see him off, kept vigil by his side. One of those cabinet members, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, was particularly traumatized by seeing so painful a history repeat itself. He sent for Dr. Willard Bliss, one of the surgeons who had tried (and failed) to save his father’s life.

Bliss arrived and immediately took over. He administered morphine and had a go at tracking the bullet, sticking his pinky finger and a number of metal probes into the wound. One of the probes was jammed in so deep that it got caught in Garfield’s broken rib and had to be jiggled this way and that to remove it. Only after this examination was done did Bliss order Garfield transported to the White House.

There even more doctors showed up, including Dr. Jedediah Baxter, Garfield’s personal physician. Baxter was turned away at the door by Bliss who insisted on taking complete control of the illustrious patient. Bliss dismissed all the doctors who had “helped” at the station and assembled his own team. Only two doctors were allowed to attend Garfield against Bliss’ wishes at the insistence of First Lady Lucretia Garfield: Dr. Susan Ann Edson, Mrs. Garfield’s personal physician and one of a very few women doctors in the country, and Garfield’s first cousin Dr. Silas Boynton. Bliss still managed to shut them out from making any decisions on treatment, relegating them to a nursing role.

When Garfield survived the night and woke feeling refreshed, his breathing even, his temperature normal and his pulse rate a high but not alarming 114 beats per minute, it seemed his strong constitution might pull him through after all. His team of doctors did not leave well enough alone, however. They continued to obsess over the bullet, trying to find it so they could determine whether to remove it surgically or leave it in place. Without X-rays or other non-invasive technologies at their disposal and rejecting Lister’s precautions, unwashed fingers and probes were the method of choice.

Enter Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was then at the crest of the wave of his fame. His telephone, patented in 1876, was a sensation that would make him a very rich man. Spurred by interference on the line caused by telegraph lines running near the a telephone conductor, in 1877 he patented an induction balance system that used two conductors with equal and opposite induced currents to create a “quiet circuit.” Induction balance machines weren’t new (a certain Professor Dove in Germany had invented one in 1841), and metals were known to interrupt the currents. What Bell thought of when he learned of the President’s predicament was how to connect his telephone technology with induction balance technology so that the interruption in the current could be heard as a ring through a handheld earpiece.

Using an induction balance device by Professor D.E. Hughes, with the help of his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter and the input of many eminent scientists (read his detailed report here), Bell created an amplified induction balance machine that would hopefully detect the bullet inside the President. Bliss wouldn’t let him near his patient until the machine was tested on another human guinea pig, so the doctor directed Bell to try it on Lieutenant Simpson who had been carrying a bullet inside of him since the Civil War. On July 22nd, Bell tested the machine on Simpson. He heard a signal but it was weak so he added a condenser which increased the hearing distance and made the sound more detectable.

Bell arrived in Washington on July 26th and passed the induction balance machine over Garfield’s right side and only his right side. That was at Dr. Bliss’ insistence since he was sure the bullet was on the right and wanted to move the President as little as possible. The machine made a feeble sound over Garfield’s abdomen, the area Bliss and his crew thought the bullet was lodged in, but Bell was dubious that it was a legitimate signal. He went made more modifications to the machine, tested it on another Civil War veteran, a side of beef he’d stuck a bullet into and a thick bag of cotton he’d hidden a bullet in, and returned to the White House again on August 2nd. He got much the same results. The doctors took it as confirmation of their assessment. Bell thought it was interference from external metal elements, perhaps the springs under the mattress.

In the end, Bell’s induction balancephone was unable to accurately pinpoint the location of the bullet, and even if it had, by then it was too late. By July 23rd, sepsis had set in. No surgical intervention, filthy or clean, was going to save James Garfield. The pathogen-rich wound probing had already claimed his life. It was just a matter of time. Unable to keep down food, President Garfield lost 65 pounds in those 79 days, shrinking from a stout 200 pounds to a gaunt 135 pounds. His doctors gave him nutrient enemas to keep him from starving to death. Feverish and hallucinating, his poor, infection-riddled body developed painful abscesses which were lanced only to pop up in new places.

The metal detector wasn’t the only invention mothered by the necessity of keeping James Garfield alive and as comfortable as possible. The Navy Corps of Engineers created a rudimentary air conditioning system consisting of wool strips soaked in water and hung over blocks of ice. An electric fan was positioned to blow air through the strips and ice into the President’s room, keeping it at a steady 75 degrees during one of the hottest summers on record when it was 100 degrees outside and 90 indoors for weeks in a row. When Garfield was moved to his cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, to spend his final days bathed in the dulcet breezes of the Jersey Shore, the Navy Corps of Engineers devised a waterbed to keep him from being jostled mercilessly over the train journey. It worked; Garfield reported the trip — which ended literally on his doorstep thanks to a mile-long spur built overnight by the Pennsylvania Railroad — had been quite pleasant.

James Garfield, born dirt poor in a log cabin in Ohio, who worked his way through college as a janitor, rose to the rank of General fighting in major battles of the Civil War, became state senator, then Representative, then Senator-elect, then President before he could take his seat in the Senate, died in Franklyn Cottage in full view of the ocean, his beloved Lucretia and children by his side. An autopsy found that Bliss was completely wrong about the location of the bullet. It had traveled through the first lumbar vertebra and stopped near the spleen, on the left side of Garfield’s body where Bliss insisted it was not.

As for presidential security, believe it or not it took another 20 years and yet another assassination in full public view, that of William McKinley on September 6th, 1901, for Congress to task the Secret Service with protecting the person of the President of the United States.


Village built on ruins of Rhine fort after Romans left

September 17th, 2015

Continuing excavation of the Roman fort in the southwest German town of Gernsheim discovered last year has revealed that civilians built a village on the site after the Romans left. Last year a team of 15 students led by archaeologist Dr. Thomas Maurer of Goethe University found postholes from the fort towers and two ditches the departing troops had filled with demolition waste, trash which turned to treasure when a brick fragment stamped with the identifying the legion, Legio XXII Primigenia Pia Fidelis, was discovered.

The 2014 season excavated about 300 square meters of an undeveloped lot in a residential neighborhood. This excavation season covered double the area in double the time, running from August 3rd to early October. Maurer has a team of 20 students working under his direction this year. They have unearthed the foundations of a masonry building, fire pits, two wells and cellar pits from the village built over the remains of the fort. A great many fragments from a variety of ceramics — high quality, coarse and imports — were recovered which experts hope will be able to narrow down the occupation dates of fort and village. The team also unearthed precious artifacts like fibulae, pearls, dice and pieces from a game and a bone hairpin decorated with a female bust.

The Gernsheim fort was one in a series of military installations that made up the Limes Germanicus, the defended border separating the Roman provinces of Germania Superior, Germania Inferior and Raetia from the unruly Germanic tribes to the east. At its peak, the Limes consisted of 60 forts and 900 watchtowers extending from the North Sea to the Danube at Regensburg. The cohort of Legio XXII was stationed at Gernsheim between 70/80 and 110/120 A.D., and while the destruction of the fort and the soldiers’ departure can’t help but have had a negative impact on the community attached to it, the civilians rallied with surprising speed.

The people who settled in the village around the fort were primarily family members of the soldiers and tradespeople who benefited from the purchasing power of the military. “A temporary downturn probably resulted when the troops left – this is something we know from sites which have been studied more thoroughly”, Maurer adds. However, stone buildings were already erected in the “Gernsheim Roman village” during the 2nd century, which suggests that the settlement was prospering. The population probably had mainly Gallic-Germanic origins, with perhaps a few “true” Romans – persons with Roman citizenship who moved here from faraway provinces. This is illustrated by specific archaeological finds; most notably pieces of traditional dress but also coins. One of the historic finds from Gernsheim is a coin from Bithynia (Northwest Anatolia), which was certainly not among the coins in circulation in Germania Superior but would instead have been a form of souvenir.

Preliminary analysis suggests the village was occupied through the 3rd century, until about 260 A.D. when pressure from the Germanic tribes led to the permanent abandonment of the Limes and all territories east of the Rhine and north of the Danube.


Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

September 16th, 2015

The New York Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow as they digitize their huge collections of photographs, manuscripts, maps. They’re up to 838,384 individual items from The New York Public Library’s collections digitized and uploaded to its website. Many of the scans are in high resolution and while the interface can be a bit clunky (no easy mechanism to move from page to page, for example, in some of the books and pamphlets), they make for riveting browsing.

Arranged in subcollections, there are groups with thousands of items — 2,027 turn of the century posters, 64,243 portraits culled from the library’s Print Collection, 8,915 documents from the Emmet Collection of manuscripts focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the Revolutionary War — and single items like book covers or individual pages.

One striking group of photographs that has recently been uploaded is the William Williams collection. Williams was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island from 1902-5 and 1909-13, some of the busiest years of immigration to the United States. He left his papers, including the pictures he collected from his days at Ellis Island, to the New York Public Library and now the photographs are online. There are an eminently browsable 100 or so pictures and article clippings in the Williams collection, 41 portraits of immigrants going through the process of being allowed into the United States, 49 focused on Ellis Island itself.

Most of the latter were shot by Edwin Levick, a professional photographer with a particular focus on maritime views, which explains why many of his pictures of Ellis Island are taken from the water. The portraits of the immigrants were mostly taken by an amateur, Augustus Frederick Sherman, Chief Clerk of Ellis Island. In sheer fascination and impact, the amateur puts the professional to shame.

Sherman was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1889. In 1892, he got a job as a clerk at Ellis Island. He was competent and dedicated and came up through the ranks, ultimately getting promoted to Chief Clerk in 1905. Part of his job was to deal with appeals by detained immigrants who had been blocked from entering the mainland by one of the Boards of Special Inquiry because of illness, crime, suspect associations, etc. The Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration adjudicated the appeals and determined whether an immigrant could enter the country or was deported. As Sherman had access to detained immigrants as well as immigrants passing through with comparatively few difficulties, he was able to take about 250 photographs of them between 1905 and 1925.

With his eye for the striking image, Sherman was selective about his subjects. He often asked them to pose in their native costumes and he loved to a nice, big family line-up. (The National Parks Service has my favorite photograph along those lines: Mrs. Johanna Dykhof and her 11 children on their way to Minnesota from Holland.) Incidentally, the handsome woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe pictured left was not actually an immigrant to the United States. She was part of a group of Guadeloupean women on their way to Montreal, Canada, where jobs as domestic servants awaited them. They spent one night in Ellis Island — April 6th, 1911 — which was long enough for Sherman to capture beautiful pictures of them.

There are more photographs of people at Ellis Island in this NYPL collection. They were taken by Lewis Hine who was very famous in his day for his compelling images of the working poor. Click on his name in the sidebar to see all of photographs capturing labourers, tenements and a variety of social ills in the NYPL. The Library of Congress has thousands of pictures of poverty-stricken children working in dreadful conditions taken by Hines for the National Child Labor Committee. They will haunt you.

Today Ellis Island is a National Park and has been extensively restored. The main building opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. In May of this year, the Peopling of America Center® (note to self: trademark the Verbing of Museum Names before someone else beats me to it) opened, expanding the scope of the museum to cover the whole history of immigration before and after Ellis Island was in operation.


7th c. skeletons unearthed at Temple of Concordia

September 15th, 2015

Archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Palermo have unearthed what they believe are two 7th century skeletons at the feet of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. They have yet to be radiocarbon dated, but if the archaeologists are right, the remains are evidence of an Early Christian cemetery in front of the temple in the period shortly after the temple was converted into a church.

The skeletal remains were found in a single grave. A fully articulated skeleton of what preliminary analysis indicates is an adult male is on top, his skull oriented west and his arms crossed on his chest. Underneath his legs are the bones of the other skeleton; its sex has not yet be determined. No grave goods or artifacts of any kind were found to aid in dating. Excavations are ongoing and the remains will be analyzed to pinpoint their age.

Here’s a video of the excavation shot by tour guide Rosa Maria Montalbano.

The Temple of Concordia was built around 440 B.C. in Archaic Doric style in the ancient Greek city of Akragas. It’s not certain which deity it was dedicated to, possibly the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The name Concordia was assigned to it by 16th century Dominican friar and historian Tommaso Fazello, known as the Father of Sicilian history or the Sicilian Livy. He got it from a 1st century Roman inscription on a marble slab in the city of Agrigento which read: “CONCORDIAE AGRIGENTINORUM SACRUM RESPUBLICA LILIBITANORUM” or “[Erected] by the republic of the Lilybaeans, as sacred to the concord of the Agrigentines.” (The ancient city of Lilybaeum is modern-day Marsala, where the wine comes from.) Fazello translated that as “Temple of Concordia of the Agrigentines, made by the Republic of the Lilybaeans,” deducing from the inscription that the temple was constructed at the expense of the Lilybaeans after a military defeat.

In fact, the inscription doesn’t say what was erected and in any case it was carved 500 years after the temple was built, so it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate even if it were referring to the temple. Lilybaeum wasn’t founded until the late 300s B.C., so the city didn’t even exist when the temple was built. Historians starting with 18th century classicist Jacques Philippe D’Orville called out the errors in Fazello’s attribution and now it’s universally acknowledged to be false, but the name stuck anyway.

The Temple of Concordia was converted into a church in 597 A.D. by archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento (559-630) and there’s a wonderfully juicy story behind it. A biography written by the 7th century monk Leonzio, abbot of Saint Saba in Rome, tells the tale. After Gregory was appointed archbishop entirely against his will (he preferred a life of withdrawn contemplation), a priest and presbytery in Agrigento conspired to replace him as archbishop with a certain Leucio who had been exiled for his heretical beliefs on the incarnation. The conspirators bribed the guards and hid a prostitute named Evodia in Gregory’s chambers while he was at church.

The next morning the conspirators “caught” the prostitute and scandal erupted. They had Gregory arrested and imprisoned. The people of Agrigento loved their archbishop who took care of the poor and performed miraculous healings regularly so they didn’t believe the story. They insisted he be freed and caused enough of a stink that the Pope’s deacon had to smuggle Gregory on a ship to Rome for trial. When he got to Rome, he was jailed for two and a half years before his supporters in Agrigento were able to enlist the aid of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Patriarch to finally secure a trial.

There were more than 100 jurors arrayed against Gregory and only a handful, including the imperial delegation, on his side. It seemed Gregory was doomed, but in a shocking Law & Orderesque twist, Evodia recanted her testimony on the stand, naming the conspirators who had coerced her into setting up the saintly cleric. The conspirators were exiled and Gregory returned to Agrigento, his reputation and position restored. Unwilling to preside over his congregation in a church that had been profaned by the usurper Leucio, Gregory turned his back on the city proper and looked to the Valley of the Temples for his new cathedral.

He chose the Temple of Concordia. Planting the signum, the cross of Christ, over its threshold, Gregory exorcised the ancient pagan demons of Eber and Raps who still dwelled in the temple. (The “demons” may be transmutations of an original double dedication, hence the theory that the temple may have been dedicated to Castor and Pollux.) Now consecrated and holy, the temple was converted into the new cathedral.

Gregory of Agrigento is the patron saint of the conservation of archaeological and architectural patrimony. That’s both ironic and appropriate, because while he destroyed significant parts of the temple to Christianize it, as a church it survived in far better condition than the other temples in Agrigento which were damaged in earthquakes and pillaged for construction material. In the conversion process, all of the temple’s decorative elements and the altar were destroyed. The back wall of the cella (the inner chamber) of the temple was demolished to make a new entrance, the columns walled up and 12 arches cut into the sides of the cella to give the building the nave and two aisles of a classic Christian basilica.

Gregory dedicated the new church to Saints Peter and Paul. In the late Middle Ages the church was rededicated to its builder and excellently renamed San Gregorio delle Rape, or Saint Gregory of the Turnips because the humble, ascetic Gregory was said to have tended to the vegetables of his flock. In 1748, Bourbon king Charles V of Sicily had the church dismantled and the temple restored as much as possible to its original form. Today it is considered the second best preserved Doric temple in the world after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens which was itself converted into a Christian church in the 7th century.

There are known Early Christian burials cut inside the temple and in catacombs outside, carved into the rocky outcroppings west of the temple much like Greek catacombs were carved east of the temple hundreds of years earlier. The skeletons unearthed this month are the first indications that there may have been Christian burials in the ground in front of the temple, which in the 7th century would have been the back of the church.


Medieval skeleton pulled out of grave by uprooted tree

September 14th, 2015

The newly established Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services (SLAS) had a fasinating first commission: to recover skeletal remains torn out of the ground when a tree was uprooted during a storm.

The beech tree had stood outside Collooney, County Sligo, Ireland, for 215 years before a storm blew it down last winter, pulling out the roots and the top half of a skeleton with them. The body was snapped in two when the tree toppled, leaving both femurs broken while the lower legs remained undisturbed in the grave. The National Monuments Service hired SLAS to excavated the remains in the ground and to painstakingly remove the bones embedded in the tree’s root matrix. The found part of the skull and spine in the roots, but other bones were destroyed by the roots as the tree grew.

Preliminary analysis of the bones by osteoarchaeologist Dr Linda Lynch revealed that the deceased was a young man 17-20 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating found he was buried between 1030 and 1200 A.D. While a strapping 5’10″ tall in a time when the average height was 5’5″, the youth suffered mild spinal joint disease likely caused by heavy physical labour from a young age. There is evidence on the bones that he did not die an easy death. Sharp force injuries on the ribs and hand point to his having been cut repeatedly with a knife or sword.

He was given a formal Christian burial. His grave was aligned east-west and he was placed in the grave with his hands folded over his pelvic region. There are records from the 19th century that describe a church and graveyard nearby, but no other human remains or archaeological evidence of a church were found during the excavation. Also, the tree was planted in 1800, so any graveyard in the environs of the medieval body probably wasn’t in its immediate surroundings. He may have been an isolated burial rather than one of many buried in a cemetery.

The skeletal remains will studied in more depth and post-excavation work on the site continues.





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