Jefferson-era chemistry hearth found in UVA’s Rotunda

October 17th, 2015

The University of Virginia Rotunda building, originally designed by Thomas Jefferson, has been undergoing an extensive renovation since 2012. The $58.3 million project has already replaced the steel panels of the dome with copper, repaired the exterior the brick work and window sashes, and is now focusing on the interior. While checking the walls of one of the basement rooms, workers found a chemistry hearth dating to the original Jefferson-era building from the 1820s. Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner of the university’s Office of the Architect, believes the hearth “oldest intact example of early chemical education” in the United States.

The chemical hearth was built as a semi-circular niche in the north end of the Lower East Oval Room. Two fireboxes provided heat (one burning wood for fuel, the other burning coal), underground brick tunnels fed fresh air to fireboxes and workstations, and flues carried away the fumes and smoke. Students worked at five workstations cut into stone countertops.

Jefferson arranged for the chemistry laboratory to be placed in the basement because of the danger of running furnaces on the upper floors. John Emmet, UVA’s first professor of natural history, after finding the small room assigned to be his lab far too hot for use in experiments, was given both the large basement rooms for his classes in June of 1825. He used the Lower East Oval Room for experiments and demos and the Lower West Oval Room for lectures.

Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a new system of public education was one rigorous enough to compete with the ancient and prestigious universities of Europe while avoiding their aristocratic trappings and structural inadequacies. He described this vision in a letter to the Trustees for the Lottery of East Tennessee College from May 6th, 1810:

I consider the common plan followed in this country, but not in others, of making one large and expensive building, as unfortunately erroneous. It is infinitely better to erect a small and separate lodge for each separate professorship with only a hall below for his class, and two chambers above for himself; joining these lodges by barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered way to give a dry communication between all the schools. The whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees, would make it, what it should be in fact, an academical village, instead of a large and common den of noise, of filth and of fetid air. It would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study, and lessen the dangers of fire, infection and tumult.

It would be seven years before Jefferson acquired the land for what would become the University of Virginia, but his vision of a community of learning was undimmed. He designed the Rotunda, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, to be the literal and figurative center of the academic village, the university library flanked by faculty pavilions and student dorms.

Construction began in 1822 and was still ongoing when Jefferson died in 1826. The building had issues from the beginning — the dome leaked — and the needs of the students soon outgrew the space. Two wings of the Rotunda used as covered exercise yards were converted into classrooms in 1841. A four-story annex was built between 1851 and 1854 to provide additional classroom space, laboratory space and an auditorium. Water from the perpetually leaking roof and from an ill-fated scheme to install two 7,000-gallon water tanks under the dome for campus use damaged the walls and ceilings.

Then, on October 27th, 1895, fire struck. It started in the annex, likely caused by faulty electrical wiring. Engineering professor William H. Echols tried to save the Rotunda by dynamiting the connector linking the annex to the original building. The plan backfired horribly when the explosion blew a hole in the Rotunda which injected fresh new oxygen into the conflagration. When the last of the flames were extinguished, the annex was destroyed, the dome was gone and the Rotunda was gutted. Only the brick walls and columns were left standing.

The task of reconstructing the Rotunda was assigned in 1896 to the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, specifically to Gilded Age trendsetter Stanford White who 10 years later would be scandalously murdered on the roof of his own Madison Square Garden. White changed the building in major ways: he widened the oculus, gave the interior two floors instead of Jefferson’s three, enlarging the Dome Room, installed new heating and ventilation systems, used fireproof materials, changed the portico columns to thicker pillars with new Corinthian capitals. In 1976 the Rotunda was gutted and rebuilt in keeping with Jefferson’s original design.

Given this history, the odds against anything at all from the Rotunda of 1826 surviving are astronomical. What saved the chemistry hearth was its having been walled up before the construction of the annex, probably in the 1840s when the chem lab was moved to the southwest excercise yard after it was converted into classroom space.

The university is embracing this unique find from its earliest days. The plan is to rebuild the original arch above the entrance to the hearth space and to create some sort of barrier to keep people from stepping into the alcove, but to leave the hearth itself as it is now for display.

Dutch Royal Barge restored and on display

October 16th, 2015

The 200-year-old Royal Barge of the Dutch monarchy is back on display at the National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum) in Amsterdam after a meticulous restoration. On Monday, October 5th, the barge began its journey from a warehouse in Hoogwoud to Amsterdam. It was transported over water and land in stages over the course of two days. It arrived at its new home, a custom-built glass-walled boathouse on a jetty next to the museum’s landing, on Wednesday. A week later, the new Royal Barge was shown off to a crowd of 300 invited guests and as of October 15th, it is once again on public display.

Known as the “golden carriage of the water” because of its dramatic gilded Neptune group figurehead and numerous other gilded ornaments, the Royal Barge has been out of public view since July of 2008. The museum had begun a comprehensive renovation program in 2007 requiring its entire collection to be moved temporarily. The barge was the last piece of the collection to leave the museum, and they had to cut in a hole in the wall to get it out of the building. When the museum reopened in 2011, there was no adequate space to display the barge, so it was kept in storage.

Designed by 21-year-old architect Cornelis Jan Glavimans, the Royal Barge was built between 1816 and 1818 by order of King William I. William had declared himself King of the Netherlands, the first to hold that title, on March 16th, 1815, so his kingship was as new as kingdom when he commissioned the boat. There was a fashion among the European royal houses for luxurious rowing barges to be used on special state occasions. The brand new king of a brand new maritime kingdom was therefore keen to get an elaborately decorated rowing barge of his own, especially since barge travel was common in the Netherlands and wealthy families had their own barges just like they had their own horse-drawn carriages.

The barge is 17 meters (about 56 feet) long and seats 20 rowers. From the bow to the stern, it is embellished with gilded wood carvings. The main feature is the Neptune figurehead. The god of the sea sits on his shell carriage drawn by three seahorses (the mythological kind that are horses up top and fishes from the waist down, not the real animal). He holds his trident in one hand and the reigns in the other. The sides of the barge are decorated with floral elements including acanthus vines and orange branches (William was a scion of the House of Orange) and lions in a sphinx-like pose. On the stern of the barge is the royal coat of arms.

Once King William I had his golden carriage of the water, he never used it. For 23 years the Royal Barge twiddled its gilded thumbs until it finally had its maiden voyage carrying the new monarch William II at his inauguration on March 30th, 1841. In the next 150 years, the barge was used less than 30 times. It carried the monarchs for naval reviews, jubilees, special celebrations and foreign heads of state during official visits. The last time it saw service transporting royalty over the waters was on April 29th, 1962, during the celebration of the silver wedding anniversary of Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard.

While it has spent the decades since its retirement on dry land and has been on permanent loan to the National Maritime Museum since 1983, the barge is still crown property and would be bound to come out of retirement if the monarch called it to duty. There was talk of the barge being deployed for the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander on April 30th, 2013, but the authorities were concerned about its seaworthiness so the idea was scrapped.

Thanks to a one million euro donation from the BankGiro Lottery and the Cultuur Lottery, the National Maritime Museum was able to do a complete restoration of the barge not just to make it look shiny and new, but to ensure it is seaworthy and usable for future royal events. The cabin was removed and the hull stripped of paint. The oak keel and ribs were in surprisingly good condition underneath the yellowed and cracked paint. Nail holes were filled and the whole surface of the hull was sanded, primed, painted and varnished.

The gilded statues and ornaments were a little trickier. First the statues were X-rayed to identify structural issues. They found that the figures are made of many smaller pieces put together with screws and forged nails. The constant cycle of moisture and drying over the past two centuries caused large cracks in the wood that in the past were filled with hard compounds that in the long term only exacerbated the instability. Restorers had to dismantle all of the wood parts, remove hundreds of hard fillings and then reassemble them all using synthetic resins. Then they had to reapply the gold leaf to areas where it had worn off. Restorers used 1,150 three-inch square leaves of gold leaf to restore the barge’s shine. The regilding was done at the museum so visitors could observe the work in progress.

Here’s a brief video from AzkoNobel, a company that specializes in painting yachts which provided expertise on applying protective paint coatings to the barge. There are some neat views of the barge during the restoration process.

Earliest known draft of King James Bible found

October 15th, 2015

The earliest known draft of the King James Bible (KJB) has been discovered in the archives of Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College. Montclair University English professor Jeffrey Alan Millar found the translation of parts of the Apocrypha in a notebook kept by Samuel Ward, Puritan minister, Fellow of Cambridge’s newly founded Sidney Sussex College and one of 47 scholars appointed to correct errors in past translations and make a new authorized version of the Bible in English. The notebook had been inventoried before, but its contents were identified as biblical commentary, not as work product of the translation of the King James Bible.

The translators were grouped into six committees, two companies from Oxford, two from Cambridge and two from Westminster, each assigned different sections of the Bible to translate. Ward was part of the Second Cambridge Company charged with translating the Apocrypha. He and his colleagues were set to the task in 1604 and in 1608, they were the first company to complete their work. The notebook covers this entire period, 1604 to 1608, and is written in Ward’s own hand, the only known draft of the KJB written by an identifiable translator.

In fact, other extant drafts aren’t really what we think of as drafts. The translators had a strict brief: they were to work off the previous authorized version, the Bishop’s Bible, and only correct areas where the translation was problematic. Thus previously known “drafts” are in the form of notes on the pages of the Bishop’s Bible (King James had an unbound version distributed to all the translators for this purpose), a handwritten copy of the completed translation of the New Testament Epistles and two handwritten copies of notes taken during a discussion by the committee reviewing the full translation just before publication.

None of those are known to have been written by the translators nor do they document the actual hard work of translation coming as they do at the end of the process. Ward’s notebook is therefore the only extant document to give scholars a view of the day-to-day work of a KJB translator.

In two different places in the notebook, there appears what seems to be nothing but a sequence of running notes on the Bishops’ Bible’s translation of two different Apocryphal books. The longer of the two sequences – occupying sixty-six pages of the notebook in total – covers all nine chapters, from the first verse to the last, of the book known as 1 Esdras or 3 Ezra, positioned first in the KJB among the Apocrypha. The shorter sequence, on the other hand, spans just chapters three and four of the Apocryphal book Wisdom. In each case, the notes typically take a similar form. A verse number is given, followed by a quotation from the Bishops’ Bible’s translation, often only a word or phrase. This Ward encloses in a single bracket, and then proceeds to provide an alternative English translation, usually juxtaposing it with the corresponding portion of the verse in Greek, the language in which the vast majority of the Apocryphal books were known to survive at the time. For instance, a note in Ward’s draft for 1 Esdras 1:2 reads simply, “he set] having sett” (sic), followed by a transcription of the Greek word from 1 Esdras in question. The entry represents Ward’s suggestion that the Greek word translated as “he set” in the Bishops’ Bible should instead be translated as “having set”. On turning to the KJB as it appeared in 1611, we find that this is exactly what was done.

Ward’s notes clearly show him tackling the translation on his own, not taking notes on the work of his company. Before this discovery, it was generally believed that the committee members worked together as a team on their appointed sections of the Bible. That may still be the case with the other five companies, but the notebook indicates the members of the Second Cambridge Company at least did some individual work. Several of Ward’s proposed translations did not make it into the final KJB and there are sections where he makes changes on what seems to be the input of others, so there was likely interplay between company members before the final draft was submitted by the group.

To what extent this complex (if also precarious) interplay between individual and group translation evidently at work in the Apocrypha company points to the possibility of a similar dynamic at work across the Bible’s five other translation companies is hard to say. In the end, though, an awareness of that difficulty itself may represent one of the most valuable insights offered by Ward’s draft. Not only does it profoundly complicate the notion that members of a given company necessarily worked on the translation of each book together as a team; it forces us to think harder about the extent to which all the companies necessarily set about their work in the same or even a similar way. The KJB, in short, may be far more a patchwork of individual translations – the product of individual translators and individual companies working in individual ways – than has ever been properly recognized.

Samuel Ward’s work on the King James Bible assured his career. In 1610 he was appointed Master of Sidney Sussex College. The next year he became chaplain to King James I. In 1615 he was made Archdeacon of Taunton and prebendary of Wells Cathedral. In 1618 he was appointed prebendary of York too and less than a year later he was selected to be one of the English delegates to the Synod of Dort where his scholarship so impressed Dutch theologian Simon Episcopius that he declared Ward to be the most learned member of the synod.

The train of lucrative livings and academic successes only derailed at the very end of his life thanks to the English Civil War. In 1643, governments of Scotland and England approved the Solemn League and Covenant, a treaty between the Scottish Covenanters and English Parliamentarians in which the latter agreed to integrate the Scottish presbyterian system into the Church of England in exchange for military aid. With terms like “we shall in like manner, without respect of persons, endeavour the extirpation of Popery, Prelacy, (that is, church-government by Archbishops, Bishops, their Chancellors, and Commissaries, Deans, Deans and Chapters, Archdeacons, and all other ecclesiastical Officers depending on that hierarchy,)” the Covenant did not appeal to Ward. He and other clerics who refused to take the Covenant were imprisoned in St. John’s College. Ward’s health declined precipitously and he was allowed to return to his home at Sidney Sussex where he was still Master. On August 30th, 1643, he took ill in chapel. Eight days later, he died in his bed at 71 years old.

Iron Age village, sacrifices found in Denmark bog

October 14th, 2015

An excavation in Skødstrup, a suburb of Aarhus on the Jutland peninsula of central Denmark, has unearthed the remains of an entire Iron Age community dating to around the birth of Christ. Iron Age burials and sacrifices have been discovered before in the Skødstrup area. Just 500 feet away from the current excavation is a bog where sacrifices and offerings ranging from weapons to a baker’s dozen of dog remains have been found since digs began in the 19th century. Archaeologists were therefore optimistic that this excavation would reveal rich finds, but the depth and breadth of the discoveries surprised even them.

A previous excavation of the site found a burial ground. This season the team found the remains of a large Iron Age village with a cobblestone road in excellent condition and well-preserved floors of homes. In a low-lying area south of the village, archaeologists found human and animal bog sacrifices. The Skødstrup bogs were harvested for peat fuel by early Iron Age peoples. Their descendants a few hundreds of years later used the harvested spots for ritual purposes, placing the bodies of sacrificed humans and animals inside the peat cuts.

Archaeologists so far this season have unearthed the skeletal remains of eight dogs and one human. The dog skeletons were found next to three tethering stakes. The human bones were found heaped next to two stakes, one of them sharpened. The skeletal remains were not complete but they were sufficient to identify the individual as a young woman in her twenties when she died. Most of the skull is missing — the jaw was all that could be found of the head — which suggests it may have been deliberately separated from the body perhaps for ritual purposes.

The tethering stakes of are particular interest. Archaeologists believe they may reveal a previously unknown aspect of Iron Age sacrificial rituals.

“At Skødstrup, we have the whole spectrum of an Iron Age community: A well-structured village with an associated burial ground and sacrificial bogs. It gives us a unique insight into the life of Iron Age people in war and in peace, and not least a glimpse into their religious universe,” [excavation director Per] Mandrup said.

The remains of the woman have been transported to Moesgaard Museum for further study in laboratory conditions.

16th c. canvas mural restored to original splendor

October 13th, 2015

A massive work by 16th century Dutch painter Lambert Sustris has been restored to its original splendor and will go on display for the first time in years at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The oil-on-canvas painting is of monumental size (5’6″ high by 11’6″ wide) and was originally one of a series of five canvas murals that adorned the walls of a palazzo in Venice. It depicts a scene from the Tabula Cebetis, a philosophical allegory traditionally attributed to Cebes of Thebes (430-350 B.C.), a disciple of Socrates who appears in Plato’s Phaedo, but which in fact was written by an unknown author in the 1st century or 2nd century A.D. In dialogue form, the text describes an allegorical image deposited in the Temple of Chronos that presents Life as three concentric circles replete with obstacles that individuals have to surmount to reach True Education and her gift of Knowledge. False Education is in the second circle. She looks attractive and well put together, but she can’t give seekers real knowledge. They have to overcome the more subtle evils of the second circle and find the strength to climb the narrow, steep path towards True Education or else they’ll be eternally trapped in error by their own laziness and corruptibility.

While widely known in antiquity and still copied by Muslim scholars in the 9th century, European intellectuals rediscovered the Tabula Cebetis when a Latin prose translation by Odaxius was published in 1497. Lambert Sustris was born in Amsterdam 20 or so years later (between 1515 and 1520). His early education isn’t known, but he we know he visited Rome as a youth because the scamp graffitoed his name on the walls of Nero’s Domus Aurea. By 1535 Sustris was working in Venice, doing landscapes for Titian’s studio. He and Titian became friends and traveled together to Germany twice in 1548 and 1550 where they painted the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and other notables during sessions of the Diet of Augsburg.

Sustris painted The Circle of False Education during his time in Venice. The vast canvas was created from two horizontal pieces of fabric blanket stitched together. It was affixed to the wall for hundreds of years before it was removed, stretched and secured to glue and canvas linings. Conservators believe the stretcher dates to the 19th century and the painting hasn’t been restored since then either, so it’s likely the owners of the Venetian palazzo stripped the murals off their walls and sold them 150 or so years ago.

The painting was gifted to Vassar College by Charles M. Pratt in 1917. It’s been in such bad condition, discolored by old varnish and overpaint, for so long that it was kept in storage and hasn’t been seen in public for years. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center enlisted the aid of experts at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts to get the mural back in display condition. Paintings conservator Sandra Webber feared the worst when she saw the darkened surface the tell-tale whitened areas of severely blanched varnish. Her concerned was that the original paint underneath the discolored varnish was lost beyond redemption.

Cleaning tests revealed that pale pinks, brilliant blues, greens and oranges were still strong underneath the varnish, so conservators made an 18-month restoration plan that would revive the obscured colors. The first phase was to remove the varnishes and coatings and all the overpaint that could be safely removed. The cleaning process revealed a number of ills — later additions like mountains, probably meant to cover paint loss from the original clouds, in the background, tears and tugs from when the canvas was pulled off the wall, several larger holes that may have been original to fit the canvas around architectural details — but Webber was confident they could be repaired.

After the discolored layers were removed and the original paint exposed, the second phase of conservation began. This phase focused on reconstructing the image, filling areas of loss with a custom putty and acrylic paints matching Sustris’ original palette. Conservators believe the colors were chosen deliberately because they evoke frescoes. Fresco, bright pigments applied over a layer of wet plaster, doesn’t work very well in high humidity environments like cities built on lagoons, so it’s likely that the canvas mural was chosen as a more viable alternative to frescoes in perpetually moist Venice.

And now, the whole point of this post, the before and after pictures!


You might notice the figures are not highly detailed. That’s because the mural wasn’t meant to be seen up close. The change in color is one for the ages, in my opinion, especially the heavily blanched areas like the hill False Education sits upon.

Agincourt thank-you sceptre to go on display

October 12th, 2015

For the first time in 600 years, a sceptre King Henry V gave to the City of London in gratitude for its support in the Hundred Years’ War will go on public display. The City of London helped finance the Battle of Agincourt, loaning Henry 10,000 marks (about three million pounds in today’s money). After Henry’s forces won so decisive a victory against the flower of French chivalry arrayed in much greater numbers against them on October 25th, 1415, the king had the sceptre made and presented it to the city as a thank you gift.

Made by the finest craftsmen — including French ones — of the age, the sceptre is 17 inches long and made out of two spiral-carved stems of rock crystal with ribbons of inlaid gold. At the top of the sceptre is a gold crown topped with fleurs-de-lis and crosses and decorated with gemstones from around the world: red spinels from Afghanistan, sapphires from Ceylon, pearls from the Arabian gulf. Inside the crown is the king’s coat of arms painted on parchment. The sceptre was made between 1415 and February of 1421 when it appears in a painting of the coronation of Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V.

It’s a near-miracle that the sceptre has survived all this time.

Under the republican protectorate of Oliver Cromwell which followed the Civil War, the Crown Jewels were sold off and there was a danger the sceptre could have met the same fate, had it not been hidden away by the City authorities.

Eight years after Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the Monarchy which followed, it took the cowardly self-interest of the serving Lord Mayor to save the sceptre.

During the Great Fire of London of 1666, Sir Thomas Bloodworth – rather than lead the rescue efforts – made sure his personal treasures were safely sent out of the City, including the sceptre, only returning in person three days later.

It’s been seen by very few people in the past 600 years. The sceptre emerges from the protective confines of London’s Guildhall during Coronations when it is borne by the Lord Mayor of London, and for the “Silent Ceremony” in which the outgoing and incoming Lord Mayor place their hands upon it during the annual inauguration of a new mayor. The last time it was seen in public was at the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The sceptre’s connection to Agincourt was only recently discovered by Dr. Michael Hall, curator of the Rothschild Collection at Exbury House, Hampshire, and Ralph Holt while researching the treasures of Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London since the 18th century. Dr. Hall and Mr. Holt with the help of Dr. Clare Taylor, wife of former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford, have authored a book on the silver and gold of Mansion House. The book, the third in a series about the collections of Mansion House, covers more than 80 precious objects, including the regalia of the Mayorality.

The Honour and Grandeur: Regalia, Gold and Silver at the Mansion House will be released later this month to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. This is the first time the sceptre has been published in its long life, believe it or not. The sceptre itself will celebrate the anniversary by going on public display for the first time. Unveiling the Crystal Sceptre: Henry V’s Gift to the City opens at Guildhall Art Gallery on Saturday, October 24th, the day before St. Crispin’s Day. The exhibition will tell the full story of the sceptre, starting with the City of London’s financial support for Henry V’s great battle and following King Henry’s 1421 pilgrimage to holy sites associated with his three patron saints.

During that pilgrimage he may have stopped in Hedon where he presented the mayor with another Agincourt-related treasure: the Hedon Mace, an iron mace believed to have been an actual weapon used at the Battle of Agincourt which Henry had silver-gilt and presented to the city again as thanks for its support. The Hedon Mace will be on display with the Crystal Sceptre, the only objects given by Henry V that have remained with their original recipients for 600 years.

10th c. Danish Borgring fortress to be excavated

October 11th, 2015

The 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand last year was identified by a geomagnetic survey and a few test pits dug at the gates and ramparts. There are only seven ring fortresses of the Trelleborg type known to exist, and the last one was found 60 years ago. The discovery of Borgring 30 miles south of Copenhagen was exciting because of its rarity and because it opened up the possibility of an excavation done with the latest archaeological technology.

The Danish Castle Centre will bring that possibility to life, thanks to a 20 million kroner (ca. $3 million) grant from the AP Møller Fund and 4.5 million kroner (ca. $687,000) from Køge Municipality. These generous gifts will fund a three-year excavation of the Borgring fortress.

blockquote>”With the grant, the Danish Castle Centre – a division of Museum Southeast Denmark and Aarhus University – has worked out a unique research project seeking to explore the secrets Borgring is hiding beneath Danish soil,” the Danish Castle Centre said.

“With the use of modern archaeological methods the scientists and archaeologists will investigate how the fortresses were used, how they were organised, how quickly they were built, their age and what environment, landscape and geography they were a part of.”

So far, it has become clear that the massive ring fortress has a diameter of 142 metres with 7 metre-high palisades, while it also endured a fiery blaze at one of its gates.

The Trelleborg fortresses were all built according to the same geometric plan — circular with gates aligned on the cardinal compass points — within an hour’s march of each other. Counting tree rings at the type site of Trelleborg pinpointed the construction date to early 981 since the timbers were felled in autumn of 980 and would have needed some time to cure before use. The other fortresses date to approximately the same time, and their strikingly similar design and aligned placement suggests they were conceived by a single mind.

There are some anomalies with the Borgring, however. Its gates are not perfectly aligned along the cardinal points; there is an 11-degree dislocation which may have been a topographical necessity to ensure that it looked properly symmetrical in its landscape. Also samples of burned oak timbers found at the north gate were radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D., which places the fort in the general age range of the other trelleborgs but isn’t precise enough to confirm that it is in fact one of them. Dendrochronological analysis can narrow it down further.

The precise date is important with these fortresses because the most prevalent theory right now about their construction is that they were built by King Harald Bluetooth in reaction to his defeat at German hands in 974. To defend his territory from further incursions, Bluetooth set about building an extensive network of forts and infrastructure (bridges, roads) in Denmark and southern Sweden. Harald Bluetooth died in 985 or 986, just five or six years after the first Trelleborg ringfort was built. If Harald didn’t build them, his son Sweyn Forkbeard may have, not to as a defensive installation to keep out the Germans, but as military training camps to prepare his troops for his raids on England in the first decade of the 11th century and his full-scale invasion of the island in 1013.

The excavation is slated to begin next year and with the fortress being a short distance from the highway so close to Copenhagen, the archaeological team is expecting a significant amount of interest from the public. The team plans to build an observation deck so visitors can follow the archaeologists at work without getting in their way.

Woman executed for witchcraft 299 years ago may get new trial

October 10th, 2015

A woman who was convicted of witchcraft and executed in 1716 may get a new trial 299 after her death. The city council of Brentonico, the town in the Italian Alps where Maria Bertoletti Toldini was put to death for her ostensible crimes, has petitioned the court to reopen the case. Brentonico Mayor Christian Perenzoni believes Maria’s fate was the result of “folkloric excess around the trials and killings of so-called witches” and wants “to render justice and historical truth, and give back the condemned woman her ethical, moral and civil dignity.”

Maria Bertoletti Toldini, known as Toldina, was born and raised in Pilcante, a village eight miles southeast of Brentonico. She was widowed and remarried Andrea Toldini, sacristan of the church of San Martino in the neighboring town of Ala. Toldina had no children with either of her husbands. She was 60 years old when she was arrested for witchcraft, acts of evil, sorcery, sacrilege, idolatry, apostasy, sodomy, fornication, consorting with the devil and infanticide. The child murder allegations in particular inflamed the population against her and sealed her fate.

According to the prosecution, as recorded in an 18th century transcript of the sentencing, Toldina’s life of depraved ignominy began when she was 13 years old and was seduced to evil by her witch aunt Agostina Bertoletti. In the middle of a Monday night, Agostina took her niece to a meeting of demons presided over by the devil with goat’s hooves as hands and feet. Maria, on her knees before the devil, renounced God, the Trinity, the Holy Virgin and all the saints. She repudiated the Christian faith, the Catholic religion, the sacrament of Baptism and her first name of Maria which was odious to Satan. The demon gave her a new name, rebaptised her by pouring a foul black liquid down her back and marked her with a cold iron instrument on her left arm.

The 13-year-old then purportedly swore fealty to the demon and declared herself his vassal. She agreed to bewitch one child a month and perform every kind of evil on them, to spread grave illness among people. In return the devil would make miracles for her, satisfy her uncontrollable lusts and bless her after her death. From then on, Toldina attended witches’ sabbaths every night, using an ointment made of sacramental ashes, holy water, oil and wax from candles lit during Holy Week (all materials easily secured because of her sacristan husband) to fly to local meetups and far-flung ones. There she danced, stepping always to the left, and repeatedly kissed the devil’s ass. Toldina gave her virginity to the demon who appeared in the form of a young man and had sex with her, his touch freezing cold.

Using the ointment, Toldina killed a girl, Margarita, daughter of Saiano of Saiano of Pilcante, she had already afflicted with dropsy. In 1714 she smeared the unguent on a baby from the same family, Felice Saiano, who developed tumors and died. The year before she mixed ashes in butter and killed Lorenzo, son of Giovanni Ecchelli of the Iseppi of Pilcante, also with cancerous tumors. In 1711, she broke into the home of Giacomo Antonio Venturi of Pilcante and threw his five-year-old son Pietro in a bronze cauldron full of boiling cheese. Her unguent claimed another young victim — three-year-old Antonio, son of Carlo Balconi — after she spread it on his stomach. The same fate awaited Toldina’s own nephew, Adrea, son of her brother Giovanni Bertoletti, who was two years old, and Bartolomea, four-year-old daughter of Giovanni Maria of Vallarsa. Toldina killed the child of Maddalena, wife of Francesco Balconi, in the womb.

Her dark arts cut a swath through the adults of Pilcante and environs as well, most of them women. They weren’t killed, but struck with severe illnesses and their husbands were cursed with sterility. We can rest assured all of these things happened because witnesses testified to them and Toldina herself, under torture, confessed to these acts and more.

The trial took place at the Castle of Avio, the last witch trial ever held at the castle. After she was sentenced to death, on March 14th, 1716, Toldina was taken to Palù Park in Brentonico where a gallows stood. A headsman was paid 75 German florins to decapitate her before the assembled townspeople. Her body and head were then burned.

Toldina was tried by lay authorities, not the church, because Bretonica, part of the Prince-Bishopric of Trent since the Middle Ages, was reclaimed as a direct dominion of the Habsurg Holy Roman Emperors in the early 1700s. In fact, the town had just received its Captain of Justice — a role combining chief of police and criminal judge — a few weeks before Toldina’s trial. Unfortunately the municiple archives were destroyed during World War II so the only original records of the trial to survive were the sentence and the defense summary by Toldina’s lawyer, notary Giovanni Battista del Pozzo.

The legal challenges to reopening this case are significant, to put it mildly. Bretonico is in the nothern Italian autonomous region of Trentino so the court of appeals of regional capitol Trento will hear the case. They will have to establish the facts with only two original documents from her trial extant. Not only that, but the court will have to use the law applied to the original trial, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. That means the new advocates will have to be knowledgeable in 16th century German jurisprudence, a tall order if I’ve heard one. Historian Carlo Andrea Postinger, already commissioned by the city council to search for original documents, will be on hand to consult should the appeal be granted.

NOVA’s version of the round ark documentary

October 9th, 2015

The documentary on the reconstruction of the Atra-Hasis ark that aired on Channel 4 in the UK and NatGeo is now on PBS. It’s an episode of the long-running NOVA series entitled Secrets of Noah’s Ark.

(I need to just take a moment to express how I have had it, OFFICIALLY, with purported documentaries entitled “The Secrets of” or “The Mystery of” whatever historical person, place or thing. Someday I would like see a realistic title like “Things We Pretty Much Know about …” and “A Thoroughly Researched and Well Documented Exploration of …” I’m annoyed that a program like NOVA resort to that kind of cliché.)

There are some differences in the programs. The plot is the same — Dr. Irving Finkel and the Atra-Hasis tablet in the British Museum to the attempted ancient boat reconstruction in India — and most of the interview segments are the same with a few additional talking heads of the American persuasion. The narration is different. The British original is gone in favor of a deep-voiced American and the narrated segments have been rewritten. There are some slight changes in thematic emphasis and editing order, but nothing major.

For those of you who weren’t able to see the original, check your local PBS station to see when this NOVA episode re-airs or check On Demand. You can always watch the episode on the PBS website. If you’ve already seen the Channel 4 version, you might enjoy comparing the two.

Spitfire excavation suspended when human remains found

October 8th, 2015

An excavation to recover a Mark 1A Spitfire which crashed in the Cambridgeshire Fens during a training flight on November 22, 1940, was suspended when a fragment of human skeletal remains was found. The excavation began on Monday and was slated to last a week. Permission was only granted because the pilot’s remains were believed to have been recovered in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Before excavation can continue, the coroner must examine the remains and give the all clear.

Spitfire X4593 of the 266 Rhodesian Squadron Royal Air Force piloted by Harold Edwin Penketh was flying with other Spitfires over the fens when he suddenly broke formation and entered a precipitous dive. According to witnesses, the plane seemed to make a partial recover at around 2,000 feet above the surface, but it quickly turned back into the dive and crashed, hitting the ground at 300 miles per hour with its nose down and tail up. Pilot Officer Penketh was unable to deploy his parachute in time and was killed. He was 20 years old. A later investigation in the wake of the disaster determined that the cause was a physical failure of the airplane, possibly of the oxygen system. The RAF sent a recovery team who worked for a week to find Penketh’s body in the wreckage. The pilot’s remains were sent to his home in Brighton.

The exact location of the crash was lost over the years. It was rediscovered this August when archaeologists from Cranfield University Forensic Institute did a geophysical survey of the area. The Spitfire crashed in Holme Lode in the Great Fen, a waterlogged, peaty environment ideal for the preservation of organic materials. When it hit the ground it created a large crater that immediately began to fill with the water, so the unique preservative powers of peat were at work from the very beginning.

With the fenland water table rising and this year being the 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain (July 10th – October 31st, 1940), archaeologists were keen to recover whatever they could from the Spitfire as quickly as possible. Excavation began on Monday, October 5th, led by Oxford Archaeology East with the help of volunteers from the Great Fen Archaeology Group and from the Defence Archaeology Group, an exceptional initiative that teaches injured servicemen new professional skills in field archaeology. The volunteers used metal detectors around the crash site to locate any debris that may have been scattered in the crash. Every find was flagged and scanned so that a complete 3D model of the site can be made which will allow experts to better understand the angle and impact of the crash. The team hoped to recover key parts of the plane, like the its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, its armaments, that would add more information to the greater picture.

The peat was stripped in spits and on the second day the team uncovered the impact crater just over two feet under the surface. By the end of the day they had recovered some engine wiring, a piece of the fuel tank and the pilot’s headrest. On the third day they found ammunition, two more pieces of the fuel tank, part of the engine starter motor, the cover for the pilot’s headrest and part of the cockpit which was deliberately broken open by the RAF team who recovered P/O Penketh’s body. On day four they found the rest of the engine starter motor, one of the Spitfire’s lights, the pilot’s leather helmet in very good condition and the fragment of bone that immediately stopped all work.

The coroner has now given the go-ahead to continue excavation. Friday will be the last day of the dig.

The Oxford Archaeology Flickr page has a wonderful collection of photographs of the dig arranged in albums, one for each day of the excavation. You can also read a daily roundup of discoveries on the Oxford Archaeology website. A selection of finds will be on display at Holmewood Hall on Saturday, October 17th, and the dig is being filmed by the BBC for a program that will first air on November 8th, Remembrance Sunday.

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