Metal detectorist finds actual Nazi gold

July 20th, 2015

On October 10th of last year, licensed metal detectorist Florian Bautsch struck gold on the outskirts of Lüneburg in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. Nazi gold. Scanning an area with hillocks that archaeologists suspected might be ancient burial mounds, Bautsch first found a single gold coin and then nine more in the hollow under a pine tree. He recorded the find location by GPS and notified the relevant authorities at the Lüne­burg Museum .

Thanks to Bautsch’s conscientiousness, archaeologists were able to do something they rarely get the chance to do: excavate a portable treasure in its proper context. The two-week excavation unearthed another 207 gold coins buried under that three, bringing the total up to 217. The oldest coin dates to 1831, the newest to 1910, and none of them were minted in Germany. The majority — 128 coins — are Belgian. Another 74 coins were minted in France, 12 in Italy and the last three in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite their diverse origins, all of the coins have the same diameter (21 millimeters) and weigh the same (6.45 grams). The total coin weight is 1.4 kilos (3 lbs). These are not circulation coins. They were minted in large batches to be purchased by individuals and banks for investment purposes.

Archaeologists also found two aluminium seals bearing the swastika, the imperial eagle and stamped “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” They also found remnants of tar paper and some individual fibers. These elements are what’s left of two coin bags, lined with tar paper and sealed by the Berlin Reichsbank during World War II. Those type of seals were used starting in 1940 and the chemical composition of the tar paper identifies it as a type produced before 1950. It is the greatest treasure from this period ever found in northern Germany. Had the finder just dug it all out himself and taken the gold, nobody would have been the wiser and the key evidence identifying it as Nazi gold, as fragile as it is important, would have been lost forever.

The working theory right now is that the gold coins, likely looted by Nazis from occupied territories before being grouped by exact size and weight, bagged and sealed, were stolen in the waning days of the Second World War. If so, it was almost certainly an inside job, a theft by a bank employee looking for some financial security in the most insecure of times.

As the coins were buried relatively recently under shady circumstances, at first authorities gave any potential legitimate owners the opportunity to claim the treasure. It was a long shot (although it has been known to happen) and indeed, nobody stepped forward to claim ownership. Then, because the find bears the marks of a previous government bank, state authorities contacted the German Ministry of Finance but they weren’t interested in claiming the coins either. Finally the orphaned gold was adopted by Lower Saxony which of course had wanted it all along.

England’s Treasure Act has a mechanism that gives finders and landowners a reward in the amount of the discovery’s market value as assessed by a valuation committee. German monument protection laws (they differ from state to state) have no such mechanism, so while the estimated value of the coins is €45,000 ($49,000), Florian Bautsch will receive a €2,500 ($2,710) reward from the state of Lower Saxony. He’s a proper history nerd, bless his heart, so the money isn’t what matters to him. The archaeological significance of the find is reward enough.

The gold coins went on temporary display at the Lüne­burg Museum yesterday. Curators are now discussing how best to integrate the hoard into the museum’s permanent display in the future.

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“Forgotten Winchester” had cartridge in butt stock

July 19th, 2015

The cracked and weathered Winchester ’73 rifle found leaning against a Juniper tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park like its owner just stepped away for a moment 132 years ago and forgot to come back gets more mysterious the more it’s studied. The rifle was found in November of last year by park archaeologists and was sent to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, for conservation and additional research.

When the rifle arrived, the wood of the stock was chipping and a white salt encrusted it. Museum curators first stabilized the wood with a solution of adhesive, distilled water and ethanol and then sent the weapon to nearby West Park Hospital for non-invasive examination of its insides. At the hospital patient “Rifle” — literally, that’s the name on the file — was X-rayed and found to have an object lodged in its butt stock, namely a cartridge stuck in the trap. To remove the cartridge, conservators lubricated the butt plate with penetrating oil* so it would loosen up enough that it could be unscrewed without damaging the splintered stock. The cartridge was taken out and identified as a Union Metallic Cartridge Company .44 WCF cartridge, manufactured between 1887 and 1911.

The Winchester also had an unusual modification. The carrier block and carrier lever are missing. These parts are necessary for the rifle to fire repeatedly, so that means someone deliberately customized the a repeating rifle so that it could only fire a single shot. As a single shot rifle it could still be used for hunting, but it would be less than adequate for personal defense. What the advantage might be to the modification is unclear to me. It’s not like you have to fire back-to-back shots just because it’s a repeater. What’s to prevent hunters from firing one cartridge at a time, if that’s what they want?

As far as identifying the owner or even any elements of the story behind the rifle’s century of Rip Van Winkling, that continues to be an enterprise with a very remote chance of success. When the Winchester was first discovered, Great Basin Cultural Resource Program Manager Eva Jensen found the serial number of the lever action repeating rifle listed in the Cody Firearms Museum’s archive of Winchester factory data, but the only information noted was its year of manufacture: 1882. The information of the cartridge shaves five early years off the possible date of the rifle’s abandonment.

So far nothing else has been discovered to help narrow down the dates. Park archaeologists examined the find site for clues, maybe even human remains, and found nothing. Nor do area records help. Researchers perused fire records to see if there was one in the area. Since there is no evidence of fire damage to the Forgotten Winchester, if there had been fire in there then that the rifle could only have been left leaning against the tree significantly after the flames were doused. They found no recorded fire in the area. Cody Museum researchers are still studying the museum’s vast collection of Winchester company records to see if anything else might be buried in the files.

The Forgotten Winchester is currently drawing crowds at the Cody Firearms Museum where it is on display with another example of the same rifle in good condition so visitors can make a before and after weathering visual comparison. It will stay in Cody until this fall when it will return to Great Basin in time for the park’s 30th anniversary and the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. After that it will remain on permanent display behind security glass at the Great Basin Park visitor’s center.

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Mayan hieroglyphic stele found in Guatemala

July 18th, 2015

Archaeologists from the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project have discovered Mayan hieroglyphic stone panels (pdf) at the archaeological sites of La Corona and El Achiotal in Western Petén, Guatemala, that lend new insight into important periods of Mayan history.

La Corona was occupied in the Maya Classic period (Classic period (c. 250–900 A.D.) while El Achiotal, a smaller site 12 miles east of La Corona, was occupied earlier, in the Late Preclassic and Early Classic between 400 B.C. and 550 A.D. Both sites, which are about 12 miles away from each other in the dense Petén jungle, have been heavily preyed upon by looters who left deep trenches and tunnels in almost all of the buildings, but archaeologists have only recently reached the remote area. For 40 years it was known from the plethora of looted stone panels in museums, galleries and collections all over the world as the mysterious Site Q. Mayanist Ian Graham and University of Texas at Austin epigrapher David Stuart finally found Site Q in 1997 and named it La Corona after its ring of five temples that resemble a crown. The discovery of a hieroglyphic stone panel in 2005 that was made of identical stone and had identical content to Site Q monuments confirmed La Corona’s identity.

That discovery led to the creation of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project, co-directed by Marcello Canuto of Tulane University (discover of the 2005 panel) and Tomás Barrientos of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, in 2008. Its aim was to recontextualize the looted artifacts, Since then, the Project has been excavating La Corona and environs, establishing a permanent camp, involving residents in creating a long-term plan to protect this center of ancient lowland Maya civilization from looters, poachers and illegal settlers who burn the jungle to make pasture land for cattle. Despite the destruction wrought by looters, archaeologists have made momentous discoveries, including a hieroglyphic staircase in 2012 that documented 200 years of Maya history and referred to the December 21st date that made so many people freak out about the so-called Mayan apocalypse that year.

What the excavations have found is that La Corona, a very small city compared to the great Mayan powers like Calakmul and Tikal, had a disproportionately high number and quality of stone inscriptions. Like El Perú-Waka’, La Corona was a key city on the essential trade route from Calakmul (in modern-day Mexico) through the Mayan lowlands to its southern allies. It therefore had close ties to Calakmul — generations of Calakmul Snake dynasty princesses married lords of La Corona — access to the best scribes and artisans, and, coincidentally, a rich source of limestone all of which combined to give rise to a unique carving tradition. While the inscriptions found at other small Mayan cities tend to focus on local history and rulers, La Corona’s also detail the history of people and places far outside of its boundaries, including important city-states that are not mentioned anywhere else in the epigraphic record.

The newly discovered panels fit neatly into this tradition. They are extremely high quality carvings and describe people and events described nowhere else. In La Corona, two stele in excellent condition were found embedded in a wall in the palace on the main plaza. They had originally been installed elsewhere in the city, possibly a temple, and were later reset in a masonry bench near the northeast corner of the palace. One, depicting a Calakmul king mid-dance, dates to 702 A.D. The other is a grid of glyphics from the late 7th century that describes the deeds of a ruler of La Corona named Chak Ak’ Paat Yuk.

The panel inscriptions tell fascinating stories of rituals of kingly accession that involve travel, costuming, dancing, invocation of gods and reverence of ancestors. Stuart, who also deciphered the panels, states: “The gorgeous hieroglyphs give us new insights about the ceremonies that led up to a new king being crowned. And they fill important gaps we had in La Corona’s rich history.”

David Stuart has written a fascinating blog entry about the glyphs on the La Corona panels here.

At El Achiotal, researchers found two pieces of a 5th century stela placed in a shrine in a building in the central plaza. They had also been moved in antiquity from their original site to the enclosed shrine. The panel was already broken when the pieces were installed in the shrine and El Achiotal residents left offerings to it for generations, underscoring its cultural importance. Although broken, the carving and stone are in such good condition that much of the original red paint is intact.

Expert epigrapher David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin estimated the stela’s date to be November 22, A.D. 418. “This was a time of great political upheaval in the central Maya area, when a Teotihuacan warrior-ruler named Siyaj K’ahk’ arrived in A.D. 378 and set up a new political order centered at Tikal. It seems that the Achiotal king came to power shortly after that time” says Stuart.

So, besides individual accolades, this stela places the long reign and accomplishments of El Achiotal’s king into a larger historical framework. “Based on parallels known from other sites, we think that this stela relates to this watershed event in Maya history — the installation, in the Maya lowlands, of a foreign power that can ultimately be traced to Teotihuacan. Indeed, although details of this event remain murky, this stela provides another piece of the Maya historical puzzle,” says Canuto.

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Linen with cartouche of Cleopatra’s father found

July 17th, 2015

The Polish Archaeological Mission team has been excavating the ancient site of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, a Pharaonic necropolis in what is today Luxor that was converted into a hermitage by Coptic monks in the 6th century, for more than a decade. The Mission’s aim is to explore how the ancient structures were reused, how objects and materials migrated from original burials to secondary burials to other locations in the Theban necropolis. This season’s work from February 5th to March 1st explored objects from the Coptic hermitage, for instance the large number of wine amphorae found that archaeologists believe were used to transport water to the hermitage and once emptied were used by the monks to store goods like ochre that they could sell to support themselves, and the shaft of a tomb from the Pharaonic period.

The Mission has for several seasons explored two Middle Kingdom (2055 B.C. – 1650 B.C.) tombs destined for high-ranking courtiers of an unknown pharaoh (possibly Mentuhotep IV) whose tomb complex was constructed in the neighboring valley in the late 11th or early 12th Dynasty. The tombs in the hillside around the pharaonic funerary complex were in a privileged position and reserved for important dignitaries. This year the team focused on the shaft of tomb MMA 1152 which was first excavated by the French Mission at Deir el-Medina in the early 1920s. There are no notes or documentation of any kind surviving from that excavation.

The shaft, which is 18 meters (59 feet) long, has been exposed ever since. To explore the shaft safely, the Polish Archaeological Mission installed a wooden structure over the outlet to allow quick vertical transportation of people and materials and used the latest and greatest mountaineering equipment. At the bottom of the shaft is a corridor five and a half feet wide that descends diagonally eastward for 4.6 meters (15 feet) ending in another vertical shaft. Next season archaeologists plan to explore the second shaft in the hopes that it might lead to a burial chamber.

Meanwhile, the excavation of the bottom of the shaft, the corridor and a niche on the north wall of the shaft unearthed fragments of limestone, flint, mud bricks, ceramics from the Pharaonic and Coptic eras, pieces of wood, including coffin fragments, pieces of cartonnage, rope, faience beads and amulets, clay ushabti figurines, textile fragments from shrouds and mummification bandages. Human and animal bones were also found. The finds indicate the tomb was reused for burials in the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period and extensively robbed after that.

The star find is a piece of linen with hieroglyphics written on it in ink. There are two columns of text that include the cartouche of Ptolemy XII Auletes (80-51 B.C.), father of Queen Cleopatra, last queen of Egypt, seventh of her name but the only one to make it immortal. A third column text, thought to be a 3rd century addition, includes the name and epithets of the goddess Isis.

According to the researchers, the piece of cloth was a velum, a curtain covering a holy image (perhaps a statue representing a deity) in the nearby temple of Hathor, located near Deir el-Medina — a village of artisans who worked on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including the tomb of Tutankhamun.

“Velum was probably Ptolemy XII’s gift to the deity. Pharaoh undoubtedly contributed to the splendour of the sanctuary. His cartouches are, amongst others, on the gate of the temple, which clearly indicates the ruler’s involvement in its creation” – added Dr. [Andrzej Ćwiek, Deputy Head of Mission].

Archaeologists believe the velum was foraged by the Coptic monks in the ruins of the temple and took it back to the hermitage as a potentially useful thing. It was probably discarded down the shaft. Other refuse from the Coptic period of occupation, mainly pottery fragments, was also found in the shaft.

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Head of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu, stolen

July 16th, 2015

The head of pioneering German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has been stolen from his grave in the historic Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery outside Berlin. The theft was discovered Monday by cemetery manager Olaf Ihlefeldt who found Murnau’s iron coffin had been broken into and his skull removed. Authorities aren’t certain when exactly the theft took place, sometime between July 4th and July 12th.

F.W. Murnau, one of the early cinematic masters who brought the sharp shadows and distortions of German Expressionism to film, died in 1931 at the age of 42 from injuries sustained in a car wreck near Santa Barbara, California. His embalmed body was returned to Germany and interred in a crypt in the bucolic forested splendor of the Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf. When they died years later, his two brothers Bernhard and Robert were laid to rest with him in the tomb. His brother’s coffins were not tampered with, so it seems this could have been a targeted theft rather than a random desecration. Someone wanted F.W. Murnau’s head.

Authorities found a candle inside the tomb. Murnau is most famous today as the director of cinematic masterpieces with occult themes — 1922′s Nosferatu vampires and 1926′s Faust Satan — so candles may have been part of some sad wanna-be ritual, or it may just have been used to cast some appropriately atmospheric light for a selfie.

Unfortunately this is not the first time the grave has been interfered with, although it is the first time any remains were stolen. The coffin was first damaged in the 1970s and there was another break-in as recently as February of this year. The cemetery is now considering walling in the burial chamber or separating F.W. Murnau’s remains from his family’s and burying them.

If you haven’t seen Nosferatu, or even if you have but it was some creaky old print, you must watch the version that was beautifully restored in 2006. They used a French tinted print as the basis then pulled in missing elements from other rare survivals. Even the score is a recreation of Hans Erdmann’s original, which is particularly meaningful because Nosferatu was one of the first feature films to have an original score.

It’s a miracle that we have any version of Nosferatu to enjoy. Bram Stoker’s widow Florence, her husband’s literary executor, sued Murnau and the production company for copyright infringement demanding full compensation and, brutally, the destruction of the movie which she never watched. Florence won. In 1925 the court ruled that the original negative and all existing prints of the movie were to be burned. It’s hard to put the movie genie back into the lamp three years after its premiere, however, even back when distribution wasn’t instantly global like it is now. Some prints survived the conflagration and began cropping up in theaters and private showings in the late 1920s.

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Gilded Late Viking sword found in Norway

July 15th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo unearthed a unique sword from the late Viking era in a grave in the town of Langeid, southern Norway. The grave was unusually large, the largest of the 20 graves found in the burial ground, with postholes in the corners indicating that it had once had a roof. So prominent a tomb must have belonged to a person of high status who would likely have been interred with valuable objects for the afterlife, but when the coffin was excavated archaeologists found no grave goods except for the remains of two silver coins. When the team dug outside of the coffin, they found two metal objects on either side. One was a sword, the other a large battle-axe.

The sword is just over a three feet (94 centimeters) long, and while the iron blade of the sword is heavily corroded, the hilt is in excellent condition and of exquisite quality. The guard and pommel are silver engraved with swirls, crosses and what appear to be letters, all filled in with gold and edged with copper alloy thread. The grip is tightly wrapped with silver thread in a herringbone pattern. Conservators found fragments of wood and leather on the blade, likely all that remains of the sheath.

The letters are from the Latin alphabet, but they’re not in a legible arrangement and some are backwards or look like two or more letters were combined.

“At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That’s unique and we don’t know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism. But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man,” added Camilla Cecilie Weenn.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in one of the postholes dates the burial to 1030 A.D., a date confirmed by one of the two coins found inside the coffin. It’s an English silver penny minted during the reign of King Ethelred II, aka Aethelred the Unready (r. 978-1016), and is the only Anglo-Saxon coin ever found in Langeid.

The battle-axe found next to the coffin also has an association to early 11th century England. The shaft was coated with brass, a very rare find in Norway, but very similar to numerous axes that have been discovered in the Thames in London. The Thames axes date to the same time as the Langeid axe, a period when more than one Scandinavian king — Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, his son Cnut the Great, King Olaf II of Norway — fought to conquer England. London was raided repeatedly. The axes may have been left in the Thames by Norse raiders, lost or sacrificed after a victory.

It’s entirely possible that the man buried with the weapons may have fought under one of those kings. There’s a rune stone in the Setesdal valley just south of Langeid inscribed in Old Norse “Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute ‘went after’ England. God is one.” Norway was under Danish sovereignty when Cnut invaded England in 1015. There were Norwegian fighters from noble families in his army who would have been required to arm themselves with the best weapons.

The runic stone dates from the same period as the final phase of the burial ground and testifies that Christianity is about to take root in Norwegian society. It is the oldest runic stone in Norway that refers to Christianity. Could this also explain why the weapons were placed outside the coffin? In a transitional period, people may have chosen to use both pagan and Christian elements in a funeral. The Langeid grave is from one of the last pagan funerals we know of from Norway and marks both the greatness and the end of the Viking Age.

The sword find is being announced now, four years after it was made, because it’s going on display for the first time. It is part of the Museum of Cultural History’s Take It Personally exhibition which examines the history of adornment, with this sword being an example of how the precious metals and decorative details of women’s jewelry were used on weapons and armour to telegraph the bearer’s wealth and power. The exhibition opened on June 12th and will run until June 1st, 2016.

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Original floor of Coventry Cathedral revealed

July 14th, 2015

For the first time since Luftwaffe all but destroyed the medieval city of Coventry in the Second World War, the original floor of the Gothic cathedral of St. Michael’s has been revealed.

Coventry, an important industrial center that manufactured everything from bicycles to munitions, was the target of many bombing raids during the Battle of Britain, the most damaging of which struck on November 14th, 1940. German bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive devices, intended to destroy infrastructure like water mains and roads, and 36,000 incendiary bombs, intended to burn down industrial targets (and pretty much everything else) in the city center.

St. Michael’s suffered multiple direct hits from incendiary bombs. Volunteer Firefighters were only able to put out the first of the fires before finding themselves overwhelmed by the inferno raging all over the Coventry’s historic center. The Cathedral was soon engulfed in flame. When the dust settled the next morning, St. Michael’s was a smoldering ruin, only the tower, spire and outer wall still standing on the scorched pavement. Thankfully the precious Gothic stained glass windows had been removed in 1939 to spare them from just this fate and have survived to this day.

After the war, a new cathedral was built next to what was left of the old one. Because the ruins of the medieval cathedral were exposed to the elements, the original floor was covered with rubble and concrete and topped with flagstones. Because it had been so pitted and scarred by the bombing and fire, the new pavement varied in depth from 50 centimeters (20 inches) to a meter (3’3″). In 1955 the ruins were added to England’s National Heritage List with a Grade I designation.

Listed structures cannot be altered without special permission, permission that was granted to the ruins of St. Michael’s because the floor is in danger from water damage. A new watertight membrane and drainage system will ensure the original floor doesn’t crumble underneath the mid-century concrete and pavers. The first step in the process was to lift the post-World War II flooring to expose the floor as it was before the bombs fell.

Although the church was built in the 14th century, much of the floor that has been uncovered consists of memorial stones laid down in the 18th century and later. The wooden base of the choir stalls were also found, carbonized by the fires.

Also uncovered is a wall of the 13th century Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the cemetery. While archaeologists expected to find parts of it, they can now confirm that it was a two storey building – the top floor of which was removed as the cathedral was expanded over it.

The cathedral team had hoped to discover a third concealed crypt similar to the Wyley Chapel. Although no crypt was discovered, there was a small space containing rubble from the interior of the ruined cathedral. Most of it was broken down after World War Two and the carved masonry is seen as a ‘time capsule’ of stonework from the time.

If you’d like to see the parts of Coventry Cathedral that have been hidden for 60 years or so, the project’s lead archaeologist will give two half-hour talks in the ruins, the first on Wednesday, July 15th, the second on Friday, July 17th, both from 1:00-1:30 PM. If there’s enough interest from visitors, the Cathedral will host more such events.

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Rare Roman frescoes found in Arles

July 13th, 2015

Excavation of a Roman villa in the Trinquetaille district of Arles has unearthed extremely rare Roman frescoes from the 1st century B.C. still in brilliant color and still attached in large parts to the walls. The frescoes are done in the Second Style, the second of four phases of mural art defined by 19th century archaeologist August Mau based on the frescoes excavated in Pompeii and environs. Works in the Second Pompeian Style date to the first century B.C. and were particularly popular in the second half of the century. The Arles murals date to between 70 and 20 B.C., which means they were the height of fashion (and expense) when they were painted.

The villa is on the site of an 18th century glassworks on the right bank of the Rhône river. The glassworks building, a rare survival of pre-Industrial Revolution manufacturing, is being restored while the larger property is slated for redevelopment. The remains of a Roman residential neighborhood inhabited from the 1st century B.C. through the 5th century A.D. had been found under a hectare of the glassworks’ site in the 80s, including a large domus destroyed by fire in 260 A.D. whose elaborate mosaic floors in opus sectile are now in the Museum of Ancient Arles.

Preventative excavations began on the site in 2013. The first frescoes were discovered in 2014 in a bedroom of the villa. The room was divided into two areas, one for the bed, the other an antechamber, their demarcation clearly defined not by walls and separators, but by the frescoes themselves. The frescoes feature contrasting colors and designs. A trompe l’oeil podium in faux yellow marble with red veining is painted at the base of the walls and unifies both spaces. In the antechamber, the podium supports large yellow columns; in the bed alcove, rich faux marble veneers.

This year’s excavation of an adjacent state room revealed even more extensive and precious artwork: trompe l’oeil columns against background of bright vermilion red, a luxury pigment used in the famous frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Between the columns are various characters, probably mythological, seated on pedestals. The figures are between 1/2 and 3/4 life-sized and the quality of the painting, their artfully draped clothing and the richness of the pigments, indicate they were painted by artists from a top-of-the-line workshop, almost certainly in Italy. Only the figure of a woman playing a stringed instrument has been found sufficiently intact to recognize the subject, but some elements suggest there may have been a Pan figure in the composition which would make it a Bacchus-themed painting, a very popular motif for Roman murals. Archaeologists hope the many fresco fragments found in situ can be puzzled back together and the full scene identified, but it’s going to take a while because they have 12,000 boxes of fragments.

Second Style frescoes in France have been found almost exclusively in the south of France, the former Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, but very few and only fragments of them. Evidence of Second Style characters, as opposed to trompe l’oeil architectural features, has only been found before in the fragments of a single fresco in Narbonne. The Arles frescoes are so rich and so complete as to be entirely unique in France. Hell, there are less than a dozen of Second Style figural frescoes extant in Italy.

Paintings of this significance and enormous expense decorated the public rooms of the homes of the ruling elite of the city. They were meant to convey the wealth, sophistication and reach of the homeowner to his guests and clients. The villa may have belonged to a high-ranking Gaul keen to assimilate the Roman lifestyle, or to a Roman potentate keen to recreate the comforts of home. After the city supported him in the civil war, Julius Caesar showered Arles with riches, much of them stripped from rival Marseilles which had backed the wrong horse in Pompey. Caesar colonized Arles with veterans of his loyal legion Legio VI Ferrata, but this house was too rich for most veterans’ blood. This was the domicile of a big shot, a politician and/or businessman.

Once reassembled, the full frescoes will go on display at the Museum of Ancient Arles. You probably won’t have to wait a decade or more for conservators to painstakingly jigsaw together thousands of fragments before seeing the murals, however. Curators are hoping to exhibit some of the larger pieces temporarily alongside the museum’s treasured bust of Julius Caesar, which was fished out of the Rhône in 2008 and is the oldest known life-sized bust of him ever discovered. It dates to 46 B.C., two years before Caesar was assassinated, and very unusually depicts him realistically aged.

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Happy birthday, Dymaxion Car!

July 12th, 2015

R. Buckminster Fuller’s first prototype for the innovative Dymaxion vehicle rolled off the factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 12, 1933, her creator’s 38th birthday. If Dymaxion 1 had lived, she would be 82 years old today. Dymaxion, a portmanteau of dynamic, maximum and tension, was a brand name Fuller used for a number of his creations, from a house to a map of the globe to his sleep schedule of 30 minute naps every six hours. The Dymaxion Car wasn’t even supposed to be a car, although Fuller knew people would think of it as one. He designed it to be an “Omni Medium Transport,” a vehicle that would be able to travel by land, water and air. It’s just that “jet stilts” he envisioned to raise it in the air didn’t exist (jet engines were still 20 years in the future, vertical takeoff technology almost 30) and making it water-worthy would be too expensive and technologically daunting, so he decided to focus on the “ground-taxiing under transverse wind conditions” phase which meant in practice that his prototype was a car.

It wasn’t a car like any other, though. Teardrop shaped for optimal aerodynamicism, the Dymaxion Car was 20 feet long, had three wheels (two on in the front, one in the back) and could carry 11 passengers. It was powered by the brand new 85-horsepower Ford flathead V8 engine and had another Ford part — the rear axle of a roadster — which he converted into the front-wheel-drive axle. As large as it was, it was built on a lightweight steel chassis and skinned in aluminium sheeting making it weigh no more than a VW Beetle. It was remarkably fast — Fuller said he’d reached 128 miles per hour in a road test — and fuel-efficient, routinely getting 22 miles per gallon and capable of achieving up to 36 mpg.

Fuller and his co-designer, naval architect Starling Burgess, made three prototypes in 1933 and 1934. They filed a patent application (pdf) on October 18th, 1933, which was finally approved more than four years later on December 7th, 1937 but by then it was too late for the Dymaxion Car. At first the response to the vehicle was hugely positive. Luminaries like Amelia Earhart and Diego Rivera wanted rides. People flocked to see demonstrations of its speed and its most thrilling feature, the 20-foot-long car’s ability to turn on itself so that it could parallel park in a spot just six inches longer than its body by pulling up to the car in front of it and then drifting its back end to the curb.

Then tragedy struck. On October 27th, 1933, Dymaxion Car #1 was just in front of the entrance to the Century of Progress Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair, when it was hit by another car that had been following it dangerously. The Dymaxion rolled over and its driver, professional racer Francis Turner, was killed. He had been wearing a seatbelt, but the button-down canvas roof collapsed, killing him. One of the passengers, British aviator, peer and Japanese spy William Sempill, was seriously injured. The other, Air Minister of France Charles Dollfuss, was thrown from the car and landed on his feet entirely unharmed. Because the driver of the car that caused the crash was an influential Chicago parks commissioner, he and his vehicle were hustled away before reporters got to the scene.

When the news of the crash hit the papers, therefore, there was no mention of another car having plowed into the Dymaxion. Instead it was the unique shape and design of the vehicle that took the blame for the fatal accident; it had hit a “wave” in the road and flipped ass over teakettle. The Dymaxion was excoriated as inherently unstable and dangerous. Because of the English and French dignitaries in the car, the crash made the international press as well. Evidence given at the coroner’s inquest, including the testimonies of Sempill and Dollfuss, exonerated the Dymaxion vehicle, but the inquest had been delayed two months to give Sempill a chance to recover from his injuries, so by the time the truth came out, the story was old news and was barely covered in the press.

Fuller and Burgess repaired the prototype, and the next year they brought Dymaxion Car #3 to Chicago for the second run of the World’s Fair (the Exposition had been so lucrative that organizers reopened it from May to October of 1934). Crowds flocked to see Fuller do demonstrations like “waltzing” (a zig-zagging maneuver) down the main street and turning the car on itself. Primed by the horrible reputation the Dymaxion had been saddled with the year before, visitors expected the car to flip over. It did not. Instead it regained its reputation as a futuristic technological marvel.

The bad press had done its damage, though. Between that and the Depression, Fuller was unable to secure investors for new prototypes. He had only managed to make the third one by selling stocks he’d inherited, going into debt and taking advantage of Henry Ford’s offer to let him have anything he wanted from the Ford line of products for 75% off. Number three would be the last of the Dymaxions. Fuller liquidated the company’s assets, paid off his creditors and called it a day.

Of the three prototypes, only one survives today. Car #1 was purchased by the U.S. Bureau of Standards. It was destroyed in a fire at the BoS’s Washington D.C. garage. Car #3 was sold to conductor Leopold Stokowski but he found he didn’t like driving it so sold it a few months later. It passed through various hands before meeting its end in a Wichita junkyard where it was cut up and sold for scrap during the 1950s. Car #2 saw some hard living (apparently it was used a chicken coop) before being sold to Las Vegas casino executive and car collector William Harrah. After his death many of Harrah’s cars were sold at auction, but Dymaxion #2 was one of a selection donated to the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, where it is on display today.

Architect and Fuller collaborator Norman Foster borrowed Prototype #2 to make a replica of the Dymaxion. In return for the loan, he restored the interior of #2 which was in such atrocious condition the car’s windows were made opaque so visitors to the museum wouldn’t be able to see inside. Now that the car is back in Nevada and looking great, the museum is currently raising funds to repair the mechanics so that the Dymaxion can show off its talents on the road once again. Donors get a chance to win a ride in the Dymaxion.

Here’s a quick clip of the Dymaxion Car driving fast, turning tight and parallel parking like a boss.

This clip features Fuller describing the vehicle and has great footage of its clown car-like ability to carry more humans than seems possible.

Here Fuller narrates a period video of the Dymaxion in action featuring Amelia Earhart and then, in a 1975 Philadelphia talk, he discusses the car’s redemptive performance at the Century of Progress Exposition the year after the fatal accident.

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Inscription found mentioning last Thracian kings

July 11th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Roman site of Aquae Calidae in Burgas on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast discovered a marble slab with an inscription mentioning the last monarchs of the Sapaean dynasty, the last family to rule the ancient Odrysian kingdom of Thrace. The Greek inscription was carved between 26 and 37 A.D., a decade or two before Thrace ceased being a Roman client state in 46 A.D. and was absorbed into the Roman Empire as the province of Thracia.

The inscribed marble appears to be a dedication. It refers to a sanctuary to Demeter built by Apollonius Eptaikentus, strategos (military governor) of the city and region of region under the Sapaean King Rhoemetalces II. The slab was in all likelihood part of the sanctuary complex and archaeologists hope remains of it may still be found in Aquae Calidae, only 10% of which has been excavated.

The inscription lists the names of the last three kings of Odrysian Thrace and their dynastic connections. It is the first source to note the names of the children of Rhoemetalces II (r. 18-38 A.D.) and his sister Pythodoris II (r. 38–46 A.D.). It also confirms a previously uncertain familial link: that Pythodoris II was the daughter of King Cotys III (r. 12-18 A.D.), the son of Rhoemetalces I (r. 12 B.C. – 12 A.D.). Cotys III was killed by his uncle Rhescuporis II, so that means Pythodoris II, who married her cousin Rhoemetalces III, was wedded to the son of her father’s assassin. Surprising no one, she had her husband killed in 46 A.D. We don’t know what happened to her, but Rome took swift advantage of the power vacuum after Rhoemetalces III’s death and secured itself a new province.

This is important information about people for whom we have mainly numismatic evidence. The ancient sources are a bit thin on this time period, although Tacitus goes into some detail in Book Two of The Annals on how Augustus and Tiberius divided and conquered Thrace after the death of Rhoemetalces I. Pardon the long blockquote, but it’s such a delicious taste of the devious machinations of empire-building that I can’t resist including the whole story.

Tiberius … planned a crafty scheme against Rhescuporis, king of Thrace. That entire country had been in the possession of Rhoemetalces, after whose death Augustus assigned half to the king’s brother Rhescuporis, half to his son Cotys. In this division the cultivated lands, the towns, and what bordered on Greek territories, fell to Cotys; the wild and barbarous portion, with enemies on its frontier, to Rhescuporis. The kings too themselves differed, Cotys having a gentle and kindly temper, the other a fierce and ambitious spirit, which could not brook a partner. Still at first they lived in a hollow friendship, but soon Rhescuporis overstepped his bounds and appropriated to himself what had been given to Cotys, using force when he was resisted, though somewhat timidly under Augustus, who having created both kingdoms would, he feared, avenge any contempt of his arrangement. When however he heard of the change of emperor, he let loose bands of freebooters and razed the fortresses, as a provocation to war.

Nothing made Tiberius so uneasy as an apprehension of the disturbance of any settlement. He commissioned a centurion to tell the kings not to decide their dispute by arms. Cotys at once dismissed the forces which he had prepared. Rhescuporis, with assumed modesty, asked for a place of meeting where, he said, they might settle their differences by an interview. There was little hesitation in fixing on a time, a place, finally on terms, as every point was mutually conceded and accepted, by the one out of good nature, by the other with a treacherous intent. Rhescuporis, to ratify the treaty, as he said, further proposed a banquet; and when their mirth had been prolonged far into the night, and Cotys amid the feasting and the wine was unsuspicious of danger, he loaded him with chains, though he appealed, on perceiving the perfidy, to the sacred character of a king, to the gods of their common house, and to the hospitable board. Having possessed himself of all Thrace, he wrote word to Tiberius that a plot had been formed against him, and that he had forestalled the plotter. Meanwhile, under pretext of a war against the Bastarnian and Scythian tribes, he was strengthening himself with fresh forces of infantry and cavalry.

He received a conciliatory answer. If there was no treachery in his conduct, he could rely on his innocence, but neither the emperor nor the Senate would decide on the right or wrong of his cause without hearing it. He was therefore to surrender Cotys, come in person and transfer from himself the odium of the charge.

This letter Latinius Pandus, proprietor of Moesia, sent to Thrace, with soldiers to whose custody Cotys was to be delivered. Rhescuporis, hesitating between fear and rage, preferred to be charged with an accomplished rather than with an attempted crime. He ordered Cotys to be murdered and falsely represented his death as self-inflicted. Still the emperor did not change the policy which he had once for all adopted. On the death of Pandus, whom Rhescuporis accused of being his personal enemy, he appointed to the government of Moesia Pomponius Flaccus, a veteran soldier, specially because of his close intimacy with the king and his consequent ability to entrap him.

Flaccus on arriving in Thrace induced the king by great promises, though he hesitated and thought of his guilty deeds, to enter the Roman lines. He then surrounded him with a strong force under pretence of showing him honour, and the tribunes and centurions, by counsel, by persuasion, and by a more undisguised captivity the further he went, brought him, aware at last of his desperate plight, to Rome. He was accused before the Senate by the wife of Cotys, and was condemned to be kept a prisoner far away from his kingdom. Thrace was divided between his son Rhœmetalces, who, it was proved, had opposed his father’s designs, and the sons of Cotys. As these were still minors, Trebellienus Rufus, an ex-praetor, was appointed to govern the kingdom in the meanwhile, after the precedent of our ancestors who sent Marcus Lepidus into Egypt as guardian to Ptolemy’s children. Rhescuporis was removed to Alexandria, and there attempting or falsely charged with attempting escape, was put to death.

I love Tacitus’ scepticism of his sources. He’s totally on my “who would you invite to dinner” fantasy list.

Aquae Calidae, a sanctuary and spa resort in the 1st century (its name means hot waters), has been excavated for the past six years. The digs have been funded by the city of Burgas as part of the construction of new sewage and water systems for the neighboring districts and so that the Aquae Calidae site can be partially restored it to make it an attractive destination for cultural heritage tourism. The discovery of the inscription will likely spur additional excavations in the attempt to find the sanctuary of Demeter as well as other remains, like an early Christian church, artifacts suggest may still be slumbering under the surface.

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