Richard III cortege through Leicester on Sunday

March 21st, 2015

The week of events leading to the reinterment of King Richard III on Thursday, March 26th, begins this Sunday with a cortege bearing his coffin from the University of Leicester to the Leicester Cathedral. After emerging from the university’s Fielding Johnson Building, the coffin holding Richard III’s remains will depart in a hearse at 11:40 AM and begin a slow procession stopping at historical sites from Richard’s last days.

The first stop is Fenn Lane Farm, the spot where archaeologists believe Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. There the Reverend Hilary Surridge will lead a private ceremony bringing together soil from three locations of significance in the king’s life: Fotheringhay (where he was born), Middleham (where he spent his early teens learning the knightly arts), and Fenn Lane (where he died).

Further stops include the Sutton Cheney church, the nearby Bosworth Heritage Centre and Bow Bridge, the medieval boundary of Leicester where the City Mayor, Lord Mayor and Gild of Freemen will welcome the remains. The cortege will then follow on foot to St. Nicholas Church where after a brief service the coffin will be transferred to a horse-drawn hearth to process through the city center.

The final stop at 5:45 PM is Leicester Cathedral where the king’s remains will be formally handed over from the University, holder of the Ministry of Justice exhumation license, to the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester. The congregation will hold a service of Compline with a sermon preached by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. On Monday the Cathedral will open to members of the public who wish to view the coffin and pay their respects. It will remain open during the week.

I haven’t been able to find any live video feeds of the entire cortege, but BBC Radio Leicester will be covering it. Listen live here. Channel 4 television will be covering the reinterment live on Thursday but is only scheduled to broadcast the arrival of Richard’s coffin at Leicester Cathedral on Sunday at 5:10 PM GMT.

Leicester has a website dedicated to reinterment week with lots of information and details about the events. The BBC has interactive maps of the cortege’s stops outside and inside the city. I’m hoping the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel, which has been replete with Ricardian goodness in anticipation of the reinternment, will have complete video of all the ceremonies.


Celtic 3rd c. BC bronze anklet found in Poland

March 20th, 2015

On February 28th of this year, Peter Kotowicz, an archaeologist with the Historical Museum of Sanok, received a phone call from a history-loving friend named Tomasz Podolak who told him he had found something interesting, possibly treasure, in the village of Pakoszówka near Sanok in southeastern Poland. Podolak has discovered ancient bronze artifacts before that are now in the museum — he received an award by the Minister of Culture last year for the finds and his reporting of the objects while they were still in situ — so as soon as Kotowicz hung up he got in his car and started driving.

When he arrived at the find site, he saw several shallow wells in the earth, each containing some bronze fragments. One of them held a larger piece with only the tip showing above the soil. At first glance, Kotowicz was unable to identify the objects although he suspected they might be of Celtic origin. When he excavated the initial finds and an area of approximately 20 feet around them, he realized the fragments were all pieces of a single item of a jewelry: a bronze anklet in a characteristic Celtic design from the 3rd century B.C.

The largest piece formed about half the ring. The traces of two hinges are visible on the end pieces. The edges of the fragments suggest the jewel broke apart in antiquity rather than as a result of modern activity. As one piece was found more than 50 feet away from the central cluster, it’s possible the anklet had been deliberately destroyed and its fragments strewn about, perhaps for ritual purposes.

Known by German term hohlbuckelringe, meaning hollow bulge ring, these ornaments are among the most distinctive Celtic designs. You can follow the trail of Celtic expansion into eastern Europe in the 3rd century B.C. by following the hohlbuckelringe like breadcrumbs. They first appear in southern German and the territories of the Boii tribe in what is today Bohemia, Czech Republic, in the early 3rd century. As the Celtic tribes moved east, so did the hohlbuckelringe. Examples have been unearthed in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and southeast from there into Asia Minor.

While Celts were known to have settled in the Sanok area during the La Tène period (450 B.C. – 1 B.C.), very little of their material culture has been recovered from this part of Poland. Almost nothing was known of the Celtic presence in the San river valley until excavations in the 1990s found evidence of settlement like pottery sherds, fragments of a glass bracelet, a hearth, an iron sword and, the most prized Celtic artifact in the Historical Museum of Sanok, a gold coin discovered by happenstance in the village of Trepcza.

So while this newly discovered anklet is in pieces, incomplete and plain in decoration (more elaborate versions were made from precious metals and added swirls and bumps to the bulges), it’s a significant and unique find. No other examples of this archtypical form of Celtic female adornment have been unearthed in the region. Kotowicz believes that after the gold coin and the iron sword in the Regional Museum in Rzeszów, this ankle ring is the most exceptional Celtic artifact south of the Carpathians.

The location where the hohlbuckelringe was discovered has not previously been considered of archaeological import. Archaeologists plan to thoroughly scan the area with metal detectors. They’re also hoping to secure funding for more in depth research and additional excavations, but that will depend on the assessment of the regional conservation office.

The ankle ring is now being conserved at the museum in Sanok. It will go on display later this year in one of the underground exhibition halls of Sanok castle.


Microsoft co-founder finds wreck of Musashi

March 19th, 2015

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his underwater research team have discovered the wreck of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s World War II battleship Musashi. Musashi was the second of three Yamato class ships, the heaviest and most armed battleships ever constructed. The ship went down in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, an engagement of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II, on October 24th, 1944. The Sibuyan Sea is between the Visayan Islands and the island of Luzon in the Philippines, so the general area where the ship went down was known, but even with numerous extant eyewitness accounts of the battle, the shipwreck’s precise location was unknown. The wreck of Musashi‘s older sister ship Yamato, sunk in August of 1945, was found in 1982 leaving Musashi the largest of history’s undiscovered shipwrecks.

Paul Allen being a billionaire and a history nerd with a particular fascination for World War II, put together a team of researchers eight years ago with the goal of finding the elusive giant. They scoured historical records from four countries and deployed the latest and greatest technology to survey the floor of the Sibuyan Sea. The multi-beam bathymetric survey of the seafloor didn’t find the wreck, but it did allow the team to eliminate large areas from the search and, on a cool oceanographic note, identified five previously unknown geographic features.

In February of this year, Allen and his team took his superyacht M/Y Octopus equipped with submersible vehicles to search underwater for the wreck. They first deployed an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Thanks to the survey’s elimination of large swaths of the area, the AUV found the wreck on the third dive on March 2nd, 2015. Researchers then sent a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with an HD camera to explore the wreck and find identifying features. It was a valve wheel that provided the first confirmation that the wreck was of a Japanese ship. It had Kanji on it that read “open” and “main valve handle.”

Japanese warships didn’t have their names written on their sides, so identifying the Musashi requires an accumulation of circumstantial evidence and it’s challenging because the ship, which went down whole, apparently exploded at least once underwater. There’s a vast debris field 2,600 feet by 1,640 feet wide with pieces of the ship scattered all around. They found the mount for the teak chrysanthemum, the Imperial Seal of Japan, on the bow, the teak flower long since rotted away, and a catapult used to launch the six or seven float planes the Musashi carried. They also found the main gun turret mount and beneath it damage from US torpedoes that matched the known hits.

On March 13th, Paul Allen and the Musashi Expedition team sent the ROV back down to explore the wreck and released a live feed of the video on the Internet. The quality of the footage is amazing at 3,280 feet below the surface, and even though the ship is torn to bits, you can still see just how massive it was.

One of the viewers of the live feed doesn’t need to wait for official confirmation to know it’s the wreck of the Musashi.

Also watching the feed in Japan was 94 year-old Shigeru Nakajima, one of those who survived the Japanese battleship’s sinking. He said he was certain the wreckage was that of the ship he was aboard 71 years ago when it was sunk by U.S. forces. [..]

“I am certain that this is the Musashi by now looking at the images such as the anchor, the imperial seal of the chrysanthemum,” Nakajima told the Associated Press as he watched the video.

Nakajima was an electrical technician for the sub battery on the vessel. He survived the torpedo attack by jumping into the water as he was ordered to evacuate by his senior officer.

Nakajima, who became the chef at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo after the war, said he had no words but “thank you” for the team that found the wreckage, adding that the ship’s captain Toshihira Inoguchi and other crew members who perished “must be delighted to hear this news… in heaven.”

As large (862 feet long displacing 72,800 tonnes at full load), powerful and armed to the teeth as the Musashi was (it had 18-inch armor plating and nine 18-inch Type 94 main guns, the largest calibre guns ever mounted on a warship), the ship saw limited engagement during the war. She had suffered significant damage after being torpedoed by the submarine USS Tunny in Palau on March 29th, 1944, but two weeks of repair work fixed the 19-foot hole and new anti-aircraft armament was added.

On October 22th, both the Musashi and the Yamato along with the main Japanese fleet were deployed to Leyte in the Philippine where American forces, including General Douglas MacArthur who famously declared “I have returned” when he came ashore, had landed on the island on October 20th, 1944. The fleet was spotted by a US aircraft at 8:10 AM on October 24th, 1944. Just over two hours later, 30 American planes were heading for it, focusing their attack on Musashi.

The Japanese fleet did not have sufficient air cover to defend against the American planes. Musashi used its anti-aircraft guns to create a canopy of flak over the fleet and shot its Type 94 guns into the water to create geysers massive enough to take down American bombers. It’s a testament to how powerful those guns were that the tactic almost worked. TBF Avenger pilot Ensign Jack Lawton described them thus: “Running into one of these geysers would be like running into a mountain. I felt the muzzle blast each time they fired. I could swear the wings were ready to fold every tie these huge shockwaves hit us.”

It wasn’t enough to counter the battering they were getting from the air, or from under the sea, for that matter. Over the course of the afternoon, the Musashi was attacked by wave after wave of bombs and torpedoes. The final attack ended at 3:30 PM. By then 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs had torn through her and she was in very bad shape. Moving north with a heavy cruiser and two destroyers escorting her, she got slower and slower, began to list to starboard and was increasingly down by bow as her hull took on more and more water. Attempts to correct the list failed.

When the list reached 12 degrees at 7:15 PM, Musashi‘s commander Vice Admiral Toshihira Inoguchi gave the standby to abandon ship order and retired to his cabin where he would go down with the Musashi. The list reached 30 degrees at 7:30 and the order to abandon ship was given. The Musashi capsized and sank at 7:36 PM. Although more than half of the crew was rescued, a staggering 1,023 people died aboard Musashi, including Inoguchi, out of a crew of 2,399.


Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

March 18th, 2015

A finger ring discovered in a grave in the Viking trading center of Birka on Björkö Island, Sweden, in the 19th century is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site. It was unearthed by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe during his two-decade-long (1872–1895) excavation of the Birka burial grounds in the grave of a woman dating to around 850 A.D. Although the skeleton was completely decomposed, the grave goods — two oval brooches, one with a needle case hanging in a chain, one with a pair of scissors underneath that were probably attached with a string, an equal-armed brooch, a row of glass, rock crystal and carnelian beads — and remains of clothing — a flax undergarment and a blue wool garment — identify the deceased as female.

The ring was found inside the wooden coffin where her chest would have been, next to the scissors under the right oval brooch. Either it too was connected to the brooch with a now-decayed string, or the woman’s hands may have been placed on her chest when she was placed in the coffin. It is made of silver and set with a translucent purple cabochon stone engraved with Arabic Kufic script. Rings of similar design have been found in Viking graves before, including three in graves at Birka, and in Eastern European graves of the period, but none of them have inscriptions.

The ring is part of the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm now, but it has never been scientifically analyzed. To answer some questions about its material and construction, the ring was recently subjected to non-invasive examination while a replica took its place on display. Researchers studied the ring under a standard optical stereomicroscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped for elemental analysis which would allow them to determine the metal content and identify the stone without having to take any destructive samples.

They found that the museum’s interpretation of the ring was wrong on several counts. The museum’s inventory catalogue describes its as a gilded silver signet ring set with an engraved violet amethyst. It’s not gilded silver. It is a high-grade silver alloy consisting of 94.5% silver and 5.5% copper. The stone is not an amethyst. It is not even a stone. It’s colored soda-lime glass, which isn’t to say it was cheap or a fake because glass was a prized luxury import in Viking Scandinavia. The inscription, engraved in an angular form of Arabic Kufic script that was in use from the 7th century through the 12th, reads, researchers believe, “il-la-lah”, or “For/to Allah.” Interpretation is challenging due to the stylized script, so it could be saying something else, but Allah is definitely a part of it, which means that it’s not a signet ring.

The ring shank was at some point in its history broken in three places and then glued back together. This couldn’t have been done before the burial because the glue is a polymer rather than an animal glue and the latter wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the ring together anyway. It’s more likely that it was either found broken or damaged in the excavation and then glued back together. There is no documentation of any such action being taken.

Researchers also found that the metal surface of the ring bears parallel striations that are likely file marks left by the original maker when he filed the ring to remove flash and mold lines left by the casting process. There are file marks on the prongs as well, which means the filing was done before the glass was added. These marks would normally be eroded away by usage. The fact that they’re still everywhere on the ring body indicates the ring was barely used before being buried. That suggests it didn’t gradually wend its way to Sweden trade by trade, but rather got from the maker to the deceased with no or very few other owners in between.

The glass, on the other hand, has the scratches and dents of moderate use. It may have been recycled from an older piece, or it may just be the victim of how far it juts out from the ring and of glass’ inherent softness compared to the silver of the ring body.

Nobody’s disappointed that the ring isn’t gilded and the stone isn’t a gemstone. The value of this ring is not in its materials, but in the historical significance of the inscription which connects it to the Islamic world. In fact, gilding would have obscured the file marks and those marks are key archaeological evidence of direct or at least very close interaction between Viking Scandinavia and the Caliphate. There are historical records documenting direct contact (The 13th Warrior, man! Just because it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.) and archaeological evidence of direct contact in Spain and Eastern Europe, but not in Scandinavia itself. That’s what makes this ring so important.


“A ship of war changed into an angel of mercy”

March 17th, 2015

When the potato blight first wound its steel skeleton hands around Ireland’s throat in 1845, funds were raised for famine relief not just in the British Empire (Indian donors were particularly forthcoming) but in the United States as well. With its large Irish population, Boston was the epicenter of American efforts driven by the Catholic Church and the local branch of Daniel “The Liberator” O’Connell’s Repeal Association, a political organization dedicated to the repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 which had united the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland. They considered the famine to be a direct result of the union and thus famine relief was very much relevant to their political activism.

Nobody thought it would last, though. Ireland had had potato blights before and while they caused much suffering, they only lasted for one season. Then the blight struck again in 1846, this time hitting harder and earlier. In January of 1847, news reached the US that the blight was destroying another year’s crop and that tens of thousands were dying. Vice President of the United State George Dallas exhorted Washington, D.C. politicians — 33 senators and 11 representatives, including the one from Illinois’ 7th district, Abraham Lincoln, were at the meeting — to raise as much as money as they could in their home states for Irish famine relief.

Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy took the Vice President’s exhortation and ran with it. On February 18th, 1847, he called a meeting of 4,000 of Boston’s richest and most prominent residents. They gathered in Faneuil Hall and were regaled with testimonials on the horrors visited upon the Emerald Isle by the famine. Quincy and other speakers, most notably Harvard President and former US Ambassador to Britain Edward Everett, appealed to the assembly that they do their Christian duty to help the destitute and dying of Ireland. (The religious aspect is significant because this was a heavily Protestant crowd, unlike the first donors to the cause who were Catholic and working class.)

One of the attendants at the Faneuil Hall meeting was Robert Bennet Forbes. Born in Jamaica Plain, now a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1804, Robert Bennet was the son of Ralph Bennet Forbes and Margaret Perkins Forbes. Both the Perkins and Forbes families were Boston Brahmin, members of the wealthy Protestant upper class of the city. They were merchants by trade and young Robert traveled with his parents from a very young age, crossing the Atlantic for the first time when he was six and experiencing a number of confiscation adventures at the hands of British interference with American ships during the War of 1812. His years of private schooling in France and at the Milton Academy outside Boston came to an end when he was 13 years old. His father’s business failures and ill health spurred the barely teenaged Robert to get a job to help support his parents and seven younger siblings. He went to sea.

His maternal uncles James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins owned a company in the Old China Trade selling ginseng, cheese, iron and furs at first before in 1815 specializing in the illegal export of Turkish opium to China. In 1817 little Robert boarded the Canton Packet as a cabin boy, the first of several voyages to Canton and back he made under the command of his uncles. He was a fine sailor and was promoted to officer (third mate) at the age of sixteen. He received his first command of a ship when he was 20 years old and sailed the vessel around the world.

By the time he was 28, Robert Bennet Forbes was rich in his own right, thanks in disturbingly large part to drug trafficking that would have such disastrous consequences for China, and settled down to run the business from Milton, Massachusetts. He became a ship designer, ultimately designing 70 ships. He was also involved in philanthropic works and charitable causes. When Mayor John Quincy appealed for aid at Faneuil Hall, Captain Robert Forbes and his brother John Murray Forbes decided to take immediate action, heading the newly founded New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland.

Two days later, the Forbes brothers had come up with a workable plan: to petition Congress to let them use the USS Jamestown, a warship moored in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard, to transport desperately needed supplies to Ireland. Forbes volunteered to command the vessel and recruit a crew of volunteers. Because he was an experienced ship’s captain, this offer held weight with his fellow Bostonians on the Committee and with Congress. Two days after that, the New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland officially petitioned Congress to grant them use of a warship to deliver relief supplies to famine-stricken Ireland.

On March 3rd, the last day of session, a joint resolution of both Houses was passed authorizing the loan of the frigate Macedonian to Captain George C. DeKay and the Sloop of War Jamestown to Captain Robert Bennet. The resolution stipulated that the President, James K. Polk, and Secretary of the Navy, John Y. Mason, would decided whether the expense of outfitting the ships and their voyages was to be paid for by the government or by the merchants. As the United States was at war with Mexico at that time and money was tight, Mason opted for the latter, lending the ships to the Boston merchants for them to outfit at their expense.

Congress had never before permitted the use a warship by private parties and it never has since. This remains the only time it has ever happened.

Meanwhile, the Relief Committee got busy raising money and securing supplies.

Over the course of only three weeks, a relief committee chaired by Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. raised more than $150,000 from donors stretching from Arkansas to Maine. Railroads agreed to ship produce to Boston for free, wharf proprietors donated the use of their docks and newspapers at no charge ran notices from Forbes seeking volunteer crewmembers. The children of Massachusetts donated pennies, churches took up special collections and newly arrived Irish immigrants bore sacks of flour and potatoes to the docks to feed relatives back in their homeland.

The Jamestown was stripped of her armaments and on March 17th, appropriately enough, volunteers from the Laborers Aid Society of Boston began to load the cargo of more than 8,000 barrels of wheat, cornmeal and other non-perishable stores. Bad weather delayed the loading which was completed on March 27th. The next day, the Jamestown set forth for Cork, Ireland, arriving two weeks later on April 12th.

(Random coincidence: the Jamestown had begun its naval duties in 1845 off the coast of West Africa patrolling the sea to suppress the slave trade. Forbes’ uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins was a slave trader in his younger days when it was still legal. The Jamestown first arrived at the Charlestown Navy Yard in August of 1846 from her first deployment catching slave traders. She was still moored there when the news came of the blight’s persistence.)

In his report on the mission, The Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy, Captain Forbes noted that when the Jamestown dropped anchor in Cove, a welcoming committee of local citizens greeted the crew with the Cove Temperance Band on hand to play Yankee Doodle over and over. Forbes was invited to receptions and banquets thrown by the (mainly English) authorities both on land and on board the Royal Navy ships that had helped bring the Jamestown in and unload its cargo. Ladies read him poetry. Here’s an apt verse from a poem by a lady known to us today only as Emma:

The “Jamestown” now no ship of war,
Her peaceful way she wends;
A mighty conquest she’s achieved,
And hearts of oak she bends.

The supplies carried by the Jamestown were distributed to more than 150 locations in County Cork. Since heavy bureaucracy was a huge problem with relief supplies then as it is now, the efficient and wide distribution of life-saving food to the starving within 10 days of the ship’s arrival was a notable achievement.

It wasn’t all parties and poems. Here is a passage from Forbes’ report detailing the horrors he witnessed:

I went with Father Mathew, only a few steps out of one of the principal streets of Cork, into a lane; the valley of the shadow of death was it? alas, no, it was the valley of death and pestilence itself! I saw enough in five minutes, to horrify me — hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing. From this very small sample of the prevailing destitution we proceeded to a public soup kitchen, under a shed, guarded by police officers, here a large boiler containing rice, meal, &c, was at work, while hundreds of spectres stood without begging for some of this soup, which I can readily conceive would be refused by well bred pigs in this country.

I do not say this with the least disrespect to the benevolent who provide the means and who order the ingredients; the demand, for immediate relief, is so great at Cork, that if the starving can he kept alive, it is all that can be expected; the energies of the poor are so cramped and deadened by want and suffering of every type, that they care only for sustenance, and they are unable to earn it; crowds flock in, from the country to the west and south-west and south-east of Cork, the hospitals and poor houses and jails, are full to overflowing, though numbers die daily to make room for the dying; every corner of the streets is filled with pale care worn creatures, the weak leading and supporting the weaker, women assail you at every turn, with famished babes, imploring alms[.]

Forbes headed back to Boston after 10 days. The Jamestown arrived at Boston Yard on May 17th and Forbes returned it to the Navy. The other warship authorized by the joint resolution, the Macedonian, set out on its relief trip in July. More than 100 civilian relief ships also did their bit that year, bringing food and cash donations from all over the United States to Ireland. The Great Hunger spurred America’s first major disaster relief effort, and indeed the first global disaster relief effort.

While he was outfitting the ship, Forbes received a letter from his friend and Unitarian pastor Reverend R.C. Waterson pointing out that in 1676, Ireland had sent donations to help relieve the suffering of the Plymouth colonists during King Philip’s War. It doesn’t get much attention today, but King Philip’s War was an unmitigated disaster for the New England colonies leaving their population literally decimated, a dozen towns destroyed, half of all the towns attacked and their economy in tatters. (It was a disaster for the Native Americans too. The Wampanoags and Narragansetts were all but destroyed.) Forbes calculated that adjusted for inflation, the 1676 Irish donations would amount to $200,000 in his day ($1,450,000 in ours).

“It is an interesting fact, that the people of Ireland nearly two hundred years ago, thus sent relief to our ‘Pilgrim Fathers,’ in the time of their need, and that what we have been doing for that famishing country is but a return for what their fathers did for our fathers, and the whole circumstance proves a verification of the scripture, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.’

I cannot but think that this fact will be of interest in the pamphlet which you intend to publish. I consider the mission of the Jamestown as one of the grandest events in the history of our country. A ship of war changed into an angel of mercy, departing on no errand of death, but with the bread of life to an unfortunate and perishing people.”


From Ming China to Persian princess to Shah Jahan to Sotheby’s

March 16th, 2015

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, ca. 1420. Image courtesy Sotheby's.The Mahin Banu Grape Dish is a serving vessel 17 inches in diameter made during the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Period in around 1420, and that’s just where the story begins. Its voyage would take it to the royal courts of Persia, the palace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan during the time when he was building the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the modern era to New York where it starred in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and now to Sotheby’s where it is set to go up for auction at the Important Chinese Works of Art sale on March 17th (short video covering the dish’s design and history here).

Persian traders were key middlemen in the trade between east and west, so much so that Persian became a common tongue along the Silk Road. As early as the 13th century Chinese porcelain was imported into Iran, and by the early 14th century Chinese kilns were manufacturing porcelain specifically for export to Persia. The demand was great enough that Persian tastes influenced the production of porcelain in China, particularly after the chaos and violence of the Mongol invasions severely inhibited the local market for expensive porcelain goods. Kilns started to produce larger plates than would be used in Chinese food service and included more geometric decorative elements like those seen in Islamic art.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, side view. Image courtesy Sotheby's.Chinese potters also used Persian raw materials. The cobalt blue that is now so characteristic of Ming porcelain was imported from what is today the Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. When the foreign blue underglaze first began to be used to paint the prized pure white porcelain, in fact, the Chinese elite turned their noses up at it as vulgar and barbarous. Over time they realized it was extremely kickass, and Ming blue-and-white porcelain came to be considered the sine qua non of refinement and elegance.

The dish probably made its way west to Persia under the Timurid dynasty, founded by famed Timur (aka Tamerlane) in 1370. The Timurid aristocracy loved blue and white porcelain and amassed large collections of pieces from China. The Safavid dynasty, founded in 1501 by Shah Ismail I, carried on the practice of collecting blue-and-white porcelain and it was one of Ismail’s daughters, Princess Mahin Banu Khanum, who put her stamp (figuratively and literally) on the grape dish.

Born in 1519, Mahin Banu was a highly educated, politically savvy, devout woman. She earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, architecture and religious centers. With her own money derived from her properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray and Isfahan, Mahin Banu supported holy shrines and founded charitable organizations, including one dedicated to funding dowries for orphaned girls who would otherwise have been destitute. Her father died in 1524 when she was just five years old, and her 10-year-old brother Tahmasp I came to the throne. A chaotic regency followed which Tahmasp put an end to with the execution of the regent in 1533.

Mahin Banu was Tahmasp’s youngest full sister and his favorite, so much so that she became his right hand, not just socially or in the arts or in a religious context, but politically as well. Mahin Banu was one in a line of unmarried royal Safavid women who became trusted counselors to their brothers and fathers. Without conflicting loyalties, husbands or children to deal with, they could put all of their talents to work helping their relatives. Safavid women of wealth and rank were educated as thoroughly as their brothers. They were tutored in reading, writing, fine art, calligraphy, religion and even martial arts like archery and horseback riding.

Mahin Banu accompanied her brother in the thick of the hunt and sat on horseback by his side during ceremonies when all the other royal women watched from a distance. According to chronicler Qumi’s Khulasat al-Tavarikh, Tahmasp was so dependent on his sister’s counsel that he wouldn’t make a move without seeking her approval first. She was his top advisor in all affairs of state and acted in an official capacity, engaging in diplomatic discussions with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s powerful wife, Hurrem Sultan. She became known as the “Queen of the Age, the Mistress of the time.”

That unmarried status was not happenstance. Tahmasp jealously guarded his sister’s celibacy, chasing off all suitors until he found a permanent solution: a ritual betrothal to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Twelve Imams revered in Shi’a Islam who had died 600 years earlier in the 10th century. Tradition had it that the Mahdi would return again any day — a saddled white horse was left at the palace gate every night just in case — but this engagement wasn’t based on the premise that he’d actually come back and marry the princess. It was a device to prevent her from marrying anyone else and leaving her brother’s side for her husband’s.

Rudaba Makes a Ladder of Her Tresses, Folio 72v from Shahnameh of Shah TahmaspTahmasp shared his sister’s love of art (initially; towards the end of his reign he lost interest). His court created one of the most lavishly illuminated and calligraphied copies of the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, an epic poem recounting the mythical history of the Persian empire written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, on which the top artists worked for two decades. After the masterpiece was complete, Tahmasp gave it to the Ottoman sultan Selim II as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Contemporary sources record it was part of a train of 34 camels laden with luxurious presents including brocades and other textiles, silk carpets, books and prized porcelain from the far east.

One of the artists who contributed to Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was painter, master calligrapher and head of the royal library Dust Muhammad who also taught the young Mahin Banu calligraphy, some samples of which have survived and are now in the fabulous wonderland known as the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He left the Safavid court in the late 1530s, traveling to Kabul which was ruled by Kamran Mirza, brother of the embattled Mughal emperor Humayun, and then in 1555 went to India by invitation of Humayun himself.

Shah Tahmasp I and Mughal Emperor Humayun meet, fresco on the wall of Chehel Sotoun Palace Isfahan.Humayun had had a tough go of it, empire-wise. He became emperor after his father’s death in 1530, but there were disgruntled parties who sought to place his uncle on the throne. He had the armies of two kings looking to reclaim the territory his father had conquered. His brothers, including Kamran Mirza, betrayed him and fought against him repeatedly. He lost much of his Hindustan territory to the forces of Sher Shah Suri and in 1543 retreated to his brother’s lands in what is today Afghanistan. Again his brother was less than supportive, leaving Humayun to seek refuge in Persia where Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms and gave him the royal treatment.

When in 1545 Kamran offered to give Shah Tahmasp Kandahar in exchange for his brother’s body, dead or alive, Tahmasp refused and instead gave Humayun military support against his traitorous older brother. Mahin Banu played a major role in establishing this alliance. Tahmasp had threatened to kill Humayun at one point if he didn’t convert from Sunni to Shi’a Islam, but Mahin Banu convinced her brother to support the Mughal emperor in his attempts to reclaim his territories.

Humayun took Kandahar and Kabul, lost them (he was an awful battlefield general), took them again, and ultimately in 1555 reclaimed Hindustan in large part thanks to the thousands of Persian troops Tahmasp had loaned him. Finally returned to the Mughal throne in Delhi, Humayun invited the Persian artists and craftsmen to do for his empire what he had seen them do during the months he spent traveling in Persia and becoming enamoured with its art and architecture. The Persian influence on Mughal art would long outlast his reign.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish base, vaqf in the middle. Image courtesy Sotheby's.We know that Mahin Banu still owned the grape dish when she died in 1562 because there’s a circular cartouche (vaqf) on the base of the plate that identifies it as having been donated to the Shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the Twelve Imams, in Mashhad, as a pious gift. It reads: “Endowed to the Razavid Shrine, By Mahin Banu, the Safavid (princess).” According to 16-17th century chronicler Qazi Ahmad-e Qomi, all of her jewels and her porcelain collection were endowed to the shrine which she had been a dedicated patron of in life.

The next time the Mahin Banu Grape Dish appears on the historical record is at the Mughal court of Shah Jahan in 1643. Even though Mughal history intersected with Safavid Persia during the period of Mahin Banu’s ownership of the dish and even though she was so closely involved in her brother’s dealings with Humayun, the Ming vessel did not make its way to Agra through the kind of diplomatic channels that had directed 34 camels’-worth of precious objects to Selim II.

Inscription of Shah Jehan on the side of the dish's foot. Image courtesy Sotheby's.So how did the grape dish make its way from a holy shrine to Shah Jahan 80 years later? Probably as war booty that was then traded. The Shrine of Imam Reza was sacked by the Uzbek troops of Abdolmomen Khan in 1590. They picked it clean of all its many treasures, and 17th century Safavid court historian Eskandar Beyg specifically mentions “Chinese vessels” being among the precious objects stolen by the Uzbek soldiers who traded them amongst themselves “for the price of cheap ceramic shards.” Mashhad was reconquered by Shah Abbas I, grandson of Shah Tahmasp, in 1598. (Related factoid: there is only one collection of blue-and-white Ming porcelain from the Safavid dynasty still in Iran today, and it’s that of Shah Abbas I, on display in the National Museum in Tehran.)

It was probably during this period before Jahan acquired the piece that someone tried to erase the vaqf from the bottom of the dish. The inscription marked the vessel as having been endowed to the shrine. Owning it was a violation of Islamic law. Knowing that religiously observant buyers would not purchase the piece because of that, whoever was trying to unload it tried to scratch off the vaqf. Abrasion marks marred the surface, but the inscription was too deep to destroy it completely.

Instead it seems they came up with another cunning plan: cover it up. There are mysterious drill marks on the bottom of the plate that could have been used to add a mount that obscured the incriminating markings. Also, Shah Jahan inscribed his name and the year the dish was acquired on the outer edge of the foot ring. Other Shah Jahan plates have his inscription on the base, which strongly suggests there was something attached down there that made it necessary to move the standard position.

After that, there are no more handy inscriptions on the dish that might illuminate its travels back west. Sotheby’s has a lovely map tracking its known movements like unto Indiana Jones in Raiders which indicates it stopped in Quebec in the late 19th century, but this stop is not referenced in the provenance information. It goes from Shah Jahan to an art dealer in New York and thence into the hands of Alastair Bradley Martin’s and his wife Edith Park Martin’s Guennol Collection in 1967. They loaned it to museums for many years and are now selling it. The pre-sale estimate is $2.5 – 3.5 million. Considering the unbelievably rich history of the piece, its unique version of the grape pattern, its beautiful condition and the sheer madness of the Chinese antiquities market right now courtesy of lots of newly minted Chinese billionaires keen to reclaim cultural heritage scattered by war, trade, looters and time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that estimate was left in the dust.



Ice divers to return to Erebus in April

March 15th, 2015

April in the High Arctic does not involve showers bringing flowers. It still the dead of winter up there, the water frozen over with ice more than six feet thick. When the Parks Canada-led underwater exploration of the Victoria Strait in search of the two ships from Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 voyage to find the fabled northwest passage discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus last year, it was the first week in September. The 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition began in mid-August. They found the wreck three weeks later using side-scan sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle. After that they only had two days to dive to the wreck before storms came in, the temperatures dropped below freezing and the summer diving season came to an abrupt end.

Now that the Erebus has been found, this year’s expedition will be able to focus on diving the wreck site, but that tiny window of less than a month of above-freezing temperatures can’t quench the Canadian government’s thirst to explore the shipwreck. Researchers want to get back to the Erebus as soon as possible to explore it more thoroughly before artifacts are damaged by the elements or any putative looters with Bond-villain levels of equipage. Canada’s government and military want to get the show on the road “to assert Canada’s sovereignty over its northernmost regions, demonstrate the ability to operate in the harsh environment in remote areas of the High Arctic, and enhance its capability to respond to any situation in Canada’s North.” That’s a quote from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s press release announcing that this year the diving will begin in April.

Winter dives are, it goes without saying, hugely dangerous. They require heavy equipment to cut through the ice sheet, specialized diving gear including an umbilical to provide air and communication lines, extensive supplies, emergency medical services and lots and lots of training. It’s not something Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists can handle on their own, so for nine weeks they’ve been working with expert ice divers from the Royal Canadian Navy’s Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic. Parks Canada divers and the Navy divers have been training together so that the former can learn how to dive safely in below-freezing water under a sheet of ice that’s at least six feet thick (a terrifying practice known as confined space diving) and the latter can learn how to properly handle an underwater archaeological site and its artifacts.

The logistics are daunting, to say the least. The Navy will establish a divers’ camp on the sea ice in eastern Queen Maud Gulf where more than 50 people will live for the 11 days of the expedition. Those people all have to be fed, housed, fueled and heated. Inuit Rangers will be on the team to handle wayward polar bears and help the camp survive any frigid gales from the North Pole that might assault it. Once the divers’ ice camp is set up, three triangular dive holes with sides two meters (6’7″) long will be made in the ice sheet with a gas-fired hot water drill. Each hole is expected to take five hours to cut and the blocks of ice they cut out will weigh something in the neighborhood of four tons. Heavy equipment will be needed to haul the ice chunks out of the water.

About two dozen team members will be divers who will go down the hole to explore the wreck site in pairs — one underwater archaeologist, one Navy diver — in shifts over a 12-hour workday. The tasks they will perform include trimming the kelp bed that is obscuring the view of the ship, testing a new laser device that makes 3D scans of the interior of the hull and film/photograph inside the hull with cameras affixed to a pole. Mapping and documenting the wreck is the primary focus, but the team will also come prepared to recover any artifacts they think should be recovered. They won’t be wearing specialized hot water-warmed suits; they’ll be protected from frozen death by thermal underwear, cotton gloves and triple-layered dry suits. In those kinds of temperatures the fingers get creaky very quickly, but if you pile on the layers you can’t use your hands. The solution is short shifts just 50 minutes long. That’s why there are so many divers on the team, to man 12 or so dives a day.

All of this is conditions permitting, of course. Storms over the ice sheet can be brutal and could grind operations to a halt. The thick ice actually seals the sea underneath it keeping it relatively calm in a storm, so divers would actually find good conditions and visibility even in violently unpleasant surface conditions, but obviously their lives are dependent on base operations being uninterrupted so if the weather gets too severe the dives will have to stop.

To learn more about the team members, their training and to follow their adventures on the 2015 Franklin Expedition, check out this Parks Canada site. The Dive Diary is particularly bookmarkworthy.


St. Patrick’s Cathedral gates in salvage sale

March 14th, 2015

Before Urban Archaeology (UA) became a manufacturer of tiles, lighting, furnishings, bathroom fixtures, etc. based on period designs it was in the business of salvaging the originals. Even though it’s been decades since the primary focus of the company changed, Urban Archaeology still has thousands of architectural features of illustrious heritage salvaged from historic buildings like the St. Regis Hotel, the Paris department store Bon Marche, the Yale University Library, Place de la Concorde, the Chrysler Building and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At the end of the month, Guernsey’s auctioneers will be selling 6,000 of these salvage treasures at UA’s Franklin Street office. The auction will be held in two parts, part one on March 27th (catalogue here) and part two the next day (catalogue here). Follow the links to the catalogue entries to bid online.

Although the day one catalogue starts a little dry with pages of duplicate light fixtures, once you get past that hump it’s a wonderland for anyone who enjoys fantasizing about Frankensteining themselves up a house full of vintage features. Look at this enamel cast iron stove made by the Glenwood Stove Company around 1920. It runs on both gas and wood, with four gas burners, two wood burners, one gas oven and one wood-burning oven. Look at the white enamel handles to control the burners. Gorgeous and still in working order. Very useful for zombie apocalypse preparedness. The starting bid is $1,500 and the top estimated sale price is $4,000.

In the more affordable range, how about a 1940s bobsled? It’s handmade, hence the car steering wheel, but by someone who knew what they were doing because that is some quality bobsled construction. It seats four, too, so instant winter party. The high estimate is $500.

If it’s an actual piece of architectural history you’d like, look no further than this Art Deco pendant light from Chrysler Building, icon of Art Deco and of New York City since it was built in 1930. The Chrysler Building’s design is still inspiring artists and architects today. The brass and clouded glass pendant light used to hang over the building’s staircase. The opening bid if $4,000 with a top estimate of $12,000.

You could make practically build yourself a whole Grand Central Station with the spate of architectural features salvaged from iconic Paris department store Bon Marche, including iron balcony railings and curved glass ceiling panels by French Art Deco blacksmith Edgar Brandt. Then you can mix it up by adding two cast iron mermen and one cast iron mermaid made by sculptor Jacques Hittorff in the 1830s for the fountain in the Place de la Concorde. The fountain is still in place in Paris but the sculptures there are replicas. The originals can be yours for just an estimated $150,000 each.

How about a public clock or two to decorate your new gigantor Frankenpalace? I’m partial to this Reed & Stern train clock from Union Station, Troy, NY, made in the early 1900s. It’s made of white terra cotta and glazed in a handsome malachite green. I am completely in love with the locomotive charging out of a tunnel through its own steam cloud above the clockface. I also heart the Karl Flugel iron tower clock from 1878. It used to keep time in a German tower but now stands a new iron base with the mechanical version of its swimsuit area exposed to our fixed stares.

Another architectural gem of illustrious pedigree is these St. Patrick’s Cathedral wrought iron gates made around 1880, possibly by Arts and Crafts decorative ironwork master Samuel Yellin. They were installed at the cathedral’s 51st Street and Madison Avenue corner at the entrance of the baptistery. In the 1980s the baptistery was moved and the gates found a new home at Connecticut museum of master metalsmith Kenneth Lynch. Lynch has decided to donate his museum collection to Xavier High School and is putting the gates up for sale with the proceeds benefitting St. Patrick’s.

If you prefer your entrance areas to have fewer holes in them, consider these gorgeous Art Deco nightclub doors from around 1940. They’re wood painted in a metallic silver and the circular pattern is mesmerizing.

But they’re flimsy little sticks compared to these 1910 brass pocket doors salvaged from the United States Assay Office in lower Manhattan. Not only do they look badass, but they have the badass history to support the look. The doors weigh 1500 pounds each and were used to secure precious metals in the last public gold refinery in the country (it was shut down in 1982, its gold refining duties contracted out to private concerns, the building and its fixtures sold at auction in 1983). Until the day it was shut down, the Assay Office and its sturdy doors protected 4,140 bags of gold coins confiscated from the Nazis in World War II and more than 100,000 28-pound gold bars. Even the horse-drawn cart bomb that exploded in the Financial District on September 16, 1920, killing 38 people, injuring hundreds and taking large chunks that are still visible on some of the building facades couldn’t scratch these doors.

Seeing catalogues like this ignites the secret hoarder within me. No I cannot have enough cast iron planters, large Art Deco skylight ceiling panels and train station clocks, thank you very much. I DON’T CARE IF WE HAVE NO PLACE TO PUT THEM.


250-year-old pretzels found in Bavaria

March 13th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Danube Market location of Regensburg, Bavaria, have discovered the charred remains of two pretzels, three bread rolls and a croissant that date to the 18th century. Radiocarbon dating placed the baked goods to between 1700 and 1800, but historical research suggests they were made in the second half of the century. While very ancient bread products have survived thanks to charring — Herculaneum leaps to mind — these are the oldest pretzels ever found.

The Danube Market site has been a rich source of archaeological finds. The waterlogged soil next to the river has preserved a swath of history that would otherwise have decayed, like the remains of wooden house that is 1,200 years old (the only Carolingian home ever found in Bavaria), a medieval place of execution and a wooden jetty that is at least 1,100 years old.

The site was excavated between 2012 and 2014 to thoroughly explore its archaeological layers before construction of the Museum of the Bavarian History to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Free State of Bavaria in 2018. Archaeologists found the bakery goodies in the remains of a house that once stood at number 3 Hunnenplatz which was demolished in 1964 along with much of the neighborhood. City archives indicate that the house at 3 Hunnenplatz was bought by one Johann Georg Held, a master baker, in 1753. He used it as his shop for years. The house remained a bakery for more than a century even as it passed through different hands. The last known baker to reside there was Karl Schätz in 1881.

Archaeologists believe the pretzels, rolls and croissant were burnt to a crisp under Held’s tenure, probably part of a tray of failed baked goods that were thrown away. They were found in a waste pit dug into the soil in the corner of the house. Once dumped into the pit, the charred breads were covered with soil. With the moisture firmly burned out of them and the soil they were buried in low in oxygen, the discarded pretzels and friends survived intact for 250 years and now Mr. Held’s trash is our treasure.

There are many origin stories for the pretzel with Italy and France in the running as the starting point as well as Germany. Whichever country it was in, it was likely a monastery kitchen that baked the first pretzels in the early Middle Ages. The looped form of the pretzel was said to be inspired by the crossed arms of monks, and a simple flour and water pretzel became a traditional Lent food since Catholics were forbidden from eating eggs and dairy. By the 12th century pretzels were firmly ensconced in the secular culture of southern Germany where the pretzel was the symbol of bakers and bakery guilds. Pretzels were a special issue in the beginning, baked and sold on Saturdays only. In 1532 that changed when the Duke of Bavaria ordered all bakers to make and sell pretzels daily.

The baked goods are now on display at the Historical Museum of Regensburg.


University at Buffalo rediscovers ancient coins after 80 years

March 12th, 2015

The State University of New York at Buffalo has rediscovered a priceless collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins that spent 80 years unpublished and unrecognized in the library’s archive. The 55 coins were donated to the UB Libraries Special Collections by Buffalo lawyer and rare book collector Thomas B. Lockwood. Lockwood had donated the money to build the university library, now named the Lockwood Memorial Library in his honor, and donated his vast collection of rare books in 1935. The coins, acquired by Lockwood at the auction of a Danish collector’s estate in 1925, were included in the Lockwood’s collection of more than 3,000 rare books, medallions and more recent coins from America and England.

Even though they didn’t get any scholarly or curatorial attention, the coins were vaguely known to exist. In 2010, University at Buffalo assistant professor of classics Philip Kiernan heard a rumor from a UB alumnus that there was a collection of rare ancient coins in the library somewhere. In 2013, Kiernan, who studies ancient currency and whose previous job was at a German coin museum, hit the archives to look for the rumored numismatic treasures.

He found three wood-frame glass casings, one containing 12 gold Roman coins labeled the Aureii of the Twelve Caesars, an appropriately literary grouping for a collector of rare books with its reference to Suetonius, and two containing 40 silver Greek coins from as early as the 5th century B.C. In a small pouch he found another three ancient Greek gold coins.

“I saw these trays and thought, oh this is some kind of reproductive set from the early 20th century, some kind of copies,” Kiernan said Wednesday, displaying the find for reporters. “However, when we opened up the trays and pulled out the coins – nope, they’re perfectly good ancient coins.” [...]

“I was flabbergasted,” Kiernan said. “I couldn’t believe that an institution like UB had a collection of this quality in its special collections, as of yet unstudied, unpublished … coins that were issued by the most powerful and most important city-states of the Classical and Hellenistic worlds.”

He brought in numismatists to examine the coin collection and they confirmed its authenticity. The aureii, one each from the rule of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, were extremely valuable in antiquity, worth so much that they were barely circulated but instead were treated more like portable savings accounts so they experience far less wear and tear than smaller denominations. The silver coins circulated more widely throughout the Mediterranean world, but the ones in the Lockwood collection are almost all in excellent condition. Only a few of the silver coins will require conservation. The 80-plus-year-old casings need some sprucing up as well.

The Otho aureus is the most rare. Otho only ruled for three months, January to April, in 69 A.D., the infamously awful Year of the Four Emperors. His aureii are therefore particularly hard to find, and this example appears to have a mistake in its engraving: the goddess Securitas on the reverse holds a wreath and a cornucopia. On the usual version of this coin she holds a wreath and scepter.

UB Libraries will make the collection available for study to students and members of the community. UB graduate students will benefit in a big way because Kiernan is developing a graduate course that will study and research each coin’s history. The seminar’s findings will be the first scholarly literature published about this group of rare coins.





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