Oldest known trousers found in China

June 2nd, 2014

Front view of woolen trousers from tomb M21, ca. 1,000 B.C.The oldest known trousers in the world have been found in two tombs of the Subeixi culture in northwestern China. The burials are among more than 500 that have been excavated in the Yanghai cemetery near the city of Turfan since the first grave was discovered by local villagers in the 1970s. The cemetery is in a gravel desert, an arid climate that can get as hot as 122°F in the summer and as cold as -20°F in the winter, which ensures the preservation of organic material like human and animal remains, plants and textiles.

The M157 fragment set in a reconstruction of their full designThe woolen pants were found in tombs M21 and M157. The ones in the former are almost complete, while only fragments of the trousers were found in the latter. Radiocarbon dating analysis on samples of the fabric from both pairs found that the M21 pants date to 1122-926 B.C., while the M157 pants may be slightly older at 1261–1041 B.C. That makes these finds centuries older than the oldest Scythian pants (5th to 3rd centuries B.C.).

This period marked the shift from settled farming and herding communities to nomadic pastoral lifestyles on horseback in central Asia. The bit and harness made controlling the horse at high speeds over long distances or during battle possible, but now the riders needed an article of clothing that would allow them to side astride while protecting their legs and genitals. The tunics, gowns, and the combination of loincloth and individual leggings tied to a waistband like Otzi the Iceman was wearing 2,000 years earlier when he died in the Alps weren’t going to do the trick.

It was the invention of the crotch that ushered in the era of the trousers. The crotch joins the legs together with the abdominal section and waist, converting the four pieces of the leggings-waistband-loincloth rig into a single garment. This design allowed riders to spread their legs as wide as they needed to while still protecting the inginual and pelvic areas.

Back view of M21 trousersThe Yanghai trousers, particularly the pair found in tomb M21, illuminate this revolutionary construction. Even the damage is helpful to archaeologists. The front of the trousers and the left leg are in excellent condition, while the back and right leg have holes that fortuitously expose the inside of the pants and the left seams. A new study published in Quaternary International found that the trousers are formed from three separately woven pieces: two straight-cut legs and a stepped cross-shaped crotch that covers the genitals from the front to the back. There are side slits in the waistband, and a remnant of string at the edges of the slits suggests the trousers were closed on both sides with drawstrings.

The seams on the inside of the legs and the edges where the crotch-piece is stitched to the legs are covered with a decorative braid. There’s also decoration woven into the fabric.

The warp thread in the leg-pieces is brown but cream-coloured in the crotch-piece, whereas the weft changes between brown and cream and so forms patterns. At the upper part of the trousers, where the fabric covers the abdomen, the ground colour is cream and the ornaments are brown weft. Double lines of brown weft were woven into the fabric decorating the entire crotch-piece at regular intervals. By contrast, the fabric of the leg-pieces is dominated by a shade of brown, on which the ornaments stick out in cream-shaded weft. At the height of the crotch the background colour changes from shades of cream to brown through an interlocking stepped triangle pattern. At the height of the knees a zone of rhombic meandering ornament occurs. At the height of the calves two parallel zigzag lines and a third one just above the hemline are woven around the leg.

Sequence illustrating how the trousers were tailoredNo cloth was cut in the making of these pants. Each piece was woven individually to fit the person who wore them. Since the yarns and threads all match, either one person did all the work or the weaver and tailor worked closely together.

Horse-related grave goods found in both tombs underscore the connection between the trousers and their function. The man buried in M21 went to his eternal rest with a decorated leather bridle with a wooden horse bit hanging from a stick near his head. Tomb M157 includes a whip, a decorated horse tail, a bow sheath and a bow. Both men were about 40 years old at the time of death and were buried wearing the ancestors of riding breeches.

 

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Henry VII’s tomb yields silk cloth 10 feet long

June 1st, 2014

Henry VII's coffin raised from the tomb in the Cathedral of PisaLast October, researchers from the University of Pisa opened the tomb of Henry VII of Luxembourg (1275-1313), King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, in Pisa Cathedral to study the remains and grave goods. Inside the coffin they found his bones wrapped in a silken shroud. On top of the bundle were a crown, aHenry VII's bones wrapped in a shroud with crown, scepter, and globe scepter and an orb, the classic trappings of imperial power, all in gilded silver.

It was the shroud that proved the biggest surprise. When it was carefully unfurled, the rectangular cloth was just shy of 10 feet long and four feet wide. Woven out of silk in the 14th century, the shroud has horizontal bands about four inches wide in alternating colors of orangey Silk cloth before it was opened and spread outbrown (originally red) and blue. Embroidered on the blue strips with silver and gold thread are lions facing each other. The formerly red bands have some kind of decoration as well, but it’s in the same tonal range and can’t be identified with the naked eye. At the top of the textile is a dark red band with thin borders of golden yellow. There are traces of an inscription on the red band, but it’s not decipherable yet.

Silk cloth unfurledTo top it all off, the edges along the length of the entire cloth are finished with selvages and the top and bottom edges are finished with checkered bands. That means this textile is complete, the full width of the loom on which it was woven. For such an exceptionally delicate textile to survive complete for 701 years is incredibly rare, unique even. It will be an invaluable source of information on the silk-weaving industry in the early 14th century, and if the inscription and decoration can be fully deciphered, it will also add to our understanding of Henry and his reign.

Embroidered lion detailBand at the top with possible inscription and checkerboard edgingThis isn’t the first time Henry VII’s tomb has been opened. It was opened before in 1727 and again in 1921. Researchers found a lead cylinder in the coffin with a parchment that was left behind in 1727, and the report from the 1921 intervention is extant. It describes the cloth as “a fine shroud woven in bands,” rather a dramatic understatement considering what a treasure it is. Archaeologists today have a much higher estimation of textiles than they did a century ago.

Henry enters Pisa, Balduineum picture chronicle, 1341Celebrated as the “alto Arrigo” (high Henry) in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Henry is best remembered for his struggle to reestablish imperial control over the city-states of 14th-­century Italy.

He was crowned King of Germany in 1308 and two years later he descended into Italy with the aim of pacifying destructive disputes between Guelf (pro-papal) and Ghibelline (pro-imperial) factions. His goal was to be crowned emperor and restore the glory of the Holy Roman Empire.

After meeting strong opposition among anti-imperialist Guelf lords, Henry entered Rome by force, and was indeed crowned Holy Roman Emperor on June 29, 1312.

“He who came to reform Italy before she was ready for it,” as Dante described Henry VII, died just a year after his coronation, having failed to defeat opposition by a secular Avignon papacy, city-states and lay kingdoms.

Henry's funeral, miniature from the Balduineum picture chronicle, 1341Henry died on August 24th, 1313, 16 days after launching a campaign against his greatest enemy Robert of Anjou, King of Naples. He is thought to have died of malaria, but the timing is obviously suspicious and there were immediately rumors that he had been poisoned. There was no time to preserve his corpse, so his people took drastic measures to skeletonize it. His body was burned until the flesh was incinerated, then the bones were soaked in wine for preservation. The head was removed and boiled leaving a clean skull. There were ashes in the coffin and signs of charring on the bones.

Henry VII's skeletonThe rough beginning was compounded over the centuries by multiple moves of the coffin to different locations inside the cathedral. The face area of the skull was badly damaged. An anthropologist on the team reconstructed the skeleton and cranium, which allowed researchers to estimate Henry’s height and age. He was about 1.78 meters tall (about 5'10") and around 40 years old when he died. His knees showed signs of having been used extensively in genuflecting prayer. A high concentration of arsenic was found in his bones, and the symptoms of arsenic poisoning — nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, convulsions — could be confused for a number of natural illnesses, including malaria. Arsenic was a very popular poison in medieval and Renaissance Italy, especially among the upper classes. It even earned the monicker “the poison of kings.”

Henry VII's skullThat doesn’t necessarily mean Henry VII was deliberately poisoned, however. Arsenic was a common ingredient in medications. Hippocrates himself used an arsenic compound to treat ulcers and abscesses, and once Albertus Magnus isolated arsenic in 1250, the pure element was used to treat everything from skin conditions to venereal diseases to fevers and malaria.

The artifacts from the tomb are being kept in the Museum of the Cathedral while researchers continue to study the contents. Small fragments of bones have been sent to specialized labs for analysis. Hopefully the results will reveal more about Henry’s life, death and the treatment his body received after death.

Henry VII's funeral crownHenry VII's globeHenry VII's scepter

 

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Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

May 31st, 2014

The British Museum’s consistently fascinating blog has an entry decoding the complex iconography of Anglo-Saxon art. If you’ve ever found yourself following the intricate interlacing lines and curves of an Anglo-Saxon design, trying to identify a highly stylized animal or face mask, then you’ve doubtless wished for a labeled map. British Museum curator Rosie Weetch and illustrator Craig Williams have made that wish come true.

They select three pieces from different periods to decode. The first is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch that was unearthed from the grave of a woman on the Isle of Wight in 1855. It was cast in silver and gilded on the front surface, a technique influenced by southern Scandinavian metalwork. Created in the early 6th century A.D., the brooch is a beautiful example of Style I art, characterized by a jumble of interwoven figures art historians amusingly call “animal salad.”

Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch, early 6th c. A.D., and interpretive map

The next example is from a century later, the great gold buckle from the early 7th century Sutton Hoo ship burial. It’s a Style II piece, characterized by more fluid intertwined animal figures. There are 13 animals on the buckle surface: snakes and four-legged creatures on the plate and tongue shield, snakes biting themselves on the loop, two animals biting a smaller animal on the top of the buckle, and two bird heads on the shoulders of the buckle.

Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

Great buckle from Sutton Hoo and interpretive map

The last piece skips ahead to the 9th century Trewhiddle Style, named after the town in Cornwall where a hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins and decorated artifacts were discovered in a tin mine in 1774. The style is distinguished by enlaced animals, birds and humans, leafy scrollwork and a particular emphasis on using silver rather than gold and brass. The Fuller Brooch features the classic Trewhiddle humans, animals and plants along the border, but the central iconography is unique.

At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

Fuller Brooch and map of the five senses

The metaphoric significance of these figures, its best-in-class quality and the unique vision of the piece may suggest a connection to the court of King Alfred the Great, who was not only a successful military leader but also had a deep and abiding passion for learning and education. The long period of Viking raids had decimated centers of learning. Alfred made it a mission to reinvigorate Latin education and, for the first time, to advocate learning in the English vernacular. He put his money where his mouth was, personally translating four major works from Latin into Old English: Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms.

Chapter XXXIV of his translation of Boethius uses the senses as a metaphor for enlightenment and understanding:

But gold and silver stones and every kind of gem and all this present weal enlighten not at all the eyes of the mind nor at all whet their sharpness for beholding true happiness but they rather blind the eyes of the mind than sharpen them For all the things which please us here in this present life are earthly and are therefore fleeting But the wonderful Brightness which enlighteneth all things and ruleth all things willeth not that souls should perish but willeth to enlighten them If then any man can see the brightness of the heavenly light with the clear eyes of his mind then will he say that the brightness of the shining of the sun is darkness beside the eternal brightness of God.

Since the motif is unique, the work of the highest caliber and the dating consistent with Alfred the Great’s reign (which ended in 899 A.D.), it’s entirely possible that the Fuller Brooch was crafted by artisans at Alfred’s court, likely for someone of great wealth and rank.

Sadly the article stops at just these three pieces, only whetting my appetite for more mapping of Anglo-Saxon designs. Weetch and Williams should go through the entire collection of the British Museum and decode every artifact in this way. Then they should animate the creatures untangling themselves from each other and make it interactive so we can select to follow one line at a time. Make it so.

 

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Richard III’s spine recreated by 3D printer

May 30th, 2014

3D printed recreation of Richard III's spine; pictures used to create the animation copyright the University of LeicesterFor those of you who are over all this Richard III malarkey (hi anja!), I hope you understand why this post has to be. There’s a rotating spine gif here, people. How can I be expected to resist that? I’m only human. Besides, the question of Richard’s spinal deformity, its existence, nature and extent, has been the subject of many histories and even more theatrical performances for more than five centuries.

Now we have some real answers courtesy of the University of Leicester team which has published a brief paper on Richard’s spine in The Lancet. You can read it free of charge if you register on the site.

When a body decomposes, different parts break down at different rates. Ligaments that hold the spine together are some of the last ones to decompose, so usually the way the spine is found in the grave is how it was in life. The curvature in Richard’s spine could not have been a function of how he was placed. This was confirmed by examination of the bones, which found that the vertebrae of the curve are slightly different shapes and sizes. The only way those bones would fit together in life was in a spine with scoliosis.

The skeleton laid out on a flat surface, however, only shows the sideways curvature of the spine. It takes a 3D model to see the full picture of the condition. The bones were scanned on a multi-detector CT scanner which takes high resolution images from every side, allowing them to be viewed as a whole 3D structure or in slices across any plane. The bones obviously were not joined, since the soft tissue is all gone and there is no software that will take the disconnected bones and put them back together the way they were in life. Usually that work is done by creating models.

Richard III's skeleton laid out in the labThe team was able to use the imaging data to generate a model which was printed out in a polymer using the advanced 3D printing equipment of the Wolfson School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering at Loughborough University in Leicestershire. This produces a near identical copy of the bones, only the model is durable, light weight and easily passed around, giving scientists the opportunity to study the skeletal structure without having to handle fragile human remains. Even after the king has been reburied, therefore, experts will still be able to examine his bones.

The bones of the spine join at three places: the gap between two vertebrae where there’s a disc and two facet joints at the back. With the plastic model, experts drilled a small hole in the center of each vertebra and ran a wire through them, separating each bone with a felt pad standing in for the disc. They then joined the facet joints using a similar technique. They saw that while the lumbar vertebrae in the lower spine appeared quite normal and fit together in a standard way, as they rose in the spine the osteoarthritic degeneration in the facet joints that was caused by the scoliosis increased markedly, deforming the joints. That deformity meant the bones fit together in a very specific way, an enforced thoracic curve that is the s-shaped bend in the spine we saw in the photographs of the skeleton in situ and in the lab. The measurement of the extent of the spinal curvature, called a Cobb angle, is 65-85 degrees. In today’s scoliosis patients that would be considered a large curvature to be corrected by the surgical implantation of metal rods. Once they reached the upper thoracic vertebrae, the facet joints returned to normal and the spine straightened out.

In addition to the sideways s-curve, the 3D model illuminates the spiral twist of the spine that you can only see when the spine is rotated. (You could see it even more clearly if the ribs were attached, but they haven’t 3D printed any ribs yet and probably won’t because many of them were broken when unearthed.) The model shows that the ribs on Richard’s back would have stuck out significantly on the right side, while they were sunken on the left. When he leaned forward, the prominent ribs on the right side of his back would have formed a hump. This would not have been visible, however, when he was clothed and in most any other position than leaning over, so all those pillows stuffed under costumes are way off.

The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight since he had a well balanced curve. His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this. A curve of 70—90° would not have caused impaired exercise tolerance from reduced lung capacity, and we identified no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp, because the leg bones are symmetric and well formed.

He may or may not have had back pain. If his spinal curvature had been magically straightened, he’d have been 5'8" tall, about average for a man of the period. With the scoliosis he was two to three inches shorter.

The polymer model was photographed from 19 angles and the images used to create an interactive 3D model. You can click on it and drag it from side to side to examine the recreated spine from any perspective.

 

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Half of Saddle Ridge Hoard coins sold in 72 hours

May 29th, 2014

Saddle Ridge Hoard coins for saleThe first round of coins from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, the 1,427 gold coins discovered in Northern California in February of 2013 by a couple walking their dog, has gone up for sale and is being snapped up by collectors. Since sales began on Tuesday, more than half of the coins have sold.

The festivities began at 7:30 PM on Tuesday at the Old Mint in San Francisco, the very same building where many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins were first struck. Sixty of them were put on display, including the most important and valuable single coin in the collection: an 1866 $20 Double Eagle that is missing the motto “In God We Trust” on the back. 1886 coin from Saddle Ridge HoardIt’s an extremely rare piece, as Congress had passed a law in March of 1865 authorizing the placement of the motto on all gold coins that “shall admit the inscription thereon.” The San Francisco mint apparently lacked the proper equipment to include the motto at that time. That little oversight makes the coin valued at $1.2 million.

An hour after the exhibition, one coin went up for auction at the Old Mint: an 1874 $20 Double Eagle. It sold for $15,000, with all the proceeds going to restore the National Historic Landmark and converting it into the San Francisco Museum at the Mint. The buyer was Ray Lent with Placer Partners, which is heavily involved in the cause. The mint museum will be the first museum dedicated to the history of the city, believe it or not. You’d think a place like San Francisco would be lousy with them. Here’s a video of the culmination of the auction and an interview with Ray Lent explaining why they secured the coin for the museum. There are some great shots of the space and the exhibition.

With the non-profit part done, commerce began. Coin dealer Kagin’s Inc. put up hundreds of coins for sale Tuesday night. By midnight, 225 coins offered for sale on the website were bought for a total of $2.4 million. Even more coins were listed on Amazon Tuesday night. Within an hour, 346 of them had sold for more than $1 million. At this rate, the initial estimate of the hoard’s value at $10 million will be surpassed by at least a million.

Two of the 14 finest offered for sale in one lot on AmazonOriginal can, part of the 14-coin lotThe 14 finest coins are being sold in a single lot along with the original can that was their home for near a century and a half. They’re available on Amazon for a cool $2,750,000 and yes, you can buy them with 1-Click. As of this writing, 572 coins from the hoard are for sale individually on Amazon, priced between $2,975 and $17,500. Kagin’s has 55 coins for sale on its website and numbers are diminishing rapidly.

Saddle Ridge Hoard coins, cans and lidsIt’s the condition of the coins and their Robert Louis Stevenson-like story that underpins their commercial success. The gold coins are nearly all in mint condition, with coins struck between 1847 and 1894 and barely circulated. They were buried in eight metal cans in the Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada mountain until their rediscovery by the property owners last year.

Eventually almost all of the coins will be sold. The owners, known only as John and Mary, will keep a few coins for sentimental reasons.

 

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Remains of massive 2nd c. building found in France

May 28th, 2014

Remains of 2nd c. Roman building on the site of an old municipal soccer fieldUnder a disused municipal soccer field in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a city in the northern French province of Oise, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have unearthed the remains of a massive 2nd century A.D. Gallo-Roman building while surveying the site for future construction. Hundreds of limestone blocks, many of them carved, were found buried in the sandy soil next to the Compiègne-Senlis national highway, formerly a Roman road.

Architectural archaeologist rendering of part of facadeIt was built at the end of the reign of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161 A.D.) and appears to have collapsed very soon after construction. The structure was an estimated 90 meters (295 feet) wide and 9.5 meters (31 feet) high, but only one meter (three feet) thick. That bold architectural choice of building so high a wall without bracing doubtless played a major role in its untimely demise, along with the sandy soil on which it was built. The facade had a series of 13-17 arches in the center, the building blocksReconstruction of facade with central arches of which are lying horizontally where they fell. They were sufficiently broken and damaged to spare them from stone scavengers, but expertly preserved by the dry sand that became their home for almost 2,000 years.

Carved blocks, Venus headless on the rightArchaeologists aren’t certain yet of what purpose the building was dedicated to, but it could have been a religious sanctuary of some kind sponsored by a hugely wealthy patron. Almost the entire Greco-Roman pantheon is represented in the high quality bas-relief carvings of the frieze. They were carved in a Hellenistic style entirely unlike anything else found in the north of Gaul. The work is so exquisite that it’s not likely to have been carved locally. It’s the kind of statuary you’d expect to find in Rome or Greece, not in distant northern Gallic provinces, even at the height of imperial prosperity in the 2nd century. Somebody paid an enormous amount of money to build this monumental structure.

Detail of petrified old ladyThere are realistic depictions of Jupiter as the horned ram Ammon, horses, griffins, floral and geometric reliefs, and a figure of Venus next to the head and hand of an old woman poised as if she’s whispering, a representation of the myth of Venus turning an old woman to stone after she betrayed the location of Venus and Mars’ adulterous tryst, causing them to be found in flagrante delicto by her husband Vulcan. There’s Juno’s peacock, Diana’s quiver and bow, and a face that could be the Medusa, although her snakes are missing so it’s hard to say. Traces of the original color paint that made ancient Roman statuary and architecture so deliciously garish have survived, an exceptionally rare discovery since the paint was often the first to go. Sections of red cinnabar, light green and yellow are clearly visible to the naked eye.

Traces of surviving paintNot only is this huge building unrecorded in surviving sources, but there is no known Gallo-Roman settlement in the area. Ancient docks have been found elsewhere in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, so something was certainly going on at that locale. We just don’t know what. Even after it collapsed people still found things to do there. Coins from the fourth century have been found among the ruins.

Unfortunately archaeologists won’t have the chance to study the site thoroughly. Excavations began two months ago and will continue through the end of June. Then the team has to clear out to make way for the construction crews that will build a shopping center on the site. The fact that there’s an archaeological treasure there that is literally without precedent apparently won’t even cause a delay. All INRAP can do is move the limestone blocks to temporary storage while they find a permanent location to study and document the stones uninterrupted. How they’re going to move all those blocks without damaging them in the very short window of time they have is not yet clear.

 

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WWI memorial plaques found on dirt floor basement

May 27th, 2014

World War I memorial plaques in a pile on basement floorKaren O’Maxfield was in the Ice House, a public works outbuilding at Colt Park in Hartford, Connecticut, last year when she stumbled on a large number of cast iron plaques. They were in a pile on the dirt floor of the basement, topped and surrounded with junk like an old plastic milk jug and random bits of tubing. O’Maxfield took some pictures and shared them on Facebook where they were spotted by Hartford history buffs Greg Secord and Lynn Ferrari. The three got together and began researching and inventorying the plaques.

They discovered in the archives of the Hartford Courant that the plaques had once been part of a memorial to the 207 Hartford men who died in World War I. The memorial began in 1920 with the planting of 189 elm trees along the pathways encircling the track, dance floor (cool park!) and baseball diamonds in Colt Park. Mayor Newton C. Brainard, himself a history lover who decades later would become president of the Connecticut Historical Society, presided over the ceremony. Each tree was adorned with a small name marker. It was called the Trees of Honor memorial.

Undated picture of Trees of Honor memorial in Colt ParkSix years later, the Rau-Locke American Legion Post 8 replaced the four-inch name markers with substantial cast iron ones on poles beside the trees, now a complete set of 207. Each plaque was approximately 12-by-10 inches and embossed with the name of a deceased soldier, his rank, the location where he fell and the date. For years the city commemorated their sacrifice at the memorial every Armistice Day (renamed to Veterans Day in 1954) on November 11th.

It’s unclear when exactly the plaques were removed, but it was in the 1960s that almost all of the trees were killed by Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by bark beetles that first arrived in New England in 1928. The trees were destroyed and the plaques put into storage. The basement of the Ice House was not a great place for them. The dirt floor was prone to flooding and over time the plaques were damaged. Some were cracked; all were tarnished. Others were lost altogether.

Rusted plaques in need of restorationWhen they were rediscovered, there were only 179 plaques out of the original 207. We know the names of the men whose plaques are missing, thanks to a list published in the 1920s by the Hartford Courant. (You can see the complete list here.) Secord, Ferrari and O’Maxfield are working to replace the 30 missing and broken plaques. They’ve started a Facebook group, Hartford Heroes, and a GoFundMe project to raise money for the replacements. Each one costs $325 for a total of $9,750.

Thankfully Competitive Edge Coatings, a South Windsor powder coating company, stepped up to the plate and offered to restore the existing plaques free of charge.

“To know that these plaques in memory of people who lived in Hartford were put down in this building and left unnoticed, I feel that they should be out where people can see them,” said Damon Schuster, who co-owns the shop with Chris Scutnik. They cut the tarnish with a blast of glass beads, which brought out the original metal and redefined the details. They then applied a number of powder coatings to some plaques.

Cast iron map of the plaques in Colt ParkThe American Legion post that originally funded the plaques in 1926 is still in existence today. It is working with other organizations and the city to recreate the memorial in Colt Park, complete with new trees. Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it would be fitting if the goal could be accomplished this year.

 

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When Argentinian women wore hair combs four feet wide

May 26th, 2014

Portrait of Doña Isabel Cabos de Porcel wearing a mantilla, by Francisco Goya, ca. 1805It began with the peineta, the tall comb worn by Spanish women under the mantilla, a traditional translucent lace head covering, or by flamenco dancers as decorative hairpieces. Aspects of the comb tradition go back hundreds of years, but the accessory as we know it today took root in the 18th century and came to its full fulgor in the early 19th century. It crossed the Atlantic, establishing itself in Spanish Latin America where it soon took on a unique character.

This was a turbulent time for Spain’s old colonies. Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and while the motherland poured money and might into the fight for the next six years, the colonies struggled for their own independence and the Empire splintered under the pressure. As independence movements grew, Latin American fashions followed, branching off into their own distinctive development.

They had the raw materials for it: the shells of Caribbean sea turtles. They were widely traded in South America, used by artisans to craft jewelry and decorative items like hair combs. With an embarrassment of riches purloined from what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of marine turtles (not coincidentally, they’re endangered now), artists could expand the boundaries of the traditional design.

Peinetones in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos AiresIn 1823, Spanish machinist Manuel Mateo Masculino started a business in Buenos Aires making combs and comb-making machines. He advertised that his gear and employees could produce more than a thousand combs a day. His business took off. Soon he had 106 employees making his designs using three different kinds of turtle shells (including a very expensive Indian import), ivory and mother of pearl. The material was cut, punctured, carved, polished, stamped, embossed, heat fused and polished. Masculino’s machines and the templates he designed brought a whole new complexity to the peineta, creating elaborate openwork filigree in place of the more solid edged Spanish pieces.

He also went big, not home, expanding the Spanish originals into combs one foot square. Every year his designs got bigger and fancier. The original wedge shape morphed into crescents, crowns, bell shapes, baskets. By the early 1830s, the average width was three feet. No longer were they peinetas. Now they were peinetones.

Peinetones in the home, lithograph in "Extravagancias de 1834" by César Hipólito BacleThe massive combs and the ladies who wore them were cause for much comment in the media. They became socio-political footballs, representing the evils of female vanity and wastefulness and the rejection of the ideal of the modest virtues of the household. Journalists tut-tutted at their impracticality; poets wrote verse imprecations against women who bankrupted their families and turned to prostitution to support their Peinetones on the street in "Extravagancias de 1834" by César Hipólito Baclepeineton habit; artists satirized the increasingly absurd dimensions. A series of lithographs by French artist César Hipólito Bacle published in a magazine called Extravagancias de 1834 caricatured the giant hair combs as literal homewreckers, knocking down walls on their way out, assaulting men on the street and ruining their view at the theater.

Peineton just shy of three feet wideThe National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires has two exceptional examples from its collection online which prove the satires had a kernel of truth. This piece is a fraction of an inch under three feet wide and just over one foot high. It’s modest compared to this beautiful behemoth which is three feet ten inches wide and one foot four inches high. The elegant lady who wore that didn’t knock down walls, but she definitely had to walk through doors sideways.

Peineton nearly four feet wide featuring central silhouette of Juan Manuel de RosasNotice in the center of that comb is a carved silhouette of Juan Manuel de Rosas, military leader and Federalist governor (read: dictator) of the province of Buenos Aires who ruled from 1829 until 1852, covering the heyday of the peineton. The oval is surrounded by oak leaves, a nod to the high Roman military decoration the corona civica, and topped with a Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty. Underneath the oak wreath is carved the slogan “Federation or Death,” which helps date the hairpiece to 1832 at the earliest, the year de Rosas decreed that that phrase be used in all federal badges. There are few surviving examples of this slogan in a fashionable accessory.

Peinetones in the theater, "Extravagancias de 1834" by César Hipólito BacleBy the time Bacle’s Extravagancias came out, Rosas had turned on the peinetones. Once symbols of Argentine patriotism, a way for women to display their support for Argentine independence in the public sphere, the huge combs were now dangerously subversive, as far as the government was concerned. Bacle ran the official government press, so he wasn’t just printing a fashion magazine. He was actively working on Rosas’ behalf to associate the peineton with women of questionable virtue and even more questionable politics.

It worked. The trend toward giantism reversed, and even though peinetones remained in fashion through the 1850s, the day of the four-footer was over.

 

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Rare footage shows FDR walking at All-Star game

May 25th, 2014

A home movie filmed at the July 7, 1937, All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., captures incredible rare footage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking in his braces. This is only the second known film recording the painful walk Roosevelt taught himself after he was paralyzed from the waist down by polio in 1921. The other clip is four seconds long; this one is eight seconds long.

Determined to have a political career despite his paralysis, FDR had himself fitted with heavy leather and steel leg braces that locked at the knees and learned to approximate a walk by twisting his torso while using a cane for balance. With his other hand he leaned on aide or his son for support. This was an incredibly arduous and painful process and he couldn’t sustain the motion for very long. It’s a testament to his tremendous will power and upper body strength that he could do it at all.

The footage was shot by Jimmie DeShong, who, as a pitcher for the Washington Senators, had close-up access to the field and bullpen even though he wasn’t actually on the American League team for the All-Star game, a team that included seven future Hall-of-Famers — Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Earl Averill, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez — and was managed by another — legendary Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. A native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, DeShong recorded the day’s events with his 8mm home movie camera. The rest of the film captures private family moments and hunting scenes in Pennsylvania.

It has remained in the family all these years. Jimmie DeShong died in 1993. It’s his daughter Judith Savastio who donated the film to the Pennsylvania State Archives so their experts could conserve it, transfer it to HD and make this important document available to the public. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is the first to benefit from this generous gift. His latest series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History was already complete when he heard about the newly-discovered footage. He found it so compelling that he asked PBS to let them re-edit an episode to include the clip.

From Ken Burns’ statement:

Any film of [FDR] struggling to get from one place to another is extremely rare, as the Secret Service either prohibited or confiscated cameras whenever FDR was making an attempt to propel himself from his car to anywhere else. The President wanted to minimize the public’s knowledge of the devastating effects polio had had on him – he was completely paralyzed from the waist down and he could not walk without the aid of a cane and braces on both legs. The press in those days complied with his request not to be filmed.

We thought we had found and used all the rare bits and pieces that existed. But this remarkable 8 seconds provided to us by the Pennsylvania State Archives is one of the very best pieces of film that so clearly shows what a brave struggle it was for FDR to move. The fact that he is on an incline and that it is very windy makes his walking even more arduous. The wind even presses his pants against his withered legs and you can clearly see the braces underneath.

The series will air on PBS starting September 14, 2014. Here’s the DeShong film, with Roosevelt’s appearance starting at the 40 second mark when his car is driven onto the field.

If you’re interested in President Roosevelt’s life after polio, make your way to Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR did hydrotherapy from 1924 until his death in 1945. He bought an extensive property there and donated it to the Warm Springs Foundation, the non-profit organization he founded that would become the March of Dimes. For years the hospital in Warm Springs was the only one dedicated solely to the treatment of polio victims. The historic springs have been restored and although the waters no longer the fill the pools, the on-site museum bears witness to an illness that terrified a nation for decades until Salk’s vaccination was released in 1955.

The Little White House, a lovely cottage he built next to the therapeutic warm water baths, is where he died. It’s a National Historic Site with a small but captivating museum in beautiful, peaceful surroundings. Very much worth a visit.

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The Morgan wants you to see Rembrandt’s etchings

May 24th, 2014

The Morgan Library and Museum has an impressive collection of 489 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, the largest and finest in the United States. Pierpont Morgan himself started collecting Rembrandt’s etchings in 1900 when he bought the entire library of millionaire rare book and print collector Theodore Irwin which included 272 Rembrandt etchings. He added 112 more prints in 1906 when he acquired them from the legendary art collection of the late railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, sold by his son George of Biltmore fame.

A hundred and fourteen years after Pierpont bought the Irwin collection, the Morgan owns prints of almost all of the 300 known etchings by the Dutch master in multiple impressions thereof, including very rare ones. Some prints have been published in exhibition catalogs, but other than that, to view these innovative and influential works you had to go the Morgan in New York City where a few selections were on display. As of May 22nd, however, the entire Morgan collection of Rembrandt prints has been digitized and uploaded to the museum’s website.

Rembrandt began experimenting with etching in 1626 when he was a youth of 20 in Leiden. Other painters like Peter Paul Rubens made prints of his work, but he hired printmakers to do all the etching. Rembrandt did all the work himself, seeing it not as a means to mass-produce and publicize his pricier pieces, but as an exciting artistic medium in its own right with its own strengths. They were made by scratching lines on a resin-coated copper plate using a fine needle or the thicker drypoint needle and then dipping the plate in acid. The acid would “bite” the plate wherever the resin had been scratched away, leaving an impression. His early etchings had a relatively straight-forward drawing style. Over time he developed a more painterly style as he used dense thickets of lines and overlays of ink wiped off only in highlighted areas to create dramatic chiaroscuro.

His subjects ranged from self-portraits, often studies of posture and expression rather than formal representations, portraits of family (his mother, his first wife Saskia) and patrons, Biblical scenes, landscapes of the Dutch countryside and even some erotica which has no equivalent in his painted works. He also depicted people at the fringes of society, beggars, peasants, the elderly, the ill, sometimes mixing them up with images of himself in remarkable studies that look like sketches on a piece of paper rather than the work of painstaking engraving on a plate.

Rembrandt’s prints became hugely popular all over Europe, commanding impressive sums. An etching of Christ Preaching, a masterpiece of complex composition drawing from several different Biblical passages, is now known as the Hundred Guilder Print because an elderly patron paid him that much for an impression of it. His biographer Arnold Houbraken wrote that the demand for Rembrandt’s prints was so great people sought out impressions of different states with slight differences for the cachet of having the version of, for example, Woman Sitting Half Dressed Beside a Stove both with and without the stove key.

The largest number of Rembrandt prints that have ever been on display at once was at a British Museum exhibition in 2001 which featured about 100 of his etchings. Now you can enjoy almost three times that many in high resolution from the comfort of your computer. I recommend clicking on All Images and browsing through the whole collection. Click on zoom or on download to examine the details.

Speaking of which, I feel compelled to show love to the obscure but exceptionally innovative Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers. Rembrandt was a big fan of Segers’ work, collecting his paintings and prints, and even remaking one of the latter, acquiring the copper plate of Tobias and the Angel and remaking it into The Flight into Egypt. The Morgan has two impressions of The Flight (this one and this one) and it’s fascinating to the alterations close-up.

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