George III’s huge map collection digitized

January 6th, 2016

The British Library has begun a massive project to digitize all of King George III’s 50,000-piece map collection. George III was an avid collector, not just of things he personally loved but in true Enlightenment style, of things he thought would be of intellectual value to the nation. He added significantly to the royal art collection, dedicated a lifetime to collecting books that he made available to all scholars (not even John Adams was barred) and put together an extensive collection of mathematical and scientific instruments.

Maps and topography were a genuine passion of the king’s and had been since he was a young boy. There’s a well-known portrait of George III when he was Prince of Wales with his younger brother Edward Augustus at their lessons with tutor Francis Ayscough. Next to the future king is a globe, a book with an imprint of the Prince of Wales’ feathers leaning against it. It’s a prescient image. Once he was king, his love of geography became professionally important as well, and there are accounts of his dedication to learning every detail about the topographical details of ports, fortresses and cities.

While British monarchs before him had squirreled away maps and atlases in various nooks of royal palaces, it was George III who brought them all together into a single collection that he then added to extensively. He had agents scouring Europe to acquire important pieces and even whole collections. He incorporated all gifts of maps and atlases to the monarch from his subjects into the collection. He even straight-up stole from royal engineers, military and colonial mapmakers who sent drawings, prints and watercolors for his inspection. Late 18th century land surveys done by British military surveyors for the American Board of Trade, for example, never made it to their commissioner. George was so enthralled with the series, which included a map of the Florida coast more than 22 feet long, that he just kept them all, bless his heart, and added them to the ever-expanding collection kept in a room next to his sleeping chamber in Buckingham House, then not yet an official palace.

By the time of King George III’s death in 1820, the Topographical Collection included 60,000 drawings, watercolors, manuscripts, prints, letters, reports and atlases dating from 1500 to the then-present. Half of the material covers Britain and its colonies (or former colonies after the American Revolution) while about 30% covers European countries like Italy and France that were popular Grand Tour destinations. The map collection was gifted to the nation by his son, George IV, along with the late king’s book collection. (He kept all the military maps for national security purposes.)

Originally dispatched to the British Museum, George III’s Topographical Collection was moved to the British Library. Despite its royal pedigree and historical significance, the full collection was never thoroughly catalogued. The British Library moved to remedy that in 2013, raising funds from private donors to catalogue, conserve and digitize George’s beloved maps. It’s a massive job, expensive in time and money, and the library still doesn’t have the funds needed to complete it. They’ve started piecemeal using the donations they have. So far they have conserved, catalogued and digitized all color views, the maps and atlases of South and North America, China, Scotland, southwest England, Spain and 30% of London and southeast England. As of last month, about 25% of the collection has been digitized.

Right now the project is working on the gem of the collection, the gigantic The Klencke Atlas which was the world’s largest atlas until the publication of the Earth Platinum atlas in 2012 which is new so as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t count. At 5’9″ by 6’3″ when open, the atlas is literally man-sized. It wasn’t actually one of George III’s acquisitions. The atlas was given to King Charles II, a known map aficionado, in 1660 by a group of Dutch merchants led by sugar merchant Johannes Klencke as a gift celebrating the king’s restoration to the throne. On its huge pages are 41 walls maps of Europe, Britain, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Charles II liked it so much he put it with his most prized objects in his cabinet of curiosities at Whitehall Palace.

The Klencke Atlas has long been a favorite with British Library staff — there are photographs of curators being dwarfed by it going back to the 19th century — but photographing the giant pages themselves in any kind of quality was all but impossible until recently. The technology now makes it possible to capture high resolution images of sections of every page and digitally knit them together into a single image. This will give viewers the chance to the see both the big picture, as it were, of each page and to zoom in on the tiny details — names, labels, etc. — that would have been too blurred out to read a decade ago.

The digitization of the Klencke Atlas and 80 other pieces was funded by a donation from rare book seller Daniel Crouch who has a lovely outlook on the matter.

Crouch admits that it is “an unsexy cause — it’s not like naming a gallery. It is the digitisation of a lot of old stuff.” He stresses that, although “it doesn’t sound important or life-saving, it actually is. It’s the kind of resource that will be used in years to come and will make the holdings of the British Library accessible to all.”

The digitization of the Klencke Atlas is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2016. Meanwhile, there’s the other 75% of the Topographical Collection that still needs love and attention before we can spend entire weekends on a nerd bender of George III’s maps. The British Library needs another £500,000 ($730,000) to finish the job. To donate to the digitization project, go here and select “Unlock London maps” from the dropdown (it should be selected by default) once you’ve chosen an amount and clicked through.

18th c. scuttled ship found on Potomac riverfront

January 5th, 2016

Archaeologists overseeing construction on the Potomac riverfront in Alexandria, Virginia, have found the well-preserved remains of a ship that was scuttled in the late 18th century. The 50-foot section of the port side of the hull, an estimated 1/3 of the original length of the ship, including some of the keel, frame, bow stem, stern and exterior boards and interior flooring, survived the centuries thanks to the waterlogged soil which kept oxygen and microbes from devouring the wood.

The ship is being thoroughly documented in situ via 3D laser scanning, high resolution photography and precise measurement. Each layer of the wood — archaeologists believe there are at least three — will be scanned and photographed before removal. An expert will examine the remains to identify the wood and date it precisely with dendrochronological analysis. The dismantled ship parts will be kept under water for preservation purposes — a lab has yet to be found that can accommodate it — while the city decides seeks funding for long-term conservation, study and possible display.

While we await an exact date based on when the trees were cut, historians have already pinpointed a tight date range by documentary study. The site was originally located on a bluff overlooking a Potomac cove. That cove was filled in to extend the property in the late 1700s. Historical maps showing how the shoreline changed in the second half of the 18th century provide a possible window for when the ship was buried of between 1775 and 1798.

The frame sections were placed very close together, an indication that the ship was built to carry heavy loads. It was likely a coast-hugging vessel rather than ocean-going, and while archaeologists tentatively believe it was a merchant ship, they cannot yet rule out that it had a military use. There is evidence of deliberate chopping of the hull, probably with a broad axe. This may have been done during the filling in the cove as the ship was chopped up to fit into the given space.

The site of the future Indigo Hotel at 220 S. Union Street is part of a major redevelopment project of Alexandria’s historic waterfront. The ship is the second significant historical find in the one-block site. In September archaeologists unearthed the remains of a warehouse built in 1755 that is thought to be the first public building erected in Alexandria which was only six years old at the time. Historical records of a June 18th, 1755, meeting of the Trustees of Alexandria document their order that a warehouse “One hundred feet long twenty four feet wide thirteen feet Pitch’d To be three Divisions double strided” be constructed, and archaeologists found almost exactly that: the outline of a wooden building 90 feet long and 24 feet wide. The 10 missing feet were destroyed by later construction on the site.

With the stone foundations, large beam framing and even sections of the floor and interior walls surviving, the warehouse remains give historians the unique chance to explore mid-18th century construction elements like the extensive use of mortise and tenon joints even in the studs and beams, and to study the city’s very early commercial history. It was dismantled and sent to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab in St. Leonard to be preserved in its tanks.

Unlike the warehouse whose location was recorded in the Trustees meeting, the discovery ship came as a complete surprise to excavators. There are no surviving records known that document its scuttling and installation, nor are any expected to be found.

“It’s very rare. This almost never happens,” said Dan Baicy, the hard-hatted field director for Thunderbird Archeology, the firm watching for historic evidence during construction. “In 15 years that I’ve done this work, I’ve never run into this kind of preservation in an urban environment where there’s so much disturbance.”

Skeleton found under Scottish school playground may have been a pirate

January 4th, 2016

An excavation at Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School last year unearthed the skeletal remains of what may have been a 16th century pirate.

Founded in the 1840s, Victoria Primary School is the oldest working elementary school in Edinburgh and is housed in a historic building in the neighborhood of Newhaven which was once a thriving fishing village with a harbour on the Firth of Forth. In the early 1500s, King James IV, visions of a great Scottish navy dancing in his head, established a deep-water port with a dock for the construction of large warships in Newhaven. The first ship constructed at the Newhaven port was the Great Michael, the largest ship in the world when it launched in 1511 with twice the displacement of its exact contemporary and King Henry VIII’s pride and joy, the Mary Rose.

When the City of Edinburgh Council decided to build an addition to the primary school building, AOC Archaeology was contracted to do a thorough archaeological survey before construction. With the school near the present harbour and practically on top of the original one, archaeologists expected to find the remains of structures from the old harbour and the shipbuilding concerns that once proliferated there. Instead they found skeletal remains in very poor condition.

Because of its condition and because shards of 4,000-year-old Bronze Age pottery were unearthed alongside the skeleton, the archaeological team at first thought the remains were very ancient. Radiocarbon dating performed by AOC Archaeology revealed that in fact the remains date to the 16th century or 17th century. The date, location and condition of the remains suggest this man, who was about 50 years old at the time of death, did not die a peaceful death and go to a respectful repose.

At that time, there was a gibbet on the Newhaven dockyards where pirates and others convicted of capital crimes would be hung for weeks until their bodies rotted away. Pirates were particularly popular candidates for the Newhaven gibbet because hanging their decaying bodies in plain view of the ships in the harbour was meant to be a deterrent to any other would-be scurvy dogs. Whatever was left of the body would eventually be taken down and buried wherever. The Victoria Primary School skeleton was buried in a shallow grave close to the shore, not in one of three graveyards in the area.

Laura Thompson, Head Teacher at Victoria Primary School, added: “As the oldest working primary school in Edinburgh, we are proud of our history and heritage and the school even has a dedicated museum to the local area.

“The pupils think it’s fantastic that a skeleton was found deep underneath their playground. The archaeologists will hold a special lesson with some of the children about how they have used science to analyse the remains and it will be a good learning opportunity for them.”

Not to mention an outstanding opportunity for pirate-themed recess games.

Forensic artist Hayley Fisher has made a facial reconstruction of what the man may have looked like from the remains of the skull. He looks a little young for a 50-year-old pirate/criminal. Needs more weather beating.

Ginger Churchill goes to hell on Austrian church ceiling

January 3rd, 2016

On the ceiling of the Three Kings’ church in Hittisau, western Austria, is a large scale painting of The Last Judgement. That is not unusual. What is unusual is that one of the figures depicted going to hell is Winston Churchill in a red wig.

The Roman Catholic parish church of Hittisau was built in 1842, funded by a bequest from priest Josef Schnell who stipulated in his will that construction on the new church would have to begin within five years of his death or no dice. Schnell died in 1838, so they just made it in under the wire. The Three Kings’ church was completed in 1845. In 1850, artist Josef Bucher made three altarpieces to adorn the high altar, but other than that the interior decoration was quite spare.

When Father Josef Maisburger was assigned to the parish church in 1934, he wanted to gussy it up a little. In 1936 he contacted well-known Munich artist Waldemar Kolmsperger the Younger to explore the idea of painting a mural on the ceiling. Waldemar Kolmsperger the Younger followed in the footsteps of his father Waldemar Kolmsperger the Elder (1852-1945) whose Neo-Baroque extravaganzas earned him the title of the “last Baroque painter.” The younger Kolmsperger specialized in church decoration, a signature of the elder, and worked in a style reminiscent of the Baroque flourishes that had made his father famous. A professor of the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, the son of a famous artist and a leading church painter in his own time, Kolmsperger the Younger didn’t come cheap. His final price was too high for a small village church budget, so Maisburger packed his dreams away for a rainy day.

That rainy day came in 1940. Now Austria and Germany were the same country, and it was a country at war. New church mural commissions were few and far between and this time when Maisburger reached out to Kolmsperger, his fee had dropped enough to make him affordable for the Three King’s church. The linked article says Kolmsperger was motivated to accept this small-potatoes gig in a tiny village in rural Austria in part because he feared conscription, but he was born in 1881 and I seriously doubt 60-year-old men were in fear of the draft, not in 1940 at any rate. It was at the end of the war when old men and young boys were dragged into service.

As the Battle of Britian raged in the late summer and fall of 1940, Waldemar Kolmsperger began work on the Apotheosis of Christ in Heaven and Hell. He worked behind a white sheet so people didn’t see the painting until after it was completed in 1941. When the work was finally revealed to the public, the people of Hittisau were horrified to find that Kolmsperger had not only flipped the entire village the bird, but he had pulled a Dante and put a living political figure in hell.

Hans Weiss said: “The fresco did not include on one side heaven and hell on the other, apparently the artist disliked the area so much, he decided to paint two hells.

“Secondly, there was quite noticeably a picture of Winston Churchill right at the heart of the hill where Judgement Day was being carried out, showing him carrying a huge bag of money which represented his ill-gotten gains for his treacherous behaviour, and containing the writing “100,000 pounds”.

“Despite the protests of locals the artist refused to change it, and there was a huge row that went right up to the bishop. Locals were convinced that once bomber command found out about the insult, they would deliberately target the church in order to eradicate it.

“The Bishop apparently agreed and he eventually ordered the artist to disguise Churchill by giving him a red wig, and to change the word pounds to gold.”

So Kolmsperger grudgingly made the changes, plopping a ginger Moe wig on Churchill’s head so instead of looking like a bomb-baiting Winston Churchill, he looked like a bomb-baiting Winston Churchill in a ginger Moe wig. He wasn’t happy about it, though, and apparently plotted revenge. His plan was to add a few of the locals to the hellscape, and since he’d already put a couple of topless ladies in the mural who were eerily similar to women from the village who Kolmsperger was suspected of having bedded, nobody put it past him. The villagers are said to have chased him out of town before he could make his final alteration.

Ivan the Terrible-era weapons cache found

January 2nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of future highway construction near Zvenigorod, a medieval town in the Moscow Oblast about 40 miles west of the capital, have unearthed a cache of weapons from the era of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584). The arsenal was discovered alongside the remains of the 16th century village of Ignatievskoe. The team unearthed about 60 buildings from the village. One of them had burned down in the mid-16th century but its basement survived remarkably unscathed. It’s in the underground timber-lined storage room that archaeologists discovered what they believe was the private arsenal of one of Ivan the Terrible’s elite cadre of knights.

They found helmets stored in leather boxes, kolchugs (a kind of cuirass), sections of military sabres, belts, and arrows and more. It seems possible that this was a cache of weapons for a military expedition, stored in special boxes, including even sections of camp tents and billy cans. This warlike inventory, along with the status of its owner, probably indicated the existence of a standing army of troops in readiness, who were armed, billeted and fed at the cost of members of the nobility as part of their responsibility as courtiers.

The spherical helmets with the pointed spikes decorated with gold and silver fittings are particularly splendid examples. There are similar ones in major Russian museums today, but these are the only ones ever found still inside their leather storage boxes with their fabric linings and ear-pieces intact.

The identity of the cache’s owner is unknown, but Ignatievskoe which was the home of the Dobrynins, an important boyar family who had at least one son among the oprichniki, a personal guard hand-picked by Ivan to police an area that was under his exclusive control. Ivan had demanded the creation of this new region as a condition of his return to Moscow after his sudden December 1564 departure. Distrustful of many nobles and clergy who he was certain were a pack of treasonous thieves, Ivan had left Moscow and sent a letter announcing his abdication. The boyar court was terrified that Moscow would fall into violence and chaos without Ivan’s leadership, so they agreed to all of his terms. Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina, a territory that he thought was rife with rebellious nobles (and, coincidentally of course, valuable industry), over which he had absolute power, including the power to execute anyone he wanted no matter how aristocratic without having to justify himself to the boyar council. Even family wasn’t exempt. Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa, the grandson and nephew of Tsars, was one of the nobles who was executed and had his property confiscated under the oprichnina.

His army of a thousand men swore loyalty to him alone. Famed for their black horses and ruthless application of Ivan’s notion of justice, the oprichniki killed thousands, noble and peasant. Their unchecked violence culminated in the 1570 Massacre of Novgorod when more than 1500 nobles and uncounted numbers of commoners were tortured, killed or kicked out of the city to die from exposure and starvation. The massacre turned the tide against the oprichniki so decisively that Ivan was compelled to disband it in 1572.

Ignatievskoe was in the middle of several towns in the Moscow Oblast added to the oprichnina. It’s possible the arsenal was intended to arm Ivan’s terrible black-horsed guard in the performance of their brutal duties. It’s also possible that it was meant for other campaigns as the late 16th century was plagued by incursions from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as internal conflict.

“This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign—each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness. This excavation enables us to ‘see’ for the first time the preparations made by the noblemen who made up the officer corps elite of the Russian army at the time of the flowering of Muscovy as a Russian state,” Mr. Alexeyev remarked.

18th c. bridge collapses in northern England floods

January 1st, 2016

Northern England has suffered massive flooding over the past weeks. Thousands of people have been evacuated from small towns and big cities like York and Manchester. One of the small towns, Tadcaster, 10 miles southwest of York, has lost a large section of a historic stone bridge to the flood waters. Bystanders captured dramatic footage of the moment of collapse.

The bridge was closed to foot and vehicular traffic after the River Wharfe began to flood on December 26th due to fears that the rising waters had caused structural damage. Obviously that was a wise precaution because on December 29th the bridge started coming down. The collapse of the bridge formed a dangerous wave — you can see it in the video — and authorities asked all residents in the area to evacuation immediately. Also, gas pipes threaded along the bridge were exposed in the collapse. Witnesses and journalists watching the events smelled a strong smell of gas right after the stones fell down, so an area of 150 feet around the bridge was cordoned off to deal securely with the gas leak. Residents were allowed to return to their homes the next day.

The Tadcaster Bridge, also known as the Wharfe Bridge, was built around 1700 in the same location as an earlier bridge built around 1200 of stones purloined from Tadcaster Castle. Its seven bays are made of Magnesian Limestone, a local stone that has been quarried in the area since Roman times (Tadcaster was called Calcaria back then, the Latin word for lime) and is still quarried today. It is Grade II listed as a structure of significant architectural or historic interest. The bridge is the main road connecting to halves of the town. Only one bridge remains now — a modern one for the A64 bypass — and it’s on the other side of town so locals have to go six miles, 12 roundtrip, out of their way to cross Tadcaster town center.

Environment Secretary Liz Truss visited the town and assured residents that getting the bridge up and running again was a “national priority.” It better be, because the A64 around Tadcaster is slated to be shut down for resurfacing in 10 days which would leave the town entirely bisected. (Pedestrians can use the Tadcaster Viaduct, a 19th century railway bridge just north of town.)

And that was just the aftermath of Storm Eva. Frank is on the way now.

The Year in History Blog History

December 31st, 2015

The end of 2015 is upon us and so is what has become an annual tradition here, the Year in History Blog History. We had another milestone which, while the number was a tad on the random side, turned out to be my favorite milestone celebration ever. Why? Because we rang in six million pageviews with Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive but somehow still able to rock the double-knit polyester leisure suit. I was surprised and delighted to find so many comments from people who love the Six Million Dollar Man as much as I do. Engine block Steve Austin action figure 4EVA!

The most read story of the year going by pageviews was the one about the Dutch soccer hooligans vandalizing the newly restored Barcaccia fountain at the base of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Short on its heels was one of my favorite, if not the favorite, post of the year: the cuneiform tablet that added 20 more lines to the Epic of Gilgamesh. The awesomeness of the Viking blacksmith’s grave drew the third largest numbers of views, and the momentous discovery of an archaic home from the 6th century B.C. underneath the Quirinale Hill in Rome came in fourth.

Number five on the list is also my favorite photograph of the year. It’s the CT scan of the cross-legged meditating Buddha statue that has a mummified person inside of it. I learned about the brutal process of self-mummification thanks to that post, which was horrifying and fascinating at the same time if not in equal measure, even though the CT scan showed the internal organs had been removed so the person inside the statue hadn’t actually gotten that way by starving, dehydrating and poisoning himself over the course of six years.

That post also corrected an error that was widespread in the general media coverage of the Buddha mummy, namely that its presence inside the statue was revealed by the CT scan. The statue was part of a traveling museum exhibition about mummies, so obviously the fact that there was a mummy inside the state was already known. That’s why they scanned it in the first place. Still, once a mistake like that gets into a headline or a lede, it’s almost impossible to carve it out. The days of a front page correction fixing the problem are over.

That goes double for a big mistake in History.com’s Today in History feature. I informed History.com that they had confused 18th century surveyor Andrew Ellicott with his great-grandson and dendrochronology pioneer Andrew Ellicott Douglass in their entry on the first recorded observation of a meteor shower in North America. I got an email back saying they were looking into it, but their erroneous article still stands. Perhaps they’ll have fixed it by the time November 12th comes around next year.

Another widespread story that needed some correcting is runner-up for favorite picture: the sale of the “world’s greatest cat painting.” Carl Kahler’s monumental 1893 painting of wealthy San Francisco socialite and philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson’s 43 cats sold for $826,000 made news all over the cat-loving Internet. Mrs. Johnson came off of her posthumous virality a little the worse for wear since apocryphal stories of her being a crazy cat lady with hundreds of cats roaming the house got repeated over and over again. In fact she was a thoughtful, devout, generous person who left valuable property and monies in her will to found a hospital for indigent women and children. That hospital still exists, albeit in a new location (the old one was felled in the 1906 earthquake) and under a new name.

It was a particular good year for film discoveries, I think. I don’t just mean lost films that were found hiding out in vaults, but personal discoveries, films that were known but that I discovered in 2015. The most important actual discovery of the year was the film of the 1915 Eastland disaster found in Dutch newsreels. The ship which killed 844 people when it capsized while still moored just feet from the bank of the Chicago River was captured in important photographs by groundbreaking photojournalist Jun Fujita, but this is the first film of the disaster known to have survived.

As far as personal finds go, I still laugh like an idiot at Douglas Fairbanks as the brave, clueless, high as a kite detective Coke Ennyday. That was a random surprise find. Finding The Daughter of Dawn on Netflix, on the other hand, was the happy outcome of years of checking in on the story. I’ve been anxious to see the rediscovered treasure since I first wrote about it in 2012, and much to my amazement, it did not disappoint even after years of buildup. It’s a great picture in many ways, capturing an era that was bygone even as it was being filmed.

My favorite videos of the year were all about the technology and procedure of historical preservation and exploration. First there was the all-too-brief view of how Historic Royal Palaces conservators go about washing the fragile 17th century tapestries under their care. With all the custom technology — the giant horizontal car wash made specifically for tapestries — the best part was how tenderly the conservators sponge away the dirt and blot away the moisture. The composite video made from synchroton X-ray imaging of a corroded 17th century metal box blew my mind purely from a tech standpoint. The detail and resolution of the images opens up a world of new possibilities for non-invasive exploration of artifacts that are otherwise too fragile to be touched.

Speaking of history and technology, the discovery that an eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon book of remedies for illness, kills MRSA superbug bacteria with ruthless efficiency could have enormous implications in our soon-to-be post-antibiotic world. There were some heartbreaking responses to that story from people who have lived for years with persistent infections and are desperate to find a solution. Here’s hoping the research gets all the support it needs going forward so they don’t have to crowdfund for a measly £1,000 to hire a summer intern.

Is it weird if I transition from bacterial infection to poop? Oh well, at least there’s some sort of segue in there, even if it is a pathogenic one. Let’s face, it’s not a good History Blog year without some good poop stories, like the 25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of the 14th c. tower in Rye, a medieval city on the English Channel coast. Also we saw the greatest of all updates to the story of the barrels of poop found in Odense, Denmark. Researchers sifting through compacted 14th century excrement one teaspoon at a time, a designated expert poop-sniffer, museum Smell-O-Vision: that post and its comment thread made me inordinately happy. As did the hidden pooper found in the 17th century Dutch painting by Royal Collection curators.

The hidden pooper may be my favorite restoration find, but my favorite artifact find of the year is probably the Roman owl fibula found on Danish island of Bornholm. Its bright enameled colors, rarity and sheer cuteness completely won me over. If Lorenzo ever graduates from making Mjölnir amulets out of his mom’s tea spoons into a full-fledged artifact reproduction business, I vote he make us a whole bunch of Bornholm owls.

Close seconds are the blackboards from 1917 discovered with beautiful chalk artwork and class exercises preserved in pristine condition in an Oklahoma City school and the 132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree in Great Basin National Park in the Snake mountains of eastern Nevada. Several comments on the latter story appreciated that I’d said conservators were keeping the rifle in its highly weathered condition “because it’s cool.” What’s funny is that I actually thought about it a lot when I was writing. I was going to break down all the reasons they’d decided not to restore it, but then I realized that it all boiled down to the same thing: because it’s cool. There are a million Winchester ’73s. This one stands out because some poor devil left it leaning against a tree for 130 years and now it looks kickass.

As far as precious metal finds go, the treasure of the year has to be the Bronze Age gold spirals found on Zealand, Denmark. They were found under a pile of gold coins and the spirals are so awesome they completely eclipsed the gold coin hoard. The comment thread on the spirals is particularly great too. Lots of interesting contributions from people who use or produce similar objects in embroidery and machining metal. The inscribed sword from the 13th or 14th century inspired a wealth of fascinating comments as well. Everyone likes a mystery, or at least we few, we nerdy few, we band of history-obsessed brothers do.

I also loved the comments on the story about the 7th century Christian skeletons found in front of the Temple of Concordia at Paestum because you were so enthusiastic about the fabulous hidden prostitute conspiracy story. One of the joys of writing this blog is when something that tickles me tickles y’all too. I love it even more when it’s a tangent that you pick up on rather than the main thread of the story. I’m not sure why. Validation that my meanderings were worthwhile, I suppose.

Sometimes the meandering becomes an entire post of its own, as in the case of Childeric’s treasure, a story I came across while researching something else I can’t remember anymore and that became something of an obsession for days. The story about Emily Post’s madcap road trip from coast to coast came about in much the same way.

It’s been a heartbreaking year for history lovers. The destruction of so much of our shared cultural heritage in the Middle East by terrorism and war is almost unbearable. The brutal murder of Khaled el-Asaad, a great man who dedicated his life to the historic patrimony of Syria and the gave his life for it too, was an agonizing loss to his family, colleagues and all the rest of us who where so beholden to him without even realizing it until he was gone.

In the end, it’s history itself that soothes me even in such dark times. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was facing the rubble of its own history, torn apart by total war. The sculptures and reliefs of Tell Halaf in Berlin were bombed to smithereens when the museum took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1943. Seventy years later, they were put back together.

Three years ago, author Hilary Mantel, author of the exceptional Tudor historical fiction Wolf Hall, gave a speech about the public’s relationship to royal families at a London Review of Books event. It made the news because some media outlets plucked quotes about the Duchess of Cambridge and made them out to be cruel criticisms of the former Kate Middleton rather than the astute and apposite observation about how people, spurred on by an obsessive press, fetishize her and box her in. It’s a great speech, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the discovery of the remains of Richard III.

Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king? Perhaps because the present is paying some of the debt it owes to the past, and science has come to the aid of history. The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity. This is the essential process of history, neatly illustrated: loss, retrieval.

I’ve thought of that last line so many times this year, as horrific destruction followed horrific destruction. What was lost can be found again, even if its original form is gone forever. That is what history does. That is what we do every time we read history. We find what was lost.

Thank you all so very much for reading and commenting and sending me the kindest compliments and hottest story tips. May your 2016 be glorious.

Civil War-era cedar log “corduroy road” found in Virgina

December 30th, 2015

A county construction crew in Fairfax County, Virginia, has unearthed a section of a rare Civil War-era cedar log highway. A crew from the Fairfax County Utilities Design and Construction Division (UDCD) was digging for a new road shoulder and sidewalk on Ox Road when workers found a layer of old macadam (a small stone aggregate road surface invented by John MacAdam in the 1820s). Beneath it was a line of cedar logs laid next to each other, a design known as a corduroy road because of its resemblance to the striated fabric. Ken Atkins, senior inspector for the UDCD and avid history buff, made sure the macadam stones were removed very carefully so as not to disturb the wood underneath.

Atkins stopped excavation and alerted UDCD engineer Mohamed Kadasi who called the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch (CRMPB). They sent archaeologists to assess the site who confirmed that Mr. Atkins’ instincts were spot-on. His cautious, thoughtful approach saved a very rare surviving historic Civil War road surface. Logs were a common road surface at the time, especially during the war when the constant tramping of Union and Confederate soldiers turned dirt roads into sucking mud pits.

The CRMPB documented the site, taking photographs and planning a more thorough future recording of the historic road. When they were done for the day, Atkins covered the excavated trench with a steel plate to protect the cedar logs and keep members of the public from falling into the pit.

Then came the bureaucracy. While the county is using the land for public works, it actually belongs to the state of Virginia and is being worked under the aegis of an easement held by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Therefore before a formal excavation of the cedar road could be done, the CRMPB needed a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Usually that sort of thing can drag on for weeks, but everyone pulled together. Within 48 hours, the CRMPB had drawn up a work plan and submitted the permit application, the VDOT had agreed to the plan and signed the permit.

Armed with the permit, the CRMPB team used a total station, one of those surveyor’s tools that looks like a big yellow plastic camera on a tripod, to record the cedar log road in 3D. They also got a favor from the Fairfax County Geographic Information System (GIS) department which has been using high definition LiDAR data to create a detailed topographic map of the county. The CRMPB asked them to process the data from the area around the road find and it returned evidence of a Civil War circular fort that once protected the roadway.

CRMPB archaeologists recorded every log and its exact location, numbered them and then attached two tags with the assigned number to each end of the log. Then they cut through them. I know it sounds horrible and it is, but the UDCD had a drainage pipe to install, and the decision was made that it was better for historical accuracy and preservation to cut the logs but leave them in situ rather than pull them out. Once the pipe was in place, the trench was backfilled up to the cedar log road. The cut ends of the logs were put back in their original places and then the trench was backfilled again, this time up to the modern ground level.

While the road is now reburied and will likely remain so in perpetuity, thanks to the documentation and GIS data, the CRMPB hopes to digitally reconstruct the area as it was during the Civil War.

Jim Lewis, a member of the executive committee of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, said a corduroy road from the Occoquan River to the Fairfax courthouse was a major pathway in the war.

The logs that the county workers found are almost certainly part of the first section of that road, from the courthouse to Fairfax Station, which was built in 1862, Lewis said. “Almost certainly” because Lewis pointed out that a specific dating process hasn’t been used to verify that the wood is from the Civil War and not from a later incarnation of Ox Road.

If the corduroy road does date to the Civil War, the historian said, it would have been traveled by Union Gen. Joseph Hooker, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and other famous generals.

The road would have been a link to get supplies from the railroad at Fairfax Station to the Fairfax courthouse, a significant Union supply depot, he said.

Most other corduroy roads have long rotted away, Lewis said, which makes the Fairfax discovery substantial.

“To find a corduroy road intact is spectacular,” he said.

Iron Age settlement unearthed in Norway

December 29th, 2015

A unique opportunity to excavate an undeveloped field on Norway’s Ørland peninsula has revealed the remains of a large and wealthy Iron Age settlement. The site is adjacent to Norway’s Main Air Station which is expanding to make room for 52 new F-35 fighter jets the government recently purchased. By Norwegian law, the property must be surveyed by archaeologists before construction begins, and because this site is so extensive (91,000 meters squared or more than 22 acres), the survey is a major project with more than 20 staff working for 40 weeks at a cost of 41 million Norwegian Krone ($4,700,000), not counting the additional costs for room and board and large excavators.

The excavators are necessary to strip a very thin layer of topsoil which has been churned up by farming. The land has been farmed for centuries, going at least as far back 1,500 years ago when it was right on the bay. Now it’s a mile inland. Its former position on the coast made it an important location for Iron Age Norwegians.

“This was a very strategic place,” says Ingrid Ystgaard, project manager at the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at NTNU University Museum. “It was a sheltered area along the Norwegian coastal route from southern Norway to the northern coasts. And it was at the mouth of Trondheim Fjord, which was a vital link to Sweden and the inner regions of mid-Norway.”

Excavations have already confirmed that the people who lived there were prosperous, as testified to by the quality of their garbage. Archaeologists were delighted to find middens — ancient garbage pits — on the site, because they rarely survive so long in the acidic soil of Norway. Thanks to its coastal history, the site’s soil is composed of alkaline ground-up seashells which has allowed delicate organic remains like animal and fish bones to survive to this day.

“Nothing like this has been examined anywhere in Norway before,” Ystgaard said.

There are enough bones to figure out what kinds of animals they came from, and how the actual animal varieties relate to today’s wild and domesticated animals, she said. The archaeologists have also found fish remains, from both salmon and cod, and the bones from seabirds, too.

These finds will give archaeologists a unique glimpse into the daily lives and diets of the Iron Age residents. Other artifacts found in the middens include a blue glass bead, several amber beads and a shard from a green drinking beaker that was imported from the Rhine Valley. These are expensive pieces, a testament to the wealth of a settlement that could afford to trade for such high-end goods.

The precision work of the excavators has peeled back the top layers of soil a centimeter at a time revealing discolorations and holes in the soil that are basically a blueprint of the structures in the settlement.

So far, these marks in the soil show that there were three buildings arranged in the shape of a U. The two longhouses that were parallel to each other measured 40 metres and 30 metres and were connected by a smaller building.

The 40-metre longhouse contained several fire pits, at least one of which was clearly used for cooking. Other fire pits may have provided light for handwork, or for keeping the longhouse warm.

Ystgaard believes there are probably more archaeological remains outside the 22 acres available to them to survey, perhaps a burial ground and harbour with the remains of boat houses, but they have more than enough meaty material to sink their teeth into on the airbase site. The opportunity to explore how the Iron Age site was laid out — where the houses were, where the fireplaces were, where the garbage pits were — is precious and rare and they intend to take full advantage of it.

Austin Reed’s prison memoir published

December 28th, 2015

The earliest known prison memoir by an African American author will be available for sale next month. The original manuscript was discovered by a rare books dealer at an estate sale in Rochester, New York, a few years ago and acquired by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 2009. Yale English professor Caleb Smith, Beinecke curators and genealogical researcher Christine McKay were able to identify the author as Austin Reed, a free African American from Rochester who had spent much of life in penal institutions.

Reed was six years old when his father died. In the wake of the loss, he began to get into trouble, ditching school and going out at all hours. His exasperated mother decided that it was better for him to live in the country, far from the temptations and evils of the city, where, she hoped, he might be turned from his self-destructive path. She indentured him to the Ladd family to work on their farm in Avon, New York. Alas, like a latter-day Oedipus, Reed’s mother only doomed him to the fate she had so fervently wished to avert. When the farmer tied the boy up “like a slave” and beat him badly, Reed and two other child servants set fire to his home in revenge.

Reed was convicted of arson in September of 1833 and was sentenced to serve 10 years at the New York House of Refuge, the first juvenile reformatory in the United States. He was 10 years old. The facility opened in 1825 in a former US arsenal in the Bowery. The freshman class consisted of six boys and three girls. A decade later when Reed was there it would house 1,600 children. It was dedicated to teaching its charges skills and professions with the laudable aim of rehabilitation, but the disciple was brutal and the workload extreme.

From the beginning Austin Reed was rebellious and fought against prison authorities. His juvie records are replete with comments from the wardens describing him as “a deep knowing impudent brazen faced boy” and “a most notorious liar.” He made multiple attempts to escape, at least one of which was successful if only for a short time. Still, the troubled boy found some support there, especially from superintendents Samuel Wood, an abolitionist who saw to it that Reed learned how to read and write. His successor Mr. Terry took a different approach, inflicting harsh punishments and whipping Reed within an inch of life.

He left the House of Refuge in 1839, only to quickly fall foul of the law again. Now an adult, he served the next 20 years in the notorious Auburn Prison, the oldest prison in the country still in use today. Auburn also had a stated aim of rehabilitation, but its methods were draconian: perpetual solitary confinement, violent whippings with cat-o-nine-tails, a form of waterboarding called the “shower bath,” being made to carry the “yoke,” a 40-pound bar of iron chained to the back of the prisoner’s neck and both hands.

Reed was in his mid-30s when he completed the book in 1858. He always intended his memoir to be published and read by a wide audience. He wrote it with an audience mind, often addressing the reader. His titles make it clear that he saw sharing his story as a means to expose the many cruelties he’d encountered in his lifetime of dealings with the criminal justice system. His original title, in the prolix run-on format so popular in the 19th century, was: The life and adventures of Rob Reed, his fifteen years imprisonment with the mysteries and miseries of Auburn Prison with the rules and regulations of the prison unmasked. The troubles and sorrows of the prisoner from the time he enters the prison untill he is discharged. In the notebook, that title is pasted over with a revised version: The Life and the adventures of a Haunted convict or the inmate of a gloomy prison with the mysteries and miseries of the New York House of Reffuge and Auburn Prison unmasked with the rules and regulations of Auburn Prison from 1840 up to the present time and the different modes of punishment.

Caleb Smith has whittled that revised title down to a more manageable The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict and now, 150 years after Austin Reed first set out to tell the world about the hardships he endured, his plans have finally come to fruition. The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is published by Random House and can be pre-ordered at Amazon now for delivery on January 26th.

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