Rare Roman frescoes found in Arles

July 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy birthday, Dymaxion Car!

July 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inscription found mentioning last Thracian kings

July 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2,000 Bronze Age gold spirals found in Denmark

July 10th, 2015

An unprecedented cache 2,000 gold spirals from the Bronze Age has been discovered in a field near the town of Boeslunde on the Danish island of Zealand. Bronze Age spirals have been found before — gold ones in the Syke hoard in Germany, for example, and bronze ones in Poland — but these are the first to be discovered in Denmark.

The spirals are made of very thin, very pure, flat gold thread just 0.1 millimeter thick and up to three centimeters (1.18 inches) long. Some of the spirals are complete at up to three centimeters long; some are in small fragments. All totalled, the gold weight of the spirals is between 200 and 300 grams (7-10 ounces). Two gilded fibulae found with the spirals date the find to 900-700 B.C.

In 2013, metal detectorists Christian Albertsen and his uncle Hans Henrik Hansen found four gold bangles, so-called oath rings, in the same Boeslunde field. Six other gold oath rings had been unearthed in the field earlier (each individually at different times, not as part of a hoard) and in the 1800s local farmers found a group of six elaborately decorated gold bowls, two of which have incredibly thin gold wire wound around elongated handles crafted to look like stylized dragons. The total weight of the 10 oath rings found in Boeslunde is 3.5 kilos (7.7 pounds). The set of bowls weighs another kilo (2.2 pounds). That makes Boeslunde the richest gold field of the Northern European Bronze Age, and there may well be more to find.

It was the oath ring discovery that spurred the discovery of the spirals. After the bangles were found, the West Zealand Museum undertook an excavation of the field. It was a small search area — only a few square meters of soil were dug up — and archaeologists found a small group of three or four spiral fragments bundled together. Christian Albertsen, the finder of the oath rings who was assisting in the dig, brought one of the spirals to a jeweler. He confirmed that it was made of gold, not brass, so the Zealand Museum decided to dig again in the same spot, this time enlisting the aid of experts from the National Museum of Denmark.

During this second excavation archaeologists made the bulk of the find: a large pile of gold coils. Underneath and around the pile were shards of a grey-black material. Analysis in the National Museum’s lab identified these black chunks as birch bark tar, a substance used by prehistoric peoples, including the Neanderthals, as an all-purpose adhesive starting 80,000 years ago. The copper axe found with the 5,300-year-old iceman Otzi was hafted with birch bark tar. The tar chunks found under the spirals bore the imprint of a flat wooden surface on one side of the flakes and the imprint of animal skin on the other, which indicates the tar was used to glue a leather lining into a wooden box. Archaeologists think the spirals were placed inside a jewelry box or dress chest before being buried in the Boeslunde field.

It’s not clear how the coils were used or for what purpose. Given the high quantity of sacrificed gold found in the field, the location may have held ritual importance.

Flemming Kaul from the National Museum also believes that the area had some sort of religious significance as a place where Bronze Age worshippers carried out rituals and sacrifices to the higher powers.

“Maybe the priest king had a golden bracelet around his wrist, and the gold spirals adorned his cape or his hat, where during rituals they shone like the sun. The sun was one of the holy symbols in the Bronze Age and gold was presumably seen as having some sort of particular magic power. It is colored like the sun, it shines like the sun, and because gold lasts forever, it was also seen as containing some of the Sun’s power,” Kaul said.

The Zealand Museum and the National Museum plan to continue to excavate the site in cooperation with amateur archaeologists/metal detectorists like Christian Albertsen who has been so instrumental in the momentous discoveries made in Boeslunde. The gold spirals will be on display at an open house at the Skaelskor City Museum on Wednesday, July 15th. Visitors will be able to enjoy the shiny pretty things and hear curator Kirsten Christensen speak about their discovery.

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Turner’s High Street, Oxford to remain in Oxford

July 9th, 2015

The High Street, Oxford, an iconic view of the city’s main thoroughfare by Joseph Mallord William Turner, has been on display at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum since 1997, on loan from a private collection. Earlier this year the owners offered the painting to the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. Because the appraised market value of the painting, £3.5 million ($5,387,000), is more than the tax owing, the Ashmolean had to come up with the difference of £860,000 ($1,324,000) to secure the masterpiece. If they couldn’t meet the price, the painting would be sold at public auction and very possibly to a foreign buyer who would take it out of the country.

Most of the sum was raised through grants — £550,000 ($846,570) from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £220,000 ($338,630) from the Art Fund, £30,000 ($46,180) from the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean — leaving just £60,000 ($92,300) outstanding to acquire the painting. On June 3rd, the museum launched a campaign to raise the last £60,000. The response from the public was immediate and enthusiastic. More than 800 individuals donated to the cause and the target was reached in just four weeks. Once the paperwork is done, The High Street, Oxford will officially be part of the Ashmolean Museum’s permanent collection.

JMW Turner had deep connections to Oxford. As a child he spent time in the area visiting his uncle so he was familiar with the city — there is at least one surviving watercolor of Oxford Turner painted when he was in his teens — and over the course of his lifetime he would finish more than 30 watercolors of the city, the largest number of works depicting a single place in his oeuvre. In 1799 when he was 24 years old, he received his first important commission: two watercolor of the college town to be published in the Oxford Almanack, the University’s prestigious annual calendar which had been printed every year without interruption since 1676. The watercolors were so well-received, he got commissions to make another eight watercolors which were published between 1799 and 1810.

The watercolors caught the eye of Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, who commissioned Turner to create a view of High Street that Wyatt would then have engraved so he could sell prints of the work. Turner worked on the painting over the winter of 1809-1810, consulting with Wyatt as he went along. Wyatt, while a townie, had many begowned friends, so the painting deliberately includes men in academic dress as well as more colorful townspeople at focal points along the street. Turner had once contemplated a career in architecture and as a young man he had worked for several architects as a draughtsman. That fascination greatly informed High Street which is drawn with exceptional attention to the architectural details of the buildings.

When the painting was finished in March of 1810, Wyatt put it on display in his High Street print shop. Both the oil painting and the print made from it were hugely popular. Turner displayed the oil painting in his personal gallery in Queen Ann Street, London. In 1812, The High Street, Oxford and a companion townscape Wyatt commissioned after the success of the first were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Because, as anyone who has watched Morse and Inspector Lewis to the point of overdose can tell you, Oxford is basically frozen in time, what Turner saw when he looked down High Street is pretty much what you see today looking down High Street, give or take a bike or two (thousand). Any institution would be keen to have a Turner oil painting, but this work is so bound to its context, a context which has survived almost unchanged, that it would have been a tremendous loss to see it sold away from the city whose sempiternal beauty he captured so flawlessly.

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You have two weeks left to design the World War I Memorial

July 8th, 2015

On May 21st, the US World War I Centennial Commission announced that they were opening a design competition for a World War I Memorial to be built in Washington, DC. Every other war of the 20th century has a memorial on the National Mall or environs except for World War I in which 53,402 US servicepeople died in battle and 63,000 more died from disease and accident. More than 200,000 veterans came home wounded and had a damned hard time of it too. World War I is the third bloodiest war in the US history after the Civil War and World War II, but the only monument that comes close to paying respects to the many dead from that war is a memorial dedicated to General John J. Pershing, the commander of American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. A bronze statue of the general and two small granite walls inscribed with maps and quotes describing the American effort stand in a corner Pershing Park, a 1.8-acre urban park a block from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In December of 2014, Congress authorized the World War I Centennial Commission to expand the current Pershing memorial into a national World War I Memorial. It won’t just be in the corner of the park with the statue and walls, however. The entire park will be transformed. It’s in dire need of a new purpose, too, because the main feature of the park was a shallow sunken concrete basin that held water for an ornamental pool in the summer and an ice-skating rink in the winter. When the pool’s mechanics failed a few years ago, they weren’t repaired so the park is now dominated by an eyesore of a useless concrete slab taking up the bulk of its area.

Here’s your chance to make all your Sim City/Leslie Knope visions come true. The competition is wide open. Anyone — students, professional architects, WWI history nerds from around the world — can submit an entry.

The memorial should honor and commemorate the service of American forces in World War I with sufficient scale and gravity that the memorial takes its place within the larger network of memorials and monuments situated on and around the National Mall. At the same time, designers should forge functional and perceptual linkages to the pathways, streets, and civic spaces and architectural landmarks around the site. Design and landscape elements should contribute to the park composition and strengthen the park’s relationship to the larger urban context, while complementing, and not detracting from, the meaning of the commemorative elements (whether new or pre-existing) within the site.

It seems like a tall order for anyone who is not an accomplished architect or designer, but remember, Maya Lin was still an undergraduate when she submitted her design for the Vietnam Memorial in 1981. She got her BA later that year and went on to graduate school where she got her Master of Architecture degree in 1986, four years after the wall was built. So there’s a very important precedent for someone with a great vision but no architecture experience to win a memorial design competition.

The deadline for submissions is July 21st. Memorial Design Competition website has tons of information and resources for anyone interested in taking the plunge. Get started by downloading the competition manual here and the Pershing Park site plan here. If turning a sad little blighted park into a worthy memorial is outside your skill set, you can contribute to the project by donating here. The memorial cannot be funded by Congress so it relies on private donations to raise the projected $25 million necessary and there’s a long way to go.

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Restored 1813 presentation flag, Betsy Ross & the Lost Dauphin

July 7th, 2015

A rare presentation flag the United States government gave to the Six Nations Iroquois in 1813 has been restored and is now on display at the New York State Museum in Albany. The flag measures 60 inches by 118 inches, has 15 horizontal stripes (eight red, seven white) and a painted eagle with the shield of the United States in the blue canton instead of stars. The number of stripes matches those on the official US flag at the time — from 1795 there were stripes for each state until 1818 when Congressional passed a law requiring flags to have 13 stripes representing the original colonies while a star would be added to the canton every time a new state was admitted to the Union — including the most famous of them all, the Star Spangled Banner.

While authorship is not certain, the painted eagle on this flag is close to identical to others painted by Philadelphia ornamental painter William Berrett. Berrett’s friend and neighbor, one Elizabeth Claypoole, was his colleague in flag production. Elizabeth Claypoole has gone down in history as Betsy Ross. Ross was the name of her first husband John who died in 1776. She remarried and was widowed again. Her third marriage in 1783 was to John Claypoole, and it was under this name that Betsy had her greatest success as a flagmaker.

Although she was making flags during the Revolutionary War as part of her upholstery business, the story of her making the first American flag at George Washington’s behest with the 13 alternating white and red stripes and the 13 stars in a circle on a blue canton is probably apocryphal. It doesn’t appear on the historical record until a century after the supposed events, promoted entirely by her grandsons, William and George Canby, who first announced the tale in a talk at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. Their evidence was solely family lore, but that was more than enough for people to run with in the heady patriotism of the approaching national celebration of the Centennial. William Berrett makes a cameo in the Ross legend as the artist who made a painting of George Washington’s flag design for Betsy to use as a model while she was stitching the flag.

It was during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, particularly during the War of 1812, that Elizabeth Claypoole draped forts around the young country with her work. She had contracts with the War Department to make garrison flags for the US Army. One contract was for six flags to be flown in a New Orleans fort. Another was for an astonishing 46 garrison flags to be delivered to the Schuylkill Arsenal, quartermaster for the US military. These flags were massive, each 18 by 24 feet in dimension. That’s 432 square feet (Betsy’s house was 468 square feet per floor) unfurled, and 24 feet of seam for each stripe. Since the seams were felled (ie, the edges were sewed down flat), she actually sewed 48 feet of stitches per stripe. You can see how her experience as an upholsterer rather than, say, a tailor, was invaluable to work on this scale.

The War Department, then tasked with handling Indian affairs (the Department of the Interior only got the job after the slaughter was over and all that was left was reservation management), also commissioned Betsy to make presentation flags to be used as diplomatic gifts for Native American tribes as the country began exploring/appropriating territories west of the Mississippi. She collaborated with Berrett on the presentation flags, doing the stitching while he did the painting.

That’s not to say that Betsy Ross made this particular presentation flag, but it’s certainly a possibility. The provenance of the flag is nebulous, however, so it’s unlikely there will ever be a solid attribution. The New York State Museum acquired it in 1962 from the Minnesota Historical Society who received it as a donation from Clay McCauley in 1889. McClauley claimed the flag had once belonged to Eleazer Williams, an Episcopal minister, missionary who was the son of Mohawk Chief Te-ho-ra-gwa-ne-gen, also known as Thomas Williams. Thomas was the grandson of Eunice Williams, a Puritan English colonist (her mother was a Mather) who had famously been captured when she was seven years old by French and Mohawk warriors at the Deerfield Massacre of 1704. She and 100 other captives, including four of her siblings and her parents, were marched north to Canada. Although the rest of her surviving family was eventually ransomed, Eunice was adopted by a Mohawk woman, converted to Catholicism married a Mohawk man and refused to return to Massachusetts no matter how many entreaties her Puritan father made.

Her great-grandson Eleazer also lived in two worlds. He spoke fluent Mohawk, Oneida and several other languages which he made use of when attempting to convert Oneidas and in negotiations between the tribes and the US government. He represented the St. Regis Mohawk tribe at multiple conferences between the Indian commissioners and the tribes. Williams thought the northeastern tribes of New York state and Canada should move west, settle down permanently in a reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they could create a new confederacy like the Iroquois free from northeastern population and political pressures that were endlessly chipping away at their territory. Williams was a signatory witness to the 1848 treaty with the Stockbridge tribe in Wisconsin, and as a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe he was not just a signatory to the 1838 treaty with New York tribes, but was specially singled out in Article 9 as the acknowledged owner of extensive lands along the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Known as the Williams Tract, the 4,800-acre property belonged to his wife Madeleine Jourdain, daughter of Joseph Jourdain, a successful French blacksmith and Margaret Craselle, the granddaughter of a Menominee chief, who he had married in 1823 when she was 14 years old.

A small part of the Williams Tract is now in Wisconsin’s Lost Dauphin State Park, and Eleazer is entirely responsible for the excellent name of that park because, not content with making up military exploits and diplomatic victories, Williams also claimed to be Louis-Charles, doomed son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the long-lost Dauphin of France. He hadn’t been killed as a child by his cruel jailers, but rather had been spirited away by supporters when he was 10 years old and sent to French Canada where he was adopted by kindly Thomas Williams and kept safe from the pernicious lies of Revolutionaries. He only came to understand his true identity in 1841 when he met the Prince de Joinville, younger son of the restored Bourbon King Louis Philippe, who was touring the waterways of what had once been New France aboard the steamer Columbia. Joinville recognized him instantly, Williams said, from scars on his face, and asked him to sign an abdication document to ensure his father wouldn’t lose his throne.

The story, which had morphed over the years, finally hit the big time with the publication of an article entitled “Have we a Bourbon among us?” in the February, 1853, issue of Putnam’s Magazine. The Iroquois Bourbon became a huge thing, engendering much published back and forth between people who were enthralled by the tall tale and people who rejected it on the grounds that it was blatantly unsupported nonsense. The con man character of the “king” in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who claims to be the lost Dauphin of France is modelled after Williams.

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The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

When Childeric’s treasure was discovered, Tournai was part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.

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Rare intact rosary found in Michigan colonial fort

July 5th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the fur trading village and colonial fort of Michilimackinac on the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula have discovered a rare intact rosary that may be as much as 250 years old. Colonial Michilimackinac is an open air museum and state park on the site of an 18th-century French fort and fur trading village just west of Mackinac Bridge on the shores of Lake Michigan. It has been excavated every summer since 1959, one of the longest continuous excavations in the country, and more than one million artifacts have been unearthed. The most common finds are fish bones and small objects like beads, buttons and broken glass. Finding an intact artifact of any kind is very rare — the last one was a pocketknife about four years ago — and finding a delicate rosary still intact is exponentially rarer.

State parks archaeologist James Dunnigan found the rosary, made of ivory beads with brass links, while excavating at the home of French-Canadian fur trader Charles Gonneville, who worked the area between the 1730s and 1750s.

The assumption is that the rosary belonged to Gonneville or a family member.

It makes sense that a rosary would fall through the cracks in the floorboards of Gonneville’s house since he and his family were Roman Catholic. The English who occupied in the fort after 1761 when it was ceded to the British along with the rest of France’s Canadian holdings after its loss in the French and Indian War would have been predominantly Anglican. Still, it was a hard-won find. The Gonneville house has been excavated for the past eight seasons.

The fort was built in 1715 on the Straits of Mackinac, part of a vast network of supply depots and trading posts established by the French from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi. The British only occupied it for 20 years, abandoning it in 1781 for greener pastures in the form of the limestone fort on Mackinac Island. They were concerned that a wooden fort on the mainland was too vulnerable to attack by the rebellious American colonies, so from 1779 to 1781 the British moved everything that could be moved from Fort Michilimackinac to Fort Mackinac, including wooden buildings which were taken apart and rebuilt on the island. The rest was burned and soon buried by the wind-blown sands of the shore.

The site managed to survive without being developed or built over. When Mackinaw City was constructed in the mid-19th century, the fort site was made a park. The town gave the park to the State of Michigan in 1904 and the Mackinac Island State Park Commission claimed it in 1909 for Michigan’s second state park. A popular campground in the 1920s, the fort site saw its first attempts at reconstruction in 1933 when the palisade was rebuilt. In 1959, a year before it was designated a National Historic Landmark, the fort site saw its first professional excavation. The archaeological exploration made more accurate reconstructions of fort structures. Reconstruction began in earnest in 1960. The 1933 palisade was demolished and a more historically accurate one constructed.

Just as archaeology is an ongoing process in Colonial Michilimackinac, so is site reconstruction. The aim is to rebuild the fort as it looked in the 1770s. Guides, known as interpreters (of history), dress as British soldiers in the classic red coats, Native American residents, French traders, family members, anyone who would have had reason to be at the fort in colonial times. Visitors to the park can get a glimpse of colonial life through the reconstructions and reenactments like the ever-popular cannon fire demonstrations, and see archaeologists at work during the dig season from early June to mid-August.

The rosary is being conserved now. Curators expect that it will be ready for display at the fort’s permanent Treasures of the Sand exhibit this fall.

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Hermione leads New York Parade of Ships

July 4th, 2015


L’Hermione arrived in New York City on July 1st, firing its cannons in salute to the city that welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette with a screaming throng of 50,000, a third of the city’s population at the time, in 1824. It docked at Pier 15 on the East River in Lower Manhattan right across from the South Street Seaport Museum and opened for visitors to explore the replica of the ship that brought Lafayette back to America in 1780 bearing reinforcements of troops and ships to support the neonate nation in its fight for independence from the British Empire.

Today the Hermione led the Parade of Ships past the Statue of Liberty to celebrate the 239th anniversary of the American independence that Lafayette fought for with such dedication and at no small personal cost.

The Hermione YouTube channel has a great video showing the ship’s arrival in New York from the perspective of the crew.

There are tons more videos of Hermione previous stops along the east coast of the United States and I suspect the channel will soon have better footage of today’s parade than I was able to find.

New York will continue to celebrate Lafayette and the Hermione even after she leaves. The New-York Historical Society Museum’s exhibition Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione examines Lafayette’s youth when, still a teenager, he became a tireless advocate on behalf of US independence, his involvement in the war and his continuing close ties to the people who know now as the Founding Fathers after the war was over. On display are artifacts that have never been seen before from Lafayette’s chateau La Grange. There are letters he wrote to and from his family, swords, medals, secret codes he shared with Washington, locks of hair from Washington and Jefferson that he was given as fond keepsakes.

Three of my favorite pieces on display in the exhibition are written materials. One is the letter announcing his arrival that Lafayette wrote to Washington from the Hermione after it dropped anchor in Boston Harbour in 1780. Datelined “At the entrance of Boston Harbour 27th April 1780,” the letter opens with a beautiful glimpse into the genuine love Lafayette bore Washington: “Here I am, My dear General, and in the Mist [sic] of the joy I feel in finding Myself again one of Your loving soldiers.”

The second is an almost unbearably adorable letter written to George Washington by Lafayette’s six-year-old daughter Anastasie in 1784 (all idiosyncratic spellings hers).

Dear Washington, I hope that papa whill come back son here. I am verry sorry for the loss of him, but I am verry glade for you self. I wich you a werry good health and I am whith great respect, Dear Sir, your most obedient servent, anastasie la fayette.

Washington was reportedly charmed to bits by this letter, and how could he fail to be? Not only are the sentiments expressed so sweet and brave and polite, but look at how great her handwriting is! She was six years old and using a quill pen, for crying out loud. In response, Washington asked Lafayette to convey his warmest regards and an invitation from his wife Martha for the Marquis, his wife Adrienne, their daughters Anastasie and Virginie and son Georges Washington Lafayette to visit Mount Vernon someday.

The third is an invitation to dinner Lafayette sent to Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1785. Lafayette’s house on the Rue de Bourbon served as the unofficial headquarters of the Americans in Paris. Dinners with the likes of Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and Madame de Staël were weekly events and the invites, like the conversation, were always in English. I am in deeply love with the capital W and F.

Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione is at the New-York Historical Society through October 4th, 2015.

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