Vast archive of pre-war European Jewish life digitized

August 27th, 2014

Photographer Roman Vishniac’s vast archive documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and after World War II is being digitized and made available to the public. The joint project of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has already scanned almost 9,000 negatives that have never been seen or published before. More negatives continue to be added all the time. Ultimately 40,000 items — photographic prints, contact sheets, films, letters, interviews, recordings — will be scanned and uploaded to the dedicated website: vishniac.icp.org.

The goal of the project, in addition to making this precious record widely available to all who wish to study it, is to crowdsource as much information as they can about the photographs.

ICP and the Museum invite scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines, families across generations, and members of the public to explore the archive, contribute their research and family stories, and help identify the people and places depicted in the images. The diverse perspectives brought together by this unique effort, and by the work of a dedicated group of internationally recognized scholars, have already yielded exciting discoveries.

“We believe this initiative represents a new model for digital archives, and we are excited to bring this collection to an even-wider audience,” said Mark Lubell, ICP’s executive director. “Our shared goal is to make the images available for further identification and research, deepening our knowledge of Vishniac’s work and the people and places he recorded in his images.”

Born near Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1897, Roman Vishniac received his first camera as a gift on his seventh birthday. Even as he studied biology and zoology in college, he continued to explore photography and was an accomplished amateur photographer by the time he left Russia in 1920. He and his new wife joined his émigré family in Weimar Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, Roman took copious pictures documenting the street life of the city, particularly his own neighborhood populated primarily by Russian Jews. He experimented with framing and composition, and even built his own darkroom in his apartment.

In the wake of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jews are increasingly marginalized. Vishniac kept taking pictures, documenting the increasing dominance of anti-Semitic laws and attitudes in Berlin. He soon traveled further afield. From 1935 to 1938, the Paris headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned him to photograph rural Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. They aimed to publicize the images in the United States to raise awareness of the deep need in these impoverished communities.

In 1938 and 1939, the AJDC sent Vishniac to Poland and the Netherlands to photograph Jewish refugees expelled from Germany. From the Netherlands he traveled to France, working as a freelance photographer. In 1940, he gave all his negatives to a friend in Paris, asking him to take them to the United States. That was very well timed since shortly thereafter he was arrested and interned in Camp du Ruchard in Clichy for three months. He got out and managed to leave France for Lisbon where he reunites with his wife and children and together they flee to New York.

His pre-war negatives had finally reached him in 1942 and prints of some of them had already been displayed in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of Europe’s Jews. The vast majority of them, however, remained unprinted negatives, and Vishniac never labeled them or annotated them in any way. That’s why it’s so important that those negatives are now published online. There are still people alive who may be able to recognize the people and places in the pictures but the clock is ticking. Others may recognize something they’ve seen in family photographs even if they weren’t born when Vishniac took the pictures.

You can search the collection by keyword, date, location, etc., or you can browse through all 8999 scanned negatives. Register here to help with the labeling.

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Camp Security saved, excavations begin

August 26th, 2014

The only Revolutionary War POW camp to survive in undeveloped condition has been saved for posterity thanks to donations from the public. When I first wrote about Camp Security last April, the 47-acre plot in Springettsbury Township, Pennsylvania, between the city of York and the Susquehanna River, was in danger of being sold. More than half a million dollars of a bridge loan secured by non-profit The Conservation Fund for its purchase was still outstanding, and if the money couldn’t be raised by August, the Fund might have to sell the land or face disastrous budgetary consequences.

They must have gotten an extension on that bridge loan, because at the end of the July they were still $250,000 short and there was no news I could find in August, but come December, the Springettsbury Township announced that the full sum had been raised and that The Conservation Fund had transferred the deed to the property to the township. Thanks to more than a decade of hard work from the township, The Conservation Fund, York County, the York County Heritage Trust, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Friends of Camp Security, plus donations from people all over the country, the field now belongs to the township in perpetuity.

It joins an adjacent 115-acre parcel and a small park that already belong to the township to form a large public open space. Hunting and digging are prohibited, but people can walk it or picnic on it or throw frisbees to their hearts’ content. The overall plans for the property include environmental preservation, historic preservation and archaeological exploration.

On Monday, the excavation of the Camp Security site began. There was limited survey on a small section of the site in 1979 that returned thousands of Revolutionary War artifacts — that’s how it was identified as the location of Camp Security — but this is the first time archaeologists and volunteers will really get to explore the site. More than 75 people have volunteered to help. They will work four-hour shifts over 25 days in the field.

Since the site has been plowed by a farmer, volunteers will first scan the surface for artifacts. Next the team will dig about 100 holes looking for evidence of the two camps built on the site. Camp Security was the POW camp — sharpened picket fence, wooden stockade and fieldstone cabins — built by prisoners when they arrived in August of 1781. Outside the picket fence was Camp Indulgence, unenclosed fieldstone huts built to house the wives and children who followed their husbands.

Most of this first group of prisoners had been captured after the surrender of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. They were used to living in America, despite have experienced considerable hardships during nearly four years of imprisonment, and at Camp Security they were given many freedoms. They could work — gets jobs or run their own cottage industries — travel freely within 10 miles of the camp, and even live with their families at Camp Indulgence. It was the newer prisoners, particularly those captured after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown in October of 1781, who were confined to Camp Security and closely guarded. Once the archaeological team identifies the location of one of the camps, they can figure out where the other one is.

For more about the history of Camp Security, check out local historian June Lloyd’s fantastic York Blog.

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Two Mayan cities found in Yucatan jungle

August 25th, 2014

Archaeologists have discovered two lost Mayan cities in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve on the southeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The cities have been named Tamchén and Lagunita. Initial exploration indicates both cities were at their peak in the Late and Terminal Classic period (600-1000 AD), the early part of which saw the apogee of the dominant regional power: the kingdom of Calakmul, ruled by the mighty Snake dynasty.

Led by Ivan Sprajc of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, for the past two months the expedition has been macheteing its way through the eastern part of the state of Campeche, a vast area that is thought to be rich in Mayan archaeology but has barely been explored because of how inaccessible it is. This team has the advantage of aerial photography and a geodesist as well as local guides.

Lagunita was actually found once before, by American Mayanist, epigrapher and explorer Eric von Euw in 1970. He drew sketches of a several monuments, most strikingly a façade depicting the open maw of a zoomorphic monster. He never published his drawings nor noted the location of the find, but his sketches are kept in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Maya scholar Karl Herbert Mayer made them available to Sprajc.

It was that dramatic façade that identified the site as Euw’s Lagunita. Its open mouth represents the entrance to the underworld and the creature represents a Maya fertility deity. Other structures were found: a Maya ball game court, a pyramid 65 feet high, massive palaces arranged around four plazas, three altars, 10 trails connecting the buildings and altars, and 10 stelae. There are inscriptions on the altars and stelae, and a key section of stela two has already been translated by Octavio Esparza Olguin, an epigrapher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. For our convenience, it’s a precise date — November 29th, 711 A.D. — and a signature of the “lord of 4 k’atuns” (a k’atun is a 20-year calendar cycle). Olguin notes:

“To judge by both architectural volumes and monuments with inscriptions, Lagunita must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactún, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear.” The importance of Lagunita is further attested by the great density of residential mounds, terraces, albarradas (low dry walls) and other settlement remains in the surrounding area.

The second site, Tamchén, has much in common with its neighbor four miles to the southeast. It too has large buildings arranged around plazas, a pyramid temple, a courtyard with three temples on each side, altars and stelae. It’s significantly older, however, dating to the Late Preclassic (300 B.C. – 250 A.D.). It also has another unusual feature: more than 30 chultuns, underground wells built to collect rainwater. Chultuns are common in Maya cities, but the number at Tamchén is far greater than have been discovered anywhere else, and they are remarkably deep as well, some approaching 45 feet in depth. We can’t know if this proliferation of chultuns is unique to Tamchén or if other Maya cities in the region have similar structures until the area is more fully explored.

There are many intriguing aspects to these cities that may open a new window into Maya history.

The zoomorphic façade at Lagunita does not come as a surprise, considering that Becán, the largest site in the Río Bec zone, is only 15 km away. What has not been expected, however, is the presence of so many pyramid temples and monuments with inscriptions, which are rare in the Río Bec región. Both Tamchén and Lagunita appear to have been largely abandoned around A.D. 1000, sharing the fate of other lowland Maya polities, but a few stelae were modified some time after they had been originally erected, and Postclassic offerings were found at others. These facts obviously reflect continuities and ruptures in cultural traditions, but their significance for understanding political geography and history of the region is yet to be explained.

Particularly interesting are various elements that have not been known elsewhere in the Maya area. Two altars of Lagunita have a curious nail-head shape. The third one is rectangular and has a series of Ajaw glyphs on its sides, with coefficients evidently referring to successive k’atun (20-year period) endings; such records are common in codices, but not on stone monuments. Whereas hieroglyphic texts normally appear in an even number of columns, the inscription on Stela 2 of Lagunita has three, and the Long Count date is incomplete.

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Action Comics #1 shatters record at auction

August 24th, 2014

A copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman which revolutionized the industry, in almost perfect condition has sold on eBay for $3,207,852, shattering the previous record price of $2.16 million set in 2011 by Nicholas Cage’s famously purloined copy. It is the first comic to pass the three million dollar mark. The buyers are Metropolis/ComicConnect, renown vintage comic dealers who in fact sold the Cage copy. It is not known if they were acquiring it for a private collector or for themselves.

Given a Certified Guaranty Company universal grade of 9.0 with White Pages, this copy is considered the finest Action Comics #1 ever graded. The previous record-holder was a 9.0 as well, but this one is a stronger 9, with glossy front and back covers, more brilliant colors and those perfect white pages. There is no yellowing whatsoever. It looks like it came fresh off the presses, with only two spine stress marks testifying to its ever having been opened at all. Only one other copy of this comic was graded Perfect White Pages, and that one had a mere 2.5 CGC grade.

Its condition is so astonishing that the first dealer who got his hands on it thought it might be a later reissue he didn’t know about. He had never seen a copy that was so flat with such white pages. The reason it was in such impeccable condition was that the while the first owner bought it for 10 cents from the newsstand in 1938 like 200,000 other people did, unlike most everyone else he lived at fairly high altitude in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia and when he finished reading it, he put the comic in a cedar chest where it remained virtually untouched for four decades. The cool, dark, dry environment of the cedar chest froze time for this comic.

In the late 70s, comics and collectibles dealer Joe Mannarino got a phone call from the son of the original owner. He had seen an ad Mannarino put in a local paper offering to buy vintage comics and wanted to sell the stack of comics in his father’s hope chest. There were about 35 comics in the collection, an eclectic mish-mash that included most notably Action Comics #1, Action Comics #2 and Planet Comics #2. Mannarino bought the books for several thousand dollars.

He decided to store his pristine new Action Comics #1 exactly as it had been stored all these decades: in a cedar-lined chest. A few years later he sold it to another dealer who kept its existence secret for 30 years until this year when he decided to sell it to Darren Adams of Pristine Comics. It’s Adams who sold it on eBay on Sunday, with 1% of the proceeds going to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in honor of Reeve’s iconic Superman.

You can see how incredible the copy looks in this video that leafs through every page.

You can also virtually leaf through every perfect white page yourself on the CGC website. The photographs of the covers and pages aren’t as high resolution as I would like them to be for optimal reading, but it’s still legible and conveys clearly what a special copy of Action Comics #1 this is. Don’t miss the first appearance of Zatara, Master Magician, and his fabulous arch-enemy The Tigress. I love how everyone sports such varied and stylish headgear.

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Impressionism’s exact date and time of birth

August 23rd, 2014

Impressionism was born on November 13th, 1872, at 7:35 AM. That’s the result of calculations done by Texas State University astrophysicist Donald Olson on the work by Claude Monet that gave the movement its name. Monet called the painting, the harbour of Le Havre as seen through his hotel window, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) because it captured a fleeting moment and thus couldn’t really be called a view. He came up with the title a year and a half after he painted the scene when it went on public display April 15th, 1874, at the first exhibition of works that would within days become known as Impressionist at the Paris studio of the photographer Nadar. It had to have a title for the exhibition catalogue.

Thirty artists, among them Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Sisley and Boudin, put their work on display at Nadar’s studio. All of them had been soundly and repeatedly rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts who insisted on traditional realism with invisible brushstrokes and muted colors for their prestigious Salon de Paris art shows. By order of Napoleon III (who was bowing to public clamor, not indulging a personal preference), they had gotten a chance to show their works in the Salon des Refusés, the Salon of the Refused, in 1863, but even though the Refusés saw far more traffic than the jury-selected works in the Salon de Paris, future petitions requesting new Refusés shows were, well, refused.

Finally the denied artists founded an anonymous collective and arranged for an independent show. They rented Nadar’s old studio (he had just moved to new digs) on the first floor (European first floor, that is, the storey above the ground floor shops) of a building at 35 Boulevard des Capucines and put 163 of their works on display two weeks before that year’s Salon de Paris opened.

Ten days later, on April 25th, 1874, the exhibition was reviewed by artist, playwright, journalist and critic Louis Leroy in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari. Entitled Exhibition of the Impressionists, the review used Monet’s term for his landscape of Le Havre to deride the weirdly blurry, poorly drawn, sloppy “palette-scrapings … on a dirty canvas” that so obnoxiously rejected the traditional forms of the great masters.

Leroy’s use of Monet’s term stuck, and the movement became known as Impressionism. As for the canvas that launched the label, Impression, soleil levant was purchased in May of 1874 by collector Ernest Hoschedés. He sold it four years later to Dr. George Bellio for a quarter of what he had paid. Bellio left it his daughter Victorine. On September 1st, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, Victorine transferred the work to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, which at that time had no Impressionist paintings in its collection, due to “risk of war.” Within days it was evacuated to the Château de Chambord along with the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and other masterpieces from the Louvre.

In May of 1940, with German forces advancing inexorably into France, Victorine donated the painting to the museum. Impression, soleil levant remained in hiding in Chambord for the duration of the war. For nearly two decades after the donation, the painting appeared in the museum’s inventories as Impression, soleil couchant (Impression, Sunset) and even though Monet had dated it 72 next to his signature, not much was known about him that year and there was dispute about whether he was actually in Le Havre in 1873.

The museum, now the Musée Marmottan Monet, to celebrate its 80th anniversary and the 140th anniversary of the seminal exhibition of the painting that named one of art’s most influential and revolutionary movements, enlisted the aid of Donald Olson to answer some of the questions about Monet’s piece.

He has pinpointed a particular third-floor bedroom with a balcony in the Hotel d’Amirauté au Havre, at 45 Grand Quai. Monet would have looked across the outer harbour, facing towards the Quai Courbe, to the southeast.

[...] Olson demonstrates that because of the sun’s position towards the east it must have been rising. He also calculated that the sun rises in the position shown in the Monet painting twice each year, in mid-November and late-January. The sun is depicted two to three degrees above the horizon, which corresponds to 20 to 30 minutes after sunrise.

Olson then looked at the level of the sea, since large ships can only pass in or out of the outer harbour for three to four hours at high tide. Taking the sun’s position, plus the high tide, this narrowed down the possibilities to 19 dates in 1872-73.

The next stage of the puzzle was to examine weather reports—to exclude days when cloud would have obscured the sun and to include only days when there was fog. This further winnowed the dates to six: 21 and 22 January 1872, 13 and 15 November 1872 and 25 and 26 January 1873.

Olson then focussed on the plumes of smoke on the left side of the painting, which rise into the sky towards the right. Meteorological reports suggest that this wind direction would have occurred on only two of the six dates, on 13 November 1872 and 25 January 1873.

The final factor is the research of Géraldine Lefebre, a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux in Le Havre. She is convinced that the year “72″ inscribed by Monet on the painting is correct, since what we know of Monet’s movements makes it very unlikely he was there the following January. This means that Impression, Soleil Levant depicts the view in La Havre on 13 November 1872, at 7.35am.

Impression, soleil levant will be the centerpiece of an exhibit that runs from September 18th, 2014, to January 18th, 2015. It will join another 24 works by Monet, including a night view of the harbour of Le Havre painted from the same hotel room, plus works by Delacroix, Turner, Renoir and Pissarro, among others, loaned from top museums and private collections around the world.

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Gift from Charles Darwin found in Danish museum

August 22nd, 2014

The University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum has found a unique treasure in its stores: 55 barnacle specimens personally assembled and labeled by Charles Darwin. It all began, as so few things do but many should, with a 160-million-year-old Diplodocus skeleton.

Raimond Albersdörfer and sons excavating Misty, 2009Misty is the skeleton of a Diplodocus longus discovered by the teenage sons of German paleontologist Raimond Albersdörfer during a 2009 excavation in Dana Quarry near the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. The young men wanted the chance to find something, so to keep them out of his hair their father shooed them away from his excavation site to go dig in an area where he thought they might unearth an innocuous fragment or two. By the end of the day they had unearthed a bone so big the two of them couldn’t carry it. Dad shifted his attention to his sons’ find and excavated almost the entire 56-foot-long skeleton of the dinosaur.

Because it was found on private land, there were no legal barriers to the fossil’s export and sale. After the bones were conserved in the US, they were sent to the Netherlands for assembly and then to London for auction. One of only six nearly intact Diplodocus fossils known, Misty was acquired on November 27th, 2013 for $651,100. Two weeks later, the anonymous buyer revealed itself to be the Natural History Museum of Denmark which was able to afford the pricey giant thanks to a donation from the Obel Family Foundation.

Misty, Diplodocus longus, 160 million years old

To properly welcome Misty, the museum planned its largest exhibition ever around her. The Precious (or The Cherished, should your Danish tend less towards the Tolkien) would showcase the museum’s most precious (hence the name) objects alongside their most recent acquisition, items that have been in storage for years unavailable to the public, the best of the best specimens from the fields of zoology, geology, botany, and paleontology: a Dodo skull, a stuffed Great Auk, a collection of snails assembled by Hans Christian Andersen during his travels in Denmark, a meteorite that fell in 1749. The focus of the exhibition is the full context of the objects, their natural and human history, how they came into existence coupled with how they came to the museum.

Charles Darwin, 1854Exhibition Manager Hanne Strager was tasked with going through the museum’s collection of 14 million objects to select pieces for display. Strager is an evolutionary biologist and the author of By Confessing a Murder: Darwin and the Idea that Changed the World, a book on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution and discoveries in the field since then. The title refers to a letter Darwin wrote to botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844 in which he wryly declared, “At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”

As an accomplished Darwin scholar, Strager knew that Darwin had had a professional relationship with zoologist Japetus Steenstrup, the former director of the then Royal Natural History Museum (precursor to the modern-day Natural History Museum’s Zoological Museum), and that Steenstrup had loaned Darwin some specimens during the decade of intensive research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin wanted to compare species from different locations, to examine the differences and commonalities of related species. He had met Johan Georg Forchhammer, Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Copenhagen, in Birmingham, and he offered to send Darwin some barnacle fossils from the Copenhagen Geological Museum. He also connected Darwin to his friend Japetus Steenstrup, Professor of Zoology at the University of Copenhagen, who had his own collection of barnacles.

Japetus Steenstrup, undatedSteenstrup contributed some barnacle fossils from his collection to a parcel Forchhammer sent Darwin in November of 1849. When Darwin received them two months later — he had been so worried about his delayed barnacles that he put an ad in the paper offering a reward for their return — he wrote Steenstrup an abjectly delighted thank you note on January 25, 1850:

Dear Sir

I am quite delighted in at last being able to tell you that your Box with the fossil cirripedes has arrived quite safely this morning.— It is a great load off my mind.— Not one specimen is injured, except, perhaps, some of the valves of your Anat(?) cretæ.— It is a noble collection, & I feel most grateful to you for having entrusted them to me.— I have now a great many collections in this house, so that I have good means of comparison.— Most of your species, as far as a hasty first glance tells, are different from the British. Your P. medius. is the same as P. sulcatus of Sowerby; & instead of being a Pollicipes, it is a Scalpellum, though these genera differ much too little.— The P. elegans I have (unnamed) from our Chalk.— I will do my best in comparing all the specimens which I have now together; but I am not hopeful of producing good results: I much dislike giving specific names to each separate valve, & thereby almost certainly making three or four nominal species for each true species.—

I am extremely pleased to see the Alepas. The cause of the great delay was in Prof. Forchhammer having sent the box within another to a dealer in minerals, who uncourteously did not take the trouble to inform me. Please to tell Prof. Forchammer that owing to his note I have got the Box, & pray give him, & accept yourself my most cordial thanks.— I will take great care of your specimens.— I hope now that this Box has arrived safely, that you will add to your already great kindness, & send me the northern species alluded to in your former letter.—

I will hereafter write again to you.—

Pray believe me | my dear Sir | Yours most gratefully | C. Darwin

(NB: The Darwin Correspondence Project website, a massive database that seeks to digitize all letters written by and to Charles Darwin, is down as of right now, which is why I linked to cached versions of the letters in this entry. I hope it will be up and running again soon because it’s awesome.

EDIT: And it’s back! I’ve replaced the cached links with live ones. Do yourself a favor and have a browse around the site now. It lends such rich insight into Darwin and his work. They’ve done a great public service by making his correspondence available at the click of a mouse.)

It was Steenstrup’s barnacle fossils, which Darwin had returned as promised, that Hanne Strager was hoping to find for the exhibition. The barnacle study was an important part of Darwin’s research, so if they could be found they would have a great story to tell. Strager was reading through Steenstrup’s papers in the museum archives looking for clues that might identify the specific fossils Darwin examined when she found something even better: an 1854 letter from Darwin in which he mentioned a list of 77 species of barnacles he had sent to Steenstrup as a thank you gift for his help.

The list itself was not in the letter. More searching through Steenstrup’s papers ensued and lo and behold, the list was found. It was hard to read, however, and took some time to decipher. Once that was done, Strager had to dig through storage looking for the 77 specimens. They weren’t kept together because in 1854 there was no reason for it. On the Origin of Species was five years away. The barnacles were seen as specimens like any other, not the curated collection of a great pioneering scientist. They were spread throughout the museum collection according to their species.

Darwin's barnacle specimens and listStrager finally located 55 of Darwin’s barnacles. Most of the missing 22 are samples from a single genus. They were probably loaned to another institution or scientist who was researching that specific genus at some point over the past 160 years and never returned. Somebody somewhere may have 22 barnacle specimens collected by Charles Darwin and have no idea of their illustrious history.

Not that anyone’s complaining. The collection of 55 specimens, with original labels and an inventory list in Darwin’s hand, is an exceptional find. The museum believes it’s the most significant Darwin collection outside of London’s Natural History Museum.

“To be able to display a gift from one of the world’s greatest scientists is unique for a museum,” Stager said.

“Here we have a personal connection to the man responsible for what is probably biology’s greatest ever scientific breakthrough: the Theory of Evolution.”

Darwin’s barnacles will go on display with Misty and many other treasures starting October 1st.

 

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Victorian railway flying arches saved and reinstalled

August 21st, 2014


The Chorley Flying Arches are 16 flying buttress arches built in 1841 on the Bolton & Preston railway (opened in 1843) a mile and a half northwest of Chorley Station in Lancashire. These rare architectural features were used to brace the high retaining walls on either side of the cut. Scottish civil engineer Alexander James Adie, Resident Engineer of the Bolton & Preston Railway, feared the heavy clay soil behind the walls would eventually collapse them inwards onto the track, so he built masonry arches connecting to the walls at the 11-foot mark (the arches rise to 15 feet at the center point). Like their namesakes on Gothic churches, the flying arches strengthened walls under pressure without adding bulk. They were slender and elegant, the thickness of a single stone less than a foot wide across the center.

The Chorley arches were the first of their kind and today they’re one of only two examples remaining in England. The others were lost to modernization, and these could have succumbed to a similar fate had English Heritage and Network Rail not come together to save them. In 2008, the Chorley track was in dire need of stabilization as drainage problems had forced trains that can run 145 miles per hour to slow way down to a maximum speed of 20 mph. To properly install new drains, the arches had to be taken down. Steel arches were wedged between the walls first, then the Victorian masonry arches were removed intact and taken to a secure storage site.

The original plan was to reinstall them within three years, but in 2009 a new project to electrify the line was announced. Electric trains require overhead wires to power them, and 173-year-old masonry arches were bound to get in the way. Engineers came up with a solution, however, that preserved the original structures while bringing them in compliance with modern safety and operation standards. Each arch was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt atop a custom steel brace. This ensures they won’t be shedding masonry onto the trains below. The steel brace will also accommodate the overhead electrical lines.

Earlier this week, the Chorley Flying Arches returned home after seven years in storage. They were placed in a slightly higher position to make room for the electrification equipment, and now their role is entirely aesthetic. The steel brace underneath them will do the work of stopping the retaining wall from falling in on commuters.

Here’s a riveting time-lapse video of the 2008 removal of the arches. An equally cool video of the reinstallation is not yet available, but Northern Rail is into that sort of thing, so keep an eye on their YouTube channel.

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Wealth of pottery found in Corinth tomb

August 20th, 2014

An ancient tomb in Corinth has been found with an impressive collection of pottery. The tomb dates to between 800 and 760 B.C., very early in the city’s history. There’s evidence of settlement in Corinth as early as 6,500 B.C., but there appears to have been a significant loss of population from 2,500 B.C. until the Dorians settled there in 900 B.C. When the tomb was built, Corinth was ruled by a king from a Dorian kinship clan called the Bacchiadae. They began to build Corinth from a sparsely populated backwater into an influential center of trade, a process that continued after the kings were overthrown in 747 B.C. and replaced with a ruling council of aristocrats (still from the Bacchiad clan) who elected a new king yearly. By 730, Corinth would have several colonies and a population of 5,000.

The person buried in the tomb was certainly someone of note. A large limestone sarcophagus 5.8 feet long, 2.8 feet wide and 2.1 feet high was found inside the burial pit. Only a few fragments of bone remained inside, so we don’t know any physical details about the deceased. He or she was buried with several handsome pottery vessels around the sarcophagus, and another 13 were found almost intact inside a niche covered by a limestone slab.

The vessels were decorated with a variety of designs, including wavy, zigzagging lines and meandering patterns that look like a maze. This style of pottery was popular at the time, and archaeologists often refer to this as Greece’s “Geometric” period.

It’s the pottery style that dates the tomb. The geometric designs — zigzags, crosses, concentric circles around the neck, shoulders and body, crosshatched rectangles that look like block letters I doodled in my notebooks in junior high but aren’t letters, dots — decorate vessels of all shapes and sizes. This is the pottery that spread far and wide around the Mediterranean in the decades after the tomb was built when Corinth grew into a capital of trade as its position near the Isthmus of Corinth connecting the Peloponnese to mainland Greece made it a window to western colonies like Corfu and Syracuse.

We’re very fortunate any of the fragile treasures in this tomb survived at all.

Several centuries later, in Roman times, the tomb would almost be destroyed after a wall was built beside it. When archaeologists excavated that wall, they found a limestone column that may have originally served as a grave marker for the tomb.

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First Black Death mass grave found in Spain

August 19th, 2014

A mass grave of victims of the Black Death, the pandemic that killed half the population of Europe when it struck in the mid-14th century, has been discovered under the sacristy of the Basilica of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs in Barcelona. Even though the plague hit the Mediterranean countries the hardest, this is the first Black Death mass grave ever found in Spain. The fact that it was found in a church may suggest an explanation: in Spain the dead were buried in pre-existing churches and cemeteries, unlike in England and France where they often broke new ground for plague burials.

The church of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs is in the historic center of Barcelona, within the walls of the ancient city of Barcino, founded as a castrum (a Roman army camp) in 15 B.C. during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. In 2011, the Institute of Culture of Barcelona and the Basilica signed an agreement to excavate the church as part of a city-wide plan to rediscover the remains of Roman Barcelona.

Excavation of the sacristy began in 2012. Archaeologists found a section of a baptismal font from the Visigothic era, the remains of two Roman walls following the ancient city grid, and the 14th century mass grave with the skeletal remains of men, women and children. At first count, there appeared to be 104 people buried in the pit, but upon further investigation the body count increased to around 120. The current Gothic church was built between 1342 and 1574. They got to the sacristy area in the mid-15th century and construction impinged on the mass grave. Most of the bodies were removed at that time and the remainder were hemmed in by the Gothic walls. Calculating from the density of the remains and the size of the original grave (13 feet long, 11 and a half feet wide, five feet deep), archaeologists believe 400 plague victims were buried in the space.

They were identified as plague victims almost immediately. The demographic variety, well-preserved bones with no signs of fatal injuries and the fact that they were all buried around the same time strongly suggested they were felled by a widespread contagion. Despite the pressures of the epidemic, they were buried with respect. The bodies were laid out face up with their arms by their sides or crossed. They were placed close together, but arranged carefully rather than dumped in haste or crammed in head-to-foot to maximize space.

The corpses were unclothed, and wrapped only in linen shrouds, lined up in rows, 11 bodies deep, and were then covered with quicklime dissolved in water to attempt to stop the disease spreading and mask the smell of the rotting bodies.

Laboratory analysis confirmed the contextual indications.

DNA tests on the teeth of several of those buried in the mass grave carried out by the University of Tübingen show the presence of Yersinia pestis, a bacterium associated with rats and other rodents that was transmitted by the parasites they carried, particularly fleas, which injected it into humans when they bit them.

The bodies are being kept at the church while research is ongoing. They will be reburied in the church when the study is complete.

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Roman coin found in Sandby fort posthole

August 18th, 2014

Archaeologists have found a Roman gold coin in a posthole from one of the homes in Sandby ringfort. The coin is a solidus from the reign of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in a design struck towards the latter part of his rule, 440-455 A.D. This is a find of great importance for Sandby, because it’s evidence that might help explain what happened there.

Sandby is a ringfort on Öland, an island off the southeastern coast of Sweden, that was built and destroyed during the turbulent Scandinavian Migration Period (400 – 550 A.D.). It was first discovered in 2010 when two looting pits appeared, alerting archaeologists to the pressing need to survey the area before depredations ruined the context. Come summer, the spot was surveyed with metal detectors and four caches of glass millefiori beads, small silver bells meant to be worn as part of a necklace of a bracelet, finger rings, gilt bronze and silver buckles of very high quality were found. Other artifacts were found scattered around the site.

The next year excavations began. They revealed that an event of deathly violence had struck the fort in the 5th century. Its defensive high walls were overrun, the homes inside destroyed, its inhabitants killed and left to rot where they fell. Five bodies were found inside just one dwelling, all of them bearing marks of sharp force trauma. Only 2% of the site has been excavated, and the remains of about 10 people have already been found. So the residents were killed, their homes, warehouses and barns levelled, but the authors of this destruction left the expensive jewelry and gold behind. A raid for lucre wouldn’t have overlooked shallowly buried hoards and wouldn’t have killed everyone before they could reveal their hiding places.

Leaving the bodies in the open to decay was a deliberate choice, perhaps a warning to others, and it was an effective one since nobody occupied the fort again. That’s what makes this find so exceptional: a moment of destruction has been frozen in time for archaeologists to study like forensic units study a crime scene.

The solidus may be a key witness. About 360 solidi have been found on Öland, but they were stumbled upon, mainly during the plowing of fields, not excavated. This is the first solidus to have been unearthed in its original archaeological context: one of the homes where human remains were discovered. These coins were used by the Roman Empire to pay its mercenaries. One of the theories about what happened at Sandby is that it was home to returning soldiers rather than farmers grouped together for self-defense like the other ringforts on the island. Seen as a threat by their neighbors, they were raided, killed and left as a cautionary tale to any other mercenaries who might consider banding together and using their military skills to interfere with the pre-existing communities.

Another theory is that it was the violent resolution of a feud.

“We think it may have been the reason for the massacre at the Sandby Borg fort. And this is the only coin that wasn’t taken,” [lead archaeologist Helena Victor] explained.

“We found it on the edge of a posthole in the house. So maybe the robbers came to take the treasure there, and maybe they ripped the bag and one coin fell down into the posthole in the floor, and there it remained.” [...]

“I think that the money was a good excuse to end a feud. So there was probably a feud, this was a very strong statement, not just a normal robbery- an excruciatingly evil statement to kill these people and just leave them,” Victor explained.

“It was truly shameful. So to make a real statement you forbid them to burn the bodies. There are still memories 1,500 years later of these events, it’s a dangerous place. Parents tell their children that they can’t play there because it’s a dangerous place. They don’t remember the history but they remember it’s dangerous.”

It looks to me like the coin was pierced which suggests that it was worn as jewelry at some point. Instead of being in bag, it could have been on a string around someone’s neck and fell into the posthole when it was unceremoniously separated from that neck by force.

After conservation and further study, the coin will go on display in the Glimpses from Sandby borg exhibition at the Kalmar County Museum in southeast Sweden. The mini-exhibition opened last month after visitors clamored for news about the fort and its treasures. Mostly the exhibition uses images and text to tell the story, presenting some of the theories about the fate of Sandby, but there are a few artifacts on display — 30 glass beads, an iron spearhead almost two feet long. The coin will be joining them this fall.

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