The last days of the Romanovs

March 7th, 2017

Marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year, The Hague Museum of Photography is hosting an exhibition of pictures capturing the last days of the Romanov family before their execution by Bolshevik soldiers. The photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard, a tutor to the Romanov children and an intimate friend of the family.

Pierre Gilliard was born in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1879. He became a teacher and, Swiss tutors being all the rage in aristocratic circles, in fall of 1904 accepted a position as French tutor to Duke Sergei, the son of Duke George of Leuchtenberg who was Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin. The family spent their summers at the Duke’s datcha at Peterhof on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great built the Grand Palace of Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, while working on the construction of St. Petersburg, but he preferred his little maisonette of Monplaisir to the grandeur of the big house. Tsar Nicholas II avoided the giant formal palace too, spending the summers with his beloved family in the charmingly oxymoronic Cottage Palace.

Tsarina Alexandra and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were close friends and during the summer of 1905 the two families socialized often. That’s when Gilliard first met the imperial family. In September of 1905, Gilliard picked up two new pupils: the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Nicholas and Alexandra’s eldest daughters, then 10 and eight years old respectively. In his memoirs he described them and their mother as polite and considerate and his pupils clever, albeit very much behind where he thought they should be in their command of French.

The third daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Maria joined her sisters’ lessons in 1907, and Grand Duchess Anastasia followed in 1909. Gilliard continued to tutor Duke Sergei until 1909, after which he focused on his imperial students. He taught the girls in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo five times a week as long as they were in residence, and when the Grand Duchesses failed to make as much progress as Gilliard, the Tsar and Tsarina had hoped, he joined the family during their months-long summer sojourns at Livadia Palace in the Crimea.

It is a testament to how trusted a member of the royal household Gilliard had become that he was given the responsibility of tutoring the Tsarevitch Alexei. The heir to the Russian Empire was a very sick little boy, afflicted terribly by the hemophilia that Queen Victoria’s genes had spread throughout the royal families of Europe. (Alexandra’s mother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s favorite daughter.) His illness was a state secret and hidden from everyone. Gilliard was one of a very small inner circle who knew how sick he was and from what.

So close was he to the Tsar’s family that he chose to join them in exile after the February Revolution and Nicholas’ abdication in August of 1917. The family and a select group of the most loyal family and retainers were first confined to Tsarskoye Selo for five months and then sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in the Governor’s Mansion. It was no Grand Palace, but it was downright luxurious compared to what was to come. When the White Army got too close to Tobolsk in April of 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to Yekaterinburg. They were imprisoned in Ipatiev House, the home of local industrialist, and were subjected to a million petty indignities by their Bolshevik guards.

Gilliard went with them as far as he could. He made it to the train platform at Yekaterinburg, but then, for some unfathomable reason, the Bolsheviks refused to let him out of the train and told him he was free to go. He didn’t go. He remained in the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the imperial family, a glimpse he never got. The Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses were shot and bayoneted to death on July 17th, 1918.

In Gilliard’s memoirs, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, he wrote movingly about what a loving, close family they were, all the more so under the extreme duress of their last days. He describes entering Ipatiev House on July 25th after the fall of Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik announcement that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, had been executed while the rest of the family was in a “safe location.”

I went down to the bottom floor, the greater part of which was below the level of the ground. It was with intense emotion that I entered the room in which perhaps – I was still in doubt – they had met their death. Its appearance was sinister beyond expression. The only light filtered through a barred window at the height of a man’s head. The walls and flour showed numerous traces of bullets and bayonet scars. The first glance showed that an odious crime had been perpetrated there and that several people had been done to death. But who? How?

I became convinced that the Tsar had perished and, granting that, I could not believe that the Tsarina had survived him. At Tobolsk, when Commissary Yakovlev had come to take away the Tsar, I had seen her throw herself in where the danger seemed to her greatest. I had seen her, brokenhearted after hours of mental torture, torn desperately between her feelings as a wife and a mother, abandon her sick boy to follow the husband whose life seemed in danger. Yes, it was possible they might have died together, the victims of these brutes. But the children? They too massacred? I could not believe it. My whole being revolted at the idea. And yet everything proved that there had been many victims.

The Soviets continued to deny having slaughtered the imperial family until 1922. Gilliard stayed in Siberia for three years, helping magistrate Nicholas Sokolov investigate the murders. He married Alexandra Alexandrovna Tagleva, Grand Duchess Anastasia’s former nanny and one of the loyal few who went into exile with the Romanovs in 1919. They returned to Switzerland in 1922 where Gilliard returned to his study, becoming a professor of French at the University of Lausanne in 1926. He and his wife both interviewed Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and concluded she was a fraud. Gilliard wrote a book debunking her claims, but there was so much mystique around the alleged Anastasia that plenty of people bought her ludicrous story until DNA evidence proved once and for all that she was a mentally ill Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. He also debunked the first of many Alexei impostors.

An avid amateur photographer, Gilliard took many pictures of the family at leisure — Alexei playing with his dog Joy, the Grand Duchesses putting on a Moliere play, the Tsar shoveling snow — and on official occasions. The original negatives are now in the collection of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. For the new exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography, more than 70 enlarged gelatin silver prints have been made from those original negatives. I hope they digitize them all because there are a lot of sad, grainy, copies-of-copies of Gilliard’s pictures out there. It would be wonderful to be able to see the last happy days of the Romanovs in high resolution. The exhibition runs through June 11th of the this year.

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The Colosseum after antiquity

March 6th, 2017

The Colosseum is the most visited monument in the world today. The great amphitheater built in Rome during the reigns of the Flavian dynasty emperors Vespasian and Titus (72-80 A.D.) is an icon of ancient Roman engineering and bloodlust, but it has outlived the empire that created it by 1,500 years. The Colosseum saw many changes in its long post-antiquity lifespan, its architecture altered by activity both human and seismic, dedicated to a wide variety of uses from cemetery to shopping mall to fortress. That rich later history is overshadowed by its ancient resume, and the millions of tourists who flock to the Colosseum every year hear a lot more about the gladiatorial combat of the 1st century than about the butchers’ stalls of the 11th.

A new exhibition seeks to correct that oversight. Colosseum. An Icon is the first exhibition to tell the full story of the Flavian Amphitheater, from the gladiators to the butchers and beyond. It covers the numerous attempts at repair and restoration, how the space was repurposed over the centuries, the construction of brick buttresses in the 19th century to keep the outer walls from collapse, how it became a favorite subject of artists from the Renaissance through the Grand Tour era, launching it as the iconic representation of the city of Rome and ancient Roman grandeur. That image spread even wider when moneyed travelers brought back fine marble miniatures and micromosaics of the Colosseum as souvenirs in the 19th century.

The exhibition also illustrates the profound shift in attitude towards the amphitheater from Christians in general and the Papacy in particular. The last recorded games were held in 523 A.D., an animal hunt celebrating the consulship of Anicius Maximus, and already then the Colosseum was very much reduced. The top gallery had collapsed, entrances were impassable, the hypogeum flooded. Neglect, earthquakes and the failure of the unmaintained drainage system took an enormous toll on the building. Travel writers in the Middle Ages thought it was some sort of pagan temple and associated it with nefarious demonic goings-on.

That demon-haunted reputation clung to the Colosseum well into the Renaissance. Renown goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a raucously occult experience at the amphitheater in the 1530s which he recounts in his memoirs.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odour. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils.

As late as 1594, the Popes were still renting the Colosseum out to glue makers and contemplating converting the whole structure into a factory with residences for the workers in the top galleries. That changed in the Jubilee year of 1675, when Pope Clement X declared the Colosseum a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians said to have been condemned to death in the arena. (There is little evidence that Christians were martyred at the Colosseum, btw, and the stories of martyrdom in the amphitheater only began circulating in the Renaissance.) Clement had ambitious plans to dedicate a church to the martyrs inside the Colosseum, asking the great polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini to design it. It was too expensive, though, so Clement just had a cross installed in the arena instead.

The idea didn’t die with him. Twenty years later, architect Carlo Fontana was enlisted to design a prospective Church of the Holy Martyrs inside the Colosseum. Again, the church never happened, but he studied the amphitheater in great detail for this project and wrote a book about its architecture, ancient history, current condition and the proposed church that was published posthumously in 1725. (Random History Blog connection: Fontana’s original architectural drawing of the church in the Colosseum is in the collection of the wonderful Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.) The architectural model and several of Fontana’s drawings are on display in the new exhibition.

The major restoration of the Colosseum, which is still ongoing, discovered many objects and remains from its later life which are will be part of the exhibition. An abundance of butchered animal bones and cooking utensils were found, a testament to the butchers, eateries and private residences which rented space in the ground-level vaults through the 12th century. Of course they unearthed ancient sculptures and architectural details galore. They will join one of only two surviving statues of the 160 that adorned the arches of the second and third-floor arcades when the Colosseum was first built.

The restoration also discovered traces of the Colosseum’s life as a fortress for the powerful Roman noble Frangipani family. Restorers found holes bored into travertine blocks on the top tier of the southern wall. The holes held beams that supported a wooden walkway used by Frangipani soldiers as a lookout station. The find was announced Monday at the press conference about the new exhibition.

Colosseum. An Icon opens Wednesday, March 8th and runs almost a full year until January 7th, 2018. It’s at the Colosseum, in case that wasn’t clear.

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Unique Lodz Ghetto photos at the MFA, Boston

March 5th, 2017

The Lodz Ghetto was the second largest (after the Warsaw Ghetto) of more than 1,000 ghettos created to corral Jews in cities as the first step in the “cleansing,” ie, extermination, of European Jewry. Conditions were appalling by design, so that the overcrowding, disease and starvation would do the Nazi’s murderous work for them. Starting in 1942, ghetto residents were regularly deported to concentration camps. Chelmo, the first extermination camp with a gassing system (trucks, not chambers), opened in December of 1941 just 30 miles from Lodz; its first victims came from the Lodz Ghetto, 70,000 of them in 1942 alone.

Because the Lodz Ghetto was uniquely productive — its factories produced uniforms and other materials for the war effort — it lasted longer than any other World War II ghetto, from 1940 until 1944. In August of 1944 it too was liquidated; everyone was rounded up and sent to their deaths, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, more than 200,000 Jews had passed through the Lodz Ghetto on, their way to almost certain death at Chelmno and Auschwitz. When the Red Army liberated Lodz on January 19th, 1945, only 877 survivors, 12 of them children, emerged from their hiding places in the ghetto. Out of the 223,000 Jews who lived in Lodz before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, just 10,000 survived the war.

One of those survivors was Henryk Ross, a Polish Jew who before the war had been a journalist and sports photographer. He was employed as an official photographer for the Jewish Council, aka the Judenrat, ostensibly a self-governing body which administered the day-to-day operations of the ghetto and enforced Nazi orders. Working for the council’s the Department of Statistics, Ross’ job was to take pictures of the ghetto factories, demonstrating their productivity, and of the registered workers for their identification cards.

Ross and the other Department of Statistics photographer, Mendel Grossman, secretly took unauthorized photographs of the horrors all around them. Ross captured the deportations, destruction and deprivations — barefoot workers pushing carts of human excrement out of the ghetto (there was no plumbing or sewage), public executions, children torn from their parents during the Sperre, the September 1942 mass deportation of almost all of the children under 10 to Chelmo where they would be murdered. He also captured small moments of daily life, even happy ones, amidst the nightmare, like young lovers kissing behind a shrub and a children’s birthday party. The variety and range of Ross pictures underscored the class divisions that persisted even in so extreme a context. His photos show the contrasts of ghetto life — the workers, the destitute, the well-fed and well-dressed elite.

In the summer of 1944 when it became clear the Nazis were winding down operations in the ghetto and preparing for the final slaughter, Henryk Ross saw the writing on the wall. Not expecting to survive, he buried 6,000 negatives. His wife and a few select friends helped him, so they knew where Ross’ photographic treasure trove was hidden should he die. As it happened, Ross was not deported to the extermination camps. He was one of the 800 Jews ordered to clean the ghetto. Of course they Nazis were going to kill them all once the clean-up was done — they had eight mass graves dug already — but the Soviets arrived before they could get to it.

After the liberation of Lodz, Ross dug his negatives back up and found that more than half of them had survived. He later said of his fateful decision: “Just before the closure of the ghetto I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy, namely the total elimination of the Jews from Lodz by the Nazi executioners. I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry. I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”

He certainly got his wish — his pictures were used as evidence in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann — but he left a broader historical record than that, documenting the realities of life and death in the ghetto.

Ross’ collection of photographs and film was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2007. The AGO has collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) to organize an exhibition of Henryk Ross’ Lodz Ghetto photographs, plus film of the Eichmann trial and Lodz artifacts like identification cards from the ghetto, notices and announcements. Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross debuted at the AGO last year. It will open at the MFA on March 25th and runs through July 30th, 2017.

The AGO has created an exceptional website with more than 4000 images from the Henryk Ross collection. You can search by keyword and create an online collection of your own for the price of a free registration.

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Skeletons of early colonists found under Florida mall

March 4th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed human remains under a Florida mall that may be some of the earliest colonists in what would become the United States. The excavation began this February after David White, owner of the Fiesta Mall in downtown St. Augustine, offered city archaeologist Carl Halbirt a chance to dig under a recently closed wine shop whose floor had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew last fall. They quickly found a human bone, a right elbow, and further excavation found that it belonged to an articulated and complete skeleton. A second skull was found near the skull of the intact skeleton. Meanwhile, digging just outside the building unearthed a leg and a skull from two different individuals.

Carl Halbirt believes they were buried inside the Church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, the earliest documented parish church in the United States. The 2010 excavation of a parking lot a block west of the Fiesta Mall discovered a builder’s trench and the back wall of the church. The front of the church faced the bay, just like the mall building does today. The 1888 structure is a National Historic landmark today, but it’s just the latest in a long line of different buildings constructed around the St. Augustine’s historic Plaza area, the central green characteristic of Spanish urban design. The plaza served as community’s meeting ground and recreational area, and would be ringed with important civic, religious and military buildings. The plaza and Nuestra Senora de los Remedios were built in the same year: 1572, seven years after the founding of the city by conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

The first church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was burned down in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake. Queen Elizabeth had sent him to raid Spanish holdings in the Old World and New. England’s support of the Dutch rebellion against Spain had been made official in the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585, and Philip II retaliated by seizing English merchant vessels in Spanish waters. While he began the naval build-up that would lead to the Spanish Armada’s miserably failed attempt to invade Britain three years later, Elizabeth sent her privateers to harry Spanish shipping and holdings. Drake did quite the round trip: England to Vigo in Galicia (sacked), to Baiona (sacked), to Santiago, Cape Verde (sacked), across the Atlanta to Santo Domingo, modern-day Dominican Republic (sacked), to Cartagena de Indias, modern-day Colombia (sacked). Last on his hit list was St. Augustine, sacked on June 6th, 1586. After that, he sailed up to Roanoke, picked up all the original colonists and returned to England.

Neustra Senora de los Remedios was rebuilt in 1587. That one burned down too, in 1599, although apparently it was an accident the second time around. The hurricane took what the fire did not. The church was rebuilt one more time before the British burned it and the city of St. Augustine to the ground in 1702. After the third fatality, Nuestra Senora was not resurrected. The parish moved to a new church and the location of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was forgotten until its archaeological remains were rediscovered under that parking lot in 2010.

The pottery sherds found near the skeletal remains stylistically date to 1572-1586, so to the time of the first church in the 20 years after the founding of the city. The deceased were likely interred under the floor of the church, a common practice in mission churches of the colonial period. As time passed, it could be a tight fit under a modest church floor. The excavation has now unearthed at seven more burials in a compact area about 12 by six feet. Three of the burials are of children.

“We’ve mapped some of the particular bones,” [archaeologist Kathleen] Deagan pointed to some round circles she said indicated skulls. She says two of the children found were buried in the same pit, possibly at the same time.

“The bio-archaeologist will be able to tell us the precise age but he thinks — based on the bones — they probably are under 7 years old,” Deagan said.

It was not unusual for children to die so young. “When you look at the parish registers of St. Augustine, children died at a much higher rate than they do today,” Deagan explained.

Researchers will need permission from the state of Florida and the Catholic Church to do any further testing, like collecting DNA from the bones. Out of respect for the remains and the consecrated ground they were once in, the skeletal remains found under the floor will remain where they were buried. They will not be removed. The bones found outside the building will be reburied in a Catholic cemetery because the city is running a water line through the area.

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The greatest one sheet I’ve ever seen

March 3rd, 2017

I love film history so I’ll browse movie poster sales whenever I get the chance. The catalogue for Heritage Auctions’ upcoming Vintage Movie Posters Signature Auction in Dallas on March 25-26 is a treasure chest of cinematic gems. Amidst the many iterations of cat people and leopard men, there are a surprising number of Italian posters for classic Hollywood movies as well as classic Italian ones, lobby cards and one sheets for much of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, iconic horror films — Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong — and all-time greats like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain.

Some of the posters are more iconic than the movie. The famously scandalous poster for The Outlaw (United Artists, 1946) starring Jane Russell’s magnificent cleavage, was so controversial that the film, which was made in 1941, didn’t get wide release until 1946. Howard Hughes, the film’s director and producer and a connoisseur of the cleavage arts and sciences, had a new bra designed with cantilevered underwire construction to display Ms. Russell’s bosom to its best advantage. (It was terribly uncomfortable, apparently, so Jane just hiked up her straps, stuffed the cups and used her regular bra for filming and never told Hughes.) He intended to promote those breasts, Motion Picture Code be damned, hence the famous still of Jane Russell leaning back on the haystack, one of World War II’s most popular pinups, and this poster from an image originally designed by pinup illustrator and model Zoë Mozert. The pre-sale estimate for this poster is $1,500 – $3,000.

It’s not exceptional for its artistry, but the half sheet of Manhattan Melodrama (MGM, 1934) is still noteworthy for its stars — Myrna Loy and William Powell in their first of more than a dozen movies together, an up-and-coming Clark Gable — and for the crucial role the movie it advertises played in real-life historical events. Bank robber John Dillinger was shot to death by the FBI upon exiting an evening showing of Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22nd, 1934. The pre-sale estimate of $2,000 – $4,000 rests primarily on the film’s connection to this iconic moment.

The Art Deco style of this double grande poster of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Gaumont, 1928) is not only striking, but fits perfectly with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s jaw-dropping expressionist cinematography. The massive 5’3″ x 7’11″ poster was designed by Rene Peron, a leading French artist already in the 1920s who would go on to have a decades-long career illustrating more than 2,000 movie posters. This is one my favorite movies. It was so original, so groundbreaking that people are still trying (and failing) to capture the emotional impact Dreyer conveyed with bare sets, rudimentary costumes, camera angles, lighting and the sublime visage of Renée Falconetti who delivers what is in my opinion the greatest tour-de-force cinematic acting performance of all time. It’s such a stellar representation of a landmark film, that it’s no surprise the pre-sale estimate for the poster is $12,000 – $24,000.

But it’s the poster for a classic horror film that inspired the title of this post. My previous favorite was the gloriously lurid red one sheet for James Whale’s 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein, but this one sheet for The Invisible Man (Universal, 1933) has just supplanted it. Like the one sheet for the The Bride of Frankenstein, this one was a teaser poster, released by the studio in advance to generate buzz in theaters for an upcoming attraction. Studios didn’t usually bother with the expense of teaser posters for their horror pictures, but when they did invest in a little advance marketing, the posters that resulted were often spectacular, viz:

The Bride of Frankenstein red teaser was estimated to sell for $700,000 because of its graphic impact, the importance of the movie, and most relevantly, its extreme rarity. Apparently the reserve was not met because the poster failed to sell. The Invisible Man isn’t as rare nor the movie as culturally significant, so its pre-sale estimate is $80,000 – $160,000. I suspect that’s largely a tribute to the powerful impact of the imagery.

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47 ingots alleged to be fabled metal found on shipwreck

March 2nd, 2017

In 2014, an ancient Greek shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Gela, Sicily. The ship dates to the 6th century B.C. and was transporting cargo from Greece or Asia Minor to Gela when it sank, probably in storm, just 1,000 feet from the coast. Divers recovered 39 ingots of a brass-like alloy from the wreck unlike any other metal discovered on ancient shipwrecks.

Archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa, head of Sicily’s Superintendency of the Sea, suspected the ingots might be the mysterious ancient metal orichalcum, a material about which much has been said and almost nothing known. In the dialogue Critias, the 4th century B.C. philosopher Plato describes orichalcum as a material already legendary in his time. The metal features prominently in his description of the fabled wealth of the lost island of Atlantis.

For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold.

And because Atlantis had something of a Vegas thing going on, they didn’t refrain from showing off their riches.

The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.

In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.

Each of the ten kings in his own division and in his own city had the absolute control of the citizens, and, in most cases,
of the laws, punishing and slaying whomsoever he would. Now the order of precedence among them and their mutual relations were regulated by the commands of Poseidon which the law had handed down. These were inscribed by the first kings on a pillar of orichalcum, which was situated in the middle of the island, at the temple of Poseidon….

The composition of this metal has been subject to much debate. Most scholars lean towards it being a brass-like alloy of zinc and copper that the ancients created by mixing zinc ore, copper and charcoal in a crucible. That could create a metal that “flashed with red light.” There is no consensus on this, however, and other theories abound. The Gela ingots were subjected to X-ray fluorescence analysis and were found to be made of an alloy of 75-80% copper, 15-20% zinc and trace amounts of nickel, lead and iron. This fits neatly with the zinc-copper alloy theory of orichalcum.

It makes sense that a valuable cargo like this would be headed to Gela. Founded around 688 B.C. by Greek colonists, Gela (then known as Ghelas) became an important Greek colony almost immediately. Only a century later, around the time when the ship sank, Gela was the most important city in Sicily. It even had its own offshoot colony, Agrigento, home of the Temple of Concord and that awesome story about the archbishop, the prostitute conspiracy and the trial with the shocking twist ending. Its government and residents had access to the best artisans and could afford the most prized materials.

The shipwreck is still being excavated. Earlier this month, divers discovered 47 more ingots of the alleged orichalcum, bring the total haul to a mind-boggling 86. They also recovered an amphora, a bottle from Massalia (modern-day Marseille), the first Greek colony in what is today France, and a pair of Corinthian helmets in outstanding condition. It’s not clear whether all of these artifacts were cargo on the same ship — there are two other known archaic shipwrecks in the area — but they were found in close proximity in a topographically homogeneous area, so Tusa believes they were indeed shipmates.

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1,000-year-old toy boat found in Norway

March 1st, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a well preserved toy boat carved 1,000 years ago on the peninsula of Ørland about 60 miles northwest of Trondheim, Norway. Ørland today is a peninsula of some girth, but during the Iron Age it was skinny and curved downwards, creating a sheltered bay on the south side. The land has risen up in the centuries since then, and today that bay is on terra firma more than a mile from the coast. That land is slated to be used for an expansion of the Ørland Main Air Base. Before construction could begin, the site had to be extensively explored by archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum in Trondheim.

The NTNU University Museum has been excavating the site every year since 2014. In three seasons of fieldwork, the team has excavated a vast area of almost 120,000 square meters (1,292,000 square feet). It is by far the largest archaeological dig the museum has ever undertaken. So ambitious a scope was necessary because Ørland had been inhabited for thousands of years. Its fertile land and strategic location at the mouth of Trondheim Fjord made it an ideal spot for farmers and traders alike.

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of seven farms having occupied the land over the course of the 1,500 years from 500 B.C. to 1000 A.D., a unique temporal cross-section that will give researchers new insight into how farming communities in the area evolved. Remains found include postholes for houses and fences, the ever-valuable garbage middens, cooking pits and wells.

Two of those wells yielded exceptional organic artifacts. Filled with dirt centuries ago and then waterlogged by the high water table of land that not so long before had been a bay, the wells proved adept at preserving objects that otherwise would have rotted away centuries ago. In one well archaeologists found a wooden toy boat. In a second well they found pieces of leather from shoes and one shoe that was almost intact. At first archaeologists though the leather shoes and boat must date to early modern times at the earliest, but radiocarbon dating revealed that the artifacts dated to the reign of Olav den Hellige, ling of Norway from 1015 to 1028.

The toy boat is carved with care. It has a raised prow and a hole in the middle where a mast with a sail could be inserted.

“This toy boat says something about the people who lived here,” said Ulf Fransson, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum and one of two field leaders for the Ørland Main Air Station dig, where the well and the boat were found.

“First of all, it is not so very common that you find something that probably had to do with a child. But it also shows that the children at this farm could play, that they had permission to do something other than work in the fields or help around the farm.”

That may seem a little on the obvious side — that a farmer’s child might have a homemade toy to play with seems more plausible to me than a farm where the children are only allowed to work day and night — but the notion of leisure time varies over time, social class and geography. A toy boat from this period has been found in Trondheim, for instance, but that was more expected because Trondheim was the capital of Norway then and a major center of trade, so it had a concentration of people with disposable income could afford to give their children cool toys and the free time to play with them.

The find from Ørland, however, is very different, says Ingrid Ystgaard, an archaeologist who is head of the entire Ørland Main Air Base project.

“The Middle Age farm here is far from the sea, it is not that strategically located,” she said. “There are other farms in Ørland that were better located.”

Thus, this medieval farm was probably not the richest farm in the area, far from it. Yet life here was good enough so that someone had time to carve the toy boat for a child. And the child had time to play with it.

The shoes and fragments found in the other well also suggest that the inhabitants of the farm trod the line between frugality and some measure of comfort.

“These were more of an ordinary shoe, a work shoe that they wore every day,” Fransson said. One of the shoe pieces that was found was a heel piece from a large sole, with a hole worn through it. The clean-cut front edge of the heel piece shows that “the shoe was worn out and they did repair it,” he said.

But because the researchers found much of a whole shoe, “that tells me that they weren’t that poor either, because they had the means to throw (a whole shoe) out,” he said.

The excavations are now complete, but the research will continue for years. Archaeologists have a great many samples collected from the middens, cooking pits and postholes, plus they have core samples taken from a neighboring wetland. The middens and pits are replete with bones from land animals, fish and shellfish, which will provide more information about the local diet. The posthole soil samples include pollen, seeds, grains so we can found out what kind of crops they raised or ate. The pollen in the core samples will provide a vegetation map of the area over the last 2,500 years.

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Torc hoard is earliest Iron Age gold found in Britain

February 28th, 2017

It’s the first gold hoard of the year! We’ve had Bronze Age weapons and Roman copper vessels packed with plants. Now we have a group of four ancient gold torcs discovered by metal detectorists in a cow pasture in Leekfrith on the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The torcs were found last December by Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania. Hambleton had scanned the field some two decades ago without success. They were about to give up when Joe Kania’s machine signalled the presence of metal. All they’d found up to that point was trash and a 19th century coin or two, so Hambleton had already packed up his metal detector when Kania pulled a gold torc out of the ground. Then another. And another. And another. Three of them are necklaces, one a bracelet. Three are complete and intact, the fourth broken, likely by agricultural interference. The torcs were about six inches beneath the surface about a meter (three feet) apart from each other.

Hambleton spent a fitful night failing to sleep with the hoard by his side. The next morning, the finders alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme to their discovery. Stoke-On-Trent City Council dispatched archaeologists to the field but they found no evidence of further treasure. Hambleton and Kania defied the odds again, though, returning to the spot last Sunday where they discovered the second half of the broken torc.

The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs were examined by Dr. Julia Farley, the British Museum’s Curator of British & European Iron Age Collections. She determined they were not of British origin, but likely from what is today Germany or France. Analysis of the gold content found that it was no less than 80% in every torc, making them more than 18 carat gold which is 75% pure. The torcs weigh between 31 grams for the smallest piece, the incomplete bracelet, and 230 grams for the largest. The one bracelet stirred particular excitement because it is decorated, etched with lines inside loops. This is some of the earliest Celtic art ever discovered in Britain. All of the workmanship on the torcs is extremely high quality. One of them even has an incredibly rare maker’s mark.

Dr. Farley:

“This unique find is of international importance. It dates to around 400–250 BC, and is probably the earliest Iron Age gold work ever discovered in Britain.

“The torcs were probably worn by wealthy and powerful women, perhaps people from the continent who had married into the local community. Piecing together how these objects came to be carefully buried in a Staffordshire field will give us an invaluable insight into life in Iron Age Britain.”

A coroner’s inquest was held in North Staffordshire on Tuesday. Coroner Ian Smith asked questions of experts about the hoard, its continental origin and how they pieces may have made their way to Leekfrith. After hearing testimony about the torcs’ age and precious metal content, the coroner ruled that the pieces are treasure trove. The next step is for the independent experts of the Treasure Valuation Committee to determine fair value of the torcs. Local museums will then be offered the first opportunity to raise the amount of the valuation. That money will be divided between the finders and the landowner.

Stoke-on-Trent, which is bidding to be a 2021 UK City of Culture, is mighty keen to secure the torc hoard. Another little hoard you might have heard of, the Staffordshire Hoard, spends half its time in Stoke and it has brought millions of tourists and their cash to the region. The Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs will be on display in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent, one of two local museums that share custody of the exceptional Staffordshire Hoard, for three weeks before they go back to the British Museum for valuation.

See Joe Kania and Mark Hambleton tell the story of the discovery (notice the awesome traditional dry stone walls behind them as they goof around for the camera in beginning; I love a quality dry stone wall) and Staffordshire officials glow with happiness over their shiny new babies in this video:

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Help transcribe World War I love letters

February 27th, 2017

Do you speak English, French, German, Dutch, Italian or Slovene? Okay well if you’re reading this you can obviously speak English, and I know many of you are fluent in other languages, ancient and modern. You can put your polyglot skills to good use by transcribing a collection of World War I-era love letters in Europeana’s digital collection.

Europeana, an online cultural heritage network that brings together millions of digitzed items from libraries, museums, collections and assorted other institutions in Europe, launched a crowdsourcing campaign last November to transcribe personal, handwritten texts from World War I. The records come from libraries and archives all over the world, and from members of the public who submitted their precious family keepsakes to memorialize their loved ones’ experiences in the Great War. The Transcribe Europeana 1914-1918 project enlists the aid of an Internet’s worth of eyeballs to decipher the idiosyncracies of handwriting. Once transcribed, the item can then be translated and searched by keyword, subject, author, etc.

The Love Letter Run, as this sub-initiative of Transcribe Europeana is called, contains more than 40 letters, notes, postcards, diaries, autograph books and other personal documents written by soldiers at the front and their loved ones waiting desperately for their safe return.

To cope with the separation, many soldiers sent long, romantic letters of to their loved ones back home. Some women waited longingly for their lovers on the field, while others sought companionship with the men left behind. There was love that transcended borders, love that lasted the ages, and love for one woman fought over by two different men. In the Love Run, we present you stories of romance and betrayal, of lust and longing, heartbreak and new beginnings – all the makings of your favourite melodrama, but from real, handwritten sources of real, lived experiences.

It’s a poignant experience reading the sweet yearnings of young war-torn lovers. There are also all kinds of interesting side-issues that crop up. For instance, if you’re a postcard aficionado (which I am), there are some fascinating pieces in the collection: war propaganda postcards, postcards featuring slightly naughty stolen kisses, sentimental postcards targeted to loved ones separated by war, postcards bearing the official “censored” mark.

Because I am not the only sucker for a theme, the Love Letter Run was launched on February 14th. It will run through 2018, the centennial of the end of the Great War. The database of love letters will be updated with new documents regularly so check back every so often to see the latest offerings. There are plenty of records yet to be transcribed even in English which tends to be the first category completed in crowdsourcing project because the pool of English-speakers on the Internet is so large.

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Stolen “Arbeit macht frei” gate returned to Dachau

February 26th, 2017

A wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” stolen from the entrance to Dachau in 2014 was returned to the concentration camp memorial in a ceremony on Wednesday, Feb. 22th. The gate was stolen from the Dachau memorial on the night of November 1-2, 2014. It was found two years later rusting under a tarp in a parking lot in Ytre Arna outside Bergen, Norway. The thieves remain unknown.

“This is a meaningful day for the memorial,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian minister of cultural affairs. He called the theft of the gate an attack on a place of remembrance and said that the integrity of the memorial could now be “somewhat healed.”

Karl Freller, who heads the foundation responsible for the Dachau memorial, said he was “happy and grateful,” stating “now that we have the gate back we will not let it out of our sight.”

Dachau bears the repulsive distinction of being the first concentration camp established by the shiny new Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship of Germany. The former munitions factory was converted into a forced labour camp for political prisoners which at that time were the Communists and Social Democrats who opposed the Nazi Party. As soon as Hitler was appointed chancellor, he ordered the systematic persecution of his political rivals to consolidate his grip on power. Dachau became a death camp for the slaughter of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and anyone else they deemed inferior during the war, but of course they kept that “Works Sets You Free” sign (always a blatant lie since from day one none of those political prisoners could ever work their way to freedom), as if the purpose of the camp were labour, not mass-murder.

The Jourhaus, the entrance and exit to the prison camp, was built by prisoners by command of the SS in May and June of 1936. The SS ordered Communist political prisoner Karl Röder to make the “Arbeit macht frei” sign. The news stories about the theft, recovery and reinstallation all refer to the stolen gate as the “original,” in contrast to the replica that was put in its place in 2015 for ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau by the US Army on April 29th, 1945. In fact, the “Arbeit macht frei” sign in the stolen gate is not the original made by Röder.

It’s not clear what happened to the original original. It was in place right after liberation. There’s an undated photograph of the gate taken by former political prisoner Franz Brückl that shows the sign in place. Researchers believe it was taken immediately after liberation. Another photograph, also unfortunately undated, but taken after Brückl’s shows the gate with the inscription removed. An exact replica was created from historical photographs and installed in the gate after the Dachau memorial opened in 1965. This is confirmed by a 1972 memorandum in the memorial’s archives which notes: “Reconstruction of the inscription removed from the iron gate, work is free.”

So the gate is original, but the sign is not. The symbolic significance of the gate and the most chilling words inscribed over a doorway since Dante’s Inferno remains undiminished, which is why it and the much larger Auschwitz sign were stolen in the first place.

The recovered gate is now being treated by conservators. It will go back on public display this April 29th, but will not be reinstalled in the Jourhaus. Instead, it will be on view in the Dachau concentration camp memorial museum. The 2015 replica will stay in place.

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