17th c. Indian textile 30 feet long goes on display

January 20th, 2016

A 17th century devotional textile 30 feet long is going on display at the British Museum as the centerpiece of an exhibition about cultural history of the northeastern Indian state of Assam where it was made. Made around 1680, it’s a type of devotional textile known as the Vrindavani Vastra. This is example is the largest surviving Assamese devotional textile. It is composed of 12 strips of colored silk made using the lampas technique of weaving that were later stitched together to form a huge devotional wall hanging.

According to the 10th-century Hindu scripture the Bhagavata Purana, Vrindavan, a town in Utter Pradesh, was the god Krishna’s childhood home and as such is considered a holy site to pilgrims today. Vrindavani Vastra means “the cloth of Vrindavan.” It is woven with scenes from Krishna’s youth in the Vrindavan forest. Krishna is depicted in repeated motifs fighting the bird demon Bakasura, dancing on the serpent Kaliya, swallowing the forest fire and other elements of Krishna worship that were significant to the 16th century Assamese scholar, mystic and saint Sankaradeva who wrote about them in his devotional dramas. A verse from one of Sankaradeva’s dramas is woven into the textile.

Assam is famous for its weaving, especially in silk and cotton. The lampas technique used to create this textile involved weaving on a a wooden draw-loom with two sets of warp and two sets of weft threads. It was famed for the vibrant and detailed textiles it could produce, and you can see in the Vrindavani Vastra what a wide range of figures, colors, designs, even text, could be made with this technique. Unfortunately despite its extensive use from the 16th through the 18th centuries, the technique is now lost.

The 12 strips of woven silk are each different but related. Experts believe they may have been used to wrap copies of the Bhagawad Purana or to decorate altars. At some point between their creation in the late 17th century and the early 20th century, the 12 strips made their way from Assam, which is just south of the eastern Himalayas, to Tibet where they were stitched together. Four horizontal strips of Chinese brocade and metal suspension loops were added to the top at that time so the now-huge textile could be hung on the wall of the monastery.

It was hanging on the wall of the Gobshi Temple near Gyantse in southern Tibet when Perceval Landon, correspondent for The Times came across it during the British expedition to Tibet, aka the Younghusband Expedition, in 1903-04. He acquired the piece and donated it to the British Museum in 1905.

The textile has rarely been exhibited in its entirety. The new exhibition is the first to explore the vibrant cultural history of Assam.

In the exhibition, the Vrindavani Vastra will be displayed alongside other Assamese objects from the British Museum and several important loans, including another magnificent example of one of these Krishna textiles on loan from Chepstow Museum. This survives as the lining of a remarkable item of 18th-century Anglo-Indian costume. Manuscript leaves from the British Library, masks (the making and acquisition of which have been funded by the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation) and modern textiles will help reveal this intriguing period in Indian history.

Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian textile runs from January 21st through August 15th.


New technology finds York gladiators’ homelands

January 19th, 2016

The latest and greatest DNA technology has revealed the origins of some of the 80 men buried in a Roman-era cemetery in York. The burials have intrigued and mystified archaeologists since they were first discovered under the garden of an 18th century mansion on Driffield Terrace in 2004. Of the 80 individuals, 48 of them, 60% of the total and 79% of the 61 skeletons with surviving crania and cervical vertebrae, had been decapitated from behind with a very sharp, very fine blade. Their heads were buried with them but not in anatomically correct or even consistent positions. Skulls were placed on the chest, between the legs and at their feet.

Decapitated remains have been found in Roman cemeteries before, but very few. One study tallied 98 decapitations making up 6% of the inhumation burials in cemeteries where decapitations were found. The York burials were so unique because of the unprecedented high proportion of decapitated individuals in the cemetery, four times higher than the proportion found in any other Romano-British cemetery. The second highest number of decapitations is 15 out of 94 burials (16%) unearthed from a Roman cemetery in Cassington, Oxfordshire.

Another unique feature of the Driffield Terrace burials is that they were all men. Decapitated individuals found in all the other Roman burial grounds had the usual demographic spread you’d expect of an attritional cemetery. There were men, women, young, old, adult, child. The York burials were also all under the age of 45 and taller than average. Five of them had other wounds inflicted by a blade besides the cuts to the neck, jaw, clavicle and scapula associated with decapitation. Two were stabbed in the abdomen; one was cut through the thigh muscles to the femur; two were parrying fractures to the forearm and hand, likely incurred trying to deflect a blow to the head. Sixteen individuals had perimortem blunt force trauma to the cranium. Evidence of healed trauma was rife, including cranial, facial, dental and metacarpal fractures that were likely incurred by violence. One skeleton’s pelvis showed signs of what may have been bite marks from a lion or bear.

Osteological evidence indicates they were trained to fight from a young age. Their right arms were consistently longer than their left, which means they’d been using weapons regularly since before they’d finished growing. Most them also showed signs of inadequate nutrition in childhood which they overcame to become healthy, strapping young men.

The single-sex grouping, young age, height and extensive evidence of violence indicated these were fighting men, but just what kind was unclear. The cemetery was southwest of the city walls of Roman Eboracum along the main road to Tadcaster just across the river from the legionary fortress. Legionaries had an age limit and height requirement. Gladiators or criminals sentenced to death were the other possibilities.

The placement of the cemetery atop a promontory on the main road makes it unlikely that they were criminals or outcasts. It’s too sweet a spot to leave it to executed criminals. The date of the burials — from the 2nd to the 4th century A.D. — was an important time for York. Roman emperor Septimius Severus actually lived in Eboracum off and on during the early 3rd century when it was the capital of the Britannia.

To determine the place of original of the individuals, a team from Trinity College Dublin used cutting-edge genomic analysis. DNA was extracted from the dense inner ear bones of seven of the Driffield Terrace burials and subjected to whole genome analysis.

The nearest modern descendants of the Roman British men sampled live not in Yorkshire, but in Wales. A man from a Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the village of Norton, Teesside, has genes more closely aligned to modern East Anglia and Dutch individuals and highlights the impact of later migrations upon the genetic makeup of the earlier Roman British inhabitants.

However, one of the decapitated Romans had a very different story, of Middle Eastern origin he grew up in the region of modern day Palestine, Jordan or Syria before migrating to this region and meeting his death in York.

This is the first genomic analysis of ancient Britons, but given the precision of the results it’s certainly not the last.

Rui Martiniano who undertook the analysis said: “This is the first refined genomic evidence for far-reaching ancient mobility and also the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries AD, indicating continuity with an Iron Age sample before the migrations of the Anglo-Saxon period.”

You can read the full genomic study in this month’s Nature Communications.


1910 slaughter of African Americans gets historical marker

January 18th, 2016

The village of Slocum in Anderson County, east Texas, was a relatively well-off farming community founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War. It was small but well-appointed, with a school, two churches, a store and a post office, all black owned and operated. On July 29th, 1910, that all came to an end when a mob of hundreds of white men descended on the town and gunned down every resident they could find. While the official list of the dead is eight people, those are only the ones who can be confirmed today. The real tally will likely never be known. Whoever wasn’t killed ran for their lives to other towns in Texas or up North (hopefully not to Tulsa or East St. Louis or Chicago), forced to leave their property behind to be stolen by the murderers.

Information on the events as they unfolded over the two ensuing days of mayhem was chaotic and confused. Slocum was an isolated town and the mob had cut many of the phone lines before the attack to ensure their targets were as helpless as possible. The stories that were able to make it into the press came from the perpetrators. They claimed a white farmer had shot a black man who owed him money, spurring the black population of Slocum to take up arms and go full Nat Turner on the white people in surrounding communities. Nothing gets a good white mob going better than rumors of a black insurrection, and it doesn’t have to be true to work. Other stories circulating involved an unpaid debt that resulted in the black debtor insulting the white creditor, and a lynching in a nearby town fomenting revolt among the black people of Slocum.

The source of much of this deadly chatter was likely a prominent white man named Jim Spurger who was angry when African American Abe Wilson was put in charge of a road improvement project that Spurger wanted for himself. A witness would later tell a grand jury that Spurger claimed he’d been “threatened and outraged until it had become unbearable”. Whatever the cause, the white avengers assembled and started shooting.

Even within a single article there were vastly differing reports, see this story in the July 31st The Abilene Daily Reporter so charmingly subtitled “Whites Gathered Arms and Went Coon Hunting.” The headline declares “23 Negroes, 4 Whites Dead,” but in the very first paragraph the figures change to “two white men and fifteen negroes have already been killed,” and when the story continues on page six, the numbers change again, dropping to zero in the case of white fatalities.

According to official statements made here tonight 18 negroes are known to be dead as a result of the race riots which occurred during the day and the number will likely be increased to 25, and a dozen more injured. It is not known definitely that any white men have been killed, but several have been injured.

No white men were killed. It wasn’t a “battle” or “race riot.” It was a premeditated massacre. Here’s how Anderson County Sheriff William Black, who was on the scene, described what was going on as quoted in an August 1st, 1910, New York Times article (pdf):

“Men were going about killing negroes as fast as they could find them, and so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause. These negroes have done no wrong that I could discover. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them. I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut the telephone wires. They hunted the negroes down like sheep.”

Texas Rangers and state militia were deployed to restore order. District Judge B.H. Gardner ordered all area saloons closed (the mob was very thoroughly liquored up, to nobody’s surprise) and prohibited the sale of firearms or ammunition. By then most of the black residents were hiding in the swamps or safely out of town, so there weren’t many targets left. At the end of the first week in August, 16 white men, including James Spurger, and six black men were held in jail without bail. At least one of those black men was Jack Holley who had fled to Palestine, the county seat, when the violence engulfed Slocum killing one son and wounding another and asked to be jailed for his own protection.

Gardner convened a grand jury and gave them these extraordinary instructions:

“All of you are white men, and all of you are Southern men, and it is your duty now to investigate the killing and murder of a large number of Negroes, say at least eight and possibly 10 or 12 or more, who have been killed in the southeastern part of your county by men of your color. I regard this affair as the most damaging that could happen in this county: That it is a disgrace, not only to the county, but to the state, and it is up to this jury to do its full duty.”

He subpoenaed virtually the entire town of Slocum. When some of the so-called leading white citizens refused to testify, Gardner had them arrested. Some black witnesses returned to town to give testimony only to mysteriously disappear again before they could take the stand. On August 17th, seven men, Jim Spurger among them, were indicted on 22 counts of murder. The cases were moved to Harris County for trial and that’s when things fell into the usual Jim Crow template: the defendants were released on bail and nobody was ever tried. Gardner and Black were voted out of office in the next elections.

Black residents never returned to Slocum. Their property was confiscated by various “legal” means (liens, sale of abandoned property for non-payment of taxes) and extralegal (just taking it) and people like Jack Holley, who had owned a store, a dairy and 300 acres of prime farmland, moved to Palestine without a dime and died a pauper. His family changed the spelling of their name to Hollie out of fear of reprisals, a perfectly reasonable fear when you consider that Gardner who was a) white and b) a judge, was violently assaulted by Spurger six years later.

The history of the massacre was covered up, ignored in text books and by the local historical society. People told the old stories in private, however. For years one of Jack Holley’s descendants, Constance Hollie-Ramirez, worked with other descendants of the victims to pull this ugly history out of the shadows into the light. Her father and uncle had tried to get a historical marker in the 1980s, but the chairman of the Anderson County historical commission, Jimmy Ray Odom, rejected their petition saying that “It was mislabeled a massacre. A massacre is when you kill hundreds of people.”

Hollie-Ramirez picked up where her parents left off and in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a resolution (pdf) officially acknowledging the Slocum Massacre. Prospects for a historical marker picked up steam in 2014 with the publication of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas by Fort Worth journalist E. R. Bills. Hollie-Ramirez and Bills applied to the county for a roadside historical marker to commemorate the victims of the massacre. They were rejected. Anderson County Commissioner Greg Chapin wrote: “Without further evidence of legal documentation, or the facts of guilty parties taken (sic) responsibility for the incident, Anderson County cannot support the marker.”

So they went over the county’s head and applied directly to the Texas State Historical Association in Austin. Again the county historical commissioned was in opposition. Apparently not clear on how historical markers work, Odom wrote to state officials, “The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago. This is a nice, quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.” A wonderful school system with some painfully glaring omissions in their history texts, that is, and evidently by design.

The application for a marker was approved last January after getting an exceptionally high rating of 98 out a possible 100 points. On Saturday, January 16th, 2015, Constance Hollie-Ramirez joined other descendants of the victims, author E. R. Bills and even Jimmy Ray Odom at the unveiling of the roadside marker commemorating the Slocum Massacre.


Breitner’s Girl in a Kimono series together for the first time

January 17th, 2016

After the reopening of Japan to foreign trade in the 1850s and 1860s, European artists like Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler and Vincent van Gogh were influenced by Japanese fine and decorative arts. One of Van Gogh’s friends and compatriots, George Hendrik Breitner, was inspired by the Japonisme trend to create a series of 13 paintings of a young girl wearing a kimono.

Breitner was born in Rotterdam in 1857. For the decade between 1876 and 1886 he studied and worked in The Hague where he explored working class areas of the city, sketching the people and places he encountered. He embraced the social realism movement and considered himself le peintre du peuple, the painter of the people. He moved to Amsterdam in 1886 where he was soon able to add photography to drawing and painting. Breitner took pictures of street life, people at work and going about their business in the city, some of the photographs reminiscent of the kind of work Jacob Riis was doing in the crowded and scary tenements of New York City at the same time.

Breitner was one of the first artists to use photos as studies for specific paintings, not just of street scenes but in the studio as well. He integrated his social realist perspective in his studio portraits, making a point of employing models from the working class. One of them was a milliner’s shopgirl named Geesje Kwak who, along with her sister Anna, posed for Breitner in around 1893-1895 when she was 16-18 years old. It was Geesje Kwak who would be immortalized as the girl in a kimono.

Japonisme had intrigued Breitner since he’d traveled to Paris in 1884. He collected Japanese woodcuts and in 1892 visited an exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague. The show was his immediate inspiration for the kimono series. He acquired several Japanese kimonos and a pair of folding screens that he set up in his studio on the Lauriergracht canal. Geesje Kwak posed in the kimonos — one red, one white, one blue — against the backdrop of the folding screens on a bed draped in oriental rugs. She was paid for her time and there was no hanky panky going on; all strictly professional. Breitner kept meticulous records of which models posed for him when, for how long and at what rate.

Breitner’s work with Geesje Kwak ended when she emigrated to South Africa with her younger sister Niesje in 1895. Geesje died of tuberculosis in Pretoria in 1899, just shy of her 22nd birthday. The Girl in a Kimono series was not a success with critics initially, but today they are considered the pinnacle of the Dutch expression of Japonisme in the fine arts. The Rijksmuseum will celebrate the series with an unprecedented exhibition that brings together all of the Girl in a Kimono paintings, including a previously unpublished one from a private collection, plus the preliminary photographs, sketches and drawings Breitner used as studies for the paintings.

There have been exhibitions in the past devoted to this beloved theme of Breitner’s, but the paintings of Girl in a Kimono have never been displayed all together. Displaying all the Girl in a Kimono works together, combined with the preliminary studies in the form of drawings, sketches and photographs, as well as Breitner’s easel and paint box, gives the exhibition above all an impression of the way in which the painter went about his work in his studio on the Lauriergracht in Amsterdam. [...]

In total there are 20 paintings on display, including 13 Girl in Kimono works and one nude. Furthermore, 15 drawings and 15 photographs will be displayed, plus Japanese prints. Moreover, there are two beautiful kimonos from the same period as the ones worn in the paintings.

Breitner: Girl in Kimono opens on February 20th and runs through May 22nd at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.


Site of Salem witch trial hangings confirmed

January 16th, 2016

Researchers have confirmed the site in Salem, Massachusetts, where 19 accused witches were executed by hanging between June and September of 1692. It’s called Proctor’s Ledge, a rocky, wooded area between Proctor and Pope Streets at the foot of Gallows Hill. As the name suggests, Gallows Hill was generally thought to be the place where the 19 victims were hanged, but it’s a big hill and the precise location has been subject of debate and study for many years.

While almost 1,000 documents pertaining to the trials have survived, making it one of the most thoroughly documented events in early American history, there are virtually no eyewitness reports of the actual hangings. The Proctor’s Ledge spot was first suggested as the hanging site by local historian Sidney Perley in a 1921 essay. Based on his research, in 1936 the city of Salem purchased a chunk of Proctor’s Ledge “to be held forever as a public park” dubbed “Witch Memorial Land,” but the park was never made and instead of being memorialized the hanging site fell down the memory hole.

In 2010, the Gallows Hill Project was founded to re-investigate Perley’s research, examine other period documents and use new technology to pinpoint the site of the hangings.

Marilynne Roach discovered a few key lines of eyewitness testimony in a Salem witch trials court record…. The record in question is the examination of Rebecca Eames and Mary Lacey, dated August 19, 1692, the same day that five executions were carried out at the Gallows Hill site. The record quotes the defendant Rebecca Eames, who had been on her way to the court in the custody of her guards and traveled along the Boston Road, which ran just below the execution site.

A few hours later, she appeared the Salem court for her preliminary examination. The magistrate asked Eames whether she had witnessed the execution that took place earlier that morning as she was passing by. She explained that she was at “the house below the hill” and that she saw some “folks” at the execution. Roach determined that the “house below the hill” was most likely the McCarter House, or one of its neighbors on Boston Street. The McCarter house was still standing in 1890 at 19 Boston Street.

Professor Benjamin Ray conducted research that pinpointed the McCarter house’s location and worked with geographic information system specialist Chris Gist of the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab to determine whether, in fact, it was possible for a person standing at the site of the house on the Boston Street to see the top of Proctor’s Ledge, given the rising topography of the northeastern slope of the hill. Gist produced a view-shed analysis, which determined that the top of Proctor’s Ledge was clearly visible from the Boston Street house, as well as from neighboring homes.

Geo-archaeological remote sensing on the site found that the ledge is almost entirely rock, with no more than three feet of soil in a few cracks. That means that the victims were not buried there, although they were buried somewhere nearby since as witches they were excommunicated and denied Christian burial in churchyards. There is also no evidence that there was an actual gallows erected on the site. The condemned were likely hanged from ropes slung over large tree limbs.

The city plans to go ahead with the memorial plan now, although it will have to be a modest marker since the spot is in the middle of a residential area with no clear public access or place for parking.


Excavation of mysterious Honduran site begins

January 15th, 2016

Archaeologists have begun to excavate an ancient site that may be the kernel of truth inside the legends of the lost White City in the tropical rainforest of the Misquitia region on the eastern Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The local Pech and Payas peoples have an oral tradition transmitted through the generations of a forbidden city with large buildings built from local white limestone. Spanish Bishop Cristobal de Pedraza wrote about the tale of the lost in a letter King Charles V of Spain in 1544. He said he’d seen a large city in a river valley while traveling through the jungle. His guides told him the nobles there ate on plates made of pure gold. For hundreds of years explorer searched for it, some even claimed to have found it, reporting fantastical finds of gold idols and carved white stones.

Over time the mysterious city became known as the White City after those stones. It was also dubbed “The Lost City of the Monkey God” by explorer Theodore Morde who announced to great fanfare in 1940 that he had discovered the city where ancient Mesoamericans worshiped a giant ape idol. He didn’t reveal where he’d found it to keep it safe from looters. He planned to return the next year, but he never did and he never revealed the location.

In 2012 an aerial lidar survey over the jungle spotted the remains of three urban centers that scientists unromantically dubbed T1, T2 and T3. In February of 2015 archaeologists did a preliminary exploration of T1 and counted an extraordinary 51 artifacts partially buried but still visible on the surface on the jungle floor. The President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, quickly moved to protect the site from looters, deploying armed troops to guard it.

Archaeologists from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), Colorado State University and National Geographic recently returned to T1 and have already unearthed more than 60 objects, including ceramic vessels decorated with figures of jaguars, lizards, macaws and vultures. The most glamorous find so far is a stone chair or throne carved with the figure of a jaguar. Colorado State University researcher Chris Fisher believes one of the vessels with the head of a bird dates to between 1,000 and 1,500 A.D.

They have also found evidence of a pyramid and adobe structures that suggest the site was used for religious ceremonies. According to IHAH director Virgilio Paredes, the site does not appear to be Maya, the dominant culture in the region, nor is it Aztec or any other known culture.

President Hernández was present at the site on Tuesday, January 12th, to announce the finds. He has dubbed the three urban centers collectively “Kaha Kamasa” which means White City in the Misquito language, and T1 “Jaguar City” after the jaguar artifacts. T1 is the smallest of the three cities and archaeologists have barely scratched the surface. They believe the sites together could be four times larger than Mayan site of Copan, a major regional capital in western Honduras.


MH370 search discovers 200-year-old shipwreck

January 14th, 2016

The Australian government is conducting an ongoing search operation for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 which disappeared on March 8th, 2014, on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board. The Malaysian government asked Australia for help searching the southern Indian Ocean which satellite communications indicate is where the airplane was flying before its disappearance. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB)has been scanning the seabed about 100 miles southwest of Perth since October of 2014.

There is as yet no trace of the aircraft, but on December 19th, 2015, one of the ships spotted an anomaly on the sonar. Analysis of the image suggested it was a man-made object, probably a shipwreck, but to be sure the search ship Havila Harmony sent down an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to examine the anomaly. This area of the ocean floor is so mountainous it’s difficult to search with the deep tow sonar; the AUV can get detailed information on what’s down there without having to be tied to the ship.

On January 2nd, 2016, the AUV captured a high-resolution sonar image of the object which confirmed that it is indeed a shipwreck at a depth of 2.3 miles. The sonar imagery was sent to experts at the Shipwreck Galleries of the Western Australian Museum. Their preliminary conclusion is that the wreck is of steel or iron-hulled ship from the early 1800s.

Considering it sank 200 years ago landing on a rugged ocean floor, it looks to be in remarkable condition. It’s still shaped like a ship, only with a large curve in the middle it didn’t have when it was sailing the seas, and I see little scattered debris in this image. Early iron ships often had significant wood parts like planked weather decks, so there would have been plenty of material to scatter.

Compare it to the remains of ship discovered during the search in March of 2015. They were discovered at a depth of 2.5 miles, so the ship had a little longer to fall, but all that’s left of it is an anchor, some black balls that are probably lumps of coal and some unidentified man-made objects including a rectangle about 20 feet long.


Round houses found at Bronze Age Must Farm site

January 13th, 2016

The Must Farm Quarry in the Cambridgeshire fens near Peterborough, southeast England, is the site of the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever discovered in Britain. It was first found in 1999 by a local archaeologist who saw the tops of timber posts bristling at the edge of the working quarry. Small archaeological investigations followed in 2004 and 2006, with the latter unearthing pottery of exceptional quantity and variety, plant fiber textiles, woven willow baskets used as fish weirs, glass beads, tools, weapons, even a bowl of food — later found to be nettle soup — with a spoon still standing inside it. A 2011 excavation discovered an unheard of eight perfectly intact log boats.

The reason so many organic remains survived for more than 3,000 years at Must Farm is that soggiest of archaeological jackpots: waterlogged soil. When the settlement was built on the ancient Nene River channel in about 1,300 B.C., the land that would become the Flag Fen basin was still mostly dry with the river as the major thoroughfare. Water levels started to rise, flooding the low-lying areas and forcing the inhabitants to adapt their architecture and lifestyles accordingly. Things lost to the rising waters were embraced by the mud and covered by deposits of silt and clay that protected them from oxygen and microorganisms that cause organic materials to decay.

In the early stages of settlement, large square cut oak piles were driven into the river channel to support a wooden platform. Part of the structure collapsed, pinning a fish weir beneath it for our edification. Water flooded the structure. Between 1,000 and 800 B.C., new piles were sunk and a wooden palisade was added around the platform to impede the flow of water. Sometime between 920 and 800 B.C., the site was struck again, this time not by water but fire. The structure burned and dropped into the river. The water doused the flames; the charred organic material sank to the bottom of the stream. The combination of fire carbonizing organic remains, water stopping the fire before it consumed all and mud encasing everything was a perfect storm to preserve an entire Bronze Age household for 3,000 years.

Last September, a new excavation funded by Historic England and Forterra, the company that owns the clay quarry, set out to explore the timber platform. The Cambridge University Archaeological Unit has been digging for three months. They have five more months to go and they’ve already made extraordinary finds, most significantly evidence of collapsed round houses on stilts, at least five of them. They are the best preserved Bronze Age homes ever discovered in Britain by far. Usually all archaeologists have to go on is postholes.

[Site director Mark] Knight said possible reasons for the fire included a cooking accident, deliberate destruction and abandonment of the site, or even enemy attack. But whatever happened, the people abandoned their possessions and left precipitously: “This is a world full of swords and spears – it is not entirely a friendly place.

“We’re used to finding a bit of pottery and trying to reconstruct a civilisation from that,” he said. “Here we’ve got the lot. We should be able to find out what they wore, what they ate and how they cooked it, the table they ate off and the chairs they sat on.

“These people were rich, they wanted for absolutely nothing. The site is so rich in material goods we have to look now at other bronze age sites where very little was found, and ask if they were once equally rich but have been stripped.”

This wealth is confirmed by animal remains which are overwhelmingly land animals like sheep, pigs and cows rather than the plentiful fish, eels and mussels the inhabitants were living on top of. The articulated spine of a cow was found in one of the houses, likely a carcass that was being butchered before the fire stopped time. At this point the water levels in the settlement and environs were high, so the livestock can only have been pastured on land a third of a mile away.

Archaeologists also found the first human remains a few weeks ago. So far only a skull has been excavated; archaeologists don’t know if there’s a skeleton yet to be dug up — one of the residents of the home caught in the fire, perhaps — or if the skull was a standalone item like a war trophy or amulet or devotional object.

The timber platform excavation has gotten a lot of press in the past few days, very deservedly so, but the news stories are cursory at best and they also weirdly treat the Must Farm settlement as if it’s an entirely new discovery instead of the latest phase of years of excavations. If you crave detail and accuracy, you can follow the progress of the dig on the Must Farm’s exceptional site diary and Facebook page of wonders. The team does a phenomenal job of keeping the public updated, explaining the finds, their archaeological significance, the excavation process and sharing great photographs.


Infernal Landscape drawn by Hieronymus Bosch

January 12th, 2016

A drawing previously thought to have been made by an assistant in the workshop of medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch has been authenticated as a piece by the master himself. Infernal Landscape is a little-known drawing first emerged in 2003 when the anonymous owner sold it auction to an equally anonymous buyer. It has been squirreled away in a private collection since the sale. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), an international art history study that has been researching, analyzing and documenting the oeuvre of the medieval master since 2010 in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death this year, were able to examine the drawing before its first public exhibition this year in honor of the anniversary.

The drawing shows a chaotic, scary, monstrous hell where the souls of the damned are caught in a large fishing net rigged up to a water wheel in the maw of a hellbeast. Some are condemned to act as clappers for giant bells, others cluster in groups while fantastical creatures devour, torture and abuse them. Naked people are made to straddle the blade of a huge knife in the mouth of a giant in a basket. It’s the kind of scene Bosch is best known for, reminiscent of the Hell panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.

In fact, it was its very Boschishness which initially led scholars to think it was the work of an assistant. They thought it was a pastiche, a copy of several Bosch figures made by a student. The BRCP used state-of-the-art technology to analyze the drawing. They examined it with infrared reflectography, ultra high-resolution macrophotography in both infrared and visible light, X-radiography and microscopy. They tested the paper, handwriting and inks, comparing them to known Bosch drawings from major European collections. The team found that some of the figures in the Infernal Landscape match underdrawings in paintings. There is a similar fellow in a basket underneath The Garden of Earthly Delights, even though Bosch chose not to include him in the final painting.

“It’s not just a ‘successful pastiche’, as some have called it. I’ve seen quite a few of these, and 99% of the time, they are not very inspiring,” [BRCP project coordinator Matthijs] Ilsink says. “This one is very, very good.” He says the argument that the work is “too Bosch to be by Bosch” does not hold water, given the fact that other, equally “Boschian” drawings — including Tree Man (around 1505) in Vienna’s Albertina — are considered to be authentic works. “You can’t blame Bosch for being too Bosch,” he says. [...]

Ilsink says that Bosch often changed his mind as he worked, so his paintings have a lot of overpaint and underdrawings. “Someone creating a pastiche of his works wouldn’t have access to these earlier versions,” Ilsink says. He admits that some might argue that Infernal Landscape was made in the artist’s workshop, but he does not believe this to be the case.

The drawing is an important addition to Hieronymus Bosch’s body of work. It’s large in size and so richly chaotic that it gives art historians a glimpse of Bosch’s additive, free-association approach to composition.

The BRCP’s research has also gone the other way. The team discovered that two paintings attributed to Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross and The Seven Deadly Sins are likely the work of followers, not the artist. Macrophotography, x-radiography and infrared reflectography revealed that Christ Carrying the Cross that it was produced after 1525, nine years after Bosch’s death, and the painting style is dissimilar enough to make it unlikely that it was even made in his workshop. The Seven Deadly Sins was exposed by its underdrawings and overall quality as definitely not the work of Bosch himself, although it’s possible that it was made in the family workshop.

The Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, commonly referred to as Den Bosch, birthplace, home and workplace of Hieronymus Bosch, is celebrating the anniversary year with a great many parades, concerts, games, theatricals, art shows, lectures and, for the December finale, “the lighting of the Bosch beast” in the city center which I haven’t been able to find a precise description of but sounds like the greatest Burning Man ever. The Noordbrabants Museum will hold a major exhibition of Bosch’s work. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius brings together masterpieces from top institutions in Europe and America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. For the first time, a majority of Bosch’s works will be together on public display in the city where they were painted. Artworks include world-famous pieces like the Haywain Triptych and the Ship of Fools, as well as virtually unknown works like the newly authenticated Infernal Landscape drawing and 12 panels recently restored by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative which have never been on view to the public before. The exhibition runs from February 13th through May 8th, 2016.

Den Bosch was founded in the 12th century a fortress city and much of the historic center has survived intact, including the complete medieval ramparts that encircle the old town. It was spared from destruction in World War II and spared from even worse destruction by well-meaning modernizers after the war thanks to the city council’s quickly declaring the entire old city a protected historical townscape before the first rampart could be felled or the first canal filled. That means if you take one of the special Bosch Experience tours available from March to November of this year, you will be seeing things he actually saw, walking the same winding roads he walked, visit the same places he worked and lived.

All of the research and analysis the BRCP has done over the past six years will be published in a two-volume monograph later this month. There will also be a website, funded by the Getty Foundation, where all the BRCP’s research and images will be available for our rapt perusal. It’s set to launch before the opening of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibition but there’s no url yet. I’ll update when the site goes live.


Neglected remains from Newburgh Colored Burial Ground finally get attention

January 11th, 2016

The remains of more than 100 African Americans buried in the Colored Burial Ground in Newburgh, New York, that have been languishing in storage for seven years due to the neglect of the City Council are finally getting some attention. The bones were unearthed in 2008 by archaeological contractors Landmark Archaeology who surveyed the site of the former Broadway School before it was renovated into the city court building. The city agreed to pay $75,400 for the excavation and the archaeology report necessary for reburial of the remains. Only $52,000 was paid because they had raised the funds through a bond. The remaining $23,000 for the report was supposed to come out of the general fund, but the Newburgh City Council never authorized payment. The bones were stuck in the limbo of storage in a climate-controlled facility at SUNY New Paltz while the years passed. Today, the City Council will finally vote on a resolution to pay Landmark Archaeology and get the ball rolling on a the long-denied dignified reburial of the human remains.

This is one in a long line of indignities inflicted on the bodies of deceased black citizens of Newburgh. The Colored Burial Ground, like its equivalents in every other city in the United States, was in an isolated, undeveloped area of the town when it was first founded in around 1832. What was out of the way farmland in 1832, however, was rapidly industrializing by the late 1860s. An oilcloth factory was built on the east and north borders of the cemetery. A new road, Robinson Avenue, was built to its immediate west in 1873. By 1869 foot and wagon traffic had encroached on the burial ground to such a degree that erosion exposed some of the bodies. When Robinson Avenue was constructed, they found remains in their way and moved them to the Alms House Cemetery.

In 1905, the oilcloth factory was demolished and both its property and the burial ground were slated for construction of a new elementary school, the Broadway School. This time the disinterred remains were moved to the colored section of Woodlawn Cemetery and nothing of the cemetery above ground — gravestones, monuments — remained. If there was an effort to fully clear the Colored Burial Ground and remove all the remains to proper graves, they royally half-assed it, clearing some of the area they wanted to use and washing their hands of the rest, even constructing the very building directly on top of some of the bodies still in their graves. The 2008 excavation found graves cut into by utility lines, others missing the sidewalk by mere inches. There were skeletons literally sticking out of the walls.

Here’s a description of the approach taken in the July 3rd, 1908 issue of The Newburgh Democrat & Register newspaper:

It was a grewsome [sic] sight that was observed at the grounds now being excavated for the foundation of the new Grammar School Building, on Broadway at the corner of Robinson Avenue, last evening by a Democratic representative.

There was a procession of boys marching to the unmusical melody furnished by the beating of a tin pan with a stick. At the front and head was the leader, bearing aloft on a piece of pine scantling what had at one time been the skull of a human being.

When the oil cloth factory was removed from the site on which excavation is now in progress two or three years, in clearing up the debris and grading down the grounds to make the place look presentable, a number of human bones were found, hence it was not surprising that since the men had been excavating to a general depth over a tract of ground that other bones should be found by laborers. It was one of the skulls thus unearthed that the boy had taken from the box into which pieces were thrown and with the general disregard boys have for things of a serious character had started in to head a parade with it. [...]

Yesterday there was unearthed a box containing the remains of a person who had been buried with his boots and work clothes on. As soon as the air struck the remains everything except the boots crumbled to dust. Last evening there was another box partially exposed to view at the grounds. This will doubtless be unearthed this morning during the day. The bodies that were left in the ground after the general transfer of remains to Woodlawn were those of persons whose graves had not been marked and consequently no investigation was made as to their whereabouts.

More than a century later, with the defunct Broadway School about to be converted into the city courthouse, the extent of earlier neglect became clear when Landmark Archaeology’s excavation revealed more than 100 graves to the west and northwest of the courthouse. They were in seven quite even rows, burials on an east-west axis, feet pointing east, as is traditional in the Christian religion. This is the first indication of the original configuration of the cemetery.

One of the rows continues beyond the property western boundary of the school/courthouse, which suggests there may be more remains to be found heading west beneath Robinson Avenue that were ignored during construction of the road. It’s also likely that the rows continued north under what is now the courthouse parking lot. Archaeologists weren’t able to remove all of the remains; the ones pinned underneath the courthouse walls couldn’t be moved. There could well be more remains underneath the bulk of the building too; we only know about the ones that were findable along the edges.

Unfortunately there are very few extant records that can tell us anything about the Newburgh Colored Burial Ground, or about the African American community of Newburgh in the 19th century, for that matter. Based on census data, we know that there were 148 free “colored” people living in Newburgh in 1822. (New York profited mightily from slavery and it was legal for decades after the neighboring New England states had outlawed it.) There were two black churches near the cemetery, but there no associated burial records have survived, so we don’t know if the cemetery was associated with a specific church, was privately owned or a segregated cemetery for the poor. Burial permits were not required by the state until 1866, so the few records we do have of burials in the graveyard date to 1866 and 1867. It didn’t even appear on a map (that we know of) until 1869 when the City Surveyor marked the spot as the “Colored Burial Ground” in his survey of the area before the construction of Robinson Avenue.

Analysis of human remains and artifacts found at the cemetery, therefore, will fill blanks in a historical record that is all but devoid of information about the cemetery and the black citizens of Newburgh. Once the report is completed and filed, the City Council will have to figure out where and how to reinter the remains. They may even build a memorial in the courthouse parking lot unceremoniously plonked on top of the dead. After being treated with such callousness for 150 years, they’ve earned a little care and respect.





February 2016
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