Help fund Sandby ringfort excavation

November 29th, 2014

If we ever want to find out what happened at the Sandby Borg ringfort in the 5th century A.D. that left dead bodies to rot where they fell and treasure hidden for 1,600 years, we’re going to have to contribute funds. Sandby Borg was discovered on the island of Öland off the southeastern coast of Sweden in 2010 when the presence of looting pits alerted archaeologists to the site. A scan with metal detectors found five hoards each containing highly decorated gilded silver brooches, finger rings, silver bell pendants and glass beads with millefiori designs, buried in the corners of five houses in the central block of the fort.

The next year, archaeologists from the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden returned to excavate and found human skeletons of men killed by violence. In subsequent digs, more skeletons were discovered for a total of at least 10. This summer a potentially highly significant gold solidus was found in a posthole of House 40. In September of this year, for the first time the remains of a small child aged two to five years were found, an extremely important discovery since it suggests there were families in the fort, not just adults. The child was found in the same house as a middle aged man (50-60 years old) who was found lying prone in the fireplace. He was probably struck by a weapon and fell face-down into the fireplace where he came to a gruesome end.

So far less than 3% of the fort has been excavated. Each year archaeologists have only a few short days to dig test pits and every time they’ve uncovered tantalizing evidence of the horror that befell the residents of Sandby Borg in the 5th century. They don’t have the funding to thoroughly excavate any one part of the ringfort, however, which is not only frustrating for our insatiable historical curiosity, but also potentially dangerous since it leaves precious archaeological context and material culture in danger of interference.

Enter Kickstarter. The Kalmar County Museum Department of Archaeology has started a campaign to raise 400,000 kronor ($52,000), a modest goal that will allow them to zero in on one area and produce a book about their finds.

If we reach our goal with this Kickstarter campaign, we will be able to excavate the remaining 1/3 of the house known as House 40 and produce a richly illustrated book presenting the results in English and Swedish. This is the house where at least six people are lying dead on the floor. Two of them have already been recovered, but the remaining four or more are still there. One main objective of investigating the rest of the house is to recover the skeletons. Furthermore, this particular house has proven to contain numerous potential clues to what actually happened here, and why. The Roman gold coin mentioned above is one example; some exquisite details from weaponry are another. The funding will cover both costs for personnel during fieldwork and post-excavation work and analyses, but also for the production of the book.

You have to donate at the 1,000 kronor level ($134) to get the book. If you have deeper pockets (15,000 kr, or $2,012), you can secure a VIP tour of the site personally guided by lead archaeologist Dr. Helena Victor. If you’re Oprah rich, pledge 50,000 kr ($6,700) and you get to get in the trenches and dig! God that’s such a cool reward I can’t even stand it.

The Kickstarter has been open since November 27th and has already raised 68,155 kronor just from small donors. The deadline is December 31st. A donation would make a fine present for the history nerd on your list.

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23,000-year-old limestone Venus found in France

November 28th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the Renancourt neighborhood of Amiens in northern France have unearthed a small artifact of large historical significance. It’s a limestone statuette of a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks of a type known as a Paleolithic Venus. She’s 23,000 years old, an artifact of the late Gravettian culture found in France and eastern Europe, reaching all the way to western Siberia. About a hundred Gravettian Venuses have been found all over Europe, including 15 examples in southwest France, but this is the first one discovered in the north of France. The last one unearthed in an archeological context in France was found in Tursac, Dordogne, in 1959.

In July of this year, the team was excavating a deposit of eolian silt from the end of the last glacial period (40,000 to 10,000 years ago), expecting to find relatively common Paleolithic remains like flints and animal bones. On the second day of the dig, they found a pile of limestone fragments that didn’t seem like natural chips. That night, they were able to puzzle together the 20 fragments to form an almost complete female statuette about 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) tall. Only the right leg piece is missing. It was carved from a single piece of limestone and archaeologists believe it shattered from the cold.

Typical of the 244 Upper Paleolithic Venuses that have been found from different periods in Europe (the oldest being the 35,000-40,000-year-old Venus of Schelklingen which is also the oldest known human figurative art), the secondary sex characteristics are unmistakably prominent, while the head and extremities are barely present. The Venus of Renancourt has a simple rounded shape for a head and roughly engraved arms and legs.

In a space of only nine square meters, archaeologists recovered an abundance of Paleolithic remains along with the Venus, including flint projectile points used for hunting and large blades used as tools like knives and scrapers. Numerous animal bones attest to horse meat having been on the menu regularly. Chalk jewelry — rounds pierced with a hole — discovered at the site is very unusual and may be unique to this deposit. The remains indicate this was a hunter’s camp which radiocarbon dating found to be 23,000 years old, the last phase of the Gravettian period.

It’s not just the Venuses that are rare discoveries in the north of France; evidence of Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon presence is rare because at that time there were still glaciers reaching all the way down to the modern-day Netherlands. This discovery suggests there was a window of warmer temperatures that allowed the Cro-Magnon hunters to travel north over impressively long distances. The Gravettian areas in the southwest of France are 125-185 miles away. That’s a lot of ground to cover on foot during an ice age.

The Venus of Renancourt will be studied thoroughly for the next few months before going on display at Museum of Picardie in Amiens.

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Flint axe with wood handle found at Lolland dig

November 27th, 2014


The tally of marvels unearthed at the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel construction site on the Danish island of Lolland seems to get longer every weeks. We can now add a flint axe with an intact wooden handle to the flint dagger with the intact bark handle and the 5,000-year-old human footprints around the hazel stick gillnets. The axe is about 5,500 years old, around the same age as the footprints and 2,500 years older than the dagger.

Only eight complete Stone Age axes with the full wooden handle preserved have been found in Denmark before now. All of those were discovered in peat bogs. This is the first example discovered on the site of a former fjord lagoon. Jammed into the dense clay of the seabed, the axe was covered in layers of sand and soil that kept oxygen away and waterlogged the organic material, keeping it moist and intact.

Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists discovered the axe stuck vertically 30 centimeters (just under a foot) below the sea floor east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn. It was not the only artifact found jammed into what was then the seashore in a vertical position. There were numerous wooden candlesticks, two oars, two bows, eight spears and 14 axe shafts. There were also deposits of ceramic objects and animals. In one grouping they found 60 jaws from different animals and two axes made from red deer antlers with fragments of the wooden hilts in the shaft holes. This was the only complete axe with both head and hilt in perfect condition.

Axes were important tools for Stone Age people, but particularly so around the time when agriculture was introduced to the region. In order to begin planting things, people had to clear the virgin forests that covered the country. The establishment of stationary agricultural communities engendered new social hierarchies and religious rituals. Wetlands were a consistent locus for cultic practices, and burials and sacrificial offerings testify to how important these liminal grounds between water and land were to the people who lived near them.

The proliferation of vertical objects excavated at Rødbyhavn are a prime example of a coastal area being used for offerings. These objects, all of them with significant practical uses and value, were planted into the clay as part of a ritual sacrifice. Their deliberate placement and the lack of any utilitarian purpose to the Stone Age people burying their stuff and animal bones in the shallows identifies them as religious deposits.

Excavations will continue until next summer when construction on the tunnel begins and these precious sites will be bulldozed away. Archaeologists hope what they find in the upcoming months will lend them greater understanding of Stone Age religious practices.

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Rare Shakespeare first folio found in French library

November 26th, 2014

One of only 233 known copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays has been discovered in the library of Saint-Omer, a small town in northern France 30 miles south of Calais. Rémy Cordonnier, director of the medieval and early modern collection, found it this September when looking through the library’s stack for materials that would suit an upcoming English literature exhibition. Missing its telltale title page, the volume was wrongly classified as an 18th century edition, but Cordonnier suspected the missing pages might be making a secret identity as one of the rarest and most sought-after books in the world.

He contacted Eric Rasmussen from the University of Nevada, an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio who spent 20 years cataloguing all known copies and who happened to be visiting the British Library. Last Saturday he took the Eurostar train to France too see the work in person. He authenticated it almost at first glance. The paper, its watermarks and certain errors that were corrected in later editions immediately identified it as the 233rd First Folio, the first new one discovered in a decade. Printed in 1623, just seven years after Shakespeare’s death, by his friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, the First Folio contains 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, and is the earliest, most reliable extant source for half of them.

There are differences between this copy and the 232 other ones known to survive. The printers made corrections and alterations throughout the original print run of around 800, so each First Folio is a unique work. In addition to the printing differences, the Saint-Omer copy is also missing the entire text of Two Gentlemen of Verona; the pages were deliberately torn out. There are also annotations that suggest the volume was used for performances. Some of the words are replaced with more modern language, and a character in Henry IV is changed from “hostess” to “host” and from “wench” to “fellow” with utter disregard for iambic pentameter.

The library has had the book in its stacks for 400 years, thanks to its arrangement with the now-defunct college of Jesuits in Saint-Omer which used the city library’s Heritage Room as its own library. Saint-Omer is a small town now, but in the Middle Ages it was an important city with the fourth greatest library in Western Europe. The Jesuit college was founded in the late 16th century when Catholics were forbidden by law to attend college in English. They could just cross the Channel and get an education in France instead, and Saint-Omer was well attended by English Catholics.

One particularly intriguing note is the name “Nevill” written on the first page of The Tempest (also the first page of the book entire since the title pages are gone). It could be the explanation of how the folio got to Saint-Omer since there is only one other known copy in the whole country. Neville was a name adopted by several members of the Scarisbrick family, a prominent Catholic family of landed gentry with a pedigree stretching back to the 1200s. Edward Scarisbrick (Neville), born in 1639, was educated at the Jesuit college of St. Omer, and, following in the footsteps of others in his family, became a Jesuit in 1660.

There’s some speculation that the find may be relevant to the question of whether William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, but I don’t see how. Shakespeare was dead and gone when this book got to Saint-Omer. It could be relevant to how Catholics read and performed his plays in the 17th century; I doubt it goes beyond that.

First Folios are of course very valuable. One sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $5.2 million, but this copy would not be so expensive because of its missing pages. It doesn’t matter anyway, because there is no way the library is selling it. As Rémy Cordonnier notes succinctly: “It is an inalienable property that cannot be sold, like all the works of the library.”

It will be conserved for a while and then put on display some time next year. There are also tentative plans to scan it and make it available on the library’s website.

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Hoard of Roman silver found in The Hague

November 25th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the future site of the Rotterdamsebaan access road in The Hague announced on Friday that they’ve unearthed a Roman-era pot containing a hoard of coins and jewelry. The contents of the pot were discovered fused together in a large lump of metal. Conservators were able to separate the individual parts of the mass and discovered 107 silver coins, six silver bracelets, a large silver plated fibula (cloak brooch) and some glass beads that were probably on a chain that has now disintegrated. The silver bracelets look the same, but there are small differences between them that indicate they are three matched pairs.

Restorer Johan van der Helm did such a fine job detangling the rusted lump and cleaning the coins that in the end all 107 coins were readable. They are all silver denarii, a very valuable collection at a time when brass coins were far more common in circulation. The oldest coin dates to the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.), the youngest to the reign of Marcus Aurelius about a century later (161-180 A.D.). One extremely rare coin was struck under the reign of Emperor Otho who only ruled three months, from January 15th to April 16th 69 A.D., the second in the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors which came to a close with the ascent of Vespasian.

This find doubles the number of Roman coins discovered in The Hague, which in the 2nd century was sparsely populated countryside in Rome’s Germania Inferior province. The area that is now The Hague was just south of the estuary of the Rhine, the empire’s western frontier, so there were fortifications here and there but the regional capital was the nearby town of Forum Hadriani, modern day Voorburg, which was the northernmost Roman city in continental Europe. It was abandoned in the wake of Saxon raids in around 270 A.D.

Earlier this fall, the Rotterdamsebaan excavations uncovered the remains of two Roman houses and several wells close to where the coins were unearthed. It seems to have been a small farming community. Since the hoard was buried all at once rather than deposited over time as savings, it was either an offering to the gods or the earthly goods of an area resident seeking to protect them from marauders.

The hoard is now on display at the Historical Museum of The Hague.

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Norfolk museum acquires Bronze Age dirk used as doorstop

November 24th, 2014

When a farmer turned up a hunk of bent bronze while ploughing a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, 12 years ago, he had no idea he’d found an archaeological treasure. He used the four-pound object as a doorstop for years and was considering throwing it out when a friend suggested he have it checked out by an archaeologist first. In 2013, the object was reviewed by Andrew Rogerson, Senior Historic Environment Officer of Norfolk’s Identification and Recording Service which is in charge of county’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. He identified it as an extremely rare and important ceremonial dirk from the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,500 B.C.

The landowner agreed to sell it to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for £40,970 ($64,272). Thanks to a £38,970 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and a £2,000 donation from the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, the Norwich Castle Museum is now the proud owner of a 3,500-year-old bronze ceremonial dirk.


Images of Rudham Dirk courtesy of the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Its large size, deliberately blunt edges and the lack of rivet holes where a handle would be attached are what mark it as having no practical use. Dirks meant for actual stabbing are sharp, pointed and can be wielded easily with one hand. This piece was designed for a ritual purpose, which is why it was found folded. Bending a metal object as a symbolic act of destruction before burial was a common practice in the Bronze Age and later.

Early Bronze Age metal work was done on a small scale for local usage, much like flint knapping or the production of pottery. The Middle Bronze Age saw the development of more specialized metallurgy. Metalworking became the province of increasingly skilled artisans who would have needed workshops and apprentices and imported raw materials to create more elaborate objects. The ceremonial dirks were prestige pieces, the work of the best artisans money could buy. Owning such a heavy, large metal object intended for no practical use was a symbol of power both temporal and, given their ritual purpose, spiritual.

Bronze is composed of 90% copper and 10% tin, and it’s that 10% that was hard to come by in quantities sufficient to make a giant four-pound unusable dagger. In Bronze Age Europe, sources of tin were few and far between. There were in tin mines in the Ore Mountains on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, on the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, in Brittany in France and in Devon and Cornwall in England. The tin for the Rudham Dirk could have come from the English mines, but the artifact could have been fabricated on the continent.

Only five other ceremonial dirks of this type have been found. Two were discovered in France — the Plougrescant Dirk (1,500–1,300 B.C.), now at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Beaune Dirk (1,500–1,350 B.C.), now at the British Museum — two in the Netherlands — the co-type find the Ommerschans Dirk (1,500 – 1,100 B.C.) which at last tally was in Bavaria, still in the possession of the family who owned the estate where it was discovered, and the Jutphaas Dirk (1,800-1,500 B.C.), now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden — and one in Oxborough, Norfolk (1,450-1,300 B.C.), which is also in the British Museum.

Their dimensions and details are so similar that all dirks likely came from the same workshop, perhaps even the same hand. They are virtually identical in form, decoration and cross-section. The Beaune and Ommerschans examples are the same length (68 centimeters or just short of 27 inches) as the Rudham Dirk. The Oxborough Dirk is slightly longer at 70 centimeters, while the Jutphaas Dirk is 20 centimeters shorter. If one shop is responsible for all of them, it had an impressive reach through ancient trade networks.

The Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk is momentous not just because of the artifact’s immense rarity and archaeological significance. It’s also a homecoming that was denied them the first time a ceremonial dirk was unearthed in the county. The Oxborough Dirk was found in 1988. It was thrust into the peat vertically and erosion had exposed the hilt leaving the finder to literally stumble over it.

The artifact was exhibited at the Norwich Castle Museum in 1989 and the British Museum in 1990 before the owner decided to sell it at a Christie’s auction on July 6th, 1994. It was purchased by high society antiques dealer and notorious loot fencer Robin Symes for £51,000 ($79,076), five times the pre-sale estimate. An export block stopped it from leaving the country and gave the British Museum the time to fundraise so they could buy the dirk from Symes for the price he paid. Thanks to a £20,000 Art Fund grant, the museum was able to acquire the Oxborough Dirk later that year.

So it was saved for the nation, but not so much for Norfolk. The dirk visited its home county three times, twice in exhibits at the Norwich Castle Museum, last winter at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. This time around, Norfolk’s principal museum gets to keep the rare Middle Bronze Age ceremonial dirk in the county where it was discovered, the only county in the world where two of them have been found.

Dr Tim Pestell, Senior Curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle said: “We are delighted to have secured such an important and rare find as this, which provides us with insights into the beliefs and contacts of people at the dawn of metalworking. Through its display we hope to bring residents and visitors to Norfolk closer to the remarkable archaeology of our region and stories of our ancient past.”

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Leaning Tower of Bad Frankenhausen saved

November 23rd, 2014

The funding cavalry has arrived to save the dangerously leaning tower of the Church of Our Dear Ladies on the Hill in the Thuringian spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. The 14th century bell tower, built on a chalk foundation over subterranean salt deposits that get washed out by the springs that put the Bad in Bad Frankenhausen, has been leaning precipitously since a 1908 landslide. It leans 15 feet eastward of the perpendicular, more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM), owner of the church for most of its life, tried to stabilize it several times over the years, but to no avail. Finally in December of 2011, the EKM decided to demolish the roofless, structurally unsound church and its leaning tower. The only chance of reprieve was if the city could raise the funds necessary to restore the tower, the EKM would sell the Church of Our Dear Ladies to the city for a token sum of €1 and chip in the money they had planned to spend on demolition (about €150,000).

It was a close call. By a vote of nine votes for, seven against and three abstentions, the Bad Frankenhausen city council agreed to the acquisition of the church. The estimated total cost of restoration was €1 million. Subtracting the demolition funds, that left the city with €850,000 to scare up. They put €50,000 into immediate stabilization work in early 2012, and then went to work trying to secure government funding. Without it, the city would not be able to raise the €800,000 and Bad Frankenhausen’s most recognizable landmark, symbol of the town just as the Leaning Tower is of Pisa, would have to be demolished for safety reasons.

The city applied to the Thuringian Ministry of Construction for state funding, but were rejected. With time running out, Bad Frankenhausen threw a hail mary pass and applied to the National Urban Planning Projects, a new €50 million federal program to support city development projects of “national visibility, high quality, above-average investment volume or high potential for innovation.” The program received 271 applications, 24 from Thuringia alone, for a total of €900 million in requested funding.

A jury of members of parliament, academics and urban planning experts selected 21 applications for project funding. The Bad Frankenhausen tower was one of only two winners from Thuringia. The stabilization of the tower will now be funded to the tune of €950,000. Mayor Matthias Strejc was particularly pleased to note the tower was considered a historic landmark of national importance by the federal government because the state government had sent them yet another rejection letter just a few days before they heard their application had been accepted by the National Urban Planning Projects.

The next step for the tower is research into the movement of the soil underneath it. Three holes will be dug, one 400 meters (437 yards) deep and two 70 meters (77 yards), and sensors inserted into the holes. The sensor readings will be viewable in real time by visitors to the tower’s information pavilion. The data will be submitted in a new report due by December 31st. Structural engineers will use that information to fine tune the stabilization plan which as of now involves building a reinforced concrete core in the basement of the tower and creating a steel corset structure on the outside.

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Medal of Honor awarded to Gettysburg hero 151 years later

November 22nd, 2014

Union Lieutenant Alonzo Hersford Cushing died at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. On November 6th, 2014, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the country, for his heroism on that field of battle that day. It has taken 151 years and a campaign of more than three decades for Cushing to get this richly deserved recognition. It’s the longest gap between the act of valor and the awarding of a Medal of Honor in history.

Alonzo Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, on January 19th, 1841. He was one of four brothers and his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. The congressman who recommended Alonzo to West Point described her as “poor but highly committed and her son will do honor to the position.” He was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated in June 1861, two months after hostilities began at Fort Sumter, with a commission as first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was in the thick of all the most famous battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and of course, the one that would claim his life, Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville Cushing was promoted to commander of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery of the Army of the Potomac II Corps.

He was in command of 126 men and six cannons on July 3rd, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. They were positioned inside a bend in the rock wall, known as the Bloody Angle, on Cemetery Ridge that was the center of the line General Robert E. Lee hoped to break through with a massive 13,000-person infantry attack known as Pickett’s Charge. After being pounded by Confederate artillery, Battery A was all but destroyed. All the officers and most of the soldiers were dead. Only two cannons were still functional.

Cushing himself had been grievously wounded during the artillery assault. A shell fragment hit him in the shoulder and shrapnel gutted him, tearing through his groin and abdomen. He refused categorically to move to the rear, saying he would “stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” Instead, literally holding his intestines in one hand, Cushing ordered that the two remaining cannons be moved right up to the stone wall to shoot at the three Confederate divisions of infantry advancing in rows a mile wide towards the Angle.

Weak and unable to shout, Cushing was bodily supported by 1st Sergeant Frederick Füger who relayed his orders to his men. He observed the charge through a field glass, and ordered his men to fire double-shotted canister, deadly anti-personnel rounds. He used his own thumb to stop the cannon’s vent, burning his fingers to the bone. With the Confederate infantry less than 100 yards away, he yelled “I will give them one more shot.” A few seconds later a bullet hit Cushing in the mouth, exiting out the back of his skull and killing him. He was 22 years old.

Cushing had stood his ground for more than an hour and a half after his wounding, inflicting heavy casualties and opening gaps in the Confederate lines that played an important role in the Union’s repelling Pickett’s Charge. He was given a posthumous brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for his service at the Battle of Gettysburg, but no medal. He was buried at West Point, a very high military honor, under a headstone inscribed “Faithful unto death.”

The story of Alonzo Cushing wasn’t widely known, but he was still beloved in his hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin. That’s where Margaret Zerwekh heard about it when she married her second husband and moved into his Delafield house that had once belonged to the Cushing family. An amateur historian, she researched Alonzo’s story and sometime in the 1980s (she doesn’t remember the exact date), wrote a letter to then-Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin recommending Cushing for a Medal of Honor. It would be the first of many, many letters sent to many, many members of Congress.

The procedure for awarding a Medal of Honor more than three years after the events being recognized are complex. First the branch of the military in which the would-be recipient served has to approve the nomination. In Cushing’s case, the U.S. Army approved his nomination in 2010. Then legislation had to be passed by both Houses of Congress to waive the three-year time limit. That took three years. Then the President has to approve the nomination. This August, the White House announced that Alonzo Cushing would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The deed was done at a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House attended by more than two dozen Cushing family members and Margaret Zerwekh. Alonzo’s next of kin, cousin twice removed Helen Loring Ensign, accepted the medal on his behalf.

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Thomas Hart Benton’s epic America Today murals at the Met

November 21st, 2014

Before he become cover-of-Time-magazine famous as a muralist and leading light of the realist style inspired by local scenes known as Regionalism, Thomas Hart Benton’s first mural commission was a series of 10 murals for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Alvin Johnson, the school’s director and one of its co-founders, wanted its mission of unfettered inquiry and progressive thought to be reflected in the art and architecture as well. He commissioned Joseph Urban to design a new building in modernist International Style that stood out dramatically from the Greenwich Village town houses on West 12th Street. Benton collaborated with Urban to create murals that will flawlessly fit the walls of the third floor boardroom.

The new building opened on New Year’s Day 1931 with nine of the panels in place (Benton finished the tenth later) on the four walls of the 30-by-22-foot room. America Today depicts a wide view of American life in the 1920s: city and country, industry and farming, steel workers and bankers, coal miners and doctors, black and white, boxers and lovers, a hard day’s work and wild nights of dancing, north and south. Benton painted these murals, most of which are seven and a half feet high, referring to sketched studies he had made while traveling the country in the 1920s. Fun fact: his student Jackson Pollock posed for several of the figures.

Benton received no fee for this immense work, just expenses, but he got a whole lot of artistic recognition. The critical success of the cycle led directly to commissions for eight other murals, including the Indiana Murals which cemented his mainstream fame and put money in his pocket. His dynamic, fluid, colorful style was a major influence for the WPA artists that soon followed.

The murals saw some hard treatment over the years, as students leaned their chairs against them, smoked like chimneys, exhaled moisture and transmitted bacteria. Thomas Hart Benton returned to restore his murals twice, once in 1956, once in 1968. He died in 1975 and seven years later, the school decided to sell the murals to fund its endowment. The plan was not happily received in New York City. If the panels were sold to a dealer or auction, they could be scattered to the four winds. Mayor Edward I. Koch even expressed dismay at the prospect of the mural cycle being split up and/or leaving the city.

In May of 1982, the school sold the 10 murals to the Maurice Segoura Gallery. The gallery kept them for two years before selling them to the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States (aka AXA) for $3.1 million. AXA agreed to always display America Today to the public and proudly sported the murals in the lobby of its corporate headquarters on Seventh Avenue for years before the company and artwork moved to a new building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas. In February of 2012, a building renovation saw the murals moved into storage.

With no prospect of a proper display site coming up any time soon, AXA decided to donate the murals to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met was more than happy to accept them. Before they could go on display, however, the museum had to create an appropriate space. As of September 30th, it has.

The keystone of the exhibition—the mural—will be installed in a reconstruction of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom as it existed at the New School in 1931, allowing viewers to experience the mural cycle as Benton conceived it. A highlight of this extraordinary opportunity to view the reconstructed mural in its nearly original setting is the incorporation of elements that were part of the architect Joseph Urban’s modernist aesthetic for the New School building, such as the black and red color scheme he used for the room. Among the mural’s most distinctive features are the aluminum-leaf wooden moldings, which not only frame the mural but also create inventive spatial breaks within each large panel. When the mural was installed at the New School, these moldings echoed the Art Deco details of Urban’s building design.

The exhibition also features Benton’s studies from this travels in the 20s and related works by other artists from the Met’s collection.

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Wreck of SS Ventnor, ship carrying 499 Chinese dead, found

November 20th, 2014

The wreck of SS Ventnor, a ship that went down in 1902 carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand back to their homes in China’s Guangdong province, has been found. The ship was discovered 21 kilometers (13 miles) west of Hokianga Harbour under 150 meters (492 feet) of water. The general area of the sinking was known, but it has taken 112 years to find the actual wreck.

The Ventnor Project Group, funded by Definitive Productions which is making a documentary about the shipwreck, first spotted the wreck in December of 2012 using echo sounding sonar. In January of 2013, they enlisted Keith Gordon, former president of the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group, to investigate the site further. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, the team was able to photograph the wreck. The last step was sending divers to record the wreck on video. They confirmed that it was indeed the Ventnor.

In April the divers returned and were able to retrieve artifacts that might aid in identification. They recovered the ship’s bell and a few other pieces (some plates, a porthole window) which have been cleaned and conserved, but nothing with a name that would clinch the deal. Authorities in China and New Zealand were notified of the discovery and the shipwreck was gazetted by New Zealand Heritage, which means no objects can be removed the site without permission. No coffins or human remains have been found yet. The Ventnor Project Group needs to raise another 400,000 New Zealand dollars to dive the wreck site more extensively. Meanwhile, the Royal New Zealand Navy is going forward with separate plans they made before the announcement of the find to search for the wreck next month.

The tragedy of the Ventnor is a window into the Chinese experience in New Zealand. The first Chinese immigrants were invited to New Zealand by the Otago Provincial Council who needed people willing to do backbreaking labour in the gold mines of Otago on the South Island. Gold had been found in Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, setting off the Otago gold rush. Five years later, the gold fields had been thoroughly picked over and the work of extracting gold, never easy, got so hard miners left for greener pastures. The population of European miners plummeted from 19,000 men in early 1864 to 6,000 in late 1865. That’s when they sent the call out to Guangdong province for miners to rework the area. Guangdong was suffering in the aftermath of the suppressed Taiping Rebellion, so thousands of men made their way to New Zealand in hope of making a decent living.

By 1869, there were more than 2,000 Chinese, most of them from the Guangzhou area, in New Zealand. By 1881, there were more than 5,000. That same year, the New Zealand government passed its version of the U.S. Exclusion Act, a poll tax that charged ever Chinese immigrant £10 to enter the country, and only allowed one Chinese immigrant for every 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 those numbers got a lot worse: the per head tax was raised to £100 and only one Chinese immigrant was allowed per 200 tons of cargo. The poll tax remained in force until 1934 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

Amid the simmering racial tensions and the regulatory aggression, the Chinese miners banded together to maintain their customs and support each other. In 1882, a year after the poll tax was enacted, men from Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties of Guangdong Province founded the Cheong Sing Tong, a subscription association that allowed members to pool their resources so they could send the remains of the dead back to their hometowns in China. According to Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried in the ground of their homes so their descendants can properly tend to them to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased and good fortune for their survivors.

The leader of the Cheong Sing Tong was Choie Sew Hoy, a successful merchant who had arrived with the first wave of immigrants from Poon Yu. Just like in the American gold rushes, the most successful people were those who sold stuff to the miners rather than the guys panning in rivers. Choie Sew Hoy started off with a general store and eventually ran a dozen mining ventures of his own. He was a prominent community leader in Dunedin and well respected by Chinese and European alike.

In 1883, Hoy and the Cheong Sing Tong exhumed 230 bodies and successfully sent them back to China for reburial. In 1901, they began arrangements for a second shipment. From early 1901 to the September 1902, bodies of Chinese immigrants were exhumed from more than 40 cemeteries, most of them in the Otago area but also from elsewhere in the country. The remains were sent to Choie Sew Hoy’s farm where the bones were individually washed and each bone counted. The small bones were each wrapped in calico. The large bones placed in calico bag to which the small bones were added along with the name of the deceased. The bag was tied and put inside a coffin which was stored in a shed until all coffins were ready to be shipped.

While this process was taking place, Choie Sew Hoy died suddenly in July of 1901 at the age of 64. His son Choie Kum Poy took over the project and Choie Sew Hoy’s body was added to the others for return to China. The ship they chartered to carry this cargo was the SS Ventnor. The Glasgow-built cargo ship was only a year old in October of 1902 when the coffins were loaded and it left Wellington headed for Hong Kong. Along with the crew, there were nine or six (accounts vary) elderly Chinese men on board who were given free passage by the Cheong Sing Tong in exchange for looking after the coffins.

One day after leaving Wellington, the ship, which was apparently traveling too close to the shore, hit rocks near the coast of Taranaki. The captain decided the damage wasn’t so bad they should make for the nearby port of New Plymouth, and there was little point in turning back around to Wellington since they could go almost the same distance north to Auckland and be going in the right direction. His judgment was flawed. The Ventnor took on water and sank off the Hokianga Heads on October 28th, 1902, two days after setting sail. Four lifeboats were launched holding the crew and passengers. Three of them made it to safety. The one holding the captain, among others, did not. Thirteen people died.

The tragic fate of the Ventnor was big news at the time, spurring a magisterial inquiry into the cause of the sinking. The official finding, announced on November 21st, 1902, was that the striking of the rocks off Cape Egmont was due either to negligence or incompetence on the part of the captain. Drunkenness, while possible, could not be proven. No blame was assigned to the decision to keep going towards Auckland instead of turning back to Wellington.

The Cheong Sing Tong chartered the Auckland steamer Energy to search for the Ventnor and any of the remains, but most of the coffins, including that of Choie Sew Hoy, were lead-lined and ensconced in the hold. Some plain wooden coffins that were stored on the deck floated and washed ashore. Maori tribespeople from the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa tribes buried the remains with care. They too share the belief that the remains of their people must be buried in the soil of their home, an issue that has been at the forefront of requests for repatriation of Maori remains in anthropological collections around the world.

The disaster of the Ventnor led to the disbanding of the Cheong Sing Tong and the end of the practice of sending coffins back to China in bulk. Remains were still sent home, but on an individual basis. The ship’s manifest was lost with the ship, so we don’t even have a list of names of the 499. Only Choie Sew Hoy is known. Recovering remains from the wreck would be extremely meaningful to the descendants of the miners in New Zealand and China.

The documentary The Lost Voyage of the 499 aired on Maori TV just Monday before the news of the discovery was announced. It’s a moving look at the history of the Ventnor as seen through the eyes of Choie Sew Hoy’s living descendants who travel to the Maori burial sites and to Hoy’s home village to see the first home he built in the 1860s and to pay their respects at his proxy grave.

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