Ship from doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition found

September 9th, 2014

One of two ships from British explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage has been discovered off King William Island in northern Canada. The ship appears to be in excellent condition. It’s standing straight up, with the bow five meters (16’4″) off the sea and the stern four meters (13’1″). The sonar image indicates that the deck is largely intact. Even some of its structures are visible, including the stumps of the masts that were sliced off by ice when the ship went down. With the deck still in place in the frigid Arctic waters, archaeologists are optimistic that there will be well-preserved artifacts still inside the ship.

It’s the sixth time since 2008 that Parks Canada has led a search of the Arctic seabed for the Franklin ships. This year the search area was the Victoria Strait, between Victoria Island and King William Island in the Nunavut territory. It was the largest search yet, a partnership between private and public organizations including Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the government of Nunavut. They also had new technology on their side. Parks Canada recently acquired a remotely operated underwater vehicle which played a key role in identifying and documenting the wreck.

A team of Government of Nunavut archaeologists surveying a small island southwest of King William as part of the expedition has also made significant discoveries: an iron davit (part of the boat-launching mechanism) from a Royal Navy ship and a wooden object that archaeologists believe could be a plug for a deck hawse (the pipe through which the chain cable was threaded). The davit bears the telltale “broad arrow” marks of the Royal Navy and the number 12. These artifacts were found on September 1st, six days before the sonar encountered the ship. The discovery reinforced that the marine search was in the right area.

It’s not clear at this point which of Franklin’s ships it is. Sir John and 128 crewmen set out on his fourth Arctic expedition with two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. He was 59 years old and it had been 20 years since his last trip to the Arctic. The ships were provisioned with enough tinned foods to last three years (unfortunately the cans were poorly soldered and lead leached into the food) and outfitted with steam engines and iron cladding to help the ships break through the year-round ice.

European witnesses — crew from the whaler Prince of Wales — last spotted the ships moored to an iceberg off Baffin Island on July 26th, 1845. Historians believe Franklin wintered on Beechey Island only to become trapped by the ice off King William Island in September of 1846. The crew left the icebound ships and tried to make their way south on foot, but disease, starvation and lead poisoning ultimately claimed all of their lives.

Finding out what happened to Franklin and his crew became a cause célèbre. Thirty-nine expeditions were launched over the next 50 years to find some trace of Franklin’s expedition. The first clues were found in 1850 on Beechey Island, including the graves of three crewmen. A later expedition found a letter on King William Island noting that Franklin had died there on June 11th, 1847. In 1854, Inuit hunters told Scottish explorer Dr. John Rae that they had witnessed Franklin crewmen dying while walking on the ice and that the few survivors had resorted to cannibalism. Osteological analysis of remains found on King William Island in 1997 confirmed that they had indeed been cannibalized. Franklin’s body was never found.

The search for the ships has taken on new urgency in the past few years as melting ice has increasingly opened the Northwest Passage to shipping. The statement on the find from Prime Minister Stephen Harper emphasizes the significance of the find as the historical foundation of “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

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First Viking fortress in 60 years found in Denmark

September 8th, 2014

Archaeologists from Aarhus University and the Danish Castle Centre have discovered the remains of a huge circular Viking fortress on the Vallø Estate, about 30 miles south of Copenhagen on the Danish island of Zealand. Only seven of these ringed fortresses have ever been discovered, all of them in Denmark or the southern tip of Sweden, and the last one was found 60 years ago. It’s design is in keeping with the Trelleborg-type fortresses built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D.

Much of this discovery was done in the research phase. Archaeologists suspected there was another fortress on Zealand. The Vallø site was a likely candidate because it was in a place where old Viking roads met close to the Køge river valley which in Viking times was a navigable fjord with one of the island’s best natural harbors. This made it an ideal setting for large military installation.

The team did a detailed laser survey of the site, measuring the minute features of the landscape. They found that a mound that was barely visible to the naked eye had a distinct circular outline. To investigate further before attempting excavation, they called in Helen Goodchild, an archaeological geophysics expert from the University of York, to do a magnetic survey of the site. Geomagnetic data derived from measuring variations in the magnetic field of the soil identified the archaeological features of a circular fortress.

The image from the geomagnetic survey revealed a massive structure 475 feet in diameter, which makes it the third largest of the Trelleborg-type fortresses after Aggersborg (787 feet in diameter), in Limfjorden, Denmark, and Borgeby (492 feet in diameter) near Lund in Scania, Sweden. The inner ramparts are 35 feet wide and circular, surrounded by a spiked palisade. Four gates are placed at the cardinal points of the compass. This is the same plan as the other Trelleborg-type fortresses.

Armed with this key information, archaeologists chose to dig in the areas most likely to produce information about the fortress as quickly as possible. The first trenches were dug at the site of two of the four gates. Both of them were burned down at some point. Large charred oak timbers were found at the north gate, a precious find both because the sturdy timber gate is another feature of the Trelleborg fortresses and because they’ll give us a precise date for the fortress.

Nanna Holm underlines that the fortress was a genuine military facility, and probably the scene of fighting as well. She’s in no doubt that it dates back to the Viking Age.

“Fortresses built like this one were only built in the Viking Age, and the burnt timber in the gates enables us to fix the date using radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. We’ve sent off samples for analysis, and the result should be available in a few weeks’ time. The date will be vital. If we can establish exactly when the fortress was built, it will help us to understand the historical events with which it was connected.” [...]

“We can’t wait to find out whether the fortress dates back to the time of Harald Bluetooth, or whether it was built by a previous king. A military fortification from the Viking Age may shed more light on the links between Zealand, ancient Denmark and the Jelling dynasty – as well as teaching us more about the period during which Denmark became Denmark,” says Holm.

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Roam 1930s and 40s America in 170,000 pictures

September 7th, 2014

In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Resettlement Administration (RA), a New Deal program that aimed to relocate hundreds of thousands of farmers on exhausted land and migrant laborers to viable land in planned communities purchased with low interest loans. FDR established the program by executive order and Congress wasn’t a fan, to say the least, so it was underfunded from the start.

In an attempt to get the support of the public, the head of the RA, Columbia University economics professor Rexford Tugwell, appointed Roy Stryker, a former economics student of his at Cornell and an accomplished photographer, to lead the Historical Section of the RA’s Information Division. Stryker set up a photographic program to document the hardships of the farmers and their successes with the RA. He enlisted a cadre of exceptional photographers, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano (no relation to FDR) and Gordon Parks among them.

The photographers traversed the country, capturing rural and suburban farmers, migrant workers, their families, equipment and stock in every state. When the goal of resettlement soon died on the vine, the RA shifted focus to the construction of relief camps in California for migrant workers fleeing the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Stryker made sure his team of artists were funded and that their photographs were published in the mainstream press. These early RA pictures established the reputations of photographers whose images would soon become enduring symbols of America in the Great Depression.

On January 1, 1937, the RA was subsumed under the Department of Agriculture and in September of 1937 it was transformed into the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The photography program continued under the FSA for another five years until it was transferred to the Office of War Information. The FSA was eliminated and all the photographs in its files were sent to the Library of Congress. The OWI photography program focused on documenting the country’s mobilization in World War II. Farms gave way to airplane factories and migrant laborers to soldiers. The OWI was dissolved in 1945.

By the end of the decade-long FSA-OWI photography programs, they had generated an extraordinary archive of almost 170,000 pictures, prints and negatives. The archive was kept at the Library of Congress, grouped together with the Office of Emergency Management-Office of War Information Collection, the American at War Collection and the Portrait of America Collection. Because the LoC is consistently awesome, the archives have been digitized and made available to the public. You can even surf the exceptional color photographs of the FSA-OSI collection on the LoC’s Flickr page.

To make perusing this record, following in the footsteps of the photographs as they crossed the country, easier, a team from Yale University with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities have created a web platform called Photogrammar. You can search the database by keyword, date, location or select the name of a photographer and browse all of his or her work. The best part, though, are the maps. There’s one organized by county (the darker the green the more photographs) and one where each photographer is represented by a dot of a different color. I especially love the dot map with the 1937 Vico Motor Oil Map feature turned on, because you can see the movements of the photographers on the street map. You can see all the photographers on the maps at once, or you can select one at a time from the dropdown menu.

Then there are the data experiments that are still works in progress. I like the Metadata Explorer which illustrates the distribution of photographers over time and subject matter in California.

It’s a brilliant way to collate a collection so large that it’s quite beyond human scale. It’s also a time sink of massive proportions, needless to say, especially if you want to explore the photographs in greater detail by clicking on the Library of Congress Call Number which opens the picture on the LoC site where you can view them in high resolution which of course I did religiously.

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Hampton Court Palace chocolate kitchen and recipe

September 6th, 2014

Since the restored Hampton Court Palace royal Chocolate Kitchen reopened to the public on Valentine’s Day of this year, it has been very popular with visitors. The palace website now has a great section about the Chocolate Kitchens and have recently uploaded a couple of fascinating videos.

The first covers the kitchen’s history, its rediscovery and the intense work that went into recreating the Georgian environment.
It was William III who introduced chocolate drinking to England when he arrived from Holland in 1689. He installed the Hampton Court Palace chocolate kitchen. It’s the only royal chocolate kitchen surviving today, but documents record him building chocolate kitchens at Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle as well. Subsequent monarchs continued the practice, each retaining his own chocolate maker who would travel with the court from palace to palace. It ended with George III who hated Hampton Court Palace and refused to set foot in the place; his successors followed in his footsteps

The reason nobody knew where the Chocolate Kitchen was is that after it stopped being used to make chocolate for the monarch and queen, it was used as a kitchen for the Grace and Favour Apartments where other members of the royal family sometimes lived. By the Victorian era when the palace was opened to the public, the existence of the Chocolate Kitchen had become a legend like the stories of ghosts and scandals used to attract visitors. Besides, many buildings had been demolished since Georgian times and a devastating fire in 1986 had caused much damage.

Then, in 2013, curatorial intern Charlotte Barker found an 18th century inventory document written after the death of William III that recorded every room in the palace and their locations, including the Chocolate Kitchen. It was known simply as Door Eight to the curators. It had been used as storeroom for the annual Hampton Court summer flower show and was filled with racks, pots, vases, steel shelves.

They figured the room would have been bare bones, all the original chocolate-making accessories long gone. When they removed the clutter, however, they found the full Georgian chocolate kitchen, with original shelves on the wall, the fireplace with a smoke jack inside the chimney, a prep table that folded down from the wall, a cupboard, and the Georgian version of a stove top: a pair of charcoal braziers in a brick housing. Charcoal was placed under the grates and then copper pots placed on top to melt the chocolate with whatever liquids (water, milk, liquor) and spices for the beverage.

A smoke jack, also known as a turnspit, is a mechanism that uses hot air rising from the fireplace up the chimney to turn a fan which turns a pinion that turns wheels that turn a chain that turns a spit over the fire. The one in the the chocolate kitchen wasn’t used to roast pheasants and great joints of beef, but only for roasting the chocolate beans. An automated roasting device was extremely high tech for any kitchen, never mind one dedicated solely to the production of chocolate.

Once the beans were roasted, the nuts were shelled and the innermost bits, the cocoa nibs, were made into chocolate. The curved slab of granite used as a mortar to grind the cocoa nibs would be placed over the brazier to keep it warm during the grinding process. Once the grind was smooth, the chocolate would be formed into flat discs and stored for a month for the flavors to meld.

Just down the hall from the kitchen is the Chocolate Room. It too was being used for storage but unfortunately wasn’t kept in pristine condition underneath the clutter. The late 18th century fireplace and barred windows were all that was left of the original fittings. They were able to recreate the shelves from the marks on the walls indicating where they had once been and were also able to restore damaged fireplace iron tools.

The real trick was outfitting the Chocolate Room with all the gear — chocolate pots, wooden whisks called molinets that were threaded through holes in the lids of the serving pots to give the beverage a nice froth, china and delftware cups, frames the cups were placed in, glass sweetmeat vessels — that were needed to present the royals with their delicious and luxurious beverage. The palace curators enlisted craftsmen who use the traditional methods so everything is as historically accurate as possible. Pewterer David Williams used period antique bronze and lead molds to make replicas of Georgian chocolate pots in the Ashmolean and V&A Museums, only the new pieces were are out of pewter instead of the silver and gold of the royal court originals.

Chocolate was often served with breakfast or after dinner and sweetmeats would have been among the foods on offer. Glassmaker Mark Taylor made the replica sweetmeat jars. Hampton Court Palace archaeological collection includes fragments of original chocolate cups. They were used by potter John Hudson to reproduce the exact cups the Georgian royal family drank out of.

It’s fascinating to see the archivists, curators, craftsmen and food historian at work recreating the Chocolate Kitchen and Room.

If you want to try your own hand a Georgian style chocolate beverage, food historian Marc Meltonville has a fabulous instructional video on how to make Chocolate Port. He’s working in the Hampton Court Palace chocolate kitchen using the reproduction period tools and the chocolate he roasted and ground from the whole pod. It’s so hardcore. For the rest of who are not so cool, we can follow along starting with store bought chocolate that’s 80% or more cocoa solids.

The recipe calls for a pint of port to one ounce of pure chocolate, so teetotalers be warned. I’m guessing this was more for the after supper chocolate service rather than the breakfast of champions.

Here’s a written version of the Chocolate Port recipe (pdf), plus a 1692 recipe for the pure chocolate discs (pdf) that were the basis of all the goodies, and a very yummy looking chocolate cream dessert (pdf) from George I’s 1716 royal cookbook

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Papyrus fragment is early Christian amulet

September 5th, 2014

A researcher has discovered an important fragment of papyrus that is an early example of Christian scriptures used as an amulet at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Dr. Roberta Mazza, a Classics and Ancient History professor and papyrologist with a particular interest in ancient religions, was looking through the 1,300 uncatalogued and unpublished pieces of papyrus in the library’s Greek and Latin Papyri collection as part of a pilot program to research, conserve and digitize the fragments. She found a papyrus about eight inches high and six inches wide with clear Greek writing covering one side and a few faint lines of Greek on the other.

The papyrus is creased, with one vertical line dividing it in half and four horizontal ones. That suggests it was folded up into a packet 1.2 by 4.1 inches in dimension and kept either in a container in the home or perhaps worn around the neck as amulet to ward off evil, a common practice in ancient Egypt. Before the advent of Christianity, these kinds of charms used magic incantations and prayers to the Egyptian or Greco-Roman deities. The writing on this fragment, however, was found to be a combination of Bible verses, including Psalms 78:23-24 and Matthew 26:28-30.

The full text of the papyrus:

Fear you all who rule over the earth.

Know you nations and peoples that Christ is our God.

For he spoke and they came to being, he commanded and they were created; he put everything under our feet and delivered us from the wish of our enemies.

Our God prepared a sacred table in the desert for the people and gave manna of the new covenant to eat, the Lord’s immortal body and the blood of Christ poured for us in remission of sins.

Radiocarbon analysis dates the fragment to between 574 and 660 A.D. That makes it the is the earliest Christian charm papyrus found to use the Eucharist liturgy in a charm and the first to refer to the bread of the Last Supper as the manna of the Hebrew scriptures. It wasn’t written by a priest or someone transcribing verses from a Bible. Dr. Mazza notes:

“It’s doubly fascinating because the amulet maker clearly knew the Bible, but made lots of mistakes: some words are misspelled and others are in the wrong order. This suggests that he was writing by heart rather than copying it.

It’s quite exciting. Thanks to this discovery, we now think that the knowledge of the Bible was more embedded in sixth century AD Egypt than we previously realized.”

The faint writing on the other side, deciphered using spectral imaging techniques, was a receipt for the annona, an in-kind tax on crops named after the goddess who personified Rome’s grain supply (the grain fleet and the grain dole were also called the annona). That means whoever made the charm recycled an old receipt and just used the other side. The receipt was so faded because it was the outside while the protective Bible verses were folded up safe inside the amulet packet.

The fragment was purchased on the antiquities market in Egypt around the turn of the 20th century and has been in the John Rylands Library collection since 1901 or so. There is indication of who owned the charm, but the tax receipt references the village of Tertembuthis in the countryside near the ancient town of Hermoupolis Magna (modern-day el-Ashmunein) in Middle Egypt, so it was probably a local man.

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Jewelry hoard hidden from Boudicca’s army found in Colchester

September 4th, 2014

The excavation of the Williams & Griffin supermarket site in Colchester has born rich fruit again. Two months ago it was historically significant bone fragments. Now, three days before the dig was scheduled to end, archaeologists have found a collection of jewelry that was hidden under the floor of a house that was destroyed when Boudicca’s forces leveled Colchester in 61 A.D.

The hoard was buried in a small pit dug in the initial phase of Boudicca’s revolt, when her army was marching on Colchester which, despite its population of Roman veterans, stood largely defenseless and unfortified. Archaeologists believe a wealthy Roman woman or her slave collected her valuable jewels and hid them to keep them from being pillaged and it worked, to some extent. Boudicca’s troops never did find the lady’s valuables; they just burned her house to the ground and left the treasures to be found by archaeologists 2,000 years later. The entire hoard has been removed in a solid block of soil so that it can be excavated with all due deliberation in a conservation laboratory.

So far, archaeologists have found three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a silver armlet, a small bag of coins and a small jewelry box holding two pairs of gold earrings and four gold rings. When the block is fully excavated, they expect to find even more precious objects. It would be an extremely rich find no matter where it was unearthed, but it’s particularly significant given its location and the momentous events surrounding its burial. This is the first time a hoard of precious metals form the Roman era has been discovered in Colchester’s historic center.

Its historic value is far greater than its gold and silver content. There are traces of organic remains in the hoard’s soil block, like the remains of the purse that held the coins. That’s one of the reasons archaeologists have kept it intact, so that the earth could be carefully removed without damaging even the smallest remnants of surviving textiles, leather and wood.

The lady of the house’s valuables aren’t the only remarkable survivors in the house.

Ingredients for meals that were never eaten lay burnt black on the floor of the room in which the jewellery was found. These include dates, figs, wheat, peas, and grain. (Others will almost certainly be identified when soil samples are examined by a specialist in ancient seeds and plant remains.) Foodstuffs like these would not, generally, have survived, but here they had been carbonised by the heat of the fire so that their shapes were preserved perfectly. Some of the food had been stored on a wooden shelf which collapsed during the revolt, and the remains of the carbonised remains lay on the floor. The dates appeared to have been kept on the shelf in a square wooden bowl or platter.

Under normal circumstances, a discovery of ancient precious metals would be subject to a Treasure Trove inquest. The finds would be assessed for fair market value by experts from the British Museum and the objects offered to a local museum who would then pay the finders/landowners the amount assessed. Thankfully, Fenwick Ltd, owners of the Williams & Griffin store, have decided to waive any finder’s fee they would be entitled to under the Treasure Act and donate the hoard to Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service. That means the British Museum won’t have to get involved, and the archaeologists and conservators can focus solely on the work of excavating, stabilizing and analyzing this exceptional find.

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Conserving St. Ambrose’s 4th-century silk tunics

September 3rd, 2014

University of Bonn researchers are working with textile conservators to study and preserve delicate silk tunics attributed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop and patron saint of Milan whose skeletal remains are on display in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. The silks are also kept at the Milan basilica and are venerated as relics of the saint. The textiles have not been conclusively dated to the 4th century, but they are certainly from late antiquity which makes them very rare survivals that can lend unique insight into the period.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple. [...]

In the course of many centuries,time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Since the textiles are far too delicate to travel, conservators have brought their mobile restoration lab to Milan to do the work on site. In addition to stabilizing and repairing the damage of centuries of display under heavy glass or sandwiched between other fabrics in a chest, the restorers hope their analysis will illuminate the evolution of relic worship in Early Christian Italy. Saint Ambrose himself, along with other doctors of the Church like Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was an early advocate of veneration of relics.

The tunics were revered as relics of Saint Ambrose at least by the 11th century, and probably earlier. A red cross was woven onto one of the textiles in late antiquity or early Middle Ages, an indication that they were held to be of religious significance. A woven band kept with the tunics dates to the 11th century. The inscription describes the silks as Saint Ambrose’s vestments to be held in great reverence.

Restorers believe the band was the work by Archbishop Aribert of Milan (1018-1045) who had political reasons as well as religious ones to emphasize the significance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose had famously stood up to Roman emperors on a number of issues, refusing two orders from Western emperor Valentinian II that he surrender two churches in Milan for Arian worship and excommunicating Eastern emperor Theodosius I for the Massacre of Thessalonica. Aribert wanted a strong Ambrosian archbishopric that held virtually independent temporal power over northern Italy. He created a princely court in Milan, as luxurious as a royal court only under ecclesiastical rather than princely control. He even called his bishops cardinals, as if he were Pope in the North.

At first he was a strong supporter of the German emperors, an alliance that strengthened his political position in the region. However, when he allied with the great lords of northern Italy against the lesser vassals, arbitrarily confiscating lands and denying them feudal rights of inheritance, the resulting conflict that would pit him against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry III. Aribert refused to restore fiefdoms he had taken from the minor nobility and refused even to defend his actions before the emperor, insisting that as Archbishop of Milan, he was equal in authority to the emperor and if the emperor wanted those lands back from the see of Milan, he could just try and take them. Indeed, in a presage of the Investiture Controvery that would poison relations between the papacy and imperial throne for decades staring in the reign of Henry III’s son Henry IV, Aribert had personally crowned Conrad II with the Iron Crown of Lombardy making him King of Italy.

Conrad’s attempt to besiege Milan failed thanks to Aribert’s enhanced defenses and a militia he had created from every class of Milanese citizen. Conrad died in 1039 and the conflict between the archbishop and Henry II was finally resolved by diplomacy in 1040. Even though Pope Benedict IX had sided with Conrad and excommunicated Aribert in 1038, in the end the archbishop maintained control over his territory with his political and military strength, a lesson that future popes less in harmony with the Holy Roman Emperors would take to heart.

So the study of these silk tunics really covers centuries of religious, political and social history. Researchers hope it will shed light on economic history of late antiquity as well. There is a widely held belief among historians that in the 4th century silk thread was all imported from China and then woven in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Syria. Professor Schrenk suspects there may well have been a silk weaving industry in Milan, however, because it was a center of imperial power as the capital of the Western Empire from 286 to 402 A.D.

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691 artifacts seized in Spain returned to Colombia

September 2nd, 2014

A trove of 691 pre-Colombian artifacts seized by the Spanish police in a 2003 drug raid has finally been repatriated to Colombia after more than a decade of legal limbo. It’s one of the largest lots of illegally exported artifacts ever returned to Colombia, and it’s of inestimable value because of the breadth of cultures, periods and artistic styles represented. There are examples from all of the major civilizations to have flourished in Colombia over the course of 10 centuries before the arrival of the Spanish.

Eighty percent of the artifacts are clay pieces smaller than 12 inches high. These small pieces are disproportionately significant because there are very few examples in the warehouses of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), the National Museum of Colombia or in the collections of the archaeological parks of St. Augustine and Tierradentro. The other 20% are larger pieces including funerary urns and vases from St. Augustine, anthropomorphic figures, faces and masks from the archaeological site of Tumaco, ocarinas, whistles and other musical instruments shaped like snail shells from the Nariño region, whistles from Tayrona, ceramic vessels and bowls from the Calima region, stamps, rollers and human figurines from the Quimbaya area, metal votive objects (tunjos) from the Muisca culture, and an unusual collection of tubular glasses and ceramics from Tolima.

These treasures were part of a group of 894 artifacts from different countries confiscated 11 years ago in Operation Florence, a police operation against drug cartels and money laundering. The authorities gave the artifacts to the Museum of the Americas in Madrid for proper safekeeping. Space was made for the vast collection in the museum stores with constant climate control and high security. The museum director and his team of experts began cataloging and conserving the pieces in 2005. The process of identifying each artifact and determining a place of origin took years.

When careful analysis proved that the bulk of the collection came from Colombia, the museum informed the Spanish Police who in turn notified the Colombian Embassy. That was in 2011. The artifacts weren’t immediately returned because it wasn’t clear who owned them. Apparently they were smuggled out of Colombia by a man who laundered money for drug cartels. They don’t appear to have been stolen from museums or archaeological sites, not that anyone can prove, at any rate, so there was some question of whether a previous legitimate owner should get them back or if, as confiscated proceeds of illegal activity they were now property of the state under Spain’s version of asset forfeiture laws.

Colombia formally applied for repatriation of the artifacts to the Spanish cultural and law enforcement authorities in 2012. While the wheels of justice were slowly grinding, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History sent an archaeologist who examined the seized objects in the museum. His findings confirmed those of the Museum of the Americas’ experts that 691 of the 894 pieces seized originated in Colombia.

On June 24th of this year, a Spanish High Court ruled that the artifacts were Colombian cultural patrimony and thus should be immediately repatriated. The police picked up the 681 pieces from the museum and delivered them to the Colombian government via its ambassador in Madrid. The formal exchange being done, the Colombian ambassador asked the Museum of the Americas to keep them while arrangements were made for their return. An ICANH expert was on site to assess condition and help with the painstaking process of packing fragile artifacts for shipment across the Atlantic.

On Monday representatives from both countries took part in a repatriation ceremony in Bogotá.

The deputy attorney general of Colombia, Jorge Fernando Perdomo, said that after seeing these works “the efforts made by the entities” to recover the archaeological treasure give them added value.

“We have repatriated a museum which was abroad and which returns to Colombia to strengthen the historic identity of the country”, he said.

Perdomo thanked the Spanish government for the police work involved in seizing the items and for their return.

The director of the Colombian Anthropology and History Institute, Fabian Sanabria, announced that it was preparing an extensive exhibition for next year when the artifacts are to go on display.

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Rediscovered Ur skeleton on public view at Penn Museum

September 1st, 2014

The 6,500-year-old skeleton excavated from Ur in 1929 and rediscovered last month in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum is now on public view. It was moved from storage on Saturday to the museum’s In the Artifact Lab, glass-walled conservation lab that gives visitors the chance to see conservators at work. The focus is usually the conservation of mummies and artifacts from the museum’s Egyptian collection, but special projects from other departments also get a turn in the Artifacts Lab.

The Ur skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

Conservators estimate that the skeleton will be ready to move to the case by late September (date to be posted on the Museum website when known); the skeleton will stay on view through Saturday, October 18, when the Museum celebrates International Archaeology Day with a host of family activities and a chance to visit the new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials.

Museum visitors will have the opportunity to ask questions of the researchers. Every day through September 14th, a physical anthropology expert will be available from 11:00 until noon and 1:00 to 2:00 PM to answer questions. From September 16th through October 18th, an expert will be available Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 2:00 PM.

I love Penn Museum’s emphasis on giving their visitors immersive experiences (Touch Tours for the blind, 40 Winks with the Sphinx sleepovers for kids). The discovery of the Ur skeleton generated a lot of interest, so they set up a way for people to see him and learn more about him while conservators take care of business.

Speaking of learning more about the skeleton, Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager who found the reference to the skeleton in the division lists of Sir Leonard Woolley’s Ur excavation, has written a fascinating blog entry about the history of the dig and the excavation of the skeleton. This is my favorite part:

[Woolley] covered the bones in wax, just as he had done with the later skulls in the Royal Cemetery, and almost certainly thought of this as a display item rather than a study item. That is probably why he sent it to Philadelphia. We didn’t have a Physical Anthropology Section at the time, but a representative sample of all Ur material was to be sent to each museum, and the human remains had mostly gone to London. [...]

Nearly 85 years later, not only does Penn have an excellent Physical Anthropology Section, we also have new techniques for analyzing the fragile and wax-coated skeleton, such as CT scans, DNA testing, and isotope testing. By reconnecting a skeleton to its records, we have reestablished a key portion of the history of this person and he can now help us to learn about his culture in ways that his excavators never predicted.

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Bison return to National Zoo for 125th anniversary

August 31st, 2014

Bison behind the Smithsonian Castle ca. 1886-1889You may have seen the famous picture of American bison who lived behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the late 19th century. I posted it a few years ago when the Castle was damaged in an earthquake just because it’s such a charming image. What I didn’t realize at the time is that those incongruously located bison played a pivotal role in the creation of the National Zoo.

Pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground into fertilizer, mid-1870sIn 1886, the Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist William Temple Hornaday spent three months taking a census of bison numbers by corresponding with ranchers, hunters, zookeepers, and military officers all over the country. It was widely known that the situation was dire, that all the great herds were gone, indiscriminately slaughtered by hunters, that from the 10-15 million that once roamed the range, maybe a few thousand individuals remained in the more inaccessible regions of the northern range. Hornaday’s research found that extinction loomed even closer, that instead of thousands there were probably fewer than 300 head of wild bison left in the entire United States.

William Temple HornadaySpencer F. Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, concerned that the National Museum only had a handful of ratty skins, a skeleton, a couple of heads and assorted bones in its collection, agreed to send Hornaday on a mission to secure enough specimens before there were none left to be had. Hornaday’s brief was to kill between 80 and 100 bison, possibly a third of the entire surviving population, to ensure the Smithsonian, smaller museums and future museums not yet in existence would have specimens to display and study when the bison were extinct.

Partially completed armature for taxidermy bison, drawing from Hornaday's 1891 book "Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting"This is a passage from a letter Hornaday wrote to Baird in December of 1886 reporting on the team’s success:

I consider that we have been extremely lucky in finding a sufficient number of buffalo where it was supposed by people generally that none existed. Our “outfit” has been pronounced by old buffalo hunters “The luckiest outfit that ever hunted buffalo in Montana,” and the opinion is quite generally held that our “haul” of specimens could not be equaled again in Montana by anybody, no matter what their resources for the reason that the buffalo are not there. We killed very nearly all we saw and I am confident there are not over thirty-head remaining in Montana, all told. By this time next year the cowboys will have destroyed about all of this remnant. We got in our Exploration just in the nick of time, — the last day in the evening, so to speak, and I do not hesitate to say that I am really rejoiced over the fact that we have been successful in securing the specimens we needed so urgently.

I understand his perspective — hunters would have killed those bison anyway, so this way they were preserved for posterity at least — but my modern sensibilities can’t help but find the impulse to conserve by destruction contradictory.

Hornaday with bison calf Sandy at Smithsonian, 1886William Temple Hornaday didn’t stop there, however. He became a powerful advocate for the wild bison, realizing he had to at least try to prevent the total annihilation of the noble beast. He actually brought back a live bison, a calf he named Sandy, from his 1886 hunt, but Sandy only lived a few months. Hornaday got the idea for a national zoo and wrote to Baird proposing it. Baird was very ill and would soon pass away, so his assistant Professor George Brown Goode, appointed acting secretary until a permanent replacement could be found, picked up the mantle.

Taxidermy bison group by William Hornaday in the Smithsonian, 1887In the fall of 1887, Goode created the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum and made Hornaday its curator. Their plan was to test the public’s interest in a zoo in the capital. If people were into the test run, getting the necessary legislation passed for a full-on national zoo would be much more likely. Hornaday went off on another field trip to assemble some actual living animals and came back with 15 American natives: one cinnamon bear, one white-tailed deer, one Columbia black-tailed deer, five prairie dogs, a Cross fox, a mule deer, two badgers, a red fox, and two spotted lynx. He set up a rather rickety group of paddocks and sheds on the National Mall and Field of Dreams-like, people came.

The Smithsonian’s mini-zoo was an instant success. Crowds flocked to see the live animals, and donors from President Grover Cleveland (he donated a golden eagle that had been given to him as a Christmas gift) to wealthy collectors quickly increased the complement of animals. In December of 1887, Hornaday wrote to Goode proposing that they obtain a nucleus of a bison herd to breed them in captivity without diluting the genes by mating them with domestic cattle (something that had been happening on ranches for years) or damaging the line by in-breeding.

In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum, one or both, take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes. Having been spared the misfortune, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, of being left without a series of skins and skeletons of the species suitable for the wants of the National Museum, it now seems necessary for us to assume the responsibility of forming and preserving a herd of live buffaloes which may, in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.

To purchase the nucleus herd would be expensive, and space was going to be an issue sooner rather than later. Hornaday’s dream would become closer to reality shortly when frontier surgeon and Indian Agent Dr. Valentine Trant McGillycuddy donated a breeding pair of bison and two of their calves (one male, one female). That wasn’t enough for a breeding program, but it was a great start.

Group of bison standing in paddock near first National Zoological Park Building, a house for the bison and elk. An elk is visible in his paddock in the distance. Photograph by C.M. Bell 1891By the spring of 1888, the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum had 172 animals in its charge. The paddocks and shanties around the Smithsonian Castle could not handle the burgeoning population, and Hornaday turned his considerable energies to Congress. A Senate bill was drafted in May of 1888 proposing that $200,000 be spent buying 166 acres of Rock Creek Park for a national zoo. Hornaday testified before the House Appropriations Committee, and although his testimony was well received, a few squeaky wheels had a problem with the proposed bill. Democrat Thomas Stockdale of Mississippi told the press that a national zoo “would be of no use to the poor who come to Washington to visit the last of the buffaloes,” and the idea “does not sound like republicanism. It echoes like royalty.” The bill was defeated soundly with 36 votes in favor, 56 against and one abstention.

H.R. 11810, bill establishing national zooSo the Smithsonian’s Mall zoo had to keep making do for the foreseeable future. In December of 1888, they were forced to decline a most wonderful offer from Buffalo Bill Cody of 18 bison, the third largest private collection in the world, because they didn’t have the room for them. The tragic loss proved to be a public relations victory for the zoo since everyone was bummed at the missed opportunity. Three months later, on March 2, 1889, Grover Cleveland signed the bill establishing a National Zoo which had passed the House by a vote of 131 to 98.

Bison standing in front of the Buffalo Barn at the National Zoo, ca. 1895That wasn’t the end of the struggle. Hornaday had to fight for his vision against his new boss, Samuel Pierpont Langley, and for funding with Congress. He secured the funding, but he couldn’t persuade Langley to go along with his plans for how the zoo should be designed and operated (Hornaday wanted naturalistic enclosures that flowed with the landscape, two entrances, full public access; Langley did not). Hornaday resigned later in 1889 but kept on fighting for the conservation of the bison. His passionate advocacy took published form in his highly influential 1889 book The Extermination of the American Bison. The National Zoo opened to the public on April 30th, 1891.

William T. Hornaday in his Bronx Zoo office, 1905Five years later, William Temple Hornaday got another chance to build a zoo from the ground up. The New York Zoological Society appointed him creator and director of what would become the Bronx Zoo. He remained its director until 1926. He continued to lobby tirelessly for the conservation of the American bison and for other endangered species. Today there are 30,000 bison in conservation herds in national parks, zoos and protected areas. There are half a million in commercial herds.

Now, 125 years after their impending extinction drove the creation of a national zoo, American bison are back at the National Zoo.

 

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