Volunteer at crowdfunded Lindisfarne dig finds Anglo-Saxon name stone

July 7th, 2016

The monastery of Lindisfarne, famous for the beautiful illuminated gospel made around 700 AD that bears its name and as the landing place of the first Viking raiders in 793, was founded in 7th century by Irish missionary Saint Aidan. King Oswald of Northumbria had been raised and educated at the monastery on the island of Iona, so when he was crowned in 634, he invited Iona to send one of its monks to convert the people of Northumbria. Aidan chose Lindisfarne as the location for a monastery that would become the uncontested epicenter of Christianity in Northumbria for the next 30 years and whose influence would spread throughout northern England.

The Vikings, first from Norway and then Denmark, attacked and plundered Lindisfarne repeatedly in the century after the first lucrative foray. Finally in 875 with the collapse of the kingdom of Northumbria under the pressure of a Danish invasion, the monastic community of Lindisfarne picked up stakes and ran. A second monastery was built on Lindisfarne more than 200 years later by the Normans. It stood until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

Despite its outsized importance to the history of Christianity, the precise location of the first monastery was lost. In 1999-2000, there were a few small-scale archaeological surveys in advance of construction on the island, but nothing concrete was discovered. In 2012, University of Durham archaeologist Dr. David Petts carried out a geophysical survey of Lindisfarne funded by National Geographic. The survey discovered several areas of interest with remains that could be related to the first priory.

Funding for a follow-up excavation was not forthcoming, so this year Petts partnered with archaeological crowdsourcing concern DigVentures to raise the money for an archaeological dig on Lindisfarne, the first to specifically target the Anglo-Saxon priory. The project raised £25,000 in less than a week, plus much-needed manpower from donors who were keen to help excavate the site. Excavations began in June.

The team found several artifacts that indicated they were on the right track. There was a fragment of a sculpture carved with lines and crosses. A fragment of a bone comb was the first datable artifact. It’s an Ashby Type 8b comb, which dates it to between 900 and 1000 A.D. Another datable find was even closer to the target period: a sceat, an Anglo-Saxon silver coin with an animal on one side and the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria (r. 737-758) on the other.

Then they unearthed a small semi-circular carved sandstone fragment. This is a very rare piece, an Anglo-Saxon grave marker dating to the period just after the founding of the first Lindisfarne monastery. This type of stone is known as a name stone because, well, there are names carved on them, and this one is no exception.

Gravemarkers, or ‘namestones’ are probably one of the most diagnostically Anglo-Saxon artefacts it’s possible to find, but they’re incredibly rare. Although a handful of squareheaded namestones have been found, only 13 of these roundheaded ones have previously been found, and they all date to the mid-7th to 8th century AD. placing it firmly in the period of Lindisfarne’s first monastery.

Experts are still deciphering the text, but it’s clear that the name of the person commemorated on the stone ended with the letters ‘frith’, which is a common element of Anglo-Saxon names. Also visible are sun motif, and an indent where a metal boss or jewel may have been placed.

One of the most significant figures in Lindisfarne history had a name ending in “frith.” Eadfrith was Bishop of Lindisfarne at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century. According to a 10th century annotation in the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, it was Eadfrith who wrote and illuminated the work. Eadfrith was buried on Lindisfarne, but his remains were exhumed, along with those of St. Cuthbert, when the monks fled the invading Danes. After more than a century of peregrinations, Eadfrith and Cuthbert’s bones found a permanent home at Durham Cathedral.

The team also found fragments of bone near the marker, so it’s possible the spot was a graveyard. The excavation is over for this year, but the finds were so promising, the team hopes to return next year. They plan to crowdfund again. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the wonderful excavation diary on the DigVentures website.

Here’s a 3D model of the name stone:

Here’s a texturized version of the model that enhances the engraving on the surface :

Four 17th c. tapestries repatriated to Sweden

July 6th, 2016

The National Museum of Sweden, has acquired four tapestries that graced an elegant home in late 17th century Stockholm but have been out of the country for more than a century. A large bequest from Gunnar and Ulla Trygg gave the museum, which has no acquisitions budget, the rare opportunity to bring these wall hangings home. They are in exceptional condition.

The tapestries were made in the early 1690s. They were commissioned by Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger to adorn the Stockholm home of Swedish statesman Carl Piper, a commoner whose abilities earned him advancement and a noble title at the court of King Charles XI. In 1690, he married Christina Törne, the daughter of a rich merchant who also happened to be Piper’s stepbrother. His father-in-law/stepbrother gifted the couple a handsome property in Stockholm’s old town. Tessin, then the premier architect in the country who could count the king and queen among his clientele, was given the task of refurbishing the old house.

Later known as the Grotesques de Berain, the tapestries were mistakenly thought to be the design of Jean Bérain the Elder, a Dutch artist in Paris known for his arabesques and grotesques who was a good friend of Nicodemus Tessin’s, but extensive surviving correspondence between Tessin and Daniel Cronström, the Swedish envoy to Paris, proves that the artist was in fact someone else. Cronström’s was Tessin’s go-to guy in France, a close friend who could negotiate directly with the purveyors of the most fashionable goods and services in Paris. The real designer for the Piper tapestry series was Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, a Flemish painter who worked for both of the great tapestry workshops in France: Gobelins and Beauvais. He specialized in floral still-lives and was in demand both for his tapestry cartoons and for decorative painting. He worked under Charles Le Brun, then director of the Gobelins factory, on the fresco decorations for royal residence the Château de Marly and under Jean Bérain at the Dauphin’s residence the Château de Meudon.

Tessin commissioned two suites of tapestries from Beauvais: one with a “port de mer” (harbour scenes) theme, the other “grotesques,” meaning a style drawn from the frescoes of ancient Rome which were usually discovered in underground cave-like spaces or “grotte,” in Italian. Curling foliage elements embrace mythological figures (Bacchus, Pan), animals (elephants, peacocks) and heroic figures against the background of Classical architectural elements. Beauvais’ grotesque motif was hugely popular from the time of its launch in 1688 for another 40 years. Carl Piper’s set did not have his coat of arms or monogram in the border because Tessin was in a hurry and the customization would take too much time to complete. Cronström had the idea of making matching chairs with Piper’s monogram. It is a lot easier and faster to weave a monogram onto an upholstered chair than a big ol’ wall hanging. Some of those chairs have survived. Here’s one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The tapestries were installed in the Piper palace in early 1696. After that, it’s not clear what happened to them. Carl Piper was taken prisoner in 1709 after the Battle of Poltava in the Great Northern War. He was largely blamed for Sweden’s terrible defeat, accused of having taken bribes from England to sway King Charles XI to the calamitous invasion of Russia which had concluded in such ignominy. Piper and his wife (who did indeed get a lovely pair of diamond earrings as a “gift” from the Duke of Marlborough) were disgraced. Carl died in captivity in Russia in 1716. His formidable wife, who had wielded great power when her husband was an important royal minister, went on to become a real estate mogul, industrialist and philanthropist of immense success.

At some point before 1909, the tapestries left Sweden, probably in the late 19th century. In 1909 they were sold to Louise Mackay, an American collector, who bequeathed them to her son Clarence. After his death in 1938, they were sold at Christie’s in New York and the grotesque tapestry suite was split up. Two other tapestries from the series are now in museums in England and Spain.

The National Museum is proud to have repatriated four of the tapestries from the grotesque suite. Their exquisite condition and brilliant color would make them a catch for any museum (compare them to the matching armchair to see how pristine they are), but they’re even more significant thanks to that surviving correspondence between Tessin and Cronström. The letters make these suites of tapestries the best-documented personal orders for French tapestries from the 17th century. They’re also the first documented order of tapestries with matching chair upholstery.

Inscribed wood barrel stave found at Vindolanda

July 5th, 2016

The Vindolanda site in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall is best known for the more than 700 wooden writing tablets preserved for millennia in the waterlogged soil, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organic archaeological remains. Vindolanda has the largest collection of Roman leather in the world. Everything from thousands of leather shoes of all sizes so perfectly preserved the museum display case looks like a shoe store, to purses and buckets have been unearthed there, as well as fragile textiles like a child’s sock.

Then there’s the wood. In 2014, archaeologists found a wooden toilet seat, the first of its kind ever discovered. Now the anaerobic soil has produced another handsome wood everyday treasure: an engraved barrel stave. The stave dates to around 90 A.D. and is in exceptional condition, smooth as slate with a maker’s brand and numerals still pristine on the surface. The brand is incomplete with the visible part reading “ALBIN.NORB.” We don’t know what was in it, but the numeral indicates there were 1,200 of them in the barrel.

The wood is pine and archaeologists believe the barrel was imported from Spain.

[Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations for the Trust] went on to say “the barrel stave has been one of the highlights of the season so far and we hope over the coming weeks we will know more about ALBIN – NORB as images of the stave have been sent to specialists in both Spain and here in the UK for further interpretation. However, we can guess that ALBIN could mean ALBINVS, the name of the manufacturer of the barrel, and NORB is the place of origin”.

Albinus is a cognomen, a family name, and so is Norbanus. They wouldn’t go together as the name of one person, which is why the NORB is likelier as a place designation, ie, Albinus from Norba. Cities were often named after the families names of important men. Norba Caesarina (modern-day Cáceres in southwestern Spain), for example, was named after its founder Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, proconsul of Spain from 36 to 34 B.C., and his boss Octavian who was going by Gaius Julius Caesar, courtesy of his posthumous adoption by his assassinated great-uncle, at the time.

The barrel stave is one of 1,463 wooden artifacts that have been unearthed at Vindolanda over the decades. It’s the largest and most varied collection of ancient wooden objects in Britain, but it’s been locked away in storage for years for conservation purposes. The Heritage Lottery Fund has just approved a £1.3 million ($1.7 million) grant that will fund the display of this exceptional collection for the first time.

Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will see the creation of a new gallery dedicated solely to the display of the wooden objects found at the fort and settlement site. The gallery will have custom display cases with climate control features that will allow the wood to be on public view without compromising the temperature and humidity levels necessary to preserve the wood.

The barrel stave may be among the artifacts on display in the dedicated wood gallery. The toilet seat definitely will be, along with a wagon wheel, a potters’ wheel head, a bread shovel, axles and large wooden water pipes made out of alder logs bored down the length of them. The new gallery is scheduled to open in 2018.

Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods

July 4th, 2016

In 1746, Peter Collinson, wealthy merchant, philanthropist, botanist and Fellow of the Royal Society of London, gave Benjamin Franklin one of those newfangled Leyden jars that were all the rage. Well, technically he gave it to the Library Company of Philadelphia, but that was founded by Franklin and Collinson was a long-time friend and supporter of Franklin’s endeavors, so it was understood that Franklin was going to be using the new toy which could capture “electrical fire”. Thomas Penn, son of colony founder William Penn and inheritor of his title Proprietor of the Colony of Pennsylvania, chipped in all the rest of the equipment necessary to start investigating electrical phenomena, a pursuit engrossing many gentlemen of scientific disposition in the Old World at that time. The Library Company’s electrical setup formed the first scientific research laboratory in America.

Benjamin Franklin was hooked. Alongside Ebenezer Kinnersley, Thomas Hopkinson, and Philip Syng, Franklin studied and experimented with electricity for the next three years. From 1747 through 1750, he shared his findings in a series of letters to Collinson. In these letters Franklin detailed his experiments and described for the first time principles of electricity that are commonly held today. For example, he recognized that friction did not create electricity so much as collect it from materials like metal and water to which it was attracted; he coined the terms positive and negative/plus and minus to describe electrical charge (as opposed to the prevailing thought that they were two different kinds of electricity, “vitreous” named after the glass that accumulated electrical charge when rubbed with silk, and “resinous,” like amber rubbed with fur); he first used the terms “charging” and “discharging” for the operations of a Leyden jar; he coined the term “battery” for a group of connected jars that could store more charge than an individual jar, like a battery of cannon concentrated shot on the battlefield.

Franklin also determined through experimentation that a sharp point is far more effective at drawing electricity than a blunt end. When he put a “long slender sharp bodkin” close to an electrically charged shot, it drew the charge from a foot away, while a “blunt body” had to be no more than an inch away and unlike the sharp point, it generated a spark. Extrapolating from his small-scale experiments, he proposed that a long, sharp rod properly grounded could save structures from the destruction of lightning.

I say, if these things are so, may not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships &c. from the stroke of lightning, by directing us to fix on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting, and from the foot of those rods a wire down the outside of the building into the ground, or down round one of the shrouds of a ship, and down her side till it reaches the water? Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief?

For his idea of a lightning rod to work, first Franklin had to confirm that “clouds that contain lightning are electrified,” still an open question at the time. He suggested an experiment.

On the top of some high tower or steeple, place a kind of sentry-box, big enough to contain a man and an electrical stand. From the middle of the stand, let an iron rod rise and pass bending out of the door, and then upright 20 or 30 feet, pointed very sharp at the end. If the electrical stand be kept clean and dry, a man standing on it when such clouds are passing low, might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to him from a cloud.

While Franklin did his experiments in Philadelphia, other people were doing similar work across the Atlantic. Collinson circulated the letters among the Royal Society fellows, including William Watson who at the same time as Franklin had independently determined that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were a surplus and deficiency, as he called it, of charge. In 1751, Collinson published the letters and other papers Franklin had sent him in a book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America.

Franklin’s writings were accepted but with subdued enthusiasm at first in Britain. In France, on the other hand, people were excited and inspired to try his experiments. Famed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, received a copy of the book from Collinson and asked his frequent collaborator botanist Thomas-François Dalibard to translate it into French. Dalibard got so into it he enlisted the aid of a certain Delor who had the necessary equipment to replicate Franklin’s experiments. They worked so well that Buffon, Dalibard and Delor performed them before Louis XV and a delighted court where (forgive me) sparks flew.

Their success drove them to try the experiment that Franklin had described but not done yet: the sentry-box lightning rod experiment. They wisely forewent perching a man next to an iron rod in a box on top of a tower roof, modifying it into a test with distinctly less killing potential. A 13-meter (43-foot) iron rod insulated by silk ropes and wine bottles was inserted into a wooden table under a little roofed structure (the sentry-box). When a thunderstorm passed over, the iron rod drew sparks.

Franklin didn’t hear about Dalibard’s experiment for a while. Meanwhile, he’d come up with a new idea to test the charge of storm clouds without the complications of the sentry-box. On June 15th, 1752, Benjamin Franklin and his son William flew a silk and cedar kite with a sharp wire at the top. Twine coming down from the kite had a silk ribbon tied to it and a key tried to the ribbon. This experiment has gone down in legend with an image of Benajamin Franklin running in the rain as lightning strikes the key, but in fact it was essential the silk ribbon stay dry so it could insulate the key from the ground and ensure the electric current accumulated in the key. Franklin was indoors while the kite was getting wet. If he hadn’t been, he never would have seen the sparks fly off the key.

When the news of Dalibard’s success reached him, Franklin installed an insulated iron rod on the roof of his home. Within a few months grounding conductors were installed in the Academy of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). In 1753, Franklin published instructions on how to protect homes from lightning strikes using iron rods in Poor Richard’s Almanack (page 72 of this pdf). Some people were apprehensive about it, railing at early adopters for attempting to defy God’s will and attracting deadly lightning, but over time lightning rods became commonplace and Franklin refined and modified his design to improve them.

The invention of lightning rods saved not only property but lives. Before them, the only method considered valid against thunderstorms was in hindsight insanely counterproductive: vigorous ringing of church bells in the belief that sound could break up storm clouds. That put the poor bell ringers of the world up church steeples, the highest structures around, yanking on soaked ropes connected to large metal bells precisely when lightning was most likely to strike. The practice continued for decades after Franklin’s experiments proved there was a simple architectural solution that did not put lives in danger. A study by Johann Fischer published in Munich in 1784 found that in the 33 years between 1750 and 1783, bell towers were struck by lightning 386 times killing 103 bell ringers.

During the Revolutionary period, the embrace of Franklin’s design for the lightning rod was a political statement of allegiance to New World ideas. In Britain the blunt-ended lightning rod was popular. Rejecting them in favor of Franklin’s sharp points was a philosophical choice. In 1788, the Maryland State House in Annapolis had a 28-foot lightning rod installed on its new dome according to Franklin’s specifications. It is still there, making its inventor proud. On Friday it was put through its paces and even after 208 years it handled the strike like a boss.

Danish police to study 10th c. arson at Borgring

July 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the 10th century Viking Borgring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014, are calling the cops to help solve a 1,000-year-old mystery. The fortress was first identified with drone footage, laser scanning and a geomagnetic survey. Test pits were then dug at key positions which confirmed that this was Trelleborg-type fortress, one of a series of defensive ring forts built around 980 A.D. by King of Norway and Denmark Harald Bluetooth.

One of the original test pits was dug where the north gate would have been. Archaeologists found large oak timbers, evidence of the massive gates typical of Trelleborg forts, that were charred from fire. Funds for a full excavation of the site were secured last year. Excavations began in earnest this year. Thus far the team has unearthed more evidence of fire at the east gate. The outer posts of the gate are charred through, and posts from inside the gate bear marks of burning.

The working theory right now is that the fort was attacked by Danish noblemen before it was completed during an uprising against Harald Bluetooth’s rule. Harald’s son Sweyn Forkbeard rebelled against his father in the mid-980s. According to Saxo Grammaticus, chronicler and author of the Gesta Danorum, Sweyn’s forces defeated Harald and forced him to flee to Jomsborg where he died of his wounds.

Archaeologists also found that the fort was not complete, that construction appeared to have ended halfway through. That suggests it was the last fort Harald built, that it was started at the end of his reign, became a target of rebel forces and was left unfinished after his defeat and death.

In the hopes of getting more information about the fire, archaeologists have reached out to police fire safety investigators. They want forensic arson specialists to study the burned areas of the structure.

“Hopefully, they can say more about how the fire was started. We generally have good experience of cooperation with the police. For instance, we have previously used their sniffing dogs to dig out bones from the earth,” Sanne Jakobsen, communications manager at Southeast Museum Denmark told Danish Radio.

The team will also do dendrochronological analysis of the timbers to narrow down the date of the fort. Excavations will continue for three months every summer through 2018, after which the plan is to close up archaeological shop and let the field return to nature. The clock is ticking, therefore. If you have a chance to see the site in the next couple of years, take it. Visitors can download an app to learn more about the other Trelleborg forts, Borgring and the archaeological finds made at the site.

Here’s a video of the site which is open to the public right now. There are mounds and trenches from the active excavation at the east gate.

You can keep up with the excavation on the Vikingeborgen Borgring Facebook page.

Gold coins found on Teutoburg Forest battle site

July 2nd, 2016

At the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D., three legions, six cohorts of auxiliary troops and three squadrons of cavalry led by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen led Arminius. Arminius was the son of Cherusci king who had been sent to Rome as a hostage when he was a child. There he received a military education and achieved the rank of Equites. He was deployed to Germania as Varus’ advisor where he secretly united tribes that had been at each other’s throats for years. While feeding Varus misinformation, Arminius used his knowledge of Roman military tactics to manipulate commander and legions into a disastrously indefensible position inside the forest. By the end of the battle, 15,000 to 20,000 Roman troops were dead. Varus and several of his officers committed suicide. Only about 1,000 men survived.

The defeat was so decisive it had long-term consequences to Rome’s plans for Germania. Roman legions would fight German tribes east of the Rhine, even east of the Teutoburg Forest again, but Rome never gained the permanent foothold in Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe it had in Gaul or Britain.

The precise location of the battlefield was lost for thousands of years until the late 1980s when a metal detectorist found coins from the reign of Augustus and lead sling-bullets at Kalkriese Hill in Osnabrück county, Lower Saxony. Starting in 1989, the site was formally excavated and archaeologists unearthed human and animal bones, and Roman military artifacts like fragments of hobnailed sandals, spearheads, iron keys and one officer’s ceremonial face mask. They also found earthworks defenses 15 miles wide and evidence that the Romans had attempted to breach them but failed, just as Cassius Dio had described (Roman History, Book 56, Chapter 18).

A museum and archaeological park were built at Kalkriese Hill in the early 2000, with the 20 hectares of the site open to the public as excavations continue. During this season’s excavation, a team from the Kalkriese Museum and Park and Osnabrück University found six gold coins, Augustan aurei, on June 9th. The next day they found three more. In the past 25 years, excavations at the site have unearthed two gold coins and 800 silver and bronze ones, so finding eight within a few meters of each other on two consecutive days is a great rarity.

Minted in Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons) from 2 B.C. until 4 A.D., the aurei are of the Gaius-Lucius type, coins dedicated to Augustus’ grandsons. On the reverse the young Caesars are depicted wearing togas, one hand on a shield with a spear behind it. A simplum and lituus, emblems of priestly rank, hover between them. The inscription reads AVGVSTI F COS DESIG PRINC IVVENT (“sons of Augustus, consuls-designate and leaders of the youth”). The obverse is a profile head of Augustus wearing a laurel wreath inscribed CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE (“Caesar Augustus, son of the deified [Julius Caesar], Father of the Nation”).

The sons of Augustus’ daughter Julia and Marcus Agrippa, Gaius and Lucius were adopted by their grandfather in 17 B.C. when Gaius was three and Lucius was an infant. He made them his heirs and turbocharged them into political careers when they were still teenagers. Augustus’ hopes were dashed when Lucius died of a sudden illness in 2 A.D. and Gaius died two years later after being wounded in battle. Tacitus suggests their stepmother Livia may have had a hand in their deaths in order to elevate her own son Tiberius to the imperial throne.

After Gaius’ death in 4 A.D., the coins were no longer produced. The eight coins found on the battle site are well-preserved, but they show signs of having been in circulation, particularly in the wear around the edges. Aurei were very valuable, used mainly for large purchases and ceremonial gifts. Standard legionary pay under Augustus was 300 bronze asses a month, the equivalent of about 19 denarii. An aureus was worth 25 denarii. Legionaries didn’t usually get their full pay while they were in the field because carrying around increasing hundreds of bronze coins for years quickly goes from bulky to impossible. It was saved for when the campaign was over or sent to their families.

Only an officer was likely to have the wherewithal to have a bunch of aurei on his person. Since these coins were found so close together and relatively near the surface, archaeologists believe they may have been in a bag of cash an officer was carrying during the battle. It was dropped in the conflict or perhaps hidden before a flight attempt and the bag decayed, leaving only its shiny contents to be discovered 2,000 years later.

Escape tunnel found at Lithuanian massacre site

July 1st, 2016

Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, and environs were occupied by the Soviets in 1939 and 1940. The USSR and Germany were allies at the time, and Soviet troops occupied areas of Eastern Europe in concert with Germany’s invasion of Poland. In 1940, the Soviet army began to dig pits for oil storage tanks in the Ponar forest, today known as Paneriai, outside Vilnius to supply a planned airfield. The oil storage project was still in progress in 1941 when Hitler violated the Nonagression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army retreated from Vilnius and the Nazis took over.

Being as practical as they were murderous, the Nazis thought of another use for the big pits: as execution chambers for tens of thousands of Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma and political prisoners. Between July of 1941 and August of 1944, approximately 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews, were forced by SS Einsatzkommando 9 and Lithuanian collaborators to walk down a steep ramp into the pits in the forest. The soldiers standing at the rim of the pit then mowed down everyone inside of them. The victims were buried in the forest.

As the Red Army advanced in 1943 and it became clear Germany would not be able to hold occupied territories in Eastern Europe for long, the Gestapo ordered that all evidence of genocidal mass-murders be destroyed, in keeping with the Aktion 1005 directive. To accomplish this gruesome goal in Ponar, 80 prisoners from the nearby Stutthof concentration camp were assembled into a “Burning Brigade,” as it became known, and tasked with digging up all the mass graves, cutting wood, piling the corpses onto pyres made from the logs they’d cut, dousing them in gasoline and burning them to ash.

Guarded by 30 Lithuanian militia and German soldiers and 50 SS men, one guard for each prisoner, the members of the Burning Brigade had to work for three months with their legs shackled together. At night they slept in an execution pit where they knew full well they themselves would be shot to death after their work was done. Eleven of the prisoners had been shot and killed already because of illness of for no particular reason other than sadism or to instill even more terror in the survivors.

Some of the prisoners decided to make an attempt to get out of this hell alive. The lead organizer of the escape attempt was Isaac Dogim, a Jewish man who had recognized his own wife amongst the decaying corpses from a medallion he had given her as a wedding present. His wife, three sisters and three nieces were in the pile of bodies he was forced to burn. With the help of prisoner Yudi Farber, who had been a civil engineer before the war, they dug a tunnel out of the pit with spoons and their own hands as their only tools. Shackled, guarded and using spoons for shovels, the prisoners managed to dig a tunnel 35 meters (115 feet) long over the course of three months.

They decided to make a break for it on Passover night, April 14th, 1944. They cut their shackles off with a file and crawled through the tunnel. Forty prisoners made it out of the tunnel, but the guards heard footsteps on branches and began to shoot. Fifteen prisoners made it to the forest. Only 11 eventually reached resistance forces in the Rudniki forest and survived the war. Five days after the escape, the 29 prisoners left at Ponar were shot.

After the war, the Soviets used the Ponar massacre as propaganda, claiming only Soviet prisoners were killed there and denying the overwhelming numbers of Jews and Poles murdered. The survivors of the escape and their descendants kept the real story alive, but the precise location of the tunnel was lost.

Excavating the site in an attempt to rediscover the tunnel was not possible because it might disturb remains of people murdered by the Nazis, but several attempts were made to locate it with non-invasive means. In 2004, a Lithuanian archaeologist found the entrance to a tunnel inside Pit 6. This year, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius enlisted a team of researchers from Lithuania, Israel, the United States and Canada to map and explore the tunnel itself without excavation.

Led by Richard Freund, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Hartford, and Jon Seligman, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the team of historians, archaeologists and geophysicists used ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), a technology which detects different elements underground from their different levels of electrical resistivity, to scan the entrance to the tunnel. ERT is commonly used by the oil and gas industry as a prospecting device, and by scientists to investigate the water table, fault lines, landslides and more. It can also pinpoint buried archaeological features because their electrical resistivity is different from that of the soil in which they’re buried. On June 8th, the team successfully mapped the entire length of the tunnel and found its exit.

The discovery of the tunnel has been filmed for PBS’ always-excellent NOVA series. The episode will cover the history of the Jews in Vilnius, a city with such a rich Jewish culture it was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the slaughter of 95% of the city’s Jewish population in World War II, and modern archaeological investigations including that of the Ponar tunnel and the excavation of the The Great Synagogue of Vilna. The program is scheduled to air in 2017.

The research team plans to return to the pit. Working with the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and the Tolerance Center of Lithuania, the team will open the tunnel to public view as part of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the massacres in Vilnius.

UPDATE: Here is a video of Holocaust survivor Mordechai Zeidel telling the story of the liquidation of the Vilnus (Vilna, then) ghetto, his forced labour in the Burning Brigade and his escape through the tunnel. He was one of the 11 to survive and reach a Jewish partisan group with whom he participated in the liberation of Vilnius. It is subtitled in English.

Altenberg Abbey treasures reunited after 200 years

June 30th, 2016


More than two centuries after they were scattered, a medieval altarpiece, reliquaries and art works from the Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg in central Germany have been reunited at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. Heaven on Display. The Altenberg Altar and Its Imagery brings together 37 precious devotional objects from the late 13th and early 14th centuries that have been in separate collections since Napoleon was cutting a swath through Europe.

The star of the show is the Early Gothic Altenberg Altar, a folding high altar retable with a shrine cabinet, a polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child in the middle niche and painted panels on each side. The wings, some of the earliest surviving examples of German panel painting, are part the Städel’s permanent collection, but the rest is on loan. Other objects include reliquaries the once were kept in the shrine cabinet of the altarpiece, goldsmithery, 13th century altar crosses, figural glass paintings from an early 14th century window and two embroidered linen altar cloths made around 1330.

The altar cloths are large, elaborately decorated pieces that were placed on the altar in front of the retable. No other altar cloths from the Early Gothic period in Germany have survived.

Sometime before 1192, Emperor Barbarossa granted the convent the status of imperial immediacy, which put it under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, exempting it from vassalage to the local lords, essentially a guarantee of independence. The daughters of area nobles joined the convent and endowments from their families over time transformed a small, obscure abbey into one of wealth and power.

One of those daughters was Gertrude, the child of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, who died a few months before Gertrude was born. After her beloved husband’s death, Elizabeth dedicated her life to asceticism and charitable works, so much so that she gave up basically everything in the world that she loved, including her children. Little Gertrude was two years old when she was sent to live with the canoness of Aldenberg. She took the veil and became cannoness herself when she was just 21. Her rule lasted until her death 49 years later.

Elizabeth was already dead by the time her daughter dedicated her own life to piety and mortification of the flesh, felled by a fever when she was 24 years old. Only five years later she was canonized. Gertrude collected relics of the mother she had only had childhood memories of, if any, for the abbey. The works on display are examples of Gertrude’s devotion to her literally sainted mother. There’s a tapestry from 1270 woven with scenes from the life of Elizabeth and Louis IV which may have been hung behind the altar on important occasions before the altarpiece was built, an arm reliquary shaped like an arm and containing an arm, Elizabeth’s silver jug and a ring that once belonged to Louis.

The convent managed to retain its imperial status through the Reformation, the decline of imperial power and rise of the princes after the Thirty Years’ War. It came to an end with the Final Recess of 1803 when Napoleon compensated German princes who had lost lands west of the Rhine to France with ecclesiastical territories. Altenberg, monastery, church and extensive agricultural and forested lands, became the personal property of the Princes of Solms-Braunfels who had long coveted it. They turned the convent into a summer residence and distributed its works of art and devotional objects throughout their castles. The altar went to Braunfels Castle, the arm reliquary of St. Elisabeth to the chapel of Sayn Palace.

From there they made their way into museums and collections around the world. The Städel Museum in got the wings of the altar in 1925. Other collections including those of the city of Frankfurt, Munich’s Bayerische Nationalmuseum, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City all have bits and pieces of Altenberg. It’s an impressive feat reuniting so many elements of the medieval convent to put the objects in some semblance of their original context.

The exhibition is on right now and runs through September 25th, 2016.

Viking power couple buried in death house

June 29th, 2016

In 2012, highway construction in Hårup, southwest Denmark, unearthed an unusual grave. It’s a Viking tomb of a type known as a death house, a palisade structure similar to the simple roofed post-in-ground structures that would evolve into stave churches. This is the first death house found in Denmark. It measures four by thirteen meters (about 13 x 43 feet) and has one large room with two graves, and an addition that was built later to house one more grave. The death house dates to around 950 A.D.

Acidic soil has left no detectable human remains, but archaeologists were able to determine the gender of the people buried in the death house from their grave goods. In the main room are a man and woman, the former identified by a large battle axe that was called the Dane Axe in the 10th century. Its imposing size made it an intimidating and highly destructive weapon when wielded by an able fighter. Its weight and size made it a useful tool break apart enemy shields along their seams. In the 10th century, this would have been extremely expensive, an elite weapon for nobility or the obscenely wealthy.

The second person in the main chamber was buried in a wooden wagon typical of burials of noble women. Buried with her were two keys, one larger one symbolic of her status as the lady of a great household. The second key fits a square box that was found by her feet. Fine accessories buried with her include gold and silver ribbon and fur. The person buried in the addition is also an adult male. He too was buried with an axe in his grave, only his was smaller.

The special markings of the grave indicate that the pair must have had a high social status.

“It could be the gentlemen and the lady of the local area and maybe their successor. They’ve at least been honoured in a special way, so they must have been important,” says [excavation leader Kirsten Nelleman] Nielsen.

And it is not just the tomb that is special.

“It’s very special that the man and woman’s graves are marked by the same tomb or palisade. It’s unusual that we’re able to establish that the man and woman were equals with such certainty,” says Nielsen. [...]

[A]rchaeologist Henriette Lyngstrøm from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark,… has seen examples of shared graves before, but the way that the men and women are laid in this grave does indeed indicate a powerful couple, she says.

Nielsen thinks the design inspiration for the death house may have been foreign. The remains of a clay vessel found in the woman’s grave is of a type produced in the Baltic, and she also had two silver coins from what is now Afghanistan. The couple either acquired goods from traders who ranged far and wide or were perhaps well-travelled themselves. If the death house was inspired by a similar structure from elsewhere, that might explain why not other such tombs have been found in Denmark.

Lyngstrøm believes there are more death houses in Denmark; they haven’t been found yet. Nobody was really looking for them. Perhaps this first discovery of its kind will stimulate archaeologists to make associations they haven’t previously made when excavating at tomb. For example a necropolis in Hornbæk, a coastal resort town in northeast Denmark, has the remains of structures at the entrances that may have been death houses, or at least a version of them.

The Silkeborg Museum is hosting an exhibition running through October 23rd that presents an overview of the discoveries made during the highway construction project. It includes the reconstruction of the woman’s grave, the grave goods and some of the other finds from the Stone Age to the 19th century.

Original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster for sale

June 28th, 2016

Before it was an inescapable meme of infinite variety plastered on every crappy consumer product ever cranked out by Chinese industry, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan graced a British Ministry of Information poster printed, but never used, in the early days of World War II. It was one of three poster designs in plain text bearing the crown of King George VI printed in August of 1939 to shore up the morale of the country through the confusion and fear that were sure to follow should war break out.

The other two posters — “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory,” and “Freedom Is in Peril Defend It with All Your Might” — were quickly distributed after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. “Keep Calm,” which was intended for use in the worst case scenario of a German invasion and since that never happened, those posters were never posted. They were widely distributed as part of the preparations for war, but most of the print run of 2.5 million posters was pulped when paper shortages struck.

Never seen by the public, the poster was unknown until 2000 when one Stuart Manley, co-owner of Barter Books, a beautiful bookstore in a restored Victorian train station in Alnwick, Northumberland, found one folded in the bottom of a box of old books he’d bought at an auction. His wife Mary thought it was awesome, because it is, so she had it framed and hung it on the wall near the cash register.

Customers went gaga for it, so the Manleys made copies of the poster to sell. Soon the original was outside the shop, drawing crowds and advertising the copies for sale. When it hit the internet, the slogan spread worldwide and in short order became the meme template we know today.

For more than a decade, the Manleys’ poster was one of only two known. Then in 2012, Moragh Turnbull brought a cache of 15 of them to the Antiques Roadshow at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh. Her father William worked for the Royal Observer Corps in Edinburgh during the war and had kept many papers, including the “Keep Calm” posters that were distributed but never actually posted. The AR appraiser valued her posters at £1000.

Now, four years later, the original poster that launched a thousand dish towels will be available for purchase at the Manning Fine Art stand at the Art & Antiques Fair, Olympia in London, open now through July 3rd. According to The Guardian price tag is £21,250, but the headline says it’s up for auction so that may be the reserve set or maybe even a pre-sale estimate.

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