Newly released film of Hindenburg disaster

On May 6, 1937, newsreel crews were at the Lakehurst Naval Station to record the arrival of the pride and joy of the German airship fleet, the Hindenburg. The newsreel cameras were all clustered in a mooring area facing the bow of the dirigible, so when it suddenly burst into flames claiming the lives of 35 passengers, crew and one member of the ground crew, all of the footage of the disaster captured it from the front.

The investigation into the disaster relied primarily on witness statements. The Hindenburg itself was obliterated in the conflagration, so there was no physical evidence to go on to explain the cause of the fire. German officers, including Captain Ernst Lehmann who would die of his injuries the next day, blamed the disaster on sabotage. Others speculated that power from a radio transmitter on the field was responsible; one witness bruited the possibility that high-frequency radio induction had ignited the gas. The Commerce Department report could only conclude that a gas leak in the stern of the airship had created a combustible mixture of hydrogen and air that was ignited by electrostatic discharge of some kind, but they could not determine the source of it.

An amateur videographer was also on the field that day. Harold Schenck was standing next to Hangar One with his trusty Kodak 8-millimeter camera. Unlike the news cameras, Schenck was positioned to get a broad view of the airship as it attempted to land. The film for this little cam could only record two minutes, so he took short clips that he would later put together with explanatory intertitles. He captured the Hindenburg’s approach first and filmed its full length as it burned. It is the only known footage that shows the nose and tail at the same time.

Schenck offered his footage to the Commerce Department investigators but they weren’t interested because they had all the newsreel footage already and didn’t seek out different angles. Thankfully he kept it, and so did his family after he passed away. In 2012, Dan Grossman, a historian, writer and airship expert who has studied the Hindenburg disaster for years, met Bob Schenck, Harold’s nephew, at the 75th anniversary memorial of the disaster on the Lakehurst airfield. Grossman viewed the Schenck footage and was stunned by its unique coverage and perspective of the fire.

The film has now been shown to the public for the first time in an episode of the excellent PBS show Nova. The show used it as a jumping point for a new investigation of the disaster. The episode lays out the background of the flight, the difficulties it encountered, the timeline of the disaster, putting the new footage in context. It explores the footage itself, confirming it authenticity with a film restoration expert, and explains the science behind what we see in the footage.

Every step of the investigation combines historical research and the scientific method to present a highly compelling case for what set off the deadly fire. Highlights include the curators at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen watching the footage in amazement, and the series of experiments designed by Konstantinos Giapis, Professor of Chemical Engineering at CalTech. The Schenck film does not show the source of the spark, so Giapis experiments with various possibilities.

The end-result is genuinely exciting both from a science fair perspective and a historical one. It’s a eureka moment for sure. I won’t spoil it because it’s seriously riveting to follow the progression of the investigation. Watch this show.

You can see a sneak preview of the Schenck footage in this trailer:

Bronze Age Spiral is oldest gold object in southwest Germany

A gold spiral strongly reminiscent of a fettucine nest is the oldest precious metal object ever discovered in southwest Germany. It was unearthed last fall in the grave of a Bronze Age woman near the town of Ammerbuch-Reusten. The burial contained the skeletal remains of an adult woman buried in fetal position. Archaeologists found a single object: a small spiral ring made of gold wire. It was located about hip height and is believed to have been a hair ornament.

Archaeologists and students from the University of Tübingen and the Baden-Württemberg State Office for Monument Preservation removed the grave, bones and gold spiral, in a soil block for excavation and analysis in the laboratory. Radiocarbon dating of her bones dates the burial to between about 1850 and 1700 B.C., the Early Bronze Age.

The gold in the ring was composed of about 20% silver, less than 2% copper, traces of platinum and tin. This composition indicates the gold was alluvial in origin and the proportions points to the alloy’s source as the River Carnon in Conrnwall. The raw material from previous gold objects found in Europe from this period and earlier originated from southeastern Europe, so the spiral is remarkably early evidence of an expansive trade network in luxury goods in northwestern Europe.

The research team evaluates the new gold find from Ammerbuch-Reusten as evidence that Western cultural groups gained growing influence on Central Europe in the first half of the second millennium before our time. The women’s grave was not far from a group of other burials from the Early Bronze Age and is evidently related to the well-known hilltop settlement on the nearby Reustener Kirchberg.

18th c. monk’s hernia truss identified in Flanders

A mysterious object discovered in Aalst, Flanders, 16 years ago has been identified as an 18th century hernia truss. The band was made of metal, leather and a ball and was worn so the ball applied pressure to the weak spot in the groin to keep the intestines from protruding. Such devices have been used for centuries, but they are rare on the archaeological record. A few have been found elsewhere in the Netherlands, but this is the first one ever discovered in Flanders.

The object was unearthed during an excavation of the Hopmarkt, a square in the historic heart of Aalst. The site of a Carmelite monastery that had stood for 300 years, the area was surveyed from March 2004 until the end of 2005 to salvage any archaeological material before construction of an underground car park. The monastery was founded in 1497 and ran continuously until it was dissoluted by the French Revolutionary authorities in 1797. The buildings, including the church, were sold off and dedicated to various purposes over the years (meat market, theater, textile workers guild hall, private homes). Most of them were demolished after World War II.

The dig explored the remains of three main areas of the defunct monastery: the church, the cloister and the gardens. It was in the western cloister alley (built in 1643) that a corroded object of unknown purposes was discovered in the burial layer. It took years of research to figure out what the rusty piece was.

In an extraordinary fluke, researchers think they’ve identified the poor fellow who wear the belt, thanks to quality monastic record-keeping. Extant records from the monastery include burial registers and daily logs going back at least to 1643.

“At the moment, we are conducting another study in which we are analysing the Codex 156. That is a very old book that is in the library of the University of Leuven,” [Jan] Moens [of the Flanders Agency for Immovable Heritage] said. “It also contains the accounts of the Carmelite monastery of Aalst from 1738 to 1796. And the name of brother Patrick, the patient who suffered from an inguinal hernia, also appears in it.”

In the Codex, there is a first mention under the year 1754, when the monastery paid five nickels for the belt

“Such a belt is not expensive when you compare it to the other costs in the list, it cost about as much as a chicken back then,” he said.

A new report was found in 1758, then explicitly mentioning the name of monk Patrick. “It is very special that so many years later and after further research, we can even put a face to an 18th century find about which we were in the dark for a long time.”

A closer look at Van Gogh’s Irises

Irises by Vincent van Gogh is one of the most popular artworks in the collection of the Getty Museum. Van Gogh painted Irises in May of 1889, a week after he was voluntarily committed to an asylum in Saint-Rémy. He painted from life the irises in the asylum’s garden, capturing their dynamic curving lines with his characteristic thick impasto. He would create 130 paintings during his stay at the asylum. As the first work from this intense period, Irises is of great significance in the Van Gogh oeuvre.

The Getty acquired it in 1990 and it has been on display ever since. It has never traveled; never been taken down. The museum’s long closure due to COVID-19 has given Getty staff the opportunity to remove the painting to the conservation lab for an unprecedented in-depth study to investigate Van Gogh’s process in the creation of Irises.

“We developed a plan to examine the painting in many different lights which will add to our understanding of the artist’s studio practice and we hope that the results of this research will enhance the appreciation for the painting’s undisputed beauty,” said Devi Ormond, associate conservator of paintings at the Museum, who came to the Getty from the Van Gogh Museum more than nine years ago and has always wanted to thoroughly study the painting. “A ray of sunshine, for me, during these dark times has been having Irises in the conservation studio.”

Some of the goals of the study are to gain a better understanding of what pigments van Gogh used, and whether or not they have changed or degraded over time. It might also be possible to learn more about how he planned out the composition, the different types of plants depicted in the painting, and how they relate to the garden at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, which the artist had entered just a week before making Irises. […]

Getty scientists and conservators started by examining the painting using a variety of non-invasive imaging techniques. Stereo-microscopy gave a highly magnified view of the surface of the painting, allowing the complex mixture of pigments in each stroke to be visualized. Infrared reflectography and x-radiography provided a way of looking through the layers of the painting, revealing preparatory layers or changes. Macro x-ray fluorescence scanning allowed the chemical elements in the painting to be identified and visualized, from which the pigments could be inferred.

The Getty reopens on Tuesday, May 25th, and Irises will go back on the wall. The data collection will be examined in exhaustive detail and be compared to other works by Vincent van Gogh in the Getty and other museums around the world.

17th c. wreck is not Vasa‘s sister ship

Two wrecks of 17th century warships discovered in the straits outside the island of Vaxholm, Sweden, have been identified as Apollo and Maria, built in 1648. When they were first found in autumn 2019, archaeologists thought one of them might be the Äpplet, the twin sister of the warship Vasa that sank in ignominy on its maiden voyage in 1628 only to be raised in 1961 and become one of Sweden’s most-visited tourist attractions. Analysis of wood samples, detailed measurements and archival research contradicted that initial hypothesis and pinpointed the two scuttled warships’ real identities.

“Identifying the ships has been a real mystery to solve, and there were many pieces that needed to fall into place,” says Jim Hansson, maritime archaeologist and project manager for the dives at Vaxholm. “These are large ships with impressive dimensions. We took a number of wooden samples for age dating purposes, and the results show that the oak the ships were built with was felled during the winter of 1646/47. This means that the ships should have been built one or two years later.”

Hansson continues:

“When we dived on the ships, we got ‘a Vasa feeling’ – the timbers were huge, so one clue pointed to the possibility of finding some of Vasa’s sister ships, which we know were sunk outside Vaxholm. But the dates didn’t add up. Vasa’s sister ships, Äpplet, Kronan and Scepter, were built shortly after Vasa sank in 1628. We wondered if the samples we had taken could have possibly come from parts of the ships that had been repaired, in the 1640s.”

The maritime archaeologists starting diving again, taking more samples for analysis that clearly showed that both ships must have been built from oak felled during the winter of 1646/47. The oak from one ship came from northern Germany and the other from eastern Sweden.

Apollo was built in Wismar, Germany, and Maria at  Skeppsholmen shipyard in Stockholm. They served in the Second Northern War and were sent to Poland-Lithuania as part of the Swedish Deluge (invasion) of Poland. Both ships took part in the Battle of Møn in 1657 and the Battle of the Sound in 1658. They were deliberately scuttled at Vaxholm in 1677 to act as defensive barriers against any enemy ships attempting an attack on Stockholm through the narrow straits.

The ships were smaller than the Vasa-class giants loved by King Gustav II Adolf. His bigger-is-better philosophy was abandoned after his death in 1632 and Swedish warships shifted to a more moderate size but built robustly enough to support heavier artillery.

“It’s interesting to get to tell about these ships,” Hansson says. “The type of ships that Apollo and Maria represent have never before been documented archaeologically, and they have so much knowledge to convey,” he concludes.

Marine archaeologists will continue to explore the Vaxholm area which is replete with wrecks. They’re still looking for Vasa’s sister among many others including captured Danish vessels.