156 years ago today, the first man crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope

June 30th, 2015

On June 30th, 1859, French acrobat Charles Blondin was the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Born Jean François Gravelet in 1824, Blondin began his career as performer of acrobatic stunts when he was five years old. Orphaned at age nine, he continued in his chosen career, constantly challenging himself to develop new stunts until he grew from child prodigy into one of the greatest funambulist in France. In 1851 he was invited to join the Ravel Troupe, a sort of acrobatic-ballet-pantomime Menudo with a revolving door of members drawn from some of the most prominent French and Italian performing families, on their tour of the United States.

In 1855 the Ravel Troupe was booked by café owner, caterer and theatrical impresario William Niblo to play Niblo’s Garden theater on Broadway in New York City. Always popular, the Ravel Troupe got rave reviews and had their booking extended, ultimately performing more than 300 shows from 1857 to 1859. Blondin, however, didn’t stay put. He formed a splinter troupe (this happened all the time with the Ravel groups; it wasn’t rancorous; everyone got more work that way) with one of Ravel’s lead acrobats, Julian Martinetti, and they toured the country as the Martinetti-Blondin troupe. Blondin was reviewed glowingly in the press as “the bold and fearless Mons. Blondin.” In a six degrees of separation coincidence, at Crisp’s Gaiety in New Orleans in November 1857, the Martinetti-Blondin troupe shared billing with “the popular young native tragedian, Mr. Edwin Booth.”

After almost eight years on the road with the Ravels, Blondin’s troupe disbanded in late 1858 in Cincinnati. According to his 1862 biography by George Linnaeus Banks, the night of the troupe’s farewell dinner Blondin dreamed that he crossed “the boiling flood” of Niagara Falls “on a silken line as delicate as a thread of gossamer” to the wild acclaim of throngs of spectators. Never one to shy away from a seemingly insane proposition, Blondin went to Niagara to see if he could make his dream come true. He realized it wouldn’t work in the winter because the ice formed by the mist would make the line slippery and brittle.

Undeterred, Blondin returned to Niagara in spring of 1859 and began to plan his crossing. He and his manager Harry Colcord struggled to get the permits to string the rope. Blondin wanted it strung across Horseshoe Falls where all the drama is, but landowners protested that the mist would soak the hemp rope and make it too slick. In the end Blondin strung his cable from the trunk of an oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds on the American side across Niagara Gorge to a rock in front of the Clifton House on the Canadian side, near to where the Rainbow Bridge is today. The rope was 1,100 feet long and just 3.25 inches in diameter. It was poised 160 feet above the Niagara River with a slight sag in the middle 50 feet where it was impossible to attach the guy lines that kept the rest of the cable from swaying too vigorously. It took Blondin and Colcord almost five months to get the cable and lines strung.

At 5:00 PM on June 30th, Charles Blondin gripped his 26-feet-long ash balancing pole and walked across the tightrope from the United States to Canada. He sat down in the middle, looked around like he hadn’t a care in the world, then stood back up and kept walking. He stopped again to lay down on his back, did a back somersault and then traipsed with a gait described by one spectator as akin to that of a “barnyard cock” to the other side. The whole crossing had taken him five minutes.

Twenty minutes later, Blondin started the return trip. This time he had a Daguerreotype apparatus strapped to his back which he duly deployed 200 feet into his crossing. He tied his balancing pole to the rope, set up the camera and took a picture of the crowd waiting for him on the American side. Then he strapped the camera back onto his back and finished the crossing. That one took 23 minutes.

As soon as he was done, still basking in the acclaim of the stupefied audience of 25,000, Blondin announced he’d attempt another Niagara tightrope walk on the Fourth of July. He accomplished that one too, without a balancing pole, doing flips and tricks and the return crossing wearing a bag over his head. Blondin would make many more crossings, each with different and increasingly daring stunts. He walked it backwards, did flips all the way across, crossed at night, pushed a wheelbarrow across the rope and strapped a stove to his back so he could make an omelette midway through the crossing which he didn’t even eat himself. He lowered it on a rope to the passengers on the Maid of the Mist. He carried Henry Colcord on his back several times.

His Niagara Falls exploits made him internationally famous and quite wealthy. His name became synonymous with walking a tightrope, a metaphor that became painfully apt for a divided country soon after his first crossing. Abraham Lincoln was repeatedly depicted in editorial cartoons as Blondin. In 1860, when Lincoln was running for president, Vanity Fair put “Mr. Abraham Blondin De Lave Lincoln” in pantaloons and tights crossing a breaking rail with a black baby in a carpetbag. Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicted him carrying a slave — the Republican party’s position on slavery — across a tightrope with the Constitution as his balancing pole.

Lincoln embraced the comparison himself, utilizing it in response to his critics during the 1864 election.

Gentlemen, suppose all the property you were worth was in gold, and you had put it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope, would you shake the cable, or keep shouting out to him — “Blondin, stand up a little straighter–Blondin, stoop a little more–go a little faster–lean a little more to the north–lean a little more to the south?” No, you would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was safe over. The Government are carrying an immense weight. Untold treasures are in their hands. They are doing the very best they can. Don’t badger them. Keep silence, and we’ll get you safe across.

Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fun of September 1st, 1864, published a cartoon of the scene, with Lincoln carrying two men on his back this time (Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on Lincoln’s shoulders and War Secretary Edwin Stanton on Welles’s shoulders), pushing a wheelbarrow filled with money, Columbia and the American flag while all around him people talk smack.

As for Blondin, he would go on to perform all over the world, drawing amazed and horrified crowds everywhere he went. He retired briefly in the late 1870s, but went back on the stage in 1880 and continued to walk, cycle, push lions in wheelbarrows over the tightrope until his final performance in 1896. He died just a few months later in February of 1897 at the age of 72 from diabetes.

Share

Lost chapel found in Mike and Mary Hudd’s yard

June 29th, 2015

In June of 2014, Mike and Mary Hudd of Bincknoll Cottage, Bincknoll, Wiltshire, were doing some landscaping in their garden, employing a machine to pull out the roots of a fallen tree, when they unearthed stonework remains. Mary, an avid amateur archaeologist, stopped the landscaping and started excavating, carefully exposing enough of the upper layer of chalk block walls to indicate there might be the remains of a larger structure under the Hudd’s yard. They called in the Wiltshire County Archaeologist to determine how to proceed.

They had good reason to believe the stonework might be of archaeological significance. Bincknoll is a tiny hamlet with a few houses and a farm that is part of the civil parish of Broad Town today, but it first appears in the Domesday Book as Bechenhalle, a manor of Norman lord Gilbert de Breteuil. Just south of the garden is an escarpment overlooking Bincknoll Cottage where the remains of an early motte and bailey castle stand as an earthwork ridge. Other archaeological features in the hamlet include enclosure boundaries, ridge and furrow plough patterns visible in earthworks when surviving and in the path of lanes and hedgerows when not and a ridge thought to be the remnant of a medieval fish pond. There has been very little in the way of archaeological exploration of these features, so all that’s known is what’s visible to the naked eye from the ground and air.

The Wiltshire County Archaeologist and the Hudds decided on a plan to excavate the yard further with the goal of determining the full measurements of the structure, finding datable artifacts and architectural remains that would help them identify what kind of building it was. The planned called for four trenches (later increased to six to further investigate features found during the excavation), to be dug across the stonework Mary Hudd had partially exposed. Because the chalk block walls were visible at ground level, all the trenches would have to be dug by hand.

Events kicked off in late July with a geophysical survey of the front and back yards of Bincknoll Cottage. The front yard was found to have underground features that were likely to be more buried walls. In August the excavation began in earnest, and what a glorious team was there, my friends. Because the trenches had to be dug by hand, many hands were needed. Broad Town Archaeology, a non-profit organization dedicated to community archaeology in the Broad Town area, got involved and ultimately more than 60 volunteers worked the site supervised by professional archaeologists from, among others, the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, English Heritage, the Wiltshire Museum and Wessex Archaeology. Volunteers ranged from organized amateurs like the North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club to members of the community who were excited to get their hands dirty in the history of their town.

Excavations ran from through August through September 2014 and were remarkably productive. They revealed three sides of a chalk block and rubble structure 20 feet wide with walls three feet thick. The walls were in generally good condition except for the very tops which have been exposed to the elements for a very long time. The building is aligned perfectly along the east-west axis.

Artifacts found include roof tiles, mortar, nails, carved chalk from the 14th century and a range of pottery types dating from the 11th century through the 17th. The team found chunks of whitewashed plaster, some decorated with red lines painted across them, some plain white, some small pieces with residue of other colors that could be green and black. The excavation of the south wall in trench four unearthed ten voussoirs, a wedge-shaped stone used in arches, that were probably part of a doorway or window.

Excavations also revealed some organic remains, oyster shells and animal bones. The articulated skeletal remains of a large animal were found in trench four. In order to excavate the skeleton fully, the team opened a new trench, trench six, and found a cattle burial. The beast was interred in a pit with some difficulty as the head is bent back and the left foreleg twisted up above its body. The burial postdates the ruin of the medieval structure. A clay pipe unearthed in the same layer was identified as the work of John Greenland of Marlborough which dates it and the burial to the late 17th, early 18th century at the earliest.

Four more trenches were dug during this season’s excavations from April through June, exploring the east side of the structure. While conclusive dates are still elusive, archeologists believe they’ve found the remains of a chapel that documents attest once stood in Bincknoll from at least the early 13th century. A 1209 record notes that the Prior of Goldcliff had a holding Bincknoll that paid a yearly tithe of £1. A 1291 document refers to a chapel at Bincknoll Manor whose tithes were granted to the Priory of St. Denis in Southampton. The chapel comes up a couple of more times in church records from the 13th and 14th century. The last record of it is in a Bond from 1609 which describes it as “that decayed Chapell with appurtainment situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll within the parish of Brodehinton in the above said County
of Wilts and all that rectory parsonage and manor house called the parsonage house of Bincknoll alias Bynoll situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll aforesaid.”

The east-west alignment and dimensions suggest this structure is the chapel rather than the parsonage house which probably was more of a wooden affair than one made out of large blocks of chalk stone.

[Archaeologist and president of the town historical society Bob] Clarke said: “There may have been an early cell around which a larger structure was built later. We found fragments of painted plaster from the building’s interior, painted red lines depicting borders, pinks and green and black possibly from wall paintings. The excavation and post-ex work has taken about 18 months so far and we are now pretty convinced this was the lost chapel of Bincknoll, of which the last recorded mention was in the early 17th century.”

The remains of a small inner wall is thought to be of late Saxon origin, which is surrounded by a later massive Norman structure. The clearly defined site, with the remains of substantial walls almost a metre wide with foundations over a metre deep, internally the building measures 4.4 metres by 13 metres and would have been an impressive sight when still standing. Nearer to the surface of the site the team discovered the remains of two cows and a pig, buried in later years over the ruined building.

You can read the preliminary report written after the first season of excavation here (pdf). The final report is expected to be published at the end of the year. Broad Town Archaeology has tons of pictures of both seasons of excavations on their Facebook page. The North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) put together a great online dig diary documenting their work over two weekends this season. It’s amazing how much they accomplished in just four days. Community archaeology is the best.

Share

500-year-old teratoma found in Peru skeleton

June 28th, 2015

Oh, and it’s a good one, too. (By good I mean super gross.) Teratomas, for those of you not as repulsed/fascinated by them as I am, are benign tumors in which germ cells gone awry grow random body parts like teeth, hair, bone and soft tissue like muscle, thyroid and skin. They usually set up shop in ovaries or, more rarely, testicles because that’s where germ cells are supposed to be going about the business of making sperm and eggs during embryonic development, and often go undetected for their host’s entire life. While not uncommon, teratomas make the news because of how creepy they are — they’re not absorbed “evil” twins, no matter what the headlines might say — and how infrequently they’re found.

Teratomas are even rarer in the archaeological record. An encapsulated calcified teratoma was found in the remains of late Roman-era woman from the early 5th century unearthed from a necropolis in La Fogonussa, Spain, in 2010. Before that specimen was published, only one other example was known, found inside the skeleton of a Roman woman unearthed in 1999-2000 from a slave necropolis attached to an aristocratic villa just outside of Rome (pdf of the paper in French here). Now we can add a third to this very elite list: an ovarian teratoma discovered inside the abdominal cavity of a girl unearthed from the Colonial-era cemetery in Eten, Lambayeque Region, on the northwest coast of Peru.

Archaeologists from the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project (LVBP), a multidisciplinary international program founded in 2003 that studies skeletal remains on the desert north coast of Peru for what they reveal about the 10,000-year history of human settlement in the area, excavated the ruins of Eten between 2009 and 2011. The skeleton of the young woman was found in the cemetery of the Chapel of the Divino Niño Serranito de Eten, one of 500 Colonial Period burials in the chapel cemetery. Eten had been a small fishing village before the Spanish came. It was expanded into a colonial settlement called a reducción in the 1560s. Reducciónes were forced labour/Christianization resettlement towns, designed to break the cultural structure of small kin-based, self-sustaining villages scattered in the area, corral the work force in larger urbs for more efficient exploitation in the Andean silver mines and two-birds-with-a-stone conversion to Christianity. Eventually reducciónes spread throughout Spanish holdings in Central and South America, but they began in Peru, the brainchild of 5th viceroy Francisco de Toledo.

The young woman, labelled burial CNS U2-60, was one of the earliest to die in Eten after resettlement. It’s not clear what killed her, but her teratoma is so extreme that it might have been a factor. The Spain teratoma had four small, malformed teeth and bone formation inside the calcified capsule. The one found in Rome had five malformed teeth inside a fragmented spherical bony structure. The Andean teratoma has 83 pieces of bone and 37 malformed baby teeth. And that’s all that’s left now. Who knows what kind of random organ bits were in there before decomposition. It was such a large assortment of bones and teeth that at first researchers thought it might be a sacrificed animal, but its location in the abdominal cavity meant that it had to have been inside of her at the time of death, and besides, none of those bones and teeth looked like regular bones and teeth of any kind of animal.

Looking closely at the dozens of extra bony bits, [George Mason University bioarchaeologist and LVBP director Haagen] Klaus and [Brigham Young University archaeology graduate student Connie] Ericksen write that “the general morphology of the bones could be described as unclassifiable in terms of normal human or general mammalian anatomy.” The dental tissue was “approximately the size of human deciduous teeth,” and looked like either small anterior teeth or large molar-like teeth, but “in most cases, occlusal anatomy was an irregular, highly variable arrangement of cusps and cusplets,” they write. [...]

In the case of CNS U2-60, Klaus and Ericksen note that “it is not possible to determine if the lesion was benign or malignant, but a teratoma of this complexity and size likely impacted morbidity via impeded circulation.” She may not have died from the teratoma directly, but the large tumor probably made her appear pregnant and may have factored into her early death.

The Spanish woman was 30 to 40 years old when she died; the Roman woman (who was originally from the near East) was in a slightly wider age range, 25 to 45, at time of death. The fusion of her long bones indicate the Peruvian woman was in her late teens.

Share

5,500-year-old fingerprint found on ceramic vessel

June 27th, 2015

It’s time to add another bullet point of to the list of exceptional artifacts discovered by the archaeological excavation in advance of the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel on the island of Lolland, Denmark. There was the flint dagger with intact bark handle in October 2014, the 5,000-year-old gillnets and human footprints a month later, the flint axe with the intact wood handle 10 days after that and just last month they unearthed a Stone Age wood and bone eel fishing spear. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists have discovered a ceramic vessel bearing the fingerprint of the potter that made it 5,500 years ago.

Discovered just east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn on the same site where the intact flint axe was found, the vessel is an important in and of itself. It’s a funnel beaker, a pot with a flat base and a funnel-shaped neck that was so ubiquitous among the earliest farmers in Denmark that the period in which they were in use, the Funnel Beaker Culture (4,000 – 2,800 B.C.), was named after them. The funnel beakers from the early part of the period are simply decorated, but as potters gained experience in the technology, ornamentation got more elaborate. The beaker found on Lolland is from the late Funnel Beaker period and is decorated with an extensive pattern of small wedged dashes. A variety of tools were used to create the decorations, sometimes even fingers, but this is the first time a fingerprint has been found on a funnel beaker.

The beaker was found in large pieces, one of three funnel beakers unearthed at the site which were probably deliberately left as votive offerings. The axe was embedded in the seashore in a vertical position — not a likely posture had it just been discarded without a care — along with dozens of other artifacts from wooden candlesticks to spears and hundreds of animal bones. The vessels were likely deposited whole with food or drink inside. Over time the contents were lost and the ceramic broken.

After they were excavated, the beaker pieces were sent to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for conservation. It was there upon close study that experts spotted the precious fingerprint.

“The fragile fingerprint, left unintentionally, is an anonymous, yet very personal signature, which somehow brings us a bit closer to the prehistoric people and their actions,” [Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Line Marie] Olesen said.

Last year the same archaeological survey unearthed 5,000-year-old footprints left by people who attempted to save parts of their fishing system before it was flooded and covered in sand.

“An unknown persons gallery is gradually developing before our eyes, of the people who lived by Lolland’s southern coast at the time when agriculture was introduced some 6,000 years ago,” Anne-Lotte Sjørup Mathiesen of the Museum Lolland-Falster, said in a statement.

The beaker and fingerprint are still being studied at the National Museum. The vessel is expected to return to the Museum Lolland-Falster in December after which it will be put on display next to its brethren artifacts from the Rødbyhavn excavation.

Share

Artifacts found on 700-year-old Swiss battle site

June 26th, 2015

November 15th marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, a historic clash between the militia army of the nascent Swiss Confederation and a highly trained troops of Habsburg Duke Leopold I of Austria. Fought on the banks of Lake Ägeri near the Morgarten Pass in the central Switzerland Canton of Schwyz, it was the first battle of the Confederation and their victory helped cement the cantons’ unity to form the kernel of what would become Switzerland.

The three cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden first joined in the Eternal Alliance in 1291, just 24 years before the Battle of Morgarten. The Federal Charter of 1291 united the rural valley communities of the central Alps for the purposes of trade and defense of their property and trade routes. This was necessary because the Hapsburgs, newly risen to princely power in what is today Germany, were putting increasing pressure on the territories of the Forest Cantons. The cantons had been granted Imperial immediacy, technically the right to be ruled directly by the Holy Roman Emperor rather than by a long line of feudal lords but in practice a form of political autonomy within the empire, by the Hohenstaufen emperors and in 1308 by Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Germans, but the Habsburgs wanted to annex the cantons with their valuable lands and Alpine passes outright.

Territorial conflicts with the Habsburgs generated constant skirmishes and raids in the area from the 12th century until the mid-14th. One of those raids — Schwyz militia attacked Einsiedeln Abbey, a Habsburg ally, in a dispute over pasture and forest land — gave the Habsburgs the pretext to attack the cantons they coveted with a force of thousands (estimates vary from 3,000 to 22,000) including armoured cavalry. The cantons only had from 1,000 to 3,000 men in their combined militias, farmers and tradesmen who while likely experienced in fisticuffs hardly seemed a match for the mounted knights of Duke Leopold of Austria. The cantons had the advantage of intimate familiarity with the terrain, so when they found out which direction the Habsburg forces were taking, they blocked the Morgarten Pass and ambushed the Austrians from the surrounding hillside, raining rocks, boulders, tree trunks and assorted projectiles on the army trapped between a steep wooded slope on one side and the marshy lake shore on the other. The Swiss then swarmed down upon them and fought hand to hand, felling knights with halberds and taking no quarter.

One month after the Battle of Morgarten, the cantons signed the Pact of Brunnen, expanding the defensive alliance into a broader confederacy by adopting a common foreign policy. The treaty ushered in the era of the Old Swiss Confederacy as more cantons joined the Pact over the next few decades. Until the late 19th century, the Pact of Brunnen was widely considered by historians the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Federal Charter became seen as Switzerland’s founding document.

As important as the Battle of Morgarten was in Swiss history, the medieval chronicles documenting it, most notably that of Franciscan monk Johannes of Winterthur written in the 1340s, are thin on factual accuracy. The exact location of the battle is unclear and no confirmed archaeological remains from the battle have been found. This Spring, archaeologists did an intensive excavation of one likely site and discovered for the first time weapons and other artifacts from the period of the Battle of Morgarten.

The cantons of Schwyz and Zug authorized the excavation with celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the battle on the horizon and out of concern for a recent spate of would-be looters scouring the site. The dig unearthed 12 silver Pfennigs dating from 1275 to the early 14th century minted by the diocese of Basel, the Fraumünster Abbey of Zurich and the cities of Solothurn and Schaffhausen. The coins were found next to two 14th century dagger blades. Archaeologists also discovered a knife scabbard, two projectile points from an arrow or crossbow bolt and an iron spur, all from the 14th century. Other artifacts like a knife and a horseshoe, can’t yet be dated with certainty but could also be from the 14th century.

These workmanlike finds are so exciting they eclipse the more precious objects — the gold head of a brooch from the 7th century and an openwork bronze disc brooch with central glass insert from 10th century — unearthed at the site. They could well prove to be the first archaeological evidence of the Battle of Morgarten. The problem is archaeologists can’t be certain the artifacts were left on the field during that specific battle. Because of all the fighting that went on in the area during the period (and before and after), the objects may have been used in another encounter or encounters.

That won’t stop the artifacts from being celebrated as significant in this anniversary year. A selection of the 14th century finds is currently on display at the Museum Burg Zug through July 31st. From August 22nd to September 30th they will be on display at the Federal Charter Museum in Schwyz.

Share

Plunderer of Swedish Churches arrested, plunder returned

June 25th, 2015

Spanish police have arrested an infamous cultural heritage thief known as “el expoliador de iglesias suecas,” or “the plunderer of Swedish churches.” The 63-year-old Spanish man was arrested last month at his home in Tenerife, Canary Islands, where police found 46 artifacts stolen from Swedish churches and museums. Twelve of those pieces — 11 carved wooden statuettes and one wood chest — have now officially been returned to the Swedish embassy in Madrid.

The bust was a joint operation of the Spanish National Police, Swedish police, German police and Danish authorities. The Spaniard was a target of the Swedish police first who suspected him of being responsible for a rash of thefts from churches and small museums in Sweden over the past two years. He had already been convicted of similar property crimes in Sweden and served a five-year prison sentence, so when stuff started to go missing again, the police zeroed in on him. Swedish authorities alerted the Spanish police and they investigated the case together.

In May, the Spanish National Police searched the suspect’s Tenerife home and found 43 objects including candlesticks, metal and wood vessels, four carved wooden figures from the 15th century, a 15th century wood chest, an 18th century bible and an oil painting of canvas of unknown age but significant cultural interest. Another four carved figures part of a matched set with the four found in the home were recovered after being sold at auction in Madrid.

Then the investigation found that the suspect had a storage unit or warehouse in Denmark. The Swedish police and judicial authorities contacted the Danish authorities to discover the location of the warehouse and any records they might have of it. Danish police found two storage units connected to the suspected. Searches of both locations and found more carvings and religious objects stolen from Sweden. Based on information from the material recovered in Denmark, the Spanish police returned to the man’s Tenerife home and searched it again, finding three more carved wooden figures of the Holy Family that were part of a 15th century altarpiece.

The 12 objects returned were the eight 15th century wooden statuettes, the three carvings from the 15th century altarpiece and the 15th century wooden chest. Presumably the rest of the plunder will be returned as well, perhaps after they’re used in court against the plunderer. Meanwhile, Sweden is delighted to have halted the remorseless advance of the Plunderer of Swedish Churches and to have gotten their religious treasures back. They may look a little rough-hewn, but they’re historically and culturally significant. Sweden’s ambassador to Spain, Cecilia Julin:

“I think people will be celebrating in some parts of central Sweden. It is a fantastic story. Sometimes justice is done,” she said.

“It is not possible to put a price on the items.”

Share

Bronze Age gold sun disc on display for first time

June 24th, 2015

A gold sun disc discovered in an early Bronze Age grave in 1947 went on public display Friday for the first time in its history. The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes celebrated the Summer Solstice by adding the gold circle about the size of a penny that represents the sun to its permanent exhibition of prehistoric artifacts.

The sun disc is one of only six of its kind ever found in Britain. It was unearthed from a burial mound at Monkton Farleigh in 1947 along with some flint arrowheads, a pottery beaker and pieces of the skeletal remains of an adult male. The grave was discovered by dowser and author Guy Underwood who believed dowsing could be used to locate archaeologically significant sites and whose studies of the alignment of prehistoric British sites evolved into theories about earth energy patterns that would be published after his death in The Pattern of the Past.

Monkton Farleigh is 24 miles or so northwest of Stonehenge and the sun disc dates to around 2,400 B.C. which is about the time when the great sarsen stones were arranged in a circle at Stonehenge (between 2,600-2,400 B.C.). Both the stone circle and the sun disc are connected to ancient solar worship.

The sun-disk is a thin embossed sheet of gold with a cross at the centre, surrounded by a circle. Between the lines of both the cross and the circle are fine dots which glint in sunlight. The disc is pierced by two holes that may have been used to sew the disc to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, and may have been used in pairs.

After its discovery in the 1940s, the sun disc was kept by the property owner (that sort of thing wouldn’t fly today because ancient precious metals would be considered treasure and by law property of the Crown) Dr. Denis Whitehead. After almost 70 years squirreled away — it wasn’t shown to an actual archaeologist until 2013 — the sun disc was donated to the Wiltshire Museum in memory of Dr. Whitehead.

The Wiltshire Museum has a new Prehistoric Wiltshire gallery that includes the gold artifacts unearthed in 1808 from a grave at Bush Barrow one kilometer (.6 miles) south of Stonehenge, most famously a lozenge-shaped sheet of gold about seven inches long incised with geometric decorations that was found on the breastbone of the deceased. The Bush Barrow artifacts — a gold belt buckle, a second much smaller gold lozenge, three copper daggers, a bronze ax, a bronze spearhead, a stone mace with bronze fittings, the remains of a shield, a bone scepter — were on display before at the Wiltshire Museum in the 19th century but security concerns spurred the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society to lend the Bush Barrow gold to the British Museum. After a disastrous restoration in 1985 that irreversibly altered the large lozenge’s shape, the society took the pieces back. Now they and the Monkton Farleigh sun disc are on display together in the new gallery, an exceptional collection of Bronze Age gold.

Share

Fetus found in coffin of mummified 17th c. bishop

June 23rd, 2015

The mummified body of Peder Winstrup, Bishop of Lund from 1638 until his death in 1679, is being studied by researchers from Lund University who have discovered that not only are his remains extraordinarily well-preserved, they are not alone in the coffin. Underneath the bishop’s feet are the skeletal remains of a four or five-month-old fetus.

Peder Pedersen Winstrup was born in Copenhagen in 1605, the son of theologian, professor and Bishop of Sjaelland Peder Jensen Winstrup. (They were Lutheran bishops, not Catholics, obviously.) The young Peder followed in his father’s footsteps, studying theology at university. After graduating from the University of Copenhagen in 1633, Peder quickly rose through the clerical ranks. He was appointed royal chaplain to King Christian IV in 1635; three years later he was appointed Bishop of Lund. He remained in the position after the transfer of the province Scania from the Denmark–Norway empire to Sweden in 1658, even though there were doubts as to his loyalty to his new monarch King Charles X Gustav. He repeatedly encouraged the king to found a university at Lund which was finally done in 1666, eight years after Winstrup’s first letter to King Charles suggesting he establish a university. Winstrup presided over the university’s inaugural ceremonies and was appointed its chancellor in 1671.

When the good bishop died, his body was entombed in the family grave in Lund Cathedral. During an extensive program of restoration under architect Axel Nyström in 1833, the Winstrup tombs had to be moved. The exceptional condition of Peder Winstrup’s remains was noted at the time and documented by an artist. They were moved again several times during the 19th century until in 1875 all of the Winstrup family coffins were buried together in the cemetery with the exception of Bishop Peder Winstrup’s. The fine condition of his remains and the fact that he had no other marker in the cathedral inspired officials to keep his tomb in the church crypt.

In 2012, officials decided to relocate Winstrup’s tomb in Lund Cathedral to make space for the increasing numbers of visitors. At the same time, researchers at the Lund University Historical Museum found an old photograph of the bishop’s remains taken when the coffin was opened in 1923. His clothes, including a velvet cape and leather gloves, were perfectly intact and his body was in such good condition that his face, while shrunken, was still entirely recognizable from portraits. Since his rest was to be disturbed anyway, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Lund University was assembled to study the bishop’s mummified remains.

What they found is a veritable time capsule of 17th century life, albeit a very privileged one. Winstrup was not embalmed or deliberately mummified. His internal organs are still in place and identifiable in CT scans. The preservation of his remains was a natural process, the result of copious quantities of plant materials occupying fully half of the space in the casket, constant air flow, his death in December and burial in January and centuries passed inside the dry, cool family crypt. Another factor in his unusual preservation may have been his long final decline which left him very thin, a key step in the self-mummification process.

Peder Winstrup was 74 years old when he died, and his remains show the tell-tale signs of it. He had osteoarthritis in his knee and hip joints and was missing several teeth. Cavities found in his remaining teeth suggest he enjoyed sugary foods, an indication of high status since most people couldn’t afford much sugar in their diets.

The first results show dried fluid and mucus in the sinuses, indicating that Winstrup had been bedridden for a long period before he died. Calcifications in the lung could indicate both tuberculosis and pneumonia. Plaque was also found in the left coronary artery of the heart, the aorta and the carotid artery, indicating that the bishop suffered from atherosclerosis.

“The gall bladder also has several gallstones, which could indicate a high consumption of fatty food”, says Caroline Ahlström Arcini, an osteologist working on the project.

Researchers also found he had an injured tendon in his right shoulder that likely limited his mobility to the point that common tasks like putting on a shirt or combing his hair would have been painful.

It was the CT scan of the bishop’s coffin that revealed the biggest surprise of the study: the tiny baby tucked under his feet. Nobody knew it was there because it’s hidden by the plant matter in the casket and by Peder Winstrup’s voluminous robes. Researchers believe that it was miscarried or prematurely delivered and hidden in the bishop’s coffin by a member of his family or staff, or perhaps someone involved in the preparation of his body for entombment.

According to Dr. Per Karsten, director of the Historical Museum at Lund University, there was a tradition in 17th century Scandinavia of mothers bribing cemetery workers to inter babies who had died before they could be baptized in the coffins of other people so that the little ones would be laid to rest in consecrated ground. There are instances of babies being buried in the very church walls for this same reason. As Winstrup died on December 7th, 1679, and wasn’t buried until January 27th, 1680, there would have been plenty of time for someone with access to hide the baby in the bishop’s coffin without the family’s or his staff’s knowledge.

“You can only speculate as to whether it was one of Winstrup’s next of kin, or whether someone else took the opportunity while preparing the coffin. But we hope to be able to clarify any kinship through a DNA test”, says Per Karsten.

The next step will be investigations into the textiles in the coffin, as well as further study of the body. Tissue samples from the internal organs are to be removed, among other things. In addition, the extensive plant material in the coffin will be investigated.

Share

Napoleon’s last gift to his son: wee dueling pistols

June 22nd, 2015

Napoleon was by all reports a loving father to his only child, his son with Marie Louise of Austria Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, styled at birth the King of Rome, a modified version of the traditional title, King of the Romans, granted to all heirs apparent of the Holy Roman Empire. The last time Napoleon saw his little King of Rome was in the middle of the night of January 24th, 1814, at the palace of Saint Cloud. He said his goodbyes to his wife and son before heading to the north of France to fight the encroaching Allied forces.

If the Roi de Rome received a goodbye present from his father, it may well have been a present his father commissioned for his son’s upcoming third birthday in March. Napoleon ordered a pair of bespoke dueling pistols from gunsmith to the French monarchs Jean Le Page. Made of blue steel with walnut and ebony stocks and inlaid with gold, the guns were custom-made to fit a young boy’s hands. Engraved on the lock of the pistols is the fateful production date, Janv. (January) 1814.

Whether the Roi de Rome received his last present from his father is not known. The pistols remained behind as Napoleon’s empire fell completely apart in a matter of weeks and he was compelled to abdicate under pressure from the Allies, first in favor of his son, and then in favor of nobody. Technically the King of Rome’s pistols were now the property of the newly restored Bourbon King of France Louis XVIII, but the new king wasn’t all that keen to keep a tight grip on the previous throne-holder’s stuff. People who wanted to buy a piece of Napoleon, and there were many such people, could do so easily on the streets of Paris. One of those people was William Bullock.

Bullock began as a jeweler and silversmith by profession, living and working in Liverpool. Conveniently located in a port city that was a trade capital of the empire, Bullock was able to acquire specimens and artifacts from sailors who had traveled all over the world. He opened his first museum of curiosities in Liverpool in 1795. He was a dedicated naturalist, an elected member of several exclusive natural history societies, an interest reflected in his collection and which gave its display an educational purpose as well. Bullock was the first in England to arrange exhibits in habitat groups, displaying specimens in some semblance of their natural surroundings.

In 1809 he moved to London and opened the Liverpool Museum at 22 Piccadilly. It was an immediate hit, welcoming more than 22,000 visitors its first month, and 80,000 in its first six. In April of 1811, one of the visitors was the 35-year-old Jane Austen who wrote to her sister Cassandra that she and her cousin Mary Cooke “after disposing of her father and mother, went to the Liverpool Museum and the British Gallery, and I had some amusement at each, though my preference for men and women always inclines me to attend more to the company than the sight.”

By then Bullock had already begun construction of a new building to house his museum at the south end of Piccadilly (today street numbers 170-173). Designed by architect Peter Frederick Robinson who was inspired by the engravings in Description de l’Egypte, the building was the first building in England constructed entirely in Egyptian style, interior and exterior, since Egyptomania had swept Europe after Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt. The new building had a vast grand hall modeled after the Temple of Dendera that allowed exhibitions of large scale art and artifacts.

In A Companion to Mr. Bullock’s London Museum and Pantherion, a brochure with descriptions of many of the thousands of specimens in the museum, makes it clear that when it opened in 1812, Bullock’s museum on Piccadilly was almost entirely focused on natural history. Animals dominate, with more than 100 pages dedicated to specimens from stuffed giraffes to porpoise jaws. Artifacts were mainly garments, jewelry and use objects from the South Seas, Africa, North and South America, although there is a 16-page chapter dedicated to the museum’s armoury most of which had been acquired from the estate of Dr. Richard Greene’s, a surgeon who a few decades earlier had exhibited his own museum of curiosities in two rooms of his Lichfield home.

The Egyptian Hall’s capacity was put to test in 1816 when Bullock exhibited Napoleonic artifacts while Waterloo was still fresh in the public mind. The centerpiece of the show was Napoleon’s bullet-proof travelling carriage which he had used as a home away from home during his campaigns all over Europe and which had been captured by the Prussian army after the Battle of Waterloo. In October of 1815, General Blücher arranged for the carriage to be presented to the Prince Regent who, terminally in need of money, turned around and sold it to William Bullock for around £2,500. That price won bought the carriage, its contents — Napoleon’s personal belongings including his folding camp bed and his travelling kit with 100 solid gold pieces and a million francs in diamonds stashed inside — and two of the deposed emperor’s horses.

The Napoleon exhibition ran from January to August 1816 and drew massive crowds of up to 10,000 visitors a day. They crowded the Egyptian Hall, climbing all over Napoleon’s carriage and pawing through his stuff. In the final tally, about 220,000 visitors saw the Napoleon show in London and more than 800,000 people saw the carriage and associated exhibition on its traveling tour of England, Scotland and Ireland. From his initial outlay of £2,500 for the carriage, Bullock made £35,000.

With visions of even sugarier plums dancing in his head, Bullock decided to open the Museum Napoleon to make even more money from the public fascination with the fallen foe. To add to the exhibition, he went to Paris in January of 1816 and purchased a myriad Napoleonic knick-knacks from the Emperor’s servants, friends and his imperial residences of Malmaison and St. Cloud. It was probably at one of the palaces where Bullock acquired the Roi de Rome’s dueling pistols.

The fever for all things Napoleon couldn’t and didn’t last. By 1818, Bullock was actively looking for buyers, universities and museums, to acquire his entire collection. When the University of Edinburgh and the British Museum turned him down, he took matters into his own hands. In 1819, Bullock sold his collection, by then composed of more than 32,000 objects, in an auction that lasted 26 days and netted him £9,974. Napoleon’s carriage was sold to a coachmaker for £168. In 1843 it was bought by Madame Tussaud’s where it remained on display until it was destroyed in a fire that devastated the waxworks in 1925.

The Roi de Rome Pistols were bought at the great 1819 auction by someone identified in the documents only as “Levery.” They likely passed through several hands before they made their next appearance in the historical record in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 where they were put on display by gunmakers James Purdey & Sons. The pistols soon thereafter found a home with Cora, Countess of Strafford, the rich widow of soap magnate Samuel Colgate and model for the character of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey. In the 40s the pistols were acquired by William Keith Neal for his renown collection of arms and his descendants have decided to sell.

The toddler king’s wee pistols will be put on the auction block at Sotheby’s Treasures sale on July 8th. The presale estimate is £800,000-1,200,000 ($1,251,844 – 1,877,856).

Share

Millions of Freedmen’s Bureau records digitized

June 21st, 2015

When African Americans research their genealogy, they often hit what is known as the wall: no records to be found before the 1870 United States Federal Census which was the first to enumerate former slaves. Before that number of slaves he owned was noted under the master’s entry, but it was purely statistical. There were no individual names listed. The first federal census since emancipation recorded the name, location, age, birthplace, familial relationships, marital status, occupation, ability to read and write, the total value of a person’s estate and more. That’s rich information, but it doesn’t link former slaves to their past so it’s usually a dead end for genealogists.

There is one other federal source for precious information on formerly enslaved Americans that predates 1870: the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was a federal agency created in March of 1865 with the end of the Civil War in sight to help the freed slaves in the 11 states of the Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia), border states Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and the District of Columbia. With four million people free but destitute, the Freedmen’s Bureau ran a relief operation providing food, clothing, medical care and temporary housing in camps. Over the course of its seven years of operation, the Bureau helped freedmen locate family members separated by war and the sale of human beings, founded and supported schools, performed marriages (slave marriages were illegal so the Bureau often solemnized and legalized couples who had been de facto married for years), provided jobs and banking, oversaw labor contracts between former slave owners and former slaves, resettled freedmen on abandoned lands, represented former slaves in court, helped soldiers and sailors secure their back pay and future pensions.

The records generated by the Freedmen’s Bureau therefore cover an immense amount of ground. They include key information like the name of former masters and plantations that would allow genealogists to delve into the pre-Civil War history of African American families. The National Archives has preserved FB records on microfilm and made them available to researchers at the National Archives building in Washington, DC, and at regional archives in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington State. Some of the microfilm records have been digitized, but only a fraction of them and without name indexing which would allow people to look up individual family members and pull all their records.

FamilySearch, a non-profit genealogy organization run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has already digitized some of the Freedman’s Bureau records — 460,000 records of the Freedmen’s Bank, 800,000 records from Virginia — but on Friday, the 150th Juneteenth, it announced a major initiative to digitize and index the names of freedmen recorded in 1.5 million Bureau records. In collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum, the project seeks to mine raw records for names of freedmen and refugees and make the searchable database available for free online.

In order to complete so vast project, FamilySearch is enlisting the power of the crowd. There’s a dedicated website, Discover Freedmen, where volunteers can learn more about the digitization project. If you would like to help digitize the Freedman’s Bureau records, you must first download FamilySearch’s dedicated indexing program and then register an account. A quick introductory video explains how to use the program, but it’s fairly intuitive and user friendly. Once you’re registered and the software is up and running, click the Download Batch button, click Show All Projects and scroll down to US – Freedmen’s Bureau projects. Here’s a list of all the FB batches. There are labor contracts, education records, court records, hospital records, land records, records of complaints, employment, military service claims and rations issued. Only the indexing of the medical records is close to completion; most of the batches have barely been touched.

After you’ve selected a batch, the image of a record will appear in your software. Your job is to scour it for name of anyone who is not a Bureau official and enter any names you find in the appropriate data entry fields. If you have any difficulty reading handwriting, you can view the next and previous documents which might have associated information written more legibly. You can also use the Share Batch feature to enlist the aid of other indexers. If you just can’t make heads or tails of it, you can Return Batch to give it to other indexers.

To get started, download the indexing program here. When you open it up after installation, it will prompt you to register. After that, wade into the records of your choice. If all goes well, the project is expected to take a year after which the records will be exhibited at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in late 2016. You can search by ancestor name right now on the Discover Freedmen website (click Discover in the header menu), although of course there are many fewer names in the database than there will be next year.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

June 2015
S M T W T F S
« May    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication