Liquid mercury found under Teotihuacan temple

April 25th, 2015

The excavations under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan have unearthed another exceptional find: large quantities of liquid mercury. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez and his team have been excavating the tunnel underneath the pre-Aztec pyramid, discovered by accident in 2003 when a sinkhole opened up in front of the temple, since 2009, using a robot to reveal three chambers at the end of the tunnel and last year discovering an enormous cache of 50,000 artifacts (sculptures, jade, rubber balls, obsidian blades, pyrite mirrors) and organic remains (animal bones, fur, plants, seeds, skin). It has taken so long to excavate it because the tunnel was filled to the brim with soil and rocks and sealed 1,800 years ago by the people of Teotihuacan about whom we know very little.

The mercury was found in one of the chambers discovered by the robot at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s something that completely surprised us,” Gomez said at the entrance to the tunnel below Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico City.

Some archeologists believe the toxic element could herald what would be the first ruler’s tomb ever found in Teotihuacan, a contemporary of several ancient Maya cities, but so shrouded in mystery that its inhabitants still have no name.

Unsure why the mercury was put there, Gomez says the metal may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake.

(mercuric sulfide) is the most commonly found source of mercury ore and ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with it both as a red pigment and for its mercury content. They knew how to extract mercury from crushed cinnabar — heating the ore separates the mercury from sulfur and the evaporated mercury can then be collected in a condensing column — and employed it as a gilding medium and possibly for ritual purposes. It was very difficult and dangerous to produce. Before now, traces of mercury have only been found at a two Maya sites and one Olmec site in Central America. This is the first time it has been discovered in Teotihuacan, and I suspect this is the first time it has been discovered in large amounts anywhere in ancient Mexico. (The exact quantities discovered under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the other sites haven’t been reported.)

Reflective materials held a great deal of religious significance in Mesoamerican cultures. Mirrors were seen as conduits to the supernatural. A river of mercury would make one hugely expensive and ritually important conveyance to the underworld. Added to the exceptional finds already made in the tunnel, the presence of so much mercury indicates that if anybody was buried in these chambers, it would have to be someone of enormous importance in Teotihuacan society. It could be a king, but we don’t know what kind of governing system they had in Teotihuacan, so it could be a lord, several oligarchs or religious leaders. The hope is that this excavation and its unprecedented finds will answer many of the long-outstanding questions about the city of Teotihuacan.

I’m excited about this discovery because I’ve been fascinated by the notion of underground rivers of mercury since I first read about the ones reportedly created for the tomb of the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Better known today for the terracotta army found in pits around the emperor’s burial mound, the mausoleum itself was apparently a thing of shimmering splendour. Grand Historian to the Han emperor Sima Qian, writing a century after the Qin emperor’s death, described Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum in Volume Six of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), China’s first official dynastic history.

They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin. Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artifacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land.

As the emperor’s burial mound has not been excavated (just the environs), we don’t know if the rivers of flowing mercury really existed, but high levels of mercury have been found in soil samples taken from the tumulus so significant amounts of the heavy metal were certainly used for some purpose. I think it would be the coolest thing if the people of Teotihuacan created their own shimmering splendor of an underworld too.

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Possible remains of Napoleonic king of Naples to be DNA tested

April 24th, 2015

In his short life Joachim Murat rose from modest beginnings as an innkeeper’s son in the small southwestern French town of Labastide-Fortunière to the King of Naples at 41 years of age. In between he became one of Napoleon’s best generals and, after his marriage to Caroline Bonaparte, Prince and Grand Admiral of France and the Grand Duke of Berg. Famous for his daring cavalry charges and for his flamboyant dress sense involving as many buttons, gold tassels, medals and feathers as can be crammed onto a uniform, Murat fought in approximately 200 battles and looked great doing it.

In her memoirs, Caroline Murat, daughter of Joachim’s second son Prince Napoleon Lucien Charles Murat, described her grandfather’s dashing style of dress and fearlessness in combat.

His form was tall, his tread like that of a king, his face strikingly noble, while his piercing glance few men could bear. He had heavy black whiskers and long black locks, which contrasted singularly with his fiery blue eyes. He usually wore a three-cornered hat, with a magnificent white plume of ostrich feathers. [...]

My grandfather’s dazzling exterior made him a mark for the enemy’s bullets. The wonder is that, being so conspicuous, he was never shot down and was rarely wounded. At one battle a bullet grazed his cheek. Like lightning his sword punished the offender by carrying away two of his fingers. I have read that at the battle of Aboukir he charged with his cavalry straight through the Turkish ranks, driving column after column into the sea.

Murat’s ascent was too inextricably tied to Napoleon’s to survive his mentor’s fall. In the attempt to preserve his throne, he went so far as to enter into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, but his Austrian allies turned out to be fair-weather friends at best, and when he realized they planned to remove him from the throne during the Hundred Days, he declared himself in favor of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated and fled, first attempting to get his old job back but Napoleon wouldn’t even see him, a choice the emperor would come to regret bitterly. (On St. Helena he said: “at Waterloo Murat might have given us the victory. For what did we need? To break three or four English squares. Murat was just the man for the job.”) After Napoleon’s rejection, Murat went to Corsica and mustered up 250 or so men with whom he planned to reconquer the throne of Naples from the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand IV.

This was not a well conceived plan, needless to say. His three ships were scattered in a storm. The one carrying him and 26 men was blown off course and landed in the southern Italian town of Pizzo, Calabria, near the toe of the boot, where he was promptly captured by Bourbon forces. Napoleon noted dryly that “Murat has tried to reconquer with 200 men the territory he was unable to hold when he had 80,000 of them.” Ferdinand ordered a show trial — the judges were appointed on the same day the order for his execution was sent by telegraph — and on October 13th, 1815, Joachim Murat was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death by firing squad.

He died how he lived — well dressed, vain and fearless. His last request was for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children. He refused the offer of a stool to sit on and a blindfold and stood unblinking before the fusiliers, dressed to the nines and smelling terrific. The phrasing has come down in several versions, but his last words to his executioners were so epic people are still quoting them without realizing that they’re quoting anyone: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

His old friend and administrator of his duchy Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosburg, eulogized him poetically: “He knew how to win. He knew how to rule. He knew how to die.” Napoleon’s final assessment was a tad harsher: “In battle he was perhaps the bravest man in the world; left to himself, he was an imbecile without judgment.”

Murat’s remains are thought to have been interred in a mass grave underneath Pizzo’s Church of St. George, but there were rumors that they had been spirited away to France. There’s a memorial grave for Joachim Murat and his family in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1899, his granddaughter Countess Letizia Rasponi Murat tried to find his remains in the St. George crypt so they could rebury them with dignity in the Certosa di Bologna cemetery. They were not successful. In 1976, the crypt was exposed during repairs to the church floor. Photographs were taken through a foot-wide hole in the trap door but all they captured was the basement full of bones and humus. Determining which parts belonged to Murat would seem a fool’s errand.

In April of 2007, Professor Pino Pagnotta, president of the Joachim Murat Association, got a hold of the pictures from the 70s and studied them closely. He had them enlarged and enhanced and was able to see more than 1976 photographic technology had allowed. He spied a broken casket made of a plain wood with a cord entwined in the boards. This matches contemporary eye-witness accounts like the one of Antonino Condoleo, a youth of 15 in 1815, who assisted in the burial of Joachim Murat. Condoleo describes a mishap on the way to the church when the plain fir casket containing Murat’s body was dropped and broken. They hastily tied the casket back together with a long cord and got it to St. George’s church where it was dumped unceremoniously in the crypt.

The discovery made news at the time and the Joachim Murat Association advocated strenuously that the remains in and/or around the broken coffin be DNA tested. Eight years later, they’ve finally gotten all the various authorities clerical and secular to sign on to the project. (I suspect Richard III was not far from their minds. Pizzo’s main tourist draw is the 15th century castle built by Frederick I of Aragon in which Murat was tried and executed. The castle was renamed after him and now receives thousands of visitors a year.)

In May, the heavy marble slab sealing the basement will be moved and biologist Sergio Romano will be lowered into the crypt where he will take pictures and samples from the broken casket. If DNA can be extracted from the samples — a very big if — it can be tested against Murat’s many descendants, among then his three times great-grandson actor René Auberjonois, aka the shapeshifter Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, whose late mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat.

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Roman owl fibula found on Danish island

April 23rd, 2015

Last summer, archaeologists excavating an Iron Age settlement on the Baltic island of Bornholm, Denmark, unearthed a rare enameled brooch in the shape of an owl. The excavation of the Lavegaard settlement on the outskirts of the town of Nexø was carried out in advance of construction of a daycare center. The archaeological team from Bornholms Museum has found large quantities of pottery, the remains of workshop ovens, hearths, clay and daub construction, traces of iron smelting and ceramics firing and more than 1,300 postholes. The owl pin was found by metal detectorists working with the archaeologists a few meters from an ancient home in the Roman Iron Age layer. Its design and composition date it to the middle of the 1st century through the end of the 3rd century A.D.

The owl’s most prominent features are its huge round eyes with bright orange irises around a black pupil. Its body has a wing decoration filled with green enamel inset with five circles, each containing concentric rings of red, yellow and black. The bird’s tail feathers are marked with semi-circular indentations and its neck is encircled by a rope design. All the colors are made of enamel.

The artifact is a plate or disk fibula, a pin used to fasten garments made from a flat disk that could be shaped into a variety of designs, including zoomorphic ones. It was made of bronze and decorated with multi-colored enamel accents. The enamel in the piece was created by applying various colors of powdered glass onto the glass rods you see in millefiori designs (that’s how those concentric circles in the eyes and on the body were made) and then firing the brooch until the powder fused into enamel. The technique used to make the owl so colorful is known as pit enamel because the surface of the enamel becomes uneven upon subsequent firings done to harden the enamel.

Roman enamel came in a variety of colors — orange, red, azure, dark blue, green, yellow, white, black — but it rarely survives in brilliant condition. Many enameled fibulae found today have seen their colors fade or change into a yellowish brown. The owl’s colors are still diverse and bright because it was preserved by archaeological layers topped by a thick clay sealing layer. Also, the area was not ploughed anytime in the recent past which saved the little owl from being churned up and potentially damaged by heavy equipment.

While enameled fibulae do not appear to have been very popular north of the Germanic border — Scandinavia had excellent artisans of its own, particularly metalworkers, and the fashion was to leave metal jewelry as is rather than putting lots of color on it — more of them have been found on the island of Bornholm than anywhere else in Scandinavia, about a dozen of them so far. This is the only owl fibula known to have been found in Scandinavia. They’re rare anyway, and the few that have been found were unearthed in German frontier forts or closer to the heart of the empire in what are today Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.

Somebody must have loved this colorful owl, perhaps appreciating its rare design or symbolic significance, enough to take it home. Archaeologists believe it was likely to have been brought to Bornholm by a mercenary returning from a stint in the Roman army rather than openly traded.

Owls have a keen sense of night vision, enabling these highly skilled silent hunters to catch their prey unawares. This notion of owls as intelligent and wise animals is one that has endured throughout the ages as famous companions to both Athena, the Greek Goddess of war, and later to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and war.

In fact, Minerva was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder as a symbol of wisdom, making it a highly desirable animal for a Roman soldier.

We do not know if the Germanic perception of the owl was the same as the Romans, but many of them would have been mercenaries in the Roman territories and developed a deep insight into the Roman mentality and culture. It is likely that they also adopted Roman traditions of symbolic jewellery.

The brooch must have been something quite special at the time, both because of its unusual shape and bright colours. It must have given the wearer a great level of prestige.

In Danish the word for owl fibula is uglefiblen which is, I think we can all agree, extremely adorable. The uglefiblen is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark along with other treasures discovered in 2014.

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Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

April 22nd, 2015

Researches doing a routine examination of a sabre in the collection of the Yaroslavl Museum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl 160 miles northeast of Moscow have discovered that the blade is the oldest crucible steel weapon ever found in Eastern Europe. The bent and broken sabre was unearthed in 2007 in the shadow of the Dormition Cathedral in the historic center of Yaroslavl. Originally built in 1215, the cathedral suffered a great deal of damage during the Russian Revolution and was demolished by the Soviets in 1937. It was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in time to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2010.

Dr. Asya Engovatova from the RAS Institute of Archaeology led an archaeological excavation of the area which in 2007 found a mass grave of defenders and civilians killed when Mongol invaders under Batu Khan sacked and burned Yaroslavl in 1238. The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry. The sabre, missing its hilt and fittings, was one of several weapons found in the mass grave. Swords from the 12th and 13th centuries are very rare finds in Russia, and most of the ones that have been unearthed were discovered in warrior graves in southern Russia. Finding one in the archaeological layers of a city is even greater a rarity.

In March of this year, the Yaroslavl Sabre underwent metallographic analysis at the RAS Institute of Archaeology to find out more about its composition and internal structure. The blade was examined under a scanning electron microscope and using X-ray microphotography.

The metallographic methods used in the analysis revealed that the sword was made from crucible steel. The technology used to produce steel of this kind was first perfected in India, in the 1[st century] A.D. Artifacts crafted from such steel later begin to turn up in Central Asia. European sword makers appear to have known nothing of this technology. The techniques for making crucible steel were later lost and European steel makers reinvented it only at the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and thereafter, crucible steel was very expensive. It produces bladed weapons more exactly than any other material, conferring a combination of great strength and the ability to maintain sharpness throughout the length of the blade.

The only native metal available for swords in early medieval Europe was bloomery iron which was made by heating iron ore and charcoal in a furnace. This created an end-product replete with slag inclusions and only occasionally absorbed enough carbon to form steel. Crucible steel was made by placing pieces of iron and charcoal in a crucible and heating it until they combined to form a steel ingot. The ingots were then forged into hard, sharp blades at low temperatures.

According to ancient weapons expert Alan Williams, the only European swords forged at least in part from crucible steel known from this period were made in Germany between the 8th and 9th centuries and inscribed “ULFBERHT” (or variants thereof) on the blade. About 100 ULFBERHT swords have been found, mainly in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast. Only a handful of them have the high-steel content indicating Central Asian crucible steel may have been used in their forging, but the ULFBERHT smiths didn’t have the know-how to forge this material to its ideal strength.

The Yaroslavl Sabre, on the other hand, is made entirely of crucible steel by highly skilled smiths. It was likely made in one of the Central Asian steel production centers that had been conquered by the Mongols before they invaded Russia. It was almost certainly a Mongol weapon, and must have belonged to a very wealthy, high-ranking Mongol warrior. That might explain its ignominious fate. Analysis of the blade revealed micro-cracks with metal in them cause by long exposure to burning. It seems the blade was deliberately heated to a high temperature so it could be bent and then was thrown into the mass grave.

Bending the enemy’s expensive and lethal sword may have had a ritual purpose to it, although any hope that it might curse away the Mongol conquest would prove futile. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and the ruler of the Golden Horde, the northwest section of the Mongol Empire, and his 35,000 mounted cavalry cut a deadly swath through the splintered Kievan Rus in the last month of 1237 and early months of 1238, razing almost every major city including Moscow, Vladimir, Rostov and Kiev. Only Novgorod and Pskov would be spared destruction.

The last organized resistance to the invasion was at the Battle of the Siti River on March 4th, 1238. The Russian forces were led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir, who had survived the levelling of his capital to raise an army. Fighting by his side were three of his nephews, one of whom was Prince Vsyevolod Konstantinovich, the first independent ruler of the Principality of Yaroslavl. The Russians were annhilated. Yuri and two of his nephews were killed on the battlefield. The third, Vasilko, Prince of Rostov, was taken prisoner and only lived long enough to call Mongol general Subutai “a dark kingdom of vileness” before Subutai had his throat slit. After that, all Russian states submitted to Mongol rule ushering in two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day-Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

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Conserving a boat made of cloves

April 21st, 2015

British Museum organics conservator Verena Kotonski was tasked with a unique assignment last November: conserving a model boat made of cloves. The museum doesn’t know much about the boat’s history. They think it was made in Indonesia anywhere from 18th to the early 20th century, probably in the middle of that range. It entered the collection in 1972 but there are no records nothing how it made its way to the museum, who made it where and when, whether it was donated, purchased, etc. It’s such a rare and intriguing piece that despite the many questions attending its history the clove boat is the cover model for the British Museum’s Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange exhibition which is on now and runs through May 31st.

The boat is slim and long with a central canopy and a raised openwork prow and stern. Rowers with long paddles stand on both sides, back and front, and the canopy is topped with a pennant. A drawing of the boat made when it first arrived at the British Museum indicate there was a second pennant at one point as well. The boat is made of dried cloves strung together on threads or threaded together with thin wooden pins. The hull is formed of layered strands of cloves tied together. Charmingly, even after at least a century and probably two it still smells like cloves. The conservator said as soon as she opened the crate she was overwhelmed by the scent of cloves.

The artifact has never been on display before because of its condition issues. Already in the 1970s there were detached pieces kept in a box with it, and by the time Kotonski received it there were 14 detached elements, plus evidence on the boat that there were more pieces missing. It was also veritably caked in dust which she had to clean painstakingly with a brush, a vacuum to suction off the dust and conservation-grade rubber to extract the more deeply embedded particles.

Once the boat was clean, the damaged areas needed to be fixed and detached pieces reattached. The thorniest issue was puzzling out where everything should go. Out of the 14 detached pieces — five torsos, one standing figure, two pairs of arms and paddles (these were made as one piece and then attached to torsos), one long paddle (possibly a rudder), one pennant without its pole, three round objects of indeterminate nature — the standing figure, two of the torsos and their matching arms and paddles could be immediately identified as fitting vacant spots on the boat.

Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.

A similar boat in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection helped fill in some of the blanks. It has three figures on the roof of the canopy with round objects, most likely drums, in front of them. Kotonski examined the round objects under a microscope and was able to match the break edges of one of them to one of the torsos. It still wasn’t clear where the drummers and their drums were placed atop of the canopy. There are multiple holes allowing for any number of arrangements. The conservation team debated whether they should even reinstall the drummers without being certain about the original placement.

We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.

They made the opposite decision when it came to the long paddle, the pennant and one drum with an attached pole. In order to reattach these pieces to the model, they would have had to reconstruct significant missing parts. Since they couldn’t know their original positions nor what the lost parts looked like, the reconstruction and reattachment would have entailed more guesswork than they were comfortable with. The pieces were returned to the boat’s storage box.

They did reconstruct one piece: a teeny tiny little retaining collar that was important for the boat’s stability. These collars fit on top of posts on each corner of the canopy, keeping the roof from gradually inching upwards and coming off its poles. The replacement collar was made of Japanese tissue paper, one of the modern conservator’s best friends, to distinguish it from its clove-wrought brethren.

Because conservators are magical (and because the model is small), the entire process took just 34 hours. The boat is now on display, but conservation isn’t over yet. Verena Kotonski would like anyone with any information that might help them suss out the original positions of the detached pieces to email the team at conservation@britishmuseum.org.

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Replica of LaFayette’s ship Hermione sets sail for US

April 20th, 2015

The Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, was only 19 years old when he defied his family and a direct order of King Louis XVI of France to join the American colonists in their fight for independence from Britain. He outfitted a vessel, La Victoire, with his own money and set sail for the one-year-old United States of America in 1777. The Continental Congress gave him a commission as major general on July 31st, 1777, just over a month after his arrival. An unpaid commission, it’s worth noting, because Lafayette offered to fight for his Enlightenment ideals on his own dime.

He met General George Washington a few days later and the two formed an instant rapport. They were both freemasons — a signficant factor in Lafayette’s prompt acceptance by the mason-heavy Founding Fathers — and Washington appreciated Lafayette’s committment to the cause. Soon Lafayette put his lifeblood where his mouth was, receiving a gunshot wound to the leg during his first engagement, the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th, 1777. He suffered alongside Washington and the Continental Army through the horrors of Valley Forge that winter and went on to fight in several important battles and use his considerable diplomatic skills to smooth over tensions between the Americans and the newly arrived French fleet.

In January of 1779, he returned to France with an eye to encouraging a direct confrontation with Britain. When he was unable to persuade anyone of the dubious wisdom of attempting an invasion of Britain, he turned his sights on securing troops and aid for a return to America. He worked with Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ first ambassador to France whose homespun style and scintillating wit made him a sensation at the French court. Together they were able to get 6,000 French troops and five frigates to reinforce the American side. Lafayette was in France for a year, long enough to impregnate his wife and name his newborn son Georges Washington Lafayette, before returning to America.

He departed from the port city of Rochefort in western France aboard the Concorde class 32-gun frigate Hermione on March 11th, 1780, and landed in Boston on April 27th. The Hermione fought the British in multiple engagements, ultimately participating in the blockade of Chesapeake Bay that kept British supplies and reinforcements from reaching Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in September of 1781. Lafayette also played a key role in the decisive Battle of Yorktown, the last land battle of the Revolutionary War. He harried Cornwallis’ troops around Virginia for months before the British put down stakes in Yorktown. Then he took a high position on a hill outside Yorktown and pinned the British in with artillery. Washington’s army soon joined his old friend’s and together they laid siege to the city. Lafayette and 400 men took Redoubt 9 on October 14th, 1781. Four days later Cornwallis surrendered.

Lafayette returned to France two months later, continuing to advocate for French support even as the war wound down to the occasional naval skirmish. He visited the United States again in 1784 and tried to convince Washington to manumit his slaves. He also made a speech in front of the Virginia House of Delegates calling for the abolition of slavery in the spirit of human liberty that he had fought for in the war. Unfortunately for millions of enslaved people and the history of this country, he failed to convince them. His last trip to America was in 1824 when he was welcomed by cheering crowds, parades and a wide variety of honors. His efforts for democracy in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary France were not so well-received by the radicals in the National Assembly, Napoleon and the restored Bourbon monarchs. He was imprisoned for five years, exiled for more, had all his properties confiscated and even when he was restored to some of his fortune and allowed to return to France, he would continue to have a fraught relationship with the government because he refused to abandon his democratic principles. In the United States, on the other hand, he was unequivocably beloved. He was considered a great hero on a par with Washington: generous, unselfish, loyal to a country that was not his own.

As for the Hermione, she ran aground on the west coast of France in September 1793 and was destroyed. In 1992, a non-profit company was founded to recreate the lost Hermione using period methods and materials as much as modern safety requirements allow. Construction began in 1997 in the same town where she was built the first time: Rochefort, site of the Royal Shipyard. In a dry dock next to the Corderie Royale (the Royal Ropemaker), the replica of the Hermione was built in public view. This video has a compilation of pictures and video showing the sloooow construction process from shipyard framing to installing the masts:

Once the ship was completed in 2014 (the original Hermione only took six months to build, but finding properly shaped oak trees for a helm these days is much harder than it was back then), 150 volunteers selected from 600 applicants had to be trained to sail as small boys could do blindfolded, malnourished and whipped 300 years ago. Seaworthiness tests in fall of 2014 went well and the Hermione was ready to follow in her namesake’s hullprints.

On Saturday, April 18th, 2015, the replica Hermione set sail from Rochefort for Yorktown, Virginia. It’s scheduled to arrive there in June, after which it will visit another 12 historic towns along the eastern seaboard, among them Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Mount Vernon will be the second stop, an homage to the undying deep bonds of love and camaraderie between Lafayette and Washington. The Hermione will be in New York for the Fourth of July where she will join the Harbour Parade. People will be able to visit the ship at other ports of call as well. Return to this page (it’s a little empty now) to find out more about events as they’re finalized.

A brief overview of the history of the ship and the construction of the replica:

Boarding the crew:

Preparation of the boat:

The Hermione sails for America:

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Take a guided tour of HMS Erebus

April 19th, 2015

Last year Parks Canada released a minute of the video taken by the remote operated vehicle which found the HMS Erebus and a minute of the film taken by divers when they discovered the ship’s bell was included in a brief video about the recovery and analysis of the bell, but other than that, we’ve only had a few photographs of the wreck.

On Thursday, VIP visitors to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto got an unexpected treat when what they thought would be a few minutes of recorded footage of the new Erebus ice dive turned out to be a live broadcast of a dive to the wreck complete with narration by underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris. The ROM event was attended by government types like Treasury Board president Tony Clement and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of the Environment Colin Carrie and by an extremely lucky seventh grade geography class from University of Toronto Schools. After the video tour, they were able to ask questions about the ship to diver Marc-Andre Bernier.

Now Parks Canada has released a recording of that live stream so those of who are neither government officials nor in the seventh grade can get their first long, hard look at the wreck of the HMS Erebus. It shows Harris, supported by an off-screen Leading Seaman Caleb Hooper, moving from stern to bow pointing out areas and artifacts of interest like the bronze six-pound cannons, the tracks that allowed the crew to lift the screw propeller out of the water when ice was heavy, the quarterdeck, the ship’s very long tiller, the capstand, the remains of the mainmast and the port side bilge pump.

The quality of the picture is excellent, thanks in part to the two feet of ice on the surface that block waves and allow particulate matter to sink to the seafloor. There are moments when it’s a bit dark down there, what with it being 36 feet deep under a thick ice sheet, but you can still see what Harris is describing just fine. The video is just short of 10 minutes long (time totally flies, though, so don’t let that daunt you) and ends a little abruptly which I hope means there will be a part two released soon.

The dives only began last week because they were delayed by bad weather and are expected to continue through Friday. There’s a photo gallery of the Erebus base camp, the triangular holes cut into the ice sheet, the blocks of ice removed after being cut out and more here. Also, Parks Canada Archaeology tweeted this amazing picture of a tent shot from the hole in the ice.

Here’s the video about the HMS Erebus bell released in November 2014. It’s short but awesome:

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Creeping Baby Doll is back…FOR YOUR SOUL

April 18th, 2015

Inspired by my recent foray into Swiss watchmaker automata, I decided to revisit one of my old favorites from the archives: the creepy Creeping Baby Doll. When I first posted about this monstrous hybrid of human baby and machine four years ago, it was within the context of the National Museum of American History’s extensive collection of robots which includes the patent model for a crawling (called “creeping” in the 19th century) baby doll patented in August of 1871 by one George P. Clarke. The only photograph of robobaby was a blurry black-and-white which while dissatisfying still managed to convey the disturbing incongruity of the baby face and limbs attached to a heavy mechanical torso.

The museum has lately expanded its online collection so now there’s a full entry dedicated to the Creeping Baby Doll patent model complete with a proper high resolution color picture. Feast your eyes upon her, I dare you!

Now you can see her ice blue eyes and toothy grin which add a whole new dimension of horror. What’s that you say? You wish she were staring right at you, sucking your soul out through your uncontrollably slackened jaw? Done!

Temporarily satiated, she can now move on to her next victim, leaving your empty zombified body to shuffle behind her, another drone in her growing army.

To be fair to George Pemberton Clarke, whose model was an improvement on one invented by his boss, Robert J. Clay, earlier that year, the final production toy was nowhere near as terrifying as the patent model. The National Museum of American History has one of those too, although they’re not certain when it was made.

You can just see the gear and wheels peeking out from under her belly and armpit, but all dressed up with her little bonnet she’s significantly less spine-chilling. Still not much of a cuddly toy for little girls to play house with, however. Indeed, she ultimately found a market as a novelty, one of a number of wind-up metal toys including Girl Skipping Rope and Toy Gymnast made by the Automatic Toy Works, a small New York mechanical toy company founded by Robert J. Clay.

In 1872, a year after the first Creeping Baby made her debut, he submitted a patent application for another so-called improvement to the design: the Crying Creeping Baby Doll. A projecting blade made of rubber or paste would strike the notches of a toothed wheel as it turned, thus producing a sound that Clay assures us is “in imitation of the crying of a child, or of an animal voice.” I like that baby and animal cries are entirely interchangeable, in his opinion. Sadly, I have been unable to locate a recording of whatever god-awful ululations this mechanism produced, or even any evidence that this version of the toy ever went into commercial production.

The non-crying Creeping Baby went on to have a long career. Clay’s company was in business from 1868 until 1874 when it was bought by Connecticut toy makers the Ives Manufacturing Company in 1874. Ives continued to produce automata under the Automatic Toy Works imprimatur for years after the acquisition, expanding the line with clockwork mechanisms that make the Creeping Baby look like the teddy bear from the Snuggle commercials.

This trade catalogue from 1882 has made the rounds of the Internets because of its wide array of painfully racist toys. Out of 17 toys on offer, seven are caricatures of black people, including a fiddling Uncle Tom and “The Woman’s Rights Advocate” who is unnamed but is an unmistakable reference to Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who had been born a slave in upstate New York and became nationally famous as an anti-slavery and gender equality advocate. Her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” became a rallying cry for abolition and the women’s rights movement. Two more toys are caricatures of the Chinese (doing laundry, of course) and one is an Italian Organ Grinder, who while stereotypical does not have the cringe-worthy exaggerated caricature features of the other racialized toys. He also plays music, unlike the fiddler, with a mechanism the catalogue proudly attributes to those masters of automata, the Swiss.

On the last page of that catalogue you’ll find the one, the only Wonderful Creeping Baby, “the best doll ever made.” She’s the second most expensive at $5 (the Organ Grinder runs $6, doubtless because of his Swiss music box) and her “resemblance to life is almost startling,” we are assured.

The Ives Manufacturing Company was the top producer of mechanical wind-up toys in the 1880s, but by the end of the century cheaper copycats were so widespread the business shifted to focus on toy trains. After a fire leveled the Ives factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1900, they rebuilt as a state-of-the-art toy train manufacturer. They were hugely successful, the largest toy train company in the country, until model railway makers Lionel overtook them in 1924. Four years later they were bankrupt and were eventually bought out by their rivals Lionel in 1933.

As for George Clarke, the patent office records his long career, before and after his foray into toy design. Here’s his 1857 application for first a new arrangement of steam boiler safety valves. Ten years later he was living in New York and was inventing more entertaining mechanisms like this extremely cool globe made of discs he called “zones” depicting the “animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms of the earth.” That would have been just before the time when he worked with Clay at the Automatic Toy Works.

A decade after that his patents returned to more practical mechanisms, including this cane with an electric current in the head (1878) that would gently zap the hand wielding it. Although Clarke noted in the patent application that “the effect of a gentle galvanic current on the human organization is not in the present state of electrical and physiological science fully explained” but that doesn’t stop him from claiming it “functions as a battery for the relief or cure of diseases of the nerves.” As if that weren’t a sufficient selling point, the mechanism can be fitted inside the “handle of any portable tool or weapon, as a policeman’s club or the like, if desired.” Billy club and taser all in one. I’m amazed it never went into production.

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New York to put up marker at site of Wall Street slave market

April 17th, 2015

There are 38 historical markers in Lower Manhattan. None of them acknowledge the city’s massive debt to the slaves who literally built it. That will change this year because the city council has approved a marker on the site of New York’s first slave market at the corner of Wall Street and Pearl Street.

In 1627, a year after the Dutch West India Company imported the first 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam, slaves built the wall that Wall Street was named after. It started out as a defensive earthwork embankment along the northern boundary of the settlement meant to keep Native Americans from attacking the settlement, a Manhattan version of Hadrian’s Wall. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered the construction of a more elaborate palisade wall spanning Lower Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River in 1653, slaves again formed the bulk of the work force.

The Wall Street wall came down in 1699. By then slavery had grown exponentially. The Dutch had imported slaves to do the hard work of clearing land for houses and farms, filling shore areas for docks and building roads that free Dutch immigrants refused to do preferring the easier and more lucrative route of the fur trade which allowed them to make money quickly and return home. When the English conquered the colony in 1664, they continued to rely heavily on slave labour as farmers, dockworkers and household servants. New Amsterdam was renamed New York after the Duke of York, the future King James II, who had received a vast swath of the newly conquered territories from his brother King Charles II. The good duke just happened to be the major investor in the Royal African Company which had the monopoly over English trade with West Africa, a trade which primarily consisted of the sale of human beings. James gave slave ships priority access to docks and warehouses in New York City.

By 1703, slaves were found in 42% of the households in New York City, more than anywhere else in the north and second only to Charleston in all the English colonies of America. In 1711, almost 1,000 of New York’s population of 6,400 were black people, most of them enslaved. Their masters often sent them to make extra money by renting themselves out for short and long terms. All those slaves milling about, rubbing elbows with each other and free people of color without supervision, gave the powers that be agida, so on December 13th, 1711, the New York City Common Council passed an ordinance “Appointing a Place for the More Convenient Hiring of Slaves”

Be it Ordained by the Mayor Recorder Aldermen and Assistants of the City of New York Convened in Common Council and it is hereby Ordained by the Authority of the same That all Negro and Indian slaves that are lett out to hire within this City do take up their Standing in Order to be hired at the Markett house at the Wall Street Slip untill Such time as they are hired, whereby all Persons may Know where to hire slaves as their Occasions Shall require and also Masters discover when their Slaves are so hired and all the Inhabitants of this City are to take Notice hereof Accordingly.

It wasn’t just slaves for hire who were contained in the market at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets. Market House — known as the Meal Market since 1726 when the city granted it exclusive rights to the sale of grains — was the first official slave market in New York City. People were bought and sold there for more than 50 years and the city taxed every sale, thus making New York City itself not just the beneficiary of slave labour, but an active participant in the trade.

Other sites in Lower Manhattan sprang up where slaves were traded, and by 1762, the Meal Market had become an eyesore to the elite who for decades had enjoyed the prosperity and convenience its human cattle provided them. They submitted a petition to the Common Council:

Said Meal Market greatly obstructs the agreeable prospect of the East River, which those that live on Wall street would otherwise enjoy. That it occasions a dirty street, offensive to the inhabitants on each side and disagreeable to those that pass and repass to and from the Coffee House, a place of great resort, that same be removed.

Heaven forfend anything spoil the view of the East River or sully the way to the Merchants Coffee House. The Council responded with alacrity. In February 1762, the Meal Market was demolished. Slavery was far from over in the city. Even after the Revolutionary War when slavery began to wane in the northeastern states, New York doubled down. In 1790, Philadelphia had a population of 28,522, 300 of them slaves. Baltimore which, like New York, was a busy port city but which unlike New York was in close proximity to the plantations of the south, had 1,300 slaves out of a population of 13,503. New York City, for the first time overtaking Philadelphia as the most populous city in the nation with a population of 33,131, counted more than 2,300 slaves among them.

In 1799, the state legislature passed a gradual emancipation law declaring children of slaves born after July 4th, 1799 free, but even that half-assed measure was only technical freedom. Those children had to serve as indentured servants to their mothers’ masters until they were 28 years old (for men) or 25 years old (for women). Slaves born before that date were still slaves until they died, but they would now be called indentured servants. On July 4th, 1827, black people in New York held a parade celebrating their official freedom, but the sad truth is there were still slaves in New York until the 1850s.

Despite the enormous role of slaves in the birth and development of New York City, the African Burial Ground National Monument is currently the only memorial that makes any reference to slaves in all of Lower Manhattan. The new marker

The new plaque may be unveiled on Juneteenth (the anniversary of the official announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas by Union General Gordon Granger on June 19th, 1865, which has evolved into a wider celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery in all of the Confederate states), but the date is still up the air. The council hasn’t decided where exactly the plaque will be installed yet nor even the exact wording. Wall Street is swaddled in scaffolding at the moment; they need to pick a spot where the memorial will actually be visible.

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18th c. luxury sex toy found in Gdansk latrine

April 16th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating a latrine in the Podwalu suburb of Gdansk, Poland, discovered a 18th century dildo on Tuesday. The sex toy is eight inches long and made of high quality leather with a carved wooden tip. It is filled with bristles. This would have been a very expensive object, and its long sojourn in the low oxygen environment of the latrine has preserved the organic materials in excellent condition. Marcin Tymiński, spokesman for the Regional Office for the Protection of Monuments, noted that it was probably dropped in the toilet, either deliberately or in a tragic slippery fingers accident.

The dig has been ongoing for the past seven months. Most of the discoveries have been small items like fragments of pottery and jewelry, but they also found wooden swords and arrowheads, evidence that the site was once a fencing school. The dildo was found on the last day of excavations. It dates to the second half of the 18th century, the same period when archaeologists believe the fencing school was in operation.

These kinds of artifacts rarely survive, because they were intimate, embarrassing and kept hidden. When people were done with them, they were destroyed, not passed down through the generations. One of the archaeologists on the team recalled finding another archaeological phallus, but it was ancient and made of wood and more likely an object of cult worship. This one most definitely had a utilitarian purpose, not a religious one.

The dildo has now been removed to the Archaeological Museum of Gdansk for conservation. No decision has been made on whether or where it will go on display. You never know how museums are going to react to sexually explicit artifacts. Sometimes they put them in storage for decades and only whip them out on very special occasions; other times they sell replicas in the museum shop for £129 ($191) a pop.

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