Bronze Age Egtved Girl was not from Denmark

May 22nd, 2015

Egtved Girl, the Bronze Age woman whose exceptionally well-preserved grave was discovered near the village of Egtved on the Jutland peninsula of southeastern Denmark, was not born in Denmark. Researchers from the National Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen studied the remains of her body, clothes and accessories using a combination of biomolecular, biochemical and geochemical techniques to determine not just where she was born and raised, but also to trace her movements in the years before her death and burial. Read the full study here.

The grave of Egtved Girl was excavated from the eastern side of the Storehøj barrow in 1921. She had been put to rest in a hollowed out oak trunk lined with cow hide and grave goods placed inside with her. Next to her head was a box made of bark containing a bronze awl and a hair net. At her feet was a birch bucket with a brown residue composed of ingredients like bog cranberries, wheat and lime tree pollen that were used to make a kind of mead. She wore bronze arm rings on each arm, an earring in one ear and a bronze belt plate of impressive size. A horn comb was attached to her belt. Her clothing was a short woven tunic and a cord skirt 15 inches long wound twice around her waist. both made of wool.

Although so many organic materials survived her long slumber, most of her own tissues decayed. Only her blonde hair, teeth, nails, and a small amount of skin and brain remained. Her bones probably dissolved in the acidic environment inside the coffin. A bundle of cloth was found to containing the cremated remains of a child 5-6 years old. A few charred bone fragments from the child were found in the bark box near her head. Egtved Girl was probably not her mother as her teeth indicate she was just 16-18 at the time of death. Dendrochronological analysis of the coffin dated the burial to 1,370 B.C.

For so young a woman to have such a high status burial is very rare. She must have held an important position in society, possibly a priestess or a ritual dancer. You might think, therefore, that she was local. To pinpoint her origins, the multi-disciplinary study used strontium isotope analysis of her first molar. They also tested the strontium isotope signature of the occipital bone of the child buried with her. The results were statistically indistinguishable, so the girl and the child came from the same place. Comparison to the Danish baseline and the specific strontium isotope values of the Egtved burial site excluded Denmark as their likely place of origin.

Her clothes weren’t local either. Strontium isotope analysis found only a single wool cord in the container with the child’s cremated remains that was of Danish origin. The rest of the wool fibers tested, all of them very high quality, had varied strontium isotope values that indicate the sheep grazed in an area with a widely varied ecology. The possible range for the origin of Egtved Girl, the child she was buried with and her garments stretches from southern Scandinavia to southern Germany, but researchers believe she was from the Black Forest which has a variety of strontium isotope values commensurate with those in the wool fibers.

“In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms. We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and my guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families,” [University of Gothenburg professor] Kristian Kristiansen says.

According to him, Denmark was rich in amber and traded amber for bronze. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Middle East, Baltic amber was as coveted as gold, and, through middlemen in Southern Germany, large quantities of amber were transported to the Mediterranean, and large quantities of bronze came to Denmark as payment. In the Bronze Age, bronze was as valuable a raw material as oil is today so Denmark became one of the richest areas of Northern Europe.

“Amber was the engine of Bronze Age economy, and in order to keep the trade routes going, powerful families would forge alliances by giving their daughters in marriage to each other and letting their sons be raised by each other as a kind of security,” Kristian Kristiansen says.

To determine her travels in the two years before her death, the research team used her nine-inch-long hair. The strontium signature indicates she that 13-15 months before she died, she was somewhere with very similar strontium values to the place she was born. Then she moved probably to Jutland where she stayed for about 9 or ten months before going back home for four to six months. Her last trip was to Egtved about a month before her death. This is the first time researchers have been able to trace the movements of a prehistoric person with such precision.

Our study provides evidence for long-distance and periodically rapid mobility. Our findings compel us to rethink European Bronze Age mobility as highly dynamic, where individuals moved quickly, over long distances in relatively brief periods of time.

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Le Brun’s Jabach Family restored and on display

May 21st, 2015

Charles Le Brun’s monumental portrait Everhard Jabach and His Family purchased last year by the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been restored and is now on display in the museum’s European Paintings Gallery alongside other French works from the 17th century. Feast your eyes upon this pair of very satisfying before and after pictures:

The painting is 7.6 feet by 10.6 feet, so even getting it the Met from London was a task as monumental as the portrait. It couldn’t be padded to the gills because if the crate got too big it wouldn’t fit on the cargo plane. Thankfully there was no damage in transit.

Once it arrived safely, conservator Michael Gallagher’s first task was to remove the varnish applied in the late 19th or early 20th century. It was discolored and darkened, giving the painting a yellowed tint. Using cotton swabs and a solvent custom blended to remove this particular varnish without damaging the paint underneath, Gallagher painstakingly cleaned the whole surface revealing Le Brun’s rich hues and previously invisible details like baby Heinrich’s adorable pink toes. That delicate pink and white skin is even more evident in figure of Jabach’s daughter Anna Maria whose skin, hair and clothes look completely different with the varnish gone.

That was child’s play compared to the work Gallagher and his team had to do to repair damage to the top of the painting. That big horizontal line you see running across the width 18 inches below the top is a fold mark. It’s not clear when the canvas was folded over, but there’s a picture published in an 1969 issue of Country Life of the painting hanging in Olantigh Towers, the Kent stately home where it lived from 1832 until the 2014 sale, that shows the painting folded. Olantigh Towers burned in 1903 and was rebuilt on a far more modest scale. It’s possible the monumental painting was reducing by folding so it would fit in the smaller space of the new home.

It was a drastic, some might call it insane, choice. The top foot and a half of the canvas was folded over a smaller stretcher and hammered into place with tacks driven through the painted surface. It was finally liberated from its Procrustean prison in 2012 when the painting was flattened out and a temporary strip-lining attached around the perimeter with wax-resin adhesive. This was good enough to show prospective buyers, but it wasn’t conservation. It was up to the Met’s team had to address the fold and the tack holes.

First they had to flip the painting onto its face, remove the stretcher, strip-lining and wax residue. You can see the team in action in a series of videos posted in this blog entry by Michael Gallagher. Then they had to flatten out the fold and bring the surface in plane. Again Gallagher posted a series of short and sweet videos to demonstrate the process. Before they could deal the holes, they had to flip the painting right-side up and work from the surface. That was ingeniously done as well.

Tubes, man. Handy with a giant Picasso curtain; handy with a giant Le Brun canvas.

After reattaching the canvas to its stretcher, conservators added canvas insets and fills to areas of paint and canvas loss. A coating of fresh varnish was next to prepare the filled areas and other faded parts for retouching.

All that was left was putting it in the new frame, custom-made by Parisian framers who have been in business since the 1800s and shipped to New York in four sections. That turned out to be a fortunate coincidence because the painting is so huge it was barely able to squeeze through the gallery doors naked. The elaborate gilded frame was assembled and installed in the gallery where the painting now hangs in all its restored glory.

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5th c. skeleton may have brought leprosy to Britain

May 20th, 2015

The skeleton of an adult male unearthed on the outskirts of Great Chesterford, Essex, is one of the earliest leprosy victims in Britain and a A new study has found that he may even have been the person who introduced the disease to Britain. The skeletal remains were unearthed between October 1953 and April 1954 in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery exposed in 1952 by a commercial gravel digging operation. The subsequent rescue excavations discovered 161 inhumation graves, 33 cremation graves, 2 horse and 2 dog burials. This man was in Burial GC96 which included grave goods: the remnants of a spear (the head and a conical ferrule), a buckle loop, a knife and a bronze shoelace tag.

While his grave goods were decayed and most of his facial bones, ribs, some vertebrae and hands were missing, the bones that remained, including all the major long bones, were in good to excellent condition. The features of leprosy — narrowing of the toe bones, joint damage — were recognized on the skeletal remains in the 1950s, but other diseases can have similar effects. The well-preserved the bones allowed an international team of researchers led by the University of Leiden to apply the latest scientific analyses to confirm the diagnosis and reveal much more about the man’s life. Read the full study on PLOS ONE here.

DNA extraction was so successful that researchers were able not just to find Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex DNA, but to identify the specific strain of leprosy. It’s from lineage 3I, a strain that has been identified before in human remains found in Scandinavia and Britain but those date to the 7th century at the earliest. This is an ancestral strain from around the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Lipid biomarker analysis (study of the fatty molecules from the leprosy bacteria) confirmed the ancient DNA results and found on class of biomarkers distinct from the later instances of 3I found in medieval burials. Strontium isotope analysis of the teeth found that he was not local to Great Chesterford. Oxygen isotope analysis narrowed down his likely origin to Denmark, although eastern France and central Germany could not be ruled out.

The strain type has little bearing on the pathogenesis or severity of disease, as this is dictated by the immune response to M. leprae, but rather it may be helpful in understanding the origin of disease in the Anglo-Saxon period. Other type 3I cases have been reported from medieval Britain (Winchester and Ipswich), Denmark and Sweden. A Scandinavian origin for this lineage is therefore one possibility, given the proximity of the Anglo-Saxon tribal homelands in Northern Germany with Denmark.

Radiocarbon testing found the skeleton dates to 415–545 A.D.

Project leader Dr Sarah Inskip of Leiden University concludes: “The radiocarbon date confirms this is one of the earliest cases in the UK to have been successfully studied with modern biomolecular methods. This is exciting both for archaeologists and for microbiologists. It helps us understand the spread of disease in the past, and also the evolution of different strains of disease, which might help us fight them in the future. We plan to carry out similar studies on skeletons from different locations to build up a more complete picture of the origins and early spread of this disease.”

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TCM’s summer film noir festival and online course

May 19th, 2015


Clear off your DVRs because they’re going to need all the space they can get this summer. Turner Classic Movies is running a film noir festival every Friday of June and July called, appropriately, Summer of Darkness. A full 24 hours of films noir will air starting at 6:00 AM each Friday. It begins on June 5th with Fritz Lang’s chilling 1931 masterpiece M and ends on August 1st at 3:00 AM with Hitchcock’s 1956 based-on-a-true-story mistaken identity picture The Wrong Man. In between are iconic films you’ve probably seen many times — The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Third Man, Blue Dahlia, Strangers on a Train — others you’ve heard of but not seen, ones you’ve never heard of and a smattering of modern classics like LA Confidential and Blue Velvet. Browse the full schedule here (pdf). The grand total by my count is a pantagruelian 121 movies.

But wait, there’s more! TCM is leaning into the fact that it’s already to all intents and purposes a film school that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, 366 on leap years, and will be airing this treasure trove of film noir in conjunction with a massive open online course The Case of Film Noir.

In this nine-week course, we’ll go back in film history to investigate the “The Case of Film Noir” — the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas, arguably their greatest contribution to American culture.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon — from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.

Taught by Ball State University film noir and online education expert Dr. Richard L. Edwards, the course will provide links to public domain films noir so if you don’t have Turner Classic Movies, you can still participate. (Seriously though, get TCM if you can. In terms of sheer consistency and density of material, it’s the greatest channel on cable, bar none.) There will be live discussions on social media, but if you can’t attend you’ll be able to view recordings of them.

This is an amazing opportunity to explore a genre of film in the kind of depth that even college film classes can only dream of. Click here to enroll in the course.

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Picasso curtain unfurled at NY Historical Society

May 18th, 2015

On Sunday, May 17th, Le Tricorne, the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 was unfurled at its new permanent home, the New-York Historical Society. It’s the culmination of a long battle between the New York Landmarks Conservancy which has owned of the curtain since 2005 but does not own the landmark Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building where the curtain has hung since 1959. The building is the property of RFR Holding and its art collecting co-founder Aby Rosen. He wanted the largest Picasso in the United States gone and would have had it spirited it out in the middle of night if the Conservancy hadn’t gotten an injunction in the nick of time. The dispute was resolved last summer when the Conservancy agreed to take down the curtain and loan it permanently to the New-York Historical Society for public display.

The curtain was taken down from its home of nearly 60 years during the weekend of September 7th, 2014. It took a team of technicians from Art Installation Design 12 hours to remove the curtain from the travertine wall and roll it from bottom to top around a 23-foot-long tube using a hand crank. They had to start rolling it before they even knew the exact mechanism that was keeping the curtain on the wall. That turned out to be hundreds of staples attaching to the curtain to two pieces of wood that were screwed to the wall with 19 stainless steel screws. The New York Landmarks Conservancy experts were concerned that the paint or canvas might crack or, in a catastrophic scenario, that the top of the curtain — the most brittle section — would tear from the weight of the rolled up bottom before the process was complete. You can get a glimpse what a nail-biter of a long night it was in this video from the New York Times:

Thankfully the curtain was entirely cooperative and once it was rolled all the way up, the tube was lowered to a steel rig to keep it stable for transport. Wrapped in bubble wrap, the tube was loaded onto a truck by a team from Auer’s Rigging & Moving and moved to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where it was cleaned and conserved. Conservators found that the curtain is still “in excellent structural condition.” Other than repairs to a few small surface tears and removing some 1970s-era overpainting, all the curtain needed was a thorough cleaning. The front was cleaned by Conservancy exports when Vivendi deeded it to them in 2005, but the back was a different story. The last time it was cleaned was during the 1970s conservation, and a lot of grime had accumulated in the four decades since.

Once cleaned and conserved, the mighty curtain was again rolled up around its tube and trucked to the New-York Historical Society building on West 77th St. It was lifted to the second floor with a crane and then slipped in through the window.

With the curtain inside on Sunday morning, the installation got underway even as visitors came and went elsewhere in the museum. The riggers and art handlers climbed in and out of the shell of scaffolding surrounding the spot on the wall, painted pale blue, where the curtain would hang.

When the wall was ready, Tom Zoufaly, the lead technician for the art handling company, Art Installation Design, took over.

“It’s got to be slow,” he said. “I don’t want it to go slap against the wall. It will crack.”

The tube was rolled up to the wall. Some riggers pulled, hand over hand, on a chain-link pulley, and the tube began to creep up the wall with a sound like an ascending roller coaster. When it reached the top, others were waiting to slide the wooden slat at the top of the curtain into mounted brackets on the wall.

Once it was secured, they all shouted “Down! Down! Down!” and as some men cranked at either end of the tube, and others gently pulled it down, the curtain unfurled. A painted face peeked out, a woman in a black veil. Then the entire scene appeared: spectators at a bullfight.

When the curtain was freed from the roll, and hung flush against the wall, the crowd applauded.

Le Tricorne goes on display in second floor gallery of the New-York Historical Society starting May 29th.

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George Takei helps save internment camp artifacts

May 17th, 2015

Thanks to the efforts of George Takei, his legion of fans and thousands of people around the round, a collection of 450 artifacts from Japanese American internment camps have been saved from the auction block and acquired by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles. The collection had been consigned to the Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey, for sale on April 17th, but on April 9th Japanese Americans and heritage organizations including the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation came together to start a Facebook page and Change.org petition protesting the auction.

The Japanese American History: NOT for Sale campaign quickly garnered thousands of supporters, among them actor and activist George Takei. Takei, long before he became famous for playing Star Trek‘s Hikaru Sulu, spent three years of his childhood imprisoned in internment camps with his family — first the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, and then the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. He now serves as chairman emeritus on the JANM’s Board of Trustees. He publicized the efforts to halt the sale and contacted David Rago to work on a solution that would spare the artifacts of Japanese American internment from being dispersed to the highest bidders. Takei negotiated on behalf of the Japanese American National Museum and personally wrote a check to ensure the collection was kept together in the public interest.

On April 15th, Rago announced the lots were being removed from sale. On May 2nd, at a gala event where Takei was given the museum’s Distinguished Medal of Honor For Lifetime Achievement, JANM announced that they had acquired the collection for an undisclosed sum.

“Taking the auction off the calendar was a great victory for the Japanese American community and its friends,” said Sacramento resident Yoshinori “Toso” Himel, an organizer of the “NOT for Sale” campaign. “A second victory was the announcement that now the items will be in a community institution.”

When Himel and his wife, Japanese American historian Barbara Takei (no relation to George Takei), saw an unlabeled photo of Himel’s mother earlier this year in one of the 23 lots up for auction, the couple joined forces with other Sacramento Japanese Americans, including the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, to oppose the public sale. [...]

Himel, also the founding president of the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of California, said the artifacts need to be interpreted and placed in their proper context. He said his mother’s photo, which shows her smiling while her eyes are downcast, was used as propaganda by the War Relocation Authority “to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people.”

The collection was first amassed by folk art expert Allen H. Eaton. Eaton had wanted to document the art produced by the internees as early as 1943 and in 1945 he visited five of the camps in person. He also dispatched colleagues to photograph the works made at four other camps. During his travels through the camps, he collected a unique group of artworks, furniture, photographs and other items, most of them gifts from the internees at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. In 1952, his seminal book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, was published. In it Eaton wrote: “This evacuation, regardless of its military justification, was not only, as is now generally acknowledged, a great wartime mistake, but it was the most complete betrayal, in one act, of civil liberties and democratic traditions in our history, and a clear violation of the constitutional rights of seventy thousand citizens.”

Eaton originally intended to put the artifacts he had received on display in an exhibition that would do justice to the 120,000 Japanese Americans, 60,000 of them children, interned during the war. The internees who gave him their artworks and personal belongings did so with the understanding that they would speak for them in this exhibition, but it never happened.

Ten years later Eaton died and his collection went to his heirs who later passed it on to Thomas Ryan, a contractor who worked for the Eatons and was also a family friend. Thomas Ryan bequeathed it to his son John, a Connecticut credit-card marketing executive. Ryan felt he wasn’t in a financial position to give away the artifacts which Rago had valued at $27,000 but he hoped museums and internment camp organizations would successfully bid for the lots. As large groups of internment artifacts don’t come up for sale often, the auction would have established commercial value benchmarks, a notion that itself was deeply offensive to the Japanese American community, as was the idea of pitting private collectors against non-profit organizations and the families of internees whose likenesses, names and artworks were being sold.

“I believe that through understanding comes respect, and JANM continues to take major steps forward to increase the public’s understanding of a grievous chapter in American history,” said Takei, chairman emeritus of the museum’s Board of Trustees, and the fifth recipient of JANM’s Medal of Honor. “All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored. The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience.”

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Early Canadian canal lock unearthed in Dartmouth

May 16th, 2015

Archaeologists in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, have unearthed a section of the town’s old canal system under the corner of Prince Albert Road and Pleasant Street. Lock 3 is a microcosm of the canal’s construction history, with parts dating to the 1820s and the late 1850s, early 1860s.

The Dartmouth locks were part of the Shubenacadie Canal, one of Canada’s first canal systems which connected Halifax Harbour to the Bay of Fundy. The 70 mile-long system linked a network of rivers and lakes that had been used to transport people and cargo since the Mi’kmaq traveled the waterways by canoe at least 4,000 years ago. Nova Scotia’s governor Sir John Wentworth (in office 1792–1808) first conceived of deepening the Shubenacadie River and adding locks connecting it, Shubenacadie Grand Lake and other waterways. This would give ships a direct route through Nova Scotia, sparing them from the dangerous trip around Cape Sable and cutting travel time for the voyage from a week to a matter of hours.

Construction didn’t begin until 1826, six years after Wentworth’s death. The Shubenaccadie Canal Company, formed by a group of wealthy merchants including shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, engaged civil engineer Francis Hall to design the system. Hall was from Scotland where he had worked as a surveyor on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Union Canal. He and his family emigrated to Canada in 1823 where he soon found work surveying and designing canals and bridges. Construction began with the arrival of 44 stone masons from Scotland and Irish labourers who had extensive experience constructing granite locks in the British style. The company even imported granite from Aberdeen to build the locks.

Hall’s plan was for a system of almost 20 locks. As each one being hugely expensive in imported materials and specialized labour, work ground to a halt in 1831 when the Shubenaccadie Canal Company ran out of money with only 13 locks either finished or begun. More than 20 years passed before the project was revived. In 1853 a new company was formed, the Inland Navigation Company, and it approached the construction of the canal with far more modest (and cheap) goals. Engineer Charles W. Fairbanks tailored the canal to two specific kinds of ships made by the Inland Navigation Company, both smaller than the merchant ships Hall had designed for, which allowed him to forgo the expensive imported granite locks in favor of American-style locks made of local stone and wood, replace several of Hall’s planned locks with inclined planes and reduce the draft depth from eight feet to four and a half.

Sections of the new canal system were in use by 1856 and the whole thing was completed in 1861. It transported carried sheep, cotton, linen, rope, fish, coal, gold and people, enough goods and passengers to make a modest profit. In 1862, Hall’s Scottish marble locks in Dartmouth were closed in to create a chamber in which a turbine was installed to power a marine railway that carried boats through the canal via pulley, but the clock was already ticking by that point. The Nova Scotia Railway had begun construction in 1853 — shipping iron for the railroad was actually one of the canal’s most significant revenue streams — and it soon became the preferred conveyance for freight shipments. By 1870, the railroad had replaced the draw bridges built over the canal with fixed rail bridges which blocked canal access to ships of even modest height. Commercial operations on the canal came to an end.

Meanwhile, in 1864 Dartmouth’s Lock 3 was taken over by Starr Manufacturing. Founded by hardware merchant John Starr, Starr Manufacturing built a factory on the site and used the original marine railway turbine to power its plant. The plant first produced cut nails and other iron goods, but it soon turned to the production of spring steel skates invented by Starr employee John Forbes. By 1868, Forbes was general manager of the company and the Forbes Spring Skate was internationally renown. The growth of the railway that had killed the canals came full circle in the 1870s when Starr Manufacturing began to produce coal cars, railway spikes and even made a heavy iron railway bridge, designed by John Forbes and built in Elmsdale.

The plant building was destroyed by fire in 2000, but the canal lock underneath survived. It was filled with gravel to help protect it. Now the site is being excavated as part of the Dartmouth Canal Greenway project, which will integrate the historic canal engineering into an open green space through downtown Dartmouth. The turbine chamber was found to be in good condition, with the east and west walls from Lock 3 of the first canal dating to 1828-1830 still standing. The north and south walls that meet in an arch are from the 1860s construction when the canal was closed in, the turbine chamber created and the turbine installed to power the rail.

Contractors and engineers craned their heads to take in the arches in the turbine pit during Wednesday’s visit as Stewart pointed out the original Irish mason’s markings of asterisks and the letter H carved into the grey rock.

During the excavation, Stewart said they’ve found architectural pieces of interest as well as multiple skate blades, which would have come from the Starr Plant. [...]

Part of the reconstruction will include historical interpretation where a clear covering could protect the historic site, while allowing people to peer into the chamber and see a computer-generated example of the original canal turbine.

For more about the history of the Shubenacadie Canal, watch this half hour documentary:

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Museum acquires Empress Sisi’s silk ankle boots

May 15th, 2015

A pair of white silk ankle boots worn by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi, was acquired at auction by the Sisi Museum in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Bidding at the auction, held by the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna on May 7th, 2015, was so fierce that the shoes, estimated to sell for $9,200 – 16,000 wound up costing the museum $86,000. The shoes were worn only once by the Empress and were given to one of her chambermaids in April of 1899 when Elisabeth’s closets were cleaned out after her death.

Other Sisi-related items sold far higher than expected. A beautiful red morocco leather travel writing and sewing box given to Elisabeth when she was an 11 years old Bavarian princess, just five years before she would marry her cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, was estimated to sell for $11,500 – 23,000, but a furious bidding war erupted over this piece too. In the end it went to a phone bidder who paid $86,000 for it. In a fitting bookend to her life, Sisi’s death certificate issued in Geneva on September 13th, 1898, three days after her assassination by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, sold for $17,500, 15 times the low estimate of $1,150.

On the other hand, her personal traveling chamber pot, a lovely white glazed ceramic vessel along with its lockable wooden doeskin-lined travel box engraved with her monogram and the Austrian imperial crown, went for a comparatively modest $5,800, on the low end of the pre-sale estimate of $4,600 – 9,200. I hope the museum bought it because it’s such an incredibly intimate object it belongs in their permanent collection of her belongings.

The Sisi Museum inhabits rooms in the Hofburg Palace that were once the empress’ suite. The objects on display tell the story of her life, starting with her unusually unstructured youth in Bavaria where her circus-loving father avoided the restrictions and formalities of court in favor of his country estate of Possenhofen where the family lived an outdoorsy, free-spirited life of horseback riding and travel. A shy, timorous girl, she was ill-prepared for the exigencies of her new role when she wed the 23-year-old emperor. The rigidity of the imperial court was a heavy burden on her. Pressured by her formidable mother-in-law/aunt Princess Sophie of Bavaria to produce the male heir, Sissy had three children in three years until her son Rudolf was born. All three of these children were removed from her care immediately after their birth; Princess Sophie raised them, not their mother.

Elisabeth had numerous health problems — coughing, insomnia, anemia — exacerbated by what today we would likely consider disordered eating. She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, fasting and dieting to ensure her weight never went past 50 kg (110 lb), a very low figure considering she was 5’8″. She exercised assiduously, converting the Knight’s Hall of the Hofburg into a gymnasium and riding horses and walking for hours at a time. Her profound dislike of court life played a role in her illness as well. When she traveled to spas to take the cure, or to Corfu or to Madeira, her symptoms quickly disappeared only to return with a vengeance as soon as she neared Vienna.

Considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe, Sisi spent hours a day on her beauty regimen. Her ankle-length hair took two to three hours a day to arrange. She used all kinds of nostrums and creams to preserve her youthful good looks. Here’s a tip for you from Empress Elisabeth: wear a pounded filet of raw veal on your face underneath a leather mask. Keeps the skin supple, donchaknow.

As she got older and most self-assured, she spent more and more time away from court, traveling and avoiding imperial duties as much as possible. She also avoided politics, only getting involved in Franz Joseph’s decision-making once but to great effect. She was a very vocal advocate for the recognition of Hungary’s political rights and played a significant role in persuading her reactionary husband to agree to the Compromise of 1866 which established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary in 1867. The next year Sisi gave birth to their last child, the Archduchess Marie-Valerie. The timing was generally believed not to have been a coincidence, ie, she let Franz Joseph into the bed she’d spent a decade keeping him out of as a reward for the Compromise.

It was a one-time deal. The imperial couple grew increasingly estranged as Sisi continued to travel on her own and avoid the settled domesticity (albeit a massively glamorous version) of life in Vienna that her husband wanted. When their only son Rudolf killed himself in his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 after the death of his 17-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera (we don’t know how she died; it could have been a murder-suicide but the authorities covered everything up and modern examinations of her bones have been inconclusive), Franz Joseph and Elisabeth’s marriage splintered irrevocably. They lived separate lived from then on, although their later letters indicate they eventually developed a genuine friendship.

Ten years later, Sisi was visiting Geneva under an assumed name. She had refused police protection and dismissed her attendants when Luigi Lucheni, aware of who she really was thanks to the newspaper headlines identifying the “Countess of Hohenembs” as the empress, stabbed her in the heart with a sharpened file. Her tight corset slowed her blood loss enough to keep her alive for a few hours before her pericardium filled with blood and her heart stopped beating. Franz Joseph, who had been madly in love with her since she was 15, was devastated by her death. While she had received relatively little press coverage and public attention in the empire during her increasingly withdrawn life, after her death the legend of the beautiful but miserable queen, the open-hearted innocent stifled by imperial etiquette but beloved by the people, sprang into being. A trilogy of films in the 1950s starring Romy Schneider as Elisabeth sealed that image in the modern imagination.

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17th c. Spanish shipwreck found off Panama coast

May 14th, 2015

A shipwreck discovered off the coast of Panama in 2011 has been identified as the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación, a ship from one of Spain’s famed silver fleets that sank in a storm in 1681. The Encarnación was a nao, a merchant vessel loaded with cargo from the New World that was one of several ships from the Tierra Firme to sink in the Caribbean Sea just off the north central coast of Panama while travelling from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.

The shipwreck was found by a research team from The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University who were exploring the area in the hopes of finding wrecks of five ships lost by Captain Henry Morgan on his way to sacking Panama City in 1670. When magnetic sensors alerted to the presence of metal objects, researchers dived down and found the wreck of the Encarnación, the lower part of its hull intact and the cargo still in the hold. They presence of so much cargo suggested this was not one of Morgan’s ships since they were heading to Panama City to fill their coffers when they sank.

The ship’s cargo includes wooden barrels, more than 100 boxes of sword blades, mule shoes and lead cargo seals that once marked perishable goods. While less glamorous than the gold and silver cargos that made the Spanish fleets famous targets for pirates from the early 16th century through the early 19th, this well-preserved merchant cargo is invaluable to historians. Only 16 Spanish shipwrecks have been found in the New World, and all of them have suffered the depredations of looters, the elements and shipworm. With no architectural designs extant, we know very little about the construction of 17th century Spanish ships. The Encarnación has already filled in some blanks.

An initial examination revealed the use of a material called granel, a kind of permanent ballast, says Chris Horrell, a maritime archaeologist working with Hanselmann. It’s “basically a cement consisting of sand, lime, and pebbles,” he explains, that shipbuilders used to coat a ship’s hull with a thin veneer.

Researchers think granel stabilized ships and was also used as a construction material for buildings throughout the New World. Horrell is not yet sure whether granel was a New World invention or an Old World import, but finding out is part of his research agenda.

The cargo also bears witness to the economic life of Spain and its colonies. The mule shoes indicate the ships brought supplies that would enable their hulls to be stuffed with goods delivered to the Spanish crown. The shoes would have been necessary to equip the mule trains that carried silver, gold and other valuables via overland trade routes from South American territories to the Isthmus of Panama where they would be loaded onto the ships of the fleet and transported to Spain.

Research on the ship and its contents continue. The artifacts, which by law belong to Panama, are currently being conserved at the laboratory of the Patronato Panamá Viejo, a non-profit organization that manages the historical site and museum of old Panama City.

Here’s some beautifully clear video of the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación:

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First stone circle in a 100 years found in Dartmoor

May 13th, 2015

A previously unknown stone circle has been found on Dartmoor, the first new stone circle discovery in a hundred years. There are 30 stones, all of them now recumbent although packing stones found at the base of some of them indicate they were upright originally, in a circle 32 meters (105 feet) in diameter. One more stone lies just outside the circle and was built into an enclosure wall in more recent history. Radiocarbon dating of the peat underneath the stones found that they fell about 4,000 years ago. That means there’s a chance they could have been erected before Stonehenge which was built between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C.

At 525 meters (1722 feet) above sea level, it is the highest stone circle in southern England and would have dominated the landscape when the stones were still vertical. It is located 300 meters (984 feet) southwest of Sittaford Tor, one of Dartmoor’s hills topped with granite boulders, which was probably the source for the stones in the circle. The fact that the stones are of relatively uniform size and shape suggests they were deliberately selected and carried down the hill to the site.

The location of the circle is particularly significant because it fits perfectly in a crescent pattern created by seven other stone circles on the northeastern edge of Dartmoor. The newly discovered circle is the southernmost of the eight, just west of the first and northernmost circle, the one at Little Hound Tor. The author of the excellent Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks website has created a map of the arc. Archaeologists believe this pattern is deliberate, evidence of large scale planning and communication between the late Stone Age, early Bronze Age communities living on Dartmoor four to five thousand years ago.

The circle was discovered by Dartmoor native and stained glass artist Alan Endacott in 2007 after a controlled burn of the undergrowth exposed the stones long hidden beneath the brush. The find was not announced until last year and archaeological explorations are still in the early stages. Since this is the first stone circle found in generations, it gives archaeologists the first chance to study a pristine site using modern technology.

Jane Marchand, Senior Archaeologist, Dartmoor National Park said:
“Its discovery is providing an opportunity for investigation using the very latest archaeological scientific methods to provide long awaited insights into the chronology, construction and the purpose of these most elusive and iconic of Dartmoor’s prehistoric monuments.” [...]

Although the full results of the geophysical surveys are not back yet, preliminary results have revealed a wide ditch running in a linear fashion just outside the eastern side of the circle. Further investigation is planned later this summer.

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