Oldest surviving original picture of US President found

August 17th, 2017

A daguerreotype portrait of John Quincy Adams taken in March of 1843 by Philip Haas, the earliest surviving original photographic image of a US president, has been rediscovered after more than a century and a half of languishing in obscurity. It is going up for auction at Sotheby’s Photographs sale on October 5th in New York. This silver plate portrait has been in the family of Horace Everett, a congressman from Vermont who served in the House of Representatives from 1829 to 1843, since Adams gifted it to him in 1843, but the seller, a descendant who wishes to remain unnamed, thought it was a portrait of Horace Everett and had no idea that an object of national significance was stashed amidst his attic clutter.

Claims of historical precedence tend to come with caveats and asterisks, and it must be noted that the daguerreotype, a so-called half plate measuring about 5 inches by 4 inches, is not, technically, the earliest photographic image of an American president.

That honor, if few others, belongs to William Henry Harrison, who had his likeness taken in 1841, around the time of his inauguration. He died of an uncertain illness 32 days into his term, and the original daguerreotype is not known to survive, though the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy, made by the Boston firm Southworth and Hawes around 1850. And Adams himself was first photographed in 1842, by the Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr., though the images appear to be lost.

With the earlier pictures surviving only in later reproductions, that makes this daguerreotype the oldest known original image of a US president. (Until someone reads the headlines, is inspired to dig through grandpa’s junk and finds the William Henry Harrison portrait.)

The son of second President of the United States John Adams and his redoubtable wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams ably filled his father’s very large footsteps, carving out an exceptional career as a diplomat and politician. He started out with a bang as a US Minister to the Netherlands under President George Washington. Other high ranking diplomatic posts followed, in between which he held his first high elected office as a Senator from Massachusetts (1803-1808). He was President James Monroe’s Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825 — it was Adams who actually crafted the Monroe Doctrine, not Monroe — and then succeeded him to the highest office in the land when he was elected the sixth President of the United States (1825-1829).

After his loss to Andrew Jackson in the 1829 presidential election, despondent by the ugliness of the campaign and devastated by the suicide of his son, Adams contemplated retirement. Within two years he was back in the public service game. John Adams had been a one-term president, after all, the first one. John Quincy was the second, so he was still very much following in his footsteps. Between 1831 and 1848 he was repeatedly elected to the US House of Representatives from Massachusetts.

Horace Everett’s time in Congress overlapped with John Quincy Adams’. The two men were politically aligned and personal friends. Everett happened to be at Haas’ studio when the former president sat for the portrait. Adams had interrupted Everett’s sitting, in fact, which is why Adams gave him the signed plate as a gift since he’d been witness to its conception and had graciously allowed him to cut the line.

A patchwork of labels on the back of the newly discovered daguerreotype, which is in a simple ebonized wood frame, attests to that personal connection. There’s a piece of brown paper, apparently clipped from an envelope, with “J.Q. Adams” in the return address space, in what appears to be the former president’s handwriting. “He had a distinctive way of making his H’s,” Ms. Bierman said.

There’s also a bookplate with the Everett family crest, on which someone else wrote “Presented by J.Q.A. to his Kinsman H.E. 1843,” and noted that it was said to be “one of the earliest daguerreotypes.”

That was a bit of an overstatement. Louis Daguerre released his process of fixing images onto metal plates in August of 1839 and American photographers were experimenting with his system within months.

It wasn’t even one of the earliest daguerreotype portraits. Hell, it wasn’t even one of earliest daguerreotype portraits Philip Haas made of John Quincy Adams. This plate was the product of Adams’ second portrait shoot with Philip Haas. The first one had taken place a week earlier. In his diary entry for March 8th, 1843, John Quincy Adams recorded with wonderment his impressions of the technology.

I walked this morning to Mr Haas’ shop, and he took from his camera obscura there Daguerrotype likeness of me. The operation is performed in half a minute, but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me. Mr Haas says it is a chemical process upon mercury, silver, gold and Iodine. It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.

He returned for a follow-up shoot on March 16th. From his diary entry from that day:

According to promises I walked up to Mr Haas’s shop about 9. my hands in woolen lined gloves bitterly pinched with cold. Found Horace Everett there for the same purpose of being facsimileed. Haas took him once, and then with his confront took me three times – the second of which he said was very good – for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.

The daguerreotype is estimated to sell for $150,000–250,000, but it’s likely to go for much more than that due its illustrious subject, uniqueness and historical significance.

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Tudor palace remains found under Old Royal Naval College

August 16th, 2017

The remains of the Tudor-era palace have been discovered under the floor of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. The crew was working on an ambitious project to restore the King William Undercroft of the hall and reveal English Baroque architecture designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that was covered up more than a hundred years ago when they found the remains of two rooms from Greenwich Palace. One has a rare surviving stretch of lead-glazed tile flooring.

Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were.

One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.

The first palatial structure on the site was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. Appointed Lord Protector upon his brother’s death, he largely ruled the country while his nephew was a small child and was even Regent, albeit a contested one, after the death of his elder brother. In 1433 he had a palace he named Bella Court built on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from London.

When he was accused of treason by his enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and died in jail in 1447, she took Bella Court and renamed it the Palace of Placentia (from the Latin for pleasantness). From then on, it was the monarch’s playground and a highly popular one at that. Nestled in the bucolic splendor of Greenwich Park, it was a quick boat ride from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, the primary London palaces of the Tudor monarchs. It offered all the clean air and verdant beauties of the country with all the advantages of easy proximity to the metropolitan heartbeat of London.

King Henry VII rebuilt and expanded the palace, and Henry VIII, never one to be outdone when it came to lavish spending on his personal luxuries, turned into one of the most glamorous palaces in the country, on a par with Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII was born in the Palace of Placentia, so he had a particular affection for it. The future Queen Mary I was also born there. So was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Her mother Anne Boleyn was arrested there before being taken by barge to the Tower of London. Henry’s much longed-for but ultimately sickly and ineffectual male heir Edward VI died there.

Elizabeth I spent many a summer at Greenwich Palace and several events of momentous import in her reign took place there, including the parade of booty captured from the Spanish Armada, a performance by William Shakespeare, her knighting of Sir Francis Drake and, according to an almost certainly apocryphal tale, Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalric act of covering a puddle with his cape so the Queen would not soil her dainty regal feet.

The Stuart monarchs weren’t as fond of Greenwich Palace as the Tudors had been, but it was still one of the most frequented palaces thanks to its prime location. Placentia was eclipsed when the Queen’s House was built nearby on the Greenwich Park grounds. Commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, Queen’s House was built between 1616 and 1635 by architect Inigo Jones, his first big royal job and the first palace built entirely in the classical style Jones would become famous for.

As with so many buildings associated with the British monarchy, aristocracy and church, the Palace of Placentia declined precipitously during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Cromwell tried to sell it at first, as he had sold off so many royal possessions. In 1652 the House of Commons authorized its sale to defray the Navy’s expenses. They ordered the palace, park and all associated lands be surveyed and their value assessed, but while the survey did take place, there is no record of the sale attempt going any further. Always practical minded, Cromwell converted the palace into a biscuit factory. Later he used it as a prisoner of war camp.

Come the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II decided to call time on the one glorious Palace of Placentia, by now so dilapidated it was beyond repair. He ordered it demolished and a new even grander palace built in its place. The expansive luxury compound he envisioned was never finished. His successors William and Mary had no interest in picking up where he left off. In 1685 they gave Charles’ unfinished nub of palace, a chunk of the grounds and other structures to Sir John Sommers with the intent that he use the estate to build the new Royal Hospital for Seamen, which he did.

And so Greenwich Palace became the Naval Hospital and then the Old Royal Naval College. When the restoration of the undercroft and elaborately painted ceiling after which the Painted Hall is named is complete in 2019, the hall will be the new visitor center for the Old Royal Naval College. The ORNC is hoping to include the newly discovered Tudor remains in the new visitor center, but that will require more money, and they’re still £2 million short of the total they need to complete the Painted Hall Project as it is. I’m sure they’ll find a way. How many more kings and queens had to have been born and died there before they can scrounge up the cash to preserve some of the only surviving remains of Greenwich Palace?

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Century-old fruitcake found in Antarctica

August 15th, 2017

Fruit cakes are famous for their longevity, mainly because they start off close to inedible so it takes years for them to cross the line into fully inedible. Conservators with the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) have found a 106-year-old fruit cake in a 19th century hut on Cape Adare. It looks remarkably well-preserved, although none of the conservators have sampled the confection.

The hut is the oldest structure in Antarctica. The Borchgrevink huts are the only surviving first constructions by humans on a continent. It is one of two structures built by the Norwegian pioneer of polar exploration Carsten Borchgrevink in 1899 and used by later explorers. AHT experts believe the cake dates to the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s calamitous final expedition to the South Pole. He and four others reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912 only to find to their dismay that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had gotten there a month earlier on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his men died on the return voyage when their dog teams failed to meet them at the pre-determined rendezvous spot.

The fruitcake was made by the Huntley & Palmers company, purveyors of sweet treats since 1822, and Huntley & Palmers cakes are known to have been among the supplies for the Terra Nova expedition. Scott himself didn’t go to Cape Adare. It was First Officer Victor Campbell’s Northern Party who sheltered in Borchgrevink’s hut and used it to hold their stores in the summer and winter of 1911. When the party was picked up in January of 1912, they left tinned supplies behind.

The New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust began a project in May 2016 to recover and conserve all the artifacts in the Cape Adare huts before the huts themselves are conserved. Because the site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), the objects will all be returned to their original locations after the conservation of the buildings is complete.

The complexity of the project and the short seasons of the polar environment required stringent deadlines for everything to get done on time. The team has conserved close to 1,500 artifacts between May of last year and July of this year. The fruit cake was one of the last ones and conservators had no idea what it was because the tin was so corroded the label and brand could not be identified. It was only when they opened the tin that they saw it was a Huntley & Palmers fruit cake still in its original paper wrapper.

Conservation treatment involved rust removal, chemical stabilisation and coating of the tin remnants. Deacidification of the tin label and some physical repair to the torn paper wrapper and tin label was also carried out. The cake itself was in excellent condition.

Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek said “With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artefacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise. It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern trips to the Ice.”

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Silver in coins tracks Rome’s rise to power

August 14th, 2017

A study of Roman coins has discovered a significant shift in the source of the silver in the early 3rd century B.C. from Greece and its former colonies in southern Italy to the Iberian Peninsula. German and Dutch researchers took samples from 70 silver coins minted between 310 and 101 B.C., drilling minute holes in the rims of the coins to access unweathered heart metal. The samples were subjected to geochemical analysis to determine their metal composition. The team was able to determine the quantities and proportions of major elements (identified by an electron probe microanalyzer or EPMA), trace elements (identified using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry or LA-ICP-MS) and lead isotope signatures (identified using a Multicollector-Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer or MC-ICP-MS).

The lead isotope values of Roman silver coins before 209 B.C. largely overlap with coins minted in Magna Graecia from silver ore mined in the Aegean and Rhodope Mountain regions. The study found that the majority of coins minted after 209 B.C. were made from silver mined in the southern Iberian peninsula, source of the richest silver mines in the Mediterranean. The post-209 B.C. coins also have a higher silver content, greater than 96% by weight.

These findings are evidence of a massive shift in wealth from Carthage to Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War (218-201 B.C.). That 209 B.C. would be a demarcation line is no coincidence. Rome’s first attempt to relieve Carthage of its Iberian territories in 211 B.C. had failed miserably with the defeat of brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio in the battles of Castulo and Ilorca.

Their humiliation would be redeemed two years later by Publius’ son Scipio Africanus. He did what his father and uncle could not do and conquered Qart Hadasht (the Carthaginian name for the city of Carthage), modern-day Cartagena, a Mediterranean port city founded in 227 B.C. by Hasdrubal the Fair as the jumping off point for the Punic conquest of Spain. More than a century later, it was still the seat of Carthaginian power on the Iberian peninsula. By taking Cartago Nova, as Scipio renamed it, Rome hobbled Carthage’s control of the southeast. The loss was compounded in 208 B.C. when Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal at Baecula. Scipio broke the last of Carthage’s power in Iberia in 206 B.C. when he defeated an allied army of Carthage and Numidia at the Battle of Ilipa.

Cartago Nova had massive silver mines and indeed would go on to provide a constant supply of silver for the late Roman Republic and Roman Empire for centuries. Between Scipio’s successful conquest of Carthage’s silver-rich southern Iberian territories, war booty and, after the cessation of hostilities, the forced payment of punitive reparations, Rome was newly in possession of enormous silver resources. It wasted no time in converting them to cold hard cash.

Dr Katrin Westner, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University, Frankfurt, one of the leaders of a group of scientists in Germany and Denmark that carried out the research, said the effect on the Roman empire was profound.

“This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire.” […]

Professor Kevin Butcher, of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick, said the project had confirmed what had previously only been speculation. “This research demonstrates how scientific analysis of ancient coins can make a significant contribution to historical research. It allows what was previously speculation about the importance of Spanish silver for the coinage of Rome to be placed on a firm foundation.”

The results of the study were presented on Monday at the Goldschmidt Conference which is being held in Paris this week.

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Carved bones reveal Ice Age ritual cannibalism

August 13th, 2017

A research team from the Natural History Museum in London team has found evidence of ritual cannibalism on 15,000-year-old skeletal remains. The study focused on a single bone, a radius (the large bone of the forearm) that was unearthed in 1987 from Gough’s Cave, a limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, southwestern England, which has one the greatest numbers of human skeletal remains from the Magdalenian period (ca. 17,000–12,000 years before the present). Examination of the bone and microscopic analysis of bone biopsy samples revealed cut marks, damage from percussive force and engraved incisions. It’s the last of these that suggest a ritual component to the cannibalistic practices of the Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Cheddar Gorge.

Evidence of nutritional cannibalism has been found on other bones in Gough’s Cave — butchering and tooth marks on ribs and even toe bones — and human crania cut for use as skull cups have also been discovered, but the patterned incisions on the radius are the first intentional engravings identified on the cave’s Ice Age human remains. Microscopic analysis makes clear that the incisions are distinct from the slicing marks left by butchering and comparison with more than 400 other cut marks on bones, human and animal, discovered in Gough’s Cave.

By careful three-dimensional analysis of the microscopic characteristics of each mark, such as its depth and the angle of incision, they distinguished between marks made for butchery purposes and those made for engraving.

The results suggest that bones had been cleaned of their muscle and tendons, before being roughly engraved in one sitting by a single individual, using one tool.

Since breaks in the bones run across the engraving, the bones must have been broken to extract the marrow after the engraving had been made.

“The sequence of the manipulations strongly suggests that the engraving was an intrinsic part of the multi-stage cannibalistic ritual and, as such, the marks must have held a symbolic connotation,” says [the study’s lead author Dr. Silvio] Bello.

The incisions were made in linear, zig-zag patterns that have been seen before in Magdalenian contexts. Animal bones this period found in France have similar engravings, and multiple animals bones in Gough’s Cave are also engraved with the zig-zag incisions. The patterns engraved on the radius bone, however, are the first on a human bone ever found at a Paleolithic site. In fact, it is the earliest known example of an incised human bone, period.

As for what the symbolic purpose of these engravings may have been, there is no way to determine that. It could have been purely artistic, but the inextricable association with the butchering and eating of the dead suggests a more complex motivation.

“Archaeologists have linked the engraving of objects and tools to ways of remembering events, places or circumstances, a sort of ‘written memory’ and ‘symbolic glue’ that held together complex social groups.

“Perhaps the engraving of this bone may have told a sort of story, more related to the deceased than the surrounding landscape. It could be that they are indicative of the individual, events from their life, the way they died, or the cannibalistic ritual itself.”

The study has been published in the journal PLOS One and can be read free of charge here.

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Staedtler erasers extract DNA from medieval parchment

August 12th, 2017

Two years ago, University of York bioarchaeologists used Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers’ characteristic soft, pure white crumbs to collect samples of ultra-thin uterine vellum from 13th century pocket Bibles without damaging the incredibly delicate pages. The microscopic samples collected on the eraser crumbs were then analyzed to determine the animal source of the vellum/parchment and the ages of the animals at time of death. It was a great breakthrough which answered a centuries-old question about the composition of so-called uterine vellum, namely, that it’s neither uterine (made from the skin of aborted or miscarried animals) nor necessarily vellum (made from cow skin) but the product of various young animals whose skin was treated with an unknown technique to create the paper-thin pages.

Now the Staedtler Mars eraser has enabled another great leap forward in the study of medieval manuscripts. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin and the University of York team who did the uterine vellum study have successfully performed DNA and protein analysis on samples from the pages of the York Gospels, an pre-Norman Conquest 11th century codex held at York Minster that is one of very few Anglo-Saxon gospels to have survived the Reformation’s orgy of destruction, and a 12th century Gospel of Luke in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This isn’t the first time DNA has been retrieved from medieval parchment, but as with the extraction of DNA from archaeological remains, the process requires the destruction of some of the material. The Staedtler Mars eraser-based system, which has been dubbed the triboelectric sampling technique, is entirely non-invasive. They don’t even have to deal with the time and expense and making a special trip to take samples from the manuscript. Conservators already use the erasers to keep the pages clean without risking damage, so all they have to do is keep the crumbs instead of brushing them off and then send them in for analysis. It’s cheap, easy, risk-free and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the information that can be derived from the samples.

The proteins helped identify the animals used to make the book’s pages – mostly cattle in the case of the York Gospels, with some pages made from sheepskin. The DNA also revealed the sex of the animals that provided some of the parchments – most were female. Knowing information like this could, in future, help the researchers understand which livestock populations contributed to parchment making. Or it might even show how bookmakers periodically changed their materials following an outbreak of disease among specific kinds of livestock.

Perhaps more useful, as far as conservators are concerned, is the detection of DNA from bacteria including Saccharopolyspora. This genus is associated with unsightly spots that can develop on old parchment manuscripts. Finding it could alert conservators to the likelihood of the spots appearing on the manuscripts.

Just knowing the type of animal used is useful, says book and paper conservator Emma Nichols at Cambridge University Library. This is because, in their work, conservators often try to match replacement materials with those originally used so that the conservation work is as sympathetic to the document as possible.

The DNA reveals other secrets too. For instance, pages containing oaths for clergy that would have been touched and kissed regularly were associated with higher levels of human DNA.

North Carolina State University. English professor Timothy Stinson, who has been building a database of DNA from medieval manuscripts for the past eight years, calls this novel approach ground-breaking because it gives scholars access to a thousand years’ worth of information about European animal husbandry trapped in manuscripts without sacrificing even a tiny fraction of the precious pages themselves.

The results of the study have been preprinted (meaning not yet peer reviewed) online and can be read free of charge in this pdf.

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Long-gone Montreal cemetery won’t give up ghost

August 11th, 2017

Archaeologists in Montreal are trying to identify the remains of, among other individuals, a soldier whose bones were unearthed last year during construction work. A Hydro-Québec discovered the bones when laying a power line underneath one of Montreal’s central thoroughfares, René Lévesque Boulevard. Then they found more. These were the remains of people interred in a Protestant cemetery that was in use from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th.

Known variously as the Dufferin Square Cemetery, the Saint Lawrence Burial Ground and the Dorchester Street Cemetery, the Protestant cemetery was created in 1797 outside the city walls of what is now Old Montreal. It was made necessary by the city’s rapid population growth after the British conquest of French Canada, ushered in by the Surrender of Montreal in 1760 and formalized in the 1764 Treaty of Paris. The cemeteries inside the city walls were overcrowded and taking up increasingly valuable real estate, and authorities were concerned about all that decaying flesh spreading infectious diseases like cholera amongst the living. (John Snow’s ground-breaking epidemiological study identifying fecal contamination in drinking water as the source of cholera was still more than 50 years away.)

Because there were laws against Protestants and Catholics being buried together, the city authorized two new cemeteries in the suburbs. The Protestant one opened first; the Catholic one followed two years later. Montreal’s Protestant residents were given the opportunity to move their loved ones’ remains to the St. Lawrence. Over the next few years as the old city cemeteries were sold off for development, people scrambled to transfer remains before they were built over. One of those people was fur trader and successful entrepreneur James McGill, best known today as the founder of McGill University. His dear friend and former business partner John Porteous had been buried in one of the old city cemeteries and in 1799, Porteous’ remains were in danger of being unceremoniously ploughed under when the land was reclaimed for new construction. McGill personally saw to it that Porteous’ body was moved to the shiny new Protestant cemetery in the burb and buried in the plot he had bought for himself.

Montreal’s continued expansion in the 19th century ensured the new Protestant burial ground was soon as overcrowded and inconvenient as the ones inside the old city had been. The roomier Mount Royal Cemetery opened in 1852. Two years later, the old cemetery was closed to new burials and left to its own devices. Reclaimed by nature, its headstones broken and leaning precariously, graves sunken, the grounds studiously unmaintained with weeds as high as an elephant eye, the cemetery was razed in 1875 to make way for Dufferin Square, a public green space off Dorchester Boulevard. (The elegant street, dotted with mansions and running through Old Montreal, would be expanded into an eight-lane artery running east-west through Montreal in 1955 and renamed René Lévesque Boulevard in 1987.)

Again the city alerted people that it was going to go down so if they wanted their deceased to rest in peace, they’d have to move the remains themselves. Some of Montreal’s most famous sons were buried in the St. Lawrence Burial Ground. James McGill was interred there in 1813 alongside his old friend John Porteous. (He couldn’t be buried next to his wife because she was Catholic.) John Molson, founder of the brewery that still bears his name, was buried there in 1836. They and other wealthy, prominent people were moved. McGill was reinterred on the campus of the university that bears his name. Molson and other big shots were moved to Mount Royal. The poor, tradespeople, middle class, people without surviving family or who had simply been forgotten, were left behind.

Over time, the exact location of the cemetery was forgotten until in the late 1970s a massive government office building was built on Dufferin Square. Planners thought they’d taken care of the whole cemetery situation by taking a page out of the Leicester handbook and turning it into a parking lot, but when construction of the Complexe Guy Favreau began, they started turning up body after body, eventually unearthing more than 100 sets of human remains. Some were reburied in Mount Royal, but rumor has it there are a lot of restless spirits lingering at the site and the complex has a reputation for being haunted by some very angry ghosts.

Even with this ghoulish history looming in the background, archaeologists didn’t expect to find the bones of dozens more people when the work on the power line was done last year.

“We weren’t certain if we were within the cemetery borders or not,” says André Burroughs, an archeologist with Hydro-Québec who oversaw the work. “At first, we were surprised.”

The discovery turned up the remains of 61 individuals, many of them just bones gathered in collective burial boxes. […]

About half the individuals’ remains were discovered inside three pine boxes. They were probably exhumed from the original Protestant cemetery in Old Montreal and re-buried collectively.

The officer’s skeleton and military accoutrements offer some of the most extensive clues into someone’s personal history. The man had suffered from poor nutrition, based on marks found on his teeth.

He was fairly tall – about 5-foot-10 – and lived to middle age, judging from his long bones. His body shows no trauma to indicate he was injured in battle.

Some of the bones discovered during the construction of the Complexe Guy Favreau also belonged to soldiers, identified as members of the British garrison who guarded Montreal before 1814. Perhaps he was one of their comrades.

The bones are being kept in a laboratory for study at the moment. Once the research is done, the plan is to give them to the city of Montreal to store in its extensive archaeological collection, but this story has gotten a lot of media attention and a number of individuals and organizations have offered to provide a more personal disposition for the remains.

The Last Post Fund, whose National Field of Honour is in suburban Pointe-Claire, says it would consider burials for any soldiers. The St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal expressed interest in caring for the remains of Scottish Montrealers. Two women wondered whether the remains might be those of their ancestors, and one offered a DNA sample.

Mr. Burroughs says the remains could eventually end up at the Mount Royal Cemetery on the mountain, following the path that their predecessors took about 160 years earlier.

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Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reunited online in live relay

August 10th, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh painted five of his most famous works, the Sunflower series, from August 1888 to January 1889 when he was living in Arles in the South of France. Each of the paintings depict a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase using three shades of yellow (there’s blue in the backgrounds and in some accents). This was a deliberate choice by the artist, his attempt to convey the vibrancy and variety of the flower with the color most characteristic of it. He also used thick, layered brushstrokes, a bold impasto that captured the dimension of the sunflower head and seeds as well as their color.

Van Gogh had explored sunflowers before. When he lived in Paris with his brother Theo in 1887, he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers, two to four cut blooms withering on the floor. They were very different in palette and mood to the bright bouquets of the Arles works. In a letter from August of 1888, Vincent wrote to his brother that he’d returned to the subject with a new approach:

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers. […]

Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go”

The new series of sunflowers was meant to be as welcoming and warm as the one he fondly recalled from the shop next door. Van Gogh was expecting a guest in a few months, his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. He had an idea that they might live and work together sharing a studio, a studio that would be decorated entirely with sunflowers, hence his plan for a dozen paintings in the series. He never got that far, nor did the two artists get a studio together, but Gaugin did come to visit him in the aptly named Yellow House at Arles, and Van Gogh hung two of the sunflower paintings on the walls of his room.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888-9. The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection, 1963. Photo courtesy the Philadelphia Musuem of Art.Paul loved them so much he point-blank asked Van Gogh if he could keep one. Vincent wanted to make his friend happy — they had fought during Gaugin’s stay and he left earlier than planned on a rancorous note — but he was so desperately strapped for cash and so concerned that Theo, who was engaged to be married, have some money to make a home for his new bride, that Paul’s request put him in an awkward position. He wrote to Theo that he would let Gaugin have one of the sunflowers and redo it so Theo could exhibit it and perhaps sell it.

You’ll see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I’d advise you to keep them for yourself, for the privacy of your wife and yourself.

It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things:

“that — … that’s… the flower.”

You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.

He didn’t know how right he was. His Arles Sunflowers are now in top museums on three continents: The National Gallery, London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Seiji Togo Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. The five will be reunited for the first time in virtual space on August 14th in a Facebook Live event. Curators from each museum will speak for 15 minutes about the paintings in a globe-trotting relay dedicated to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers.

This video from the National Gallery gives a brief introduction to the paintings and the #SunflowersLive event:

The Van Gogh Museum, meanwhile, has created a virtual tour of the Sunflowers so you can explore them at your leisure accompanied by Willem van Gogh, great-grandson of Theo van Gogh. They’re also the only one of the museums to have a fully zoomable high resolution image of their Sunflowers painting on their website (see the link above). You can get way, way up in the details of the work, and you can’t put a price on that especially with an artist like Van Gogh whose brushstrokes are so meaningful.

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Cache of WWII Mosquito plans found days before destruction

August 9th, 2017

A priceless collection of technical and engineering designs for the World War II Mosquito aircraft has been discovered hidden in a factory days before its demolition. An engineer found more than 20,000 drawings on microfilm cards in the building at Hawarden Airfield in Broughton, near Chester on the Welsh side of the border with England. This is the only complete archive of Mosquito technical drawings known in the world, all of which were top secret classified material during and after the war. It includes plans for experimental models that never made it to the prototype stage, including one that would carry torpedoes to attack German battleships, a previously unknown photo-reconnaissance plane, and a “Mosquito Mk I, Tropics” model that featured a compartment in the rear fuselage for storing desert equipment. It’s a great stroke of luck that they were discovered by an engineer who had the knowledge to recognize what a massive historical treasure he had stumbled upon and saved it before the bulldozers came in to raze the old factory and everything inside of it.

The factory did not actually make Mosquitos during World War II. It was operated by the Vickers Armstrong company at the time and manufactured Vickers Wellingtons and 235 Avro Lancasters. Only in 1948 did The de Havilland Aircraft Company take over the former Vickers factory and use it to produce Mosquitos and many other aircraft types. The Mosquito was a work of unique genius, designed by aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland (first cousin of legendary actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, daughters of his father’s youngest brother). The twin-engine two-seater aircraft was so versatile it was immensely effective in combat as, among other things, a tactical bomber, a day and night fighter, a U-boat striker and a pathfinder for bomber squadrons in large raids.

Its service in the RAF began in 1941 and its qualities were immediately apparent. For one thing, it was one of the fastest planes in the world. For another, it was made out of wood. Like Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the Mosquito was constructed out of wood to preserve precious aluminum stores. Unlike the Spruce Goose, a giant lumbering folly that barely made it into flight a single time and that after the war, the Mosquito was manufactured quickly and efficiently by joiners and carpenters who transitioned seamlessly from civilian roles into aircraft production. Pieces of spruce, balsa and plywood were glued together and pressed into moulds, which allowed for fast production of a lightweight, nimble plane in factories that before the war had been manufacturing furniture, cabinets and pianos. This earned it the well-deserved moniker of “The Wooden Wonder.”

This 1944 newsreel shows how the Mosquito was made with bendy woods and glue like a theatrical prop, only deadly, fast and, you know, real.

Even the head of the Luftwaffe Field Marshall Herman Goering himself had to admit through gritted teeth that it was freaking awesome: “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses, and we have the nincompoops.” His bitterness was informed by personal experience, as a Mosquito raid on a Berlin radio station where he had been scheduled to deliver a speech delayed him by more than an hour.

It was the remarkable wooden construction that shortened the aircraft’s lifespan so dreadfully. Plywood and balsa don’t last long, so while its metal contemporaries like the Spitfire survived for decades after the war, the Mosquitos degraded into nothingness. Production stopped in 1950 and any surviving stock was left to rot in storage. The last airworthy Mosquito in Britain crashed at an air show in 1996, killing both pilots. There are only three Mosquitos in the world today that can fly, one in Canada, the other two in the US.

The microfilm archive was donated to The People’s Mosquito, a charitable organization that seeks to rebuild a crashed Mosquito so that the aircraft that has been credibly described as “the plane that won the war” can fly again over England’s green and pleasant land. The technical drawings will allow them to reconstruct the plane to modern aviation safety standards while ensuring its historical accuracy.

The charity hopes to resurrect the remains of a Mosquito night fighter that crashed at RAF Coltishall, in February 1949, while serving with No 23 Sqn.

Ross Sharp, engineering director for the project, said: “As you can imagine, restoring an aircraft that is 70 years old presents several challenges, one of which is a lack of information on the building techniques, materials, fittings and specifications.”

“These plans enable us to glean a new level of understanding and connection with the brilliant designers who developed the world’s first, true, multi-role combat aircraft.” […]

[The People’s Mosquito chairman John] Lilley said: “No other aircraft has amassed such a remarkable combat record in so short a time, flying so many different types of mission and excelling in each one.

“Even today, it remains one of the world’s most successful multirole combat aircraft, and it was all British, made by men and women who only a few months earlier had been building furniture and mending pianos.”

Despite the great boost the discovery of the archive gives the project, they still have a long ways to go before restoration can begin. Money is the issue. The estimated cost of the restoration is £6 million and only a small portion of that has been raised. If you’d like to pitch in, the People’s Mosquito has some nifty merchandise available in its shop, a club membership with all kinds of perks and takes online donations.

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Is Spain’s first historian of the Americas buried under Columbus’ tomb?

August 8th, 2017

In 1992, workers excavated the tomb of Christopher Columbus in the cathedral of Santo Domingo to translate bones believes to be his (over the centuries, Columbus’ remains were moved over longer distances than any saint’s — from Valladolid to Seville to Santo Domingo to Havana and back across the Atlantic to Seville — so authentication has proven all but impossible) to their new home in the Columbus Lighthouse monument. A few meters underneath Columbus’ tomb, an older crypt was found. It had once had a vaulted brick ceiling, now damaged, but its brick floor and side walls and size (28 feet by 12 feet) attested that someone of importance had been buried there.

Esteban Prieto Vicioso, the cathedral’s head of conservation thinks he knows who that individual may have been: Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Oviedo was something of a Forrest Gump figure in his day, not in the “stupid is as stupid does” way, but in the sense that he seemed to pop up regularly in the midst of great historical events and personages. In 1492, he was by the side of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during their triumphant entry into Grenada after the final defeat of what was left of Moorish Spain. He was present at Columbus’s audience with their majesties when returned from his first voyage to the New World in 1493. He lived in Italy after that, palling around with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and the notorious Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

In 1514, Oviedo was appointed by King Ferdinand supervisor of gold smeltings at Santo Domingo, a lucrative and enormously important post given the high priority Spain placed on scraping as much precious metal out of America as possible. This would be his first trip to the Americas. He hitched a ride with Pedrarias Dávila on his voyage to the New World, which with 19 ships and 1,500 men was the largest Spanish expedition yet sent to the Americas. He witnessed the Dávila’s replacement of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama and reach the Pacific Ocean through the Americas, as governor of the Spanish central American province of Castilla de Oro, and five years later, he witnessed Dávila’s show-trial of Balboa on trumped up treason charges and Balboa’s subsequent execution.

Oviedo documented it all. He returned to Spain in 1523 and in 1526 he published Summary of the Natural History of the Indies. Very few eye-witness chronicles of Spain’s colonization of the New World were published, so the Summary would quickly be translated into multiple languages and remain in print for centuries. His contemporary and fellow chronicler Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who is far better known than Oviedo today, accused him of being a despoiler and thief who plundered the Americas for all he could steal and then packed his book full of lies. As an advocate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, de las Casas had good reason to bitterly oppose Oviedo who considered them animals without souls and therefore had no qualms about their being subjected to slavery, abuse and mass slaughter. Yet, Oviedo’s book was the first to introduce indigenous foods, plants, objects and techniques that are now commonplace to European readers, including the pineapple, tobacco and the barbecue.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, appointed him Governor of the Fortaleza Ozama in Santo Domingo in 1532. So Oviedo returned to the Americas and lived the rest of his days in Santo Domingo. There he completed A General and Natural History of the Indies, a multi-volume version of the Summary, which wasn’t published in full until the 19th century. He died in 1557 at the age of 80.

By then, the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor had been completed for almost 20 years. It was the first cathedral built in the Americas. Commissioned by Pope Julius II (who also commissioned a certain Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) in 1504, the cathedral was built between 1512 and 1540. Oviedo was well into his tenure as governor when the cathedral was finally finished.

“We know that up to the middle of the 16th century there was an altar dedicated to Santa Lucía built on Oviedo’s instructions, and that right underneath he ordered a vault to be constructed, where he was buried,” says Prieto Vicioso. “There is no documentary evidence that his body was ever moved from there.”

The restoration team at the cathedral – the first one built in the Americas – is trying to raise money to excavate the crypt, which they hope will allow them to identify Oviedo. They believe they will find an iron key in the tomb to the fortress of Santo Domingo, of which Oviedo was governor for the last 25 years of his life. A final detail they believe will definitively establish that the tomb is Oviedo’s would be damage to the skull, which was the result of a knife fight with another Spaniard that took place in the Darién Gap, in what is today Panama.

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