Tag Archives: The History Blog

Books in Denmark library found to be poisonous

Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have discovered that three of the volumes in the university’s library rare books collection are poisonous. All three of them are history books. (Is it weird that that makes me inordinately proud?)

The books were not suspected of having killed a number of monks in a forbidding monastery in the Italian Alps. In fact, the study had nothing to do with identifying lethal literature. These three books were selected because they were known from previous investigation to have medieval manuscript fragments in their covers. Recycling old parchment was a common practice for bookbinders in the 16th and 17th centuries. Researchers aimed to use imaging technology to identify which Latin texts had been used to make the covers, or at least to recover legible passages.

(more…)

Reindeer hunters find Viking sword in Norway

Einar Ambakk weilds the Viking sword he just found. Photo by Einar Ambakk.A group of reindeer hunters discovered a Viking sword last month while stalking the mountains of Lesja in Oppland, south central Norway. Einar Ambakk found the three-foot-long sword nestled between rocks on August 23rd at more than a mile in altitude. The sword was embedded hilt-down in the gaps between stones. Half of the blade jutted up above the rocks. Einar saw it first and, not even recognizing that it was a sword, placed both his hands on each side of it and lifted it up. Only when he’d pulled it all the way out did he realize he, like a young and confused Once and Future King, had just drawn a sword from the stone.

(more…)

Stolen Norman Rockwell painting found after 41 years

"Boy Asleep with Hoe" by Norman Rockwell, 1919. Photo by Matt Rourke, AP.Norman Rockwell’s original painting for Boy Asleep with Hoe, a.k.a. Lazybones or Taking a Break, has been recovered by the FBI more than 40 years after it was stolen. The 25-by-28-inch oil painting was stolen from the home of Robert and Teresa Grant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on June 30th, 1976. The thieves also helped themselves to the Grants’ silver coin collection and their television. The Cherry Hill Police Department investigated the crime at the time but made no progress.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team got involved last year, partnering with the Cherry Hill police to launch a fresh appeal for leads in the very cold case on the 40th anniversary of the theft. It apparently worked, because a few months later in October the FBI got a phone call from a lawyer representing an anonymous client who wanted to return the painting.

(more…)

Pendant of teen girl possibly linked to Anne Frank found at Sobibor

Archaeologists have discovered a rare and poignant pendant that belonged to a teen girl with a possible connection to Anne Frank in an excavation of the site of the Sobibor death camp. The camp, which was razed to the ground by the Nazis after a daring uprising in October 1943 which saw half the prisoners escape, has been excavated since 2007. Past digs have unearthed the foundations of the gas chambers, the train station platform and a myriad small artifacts, the treasured belongings of Sobibor’s victims.

This year the brief was to excavate the site of where female prisoners were made to strip naked and had their heads shaved before being forced down the “Road to Heaven,” ie, the path to the gas chambers 40 meters (130 feet) south of the undressing and shaving hut. Close to what had once been the entrance of the building, the team discovered some small personal items that probably fell through the floorboards onto the foundations. They include a lady’s watch, a stone pendant, a Star of David necklace and a metal locket covered with glass and painted with a depiction of Moses holding the Ten Commandments on the front the Jewish prayer “Shema” on the back.

(more…)

Centuries-old Buddha ermerges from reservoir

The head of a monumental Buddha statue has emerged from a reservoir in eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. When a hydropower gate renovation project dropped the water levels in Hongmen Reservoir 10 meters (33 feet) last month, local villages spotted the head in an alcove carved into the cliff face. A team of underwater archaeologists were dispatched by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Jiangxi Provincial Research Institute of Archaeology to examine the carving.

The initial investigation, concluded on January 15th, found the statue depicts the Gautama Buddha sitting on a lotus flower. It is 3.8 meters (12.5 feet) high and the style of carving, particularly the head shape, suggests it was made in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), although it may edge over into the earlier Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Over the Buddha’s alcove two wide chevrons resembling the peaked roofs of temples were carved. A path, an inscription with 30 characters, and chisel marks were found to the north and south of the statue, respectively. There are also rectangular holes carved into the stone, the remnants of architectural features. Under the water in front the clifface with the statue divers found stonework from the foundations of hall a massive 165 square meters (1776 square feet) in area.

(more…)

Massacre of drinking cups at a 15th c. party

Single-use paper or plastic cups are products of modern consumer culture, cheap, convenient, plentiful and easily discarded. You never have to worry about cleaning them or potential damage to wedding registry china or beloved “#1 Dad” mugs. In the 15th century there were no red Solo cups to fill at the keg line, but that didn’t mean some people couldn’t enjoy the convenience of not having to clean their drinkware or worry that a vessel might slip through drunken fingers to its untimely demise. They just had to be rich and like to show it.

Wittenberg castle, historic residence of the Electors of Saxony, has been undergoing an archaeological excavation since November in advance of the installation of a new sewage pipeline. The team has unearthed the remains of a ring wall encircling the castle site and courtyard pavers from the first castle built by the House of Ascania which ruled the Electorate of Saxony until the branch of the family died out in 1422. After that, the Duchy of Saxony passed to the House of Wettin. The third Elector from the Wettin dynasty, Frederick III, built the current castle on the site of the old Ascanian castle in 1480.

(more…)

Oscar Wilde portrait returns to UK after a century

The introduction of photography in the mid-19th century had democratized portraiture, giving people who couldn’t afford to commission painters and miniaturists to immortalize them on canvas the opportunity to capture their image for a tiny fraction of the cost. Portraits could now be handed out like calling cards; in fact, they often were calling cards, as in the cartes de visite and later cabinet cards.

Oscar Wilde was an enthusiastic proponent of photographic portraits. Even before he made his literary bones with the plays and stories that would make him famous, he was already cutting a fine figure in society as a raconteur, wit and dandy, and his portraits emphasized his esthetic. He was captured in a variety of outfits and posed by some of the most famous photographers of the period, most notably a series of albumen prints taken by Napoleon Sarony of New York in 1882. Photos from the Sarony series have become iconic representations of Oscar Wilde.

(more…)

Cutting edge leather shoe found at Vindolanda

You’d think the Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall was a footwear manufacturing concern rather than a military outpost with an attached a civilian settlement considering how many shoes have been found there. Literally thousands of shoes, their leather preserved in excellent condition by the waterlogged soil, have been unearthed at the fort and settlement over the decades. This season the excavation team has added another 350 shoes to the tally since digging began in April. One of them is making headlines for its stylish resemblance to the Adidas Predator soccer cleats favored by some of the biggest names in the game like David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane.

(more…)

Six paintings by Hercules Segers found in private collections

Hercules Segers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638) is not widely known today, but he had an enormous influence on far more famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age and the rediscovery of his works in the 19th century played a major role in the development of the modern graphic arts. Very little is known about his life. He lived and worked in comparative obscurity, experimenting with print media in a way that had never been done before and wouldn’t be done again for 400 years.

After his death, apparently from falling down the stairs while drunk, his innovative work became highly sought after, particularly by fellow artists. It was his innovative approach to printmaking that made his name. Even to contemporary eyes, his prints are incredibly fresh: moody imaginary landscapes, each print unique thanks to his constant experimentation with colored inks, tints, colored paper, cloth, textures and cropping.

(more…)

Tate acquires its earliest portrait by woman artist

The Tate museum has acquired the earliest portrait in its collection painted by a woman. Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1650-5) was painted by Joan Carlile, one of very few women known to have been a professional portrait artist in 17th century Britain. Museum researchers believe she may even have been the first woman in Britain to be a professional oil portraitist.

The unknown sitter’s pose and elegant white satin appear in two of her other known portraits. This repetition of a composition lends weight to the notion of Carlile as a professional artist. In 1653 her neighbour Brian Duppa noted that ‘the Mistress of the Family intends for London, where she meanes to make use of her skill to som more Advantage then hitherto she hath don’ and in 1654 Carlile is recorded as living in London’s Covent Garden, then the heart of London’s artistic community.

(more…)